Saturday, 6 December 2014

Algeria and a Seemingly Distorted World (Part 1)



I woke up this morning struck with the, finally lucid, realisation that attempting to learn Derja or Kabyle for a Francophone zmigré over 18 is pointless. In a country where you would be justified to think the last thing needed is another French speaker, it turns out that irrationality, economics, and the neighbourhood's geopolitics will largely forgive you, if not encourage you, to simply come settle, and remain, on the strength of that ability alone: speaking French.

When do we need to learn a language, or rather, when does a language become necessary to learn? The earliest evidence of language writing found so far shows it is economics that motivated writing, not the dire need to record love songs, although that came later. Economics is probably the preponderant factor that decides and motivates learning a language, and ultimately keeping up with it. Learning a language for the love of it, like setting poems in clay or stone, comes after. But the economics of panegyrics should not escape us. 

Since everything in Algeria works pretty much in the negation of how everything works elsewhere, plus it slants, the question as regards language learning shouldn't be: when does it become necessary to learn Derja, Kabyle, Tachaouit, or Tamasheq. We should ask: are they necessary to function here outside of a working world whose full attention is turned north, towards the centre of the universe, Paris? 

Many economic migrants like me, but much more in tune with what the country will indulge, already worked out that coming into Algeria via the gap colonisation has left open, entering DZ reality via the French language is much more profitable than slowing the machine, and time-warping into the seemingly distorted world that Algerians' tongues unveil. Tongues here are found at their most active in the streets and who wants to spend much time there? Most of us are happy to sip coffee on the streets but that's as far as most northern economic immigrants are willing to go, even to snear at hittists. No, the chnawa economic immigrant wants to have a blast here, who could blame our race for that, and you don't have a blast in Algerian streets, not even in a metaphor. The real world, the world of pay cheques, even from beyond DZ borders, shows that it is with French one has better prospects, the best posts are those where the requirements for recruitment are to lack skills, carry a EU/USA passport and speak French. 

So, what am I doing attempting to learn economically unprofitable languages at such an advanced age where brain activity responds much better to a bank balance stimuli than sentimentally seeking knowledge? 

There are as many secondary motivations than there are human beings I guess. For an economic immigrant from the #firstworld, coming to a place like Algeria initially means moving over to a better financial situation. That's the motivation to come. The motivation to stay is a fabulously better financial situation, as in the fabulous of fables, the sort of opportunities you'd never get elsewhere. After that comes the wishywashy motives: reconnecting with one's heritage, chilling in oases like spas, mulling over God's eccentricities sitting on dunes watching the sun go down, or is it it the sun go up...

My secondary motives for learning Derja and Kabyle, rooted in the whims of childhood and in teenageromantics, are slowly moving into third place. My frustration, reflected in my interlocutors' eyes – or is it their amusement at my frustration that shows – is too strong. A certain sentimentality over “origins” which led me to conceive that communicating in Derja or Kabyle is vital to figure out where I live, and where I'll end up living, has subsided. To be unfair: most (of us) are busy living the past in the present and vice versing it. Past that, no one can predict the future in Algeria, not even super mega pro specialists who have successfully turned the issuing of sociopolitical prophecies into paid employment. Chawafas everywhere. 

In a year and a half, only two people have voicefully ordered me (a kind of encouragement here) to hang in there and not speak like the Tchichi: a Taxieur in Bab El Oued and my gran. Two unlikely allies who've never met whose advice I am about to bin. The door to the seemingly distorted world isn't the one marked language because the seemingly distorted world has no doors.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Perspectives, bubble gum and a3tini ton facebook



Pink and rosy lenses on my glasses

The first external place you'll end up knowing well after you land anywhere urban is the street. Streets are the arteries that pump and tie up all activities, whether you walk them or drive through them.

I have been walking the streets as a woman, I can't escape my gender, but mostly I walk them as a human being. In the streets, among the vast Algerian skies, the ochres of city houses, the dusty whites of metropoleis, palm trees' flamboyant greens, and the pale khakis of olive orchards, there is quite a crowd. But people aren't walking. Pedestrians appear static. While the act of putting one foot after another is visibly unfolding, no movement to speak of is perceptible.

And so, avoiding collision at a very slow rate into a variety of static but not fixed obstacles may have slowed, and toned down, my perception of several events. One such and which has been popping up much in blogs and radio lately is street harassment.

Movement delimits the width of a dimension.

I do walk and travel alone on foot a considerable amount. While I am quite absent-minded, I am not so to the extend of not sensing a threat. So why haven't I paid any attention to street H, why hasn't it bothered me? Reports aren't fake, nor exaggerated. Have I integrated, from before coming to Algeria, that onomatopoeic obscenities shouted by men at women would be an expected common occurrence, like finding street lamp posts on the sidewalk? Yes, I was expecting it, but equally it has been unconsequential in my daily dealings, I have not changed my habits nor switched personalities, I have not felt threatened. I am not sure why that is, other than I find few behaviours disconcerting, as long as they do not involve a physical menace. Perhaps I am just very ugly and frightening and this has lessened the rate of abuse. Add to that a little blind. 

