Literature and Democracy: The Algerian Example
Acceptance Speech for the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade
Algeria has produced some eminent writers and artists, but our prizewinning author fears that the inflexible power structures in his country mean that there are still many difficulties to be overcome in the pursuit of democracy.
First I would like to say thank you: to you, ladies and gentlemen, for the distinguished honour you have done me by coming to see me, and to the German Publishers and Booksellers Association for the princely honour you have done me in awarding me your prize, the Friedenspreis, one of the most prestigious distinctions of your great and beautiful country. In the context of today’s world, your gesture is particularly moving and heartening; it testifies to your interest in the efforts we, the peoples of the South, are making to free ourselves from the evil and archaic dictatorships in our countries in a once glorious and enterprising Arab-Islamic world that has been insulated and stagnant for so long that we have forgotten we have legs, that we have a head and that legs can serve to stand, to walk, to run, to dance if we so choose, and that with a head we can do something inconceivable and magnificent, we can invent the future and live it in the present in peace, liberty and friendship. It is an exhilarating and redemptive ability: we invent the future even as it invents us. Mankind is very fortunate to possess such a faculty, to be able to live according to its own will within the unfathomable and indomitable fabric that is Life. In fact this is a banal truth; it is discovering it which is surprising. Life is a constant, a revolutionary invention, and we are living poems, romantic and surrealist, carrying within us eternal truths and infinite promise. To truly see us one must look below the surface. The free man has no choice but to act like a god, an audacious creator who constantly forges ahead, for otherwise he sinks into the non-being of fatalism, of slavery, of perdition. Camus, the Franco-Algerian rebel, urged us not to resign ourselves, words we believe now more than ever. In a time of terror and hope courage is our only option, because it is what is decent and right; this is why we look to the future with confidence.
I am particularly indebted to the Friedenspreis jury for considering my work to be an act of political commitment which, as you say in your official statement, ‘encourages intercultural dialogue in an atmosphere of respect and mutual understanding’. This has a particular resonance for me at a time when a wind of change is blowing through our Arab countries, bringing with it those humanist values, born of freedom and hence universal, which are the bedrock of my commitment. Literary merit, however great, is, I believe, worth little unless it is in the service of a great cause, the promotion of a language, a culture, a political or philosophical vision. I would like to believe that what we do, we writers, filmmakers, poets, philosophers, politicians, has contributed, if only in some small way, to hastening this Arab Springwhich makes us dream, makes us impatient as we watch it unfold, driven as it is by the spirit of freedom, of newfound pride and of courage, facing down every threat and, so far, thwarting every attempt to hijack it; and if I have contributed to it in some small way, it is only as one among many Arab intellectuals and artists who are infinitely more deserving. Some have achieved great fame and their name alone can bring a crowd to its feet.
In this church, in 2000, you honoured my compatriot Assia Djebar who has done much to broadcast the obvious fact that, even in Arab-Islamic countries, woman is a free creature and that unless women are fully possessed of their freedom there can be no just world, only a sick, absurd, vicious world that cannot see it is dying. I can tell you that her struggle has borne fruit: in Algeria, the resistance, true, deep-rooted noble resistance, is essentially the preserve of women. During the civil war of the ’90s, the ‘black decade’, as we call it, when women were the prime targets not only of the Islamists but of the other camp, of the government and its supporters who saw them as the root of all our misfortunes and used the full force of the law and of propaganda to crush them, they resisted magnificently and now, in coping every day with a difficult present, they are fashioning the future. Besides, they are, as always, our last resort.
With your permission at this point I would like to turn for a moment to my wife, who is sitting in the front row between our dear hosts Gottfried Honnefelder and Peter von Matt. I want to look her in the eye as I thank her: dear Naziha, thank you for everything, for your love, your friendship, your patience and for the quiet courage you have shown down the years through all the ordeals we have come through, and God knows they were painful: the civil war, the descent into the absurd, the growing, systematic, sterile isolation. This prize which honours us is rightfully yours.
I would also like to thank my distinguished predecessors, the laureates of this famous prize, the Friedenspreis, who have taken the time to come and attend this imposing ceremony, among them Karl Dedecius and Friedrich Schorlemmer. Seeing them sitting here in front of me I feel as nervous and intimidated as a pupil in front of his teachers.
