Meeting of the Pharaohs by the Red Sea

By Kamel Daoud

Algerian Kamel Daoud is editor in chief of the French language daily newspaper Quotidien d'Oran, where he writes a daily column, or chronique, under the title "Raina Raikoum" [Our Opinion Is Your Opinion].  In a country under state of emergency/political lockdown since 1992, and where TV and radio are state owned, his tart observations are read and discussed by many, including on two Facebook pages run by his fans.  On February 12, 2011, at the end of the first Peaceful March for Democratic Change, in Oran, he was attacked by the police, as reported in the on-line newspaper Dernieres Nouvelles d'Algerie: http://www.dna-algerie.com.

Here Daoud considers the Second Arabic Economic Development and Social Summit held in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, on January 19, 2011. Ten heads of state, along with other government officials and UN representatives, met to discuss the economic integration of the region. Then-president of Egypt Hosni Mubarak delivered the opening remarks.

The pharoahs of the Arab states have been meeting on the shores of the Red Sea, intending to cross the waters in pursuit of Bouazizi and his kin.* This summit prompts the question: what is an “Arab” country good for these days?

Time was, when an Arab country let us wait for it, fight for it, dream of it, inhabit it, reunite with kin and throw the colonizers out. Fifty years later, opinion is unanimous: an Arab country is useful for keeping Arabs in their place, pumping gas or watching people die a wretched death or live in boredom under tight surveillance reinforced with frequent beatings. The men who liberated our countries proclaimed themselves heirs and then prophets of universal development,  then stabilizing dictators, then leaders in the battle against Islamism, then guarantors against mass emigration, presidents for life in countries without life or savor.  And when, barely half a century after the huzzahs of independence, people set themselves on fire because they cannot change their countries or leave them, or stomach them or love them, we all conclude it’s time to ask a different question: who needs a country, anyway?

The answers are all in.

Some would replace their country with the oumma, the community of the faithful, replace enterprise with mosques, abandon earth for heaven, abandon women to the devil and humanity for Truth. Others say, my country is the farthest point that I can reach heading due north by motorboat or fax or internet or visa.  My country is where the camel gives out from exhaustion and takes root, like in the film Errissala (The Messenger).

Still others say my country is the way things used to be, and long before that too, back in the time when we thought we were going to have a country, because we already lived there after all.  Others give up, stare at the ground, and say What’s the point of asking for a country when we can’t even have a piece of it the size of our shoe sole?  The solution, then, is to close up shop and go home and let life pass you by, as if it happened on another planet. Others take their country as their country strictly by default: when you manage to get exactly nowhere, your country is the place where you are stuck.

Besides,  in a globalized world, our country is our salary, our job; the place where you collect your paycheck, there you proclaim your nationality.  Finished?   No.

In the Arab world you recognize your country by the hole it leaves in your heart after it’s been stolen from you. We recognize our countries by their lack, their possibility, the prohibition on having a country in our own country. Our Arab dictators have said it often: a country is too important to be inhabited by its own people and too precious to be entrusted to them.  Then what do we do? If you burn your country, it will no longer exist. If you wait passively for it, it will never come. If you go for it despite the police, you might wind up dead before you get a chance to touch it. If you just stand there looking, you’ll be sorry because it won’t look at you. If you’re always denigrating it, you wind up insulting yourself.

If you don’t reclaim it from the forty thieves, you’ll die one day of sadness and dispossession. If you blow yourself up for your country, you reduce it to more rubble. If you choose to side with the thieves, you’ll end up trampling your own mother’s body.

Let’s stop right here, and get back to basics.  Is it useful to have a country when you don’t have it and have never had it, never even had a chance to stroke its neck?  Yes.  It’s instinctive: even if you don’t have a country, you have the memory of the country you lost. And even if you don’t want to have a country, you live in the country of denial.

*Mohammed Bouazizi, the Tunisian protester who set himself on fire.

Published in "Raina Raikoum," Quotidien d’Oran, January 20, 2011. Copyright Kamel Daoud. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2011 by Suzanne Ruta. All rights reserved.

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