A history of Algeria in six objects


The objects

This breakdown in the heroic narrative is one of the contexts in which I have conducted my research on Algeria; while the other has been the attempt by historians in France, such as Benjamin Stora and Sylivie Thénault, to break down the Algerian taboo.     Through historical scholarship they want French society to face up to France’s Algeria past in an open and honest fashion. With these contexts in mind I now want to move on to consider my six cultural objects, inspired in part, as my lecture title signals, by the Radio 4 series A History of the World in a Hundred Objects.

A photograph

I am fascinated by this photograph. It was taken on 14 July 1936, Bastille Day. It is Algerian nationalist demonstrators marching in Paris. What do they want? What are they demanding? How do they see their place in the world?

They are marching as part of the huge Popular Front Bastille Day march to celebrate the election of the left-wing Popular Front government led by the Socialist Party leader, Léon Blum, after the election victory of May.

But crucially they are in a separate cortège. They are part of a group of 30,000 North Africans, with hands clenched high and waving nationalist flags, shouting demands for Algerian, Moroccan and Tunisian independence, the liberation of the Arab world, as well as the Popular Front slogans of ‘bread, peace, and work’ and ‘down with fascism’. At the head of this North African contingent was Messali Hadj, the leader of the North Africa Star, the first Algerian nationalist party, formed in 1926 amongst emigrants in Paris calling for the independence of the whole of French North Africa. In standing full-square behind Messali Hadj, the North Africans wanted to publicly assert their separate national identities on the streets of the French capital. They wished to underline their particular place within the Popular Front, formed one year earlier in response to the rise of fascism. In uniting with communists, socialists and radicals in an atmosphere of fraternity and solidarity, these North Africans expected a future left-wing government to satisfy their national aspirations.

The North African Star was part of a remarkable period in Algerian history: the making of Algerian nationalism during the 1920s and 1930s that was linked to a wider surge of pan- Arab and pan-Islamic sentiment throughout North Africa and the Middle East. This flowering was evident in an explosion of Algerian press, written by and for Algerians rather than the European settlers; the establishment of sporting and cultural associations; the invention, to use the phrase of Hobsbawm and Ranger, of national symbols, slogans and traditions; and the creation of political parties. The threads behind this upsurge were many. It was a reaction to the colonial triumphalism of the 1930 celebrations marking one hundred years since the French invasion. It was a result of the 1929 global economic crisis which hit Algeria as a whole very badly, but in particular the Muslim population. It was a consequence of the demographic time bomb. Between 1926 and 1936 the Muslim population increased from 6 million to 7.2 million, as opposed to the European population that remained at 1 million; a population explosion that created enormous social pressures.

Desperate for employment, thousands flocked to the coast and in the major towns and cities this produced a tinderbox atmosphere. Gathering on street corners, young Algerian men (and I do mean men, there is strong gendered aspect here) felt angry and humiliated. Forced to live on their wits, confronted with settler and police racism, lacking educational opportunities given to Europeans, many found it difficult to maintain their self-control. The slightest incident could provoke violence and in 1933 and 1934 Algeria witnessed a spate of urban rioting.

This volatile context made young Algerians receptive to new political ideas: communism, pan-Islamic ideas, Arab nationalism that must be linked to the impact of major global events, namely the 1916 Easter uprising in Ireland, the 1917 Russian Revolution, the Islamic Renaissance in Egypt and broader anti-imperialist movements in the Middle East and Asia. Consequently, some rioting took on an explicitly political dimension. On 12 February 1934 a 10-000 strong demonstration in Algiers organised by the Communist and Socialist Parties included a large number of Muslims. When the demonstration was blocked by the police, more young Muslim men descended from the Casbah, brandishing political placards and ransacking rich shops in the European quartier: an act of public aggression that produced widespread fear amongst the French authorities.  This type of political activity was new and led to wholesale surveillance of all aspects of Algerian life. Through control, the authorities wanted to stop this process of politicisation.

