The Wound That Never Heals

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This article discusses the Harki reaction to Masaoud Benyoucef's play Le nom du pere. Harkis are Algerians who sided with the French during the Algerian War of Independence, tens of thousands of whom were massacred at the war's end by their compatriots. Those who managed to escape to France were incarcerated in camps, some for sixteen years. They considered the play a slur on their identity and attempted, unsuccessfully, to stop its performance. They objected to the portrayal of the protagonist, the son of a Harki, who, entrapped by his father's fateful decision, has lost his bearings and is manipulated by the Algerian military, the Islamists, and the French.

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On March 3, 2005, Mohamed Haddouche, the president of Association Justice Information Reparation pour les Harkis France (AJIR) wrote to the president of the Conseil Regional de Haute Normandie protesting its co-production of a play, Le nom du pere (The Father's Name), by Algerian philosopher, translator, and playwright Messaoud Benyoucef. After playing in Fecamp from February 22 to 25 without incident, the play moved to Canteleu and Louviers, also in Normandy, where--under the direction of AJIR and another Harki organization, Generation Memoire--Harki protests were launched in which tracts were distributed demanding the cancellation of the play and its publicity. (1)

Though there was no violence, there was, as Le Monde put it, "considerable pressure." The Harkis tried to prevent the audience from entering the theater and Claude-Alice Peyrotte, the play's director, received a menacing telephone call. While insisting on the right of free speech, the major of Louviers tried to calm the protestors and finally managed to clear the house so that the play could be performed. In early March, the two Harki organizations brought a case for defamation against the publisher of Le nom du pere, Les editions de l'embarcadere, the author, and the director of the play. Protests continued. At the beginning of June, however, when I saw the play at the Theatre de l'Epee at the Cartoucherie de Vincennes in Paris--where it had been playing for nearly a month--there were no protesters. Before the play had opened in Paris, Smail Boufhal, the president of Generation memoire, told Brigitte Salino of Le Monde that the court case has "permitted us to act as citizens. We will not intervene when the play is performed at the L'Epee-de-Bois."

Neither Benyoucef, Peyrotte, nor Alice Yvernat, the director of the publishing house, had ever imagined Le nom du pere would cause such an outcry. Though the protest and ensuing case are of little significance in the annals of French law, they do raise a number of questions about the Harkis. Who were the protesters? Why did they protest? What did they expect to gain from their protests? On what grounds did they base their case? On what grounds was it finally rejected by court? The text and its performance were clearly not neutral. Was the reaction they generated simply a question of content: The power or failure of representation? Or was it triggered by form, breaches of theatrical convention, or everyday etiquette? Was it a question of publicity? Of exposure? By an outsider? To me, as to many members of the audience as well as to its author, its publisher, and the director of the play, Le nom du pere did not depict the Harkis pejoratively. Indeed, I round it sympathetic to them--to the complexities and paradoxes in which they find themselves today. (I should note that I have been doing anthropological field work among the Harkis on and off for the last several years.) Both the play itself and the Harkis' reaction raise questions of identity among a marginalized people in a modern nation-state, and to the role of memory--of a wound, pain, displaced pain, lesion--in the constitution of what I am compelled to call an ill-fitting identity. The Harki response points to the role of the possession of memory, of a wound, a trauma, in the struggle to preserve that identity, its reality and its artifice. …