Decolonization and Memory in Algeria

ZNET | June 3, 2008

When we walk past the security guards and enter the compound of the Centre Culturel Français d’Alger in rue Hassani Issad I can’t help feeling that somehow I am betraying my commitment to decolonization and ignoring what my Lonely Planet, the self-proclaimed “only English-language guidebook to the Sahara’s most beautiful nation,” describes as one generation of Algerians “still waiting to hear an apology from France for the estimated one million Algerians who died during the 1954-62 Algerian War of Independence.”

Anna et ses soeurs

As the son of a colonized people myself (Malta and Cyprus were the only two colonized European peoples in the Mediterranean), I couldn’t help thinking about colonization in Algeria, especially at a time when President Sarkozy, whose popularity is at an all-time low, was trying to sell his Union of the Mediterranean to those peoples who hadn’t voted for him. In a highly criticized speech at Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar, Senegal, on 26 July, 2007, written by his special counsellor Henri Guaino, French President Nicolas Sarkozy defended France‘s past role in Africa by saying that while it may have made “mistakes,” it “did not exploit anybody.” Many commentators, as Michel Agier has written, saw arrogance and a profound ignorance of African history in that speech.

In November of that same year, Thierry Fabre, a leading French intellectual and expert on the Mediterranean, wrote in La pensée de midi (no. 22) that Sarkozy’s reading of France and Europe’s colonial past raises many problems, “et apparaît comme susceptible d’alimenter le ressentiment et de renforcer les incompréhensions de la part de nos voisins du sud de la Méditerranée qui ont subi la conquête coloniale.” Fabre acknowledged, however, that this attempt to rehabilitate the colonial past has been around for years and is not restricted to Sarkozy, and that those who are nostalgic of French Algeria have recently tried to impose a “positive vision” of the history of colonization through a law.

Like it or not, Sarkozy, with his pride for the way France “spread civilization” and his penchant for undermining that hopeless waste of money called culture, represents the French state, so I sense that this, the Centre culturel français in Algiers, is not quite where someone opposed to colonialism or neo-colonialism should be. But I walk in nonethess, and feel welcome right away. Samira Negrouche, the Algerian francophone writer who has invited us to Algeria, has arranged for us to watch a performance and something tells me that my misgivings are passé: almost fifty years after the end of the French colonization in North Africa, I’m aware that independent states like Algeria (or Malta, for that matter) should shoulder their own responsibilities and build their own futures. I also tell myself that I should not visit an independent country with a frame of mind dominated by long-past colonial issues.

We’re told to arrive early, because the hall will be packed and there is no entrance fee. The Algerian poet and academic Achour Fenni orders coffee for the group, and we enjoy the place and the company till 7.30pm when the writer/director, Géraldine Bénichou (Théâtre du Grabuge), introduces “Anna et ses soeurs.” It is based on the writings of and interviews with immigrant women in France. “Avec la creation d’Anna, nous abordons l’exil à travers l’histoire d’une vingtaine de femmes. L’enjeu artistique de la création d’Anna est d’inventer un univers sensible qui invite les spectateurs à partager un instant l’expérience des exils de toutes celles que nous sommes, dont les voix et les paroles constitueront les multiples visages d’Anna.” The French and Algerians do want to think about their intricate relationship after all – it’s not a worn-out issue – and the narratives of Algerian immigrants in France, the harraga or clandestine immigrants who become les emigrés, are far from passé.

The performance is an intelligent and often moving combination of live and recorded voices, Berber songs and music on electric guitar by a musician on stage, Philippe Gordiani, who also doubles as a French immigration officer, and images on a large screen that dominate the background and often dwarf the two actors. Bénichou calls this type of theatre “un théâtre de création documentaire.”

