A thousand tiny fettered steps

by Michelle Hamadache

MH 4
Louiza Ammi, Shared publicly – Mar 7, 2016 Des images d’Alger la capitale © Louiza AMMI


The mother in me is horrified at that little boy holding onto the pigeon. I’m thinking psittacosis. Mostly I adore his swag, debonair in adidas, his rakish lean against the walls of the kasbah, and his friend stage right eyeing the bird with such adult circumspection. Pigeon and boy front and centre, both bird and boy with me firmly in their sights.

Does the pigeon looks happier than might be expected, given her situation?

Louiza Ammi took that photo. She’s brilliant and she’s brave. She’s taken photos of riots and of graves. She’s taken photos of grieving women just after their village was massacred, and done a series on Algeria’s current president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, very, very old and in his wheelchair. Ammi’s photos have appeared in exhibitions around the world, but also in newspapers. She’s done a lot of photojournalism for Liberte, an Algerian newspaper.

Louiza Ammi is also the photographer who took the image of the solitary figure walking the beach at Bab El Oued, the beach where Meursault shot the Algerian, and the cover-image for Éditions Barzhak original Algerian/French edition of Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation.  It’s also the image I imagined taken by a photographer holding onto the cross at the top of the cathedral of La Belle Dame d’Afrique.

I’ve been assured that Ammi wasn’t on the domed roof of La Belle Dame d’Afrique, she was standing on the road.


Alphabet Steps

Assia Djebar is an Algerian writer, historian, filmmaker and scholar. In her novel, So Vast the Prison, she traces a history of languages lost, of empires past, and of resistance. She tells the story of a woman, Tin Hinan, a fugitive princess born in the fourth century of the Common Era, who flees the coast on a white camel with only women at her side.

Djebar asks what happens if the oral languages spoken by the Tamazigh of today were once written, their alphabet razed by the Roman invasions, by the Vandal invasions. Berber writing and Berber Empires destroyed side by side? An alphabet whose traces exist on a stone taken in the 19th century from ancient ruins at Dougga, Tunisia, and transported to the British museum for deciphering.

The Tuareg, the people of the desert, tell the story of Tin Hinan, near starvation after travelling nearly two thousand kilometres from the coast, but saved by picking up grains in anthills. Bread made from the grain-by-grain labour of ants, by the grain-by-grain labour of women. Bread that gave Tin Hinan and her women companions the strength to cover the final stretch of their journey from coast, across mountains and desert sands, to the fertile valley of the Hoggar.

What if a broken alphabet turned into the symbols of a people from the desert? People who burn the alphabet-in-pieces into the flesh of camels, the faces of rocks, craft it into jewellery and write it in tattoos across their bodies?

Tin Hinan’s mausoleum—buried deep in the belly of the Saharan desert—is found in 1925 by French-American archaeologists. The inscriptions on the wall of her tomb give birth to the idea of an alphabet carried from the Berber kingdoms of the coast to the desert people of the south. An alphabet carried and preserved by a pilgrim princess. Tin Hinan’s body, her small narrow frame with a string of antinomy beads about her ankle, was taken from her desert tomb and placed in the museum of Algiers, back at the coast she left behind her millennia ago (Djebar 1999: 146-67).


After Algeria won independence from France, there was a decision to make Arabic the national language. This was politically a way of aligning Algeria with other Muslim nations and turning their back on a colonial past, but it was also about eradicating elitism and privilege. Often, Algerians who were educated in French were Algerians privileged by the French colonial administration. Arabic was a spoken or written language for less than a handful of Algerians. Quranic Arabic is quite a different thing to Modern Arabic.

Street names and street signs were changed. Rue Michelet, Algiers’ main street modelled after the Haussmann boulevards of France, became Rue Didouche Mourad, re-named after a martyr of war.

To this day there’s still a rue Victor Hugo, though it’s such a little street, it might have been over-looked.

The Tamazight languages were disavowed completely in the nation building process.


Albert Camus, ‘Wages’

I am looking right now at the time cards of farmworkers on the Sabaté-Tracol estates in the region of Bordj-Menaïel.

On one card I see the figure 8 francs, on another 7, and on a third 6 (53-4).

The official estimate of the value of a day’s labor service is 17 francs (Camus 56).

The sirens at Tracol Farms sound during the high season (which is now) at 4 A.M., 11., A.M., 12 noon, and 7 P.M. That adds up to 14 hours of work (54).

