Your memory is failing you, this has nothing to do with Borat. And don’t bother looking it up on Google Maps, it is not hiding between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Shkupistan, you see, is more of a concept, a state of mind than an actual physical state. Yet, its consequences are very real, and over the past few years, many Algerians have become convinced it is the only fitting description when commiserating about the situation of their country.
Ten years ago Harry G. Frankfurt published a delectable little book “On Bullshit” in which he announced that his aim was “simply to give a rough account of what bullshit is and how it differs from what it is not-or (putting it somewhat differently) to articulate more or less sketchily, the structure of its concept.” I don’t pretend to be able to follow such gigantic footsteps, and I certainly do not intend for this post to be book-length. I just want to try to help Anglophone readers get a feel for a word (and its derivatives) that is bound to emerge out of the confines of Algerian slang.
First, a quick comment about notation. Search engines are more likely to give you reliable hits for “chkoupi” or “chkoupistan” than for “shkupi” or “shupistan” (although “shkupi” will get you lots of hits, but more on that later.) For historical reasons, transliteration from Algerian is usually based on French sounds so the “sh” sound of “shkupi” is rendered as “ch” and the “u” (which should be pronounced as in “stupid”) is rendered as “ou”.
Nowadays, most people think “shkupi” is a dirty word, basically synonymous of “penis,” that should not be used in public. The original meaning is quite different. Mehdi, host of the show (Yadès) on Algerian radio devoted to the origin of words and popular expressions, traces it back to the Spanish “Escupir” (to spit) as in whatever was spit out by the sea. When returning with nothing but seaweed and froth in their nets, fishermen in Algiers would say they only fished “الشكوبي و الرغاوي” “shkupi and froth.” The word evolved to mean something like “worthless crap” or “bullshit” and it became common to refer to junk or to anything poorly done as being “te3 shkupi” (of shkupi) or “ki shkupi” (like shkupi), or to say “teddi shkupi” to mean “you will get diddly squat”. The phrase “bled shkupi” (shkupi country) became a favorite expression to capture nonsense , the dysfunctional state of affairs in the country and the general zeitgeist. The word also became a reference for artists. Bahia Allouache made a movie entitled “Cinéma chkoupi“, and Mustapha Benfodil gave us the “Manifesto of shkupism” in his “Archéologie du chaos(Amoureux)pagesdemustaphabenfodil” . It would be too long to describe the novel here, but the manifesto is a document found by the police on the body of the main character of the story, a writer, who’s death is deemed suspicious. Taking the meaning of “shkupism” into a different direction, the manifesto blends serious political issues with a surrealist avant-garde artistic demands. A sort of Karl Marx meets André Breton. The manifesto was staged in France and was used in a public reading to commemorate the events of October 5th 1988 in Algeria. It also became a focus of attention during the Arab Spring in Tunisia.


In parallel, with the breakdown of the Soviet Union, the emergence of new countries like Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, etc. and the war in Afghanistan, “stan” became a very convenient shorthand for country. Algerian self-deprecating sense of humor quickly picked up on that and new word plays such as “Absurdistan” and “Ahuristan” were invented (the latter refers to the French “Ahurissant”) as the country sunk in the dark era of the 90’s.
It was inevitable that “shkupi” and “stan” would eventually meet and merge to give us the now common “Shkupistan” or “the land of shkupi”. Rappers quicky picked this up

and on YouTube one can even subscribe to “Chkoupistan TV” shkupistanTV

The channel recently posted a video that clearly captured the whole concept of “shkupi”.

Most hilarious, however, is the fact that “F.C. Shkupi”   KF_Shkupi_Logo is also the name of the soccer team of the city of Skopje in Macedonia and their anthem is sure to delight all the devotees of the “shkupi” way of life.

I am not sure what pushed me to write this post, but if you find in the end that it is a “post te3 shkupi” feel free to say that in the comments. I’ll wear that as a badge of honor.



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The FFS gambles its political capital

Weeks of speculations finally ended this past Friday when the Socialist Forces Front (FFSannounced its participation in the upcoming legislative elections in Algeria. Although multiple press reports have been hinting at that decision for a while, the announcement came as a surprise to many. The FFS has boycotted the last two legislative elections as well as all presidential elections since 1999, so the expectation was that it was going to boycott this round as well.

