The Earthquake: Tahir Wattar's seismic Algerian epic lives on

The Earthquake: Tahir Wattar's seismic Algerian epic lives on
Book Club: Reissued by Saqi Books, Tahir Wattar's classic novel The Earthquake is a dreamlike trip through a turbulent 1970s Algeria in chaos.
6 min read
10 April, 2024
Written in the early 1970s, this classic work by pioneering novelist Tahir Wattar presciently foretells the dreadful events which would later besiege his country [Saqi Books]

Saqi Books has recently published a reissue of Tahir Wattar’s modern Algerian classic novel, The Earthquake, on its 50th anniversary.

Wattar is a renowned Algerian author whose works have been salient in understanding the complexities of post-colonial Algeria.

The events of the book take place in the nascent stages of the country’s independence. However, Tahir Wattar’s world is far from idyllic. 

He depicts a grotesque society in profound turmoil after colonial entities have ravaged their lives. A rift has been created among a community that must reconcile their rapture at independence with their traditions and modern influences. 

"Wattar’s novel resounds with the painful veracity of a country's appearance after independence. Dealing with the aftermath of colonial rule is agonising and often traumatic"

Tahir Wattar has chosen to deftly craft his protagonist as deeply loathsome to the reader, yet his contradictory nature provides an invaluable insight into the struggling country. 

Shaykh Abdelmajid Boularwah is a paradoxical man who narrates his story in a complex and dynamic stream of consciousness. A Muslim cleric imbued with avarice, he arrives in Constantine on a mission to circumvent Algeria's Law of the Agricultural Revolution.

The new socialist government aimed to redistribute land to the poor and landless peasants. However, Boularwah seeks to hold on to his extensive holdings by seeking out relatives he would register as part of his agricultural lands in his name on the condition that he does not dispose of them until after his death.

Thus, we are thrust into Boularwah’s bizarre, labyrinthine journey, revealing a dynamic tale of socialism and capitalism, religion versus modernism, and the resounding ramifications of colonial rule on politics and economics.

Though a laborious introduction to Algerian literature, it is a story that continues to leave indelible marks on the global literary canon.

Set in post-colonial Algeria, Shaykh Abdelmajid Boularwah had left Algeria for Tunisia to receive an Islamic education. On an insidious quest, he returns to Constantine.

Through his eyes, this burgeoning society has become saturated with immorality and impiety. This Friday afternoon, he traverses the seven bridges of Constantine, the spatial spaces that constitute the novel.

As Boularwah sets out to find his relatives, many of whom he has swindled out of land and inheritance, Wattar has reconstructed the historical reality of the Agrarian Reform in 1970s Algeria.

Though he decries the modernity that permeates his country, he embarks on an internal journey that reveals he is a descendant of swindlers and colonial collaborators.

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As Boularwah encounters people from his past and learns of his relatives' fates, he overhears many conversations in the back alleys of this city.

These dialogues testify to French colonialism's impact on Algerian identity and society. The voices appear from differing fragments of society that express their joy or dissatisfaction at the government policies.

As the novel progresses, Boularwah repeats an ominous verse from the Quran that narrates the catastrophic earthquake that will befall mankind on the Day of Judgement.

Oscillating between a third perspective and Boularwah’s repulsive soliloquy, the novel's events are built and harmoniously synthesised.

"The Earthquake encompasses the very spirit of Tahir Wattar's career. It is a brilliant and timeless tale that requires one to read with acuity and focus"

A journey through post-colonial Algeria

Wattar’s novel resounds with the painful veracity of a country's appearance after independence. Dealing with the aftermath of colonial rule is agonising and often traumatic.

An entire country must adjust to a community with disparate opinions on culture, identity, and diplomacy. The government is stuck in a limbo of euphoric hope and realistic anxiety.

Boularwah is a fascinating character to choose to explore a newly independent Algeria. He is a man who hides behind the honour of a religious cleric and recoils from his own country's independence because he finds that his position of authority and wealth fading.

He is as oppressive as the former colonisers, creating a profound incongruity in his character; religion versus money. It is a jarring juxtaposition for the reader. 

Boularwah finds that the city of Constantine is profoundly transformed from the days of French rule and despairs at the downfall of the notables and merchants profiting from colonial authorities.

He likens the situation to a significant earthquake that caused the city's downfall. The Bedouins who left their remote valleys to settle in the city repulse him.

Algerian anguish

This classism and marginalisation is an issue that they faced by French colonialism, but it has now been reflected within their communities.

His hateful disposition extends to young people and citizens who are in favour of socialist policies. Thus, Watter reveals that warring theories on class, socialism, and capitalism shake the core of the new Algerian State.

Boularwah’s oppression is a caricature of the cataclysmic shadow of capitalism. By despising an entire segment of society, his character expresses a collective ill in the Arab and African world that is grappling with the consequences of decades of pillaging and colonialism.

Shiekh Boularwah’s appearance as a man of religion emphasises the theme of religion in the novel. Though he is a man of knowledge who commands respect, the truth is his interests will always trump the welfare of society as a whole.

This remains a contradiction to the teachings of Islam. Wattar uses his sanctimonious behaviour to comment on and criticise the actions of past Muslims, stating, “We pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr in the Saqifa, and then we departed.

"We whisper in the ears of Ali and the Ansar. We pledged allegiance to Amr and killed Omar. We appointed Uthman and killed Uthman. We pledged allegiance to Ali a million times and killed him a million times. We praise Muawiyah and condemn him. We establish doctrines and destroy them. We start from the Sunnah and end with heresy."

It serves as a reminder that Muslims have also historically allowed political gain to triumph over the religion. Algerian society had to contend with political ideologies after its independence and reconcile religion with modernity and tradition.

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The hard personality of Tahir Wattar

To appreciate the depth of this novel, we must know the writer, Tahir Wattar, one of Algeria’s most influential writers.

Born in 1936 to an Amazigh family in Eastern Algeria, his life is earmarked for his role in opposing colonialism. He joined the struggle against French colonialism by joining the National Liberation Front and, later, penning novels that continue to be the subject of scholarly discussion.

Yet, secular scholars remained critical of him because he rejected the term terrorism to describe the Algerian Civil War, earning him the label of a communist writer. Yet he remained steadfast in his values, referring to the essence of his works to “liberate Algerian identity to make it Arab-Berber-Islamic.”

The Earthquake encompasses the very spirit of Tahir Wattar's career. It is a brilliant and timeless tale that requires one to read with acuity and focus.

Boularwah’s story mirrors so much of the global struggles of all oppressed communities, and the many facets of his character and observations deserve thoughtful scrutiny and contemplation.

Noshin Bokth has over six years of experience as a freelance writer. She has covered a wide range of topics and issues including the implications of the Trump administration on Muslims, the Black Lives Matter movement, travel reviews, book reviews, and op-eds. She is the former Editor in Chief of Ramadan Legacy and the former North American Regional Editor of the Muslim Vibe