From Hittistes to Harragas


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 Muslims?
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.

Why Boudiaf?
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.

And you?
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?

11 thoughts on “From Hittistes to Harragas

  1. Le discours typique des cafés… je ne sais pas quel effet ça fait de lire ça pour quelqu’un qui ne connait pas l’Algérie et qui essaie de la connaitre ou de comprendre ce qui s’y déroule… mais je n’ai pas très bien compris : l’interview a été faite en 1991 ou en 1995?
    Ceci dit, sa thèse sur la montée du “néo-communitarisme” en Algérie, j’espère qu’elle n’est pas aussi biaisée que son interview…

    • Oumelkhir

      She said in the article that a friend of hers introduced Abdel Haq to her in 1991 in the period before the elections. The article was published in 1995 however. It seems she was preparing a PhD thesis on Algeria. I have not read her thesis to judge how biased it is but could you point out what aspects in her interview you found biased?

      What people say in cafes is interesting from a sociological perspective.

  2. C’est toujours intéressant d’écouter les propos des gens dans les cafés, hammams, bus ou autres salles d’attente de médecins par exemple. Cela peut constituer en effet une très bonne base pour une étude sociologique. Une base. Mais l’étude sociologique nécessite bien plus que l’opinion d’une seule personne… son article est biaisé à cause de ça. Je peux faire le même article avec l’interview d’une autre personne qui dira totalement le contraire… et puis je n’ai pas bien compris son “néo-communautarisme” ça sonne comme “néo-nazisme” on dirait bien… et ça m’a rappelé wahd l’auteur aujourd’hui encensé outre-méditerranée qui a assimilé l’islamisme au nazisme. Je peux témoigner pour ma part d’un communautarisme auquel les journalistes et les sociologues (chez nous) ne s’intéressent pas beaucoup … parce que c’est toujours plus facile d’être dans l’air du temps que d’aller à contre-courant.

    • True Oumelkhir, this is just an interview, it is not her entire thesis and certainly her thesis was not based on this single interview. I have not read her thesis to be able to agree or disagree with what you say about it.

      The article this interview is taken from contains her own analysis about what she calls the ‘in-betweens’, meaning young people who were not sold to the islamists nor to the other side, the lost and confused ones you could say. So in this sense it is biased yes and it is so for the objectives of the study. As for the exact time when the interview was conducted, I think it may have taken place over a couple of years, because there is a reference to the assassination of the late Boudiaf which took place in 1992. Naturally, one has to build rapport and trust with interviewees before they can feel predisposed to talk about their personal lives and their feelings.

      I have not reproduced her analysis of the interview here because, she used a Western framework of analysis (not that it should be rejected simply on these grounds). I just thought it would be more interesting and relevant to us to only post the interview part and see what we as Algerians would say about it. So the point wasn’t really to accept or refute her thesis or criticize her methodology.

      • Mon commentaire Algerianna était juste en rapport avec l’article ou l’interview elle-même. Ce “discours” on l’entend à longueur de journée, rien de nouveau sous le soleil pour ma part. Mais ce qui m’a “énervé” (désolée Mnarvi :-))) ou ce qui m’énerve (toujours) c’est que ce genre d’articles ou de discours en général, est le seul médiatisé. Ailleurs surtout, et à l’époque bien sur… et ce qui m’énerve encore plus c’est l’amalgame sciemment ou inconsciemment fait entre “islamisme” (donc politique) et Islam. Toi même tu as fait une erreur sans t’en rendre compte. Il s’agit d’islamism sur le numéro de la revue et non d’Islam…. l’amalgame est sciemment entretenu par “certains” de façon à ce que le lecteur lambda, ne puisse plus faire la différence entre les deux. Et c’est ça ce qui m’énerve….
        Sinon, personnellement (je pense que j’ai déjà eu à le dire) je peux aussi me considérer parmi les “in betweens”. Je n’ai jamais été ni pour l’un, ni pour l’autre et encore moins pour le troisième et je peux dire que si je me replace dans le contexte (j’étais jeune dans les années 90 😉 je n’avais pas non plus ce discours…. mais bon bien sur que ce discours existe, et il est effectivement celui des hittistes qui pour certains sont devenus harragas aujourd’hui. Et oui à l’époque les jeunes s’achetaient des billets et pouvaient occasionnellement obtenir des visas, sinon ils partaient n’importe où (en Europe) pour ensuite se glisser (illégalement) en France, en Italie, en Espagne… le hrig en flouka n’existait pas encore….
        Et pour revenir au discours (sans focaliser sur le jeune en particulier) : il est aussi parfois celui ceux qui tiennent le mur toute la journée, se plaignent toute la journée, et boivent leur café (accompagné d’une cigarette) toute la journée de l’argent de leur soeur ou de leur mère… de quelqu’un qui n’est absolument pas prêt à faire n’importe quoi. Il n’a aucun diplome mais il veut travailler dans un bureau wella ma kach…. mais s’il va à “l’étranger”, là où il y a des “musulmans elli ma t’khess’houm ghir ech’hada” là il est prêt à tout! Même à nettoyer les toilettes (hachakoum)….

