The past does not stop. Over and again, we fail to recapture it in memory. Of course, we have history books and think that this is where the past is recorded as memory. But memory is the product of the present, and the present is not a station where memories pause, unchanging. This is why we often try to recall the past in other ways.
ON March 19, 1962, the war in Algiers came to an end. After the almost eight-year-long savage armed conflict, Algiers emerged as an independent republic. France—angrily and reluctantly—relinquished this territory in northern Africa which it had colonized since 1830.
But the past does not stop. Over and again, we fail to recapture it in memory. Of course, we have history books and think that this is where the past is recorded as memory. But memory is the product of the present, and the present is not a station where memories pause, unchanging. This is why we often try to recall the past in other ways.
Whenever the Algerian war of independence is mentioned, La guerre d’Algérie (The War in Algeria) is reread, in part or in full. Jules Roy’s book, published in 1960, is one of French literature’s most prominent works: a mix of memoir and political statement, a piercing accusation without ranting—the first book to call what was going on in Algiers a ‘war’ and not law enforcement.
What was remarkable about Roy was that he—a pied-noir, or descendant of white settlers—did not side with his own group. He sided with the indigènes’ fight for their independence.
Actually, he too could have been called ‘native’. He was born in Rovigo (now Bougara) on a farmland owned by his mother’s family in the village of Sidi Moussa. When he was 11, he entered a seminary school with the idea of becoming a priest. But from the age of 20, he took up the life of the French cavalry, and later joined the air force. When Hitler invaded Paris in 1940, he escaped to England. From there, he flew planes for the Royal Air Force to bomb Germany.
But in 1953 he resigned from the air force where he held the rank of colonel, after witnessing the use of napalm bombs to wipe out villages and the arrest and torture of farmers when France tried to smother the Vietnamese people’s rebellion.
The colonel protested. There was within him something stronger than loyalty to France.
“I should like to be able to love my country and still love justice. I don't want any greatness for it, particularly a greatness born of blood and falsehood.”
These are not his words, of course. They belong to Albert Camus in the 1940s. Published in a clandestine newspaper, Combat, the text—a letter to ‘a German friend’—was a greeting of enmity. At the time, Camus was active in the underground movement resisting Hitler’s occupation of Paris. I do not know whether Roy read this famous text. What I do know is that to Roy, Camus was an admired friend and teacher.
“Camus opened my eyes,” Roy said in a 1998 interview. He was speaking about Algiers, his own and Sartres’ birthplace. Camus “made me understand that the Arabs were also people.”
This was a radical change in attitude, which two decades later made him unable to treat the Arabs as the enemy in the war in Algiers. Among Roy’s 11 books of essays, is Autour du drame, published during that war. In it, Roy addresses the colon, the European settler population propped up by colonialism: “It is strange…that you have lived near Muslims without thinking that you could have in them, not enemies or subordinates, but brothers.”
This was Roy’s attack at the attitude of his group, including that of his own family, who considered ‘them’, ‘the-others’, as entirely outside and unworthy of consideration.
In his childhood, he recalled, the Arabs were called not ‘raton’ (small rats) but ‘les troncs de figuier’, fig tree trunks, because they liked to sit under those trees. Then they were called bicot (wogs).
A bicot was not a fellow. This was a derogatory term for indigenous people.
So too was ‘fig tree trunk’. Roy was astounded to learn that ‘fig tree trunks’ could laugh, cry, hate and love, be jealous or grateful—just like himself. Even though, as a pied-noir, the Arabs were to him a different race: “They do not live like us.” Later he learned that this phrase concealed something important in Algeria: the Arabs and their poverty.
“…what could appear as widespread, profound misery was no more than a refusal to sleep in beds, to eat as well as us, or to live in solid houses with roofs. Their happiness, yes, was elsewhere, rather like, if you pardon me, that of farm animals, and I believe that I always saw them, at our place, like the cattle, who were treated well, but who could not inspire any compassion.”
The chasm that colonialism dug in Algeria was deep indeed…
In the end that chasm became the arena of bitter fighting. Over more than seven years, it is estimated that 150,000 Algerian fighters and 25,000 French soldiers died. Torture of prisoners and civilians became commonplace, particularly by the OAS, the French secret military organization. The war spread with terror—also between the Algerians themselves—and bombs entered French towns.
Appeals for peace were ignored. The war in Algeria became proof that violence brings independence, while Roy’s hopes of kinship were unconvincing. Camus’ pleas for moderation also failed because they were not accompanied by defense of the independence of the colonized.
People were convinced that history, to use Hegel’s words, was a ‘Schlachtbank’, a ‘slaughter-bench’: many things and many souls sacrificed in the process, before eventually ideals are fulfilled.
Such hope in violence seems to have turned into a seed of darkness that grew after Algiers became independent: terror for God and heaven, counter-terror for stability and prosperity. Algiers experienced them both, bitterly. So too almost the entire Middle East, enforced with blood and iron.
Sartre once said that violence, like the spear of Achilles, can heal the wounds it has made. I doubt it. In the 21st century, that spear is full of poison: hatred, paranoia, despair. The war in Algiers ended half a century ago, but the slaughter bench remains busy and terrifying.