Of Knaves and Knights and the Long In-Land Road

by Michelle Hamadache

Gorges de Kherrata by Yelles Arif, from Wikipedia Commons


There’s an alchemy that dissolves time and divisions and brings to the surface like the city of Atlantis from the waters of our mind, from the liquid space of what we know and of what we forget, instantiated moments. An arcane compound that is geographic, as much as synaptic, imperial, incantatory, an inheritance and a newborn thing, inhuman, as much as human.

The first time I heard Amine refer to me as roumia, followed by his mother concurring that, yes, the roumi do have some strange ideas, I lost perspective, my sub specie aeternitatis gone, drowned in a timeless river.

                                 ‘Roumi, Michelle. It means Roman—you know like the Roman Empire. The Romans were here (Algeria), you know that—you’ve seen the ruins.’

Word ⇔ image ⇔ metaphor into vehicles that cross the limits of seconds and hours and centuries; mountains, deserts and seas; flesh, hearts and minds.


The thing with Algeria is that it’s a tough terrain. The Sahara occupies so much of its territory, then the mountains, a wall— a bordj: an Arabic fortification, but also a segment or section, like that of an orange—running the breadth of Algeria, protecting the coastal regions from the encroaching desert sands, mountains that spill right into the sea in places. All in all, fertile territory—like the Mitidja Plains, suited for crops or vines—is precious; slender tracts of land upon whose shoulders feast or famine depends.

The Romans

Two thousand years ago, when the Romans made Algeria part of the Roman Empire, allowing for the shifting nature of those ‘limits’ or limes that define province, colony or nation, the Romans appropriated roughly 59 million acres of territory, mostly the fertile coastal tracts, and turned Algeria into its granary.

A geographer, Sherwin-White, suggested in 1944, with prescience, that Algeria turns its back on the sea, and that the Romans never really occupied Algeria; rather they huddled in satellite cities between the vast swathes of untamed land and the peoples who called themselves the Tamazight, the Free Men. Because there are no major river-systems in Algeria, Sherwin-White remarked that the most vital artery in the country ran cross-wise—east-west—through the mountains. He talks of the great in-land road where caravans of goods picked their precarious way through gorges and sheer mountainsides. Sherwin-White also said that the master of the coast was by no means the master of Algeria (5-6).

Scales matter to the human mind. Isn’t it strange how powerful a trope the Roman Empire is to the Western Imagination? Roman empires built in blood; Roman cartographies of empire built in ink and passed down along the trunk-roads of the imagination. Fragile lines on paper corresponding to lonely sentinels watching over rocks and chasms and dense cedar forests, sentinels two thousand years dead.

A lot of Algerian history is oral history. The family name ‘Hamadache’ originates in Bejaia, the mountainous region east of Algiers, and some years ago, Amine’s uncle went back to the douar, or village, where his family came from to trace the family tree. The old woman who keeps the records (in the genealogical map of her mind) told Rachid that the Hamadache name dates back to the time of the Roman Empire, when Amine’s family would ambush Roman caravans as they made their way along that great trunk road, threading its way through steep, deeply forested terrains. Hamadache means ‘thieves of the Romans’.


The French

In 1830, French troops arrived at Sidi Fredj, a port 60kms west of Algiers. The troops were carried in on a fleet of 500 ships: a force of 64 000, one and half times the size of the population of Algiers at the time (Clancy-Smith 19). In order to stamp out the almost successful resistance led by Abdelkedir el Djezairi, French Generals and Colonels such as Bugeaud, Pelissier and Saint-Arnaud employed the scorched earth policy as a ‘doctrine of war’ (Behr 20-1). They burnt land, stores of grain, livestock and villages, but also herded men, women and children from the villages into caves and smoked them to death.

284 million acres had been taken by force by 1850 (Majumdar xvii). Between the years of 1871-1919, 215 million acres of Algerian land were legally handed over to French settlers with the passing of the Warnier Act (Stora 7).

Algeria is big. 588 million acres. Really, the Romans were just mucking around.




During the Algerian war for independence from France (1954-62) more than 2 million Algerians were forcibly removed from their homes and ‘regrouped’ into resettlement centres, as part of the French army’s pacification policy (Ruedy, Cornaton, Sutton). That’s half the Algerian population of the time. 94% of Algerian men were illiterate and 98% of Algerian women (Tillion 58).

The pacification of Algeria, or the mantien de l’ordre (it wasn’t until 1999 that the events in Algeria were officially acknowledged by France as war [Cohen 231]) was at times both a military and a civilian endeavour (Sutton 244). The regroupment centres were designed to regain control over the mountainous regions, or bordjen, that were supplying, sustaining and sheltering the National Liberation Front’s (FLN) armed forces (ALN).

The plan was to starve the rebels, pacifically. Carried out by both the French military and a French administrative branch, the regroupment centres at their best attempted to offer some of the benefits of ‘civilisation’ to a rural population already subsistence farming on radically reduced plots of land. A small proportion of the French regroupment centres offered to Algerians conditions that they had never before experienced during French rule: medical attention, access to education, and modern amenities that the rhetoric of colonisation as civilisation was always meant to deliver. Though the education on offer was limited to trades for men, sewing and weaving for women, the initiative was designed to bridge the gap between Algerian and French settler. These more civilised regroupment centres were violently opposed by French settlers. The vocal urban French settlers were poor and afraid of any measure that would threaten their advantage over the Algerian.

