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Algerian writer and human-rights advocate sets up in Pittsburgh

Algerian-born dissident novelist and blogger
Renee Rosensteel
City of Asylum
Algerian-born dissident novelist and blogger Anouar Rahmani visits Alphabet City.

Anouar Rahmani recalls that as a third-grader in Algeria, he once inadvertently upset a teacher with some poetry he’d written. The teacher thought his verses too similar to the Quran. “And then she told me, ‘Those who change the word of God, God will break their bones,’” he said.

Rahmani doesn’t hold a grudge against the teacher. But the novelist, blogger, and newspaper columnist said the incident was a milestone, of sorts.

“This was my first problem I have because of my writings,” he said.

Rahmani, now 29, arrived in Pittsburgh on Jan. 4 to begin his Artist Protection Fund Fellowship. The Institute for International Education program puts Rahmani in residence at both Carnegie Mellon University’s Department of Modern Languages and City of Asylum, the latter a haven for writers persecuted in their home countries.

Rahmani said he has been harassed and persecuted for advocating for free speech, LGBTQ rights, political reform, and other issues. His work and his plight have been highlighted by groups including Human Rights Watch, Front Line Defenders, and PEN International.

“It was almost impossible in Algeria,” he said in an interview at City of Asylum’s Alphabet City, about a month after arriving in Pittsburgh. “Like, I am supportive of gay rights. This is kind of crazy, doing this in in Algeria. Being gay is not the problem in Algeria. The problem is talking about this issue in a serious manner.”

Rahmani, whose four novels in Arabic include “Hallucinations of Jibril” and “What God Is Hiding From Us,” said he had also worked to free people who’d been imprisoned for their religious beliefs, including for professions of atheism. He said his efforts succeeded in part because of his growing human-rights profile internationally, starting in 2017.

“We can stand up for a noble cause if we believe in it,” he said. “We’re all going to die one day. So it's preferable to die for something, for a good cause, than to die for nothing.”

Algeria is a majority-Muslim nation on Africa’s Mediterranean coast. Rahmani was the first person there to publicly call for legal same-sex marriage, in 2015; that generated student protests against him, and also what he calls a campaign of lies about him by “national newspapers.”

“This put me in real danger at that time,” he said. In late 2020, a misdemeanor court convicted Rahmani of “insulting state officials” on social media, and fined him the equivalent of about $400.

But Rahmani didn’t let up, and neither did Algerian authorities. The civic realm there is a little freer today than it was before the country’s nonviolent, so-called “Revolution of Smiles” began in 2019, and forced President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to resign after two decades in office.

Still, on ranking of civic freedoms, Algeria continues to fare poorly. On a list of 180 countries, Reporters Without Borders places Algeria 146th for freedom of the press (about the same as Pakistan and Russia), while on political and civil rights, Freedom House ranks Algeria roughly on par with Turkey, Angola, and Iraq.

Rahmani said he has been interrogated multiple times by Algerian police. Just weeks before he left Algeria for Pittsburgh, Rahmani said, “I was accused also of blasphemy because I said in one of my articles that God is free. They said, ‘God is not free because “free” is not one of the names of God in Islam.’ And it was like very funny for me. Like, if they prevent their own God from being free, how they can not prevent me from be the same?”

In Pittsburgh, Rahmani is staying in one of the houses on the North Side’s Sampsonia Way maintained by City of Asylum, which has sheltered persecuted writers from abroad for nearly two decades. At Carnegie Mellon, the multilingual writer’s one-year IIE fellowship will find him contributing to the school’s Arabic and French language programs, Department of Modern Languages head Anne Lambright said in a statement.

"We know he will be a great addition to the community and look forward to introducing him to friends and neighbors," City of Asylum executive director Andres Franco said in a statement.

This trip to the West, Rahmani's first, caused a bit of “culture shock,” he said. “The people are not the same. I travel from a civilization to another, not just from a continent to another.”

For instance, he notes that Americans are much more sensitive about personal space. “Everyone has his own boundaries,” he said. “In Algeria, we don’t have this much space for yourself. If you are there, you belong to everybody.”

But he said he likes the diversity he has noticed. “I've seen too many races here, too many people here, too many faces here,” he said. “I've seen white people, Black people, brown people, all of the colors. And I've seen gay flags, all on the doors. This [gives] me like a courage to be to be what I want to be, to write what I really want to write.”

He is in fact working on a new novel. He said living in Pittsburgh should help.

“It’s dealing with some Western-civilization issues and questions. I'm trying to understand how the mechanisms of the general mind of the [West],” he said. “Is it really an individualistic enough, or it is just some kind of hypocrisy? I don't know. … I'm sure I'm not American, but this year I'm trying to be American enough to write a novel about Western society.”

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: