Algeria’s New Imprint

Algeria’s New Imprint

How Éditions Barzakh publishes books for Algerians who think and dream for themselves.


A few months ago, I was deep in conversation with Hichem Lamraoui, one of the principal buyers for the Librairie du Tiers Monde in downtown Algiers, when an elegantly dressed young woman rushed into the store and asked the cashier if she could see the books from Éditions Barzakh. She wasn’t talking about a particular author or series—she wanted to see the entire run of Barzakh’s titles. It was as if someone at McNally Jackson in Manhattan or Moe’s in Berkeley had asked whether there was a section devoted to New Directions. But in this bookstore, the best in Algiers, the Barzakhs sit together on a bookshelf directly across from the entrance. They are small, narrow, and taller than average, so they fit easily in the hand. Their paper is thick, ivory rather than white; their covers are matte, not shiny; and they occupy several feet of sales space at Tiers Monde, some 50 titles out of the nearly 250 that Barzakh has published since its founding in 2000.

The young woman took from the shelf a copy of Samir Toumi’s L’Effacement, the sensation of the 2016 Algiers International Book Fair. One morning, the novel’s nameless narrator looks in the mirror and is terrified to discover that he can no longer see his reflection. He consults a psychiatrist, Doctor B., who has some hunches about what might be ailing him. Forty-four years old, the narrator is the passive son of the dearly departed Commandant Hacène, one of the great heroes of the Algerian War of Liberation, and he is incapable of feeling or thinking for himself. He is horrified by all human contact, all warmth. Escaping from Algiers to the coastal city of Oran—a trip endorsed by Doctor B.—provides sensual distraction but doesn’t solve his problems, and by the end of the novel the narrator has descended into paranoid madness.

Toumi’s antihero is a civil servant in the gas and oil ministry who has obtained his position through nepotism. He enables the country to squander its natural resources. Doctor B., the novel’s one source of sanity and comic relief, is a specialist in the “syndrome of effacement,” a newly discovered generational malady. Doctor B. traces the syndrome to PTSD among the freedom fighters of the 1960s, which they unconsciously passed on to their children. The story could easily have been didactic, but Toumi, with a keen sense of place and class that is filtered through the narrator’s sexual misery (imagine a Portnoy who can’t desire), brings an ill-formed man into sharp focus and sweeps the reader through a horrifying tale.

As soon as it was announced, L’Effacement was the talk of the town. Toumi was going to explore the blasphemous idea that the national narrative of revolutionary glory had become exhausted through overuse, and even admit that the founding fathers’ hold on national privilege had begun to seem a little ridiculous. The heroes of the Algerian War of Liberation are known as the moudjahidine, and since the nation’s founding in 1962, they have been served by a much-glorified Veterans Administration that has overseen a set of rewards and privileges familiar to every Algerian. The moudjahidine were given the best apartments of the departed French colonials, and their standing in Algerian society has been continually reinforced through commemoration, law (one needs a moudjahid license to operate a taxi, sell liquor, or import a car), and decades of intermarriage and self-reinforcing elitism.

The War of Liberation has dominated Algerian history so unequivocally that it has relegated all other eras and influences to the shadows. But today, the Algerians who were 20 or 30 years old in 1962 are dying, and their children and grandchildren will have to invent a future for the country without them. Toumi and his editors at Éditions Barzakh, Sofiane Hadjadj and Selma Hellal, hope readers will see the reflection of a new Algeria in the writing and publishing of books open to all imaginative possibilities.

Editing and publishing were not in the life plan of either Hadjadj or Hellal, who are a couple. Hadjadj, who is 46 years old, is secular, but his background is deeply religious. His father came to Algiers from the oasis farming community of El Goléa, in the Sahara, and the family owned small businesses before moving to the city and making a fortune in the building trade. Hadjadj, who is dark-skinned, describes his father as black. His mother, who wears the veil, grew up in the Casbah of Algiers, the daughter of Moroccan immigrants. In high school, and with the encouragement of his family, Hadjadj spent six years in Tunis studying the Quran to prepare for a future as an imam. Then he decided to study architecture instead.

