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Knowledge and Power in Algeria: An Interview with Daho Djerbal on the Twentieth Anniversary of NAQD

[Poster for NAQD. Image via the author.] [Poster for NAQD. Image via the author.]

It is still very possible to work on Algeria without ever passing through the Contrôle Passeport in Algiers. For a host of reasons—archival, bureaucratic, historical and, perhaps, psychological—Algeria remains on the margins of its own historiography. Arriving in September, I expected to get many questions from scholars who have worked here in the past, pertaining to the current conditions of research, the upcoming legislative elections, and the finally-completed metro (thirty years in the making). Instead, the one question I was most consistently asked by friends and colleagues was: Do you know Daho Djerbal?

Unlike the scholars who are hesitant to come (some of them also of Algerian origin), Daho very adamantly refuses to leave. In addition to teaching responsibilities, and his own work (his manuscript on the the Fédération de la Libéeration Nationale (FLN) in France is to be published in March of this year) [1], he also runs the journal Naqd (published in Arabic and French), which celebrated its twentieth anniversary this month. Perhaps “runs” is not the best verb to use in this case. He distributes, edits, solicits for, proofreads, and formats the journal as well. In an academic space that remains divided between a French-oriented intelligentsia and the state ideology of the FLN), Naqd remains a space of radical non-alignment with either.

Power is a strange thing in Algeria, and it is not expressed in ways that are immediately evident. For those who speak about the domination of an authoritarian regime, one finds pockets of resistance and the uneven penetration of state power. For economists who discuss the choice between free-market capitalism and state-led planning, in Algeria state control and unfettered markets operate in parallel. For activists who wax poetic about popular mobilization and the “Arab Street,” one finds a pervasive division of society, and a fractured social landscape that nevertheless has deep moments of quotidian, if not “political,” solidarity. Lastly, scholars who adopt the lens of Afro-pessimism are confronted with a strong assertion of pride in a revolutionary history, even if revolutions in general, as Gilles Deleuze recently noted, often end badly.

Thus if knowledge and power are intertwined, their relationship is often obscure in Algeria. The country is faced with the stagnancy of formal politics, deep social-economic frustration, economic and cultural domination by France, an American-led program for a “Greater Middle East,” and speculations regarding the political comeback of the Islamic Salvation Front (better known by the French acronym, FIS). For those who are committed to knowledge rather than power, the options are few: the French Cultural Center, which blares MTV (in English—imagine my horror at seeing the star of Saved by the Bell, Mario Lopez, on an Algerian flat-screen TV); the Glycines (a research Center and monastery, which is a particularly welcoming environment for scholars, even if its relationship with the Algerian state is tenuous); and a loose network of universities that are uneven in resources and quality. While certain facultés are beacons of the state’s petrol-modernity, others (such as the Fac at Bouzareah, where Daho teaches Algerian history) are in a state of complete degradation.

Algerian History at the Fac

The last time I went to la Fac (university) with Daho. There was a conference on pre-Islamic history that had been delayed because the electricity was not working. I awkwardly walked with him as he was inundated by warm greetings—and requests for academic references. The same grace on his part (and awkwardness on mine) was repeated as we entered the classroom, where again the lack of electricity had halted all plumbing, the results of which made an already uncomfortable classroom (wooden benches, broken windows, graffiti) even more striking. The students were overwhelmingly women, and I was the only one who was not wearing a headscarf. Daho presented a text by Emir Khaled, asking the students to think about the language of the prose. What was new in this letter that the Emir wrote to president Wilson in 1919? While the students excitedly proposed various responses, there were two phrases that stood out: one was a proclamation of the nationality of the people (jinsiyyat ash-sha’b), and the other expressed the desire to live as an independent nation (al-‘aish fi istiqlal). Daho then explained how these notions reflected a changing nationalist consciousness, telling his students that ways of thinking about politics and nationalism are themselves the reflection of certain historical processes.

