On the morning of May 26, 1993, Tahar Djaout left his home in Baïnem, a suburb west of Algiers. As he started his car, a young man tapped on the window and Djaout found himself staring into the barrel of a revolver. The assassin fired at close range, hitting the poet with two bullets to the head.
He was then thrown from his car, in which the kidnappers fled, leaving his Djaout lying prone on the side of the road. After a week struggling against death in a coma, Djaout — child of Azzeffoun, the maritime region of Kabylia where he was born in 1954 — succumbed to his injuries on June 2. At age 39, he left behind a wife and two children, several unpublished manuscripts, and an Algeria about to experience the worst moments of its history since independence in 1962.
Djaout never stopped writing poetry, which he considered a serious undertaking, the very highest form of literary creation.
Tahar Djaout is still considered one of the great writers of Francophone Algerian literature. He left a legacy as rich as it is varied: a collection of short stories, several volumes of poetry and five novels. He began as a disciple of the North African literary tradition, publishing poetry; his first collection, ‘Solstice barbelé’, appeared in 1975, followed by ‘L’Arche à vau-l’eau’ in 1978. Metaphors for suffocation abound in these works, which explore the body as a forbidden domain in an oppressive environment, depriving the poet of the fantasy and sensual enjoyment of youth. Djaout never stopped writing poetry, which he considered a serious undertaking, the very highest form of literary creation.
His last collection, ‘Pérennes’ was published by Le temps des cerises, and included the poem ‘Insulaire’ alongside some previously published works. In this searching work, whose literary voice cannot be silenced, Djaout confirms once more his obsession with the freedom found at the end of a pen — a pen that is also known to write about love and sensuality of the body desired. “I love the adventure without end / while I was already rich in cargo / stowed in the bow of your breasts / My hands boarded your body, / knotting their devouring enigmas / unveiling the gold in the florets…I knew almost everything: your tides held on a leash / the rhythm of your breath, the resin beneath your arms, your / smell of a milky sea, your shadows which shelter me in the evening / your movements which soften my edges”.
As they seek to understand the present, Djaout’s stories are often obsessed by memory.
This wordsmith published his first novel, ‘L’Exproprié’ in Algeria in 1981, revealing a bold and innovative author. It is a fragmented story, exploring themes of history, memory and violence as experienced in Algeria over an extended timeframe. Its narrative structure echoes the philosophy of the Moroccan magazine Souffles, founded by Abdelatif Laâbi in the 70s. Djaout develops his own take on this current of “linguistic guerrilla” in an attempt to renew the forms and aesthetics of the North African francophone novel, in an effort to break free from its alienation. ‘L’Exproprié’ holds a special place among Djaout’s creations, as it is the only work he chose to rewrite; it was published in a new form in France, in 1991. It was followed by the author’s sole collection of short stories, ‘Les Rets de l’oiseleur’, where he returns to questions of alienation and post-colonialism, writing in a delirious and phantasmic style.
His other novels were all to be published by Editions du Seuil in France. He won the Fondation Del Duca prize for literature for ‘Les chercheurs d’os’, published in 1984 in a more realistic voice. In 1986, living precariously off a small grant, Tahar Djaout spent a year living on the outskirts of Paris, in Les Lilas. There he managed to complete his third novel, ‘L’invention du désert’, published in 1987. And in 1991, Djaout was honoured as Laureate of the Prix Méditerranée for his novel ‘Les Vigiles’. His final novel, ‘Le Dernier Été’ de la raison, was only published in 1999, six years after the author’s assassination. It discusses the meteoric rise of fundamentalism in Algeria. As they seek to understand the present, Djaout’s stories are often obsessed by memory. They also touch on the condition of society and the relationship between politics and history. From the shadows of the past, Djaout always sought to extract the light, giving both individual and collective identities a path, or connection to what has been — and a point of departure towards a brighter future. “I’m from another race of men who hold the sun’s millennia in the depths of their neurons”, says a character in ‘L’Exproprié’. “All that is asked of the sun is to rise and to shine outwardly, illuminating the Earth and men, the country and the world”.
From the shadows of the past, Djaout always sought to extract the light, giving both individual and collective identities a path, or connection to what has been — and a point of departure towards a brighter future.
Djaout was a renaissance man, passionate about all the artistic disciplines though first trained in the sciences; he obtained a Bachelor’s in mathematics from the University of Algiers before embarking on a career in journalism. This provided him with his first real opportunity to express his thoughts and artistic vision. He was a man of letters open to various inspirations and schools of literature beyond his North African environment, and above all a highly informed journalist on top of the most recent publications of the day and fascinated by current events. Djaout was trying to learn, understand and take an informed position on the developments of his era. His political and intellectual engagement led him to quit his post at the weekly newspaper Algérie-Actualité in 1992. He had first joined the paper almost 10 years prior, following an initial stint at the daily El-Moujahid. In January 1993, he started his own paper, Ruptures — a title which spoke volumes about his political stance. As the editor of Ruptures, Djaout declared openly his hostile opposition to Islamic fundamentalism, as well as to the Algerian regime.
In addition to his political engagement, Djaout has always been involved in artistic endeavours. Beginning in 1991, he helped to establish and sponsor the Poésiades de Béjaia festival, which brought together Algerian poets from different generations and three linguistic traditions (Arabic, French and Berber) to meet and share their work over the course of several days. In 1984, by request, Djaout presented an anthology of poetry, ‘Les mots migrateurs’, which gave a prominent place to young poets. In all of the areas he was most passionate about — linguistic, artistic and literary — Djaout frequently sought to open spaces and lend greater visibility to his peers. Just one example was a lengthy interview he devoted to Mouloud Mammeri, a preeminent figure in Algerian culture. The interview was published by Editions Laphomic in 1987, under the radiant title ‘La Cité du soleil’.
Tahar Djaout rests eternally in the cemetery of his native village, a crest whose horizon is formed by the sky and the sea; but his words continue to defy the silence of his tomb.
Written by Mohammed Yefsah and published with the courtesy of Babelmed, partner of Mashallah News. Translated by Erin O’Halloran.