Historical overview of Djiboutian literature in French, 1959–2007
Djibouti became independent in 1977, after more than 100 years as a French colony. After a rather slow beginning over several decades, creative literature in French by local Djiboutians really takes off in the 1990s. In this essay we will trace the key persons and publications in its development up to the present.
William Syad, the first writer
The literature of Djibouti in French is quite young. Its birth can be traced to the beginning of the 1960s. The first song of the “poetic voices” of Djibouti – to quote the Djiboutian writer Abdourahman Waberi (2007) – can be heard through the sweet, jasmine perfumed verses of the great pioneer William J.F. Syad. This writer, which we could call our poetic ancestor, is the only one in the period from 1959 to 1978 to transmit his lyrical poetry to his African neighbours and to the distant Westerners.
In 1959, the Paris publishing house Présence Africaine publishes his original collection of poetry, entitled Khamsine, with a foreword by the famous Senghor. His next two collections of poetry, Cantiques and Harmoniques, are both published in 1976, by the Dakar publisher Nouvelles Editions Africaines. In the 1978 follow-up entitled Les naufragés du destin (Destiny’s drowned ones), with the same publisher, he mixes essay and poetry. Before his death in Djibouti in 1993, the poet will also offer several unpublished manuscripts as heritage to his young nation.
Now, although William Syad is the pioneer of French language literature in Djibouti, his voice is one from the outside. If he was able to write “so early”, it’s because he had received schooling outside the country, having lived and studied elsewhere. In addition, his work is largely bilingual, as his first collection includes poems in French as well as in English. And finally, over a period of nearly a decade, he is the sole writer of the only production attributed to the country.
Local literary development in the 1970s
Literary creation in French produced inside Djibouti actually begins in the early 1970s. Local schooling is bringing results, but there are also two other contributing factors: local associations are making a real investment and the written press is developing. Thanks to the proliferation of cultural clubs and sports clubs, another form of schooling is also taking place, namely literacy classes. Numerous associations take on the task of promoting cultural activities and the promotion of a Somali language theatre.
The written press of those times makes its contribution, through the publication of the country’s first productions in French. Le Réveil, the only written newspaper during the colonial period, begins in 1970s to open up to the realities of the local society and to Djiboutian production. Thus it becomes a favoured scene for writers to be read and become known. Various Djiboutian writers regularly publish poetry, stories, articles and commentary pieces, and more, in this periodical. The texts of about a dozen poets can be counted during the years 1971–1976.
The productions of the 1970s are marked by one text in particular, of local fame and written by a school teacher. This is Houssein Abdi’s Abdi, enfant du territoire français des Afars et des Issas (Abdi, child of the French Territory of the Afars and the Issas) published in 1972. The writer was one of the first out of the local population to become a teacher in a state school in the territory. His booklet puts its mark on the history of the French language literature of Djibouti, since it is “the first publication made by a Djiboutian, and deserves mention as such”, to quote Jean-Dominique Pénel (1996). This text, following the itinerary of its hero, who carries the name of the writer’s father (biographical text?), offers at the same time the means for the narrator to present the geography, history and socio-cultural situation of his country. Several authentic copies of Houssein Abdi’s booklet can be found at the library at the Centre de Formation du Personnel de l’Education Nationale (CFPEN, the National Teacher Training Centre). With its position at the birth of a national literature, it is of particular interest. Jean Dominique Pénel gives it its rightful place through a reprint published by the French Cultural Centre Arthur Rimbaud in 1998.
The continued role of the press
Another production we need to remember is that of our ancestor columnist at the Réveil, Abdoullahi Doualé (1948–1978). He is the author of two columns and a serial. The first column, entitled “Entendu en flânant” (Heard walking about), was published between January and September 1970, then a second one appeared from October to December 1972, with the title “Paroles ne passent pas” (Words don’t pass). Finally, he published the first and only chapter of a 17 episode serial, after which it was stopped for unknown reasons. The title was “Geel-Cun, un drôle de consommateur” (Geel-Cun, a strange kind of consumer).
The intended readership is a popular one, his humorous style, with numerous Somali proverbs translated into French thrown in, is inspired by the local oral tradition. This dynamic and active character launches in 1973 the creation of two periodicals. First, Consommateur, journal de défense des consommateurs (Consumer, journal in defence of the consumers), is edited for some time, then Iftine is published from June 1974 to 1977. The second journal, which enjoyed a large success, includes a literature section regularly bringing news about Somali oral poetry.
This tradition of publishing opinion pieces, poetry and short stories in the local press is carried on by the national newspaper La Nation. In its electronic archives, which go back to 2001, one can find the first published texts by renowned young writers of the country, such as Abdi Farah, Nassib and Ali Daher.
The writer of the 80s
The 1980s sees the first production of prose narratives. The major French language work written by a Djiboutian to mention here is the autobiographical novel by Omar Osman Rabeh, published in 1986 by Lettres Libres de Paris and entitled Le cercle et la spirale (The Circle and the Spiral). Although this book is the only French language Djiboutian published work of this period, it is the first of a long list of texts, mostly essays, analysing the economic and socio-political situation of the country, from the arrival of the French up to independence and the Gouled government. This writer introduces the kind of free writing that diagnoses the political and socio-economic situation of the country.
