When I think of Algeria, I think of the Sahara.
“Algeria sounds like somewhere in Africa” was the correct guess from the kids, but nevertheless, Africa is still quite vast! The People’s Democratic Republic of Algeria is the largest country in Africa and is also the 10th largest country in the world. However, Algeria’s size is misleading; more than 90% of the estimated 44+ million people live by the coast and a large portion of the country is sand.
Algerian cuisine in Sydney is represented merely by a kebab fast food chain that has an Algerian plate and an Algerian falafel dish. While the neighbouring countries Morocco and Tunisia are visible in Sydney’s restaurant landscape, Algeria, well, less so. Google has informed us that the Algerian cuisine is largely similar to other Maghreb countries, and has a variety of vegetables, grains, fruit, meat and several spices. Mm, yummy.
With no Algerian restaurant or any Algerian friends in sight, the task was to prepare an Algerian dish at home. We chose a vegetable couscous, some tabbouleh and falafel (which I bought).I followed an Algerian recipe but am no master chef so the result was passable, but not thrilling. JK did a much better job with the couscous itself. It was golden and buttery and held the vegetables nicely. L is happy to try the vegetarian couscous and falafel but tabbouleh was not of her liking. A on the other hand is not excited about the food, and ends up eating just plain couscous. Nevertheless, we enjoyed the Algerian meal.
Spotify provided us with an Algerian music list which then became our soundtrack for the evening. The selection did not raise big passions but generated a reasonably interesting conversation about the musical landscapes we incorporate when growing up, and how less familiar soundscapes may sound stranger to our ears.
Later, L and I checked out the most popular Algerian singers today. Souad Massi is a popular Algerian Berber singer. She was part of the political rock band Atakor but had to leave the country following death threats and now lives in France. She sings in many different languages and her style is an interesting combination of Algerian, oriental, fado, western music, among others. A couple of her songs end up on my playlists.
Another singer we listened to is Zaho who is quite well known in France, Canada and Algeria. Kenza Farah is another Algerian musician, a hip hop and R&B artist with success in France – some of her songs are pure pop and some have clear Algerian influence.
Youtube is the answer once again
Algerian facts and figures include a lot of sand (the Sahara is the hottest desert in the world), a capital Algiers (“Algiers, the white”- full of white buildings), and the neighbouring countries, which are Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, Mauritania, Western Sahara, Mali and Niger. Algerian history facts include the Ottoman Empire’s occupation from the 16th century until the French invasion in 1830 that lasted for more than a century, the brutal Algerian war (1954-1962), Algerian independence in 1962, the 1988 riots and a bloody civil war from 1999 to 2002.
A funny fact is that due to a widespread cheating scandal in Algerian schools, in 2018, the government shut down the internet during final exams to make sure the kids had no access to external help.
“A super quick history of Albania” was a fun and easy introduction to Albania’s complex history, so this time we decided to go to Mr History’s youtube channel once again for “A super quick history of Algeria“. It starts with cave paintings and then goes through different ethnic groups, colonisers, wars, French rule for more than a century, independence, civil war and everything in between. The video states that Algeria has had a hectic history but has reached a high human development index. It brushes quite lightly through some of the most turbulent episodes in Algerian history, so it is safe for kids to see.
The video “Geography now” gave us a much needed geography lesson of Algeria. We learnt that only 3% of Algeria’s territory is arable land (suitable for growing crops), which explains the concentration of population in the north (the rest of Algeria is sand). 45% of food comes from imports. We also learnt the symbolism of the Algerian flag (the white represents peace; the green, star, and crescent represent Islam; and the red symbolises the blood of those killed fighting for independence in the Algerian War). The video describes how the majority of the population is Arab-Berber, and that they have built long roads that cross the desert for travel. The Geography now guy has the same concept as we do, and his alphabetical geographical series will come very handy in our future Virtual Nomad journeys. It is an unproblematic format that covers flags, geography, demographics and the ‘friend zone’ (meaning the friendly relationship that countries have, in case of Algeria, its relationship with Morocco is quite infamously tense).
“The biggest country in Africa” is a short 3-minute tourist video by Drew Binsky, (who has been to every country in the world), which is easy to follow and gives a glimpse of the landscape of the capital Algiers and some other sites. According to our boy Drew, Algeria is the friendliest country in Africa.
For the last video we (that is just L and I, this is no territory for the preadolescent A) try to choose something a bit more politically charged, covering aspects that are unsettling and turbulent. The French rule, the war crimes of the Algerian war, the youth uprising in 1988, the civil war, the rise of terrorism. We end up watching several videos from the Foreign Correspondent to Al Jazeera and many in between. They were difficult to watch, and another bitter remainder of what humans are capable of doing to each other.
A confused reading experience
After two distinguished, albeit male authors, I wanted to read a book by a woman. I asked my beautiful friend SB (who knows Arab literature much better than I do), but she was not sure whom to recommend so I turn to Internet to look for Algerian authors that are women.
My first choice Samira Bellil (1972 – 2004) reveals a harrowing life story of the author. Her autobiography that is said to have shocked France is not available in Australia or online, so for the moment, I cannot get hold of it. This setback does not keep me from reading more about her and all that she had to endure. Gang-raped several times as a teenager and trying to find an individual path free from traditional family setting, she was brave, compassionate and ground-breaking. She died in 2004 at the age of 31.
Samira Belli’s story is harrowing and upsetting, but it is also a story about immigration and the banlieues of Paris more than Algeria itself. I will need to find someone who represents more the Algerian side of the story.
