I ran a Google search with the Algerian word ‘Redjla‘ and it returned a song by Cheba Sousou entitled ‘Nebghih Redjla‘. No Algerian blog would be complete without a post about the concept of ‘Redjla‘. The classic Omar Gatlato is the only Algerian film which attempted to explore this concept from a sociological perspective, but it dates back to the seventies (1977). Here is a clip which introduces Omar, or rather a clip where Omar introduces himself:
IMDB describes the storyline of Omar Gatlato as follows:
A watershed film, Omar Gatlato held a mirror up to Algerian male culture and the mirror cracked. The title refers to the expression “gatlato al-rujula,” or, roughly, “machismo killed him” and the film’s mordant insights into male posturing and alienation in Algerian society animate this bit of folk wisdom. In mock documentary style, a young man recounts with wry commentary a typical day in his life in the Bab el-Oued quarter of Algiers, while the camera playfully shows a different story. In following Omar and his friends in their pursuit of happiness, the film examines with shrewd humor the gang values of urban youth; their passion for popular culture (soccer, “Hindoo” movies, Rai concerts), their hidden fear of women, and their social insecurity in an environment where they are marginalized.
Much time has passed since then, but relatively little has changed with respect to the actual perception of each gender with regards to the other. Much has changed on the façade as women have gained more (financial) independence in recent years. And men have been trying to compensate for that, mainly by twisting the concept of ‘redjla‘ in all directions until they stumble upon a formula that ‘fits’.
It is undeniable that the concept of ‘redjla‘ still has a strong hold over our society, as the (ghastly) song of Cheba Sousou demonstrates. It is a misconception to think that this is resisted by women, on the contrary, the primary reason this concept persists is that women like ‘redjla‘. The Syrian series Bab El-hara, which was broadcast during the holy month of Ramadan, captured the imagination of many Algerian women because it depicted an image of ‘manhood’ which has long disappeared. It was full of men with long moustaches and roaring voices, men of honor, dignity and courage. Whenever I asked my friends or acquaintances what they liked about this series, the reply was invariably: “It’s because it speaks about what being a ‘real’ man is about“. This argument ignores the perplexing phenomenon of Mouhaned, the male hero of the Turkish soap opera ‘Noor’ which caused carnage in Algerian society and resulted in a temporary peak in divorce rate (according to the national press). Mouhaned has nothing of the Algerian ‘redjla‘, in fact he embodies the opposite but still the image he depicted was positively received by viewers. One could argue it is because of his boyish good looks, but that is a subjective view and on its own, it doesn’t explain the huge success of the series.
As for Bab El-hara, personally, I found the women in it too submissive, I don’t think Algerian women are that submissive. In fact, I think that Algerian women have many qualities of ‘redjla‘ too (incidentally, Google returned a result entitled ‘Mra bessah redjla‘ meaning ‘a woman but ‘redjla”). Perhaps they too have been trying to compensate for the disappearance of ‘redjla‘ from our society. But, Algerian folklore contains references to ‘man’-like women in their courage and leadership (‘man’ in the gender sense). During the war for independence, Algerian women played a key role, alongside their male counterpart. This maybe why there is a malaise between the genders in Algerian culture. Algerian women are different from other Arab women and this seems to be the perception of other Arab cultures too.
I suppose the closest translation of the word ‘redjla‘ is ‘macho‘ or ‘tough’, but there are some characteristics of the Algerian ‘redjla‘ that are unique to being Algerian. I don’t think it is even shared by other Arab cultures, not even our closest neighbours Tunisia and Morocco. Evidently, there are some basics which are shared by all males (and apparently humans share much with the great apes’ societies in this regard), but ‘redjla‘ is a sociocultural construct and as such it is unique to Algerian culture. I couldn’t spell it out, but I feel I could flair an Algerian man from a million men. Perhaps it is the way they walk , or the way they talk (check out the video above, around time 0:11) but not only, it is a complex whole that is difficult to unpack.
