Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

A friend introduced me to ‘Abd al-Haq during the elections in Algeria in December 1991. I was surveying the electoral behavior of youths of the poorer quarters of Algiers (the casbah), the suburbs (Bachdjarah) and a mixed neighborhood (El-Biar). At the time I was trying to meet pietistes (devout ones) and “Afghans” to test my thesis about the rise of “neo-communitarianism” in Algeria. [1]

This is how I came across a young man living in a lusterless universe, lacking both cohesion and a future, who voted for the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). Without professional credentials or work, ‘Abd al-Haq introduced himself as a “professional” hittiste. This untranslatable term, a mix of French and Arabic, connotes the young Algerians who hang out, leaning against the wall (in colloquial Arabic, hayt), whose “task” it is to support the walls. Because schools are overcrowded and unemployment runs high; many young Algerians are forced into the streets. [2] A dearth of cultural hangouts like cinemas, theaters and youth clubs helps explain the teeming crowds on the streets of the Algerian capital. ‘Abd al-Haq, 26, looks like someone who is out of work. Tall and skinny, he has not eaten much since the previous day: “It’s too much trouble.” His close-cropped chestnut hair accentuates the angular features of his pale face, emphasizing the troubled look of a user of cannabis and kachiete, the drugs of the poor. [3] To explain his drug use he talks about his anxiety, or neboula (anger), and a lack of sleep over the last five years.

The youngest child of his father’s first wife, ‘Abd al-Haq grew up with five brothers and sisters. He was close to his mother but not his father, an agent in the public security service who was bigamous, barely communicative and, it appears, frequently absent. ‘Abd al-Haq had been living in a small apartment with a kitchenette in a run-down area of El-Biar. This “residential” neighborhood, a product of the “Constantine Plan,” has long been one of the most disreputable areas of El-Biar, full of quarrels, drugs and gunshots. [4] As a thoroughfare for smuggled wares, the neighborhood has a reputation as the hangout of the “biznessi” (wheeler-dealer). Everything can be bought or sold here, from chewing gum to Pierre Cardin suits, from appliances to spare parts, from medical drugs to street drugs, from Algerian dinars to foreign currencies, from toys to weapons. Once the home of the political elite under Houari Boumedienne, today it is a place where social contrasts are at their sharpest. It was site of one of the bloodiest confrontations of the October 1988 urban insurrection challenging the economic misrule of the governing National Liberation Front (FLN).

‘Abd al-Haq dropped out in the second year of high school when he was at Les Freres Amara, an unfinished and overcrowded school built in great haste in the 1960s and attended exclusively by children of the impoverished middle classes. Still single by necessity, ‘Abd al-Haq is painfully aware that marriage will remain beyond his means. “If I had the choice, I would marry,” he says. The many “singles” advertisements published in Algerian papers list a place to live as the first precondition for marriage. Urban housing constitutes one of the main failures of the social policy of the old socialist regime. [5] The distress and loneliness which are endemic in young people like ‘Abd al-Haq seem rooted in the current social and moral structure as well as in the sexual coercion. The transition to adulthood is difficult, and many find themselves, in ‘Abd al-Haq’s words, in a state of “extended childhood” at age 26.

‘Abd al-Haq details the disappearance of niyya (sincerity or good intentions), of neighborly courtesy, of everything that corresponded to the traditional sociability of the quarter. He is part of the phenomenon of desocialized unemployed youths with “jammed” political identifications and fragile collective and individual frames of reference. ‘Abd al-Haq bangs his head against the silence of his parents; he never argues with them. The Algerian family appears no longer to carry out its traditional socializing role, nor to provide an escape from political rifts. Finally, ‘Abd al-Haq rejects any sort of identitification with Algeria. He feels that he is “a stranger” living in an unjust country that does not offer him any future.

Unable to enter either the university or the world of work, yet distanced also from traditional poverty, ‘Abd al-Haq is part of the koukra, the curse. This is how young people characterize their exclusion, which they see as part of “the misery of the world.” [6] Yet they are not marginal. The young adult who is barred from the productive sector and excluded from global society has become a generic feature of Algerian urban space and is the primary target of the Islamist campaign. From the beginning of the 19S0s, the Da‘wa League has been able to resocialize people around a network of mosques and preachers which have alleviated some of the psychological and emotional difficulties of the young by providing them with an “emotional community.” [7] Not all the young have found salvation with the FIS, or an outlet for their despair in religion. In the shadow of the FIS, ‘Abd al-Haq exemplifies the fragile category of “in-betweens” who go back and forth between cannabis and the mosque. For them, ideological commitment is problematic. Individual resistance, escape into some imaginary compensation, search for a life elsewhere, and longing to get out remain their strategies for circumventing reality.

What does being a Muslim mean to you today?

It is to believe in God, not to do evil. That’s all that I know as a Muslim. Being a Muslim presupposes many things I don’t know. Here in Algeria there are no Muslims. If there were, we would all be living well.

