Algeria "revisited": imperialism, resistance, and the dialectic of violence in Mohammed Dib's The Savage Night.
John W. Maerhofer
Algeria "Revisited": Imperialism, Resistance,
and the Dialectic of Violence in Mohammed Dib's
The Savage Night
Writing in the midst of one of bloodiest conflicts in the history of postcolonial Algeria, Mohammed Dib probes the brutalities of war, exploitation and the isolation of economic marginalization, and the complexities of postcolonality in his The Savage Night. For Dib violence is not an inexplicable component of human society, but the outcome of systemic conditions that continually work against the concept of humanity- itself. The relationship between writer and society for Dib is less a process of conscious alignment than it is a means of nurturing the dialectical relation that emerges when texts collide with history. In this collection of stories, Mohammed Dib overcomes the existentialist abandonment of the uncommitted writer to confront what he calls the "invisible prison" of systemic violence by offering a model for aesthetic confrontation based on intellectual engagement and the awakening of the reader to the accountability of the text.
In the "Afterword" to his collection of stories in The Savage Night, Mohammed Dib offers a challenge to the reader: "How can we, in our shared humanity, have allowed ourselves to be a party to the great wrongs of this century and, in so doing, create an era of even more prolific crimes?" (1) In stories that probe the brutalities of war, capitalist exploitation and the isolation of economic displacement, and the complexities of post-colonality, Dib overcomes the existentialist abandonment of the uncommitted writer to confront what he calls the "invisible prison" of systemic violence by offering a model for aesthetic confrontation based on intellectual engagement and the awakening of the reader to the accountability of the text:
What could be of more importance for a writer than to be confronted with the issue of one's own responsibility? The question is not aptly put, it should be reversed. It would be more appropriate to ask, Is there any point churning out reams of written pages if one is not held accountable for it? Accountable for having written it all or for simply having written at all. The Western world seems to have extricated itself from this problem by separating the two things: writing (fiction) and responsibility (morals). Should we, can we, uphold this point of view under any and all circumstances? I don't think we can or that we should. It doesn't matter what I think, it becomes increasingly obvious every day. Yet all that is so far from the Western world. (Dib 2001, 191)
Writing in the midst of what would become one of bloodiest conflicts in the history of postcolonial Algeria, Dib suggests that the writer is forced to become politically engaged as a result of material conditions, a dialectical view which also reveals the absence of political commitment by those associated with the nihilistic project of postmodernism. The relationship between writer and society for Dib is less a process of conscious alignment than it is a means of nurturing the dialectical relation that emerges when texts collide with history, what for Dib characterizes the moment of political recognition that had defined his early work in the Algerian anticolonial struggle, and yet is intrinsic to the development of his ideological responsibility in the attempt to expose the underlying origins of social and political upheaval.
While the shift from literary "resistance" during the Algerian Revolution to what Edward Said calls the "critical consciousness" of the public intellectual, what we continue to find is that the repetition of violence in The Savage Night is meant to link individual texts to a more thorough examination of what Dib calls the "discontinuity" by which social relations continue to be determined by systems of power, particularly by the colonialist and neocolonialist formations that continue to determine social and political life in postcolonial Algeria. My central argument is that for Dib violence is not an inexplicable component of human society, but the outcome of systemic conditions that continually work against the conceptual parameters of humanity itself, what I will call Dib's dialectic of violence which encompasses chronological and geographical spaces, most of which have experienced the devastating effects of war, racism, and imperial rule. Some of the fundamental questions I will address in this paper are: to what extent is the Algerian war for liberation "revisited" in Dib's other stories, and how does he traverse the dialectic of violence internationally? Moreover, if the dialectic of violence blurs the lines between past and present, how does this discontinuity play a role in the current formations of inter-imperialist rivalry, racist and sexual violence, economic depravity and exploitation, and the composite framework of postcolonality in Algeria and the Third World? Finally, what does Dib offer to the intellectual struggle against the dialectic of violence and can his model for resistance be used to overthrow the systems that produce it?
