Salem was an educated Algerian militant who studied in the Sorbonne and who could build ties with many French, Pieds-Noirs included, men and women who were unhappy with the Algerians’ situation under French rule, and who, for some, were actively helping the Algerian militants. He had therefore built a valuable network which he used for several purposes such as providing hideouts to FLN leaders in Algiers or trying to build dialogue bridges between the FLN and the French officials.
Following his arrest, Salem was taken to the famous Villa Sesini and handed over to two officers who interrogated and tortured him (the Question) so that he tells them everything about the FLN leadership and the French people who were helping them. But he had no contact with the FLN leaders and had no answer to give. So torture continued almost killing him if it weren’t for another French officer who helped treat him (not all French military were monsters).
After several months, his French friends finally managed to transfer him to the Barberousse prison and even got him a lawyer. A trial parody was held and Salem was sentenced to one year jail.
At the end of his jail period, two of his French friends helped him get out of Algeria and hid him in several places in France before sending him to Switzerland. Many French men and women were involved in this move&hide process and the rest of the novel is there to greet their humanism and kindness which they showed sometimes at the risk of their lives.
The novel is an easy read and Mohamed Sahnoun’s style is good, but I was somewhat disappointed because I was never really moved (and this despite Cornelio Sommaruga‘s preface) while reading it. I don’t know if I became insensitive but I had expected that, given the topic, I should have felt a little more emotions.
Sahnoun’s novel turns around two major ideas: torture during the Algerian war, and the humanism of many French citizens who risked their lives for the sake of justice and the ties that could/should relate all humans against injustice. This latter point is something Sahnoun has always advocated.
But to me, the novel raised some more points.
There’s first the ideals vs. politics which I already mentioned in a previous post. It is indeed disturbing to see the country of human rights forget about these principles just because it’s on the wrong side of the Mediterranean. Fortunately, the population didn’t always share its government’s actions and there were French men and women who stood against them just because they believed in those principles. When Francis Jeanson was accused of treason, he replied “the original treason was to the values of France”.
The second point would be about Christianity in Algeria during the French occupation. Though not officially declared by the French rulers, many French officials and religious men in Algeria stated that they had come to erase Islam in Algeria and transform the locals into devout Christians (it was part of their civilisation project). One cannot forget Lavigerie and his White Fathers. But things had changed at some point and a man like Cardinal Duval made his support of the Algerian independence public. In Sahnoun’s novel, many of the men who had helped Salem were men of the church. I think it is partly because of Duval’s position that the church of Algiers has still some consideration in Algeria.
The third point is about the FLN leaders who were wise enough to take action in France itself. The French population started learning about the atrocities that were taking place in Algeria only after the Battle of Algiers and when many French conscripts went back to France and related what they had witnessed. This was obviously not enough and the FLN through its Federation of France succeeded in getting Metropolitan France involved. This made a difference and the French began to doubt the motives of the ultras among the colons.
The FLN was also happy to accept any help coming from French citizens who decided to support the Algerians (the Jeanson network is just one example among others) and they didn’t declare all the French as enemies. I remember reading Edward Said urging his Palestinian people to adopt a similar strategy.
The fourth and last point is on the behaviour of Western right-wing parties. Most if not all of the French who helped the Algerians get their independence were communists, trotskyists, etc. I don’t think I’ve heard of anyone who was from the centre or the right wings. This of course doesn’t mean all left-wingers are great: the worst things that had happened in Algeria were under French leftist governments, and the creation of the state of Israel was under leftist Ben Gurion’s leadership. But today, when I watch the news and look at the pro-Palestinian demonstrations that take place in Europe, I fail to see anyone who’s not from the far left. I wonder if Western right-wingers are unable to feel their fellow humans’ sufferings.
Title: Mémoire blessée, Algérie 1957
Author: Mohamed Sahnoun
Publisher: Barzakh 2009