Book review: The Mirror


Le Miroir

There are a number of  books dealing with the Regency of Algiers and giving details on its socio-economic, architectural, military and/or political aspects. But many of them use the information provided by Diego de Haedo in his “Topography and General History of Algiers” (published in 1612) and “History of the Kings of Algiers“. Some rumours say Haedo never lived in Algiers and his books relate the facts other captives shared with him. But regardless, the book gives valuable information even though Christian Haedo displays a certain disdain of the Muslim inhabitants of the Regency.

Haedo’s books, obviously, don’t cover the time period close to the French invasion of Algeria.  And this is what makes Hamdan Khodja‘s “Le Miroir” interesting. There are of course other works relating the events around the French invasion but “Le Miroir” is noteworthy because it was the first book written by an Algerian following the French occupation.

Hamdan Khodja wrote his book in Arabic in 1833 and got a Libyan friend of his to translate it into French (Hamdan spoke French (and English) but apparently couldn’t write in it). And the book’s publication raised an important debate in France around the conquest of Algeria.

The book is divided into two parts.

In the first part, Hamdan Khodja describes the different populations living in the Regency. He depicts the Kabyles and the Arabs who live on the mountains and plains respectively as simple people, brave and war-lovers. On the other hand, the people who live in the cities (such as Algiers) are more sophisticated, richer and more knowledgeable. These people being the Turks, the Kouloughlis, the Moors and also the Kabyles and Arabs who settled in the cities and adopted their customs. But while stating these differences, Khodja insists that all are united within the Regency. Khodja didn’t mention the Jews and Christians in these chapters.

The book then mentions the Ottoman government and how the Turks controlled these tough Arab and Kabyle tribes. He reminds the reader that the Kabyles have made fortresses out of their mountains and wouldn’t lose to any invader. The same thing goes for the Arab tribes with their horse-riding skills. So the Turks, who understood this fact, chose a way around it. Two ways actually: They noticed that both the Kabyles and Arabs had a sort of adoration for their Marabouts, so they honoured them and gave them money. They also respected and protected the Kabyle and Arab shrines. This reminds me of how the French gave importance to some Marabouts and zawiyas, and also how the Algerian government is doing the same today. The second way is more respectable, the Turks spread justice and impartiality (this unfortunately is an aspect forgotten by the Algerian government). These two ways conquered, according to Khodja, the Kabyles’ and Arabs’ hearts and allowed the Turks to rule in peace. Another important point mentioned in the book is the taxes. Hamdan explains that the population paid taxes to the government in exchange for security and protection. Other accounts tell us that it wasn’t that peaceful, and many tribes paid the taxes only after being forced to. This explains why many tribes took the French invasion opportunity to attack other tribes who were Ottomans’ vassals (tribes which decided to side with the French in exchange for protection, which wasn’t always granted).

The last point in this first part was reserved to the government and the different positions and responsibilities one could find in the system (a description of who does what). Khodja writes about his group, the Kouloughlis, and how they got isolated by the Turks who didn’t trust them. Instead, the Turks relied on the Jews whom they appointed at many important positions. Then a chapter comes on the decadence of the government. Here Khodja describes how the Janissaries took over the government and how they decided of the new Dey regardless of his competencies. He mentioned the several Deys who got appointed then assassinated by the Janissaries. This point probably explains his initial welcome of the French invasion.

Algiers attacked by the French marine, 29 June 1830 - Theodore Gudin

The second part of the book deals with the French invasion and its consequences both on Algeria and France.

Hamdan Khodja shares his perspective on the French invasion and tries to explain the causes of its success. He stresses on the bad organisation of the Algerian resistance which he blames most on Dey Hussein’s relative who led the resistance and underestimated the French strength. He also blames Dey Hussein because he had appointed this useless man, the right man in the right place as the saying goes. He then mentions the capitulation and its conditions (saving Algerians’ religion, lives and properties, etc.) and, giving examples, he proves that the French didn’t abide by these conditions.