One of the ways Dib constructs the dialectic of violence is by addressing what he clearly sees as the failures the postcolonial Algerian state. Like that of many intellectuals of his generation who contributed to the revolutionary struggle, such as Assia Djebar and Kateb Yacine, Dib's political commitment also reflected a deeper concern with developing the Third World Project of which decolonization against the French was just the beginning. (2) As a genuine expression of Third world radicalism, the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN) had amalgamated national factions and galvanized international sympathy by 1956 and became an emblem of revolutionary solidarity that intellectuals such as Dib hoped would be sustained in the postcolonial state. The rapid reconstruction of the Algerian infrastructure in the immediate aftermath of the anticolonial struggle also saw the rise of privatization which Mahfoud Bennoune acknowledges "was bound to end up, sooner or later, in thwarting the success of a genuinely socialist industrialization which constitutes the sin qua non for national independence and social justice for all" (1988, 161). What we find is that the revolutionary enthusiasm which mobilized the population in Algeria gave way to internal power struggles within the FLN during the attempts at "Algerian Socialism," with a military coup in 1964 which overthrew the first post-revolutionary president, Ahmed Ben Bella, and culminating in the televised assassination of Mohamed Boudiaf in June of 1992, both of whom were considered to be the revolutionary "heroes" who led the FLN to the victory over the French. (3) The political failure of the postcolonial state, coupled by its emphasis on building state capitalism under the guise of socialism, would isolate much of the Algerian population and deepen the remnants of economic imperialism while distorting the egalitarianism and class consciousness that had animated the national and international community during the revolution. It would also lead to a civil war that would inflict irreparable harm on the Algerian population, a point I will analyze further below. For Vijay Prashad, commenting on the overall collapse of Third World revolutions in the period after the Algerian Revolution, the "demobilization" of the population occurred as a result of the institutionalization of the doctrine of "national liberation" by the FLN which by ignoring the remnants of class divisions that had burgeoned during the 132 years of colonial rule set the stage for the political failures by the postcolonial state and leading ultimately to the internal violence of the civil war beginning in 1991. Basing his analysis on Frantz Fanon's critique of post-colonial society, developed in his "Pitfalls of National Consciousness" chapter in his The Wretched of the Earth, Prashad comments that
When the national liberation state adopted "development" in a bureaucratic manner, it tended to mimic the approach of international agencies like the World Bank rather than the aspirations and hopes of the people who had empowered the new state in the first place. There was little discussion about how to bring the views of the peasantry, or men and women, of the outcast peoples, to the center of the national debate on priorities, nor how-to address differentials in relations of power between men and women, urban and rural folk, literate and illiterate people. The national liberation project had a tendency toward a naturalistic analysis of political rights: that if colonial power is removed, if the state is controlled by the national liberation forces, if these forces produce a decent economic model, then the people will be free. (Prashad 2006, 28)
Revisiting the "Battle for Algiers" period of the war in his centerpiece story "The Savage Night," Dib depicts a brother and sister engaged in the obligatory violence of street: warfare that symbolized the FLN insurgency against the French, specifically their order to bomb a cafe in the center of the city of Algiers. The question of how violence is justified in the context of the revolutionary struggle is central here: violence, as Frantz Fanon theorizes it in relation to Algerian decolonization, is a problematic yet necessary dimension of the political organization and strategy of the FLN, as well as one that, on the conceptual level, forces the colonizer to recognize the colonized as "human." (4) That the guerilla actions undertaken by the FLN during the "Battle for Algiers" were symbolic of the systemic violence at the core of the French colonial project, which for over a century had violently subjugated and ghettoized the native population, is evident in the collective participation of all Algerians in the anti colonial effort, depicted realistically in Gillo Pontecorvo's 1966 The Battle of Algiers. Without romanticizing the justification that fortifies the violent act, Dib untangles the relation between political enthusiasm and ethical conscience, both of which lurk under the facade of collective violence, yet are often subsumed by the irrevocability of violence that is inbuilt into the social fabric of colonialism that sustains the anti-colonial resolve, as Dib describes the brother Nedim's emotional state:
Again, he glanced around the trolley. Vacant looks--they were resolved to their fate. It was plastered all over their faces: these people were just waiting to be led to the slaughterhouse. ... And afterwards, long afterwards, I will realize that this was the happiest moment in my life. Will I then be condemned to weeping in bitter regret? is that the price. I will have to pay? Will I be forced to admit that whatever comes to pass must also pass away? (Dib 2001, 50-51)
And yet for Dib's story, despite the ultimate sacrifice of the brother Nedim who is killed as he and his sister try to escape and whose memory persists in the mind of his sister Beyhana as a constant reminder of the dialectic of violence itself, the subtext of incest that is interwoven in the story reveals a corrosive element working beneath their intended efforts, a desire that Beyhana recognizes early in the story but only materializes as they kiss in the attempt to escape French paratroopers as Nedim is bleeding to death (Dib 2001, 67-68).The transgressive intimacy between them mirrors the ethical dimension of their actions and the historical implications of their commitment to national liberation. Beyond the eroticism of the transgressive act that they resign themselves to, however, lies the historicity of collective violence that encircles contemporary Algeria; for Dib is revisiting the war for liberation as the internal struggle for power began to reveal horrific acts of brutality committed by both sides of the civil conflict, an analysis of which I will focus on below. (5) We can see that Dib's conflation of the violent and the erotic suggests that the resignation to violence that was legitimized by the anticolonial struggle is constantly threatened in postcolonial Algeria, leaving those like Beyhana without recourse to psychological closure or material advancement.
