Interview with Yasmina Khadra

"The Arab World is not just a Postcard with Dunes and Caravans"

Yasmina Khadra is the pseudonym of Mohammed Moulessehoul, a former major in the Algerian Army, now full time novelist. In this interview with Richard Marcus, the exiled writer talks about his writing and the differences between Western and Arab culture

Yasmina Khadra (photo: courtesy of Mary Reagan)
Yasmina Khadra during a book signing at the PEN World Voices Festival in New York, April 2007 (photo: courtesy of Mary Reagan)

​​ Tell us a little about yourself, where you were born and other biographical details.

Yasmina Khadra: I was born, 52 years ago, in the Algerian Sahara. My tribe has occupied Kenadsa, the village where I was born, for eight centuries. She is known for her poetry and her wisdom. She has always welcomed, without regard to race or religion, all the travellers who knocked on her door: the writer and explorer Isabelle Eberhardt, the Minister Charles de Foucauld, as well as the missionaries who crossed the desert in the direction of Tombouctou and Africa. I was born in a tribe of poets and warriors. This is why I never felt out of place in the army as a novelist. It is my tribe which taught me how to me to share myself between the two.

Your father was a soldier, and you became a soldier. Where did the desire to write come from?

Khadra: My father had originally been a male nurse. Then, there was the war for the Independence of Algeria, and my father joined the National Liberation Army. After six years of war, he came home as an officer and chose to embrace a military career in the young Algerian army. In 1964, when I was nine years old, my father placed me in Cadets School, the military institution concerned with officer training. I thus spent eleven years at this military boarding school before moving on to the Academy to begin my career as an officer that lasted 25 years. But I was always writing. From the time I was eleven years old, I tired my hand at fables tales. My first published work, Houria, I wrote when I was seventeen years old. When I became an officer, I continued to write. I published six novels under my real name, Mohammed Moulessehoul before seeing any reaction from the hierarchy in 1988.

Seeing that I had begun being recognized in the media in Algeria the High command imposed a committee of censorship to supervise me. I refused to subject myself to them. This is how my first pseudonym came about, from that decision in 1989. It was Police Chief Llob's name that appeared on two small novels The Nutcase With The Lancet (1990) and The Fair (1993) In 1997, my Parisian editor wanted a name which sounded less like a profession for the publication of Morituri, so I chose my wife's first two names, Yasmina Khadra. Since then I have kept this pen name, which has now had work translated in twenty-seven countries.

Were there any writers who inspired you when you first started to write? Your Superintendent Llob books reminded me of books by George Simenon and Nicolas Freeling…

Khadra: I did not read Simenon, at the time. Our bookshops were disaster victims and our old books managed to do little more then make us dream. We lived in a country with a horror for writers and artists. However, I really liked the Black American literature: Chester Himes, Richard Wright, and James Baldwin.

Algiers as seen from the waterfront (photo: Damien Boilley)
The city as a central character: Alger la Blanche ("Algiers the White")

​​By creating the Superintendent Llob character, I wanted to have a typically Algerian character. Moreover, in my noir novels, Algiers herself is also a central character. I did not seek to imitate my preferred authors. I wrote in French, but with my Bedouin sensitivity, my Algerian glance, my anger and my Algerian hopes.

Anyway, we also have our own artists, as beautiful and rich as Western literature. I far prefer Taha Hussein from Egypt, Francois Mauriac, Abou El Kassam Ech-Chabbi from Tunisia, or, Naguib Mahfouz, Malek Haddad from Algeria, etc, to European flashes in the pan.

It's a pity that you do not have access to our culture. The Arab world is not just a postcard with dunes and caravans, nor is it only terrorist attacks. The Arab world is more generous and more inspired than yours. Do you know that El Moutannabi is Humanity's greatest poet since the dawn of time? It's a pity that you do not know anything of it. I was initially inspired by mine. But I have had the chance to get maximum benefit from a double culture, Western and Eastern, without ever losing sight of where I come from.

What made you decide to write about Superintendent Llob, a police officer?

Khadra: I created Superintendent Llob as a diversion for the Algerian reader. I have already told you, in Algeria, we did not have a large selection in our bookshops there, and the publications revolved around the political demagogy, nationalist chauvinism and the romantic mediocrity praising the Algerian Revolution in Stalinist speeches. I dreamed of writing station books, books funny and without claim that you could read while waiting for the train or the bus, or while gilding yourself with the sun at the seaside. I dreamed to reconcile the Algerian reader with his literature. I had never thought that Superintendent Llob was going to exceed the borders of the country and appeal to readers in Europe, and America.

Taha Hussain (photo: Wikipedia Commons)
On Yasmina Khadra's reading list: Taha Hussein, Egyptian man of letters

​​Do you have an intention in mind when you write? What do you want readers to take away with them when they finish one of your books?