Unlike Hadjadj, Hellal grew up in a liberal, secular, and Francophone environment, but her ties to Algerian history are deep. She was born in 1973 into the very moudjahidine elite skewered in L’Effacement. Her great-uncle, the lawyer Ali Boumendjel, was tortured and murdered by the French Army during the Battle of Algiers. Her grandfather, Ahmed Boumendjel, also a lawyer, was an influential member of the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) and a minister in Algeria’s first independent government, led by Ahmed Ben Bella in 1962. Her father worked in army intelligence during the War of Liberation, capturing radio signals and decrypting codes; her mother, Yamina Hellal Boumendjel, is a linguist and academic who served as an interpreter for the Algerian presidency.

Hadjadj and Hellal met through Algerian student circles in Paris, where they were both studying in 1996. Every Wednesday evening, Hadjadj audited Jacques Derrida’s seminar on hospitality at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, the graduate school of social sciences on Boulevard Raspail. Derrida, who was born in colonial Algeria, was exploring the ethical, political, and legal underpinnings of the right to political asylum and reading works on asylum and hospitality, from Sophocles to Kafka.

No topic could have been closer to Hadjadj’s daily thoughts. An Algerian living in France on a student visa, he found a new report of murder or terror at home every time he opened a newspaper. The troubles, since known as the Black Decade, had come to a head in January 1992, when the Algerian government, heir to the revolutionary FLN, scuttled elections to prevent a takeover by the Front Islamique du Salut, an Islamic party. Throughout the country, mass protests broke out, followed by a violent military repression. By February 1992, the new military leaders had declared a state of emergency. That burst of violence was one act in a decade-long civil war that pitted armed Islamist groups against the Algerian military. In 1994 alone, dozens were murdered every day. Intellectuals from all walks of life were special targets of terror by the armed Islamist forces. In 1993, with the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, Derrida founded a French committee of support for Algerian intellectuals, and by the time Hadjadj began auditing his seminar, Derrida was a beloved spokesman for the Algerian cause.

While Hadjadj pursued the intellectual reflections that would ultimately pull him away from architecture and toward literature, a few blocks away Hellal was studying at the Institut d’Études Politiques. She had gained entrance after passing the baccalaureate exam in Paris and preparing for the institute’s rigorous entrance exam. During her student days, she felt uneasy with her largely French education; she’d arrived in Paris with only the rudiments of Arabic. Sometimes, she said, it seemed that her education had amputated her Algerian-ness. With Hadjadj, she found a partner who was both deeply intellectual and also, as she put it, “truly Algerian.” She admired his courage, because while she saw herself as a dutiful daughter, he had managed to remain close to his family without conforming to their expectations. Hadjadj, on the other hand, was drawn to her family’s history, to the many stories of political and personal sacrifice in the making of Algeria. For each of them, caught up in a quest for national identity in a time of civil war, the other contributed a missing piece of the Algerian puzzle.

For a year, Hadjadj and Hellal lived the emancipated life of an expatriate couple, free from family traditions and obligations and far from the violence at home. After separate odysseys and months of separation, the two reunited in 1999 in an Algeria that was barely recognizable. A negotiated cease-fire and amnesty for armed Islamic groups had created an uneasy peace. The years of terror had destroyed any confidence in public space: No one went to the movies, the theater, or restaurants. Entertainment had been reduced to satellite TV. There was no tourism to speak of—or literary culture. The country lacked even the basics of a civil society.

Hellal and Hadjadj could have helped to rebuild Algeria using the talents they’d already developed—she as a journalist (in Paris, she had started a radio career), he as an architect—but the couple had another idea. They were convinced that Algeria couldn’t recover from a decade of horror without the basic right that every European or American writer takes for granted: the right to imagine and to tell stories. So they set out to provide hospitality for Algerian literature itself, to assist a literary culture in danger.

