“Hirak made me find an Algeria that I missed” – Jeune Afrique

From Paris to Cairo, through Seville, Granada, Tangier and Oran, among others, the first novel by the French author of Algerian origin Walid Hajar depicts Rachedi Malek’s journey in the early 2000s. But the real journey for the young man of 17, originally from the town of Poplars in Stains, is a quest for himself. A step aside that confronts him with otherness and reveals his own person.

I What would I do in heaven? Two meetings in particular will count: first that with Atiq, in Lille. This young Afghan saw his hopes of becoming a professional footballer cut off by the American invasion. His twin brother, Wassim, who is suspected of being close to the Taliban, is missing. Then, later, on her way to Tangier, Malek falls in love with the Englishwoman Kathleen, also haunted by an absence from her father who worked in an NGO in Kabul.

From these souls with battered fates, Walid Hajar Rachedi weaves his web with a complete sense of narrative. In the run-up to the Orange Book Prize and in the final selection of the Goncourt Prize for the first novel, he offers a book that is both picaresque and initiating, mixing love and current events, but also full of spirituality. Existential introspection is combined with a scenario of twists, the last of which is breathtaking.

Interview with this author, whose great talent for bringing the intimate to life and telling about the upheavals of the world – yesterday’s Afghanistan speaks of today’s Ukraine – is the first milestone in a highly promising literary work.

Malek has a vague impressionistic memory of Algeria, like an Albert Camus novel

Jeune Afrique: What was your background up to this first novel?

Walid Hajar Rachedi: I am 40 years old, I was born in Créteil [près de Paris], I grew up in Val-de-Marne and then in Évry-Courcouronnes. I have worked digitally and I have been writing at the same time for fifteen years. I participated in various magazines, writing workshops. Two years ago, I co-founded Fictions, a narrative medium with my brother, a journalist. I lived in the US and Latin America for six years, then I moved to Lisbon a few months ago.

Where did the idea for this novel come from?

In the beginning, there was the idea of ​​this character taking a long journey to confront a fantasized elsewhere. In the song Gibraltar by Abd al Malik a young man is liberated through his journey to “the wonderful kingdom of Morocco”. A spark awoke in me with this idea of ​​a turn on my head. And then there were the Charlie Hebdo and Bataclan attacks. After these events, I saw the dangerous representations that infiltrated French society with, on the one hand, what we imagined to be “good Muslims”, that is, assimilated and very few Muslims, versus the bad ones, rooted in their faith and who would be on the brink of jihadism. I thought it was important to show what was beautiful, amazing, worthy in this mysterious and existential research, like many contemporary novels of the 20th century. It seemed to me fundamental to have a character which is not traditionally saved by the republic and literature.

Why is Malek embarking on this journey through a dozen cities whose final destination is Algeria?

The character has only been to Algeria once, he has a vague impressionistic memory, like a novel by Albert Camus where Algeria is just light and the beach. I wanted to translate the state of mind of many people of Algerian origin who have been very little in this country and who often have a very carnal, very visceral relationship to it. My character is confronted with his cousin, who lived there and who was captured in the face of a civil war, the death of people of his generation. He will take this turn conversely to see if it awakens anything in him.

Algeria is not a country I fantasized about, I almost rejected it

Algeria is barely mentioned. The important thing is not the destination, but the journey?

I’m only talking about Algeria in a few paragraphs. The character arrives where he thought he would find answers and there are none. He sees people who look like him physically, but he shares nothing about their destinies, their plans. Paradoxically, he discovers a cosmopolitan city with which he shares values ​​when he is in London, on Piccadilly Circus, with people who do not look like him.

Is Malek’s journey a lure?

Of course. In the end, he does not need it. When Malek takes this trip, he thinks it’s an identity journey, and he realizes that it’s more of a trip on the question of meaning. It’s like when you go to the shrink and realize by talking that you have put the cursor on things that are not so relevant.

Are you telling your own relationship to Algeria through Malek?

Contrary to my character, I often went to Algeria in the 1980s. It was not a country I fantasized about, I almost rejected it. For 11 years I did not go there because of the Civil War and because my mother could not return because of the ticket prices. When I went back there from 2004, people had become hyperconservative, I did not really want to go there anymore. But in 2018, Hirak made me rediscover 1980s Algeria, I realized I missed it.

Afghanistan has been constantly deprived of its fate. To some extent, the same can be said about Algeria

“I’m Algerian like a Frenchman,” Malek makes you say. What does it mean ?

It’s a phrase inspired by the song Like a star of Booba, who describes himself as “African as a West Indian”. Malek’s relationship with Algeria is the relationship between someone who grew up in France. Being French of Algerian origin, due to the policy of assimilation, is equivalent to having lived there for 200 or 300 years. My Algerian friends who live in other countries have a much stronger relationship with their country of origin, they speak Algerian Arabic better. I see many people my age who have no idea about this language. I think it’s crazy that it was done on a generation. In my way of thinking, of looking at things, there is a French part. But my feelings, my emotions, my laughter or my family values ​​are closer to the Algerian culture.

JAD20220502-CULTURE-ITV-Walid-Rachedi-Couv

JAD20220502-CULTURE-ITV-Walid-Rachedi-Couv

Why did you choose to talk about Afghanistan?

It is a country whose fate has been constantly robbed. There was the British invasion, so the Soviets, the Americans … It is a country that, because of its geographical, historical and geopolitical position, has always found itself hostage to the decisions of others. This idea seemed very romantic to me. To some extent, the same could be said of Algeria. It is a country that has been tossed between many empires that have been bastardized by colonization. When people talked to me about the Arab world, people talked about flying blankets and slippers, and I did not understand it, because when we spent our summers in Algeria, it looked like France. We ate croissants in the morning and people spoke French.

In your novel, there is a very beautiful passage about the praise of autumn …

What I like about traveling is the loss of tenant. Suddenly you meet people you do not quite know where they come from. Even when one speaks the language more or less well, one does not understand all the nuances. You let yourself be dazzled. It’s like looking at the sun without taking off your sunglasses, at the risk of burning your retina. It is also to free oneself from its own boundaries, from its shackles. Malek is mature for his age and he wants to discover the representations of which he is a prisoner. This is his real victory.

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