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by Kateb Yacine


A novel set in Algeria in the late 1940s; published in French in 1956, in English in 1961.


Against the background of economic dislocation caused by more than a century of French colonialism and World War II, four young Algerian men are obsessed with Nedjma, a young woman of uncertain origin.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The Novel in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

For More Information

Kateb Yacine was born in 1929 in the eastern Algerian city of Constantine. Kateb, his family name, means “writer” in Arabic, indicating that he was part of the literary branch of his clan. His father chose to have him educated at a French lycée (roughly the equivalent of a high school) in Constantine, rather than sending him to a Koranic school. Kateb would later call this being “cast into the jaws of the wolf” (Arnaud, p. 114; trans. R. Serrano). On May 8, 1945 (V-E Day, marking the end of World War II in Europe), Kateb participated in demonstrations in the city of Sétif against French colonial rule, resulting in brief imprisonment and interrogation. In 1950 he moved to France, though his active support of the Algerian Revolution forced him to leave in 1955, shortly after Nedjma was accepted by a major French publishing house. He lived in Tunisia, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Vietnam, and the Soviet Union, before returning definitively to Algeria in 1970 to form a theatrical company. In the 1950s and ’60s he wrote another novel, Le Poly gone étoilé (The Starred Polygon), and plays inhabited by the same characters as Nedjma, in addition to a play about Ho Chi Minh, L’Homme aux sandales en caoutchouc (The Man in Rubber Sandals). In the 1970s and ’80s he continued to write plays performed in colloquial Arabic. He died in 1989. Despite his 40 years of literary production, he is best remembered for Nedjma, which introduced radical innovations in style and content to North African literature in French.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

Algeria in the 1940s

On May 8, 1945, nationalists throughout Algeria organized marches and demonstrations to mark the liberation of Europe from the World War II Axis powers (Germany, Italy, and Japan) and, seizing on the political symbolism, to call as well for Algeria’s liberation from 115 years of French colonial rule. In Sétif, a city about 75 miles from Constantine in eastern Algeria, marchers insisted on hoisting nationalist flags and placards, despite orders from local French authorities not to do so. The result was an armed clash between police and Muslim Algerians. News of the violence spread to the countryside, leading to general insurrection, which was eventually put down by 10,000 French troops, planes attacking Algerian villages, and bombardment from a cruiser offshore. About 100 Europeans had been killed by the time the violence ended a few days later. As for the Algerians, “French government estimates spoke of 1,500 dead, the [French] army of 6,000 to 8,000, American sources of from 7,000 to 40,000, and some Algerian nationalists of 45,000” (Ruedy, p. 149). In the ensuing weeks nearly 6,000 Algerian men were imprisoned, including Kateb Yacine. Of these, 99 were sentenced to death. European retaliation against Muslim Algerians was indiscriminate and out of all proportion to the violence they had committed. This would continue to be the case throughout the Algerian Revolution.

The distortions of more than a century of French colonialism and the dislocations of World War II had created a situation in Algeria in which, in retrospect, violence appears to have been inevitable. Nearly half the Algerian men of working age were unemployed, hundreds of thousands having abandoned their ancestral villages to migrate to the cities in search of work. The best lands had been expropriated or purchased primarily for viticulture by French colons, the great landlords who comprised about 0.5 percent of the entire population of Algeria but controlled over 80 percent of its European-held lands (Alleg, p. 1.103). By the late 1930s Algeria was the third-largest wine-producing country in the world, after France and Italy. Muslim Algerians labored in vast numbers on extensive tracts of land removed from the production of staple foods, in short supply, in order to produce a beverage that their religion prohibited them from drinking.

