Kamel Daoud’s Daily Dose of Subversion
Translation and introduction by Suzanne Ruta
Le Quotidien d’Oran is one of Algeria’s most widely read French language dailies. People say they buy it just to read Kamel Daoud’s page three chronique or column, Raina raikoum, (my opinion, your opinion). In a country where the lone TV station is state controlled and investigative reporting is just about impossible, Daoud has fought for the right to offer a daily “dose of subversion.” He is the paper’s editor and a gifted novelist as well. (O Pharaon, 2005, a portrait of a small town war lord, reads like Garcia Marquez minus the butterflies.) But, he was once a street reporter, covering the surreal atrocities of Algeria’s recent civil war. The chroniques are savvy and down to earth but also capable of great leaps of faith or despair, depending on the day.
After ten years of civil war and another ten of political lockdown, Algerians have not taken the same risks as their amazing neighbors in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. Daoud reveals what Algeria – once a beacon to oppressed nations – has these days instead of revolutionary stirrings; the harraga – the many thousands of young men who risk their lives each year, trying to reach Europe in flimsy boats, and an endless succession of ad hoc riots. A youth riot in early January left several dead and the gerontocratic regime nervous, but when in the weeks following, a new coalition of human rights activists and labor leaders, tried to start a Tunisian style uprising at home. They failed, because the oil rich Algerian regime can throw money at its problems and because timid political demonstrations have been blocked by massive deployments of police and hired thugs. At the first pro-democracy march on February 12th, 2011, Daoud was dragged through the street in Oran and crudely insulted by the police. That became the subject of his next pithy column:
Le Quotidien d’Oran
Our harraga don’t leave the country because they are poor or jobless or can’t find a storefront to rent, even if that’s what they say. They leave because here, in this country, their lives are pointless, there’s no room to dream, and worst of all, there’s no fun, no laughter, no kissing, and no color. Men grow old before their time. It’s simple really. If you want an expert on emigration to understand the harraga, take him, empty his pockets, take away his cell phone, his address book, his salary, give him a pair of plastic sandals and two cents, an empty village and ask him does he get the point and by the end of two months he’ll say Yes. Because although rumor has it that Algeria is made up of cities, observation tells us it is made up primarily of villages and that in these villages – you have to see it to understand it – the boredom is unrelenting, unbelievable, unbearable, and inhuman. You have to be there to see the visceral nothingness, a boredom with no exit, an idleness that chills even the reproductive instinct… There’s nothing to look forward to but the post office at the end of the month and the mosque the rest of the time and the dull routine of burials and water trucks and brief, restless, unhappy marriages and the ailments of old age. Nothing youthful, nothing Technicolor, no joy, no enthusiasm. And this is the most simple, obvious and overlooked explanation for the harraga: the lack of leisure, not only in the childish sense of entertainment, but in the broadest, anthropological, anciently human meaning of the term.
In the villages, whose total square footage exceeds that of Algeria itself, no one has any fun… There are no swimming pools, no guitar music, no parties, and no winning soccer matches that are not controlled by hostile police. The mayors are glum and voracious, the mosques offer an inadequate response to the call of life, the roads are potholed, power outages are frequent, suicidal violence is latent. It’s only in the internet cafes that you sometimes see faces aglow with reflected light and get an inkling of another world that exists elsewhere. Otherwise there’s only sadness, ennui, the void. The same void that drove the younger generation to grow their beards and take up arms, today sends them to sea…ready to leave a country where even the president never smiles and is always angry about something.
An insurance company just brought out a new line, riot insurance for private individuals. Riots are now an Algerian product, manufactured locally for widespread consumption. Riots are a part of our capricious climate along with floods, earthquakes, and droughts. They’re a kind of national institution like the army, the governors or the two chambers in the national assembly. Riots are actions undertaken by the people, like elections. Our governors receive visits from rioters, as they do from elected representatives. The state responds by handing out semolina or apartments. There’s a special budget for meeting rioters’ demands.
There is even a special budget for post-riot repairs.
So, on the one side you have the regime: it holds elections, votes for itself, regales itself with voter participation statistics, hugs itself to celebrate the results or congratulate its winning candidates. On the other side, the people riot, eventually put forward some rioters as representatives of the riot, obtain results or promises and then return to life as usual. Sometimes there are excesses, either in the voter participation statistics or the use of nightsticks, but on the whole, the roles are set. There are two worlds in a single country, or two countries, one of which no longer exists or a world separating two worlds. It depends on how you look at things.
There are riot statistics too. More and more riots (over 11,000 in 2010) more and more police, more and more money for police salaries and more and more money for riot control. Both sides have understood one thing: the people – that it’s more useful to riot than to vote and the regime – that it’s better to force feed the people than to listen to them. Meanwhile, the regime wants to make sure that no one is capable of sublimating a riot into a revolution, or reducing a dictatorship to a democracy….
