Algeria and the Shirt of Nessus

Photo © Foto Brigitte Friedrich

Yasmina Khadra emerged as a writer in the 1980s, at a time when Islamic extremism was taking root in his native Algeria. Economic suffering gave an opportunity to the Islamists, some of them inspired by the example of the mujahideen in Afghanistan. Women were accosted for dressing immodestly, bars and restaurants attacked for serving alcohol, and traditional imams driven from their positions. The Islamists called for a Muslim regime, and succeeded in forcing the government to accept elements of Sharia law. A drop in Algeria's oil revenue drove further unrest, culminating in the violent protests of October 1988. Hundreds of people were killed in the government crackdown, and outrage at government repression gave more power to the Islamists. Understandably, the question of Muslim extremism became the core of Khadra's work as a novelist.

Khadra was born in 1955 as Mohamed Moulessehoul, in the Algerian desert town of Kénadsa. His father joined the armed wing of the FLN the following year, was wounded in action, and became an officer. Mohamed was enrolled in military school when he was nine years old. By 1973 he had written a collection of short stories called Houria, and in 1984 Houria and another book were published in French. Moulessehoul was not yet thirty years old.

Over the next four years Moulessehoul wrote four more novels, but in 1988, the year of revolt, the army told him that any further books must be approved by a military censorship committee. Refusing to submit, he took his wife's suggestion and adopted her first two names—Yasmina Khadra—as a pseudonym.

As Yasmina Khadra, he wrote five hard-boiled crime novels starring Brahim Llob, a grumpy police superintendent in his fifties who has a talent for annoying his superiors. The first two, Le dingue au bistouri (Crazy Scalpel) and La foire des enfoirés (Bastards' Fair) were published in Algeria but have not yet appeared in English. The next three were published in Paris. Translated by The Toby Press, they appeared in English as Morituri, Double Blank, and Autumn of the Phantoms. As the series proceeds, we are told that Llob is not only the protagonist but also the author of these books. Years later, in 2004, Superintendent Llob reappeared in a sixth novel, Dead Man's Share, set in the fateful year of 1988.

Like many other writers, Khadra has his favorite images and turns of phrase. In novel after novel, he refers to the poisoned shirt of Nessus, the source of unbearable pain for anyone who puts it on. This recurring image is especially striking because Khadra uses few classical allusions, and in fact few literary allusions of any kind.

In Morituri, Superintendent Llob confronts the author and propagandist Sid Lankabout, whose name means "spider," in the man's palatial home. Lankabout realizes that the jig is up.

He looks at his hands, reverses them and puts his weight against them in order to stand up. Delicately. His fingers meet, intertwine. Sid must be thinking that he's at the front of a solemn auditorium, preparing to deliver a speech. The light from the window envelops him like a tunic of Nessos; he's the personification of inescapable misfortune.
In Double Blank, Inspector Llob goes to the hospital to visit Athman Mamar, a friend from the struggle against French colonialism. Mamar has been burned in a fire that the superintendent suspects was meant to kill him. Llob touches his friend's shoulder, making him flinch with pain. The policeman apologizes.

"That's okay," says Mamar. "I'm getting used to my shirt of Nessus."

"Who's he, a fireman?" asks the joking or forgetful Llob.


In Greek mythology, the centaur Nessus ferries travelers across the river Euenus for a fee. When Heracles and his wife, Deianira, arrive at the riverbank, Heracles needs no help to cross, but he asks Nessus to carry his wife.

Halfway across, Nessus is overcome by her beauty and embraces her. She calls for help, and Heracles shoots Nessus with an arrow. The arrow has been poisoned with the venom of the many-headed Hydra, the monster Heracles killed in the second of his twelve labors.

Dying, the centaur thinks of a way to have his revenge. He tells Deianira that if she collects his blood and uses it to dye a tunic for her husband, it will ensure his faithfulness.

Sometime later, Heracles attacks the kingdom of Eurytus and captures the king's beautiful daughter, Iole, whom he once wanted to marry. Learning of this, Deianira soaks a piece of lamb's wool in the centaur's blood, uses it to dye a tunic, and sends the shirt to her husband. She tosses aside the wool, but when the sun warms it, the wool bubbles with poisonous hissing foam.

Realizing what she has done, she sends her eldest son to warn Heracles. It is too late. He returns to tell her that Heracles is dying in terrible pain, and has killed the servant who brought him the shirt. Overcome with guilt, Deianira commits suicide. Heracles has himself carried to a mountaintop and burned on a funeral pyre.

The story of Nessus' shirt is brief but charged. It is a story of impulse, revenge, sexual jealousy, and the rebounding of violence against those who resort to it.


