Remembering Barberousse: The Construction of National Memory and State Power in Algeria

I’m currently writing an article on Barberousse, an infamous colonial prison built by the French in Algiers in 1856 and which, after three years of closure in the immediate post-Independence era, was re-opened by President Boumédiène in 1965, under the new name Serkadji.

alger_barberousse

On March 19th 2014, the day of the 52nd anniversary of the implementation of the Évian Accords, the Algerian Minister of Justice, Tayeb Louh, along with a delegation that included the Minister for Culture, Nadia Labidi, made a high-profile visit to Serkadji prison, which had recently been closed and its inmates transferred to other prisons across Algeria. A press announcement in December 2013 had already informed the Algerian public that the prison was going to be transformed into a museum dedicated to the national memory. The Minister’s statement to the media on March 19th – ‘‘Aujourd’hui, ce lieu historique redevient un lieu de recueillement et de mémoire’ (‘Today, this historic site becomes once again a site of contemplation and memory’) – was referring, however, not to Serkadji’s more recent history, but to the time when the prison was known as Barberousse – a renowned colonial penal insitution built by the French in 1856 and in which, during the war of independence, many FLN mujahidin were incarcerated and guillotined. In this article, the first substantial and holistic account of the discursive construction of Barberousse in cultural and political discourse, I will explore this most recent, but also other instances in which the prison has been deployed and harnessed as an emblem of repression and resistance, colonialism and the struggle for independence. I will begin with an overview of the what I identify as the key stakes in the quite extensive representation of Barberousse in cultural production, focusing both on the accounts provided by films, memoirs and novels (by Henri Alleg, Assia Djebar, Gillo Pontecorvo, Leila Djabili and Mohamed Saharoui) of the violence and abjection that constituted daily life intra muros, while highlighting also the prison’s becoming-symbol of the bloody birth of the independent Algerian state. In the second part, I will discuss the insoluble link between the prison and the (construction of the) nation state. Closed in 1962 by President Ahmed Ben Bella, who designated the prison an historic site and intended to turn it into a museum honouring the memory of the FLN, it was reopened in 1965, under its new name, Serkadji, by Houari Boumédiène, who – along with his successor, Chadli Bendjedid – used it to detain dissidents and political prisoners, as well as common law criminals. Thus, the prison became a means in the post-Independence era of shoring up the power of an increasingly contested regime. I will conclude with a reflection on the ways in which the museum now proposed by the Algerian state not only consolidates authorised histories, but also serves to erase others, including the massacre of 96 prisoners by state forces within the walls of Serkadji in February 1995.

A ‘Solid Sea’? Mediterranean Crossings

I’ve previously written on the work of Moroccan artist Yto Barrada with regard to migration and border crossings in the era of globalisation. This is the abstract of a paper I’m currently writing specifically about the Mediterranean as a disciplinary space, a ‘solid sea’ (to coin the title of an installation piece by Multiplicity at Documenta in 2002) in which crossings are conditioned by the constraints of neoliberal tensions between securitisation (the politics of fear) and the economics of free trade.