 

In this sense the photograph is evidence of the conquest of public space by Algerian nationalism. Even if they are posing for the photograph, the body language, the way they are dressed, the manner in which they are looking at the camera, exudes political self-confidence that was reflected in the invention of national symbols. This politicisation process was not unique to Algerians. It was equally evident for Moroccan and Tunisian nationalists. It was also part of the outpouring of radical militancy during 1936 that took place with the factory occupations in France. However, this photograph has particular poignancy because of what happens next. First, the Popular Front government fails to carry through any reforms in Algeria. The colonial status-quo remains. Then, on 26 January 1937, the Popular Front banned the North African Star as a threat to French sovereignty: a crystallising moment which underlined the gulf between the French Left and Algerian nationalism. This gulf, as I argue in Algeria: France’s Undeclared War, was at the core of the conflict in between 1954 and 1962.

As an image, the photograph also raises questions about the status of the photograph as historical evidence. Clearly on one level the invention of photography in the 1830s led to a democratisation of image making throughout the rest of the nineteenth century. Previously, images were the preserve of the rich and powerful. Now images took on a more popular form and this photograph is part of this broader, technological revolution in image making.

But, in thinking about how Algerians were photographed we need to be attentive to John Tagg’s arguments about what he calls the ‘burden of representation’. In surveying the history of photography Tagg rejects the notion of a photograph as a straightforward record of reality. He shows how photographs are bound up not with democratisation, but surveillance and control of the poor and the colonised as evidence in courtrooms, hospitals and police work. And certainly this framework can be applied to the way in which Algerians were photographed by French authorities right up to 1962. Photographs, like this one of captured Algerian prisoners in the nineteenth century or another of Algerian women posing in the harem, are about power. They are intrinsic to processes of political and sexual coercion where the act of looking is about controlling colonial subjects.

Yet, for me, this comparison underlines how much the 14 July 1936 photograph is of a different order; one that does encapsulate a new Algerian nationalism. There is a sense that Algerians are defining their own image and, by extension, their own politics.

 

A bandit

Algeria was invaded in 1830. By the mid-1870s the French authorities had defeated Muslim resistance in the north of the country and in 1881, in legal terms, Algeria became part of France, in theory no different than Normandy. In response, Muslim society turned in on itself finding solace in Islam which was seen to be an insurmountable barrier to total French rule.
And here the gender dimension was crucial. If Islam remained at the centre of their personal lives, this was a sanctuary sustained by women who organised religious festivals, circumcisions, marriages and funerals; oversaw rituals of cleanliness; and passed down stories and songs that instilled notions of a separate religious identity. All of which was expressed in popular Arabic or Berber, providing a powerful counterpoint to the language of official authority: French.

If hope was sustained by Islam, it was also fortified by the image of the honourable outlaw, a longstanding tradition within North African society. Invariably male figures, the bandits of the mountains were lionised in folklore. Through wit and cunning they had turned the tables and made the authorities of the plains, whether Roman, Arab or Ottoman, look ridiculous. Under French rule these ‘primitive rebels’ instilled feelings of pride and revenge because they were not prepared to act out a subservient role. In the case of Bou-Zian, leading a band of men in the 1870s in the Sahara that attacked convoys and farms, it took years to finally track him down.With the authorities powerless to apprehend him, stories and songs championed Bou-Zian as a saintly presence protected by God. The enemy of colonialism and the poor Muslims’ friend, he was the emblem of freedom in a chained society.

Bou-Zian was so difficult to capture because everywhere in rural Algeria the French met with the law of silence. For Camille Sabatier, justice of the peace in Kabylia in the 1870s, this silence was a perennial problem. Nobody would answer questions. In part this was because of fear. People feared retribution from the bandits themselves. But it was also the product of an instinctive hostility to outsiders. People felt that it was wrong to talk because there was a strong sense of identification with these ‘bandits of honour’. They were seen to embody community resistance to colonialism and this unspoken bond made silence into a ‘weapon of the weak’. Not to speak was a mechanism for thwarting authority. It was also a way of signalling the illegitimacy of French rule; a deeply embedded reflex that was passed down from one generation to the next.

