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Wattar, al-Taher (1936–)

Wattar, al-Taher
(1936–)

Al-Taher Wattar (also Taher Ouettar, at-Tahar Wattar, al-Tahir Wattar) is a writer and journalist from Algeria. He is one of the most important and highly acclaimed figures in Algerian literature. Wattar writes in Arabic, unlike many Algerian writers who write in French. His first two novels, published in 1974, were among the first novels published in Arabic after Algeria achieved independence from France in 1962. He has written seven more novels as well as plays and short stories. His literary work and his efforts in support of cultural expression have made him a key figure of the politically charged cultural scene in postindependence Algeria.

PERSONAL HISTORY

Wattar was born in 1936 in eastern Algeria, in a village between Annaba and Tebessa called Sedrata. He attended a traditional Arabic primary school and learned the Qur'an. From 1952 to 1954 he studied Islamic jurisprudence at the Ben Badis Institute in Constantine. In 1954 Algeria's National Liberation Front (known by its French acronym FLN) launched a war of independence against French rule. Wattar spent the war years in Tunisia, first attending the Islamic Zaytouna University. He read widely in classical and modern Arabic literature. He also read French and other world literature and began undertaking literary translations. At the same time he was drawn to socialism and the notion of commitment in literature. In 1955 Wattar published his first short stories in newspapers, including "Nuwwa" which he later adapted to a film. He left his studies in 1956 to work for the Civil Organization of the FLN and continued to establish himself as a writer and journalist.

BIOGRAPHICAL HIGHLIGHTS

Name: al-Taher Wattar (Taher Ouettar, at-Tahar Wattar, al-Tahir Wattar)

Birth: 1936, Sedrata, Algeria

Nationality: Algerian

Education: Ben Badis Institute, Algeria; read Arabic, French, and world literatures at Zaytouna University, Tunisia, but took no degree

PERSONAL CHRONOLOGY:

  • 1955: Begins writing short stories in Tunis
  • 1962: Returns to Algeria and becomes party controller for FLN; works in cultural journalism
  • 1974–present: Publishes a series of novels, beginning with al-Laz (The ace) and al-Zilzal (The Earthquake)
  • 1989: Founds al-Jahiziyya cultural association
  • 1989–1992: Works as director of state radio company
  • 2004: Awarded Sharjah Prize by UNESCO for the promotion of Arab culture

In 1962 he returned to Algeria to take up the post of party controller for the ruling party, the FLN, a role he retained until 1984. As a single party, the FLN brought together a broad range of political perspectives, although power remained firmly in the hands of the army. Wattar stood to the far left of the party, and his writing has expressed a socialist perspective far closer to that of the former communist party. In the early 1960s he founded two cultural weekly newspapers, and in 1973 he founded a further cultural weekly, as a part of the al-Sha'b (The people) daily newspaper. He published his first novel, al-Laz (The ace), in Algiers in 1974. Since then he has written a further eight novels, the most recent of which, al-Wali al—Tahir yarfa'u yadahu bi-du'a (Saint Tahar raises his hands in prayer), was published in 2005. In 1989, he founded a cultural association, al-Jahiziyya, and edited its journal al-Tabyin (The exposition). He worked as director of state radio between 1989 and 1992.

One aim of al-Jahiziyya was to bring together writers working in Arabic and those writing in French, but political events worked against this. In 1992, the first elections after the end of single-party rule gave a clear lead to the main Islamist opposition party, the Islamic Salvation Front (Front Islamique de salut, FIS). When the military canceled the elections, Algerian opinion was divided. Wattar, along with the former Algerian communist party, opposed the cancellation of elections and the military clampdown against the FIS. As Algeria moved toward open conflict and civil war, Wattar's ambivalent response to the assassination of some French-language writers by the FIS made him a controversial and much-despised figure for many, and undermined his standing. He remained in Algeria during the conflict and continued to write, publishing three novels. In 2004 he was awarded the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization's (UNESCO) Sharjah Prize in recognition of his contribution to the promotion of Arab culture.

INFLUENCES AND CONTRIBUTIONS

Wattar's early literary work is openly political in its subject matter, themes, and motivation. His later novels move toward greater use of symbolism and allegory, but they remain relevant to key issues confronting Algerian society, including the nature of authority, the role of history and identity, and the place of religion. His work has been influenced above all by Algeria's struggle for independence from French colonial rule, and by the socialist understanding of literary engagement, that is, the understanding that literary writing should play an active role in the struggle of the poor and downtrodden for dignity and justice.