I want to mention that the unjustifiable length of the working day is aggravated by the fact that the typical Kabyle worker lives a long way from where he works. Some must travel more than 10 kilometers round trip. After returning home at 10 at night, they must set out again for work at 3 in the morning after only a few hours of heavy sleep. You may be wondering why they bother to go home at all. My answer is simply that they cling to the inconceivable ambition of spending a few quiet moments in a home that is their only joy in life as well as the object of all their concerns (55-6).


The civil war in Algeria broke out after the first-ever democratic elections were held in 1991.  FIS (Islamic Salvation Front) had the lead over the Government.

Since independence from France in 1962, FLN (National Liberation Front: the political force who won Algeria’s independence) had run a single-party socialist state, where elections were fixed, sole candidates on offer, the outcome decided. The Algerian population were absolutely aware of the futility of the process and absolutely aware of the corruption and nepotism of their leaders.

 50% of the population didn’t vote at all in the 1991 elections—too many years of disbelieving in the process. The men who supported FIS took advantage of their right to vote on behalf of their wives, sisters and daughters (Toumi xii). A military led coup prevented the final round of elections from taking place and civil war followed

200 000 dead at least. A terrifying number of people just disappeared. Bombs. Whole villages massacred, left with their throats slashed and no way of knowing whether it was the act of state or the act of a rogue-would-be-state. Intellectuals, artists, journalists and writers butchered along side the President, Boudiaf, a man brought back from exile and whom a weary, frightened population pinned their hopes upon for a moderate Algeria.


Amine Zaoui, an Algerian writer, wrote that to falsify the names of places, that is the ‘geographic geography’ is to open the door to falsifying ‘human geography’. To violate the names of a place is a violence against the imagination. It is a war against les racines, the roots (Zaoui: translation mine).

Zaoui was writing in celebration of Tamazight languages which are now constitutional national languages in Algeria, after a very long and active policy of suppression. I wonder if Australia will ever catch up?

Zaoui got five comments to his post. Two from a Monsieur Larbi who took affront to ‘human and geographical’ geographies. Larbi told Zaoui he’d be better off trying to make sense, not nonsense, if he wants to make a point.

Children who grew up with rue Michelet as the main street of Algiers are adults with a rue Didouche Mourad. Children who were asked to forget, or to never learn the Tamazight languages of their parents by a government wanting to create an Arabic Muslim nation, are now finding its alphabets on the blackboards of their class rooms.

Zaoui wants to see a process of remembering through the renaming of landmarks in Algeria, of returning to the original Tamazight names. He makes particular mention of mountains; he sees them transformed from giants to little things if their names can be so easily erased. Zaoui sees these once outlawed, threatened, marginalised Tamazight languages nurtured back to thriving by the concerted and combined efforts of artists and institutions.

Imagine telling children how precarious their world is. Imagine that children are born knowing this and all growing up is about forgetting the wild, the uncertain and the bottomless, ceiling-less dreams and fears of monsters and magic.


There’s a lot about remembering and forgetting in Derrida’s Monolingualism of the Other. There’s a lot about the way language masters, is always colonial, and the way in the very same moment language is all about non-mastery, the master owns nothing (23).

‘Mastery begins, as we know, through the power of naming, of imposing and legitimating appellations’ (39).

Derrida remembers growing up a Sephardic Jew in an Algiers where all languages and cultures apart from French were interdicted. He remembers being a little boy thrown out of his school in Algiers because Vichy France revoked his French citizenship, even from across the seas. Derrida’s return to his Algerian upbringing after years of forgetting, or of silence, is known as his ‘nostalgeria’, his ‘anamnesis’ (Abdel-Jaoud 245-6).

In 2003, the afternoon Derrida was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, he chose to attend a public debate with Mustapha Chérif, a moderate Islamic voice and the first Muslim to be received by a pope. A debate where Islam, Algeria, its war, but also the ‘Arab as the ultimate figure of exclusion and dissidence in the post-9/11 era’ were discussed publicly, without rancour, a discussion between friends. Chérif describes this gesture as the ‘most beautiful sign of solidarity, the greatest gesture of friendship he could have offered’ (x).

Islam and the West is the product of that afternoon.

Edward Baring notes that Derrida’s early writing, the essays he wrote as he prepared for entry to the Grandes Écoles in France, and a letter he wrote to Pierre Nora, a staunch advocate of an independent Algeria, show certain ambivalences about French colonial Algeria that his later writings on Algeria would forget. A young Derrida defended the French education system in Algeria as one of its ‘least contestable efforts, despite its insufficiency’, and Derrida defended the French Algerian as unproblematically French: ‘French, from the time of his birth, by right and above all in fact, in everything, the texture of this culture, his language . . .’ (Baring 250&3).

