How to Live Together: Lessons from Algeria

By Olivia HarrisonFebruary 13, 2015

A Semite by Denis Guénoun
Picturing Algeria by Pierre Bourdieu
Algerian Chronicles by Albert Camus

THROUGHOUT THE WRETCHED OF THE EARTH, Frantz Fanon argues in no uncertain terms that colonial violence is what impels anticolonial violence. Pace Jean-Paul Sartre, whose preface unwittingly turned the anticolonial theorist into an apologist of violence, Fanon deplores the necessity of violence in general — warning against the all-too-probable acceleration of violence in the postcolonial era. Fanon’s analyses of the pitfalls of both colonial and anticolonial violence have received ample confirmation in historical events he did not live to see: the institution of military dictatorships in Algeria and a great number of formerly colonized nations; the continuation of “classic” forms of colonialism in, e.g., Palestine-Israel; and the perverse transformations of colonial racism in the context of postcolonial immigration to Europe. His work seems eerily prophetic as a result, and equally relevant to historical contexts as disparate as French Algeria, apartheid South Africa, Israel-Palestine, and the struggle for racial equality in the US and in Europe, where The Wretched of the Earth was used as a resistance charter for decades.

Yet these analogous cases also invite one to imagine a less ineluctable outcome that does not revolve around the violent removal and replacement of the colonizer or figure of privilege, as in the Algerian model — as Fanon correctly guessed, the Algerians would “take the place” of the French in 1962. For the French Algerian Albert Camus, writing in 1958, the year the French military’s systematic enterprise of torture in Algeria was first revealed, “the real question is not how to die separately but how to live together.” Fifty-odd years after Algeria achieved independence, three books that pose the question of “how to live together” in Algeria have appeared in English, inviting us to imagine an alternative outcome to the process of decolonization, one that has reverberations far beyond Algeria and into the present moment: Camus’s Algerian Chronicles, Pierre Bourdieu’s photo-book Picturing Algeria, and Denis Guénoun’s moving family biography, A Semite.


After reading the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s beautiful Picturing Algeria, one could be impelled to pick up Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth again. In 1961, months before the Algerians obtained independence from France after a long and dirty war, the Martinican psychiatrist and anticolonial militant delivered what remains one of the most compelling analyses of the colonial condition. A few pages into “On Violence,” the first chapter of The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon memorably describes colonialism as a system of apartheid and military occupation:

The colonized world is a world divided in two. The dividing line, the border, is represented by the barracks and the police stations. […] [T]he proximity and frequent, direct intervention by the police and the military ensure the colonized are kept under close scrutiny, and contained by rifle butts and napalm. We have seen how the government’s agent uses a language of pure violence. The agent does not alleviate oppression or mask domination. He displays and demonstrates them with the clear conscience of the law enforcer, and brings violence into the homes and minds of the colonized subject.

Picturing Algeria, a collection of photographs Bourdieu took during the Algerian war of independence, brings to life the world of the colonized, though Bourdieu deliberately leaves the “agent” of colonization, and indeed the colonizer tout court, outside of the frame. Carefully edited by Franz Schultheis and Christine Frisinghelli with Bourdieu’s assistance, Picturing Algeria juxtaposes Bourdieu’s photographs with excerpts from his later writings, enabling the reader/viewer to grasp the destruction left in the wake of colonial violence.

Consider, for example, Bourdieu commenting on “the incongruity and even absurdity of a study of ritual practices conducted in the tragic circumstances of war”:

This was brought home to me again recently when I rediscovered some photographs of stone jars, decorated with snakes and intended to store seed corn; I took those photographs in the course of field-work in the Collo region, and their high quality, although I had no flash-gun, was due to the fact that the roof of the house into which these fixed furnishings had been built had been destroyed when the occupants were expelled by the French army.

Flipping through Picturing Algeria, one is left with an almost serene impression of the everyday lives of rural and urban Algerians. Yet Bourdieu’s admission here and the altogether more incisive and acerbic analysis of colonized society in the texts that accompany the images reveal a world of physical and “symbolic” violence, the latter a concept he developed in his writings on Algeria. While Bourdieu is not a war photographer, his photographs of Algerians capture in a very tangible way the colonial violence that was brought “into the homes and minds of the colonized subject” most forcibly during the brutal eight-year war to keep Algeria French.

