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Boeke | Books > Rubrieke | Columns > English > African Library

Merzak Allouache’s Bab el-Oued is interesting, balanced and complex

Annie Gagiano - 2011-01-11

Bab el-Oued
Author: Merzak Allouache

First published in French in 1995, Merzak Allouache’s novel Bab el-Oued (the name of a run-down working-class area of Algiers, the city in which Allouache grew up) was published in an English translation (by Angela M Brewer) in 1998. Allouache is best known as a highly rated and productive filmmaker; the novel Bab el-Oued is not a screenplay, but one of the very few texts in the literary world based on a previously created film. Allouache wrote the novel subsequent to completing his film Bab el-Oued City in Algiers, in his own words, “to exorcise the many frustrations that arose when making the film”. He adds: “Writing the book gave me a sense of freedom not possible with the constraints of the camera, especially when shooting in a hostile environment, as was the case there’’ (133). Clearly, his portrait of this neighbourhood is something of an exposé; however, the depiction of what might be termed post-revolutionary Algeria in the novel is interesting, balanced and complex. Even though we are not shown portraits of the really powerful who are in control of this state (among the many of out-of-work, poor or working-class Babelouedians whose lives are depicted in vivid detail), the postcolonial tendencies that Frantz Fanon warned about in his famous chapter/essay on “The Pitfalls of National Consciousness” (1961) filter through in a number of hints in the novel of profoundly resented power greed and corruption in government.
The novel could be said to concentrate (with some few exceptions) on the malaise of ordinary Algerians in the tarnished and increasingly dangerous society in which they live (the period shown is from the late eighties to the mid-nineties). It is especially the urban poor or unemployed male youths who smart under the condition for which they have invented their own word, hogra, glossed by the translator as referring to the sense of “injustice, contempt, being left out: a prevalent feeling among the young people, and a very important factor behind the violence in Algeria today” (vi). Allouache shows in his depiction of his wide range of characters that hogra leads youngsters to various choices, ranging from membership of an extremist religious group for the sense of mission and purpose they derive from it; or to escapism by means of drugs or alcohol; or to a burning desire to leave Algeria or Algiers in the (sadly, all too often unfulfilled) hope of a more meaningful life elsewhere – eg in France or in returning to village life. In some passages Allouache provides a historical, political and social context for the experiences of his characters:

What the envoy did not bother to spell out was that Bab el-Oued, as it happened, was one of the first districts of the capital to be taken in hand, patiently and methodically, by the Islamists who emerged in the 1970s, while the famous “specific socialism” of Colonel Boumédienne was evaporating in the cries, tears, and general hysteria of the burial of the nationalistic leader. Following a few discreet battles for the empty seat of power, the Algeria of that time was soon to appear, despite a veneer of stability, in all the horror of its corrupt, unsuccessful reality. Schooling, culture, everyday life, morality, nationalism, like rotten fruit falling off a tree, were all about to burst apart in the fury of the 1980s.
This was how Bab el-Oued, the neighborhood of constant deprivation, of pride despite poverty, of macho honor, of contempt and social exclusion; how Bab el-Oued, the neighborhood of the oil poor as opposed to the oil rich, came, on October 1988 – a day ahead of everyone else – to be in the vanguard of the major riots that were suddenly going to turn the town and countryside of Algeria into a bloodbath and lead to an irreversible split. And, naturally, Bab el-Oued paid the highest toll in terms of the children and young people mown down by bullets or savagely tortured during the repression.
The Islamists, losing no time coming out of hiding, had naturally understood the political capital to be reaped from the spirit of rebellion and the unrest and aimlessness of the young men sickened and angry at the now disgraced state. This was the state that had sown corruption and caused underdevelopment, which was the mouthpiece of the ubiquitous FLN,# now grown into a huge bureaucratic monster. (75)

