Busy with the Past


by Suzanne Ruta

Picturing Algeria,
by Pierre Bourdieu, forward by Craig Calhoun. Edited by Franz Schultheis and Christine Frisinghelli,
Columbia University Press, 230 pp.

by Dirk Alvermann,
Facsimile edition of a work first published in 1960. Steidl, Germany 2011

In 2004, just around the time the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, an exhibition of photographs from the Algerian war opened in Paris. During that war, 1954-1962, press censorship in France was intense, and indeed censorship and propaganda was one of the themes of this groundbreaking exhibit. The worst photo on display – I don’t like to talk about it even now – showed a young Algerian woman, naked, standing between two French draftees who have her by the arms. They display their captive – a courier for the liberation army – like a trophy. She has been raped. She will be executed.  The  rapists, according to the caption, were not French soldiers, but harkis, Algerians recruited to fight for the French in the last years of the war. Believe that if you like.

An editorial in le Monde in May 2004 singled out this photograph as an unending source of national shame, but then went on to say that compared to what was coming out of Abu Ghraib, the photo from Algeria was “pudique”, chaste or modest. It was also much much older. That photo had been taken in the Constantine region of eastern Algeria in 1960, apparently by troubled soldiers, who handed it over to a journalist known for his opposition to the war. The journalist, Jacques Duquesne, first published it in the year 2000, in an article for the magazine l’Express.

2000 was the year the French rediscovered torture and rape during the Algerian war, after forty years of relative silence. I won’t discuss the time lapses, because I don’t really understand them, these odd intermittences du coeur (to misuse Proust’s expression) in French historical consciousness. Devoir de mémoire: the obligation to remember is the term that has become cliche. And this year, with the 50th anniversary of the end of the brutal colonial war, and Algerian independence, (July 5, 1962) a whole new round of books and documentaries and conferences have kept the French busy with the past.

The two books I’m reviewing also present photographs taken many years ago, subjected to censorship of various forms, and only recently published or republished. The passage of time adds meaning to these images. After all, we are older too, than we were in 1960. We know more about those years, or at least we’d like to think we do.


Who are these teenage boys and what do they want? Whose idea was this group portrait under the blazing midday sun? The call must have gone out. The young man the farthest from the lens has a blurred face, as if he was still running to get into the picture. The trio in the front row slouch against a waist high stack of cement blocks, with something like contempt. The looks on their skinny handsome faces range from suspicious to defiant. Two of them wear French-style berets and one has on a pair of stylish sunglasses. The youngest with the softest face, is puffing on a cigarette. Who are they showing off for? Each other, in a desperate display of masculinity?

They could be Algiers street kids. In October 1988, the boys who rioted against the one party state, and were shot dead in the streets, when the generals sent the army against their own. Or Tunisian street vendors, a year and a half ago. Or Palestinian boys at a checkpoint, biding their time, for another generation. They look right past the photographer, into the future, with well founded skepticism.

In fact this disturbing photograph was taken in Algeria in 1959 or thereabouts.

Up in the hills, that year that Challe’s French army was rooting out the remainder of the liberation army from the zones interdites – the free fire zones as they would be called in Vietnam – after first expelling the entire civilian population, who were “resettled” elsewhere  in camps under army control.

It seems incredible now, and devoir de mémoire hasn’t quite dealt with it yet, that over two million rural Algerians out of a population of eight million, were expelled from their ancestral villages and transferred, sometimes at a half hour’s notice, to resettlement centers. The term is a military euphemism, but “camps” is the word that came to mind a decade after the end of the Second World War. The camps were in the  foothills or the plains, sometimes only a few miles from their inhabitants’ mountain villages and scattered homesteads, sometimes much farther.

In a guerrilla war, it is important to separate the people from the rebel army. A basic principle of counterinsurgency theory. The French army commanders who lost in Indochina were determined to succeed in Algeria; even after the scandal of the resettlement centers with their horrific child mortality rates (500 a week in 1959) broke in the French press, even after DeGaulle appointed a seasoned general to slow or halt the expulsions and improve conditions in the camps, who re-baptized them toward war’s end “new villages”, the military persisted in this brutal form of social engineering by default. By 1962, 2.35 million Algerians were parked in well over two thousand camps. A crime against the future of independent Algeria?