There is nothing uniquely Algerian about this. In his 1959 book, Primitive Rebels, and 1969 book, Bandits, Eric Hobsbawm explores notions of bandits and outlaws. Looking at Dick Turpin, Ned Kelly and Billy the Kid he examines how these figures, living on the edges of rural societies by robbing and plundering became, in the eyes of ordinary people, heroes, avengers and the defenders of unwritten notions of justice. Equally James C. Scott, whose notion of the ‘weapons of the weak’ has been so influential, analyses how in the context of South-East Asia peasants have traditionally resisted authority through sabotage, foot- dragging, gossip and humour.

 

The oud 

Like bandits, music sustained Muslim self-belief and this leads me to my next object: the oud. Andalusian style classical orchestras made up of a fiddle, oud, kamenjah (violin-style instrument played vertically on the knee), zither, darbouka and tambourine were testament to a rich musical heritage derived from the fusion of Arab, Jewish and North African styles in Muslim Spain. Within North Africa, this tradition included malhûn: a semi-classical form of sung poetry made up of an overture followed by solo verses, interspersed with refrains from the chorus. At the core of this poetry was word play, where metaphors and allusions, drawing upon oral story-telling and poetry traditions as well as mystical religious influences, were twisted to fit the flow of the music. French culture would try to absorb this music as ‘exotic’, but for Muslims this tradition was the embodiment of a different history and identity. It showed how North Africa was linked definitively to the Middle East and the heritage of Andalusian Spain.

Wikimedia/Viken Najarian.

These musical traditions were not revered as monuments. They were open to adaptation and improvisation and in the early twentieth century new forms of popular songs talked explicitly about French misrule, poverty and unemployment, mixing together aspects of the classical tradition and the malhûn canon with spoken slang. This was the case of the street poets who went from village to village and performed in the open air. It was the case too of the cheikhas, women drawn from the vast Muslim underclass in Oran, who sang in cafes, bars and bordellos from the 1920s onwards.

Sections of Muslim society were shocked by what was seen as their licentious behaviour and at times sexually explicit lyrics. Yet, despite this hostility women like Cheikha Djenia, Cheikha Grélo and, most famous of all, Cheikha Remitti El Reliziana were unrepentant. Their music was not for respectable society. Expressing themselves in an Algerian Arabic that few French people would have understood and usually accompanied with a flute, violin and some percussion, they provided a snapshot of what is was like to be the lowest of the low in colonial society. They sang of pain, suffering and exclusion. Shared emotions that pointed to the way in which popular music and theatre, increasingly monitored by the authorities, became a measure of Muslim anger. But again there is nothing uniquely Algerian about this. Cultural resistance is a general historical process; one only has to think of the role that folk music played within Irish nationalism or jazz within the Czech dissident movement in the 1970s.

Humour

Ali Zamoum was born in 1933 in Boghni at the foot of the Djurdjura Mountains in Kabylia. He remembers that in the 1930s the Europeans, referred to collectively as ‘el-colon’, were an endless source of jokes. The Europeans were mocked for their lack of hygiene. They were said to wear perfume to hide their bad smell. They were said to only clean their hands and face. They were said not to wash after using the toilet. At school Zamoum and his friends developed subversive rituals that expressed their hostility to the French primary school system. When performing traditional French songs they deliberately sang out of tune. Similarly when asked to recite Victor Hugo’s patriotic poem Aux Morts they spoke the final line ‘Long live eternal France’ in a resigned and downbeat way. And this example takes us back to Scott. It is another example of the ‘weapons of the weak.’

Football

The Algiers football club Mouloudia Club d’Alger was founded in the Casbah in August 1921 by a group of young Algerians. The name was taken from Mouloud, the festival celebrating the birth of the prophet Mohammed, while their team colours were green, representing Islam, red, representing sacrifice. MCA were part of an explosion of Muslim football clubs in the 1920s and early 1930s, all clamouring to participate in the North African championship established in 1927

Badge of Mouloudia Club d’Alger. Wikimedia Commons.

