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by Bamber Gascoigne

Mohammed Dib (1920-2003)


Prolific Algerian French-language novelist, short story writer, and poet. Many of Mohammed Dib's novels present archetypal characters who represent contrasting forces in society – good and evil. Among Dib's acclaimed works is his trilogy Algérie (1952-1954), which paints a portrait of the plight of the poor peasants and workers. In his poetry Dib has examined old myths and inner layers of consciousness. Some of his later novels were set in a Nordic country, that resembled Finland, where he spent extended periods of time. He also translated Finnish folktales.

Quelqu'un, dit l'enfant
Pourrait m'ouvrir?
Quelque chose est là.
Pas loin, à côté.
Qui voudra m'ouvrir
Cette porte? Qui voudra?

Mohammed Dib was born in Tlemcen, a city in western Algeria, near the border of Morocco. His father, whom Dib lost at an early age, was a carpenter. Dib was raised as a Sunni Muslim but he never attended Koranic school. At the age of fifteen, he began to write poems. His first poem was published in 1946 under the signature of Diabi.   

It was only after Dib learned to read and write French that he learned to read Arabic. He attended primary school, high school, and after studying for a period at the university in Tlemcen he completed his studies in the city of Oujda. Between the years 1939 and 1959 Dib worked in odd jobs – as a teacher in a primary school at Aoudj Bghal, accountant in Oujda, employee for the Algerian railways, carpet designer in a weavig factory, interpreter for the American and Allied forces from 1943 to 1944, and journalist.

During World War II Did studied literature at the University of Algeria. In 1950-51 he worked for the Communist newspaper Alger républicain, and also wrote the Liberté of the Algerian Communist Party. In 1951 he married Colette Bellissant, a French woman, the daughter of his former French teacher.

Dib was a member of the group known as the "Generation of '52," the year when Dib and Mouloud Mammeri entered the literary stage, or sometimes called the "Generation of '54" according to the war. These writers (of whom the most important were Dib, Mammeri, Mouloud Feraoun, and Yacine Kateb from Algeria; Albert Memmi from Tunisia; Ahmed Sefrioui  and Driss Chraïbi from Morocco) formed a kind of exclusive club. They were products of colonial education, cut off from the illiterate masses, and using the language of political and administrative power, they wrote about being torn between two cultures.

As a novelist Dib made his debut with La grande maison (1952, The Big House), the first in a trilogy of a large family, published  two years before the outbreak of the Algerian revolution. The novel won the Feneon Prize, awarded annually to a French-language writer and a visual artist. Set on the eve of World War II, the story tells of a young boy, Omar, to whose life is returned in L'Incendie (1954, Fire), Dib's second novel. Omar lives in the poor rural region, but he learns to speak French and keeps his thought secret from the Europeans, who scare their children: "If you don't behave yourself, I'll call an Arab here." The last part of the Algérie trilogy, Le Métier à tisser (1957, Tunisian Loom), told about the world of the workers in the naturalist-realist style reminiscent of Emile Zola.

The 1954-1962 war of independence had a powerful effect on Dib. He was bilingual but to gain audience to his work he had to write in French, in the oppressors' language – a problem which Dib shared with his colleagues, Kateb Yacine and others. "My ambition, however, remains to interest all readers," Dib has said. "The essential is the human ground we all share; the things that make us different always remain secondary." Together with two hundred other Algerians and Frenchmen, he signed the manifesto Fraternité algérienne.

When the French colonial police expelled him from Algeria for working toward national independence, several prominent authors, including Andre Malraux, Louis Guilloux, and Albert Camus, pressed authorities to cancel their decision. Since leaving his home country in 1959, Dib lived in France, maintaining that he was not in exile; he regarded himself first and foremost as an Algerian, and made regular visits to his native Maghreb. Noteworthy, regardless that Camus exhibited an attitude of disdain and distrust towards all that is Arab, Muslim, and Oriental, Dib declared in 1995, "Camus is an Algerian writer." From 1967 he lived with his wife in La-Celle-Saint-Cloud, a Parision suburb, whehe many of the residents were North Africans. 

