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New Texts Out Now: Natalya Vince, Saintly Grandmothers: Youth Reception and Reinterpretation of the National Past in Contemporary Algeria

[Cover of [Cover of "The Journal of North African Studies"]

Natalya Vince, “Saintly Grandmothers: Youth Reception and Reinterpretation of the National Past in Contemporary Algeria.” The Journal of North African Studies, 18:1 (2013).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this article?

Natalya Vince (NV): The Algerian War of Independence (1954-62), or at least a selective and glorified version of the war, has played a key role in both the formation of Algerian national identity and the legitimization of political elites. For the past fifty years, museums, monuments, school textbooks, national holidays, and political speeches have constantly reminded Algerians that independence was won through the sacrifice of “one and a half million martyrs” in a struggle fought “by the people, for the people” and in which there was “one sole hero, the people.” In this narrative, the old colonial power, France, provides a useful scarecrow, a handy “other” against which “we” can be defined. At the same time, nearly half the population of Algeria today is under the age of twenty-four. Within and beyond the borders of Algeria, this youthful majority is often depicted as disinterested in these tired old tales of the past, instead looking across the Mediterranean Sea to migrate to Europe, particularly to France.

This article was motivated by the desire to step away from these familiar descriptions of, on the one hand, an omnipresent, rigid national narrative and, on the other hand, disaffected and indifferent younger generations. It was also motivated by a desire to write a post-independence story in which France was not center stage, either as eternal enemy or object of desire. Instead, I was interested in how young people understand the history of the War of Independence, what they think about the way in which history is taught, and how their perceptions of the past are shaped by a range of local, national, and transnational influences, from grandmothers’ stories to school textbooks to scenes of war in present-day Iraq.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the article address?

NV: The article draws upon literatures about the role of narratives of the past in nation building, but it takes a distinctly “bottom up” approach. Instead of looking at what the state would like to transmit—and there are already a number of excellent studies on this in the Algerian context—it seeks to explore what has been transmitted. As Eric Hobsbawm underlines in Nations and Nationalism Since 1780: Program, Myth, Reality (1990), “the view from below, i.e. the nation as seen…by the ordinary persons…is exceedingly difficult to discover”—not least because of the vast practical challenges this imposes in terms of how to conduct a representative survey of the whole population. This article is only a case study with inevitable limits, carried out amongst ninety-five trainee teachers at the Ecole normale supérieure (ENS) in Bouzareah, Algiers in 2007, with some supplementary research at the University of Algiers. I hope that more studies of the reception of the past among other groups will follow this article, to complement or challenge its findings!

Algerian history is often posited as “exceptional,” a case apart. Yet when trying to unpack students’ responses to questions, I found publications on history, memory, and power relations in other contexts provided very useful frameworks. For example, Hue-Tam Ho Tai’s work on late socialist Vietnam helped me think about how political debate takes place in regimes that are neither totalitarian nor entirely democratic (and Algeria certainly could be described as such) through hidden meanings, allusions, and rumours which need to be decoded. James C. Scott’s work on hidden transcripts was also an important influence here. The work of Shahid Amin on event and metaphor in the history of Indian nationalism was also useful in helping me think about how individuals can simultaneously reproduce national myths (as “metaphors” of collective purpose and noble intentions) and undermine these very same myths through the episodes they recount (“events”) drawn from the lived experiences of their grandparents. I don’t make systematic comparisons in my work—for one thing, I don’t have the depth of knowledge to do so—but I do think it is important to use comparisons as a way to break down the discourses of exceptionalism that are so common to national histories.

Finally, the article seeks to contribute to debates about how post-independence Algerian history is written. The main tendency in the past two decades—and not least since the publication of Benjamin Stora’s path-breaking La Gangrène et l’oubli: la mémoire de la guerre d’Algérie [Gangrene and Forgetting: The Memory of the Algerian War] in 1991—has been to write the history of post-independent Algeria in a post-colonial idiom, seeking to understand the present through exploring the traces and traumas of 132 years of colonization and seven and a half years of a bloody war of decolonization, and in turn analyzing how present concerns—such as violence, Islamism, and women’s rights—might shape our research priorities when we re-read the past. The article concludes by arguing for “the need to go beyond exploring the how the present can be understood through the colonial past and vice versa. Instead, we might turn our 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.”

