Making Peace with Our Past: A Dialogue with Hamza Koudri
Hamza Koudri has an MA in English Literature and Civilization and has been working in education and international development since 2008.
As Director of Programs at World Learning, he oversees a portfolio of education and workforce development projects across Algeria. Over the years, he has created and led courses and projects for youth and educators across the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region and beyond.
During a year-long fellowship in the United States, he also helped establish a mentorship program for a social equity course at Penn State University and a teacher training certificate program for Indiana University.
His recreational passions are travelling, writing, swimming, and reading historical fiction. He has written several novels and short stories but has not been published yet.
BY DAVINA PHILOMENA KAWUMA
This conversation took place between Algiers and Kampala via email.
Sand Roses is a tale of resistance, sisterhood, and the shameful pasts of two colliding nations. It is set in 1931 when, drawn by the enchanting Ouled Nail dancers, tourists flocked to the desert town of Bou Saada. When two novice dancers, Fahima and Salima, kill a soldier in self-defence, their lives and the lives of their loved ones become embroiled in a wider struggle against the French occupation.
Hamza discusses the ever-changing knowledge industry, what he thinks the role of an education system should be, why he didn’t pursue his publication dreams until recently, his favourite historical fiction authors, unveiling a part of Algeria’s history that was unknown to him, and how feedback from beta-readers improved his manuscript.
Davina: What might a summary of your philosophy as an educator read like?
Hamza: Oh, I love philosophizing about education.
Davina: Ah, well, then it’s a good thing I asked! I’m all ears!
Hamza: I started teaching at the age of 18, and was lucky to receive ongoing training the entire four years I spent on the job. The first rule I learned was “Do no harm.” I still live by that rule today and encourage my colleagues and trainees to do the same. In a world where knowledge is widely accessible, yet people struggle to discern truths from misinformation, I believe an educator’s role is no longer to be the vessel of all knowledge but to facilitate the learning process.
Educators cannot be expected to know everything, nor should they strive to. I believe teachers should create opportunities for learners, and themselves, to reach their own conclusions. I have seen many teachers straining themselves to pose as all-knowing figures in the classroom, often failing to admit a mistake or say, “I don’t know.” You would be surprised how quickly learners will pick up a mistake, and how this will only decrease a teacher’s credibility. We want to avoid this kind of harm.
Second, I am an ardent believer in the competency-based approach. Knowledge is ever-changing, and information gets updated faster than any education system can keep up with. So the role of any education system, formal be it or not, is no longer to equip learners with the right knowledge but help them develop key skills to succeed in life. Skills are more sustainable, particularly those that can be transferred to new contexts.
Key among these skills, I believe, are independent learning, information seeking, and flexibility. Through our work with World Learning, employers and youth have identified these as instrumental for workplace success, and I believe they impact learners beyond the professional sphere.
The most effective impact any educator can have on their learners is to prepare them to adapt to different challenges in life or at work by effectively seeking out reliable information and acquiring new knowledge and skills as the world changes around them.
Davina: Life outside formal schooling environments is often worlds apart from ‘real life.’ I think the divergence is greater if your high school experience was purely a boarding school experience (which mine was). I remember how shocked I was to discover that the world did not owe me, that I wasn’t entitled to things, because I had a degree. My high school teachers made it seem as if all I needed in life was a degree, and yet there I was discovering in the worst possible way that this wasn’t true.
You mentioned the importance of sustainable (because transferable) skills. I’ve been a champion of this philosophy for a very long time, Hamza, but I worry that the average workplace in Uganda is still beholden to inelastic rules about who should do what and why. Generally, employability is still mostly measured against which courses appear on your transcript (instead of, say, the number of tasks you can successfully undertake): if you didn’t spend several hours in a lecture theatre learning X, if you didn’t do coursework or formal exams in X, you generally won’t be trusted to differentiate X from Y. Consequently, few engineering firms will employ a self-taught electrical engineer whose first degree was in ethnobotany.
Hamza: There is so much to unpack here. We at World Learning often engage Algerian employers in discussions around what they are looking for in terms of backgrounds and skills, and youth are usually surprised by the seemingly simple results we find. For example, most employers care more about soft skills like communication, professionalism, and problem-solving than anything else.
The general view is that technical skills are easier to learn, and employers are willing to invest resources to train their staff. What is hard to acquire on the job is the right attitude and professional competencies. They repeatedly tell us that when they open a new position, it is because they are looking for someone to help take care of some issues or needs. The worst outcome is to employ someone who will constantly return to their supervisor with more problems and no solutions.
I do need to underline that if these employers are engaging with us, it is because they have a more open mind in the first place. Of course, you still have those employers who only care about diplomas, which has resulted in a generation of youth who only go after certification rather than skill development. To fight this off, we have also tried to open discussions, between employers and educational institutions, that help communicate employment needs and bridge skills gaps.
We realize that what took generations to build won’t disappear overnight. However, after years in the field, we are happy to see seeds of hope through our alumni and long-time supporters who continue to engage with us and amplify the impact.
Davina: You’re a prolific writer, and yet you’ve never been published. Explain this to me in a way that won’t leave my eyes brimming with tears.