Conceptually the whole piece focuses on the life stories of a number of Algerian immigrants in France, and this task is entrusted mainly to the actress, Madeleine Assas, who leads us through the narratives and the issues they raise about the French and Algerian (inevitably plural) identities; about how we create ourselves through narrative; about home and exile, and France’s acceptance or rejection, as host country with a complex history and present, of the Other. In terms of narrative the piece is held together by the writer’s grandmother, a Jew, who tells her story with passion and irony. Her narrative is communicated to us both through recordings of interviews she gave to the writer, Géraldine Bénichou, and by the actor, Salah Gaoua, who plays the grandmother: these two voices of the grandmother often interact, echoing one another and speaking to each other. I thought the actor’s performance, who also plays other characters and sings beautifully was quite memorable (the Amazigh writer and translator Brahim Tazaghart, sitting next to me, couldn’t help singing along with him).

Villa Susini – Old-fashioned whips and modern electrical gadgets

On our way back from a rehearsal at Farid Benyaa’s art gallery on Wednesday, 26 March, 2008, we drive by Villa Susini, the notorious neo-Moresque villa where so many Algerian freedom fighters were tortured by the French colonisers. (Jean-Marie Le Pen was “an active performer in the torture chamber.”) I ask Samira what the place is used for now and she tells me it’s closed. The Algerian government wanted to turn it into a museum but the Independence fighters protested that that would have been an act of disrespect towards those who had been tortured and killed there.

The Algerian poet Djamal Amrani, whose poetry featured prominently during our week in Algiers, was tortured at Villa Susini. Samira tells me that whenever she and Djamal drove past that building (he actually lived very close to it, in the district of Les Sources in Birmouradreis), he would turn his head and refuse to even look at it.

Driving past Villa Susini reminds me of Palestine and spreading civilization. I remember walking past the Muqata in Ramallah with Khaled Katamish on our way to his home in El-Bireh. When the British ruled Palestine they used the Muqata as their headquarters in the area. Then, when the Israelis arrived, they took over the Muqata and tortured Palestinian prisoners there, including Khaled. Before the Israelis themselves left the Muqata and Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority moved in (Arafat was eventually buried there in November 2004), Khaled felt the need to return to the place of his nightmares before the physical memories were erased forever. For him it was like reliving the horrible tortures, but he needed to revisit it to be able to come to terms with the pain, with the humiliations and the fear, with his pride as a Palestinian. The cells of terror were destroyed and the Palestinian Authority moved into this emotionally-charged building, where bones and spirits were broken, where the horrible occupation of the Palestinian people came face to face with some of its worst atrocities. In Algeria Djamal Amrani turned his face in front of the harshness of physical memory but he refused to let that memory be erased by transforming the building into something else.

As part of our workshop, all of the writers and translators in our group translated this powerful, many-layered poem by Djamal Amrani into their language:

Ne plus emprisonner le corps de l’homme

Ne plus se sentir seul

dans le baillement de l’impuissance

Quel coursier chevauche

mes cavalcades d’étroites


Quel angle de tir

ensoleille le mur d’en face?

Quelles bouffées de vie

harcèlent le fleuve d’absence?

LXXXIV in La nuit du dedans (Alger: Editions Marsa, 2003)

Never again the human body imprisoned.

They Had Done Nothing Wrong

On Friday 30 March our friends Dalila, Ryad and Baya Gacemi, a leading freelance Algerian journalist who has collaborated with La Repubblica, Reuters press agency and the German TV ARD and is the Algerian correspondent of the major French weekly L’Express, drive us to Tipaza, a town marked by the magnificent ruins of a Roman town on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea.

On the way back to the car (it’s a typical get-there-immortalize-the-scene-rush-off-to-the-next-stop kind of visit, except that we talk about things you would expect writers to talk about), Baya tells me that when she was growing up in Annaba (the city the Maltese called Bona), their neighbours were almost all Maltese emigrants, with surnames like Micallef, Borg, Camilleri, Tabone, or versions of them, who worked as farmers. In his major work on L’Algérie des Algériens de la Préhistoire à 1954 (Paris: Paris-Méditerranée, 2003), Mahfoud Kaddache notes that in the middle of the 19th century there were 8758 Maltese immigrants in Algeria (p. 645). Charles Price estimates that in the late 1880s the number of Maltese living abroad, mainly in the Mediterranean, was roughly 50,000, that is 25% of the total Maltese population; the largest number, 15,000, were in Algeria.