For Edward J. Hughes, "The striking contemporaneity" of Dib's writing in The Savage Night "reminds us that the duty towards the past runs in tandem with the need to confront the present conflicts" (2005, 69). Hughes argues that Dib's reflection on "state repression" in "The Savage Night," whether under colonial rule or in the context of postcolonial Algeria or other political conflicts, symbolizes a "Preoccupation with the lessons of history ... in an engagement with the present and with the descendents of executioners and victims" (69). While I would agree with the strategic element of Hughes' critique of Dib's collection of stories, I would also like to rethink the naked existentiality of the depicted violence in Dib's work, what I have been rethinking here as the dialectic of violence which is materially rooted rather than naturalistically based. For it is often the case that the question of violence is viewed as ordinary or natural to non-Western societies, an ideological outlook that is used to avoid looking at the systemic logic of violence in the Third World for the proposes of inducing compliance to what many governments are doing in those regions--such is the case in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict in our own time, all of which are systematically exploited for the benefit of U.S. capital interests. What differentiates naturalistic violence from systemic violence, then, is the question of mystification: for the latter, we can see that it is a means of creating a perception of the non-Western other as prone to violent acts embedded in the cultural institutions of the Third World, what Edward Said argues is the perpetual unfolding of the Orientalist project especially as it relates to Islamic cultures and peoples, and used for the purposes of legitimating the control over the economic and political providence of such populations. "Orientalism isn't a myth," writes Said; rather, "it's a myth system with mytho-logic, rhetoric, and institutions of its own. It is a machine for producing statements about the Orient and it can be studied historically and institutionally as a form of anthropological imperialism" (2001, 36). Beyond the obsession with revisiting the past, in other terms, is what I would argue is the centrality of how the mytho-logic of systemic violence can be unpacked in Dibs collection, for such a reading allows for the re-interpretation of the relation between the colonial past and the historical unfolding of postcolonality in Algeria, yet more so for the struggles of the Third World overall.
The underlying dialectic of systemic violence that informs Dib's collection represents a notable shift in perspective in his aesthetic and political development, yet one that I would argue is also part of how Dib understands the position of Algeria in the framework of globalization from the 1990's to the end of the century, through the period of the civil war that lasted until around 2003. Dib's early work focused on the interconnection of native Algerians to the land, an example of his dedication to the anticolonial struggle and his commitment to what Mao Tse-tung refers to as the fronts of the pen and the gun in overthrowing imperialism. In his trilogy Algerie, Dib embroiders the physicality of the Algerian landscape into his narratives, laying the groundwork for cultural resistance and for the repositioning of identity in native terms. Commenting on Dib's La Grande maison, the first of the three novels in his trilogy, Fawzia Ahmad writes "In Dib's text there is a progression from an Algerian auto-portrait to an Algerian experience. His text is directly immersed in his culture, reinforcing the commonality of Algerianness and land" (2001,103). (6) Cultural resistance for the Algerian anti-colonial struggle, seen through Dib's politicization of the cohesion between native identity and the corporeality of colonized space, reflects the concept of dispossession of the land that invigorated nationalist movements against colonialism, what Barbara Harlow defines as the fundamental character of resistance literature and the political struggle against both physical and psychological exile. (7) The narrative of the land and the historical connection to it can be seen most notably in the work of the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish who in reconstructing the aesthetics of decolonization must recreate the concept of dispossession linguistically in order to avoid what he calls the "memory of forgetfulness" in relation to the ongoing resistance struggle. (8) In more concrete terms, E. San Juan Jr. writes that, "For the Third World artist confronted daily with degrading poverty, hunger, disease, racist bigotry, and genocidal weapons, art spells life or death" (1994, 87), a notion that corresponds to Dib's reinscription of the Algerian interior into his narrative structure in his early work.
The most immediate difference in Dib's collection under consideration here is that the interconnection between the struggle against colonial rule and the formation of Algerianness no longer has the political significance in the context of global capital; rather, what remains is an imaginary connection to history, a tenuous unhinging of identity and localized space that signals the very disconnectedness of contemporary social life. Furthermore, while the possibility of resistance still resides in the recognition of an outside enemy, Dib also suggests that what needs to be recognized is the enemy that has been internalized, one that structures the discontinuity of systemic violence at the core of Algerian postcolonality In this respect, the shift toward utilizing the dialectic of violence for Dib is symbolic of the intensification of class stratification in globalization, especially as it relates to Third World collectivity in which the long-established limit between "us" and "them" has given way to the non-exteriority of global capital and the impracticality of traditional forms of resistance. If, as Fredric Jameson argues, the new political art needs to confront global capital and its entrenchment in social life, in fact necessitating a response which could comprehensively seize control of the abstraction and existentiality of postmodernity, Dib's dialectic marks a significant restructuring of such a possibility, though with careful reservations that need to be criticized more systematically. (9) In other terms, despite the pessimism and outwardly un-committed exterior to his writing in The Savage Night, one that may locate his work in the postmodernist aloofness that had peaked by the mid-1990's, Dib intends to rediscover the relationship between author and reader by exposing the representations of power that seem to work beyond the control of collective experience through the moment of political awakening of the characters themselves.
We can see how Dib develops the concept of systemic violence and the transgressions it involves m more detail in other stories that deal specifically with the failure of the FLN in postcolonial Algeria, resulting in the emergence of political and religious factionalism and the further alienation of the population from the fruits of the anticolonial struggle. In Dib's "Life Today," a grandfather and his grandson, Khelil, are given a coin out of sympathy by a passerby who triggers the grandfather to reflect on the hidden violence of class configuration in contemporary Algeria which he and Khelil witness each day at their daily spot at the open market. Their alienation from "life today" is both economic as much as it is physical: as spectators to the newly reconfigured class society in postcolonial Algeria, they are also symbolic of the disempowerment of the masses and of the re-member of colonial estrangement, as they hear a women rant about the prices in the market: "A fortune for a sprig of parsley! What will become of the world with greedy vultures like you merchant? ... So you're building yourself a castle too, is that it? Just like the others?" (2001 129). At first, the grandfather justifies the rich/poor dichotomy, and yet his complacency soon turns to disillusionment as he remembers his participation in the anticolonial struggle and its effect on the contemporary situation, as exclaims bleakly: "When a world can no longer remedy its own ills, it's very hard to help it become a fair place to live again--even after having gone up into the mountains to die and then end up coming back down again. That's what life today is all about" (137).
