The instinct to conform and agree with the majority too often outweighs the courage to say what one actually believes.
I have often thought that Algeria was like fairyland. It has a glorious mediterranean landscape, with majestic mountain ranges, hundreds of miles of golden beaches, exquisite colonial architecture, delicious food and a fascinatingly diverse people — all the ingredients necessary to create a Utopia, a heaven on earth. But, as we all know, fairy tales always have a darker side — an evil queen, a wicked witch or an ogre. Algeria is no exception.
Put quite simply, Algeria’s darker side is the fact that, since independence, it has never had the government it deserved. The country’s full potential has never been realised, thanks to a single-minded dependence on oil and gas exports. Not only that, the immense wealth generated by these exports has never gone towards improving the lot of ordinary citizens. The ingredients that could have produced happiness and fulfilment have resulted in something much more unpalatable. Instead of the elixir of life, a bitter draught has been served to the Algerian people.
Firstly, their revolution was stolen from under their noses. The true leaders-in-waiting, those heroes who had lived a precarious and dangerous life in the maquis, or carried out clandestine operations in the capital, risking torture and even the guillotine, were either assassinated or sent into exile by a group of usurpers, in an operation worthy of Henry VII hunting down the last Plantagenet. These usurpers were members of the Armée des Frontières, the forces of which had swept in immediately after independence from Morocco and Tunisia, where they had been lying low and biding their time.
As soon as they had seized power, they began distributing the spoils of war — palatial homes left by the fleeing pieds noirs, positions in power, land, and riches amongst themselves, riding high on the borrowed glory of those who had actually fought in the war.
In spite of this, for many years after independence, Algeria, the country of one million and a half martyrs, was seen as a beacon of hope by those countries still fighting to throw off the colonial yoke. It became one of the forces behind the Non-Aligned Movement, through which it and others gave a global voice to emerging economies, with Algerian foreign policy supporting post-colonial states and independence movements.
Iconic revolutionary figureheads — everyone from Che Guevara to Nelson Mandela — found that they could always rely on Algeria for training, funding and support. Mandela even underwent his first military training there and his struggle against the apartheid regime in South Africa was said to have been inspired by Algeria’s independence war. Post-independence Algeria was venerated as a country with shining ideals. It all seemed impossibly glamorous.
For me, as an eighteen-year-old university student, meeting the group of young Algerians studying in Sheffield was a revelation. They were perhaps only a few years older than me, but had lived out their teenage years in the midst of a vicious colonial war, one that was perceived as the epitome of a David and Goliath fight, the ultimate victory of the oppressed over the oppressor. Even the physical appearance of these students reinforced this impression, their dark good looks and swagger seeming to be the personification of romantic revolution. But things were not as they seemed.
It is in my husband’s nature to be cynical about most things, but he had tried his best to believe in a fairytale ending, with everyone living happily ever after. His first doubts crept in when he found that he had never heard of most of the new leaders of post-independence Algeria. Boumediène? Who’s he? Bouteflika? Never heard of him.
The revolutionaries he had hero-worshipped during seven long years of war – Colonel Amirouche, Abane Ramdane, Krim Belkacem, Ferhat Abbas and Hocine Ait Ahmed — had been summarily erased from Algeria’s official history by the new leaders. Footage of them had been cut from all films depicting the war. Their names were never mentioned. It was as if they had never existed.
The choice of socialism as the official political-economic system had also seemed a valid decision at the time. In all fairness, what other system could have satisfied people’s thirst for equality after such a brutal independence struggle? But it was socialism for the masses, not for the leaders. The Algerian people, however, still gave them the benefit of the doubt, hoping things would get better.
As their grip tightened on the country, Algeria changed from a warm, welcoming place into a grey Stalinist gulag. It might not have had a Siberian climate, but that was the only difference. The colour and joy were leached out of everything. Food supply chains dried up, with only state-owned stores, empty of any product you might want to buy, having the right to import foodstuff. The Algerian diet, once rich in fruit, vegetables, seafood and all the abundance of the southern Mediterranean, became bland and tasteless.
The sun continued to shine outside and for me, after the monochrome tones of Britain, the jewel-like colours of Algeria were shocking in their intensity. I felt the beauty of the landscape like an ache in my soul. But most Algerians did not even have the energy to appreciate their surroundings. They were distracted with the artificially created problems of daily life, and the struggle to keep food on the table. A dystopian world always tortures its children.
Minor party and government officials, the police and customs officers, were given a modicum of power, which they wielded with relish for the thrill of generating fear in the eyes of ordinary citizens. The latter could be sent to prison, their homes snatched from them, their rights trampled on – at the mere whim of some minor official holding a petty grudge against them. A perfect reproduction of the behaviour of the French colonisers. The abused child becomes an abusive parent. And so for years, Algerian society was only able to function on negative emotion – power, manipulation, control.
Of course, as in any self-respecting dictatorship — for so Algeria had become — no opposition was tolerated, either in word or deed. Embryonic uprisings like the Berber Spring were nipped in the bud. As in Orwell’s book, 1984, people’s frustrations were directed to the enemy outside, la main de l’étranger or foreign intervention, the object of the daily “hate session,” encouraged by the official media.
Later, with the addition of militant Islam and the shameful Family Code to the toxic brew, Algerian women, who had once played a vital part in the independence war, were considered as mere property, their lives held to ransom by men. They lived in fear, were policed, and taught to be ashamed of their bodies and their own needs.
And yet Algerians are a typically mediterranean people — passionate, joyful and hot-blooded — quick to anger and quick to love. They enjoy dancing, singing and having a good time. Their sharp wit and sense of humour are legendary. Nothing could be less suited to their temperament than a narrow-minded, restrictive regime.
Nobody dared criticise those in power — at least not in public. Nobody dared speak up, unlike the little boy in the Hans Christian Anderson fairytale, pointing out that the Emperor, strutting around in public in his so-called new clothes, was actually as naked as the the day he had been born. Everyone, even though they might have thought differently in private, joined together in admiring the invisible finery worn by their leaders, not daring to denounce their manipulation and trickery for fear of being called a counter-revolutionary.
Sonatrach workers were regularly taken in buses to line the roads and applaud whenever the President was in the vicinity. They would obey instructions dutifully, knowing that all eyes were on them, and shout, “Tahya Boumediène!” (Long live Boumediène!) as he swept past in his official car, black burnous wrapped around his shoulders and cigar between his fingers. Yes, the Emperor’s clothes were very fine indeed.
Our small daughter came home from primary school one day, and, proud of what she had learnt, said to her father, “Boumediène est un président formidable, hein, Papa?” (Boumediene is a wonderful president, isn’t he, Daddy?). T looked sadly at her and nodded his head. “Oui, ma fille, oui.” He couldn’t even say what he really thought, for fear that our daughter would repeat, in her innocence, what he had said. So those in power made liars of us all — complicit in their deception.