Selected North African Reading List

Everyday I see a lot of press for books coming out of East, West and South Africa but rarely out of North. I went digging and found novels that are gems centered on North Africa. If you are like me that haven’t read much of North African literature then these are the stories for us.

The Sand Child by Tahar Ben Jelloun

The Sand Child tells the story of a Moroccan father’s effort to thwart the consequences of Islam’s inheritance laws regarding female offspring. Already the father of seven daughters, Hajji Ahmed determines that his eighth child will be a male. Accordingly, the infant, a girl, is named Mohammed Ahmed and raised as a young man with all the privileges granted exclusively to men in traditional Arab-Islamic societies. As she matures, however, Ahmed’s desire to have children marks the beginning of her sexual evolution, and as a woman named Zahra, Ahmed begins to explore her true sexual identity. Drawing on the rich Arabic oral tradition, Ben Jelloun relates the extraordinary events of Ahmed’s life through a professional storyteller and the listeners who have gathered in a Marrakesh market square in the 1950s to hear his tale. A poetic vision of power, colonialism, and gender in North Africa, The Sand Child has been justifiably celebrated around the world as a daring and significant work of international fiction.

Wolf Dreams by Yasmina Khadra

“How does a handsome young man who keeps company with poets and dreams of fame and fortune in the movie business become a brutal killer who massacres women and children without turning a hair? Wolf Dreams reveals this transformation in a novel of unflinching detail and commanding prose. The story follows Nafa Walid, heart-throb of the Casbah, as he gradually loses control of his destiny and becomes drawn into the Islamic Fundamentalist movement. Wolf Dreams illustrates how disappointment and disillusion, when they intersect with the persuasive voice of fundamentalism and the chaos of civil war, can transform a normal, middle-class young man into a mindless assassin; a man who inflicts pain and terror on others without qualms, and accepts the idea of his own death with devotion.

The Earthquake by Tahar Ouetta

Shaykh Abdelmajid Boularwah embarks upon a journey from Algiers to Constantine in search of lost relatives who might help him defraud the new socialist government in its attempt to implement land reform. Written in the early 1970s, Wattar’s Earthquake is an ominous message against the evils of intolerance, ignorance, and extremism, told in a language that resonates loudly, presciently foretelling the dreadful events which would later besiege Algeria.



Nedjma by Kateb Yacine

Although published in 1956, thus during the Algerian War of Independence which began in November 1954, it was largely written between 1947 and 1953, and the novel’s political dimension applies specifically to this period rather than to the war itself. The central action of the novel takes place during the period following the nationalist demonstrations of 8 May 1945, which included the Sétif massacre . Two of the characters in the novel, Lakhdar and Mustapha, were arrested, imprisoned and tortured following these demonstrations. The novel begins in the wake of the period of upheavals which followed the demonstrations. The four male characters have found work on a building site, and one of them, Lakhdar, has been imprisoned following an altercation with M. Ernest, their (French) boss – an altercation which, however, due to the complex temporal structure of the novel, will not be related until later in the text. Shortly after this, still in the first part of the novel, another of the characters, Mourad, is involved in a brawl at a wedding which results in his being responsible for the death of M. Ricard, another French entrepreneur. This event causes the other characters to disperse, and from this point the novel changes in style and begins to recount their separate histories, jumping around considerably in its chronology. Each of the four male characters has a connection to, and is attracted to, Nedjma, who is the same age as the male characters but already (unhappily) married. Although based on a real person, with whom Yacine had a relationship, Nedjma (who rarely speaks in the novel and whose character is not developed) has frequently been identified with Algeria, “la femme-patrie”. The novel also evokes the history of the characters’ tribe, the Keblout, and of Abdelkader ‘s original resistance to French colonisation.

The theocrat by Bensalem Himmich

The Theocrat takes as its subject one of Arab and Islamic history’s most perplexing figures, al-Hakim bi-Amr Illah (“the ruler by order of God”), the Fatimid caliph who ruled Egypt during the tenth century and whose career was a direct reflection of both the tensions within the Islamic dominions as a whole and of the conflicts within his own mind. In this remarkable novel Bensalem Himmich explores these tensions and conflicts and their disastrous consequences on an individual ruler and on his people. Himmich does not spare his readers the full horror and tragedy of al-Hakim’s reign, but in employing a variety of textual styles including quotations from some of the best known medieval Arab historians; vivid historical narratives; a series of extraordinary decrees issued by the caliph; and, most remarkably, the inspirational utterances of al-Hakim during his ecstatic visions, recorded by his devotees and subsequently a basis for the foundation of the Druze community he succeeds brilliantly in painting a portrait of a character whose sheer unpredictability throws into relief the qualities of those who find themselves forced to cajole, confront, or oppose him.

Si Yussef by Anouar Majid

“The narrator of Si Yussef’s (“Mr.” Yussef’s) story is Lamin, a young university student in Fez. One gloomy day, he encounters the subject of his tale in Ashab’s cafe in Tangier. They continue to meet for the next twelve days – exactly four weeks and two days before Si Yussef’s death.” “Si Yussef had grown up in the neighborhood of Amrah and had guided tourists around Medina as a child. He become a bookkeeper with the only soap manufacturer in Tangier and for forty-seven years he frequented the Nejma cafe before transferring his custom to Ashab’s more cosmopolitan establishment in 1964. Si Yussef has come to be regarded with a certain amount of awe, not least because his wife Senora Lucia – a Christian but a good wife – who was a legendary beauty for whom a young Spanish sailor committed suicide in the port of Sebta.” “As Si Yussef reminisces and assesses the gentle influences of the past, the narrator from his own unconscious or his own imagination, fills the gaps created by Si Yussef’s narration. This is the third meta-real, spiritual voice. Sometimes it is the voice of memory, vague but common, true but impossible to articulate with precision. The voice becomes the voice of Morocco itself, evoking with sensual images a world that cannot yet be confined with language as the story takes on the resonance of a prayer.

The astrolabe of the sea by Shams Nadir
The Astrolabe of the Sea-a work of beauty, originality, and universal outlook-is part ancient fable, part contemporary ironic narrative. A mysterious astrolabe that unfolds “the fabric of dreams” to all who gaze upon it was once consigned to the depths of the sea by a Persian king who did not want men “to forget the weight of the concrete and the empire of the real.” Centuries later, it is found by a castaway navigator, who is captivated by its stories that combine elements from the realm of myth and dreams, conjuring up a world where the imagination holds sway.
Yet also unfolded from the fabric of these revisited ancient tales is a procession of allegories reflecting the present stresses of an Arab world torn between an impossible fidelity to the past and its difficult position on the cutting edge of the most vital debates of the day. In this first volume of a classic trilogy, Nadir combines a contemporary, emergent postmodern vision with the rich poetic tradition of the Arab and Mediterranean worlds.

Return to Dar Al Bashar by Hassan Nasr

Return to Dar al-Basha by the contemporary Tunisian author Hassan Nasr depicts the childhood of Murtada al-Shamikh and his return forty years later to his home in the medina or old city of Tunis. After being taken from his mother and raised in his father’s home where he was physically abused and emotionally marginalized, Murtada spends a life of anxiety wandering the world. His return is prompted by a mysterious visit from one of his father’s Sufi friends as he roams the desert in Mauritania. Murtada retraces his steps through the medina to his family’s house in anticipation of a possible reunion with his troubled father, vividly reliving sights, smells, and sounds from his childhood and evoking his childhood initiation into Islamic mysticism as he experiences a personal journey of the spirit across space and time.