This decision is of course welcomed by the regime. It immediately brings the legitimacy the government was so desperately seeking for these elections, especially in the eyes of Algeria’s foreign partners. The political parties participating in the elections have also saluted the decision. On the other hand, those calling for an active boycott see this announcement as a disappointment and even a form of betrayal. So far, only one political party, the Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD) , and  former prime minister Sid Ahmed Ghozali (whose political party never received the needed authorization to become active), have openly called for a boycott( see here and here) , but among activists and the general population the mood is definitely leaning toward a boycott even though it is not clear how massive and organized this boycott will be. Turnout was very low during the last presidential (2009) and legislative elections (2007), despite governmental claims to the contrary, and throughout 2011 everyone could witness the extent to which discontent has significantly increased as the social and economical situation of the country has worsened. Participating in the elections is therefore seen as a waste of time that can only play in the hands of the regime, and nothing but a massive boycott would be an appropriate response to an autistic regime.

So the question on everybody’s mind is why this decision?

Since its founding in 1963, the FFS has maintained an uncompromising opposition to the regime, often denouncing the military rule or the political police as it calls it. It participated in the legislative elections of 1991 and 1997, but has boycotted every legislative and presidential elections since then arguing that the process was a fraud. Which curiously did not prevent it from participating in local elections.  The FFS was also a major player in the Rome Contract, a failed attempt (the contract was rejected by the government)  to find a peaceful resolution of the bloody Algerian conflict in 1995.  And its founder/president Hocine Ait Ahmed generally enjoys a great deal of respect among Algerians for his role in the Algerian revolution.  But all of this has not prevented suspicions of some kind of back room deal between the FFS and the deciders within the regime from surfacing. The sudden replacement, last November,  of the combative First Secretary Karim Tabou by the veteran party member Ali Laskri who uses a more conciliatory language was already viewed as an early sign. Others see this move as a cynical attempt by the party to upend its arch-rival the RCD (both parties count Kabylia as their stronghold)  now that the latter has already announced its decision to boycott the elections.

The FFS has been quick to dismiss these accusations. In a letter addressed to the members of the national convention held in Algiers in February Ait Ahmed argues that participating in these elections is a “tactical necessity for the FFS.” Gaining a specific quota of seats in the national assembly is not the primary goal. Instead, he sees this as an opportunity for the party to regroup and to re-energize the Algerian population within the FFS strategy of offering a peaceful democratic alternative to the current regime and “to put some movement back into the status quo.” For his part, Laskri issued a strong rebuttal in a press conference. He referred those who are accusing the FFS of having made a deal with the DRS to the revelations made by Wikileaks about the practices of the Algerian political class and its coziness with the military rulers of the country, and he had sharp words for Ghozali who, Laski reminded his readers, was prime minister when the 1991 elections were held then canceled, and who recently referred to himself as a “Harki” of the system.  Laskri also suggested that concerns for the territorial integrity of the nation and its security weighed heavily in the analysis of the party.  A thinly veiled reference to Libya and the NATO intervention that is unanimously viewed negatively in Algeria. This is a recurring theme mentioned by most political parties and the government as an incentive for participation in the elections. Sounding defensive about its participation, the FFS has also stressed that it will mount a serious effort to monitor the elections (though no indication was given as to how this will be done) and has indicated that it may pull out should it detect fraud in the process.

Still, the FFS faces an uphill public relations battle and its choice may prove to be risky. Press reports indicate that the consultations carried out by the party have highlighted a split between the base and the leadership. Rank and file militants argued for a boycott, an option that seems more in phase with the general popular sentiment in the country, while the leadership had already made up its mind and decided to participate. An extensive series of video recordings of the debates during the national convention is available here. In an unusual departure from his standard analysis on the subject, Ait Ahmed argued that “no boycott can guarantee that it is a better alternative to participation. The same argument could have been used in past elections and it is not entirely clear what prompted the FFS to revise its position this time. It remains to be seen whether militants and sympathizers will stick to the party line if the boycott gets more traction within civil society. Although things could shift between now and May 10, the emerging divide seems to pit on one side the general public and non-governmental organizations, and the other the political class (government and all political parties except the RCD.) Could this pose a threat to the FFS just when it tries to revive itself and become more visible on the political scene? Kabylia is likely to be the region where the two options will confront each other the most. With both the RCD and the Movement for the Autonomy of Kabylia (MAK) calling for a boycott, the supporters of the FFS will need a serious effort to mobilize the population and retain the influence they have traditionally exerted in the region.  At the national level, the FFS may risk being seen as a party “just like all the others”, attracted by the material rewards the regime bestows on those who do its bidding (in his letter Ait Ahmed himself warned against the powerful attraction exerted by the feeding bowl of the regime).  With a decision that seems to go against the flow, the party could alienate civil society, especially the youth, and appear to be an obstacle to the emergence of a citizen movement that could potentially bring to Algeria the radical change expected and demanded by so many in the country.

