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New Texts Out Now: Muriam Haleh Davis, The Afterlives of the Algerian Revolution

[Cover of [Cover of "The Afterlives of the Algerian Revolution"]

Muriam Haleh Davis, editor, The Afterlives of the Algerian Revolution. Special Issue of JadMag (June 2014).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you create this pedagogical publication?

Muriam Haleh Davis (MHD): In November 2013, Samuel Everett and Malika Rahal had organized a panel for the Middle Eastern Studies Association (MESA) annual conference in New Orleans. First, all of the papers were given by a group of colleagues who I had met in Algiers during an intensive Algerian Arabic class, and whose work I had long admired. Learning Arabic (especially dialect) is still a rarity among scholars who work on Algeria. This is largely because scholars working on Algeria are generally trained in French history. Similarly, historians working in France often focus on the colonial period, and their approach to Algeria is quite distinct from Anglophone scholarship.

Secondly, all of these scholars (including myself) share an interest in the ways in which the Algerian revolution has impacted the trajectory of the Algerian nation-state. This insight—that there were some strong continuities between the colonial and independence period—has long been taboo for political reasons that would like to stress a “clean break” with colonialism. By focusing solely on the colonial period and buying into the FLN’s (Front de Libération Nationale) revolutionary narrative, historical works can thus often reproduce the narrative that justifies the continued political relevance of what is called the “revolutionary family” in Algeria. At a time when Algerian President Bouteflika has won an unprecedented fourth term despite his declining health, this is clearly a major concern.

In short, all of the papers here approach the Algerian Revolution as something that was itself productive—of repertories of contestation, of ideas about a “social contract,” of something that could later be “confiscated”—rather than as a historical bookmark. They also indirectly speak to a historiographical concern: by seeing 1962 as either the beginning or end, is the periodization of professional historians not in an unsettling convergence with the official narrative of the FLN? These papers thus unpack the FLN as a constructed artifact that has seen many avatars since 1962: from Ben Bella’s first breathy experiences with a “specific Muslim” form of socialism, to the high tide of state centralization and Third Worldism under Boumediene, to a time of economic liberalization that opened the way to the violence of the 1990s, and finally to the period of a multi-party system that uses international credibility as a substitute for genuinely democratic practices. As the works of Mohamed Harbi show, the FLN was never a singular or coherent movement, but the secular appropriation of a sacred discourse of legitimacy.

I have had the pleasure of being part of the Maghreb Page on Jadaliyya, which is committed to offering coverage of a region of the world that gets relatively little coverage in the Anglophone press (unless, of course, there is a revolution or military intervention).  Attending the MESA panel in New Orleans, I was immediately struck by the fact that this set of papers was extremely innovative and was thrilled by the possibility of producing a JADMAG around this discussion.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does this JADMAG address?

 Obviously, this JADMAG directly addresses the genesis of anti-colonial nationalism, and its impact on state building. But I think that the real strength of this publication lies in the multiplicity of approaches taken by the authors.

James McDougall’s piece does a wonderful job of addressing the larger question regarding the “state of the field” of Algerian history. He also discusses some of the methodological advances that have impacted scholarship on Algeria, such as oral history.

Ed McAllister’s article is at the crossroads of works on historical memory and urban studies. Focusing on the neighborhood of Bab el Oued, he asks how residents make sense of the country’s past, given the boastful claims of Third Wordlist development under the presidency of Hourai Boumediene. Malika Rahal is also concerned with the legacy of radical political movements in Algeria, but her work focuses on how what the experience of the PAGS (Parti de l’avant garde socialiste), which remained underground until 1989, can tell us about the historical legacy of the FLN.

Samuel Everett and Natalya Vince are both interested in the experience of actors who have long remained marginal in Algerian historiography: Jews and women, respectively. While Natalya’s article focuses on the ways in which Algerian women remember their participation in the war, as well as how revolutionary discourses were highly gendered, Samuel’s piece investigates some of the ways that Jews can be written back into Algerian history by exploring the relationship between Algeria and France.

Thomas Serres, on the other hand, looks at how political actors use references to colonialism—for example, by analyzing references to an “internal colonialism” among activists and other opponents of the current regime. The notion that oil, a source of national wealth, has been confiscated by a corrupt leadership that is often viewed as “foreign” has obvious parallels with colonialism.

J: What is the significance of focusing on the Algerian Revolution?

 The Algerian Revolution is a highly significant historical event that is also replete with symbolism. It embodied the Third Wordlist dream of a generation, as Algeria became the international capital of revolutionary movements. After the Bandung Conference in 1955, there was a real sense that solidarity among the Asian and African nations subjected to colonization could produce a more equitable world order. Moreover, a generation of thinkers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Franz Fanon used an analysis of Algeria to provide more general insights about the cultural, social, and economic dynamics of settler colonialism.

