Like many of his friends, Algerian writer Rachid Boujedra carries a gun. "Sentenced to death" by Islamic militants 11 years ago, he now leads a clandestine existence, frequently changing apartments and living like an exile in his own country.
Currently in Paris for rehearsals of Mines de Rien, his play about Algerian workers in Twenties France, he is trying to explain his situation - and that of many Algerian writers, journalists and intellectuals - faced with death threats from the FIS (Front Islamique du Salut).
After some moments he says quietly, with the look of a lost child in his eyes, "We feel abandoned."
Boujedra notes the attention the West has paid to the plight of Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasrin. Although he empathises with their situations, he finds it absurd that the two writers, who both benefit from police protection, should receive the lion's share of the media spotlight, while many Algerian writers threatened by FIS survive alone and in relative obscurity. In the last two years, four Algerian writers have been assassinated by FIS agents. But, asks Boujedra, have the Islamic extremists in Bangladesh killed any writers? "There is no-one helping us" says Boujedra. "We are left to our own devices."
Boujedra now carries cyanide capsules with him at all times, as an alternative to the kinds of savage stabbings and disembowelments which have become common FIS assassination techniques.He speaks of a friend - journalist Said Mekbel - who was killed lastweek in Algiers.
"It was a nice death", he says. "That's how I'd like to go. He died in a cafe, eating a salad. lt was just two quick bullet shots to the head.They say he looked peaceful."
Despite the horrific reality of the current Algerian drama, Boujedra refuses to abandon his country. "Algeria is my home", he says. "I'm always a stranger in Paris."
Boujedra is quick to point out the complicity of the former FLN regime with the current FIS leadership, and sees them as being from the same elite, whose principal support is narcotic and petrol revenue. Moreover, he sees his potental FIS assassins as part of the disenfranchised "lost youth" of Algeria - pawns in a vicious game which forces them to "kill or be killed." But while acknowledging these political and economic realities, Boujedra optimistically views the current Algerian crisis as a catharticprocess through which the country's true identity can emerge.
He speaks of "the troubles" as the manifestation of an acute identity crisis - a conflict between cultural polarities - East/West, North/South, Islamic/European, that must eventually be reconciled. He believes the FIS was nourished by years of "cultural repression" - during which the Arabic language and Islam were discouraged in favour of French and the ideals of modern industrialisation.
But like the protagonist of his latest novel, Timimoun - whose voyage through the Sahara catalyses the revelation of his true homosexual nature, Algeria, contends Boujedra, is on the verge of self-discovery. For Boujedra, the way out of this darkness is through his writing. He says that living under constant threat of death has sharpened his literary ability. And he sees his work as a "cultural weapon" which can help to win the war against "barbarism and despair." He explains that most FIS leaders are technocrats and engineers - and the arts are not part of their education. In this context, it's easy for a writer to be viewed as a subversive.
For Algerian poet Zineb Laouedj - currently living clandestinely in a Paris suburb - being a writer may have already been sufficient fodder to arouse Islamist rage - but added to this was the unpardonable "sin" of being a woman. At a time when many Algerian women and girls are being killed by FIS thugs simply for the "satanic" acts of attending school or going out to work - Laouedj dares to write and publish poems that exorcise the anger she feels at FIS misogyny.
Laouedj and her husband, both writers and professors at the University of Algiers, left Algeria a few weeks ago, after repeated threats and ominous "visits" from FIS "brothers". They too are both "sentenced to death".
Like Boujedra, Laouedj emphasises the cultural dimensions of the current crisis - which she sees as the inevitable result of the FLN policies which made technology and industry a priority over cultural development, and marginalised much of the population. These policies, says Laouedj, left a cultural "black hole", which the FIS stepped in to fill.
In defiance of this masculine violence, many of Laouedj's poems draw upon ancient sources to evoke potent images of female power. In "Nouara La Folie", a poem she wrote in 1991, after reading an announcement in a local newspaper in which a man denounced his own sister as "un-Islamic" and called for her assassination - she plays with traditional proverbs, making them into a feminist call to arms.
But like Boujedra, Laouedj's weapon of choice is language. Recently, she has stopped writing in classical Arabic and returned to her mother tongue - Algerian dialect. This choice reflects Laouedj's ernbrace of her Algerian identity, even in the midst of crisis, and a great love of her land. In many of her poems there is a real sense of connection between woman and earth - as if Laouedj's anguished cry of poetic defiance were emanating from the Algerian soil itself. But for the moment, Laouedj's desire to be reunited with her country cannot be fulfilled. She and her husband are still in grave danger and the Algerian police have warned them not to return to the University.
Meanwhile, Laouedj is writing new poems and, in her tiny apartment in the banlieue, compiling a book about the portrayal of women in the Algerian media."By rejecting and demonising women", she says, "the Islamic extremists are denying their own humanity."
But, says, Laouedj, "These are the end days for FIS. They will not last. The people now realise what they are about."
Through her poems Laouedj suggests that the strength of the Algerian spirit is greater than the current crisis. It is partly through the voices of Algeria's writers, exiled, abandoned, but not yet mute, that this spirit will be nourished.
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