Algerian History

My Discovery of Algeria

by Henri Alleg

Source: El Watan, November 1, 2004;
Translated: for by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike)

I only truly began my life as a man, and my intellectual and political life, upon my arrival in Algeria in 1939. I was 18; I was excited by the discovery of the world, and had left wing ideas, parenthetically, with anarchist tendencies.

My ideas on the great political questions were a bit virgin when I arrived in Algeria. Algeria was supposed to be a step in a voyage around the world. Circumstances arranged it that I remained there. There were no more boats. There was the war. Along with young Algerians I joined something that at the time was something exceptional. Algerians who were, unbeknownst to me, and something I later discovered, militants of [Messali Hadj’s] Parti Populaire Algerien (PPA). There were also people who weren’t in the PPA but who were under its influence. One of my friends was Mustapha Kateb, the former director of the Theatre National d’Algerie; at the time he was a postman. I was also friends with Ali Tessah, a worker. Another, Mohammed Boursas, was son of a merchant in the Kasbah. It’s thanks to them that I opened my eyes to colonial reality. Talking about independence for Algeria didn’t upset me at all, though it was a taboo word. It cost dearly any Algerian who pronounced it. The anti-fascist war was developing in France. Along with a few friends we said we had to do something. By force of circumstance I became one of the leaders of the Algerian Communist Youth. I didn’t go to the PPA since at the time a European couldn’t join, not just because members of the PPA had to swear on the Koran, but simply because I was profoundly anti-fascist and for a socialist future. This was not a preoccupation of the Algerians at the time, which is understandable. What interested the young in particular was the fight for liberation from colonialism and slavery. For me there was no contradiction. Until November 1943, when the Americans and English landed, I worked underground with the Communists. Communists and nationalists were interned in the same camps in the south, put in prison. Beginning in July 1943 we could come out from the underground. I had a position as editor-translator for the Agence France-Afrique. I worked nights, which allowed me to busy myself with questions of political organization during the day. The organization of Communist Youth soon became the Union de la Jeunesse Democratique Algerienne (UJDA) in which could be found all shades of Algerian opinion: youth from the MTLD, young communists, and young people who belonged to no party. The UJDA became a large organization, maintaining fraternal relations with other organizations, like the Scouts. One day myself and others visited Messali [Hadj]in Paris. In 1946-47, and at the time of the Setif massacre, I was an activist in both the Communist Party and the UJDA. At a given moment I was a party instructor, i.e., I traveled around Algeria to assist local sections with talks, organizations, lessons.

I joined [the newspaper] Alger Republicain in 1950. Contrary to what is commonly thought, Alger Republicain had not always been a newspaper that, from its creation fought for Algerian independence. It was a newspaper born in the wake of the French Popular Front and which had received the support, in Algeria, of European democrats and socialists, people who were more or less socialists. As for the Algerians, there were people from the bourgeoisie, merchants who understood that Algeria needed a daily that could combat the exacerbated racist colonialist propaganda circulated by the local press. Alger Republicain was known among the Algerians for its actions at the time of the trial of Sheik Tayeb El Oqbi, who was the chairman of the Circle for Progress of Algiers. He had been accused of having provided the money for the assassination of the mufti of Algiers. Via the pen of Albert Camus Alger Republicain had defended Sheik El Oqbi and had demonstrated that the whole affair had been manufactured by the colonial administration. El Oqbi was acquitted. This was a formidable victory. The change at Alger Republicain occurred later, with the arrival at the paper of Boualem Khalfa, myself, and other militants of the PCA. Then Abdelhamid Benzine arrived. Previously, Alger Republicain, even if it took positions that were open was not a newspaper that understood or exposed the very heart of the colonial question. So for Albert Camus the Algerians should have the same rights as the French, but he didn’t say that the Algerians weren’t French and had the right to be masters in their country, with their own republic, their own flag. He didn’t talk about the prestigious past of Arab civilization. For Albert Camus Algeria began in 1830. Even when he spoke of the Algerian past he spoke of the ruins of Tipaza, of those of Cherchell, but between the ruins of Tipaza and the landing at Sidi Ferruch it was as if nothing had happened. Starting in 1950 Alger Republicain became a truly Algerian newspaper, taking care not to cut itself off from the European population, which could be brought to understand that the interest of the Europeans who were not colonialists and their children, if they wanted to remain in Algeria, was to join with the exploited Algerians, and in the very struggle for another Algeria to proclaim their sense of belonging to Algeria. This is what we defended. It’s not by chance that the colonialists called Alger Republicain the “Arabs’ newspaper” and “the little beggar,” since there was always a fund raising campaign in the air. Throughout this period the newspaper was the target of all kinds of provocations, legal difficulties, police persecution, arrests of members of its editorial board, continual seizures, and especially of financial difficulties. It’s obvious that big companies didn’t give their advertising to Alger Republicain. We were forced to ask for an activist spirit from those who worked at the newspaper. There were no fixed work hours, no vacations; the salaries were ridiculous when they were paid. In response to this there was a fantastic solidarity on the part of the Algerian readers. There were unions, simple people who brought us contributions. When there was a fund drive and we said: “We absolutely have to obtain funds; without them we’re strangled,” we should have taken pictures of the people who stood in line in front of the cash register, with workers, dockers, women who brought jewelery... This love of the Algerians for the newspaper came from the fact that they knew that the newspaper didn’t lie to them. They learned that Khalfa had been sentenced to two years of prison because he’d denounced the destruction of a village, Sidi ali Bounab, by gendarmes who’d hit the inhabitants, forced an old man to dance nude before the assembled villagers in order to humiliate them. Myself, before my detention during the war, I had been arrested along with two friends, one of whom, the youngest journalist at Alger Republicain, was 17; his name was Abdelkader Choukal, he died in the maquis. He was an excellent investigator, despite his spelling mistakes. The days we were seized we wanted a few copies of the paper come out so they could be read by the leaders of political organizations and unions in Algeria and France. We arranged for the newspaper to leave the printer’s. The police never knew how we did this. We had an accountant with a wooden leg. During this period prostheses weren’t as perfected as they now are. It was a simple peg that was attached with lanyards around the thigh. There was a space between the peg and the thigh. Our colleague put three or four well folded newspapers there and left. He made several trips in this way. The policemen who guarded the exit didn’t see anything. I was arrested at this time and sentenced to three months of prison for “rebellion and blows against agents of the forces of order;” this was in June 1955. The newspaper was banned three months later. I left prison in July only to return there for a long period in June 1957.

