Arthur Asseraf, Electrical News in Colonial Algeria (Oxford University Press, 2019).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Arthur Asseraf (AA): I think the main reason I wrote this book was that I became frustrated with a certain kind of global history. Electric News describes how new technologies of information circulation created a sharply polarized colonial society in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Algeria.
This was not the book I started out writing. At the beginning of my research, I was frustrated with a historiography that focused on Algerian history only as an attempt to explain developments in France now. So, to go beyond the French context, I was trying to figure out how to make Algerians relevant in global history, to show how they moved around, and make them look cosmopolitan and sophisticated. As I progressed, I realized that I was asking the wrong question. Of course, some Algerians under colonialism did move around and participate in global intellectual debates, but focusing on this small group of people would have missed the point. Due to settler colonialism, most Algerians could not move, and their particular experience of globalization in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was one of restricted mobility.
I am not the first to point out that we should be looking at those who did not move as much as those who did, examining friction as much as flows. What I became increasingly interested in was the role of media in shaping this geography. Looking at media can allow us to see how those who did not move experienced the world, and how their sense of space was reconfigured under colonialism.
I became concerned with using this particular history to help us understand our own technological transition today, in which many of us feel like media is having an effect that is fragmenting and isolating. Can we take the experience of news under colonialism not as an exception, but as location from which to rethink the role of media more broadly?
A few years ago, I was in Galilee, in the north of Palestine, and I was speaking to an American woman who had made aliyah there. We were very close to the border, and as we looked at the forested mountains in front of us, she said to me, “Every morning I wake up and I see Lebanon, but Lebanon is more distant to me than Australia. I have family in Australia; I can imagine what it is like there. I have no idea what life is like in Lebanon.” I found her description very disturbing but also quite honest. How can media create a world where people who are physically close appear very far? This book is an attempt to answer that question by looking at a very particular place, Algeria under French rule. This is a way of using Algerian history to say something that has broader relevance to other places, and not just to fit the experience of Algerians into pre-existing narratives.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
AA: The book looks at the development of the printing press, telegraph, radio (and at the very end, television) in a society divided between a hegemonic European settler minority and a majority of Algerian Muslims who had little control over media infrastructure. Because of this, news stories coming from European sources were consistently reworked, distorted, and made to be relevant to audiences for which they were not intended. In Algeria, the same newspaper could produce two different imagined communities by being taken into a café and read out loud, in Arabic or Tamazight, with a completely different interpretation.
The book, thus, puts two main bodies of literature in conversation. The first is on media and how it produces social change, from Marshall McLuhan to Benedict Anderson. By looking at a society where people experienced the media completely differently at the same time, I suggest that the best question to ask of mass media might not be when but for whom.
In turn, this connects with a debate that has been occurring in the historiography on colonial Algeria: how much contact was there across the colonial divide? By looking at both settlers and colonized in the same analytical frame, I suggest that contact produced friction, and that colonialism constantly reproduced distance out of close social encounters.
J: What were the biggest challenges of doing research for this book?
AA: The biggest challenge was in recovering people's experience of news, which is by definition ephemeral. Source-wise, a lot of information circulation happened in conversations, songs, or telegrams that were not destined to last and have disappeared.
I tried to compensate this by drawing on state archives, and on the role of surveillance in shaping information circulation. Doing research in Algeria around 2013 changed my view of the role of the state's role in shaping information. When you live in a system where the rules are opaque, surveillance shapes your life not just through direct censorship. It also affects what information you consider sensitive, what you share in private and in public, and so on. The current Algerian government is very different from the French colonial state, but this experience made me realize that state expectations of what news is important affect everyday life, and surveillance is not separate from other forms of media.
In the end, however, for a historian, it is difficult to reconcile my attempt to write a narrative based on long-standing change with my subject's own experience of time, which could be disruptive or non-linear. Rather than ignore this contradiction, I tried to put it in the book: there is something paradoxical about writing a history of news.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
AA: I tried to write this book in a way that would be interesting to scholars who do not know much about Algeria, so hopefully that comes through. In particular, I hope it would be interesting to people who work on media and technology, and people thinking about settler colonialism. My dream would be that it puts to bed people's rather lazy uses of Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities to explain the rise of nationalism. This was a book that Anderson himself grew frustrated with later on. Because his is a theory that relies quite heavily on media, especially novels and the newspaper, I think we have to go back to how people read newspapers to write a different history in which nationalism is only one of the political formations available to people in the region.
For those who work on the Maghrib, I think it provides a new angle to look at colonial society. What happens when we look to the development of the newspaper, the radio, and the television for change rather than the rise of political parties? I see the book as participating in a really rich new generation of works on North African history that are expanding our sense of the past beyond the histories of political elites, and into aspects of other social groups and daily lives that provide unexpected continuities across the pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial periods, and replace the Maghrib within wider regional contexts.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
AA: My current projects both involve looking deeper at the relationship between rumor and race. My next project takes my research forward in time, by looking at the role of rumor in shaping racial categories in France since 1962. I am interested in how people talk about race in a context where the state denies that race exists, and how this differs from the previous colonial period in North Africa.
