Reportages

 

  • Algeria
  • Algeria
  • Algeria
  • Algeria
  • Algeria
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versione italiana




(published in the weekly newsmagazine DIARIO, september 1998)
The strange stillness of the most dangerous city in the world

Streets of Algiers

Much more similar to Naples or Genoa than to Cairo or Rabat, Algiers makes even more absurd the violence passing through it, beginning from its center: the Kasbah. The normality of Algerian “hell”

A huge billboard quickly fixes the hierarchy: “Premier arrondissement, Casbah”. You know Algiers from here, from the district number one. As it wants to remind that the last will be first, because the Kasbah is a poor and awful district all along, and there is no able town plan to change it. The governor, Sherif Hashi, is cleaning up the city, re-establishing squares and gardens, restoring magnificent Moorish houses, as the Bastion 23, overlooking the sea. A few meters far, however, the Western spirit of this wonderful city, just like a Naples or a little Mediterranean Paris, stops in front of the mystery beginning from Martyrs Square, where the board with the number one shows the end of the logic, of the illusion of normality. From here the crushing rebellion of October 88 started, hastily got rid by European media as “Bread Riots”. It was rather an explosive mixture of political protest and desperate youth crime, a flood of angry young people who crowded crying “Chadli murderer” (Chadli Benjedid was the Algerian president) along “Ernesto Che Guevara” boulevard (very suitable name), going down to “May Day” square, passing by “Grande Poste”, one of the monument testifying the French grandeur. “Young people insulted soldiers – reminds Lila, 38, former nurse – the government responded to the complaints putting out the army, in action station. Soldiers had license to kill, and they started shooting without mercy. I saw dozens of guys falling down, next to burned cars and devastated shops: we have never seen a thing like this”. The umpteenth battle in Algiers was the clear sign of the short circuit of a society: an explosive system with the more sensitive terminals in the Kasbah and the “interface” in Martyrs square, in front of the magnificent Ketchua mosque, populace temple.
Nobody, not even Algerians (at least the ruling class) realized the drama of the situation: many Western commentators think that the Algerian history began with the elections of 91-92, with the denied victory of the Islamic Front of Salvation and the militarization of the regime. A regime which was in fact already “sealed” for years, completely detached from civil society. The normality reigning in Algiers is incredible, the most dangerous city in the world, the hell abandoned by European media being just able to show almost exclusively blood (moreover, by archival footage, as many “parabolés” Algerians, watching CNN, RAI or France International, swear). Wandering the streets of Bab el Oued, one of the most popular districts, in the past inhabited by the more poor“pieds noirs” and by many Italian immigrants, you can see life daily responding to death, the courage of normality overriding the terror of the state of siege: everybody goes out to crowd cafes and markets and schools, to see another useless day for the tide of unemployed, another heroic day of passive resistance. Girls are the forefront of this unarmed battle: they are many, beautiful, European-dressed; they walk watching people in their face, not looking down as the Islamic tradition would. They are strong and they seem to know that; and maybe they also know they frighten their opposite sex peers, the real weaker sex, more or less consciously oppressed by a sort of incomprehensible double matriarchy: the one of their mothers, slaves-mistresses behind the walls of house without privacy, where they live all together, with daughters in law and sisters, controlled and often harassed by the Big Mother (the most of the families is monogamous); and the one of post-industrial society (still in nascent stage), which sees women prevail in the education first and then in skill labor.
Young Algerian has a fragile identity: spoiled and controlled at home, he was spoiled and controlled by the State as long as it could, then abandoned to all frustrations you can imagine. Algeria was a Socialist and Nationalistic State: political prices of many goods, free education, guaranteed health care, even airline tickets at half-price for students. The Arab pride was fueled by a regime more and more in legitimacy crisis (you can not live years with the myth of independence), while the Westernization of behavioral patterns was culturally and politically denied. So, the more Algerians watched European televisions, the more Government imposed Arabic in schools, encouraging the entry of Syrian, Iraqi, Egyptian teachers and spreading the first germs of Fundamentalist disease. A society with rising expectations has become poorer, without knowing why, given that the “sons of regime” flaunted an increasingly impudent wealthy. The hypocritical Socialism has given way to structural adjustment policies (in progress) always to detriment of the same victims (unemployed and laid-off young people). The pan-Arab nationalism has accepted the humiliation of the Gulf and Palestinians without a fight (in the meantime "mujahideen" went back home and started other holy wars).
Result: being twenty in Algeria is a condemnation to annihilation of identity. The final insult is that, by emigrating, they choose another form of exclusion: the most European among all of North Africans are treated as beggars, as “black mice”. The Islamic fundamentalism has infiltrated in this social, political and cultural nihilism making young Algerians unrecognizable before a society not being agree to have conceived such a monster: “we don't know them”, “they speak a strange language”, “they come from abroad”. The lack of knowledge is not help by a brave but censored press (no word about the massacres could be published without the prior control of the Department of Interior) or by the State TV (called “L'Unique”) which reached grotesque levels as official information.
The numerous satellite dishes on the roofs of Algiers could not explain what for the Europeans is light years away, perhaps because it is the evil mirror of every Western contradiction. The Islamic terrorism already shows its suicide face: the escalation of death has lost sight of any political goal, to rage against life itself, against hope and future. Seven years ago, fundamentalists killed soldiers, now massacre kids. But saying that terrorists are the evil, as “éradicateurs”do, supported by some French philosophers (Henry Levy, Glucksmann), means not see the evil inside us, means underestimate the diabolic traps of modernity marked by a blind “up to far so good” (message in Kassoviz' movie “La Haine”), as if our world was in an hemisphere far away from Algeria (the exact perception of an European average). The anger of the outsiders is much and it is a huge reserve of violence, especially if it is abandoned.
An anger written in the hostile gazes of many guys, overwhelming majority (Algeria is a much more young society than ours) which does not count anything. Only many young couples, walking and having a tumble in the hay in the greenery going up to the “Memorial des Arcades”, known simply as “The Monument”, are different: an oasis of romance and nostalgia for the good old times, when Canadians built this huge structure dedicated to martyrs of the liberation war for the Mediterranean Games (1973). Loud music in the cafes, coming and going of people to kiosks and to pizzerias, stout ladies wearing “chador” with a baguette under their arm, newsboys selling the independent newspapers (“Liberté”, “El Watan”...) near traffic lights, people walking with a great desire to wake up from the nightmare. The normality of civil society overwhelms the numerous checkpoints, the soldiers with machine guns, the Frisian horses and cement blocks placed in front of police stations and public administration offices to prevent car-bombs. Only at night the military regime and the fear are predominant: streets are empty (but not entirely), car-drivers, with a mechanic gesture, turn off the headlights and turn on the interior light when they go closer the patrols. Sometimes you can hear isolated shots, but it does not mean that something is happening. The real Algerian struggle, the one which will bring the Country out of wood, is silent, disarmed and unknown to the media offering almost exclusively the (false) dualism between terrorist violence and State violence, the (false) dualism between political power and economic power. In the terror night of Algeria, maybe there is the New Millennium light: it comes from South and has woman's face.
Cesare Sangalli