The vast majority of the new settlements were hastily put together—sometimes just tents: barbed-wire enclosures guarded by French soldiers. The areas were selected by a military logic with no concern for short-term or long-term viability. Worried about later claims for compensation, the French military passed around declarations, written in French, to the effect that the move was voluntary and the Algerians agreed to the destruction of their existing houses, stock and property. General Salan went so far as to admit that ‘regrouping people’ ‘posed delicate economic and psychological problems’; General Parlange that ‘resettlement involved déracinement and was part of a military scorched earth policy’ (Sutton 248 & 255). The return of the scorched earth policy, but this time with napalm, not fire (Schalk 28; Galula 195).


Germaine Tillion

Germaine Tillion was a French ethnologist who was asked in 1954 by the then Minister of the Interior, Monsieur Mitterand, to examine the ‘conditions in which the transfer of certain tribes had been carried out’ (Tillion 1961: 25). Tillion was chosen for the job because she’d lived in remote region of the Aures Mountains for six years, from 1934-40. During this time, she learned the language of the Chaouïa people, as well as studying their genealogies and traditions, writing a suitcase full of notes from which she’d hoped to write her thesis.

Tillion had been an integral part in the establishment of the French resistance movement, and because of her involvement in the resistance, was arrested and sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp in 1943. Her suitcase full of research from her time in the Aures confiscated, lost forever.

Tillion dedicated her post-war years to recording the oral histories of other deportees, passionately defending the inconsistencies of oral narratives and insisting upon their centrality to history (Reid 2004). She was a figure of integrity and courage, deeply respected by the French public, politicians and intellectuals alike.

Tillion wrote to bring the use of torture by the French in Algeria to a halt, not to fill papers with the faults committed (Tillion 1961:33-4). She petitioned to stop countless Algerians being executed, including Yacef Saâdi, the producer and writer on whose memoir Pontecorvo’s film, The Battle of Algiers, was based.

Tillion also wrote to eradicate the prejudices that she identified as fictions and stupidities, like the idea that Muslims were somehow ‘innately violent’. She said that every population around the world had an equal mix of ‘knaves and knights’ and that defining ‘Moslems’ by fanaticism was like defining Christians by the witch-hunts or the crusades (Tillion 1958: 8-9).


Tillion wrote two books about her time in Algeria, both translated into English under the following titles: Algeria: The Realities and France and Algeria: Complementary Enemies. The thing is that though Tillion was in Algeria inspecting the transferal of those certain tribes, only one definite sentence about the regroupment centres exists in those two definitive Algerian analyses. Mitterand ‘offered to send me there to examine the conditions in which the transfer of certain tribes had been carried out’—the answer, ‘humanely enough’ (Tillion 1961: 25-6).

There is the ghost of a second reference to the resettlement camps. There are two editions of Algeria: The Realities, both from 1958. In the Eyre and Spottiswoode edition, but not in the Knopf, Tillion acknowledges that her ‘Little Book’ was written for her comrades of the French Resistance movement and deportation camps and not intended for the general public. A Little Book designed to allay their fears about what was going on in Algeria.

The focus of the books is the ‘clochardisation’ (pauperisation) of the Algerian population and the economic and social imperatives for keeping Algeria French in order to raise the Algerian population out of the abject poverty in which they found themselves.

Right at the end of her life, when Tillion was 95, she was interviewed by an academic who asked Tillion to discuss her objections to use of the term ‘indigenous’, particularly Tillion’s objections to the derogatory manner the term was used to refer to Algerians. Tillion replied, I am an indigenous person from Paris. She said that being indigenous means ‘understanding one’s milieu, it means a certain solidarity with that milieu, and it also means partitions, it includes divisions that separate you a bit . . .’

What takes my breath away is that Tillion didn’t see any need for the recording of oral narratives from a group of people who had had their homes taken from them, who were living out days without end behind barbed-wire fences, who were without a means of speaking out, or speaking against, or speaking at all in an arena defined by intellectuals, politicians, literati, and the media.

Not a single story from a woman who worked hard to learn Chaouïa so she could write a thesis. Two books on Algeria and not a single story.

What Tillion learned from her time in Algeria caused her to revise her belief that the cruelty of the concentration camp was a peculiarly German phenomenon. In Ravensbrück, an ethnographic memoir (less experiential and more objective in tone), Tillion described the way new guards would arrive on duty visibly horrified by what they witnessed inside the walls of the camp. Two weeks was enough time to transform them into the worst perpetrators of violence.

