Habib Tengour – The Old Man of the Mountain

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He counts as „one of the most powerful and imaginative poetic voices of the post-colonial French speaking Maghreb“ (Pierre Joris). It is almost visionary how Habib Tengour gets to grips with themes which, not until years later, will attract the attention of the media. In The Old Man of the Mountain, in which he writes about 1977-1981, he is on the trail of religious totalitarianism and questions the responsibility of the intellectual towards war, corruption and hardening ideology and the pertinence of religion, science and politics as viable paths to „truth“.

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He counts as „one of the most powerful and imaginative poetic voices of the post-colonial French speaking Maghreb“ (Pierre Joris). It is almost visionary how Habib Tengour gets to grips with themes which, not until years later, will attract the attention of the media. In The Old Man of the Mountain, in which he writes about 1977–1981, he is on the trail of religious totalitarianism and questions the responsibility of the intellectual towards war, corruption and hardening ideology and the pertinence of religion, science and politics as viable paths to „truth“.

As though it were a laboratory experiment he examines three historical figures: Hassan-as-Sabah, prototype of a fanatic leader of an islamic sect who in the 12th century in his mountain fortress Alamut in the Khorassan province of Persia converted 60 000 hashish-high acolytes into terrorists („assassins“) to eliminate political opponents. Next to him Nizam al Mulk, Persian Grand Vizier, who epitomises the unscrupulous power politician and Omar Khayyam the famous mathematician, astronomer and poet from Nishapur who gave the world the Rubaiyyat, melancholy quatrains and the solution to third level algebraic equations but, according to Tengour, through his stargazing missed out on life for fear of getting his hands dirty.

From the settings of the oriental middle ages – Alamut, Nishapur, Qom and Baghdad – Habib Tengour catapults his figures directly into the world of the Parisian immigrant, directly into contemporary Algeria. Zapping across centuries and continents and sharpening one‘s view of historic parallels, Tengour‘s novel, a poetic plea for tolerance and pluralism against a background of the fall of the once glittering Abbasid dynasty (750‑1258), is made to seem more pertinent than ever.

From the French by Regina Keil-Sagawe. 

Habib Tengour was born in Algeria in 1947 and in 1958 followed his parents into exile in Paris where he studied sociology and heightened his political awareness. He still shuttles between Algeria and Paris.

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