At a time when Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning are both being called traitors by their own government in the “Land of the Free,” Henri Alleg, another great whistleblower, who 55 years ago was also jailed and called a traitor by the government of France – creator of the modern human rights – just died 2 weeks ago in Paris at the age of 91.
Mr. Alleg, who became famous in 1958, after the publication of his book The Question, on the systematic torture the French colonial regime in Algeria inflicted upon the Algerian people, was born in England in 1922, the son of an Ashkenazi Jewish couple that immigrated to France while he was still a child. At the age of 18, wanting to travel the world, on his way to Australia, he stopped in Algeria where he remained, eventually becoming a public school teacher. Remarkably for a European, a young, idealistic Alleg, who would later become a member of the Algerian Communist Party, felt closer to the Indigenous population of Algeria than to his fellow Europeans who had colonized that country, instinctively identifying with the oppressed population and later joining the struggle for independence.
After losing his job as a Jewish born teacher during the German occupation of France in 1950, he joined the progressive newspaper Alger Républicain. He became Editor in chief of that newspaper which suffered from heavy military censorship and eventual closure, and by 1955 he had to go into hiding from the French colonial authorities.
In 1957, after a long manhunt, the French authorities located and arrested Henri Alleg on suspicion of “undermining the power of the state.” And he was transferred to a secret location in Algiers where he was brutally and systematically tortured along with other independence activists. He was then transferred to the infamous Barberousse prison on the outskirts of Algiers where he proceeded to secretly write a detailed account of the torture practices used against him – an account spirited out of prison by his lawyer.
This account became the world-famous book The Question, the publication of which was to prove a turning point in the struggle for Algerian independence, despite the government’s intervention to remove the book from bookstore shelves. After the books publication, it became impossible for the French government to argue that torture was not happening in Algiers. The Question, which was published while Alleg was still in prison, almost failed to find any publisher, so acute was the censorship on the subject of Algeria. It was thanks to one lone, courageous publisher, Édition de Minuit, that France, the birthplace of human rights, was finally forced to admit that it was indeed using torture on a massive scale in Algeria and that the struggle for independence amounted to more than just a few troublemakers and terrorists.
Khalil spoke with Mr. Alleg in 2007, at a time when similar evidence emerged of widespread torture by the USA in Iraq, and learned during this conversation that the very same perpetrators of torture in Algeria were hired starting in 1976, at the U.S. School of the Americas, to teach their infamous skills to the Americans.
Khalil Bendib: Mr. Alleg, you were born in England to an Ashkenazi family from Poland and Russia, you grew up in France and somehow ended up in Algeria at the age of 18 before WWII. I know you’ve taken on different identities as a militant in Algeria, but one thing you don’t mention in your Mémoire Algérienne is specifically why the name Alleg. How did that happen?
Henri Alleg: As you know, the name “Alleg” is an Algerian, Muslim name. My real last name is Salem – also a name that could sound Arab but I lived at an Algerian house where the family name was “Alleg.” And so, that surname after a while stuck to me. Everyone came to know me as “Alleg.”
KB: Upon your arrival in Algeria you find a dichotomy: a happy Algeria, on the one hand, and total misery and destitution on the other. What made you as an individual sensitive to colonialism’s misery, when the immense majority of other Europeans were oblivious to it. Many Algerians seem to be really amazed at your different attitude towards them.
HA: First of all, I was not the only one to be anti-racist and anti-colonialist. When I arrived in Algeria, politically I was still a child. But in France the doctrine that I’d been subjected to in school was that Algeria was an integral part of France - and I knew nothing of Algeria. But when I saw the outrageous destitution in which Native Algerians were living, especially seeing kids in the street who were fighting among themselves to shine your shoes to earn a few cents, all of that really shocked me. This country is supposed to be part of France? Also, my first real contacts, which was a blessing for me, were with Native Algerians who were interested in this Frenchman, who was interested in them. So there was this spontaneous mutual sympathy there. I was poor and had to live in working class quarters that were contiguous to the native quarters of Algiers.
And I was very curious too. If I’d started right away living in the European areas and found a job immediately, no doubt my learning curve would’ve been much longer. But in French schools, kids were already politicized thanks largely to the Spanish Civil War. In Italy and Germany there were fascist regimes, and Italians came to France as refugees because they opposed Mussolini. Germans, mostly Jewish, came to France, and I’d seen their kids in schools. So I was politicized.
But Algeria was not on the radar back when I was still in school. It was absent from our awareness. All we were told about in class were all the benefits of colonization so that whoever arrived in Algeria was shocked at first.