Degrees delimit the depth of a dimension.

I wonder, perhaps, if I'm not guilty of a worse wickedness than theirs: disdain. Maybe n'hggarhom without having realised it until now. I confess I've never found any normally constituted man unable to make a full sentence worthy of my attention. 'Mademoiselle...' 'Madame...' 'Chebbaaaa...', 'pssst pssst pssst...', 'qbayliyaaaa qbayliaaaa...', 'suce...' don't move me in the least, negatively nor positively. In Tizi Ouzou a few months ago, the waiter who had been hovering about our table asked me for my Facebook name as I left. I felt like giving him a hug and congratulating him on making a complex word string but I can't say complex nor word string in Kabyle so I just told him no. 

As is said in this radio talk (in French):  rape, conjugal violence, street harassment carried out against women are subjects that often come up and are treated in the media, they are not taboo and are openly discussed. As auto-antonyms would have it and as per the law of between distinctly we've already discussed, a majority of men deplore street harassment while a majority of men indulge in it... something's afoot, and all is well in the world of auto-contradictions. Where it leaves women, I don't know. 

We are all moved by a different reality.

There is one type of abuse I find very distressing though: it is the repression of, and against, women's expression of their sexual desires. Does that count as sexual abuse? I'd say it does. And I'd also say harassment is a way to attempt severing this desire at the root. 




When I walk around, no matter the place in Algeria, I see coquettish Algerian women all over, carefully, colourfully dressed and make-up-ed, with or without a hijab. They walk with a confident air, not haughtily with a head held high, nor beaten down with their eyes lowered, their gaze is level headed. Their pace is set at their own speed, it is not induced by fear.

And this is what feeds my pink world and sustains my bright bubble. I know that eventually it will pop but I believe that when it does, it will open onto an event better world.
 



Saturday, 30 August 2014

Bayyen - between distinctly

Ain Fezza's Grotto - Tlemcen


In the net that a language weaves, and in the concepts woven into that net, giving shape to the pattern, you can find antonyms. Antonyms, carried by a word, represent a meaning that faces another and stands opposite to it. Like a spatial location, top/bottom, a physical attribute, tall/short, a time stamp, before/after, an abstract, beginning/end. Each word-vessel is separate from its opposite and is spelt differently.

Among the group 'antonyms', there is the peculiar category of auto-antonyms. Peculiar because the same word carries two opposite meanings, both inside a word with the same spelling. There is no graphic difference, no visible identity for each. In English, before both means in front of (I am here before you) and, well... before (have you ever thought about this before?).

Auto-antonyms are absolutely fascinating. Fascinating because they point to and illustrate the lexical extent a word can reach. This category alone points to how complex reality can be, a space in the universe where all is far from black or white.

I have come to realise that Algeria is full of auto-antonyms. The more I travel, the more I find that these auto-antonyms are everywhere in the country - good news as this indicates the Algerian network is a lot more stable, unified and deeply so, than the media and ethno-lore like to make believe.

It isn't that their presence is itself an oddity, I am struck by how many there are. And they aren't just concepts, but people and places standing at once for one thing and its contrary:

Post-colonisation official halls located in colonisation's official halls. A Capital, the centre and gathering place of the nation, who deplores it is the centre and gathering place of the nation. Unemployed individuals who work, employed individuals who don't. Wild imports. One export. A national call for the old to come back. A national call for the young to get lost. Desires for recognition. Giving recognition to no one but one's mum. Holler in public to move forward. Yells in private to remain static. Hospital gardens used as private agricultural space. Agricultural land used as garbage space. Garbage used for selfies. Selfies sent privately for no-sex-dating to begin sex messaging. Men who want their girlfriends to sleep with them outside marriage and then call them whores. Girls who want society to let them sexually emancipate while asking to be traded at the highest mahar rate. Women with admittedly no libido who are romantic masochists. Media that misinforms. Misinformation that reveals purpose. Purpose in the media. Anonymous personae whose real identities are known by all. Groups who reject the claning system while creating clans to group. Francophones who don't speak French. Derjaphones who think they don't speak a language. Kabylophones who think they speak Tamazight. Tamazight made to stand for a singular. The singular L'Algerien used to represent a plural. The plural is one. The singular is ordinary. I could go on.

When oppositions are so at odds, and significance is so devoid of meaning, what happens to the vessel that carries them all. Does it explode and break loose? Does it implode, become a galaxy and expand? Does it move on to the next level of transformation like a Pokemon?