Some of the resettlement centers in rural Algeria are still inhabited today.

France’s great 20th century sociologist Pierre Bourdieu took that clairvoyant picture of the boys in the Collo, the Algerian resettlement camp of Ain Aghbal. Those stacks of cement blocks would build huts where uprooted families were housed in a kind of rural slum, “a suburb without a city,” Bourdieu calls it, a grid of narrow crowded streets surrounded by barbed wire, with a guard tower and a system of IDs and permits to control the movement of the inhabitants. Also a school and an infirmary and military personnel trained in what we would now call nation building. Not a concentration camp, but not freedom either. The boys in the picture are de facto prisoners of the state and they know it.

Bourdieu was not much older than they were when he photographed those boys. In 1955, aged 25, a graduate of the prestigious Ecole Normale Superieure, planning to write a doctoral thesis in philosophy, he went to Algeria as a draftee. What he saw there so upset him that he would spend two more years in Algeria interviewing, photographing, sneaking into destroyed villages and trying to reconstruct what the war had stolen from the peasants who reminded him of his grandparents in Southwestern France. From 1958 to 1960 he shot two thousand photographs both to document his research but more important as a way of connecting with people whose suffering affected him, as both observer and participant. He published three books about Algeria (two are still not available in English) and his research in Algeria continued to figure prominently in his analyses of French society’s hidden layers of oppression, for many years to come.

At some point however, the two thousand photographs from Algeria were put aside, and disappeared over the years. This book offers a selection of 130 from the 800 that survived, divided according to the subjects Bourdieu had in mind when he took them, or when he looked at them again, beginning in the year 1999 – again that forty year hiatus – with his colleague and editor, Swiss sociologist Franz Schultheis. “Men and Women”, “An Agrarian Society in Crisis”, the “Economics of Poverty”. And each section begins with a relevant quote from the master’s writings, including a number of texts translated here for the first time.

The effect is sometimes dramatic and poignant, at others a bit dry. What one would really like and what Bourdieu had hoped to do (he died in 2002) was to go back and tell the story of every photo, how he came to take it, under what conditions, how he felt at the time – the narrative he would have put into a diary in 1958, if he had had time, in the midst of his frantic efforts to bear witness to a great debacle, working, he recalls from six am to three am most days, with his tireless colleague Abdelmalek Sayad.

It is a great pity we don’t have Bourdieu’s running commentary on the individual photos. A kind of self censorship seems to have been at work here. In French pre-1968 academia, Bourdieu was afraid, he says, to seem “too literary.” Even talking to Schultheis he remains reticent and won’t go into details, for example, about the risks he ran to photograph in Collo except to say, “I was in the hands of people who had the power over life or death—my life but also the lives of the people who were with me.”

But he recalls his passionate determination  to question the old men of the camp. (Women, children and old men were in the camps; men of fighting age were in the maquis, in jail or dead or working in French factories in those years.)

“On the second day after we arrived they started telling us things like, ‘I used to have this, I used to have that I had ten goats, I had three sheep.” I recorded the catastrophe…”

Field notes from a lost world? Other students of Algeria’s tragic history would accuse him later on of mistaking the nostalgia of the dispossessed for reality, of idealizing some timeless pre-colonial, pre-capitalist world where honor and solidarity ruled social relations. The photographs are romantic it’s true: old men sitting clustered under an enormous ancient olive tree and talking talking talking. But at least, in the midst of war, he listened to the hunted and humiliated with respect and why not, love? What could be more heartening ? This little book carries a big message. It deserved a more generous format.