Hamza: You flatter me with the word prolific. While it is tempting to place all the blame on the publishing industry, I am also at fault for not pursuing the publication dream with more sustained fervor. My job leaves me little time to work on writing. As I carve out my own space, often at ungodly hours, I am often more drawn to creating stories and fleshing out characters than to the arduous task of chasing submissions and agents.
I only started paying more attention to the publishing world, and aligning my work with industry standards, a couple of years ago. While I had always known that getting published is no easy feat, being in the thick of it made me realize how extremely slim my chances were.
Davina: What do you mean by “…aligning my work with industry standards?”
Hamza: This is often a surprise to my network, but when I compare books written and published in French or Arabic with those coming out of the English-speaking world, the standards are different. Books here tend to be shorter. Plot and characterization are not as revered as themes and subject matter (make no mistake, I am on team plot and team characterization). While the process of securing an offer of publication is less funnelled, the field does not necessarily offer more or better opportunities.
Besides a few well-established firms, publishers in Algeria are mostly restricted by a small, local readership and administrative hassles which prevent them from reaching international audiences. They end up focusing most of their energy on yearly editions of the country’s flagship event, the International Algiers Book Fair (SILA). The few houses I approached apologized for their inability to edit a book in English.
I am sure I do not need to delve into the stifling funnel that characterizes the publishing industry in the English-speaking world. My Twitter feed is swarming with fellow authors, agents, and editors lamenting how extremely difficult it is to put their feet through the door of traditional publishing while bogged down by red tape, market demands and COVID-19 restrictions, among other hardships.
Davina: I’ve often wondered why novels I’ve read, which are translated from French or Arabic, are much shorter than the length I’m used to. Perhaps some languages know how to get to the point quicker. (I’m thinking now, for example, of how I always need more words to say in English what I’m thinking in Luganda.)
Hamza: There is definitely that. We Arabic-speakers are quick to point out the brevity of our language and efficiency of our vocabulary, though we will most likely do this in long, purple prose. Algerian books written in Arabic or French mostly fall under literary fiction rather than commercial or upmarket genres. Their quality depends more on the depth of their themes than the solidity of their plots or characterization. Extra points are handed out to those touching on political controversies or religious taboos. Linguistic prowess is also instrumental to an author’s success.
Readers of Amine Zaoui’s Le dernier Juif de Tamentit (The Last Jew of Tamentit) can expect to brush up on their knowledge of circumcision as the two main characters lie naked in bed talking about the cultural, historical, and social aspects of this religious practice. Kamel Daoud’s Meursault, contre-enquête (The Meursault Investigation) quickly established itself as an “indispensable companion” to Albert Camus’ The Stranger, as The Guardian words it, by retelling the story from a non-Western point of view. Throughout the novel, we hang out with the narrator at a bar in Oran as he reflects on topics such as colonialism, religiosity, and his relationship with his mother.
What I love about these books, which tend to stay around the 200-page mark, is the way they challenge you to constantly reevaluate your thinking, sometimes about the most mundane things. However, if you are looking for a heart-gripping page-turner or seeking to be transported into a fictional universe rich with unforgettable characters and exciting plot-twists, you are in the wrong part of the library, amigo!
Of course, not all Algerian literature falls under this category. Although I have seen several detective novels and other commercial genre titles out there, I can think of few Algerian authors who have gained national fame by writing anything other than literary fiction.
Davina: Why is Sand Roses a novel? Why isn’t it a collection of short stories or poems or essays? Why a novel in English, further?
Hamza: I think the best advice I have heard about writing is to write what you enjoy reading. While I have dabbled in short stories, my favorite thing to read is historical, novel-length fiction.
I love being transported to different locations and epochs and embarking on a journey with memorable characters as their stories unfold against the backdrop of some historical event or little-known cultural context. Ken Follett and C. J. Sansom are among my favorite authors in this genre.
Follet’s Kingsbridge series, set around the building of a cathedral and expansion of a hamlet into a full-blown town in the Middle Ages, is probably my favorite. Its historical detail, suspenseful plots, and memorable characters always leave me wanting more. I also love the Century Trilogy series, which chronicles the lives of three generations of five families in Europe and North America as their fates intertwine; it is set against the backdrop of the two world wars and the Cold War. A Dangerous Fortune is another breathtaking story.
I am currently making my way through Sansom’s Shardlake series, a historical mystery set in Turdor-era London, and all I have to say is that I hope he will keep those gripping novels coming.
Why in English? As a kid, I mostly wrote in Arabic because I read in Arabic. Then I started reading in English, and have written thousands of pages in curricula and reports in English my entire adult life, so it has become the language I am most comfortable writing in.
I like to, rather pompously, compare Sand Roses to Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha. The idea for it struck me, like most sneaky ideas do, while procrastinating on a task for school. During a fellowship at Penn State University, I was lucky enough to be allowed to sit in on a creative writing course with Elizabeth Kadetsky. Not only was my mind already wired to find a story in the least expected places, but I was already working on a couple of short stories in English.
When I stumbled upon a podcast, on prostitution in colonial and Ottoman Algeria, by historian Aurélie Perrier, I was instantly drawn to the story of how the French army tried to ‘organize; prostitution so that it fit within European norms and common practices. Hearing about the Ouled Nail culture sent me on a spiraling research spree.
