James McDougall, A History of Algeria (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
James McDougall (JM): Cambridge University Press asked me for it as part of their ongoing series of general country histories across the region, and I was obviously delighted to be asked, since it is great company to be in (Ilan Pappé on Palestine, Charles Tripp on Iraq, Susan Miller on Morocco. . .).
But beyond that, there was really a need for a new treatment of modern Algerian history, especially one incorporating serious attention to social and cultural life, covering the whole period from the Ottomans to the present, and bringing in the new scholarship that has been done in the past two decades. Much of what was out there previously, especially in English, was great twenty-five years ago, but really reflected much older literatures that have long been in need of updating.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
JM: The book has two, connected, arguments to make. One is about Algerian society, and it is that more attention should be paid to the very deep-rooted, long-running structural factors of social life and culture in Algeria. I think that these have shaped a quite remarkable resilience of Algerian society, and provided the deep texture of Algerian cultures, over the past five hundred years. Despite everything the country and its people have been through, there is a story here about persistence, adaptability, and assertiveness that has not often been well understood by outsiders.
The second is about the state and politics, and it is that although the state in Algeria, from the Ottomans through the French to the post-independence period, has often been harsh, unaccountable, extractive, and punitive. it has also rarely been all powerful. The country’s rulers have rarely been able to achieve quite what they have wanted in the ways they imagined.
Together, these two arguments suggest that while Algeria has certainly been shaped by a series of violent ruptures and an often very turbulent political history, there are important continuities here too, without which we cannot really understand either the state or society. And while perhaps there has often been a tendency to see Algerians as victims or as heroes, I have tried to show, through local and individual examples of much broader patterns, how Algeria is above all a real place where real people live, not just an icon or a metaphor for some tragic story.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
JM: Like for my first book, this one is based heavily on archival research, especially for the long colonial period (1830-1962), as well as on interviews and fieldwork for more recent questions, which built on work I began to do for my first book. It also necessarily synthesizes a lot of literature across a long time period, and here I am drawing heavily on different disciplines—sociology, political science, anthropology, literature, journalism—as well as covering lots of areas of history like military, institutional, legal and economic history, some of which were newer to me. Part of the argument is based on the approach I developed to the history of nationalism and the colonial situation in my first book, which was a kind of post-nationalist history of Algerian nationalism. But my earlier work was all focused on quite small groups of people in specific circumstances, and mostly in the first half of the twentieth century, so the real departure here is in trying to write in a grand sweep over five hundred years in a way that still lets real people, and their voices and experiences, come through to the reader.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
JM: Obviously it is mainly aimed at students and scholars, and I hope it will allow people to include Algeria more fully in teaching at the college level. That would be good, I think, both for courses in Middle Eastern and African history and in teaching French history, which now pays the colonial empire and Algeria in particular much more attention than it used to. I hope students will get a fuller and more subtle appreciation of Algeria from this than they may have usually gotten from reading, say, just about the war of independence or about the violence of the 1990s. And it would be great if a wider readership could learn something from it too. I am hoping that there might be translations into French and Arabic, which would give the book a much wider impact of course: I did not write it with any idea of telling Algerians about their history, it was really written by an outsider for other outsiders, but if it can play any role in expanding conversations about Algerian history in Algeria and the wider region too, that would be great. Some parts of the book will be controversial, but that is why arguments are worth making.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
JM: I have been involved in a project to write a multi-authored History of the Maghrib, with Julia Clancy-Smith and several other colleagues, covering the region from Libya to Morocco and from Antiquity to the present, which is now, finally, finished. I am currently completing another book that I have been working on for a long time, called Empire in Fragments: Lives and Afterlives of Colonialism in France and Africa. It is about the everyday life and legacies of French colonialism in Africa, combining case studies of what colonial situations meant in practice all across North and West Africa, from Tunis to Morocco and from Senegal down to Gabon, with a study of what the empire has been made to mean in France since decolonization, and up to the present. Like A History of Algeria, it is probably going to be longer than I thought it would be, but I hope it will not take me another ten years to finish.
J: What projects would you love to see new researchers doing in your areas of specialism?