He then went even farther. Taking out the kitab dahabi, or Livre d’or de la colonization (1937), a colonial “who’s who” of the 1930s, Daho showed pictures of Algerians who had supported the French during this period, emphasizing that many of these names are still to be found among the Algerian elite. History can be a dangerous thing, he warned them. For a generation of students that have been taught FLN discourse, this denaturalization of official Algerian nationalism was certainly a provocation. As Daho has remarked elsewhere, “[In Algeria] the dominant historical discourse is that of the state, not that of the historians.”

Gender and Education in Algeria

A few months after arriving in Algiers I started to notice a paradox; the city feels masculine, and navigating urban spaces (cafes, buses, parks) requires deference to certain forms of patriarchy. On the other hand, the female students I met often had loftier ambitions and higher aspirations than their male counterparts. They worked harder and learned languages with a ferocity that put many of my procrastinating tendencies to shame.

“There has been an important movement of the feminization of public and professional space, along with the feminization of the school and university,” Daho explained. “Today, there are thousands of women at the university, but they are not yet conscious of their rights as citizens. They realize that they have access to knowledge and perhaps a revenue that may be superior to that of their brothers or husbands but this has not yet taken the form of a demand for formal, legal rights.” Accordingly, he finds a certain gap (décalage) between the practice of every day life and a political consciousness. “The students leave their courses to return to their prisons, the student residences.” Very few go to conferences or libraries, lacking the confidence to circulate in public space.

For Daho, this is also a symptom of the fact that women are not protected by the state:

"Men consider these spaces to be communal (espace communautaire) rather than public (espace public), and though it is the role of the state to protect those who occupy public space, often the authorities and police are complicit with the acts of aggression against women. The claims made by women are not accepted, and they realize they face a coalition that is against them—tradition and the state apparatus function together in this regard."

The impact of these forces is clear for Daho: while women might occupy the public space, they do not yet envision themselves to be an individual (un individu singulier), but rather understand their subjectivity to be an element of the community (un élément de la force commune).

One day, I stayed after the lecture to talk to one of his students, Fatima. [2] She wanted to know, "Didn’t I miss my family being so far away? Had I met a “special” (male) friend in Algeria yet? How did I know ustaz Djerbal?" Fatima then invited me to see her dorm, and when I accepted, she led me out of the building holding my hand. I realize now it was a form of protection and concern, though for me it was another moment of trying to contain a very visible awkwardness. We took the student bus (packed) to her dorm, and once we arrived the structure resembled not a residence but a maximum-security jail. We had to be let in electronically, and there was no leaving after sunset. Moreover, the only readily available public transportation (that Fatima seemed to know of) took one to the university for classes in the morning.

As I entered the compound it soon became clear that I had misunderstood. My expectation of a brief visit to her dorm was actually an invitation to spend the night, something that I was not prepared to do. When I told Fatima this, she looked distraught. The thought that I would take a bus and taxi to get home was almost unthinkable for her. It struck me that I had a physical mobility that she did not, even though it was, technically, her terrain. Enclosed in a university system that did not trust her to escape the confines of her dormitory, I understood why she seemed so encouraged by Daho, who had not only invited us for a coffee a few hours prior, but who took her seriously as an individual who might find both the (real and symbolic) “mobility” that the system had tried to foreclose. All of a sudden her previous comments, that Daho treated students with “respect,” came into sharp focus. It was not merely that Daho was compassionate with his students. More importantly, he encouraged a subjectivity that was being suffocated elsewhere, and the word that Fatima used to describe this experience was both simple and profound: respect.

