Sadaqa – humanity as a central concept in Dib's literary cosmos

While Dib's four subsequent novels – Cours sur la rive sauvage (1964), La Danse du roi (1968), Dieu en Barbarie (1970) and Le Maître de chasse (1973) – continued to criticise the excesses of Algerian state socialism and began to develop new socio-political visions, he moved quite definitively into the category of exile literature in 1977 with the novel Habel. Set in the huge, overwhelming city of Paris, it posed the question of our responsibility for one another with greater currency than ever: "Am I my brother's keeper?"

Image from Algerian calligraphy artist Rachid Koraichi's artwork for "L'Enfant-Jazz" (source:
An Image from Algerian calligraphy artist Rachid Koraichi's artwork for Mohammed Dib's "L'Enfant-Jazz" (1998). Dib was awarded the prestigious Prix Mallarmé for this book

Echoes of religious themes and the great myths of humanity are leitmotifs in Dib's body of work, as are the topoi of (existential) forsakenness and the sense of (cultural) dislocation, man's eternal search for himself and for the other... whom he sees in himself, and in whom he also recognises himself.

Dib was the master of the thrillingly incisive image and sentence: "It is odd that the world is always full of foreigners," he wrote in his novel Les Terrasses d'Orsol ("The Terraces of Orsol", 1985), a bitterly angry north-south parable with Kafkaesque passages, in which the protagonist, an ambassador from the global South, finds himself thrown into the turmoil of a pit inhabited by misshapen creatures outside the gates of a futuristic metropolis: a metaphor for those who live on the edges of society, migrants, asylum seekers, for the mighty chasm between rich and poor, north and south, with which Dib is familiar from his own experience.

Finland and California;  snow and desert sand

Starting in 1975, he travelled around Finland, translated the works of its authors, and in his own novels transformed the vast Finnish forests into introspective internal landscapes, woven through with Nordic myths and Islamic mysticism (1989: Sommeil d'Eve – "Eve's slumber"; 1990: Neiges de marbre - "Marble snow").

Invitations to the USA (as a guest lecturer at the University of Los Angeles in 1974) lent new rhythms to his crystalline poetry, a spirit of gospel, jazz and blues. 2003, the year of Dib's death, also saw the publication of his book L.A. Trip, a verse novel with American elements embedded in it. It circulated online as a bilingual edition. In 1998, L'Enfant-Jazz, which was illustrated by the Algerian calligraphy artist Rachid Koraichi, won him the prestigious Prix Mallarmé.

Dib has become a monolith in the Algerian literary landscape, his work towering above everything with its overwhelming abundance, its great diversity and its radical originality. His philosophical, enigmatic cosmos is not always as accessible as it is in his fairy-tale novel L'Infante Maure, written in 1994 with the wisdom of age, in which nine-year-old Lyyli Belle, the offspring of two migrants – a Polish mother and a Maghrebi father – explains snow to her imaginary desert-sheikh grandfather in a Finnish midsummer night's dream.

In the end, she realises that the two have more similarities than differences: "So now I know the sand and the snow. And in a certain way, they are siblings." This is the key sentence in this novel, which can be read as a poetic plea for intercultural tolerance, a literary manifesto against Huntington's Clash-of-Civilizations thesis, which was published the previous year.

Triptych by Nabili that was inspired by Mohammed Dib's "L'Infante Maure" (photo: Regina Keil-Sagawe)
Triptych created in 1997 by Moroccan artist Nabili as part of the "Kulturmeile Maghreb in Heidelberg". The work was inspired by Mohammed Dib's "L'Infante Maure" and contains the sentence "So now I know the sand and the snow. And in a certain way, they are siblings" in French, German, and Arabic and was made out of desert sand

Highlights of the Dib memorial year in France and Algeria

Events to mark the Mohammed Dib Centenary include the recently published special edition of the renowned Parisian literary journal Europe (Jun–Aug 2020), which is devoted to Mohammed Dib and edited by Hervé Sanson, and a symposium organised by the Société Internationale des Amis de Mohammed Dib, which is due to take place in the illustrious surroundings of the Château de Cérisy in Normandy from 1 to 5 September.

In Algeria itself, the packed agenda of events for the Dib memorial year, which should have begun in February, has been postponed due to coronavirus.  

The one element of this agenda that has been retained, however, is the awarding of the Prix Mohammed Dib by the cultural association La Grande Maison, formerly the Fondation Mohammed Dib, which is based in the author's hometown. The jury met online on 27 June. The longlist featured 23 authors and works in all of Algeria's literary languages: Arabic, French and Algerian Berber. An international conference on Dib's oeuvre with the title "Atlals" (traces) is also planned for 17–19 October.

Dib himself liked to speak of his body of work as a "constellation". How fitting then that the centenary of this man's birth, who Algerian Dib specialist Naget Khadda says left the world a "sparkling trail of light", happens to coincide with the rare spectacle of a comet passing the earth. Dib fans worldwide may see this as a salute from the cosmos...

Regina Keil-Sagawe

© 2020

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin

More on this topic