I am also aware that all this is my perception of ‘redjla‘, which is shared by most Algerians without necessarily being true. Perhaps it was never true, it doesn’t however make it any less ‘real’. We all long for a distant past that may never come back and were it to come back, we might not like it after all. In the nineties, the late Kamel Messaoudi already deplored the extinction of the legendary Algerian ‘redjla‘ (a song entitled ‘Mabqat redjla‘):
But, ‘redjla‘ still exists in younger generations of Algerian men’s psyche and is still translated in their behavior. Unfortunately, they have stripped it down to something that is indistinguishable from ‘violence’. All the positive things which came with the package of ‘redjla‘ and which made women tolerate the irritating things have disappeared. However, men are still made to believe that being ‘redjla‘ is what women want, which is true except that the concept of ‘redjla‘ has mutated beyond recognition. Worse, women have become more ‘redjla‘ than men! There is now a huge gap between the ‘redjla‘ that most Algerians remember with nostalgia and how ‘redjla‘ is acted out nowadays.
In this article, a psychologist blames the concept of ‘redjla‘ for the recurrent problem of violence in Algerian stadiums. The psychologist argues that Algerian violence in stadiums is different from that of English or German hooliganism, it is particular to the Algerian culture because of the positive value that is attached to the concept of ‘redjla‘. Furthermore, he argues that what is referred to as ‘violence’ is in fact a complete lack of uncivility which permeates all level of Algerian society. Violence is a thought out strategy whereas uncivility is an unconscious random behaviour, he explains. In the recent football events with Egypt, the central message of the Egyptian media was that Algerians are intrinsically violent, due to our violent history and our revolutionary values. We are perceived by other Arab countries as being particularly ‘fiery’. It is all true – ‘violence’ has played a central role in much of our history and I think that it manifests itself at all levels of our society. This is also the case in most Arab countries, but like the psychologist in the above article argues, there is something that is particular to the Algerian brand of ‘violence’ and the huge value we attach on ‘redjla‘ (and ‘nif‘) may have something to do with it. But what is also worth noting, is that beyond the rampant uncivility, Algerian ‘redjla‘ has also many positive influences. For example, in Algeria we don’t have phenomena such as what took place in Egypt a few years ago when gangs of men rampaged through downtown Cairo, assaulting any woman who came near them. We don’t share the Saudi way of looking at women as men’s commodities and minor second-class citizens. However, our culture is being eroded and we are becoming more and more receptive to such foreign imports from the Arab world.
It would appear that we have a problem differentiating between ‘violence’ and ‘strength’, ‘respect’ and ‘fear’, ‘liberalism’ (or modernity) and ‘effeminization’ (or de-redjlanization’). In this article, the writer shows through an anecdote, how a wife was so fed-up with her ‘liberal’ husband, who didn’t ask her anymore where she was and didn’t get jealous when she spoke with other men, she got so fed-up with him that she threw an ultimatum at him: either he becomes a Salafi or he divorces her.
So being a Salafi has become the new ‘redjla‘? It is interesting to see how even religion and ‘liberalism’ are interpreted through the prism of ‘redjla‘. ‘Liberalism‘ is evil because it ‘effeminizes’ men and this is not a good thing. I find this a curious way of reasoning, not least because it misrepresents ‘liberalism’. But perhaps it is not surprising coming from a conservative society. Maybe it just shows that, at its core, the romanticized perception of ‘redjla‘ we all share and value is about power and dominance. A certain order. Hence the threat of ‘liberalism’ – it profoundly disturbs the power balances within society and none of us are comfortable with that, neither men nor women.
I wouldn’t swap Algerian men for any men. Long live the Algerian redjla! Despite everything, my male compatriots still give way to women drivers but only when the latter don’t show any signs of wanting to go past them. They always rush to the rescue of women drivers whenever they show signs of wanting to park, it is a natural reflex in every Algerian man to want to ‘guide’ a woman driver (matqelqish khti, nguidik). During the Ramadan, all Algerian male bosses let their women staff leave work early to give them time to cook iftar for their families, male colleagues are happy to do the work on their behalf. Also, Algerian men have so much respect for their wives they never say their names in public, but refer to them as ‘the family‘ or ‘the home‘ (l3ila or eddar). Countless examples to show how Algerian men are unique in their ‘redjla‘ towards women. I find Algerian men ‘chivalrous’ in many ways and this perhaps is an important feature of being ‘redjla‘. This feature came out very strongly during the football events with Egypt, I personally was dumbfounded at how Algerian men became chivalrous and very civil during these months. All Algerian people (men and women) were transformed beyond recognition and it was a great feeling to see all those positive values our society still holds dear come out in profusion.
It would be interesting to observe how the concept of ‘redjla‘ will evolve in a globalized world.