The Hirak From East Boston

A group of Algerian men turn their heads once to each side, sending salutations to the unseen angels on their shoulders. It’s Friday, the weekly Muslim jumuah prayer. 

After performing their duty to Allah, they gather around a folded table on a chilly February afternoon for hot lentil soup prepared by the informal cook of the group, Mohamed Gheraissa.

As he calls everyone to settle down for lunch, Gheraissa slyly warns them about the spice added into their meal. “We like an extra kick in Ouargla,” he says in his signature jovial tone. 

It doesn’t take long before the plastic bowls are scraped empty. What does take long are the conversations that happen at that table every week. Between sips of tea, politics.

It comes in shifting volumes, friendly verbal jests, and jeers of disbelief, which eventually focus on a single orator. Mohamed Dada, one of the Algerian immigrants who frequent this space one block shy from the Maverick Blue Line T-Stop concludes wearily, “If a handful of us have not come to an agreement after a year of the hirak, imagine millions in Algeria.”

Hirak, or movement in Arabic, has been a major part of the Algerian lexical since Feb. 22, 2019 when weekly protests officially began. Across the country, people of all ages took to the streets to reject former president Abdelaziz Boutelika’s fifth term.

Bouteflika had been in power for 20 consecutive years. Algerians decided this time around he would be dethroned once and for all. Army leadership headed by late Ahmed Gaid Salah enacted Article 102 of the constitution that stipulates a sick president cannot rule. Bouteflika’s medical condition was a reason for his lack of public appearance in the last few years. 

The military has been the backbone of the Algerian nation-state. Some supported their efforts to sweep away corrupt ruling clans, others were satisfied with Bouteflika’s resignation but still not on board with the level of influence the army itself has on politics.

Elections were postponed twice because of this, leading to the creation of two groups: pro-vote and anti-vote. Elections finally took place on Dec. 12, 2019 and Abdelmajid Tebboune came out the winner. Populations were then divided again, this time in regards to approaching the current standing government led by Tebboune: pro-dialogue and anti-diaogue.

With time, numbers of protesters have dwindled. There are different opinions to explain why. Largely unseen by most Americans, a current of passionate debate swirls in immigrant circles. 

This recent democratic transition in Algeria has revealed many things, one of them being that political discourse and influence have become much more borderless. America is a source of unheard experiences, unique input, and interesting developments. 

And one need not look further than Paris Street in East Boston.

These men who get together every Friday for worship in a makeshift musallah  and community room inside of a church basement also come for social life, an element they feel is missing in American culture.

Gheraissa returned to Algeria five years ago to get remarried and plans to return permanently one day, despite his discontent toward Algerian bureaucracy. “I don’t want to stay here. I’m tired, honestly. I don’t want to stay another day. I would like to be in the desert. Here, it’s all about work, money, and sleep. I don’t see any sense of life in America. Zero social life.”

For Gheraissa and the others, getting together in the basement of Our Saviour Lutheran’s Church makes them feel at home. “This is the only time we can get it here. We talk about politics, sports, everything, that makes us enjoy it,” he says.

Dada likewise sees himself returning for good. “I’m 58 now, if God gives me another 10 years, definitely I would go back. I have 3 sisters, 2 brothers, and 15 or 16 nieces and nephews. I would love to be around them, sit with them and talk. Maybe they will give me more energy and life.”

When people think of the Algerian diaspora, France is the first place that comes to mind. The largest population of Algerians outside of Algeria live in Europe. A much smaller pool of immigrants live in the United States. In 2016, 505,587 Algerian immigrants were living in France. According to the U.S Census, 14,716 citizens of Algerian ancestry were recorded. A nearly invisible statistic on a national diversity pie chart, and yet such relevant discussion about the future of their home country takes place.

Most of these immigrants entered the States between the years 1990 and 2000 – a period in which the second and more significant wave of immigration from Algeria took place as people were fleeing the carnage of the Civil War, known today as the Black Decade. 

According to the 2000 Foreign-Born Algeria profile in the Census Bureau, 10,880 Algerians were residing in the U.S, 510 of which were naturalized American citizens and 7,450 Algerian nationals without citizenship. 

Dada, along with Mohamed Belhaouari, left Oran for Boston in 1994.

Belhaouari is known for wit and snappy humor, but he’s just as seriously engaged in Algerian affairs as the rest of the group. In his eyes, each Algerian plays a role. He says, “Some people are big activists, some people are like me, we support on the sidelines and spread the word. That’s the least we can do.”

The sidelines in this basement meet the sidewalks in Downtown Boston. On the one-year hirak anniversary, Feb. 22, 2020, an organized commemoration event was held at the Commons.

There, Djamel Hamiroune could be found with his children and wife singing the Algerian national anthem.