Although many of Dib sociopolitical novels are composed with traditional narrative technique, he has abandoned the realistic mode in some works to convey mythic or dystopian visions. Among Dib's experimental publications, inspired by Cubism, science fiction, Faulkner, Kafka, and the ideas of Jung, are Qui se souvient de la mer (1962, Who Remembers the Sea), set in a crumbling, science fiction like city in the time of the Algerian revolution, where national liberation and sexual liberation are just different sides of the same coin, Cours sur la rive sauvage (1964, On the Savage Banks) and La danse du roi (1968, Dance of the King), written in fragmented style, and Habel (1977), exploring the question of androgyny.

Une bête vint le chercher.
Il eut moins peur que de rester.
Ils eurent la porte à passer.
La porte en plus de la nuit.
Le garçon ferma les yeux.
Les mots ne parlèrent plus.
Quelque chose sur la route
Les prit alors en pitié.

In 1976-1977 Dib worked as a techer at the University of California, Los Angeles, recalling this time in his book L.A. Trip (2003), which came out at the same time both in French and English. "L.A. where are you? Where Invisible City?" he asked. Between the years 1985 and 1994 Dib created a series of novels, which more or less followed a coherent and chronological order, and reflected the personal life of the author. Les Terrasses d'Orsol (1985, Orsol Terrace), the first volume in his second trilogy, was set in a fictitious Arab country, but made an excursion to a cold country in the north.

Le Sommeil d'Éve (1989, Eve's Slumber) and Neiges de Marbre (1990, Marble Snow) were set in a Nordic country (Finland?) and depicted a romance between a Nordic woman and Mediterranean man. They have a child but are estranged. In L'Infante maure (1994) the child is taken to her father's homeland, where she sees the other part of her heritage. Dib also translated into French texts by Finnish writers with Natalia Baschmakoff, and he visited Finland several times. In 1985 the summer issue of the literary magazine Europe, edited by Dib, was mostly devoted to Finland.

In 1961 Dib published his first collection of poems, Ombre gardienne. His other collections include Formulaires (1970), Omneros (1975), Feu beau feu (1979), and Ó vive (1987). Dib has said that he was essentially a poet; he ceased to write novels in the 1960s and 1970s. Dib's work is characterized by ambiguity, wordplays, elliptical syntax, and subtle eroticism; a recurrent motif is light. Contemplating the midnight sun in Neiges de Marbre he said: "We have made night and day into to Signs; we have made the Sign of night dark, light the Sign of day. What has happened to this part of the world; its days, its nights. Has it fallen in-between, where each component of the time is confined to saying its opposite. In summer you are exiled from the night in the dead of the night; in winter, exiled from the day at high noon." ('Geomancing Dib's Transcultural Expression in Translation' by Madeleine Campbell, in CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture, Volume 15, Issue 7, 2013, p. 7)  Many of Dib's poems bring to mind polygonal and foliate designs from the Islamic art or Surrealist experiments in automatic writing. "All the charitable images of the world lead me to you wondering how to thank them I followed your footsteps one by one in each I discovered signs of your passing wondering which way to turn which way preserves the voice so that all ways serve only as a path to you" (from 'Formulaires' in Omneros, 1975, translated by Carol Lettieri & Paul Vangelisti).

Dib also wrote tales for children and a number of articles. In 1998 he received Prix Mallarmé for his collection L'Enfant-jazz. Mohammed Dib died at home in La Celle-Saint-Cloud outside Paris on May 2, 2003. A few months before his death, he said in an interview that "Algerians should be ashamed today of writing in an archaic language, Classical Arabic,  which would be, for the French, the equivalent of writing in Latin or Greek". The Algerian government honoured the author posthumously during the Algiers book fair in 2003. French Culture Minister Jean-Jacques Aillagon called Dib "a spiritual bridge between Algeria and France, between the north and the Mediterranean."

