Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Pre-20th Century History: The Image of Algeria in Anglo-American Writings, 1785-1962

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Pre-20th Century History: The Image of Algeria in Anglo-American Writings, 1785-1962

Article excerpt

The Image of Algeria in Anglo-American Writings, 1785-1962, by Osman Bench*rif. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1997. xix + 260 pages. Bibl. to p. 269. $52.50 cloth; $32.50 paper.

Reviewed by Aida Bamia

Osman Bencherif provides a concise yet insightful historical background for Algeria, going as far back as the Roman Empire and ending with the War of Independence. He concentrates, however, on the French occupation of the country in 1830, and on Amir `Abd al-Qadir's role in repelling the invading military forces. By pointing out the British failure to respond to `Abd al-Qadir's requests for help to repel the occupying power, Bencherif sets the tone for the rest of the book. His theory is based on the assumption that there existed a Western alliance to repress Arabs/Muslims, who were seen as a destructive and fanatic force. In the author's words, there was an "emerging sense of political and moral superiority that was to underpin the whole European imperial and colonial construct" (p. 71). Armed with this precept, in 1830 France launched its North African campaign with neither hesitation nor remorse. For the French, Algeria became a land of exotic exhilaration, a sanitarium for the physically frail, and a land of healing for the emotionally disturbed.

Bench*rif provides a survey of English-language works related to Algeria. These comprise memoirs, autobiographical novels, accounts and letters, and military and civilian reports. Some of the surveyed works were written by established, well-known writers such as Paul Bowles and Andre Gide. Other authors are less famous, though their writings were quite popular at the time of their publication as they responded to a thirst for exotic themes. Some of the books under survey have appealed to cinematographers, giving birth to films such as The Shaykh. Others found their way to the British stage in Drury Lane, London.

Among the travelers who elected Algeria as their country of residence were Clare Sheridan and her daughter Margaret, who wrote much later under the pseudonym Mary Motley. The two women had an advantage over male writers because they had access to the women's quarters. Furthermore, the familiarity of mother and daughter with Algerian desert society enhanced the value and appeal of their books. Nevertheless, in their case, as well as in that of male writers, their friendship with the Algerians provoked the antipat-hy and suspicions of the French community living in the country.

Bencherif s title, The Image of Algeria in Anglo-American Writings, is somewhat misleading and does not highlight the purpose of the book. …

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