Thursday, 10 July 2014

When Shaytan dies...

Qal lek that during the fasting month of Ramadan, Shaytan, this much greater devil than Insan, gets chained up for the duration. This has for effect that in some unsought way, the human beings we are, are offloaded from his wickedness (that is not to say from all wickedness, only Shaytan's inspired own).

Effectively, during the month of Ramadan, Shaytan is neutralised, out of circulation, pulled off the streets. Puff.

And who would have thought that the combination of fasting and a lack of inspiration for evil doings could lead to: a very great street party.

A great nocturnal fest, not only a feast, is taking place in Algiers nightly (this year and perhaps so for a long time) featuring all manners of concerts, museum tours, exhibitions, theatre plays on a wide array of themes, and open-air cinema. Not to mention sweet-cakes, mint tea and salty peanuts stalls, ice-cream parlours, brochettes vendors and various restaurants opened from dusk to dawn. This is most probably going on in other larger cities too, and potentially in smaller ones as well.

Food excesses, and their contradictoriness to what fasting is about, are well documented, this is not what made me wonder about what the future in Algeria might look like. Similarly unsurprising is the increase in activity, cultural and traditional. What goes on here on the food and outings' front is what goes on here during non-fasting summer months, it just all happens during the day normally. Food-heavens opened overnight are only the recuperation of business loss because places are closed during daylight hours. The difference during Ramadan is in the atmosphere, which is a lot more elated because of the sheer excitement this holy month generates and a lot more euphoric because of all the sugar intake. This Food x times x Culture Fest is rather wonderful and beautiful considering the years of want and conflict that can still be seen just round the past's corner.

While the month goes by, I go by it, walking about my area unaccompanied every evening from 10pm, raising no eyebrows from neighbours, coming home between 1am and 2am on the same said feet, not-raising the same said eyebrows, in concert with numerous other women accompanied or not, with children or not, but mostly not with men, crossing the streets of what some call “popular areas” of Algiers believed to be cut-throats the rest of the year's months.

We, women and men alike, during this month are enjoying a visible and much greater ease of movement, a freedom to circulate at night that is not present, not as much and that people generally do not feel comfortable seeking, during the rest of the year. During Ramadan, men keep their mouths in check, it is expected that women will be seen walking about everywhere, and it's accepted that it's no one's business – although sometimes as I walk around with other women, I feel that we're all pretending to not go and have fun but to go visiting our sick aunt, having forgotten our red riding hood home in the haste of doing a good deed).

So, thanks be to Shaytan and all thanks be to God, Ramadan in Algiers turns the city into a strange but wondrous place full of civic freedom where group-gathering-in-public-places-around-smoothies requires no signature of acceptance from the authorities. We become a place where civic freedoms are born out of, not present religious obligations, but future religious rewards or the hope thereof.

Yet, is this the right order of things?

Could it be that all this freedom of movement and carefree attitude towards women's right-to-a-night-stroll-not-related-to-peripatetic-undertakings come from, not Shaytan being in chain, but from both God and Shaytan having taken a break from us all. They have a right to a holiday after all. What if G and S had effectively buggered off to let us deal with world and underworld affairs? Think of it, if Shaytan were really in chain, the space he's left unoccupied would fill with goodness. From God's goodness to more goodness, we would consequently become the supermen and women of goodness. But that's not what happens is it. There's plenty of crime going on during Ramadan, not least of which the daylight theft (prices rocketing sky-high, to only talk about local crime). Plain robbery committed by people who fast with their heart I expect but not with their purse.

So while I'll accept that Shaytan's taken off, I do wonder whether God's taken a break also, so as to not tip the balance off blatantly in his favour. God is fair and just.

When you contemplate the possibility of the Holies' holiday, you do have to wonder about their eventual Holy disappearance, and by disappearance I mean their death.

One day, there will be a separation of power in Algeria (that's what's badly needed). The religious will be separated from the executive and the justice system. When that happens, God will die a little. Humans will have taken the responsibility of their action and behaviour into their own hands, and will be sole judge of them on this earth. Because Shaytan is tied to God, the more He “disappears”, the more Shaytan will too. Once their immortal presence is compromised, they will become mortal and death will surely come for both eventually, however much we love them and however much we will be sad to see them go.

After we have buried them both in our Book of Myth, will Algerian nights, every night, feel as magic as a Ramadan's nocturnal escapade? I'd say yes.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

The arm-wresting match between rewriting History and preserving Memory in Algeria

I went to a debate during the International Festival of Literature and of Young People’s Literature (FELIV) in Algiers on the competing voices of official versions of History and factual's versions.

