As I was leaving Algiers for Constantine, an hour east by plane, my friend Djamel, a taxi driver, fixer, and social critic, warned me not to tell anyone there that I was Jewish: “Just say you’re American. That’s all.” Constantine was different, he said, more conservative, less secular than Algiers.
This was in 2017, two years before the end of the twenty-year regime of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who had been disabled by a stroke in 2013 and disappeared from public view. People wondered if he was even alive. But as far as the cultural life of Algeria went, things weren’t so bad: there were international colloquiums, independent publishers, cultural visas, thriving scholarship. American researchers in particular who could no longer travel safely to the Middle East were turning to North Africa—and there were a lot of them. Beginning in 2012, I found an international community of historians and artists and cultural critics at the Glycines, a study center and residency run by the Catholic Diocese of Algiers. At the breakfast table one morning, I mentioned my upcoming Constantine trip to an Algerian graduate student, she called a friend at the Marriott there, and a day later I was set with a local guide.
Ali (as I’ll call him) was perfect—young and nimble and hyperobservant, with a knowledge of the place that included its geological wonders. You walk around Constantine and you can’t really believe how the ancient Numidian city managed to survive into the twenty-first century; it’s built above the Rhumel Gorges, deep ravines crossed by bridges whose narrow ledges daredevil boys like to walk along, hundreds of feet from a rocky death. Even in traffic you feel like you’re perched above the underworld.
Ali and I must have walked ten miles. He taught me the name of each bridge, then quizzed me. He took me to the Emir Abdelkader Mosque and University, a vast monument of marble and granite carved as intricately as lace, designed by the Egyptian architect Mustapha Moussa and completed in 1994. He had me suit up in a djellaba and veil, showed me how to place my hands for prayer. He wanted me to know what it felt like to share his faith.
Then we walked through the former Jewish neighborhood, which looked ready for a bulldozer, and past the former Lycée d’Aumale, whose name I’ve seen in so many memoirs of Algerian and French intellectuals. While we were there Ali said, with no prompting, “We’re proud to say it: here in Constantine, no Jew is allowed to enter.” He told me they’d kept out Enrico Macias, a native son born in 1938 into a great Algerian-Jewish musical family, who left the country in 1961 during the Algerian War of Independence and made a career in France performing songs of exile. You can find Macias on YouTube singing Dahmane El Harrachi’s classic “Ya rayah,” with its addictive three beats: “You who are leaving, where are you going? You’ll end up coming back.” My guide had it wrong. In a much-publicized gesture of reconciliation, Bouteflika invited Macias to Constantine in 2000, but public outcry from conservative religious quarters was apparently so great that the musician canceled his trip, citing security concerns.
That day in Constantine, I didn’t break the news to Ali that I was a refutation of his guarantee of a judenrein city. Even if I had said my obviously Ashkenazi last name, he probably wouldn’t have recognized it as Jewish. Ali took good care of me, taught me a lot about Constantine, and left a hundred mementos on my iPhone: there I am, standing on a pedestrian suspension bridge; clowning with the Algiers soccer team, who were in town for a match; posing beside a public fountain. Back at the Marriott, to cap off our day together, we took the requisite selfie. How absurd that this city, once known as “the little Jerusalem” because of its lively Jewish culture, could be inhabited by a bright, ambitious young man devoted to the growth of tourism yet cultivating the anti-Semitism of ignorance.
The historian Benjamin Stora grew up Jewish in Constantine, where he was a student at the Lycée d’Aumale in the 1950s. Though he now lives in France, he’s remained close to the intellectual life of the city, most notably in his relationship with the Algerian sociologist and historian Abdelmadjid Merdaci, with whom he directed dissertations, collaborated on documentaries, and published dialogues until Merdaci’s death in 2020.
Stora’s memoir, Les clés retrouvées (Finding the Keys), describes French soldiers firing from inside his family apartment during the Algerian War of Independence as freedom fighters escaped along the nearby Rhumel Gorges. More than a story of revolution and exile, his book is a compendium of the tastes and smells and sounds of his childhood, and of what remained of an interwoven world of Arabs and Jews that was sundered by the Crémieux Decree of 1870, which gave French citizenship to Algerian Jews but not to Algerian Muslims.