KB: You tell how even Communists and even Algerian Jews who were Natives, and therefore closer culturally and ethnically to the Muslims, were largely unaware of Algerian suffering. Tell us a little bit how that could be possible.
HA: It is very simple, they were living in their own environment and didn’t ask themselves too many questions. The colonialist mentality did not stop at the borders of this or that ethnic group. The Europeans, by and large, did not share any of the problems of the Native Algerians. For example, little European kids never missed a class because there wasn’t room for them – that was the lot of the Algerians. And being born in this colonialist milieu, these kids were completely influenced by it and behaved as such. So for example, young Europeans found it normal that they could address an Algerian in the familiar mode “tu” even if the man was old enough to be their grandfather.
Now in France that just was not done. For French people who came from France, they either conformed with the majority of the colonialists and became themselves immediately racist and colonialist, or they reacted like I did. The colonials in Algeria were completely Francocentric. When vacation time came around, they thought only of France as worthy of spending vacations in, real vacations were always on the other side of the Mediterranean. In Provence, ironically, the beaches were not always as beautiful as the ones in Algeria. But to them, the sea in Algeria was not as beautiful as the sea in Europe, the sky was not as beautiful, the climate was not as good, etc. etc.
They lived their entire lives obsessed with what they had learned of the superiority of France. Many Europeans, including famous Nobel Laureate existentialist writer Albert Camus was born and raised in Algeria – even he had a skewed vision of Algeria. When he first ventured inside the country and went to Tizi Ouzou in Kabylie, he was shocked and indignant to find that such poverty could exist there, in a country that was supposed to be part of France. The first thing that he didn’t understand, unfortunately, was precisely that Algeria was not France, that Algeria was a colony and that what he was seeing was a result of that colonialization.
KB: You mention the Muslim faith that helped sustain many Algerians in prison, in the worst conditions. You are an atheist, and yet you seem touched sometimes by some of what you witnessed in prison, what you describe as “tolerant Islam.” There is a passage that is kind of, very moving in your book. I don’t know if you would mind reading it to us…
HA: An old peasant with a big mustache hailing from Bou Saâda, couldn’t believe that these Europeans, his cell mates, had not flinched at taking such risks as prison and death to adhere to the cause of Algeria’s independence. How could this be their cause when they already had all those things that he himself and his brothers were fighting to obtain. Most of these Europeans, he was told, were not even religious. And yet their conduct was exemplary.
One day, as if to conclude a long reflection, he asked others to translate his words into French so that those who didn’t understand Arabic could understand: “Yes, I know, there are among you brothers who are not believers but like it or not, for what you have done you will still go to Heaven, and you will go in front of us, who are believers.”
I suppose by that he meant that he was certain he would meet these atheists there, and that he would be quite pleased to hear them recognize that they had been wrong to doubt the existence of God. That is my own little commentary on what he said of course. Europeans in those prisons were few and far between. But there was no opposition or difference or mistrust between those who fought for the same cause, whether you were Christian, Atheist, Jewish or Muslim. On the contrary, this annecdote illustrates the fact that, for those who weren’t Muslim there was a special, a keen and moving appreciation and they were treasured and even doted upon by their Muslim comrades because they were Europeans and they had chosen to struggle on the side of the Algerians and for justice. Jewish or not Jewish, Catholic or not Catholic, that was not what mattered. That was not how you judged a man, especially inside prison.
KB: I am aware that, as a deeply committed progressive and humanist, you tend to be allergic to narrow allegiances of nationality, religion, class or caste. But, as an observer of Algeria, who came from Europe, and also as a Jew, I’d be very interested in knowing what your experience with anti-Semitism was in Algeria both with the European colonists and with the Native Algerian population. During WWII, under the fascist rule of Maréchal Pétain, you were personally affected by the Numerus Clausus, which mandated that Jews could not hold certain jobs, or most jobs. And you lost your job as a school instructor. Did you see any solidarity or was it indifference mostly on the part of Muslim Algerians, of the time when this happened, to their Jewish brethren?
MA: Well first I’d like to remind people that Islam in Algeria did not have this flavor like in certain other countries nowadays. You cannot compare what happened in Algeria with what can be seen in Saudi Arabia. There wasn’t in Algeria any active anti-Semitism as could be observed in Europe, for example.
As historical background, after the reconquest of Spain by the Catholic Queen Isabella and the order to Jews and Muslims to either convert to Catholicism or leave Spain, most Jews and Muslims left and went to Morocco and Algeria and other Muslim countries like Egypt, Turkey etc. In Morocco and Algeria there already were many local Jews who were originally Berber and there was absolutely no reluctance to welcome them and resettle them there. And for centuries they lived in a situation where there was no discrimination against Jews.