Suspicious that these clubs were fronts for anti-French activity, the ‘Native Affairs’ unit compiled regular reports on their activities on and off the field which would be sent upwards through the system to the three préfets in Oran, Algiers and Constantine before ending up on the desk of the governor-general in Algiers. Columns carefully tabulated who played for these teams, who was financing them and what their links were with political groups and parties. These reports caused alarm because the authorities did not want sport to become organised along racial lines and in regard to football, far and away the most popular sporting pastime for young Muslim men, the governor-general introduced a circular in January stating that all teams must have at least three European footballers; a ratio that was increased to five in October 1934. These rules were very unpopular amongst the Algerian teams and their supporters. Crowds chanted against it and teams tried to get round the quota, either by playing naturalised Muslims or claiming that it was impossible to recruit European members.

Anger manifested itself in aggression on the football field. Reports to the French authorities regularly report how matches between settler and Muslim teams ended in violence on the pitch. One letter, on 15 May 1936 from the mayor of Djidjelli to the local préfet in Bougie in eastern Algeria, warned that if there was a fixture between a Muslim and European team then racial confrontation was certain:

“If a team essentially composed of natives should meet with one made up in large part of Europeans, it is beyond doubt that sporting antagonism, pushed to fever pitch, will add to the racial antagonism and at this moment the repercussions would be especially dangerous.”

These teams were particularly important to young men who found in them a collective identity denied by the 1930 centenary. These clubs, like similar ones for cycling basketball, swimming, tennis, shooting, boules and rugby, expressed nationalism through their names, their symbols and their shirt strips; a measure of how much more important sport was in solidifying a sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Through sport young Muslim men were able to conquer public space and impose themselves physically which is why Muslim football clubs were a breeding ground for so many Algerian nationalist leaders, including the first post-independence president, Ahmed Ben Bella.

Again, however, this story must be placed within the broader history of the professionalisation of football which began with the establishment of the English Football League in 1888, founded by twelve clubs including Stoke City. Equally, the relationship between sport and politics is a general historical phenomenon; one only has to think of Celtic versus Rangers or CLR James’ majestic 1963 book on Caribbean cricket: Beyond the Boundary. ‘What do they of cricket know who only cricket know’ is James’ most famous phrase and one to which I return again and again as an historian because, without social, political and historical context, observers will understand absolutely nothing about Algerian football in particular and cultural history in general.

In 1982 Algeria qualified for the World Cup in Spain for the first time in their history. Their first match on 16 June was against the highly fancied West Germany, the 1980s European Champions whose team included the talented Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Paul Breitner and Pierre Littbarski. In the run-up, the West German manager, Jupp Derwell, joked that if his team lost “ he would jump on to the first train back to Munich’, while at the pre-match press conference several players talked of winning eight-nil, boasting: “we will dedicate our seventh goal to our wives and the eight to our dogs”.

Yet, West Germany did lose. In a thrilling match, the Algerians played fast, entertaining football. They scored first in the fifty- fourth minute with a goal by Rabah Madjer. In the sixty-eight minute Karl-Heinz Rummenigge equalised for West Germany. Then, one minute later, a majestic, nine pass move climaxed with a strike by the Algerian number ten Lakhdar Belloumi, one of the goals of the tournament. The final score two-one. The historical significance of the result: Algeria was the first African team to defeat a European team at the World Cup and this just three weeks before the twentieth anniversary of independence; an anniversary that inspired the Algerian team as Belloumi underlined:

“We were conscious that 1982 was the twentieth anniversary of independence. We were determined to uphold the dignity of our people.”

Days later jubilation was matched by despair when West Germany, in a lacklustre game, beat Austria one nil. This result meant that West Germany and not Algeria reached the next stage on goal difference. The Spanish press denounced this as the sporting equivalent of the 1938 Anschluss, while in Algeria it became known as the ‘game of shame’.

A knife

On 1 November 1954 the National Liberation Front (FLN), a new political entity, launched a series of attacks across Algeria. At the time very few people had any idea what the FLN was, but scattered on the roads of Kabylia the 1 November declaration set out their demands: the restoration of an independent Algerian state based upon Arab and Muslims values. Yet, unlike Messali Hadj there was no reference to an elected assembly as the route to independence. The 1 November declaration placed armed struggle at the centre of the liberation struggle. Violence was the essence of the FLN revolution and those who proposed a gradualist solution were denounced as ‘reformists’ and ‘traitors’. This violence was keyed into absolutes. People could only be for or against the FLN. The intention was to light a fuse of revolt. This did not happen.

