The following interview was published in Middle East Report, No. 192, Algeria: Islam, the State and the Politics of Eradication (Jan. – Feb., 1995), pp. 14-17, by MERIP. I am sharing it here because it highlights many deep social and psychological problems which are still around today. Perhaps they have even gotten worse. Indeed, have the former Hittistes evolved into today’s Harragas?
You will perhaps feel that the interviewer, Meriem Verges, asks loaded questions (those about identity, Islam’s role etc.), but it must be emphasized here that this interview was conducted at a time when the international community was trying to understand what was going on in Algeria, how ‘terrorists’ are formed and how Islamism contributed to the situation.
This interview conveys an overwhelming feeling that the problem of Algerian youth cannot be reduced to economics, it is civilizational and as such it transcends geographic borders to all Arab countries. Even though most young people will tell you all they dream of is get married, settle down, have a family, a home, a job in the public sector with a secure monthly salary and a little car to move around (like Abdel Haq here but also many young people today in 2012). The reality is, even if they have all this in Algeria, they would still want to leave and take their chances elsewhere (and I personally know people who sold everything and left). Why?
The other interesting thing is how Abdel Haq describes the role of religion in his life and how he declares that there are no Muslims in Algeria. It seems it is not only the ‘extremists’ who thought so (hence the justification for killing civilians), people ‘in-between’ like Abdel Haq also felt so. The difference is of course that Abdel Haq didn’t consider himself to be the only Muslim in Algeria. How did we arrive at a point where ‘infidels’ are considered the ‘true’ Muslims were it not for the fact that they didn’t pronounce the Shahada? Isn’t this like signing your own death warrant? Isn’t the whole point of religion to vindicate believers? I am speaking of religion from an ‘evolutionary’ perspective, as a social cohesion and “civilizing” tool. No wonder self-immolation was only a few yards ahead.
The original article is entitled: “I Am Living in a Foreign Country Here” A Conversation with an Algerian “Hittiste” and here is the abstract:
Abd al-Haq exemplifies the fragile category of “in-betweens” who go back and forth between cannabis and the mosque. For them, ideological commitment is problematic. Individual resistance, escape into some imaginary compensation and longing to get out remain their strategies for circumventing reality.
Here is the interview:
What does being a Muslim mean to you today?
It is to believe in God, not to do evil. That’s all that I know as a Muslim. Being a Muslim presupposes many things I don’t know. Here in Algeria there are no Muslims. If there were, we would all be living well.
No. One would need to recover the rahma (mercy), the good. Today there is no more mercy, not even among neighbors. In the past, the neighbor was there, you could feel him, he existed, not only because he said hello and was courteous. Today mentalities have changed. The young people of the neighborhood, the neighbors, everybody has changed. Algeria has changed. I have felt it since 1986-87. I’m telling you, we were living well, antik. We did not lack anything. There was mercy. You could talk with people. Now everybody has hidden motives. When you argue, you have to watch everything you say, you have to calculate all the time. I’m no longer living, I am surviving. I am not the only one like that.
What was this state of being antik?
I was doing odd jobs. I used to go to the beach with my friends. I was on the move…. Do you know how long I have not been to the beach? Three years. The sea has become dull. Life has become dull.
What has changed?
The people, and – how should I explain it, there are problems with everything. Before, I was able to move. I used to visit my family. Today, that’s finished, even if there is a religious occasion. You look for work and there isn’t any. I have applied at many places. Only the police are hiring. I don’t feel like picking up other people’s sons or nahgar (humiliating people, abusing power). One is no longer living with Muslims.
When did you become aware of the role of religion?
Four years ago, I started praying after discussions with the young guys in the quarter, those close to the mosque. I wasn’t going to the mosque, I wasn’t praying regularly. The truth is, I didn’t want to be tied down. By the time night rolled around, I would already have missed too many prayers during the day. In fact, I stopped praying altogether. I would have had to head for the mosque pretty regularly, but in those days my mother pestered me. She was afraid that the military would pick me up. So I went back to alcohol, drugs. You have to understand, my faith is weak. It is difficult. And I’m versatile. A bit here, a bit there, according to how I feel. In the past, I used to hang out with everybody, those who were praying, those who were drinking and those who were smoking. Today, we have to focus on what is true. There is nothing that compares to prayer. I thought about it. I am giving alms, doing good, and I am trying to be good about praying at the mosque during the day. Yesterday, before going there, I felt stifled, but once I got to the mosque I got rid of that a little.
You felt stifled?
I woke up in the morning; I went down to one of the cafes of El-Biar where I used to hang out. I didn’t stay, but I didn’t know where to go. Friends showed up, and even though I’m quite a discrete person, too discrete, I got into an argument. Then I went down to the market where I walked around a bit to pass time. I went back to the cafe for a while. At lunch time I went home, but because my mind was working overtime I couldn’t eat. I preferred coffee and cigarettes.
