Sonja Zekri visits Algiers, the city that's to play cultural capital of the Arab world:
June 28, 2007 -- He really must put on the play, finally. It would be liberating, he knows that. And it can't be that hard: the monologue of a barman who opens a cafe and nobody comes. He cleans the glass, hopes for one of his regulars at the very least, a musician, pours tea for him, when suddenly – very distant, very quietly – a shot. An ambulance wails sadly. The barman pours the tea down the sink; the musician is dead.
In Mohamed Ben Qitaf's play, the word "terror" doesn't fall once. And he doesn't name a single one of the artists against whom the Islamists waged war in the 90s. "I didn't want any martyrs," he says. The audience would understand it as it is.
Mohamed Ben Qitaf – scrawny, straight as an arrow, tough as leather – is the director of the National Theatre of Algiers and he wrote the play "Un Matin de Quietude", a morning of quiet, at the height of the murderous era in the mid-90s, when people in Algeria were being hacked to bits in the name of Islam. The world was dumbfounded as the Islamists of the FIS 1991 won the first round of parliamentary elections, the army canceled the second round, a cold putsch, in which the first serious democratic experiment in the Arab world was extinguished in order to rescue democracy. Algeria exploded in a ten-year civil war in which 150,000 people died. Among them were journalists, teachers, artists – and Ben Qitaf's predecessor Azzdim Medjoube, who was murdered in front of the theatre: the terrorists had waited for him in the cafe. "Algeria" was not only the shortest argument against the Islamist's demand for participation, or more generally against democracy in the Arab world in general, but also an epitaph for a desecrated cultural landscape, the likes of which had only been seen in Afghanistan.
Today, police cars are still parked outside the Stalinesque theatre and when the show is over, as people are flooding onto the streets of Marrakesh or Cairo, Algiers' boulevards are dead quiet. Someone said the people still follow the logic of terror. Ben Qitaf would never be that explicit in his staging. He has everything in his head – every gesture, every image, he would be the world's best barman – but he doesn't put it on stage. "Too much work," he says evasively. "Financial hurdles." That sounds even worse – after all, Algiers is pouring 51 million euros into the vast "Algiers- Cultural capital of the Arab world" programme this year. So what is it? A colleague intervenes: "He can't play it because he's the barman. It's his story."
His story. Today Ben Qitaf enjoys brilliant days, he's hosting a theatre festival, Shakespeare, Bradbury and Egyptian boulevard are being performed. Ensembles from ten Arab countries have come, in the evenings VIPs from Beirut and Tunis crowd onto the red carpet. Back then, only the boldest dared to go to the theatre, Ben Qitaf let them perform for empty rows. But he let them perform. "We had to show that we were there," he says. "To lift the curtain, that alone was a statement. And we did it."
Algeria's intellectuals don't force their nightmares on strangers. Offhand they mention death lists, failed attacks, decimated institutes, exile and murder. There is no public debate, no trials against security forces that human rights activists have accused of crimes, no truth commissions as in neighbouring Morocco. Creative work about this decade is minimal. The exhausted country has followed the reconciliation course of their president Abdelaziz Bouteflika who is seeking amnesty for the Islamists. The play that Ben Qitaf refuses to stage is the history of a country that is still unable to say what happened in the terror six years ago.
Then, a few weeks ago, the same fear, the same defiance, as though the obstinacy was being handed down. Mourad Rahal had immediately recognized the noises, he lives only a stone's throw from the champagne-coloured high rise where the "Al-Qaida of the Maghreb" set off its first three car bombs. An attack on the seat of the Prime Minister, on the heart of the executive, just before the elections, and then a suicide bomber – that was a first. Rahal's first reaction was: Here we go. The 90s are back. And the second: We'll play anyway. Rahal is drummer with the group "Djmawi Africa," a Gnawi band, that's just recorded its first CD in Paris. On the evening of that fatal April 11, they were supposed to perform. And they did just that. "It was an act of resistance," says Rahal. "The message was: we are young, we are there and we won't allow ourselves to be silenced."
Djmawi Africa plays Gnawi, and Gnawi is the last big thing. Actually, Gnawi is very old, it's the desert blues. Slaves from Guinea and Sudan who had been hauled North by the Arabs, sang it and the clanging of the chains still continues with the "Karkabu", the enormous castanets. The singer twiddles on a camel skin box, the Gumbri, there are biomorphic rattles from Brazil and a clarinet - Gnawi is a brew of swinging African rhythms, Reggae and Blues lines and it's as captivating as the stamping of a herd of camels. "We are Algerian, African and the Arab-Islamic culture belings to us but our music should show that there's a world out there with Jazz, Rock-n-Roll," the musicians say.....
+ Reply to Thread
Results 1 to 2 of 2
Thread: Alger la Blanche
29th June 2007 04:19 #1Super Moderator
- Join Date
- Jan 2006
Alger la Blanche
29th June 2007 04:20 #2Super Moderator
- Join Date
- Jan 2006
This is brave, as the rest of the country – the telephone-book thick programme of "Algiers, Capital of Arab Culture" included - is concentrating on Arabic. There are European sprinklings, even Flamenco, but the Algerian Berber culture only surfaces as though by accident. Minister of Culture Khalida Toumi considers this evidence of successful integration: "Should we create ethnic ghettos for the Berbers? That would be racism!"
