Inizjamed team member Elena Cardona, interviews Algerian Lamis Saidi ahead of the upcoming Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival
After reading your poems from the collection “Like a Dwarf Inching Toward Legend”, I noticed that there is a strong reference to buildings. Yi-Fu Tuan says “Place is not only a fact to be explained in the broader frame of space, but it is also a reality to be clarified and understood from the perspectives of the people who have given it meaning.” Buildings are considered as places. The buildings are not a backdrop to your work, but protagonists – they have their own memory. The readers encounter buildings who speak a language which is not easily deciphered or others which still look young despite surviving the turmoil of war. With Tuan’s words in mind, do you agree that people give meaning to buildings? And what about buildings having their own memories?
L.S: People build buildings; buildings are a human creation, a human idea and a human dream. They are the shape of humans’ aspirations to settlement and security and sometimes to “glory” and domination. And when occupied by humans, and through the years, they end up having a complexion, a look, a voice, a language and a memory. In my collection “Like a Dwarf Inching Toward Legend”, I do talk about specific buildings, the buildings of Algiers, the city in which I was born and in which I currently live. And it’s not about all the buildings of Algiers, but only those that were built in the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century by the French colonizers and for the French colonizers. And when I say they were built by the French, I mean the architectural conception, but the actual builders, the real bricklayers were the autochthonous, that is to say the Algerians. So these buildings carry also the memory of violence, a physical and an identity-related violence.
After the independence, the Algerians had recovered these buildings that were built against them since they weren’t allowed to share, equally, the same space with the colonizers. In my poetry book, I try to depict the interesting process of “reverse settlement”, through which the Algerians had to adjust that architecture to their specific culture and way of life, and how they ended up changing the face of the city.
As soon as I read the verse “unfulfilled dreams and disappointment”, I immediately remembered the work of another Algerian author The Dust of Promises by Ahlam Mosteghanemi. This book forms part of her trilogy, composed of the books Memory in the Flesh and Chaos of the Senses, which discusses Algeria’s postcolonial trajectory from independence in 1962 up to this day. Mosteghanemi, regarded as one of the best female novelists in the Arabophone world, writes that “Dreams were made not to come true!” These words underline the disillusionment and disenchantment of the Algerians. Both you and Mosteghanemi share common preoccupations.
LS: I think that all nations that have known in the past great revolutions, have necessarily experienced disillusionment and disappointment. Because there is always this huge gap between the revolutionary ideal and the political reality, since revolutions usually occur to solve a political impasse.
And the Algerian revolution of 1954, was one of the greatest revolutions of the twentieth century. It aimed to free the land but above all to free the man that occupies the land, including the colonizer that needs to be freed and cured from what I would call the “domination disorder”.
And I think Ahlam Mosteghanemi and I, and all Algerians, constantly swing emotionally between these two verses of the great Algerian poet Jean S.nac: “I have dreamed, this people is greater than my dreams” and “I am the trash of this people”.
The Mediterranean Sea is a fractured space, full of cultural, economic, political and historiographic paradigms and practices. You describe the Mediterranean Sea as “no longer blue/but a vast bruise left by the invaders”. This is indeed a beautiful metaphor which highlights the tense relationship between the French and the Algerians. Why do the Algerians feel “bruised” after 60 years of not living under the French colonisers? What does the Mediterranean Sea mean to you?
LS: I would say that this metaphor not only reflects the tense relationship between the French and the Algerians, but also between the north and the south of the Mediterranean Sea. All the things that we joyfully share today from both sides, and I mean: the languages, the words, the music, the culinary heritage, the spiritual and cultural rituals are actually our share of war and violence, because these cultural exchanges were rarely the result of a peaceful human dialogue within a stable balance of power.
The French colonization that lasted 132 years (1830-1962), was not just about occupying the land, but it was a constant attempt to cultural alienation. The rare Algerian children, that could attend French schools, had to learn by heart that surrealistic sentence: “our ancestors are the Gauls” and Arabic was considered by an official decree, a foreign language.
Not to mention the massacres and the people and animals that were asphyxiated in the caves. It’s obviously hard to get rid of the trauma caused by an accumulation of physical and identity related violence. and it is hard to look at the sea with a superficial and a barefoot look.
However, for me the Mediterranean Sea remains the place for my best childhood memories, my first and everlasting time picturing perfect beauty, and it may seem odd, but according tomy very personal background,it is the representation of the concept of emotional security. I always feel safe by the Mediterranean Sea.
Speaking of the Mediterranean Sea, one of your poems alludes to the “cemeterisation” of this sea. The harragas (those who burn – they are North African men who illegally cross the Mediterranean Sea) do not require any permits or special passes to go to the depths of the sea. Once again, I am reminded of another great Algerian artist, the cartoonist Ali Dilem, who in his cartoon “Regroupement Familial en Méditerranée”, depicts the drowning harragas, who will soon be reunited with other “family members”. He criticises the French immigration policy for non-EU residents. What is your take on this?
LS: I think North African people or South Mediterranean (we can also call them that way), invented the “dream” of burning the sea. Even though the word Harragga originally means people who burn their identity documents, then cross the sea (in Arabic, the word for cross, means literally cut).
And we all grew up listening to the story of Moses splitting the red sea. That sea represents also the biggest obstacle that needs to be removed to reach the other side, because what the sea tells us in the first place, is that the other side does exist and therefore we naturally need to reach it.
Both sides are responsible for the tragedy of the migrants who die while attempting to cross the sea: the southern side with its failure to deal with the despair of a population mostly young, and the northern side for impacting directly or indirectly the economic and the political situation of the southern countries, and then not dealing properly with the migrant crises.
The migrants, the refugees and the displaced people are here to remind us each day, of our collective failure to maintain a political stability and to reach social justice, but above all they remind us that humanity has still a long way to go to fight racism and xenophobia.
This article originally appeared on MaltaToday.
Lamis Saidi is one of the invited authors at the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival to be held at Fort St Elmo on Friday, 26th and Saturday, 27th August. Tickets can be bought here.