A major part of the second part was dedicated to the French behaviour in Algeria. Actions such as the confiscation of many houses without any compensation (despite the committees created for this purpose and in which he was a member), the destruction of a lot of buildings and the destruction or transformation of many mosques for what they called “public utility’s needs”. This last point was very important as it hit the religious side. Another aspect was the stealing of not only the Regency’s treasures but also private ones. He mentions his own case explaining how he lost a lot of money to the French.

Hamdan then explained that the French had no right to tax the Algerians, mainly because they were unable to guarantee security outside of the city of Algiers, and also because they are not Muslims and many of the taxes they claimed (they wanted the Algerians to pay them as they did for the Turks) were based on Islam. For example, the French took over the money reserved for pilgrimage (Clauzel denied this fact but admitted that the French wouldn’t help anyone go to Mecca because, he said, those who go there bring back the plague with them). These taxes, combined with the confiscation of a sort of social aid fund and the rich Turks’ exile, led a majority of the remaining Algerians into poverty.

I finish this review by mentioning four of the many points Hamdan treated in his book. He talked of the massacres perpetrated by the French army in several places in Algeria and he gave the example of Blida. He also mentioned the treaties the French were about to make with the Tunisian Bey allowing him to control Constantine and Oran’s Beyliks in exchange for a yearly amount of money. The third point is the Jews’ role in all this story. He explains how they conspired against the Algerians by reporting lies to the French (who relied on them because they spoke French and Arabic) and how they took the opportunity to buy properties from the Algerians at very low prices. This obviously goes against those idyllic accounts on the great cohabitation between the Muslims and the Jews and which would have been stopped only after Crémieux decree. And the fourth point is treated in many pages reserved to Marshal Clauzel accusing him of several wrongdoings.

Hamdan Khodja’s book aimed to draw the attention of the French public to what was happening in Algeria following the invasion. He actually welcomed it because it got the Algerians rid of  the Janissaries and their despotism, and because he thought it was not permanent. He imagined things would happen like in Egypt with Napoleon, and someone, an Algerian Muhammad Ali, would emerge and modernise Algeria (the French invasion would act as a catalyst). He even advised the French to leave Algeria promising benefits for both parts. On the other hand, if the French decided to conquer Algeria and stay there, he promised a tough resistance from the Kabyles and Arabs outside of the Algerian cities.

The author apparently believed in the “France des lumières” and didn’t think the atrocities the French perpetrated in Algeria (he denied the French claims of introducing civilisation) were known of in France. This is why he talked to the French audience directly to remind them of their supposed enlightenment culture which obviously didn’t match with their army’s deeds. Unfortunately the future tells us that he was mistaken and colonialism had stronger arguments. Which brings me to an important point: the estimation of the Regency’ population. At that time, the French propaganda was saying it was a maximum of 750000 people, justifying thus the country’s colonisation and even the extermination/deportation of these useless, ignorant and lazy people (the usual “empty land” argument). But Hamdan says the population amounted to 10 million people who, he says, have the right to be free in their own country. Today’s estimations mention 3 to 5 millions, so far from the alleged 750000.

The edition I have includes an anonymous refutation of the work, probably written by some Clauzel’s friend. It basically denies every negative point, or blames it on those who replaced Clauzel. This refutation is followed by Khodja’s answer (a few pages).

Hamdan Khodja mentioned a second book to come but he never wrote it. Perhaps because he lost faith in a French withdrawal? But anyway, even after he had left Algeria to Istanbul (he declared he wouldn’t come back home so long as the French injustice was ruling), he made big efforts trying to get the Ottoman emperor to help Emir Abdelkader’s and Ahmed Bey’s resistance movements. In vain.

Title: Le Miroir, apreçu historique et statistique sur la régence d’Alger

Author: Hamdan Khodja.

Publisher: Sindbad/Actes Sud 2003

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4 thoughts on “Book review: The Mirror

  1. I always thought the book was originally written in french. Have you read the arabic version?
    I liked the first part of the book. It tells us how our forbears were…honorable, and brave people.

    • I read somewhere that the original version couldn’t be found.