When the French invaded Algeria in 1830, they found facing them a man named Emir Abdelkader who fought for the independence of Algeria, who had the confidence of most men and women in the West of Algeria. And around him and with him were many Jews with important responsibilities; among them, the man who served as his foreign secretary, whose name was Jerand Des Naim, who was fighting the French alongside Abdelkader. Without wanting to paint a totally idyllic portrait of that time - prejudice is not completely absent - but there were no frontal attacks against Jews (except later during the colonial area at the time of the infamous Dreyfus affair in France, in which a French military officer Mr. Dreyfus, was unjustly accused of having betrayed France, and the French in Algeria became agitated against the Jews in Algeria, and even paid some men to create incidents to turn the Arabs against the Jews).
I’ll tell you a story, when Maréchal Pétain, Hitler’s puppet in France who ruled France during WWII, when Pétain imposed racist laws against the Jews in Algeria, he stupidly thought that the Arabs and Berbers of Algeria would rally around him with injunctions in the style of, “Now you may do with the Jews as you please, we know all the evil and shame they have brought upon you,” and so on and so forth… When a Vichy’s general, French general, told the sheikh Tayeb el-Oqbi - who was a leader in the Muslim community, close to the association of the Ulema, or religious scholars - he said, “Tell them that the Maréchal is now going to treat the Jews in a strong and vigorous manner, and tell your friends that this is their chance if they want to get their revenge, you can do it, we will look away.” El-Oqbi simply replied to the general, “If you want to do things that are unworthy, why don’t you do them yourselves and don’t ask us to do them.” And he actually did the opposite of what the Vichy general had asked him. He secretly sent out an order to the community, that to touch even one hair of a man who belonged to the people of the book, this would be a great sin. All of that to tell you, all of that I tell you that this type of anti-Semitism among Muslim Natives just wasn’t there.
Now to answer your question more directly, I must say that I’ve known many, many cases during WWII where Algerian Jews, who were scared that their property or their stores might be seized by order of the pro-Hitler Vichy government, had fictitiously transferred the name of their store or property to the names of one of their Muslim friends with the understanding that when the difficult period came to an end, that their friends would give them back their property. This happened in many, many instances. And I have never, never heard of any Jews complaining that they had not been able to recover their property completely once fascism was defeated.
KB: To hear you say this doesn’t surprise me Mr. Alleg. My father, who was a young man during that period, told me many such stories of spontaneous solidarity on the part of Muslims toward their Jewish compatriots.
MA: Of course, there were class differences that complicated this picture a bit. Those among the Jews who were well-to-do, were no different than the Catholics or Protestants who were well-to-do, and they defended their class interests with just as much energy as the rich Christians. And so among these rich Jews, racism towards Muslims developed just as it had among Christians. With the ability to send their children to all the best universities and all that, with their French citizenship, they had certain advantages that the other Natives, the Muslims, did not have.
Having said that, as you just said, there was a natural closeness between Native Jews and Muslims that did not exist between Muslims and Christian Europeans. For example, especially in a city like Constantine, the Jews remained culturally a part of Algeria - even in some ways the guardians of this very old culture.
Take this man, called Reymond, who as a baby had been adopted by a Jewish family, and who had become a great composer of classical Arab music. The entire population of that Eastern region of Algeria absolutely loved him. Unfortunately, he was assassinated during the War of Independence, supposedly by a subgroup of Independence Liberation Movement, supposedly because he’d collaborated with the French military. His son, who is a friend of mine, has always denied that accusation and many others have also denied it. While I was in prison in Algeria, I heard many, many Algerian prisoners that lament that he should never have been killed, even if he had done what he was accused of doing, because he was such a major proponent of Algerian culture.
Now all that to tell you that relationships between different ethnic groups back then were very complex and much more nuanced than is nowadays assumed.
KB: Yes, unfortunately, his assassination - which by the way, the Liberation Front of Algeria never claimed and it still remains to this day under a cloud as to exactly who may have carried it out - Reymond’s assassination seems to have precipitated the exodus of many other Algerian Jews in that part of the country…
MA: Yes, but that wasn’t the only reason they left. Let me make a little digression here. The Jews were very numerous in the Algerian Communist party although their Jewishness was not something they dwelled on much in that framework. Take me for example. Even though I was the publisher for a major newspaper, I was a public personality, many people until very late, many, many people had no idea that I was Jewish. I didn’t really talk about that, if the conversation came to that topic, there was absolutely no embarrassment in talking about it but it just didn’t come up much. There was an extreme brotherhood, a willingness to struggle together that cut across ethnic and religious lines.
