Nedjma Kateb Yacine Critique Essay

On By In 1

The End of Colonialism in Novels
by Albert Memmi and Kateb Yacine
Judith Roumani1

As empires faded, historians, sociologists, political scientists and literary scholars stepped in to record the process or seize the moment. Novelists concerned with the same process have been writing and continue to write novels which convey, reflect, dramatize, memorialize or otherwise embody mental decolonization.2 This paper looks at how novels attempt to go beyond the perceptions of history and social science, examining a novel by a Muslim writer of North Africa, the Algerian Kateb Yacine,3 and a novel by an indigenous Tunisian Jewish writer, Albert Memmi.4 These novelists belong to the majority and minority religious groups of the Maghreb. By studying them together, we see dramatically how the process of decolonization meant two utterly opposite outcomes for Muslims and Jews of the Maghrebian countries. Though they cover the same period (the second world war and the years leading up to independence) the novelists present opposite views of similar events. They also have very different aesthetic approaches to the novel, Yacine's being a poetic one, and Memmi's leaning toward apparent autobiography.

Like a majority of novels produced in new nations of the developing world, and despite their technical sophistication, the two novels examined here are intimately involved with history and social reality.5 The literary currents of their time--the early nineteen fifties--also enter into their literary makeup. Thus, Existentialism, and its attendant values of engagement, commitment, and fidelity to the standard of absolute sincerity, are important elements in these novels. As a novelist in an emerging new nation, one was not totally free to follow one's own creative whims. Society--as has often occurred in established nations too (see note 6 below)--expected novelists to promote the national culture through their work. The writer was endowed with a privileged role, taking over the mantle of ancient poets and seers. Thus the writer could not only reflect but also invoke or partake in the creation of the nation through poetic constructions. Such a theory of creativity and the function of the artist in society paradoxically takes us back to the largely European eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Romantic view of the role of the poet in the tribe or nation. It is an expression of the aesthetics of organic nationalism.6

Literature, thus, according to the theory of psychological decolonization, can encourage the development of an independent national identity, by applying the ideas of European Romantic aesthetics. How then do these two Maghrebian novelists, members of the religious majority and a minority, portray the process of national independence?

Both Albert Memmi and Kateb Yacine are politically committed writers, involved in the independence process in Tunisia and Algeria, respectively. Memmi's Pillar of Salt appeared in 1953, while Kateb Yacine's Nedjma appeared in 1956, but had been several years in the making. They were two of the earliest novels written in French by indigenous North Africans,7 one a Tunisian Jew, the other an Algerian Muslim. Nowadays, as literature, both look a little dated, but both books were considered major literary events at the time, in North Africa and in France.8 Albert Memmi participated in the Tunisian independence movement by helping to found L'Action culturelle and contributing to its pages regularly (this publication was the forerunner of the successful cultural weekly Jeune Afrique, still published in Tunis).9 After his first two novels, set in Tunisia, Memmi soon published The Colonizer and theColonized (1957),10 these essays and those of Dominated Man (1968)11 causing him to become known as one of the major theorists of third world nationalism. Like Frantz Fanon, whom Memmi slightly preceded (TheWretched of the Earth was first published in 1961)12 he made a psychological analysis of the predicament of the colonized which is still valid today. The theory is that the colonizer can only exist by usurping things from the colonized--land, economic resources, profits, ideals, culture or homeland. Colonized man is dependent, depersonalized, an object of history, not a subject. Colonized people have only a petrified, mummified culture, not a living one. The colonized is refused assimilation to the other culture,that of the colonizer, but then discovers his true self through this refusal. Identity thus comes through negation. Ultimately, the negative myth is succeeded by a positive myth, or self-image. For Memmi, this is how psychological decolonization comes about.

Kateb Yacine, likewise, participated in Algeria's struggle for independence in several ways. In 1945, at the age of sixteen, while in boarding school at Sétif in eastern Algeria, he helped organize demonstrations against the French during the victory celebrations. These demonstrations provoked mutual massacres, an event considered the forerunner of the Algerian war of independence (1954-62). At the age of eighteen, he lectured on Abd al-Qadir, the nineteenth-century father of Algerian nationalism, in the Salle des Sociétés Savantes in Paris. His adult years up to 1962, the year when Algeria achieved independence, were devoted to Algeria’s cause, as he lived in exile in various countries, and following independence, he furthered Algerian culture through his novels and a traveling theatre troupe in Algeria and France.

