Boudjedra, Rachid (1941–)

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Boudjedra, Rachid

Rachid Boudjedra, an Algerian novelist and essayist, is one of the most important contemporary North African writers, in both French and Arabic. His work is characterized by the use of language, imagery, and technique that draw from European and Arab-Muslim cultural traditions. Boudjedra has been an active opponent of political Islam, denouncing it as "fascist" and totalitarian, and a firm supporter of the Algerian state and army.


Boudjedra was born into a middle-class family on 5 September 1941 in Aïn Beïda, near Constantine, Algeria. He began his studies in Constantine, then moved to Tunis to pursue his studies at the Lycée Sadikia. From 1959 onward, Boudjedra became active in the Algerian movement of independence against the French. He joined the maquis (Algerian resistance fighters) and became a representative of the FLN (Front de Libération Nationale or National Liberation Front) abroad, traveling throughout Eastern Europe and Spain. Following independence in 1962, he returned to Algeria, where he resumed his studies and became a trade unionist. He studied in Algiers and Paris, where he obtained a degree in philosophy at the Sorbonne in 1965 with a thesis on the French writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline. He married a French woman and returned to Bida to become a teacher. Following the seizure of power by Houari Boumédienne in 1965, Boudjedra left Algeria. He lived in France from 1969 until 1972, then in Rabat, Morocco, where he taught until 1975. Upon his return to Algeria, he became an adviser to the Algerian Information and Culture Ministry while teaching at Algiers University. He went on to contribute to the journal Révolution africaine and became a founding member of the Ligue Algérienne pour la Défense des Droits de l'Homme (Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights). In 1981 he was appointed to lecture at the SNED (Société Nationale d'Édition et de Diffusion), a government-run publishing company that promoted local literary production, countered French editorial hegemony and established a monopoly on imports and distribution.

During the Algerian civil war of the 1990s, Boudjedra was a vocal opponent of the Algerian FIS (Front Islamique du Salut, or Islamic Salvation Front) and became one of the most prominent Algerian intellectuals to publicly denounce political Islam, which he—along with other authors like Rachid Mimouni—saw as an obstacle to social, cultural, and technological progress. Boudjedra welcomed the 1992 intervention of the military in the Algerian political process as a kind of salvation for the Algerian nation. In 1994 he published a book, Le FIS de la haine (The son of hatred), in which he portrayed the FIS as a fascist, totalitarian movement comparable to the German Nazis, whose participation in the democratic process was nothing but a ploy to seize power and which lacked a real commitment to democratic ideals. He has described the behavior of Islamists as "pathological" and has blamed the West, specifically France, for seeking revenge on postcolonial Algeria through the imposition of neocolonial policies that have in turn generated resentment amongst formerly colonized peoples.

Boudjedra responded negatively to the criticism raised by French intellectuals such as Pierre Bourdieu and Pierre Vidal-Naquet, who denounced in a public statement the excesses of the Algerian army against the civil population during the war against Islamist factions. He has equally criticized the role of the French press—which he accuses of being fascinated by the rise of "green fascism"—and accused it of "manipulating" the Algerian conflict. Boudjedra has rejected the accusations of genocide made against the Algerian army and has been outspoken in his opposition to any kind of political agreement with Islamist parties and organizations. He has also been critical of Hocine Aït Ahmed, a former FLN member and founder of the secular Berber party FFS (Front du Forces Socialistes or Socialist Forces Front) and the main figure behind the so-called Rome platform, an opposition initiative against the Algerian government that included Islamist parties and factions.


