I saw monks immolate themselves in the 1970s to protest various events, including the war in Vietnam. Then, I hear here and there of persons committing suicide. It is sad, I feel in each case, but I never gave it further thought. Not even in the case of an acquaintance who, apparently, did not want to live. Kamal, a Kabyle we had known briefly, was a very well-mannered and nice young man in his late twenties. During social events, his conversations were mere statements he made briefly with a seemingly forced smile that would make one think he’d rather not say anything if he had the choice. We nearly befriended him. Looking back, it should not have been difficult to realize that the smiles he could hardly sustain naturally were signs of absent mindedness, as though a preoccupation were keeping him out of focus. Not long after we had met him, we learned that he committed suicide; his entourage already knew about his chronic depression and it finally happened after many previous suicide attempts. That was a case of medical condition.
Now, I see youth self-immolation spread in the Kabyle community for other reasons. Unlike Kamal, those who survive have the opportunity to explain their desperate act; and the fact that they are sober to provide an explanation, their neurons must still be spinning in the right direction. Putting it in street language, they are not crazy, but desparate. The ultimate spark is despair, the cause of hopelessness. What’s left when hope is lost?
Young people everywhere in Algeria, big cities and villages, wander aimlessly every day. Looking around, walking down the street, it takes no analytical brain to observe discontent in people’s demeanor. The expression on their faces, their pace, their movements send out very clear messages which betray their state of mind. There is a striking difference between an active person’s demeanor walking along with a purpose in mind and that of a passive person whose life is idle. Idle individuals with no jobs and no daily agenda get up every morning with no knowledge of their fate. Some have even lost the notion of time, their sleep schedule is disturbed as they can afford to go to bed and get up as they feel. These young men, many of whom earned a college degree, are no delinquents. They found themselves trapped in the labyrinth of an unstructured country’s governance, where everyone is the boss and no one is responsible. During a recent visit Home, my daughter could not but observe the same faces hanging out at the street corner every day, with a self-conscious look, nearly éfarouché, that seemed to be calling for help to take them away, anywhere. At first, she wondered how these young men can afford the time to gather and socialize for hours. Later, she learned that they were “hittistes”, or lads who have nothing to do but hang out. One afternoon, in the heat of an Algerois summer, she caught herself choking and could not breathe. Then she sobbed. When she came back to her senses, she explained that at the sight of the young pack, apparently full of life, she felt for them as their youth is wasted day in day out. Her emotions were disturbed by a mere observation. How do these so-called Hittistes keep their sanity, while they are victims of a shaky structure? No man with a twig of reasoning ability can even claim having an idea of what it is to be trapped in idleness with no chance of escape, which nurtures evil thoughts. The recent protests, which have not spared one Arab country, characterize the mind of these forgotten youth whose reaction has challenged the leadership’s ethics. And their governments shamelessly call them drug addicts in Libya and hazb faransa in Algeria (Arabic for French party, or simply, traitors). How dare they?
Many families sacrificed the bulk of their income to educate their children who end up in an environment of social dysfunction under the nation’s poor governance. This is tough, especially for the young who need to expand their energy physically, mentally, and intellectually.
One may wonder how we got here, but it is really not anything new. Today’s youth are the grandchildren of post-independent Algeria. Their parents, themselves, grew up under the thumb of a single regime, with one self-proclaimed president, one newspaper, one radio, one TV station – one voice. These very people ironically taught us the evil of dictatorship and the injustice of capitalism. This type of government structure, copied from the eastern block and put in place after the independence by those who may have meant well, destroyed all incentives. They were lured by the promise of the Marxist utopia of human equality. The controlling elite were of course excluded from the evil side of that utopia and, whether through ignorance or careful planning, it was never explained to the little guys in the street, the citizens, whom they brag about liberating from the French yoke. Instead, they controlled everything and they impoverished them, neglected and humiliated them – all equally, indeed. As a faculty in an Algerian university, I lined up at five in the morning to buy a loaf of bread, and we had to fill buckets with water as it was cut off for the major part of the day during which some privileged neighbors were washing their cars. As time spoke, the socialist and communist ideology crumbled, because the human factor was not included in the equation of the country’s development. The social liberties became a privilege, which depended on personal connections. Young men were arrested on such sorry things as letting their hair grow long à la Beatles or wearing pattes d’éléphant (bell-bottom) pants. That was the western world materialistic debauchery, so they say.
Our liberators’ successors, these brilliant hypocrites who have had a chance to learn and should know how to better run a country for the good of their fellow citizens, hide their sneaky doings behind a fake democratic façade, with no respect for the word democracy itself, a word still engraved on the Nation’s name. They live a shiny lifestyle, while our youth wander about the streets of Algeria in flip-flops, not able to afford a pair of shoes. One would think that, in their positions as public servants, it should at least occur to them to do something of social value. Instead, to add insult to injury, they flash arrogantly their luxurious façade at the down-and-outs; especially the neglected young people, some of whom are college educated. A mind is a terrible thing to waste, but time follows its course and never waits while these bullied souls see the best years of their lives pass by helplessly. This is legalized bullying that builds frustration, leads to despair and ultimately to suicide. The strong take it to the street. Others, overcome by despair, end their suffering by taking their own lives. No one with a hint of sanity should have to do such a thing. Just like children at school, grownup citizens are also bullied to their limit. Bullying in schools is an act of childhood ignorance; government bullying is premeditated evil.
So, it appears that the classic pattern of producing good citizens has not been followed. Considering the big picture, the full time job of a kid is to learn, play – which is another means of learning – and rest. Academic learning takes place in schools. Performing schools require resources. With all the natural wealth in Algeria, one would think that we should have one of the best educational systems money can buy. Instead, much greater effort was put into establishing governance built on demagoguery than building a strong country. As a faculty, I noticed that students in our universities have no linguistic skills, let alone communication skills. Rare were those who could express themselves entirely in one language, if not uncomfortably. As medicine and sciences in general were taught in a foreign language to students who graduated from an entirely Arabized secondary school system, a jargon that is essentially an amalgamation of French and Arabic evolved naturally and became the only working communication tool among students.
The playing element in a child upbringing is yet something else; it requires the involvement of the entire village to teach compassion, ethics, self-respect and patriotism – values. This is the role of the community, which requires leaders who, themselves, need resources to create an environment for children to grow. Then whose responsibility is it? Since everything is run by the government, including interfering with citizens’ private affairs, one would trust that the government ought to put forth expert bodies in various areas to care about a child’s future. These children are the future backbone of our country, unless this obscure future is inherited by the controlling elite that are groomed with the intent of carrying on the vulture legacy, as we commonly see it in Arab countries.
People are hungry for food and freedom. That is reality. Yet, they have been called drug addicts by the very governments whose mission it is to protect them. Our leaders throne themselves to manage the country’s wealth, but leave the responsibility of training good citizens to the community with empty hands, a community whose members already lack experience or are even uneducated.
So is the sorry environment in which an average child grows up in Algeria, an environment that incubates everything but goodness.