A critic once described Yasmina Khadra as “a writer who can understand man wherever he is.”
This came after it had become public knowledge, in 2011, that Yasmina Khadra is actually the pen name of Algerian author Mohammed Moulessehoul.
Speaking to The National from his home in France, Moulessehoul said the revelation about his true identity – a former career military man and counterterrorism officer in the Algerian army – only reinforced his pedigree as a writer of politically charged tales about identity and regional conflict.
“It is enough that I understand what I am writing about,” he says. “The reader cares about what he is reading, not who wrote it.”
It would appear so. In 2001, a leading critic in France wrote: “A he or a she? It doesn’t matter. What matters is that Yasmina Khadra is today one of Algeria’s most important writers.”
Being described in this way means everything to Moulessehoul. Writing, he says, is as much a part of him as his military identity.
His father was an officer in the National Liberation Army of Algeria, and Moulessehoul joined the cadets school – a military boarding school dedicated to officer training – at age nine.
“Despite pursuing this career in the military that was non-negotiable at the time, I was always writing,” he says. “When I was 11 years old, I tried writing fables and tales.
“I wrote Houria – my first published work – when I was 17, and when I became an officer, I continued to write. I published six novels under my real name.”
When, in 1988, the army told Moulessehoul he would have to start submitting his writing to a committee for possible censorship before publishing anything else, he refused and told them he would stop writing.
Instead, he adopted his nom de plume in 1997, choosing his wife’s name, and has continued to write under it.
He has more than 20 novels to his name, including 2002’s The Swallows of Kabul and 2005’s The Attack, both of which were shortlisted for the IMPAC literary award. They have been translated into more than 40 languages and several adapted for film and theatre.
Moulessehoul is known for his evocative plots, which often centre on the lead-up to and fall out from terrorism.
“It is a planetary danger that I know of from the inside and that I can describe with clearness and intelligence,” he says.
That said, Moulessehoul is frustrated his work is sometimes pigeonholed.
“I have a language, a style, an interest in a particular topic,” he says. “My work is the result of all that and they all examine radically different topics – but everywhere you retain only terrorism, terrorism, terrorism.
“My novels are not begun just to speak about terrorism; they talk of human brittleness, anger, humiliation, the fears, the hopes. They are about life.”
This is Moulessehoul’s debut at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. He will appear in an In Conversation session dedicated to his novel Les Anges Meurent de Nos Blessures, recently published in English under the title The Angels Die. The new work is perhaps his most provocative yet, as it examines the brutal period of colonialism in French Algeria.
“For me, this book, The Angels Die, is becoming a favourite,” he says. “It was a decisive time in Algeria that is unjustly ignored by writers and historians. It is a heavy novel, but most of my novels are that way. You simply need to have the right attitude for reading about a heavy world.”
• Moulessehoul will take part in a panel on The War for Truth, at which he will discuss his writing about Afghanistan, on Friday, at 6pm. He will talk about The Angels Die on Saturday at 3pm. The sessions will be in French, with English and Arabic translations.