DzActiviste.info Publié le dim 29 Juil 2012

50 years on. What does the War of Liberation mean? And to whom?

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We are pleased to welcome a new contributor. Based on her study in Algerian universities, historian Natalya Vince analyzes students’ perceptions of history in the following text written for Textures du temps. Students’ references, she suggests, locate them within both the third worldist history produced in the first decades of independence, and a Huntingdonian vision of a post-Cold War civilizational clash.

Channel hopping through satellite channels in Algeria on 5 July 2012, I happened upon Echorouk TV, a recently created audiovisual spin-off of the second largest Arabophone daily newspaper, Echorouk. Marking the fiftieth anniversary of independence, the station was screening a documentary on the 1957 ‘Battle of Algiers’. This included the now familiar elements of any programme about this period: an interview with Yaacef Saadi, head of the Algiers bomb network, and the uncredited use of sequences from Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 film The Battle of Algiers, its images occupying an ambiguous place between dramatisation and archive footage.  At one point, Yaacef Saadi began talking about the activities of one of the members of the bomb network, Fadéla Attia. Compared to iconic figures such as Zohra Drif or Djamila Bouhired, Fadéla Attia was a little-known member of the FLN’s urban guerrilla campaign. Escaping capture during the war, it was only towards the end of her life that she started giving interviews to researchers, the press and official archives (including those of the Centre national d’études et de la recherche sur le Mouvement national et la Révolution du Premier Novembre in El Biar, Algiers, and the Museum of the Mujahid).

Fadéla Attia

Fadéla Attia

Fadéla Attia died in 2007. In an obituary published in Francophone daily El Watan, historian Malika El Korso paid tribute to a glamorous blond who spied for the FLN whilst working for the colonial administration under Governor General Lacoste. Malika El Korso described Fadéla Attia’s favourite memory as ‘her meetings with male and female students at the Lycées Hassiba Benbouali, Mokrani 2 and Emir Abdelkader. This was her way of continuing the combat for which she gave her youth and her life.’ As I watched Yaacef Saadi talk about Fadéla Attia, I was reminded of this obituary, and also of an interview with her which I had carried out in 2005. I had asked Fadéla Attia the question ‘Do you think that the War of Liberation remains an important reference for young people today?’ This had been her reply:

I went into lycées to try and motivate some young people. It’s the head teacher who asked me to do a little talk, in a lycée in the hills [hauteurs] of Algiers [i.e. a more affluent part of the city]. But they are not interested. Even the senior French civil servants, they didn’t know who they were. When I told them what I did – and this really struck me – I said who was the governor, the governor Robert Lacoste. They asked ‘Is that the brand Lacoste?’ And that is lycée students! I was shocked. And they laughed. I said to them, in front of the head teacher, ‘Really, you are useless.’ And the head teacher gave them a right telling off. They don’t know the history of their country and they don’t want to know it, or it is not taught. They don’t know how we wrenched away our independence.

Reverently in awe of their heroic ancestors, shamefully more interested in fashion brands and the latest smartphone, avid reproducers of oppositional discourses about the hopes of independence cruelly betrayed by ‘false mujahidin [combatants]1 or understandably more concerned with immediate and practical problems such as unemployment and the cost of living: it seems that everyone in Algeria today has an opinion on how young people relate to the history and memory of the War of Independence. Yet there has been very little empirical research into this question.

To a certain extent, this is hardly surprising. From a methodological point of view, a survey into youth attitudes towards the history and memory of the War of Liberation is a daunting task. In 2010, nearly half of the Algerian population of more than 35 million was under the age of 24. A comprehensive sample of what is (since the independence of South Sudan) the biggest country in Africa would need to take into account rural and urban contexts, a range of social classes, children from primary school age to university students, as well as young people who have dropped out of the education system. That in itself is a monumental project. In addition, the intense political sensitivity which surrounds the teaching of history in Algeria, and in particular the War of Liberation, means that any survey in a primary or secondary school is likely to require approval from the Ministry of Education, and possibly even the Ministry of Mujahidin.

The Monument to the Martyr (maqam al-shahid) in Algiers, cordoned off for an official event in March 2007 (N. Vince)

Yet the lack of even small-scale case studies of the reception of narratives of the past is not just a practical or political problem, it is also symptomatic of the dominant approaches to the study of post-independence Algerian history (as well as other post-conflict states) taken by academics in the past two decades. Here I am particularly referring to the reliance on theories borrowed from psychoanalysis and the use of the terminology of trauma and repressed memory to explain conflict around issues of ‘identity’ within contemporary societies. Benjamin Stora’s 1991 La Gangrène et l’Oubli: la mémoire de la Guerre d’Algérie2 was of course ground-breaking in bringing this approach to the Franco-Algerian case. Yet borrowing from a discipline which, by nature, is interested in the psyche of the individual and applying psychological and emotional mechanisms of remembrance and forgetting to the collective group has led to a bypassing of an evidence-based approach. The significance of a given ‘event’ or ‘past’ to contemporary society is often assumed rather than substantiated.

