The Algerian writer whose pen name is Yasmina Khadra was one of the most intriguing characters at the 2007 PEN World Voices festival. Each time he appeared he would undermine the premise of his own panel, make some barbed comment about a country or its language, or drop a casually sexist remark. But once you noticed his subtle smile and sidelong glances you had to suspect that his main purpose was to provoke a reaction, to entertain himself by playing the bad boy.
Khadra was born Mohammed Moulessehoul in 1956. He rose to high rank in the Algerian army before going into exile in France in 2000. His novel In the Name of God, translated from the French by Linda Black and published that same year, shows considerable familiarity with the mechanisms of propaganda, intimidation, and outright terror that have plunged Algeria into violence in recent years.
In the Name of God traces the spread of Islamic extremism in the Algerian town of Ghachimat. As the novel begins, Ghachimat is a fairly typical rural town, poor but reasonably content, devout but not fanatical. Local characters include Kada the schoolteacher, Allal the policeman, Dactylo the public letter-writer, a former collaborator with the French known as Issa-the-Disgrace, and his son Tej, a mechanic. There are tensions in this community, but for the most part they stay under the surface until the arrival of Sheikh Abbas.
Abbas, íthe youngest imam in the region,ë is a fiery speaker who has been in and out of prison because of his opposition to the government. íWhen he harangued corrupt officials and politicians’ henchmen, his inflammatory words alone were almost enough to immolate them.ë An entourage quickly gathers around Abbas, largely made up of those who have grudges and resentments. Kada, in love with the mayor’s daughter, has just realized he has lost her to Allal. Tej wants to get out from under the cloud of his father’s shame, and Zane-the-dwarf senses the possibility of getting back at those who have humiliated him.
Organized as the Muslim Brothers, Abbas’s followers challenge the authority of the local imams, bully the villagers into the strict observance of Islamic law, and declare anyone in uniform to be the enemy — even the mailman. Dissenters are beaten, a police station is blown up, and mausoleums are destroyed. Then bodies begin to turn up: charred, hanged, or decapitated.
The progress of the terror is chillingly rendered, including the passive rationalizations the villagers produce to avoid standing up to the Brothers. íLittle by little, in the café, at the market, in the mosque, the dread gave way to amusement. People began to find the spectacular attacks had panache, the murderers a thrilling recklessness, the executions a èlegitimacy’.ë Equally believable is the way in which power transforms the personalities of the newly formed extremists, creating in the case of Zane-the-dwarf a monster of cruelty and cunning, drunk on his ability to wreak revenge on anyone he chooses.
Geoff Wisner is the author of A Basket of Leaves: 99 Books That Capture the Spirit of Africa, which discusses books from every African country. He also blogs at www.geoffwisner.com.