In his first novel Nedjma, a woman's name which means 'constellation of stars', Kateb Yacine did not have the benefit of psychological or social studies of relations between the colonizer and the colonized. Though the novel was published in 1956, Yacine had published a poem with the same title in 1948, consisting of a lyrical portrait of an elusive Algerian woman. The novel thus grows gradually out of his poetic intuition of the Algerian situation in the 1940s and 1950s. Nedjma is a difficult novel for the reader, involving mainly four young man just out of high school in the late 1940s, and all involved in various ways with the mysterious Nedjma. She is a quite vague and passive character who somehow eludes them. Eventually she is kidnapped by one of them, Rachid (in order to remove her from an incestuous marriage) and taken by him and his elderly friend Si Mohktar back to the territory of the Keblout tribe to which they all belong. There she is kidnapped by the local tribal members, Si Mohktar dies, and Rachid leaves alone (p. 196 et seq.). The succession of events is hard to follow, the novel being basically circular in structure, or perhaps spiral. Though it ends where it began (e.g. compare pp. 15 and 343), the reader has learned a great deal about life in Algeria at the time and about the then-unconscious yearnings of Algerians. The reader encounters a pyramidal society, with French colons owning land, industry, and property. Their complacency is matched by their insensitivity. After brushes with the prison system, the four young Muslims need work, and thus must become part of the economic system of the colony. They find work as laborers on a construction site in a country town, but one of them, Lakhdar, strikes the foreman, Monsieur Ernest, and is briefly held in prison along with political prisoners. Later another of the friends, Mourad, kills the contractor, Monsieur Ricard, for his drunken abuse of a Muslim maid. Then the four flee, almost to the four points of the compass. We become aware through these incidents of the colonial hierarchy, beginning at the top with French Catholics (Monsieur Ernest) and, in descending order, French Protestants (Monsieur Ricard), Italian settlers, Algerian Jews, and at the bottom Algerian Muslims (Arabs and Berbers). Relations are basically determined by force: as Frantz Fanon described, the colonial city always had its native quarters, then its European quarter, flanked by the police station and behind, the barracks, and mundane, material reality is ordered according to the interests of the French. The young Algerians in the novel transcend this reality at present through sleep, wine, hashish, a pilgrimage to Mecca, and poetry. The first time that poetry occurs in the text is during the account of the Sétif uprising in 1945 (described above). Kateb Yacine's prose gives way to poetry at moments of heightened awareness:

I should have stayed at school, at my job.
I should have listened to the district chief. But the Europeans had ganged up.
They had moved the beds around.
They were showing each other their fathers' weapons. There was no head-master or under-master left.
There was no smell from the kitchens now.
The cook and the steward had run away.
They were afraid of us, of us, of us!
The demonstrators had evaporated.
I went into the study. I took the pamphlets. I hid the life of Abd-el-Kader.
I felt the force of the ideas.
I found Algeria irascible. Its breathing... The breathing of Algeria was enough (p. 71).

Both Yacine's poetry and his prose often seem to be delving into the collective unconscious, playing with imagery the import of which is not immediately clear to the conscious mind. The following meditation on the cities of Algeria gives a good impression of this:

I left the ruins of Cirta for the ruins of Hippone. What does it matter that Hippone is disgraced, Carthage buried, Cirta ruined and Nedjma deflowered . . . The city flourishes, the blood dissolves, appeased, only at the moment of the fall: Carthage vanished, Hippone resuscitated, Cirta between heaven and earth, the triple wreck restored to the setting sun, the land of the Maghreb.
From Constantine to Bône, from Bône to Constantine a woman travels... It is as if she no longer existed. Sometimes she travels under guard, veiled in black now.
There are cities like fatal women, the polyandrous widows whose names are lost. .. Glory to the conquered cities; they have not yielded the salt of their tears, any more than the warriors have shed our blood: the rewards go to the wives, the eruptive widows who populate every death, the conserving widows who transform defeat into peace, never having despaired of the sowing, for the lost terrain smiles at the sepulchers, just as the night is only odor and fragrance, enemy of color and noise, for this country has not yet come into the world: too many fathers to be born by broad daylight, too many ambitious races disappointed, mingled, confused, constrained to creep upon the ruins... (pp.244-45).

However, it becomes clear that the collective unconscious of which Yacine is speaking is in fact circumscribed by the history and geography of Algeria. The woman, Nedjma, is a symbol of all the fallen cities of Algeria. Thus despite the succession of conquerors and succession of civilizations which have held sway, there is an essence which endures and survives. The images that adhere around the enigmatic Nedjma are all organic, primordial ones: a cave, a rape, the earth, water--until it becomes clear that Nedjma is less a person than a symbol for the Algerian nation, conceived in a night of rape and murder, the daughter of a French mother and an Algerian father. Once we understand Nedjma as this symbol, the yearning of the characters wheeling around her in this poetic novel begins to resemble the dawning of national consciousness.

