On War, Literature, Politics and Algeria

In conjunction with the first-ever publication of the English translation of Saadi Yacef's original prison memoir, Battle of Algiers, the Warscapes editors engaged him in the following conversation. 

Translation by Sara Hanaburgh

WARSCAPES: Tell us a bit about your transition from being an active participant in the war to writing about it?

SY:  The transition from the barbarity of war to writing was not the fruit of a long and laborious theoretical reflection but could be seen as the result of a fervor that came over me. It made me put my memories to use to give an account of the Algerian people, as best as I could, of what happened in the secret Thebaid, the Greek tragedy in five acts, which was what our struggle in Algiers was like. I think that the Algerians, whose history still remains to be written, needed this contribution in order to trigger their memories so as to help themselves find peace…

Actually, after my death sentence was handed down (and then later commuted to a life sentence), I became preoccupied with the idea of keeping a maximum number of memories of “The Battle of Algiers” alive. And it was in the prison in Fresnes [the second largest prison in France] where I ended up after some fairly long stays in other centers of incarceration – not only in Algeria which was at war, but also in French territory – that this frenzy of writing took hold of me. This fever gave birth to a book evocative of the war that I titled, Memories of the Battle of Algiers. The idea of making a film about the guerilla war being fought across the whole territory of Greater Algiers began to sow seeds in my mind when I came to the Fresnes prison. I had said to myself, “Algerians should know what is going on.” I had an undying desire to leave a mark, hopefully deep enough for posterity.

WARSCAPES: To what degree was Pontecorvo’s film – The Battle of Algiers, 1966 – shaped by your memoir? For those who have watched the film, is there more to be gained from reading the original text?

Your question is not only pertinent, but it also allows me to clarify, for those who still are interested, each person’s contribution to the writing of the script. It was the directors of the Italian co-production who proposed Franco Solinas as a writer capable of creating the screenplay for the film. A friend of Pontécorvos, he was known as a professional in this very specific genre of historical films. After I accepted [Solinas in this capacity], I busied myself by providing him with all the necessary materials to allow him to better carry out his task. Among other things, I provided him with what you are calling a memoir. It was this book, that I then titled Memories of the Battle of Algiers, which served as the source from which Franco Solinas drew the basic and indispensable elements for his work. In order to verify certain events, I also provided him with press materials from the time and dozens of recorded testimonies from citizens (eyewitnesses, at least by proximity). As we continued, this contribution aside, the circumstances also allowed me to offer my advice concerning certain scenes that he, working from Rome, could only recreate as fiction. It was very important to me that fictionalization not stifle the underlying veracity, or truth, of the facts. Everyone knows that “the imagination is the master of error” and, for this reason, it seemed indispensable for me to intervene.

Born in the Casbah of Algiers, and having grown up and fought in the heart of it, I helped Franco Solinas by drawing his attention to certain aspects of the Old City that he could not grasp in a realist way, given that it had changed so significantly from the theatre of operations the city had become during the war. It was a city he had never visited before.

You ask whether those who have seen the film might gain perspective by reading the foundational text that was used to develop the script. My response to this remark is simple: I encourage them to do it! I would advise, however, to make a little extra effort to think about the book as having made a very definitive architecture for the film come alive (I should note that the original text of the script was then touched up by the talented Gillo Pontécorvo in order to transform it into a major work of its genre). Since it is also true that a cinematic work can, in certain way, improve upon the literary work that inspired it, it is obviously the convergence of these two factors that one finds in the film.

WARSCAPES: You not only worked on the film – providing input through several rewrites of the script – but also acted in the movie. Was the process personally cathartic? What about for the community overall, as so many of the Casbah’s citizens participated as well?

SY:  It’s true that, on Pontécorvo’s suggestion, I agreed to take on an on-screen role in the film – a role close to that which I played in real life in the clandestine activities that brought me to the heart of the world of heroic Algerian activists during this crucial moment of contemporary history in which the martyrdom of the Algerian population of Algiers stood as a reaction against the barbaric actions of the French army and the French secret service. I was free to refuse Pontécorvo’s offer, yet after profound reflection, I realized that my participation wouldn’t do harm to me or to the film – and that, in the least, I could bring the same energy to the film set that had allowed me to serve in the reality of combat. As a result, I accepted to take a risk and take on a role with the condition that I would be subject to the same work conditions as the other partners in the film. Since I had never acted before, I wasn’t interested in contributing to The Battle of Algiers for critical acclaim – far from it; I considered my contribution neither vain nor redundant. On the contrary, I hoped my participation would add more historic authenticity to the film. I admit, quite frankly, that it was not an easy task.

