A banquet for seaweed
By Heidar Heidar
Translated by Khaled Diab
Chapter three begins with a three-way conversation between Mahdi, Mehyar and Fula. They are discussing the outcomes of the Algerian revolution.
That sudden assault that disintegrates a nation with its fire to later emerge from the flames in a new guise. Towns, villages, forests and people were burnt. The land and all that was upon it was left black and charred. But still they managed to rise out of the ashes.
In its ferocity, it would burst open the springs of selfless love, labour and sacrifice. It removed the monarch and transformed matter into radiation, mending the parts which were broken. All that was luminous and human would travel, like a beam of light, across the rivers of blood and under the shimmering whips of torture.
When they were trapped in the straits of danger and death, they burst forth like a hurricane. Now, what has happened after the victory?
Mehyar El-Baheli says, “Their mettle hardened when confronted by a threatening situation. They were in danger of extinction. Positively, the instinct for life rose to forestall the instinct for death. They stood as equals in the face of danger.”
Mahdi Jawad replies, “It was a group war. There was no discrimination or selection. Class warfare is what killed people’s mettle. The evil returned with the return of the monarchy following the victory. That’s how it would appear.”
Mahyar explains, “It is perhaps an ancient hereditary split which has returned to tear them apart once again. They fought and became martyrs so that they would be free in their towns and villages; their streets and squares; their coffeehouses; their schools and homes. Observe how they hunt each other as if they were hunting their oppressor. This blind deviance – why did it happen?”
Fulla Buennab tells them that Algerians are simple and kind people – they love and hate to the same degree. The poor and the freedom fighters only reaped disdain and hunger from the war; that is why they are spiteful.
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The three continue their walk along the sea promenade. Fulla asks Mehyar for a cigarette. He is shocked by the request because he sees it as unbecoming for a woman to smoke in public. She, however, gets her way. Passersby are outraged by this exhibition. She snaps angrily, “They (men) are allowed to do anything, while we, women, are only allowed to spread our legs.” She curses out loud at the onlookers. Mahdi is duly impressed. Mehyar is disapproving of this vulgarity. They tire of walking and go to a café. Their conversation loses focus. They talk for an hour and a half. Mehyar gets the lion’s share of the conversation, expressing his shocked disbelief over the lost dream of a revolutionary and democratic utopia that was forestalled by the military and devoured by them, the bourgeoisie and bureaucrats.
In a celebratory flourish, he finishes his lecture with, “Ideological law is superior to economic law. When the beginnings are faulty so are the outcomes. Deep awareness of history is absent. They destroy history and hurl us back a million years into the past. In the space and atom age with its explosion of the intellect, they govern us with the laws of Bedouin gods and the teachings of the Quran. Shit!”
Mahdi Jawad contemplated the blurred sea through the window, following the circling flight of the gulls as they approach the fishermen and their shadows pass and fade over the rocks. To banish the sound of the big words released by the mind of El-Baheli from his head, he loosens the reigns on his imagination. Cloathed in the feathers of a seagull, he flies, with Asya El-Akhdar, over all the oceans and islands of the world – far, far away. As far away as he could get from all the detestable Arab planets that have been spoilt by evil smells, bloodbaths and politics. Under the cover of ensuing nightfall, Fulla Buennab’s eyes were glimmering as she smoked and listened. She was astounded by Mehyar’s secret ability to speak words with such tragic tones that resonated through the walls of her conscience. Words that bounced back echoes of the glories of the first revolution in the mountains, where she would listen to the words of Si El-Zeberi as he related his vision of the Algeria of the future that would radiate like radium and glitter like diamonds.
N.B.: The above extract was taken from pages 125-130. The section in italics is a summary and not the others original words. The quote of Mehyar’s that ends with shit is one of the disputed passages in the novel. According to the author, Mehyar, who is trying to reconcile Islam with Marxism, spoke it as an outraged commentary at the manipulativeness and backwardness of Arab regimes.
This article appeared in the June 2000 issue of Egypt’s Insight magazine.
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