France occupied Algeria in 1830, instituting a period of colonial rule longer and more profound in its impact than that experienced by any other Arab country. During this period French replaced Arabic as the primary written language in education and the affairs of state as part of a wider process of replacing Algerian cultural practices with norms and values supporting the French presence. Opposition to French rule emerged within different sections of Algerian society and was expressed in different ways. Those who had a French education but were denied further advancement or political influence expressed their opposition in French. Those who were educated in Arabic rejected both the French presence and the growing dominance of the class of Algerians educated in French. Faith in Islam was a factor uniting almost all Algerians, and Arabic remained important as the language of Islam and as a source of identity. The movement of national independence demanded the restoration of Arabic teaching, and during the war of independence Arabic was claimed as the national language of the new state. This was seen as a necessary aspect of independence, and the use of French was associated with foreign domination. The extension of Arabic teaching faced both practical and political difficulties, and language has remained a major source of division within the society.

CONTEMPORARIES

Abdelhamid Benhedouga (1925–1996). Abdelhamid Benhedouga (also Abd al-Hamid Bin Haduqa) was born in Eastern Algeria in 1925. He received his primary education in French but learned Arabic from his father. He studied radio production in Marseille before attending Zaytouna University in Tunis to study literature and drama. In 1954 he returned to Algeria as a teacher but left for France after being sought by the police. He later returned to Tunis and worked with the FLN as a writer of short stories and cultural articles. He worked in radio and television broadcasting after his return to Algeria in 1962.

Benhedouga published novels over a period of twenty years from 1972—Rih al-janub (The wind from the south)—to 1992. Rih al-janub was the first major Arabic novel published in Algeria. Set during the agrarian reform, it depicted the efforts of a young woman to assert her freedom from her father's control. It was highly acclaimed and adapted as a film. Benhedouga's work was primarily within a realist vein and was marked by his socialist commitment. His work was milder than Wattar's in its critique of the Algerian state and the religious classes, aiming to win over rather than condemn opposing views. Benhedouga, Wattar, and rachid boudjedra remained the primary figures in Algerian Arabic literature until the emergence of a new generation of writers in the 1990s. He died in October 1996.

The issue of language has been reflected in Algerian literature in different ways. Literary writing emerged first in French. By the 1950s the novel was well established and a number of French-language writers gained international prominence during the nationalist struggle. Arabic literary writing emerged later in Algeria than in neighboring Arab countries and initially focused on poetry rather than prose. Arabic novels were published only after independence, the first being Abdelhamid Benhedouga's Rih al-janub (The wind from the south) in 1972. Arabic writing was held back by a lack of a readership and faced constraints because of the political role attached to the language by the postindependence state. Within Algeria's cultural revolution, Arabic was charged with promoting an Arab-Islamic cultural identity. A state-owned company controlled publishing, and authors were expected to celebrate the heroic war of independence and the ongoing development effort. Although much Arabic literary writing responded to this command, the work of the most prominent authors has gone beyond such constraints to express a more critical and diverse vision.

Wattar's family was fiercely opposed to French rule and his education in Arabic was a rejection of French influence. He reached adulthood at the point when the nationalist struggle became a bitter war of independence. In Tunis he was exposed to international perspectives of the war. For many on the left and in the developing world, the combat in Algeria symbolized the struggle of the Third World for justice against the dominant nations of Europe and the United States. Wattar became committed to a socialist perspective that viewed the war as the first step in an ongoing revolution to bring education, welfare, and economic justice to all Algerians, and to ensure genuine independence through industrialization.

At the same time Wattar was influenced by socialism in literature and the socialist understanding of a committed literature where writers should seek not only to describe society but also to change it for the benefit of the masses. In addition to his knowledge of the Qur'an and of classical Arabic literature, Wattar was influenced by modern Arabic literature and world literature. He was greatly influenced by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda whose poetic vision was fused with socialist activism and sacrifice. Other literary influences included Ernest Hemingway and François Mauriac.

