Ed McAllister poursuit son travail de recherche à Alger. Il revient pour Texture du temps sur la perception d’un temps arrêté chez les jeunes avec lesquels il travaille à l’association SOS Bab el-Oued. Et plus généralement sur la nostalgie des années 1970.
An image published in late December last year by satirical cartoonist Ali Dilem in the daily newspaper Liberté entitled “Algerians get ready to celebrate New Year” depicted a puzzled looking Algerian standing in front of a one-page-per-day calendar that reads “1962”. Alarmed, the man desperately tears away at the calendar and a pile of pages mounts up behind him, all bearing exactly the same date: 1962. The image of an Algerian Groundhog Day seems to work on two different levels.
Firstly, and most obviously, there is a sense that one can never really get beyond independence when talking about the past in Algeria. The monumental nature of the independence struggle and the unanimist narrative on the past created by the state after 1962 totally crush any discussion of what has happened in Algeria since independence. There are several reasons for this. The first is that the generation that led Algeria to independence remains in power, though the recent deaths of figures like Abdelhamid Mehri, Ahmed Ben Bella, Chadli Bendjedid, Pierre Chaulet and just yesterday Ali Kafi, points to its rapid passing.
In contrast, the generation that grew up after independence has been used to executing the decisions taken by its elders, and has little meaningful experience of political leadership. Mirroring this dominance of the war generation within Algerian politics, academic focus on Algeria remains largely the preserve of a generation of scholars for whom the war of independence was an equally defining moment. As a result, the experience of colonialism and the war of independence that followed have often been assumed by historians to be the only valid keys to understanding present-day Algeria. Reinforcing this trend is the fact that French academics continue to dominate the study of Algeria, which has meant a focus on events and periods that have marked France, most notably the colonial period and the war.
Focus on these periods has contributed to Algeria’s history being viewed as almost pathologically violent and overly psychologised depictions of a ‘traumatised society’. Furthermore, a purely postcolonial approach to Algerian history perversely seems to continually recast Algeria as eternally tied to France. With this in mind, and without wishing to undermine the importance of what where truly cataclysmic events, it is possible to see how a continued focus on the war and the colonial period by both the Algerian state and French academia unintentionally and uncomfortably work together to close off any focus on other periods of Algerian history, particularly those following independence. After all, if the history of Algeria is that of the colonial period and the war of independence, 5 July 1962 becomes the end – rather than the beginning – of something. This goes some way to explaining the surreal atmosphere in Algiers last July, when the country was supposed to be celebrating 50 years of independence, but managed to do so without mentioning anything that had happened over the last 50 years.
As a historian working on the post-independence period on the ground in Algiers, I strongly identify with the exasperated individual in Dilem’s cartoon. I mostly end up frustrated when attending conferences on Algerian history, hoping in vain to find something that even mentions the post-independence period, or when entering a bookshop in Algiers and finding nothing but yet more analyses of the war and its heroes. The effect on the younger generation is impressive, especially those in the two final years of secondary school, when the history syllabus focuses primarily on colonialism, the war of independence and its surrounding context. When asking a group of 17 year old girls in Bab el-Oued to place events and periods in Algerian history on a timeline, Independence Day was immediately placed in the middle of the timeline. Other dates and periods followed: the French invasion, the war of independence, the Soummam Congress, the Ottoman period. After everyone had had their turn at placing something on the timeline, the space from independence to the present remained completely empty. It seems that Francis Fukuyama got his dates mixed up. In Algeria, history ended on 5 July 1962.
However, this does not always hold true. While the crushing weight of 1962 is seemingly all pervasive, it does not prevent people from making continual reference to the post-independence period when talking about the present. People I have spoken to make multiple and overlapping references to more recent pasts – notably the socialist period under Boumediene as a kind of anchoring point that is viewed – and therefore recast and reconstructed – through intervening periods; the increased liberalisation, inequality, corruption of the 1980s; the Islamisation of society and violence of the 1990s; and the stability and consumerism of the 2000s. If Algerians are making judgements about the past – and by extension, the present – based on a broader, and more recent, set of periods than the colonial period, why is this not reflected in research approaches? Beyond conventional postcolonial approaches in history, we should perhaps be asking to what extent Algerian society is at once postcolonial, postsocialist, and even postislamist.
Academic discussions aside, Dilem’s image – like most references to the past in Algeria – says something about the present from an Algerian perspective: the sense that every day is the same as the last and there seems little hope for change.
This seems to be a familiar feeling for many of the young people I know in Bab el-Oued, because of the general lack of opportunity, crushing boredom and lack of spaces in which to merely spend time. Hanging out on the square or in the street day in, day out, making a tiny coffee in a paper cup last for hours is punctuated only by the occasional weary suggestion of “Wesh? Nḍerbu dura?” (Shall we go for a wander then?)
Algerian Arabic has a word that pinpoints the feeling produced by this daily routine: leggya, a word that is almost always pronounced with a scowl and whose meaning lies somewhere between stultifying boredom, cynicism and disgust at the world around. However, aside from the biting sense of sarcastic humour that spares no one – not least Algerians themselves – the glue that seems to hold much of Algiers’ poorer neighbourhoods together are the social bonds created around the ḥouma (neighbourhood). In its most reduced sense, the ḥouma can be smaller than a city block and be so small as to not really have a specific name. Here, ḥouma represents a crucial notion of a space in which everyone really does know everyone, the borders of which begin to fray and merge into other ḥoumāt as people gradually become more unfamiliar. While many in Bab el-Oued lament the general state of urban decay and complain that relations between members of the ḥouma are not as warm and trusting in their dealings with one another as once they were during the Belle Époque of the 1970s, the close-knit relationships still seem to contain such phenomena as regular mutual visits by children to apartments in the same building, cordial relationships between neighbours based on strict codes of politeness centred on greetings and goodbyes, and frequent borrowing and general problem solving through networks based on longstanding shared personal relationships.
Nostalgia for the past is, in this sense, a less Algeria-specific and more transversal phenomenon articulating the feeling among older people of dropping standards. For some young people, the sense of being mleggi (someone experiencing leggya), mchoumer (unemployed) or underpaid and zewēli (poor) is almost worn as a defensive badge of pride, producing social relations based on a strong sense of solidarity that serve to lessen the hardships of daily life. In contrast, others are making money through the retail trade and clientelist networks. The signs of material success are all around, from the latest Air Max trainers and flat screen televisions that sell like hotcakes, to the ubiquitous yet highly desirable brand new white Seat Ibiza sporting tell-tale 00 number plates.1 The emergence of a consumer society and the perception of a widening gap between haves and have-nots clashes with a persistent and strongly-rooted tendency within Algerian society towards egalitarianism and belief in social justice.
This clash fuels the recurrent socially held narrative on Algeria’s Belle Époque during the socialist era of the 1960s and 1970s, and articulates conflicting tendencies in Algerian society that point to the fact that 1962 is far from the be-all-and-end-all of Algerian history.
- The middle two numbers of Algerian number plates show the last two digits of the year of registration. 00 number plates are issued temorarily for newly registered cars [↩]