The Arabic root بين bayyen can both mean between and clear, distinct. I've often wondered how can something be both in the midst of elements, shadowed or enclosed between at least two spaces yet be so distinct as to be clear. Perhaps this is exactly where Algeria is situated: بين bayyen, between distinctly, until all sides open away... and we emerge.


Thursday, 10 July 2014

When Shaytan dies...



Qal lek that during the fasting month of Ramadan, Shaytan, this much greater devil than Insan, gets chained up for the duration. This has for effect that in some unsought way, the human beings we are, are offloaded from his wickedness (that is not to say from all wickedness, only Shaytan's inspired own).

Effectively, during the month of Ramadan, Shaytan is neutralised, out of circulation, pulled off the streets. Puff.

And who would have thought that the combination of fasting and a lack of inspiration for evil doings could lead to: a very great street party.

A great nocturnal fest, not only a feast, is taking place in Algiers nightly (this year and perhaps so for a long time) featuring all manners of concerts, museum tours, exhibitions, theatre plays on a wide array of themes, and open-air cinema. Not to mention sweet-cakes, mint tea and salty peanuts stalls, ice-cream parlours, brochettes vendors and various restaurants opened from dusk to dawn. This is most probably going on in other larger cities too, and potentially in smaller ones as well.

Food excesses, and their contradictoriness to what fasting is about, are well documented, this is not what made me wonder about what the future in Algeria might look like. Similarly unsurprising is the increase in activity, cultural and traditional. What goes on here on the food and outings' front is what goes on here during non-fasting summer months, it just all happens during the day normally. Food-heavens opened overnight are only the recuperation of business loss because places are closed during daylight hours. The difference during Ramadan is in the atmosphere, which is a lot more elated because of the sheer excitement this holy month generates and a lot more euphoric because of all the sugar intake. This Food x times x Culture Fest is rather wonderful and beautiful considering the years of want and conflict that can still be seen just round the past's corner.

While the month goes by, I go by it, walking about my area unaccompanied every evening from 10pm, raising no eyebrows from neighbours, coming home between 1am and 2am on the same said feet, not-raising the same said eyebrows, in concert with numerous other women accompanied or not, with children or not, but mostly not with men, crossing the streets of what some call “popular areas” of Algiers believed to be cut-throats the rest of the year's months.

We, women and men alike, during this month are enjoying a visible and much greater ease of movement, a freedom to circulate at night that is not present, not as much and that people generally do not feel comfortable seeking, during the rest of the year. During Ramadan, men keep their mouths in check, it is expected that women will be seen walking about everywhere, and it's accepted that it's no one's business – although sometimes as I walk around with other women, I feel that we're all pretending to not go and have fun but to go visiting our sick aunt, having forgotten our red riding hood home in the haste of doing a good deed).

So, thanks be to Shaytan and all thanks be to God, Ramadan in Algiers turns the city into a strange but wondrous place full of civic freedom where group-gathering-in-public-places-around-smoothies requires no signature of acceptance from the authorities. We become a place where civic freedoms are born out of, not present religious obligations, but future religious rewards or the hope thereof.

Yet, is this the right order of things?

Could it be that all this freedom of movement and carefree attitude towards women's right-to-a-night-stroll-not-related-to-peripatetic-undertakings come from, not Shaytan being in chain, but from both God and Shaytan having taken a break from us all. They have a right to a holiday after all. What if G and S had effectively buggered off to let us deal with world and underworld affairs? Think of it, if Shaytan were really in chain, the space he's left unoccupied would fill with goodness. From God's goodness to more goodness, we would consequently become the supermen and women of goodness. But that's not what happens is it. There's plenty of crime going on during Ramadan, not least of which the daylight theft (prices rocketing sky-high, to only talk about local crime). Plain robbery committed by people who fast with their heart I expect but not with their purse.

So while I'll accept that Shaytan's taken off, I do wonder whether God's taken a break also, so as to not tip the balance off blatantly in his favour. God is fair and just.

When you contemplate the possibility of the Holies' holiday, you do have to wonder about their eventual Holy disappearance, and by disappearance I mean their death.

One day, there will be a separation of power in Algeria (that's what's badly needed). The religious will be separated from the executive and the justice system. When that happens, God will die a little. Humans will have taken the responsibility of their action and behaviour into their own hands, and will be sole judge of them on this earth. Because Shaytan is tied to God, the more He “disappears”, the more Shaytan will too. Once their immortal presence is compromised, they will become mortal and death will surely come for both eventually, however much we love them and however much we will be sad to see them go.

After we have buried them both in our Book of Myth, will Algerian nights, every night, feel as magic as a Ramadan's nocturnal escapade? I'd say yes.