I am also working on a spin-off book about the story of an Algerian informant who became infamous in France after going on a botched exploration mission to West Africa around 1900. As I was researching Electric News, I encountered this man, Messaoud Djebari, who fabricated information to gain social advancement that was denied to him as a colonial subject. So, I want to use him to talk about what agency North Africans had in relation to sub-Saharan Africans under colonialism, and what the role of truth might be in the circulation of information.
Excerpt from the book
In 1938, local activists in Tlemcen tried to republish a pamphlet they had received from Cairo, entitled ‘Palestine the martyr’ (Filastin al-shahida). The text was seized by French police before they could do so. In order to justify the Arab Revolt against the British mandate in Palestine (1936–9) as a case of legitimate self-defence, the text mentioned numerous specific acts of violence committed against Palestinian Arabs:
‘Have you heard the news of Palestine the martyr? The sacred Arab Palestine, the land of the al-Aqsa Mosque, whose surroundings we have blessed, the first qibla, the Third Holy Place and the land of the lord the Messiah, the Prophet of mercy and peace?’
In the 1930s, the word ‘martyr’ (martyr/e or shahid/a) was one of the most common ones to be found next to Palestine in the Algerian press. Many other countries were called ‘martyrs’ both in Arabic and in French. Libya, whose enduring suffering under Italian rule was of great concern to Algerians, was also dubbed a martyr. In 1920, one of the foundational texts of the Tunisian nationalist movement was ‘Abdelaziz Tha‘albi’s book La Tunisie Martyre: ses revendications.
The word ‘martyr’ is not just a more religious way of saying ‘victim’. In both Christian and Islamic contexts, a ‘martyr’ is fundamentally a ‘witness’. A victim’s suffering is meaningless, while a martyr’s suffering bears witness to a higher truth for the whole community of believers. Individual martyrs are a well-known feature of modern nationalism. In Algeria as in many other places, the cult of individuals dead for the nation occupies a central role in the national imaginary. In independent Algeria, a martyr (shahid) is a person who died in the struggle for independence against France. The ‘Monument to the Martyr’ (Maqam al-shahid) that dominates the Algiers skyline plays the same role as Monuments to Unknown Soldiers do in so many other places around the world. But the text in 1938, like many others in this period, referred to the entirety of Palestine as a martyr.
What does it mean to refer to a whole country as witness to a truth? Calling Palestine a ‘martyr’ meant that developments there carried lessons for Algeria. What exactly these lessons might be was uncertain. Over the course of the 1930s, Palestinian news played a central political role in Algeria because it seemed both important and distant. Distance gave Algerians a means to reconsider their own problems on a different scale, to zoom out, adjust their gaze and reconsider their relationships with each other.
If understanding faraway events was essential, it was not easy, so news became an important site of debate and discussion. Typically, most commentators lamented that social inferiors were incapable of properly understanding the news. L’Ikdam, writing in 1921, claimed that most Algerians in the countryside had a poor understanding of the contemporary Turkish War of Independence, ‘Ask the native mass what is Angora [Ankara], nearly all will answer, unsure, that Angora must be a young daughter of a sultan from the Thousand and One Nights.’ Surveillance reports by the French administration expressed the same scepticism about the possibility of Algerians understanding world events. People were, they argued, insufficiently educated to understand the news. No one saw these misunderstandings as constitutive of the very nature of news itself, which necessarily involved mediation to carry reports across distance.
Observation of events abroad played a determining role in the formation of what would come to be known as Algerian nationalism. Much has been written on the process by which individuals come to imagine themselves as forming part of a national community, but surprisingly little on how, in order to do so, they need to be able to imagine other nations. Canonically, the first call for national independence was by Messali Hadj, the founder of the Étoile Nord-Africaine (ENA), in 1927 while at an international congress in Brussels, though the respective importance of various figures and parties in the national struggle is hotly debated. This quest by much of Algerian historiography to find the ‘first’ call for national independence has come under well-deserved criticism, especially in the work of James McDougall. One of the defining features of a nation as an imagined community, after all, is that there are always other nations out there, developing in parallel, which is what makes something like the United Nations possible to conceive. ‘Nationalism’ does not precede ‘internationalism’, for the two terms form a mutually reinforcing pair of concepts.
Well before formal calls for Algerian independence were issued, Algerians longed for other nations, for their leaders, their hymns, their flags, aware of the power that this toolkit had on the world stage. In their houses they hung portraits of Mustafa Kemal, hero of Turkish independence, or of Abdelkrim, the leader of the Rif Republic in northern Morocco.They mistook Egyptian nationalist hymns for Algerian ones well before an Algerian anthem had been written. Activists in early twentieth-century Algeria felt like the future was already somewhere else, and political mobilization was an attempt to bridge this distance between Algeria and the rest of the world. Adopting the temporality that Algerians were ‘backward’ and needed to ‘catch up’, news of developments in other places articulated the space between current realities and the desired dream. This desire relied on distance, on Algerians frequently misunderstanding faraway places for their own purposes.
Rather than seeing this activity as a preliminary phase to ‘real’ nationalist activity, it is possible to analyse it on its own terms. No one in Algeria claimed to be Palestinian, only that Palestine’s suffering made their own predicaments visible. Before martyrs for the nation could exist, before there could be monuments to unknown soldiers for whom flames would be lit, there were distant places whose suffering made action in Algeria urgent. Before the nation could have its martyrs, there were martyr nations.