The FFS has often been praised for its principled positions and the astuteness of its leader, and it was often viewed as a great hope for political change in Algeria. Will May 10 confirm the savvy of the FFS or will it signal the beginning of the decline of the oldest opposition party in Algeria?

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May 10 elections: Who will show up?

Algerian legislative elections have rarely generated this much interest since those fated elections of 1991. For the past few months, pundits, journalists, politicians and government officials have been relaying each other commenting and speculating about this. The commentariat seems to have shifted into high gear with the official announcement by president Bouteflika that the elections will be held on May 10. Amel Boubekeur’s Countries at a crossroads 2011 report provides a good background on the current political situation in Algeria. John Entelis provides more background here.

These elections are simply following their 5-year cycle and there is nothing unusual about that. But the announcement of reforms in April of last year in response to riots and protests that had occurred earlier, and the events that followed both in Algeria and in the region, raised expectations that some sort of opening was going to happen. The Algerian government, it was hoped, was about to initiate the changes that the people needed and demanded, not simply continue its policy of bribing some groups while repressing others in order to maintain stability.  Those hopes were dashed when the new laws on non-governmental organizations, the media, and political parties were first drafted then enacted as well described here by Melissa Rahmouni or in this report of the The International Center for Not-for-Profit Law.

Heavy criticism did not prevent the government from forging ahead, oblivious of its surroundings, unperturbed and splendid in its nakedness like the proverbial emperor.  But, lacking any legitimacy in the eyes of its own people, the Algerian  regime always seeks foreign praise to feed its self-affirmation. With the eyes of the world focused on North Africa like never before, Algiers cannot afford to disappoint its international partners, Paris and Washington in particular. The success of elections in Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco raised the bar and they make business-as-usual ballot-stuffing, or better yet cancelling , of elections a challenging proposition. It goes without saying that the regime has no intention of relinquishing or sharing power. To believe otherwise is foolish.  But controlling the elections will require some creativity this time. So the strategy seems to include the following elements: First, the process is being flooded with new parties that offer very little in terms of new ideas or initiatives, and will merely confuse voters. Second,  a major effort is being mounted to convince people to vote.

Many of the new parties are splinter groups from established parties that are hoping to be rewarded with a few seats in parliament (where the numbers of seats was increased) thereby justifying their existence. They will make ideal clients for the deciders and can be conveniently paraded as living proof of Algeria’s political pluralism and openness should any nosy foreign government or NGO ask. Successive elections in the Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt have resulted in victories for Islamist parties and Libya has already indicated that it is heading in that direction. Another Islamist victory in Algeria would complete the Grand Slam that many outside Algeria are either expecting or wishing for.  Algerians see it as a  case of “been there , done that” that brings bad memories and for the Algerian regime it’s an opportunity to recycle the gambit it has used multiple times in the past: If you are afraid of the Islamists vote for one of these other parties carefully selected specially for you.  One should not lose sight, however, of the fact that the Islamist parties that are likely to participate in these elections are the domesticated kind very unlikely to pose a serious challenge to the current rulers the boasting of their leaders notwithstanding (The Moor Next Door provides some useful background on the MSP here) . The unexpected twist this year though is the possible participation of the Socialist Forces Front (FFS). The oldest opposition party, the secular FFS enjoys a measure of respect linked in great part to the principled positions of its founder/leader Hocine Ait-Ahmed who happens to be one  of  the few remaining “historical leaders” of the Algerian revolution. After boycotting many elections in the past (for which it was roundly criticized, even by its own partisans), the FFS has convened a series of meetings with members and sympathizers and seems to be leaning towards entering the contest although nothing has been officially announced. While recognizing that fraud in favor of the regime will undoubtedly mar these elections, just like the last presidential election as was shown by WikiLeaks, members have argued that another boycott will further marginalize the party. The absence of the rival Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD), which has already declared that it will boycott these elections will further increase the possibility of a respectable result, especially in Kabylia the stronghold of both parties. From the point of view of the government, having the FFS on board provides an instant boost to the legitimacy of the process, a point the propaganda machine will surely not miss, and may increase popular participation in the elections.

