Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Public & Private in Algeria

- Come and give me a kiss, how was the visit? So are they sleeping together again?”
- what? bloody hell, I don't know, that's none of my business!”
- you could have asked, I mean she should let him do it, what's a wife for otherwise?”
- oh my god, woman, we're in 2015 not 1890! What the hell are you saying? I don't even want to think of where their children came from!”
- you're right there, she keeps letting her three year-old sleep up there, then the girl pees in bed and the sheets smell, that's a disgraceful tactic to keep a man away.”
- you're a hopeless case, I'm going to make coffee, think of your own affairs while I pour”
- Let me tell you about my business. When my man was alive, I showered from hair to toe every dawn, that's what.”
- Stop it! It's private!”
- oh hey women! So how were they, are they sleeping together again or what?”

I am sitting on a bed, drinking coffee in a bedroom, inside a house with a courtyard, on an orchard by a countryroad, in a village next to the city, in the east of the middle, the middle of Algeria. Or is it the other way round?

I am in Algeria, in the middle of the north, not the middle-east though, near a city in a village up a countryroad, by the orchard ending in a courtyard, inside a house, in a room, on a bed with a coffeecup in my hand.

In this enumeration of geographical locations, I suddenly wonder about space.

Is there a private and a public space here, and if so, where are they ?

I don't mean to be Goldy Locks about objects, but let me talk about my bed: a dedicated space for my discretional use. Or maybe not... Finding it is slept in when I am not around, particularly when other great beds were empty, and knowing it is not slept in out of spite, nor out of love, makes me have to put this space in the public sphere. My sense of norms is shifting.

A few days back, relatives so distant you could call them strangers came to visit. As it often happens among recently married women, the conversation turned to the suspicious looking activities of a stomach. “Nice bump, are you pregnant?” “What? No! We've been to so many wedding parties, I've eaten too much cake these last few weeks, got a bit overweight that's all” “Come on, I was at the doctors with your cousin last month and when we chatted she said you might be expecting.” “No, I'm not, I take the pill anyway.” “You should have more children, men love lots of children, take the pill when you're old and can no longer have any”. Pregnancy and contraception habits are discussed in public privately. One's state of health belongs to the private domain and is exposed to so many that it quickly becomes public knowledge. Here again, private is public.

So, if private sits on the public bench, where has public space gone to, and what's a public space anyway? Is it garbage, like Algiers's permanent state of waste ?

In Algeria, privacy is a public affair. Privacy moved there to replace the vaccum when public affairs left the building to move to El Mouradia to stay hush-hush.

Meanwhile, worlds cross and I look at the moon still bright and clear at midday, facing the sun and winking.

Friday, 20 February 2015

Algeria and the Silent treatment

In a small village surrounded by fruits trees, a group of women are talking under a walnut tree, resigned and dignified.

- That's it, all the oranges are gone.
- And the mandarines?
- Finished. His daughters-in-law's mothers didn't even get given any...
- Damn, we've eaten everything. Again.
- He's going to get mad.
- Yea but how much?
- Not more than last year when he made her cook makrout for him all summer, even during Ramadan...
- Her face and arms spent all summer above boiling oil.
- ...and not less than the year he discovered that the girl to whom he married his son is a moron.
- He should have known, beautiful but never married at 29...
- Why don't any of you refuse his madness? Why don't you say no to him when he asks for crazy things to punish you with?
- We can't !
- Why? What's the worse thing that can happen?
- He'll stop speaking to us.
- What ?
- He'll go silent.
- Your grandad refused to give in once. He went ape, he stopped speaking to your gran, not a word. Even once djeddim died he didn't say anything to him. You can't imagine. He just... stopped... speaking.”

It took that exchange between my aunts and grandmother for me to realise that silence is the form of violence they can bear the least. And men, just like women, cannot stand it.

There are many forms of violence the world over, and we conceptualise them using various terms and degrees. Physical, conjugal, intellectual, street-based, clan-based. In Algeria, it is often administrative. Depending on context, violence, at least for the one who is abused, works on a scale of from, and to, the least and most bearable. I have heard many stories that illustrate each form, from the small humiliations of life, to the traumatising. Women aren't the only recipient of it either, men are also, and very often. But, seeing silence come top of the list of violence's cruelest form, did take me aback somewhat. What is it that they so fear when faced with it?

Silence is death. And you, if you talk, you'll die, if you stay silent you'll die, so speak and die!
Tahar Djaout

In the context of Djaout's enjoinder to speak out no matter the threat, silence did mean death, death by murder. But when speaking leads to death, that death is due to unnatural causes. The laws of nature and life's natural order have been broken. Speech means life. As in the ancient Mesopotamian myth of Creation, the living make a great noise and won't let the gods sleep. Noise doesn't even have to be intelligible words, it's got to be sounds, gestures, proof of life. So it follows that silence, even an angered one, should be interpreted as death, a murder of the senses, a frightening pause to life indeed. In their apprehension, the equivalent of someone silent is finding a living-dead lunching among the living. And wouldn't that be a gory sight.

So speak. And don't be ashamed to sneeze out loud.

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.