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Theatre Journal 54.3 (2002) 369-387



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The Tragedy of Algeria:
Slimane Benaïssa's Drama of Terrorism

Janice B. Gross


Tragedy in Algerian society is made up of a multitude of hidden plays just waiting to be unleashed by a dramatist who can reveal its most profound nature. 1

—Slimane Benaïssa, 1996

In Algeria, as elsewhere, terrorism occurs where there is a lack of hope. In fact, it always grows out of a sense of isolation where there is no last resort or future possibility, as if the windowless walls are too thick and that in order to breathe or to move about, the walls have to be blown up. 2

—Albert Camus, 1955

Algerian authors, creative artists, journalists, and intellectuals, especially French-speaking ones, were among the most likely targets of Islamist 3 extremists in the 1990's. From poet Tahar Djaout and sociologist M'Hamed Boukhobza in 1993 to dramatist [End Page 369] Abdelkader Alloula and raï singer Cheb Hasni in 1994, growing numbers of creative minds were slated for death throughout the turmoil of the 1990's. 4 Perceived as traitors and corrupt influences from within, as dangerous as the most vocal political opponents, they were brutally struck down outside of their homes, offices, or in the case of Alloula shot in the stairwell on his way to deliver a public lecture. However, in order to make sense of this inexplicably savage reality, it is necessary to place it within the context of the long and unusually complex history of Algeria and its colonial and postcolonial relationship to France. Ranked among the "world's most significant postcolonial relationships," 5 the unique case of Algeria is nevertheless "little studied" and "much misunderstood," especially by the English-speaking world. 6 The theatre of Algerian actor, director, and author, Slimane Benaïssa, living in Paris since 1993, will provide an illustrative entry point into the intricate mosaic of Algeria, both past and present.

The most relevant chapter of Algeria's story began in 1830 when France arrived as colonizer, bringing with it the duty to realize a linguistic and cultural "civilizing mission" armed with a policy of massive expropriation of land by colonial settlers enticed from Europe by the promise of French citizenship and economic opportunity in Algeria. As a result, Algeria's indigenous peoples, languages, and cultures were radically overhauled, fragmented, and replaced part and parcel with French models, a situation unique even by French colonial standards. By the 1950's Algeria consisted of nine million Arab-Berbers and one million Europeans called pieds noirs, thus forming a unique kind of melting pot. Unlike its Maghrebi neighbors Morocco and Tunisia, Algeria was designated as an overseas department and administered as part of France. This close relationship to France was further reflected geographically in Algerian children's history books through the metaphor: "The Mediterranean crosses France as the Seine crosses Paris." 7

As a result of this deeply rooted colonial identity layer, the struggle for independence waged by Algerians between 1954 and 1962 was singularly violent and traumatic. Descriptors such as "bloodiest war," "dirty war," and the "nameless war" hint at the subterranean dimensions of this "nested" war with its multiple factions and strange bedfellows. 8 Muslims who fought on the side of France (harkis) to defend French Algeria as well as factions within the liberation movement gave rise to an internal "war of the Algerians." Meanwhile, on the French side, Franco-French hostilities were fueled by the insurgents of the OAS (Organisation Armée Secrète) who used terrorist tactics to emphasize their refusal to give up Algeria without a fight, while the young French recruits sent to defend France turned to draft dodging or [End Page 370] silence to avoid the unsavory task of defending a country that meant little to them. Torture was commonly practiced as the most effective means of infiltrating the revolutionary cells, and the cycle of terror escalated at every turn. The OAS's brutal attacks on Muslim neighborhoods, libraries, and social education centers were quickly followed in kind by retaliatory...

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