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||Kateb Yacine (1929-1989)|
Algerian novelist, poet, and playwright, who wrote in French until the beginning of the 1970s, when he began to use in his théâtre de combat vernacular Arabic. Still quite young, Kateb Yacine became involved in the anticolonial struggle. At the age of 16, he participated in the Algerian independence demonstrations of 8 May 1945, which led to the killing of an estimated 6,000-13,000 Algerians. Tormented by his memories, Kateb spent eight years in writing Nedjma (1956), the first Maghribi novel to be instantly recognized as a classic. It has since acquired the status of national revolutionary novel.
"These are curious civilizers, these adventures, Europeans who didn't quite make the grade, these generals who have come to win their glory against a weak people, these avid speculators for untaxed profits, these impotent people who came to us to recharge their energy or their bank account. Oh what wonderful deals were cut for any and all Europeans, if only they would come to add to the number of crows feeding on our people... What imagery of romantic chateaux, slaves that one whipped as much as one liked, oriental women with dark eyes ornamenting one's home..." (from a speech, on May 24, 1947, at the hall of the Sociétes Savantes, Paris, in The Algerian Destiny of Albert Camus by Aïcha Kassoul and Mohamed-Lakdar Maougal, translated by Philip Beitchman, 2006)
Kateb Yacine was born in Condé-Smendou, near Constantine, into
old, highly literate family. His father was Kateb Mohamed, an attorney-at-law, and mother
Kateb Jasmina. (Kateb is the writer's last name, Yacine his
first.) He was raised on tales of Arab achievement as well as on
the legends of the Algerian heroes.
After attending a Qur'anic school in Sédrata, Kateb entered the French education system. His studies at the Collège de Sétif were interrupted in 1945 by his arrest, following his participation in a nationalist demonstration in Setif. "I felt the strenght of ideas... / I found Algeria full of Anger," he wrote in Nedjma. (The Modern Algerian Theatre: Translations and Critical Analysis of Three Plays By Kateb Yacine, Abdelkader Alloula and Slimane Benaissa by Moussa (Youcef) Selmane, 1989, p. 39) The demonstration had turned to rioting and massacre of thousands people by the police and the army. Kateb, aged sixteen at the time, was imprisoned without trial, tortured by police, and freed a few months later. While in prison, Kateb discovered his two great loves, revolution and the poetry. One of Kateb's best-known poems, 'La rose de Blida' (1963), was about his mother, who, believing him to have been killed during the demonstration, suffered a mental breakdown.
From 1947 Kateb began to visit regularly France until he
settled there permanently. At the age of seventeen, Kateb published his
first book, Soliloques
(1946), a collection of poems. Like many of Algerian writers – Mouloud
Feraoun, Assia Djebar, Tahar Djaout – he wrote in French instead of
using Algerian Arabic, but he argued that all Algerians should be
quadrilingual, learning Berber, Arabic, French, and "above all
Chinese". (Against the Postcolonial: "Francophone" Writers at the Ends of French Empire by Richard Serrano, 2007, p. 84)
In 1948 Kateb published a long poem, 'Nedjma ou le poème ou le couteau', in which the character of Nedjma, a mysterious spirit woman, appeared for the first time. Nedjma also is the name of his cousin, whom the author loved but could not properly court, because she was already married.
Nedjma chaque automne reparue
Et moi, pâle et terrassé
From 1949 to 1951 Kateb worked as a journalist, principally
for the Communist newspaper Alger Républicain, where Mohammed Dib
was his fellow journalist. He travelled through Saudi Arabia, Sudan,
and Soviet Central Asia. For a time he was a dockworker, but from 1952
he devoted himself entirely to writing. "At that time, Camus ruled the roost," he recalled. "Algerian writers
hardly existed all, until Mohamed Dib published his first book with
Editions du Seuil." (History's Place: Nostalgia and the City in French Algerian Literature by Seth Graebner, 2007, p. 253) Due to his involvement in the Algerian nationalist
struggle for independence Kateb was forced to
leave France in 1955. His open polemics on Algeria with Albert Camus
lasted almost fifteen years. Kateb argued that, if Camus is a great
writer, "his books about Algeria sound a false and hollow note". ('Camus and Algerian Writers' by Christiane Achour, in Camus's L’Etranger: Fifty Years On, edited by Adele King, 1992, p. 96)
At the heart of the debate was the National Liberation
Front (FLN) and the question its terror
tactics. As a result of his break with
Camus condemned the use of terrorism, "which is execized blindly, in
the streets of Algiers for example", and defended French colonial rule.