As we saw, Kateb Yacine himself was an activist in those years just before the Algerian revolution broke out (in 1954) as he was all of his life; there is little doubt that his imaginative work is an embodiment of his ideals. The four young men are only distinguishable on close reading, especially in dialogues. It is hard to tell who is saying what in their rapid-fire conversations. This technique may help to create a sense of the collectivity, a sense that group identity is more important than individual identity, as the dawning struggle for independence creates solidarity. Little of the latter exists among the French characters--each one thinks of his or her own interests, and is isolated. There are some exceptions: a young soldier in a train who offers cigarettes and genuine interest in the Algerians, and the French policeman's wife, who shows cautious compassion to some chained-up prisoners and brings them bread and coffee.

Rather than being a directly ideological novel, Nedjma is so by implication. It is the reader who is left to draw the nationalist conclusions. Much of the novel is very subtle, even funny. Kateb Yacine is looking for the unconscious. He is interested in manifestations of play, rather than in political programs.13 For example, in a very amusing passage, he takes the reader inside the mind of a young goat-herd who is always being punished for losing his goats and allowing his small brother to fall off the donkey (pp.263-67). Yacine also has a vivid way of portraying the minds of teenagers. It is the reader who perceives the forces of socialization inexorably at work, and the reader who draws conclusions about the nature of colonial society and the options open for the colonized. It is we—his audience--who construct the Algerian collective identity in our minds, while Kateb Yacine merely sows the seed. The novel just hints at tribal relations within urban society--how members of one tribe will only marry each other, preserving their separate identity through blood-lines throughout the colonial period.

Kateb Yacine takes a unifying, consensual approach to the issue of language in Algeria in this novel. His use of the French language, apparently paradoxical in a writer who advocates cultural independence for the colonized, is a compromise between this and other various languages in which he might have chosen to write, all with serious drawbacks.

The language issue has been a divisive one in Algeria since independence, with expressions of dissatisfaction from the large Berber-speaking minorities who did not want to have Arabic imposed on them.14 The tribe of Keblout may be a Berber or an Arab tribe, but Yacine uses French to express the identity of this tribe (many educated Algerians, especially Berbers, adopted the French language during the colonial period). Kateb Yacine (whose real name was Mohammed Khellouti, ressembling his fictional tribe) might have been of mixed parentage.15 The other two languages which he might have chosen to write in, besides a Berber language, are forms of Arabic--classical or colloquial. Classical Arabic would obviously have looked stilted as a medium for the enormous amount of colloquial conversation in Nedjma, and perhaps may not have been familiar enough to Yacine in any case. Algerian colloquial Arabic would have been an option for Yacine, and as we know he did indeed write and produce plays in this language some years later. At this early point in his writing career, he obviously did not feel confident enough in his Algerian audience to write novels for it in colloquial Arabic. When Nedjma was written, the Algerian novel did not exist as a genre, and it was a radical enough departure for an indigenous Algerian to write a novel about Algeria at all. The fact was that literary expression of Algeria had been the purlieu of French writers, the colonial school of "Algerianist" novelists, and Yacine somehow had to gain the approval of these literary circles, and publication by a French publishing house in Paris, as a ticket to cultural independence. In other words, he was in the typical dilemma of the colonized writer who despite his or her desire for independence cannot avoid the need for cultural approval from the metropolis. Moreover, by avoiding choosing an indigenous Algerian language, Yacine was both bringing the message of Algeria to the world and concealing its linguistic divisions (see notes 14 and 15).

Another divisive issue for Algerians, and even more so today, is that of religion. Yacine (who died in 1989) was squarely in the camp of the secularists, and viewed the more recent events in Algeria as regressive (see note 15). His dream for Algeria was for a modern state with its own modern independent identity based on North African traditions. In the 1940s and 1950s, the Islamic religious authorities, the ulama, were viewed as having been coopted by the colonial power and thus at best passive toward the movement for independence. Yacine's secularized characters in Nedjma have patience with those who spend their time praying in mosques, but it is wearing thin:

The traveller's gaze . . . lingers on the half-closed eyelids of the faithful: "Meditation and wisdom are good for the brave who have already joined battle. Rise! Return to your posts, pray on the job. . . . I understand you, my brothers, understand me in your turn; act as if God were among us, as if he were a man out of work or a newspaper vendor; manifest your opposition seriously and without remorse; . . . you scarcely know how to walk and here you are kneeling again; neither childhood nor adolescence; right away it has to be marriage, home, the sermon in the mosque, the garage of slow death." (pp. 99-100)

Did Yacine's implied criticism of passivity among religious Muslims contribute at that time to Islamic militancy in Algeria? While his views have been influential in shaping the philosophy of the generation that fought for independence, his emphasis was on provoking resistance to the economic and political oppression of the colonial power rather than on a resurgence of Islam. The history of Algeria has turned several corners since Yacine's call just quoted, and the restricted freedom accorded to religious worship in his day existed precisely because the French did not see Islam as a threat to the status quo; the traditionalism of the more religious ensured their political passivity. Yacine's call to arise was more in the secular tradition of George Antonius' 'Arab awakening'.16 In his day, the challenge to colonialism came from socialism and secular nationalism, which usually brought with them Western respect for individual rights and freedoms, rather than present Islamic values putting the collectivity above the individual. Religion and the mosque thus offer little and receive scant attention in Yacine's novel.

Thus, in this nationalist novel, Yacine was fighting the colonizer with the latter's own weapons, so to speak. The great paradox of the day was that Europe, the continent which invented national self-determination and the idea of the nation, and more specifically France, the country which invented the rights of man, had been depriving Algeria along with much of the rest of the Third World of precisely these elements in their collective and individual identity. The moral argument was irrefutable to many thinking French people of Yacine's day, and skillfully crafted novels like this one found a ready audience in the colonial metropolis, even before they acquired a loyal readership in Algeria itself. Despite the author's maverick positions, of which his sympathies in the Berber issue are a good example, Yacine's Nedjma went on to become itself a component of Algerian cultural identity, sometimes even being required reading in Algeria's schools after independence.

Albert Memmi's Pillar of Salt, on the other hand, never found a nation to embrace it and institutionalize it. Memmi's novel deals with the same period as Yacine's in the neighboring country of Tunisia, and Memmi was also considered one of the founders of the then-new Francophone expression by indigenous writers. Despite being Jewish rather than Muslim, Memmi has been part of the same literary circles as Yacine (if marginal), being anthologized and anthologizing.17    He was awarded the Prix de Carthage for this book in 1953 and was honored again in 1984 by President Bourguiba's personally presenting him with membership in the Order of the Tunisian Republic for his work on behalf of Tunisian culture.

Memmi's technique is apparently simpler and more anguished than Kateb Yacine's. As a member of a religious minority in what will essentially be a Muslim state, Memmi cannot construct a poetic identity for himself in the future. His technique is closer to Existentialism, like Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre using analysis to understand a concrete situation. While Yacine's writing escapes into the subconscious, Memmi's writing stays in the concrete, rational and moral realms. Just as Yacine's poetic novel was a forerunner of other similar ones, so Memmi's Pillar of Salt presaged his later novels which, though technically more complex, all center on autobiographical first-person narrators, personae of the author himself. Another point of comparison between the two writers is the fact that they have both mastered other genres as well, not being content to remain novelists alone. Memmi has written poetry and a number of book-length essays, such as The Colonizer and the Colonized (1957) and Portrait of a Jew (1962).18 Yacine wrote plays in French and in Algerian Arabic, producing them himself with travelling troupes in Algeria and France.

The Pillar of Salt, Memmi's fictional biography of a character resembling himself in many respects, covers a life from the protagonist's earliest memories, up to his departure from Tunis as a young man for a new life in Argentina a few years after the end of the Second World War, roughly the same year as Yacine's novel. But Memmi divides the narrative into three parts of approximately one hundred pages each for, first, the early childhood years, second, the school years and third, the war and student years, corresponding respectively to the nineteen-twenties, nineteen-thirties, and nineteen-forties. As he grows, the narrator's physical and psychological horizons expand from a narrow blind alley near the old ghetto or hara of Tunis, to the school and neighborhood, the whole city of Tunis including the European neighborhoods, in the war years the hinterland of Tunisia, and (as a student) Algeria as well. Spatially speaking, it amounted to a series of ever-widening circles.

Chronologically speaking the story is a linear one, albeit within a frame: the autobiography begins to be written during an intellectual crisis in a university examination room: the crisis of the white page19 calls into question the protagonist's future plans to teach philosophy, his relationship with the West and with his background in the East, so to speak.