Since the French kept Algeria primarily as a producer of raw materials, there was a severe shortage of manufactured goods during World War II. An economy already out of balance from the demands of colonial exploitation could hardly withstand the shock of a two-thirds reduction in the grain harvest due to poor rains in 1945. Muslim Algerian soldiers who had served in the Free French forces (under the exiled Charles de Gaulle) in the liberation of France also swelled the ranks of the unemployed upon demobilization, although many would go on to fight in the colonialist war in French Indochina. As in the case of the hundreds of thousands of West Africans who fought for the French, Muslim Algerian soldiers were embittered by the French refusal to allow them to participate in the liberation of Paris from the Germans and by the cavalier treatment they received after the war. As the Allies approached Paris, nonwhite soldiers were sent southward, where they were repatriated hastily and often without the documentation they would later need to secure their pensions. There has since been a systematic refusal to recognize the contributions of colonized peoples in the defense and liberation of France in both world wars. In addition to hunger, unemployment, and material want, Algerians were frustrated with a political system that left them essentially disenfranchised. The European minority in Algeria managed to block nearly all reforms proposed in Paris.

In the late 1940s Algeria was not legally a distinct political entity. Northern Algeria was divided into three départements (or provinces) integrated into metropolitan France. Algeria south of the Atlas Mountains, the Sahara region, was a military territory. It was often pointed out in the 1950s that the Algerian départements had been part of France longer than some regions in metropolitan France (Nice and Savoy, for example). Proponents of French Algeria claimed that the Mediterranean Sea flowed through France the way the Seine flowed through Paris. The integration of Northern Algeria into France did not, however, mean that all its inhabitants were French, with rights and privileges equal to those of Parisians. European settlers in Algeria and their descendants (pieds noirs, or black feet), who numbered nearly one million on the eve of the revolution in 1954, were recognized as French citizens, although those of French descent never made up more than 40 percent of this group, the rest being Spanish, Italian, Maltese, or Greek settlers or their descendants. Muslim Algerians became French only upon demonstrating a certain level of education and renouncing Islam. Reforms after World War II created an Algerian parliament with limited powers, divided into two chambers, one European and one Muslim (Droz, p. 33). This provided Muslim Algerians with representation on par with Europeans in Algeria, but since they outnumbered Europeans by about eight to one, this solution was far from democratic.

Mission civilisatrice

The primary philosophical justification for such an unfair system was the French mission civilisatrice, or civilizing mission. Most French believed (and many still do) that the ideals of French civilization marked the pinnacle of human achievement. Therefore, French culture was not merely a national accomplishment, but was the great gift of the French people to the world. Perhaps the greatest achievement of French culture was the codification in 1789 of the Rights of Man; unfortunately, imposing the wonders of French culture on Africans and Asians nearly always resulted in the abrogation of some of these rights.

The stated aim of the French was to impart their culture to the native inhabitants of their colonies. Any inhabitant, whether of Algeria, Madagascar, or Vietnam, who successfully learned to read, speak, and think like a French person was termed an évolué. Becoming an évolué was no simple task, since even on the eve of the revolution, 86 percent of Algerian men and 95 percent of Algerian women were illiterate. These statistics are even more shocking when we consider that in 1830 when the French first invaded, Algeria’s literacy rate for men was actually higher than that in France (Ruedy, p. 103).


In the final decade of the eighteenth century, the Dey of Algiers had exported large amounts of grain to the south of France and to the French Republican armies of Napoleon in Italy and Egypt. France and Algeria broke off relations before all the shipments had been paid for. Two Jewish merchant houses, Bushnaq and Bakri, which were responsible for the deal, still owed a large sum to the Dey three decades later, but the restored monarchy of France was reluctant to recognize the debts of Republican France. When the French consul to Algiers, Pierre Deval, went to pay his respects to the Dey on April 29, 1827, at the end of Ramadan, the annual month-long period of fasting observed by Muslims, he was asked why Charles X had not responded to his written queries about the debt. “Deval allegedly responded,” none too respectfully, “that His Most Christian Majesty could not lower himself to correspond with the Dey. Losing his customary self-control, Hussein [the Dey] struck the consul three times on the arm with the handle of a peacock-feather fly whisk and ordered him to get out” (Ruedy, p. 46).