Some years ago, Baya Gacemi did a feature for the leading German TV station ARD about the Christian cemetery in the city of Annaba. The majority of the names on the tombstones, she tells me, were Maltese. When the Maltese left Algeria in 1962, after the war of Independence, some went to Britain but most moved to France. On Saturday morning in the commercial centre of Algiers, a woman who scolded a salesman in a women’s prêt à porter in Algiers because she felt he had treated me badly, tells me about the Maltese pieds-noirs she knew in her childhood. The FLN (the Algerian Front Liberation Nationale), she says with some pride, didn’t kill the Maltese during the war of Independence, “because they had done nothing wrong.”

Not far from the prêt à porter, we invade the Librairie de Beaux Arts on rue Didouche Mourad. I ask for Claude Rizzo’s novel, Le Maltais de Bab-el-Khadra, a district in Tunis. but nobody seems to have heard of this novel or its author. A woman in her late thirties or perhaps early forties, overhears me and confesses her Maltese origins. She’s a Camenzuli, a quite common surname in Malta. She tells me that her Maltese family moved from Tunisia to France like the other pieds-noirs and sought to forget, or rather erase, their origins because the Maltese had a “bad reputation” and were considered on the bottom rung in the hierarchy of European colonists. When I ask her whether she has ever been to Malta, she tells me she hasn’t – and doesn’t even try to feign interest. I hope she will eventually come round to rejecting stereotypes and acknowledge her humble origins, but I admire her honesty. Outside the bookshop I smile a hello to her husband and son and we walk away in opposite directions.

We know that many colonized people, including the Maltese and other Southern Europeans, adopted the view the colonizers had of them in order to counter the inferiority bestowed on them by their “superiors.” This meant both denigrating themselves and associating themselves with the ruling class that, in many cases, refused to treat them as one of them and often ultimately rejected them. Charles-André Julien writes that the Maltese were not highly respected by the French colonizers: A commission of enquiry at the start of the French colonization of Algeria, suggested that: “Les colons doivent être recrutés non seulement parmi les Français mais parmi les étrangers, notament les Alemands aux qualités solides, les Maltais et les Mahonnais [the Minorcans], moins raccomandables, mais s’adaptant facilement au pays.” The Maltese found themselves caught in the no man’s land between the Arabic-speaking Algerian population and the European colonists.

Hybrid Boundary-defying People

The French and other northern Europeans in Algeria found the Maltese the most difficult to define, and often described them as a “liminal population, a hybrid boundary-defying people uniting West and East.” Andrea L. Smith argues that Malta‘s position in the Mediterranean Sea “is implicated in Maltese colonial liminality.” According to Marc Donato, until 1801, when it was redefined as belonging to Europe, geographers categorized Malta as part of Africa. However, in his 1888 publication, Gabriel Charmes wrote that he found it difficult to say whether Malta should belong to Europe or Africa, but with its sterile earth, burnt by the sun, it “seems more African than European.”

Walking through the streets of central Algiers, I couldn’t help noticing that despite being “foreign,” to many Algerians, some of whom actually told me so, I was not at all foreign. Most, no doubt because I am Maltese and Mediterranean, took me for Algerian, and that’s probably one of the reasons why, like thousands of Maltese who moved to Algeria in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, I felt at home.

Dr. Adrian Grima was in Algeria in March 2008 with seven writers from five countries to take part in a literary translation workshop organized by Literature Across Frontiers in cooperation with the Algerian cultural association Cadmos and with support from ISAT (Institut Superieur Arabe de Traduction) and ONDA (Office National des droits d’auteurs et droits voisins). LAF is supported by the Culture 2000 programme of the European Union.

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