Let’s not forget, however, that Algeria’s  parliament does little more than rubber-stamp decisions made by the government and does not play a real legislative role. This is unlikely to change in the near future even if some credible opposition were to gain a sizable share of the vote. Commentators keep referring to opportunities for a peaceful transition toward democracy that the regime should not miss. Pointing to elections as the right way to go. But this would go against the nature of the regime, as nicely put by Forest Whitaker’s character narrating the parable of the scorpion and the frog in that wonderful movie from 1992: The crying game.

Getting people to vote seems to be the main concern for the government at this point. Although it has been able to cover up the low turnouts in previous editions, doing this again may prove to be challenging. A well orchestrated campaign seems to be underway to encourage people to vote. The government has officially denied asking Imams to encourage people to vote but did not eliminate the possibility that they could bring this up in their sermons.  In his TV announcement, president Bouteflika reminded Algerians of their civic duty to vote and even issued a personal appeal:  “I am expecting you to give me reason  to be proud, once again, of the valorous Algerian people”. Cell phone owners have been receiving text messages telling them that to vote is “citizen act of responsibility”and now TV ads are spreading the same message. If encouragements are not sufficient, threats might do the trick as was implied by a legal expert on Algerian TV and carefully deconstructed here by blogger Algerianna. This concern for turn-out on the part of the regime seems to be justified as calls for a widespread boycott are gathering strength. In addition to the RCD, personalities as diverse as as Sid Ahmed Ghozali, prime minister during the 1991 elections, and Abdou Bendjoudi, leader of the Movement of the Independent Youth for Change (MJIC), have called for a boycott of the elections. Informal online polls ( Kalima DZ, AlgeriePatriotique, Mouwatin) also show an overwhelming intent to boycott the elections.

What is particularly edifying is the way this Get The Votes Out campaign from the government was launched in an incredibly gauche way that underscored the tone-deaf nature of the regime. President Bouteflika’s surrealist speech announcing the elections came a time when most of the country was still  reeling from the worst winter weather in recent memory. While urging them to vote, the president did not have a single word of compassion for  people isolated in mountains by snowstorms, facing food shortages and struggling to find butane gas for heating and cooking.  In response, people publicly burned they voting cards and one person destroyed his phone when he received one of those texts about voting. After hundreds of social protests it seems that the presidential palace still does not get the message. Will people send him a final notice on May 10 by not showing up?

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Rev 2.0: A revolution of the minds

Let’s get straight to the point: What Algeria needs the most is a revolution in the minds of Algerians! What? Another one? Haven’t we heard that word enough this past year? Haven’t we already gone through that in the land of the 1.5 million martyrs?

In an amusing scene of Akli Tadjer’s “Les A.N.I. du Tassili” Omar, the hero of the story, is explaining to an older Algerian immigrant the symbolism of Maqam Eshahid (The Martyrs Memorial), the monument they can see towering over the city of Algiers from the deck of their ship as they leave for France. The three palms, explains Omar, represent the three revolutions: The industrial revolution, the agricultural revolution, and the cultural revolution.  The old man listens patiently then bursts with a complaint: What happened to Our revolution? The real one, the one we fought for?

Algerian public discourse is of course saturated with tired and tiring references to revolution, so why suggest such a “stale” idea as a way forward for this DZBlogday 2012  when the theme is to “act for Algeria”? Didn’t the hundreds of riots and protests of 2011 demonstrate that  Algerians, betraying their revolutionary heritage, were taking a pragmatic/materialistic approach, demanding jobs, housing, and pay raises while Tunisians, Egyptians, and Libyans were demanding the heads of their leaders?

