Djaout, Taher (1954–1993)
Algerian novelist, poet, and journalist Taher Djaout was one of the most notable literary activists to emerge in postrevolutionary Algeria. His work was highly critical of both the post-revolutionary government and the increasingly powerful Islamist movements. In 1993 Djaout was assassinated by Islamist militants, two years after he was awarded the Prix Méditerranée for his novel Les Vigilies (The Watchmen).
Djaout was born on 11 January 1954 in the heavily Berber and secular city of Azeffoun, in Algeria's Kabyle province. It was in Azeffoun that he completed his primary and secondary schooling. Djaout attended the University of Algiers, where he studied mathematics and science in addition to journalism, graduating in 1974. By the age of twenty-two he had had a number of poems and stories published in Algeria, Tunisia, Belgium, and France. It was also at the age of twenty-two that Djaout began a career as a journalist, writing for the weekly Algérie-Actualité. Djaout would write with a most prolific pen over the next seventeen years, becoming one of the Maghreb's most articulate intellectuals representing Berber and Algerian Francophone identity.
Like many great works to emerge from political and sociocultural urgencies, the writings of Taher Djaout present a stark portrayal of the tensions in the postcolonial Maghreb. His writings convey a sense of immediacy as they denounce the loss of rational thought and rise of extremism. In this sense, the greatest influence on the writings of Djaout was the political situation in which Algeria was embroiled in his short lifetime. The fact that Djaout wrote exclusively in French led critics to question his Algerian identity. Despite the criticism, Djaout attacked these issues directly, incorporating themes of ethnic identity and historical memory into all of his works.
On 26 May 1993 Djaout was shot in the head by members of either the Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA; Armed Islamic Group) or the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS; Islamic Salvation Front)—reports are conflicting—outside his residence in Bainem. He slipped into a coma and died days later on 2 June in Algiers. His assassins fled the scene in Djaout's own automobile. Two of the three alleged murderers were killed by police; the third was apprehended and is credited with stating: "He wrote too well; he wrote with an intelligent pen; he was able to touch men; he was a danger to Islamist ideology." Besides being viewed as an enemy intellectual, Djaout was criticized for writing in French and not Arabic. For Islamists and Arabists, French-speaking intellectuals had no credibility within postcolonial Algeria, devaluing their lives to the point where assassination was deemed justified. Djaout was thus a manifold danger to Islamism and the Algerian government, for not only was he critical of these militant groups, undermining their authority, but his writings in French were reminders of Algeria's colonial past, serving as a barrier to Arabization and Islamic purity.
Djaout's assassination was part of a larger slaughter of intellectuals critical of the myriad Islamist organizations that operated within Algeria in the 1990s. More complex than a civil war, the struggles within Algeria seemed to be those of a nation consuming itself, destroying its inner core. Others lost in this string of murders included sociologist Mohammed Boukhobza, who was brutally killed in front of his daughter; journalist Rabah Zenati, who was murdered in front of his parents' home; and the editor of the Algérie-Actualitié, Abdelhammid Benmenni, who was killed in front of his family by fundamentalists disguised as police.
INFLUENCES AND CONTRIBUTIONS
In a more peaceful, heterogeneous Algeria, Djaout would have been recognized as a great young writer, akin to his fellow Berber Mouloud Mammeri. Writings by both would serve the resistance to the desire of the Algerian government to marginalize ethnic minorities. Djaout's novel L'Invention de desert (The invention of the desert, 1987) is his clearest expression of Berber sentiment, as he retraces the history of the Maghreb to demonstrate the importance of the Berbers to the region that would become Algeria. Like Mammeri, Djaout expressed a desire to maintain Berber identity amid growing cultural and religious homogeneity.
As a writer Djaout was a dexterous, expressive author who achieved fame first as a poet, then as a journalist, and finally as a novelist. His poetry is most stark in its expressions of postcolonial conflict, noting the tensions between Algeria's heterogeneous cultural landscapes. As a cultural outsider and intellectual, the Berber Djaout provided a keen journalistic eye during a tumultuous period in Algeria's history. His journalistic voice was one of a number of dissenters struggling against what they perceived as an abandonment of the ideals of the Algerian Revolution. His poetry was much more personal, expressing a desire to find and maintain his identity amid the struggles of postcolonial Algeria.
Although he was a prodigious poet and journalist, two works serve as exemplars of his recurrent themes of identity, reason, and the preservation of individualism. Djaout's 1984 novel Les Chercheurs d'os (The bone seekers) centers on a variety of characters searching for the remains of family members killed in the revolution against France. It is a meditation on history and memory, as the bones symbolize Algeria's past. More than anything, the book is critical of those—including the government—who have corrupted the memory of the 1954 revolution. The search for the bones of the dead not only represents a desire by Algerians to lay claim to their shared revolutionary past but is also a means to increase their status by demonstrating a tangible connection to a gloried era. The work makes clear Djaout's desire for a more objective, rational view of history, combating the monolithic official version of the past promoted by those in power.