I’ll tell you an anecdote. There was this comrade of mine in the Communist party, a Jew from Constantine, who, as a native, spoke Arabic perfectly. He was in the middle of a political meeting in a small village when this Algerian peasant, at some point, pipes in, “So and so is a money grubber…He acts like a Jew.” So, my friend speaks Arabic so perfectly, and looks Arab too, tells this peasant, “You know, you say ‘Like a Jew’ but you know there are many Jews among us who are in our party, and they are good comrades and we never want to say things like that which could be very insulting, you know. “
So the other responds, “Okay, then just give me one example of a Jew who you would say is respectable.”
“Okay, how about Henri Alleg the director of Alger Républicain. He is Jewish.”
Flabbergasted, the other guy says, “How can that be? I can’t believe it.”
“It is the truth,” says my friend.
“Well in that case I’ve said something stupid. I am glad you corrected me, I’ll never say that again.”
So, yes, there was a measure of prejudice that people carried along. But that, that was not the tenor of the country and of the discussions that took place among fellow activists at that time, whether they be Nationalists or Communists.
KB: Mr. Alleg, the Zionist propaganda has always contended, and continues to do so, that there’s been this millennial animosity between Arabs and Jews that explains the struggle going on right now in the Middle East. What were you observations in terms of the relationship between Muslims and Jews in Algeria while you were there for 40 years?
MA: There was a movie by an Israeli woman shown on French TV, unfortunately, very late one night, very fervously called Forget Baghdad. This woman, interviewed four Iraqi Jews in Israel who were bitterly missing their country of Iraq, missing the brotherhood that existed among Arabs and Jews. One of them said:
“In our neighborhood, there were no churches, no synagogues, no mosques, which didn’t mean there were no believers, but they didn’t need to make a big deal out of it. They were first and foremost Iraqi and they wanted to be Iraqi and it was a great tragedy for them to leave Iraq. The Jews who left Algeria, some of them are contaminated by French prejudice toward the Native Muslims, a prejudice worsened by the maneuvers and crimes of the OAS - a secret organization that came into being towards the end of the War of Independence, and its scorched Earth policy was to do as much damage to the future Independent Algerian Republic as possible before leaving. The Jews who left, the overwhelming majority of them, at least 95% of them didn’t go to Israel but went to France.
As far as North African Jews, it is mostly the Moroccans who went to Israel and this for socioeconomic reasons because they were extremely poor in that country, whereas in Algeria, the Jews for the most part had attained a comfortable petit bourgeois and middle-class status.
KB: Forty years after the beginning of the French invasion of Algeria, the Décret Crémieux emancipated Algerian Jews by granting them full rights as French citizens, which effectively separated them from the rest of the Native population and within a generation or two helped to turn them into French citizens, unlike the rest of the Algerians who were kept as second-class citizens in their own country…
MA: Absolutely, and I must say that the majority of the Jews who enjoyed this en masse naturalization, which made them full-fledged French citizens with all the normal rights of French citizen, even they at first were opposed to that and didn’t act as they were supposed to: “Why are they denaturalizing us, we’re Algerian too.” And some Muslim natives even said, “Look at what the French are doing to our fellow Algerians, they are stripping them of their Algeriennesse and making them French,” which they found truly alarming as they naively assumed that this would happen to the Muslims next.
I’ve read books written by some Zionists who claim that this naturalization was welcomed with open arms by the Algerian Jews back then. But that was patently false. It is this classic divide and rule colonialism. It was a classic maneuver to divide the locals and use some against the others. They even tried to do the same thing with the ethnic Berber population to try to use them against the majority Arab population. But here they were unsuccessful in that.
KB: Yes, and unlike the Berber Muslims who were too numerous and too close to the Arab speaking majority, the Jews were an interesting minority for the French to coopt as the majority of them were Native Berbers, most of them there for millennia with a smaller group coming from Spain after 1492.
What intrigues me because I was too young to know Algerian Jews, they had left for the most part by the time I came of age, I’ve always wondered to which extent were the Jews in Algeria more aware or sensitive to the injustice of colonialism that afflicted their Muslim compatriots than the average European settler. And wasn’t that a reason why the Jews were so highly represented in the Communist party, which was fighting for independence in Algeria. I know the situations were diverse from area to area within Algeria…
MA: No, I think you are right. As you said it yourself, the situations were diverse. It is clear that in the Constantine area, in the whole eastern area where Jews were there for many centuries and still spoke Arabic, the closeness was very, very deep, more than in the West where Jews had come from Spain and where Spanish was spoken. Take my wife, for example, who was from Oran. Her family also Jewish, spoke Spanish as well as Arabic.
