In the winter of 2005, I was summoned by the French journalist Jean Daniel, who was in New York to promote his new book, The Jewish Prison. I had just published an admiring essay on his work in the New York Review of Books. Over a long lunch at the Carlyle Hotel on the Upper East Side, he recalled his conversations with Ben Bella, Bourguiba, Ben-Gurion, Kennedy, Castro and Mitterrand. Daniel did not hesitate to drop names, but there was no denying that he’d won the confidence of some of history’s great men (they were nearly all men). I looked at my blazer and slacks and regretted that I hadn’t worn something more formal. Daniel was dressed in a suit and tie without a crease, and spoke with a solemnity that would have been easy to ridicule had it not been so spellbinding. I had the impression of speaking to a retired ambassador or foreign minister rather than a journalist.
When I walked into a polling station in Algiers last Thursday morning, rows of people peered down at me from three floors of balconies. They all wore lanyards and were there to officiate at Algeria’s presidential election. But there weren’t any voters. The election was a third attempt at going to the polls. The first two scheduled ballots, in April and July, had been aborted under pressure from the mass movement that has been filling Algeria’s streets every Friday since 22 February, when President Abdelaziz Bouteflika – frail and rarely seen – announced he would run for a fifth term. He stepped down in April. But the Hirak (‘movement’), not content with seeing Bouteflika gone, is demanding that ‘all of them go’.
The Algerian state is in crisis. The popular refusal to accept a fifth term for President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has immense constitutional implications and confronts the army commanders with a massive dilemma. Public opinion is not repudiating Bouteflika personally; it is indignantly rejecting the suggestion that, in his permanently crippled, wholly incapacitated condition, he should be considered eligible for another five years in office. The Algerian people are defending the constitution, not violating it. Article 102 clearly defines the procedure to be followed ‘whenever the President of the Republic, because of serious and enduring illness, finds himself unable to exercise his functions’. This should have been set in motion long ago.
Last week Emmanuel Macron issued a declaration acknowledging the role of the French military in the murder of a pro-independence activist in Algeria sixty years ago. The lead story in France should have been Macron's plan to break the chain of hereditary poverty with an additional €8.5 billion for children destined for a life of hardship bordering on misery. Arguments about the sums (insufficient) and the targeting (contentious) were quickly relegated to the sidebar as editors took the measure of Macron's conscientious, damning remarks on torture and disappearance during the Algerian war, a period that still clouds French sensitivities on inward migration, secular dress codes and acts of violence committed by radical Islamists.
I recently spent some time living with a refugee family in the Smara refugee camp, Tindouf Province, Algeria. The family were Sahrawis, exiles from the Western Sahara Conflict, and though they had lived a mostly stationary life in Smara for perhaps forty years, they were still culturally nomads. One day, when I had been living there for a few weeks, a relative of the family turned up in a white pick-up truck with a live camel tied to the flatbed. The camel was enormous, and gave no sign of discomfort as curious children swarmed around it.
On my first visit to Algiers, in 2002, I met a friend for dinner in the abattoir neighbourhood. The city's great slaughterhouses are among the oldest in North Africa. ‘There is nothing like the meat in the abattoirs,’ my friend insisted. We ate skewers of grilled lambs’ kidneys: rich, salty, succulent cubes of meat served with nothing but baguettes to wrap them in. The abattoirs are now the site of a future ruin, slated for destruction to make way for a new national assembly. In 2013, a group of artists circulated a petition calling on the government to turn them into an arts centre that would preserve their memory as part of Algeria’s cultural heritage. Hassen Ferhani, a young filmmaker, spent two months inside a slaughterhouse. The result is an oddly beautiful film, Dans ma tête un rond-point (‘A Roundabout in My Head’), which Ferhani presented last week at the Anthology Film Archives in New York City.
They were playing the soundtrack of the The Godfather in the lobby of the Aurassi hotel, a huge modernist statement built in the 1970s on a hill above the centre of Algiers. Today its cavernous spaces feel understaffed, and guests complain of water shortages in the morning. But the wide open view of tanker ships slowly coming and going in the bay of Algiers is spectacular. I was there for a conference on higher education and unemployment. Algeria has dozens of new, subsidised, overcrowded universities. In the last fifteen years, the number of students has tripled, to 1.5 million. But there are few jobs.
Meursault, contre-enquête by Kamel Daoud came out in English translation last month. The plaudits in the UK and US have a rare ring of authenticity: Daoud’s book is a dazzling appropriation of L’Etranger, sceptical, impatient, yet full of admiration for a canonical little fiction. He is The Outsider’s nerdiest insider. He knows every line (and occasionally quotes or tweaks them in his ‘own’ novel): he has inhabited the text and argued with it for years. Edward Said published Culture and Imperialism in 1993, as the war between Algeria’s Islamists and the ancien régime – still in power today, after half a century – was getting under way. That’s over. But so is the age of postcolonial condescension, a confident, proscriptive age, which threw out Camus’s best work along with a lot of his high-minded anguish. Daoud has reopened the conversation about an interesting novel.
Abdelaziz Bouteflika will be standing for a fourth term as president of Algeria, even though he hasn’t spoken in public since having a stroke a year ago. His re-election in April seems more or less assured. For the last six months he’s been engaged in a much tougher struggle, against the chief of the Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité, General Mohamed ‘Toufik’ Mediene. ‘The enormous power of the intelligence services,’ as Hugh Roberts has put it, ‘has long been the open secret of Algerian political life.’
There are numerous aspects of the violent drama at the gas plant at Tigantourine near In Amenas in south-eastern Algeria that remain unclear if not frankly baffling. Since the dust is yet to settle this is not the moment to pass judgment on the behaviour of the Algerians or the significance of the event. Instead I propose to list some of the questions to which answers are needed if we are to get a clear view of what happened.