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Reviewed by:
  • Algeria in Others’ Languages
  • Barbara Harlow
Algeria in Others’ Languages. Edited by Anne-Emmanuelle Berger. Ithaca and London: Cornell, 2002.

French, Arabic, and Berber tongues are the “others’ languages” discussed in the contributions to Algeria in Others’ Languages. Focusing on the linguistic manifestations of Algeria’s complex history of colonialism, anti-colonialism, and postcolonial independence, the nine essayists—from North African, North American, and French universities—raise as well larger questions of the persistent struggle over national identity waged through language-use. From official policies to street slang, in standard Arabic and in dialectal Arabic, in French and in the several Berber vernaculars, Algeria’s cultural civil wars have disfigured the country’s modern narrative of nation formation. Organized in three sections, the volume discusses issues of nationalism, symbolic violence, and diglossia. Berger’s editorial introduction provides a useful historical and political contextualization for the literary critical analyses—all written between 1996 and 2000 at the height of the contemporary confrontation between Islamists and secularists—and their philosophical approaches to the specific case of Algeria, as well as a sense of the more general implications for cultural critique and Francophone literatures raised by Algeria’s language debates.

The “politics of language” have figured critically throughout Algeria’s contested history—pre-colonial, colonial, anti-colonial, and postcolonial—and this periodization underwrites in both foreshortened and lengthened form the settings for readers of an Algeria written in “others’ languages.” As Anne-Emmanuelle Berger points out in her introduction, the “public debate surrounding language might in fact be coterminous with the formation of an Algerian postcolonial civil society” (5). It is a debate that is waged in literature, official policy-making, and in popular discourse. In other words, the “others’ languages” are both linguistically determined and demographically and topographically defining, with grave consequences for articulating the violence of the narratives of national liberation struggle, independence, and post-colonial crisis.

“Algeria in Other(s’) Languages,” the first section of the collection, elaborates the grounds for that critical history, with Hafid Gafaïti’s challenge to the traditionally received binarisms—French v. Arabic, colonizer v. colonized, Arabic v. Berber, majority v. minority—in “The Monotheism of the Other.” Djamila Saadi-Mokrane takes up this challenge in her consideration of the “life histories of Algeria’s languages” and the “death sentences” that have been served by Algeria’s successive but rarely successful ruling regimes on the tongues of its peoples. According to Saadi-Mokrane, in “the Algerian Linguicide,” linguicide “stands as a strategy elaborated to subjugate and reshape the identity of the country and its inhabitants by separating them from their points of reference” (44). Such sentences make for what Anne-Emmanuelle Berger describes as an “impossible wedding,” in which she considers standard Arabic as both a “linguistic flag” and a “holy curtain (hidjab)” in its competition with dialectical Arabic for the status of national language (74). The national banner of standard Arabic signals, according to Berger, “the assimilation of the familial into the national and of the national into the familiar” (63), providing for the “symbolic violence” that is the titular topic of the second section of Algeria in Others’ Languages.

Omar Carlier’s “Civil War, Private Violence, and Cultural Socialization” emphasizes, however, that the violence is more than symbolic, in its rendition of a series of faits divers (or “miscellaneous news items”) recounting stories of, for example, a “teenager [who] disemboweled a pregnant woman who had refused to let him steal her bag,” or of an Oran woman who accuses her neighbor of being “Moroccan” in order to claim her apartment (82), or, again, of the “revenge of Arabic speakers on French speakers,” and the grim and brutal deaths of many of the writers themselves. Algeria’s once heroic national narrative is marred by this violence that undermines even the appeal to justice, as Ranjana Khanna describes in her inquiry into the “experience of evidence,” which compares and contrasts a “mock trial symbolically held on International Women’s Day” in Algiers in 1995 with proceedings initiated by Gisele Halimi and Simone de Beauvoir on behalf of the tortured Djamila Boupacha during the Algerian war of independence. According to Khanna, the very failure...

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