Redefining “Politics” in Algeria

There was a second paradox that I found immediately visible in Algeria. Despite the bankruptcy of formal politics (according to the Arab Barometer, ninety-four percent of Algerians have no political party, and eighty percent find the system corrupt, while only fifteen and a half percent are interested in politics), there are daily protests and riots that mobilize for specific, often very local, demands. Thus, I wondered: how could a population that staged 112,878 protests in 2010 be considered “apolitical”? [3]

Once again, Daho explained that for the last twenty years the link between “public space and official politics has disintegrated" (l’espace politique et la classe politique ont été désintégrés), and “negotiations between society and the state no longer follow the channels of official parties.” Instead, these negotiations happen in social and public spaces, and on the street:

"One occupies the street, sets up barricades, stops traffic. Sometimes these contests point to a social struggle, but sometimes they are for more general demands—such as the demand for housing. The young generation who are coming of age want housing, employment, a legitimate future. Since the unions, political parties, and parliament no longer play their role, protests and riots have become the most common mode of negotiation between various groups and the state (La manifestation, puis l’émeute deviennent la modalité la plus courante, la plus ordinaire de la négociation entre des groupes, des population, des quartiers et l’état.)"

Indeed, the political conversations that I often heard in Algeria were seldom about the upcoming legislative elections or party politics. Instead, friends told me about how “the system” methodically blocked those with talent from succeeding. They complained about unemployment, about professional humiliation, and about personal frustration. The expressions of these sentiments are everywhere and the results are sporadic, localized, and often violent. For Daho, this points to something new, in that these forms of political activism indicate a “politics without a party, without a program, and without a view of the kind of change that is being demanded. We are in a phase of political activism without political expression. The latter needs a program and an objective, which has not yet been formulated.”

Arabization and the Commodification of Language

Until I started going to the Fac, I had never head Daho give a lecture in Arabic. Yet it was immediately evident that teaching a class on Algerian history in Arabic presents some problems: What to do with the verb franchiser (literally to make French, to Frenchify), for example? Daho rendered it farnasa, in Arabic, the meaning of which was not immediately clear to the students. Similarly, there were French words for which the Arabic equivalent did not as clearly capture the epistemic violence of French colonialism—citoyenneté as jinsiya, for example. If jinsiya has a loose definition that can connote different kinds of distinctions among people (including sex and nationality), citoyenneté is captured by the history of the Enlightenment and French Revolution, and is therefore inseparable from the (very French) categories of distinction imposed on Algeria.

Education was officially Arabized in the early 1970s, when the Algerian state sought to eliminate the last vestiges of French colonialism. Yet not all domains are conducted in Arabic; while the social sciences and humanities are taught only in Arabic, French remains the language of the natural sciences, medicine, and technology. The question of language is not only a matter of state ideology and post-colonial identity politics, but has important ramification for employment, especially considering that a twenty-one percent of youths between sixteen and twenty-four years of age are unemployed.

According to Daho, what initially emerged was a double standard whereby the French language (in the domains of medicine, the natural sciences, and technology) “offered a superior status while Arabic offered a subaltern status.” But in the 1990s, this began to change: “Since the 1990s Arabic has become the dominant language.” This process was also linked to the oil economy, since Arabophones, who were not involved in the more productive sectors of the economy, lived principally off of the rents of petrol. “In the enterprises and in businesses, however, it is completely bilingual since with the generalization of the market economy there is money to be made, whether one is Arabophone or Francophone. The line of division is not only drawn at the level of language, but also with regards to the proximity to rent, whether that is the rents of the market or the state.” Clearly, then, the question of language—which is closely tied to the question of identity—has become a commodity, requiring a strategy of exchange based on available rents as well as political possibilities.