Why this is problematic is particularly evident in Algerian case: because we are considering a society where political debate about the present, future and the very nature of ‘Algerianness’ is often is framed by the language, symbols and narrative structures of conflicting versions of the past. Allies are rendered credible and opponents delegitimised through a language of ‘true’ and ‘false’ mujahidin (combatants/holy warriors), glorious shuhada (martyrs), marsiens (last minute resisters), harkis (Algerians who fought with the French), hizb fransa (the so-called party of France), the army of the ‘interior’ (fighting in Algeria during the war) and ‘exterior’ (on the Moroccan and Tunisian borders). For this reason, it is all the more important not to assume that there is a common and unambiguous understanding of what these terms mean. Instead, we need to pay close attention to how the meanings and usages of such terminology and their associated narratives has shifted between 1962 and 2012, how words with historical resonance do not echo in the same way across region, class, and perhaps in particular, across generation.

My argument here is simple: there is a need to carry out field research – which will perhaps inevitably take the form of a series of case studies of specific social groups, regions or tranches of ages – into the reception of narratives of the past. It is necessary to take a ‘bottom up’ approach to the question of transmission, by examining not what the state, veterans, opposition groups or historians would like to transmit, but instead focusing on what has been transmitted – i.e. what students know and think (or think they know) – and from this point seeking to map out how school textbooks, family stories, the Internet, current affairs and personal experiences intermesh to create new meanings of the past. Through doing this, we will gain key insights into the ways in which symbols and narratives of the nation are not only explicitly reproduced and re-appropriated but also unwittingly misread by individuals and groups, using the local, national and transnational frames of reference available to them.

Bordj-Bou-Arreridj, 200km east of Algiers on 5 July 2012 (N. Vince)

My own small contribution to this research into the reception of narratives of the past was a case study which I carried out in 2007, interviewing 95 trainee teachers, the majority of whom were in history-geography, at the Ecole normale supérieure (ENS) in Bouzaréah, Algiers, as well as some history students at the University of Algiers, on their perceptions of female combatants (mujahidat) in the War of Liberation, their sources of information and attitudes towards history. The decision to focus on female combatants was precisely because of their celebrated, but relatively marginal place in official and published history. This meant that students did not have at their fingertips an obvious pre-prepared script to use, instead they were obliged to ‘fill the gaps’, drawing on the sources of information available to them. The findings of this research will be published in a forthcoming journal article. For the purposes of this text, I will focus on sketching out one aspect of these findings, related to explaining how students’ visions of the war and female veterans are formed. Inevitably, there will be some tendency towards generalisation and a lack of nuance in this short space, but hopefully it will give a sense of the direction of my research.

The case study revealed not a simple replication by students of the school textbook narrative, or indeed any other single narrative, be it ‘official’ or ‘oppositional’. Instead, there was a more complex process of meshing together of different sources, as students’ views of the War of Independence pass through a series of filters superimposed upon each other, with each filter the product of a distinct chronological and ideological period.

Filter one: grandmothers

Students’ most frequently cited source of information about the war was the eyewitness account. In particular, they referred to the stories of family members who participated in or were alive during the conflict and notably the accounts of their grandmothers, who were more likely to be still alive than grandfathers. Despite the ENS being based in Algiers, only two participants were actually from Algiers. The majority of students were from less affluent, rural areas, with Chlef and Tipaza (both west of Algiers), Médéa (south of Algiers), and Bouïra (south-east of Algiers in Kabylia) being the most common departments of origin, together accounting for more than a third of all students. This, then, is a rural memory. What students have particularly absorbed from the stories of their rural grandmothers are the themes of suffering, loss and violence. In the words of Sofiane,3 from Béjaïa: ‘My grandfather died a martyr, he stole arms from the enemy and gave them to the mujahidin; my grandmother [participated] too. When she tells me the stories I cry myself blind.’

Filter two: 1960s and 1970s secondary sources

Yet students do not reproduce the narratives of their grandparents in a straightforward way. These eyewitness accounts then pass through, or intermesh with, the secondary sources which students have been exposed to. Students generally did not read much, amongst the small number of books which they cite as sources; the most popular works were of those of Abu al-Qasim Saadallah, a former pupil of the ‘ulama’, whose Arabic-language publishing career began in the 1970s. A survey carried out in 1985, found that 68 per cent of final year students at the University of Algiers cited Saadallah, making him also the most-read historian at that time.4 Students were much more at ease quoting films, with by far and away the most popular film being Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 Battle of Algiers. It is now more than two decades since the end of the single party regime and today there is plethora of books (albeit many published in French, and the majority of history students in this survey were not Francophone), internet sources (including the Arabophone media) and audiovisual material available, representing a wide range of political perspectives. Despite this, students’ historical reading and viewing locates them within the frames of reference of the very specific historical context of the first two decades of independence. In this period, the state and Algerian intellectuals sought to ‘decolonise’ Algerian history, producing a national past in opposition to that of the colonial humanities and social sciences, reaching out to both the ‘ulama’ (Saadallah, and 1970s school textbooks) and Third Worldist sympathisers (such as Pontecorvo) to provide new narratives of a pre-colonial cohesive identity in which Islam played a key role and a contemporary international mission to lead the non-aligned movement.

