Investigating Paradise with Algeria's veteran film-maker Merzak Allouache

Investigating Paradise with Algeria's veteran film-maker Merzak Allouache
7 min read
09 February, 2017
Q&A: Following his success winning the Golden FIPA award in January, Hadani Ditmars discusses extremism and paradise with veteran Algerian movie director Merzak Allouache.
Algerian director Merzak Allouache poses on the beach [Getty]

The 30th annual International Festival of Audiovisual Programs, featuring films from more than 70 countries, was held in scenic Biarritz in January.

There were many Middle Eastern themed screenings, including a documentary on Oum Kalthoum, La Voix du Caire, and a Tunisian society piece Une Caravane dans le Desert, which unites five artists who ponder the future of their country.

Veteran Algerian film maker Merzak Allouache won the festival's prestigious top prize, the FIPA d'Or for Tahqiq fel djenna ["Investigating Paradise"]

Part road-movie and part documentary, the film's journalist protagonist, Nedjma (played by Salima Abada), travels through Algeria armed only with a video of a Wahabist preacher who promises would-be jihadists 72 virgins.

Nedjma speaks with a cross-section of society, from men hanging around in the street, young people in internet cafes, imams, a female Sufi singer, and some of Algeria's foremost artists, writers and activists, always asking the question "what is paradise?".

Nedjma's quest reveals the impact of Salafism on Algerian society, and the film as a whole is a bittersweet love letter to Allouache's homeland. The film will play at the Berlin festival this week.

Hadani Ditmars caught up with Allouache to discuss his film.

Hadani Ditmars: What was the inspiration for the film?

Merzak Allouache: I came across a video of a Wahabist imam from Saudi Arabia, preaching a bizarre version of "paradise" - one where young men were salaciously promised "72 virgins" if they joined the jihad. Parts of it were laughable. Like when he speaks of virgins who don't need "Nivea cream" to look young, and goes into detail about certain parts of their anatomy.

But it also alarmed me. His erroneous statements were dangerous and a bad influence on Algerian youth.

I started to research this kind of video on the internet and realised it was just the tip of the iceberg. I saw dozens like it, that preyed on vulnerable young people in this country.

How has Algeria experienced Islamism compared with other North African countries? Was there ever an 'Algerian spring'?

We have nothing in common with other North African countries in that way. We had a winter - not a spring.

Beginning in the late 1980s we had more than a decade of extreme terror. We thought Algeria was going to explode. So many dead, so many attacks. It was terrible - not like in Iraq or Syria - but we lived with terrorism every day.

Assassinations of artists and intellectuals by extremists. Many had to flee the country.  It went on until the early 2000s. After negotiations between the Algerian army and the terrorists, the violence came to an end.

When the "Arab spring" came, the Algerians observed from the sidelines - we didn't want to relive [the instabilty]. But now Algerian society has become increasingly Islamic - with women in hijab, new Islamic parties and a new religiosity.

After the war of independence - could this be another form of divide and conquer?

You could see it that way.

In the film, many people say that [Wahabism] was brought in from outside, and many complain about the influence of Wahabists from the Gulf. It is foreign to traditional Algerian Islam, especially to the Sufis in the south, in the Sahara, who speak against fitna and extremism in the film.

I was struck by the scenes with the young Algerian rappers who are asked about their idea of paradise and the '72 virgins'. Their ideas about women and sexuality and religion have obviously been influenced by Wahhabism.

But at the same time, they have a kind of innocence and vulnerability. In a way these are the same working class kids that you portrayed in your 1995 film, Bab el Oued City
.  Do you see social exclusion as the link between these two generations of youth?

Yes of course. In Algeria, these young people don't have hope, or jobs, or a future - and in a country rich in resources from which they don't profit. Like in many parts of the Arab world, they are the lost generation - living in an atmosphere of violence and extremism.

One of the feminists interviewed in the film speaks about this, saying "we are afraid for this new generation so indoctrinated by extremism - we don't want the violence to return."

There are strict taboos about dating the opposite sex - but they are also Mediterraneans and they like to have a good time

But there aren't as many young Algerians going to Syria as jihadists, as there are in Tunisia for instance.

Actually when the fitna first started in Algeria in the 1980s - in this generation many young people went to fight with the mujahidin in Afghanistan. You would see them walk down the street in Algiers in Islamist outfits, and Afghan hats.

The young now, they prefer to go to Turkey to do business, rather than go on foreign jihads. Algeria has become a giant souk - a globalised country of merchants - and extremism is also a commodity, selling the idea that this life may be difficult, but in paradise you will find wine, women and satisfaction. It's not uncommon to see bearded young men selling lingerie in the street. In a way globalisation is stronger than Islamism. 

There's a kind of schizophrenia at play - as one of the writers notes in the film. Young people want to have a good time but they are also influenced by Islamism. There are strict taboos about dating the opposite sex - but they are also Mediterraneans and they like to have a good time, like normal kids everywhere in the world.

One of the themes in the film seems to be that education is the key to countering extremism in Algeria. What has happened to the Algerian education system in the past decade?

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As the psychiatrist says in the film, many people were indoctrinated by extremism at school. In the 1970s and 1980s during the postcolonial era of "Arabisation", many teachers came from Egypt and many of them were influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood. It's still like that and quite different from the French "Republican" schooling of my generation.

Now the national minister of education, Nouria Benghabrit-Remaoun, is seeking reform, but she is often stymied by prevailing conservative attitudes.

What has happened to the status of women in Algeria? One writer in the film speaks of the 'porno-islamism', inherent in the Wahabist concept of 'paradise and the 72 virgins'. Does this new strain of Wahabism objectify women in a way that traditional Algerian Islam does not?

Well I give the floor to the Algerian women in the film, who say it has become worse with the advent of this new extremism.

In the film, the activist Fethi Ghares talks about Islamism as a tool of the state to impose tyranny - a way to make youth fatalist so they accept oppression - saying 'don't look at our palaces and our wealth and question it - think only of paradise'.

He also says that the new extremism is different than traditional religion in that it removes morality from religion, and that political power in Algeria has not permitted critical thinking - creating a society that is intellectually poor.

To what degree is the Algerian state complicit in fostering extremism?

Well he's speaking more of the emirates - and the sheikhs -and TV channels from the Gulf. I'm just a filmmaker - an observer - I don't want to get too much into a political analysis. There are many different voices in the film who express their views.

The scene where the journalist interviews the Sufi sheikh in the Sahara seems key. His comment on Islamism is that people should not act for fear of punishment in hell or reward in heaven - but from their own conscience - in a way it's almost existential.

How is this kind of traditional Islam being overcome in Algeria by madrassas and TV stations funded by Gulf countries? 
How can it be reversed?

I'm a filmmaker, not a politician, but I can say it's a cultural battle. We need to make society more democratic by developing culture as a weapon against extremism.

In some ways the film is a love letter to Algeria - a road movie showcasing the nation's artists, writers and activists. Are you still in love with your country? What is her future?

I am in love with the country I have in my head. I am not in love with Algeria as she is now. I am in love with the Algeria who is beautiful, without corruption, where people can be happy. Where there is cinema, dance, art, where young people can feel good in their skin. That's my Algeria.

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