Khadra: Each novelist, each artist, each inventor is motivated by something. Without some idea at the back of the mind, no one could advance. When I write, I have two motivations: firstly, to display to the reader a great moment in literature, secondly, to permit him to discover the universe. In my novels, one dreams and one instructs. I write to humanize a word which never ceases to be less poetical, more scared, and to question its future. I try to remind people of the necessity of being useful, intelligent and of living their lives fully while respecting the lives of others.

Where do you find inspiration for your books, and what inspires you to write?

Khadra: In a look, a sign, in all things which question me. I'm like a seismograph in search of sensitivity, of a state of soul, of a deeply human concern. I don't know how to look at objects without seeing them. Everything fascinates me, overwhelms me, astonishes me, interrogates me.

I think "In the Name of God" and "Wolf Dreams" are two of your most powerful books. Where did you find the inspiration for those two stories?

Khadra: In the mental misery that threatens to impoverish minds and dreams. In human stupidity and the ignorance of people.

Why do you write about terrorism?

Cover: In the Name of God
Revealing the human face behind religious zealotry: Yasmona Khadra's "In the Name of God", published in 2000

​​Khadra: For two reasons. Initially because it is a planetary danger, that I know of from the inside and that I can describe with clearness and intelligence. Also, because Westerners understand nothing, and never say anything important on the subject. My books consist of explanations to clarify the consciences and alleviate the spirits traumatized by the political handling of media misinformation.

That being said, I make a point of recalling that my novels are not testimony. They concern fiction and assert their literary values. I am sorry to see people throw themselves on the topic and to neglect the manner of treating this topic. I basically make literary work. I have a language, a style.

In your books it seems like your characters feel they have no choices. Do you believe that people have had that ability to choose taken away from them, and is that one of the reasons they turn to violence as an answer?

Khadra: Certainly the characters must be believable, and capable of convincing the reader as well as inspiring them with passion. I don't know how to create stories otherwise. I am demanding of myself in my work, and also require that my reader contributes watchfulness and diligence. One cannot read my works superficially without missing essentials.

Critics who approach me superficially may think they have grasped my message, style, language or the uniqueness of my work. However they are reacting to stereotypes and often interpret my work clumsily. It's exactly the same treatment the media gives violence: erroneous, speculative, unbelievably naive or malicious.

In my novels, I deal with subjects I know very well, that I understand. I attempt to show violence as not inherent to any particular nation, not as something genetic, but as the result of an untenable human condition. Any person, be they American, Japanese, Malaysian, Indian or Buddhist, could, given the required psychological and mental conditions, yield to the appeal of wrath and transform themselves into a ball of rage and death.

What has been the reaction to your books in Algeria and other Muslim countries?

Cover: Les hirondelles de Kaboul
At home in France - and in French! Yasmina Khadra's novels have not yet been published in Arabic

​​Khadra: The Algerian reader likes me a lot. They read me in French because I am not translated into Arabic. I am translated into Indonesian, Japanese, Malaysian, in the majority of the languages, except in Arabic. But that has nothing to do with the Arab peoples. It is the leaders who seek, as always, to dissociate the people from the elite so they can continue to reign and cultivate clanism and mediocrity.

Many of your books are now being studied by American University students. What do you hope they learn by reading your books?

Khadra: That they would approach my books like they would another people; that they would discover other cultures, other ways of thinking, and that they serve them like gateways. Americans are trapped in their country's continent and are convinced they know everything, that the world stops at their borders. That's false. The world begins at their borders.

I've noticed that recently more books from Muslim countries have been translated into English. I wonder if you have seen a difference in Western people's attitudes, or noticed any kind of improvement.

Khadra: That depends on the books one chooses to read. Sudden interest in Eastern culture permits opportunities for charlatans and falsifiers. Westerners prefer to read stupid stories regarding the stereotypical relationships of Arabs and Muslims with their spouses. Thus they end up reading isolated and farfetched fables and all of a sudden think they understand a people and its culture.

However, to gain access to a universe, one has to get rid of moral and intellectual baggage, if not have a minimum of discernment. I don't see this happening. You have no idea of the great Arabic writers. What sells are books written by illiterates and shameless opportunists, books full of hate, denial, misinformation and coarseness. Perhaps one day a real maturity will cause people to make a real effort to understand, instead of judging and condemning.

What are your plans for the future?

Khadra: I live from day to day. It is more prudent. I do not make plans; I prefer to take the things as they come.

Interview Richard Marcus

© 2008

Translated from the French by David Chalmers

Richard Marcus Bio: Richard Marcus has been writing on line for three years and has published over 1300 articles. He currently edits Epic India Magazine, an online arts and culture magazine focusing on South East Asia in general and India specifically, is a contributing editor at the pop culture site and the mind behind the iconoclastic site Leap In The Dark. His work has appeared in such diverse places as the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and The Bangladesh Star. He's currently self-published two collections of his articles.

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