He sells fruit and vegetables from a pushcart. The heat is intense and so is the poverty. A cop ambles over and gives him a shove. The vegetable vendor is humiliated. He goes off and comes back with a can of gasoline, and sets himself afire. They take him to the hospital, where he dies. Sounds like the story of Bouazizi the Tunisian, but his name is Yachir Boumediene and he’s from Bechar, Algeria, a country that does not belong to its people. The consequences? Zip. Nothing happens. The president does not fly down in a hurry, the army isn’t neutral, the people don’t take to the streets, no one shouts “get out.” Most say, “Really?”
And yet here we have a vegetable seller, a pushcart, a nasty cop, a martyr with a can of gasoline. What’s missing from this story to turn it into History? It’s like looking into the gap between walking on the moon and walking around in a daze. It’s what everyone says these days: Algeria is twenty years ahead of everyone else and ten years behind.
Global warming gave us our Arab Spring years ago. Yachir Bechar burned six months after Bouazizi, but we cleared out our President Chadli thirty years before Benali. We had 500 dead in October 1988 and 200,000 in the ten years following. All of this has been analyzed ad nauseam but it still doesn’t explain why Bechar’s self-immolation provoked a small riot instead of a revolution.
Some talk about dislocation. Algerians are isolated, detached from one another, and no longer think they can have a country just because they have a nationality. The Revolution? We already had two of those, with nothing to show for it—that’s a fair summary of popular opinion. The other reason is our murky underground economy. Our vegetable vendor operated within it, but so does our Pouvoir. You can’t attack a regime you can’t see with your own eyes.
Beyond that you have despair and cowardice. Let’s admit it, many Algerians have grown timid and cautious. We’re a nation of senior citizens where the old are ferocious and have all their teeth, while the young are soft and have barely a canine to bite their meat and a molar to chew their bread.
That’s for laughs. Beyond that there’s our vague suspicion that Algerians are looking for something new, a new path between the earth and the moon, a brand-new story to rouse them to revolt. They don’t want the old reasons, they want a new one. The national drama is missing something it didn’t find in the Bechar case.
It’s unfair to this young man, appalling for his family, criminal for those who send their kids to school in London and chase a street vendor into God’s desert, but that’s the way it is. History has its fits and starts. Peoples too. It would probably be correct to say that a nation is not a people all the time but only intermittently. When we leap toward the sky and point to a star. The rest of the time, we’re just idle onlookers, and the Bouazizis of this world could be traffic accidents. May God welcome the soul of this young man. Algeria couldn’t manage it.
Translation of the author's column, “Raina Raikoum,” in Quotidien d’Oran, June 21, 2011. Copyright 2011 by Kamel Daoud. Translation copyright 2011 by Suzanne Ruta. All rights reserved.