Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Alone in Algeria


I came here with only a Bachelor’s-degree’s-worth of scholarly knowledge in modern standard Arabic, and a vocabulary and pronunciation in Syrian, acquired during one year of study in Damascus forced upon me. During those years, I learnt that to say ‘alone’ one should say ‘li wa7di’ which to my western terms of reference meant… ‘alone’. I never had to ponder on the term much, I only encountered it in newspaper articles' translations into English, and during my study year I lived with English speakers, so telling someone 'get out, I want to be alone' was always going to be understood.

When I came to Algeria, after about three months of living from friends’ homes to family members’ homes, it became vital to learn how to express ‘I need to live alone’, not so much as in ‘you all drive me bonkers’ but more as in trying to express the dire wish to place my body and self in a space with no other bodies and selves within that space, apart from perhaps the body of a cat (well, a live one). So I used ‘li wa7di’, which after causing some laughter and being pointed to the (more perfect I’d say) Algerian ‘w7di’, what I wanted to express still didn't seem to be carried by that adverb. Obviously, alone did not reference the lone-ness I knew and longed for, so what did it mean and what was I expressing when I threw my dad out his living room and locked the door saying 'I need to live alone, find me a flat or I'll occupy your house and you'll occupy your office'?

People, students, scholars who have bothered to read until the end of De Saussure’s reported seminars on linguistics know that words do not mean anything. The word ‘door’ doesn’t mean anything... alone. I am not speaking of the sound ‘door’ having no relationship to the thing it describes, I mean exactly ‘words do not mean anything’.  That is, we only understand words in relation to other words. Outside of that sphere, words lose their meaning, they become empty vessels.  Take ‘sun’ for instance. We only understand sun through a relationship of colour, yellow, property, heat, location, the solar system, the moon, etc. We only understand ‘door’ through a relationship of opening, wood, geometrical shape, rectangle, etc. This theory of language states that words are part of a net and it is through this network that they acquire meaning. Which is why it is so crucial, when learning another language, to study and understand the net within which the words of that language operate. Then, and only then I believe, words, that is the concepts they carry, the concepts that a specific people speak of, dream of, fear, will become grasped.

When I reached saturation point, it became evident that when I expressed the wish to live alone, my addressees didn't understand what I meant, not because I speak rubbish Algerian and Kabyle but because there was a gap in our common terms of references. One could have thought: bla, in traditional Algerian society, women do not really live alone unless they really have no other option, such as widows, orphans, or the more frequent young students off to university in another city. But bla clearly wasn't the gap. Listening to how others worded their ‘living alone’, I realised that those I knew who said they live alone didn't, in a physical reality, live alone. They said they lived w7edhum, alone, while they in fact lived with other individuals, that is, they share their living space with other human beings but these others... drum roll... are not: family members. Even worse, they were complete strangers when first moving in together. For a society that operates on clan relations, being away from the clan, having no clan member in sight in the kitchen or fiddling about in the sitting room is finding oneself outside of the vital blood relation network. Am making it sound vampirish don't I.

So when I told my family I wanted to live alone, I actually explicitly asked to be cut off from the clan, threatening to essentially cut my wrists off and replace blood with another unidentified substance. Now I understand their 'she's nuts surprise', why would you wish to become like an empty vessel like a word fallen out of its net, devoid of meaning? 

After the horrendously violent years Algerians suffered throughout the 90s, it is understandable and predictable that women and men might be reticent or even fear to live away from family protection. But that is just a surface joke for lazy minds that passes for an analysis in some circles. The issue begins with clanic rules. There are plenty of women who live away from family members, and it doesn’t seem to necessarily pose a problem, the problem lies elsewhere. It is the stretch on the organic net, on the family and clanic network, that seems to create tension because if one element of the net is repositioned, every other component in the net will need to be repositioned, causing at best a loss of meaning. So perhaps there was no gap in our common terms of reference between my addressee and myself. My addressee feared and fears that I am putting the meaning of my self at risk, that I might become lost in outer word and physical space, drifting out of the net... a subtext at best, forever.

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