Like Fanon, Bourdieu is a remarkably astute analyst of the symbolic violence of colonization. His scattered writings on Algeria (including, in English translation, The Algerians, Algeria 1960, Algerian Sketches, and the case studies in Outline of a Theory of Practice and The Logic of Practice) offer some of the sharpest descriptions of the colonial order, from the resettlement camps, to which hundred of thousands of Algerians were forcibly moved during the war, to the practices of unveiling more famously analyzed by Fanon and Malek Alloula (in “Algeria Unveiled” and The Colonial Harem, respectively). Unlike Fanon and Alloula, however, Bourdieu approaches his objects as a sympathetic outsider. Drafted in 1955, a year into the Algerian insurrection, he was sent to Algeria as punishment for his vocal anticolonialism — as a graduate of the prestigious École Normale Supérieure, he could have gotten away with national service in France. In 1958, he returned to Algeria as a university lecturer and embarked on the extensive fieldwork documented in the 2,000 photographs he took in from 1958 to 1961, at the height of the war. (Six hundred of which remain; the rest have been lost.)

For those who know Bourdieu as a fierce critic of class reproduction and neoliberalism, it is fascinating to discover him as analyst of colonialism. As Craig Calhoun explains in his foreword, Picturing Algeria makes evident, for the first time in English, the analysis of oppression that undergirds his anthropological work. In this sense, Bourdieu’s very first writings anticipate the postcolonial critique of anthropology as an othering discourse, as confirmed in the first pages of The Logic of Practice where Bourdieu describes his attempt “to retrieve [ritual traditions] from the false solicitude of primitivism and to challenge the racist contempt which […] helps to deny [the Algerians] knowledge and recognition of their own tradition.” The photographs he took during the Algerian war of independence were self-conscious attempts at participant observation — observation of a society unraveling under colonial rule and warfare, participation in an incipient critique of colonialism that Bourdieu hoped would have tangible political effects. His photographs are a remarkable combination of respectful, even loving documentation of the everyday lives of the exploited and displaced (one-quarter of the population had been resettled by 1960), and an implicit condemnation of the hors cadre, the system that frames, conditions, and makes legible the images he took.

There is a disquieting contrast between Bourdieu’s analyses of the violence of colonization and colonial war, and his portraits of a besieged people peacefully going about their daily lives. More than 60 years after the beginning of France’s brutal war to keep Algeria French, it is tempting to read these images as somehow foretelling the imminent end of the colonial order. This seems to be what the book’s cover image of self-assured and slightly menacing Algerian youth implies: anticolonial violence would soon triumph over colonial violence. In one sense, the cover image betrays Bourdieu’s gaze. He took pains to photograph his human subjects at an angle or from behind with a rangefinder camera placed at chest level, precisely to avoid a face-to-face encounter that might be interpreted as hostile. Yet in another sense, this image crystallizes the violence, both physical and symbolic, of the colonial world that emerges in Bourdieu’s writings and that forms the silent frame of his photographs. Without answering the question of what would happen in the wake of this violence, Picturing Algeria leaves one hanging, uncomfortably, at the cusp of empire.


The Algerian Chronicles, a collection of journalistic texts and political statements Camus wrote between 1939 and 1958 and edited during the war, constitutes his political testament. (The First Man, published posthumously in 1994, is his literary one.) The preface he wrote for the collection was to be the last public statement he delivered on Algeria. Critical of both French colonial rule and France’s conduct in the war, including the morally reprehensible and tactically ineffective use of torture — critical also of the Algerian anticolonial militants’ recourse to attacks targeting civilians — Camus predicted, correctly, that his book “[would] satisfy no one.” Camus’s book — a defensive plea for nonviolence and for the democratic cohabitation of Europeans, Arabs, Berbers, and Jews that advocates for the continued, albeit modified, presence of France in Algeria — was first condemned by Algerian nationalists and their French supporters, and then quickly forgotten. After Algerian independence, the Algerian Chronicles, and indeed most of what Camus wrote and said about Algeria, was simply thrown into the dustbin of history.

