Case Histories: Tahar Djaout
Defending writers and advocating for free expression both at home and abroad has been a linchpin of PEN American Center since its founding in 1922. PEN American Center members often voiced their concerns in speeches, in diplomatic pressure, or in letters of support for persecuted writers and colleagues facing exile, imprisonment, torture, or execution for exercising their right to free expression. As we celebrate our 90th anniversary, we’ll look back at emblematic free expression cases that trace the evolution and growing importance of our work. This month, we honor Algerian poet and novelist Tahar Djaout. In 1993, the accomplished Algerian writer was murdered by a fundamentalist group as he was leaving his home because, according to one of the attackers, Djaout “wielded a fearsome pen that could have an effect on Islamic sectors.”
Silence is death, and you, if you talk, you die, and if you remain silent, you die. So, speak out and die.
Tahar Djaout was born in January 1954. Before studying at Algiers University he became fluent in Berber, Arabic and French (the latter being his preferred language for writing). His first book of poetry, Solstice Barbele, was published in 1975 while he was studying mathematics at the university.
Djaout graduated in 1976 and went on to work as a journalist for the French language newspaper Algerie-Actualite. While working as a reporter he had four novels published: L’Exproprie (1981), Les Chercheurs d’os (1984), L’Invention du desert (1987) and Les Vigiletes (1991), the last of which was awarded the 1991 Prix Mediterranee literary award in France. Running themes in his novels were a cry against despotism and a call for respect for human rights. In January 1993 Djaout co-founded the weekly newspaper Ruptures. Later that year, on 26 May, he was shot three times on his way to work in his car, and he died several days later. His death was attributed to “Islamic fundamentalists”. The Last Summer Of Reason, a novel he had been working on at the time of his murder, was published posthumously in 2001. It is described by one reviewer as “a powerful and strangely beautiful reminder of the danger of letting violent ideological fundamentalism fester. We would do well to heed this reminder now, not later.”
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Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Wole Soyinka honored Tahar Djaout during a lecture he delivered at the 2011 PEN World Voices Festival. Here, Soyinka reads a chapter from Tahar Djaout’s The Last Summer of Reason. See more from PEN’s 90th anniversary celebration.