Despite the orientalist charm of this famous coup d’éventail, it is unlikely that 130 years of colonial rule resulted from French umbrage at a fit of pique by a representative of Ottoman Turkey who nominally ruled over Algeria. Less than two decades earlier, France had lost most of its international possessions with the collapse of Napoleon’s empire. With British supremacy at sea a foregone conclusion, a colonial venture closer to home, just across the Mediterranean, made sense. Charles X was not a universally beloved king and his advisers felt that a successful overseas adventure would strengthen the restored Bourbon monarchy. Ironically, while Algiers surrendered to the French on July 5, 1830, before the end of the month Charles X was himself sent into exile and replaced by Louis-Philippe of the house of Orléans, who decided to pursue the conquest of the hinterland beyond Algiers. Thereafter no French ruler until Charles de Gaulle in the early 1960s was willing to preside over a French departure from Algeria. This 132-year rupture in the history of Algeria is reflected in the discontinuities and uncertainties central to Nedjma.

By any standard, the mission civilisatrice was not only a failure, but little more than an excuse for the exploitation of non-European peoples. The war in Algeria, which lasted from 1954 to 1962, was the longest, bloodiest, and most expensive France would fight to retain its empire.

Algerian women

In the 1940s and ’50s the vast majority of Muslim Algerian women were still peasants working in the fields, although village life was carefully organized to keep men and women separated, even outdoors. The women of the rich or of religious leaders were kept indoors and probably enjoyed even less freedom than their poorer sisters did. The relatively affluent situation of Nedjma’s family accounts for her neartotal seclusion. Education of females was severely restricted: in 1954 only 10.7 percent of Algerian girls 6-13 years old attended school and there were only 22 Algerian women studying at the university (Amrane, p. 27). Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the near absence of Muslim Algerian women from the public sphere tantalized the French colonial imagination, which seldom failed to eroticize the veiled and sequestered women.

Although Westerners remain obsessed with the Islamic issue of the veil, in reality the status of Algerian women in the 1940s was due less to the strictures of Islam than to the Mediterranean culture of which Algeria is part. In this culture “masculine honor is protected by the seclusion of women” (Gordon, p. 8). We should keep in mind that as late as 1966 a French woman could not open a checking account without her husband’s permission (Gordon, p. 20). There were also many European women in Algeria in the 1940s and early ’50s, but they were either from relatively conservative southern European cultures and therefore not much more liberated than their Algerian counterparts or, if more independent and visible, were viewed as a negative example for Muslim women.

Small numbers of Muslim women were nonetheless radicalized by the massacres at Sétif in 1945 and by the increasing weight of French rule as the Algerian Revolution continued. Young women worked as nurses and cooks in the maquis (Algerian underground forces) in the countryside. Several young women also played a key role in the urban terrorism depicted so unforgettably in Gillo Pontecorvo’s film Battle of Algiers (1966). Dressed as young Frenchwomen, three Algerian Muslim women placed bombs in cafés frequented by young pieds noirs, killing four and injuring 52 (Droz, p. 129). Although it is difficult to imagine the Nedjma of the novel walking across Algiers, let alone planting bombs, in Kateb’s 1959 cycle of plays, Le Cercle des représailles (The Circle of Reprisals), Nedjma marries Mustapha and becomes a member of the maquis. The Algerian Revolution enables her to shake off her passivity, to break her silence, and to participate in the public life of her country.

The Novel in Focus

Plot summary

Any description of the plot of Nedjma risks being insufficient and misleading, because Kateb created a structure for the novel that runs counter to the chronological order of events. The events of Nedjma can be traced from mid-1945 to 1952, with flashbacks to the 1920s, but the novel ends at nearly the same moment at which it began: sometime in 1946 or 1947, just before four young men go their separate ways. Despite this chronological ambiguity, it is clear, however, that the novel is, in part, about an attempted return to origins: the origins of the Algerian people, the origins of the violence that surfaces at key moments, and the origins of Nedjma herself.

Lakhdar, Mourad, Mustapha, and Rachid are comrades in the eastern Algerian city of Bône (today’s Annaba) who have found temporary work at a construction site. Each follows a different path in his obsession with the young married woman, Nedjma (Arabic for “star”). Although we learn a great deal about her possible origins—her mother was French and her father could have been one of two men among the mother’s many lovers—Nedjma remains an unknown and ultimately unknowable quantity throughout the novel. The reader has access to the thoughts of the four young men, sometimes even to their writings, but only to enigmatic fragments of what Nedjma herself thinks.