Allouache’s text provides us with this kind of broad and convincing interpretative perspective, but the real strength of his novel is in its poignant depictions of a wide range of Babelouedians among whom our sympathies are divided, for they are all, even the hopelessly decadent or maliciously wilful among them, in some way victims (in the author’s compassionate perspective) of a system that has failed them. Fairly late in the text, for instance, we learn that the appealing main protagonist Boualem and his virulently hate-filled antagonist Saïd, close neighbours since birth in Bab el-Oued, used to be good friends, since “as teenagers they spent a lot of time […] planning […] to escape from this country where they felt worthless: ‘a country where no-one cares about us’”. The split first came when Saïd discovered that Boualem “rather fancied” his pretty sister Yamina, for as the only male in a fatherless household he felt it his duty to uphold Islamic rules that forbid inter-sexual relationships outside of a marriage (90). We are given one brief but powerful portrait of the kind of callously predatory Algerian who thrives within the new dispensation in the figure of Boualem’s uncle (whom he detests), who “for many years […] had been in charge of a mouhafada of the Party, a kind of local structure of the FLN in a small town in the Mitiudja region, and both he and his wealth became visibly inflated”. To Boualem this man is a “big-headed shit stinking of his ill-gotten gains”, while the uncle believes it is precisely his flaunting way of displaying his wealth that make his compatriots “respect” and “fear” him, for in their country people will “do what you want” if they see “power and wealth”, which in turn “gets you even more money’”. The narrator concludes: “Algeria belonged to him, and to those like him. To keep power in his hands and prepare for the future, he placed his own children one by one in strategic positions” (91).
One basically decent and relatively well-off inhabitant of Bab el-Oued is the baker Hassan, who has named his prosperous bakery The Flower of Bab el-Oued. Through Hassan, Allouache gives us a few peeps into the colonised and Europeanised past of Algiers, for as a young man he had been quite a favourite – a handsome and polished youth and a brilliant dancer, much admired by the female club-goers in particular – among the mainly French expatriate community (later to be dubbed the pied-noirs) in this Maghrebian country. From being a reluctant supporter of the fierce Algerian anticolonial struggle Hassan becomes a petulant endurer of the struggling postcolonial society and its succession of leaders to a resenter of the political leadership that he sees as corrupt and inefficient, noticing what the narrator terms “the pauperization of the city” (102), and as a man who had enjoyed the refinements of Europeanised Algiers, he now sees the city as becoming “like the Far East, like Bombay, Calcutta!”. Hassan’s strongest resentment, however, is directed at the education system, for he feels that school has “transformed his children into ‘morons, idiots who can’t even string two sentences together!’” and he asks, crudely, “What on earth do they do in the classrooms? Spend their time wanking?” (103). On the whole, and more usually, he remains a cheerful soul, however, but the urban society’s incrementally increasing repressive Islamisation led by the radical youth will eventually cow Hassan into submission.
Another off-centre but very interesting character is the lonely, alcoholic, middle-aged single woman Ouardya, an anomaly in this Muslim society because of her single status and her drinking habit. We learn most about her in one key passage where she reveals her past to Boualem. He, being an open-minded, inquisitive and tolerant person, had become her only visitor as well as the person supplying her with the bottles of wine she craves to make her days endurable. They even become (almost accidental) lovers, even though Boualem is emotionally committed to Yamina. Ouardia, ? [hier bo is dit Ouardya gespel] it turns out, had been a Marxist radical in her student days, one of those who “dreamed of many beautiful things, of the revolution, […] of serving the people”. The love of her life was a fellow insurgent, leader of a “very militant” group. Eventually they were arrested but, although she was let go after a mere nine days in a cell due to her father’s influence, her lover was less lucky. The only time she saw him after their arrest he “had been disfigured by torture”, and subsequently he disappeared (104). This loss of both her hope and idealism and of her beloved destroyed Oualem’s ? [Ouardia’s / Ouardya’s?] will to live, so “when I got over my fear [she says], I realized […] I didn’t want anything anymore. Only to sleep. Sleep. And then I discovered this,” she says, indicating her wine. The apartment in which she lives had belonged to her grandmother; her father (who sends her a monthly allowance) believes her to be mad and prefers her to keep away rather than be an embarrassment in his life – which is how a middle-class woman came to be living in Bab el-Oued. So lonely is this poignantly depicted figure that after Boualem’s departure for Europe (at the end of the novel), she takes her own life. Her life had in fact been threatened (like Boualem’s) by Saïd – their society’s new kind of militant.
Allouache makes it clear that in his view the aimlessness of the city’s youth, their lack of prospects and the contempt they feel others exude towards them, branding them as “useless” without allowing them to be useful – hogra, as they call it – is the main ingredient leading to the militant Islamic zeal of ruthless young men like Saïd:

Unemployed, a layabout since being thrown out of primary school, Saïd was an obscure reject of the neighborhood for years until fame suddenly descended upon him one day in October 1988. That particular morning he happened to be bravely positioned in the front line of the rioters from Bab el-Oued. Like all the other young men, he had revolt in his guts. His hatred for the state, the administration, the police, for villas, shops, company cars, banks, trains, airplanes was so strong that he thoroughly enjoyed destruction, deeply loved smashing things, looting, burning cars, erecting barricades, and ended up, as a dangerous ringleader, in the hands of the police, who made him round off his epic adventures as riot leader in a suburban police station. He spent more than a fortnight there “helping the police with their inquiries”. He got out thanks to the amnesty, covered in the flamboyant glory of the popular hero, and became the unchallenged star of Bab el-Oued. Much more famous than Madjer, the most popular football player of the moment.

