In her third and most recent novel, Paris-based Algerian author Kaouther Adimi writes almost prophetically about a rebellion by a handful of children against the rigid and outdated system in her home country. Claudia Kramatschek read the book for Qantara
If you’ve ever been to Algiers in February, you’ll know that at this time of year, the ‘white city’ is swamped by torrents of rain and mud which flow down from the districts higher up, flooding the whole of the city. It is also at this time of year that the city is beset by a melancholic, fretful sense of impending doom, as its citizens witness once again – and in drastic terms – how little the state does to provide for their wellbeing.
Kaouther Adimi – Algerian literature’s rising star about whom Le Figaro has waxed lyrical, claiming she has ushered in “the winds of freedom to literature” – sets the final scene of her latest novel, December Kids, on a wet February day in Algiers. The year is 2016; the people of Cite 11 Decembre – small settlement in Dely Ibrahim, a suburb to the west of Algiers where the novel’s events take place – curse quietly to themselves when they see the rain.
But three children, two boys and a girl, are happy about the rain: at last, the football pitch in the heart of Cite, located on land that belongs to the army, will be in their hands rather than those of the older kids. 11 year-old Ines is in goal as ever – she is the daughter of a single mother and granddaughter of a famous independence activist known far beyond the borders of Algiers. As usual, Ines stops every ball her ten year-old friends Jamil and Mahdi send her way. On the evening of the second of February 2016, the three return home exhausted and happy. A day later, however, all of Algeria is up in arms: two generals have gone to the football pitch and reclaimed it as theirs – before being quickly beaten and chased off by an angry group of youths.
A fairy-tale plot serves as the backdrop to a real-life event
Of course, the youths’ actions amount to a catastrophe in post-colonial Algeria. In the novel, they serve as the spark that kindles a rebellion against the country’s rigid systems – and eleven-year-old Ines, of all people, leads the uprising. At first, it sounds too good to be true. A little girl who loves football managing to do what her forefathers have dreamed of doing for decades, and in patriarchal Algeria, too.
In fact, however, Kaouther Adimi, who was born in 1986 and grew up in Dely Ibrahim herself, based her novel on a real-life event. In 2016 she returned to her country of birth after living in Paris since 2009 and happened upon a news article: youths had become embroiled in a brawl with high-ranking officers wanting to purchase the football ground at Cite 11 Decembre and build their mansions there.
In the novel, she uses the children’s struggle to lay claim to the football ground as a symbol for Algeria as a whole and the question of to whom the country really belongs, crafting a portrait of a country, which is as multifaceted as it is true to life. Kleptocracy, corruption, cronyism, excessive military power, the tattered dreams of a free and truly united Algeria – all of this finds its quite casual place in the novel, wrapped up in little episodes and subplots.
Writing, not forgetting
The lightness with which Adimi touches on the roots of Algeria’s ills might lead you to think December Kids superficial or overly accommodating. Yet beneath its appealing exterior, the novel bubbles with tension. Through her characters, Adimi also reveals Algeria’s long, bloody and victim-strewn history since its independence.
And she does it with ease. It’s the lightness of touch – and subtlety – of the new generation, which is able to look critically at those who first fought for the country’s independence, with the benefit of time and physical distance and without having to consider ideological obligations. They urge their country to neither idealise its own history – as has long been the case – nor to forget it, as was the order of the day under President Bouteflika, who declared taboo any less-than-sanitised coming to terms with the country’s bloody past in 2017.
Thus, in her novel, Adimi speaks knowingly about the roles and voices of women, who once fought for the country’s freedom, just like Ines‘ grandmother Adila in the book, and who, like Ines‘ mother, were oppressed by an increasingly rigid Islamic societal code promoted by the country’s emancipators, making them subordinate to men.
Adimi writes of the crippling fear which has traumatised the country for decades, making an Algerian «Arab Spring» all but unthinkable for many years. She also writes about the generation of fathers who were too young to join the struggle for independence and then resigned themselves to coming to terms with the system. Last but not least of these, she writes about the role of social media, which has gradually made the sea of injustice and concealment that exists in Algeria untenable.
Documenting a split between generations
December Kids, brilliantly translated and furnished with a helpful afterword by Regina Keil-Sagawe, is to some extent a hopeful, daring text which documents a split between the generations. Eleven year-old Ines not only stands for the rebellion of Algerian women, but also for everyone in Algeria who, in the case of the Hirak movement, believes the time has come to say, ‘Enough’, and who crave real change, brought about not with violence but by peaceful means.
It is these people to whom December Kids gives a voice, retroactively of course. I say retroactively, because when the Hirak movement made its way out onto the streets in February 2019, Kaouther Adimi had more or less finished writing the novel already. If anything, however, this only proves all the more that Adimi has her finger on the pulse of Algerian society. The pandemic may have put the brakes on the Hirak movement in the short term, but change is unmistakeable and within reach.