When you grow up in a working class neighborhood in France, you most likely will know an Algerian person or a person of Algerian descent, which gives you the false impression that you know or are at least familiar with Algeria. But in reality, Algeria is a country that we do not really know. The stories that we often hear come from people who have left the country for decades or come from kids visiting once in a while during family vacations. The Algerians living in Algeria have rarely been given the opportunity to express themselves, even if they are the most knowledgeable people who can inform us about the current situation in the country. In this interview, Ibtissem, a 30 year old woman living in the Algerian capital of Algiers, shares her thoughts without purporting to represent all Algerians people, but her own point of view.
- Can you briefly introduce yourself to all of the wonderful people that do not know you?
I was born in Algeria in 1986. I come from a modest Algerian family but I had the chance to have parents that always pushed me and my brother to give the best of ourselves.
- How was your childhood?
Everything went well at school for me. My childhood was the most beautiful period of my life! I met exceptional people. I have been friends with some people for about 20 years now. Algeria was a huge playground where I grew up carefree and recklessly.
- What is your educational background?
At 17 years old, I passed my SAT and attended the most prestigious school in the country. Access to this entrance exam was reserved for the best high school students in Algeria. I was accepted after two exams, my ranking was 13th out of 1000. My mom was very proud, especially because the results were printed in the biggest national newspapers. Nonetheless, there was a last obstacle, the school charged tuition, so I needed to find a scholarship. At that time, only the public banks were offering scholarships on the condition that recipients work for them for at least 8 years. Willing to avoid this obligation, I negotiated with a bank that ultimately sponsored my education. The result was that I did not have to work for them in the future but in exchange I would pay back the money that they loaned me.
- What did you gain from your higher studies?
It was four very formative years, that I finished with a memory. I confess that 80% of the knowledge I gained was not very useful in Algeria because we have a very limited financial market, an inability to trace funds,and 95% of financial transactions are made in cash.
At the end of my studies, I worked for 9 months at a financial institution. I did not have a lot of work to do. And when I had strictly nothing to do, I downloaded movies and watched them with complete impunity. At the same time, I was preparing for my departure to France.
- How did you prepare exactly for your move to France?
I applied to various universities and was accepted at the “Sorbonne,” the most prestigious French university. With my little bit of savings, I was ready to start a new adventure, a new challenge.
Suddenly I was in France but the country was not totally unknown to me. Prior to moving to France, I had spent several summers in La Rochelle, Niort, Paris and the south of France. During the first two months after my move, I stayed in home of some people who pretended to be my family, but it was a nightmare. The situation pushed me to find my own place in a student dormitory.
After finding my own apartment, I could finally start organizing my life between studies and several undeclared jobs. The reason I had undeclared jobs was because Algerians students cannot legally work more than 18 hours per week without special authorization. As you can easily imagine 18 hours per week at the minimum wage was not sufficient for me to live off.
- What differences do you observe between the French school system and the Algerian one?
College in France is like kindergarten in Algiers. The French students are assisted. In Algiers the students are autonomous. They are on their own. The other difference is the great ability for the French students to be talkative, chatty. They are champions at essay writing. I learned that they could write in 3 pages something that I could summarize in one paragraph! But technically, they are pretty weak. Africans students are in general way better technically.
Another point, French students are obsessed with their network! For me it almost looked like prostitution, and my opinion is pretty radical on that question. I witnessed events organized by the director of our master’s program where the women arrived dressed in mini-skirts with high heels and the men were dressed like they were attending the Oscars ceremony.
- When you finished your studies in France, you decided to return to Algeria. Was that an obvious decision for you to make?
To be honest with you, I did not think at all about that, but inside me I knew that I would go back. I didn’t feel comfortable with the idea of living in France in spite of all the benefits especially for a woman. Even if being in France I had access to the culture, great places to go out, possibilities to travel, a higher quality of life, at the end I did not feel at home and people reminded me of this fact every day. There were so many crazy administrative procedures to do the smallest thing.
For example, to work in France as an Algerian requires particular conditions (the company has to prove that there are no French people that can satisfy the requirements of the job offer, the job offer must be published for at least 6 months and the company has to pay a special tax).
Moreover, you have to deal with a ton of paperwork that you have to constantly renew at the prefecture (France is divided into district, and each district has a prefecture where the immigrants have to regularize their status). At the prefecture you are treated poorly by agents, who have not themselves even passed an SAT. And of course I missed my mom and all the family events that I had missed out on attending.