Stora asks where Algerian Jews came from—or rather where they thought they came from. He had always imagined that his father’s family descended from Jews expelled from Andalusia in 1492. His mother’s side, the Zaouis, would have belonged to the Berber tribes who converted to Judaism at the end of the Roman Empire, several centuries before the Arab conquest of the region. In a fascinating analysis of family names and stories of assimilation, Stora uncovers both the fragility and the political overtones of this easy division between Andalusian-Sephardic-European and Arab-Berber “Oriental” Jewry. Algerian Jews who were eager to assimilate as French took pride in their affiliation with the Sephardic Jews of Andalusia, because that meant they had always been European. Today, the Berber connection gives Jews with Algerian roots a sense of authenticity, linking them to the first peoples of Algeria. As he traces the branches of his family tree, Stora dwells on a family photo in which the elders are dressed in Turkish garb, the younger generation in tailored European suits—a photo impossible to understand without knowing how quickly the Crémieux Decree ushered Algerian Jews into French modernity.
Stora was twelve when he left Constantine with his parents, part of the great exodus of Algerian Jews and Europeans that took place after the country won its independence in 1962 and that reduced the Algerian Jewish population from 130,000 before the war to around a thousand by 1971 (there are reportedly fewer than fifty in Algeria today). He is old enough to have grown up in colonial Algeria but young enough to have made his career in France, and his double background has been the spark for all his work, including La gangrène et l’oubli (Gangrene and Oblivion), his history of the Algerian War and its aftermath told from both the French and the Algerian points of view.
La gangrène et l’oubli begins with the fact that, until 1999, the French state refused to call the Algerian War of Independence between 1954 and 1962 a war. The casualties were overwhelming on the Algerian side: 250,000 dead, two million forced to leave their villages and parked in “re-groupment” camps. On the French side there were 25,600 dead; 1.5 million Frenchmen were drafted for service in Algeria, and nearly 100,000 Algerians were conscripted into the French army. The official French claim was that a war must be fought between two nations, and that the events of 1954–1962 happened to a single nation: France. L’Algérie, c’est la France, the saying went: Algeria is France. So for thirty-seven years the Algerian War was known officially as a peacekeeping operation, as “actions to maintain order,” or simply as “the events.”
What did it mean to say that Algeria was France? France invaded Algeria in 1830, expropriating the land for Europeans, displacing native communities, segregating populations. In 1848 France divided the country into three départements: Algiers, Oran, and Constantine, which it administered with prefects and subprefects, as if they were the Pas-de-Calais or the Gironde. But they weren’t the Pas-de-Calais or the Gironde, because Algerian Muslims—a majority of the population—were denied the most basic civil rights and educational opportunities. Until the threat of nationalist movements after World War II forced a series of reforms, Muslims remained subjects, not citizens. Noureddine Amara, a historian of Algerian nationality, argues that Algeria was France only if you ignored the natives—or if it was France, it was France despite and against them. For Algeria to have been France, the native people would have had to enjoy political rights equal to those of the French. Departmentalization was a juridical fiction.1
In 2020 French president Emmanuel Macron asked Stora to assess “the progress made in France on the memory of colonization and the Algerian war,” and to produce an “independent set of recommendations” that might foster “the reconciliation of the French and Algerian peoples.” Stora’s report, released in January 2021 and now available as a book, France-Algérie: Les passions douloureuses (France-Algeria: Painful Passions), avoids overarching theories of the colonial system and begins instead with a synthesis of the ways each country remembers the war. The Algerian memory of it is based on a founding myth of the nation, with a surfeit of heroic narratives, while in France, memory is hopelessly fragmented, resulting in an embarrassed silence. Former French supporters of Algerian independence and former unconditional supporters of a forever French Algeria will never remember the war in the same way. Stora deplores the splitting of memory into isolated “communities”—a familiar French complaint these days—yet he points to the uniqueness of the Jewish relationship to Algeria: “What Algerian Jew doesn’t feel concerned in the fiber of his being with everything connected to the Orient and to the Arab-Berber world?”
