Algeria’s ‘human dust’ proves extraordinarily resilient
In the two decades after the fall of Granada in 1492, the Spanish crusade against Muslims encroached on the North African coast. The Algerian ports of Oran and Bejaia fell in 1507 and Emperor Charles V captured Tunis in 1534.
In 1510, the notables of what was then a very small port sued for peace and conceded the islands just off Algiers, the Penon, which was garrisoned by Don Pedro de Navarro. In desperation, they turned to Ottoman adventurers, the Barbarossa brothers, and repelled a massive Spanish attack on Algiers in 1519.
Having offered the sovereignty of his little kingdom to Ottoman Sultan Khayr al-Din, Barbarossa defeated a 516-ship Spanish attack on Algiers in 1541. This momentous defeat prompted the retreat of Spain from the North African coast east of Oran and turned a precarious small town into an invincible city whose navy would mount its own raids across the Western Mediterranean and as far as Ireland, Devon and Iceland for the next century.
History thus offered the first template of how Europeans would view Algeria — “a nest of wasps,” the fantastic and sexualised centre of corsair piracy: Exotic, dramatic and violent.
In his layered account of 500 years of Algerian history, James McDougall wrote that “privateering” soon became less important for plunder and for slavery than for guaranteeing treaties of peace from other seafaring states, securing income from tributary payments.
In the 1700s, it was outstripped by increased agricultural production and trade revenue, especially from exports of wheat to Europe. Napoleon Bonaparte’s troops were fed on Algerian wheat when they invaded Italy in 1798.
The image of Algiers as dar-al-jihad — “bastion of war” — endured even when it was at peace and profitably trading with most of the countries of Europe but it was “rhetorical and symbolic, part of the regime’s ideology, an attachment to its origins… like Malta, in the golden age of privateering,” McDougall wrote in “A History of Algeria.”
Nor was the Ottoman regency the foundation of a modern, Arab and Islamic Algerian nation-state as the country’s popular opinion after independence in 1962 would make us believe.
Ottoman Algeria was an overwhelmingly rural society structured around towns and tribes scattered over a vast area with porous borders. The few thousand Ottoman Janissaries never held millions of natives in permanent subjection and society, for all its divisions of status, was often meritocratic as well as multilingual and multi-confessional. For example, there was often little to mark the Jewish population apart from their Muslim neighbours as residential areas were usually not exclusive and, in many respects, they were indistinguishable from other classes of society.
McDougall combined an anthropological approach and historical methodology to puncture the other stereotypes that have bedevilled serious understanding of a society the French General Charles de Gaulle dismissed as a poussière d’hommes — dust of men — disaggregated and anarchic, unyielding in its resistance to social and institutional ties, “reduced to helpless prostration before the ravages of colonialism and the depredations of authoritarianism” after independence.
McDougall described the constant interplay of social forces with the institutions of state in “what in fact has been an extraordinarily robust, resilient society.”
“A History of Algeria” is a superbly written narrative that puts the people of this complex country centre stage. They are not merely a template for a modern anti-Semitism (the worst anti-Jewish riots during the Dreyfus Affair occurred in Algiers), for French colonialism more broadly or for Frantz Fanon’s Third Worldism. Nor, despite recent speculation, are they likely to collapse into anarchy because nobody knows who will succeed an ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
Algeria, McDougall argued, is not inhabited by some secret trauma of colonisation nor by any particular “hatred” of France. Its recent past — the civil war of the 1990s — was neither caused by colonial-era traumas nor by a hatred of the coloniser that was subsequently turned in on themselves.
The author noted how women in Oran, where the summer of independence in 1962 was particularly bloody, “still climb up to the church the settlers built… in 1959, at Santa Cruz, to light candles to lalla Maryam, the Virgin whose statue still looks benignly over their city from the mountaintop.”
There are numerous other examples of how the Algerians have appropriated such parts of their landscape and their past. More than the sound and fury of war, revolution and more recently civil war, their history in this account illustrates “the quiet endurance of a resilient society, one whose ancestral inheritance ‘today, tomorrow, still lives’ and with which, above all, its people want to live in peace.”
The aftermath of 9/11 has encouraged stereotypical ideas about Islam and Muslim societies but McDougall avoided the often “prescriptive schemes of ‘national wakening’, Western-style free-market democracy or the ‘Islamic Republic’” so beloved of many academics and journalists.
The final chapters on the brave, but ultimately failed, attempt to usher in bold political and economic reforms after the riots of October 1988 — reforms that questioned the legitimacy of Algerian leaders for the first time since 1962 — should be mandatory reading for any analyst of Middle East affairs. They offer an unusually balanced and fair analysis of a president, Chadli Bendjedid, who faced mounting domestic crises in the economy and in society.
These crises had to be addressed in a rapidly worsening international context. It was the conjuncture of world oil prices and international credit markets, rather than any violence or instability inherent in Algerian society or politics, that would make them unmanageable.
The first “Arab spring” of 1988-89 collapsed into a vicious civil war by 1992. Had academics and journalists bothered to remember what happened in Algeria in the 1990s, they would have been less naïve about the likely outcome of the Arab revolts in 2011.
While attempts to democratise countries in the Arab world will persist, the lack of a liberal tradition and a modern socio-economic infrastructure in countries where tribal affiliations still play an important role and religious and ethnic cleavages persist will make such a process limited. It will be a gradual process in Algeria, as it will be elsewhere in the Arab world.