In Algiers, also they spoke some Spanish. I remember once I was in Beni Saf as a reporter to cover a miner strike, and I was surprised to hear the slogans for the strike were in Spanish. Whereas, for the Jews of Constantine there was a complete participation in Arab culture: all weddings, all ceremonies were in Arabic. That was different in the Center and West where French and Spanish language were also present in the mix.
But to answer your question I think that the French settlers felt the system was in their favor and they were obviously in favor of the colonialist system, that was clear. As far as the Jews were concerned, as there was more direct contact among them and the Muslims - not all Jews, but at least some of the Jews - their interest would’ve been for the French rulers to understand that you couldn’t rule Algeria by the sword, like in 1830 anymore, and that times had changed and that you had to hear the Algerians. Among liberal Jews, many were saying that. And they understood that if France didn’t grasp this reality they were all headed for catastrophe for the whole country. Many Jews were aware of that, and kept repeating that. Algeria was no longer the Algeria of 1830, which is why in the Communist party, there was a high proportion of Jews.
KB: Some of whom suffered and died under torture…
MA: Some died under torture, some died as soldiers fighting the French. It is really difficult to classify activists and soldiers who fought against colonialism according to their religion or ethnic group. Of course, by and large, it was all the Muslims who favored independence and, by and large, all Europeans were against it. They thought it was in their interest to be against the end of colonialism. But there were still tens of thousands of people who did not fit that neat, simplistic divide.
KB: But in your opinion Mr. Alleg, did the emergence of Zionist Nationalism exacerbate the separation that had already started between Jews and Arabs under French colonialism.
MA: Certainly, I wrote a book a long time ago, at the time when the USSR was accused of being anti-Semitic, called The USSR and the Jews. I personally felt that Zionism had been an absolute catastrophe not only for the Arabs but also for their relationship with the Jews. Naturally, what happened in Palestine has broken many fruitful relationships for Jews and Arabs and Muslims. You must be aware that for a while during the creation of the Communist party in Palestine there were Arabs and Jews struggling together against British imperialism.
This confusion is the fault of the Zionists and Jews in Palestine who equate all Jewishness with Zionism. For a while there Jews throughout the Arab world who were collecting money to help settle Jews in Palestine and the Palestinians for the longest time didn’t see that as a threat as long as things were still happening peacefully and that the Zionists had not, through brutal use of force, told people of the country, “Leave, were taking your place,” which was unacceptable for the Palestinians and also unacceptable for progressives worldwide, who just didn’t comprehend why you had to chase away the Palestinians from their country with the mythical argument that supposedly, “We were there 2,000 years ago,” when in actual fact, as a Palestinian friend likes to say, the true descendants of the Jews of 2,000 years ago are us…
In Algeria too, the Natives at the Aurès mountains could say, “We are descended from the Jews because the Kahina is from here.” The Kahina was the Jewish Queen of that region. And after the Jews, the Christians arrived, and the Muslims. Local populations kept changing their religions according to their beliefs of the time and according to what these religions might offer them. Of course, Islam did not have much difficulty being accepted there. Some say because it brought the truth. But others like me, who were more materialistic, say, “Well, when the Arabs conquerors arrived there they said, referring to the words of the Qu’ran, ‘The land belongs to those who work the land,’.” In a country where the big landlords of the Byzantine Empire had divvied up huge amounts of land among themselves, when the Arabs arrived there and said to the locals, who up to then had been in a position of indentured servitude, “Take these lands, divide them up among yourselves and work the land.” Those were, in addition to the religion itself, compelling arguments for people who were living in total destitution. Needless to say, the infamous Zionist slogan, “A land without a people, for a people without a land,” is a blatant lie. With the Zionist advances and the impossibility for the Palestinians to get back any of their lands, it was clear that the wise solution, even if it was absolutely unfair to the Palestinians, would’ve been to try and find a solution that was both realistic and humane. But the Zionists have always refused to do that.
KB: In my previous question, I was alluding to the fact that there have been historical accounts of incidents created by the Mossad, by Israels in Arab countries to help precipitate the departure of Jews in order to bring them to Palestine to colonize that land. Can you comment on that?
MA: Well, if I remember correctly, certain elements within the Mossad have not only recognized having done such provocations in Arab countries, but they’ve even bragged about it.
