In a volume titled Algérie, a joint Franco-Algerian collaboration celebrating different aspects of Algerian history and culture, the name of Amin Zaoui 1 is given pride of place among writers of Arabic expression. Referring to “une pléïade de romanciers et de nouvellistes” ‘a galaxy of novelists and short-story writers,’ the authors proclaim Zaoui as one of the foremost writers of “la génération de 70” ‘the generation of 1970’ (171). They go on to list Zaoui’s collection of short stories, And the Waves Come Surging 2 (172), along with some of the best works of Abdelhamid Benhedouga, Tahar Ouettar, and Rachid Boudjedra, three of the foremost names in contemporary Algerian Arabic fiction.
The classification of Zaoui as a member of “the generation of 1970” has no more than a certain chronological validity. Writers of Arabic expression in Algeria have rarely constituted a particular “generation” or “school.” They have, ever since the emergence of postindependence Arabic literature, followed separate paths, depending on their political persuasion or their inclination to experiment with style and language. While Benhedouga, for example, writes in a lucid, literary style that is relatively free of linguistic innovation, Ouettar, who takes liberties with the Arabic language and occasionally coins his own words, leaves the reader in no doubt as to his Marxist/Socialist leanings. Boudjedra adopts the same iconoclastic tone he has become known for in his francophone writings, expressing himself in an Arabic full of harsh-sounding gutturals, onomatopoeia, and alliteration. Zaoui, on the other hand, opts for a flowing variety of standard literary Arabic that reflects Algerian reality and experience, and is at the same time free of overt political dogma. Despite his frequent use of typically Algerian terms, his language is clear enough to be accessible to a wide reading public outside Algeria. What Zaoui and other writers of Arabic expression, among them Waciny Lârej and the late Amar Bellahcène, have in common, however, is their use of an individually fashioned secular language. It is a far cry from the rigidly classical idiom, redolent of the language of the Quran, advocated by language purists and men of religion. Another common denominator is the way the highly politicized environment in which these writers find themselves is reflected in their texts.
Amin Zaoui was born in 1956 in M’sirda near Tlemcen. He later moved to Oran, the city he adopted and which is evoked in most of his works. At the start of his literary career Zaoui chose to write in Arabic because he felt that it was time Algeria became known as a country that produced Arabic as well as francophone works. It was his first collection of short stories, And the Waves Come Surging, published in Damascus, Syria, in 1981, and reprinted two years later, which brought him to the immediate attention of an Arabic-reading public. At that time Algeria was living through a period of [End Page 164] relative calm and intellectual freedom when writers felt secure enough to move away from the theme of the War of Independence and to publish works that were innovative in both form and content. Although some writers thought that it was prudent to practice a certain amount of self-censorship if they wanted to be published in Algeria, others preferred to send their manuscripts to publishing houses in other parts of the Arab world, particularly if their texts contained material that was too sexually explicit or criticized national politics. Having one’s works produced by a reputable publishing house in Beirut, Cairo, Damascus, or Tunis, moreover, ensured their acceptance and wider circulation in Algeria. Zaoui opted for the Damascus publishing house Al-Wathba 3 whose editor was a man well-known for his liberal views. Little did the editor of Al-Wathba and Zaoui know then that in a matter of a few years the climate of opinion would change in both Algeria and Syria and that Zaoui’s books would be burnt or banned, the author himself threatened with death, and the editor dismissed from his post and imprisoned. 4
Throughout the eighties...