I’m writing this on a plane, at the end of a four-day visit to Algiers… In Algiers I was participating in a big international Colloquium on the Arab Spring organized in conjunction with the ‘Salon Internationale du Livre d’Alger’ (SILA– the Algiers Book Fair.) It was really interesting to return to Algeria. I hadn’t been there since 1989; in the interim, the country passed through a truly terrible, lengthy civil war that lasted throughout most of the 1990s and was laced with repeated atrocities, committed by both sides: both the very secular government and the ferocious Islamist opposition. In 1998, at the end of what Algerians today refer to as “the Black Decade”, the government finally won.
On Friday morning, participants in the Colloquium were taken on a tour of the city’s historic Casbah, the labrynthine, historic area of four- and five-story dwellings that clings to a steep hillside in the center of the capital city. Yes, we walked right by the (under-reconstruction) house in which famed national-liberation activist “Ali La Pointe” was entombed along with two other militants, when the French colonial powers blew up the house during the national liberation war, as memorialized in “The Battle of Algiers”. And that night we dined with Madame Zohra Bitat, one of the liberation heroines who figured in the war (and in the movie), who is now Vice-President of the country’s Senate…
When we toured the Casbah our guide told us that for several years up until 1998, the country’s security forces were unable to go into it, so strongly did the Islamists control it. That’s how grave and present the threat was, that the regime felt itself under.
It is notable to me, during the present Arab Spring, that the Arab countries that have experienced grave internal conflict in the past 15 years have not witnessed the kind of mass pro-democracy movements that marked the Arab Spring. We didn’t discuss that phenomenon very much during the colloquium. But we did have a very rich discussion of, in particular, developments in Egypt and Tunisia. There were some excellent analysts– and analyst-participants– from those countries, from several other Arab countries, from the U.K., U.S., Turkey, etc., who also participated. I believe the organizers are hoping to publish some kind of a ‘proceedings’ volume from the gathering. (At which point, you can read the presentation I gave on the reactions of the Anglo-Saxon media to the Arab Spring. A shortened version is here.)
I confess, though, that I missed several large portions of the colloquium– including the opening statements made by the chicly pantsuited and energetic Minister of Culture, Khalida Toumi, and by the famous former Algerian foreign minister, and more recently, prominent U.N. diplomat/team-leader, Lakhdar Librahimi. I only arrived on the second day; and then on Saturday, I spent much of the day at the Book Fair itself– in my role as the owner of Just World Books!
What an amazing event the book fair was! It was set up in half a dozen truly enormous, air-conditioned marquees that had been erected on the grounds of the city’s main sports stadium. There were no fewer than 430 exhibitors– about one third of them Algerian publishers; probably more than one third coming from other Arab countries, especially Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria; a strong showing from the big French publishers Hachette and Gallimard; and the rest coming from numerous other countries, mainly in Europe.
Saturday was the last day of the Fair; and I had been warned that there would be huge crowds. Indeed there were. As we drove close to the stadium area, traffic ground to a halt; and along a pathway that was parallel to the road, a thick stream of pedestrians were making their way both to and from the fairground. Those leaving it were weighed down with heavy-looking plastic bags containing their purchases. My driver explained that the prices of books at the Fair were noticeably lower than in the regular bookstores, so people would stock up on reading matter for as much of the year ahead as they could. Plus, of course, they could get hold of all these great titles being offered by non-Algerian publishers.
So what does the Algerian reading public look like? There were people of all ages, including a significant proportion of families, who were clearly making a nice outing there. (The fair also had several large tents offering food; and there was a generally festive atmosphere in the whole area– though it was guarded by a noticeable deployment of security people, and all our bags were searched as we went into the exhibition area itself.) I would say probably more than half of the adult women were wearing some form of headscarf. A small number were wearing face-coverings as well. Among the men, maybe 20-30% sported the big bushy beard, white skullcap, and mid-shin djallaba of the salafi fundamentalist. The deal the government seemed to have made with the country’s once-violent Islamists was that they could continue to practice such aspects of their faith as adhering to its dress-code– provided they do nothing at all in the way of political organizing. The dress-code, of course, makes these men easily recognizable by the security forces. And meanwhile, the regime maintains a fairly evident campaign of pro-secularist propaganda. With some effect, I think. In the secular parts of Algiers society, relations between the sexes are much more liberal than in, say, Egypt, Jordan, or most parts of Palestine. These Algerians routinely exchange repeated, French-style air-kisses when meeting friends, or even barely known acquaintances, of the other gender– something that you almost never see in public in Cairo, Hebron, or Amman.