My thanks, too, to my publishers and friends who have made the trip to Frankfurt and who are in the hall tonight: Antoine Gallimard, who presides over the fortunes of Les Editions Gallimard; Katharina Meyer, the director of Merlin Verlag. I salute my German translators, Regina Keil-Sagawe, Riek Walther and Ulrich Zieger, who are here today. Without them, who would have read me? It is to them I owe my readership in Germany. I hope my other publishers will forgive me for not mentioning them by name, I have so little time. I owe them much and I thank them all.
In passing I would like to say that I regret the fact that the Algerian Ambassador to Germany is not with us, because today, through me, it is Algeria, the country and its people who are being honoured. That empty chair saddens and worries me. I see in it an ominous sign; it means that my situation in Algeria will be no better even as I bring home a peace prize. If they can hear me, I would like to reassure my compatriots, and to tell them that we are not alone, that in this crowded hall are men and women who believe in us, who support us, among them great writers whose voices carry far. One day that voice will reach them and instil in them that fillip of courage necessary to take on a tyrant. I thank them with all my heart.
The Peace Prize as both responsibility and burden
I would now like to go back to those things I wanted to say, things that are dear to my heart. The first takes me back to the now unforgettable day earlier in 2011 – May 10th to be precise – when I received a letter from Germany, from president Gottfried Honnefelder, announcing the incredible, unthinkable news that I been chosen as the laureate for the 2011 Peace Prize, a prize which since its inception in 1950 has honoured people of great standing. In all honesty, I was dumbstruck. I thought there must have been some mistake, a whole catalogue of mistakes that meant that I, a humble writer, an accidental militant, a ‘hack’,as those in official circles in Algeria call me, was being awarded this prestigious honour, a distinction, I can assure you, I had never dreamed of for a moment. It was a serious shock, one that left me beset by anxious, existential questions which plagued me all summer and still plague me to this day. If I was indeed the man to whom the Peace Prize was being given, then I was already a different man… and I didn’t realise it! I was suddenly afraid that people would accuse me of ambivalence, false modesty, cynical ambition, naïve inconsistency; I am an easy-going man and I might unwittingly be guilty of one or other of these failings. Yet I am simply myself; unremarkable, and, truth be told, a rather timid man. But is it possible to remain unchanged with the weight of such a prize on one’s shoulders?
This is your prize, ladies and gentlemen of the German Publishers and Booksellers Association; you know its power to change – I would say to transfigure, for the change is instantaneous, it happens in the moment the announcement is made, as though by magic – those upon whom you bestow it, you know how it can intimidate them, can change them or make them realise that over time they have already changed and that their work now belongs to a different order, one greater than the position they imagined they held as writers, philosophers, playwrights, etc., it makes them realise that they were working for some higher cause, for peace, and not merely to satisfy the narcissistic need to write. We truly discover ourselves through the eyes of others. It is a phenomenon of relativity: we live through ourselves but it is through others that we exist, it is through their questioning gaze that we become conscious of our existence and our importance. Standing here at this lectern facing you, I am both myself and someone else, a man I did not know, that I still do not know, the man you have chosen to receive the 2011 Peace Prize. The prize creates the merit, undoubtedly, just as the function creates the organ. I served peace unwittingly, now I will serve it consciously, something which will require of me other skills, I don’t know what they might be, perhaps the sense of strategy and prudence that is as indispensible in the art of peace as in the art of war. The Peace Prize is like the hand of God, like a magician’s wand: the moment it touches your forehead it transfigures you and turns you into a soldier of peace.
You can imagine how bewildered I was by the news. Flattered, but bewildered. It was a quantum leap into another world, that of a fame that is greater than you, where the individual disappears behind the image people have of him. A world of great responsibilities which demands ambitions of equal greatness. They say life reveals like developing fluid; every day we become a little more… what we already are. Only at the end will we know what we were at the beginning. Relativity again. Believe me, I had my doubts: I’m being given a peace prize? I thought – I who have lived with war my whole life, who talk only of war in my books and who, perhaps, believe only in war, because it is always there blocking our path, because, after all, we exist only because of war, it is war which makes us cherish life, it is war which makes us dream of peace and strive to find it; sadly, as it happens, such is the history of Algeria down the centuries that we have never had the choice between war and peace, but only between war and war, and what wars they were, each forced upon us, each all but wiped us out until the last, the long, savage war of liberation against colonialism from 1954 to 1962 which, as massacre followed massacre, we discovered was like a matryoshka doll: nested within the war of independence with its air of nobility was another war, a shameful, cruel, fratricidal war; we fought the colonial powers and we fought each other, FLN against MNA, Arabs against Berbers, the religious against the secularists, thereby preparing the hatreds and divisions of tomorrow, and within that war was still another war, the insidious and odious war waged by the leaders of the nationalist movement in their race for power, leaving the future of freedom and dignity for which our parents had taken up arms no chance.