KB: The last question I want to ask again, Mr. Alleg, was what really prompted the departure of most Jews from Algeria in 1961 and ‘62. Many Jews I have met here from Algeria told me that it was really Reymond’s assassination that gave the signal that scared a lot of them. But at the same time, I’ve always heard rumors and read also stories of how there may have been some Zionist interference at that point, some propaganda that may have exacerbated this problem. Did you, in your own experience, notice any of that Zionist interference?
MA: Well, to my recollection, not really. The Declarations made in Tunis by the provisional government of Algeria before the end of the War of Independence about the Jews of Algeria, in those Declarations the government was calling upon the Jews to stay in Algeria when it became independent: “Stay with us, you are of us, we want you to stay, don’t be fooled by the colonialist propaganda,” etc. Those were absolutely progressive Declarations, which isn’t to say that there weren’t some mistakes made by some Algerian militants later on, which had nothing to do with anti-Semitism or any such feelings. And in fact, it affected Algerians of all stripes as far as accepting to adapt to an independent Algeria. Most Europeans, among them the Jews, left. Let’s not forget the nefarious activities of the OAS, a secret armed organization whose slogan was, “Let’s leave Algeria to the Algerians the way we found it in 1830,” which was absurd. But to them, that meant that when France arrived, supposedly there were no schools, no roads…so let’s destroy all of that. Unfortunately, they managed to do a lot of damage before leaving, a lot of damage.
MR: You are listening to an interview with celebrated Algerian journalist and activist, Henri Alleg, who passed away on July 17th in Paris. In 2007, we had the privilege of conducting an interview with Mr. Henri Alleg. We’ll hear more after the break.
MR: This week we are remembering celebrated French journalist and activist Henri Alleg. He died on July 17th in Paris. Henri Alleg had borne witness to the horrors and atrocities of the Algerian War of Independence with his 1958 seminal book on torture, The Question, which detailed the systematic torture the French colonial government in Algeria inflicted upon the Algerian people. Now we go back and hear more of Khalil’s interview with Mr. Henri Alleg. For this section Jim Bennett did the voiceover.
KB: You became famous in France and worldwide for writing the seminal book La Question, which documented the use of torture in Algeria. After your newspaper Alger Républicain was eventually banned after many years of increasing censorship, you found yourself on the list of wanted radicals and managed to hide for a period of many months by playing hide and seek games with the police and constantly moving from secret address to secret address. But you were eventually arrested and tortured by the French authorities in Algeria. Tell us a little bit about that experience. How did they treat you and why did they torture you?
MA: Well first I must say that my newspaper, the Alger Républicain, was banned in September of 1955. As you know, the insurrection in the East started in November of 1954 so it took less than a year for the situation to become so difficult for the colonial authorities that they felt compelled to stop the only newspaper which was refusing to rally around the official positions, which was that the whole country of Algeria wanted to stay under colonial rule. But there was a small band of terrorists – does that ring a bell – who were demanding something else than status quo and therefore the French armed forces had to exterminate these terrorists because that was in the so-called “best interest” of both Algeria and France. That is when they started these systematic raids on Algerian militants including innocent civilians who weren’t active but didn’t necessarily agree with the official party line.
With all that it became clear that people like me had to go into hiding to avoid being caught, and to continue the struggle. And that is what I did. I went underground, I survived underground by trying to work for certain newspapers in France, writing and sending out news reports under fake names. Finally I was arrested in June 1957 and tortured. I must say that the exercise of torture was not exceptional in my case. There were tens of thousands of Algerians, perhaps even more, who were arrested and immediately subjected to torture. Why did they torture all of these people? Because the army thought that this was the only way to identify and locate all activists who were fighting colonial domination and that this would allow them to eradicate them. That is what happened to me: they tortured me because they knew I had important responsibilities within the Algerian Communist party. The Communist party was deeply involved in the struggle and by torturing me, they thought they would force me to say where other militants and leaders were hiding. These forms of torture they used on me were textbook forms and I’d previously heard about these forms of torture, as had many Algerians who had had a chance to talk to activists who’d experienced them even before the insurrection had started. So it was electrodes, which is now back in vogue, as we hear about in Iraq these days, waterboarding and burning with torches and cigarettes. In my case, they also used a truth serum, but I think that was probably very rare. I’ve only heard of one other instance where this serum was used on other militants. Because in the end, the French weren’t sure the serum worked and it took a lot of medical equipment. Plus you needed a physician to be present to survey the whole thing. You had to inject just enough but not too much, and so on. And so this wasn’t a method that was efficient for war where you had to move very fast and secure intelligence immediately.