Where his report stands the greatest chance of success is in its specific recommendations: a series of healing actions, with the idea that those alone will make a difference—a version of “fake it till you make it.” His list of modest and not-so-modest proposals includes the sharing of archives; the granting of renewable, multi-entry visas for Algerian researchers in France and French researchers in Algeria; and an end to French government denial of the most brutal episodes of the war.
Outrage over French torture and murder during the Algerian War dates back at least to 1957, when Maurice Audin, a twenty-five-year-old French mathematician, disappeared following his arrest in Algiers. A Communist and supporter of the National Liberation Front (FLN)—the movement fighting for Algeria’s independence—he was taken to an interrogation center in El Biar, tortured, and murdered. The historian Pierre Vidal-Naquet led the fight to make France accountable for his death, and Audin’s widow, Josette, never gave up lobbying the government. Recognition finally came in 2018 with an acknowledgment by President Macron of French responsibility. Macron also visited Audin’s widow and daughter—in the company of Stora. It didn’t go unnoticed among historians of the Algerian War that despite the torture and murder of countless Algerians, France had chosen to focus on a single French victim.
This past March, in response to a specific recommendation in Stora’s report, Macron also admitted French responsibility for the murder of the FLN attorney Ali Boumendjel in 1957, in the same torture center. He invited Boumendjel’s grandchildren to the Elysée Palace to mark the occasion. In the acknowledgment that the deaths of Audin and Boumendjel were crimes of the state, Stora has served as a kind of minister without portfolio of a Franco-Algerian truth commission.
Boumendjel’s story is the subject of Ali Boumendjel (1919–1957): Une affaire française. Une histoire algérienne by Malika Rahal. Paul Aussaresses, an intelligence officer in the French army, confessed in a memoir, The Battle of the Casbah (2000), that he had thrown Boumendjel off a rooftop terrace. In 1957 the press in Algiers reported that he had committed suicide—just as it reported that Audin escaped detention and disappeared, and that the FLN leader Ben M’Hidi hanged himself in his cell. And there are thousands of others yet to be identified who were disappeared during what is known as the Battle of Algiers, the period of intense urban guerrilla warfare between the French army and the FLN that lasted from September 1956 to May 1957.2
One of the most important initiatives of French and Algerian intellectuals, working in concert, resulted in the restitution to Algeria by the French in July 2020 of another group of “disappeared”: the decapitated skulls of Algerian warriors killed in 1849 that had been stored in the Musée de l’Homme in Paris. Stora mentions this in passing, without dwelling on its symbolic importance as a reminder that the colonization of Algeria lasted for over 130 years, and not merely for the eight years of war.
Even if colonization is considered a crime against humanity, as Macron declared during his campaign for the presidency in 2017, what would adjudication of French crimes in Algeria look like in the absence of surviving criminals? And who would adjudicate them? Noureddine Amara, reacting to the French government’s acknowledgment of what happened to Audin and Boumendjel, points out that confessing to a crime has never let an individual off the hook—nor should France be let off the hook for merely stating what is true.
In the 1960s Robert Paxton went to the German archives to confirm his insights into the complicity of Vichy in the Nazi occupation. Marcel Ophuls made his documentary The Sorrow and the Pity (1969) about a single French city—Clermont-Ferrand—and dismantled, scene by scene, the myth that the country had largely resisted the Nazis. Over the next two decades France had a second wave of trials for crimes committed during the war, no longer for treason (the charge leveled throughout the immediate postwar purge, followed by a general amnesty) but for crimes against humanity, which a 1964 French law had exempted from any statute of limitation. There was a huge gap in time between the occupation of 1940–1944 and the trials of the 1980s and 1990s, but Klaus Barbie, the head of the Gestapo in Lyon, and Maurice Papon, the general secretary of the prefecture of the Gironde under the Vichy regime (and later the prefect of police of Constantine and of Paris, where he was responsible for the massacre of Algerians during a peaceful demonstration in 19613), were still alive and were convicted for their crimes.
