To speak or not to speak, that is the question

Translated by Frank Wynne

The laws in Algeria, ever since the country gained Independence in 1962, are all – how can I put it? – a stirring hymn to freedom of expression.

So much for the written word. The reality is very different.

Ben Bella, known as B.B. the Bomb, the first president of Algeria, gifted the country with a magnificent constitution, but at a personal level he could not bear criticism nor even the notion that others might think differently from him. He set up a secret militia, rather like Papa Doc Duvalier’s ‘Tonton Macoute’, whom the general public referred to as the Bouchkaras [1] because they operated by night wearing black balaclavas and in short order, they cleansed the country of his critics. They were never seen again. Under Ben Bella’s rule, to speak was the principal reason for disappearances.

In 1965, Colonel Boumediene, head of the military, known as Boum the Terror, seized power and held on to it until his death in 1978. The man was a cold-blooded dictator, he tortured and killed with no qualms, the way a surgeon might operate in a clinic. He founded the S.M. – the Sécurité Militaire [2] – a sort of sprawling, all-powerful KGB, which the general public referred to as Sports & Music.

He was succeeded by another colonel, Chadli Bendjedid, popularly known as Jeff Chandler, since he looked just like the actor. He was an easy-going fellow and allowed himself to be persuaded that some limited freedom had to be offered to the populace to lift the country out of the abject misery caused about by the dictatorship. But by now the people were too accustomed to silence to suddenly begin speaking, they feared the return of the authoritarianism. The Islamists, however, took full advantage and the mosques became hives of activity where everything was discussed, especially jihad against the infidels. The decent, upstanding president took fright and switched off the microphones. The apparatchiks of the F.L.N., the only political party, popularly know as the Barbéfélènes [3] because they wore beards in order to exploit the Islamists, and suits  to dupe the laity, sprang into action. They were very efficient; in the blink of an eye, the prisons were full to bursting.

There followed a civil war (1990-2000), during which there were two presidents, Boudiaf [4] and Zeroual. The former was assassinated six months after being enthroned, the other was ousted before the end of his term. These two were sincere, they believed that freedom was useful. They were shown the error of their ways.

In 2000, the new president, Monsieur Bouteflika, having been called home by the army and forgetting about democracy about which he had made such stirring speeches in Parisian salons, offered an amnesty to the terrorists.  Since then, the military, the oligarchs, the brothers of the president and the amnestied have been working together and earning large sums of money which they invest in London, Paris and Madrid, their preferred tax havens. Under Bouteflika’s rule, freedom of expression has withered as never before. The man governs like Putin, he does not imprison his critics, he does not torture or kill them, instead he creates a vacuum around them, and allows them to scream their hearts out. It is a painful and traumatic exercise, and the offenders eventually begin to think: better to be silent among people than to talk to oneself in the wilderness. Or they die in exile. Or perhaps they write eloquent novels, but its makes no difference; no-one in this country reads anymore.

This, in summary, is the entire history of freedom of expression in Algeria.

[1] bouchkara (from the Arabic meaning “the man with the bag”)  means a police informant or a plain-clothes policeman. They were so called because those abducted and tortured had a bag placed over their heads.

[2] rampant police surveillance by the powerful Sécurité militaire, or Military Security

[3] a portmanteau word from the French barbe (beard) and F.L.N.

[4] Mohamed Boudiaf (1919–1992), one of the founders of the F.L.N.  he was assassinated by one of his bodyguards shortly after becoming president.

Boualem Sansal is in the UK to launch the English translation of his book Harraga, winner of an English PEN award.

You can buy Harraga through our bookseller partner Foyles.

You can find also out more about Harraga.

Boualem will be appearing at the following events this November:

Wed 5 November, 18.30-19.30  

Bristol Festival of Ideas

Foyles, 6 Quakers Friars, Cabot Circus, Bristol, BS1 3BU

Sarah LeFanu will interview Boualem, with Frank Wynne interpreting.

Thursday 6 November, 19.00    

Kings Place, London

Boualem will appear with Frank Wynne. This will be chaired by Boyd Tonkin, Senior Writer, The Independent.