Derrida finishes Monolingualism of the Other, his autobiographical refusal to write: ‘I-was-born-in-El-Biar-on the-outskirts-of-Algiers . . .’ (Weber 1995: 119) by yearning for his youthful self, the one left behind ‘overthere’; a little boy who would have found the ‘unreadability of language and the promise of the possibility of learning to read ‘unreadability’ a terrifying game (Derrida 1998:73).


Tahar Djaout was shot dead outside his house in 1993, aged 39. The bullets bring his wife and daughter out onto the street.

The Last Summer of Reason was found in his room and published in fidelity with that manuscript, without any attempts to polish or edit the story of a book seller in an imagined Algiers, one where a fictional Islamic sect called the Vigilante Brothers have taken control.

The Brothers have transformed children into stone-throwing spies. Books are a sin, as is music and art and conversations between men and women.

Djaout’s book seller isn’t a writer, a hero, an anti-hero. He’s a man who remembers and who reads, and a man who dreams of killing his son, now an officer of the Vigilante Brothers, to rid the world of the tyrant. The tyrant-man who was once a son-child who camped in the woods by the sea in summer and held his father’s hand as the weather changed to autumn. A summer never to be repeated because even the changing of the seasons is subordinate to the climate of fear of Algeria under the Vigilante Brothers.

The thing is in Djaout’s vision it wasn’t war or force that brought about the reign of the Vigilante Brothers. It was a population, a generation of children, who chose the certainty and ease of a single path, of a single Truth, over the book seller’s utopia of words, the utopia he cannot part with.

‘For words put end to end, bring doubt and change’ (Djaout 144).


The world of Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation is grotesque. Children play soccer with disinterred skulls, and obese settler overlords with gargantuan Arab apples (not Adam’s) stuck in their craw torture their workers by sitting on their chests. There’s a cynical beauty there too, murder beneath a lemon tree and the moon, instead of shots fired under a too hot sun.

Words that lie and tell the truth, manipulate and defy. Words to repel and compel. One black word after another.

‘I don’t want to play the victim, but it took us years to cross the dozen or so meters that separated our hovel from the settlers’ house, years of tiny, fettered steps, like slogging through mud and quicksand in a nightmare’, Harun says to his silent audience (Daoud 30).

I didn’t want to keep reading The Meursault Investigation. Daoud was flipping lids on tombs, throwing the content of nightmares naked to the night, revealing things I’d rather forget, or never know. Things I’d rather imagine never existed.

What sickened me most in following Daoud’s tiny, fettered steps from hovel to house, was that the journey traced by Harun, his metonymic steps from colonised to citizen, only led to a repetition of the same. Harun shot his Frenchman as Meursault shot his Arab.

I kept reading through mud and quicksand because I could feel Daoud had something to tell me beyond the repetition of the same. I wanted to walk in his beyond, a beyond where I remembered to leave behind the ‘what is’ of repeating murders.


Its living voice has grown husky, a very young voice, but it is not dead. It is not an evil. I have the feeling that, if it is given back to me one day, I shall see, for the first time in reality, as a prisoner of the cave does after death, the truth of what I have lived: the truth itself beyond memory, as the hidden other side of shadows, of images, and of phantasms that have filled each moment of my life (Derrida 1998: 73).

A truth beyond memory, the steps retraced, and the voice that repeats. The terrifying game of unreadability, or, the utopia of words.


It was late, and I was tired as I sat down to start this blog.  The stern glare of a white screen and no words like footprints to guide my way. The house was almost quiet, even my seventeen-year-old son was asleep, phone and PS3 hung up for the night. Amine just home, though it was past midnight, and the African World Cup on Fox Sports was turned down low so I could work, when really I just wanted to go to bed, so I went and sat down next to Amine, not sure if I had this fourth blog in me.

Amine works very late some nights, sometimes all night and all the next day too, cleaning cars. It’s his business and to detail a car is 3-4 hours, especially on your own. He’s done that since Italy, when he worked in an autolavaggio owned by a Napolitano called Ciro, a migrant too. Ciro’s children were struggling with literacy at their new school in posh Perugia, because even in the 1990s, their Napolitano dialect was so strong in them they were falling further and further behind in a region of central Italy not far from where Dante began the process of shaping an Italian language (singular).

‘Fourth blog. I’m tired.’

‘Michelle,’ Amine said, I’m not sure his eyes left the screen (Algeria vs Ethiopia), ‘What are you sitting here for then? Back you go—come on, step on your heart—afas ala kalbek.’