Sixty years have passed since Algerian independence, and the architects of torture during the Battle of Algiers are dead. Moreover, the Évian Accords that ended the war in 1962 amnestied men like Aussaresses, who was free in 2000 to write proudly of his torture with no fear of legal consequences.
There is, however, one man still very much alive who has fought back against accusations of torture in a French court, though his name does not appear in Stora’s report. Jean-Marie Le Pen, the patriarch of the far-right National Front, served in Algeria as a lieutenant in charge of military intelligence. Over the years, French journalists have gathered testimony from survivors of his torture sessions. He has denied their allegations and sued for defamation. In 2005 he lost an appeal in his suit against Le Monde.
Le Pen has two prominent political heirs. His daughter Marine, once again a candidate for the French presidency in next May’s elections, has changed the party’s name to National Rally, and under her leadership its anti-Jewish, anti-Muslim tirades have given way to a softer right-wing republicanism sounding the dangers of Islamist separatism and the so-called Great Replacement of French people by immigrants. But her ninety-three-year-old father has spurned her in favor of Eric Zemmour: “The only difference between Eric and me is that he’s Jewish,” he told a journalist in a recent interview.4 Zemmour’s Jewish parents came to France from Constantine and Blida during the Algerian War. The author of best-selling polemics in the “make France great again” genre, Zemmour claims that Pétain defended the Jews of France and wisely handed over foreign Jews to the Nazis, and that children born in France should be required to have French names—as if he hadn’t noticed that his own first name is Scandinavian in origin. The spectacle of a self-identified Berber Jew lunching at the Hôtel Le Bristol with Jean-Marie Le Pen and the aged daughter of the Nazi foreign minister Joachim von Rippentrop seems to come straight out of a dystopian satire—except that it actually happened in January 2020.
The genealogy of the French far right is clear: In the beginning was the loss of L’Algérie française. No one felt this loss as acutely as the French who left Algeria after 1962 and settled in France, the so-called pieds noirs. How they got that mildly pejorative yet widely accepted label has been much debated. Was it an insult to the rural origins of many of them, a reference to dirty feet on the farms? Or is it a racist term that refers disparagingly to their contact with Africa? In any case, fervent support for the National Front has come from the pied noir communities in the South of France, where children carry the torch of their parents’ and grandparents’ loss.
One out of every ten people in France is connected in some intense way to the Algerian question: they were drafted into the French army and sent to Algeria; they were native French army volunteers (“Harkis”) who fled to France for their safety but often ended up in camps; they are European pieds noirs who left Algeria in the great exodus; they are Algerian immigrants working in France who return home to their villages every summer. (Half of the Algerians living in France have dual nationality.) Or they were involved in political action, for or against Algerian independence. The legendary Jeanson and Curiel networks, whose members were called porteurs de valises (suitcase carriers) because of their work as messengers and financial supporters, worked for the FLN from France and Belgium. Members of the OAS (Secret Army Organization)—hard-core supporters of keeping Algeria French—committed acts of terror against civilians in France and Algeria. For all these reasons, Stora argues, the Algerian drama weighs more heavily on French society than any other colonial story.
On the Algerian side, the heroic mythology and the privileges granted by the Algerian state to the former freedom fighters in the War of Independence, the Moudjahidine, are fading. New stories are emerging, not only about divisions within the revolutionary leadership during the war but, with the benefit of hindsight, longer views of the psychological consequences of the difficult legacy of discrimination and separate and unequal living under French rule. One of these stories is Mokhtar Mokhtefi’s memoir, I Was a French Muslim. Its bitterly ironic title refers to the official designation of Muslims in Algeria by the French state—the label stamped on their identity papers.
Mokhtefi was born in 1935 and grew up in a village south of Algiers. He was one of the bright local children sent on to secondary school at the urging of his teachers. The school in Blida to which he was admitted sent a packing list, including pajamas—his father had no idea what they were. He powerfully recalls the shock of his cultural assimilation, an Algerian version of W.E.B. Du Bois’s double-consciousness:
I feel mutilated, bouncing back and forth between the traditional family, the village, and my life at the school and in the city. I’m discovering how complex the question of modernity versus tradition is. I know it’s not about the clothes you wear, your appearance. Evolution concerns the very essence of oneself. At school, I develop and assume a variety of personalities. I see that the habits, the beliefs, the way of thinking and acting acquired in my original environment are eroding. I’m “Frenchicizing,” one might say. I have to sort out what represents progress and what tends to depersonalize me, what in fact negates centuries of history.
