Earlier this week, Firewood of Sarajevo (2019), a novel by the Algerian author, Said Khatibi, was selected for the long-list of the International Prize of Arabic Fiction (IPAF) for 2019, the most prestigious Arabic literature prize. The novel is directly connected to the research of Birmingham academic, Dr Anissa Daoudi, working on ‘Narratives and Translations of Sexual Violence against women in conflict in Algeria (1990s)'.
Through the novel as a medium, Khatibi presents first-hand testimonies of two countries coming to terms with their traumatic past; the Algerian and the Balkan Civil Wars in the 1990s. Inspired in part by a workshop organised by Dr Daoudi and Ms Cherifa Kheddar, Director of Djazairouna NGO on 01 November 2018, the novel is one of the artistic media used to reproduce testimonies through making available the untold stories of the Civil war, aiming to perform what Khatibi calls ‘counter history’. The workshop created an original platform for writers, activists and artists to mobilise in a project of social justice, bringing back the atrocities of the Civil War as alternative forms of democratisation of memory, of knowledge and of literature.
Firewood of Sarajevo is about two countries separated geographically but united in traumas; Bosnia and Algeria went through similar civil wars in the 1990s. Both have cost the lives of thousands of people dead and disappeared. The novel narrates the lives of two characters Salim; an Algerian journalist and Ivanka, the Bosnian young woman who run away from the war, seeking a place where she can write her dream play. The two characters’ testimonies meet through trauma, destruction, death and writing. Ivanka loses her father to the war and Salim lives through the Civil War where death was around the corner, particularly for journalists and intellectuals, whose names and the date of deaths are inserted, in an attempt to archive their history. The narration of the stories of their lives, reconstructs and performs the historicity of the two countries and brings to life atrocities of more than a decade undergoing attempts of institutionalised amnesia.
In an interview (02 November 2018), Khatibi says “most what has been written in literature on the 1990s in Algeria so far was based on secondary sources. This is the first time the victim becomes a partner in the writing process. The writing workshop was an opportunity to retell the stories, and through those stories of real people, we transferred feelings, vulnerabilities, smells, tastes… My writing is about counter history, it is about filling the gaps…and what more do we have than gaps in the Algerian contemporary history”. The originality of the novel can be framed in two features. The first is that it is heavily based on research work; archives from Sarajevo Museum of war, where the author recognises names of Algerians who were the fuel of a war to which they are detached geographically and culturally but unified under the umbrella of political Islam. The first-hand testimonies collected at the workshop in Blida, Algeria relate to the ones from Sarajevo in showing the vulnerabilities of humans to the war and most importantly highlighting women as the first victims of war. Both Firewood of Sarajevo and Daoudi’s project are about stories of blood and resilience and aim to present alternative forms of Transitional Justice.