Kamel Daoud’s novel "Zabor"

Algeria and a patriarch's dying throes

"Zabor", the new novel by Algerian star author Kamel Daoud, tells the story of the outsider Ismael, who discovers poetry as a means of survival. Stefan Weidner sees parallels in the novel with the situation in Algeria following the ousting of Bouteflika

His first novel, and his critical words about Islam following the shocking events of New Year’s Eve 2015/16 in Cologne, turned the Algerian author and journalist Kamel Daoud (born 1970) into an international star intellectual almost overnight.

But he had made a name for himself long before his first novel was published in 2013, with leading articles in the Quotidien d’Oran, the daily newspaper for the coastal city in western Algeria. Fans of Albert Camus will be familiar with Oran as the setting for his novel The Plague. The Algerian-born Camus and his most famous work, The Outsider, also became Daoud’s point of reference for his successful debut The Meursault Investigation.

In it, Daoud tells the story of the Arab whom the outsider, Meursault, murders by mistake. Meursault is put on trial twice, but he is convicted not for the murder of the Arab (a mere trifle from the perspective of the colonial rulers) but for his inability to form attachments and his lack of love for his mother. Really, he is condemned for being an outsider in his own society.

Daoud’s novelistic riposte plays with the post-colonial change in perspective and tells the same story from an Algerian standpoint. The point here is that the Algerian narrator is also an outsider in his society, an alcoholic who hates his mother and who also becomes a murderer by mistake. Algerians and Frenchmen can wage war and despise each other all they like; as individuals, they can be kindred spirits on a higher level, in existentialism, if they resist the pressure to conform exerted by their respective societies.

Cover of Kamel Daoudʹs "Zabor ou les psaumes" (published in French by Actes Sud)
A parable of contemporary Algerian society: Kamel Daoud has penned a powerful novel about home and family, the power of religion and an all-consuming passion for the written word, which can be anything – instrument of oppression, means of liberation...

Writing against death

Ismael, the narrator of Daoud’s second novel Zabor, is another outsider, ostracised within his own village. His mother died giving birth to him and his father has a new family, so he lives with his unmarried aunt Hadjer.

His father, a rich cattle-trader and amateur slaughterer, is one of the village patriarchs, whose name – and how could it be otherwise – is Ibrahim, the Arabic version of Abraham. In the Bible and in the Islamic tradition, too, Abraham also casts out his servant Hagar (Hadjer, in Arabic) and their son Ismael.

This reference to stories from the Bible and the Koran is surprising for an author known for his criticism of religion. But even in The Meursault Investigation, the narrator is called Haroun (Aaron) and his brother, the Arab murdered by Meursault, is named Moussa (Moses).

If Daoud is a critic of religion, then he is a critic more deeply entangled in religion than most of its opponents are. But this entanglement – and how to escape it – is central to the plot of Zabor.

Zabor is a kind of autobiography, except that it is elevated to a symbolic level and devoted to the intimate fantasy world of the writer. Even so, here, too, there is the famous autobiographical pact, the moment in the book where hero and author meet: "Zabor", the novel’s title, is the Arabic word for "psalm" and, as we know, King David is the author of the biblical psalms. In Arabic, David is Daoud, like the author. In this book, poetry and imagination are more important than the story. Readers who embrace this fact will be richly rewarded.   

Ibrahim, the father, is on his death bed, and Ismael has become obsessed with the idea that his writing can prolong life. Ink is blood and as long as it flows onto the page, blood will keep flowing, too – the whole of existence, in fact.

According to traditional Muslim beliefs, on the other hand, everything has been predetermined since ancient times and the book of fate was written long ago: "the reed pens have been lifted and the pages are already dry," an old Muslim legal scholar says.

With his writing, Ismael wants to turn this process round again. And if he has to compete with Allah, well, tant pis! The first word spoken to the Prophet Muhammad was "read!" – but Ismael asks: "Why wasn’t the angel’s first word 'write'?"

Liberation through the language of the colonial power

Admittedly, the language upon which survival depends is not the venerable Arabic that Ismael learns in the madrassa. It may be laden with magical ideas and have a fascination of its own, as Daoud communicates convincingly in numerous poetic descriptions, but the boy cannot manage to revivify this old language and make it serve his needs. Then he spots a beautiful woman on the cover of a French crime novel and feels compelled to read the book even though he has never learned French properly.

And in fact, this is the great difference between Kamel Daoud and most of the other Maghrebi authors writing in French: he didn’t grow up with it and had to learn French as a foreign language. For him, therefore, using the former colonial language does not come with the sadness of not having access to Arabic as a literary language, as it does for other writers such as Assia Djebar. Paradoxically, French is a symbol of liberation.

Police secure a recent demonstration in Algiers (photo: Getty Images/AFP)
For weeks Algerians have been taking to the streets to protest against the incumbent regime. Long-term president Abdelaziz Bouteflika has already resigned. Nevertheless, the people are still demanding democratic reforms

But how do you teach yourself a language without any resources or teachers, in a remote, backward Algerian village? With the power of erotic fantasy!  "It was enough to keep reading and make progress in understanding the words, in order to touch the body more intimately and to perceive not only the image of the body, but also its emotion!"

Ismael imagines himself as a Robinson Crusoe of language, cobbling together meanings from the flotsam and jetsam of words washed up on his desert island. The result is something that only looks like conventional French from the outside. Inwardly, it is filled with a spirit that comes straight from the magical understanding of language seen in the Arabic of the Koran: "There is a link between the conjunction and metaphysics. […] Writing and telling stories is the only way of going back in time, to encounter it, resurrect it or control it."

Once the transfer of this linguistic magic has taken place, French actually performs better than Arabic, or so the narrator discovers. His father still dies at the end just the same, but the patriarchy also dies with him. If a society trapped in tradition no longer has the language to describe what torments them and makes them unfree, then for Ismael, alias Kamel Daoud, French has become the means of expressing it. And that is magic enough!

In spring 2019, now that protests by the Algerian people have forced their elderly patriarch president Bouteflika to step down, you might think that all Algerians have had similar experiences to Kamel Daoud. And of course, he has been called upon to get involved in politics during this transitional phase. But he has said himself that he has decided against it for the time being. And why? If liberation begins with language, then Kamel Daoud has just laid the key to liberation itself in the hands of all his readers.

Stefan Weidner

© Qantara.de 2019

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin

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