Ghania Mouffok / Middle East

We Are Not Swallows (Algeria)

From Algeria, full of fear and yearning, Ghania Mouffok’s entry in Writing Revolution  recounts the sad and bitter history of the country’s aborted uprisings against the status quo.

We Are Not Swallows (Algeria)

‘Soon ‘they’ are going to put metres round our necks and measure the air we breathe and charge us for it,’ a young man said to me.

Don’t interrupt me. Don’t ask me who ‘they’ are. Because it’s ‘them’ too. ‘They’, ‘them’ – that’s what we call our indescribable leaders. That’s how we keep them at a distance from our destinies, our descendants. They bring bad luck and we know that. Don’t interrupt me. I’m writing so I don’t forget. Otherwise soon I’ll forget. It was winter 2011, the day after rioting. It was just before the spring, or just after. I don’t know any more, but it was before Arabs became celebrities and celebrated. We were on a street corner in Algiers, not far from Cervantes’ cave, named after the author of Don Quixote who was reduced to slavery by our ancestors and lay hidden in the cave, watching the sea through holes in the limestone rocks, waiting for freedom.

We were in one of those so-called quartiers populaires of Algiers. That’s what we call the neighbourhoods with creaking windows and buckling walls upon which you can build the memory of a country. These districts are neither old enough to deserve a museum nor young enough to stink of tedium, the kind of place you can get yourself a proper coffee, you know, still a whole commedia dell’arte, without the inflated price-tag of a Columbian espresso. I’d come to ask this young man why he’s angry. ‘Why are you setting your neighbourhood on fire? Why are you scaring your mother and the bourgeoisie?’

‘I’m like a volcano,’ he said. ‘It’s so I can breathe.’

He wasn’t angry, actually. He was really very calm. His eyes scanned the street which had now been cleared of any sign of fire, whilst his body still held the smell of riots, this mixture of powder and vinegar: powder from the tear gas grenades, vinegar for the eyes (otherwise they cry, the eyes of rioters).

He was happy.

‘The good thing about rioting,’ he said, ‘is that afterwards they come and collect the rubbish. Usually they forget about it and it doesn’t smell very nice.’ He dragged on a cigarette like only 20-year-old kids know how: with pleasure and conviction, his fingers still white. But he was under house arrest, bound to his little patch of the neighbourhood, to his little street.

‘After rioting,’ he said, ‘you have to stay put. You have to cast anchor into the tarmac of your neighbourhood, stay close to home and wait, otherwise they’ll catch you like fish. Can’t you see their wire nets?’ he asked me. ‘Look, they’re spread over every exit from the neighbourhood. And if you’re unlucky enough to get close to the fishermen in boots and helmets, that’s it, you’re done for. Before you’ve even understood what’s happening to you, you’re caught up with their haul and on the way to prison. In the courts, the bounty hunters will cite “public order offence”, or “criminal damage” and in place of freedom, they put you in a cage for eternity and a day, while your mother, a little more pale than usual, does the rounds of all the prisons, taking a box of cakes and a packet of tissues as gifts. They treat us like fish in an aquarium they are slowly draining of water,’ the young man said.

On the other side of the world, people said we’re Arabs, that it’s the Arab Spring, but it was winter.

In Algeria, swallows come in spring, but we’re not swallows. We’re Arabs, but first and foremost we’re ourselves. When we rise up like waves, we win back our bodies, rediscover our spirits, and answer only to ourselves. That’s what that young man taught me, the one who spoke like a poet about breathing.

We were in one of those districts – a quartier populaire – where every generation passes on, if not history, from father to son, at least a glance, a smirk, a look from one father to another. It happens behind the walls, beyond the Kasbah where the lives of fathers and sons are piled on top of one another, sharing the same mattresses, the same old pots and pans.

The spring lasts a season, while our path will be long, as long as those baboons reign over us, stealing our time, plundering our part of the world. Like greedy, indifferent snakes, they wind barbed wire around both our bodies and our spirits. In any case, that’s what the young man calls the cops of our dictatorship, the young man who still smells of riots. He calls them ‘snakes’. They live amongst us, and you might think their venom is weak, but it’s noxious. ‘They poison us,’ the young man said.

So one day he rises up. Why that day? I don’t know. And he takes some stones and matches and sets fire to the invisible walls of his neighbourhood. And beneath his own windows he creates a Sioux fire.

The petit-bourgeois, as we used to call them, look through their windows at the smoke drifting through the sky and say: ‘Why are they destroying their own neighbourhoods? They don’t have to wreck the place. Oh no! Look! Look, Belcourt is on fire! What a nightmare … and they don’t even have any demands!’

‘But, dear lady,’ the young man said to me, ‘we demand to breathe, and that’s a big enough demand in itself.’ Through fire and violence, that demand opens up a breathing space, it pushes back the walls of snakes to the borders of the district, and it restores freedom to both night and day. Well, to some nights and some days. And suddenly, the intoxication of time passing by belongs to you.

‘Rioting is a way of breathing,’ the young man said to me. ‘Tell them we won’t make excuses for living.’ We laughed and I left. But he stayed: ‘like a caged bird, flying round in circles,’ he said. As for me, I left like a thief with these gems:

We are not swallows. We’re not just making spring but also winter, autumn and summer too, because we’ve been around for a long time.

And I left.

Algiers, October 2011. ■

Translated from the French by Georgina Collins.

Ghania Mouffok is a journalist based in Algiers. She is a correspondent for TV5 MONDE and hosts the blog Une femme à sa fenêtre on the channel’s website. She writes for various journals, including Le Monde Diplomatique, the Swiss La Liberté, and the Algerian online-journal Maghreb Émergent. Ghania is also an engaged feminist and human rights activist and collaborates with the UN and civil society organizations. Among her publications are Une autre voie pour l’Algérie (with Louisa Hanoune, 1995), Être journaliste en Algérie (1996) and Apprendre à vivre ensemble (2011).

Visit our website for more details about the Writing Revolution project.

Writing Revolution

Top image courtesy of YuShY FoO.

More Writing Revolution Extracts
Diary of an Unfinished Revolution (Syria) // Wishful Thinking (Saudi Arabia) // Cairo, City in Waiting (Egypt) // Bayou & Laila (Libya) // Greetings to the Dawn (Tunisia) // Coming Down From the Tower (Bahrain) // Armed With Words (Yemen)
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