Elizabeth M. Perego, Humor and Power in Algeria, 1920 to 2021 (Indiana University Press, 2023).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Elizabeth Perego (EP): Early coursework on African-American and Soviet history piqued my interest in “hidden transcripts” and how subaltern populations tell their stories while living under oppression. When I started to delve more into the history of post-independence Algeria, I was struck by how widespread and nuanced political humor was in the country across different periods and how humorous cultural products—like jokes, cartoons, play scripts, political chants, songs, and so on—contained narratives with multilayered and powerful meanings. An examination of writings from Algerian scholars, artists, and even government figures showed that they considered humor an important genre of cultural expression, but previous literature on humor in Algeria focused on humor expressed through one specific format (theater, songs, jokes, cartoons). I also knew that humor had historically constituted a critical tool that populations in other parts of the Maghrib had wielded to transmit strong messages about important subjects so that a project on political humor could have regional as well as local and global implications. At the same time, I realized the necessity of seeking out alternative archives, beyond state-controlled repositories and written documents, for reconstructing more politically contentious periods of Algeria’s history in line with Omnia El Shakry’s and Malika Rahal’s observations about postcolonial archives. Humor appeared to be such an archive that contained a myriad of narratives steeped in emotion and expressed through poignant language.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
EP: The book examines changes in different Algerian communities’ employment and consumption of humor across key moments of the country’s recent past. Given the intensity and length of the country’s occupation and Algeria’s storied revolution against that occupation, humor’s role as a form of discourse of anticolonial resistance comes out prominently in the book. I also strive to see how various individuals used humor to reinforce communal bonds and respond to peaceful moments in the country’s history. Humor and Power additionally illustrates how states and populations—even those sometimes wrongly considered as lacking in humor, such as Islamists—all recognized humor’s power to rally populations behind a cause or to convince them of the righteousness of a policy. Given the seriousness of the Algerian Revolution, readers may be surprised to learn how quickly the post-independent state, along with artists, moved to create comedy about the revolution, including two spoofs on Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers. Since Algeria’s October 1988 Revolution, democratic opening, and 1990s civil conflict all represented points of rupture in how Algerian communities employed political humor, a good portion of the book discusses these events as well. The book then ends with Algeria’s 2019 Hirak (“movement”) for political change, in which Algerians widely adopted humor as a sign of pacifist resistance and Algerian-ness, demonstrating once more and to the world the centrality of humor to political discourse in the country.
This work engages conversations underway in the field of humor studies and popular movements and politics in the Middle East and Africa, especially the Maghrib. Humor and Power is the first book in Middle Eastern and African studies to look at changes in engagement with political humor over a long period. This approach allowed me to see how shifts in the use of humor indicated greater societal, political, or cultural developments. I also enter into a broad debate in humor studies as to the functionality of humor beyond its use as a tool of resistance, demonstrating that humor could perform multiple functions at once. Finally, I seek to contribute to Asef Bayat’s concept of social non-movements—groups who act in harmony in response to an issue despite not being linked through formal structures or communities and whom Bayat shows were critical players during the “Arab Spring”—by showing how humor can assist in their formation and mobilization.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
EP: In general, I am interested in how cultural expressions of gender shape understandings of who should wield power and who should be excluded from it in the modern Maghrib. I had previously discussed these topics more openly by looking at representations of women and gender in Algeria through different media. These issues are alluded to in the book, but as humor can perform multiple functions simultaneously and deal with many subjects, this research forced me to think deeply about a variety of other issues such as social and political identity, social mobilization and revolution, virtual justice, and imagined communities.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to?
EP: Beyond Algerian historiography and postcolonial studies, the work draws from and contributes to humor studies and humor theory, Middle East studies, African studies, and conversations surrounding historical methodologies. I hope that scholars from across these fields find useful material here. The book seeks to illustrate how populations excluded from power can use humor as a site of political engagement and commentary and a mechanism through which they can center their often underheard stories. Humor’s inherent ambiguity can allow oppressed or marginalized populations a tool for communication that may not be legible to their oppressors.