And yet, after eight years of war came peace. But it was a curious peace; it lasted for only a day, long enough for a coup d’état, the first of many, for on the day after the declaration of independence, July 5th 1962, the freedom earned in blood was stolen from the people, brutally, contemptuously as one might steal money from the poor, and so began the dark, tragic, endless trench warfare that pitted the people against an invisible army, an omnipresent political police supported by a sprawling bureaucracy against which we could do nothing. Only through patience and cunning could we resist, survive.
The liberation did not bring liberty, still less civil liberties; it brought isolation and shortages. It was a bitter pill to swallow. Then, in 1991, without so much as a pause in which to assess the psychological damage inflicted by that long and humiliating submission, we were pitched into the worst of all wars, a civil war, an indiscriminate barbarity foisted on us by the Islamist hordes and the military police complex which left hundreds of thousands dead, left the people destitute, and which sundered the miraculous bond that holds a nation together. Now this barbarism has declined; the protagonists (the ‘Turbans’and the ‘Peaked Caps’as we call them in Algeria) made a lucrative deal: they shared out the land and the oil revenues between them. These mafia-like arrangements were enacted under cover of impressive legislation likely to win over even the most difficult Western observers, and their stated aim was civil harmony, national reconciliation, in short: complete, fraternal, blissful peace. In reality this peace was merely a stratagem to reward the killers, finish off the victims and with them bury truth and justice forever. They proved themselves to be master strategists; they succeeded in seducing Western democracies, and this – the realisation that there was no Good, no Truth to be found anywhere – was what finally finished us.
The Turbansseduced them first, in 1991, making much of the supposed legitimacy conferred on them at the ballot box – elections which in fact were rigged – a legitimacy they had been robbed of by the military. When their true, horrifying, hateful, treacherous nature was later revealed, it was the turn of the Peaked Caps, decked out in their military medals, to seduce the Western democracies who were clearly easily charmed or who sinned in the name of realpolitik. The military made much of their power to protect Western countries from Islamist terrorism and illegal immigration, which, like the dramatic rise of the black market, were simply by-products of their disastrous leadership. And so, in this new international division of labour, random torture and murder were sanctioned in our country. Roles were assigned: the South became the lair of the invader, an expedient bogeyman; the North a beleaguered, threatened paradise, and – the height of madness – our dangerous, insatiable dictators were elevated to the rank of Guardians of World Peace, benefactors of mankind, the same rank conferred on Bin Laden by millions of indolent souls in what in the Middle East is called the ‘rue arabe’ – the ‘Arab Street’ – and in the West ‘problem areas’.
As for the Algerian people, worn out by ten years of terror and lies, they were served up the kind of peace that bears no resemblance to peace: silence, that bland soup that prepares for oblivion and futile death. It was that or war, more war, always war. We too allowed ourselves to be seduced because we were exhausted and completely alone. We too committed sins of omission, because no one had told us that a country requires a minimum level of democracy for peace to become a credible alternative, that for that rudimentary peace to flourish and truly benefit everyone other ingredients were required: a little wisdom in the heads of the children, a little virtue in the hearts of old people inured to suffering, a little self-restraint from the rich, a little tolerance from the religious, a little humility from intellectuals, a little honesty from government institutions, a little vigilance from the international community. In a country that has known only dictatorship, military and religious, the very idea that peace is possible means submission, suicide or permanent exile. The absence of freedom is an ache which, in the long run, drives one mad. It reduces a man to his shadow and his dreams to nightmares. The painter Giorgio de Chirico said something troubling: There is much more mystery in the shadow of a man walking on a sunny day than in all religions past, present and future. It is possible, it may even be true, but in the pain of a man reduced to his own shadow there is no mystery, only shame. Those who are not free will never respect another, not the slave, whose misfortune reminds him of his own humiliation, nor the free man whose happiness is an insult to him. Only the pursuit of freedom will save him from hatred and resentment. Without that conscious pursuit, we are not human; there is nothing true in us.
Rich country, poor people
This is my country, ladies and gentlemen, miserable and torn apart. I don’t know who made it that way, whether Fate, history, or its people; I would be inclined to say its leaders, who are capable of anything. My country is a collection of insoluble paradoxes, most of them lethal. To live in absurdity is debilitating; one staggers from wall to wall like a drunk. For the young, who must find a future, who need clear landmarks to guide them, it is a tragedy; it is heartrending to hear them baying at death like wolves in the darkness.
