Middle East and North Africa

Algeria’s past reclaimed

Claire Spencer welcomes a history freed from colonial overtones

Algierians celebrate victory after the country’s independence referendum in July 1962

A History of Algeria
James McDougall
Cambridge, £23.99

Algeria is a paradox that seems inaccessible in ways that its immediate neighbours Morocco, and until recently, Tunisia are not, but which is also deeply attached to 20th century European history. It was a base for the French Resistance during the Second World War, then the setting for A Savage War of Peace, Alistair Horne’s classic account of Algeria’s decade-long and ultimately successful war of independence against French colonial rule in the 1950s.

To coincide with Algeria’s 55th anniversary of independence, James McDougall has rightly concluded that puncturing some of the stereotypes surrounding Algeria’s complex history is overdue.

The human cost of the 1950s war has now been overlaid by the Black Decade of the 1990s, another 10-year struggle of inexplicably intense brutality, which has left the next generation of Algerians in a quandary about their own identity and place in history.

At once an intensely proud people and, as McDougall illustrates in his History, an extremely resilient one over a long period, contemporary Algerians seem almost condemned to define themselves by the wounds of a history not fully digested since the French conquest of 1830.

McDougall takes issue with this, along with the academic communities who have imposed their own conflict studies constructions on modern Algerian society, which is considerably less dominated by the ‘strong state’ than often assumed. Algerian society, he argues has been ‘continuously characterized’ by ‘an extraordinary degree of social energy’ in contrast to the ‘poussière d’hommes’ (dust of men) of the 19th-century French governor-general Jules Cambon’s cliché.

The commentary columns of a still vibrant francophone press in Algeria attest to this, and are often blackly humorous. The bitingly satirical cartoon is an Algerian staple, along with some renowned stand-up comedians. More serious self-reflections lament the lack of social justice and political accountability accompanying more than half a century of independent rule, along with the poverty of Algerians’ understanding of their own history and the importance of their much-neglected cultural icons. In a piece written to mark the 55th anniversary in July 2017, Benyahia El Houcine concludes that ‘a people without culture is a people without history.’

There was a time when the best insights into the diversity of Algerian society and culture came from French scholars, such as the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, or an earlier generation of colonial officials-turned-modern historians, of the ilk of Jacques Berque, or academics such as Charles-André Julien and Charles-Robert Ageron. But there was always the problem of the colonial language and its ill-fitting concepts that alternately captured and repelled Algerians themselves.

Despite half-hearted attempts over the past 55 years to educate all Algerians to think, speak and write in modern standard Arabic, the country’s dialect reflects the interplay of all of its rich linguistic past, with French − and Ottoman-era Turkish and Spanish − vocabulary adapted and inserted into Arabic grammatical constructions, along with Algeria’s still very live group of Berber languages. These all add zest to what often sounds like argumentative invective when spoken, only to soften when sung in the lyrics of contemporary singers such as Amel Zen, as well as providing satirists with the linguistic word-play that underpins their wry humour.

Written Algerian, however, works badly as a vehicle for capturing the past, which does not bode well for Algerians’ own historiography. This suffered firstly from a lack of historians in the immediate post-colonial era, then the loss of the best historians and researchers − Mohammed Arkoun and Ali Merad among them − to European and American universities.

Those who remained have faced political and economic constraints when accessing archives and getting published, as well as the lack of objectivity that dominate accounts of the 1990s. The ‘possibility of writing a satisfactory history of what happened in Algeria in the mid-1990s remains slim 20 years later’ according to McDougall, ‘because in the context of a fundamentally unresolved conflict, the tools necessary to the indispensable criticism of the sources are lacking’.

McDougall’s reference to the Ottoman period and ‘ecologies’ of pre-colonial Algeria as a necessary precursor to understanding the formation of Algeria’s modern state ultimately gives way to the ‘meat’ of the topic which is to chart the trajectory of the interactions between state and society since the arrival of the French in 1830.

His analysis of an era that has been well chewed over elsewhere benefits from being in English, bringing with it an analytical distance that French accounts have struggled to sustain, as well as completing the modern history that has not been written with an Afterword on developments in 2015-16.

More young Algerians are learning English as a means of communicating with the rest of the world online, and of acquiring a distance from the intense subjectivity of their own, admittedly dramatic, history.

If this reading of the social underpinnings of an otherwise intensely state-dominated history inspires a new generation to think again about what unites them in the midst of their diversity, then this immensely readable book will have done more than fill in a very wide gap in the market for a history that Algeria deserves.