Where does prayer fit in?
I went to the mosque to pray, and then I went back to the cafe to rest a bit. I drank one coffee; I went out again for the afternoon prayer. Most of the time I wasn’t doing anything. In the evening, just before curfew, I went home and I had a hard time getting to sleep. Before I smoked cigarettes, I was smoking zetla (cannabis) and I was drinking, but I stopped. Sleeping is difficult, my brain is always running, I wait until it gets tired. When I am searching for sleep and I don’t like the kachiete, I get up, I walk around. I get stressed out because I am not getting any sleep. It’s a vicious circle. I think too much. This is what it is to be an Algerian.
And what is that?
Do you want me to tell you the truth? I am living in a foreign country here. I don’t have anything, there isn’t anything. I don’t love Algeria, not at all. You know, we hate our country. We have nothing to do. This morning, right after I got up, I did some chira (drugs) and I completely exhausted myself. Instead of developing, we screw up this way. Elsewhere, people at our age do lots of things. What have we done to deserve this?
What does it mean to you, today, to be an Arab? What was your position with regard to the war in the Gulf?
You know, we didn’t understand it at all, and I don’t much like listening to what is being said. Listen, I don’t watch TV, I would much rather listen to music, Chaabi (popular) and a little Rai to forget myself.
What do you think of the FIS leader, Abassi Madani?
Neither he nor Belhadj appeal to me. Boudiaf touches me; I felt that he returned to put the country in order again. The rest of the politicians can rave on from morning to evening without touching me in any way.
I didn’t know him prior to his return to Algeria. But from the moment he set foot in Algiers, I felt that he was somebody good. He came back from Morocco with big plans for Algeria. When I heard him speak, he managed to convince me. I even have a picture of him. All the young people say good things about him, especially after his death.
And what about the martyrs of the Algerian war for example, La’arbi Ben M’hidi?
I have heard people talk about him. People like him are freedom fighters who have given their lives for the country; so it’s normal that I respect them. Today’s politicians have never been freedom fighters. The others are dead, may God take their souls. In any case, I no longer believe anything of what I am told; I no longer trust the preachers. Likewise, I no longer trust the people I see often, or my friends. In the current circumstances, I don’t like anybody.
Could you describe the parents you would have liked to have had?
Normally, a father talks with his son. When I go home, my father doesn’t talk with me, he doesn’t care about how we are doing. As far as I am concerned, I have neither a father nor a mother.
What is your last memory of a situation that you would call good?
Before 1988, there was niyya (good intentions) and trust. I told you, I used to go to the beach with my friends. We would take a cab and spend the afternoon together until nightfall. That was good. After that, everything was finished. It has been a long time since I have been happy. The future is tormenting me. I no longer can continue to function like this. There are no jobs except in the private sector, where they exploit and insult you. If I had the means, I would leave for wherever. I spent three months with a friend in Austria; three months is very short. Over there, being in a Western environment, I felt alive.
What were you doing there?
I was playing soccer in a minor league. I was doing well, my morale was up. Happy, that’s what I was then. I would get up in the morning and go to work. I used to put advertisements in the mailboxes of apartment buildings. In the afternoon, I would train with my soccer team. I was also doing my prayers. We were living, four Algerians and five Egyptians, in a two-bedroom apartment that we rented. I was comfortable. Over there, they have everything. In the evening, we would do some real living. Once I got over there, I forgot everything. I was feeling very good. Here, even hanging out in the evening with friends and amusing ourselves, for example, I feel a lump in my stomach.
How do you explain that lack of anxiety?
They have what I am looking for. If they were not infidels, it is they who would go to paradise. It is a country of rights; here we have nothing. If only I could have had my parents with me, I would have settled down and every-thing would have been super. Over there, someone can live simply. I used to think about Algiers, where we are really humiliated. My body was in Austria but my mind was in Algiers. I wasn’t thinking. How can I explain it? Over there, they still say “good morning” to you, even though they know that you are an Arab. Here, people have lost confidence. There are envious people, people who betray you, unfaithful people. Just look around. I have friends who have gone nuts because of this.
As soon as I have the money to pay for a plane ticket, I am leaving. I would much rather pick grapes anywhere else than be here. In Algiers, you slave for 3,000 dinars per month. What can you do with that? On unemployment I would have more money than I make in wages. I am managing and yet I have nothing. Sometimes people help me, but usually I have to do something for them. I don’t want to live too well, just get married, have a small car, not too big, and work in a national enterprise. This is what I dream about.
PS: I found Abdel Haq’s reply to the last question odd – did Hittistes take planes to emigrate to Europe? It means getting a Visa was an easy affair at that time? Or is it a mistake?