Sleepless in Algiers


The title of short story anthology Algiers, When the Town is Asleep from 2010 sounds like a tribute to John Huston’s feature movie The Asphalt Jungle from 1950. But, this is only an excuse, warns the publishing house, “to describe the city of Algiers in a way that avoids commonplace language.” True, the Algerian capital is too often depicted as a motionless seaside statue, indifferent to its own wounds.

The seven Algerian authors who contributed to this anthology re-imagine a city very different from the image of Algiers that has been captured by orientalist photographers. The book’s unexpected portrait has nothing to do with neither its one thousand year old casbah nor  the Ottoman corsairs who used to wander its streets centuries ago. What links these texts together is not a nostalgic feeling for some long lost urban paradise, but rather a dense atmosphere emerging from a city where underground stories, daily crimes and urban violence are ever present.

This is not a collection of tales about a city written by unconditional lovers. This is not the Algiers of Mohammad Zinet’s 1971 movie Tahia ya Didou. In this book, the story of Algiers is told through the lives of its average citizens: a soldier who was wounded when defending his fatherland against a fictional threat (Kaouther Adimi); two young people looking for stolen moments of happiness in a tense social context (Hajar Bali); a police inspector leading a surrealist investigation to solve a transnational criminal affair (Habib Ayyoub); prostitutes, drug addicts and other socially marginalized characters (Chawki Amari); a man in love with a prostitute who he drives around town every night for her “business appointments” (Sid Ahmed Semiane); a vicious man who stalks his neighbors (Ali Malek); and a countryside man with an odd fascination for a transsexual “who deflowers those who want to marry her” (Kamel Daoud).

Apart from the Ali Maled and Kamel Daoud texts, these short stories all describe the nocturnal urban jungle from a similar perspective. They speak of a time when the city transforms itself into a shady kingdom, where only the Nomenklatura kids can move safely. Reading Algiers, When the Town is Asleep, one gets the impression that Algiers is a city still harshly marked by the violence of the civil war, with the screams from helpless victims and sadistic torturers still echoing in the streets (Chawki Amari’s story).

The only women out at night in the “nombril du monde” or “world’s nave” (the ironic title of Habib Ayyoub’s story), are the prostitutes and the reckless ones who dare trespassing the unwritten law that only males are allowed to walk the streets after dusk. These men are all desperate ones, looking for some tenderness in alcohol or prostitutes they find in bar after bar. Regarding the bars, they are all trous, or holes, (Le Troubeing the name of a shabby bistro featured in Hajar Bali’s story) open only to their regular crowd of outcast customers.

Algiers, When the Town is Asleep was a direct order from the book’s publisher, who was eager to release a collective of thriller novels set in Algiers. But, it seems that these pessimistic depictions of the city are more than a desire to show “another face” than that of politically correct literature. It appears to be a spontaneous output of a new “disillusioned” relation between Algerian writers and their urban areas; in contrast to the previous generation, for which these territories were symbols of a triumphing modernity and promising future. This new trend can be observed in several novels published during the last years, such as Sofiane Hadjadj’s Un si parfait jardin or Such a perfect garden from 2007, Adlène Meddi’s La prière du Maure or The Maure’s prayer from 2008, and Kaouther Adimi’s Des ballerines de papichaor Papicha’s ballet shoes from 2010.

Contemporary Algerian literature is more and more frequently conveying this dark description of Algiers and the city’s sins. As a literary tendency, this is more the sign of a common identity than a collection of personal hopelessnesses. At the core of this trend is a radical realism characterized by a deep sense of anxiety. And, with continuously ongoing tragedies, this identity is growing more and more subtle. For a country like Algeria – at the same time rich and impoverished, and constantly struggling to escape its predators – this is a search that is bound to continue. The quest for an identity goes on, making its way somehow between a fake authenticity and a superficial modernity.

Written by Yassin Temlali, published with the courtesy of Babelmed, partner of  Mashallah News.

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