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Obituary: Abdelhamid Benhadouga

Although many Francophone Algerian writers are better known in the Arab world and the West than Abdelhamid Benhadouga, he is without doubt the father of modern Arabic literature in Algeria.

From the 1950s, Algeria's Arabic literature became inseparable from the quest for national identity and independence. Benhadouga was at the centre of this endeavour from the outset, and devoted most of his career and energy to the foundation of an Arabic national culture, both in literature and in the media.

He was born in 1925 in al-Hamra, a small peasant village in the district of Mansoura and the country of Setif in north-east Algeria. His father was Arab and his mother Berber, so he experienced from childhood the traditional Algerian diglossia, a mixture of Arabic and Berber languages and cultures.

His father was among al-Hamra's few educated inhabitants, and the young Behadouga was sent to school from an early age, where he was exposed to further linguistic complications. At his primary school in Mansoura, French was the language of instruction, while at the traditional or Qur'anic school he also attended he had to learn the Qur'an by heart in Arabic. This confusing state of affairs only lasted for a few years, however, for when his father was criticised for being a learned and pious Muslim yet sending his son to a French school, he sent him instead to the Kittaniya Islamic Institute on Constanine. Here he remained for five years until the tumultuous events of 8 May 1945 and the uprising of Constanine forced him to return to his village.

When it transpired that the Institute was not going to reopen shortly, he went to Marseilles to study at a technical school, then proceeded to another in Grenoble where he specialised in manufacturing plastics. He then found a job as an industrial worker in France.

Benhadouga later admitted that the years he spent in France were crucial for his cultural formation because they provided him with first-hand experience of the harsh conditions suffered by the Algerian community there and drove him to contemplate the difficult situation of his country and its future.

In 1949 he returned to Algeria on holiday, and was urged by his father to stay and complete his Arabic studies. He resumed them at the Kittaniya Islamic Institute and then at the Zaytouna Islamic university in Tunis. He also joined the Tunisian School of Drama and Acting for four years.

While in Tunis, Benhadouga became active in the political Algerian movement and was appointed the president of the Algerian Students Association in Tunisia. He joined the Algerian National Liberation Front (NLF) and soon became one of its leading activists.

On his return to Algeria in 1954 he taught at the Kittaniya Islamic Institute for a year, then fled to France under a false identity. He worked first as a labourer, while continuing his political activities among the Algerian community, and later for three years as a translator in the Arabic section of Radio France.

In 1958 the NLF asked him to go to Tunisia to head the Arabic section of its new Voice of Algeria radio station. Here he was instrumental in developing the infrastructure for a national Algerian broadcasting organisation in which Arabic was dominant. He stayed until 1962 when the Algerian revolution secured the country's independence from France, and he went back to Algiers to become the Head of both the Arabic and Berber Radio stations. He remained at this post until 1978, after which he dedicated most of his time to writing.

Benhadouga's literary career started while he was studying in Tunis. He began publishing articles in Tunisian newspapers advocating the cause of the Algerian revolution and articulating its national aspirations.

In 1952 he started to write short stories and to translate Algerian-Francophone literature into Arabic, particularly the work of M. Haddad, Y. Kateb and M. Mammeri. He wrote over 200 radio plays for Radio Algiers, some of which were broadcast by the Arabic service of the BBC, the French-Arabic service of Radio Monte Carlo, Radio Cairo and Radio Tunis.

But his major contribution to the cause of Arabisation lies in his rich literary output which rooted the Arabic literary tradition in Algerian reality. His first collection of short stories, Algerian Shades, was published in 1960 and was celebrated for its maturity, artistic coherence and strong sense of social and patriotic mission. In addition to two more collections of short stories, Seven Rays (1962) and The Writer (1974), and a collection of poems, Lyrical Souls (1975), he wrote five novels: Southern Wind (1970), The End of Yesterday (1975), The Rising Morning (1980), The Beauty and the Dervishes (1983) and Tomorrow Is Another Day (1993).

Southern Wind is widely acknowledged as the first major Arabic Algerian novel, and laid the foundation for a thriving Arabic Algerian fiction. It was made into a successful Algerian film and translated into French, Spanish and German, but unfortunately not into English.

It is a novel of social concern, grappling with the pain of the country's transition from the colonial period to post-colonial reality and with the conflict between the city and the country. But it is also optimistic, hinting at the possibility of progress and development.

In Benhadouga's later novels, one sees how soon the early euphoria of independence was swamped in the quagmire of rampant post- independence corruption and political intimidation. One sees too that those who reaped the fruits of post-independence played little or no role in the struggle for independence, while those who sacrificed themselves for the revolution became the victims of the post-indigence society.

In addition, Benhadouha's novels are concerned with the dilemma of the intellectual in a developing country whose commitment to that development puts him in direct confrontation with the establishment. His visions and aspirations were often ahead of his ability to influence an increasingly corrupt society and this in turn tinges them with a tragic hue.

He criticises those who equated modernity with French culture and arrogantly regarded Islamism as a relic of the Middle Ages. This inadvertently contributed to their own isolation and left their natural constituency to the traditional intellectuals with their archaic version of dogmatic Islam.

In this way in the 1970s and 1980s Abdelhamid Behadouga warned of the danger of blind Islamism, which he saw germinating in Algeria long before its widespread eruption in the poor urban centres, and which has exacted, and is still exacting, such a heavy price.

Abdelhamid Benhadouga, writer and broadcaster: born Al- Hamra, Setif 9 January 1925; married (three children); died Algiers 20 October 1996.