Should you fight for other Algerians? Should you get beaten with truncheons for their sake, because we’re all Algerians? Shoved and pulled and slapped so they can have a better life? When you’re carrying a banner and you’re heading through the streets toward the future you intend to demand, you can’t help wondering. The passer-by who smiles at the spectacle you’re making of yourself, leaves you wondering. The girl who crosses the street to avoid you. The snickering old skeptic who tells you it’s pointless. The forty-something who insists, “Not interested.” They all make you wonder. Nearly all of them. Algerians have been so thoroughly gutted of a sense of self, they no longer believe in their ability to lift a coffee cup without state sponsorship, or chew their food without a subsidy. Algerians have a low opinion of themselves, they think they’re violent, incorrigible, doomed by history, extremists, irreconcilable enemies, irremediably suspicious. And when you want to go out and demonstrate to reclaim the future tense, you’ll need a quick answer to the question, why get beat up for others who don’t want to live but only to whine, complain, criticize and sigh at the sight of a country that has disappointed them, and that they have disappointed. The answer is simple. According to the statistics, we are a country of thirty-six million individuals but that’s not true. We are actually hundreds of millions because when you do the arithmetic, you have be sure to add in those who have not been born yet, who are still going to come into the world in this country. They deserve a better country than this one that excludes us. So maybe it’s for the future generations, for our children, that we have to get beaten up and keep our patience and construct a little bit of hope. Those future children don’t have names yet, and what’s worse, they don’t have the country they deserve. For now, Algerians have been persuaded that they are impotent; they can’t even build a wall without Chinese help. Without decent schools or universities, or books on the airwaves and in their souls, without self-confidence, Algerians don’t make the connection between the ordeal of obtaining a new ID card and their incompetent Minister of the Interior. The connection between the right to housing and that fact that it’s not an elected official who makes decisions but a local boss appointed by the regime. They don’t make the connection between a shoddy road and shady dealings in the contract bidding process, or between that fraud and the absence of a free press to expose it, a truly public television station, and the right of oversight over the use of public funds. Algerians don’t make the important connection between the regime that shuts them out of decision making and their daily misery. They don’t make the connection between corruption and injustice or between injustice, which they mutter about, quietly, and the public figures who should be the target of their complaints. Every Algerian has his own negative assessment of the country, a harsh judgment, and tons of complaints, from morning to night, but if you add them all together, it still doesn’t amount to a Revolution, or even a demand for the regime to become a state instead of a conclave of conniving potentates. With an apartment, a decent salary and a car, you can stand outside of national history. True enough. But it doesn’t make for a happy country; you may be rich but if your country doesn’t exist, you can’t enjoy it, or leave it, or be alive within it. A decent salary will let you eat well, nothing more. To be happy, to go out at night, take your children for a walk, to enjoy the sea and the shore, you have to have a country. What happens when you give a gold bar to a man dying of thirst in the desert? Nothing: he dies of thirst.
Algerians don’t know it yet, because the connection between the political situation and their daily suffering doesn’t exist in their minds but only on their tongues. And Algerians are afraid, in a comfortable way. The poor mistrust the educated elite and treat them as traitors, in keeping with our populist national culture. The middle classes fear the poor, and hate them because they are frightened by them and fear losing what they have to a crowd of looters with no respect for private property. The upper classes have their protectors and think they are saved by their loyalty, including political loyalty, and their willingness to wait their turn. Each of the three classes thinks one of the others owns the country, when the truth is that all three are being dispossessed, with every passing day.
Algeria Journey from East to West, Bruno Boudjelal
The revolutions in the Arab world, those in progress and those to come, can be summed up by a single formula: independence is under repair. Watching from a distance as each people’s narrative unfolds with its martyrs and its unexpected courage, what we see is a brutal, violent and painful return to Year Zero, to the first drawn breath, in order to seize time by the hair and push it along a different path. Liberate us from our liberators, as this chronicler wrote several months ago. Remake the war and death and the martyrs and the flag and history and the soldier’s stripes and the ravaged flower and the coffin and the cry and the women and everything that’s part of it, from childbirth to the leap into the clouds, but tell time by a different clock than the one that brought us to these rough roads, these crumbing sidewalks, and stolen elections with billions that vanish while lives are reduced to prison terms or driven to self-immolation. That’s it. That’s the conclusion after a month spent searching for the essence of the event and the meaning hidden in the noise of bombs and shouting. That’s the reason each country has lived its revolution in a different way: Egypt brought down Mubarak with the skill and method used to expel the English and King Farouk. In Tunisia Ben Ali met the same fate he concocted for Bourguiba. In Libya, there’s violence and crime, as when Omar el Mokhtar was hanged. In Algeria? Things take time, as with our seven year war of liberation and 132 years of colonialism. In fact, what the Arab peoples are doing is going back in time, at the price of death and injury, returning to the inaugural moment, which had been reduced to a lie, taking up the cause of the dead and martyred, hurling themselves into a better war, perhaps the last war before modernity and the right to gambol on the moon. The criminal gap between dictatorship and the joy of independence was so outrageous it pushed us to the breaking point and another revolution. The young want to pick up the torch (that worn expression) to complete what their elders achieved only halfway: independence.
This writer has said it before: our dictators deeply resemble colonials in their behavior: semolina, charm, fake elections, heavy weapons, massacres, brigands riding rented camels, recruitment of collaborators and paramilitaries, bad faith offers to negotiate, ugly self aggrandizing statues, public squares renamed, ancestors hanged, grandsons without dental care. The peoples remember having met these types before decolonization. They remember and take to the streets with weapons and hope. That’s what we’re seeing now: decolonization, for real. This time we’ll know better than to start out with a single ruling party, an army general staff, leaders who are going to age badly, heroes and founding fathers. This time, nothing but the bare essentials: our bodies and our voices. Every revolution is a turning back to beginnings. The clocks reset in rhythm with the first courageous hearts.
About Kamel Daoud:
Kamel Daoud is a writer and an ‘artificial francophone’. Born in 1970, Kamel edits the French language daily Le quotidien d’Oran where he contributes a popular chronique or tart commentary on the news under the title Raina Raikoum (My Opinion, Your Opinion). His latest book of short stories, Minotaure 504, to be published in France in May, has just been nominated for the prestigious Prix Goncourt du Recit.
About Suzanne Ruta:
Suzanne Ruta is an author and translator. Her novel To Algeria, with Love, was published by Virago Press this winter.