The Arab League imported the concept from Europe but Algiers is not Graz. Europe's cultural capitals hope for visitors – is Algiers ready for tourists? Khalida Toumi's voice sounds like vitriol. "We're coming out of a war, madam. We lived through ten years of 9/11 and nobody offered their condolences. May we first get over our trauma, please?" Their goals: first, to tempt the frightened people back into theatres and concerts and second, to show the world to which they once turned their backs that "they are people like everyone else."
And yes, the programme is a powerful statement. An art historian is visibly moved as he speaks of a cultural "renaissance". The theatre festival is part of it, as is the Djmawi-Africa performance and heavy metal shows. 1,000 books are to be published (300 have been already) 45 plays are to be staged, 40 exhibitions designed, 60 films shot and two new museums opened: one for calligraphy, one for modern art.
Algeria is rich. It sold oil and gas at such prices that it has 59 billion euros in foreign currency. But Algeria is also nervous. Almost every day, the newspapers report of terrorist attacks and in the mountains of the Kabyls, the military is hiding behind sand bags. The business consultant Arslan Chikhaoui speaks of a "PR thing" - that Algeria is only staging stability with this spectacle. "They have to prove that Algeria is more or less safe."
And yet, there are wonderful discoveries. The Museum of Beaux-Arts, which sits high over the bay in an aromatic garden, show the psychedelic idyll of the Algerian artist Baya, exotic birds and dancing women - Arabia felix. Next door, Antoine Bourdelle's naked Hercules stretches heavenward; paintings by Degas and Renoir hang in the upper stories. It's a colourful collision of Arabic and European art of a kind that has become rare in Algeria.
But, even the Minister doesn't know how many Algerians will be motivated by the programme.
When Khaled, the King of Rai, is flown in from France for one of his rare concerts, he could have filled the hall several times over, but in the empty Baya exhibition, one could have played Frisbee. Many people say that the planning is horribly spontaneous and the information flow a trickle and the minister, surprisingly, doesn't deny it. Boualem Sansal, one of the country's most radical thinkers, didn't expect anything else: "This is strictly a party by the government, for the government," he says. A party without him. "Le serment des barbares," his detective novel about the time of terror, was not included in the literature programme; too dark, too dreary. And his migration novel "Harraga" was taken off the programme because he wrote an essay against the government.
The good thing about a distrust of the state is that it gives rise to fantastic private initiatives. A young woman founded a magazine for youth, Algeria's first, called "D-full" with her winnings from a television show. In the steep alleyways of the Kasbah, where the GIA terrorists used to hide, a lawyer financed the authentic restoration of a house, down to the last glazed tile. Now he dreams of the Kasbah as a cultural quarter with art, concerts and museums. Daho Djerbal publishes the sociological magazine "Naqd", critique, in which the accusations being made by Algerian society are investigated. He wouldn't take any money from the state, even if the minister laid a pile of it on the floor next to the dead cockroach. This country is illegitimate, controlled by the army, election turn-out is ridiculous. "We need a new social contract, new leaders for a new generation."
Algeria is both addicted to its future and getting old fast. Three quarters of the population are under 30 but the geriatric elites, living off the legends of the murderous war of independence against France, don't yield a millimeter. "First comes Monsieur X, then Monsieur Y and then Monsieur X again," jokes the economist Chikhaoui. In the apartment buildings of the Bab el Oued ghetto, fury spreads like a fungus – and like the attraction of religion. It's a quiet return, a silent triumph: the Islamicists – moderate, non-violent, tame – sit in the government, they have succeeded in enforcing that even private schools can no longer teach in French. Chikhaoui reports that they have even succeeded in winning over their arch enemies – teachers and intellectuals – with promises of what will come after the victory: "They are sure that they will win. And they have time. If you ask me: they are more dangerous than terrorism."
Lalaoui Belmokhi – grey suit, grey beard, pilot glasses – would vehemently disagree. Until recently, he was faction leader of the Islamist Ennahda Party and he supports the cultural capital program, he has no problem with jazz or Picasso. But those are details; you have to keep your eye on the bigger picture. And it looks like this: Islamic values are lurking deep in society and these must be nurtured so that Algeria finally finds the consensus and peace that it longs for. But the intellectuals, says Monsieur Belmokhi, don't long for their values, they fear for them. Yes, he says in a patronising tone, the intellectuals should do a sociological study and ask whether they stand within or outside of society. "Intellectuals have failed as role models. What good is an intellectual if he doesn't represent his society?" He doesn't say what's to be done with those who stand outside society.
Alger la Blanche, Algiers the white, surges from the hill above the ocean like spume, Algiers leaves its visitors to squint. Bearded Islamists in pajama-look shuffle along elegant boulevards and in the internet cafe "Cyber Casbah," young men watch hard core pornos. Women – some fully veiled, others in tank-tops – eat gooey pizzas alongside one another at fast food stands. The fight for the future is waged daily. A young Algerian yells with bold pathos: "It's not yet decided."