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The Barbary Figs
by Rashid Doudjedra, translated by Andre Naffis-Sahely, published by Arabia Books; ISBN 978-1-906697-42-6
Published in the Independent, 16 February, 2013

Algeria has a famously complicated late 20th-century history, full of violence, civil strife and still-unexplained massacres and assassinations. The realities of political life are still only ever seen through a glass darkly, and there is widely believed to be a hidden power, the ‘le pouvoir’, formed from a mercurial cabal of generals and intelligence chiefs. And behind each of these political chieftains there is the vexed issue of what they did, and what their fathers, uncles and grandfathers did, or did not do, between 1954 and 1962.

For modern Algeria is still dominated by those who are perceived to have been the mujhiadeen-heroes in the fight against France for independence. No one should under-estimate the price in blood that Algeria paid for its freedom: casualties for the 8 year war are assessed at 400,000 (by the French) and 1,500,000 (by the Algerians). But nor should one overlook the ferocity with which the victors have subsequently held onto power.

This background helps an English reader understand why Rashid Boudjedra’s The Barbary Figs is such an important and necessary work. Boudjedra has every right to write. He left college as a 17-year-old in order to join the fight for Independence in 1958 (one of the most testing years of the struggle) and was wounded in battle. And sixty years later, after a life filled with poetry, philosophy, politics, imprisonment, teaching and writing, he gives us the ‘the novel of his life’ full of trademark autobiographical references.

The Barbary Figs is a provoking, rich, turbulent and reflective work. Compulsive and overwhelming, the reader is plunged into a Faulkner-like world, an overlapping, obsessive and repetitive reverie in the mind of the narrator. On an hour-long flight with his cousin Omar, he seeks to sift through and sort out their lifelong relationship. Nothing is sorted out, except by the end the state-approved history of heroes and villains lies tattered on the floor.

Heroes of the resistance turn out to have quisling brothers (seduced by nothing more diabolic then Saturday night dances with the French colonial settlers); silent obedience to the revolution is rewarded with betrayal in the hour of victory; a nationalist father is also a ‘polygamous and paedophiliac bastard’; personal rivalries between the now deified leadership lead to a cold-blooded strangling of a guest worthy of the mafia; a Koranic teacher is also an abusive homosexual; three hundred communist throats are cut in a nationalist night of long knives and a handful of the bravest resistance heroes were actually French.

Similarly we hear that it was the heroes within the pantheon of France - literate generals and politicized novelists – who taught the current Algerian ruling class how to profit by mass murder, and who exchange tips on the best methods of killing whilst in the very same letter revealing themselves to be men of gentle refinement and culture. So that whilst immersed in one man’s intense experience of the Algerian revolution, this book yet has a message for the world: “All power is oppressive and unjust.”

Rashid Boudjedra is an Algerian novelist. He has routinely been called one of North Africa's leading writers ever since his debut, La Répudiation, was published in 1969, earning the author the first of many fatwas. While he wrote his first six novels in French, Boudjedra switched to Arabic in 1982 and wrote another six novels in the language before returning to French in 1994. His works - including poetry, non-fiction and plays - have been translated into many languages. The Barbary Figs was awarded the Arab Book Prize in 2010.

“Rashid Boudjedra has his finger on the pulse of his country's heart and soul, does more than offer us a great novel about Algeria - he gives us a fascinating reflection on the ambiguities of history' - Le Monde

'Rashid Boudjedra is quite possibly the greatest living writer form the Maghreb' - Hafid Gafaïti, Andrew W Mellon Distinguished Professor, Texas Tech University

'No other Algerian writer has been able to occupy such a prominent position in two different camps, French and Arabic' - Farida Abu-Haidar

'Rashid Boudjedra is one of the most interesting and provocative contemporary North African writers today' - Mildred Mortimer, Associate Professor of French and French African Literature at the University of Colorado, Boulder

'Boudjedra is already considered a classic writer' - Amina Azza-Bekkat, Professor at the University of Bilda

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