So I was tortured like everybody else I’d say, but with this difference: when I arrived at the prison and saw one of my friends who was an attorney, he said to me, “Look, with all you’ve been through, you need to write and record all of this stuff.” I told him, “You must be out of your mind, you don’t realize under what conditions we are being detained.” We were treated really as if we had no rights, at all. For my part, for three years, I was in the infamous Barberousse prison. I never had any bed or blanket or chair or even a table or a mirror. We were in conditions of complete lack of anything that might have allowed us to survive - nevermind the atrocious conditions of the meals and hygiene. There was, in each cell, a hole, on top of which was a faucet, and that was all the sanitary equipment that was available to us. We were shaved once a week by a barber, a fellow inmate who shaved all inmates with the same blade over and over again. No mirrors, no sinks, no nothing. I still wonder how I managed to not catch all sorts of diseases in such conditions. My lawyer was absolutely adamant that I had to write all of this down, I told him it is impossible but this guy insisted saying, “Look frankly you are the only one who can record this stuff, not just because you can write, when 90% of inmates are illiterate and French is not their language and they have as much trouble writing in their own language anyway. In other words, it is your job to do it.”
So, with the help of some friends I managed to write this text. But I did not write it in one piece, I had to evacuate these notes somehow and I wrote them on a school notebook four pages by four pages at a time. Then I had to somehow get the four pages out of there. Whenever a lawyer came to the prison and I had an opportunity to see this lawyer, I’d give him these pages, which I’d had hidden on my body, in my loafers or in my underwear until I had to pass the regular searches at the hands of the guards, some of whom searched you very carefully, others less carefully, but it was still quite risky.
Anyway, somehow I managed to spirit out the entire book, bit by bit. And in France, where my wife herself had been exiled and deported from Algeria, my wife would receive these pages and she would type them. She distributed them to all French newspapers - not just Humanité, the Communist French newspaper, and Liberation, another left newspaper, which were the only ones who first published the book in installments. But I had written another text, a letter of complaints, which I had sent out and which had reached France before the book La Question, and these editions of the two daily newspapers were consequently banned. In France, this was an extremely rare occurrence. Why would the French government do that? In time the word got out that there was a text by me and that this text had to do with torture, which was very alarming to the French government. The book was then published. My wife, who was very active, along with my lawyer, had presented this book to a number of publishers, all of whom said the same thing, “This book absolutely needs to be published. It is a must. But of course, you understand that in the current political climate, publishing such a book myself would jeopardize my entire company. You’ll forgive me but, I can’t publish this myself…” They all said the same thing. In other words, none of them was willing to be a kamikaze. And there was finally only one who decided that it was his duty to publish the book. Jerôme Lindon, who had fought in the French resistance against fascism and was one of the founding members of the publishing house, Édition de Minuit, which under German occupation, had illegally published texts by Aragon and other anti-fascist poets of the resistance.
So this man, in keeping with his beliefs, decided to go ahead and take that big risk to defend his ideas of what France really stood for. He published it. But the French government, after 60,000 had already sold, made the stupid decision to ban the book, which naturally was an incredible publicity coup for the book as everyone was wondering: “Why are they banning it?” And since it was very thin, and very small and easy to copy, many, including people of simple means, decided to republish this book on their own. In magazine form or whatever, in total illegality. And it was distributed at tens of thousand of copies throughout France. It was also translated, first in the Francophone countries, Belgium and Switzerland. And many of those books crossed the border back into France.
So the question many French started asking themselves was, “We’re told this is a war for the sake of Civilization with a capital C.” It was a war against criminals and terrorists, but here was the true face of this war. It was a colonial war and there was this pretense that this war was for the sake of freedom and civilization. And it was not simply an idea that was in the air. But people like André Malraux, François Mauriac, Sartre, Nobel Prize winners wrote the president of France to ask him to explain these charges I was making against the French military. If this man isn’t telling the truth, and is lying, they said, “You need to try him for defamation.” And if what he says is the truth, it is even worse. That means that our actions in Algeria need to be questioned and challenged.
So that is how this book had a tremendous impact. And in some way, you asked me, how did I stay alive? I think I owe it to the enormous publicity around my name and around the name of Maurice Audin, a comrade of mine who was a professor at Algiers University. I was in the same underground network as he, and he was tortured and most likely died under torture. And they disguised his murder as an attempt to escape, which was of course, so ridiculous and so ludicrous.
At the same time, progressives, anti-colonials and especially, the people who knew me and knew of me as a journalist, and with the help of my wife and our friends, saved me. Not just by the publicity around the book but also by what had happened before my blowing the whistle on torture and all that.