Fanon’s prognosis that only violent separation could end the inequality and injustice of colonial rule proved true in the case of Algeria, as it had in the case of Haiti and Indochina, and as it would for Portugal’s African colonies. Yet the bitter disappointment that quickly followed the euphoria of the decolonizing 1950s and ’60s in Algeria and elsewhere violently put into crisis triumphant narratives of decolonization. Fanon’s “new man” died in infancy; a new oppressor replaced the old. With hindsight, the contrast between Fanon’s account of colonial violence — one that cautions against the perversions of an anticolonial violence that is nevertheless deemed necessary — and Camus’s apparently naive call for peaceful cohabitation is instructive. Had Camus lived to see an independent Algeria (like Fanon, he died during the war, in a car accident; Fanon died of leukemia at age 36, before the publication of his Wretched of the Earth), it’s unlikely he would have concluded that the Algerians were better off under French rule, as some nostalgics of Greater France do to this day. But one should still imagine, alongside Camus, the kind of nonviolent living together for which he so improbably and obstinately advocated. With Sandra Smith’s recent retranslation of L’Étranger and the first English-language translation of Camus’s Algerian Chronicles, edited by Alice Kaplan, the English-speaking public can now discover the entirety of Camus’s writings on Algeria. (Previously available texts include The Exile and the Kingdom, The First Man, and even The Plague, which does not tackle the colonial question directly but is set in Oran, Algeria.)

To many, Camus’s position has seemed hopelessly naive, or worse, disingenuous, a last ditch effort to keep Algeria French against the will of the people. The late postcolonial scholar Edward Said famously charged Camus with rendering Algeria’s indigenous inhabitants — the “Arab” of his best-known novel, L’Étranger — invisible, turning Camus into a case study of Orientalist representation and cultural imperialism for an English-speaking world more familiar with his role as an existentialist philosopher. (For an early postcolonial critique of Camus in French, see Bernard Jakobiak’s “Camus le colonisateur sublimé”; see also Kamel Daoud’s Meursault, contre-enquête, soon to be translated into English.) History proved Camus wrong factually; Said claimed that his position was also untenable morally. Yet even if one agrees with Said’s reading of The Stranger, which focuses on the question of representation or lack thereof, one is left to contend with what Camus did have to say about Algeria.

In recent years, scholars have turned to Camus’s Algerian writings in order to elucidate the mechanisms of violence in the postcolonial present, particularly after the US invasion of Iraq, which presents several startling parallels with France’s war to retain Algeria. In his 2007 book Albert Camus the Algerian, David Carroll tries to imagine what would have obtained if, instead of screening Gillo Pontecorvo’s classic film The Battle of Algiers as a lesson in counterinsurgency, the United States Department of Defense had distributed copies of Camus’s essays condemning both colonial violence, including torture, and the recourse to terrorism. While Carroll’s ironic regret gives the Pentagon too much credit — the lessons he finds in Camus can be found in Pontecorvo’s film, too, for those willing and able to read — his attempt to salvage Camus from the shipwreck of French colonial history allows us to approach the present “age of terror” from a political-historical rather than military-strategic perspective. Even though Camus condemned the use of attacks targeting civilians in the most unambiguous terms (including in his infamous and misreported Nobel Prize remarks — what he really said was that if his mother could be killed in the name of justice, he chose his mother over “justice”), he also understood why Algerian nationalists had taken recourse to this tactic, and the spiraling and apparently ineluctable dynamic of colonial and anticolonial violence. What he desperately wanted was to reverse course, to put a halt to violence on all sides in order to achieve a political solution, one in which all citizens of Algeria would play an equal role.

It may seem remarkable that, faced with the evidence of torture, police brutality, everyday and systematic racism of the most ignominious sort, Camus continued to advocate for a democratic and French Algeria for all its citizens — though he eventually shifted toward the idea of a federal union in which different “communities” would enjoy a degree of autonomy. For Camus, born and bred in Algeria, “the French of Algeria [naturalized European and French settlers known, pejoratively, as pieds-noirs, “black-feet”] are themselves an indigenous population in the full sense of the word.” This is, to be sure, a puzzling and highly contestable proposition, which seems to erase and replace the centuries-long presence of Berbers, Arabs, and Jews in the land colonized by the French with a couple of generations of European settlers. Unlike many of his compatriots, however, Camus also affirmed unambiguously that “the Arab people […] exist,” a statement more meaningful than it sounds, given his philosophical understanding of existence, given also the fact that even the prosaic sense of indigenous existence (the prior presence of indigenous inhabitants) was contested in the empty-land postulate of colonial discourse. Against the colonial mantra “L’Algérie, c’est la France,” he boldly asserted, “Algeria is not France.” Accusing the metropolitan government of hypocrisy, bad faith, and poor policy, he became increasingly critical of the false promise of assimilation (which was meant to turn all Algerians into good French citizens, an impossibility given the citizen/subject divide and de facto apartheid of life in the colony) and the dangers of Jacobinism. Instead he proposed to forge a community of “equal but distinct citizens […] against the regime of centralization and abstract universalism created in 1789, which for many reasons should now be seen as the Old Regime.” Ranging from his early reportage on the extreme poverty of Kabyle peasants for the communist daily Alger Républicain to his Combat articles on the brutally repressed riots and mass protests of May 1945, the dozens of letters he wrote appealing for the pardon of Algerian and French anticolonial militants who had been tortured, arbitrarily imprisoned, and sentenced to death, and his 1956 “Call for a Civilian Truce in Algeria,” Camus’s main concern is the future of Algeria as a plural and democratic nation-state. Writing to an “Algerian militant,” he avows “you said it very well, better than I will say it: we are condemned to live together.” Camus’s mission in these pages is to find a way to “live together well,” beyond the sentence of forced cohabitation, to quote a text by the French-Algerian-Jewish philosopher Jacques Derrida.

