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An Algerian Lexicon

By Suzanne Ruta

On February 3, smelling the smoke from Cairo, Algeria's aging President, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, emerged from a long silence and promised an end to the state of emergency that has kept the country in political lockdown since 1992. The coalition of protest groups planning a nationwide "peaceful march for change and democracy" on February 12 distrusts his vague, belated offers. And even if he comes through in the next week, ending the state of emergency was only one demand among many. El Watan, the main francophone paper in Algiers, reports today that the march organizers are meeting tomorrow to decide whether in view of the president's offer to end the state of emergency, and the continued state ban on marches in Algiers, they will go ahead with their plans. Most want to continue, but the lead group, the Algerian human rights association, is calling for talks.  If the march goes on, its banners will be emblazoned with slogans in three languages: Arabic, Tamazigh, and French. Some sad words, some bad words, and some that lift the heart with hopes for a complete turnaround in this hard-won, hard-pressed country. Here's a partial glossary.

Le pouvoir is one of those French words that are an integral part of Algerian dialect. It means literally the power, the men in charge, the ruling elite, who control the country's oil wealth (including a $150 billion budget surplus).   The Cote d'Ivoire musician Tiken Jah Fakoly has a great reggae song with the refrain "Quitte le pouvoir." An Algerian video sets the song to mug shots of Bouteflika and the hated head of military intelligence, Mohamed Mediene, superimposed on film of last month’s riots. A catchy tune, fit for dancing in the streets.

Hogra is Algerian Arabic. It means contempt, insult to injury you could almost say, except that it describes an attitude that condones, and propagates, violence against the many, the laissés pour compte (the forgotten masses). In October 1988, thousands of teens and young men went on a weeklong nationwide rampage against the symbols of a corrupt regime and its protected class of arrogant new rich.  The  regime sent in the army, with orders to shoot.  Five hundred young men were killed in the streets, and many more brutally tortured. When a regime insider dismissed the riots  as "un chahut de gamins"a bunch of kids hecklingthat was sheer hogra.

During the Algerian civil war of the 1990s, thousands of young men disappeared into police custody and are still missing. When their mothers confronted newly-elected president Abdelaziz Bouteflika in 1999, he displayed a coyness worthy of G.W. Bush. "I don't have them in my pocket," he said. More hogra.

Tebessa, near the Tunisian border, is a poor smugglers' nest of a place. When a young man in a nearby town, with a pregnant wife and toddler to care for, received an eviction notice in mid January of this year, he sought help from the mayor. One version of events has it that the mayor refused to see him. Another has it that the mayor taunted him: "Why don't you just set yourself on fire, like Bouazizi [the Tunisian who sparked a revolution across the border]?" Mohsen Bouterfif turned himself into a human torch. He died in the hospital a week later, a spectacular victim of hogra. In what is perhaps a sign of the times, the mayor was fired by the provincial governor, and has not been seen in town since.

Hogra could be defined as "the spurn that patient merit of the unworthy takes." Except that patience is not generally thought of as an Algerian virtue. Ask the harraga.

Harraga means burners. What they do is called harga, burning as in the French expression "bruler les etapes": burn your way through the obstacles, leapfrog over them. Harraga risk their lives to escape hogra, by setting out from Algeria's beaches, in flimsy boats, for  Southern Italy or Spain. (Sicily is twelve hours away on a clear day.) In 2008, the U.S. Deputy Chief of Mission in Algiers, Thomas Daughton, went down to the beach at Annaba to talk to these young Sindbads and the passeurs, or smugglers, who organize their departure for a price. He filed a devastating report, available through Wikileaks. (Why was it ever classified?)

Harraga—burners who risk death by water—are not always young and unemployed; they are also doctors, lawyers, middle-aged men, even women with small children fleeing the Algerian miasma. So many have disappeared at sea (see the blog Fortress Europe) or landed in jails in Italy, Spain, Libya, or Tunisia, or—sorry to report this awful news—in Spanish morgues, where their bodies are burned or, sometimes, repatriated, that their parents have joined forces to seek help from the regime in locating their lost sons. Another generation of Algerian disappeared?  The Arabic for disappeared is mukhtafoun.

The response of the pouvoir has been typically punitive: clandestine emigration is now a crime, punishable by jail time and fines. Boys picked up by the coast guard are hauled back to land and taken right to the courts, to be charged. At a march in Bejaia, a seaside town in Eastern Algeria in late January, the word was "Harga, Chômage, Boutef dégage."  Bouteflika, who had the constitution changed to allow him to win (by fraud) a third term as president, was, until recently, apparently planning to turn his office over to his younger brother Said. (These Arab heads of state who leave their office to a relative, as if it were a beach house, says Amara Lakhous in his latest novel, Divorzio all’islamica.)

A few weeks ago two boats set out for Spain from the beach at Annaba in eastern Algeria. When the coast guard caught up with them, the boys in one boat emptied their fuel cans and set the boat on fire.  Collective suicide? Most were rescued. One was lost at sea. The other boat reached Spain, where the travelers were taken into custody pending deportation. Harga is the term used to lament this suicidal risk-taking, that some say has become a rite of passage for young Algerians.  Hadda is the term proud young men use: it means something like "going for it," attacking," "invading." It suggests initiative and daring.  

Initiative and daring will be needed on Feb. 12 throughout Algeria, also courage and optimism. There is talk of a general strike that day. The millions of Algerians living abroad are urged to gather at their local embassies.  

Manifeste is a French word with great resonance for Algerians. In 1944 a farsighted leader named Ferhat Abbas created Les Amis du Manifeste et de la Liberte to demand an end to colonial racism and injustice.  His group was banned at the end of the Second World War, and Abbas jailed, in a disastrous episode dramatized in the Oscar nominated film Hors la Loi.  In the end it took a long savage war to win independence for Algeria in 1962, and from the outset, the military ran the country. A poisoned parting gift from the colonial power: secretive generals and their stranglehold on Algerian life to this day.

Lately, stirring new manifestes (the Tamagizh word is Amesban) have been running in the Algerian press and online,  gathering signatures from men whose fathers signed the original manifeste in 1944. Algeria has had its wars, but it also has a tradition of nonviolent activism dating back nearly a hundred years to draw on in the coming months, as the country awakens from a long nightmare.  Système dégage: the meaning is self-explanatory.

And finally this expression of national solidarity and aspiration, from the opposition in Oran: Rendez-nous notre pays. Give us back our country.

Published Feb 4, 2011   Copyright 2011 Suzanne Ruta

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