Friday, 20 February 2015

Algeria and the Silent treatment

In a small village surrounded by fruits trees, a group of women are talking under a walnut tree, resigned and dignified.

- That's it, all the oranges are gone.
- And the mandarines?
- Finished. His daughters-in-law's mothers didn't even get given any...
- Damn, we've eaten everything. Again.
- He's going to get mad.
- Yea but how much?
- Not more than last year when he made her cook makrout for him all summer, even during Ramadan...
- Her face and arms spent all summer above boiling oil.
- ...and not less than the year he discovered that the girl to whom he married his son is a moron.
- He should have known, beautiful but never married at 29...
- Why don't any of you refuse his madness? Why don't you say no to him when he asks for crazy things to punish you with?
- We can't !
- Why? What's the worse thing that can happen?
- He'll stop speaking to us.
- What ?
- He'll go silent.
- Your grandad refused to give in once. He went ape, he stopped speaking to your gran, not a word. Even once djeddim died he didn't say anything to him. You can't imagine. He just... stopped... speaking.”

It took that exchange between my aunts and grandmother for me to realise that silence is the form of violence they can bear the least. And men, just like women, cannot stand it.

There are many forms of violence the world over, and we conceptualise them using various terms and degrees. Physical, conjugal, intellectual, street-based, clan-based. In Algeria, it is often administrative. Depending on context, violence, at least for the one who is abused, works on a scale of from, and to, the least and most bearable. I have heard many stories that illustrate each form, from the small humiliations of life, to the traumatising. Women aren't the only recipient of it either, men are also, and very often. But, seeing silence come top of the list of violence's cruelest form, did take me aback somewhat. What is it that they so fear when faced with it?

Silence is death. And you, if you talk, you'll die, if you stay silent you'll die, so speak and die!
Tahar Djaout

In the context of Djaout's enjoinder to speak out no matter the threat, silence did mean death, death by murder. But when speaking leads to death, that death is due to unnatural causes. The laws of nature and life's natural order have been broken. Speech means life. As in the ancient Mesopotamian myth of Creation, the living make a great noise and won't let the gods sleep. Noise doesn't even have to be intelligible words, it's got to be sounds, gestures, proof of life. So it follows that silence, even an angered one, should be interpreted as death, a murder of the senses, a frightening pause to life indeed. In their apprehension, the equivalent of someone silent is finding a living-dead lunching among the living. And wouldn't that be a gory sight.

So speak. And don't be ashamed to sneeze out loud.