JM: I would love to see more new work on how the Algerian revolution was enacted and experienced, and how it has been remembered, in specific localities, especially in rural Algeria. In general, it would be great to see more work on the intersection between social history, culture, and landscape in North Africa, bringing environmental and ecological history more into conversation with society and culture—not at all in a determinist way, but to dig deeper into some of the continuities and ruptures I talk about in the book, and how memory and especially trauma, if that is the right word, relate to space and place. There could be great urban history case studies for work like that. I have also increasingly been working on the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and I would love to see a good cultural-political history of the Mediterranean at the time of the Congress of Vienna, to look at how commonalities around the Mediterranean are quite suddenly reshaped in a radically unequal power imbalance in the wake of the French revolutionary wars. One of the things I talk about in the book (and in a recent article) is how, in only a few months in 1815, the British go from working in recognized, existing terms of diplomacy with North African states to imposing ultimatums and backing them up with bombardment. It is a really dramatic shift and one that I do not think is properly appreciated. At the other end of the chronology and in places I have only just started trying to work on, there is amazingly little in English on a lot of the colonial period and decolonization in francophone West Africa–Cameroon and Gabon especially. (If anyone wants to do a PhD on any of this, call me!)
Excerpt from the Introduction:
Beni Saf is a fishing port on the steep cliffs of the Algerian coastline that climbs north-eastwards from the Moroccan border: a collage of multicoloured, cubed houses – blue, ochre and yellow – superimposed upon each other against a green hillside above the bay. The local deposits of iron ore that for a century provided employment in mining have been exhausted since the mid-1980s, and the port’s famous sardines are becoming rarer and more expensive, but in midsummer the town attracts families and groups of friends who rent houses and spend their short holidays by the sea. A little under a hundred kilometres to the west, at Marsa Ben Mehidi, are beaches where conservative families take their vacations, where women in loose clothes and headscarves swim during the day and take in concerts by rap artists on the boardwalk by night. At a similar distance further east, the coast turns a corner and comes in sight of the long, red Mujurjo mountain that towers over the city of Oran, and the dizzying sheer walls of Santa Cruz, the sixteenth-century Spanish fortress that stands on the peak of the mountain above the sea. Here, the Thursday evening weekend road from Les Andalouses to Aïn al-Turk, where men wear shorts, girls bathe in bikinis and young couples hold hands, is packed with cars moving along the uninterrupted chain of grills, barbeques and hotels. One of them sports its name, ‘Beach House’, the English words spelled out in Arabic script, juxtaposed to the respectable designation aparthotel familial. Further east, beyond the lively sprawl of Oran and its rapidly rising apartment and office towers, the twisting road along the corniche reaches the village of Kristel, perched in an inlet on the face of the cliffs running down to the sea. The village’s fruit and vegetable gardens, watered from a spring permanently surrounded by children, are said to have supplied Phoenician trading vessels in antiquity, when the site was first inhabited. Above the gardens, a building carries the inscription École communale 1897. Above the school, on a promontory of rock over the road, a whitewashed stone cube surmounted by a dome marks the resting place of a wali, a Muslim saint. At Kristel the road turns inland before passing by the immense pipeline terminal at Arzew, the site of the world’s first liquefied natural gas plant and the country’s main crude oil port, where at night the gas flares light up the sky in a bright amber arc. A little further east is the city of Mostaghanem, with its busy street market under the trees and the colonial architecture of the bustling, traffic-packed town centre. On a wall by the railway station, someone has painted a laconic slogan: tahya firansa – vissa (‘Long live France – visa!’), the first two words in Arabic script, the last in an approximate French. The quiet, crumbling pre-colonial city overlooks the Mediterranean from its cliffs that rise on either side of a ravine filled with trees and birdsong, its empty, narrow streets of coloured houses sprinkled with satellite dishes, and its old mosques from which the call to prayer at noon rises like a sudden cloud of sound.
The landscape is striking; the way people live in it, mark it and move through it, build upon it, name it and make a living from it displays both the diversity of contemporary life and the depth of historical time against which contemporary life is played out. Algeria’s modern history has not generally been approached through descriptions of a beautiful and fascinating country, or a diverse and creative society going about its daily life. The history of Algeria, since the Ottoman period – three centuries of history hardly known outside specialist circles and still sometimes thought of in antiquated stereotypes of piracy, ‘white slavery’ and despotism – through 132 years of French colonial occupation (1830–1962) and seven years of ‘savage’ colonial war (the war of independence, 1954–1962), up to the more recent terrors of Islamist and state violence since 1992, has often been written about only in terms of upheaval, rupture, violence and trauma. That these have existed in over-abundance in Algeria is not to be doubted, and the pages that follow will seek to account for them in their place. But the history of Algeria as a series of familiar clichés – heroism and horror, triumph and tragedy, anger and agony – is only part of what has made this country what it is, and does not begin to account adequately for the ways Algerians themselves have lived their lives, understood their country and their place in the world, have made, and continually make day by day, their own futures with the materials their past has given them.