Al-Tahir Wattar, one of Algeria’s most influential writers died on the 13th of August, after a two-year battle with colonic cancer. He was a foundational figure in the Arabophone novel in Algeria and widely recognized and celebrated in the Arab world. Some of his ten novels were translated into ten languages.
Wattar was born to an Amazigh family in Suq Ahras, in eastern Algeria in 1936. After a traditional education, his father sent him in 1950 to Qasantina (Constantine) to study at the Bin Badis Institite. He later studied at the Zaytuna in Tunisia, but he abandoned his education it to join the National Liberation Front in 1956 in its struggle against French colonialism. He remained active until he was forced to retire at age 47 in 1984. Although known mostly for his novels, Wattar published short stories and plays and wrote scripts.
He was also a journalist and established a number of Arabic language weekly publications in the 1960’s and 1970’s (al-Ahrar,al-Jamahir and al-Sha`b), but they were all shut down by the authorities after becoming podiums for leftist intellectuals critical of the regime.
He published his first novel, al-Laz, in 1974. It included a critique of the Algerian Liberation Front and its liquidation of its communist members after they refused to dissolve their organization. That very same year he published Al-Zilzal (The Earthquake), which was translated into English by William Granara and published by Saqi Books in 2000. It portrayed an Algerian bourgeoisie bent on blocking nationalization and agricultural reform projects and predicted the rise of extremism. In his later works and writings, Wattar remained relentless in depicting the corruption of the post-independence elite.
Wattar was critical of Algeria’s francophone writers and took them to task for what he viewed as cultural elitism and disrespect of the people’s language and their culture. While steadfast in his assault on francophone writers, he was among the first to defend the use of Amazigh language.
In 1989 he established the al-Jahiziyya Associationin (named after the pre-modern Arab polymath al-Jahiz) for critical debate. Its motto was “ There is no compulsion in opinion.” One day he refused a telephone call informing him that a bomb was planted inside and the office would blow up in ten minutes. Everyone ran away except Wattar who sat there alone. He later said he knew that it was a false alarm. Wattar became notorious for his rejection of the term “terrorism” to describe the violence of the Algerian civil war. He preferred “violence” and “counter violence.” This earned him the ire of secular intellectuals who thought he was courting the Islamists. The latter kept labeling him “the communist writer.” The essence of his project, he once said, was to “liberate Algerian identity to make it Arab-Berber-Islamic.”