In Algeria, Veiled From the World, Past and Future Are Shrouded, Too

ORAN, Algeria — This handsome but neglected port city “turns its back on the bay,” as Albert Camus wrote in his novel “The Plague.” Living in Oran, he found that “it’s impossible to see the sea, you always have to go look for it.”

That is not a bad metaphor for Algeria itself, a country turned away from the world, cloaked in an opacity so dense as to be numbing. It has long sealed its border with Morocco, and only recently reopened crossings into Tunisia after more than two years. It keeps trade with neighbors to a minimum, and its political powers veiled.

One place the Mediterranean is visible is from the Fort of Santa Cruz, atop one of the hills that ring Oran. Cargo ships anchored in the bay point their long prows at the open sea, whose azure waters contrast with expanses of arid land. A sign in French on the fort’s stone wall says: “Built in the 16th century by the Spanish Army. Restored between 1851 and 1860 by French military engineers.”

More than a century of French rule ended 60 years ago, after a savage war that left half a million dead by French estimates. The Algerian estimate is one million higher. That’s a big discrepancy. The two countries, scarred and still entangled in an uneasy relationship, agree on very little.

President Emmanuel Macron of France visited recently in an attempt to lay to rest some of the trauma of colonialism and separation. I stayed on in Oran for a couple of days, all that my visa would allow, and found myself isolated as a foreigner in Oran, a city of 1.5 million people.

For the ossified politico-military establishment that runs Algeria, tourism and foreign investment are suspect, as are theaters, cinemas or book stores. This is a land of absences, of immense potential denied. It is a country hunched in suspicion of the outsider, as if it were still at war.

“Young people want to go because this is a sad country,” the author Kamel Daoud, who met with Mr. Macron during his visit, told me. “It’s a boring country. There’s no liberty or leisure.”

Money from vast reserves of natural gas and oil flows to the oligarchy, who often funnel it into property in France. Algeria’s people, worn down, have learned to shrug. You ask someone about politics and the usual response is: We are small, we don’t know.

“Le Pouvoir,” or “The Power,” as it is called, is an authority so faceless that former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who had suffered a severe stroke, did not appear in public for many years.

“We were ruled by a portrait,” said Munir Remichi, a driver.

In 2019, a national protest movement known as the Hirak prompted the military to oust Mr. Bouteflika, but hopes of change quickly faded. The regime, momentarily shaken, quashed the uprising, and Abdelmadjid Tebboune, a longstanding member of the political establishment, became the president, though the consensus is that real power lies elsewhere. Algeria subsided back into its customary immobility.

I wandered down to the sea and found a fish restaurant. Oran, where Arab, Ottoman, Spanish and French history mingle, retains something of the louche ambience for which it was once renowned. The rhythms, drumbeat and wailing vocals of Rai, the music of protest that developed in 1920s Oran (then known as “little Paris”) blared from speakers.

The fried squid was delicious. I got to talking with two Algerians working at the restaurant while my taxi driver, as I later discovered, fended off inquiries from the secret police.

“Here, there is nothing,” said Mohammed Raouf Mekhilef, 37, who is married and has two children. “It’s all for them, not for us.”

“I can’t even buy a bicycle,” he added.

“All I want to do is make my way but there is no chance here,” said Djihane, 22, as she worked at the cash register. She declined to give her full name.

“If you can get us out of here, we will come immediately. We won’t even go home to collect anything,” she said.

They earn about $400 a month, working six 12-hour days per week.

Getting a French visa is almost impossible, absent some unusual qualification for a particular job. That leaves the treacherous illegal routes that, since 2014, have caused more than 17,000 deaths in the Mediterranean of people attempting to cross from North Africa, according to the International Organization for Migration.

Nearly all of Algeria’s “pieds noirs,” descendants of European settlers, emigrated generations ago, seen here as unwelcome remnants of colonial oppression. Oran’s most famous former resident, Camus, a Nobel Prize-winning writer, moved away years before his death in 1960, though Algeria always haunted him.

“There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and war take people equally by surprise,” Camus observed in “The Plague.” Even now, events are proving him right.

My trip was, in part, a Camus pilgrimage to the city “humped snail-wise on its plateau.” But in today’s Oran, on the palm-lined avenues and garbage-strewn alleys, there is no trace of him.

“If you are passionate about Camus, Oran is like Jerusalem, a sacred city,” said Mr. Daoud, the writer. “But Camus does not exist in Algerian memory, he has been effaced. We are a binary country. Either you are for the revolution, the war of independence, or you are against. Anyone in the middle is deleted.”

Mr. Daoud wrote a novel, “The Meursault Investigation,” that takes Camus’s “The Stranger” — or more precisely, the “majestically nonchalant” murder of an Arab at the heart of it — and turns that Arab into a human being rather than the voiceless, nameless object of a “philosophical crime” by a Frenchman called Meursault.

By inverting the perspective, Mr. Daoud shifts the focus from the absurdity of Meursault’s act in the giddying sunlight to the blindness of the colonial mind-set.

In an essay called “Algeria 1958,” Camus denounced “colonialism and its abuses.” He criticized the “repeated lie” of promised assimilation of the Arab population, the “contempt” of French people for Arabs, and the gross injustices inflicted on them.

“A striking reparation must be made to the Algerian people that restores to them dignity and justice,” he wrote.

At the same time, in the light of hundreds of years of Ottoman, Spanish and French dominion, he suggested that “one must recognize that for Algeria, national independence is nothing more than a passionate formula. There has never yet been an Algerian nation. Jews, Turks, Greeks, Italians, Berbers would have as much right to claim the direction of this virtual nation.”

It was Mr. Macron’s evident embrace of Camus’ formula, when he asked last year whether “there really was an Algerian nation before French colonization,” that brought relations to the nadir that he sought to overcome during his visit.

The war of independence was about nationhood and freedom. But freedom has been denied Algerians. Thirty years ago, the ruling junta nullified the country’s first contested legislative elections rather than let an Islamist party take power, then jailed the party’s leaders and activists. That led to a civil war between the military and jihadists that took an estimated 100,000 lives.

Younger Algerians, who form part of the vast flow of migrants trying to reach Europe from Africa, were given a painful choice, Mr. Daoud suggested: to embrace either the martyrs of the independence war or the paradise promised by Islamists.

“And you want to live, kiss, drink a beer, not be a veteran hating France or a religious fanatic hating the world,” he said.

On the 260-mile journey back to Algiers from Oran, there were six police or military checkpoints. My car was stopped because of its tinted windows, which are illegal. Only after a long negotiation were we allowed to proceed.

The Algerian authorities want to see in. They do not want to be seen; and they do not want to see out.

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