By : James McDougall
[This is one of six pieces in Jadaliyya`s electronic roundtable on the anniversary of the Algerian Revolution. Moderated by Muriam Haleh Davis, it features contributions from Ed McAllister, James McDougall, Malika Rahal, Natalya Vince, Samuel Everett, and Thomas Serres.]
Among the events that marked the fiftieth anniversary of Algerian independence in 2012 were a large number of historical conferences and colloquia. Many were high-profile, public events, attended by large audiences, and covered in detail in the national press. But it was remarked more than once during those events that very few of them had much to say about the fifty years of history that were supposedly being celebrated. Indeed, most historical discussion centered on the two areas of Algerian history that have undoubtedly been most heavily researched overall, both within Algeria and by historians of all other nationalities: the colonial period and the War of Independence. Algeria’s contemporary history, since 1962, has only recently really come into view as an object of study for historians, accessible through archives, published print, and oral history. And within Algeria it is only recently, too, that the half-century since independence has been “open” to scrutiny and discussion as a period of history, that is, as the past that has made the present.
Socially and culturally, contemporary Algeria has never in any sense stood still. But politically, the impasse into which the system has steadily ground itself ever since the early 1990s, and which today is summed up in the tragically near-comedic deferral of l’après-Bouteflika, has produced an ambient sense of immobilism. The slogan of the 2012 celebrations, bill-boarded around Algiers courtesy of one of the major national mobile phone networks – mā zālnā wāqifīn, “we’re still standing” (more idiomatically, Algerians might have put it, mazalna debout)—expressed a post-1990s, post-crisis, post-war resilience that certainly says much about Algeria today. At the same time, the standstill of national life, awaiting the generational shift in the polity that happened thirty years ago in society at large, is in marked contrast to the sense of dynamism, progress, and transformation that consumed the country in the first twenty years after independence. Arguably, Algeria’s long crisis from the mid-1980s through to the early 2000s put a brake not only on the realization of development, prosperity and freedom, but on a vision of how Algerian society and the Algerian state might both build on and move beyond their colonial-and-revolutionary past. That Algerian history should be “stuck” in 1962—that the future imagined then should remain the unrealized aspiration of the present, fifty years on—is perhaps not so surprising. But taking account of the intervening time as having become history, and showing how this history (not the distant colonial past, nor the travails of the revolution, nor any number of perhaps real or mostly imagined conspiracies and betrayals) has produced the present, remains a challenge.
The articles in this Jadaliyya roundtable represent some of the best new research being done by contemporary historians tackling these questions. New work on Algeria has gathered remarkable pace in the past decade, and while much of this work has renewed our understanding of the colonial period and of the revolution, historians are now also turning to the contemporary period. This work faces new problems and provides new insights. Two themes in particular might be considered as shared features of the studies presented here.
First, the register of recent history is often presented, by interlocutors and interviewees, in a language of political valuethat serves as a powerful commentary both on the shortcomings of the present and on the imagined integrity of society and its political projects a generation ago. What historian and political analyst Hugh Roberts has called Algerians’ expectation a “moral polity,” visible in the demands of the young protestors of October 1988, is clearly in evidence here among former mujahidat, activists of the PAGS, and residents of Bab el-Oued. The reduction of the state-society relationship to the most minimal, materially redistributive dimension of this expectation, in the buying-off of opposition centrally and the routine political economy of riot by which so much of peri-urban Algeria has, over the past decade, come to relate to the authorities, is one indicator of how such accounts of the past articulate views of the present.
Second, the methodological possibilities and challenges of oral history, with which these studies engage intensively and conscientiously, open up new questions of interpretation. How do actors, now seeing Algeria’s half-century of independence not as the end of their narratives of (nationalist, revolutionary) commitment, but as a chapter, or chapters, of history through which their own life-histories have also moved, give sense and structure to their accounts of this period? What are the recurring themes, tropes, and topoi of their stories? What do particular memories, or images, convey, why have they been preserved (or reinterpreted), and what (else) have they subsumed, translated, or erased? These are not questions of the “reliability” of oral history (which is different to, but not less than, documentary history), but of what kind of truths these narratives convey: how do Algerians themselves see, and tell, the “story-arc” of their past fifty years? And what can their understandings, collected, juxtaposed, brought into dialogue, reveal about this past that was once Algeria’s future—les lendemains qui chantent—certainly, not so radiant as once imagined, but nonetheless, as the song goes, still standing?