You ask if shooting the film was a “cathartic” experience for me. My answer to this is clear: Catharsis found me in the form of refreshing my memory on certain events, which seemed minor at first, but those events actually had an effect on others which meant that our action had more of a psychological impact on the French population. The particular atmosphere that the shooting of the film instilled in the film crew and, consequently, on those who lived [in the Casbah], precipitated the cathartic effects you speak of, despite the fact that the production of the film, including the selection of film locations, had begun in 1964 (in other words, at a time so close to the actual events that it became impossible to depoliticize the historic reality or to enter definitively into a state of oblivion). As for the further cathartic effect on the inhabitants of the Casbah, surely the memory of torture carried out by the French army and the systematic humiliation to which the foreign occupier submitted the inhabitants must have stirred up emotions that were even stronger than those felt throughout the period in which the French tortured in silence, echoed only in the guilt of the torturers’ conscience. The cathartic effect, palpable on every level, was decisively restorative.

WARSCAPES:  What is the relationship between politics and literature in Algeria? We are referring specifically to the assassination of intellectuals and writers in the 1990s – for example, Tahar Djaout (the Algerian journalist, poet and fiction writer assassinated by the Armed Islamic Group for the crime, according to one of his attackers, of wielding “a fearsome pen”)? 

SY:  Up until the break up of one-party politics in 1989, which had allowed Algerians to forge solid arguments that led them to open up to pluralism and the multiparty system, the connection that was able to exist between politics and literature did well and truly exist. One merely needs to consult the archives of the recently dead SNED [the Algerian publisher, formerly holding the sole monopoly on Algerian publishing] to realize this. In the end, the absence of competing publishing houses during this period did not keep SNED from publishing dozens of titles a year – titles that drew from national or universal heritage, and which treated themes well beyond the spectrum that one normally attributes to countries formerly belonging to the socialist vein. Of course, the choice of potentially publishable works was not safe from censorship, but the door was never totally closed to works of quality. The use of censorship, or the refusal to allow certain authors to pass through the press, still did not keep authors from going to foreign editors, who assured them not only that their writings would be published but also that their distribution would yield income at a time when travel abroad (and financing such travel) was subject to visa requirements and exchange controls.

The list of targets of the GIA [Armed Islamic Group of Algeria], unfortunately, was not limited to Tahar Djaout, who remains, in spite of everything, the best representative of the Algerian youth in the varied domain of literature. Djaout wrote in French. One once thought that if evil had struck the man, it was because of the language in which he chose to express himself. But then the GIA did not kill on the pretext that such and such a person was using the French language, but rather because he was considered to be revealing a certain consciousness, and was thus a potential enemy of the regression/decline advocated by political Islam. As for writing with a “pen as a weapon,” he was not the only one to have one. Others besides him can be proud of having belonged to this elite – ones that the bullets of the GIA didn’t manage to penetrate. And that’s good. I would rather not name names here, but regarding the number of intellectuals – real or supposed – who went into exile during that time: Their consciences, or those of their descendants, will surely hold them accountable for their behavior to some extent, though I have never felt the inclination nor the disposition for giving lessons on morality to third parties.

WARSCAPES: According to classified cables recently released by Wikileaks, the Algerian government – in which you serve as a senator – is a key US partner in the “war on terror” – allowing American spy planes to fly over Algerian territory and US Special Operations forces to operate within Algeria’s borders ("No partner is more important than Algeria in the fight against Al-Qaeda," according to the US Embassy in Algiers)…If the young Saadi Yacef were keeping his diary today, what might he write about these collaborations?

SY:  I would say that Algeria has remained true to its basic principles, which it continues to respect even in its “objective alliance” with the Americans in the now-global struggle against terrorism. I would nonetheless recall that Algeria did not engage in this struggle lightly or because of a simple desire for risk. If Algeria has been fully engaged in combating terrorism for almost 20 years now, it is because the country has sufficiently endured the barbarism of Islamists. Should I, in this regard, remind you of the 200 thousand Algerians killed during this period? As for the “confidences” provided by Wikileaks, according to which the Algerian government would have authorized the over-flight of Algerian territory by American drones, I would like to draw attention to something that seems salient to me in this line of questioning: Throughout the whole time terrorism reigned relentlessly in Algeria, [we were] put under embargo by the group of Western countries on the pretext of terrorism, and my country found itself alone in the struggle against the curse of having to take control of the eradication of this phenomenon across our entire national territory. You speak to me today about authorizing American planes to fly over our territory; I don’t really see the need. Algeria never ceased to assume this responsibility, and without the least of aid from the outside. One must simply hope that the African Sahel does not flare up in return.

WARSCAPES:  Algeria’s neighbor to the East – Libya – is in the throws of what appears to be a real revolution. What are the challenges that lay ahead?

SY:  It’s true that Libya is in complete upheaval. But what you seem to refer to as revolution is only, in reality, a war initiated on the outside by a coalition of two or three European countries that, after several attempts to oust Gaddafi, realized that it was perhaps time to proceed differently. A country rich in oil and assets deposited in foreign banks, the European countries that are most affected by the financial crisis realized that Libya could provide some relief to their greed. However, their enterprise could only be viable if America gave its green light. That’s what was done. As for believing that “revolution” has equally erupted there, the underlying motivation is not concern for transforming Libya into a democratic republic where human rights will be respected to the letter, but mainly oil. The war is a decisive step that would allow the West to appropriate the wealth that lies beneath the African continent.