Davina: How should I pronounce “Ouled Nail?”
Hamza: Ouled Nail is pronounced wled (rhymes with bled). Na-yel (rhymes with dayum, for lack of better rhymes).
Davina: Noted, and filed for future use. Carry on.
Hamza: My Global Education paper all but abandoned, I was in awe to learn about a part of my own country’s history which, at age 26, I had never heard of. A tribe of semi-nomads who, until the 1980s, were raising their daughters to become courtesans, teaching them the arts of singing, dancing, and seduction, and welcoming them back into their folds after their years in business? My mind lit up with different bits of a story, fueled by my annoyance at how little people in Algeria, let alone abroad, knew about this culture.
So the choice to write it in English was obvious at the time as I was convinced, probably to a fault, that the world needed to know about the Ouled Nail dancers. I do hope to get it translated for Arabic- and French-speaking audiences. But, first, I will worry about getting it published in English.
Davina: In one interview, Arthur Golden compared writing Memoirs of a Geisha to “waging a war”:
Sometimes, he felt like a “general looking down at the battlefield, trying to make a strategic decision,” he said. At other times, he was “the guy in the trenches with the rifle.” But 10 years, 3 drafts and 2,300 raw manuscript pages later, Mr. Golden seems to have won his war.
In another interview, he admits to throwing drafts away:
…I wrote a draft based on a lot of book-learning. And I thought I had a pretty good idea of what the world of a geisha was like, and wrote a draft. Then a chance came along to meet a geisha, which, of course, I couldn’t turn down. And she was so helpful to me that I realized I’d gotten everything wrong, and I ended up throwing out that entire first draft and doing the whole thing over again.
What analogy best describes your experience of writing Sand Roses? How many drafts so far?
Hamza: Boy, do I relate to the battlefield analogy. I totally understand the challenge of impersonating a woman living in a distant time and place in a culture with strange rules. I think Golden was smart enough to be the man in the trenches. I feel as if I was that foolhardy soldier running through no-man’s-land with mines underfoot and bullets overhead.
The funny part is that I planted most of those mines myself. Besides all the challenges of historical accuracy – trying to determine what year electric lights made it to Bou Saada or what kind of perfumes girls wore – I decided to experiment with a dual timeline, so I was constantly checking what one character was wearing on what day or if this was their first time meeting another character. My friends laughed at some smug comments I left for myself, knowing how frustrated I would be when I returned to that point months in the future.
I remember spending hours on the phone with my doctor friend, torturing him to help me make the ending medically plausible because so much relied on that scene. I said, “I can make it rain rivers in the desert if you want me to; I can make someone a doctor; I can sacrifice a few characters if I need to, but you have to help me make sense of this scene, because I can’t make major plot changes throughout the manuscript.” I am glad it all worked out in the end, and I am grateful for the insights of my friend and other beta-readers who pointed out so many inconsistencies that had slipped my mind.
What helped me throughout the process was the outline. By the time I started writing, I had gone through several versions of the outline, each time expanding it and making changes. It was also my constant companion as I worked through different drafts; it helped me spot the links between all the moving pieces, which allowed some flexibility in the creative process. Each draft sees lighter edits than the previous one; I am currently going through the fifth draft, and it is a long way from the first one I wrote years ago.
Davina: Tell me more about the creative writing course with Elizabeth Kadetsky. How many others since then?
Hamza: It was a semester-long course, which allowed me to interact with fellow aspiring writers as well as published authors. It was very useful to workshop each other’s writings and analyze some very successful short stories.
Since then, I have taken many courses online, varying in length from 20 to 60 hours. I have enjoyed many of Oprah’s masterclasses led by world-class authors. Jessica Brody’s book, Save the Cat! Writes a Novel, along with her online courses, opened my eyes to many techniques and effective writing tools. I highly recommend these resources to any writer looking to improve their skills.
Davina: What happened to the short stories you were working on?
Hamza: They are begging me to edit them, and find a home for them. I enjoy writing novels much more than writing short stories, but I do want to dust off those short stories and maybe add a few more to the pile. Or develop them into full-length novels. Who knows? Be careful, though, world. If I start drawing from that pile, you will be stuck with the ugly illustrations I called books when I was ten years old.
“As files and remains are revealed, they are bound to unearth long-buried truths and stories from a brutal past. But dealing with these stories is a necessary process of making peace with our past and moving on.“
Davina: You said you were annoyed by how little people knew about the Ouled Nail dancers. But haven’t scholars written about them?
Hamza: Yeah, I was happy to find some scholarly work around the topic. Yet it is nothing compared to what is available on the Japanese geishas or the Egyptian pharaohs. I know everyone in my network, including some well-read Algerians, was just as surprised as I was to find out about the entirety of the Ouled Nail culture. I have read graduate-level dissertations written by Algerian researchers striving to justify the Ouled Nail way of life by attributing their choices to dire poverty or colonial oppression.
