Zoulaikha al-Saoudi: Uncovering a Woman of Letters

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Al-Akhbar Management

By: Jahida Ramadani

Published Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A collection of letters between Algerian authors Zoulaikha al-Saoudi and Taher Wattar offers a glimpse into their relationship and into claims that Wattar benefited from his beloved's writings without recognizing her influence.

Algeria – Three decades after her untimely death, the name of Zoulaikha al-Saoudi (1943-1972) has returned to the spotlight.

In his book, The Unfinished Works of Zoulaikha al-Saoudi, Charbit Ahmad Charbit, a researcher who specializes in feminist literature, collected letters that bear the signature of the famous Algerian short story writer.

The book contains original copies of private letters between al-Saoudi and the late Taher Wattar (1936-2010). The letters document a love story between a writer who died at a young age and an activist-novelist who considered love in his life to be a “warrior’s rest”.

Al-Saoudi passed away before she embarked on her final journey in literature. Despite the fact that her career in literature and writing only lasted ten years, her writings were still able to create a significant amount of controversy.

This controversy flared up mostly after her death. Wattar had been accused of robbing al-Saoudi of her literary heritage by stealing and concealing the draft of one of her unpublished works.

Some historians of Algerian literature went as far as to claim that Wattar’s most famous novel, Al-Laz, was in fact inspired by the work he stole from his dead lover.

However, Zoulaikha’s uncle Ahmad al-Saoudi refutes such accusations. According to him, Wattar was Zoulaikha’s “mentor,” and the reason why she continued writing was because he published her stories in his magazine, Al-Mayadeen.

Al-Saoudi corresponded with many of her contemporary Algerian writers like Issa Massoudi, Mohammad al-Akhdar al-Saihi, and Zouhour Ouanisi.

However, her correspondence with Wattar remains the most controversial, for it extended over the span of a decade and exceeded 300 letters about literature, with only 25 being of a personal nature.

After ten years of searching and toiling, Charbit managed to acquire only nine of these rare documents.

The publication of these letters brings to mind the letters of martyred Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani to his lover, the Syrian novelist Ghada al-Samman.

Through the lovers’ letters, readers discover the real Taher Wattar in all facets of his life.

Readers are introduced to his love of travel, get a glimpse of his days in the National Liberation Front, and acquaint themselves with the writer who constantly pushed his limits and immersed himself in his work.

In his last media interview, just months before he passed away, Wattar said “an intellectual is someone who transcends authority and himself simultaneously.”

However, Wattar never managed to overcome his love for al-Saoudi. He had repeatedly tried to marry her, but was constantly faced with rejection by her father.

This was largely due to their circumstances and their families’ background: he was a leftist activist and a member of the opposition while she descended from a conservative family from the city of Khenchela, in northeastern Algeria.

Debate around the lovers’ relationship was fueled by many stories of Algeria’s intellectuals.

In order to revive the literary legacy of the al-Saoudi, her cousin Abdul Majeed al-Saoudi established an association that bears her name and organized a literary forum that spanned three years (2000-03), in her hometown.

The forum, however, was not a successful endeavor. Despite the fact that Minister of Culture Khalida Toumi declared her moral and financial support to the forum, it collapsed in 2003 due to quarrels over finances.

In an interview with Al-Akhbar, the chairman of the forum, Abdul Majeed al-Saoudi said, “I think someone out there doesn’t want Zoulaikha al-Saoudi’s name to appear at the Ministry of Culture festivals, despite the fact that the cultural sector has been granted a large budget in recent times.

“And although large sums of money have been spent in Khenchala on festivals that do not relate in any shape or form to culture or art, we are always given the same answer by the directorate of culture: ‘There isn’t enough funding to support the revival of the forum,’” he adds.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


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