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Living in squalor

Algiers' plague

Urban change
Climat de France, one of Algiers’ many overcrowded housing complexes.

In this, the last weekend of March 2011, the Climat de France district, overlooking edgy Bab El Oued, is calm. Mingling with the beautiful light architect Fernand Pouillon sought to capture in his buildings — all pillars and arches, built in 1954 — the stench of burnt tires and tear gas lingers still.

It was in one of these old buildings, the “Deux-Cent Colonnes”, that Omar Gatlato’s story unfolded, in the first real comedy of Algerian cinema. Already in 1976, the film depicted the boredom, despair and anger of Algeria’s youth. Omar Gatlato has since grown old, his house fallen into ruins. The current residents are too mired in the ugliness of their city to indulge in nostalgia or contemplation. Anger reigns here and everywhere; you can see its scars. On March 23, riots start to draw people against arrogant officials, coming to destroy what they considered illegal constructions. The residents of Climat de France, like those in other areas of the Algerian capital, can wait no longer for decent housing.

The residents of Climat de France, like those in other areas of the Algerian capital, can wait no longer for decent housing.

Too many families in too small apartments have tinkered with their makeshift homes in an attempt to accommodate the overflow of their offspring. Faced with demolition equipment and dozens of police officers dispatched to the scene Tuesday morning, residents have brandished similarly makeshift weapons: stones, bottles, iron bars.

The clashes left 22 injured, including 21 policemen, according to a report prepared by the civil defense. At least one protester was injured, a boy of 16 who “received a rubber bullet in the eye.” The police “used blank bullets, rubber bullets, [and] tear gas against demonstrators,” we are told. As in Diar Echams or Diar Al Mahcoul, the people of Climat de France have refused to accept this provocation of the public authorities — authorities who have claimed themselves incapable of relocating families, while proving just how willing they are to dispense huge resources for the demolition of shacks built out of desperation. The excuses offered, such as a shortage of land or funding, are so unconvincing as to be universally rejected, given the state’s record of bending over backward to accommodate its more wealthy patrons. Perhaps the greatest provocation was a government decree approving the construction of a new State Residence in Algiers’ western suburbs — an expansion of a different residence of the same type, the famous Club des Pins (Official Gazette No. 15). This, while the residents of Climat de France were struggling to prevent the destruction of their meagre homes.

They are designated as zones of exclusion, reserved for the friends and fixers of the regime — but paid for with the tax money exacted from residents of Algeria’s bidonvilles

This new “pleasure park” (cité du bonheur), according to the decree, will sprawl over more than four hectares. The Club des Pins, Moretti, Staoueli and soon Cheraga, are by such laws designated as zones of exclusion, reserved for the friends and fixers of the regime — but they are paid for with the tax money exacted from residents of Algeria’s bidonvilles, those places of “unbearable destitution” inherited from French colonialism, as Mohamed Benchicou writes in his new novel, Le mensonge de Dieu, to be published on May 6.

In excerpts published on the website of Le Matin, Benchicou speaks of Climat de France in particular – but chance had no part in this meeting of literature with current events.

“How, indeed, not to laugh over and over at the unbearable destitution of this neighbourhood when a strange twist of fate and insidious use of metaphor have dared to baptise it with the pretty name of Climat de France? To live in Climat de France is to live in a dingy, overcrowded ghetto — but this name was adopted because it tended to dramatise and thus downplay the wretchedness of the place. So we lived on dry bread and the dignity of a misleading name: ‘I live in Climat de France, near Algiers.’ The words signifying this place so perfectly hiding the reality of a filthy ghetto, we went so far as to give a poetic name for each of the ‘cités d’urgence’ [the official term for urban slums], these awful barracks built in haste by French administrations, where thousands of impoverished natives were crammed in, their minds turning towards weapons. Thus were born ‘les gîtes de bonheur’ — the ‘pleasure cottages’ of Algiers.”

This article was written by Ghania Khelifi and published with the courtesy of Babelmed. Translation by Erin O’Halloran.

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