Mohammed Dib: Algeria recalled
-Simorgh, Mohammed Dib, Paris: Albin Michel, 2003. pp250;
-Al-Dar Al-Kabira (The Big House); Al-Hariq (The Fire), translated from the French (La Grande maison; L'Incendie) by Sami Al-Duroubi. Cairo: Dar Al-Hilal, 2003. pp385;
-Al-Nawl (The Loom), translated from the French (Le Métier à tisser) by Sami Al-Duroubi, Cairo: Dar Al-Hilal, 2003. pp219
When the national radio of Algeria announced on the second of May the death of Mohammed Dib (1920-2003) at home in Paris, a sense of irretrievable loss captured those who knew his works. The sad news announced not only the departure of a celebrated author but also the disappearance of a generation of Francophone Algerian writers associated with the struggle for national liberation: Kateb Yacine (d. 1989), Malek Haddad (d. 1978), Mouloud Mammeri (d. 1989), and Mouloud Féraoun (d. 1962). Together they made the Algerian cause and their country's struggle for independence known to the world. They transformed the Algerian case from its localised expression into a universal drama. With the realism of a Zola and the grandeur of a Chekhov, Dib renders the suffering of the Algerian people.
Self-effacing and totally committed to his vocation as a writer, Dib has been inclined to the contemplation of the human condition across fiction, short stories, theatre, poetry and essays. His rich life experiences and his travel in Northern Europe and North America have provided him with a vision of the world that one can encapsulate as humanism without frontiers but with undertones of sweet sorrow and nostalgia. Rooted in the Algerian soil and having lost his father at a very young age, Dib assimilated the enlightened aspect of French culture when he was a young pupil, thanks to a French communist teacher. He studied literature at the University of Algiers and worked at various occupations: a school teacher, an accountant, a weaver, a translator (English to French), a journalist in both the progressive Alger Républicain and the communist Liberté, and a professor at such prestigious institutions as the Sorbonne and the University of California at Los Angeles.
When Dib was exiled by the French in 1959 for his nationalist and militant activities such prominent writers as Albert Camus and André Malraux helped him settle in France, where he stayed until his death. Louis Aragon in his preface to Dib's poetic collection Ombre gardienne (1961) stated that Dib without being a Frenchman could write like Villon and Péguy -- in reference to France's well-known 15th- and early 20th- century poets.
He has been honoured more than once by France, the very nation that exiled him from his native Algeria in 1959 for his militant activities: he has been awarded among other prizes the Grand Prix de la Francophonie by the Académie Française -- the first Maghrebi writer to receive it -- as well as the Grand Prix of the city of Paris. He was also awarded the Mallarmé prize for his poetic collection L'Enfant-Jazz (1998). He has received awards in Algeria, including the prize of the Union of Algerian Writers in 1966. His entire corpus adds up to 30 and some works, some of which have been translated to English (Who Remembers the Sea, 1985; Savage Night, 2001). Dib's style moves from documentary realism to fantastic surrealism.
Dib's fictional career opened with three novels which constitute a set: La Grande maison (1952), L'Incendie (1954) and Le Métier à tisser (1957) -- all of which have been translated to Arabic by the competent and prolific Syrian translator and diplomat, Sami Al-Duroubi (d. 1976). Dar Al- Hilal reprinted the translations in its monthly series of June (the first two in one volume) and July (the third part) of this year as a commemorative gesture. The Hilal Press monthly fiction series, sold at an affordable price and concentrating on new works by Arab writers and translations of modern classics, is an invaluable contribution to literary culture. These novels of Dib, clearly reprinted in a hurry to meet the interest in Mohammed Dib following his departure, have too many typographical errors. A prestigious, century-old press such as Al-Hilal should have done better.
Commonly known as the Algerian trilogy, these three novels are more of a triptych than a trilogy. This tripartite composition strikes me as three tableaux of Algeria at the end of the 1930s and the beginning of the 1940s rather than a plotted narrative. The first part, "The Big House", depicts an impoverished inner city slum with the emphasis on women and children -- their hard daily life and near-starvation existence. The protagonist, Omar, a 12-year-old boy, figures in the three novels, but most prominently in the first. He is an orphan, and his mother works long hours at home at her sewing machine to produce the soles of sandals for a European shoe- merchant in the city of Tlemcen. Misery and poverty in this Big House, known as Dar-Sbitar and shared by many families, does not produce compassion or bonding. Family members use abusive language and blame kin for their misery. Neighbourly relations are fraught with competition for limited space and shared toilets. Such a state of survival by any means has also been portrayed by the (in)famous Moroccan writer Mohamed Choukri in his Al-Khubz Al-Hafi (For Bread Alone). While Choukri presents an autobiographical account of his early youth experience in the Rif and thus the personal narrative revolves around an individual protagonist, Dib presents the life of many and the underside of his own city Tlemcen in West Algeria. In a 1964 interview in Le Figaro Littéraire Dib said: "As a writer my concern from my earliest novels has been to melt my voice into the collective voice." While Choukri uses graphic language and unabashed sexuality in his memoir, Dib's depiction of eroticism, in contrast, remains hushed and suggestive. This is partly due to stylistic orientations, but also because Dib's protagonist, young Omar, is barely a teenager and his sexual desires are still veiled even from him.