Though his words come at the end of this blog, ‘step on your heart’ were the first words on the page. The next were Daoud’s ‘tiny, fettered steps’ and Djaout’s ‘utopia of words’. The blank page didn’t look lonely anymore, but rather like the territory of an explorer’s dream.

‘قَلْبَكْ  عْلَى آعْفَسْ’  Were they the words beneath the feet of those Kabyles trekking the midnight miles between work and home? Are they the words Amine says to himself when it’s 10 P.M. and there’s still a Jeep Cherokee to go?

What is it to imagine that by standing on your heart you can walk further, push harder? Do you see the tiny quick-fire muscle of the lonely swallow and the leaden heart of a happy prince? Do you think that with the feel of the beat of the heart beneath the sole of our foot we can take one more step? The step we thought we didn’t have in us? The steps we’ve taken across continents of ice and famished lands?


I think about those boys in Ammi’s photo and the way they are standing at the bottom of the stairs. They are so young and the kasbah, so very ancient. Can’t you feel the irreverence in the feet of those boys as they pound their way up and down that stairway a thousand times a day? Can’t you feel their indifference to what’s gone on before them because they are so light on the earth just now? But what is it that makes us want to hold in our hands-like-prisons creatures meant to fly?

Will that little boy in his adidas jacket grow up to remember the day he held a white pigeon for a woman who wanted to hold him in the digital eye of her camera? Will that little boy-turned-man remember the feeling of feathers and folded wings as the symbol of the memory of his youth, or as a symbol of the future he once held in his hands? Did that white pigeon ever manage to fly far enough away to find what she wanted? A white bird and limitless skies, though held forever still on the cusp of a little boy’s first steps into the world?

The thirteenth hour

I want to kiss both cheeks of the little boy in the corner with his indecipherable gaze, and perhaps straighten his collar so his neck isn’t so exposed as he squirms from the embrace of my imagination.

There’s something about the staircase. Those narrow, steep little steps. The steps you’d take slowly if you were old, but leap four at a time in your youth. All around us are stairwells like that one. Stairways leading up to the heavens as though the up is what matters. The stones of the earth we’ve carved into steps to suit the size of our feet. The steps to train us to walk as though our ankles are shackled, as though we’ve forgotten how to fly from memory to dream. As though we’ve forgotten the hinterland of memory is paved with song and sorrow and only the wings of feathered things gripped too tight to fly hold us to time’s arrow.

Works Cited:

Abdel-Jaoud, Hedi, ‘Derrida’s Algerian Anamnesis; of Autobiography in the Language of the Other’ in Remembering Africa, M.E. Mudimbe-Boyi (ed), Heinemann: Portsmouth, NH, 2002, pp. 245-279.
Ammi, Louiza, Shared publicly  –  Mar 7, 2016
Des images d’Alger la capitale © Louiza AMMI
Baring, Edward, ‘Liberalism and the Algerian War: The Case of Jacques Derrida’, Critical Inquiry, 36.2, 2010, pp. 239-61.
Camus, Albert, Algerian Chronicles, trans. Arthur Goldhammer, Belknap Press of Harvard UP: Cambridge, MA, London, 2013.
Chérif, Mustapha, Islam and the West: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida, University of Chicago Press: Chicago and London, 2008.
Daoud, Kamel, The Meursault Investigation, trans. John Cullen, Oneworld Publications: London, 2015.
Derrida, Jacques, Monolingualism of the Other, or, The Prosthesis of Origin, trans. Patrick Mensah, Stanford UP: California, 1998.
Djaout, Tahar, The Last Summer of Reason, trans. Marjolijn de Jager, University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln and London, 2007.
Djeba, Assia, So Vast the Prison, trans. Betsy Wing, Seven Stories Press: New York, Toronto, London, 1999.
Djeba, Assia, Algerian White, trans. David Kelly and Marjolijn de Jager, Seven Stories Press: New York, London, Sydney, Toronto, 2000.
Toumi, Alek Baylee, ‘Introduction’ in The Last Summer of Reason, trans. Marjolijn de Jager, University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln and London, 2007, pp. v-xvii.
Weber, Elisabeth (ed.), Points . . . Interviews, 1974-1994, trans. Peggy Kamuf and others, Stanford UP: Stanford, 1995.
Zaoui, Amine, ‘Le Traumatisme identitaire’, Liberte, Actualities, 24.3.2016: accessed at: http://www.liberte-algerie.com/chronique/le-traumatisme-identitaire-340, 30th March, 2016.