Narrating the man from Algiers in Kabul

Interview with Yasmina Khadra, by Taina Tervonen

Paris, September 2002
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All that people knew about Yamina Khadra for a long time was her vitriolic pen and withering language, a curious mix of humour and despair. In her thrillers published by La Balaine, and her two novels (Les Agneaux du Seigneur, 1998, A quoi rêvent les loups, 1999, Julliard), the nom de plume Khadra offered a terrifying portrait of the civil war that has pulverized Algerian society. In January 2001, Yasmina Khadra published L’Ecrivain (Julliard, 2001), and revealed her true identity – Mohammed Moulessehoul, a former senior officer in the Algerian army. Just when he had decided to leave Algeria to devote himself to writing, the media threw his military past in his face. Out of this whole episode came a book, L’Imposture des mots (Julliard, 2002). In Les Hirondelles de Kaboul (Julliard, 2002), Khadra leaves Algiers for Kabul.

What made you choose Kabul after Algiers?
North African writers are trapped in a highly reductive mould. We are forced to write only about our own country, and preferably about poverty and death. I wanted to prove that a North African writer is capable of narrating man wherever he is.
But why Kabul exactly? Because of the link with religious fundamentalism?
No. I had decided to write something outside Algeria. I had the choice between Mexico and Afghanistan. My publisher wasn’t very keen when I suggested the first country. And when I suggested Afghanistan, he said that I was bound to come a cropper. I thought that if my own publisher didn’t believe in my skills as a novelist, I wasn’t out of the woods yet. So I chose Afghanistan, to prove that I am capable of expressing man wherever he is.
You like challenges.
It wasn’t a challenge. I have fought for literature for 36 years. It’s a world I love, our last rampart against inhumanity and human pettiness. It would be the end of the world, the end of human salvation if this universe was contaminated, if it too gave in to financial opportunism, corruption, and complacency. Sadly, books are more about media hype than literary objects today.
Your own book L’Ecrivain caused quite a media storm when it was published and your real identity was revealed. You recount this period in L’Imposture des mots.
I had to write L’Ecrivain. A lot of people liked my work without knowing me and I had to thank them. It was very painful for me to recount my life, but I felt that my readers merited this suffering. Now that I have said who I am, I had to get on with the serious stuff, the things that made me believe that it was necessary to leave my family, my country, my friends, my life, my habits: literature.
One nonetheless detects a sense of bitterness when reading L’Imposture des mots.
Not bitterness, but certainly deception, which is quite understandable. I wrote this book so as not to leave anything to chance. I wanted to say who I really was – the man, the writer, the soldier – and to try definitively to bring that problem to a close. Today, even though I am one of the rare Francophone writers whose books get bought in the United States even before they come out in France, some people would still like to disqualify me because I don’t fit in with the norms of French literature. That’s just how my destiny is. Even when I achieved the unimaginable – that is remaining a writer after 36 years in the army – I realised once I reached the Promised Land that I am not very lucky.
You weren’t expecting that.
No. I expected to be accepted by my own kind.
You have a truly idyllic image of the literary community!
You know, someone once said: « Thank God for having let me discover Islam before discovering the Muslims ». I say: « Thank God, I discovered literature before discovering writers ».
What is the situation today?
I think that I am better respected elsewhere than in France, which remains a truly paradoxical country for me. I was of course launched by the French press, but I am not accepted at a certain level of the Parisian literary circles. I don’t get the impression that I will ever really count for them. I hoped to in the past – not in order to belong to a club, but to belong to a supportive, acknowledging intellectual family.
It is very unpleasant to try to like people who turn their backs on you. It makes me very sad. That, perhaps, is the real tragedy in my life. It’s been a problem for me ever since I was a child.
That reminds me of a passage in L’Imposture des mots in which the colonel says to Yasmina Khadra: « However generous your publishers, and however hard your fans applaud, wherever you take your muse, you will always be a nine-year-old kid thrown out of his house by his father whom the love of all men will never console. »
A lot of people have consoled me nevertheless – writers. They helped me to remain a dreamer in the world of machine guns, to fly away with my helmet, my boots, my gun. They taught me to love when I was raised in a world where death is a mission. It was writers who convinced me that people are wonderful. But there is a devilish minority who make things veer into the void and nightmares.
Nightmares are indeed very present in Les Hirondelles de Kaboul. Like several of your other novels, this book portrays a monster – Atiq, the prison warder. And yet, you always give them a degree of humanity that contrasts with the very raw and aggressive language you use.
I start out from the principal that people are not bad; it’s their lives that are. I wanted to tell the story of an ordinary man who is thrown into a completely chaotic, nightmarish situation. Atiq isn’t a monster. He is just a man who is fed up with looking after people on death row, who is searching for himself, who feels like giving up on life. He is seeking an ideal, something that will bring him closer to others. When he discovers love, he discovers the generosity of life. He tries to conserve it although he is well aware that he doesn’t have the means.
I have never written about hatred, only about human frailty, whether in Les Agneaux du Seigneur or A quoi rêvent les loups. They are quite simply a collection of individuals that adversity takes by surprise and who don’t know which way to turn. And they generally choose the wrong path because it is the easiest one.
You tell the same story, but the other way round, with the Mohsen and Zunaria couple. Love and harmony get destroyed.
Afghanistan is a completely paradoxical country. It’s a two-way avenue. There are those who head for the night and those who try to head for the light. They never meet. Is this a refusal of a life that is permanently on the decline, a refusal of a threatening and omnipresent death? Solitude makes these people fragile. When a man has reached the point where he can no longer empathise with other people’s misfortunes because he is so overwhelmed by his own, he tries to isolate himself. Not to protect himself, but to be able to deal with one misfortune at a time.
Atiq and Mohsen’s paths cross, however, in the graveyard where they roam, on the verge of madness.
We all head in this direction. I try to tell people that life is so ephemeral that we have to make the most of it.
One gets the impression that this book was written very fast, almost urgently.
It was written in the most total state of serenity. I didn’t need urgency because I intended to put my entire faith in this book. I owed it to myself not to mess it up. I wrote it in 3 to 4 months, which is very long for me, as I usually write my books in a month.
Have you any intention of dealing with Algerian subjects again?
I want to act as a writer. When something moves or strikes me, I write. There is nothing to stop me writing about Algeria again, or in taking an interest in something different. That is the writer’s freedom.
Have you had to pay a heavy price for that freedom?
I never borrow a thing and prefer to pay a heavy price for things that are dear to me rather than to forgo them.

///Article N° : 5635


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