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From the author of the novel Regions of Fear, excerpted in Banipal 44
A testimony on Writing
I thought of Charles Dickens as my first boyfriend from the world of literature
With my adoptive father, I lived a life different from my peers. Firstly, because I belonged to a cultured family that loved books, and second, because they had firm notions about women’s freedom. My family was famous for keeping its women away from the general public, unlike the other tribes I found myself among. For some reason, my isolation from those around me was difficult, particularly since my adoptive father would tell us many stories about the revolution for Independence, and freedom and the sacrifices that had to be made in order to achieve it; and I also heard many stories when I went with him to the shoe shop he owned, where his revolutionary friends would tell us stories of their lives with Mustafa Ben Boulaïd, the hero of the first Algerian revolution, that I thought were like epics. Those were my first lessons in narrative, lessons I absorbed unconsciously. The most important formative experience for my talent were the story books my father would bring me so that I would stay inside the house and not mingle with the other kids in the neighbourhood. I think that literature has been my fate since birth; it came to me, not the other way round. In the village, we had a very limited range of games suitable for girls, so the library was the place where I would discover new things that satisfied my curiosity. I read many of the famous Ladybird short stories, but the real treasure trove was the novels of Charles Dickens that I found at my biological father’s home in Constantine – I used to spend part of my summer vacation there with him, my mother and my siblings. Dickens was the first writer whose words resonated with me so much that I was convinced David Copperfield was real, and went about praying for him to have a good life for ever after.
I thought of Charles Dickens as my first boyfriend from the world of literature, followed by Robert Louis Stevenson and his wonderful Treasure Island, which made me and my girl friends dream of adventure and treasure hunts.
Following my discovery of the Arris public library, I don’t think I left a single book unread, from translations of world literature and the work of the pioneers of Arabic literature, to the autobiographies of great authors, musicians and poets. When I was sixteen, however, I discovered Ghada al-Samman, and I think she had a profound effect on me, not only with her language and her style, but in her defiant lifestyle which provided fertile ground for my imagination, where similar dreams abounded. I began to write powerful school essays, thirty-two pages long. My ideas could not be contained by the double-sided paper my classmates used. My work impressed my teachers, and I became well known at school.
I moved to Constantine in 1985 to live with my biological parents. I missed the village, the mountains, Tamazight, and my adoptive mother’s cooking. I pined away, and my separation from my adoptive father – whose decision it had been – almost destroyed me. Every day I threw myself into writing, assuming that I was about to die from sorrow and that these journals would be the testament to my parents’ crime. But I didn’t die. I entered into the maelstrom of medical school, which my father directed me towards, and spent two years there completely lost, before deciding to defy him and enrol in the faculty of Arabic literature.
In 1990, I began to publish my work under the pseudonym Fadhila Farouk, which I used out of fear of my family. I wrote of my anger and my resentment at their decisions and the way they raised girls, I wrote things that provoked Algeria’s Arabic-language readership, which was not used to women who were as angry and as defiant as I was. While some encouraged me, others attacked me and tried to silence me, but I refused to be silent until my life was made very difficult by the Islamic fundamentalist militias that had begun to assassinate intellectuals in Algeria. Faced with the world’s silence about their deaths, I had no option but to pack my bags and head towards the first country that would take me, and allow me to say what I had not yet said. Ghada al-Samman’s voice and Fairouz’s music were constantly on my mind, so I left in 1995 for Beirut. In 1997, I published my first book, A Moment of Stolen Love, and this is the year I mark as my true launching point into the world of literature.
Translated by Ghenwa Hayek for Banipal 44