A Life Dedicated to the Excluded
"The voice of Hamid Skif is one of those voices we would prefer not to hear because they are so insistent and touch us so deeply," wrote Der Spiegel once. Now this voice will remain forever silent. At five o'clock in the morning on Friday, 18 March 2011, the exiled Algerian writer and winner of the Heidelberg Literature in Exile Award died of lung cancer in his home in Hamburg, only three days before his 60th birthday.
Hamid Skif was born in the Algerian city of Oran on 21 March 1951. His real name was Mohamed Benmebkhout and he was the son of a trader from the southern Algerian town of Bou Saâda. His early experiences of war and violence heightened his awareness of injustice, which remained with him all his life: a grand-uncle, who had been the first French-speaking announcer on Radio Baghdad in the 1930s, became one of the very first Algerian revolutionaries; as a child, Hamid lost his right eye in the war.
Political activism and "dangerous stories"
At the age of 12, Hamid Skif decided to become a journalist and poet. At the age of 17, he gained theatre experience with the great Kateb Yacine. Three years later, his work was included in the Anthologie de la jeune poésie algérienne de graphie française (Anthology of Young Algerian French-language Poetry) published by Jean Sénac in 1971; he also worked as a journalist for Révolution Africaine and La République. He was arrested for the first time in 1973 for writing a critical report about the Algerian police. A year later, he was transferred to Algiers as a punishment for resisting the closure of his newspaper.
After a brief intermezzo at the National Film Promotion Office, the exertion of pressure by the Algerian Minister for Information and Culture led to him spending the next 15 years of his life working for the Algerian press agency Algérie Presse Service in Ouargla (1975), Oran (1978) and Tipaza (from 1984). He was presented with the National Screenplay Award for his screenplay "Une si tendre enfance" (Such a tender childhood). Nevertheless, Algerian state television considered it counter-revolutionary, and the press refused to publish his "dangerous" stories.
In the 1990s, as an era characterised by a certain degree of liberalisation dawned in Algeria, he tried his hand as a freelance journalist and set up the business magazine Perspectives. In 1992, he founded the Association des Journalistes Algériens (Association of Algerian Journalists). In 1993/94, when the first Algerian intellectuals (Tahar Djaout, Youcef Sebti) became the victims of terrorist attacks and he himself only narrowly escaped three assassination attempts, he decided to leave Algeria with his wife and children, a decision he found very hard to make.
In 1995/96, he held a scholarship from the Heinrich-Böll-Haus in Germany. In 1997 he moved to Hamburg with the support of the Pen club's "Writers in Exile" programme and the Hamburger Stiftung für Politisch Verfolgte (Hamburg Foundation for Victims of Political Persecution).
An advocate without robe
Skif, who himself felt the merciless sting of persecution, censorship and humiliation – "they held a revolver to my temple and forced me to kneel and read my poems out loud" – was tireless in his support for the persecuted in his poetry, his prose, his choice of themes and his grotesquely laconic style that owed much to Brecht.
La géographie du danger (the Geography of Danger), for example, a novel that won no less than two major awards in France, deals with the issue of the illegal boat people of the Mediterranean.
"I wanted to be an advocate. I became one without robes, without a courtroom. I always stand up for the excluded, for the marginalised, for all those for whom no-one wants to speak: for women, for children, for the people about whom no-one cares," said Hamid Skif in Heidelberg in 2005 on the day he was presented with the Hilde Domin Award for Literature in Exile for his epistolary novel Monsieur le président (Dear Mr President). In his thank-you address, he suggested that the City of Heidelberg should set up a Festival of Maghribi Literature.
He opened the very first session of the Maghrebtag (Magreb Day) which took place as part of the literature festival in 2007, with Albert Memmi and Christoph Leisten. He was also present with Habib Tengour and Leila Abouzeid at the second Magreb Day in 2009.
Now the festival has lost its patron and founder, but the idea lives on and will be developed; Hamid Skif had already drawn up plans for a partner festival in the Moroccan city of Essaouira. His generosity, his inventiveness, his altruistic readiness to help, his gentle humour, and his deep humanity will be missed by many, not just by his family.
"One must be able to go away and yet be like a tree," wrote Hilde Domin on one occasion. Like an echo, this sentiment is reflected in Skif's writings: "I may have left Algeria, but Algeria has never left me." He still had so many plans; there were so many things he still intended to do ... his dedication to a renaissance of the Algerian painter Abdelkader Guermaz being just one of them. Now his final journey will take him back to his native country. May he find there the peace that was not granted him during his lifetime.
© Qantara.de 2011
Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan
Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de