Their first venture, with the journalist Abderrahmane Djelfaoui, was Parking Nomade, a cultural review focused on the Algerians who had stayed in the country during the Black Decade and managed, under the worst possible circumstances, to create. The first issue featured the work of Larbi Merhoum, an architect who had recently finished a handsome new building in Mostaganem, outside Oran. The issue was a 90-page staple-bound pamphlet, with eight thick color pages showing the sleek new construction. In 1999, year one of Parking Nomade, the mere fact of producing an Algerian magazine, for Algerians, was an achievement in itself.

In 2000, with Parking Nomade as their blueprint, Hadjadj and Hellal founded Éditions Barzakh. The name was inspired by the title of a French translation of a Spanish novel that Hadjadj loves—Juan Goytisolo’s Quarantine—and by a concept in Islamic thought, a special state of precariousness or “in-betweenness.” A barzakh is the mental equivalent of an isthmus, a limbo, but also a realm outside regular time and space. For Hadjadj and Hellal, barzakh crystallized the situation of their country, its survival after a bloody internal conflict, its delicate equilibrium. More pointedly, barzakh spoke to the precariousness of their national literature, straddling two languages, French and Arabic, and fighting for a home ground. (The spoken Algerian language, a dialectical Arabic called Darja, sounds as foreign to a speaker of standard modern Arabic as it does to a speaker of French. Darja, with its mix of Arabic, French, and Berber words and phrases, is itself a kind of barzakh, waiting to be written.) Éditions Barzakh publishes in French and Arabic, approximately one book in Arabic for every six in French. Hichem Lamraoui of Tiers Monde says that nine out of 10 contemporary Algerian novels are written in French. But Malika Rahal, a specialist in contemporary Algerian history at the Institut d’Histoire du Temps Présent in Paris, is convinced that French will eventually disappear from the country for demographic reasons. A more immediate issue, she says, is that the use of French as a mark of prestige renders a small elite even more out of touch with the country’s enormous economic inequalities. Walid Bouchakour, a cultural critic for the French-language daily El Watan, sees it differently. He points out that even though Algerian youth may now be schooled in Arabic, they still have a steady diet of French from satellite TV. There may be fewer readers of El Watan than of the Arab-language newspapers, he adds, but articles in El Watan still have a real impact, nationally and internationally.

Several years ago, Hadjadj told me that Algeria’s Francophone writers were reluctant to proclaim a love of French: “I’ve never heard an Algerian writer say, ‘I love the French language,’ and you can’t say this in an Algerian newspaper—it’s as if you were saying, ‘I love France.’” These days, however, his view of the French legacy is more pragmatic, stressing the importance of a pluralist Algeria and the place of French within it: “We have to make the 18-year-olds understand that 80 percent of the men and women who led the revolution were French speakers.” So Éditions Barzakh proceeds, publishing in French and Arabic—but mostly in French—and imagining a time when the choice of a language is not always already political.

A more immediate task for Barzakh has been to unravel another colonial legacy: copyright. Until very recently, the right to print and publish the canonical names of Algerian fiction—Assia Djebar, Mohammed Dib, Mouloud Feraoun, Kateb Yacine—belonged to French publishing houses. “Paradoxically, as an Algerian publishing house, we have to negotiate hard for the right to reprint them, because these are writers who do well in export,” Hellal explained in a 2014 interview. When French publishers export the Algerian canon back to Algeria, the books can cost three times as much as those produced in the country.

More than money is at stake for Barzakh in springing free of the copyright trap. Algerians who want to exist as Algerian writers have traditionally felt obligated to win French recognition first. There are exceptions, such as the wildly popular Ahlam Mosteghanemi, the first Algerian woman to write a novel directly in Arabic, whose books sell in the millions. But she, too, lives outside Algeria, and publishes in Beirut. For a long time, textbooks were published at home and literary genius lived abroad. This is the situation that Barzakh wants to change.