It was mainly his courageous resistance to torture that established his reputation. He enjoyed telling everyone about this resistance, using hundreds of details each more horrific than the last. In the gloomy police cell between two bouts of “questioning” he had discovered religious faith. He liked to compare this lightning conversion to that of the famous Ali sharp-fingers, an ex-thug turned hero then martyr of urban guerrilla warfare during the liberation struggle and whose adventures he had followed in the film The Battle of Algiers, which had had a runaway success at the Marignan cinema. […]

Not long after that he started assiduously attending the Hayat mosque, met the major religious leaders, and initiated himself into verbal extremism, for want of anything better to do. (15)

Such was the transformation of Saïd – though his “leadership training”, “theological schooling” and “corporate inculcation” had some less known dimensions. Only late in the novel do we learn that during the riots that earned Saïd his fame and standing in Bab el-Oued, he first encountered the two mysterious men who require his recurrent availability for (mostly, strangely inconclusive) meetings with them. They had appeared from nowhere, dressed shabbily (at that time), “joined in the general destruction and even became ringleaders, telling the others exactly which shops to loot and set alight” (106–7). The two men, Allouache hints, are agents provocateurs, either special forces or members of the secret police. It is they, we learn, who chose Saïd and became his handlers and instructed him how to construct the persona on which his fame rests. Arrested at the time of the riots along with dozens of other youths after the two men had disappeared from the scene, Saïd was removed from his fellow detainees and locked up (terrifyingly, since he suffers from claustrophobia) for hours or days in a small, pitch-dark room. It was the two men who let him out, and Saïd, like many bullies actually a coward, was putty in their hands. It was the two men who had concocted, for him, the detailed account of his supposed torture by the police, and his supposed courageous resistance to it. Every so often, afterwards, they come and see him merely (it seems) to maintain their emotional control over him. They had told him at the time they released him from incarceration that “the riots are over. Things are going to change. The country’s going to change. We chose you because you interest us’’ (108). Much later, they give him a large-calibre revolver, but no specific instructions on how to use it. Saïd comes perilously close to shooting Boualem just when the latter is walking up the gangplank to board the ship for Europe, but (inexplicably to himself) ends up not doing so. The narrator informs us concerning this that “were [Saïd] to follow his own secret desire, he too would be striding up the gangway to avoid this premonition of violence, blood, and death that he has” (128). The last thing we learn about Saïd is that he “disappeared” subsequent to “the Islamic demonstrations following the strike in June 1991”; even his own mother has no idea whether he is in prison, in “one of the camps in the south” or in hiding, and only rumours from persons supposed to have seen him in other cities reach her. Even this very unpleasant youth is, finally, a used victim – exploited either by the secret police or by the leaders of the most radical Islamic group, and possibly dead or otherwise socially destroyed, probably for having taken part in assassinations or other forms of terrorism (130).
Another somewhat bogus Islamic revolutionary and firebrand, Rashid (who had been Saïd’s second-in-command), “died as he would have wished, a Kalashnikov in his hand, during a shoot-out with the police in the maquis [bushy area] not far from Algiers” (131). Rashid, too, had at eighteen been deeply bored with his life in Algeria, “disgusted by the hogra on every street corner” and enticed by “the stories of the fighters’ exploits” – the “Afghan moujaheddin brothers” and the many young Algerian volunteers to their cause who were supposedly “the bravest, the most intrepid” and “always in the front line” (50). In Peshawar, however, instead of ever firing a gun, he was put in charge of the toilet-cleaning – but this did not stop him from proclaiming a string of invented braveries on being sent back to Algeria later. Still thirsting for the jihad, Rashid joined Saïd’s group on his return. The narrator ominously adds that the “Algeria of corruption, embezzlement, and hypocrisy had just spawned a new generation of young people imbued with intolerance and violence. Ready to sow death …” (51).
Allouache’s text is really a composite portrait or socioscape more than it is a conventional novel, yet there is a thread of tension or dread expectation that holds effectively taut until just about the end of the text. This suggestion of a narrative is provided by an initial unintentionally provocative and profoundly symbolic act of Boualem’s. He works as one of the assistants of Hassan the baker and is on night-shift almost every night, since that is when the baking is done. He is literally a breadwinner for his siblings – a younger brother, a divorced older sister – and the latter’s two children, his twin nephews, their parents having died of tuberculosis (which also killed their many deceased siblings). They had contracted TB because of unsavoury living conditions and died due to the inadequacy or the unavailability of medication. One day, trying to remain asleep but forced awake by the local imam’s booming voice, relayed by specially installed speakers at the top of almost every block of flats in Bab el-Oued, Boualem does something foolish. It is depicted as happening in a strange kind of trance, almost a fit. Half maddened by the insistent effect of the voice from the loudspeaker, Boualem (unseen by anyone except Saïd’s sister Yamina, who is in love with him) rushes upstairs, loosens the big box and later on goes and throws it into the ocean. This deed is taken as an act of personal challenge and a demonstration of defiance against the Islamic faith itself by Saïd (even though he does not know who the perpetrator is), who proceeds throughout most of the novel to hunt down the person who did it. Yamina never reveals this, but Rashid later overhears a clandestine lovers’ conversation (their first) between her and Boualem, and informs Saïd, who now has two causes for vengeance against Boualem – he is the loudspeaker thief seemingly cocking a snook at the Islamic discipline Saïd and his gang want to maintain in Bab el-Oued, and he is the defiler (as Saïd sees it) of Saïd’s family’s honour and his sister’s purity.
Boualem is an appealing figure – hardworking, responsible and compassionate. Possibly he represents the finest of the more moderate, tolerant and mature people of Algeria reluctant to accept the harsh radicalisation of public discourse and the ugly violence building up in their society. We see him pityingly observing Tahar, Karim and Ali, three young addicts devoted to nothing but getting high as effectively and affordably as possible every single day of their lives. Taking no pride in his “luck” in having escaped the same drug trap, Boualem describes them gently as “nice kids who didn’t stand a chance”, remembering the terrible day when he had come upon Ali “sprawling in a filthy municipal dump” with the whole lower part of his body covered in blood, unconscious. He had beaten his penis to a pulp because “he could no longer understand the point of being young and even less of having a prick” (7). On that occasion Boualem had saved Ali’s life by getting him to hospital, but near the end of the text Boualem will come upon a scene where Karim lies dead from an overdose and Tahar and Ali (all three having broken into a pharmacy and taken huge and dangerous amounts of drugs) are about to be driven off in a police van, no doubt unlikely ever to emerge alive from prison. Those watching in the crowd shout out conflicting comments: “Just look what you’ve done to us” or “We’re fed up with this hogra” or “We want an Islamic state!” or “Are you going to kill us all?” while another person claims, “We’re martyrs here in Bab el-Oued!” and someone else conversely demands “Death to thieves, death to corruption!” (113).
Boualem also admits to his fellow bakery worker and friend, the chubby Mabrouk who ekes out additional income by dabbling in small-time smuggling or trabenda, that it was he who had taken the speaker.

