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Boualem Sansal: Harraga (Harraga)

Lamia is a thirty-five year old Algerian doctor, who lives on her own in Algiers and works as a paediatrician in a hospital. Her two parents and older brother all died within a short space of time (her brother in a car accident), leaving her the house. Her younger brother, Sofiane, disappeared about a year ago. She does not know where he went and has not heard from him.

She is not too unhappy being on her own. She has struggled with technology (such as plumbing), though, till recently, an old friend of her father helped out but he suddenly died recently. The situation in the hospital is not good. There is a shortage of money and equipment and she is not paid well, despite a recent promotion when her predecessor suddenly got a job in Canada. But she survives. She is slightly worried about her street, which seems haunted. The house over the road was occupied by a French man but he suddenly disappeared – no-one knows where or why – and the house has been empty since. She thinks there is someone watching her, perhaps a man with a beard. (In Algeria, les barbus, i.e. the bearded ones, is a term used for the Islamic fanatics.) In his case, she does not feel he is one of the barbus but merely has not bothered to shave. Others have shared her concern and have moved out of the street.

She thinks of the fate of Algerian women. Her best friend when she was a child was Louiza. She was made to marry an old man and they have since moved away. Lamia has not seen or heard from Louiza since. She herself is, she says, that most reviled person in the Islamic world, a free independent woman.

The novel starts with a knock at her door. A young woman – she can be no older than sixteen or seventeen – who is clearly pregnant, is at the door. She introduces herself as Chérifa and calls Lamia Aunt Lamia. Lamia has no idea who she is. Chérifa tells her that she has been sent by Sofiane, who should have phoned his older sister about her. He did not. Nevertheless, Chérifa comes in and makes herself at home. Indeed, she is something of a whirlwind, turning the place upside down and making Lamia suddenly feel very old. It is not clear if Sofiane is the father of the child she is carrying or, indeed, why she has come to Lamia’s, apart from the fact that Sofiane sent her.

While Lamia welcomes her, both as a form of company but also, clearly as a surrogate daughter, the two inevitably clash. Lamia’s home is her castle and she is not happy at having it turned upside down. She is also well aware of the dangers of walking out in Algiers, particularly for a young woman on her own, something Chérifa frequently does. Chérifa treats the place as her home helping herself to food and so on but also sponging money off Lamia. However, there is no doubt that Lamia is very much attached to this young woman and wants to help her and to mother her. Chérifa, for example, cannot read and naturally Lamia wants to teach her to do so.

She finds out little about her brother from Chérifa but what she does find out is that he is a harraga, which means those that burn, i.e. burn borders. In other words, it is someone from North Africa who crosses borders to flee to Europe.

But, as I mentioned, Chérifa has a habit of disappearing, which worries Lamia. Several times, she manages to track her down – with the help of a bus driver, a student (called, interestingly enough Scheherazade) and a fellow doctor, all of whom seem to be very much taken by Chérifa and eager to do what they can to help. Indeed, as she points out, Chérifa makes more friends with various people in the neighbourhood in the few days that she is there than Lamia has made all of her life living there. While she is away, she finds a photo in Chérifa’s purse, a photo she recognises as a government minister. She assumes that he is the father.

While Chérifa is away, she ruminates on her own life. The house has a history, which was something of a history of Algeria, with occupants having been representatives of various people who passed through Algeria: a Turk, a Jewish trader, a Frenchman who converted to Islam, a Transylvanian immigrant, a doctor. Lamia frequently talks to these people and is convinced that they still haunt the house. She seems to have little other social life, apart from an alcoholic doctor whom she works with and a somewhat garrulous neighbour.

However, she is still on the track of Chérifa, who comes and goes. She elicits an organisation which helps finds disappeared people and with whom she has had some dealings regarding her younger brother. Her relationship with them is not good, as she is highly critical of them.

One thing she does do while Chérifa is away is watch a film about people trafficking. The film-makers find two young African men who agree to allow the film-makers accompany them and they follow the two men and many others. It is a harrowing story and shows not only the suffering of the migrants but also the corruption of various Algerian government officials who effectively control the migration routes.

Sansal tells an excellent story of life in Algeria, about which he is not flattering, about the mother-surrogate daughter relationship, about the fate of the harragas and about the story of Lamia and her family. However, what makes this book is the character of Lamia herself. She is free-spirited and independent but she is also highly critical of Algeria and its government while, at the same time, having no desire to leave. She mocks the government, damns many of the people but yet is drawn to the historical characters who used to live in her house. She has a cynical view of life but, at the same time, recognises her loneliness without doing anything about it but when a solution is thrust upon her, in the form of Chérifa, a complete stranger with whom she has no connection, she embraces the opportunity while trying to maintain her way of doing things. Having lived on her own, she is used to ruminating on life and it problems and it is these ruminations we hear. The book is witty, often cynical but, at the same time, shows the dark side of life in Algeria today.

Publishing history

First published in French by Gallimard in 2005
First English translation by Bloomsbury in 2014
Translated by Frank Wynne