A ‘Solid Sea’? Mediterranean Crossings in the Age of Globalisation

The Mediterranean Sea is a particularly neuralgic border zone in the geopolitical imaginary of the West, a thick space, in which multiple and heterogeneous crossings are performed and intertwine. And yet, as Multiplicity (a Milan-based collective of artists, architects and activists) assert, it is no longer, if indeed it ever was, ‘a large and liquid “lieu de rencontre” [space of encounter]. […] The Mediterranean is today a hard, solid space, ploughed by precise routes that move from equally defined points’ (Multiplicity, 2002). It has become ‘the only Certain Territory of this part of the world’ (ibid.). It is a space in which identities are reified and ‘exacerbated’ (clandestine/legitimate, vagabond/tourist [Bauman, 1996]), and condition also the very modalities of travel within and between this broadly securitized constellation of geopolitical and geo-economic formations (Fluri, 2011). This chapter thus explores Mediterranean crossings as performances of ‘disciplined mobility’ (Moran, Piacentini & Pallot, 2012) in which both migrant and tourist mobilities are unevenly produced, channelled, surveilled and contained, inextricably ‘caught up in the power geometries of everyday life’ (Hannan et al, 2006). The analysis is conducted through the prism of recent works by a number of contemporary artists: Zineb Sedira, Kader Attia, Bruno Boudjelal, Yto Barrada and Tiécoura N’Dao. In particular, and with reference to photographic, video and installation works by the artists in question, it considers the ways in which harragas [1] navigate the intensely securitised space of the Mediterranean (Raeymaekers, 2014; Paoletti, 2009; Mountz & Lloyd, 2014), coming up against – but also slipping into the cracks and interstices of – the European (global) police order. And yet this study will also suggest, with reference to the slippages, mirrorings, displacements and doublings which operate within the selected artworks, first that mobilities of business and leisure are similarly constrained and conditioned by the ‘all encompassing “securitisation” of everyday life’ (Philo, 2011); and secondly by specific, disciplinary visual regimes which transform the ‘fact of movement’ into meaningful mobilities (Cresswell, 2006) in the context of transnational and transcontinental border crossings in the neoliberal age.

[1] Clandestine migrants who burn their identity papers during the crossing; meaning ‘those who burn’, from the Arabic حراقة, harrag – to burn.

Re-making Algiers, 1830-1848: Urban plasticity, urban resilience

I’m currently writing a paper which explores the colonial re-making of Algiers in the years 1830-1848, focusing particularly on the cartographic and topographic strategies of zoning, segregation, fortification, expropriation and demolition. Drawing on a number of contemporary sources, including accounts by the colonial army’s chief medical officer, Jean-Pierre Bonnafont (Douze ans en Algérie, 1830-1842) and the army captain Eugène Perret (Récits algériens, 1830-1842); the Saint-Simonian social reformer Prosper Enfantin’s Colonisation de l’Algérie (1843); Alexis de Tocqueville’s Travail sur l’Algérie (1841) and Rapport sur l’Algérie (1847), the paper presents a critical overview of the colonial imaginary of – and plans for – Algiers during the July Monarchy. While foregrounding the singularly military urbanism practised by the colonisers, it also explores the uneven application by the colonial army and military engineers of an urban modernity conceived in Paris and geared locally towards the production of a Christian, commercial city which would effectively erase and re-construct what one French engineer described in 1839 as the ‘pirate capital’ (Nightingale, 2012). This spatio-historical analysis will be presented in the context of my current research on the concept of urban plasticity, which at one level can be described as the tension between the city’s malleability and resistance, and at another as the complex entanglement of past, present and future in the very stuff of the urban fabric. It will be argued that an understanding of Algiers as a plastic urban object will shed critical light on the strategic exigencies, complexity and failures of the colonial intervention, and in so doing contribute to a discussion of the active and resistive agency of both the city and its colonized inhabitants.

I’ll also be looking tangentially at some of the works made by French painters commissioned to depict the French conquest of Algeria. I have a feeling that this may grow into another, separate paper…

Antoine Léon Morel-Fatio, 'Le bombardement d'Alger', 1830.
Antoine Léon Morel-Fatio, ‘Le bombardement d’Alger’, 1830.

Bruno Boudjelal, Bentalha (2002) // Post-traumatic landscapes

I am currently working on a project about post-traumatic landscapes – the sites where atrocities have occurred and yet where no visible sign of the event remains.

I am looking in particular at the work of Hrair Sarkissian (Execution Squares, 2008), Bruno Boudjelal (Bentalha, 2002) and Paul Seawright (Sectarian Murder, 1988), whose work forms a contemplative counterpoint to the dramatic spectacle offered up by ruin and aftermath photography.

As part of this broader project, I have just finished a paper on Bruno Boudjelal’s work in Algeria (1993-2003), including images from his visit to Bentalha – a small town just 15km from Algiers, where 400 people were massacred on the night of 22-23 September 2002.