Name: Taher Djaout
Birth: 1954, Azeffoun, Algeria
Death: 1993, Algiers
Education: Bachelor's degree, University of Algiers, 1974
- 1975: Publishes volume of poems, Solstice Barbelé
- 1976: Begins writing for weekly Algérie-Actualité
- 1981: Poems, most notably "Africanité Ma Peau" (Africanness my skin), included in anthology of young Algerian poets
- 1983: Publishes volume of short stories, Les Rets de l'oiseleur
- 1984: Publishes novel, Les Chercheurs d'os
- 1986–1987: Receives grant to study from the University of Oran; memoirs of this period published in 2004 as Fragments d'itinéraire jounalistique
- 1987: Publishes novel, L'Invention du désert
- 1991: Awarded Prix Méditerranée for novel, Les Vigiles
By the late 1980s the Algerian government had become increasingly authoritarian in its efforts to control the nation amid worsening economic problems. Many young, educated, and unemployed Algerians embraced Islamism as a response to both authoritarianism and the memory of French colonialism. Disturbances occurred throughout Algeria in 1988 due largely to worsening economic conditions, and compelled the government to legalize opposition parties. In 1990, in a major rebuke to the government, run by the National Liberation Front (FLN) since 1962, the Islamic Salvation Front (Front Islamique du Salut, FIS) swept local elections. In an attempt to prevent the FIS from winning control of the national government, the FLN redrew parliamentary districts for the national elections scheduled for 1991. The FIS won the first round of those elections anyway; a military coup then forced the cancellation of the elections, in addition to outlawing the FIS. This instability emboldened such groups as the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), which targeted intellectuals and foreigners in its desire to overthrow the "secular" Algerian government. The civil war that engulfed Algeria in the 1990s is estimated to have claimed as many as 200,000 lives.
Djaout's final novel was published posthumously from an unfinished manuscript found among his papers. Titled Le Dernier Été de la raison (1999; The Last Summer of Reason, 2001) this work contains what is perhaps his most direct and unveiled attack on Islamic fundamentalism. Indeed, much of the language is so vague that one could easily extrapolate his criticism into a critique of any form of extremist thought. The book is comprised of events narrated by a bookstore owner named Boualem Yekker, who, among other events, dreams of killing his extremist son and engages in Socratic-like dialogues with Islamists in an effort to destroy what he views as a limited, illogical, and dangerous worldview. As bones of dead revolutionaries serve as symbols of a tangible past in Les Chercheurs, books serve the same purpose in Le Dernier Été. Boualem questions whether it would be best to burn his books so that extremists could not steal them, thus corrupting logic and reason. Like Djaout's, Boualem's voice was dangerous, and a martyr's death ensured that the memory of what he stood for would persist.
THE WORLD'S PERSPECTIVE
Djaout attained a high level of prestige and respect among French-speaking Algerian and Berber intellectuals during his lifetime. His writings were not well-known beyond North Africa and the Francophone world until his assassination was reported in the international media. It was only after his death that two of his novels—Le Dernier Été de la raison and Les Chercheurs d'os—were translated into languages other than French. Following Djaout's death, a number of articles were dedicated to his memory, and a documentary on his life, featuring an introduction by Salman Rushdie, was broadcast in 1993 by the BBC.
The year 1998 saw the publication of an anthology of essays dedicated to the memory of Djaout titled Littérature et Tolérance (Literature and tolerance). This anthology demonstrates two important aspects of Djaout's legacy—his struggles against intolerance and his martyrdom. Some viewed his death as an unfortunate yet important sacrifice to the cause of preserving cultural heterogeneity and such democratic ideals as freedom of expression and religion.
It is nearly impossible to fully comprehend the complexities of his works without some knowledge of the events that surrounded Djaout's existence. The irony of the situation in Algeria was that the intellectual became the voice of the dominated—that is, for those struggling against homogeneity. Whatever Algeria's future, the fact that works by such people as Djaout have been published ensures that the dissenting voice will never be silenced. Moreover, Djaout's assassination, along with those of other North African intellectuals, resulted in an increased awareness of the dire situation in Algeria by people in other parts of the world. Within his lifetime, Djaout's representations of events in Algeria, in his journalism and his fiction, challenged the idea of a homogeneous politics and society being promoted by extremists.
Abdel-Jaouad, Heidi. "Sacrilegious Discourse." Middle East Report 163 (1990): 34-36.
Addi, Lahourai. "Algeria and the Dual Image of the Intellectual." In Intellectuals in Politics: From the Dreyfus Affair to the Rushdie Affair, edited by Jeremy Jennings and Anthony Kemp-Welch. London and New York: Routledge, 1997.
Arab, Si Abderrahmane. "The National Liberation War in the French Language Novel of Algeria." Bulletin (British Society for Middle Eastern Studies) 17, no. 1 (1990): 33-46.
Geesey, Patricia. "Exhumation and History: Tahar Djaout's Les Cherceheurs d'Os." French Review 70, no. 2 (1996): 271-279.
Sykys, Julia. Silence Is Death: The Life and Work of Tahar Djaout. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007.
WORKS BY DJAOUT
Solstice Barbelé (Barbed solstice, 1975).
L'Arche à vau l'eau (The ark on the current, 1978).
Insulaire et Cie (Islander & Co., 1980).
L'Exproprié (The expropriated, 1981).
Les Rets de l'oiseleur (The bird-catcher's traps, 1983).
Les Chercheurs d'os (The bone seekers, 1984).
L'Invention du desert (The invention of the desert, 1987).
Les Vigiles (1991; The Watchers, 2002).
Le Dernier Été de la raison (1999; The Last Summer of Reason, 2001).
Fragments d'itinéraire jounalistique: Actualitié de l'émigration, Mai 1986–Mars 1987 (Fragments of a journalistic itinerary: news of the emigration, May 1986–March 1987, 2004).