The protagonist's intellectual unhappiness with the civilization he had chosen--that of Europe--was sharply compounded by the experience of Tunisian Jews during the war. Though they were not deported to extermination camps, the Jews experienced terror and cruelty at the hands of the occupying Germans. Jewish men were interned in forced labor camps in the Tunisian hinterland and experienced much hardship. After the Allies had driven out the Germans, the protagonist attempts to join the war effort by signing up with the Free French forces but is rebuffed because they do not want to accept Jews. So much for the enlightened principles he has internalized from his French lycée. The traditional Jews of Tunis, without the advantage of his education, have much surer instincts, he tells us; once the Germans have been defeated, they show no more interest in the war, and would not think of trying to join the French (p.314).

So our protagonist was rebuffed by the French, who constitute one side of his cultural identity. Let us now look at the Arab side of his cultural identity, since the Jews of Tunisia had coexisted with the Arabs for many centuries. Benillouche has an Arab friend, Ben Smaan, who invites him to attend Tunisian nationalist meetings. Ben Smaan tells him:

We must promote unity among all the native sons of the country and make them act according to their own conscience. (p. 264)

Though he has misgivings, Benillouche feels flattered and joins the nationalist movement. A pogrom occurs in Tunis, however, during a power hiatus when there was no government to police the city (this event is modelled perhaps on historical incidents which occurred in Libya during these years in 1945 and 1948, rather than Tunisia).20 The protagonist's closest Jewish friend is killed and his Muslim friend visits to give condolences, take a walk together, and try to explain and exonerate. He gives some lame excuses, blaming the pogrom on the colonial situation, and our protagonist feels quite unsatisfied with the explanations. He begins to believe that neither Arabs nor French people can accept him and perhaps his traditional Jewish friends such as Bissor have been right in their instincts:

Bissor was dead: what was I to do about this death? Whether it was a miserable European diversionary move or a spontaneous and blind mob action, no amount of research into responsibilities would ever bring him back to life. Ben Smaan was right: one had to educate the mob, unmask those who fooled it, and draw attention to the real problems. But I was tired and the results were too far off. For the moment I stood between two walls: how was I to choose between repulsive hypocritical anti-Semitism, which had probably been the instigator of the massacre, and these murderous explosions which, like letting blood, periodically relieved the pressure of so much accumulated hatred? (p. 268)

With some exceptions, this novel sticks to facts, to real situations and the genuine feelings and experiences of the author. Like much historical fiction, it may transpose events such as the pogrom for dramatic effect, in order to emphasize something which the author believes is a historical trend. The text could be viewed as a semi-fictional autobiography or a semi-autobiographical novel (the contemporary term is now ‘judeography’, but perhaps it can be read in both ways, and our confusion is just a result of Memmi’s deliberately mystifying fictional technique (see the extract from Lia Brozgal’s book in this issue). Memmi's protagonist is always uncomfortably straddling three civilizations, a situation which is epitomized in his name--Alexandre Mordechai Benillouche--French, Jewish and Arab. The traditional relationships of the pre-colonial period enabled Jews and Muslims to live together in the unequal partnership of dhimma, the 'protected status' of Jews.21 This unraveled in the colonial period, providing lower-class Jews like Memmi and his protagonist with tremendous opportunities but no more safeguards. The traditionalists stayed on in Tunisia or moved to Israel; the modernizers like himself moved to France at independence in 1956. A few Jews, for example André Barouch, who gave considerable financial support to the Néo-Destour party, became officials in the new Tunisian government. As discussed above, Albert Memmi himself supported independence and became an editor of the cultural section of L'Action culturelle. But, like most Jewish professionals who stayed on, he began to feel less than welcome in subtle ways, and moved to Paris. Memmi's protagonist goes to Argentina as a result of his intellectual and cultural dead-end. Paradoxically, the novel begins in a physical impasse or cul-de-sac where the narrator spent his early childhood, and it ends in an intellectual dead end, in which he does not know where he belongs. (Memmi personally seems to have transcended this stage as France represents an opportunity for greater intellectual growth).22

One point of comparison between these two contemporaneous but very different novels will, I believe, highlight the diverging histories of Jews and Muslims in North Africa.