Wattar's novels treat political themes, including the struggle against French rule, divisions within the nationalist movement, the agrarian revolution (which aimed to redistribute land to the peasants who worked on it), and the injustices of the postindependence state, including corruption, feudalism, poverty, authoritarian rule, and the treatment of women within the society. His first novel, al-Laz (The ace), dramatizes events of the war of independence and portrays the sacrifices made in the fight against French rule. However, it rejects the ruling party's demand that literature should celebrate the nationalist struggle. Instead it records the hidden conflicts within the wartime FLN, and through its symbolism it sounds a critical note with regard to postindependence rule. The novel's central relationship is between al-Laz—the child of an unmarried mother who has grown into an unruly troublemaker—and Zaydan, the communist fighter who leads the FLN unit near the village. When al-Laz is betrayed and arrested the villagers feel little pity. They view him as a criminal who drinks, takes drugs, and procures prostitutes for the French soldiers in the barracks. However, his actions are a cover for his work helping Algerian soldiers desert from the French army. Al-Laz joins the revolutionary cause when his revolt against the stigma of his birth leads him to approach Zaydan with a plan to kill the French captain. Zaydan guides al-Laz to a more constructive path, and reveals to him that he is his father.

The discovery of his father and the revolutionary cause change al-Laz's behavior from futile and destructive violence to constructive work for the revolution. Al-Laz symbolizes all the dispossessed and the revolution which is their cause, whereas Zaydan represents the revolution's guiding conscience. Following his arrest, al-Laz escapes from the barracks and joins Zaydan's unit. Zaydan hopes to teach his son just as he undertakes the political education of others. But Zaydan is under investigation by the FLN leadership for his membership of the Algerian communist party, accused of blocking the formation of a united front. Zaydan and five European communists fighting for Algerian independence are executed as traitors. The sight of his father's execution makes al-Laz go mad so that he can only repeat the phrase that was a codeword among his comrades: nothing remains in the riverbed except its stones.

The novel's exploration of the past opposes the state's official history of the war of independence. It refuses the state's simplified account of national unity, and refrains from a stereotypical portrayal of good Algerians confronting bad Frenchmen. Its plot offers an alternative understanding, as it depicts the betrayal of the revolution's socialist purpose during the war. As the first major Arabic novel to focus on the war of independence, al-Laz occupies an important place within Algerian literature. The hopes and tragedies of its diverse characters offer an insight into the nature of the Algerian revolution, and its portrayal of communist fighters within the nationalist forces challenges the view that communism is a foreign import, opposed to the nation and Islam. This is one element of the novel's exploration of identity, which recurs as a theme throughout Wattar's work, as does his concern with the way the record of history is shaped or distorted by those in power.

Wattar's second novel, al-Zilzal (The Earthquake), views the agrarian revolution from the perspective of a landholder seeking to safeguard his wealth. Shaykh Bu al-Arwa is an antihero; his view of urban chaos and social upheaval is largely a product of his own prejudice. But his fevered stream of consciousness is ambiguous. The sights he decries—overcrowding, begging, theft, prostitution, black-market trade, and widespread poverty—undermine the much-vaunted progress represented by factories, clinics, and schools. Fleeting voices describe repression or abuses by employers, one voice asks why socialists are imprisoned in a socialist state, another asks why trade unionists need to go underground: overall they associate power with a position in the army or bureaucracy. Bu al-Arwa's Qur'anic injunctions work against him, undermining the association between Arabic and religion. The novel's celebration of agrarian reform and industrialization is modified by its critique of corruption, poverty, and injustice. Its portrayal of class and regional differences counters the state discourse of unity, and Bu al-Arwa's status as a religious teacher exposes the contradiction between the radicalism of the agrarian reform and the conservatism of cultural and language policy. The novel's realism is complemented by its ironic humor.

Wattar's third novel, Urs baghl (A mule's wedding), moves away from realism to explore history and identity. Set in a Tunis brothel before the war of independence, it depicts the rivalries between pimps and prostitutes. The novel's meanings are conveyed through allegory and through the drug-induced hallucinations of its main character. Its plot is a suggestive allegory for the way the national leadership employs the same exploitative practices as the former colonial masters, and is drawn into a new relationship with imperialism. Its historical references focus on elements of an Islamic past associated with discontinuity, contestation, and revolutionary movements. These references emphasize that the meaning of Islam has been contested throughout history, and undermine the religious establishment's claim to represent the only true Islam. They show movements of social egalitarianism as part of an Islamic past. The novel aligns itself, and the Arabic language, with socialist policies rejected by the religious and educational establishments. This concern with the past shows how history becomes a battleground of conflicting interpretations as the nation searches for identity and authentic models. Wattar's writing does not challenge the view that the nation should develop according to its own history and heritage, but rather works within this premise to dispute official versions of history.