Name: Rachid Boudjedra

Birth: 1941, Aïn Beïda, Algeria

Nationality: Algerian

Education: Lycée Sadikia, Tunis; degree in philosophy, Sorbonne, Paris, 1965


  • 1959: Joins Algerian maquis in war against the French
  • 1960–1962: Represents FLN in Europe
  • 1969: Publishes first novel, La Répudiation
  • 1975: Advises Algerian Information and Culture Ministry; founds Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights
  • 1981: Begins writing in Arabic
  • 1990–present: Vocally opposes political Islam in Algeria


On 17 October 1961, close to the end of the Algerian War of Independence (1956–1962), the French police swiftly and violently attacked a peaceful demonstration of Algerian immigrants who had been drawn to the streets by the FLN (Algeria's National Liberation Front). Both living and dead victims were thrown into the River Seine, clubbed while emerging from the Métro, or shot or beaten to death in the courtyard of the Préfecture de Police. The massacre, estimated to have claimed two to three hundred lives, went practically unreported in French mainstream media and was officially unacknowledged for decades. Following the 1997 trial of the French war criminal Maurice Papon, the French minister of culture, Catherine Trautmann, announced the declassification of the official papers relating to the incident. In May 1998, the French government raised the official death count to a total of eight.


Boudjedra's first published work was a collection of poems, Pour ne plus rêver (1965; No more to dream), illustrated by the Algerian painter Mohamed Khadda. Boudjedra is best known for his writings as a novelist. His first novel, La Répudiation (1969; The repudiation) brought instant attention and became the subject of many polemics due to his radical questioning of social conventions and traditions through a myriad of extremely complex characters set against a nightmarish background. A fatwa or religious legal opinion calling for his death was issued following publication. Other novels include L' Insolation (1972; Sunstroke), Topographie idéale pour une agression caractérisée (1975; Ideal topography for an aggravated assault), L' Escargot entêté (1977; The obstinate snail), Les 1001 années de la nostalgie (1979; 1001 years of nostalgia), and Le Vainqueur de coupe (1981; The prizewinner). In both La Répudiation and L'Insolation, Boudjedra's characters suffer from episodes of disorientation and dissociation similar to the ones in some of Kateb Yacine's novels. In Topographie and Le Vainqueur, Boudjedra seems to be influenced by the memory of the 1961 massacres of Algerians in Paris, during the War of Independence. At that time, between two and three hundred Algerian demonstrators were massacred by French police and thrown into the River Seine; this was followed by a police cover-up., The violent anti-Algerian episodes of the early 1970s provided a second influence. Topographie narrates the story of a character who is lost in the Paris Métro because he cannot read the maps; the association between place and memory and disorientation and amnesia eventually lead to his bloody end. Topographie is a novel about disorientation and uprootedness as well as the impossibility of Algerian immigrants' finding their place in the French metropole.

In 1981 Boudjedra decided to write in Arabic, although his first Arabic novel al-Tafakkuk (The Falling Apart, 1982) appeared in French the same year, as Le Démantèlement. Other Arabic novels by Boudjedra that have been translated into French are al-Mart & La Macération ([Maceration], 1984), Laylat Imra'a Ariqa (1985; Journal d'une femme insomniaque [Journal of a sleepless woman], 1987), La Pluie (The Rain, 1987), La Prise de Gibraltar (The Taking of Gibraltar, 1987) and Fawda al-Ashya (1990; Le désordres des choses [The disorder of things], 1991). Eventually, Boudjedra returned to writing in French with his novels Timimoun (1994), La vie a l'endroit (1997), and Fascination (2000). His works also include a second collection of poems (Greffe, 1985) and a play (Mines de rien, 1995). He has also collaborated as a movie scriptwriter on Chronique des années de braise (Chronicle of years of ashes), which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 1975, and Ali aux pays des mirages (Ali in the land of mirages), which won the Tanit d'Or at the Carthage Festival in 1980. He is also the author of numerous essays, among which the most prominent are La Vie quotidienne en Algérie (1971; Everyday life in Algeria), Naissance du cinéma algérien (1971; Birth of the Algerian cinema), Journal palestinien (Palestinian journal, 1972), Lettres algériennes (Algerian letters, 1995), and Peindre l'Orient (1996; Portraying the East), along with Le FIS de la haine. Boudjedra's literary style is characterized by its complexity, reminiscent of authors like the Colombian Gabriel García Márquez.

