BETWEEN TWO WORLDS
Algeria occupies an important place in the French mind, but its history and culture, despite its famous sons Camus and Derrida, remain fairly obscure to most of the English-speaking world. It is not nearly as well known as its western neighbour Morocco, or even Tunisia to the east, because it never developed a comparable tourist business or indeed allure. Also, for the past few decades civil war (1991-2002) and problems with Islamic militants — which began before the world in general had any idea of the scale of the menace — have made it unsafe for travellers to visit.
The region first comes into historical focus in the Roman period, after the Roman Republic replaced the Phoenician city of Carthage as the dominant power in the western part of north Africa — or what is still called today the Maghreb, from the Arabic word for west. Part of what is now Algeria fell within the kingdom and later province of Numidia, while the western part, as well as Morocco, constituted the kingdom of Mauretania. Mauretania became a client kingdom under Augustus and was annexed to the empire under Claudius.
The native inhabitants in antiquity were originally tribal Berbers — whose descendants today are the Tuareg — but as part of the Roman Empire many of them assimilated the Roman way of life. After the fall of the empire in the 5th century, the Maghreb was invaded by Germanic barbarians, then reconquered by the Byzantine empire 100 years later. Finally, in the 7th century they were overrun by the Arab conquests that followed the establishment of the new religion of Mohammed.
The Arab invasion led to an ethnic division that is still a source of tensions almost 1½ millennia later: Islamic fundamentalism, for example, is more common among Arabs than Berbers. To Europeans, the area was long known as the Barbary Coast, and for centuries Algiers became a base for pirates preying on the south of Europe, the Mediterranean islands and European shipping.
Pirates not only plundered smaller communities but carried off their men and women to sell as slaves or to hold for ransom. In 1541 the emperor Charles V attempted unsuccessfully to invade Algiers and put an end to the pirate threat, but by that time the pirates were an important part of the fleet of the Ottoman sultan Suleyman the Magnificent. Britain was much more successful in the bombardment of Algiers in 1816, resulting in the liberation of thousands of slaves, but the slaving and kidnapping trades did not disappear until the French invaded and annexed Algeria in 1830.
The French held Algeria for 132 years from 1848 not as a colonial possession but as a fully integrated administrative area of France. By the time they left in 1962 there were more than 900,000 European Algerians and 100,000 Sephardic Jews, almost all of whom left, causing further difficulties in the places where they resettled, such as Corsica.
But far more serious in the long run were the consequences of Algerian emigration to France: many educated and Europeanised Algerians already lived in or moved to France, and Algerian soldiers continued to serve in the French regular army. But the large number of auxiliary troops known as Harkis were not formally entitled to emigrate to France. Many did, with the help of their French officers, but tens of thousands were abandoned to be tortured and massacred by the FLN rebel fighters. The Harkis in France, mostly uneducated and unassimilated to French culture, were marginalised until recently, when presidents Jacques Chirac and especially Nicolas Sarkozy attempted to improve their situation.
Kader Attia was born in France to an Algerian family (his mother is a Berber) living in the outer suburbs of Paris, and spent his early life alternating between his two countries, aware, as his father already was, of belonging completely to neither. Throughout human history, the vast majority of people have lived and died in almost the same place; but in certain periods of dynamism and mobility, such as the Hellenistic age or the Roman Empire, expatriation and movement in both directions between metropolis and colonies became common.
Geographically too, the Mediterranean has always been a particularly fluid zone of migration and cultural exchange. Such mobility favours a higher level of self-consciousness, but also of existential discomfort among all concerned, from the melancholy of the colonist, unsure of where home is, to the anxiety of the colonised, who may discover new intellectual horizons and new opportunities, but who also suffer the pain of separation from the unreflecting certainties of their native culture.
Attia, who is the subject of an exhibition in Sydney, embodies this predicament, which becomes a central preoccupation of his art. In one set of works he considers the phenomenon of the “phantom limb” — where the brain produces illusory sensations of a limb that has been amputated — as an analogue of the experience of cultural loss and displacement. But whereas much art on such subjects is vitiated by self-pity or resentment, Attia sees loss, trauma and mourning in a broader perspective and is interested in the processes of healing.
In an interview shown in the exhibition, Attia takes as an example of his concept of repair a precious Japanese tea-bowl that had been broken and repaired with gold. In the West, he says, we tend to think of repair as restoring a thing to its former state. But such invisible mending can become a form of amnesia; in the
Kader Attia’s J’Accuse (2016)