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Obituary: Tahar Djaout

Tahar Djaout, editor-in-chief of Algerie-Actualite, was one of the outstanding Algerian Francophone writers of his generation. He began his literary career as a poet in the Seventies before making his mark as a writer of fiction in the Eighties. His four novels and a collection of short stories, published between 1981 and 1991, provide sensitive depictions of contemporary Algerian society.

Born in Azeffoun, in Greater Kabylia, Djaout grew up in Algiers in a Berber-speaking home. By the time he began his secondary education, he was fluent in Arabic, Berber and French. At Algiers University he studied mathematics and wrote poetry. While still a student he published his first collection of poetry, Solstice Barbele (1975).

After graduating in 1976, Djaout pursued a career in journalism, and joined the staff of the official French- language weekly newspaper Algerie- Actualite. He became editor-in-chief some years later, a post he held until his death. In January, he co-founded a weekly newspaper, Ruptures.

It is primarily for his novels that Djaout will be remembered. His first, L'Exproprie, published in Algeria in 1981, and reprinted in France in 1991, is not so much a work of fiction as 'a slice of life'. It tackles the themes of language and identity, both pressing issues in post-independence Algeria, where, after more than a century of French rule, Algerians found themselves at the crossroads between Arabo-Berber and Franco-European cultures. Like other Algerian writers before him, Djaout, in this novel, expresses feelings of bitterness at being deprived of his heritage and language.

His second novel, Les Chercheurs d'os (1984), won him international acclaim. Published in France, it describes an Algeria expending every effort to commemorate those who died in the war of independence 'while making life impossible for the living'. In his next novel, L'Invention du desert (1987), Djaout warned against despots, religious fanatics and all those who do not recognise human rights and individual freedom. His fourth and last novel, Les Vigiles (1991), for which he was awarded the much-coveted French literary prize the Prix Mediterranee, is set in present-day Algiers, and describes a world dogged with bureaucracy and lack of respect for the individual.

Tahar Djaout was a man of great charm, generosity and sense of humour. His untimely death at the age of 39 has robbed Algerian literature of one of its best voices. He was shot in the head - by suspected Moslem fundamentalists - while on his way to work on 26 May, and went into a coma. He died a week later without regaining consciousness. Perhaps the following lines from a poem he wrote more than 20 years ago would serve as a fitting epitaph:

From now on

Your bullets will cause no fear

As I walk into the shadow of your

machine-gun fire

Farida Abu-Haidar

Tahar Djaout, writer and journalist: born Azeffoun, Kabylia, Algeria 11 January 1954; died Algiers 2 June 1993.

(Photograph omitted)