The Problem of Language

Boudjedra began his writing career in French, although the author himself has translated many of his works into Arabic with the purpose of "modernizing" the Arabic novel. A speaker of both French and Arabic, his juggling with both languages bears witness to the difficulties that North African writers face in dealing with the question of "la Francophonie," or the use of French as a means of expression. North African writers must confront a legacy in which language has become a political tool for the different ideologies that have dominated the postcolonial era. As the "language of the oppressor," French has been seen as a symbol of domination, an obstacle in the path of national emancipation. Calls for the rejection of French have occasionally led to the implementation of aggressive linguistic policies that favored classical Arabic as a language of communication not only over French but also over Berber dialects and regional colloquial Arabic as well. In this context, the question of what language to write in has rarely been a neutral one. Concern over the continued involvement of France in the cultural politics of the former colonies have raised suspicions against North African writers who have chosen French as a means of expression. Critics of Francophone Maghrebi (Arab North African) writers have often argued that the use of French contributes to the perpetuation of the unequal relationship between former colonizer and the former colonized in the postcolonial era. Thus the question of language is not exclusively linguistic, but one that encompasses questions of culture, identity, territory, and power, while simultaneously raising the thorny question of what the role of the writer is in the postcolonial nation, as well as questions regarding the political involvements of individual writers. The use of French creates a gap between writer and audience, while simultaneously allowing Maghrebi literature to enter the world literary scene in ways that would be impossible for work written in Arabic. Thus, for Boudjedra and other North African writers, French is in itself a useful tool that can contribute to the spread of Maghrebi culture and serve to project the concerns of Algerians onto the international scene without fear of marginalization.

Boudjedra's trajectory clearly illustrates the problematic relationship Algerian writers, citizens of a former settler colony, have had with the French language. France's aggressive colonization policies in Algeria led to the establishment of educational programs that favored French over classical Arabic and Berber dialects. Many young writers of the early postindependence period were thus insufficiently acquainted with classical Arabic, while writing in Berber dialects remained an unpalatable choice. Boudjedra himself has characterized the situation of postindependence Algeria, with its Arabization programs by Francophone native elites, as one of "social dyslexia." Boudjedra, whose works reflect a singular manifestation of postcolonial cultural syncretism and miscegenation, wrote his first six novels in French; when he eventually turned to writing in Arabic in 1981, he contributed considerably to the revitalization of the Arabic-language novel. He did not, however, abandon French; each of the six novels he wrote in Arabic before 2000 was followed by a translation into French. His French novels have also been translated into Arabic with the collaboration of his Lebanese mentor and friend, Antoine Moussali.

The simultaneous use of Arabic and French reflects a division between two worlds in conflict, the European and the Arab-Muslim. Boudjedra's Arabic style reflects a highly innovative approach to classical grammatical structures through the creation of new words and the twisting of existing ones. Critics have pointed to the fact that translations of Boudjedra's works often differ significantly from their originals, offering different versions with variations in style and content (for instance, references to drinking, same-sex relations, and offensive language are often left out of Arabic versions of the French-language novels, while explicit references to colonialism and anticolonialist sentiments in some of his Arabic novels are omitted in the French versions). At the same time, his French novels contain explicit references to notable characters from Islamic history and classical Arabic literature, which some critics see as an attempt to reassert his Arab-Muslim cultural heritage. Boudjedra's work has also drawn the attention of critics who study intertextuality, that is, the allusive reference by a literary text to other texts as a way of appropriating and incorporating (and perhaps changing) their meanings. Critics have argued that the use of intertextuality allows Boudjedra to call into question all forms of authority, both literary and historical, as well as to create a personal universe which calls into question national mythologies.

Along with the works of other North African writers of his generation, such as Yacine, abdel kebir khatibi, and Driss Chraibi, Boudjedra's novels reflect the dilemma of the postcolonial search for identity. They explore the possibilities of cultures' coming together and trying to coexist in the context of a nation-building process that could potentially lead to the building of culturally and politically pluralistic and heterogeneous societies in the former colonies. Boudjedra's novels explore the reshaping of and conflicts between history and memory, at both individual and collective levels. He has also remained, throughout his career, an open advocate of womens rights. The denunciation of the excesses of patriarchy, particularly in novels like La Répudiation, has featured prominently in his novels.