Mokhtefi joined the struggle for independence. He was a student monitor at the Lycée d’Aumale in Constantine, and there, in an atmosphere of surveillance and arrest, he became the leader of the Muslim student organization. In February 1957 he left Constantine to join the Ministry of Armament and General Liaisons (MALG), the intelligence branch of the FLN’s Army of Algerian Liberation, which was operating from Morocco, then from Tunisia. When I Was a French Muslim came out in Algeria in 2016, this aspect of his memoir was keenly anticipated.5 There is a powerful mythology around members of the MALG, known as “Malgaches,” and especially around Abdelhafid Boussouf (alias Si Mabrouk), the man behind the assassination in 1957 of the revolution’s top strategist, Abane Ramdane, in a struggle to the death between the military and political factions of the FLN.
Mokhtefi, unwilling to denounce, gossip, or boast, remains true to what he was—a freedom fighter but also an observer. His superiors in the MALG were men with little formal education, but in remembering, he never disdains them. At the same time, he points out the vacuum of intellectual leadership in the FLN and the triumph of the military, which remains a powerful feature of the Algerian state to this day. Mokhtefi’s story ends as he recalls his parting words to an armed soldier inspecting his papers on the day he crossed the border into his own independent country in 1962: “Ignorance out of the barrel of a gun is preparing us for bitter tomorrows.”
Mokhtefi died in 2015, days after learning that Editions Barzakh in Algiers would publish I Was a French Muslim. Would he have continued with a second volume about his experience of newly independent Algeria? He had important stories to tell about his leadership of the Algerian student association and his work on land reform in the Ministry of Agriculture, about his aspirations in those early years and the disappointments that led to his exile in France and the US. “Exile,” he wrote in 1974, “remains the ultimate solution when mediocrity and feudalism triumph and return as our judges.”
His widow, Elaine Mokhtefi, has translated I Was a French Muslim into English with an intimate knowledge of his voice and his values. She speculates in her preface that he would have cheered the Hirak, the protest movement that since 2019 has sent masses of Algerians into the streets to demonstrate for a more democratic government. In 2019 the Hirak was responsible for the resignation of Bouteflika and the installation of President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, who gave early lip service to the movement. His government, however, has arrested hundreds of pro-Hirak journalists, detaining and liberating and detaining again, reinforcing its arbitrary powers. The June 2021 legislative elections had a turnout of 23 percent, a sign of the lack of faith in a government bent on repression and defensive isolation. Elaine Mokhtefi sums up the situation: “The regime, assisted by the army and the virus, is still in place and still raising havoc.” She translates one of the battle cries of the Hirak demonstrations: “Let us live, give us back our country, give us back our past. Enough is enough.”
To read Mokhtefi’s memoir is to glimpse the ideal of a multicultural, multifaith, democratic Algeria. “Monotheism is a recent discovery in the history of humanity,” he writes, as he remembers debates over religion with a former girlfriend who was a devout Italian Catholic.
Mankind has had a multitude of gods. They have venerated pharaohs, stones, trees, spirits, and in some places continue to do so. I feel our children should know there are agnostics, atheists, who deserve our respect. Intolerance is dangerous…
Whenever I think about intolerance in Algeria, I remember Bilal—that’s what I’ll call him. I met him in his French bakery in the Telemly neighborhood of Algiers—reputed to be the finest in the city. He wore pink shorts and a navy blazer with a white dress shirt underneath. You’re lucky I’m open, he said, because he was about to close the shop for good. I ordered two chocolate tarts, pointing at the glass case.
I asked him how he had learned the art of making pastry. When he was a child, he told me, he lived with ten brothers and sisters on a street in central Algiers not far from the square named after Maurice Audin. His father worked in a government office; his mother was a housewife. Next to their apartment was a stone building that was never painted white like all the state-owned buildings because it belonged to a well-known Jewish-Algerian family of real estate tycoons. He was fascinated that it had kept its stone surface.