Three days after their discussion in the café, Mabrouk comes looking for Boualem at his house and persuades him to go along to the place where the loudspeaker had been thrown into the sea. Mabrouk is taking this matter very seriously. He does not want Boualem to get into trouble, and as he has told him very bluntly, he is in favour of maintaining good relations in the neighbourhood. Back to the status quo, which would suit everyone. For the past few months Mabrouk had been noticing the radical changes in people’s attitudes. He was worried by the crowds of believers assembling each Friday, coming in from the outlying districts, swarming into the mosques of Bab el-Oued. He could sense the growing tension, display of intolerance, and the unhealthy atmosphere that boded ill. Bab el-Oued was visibly changing and he didn’t like it at all. They needed to find that bloody loudspeaker, quietly replace it on the terrace, and just forget about the whole thing (43-4).

Saïd’s vengeance against Boualem, once the latter has been identified as “thief” and “sister-seducer” in his mind, is vicious as well as violent. He sends Rashid to Hassan with a threatening message: “Today, if you aren’t with us, you’re against us. And with your past …”, explaining that he is referring to Hassan’s youth “when you sucked up to the French”. Rashid adds: “You’ve got to fire Boualem, and today, otherwise you won’t dare walk around the streets of Bab el-Oued” (95). Badly shaken by these intimidating words, Hassan does just that, even though he is ashamed of his weak yielding to such bullying. “Was it fear? Submission? He can’t understand. Mabrouk hasn’t spoken to him all night long” (116). Saïd and his cohorts had already beaten up Mabrouk to get confirmation of the fact that Boualem had removed the speaker; eventually Boualem himself forces a showdown with Saïd, challenging the latter to single hand-to-hand combat on the beach. Boualem wins this fight, but when Saïd is defeated, Rashid meanly weighs in on the exhausted Boualem, beating him into a state of unconsciousness, intent on killing him, though the others stop him. The gang then leaves Boualem bleeding on the beach.
Women’s social sphere in Bab el-Oued is restricted mainly to their daily rooftop gatherings:

