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Algerian author Said Khatibi: 'To avoid war, destroy the myth of purity'

In an interview with Middle East Eye, the acclaimed Algerian author talks about his new novel 'Sarajevo Firewood'
Said Khatibi's latest book takes aim at the idea of 'pure' identity (Banipal Books)

Life's spontaneity and diversity, the awkward mixing of sadness and joy, is something Algerian author Said Khatibi says he understands well.

At a wake for a close relative in the Algerian town of Bou Saada, an occasion for mourning turned to celebration when a publisher messaged him to say he had been shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction.

Born in 1984, Khatibi spent his formative years in Algeria during the civil war, which pitted the state against various Islamist armed groups.

He says the death and destruction he witnessed taught him and others around him "how to live", especially the experience of finding moments of happiness between spells of misery.

Sarajevo Firewood deals with lost identity and xxx
Khatabi used his own experiences of the Algerian civil war when writing his latest book (Banipal Books)

The resulting revelation was that in the organic flow of life, the human experiences of joy and grief were interconnected.

It's this lesson that shines forth in Khatibi's latest novel, Sarajevo Firewood, which has recently been translated into English.

Set in the late 90s, Sarajevo Firewood tells the story of Salim, a jaded Algerian journalist covering the war in the Balkans.

He arrives in Slovenia at the request of his uncle and discovers he has been lied to about the identity of his real father.

There, he meets Ivana, who has fled the war in Bosnia, her psychotic sister and defeatist mother.

Weighed down with an unsatisfying job and tormented by memories of her abusive father, she hopes to pursue her ambition of becoming a playwright in Slovenia.

As the story progresses, the characters come to personify the manipulation and deceit inherent in war.

Written in a minimalist and accessible prose, the reader is challenged to question their sense of identity; who or what they belong to, and their values and purpose in life. 

Salim returns to Algeria a broken man, determined to retrace his own origins and unravel the web of deceit that is his life. 

Middle East Eye spoke to Khatibi about some of these important themes.

MEE: There are an array of themes interwoven in the novel. One of the most striking is the idea of 'origins'. Why did you write about this?

Said Khatibi: All wars at the end of the 20th century began with the question of origins: ethnic or religious. To avoid such wars, we must first destroy the myth of purity. We are all the result of a mix.

The modern citizen is a collage of many identities, not just one. Identity is a sensitive fibre. And politicians know it. They attract supporters by pressing on this sensitive fibre.

'The modern citizen is a collage of many identities, not just one. Identity is a sensitive fibre'

- Said Khatibi 

In a country where there is no personal freedom, people become prisoners of murderous identities, as (Lebanese author) Amin Maalouf said.

He means, because of this attachment to origins - to identities - people kill each other.

In Algeria and Bosnia, the wars were led by people blinded by their unhealthy attachment to religious or nationalist identities.

MEE: The protagonists struggle with freedom, professionally and personally. How has this struggle impacted you?

SK: The lack of individual freedom is a major issue in Algeria. Since independence in 1962, the Algerian regime has treated people like children - as insignificant.

It has written its own history, not the history of the people. Individual freedom is necessary to be able to question the beliefs we take for granted.

Without it, I have seen how we lose freedom, confidence in ourselves, and trust in others. We become victims of our fears. Anyone who is different becomes an enemy.

MEE: Salim is confronted with a harsh truth in the novel, a truth many take for granted; that we are who we are told we are. As someone who has lived through civil war, how important is it to question what we assume to be true?

SK: We need time to question what we believe to be true. To get rid of the myths of identity and ethnicity we have to question our official histories.

The real challenge in Algeria today, as in Bosnia, is accepting the multicultural, multi-ethnic history of these two countries.

I come from two cultures, like millions of Algerians: Arab and Amazigh. We cannot reduce a country to a singular ethnicity, culture or language. There are variants within all of these. Within the Amazigh, there are also variants. For centuries the two have lived together.

At home we mix the two languages, we celebrate the Amazigh year, but we are also from an Arab culture. The two complement each other.

MEE: In order for Ivana to fulfil her purpose, she chooses not to carry her dark past into the future. The novel seems to say the past does not have to repeat itself, no matter how strong its grip on us is. That has huge significance when we look at the political order today, which wants us to stay stuck in the past. 

SK: How can we break from the past? I don’t believe in breaking with the past. Life is a continuous chain and there are no breaks.

I believe it is necessary to write, to document events so that they do not repeat themselves.

In Algeria, we wanted to quickly turn the page on the nineties. We had an amnesty and armed groups have integrated into ordinary life; victim and assassin now live together.

kabyle-village-guards-afp
This 1994 picture shows village guards in the Kabylia region of Algeria at the height of the civil war (AFP)

We wanted to make people forget ten years of terror, but people still remember it.

In Bosnia, there are museums, monuments, etc. But people want to forget quickly.

We can only “break from the past” if we admit our mistakes, if we rectify our history of false myths, if we admit that we are supposed to live together with our multitudinous origins.

MEE: There are some horrendous murders in the novel; a young girl being beheaded. You spoke to families who experienced extreme violence during the Algerian civil war as part of your research. How painful was it?

SK: I am from a family of victims myself. Many tragic stories are still unreported.

All the stories are painful, without exception, but the most painful thing is to know that the criminals (still) live today, side by side with the victims, without asking for forgiveness.

Some have become public figures, untouchables, guests on TV, while the families of victims are abandoned.

MEE:  Victims need to tell their stories. How easy is that in a country like Algeria?

SK: Freedom of expression has never really existed. It’s a nonsense phrase.

In Algeria, where there should be freedom of expression, instead it is under control.

Many TV channels have been suspended or closed in recent years. Many people are in jail because of a post on Facebook.

As a journalist, I’ve experienced intimidation. Sometimes death threats on social networks because of an article. Every time I go to Algeria, I feel (like) I will be arrested by the police.

Many of my colleagues have already been to prison or are being prosecuted.

Intellectuals were always the favourite target. After independence, they were imprisoned. Bachir Hadj Ali, for example.

In the 90s they were killed by extremist groups. People like Tahar Djaout and about a hundred other writers and journalists.

They want us to believe that we are free to express our opinions and thoughts, but as soon as we criticise the political system and its foundations, or taboos, the door to prison will be opened for us.

Editor's note: Questions and answers have been lightly edited for brevity and clarity. Sarajevo Firewood is available now and is published by Banipal Books.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.