Algeria: political decay

You know how they say slow and steady wins the race? Well I have been slow, but I surely have not been steady.

Since my last review, I have completed several other novels for the Booking Around the World challenge (compilation here) but have not been able to post my reviews yet. Let us just chalk it up to part laziness, part me being halfway around the world for a bit.

Though my enthusiasm may not be evident based off of my consistency, I was eager to select a book for the next country in the series: Algeria.

I am a diehard francophile and as such, am fascinated by the history of French colonialism. Algeria, part of North Africa and also the largest country in Africa and the Arab World, was administered as a part of France under the name French Algeria for over 100 years (1827 to 1962). Algeria’s longstanding colonial history has strongly impacted its contemporary literature, written in not only Arabic or French, but also Berber languages. Being a country that has been influenced by so many previous empires, it should come as no surprise that it has produced a number of renowned authors such as Albert Camus, Mohammed Dib and Kateb Yacine that exemplify the country’s diversity and multiculturalism. However, Algerian diversity does not come without its clashes, whether it is the debate about the power balance between French and Arabic literature, or other issues of identity politics.

Algeria’s multinational history is what eventually brought me to Yasmina Khadra. The name is actually a nom de plume of Mohammed Moulessehoul, who decided to use his wife’s first names as a pseudonym in order to avoid Algerian military censorship, as he was an officer in the Algerian army during the time of a civil war. He kept his anonymity until 2001, after he had left the army and moved to France.


Khadra’s 2002 novel The Swallows of Kabul gained him worldwide attention with a gripping tale of two couples living in Kabul under Taliban rule. I ended up selecting his 2005 novel, L’attentat, titled The Attack (ISBN-13: 978-0307275707) in the English translation by John Cullen. I have been semi-intentionally trying to choose the lesser known titles if I am reading from a well-known author. I feel like applying this method will give me a better idea of the authors’ styles without being clouded by their most famous books’ preceding reputations.

The Attack is set in Tel Aviv, revolving around Dr. Amin Jaafari, a Palestinian surgeon who gained Israeli citizenship. The story certainly builds up quickly, as the doctor  receives two harrowing pieces of news in one day within the first few chapters: 1. his wife, Sihem was a killed in a terrorist attack, and 2. she is primary suspect as the suicide bomber that committed the attack.

It took me a while to fully gather my thoughts on this one. I applaud Khadra’s many efforts to combine a commentary on Israel and Palestine’s geopolitical landscape with the introspective struggle of the main character. Dr. Jaafari not only has to deal with his despair as he is left reeling from not only his wife’s death, but also the breakdown of his entire worldview. He is pulled out of his upper class, non-religious bubble. Previously, he was living what seemed to be the perfect life with the love of his life. But when he is ripped from his idyllic world, he has to face everything he had been avoiding: not just religious warfare, but also racial and class warfare. Despite his Israeli citizenship, Dr. Jaafari realizes he is still treated like an outsider, and cannot seem to escape his Arab culture and religion, Islam, which seem to have become so intertwined that others cannot tell one from the other. Concurrently, he embarks on a hunt to find any clues that can answer his burning questions: is his wife responsible for the attack? If so, how could someone who seemed so content be pulled into the belief system necessary to commit such an attack? Will this senseless violence ever end?

Khadra takes the entire length of the novel to attempt to answer these questions, and I am not quite convinced he was successful. There are parts of the novel that are so wonderfully intimate; the reader gets to pick the brain of a self-proclaimed secularist living in a cesspool of  religious terrorism. But Khadra’s attempt to remain neutral on the never-ending conflict between Israel and Palestine begins to seem borderline clinical and ends up stalling character development. While I appreciated that neither side was made to be the hero or the villain, I came to the end of the novel with too many questions left unanswered. There’s one point that resounds clearly to the end, and that is that radicalism is bad, yet no one can seem to produce an explanation of how someone like Dr. Jaafari’s wife could possibly become engrossed in said radicalism. All in all, this novel transformed me into a detective, searching for clues alongside Dr. Jaafari. He seems to be on the right track, and all signs point to a case closed, only to find out at the end that we’re right back where we started.

Final review: ★★★☆☆

There were parts of this novel that I loved – it is a suspenseful thriller with a healthy dose of inner dialogue. The Israeli backdrop paired with the main character’s Arab roots set a solid foundation for cultural analysis. Khadra’s prose is easy to read and often eloquent. What ended up falling short for me was the lack of development in Dr. Jaafari’s perception of his deceased wife, which created a significant stumbling block towards a conclusion that made sense in context of the story.



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