Sunday, 9 March 2014

You like شعبي things...

Does language shape the structure of our reasoning, or do our (culturally-influenced) thoughts structure our language, are questions I have always found captivating. It’s a little like the chicken and the egg of linguistics. While I sit around feeling captivated, so have others before me all be it a lot more productively. Arab philosophers of the 8th to 10th century sat around among themselves too, but in assemblies of great minds to discuss the origin of language... a few centuries of bewildering mental activity before maqbul and makruh were pushed off the boat and 7lal and 7ram took over as the only subjects worth waking up for.

Whether language influences our thoughts or our thoughts influence our language, it is observable that we express our thoughts outloud according to a preset shape, along distinct terms of references, patterns of thoughts in essence, and we are predisposed to follow these.

Two blocks in an Algerian pattern I am learning to discern have been pointed to me: شعبي things and elite things. These two are part of one construction, a pyramidal world where one is set above (guess which) the other (guess which too), and looks beyond it. This division other than being anorexic (ever seen only two things on a what-constitutes-a-society menu?) is vertiginously vertical, Hydra Olympus standing over an El Harrach underworld with ignorant-devil overspill in ‘southern cities’. Ah, those southern cities hey. Among the many subjects debated in this binary manner are the events occurring in the south of Algeria, Ouargla of late. I was particularly struck by a recently published interview where an Algerian sociologist policy analyst anthropologist is studying human societies dwelling in southern Algeria working on explaining why people in Ouargla are still protesting even after they have been offered jobs, pay offs, and perhaps even cake. He comes to the conclusion that it’s because these protestors are Saharan nobles who don’t want to work in a job below their tribal social position, and so the government should offer them jobs that befit them, like… taxieur. What?

This binary world-view can strike anywhere with the most surreal results and no raising of eyebrows. Algeria is still often debated, nationally and internationally, in tribal terms, but what about leaving alone tribal, anthropology, researcher and researchee and start talking dignity.

What are the criteria that define ‘elite’ in Algeria I haven’t figured out yet, but I’m certain that western references for this term's definition don’t apply. What does elite do? Mostly, it calls itself… elite, you know you’ve met it/them because they'll tell you 'not like them'. What are their symbols? Not sure but they whisper a lot. Where does elite live? Up, above somewhere, wherever the where is 'not that place' and 'not down there'. So far, I’ve found that whatever’s elite, it is defined in the negative, notably and most especially, not-شعبي.

Logic dictates: find out what شعبي is to locate elite (then avoid elite…) 

So what is شعبي other than a music genre? شعبي  is a street, a 7ouma, it's like the guys on my street gathering to chitchat at the same hour, it’s the sunburnt vegetable seller on my building’s corner who roars out laughing at my abysmal maths skills, it’s the lines and lines of DIY kiosks spotlessly arranged by young boys who sell the latest movies and series on DVDs for cheap, it’s the lovers not even hidding on the corniche, it’s the kids who get bits of shopping for their mothers after school, it’s young women in colour-coordinated outfits impeccably made-up no matter the budget, it's restaurants with a ‘family area’ that serve m7ajib, it’s cafes playing El Guerouabi and Black Eye Peas, it’s the broken buses whose drivers always let you board mid-traffic and will never leave you alone in the street, it's....

I could go on for several pages and maybe I will in other posts but one thing's clear, whatever elite is going to turn out being, it's going to be colourless and unnatural, because it's core... is a negation.


MnarviDZ said...

Interesting topic. I have an unfinished post draft looking into the first sentence of your post :)

Tribalism is indeed still the rule in Algeria. Even in cities where ppl no longer know which tribe they belong to), new tribes (houma, etc.) are created.

A hint in Algeria, if you live somewhere called "cite des 1004 logements" or "cite de la concorde nationale" then you're damn chaabi. And you're not one if you live in "cite el manama" or "cite el hadiqa".

In one of my posts (, I tried to write of how the music you listen to can tell where you come from (chaabi, mdina, douwar, etc.)

PS: There was a tradition among Arab scholars to define things by what they're not. So I wouldn't mind saying the elite is not this, that, etc and it wouldn't make it unnatural. And I believe it is reductive to oppose elite to being chaabi.

Nadia Ghanem said...

Hello MnarviDZ :)

Great, looking forward to reading your post,

Yes! It's called falsifiability. I love that kind of reasoning. What I mean by 'it's a negation of itself' is play on words to mean it's lost something in the process of becoming or making itself up as "an elite".

Yes, sha3by/elite is reductive and I don't share that vision, I was reacting to people I have met who speak in those terms. I don't think they mean to reduce Algerian society to these two poles. It's just that elite, or intellectuals or intelligensia is a topic that has come up very often in the run up to the election.

So you wrote a sort of "tell me what you listen to and I'll tell you which tribe you're from" in a way? I'll have to read that :p

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

"Elite" – don't you mean "latchitchi"? ;)

Nadia Ghanem said...

Hello Lameen :) ! Yes I suppose I/they mean that but i'm told here the name's changed, it's now ananish. I was in a cab a few days ago and let my tongue slip when I asked the driver 'sh7el n3ti lek'. He turned round and said: "no! don't speak like the tchichi! it's 'sh7el na3tik' here" (I'm in Bab El Oued) lol :)