These four young men literally take different paths in the first part of the novel. Lakhdar strikes their foreman, M. Ernest, during an argument on their first day of work in an unnamed village. He is arrested but later escapes, which causes him to reflect on his earlier arrest in connection with the demonstrations in Sétif in 1945. Sometime later, Mourad kills the wealthy, aged, and infirm French colon M. Ricard, for whipping his Muslim Algerian maid in a drunken fit shortly before he is to consummate his marriage to the foreman’s daughter. Mourad is imprisoned and the three others take to the road and part ways. Although it is not immediately obvious, most of the events of the novel take place before this parting of ways. We come to see the violence just described not as the source but the culmination of events.

Rachid’s obsession with Nedjma is described in most detail. In conversation with an old man who was once a noted seducer, Si Mokhtar, Rachid discovers that Nedjma is the daughter of a Frenchwoman who had four different lovers, including Rachid’s father. Nedjma was conceived on a night that Si Mokhtar and Rachid’s father spent in a cave with the Frenchwoman. The body of Rachid’s father was found the next day. Neither Rachid nor the reader are ever certain whether Rachid’s father is Nedjma’s father as well, making them half-siblings, or whether Si Mokhtar murdered Rachid’s father.

Thereafter, Rachid follows Si Mokhtar everywhere, refraining from taking revenge on the man he believes murdered his father, in order to find out just who Nedjma is. After a would-be pilgrimage to Mecca that gets the two no closer than the port of Jedda on the Red Sea, Si Mokhtar reveals to Rachid that he is actually the father of Nedjma’s husband, Kamel. Rachid and Si Mokhtar decide to kidnap Nedjma from her possibly incestuous marriage and spirit her off to Nadhor, a nearly inaccessible mountain where the last descendants of the legendary Keblout people still live. A mysterious black man, in turn, steals Nedjma away from them before they have accomplished what they believe to be her destiny in returning to her origins.

The novel itself then returns to its own origins, with an account of Lakhdar’s escape from prison. We are reminded that Mourad remains in prison for having killed M. Ricard and the three remaining friends go their separate ways. It is as if the characters are imprisoned in a historical moment that will be resolved only with the Algerian Revolution that begins just beyond the limits of the novel’s narrative.

Origins of Algerian identity

Although Si Mokhtar is one of the most vivid figures of the novel, Kateb Yacine presents him so obliquely that we might wonder if he exists at all. Practically all we know about Si Mokhtar is what he says himself, although we know him to be a liar and a fraud. As if this were not enough to raise doubts about his true role in Nedjma’s mysterious origin, the only account of Si Mokhtar is made by Rachid during a malarial fever. Even Rachid himself “seemed to consider everything he had told” Mourad during the attack of malaria “a delirium” (Kateb, Nedjma, p. 137). Mourad reconstitutes the disjointed story recounted by a delirious person, repeating what may be only the lies of a dying old man. Through these narrative strategies of distancing the reader from the events recounted, Yacine insists on the impossibility of knowing the truth about the origins of Nedjma or Algeria.

Rachid cannot remember when he first met Si Mokhtar. He believes that he has always been aware of him, since his earliest childhood:

He had always belonged to the ideal city that’s been lying like a deposit in my memory since the blurred age of circumcision, of escapes from the house, of the first weeks when Madame Clément had given me a slate—for me he was one of the tutelary spirits of Constantine, and I never saw him age, any more than there is an age or one particular countenance for the historical Barbarossa, the legendary Jupiter; I had always lived in Constantine with ogres and sultanas, with the locomotives of the inaccessible station, and the specter of Si Mokhtar.

(Nedjma, p. 142)

Si Mokhtar is Rachid’s link to the past, at once historical and legendary, unavoidably real and suspiciously ideal. His existence predates Rachid’s earliest memories, yet stretches off into the future. In a land cut off from its past by over a century of French rule, this connection to the past, however tenuous and potentially deceptive, is vital.