J: How does your work connect to and/or depart from your previous research?

NV: My main area of research, before I began to be interested in questions of generational transmission, was oral histories of women who participated in the War of Independence, following their trajectories into the post-independence period. This explains in part why my case study on student reception particularly focuses on how students perceive women who participated in the anti-colonial struggle. But this is not the only reason why I chose to focus on perceptions of women during the war. In the state-promoted national narrative of resistance, the role of women (including in bomb networks and in providing logistical support in rural areas) is both glorified—this is, after all, evidence of the mass popular support for the independence struggle—and marginalized—reduced to a few photos in school textbooks or a small corner in a museum, mentioned but not, unlike other parts of the national past, extensively elaborated upon. I was interested in how students would construct a narrative of the past when there was not an obvious, existing framework in which to locate it. The gendered approach does not just tell us what students think about women who fought in the war; it also gives insights into what happens when individuals are asked to locate memories of the past when there is not a pre-established shape, order, or meaning readily available.

J: Who do you hope will read this article, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

NV: I hope that as many people as possible will read this article! I’d like to think that it will contribute to the developing field of post-independence Algerian history. In a survey that historian Malika Rahal carried out amongst colleagues at ten Algerian universities in 2011-12, there were no doctoral students in any history departments working on any topic dealing with post-independence Algeria. In the international research context, the growing interest and the increasingly abundant number of publications on the colonial period and decolonisation has not been matched by similar output on the post-independence period. It is for this reason that Rahal has established a trilingual (English, Arabic, French) research blog, Textures du temps, in which contributors explore topic areas and methodological issues associated with writing post-independence history, breaking away from the familiar prisms of trauma, violence, and Algerian exceptionalism.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

NV: I’m currently writing a monograph, contracted to Manchester University Press, provisionally entitled Our Fighting Sisters: Nation, Memory, and Gender in Algeria, 1954-2012. In the literature on gender and nationalism, Algeria is often depicted as the “classic” example of nationalism gone bad for women: that is, women participate en masse in the struggle for independence, only to be “sent back to the kitchen” once freedom from colonial rule is won. Using oral history, I’m trying to provide an alternative perspective, looking at how female veterans of the war participated in or viewed post-independence nation and state-building, as well as how they construct their own history in the present.

I have also stayed in contact with colleagues and students at the ENS and the University of Algiers. One of the things that emerged when I was carrying out interviews with students was that they were really interested in exploring the relationship between history and memory. Since 2010, with funding from the British Academy, we have held a number of workshops in Portsmouth, Algiers, and Dakar—with colleagues and students from the University of Portsmouth, the ENS, the University of Algiers, and the University of Dakar—on history and memory, and in particular, the methodology of oral history. One of the outputs of this project will be a collaboratively-written, online, open access oral history manual in French, Arabic, and English. The production of this is being coordinated in large part by our current intake of students into the University of Portsmouth MA Francophone Africa, a postgraduate course that focuses on the study of the history, politics, and society of those vast areas of the African continent that were previously under French colonial rule and that are today referred to through the generic term “Francophone Africa.”

Excerpt from “Saintly Grandmothers: Youth Reception and Reinterpretation of the National Past in Contemporary Algeria”

The survey consisted of interviews and questionnaires with ninety-five trainee teachers studying all five humanities subjects taught at the ENS in Bouzaréah (History-Geography, English, French, Philosophy, and Arabic Literature). There was a particular focus on history students (sixty-one out of ninety-five interviewees) as this is the group which will play a crucial role in transmitting knowledge about the past to primary and secondary school children. Becoming a teacher in Algeria is not a career path which carries notable social capital or a particularly attractive salary. Within the hierarchy of academic subject areas, history is far from possessing an enviable status. As James McDougall underlines, although the close relationship between historical legitimacy and political power generates “a consistently pressing preoccupation with the representation of the past” in the public sphere, with debates relayed through a vociferous independent press, “History as an intellectual discipline and profession…has a decidedly subordinate social status.”[1] Many of the history students whom I interviewed had not chosen to study history. In the complex system of university admissions in Algeria, students make a number of choices. For many of interviewees, history was ranked very low (or was absent from) their list of options. However, due to a combination of lower baccalaureate average, a lack of personal ties to a well-placed “contact” who could use his/her influence to get a student on a “better” course and, perhaps most significantly, limited French language skills—the compulsory education system in Algeria is entirely Arabicized, but prestigious scientific subjects remain taught in French at university level—many students were allocated history.