In France with time I started to change, I was becoming more individualistic, selfish, the missing step was to be totally integrated into French society was to become very cheap! The combination of all of these factors made me not even think twice about staying in France for good, especially knowing that France does not want me to stay.
In France there are elite students from many countries. Those students are ready to start at the bottom of the pyramid and there is no cost to the French, but the French only see the fact that they are foreigners and that they are here to take their jobs. In reality I did not have to think too much, it seemed obvious that my place was where I was born, where I grew up, where I lived good and bad moments and where I felt at home.
- You grew up in the 1990’s when Algeria was marked by the rise of Islamism (the Islamist party FIS won the local elections in 1990). How were those years for you?
The first image that I had from the FIS was in 1990 when they won the elections and the authorities declared the election results invalid. I was 4 years old and was with my mom in the stadium “Ouaguenouni.” This stadium is in the center of Algiers and has a wonderful view of the Algiers’ Bay.
I remember that I was playing in the sand box and suddenly we started to hear people screaming and chanting, the noise came closer and closer.
I went by the fences and saw a large number of men dressed in white. Most of them had a beard and we could see the anger on their faces. They were protesting against the decision to invalidate the elections. That was my first encounter with the FIS.
I had the chance to be part of this cursed generation that was born in the 1980’s and that knew only curfews, military road blocks, police officers all over the place, attacks, missing people, and a constant national state of emergency. The state emergency lasted 25 years. In reality, I think the situation was harder on our parents, than on us, because they had known and lived in another Algeria that was totally opposite of what we were experiencing.
I lived this period through the eyes and the stress of my parents, they protected my brother and me and did their best to make sure that we would have a “normal life.” We used to play sports, go to the beach. We could play outside in a clearly defined time frame, we did not go out at night and generally speaking we were not out during off peak hours. We did not go anywhere by ourselves and we carefully selected the beaches where we would go. We avoided going to certain Algiers neighborhoods and also avoided taking the bus.
My parents had a principle also for themselves: they would never both go to the same place at the same time when they were not with us. They wanted to make sure that if something bad happened to one of them, the other one would survive and take care of the kids. Bombs defined the rhythm of our day, people were taken by police to never be seen again. Many innocent people disappeared during this state of emergency. My parents gave everything they could to keep us out of trouble.
Both of my parents were teachers and had a modest salary. They did not own anything and did not have any savings. All of their money was devoted to me and my brother, to make sure that we could live as “normal” a life as possible. I was sad for them, I had the impression that they felt guilty not being able to give us the same life that they had when they were young. I used to say them that they did not have to blame themselves for that because terrorism was a part of our daily routine, we really did not know anything else. On our way back from school, we had a game with my friends. The game was to gather bullet casings and the one who will find an AK47 bullet casing first would win the game.
It was a dark period for the country, 90% of the elites went to live somewhere else, the ones that stayed were killed: artists, journalists, writers, all assassinated one by one. Everyone who had the courage to stand up to those barbarians died. The aftermath of those dark years is still present today. Many opportunists took advantage of those blurry years to take the power.
The insecurity pushed people from the country to come to Algiers but they keep their way of life. Some scumbags who were no one before now have important positions but they are not even able to make a correct sentence. Corruption is everywhere, there is a competition between the thieves. To steal is not a shame but a national sport, after soccer of course. Nothing is like before. We are suffering from the consequences of this period more than the period itself, at least in my case.
I do not know if I say this because of the good job my parents did to protect my childhood, but to live in Algiers today is a constant fight more than ever.
- Why did Islamism rise up as it did in Algeria during the 1990s?
Islamism rose up because they did something that no other political parties had done since our independence in 1962. They showed some interest in the people, and responded to their most basics needs. They penetrated the under privileged part of the population, which is the majority, by offering meals and clothes. They simply listened to the people. They were part of the life of the average citizens and helped to resolve some of their problems. Members of this party acted like they were highly concerned by the problems of the population. Whereas the people in charge of the country did not demonstrate such care and still do not. This work was done with the religion in the background. The cocktail was explosive. They also guaranteed to reward people if they joined the party. A lot of businessmen became rich because they were part of the FIS. Many people from the party have huge houses in chic neighborhoods because they supported the FIS at the right time.
- Do you think that what happened in the 1990’s can happen again?
