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.