No Muslims?

No. One would need to recover the rahma (mercy), the good. Today there is no more mercy, not even among neighbors. In the past, the neighbor was there, you could feel him, he existed, not only because he said hello and was courteous. Today mentalities have changed. The young people of the neighborhood, the neighbors, everybody has changed. Algeria has changed. I have felt it since 1986-1987. [8] I’m telling you, we were living well, antik. We did not lack anything. There was mercy. You could talk with people. Now everybody has hidden motives. When you argue, you have to watch everything you say, you have to calculate all the time. I’m no longer living, I am surviving. I am not the only one like that.

What was this state of being antik?

I was doing odd jobs. I used to go to the beach with my friends. I was on the move…. Do you know how long I have not been to the beach? Three years. The sea has become dull. Life has become dull.

What has changed?

The people, and — how should I explain it — there are problems with everything. Before, I was able to move. I used to visit my family. Today, that’s finished, even if there is a religious occasion. You look for work and there isn’t any. I have applied at many places. Only the police are hiring. I don’t feel like picking up other people’s sons or nahgar (humiliating people, abusing power). One is no longer living with Muslims.

When did you become aware of the role of religion?

Four years ago, I started praying after discussions with the young guys in the quarter, those close to the mosque. I wasn’t going to the mosque, I wasn’t praying regularly. The truth is, I didn’t want to be tied down. By the time night rolled around, I would already have missed too many prayers during the day. In fact, I stopped praying altogether.

I would have had to head for the mosque pretty regularly, but in those days my mother pestered me. She was afraid that the military would pick me up. So I went back to alcohol, drugs. You have to understand, my faith is weak. It is difficult. And I’m versatile. A bit here, a bit there, according to how I feel. In the past, I used to hang out with everybody, those who were praying, those who were drinking and those who were smoking.

Today, we have to focus on what is true. There is nothing that compares to prayer. I thought about it. I am giving alms, doing good, and I am trying to be good about praying at the mosque during the day. Yesterday, before going there, I felt stifled, but once I got to the mosque I got rid of that a little.

You felt stifled?

I woke up in the morning, I went down to one of the cafes of El-Biar where I used to hang out. I didn’t stay, but I didn’t know where to go. Friends showed up, and even though I’m quite a discreet person, too discreet, I got into an argument. Then I went down to the market where I walked around a bit to pass time. I went back to the cafe for a while. At lunch time I went home, but because my mind was working overtime I couldn’t eat. I preferred coffee and cigarettes.

Where does prayer fit in?

I went to the mosque to pray, and then I went back to the cafe to rest a bit. I drank one coffee, I went out again for the afternoon prayer. Most of the time I wasn’t doing anything. In the evening, just before curfew, I went home and I had a hard time getting to sleep. Before I smoked cigarettes, I was smoking zetla (cannabis) and I was drinking, but I stopped. [9] Sleeping is difficult, my brain is always running, I wait until it gets tired. When I am searching for sleep and I don’t like the kachiete, I get up, I walk around. I get stressed out because I am not getting any sleep. It’s a vicious circle. I think too much. This is what it is to be an Algerian.

And what is that?

Do you want me to tell you the truth? I am living in a foreign country here. I don’t have anything, there isn’t anything. I don’t love Algeria, not at all.

You know, we hate our country. We have nothing to do. This morning, right after I got up, I did some chira and I completely exhausted myself. [10] Instead of developing, we screw up this way. Elsewhere, people at our age do lots of things. What have we done to deserve this?

What does it mean to you, today, to be an Arab? What was your position with regard to the war in the Gulf?

You know, we didn’t understand it at all, and I don’t much like listening to what is being said. Listen, I don’t watch TV, I would much rather listen to music, sha‘bi (popular) and a little rai to forget myself.

What do you think of the FIS leader, Abassi Madani?

Neither he nor Ben Hadj appeal to me. Boudiaf touches me; I felt that he returned to put the country in order again. [11] The rest of the politicians can rave on from morning to evening without touching me in any way.

Why Boudiaf?

I didn’t know him prior to his return to Algeria. But from the moment he set foot in Algiers, I felt that he was somebody good. He came back from Morocco with big plans for Algeria. When I heard him speak, he managed to convince me. I even have a picture of him. All the young people say good things about him, especially after his death.

And what about the martyrs of the Algerian war — for example, La‘arbi Ben M’hidi? [12]

I have heard people talk about him. People like him are freedom fighters who have given their lives for the country; so it’s normal that I respect them. Today’s politicians have never been freedom fighters. The others are dead — may God take their souls. In any case, I no longer believe anything of what I am told; I no longer trust the preachers. Likewise, I no longer trust the people I see often, or my friends. In the current circumstances, I don’t like anybody.

Could you describe the parents you would have liked to have had?

