The Watchers

The Watchers, by Tahar Djaout.
Original title: Les Vigiles.
Published by Ruminator Books. St. Paul, Minnesota: 2002

Important now more than ever.
The Algerian author Tahar Djaout was assasinated by Islamic terrorists in 1993 for what was claimed to be “the effects of his fearsome pen”. During his short life, Djaout was regarded as one of Algeria’s best and most promising writers.
In a small town in Algeria, is an old war veteran Menouar Ziada who is haunted by memories of past wars and is only too happy living most of his life just outside his home, chatting with passersby. One day Ziada notices what he thinks are some mysterious goings-on in a house down the street. Ziada is bothered enough with suspicion about this that he warns the locals that “we should expect a great disaster in our city sometime soon.”

Ziada’s focus of supsicion turns out to be some harmless tinkering by an inventor Mahfoudh Lemdjad. Lemdjad has developed a new kind of loom and is looking to patent it and show the tool in the world fair. The invention however, is not well received at the local government offices. Lemdjad is told off summarily by a bureaucrat: “Surely you know that in our sacred religion the words creation and invention are sometimes condemned because they are perceived as heresy.” The obstacles that Lemdjad has to face just to get the most basic of tasks done portray only all too realistically the corruptions of a sick society. When Lemdjad finally does it all and even “creates a sensation at the Inventors’ fair in Heidelberg”, he finds his fortunes reversed.

Unfortunately so does Menouar Ziada.

To reveal more would be giving too much of the plot away. Djaout weaves a wonderful tale with plenty of atmosphere and a slight undercurrent of tension. The language is very rich and evocative. I found though that much of the slim novel required careful reading because it had too many long sentences. Despite this minor drawback, The Watchers is wonderful storytelling.

The story, written more than ten years ago, is especially relevant in these times when even our most basic of human rights are under threat of being compromised. Djaout’s voice continues to speak loud and clear even after he has been silenced-a triumph of the pen over the sword.

– Reviewed at, October 14, 2002

Can anyone live independent of country?
“The Watchers” follows two African villagers: an inventor adulated for genius and made public hero; and a resistance fighter admonished for no good reason and made scapegoat. In 207 pages, this novel packs a political punch, warning readers about the consequences of a country that puts national security over civil liberties. The results are chilling and deadly.

The author, in fact, was killed for his art in 1993. His death at age 39 was attributed to the Islamic Salvation Front. One attacker claimed the murder was because Tahar Djaout “wielded a fearsome pen.” Djaout produced eleven books of poetry and fiction, including, “The Last Summer of Reason,” which won France’s prestigious Prix Mediterranee in 1991.

What “The Watchers” does well is defend creativity in a climate of suspicion. The struggle is personified through the character of Mahfoudh, a retired engineer who invents a loom, marrying both tradition and technical advancement. His achievement raises the eyebrows of local magistrates. His attempts to attain a patent, a passport and mail a package are constantly delayed or denied. Most compelling is when Mahfoudh’s faces border security (sound familiar?); we feel, see and smell Mahfoudh’s dejection and humiliation.

The novel is less successful in its depiction of Menouar, a spineless veteran turned resistance fighter. Menouar gets trapped like a bug no matter where he turns, whether avoiding an occupying army at his home village, joining a resistance movement or escaping bureaucracy. Menouar’s woes begin at full volume; then has no where to climax. His character works best on a symbolic level, of one seduced by the machinations of those in power, where tiny stars “spoil the majesty of one’s gaze.” (Look closely at the dustjacket; the eye reveals a faint Algerian flag with star and cycle.)

Well-timed, powerful but flawed, “The Watchers” is a hard-won cautionary tale when the pendulum swings too far in favor of nationalism, where “tiny stars fall into the eyes of the careless.”

– David Flood