Recalling his experiendes in Sétif, Kateb said that his nationalism
took definitive form in those months when thousands of Muslims were
butchered. "I have never forgotten." (French Colonialism in Algeria: War, Legacy, and Memory by Haley C. Brown, Honors Theses, 2018, p. 48) However, Kateb was accused in his own country by hard-liners of playing into the colonists'
hands for writing in French.
Kateb's most famous work, Nedjma (1957), treats the quest for a restored Algeria in a mythic manner. Its modernist technique, use of multiple narrative voices and discontinuous chronology, has influenced Francophone North African literature and writers elsewhere in the Third World. Kateb himself has admitted that William Faulkner was the most important influence on his style of writing. And like Faulkner with his Yoknapatawpha County, Kateb had his own "little postage stamp of native soil," the eastern part of Algeria.
Nedjma, which incorporates local legends and popular
religious beliefs, is set in Bône, Algeria.
Owing to the fragmented style, the plot is difficult to follow. Nedjma,
a name meaning "star" in Arabic," is a beautiful, married woman, who
has uncertain past. Her mother has been kidnapped and raped by four
Arab men. Nedjma is loved by four revolutionaries, and she comes
and goes like the four seasons. "Nedjma chaque automne reparue / Non
m'avoir arraché / Mes larmes et mon Khandjar / Nedjma chaque automne
disparue." The more they discover about her, the less they really know.
Nedjma never changes, but the other characters pass through all the
ages of life. Noteworthy, as a character she participates in the
action much less than one would expect. Direct quotations of her speech
and thought totals less than two pages. Nedjma, portrayed in an
ethereal way, embodies the attachment of traditional Algerians to their
Critical attention has concentrated on the novel's unusual
structure. The action is not chronological - the narration has similarities with the
arabesques and geometric forms of Islamic art. On of the novel's
central events is the 8 May 1945 demonstrations in Sétif. It has been
often said that Nedjma is
Algeria, or represents national identity. Produced by the Revolution,
she is a "star of blood".
Kateb took up the themes of and figure Nedjma in many poems and plays; this female character was throughout his life the focus of his creative vision. His first play was Le cadavre encerclé (prod. 1958, The encircled corpse), a drama of colonization and alienation filled with surrealist images. In the mythical expression of the Algerian tragedy, Nedjma represented all the values of Arabic civilization trampled upon by history. Le polygone étoilé (1966), Kateb's second major prose work, introduced several characters from Nedjma. As the author himself explained, everything he has done constitutes "a long single work, always in gestation."
Inspired by Aeschylus, Rimbaud, and Brecht, whom he met in Paris, Kateb decided to break away from lyrical tradition and create a more political theatre. Among Kateb's later works is the play L'Homme aux sandales de caoutchouc (1970, The man in rubber sandals). Its first scenes he had sketched out in 1949, while working as a journalist in Algiers and years before the French defeat at the battle of Dien Bien Phu, which Kateb once characterized as "both October and Stalingrad: a revolution of global proportion and an irresistible call to the wretched of the Earth." The Vietnamise hero is Ho Chi Minh. In small roles are such characters as Mao Zedong, Chiang Kai-shek, Pierre Loti, and Marie-Antoinette. A series of vignettes highlights the military history of Vietnam and the plight of the transient Algerian labor force in Europe. Characters are presented face to face, the French opposite the Vietnamese, the Viet-Cong opposite the Americans. Brief sequences and spoken chorus alternate. The trial of an American Everyman, called Captain Supermac, occupies the last third of the play. Kateb had visited Vietnam during the war in 1967, when American troops fought with the South Vietnamese and bombed targets in the north. The play was simultaneously produced in Algiers and Lyon.