Logically no! Based on the atrocities that we witnessed and the number of victims, direct and indirect, of this tragedy it should not be possible but there is always a “but” with Algeria. Sometimes I read internet comments on topics like religion, recent news, politics and I realize that the way of thinking in 2016 is not so different than the one of the 1990’s. It’s as if nothing happened. The new parents do not seem to have learned the lesson. Nothing has really changed in the way to educate the children. Fundamentalism still seems to be an idea present in the back of some minds. I just hope that I am mistaken in my analysis.
- What does the Algerian war for independence from 1954 to 1962 represent to the Algerians that were born in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s?
It represents a famous photo of a victim with a burnt face that was always printed in our school books. The memory of this maimed victim’s face followed us during our entire school journey. We talked a lot about the 1,500,000 victims. This number was constantly repeated with the picture of this poor suffering person. But they were unable to transmit to us this feeling of recognition, that we are supposed to have for the patriots who sacrificed their lives to liberate our country after more than a century of colonialism.
For my generation, it is only a page in a school book with a burnt face. The history of our heroes is pretty blurry because right after the French departure, the war for power started. This war created more victims on the resistant side than the anti-colonial war for independence. The ones who reaped the benefits are not the ones who actually fought.
- What is your conclusion about your country’s present state, 54 years after gaining independence?
The ones who gave their lives to make us live as free human beings probably turn in their graves. 54 years after, the same people are still fighting forthe power. They squandered the resources and have ensured a bright future for their descendants for the next five generations.
The thing that makes me sick is that it is never enough. They always want more. We are not worthy of their sacrifices.
- Why, in your opinion, did Algeria remain apparently stoic during the different recentpolitical movements that touched the Arabs countries?
Apparently stoic! The entire secret is here! In reality we constantly have protests in Algeria. Every Saturday we have a protest reprimanded. In 2011, the protests happened at the moment of the price increase of the oil and the sugar. This period has been renamed in Arab, “the crisis of the oil and sugar.” To calm the population, the government regulated their prices, ended the state of emergency (although it is just an illusion, the prohibition against protesting remains in Algiers) and create anti-riot squads that are present in the streets of Algiers 24/7. This is how Algeria remained stoic in appearance.
The spectrum of terrorism also played a role in the demobilization of the population. Recently, former FIS Executives joined the protests and started to utter the same kind of speech that they had in the 1990’s. It pushed the Algerians to ask themselves whether they shouldmaintain the current mafia state or take risk bringing the FIS back?
We have already experienced what Tunisia, Libya and Egypt are experiencing, we have already lived all that but it does not stop the Algerians from protesting almost every Saturday to show their disagreement.
- Algeria is a country with a very young population, the average age being 27.3 years old. How would you describe the mindset of Algerian youth?
They are lost between two horizons, two cultures — the eastern one and the western one. They sometimes mix both even if there is this desire to keep our identity. The young people would like to live as the Europeans but at the same time worry about being judged by others. So they hide what they do because they do not assume responsibility for their actions. The Algerian youth is sick, deeply sick. Of course some young people help to keep the faith but they are a small minority.
- What is it that young Algerians find charming in the Western way of life? You lived for some time in France, a Western country, do you think that they bet on a wrong ideal?
Yes, completely. They have an erroneous vision of what the western world really is. They believe that it is freedom, a happy life, a perpetual party, that everything is easier, that the girls are nymphomaniacs looking for boys in the streets. But the most part of those young people have never traveled outside of Algeria, so the western world is a fantasy for them. They are contradictory. They are ready to clean restrooms in France, yet refuse to work in Algeria because it is not paid well enough.
They are ready to make enormous sacrifices for the Western world that they are not ready to make in their own country. I do not deny the fact that in the West life is easier but the counterpart is that we are supposed to respect the rules of the country where we immigrate. This is not always respected by our youth. They want it all, they want to have the good side of Europe without sacrificing the bad habits and traditions that they have from their native country.
- What is your view on the relationship between France and Algeria?
I have the impression that their destinies are forever linked. The link is maintained and perpetuated by both sides throughout the decades, no matter who are the people in charge. The same system exists in all of the former French colonies but with Algeria, we have even more of a love/hate relationship. There is something in these feelings that pushes Algeria far from France, but never too far. We all know that France has its say in the decisions of the Algerian government.
Algeria provides services to France and France in return does not ask the origin of the money present in the bank accounts in France and lets our political leaders buy luxury apartments in Paris. In exchange, Algeria does not hold France accountable for the nuclear tests performed in the 1960’s in Reggane and Ecker. Until today the population still suffers the consequences of the nuclear waste, the ground water is polluted but everything has been forgiven it seems. The relationship is interest based, and these interests always make the decisions.