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Lisa Appignanesi, from State of Emergency


Algeria is known for many things. It is known for Zizou — Zinédine Zidane, the son of Algerian immigrants to France and said by some to be the greatest footballer of all time. It is known for its huge resources not only of oil but of natural gas, which by 2010 will be the source of one tenth of the world's entire supply. It is known for Frantz Fanon, analyst of the ways in which colonial domination is inscribed on the bodies and minds of the colonized, alienating them from their own homelands. In 1952 Fanon headed the Blida Hospital psychiatric ward, where the horrific cases of both tortured and torturers informed his decision to devote himself to the cause of Algerian liberation, that long and bloody struggle which finally brought independence in 1962. Algeria is also known as the source of Albert Camus' most famous fictions: The Outsider and The Plague both find their home in Algeria, where the sun beats down with violence on human actions which too often respond in kind.

What Algeria is not known for, either before or after independence, is a record of respect for human rights. Under the socialist-style republic of Ahmed Ben Bella, displaced in a coup in 1965 by Houari Boumédiène, president until 1978, Algeria had to come to terms not only with an estimated million war dead, but with the departure of some one million 'pieds noirs' who had made up its skilled labour and managerial class. Military dictatorship prevailed over democratic hopes. During the late 'eighties and early 'nineties, popular Islamist parties came into being and when they won a majority in the first round of the December 1991 elections, these were annulled. The nation plunged into a violent civil war, widely known in the words of Maïssa Bey as a 'war against civilians'. It lasted over ten years and cost some 200,000 lives. According to the report of the Permanent People's Tribunal on Human Rights in Algeria, "while officials systematically attributed the crimes to armed Islamist groups, other credible sources indicate that actually, they were largely due — especially from 1996 — to the security forces and their auxiliaries." Apart from the dead, "almost 20,000 disappeared, dozens of thousands were tortured, almost 1.5 million were displaced and almost a half million fled the country. Since 1999, the number of deaths has lowered, but remained, at the end of 2002, at approximately 200 per month and, in 2004, at least 50 per month."

Executions, massacres of civilians, secret arrests, round-ups, infiltration of rebel Islamic groups, disappearances, torture — all the instruments a brutal and repressive military regime uses to subdue a population were in place in Algeria for too many years. 'Le Pouvoir' ruled the country with a dictatorial fist and a cynical smile, its democratic institutions a mere pretence. Free expression was at a premium.

The re-election of a seemingly popular President Bouteflika in 2004 and a 'charter for peace and reconciliation' — amnestying Islamist guerrillas who had given up their arms and offering compensation to families who had suffered deaths at the hands of the military — hardly changed everything. Journalists, amongst whom many had previously been killed, were still barred from criticizing the regime. They were rounded up on any number of charges. PEN, the international writers' organization, with its commitment to champion those whose free expression rights have been curtailed, had ten Algerian journalists and a leading editor on its writers in prison list. More recently, a truce has been called in the government's long harassment of the Algerian press. Mohammed Benchicou, editor of Le Matin, has just been released after a gruelling two-year sentence. In the continuing 'state of emergency', however, some twenty other journalists repeatedly receive threats of imprisonment on various grounds as a result of articles which criticize the regime. Journalists who attempt to investigate disappearances, deaths, the many injustices perpetrated before the amnesty, still face imprisonment. Nor is there any clear indication that the worst forms of ill treatment — beatings, electric shocks, ingestion of urine or chemicals — have stopped.

Soleïman Adel Guémar is almost exactly as old as the independent Republic of Algeria. He has witnessed its terrible history, the crimes against humanity which attended its birth and the enduring 'state of emergency' under which life has been blighted ever since. This volume, with its fine translations, marks an important moment: a record from the inside of a history which is too palpably of our times. Where before we had only newspaper headlines, stereotypical Algerians, or the dry, if conscientious, reports of NGOs, we now have a living voice, both political and lyrical — an intensely individual voice which speaks out freely and traces the lineaments of a tragic history.

Deceptively casual, colloquial in their idiom, always dramatic in their pessimism, Guémar's poems are a searing howl against the brutality which invades everyday Algerian life. His Algeria is a garden trampled by the boots of militias and security forces who carry out acts of state terror against citizens. Yet if perpetrators are evil and prevent that cherished dream of Republican democracy from coming into being, so too are the careerist middlemen, whose silence is a form of complicity with terror. Beneath a façade of tough guy cool, Guémar's poetic voice carries a passionate indictment both of perpetrators and of the sheep who follow.

The stance of many of these poems is that of the laconic rebel, the flâneur of Algiers' mean streets, who can take up his guitar and strum a ballad or growl a lyric. Seeking a café, he bumps against machine guns, a demonstration, civilian dead. To counter such murderous forces, the poet can only offer up lyrical intensities, the force of love, an individual gesture, a dream. Even if small in themselves, these carry the freight of a politics which stands proud against oppression.

From 1991, alongside his prize-winning poems and short stories, Guémar worked as a political journalist. In 1999 he set up a publishing company and applied for a licence to produce a magazine for investigative journalism. The threats began. They didn't stop. They took on material force. His house was ransacked and his work files destroyed. When he was assaulted by a group of men armed with knives, his family insisted he leave the country.

Guémar's poetry, like that of the best dissidents, had always had the force of an inner émigré:

eyes glued to the ground tongue
knotted at the neck heart
stinking of fear feet
in the gutter head
on sagging shoulders
but what to tell the children?

Now he took on the challenge of exile. In December 2002, at Heathrow, Guémar applied for asylum. Joined by his wife and young children, he was sent to Wales, at last granted asylum two years later and indefinite leave to stay. Britain has inadvertently inherited a political poet of stature, one whose language sings whether he is attacking the face of grim authority or dreaming of that other asylum which is an imagined Algeria of peace. In the excellent translation by Tom Cheesman and John Goodby, Guémar's poems carry all their native force and brusque wit.

"Must I bite the dust again," the poet asks, "in order to tell those ugly mugs / stiff with absence and vileness / cradled by sluts and marvels / what they'd rather not hear"? Guémar's taut, conversational poetry is full of what we would rather not hear: "the ugliness of the official day", the blindfolds and shaved skulls, "a nice outfit all red / so it won't stain". But you can't put it down. His surly ironies have a fighter's edge, a tough beauty which ropes us in, like his 'Hymn to paunches':

no doubt we should lower our gazes
when the gods pass in their carriages
and scan the gutters for the pride
and glory of our thousand years ...
no doubt gilded the muzzles
go better with our gobs
no doubt down in the graveyards
stiffs still cry out in vain!

Echoes of Guémar's State of Emergency can be heard even within the asylum that is Britain.

© Lisa Appignanesi, 2007