I, Yasmina Khadra, Future President of Algeria

A presidential candidate at last! The perpetually ailing Abdelaziz Bouteflika refuses to say whether he is running in Algeria’s April election, meaning other establishment politicians are afraid to throw their own hats into the ring. Enter Yasmina Khadra, the pseudonymous detective novelist and former army officer.

So, a torpid non-election, suddenly woken up by a literary figure. But no effete intellectual, he says: this novelist directed anti-terrorism operations during Algeria’s bloody civil war in the 1990s. An anti-establishment candidate, perhaps, and deprecated by the intellectuals back home, he says. But appointed to a fine sinecure of a job in Paris and with friends and former subordinates in high echelons of the secretive military establishment back home. Here, an account of Khadra’s startling and casual announcement that he will ‘probably’ run to replace Bouteflika next spring:

Liberte’s forum at the Algiers Book Fair was honored yesterday by the presence of the country’s most internationally known writer, Yasmina Khadra.

Asked to discuss ‘Algerian writing as seen by the rest of the world,’ the writer riposted that focusing on international fame is ‘a trap,’ and that ‘talent must be developed first in your own country.’

But that was not all! The retired military officer had set up his own little ‘ambush’ for the audience, taking the opportunity to announce that he was running for president.

“If I am up for it, I will be running in the [April, 2014] election,” he said, adding that he thinks he is an ideal candidate for the job.

“I grew up attending the military academy [L’Ecole des Cadets], and I was shaped with an unbreakable love for Algeria. I was also the military planner behind the anti-terrorist campaign in the Oran region [during the Algerian civil war of the 1990s]. No one [presumably among the military establishment]will be able to order me around. When I wrote Morituri, I was still in uniform; I was no socialite making the rounds of the salons. I have watched people die…”

Needless to say perhaps that this entirely unexpected announcement surprised more than a few attendees.

Had the novelist jumbled fiction and fact for a moment? Was it perhaps some guerilla marketing for a yet-to-be-published political thriller? Or was this first salvo of a dark horse candidate trying to shake things up, like the late French humorist Coluche [who ran for president in 1980]?

Asked to detail his political aspirations further, the author of The Attack said he considered himself well qualified for the presidency for the simple reason that the country’s present leaders are no better qualified than himself, nor more patriotic.

“If they are better defenders of Algeria, they are going to have to prove it. And if they think they have the [political]field to themselves, well they are going to have to deal with us!”

Though it is still too soon to predict how the media will react to the writer’s declaration, Khadra’s candidacy can be expected to garner a good deal of support in some quarters, particularly among the ranks of post-independence military officers.

As it happens, several officers were in attendance at the forum to support one of their own.

Khadra considers himself living proof that “our country is not just a garbage dump that only turns out trash.” He believes that his novels have raised Algeria’s profile in the rest of the world.

“I believe that the role of the human being is to try to serve your fellow man,” he said. “This is absolutely vital. I have the highest respect for Doctors Without Borders, who go out to share in the misery at the ends of the earth, to places forgotten by God and man alike.”

He made clear that running for president is not a mere prestige move, and was at pains to point out that some of today’s army generals were his subordinates when he was in uniform.

Nor is it about money, he said. “The entire government budget for the Algerian Cultural Center in Paris [of which he is the director]is less than my royalties from writing. My salary there is barely equal to working on a single movie script.”

Long the victim in Algeria of an active disregard for his talent, Yasmina Khadra succeeded yesterday in showing that everything that has been said against him over the years since his sudden eruption onto the literary scene was pure malice.

In any case, whether we like it or not, Yasmina Khadra is unquestionably a very talented writer. A fact which is only disputed in bad faith or by those who don’t recognize good literature when they see it:

“It is not attacks by the critics that weigh me down, but the lies,” Khadra said. “When you start reading a book, it is immediately evident if you are reading a work of genius, or if you are reading a failed writer. But those who obsess over minor typos are just cruel and malicious.”

The writer said that he does not reject literary criticism, but that the Algerian press corps is somewhat “dyslexic.” “I feel sorry for those who are incapable of being enthralled,” he said. “People who are incapable of dreaming are a walking tragedy. You have to know how to be happy in life, and certain journalists suffer from an irreversible frown.”

“In my next novel, they will all get what they deserve,” he said with a menacing grin.

All that being said, he said he thinks most journalists respect his work. “All in all, I suppose I have maybe 5 detractors, out of seven million readers. This little minority has no idea that there is a war being waged against me now in France. What saves me is my readership, and especially my Algerian readers.”

Accused of not being the real writer of his books, the author of L’imposture des Mots replied yesterday with caustic humor. “I haven’t robbed anyone, and I haven’t betrayed anyone. And I really wonder why this ghost writer would have been so stupid as to choose a not-so-great-looking army officer to be his public face. He could have chosen a beautiful woman, or at least a more likeable Algerian man…”

Asked if he had a detailed electoral program, he said he did: “Yes, of course,” though he went on to mostly talk about his “concerns as an Algerian about the way local talent is neglected and underappreciated.”

He says by example that he cannot understand why the military past of a writer like John Le Carre is a matter of prestige, while his own military background is not seen the same way.

In the face of such a prolific talent, the moderator of the Liberte Forum, our colleague Ahmed Lahri could not help asking a rather daring question: “What kind of fuel do you run on?” “I run on love,” Khadra answered.

There is no doubt, he said, that “Algeria can only be saved by its women.” He went on to talk about his wife, whose role in his life is immeasurable, he said. “When I left the army, I was like Mowgli leaving the jungle. I had no sense of being a family man. For me everything was black or white. It was my wife who taught me, not how to be the best, but to give the best of myself.”

He then revealed that it was his wife who pushed him to publish his novels, under a pseudonym. And thus it is thanks to her that Algerians know that the discipline of military life is no bar to a reflective mind.

Mohamed-Cherif Lachichi