The open warfare against French rule ended in 1962 when Algerians, voting in a national referendum, approved independence and France recognized Algeria's sovereignty. Since the early 1970s, Kateb lived in his native country. He no longer wrote in French; he also put on unpublished plays in colloquial Algerian Arabic. Several of his dramatic works were produced in France and Algeria, where he led a revolutionary theatre group composed of students and workers, Action Culturelle des Travailleurs (Workers' Cultural Action or ACT). At the beginning, the members were badly paid or received no pay for their work, but were compensated with some cereal and provisions given by the audience. Later the company toured in France and had a great success among the émigré audiences.
Kateb's Mohammed, prends ta valise (1971, Mohammed, take your suitcase), dealing with Algerian immigration, was performed in factories and other industries, and reached 70000 people in five months. "I gave myself completely to the play with no experience of directing," Kateb said in an interview. In this work Kateb wanted to show the class complicity that exists between the French bourgeoisie and the Algerian bourgeoisie. He had remarked that the revolutionary writer "must transmit a living message, placing the public at the heart of a theater that partakes of the neverending combat opposing the proletariat to the bourgeoisie." Kateb died on October 28, 1989, in Grenoble, France.
At the time of his death, Kateb was revising the first version of ot the play Le bourgeois sans-culotte ou le spectre du parc Monceau (Robespierre the sansculotte, or the ghost of Parc Monceau), commissioned for the bicentennial of the French revolution. It was first performed at the Avignon festival in 1988. With a few exceptions, Kateb's works are unavailable in English. Richard Howard's translation of Nedjma came out in 1961, and the Ubu Repertory Theater series of New York published in 1985 Stephen J. Vogel's translation of Intelligence Powder (La poudre d'intelligence).
For further reading: Representing Algerian Women: Kateb, Dib, Feraoun, Mammeri, Djebar by Edward John Still (2019); Revolution at the Crossroads: Street Theater and the Politics of Radical Democracy in India and in Algeria by Neil Doshi (2009); 'Kateb Yacine and the Ruins of the Present,' in History's Place: Nostalgia and the City in French Algerian Literature by Seth Graebner (2007); Queer Nations: Marginal Sexualities in the Maghreb by Jarrod Hayes (2000); The Politics and Aesthetics of Kateb Yacine: From Francophone Literature to Popular Theatre in Algeria and Outside by Kamal Salhi (1999); 'Yacine, Kateb,' in Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 2. ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); African Theatre for Development: Art for Self-determination, ed. by Kamal Salhi (1998); Bibliographie Kateb Yacine, ed. by Charles Bonn (1997); Counterhegemonic Discourse from the Maghreb: The Poetics of Kateb's Fiction by Bernard Aresu (1993); Kateb Yacine: "Nedjma" by Charles Bonn (1990); L'étoile d'araignée by Kristine Aurbakken (1986); "Nedjma" de Kateb Yacine by Marc Gontard (1985); 'Yacine, Kateb,' in World Authors 1975-1980, ed. by Vineta Colby (1985); Recherches sur la littérature maghrébine de langue française by Jacqueline Aresu (1982); Littérature maghrébine de langue française by J. Déjeux (1973); The French New Novel by L. Le Sage (1962). Note: The name "Kateb" means "writer" in Arabic. Maghribi novel: Northern African novel. The genre is comparatively new to the Arab world. Algerians form the largest group of Maghribis writing in French. Moroccan postmodernist novelists, writing in Arabic, have paved way for experimental fiction. Note: Kateb Yacine's birtdate in some sources: August 26, 1929.