Si Mokhtar inspires Rachid’s two attempts to return to possible origins of Algerian culture: the pilgrimage to Mecca and the journey to Nadhor, each indicating a different facet of Algerian identity. Rachid first meets Si Mokhtar while a deserter from the French army during World War II, still wearing his uniform. When he discovers that Si Mokhtar intends to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, Rachid obtains false papers and a new identity as a sailor. Once they reach Jeddah, the Arabian port on the Red Sea that serves as point of entry to Mecca, Si Mokhtar decides not to continue to Mecca, claiming that he does not have enough money and is too sick to make the voyage. Rachid wonders why Si Mokhtar had wanted to make the pilgrimage in the first place, since he had already satisfied the demands of Islam by traveling to Mecca 25 years earlier.

Although it is possible to consider the profane Si Mokhtar as embodying a stinging rebuke to Islam, Kateb Yacine was more likely criticizing not the religion itself but the corruption and hypocrisy of a certain class of Muslim Algerians who professed Islam yet collaborated with and profited from French rule. Rachid’s inability to complete the pilgrimage to Mecca after his escape from French military service reminds us how Algeria has been cut off from its Muslim traditions by French colonization and the Europeanization of its young men. Just as Rachid questions Si Mokhtar’s motives, we must question Rachid’s—nothing in his behavior to this point suggests that he is a practicing Muslim. We can only guess that his fascination with Si Mokhtar’s claim to be the key to understanding Nedjma’s past (as well as Rachid’s own) inspires the impetuous decision to visit Mecca and the equally impetuous decision to return to Algeria without having actually seen Mecca. Going to Mecca accomplishes nothing because Rachid does not know why he goes; he can never arrive. Claiming Islam as part of an Algerian identity requires an intellectual commitment to understanding the place of Islam in Algerian history and should be taken more seriously than changing from a French uniform to a sailor’s.

It may be that aborting the pilgrimage to Mecca is meant to dispute a solely Arabo-Islamic identity for Algerians, since the city is not only the religious center of Islam but also the homeland of the Arab people who invaded North Africa in the tenth century. Since his turn to an Arab or Islamic identity fails, Rachid veers toward the other axis of Algerian identity: the ferqa or group “descended from a partly mythical ancestor” (Gordon, p. 7). The Keblout, to which Rachid and Si Mokhtar intend to “return” Nedjma, are said to be descended from the Beni Hilal, the Arab people who participated in the conquest of Spain (Arnaud, p. 39). Even if we accept the Keblout account of their origins—nearly all Arab and Berber groups in North Africa claim descendance from the Prophet Mohammad or the Beni Hilal—their many centuries in Algeria imply a great deal of intermarriage with the non-Arab inhabitants. Kateb himself recognized that he was Berber and became sympathetic to the Berber movement that later appeared but did not yet exist in the 1940s. Although not explicitly described as Berber, the mysterious Keblout suggest the complexity and ambiguity of the origins of Algerians.

Forcing a specific ethnic identity on Nedjma, whose mother was a French Jew and whose father’s identity, let alone origin, is a mystery, is as unsuccessful as the aborted pilgrimage to Mecca. The voyage itself reveals little about the Keblout. Where a typical French colonial novel or travel account about Algeria would provide numerous details about exotic or “primitive” peoples, Kateb Yacine has nearly nothing to say about the Keblout, except they are inaccessible and intend to take Nedjma from Rachid and Si Mokhtar. The conflict is resolved only by yet another man’s kidnapping of Nedjma. Since he is a black African of near-complete anonymity, he seems to be little more than a figure in Rachid’s feverish nightmare, although he may represent yet another facet of Algerian identity as part of Africa.

Sources and literary context

Kateb Yacine was part of the first generation of Algerians writing in French, including Mouloud Feraoun, Mouloud Mammeri, and Mohammed Dib. Unlike these other writers, who wrote realistic novels in the style of Honoré de Balzac, Emile Zola, and other nineteenth-century French writers, Kateb wrote in an unconventional form. Events are not related in chronological order, nor are they related from a single perspective, whether that of an omniscient narrator or a single character. Kateb was an enthusiastic reader of William Faulkner, especially The Sound and the Fury, whose influence is obvious, if limited.