On the other hand, there have been intentional efforts to romanticize the Ouled Nail culture. I always smile at the memory of a recent documentary I watched on TV. The young reporter, clearly oblivious to the history of the Ouled Nail culture, was interviewing an old woman about symbolism. Commenting on the way dancers moved their feet, often raising one foot slightly off the ground, the reporter asked if that was an imitation of the dove and hence a symbol of purity. The woman cocked her head sideways, no doubt considering if she should break the poor reporter’s heart, then she smiled mischievously and nodded. “Sure,” she said, “it symbolizes purity.”
Davina: I’ve spent the last one year digging into Uganda’s military history, and I’m stunned about what I’ve discovered, Hamza. There are things I’ve read about, which happened during colonial times, that are so horrific that part of me is convinced someone made them up. Why didn’t anyone tell me about these things during my high school history lessons? Why has it taken becoming a writer to develop a deep interest in this country’s history?
I spoke to writer and art curator Serubiri Moses about trying to find answers to these questions. When I said I’d become fascinated with the intersection between myth, fiction, and history, Serubiri referred me to history professor Samwiri Lwanga-Lunyiigo “…who discussed the idea that before the British had left Uganda, they destroyed evidence in the form of documents”:
He said they deposed these in Lake Nalubaale (also Lake Victoria). This metaphor of destroying archives has remained with me since then. I have tried to bring it up on numerous occasions, and on every single one I was met with profound disbelief or profound denial that it ever happened.
Did you stumble upon narratives about destroyed documents, or secret archives, during your research?
Hamza: After 132 years of occupation, including years of a bloody struggle for independence, the relationship between Algeria and France is still fraught with unsolved grievances. Today, 60 years after independence, releasing classified archives is still a prominent topic of negotiation between both countries.
Just late last year, France announced an earlier opening of classified war archives. The year before, Algeria returned the remains of 24 resistance fighters, who had been decapitated during colonial times, to be buried on Algerian soils in an official welcome fit for heroes. As files and remains are revealed, they are bound to unearth long-buried truths and stories from a brutal past. But dealing with these stories is a necessary process of making peace with our past and moving on. These stories also present endless opportunities for writers of historical fiction to dig the untold out of that period.
I also think it is important for Algerians to make peace with parts of our own history that we are not necessarily proud of. Another story I unearthed while researching Bou-Saadan history was the one of how the French took the ‘Divide and Conquer’ concept to a new level by getting Algerians to turn against a local tribe, drive them out of town, and hunt their members. Townspeople would organize into groups to hunt members of this tribe, kill them, and return their right ears in exchange for money and other favors from the colonial forces. This was also a shock to me, and I think it deserves to be thoroughly covered in history books because no matter how hard you try to bury truths they always come back to bite you when (and where) you least expect them to.
Davina: Novelist, journalist, essayist, and humorist Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani wrote about how, despite all the marvellous things that had happened to and for African literature in the past decade, success for an African writer still depended on the West:
…at present, a vast majority of internationally acclaimed African writers are based in the West. When I speak at events in Nigeria, I’m often asked, “For how long are you around in Nigeria?” no matter how many times I’ve mentioned my home in Abuja.
Until African writers can start their careers by publishing in their home countries, none of this will change. Some of the greatest African writers of my generation may never be discovered, either because they will not reach across the Atlantic Ocean to attract the attention of an agent or publisher, or because they have not yet mastered the art of deciphering Western tastes.
This is a frightening thought, isn’t it?—that some of our greatest writers might never be discovered if they aren’t discovered by the west?
Hamza: That is indeed frightening, and I think it is especially true about African literature written in English. I think it partly has to do with the nascent publishing industry in Africa compared to the centuries-old tradition in the West. I also blame our inferiority complex embodied in a tendency to celebrate all that is Western. In Algeria, there are authors who write in Arabic and French, and they can kick off a decent career by publishing here, but that international recognition, particularly in France or the Middle East, always serves as a validation stamp that increases their success at home and abroad.
I think it is the responsibility of industry professionals, editors, publishers, writers and the media to change this perception. One advantage we have with our nascent publishing industry is that we can still influence its structure as it builds itself, so that it allows for more diversity and meaningful opportunities for young writers. By mentoring young authors, organizing local competitions, highlighting local successes, and increasing access to young writers’ work, we can all contribute to discovering the talent on our continent. I have seen authors like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie lead similar efforts, and I think more professionals should follow suit.
Davina: Every time I complain about the publishing industry here, a few writer friends will say, “Ah, but you, you really need to stop being so negative.”
They argue that it is now easier for an African writer to get published than it was, say, twenty years ago. “Stop complaining and write,” they’ll say. Their advice is to find an indie publisher on the continent. And then use that as a stepping stone on your way to publication elsewhere.
They’ll insist that a well-written book is a well-written book, and that it’s always a matter of time before the rest of the world catches on to a good book.
So, Hamza, do we want to get published, period, or do we specifically want to get published in London and New York?
Hamza: I agree. A good story is a good story, regardless of where you publish it. That said, we have to recognize that, with so many layers of decision-makers serving as gatekeepers in the chain of publication, biased opinions tend to influence choices. When I hear stories of a début author finally achieving renowned success after dozens of rejections, I think of them as encouragement to keep querying until you find the right agent and editor to champion your work.