Global perceptions of Boudjedra have remained largely positive regarding his literary influence, but the jury is still out as to his open defense of the actions of the Algerian army during the Algerian civil war of the 1990s. He is widely acclaimed as one of North Africa's most important writers, particularly in France, where he has developed much of his literary career. He has earned the respect of many through his commitment to exploring key issues of exile communities and his support for multiculturalism and women's issues. On the matter of politics, secular nationalists have praised Boudjedra for his firmness against radical Islamist organizations and his open denunciation of Islamist-perpetrated atrocities in the 1990s, but large sectors of Algerian society and the French left have criticized him for his support of the army's violence and suppression of democratic processes.


Rachid Boudjedra will certainly go down as one of the most prominent North African writers of the twentieth century, together with figures such as the Algerian Yacine and the Moroccan Chraibi.


He asked himself if he had not already lived through this striking situation, combing the topography of space with that of memory, even confusing the two and mixing them through a strange phenomenon which the voyeur loses no time in pompously calling "paramnesia," but which escapes the traveler who is half knocked out, wiped out, and panicked by the female smell impregnating his body, his clothes, his suitcase, and even the cave-like atmosphere in which he was still struggling, asking himself if he had not already lived through this.


The concepts of national and civil reconciliation have allowed terrorists today to regain their place in the political scene and of violence in the terrain of security.


Between the fire at the Reichstag in 1933 and the fire in the little apartment in Ouargla in 1989 [the house of a widowed woman suspected of receiving male guests was set on fire, costing the life of her baby and causing third degree burns to her face], there is more than an analogy. There is the whole world of barbarity and insanity.



Alemdjrodo, Kagni. Rachid Boudjedra, la passion de l'intertexte. Bordeaux, France: Presses Universitaires de Bordeaux, 2001.

Armitage, Anne. "The Debate over Literary Writing in a Foreign Language: An overview of Francophonie in the Maghreb." Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics 20 (2000): 39-67.

Graebner, Seth. "Remembering 17 October 1961 and the Novels of Rachid Boudjedra." Research in African Literatures 36, no. 4 (2005): 172-197.

Mokhtari, Rachid. "Rachid Boudjedra: 'Mon hommage à l'Armée."' Le Matin (Paris), 22 February 2001. Available from


Pour ne plus rêver (1965; No more to dream [poems]).

La Répudiation (1969; The repudiation).

La Vie quotidienne en Algérie (1971; Everyday life in Algeria).

Naissance du cinéma algérien (1971; Birth of the Algerian cinema).

Journal palestinien (1972; Palestinian journal).

L' Insolation (1972; Sunstroke).

Topographie idéale pour une agression caractérisée (1975; Ideal topography for an aggravated assault).

Chronique des années de braise (1975; Chronicle of years of ashes [screenplay]).

L' Escargot entêté (1977; The obstinate snail).

Les 1001 années de la nostalgie (1979; 1001 years of nostalgia).

Ali aux pays des mirages (1980; Ali in the land of mirages [screenplay]).

Le Vainqueur de coupe (1981, The prizewinner).

al-Tafakkuk (1982; Le Démantèlement [The falling apart], 1982).

al-Mart (1984; La Macération [Maceration]).

Greffe ([poems], 1985).

Laylat Imra'a Ariqa (1985; Journal d'une femme insomniaque [Journal of a sleepless woman], 1987).

La Pluie (1987; Rain).

La Prise de Gibraltar (1987, The taking of Gibraltar).

Fawda al-Ashya (1990; Le désordres des choses [The disorder of things], 1991).

Timimoun (1994).

Le FIS de la haine (1994; The son of hatred).

Mines de rien ([play], 1995).

Lettres algériennes (1995; Algerian letters).

Peindre ĺOrient (1996; Portraying the east).

La vie a ĺendroit (1997).

Fascination (2000).

                        Vanesa Casanova-Fernandez

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Boudjedra, Rachid (1941–)

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