Humor constituted a whole vocabulary through which varying Algerian actors have sought to make claims about the nation, identity, and power. In turn, the historian finds in this humor evidence of lesser-told stories of creativity, animosity, community, and other phenomena that are sometimes harder to find in other sources. A poignant example of this ability to reveal stories not available through other archives came up in my work on jokes during the civil conflict. If the topic of rape and sexual assault of women was not discussed or acknowledged until later on in the conflict, sexual assault of men or how men responded to changes in gender relations remain very taboo topics. However, jokes do contain references to this violence, and as this work along with Abderrahmane Moussaoui’s shows, might have permitted some men to express anxiety around these issues.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
EP: I have two active projects, both representing a return to work that focuses on gender and women’s history. The first, tentatively titled Algerian Women in Conflict, 1954-2005, will retrace how media coverage of Algeria’s civil conflict of the 1990s primed global populations and governments to view Muslim women as the ultimate victims of and resistors to Islamic extremism on the verge of 9/11 and the Global War on Terror, a vision of affairs that greatly influenced US policies in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as neo-Orientalism. Concerning Algeria’s conflict, such narratives oversimplified the war’s realities, obscuring how more men died in the conflict’s initial years and how some women supported radical Islamist rebels. These narratives were also produced not only in foreign media that forwarded earlier colonial-era tropes of Muslim women as oppressed but also by Algerian actors who were trying to understand the armed struggle unfolding around them, a complexity that this work will explore. The project will also highlight the real lived experiences of Algerian women to unravel persistent stereotypes regarding gender in the region while tracing their impact on political actors, institutions, and decisions. The second book-length work, Icons of Liberty: Algerian Female Figures on the International Stage, will examine how four individual Algeria women or groups of women (Djamila Bouhired, female state figures, Warda Al-Jazairia, and Hassiba Boulmerka) became symbols of decolonization and freedom during and after the Algerian Revolution. The goal of that project will be to continue work by scholars such as Sara Rahnama that maps feminist connections across the Global South while asking what it meant to be an Algerian female icon in the wake of the country’s storied decolonization struggle and against a Cold War and late twentieth-century background.
J: What did you learn from the experience of conducting oral histories with Algerian artists and authors for this project?
EP: I stand in awe of the over fifty oral history narrators, mostly journalists and cartoonists, who chose to share their stories with me, particularly when opening up about difficult moments of trauma and loss. As the work shows, the 1990s conflict ripped apart the social fabric of many communities. Given these circumstances and that many journalists and artists were under threat, it was remarkable to hear of persistent creativity and dedication through some of the worst situations imaginable. I hope that this work helps to flesh out the voices represented in scholarship and literature about this period, shifting our focus away from the conflict’s belligerents to the civilian majority who generally did not espouse violence and who struggled to make sense of it.
Except from the book (from Chapter Two: Humor in Rebellion and Uncertain Times, 1988 to 1992)
A guy goes to the doctor. He enters the office. “My head is exploding. When I sleep, the whole night I have a terrible headache, and when I turn over, I die.” The doctor asks him, “What’s wrong? Why?” “It’s because of this democracy, doctor.” The doctor says to him, “Democracy? How?” The man replies, “Oh yes… before it was the dictatorship. People used to think for me (in my place). I was left alone. And now, all day long, I have to manage at work, in the café, everywhere, at home, with neighbors, everywhere people are asking me for my opinion. All day long, I have to get by as best as possible and me, I don’t have an opinion! I have only the tiniest of opinions.” He then proceeds to ask the doctor for medicine, at which point the medical provider explains that he has only one choice: “The solution… get 15 or 20 people together and form a party… the party MGMD: the mdīgūṭiyyīn (‘disgusted’) with democracy party!”
Wāḥid jā ‘and al-ṭbīb …. dkhal ʿand al-ṭbīb. “Rāsī rāh yṭarṭag. Mānīsh narqud, līl kāmil j’ai un mal de tête terrible, līl kāmil w-ānā natqallab rāḥ nmūt.” Qāl lu wāsh bik wa‘lāh? “C’est à cause de la démocratie hādiyya a-ṭbib” Qāl lu, “Kifāh la démocratie?” Qāl lu “Mais oui.” Qāl lu, “Bikrī kānat la dictature. Kānū al-nās ykhammū (they thought) fi blāṣtī j’étais tranquille. W-durk al-nhār kāmil w-anā ngambaṣ fī al-khadma, fī al-qahwa, partout, fī dār al-jīrān, partout on me demande mon avis w-al-nhār kāmil w-anā-ngambaṣ w-anā j’ai pas d‘avis ū-kī ykūn ‘andī un avis ṣghīwar hakda […]. Wallāh la démocratie ghīr ‘deathmocratie.’”… Qāl lu…“La solution… lamm khamsṭāsh willā ‘ashrīn kīmā antāya ū-dīr un parti, le parti MDGD le parti taʿ al-mdīgūṭiyyīn min la démocratie!”
Hit comedian Mohand Fellag recounted this joke as part of his 1990 stand-up routine entitled SOS Labess (“Save our ship - everything is fine”). The joke hints at three patterns concerning the use of humor during Algeria’s brief democratic experiment from 1989 to 1992. First and foremost, as opposed to earlier moments of the country’s post–independence past, a freer humor flourished during this period of lighter censorship in forms never before seen in the country. While Rachid Ksentini had performed comedy routines in the 1920s and 1930s, these sketches were not nearly as overtly political as SOS. Comedy produced within print culture, especially cartoons and caricatures, demonstrated the more open atmosphere as the early 1990s marked the inauguration of non-state-controlled press outlets. The number of print outlets multiplied, allowing for the emergence of new artists ready to push taboos in this new, freer atmosphere.
