International Prize for Arabic Fiction winner Abdelouahab Aissaoui on Algeria's awakening to the literary form

Author of 'The Spartan Court' is the first Algerian to win the prize

 Abdelouahab Aissaoui. Photo by Kheridine Mabrouk
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Abdelouahab Aissaoui is not a man for grand occasions.

So when the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (Ipaf) cancelled its glittering ceremony in Abu Dhabi last month due to the coronavirus, this year's winner was all too accepting.

As the first Algerian to scoop the prize, for the novel The Spartan Court, Aissaoui was more than happy to accept the prize from the comfort of his home.

 Abdelouahab Aissaoui. Photo by Kheridine Mabrouk

“It took nothing away from how happy I felt and I was looking forward to travel to the UAE for the event. But at the end of the day a writer’s work is normally private and away from people,” he says. “So to be able to stay home and accept the prize from here is absolutely ideal for me.”

That said, the prize - which comes with $50,000 (Dh180,360) and guaranteed English translation of the novel – did come with its own share of disruptions.

The award's high profile resulted in a reappraisal of The Spartan Court, which had been out in Algerian book shops for two years prior.

The 'Ipaf effect' is real

“When the novel came out, it got some decent coverage but to be honest, it was read in limited circles,” Aissaoui says. “Now that I [have] won the award people are engaging with it more. With that came a lot of controversy. As a writer, I don’t mind stirring up discussion and my work being criticised for its ideas. But if it’s personal, well that can be frustrating.”

The reason for the divisive reaction is that The Spartan Court examines a deeply contentious period of Algerian history (1815 to 1833) which saw the transfer of power from the Ottoman Empire to Colonial France.

That tumultuous time is rendered through the interconnected lives of the five characters, all of whom straddle different strata of Algerian society.

Two of the characters are French. There's Dupond, a weary journalist covering the colonial campaign against Algeria. He is joined by Caviard, a former soldier in Napoleon's army who strategises the campaign from his cell. The response to the upheaval is told through the eyes of the remaining three Algerian characters: the socialite and business savvy Ibn Mayyar, the rebel Hamma Sallaoui and Doudja, a sex worker.

The Spartan Court by Abdelouahab Aissaoui. Courtesy IPAF

Split into five parts and using various narrative techniques from standard prose to monologues, the novel revisits certain pivotal events from the perspectives of its characters.

Such a multi-layered approach was vital, Aissaoui states, as it provides a more provocative representation of a period rife with various interpretations based on political and religious ideologies.

In this regard, The Spartan Court achieves what all historical literature is meant to do, to elicit more questions than answers.

"I wanted to escape this idea of myself as the omniscient narrator," he says. "The story uses a polyphonic structure because I wanted those different perspectives. It gives me the freedom to roam around and give the story more depth.”

This method necessitated a deep dive into Algerian history and Aissaoui approached the research through a journalistic lens.

He recalls reading more than 70 books on that era ranging from historical travelogues by Sufi scholar Abu Ra’s al-Nasiri, Ottman Empire maps and memoirs by 19th century Algerian authors Sharif Zahar and Ahmad Efendi, as well as the account of William Schaller, who was American consul in Algeria at the time

This was supplemented with field trips Aissaoui took to Algiers (he lives in 400 kilometres away). However, his strolls in the city were not to identify specific pieces of Algerian history, but to document what was lost.

"Part of this book looks at some of the changes that happened in Algeria as a result of colonisation," he says. "There are many things from that era that are no longer with us, such as the mosques, palaces and street cafes. In some cases, I needed to my skills to reimagine those places with atmosphere and people."

Algeria past and present

It is something Aissaoui renders with the elegance of a seasoned hand.

The Spartan Court is not his only work immersed in history.

His previous novel, 2015's Mountains of Death, is set in the 1930s during the Spanish Civil War and looks at the plight of rebels suffering in prison camps in Algeria. With The Spartan Court being the first historical novel to win the prize, Aissaoui hopes that the genre becomes more palatable to Arabic readers.

“It’s not that history never played a part in Arabic novels. If you look at the Ipaf Award, many of the winning novels which preceded mine dealt with history in some shape or form,” he says. “I think there is a growing interest in this field, so it is also up to the writers to present in an accessible way to keep gauge and maintain their interests.”

As well as challenging misconceptions surrounding Algeria history, The Spartan Court also provides a fresh perspective on its modern cultural landscape.

Aissaoui says being the first Algerian novelist to win the Ipaf Award reflect his homeland’s increasingly vibrant Arabic literary scene.

“We are living through the awakening of the Arabic novel in Algeria,” he says. “You know, about 20 years ago you would only find about 4 to 5 Arabic books published a year. Now you can get up 200 novels out annually.”

Aissaoui puts it down to the last two generations of Algerians being “Arabised” by the explosion of Pan Arabic satellite television.

“You can’t underestimate the power of this. We have moved from generations influenced by French culture to an Arabic one” he says.

“Watching Arabic channels have influenced Algerians to embrace the language and literature. There are more Arabic publishing houses putting out interesting works and with the encouragement of awards such as the Ipaf, I think this number will only grow. I am optimistic about the future.”