Dickens in Algeria: Mouloud Feraoun’s Fidelity to Charles Dickens
Contributed by Abderrezzaq Ghafsi, a postgraduate research student based in the Faculty of Arts, Law and Social Sciences at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge. Abderrezzaq is a member of the 19th Century Studies Group, Dickens Society and Dickens Fellowship at Cambridge University. His research is on Dickens in the Arabic world.
This post offers some thoughts on the relationship between the works of Charles Dickens and those of Mouloud Feraoun (1913-1962), a popular Algerian francophone writer. It discusses the critical responses of a number of Algerian writers interviewed in 2017, offering a contemporary perspective on Feraoun’s relationship with Dickens’s works. Feraoun’s novels, including The Poor Man’s Son (1950), Earth and Blood (1953) and Days of Kabylie (1954), gave Algeria the nucleus of its colonial literature, and provided the west with an overview of the Amazigh culture. Heralded as ‘the Algerian revolution martyr,’ Feraoun profoundly influenced Algeria’s literary traditions and political direction, and initiated educational change in the Berber region. Feraoun’s works attracted many French critics and European translators, gaining him the Grand Prix Litteraire of Algiers in 1951. Like Dickens, Feraoun had a strong social conscience, and his works often criticized colonial realities and social hardships. Although many commentators have assumed that Feraoun’s references to Dickens signal his admiration, I suggest that Feraoun being inspired by Dickens was more than a celebration: it was a contact between two cultures, leading to the emergence of Dickensian works and characters in Algerian literature.
Mouloud Feraoun was born to a poor family in Tizi Hibel in Kabylia on March 8th 1913. He had to struggle to pursue his education in French schools. In the 1920s, Feraoun got a scholarship from the French authorities which enabled him continue his secondary education at the College de Tizi Ouzou. In 1932, he joined the prestigious Ecole Normale d’Alger, where he befriended Emmanuel Robles – who later became the editor of Feraoun’s Journal. Interestingly, Feraoun could speak Amazigh and French but not Arabic because the French had banned the teaching of Arabic during the colonization of Algeria (Feraoun, Journal xii). When he finished his studies at Ecole Normale d’Alger in 1935, Feraoun started his teaching career. He worked as a teacher in a number of schools in Grand Kabylia such as Taourirt-Auden in 1936, Taboudrist in 1937, Ait Abdel-Moumen in 1946 and Taourirt-Moussa from 1946 to 1952 (xiii).
From early in his life, Feraoun had been tracking down French translations of Dickens’s novels. Feraoun declared that he had been reading Dickens in his hometown Tizi Hibel in Kabylia when he started writing his autobiography, The Poor Man’s Son, in 1939. He wrote:
This attitude, in all respects laudable, is not that of a sceptic. Poor Menrad (Feraoun) is incapable in philosophizing. It is a very clear sense of his weakness. After deciding to abandon his exams, he wanted to write. He believed he could write. Ah! Neither poetry nor a psychological study, nor even an adventure novel, since he has no imagination. But he has read Montaigne and Rousseau, he has read Daudet and Dickens (in translation). He quite simply wanted, like those great man, to tell his own story. I told you he was humble! Far be it from him to compare himself to geniuses; he intended only to borrow from them the idea, the simple idea, of portraying himself. (Feraoun 3)
Feraoun asserted here that it was hard to compare himself with Dickens because the latter was a great man and a genius. He maintained that Dickens’s imagination appealed to him. He was also inspired by the autobiographical elements in Dickens’s David Copperfield, which enabled him tell his own story (Déjeux 115).
In Culture and Imperialism (1993), Edward Said discussed Dickens’s Dombey and Son, among other nineteenth-century works, in relation to the development of his arguments regarding empire. Said noted that Dickens’s Great Expectations is an imperialist work (xv). While Said often associated Dickens with the imperial colonial discourse, Feraoun was inspired by Dickens’s truthful portrait of a society that was full of hardships. Like Dickens, Feraoun was determined to tell his own story: a project which is regional, realistic, and egotistical. Feraoun honoured Dickens’s works mainly because of their realistic depiction of protagonists’ lives, as well as his gift for social criticism. Patricia Lorcin wrote that:
Although I can see why Feraoun admired or was influenced by Dickens, given that Dickens was such an important 19th century writer; I cannot say whether he identified with the Dickensian world as such. If he identified with anything, I would say he identified with Dickens’s gift for social criticism through his observant realist descriptions of the society he lived in. (Lorcin)
One prominent Algerian writer, Tayeb Bouazid, maintained in an interview that the historical circumstances of Algeria during the colonial period helped Dickens to be appreciated by Algerian colonial novelists. Bouazid asserted that Dickens’s representation of an appalling society spoke to Feraoun. Feraoun had already reported on several cases of atrocities and suffering that the Algerian had witnessed during the French colonization (Bouazid). Thus, Feraoun as an Algerian author of decolonization, encountered Dickens when he was in French schools, but when he started writing himself he became mainly interested in ideological state apparatuses whether Parliament, the Court of Chancery, or other social institutions. Feraoun ultimately criticized the same institutions as Dickens.
Abdellah Khemmar has stated that the influence of Dickens on Mouloud Feraoun was not due to language anxiety or anxiety about identity, because he was writing in French himself. According to one Algerian writer, Fadila El-Farouq, the colonial policies forced Feraoun to read Dickens in French. She has suggested that Feraoun was attracted by Dickens’s humanity, human suffering and orphan-hood. In fact, these were Feraoun’s concerns; Feraoun was interested in the hardships of deprived childhood and innocence. She explains that Feraoun’s positive response to Dickens is similar to contemporary Algerian readers’ responses to Victor Hugo: Algerian readers during the colonial period considered literature as simply a form of art rather than as a form of manipulation which had to be suspended (El-Farouq).
This post has made it clear that Dickens had an influence on Feraoun’s imagination. It has also argued that Feraoun’s inspiration of Dickens led to the production of Dickensian works and characters in Algerian colonial literature in a way that has not previously been recognized.
 Feraoun was assassinated by the OAS (Secret Army Organisation) which was a short-lived, right-wing French dissident paramilitary organization during the Algerian War (1954-1962). The Secret Army Organisation carried out terrorist attacks, including bombings and assassinations, in an attempt to prevent Algeria’s independence from French colonial rule.
Bouazid, Tayeb. ‘The Influence of Dickens on Bouazid.’ Personal interview. 11 Oct. 2016.
Déjeux, Jean. Littérature Maghrébine de Langue Française; Introduction Générale et Auteurs. Sherbrooke: Edit. Naaman, 1973.
El-Farouq, Fadhila. ‘The Influence of Dickens on El-Farouq.’ Personal interview. 18 Sep. 2017.
Feraoun, Mouloud. The Poor Man’s Son. Trans. Lucy R. McNair. University of Virginia Press, 2005.
—. Journal 1955-1962: Reflections on the French Algerian War. Ed. James D. Le Sueur. Trans. Mary Ellen Wolf and Claude Fouillade. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000.
Khammar, Abdellah. ‘The Influence of Dickens on Khemmar.’ Received by Abderrezzaq Ghafsi, 28 Aug. 2017.
Lorcin, Patricia. ‘Dickens and Feraoun.’ Personal interview. 9 Nov. 2015.
Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism. Vintage Books, 1994.