letter from Annaba (Algeria)

Armand writes to us from Annaba, a coastal town in the east of Algeria. The fraternity there is already very old. Despite the very hard times that the Christians of Algeria (and also some Moselms) have been through in the last twenty years, Armand does not give up hope and remains very sensitive to every opening that arises within Islam.
Annaba, aerial viewAnnaba, aerial view
Since the Regional Meeting in Algiers, I have just rediscovered Annaba. It is summer; the people around me are doing different things. The primary and secondary schools are closed until the new term starts. Many adults are taking their annual holidays, but not going away for much of the time. Some students, especially at the medical school, have to re-sit their exams. The beaches are very busy, and the town is swarming with unfamiliar faces: emigrants returning to their homeland, people from the inland regions who are on holiday or in search of new horizons, migrants from sub-Saharan Africa (who walk about quite openly, even when they are illegal).
The cafe terraces on the little square near where I live are packed all day long, and even well into the night. At times young people, some of them very young, let off steam playing and making a racket, with no concern for the fact that adults or elderly people may want a bit of peace after being in a noisy environment all day. There is nothing but shouts or jeers, car horns and car alarms, not to mention all the conversations on mobiles which can be heard by all-comers with no concern for privacy. There is also music, but that’s comparatively quiet.
For all that, life could seem somewhat monotonous. However, there is a lot happening. Why is that little girl on the second floor sobbing almost all day long? Her parents are divorcing, the little girl wants her mum!
Why are there scores of people waiting outside the law court, about 100 yards away? All is explained in the newspaper: "Three boatloads of Harraga off Annaba – a chase results in one person dead and 18 injured."
Accident at sea, 1 dead and 18 injuredAccident at sea, 1 dead and 18 injured

The Harraga are people who with no respect for roads, frontiers or 'papers', try to reach Sardinia in small motor boats, at the risk of their lives. I think I have already mentioned them.
And it is not just them: there are young people bored with life who want to see and live something different, unemployed adults, lovers who want to see their partners (real or hypothetical). Yet it’s not Eldorado across the water: "If I had known, I would not have gone," said a young man who managed the illegal crossing. And why do some people (a real mafia) get rich by exploiting the unemployed by running these deadly craft? It all seems well organised; there is the boat with its engine and GPS system.
'Harraga' off the Algerian coast'Harraga' off the Algerian coast
And why is it so difficult for the police to spot these boats ready to sail when night falls? There are not that many beaches large enough for this kind of traffic! But for all that, many of the attempts fail, especially this recent one, where there was a chase between a police launch and three of the motor boats. Things went wrong; was the collision deliberate? The result: 1 person killed, and 18 injured. The dead person, aged 32, apparently wanted to see his fiancee in France, but people said that he had been refused a visa several times. The result was a family in mourning. And who was to blame?
With a country that leaves young people with no hope, with other countries that close their doors to people from the south, Africa is not a good place to be for young people these days! Show us an African country where young people are happy, these days. For even if you do have a job, you cannot remain honest, or you get noticed. A neighbour who sells computer equipment told me that he had given up studying law when he realised that the whole justice system, both lawyers and magistrates, were corrupt!
Some of them join the police, the civil guard or the army. Sure, they get a guaranteed salary, but unfortunately there is still a lot of terrorism here, which strikes suddenly and unexpectedly. For example, the other day an army convoy was attacked by a terrorist group, resulting in 14 soldiers killed. The victims were from all parts of the country, and most of them were conscripts. So perhaps it is less dangerous to try and get out on one of the boats. A month before that there was an ambush in the middle of the country which left 18 dead.

But one cannot feel frightened or worried all the time, you only have to go to the beaches to see that. Life goes on normally, on the surface at least. And it is true that all through the summer there have been festivals everywhere, not least the Algiers pan-African festival in the first fortnight of July, at which the folklore or culture of all the countries of Africa (except Morocco) were represented. Then there were festivals of modern music, Andalusian music, Rai, drama, and also the Timgad in the magnificent Roman ruins. There have also been gatherings of a religious nature, such as the International Congress celebrating the centenary of a Sufi (mystical) religious fraternity, which seeks to maintain an open heart to other people and to the world. The Sheikh (Grand Master) usually lives in France because his parents suffered under the regime of President Boumedienne. There were 5,000 people at the congress, and it was all very well organised. One of its themes was the protection of the environment.

For several months previously, a caravan had gone round the country to raise the level of people's awareness, and at every stop they planted an Argan tree, which is a species only found south of the Atlas mountains in Morocco. There was a real religious debate about this in the press. I will just quote a journalist: "Basically, one had to attend this congress to see not only a break from the kind of boring religious conference that is usual in Algeria - for once, and in the words of the participants, we were seeing the true foundation of a national and international debate on Islam and the way in which it is practised. What is surprising is that this was organised by a confraternity, not with large State resources."
Everything is possible in Algeria, for better, for worse. So we continue to live in hope.
I noticed this fact once again quite recently, during a meeting of about forty people in Annaba (for two years I have been a member of a local association). We were examining the question of civil violence (excluding terrorism). It was interesting to note how the people there (mainly women) were committing themselves to try and give young (and not so young) people more hope by listening to them on a phone helpline (SOS Nour), or by organising French classes in impoverished areas, fully conscious of the realities of day-to-day life and its difficulties. For me, my contribution was my presence.
There was also the Imam from the oldest mosque in Annaba, who was about forty years old. People asked for his advice, addressing him formally, but he replied in all simplicity. One afternoon, I went to visit him in his mosque; he was receiving a group of young diabetics from a youth holiday camp in Setif, and was telling them about the history of the mosque. We visited it all together. Later on, as the Ramadan period of fasting was approaching, he told them insistently that they did not need to fast, given that they had to have several insulin injections every day. This broadminded approach does not go down well with his colleagues, we are told. Afterwards, I had a long conversation with him; he is against the Wahhabites and he attended the congress I described above.

This is how one can spend a summer in Annaba. It all enriches my prayer life, and tells me that it being here is worthwhile . And now the month of Ramadan has started, a month of fasting, meditation and prayer. Needless to say, there has been a change in the pace of life all around me. I pray that the Lord will look favourably on the fasting of those around me. I am also thinking of all of you.