The first paradox is that Algeria is an immensely rich country and the Algerian people are terribly poor. It is as maddening as dying of thirst in the middle of a deep lake. What is not squandered is guaranteed to be lost to corruption. The second paradox is that Algeria is a perfectly constituted democracy, with political parties of every possible stripe, including some peculiar to itself, a press that is as free as it can be, a president elected according to law and all sorts of institutions whose stated business is justice, transparency, the separation of powers, public service, and yet at the same time the everyday reality of the people is the cruellest despotism, the famous Oriental Despotism which nothing down the centuries has succeeded in humanising. The third paradox, and to my mind the worst since it is the cause of incurable mental disorders, is this: Algeria has an extraordinarily rich and rewarding history, it has lived cheek by jowl with all the civilisations of the Mediterranean and has loved, embraced and valiantly fought with each of them: the Greek, the Phoenician, the Roman, the Vandal, the Byzantine, the Arabic, the Ottoman, the Spanish and the French, but at independence, when the moment came to rally the people, including those most recently arrived, the Pieds-Noirs, to marshal their talents and move forward, it erased its memory at a stroke; in an inexplicable auto-odi, an act of self-hatred, it renounced its ancestral Berber and Judeo-Berber identity and everything it had learned over thousands of years of history and retreated into a narrow history which owed much to mythology and very little to reality. The reason for this?
It is the logic of totalitarianism. The Unity Party system wanted their religion, their history, their language, their heroes, their legends, concepts dreamed up by a select group and imposed by decree, and propaganda and threats guaranteed the condition necessary for these stillborn fables to work: a terrified populace. The struggle for the recognition of our identity was long and painful, repression resulted in the deaths of hundreds of activists, especially in Kabylie, a region that has always been indomitable; torture and imprisonment broke thousands of people and drove whole populations into exile. True to its own logic, repression was extended to French-speakers, Christians, Jews, the laity, to intellectuals, to homosexuals, to free women, to artists, to foreigners; anyone, in fact, whose very presence might threaten this illusory identity. The sweeping pageant of human diversity became a crime, an insult to identity. The struggle is not over, the hardest part still lies ahead: we must free ourselves and rebuild ourselves as an open, welcoming democratic state which has a place for everyone and imposes nothing on anyone.
You know all this, ladies and gentlemen, and you know that it is this violence, this endless persecution, this appalling interference in our private lives that led to the rebellions in our countries which have erupted, one after another, like fireworks. These events have brought many tragedies but we accept them because at the end of the road there is freedom.
For having written these things which everyone knows, my books are banned in my country. This is the absurdity dictatorship feeds on: my books are banned but I, who wrote them, still live in the country and am free – at least until further notice – to come and go. If a sword of Damocles hangs over my head, I do not see it. And if my books still circulate in Algeria, it is thanks to the invisible and highly dangerous work of a number of booksellers. In a letter addressed to my compatriots, published in 2006 under the title Poste Restante: Alger, I wrote the following: ‘But for the fear of pushing them to breaking point (I am talking about the intolerant), I would tell them I did not write as an Algerian, a Muslim, a nationalist, proud and easily offended; had I done so I would have known exactly what to write, how to be discreet. Instead I wrote as a human being, a child of the earth and of solitude, distraught and destitute, who does not know what Truth is or where it lives, who owns it, who apportions it. I seek it out and, truth be told, I seek nothing, I do not have the means, I tell stories, simple stories about simple people whom misfortune has pitted against seven-armed thugs who think themselves the centre of the universe, like those who loom over us, grinning crudely, those who seized our lives and our possessions and who, in addition, now demand our love and our gratitude. I would like to tell them that the bureaucratic, sanctimonious police state they support by their actions troubles me less than the embargo on thought. Granted, I am in prison, but my mind is free to roam; this is what I write about in my books, and there is nothing shocking or subversive about it.’ In The Rebel, Camus says: ‘To write is already to choose.’ And that is what I did: I chose to write. And I was right to do so; the dictators are falling like flies.
