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A'raj, Wasini al- (1954–) - PERSONAL HISTORY, BIOGRAPHICAL HIGHLIGHTS, PERSONAL CHRONOLOGY:, INFLUENCES AND CONTRIBUTIONS, Early Novels; First Period, CONTEMPORARIES

arabic algerian a’raj french

Novelist and university professor Wasini al-A’raj is one of the most prolific of the second generation of post-independence Algerian writers. He is a prominent cultural activist and public intellectual in both France and Algeria. He is among the few Algerian writers writing in Arabic who have achieved fame both in the Mashriq (the Arab East; West Asia) and in the Maghrib (the Arab West; North Africa).

PERSONAL HISTORY

Al-A’raj was born in 1954 in Sidi Bou Jnan, in the eastern province of Tlemcen, Algeria. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Arabic literature from the University of Algiers and received a government grant to study at the University of Damascus, where he received his M.A. and Ph.D. In Damascus he also met his wife, the renowned poet Zeinab al-A’waj; they have two children. Al-A’raj began publishing while still a graduate student at Damascus. Upon his return to Algeria, he taught at the University of Algiers until 1994, when death threats issued during the violent civil war in Algeria forced him to leave the country with his family. After a brief period in Tunisia, where his efforts to secure a teaching job were unsuccessful, he went to France. There he was appointed at the Université Paris III-New Sorbonne to teach modern Arabic literature. He continues to commute between the two shores of the Mediterranean, teaching, writing, and participating in public cultural activities. For a few years in the nineties, he produced a literary program on Algerian television called Katib wa Kitab (A Writer and a Book). He is a regular contributor to the literary section of the French Algerian newspaper al-Watan , in the section “Les Gens du livre” (People of the Book).

BIOGRAPHICAL HIGHLIGHTS

Name: Wasini al-A’raj (Waciny Laredj; Laaraj)

Birth: 1954, Sidi Bou Jnan, Algeria

Family: Wife, Zeinab al-A’waj; two children

Nationality: Algerian

Education: B.A., University of Algiers; M.A., Ph.D, University of Damascus

PERSONAL CHRONOLOGY:

  • 1980: Publishes first book, al-Bawwaba al-Zarqa’ (The Blue Gate)
  • 1981: Publishes first novel, Waqa’i min Awja’ Rajulin Ghamara Sawb al-Bahr (Facts from the sufferings of a man who ventured toward the sea)
  • 1993: Publishes Faji’at al-Layla al-Sabi’a ba’d al-Alf, Raml al-Maya (The Disaster of the Seventh Night after the One Thousand Night, Raml al-Maya) bridging tradition with the present
  • 2001: Receives Algeria’s highest award for the novel
  • 2004: Publishes most recent book, Kitab al-Amir, masalik abwab al-hadid (The Prince’s Book: The Paths of the Wooden Gates)
  • 2005: Work discussed at colloquium organized by the Algerian Centre de Recherche en Anthropologie Sociale et Culturelle (Center for Research in Social and Cultural Anthropology, CRASC) in Oran
  • 2007: Participates in international forum to honor Naguib Mahfouz at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris

These activities have not hindered Al-A’raj’s creative writing, as he continues to publish novels and short stories. Two of his novels, La Gardienne des ombres. Don Quichotte à Alger (Protector of the Shadows: Don Quixote in Algiers, 1996; Harisat al-Dhilal, Don Quishotte fi’l-Jaza’ir , 1999), translated by Zeinab al-A’waj and Marie Virolle, and Les Miroirs de l’aveugle (The Mirrors of the Blind Man; Maraya al-Darir , 1998), were published in French before publication of the Arabic versions. Al-A’raj received Algeria’s highest award for the novel in 2001.

INFLUENCES AND CONTRIBUTIONS

The weak distribution of Arabic-language publishers and poor publicity are partly to blame for the sense of isolation that many writers, especially in the Maghrib, experience, despite the high quality of their work. This situation is often cited as the reason behind the still-significant number of French-language works published in these countries. These books benefit from the financial subsidies and publicity services of French cultural centers that are eager to guarantee the survival of the French language in former French colonies.

