If you’re looking for the place where Michael Jackson intersects with Al-Qaeda, look no further than Algerian born novelist Aziz Chouaki’s The Star of Algiers.
Have we got your attention? Good. In truth, Jackson figures only slightly in this urgent, rythmic novel, and then only as a musical/cultural influence on the protagonist Moussa Massy, but it’s not a bad way to describe Chouaki’s book. Massy is thirty-six, living in an overcrowded appartment, dreaming of making the big time with his fusion of Arab, African, and American pop music. But this is not The Committments, Massy’s dreams of stardom are for a specific end, to escape from a society where all private space is rapidly swallowed up either by a rapacious western capitalism, or the stark alternative of political Islam.
Chouaki left Algeria during the 1990s, when writers, film-makers and artists were all under threat in the vicious and shamefully under-reported conflict between Islamisists and a western backed though less than democratic government. He has published a number of works in his adopted France, where The Star of Algiers was described by reviewers as “worth a thousand scholarly explanations for 9/11”.
Aziz Chouaki was kind enough to answer some interview questions posed by Three Monkeys Online:
One of the things that impressed me most with The Star of Algiers was the light but insistent way in which you introduced recent Algerian history and politics into the narrative. How suited is fiction to representing history, particularly recent history?
James Joyce said: History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake. The same goes for me, having lived in Algeria until the 90’s, obliged to flee for France, after several threats from the islamists. When I started writing The Star of Algiers, my main concern was to deal with the brutal intrusion of politics, and/or history through the veins of the novel. I tried as much as I could to avoid discourses, explanations, commentaries, and all those things that weigh on fantasy. My purpose was to depict a character trapped in a broken society, dislocated between the sirens of North, and the roots of South.
You write in French. Does that put you at a disadvantage in terms of getting your work published in other languages? For example, if you wrote in English, do you think you’d have a higher profile as a writer?
In a way yes, in terms of distribution, if we take into account the huge, worldwide facing offered to English written literature. In another, thanks to Ros Schwartz and Lulu Norman ( the translators) , to the wonderful job they achieved, my work becomes visible in the Anglo-Saxon world.
Let’s talk about the central character of The Star of Algiers, Massy. How do you view him? Should he be read sympathetically?
Moussa Massy is a narrative proposition to personify the reception from the South of the Western dream in broken pieces, through the satellites, television, internet. The Image becomes the central cult. Moussa wants to shine as Michael Jackson, Prince, do. At the end, the angel turns into evil , depending on how you view things, some islamists think that the Star of Algiers is hallal [permissible unde Islam], because Moussa was living in sin and comes back to the holy face of God, from minus to plus, or from plus to minus it really depends on the point of view.
Massy’s ultimate transformation happens shockingly quickly, and you choose not to dwell on it. A choice that is almost exactly the opposite of that chosen by Salman Rushdie in Shalimar the Clown. What made you decide to give the novel such an abrupt ending?
The novel ends abruptly because the Algerian dream of democracy ended so. The bill is there, 200.000 dead, very abruptly.
What kind of effect has 9/11 had on publishing in your opinion. For example, The Star of Algiers is a wonderful novel, but I’d suggest that few publishers, sadly, would have shown any interest in it prior to the Al-Qaeda attacks?
The book has been refused more than twenty times, by French editors, too much fiction, no direct bloody témoignages . I believe as well that this renewed interest is due to 9/11, because may be , the book provides clues to better decipher this strange brew of European urban Islam.
Your portrait of Islamism in The Star of Algiers is interesting, as you show its tactical ability to subsume all types of people into the movement. What then do you make of media coverage of Al-Qaeda and militant Islam in the west?
Sometimes, the West simplifies the angles, Al Qaeda, and militant Islam, are viewed as bearded ascetics, middle aged monks, living in caves. It’s time to widen the vision. The new element is what I call cyberislamism, as Al- Qaeda masters and worship technology, which they consider a gift of God. To day, the Djihad is surfing on the web, they know Google and Photoshop.
Music is important throughout the novel. It seems, though, an almost impossible task, to capture the emotion and spirit of music in words.
Yes, it’s and old dream, to catch music in words. I’ a musician, I play jazz, blues, rock music. I believe that when I write, some of the musical feeling is there, through the lines, a sentence may sound as a melody, I write with my ear, as well.
What writers have meant most to you as a novelist, and why?
James Joyce, Rabelais, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Lewis Carroll , especially, I’ve always been fascinated by the way they mix many different levels of speech. It gives volume and rhythm to the pages.
Can you tell us a little about your decision to leave Algeria?
After many threats, after having seen knives in the eyes of my Muslim neighbors, sparkles of crimes in their voice, because I was different, because I didn’t go to the mosque. It was very painful to leave Algeria, my childhood, my souvenirs, first love affairs, my mountains, my beaches. But I had to quit quickly, danger was on his way, many friends have been killed, since.
The Star of Algiers by Aziz Chouaki is published in the UK by Serpent’s Tail Publishing