To answer your question, my hope is to get published, though not necessarily by major houses in London or New York. I do, however, want my book to receive high-quality editing and marketing efforts. I would love for an Algerian publisher to pick up my work, if they have the capacity to edit and market a book written in English.
Let’s face it: being an unpublished author from little-known Algeria, writing in his non-native English about a distant time and place, is not the hottest thing out there. Telling a story of courtesans in colonial Algeria…with gruesome depictions of physical and sexual aggression…well, that doesn’t sell easily. Not in Algeria. Not anywhere. I have learned that the hard way.
While it is comforting to know independent publishing is an easier solution, I would like to exhaust my options with traditional publishing first. Quite frankly, I have no time or interest in running a business, so I would rather use the little time I have to write while letting professionals worry about the other aspects of publishing.
But if it helps keep those tears at bay, Davina, I always tell my friends that while I would love to see my work in bookstores, I would be perfectly content to keep on writing without ever getting published. I realize this is not a popular opinion among my fellow authors, or even my friends, judging from their eyerolls, but I believe it allows me to thoroughly enjoy the writing process and keeps me sane through it all.
I am grateful to everyone at Holland House Books and Karavan Press for organizing the Island Prize, which has given me and other writers a valuable opportunity to showcase our work and give life to our stories.
Davina: “…from little-known Algeria?” Little-known to whom, Hamza?
Hamza: If you are well-read, or know your geography, you would of course have heard of Algeria. But I cannot begin to tell you how many times I have had to help foreigners locate Algeria on the map. “No, Algeria is not in Latin America,” I will say with a smile on my LatinX-looking face. “Have you noticed that gigantic piece of land separating Tunisia and Morocco? Because who doesn’t dream of visiting our beautiful North African neighbors?”
Davina: Hah! A friend was recently asked if Uganda was near Brazil. Others think Uganda is somewhere inside India. Heh! So, welcome to the club. Lifetime membership is free, thankfully!
Hamza: Oh, and my favorite one is responding to comments like, “You mean Nigeria?” “No, dear, I did not get the name of my own country wrong. It is Algeria.” Do I even need to talk about the “Why aren’t you Black?” question?
All the sass aside, I cannot blame people for not knowing where Algeria is. We do a wonderful job of keeping to ourselves. Further, with all the internal challenges we have faced over the decades, tourism and international branding have taken a backseat. So I would not expect literary agents to know about Algeria or be excited about a query letter from an Algerian writer. I know readers would be more intrigued by an untold story from old Egypt or Mumbai’s inner city.
I do not mean to sound like a victim, here. On the contrary, I see a great opportunity for me and fellow Algerian writers to share fresh stories and change this conception one tale at a time.
Davina: By the way, I, too, used to say that while I would love to see my work in bookstores, I was perfectly content to keep on writing without ever getting published. Then I started to wonder if this wasn’t a clever self-defence mechanism. Was I saving myself the disappointment and embarrassment of discovering that I’d written a story no one else cared about? Keeping a draft on one’s desktop is safer than publishing it to poor or indifferent reviews, right?
Hamza: Oh, so you, Davina, are the voice that has been saying that at the back of my mind all these years! Caughtcha!
I have to admit, you definitely have a point there. Ever since I started writing as a kid, I have been hesitant to let people read my work. That has changed recently as I’ve started to let in a few trusted friends. Receiving positive feedback and constructive criticism has encouraged me to share my work more widely. I am grateful to the many virtual support platforms that allow writers to receive beta-reader feedback and connect with critique partners. I have found those resources to be very useful.
Being shortlisted for the Island Prize has finally allowed me to share my passion more publicly, much to the surprise of many of my family and friends. So I guess my attitude is changing and my courage is growing.
Davina: Blogger, editor, and researcher Zahrah Nesbitt-Ahmed has argued that “…one of the major impacts of digital technology on the publishing system is how the literary gatekeepers – traditionally Western publishers when it comes to African literature – are changing and shifting in power”:
Digital technology and social media have, for example, had an impact on how literary judgements are made, particularly in fiction. There are now new decision-makers and influencers in the African publishing world who challenge established gatekeepers. Meanwhile, readers and writers continue to gather in online communities, and in some cases perform the role of gatekeepers of fiction, as a new kind of reader/writer emerges – with online readers growing more verbal and powerful.
As an active social media user, is this something you’ve noticed?
Hamza: Yeah, I totally see what Zahrah means. I think it first started in the non-fiction world where publishers expected writers to bring in their own ‘platforms’ or established audiences, which has become much easier in the digital age. It has now transferred to fiction genres as readers can champion their favorite authors online and influence publishing decisions both positively or negatively (judging from the backlash over J. K. Rowling’s stand on transgender people). That is definitely the case here in Algeria. A new generation of writers, who rely heavily on social media influence to boost their readership, has emerged.
These trends have also given more room for smaller publishers to thrive, and that is good news because it means more diversity and easier access for first-time authors. Vanity presses (a.k.a. ‘hybrid publishers’ and a host of other labels) also benefit greatly from this redistribution of gatekeepers. I hope that the controversy around this topic won’t affect the quality of content. All we want is for writers and readers to keep on connecting through good stories.