Although within post-independence Algeria the image of a single people responding as one became the cornerstone of the new country’s national identity, at the time it was a confused event, overshadowed by the on-going conflicts in Morocco and Tunisia; a fact that reminds us that like so many events, the 1916 Easter Uprising, the 1917 storming of the Winter Palace, the Blitz in Britain, there is a gulf between reality and subsequent myth. It was only in retrospect, as the bloodshed deepened during the next two years, that 1 November was elevated into the starting point for the war.

Through violence the FLN wanted to bring the climate of insecurity – deeply embedded with the settler psyche – to a new level that would force the French to leave. At midday on 20 August 1955 thousands of peasants descended on towns and villages in eastern Algeria, egged on by FLN soldiers. Chanting ‘jihad’ and armed with knives, clubs, sticks, axes and pitchforks, the attackers were merciless. In one small village thirty-seven settlers were killed, including ten children, by Algerian workers they had known for years. On the French side, a pamphlet about the massacres was sent to all mayors on mainland France. The photographs did not hang back. They catalogued in detail how the victims had been hacked to death even after death, men emasculated, mothers disembowelled, children mutilated. Consolidating the image of Algerian savagery encapsulated in the use of the knife – the image of a threatening Arab male with a knife was perennial stereotype in colonial Algeria – the photographs’ message was simple: you cannot negotiate with throat cutters. In the same vein when in 1959 a group of FLN fighters were captured how were they humiliated? By being publicly paraded through the streets with knives in their teeth.

Captured Algerians. Guerre d’Algerie blog

For Frantz Fanon FLN violence had a different meaning. Born in 1925 in Fort-de-France in Martinique, a veteran of the Free French campaign in Italy, Fanon studied psychology at Lyon University in the late 1940s. His first book, Black Skins White Masks, denounced French republican equality as a sham. Fanon argued that French Caribbeans like himself would never be considered as equal citizens; the black colour of his skin meant assimilation was impossible. In October 1953 Fanon began working as a psychiatrist in a hospital in Blida just south of Algiers. Coming to the conclusion that Algerian patients were suffering from mental health problems because of the psychological effect of colonialism, Fanon resigned and made his way to Tunis to join the FLN where he worked as a journalist on the FLN newspaper El Moudjahid. Fanon died of leukaemia on 6 December 1961, shortly after the publication of his most influential work, The Wretched of the Earth. Writing in an angry and confrontational style, Fanon extolled the virtues of mirror violence, justifying this as a liberation act against the inherent violence of colonial rule – a necessary stage which would purge Africans and Asians of any inferiority complex in regard to white settler rule. Containing a preface by Jean-Paul Sartre, who embraced Fanon’s vision of a third world revolution led by a dispossessed peasantry, The Wretched of the Earth had a global resonance. It became an iconic text: the classic vindication of the Algerian cause where the knife was a tool of psychological liberation.

Frantz Fanon. Wikipedia/Fair Use.

I now want to consider another knife. Made of hardened steel, twenty-five centimetres long and 2.5 centimetres wide, this was made in Nazi Germany and was used by the Hitler Youth. In 1957 in Algeria it was the property of a paratrooper lieutenant; his name is clearly marked J.M Le Pen. On 2 March 1957 Le Pen had left it by mistake in a house in the Algiers Casbah where his unit had arrested an Algerian suspect, Ahmed Moulay, and then tortured him in front of his wife and six children, before shooting him. The corners of his mouth were subjected to knife gashes. An official communiqué claimed that Ahmed Moulay had been shot while trying to escape, a method of killing that was covered by government orders. One of the children, Mohammed Cherif, found that knife and hid it. On 4 May 2002, on the eve of the second round of the presidential elections where Le Pen was running against Jacques Chirac after securing 16.86 per cent in the first round, Le Monde published an account of Le Pen’s knife affair, having procured the knife as evidence from Mohammed Cherif. Le Pen took Le Monde to court twice and lost. However, given the amnesty at the peace accords, he cannot be prosecuted for war crimes. So with this object we are taken back to colonial violence, as well as questions of French amnesia and the on-going support for the National Front.

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