Academic journal article Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)

Violence, Voice and Identity in Algeria

Academic journal article Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)

Violence, Voice and Identity in Algeria

Article excerpt


THIS ESSAY EXPLORES THE CYCLES of violence in Algeria and the significance of the "production of corpses" in the struggle for the state. The article also explores the symbolic efficacy of violence in undermining national society. It argues that the scope and scale of terror has gone beyond the threshold of the "innocence" of victims, beyond mere terrorism, leaving an enormous void in the construction of a future social project. The violent transgressions of everyday worlds have shattered daily life and the "break out of peace" will be only the first step in creating the possibilities of voice. Reconciliation in Algeria will have to engage personal pain and loss. No religious or national narrative will be able to accommodate its depths.

"Experiences of victimization and torture are emblematic in that they move us [ldots] through the space of death where reality is up for grabs. And here we but begin to see the magnitude of the task, which calls neither for demystification nor remystification but for a quite different poetics of destruction and revelation"." (Zulaika 1996: 191).

The daily diet of violence and massacre spilling into the media suggests Algerian society is in an ungovernable state. In the past few years reports of massacre have been continuous and summarized as body counts often alongside graphic images of the victims. The text of statistics against images of slaughter are chilling and very disorienting because there is no context. How do you make any sense of them? These vignettes of terror, some extremely macabre with chainsaw inflicted mutilations and gross violations of bodies, convey little meaning at all except to repel and to accuse. Even if the political context of recent government gestures of reconciliation is assembled (release of FIS [Islamic Salvation Front] leaders from prison, the government announcement of an inquiry into human rights abuses, local elections in June 1997) the flow of bodies belies any easy narrative. Nevertheless the overdetermining nature of violence means each event is quickly narrativized into the logic of patriots, martyrs or betray als:

Scores are being settled today whose origins lie in conflicts resulting from Algerian independence in 1962 such as the massacre of 60,000-100,000 harkis that took place only months after independence. The harkis were Algerians who joined armed French militias of the same type that the present Algerian government has set up in villages. After independence, the harkis were not allowed into France, and ended up prisoners in their own country. And they were killed. (Tuquoi 1997: 19)


The crisis of violence in Algeria is the scale of societal dislocation involved and the depth degradation of social life. The kinds of violence and terror expressed in Algeria -- car bombs, disappearance, kidnapping, massacres. assassinations, armed confrontations -- combine the case of state repression and the anarchy of statelessness familiar in the recent histories of the state in crisis: disappearances and torture by the state (Argentina); the communal terror of car-bombing (Lebanon); the massacre of whole families and villages (Bosnia); the kidnapping of women for collective rape (Bosnia); with its particular elaborations of grotesque levels of bodily mutilation and the targeting of the producers of secular and popular culture (e.g. journalists, musicians as symbols of Islamic betrayal.) For the most part this violence has been contained in Algeria and done by the hands of Algerians against other Algerians.

But while the struggle is largely contained the violence is assimilated into the new world mapping of global fragmentation. Fear of violence over there over here (the West) sees borders drawn demarcating secured from insecure zones. A landscape of pain is being used to reconfigure privileged zones: "the third world, in its complexity, multiplicity, multiple sites, has become, besides the site of torture, the spectacle of the other tortured for us" (du Bois 1991: 157). …

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