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Albert Camus
Albert Camus

The literary currents that emerged from the regions of present-day Algeria were influenced by, and actually part of, both Arabic and French traditions. The country was earlier home to Roman writers and to later authors exemplified by the 4th-century theologian Augustine.

A native of French Algeria, Albert Camus set many of his famous works, including L’Étranger (The Stranger) and La peste (The Plague), in colonial society. Isabella Eberhardt travelled in Algeria in the late 19th century, and it left its mark on her novels. She also wrote accounts of her travels and, witnessing armed confrontations between a local leader and French troops, was the first female war-reporter in the country.

Modern Algerian literature begins with the war of independence. Kateb Yacine (1929-1989) wrote his famous novel Nedjma in 1956. One of the founding fathers of modern Algerian literature, he used many historical elements as a means to strengthen Algerian national identity. Unlike many contemporary writers, Kateb Yacine wrote in both Arabic and French but also produced novels and plays in the Algerian Arabic dialect and in Tamazight (Berber). The last years of the French period also saw the rise of Mohammed Dib, who published both novels and poems. Mouloud Feraoun, from Kabylia, is known for his semi-autobiographic novel Le fils du pauvre (Son of the Poor, 1950). The main character, destined by his rural origins to become a herdsman, is driven by a strong desire for a better future. He manages to enrol in school and ends up a teacher. The novel offers a good description of social life and culture in Algeria shortly before independence.

After 1962, the policies of Arabization led to a neglect or even rejection of Tamazight (Berber) cultural expressions as part of official Algerian culture. Many Berber-language writers, most of whom were from Kabylia, also wrote in French. These Tamazight works are mostly oral stories and poems that only recently have been set down in Latin script or, more recently, the Berber Tifinagh script. The entanglement of literature and politics produced remarkable outcomes: in 1980, for instance, the local government in the Kabyle capital of Tizi Ouzou attempted to block a presentation, at a symposium on Berber literature, by the well-known author Mouloud Mammeri. The resulting outrage of the local population was the main trigger for the Berber Spring of that year.

In the following decades, many writers took on social and political issues. The rise of Islamism led Rachid Mimouni to voice his abhorrence of this movement. His novels from the 1980s and 1990s include La malédiction (The Curse), in which he compared Algeria to a ramshackle hospital that would deteriorate further with the coming to power of the Islamist FIS (Islamic Salvation Front, Front Islamique du Salut). Similarly polemical towards political Islam was Tahar Djaout, who paid for his opinions with his life: he was murdered in 1993, probably by radical Islamists. His novel Les chercheurs d’os (The Bone Collectors) , however, is about daily life in the aftermath of the war of independence. The title refers to people who travelled the country looking for the remains of relatives who had been killed in the war. Proof of their ‘martyrdom’ would bring their families social recognition and earn them financial compensation from the state.

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