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Rabah Belamri: Le Soleil sous le tamis [The Sun Under the Screen]

Rabah Belamri’s first novel is a lively, colourful and often lyrical semi-autobiography of his childhood in Algeria during the 1950s, a period when, of course, the Algerian War was taking place. Though the war and its unpleasantness is certainly a feature of this book, a great deal of it shows the joys of an Algerian childhood taking place despite the French colonisers. However, the start of the book leaves us in no doubt what his views are. He gives us a brief description of Bougaâ, his village, as a place with history and life. He then gives a brief description of the village of Lafayette as something of a soulless place, which exists solely for the benefit of the white colonisers. Bougaâ and Lafayette are, of course, the same village.

We start with the young Sidi being instructed to take his very reluctant younger sister out to play. When he finally persuades her to come out, he takes great pleasure in the inventive games of the girls. Games are just one of the many features he discusses, with separate chapters devoted to each facet of the village. He points out that, when they were young, the children played well together, with no discrimination between the two sexes. However, as they got older, the men encouraged the boys to play separately and were disparaging toward the girls. However, even when they played separately, the boys rarely played war games. There was just one game they played called alémain, a corruption of the French hauts les mains which means hands up and seems to be similar to what I used to know as tig but is called tag in the US. The games only got more violent when the French soldiers arrived in 1954 and even then this was more at the instigation of just one boy, Tayeb, who essentially took command and created a sort of children’s’ militia, which stopped passers-by for their ID cards (they were ignored), built a barracks in the woods and seemed to be more supportive of the French with games of catching the fellaga (the Algerian insurgents).

Sex was also part of growing up, with the young children examining each other. As they got older it was the responsibility of mothers to identify a fiancée for their sons. If they did not, the boys had to find one for themselves. Boys who did not have one were mocked.

However, the French did come and we learn a lot about what happened. Before the start of the Algerian War, there were relatively few French in the village. Many had left following the Setif massacre. However, there is one very large landowner, who is particularly arrogant and particularly unpleasant towards the Algerians. When the goat of Sidi’s aunt strayed onto his land, he would confiscate the goat and sell it in the market and kept the money to pay for the grass it ate. He drives around the village like a madman, scaring people and animals. During the war, a young insurgent tries to kill him but is stopped before he does. The insurgent is taken by the soldiers, and then tortured to death. The body is given to the landowner, who proceeds to cut it up and burn the bits. Sidi finally witnesses his death, successfully shot by an insurgent. Sidi and his younger brothers flee. The unfortunate owner of the shop opposite, who was absent at the time (which is considered suspicious), is arrested and summarily executed.

Sidi’s father, Aïssa, has a market stall and Thursday market is the highlight of the week. Aïssa is not a good businessman as he buys too much and then has to sell it off cheaply. He never seems to learn. His motto is to follow the word of the Koran and the word of the Roumis (the Algerian term for the French, a corruption of Roman as in Roman Catholic) to cover yourself in both this world and the next. Sidi is the oldest of Aïssa’s second family. His mother is somewhat disappointed in that she only produces two sons though she does have three daughters, one of whom dies as a baby. If she has a fault, it is her heavy reliance on soothsayers and the like, for which she is mocked by both her husband and her son.

Belamri gives us a wonderful picture of the village and its life. We learn about Eid and Ramadan, but also about the beggars and the mentally unstable. We see Sidi at Koranic school (which he hates) and the French school, where geography, history and so on are all about France and not at all about Algeria. It is a very enjoyable book about a past time and about a place most of us are ever likely to see. Sadly it is not available in English nor is it likely to be.

Publishing history

First published in French by Publisud in 1982
No English translation