Inroads into the theatre
The 1980s are also marked by the celebration of the first cultural forums of the country, in 1982–82, 1985 and 1987, with three theatre festivals in which many national theatre troupes take part. Jean-Christophe Deberre, director of the French Cultural Institute Arthur Rimbaud in Djibouti announces the third edition under the sign of the new enthusiasm for theatrical expression. At this period, this new form of expression is appreciated for its easy reception and the interactive sharing that it leads to.
This bubbling national theatre inspires especially the Djiboutian theatre in French. The first French language plays of Abdi Ismail Abdi and of Aïcha Mohamed Robleh draw their originality from the oral heritage of the national languages.
The 1990s sees many new writers
The third period of reference, 1993–2002, which could be called the golden age of Djiboutian literature in French, consecrates a whole harvest of new productions and the appearance of the great A.A. Waberi. Particular for this period is a prolific production in all genres (plays, poetry, short stories and novels) and the arrival on the national and international literary scene of a great number of important French language Djiboutian writers.
The major works by the country’s famous writers such as Idris Youssouf, Chehem Watta, Abdi Ismail Abdi, Aïcha Mohamed Robleh, are published during this period and accentuate the emergence of a French language Djiboutian literature. Whether it comes forth inside the country or outside, mostly then from a diaspora based in France, it is in particular a writing of massive denunciation, be it social, economic and political. It sees itself as lucid and critical, trying to re-establish truth and to warn the public of the risks of a socio-economic situation in decline. It takes as its particular target the tearing apart of the nation, culminating in the fratricidal war of 1991–1992.
A new century, a new mood
Finally, the year 2000 constitutes a turning point in the French language Djiboutian literature. The publications of this period, whether in their form or in the way they think the country, accentuate a writing which is no longer extremely satirical.
Rather, as for example Waberi in his futuristic saga Les Etats-Unis d’Afrique (In the United States of Africa), they stage a situation arriving at a reflection saying that misery is, fundamentally, universal. This new literary current meditates on the birth of a new dawn, through the salutary itineraries of the protagonists in the novels and in the chants of the alliterative poetry of the period.
Several young poets and writers of novels and short stories arrive on the national scene with a more optimistic view of the world and their country. Sure, this writing, which comes mostly from the outside, continues with a satirical slant. There is a lot of bad management of public affairs, lack of work, urban degradation, but the judgment that the narrators express is more mitigated, less severe. Thus it seems to us that this last generation of writers tells the country differently and shares a different kind of rapport with the homeland.
Les enfants du khat (The Children of Khat) by Mouna-Hodan Ahmed, for example, offers an objective study of the effects of Khat. Although it is a social scourge, it also constitutes a source of income for many Djiboutian families. This social analysis does not necessarily drown in hopeless condemnation without appeal but steps back to deliver judgement that tries to be more objective.
The hope of success
While the writing in the publications of the 1990's transmits a flashy pessimism, in the new generation there is a desire to come back to more classical themes such as, for example, social climbing, found in Rachid Hachi. In L’enfant de Balbala (The Child from Balbala), Samatalis, the hero from Balbala, has had social success, although he lives in this sprawling suburb of the capital, known as the home of a miserable population forgotten by all. He is proud to have become a respectable person envied by those who quit school too early and who have sunk into the doldrums and the gang wars.
This novel, which portrays the itinerary of the hero as a real road of acclaim, celebrates this second city of the capital. The story tells us that Balbala, home to alarming poverty, has carried in its folds the young and ambitious Samatalis and would like to bring guarantees that it is possible to live in this suburb and succeed socially. In the chapter “Balbala”, the restaurateur at Godoria is mocking Samatalis and laughing when he learns that the young and rich civil servant lives in Balbala. Samatalis is infuriated and retorts impatiently: “Get out of your false illusions. I have always lived in Balbala.”
Dr. Hibo Moumin was born in Djibouti, French speaking territory in the Horn of Africa. She has studied literature at two French universities, at Paul-Valéry of Montpellier 3, and at the University of Bourgogne. She defended her PhD thesis at Paris-Sorbonne in November 2011. Currently she is lecturer of French and comparative literature at the Faculty of Literature, Languages and Humanities at the University of Djibouti, as well as Head of the Department of Science and Techniques of Information and Communication. Passionate about the French language literature of Africa and elsewhere, she digs regularly into the analysis of literary discourse of the Horn of Africa and explores in particular the poetic originality of Djiboutian French language short stories, novels and plays.
Translation of the original French text: Suzanne Lilius
CCFAR: Centre Culturel Français Arthur Rimbaud à Djibouti.
Abdi Ismael Abdi (1997). L'enfance éclatée (Short stories). Djibouti: CCFAR.
- (1998). Cris de traverses (Short stories). Paris: L'Harmattan.
- (2002). La lune de nos faces cachées et L'oiseau Houha qui déchante son bonheur (Play). Paris: Acoria.
Abdi Mohamed Farah (1998). Nomad : no man's land ou les vers volés à l'instant (Poetry). Paris: L'Harmattan/ CCFAR.