The Assassination of Qaddafi: Redefining Political Values

As has been widely discussed, Algeria found itself in an awkward position this past year. During the hunt for Qaddafi, Algeria offered refuge to Qaddafi’s daughter and was one of the last countries in North Africa to recognize the Libyan National Transitional Council (CNT from the French Conseil National de Transition). After the capture of Qaddafi, el-Watan, the major independent newspaper in Algeria, ran a story that featured the bloodied face of Qaddafi and was entitled “Free Libya” (Libye Libre). Daho’s response articulated the sentiments of a population that was scandalized both by the gruesomeness of the image as well as by the lack of political context. It soon started going “viral,” as it were. His critique of el-Watan’s coverage was twofold: First, as he explained, “one has trivialized (on a banalisé) the assassin as something ordinary, acceptable, lawful. And this is unacceptable.” Secondly, el-Watan offered no information as to the way in which Qaddafi was killed, instead running the title “Libye libre” under the photo of Qaddafi and thus “taking two things that are absolutely contradictory things and presenting them as if they were complimentary. In other words, one has liberated Libya from tyranny through an assassination. But one cannot liberate a country by an assassination, it’s impossible, it doesn’t matter who the person is. This foreshadows (préfigure) the alternative envisioned by those who opposed tyranny and dictatorship…the manner of dealing with this affair did not present us with a democratic alternative.” Daho emphasizes that he objected to this political vision, despite his dislike for Qaddafi: “If we want to change the world, we have to change it while advancing moral and political values that are more noble than those to which we have been subjected.”

From Bush to Obama: Foreign Intervention and National Sovereignty

The assassination of Qaddafi, along with North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) invasion of Libya, sparked a heated debate on the left regarding the relationship between national sovereignty and international intervention. This topic that has re-emerged in the context of the Arab League and the United States in Syria. On the subject of foreign intervention and NATO, Daho is emphatic about two things. First, NATO’s involvement in Algeria dates back to the war of independence, when the organization provided support to the French. Second, the notion of national sovereignty is not applicable after the proclamation of the war on terrorism. In this second point—which encapsulates both the vision of a “Greater Middle East” as well as the “Project for Mediterranean Dialogue”—Daho maintains that Obama has merely continued the policies that began under Bush. The so-called war on terror has “generalized the spaces of exception,” Daho tells me, offering a brief gloss on Giorgio Agamben.

“I can understand this in the cases of those countries that have accepted an alliance with American power. But for a country that fought for its independence like Algeria, which struggled to be free of foreign presence and dependence, this is a scandal.”

Referencing the American military bases in the South of Algeria, Daho notes that this political strategy “only serves the national security interests of America.”

Provocations and the “Democratic Challenge”

In the twentieth anniversary edition of Naqd, “The Democratic Challenge” (Le Défi Démocratique), Daho writes:

"We should be careful in our optimism as we find ourselves faced with these enormous protests throughout the Arab World. While [they] are challenging the unbearable brutality and folly of the current powers…they also indicate a movement that is being used by imperial ambitions and finds itself being…appropriated by…the global system of power, which after a limited “modernization” remains secure by offering a mere softening in the relations of power. In short, “democratization” has emerged as an antidote to the alternative, which must be avoided at all costs—revolution".

The question remains: What does it mean to be “free” in 2012, both as a nation-state and as a citizen? When the radical freedoms of protected economies and third-worldism seem increasingly dangerous to neo-liberal sensibilities, the legacy of revolutions—both past and present—are increasingly uncertain. The last issue of Naqd asks us to also interrogate the notion of a “spring”—be it Arab or otherwise.

This is certainly a provocation that is consistent with Daho’s pedagogical and political strategy. I am again reminded of Daho’s students who learned to question the narrative of another revolution, which occurred almost fifty years ago—the Algerian war of Independence. The political and intellectual engagement upon which Naqd was founded remains as critical now as it was in 1962 or 1991 (the start of Algeria’s decade long civil war):

“Without wanting to leave the domain of social and political activism, we intended to question our theoretical assumptions, to critique our own ideas and practices, and to try to make sense of that which continuously weighed on us (Sans vouloir quitter le terrain de l’activisme social et politique, nous prétendions remettre en question nos presupposes théoriques, soumettre à la critique nos propres idées et notre proper pratique pour pretender donner du sens à ce qui ne cessait de nous accabler).” 

[All translations are by the author.]


[1] L'Organisation spéciale de la Fédération de France du FLN. Histoire de la lute armée du FLN en France (1956-1962), Editions Chihab, expected publication date March 2012.

[2] Name has been changed.

[3] Thanks to Kenza Ziati for bringing this statistic to my attention.

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