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  • Dissident Algeria
  • Jean Daniel (bio)
    Translated by Danielle Marx-Scouras

“Dissident Algeria! Look no further than France!” This observation by a British writer living in northern France is no doubt unfair to all those Algerians who, in silence and in their own way, take a stand, at home, against the terror of the Islamists and the tyranny of the government. Indeed, from a certain point of view, all Algerians live in dissidence, that is to say, on the fringe of or against all powers.

It is a fact, however, that History has reserved for the French and the Algerians one of those surprises and artifices that always eludes the rationalists of prediction. Who could foresee, after the atrocious seven-year Algerian war (1954–62), that such a large number of Algerians would end up being ashamed of their independence and have no complex about seeking asylum in France?

There were a few prophets: two at least, with whom I kept close company and thanks to whom I did not fall prey to the errors of left-wing intellectuals, pro-Third World militants, and Anglo-Saxon observers. These visionaries were both born in Algeria. Both supported independence. Each, in his respective field, denounced French colonialism and became famous. Like poets, however, and more so than sociologists, they foresaw something exceptional.

The first, a French man, Jacques Berque, is one of the greatest Arabists in the world. He wrote authoritative works on the history and anthropology of the Maghreb and Egypt, before devoting the end of his life to a translation of the Quran. This is what he wrote during the Algerian war: “France and Algeria? We did not intertwine for 130 years without being profoundly implicated in our souls and bodies. The depth of the French impact has far exceeded here the habitual alienations of colonialism, colonial exploitation, and mercantilism. A great fortune and misfortune. Here, being was afflicted down to the marrow; hence the violence of this resentment, a frenzy leading to terrible adventures. But from there, perhaps, also originates the source of a solution that can only come from shared expiation.” No one has ever better expressed the French-Algerian destiny.

The second prophet is an Algerian of Kabyle origin. This Berber writer of French expression is no doubt the greatest non-French prose writer of the entire francophone world. He is Kateb Yacine, the author of Nedjma and Le cadavre encerclé. He used the French language to write the most violent, powerful, and poetic pamphlets against colonialist France. Kateb, nonetheless, had foreseen an explosion of Algerian literature after the war of independence. He had also foreseen that this explosion would express itself in French. For Kateb, this explosion was due to the fact that the repressed had been a thousand times greater in Algeria than anywhere else. But why in French? “Good heavens!” replied Kateb, “because French is our primary cultural booty, because it is the best thing we stole from the colonizer, and we have transformed it in such a way that he does not think of complaining about it.” [End Page 15]

Kateb, like Berque, was my friend. But he was more at ease with me than the great professor. Sometimes, he prophesied with the accents of a hallucinated being: “You will have a new Algerian literature of French expression, whose foremost advantage for me will be that Algeria cannot be locked either in Arabism or Berberism. There is a place for French. We are the country of three languages and three roots.”

One could never get Kateb to hold his tongue on this subject. As for me, and to the great displeasure of Arabists and Islamists, I had dared to write one day, “The tragedy is that an Algerian is often an Arab who wants to or must prove to himself every day that he is not French.” Kateb laughed at this provocative pleasantry, which he found worthy of him, and which he declared belonged more in his mouth than mine. But he added that it was precisely because he wrote a baroque, dilated, reinvented, thus reappropriated French, that he knew he was not French: “A little Arab music, lots of Berber melopoeias in my...

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pp. 15-17
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