Bruno Boudjelal’s journey to Bentalha is a detour, an unplanned deviation which takes him to a site where – unlike the documentary photographer or photo-journalist – he is unsure what to do, which visual information to look for or capture. He arrives – as is perhaps always the fate of the photographic project – too late, in the aftermath.

http://www.agencevu.com/stories/index.php?id=17&p=10
http://www.agencevu.com/stories/index.php?id=17&p=10

The massacre presents itself obliquely, in the gestures, poses and demeanour of those who remain; in the stubborn residues that are produced by, survive and encircle it and in the inscrutable (though for this no less resonant) reconfiguration of the everyday that attends what we might describe as post-traumatic landscapes. Boudjelal’s photographs show Bentalha as a town much like any of the others that cluster along the length and breadth of Algeria’s poorly maintained roads. Water and mud collect in the streets, which are full of potholes and alternately dilapidated and half-built housing blocks. Pylons and power lines punctuate a landscape dominated by an overwhelming sense of dirt and entropy, as human constructions appear to slide back into the miasma from which they have emerged. The interiors are basic and unadorned. There is little or no furniture and only minimal traces of any human presence (for example an abandoned pair of trainers or a mirror). A simple standpipe set against the wall provides water; televisions are omnipresent.

And yet this apparent banality is punctured by a number of ‘poignant details’ (I draw here on the vocabulary that coheres around Roland Barthes’ punctum [i]) or strange bodies that are at once meaningless and meaningful, and which attest to the presence within the broader landscape of unincorporated residues from the past. In one photograph, two fully clothed men sleep on a rug on a bare floor, using their rucksacks as pillows. They do not stir as Boudjelal enters the room but remain indifferent to his presence. Nothing in the image enables us to understand what their circumstances are, how or why they have come to sleep here or indeed who they might be; and yet they articulate, obliquely, some connection we cannot understand with Bentalha’s past and the ways in which that past continues to contaminate or make itself present in the present. The sleeping men are a kind of ‘fistula’, a term from the biological sciences meaning ‘abnormal passageway’ and which has been appropriated by the historian Eelco Runia to describe ‘holes through which the past discharges into the present’, ‘a kind of “leak” in time through which “presence” wells up from the past into the present’. [ii] Another photograph is filled entirely with an expanse of rough concrete floor, stained with brown patches that may or may not be traces of blood. The photograph evokes Jean Dubuffet’s sols paintings, [iii] both in terms of its textured abstraction and the way in which it draws the gaze into its irreducible detail, while at the same time resisting all totalising spectatorial appropriation. This is a fragment or detail that is at once complete in itself, yet which points also beyond its own frame to an experience that remains outside the cognitive range of the spectator.

The representation of sites like Bentalha and events such as the dirty war must negotiate an impossible path between both a surfeit and absence of meaning. The hermeneutic, semantic and affective networks in which Bentalha is enmeshed and through which it discloses itself to Boudjelal in the aftermath of the massacre – even if he cannot make immediate sense of what presents to him while he is there, in the midst of the (unclaimable) experience – inevitably inflects the way in which the site signs to him and how he makes meaning of the site. The very name – Bentalha – carries a powerfully resonant charge, functioning metonymically as a cipher for the worst atrocities of the dirty war and the state’s (hidden and disavowed) involvement in attacks against its own citizens. And yet when Boudjelal visits Bentalha, what he discovers is an incarnated negative space produced by what happened there and which now structures what remains as a potent presence in absence. Everything in Bentalha points to the event, yet the event itself remains a hole in cognition – a blind spot.


[i] Roland Barthes, La Chambre claire: note sur la photographie (Paris: Gallimard, 1980).

[ii] Eelco Runia, ‘Presence’, History and Theory, vol. 45 (February 2006), pp. 1- 29, p. 16.

[iii] See, for example, Fruits de feu du sol (1959), a photograph of which can be viewed at http://www.christies.com/lotfinder/paintings/jean-dubuffet-fruits-de-feu-du-sol-5392548-details.aspx