The obsession in this family and in the complex of Dar-Sbitar is food, not sex. Undernourished to the point of starvation, their minds and acts revolve continuously around filling their empty stomachs. Despite the long working hours on her sewing machine the mother cannot make ends meet. She plots to smuggle cloth from nearby Morocco for richer ladies. Class distinctions are underlined here as well as at the school Omar attends. Some boys come with filling sandwiches and others with stale bread or nothing at all.
From the lumpenproletariat of the first novel, Dib moves to the dispossessed peasants and farmers of Western Algeria near Tlemcen in the second part of his trilogy. The colonialists, having confiscated the best farming lands from the natives, left the Algerians the inhospitable land in the barren hills or forced them to become meagrely paid agricultural workers. Omar, our young protagonist, goes there with Zohr, a 14-year-old girl who goes to visit her sister, married to a farmer from Bni-Boublen village. There, Omar meets children "even more miserable than he is, children resembling locusts from their emaciation and skinniness". Through Omar's mentor, the old Commander whose legs were amputated in World War I, we learn the legendary history of the area. Omar begins to reflect on the difference between himself and the boys there. Having been to school, Omar can speak French and assert that the world is round and explain how rain is formed -- all of which sounds unusual and incredible to the other youngsters. On the other hand, they know much more than him about trees, animals and agriculture.
The militant Hamid Saraj (modeled on a real person, the communist Mohamed Badsi) plays an important role in the second novel, L'Incendie, as an organiser of a strike by the agricultural workers and peasants. A fire initiated by a collaborator is blamed on the peasants in order to put an end to the strike. Discussions between various militant groups and the coordination between the syndicates of Tlemcen and the peasants are reported, thus showing the urban-rural front against the oppressors. The police insist on knowing who provoked the strike, to which the peasants answer: "misery". Omar begins to think for himself and realises that behind the misery of the peasants and that of the dwellers of the Big House in Tlemcen are the French colonialists.
In the third novel, we continue to observe oppression, but this time in a weaving factory where workers labour in a dark basement. Dib, himself, has worked as a designer in a weaving factory (1945-47), and thus the technical and social aspects of the life of workers are rendered through the author's occupational experience. As in the Big House the relations in The Loom are anything but cordial. The factory boss exploits his workers and the workers quarrel among themselves, as Omar -- the apprentice -- observes.
In many ways the developing of the revolutionary consciousness of Omar parallels that of the Algerian people who declared a war of national liberation against their colonial oppressors in 1954. The Algerian Arabophone writer Al- Taher Wattar attributes a significant role to Dib's trilogy in the political awakening of Algeria. Other critics have seen in it the fictional representation of a reality that was theorised later by Franz Fanon.
Between this first trilogy of Dib and his latest work, Simorgh, lie other works and trilogies. Perhaps the most famous is the Nordic trilogy (Les Terrasses d'Orsol, Le Sommeil d'Eve, Neiges de marbre) with its Finnish background. He also wrote about post-independence Algeria, about passionate love, and about madness. Besides his fiction, he wrote plays, poetry and children's stories as well as authoring a book of photographs entitled Tlemcen oŁ les lieux d'écriture (1994). Dib was fond of travelling and wrote a book inspired by his California visit entitled L.A. Trip. Along with a grounding in French and Russian literatures, Dib was well read in English and American literatures, particularly Virginia Woolf, Dos Passos, Steinbeck and Faulkner. He had a soft spot for African Americans and particularly their jazz and blues. He wrote in the preface of his poetic collection L'Enfant-Jazz that jazz for him is associated with the child in man just as creativity is. The poems in this collection are deceptively simple. Dib uses in them the language of innocence to depict the world of experience. Like Ungaretti, Dib is enamoured by the desert, which he treats as a metaphor. His world -- despite its horrors -- sheds a light and a future promise. Though he was close to Camus, his critique of him is telling: "Camus went beyond Dostoevsky's discovery: God is dead. Man himself is dead and all hope is forbidden. This is the lesson of his work which constitutes his somber grandeur and his weakness."