Davina: I’ve always been interested in the balance between the energy we invest in other people’s writing and the energy we channel into our own writing.
Writer Carey Baraka, who co-founded the Enkare Review, highlighted a few downsides of running a literary organisation:
In conversations with both Billy Kahora and Moses Kilolo, former managing editors of Kwani? and Jalada Africa respectively, the preeminent Kenyan LINGOs, both expressed to me their constant regret at having spent copious amounts of their energies building up these two institutions at the expense of their own writing careers.
Yet someone has to spend copious amounts of energy building institutions that will nurture other writers, right? And if not writers themselves, then who?
A favourite pastime of several Ugandan writers I know is envying the “institutional capacity” of countries like Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa: “…wamma that’s why there are always so many Kenyans, Nigerians, and South Africans on shortlists and longlists!” they often say.
Our government isn’t very interested in institutionalising the literary arts, and our business and philanthropic communities have other priorities. So, Hamza, who will do the work that must be done?
Hamza: That is an excellent point. What I meant by having no interest in running a business is that I have neither the capacity nor the time or will to worry about marketing, distribution, and other logistics that writers would have to manage if they go the independent publishing route. I like the idea of having a professional deal with each part of the process.
I definitely love for writers to be in the driving seat of the publishing industry. Realistically speaking, though, I feel like that is more of a job for established writers who have the time, experience, and networks to do it seamlessly. Of course, writers would still need competent editors, designers, marketers and accountants. But novice writers should focus our energy and the precious little time we have on honing our skill, while juggling the arduous tasks of breaking into the publishing industry, and maintaining our day jobs so we can keep a roof over our heads.
If we achieve that model of writer-led publishing institutions, I hope it will give novice writers a better fighting chance and easier access to the publishing industry. I am glad Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa have some lessons to share with the rest of the continent in that regard. Like I said, I believe the advantage of our nascent publishing industry is that it is still malleable enough to mold into a shape that is more favorable for everyone.
Davina: Poet and writer Barolong Seboni, who co-founded the University of Botswana Writers’ Workshop and the Writers’ Association of Botswana, touched on several structural and systemic challenges to publishing, including the “…lack of exposure that our writers experience” and “…absence of non-commercialized and non-multi-corporate educational publishers”:
The publishers we have here publish only for the school. If it’s not in the schools, you will never hear about it. The other problem is [that] the most successful bookstores are foreign-owned. They are multinational franchises controlled in South Africa. And they don’t put anything on their shelves that Cape Town and Johannesburg have not approved. If they are not in the system, then it’s so hard to get them into the shelves of [these] multinational franchises.
Do you foresee Sand Roses getting into schools?
Hamza: Educational publishing in Algeria is a different monster. I have to say I have not even considered it as a possible path, and I believe most Algerian authors feel the same way. This field is mostly managed by governmental institutions, and offers very limited opportunities for fiction writers.
Our fiction publishers may be young and underdeveloped, but they present more promise than educational publishing. The other sad truth is that academic institutions in Algeria are not where you expect youth to learn about modern literature, much less contemporary Algerian authors. There are isolated cases of students or professors taking personal initiative to study some modern works of art, but that is all they are: isolated cases.
I like to think that if I become a successful author today, my books will probably make it into educational institutions in 50 years or so…but only if most students and professors are more open to discussing controversial topics.
Davina: Novelist and academic Abdulrazak Gurnah, who won the 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature, has spoken about the importance of telling historical stories – how “writing on a historical moment can sometimes intensify our understanding of an episode or a time that we know in outline or as a simple factual account.”
For him, “it is the subject and its treatment that is important” and not so much the period in which a story is set.
What about you? What was and wasn’t important? Given the nature of the subject matter that Sand Roses explores, did you worry that readers might think some of the violence you depicted was gratuitous?
Hamza: I consider Sand Roses to be a realist novel as it is heavily inspired by real-life events and so much historical research went into the development process. I enjoy reading fantasies and magic realism as much as the next Game of Thrones fan, but, when it comes to historical fiction, I respect an author who goes to the trouble of ensuring the accuracy of their accounts. The pressure to get the history right was even more daunting for me, so I was very strict with myself; I did not want the novel to be dismissed as an immature attempt to please the West by exoticising the Ouled Nail culture.
I think the time period mostly matters in relation to the genre and subject matter. If you are writing about spaceships, then it does not make sense to set the story in the 1500s, though writers might surprise you with that. Sand Roses deals with a unique aspect of Algerian culture, so it had to be set during a time when the Ouled Nail dancers were prominent; this way, events in the novel can be believable enough to generate discussions. Adding the conflict with the French colonial army narrowed it down to a few decades.
One fascinating aspect of the Ouled Nail dancers is the story of their jewelry, namely how they used spiked bracelets for self-defense due to all the repeated attacks on their bodies and belongings (historian Barkahoum Ferhati writes extensively about that). These women suffered so much aggression and even risked their lives as they navigated their role between a conservative local community and a brutal, colonizing power. Yet they persisted and still managed to maintain their charm, hence the title Sand Roses.