No Francophone Algerian writer following Kateb Yacine has been free of his influence. Even the novelist Rachid Boudjedra, one of Kateb’s harshest critics, has felt compelled to respond to Nedjma. His second novel, L’Insolation (The Sunstroke), is in part a parody of the mythology of Kateb’s novel, including a rather corrupt and aggressive version of Nedjma herself. The mysterious female character and forays into fantasy of Mohammed Dib’s Qui se souvient de la mer? (Who Remembers the Ocean?) owe a great deal to Nedjma as well.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

Collapse of French rule

Kateb Yacine completed Nedjma shortly after the Algerian Revolution began in 1954. Indeed, as Kateb himself pointed out, it was probably the outbreak of fighting that made the publication of Nedjma a viable enterprise, since prior to this the French had little interest in reading about contemporary Algeria, except perhaps as a land of “beautiful sheep” (Aresu in Kateb, p. xxxi). Oddly enough for a book written as France was about to plunge into its bloodiest and costliest colonial war, and despite the violence both threatened and realized in the novel, there is little sense in Nedjma that


Although at independence Algeria was declared to be an Arab nation, Algeria is actually a multiethnic and multicultural country. French invaders in 1830 found not only Arab, but Moors (Spanish Muslim refugees from fifteenth-century Spain), Turks (as part of the ruling military regime), Koulouglis (a mixture of Turk and Arab), Berbers, and Jews (Prochaska, p. 49). Today the Turks. Moors, and Koulouglis have disappeared as recognizably different groups. Although most Berbers, whether in Algeria or in exile in France or elsewhere, now identify themselves as such, there was no sense of Berber ethnic identity in North Africa until the French colonialists decided to divide the local population into three groups: Arabs, Berbers, and Jews. in 1870 the Jews were declared to be French and nearly all immigrated to France by the end of the Algerian Revolution.

Most historians believe that there is little ethnic difference between Arabs and Berbers in contemporary Algeria, since the number of Arabs who participated in the eighth-century invasions of North Africa was quite small. Nearly all Algerians are then ethnically Berber. Nonetheless, centuries of arabization and islamization have divided Algerians into those who speak an Arabic language and those who speak one of several Berber languages. Despite the essential ethnic homogeneity of Algerians, this century has seen the rise of Berber (or “Amazight,” as one group, the Kabyles, prefer to call themselves) studies, the institution of Berber literature, and the production of Berber films and recorded music, all as distinct from Arab culture.

In the nineteenth century the French saw the Berbers as lapsed Christians who may have been related to the French, either as leftover Romans, distant cousins to the Basques, or the descendants of seafaring Celts. Because they were perceived as natural allies of the colonizing French, Berbers were much more likely to benefit from French education and missions. As a result, disproportionate numbers of Algerian immigrants to France, leaders of the Algerian Revolution, and Francophone literary figures, including Kateb Yacine, have been Berber.

In Nedjma, Kateb explores the contradictions behind attempts to forge an Algerian identity. Every attempt to determine the origins of Nedjma and, by extension, Algeria, fails. Rachid’s pilgrimage to Mecca “becomes a burlesque epic, and a failed one at that,” revealing the limits of a merely Islamic or Arab identity (Bonn, African Writers, p. 393). The trip to Nadhor fails as well, revealing the limits of a more narrowly ethnic identity. Although Kateb himself was of Berber origin, he never specifies in Nedjma that the Keblout are Berber, although the very remoteness of their origins would imply that they are. Nedjma remains a cry for tolerance of multiple and shifting identities, for the necessity of tolerating the taking of different paths.

Algeria was about to be engulfed in a war that would eventually result in her independence. Nonetheless, although the Revolution has not yet come to pass at any point in the novel’s constantly shifting chronology, Nedjma always seems to be about this unspoken event. The Algerian Revolution is the epic upheaval that will correct the apparent aimlessness portrayed in Kateb’s novel. None of the characters nor Algeria itself can move forward; they can only languish in prison or go round and round in narrative circles, until the violence depicted in the novel is redirected toward liberation.

