Waiting for Omar Gatlato: Introduction



Square. A reporter for Sky News Arabia stood on the sidewalk near Place Audin with a microphone, narrating the events behind her in Modern Standard Arabic, speaking of demonstrators’ happiness at Bouteflika’s decision not to run. 7 A man stepped into the frame, was held back, pushed into the frame again—not aggressive, but firm. The reporter passed the microphone to him and he explained, Algerians are not happy, the people want the government to change, not simply its figurehead. As he was speaking, she repeated the same word over and over, “Arabia, Arabia, Arabia…” She wanted the man to speak in Fusha or Modern Standard, so that people throughout the Arab world would understand his objection. He responded with a frustrated wave of his hand, “I don’t know Arabia, we speak Derija here!” Derija is a local dialect of Arabic shot through with French, Spanish, words from Imazighn dialects, and is spoken with shortened vowels. In fact, Derija is a different amalgam of languages in Oran, in Annaba, and in Algiers, further complicating any claim to linguistic hegemony. Within minutes, the clip was shared thousands of times on social media, appreciated for the tenuous relationship its point about language illustrates between Algeria and the rest of the so-called “Arab world”—nearly sixty years after the War of Liberation, Algeria maintains its sense of singularity. The specificity of its long, intimate colonial relationship to France and the significance of its non-Arab, Muslim Berber minority in political discourse and cultural life are just two factors contributing to this exceptionalism. Waiting for Omar Gatlato takes this claim for Algeria’s national exceptionalism seriously, in part because it is one of the factors in the country’s exceptional imaginative obscurity. Without essentializing artists who live in Algeria or in its diaspora, the project takes its singularity as an important structuring condition of Algeria’s effect on cultural production. The exhibition began to take shape in the spring of 2016, long before the mass protests that started on February 22, 2019, filling every intersection of downtown Algiers. It is conceived in response to something I felt at that time: that there is a new, young, and profoundly transformed Algeria today that includes artists and filmmakers, graphic designers and photographers, living between Marseille and Mascara, Paris and Algiers. Fanny Gillet describes these people in her essay in this volume; in brief, they are a composite generation. Some lived through the Black Decade as children, and have emerged from it with an incredible will to see their country reanimated, its spaces of public discourse reactivated. Some were born into its aftermath and have reached adulthood without fear of the extremism that obstructed the energy and creativity of their elders. The previous generations studied in the USSR and the United States, choosing to live and study on one side or the other of a stark division of the world, but the emerging generation studies in London, Istanbul, Beirut, Aix-en-Provence, Brussels, Paris—or *

7  Sky News Arabia is an Arabic news channel broadcasting 24/7 to audiences in the Middle East and North Africa. It is a joint venture between UK-based Sky and Abu Dhabi Media.

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