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Mourad Bourboune: Le Muezzin [The Muezzin] (later: Le Muezzin bègue)

Mourad Bourboune was one of the generation of Algerian writers who came out of the revolution. This generation included Abdelhamid Benhadouga, Rachid Boudjedra, Kateb Yacine and others. This novel had considerable acclaim yet it has only been translated into Danish and it is long since out of print in French, and difficult to obtain. This may be, at least partially, because a significant part of the book consists of the ravings of the eponymous hero which is not always an easy read. However, as a book that tells a story and also portrays what the author and hero see as the failings of the Algerian Revolution it is a fine novel that deserves to be better known.

Our hero is Saïd Ramiz. He has two nicknames, both of which might be inaccurate. The first, of course, is Muezzin. He comes from a line of muezzins, his father, grandfather and great-grandfather having all been muezzins. However, he had not become a muezzin, apparently because of his voice, which may refer to his alleged stammer. Despite this, his friends and colleagues seem to think that he was a muezzin before the revolution and on two occasions during the book he is asked whether he was or had been one and he dodges the question. In fact, we later learn he had acted as one on a single occasion. One day, during a demonstration in the town centre, the police had fired on the demonstrators, killing many. Saïd had been coming into the town on his donkey at the time, unaware of what was going on. On learning what was happening, he rushed to shelter in the nearest mosque. As the muezzin could not get there in time for the call to prayers, he was persuaded to do the job and did it well. When he came out, he found his donkey riddled with bullets. However, he will later refer to himself as thealmost atheist muezzin. He is also known as The Stammerer. However, if he stammers, we see no evidence of it. In his dialogue there is no stammering. We know he performed well as a muezzin. In particular, when the police are spying on him, a police spy makes a report that he had spoken extensively to Saïd and he did not stammer at all.

Saïd was of the generation that got caught up in the Algerian Revolution. At school he had had a gang. (There was an admission fee of two packets of cigarettes and an initiation rite.) He had later been part of a cell of militants and had clearly committed several violent deeds. We learn, in particular, of one. In another cell, an Algerian had apparently betrayed some members of the group and had then gone to the police for protection. Saïd also goes to the same police station and also asks for protective custody. He is, as he hoped, put in the same cell as the traitor. While the traitor is asleep, Saïd stabs him to death. The next morning, he asks to be temporally released as he has to tell his boss or he will lose his job. However, Saïd will be a victim of betrayal. Shortly before the war is over, he and a some of his colleagues were arrested on a train at Marseilles. He is taken to a prison and tortured. After the war is over, he returns to Paris and then returns to Algeria where is admitted to an asylum. Against the advice of the doctor, he releases himself but it is clear that he is unbalanced as he does rave somewhat, criticising the revolution, how the city has changed and his life.

We do not know what he plans to do but we do know that the various people who learn of his return are very apprehensive about it. His former colleagues are unsure whether to welcome him or fear that he might be there to exact revenge for his betrayal and wonder whether they should deal with him at once. The book starts with a man in a café saying that he had surprisingly seen him in the street. The next day the man is found dead at the bottom of a minaret, apparently having fallen from it. However, people said that they had seen Saïd around the mosque at the time. We later learn that Saïd had issues with the man. The police say that it was an accident. The people in the café are not so sure. As well as having issues with those who made the revolution, Bourboune was concerned about the way Islam was going. We have an extensive scene with the religious leaders, who fear that Saïd is planning to bomb a mosque and wondering which mosque and how he might be going to bomb it. As we have see, the authorities are also concerned and send out spies to check up on him, wondering if he is going to restart the revolution. However, we see him as an essentially unbalanced man.

Saïd is not a happy man nor is he a mentally stable man. But he is very much concerned, as was his creator, with the way both the revolution and religion are going in Algeria. Bourboune skilfully portrays the complex nature of a man who bitterly feels betrayal, after all he has done for the revolution. He is a killer and has been and continues to be a violent man. We would now call him a terrorist and most of us would have little sympathy for him. Bourboune has given us an excellent portrait of this man and this novel deserves to be better known.

Publishing history

First published by Christian Bourgois in 1968
No English translation
Available in Danish