I was convinced that I would not be loyal to the stories of these outstanding women if I ignored all the horrors and violence inflicted on them, but I was not sure how much was too much. I also had to think about the language they used, the topics they discussed, and things they liked to do when they weren’t entertaining their clients; all of that had to reflect the reality of the time, and the characters, to the best of my knowledge.
I was lucky to have female beta-readers whose feedback varied from “the language is too jarring” to “you are holding back” and everything in between. I was able to make some changes based on such comments, but I remained adamant about depicting a realistic image of life as a Ouled Nail dancer, and I can only hope I have done these women some justice.
Davina: Let’s talk about the narrator, who uses unhurried sentences, and language that’s devoid of emotional involvement, despite the horror under consideration.
Hamza: As for the narrator’s voice, I went for a third-person limited point of view, which tells the story from the main character’s perspective, but not quite in their own words. So it is not Salima or Fahima narrating with the pronoun I, yet the reader gets into their heads and only knows what they know.
My hope was to create a stronger bond with the characters, but little did I know how hard it would be to get into the head of a young woman living in the 1930s. I constantly challenged myself to consider what she would think, how she would feel, and how she would phrase it.
I tried to stick to short, leisurely, conversational sentences because those young women would not be expected to use long, complex sentences. This is by no means a reflection of their mental abilities. It only has to do with the environment in which they grew up and what they typically discussed on a daily basis. Complex thinking is a skill you acquire.
Given their background, I couldn’t picture them delving into conceptual ideas or communicating effectively about complex topics. For example, while Salima and Fahima might be able to talk about beauty, I can’t imagine them effectively discussing beauty standards and how society shapes those norms. I realized at the beginning of the book that they couldn’t even talk about time using hours and minutes. They had to use the sun for that. Especially when they first moved to Bou Saada.
I have a few chapters told from the point of view of a French colonel, and though I make him out to be despicable, it was much easier writing from his point of view as I imagined him to have had a formal education, maybe even been well-read, which allowed for a more complex language and thought process. My friends still tease me about how many mental notes he took.
I am glad you caught the lack of emotional involvement. Another artistic choice I made was for Salima and Fahima to be overly disconnected from their emotions. This is not to say they do not have any feelings. With all the horrors they suffer, these women live through a wide range of emotions. Unfortunately, they are not trained to vocalize these emotions and are certainly not used to processing them effectively. They grow a tough skin in response to the rough life they have to navigate. Repressing their emotions is vital if they are to avoid seeming too weak; it is the only way to survive in a culture that idolizes an outdated form of strength.
Here is where the famous “show, don’t tell” comes to play. Instead of naming what your character is feeling, you show how they are experiencing that emotion. For example, when Salima goes face-to-face with Vincent, she is practically exploding with emotions. She is scared because she is gaping at death’s snarl, but she is also grieving the memory of her family and enraged by Vincent’s provocations all at the same time. So the best I could do, to describe all of that from her point of view, was to rely on the physical:
“A heavy lump grew in Salima’s chest, and her lips shook of their own accord. She wanted to cry, but she didn’t allow herself. Not in front of him.”
I think I had the most fun trying to channel the right amount of vulgarity in English without sounding like Cardi B. Again, I can only hope that my efforts to portray the life of these women will effectively transport my readers to the City of Joy and make them appreciate the Ouled Nail culture.
Davina: Vincent manages to escape after Salima injures his neck using the studs on her bracelet. She goes looking for him on “the Street of Joy.” Is “Street of Joy” a play on something?
Hamza: I wish I could take credit for this word play. Bou Saada was known as the City of Joy, partly a literal translation, and coincidentally a very effective word play, referring to its reputation as the exotic pleasure destination back in colonial times. Postcards, stamps and posters promised a sensational weekend with all types of cultural and bodily adventures.
At the heart of the city was the Ouled Nail quarter where most dancers dwelled. The most animated street, ‘Rue des Ouled Nails,’ commonly referred to as the Street of Joy, was where dancers performed at marketplaces, cafés, and hotels. One could easily stroll down the Street of Joy seeking public or private performances, among other services.
I realize how fantastical this all sounds, but it is documented history, which makes it all the more fascinating to learn about.
Davina: It is fascinating. I have read Aisha Ali’s piece on how Algeria became known to the Western world about two centuries ago “through the paintings of the French Orientalists and…photographs of the elaborately adorned dancers of the Ouled Naïl.”
There’s also Jennifer Mason’s warning about the “double-edged sword” that “colonial fascination” is:
…while we have an extensive and arguably beautiful photographic record of the Ouled Nail, that record came at the price of exploitation of the women pictured and the eventual destruction of the traditions these photographs purportedly preserved.
And Amel Tafsout’s surprise at finding “pictures of Algerian dancers on refrigerator magnets in various American dancers’ homes”:
This fascination with the exotic image that these postcards represent for Westerners seems to be quite common. I often wonder if these dancers have the information about how these Colonial postcards were made. They usually portray an Algerian “Mauresques” or “Desert women” of the Nayliyat or city girls posing with a tambourine or a cigarette between their fingers.”
You’ve spoken about how important it was to faithfully depict the culture of that time; I assume you had to do this while resisting the temptation to fetishize or exoticize Salima, Fahima, and other Ouled Nail dancers.