Abdourahman Ali Waberi (1994). Le Pays sans ombre (Short stories). Paris: Le Serpent ą plumes Editions.
- (1996). Cahier nomade (Short stories). Paris: Le Serpent ą plumes Editions.
- (1997). Balbala (Novel). Paris: Le Serpent ą plumes Editions. Second edition, Folio, Gallimard 2002.
- (2000). Les Nomades, mes frčres, vont boire ą la Grande Ourse (Poetry). Sarreguemines, France: Editions Pierron.
- (2000). Moisson de crānes: textes pour le Rwanda (Short stories and essays). Paris: Le Serpent ą plumes Editions.
- (2001). Rift, routes, rails (Novelistic variations). Paris: Gallimard.
- (2003). Transit (Novel). Paris: Gallimard.
- (2006). Les Etats-Unis d'Afrique (Novel). Paris: JC Lattčs.
- (2009). Passage de larmes (Novel). Paris: JC Lattčs.
Aden Mohamed (2006). Robleh-Kamil: un héros afar somali de Tadjourah (Transcription of a legend). Paris: L’Harmattan.
Aîcha Mohamed Robleh (2005). La dévoilée (Play). Paris: L’Harmattan.
Ali Coubba (2000). L’Aleph-Ba-Ta (Tadjourah narratives). Paris: L’Harmattan, Encres noires series.
Ali Daher Ibrahim (2006). Itinéraires (Short stories). Djibouti: Imprimerie Rift Valley.
Chehem Watta (1997). Pèlerin d’errance (Poetry). Paris: L’Harmattan.
- (1997). Sur les soleils de Houroud (Poetry). Paris: L’Harmattan.
- (1999). Cahier de brouillon, des poèmes du désert (Poetry). Paris: L’Harmattan.
- (2005). O pays, Perle sur la langue Routes pour le monde: suivi de Ras Djibouti (Poetry). Paris: L’Harmattan, Poètes de cinq continents series.
- (2008). Eloges des voyous. Paris: L'Harmattan, Ecrire l'Afrique series.
- (2008). Amours nomades, Bruxelles, Brumes et Brouillards. Paris: L’Harmattan, Encres noires series.
Choukry Osman Guedi (1996). Maudite Bénédiction (Play). Djibouti: Mission de Coopération.
Daher Ahmed Farah (1993). Splendeur éphémère (Novel). Paris: L’'Harmattan.
Idris Youssouf (1997). La Galaxie de l'absurde (Short stories). Paris: L’'Harmattan.
- (1998). Nostalgie ou Le joug du Verbe (Poetry). Paris: L'Harmattan.
- (2005). Cure de paroles aux miens puînés (Poetry). Paris: L'Harmattan.
Houssein Abdi (1972). Abdi, enfant du territoire français des afars et des issas (Narrative, booklet). Djibouti: Imprimerie Administrative. Second edition, CCFAR 1998.
Isman Omar Hachi (2003). A l’avant goût du Sahan (Poetry). Djibouti: Imprimerie Nationale de Djibouti, Collection Mer Rouge.
Loïta Hassan Youssouf (2003). Fruit défendu (Poetry). Djibouti: Collection Mer Rouge.
Ali Moussa Iye (1998). Le chapelet des destins (Poetry). Djibouti: CCFAR/I.N.D.
Mouna-Hodan Ahmed (2000). Les enfants du khat (Novel). Paris: Sépia.
Omar Ali Youssouf (1997). Bouti, l'ogresse des temps anciens (Tale). Djibouti: CCFAR.
- (2004). Mon frère, l’hyène… (Tale). Djibouti: Imprimerie Rift Valley.
Omar Osman Rabeh (1986). Le cercle et la spirale (Autobiographical novel). Paris: Lettres libres.
Patrick Erouart-Siad (1987). Cahiers de la mort Colibri (Novel). Paris: Seuil.
- (1992). Océanie (Novel). Paris: Seuil.
Rachid Hachi (2005). L’enjeu du Siberia (Novel). Canada: Fondation littéraire Fleur de Lys.
- (2007). L’enfant de Balbala (Novel). Paris: L’Harmattan.
William Syad (1959). Khamsine (Poetry). Paris: Présence Africaine.
- (1976). Cantiques (Poetry). Dakar: N.E.A. (1976). Harmoniques (Poetry). Dakar: N.E.A.
- (1978). Naufragés du destin (Poetry and essay). Paris: Présence Africaine.
About Djiboutian literature
Abdourahman Ali Waberi (2007). Les voix poétiques de Djibouti. Article accessible at Abdourahman Ali Waberi’s internet site, go to Bibliographie, Textes divers, and scroll down to the article.
Pénel, Jean Dominique (1996) in Notre Librairie 126 (April‒June): 55.
- (1998). Djibouti 70. Djibouti: CCFAR.
Lilius, Suzanne (2008). Djibouti connections. In Ali Jimale Ahmed & Taddesse Adera (eds.): The road less traveled. Reflections on the literatures of the Horn of Africa. Trenton, NJ: Red Sea Press, 19‒53.