When we walk past the security guards and enter the compound of the Centre Culturel Français d’Alger in rue Hassani Issad I can’t help feeling that somehow I am betraying my commitment to decolonization and ignoring what my Lonely Planet, the self-proclaimed "only English-language guidebook to the Sahara’s most beautiful nation," describes as one generation of Algerians "still waiting to hear an apology from France for the estimated one million Algerians who died during the 1954-62 Algerian War of Independence."
Anna et ses soeurs
As the son of a colonized people myself (Malta and Cyprus were the only two colonized European peoples in the Mediterranean), I couldn’t help thinking about colonization in Algeria, especially at a time when President Sarkozy, whose popularity is at an all-time low, was trying to sell his Union of the Mediterranean to those peoples who hadn’t voted for him. In a highly criticized speech at
In November of that same year, Thierry Fabre, a leading French intellectual and expert on the Mediterranean, wrote in La pensée de midi (no. 22) that Sarkozy’s reading of France and Europe’s colonial past raises many problems, "et apparaît comme susceptible d’alimenter le ressentiment et de renforcer les incompréhensions de la part de nos voisins du sud de la Méditerranée qui ont subi la conquête coloniale." Fabre acknowledged, however, that this attempt to rehabilitate the colonial past has been around for years and is not restricted to Sarkozy, and that those who are nostalgic of French Algeria have recently tried to impose a "positive vision" of the history of colonization through a law.
Like it or not, Sarkozy, with his pride for the way France "spread civilization" and his penchant for undermining that hopeless waste of money called culture, represents the French state, so I sense that this, the Centre culturel français in Algiers, is not quite where someone opposed to colonialism or neo-colonialism should be. But I walk in nonethess, and feel welcome right away. Samira Negrouche, the Algerian francophone writer who has invited us to Algeria, has arranged for us to watch a performance and something tells me that my misgivings are passé: almost fifty years after the end of the French colonization in North Africa, I’m aware that independent states like Algeria (or Malta, for that matter) should shoulder their own responsibilities and build their own futures. I also tell myself that I should not visit an independent country with a frame of mind dominated by long-past colonial issues.
We’re told to arrive early, because the hall will be packed and there is no entrance fee. The Algerian poet and academic Achour Fenni orders coffee for the group, and we enjoy the place and the company till 7.30pm when the writer/director, Géraldine Bénichou (Théâtre du Grabuge), introduces "Anna et ses soeurs." It is based on the writings of and interviews with immigrant women in
The performance is an intelligent and often moving combination of live and recorded voices, Berber songs and music on electric guitar by a musician on stage, Philippe Gordiani, who also doubles as a French immigration officer, and images on a large screen that dominate the background and often dwarf the two actors. Bénichou calls this type of theatre "un théâtre de création documentaire."
Conceptually the whole piece focuses on the life stories of a number of Algerian immigrants in France, and this task is entrusted mainly to the actress, Madeleine Assas, who leads us through the narratives and the issues they raise about the French and Algerian (inevitably plural) identities; about how we create ourselves through narrative; about home and exile, and France’s acceptance or rejection, as host country with a complex history and present, of the Other. In terms of narrative the piece is held together by the writer’s grandmother, a Jew, who tells her story with passion and irony. Her narrative is communicated to us both through recordings of interviews she gave to the writer, Géraldine Bénichou, and by the actor, Salah Gaoua, who plays the grandmother: these two voices of the grandmother often interact, echoing one another and speaking to each other. I thought the actor’s performance, who also plays other characters and sings beautifully was quite memorable (the Amazigh writer and translator Brahim Tazaghart, sitting next to me, couldn’t help singing along with him).
Villa Susini – Old-fashioned whips and modern electrical gadgets
On our way back from a rehearsal at Farid Benyaa’s art gallery on Wednesday, 26 March, 2008, we drive by Villa Susini, the notorious neo-Moresque villa where so many Algerian freedom fighters were tortured by the French colonisers. (Jean-Marie Le Pen was "an active performer in the torture chamber.") I ask Samira what the place is used for now and she tells me it’s closed. The Algerian government wanted to turn it into a museum but the
The Algerian poet Djamal Amrani, whose poetry featured prominently during our week in
Driving past Villa Susini reminds me of
As part of our workshop, all of the writers and translators in our group translated this powerful, many-layered poem by Djamal Amrani into their language:
Ne plus emprisonner le corps de l’homme
Ne plus se sentir seul
dans le baillement de l’impuissance
Quel coursier chevauche
mes cavalcades d’étroites
Quel angle de tir
ensoleille le mur d’en face?
Quelles bouffées de vie
harcèlent le fleuve d’absence?
LXXXIV in La nuit du dedans (Alger: Editions Marsa, 2003)
Never again the human body imprisoned.
They Had Done Nothing Wrong
On Friday 30 March our friends Dalila, Ryad and Baya Gacemi, a leading freelance Algerian journalist who has collaborated with La Repubblica, Reuters press agency and the German TV ARD and is the Algerian correspondent of the major French weekly L’Express, drive us to Tipaza, a town marked by the magnificent ruins of a Roman town on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea.
On the way back to the car (it’s a typical get-there-immortalize-the-scene-rush-off-to-the-next-stop kind of visit, except that we talk about things you would expect writers to talk about), Baya tells me that when she was growing up in Annaba (the city the Maltese called Bona), their neighbours were almost all Maltese emigrants, with surnames like Micallef, Borg, Camilleri, Tabone, or versions of them, who worked as farmers. In his major work on L’Algérie des Algériens de la Préhistoire à 1954 (Paris: Paris-Méditerranée, 2003), Mahfoud Kaddache notes that in the middle of the 19th century there were 8758 Maltese immigrants in Algeria (p. 645). Charles Price estimates that in the late 1880s the number of Maltese living abroad, mainly in the Mediterranean, was roughly 50,000, that is 25% of the total Maltese population; the largest number, 15,000, were in
Some years ago, Baya Gacemi did a feature for the leading German TV station ARD about the Christian cemetery in the city of
Not far from the prêt à porter, we invade the Librairie de Beaux Arts on rue Didouche Mourad. I ask for Claude Rizzo’s novel, Le Maltais de Bab-el-Khadra, a district in
We know that many colonized people, including the Maltese and other Southern Europeans, adopted the view the colonizers had of them in order to counter the inferiority bestowed on them by their "superiors." This meant both denigrating themselves and associating themselves with the ruling class that, in many cases, refused to treat them as one of them and often ultimately rejected them. Charles-André Julien writes that the Maltese were not highly respected by the French colonizers: A commission of enquiry at the start of the French colonization of Algeria, suggested that: "Les colons doivent être recrutés non seulement parmi les Français mais parmi les étrangers, notament les Alemands aux qualités solides, les Maltais et les Mahonnais [the Minorcans], moins raccomandables, mais s’adaptant facilement au pays." The Maltese found themselves caught in the no man’s land between the Arabic-speaking Algerian population and the European colonists.
Hybrid Boundary-defying People
The French and other northern Europeans in
Walking through the streets of central
Dr. Adrian Grima was in Algeria in March 2008 with seven writers from five countries to take part in a literary translation workshop organized by Literature Across Frontiers in cooperation with the Algerian cultural association Cadmos and with support from ISAT (Institut Superieur Arabe de Traduction) and ONDA (Office National des droits d’auteurs et droits voisins). LAF is supported by the Culture 2000 programme of the European Union. www.adriangrima.com