By 2010, the publishing house’s catalog featured titles from young first-time Algerian writers living in Algeria, established authors born in the 1950s, Franco-Algerian writers, and French or British authors writing on Algerian topics. Then came a completely unexpected windfall: The Prince Claus Fund in the Netherlands awarded Barzakh a ¤100,000 grant for cultural development. Because Algeria remains outside the international banking system, accessing those funds has been supremely complicated, but they have nonetheless made a huge difference. The award has allowed Barzakh to buy the rights to French books and to forge an even more ambitious list, one that includes new approaches to the Algerian Revolution. “Until a decade ago,” Hadjadj explains, “it was only possible for the revolution to be narrated by a collective ‘we.’ Today, the revolution can be remembered through a plurality of points of view and mean different things to different people.”

While mainstream Algerian publishers have brought out the memoirs of liberation heroes like Ahmed Taleb Ibrahimi and Zohra Drif, Barzakh has published the memoirs of singular, off-center lives. Its authors include Pierre and Claudine Chaulet, French moudjahidine who became Algerian citizens and remained in Algeria until their deaths; Alice Cherki, a Jewish Algerian-born psychoanalyst who worked with Frantz Fanon at a clinic in Blida; and Mokhtar Mokhtefi, who sent the manuscript of his memoirs to Barzakh a few months before he died at age 80. Writing in New York City, Mokhtefi was able to reconstruct the sights and sounds of life in his village of Berrouaghia and the constant pressure he felt to be something called a “Muslim Frenchman.” The Algerian reviews of Mokhtefi’s J’Étais Français-Musulman have featured accounts of his army-intelligence work in the legendary MALG transmission service, but the most moving parts of the book are Mokhtefi’s descriptions of leaving his village to attend the French lycée in Blida. Before he went away, the school sent a list of clothing he needed to bring: His father refused to buy him pajamas, which Mokhtefi tried to explain as “a suit for sleeping,” and he had never owned an overcoat.

There can’t be a body of Algerian literature without someone in the country to print it. For Barzakh, that person was Chantal Lefèvre, the owner of Imprimerie Mauguin. In June 2015, Hellal and I drove from Algiers to Blida, an hour’s journey on a busy freeway, to tour the printing press. Lefèvre was 69 years old at the time; she died a few months later. When Hellal and I arrived, she was smoking and sitting in the printer’s office at the weathered desk of her great-great-­grandfather, who founded the press in 1857. Lefèvre said that she was born in Algeria and left in the exodus of 1962, but she had never much cared for France, didn’t know much about the place, and had spent most of her adult life in Spain. She had never forgotten Algeria. In 1993, when intellectuals were being targeted and killed in the darkest year of the civil war, she returned “home” to try to save the family business, after the cousins who were managing the printing press died. Her first contracts were commissions from the Algerian government for official documents, and the government protected her, providing her with escorts whenever she left Blida by car.

In her own way, Lefèvre ended up protecting Barzakh. In its early years, she acted as an informal banker, not asking for payment until Barzakh’s books started to sell. It was she who found the quality ivory paper—an Italian stock called Avorio—and proposed the trim size, similar to the format of novels published by Actes Sud in France, and perfectly suited for Mauguin’s offset presses. Lefèvre had the highest standards for binding, paper, and the layout of the pages.

Many people in Algeria have a backstory in which colonial and postcolonial history collide. In Lefèvre’s case, as she contributed to Barzakh’s future, she was repairing her own past. Over lunch, when Hellal and I asked about the circumstances of her family’s exodus from Algiers in 1962, Lefèvre said “May 13” as though it were yesterday. Her father, Bernard Lefèvre, was a main architect of the May 13, 1958, coup d’état by renegade army officers against the French government in Algeria. The coup ultimately failed but nonetheless led to the demise of the French Fourth Republic and Charles de Gaulle’s return to power. Then, in 1961, Bernard was involved in another attempted coup, this time aimed at de Gaulle’s colonial government, which had begun negotiations with the FLN. In 1962, Chantal and her mother and siblings headed to Spain, not France: Her father had served six months in La Santé prison in Paris, and had escaped to Spain during a period of supervised parole.

