Yasmina Khadra – wonderful Algerian author

Yasmina Khadra is the most famous Algerian author. He has a long list of books translated in 22 languages. In a very rich French language, he offers to his readers original insights about love, life, identity, colonialism, terrorism and fate. In my blog here, I present 2 books; especially Khalil was a book I could not lay down until finished. All the themes Yasmina Khadra offers are actual in the Netherlands as well as in Algeria and France. But the Netherlands have no authors who could or dared to touch these matters with the depth of experience and empathy of Yasmina Khadra. I highly recommend this author!

Note that the name Yasmina Khadra is the pseudonym of Mohammed Moulessehoul, who worked in the Algerian army for 36 years. The pseudonym served him to avoid military censorship. Nevertheless he can talk about terrorism and colonialism as an expert who lived there where it happened. That makes his books so much more interesting than average.

Khalil (2018)

Khalil is an intriguing, exciting and oppressive book about a terrorist of Paris 2015. The book starts immediately in the action, with Belgian-Moroccan Khalil on his way to a suicide mission to blow himself up in a full metro close to Stade de France. The book is written in ‘I’ so that the reader feels an immediate connection with Khalil’s ideas and feelings. His mission in the Paris 2015 terrorist attacks is unsuccessful as his bomb belt does not explode. From there starts a crazy journey, out of Paris, out of France where everything is on the alert, back to Belgium and finally Molenbeek where Khalil lives.

In Molenbeek, all security forces are active at the highest level too. Khalil first has to survive, then finally connects again with his terrorist group to plan new attacks. Meanwhile his family and his best friend are step by step finding out that he got involved in terrorist activities. Apart from Khalil’s central story, many social issues pass in review, like the terrible treatment of Khalil’s sister in Morocco by a marabout and then an imam when her mother thinks someone gave the bad eye to her daughter.

There’s also a lot to enjoy for language lovers, like these sentences:

  • Son souffle résonnait contre mes tempes comme le chuintement d’une canalisation fissurée. (His breath echoed against my temples like the hiss of a cracked pipe. p. 73)
  • Je connaissais suffisamment Driss pour l’enterrer sans sépulture. (I knew Driss well enough to bury him unburied. p. 90)
  • Aucune étoile dans le ciel n’égalait le sourire de Zahra. Lorsqu’elle étirait les lèvres sur les côtés, des fossettes ornaient les pétales qui lui tenaient lieu de joues, et elle devenait tout un jardin à elle seule. (No star in the sky matched Zahra’s smile. When she stretched her lips to the sides, dimples adorned the petals that served as her cheeks, and sje became a garden unto herself. p.96)

Khalil was translated in English, not in Dutch. I did not tell the whole exciting story here, for the suspense to stay when you start reading this book yourself. Here Yasmina Khadra in a video about this book.

Ce que le jour doit à la nuit (What the day owes the night 2008)

One of the best books about life in colonial, contested colonial and post-colonial times. Younes, presented as the I-person, comes from a very poor rural background. His parents lived misery in a region where violence, hardness and oppression formed the norm. Eventually Younes is educated by his uncle, a pharmacist in a city who gives him a very good and also medical education. His uncle’s wife is French and calls him Jonas. The contacts with his family that keeps living in poor and miserable conditions, are difficult, even painful.

In colonial Algerian cities, different groups coexist: French, Arabs, Jews. At school though, the ‘enfants étranges’ (foreign children) can form blocs that exclude Younes and other ‘Arabs’. But Younes ends up having different friends who all fall in love with the same woman, Emilie and it brings many complicated stories. While they live their daily life and problems, the colonial war starts to break out. As a pharmacist, Younes is forced to help the terrorists (or freedom fighters). During all of the book it stays unclear on what side Younes sees himself – he does not really choose or adhere to a side, it seems. He is just surviving in changing and confusing times where others put him in a group:
> Tu es des nôtres mais tu mènes leur vie (you are ours but you live their life p.200)

I like to round off this blog with a valuable advice from the book! Often Younes is unhappy. He once heard a story of a mad man in the street, telling: ‘Le malheur est un cul-de-sac.Il mène droite dans le mur. Si tu veux t’en sortir, rebrousse chemin à reculons. De cette facon, tu croiras que c’est lui qui s’éloigne pendant que tu lui fais face.'(Misfortune is a dead end. He leads straight into the wall. If you want to get out of it, turn back backwards. That way, you’ll believe it’s him walking away while you are facing him’ p. 300-301).

Ce que le jour doit à la nuit was translated in English and Dutch (What the day owes the night / Wat de dag verschuldigd is aan de nacht). Here Yasmina Khadra in a video about this book

More French-Arab authors? You may also like Boualem Sansal, 3 of his books in my blog Why are people like this?