Kateb Yacine's novel has, like Memmi's, a Jewish member of the incipient movement for independence in Algeria. We learn little about him, however. A Jew belongs to the group of young friends at Sétif and was killed during the riots there in 1945 (p. 310). There is also a Jewish bar-owner in the village where the young Muslims work. He calls a taxi and pays the driver to take them back home when they are drunk (p. 30). Again, no more details are given: these Jews seem barely present, but are not presented negatively like the French, who are capable of all sorts of cruelty. However, Jews are certainly not part of the tribal blood bonds which form the basis of Yacine's poetic vision of Algeria. Memmi would not have found an answer to his political and existential dilemma in Yacine's novel. Muslims in Memmi's novel range from the crazed and mindless murderousness of the mob to slightly troubled but basically uncomprehending intellectuals.

A phrase from a later novel by Memmi, The Desert (forthcoming English translation, Syracuse University Press, 2015), might have been written by Yacine himself in relation to the persistence and renaissance of tribal links in Algeria prior to independence: “only blood and blood ties must count for us; we are the sons of our fathers and the fathers of our sons; that must suffice us until the end of time” (p. 146).  Memmi is referring to a kingdom founded by a Jewish-Berber tribe in southern Morocco (destroyed at the end of the fourteenth century), and his entire novel, set in the medieval period, emphasizes the shared culture of Jews and Muslims at that time.

Though they apparently did not meet with each other at the time, we can imagine a dialogue between the authors of these two novels when they were written. Thus Memmi poses the question of the post-independence relations of religious groups--will there be a place for minorities in the new states of North Africa? And Yacine answers: we can't address that issue right now, let independence come and then we'll see. Some Jews like Memmi did lend a hand and even occasionally paid with their lives, but they were individuals. Jewish communities as a whole assumed that the traditional symbiosis, or coexistence, of Jews and Muslims, which had persisted for centuries, was finally over and it was time for the Jews to leave their ancestral homes. In the age of Middle East nationalism, the Jews had to become nationalists themselves. Whether they benefited or not from colonialism, the Jews were paying a heavy price for it as the colonial period came to its end.

Copyright by Sephardic Horizons, all rights reserved. ISSN Number 2158-1800

Few Arab novelists acquired the status of revolutionary hero as Kateb Yacine (1929-1989), whose 1956 novel, Nedjma (Nijma in Arabic) inspired Algerian revolutionary leaders.

Though Yacine wrote in French until the beginning of the 1970s, his work was instantly recognised as classic, as the poet and playwright delved into a "théâtre de combat" in vernacular Arabic, writing in a fiery but accessible language. This was not unusual for the time and, like several Algerian authors, including Mouloud Feraoun, Assia Djebar, Tahar Djaout, Kateb Yacine (his first name was always written after his family surname, which ironically meant "writer") wrote in French instead of using the Algerian dialect of Arabic.

Key developments would introduce a dramatic change and speaking in 1966, the author declared: "The use of the French language is to serve a neocolonial political machine, which only perpetuates our alienation. Yet the usage of the French language does not mean that we are the lackeys of a foreign power and I write in French to tell the French that I am not one of them." A child of colonialism, the revolutionary author aimed to inspire and mobilise and, as such, succeeded better than most.

Nedjma, the masterpiece

Yacine's masterpiece, named after his cousin whom the author loved but could not properly court, started out as a long poem, in which the character of Nedjma was a substitute for Algeria. By the time the poem was developed into an epic novel and published in 1957, the mysterious spirit was transformed into a quest to restore Algeria in a mythic manner.

Relying on modernist techniques and using multiple narrative voices rather than traditional chronological descriptions, Nedjma influenced francophone North African literature and many writers in developing countries. Yacine himself admitted that William Faulkner was the most important influence on his style of writing.

The story is set in Bône, Algeria, under French colonial rule. Though difficult to follow, the plot revolves around a beautiful married woman, who is loved by four revolutionaries, representing the four seasons. Nedjma, which means "star" in Arabic, never changes although the four revolutionary characters undergo dramatic transformations. Like Nedjma, the author underscores, Algeria can be discovered, although the more one engages its beauty, the less one really knows her.

In other words, our heroine is otherworldly, as she draws succour from her traditional clannish sources and as she incorporates local legends and popular religious beliefs into her actions. This theme, which focused on colonisation and alienation, filled most of the author's works. It expressed the Algerian tragedy as outsiders trampled the values of Arab civilisation. A later novel, Le polygone étoilé (1966), introduced several characters from Nedjma and, as the author himself explained, everything he has done constituted "a long single work, always in gestation".

In Paris after 1959, Yacine forged close ties with Mohammad Issiakhem and in 1954 had a meeting of minds with Bertolt Brecht. His play The Encircled Corpse, which was published in the influential magazine Esprit in 1954 and produced by Jean-Marie Serreau, so irked French authorities that the latter quickly slapped a ban on it within days of its first production.