On the activisit side of the spectrum, Hamiroune was confident in his commitment to solidarity, “We have been doing hirak here since last year. The two weeks where we didn’t do hirak here I went to New York twice, I went to Washington D.C twice, I went to Montreal four times. I want to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with my fellow Algerians in Algeria.”

Hamiroune was born in a small fishing town called Ziami Mansouriah in Jijel, about 310 km from Ain Taya in the capital Algiers where he grew up and would go on to receive a Bachelor’s from Polytechnic School in 1984. “I want to tell them [Algerians] that even though we are far from the land, the heart is there. You cannot take Algeria away from our hearts,” said Hamiroune, who came to the United States in 1985 for graduate school, part of the first wave of Algerians who arrived for education.

According to El Watan, the official statistical data recorded by CREAD in 2000 shows 80,000 graduates from higher education left Algeria since the 1970s and about 3,000 more joined them each year. 

Tourism, the diversity lottery, and networking also resulted in pockets of Algerian immigrant communities across the States.

Hamiroune addresses to what extent the diaspora should impact the trajectory of political movements. He says, “I think Algerians in Algeria have to decide. Us, living outside, should support them, but we should not tell them how to run or manage this hirak.”

Like Hamiroune, Mohamed Gheraissa came to the U.S for further studies. He was vocal about Algeria’s election and the country’s overall position in modern history, “We are not independent. We are only independent on paper, in reality we are still colonized.” After completing a Bachelor’s degree in law and business at the University of Annaba in 1989 and a Master’s in France, he settled in the States in 1992 where he pursued another Master’s and Ph.D in economics.

Gheraissa did not trust the recent electoral process in Algeria. “Fake, fake, fake. They put five stooges, I call them, just to play the show.” The “five stooges” Gheraissa is referring to were the five official candidates before independent Abdelmajid Tebboune would be chosen among them to be Algeria’s current standing president.

One, from his own hometown, was, in Gheraissa’s view, “vegetables on top of couscous,” – merely there for presentation. 

At the one-year hirak commemoration gathering, Nourredine Melikechi, Dean of Kennedy School of Sciences at UMass Lowell, was there to say a few words. Melikechi came to the United States as a postdoctural research fellow in 1990.

“This movement really is for the establishment of a democratic republic in Algeria that is grounded in the rule of law,” he told the crowd right outside the Park Street Green Line T-Stop.

For 25-year-old S.B. from Setif – a recent immigrant who is hesitant to give his name – that meant intending to participate in the vote by heading over to the Algerian consulate in New York City. 

While election day is a fixed date in Algeria, it may be advanced up to 120 hours for members of the Algerian community abroad. With a consular registration card, Algerian ID card, Algerian passport, and a voting card in hand, Algerians in the States can exercise their civic duties at polling stations inside of consulate offices. 

The Algerian hirak has been praised as a true example of a peaceful and persistent movement, but it has also been criticized to be vague in its deeper aspirations. 

While it has been made clear that people will not give up until the torch is handed to them, no formation of a political party has taken place, nor a clear philosophy proposed as a basecoat for reestablishing just government. 

Robert Hughs, Professor of North African and Middle Eastern History at Tufts University and seasoned scholar of Algeria was asked by POMED (Project on Middle East and Democracy) if a democratic transition was possible in Algeria.

Short answer: no.

A section of his longer response was as follows, “The slogan Al-Jazā’ir hurra wa dīmoqrātiyya (‘a free and democratic Algeria’) may be thought to have received some elaboration in the demands for un État de droit and dawla madaniyya (a ‘civil state’), but these have remained mere phrases. At no point has anyone defined in what way a ‘civil state’ subject to the rule of law would differ in its institutions or procedures from the present much decried state.”

Freedom and democracy have been major key words in Algeria since independent statecraft was possible, with varying interpretations. At the Boston Commons, they are understood through the American Dream. 

Participants hang the Algerian and American flag side by side. The flags move in unison and even sychronize with the rhythm of the song playing, Mawtini, “My homeland.” The flyer passed around reads, “From Boston, a beacon of democracy and revolutionary struggle, we send a clear message that we are not giving up.” 

We return to the basement. “I was raised in a different way, but I’m trying to combine the two societies [Algerian and American] and come up with the best from both,” Dada says as multiple different conversations intersect in the background, typical of the underground ambiance they create every Friday.

“As Algerians, we love our country, we lived in our country, we still dream of our country. I still dream of it. That’s the thing I don’t want to give up. It’s like we have a responsibility of Algerians. Even though we all have a different opinion, we all love Algeria. That’s the thing we share. Hopefully this government will look at the people and what they’re looking for, and just try to put the country first.”

Whether or not Algerians in the U.S. are up to date on the hirak’s evolution or agree on its contents, the hustle they became accustomed to in the States allows them to deeply empathize with the youth who found the courage to at least demand their right to opportunity.

Dada’s last words were, “Why do I have to travel for peace?”

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