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'Harraga': An Algerian Story Of Path Burning, Islamic Fundamentalism And Ghosts

A novel by Boualem Sansal, whose works are banned in Algeria.

26/01/2017 7:46 PM IST | Updated 05/02/2017 9:39 AM IST

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It is widely agreed that dreams and ideas are dangerous for a stable and unchallenged society. When humans recognise the possibility of something other than what is available, the cognizance of a reality other than what seems, the world begins to change. It's not uncommon to find resistance to this kind of change, especially when it comes from people in power and religious factions. Therefore, when books and films are banned, you know that someone doesn't want those stories told, and that's precisely what makes them more important.

When books and films are banned, you know that someone doesn't want those stories told, and that's precisely what makes them more important.

Banned in its home country, Algeria, Harraga written by Boualem Sansal is the story of Lamia, an unmarried woman living in Algeria, yearning to live a life that differs from the prescriptions of the government and religious fundamentalists. She does this one disobedience at a time by refusing to wear the burqa, working in a hospital, demanding answers about the whereabouts of her missing brother, talking to ghosts, and even taking in an unwed pregnant sixteen-year-old named Chérifa. Though the book blurb says that Lamia's life is changed by Chérifa's arrival, for this narrator it's hard to believe it wouldn't have been anything but bubbling and seething in her own peculiar ways.

"This is how a whirlwind sweeps into your life...There is also the premonition, the primal impulse, the subtle power of things unseen, the call of another world, the sudden longing to brave the mystery. All these things urge on more powerfully than fear holds back."

Enveloped in her solitude and buried in levels of abandonment ever since the disappearance of her childhood friend Louiza and her brother Sofiane, Lamia grudges the arrival of Chérifa, but only on the surface. She is unable to openly shower her affection on Chérifa, but ends up doing so in reprimanding ways. Lamia tries to buy Chérifa better clothes, puts her on the UNICEF African baby diet, attempts to impart cultural education in the form of books and travel, and even shares with her eclectic music from across the world. All of this only to find that one day Chérifa has disappeared from the house after resisting everything she was offered except the music, and what seems like Lamia's harsh words. From then on, in addition to looking for Sofiane, Lamia seeks help from her eccentric friends (all of whom happen to be men) to find Chérifa under the pretext that she's an unmarried pregnant girl and could be killed by anyone, anywhere. But oh, does she love Chérifa and how!

"I curled up in a corner and I waited. What else could I do? Like the film The Langoliers, with its plot about how 'time rips' affect humans, I watched, dazed and helpless, as piece by piece the world disappeared before my eyes in an apocalyptic silence. Then I reacted. I have this thing I do, something I made up for Louiza when, as girls, we were faced by the unfathomable violence of the world: whenever you're afraid of something, you squeeze your eyes tight shut and think of the opposite and everything balances out."

Lamia descends into a sadness that you could cut with a knife. She launches an elaborate cleaning ritual in her house, visits the Disappeared Association (as she calls it) to report another missing person, and watches a documentary on men fleeing the country. As she narrates this documentary to the reader, one forgets that this story is about a lonely woman watching a film to numb her waking hours. One finds oneself in the Sahara following the camera guessing the fate of those who have left homes in pursuit of a mirage. These are the Harragas (the path burners), the migrants leaving home in search of a better life, reaching out to the possibility that something else can be.

Sansal, who was dismissed from the civil service for criticising the Algerian government... openly condemns authoritarian rule, religious fundamentalism, and social inequities.

It is during this long walk to the other side that the self-referencing metaphor of the book's title to its protagonist becomes clear. Although the act of leaving and becoming a Harraga is attributed to Sofiane and Chérifa, it belongs to Lamia just as much. Lamia burns a path for those who stay behind with her resolve to look for those who have left, but also coming to terms with her refusal to allow such an existence to be bequeathed to the next generation. Incidentally, I'd imagine that the term might also apply to Sansal himself, who still lives in Algeria under considerable personal risk and voices his opinion against the corrupt Algerian establishment and Islamic fundamentalism. This very book is a shining example.

The translation by Frank Wynne is nothing short of excellent. The language is luminescent and drips of a fidelity to the character. It's hard to say what has been lost in this English rendition, but to a reader it feels authentic and robust. Whether it is Lamia's first person account or her insipid poetry (that could be done away with), is Lamia a reliable narrator? Can you trust her documentation of events? One has one's doubts. But is she a funny, sardonic woman making the most of her oppressed existence? Oh yes! She is caustic to her neighbours, disdainful towards the bearded Islamists, and sarcastic to her friends and acquaintances. Her bitterness allows room for some scepticism, but what's not to like a narrator who is a fan of Stanley Kubrick and spouts film and book references throughout?

"But you're right—why should we give a damn about religion? Why should we go around weeping and wailing? If Allah doesn't love us, too bad! We'll go with Satan. Come on, let's go into town, we'll show them, we'll have a ball, we'll eat ice cream, we'll have a laugh, we'll walk in the sunshine, we'll squander my money on fripperies and while we're at it, we'll buy some shameless clothes! And if they burn us, so what? We'll shoot straight to hell like dazzling fireworks!"

[A] searing swathe of disappointment is present across the book, but there is also a shivering undercurrent of hope that runs beneath the surface.

Sansal, who was dismissed from the civil service for criticising the Algerian government, doesn't mince his words as this book openly condemns authoritarian rule, religious fundamentalism, and social inequities. His work has been banned in Algeria since the 2006 publication of his open letter, "Poste restante: Letter of anger and hope to my compatriots". He has referenced the erstwhile multi-cultural nature of the country when Lamia narrates the various people who owned her house before she did. He has touched upon the unhinging of the social interaction and culture when the state replaces language, the most basic commodity, overnight by showing how the postman can't read any of the Arabic signs. And by telling this story from the point of view of a woman, he has encompassed the entire gamut of ills of Algeria, and in some ways, of many other countries of the world.

Although independent Algeria aspired to become a model nation for the so-called Third World by rebuilding itself after ousting its colonisers, but due to corrupt socialism, military millionaires, and Islamic fundamentalism it has morphed into an unrecognisable mess that reeks of frustration and disappointment. By allowing the integration of Imams into the circles of political power, the "Arabianisation" of schools teaching in Arabic only to send the youth into a public life dominated by French, it resulted in the unemployable youth turning to Islamic fundamentalism to counter the state and even defend themselves. What started out as identifiable issues seeping into each other have now coagulated into a complex mass of country-wide problems such that simplifying the present day condition of Algeria is not only difficult but also unfair.

"Nothing is more relative than the origin of things."

And yes, this searing swathe of disappointment is present across the book, but there is also a shivering undercurrent of hope that runs beneath the surface. Lamia's incessant courage amidst desperateness, her male friends who help her at a moment's notice, and the poignant end, which is predictable from afar, is a symbol of how humanity triumphs in spite of and despite of. As Lamia says after a defeated day,

"We are done with the world, we retreat to our refuge, we shed our coats. Somewhere deep within us, an internal clock or a guardian angel activates a switch and we settle down to dream like children."

More often than not, these path burners change the world. After they are challenged and banned, of course.

All quotes have been taken from the book Harraga, published by Bloomsbury, 2014.

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