Hanifa, Boualem’s sister, and other women, young and old, are out very early on the terrace of 13 Ramdane-Kahlouche Street. They try to make the most of the cool part of the day before the noon furnace turns the tiles into hot coals. Between 7 and 11:30 in the morning, according to a strict rota, they do the washing, hang it out, beat the mattresses, and, if they’ve enough time, wash themselves or get the children to take baths in the shared utility room.

The terrace is the mythical place where news and gossip are exchanged. It belongs exclusively to the popular democratic assembly of the women living in the building. It is their little bit of shared universe. Except for the day Saïd and the militants went up there to put up the loudspeaker, no man ever goes there because of the horma.* Hanifa is the life and soul of the group. She is always the one who starts off and keeps the conversations going. (20)

The women have their own private adventures and most of them make the best of their lot. They are generally productive and sensible, but Allouache also depicts the sensualities and naughty doings of some of the younger ones in particular. One tragic figure is Yamina, who has since she was a little girl loved Boualem, who returns her feelings, but ends up leaving Algeria – hated by Yamina’s brother Saïd, but also troublingly conscious that without a job or prospects he has no hope of marrying her and supporting a family. The children of Bab el-Oued are perhaps represented by Boualem’s little brother Karim with his dream of acquiring a Toyota bus and transporting passengers to the Moroccan border; in his view, “there’s nothing to do here if you’re poor” (93).

The figure who opens, and in a sense closes, the text is Imam Rabah. Brought to Bab el-Oued from the mountain village where he had previously ministered, he is a rather practical man often heard exhorting the congregation to clean up the neighbourhood and to restore its crumbling buildings. He is also humane and compassionate, providing shelter in the mosque for Messaoud, a French-born Algerian deported from there but desperate to get back to France and terrified of attacks by the “night rapists” (31) who prey on homeless city youths (mainly exiles). The narrator says of the imam that he “was, of course, a fundamentalist, but he always thought about the situations that arose, analyzing them […] before taking action”; he disapproves of militant populism and radical ranting. The imam is therefore the balancing opposite to Saïd among the most committed Muslims portrayed in the text. When riots and other provocative behaviour erupt, the imam denounces the irresponsibility of those whose militancy propels others to their deaths or to incarceration and torture. He is kind and forgiving towards Boualem when the latter confesses to him that he was the one who removed the loudspeaker; he tells him to put it back, but expresses his liking for Boualem’s “direct” and “pure” nature (110). But the imam has grown increasingly disillusioned with the trend of events in Bab el-Oued, where he had initially ministered so enthusiastically. It is in fact when he learns of the vicious beating that Saïd, Rahid and their cohorts meted out to Boualem that he decides to go back to his village mosque in the mountainside. “There are some amongst us, fellow Muslims,” he declares, “who do not want peace in this neighbourhood. […] who want fitna …” (120) – fitna being the term for “violent clashes between dissenting groups within the same religious faith” (vi). Expressing his disgust at the Babelouedians (staring pointedly at Saïd) being “ready to kill one another, for trivialities”, he announces that he finds it unendurable to work in a place “where hatred has taken root” and where his “moral authority [has become] worthless’’; proclaiming that his departure is no escape, but intended as a “warning” (120).
Soon afterwards, Boualem announces his imminent departure to a tearful Yamina, who knows “somehow” that “he will never come back for her” (127). Messaoud has got his passport back and is also returning to France.

The novel’s coda is its final chapter, set three years later, in which readers are informed that “the city is very tense”, that “bomb attacks, sabotage, various manipulations, and repression have [… all made] people edgy, nervous, suspicious” (129). Mabrouk is in prison, having been caught smuggling hashish, and is being instructed in the Islamic faith by fellow prisoners. Ouardia, who killed herself after Boualem left, has been buried, and Hassan, even though he has acquired new baker’s assistants and is still doing fair business, is thinking strongly of leaving Bab el-Oued for his village in Kabilya. So there is a sense at the end of the text of things closing down (in various senses of the term) in Bab el-Oued. This “dying fall” and melancholic mood has been inherent in Allouache’s vision of the city from the beginning, but it fittingly brings the novel to closure.

*Horma is a term denoting an area or activity reserved for women’s occupation or participation.