Saturday, 5 July 2014

The arm-wresting match between rewriting History and preserving Memory in Algeria

I went to a debate during the International Festival of Literature and of Young People’s Literature (FELIV) in Algiers on the competing voices of official versions of History and factual's versions.

I wrote the below for Arab Literature in English Translation and wanted to post it here to record it because this subject is the very reason why I have been looking into Algerian literature, why I think its role is so important, fragile and ultimately crucial.


The (literary) writing of history” was the topic of Sunday, June 15′s discussion between French author and Goncourt prize winner Jean Rouaud (Fields of Glory, 1990) and Algerian writer Abdelkader Djamai (La Dernière nuit de l’Emir, 2012). France Culture producer Catherine Pont-Humbert aptly moderated the talk around the following questions:

In the historical novels you’ve written, where was the frontier between what is lived and what is history?

Rouaud was clear on this. For him, “every novel, except sci-fi, is a historical novel.” From the moment a narrative’s tense is in the past, the memory of the author is involved. This memory is either realistic or inspired by reality. To see the frontier, we must consider time (tense in writing) and testimonies, that is memory, the perceptible memory of the author and that of his contemporaries. There is a story, a narrative essentially, in every family. Beyond the intimacy of a family’s memory, we have a collective memory as well as a live memory where witnesses are still present. The information around which a novel is constructed belongs is located at a given moment (Time) and at a given place (Space).

This, for him, is what constitutes history. 

As regards history, Rouaud sees that “historical history” relies on several factors: on a scientific approach to information-gathering built not on impressions but on scientific research; on a certain conception of history defined by a (political) dogma at a given moment, and on “l’histoire evènementielle,” past events that were once current events.

Therefore, “History is a vast field for the imaginary.”

For Djemai, the frontier between history and experience is personal memory, and also suffering.
“I am not a historian,” he insisted. “I do not have their sense of rigour; I work on emotions.”
He explained that he writes down an experience recounted emotionally, and it is a “history personalised.”  

“Narratives also come from suffering,” as every family has a relation to suffering. For example, war leaves traces. It is those traces that give rise to family historical novels.

What is your relationship to reality when you write historical novels?

Djemai was concerned with the believable and informative aspect of the representation of the past he weaves in his novels.

“How can I create fiction that can pass for history? I have to research seriously and I need to document myself.” He stressed that he sees himself as a storyteller, a history-teller whose stories a reader should enjoy and from which he should learn something. He considers that writing should also function as a vector for the transmission of information.

Rouaud remarked that the relationship between reality and history is based on distance – the distance of time. When history is recent, events or characters are not so flexible or pliable because they are still alive in the collective memory.  When this proximity of time is passed however, we enter the historical novel’s domain and a looser space in which to write. 

What about war in historical novels? 

“Our imaginary is marked by wars,” Rouaud said.  He pointed out that in the 20th century, more people know how to read and write, they can therefore tell their story by writing it. Before, only one social class could do this. Now, even the suffering party can testify. Djemai calls this previous state the absence of voices, those of injured parties, or “silent suffering.”
“They are the truncated voices” in history.

Rouaud pounced on this to make a very interesting statement about Algeria.

“The official history of France is a creation, it is a fiction.” French history was created to build the foundations of a nation-state and fix it. “There are all those history forgot,” Rouaud said, which prompted Djemai to add, “we must speak for those who are no longer here.”

 
Rouaud however warned that “this is double-edged.” A reader might believe everything that a historical novel contains. “It is dangerous.”

In Algeria, we are at a time when two histories are competing. Both are visible and fragile. One version will eventually win, only one because they are too distinct and separate to merge. The winning version will turn into indelible ink and will redefine and fix a mythology. Mythologies are crucial for the unity and the cohesion of a people. Mythologies define and delimit the acceptable and the fearsome, the laudable and the base.  They fix codes, their symbols delimit a beginning, they set space, geographies, and a past tense. 

The official version of Algeria’s history is currently being created and the fiction is nearly complete. In parallel, the voice of history’s not-yet-forgotten shouts out loudly both in collective memory, too recent to be fictionalised, and in historical novels based on too many testimonies that agree, an altogether different versions than those presented in official statements. A phenomenal arm-wrestling match is being played out here. The safeguard of memory versus its erasure.

I asked Rouaud what side he sees winning. He was very optimistic, saying that eventually, when time recedes and becomes not so raw, the duty of remembrance (devoir de mémoire) that lies at the core of Algerian literary efforts will come out of the official shadows and will make history. It was heart-warming that he was so positive. I, however, believe the zombies will win. Collective memory is now safeguarded in historical novels, but give it another fifty years to tire and these acts of remembrance will not disappear: They will be hailed as fictional, fancied, factually suspicious, while the now fictitious official version will have become as fixed and set as a gravestone.
 
Then an era made of different gods, protective and vengeful, will begin. Will they be winged? Will they be moustached?