        • I understand Oumelkhir, because this discourse is quite ubiquitous, the interview itself seemed ‘realist’ enough to me and the fact that something is ubiquitous makes it even more important to reflect upon. My personal experience has shown that this discourse is not even limited to the ‘lost’ ones as typified by Abdel Haq in this interview, it encompasses all social classes of Algerian society, from the top down. Which makes it even more serious. My own remark above was just to say that we needen’t concern ourselves with the quality of her thesis as the relevant academic standards have surely been checked by the academic institution she’s affiliated to. Furthermore, I am no sociologist so.

          Anyhow, happy international women’s day to you and all Algerian women! Prepare yourself Oumelkhir for a post on feminism (oops!) this evening on this occasion LOL.

  3. 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?

    Excellente question, merci de l’avoir posée… Je me la suis déjà posée et j’ai essayé d’y répondre depuis un certain temps sans succès. Il y a des gens riches en Algérie qui s’achètent de belles voitures, de grosses baraques… mais ils souffrent du même syndrome que le plus pauvre des hittistes qui se plaint de ses conditions matérielles… Les raisons de cette sinistrose nationale méritent un examen sérieux, qui va au delà de la question purement économique.

    Ceci dit, cette interview résume assez bien l’état d’esprir général. Le triptyque inévitable de l’évasion qui s’offre aux jeunes : drogue, alcool ou prière…

    On retrouve le discours convenu sur l’islam véritable, notion fantasmée dont tout le monde est capable de dire ce qu’elle n’est pas… et personne n’est en mesure de dire précisément ce qu’elle est… En Algérie, l’islam?… il n’existe pas… les partis politiques qui veulent l’instaurer? non, non c’est pas ça…. les frères musulmans? non plus, c’est pas ça. C’est quoi alors? Ben l’islam véritable, c’est tout ce qui est bien, c’est tout… Où est-ce qu’on peut le rencontrer alors en dehors des époques historiques idéalisées et mythifiées parce que disparues? Mystère!

    • Thanks Qatkhal! You got it, one really cannot help but enquire what are we looking for? In the interview, Abdel Haq conveyed the message that he knew that Algeria doesn’t have and will never have what he is looking for but the few months he spent in Austria, crammed in a two bedroom flat with 4 other people, were enough to make him feel Europe (or the West or whatever, let’s call this psychological entity ‘Not-Algeria’), has what he is looking for. At no point and, despite the attempts of the interviewer to understand, does he really explicit what is it exactly he is looking for. Who are these ‘true’ Muslims that we don’t find anywhere else than in ‘infidels’ land? An illusive concept nobody really understands or has managed to identify. What is palpable and quite evident, however, is that it is not THIS, and nothing that could ever come from HERE. Many will tell you this idea originates from colonialist ideology, but am not so sure it is so black and white.

      • You struggle by all means for as they say ”doing your part”. You feel increasingly like coming from another planète. In other words, Betrayed. You suffer wear and tear. You lose all your dreams, and finally your last tiny and precious hope that the next generation will have a better chance vanishes the same. You lose faith because the rules are being tampered year after year, month after month then the rules become so fuzzy that anyone can strech or tighten here and there at anytime. Your physical and emotional senses are all under constant stress in every step of your way until the collapse of the last bond, the one of belonging to something bigger than anything you could imagine. The rejection process takes over and makes you do this self-amputation to save what remains of your integrity. Et voilà. I know. I answered the How but not the ”Why=What-are we looking for”. This as you could infer becomes negligeable at this point of failure I am afraid. Seriously? it remains as unfathomable as religion and politics in the Arab world.
        Thank you algerianna for the MERIP site and I’d suggest the article (link below) which gives some clues on the mindset that Arab dictators have or have devised for ruling out their citizens (are they?) from having their say on anything whatsoever.
        http://www.merip.org/mero/interventions/dramas-authoritarian-state
        Also for Oumelkheir and others interested in Palestine here is what jewry is all about. http://www.merip.org/mero/mero022312

  4. Merci pour le “women’s day” Algerianna :-)))
    A l’époque et à l’occasion, j’avais fait une chronique à la radio à contre-courant, pour demander ce que signifiait pour moi ce jour “fêté”… je l’ai publié l’année dernière sur mon blog avec quelques modifications… tu as raison, il fait partie des chroniques à reposter, merci pour le rappel 😉

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