True, but the revolution suggested here is not about violence, chaos or destruction. Whether we aim for political action to bring about regime change,  or whether we prefer to improve living conditions through innovations, we need first a radical break from the many mental blocks that stand in the way of successful initiatives.  We especially need to realize that whatever change we hope for has to become OUR business. That change can only come through US. We need to stop waiting for someone else to do things for us. No “providential” politician, no zaim  will come to save the day. No motherly government will come to solve every little problem we face. No single group, however organized and dedicated it may be can alone improve things. Not the politicians, the bureaucrats, the youth, the elders, the intellectuals, the students, the workers, the peasants, the men, the women or the imams. Everyone needs to get involved. Trivial or highly utopian you will say. Probably. But also fundamental. Transcending our doubts or  fears and helping others do the same should be our first act. Overcoming the poisonous and destructive “It will not work, don’t bother trying” is the first step in this Rev 2.0. To borrow a cliche, history is not destiny.

But it will take more than goodwill. Who is going to lead that effort? Why should THEY be trusted? After all, if we are in such a predicament it is in part because following a successful revolution 1.0 we put our faith in our leaders and hoped for the best.  See where that got us. Let’s not make the same mistake twice. Centralized planning and mainframe computers are a thing of the past for a reason. Distributed computing, decentralized administrations are vastly superior. The network is today’s organizational paradigm.  The same should be the case for this Rev2.0. No central vanguard revolutionary party to lead the charge. Instead, committed individuals acting in groups on the issues that matter the most to them. And a network to connect these groups.  We can’t all be doing the same thing or be interested in the same things, but the synergy from all those efforts could be the key to unlocking the untapped human potential in Algeria. Luckily this is already underway. Numerous groups in and out of the country have organized themselves along those lines and are busy changing things. There is more to do so and everyone should consider joining or creating a group/association/organization.  Becoming involved is the most important action a single person can take. While working, groups should also make a conscious effort to contribute to the building of this Rev2.0 network. Supporting and collaborating with other organizations, sharing, advertizing , publicizing, celebrating  the work of others is what we need to build a dense and robust network.  We have wonderful tools to do this today. We should take advantage of them.

We just need that first act: To break those mental shackles.

This post was written as a contribution to DZBlogday 2012. If you find it interesting and worth your vote, consider voting for it at


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AIDS Blogging day in Algeria

Today, Algeria, just like the rest of the planet, observes World AIDS day. Various conferences, seminars, and shows as well as SIDA Blogging Day 2011detection campaigns are organized throughout the country on this occasion. This year, Aniss, a non-governmental volunteer organization innovated by launching a blogging day. The organization, based in the coastal city of Annaba in eastern Algeria, is dedicated to the fight against sexually-transmitted diseases and HIV-AIDS. The theme of this “SIDA Blogging Day” (SIDA is AIDS in French) is to fight stigmatization and show solidarity with people living with AIDS in Algeria. The association with  illicit sexual activities is still prevalent in Algerian society and AIDS is rarely spoken about openly. People affected by the disease are viewed with suspicion, carrying the double burden  of sickness and social stigmatization. According toDr. Salima Bouzghoub of the Pasteur Institute there are, officially, 5381 cases of HIV-positive and 1234 cases of AIDS in Algeria, with an average of 50 new cases of AIDS and 200 new cases of HIV-positive every year. But Dr. Bouzghoub recognizes that the real numbers could be larger given the limited number of detection centers in the country and the fact that many patients prefer not to declare their disease, getting to hospitals when they are about to die.  Some laboratories even neglect to declare the cases they have identified.   Long considered an imported “foreign disease”, the AIDS virus has now become a local one increasingly affecting men and women equally. The dominant mode of transmission, between 80% and 90%, remains sexual mainly because of cultural resistance to the use of condoms. Chances of survival for AIDS victims in Algeria are still low in comparison to western standards due to the limited availability of medication.

The blogging day campaign has been joined by various active youth-oriented organizations such as Le Souk, Jam mag, Kherdja and Denia Bkhir. This should hopefully contribute to a greater awareness of the  disease and its ramifications, given that,according to UNICEF, 67 % of contamination cases concern the 15 to 24 years old age group and 9 out of 10 young Algerians don’t have a correct understanding of the disease.   In a poll at the University of Tizi Ouzou only about 3% of the 1800 students polled knew the modes of transmission of AIDS.


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The spirit of November

L’esprit de novembre” “روح نوفمبر ” (The spirit of November) is an often repeated phrase  in the Algerian political discourse. It is equivalent to the invocation of “The founding fathers” in American politics, and carries the weight of the ultimate reference in Algerian politics.