I asked Lefèvre why she wanted to return to Algeria. “I needed to go where the pain was,” she replied. In their tribute to her in El Watan, Hadjadj and Hellal wrote of her hoarse voice, her cigarettes, her impossibly high standards, her willingness to destroy a less-than-perfect print run and start over again at night—a description that reminded me of one of the tragic colonial women in a Marguerite Duras novel. Lefèvre’s was “a commitment so all-consuming,” they wrote, “it might have been a priesthood. A priesthood in which she found herself but which also consumed her, and doubtless trapped her in the solitude of Blida.”

Making a beautiful book is itself an act of resistance,” Hellal likes to say, remembering Lefèvre. For her, that act begins long before the book exists as a physical object, in dialogue with her authors. Too many Algerian publishers simply send manuscripts into print with little or no editorial oversight. Barzakh works with its authors from draft to draft, always attentive, as Hadjadj puts it, “to narrative structure, to a global view of the text and how its parts are balanced.” He offers an example: “We hunt down and eliminate private jokes. Maybe the author laughed a lot when he wrote the line, but he’s the only one who will get it.” He thinks of their editorial ethos in terms of an Anglo-Saxon, rather than a French, publishing tradition.

When he looks abroad, I ask him—to France, or the United States, or Spain—which publishing houses stand out as having accomplished editorially what Barzakh wants to do? Jérôme Lindon’s Éditions de Minuit, he answers after a moment’s hesitation. Minuit began publishing underground in France in 1942 with books that were also acts of resistance—but once aboveground after the Liberation, it began to publish authors for whom, as Minuit author Alain Robbe-Grillet famously put it, “political commitment is…the full awareness of the problems present in their own language, the conviction of their extreme importance, and the desire to solve those problems from within.”

Writers who have worked with Hellal and Hadjadj say that they’re the yin and yang of editing. She is extroverted, detail-oriented, able to zero in at the sentence level, to understand the writer’s state of mind, the intimate factors behind writer’s block or a fear of excess. He is the strategist, the philosopher, a cooler character who keeps his writers wondering and yearning for his approval. It’s a combination that works.

Whereas postcolonial critics in American universities read Algerian literature for politics and for position, for a desire to see literature finally “decolonized,” Barzakh’s ambitions are different. For Hellal and Hadjadj, a decolonized literature is not necessarily a literature intent on striking a blow at the colonizer; it’s a literature that enjoys the freedom of its formal, stylistic choices, a literature that can escape the political stereotypes still at work in Algeria, where what you wear and which direction your satellite dish is aimed—east toward Mecca, north toward Paris—mark a person religiously and linguistically.

In 2013, Hellal and Hadjadj published a book that, to their astonishment, was embraced around the world as a supremely political work of literature. In Meursault, Contre-Enquête, Kamel Daoud recast Albert Camus’s The Stranger, giving a voice to the brother of the Arab killed by Meursault on the beach. The combination of very precise contemporary Algerian references and Camus’s familiar plot endowed the book with an astonishing plasticity and made it immediately relevant in any country struggling with senseless violence and “othered” populations—which is to say, most countries in the world. A full year after the initial Algerian publication, the novel was published in France by Actes Sud, which promoted it as if it were a brand-new book. It began to win prizes, and missed the biggest prize of all, the Goncourt, by one vote. In Algeria, 16,000 copies of the novel have been sold. In France, Actes Sud has sold a total of 242,000; and in the United States, sales of The Meursault Investigation, John Cullen’s translation for Other Press, have reached over 53,000 copies.

Now translated into more than 30 languages, Daoud’s novel has departed the closed system of Algerian literature in which, with the help of Barzakh, it was created. But the book’s commercial success hasn’t changed Barzakh’s fundamental mission. “In the end,” Hellal says, “the question that truly preoccupies us is this one: how to get someone to read, how to get them simply to hold a book in their hands. For us, every day, this is a deeply personal and social imperative.”

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