Throughout the period when the Algerian liberation movement gained momentum, Yacine was hounded by the French police, especially the notorious Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire, which forced him to be on the move, hiding in safe houses throughout Paris.

If the open warfare against French rule ended in 1962, when Algerians gained independence, Yacine's efforts were not always appreciated. Like most intellectuals who inspire politicians, Yacine wanted ordinary men and women to be free, without falling under the dictates of power. Nedjma glorified Algeria but in a critical 1971 play, written and produced in Arabic, Mohammad, Carry Your Suitcase, the author portrayed the class complicity that existed between French and Algerian bourgeoisies. What increasingly irked Algerian revolutionaries was the writer's direct prose that reached millions. The revolutionary writer, he once remarked, "must transmit a living message, placing the public at the heart of a theatre that partakes of the never-ending combat opposing the proletariat to the bourgeoisie". Even for revolutionary Algeria, this was way too critical, as authorities became wary of their "hero".

Amir Abdul Qadir

Though Yacine's words disturbed many, they fell in the post-1830 Algerian mould when French colonial domination supplanted Ottoman rule, championed by the young Yacine's idol, the Amir Abdul Qadir. Yacine wrote several essays on how the Amir assumed power as he gained the loyalty of key tribal leaders to organise a rebellion against the French. What resulted was a relatively effective guerrilla warfare, which scored significant victories until 1842. Abdul Qadir was a gifted political and military leader but he also understood that the reason why Algeria was conquered was due to the refusal of the Kabyles, Berber mountain tribes, to align with Arab tribes against the French. This, he wished to correct, which so fabulously inspired the young Yacine and that can be seen throughout Nedjma.

Parenthetically, when Abdul Qadir lost against the more powerful French and after he was denied refuge in Morocco, he took up residence in Bursa, moving in 1855 to Damascus where he studied theology and philosophy. When the 1860 "conflict between the Druze and Maronites of Mount Lebanon spread to Damascus and local Druze attacked the Christian quarters, killing over 3,000 persons", Abdul Qadir and his "personal guard saved large numbers of Christians, bringing them to safety in his house and in the citadel". Paris bestowed on him the Grand Cross of the Légion d' Honneur and American president Abraham Lincoln offered him several guns, which are now on display in the Algiers Museum. Yacine noted these actions in his own essays to inspire others of what Muslim tolerance was all about.

The politically engagé lyricist

Beyond Abdul Qadir, and by his own acknowledgment, Aeschylus, Rimbaud, and especially Brecht, whom he met in Paris, inspired Yacine. Awakened to the many needs of his nation, he quickly broke with the establishment, concentrating on the public at large, which was largely illiterate at the time. This was the chief reason why he focused on political theatre and, towards that end, was probably inspired by Federico García Lorca, the renowned Spanish poet, dramatist and theatre director.

Writing in Afrique-Action in 1961, Yacine described how García Lorca returned from New York with a masterpiece play, the Romancero Gitano, which was quickly acclaimed throughout Spain. Still, García Lorca was not simply satisfied with writing and publishing a play; he applied and received a state subvention for a travelling theatre company that moved from city to city to bring to life the ancient Spanish theatre. This, Yacine reasoned, would be his calling too.

After 1970, Yacine produced some of his most political controversial plays, starting with The Man in Rubber Sandals, in which his Vietnamese hero was none other than Ho Chi Minh. There was a variety of small roles in this dramatic piece for Mao Zedong, Chiang Kai-shek, Pierre Loti and Marie-Antoinette, with a series of vignettes highlighting "the military history of Vietnam and the plight of the transient Algerian labour force in Europe".

Amazingly, the author pitted various characters against each other, the French opposite the Vietnamese, the Viet-Cong opposite the Americans, concluding with the trial of an American called Captain Supermac.

Needless to say, the author was opposed to the war in Vietnam and strongly objected to the post-1967 bombings of the North, which he witnessed first-hand. Yet, what was new in Yacine's play were his abilities to relate those atrocities to the plight of Algerians, still struggling five years into their own independence.

One of the greatest writers of the 20th century, Yacine resisted colonialism just as strongly as he objected to the adoption of narrow nationalism, especially if that was modelled to serve a privileged elite that wrapped itself in the flag.

He categorically rejected cultural domination, believing that such categorisation was unbecoming when men and women across cultures were tied with socio-economic elements ranging from freedom and equality to justice and wealth.

Yacine admired and wrote about Abdul Qadir at 17 but added value throughout his career by inspiring every single Algerian revolutionary leader.