It is, of course, a reference to the call issued by the National Liberation Front (FLN) on November 1, 1954. This declaration, which marks the start of the Algerian war of independence, came as a decisive move that cut through years of indecision and internal disagreements within the Algerian national movement.  Disagreements that reached a climax during the summer of 1954, when sharp divisions emerged and militants saw their faith in the Algerian cause seriously shattered. With its clearly stated goal, independence, and its broad program of restoring the sovereign democratic and social Algerian state, based on Islamic principles, this appeal fired up the imagination of Algerians and renewed their hope in a bright and prosperous future. Just like the modern “Yes We Can,” the FLN call was an incredibly ambitious, some would say utopian, project. It displayed a “can do” spirit that galvanized young Algerians of the period and gave them a sense of direction that would last a lifetime as they headed for the mountains with nothing more than a few old rifles to confront a mighty army.

At its best, a reference to the Spirit of November is an attempt to stir up passions and a sense of personal duty in trying to restore the determination and the solidarity needed, in the face of adversity, to reach noble goals.  Unfortunately, today, after much abuse, this phrase has been hollowed of its most positive meaning. The Algerian regime has endlessly been mining the Spirit of November to display it as a badge of the legitimacy it has been unable to earn through elections or the consent of its people. Politicians of all stripes have been invoking its magic power to close any debate or to justify any position. This has turned the Spirit of November into one of those vacuous expressions everyone feels obligated to use on solemn occasions without attaching too much meaning to it. Yet,  it is a this precise moment, when the country seems to be paralyzed and  stuck in neutral, unable to shift gears to face the future like most other countries in the region, that Algeria could use a serious dose of that spirit. Much has changed over the past fifty-seven years and today’s conditions are different, but the need for that sense of determination to face challenges remains the same. If the youth of 1954 could do it, the youth of 2011 can certainly do it too. All that is needed is a little spark.

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“The Algerians are the niggers of France”: The Stone Face by William Gardner Smith

Gare Saint-Lazare, Paris, May 1960. Simeon Brown has just arrived from Philadelphia. The amateur painter in him scrutinizes the passing faces, trying to discover the characters they revealed, when he notices these men with baggy pants, worn shoes, and shabby shirts. Their eyes are unhappy and angry, reminding Simeon of the eyes he knew from the streets of Harlem. Their hair is crinkly and their skin while not quite white is surely not black either. When they glance at Simeon, unsmiling, a strange unspoken recognition passes between him and them. Simeon has just had his first encounter with Algerians who will progressively play a central role in the life of this African-American journalist, who left the United States because “I wanted to prevent myself from killing a man.”

Written by William Gardner Smith, a native Philadelphian himself, The Stone Face carries us through a dual discovery experience. All his life Simeon Brown had to struggle against the racism and prejudice so prevalent in the 50’s in the United Sates. It cost him an eye when, as a teenager, he was attacked by a Polish gang while going to the Italian store on Reed street to get spaghetti sauce for his grandmother. The cold face of his tormentor, devoid of feeling, with its blue sadistic eyes, betrayed a soul of stone. It would forever come back and haunt Simeon whenever he encountered prejudice.  Painting the stone face would also become his obsession. Years later Simeon comes close to killing a man out of rage when he encounters another manifestation of the stone face. Frightened, he decides to escape to Europe.

Travel to Europe, with possibly an extended stay in its cosmopolitan capitals has long been a rite of passage for American artists and intellectuals since the end of the nineteenth century. The names of some members of the “Lost generation” such as Ernest Hemingway or Gertrude Stein are familiar to many, but beyond the phenomenal success of Josephine Baker and the popularity of jazz among European audiences, what is less known is that African-Americans artists and intellectuals had their own group of famous expatriates.  “From Harlem to Paris: Black American Writers in France, 1840-1980” by Michel Fabre recounts this history quite well. While he did not achieve the notoriety of Richard Wright, James Baldwin, or Chester Himes, William Gardner Smith is probably the one member of that generation who paid the most attention to the plight of Algerians in France during the Algerian revolution.

As a journalist working for Agence France Presse, Smith was well acquainted with events taking place in Algeria, but as a foreigner in France, he could not openly express his solidarity for the Algerian cause (something that Simeon Brown was reminded of multiple times in the novel)  and chose instead to express his views through a work of fiction.