For further reading: Representing Algerian Women: Kateb, Dib, Feraoun, Mammeri, Djebar by Edward John Still (2019): To Hold the World Visible: Writing and History in the Work of Mohammed Dib by Jonathan Adjemian (dissertaion, 2016); Mohammed Dib: essentiellement poète by François Desplanques (2016); 'Mohammed Dib's Short Stories on the Memory of Algeria' by Imene Moulati, in Writing Africa in the Short Story: African Literature Today 31, ed. by Ernest N. Emenyonu (2013); The Facts on File Companion to the French Novel by Karen Taylor (2006); Study Of Land And Milieu In The Works Of Algerian-born Writers Albert Camus, Mouloud Feraoun, and Mohammed Dib by Fawzia Ahmad (2005); Queer Nations: Marginal Sexualities in the Maghreb by Jarrod Hayes (2000); The Encyclopedia of World Literature, Vol. 1, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); Patrie/Watan: Representations of Algeria in the Early Works of Albert Camus, Mouloud Feraoun and Mohammed Dib by Fawzia Ahmad (1996); World Authors 1985-1990, ed. by Vineta Colby (1995); Mohammed Dib by J. Déjeux (1987); Mohammed Dib, écrivain algérien by J. Déjeux (1977); North African Writing, ed. by L. Ortzen (1970) - Note: In Morocco Driss Chraïbi made his debut as a novelist in 1954. Like Dib, Chraibi was influenced by the American writer William Faulkner.

Selected works:

  • La grande maison, 1952
    - Sisäpiha (suom. Natalia Baschmakoff, 1978)
  • L'incendie, 1954
    - Vuoret odottavat (suom. Natalia Baschmakoff, 1979)
  • Au café: nouvelles, 1957
    - At the Cafe; &, The Talisman (translated by C. Dickson; afterword by Mildred P. Mortimer, 2011)
  • Le métier à tisser, 1957
  • Baba fekran, 1959
  • Un Éte africain: roman, 1959
  • Ombre gardiénne: poèmes, 1961 (preface by L. Aragon)
  • Qui se souvient de la mèr, 1962
    - Who Remembers the Sea (translated by Louis Tremaine, 1985)
  • Cours sur la rive sauvage: roman, 1964
  • Le talisman: nouvelles, 1966
    - At the Cafe; &, The Talisman (translated by C. Dickson; afterword by Mildred P. Mortimer, 2011)
  • La danse du roi: roman, 1968
  • Formulaires: poèmes, 1970
  • Dieu en Barbarie: roman, 1970   
  • Le Maitre de chasse: roman, 1973
  • L'histoire du chat qui boude, 1974
  • Omneros: poèmes, 1975
  • Habel: roman, 1977
  • Feu beau feu: poèmes, 1979
  • Mille hourras pour une gueuse: théâtre, 1980
  • Les terrasses d'Orsol: roman, 1985
  • O vive: poèmes, 1987
  • Le sommeil d'Eve, 1989
  • Neiges de Marbre, 1990 [Marble snow]
  • Le Désert sans détour: roman, 1992
  • Tlemcen, ou, Les lieux de l’écriture: photographies 1946, 1994 (with Philippe Bordas)
  • L'infante Maure: roman, 1994
  • La nuit sauvage: nouvelles, 1995
    - The Savage Night (translated by C. Dickson, 2001)
  • Si Diable veut: roman, 1998
  • L'arbre à dires, 1998
  • L'Enfant-Jazz: poèmes, 1998
  • Le Cœur insulaire: poèmes, 2000
  • Comme un bruit d'abeilles: roman, 2001
  • L’aube Ismaël: louange, 2001 (illustrated by Arezki Larbi)
  • L.A. Trip: roman en vers, 2003
    - L.A. Trip: A Novel in Verse (translated by Paul Vangelisti, 2003)
  • Simorgh, 2003
  • Laëzza, 2006
  • Œuvres complètes de Mohammed Dib, 2007- (edited by Habib Tengour)  

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