Dib's last work, Simorgh, published less than three months before his death, is seen as his final testimony. Some have pointed out that it is a "literary puzzle" or "journal intime". This book defies classification because it includes practically all the genres Dib practiced. Written with his poetic prose, it has allegorical narratives, realistic dialogues, poems in the form of aphorisms, quotations, proverbs, essays both autobiographical and on world affairs, analyses both political and psychoanalytic. There is no single theme or umbrella concern that would bring the variety of texts together. My own view of the book is that it is neither a testimony nor a puzzle. It is a collection of écriture in an embryonic state, which Dib had jotted down probably to enlarge and complete later on, but as he probably felt the curtain was about to be drawn, he put it together in one book. It is by no means raw, yet it is not a finished literary product. Reading Simorgh, is like looking into someone's unorganised drawers: you see all the motifs, the concerns, the obsessions of the person in question. It is fun to read this book; we get to know the man behind it, discovering his love for music and painting, his attachment to Algeria and his commitment to the world at large, and his involved reading in Eastern and Western literatures as exemplified in his rendering of Attar's Mantiq Al-Tayr (Conference of the Birds) and Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus.
The notion of the voyage, so dear to Dib in its literal and metaphoric sense, is inherent in Attar's mediaeval allegory, where 30 birds seek the ultimate being, the Simorgh. At the end of their difficult trip, passing through seven valleys, they find a mirror and themselves reflected in it. Based on a pun, as "simorgh" in Persian means "30 birds", the narrative points to the sanctity within man, which appears when the hard Sufi way has been followed. Dib also views Oedipus at Colonus as a saintly figure and a perceptive sage after what he had been through. Dib is not a mystic, but he entertains the spiritual dimension in his works. For him the mirror in which we see ourselves is poetry though we do see ourselves indistinctly in it, and this is because we ourselves are abstruse beings: "Le poème est notre miroir, qaund nous le désirons. Mais miroir obscur, comme il se doit, pour les êtres obscurs dont nous sommes." The breadths and depths of Mohammed Dib are present in Simorgh, the literary smorgasbord par excellence.
In an autobiographical essay in Simorgh, entitled "Incertaine enfance", Dib recalls fondly his first teacher, a middle-aged Algerian with round eye-glasses, wearing the indigenous baggy pants and traditional vest, who had a sing-song voice and a serious demeanor. He also recalls the French teacher who followed after three years with the first, a gray-haired man with a grating voice. Dib says that those two live in his memory even though they must have died a long time ago. In contrast, he does not remember his father's looks or what he sounded like. There is only one family photo of his father, which hardly introduces the person it represents. Dib moves on to recount how in his late teens he, himself, became a teacher in a hamlet in the desert of Angade (on the frontiers with Morocco). The school had only one classroom beneath the two rooms of the teacher's living quarters. There was no electricity and water had to be drawn from wells. The student body was made up of 40 poor pupils, mostly boys. They were the children of nomads who walked long distances to come to school. They had nothing to eat for lunch so Dib tried to convince the administrative bureaucracy to provide them with a minimal noontime meal. This was granted for only three months, after which Dib, along with his mother, on their own managed to keep the simple lunch going for the rest of the year.
One of the pupils, a dark and diligent boy, was of the utmost help to Dib and to his mother. At one point, when the weather was stormy, Dib invited him to sleep in the school rather than walk the long distance to the tent of his family. The boy was grateful, but after few hours he was anxious and panting, saying to Dib: "Sir, I cannot go on. I have never slept between four walls. It is a prison, while in a tent the air comes through from all sides and the yapping of the jackals keeps you company; even the darkest night in the tent is not as dark as this."
Through such anecdotes and other sayings we get to know Mohammed Dib, the man. Surely, the reader will pick up something that resonates. In his aphorisms, Dib praises solitude and slowness and is sorry to see evolution everywhere in the 20th century going in one direction: overestimating the role of sciences and techniques at the price of what he calls "la sagesse humaniste" (humanist wisdom).
One motif that runs through Simorgh, apart from intimations of death, is his identity as an Algerian and his writing in French. The question of hybridity is evoked again and again. In fact his novel, L'Enfante maure (The Moorish Child), 1994, is about a girl whose mother is European and father is Maghrebi, and who is trying to figure out her world. This in many ways is the case of Dib's four children who have a French mother, Colette Bellissant, and an Algerian father. In Simorgh, Dib wavers between his longing for the Algerian soil of his childhood and his admiration for the French language in which he creates. He is one of the few who has turned exile into an opportunity for creativity and has not become bitter over his forced displacement. In fact he saw creativity in his very paradoxical condition: "Quel malheur que d'écrire dans une autre langue que la sienne ... C'est ce malheur-là qui nous fait écrivains." Dib made the best of the language imposed on him to represent the Algeria of the mind and the heart.
Reviewed by Ferial J. Ghazoul