This explains the sociological profile of history students, and indeed students of other subjects in this study: they are overwhelmingly from less affluent, rural areas. Chlef and Tipaza (both west of Algiers), Médéa (south of Algiers) and Bouira (south of Algiers in Kabylia) were the most common wilāyāt (departments) of origin, together accounting for more than a third of all students. Only two students were from Algiers, despite this being where the ENS is based. In rural areas of the “interior,” the penetration of the French language during the colonial period was far less pronounced and students’ parents were less likely to have received a French-language education in the first years of independence before Arabicization. Terrorist activity during the 1990s—which was a major problem in places like Bouira—particularly targeted French language teaching and teachers. In short, it is far less probable that the French language would be part of these students’ cultural capital and this has a determining effect on their higher education options. Students are also slightly more likely to be female at the ENS. Whilst across all forms of higher education in Algeria in 2007, sixty percent of students were female, of the ninety-five students that I interviewed, sixty-two were women and thirty-three men (sixty-five percent). Teaching is considered a “safe” profession for women, bringing them into contact with relatively few men—reassuring for more conservative families who are nevertheless prepared to accept that their daughters leave home to go to university.

This sociological profile is significant because it suggests that, far from reflecting an intellectual, and usually social, elite actively engaged in historiographical controversies, these students represent in many ways an “average” young Algerian, more likely to be from a background which is socio-economically modest, socially conservative and (with the obvious exception of students studying French as a subject) largely non-Francophone, with a somewhat above average knowledge of and interest in debates about the past.

Forty-one students were orally interviewed in French, Arabic and English in small groups of two to eight in a mixture of contexts, both through teacher introduction and through seeking out students in communal areas such as the canteen and library. Teachers were not present in oral interviews and there were no perceptible differences between the responses of students with a teacher introduction or those who were sought out independently by a peer. I also carried out fifty-four written questionnaires in Arabic with final year history students in class time (with the teacher present), using the same questions as in oral interviews.[2] The questionnaire was divided into four parts. Part one elicited basic biographical information about age, subject of study, town and region of origin, and what the student had chosen to study and why. Part two contained ten open-ended questions which explored knowledge and perceptions: images of the War of Independence, images of women in the war, names of female combatants that students knew, what students thought happened to women after 1962, what students’ sources of information were, and what their opinions were on the political, social and financial advantages which officially-recognised veterans enjoy in Algeria today. Part three contained six open and closed questions addressing the teaching of history: what students enjoyed at school and what they did not enjoy, what they would like to know more about, what they thought of the teaching methods used. Part four consisted of five opened-ended questions and focused specifically on women’s status and rights, presenting students with two short extracts of founding texts which discuss women: the 1962 Tripoli programme and the 1976 National Charter. The former can be found on the Algerian president’s official website, as can the Constitution of 1976 which was based on the National Charter. Students were elicited to analyse the meaning of the texts and reflect upon the ways in which they felt—or did not feel—that the mujahidat [female veterans of the war of independence] were a model for Algerian women today. Following transcription, student responses were then coded and the key themes analyzed.


[1] McDougall, J., 2006. “Martydom and Destiny : The Inscription and Imagination of Algerian History.” In: U. Makdisi and P. A. Silverstein, eds. Memory and Violence in the Middle East and North Africa. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 50—72, p. 61.

[2] With thanks to Aissa Boussiga and Saadia Oubakka for their assistance in translation at various stages in the project.

[Excerpted from “Saintly Grandmothers: Youth Reception and Reinterpretation of the National Past in Contemporary Algeria,” by Natalya Vince, by permission of the author. © 2013 Taylor & Francis. For more information, or to order a copy of this issue, click here. If you would like to read the text in full, and do not have institutional access or a personal subscription to the Journal of North African Studies, please contact the author directly at]

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