Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Algerian Graveyard stories./Ce Que Racontent Les Cimetieres Algeriens

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Algerian Graveyard stories./Ce Que Racontent Les Cimetieres Algeriens

Article excerpt

The history of Algeria has been punctuated by periods of extreme violence and severe social and cultural disruption. The French conquest of the country in the first half of the nineteenth century was violent, and violence was fundamental to the 132 years of French colonial rule. The Algerian war of independence (1954-62) was long and bloody, and resulted in the death of a tenth and the forced displacement of more than half of the population. The history of independent Algeria has been marked by the brutal suppression of political protest, by torture, and, since the early 1990s, by a bloody 'civil war' between 'Islamist' armed groups and the army, which has resulted in more than a hundred thousand deaths. The early 2000s saw another wave of popular protest against the central government, which was also suppressed by force. Although accounts of these violent moments of Algerian history abound, (1) and although even theories of the innately violent 'imagination' of Algerian society have made their appearance (Carlier 1995: 18-28; Martinez 1998: 23-37), relatively little has been said about how people manage--or fail--to deal with it on a daily basis, in other words, how the recurrent violent disruption is made to be part of narratives of historical continuity and social order.

This silence reflects the conspicuous absence of local accounts of the violent conflicts and of their social implications. This does not mean, however, that the problem of how to deal with them on a daily basis, how to integrate them into narratives of social continuity, and how to make them make sense is irrelevant to local populations. Rather, it indicates that attempts to do so often exceed the limits of public or even private discourse, and find their expression in local practices that tend to escape the attention of political scientists and historians. The aim of the present article is to describe a set of such practices, namely those that accompany the establishment and the spatial organization of local graveyards.

Although political events can be ignored in local discourse, dead bodies are a palpable reality that has to be dealt with. Dead bodies embody the past; they are symbols of historical depth and continuity and of the relationship of the present with the past (Hallam, Hockey & Howarth 1999: 29-30). Graveyards are the places where dead bodies are made to be part of local landscapes, where 'people [are] turned into places' (Bloch 1995: 74; see also 1971: 111-22), and where past social relationships are translated into space. They are places where society remembers itself; they represent ideals of historical continuity, and of the permanence of social order (Hallam, Hockey & Howarth 1999: 34). At the same time, dead bodies have a strong symbolic potential and are prone to political manipulation (Verdery 1999: 28-9). Once put in the 'wrong' place, they might become dangerous to the maintenance of social order and narratives of historical continuity (cf. Robben 2000). This potential danger--and the social tensions it represents--similarly has to be dealt with in the spatial arrangement of the local graveyards. Graveyards are thus spatial representations of social order that need to be able to accommodate potential 'troublemakers' while maintaining an illusion of permanence and immutability (cf. Hertz 2004 [1960]: 77, 86).

Graveyards, however, are not mere symbols, they are also an integral part of local landscapes (2)--although they might be constructed according to norms, regulations, and architectural traditions that exceed the scope of the local. As such, they impinge on daily local practices and impose their logic upon them, while being subject to constant transformations brought about by changes in local practices. Graveyards depend on daily maintenance and remembering, and despite the notions of permanence and immutability attached to them, they are therefore inherently flexible, as visiting practices change over time, and as certain graves--and not others--might be forgotten or remembered, maintained or neglected. …

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