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Society

Finding Freedom In The Pages Of An Algerian Bookstore

The Librairie du Tiers monde, which has functioned as an important intellectual spot in Algeria since its founding in 1964, continues to have an open and critical outlook on the country, even at a time when power represses dissidents.

Finding Freedom In The Pages Of An Algerian Bookstore

Walking by Algiers's Librairie du Tiers Monde

Frédéric Bobin

ALGIERS — There are books prominently piled on the tables: Aux Sources du Hirak; Libertés, Dignité, Algérianité, Avant et Pendant le Hirak, Hirak, Enjeux Politiques et Dynamiques Sociales … The Hirak, an Algerian "anti-system" movement that began in February 2019, may be suppressed on the streets, but it continues to be written and read about, making its way to the bookshop through cracks in the authoritarian regimes.

After Algerian voters massively rejected the June 12 legislative vote — an election that many believe was steered by the government —, the demand for freedom has gone from the voting booths to the bookstores. One of them is always full to the brim: La Librairie du Tiers Monde (The Third World Bookstore), and ranks among the most important places in Algiers's intellectual life.

Walking in the city center will inevitably lead you to its shop window lined with titles, on the edge of the Emir Abdelkader Square, not far from the Great Post Office with its neo-Moorish architecture. La Librairie du Tiers Monde is located in a place full of memories: It faces the statue of the religious and military leader Emir Abdelkader on horseback, pointing his sword toward the heavens, and is just next to the terrace of the Milk Bar — the scene of a deadly attack (three dead, 60 injured) by the National Liberation Front in September 1956.

If he reminisces on this period of struggle, his eyes start to cloud with emotion, as if safeguarding books was an existential fight.

Entire generations of Algerians have come there to expand their horizons, ever since the bookshop was inaugurated in 1964 by the famous historian Mohammed Harbi, at the time an executive in the government of Ahmed Ben Bella. People not only buy books: They can also attend signings, debates and conferences on the first floor, once schoolbook displays are pushed into a corner. In short, it is the beating heart of a literary life that has gone through many cycles, alternating greatness and misery.

The bookstore is, first and foremost, its bookseller Abderrahmane Ali Bey: a 60-year-old man with a sweet voice and an eternal smile, capable of telling the customer: "Read the book quietly at home and bring it back when you're done." He is the linchpin of the establishment, both figuratively and literally, having started as a book "worker" in the great socialist era.

La Librairie du Tiers Monde was one of the jewels of a state-owned enterprise: the National Publishing and Distribution Company. It was a time when subsidized books in Algeria were so cheap that people even came from Europe to by them. But then, when socialism fell apart during the 1980s and 1990s, the great sell-off to the private sector took place. Many Algiers-owned bookshops were sold to and converted as second-hand clothes shops and pizza places.

But, at La Librairie du Tiers Monde, Abderrahmane Ali Bey raised the flag of resistance. Thnking back this period of struggle, his eyes start to cloud with emotion, as if safeguarding books was an existential fight. He set up an association charged with managing the establishment while waiting for a future buyer committed to preserving the activity. But it was also necessary to fight on another front: against radical Islamism.

We received death threats by phone. We opened every day with fear in our stomachs.

The bookstore's strong focus on French-speaking publications became a reason for suspicion. At the height of the 1990s, the "black decade", intimidation was explicit. "We received death threats by phone," says Abderrahmane Ali Bey. "We opened every day with fear in our stomachs."

When Abdelaziz Bouteflika came to power and peace returned, things began to look up. The long-long-awaited buyer finally showed up in 2006 in the form of Smail Amaziane, owner of Casbah Publishing and a heavyweight in the sector. The establishment was saved. The inauguration of the "new look" of the La Librairie du Tiers Monde was an event for the whole of Algiers. At the opening ceremony, regular customers — some of whom had become ministers in the meantime — crowded around to celebrate the bookshop's rebirth.

New look? The premises have certainly been refurbished, refreshed and even expanded, with the purchase of a basement that had long been used as a disco with scandalous reputation. But the name was kept, in order to preserve the store's history.

"At the time of the takeover, we discussed a possible change of name, but the decision was quickly made not to touch anything," says Smail Ameziane. "This name is part of the identity of this mythical place — and even the heritage of Algiers."

Today, the double perils of being sold off and of terrorism — which had once plunged Abderrahmane Ali Bey into the throes of anxiety — seem far away. But it's a threat of a different kind that is currently worrying the "bookseller of Algiers": bureaucracy, with the administration forever asking for stamps, visas and other approvals to import books from abroad. "Our new adversary today is administrative stupidity," says Abderrahmane Ali Bey. But once again, the man is ready to do what the Librairie du Tiers Monde has always done: resist.

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