Secondly, comedians produced work revealing a range of emotive responses to shifting political changes following Algeria’s economic problems of the 1990s and a widespread anti-regime revolt in October 1988. Throughout Fellag’s routine, he evokes skepticism when it comes to his country’s ability to transition to democracy and a fear that the widening of the political field will give rise to Islamist hegemony. Only a moment after this joke, Fellag joshes that next year there may not be a March 8th on the calendar in Algeria. This comment references the rising influence of the nation’s new and most popular Islamist party, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). Some Algerians thought the group stood against women’s rights and, ergo, might oppose International Women’s Day celebrations on March 8th.
Finally, this joke suggests that humor throughout this period reflected the presence of a more openly divided political sphere. Humorists such as joke-tellers and cartoonists crafted work seemingly intended to discredit political figures to the benefit of others, as evinced by Fellag’s jab at the FIS. These artists also expressed their apprehension toward the political opening, a measure that they believed might not result in the oft-imagined Algerian “people” taking up the reins of power. Their disbelief is echoed in the doctor’s suggestion of adding a party to an already crowded field as well as the patient’s expressed distaste for the democratic opening. Politics in Algeria at the time, Fellag suggests, could make one’s head hurt. The next section of SOS labess sees Fellag laughingly bemoan that democracy in the country, unlike in Eastern Europe where similar openings were taking place, will result in an implosion rather than an explosion, with Algeria collapsing in upon itself.
As opposed to the larger patterns of “nationalizing” political humor that reigned from the 1920s through the 1980s, humor makers from the October 1988 Revolution and subsequent democratic transition appear not to have sought to bring citizens together into a larger Algerian community. Rather, as this chapter argues, this humor in various comic sources bore witness to and possibly worsened divisions in Algeria as roiling identity politics moved from the margins to the center and the one-party regime made way for the inauguration of a multiparty system. Humor from 1988 to 1992 still helped to foster communal belonging as “Algerian-izing” humor from the interwar period through the 1980s had. This time, however, humor may have played a stronger role in fostering divisions between different political camps.
Political humor flourished during the period spanning the October 1988 Revolution through the government’s interruption of the first open, multiparty parliamentary elections that the country had ever witnessed in January 1992. For five days in October 1988, scores of mainly young men in many of Algeria’s urban centers took to the streets. They railed against corruption and the disdain that they believed the state and country’s kleptocratic elite had shown them. In response to these events, and as a way of revamping and reforming the longstanding single party -- the National Liberation Front (FLN) -- then-president Chadli Benjedid ended the FLN’s monopoly over formal political power in the country, overseeing changes to the constitution in 1989. These amendments allowed political opponents to create a never-before-seen multiparty system in Algeria.
The January 1992 action on the part of the military to keep the FIS out of the government ushered in a period of increasing political violence and uncertainty and the expansion of armed dissident ranks against the state. Jacob Mundy has argued against 1992 as the starting point for the conflict of the 1990s. Yet, this moment witnessed a stark the start of a stark constriction of spaces for free expression. Humor from the 1988 Revolution and “democratic transition” through January 1992 attested to the period’s more open atmosphere, one still replete with mounting friction over who would control the system now that its rules had changed. Therefore, this period’s humor generally worked differently from both the humor that preceded as well as followed it once insurgents entered into open warfare against the state that had canceled elections to prevent a FIS victory.
Asef Bayat’s concept of “social non–movements” illuminates how communities can come together and act in similar ways despite lacking preexisting connections, a useful notion for comprehending political humor’s functionality as Algerians coalesced in more public ways to discuss national politics. Bayat defines “social non–movements” as groups of individuals working toward similar political goals in a decentralized, “quiet” manner. In Algeria, political humor from 1988 to 1992 appears to have assisted in facilitating common actions on the part of citizens who may have never met, but who through shared codes like jokes came to adopt the same political stances. They could in turn use these symbols to demonstrate their political affiliations. The case of political humor in Algeria from October 1998 and the democratic opening illustrates that humor may be able to shape social non–movements in powerful ways that Bayat has briefly evoked. What is more, formal movements from across Algeria’s political spectrum also used comedy as part of their discursive repertoire for convincing fellow Algerians to support their camp, following an earlier practice of using humor in ideological messaging.
An analysis of this humor highlights the emotional responses of at least some Algerians to one of the most misunderstood, but crucial, periods in Algeria’s past, one that some Algerians today view as their “Arab Spring” revolt and accompanying opening. Post hoc accounts of this era mainly view it as a prelude to the later civil conflict. A slower reconstruction of humor from different moments during these tense years demonstrates how communities emotionally lived events in real time. For instance, anger at the FLN did not instantly translate to mass portions of the population turning to the FIS; instead, the latter party had to win followers over through language, the provision of services that the government failed to ensure, and appeals to emotion. A reading of the texts produced by and about varying political groups shows where and among whom some messages landed and others were rejected. Humor could thus inspire individuals to join movements or social non–movements dedicated to effecting change.