W.G. Smith Top row second from right. 1954 Paris Review Photo from the Wall Street Journal (obtained from the Morgan Library) and Entree To Black Paris

Post-War France had earned a mythical status among African-Americans as a ‘land of liberty’.  Soon after arriving in Paris, Simeon meets Babe Carter, the massive, gregarious bookshop owner who introduces him to the local community of African-Americans. Babe has been in Paris for ten years. He came to  “get out from under” and he wishes he “could move the whole black population out of the states.” While enjoying the freedom to “go anyplace, do anything” Simeon progressively discovers another reality as he observes the way Algerians are treated by the French police. His fellow expatriates dismiss his inquiries about  Algerians. When he asks Raoul and Henri, two French students he meets at the Café Tournon, “Is there racism in France?” they tell him “Of course not. The French don’t believe in racist theories; everybody knows that. Africans feel perfectly at home here. The French don’t understand racism. Why do you ask?”  When he persists and asks “What about Arabs?” he is told “That’s different. The French don’t like the Arabs, but it’s not racism. The Arabs don’t like us either. We’re different.” He will soon get a first-hand experience of this difference. Leaving a bar one night, he gets into a fight trying to rescue a woman he believes is being attacked by a man who turns out to be Algerian. Other Algerians come out of the bar to help their compatriot but when the police arrives a French waiter testifies that “These Arabs attacked the American.”At the police station Simeon is treated with respect by the police who call him “Monsieur”. Nothing like what happened to him in Philadelphia when he was beaten up by the police after he responded to offensive remarks by one of the officers. But he quickly discovers the Algerian is not so fortunate. In fact the man was trying to recover some of the money that the woman had stolen from him. Money that was to be sent back to Algeria to support his family. He gets locked up nonetheless. Feeling embarrassed and remorseful, Simeon tries to intervene and says it was all his fault. He is quickly rebuked and told “You don’t understand. You don’t know who they are, les Arabs. Always stealing, fighting, cutting people, killing. A night in jail is letting them off easy.”  A few days later Simeon will meet again the same group of Algerians who ask him “Hey! How does it feel to be a white man?” Sitting at a table at Odéon Café he gets an earful: “We’re the niggers here! Know what the French call us-bicot, melon, raton, nor’af. That means nigger in French. Ain’t you scared we might rob you? Ain’t you appalled by our unpressed clothes, our body odor? No, but seriously, I want to ask you a serious question-would you let your daughter marry one of us?”

The experience triggers Simeon’s interest in these people who live on the periphery of Parisian life. Who remind him of what life was like back in Philadelphia. He thought he had escaped racism only to discover that it still existed here in the land of ‘liberté, égalité, fraternite’, even if it now affected someone else.

The second discovery The Stone Face takes us trough is more personal and more subtle.  It revolves around two fateful encounters. At the Café Tournon, Simeon falls in love with Maria, a beautiful aspiring actress. Soon they end up spending most of their time in night-clubs, café terraces or having dinners with friends. Simeon writes articles for an American magazine while Maria goes to acting school and rehearsals. A Jew who has survived a concentration camp as a child in her native Poland, she wants to live in the present and enjoy life to the fullest. She is also worried by her medical condition. Doctors have told her she might go blind, and she came to Paris to get  the surgery that could save her. Simeon finds Maria’s energy exhilarating and enjoys every moment he spends with her.  Life is good. Until Simeon has a chance encounter with Ahmed, one of the Algerians he had met at the Odéon Café. Ahmed studies medicine but  dreams of becoming a writer. He wants to apologize for Hossein who had lectured Simeon too harshly.  They talk at length and Ahmed shares with Simeon his feelings about violence. He hates it, but knows it has to be used sometimes. His brother has been fighting for four years in the mountains of Kabylia in Algeria, and Ahmed would love to join him , but he is told by the National Liberation Front, the FLN, to focus on his studies. Algeria will need trained men when independence comes. Simeon and Ahmed agree to meet again to share a couscous. As the bus takes him progressively away from the white Paris into the Arab neighborhoods in the North of Paris, where he is to meet Ahmed, Simeon feels like he is traveling towards Harlem. Everything reminds of that. The drab buildings, the cheap stores, the people on the street, men out of work with nothing to do, Arab music blaring from the cafés or the windows of bleak hotels. But then there was police everywhere “stalking the streets, eyes moving insolently from face to face, submachine guns strung from their shoulders. It was like Harlem, Simeon thought, except that there were fewer cops in Harlem, but maybe that too would come one day.” Simeon becomes fascinated by the conditions of Algerians. He meets Ahmed frequently, and even gets  caught when a police raid hits the hotel where he had gone to see Hossein who is an active member of the FLN. Luckily he had his US passport with him. The sense of purpose, the cause that Ahmed and Hossein embody make Simeon reconsider his life in Paris. Maria, who had a successful surgery, is more than ever determined to have an acting career. She goes to parties to meet directors and travels to Italy for a small role in a movie. Their lives are now on separate tracks. An article in the Herald Tribune about black children having to go to school accompanied by soldiers in a small town in the south of the US, the news of the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, and a meeting with Ahmed, who had just returned from a trip to Algeria, push him further in his determination. Ahmed advises him not to let himself rot away: “You know, ‘Drifting from cafe to café’. ” Ahmed tells him how he felt when he was in the mountain of Kabylia with a group of guerrillas while French helicopters came at them. “I was happy for the first time in my life.”  With Ahmed, Simeon meets Latifa and Djamila. The first Algerian women he meets in Paris. He learns all about the torture they have been subjected to, and insists until the women demonstrate for him the you-you he keeps reading about in newspapers. He finds it “bloodcurdling.” Although he struggles at first through this gradual awakening, Simeon Brown eventually reaches a state of serenity that allows him to finally see clearly the direction that his life must take. He had felt helpless in the face of racism in Philadelphia, and when he arrived in Paris to escape from it he was impressed by  Babe Carter’s vow to never go back to the States. Now he was reconsidering that option. The Algerians had shown him a different way of reacting. A different response. While he obviously could not consider and armed struggle, he realized the futility of running away from the problem. The stone face must be confronted.