What I didn’t see much of in Algiers, either at the book fair or elsewhere in the city, were men wearing the short-clipped beards and conservative, western-style business attire of the Muslim Brothers; and our Algerian friends confirmed that there is almost no presence of any Brotherhood-like organization in the country. The country’s president, Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika– a historic, liberation-era figure, but now reportedly in poor health– and the military forces who are the power behind his throne have apparently made some attempts to foster the emergence of some form of “moderate, democratic, Islamist movement” in the country, along the lines of Turkey’s extremely successful ruling AK Party. But those efforts seem to have borne little fruit. One small, moderate-Islamist tendency is represented in the present government, but people say they have little following nationwide. The political gulf between the secularists and the currently unrepresented salafis appears wide. But at the social level, there probably does exist some form of a (possibly non-political) moderate-Islamist current in the country– as represented in all those families I saw at the book fair and elsewhere where the women were wearing headscarves and the men were wearing just regular, casual, western-style garb. Also, as a side-note, in Algiers as elsewhere in the Arab world, women and teenage girls can often be seen in happily coexisting “mixed” friendship (or even family) groups, in which women or girls with headscarves mix, talk, and joke very easily with those who don’t wear them.
So anyway, back at the book fair… First of all, it seemed like a huge undertaking– and one that the government had evidently invested a lot in, seeing it as a strong demonstration both of its dedication to culture in general, and of the fact that the country is now a safe and cautiously “happening” place to be.
This year’s fair was described as the 16th. I don’t know whether they held fairs during the ‘Black Decade’, or what the scale of the fair has been in recent years. But this year, certainly, the government was making a big deal of it. The fair itself was open, running at full blast, for ten full days. Our colloquium ran for five days, down at the National Library, near the sea front. (And the two dozen or so participants were all generously hosted in the fabulous Hotel Djazair, perched on an airy hilltop overlooking the Bay of Algiers. Not cheap.) In addition, up at the fairgrounds themselves, there were two other big, and more strictly literary, programs organized in conjunction with the fair: a whole series of author events, including one with Breyten Breytenbach, which I’m really sorry I missed, and a special conference organized on the theme of African literatures.
I spent quite a long while on Saturday, wandering around the interior of the fair. Many exhibitors were doing great business there. At times, the wide pathways between the large stalls became almost completely jammed with people, though nearly everyone was very good-natured. There were a good number of stalls selling mainly religious books– mainly from Egypt, but also some from Saudi Arabia. Those were crowded with salafi young men. (The Algerian media had reported that the government had banned a further 400 salafi-oriented titles…) But there were also plenty of stalls selling a wide range of other kinds of literature– fiction in Arabic and French, beautiful glossy picture books, including many recently published in Algeria, textbooks galore– for students of all ages, and lots of non-fiction, including on the history of the Arab world and current international affairs. But just about all of these offerings were in French or Arabic.
When the organizers invited me to the colloquium, I told them I would like to participate in the fair as a publisher, too. By that time, it was far too late to arrange formal registration and participation. But the person heading the whole venture of the fair, Mr. Smain Amziane, kindly said I could display my books in the booth/stall of the company he heads, Editions Casbah. As it turned out, it wasn’t easy for me even to do that, since our colloquium and hotel were both so distant, and traffic in the roads that snake up and down the city’s numerous steep and interlinking hills was so horrendous. But when I was at the fair Saturday, the managers at the Editions Casbah stall finally set up a table for me at one end of their space. I set out my books and a wad of JWB’s brochures, and I sat there for a good 90 minutes introducing my company and its books to the interested public… Well, I was one of only a miniscule number of English-language publishers there. I had done no advance publicity for the appearance. And I wasn’t even selling books, but only showing them! But I did the best I could– generally in French, but also sometimes in my distinctly non-Algerian Arabic– to talk up our books. Laila El-Haddad’s Gaza Mom and Rami Zurayk’s War Diary attracted the most attention. It was a huge amount of fun. Someone even came up and conducted an interview with me, for a newspaper in the western city of Oran. (I can’t even remember whether I conducted that one in French or Arabic. On Sunday, I did a radio interview in Arabic for Radio Algeria International. I was extremely tired at the time, and I think if I ever heard it on the air I would be extremely embarrassed at all my mistakes… Oh dear…)
Anyway, later on Saturday, I had an excellent, short meeting with Mr. Amziane’s sister Anissa, who works for him in his publishing house… I very much hope they will buy Arabic and/or French rights to a number of JWB titles. Let’s see!
Editions Casbah looks like a very serious and wide-ranging publisher. Later in the evening on Saturday, they had a ‘meet the author’ event for a brilliant Algerian cartoonist called Dilem, whose scathing political cartoons appear in the daily ‘Liberation’. I didn’t exactly get to meet him– there was a huge long line of people trying to get to him! But one of our Algerian friends kindly got him to sign a copy for Bill the spouse and me, and Dilem penned a funny little portrait of himself alongside the signature.
I should perhaps reveal at this point that Bill the spouse is one of the very few Americans who know anything at all about Algerian politics, since he’s written a couple of excellent books on the subject, e.g. this one. So much of what (and who) I know in and about the country, I know because of him. Anyway, one of the things he has explained about Algeria’s current situation is that though political life is still very highly circumscribed– especially since the attempt the leadership made from 1989 on to open the system up to multi-party participation led to the eruption of the civil war soon thereafter– for a number of years now the press has been remarkably open and freewheeling. In Egypt under Mubarak, Tunisia under Ben Ali, or just about any other Arab country today except Lebanon, the ways that Dilem, for example, represents and pokes fun at his country’s leaders would never be allowed…