But it’s frustrating not to know how and where Bourdieu shot that great overarching fig tree with a plowman and his oxen turning up the soil below, that has the same exotic-archaic appeal as some passages in the milder writings of the great Algerian novelist Mouloud Feraoun. Or the skinny old man sitting on the ground with its legs stretched out in front of him, weaving a basket, with his back turned to the bunch of gabbers behind him. The dignity of work has nothing to do with profit; it’s simply what men do, Bourdieu writes somewhere. That skinny old guy, who knows where the rest of the men in his family are by now. Where does he find the courage to go through the peacetime motions? Another picture from the same group shows a bunch of geezers lying on the ground outside one of the cinderblock huts. Of course, they’re relegated to the doorstep, because the women are inside and may be seen, according to custom, only by the males of their own family. Even today in small towns in Algeria, the men sit outside playing cards, the women do their chores inside the walls. The enforced promiscuity of the camps, where families and clans and villages were mixed, was especially hard on women. Bourdieu doesn’t get to photograph them much, or only from a bird’s eye distance.

The violence of war is present in these photographs, by strong implication but there is no blood, not even a wound, no  destruction, except when Bourdieu risks a trek into the hills, the forbidden zones, to see what’s left of an abandoned village and photographs a hut with its straw roof ripped off. While he’s at it, he photographs the ancient artifacts, the family granary, a huge ceramic tub adorned with designs suggesting snakes. No need to use the flash. With the roof torn off, the light pours in.

The city photographs are subtle and suggestive. Men desperate to support their families, and their self respect, push carts laden with all sorts of odds and ends, anything to make a sale.  Sidewalk vendors are still a big part part of  North African life. It was a sidewalk vendor after all, who lit the fire that engulfed Tunisia a year ago.

The last photo in the city section, is of a little boy sitting on sidewalk, his feet are bare, he’s studying a sheet of newspaper that somehow came his way. Can he read it? His lips look as if he’s sounding out the words. Bare feet and literacy are not incompatible. This photo, moving right ahead, reminded me of an anecdote Algerian novelist Anouar Benmalek recounted in a long since defunct Algerian newspaper twenty years ago. Walking down the main street of Algiers at night and passing  an arcade where a mother and two children, were bedded down right on the sidewalk, one child asleep, the other is doing her schoolwork, by the light from the street lamp.

Are Bourdieu’s photographs of shoeless readers and sidewalk vendors and trapped, angry young men prophetic? Did he suspect as much?

Dirk Alvermann, of Dusseldorf, went to Algeria in 1958; he was just twenty. He snuck in through the Tunisian border and joined up with the liberation army in the hills. He photographed the ALN in caves and meadows, looking grave at meetings and carousing over a roast goat. They seem to move in a nimbus of grateful peasantry. The revolutionary peasantry, the people’s war, that mainstay  of post independence Algerian regime propaganda, that has worn so thin by now: this book gives pause at times. You have to remember it took courage to shoot these photos fifty years ago and persistence to get them published at all. An East German publisher finally agreed to print Alvermann’s work in the desired format, a small handheld pocket edition, a people’s book to pass from hand to hand. That edition is a collector’s item now. This 2011 reprint has some amazing shots. But not a single caption. Who were these people, where did they live, whatever became of them? The images rush by, some have been reworked, repeated in detail (children with raised fists). Others have an awful eloquence. A group of old men in their rough woolen capes, line up in an anxious huddle as if waiting for the truck that will send them hurtling into a new, unknown existence. Crowds of frightened women, babies with smeared faces, small disgruntled boys. Everyone in rags, exotic atrocious rags and headscarves and turbans. Moustaches, wrinkles, missing teeth.  Smug moustachioed French faces appear in isolation, like characters in a 1970s Algerian film about the glorious revolution.

And yet, Alvermann’s gritty montage drives home the awful cruelty of the war in the countryside. In his war diary, January 1957, Feraoun denounces the French assault on a nearby group of Kabylia villages with his usual clarity:

Civilized men who enjoy every kind of happiness and opportunity, all of life’s advantages, massacre and rape an indigent people who for centuries have been burdened by the same inexplicable curse.

Men who have everything come to destroy men who have nothing.

Algeria, born in wartime, ruled by its military caste, is fifty this year. You’ve come a long way, baby. Don’t stop now.

Photographs from Picturing Algeria, by Pierre Bourdieu. Via.

About the Author:

Suzanne Ruta is an author and translator. Her latest novel To Algeria, with Love (Virago, 2011), was published in Italy by Einaudi under the title La Repubblica di Wally.