The climax of The Stone Face and perhaps its most important historical contribution comes near the end of the novel. It is October 1961. The French authorities have decreed a curfew for Algerians and the FLN has responded with a call for a peaceful demonstration.  On October 17, 1961, 30,000 people marched. The head of police Maurice Papon ordered his troops to attack the marchers. For years the French government downplayed the event and would not acknowledge more than 2 deaths on that day. Historian Jean-Luc Einaudi, who has been instrumental in raising awareness of the event in France, has maintained that over 200 people were killed on that day with some of the bodies thrown in the river Seine. A plaque commemorating the event was finally put in place in 2001, although mention of the precise number of victims was avoided.

The Stone Face is generally considered the first fictional account of this event.  William Gardner Smith puts the figure at more than 200: “The corpse of more than two hundred Algerians, Ahmed’s among them were to be fished out of the Seine the next day and for days afterward.” Smith puts his hero Simeon in the middle of the massacre. Having ignored the advice of his fellow expatriates he goes to the march and is horrified by what he sees. “Simeon saw old men clubbed after they had fallen to the ground, sometimes by five or six policemen at a time, their bodies beaten after the men were dead. In scenes of terrible sadism, Simeon saw pregnant women clubbed in the abdomen, infants snatched from their mothers and hurled to the ground. Along the Seine, police lifted unconscious Algerians from the ground and tossed them into the river.” In a last scene of violence, Simeon punches a policeman who is clubbing a woman holding a baby. He had seen the stone face in the face of the policeman and this time he was not running away. He ends up in a police van and is taken to a stadium with hundreds of other Algerians who had been arrested. One more time, his American status comes to rescue Simeon. A condescending officer makes him promise that he would not get involved again in another demonstration and lets him go with these parting words: “You understand, I know something about your problems. I’ve been reading the newspapers about the troubles in the schools. You understand, we like Negroes here, we don’t practice racism in France, it’s not like the United States. We can understand why you prefer to live here. We wouldn’t like to have to expel you.”

It is time to leave Paris. Simeon meets one last time Maria who tells him that she is going to Hollywood with an American director. He then books a return passage to the United States.  The day of his departure as he shaves, he decides to use his razor to slash the canvas on which he had been trying to paint the stone face for over a year.

It is unfortunate that The Stone Face did not enjoy a better reception when it was first published in 1963. The Algerian revolution has certainly had a lasting impact worldwide but the novel came out at a time when the Algerian conflict was no longer in the headlines, and the Civil Rights movement became the central topic of interest for African-American authors. Smith himself became a prominent US expert in the French media.  Nonetheless, his novel remains a rare testimony by an outsider observer of an important chapter in the history of Algeria (and of France ) and deserves to be better known by the Algerian public.


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