In Algeria, witnessing the ‘régime concentrationnaire’ (Le Sueur 39-40), Tillion re-evaluated her position, even including a final chapter in Ravensbrück that recorded a room in Algeria with French officer at the helm of an inquisition that would descend into torture. Tillion concluded that most humans would behave badly given a situation of superiority created and sustained by a state (Reid 10). In 2000, she was the second name on the list of the ‘Appel del Douze’, or the appeal of 12, petitioning Chirac to condemn the use of torture in Algeria during the war years.

The years 1954-62 in Algeria were characterised by torture, execution by guillotine, unlawful arrests and unlawful regroupment carried out by the French state, by French citizens, by a French military, many of whom had experienced torture themselves during the war. A French parliament granted its military special powers by a parliamentary vote objected to only by those who felt the new powers didn’t go far enough (Talbott 61-2).

Tillion, witness to the worst of what the human is capable of, discovered in Algeria a universality to violence: conditions of state produce humanitarians, or their horrifying counterparts.

Her two books lay a blanket of silence down upon the 2 million Algerians deracinated, living in military shelters where executions and torture did occur. The indigene of Paris compelled to record the stories of Europeans in concentration camps but whose partitions and divisions left her silent before the illiterate Algerian.


I’ll never forget that I’m a roumia. A white settler, a mess of memory and mind, flesh and desire. That I live in a domestic bubble of bliss with children, a husband, a roof above my head and a full fridge contingent upon a colonial past.

I keep thinking about the way in 1962, French settlers who’d lived on Algerian soil for generations, since the 1830s, up and left their homes.

I think about resettlement centres and I think about detention centres, off-shore processing—the conditions that create the human monster. What will it take to stop the return of the scorched earth policy of the mind forever? To remember privilege and poverty is inherited today much the same way as when Marie Antoinette offered the poor of France cake.

I think about divisions and partitions until I feel like I’m going to lose my way and fall into the chasm.

Then I remember the Hamadaches lying in wait on the great in-land road, ready to ambush passing Roman caravans. The way stories are alchemies that resist the lines drawn on maps and the ticking of the great clock in the sky.

The people out there beating their victims, the sentinels holding the weapons and the keys that keep the dispossessed at bay are only the outline of the deep continent of oppression. A continent of silent masses who know, or who don’t know—neither is an excuse—about those exploited, suffering, imprisoned, and starving, in the name of protecting the good citizen, of protecting the status quo.

Knowing beings, Heidegger told us, means knowing what to do in the midst of them (192).

The words that bury, mask and distort poverty, powerlessness, and oppression are the words that ultimately spell the end of the world.

Works Cited

Behr, E. The Algerian Problem, Penguin Books: Harmondsworth, Middlesex, 1961.
Bourdieu, Pierre and Abdelmalek Sayad, Le Déracinement, Les Éditions de Minuit: Paris, 1964.
Clancy-Smith, Julia, ‘Exoticisms, Erasures, and Absence’ in Z. Çelik and J. Clancy-Smith et al, Walls of Algiers: Narrative of the City through Text and Image, Getty Research Institute: Los Angelis, pp. 19-61.
Cornaton, Michel, Les Camps de Regroupment de la Guerre d’Algerie, L’Harmattan, 1998.
Feraoun, Mouloud. 2000. Journal 1955-1962: Reflections of the French-Algerian War. University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln and London.
Galula, David. 2006. Pacification in Algeria. RAND Corporation: Santa Monica.
Heidegger, Martin, ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’ in Basic Writings, Routledge: London, 1993, pp. 143-212.
Le Sueur, J.D. 2005. Uncivil War: Intellectuals and Identity Politics During the Decolonization of Algeria. University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln.
Mujamdar, Margaret A., Postcoloniality: The French Dimension, Berghahn Books: New York, Oxford, 2007.
Reid, Donald. 2004. “From Ravensbrück to Algiers and Noisy-le-Grand”. French Politics, Culture and Society. 22(3): 1-24.
Rice, Alison. 2004. “ ‘Déchiffrer Le Silence’: A Conversation with Germaine Tillion”. Research in African Literatures. 35(1):162-79.
Ruedy, John, Modern Algeria: The Origins and Development of a Nation, Indiana University Press: Bloomington, 1992.
Schalk, D. L. (2005). War and the Ivory Tower. Nebraska, University of Nebraska Press.
Sherwin-White, A.N. 1944. “Geographical Factors in Roman Algeria.” The Journal of Roman Studies 34:1-10.
Stora, Benjamin, Algeria, 1830-2000. Cornell University Press: Ithaca and London, 2001
Sutton, Keith, ‘Army Adminstration Tesnions over Algeria’s Centres de Regroupement, 1964-62’, British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 26.2 (1999), pp. 243-270.
Talbott, J. 1981. The War without a Name: France in Algeria, 1954-62. Faber: London.
Tillion, Germaine, Algeria: The Realities. Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 1958.
_____France and Algeria: Complementary Enemies. Knopf: New York, 1961.
Todorov, T., Hope and Memory: Lessons from the Twentieth Century, Princeton University Press: Princeton, N.J., 2003.
L’Obs, http://tempsreel.nouvelobs.com/politique/20001031.OBS8652/l-appel-des-douze-contre-la-torture-en-algerie.html; Accessed: 27th March, 2016.