I wrote the below for Arab Literature in English Translation and wanted to post it here to record it because this subject is the very reason why I have been looking into Algerian literature, why I think its role is so important, fragile and ultimately crucial.

The (literary) writing of history” was the topic of Sunday, June 15′s discussion between French author and Goncourt prize winner Jean Rouaud (Fields of Glory, 1990) and Algerian writer Abdelkader Djamai (La Dernière nuit de l’Emir, 2012). France Culture producer Catherine Pont-Humbert aptly moderated the talk around the following questions:

In the historical novels you’ve written, where was the frontier between what is lived and what is history?

Rouaud was clear on this. For him, “every novel, except sci-fi, is a historical novel.” From the moment a narrative’s tense is in the past, the memory of the author is involved. This memory is either realistic or inspired by reality. To see the frontier, we must consider time (tense in writing) and testimonies, that is memory, the perceptible memory of the author and that of his contemporaries. There is a story, a narrative essentially, in every family. Beyond the intimacy of a family’s memory, we have a collective memory as well as a live memory where witnesses are still present. The information around which a novel is constructed belongs is located at a given moment (Time) and at a given place (Space).

This, for him, is what constitutes history. 

As regards history, Rouaud sees that “historical history” relies on several factors: on a scientific approach to information-gathering built not on impressions but on scientific research; on a certain conception of history defined by a (political) dogma at a given moment, and on “l’histoire evènementielle,” past events that were once current events.

Therefore, “History is a vast field for the imaginary.”

For Djemai, the frontier between history and experience is personal memory, and also suffering.
“I am not a historian,” he insisted. “I do not have their sense of rigour; I work on emotions.”
He explained that he writes down an experience recounted emotionally, and it is a “history personalised.”  

“Narratives also come from suffering,” as every family has a relation to suffering. For example, war leaves traces. It is those traces that give rise to family historical novels.

What is your relationship to reality when you write historical novels?

Djemai was concerned with the believable and informative aspect of the representation of the past he weaves in his novels.

“How can I create fiction that can pass for history? I have to research seriously and I need to document myself.” He stressed that he sees himself as a storyteller, a history-teller whose stories a reader should enjoy and from which he should learn something. He considers that writing should also function as a vector for the transmission of information.

Rouaud remarked that the relationship between reality and history is based on distance – the distance of time. When history is recent, events or characters are not so flexible or pliable because they are still alive in the collective memory.  When this proximity of time is passed however, we enter the historical novel’s domain and a looser space in which to write. 

What about war in historical novels? 

“Our imaginary is marked by wars,” Rouaud said.  He pointed out that in the 20th century, more people know how to read and write, they can therefore tell their story by writing it. Before, only one social class could do this. Now, even the suffering party can testify. Djemai calls this previous state the absence of voices, those of injured parties, or “silent suffering.”
“They are the truncated voices” in history.

Rouaud pounced on this to make a very interesting statement about Algeria.

“The official history of France is a creation, it is a fiction.” French history was created to build the foundations of a nation-state and fix it. “There are all those history forgot,” Rouaud said, which prompted Djemai to add, “we must speak for those who are no longer here.”

Rouaud however warned that “this is double-edged.” A reader might believe everything that a historical novel contains. “It is dangerous.”

In Algeria, we are at a time when two histories are competing. Both are visible and fragile. One version will eventually win, only one because they are too distinct and separate to merge. The winning version will turn into indelible ink and will redefine and fix a mythology. Mythologies are crucial for the unity and the cohesion of a people. Mythologies define and delimit the acceptable and the fearsome, the laudable and the base.  They fix codes, their symbols delimit a beginning, they set space, geographies, and a past tense. 

The official version of Algeria’s history is currently being created and the fiction is nearly complete. In parallel, the voice of history’s not-yet-forgotten shouts out loudly both in collective memory, too recent to be fictionalised, and in historical novels based on too many testimonies that agree, an altogether different versions than those presented in official statements. A phenomenal arm-wrestling match is being played out here. The safeguard of memory versus its erasure.

I asked Rouaud what side he sees winning. He was very optimistic, saying that eventually, when time recedes and becomes not so raw, the duty of remembrance (devoir de mémoire) that lies at the core of Algerian literary efforts will come out of the official shadows and will make history. It was heart-warming that he was so positive. I, however, believe the zombies will win. Collective memory is now safeguarded in historical novels, but give it another fifty years to tire and these acts of remembrance will not disappear: They will be hailed as fictional, fancied, factually suspicious, while the now fictitious official version will have become as fixed and set as a gravestone.
Then an era made of different gods, protective and vengeful, will begin. Will they be winged? Will they be moustached?