This framing can produce some unexpected interpretations amongst twenty-first century university students. History student Mohamed seems to be thinking of The Battle of Algiers when he states: ‘When a woman cuts off her hair, which is against our religion, what does that mean? That many women participated in the war and that they endured torture and they didn’t betray the revolution.’ This appears to be a reference to the scene in The Battle of Algiers when three young women bombers prepare to enter the European quarter, cutting their hair, dying it blond and putting on European clothes, although of course it is not against the Muslim religion to cut one’s hair. The apparent strangeness of Mohamed’s comment is telling: he might be watching a film which dates from the era of Third Worldist revolutionary fervour, but he is reading it through the lens of post-1979 religious certainty.

Filter three: post-1990s Algeria, post-9/11 world

The third filter through which students ‘read’ the war through is the present day, a post-1990s Algeria and a post 9/11 world, in which religious identities are asserted with increasing force and in which the media seems to constantly reinforce the differences between a Christian West and a Muslim East. History student Salima, from Chlef, explains that ‘My father is always telling me stories about the revolution, because he was born in 1934. He tells his story on special occasions and especially when he sees what is happening in Iraq.’ The images of blood, carnage and suicide bombings from Afghanistan, Palestine and Iraq, which enter into Algerian homes on television on a daily basis, the threat of violence committed in the name of religion on Algerian soil and a view of world politics which corresponds to a Huntingdonian ‘clash of civilisations’ provide a new frame for young Algerians in the twenty-first century to revisit an anti-colonial struggle of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

This is evident in some students’ (mis)interpretation of the terms fidâ’îyyin and fidâ’iyyât. Men and women who were in the Algiers bomb network tend to use these terms as a synonym for urban bomber (i.e. someone who planted the bomb and got out quick), but for some students the term is understood much more literally, as those who choose to sacrifice their life. In the words of history student Atika, from Médéa, a fida’iyya ‘is a shahida [martyr] in Islam, she who accomplished what every Muslim hopes to do one day, that is to say, die for Allah.’ In this interpretation, nationalist goals appear to be overshadowed by religious duty. The reassertion of religious identities also explains the ‘sanctification’ of female combatants by some students, who hold up the mujahida as a model of religious piety as a way of critiquing the perceived moral shortcomings of the ‘modern’ Algerian woman, an image somewhat at odds with the fact that in order to participate in the war many women broke social and cultural taboos. As Rachid from Médéa bluntly puts it: ‘There is a big difference between women who participated in the revolution and women today. Women today serve no purpose, only to destroy society, apart from a minority who are God fearing.’

The history of post-independent Algeria so far has tended to be written in a post-colonial idiom, seeking to understand the present through exploring the traces and traumas of 132 years of colonisation and seven and a half years of a bloody war of decolonisation, and in turn analysing how present concerns – such as violence, Islamism and women’s rights – might shape our research priorities and concerns when we re-read the past. This case study suggests the need to go beyond exploring the how the present can be understood through the colonial past and vice versa. Instead, we might turn out attention to how the past is read through a series of more recent pasts, considering not only how the echoes of a seminal event or period reverberate in the present, but also how these echoes are refracted through a series of filters firmly located in a post-independence history.

Natalya Vince

A cake in the form of the Algerian flag at a reception organised by the Algerian embassy in London to commemorate 50 years of independence, 7 July 2012 (N. Vince).

All photographs: Natalya Vince, except the two photos of Fadéla Attia (private archives).

Some open access online links

  • Remaoun, H., 2008. L’enseignement de la Guerre de libération nationale (1954-1962), dans les anciens et nouveaux manuels algériens d’histoire. Un enjeu pour l’affirmation d’une culture de la citoyenneté. Tréma, 29, 5–19. URL: http://trema.revues.org/701

  1. ‘False mujahidin’ refers to bogus war veterans, who have fabricated their participation in the War of Liberation in order to benefit from the political, social and financial advantages available to officially recognized war veterans. This is a highly sensitive issue in contemporary Algeria, not least because contemporary political legitimacy remains to a significant degree bound up with one’s historical role in the anti-colonial struggle.
  2. Benjamin Stora, La Gangrène et l’Oubli (Paris: La Découverte, 1998).
  3. All names have been changed.
  4. M. Haddab, 1995, «  Statut social de l’histoire: Eléménts de reflexion  », in: M. Ghalem and H. Remaoun, Comment on enseigne l’histoire en Algérie (Oran: CRASC. p. 27.)


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