The sacrifices of those like the grandfather are subordinated to the hegemony of the nationalist project, a point that Prashad, Said, and others critical of the postcolonial state reiterate, particularly in light of the "failure" of the Third World Project and the reversion towards the "new" imperialism in conjunction with unequal class relationships inside postcolonial social relations that continue to determine the material terms of most of the global Third World. For Eqbal Ahmad, the confrontation with empire has as much to do with external agents of the "new" imperialism as it entails the internal class disparities which inhibit the possibility of material transformation in Third World societies:
The colonial state was not about being of service to the colonized. It was about exploitation and extraction of resources. The post-colonial state is exactly the same. This intelligentsia, this bourgeoisie--the propertied class of the third world--is as heartless in its lack of concern for the poor, in some ways even more so, as the colonial state. There has been a near breakdown of the institutions of higher learning. A new intelligentsia, rooted in that soil, informed of the country's problems, having some sense of responsibility as to what is happening to people, has not been produce (Eqbal). (10)
As it relates to postcolonial Algeria, Dib reminds the reader that the mechanisms of imperialism are still intact; that they still structure the material conditions of "life today," and yet these conditions are mystified by the ideology of national liberation which flattens class antagonisms, thus allowing the exploitative mechanisms that are intrinsic to state capitalism to remain invisible to the demobilized population.
The imperialist residue of Algerian postcolonality emerges again in Dib's "Amria and the Frenchman," a story which also blurs the lines between past and present Algeria by again depicting the relationship between a grandfather, Dahmane, and his granddaughter, Amria. The story revolves around Amria's sighting of a Frenchman at an abandoned French estate, the same estate on which Dahmane worked as a child. The more Dahmane tries to rationalize who he thinks is the son of the former estate owner, who was exiled after the revolution and thus physically absent, the more we recognize the depth of psychological paralysis that continually pervades the postcolonial condition: the residual haunting of Master Jacques is a consequence of the structural invisibility of the colonial apparatus, which is no longer an actuality as much as it continually determines the psychological materiality of contemporary life. As Hughes argues, this story could be read as a "parable of postcolonial relations" in Algeria in which "traces of past interaction between the colonizer and the colonized persist" (2005, 68). Although I would agree that the paradigm of the invisible prison of violence determines the collective identity of post-revolutionary Algeria and the abiding difficulty to break free from the ideological repetition of this postcolonial doxa, I would also acknowledge Fanon's notion that it is violence chat defines the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized, a relationship built according to the inferiority complex that structures and restructures the "interrelations of historical conditions" of postcolonality (Hughes 2005,84). At the same time, we can see that Dib is confronting the insulated apparatus of imperialism as it exists in the post-revolutionary Algerian state: as an institutionalized framework by which the power structures steadily operate, the legacy of colonialism structures what Dib sees as the same agenda which has activated and sustained the surge of terrorist violence during the Algerian civil war, a point I will turn to now.
The crisis in Algeria began in 1988, with mass demonstrations led primarily by young workers and women against labor exploitation and the class disparities that had become more and more evident in the post-revolutionary state. The corrupt bureaucratic structure of the FLN and the development of corporate privatization, combined with an enormous debt that had been accumulating for twenty years, had paralyzed the industrial sector, forcing millions of Algerians to struggle for basic necessities and creating the context for major political instability (Bennoune 1988, 262-312). By 1990, in the wake of mass strikes and rioting against the authoritarian apparatus of the FLN and the military which had resorted to the violent repression of the demonstrations and the systematic usage of torture against suspected leaders of the riots, the militant Islamic Salvation Front or (FIS) had mobilized enough support to win the general election by combining anti-colonialist sentiment, strict Koranic principles, and Algerian nationalism. This led to the banning against the FIS, dissolved by the Algerian court in 1992, yet also signaled the beginning of the political violence that would mark one of the darkest periods in postcolonial Algeria. In 1991, a group of militants led by Aisa Messaoudi, a founding member of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) which sought to create an Islamic Algerian state by force after the FIS was barred from doing so through the electoral system, attacked guards in the town of