Revolutionary Eschatology: Islam & the End of Time in al-Ṭāhir Waṭṭār’s al-Zilzāl

In: Journal of Arabic Literature

Abstract

This paper analyzes the use of Qurʾanic rhetoric and imagery in al-Ṭāhir Waṭṭār’s 1974 novel al-Zilzāl (The Earthquake). More specifically, it emphasizes Waṭṭār’s employment of Qurʾanic eschatology to blur the boundary between ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ forms of discourse in the construction of Algerian nationalist discourse. The paper investigates al-Zilzāl’s critical engagement with the rhetoric of Arabism and Islamism in post-revolutionary state politics, highlighting the novel’s hybrid genre, its conscious manipulation of narrative time and space, as well as its incorporation of various registers of the Arabic language. Through the mobilization of eschatological notions of struggle, death and sacrifice, al-Zilzāl unsettles a number of authorized narratives on Algerian national identity, language and literature.

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  • 2

    Waṭṭār, al-Zilzāl, 83-4; The Earthquake, 88 (Translation Modified); Appendix, 1. I have modified the opening lines referencing the sura al-Ḥajj, replacing “suckling females” with “nursing females,” “discharge her burden” with “abort her pregnancy,” and “men” with “people” to indicate the gender neutrality. I have also substituted Granara’s “heathen bitches” with “cows of Satan” per the Arabic.

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  • 8

    Mikhail Bakhtin, “Forms of Time and Chronotope in the Novel,” The Dialogic Imagination, ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), 84.

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  • 9

    Bakhtin, Dialogic Imagination, 148.

  • 12

    James McDougal, History and the Culture of Nationalism in Algeria (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 3.

  • 15

    See Leon Carl Brown, “The Islamic Reformist Movement in North Africa,” The Journal of Modern African Studies 2.1. (1994): 55-63, 56.

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  • 19

    Farid Aitsiselmi and Dawn Marley, “French language,” 197.

  • 20

    Phillip Chiviges Naylor, France and Algeria: a History of Decolonization and Transformation (Florida: University of Florida Press, 2000), 56.

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  • 21

    James McDougall, “Myth and Counter-Myth: ‘The Berber’ as National Signifier in Algerian Historiographies,” Radical History Review Issue 86 (Spring 2003): 66-88, 68.

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  • 22

    Jean-Claude Vatin, “Revival in the Maghreb: Islam as an Alternative Political Language,” in Islamic Resurgence in the Arab World (New York: Prager Publishers, 1982), 233.

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  • 31

    Cox, “Command,” 99.

  • 35

    Mikhail M. Bakhtin, “The Problem of Speech Genres,” Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, eds. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, trans. Vern W. McGee (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986) 60-61.

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  • 40

    miriam cooke, “Women, Religion, and the Postcolonial Arab World,” Cultural Critique No. 45 (Spring, 2000): 150-184, 158.

  • 41

    Waṭṭār, al-Zilzāl, 112; The Earthquake, 109; Appendix, 3.

  • 43

    Waṭṭār, al-Zilzāl, 10-11; The Earthquake, 29 (Translation Modified); Appendix, 5. I have replaced Granara’s “different” with “distinct” to emphasize Bū al-Arwāḥ’s reading of physical markers of race. I have also replaced “odours” with the neutral “smells” and kept the Arabic “features were more generic” to highlight the racial bifurcation of occupier/occupied during the colonial era.

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  • 44

    Waṭṭār, al-Zilzāl, 75-76; The Earthquake, 81 (Translation Modified); Appendix, 4. My translation modifications emphasize the cycles of ending/beginning referenced in the Arabic, and include: “the end of the Berbers,” “the beginning of the Romans,” and “It ended and began until the French came.” I have also maintained the order of “And now it is ending and beginning all over again” over Granara’s “And here we are beginning and ending once again” because it captures the inverted eschatological temporality. Finally, I have replaced Granara’s “sordid” with “dark and soiled” as it echoes the darkness and filth imagery throughout the novel.

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  • 45

    Waṭṭār, al-Zilzāl, 12; The Earthquake, 31 (Translation Modified); Appendix, 6. I have modified Granara’s translation to signal Bū al-Arwāḥ’s specificity of “Salaf” rather than “ancestors” and the harsher “aberration” over “leads us astray.”

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  • 46

    Waṭṭār, al-Zilzāl, 33-4; The Earthquake, 47 (Translation Modified); Appendix, 7. I have replaced Granara’s “race, religion or state” with “roots, religion or denomination” to emphasize the religious overtones, and “ancestors” with “Salaf.”

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  • 47

    Waṭṭār, al-Zilzāl, 35; The Earthquake, 48 (Translation Modified); Appendix, 8. I have modified Granara’s translation by maintaining the materiality of “goods” over “anything in sight.” I have also removed “looting in a mad rush against what little time they have left,” and retranslated it as “They pillage away . . .”

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  • 48

    Waṭṭār, al-Zilzāl, 37; The Earthquake, 50-1 (Translation Modified); Appendix, 9. I have replaced “junk” with the more neutral “merchandise.”

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  • 49

    Waṭṭār, al-Zilzāl, 14-15; The Earthquake, 33 (Translation Modified); Appendix, 10. I have modified Granara’s translation of this passage significantly to indicate the Imam’s emphasis on the passage’s ‘allegorical’ use of the earthquake. I have also replaced “confusion, restlessness” with “terror,” and “dark shadow” with “darkness.”

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  • 50

    Waṭṭār, al-Zilzāl, 82-3; The Earthquake, 87 (Translation Modified); Appendix, 11. I have replaced Granara’s “The dark shadow was moving inside him” with the slightly less poetic “The darkness was spreading in his heart” to maintain Wattar’s image of the gradual colonization of Bū al-Arwāḥ’s body and soul by this darkness.

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  • 52

    Cox, “Command,” 103.

  • 55

    Leila Ahmed, “Women and the Advent of Islam,” Signs Vol. 11 No. 4 (Summer 1986): 665-691, 689. Based on the biography of ʿĀʾishah by Nadia Abbott: Aishah, the Beloved of Mohammed (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1942), 3. Some accounts of the Prophet Muḥammad’s life further claim that he told his followers to take half of their religion from ʿĀʾishah, though this is vehemently discredited by more orthodox Muslim exegetical traditions. For more detailed discussions of the life of ʿĀʾishah and her place within various discursive, exegetical and historiographical traditions, also refer to: miriam cooke’s “Women” and Hoda Elsadda’s “Discourses on Women’s Biographies and Cultural Identity: Twentieth-Century Representations of the Life of ʿĀʾishah Bint Abi Bakr,” Feminist Studies Vol. 27 No. 1 (Spring, 2001): 37-64.

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  • 59

    Waṭṭār, al-Zilzāl, 197; The Earthquake, 178; Appendix, 12.

  • 62

    James McDougall, “Dream of Exile,” 253. Similar arguments have been made regarding Islam, which Jean-Claude Vatin argues was ideologically bifurcated in Algeria, largely due to its need to fight French imperialism. He claims that during the post-revolutionary period Islam emerged as “the language both of the state apparatus (and of those who control it) and social and political protest groups.” Vatin, 228.

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