Though most of those officials chose to distance themselves from Nedjma's author, Yacine stood with his people. At the height of the 1988 repressions and though advanced in age and in relatively ill health, he expressed anger at the political establishment that distanced itself from the Algerian people.

Unlike most, he at least knew who was authentic, anxious to serve rather than dominate.


Yacine Kateb was born on August 2, 1929, in Condé-Smendou, near Constantine, to Mohammad and Jasminah Kateb. His father's multicultural upbringing, both as a Muslim Algerian and French, spilled on to the highly literate family and the young Yacine was raised absorbing Arab achievement and the legends of Algerian and French heroism. After Quranic school, the young man entered the French-language school system at the Lycée Français in the city of Sétif.

Barely 15, he participated in the 1945 Sétif demonstrations when citizens protested unequal conditions, as the young man was arrested. Regrettably, the Sétif demonstration turned to rioting when the police and the army killed thousands of people. Yacine's imprisonment, without trial, was his first education of colonial injustice. Though he was freed a few months later, Yacine discovered two great loves in prison: revolution and poetry. In fact, he wrote one of his best-known sonnets, ‘La rose de Blida' (1963) in jail. The poignant poem depicted the author's mother, who thought that her son was killed in the Sétif demonstration and who consequently suffered a mental breakdown.

Upon his release and because of his "record" Lycée doors remained closed, which promoted him to move to Annaba and, from there, to France. He published his first novel, ‘Soliloques' in 1946 when he is barely 17 but returned to Algeria in 1948 to work for the ‘Alger Républicain' daily. By 1951, and in between odd jobs, Yacine travelled extensively through Italy, Tunisia, Belgium, Germany and reached Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Soviet Central Asia. After 1952, he devoted himself entirely to writing but was forced to leave France in 1955 because of his extensive involvement in the Algerian nationalist struggle for independence. On his return from Saudi Arabia, he published under the pseudonym Saïd Lamri a scathing attack on how the holy city of Makkah was run.

Yacine returned to Algeria soon after independence in 1962 and restarted writing in ‘Alger Républicain'. Between 1963 and 1967, he visited the Soviet Union and several Eastern European countries, while writing furiously. He visited Vietnam in 1967, which was also the year he stopped writing novels, to produce one of his most engagé plays, ‘The Man with the Rubber Sandals', written and first presented in Arabic in 1970. After that date, Yacine wrote in Arabic, focusing on popular theatre, often of the satirical variety and almost always in dialectal Algerian Arabic to communicate with his readers. Sadly, his plays bothered Algerian authorities, who confined him in 1978 to the city of Sidi-Bel-Abbès where he was barely allowed to run a minor regional theatre group. Banned from television appearances, he concentrated on schools or private companies and increasingly, evoked Algeria's Berber culture and the Tamazight language. In 1988, Yacine moved to Vercheny in France and visited the United States but died in the French city of Grenoble on October 28, 1989. Yacine had three children: Nadia, Hans and Amazigh.


  • Soliloques, 1946
  • Abdelkader et l'indépendance algérienne, 1948
  • Le cadavre encerclé (The Encircled Corpse), 1955 (prod. 1958)
  • Nedjma, Paris: Edition du Seuil, 1956, reprinted by Points roman, 1981
  • Le cercle des représailles (The Circle of Reprisals), Paris: Edition du Seuil, 1959
  • La femme sauvage, 1963 (play)
  • Le Polygone étoilé, Paris: Edition du Seuil, 1966
  • Les ancêtres redoublent de férocité, 1967 (play)
  • L'homme aux sandales de caoutchouc (The Man with the Rubber Sandals), Paris: Edition du Seuil, 1970 (anthology of plays)
  • Mohammad prends ta valise (Mohammad, Take Your Suitcase), 1971 (first published in Arabic)
  • Saout Ennisa, 1972 (first published in Arabic) La guerre de 2000 ans (The 2000-Year War), 1974, (first published in Arabic)
  • Le Roi de l'Ouest (The Western King), 1975 (a highly critical essay on Hassan II)
  • La Palestine trahie, 1972-1982, (first published in Arabic), 1983
  • L'oeuvre en fragments, Paris: Edition du Seuil, 1986
  • Le poète comme un boxeur: Entretiens, 1958-1989, 1994
  • Minuit passé de douze heures: écrits journalistiques, 1947-1989, 1999
  • Boucherie d'espérance: Oeuvres théâtrales, 1999
  • Un théâtre en trois langues, 2003


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