Guemar on tire Tunisian border, an act which reveals the horrific explicitly of what would become a daily reality for the Algerian population: according to Mahmood Mamdani, the militants "hacked their victims to death with knives and swords and burned others with blowtorches," techniques that were often used by groups like the Taliban in Afghanistan in their struggle to create an Islamic state, a point that is pertinent to the entrenched relationship between political terrorism and the invisibility of inter-imperialist rivalry which Mamdani argues "is the result of an encounter of a pre-modern people with modern imperial power" (2004, 162, 166). Chronicling the emergence of the factional violence from its inception in 1993, Juan Goytisolo writes, "Against the would-be 'moderation' of the Armed Islamic Movement [MIA], which 'only' executes the representatives of an 'unholy government,' a new movement, the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), proposes an out-and-out jihad, the preferred victims of which will be journalists, writers, poets, feminists, and intellectuals." The GIA "distinguish themselves" by attacking foreigners, non-Muslims, restrained Imams, and especially women who not wearing the hijab (2000, 79). As noted by Rod Skilbeck, attacks against women "encapsulated much of the violence" during the Algerian crisis: women who ventured out without the hijab were targeted for murder, with retribution carried against veiled women by the Organisation of Young Free Algerians (OJAL), a nationalist movement which attempted to "rescue" Algerians from the Islamicists. (11) In this sense, as Hafid Gafaiti argues, the authoritarianism of the FLN is "structurally similar" to the "barbarism" of the GIA and other mujahedeen working "within the Algerian social fabric and political sphere," what Gafaiti outlines as the legitimation of state power through the brutal silencing of the Algerian intelligentsia (1998, 72). Without going into the particulars of Gafaiti's conflation of the FLN and the GIA, it is important to note that the legitimacy of violence that followed during the civil war of the 1990's is revealed in the establishment of FLN state-run prison camps and systematic torture bases, a state of siege resulting from terrorist bombings and the backlash against the Islamicist opposition that caused over 120,000 deaths, and the targeted assassinations of journalists, artists, writers, poets, musicians, and leftist intellectuals who opposed the violence on both sides and demanded an alternative solution, many of whom are memorialized in Assia Djebar's poignant Le blanc de L' Algerie in which the author tries to comprehend the extent of the brutality. (12)
We can summarize momentarily by stating that, although the FIS originally had been effective in appealing to the mass of working-class people who were not reaping the benefits of FLN state capitalism, the emergence of political factionalism which spun out of control by the mid-1990's was illustrative of the "invisible prison" of systemic violence working at the core of the postcolonial Algerian state, one which encompasses both the authoritarianism of the FLN structure as well as the internationalist roots of the mujahedeen who waged its war against "secular" corruption. As stated earlier, we may speculate that the circle of fundamentalist violence, both religious and secular, has roots that extend before and after French colonialism in the configuration of postcolonial Algeria. For Dib parallels the rise of the GIA (though unnamed in his stories) and sectarian violence with the specter of residual imperialism in stories that reflect both the social disunity of Algerians as well as their inaccessibility to political and economic power, an extension of the colonialist dynamic that Frantz Fanon warned would occur without radicalizing the collective consciousness of the post-revolutionary society, as I discussed above. In "The Detour," we sec the ritual murder of two "liberated" Algerian youths by a group of Islamic Fundamentalists who sought to rescue their land by sacrificing two mislaid captives who are oblivious to the reasoning behind their execution, one which was intended to honor them according to the logic of the fellah community. Through a macabre setting reminiscent of Poe's short fiction, Dib reveals for us the clash between Algerian past and present, between the ostensible modernity of the postcolonial state and the premodern residues of localized communities who based themselves on the logic of Islamic ritual, as the main character Ben tries to rationalize his situation there after seeing his companion, Soraya, extraordinarily covered from head to toe in a pure white haik, a symbol of the corporeal violence against secularist values:
Ben tried to think. The fact that she [Soraya] was here meant they would take part in it together, but take part in what exactly? Damned this village and the people in it! A welcoming ceremony? Some kind of ritual practice? A double homage? Now he really did want to know. He was racking his brain when his patron, his chaperon, in the same kindly fashion, led him over to the young woman and pressing--ever so gently--upon his shoulder, seated him at her side. A wager? A pretext for playing this game? What did they represent to these people? (Dib 2001,31).