KB: Mr. Alleg, as a militant who has known torture, the lies of the government and the press in America with this Iraqi affair, how does that strike you? What impression does that leave on you? Is that déjà-vu or completely different?
HA: Mostly it feels like déjà-vu really, both the actions and the lies that followed the actions. I must tell you that hearing what happened in Iraq, reminded me of a book by French journalist Monique Robin titled The French School. I don’t know whether you’ve read it, but I really recommend this book. It explains how French torturers, with experience in Algeria after the war, used their special talent to teach the American military how to approach such subversive wars and insurrections.
And so it was that one of the most hideous torturers, who was only a major during the war in Algeria but later became a general covered with tons of metals, the infamous General Osares himself, went to the USA where he was a professor of torture for the American military, who were then trying to beat back the rebellion in Vietnam.
KB: That is incredible. In what year did this happen?
MA: Okay, you’ve got to buy this book. It wasn’t just General Osares by the way there were many others too. Some of these torturers became highly valued as “torture theoreticians” who became professors at the infamous School of the Americas. I suppose you’ve heard of that school. These torture specialists also became specialists for the dictatorships of Brazil, Argentina and even in Chile in the famous Operation Condor to help the eradication of all men of progress and all those who oppose dictatorship in their respective countries.
I was very surprised one night to see a movie again on French TV, done by the same journalist, Monique Robin, which just floored me. In it, she interviewed retired government leaders: the French Minister of the Interior back in the early ‘70s and Mr. Messmer, who had been Defense Minister and Mr. Giscard D’Estaing himself, the former President of France. She asked him whether these torturers had gone on their own to teach in America or were they instructed to do so by their superiors in the French government, and was this part of a larger policy by the French government. And they all answered very matter of factly that these veteran torturers were not mercenaries for hire who went to the United States to make a buck. Au contraire, they were there because the political rulers of France had asked them to. No, it was all programmed at the very highest levels of government. Let’s not forget that this was the Cold War and that anything against communist subversion was welcome even when this had nothing to do with communism. Anything along those lines was welcome. So when I see and hear what goes on in Iraq these days, I am afraid it is all déjà-vu for me and been there, done that.
KB: That is just unbelievable. You know, I happen to have met the guy in the Pentagon whose idea it was to show The Battle of Algiers to the US troops at the Cartoonist Conference two years ago. Supposedly, his idea was to help our military avoid committing the same mistakes the French had committed in Algeria.
HA: Well, of course, this movie, as you know, has been reissued as a DVD package in the USA. They even asked me to give my opinion in this DVD, which I was happy to give. So you’ll probably hear me give my two cents worth there as well, if you watch that DVD.
KB: All of this brings us to the role of the media in all of this. According to what you are telling me, even today in France, the media are not completely free. You describe how these movies that speak the truth are aired, pointedly, very late at night if at all. And self-censorship seems still very prevalent. How do you characterize French media in terms of freedom of expression, because, as I am sure you are aware, there is actually very little freedom of the press in America, at least in the mainstream media. There is some in margins, like in this radio, for example. The mainstream media are almost all in the hands of very few people and there is practically no diversity of opinion. Theoretically we have a free press in the US, but practice this terrible self-censorship. I’d like to know how the French media compare when it comes to the coverage of current issues of war and imperialism.
HA: Well, look. Increasingly, on both sides of the Atlantic, things are becoming very similar unfortunately. You know, there is this old saying in French, I don’t know if you guys use the same one in English. We like to say that whoever pays the band, gets to call the tune, you know.
Naturally, when you see dailies which only survive thanks to massive subsidies in the form of advertising, or dailies which once had progressive leanings but end up being bought by larger corporations or financial outfits like Mr. Dousseau, a billionaire defense contractor, who owns a majority of dailies in France, or Mr. Lagardère, missile manufacturer, whose heavily invested in the publishing and distribution of books in France.
Only very naïve people will believe these large, corporate outfits when they say that the purchase of the newspapers will somehow not affect the content of the newspapers. But supposedly it is the editors of these papers who will control what will be published in these papers. Of course, they are smart and good enough at creating this superficial pretense that they are objective.
But when you look at the bottom line, there is no freedom of expression in these papers. There are those rare small publications that are still fighting the good fight and struggling to keep a free, independent voice and tell the truth. But it is becoming harder and harder for them to survive. In other words, your description of the media in the USA, more or less, is what we see happening in France these days.
And they tell us in France, “Look how free the media is in the USA.”
KB: Of course, everything is better in the United States [laughs], we are the envy of the world always.
Well Mr. Alleg, I can’t thank you enough. You have been so kind, I really appreciate your taking the time to talk to us at such length.