I then select another female author, Assia Djebar, who has called Algeria “A dream of sand”. She is probably the most known contemporary Algerian author, and according to her biography many of her books focus on the role and place of women in the Algerian society. She is widely praised and studied, and holds an important place in North African and global literature. She was the first author from Maghreb to be elected into the Académie française, a prestigious institution guarding the heritage of French language.
At the local library, I find one of her essay books “The women of Islam” from 1961, not frequently mentioned in her collection of works, which I find interesting. It is not a work of fiction but a long essay accompanied by photos of Muslim women. This certainly sounds promising, and I am sure it will be a very interesting read in regards to women in Algeria with the author’s biography providing a backdrop for the book.
The book left me in a state of slight confusion. It was completely different from what I had expected, far removed from my own thinking. I pushed through even if I was tempted to drop it. I am really puzzled, as everything that I read about Djebar is about giving women a voice, bringing women’s stories to light and defend the progress, emancipation and rights of women in Algeria and the Maghreb. This book does celebrate the woman’s role in Islam, but in a very different way than I had expected. The introduction states that the fundamental place for a woman in Islam is in the private sphere, in the family and shielded from external life. That a man’s most precious possession is his wife who needs to be cherished and protected (in places such as harems). That the western idea of an independent life and career only makes her a slave of a modern society and the fragility of a woman needs to be protected, as she is not suited for external pressures. She does state, though, that the gravest dangers for the ‘modern family’, or the sacred unit, are the marriages of underage girls, polygamy and the unilateral repudiation of a wife by her husband. And she also does celebrate education for girls as progress.
She also states several times that man is superior to woman, and that a woman is part of a man. She says: “Let us not assume that this conception of the family is necessarily a sign of the ascendancy of man over woman. Does it not spring, rather, from the wish to safeguard the security of the woman, to shelter her from too great responsibilities? I feel that there is nothing offensive – quite the contrary – about this recognition, made simply and without fuss, of a woman’s frailty, a frailty that makes her the more precious.” I have such a hard time reading sentences like this and find that there are far too many in a small book with not too many pages.
When I calmed down, I reminded myself that this was written in 1961 when she was 25, and at the time, French rulers gave Algerian women less rights than the traditional Algerian society did, and women were just starting to gain certain rights (such as the right to vote) in several countries in the region, and elsewhere. It is not a reflection of the 2022 world but a time where a woman’s place was quite narrow and potentially the safest place for her to be was managing the family – as the alternative might not be as safe and secure, and allow her to fulfil her potential the way the family environment did.
I am intrigued about Assia Djebar and I take this as a challenge. I read a few studies (here, here and here) about her literature and these are interesting studies which seem to cement what I have read previously. She truly is an extraordinary author whose writing about Algerian women have gained widespread praise .
But I need to go back to her writing and see it myself.
After the first book, I was left in a strange state of discomfort and wonder. I needed one more sample because I couldn’t accept that the book I just finished would be the representative of a country for Virtual Nomad. I choose one of Djebar’s most famous books that marked a “turning point” in her career as an author. “Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement” (Women of Algiers in their apartment, 1981) is only available in French on Kindle, but I decided to give it a go even if represents a major challenge for someone like me who has not read in French for a long time. I’m ready for the challenge just to show to myself that I am serious about getting to the bottom of my inquest about Assia Djebar.
The title of the book refers to a painting by Eugène Delacroix from 1833. He visited a harem in Morocco, which then inspired him to paint two versions of the same image, the one from 1833 and another in 1849. For Djebar, it is a setting for stories about women that are sometimes voiceless and longing for freedom, but never figurants and with a rich internal life.
What I understand from Assia Djebar’s book is that she does not want the world to see women as victims of their own fate but give them a voice and a presence, even if they are oppressed and sometimes prisoners of their physical place or state. The book is a collection of stories, long and short, and as fascinating as it is, it’s hard to follow. My confusion could be because I am reading it in the original language which I do not fully command (not even close!) and I’m rushing through the pages rather than stopping to find the linguistic nuances that seem to escape me with my initial read-through.
The language is very rich – that much I do gather – and that is one of the central points of the book. The style is eloquent, poetic stream of consciousness (which in my humble opinion is already very difficult to follow even if you dominate the language). She writes in the language of the colonisers, which from what I have read, seems to be a current theme in her work. She is a very skilful writer and demands the attention and focus from her reader.
The stories are about different women in different moments of Algerian history. The book is divided into two parts; ‘yesterday’ and ‘today’, which touch upon the independent country and the colonial past. It’s about women who are more or less bound to their domestic environments without the option to leave. Women of Algiers in their apartment is also about women who have played an important role in the war but then do not get the recognition they deserve. It is about patriarchy, dependence, and lack of choice.
I am getting a little Assia Djebar obsessed, so I also watched her documentary “La Zerda ou les chants d’oubli” (or “the Zerda or the songs of oblivion”) that won Best Historical Film at the 1983 Berlin International Film Festival. It is about the colonial Maghreb between 1912 and 1942. I sit through the 59 minutes of it but I must confess the black and white archives and photos do not do it for me and even if I can understand the historic value of the movie, and as interesting as it is, I’m grateful when it finishes.
Around this time, I also find out that the book to read from Assia Djebar is called Fantasia – an Algerian Cavalcade, her highest ranking book by reviewers on different platforms. Alas, I need to leave it for my future reading list that will follow Virtual Nomad in a hundred years time.
I might come back to Assia Djebar but after reading two of her books, watching two interviews, reading research papers of her work and the long documentary, I’m ready to move on and explore the next country. My fellow virtual nomads have been patient with me so it is time to leave Djebar behind and travel to the mountains.
Next stop: Andorra
I thank my frequent virtual nomads for their patience.
I also thank L for her lovely editing skills. I did not write this.