Old Peugeot taxis are regularly negotiating the potholed roads along the North African coast. Entire families are squeezed into these taxis. Despite the squeeze, no one is complaining. On the horizon is the noise of the Mediterranean surf. The sea is grey, impenetrable, hiding its dead. Beyond the horizon is the land of imagination, Europe. The scene contains a boat of Algerian harraga (migrants).1
In recent weeks the number of taxis along these roads has become ever larger. Hundreds of boats are leaving for the imagined land. Meanwhile, the governors in Algiers are busy finding a successor to the immortal Abdelaziz Bouteflika in the forthcoming election. The political leaders in our Algerian “paradise” are too busy containing street demonstrations against the regime to worry about the roads leading to the sea. And so the masses are leaving – including young mothers with babies. It is no longer a matter of delinquents fleeing; it is a matter of “boat people.”
This rush to the sea is also a sign of something else. People are not fleeing because of hunger or war – there were no harraga during the ten-year civil war in the 1990s. People are fleeing the nonsense, the absurdity, the sexual and cultural repression, the contempt for people displayed by the gerontocrats who run the country. Algerians are fleeing in order to breathe, to walk in the streets in the evening, to watch a football match, a pretty woman or a handsome young man – to enjoy themselves. After 5 p.m., in an Algerian village, you have three choices: the mosque, drugs or suicide. That was how a close friend summarized the state of affairs in late 2018 Algeria.
Somewhere else, something better
Three symbolic facts.
First, in all the YouTube videos showing harraga crossing the Mediterranean, as soon as the boat is launched, the migrants start to sing. At the top of their lungs, like supporters of a football team that has won its match, like guests at a party. In Algeria, your throat is always parched, your body is in a straitjacket laced by religion and by the cult of the old bones of the liberation martyrs.
Second, men and women are mingling. The Islamists oppose any mixing of the sexes – whether in a taxi, in an elevator, at a party, in a restaurant or in a school. Here, in a crowded boat, mingling is fine. According to shari‘a, a woman inherits half as much as a man. In the boat, women pay the same fee to the traffickers and risk the same death as the men.
Third, the vest worn by the migrants is orange – a gilet orange. The cost is about €25.
There, afloat on the Mediterranean, between the reality of life in Algeria and the fantasy of Europe, what is the meaning of this migration? What are the Gilets Oranges of the south seeking in the land of the Gilets Jaunes of the north? Algerian journalists have recently been asking the question. In Algeria, France is the totality of the West. What is currently happening in the West, what is visible, is a troubled soul, a depleted pocketbook and concern over the roots of Western culture.
The Gilets Oranges are dreaming of getting away from Algeria; the Gilets Jaunes are comparing their lives with the lives enjoyed by elites in France. It is fascinating to see that the crisis in France is not dissuading the Gilets Oranges. Scenes of streets aflame, tear gas and riots have no dissuasive impact. They may be fleeing unemployment in Algeria only to be unemployed in Europe. They may be exchanging a gilet orange for a gilet jaune. Do they dream of Paris, the fashion capital? There are many ironies as to why Europe, which is obviously suffering, nonetheless makes Algerian migrants dream. There remains the question: Why are so many boats heading north?
There are answers. Algerian migrants are pragmatic. For Gilets Oranges, Europe offers the possibility of Gilets Jaunes able to demonstrate, go where they like, make demands – the Gilets Jaunes are free, while the Gilets Oranges are not. The Gilets Jaunes may not earn much but they are alive; the Gilets Oranges have yet to be born. For an Algerian woman in her gilet orange, a gilet jaune is preferable to the hijab, the burqa, male machismo, prison and the violence of men. In the boat somewhere in the Mediterranean, the harraga can sing; men and women squeezed together can dream. Something that their country refused them.
So how do young Algerians see the future? For them, the future is orange.
1 Harraga means “those who burn” in Arabic. It has become slang for illegal migrants who have burned their Algerian identification papers.
This article appeared in French in the Paris-based weekly newsmagazine Le Point on December 22, 2018. It was translated for Inroads by John Richards.