The symbolic dimension of their "detour," combined with their inexplicability of the situation that ends with their ritual sacrifice to the barren land of the village, reflects Dib's concern with the extent of the violence during the Algerian crisis, the massacres that were committed during the 1990s and justified by Islamicist irrationality. (13) Without diminishing the horrific circumstances that befall the characters of the story, Dib is careful not to dictate the perspective of the conflict through the Eurocentricity that is often utilized to perpetuate what many see as the inherent conflict between Western "democracy" and Islamic "fanaticism," a manipulative tool that is especially relevant to the post-9/11 period, especially as it relates to the position of women. In other terms, Dibs dialectic of violence can be read through this story as a means of reconfiguring Algerian postcolonality, what he understands as the "discontinuity" of social relations in the postcolonial state which have failed to establish the necessary dialogue between modernity and political Islam. The extremes of secularization, of imposed models of "democracy" and "social progress" viewed through Western determinations on the one hand, and of the Islamicists who insist on the religious nationalization of Algerian society on the other are enmeshed in this discontinuity. Along with Dib, I would argue that discontinuity represents a failed attempt to create a discourse of class unity, resulting in landscapes of genocide, rape, exploitation, and state-run subjugation which are naturalized and manipulated by power structures in order to thwart the solidarity among the dispossessed, witnessed from postcolonial Algeria to the streets of the South Bronx. (14)
From another perspective, however, what underlies Dib's dialectic of violence, the unseen context of how violence is both justified and conditioned, is the question of imperialism in the contemporary period, specifically the interrelationship between the horrors committed during the Algerian crisis and the Afghan mujahedeen, whose existence could not have been made possible without the economic complicity and political acknowledgement of the U.S. whose proxy war against the Soviets was conducted at the cost of building and supporting extremist groups, such as the Taliban. According to Michel Parenti," Over the years the United States and Saudi Arabia expended about $40 billion on the war in Afghanistan. The CIA and its allies recruited, supplied, and trained almost 100,000 radical mujahedeen from forty Muslim countries including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Algeria, and Afghanistan itself (2008). For Mamdani, "The source of privatized and globalized terrorism in today's world, the international jihadis are the true ideological children of Regan's crusade against the 'evil empire'" (Mamdani 2005, 177).The Islamicist insurgency in Algeria, those that made up the FIS and GIA membership (between 600 and 1000 Algerians) had training experience in Afghanistan with the mujahedeen, a point which deepens the context of what Dib reveals as the systemic dimension of violence structured globally. Thus, if there is a lesson embedded in Dib's narrative of discontinuity, it can be reiterated according to Mamdani's notion that "instead of thinking of modernity as an import into Islam, one needs to be sensitive to the emergence of an Islamic modernity, arising from processes within Islamic societies" (174). In other terms, the internationalization of political Islam cannot be unhinged from imperialism; despite the attempts to reify the interconnection between the drive for profit and the systemic violence that encircles social relations in the contemporary period, Dib's dialectic reinforces those interconnecting forces, revealing the depth of the discontinuity that is in no way natural or intrinsic to humanity, but are mechanisms that are inbuilt in political and economic institutions and thus have to be recognized in order for humanity to move beyond the systemic violence enmeshed in them.
We can see how Dib's preoccupation with the "discontinuity" of social relations in the contemporary period connects Algeria with other stories in Dib's collection which interrogate the global dimension of conflict and its resultant effects. To a certain degree, in revisiting Algeria in geographical locations ranging from Latin America to the Balkans, Dib creates a discourse for the postcolonial condition in which humiliation and terror continually haunt the present context of social relations. His revisiting of Algeria can be thought of as a way of reiterating the internationalist dimension of systemic violence, which from the point of view of the characters in these stories, is again indiscernible to them and yet a slowly recognizable progression between the materiality of disorder and political consciousness. While the inescapability of historical violence is evoked in Dib's writing, his concern with exposing the underlying mechanisms of war, imperialism, subjugation, and super-exploitation into our own era remains an essential part of his attempt to reconstruct how the dialectic of violence operates globally so that it can be demystified and confronted, a crucial point which I will return to in my conclusion.
For now, looking at his story "Paquita, or the Ravished Gaze," we can see how the dialectic of violence unfolds in a story about an anonymous family in an unnamed part of Latin America who is forced into selling their daughter's eyes in order to survive economically. As Paquita ponders whether her brown eyes will turn blue "up north," the family finds redemption in religion, an attempt to mollify their guilt, especially in light of Paquita's awareness of the situation. For Prashad, populations of the Third World have increasingly turned to religious organizations as a "social balm for hopelessness and helplessness," an underwritten consequence of the failure of the Third World Project in the contrmporary period (2006, 79). The sacrifice of Paquita's eyes, an act of obligatory violence in the context of the story and the family's situation, is a reminder of the exploitative system that permits even the buying and selling of body parts for the benefit of those in the dominating North. On the one hand, we can see how Paquita's calculated loss of sight is emblematic of how the invisible prison of violence is experienced as an effect of that system, as Paquita exclaims ironically at the end of the story: "Ever since my eyes were taken away, the world has become so much vaster" (Dib 2001, 122). At the same time, the story also allows Dib to demystify the inexplicable dimension of that incident for the purposes of creating a material framework for global imperialism and capitalist exploitation outside of his native Algeria, especially as it relates to the global South and its reliance on institutions of the West, such as the World Bank and the IMF for survival, which adjusts itself according to the economic dictates of the dominant capitalist nations at the expense of the primacy of establishing a better world for its native inhabitants.