For almost two decades after independence in 1962, Arabic-language Algerian novels were authored almost solely by Abd al-Hamid Ibn Haduqa (1925–1996) and AL-TAHER WATTAR (1936–). Al-A’raj, many of whose novels were published outside Algeria and benefited from wide circulation and publicity, is credited with changes in the stylistics of narrative forms, freeing the language of some archaic expressions that lingered in Haduqa’s novels and those of other pioneering writers whose education was limited by the traditional teaching of the Qur’anic schools. (French colonial authorities forbid education in Arabic, and restricted education in French.) Al-A’raj’s Arabic style is modern and has benefited from his in-depth exposure to Mashriqi Arabic during his student years in Syria. Previously, al-A’raj, like other members of his generation, came into contact with the Mashriq through the Arab teachers from that region who taught in Algerian schools and universities after independence in 1962, under the Arabization policy that Algeria had adopted. All those factors played a significant role in providing al-A’raj with a solid education in Arabic language and literature, and helped him put Algerian fiction on the path of innovation in form and content. Absent from his work were the long, heavy sentences and didactic tone of earlier Algerian Arabic fiction. Instead al-A’raj presented the reader with complex characters and metaphors that he left to the reader to uncover and interpret. His first novel, Waqa’i min Awja’ Rajulin Ghamara Sawb al-Bahr (Facts from the sufferings of a man who ventured toward the sea), first published in 1981 in Damascus, reflects this tendency. Other works followed, revealing a continued effort to innovate while tackling issues of interest to the Algerian reader, and using both Algerian oral heritage and classical Arabic texts to convey modern themes.

Al-A’raj quickly moved away from the trend in post-independence literature, in both Arabic and French, in which the liberation struggle and the war years provided the main themes. He adopted a more subjective approach, using his personal experiences as themes, and not feeling compelled, like the writers of the previous generation, to keep alive the flame of the revolution. It is possible to divide his literary production into three major thematic phases or periods. In all of them, he continued to experiment with new techniques, exploited the Arabic literary and folk heritage, and maintained a critical outlook on Algerian politics.

Early Novels; First Period

Al-A’raj’s early novels revolve around the struggle for survival against harsh natural conditions in rural societies. Despite their general concern with poverty and their reference to the failures of the political establishment in Algeria, the novels of this period enact a process of purgation of emotions dating back to the author’s childhood during the years of the war of independence and the death of his father during the national struggle. The works of this period are al-Bawwaba al-Zarqa’ (The Blue Gate, 1980), Ma tabaqqa min Sirat Lakhdar Hamrush (What Remains from the Biography of Lakhdar Hamrush, 1982), Nuwwar al-Lawz (Almond Blossoms, 1983), and Masra’ Ahlam Maryam al-Wadi’a (The Death of Tender Maryam’s Dreams, 1984).

CONTEMPORARIES

Wasini’s wife, Zeinab al-A’waj (Laouadj; Zineb Laouedj), is a renowned poet and translator. The couple contributed to an anthology on African literature in French. Al-A’waj is the author of the following works:

Ya anta! Man minna yakrah al-shams (Tell Me, Who among Us Dislikes the Sun?, 1979)

Arfud an yudajjan al-atfal (I Do Not Accept that the Children Become Domesticated, 1983)

Mémoire blessée (Wounded Memory, 1997)

Mots-dire La Barbarie, temoignages vivants contre l’integrisme religieux (editor; Speaking of Barbarity: Living Witnesses against Religious Fundamentalism, 1999)

Les Chants de la dernière colombe (Songs of the Last Dove [selected poetry], 2006)

Allusions to the failed policies of the Algerian political establishment are obvious in Nuwwar al-Lawz , in which the writer uses a quotation from al-Maqrizi’s Ighathat al-Umma bi Kashf al-Ghumma (Helping the community by examining the causes of its distress) to convey his message. It reads, “Whoever observes this incident from beginning to end and from top to bottom, knows that people’s conditions are the result of the leaders’ and administrators’ actions and their disregard for the well-being of the people.” Al-A’raj takes his novel a step further by confirming the connection between al-Maqrizi’s conclusion and the conditions in his own country, stating “that the events of the novel are fictitious … and any similarity with … any country in this world is not the result of coincidence.” Al-A’raj recommends that readers consult “Taghribat Bani Hilal” (an epic in Arabic, recounting the conquest of Tunisia by Banu Hilal) before reading Nuwwar al-Lawz , for a better understanding of the novel.

The second period is characterized by the use of the Arabic literary heritage, both folk and classical. Here, al-A’raj relies heavily on symbolism derived from famous Arabic texts such as Alf Layla wa Layla (Arabian Nights [The Book of A Thousand Nights and a Night]). His novel Damir al-Gha’ib (1990) marks a turning point in his technique, as he relies heavily on Algeria’s history. His next two books, Faji"at al-Layla al-Sabi’a ba’d al-Alf, Raml al-Maya (The Disaster of the Seventh Night after the One Thousand Night, Raml al-Maya, 1993) and al-Makhtuta al-Sharqiyya (The Eastern Manuscript, 2002) clearly demonstrate his use of the interaction between old and new to address his country’s growing problems. Like many major Arab writers before him, al-A’raj found in the Arabian Nights a source for the lost Arabic tradition of narration and tried to revive it in his own writing.

