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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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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