Me and Haim, one of sixteen books on this year’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction longlist is Habib Sayah’s tenth novel:
Dr. Nadia Ghanem
Habib Sayah, a well-established literary figure in Algeria since the mid-80s, writes in Arabic — among the ten novels he has published, four have been translated into French. Me and Haim is his latest, the story of a friendship that challenges identity politics in 1950s Algeria and pays homage to the Algerian Jewish experience. Told through flashbacks, old letters, and haunting conversations, it follows two Algerian men, one Muslim and one Jewish, as they recount their odyssey through and against racism between 1944 and 1965.
Me and Haim is related in the first person by Arslan Hanifi, and it opens when he and his wife Zoulikha end their holiday to return home to Wahran, where Arslan teaches. The last gesture of this holiday — the act of closing up his grandmother’s house — projects Arslan into the past. From then on and every night, the narrator wills a near semi-conscious state from which only Zoulikha’s presence makes him resurface. Arslan’s memories are drawn out by the quiet but almost feverish drive to recount what has happened to Haim Benmimoun, his lifelong friend. As the novel grows and Arslan and Haim’s twin-like closeness is laid bare, the explanation for Arslan’s urge to write down his and Haim’s life, and Zoulikha’s role, emerge.
‘He is my mirror and my barometer’
Arslan Hanifi and Haim Benmimoun are two children from the city of Saida. Both are born to wealthy Algerian parents in the late 1930s, farm owners that colonization records as indigenous: one officially identified as Muslim and the other as Jewish. Their parents’ positions have afforded them entry into the local primary school and, there, their friendship strengthens when both realize without yet comprehending that achieving high grades protects them from racism. When at barely 12 years old, Arslan and Haim are put on a bus to study in a boys’ boarding school in Mascara, and they are determined to excel. They are also thirsty for life outside of Saida, but in this realistic historical novel, what awaits them is the odyssey traversed by anyone alive in Algeria outside and inside of fiction from 1954.
Though Arslan and Haim journey through some of the most perilous times in Algerian history, with a large part of the story dedicated to 1954 to 1962, Me and Haim isn’t a classic war novel. The chronicling of war, its heroic deeds and mishaps, is secondary to Arslan’s observations of identity shifts. The memories that haunt him are records of these identity shifts, particularly those spent at university among students of philosophy, political science, and medicine. As Arslan’s narrative makes the “indigenous vs civilized” category and colonization’s citizenship system face his and his friends’ algerianity, Sayah dismantles the structure of identity politics and its narrative in Algeria pre-war — and its reconsolidation post-war. The book’s lively dialogues bring out the mixity and vibrancy of Algerian culture.
If on the surface, Arslan’s aim is to recount the story of Haim to record a part of a now-lost Algerian Jewish identity, as well as the challenges this diverse community faced before and during the revolution, the novel as a whole extends deeper into how nation-states create definitions of belonging and how individual experience contradicts them, with characters awakening to the colonial Muslim/Jewish/Christian world-view and its purpose. But although Haim’s journey is an integral part of the novel, Me and Haim remains Arslan’s story. Arslan controls his flashbacks, and it is he who chooses how to trigger or feed the memory of a conversation, and when to let Haim intervene directly in epistolary form. In fiction, the Algerian Jewish woman and man still await the main role.
Set in Saida, Mascara, and Wahran — with a short stay in Algiers — this novel is deeply attached to Algeria’s West side: Habib Sayah knows Saida and Wahran of old. Embedded in Arslan’s narration is also food and the cultural connections it creates. Sardines sprayed with lemons just plucked off their branches, freshly rolled couscous with raisins, tender lamb and fragrant marga, dates, sweet treats and the many coffees Haim and Arslan sip in Saida, Algiers and Wahran’s coffee shops, make this a tremendous read for those who track food in fiction.
In the Algerian literary corpus, Me and Haim comes as a welcome addition to the non Algiers-centric novel. Recentering the novel’s geography away from the capital is a trait of Algerian novels written in Arabic, in sharp contrast to those written in French that, for the last 10 years, have been overwhelmingly landlocked within Algiers.
As I closed the novel, I wondered how Me and Haim is being received by Algerian readers. This readership has either lived the war of independence or has been rocked by stories of it from before the cradle, yet the narrative and structure of war novels is not changing. Its window always opens onto linear, chronological tales bound in realism. It is curious that the frame used to approach the 90s war-on-civilians has proved more malleable and less gendered with tales of madness and heroism placed in parallel.
I still await an Algerian war novel in which time-travellers rescue Hassiba Ben Bouali and bring her to 2019 for a ground breaking presidential campaign.
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Dr. Nadia Ghanem is ArabLit’s Algeria Editor. Based between Algeria and the UK, she blogs at tellemchaho.blogspot.co.uk about living in Algeria, and Algerian literature.
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