Readers are likely familiar with the self-immolations among Algerians (and others in the region) this year. The following is a translation of Algerian journalist and author Kamel Daoud’s 9 October, 2011 column. Translator and TMND reader Suzanne Ruta provides the introduction and translation from French below.
Kamel Daoud is an award winning Algerian author and journalist. He writes a popular column in the daily Le Quotidien d’Oran raina raikoum (my opinion, your opinion). His retelling of Camus’ The Stranger from the point of view of the surviving brother of the unnamed Arab shot at midday on an Oran beach, will be published next year in France and Algeria, under the title Le Contre-Meursault.
In early October, in Oran, a thirty year old single mother of two set herself on fire when she faced eviction from her apartment. The policeman who tried to save her and the woman herself died of injuries sustained. Her three year old son was badly burned. The same week, also in Oran, a nineteen year old set himself on fire in the courtyard of the lycee where he was denied the right to enroll for makeup classes.
There have been dozens of suicides and attempted suicides by fire in Algeria in the last year. In Tunisia, one man’s desperate act sparked a revolution. In Algeria the situation is decidedly different, for reasons Daoud analyzes in his daily column with tragic clarity, concluding, ‘Suicide may often be a crime of the group against the individual.’
An Algerian’s body is hemmed in on all sides. It’s accused of being a source of sin, a national encumbrance, of gumming up official statistics and speeches, of being always underfoot and useless. The body elicits self hatred and frowns, over the high cost of maintenance, or vanity if it’s plump and well nourished, curvaceous and attractive, or discretion if it’s the body of a woman. The body is unhealthy, out of shape, ill kempt, neither amusing nor amused, incapable of joy or catching the beat of the world’s rhythms. It doesn’t dance. The body is the first to be beaten or slighted, when couples feud, or in street demonstrations. It is the locus of all the so-called social ills. A finite space claimed by an infinite number. And everyone has an opinion about other peoples’ bodies.
But it is also the one place where an Algerian is at home. Without adequate housing, leisure activities, unveiled beaches, the right to nudism and bodybuilding written into law, as with the ancient Greeks, lacking a country where justice prevails, without access to the fresh air of forests, or picnic areas or green spaces, the Algerian feels at home only in his body. And then only halfway. The other half of the body is ruled by religious prohibitions, fatwas, inquisitions, and the workings of the marriage market. Easy to see why when an Algerian fights, he hurls his body into the fray, wholly and completely, as if he held it in one hand. It’s his entire fortune.
When everything goes wrong, when an Algerian feels sickened, betrayed, confronted with injustice or violence or sheer absurdity, he turns against his own body. He may not have any friends but he always has an enemy within easy reach: his body. So he burns, self immolates, adds fuel to his fire, till he’s consumed and carbonized. Self-immolation is a national institution, that has spread well beyond Oran. We all know of at least one case. Chose the date, strike the match, set the thermostat and the deed is done.
When an Algerian is stymied, when he feels offended and punished, he punishes himself. Since there is no other institution to mediate between him and his enemy, there remains only one institution he can lay his hands on: his body. So he sets it on fire. And in so doing burns history and geography as well. You solve the problem by eliminating the problem. You attack the only person you know can’t fight back: yourself. Lacking weapons or ideas that might lead you to kill others, you kill yourself. You obtain justice by committing an injustice against yourself. You accuse all the living of your death. Suicide is often a crime committed by the group against the individual.
Self-immolation is our institution of last resort. Because there is no justice, no honestly elected representatives, no civil society, no good will, no deeply held convictions, no mediation, compassion or understanding, no room for public debate, no listening room, or because ones rights have been denied, even ones right to ill gotten gain, you grab the first passerby – ie yourself – and kill him. There’s no escaping it. An Algerian’s body is hemmed in on all sides. Everyone has a grudge against it. Islamists, imams, religious conservatives, womanizers, neurotics, historians, war of liberation martyrs who no longer have bodies, old age, wear and tear, the sea, floods, next door neighbors and even, last but not least, the owner of the body himself.
– 9 October, 2011
Translated by Suzanne Ruta.
About the translator: Suzanne Ruta (firstname.lastname@example.org), author of the novel To Algeria, with Love (Virago UK 2011) to be published in Italy by Einaudi in 2012 under its original title La Repubblica di Wally.