National Tragedy

A plunge into the inferno of Algeria’s national tragedy during the 1990s, and its impact on private and public life as well as the fate of the country, mark the work of al-A’raj’s third period. The first novel of this period, Sayyidat al-maqam. Marthiyyat al-yawm al-hazina (Mistress of the Shrine: Elegies for a Sad Day, 1995), offers a critical look at the political establishment, a reference to the assassination of the country’s writers and intellectuals, the failed cultural policy of the regime, and the activities of Islamist groups. The figure of Scheherazade can be perceived in the person of the protagonist, Maryam.

Harisat al-Dhilal, Don Quishotte fi’l-Jaza’ir (Protector of the Shadows: Don Quixote in Algiers, 1999), which appeared first in French as La Gardienne des ombres. Don Quichotte à Alger (1996), expressed horror at the bloodshed that was tearing the country apart. Despite the tragic conditions the novel provides a feeble glimmer of hope for a better tomorrow. Meanwhile, as the tragedy continued and the country catapulted toward the abyss, the author endured a painful exile, described in Dhakirat al-Ma’ (The Memory of Water, 1997).

In 1998 al-A’raj published Maraya al-Darir (Mirrors of the Blind Man), followed by Shurufat Bahr al-Shamal (Balconies of the North Sea, 2001), in which the optimism for the future suggested in Harisat al-Dhilal proves slow to materialize. We encounter a despondent man, eager to forget his country’s tragedies as he travels to a conference in Northern Europe. He refuses to read the press, in order to forget the tragic events he left behind. Neat, orderly Amsterdam provides a painful reminder of the chaos in his own country. The protagonist’s psyche is further conditioned by his underground life in Algeria, where he is forced to hide for his safety; the narrative reveals the destructive effect of this situation on him and others living like him. The book is an in-depth look at the negative psychological repercussions of the Algerian tragedy.

It is still too early to speak of a fourth period ushered in by Tawq al-Yasamin, rasa’il fi’l-shawq wa al-hanin (The Jasmine Necklace, 2004). This novel reveals a writer on a healing path, finding solace in the love of a woman and his love of his country, intermingled with the spiritual Sufism of Ibn Arabi. The book raises the issue of mixed marriages, as religion separates the lovers, the Christian Sylvia and the Muslim Id ‘Ashshab. The author does not fail to refer to one of Arabic literature’s major essays on love, quoting from Ibn Hazm’s Tawq al-Hamama (The Dove’s Necklace).

Al-A’raj’s Kitab al-Amir, masalik abwab al-hadid (The Prince’s Book: The Paths of the Wooden Gates, 2004) marks a return to Algeria’s history, in an effort to restore the true image of one of the major figures of early Algerian resistance, Emir Abd al-Qadir al-Jaza’iri. Generally however, al-A’raj has adopted a rather skeptical and critical attitude toward official versions of Arab history. He tends to destroy the halo of sanctity that surrounds them. He explains his approach to the use of history in both Kitab al-Amir and al-Makhtuta al-Sharqiyya in these words:

History as a futuristic outlook, governed by a defeated past and a troubled present despite the efforts exerted, conveys a rather pessimistic view of the future. It is important that the Arabic novel questions the future in dealing with the history of the region. The mere process of posing the question would push us to confront ourselves more forcefully to avoid becoming the red Indians of the next century ( al-Sha’b al-Thaqafi , February 2006, p. 7).

Al-A’raj’s novels abound in the use of colloquial Algerian terms, mainly in the dialogue. Some of his novels of the third period contain French sentences which he translates to Arabic in footnotes. Nothing seems to explain or justify the incursion of this foreign language in the Arabic text. When Francophone Mahgribi writers studded their texts with Arabic terms and symbols, they were sending a clear message to their readers indicating how they differed from French writers. Theirs was a celebration of their Arab-Islamic heritage.

THE WORLD’S PERSPECTIVE

Al-A’raj has made his mark both on academia and Arab literary circles. He occupies an undeniable place among major Arab writers. Literary critics recognize his contribution to the development of the Algerian novel in particular. His novels have also been the subjects of a significant number of university theses and dissertations in Algeria and Tunisia. In 2005, the Algerian Centre de Recherche en Anthropologie Sociale et Culturelle (Center for Research in Social and Cultural Anthropology, CRASC) in Oran, recognizing his literary status, organized a one-day colloquium at which his work was discussed and analyzed by prominent university professors.

LEGACY

Al-A’raj’s numerous cultural activities and his academic career on two continents give him a degree of visibility that few of his contemporaries have achieved. His fluency in French has helped him spread his wings beyond the Arabophone countries. There is no doubt that this visibility and his immense contributions to cultural life in his country and Europe are making al-A’raj a role model for upcoming Algerian writers in Arabic. His successes show clearly that in the end it is the quality of the work that counts and not the language of expression.

The growing interest in al-A’raj’s writings is visible in his participation in international forums, the latest in January 2007 at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, in honor of NAGUIB MAHFOUZ . The publication of translations of a significant number of his books is a reflection of his importance and the interest of Western readers.

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