That the Algerian Revolution began on November 1, 1954, is evident only in retrospect. Although the Algerian nationalist group, the FLN (Front de Libération Nationale, or National Liberation Front) coordinated 70 attacks of varying degrees of effectiveness across the three départements of Algeria, French authorities did not at first recognize the threat it posed. Nor did the entire Muslim Algerian population suddenly rise in support of the FLN. Unlike in neighboring Morocco and Tunisia, where a cohesive and activist middle class led the nationalist movements, Muslim Algerians splintered into groups of wildly different sympathies. Many in the Algerian middle class had benefited enormously from French colonization, had sent their children to French schools (or even to France), and had little sympathy for the socialist and communist factions within the nationalist movement. Others, such as the writer Mouloud Feraoun, who would be assassinated by the OAS (Organisation armée secrète, or Secret Army Organization—a radical group of pieds noirs) in 1962, condemned the violence of both the nationalist guerrillas and the tactics (including torture) employed by the French army. Kateb Yacine was squarely on the side of an independent Algeria, although he did not fight in the war.

It should be noted that the French military successfully defeated every military campaign and strategy of the FLN. Each stage of the war brought increasingly repressive measures against the Muslim Algerian population, so that every French military success resulted in increased Muslim Algerian support for the FLN. The Algerian Revolution owes its success to weariness in France with the high costs of the war, international criticism of the French position, the deepening gulf between the European and Muslim communities in Algeria, and the realization that the needs of the French colonial community and France were in fundamental conflict. The tensions that would bring about the collapse of French rule in Algeria are evident in Kateb’s depiction of pied noir and Muslim Algerian interaction in Nedjma.


Although Nedjma was quickly recognized as a masterpiece by French critics in the mid-1950s, its place as the founding work of modern Algerian literature has not gone uncontested. After the successful close of the Algerian Revolution in 1962, the new government instituted a policy of “Arabization” to replace French with classical Arabic in education and administration. Although this policy has never been entirely successful, at least in the manner intended, it has made novelists writing in French increasingly ideologically suspect. Kateb turned to writing plays performed in colloquial Arabic in the 1970s and ’80s, and Nedjma was published in Arabic in 1984 (in Tunisia), but some Arab nationalists and Arabophone writers have refused to accept Kateb as “an authentically Algerian writer” (Déjeux, p. 8). Some have even gone so far as to call him “impious” (Stone, p. 153).

Despite such criticism, Kateb Yacine remains a towering figure in the history of Algerian literature. Charles Bonn praises Nedjma for being “above all a colossal dismantling of the model inherited from the nineteenth-century French novel” (Bonn, Research in African Literatures, p. 65). Kateb Yacine recognized that the traditional forms of French literature could not embody the historical moment of Algeria on the verge of revolution. In creating a new form of novel that seems to owe little to either French literature or traditional North African literary forms, Kateb Yacine wrote the founding text of Algerian literature. Nedjma continues to this day to be the touchstone of all Algerian writers in French.

—Richard Serrano

For More Information

Alleg, Henri. “De I’Algérie des origines … l’insurrection.” In La Guerre d’Algérie. Ed. Henri Alleg. Paris: Temps Actuels, 1981.

Amrane, Djamila. Les Femmes algériennes dans la guerre. Paris: Plon, 1991.

Arnaud, Jacqueline. La Littérature maghrébine de langue française. Paris: Publisud, 1986.

Bonn, Charles. “Kateb Yacine.” Research in African Literatures 23:2 (summer 1992), 61-70.

_____. “Kateb Yacine.” African Writers. Vol I. Ed. C. Brian Cox. New York: Scribners, 1997.

Déjeux, Jean. “Francophone Literature in the Maghreb: The Problem and the Possibility.” Research in African Literatures 23:2 (summer 1992), 5-19.

Droz, Bernard. Histoire de la guerre déAlgérie. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1982.

Gordon, David. Women of Algeria: An Essay on Change. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1968.

Kateb, Yacine. Nedjma. Trans. Richard Howard. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1991.

Prochaska, David. Making Algeria French: Colonialism in Bône, 1870-1920. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Ruedy, John. Modern Algeria: The Origins and Development of a Nation. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.

Stone, Martin. The Agony of Algeria. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.