Hamza: This was a major concern of mine. I can think of at least two of my female friends who will no doubt roll their eyes at this because I spent hours and hours with them, debating the extent to which Salima should enjoy her job, whether or not these women could realistically dream of success as Nailya dancers, and how quickly they could overcome the trauma of selling their virginity to the highest bidder.
Throughout the writing process, I tried to put myself in the shoes of girls who were raised for this profession while ensuring a judgement-free account of their experiences and avoiding the temptation to excoticize them.
That’s how I ended up with the character of a painter who is obsessed with the Ouled Nail culture; he helped me explore a full range of views around the fetishizing fascination with the Ouled Nail dancers. I enjoyed having him interact with characters who have completely different takes on the matter. There’s Nouara, who enjoys the way he worships her body. There’s Fahima, who sees a portrait as a ticket to the fulfillment of her globe-trotting dreams but still refuses to pose naked. There’s Salima, who struggles to understand the fascination with his portraits. Then there’s the French colonel, who is disgusted by nudity.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, there is the tendency to deny the existence of the Ouled Nail culture, and to bury it deep between the folds of national shame and religious conservatism. Comments sections below photos, articles, and videos posted online are filled with denunciations from Algerians who refuse to accept the dancers’ existence. These denunciations are mostly from those who claim that some twisted colonial minds are bent on tarnishing the reputation of Algerians. While there is some truth to this, historians and the people of Bou Saada themselves confirm the existence of these practices.
The reason I went digging, and want to reopen discussions around this topic, is that I believe it is a part of history that we should embrace. I do not think it is fair for these women to carry the honor of an entire nation. Their choices were only a reflection of their own values back in the day just as my choices today are a reflection of my values.
Davina: I was really touched by that scene where Salima walks with Mourad, through the marketplace, while looking for a hen. How she lets Mourad believe that she needs him to help her pick out a hen (although she grew up around chickens and “…could practically speak to them”). This scene is set in 1935, yet it feels so modern.
Hamza: Yeah, at the end of the day, some basic human experiences are the same across time and place, and that is how storytelling brings us together. Romance is definitely one of those common experiences.
This is another example of how Salima and Mourad can’t be expected to voice their love for each other; they have to show it through action. Salima is worried about Mourad’s state of mind, and is trying to distract him. I am sure we can all identify with this experience, and I hope it helps the readers connect better with Salima. At the end of the day, her actions are driven by the most basic of human motivations: love, achievement, and survival instinct. Whether you are a 70-year-old man in Mexico or a 30-year-old woman in Pakistan, I have no doubt that you will empathize with her. I can only hope that you stick around for the ride and root for her victory.
Davina: When I learned that the Nailiyat “…learned dancing and the erotic arts from their mothers, and about the age of 12 started travelling down to the cities for part of the year, accompanied by their mothers, grandmothers or aunts (who not only advised and helped them, but also kept house),” I thought of Salima’s mother, Saadia, and how you cast her in the role of overseer.
When Salima is upstairs, preparing to poison Vincent, Saadia is downstairs. When Salima is having second thoughts about killing Vincent, Saadia reminds her that he wasn’t so considerate when he was killing her father. Although Saadia says nothing to Salima when Vincent escapes, she nonetheless stands by the living room and watches the mess unfold. Salima also thinks of Saadia when she’s slitting Vincent’s throat.
Hamza: Saadia is an important character in the novel. Her role and relationship with Salima and Fahima evolve over a four-year timeline. While Salima feels stifled by her mother’s control, her heart still breaks at the ravages of Saadia’s grief.
Initially, Saadia is her daughters’ guide, and hence the readers’ guide, into the City of Joy. She knows where to go for lodging, jewelry, and work, and has many survival tricks up her sleeve. Through her involvement, I wanted to highlight the dancers’ links to their families and home villages. Saadia, who is very much the holder of Ouled Nail tradition, reminds us that these girls did not run away from their homes to work as prostitutes – that they were inheriting generations-old customs.
One challenge for me has been to capture a mother’s love while she negotiates a price for her daughters’ virginity. Although this is hardly uncommon, even in today’s world, a few beta-readers were shocked by Saadia’s rough ways. So I tried to focus on a few universal emotions and experiences to capture a realistic mother-daughter relationship – how much a mother worries about the safety of her children, for instance.
This dialogue was edited by our Contributing Editor, Zenas Ubere.
Davina was born in a university teaching hospital in Lusaka and raised on the grounds of Uganda’s oldest university in Kampala (from where she would later receive a BSc in Botany and Zoology and a PGDE in biological sciences). Her MSc (Zoology) research assessed the abundance and richness of forest-dependent birds in two tropical lowland rainforest fragments in central Uganda.
She writes poetry, fiction, and essays. Her short story, “Of Birds and Bees”, was shortlisted for the 2018 Short Story Day Africa Prize and the 2022 Gerald Kraak Prize. Her short story, “Touch Me Not”, was shortlisted for the 2020 Afritondo Short Story Prize.
She’s interested in the intersection between literature and science, will read anything with an arresting title, writes about topics that interest her, and is an aspiring wildlife photographer.