What was the feeling at Alger Repblicain on November 1? The committing of myself and the newspaper to the struggle of the Algerian people. Following November 1 things became increasingly difficult: seizures, arrests. There was something in the air, but at the newspaper we didn’t know that the insurrection was going to last and what was at its origin. Contrary to the idea people who didn’t live through this period have, and who have a hasty idea of what happened, there was not an immediate igniting. This began in the Aurès, and then it grew little by little. A precise analysis of what was happening wasn’t then possible. People like us were overjoyed naturally, but we didn’t know how far it would go. Consequently we thought it was an action that was commencing, that was going to put pressure on French government – which was coming out of the war in Vietnam – to seriously discuss the situation in Algeria and to put an end to the French position, which consisted in saying, from the Right to the Left, that Algeria was “Algerie Francaise.” The Communists were attentive to what was happening in the Aurès. The party’s watchword was: wherever a mass movement is beginning it must be joined. The FLN demanded the dissolution of the party and its unification with the FLN. Discussions took place between the leadership of the PCA, Bachir Hadj Ali and Saddek Hadjeres and for the FLN Abane Ramdane and Youcef Benkhedda. The FLN-PCA accords of July 1, 1956 were the subject of a book, and they specified that the PCA demanded the integration of the armed communist groups into the ranks of the ALN. When the insurrection began the headline of Alger Republicain was “attacks across Algeria.” The articles as a whole showed which side our heart was on.

We had a problem of vocabulary. How should we call the men who fought: “Moujahedine?” Forbidden. “Djounoud?” Forbidden. Even less “combatants of the liberation.” “Fellaghas” was negative at the time. We called them “armed men.” At the beginning of November a maquisard had made contact with us. We delegated Benzine. We had agreed that he’d give us information. We waited to see what would happen next. What happened next happened quickly: seizures increased until the newspaper was finally banned. Our printing press, situated in Bab el Oued, printed the newspapers of the MTLD. It was closely watched by the police, but we had a few tricks to escape that surveillance. When there was a seizure the children who distributed Alger Republicain – little shoeshine boys – often sold more copies than usual. The police banned the Communist Party adding, “the organizations connected to it.” According to the law a formal banning of the paper enumerated the allied organizations. Alger Republicain didn’t figure in this, but it was nevertheless banned. But Alger Republicain was not a Communist newspaper, even if it had a great number of Communist journalists. The colonialist extremists placed a bomb in the building. I was there and I was injured. It was a warning. The press in Bab el Oued was also targeted. We continued to work there. There was a second bomb and then a third that completely destroyed it. I went underground in June 1956, after the last bomb at the printing press. I was arrested in July 1957.

After independence Alger Republicain’s reappearance was extremely complicated because of the hegemonic determination of the leadership of the FLN which, from the beginning, tolerated with difficulty the existence of Alger Republicain. The fact that we vigorously denounced corruption and privileges didn’t please everyone. When I escaped from prison the first thing I did, while never hiding the fact that I was a Communist and that I would remain one, was to want to go to Tunis, the seat of the GPRA [the provisional government]. They weren’t thrilled with this. The opposition to the reappearance of Alger Republicain was expressed to me at this moment. After independence, in Algeria there was the idea that there would be one party and consequently the entire press would be subject to it. The narrow attitude of certain leaders of the FLN manifested itself in regard to what Algeria could be with its various cultures, even those in a minority, and the populations that weren’t necessarily Muslim. I knew there’d be difficulties that would hinder the application of what Algeria had officially committed itself to. And not only vis-à-vis the future in general, the orientation of Algeria, but also as regards the presence of anti-colonialist Europeans. People who’d been in prison, people who’d been tortured, Jews who’d been Algerian for generations who’d taken risks. When they asked for Algerian citizenship they were not granted it. I wasn’t surprised, but I said to myself that the struggle continued and that all these backward ideas would be swept away. It was the same thing for the legal status of women. The people who thought like me weren’t disappointed, but were saddened to see that things weren’t going as fast as we’d wanted, but we kept the idea that things were evolving in the right direction. It was a period during which there were many illusions about the fact that Algeria was advancing. It was the Cuba of Africa. The coup d’etat [that overthrew Ben Bella] made things clear. Algeria wasn’t what it was said to be. The past is dead, Eli fat mat, but it shouldn’t be forgotten. Lessons must be drawn from it.