Student Spotlight: Literature and the press in Algeria

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

“Literature and the press in times of great political upheavals”:  this could be a title for my research on the Algerian press during the early nineties. As the 1980s turned to the 1990s, Algeria experienced an important loosening of political and economic restrictions by the state. This liberalization paved the way for the rise of a free press. It wasn’t only a matter of new laws:  there was a deep cultural shift with a long-term impact. I am particularly interested in the influence of the liberalization of the press on literature—both poetry and fiction. Thanks to predissertation funding from the MacMillan Center, I was able to travel to Algeria to explore the archives of the very first newspapers and journalists to benefit from an independent press, and to study their contributions to Algerian literature.

Many journalists writing for these papers were, or became, important writers. From Tahar Djaout to Kamel Daoud, the profile of an intellectual involved in both literature and journalism has become more and more common. Exploring this moment of democratization of journalism in the 90s has allowed me to learn more about the involvement of Algerian novelists in social and political debates. The very same topics they explored in their newspaper columns—history, identity, languages, and religion—were also developed in their novels, often in a more or less different style. Some journalistic genres or features common to Algerian newspapers have even made an impact on literary works. Reading the newspapers day by day has made me understand the issues that preoccupied writers during this period. In politics, journalism, and fiction, the power of words was tangible. Writers rapidly grew to be important actors, implicated in the major debates of their time. They paid for this involvement by becoming targets for their political enemies.  Some of them were forced into exile.  Others were killed by terrorists.

These two months in Algeria have also provided me with a unique opportunity to see how relevant my research interests are to journalism and literature today. The political context in Algeria, during this spring and summer of 2019, is particularly exciting. Just as the 1988 protests changed the country and encouraged journalists and writers to speak out and to claim, in speech and writing, a central role in society, the current Algerian movement known as the “Hirak” (literally “The Movement”) imposes new challenges to intellectuals. Even though the configuration of the press has changed quite a lot in a quarter century, the topics discussed are remarkably similar. Today, social media and television compete with the written press. Literature has also changed and became more diversified, thanks to independent publishing houses. If the nineties were the period of a difficult apprenticeship of pluralism, today the challenge for Algeria is to ensure a peaceful transition to a more democratic state. Writers and journalists play an important role in this struggle, not only as spokespeople for the protesters, but as participants in the debate about a more egalitarian society.

My exploratory research in the newspaper archives has allowed me to deepen my thinking about the connection of literature and journalism in a time of social upheaval. Finally, this journey has taught me to pay attention to unexpected events and observations that can broaden the horizon of an initial research project. How could I have imagined, when I left Algeria in July 2018 to begin my graduate studies at Yale, that February 22 would usher in an unprecedented social movement, bringing together on the streets of every Algerian city, men, women, and children in peaceful and hopeful protest. 

Written by Walid Bouchakour. Graduate School of Arts & Science 2024 (French).