The new wave

Andrew Hussey on the North African novelists at the gates of "Fortress Europe"

It's hard to spend any time in the streets of Tunis or Casablanca (I spent the summer teaching in both cities) without noticing a new kind of swagger in the way that people stroll around the decrepit but ever-busy French-built boulevards. Most clearly visible is a new economic prosperity - almost certainly due to American and EU money flowing into the region as a bulwark against Islamist extremism. One of the most intriguing results of this strategy has, ironically enough, been a growing cultural confidence among North Africans.

This can be seen everywhere from rap music to movies. It has also given momentum to younger writers in the Maghreb, who are turning back to Europe to find an audience. "We are sick of being told that as North Africans we cannot write in European languages," I was told by the poet Touria Nakkouch at a literary conference in Tunis. Nakkouch is an academic expert on Angela Carter as well as a poet, and she argues that North Africa is, and has always been, part of the European literary mainstream. From this point of view, she argues, colonialism is a historical accident that temporarily interrupted centuries of cross-cultural traffic between both sides of the Mediterranean. "We are not European," Nakkouch says, "but we have made European history and so our voices should be heard in Europe."

This attitude informs a new wave of novels from North Africa that refuse to be categorised as "third world chic". These include the likes of Rabat-based Youssef Elalamy's novel Paris, Mon Bled (Paris, My Manor). Sharper and funnier than Zadie Smith's White Teeth, it tells the tale of a streetwise Parisian Moroccan who travels back to Casablanca to find sex, love and disappointment. In the same vein, the Tangier-based writer Abdelattif Akbib - author of the novel Hearts of Embers - writes in English of a Moroccan generation haunted and tormented by the spectre of "fortress Europe" which lies just across the Straits of Gibraltar.

Even more interesting is the fact that many of this newly cosmopolitan generation of writers are women. The model here for younger writers is the venerable and distinguished figure of the Algerian novelist Assia Djebar, who was elected to the Académie française in 2005 but has never renounced her nationality or upbringing. Djebar's work is characterised by a high seriousness appropriate to an Académicienne. This is not the case, however, with Fawzia Zouari, the Tunisian author of the dark and witty La Deuxième Epouse (The Second Wife). This taboo-shattering tale of three generations of Algerian women has become a bestseller on both sides of the Mediterranean.

This obviously includes Algeria - the largest and potentially most powerful country in the region but which has yet to recover from the bloody civil war of the 1990s. Friends in Algiers tell me that the long journey back to recovery has already begun. I plan to visit in the New Year. Most of all, perhaps, I am keen to take the cultural temperature of the country that produced Albert Camus, and so changed the face of European literature.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Election fever