Yet while this struggle embodied the hopes and aspirations of previously colonized peoples around the world, the legacy of the Algerian Revolution has had multiple effects. While the story of decolonization sees the Algerian War as a means of winning independence, this elides the complications involved with building a post-colonial nation-state, something about which Fanon himself so eloquently wrote. This JADMAG highlights this tension between political optimism and structural realities that emerged out of the experience of decolonization.

J: How relevant do you think some of the articles are, considering the current political situation in Algeria?

 As I mentioned earlier, it is impossible to understand the current political situation (or quagmire) in Algeria without an analysis of the forces that came to power during decolonization. Not only was Bouteflika himself a member of the FLN during the war (he was responsible for overseeing the Wilaya V), but he was also a minister under Boumediene's rule. The credibility bestowed on actors through their participation in the war of independence is still a key variable in Algeria. Moreover, many of the articles speak to various social, political, and economic frustrations that mark life in Algeria today.

J: What do students and educators have to gain from this compilation?

 Besides offering a great set of articles on a country that is greatly under-studied in the United States, the thematic interests also speak to broader concerns that apply not only to works on the “Arab uprisings” but also the post-colonial order in North Africa more broadly.

Across North Africa, the period of decolonization offered a series of symbols and vocabularies that continue to mark the political field. From Nasser’s exposition of Pan-Arabism to Bourguiba’s sweeping social reform, the notion of revolution often represented an ambiguous mix of radical hopes for social justice and an authoritarian one-party state that centered on a cult of personality. While Morocco had a different experience with decolonization (in large part due to the role of the monarchy), nationalists such as Allal al-Fassi were deeply indebted to the imaginary of anti-colonial revolution that circulated throughout the Maghreb, most notably through his founding of the Istiqlal party.

Yet in looking at these various trajectories, it is important that historians analyze the way in which the discourse of anti-colonial nationalism had very specific, concrete effects on the subsequent attempts at constructing a nation-state. From the recognition of minority rights, to ideas about economic orthodoxy and the establishment of political parties, the story of decolonization and revolution in North Africa had very concrete effects on the social, political, and religious life of the region.  

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

 My own dissertation looks at how a colonial development plan introduced during the Algerian War (known as the “Constantine Plan”) impacted the independent nation state in Algeria. While my focus is on space and agriculture, these articles also express an interest with understanding the legacies of colonial rule and the ways in which identity, religion, and political economy were shaped through decolonization. The notion that decolonization was a multifaceted process rather than a single event has long been a driving interest of my research.

Excerpt from The Afterlives of the Algerian Revolution

From James McDougall, “Still Standing: Algeria’s Future Past”

Among the events that marked the fiftieth anniversary of Algerian independence in 2012 were a large number of historical conferences and colloquia. Many were high-profile, public events, attended by large audiences, and covered in detail in the national press. But it was remarked more than once during those events, that very few of them had much to say about the fifty years of history that were supposedly being celebrated. Indeed, most historical discussion centered on the two areas of Algerian history that have undoubtedly been most heavily researched overall, both within Algeria and by historians of all other nationalities: the colonial period and the War of Independence. Algeria’s contemporary history, since 1962, has only recently really come into view as an object of study for historians: accessible through archives, published print, and oral history. And within Algeria it is only recently, too, that the half-century since independence has been “open” to scrutiny and discussion as a period of history, that is, as the past that has made the present.

Socially and culturally, contemporary Algeria has never in any sense stood still. But politically, the impasse into which the system has steadily ground itself ever since the early 1990s, and which today is summed up in the tragically near-comedic deferral of l’après-Bouteflika, has produced an ambient sense of immobilism. The slogan of the 2012 celebrations, billboarded around Algiers courtesy of one of the major national mobile phone networks—mā zālnā wāqifīn, “we’re still standing” (more idiomatically, Algerians might have put it, mazalna debout)—expressed a post-1990s, post-crisis, post-war resilience that certainly says much about Algeria today. At the same time, the standstill of national life, awaiting the generational shift in the polity that happened thirty years ago in society at large, is in marked contrast to the sense of dynamism, progress, and transformation that consumed the country in the first twenty years after independence. Arguably, Algeria’s long crisis from the mid-1980s through to the early 2000s put a brake not only on the realization of development, prosperity, and freedom, but on a vision of how Algerian society and the Algerian state might both build on and move beyond their colonial and revolutionary past. That Algerian history should be “stuck” in 1962—that the future imagined then should remain the unrealized aspiration of the present, fifty years on—is perhaps not so surprising. But taking account of the intervening time as having become history, and showing how this history (not the distant colonial past, nor the travails of the revolution, nor any number of perhaps real or mostly imagined conspiracies and betrayals) has produced the present, remains a challenge.

[Excerpted from The Afterlives of the Algerian Revolution, edited by Muriam Haleh Davis, by permission of the editor. Copyright © 2014 Tadween Publishing. For more information, or to purchase a copy of this special issue, click here.]

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