      You are right, the people cherished many great values. But the book also showed many aspects of Malek Bennabi’s “colonisability” concept.

  2. Yes indeed I understand what you mean, …the people were divided in a tribal like social system and devoted to the marabou worshiping… compared to what was happening in Europe, at that time, our people seemed to be sleeping… drifting away from the world civilization flow, but still when you read the book people are portrayed as honourable people who had a code of honour who lived peacefully in their land and that was enough for them. The author himself appears to have “mourou2a” kind of chivalry not to say naive “niya”, when he feels shocked by the barbarian acts of the French. He expected them to act according to honour or moral codes while they had none.
    I know I am not fit to question the “colonisability” concept of Bennabi …sometimes I feel like it puts all the blame on the victim side…maybe we should think on the other side of a concept of “colonisity” conditions. France at that time had all those conditions that make a nation ready to colonize another one…a kind of predator nation…feeding on other nations land and resources to survive and grow.
    Sometimes I wonder. Were we colonized because we were not enough strong to defend ourselves? or is it because we were not enough hungry to be the predators ourselves?
    What the white European immigrants did to Native Americans is a product of “colonisity” conditions of the first one not of the “colonisability” of the second.
    When I see what the US are doing in the world …this competition between nations (development, growth at any cost) and the survival of the fittest scares me …be the predator or be the prey…you either develop “colonisability” conditions or “colonisity” conditions…

    • The author himself appears to have “mourou2a” kind of chivalry not to say naive “niya”, when he feels shocked by the barbarian acts of the French. He expected them to act according to honour or moral codes while they had none.

      I had the same reaction. At the beginning I was thinking it was a way to trick them by recalling the best in their civilisation, but the more I read and the more I became convinced that he really believed the French would act as honourable men. This reminded me of Emir Abdelkader and his deals with Bugeaud and the Duke of Aumale.

      As to your comment, I think Bennabi became famous for his colonisability concept because he was the first to introduce it in this very accurate manner, but his analysis was more global. If you read his work, you’ll find that he was well aware of what you call the colonisity which he viewed as a monstrosity. Following the Industrial Revolution, Europe could have taken another path by sharing all the great things they achieved/learned with the world and building something positive. Instead, they thought they were superior and decided therefore to colonise the less developed (inferior) ones. And this trait is interesting because you don’t find it among the Muslims for example. Even when Muslim states conquered other countries, it was never because they felt they were superior. As much as we should work on our colonisability, the Europeans should work on their colonisity.

      Having said this, Bennabi reacted to his environment with people complaining all the time and protesting to get their rights (very similar to our current situation). That’s why he insisted a lot on the duties (if everyone fulfilled their duties then everybody would get their rights). And it’s why he insisted on the colonisability. I mean ok we know the “colonisity” but it’s exterior to us, and the only way we can change it is by influencing these people; something possible only if we show a better way, i.e. we become worth following (that is one of his important points on how the Muslims should come back into civilisation and what they should offer to the world). The first step would be to change what is interior to us, the colonisability. So I think it’s not correct to say he blamed everything on the colonised people. At many occasions, he said the Muslims are usually either too optimistic or too pessimistic when all we need to get the correct analysis is to be fair, honest and fearless (of seeing our bad sides). And I feel he did wonderfully well in this regard.

      Last, I disagree when you say the white Europeans are the only to blame for what happened to the Native Americans. I reply by using what you said in the beginning “our people lived peacefully in their land and that was enough for them”. This is all good and could be enough for the individuals, but it certainly is not at a country’s scale. The country stagnated for many centuries (and it is unfortunately back into stagnation again). The strength we need to prevent colonisation is not necessary in the military. Today Ramadhan is coming and the meat in Algeria’s very expensive. What solution did we find? Buy it from Argentina, Brazil, India and may be Sudan. This is colonisability.
      Bennabi once gave an interesting example: He said our people have been using a broom with a short handle for N years and nobody thought of using a long handle. You’d think this is simple and doesn’t need technology, yet we had to wait till some European got the idea. Stagnation on our side and movement on theirs.

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