Algerian author Tahar Djaout, born January 11, 1954, would have turned 55 this past Sunday.
Instead he is dead. In May 1993 Islamists in Algiers shot Djaout in the head. Several days later he died. The Islamists viewed Djaout’s creative and intellectually rich writing as a threat to their efforts to control and narrow the horizons of Algerian society.
Djaout is dead, but fortunately not silent. His poetry, novels, and articles remain—and deserve a broader audience. His works are in French, his language of publication, and while a few are available in English, German, and Dutch translation, almost none have been translated into Arabic, the language in which they could have the most impact.
One of the gems of his legacy is a short novel appropriately and chillingly titled The Last Summer of Reason. The manuscript for the book, without a title, was found among his papers after his murder. The title comes from a passage in the book. The book itself seems to have come as a prophecy of Djaout’s own fate—to put it mildly, things did not end well for Djaout. In lusciously beautiful prose in this novel, Djaout takes the reader on a walk through the reflections and experiences of the main character, Boualem Yekker. It is a walk which is gorgeous yet also painful; things do not end well for Boualem.
Boualem is a bookseller in a city with a religion identical to Islam (this society’s religion is not named, but the parallels to Islam are unambiguous). A particular strain of the local religion, very Talibanesque, has almost completely taken over the society and its government. This totalitarian movement is policed by the “Vigilant Brothers” (V.B.) whose love for power is matched only by their fear and hatred of creativity and beauty.
For example, plans are underway to ban spare tires in automobiles, justified by the claim these indicate lack of confidence in the abilities of God. Alongside this, violence and death become common. Boualem lives in a world overtaken by a “logic that causes blood to flow out of passion, that has claimed the right to destroy people in order to save their souls.” Absurdity abounds. Destruction abounds. Salvation, not so much.
For survival, Boualem nourishes his mind and soul through his memories of an era before the V.B., when intellectual inquiry and art were part of the fabric of day-to-day life. His books provide a lifeline for him, at least for a while. Boualem lives in a “gruesome-faced present,” in a city “bleeding so dreadfully inside, this city predisposed to joy but from which joy has been banned.” Integral to the V.B. banning of joy is their banning of books, and eventually burning of them. Though devastated, Boualem is not surprised, for he sees that “words, put end to end, bring doubt and change,” which are clearly foes of the neat, tidy absolutism of the V.B., who have manipulated a religion into a fundamentalism which is more focused on wielding human power than enriching humans’ relationship with their Creator.
The vital importance of Boualem’s rich memories is made particularly poignant by the contrast of these with the rigid attitudes children have acquired from their schooling in this “new world” of the V.B. So pervasive and deep is the V.B. indoctrination in society that even Boualem’s wife and his own children become estranged.
In the new world of the V.B., children are brought up to be “blind and convinced executors of a truth that has been presented to them as a higher truth. They have nothing on this earth: no material goods, no culture, no leisure activities, no affection, no hopes; their horizons are blocked.” In the realm of the V.B., any sense of educating children to be explorers, inventors, problem-solvers, and/or entrepreneurs has been extinguished. The next generation will not have memories, to say nothing of role models, to inspire broader deeper thinking.
This, precisely, is the risk we Americans and our allies face if we fail to confront the creep, and in some places the sweep, of Islamist ideologies taking root and marginalizing, or, worse yet, assassinating, Muslims who embrace intellectual inquiry, creativity, and peaceful coexistence with non-Muslims.
Djaout knew that the confrontation of fundamentalism had to take place in hearts and minds. This is why he placed particular importance on education. In a magazine he founded, Ruptures, he asserted in January 1993, “Among the structures to be remodeled as fast as possible is the educational system. It is useless to repress fundamentalism if the Algerian school continues to prepare for us new packs of fundamentalists who, in their turn, will take up arms in ten or fifteen years.”
Perhaps while reading this article you are thinking of a gazillion other articles and books you ought to read, and feel you don’t have time to read some Algerian novel. Frankly, I suggest you do not have time not to read this novel; its tour-de-force message is of vital importance to our era. Thanks to University of Nebraska Press and translator Marjolijn de Jager, The Last Summer of Reason is available in paperback (a short book, just 146 pages) in an excellent English translation from the French original.
The character Boualem “used to tell himself that the city would not be long in expelling the parasitic body that was such an insult to the landscape. Thus he waited for things to return to normal, for the messengers of fanaticism to go back to their dark corners . . . [yet] It was enough for beauty and reason to doze off for a moment, abandoning their defenses, for night to shove day out and pour across the city like a horrifying flood.”
We cannot sit back and wait for the fanatics to just go away, for life to return to our blissful ignorance of September 10, 2001. The lull of September 10 only yielded September 11.
As Julija Sukys notes in her biography and reflections about Djaout, in Ruptures in January 1993 Djaout observed, “Algeria is going through a period of decisive battles, in which every silence, every indifference, every abdication, every inch of surrendered territory can prove fatal.” For Djaout, the silence, indifference, abdication, surrenders of others did prove fatal.
We would do well to reflect on our own silence, indifference, abdication, surrender in the “war of ideas” both before and since 2001, and look now instead for opportunities in the new administration to protect and empower those in Muslim communities who speak out, take interest, hold firm to positive values, and forge ahead on the offensive in favor of peaceful, tolerant civil society.