By all accounts, Camus’s mission failed. Algerian independence marked the end of cohabitation for Arabs, Europeans, as well as Jews, who chose, for the most part, to live in France rather than in a nation that declared itself, at independence, to be Arab and Muslim (even though its constitution guaranteed freedom of opinion and religion in principle). Ironically, Camus’s pleas for equality carries far greater relevance today in the context of postcolonial France, a nation more imperfectly “decolonized” than Algeria in the sense that French citizens of “colonial extraction” make up a sizable portion of the general population. (The usual term, “immigrants,” dehistoricizes the colonial production of French diversity and makes it sound like all French minorities are foreigners, when in fact most are French, and have been for generations — Algerians were French subjects from 1834 onward.) The continued injunction to assimilate in contemporary France — where French citizens whose forebears were colonial subjects are still all too often stigmatized as “Arabs,” or worse, “Arabo-Muslims,” no matter how well they speak and act “French” — is further proof of the double bind of assimilation, that ever-elusive yet compulsory horizon of Frenchness. While they cannot be reduced to France’s colonial history alone, violent manifestations of the social rift separating the formerly colonized from their erstwhile masters, such as, most recently, the Charlie Hebdo killings, are proof that even in the postcolonial age and perhaps more than ever before, we urgently need to attend to the question of how to live together well — something even the prime minister of France admits when he speaks of the “territorial, social, ethnic apartheid” in French society. (Whether there will be a French-style rainbow revolution to counterbalance the French-style Patriot Act enacted two weeks after the attack remains to be seen.) How can we imagine modes of living together that would foil the exclusionary impulses of community? Camus’s writings are less outdated than the historical record suggests if we reread them in the context of an unfolding postcolonial present, from the social and economic relegation of postcolonial minorities in Europe to the myriad global aftershocks of the US invasion of Iraq.


Like Camus’s Algerian Chronicles, Denis Guénoun’s moving family biography, A Semite, offers an exercise in imagination, but this time it is the cohabitation of Muslim and Jewish Algerians that we are invited to remember and grieve. The history Guénoun charts overlaps in places with Camus’s Algerian writings — some of the most gripping, dramatic moments in the book take place during the Algerian war of independence — but from an altogether different perspective, that of the indigenous Jews of Algeria, who were accorded French citizenship en masse in 1870 only to see their relatively newfound right revoked during France’s collaboration with Nazi Germany. Guénoun’s ironic title — his father René, a pro-independence, assimilated French Algerian Jew, used the infamous European racial category Semite to stress the common destiny of Jews and Arabs — is the first clue that the book will not acquiesce to the divisions enforced by colonialism, between colonizer and colonized as well as between Jews and Arabs/Muslims. (“Arab was not the word used to speak of us,” the narrator confides.)

A Semite is divided into three unequal parts that zoom in on three traumatic moments in the Guénoun family saga: Vichy France and the exclusion of Jews from French citizenship (“December 1, 1940”); the family’s flight from Algeria after a pro-French Algeria bomb attack (“June 22, 1961”); and the relocation, in France, of René Guénoun’s body after the term of his grave “lease” expires (“November 6, 1989”). Part of the pleasure of this book derives from Guénoun’s artful use of suspense in the telling of what is otherwise a well-known story, thanks to the likes of Jacques Derrida and Hélène Cixous who began writing about their “Algerian childhood” in the early 1990s. (Guénoun’s book appeared in 2002.) Even though the historical facts are known in advance, the reader races from page to page to find out how the author’s family lived through them, and perhaps even more importantly, how the author narrates them. We know that the Guénouns will be forced to leave Algeria because of the war. We know, from the first page of the harrowing second part of the memoir, that their departure will be traumatic. The father’s “long cry” and the adolescent son’s terror echo throughout the five chapters of this middle section until the last page, even after we learn that they were the target of an OAS (procolonial militia) bomb attack, from which they escaped unharmed only because they were gathered on the parental bed watching television, in the room farthest from the street. The effect of this suspenseful, presentist retelling of Algerian history is to project us into a past that continues to haunt, a past that is not past. There is no attempt at historical explanation here, just lived experience as it focalized through the adult, reminiscing author-narrator, reliving his own memories and those of his parents.