Although Wattar's writing has remained concerned with themes relevant to his socialist commitment, it has moved away from realism toward allegory, fantasy, and the use of ambiguity and humor. The development of Wattar's work parallels that seen in literary writing in other Arab countries. In terms of its literary qualities, Wattar's language is concise and crafted; he coins new words and uses a language that reflects his Algerian situation and that is clear to readers in other Arab countries. Unlike his contemporary Benhedouga, Wattar assumes a high level of literary awareness in his readers, as well as a knowledge of Arab and Algerian history. The themes of identity and understandings of history have been constant elements of his work along with the portrayal of the divisions within Algerian society. His works have been adapted for film and the theater, and he has used his prominence to criticize the shortcomings of cultural policy in newspaper interviews where he appeared for a long time as an iconic figure with his trademark black beret and moustache. He has also contributed to Algerian culture through his efforts to establish cultural journals offering an outlet for the work of younger writers and through the cultural association he founded.

EMOTIONAL CHARGE

All my subjects are political. I write from an emotional charge. I am a writer of class and the positions of my class have been shaken and struck.

INTERVIEW, "LE ROMAN SELON OUETTAR," EL MOUDJAHID NEWSPAPER, 30 JANUARY 1985.

Algerian literature is at all times committed to the service of the national cause which supported and expressed the revolution, the struggle against colonialism and imperialism. It has made its own the preoccupations of the masses, supported the agrarian revolution, the socialist management of enterprises, free medicine, the democratization of education and it has combated exploitation. We have all been brought up according to this method and a mode of thinking animated by the same preoccupations.

INTERVIEW, "NOUS FAISONS DE LA LITERATURE," EL DJEICH, APRIL 1985.

THE WORLD'S PERSPECTIVE

Wattar's work is known primarily in Algeria, although he is one of the best-known Algerian authors in many other Arab countries along with rachid boudjedra and ahlam mustaghanmi. Book distribution networks between Algeria and the rest of the Arab world are weak, and few Algerian writers, apart from those writing in French and publishing their work in France, are known in other Arab countries. Wattar's work has from the beginning been published and reissued in other Arab countries, with editions in Cyprus, Beirut, Cairo, Jordan, Israel, Tunis, and, more recently, Germany. Most of his novels have also been translated into a range of European and Asian languages, although only one of his novels, al-Zilzal (The Earthquake), has been translated into English. Wattar is better known in French-speaking countries than in the English-speaking world. This is because his works have appeared in French soon after their original publication, and because there is greater interest in North Africa in France than there is in English-speaking countries. Wattar's work was well received in countries that came within the former Soviet Union as well as in developing nations where Algeria's anticolonial struggle was much admired, lending his works a particular resonance.

LEGACY

Algeria's postindependence state was authoritarian in nature: It suppressed political expression and excluded views other than its own. In this context literary writing has been one of few means for the expression of an alternative vision. Writers using French have evaded state control by publishing their work in France, but this frequently allowed the state to present their work as reflecting a French-influenced perspective at odds with the needs and interests of the new nation. Similarly, works in French have reached a limited readership in Algeria, and have often enjoyed a higher status outside the country than within it. Because Wattar's work is written in the national language and published in Algeria it avoided this charge and reached an audience in Algeria itself. His work is also of key significance because it challenges the association between the Arabic language and Islam, promoted by both the state and the religious establishment. Wattar's works stand as a record of the unresolved tensions within Algerian society. He has been a major player on the Algerian cultural scene through literature, journalism, his role in state radio, and his voluntary efforts to establish cultural groupings and to promote cultural expression and dialogue. The fact that he remains a hate-figure for some Algerians is a reflection of the divisions over language and culture that underlie the importance of his work.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Al-Taher Wattar's personal Web site. Available from http://www.wattar.cv.dz.

Cox, Debbie. Politics, Language and Gender in the Algerian Arabic Novel. New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 2001.

Malley, Robert. The Call from Algeria: Third Worldism, Revolution and the Turn to Islam. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

Salhi, Zahia Smail. Politics, Poetics and the Algerian Novel. New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 1999.

Wattar, al-Taher. The Earthquake. Translated by William Granara. London: al-Saqi, 2000.

                                                  Debbie Cox

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