The revolution and the conflict in Palestine
With your permission I would like to conclude with a few thoughts concerning the Arab rebellions and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Since the Jasmine Revolutionin Tunisia we all feel it: the world is changing. What in the old, sclerotic, complicated, doom-laden Arab world seemed impossible has happened: people are fighting for freedom, committing themselves to democracy, throwing open doors and windows, they are looking to the future and they want that future to be pleasant, to be simply human. What is happening, in my opinion, is not simply the overthrow of ageing, deaf, dull-witted dictators, nor is it limited to Arab countries; it is the beginning of a worldwide change, a Copernican revolution: people want true, universal democracy without barriers or taboos. All that despoils life, impoverishes, limits and distorts it has become more than the world’s conscience can bear and is being vehemently rejected. People are rejecting dictators, they are rejecting extremists, they are rejecting the diktats of the market, they are rejecting the stifling domination of religion, they are rejecting the pretentious and cowardly cynicism of realpolitik, they are rejecting Fate even though it has the last word, they are rejecting polluters; everywhere people are angry, everywhere they are rising up against those things that harm this planet and mankind. A new consciousness is emerging. It is a turning point in the history of nations – what you called ‘Die Wende’ when the Berlin Wall came down.
In this atmosphere of open rebellion, more and more of us refuse to accept that the oldest conflict in the world, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, should carry on and devastate our children and our grandchildren. We feel impatient; we do not want these two great peoples, so deeply rooted in the history of humanity, to spend even one more day as hostages to their petty dictators, to narrow-minded extremists, to those mired in nostalgia, to the worthless blackmailers and agitators. We want them to be free, happy, living in brotherhood. We believe that the spring which began in Tunis will come to Tel-Aviv, to Gaza, to Ramallah, that it will make its way to China and beyond. This wind blows in all directions. Soon Palestinians and Israelis will be united by the same anger; this will be ‘Die Wende’in the Middle East and the walls will fall with a joyous roar.
But the real miracle would not be that the Israelis and the Palestinians might one day sign a peace treaty, something they could do in five minutes on the back of an envelope and which they have come close to doing more than once; the real miracle would be if those who have set themselves up as patrons, tutors and advisors to these two peoples – worse, who have set themselves up as bloody-minded prophets – stopped imposing their fantasies on them. The Holy Wars, the endless Crusades, the incessant Oaths, the Geopolitics of Origins are long gone; Israelis and Palestinians live in the here and now, not in some mythical past they have no obligation to revive. The demand for recognition of a sovereign, independent Palestinian state within the 1967 borders submitted by president Mahmoud Abbas to the United Nations struck a pointless blow, we all knew that; but even in failure it may turn out to be a decisive blow, as decisive as the self-immolation of the young Tunisian man Bouazizi which set the Arab world alight. For the first time in sixty years, the Palestinians acted entirely according to their own wishes; they went to New York because they wanted to, they did not ask for support or permission from anyone, neither from the Arabic dictators we are burying one by one, nor the Arab League which no longer booms like a war drum, nor some mysterious backroom Islamist Grand Mufti.
It is an extraordinary event: for the first time the Palestinians behaved like Palestinians in the service of Palestine and not instruments in the service of a mythical Arab nation or a sadly all-too-real international jihad. Only free men can make peace, and Abbas came as a free man, and perhaps, like Sadat, he will pay for it with his life; there are many enemies of peace and freedom in the region and they feel cornered. It is sad that a man like Obama, the magnificent link between the two hemispheres of our planet, did not understand this and seize the opportunity which he has been watching for intently since his famous speech in Cairo.
Israel is a free country, of that there can be no doubt, a beautiful, vast, amazing democracy, which, more than any other country, needs peace; the ceaseless war, the constant state of alert it has lived with for sixty years is unsustainable. It too must break with extremists and with all the lobbies who, from the safety of their remote paradises, advocate intransigence – fruitless, of course – and ensnare the country in equations that are impossible to solve. In my opinion, we have to get away from the idea that peace is something to be negotiated; though the terms, the forms, the stages can be negotiated, peace is a principle, something to be publicly announced in a solemn manner. You must say: Peace, Shalom, Salam, and shake hands. This is what Abbas did in going to the United Nations; it is what Sadat did in going to Tel Aviv. Is it a dream to hope that Netanyahu might do the same, that he might come to the UN, or go to Ramallah and announce the principle of peace?
The text reproduced here is a transcript of Boualem Sansal’s acceptance speech for the 2011 Peace Prize of the German Book Trade at a ceremony in the Paulskirche in Frankfurt on 16th October 2011. By kind permission of the German Publishers and Booksellers Association and Boualem Sansal.
born in 1949, is one of the bestknown contemporary Algerian writers. He writes in French. His books have been translated into numerous languages, e.g. An Unfinished Business (Bloomsbury).
Translated by Frank Wynne
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
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