When he became a teenager, he fell in love with the cinema. Algiers was still full of movie theaters, and he was a regular at the Cinémathèque. He dreamed of Rita Hayworth honeymooning at the Hôtel St. George with Prince Aly Khan. He decided to work on his own legend. He told a friend at school that his father was a diplomat. Then he raised the stakes by saying, “I’m Jewish, you know.” He continued to tell anyone who would listen that he was Jewish, until they, and he, believed it. He visited the former rabbinical school in Bab-el-Oued and took one of the prayer books from the mildewed boxes in the basement. He studied Hebrew on his own and gave himself a self-taught bar mitzvah.
I pushed him to tell me more about why he had invented a Jewish identity. Typical adolescent hoax, he admitted, though the game was dangerous: “I wanted to be detested. I wanted to receive the hatred.” He talked about himself from a great remove, as an accident of history: “I was fifteen years old in 1990, at the beginning of daily terror against nonbelievers. I didn’t want to participate in the consensus.” He was talking about the black decade of the 1990s, when radical Islamists were pitted against the army, and as many as 200,000 Algerians were slaughtered.
Bilal soon left for Paris. To support himself, he found a job at a conservative synagogue in the 19th arrondissement and went to pastry school on the side while he worked on his Hebrew.
Then he said something strange: “Everyone has their Jew. And everyone has their Jewish Arab.” If I manage to see Bilal again when the Algerian borders open, I want to ask him what he meant. Was he saying that Algeria’s Jews haunt the country precisely because they were Arab Jews, indistinguishable from their Muslim brethren? Or was he saying that everyone has their scapegoat? Bilal may be a little bit mad, but he isn’t a fraud. He was telling me about navigating identity, on the one hand, and fighting imposed identities on the other. In the end, through travel and study and stubborn commitment, he actually did become a Jew. He embraced his society’s Other. Long before Bilal was born, Mokhtar Mokhtefi fought for the right to his Algerianness against a French state that had diminished him with a religious label. Bilal, too, has thrown off his label, his life an eccentric, imaginative act of resistance, though he belongs to no party or political movement.
But it’s not so easy for a country to transcend identity politics. At the end of September, in a move that seemed totally at odds with Stora’s recommendations, Macron announced plans to reduce by 50 percent the number of visas for Algerians. Then, in a conversation doubtless never meant to be made public, he criticized the Algerian state for its overinvestment in a heroic revolutionary past—an investment, outraged historians were quick to remind him, found in both official Algerian commemorations of the war and antigovernment Hirak demonstrations. It was predictable, and sad, that despite the good Stora’s report has already done, his remarks about Algerian memory have been so badly mistranslated into political posturing. With reciprocal visas threatened and the Algerian ambassador recalled from France, it’s not likely I’ll see Bilal in Algiers or Paris anytime soon. The “painful passions” that Stora’s report was meant to heal have tremendous staying power.
—October 21, 2021
Noureddine Amara, “Rapport de Benjamin Stora: une mémoire hors contrat,” Liberté (Algiers), January 31, 2021. ↩
Fabrice Riceputi and Malika Rahal have constructed a website, 1000autres .org, to record testimony from families, exhibit photographs, and recover paper traces of the thousands of other Algerians captured, tortured, and murdered during the Battle of Algiers. ↩
On October 16, Macron called the massacre “an unforgivable crime.” ↩
Ivanne Trippenbach, “Jean-Marie Le Pen soutiendra Eric Zemmour à la présidentielle s’il est ‘mieux placé’ que Marine Le Pen” (Jean-Marie Le Pen will support Eric Zemmour in the presidential elections if he is “better ranked” than Marine Le Pen), Le Monde, October 2, 2021. See also Norimitsu Onishi, “Rise of a Far-Right Pundit Is Scrambling French Politics,” The New York Times, October 12, 2021. ↩
I briefly discussed Mokhtefi’s memoir in my essay “Algeria’s New Imprint,” The Nation, April 3, 2017. ↩