Translator's note: Kamel Daoud's novel O Pharaon (Editions Dar el Gharb, Oran, 2004) describes the rise and fall of a warlord in one unhappy town in Western Algeria during the 1990s civil war. Read from today’s perspective, the novel offers a microcosm of events in the rebelling countries of North Africa.
“This story is neither true nor false but for years it was heavier than truth,” Daoud’s novel starts out. He describes the unnamed Pharaoh as “a little man, on the stocky side . . . as disappointingly ordinary, almost, as a shoelace guilty of strangling someone.” When Algerians talk about the système, they mean the long chains of corruption linking the regime in Algiers (known in the novel as La Propagande) to small-town potentates, like this one.—Suzanne Ruta
El Ghaouti was a round, stubborn man, set in his ways. He always wore the same frayed gray jacket, appropriate for a member of the country’s underpaid teaching profession. For his neighbors in the city of Medina, he came to represent a gentle continuity, like the ticking of a clock, because he took the same route home each afternoon, and because many remembered him from their school days.
On his way home one Monday in 1997, in the month of June, in his twenty-ninth year of public service, El Ghaouti was kidnapped, grabbed and stuffed into a burlap bag by a stranger with the practiced hand of a sheep rancher. What an outrage, to wind up gasping for air in the dark gullet, you could call it, of that beast whose existence was known to him by hearsay, as it was to everyone in town.
His was a simple story. One day he suddenly found himself in a showdown with the city’s subterranean monster, whose noxious attentions he attracted by zealously correcting the exam papers of the young daughter of an officer of the Propaganda Arm. Still as conscientious as in the good old days, when he set store by honesty and perfect spelling, El Ghaouti gave her the failing grade that excluded her from the list of those entitled to a higher education. The Beast was quick to react. The very next day the teacher was carried off in the infamous burlap bag, and given a generous helping of an electric cord, to make him correct the errant exam grade. On his release a day later, El Ghaouti, in an unpredictable display of a quality closely related to courage but also to death that is sometimes concealed in simple lives, wrote a long open letter to the newspapers, calling a press conference to denounce the treatment to which he’d been subjected. What would have been a harmless episode, if the Pharoah’s kingdom hadn’t already been collapsing after his brief prison stint, became a major affair that roused the teacher’s colleagues to action and briefly shone a light into the city’s labyrinthine depths. El Ghaouti was kidnapped a second time, but by then the affair had completely escaped the jaws of Omertà, and the officer who picked him up was obliged to let him go.
One thing led to another, and public attention was drawn upward, toward the city’s reigning spider. People began to talk about the notoriously high success rate among baccalaureate candidates at the one city school expressly reserved at exam time in 1997 for the offspring of El M’Dina bigshots. Perhaps it was the sly, uneducated Pharoah who had the idea, in those murky times, of recruiting all the town’s moneyed types and influential families to this facility in order to compromise them. This lycée was well known to the people of Medina, who were not in the least surprised when the headmistress, known for her excellent French and her wild taste in hair dyes, was named a senator for life at the end of her teaching career. This one time only, the details of the scandal got under the skin of visitors and passing motorists, and briefly attracted the attention of the rest of the country, but the scandal was quickly hushed up.
Yet it accomplished something important: it lifted the edge of the veil over doings in this town. The El Ghouati case roused the majority to a campaign of low-level resistance, with muttered complaints. Quite simply, people began to speak out, and here, perhaps, we have the turning point, the start of the new era, when the Pharoah would be expelled, spat into the dirt at the side of the road.
Translation copyright 2011 by Suzanne Ruta. All rights reserved.