The final pages of the book resist offering a neat ending to what might otherwise have been a teleological narrative of migration, from French Algeria to decolonized France via the dark days of Vichy and the Algerian war. Instead, the tenderly absurdist conclusion of a memoir espousing some of the gravest events of France’s recent past gives allegorical form to the mnemonic excavation of the book, as well as to the Guénoun family’s triple exile (to quote the title of an analogous memoir by the French-Algerian-Jewish historian Benjamin Stora) from Algerian (Arab) culture, French citizenship, and Algeria itself. The rushed conclusion of the book confirms the strange impression provided by the imbalanced structure of the memoir, half of which takes place before the birth of the memoirist: this is a memoir of the Guénoun’s Algerian past, not of its French present. (The final section, set in France, comprises a mere 15 pages.) The whole book is tipped almost obsessively toward Algeria; even its final pages plunge back, albeit metaphorically, into the native land. Recounting how lackadaisically the brittle remains of his father’s skeleton (such a tall man, such a small skull) were dug up and transferred from one patch of nonnative soil to another, the author-narrator closes his narrative with a poignant address to his father: “Papa, ever since then I have been digging and turning over the earth of words to make you a grave.” An Algerian grave, that is.

Guénoun’s final act of witness before the remains of his father recalls the first section of the memoir, when, as a child, he presses his father to explain their paradoxical identity as French-Algerian-Jews — indigenous Algerians who are nevertheless also French, secular Jews whose “religion” marks them as different from the French and the Arabs. (Even though René Guénoun looked and sounded Arab, “‘Arab’ was not the label for him, for us.”) The father’s convoluted reply unfolds, tragicomically, over several pages in an abridged version of the history that forms the backdrop of the memoir: yes, we are French, but not colonists, we are Jews, but not by creed, we will always be considered Jewish because of racist laws so we must embrace this identity, but we are first of all Semites, we are like the Arabs, “either Jew or Arab without distinction,” we have been in Africa since time immemorial, but now we are French, “we were lifted up, they were tied down,” now the Arabs want their own country and we must help them, and after they have won we will go live in “the land of Rousseau, Malherbe, and Jean Gabin.” The adult Guénoun, writing after his father’s death, imagines that he might have told him about his ancestors, buried for centuries in the Algerian soil: “All their bones, mixed into the earth of Oran, of the surrounding region, of the whole western shore of Algeria. Blended in with the stones, with Arab bones, with the mineral deposits and rocky layers of this continent, stacked up beside the sea.” But René Guénoun “never spoke of death,” he boycotted funerals, he stayed on the side of the living. From the imagined graves of the Algerian ancestors to the all-too-material sight of the father’s bones rattling in an overcrowded cemetery in Marseille, Guénoun’s literary homage to his Arab-Jewish-French father reburies him metaphorically in the land of the Semites.


Why revisit the history of France’s colonization of Algeria half a century after its hard-won independence? Today the outcome of the bloody wars of decolonization of the middle of the 20th century seems like a foregone conclusion, consecrating the absolute separation of colonizer and colonized. Yet events such as the recent attacks against the Paris-based satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo are searing reminders that the colonial past continues to haunt us in the most unpredictable ways. Today more than ever, we need to attend Camus’s injunction to live together, lest apartheid become an entrenched reality of the postcolony as it was in Fanon’s divided world.


Olivia Harrison holds a PhD from Columbia University and teaches Mediterranean Studies at the University of Southern California.

LARB Contributor

Olivia Harrison holds a PhD from Columbia University and teaches Mediterranean Studies at the University of Southern California. She is currently working on two books on the question of Palestine in North Africa and France, respectively, and has forthcoming and published articles in Postcolonial Text, Social Text, and PMLA. She is also co-editing a translation of selected texts from the literary and political Moroccan journal Souffles-Anfas.


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