Normally, a father talks with his son. When I go home, my father doesn’t talk with me, he doesn’t care about how we are doing. As far as I am concerned, I have neither a father or a mother.

What is your last memory of a situation that you would call good?

Before 1988, there was niyya (good intentions) and trust. I told you, I used to go to the beach with my friends. We would take a cab and spend the afternoon together until nightfall. That was good. After that, everything was finished.

It has been a long time since I have been happy. The future is tormenting me. I no longer can continue to function like this. There are no jobs except in the private sector, where they exploit and insult you. If I had the means, I would leave for wherever. I spent three months with a friend in Austria; three months is very short. Over there, being in a Western environment, I felt alive.

What were you doing there?

I was playing soccer in a minor league. I was doing well, my morale was up. Happy, that’s what I was then. I would get up in the morning and go to work. I used to put advertisements in the mailboxes of apartment buildings. In the afternoon, I would train with my soccer team. I was also doing my prayers. We were living — four Algerians and five Egyptians — in a two-bedroom apartment that we rented. I was comfortable. Over there, they have everything. In the evening, we would do some real living. Once I got over there, I forgot everything. I was feeling very good. Here, even hanging out in the evening with friends and amusing ourselves, for example, I feel a lump in my stomach.

How do you explain that lack of anxiety?

They have what I am looking for. If they were not infidels, it is they who would go to paradise. It is a country of rights; here we have nothing. If only I could have had my parents with me, I would have settled down and everything would have been super. Over there, someone can live simply. I used to think about Algiers, where we are really humiliated. My body was in Austria but my mind was in Algiers. I wasn’t thinking. How can i explain it? Over there, they still say “Good morning” to you, even though they know that you are an Arab. Here, people have lost confidence. There are envious people, people who betray you, unfaithful people. Just look around. I have friends who have gone nuts because of this.

And you?

As soon as I have the money to pay for a plane ticket, I am leaving. I would much rather pick grapes anywhere else than be here. In Algiers, you slave for 3,000 dinars per month. What can you do with that? On unemployment I would have more money than I make in wages. I am managing and yet I have nothing. Sometimes people help me, but usually I have to do something for them. I don’t want to live too well, just get married, have a small car, not too big, and work in a national enterprise. This is what I dream about.

Translated from French by Joost Hiltermann

Endnotes

[1] “Afghans” are Algerians who fought with the Afghan resistance against the Soviet occupation. The survey was based on a semi-structured questionnaire about religious, national, political and familial identification, using the Algerian dialect.
[2] Whereas primary schools are able to accommodate more or less all school-age children, intermediate schools can only absorb 50 percent of the corresponding age group; high schools take in 20 percent of those aged 15-19; and universities accept only six percent of those between the ages of 20 and 24. See Ahmed Henni, “Le malaise de la jeunesse maghrebine,” in Bassma Kodmani-Darwish, ed., Maghreb: les annaes de transition (Paris: Masson, 1990). A 1985 survey of the National Bureau of Statistics indicates that nearly 72 percent of the unemployed were between 15 and 24 years old.
[3] Kachiete (cachets) or kfali (buttons) are general terms for tranquilizers (valium, tranxene, temesta), anti-epileptic (gardenal) and anti-Parkinsonian (artane) drugs. The price of a tablet can range from 10 to 50 dinars on the black market.
[4] France launched an industrialization scheme known as the Constantine Plan in 1958-1960, in response to the Algerian war for independence.
[5] In 1987, at the end of the second lour-year plan, the housing shortage was estimated to be more than 2 million units. In addition, the occupancy rate has been estimated at an average of seven to eight persons for one- to three-room units, two thirds of which have only one or two rooms. Pierre-Robert Baduel, “L’ecrasant probleme du logement urbain,” in Camille and Yves Lacoste, eds., L’etat du Maghreb (Paris: La Decouverte, 1991), p. 186.
[6] Pierre Bourdieu, ed., La misere du monde (Paris: Seuil, 1993).
[7] The Da‘wa League, under the leadership of Sheikh Ahmad Sahnoun and Sheikh ‘Abd al-Latif Sultani (who died in April 1984), surfaced in November 1989 and brings together most Algerian Islamic currents.
[8] Immediately following the collapse of oil prices, Algeria adopted a draconian austerity plan which involved reducing social costs, imports and the state budget.
[9] Zetla is a common designation for cannabis, meaning “that which puts you to sleep, that makes you exhausted.”
[10] Chira, another name for cannabis, means “girl” in the dialect of western Algeria.
[11] Muhammad Boudiaf, a leader in the FLN during the Algerian war for independence and the president of the Higher Committee of State after January 1992, was assassinated in Annaba on June 29, 1992.
[12] La‘arbi Ben M’hidi symbolized the “Battle for Algiers” (1956-57).

How to cite this article:

Meriem Verges "“I Am Living in a Foreign Country Here”," Middle East Report 192 (January/February 1995).
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