In his stirring narrative "Butterflies," Dib tells the story of a young boy, Izet, and his mother, Najla, in the Dorbrinja neighborhood of Sarajevo, which was considered one of the front lines in the Bosnian War, and which saw some of the most horrific war crimes committed during the siege, especially against Bosnian women who became the target of systematic rape and sexual abuse by the Serbian nationalists. For Dib, the explicit violence against women is structurally similar to the predicament of women in postcolonial Algeria in which the politics of patriarchal dominance is revealed as a systemic mechanism by which women are subjugated through ideology, one which had equally devastating circumstances in Sarajevo. Yet the entire picture of extremist nationalisms, conditioned by exterior powers that manipulate the situation for their own selfish gains, is reminiscent of Algeria's own tragic history occurring in the exact same era, a moment in which U.S.-sponsored globalization had become unrelenting in its pursuit of universal dominance, leaving whole populations in desperation, fear, and abandonment, the beginning of what would emerge as the "new" imperialism that would subject Iraq and Afghanistan to the same tactical and strategic determinations. (15) In his story, Izet comes home to find his mother has been brutally raped by a group of Serbian soldiers who live in the same building complex. After trading his ration of chocolate for grenades, Izet assassinates the leader of the Serbian group, an act of legitimized aggression that would seem justified in the revenge plot. The circle of violence that pervades the story is not limited to revenge; in contrast, Izet's revenge is conditioned by the uniformity of brutality that surrounds them: the shelling, machinegun fire, calculated assassinations and perpetual bombardment that encircle their collective existence in the concealed war for geo-political hegemony conducted by the U.S. and its NATO allies. (16) The reality of every-day brutality comes to us through Juan Goytisolo's journalistic account of his visit there in the 1990s:
The inhabitants of Sarajevo have withstood for more than a year this risk of extermination, their life as inmates of an open prison, with integrity, dignity and sangfroid. But the combined effect of hunger, exhaustion, and a general feeling of betrayal and abandonment has finally overtaken them from the day the shameful Washington accord was signed, forcing their moral resistance to the limit of what is bearable. ... In Sarajevo, as in the rest of Bosnia, murder, destruction, massacre--the whole infamous ritual known as ethnic cleansing--is conducted on the ground with impunity. (Goytisolo 2000, 11-12)
Despite the revenge plot in "Butterflies," what Dib reveals is how the imperialism conditions existence on a local level, how it thrives according to the ignorance of those It destroys as well as those whose support is needed in order to perpetuate profit and geo-political predominance. The only life-force that thrives in the midst of this systemic violence is the invasion of butterflies which feeds off the collection of flowers laid for the dead in the open graves throughout the neighborhood, an irony that fascinates Izet and leads him, ultimately, to question the discontinuity of systemic violence that has corrupted his moral fiber, as the last lines of the story reveal: "It isn't right to kill people, is it, mama?"
"Butterflies" most clearly represents the effects of what I have called the dialectic of violence in Dib's collection, which in the moment of its unfolding renders a concrete picture of how violence is organized and manipulated by exterior forces which remain hidden, and yet cause wide-ranging devastation. For Dib, the dialectical exchange between the local and global effects of systemic violence is indicative of his larger concern for creating a model of aesthetic resistance and social responsibility that is contingent on the ideological demystification of what he calls "the insidious farces of this insidious time" (2001,
189). As he states, "However, it is not the writer's job to mete out lessons but to reverse the learning process. He does not proscribe responses but rather poses questions." Does this mean that intellectual engagement should be marginalized or that the writer's morality must be kept out of the writing process? Not at all, for what I would suggest is that even in his early work, Dib avoided the trend of socialist realism that many Algerian intellectuals adopted during the anticolonial struggle, and instead focused on creating a sympathetic dialogue between reader and writer based on textual accountability. "What better way of learning the value of the written word of discovering that one's words have impact, that they gain in value in direct proportion to the blame incurred or the extent of the condemnation they expire" (190).
While not abandoning the essential responsibility of the writer, Dib also focuses on the inclusiveness of the conscious reader, whose ethical positioning in the story is developed in the moment of collective recognition: the reader, therefore, is obliged to react to the systemic violence that is unveiled in these texts, to force a dialogue among the forces that are rendered irreconcilable, according to the power structures and the institutions that legitimate and manipulate terror untraceably. Politically, Dib's model broaches the dialectic of human emancipation that Marx outlines in his "On the Jewish Question" in which the unification of self-interest and collective responsibility leads to the recognition of the totality of liberation apart from the abstractions of the state, the emergence of a political consciousness which Marx calls the realization of species-being:
Only when the actual, individual man has taken back into himself the abstract citizen and in his everyday life, his individual work, and his individual relationships has become a species-being, only when he has recognized and organized his own powers as social powers so that social force is no longer separated from him as political power, only then is human emancipation complete. (Marx 1994, 21)
The notion of social and political power inherent to collective responsibility is crucial for Dib, whose objective is to impart meaning to the framework of systemic violence that is naturalized by external forces, thus forcing us to recognize our role in shaping the potential for global solidarity. Thus, the historical necessity of Dib's model has as much to do with revisiting Algeria in his collection of stories as it does with the historicity of the contemporary period for us, for the parallels between then and now are quite apparent: inter-imperialist rivalry for control of the Middle East, deep-rooted racism and sexism, super exploitation of labor and global resources, asymmetrical development between the center and periphery topographies which surpasses the apex of Western imperialism, and the conspicuous disparity between the voraciousness of corporate accumulation and the deprivation of basic necessities of entire populations, as the recent capitalist crisis reveals. Parallel to the search for models of struggle is the anticipation of finding solutions in writers, artists, and activists of the past century who like Dib struggled against the catastrophes that shaped their work and whose influence is still felt in kindred spirits in the contemporary period. The question, then, is what the Utopian principles of Dib's model can provide in the renewal of radical solutions for the present time, in building the future of the global community beyond the vestiges of systems that are incessantly working against the concept of a shared humanity.
(1.) For convenience, I am using the C Dickson's translation of Dib's La Nuit Savage, originally published by Editions Albin Michel, 1995.