In Khadra's next book, Autumn of the Phantoms, Superintendent Llob finds himself in trouble after publishing a novel called Morituri—under the name Yasmina Khadra. Under pressure from his superiors, he decides to leave the police force. At the retirement ceremony, a low-life character named Haj Garne is there to gloat: "He strokes his long thin snout shiftily, lubricating the preserved-aspic smile over and over again with his blue-green tongue...His protruding eyes follow my movements everywhere, ferocious as Nessus' shirt."

Wolf Dreams, published next, was the first "literary" novel to appear under the name Yasmina Khadra. The New York Times rightly called it "the book that best describes how an Islamic fundamentalist is formed." In Wolf Dreams, a handsome young man who dreams of life as a movie star instead becomes a driver for a rich family whose arrogance and corruption set him on a different course. He falls in with a group of "smartly dressed, clean-shaven, fun-loving students" who are in fact extremist killers. When driving the men to a mission, the wife of one of them, "a frosty, sour theopath with a complexion the color of marble," dresses in Western style with her long black hair on display. "Back home, she rushed to remove her makeup and change out of her suit as if it were the shirt of Nessus."

In 2000, Khadra quit the Algerian army. He moved to France, and in 2001 he revealed his identity and published a memoir called L'Écrivain (The Writer).

Khadra's next novel, The Swallows of Kabul, is one of three in which he examines Islamic extremism in countries beyond Algeria. These three books—the others are The Attack, set mostly in Israel, and The Sirens of Baghdad—were critical successes and international bestsellers. (A cynic might remark that it was only after setting his work outside Algeria that the world began to notice him.)

Some of the bombers and assassins described in these books could be called Islamists, but not all. In The Attack, an assimilated Palestinian doctor is thunderstruck to find that his sophisticated wife has been killed in a terrorist bombing—and that she herself was the bomber. One of her fellow terrorists explains to him the different kinds of Muslims who use violence to achieve their ends.

An Islamist is a political activist. He has but one ambition: to establish a theocratic state in his country and take full advantage of its sovereignty and its independence. A fundamentalist is an extreme jihadi. He believes neither in the sovereignty of Muslim states nor in their autonomy. In his view, these are vassal states that will be called upon to dissolve themselves and form the one, sole Caliphate. The fundamentalist dreams of a single, indivisible umma, the great Muslim community that will extend from Indonesia to Morocco, and which, if it cannot convert the West to Islam, will subjugate or destroy it. We're not Islamists, Dr. Jaafari, and we're not fundamentalists, either. We are only the children of a ravaged, despised people, fighting with whatever means we can to recover our homeland and our dignity. Nothing more, nothing less.
In The Swallows of Kabul, Khadra reverses the comparison of the shirt of Nessus with Western dress. Here the burqa is the poisoned shirt, as the former judge Zunaira explains to her husband.

Of all the burdens they've put on us, that's the most degrading. The Shirt of Nessus wouldn't do as much damage to my dignity as that wretched getup. It cancels my face and takes away my identity and turns me into an object. Here, at least, I'm me, Zunaira, Mohsen Ramat's wife, age thirty-two, former magistrate, dismissed by obscurantists without a hearing and without compensation, but with enough self-respect left to brush my hair every day and pay attention to my clothes.
The shirt appears again in The Sirens of Baghdad, where another of Khadra's characters turns toward the path of violence. After witnessing the senseless killing of a feebleminded boy by American troops, a young Bedouin agrees to carry out a terrorist act that will put 9/11 in the shade.

Such a smooth transition! I had gone to bed a docile, courteous boy, and I'd awakened with an inextinguishable rage lodged in my very flesh. I carried my hatred like a second nature; it was my armor and my shirt of Nessus, my pedestal and my stake; it was all that remained to me in this false, unjust, arid, and cruel life.
Finally, in Khadra's most recent novel, What the Day Owes the Night, a childhood friend of Younes, the main character, tells him this when they are old: "Algeria still clings to me. Sometimes it burns like the Tunic of Nessus, sometimes it envelops me like a delicate perfume."

From one book to the next, as Khadra returns to the poisoned shirt and considers its many implications, its meaning steadily grows. Beginning as an expression of one man's personal guilt and another man's physical suffering, it comes to convey the resentment of two women forced to wear clothes that violate their beliefs, then a man's hatred for his country's occupiers. In the end, the potent symbol of the shirt of Nessus encompasses the whole country of Algeria and all its suffering and contradictions.

Click here to read an excerpt of Yasmina Khadra's The Writer.