Big Brother is watching you
Said Khatibi: Some authors, especially those who are older, believe they have more freedom of expression in French, but it also has to do with the book market. For Arabic literature, Algeria is simply a wasteland. Hardly any bookshops offer literature in Arabic. People still tend to read more in French – we really have to fight for Arabic.
Although I studied French literature at the University of Algiers and then at the Sorbonne in Paris with the idea of writing in French afterwards, I ended up choosing Arabic. Unfortunately, neither the Algerian state nor its ministry of culture seems keen to promote Arabic literature.
On the other hand the French cultural institute and the French embassy are heavily invested in maintaining a Francophone society. There is nothing comparable for the Arabic language.
"The End of the Sahara" is my fourth novel. I've also written other books and translated other people's work, such as that of Kateb Yacine, but I feel like I need to fight for the Arabic language. When I start a novel, I know how difficult it is going to be, but I'm not about to give up. Winning the Sheikh Zayed Award should help me become more visible as a writer in Algeria and throughout the Arab world.
Your latest book is a historical crime novel. The crime novel as a genre is still pretty underdeveloped in the Arab world. Why do you think that is?
Khatibi: For me, it was a first. My other novels also deal with historical themes from the time of the Algerian civil war, but they are not crime novels. The period of the civil war was an incisive chapter. I see myself as a "son of war", because I too lived through that time in Algeria.
Why are there no crime novels in the Arab world? I must say I ask myself the same question; it's also something my friends keep asking me. The only answer I can think of is: the crime novel is synonymous with freedom.
For a crime novel, you need the greatest possible freedom as an author – something we don't have in the Arab world. Even where there is no state censorship, we are used to censoring ourselves. That's inevitable after so many years of state control. You are not supposed to write about religion or politics, so we self-monitor.
We have our own internalised Big Brother to ensure we don't get into trouble with our governments and our societies. But that's no basis for writing a crime novel.
Had I not been living in Europe, I couldn't have written this novel. I knew I had the freedom, as well as my own personal inner freedom, to write whatever I wanted.
The problem in the Arab world is not that we don't have good writers: there are some very good Arab authors working today, but they lack the freedom you need to write a good novel.
Nobody is invested in the Arabic language
And yet, crime fiction is ultimately also about a perpetrator receiving his just deserts. Don't Arab authors believe justice will prevail in the end?
Khatibi: I think that depends more on the skill of the author. You have to make a plan and conduct some very thorough research. For my novel, I spent at least a year simply researching and then three years writing. That takes a lot of energy. It's not something you can do on the side. But the main thing is inner freedom.
Had I written "The End of the Sahara" in Algeria, my job – and who knows what else besides – would have been on the line. For instance, if a journalist writes an article the regime doesn't like, they will either lose their job or possibly even be sent to prison.
I know many writers who say they don't write what they really think because they don't want to risk their livelihoods. Thankfully, I am not part of that scene in Algeria, so I can write what I want. I have fought hard to achieve that.
Would you say there is still something specifically Algerian about your novel?
Khatibi: We are fighting for Algerian literature to be published in Arabic, but so far the infrastructure is lacking. There is no financial support for authors writing in Arabic; people are basically left to their own devices. Another major problem is that there are no readers – most are Francophones. The state does nothing to promote Arabic. And yet there is the potential: we are talking about a country with 45 million inhabitants!
The situation in Algeria is much worse than in Tunisia or Morocco, where Arabic literature has seen a degree of promotion in recent years. In Algeria, as an author, I have to do everything myself: marketing, readings, not to mention book-signing sessions.
The main thing is to write well
How many copies of a novel are you likely to sell then?
Khatibi: It might take me a whole of year of self-promotion to sell maybe 1000 copies. No TV station will invite me on for an interview or a discussion. In Algeria, all media is an instrument of the state. No one in the media is interested in literature, let alone literature in Arabic.
That is why the Sheikh Zayed Award is so important to me. I hope it will help people in Algeria realise that yes, there is good literature in Arabic that needs to be read. This realisation is likely to come as a shock to many.
The Sheikh Zayed Award is funded by the Emirates. Doesn't that mean there are some issues that can't be addressed?
Khatibi: My novel touches on many taboos and I still won the award. The difference between the Sheikh Zayed Award and other literary prizes in the region is that the jury of the Sheikh Zayed Award is free to decide according to purely literary criteria.
It's not about whether you're left or right, it's only about whether someone can write. Judging a novel comes down to whether something is well written. After all, there's no use addressing all kinds of taboos if the book is a flop.
"We took a wrong turn after independence"
What is your novel about?
Khatibi: It centres on an event that took place in Algeria on 5 October 1988. That day saw the first popular uprising since the country gained its independence from France in 1962. People were angry because they had nothing to eat: no milk, no sugar. This was during the socialist phase in Algeria and the police and army shot at the demonstrators. Many were shot.
When I heard, I was shocked. How could something like this happen 25 years after independence? Our own police simply shot demonstrators! But I'm not describing what happened – every child in Algeria knows that – but I'm interested in the question of why it happened.
History books don't explain that. In my novel, I try to explain why this revolutionary protest in the streets occurred. For me, that is the difference between a historical novel and a history book.
Why did it happen?
Khatibi: I don't want to give too much away, but we took a wrong turn in Algeria right after independence. There were many things we hadn't seen for a long time. At the same time, the protests of 5 October 1988 were the beginning of Islamism in Algeria, which led to ten years of civil war in the 1990s. It all started in the 1980s.
I hope readers in Germany will soon be able to read the book in German translation. I see Europe moving further and further to the right and right-wing populists gaining more and more influence. I hope we can do something to counter this with literature and culture.
Interview conducted by Claudia Mende
© Qantara.de 2023
Said Khatibi, "Nihayat al-Sahra'" (Eng: 'the end of the Sahara'), Hachette Antoine 2022
Said Khatibi, born 1984 in Bou Saada, Algeria, studied French literature in Algiers and Paris, then worked as a journalist and translator. He now lives in Slovenia. For the novel "The End of the Sahara" he received the Sheikh Zayed Award in the Young Author category in 2023. The jury praised his stylistic originality and innovative contribution to the genre of the historical crime novel in Arabic.