WARSCAPES:  Overall, what are your reflections on the “Arab Spring?” 

SY:  None, except that the "spring" cannot blossom without the other seasons.

WARSCAPES:  Are there any contemporary conflicts that remind you most of the FLN’s struggle against French colonialism?

SY:  Aside from Algeria and the struggle of the Vietnamese people, in order to close the chapter of colonialism and achieve peace in the world it remains necessary to recognize officially the sovereignty of the people of Palestine, their independence and the legitimate existence of their state. Another territory that remains to be freed is Western Sahara, colonized by Morocco thanks to the staunch support of America and France. In the two cases, justice must be done for peoples stripped of their territory.

WARSCAPES: Next year (2012) will mark the 50th anniversary of Algerian Independence from France. What are your reflections about this milestone?

SY: I cannot comment lengthily on this event because I am overcome by emotion when I think of it. And a few months away from this celebration, it’s enough to say that I feel emotional. This is what I think: I was born in 1928. I thus inevitably lived the throes of colonialism. Humiliated like all Algerians of my day, but unlike the great majority of them, I was lucky to go to school where my professors, in spite of their self-importance and their overdeveloped egos, also taught me the “ins and outs” of the French Revolution. It’s this recollection that drove me to the heart of the Algerian National Movement, and in particular into the SO (Special Organization) where I learned how to handle arms.

The SO, let’s remember, was the organization created by the MTDL (Movement for the Triumph of Democratic Liberties) in order to take direct action against colonialism. At the beginning of the 1950s, only a minority of activist members in the heart of the MTDL subscribed to the idea of launching a war of liberation, Messali Hadj, being the first. But the launch still happened. As the 50th anniversary of our independence approaches, I can only say one thing: After having been arrested in September 1957, judged and condemned three times to death, I count myself very lucky to have lived as long after Algerian independence as I have. That’s what I have to say.

WARSCAPES: The writing of history is often a contentious and difficult process. How would you describe the process in Algeria? In what way has your memoir contributed to the national history formation of Algeria? 

SY:  The writing of history, as you say, “is often contentious and difficult to manage.” I completely agree with you on this. But I remind you, too, that history is one of the rare subjects that remain open to research.  Algeria has many historians who specialize in Algerian antiquity, for example. Is it that the thousands of years that separate us from this period that make it easier today for us to approach it and succeed in approaching an understanding? There is certainly some truth to that. On the other hand, the writing of contemporary history seems more difficult to approach for several reasons. One of them has to do with the absence of archives, which constitutes the worst obstacle to the possibility of even piercing the secrets of an organization that systematically tortured Algerians, whether or not armed when captured. Indeed, the film The Battle of Algiers and the pieces I’ve written about it have allowed the generation that lived through independence to learn a lot of things about the war of independence, and particularly about the guerilla war in the cities. But does this suffice to quench the undying thirst to learn the history of the war of national liberation? Of course not! A lot more work is needed.

WARSCAPES:  You are involved in some pedagogical work regarding the history of the Franco-Algerian war. Tell us about this. 

SY:  It is true that I am engaged in spreading “the word” in middle schools, high schools and universities across Algeria. The main point of my interventions is to remind young school kids and university students that their time has come to imitate their elders by engaging a war against inertia and imbibing the knowledge of revolution to overcome the underdevelopment of their homeland. The program that I lead in the space that the department of national education has allocated to me is comprised of a conference about the war of independence supported by the recurrent evocation of facts – or, rather, of achievements. This allows me to reference, in a symbolic tone, the names of certain heroes of the revolution by contextualizing them within the context of the holocaust that took place back then. I further intervene with a screening of the film Battle of Algiers, after which we move into a debate. It is always a pleasure to observe students absorbing the reality of their country, and in particular, the necessity of engaging.

Saadi Yacef
Read the English translation of Saadi Yacef’s memoir

Sara Hanaburgh is a scholar of African literatures and cinemas. She has recently completed her dissertation on the contemporary novel and film (1980s to present) from the sub-Saharan Francophone region as cultural responses to the human effects of economic globalization on the continent at the City University of New York. Her work argues that the most extreme effects of globalization reinforce notions of a sexualized, racialized or ethnicized “Other.” Her recent presentations include a paper on the representation of contemporary globalization in three African Francophone novels. A regular peer reviewer for African Studies Review since 2005, she also works as an independent translator in French, Portuguese and English, and is presently translating a novel by the late Gabonese author, Angèle Rawiri, into English. She has taught at Hunter and Brooklyn Colleges, the University of Brasilia and currently teaches in the Modern Languages and Literatures Department at Fordham University.