No 11 July 1995.5
Two meetings recently took place in Montreal on the same day and the same topic: Algeria and its troubles.
In the morning, Bishop Michel Gagnon, a Canadian Missionary of Africa in charge of the diocese of Laghouat, spoke to his confreres about his travels in his country of adoption. It was easy to see his deep love for the people of Algeria. But his love was not blind. Bishop Gagnon was well aware of the toll political violence is taking on this North African country in terms of human suffering. As a man who has given his life to God as a missionary of the Good News, he feels trapped by a faith at least as fervent as his own. In the name of the one God whom he has sworn to serve, his people are being judged. In the name of Allah whom he has promised to love, the chosen people are being terrorized. In the name of the All-Merciful whom he adores, he is subjected to religious intolerance.
Yet Bishop Gagnon's words conveyed no hatred, no rancour, no verbal violence. And although he is a keen analyst and observer, he preferred to tell his listeners a story reminiscent of those of Jesus. One day, he said, as I was returning from a long round of pastoral visits, I ended up with two flat tires. In the middle of the desert, encounters are so rare that no one would ever simply be left to his fate. Every passerby stopped to offer assistance. Especially two young Algerians. Since night was falling, they invited me home with them. I told them I wanted to stay close to my car and wait for my confreres, who had been notified of my predicament. I put on my blinkers. Then I saw headlights coming towards me from the direction of Laghouat. Was it my confreres bringing help? No, it was the two young Algerians! Since I would not leave my car, they had returned with couscous, fruit and mint tea. Together, we turned a dream into reality, by sharing an experience of real brotherhood. I recalled that the previous Sunday's gospel reading had been the parable of the Good Samaritan. Who is evangelizing whom?
That same evening, at the Afrika Centre run by the Missionaries of Africa in Montreal, Hebbat Ouahab, a photographer with the Algerian independent newspaper Le Matin, showed a collection of some 50 shocking photographs. The exhibition has already toured Algiers, New York, The Hague, Amsterdam and Brussels. The artist's feelings about his country's predicament could not be plainer. The least that can be said is that the show is profoundly disturbing. To begin with, visitors walk slowly, stopping to gaze at each photo. Then they start walking faster, spending less and less time looking at the photos, not stopping to read the commentary. They barely glance at the last few pictures and leave the hall almost at a run, deeply upset and with aching hearts. Whose idea was it to come here? So much for a pleasant evening out. Stamped in their minds are images of calcified and decapitated bodies, men armed to the teeth, women crying in anguish, children with sad eyes, teenage girls raped and tortured, mobs screaming their hatred of fundamentalism. Unbearable images of horror insinuating itself into everyday life. At the entrance to the room, there is a notice to the effect that some of the photographs may not be suitable for sensitive viewers.
Ouahab has decided to shock his audience by following the trail of terror. Reality is shown in all its nakedness. And yet the show is not sordid pornography, designed to disgust. The photographer's sensitivity is all too apparent in his images. He is trying to strip the veil from abstraction, to translate media reports into real flesh and blood.
At long last, there is some hope. As slender as it may at first seem, it is finally there, in the women's marches, the self-defence committees, the children standing near the coffins; the joined hands, the raised veils, the looks of determination. All signs of resurrection and new life.
There was a bishop at the exhibition. Fittingly, Bishop Gagnon of Laghouat came to lend his support to Ouahab, the Algerian nomad, a stranger on Canadian soil. They met as brothers.
Michel Fortin, M.Afr.