Saturday, November 12, 2011

Kamel Daoud, Raina Raikoum & Merzak Allouache: Harraga/s

Kamel Daoud is a celebrated columnist for Le Quotidien d'Oran, a daily paper from Oran (Arabic, Wahran), Algeria. His column is called "Raina Raikoum," which translates literally as Our Opinion, Your Opinion, but it also of course resonates with the famous genre of music that originates in Oran, rai, as well as with the naem of the well-known rai group Raïna Raï, founded in Paris in 1980.

In April, Berfrois published English translations of several of his columns. I particularly liked his column about harragas, (from حراقة), the name for North Africans who migrate to Europe illegally, by boat. Harraga (in Algerian colloquial) means, literally, those who burn, and it refers to the symbolic act committed by many of these migrants, who burn their papers before they depart, so that it will be difficult for the receiving countries in Europe to repatriate them. It is a quite remarkable act, as it means, in a quite literal way, the destruction of one's "identity" before departure. It is also remarkable, given how essential one's papers are in everyday life in Algeria.

Here's the translation (by Suzanne Ruta), from Le Quotidien d’Oran, October, 2010:

Our harraga don’t leave the country because they are poor or jobless or can’t find a storefront to rent, even if that’s what they say. They leave because here, in this country, their lives are pointless, there’s no room to dream, and worst of all, there’s no fun, no laughter, no kissing, and no color. Men grow old before their time. It’s simple really. If you want an expert on emigration to understand the harraga, take him, empty his pockets, take away his cell phone, his address book, his salary, give him a pair of plastic sandals and two cents, an empty village and ask him does he get the point and by the end of two months he’ll say Yes. Because although rumor has it that Algeria is made up of cities, observation tells us it is made up primarily of villages and that in these villages – you have to see it to understand it – the boredom is unrelenting, unbelievable, unbearable, and inhuman. You have to be there to see the visceral nothingness, a boredom with no exit, an idleness that chills even the reproductive instinct… There’s nothing to look forward to but the post office at the end of the month and the mosque the rest of the time and the dull routine of burials and water trucks and brief, restless, unhappy marriages and the ailments of old age. Nothing youthful, nothing Technicolor, no joy, no enthusiasm. And this is the most simple, obvious and overlooked explanation for the harraga: the lack of leisure, not only in the childish sense of entertainment, but in the broadest, anthropological, anciently human meaning of the term.

In the villages, whose total square footage exceeds that of Algeria itself, no one has any fun… There are no swimming pools, no guitar music, no parties, and no winning soccer matches that are not controlled by hostile police. The mayors are glum and voracious, the mosques offer an inadequate response to the call of life, the roads are potholed, power outages are frequent, suicidal violence is latent. It’s only in the internet cafes that you sometimes see faces aglow with reflected light and get an inkling of another world that exists elsewhere. Otherwise there’s only sadness, ennui, the void. The same void that drove the younger generation to grow their beards and take up arms, today sends them to sea…ready to leave a country where even the president never smiles and is always angry about something.

I attended a conference last week at Georgetown University (Porous Nations? Migrants, Transnationals and Illegals in the Cinemas of Maghreb, Quebec and France) and heard a very interesting talk by Hakim Abder-razzak (University of Minnesota), entitled '"To Sea” or “Not To Sea”: North African Clandestine Crossings in the Mediterranean.' He stated that in contemporary Maghrebi cinema, the beach no longer functions as a space of leisure but instead, as a place that Maghrebis go to in order to look at and to imagine a different future, in another place, across the sea. He stated that, according to a recent study, 72% of Moroccans dream of expatriating. (So much for the happy kingdom.)

In addition, Abder-razzak discussed three films that deal with clandestine migration. Visa, a 30 minute Tunisian film, can be viewed (only!) on youtube. (Here's a link to part one; the other two parts can be easily found.) L'enfant endormi (2004, Morocco) deals with the women, and the fetuses, left behind.

Harragas (2009) is from the acclaimed Algerian director (Omar Gatlato, Bab El Oued City), Merzak Allouache. I have not yet watched it, but I am very keen to. As of this writing, you can view it here, online. With English subtitles, amazingly enough. Or you could purchase it through From Abder-razzak's description, it sounded well worth a look. According to Abder-razzak, however, the film is somewhat inauthentic, in that, due to the funding sources, there is a lot more French dialogue than there would be in normal, everyday life.


ArabLing said...

There is a very good post on the phenomenon and the film harragas by Yves Gonzalez-Quijano (in French) here:

I translated this to German here: (with a succinct summary of your post)

(btw: the title of the Moroccan film you mention is l'enfant endormi)

Best, keep writing, Guido

Ted Swedenburg said...

Thanks so much for the reference, I love Yve's blog and I don't consult it enough. And thanks for translating! And, finally, thanks for the correction, I'm changing the text now.