Yasmina Khadra – An Algerian Literary Treasure

Yasmina Khadra – An Algerian Literary Treasure

The Emirates Airline Festival of Literature is one of my favorite events in Dubai. After I moved from New York to the UAE in late 2005, attending the festival was the first time I truly felt at home here.  There is a vibrant and positive energy that comes from young and old alike joining together to celebrate knowledge, skill and individual expression. A powerfully wholesome combination.   

Each year, I wait in great anticipation for the line-up of speakers to be released. What a treat to find so much talent in one place!  Listening to the different authors share their experiences and expertise expands both my heart and mind.  I don't count myself as an avid reader, even though I love books and learning. I have recently discovered that I have a light form of dyslexia and this has always made it difficult for me to read quickly and efficiently. This realization explained why I could always be found right at the front of any class taking copious notes. It also explains the slight discomfort I feel in my eyes when I look at a page with words, as welcome a sight as that is. I love to learn socially and experientially that's partly why I love to travel and attend events.  For me, there is nothing better than being in the middle of the action.

One special aspect of the literature festival that I appreciate so much is the natural focus on Arab and Muslim culture that comes as a byproduct of it being an Emirati event. It is a successful platform that allows us to interact with the world’s great thinkers and writers, including the heavyweights of our culture, in a way that honors them and enlightens us.

And, last year, I was particularly lucky to develop a  dear and treasured friendship with one of the authors, Yasmina Khadra. That year was particularly busy for me and, so by the time the literature festival rolled around, I’d had no time to research the speakers in my usual depth. As I  walked around the event, pre-bought tickets in hand, I heard people talking about the writer Yasmina Khadra in a certain tone of respect that peaked my interest. Eager to learn more, I went back to the event office and purchased a ticket for her session too.

I entered Yasmina’s session and waited eagerly for her to come on stage, only to find, she was a he! Yasmina Khadra is the pen name for Mohammed Moulessehoul, inspired by his wife’s middle name to conceal his real identity whilst he was still in the Algerian army. As I listened to him speak about writing, life, God, and his wife, I realized that he has a beautiful soul and intellect. Then, when he went on to mention that he lived in Paris, a city myself and my parents visit each year, I knew I may very well have found a kindred spirit and a friend.

I stood in line to get copies of his books signed for each member of my family, and while I was waiting, a lovely woman, whom I have seen over the years at the festival with her delightful green-eyed daughter, was standing there. We said hello again and she told me she was the volunteer who had received Yasmina and his wife from the airport and that his wife, Amal was just wonderful.  Inspired, I had an idea for all of us to visit the historic Al Fahidi district together, my favorite area of Dubai.  After Yasmina kindly signed my books, I asked if he and his wife would like to join us and he said yes!

Two mornings later, I was in their hotel lobby with his wife, Amal, enjoying good conversation whilst we waited for the others to arrive. Oh my, her warmth and vitality captured my heart instantly and within five minutes I was invited to their home in Paris. I was so touched by this generous authentic show of Arabic hospitality.

As we walked around the old area, I got to know more about the couple. Yasmina, as turns out, is one of the literary giants of our time. He has more than 20 novels to his name, including 2002’s The Swallows of Kabul and 2005’s The Attack, both of which were shortlisted for the IMPAC literary award. They have been translated into more than 40 languages and several adapted for film and theatre. His writing process involves researching pivotal moments along the historical timeline of countries that interest him and then telling the story in novel format. While normally I prefer non-fiction, I love reading this style of informative and historically accurate fiction.  So far, his subjects have included his home country of  Algeria, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Cuba and Mexico. Yasmina likes to write in a raw and real way, which is unfortunately too controversial for the governments of many of the countries that he writes about. Consequently, his writings are restricted in these particular countries. However, the beauty of this tale is that his work and courage is still acknowledged and championed by millions of readers!

After our tour of the historical area in Dubai
After our tour of the historical area in Dubai

As we neared the end of our tour, we crossed paths with an Algerian gentleman who recognized Yasmina and rushed to his side for a photo. The gentleman shared with us, how his French wife adored Yasmina’s work and always said that no one could write in French like him. This testimony just re-confirmed what Amal was proudly saying about her husband's writing earlier. He writes with a musicality that French writers try to emulate and can’t achieve. Yasmina also spoke of his years as a soldier, in prison, his marriage to Amal and how she has been his partner and support in every way, every step of the way. He described how she, at some point, had helped him heal and restore his faith with her gentle presence and belief. As I walked around and spoke with Amal, I could feel her strongly principled, yet kind and open spirit present in her words and energy. They beautifully mirror each others wisdom, intellect and humility. What an honour to know them.  

I have visited our shared city, Paris since that day and have been to the Khadra’s home where I have been treated to their oldest daughter's, Ghizlene, fabulous patisseries and Amal's delicious couscous. Their home was just as elegant and cultured as they are, and what a delight it was to meet their three children. My parents and sister have met them too in a lovely Algerian style afternoon tea at their home.

After a lovely visit in their home
After a lovely visit in their home

During the first visit to their home, I told Yasmina of my plan to purchase an English and a French copy of one of his books so that I could improve my French language skills, and before I knew it he had disappeared for a few moments and appeared with his book on AlQaddafi of Libya, saying it’s written in simpler language. How thoughtful is that generosity! I now have two books for Yasmina both in French and in English and look forward to reading about Algeria and Libya through his eyes and pen.

Knowing the gem, Yasmina exists and the legacy of truth he is creating, having his friendship and that of beautiful Amal and their children is the kind of fortune that matters most to me. I look forward to many more encounters and feel so blessed that this friendship is mine and my family's.

EXPLORE Emirates Airline Literature Festival

READ Yasmina Khadra's work

LEARN more about Ghizlene Moulessehoul

Take a look at the delicious patisseries that Ghizlene Moulessehoul made for us.

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