(2.) Both Djebar and Yacine are well-known for their intellectual commitment to the Algerian revolutionary struggle. Among other works, see Djebar, Assia. 2005. Children of the New World A Novel of the Algerion war. Trans. Marjolijn de jager. New York: The Feminine Press of the City University of New York, originally published in 1962 on the brink of the FLN victor, and Yacine, Kateb. Nedjma. 1956. Paris: Editions du Seuil.
(3.) The seminal narrative of the Algerian War is Horne, Alistair. 2006. A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962. New York: New York Review of Books. See especially 128-208 for an analysis of the FLN's "internationalization" of the anticolonial struggle. For an overview of the economic and political developments in postcolonial Algeria see Evans, Martin and John Philips. 2007. Algeria: Anger of the Dispossessed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 67-142.
(4) See Fanon, Frantz. 1968. The Wretched of the Earth. Trans. Constance Farrington. New York: Grove Press, 35-107. For an analysis of Fanon's theory of collective violence as it relates to colonialism, see Gibson, Nigel. 2003. Fanon: the Postcolonial Imagination. Cambridge: Polity Press, 103-27.
(5) Much of the violence has been chronicled on Algeria-Watch, a website dedicated to information and analysis of human rights abuses from the 1990's to the present at http://www.algeria-watch.org/index_en.htm
(6) See Dib, Mohammed. 1952. La Grande maison. Paris: Editions de Seuil.
(7) See Harlow, Barbara. 1987. Resistance Literature. London: Methuen, especially 75-117.
(8) Among Darwish's notable works, see his poetry written during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 in Memory of Forgetfulness. Trans. Ibrahim Muhawi. Berkeley: University of California Press.
(9) See this developed in Jameson, Fredric. 1998. The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern, 1983- 1998. London: Verso, 37-40.
(10) See Ahmad, Eqbal, "Confronting Empire." Interviews with David Barsamian. http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Eqbal_Ahmad/EA_Confronting_Empire.html
(11) See his full article, "The Shroud over Algeria: Femicide, Islamism, and the Hijab." http://www.library.cornell.edu/colldev/mideast/shroud.htm
(12) See Djebar, Assia. 2003. Algerian White. Trans. David Kelley and Marjolijn de Jager. New York: Seven Stories Press.
(13) See Algeria: Anger of the Dispossessed for an analysis and overview of the atrocities committed during the Civil War, 177-215.
(14) For an analysis of Islamic politics in the postcolonial state, see Volpi, Frederic. 2003. Islam and Democracy: The Failure of Dialogue in Algeria. London: Pluto Press. While I do not agree with Volpi's conclusions, he offers a thorough analysis of what I can only briefly mention in relation to Dibs collection. For a leftist analysis of the relationship between political Islam and global imperialism, see Amin, Samir. 2008. The World We Wish to See: Revolutionary Objectives in the Twenty-First Century. Trans. James Membrez New York: Monthly Review Press, 83-107.
(15) This analysis is consistent with Harvey, David. 2003. The New Imperialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press. See also Klein, Naomi. 2007. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. New York: Metropolitan Books.
(16) See Parenti, Michael. 2002. To Kill A Nation: The Attack on Yugoslavia. London: Verso.
Ahmad, Fawzia. 2001. "Mohammed Dib and Albert Camus's Encounter with the Algerian Landscape." In Maghrebian Mosaic:A Literature in Translation, ed. Mildred Mortimer. London: Lyune Rienner Publishers.
Bennoune, Mahfoud. 1988. The Making of Contemporary Algeria, 1830-1987: Colonial Upheavals and Post-independence Development. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Dib, Mohammed. 2001. The Savage Night. Trans. C. Dickson. Lincoln: University of Nebraska.
Gafaiti, Hafid. 1998. "Culture and Violence: The Algerian Intelligentsia between Two Political Illegitimacies." Parallax 2: 71-77.
Goytisolo, Juan. 2000. Landscapes of War: from Sarajevo to Chechnya. Trans. Peter Bush. San Francisco: City Lights Books.
Hughes, Edward, J. 2005. "Haunted and Haemorrhaging: The World of Mohammed Dib's La Nuit Savage." French Studies 1: 63-69.
Mamdani, Mahmood. 2004. Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror. New York: Three Leaves Press.
Marx, Karl. 1994. Selected Writings. Ed. Lawrence Simon. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.
Prashad, Vijay. 2006. The Darker Nations: A People's History of the Third World. New York: The New Press.
Said, Edward. 2001. Power, Politics, and Culture, ed. Gauri Viswanathan. New York: Vintage.
San Juan, E., Jr. 1994. From the Masses, to the Masses: Third World Literature and Revolution. Minneapolis: MEP Publications.
Parenti, Michael. 2008. "Afghanistan, another Untold Story." http://www.michaelparenti.org/afghanistan%20story%20untold.html
John W. Maerhofer teaches English at Queens College, New York and is. the author of Rethinking the Vanguard: Aesthetic and Political Positions in the Modernist Debate, 1917-1962. (2009).
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|Author:||Maerhofer, John W.|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2010|
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