Friday, 12 October 2012

A response to 'A Dying Colonialism: Transformation and the Algerian Revolution'

by Sarita Pillay

It is 1959. The fifth year of the Algerian Revolution. The fifth year of what others would rather call the Algerian War – perhaps as a means to detract from the gravity of the event. This is a Revolution. This is a mass struggle by a people who will not settle for anything less than a new society. This is a tug-of-war between the defenders of a colonial outpost and the Algerian people who say, “no more”.

Frantz Fanon may be living in Tunisia, but his actions and his thoughts are still fully immersed in its troubled neighbour to the east. Fanon is the multi-tasking activist: a writer, a psychiatrist, and the FLN ambassador. He socialises and dines in the cosmopolitan circles of Tunis (Cherki, 2006). In the face of emerging controversies and power struggles in the FLN, Fanon still remains unwaveringly committed to its pursuit of an independent Algeria (Cherki, 2006). His name is now recognisable and associated with the Algerian liberation struggle. Fanon’s influence and writing are seen as a threat to colonialism and a compromised independence. In 1959, the seriousness of his threat becomes abruptly evident. A car “accident” in Morocco and a car bomb in Rome are both speculated as attempts on his life (Cherki, 2006). It was under these circumstances that Fanon wrote L’An Cinq, de la Revolution Algerienne (later published in English as Studies in a Dying Colonialism). Although “wrote” is an inappropriate verb, considering what it means and implies – a solitary author, pen in hand, hunched over a desk, confined to a world of notes. Fanon dictated L’An Cinq, much like he dictated his other works. The book came into being between travels, activism and death threats – nothing paused for its creation. L’An Cinq is a book shaped by Fanon’s experiences in Bilda and his regular interactions with Algerian refugees in Tunis (Cherki, 2006). It is a book that uncovers the daily intricacies of the Algerian Revolution, of the people who were its lifeblood. It is a book about agency and dynamism under the conditions of a liberation struggle. A theme that emerges continuously throughout A Dying Colonialism is the transformative qualities of revolution - particularly the through the appropriation of colonial symbols and the challenge to traditional hierarchies.
Transformation of “things”

“It is the necessities of combat that give rise in Algerian society to new attitudes, to new modes of action, to new ways” (Fanon, 1965: 64).

The Algerian Revolution, much like other mass struggles, became intertwined with the everyday. Every day and every action was framed within the context of the revolution, of achieving an independent and liberated Algeria. Throughout the book, Fanon shows how the Revolution is associated with transformation of society. The Revolution is depicted as a period of dynamism and change, affecting even the most historically entrenched aspects of Algerian culture. In A Dying Colonialism, the demands and peculiarities of a Revolution are shown to not only transform people and society, but a transform things: the attitude toward them and the meanings attached to them.

The unveiling of the Algerian women was historically part of a colonial project to get to the heart of Algerian society and culture, to win a cultural battle and affirm the righteousness of western values and society. The veiled woman was a “victim”, passive and marginalised and the veil symbolised her imprisonment within Algerian society. Her “unveiling” was, according to the coloniser, a sign of liberty and modernity – a sign of her independence and equality, for her own good. Of course, this is what was said. More significantly, however, the unveiling represented the affirmation of a colonial system (Fanon, 1965: 42). “The occupier’s aggressiveness, and hence his hopes, multiplied ten-fold each time a new face was uncovered” (Fanon, 1965: 42). The colonial obsession with unveiling invoked a firmer defence of the veil (Fanon, 1965: 47). The veil was not just a “thing”, it was a thing attached to a culture and a people who were under siege. “Unveiling” was not a simple preference of women; it was conforming to a society that tortured their sons.

The role of the veil and unveiling transformed with the Revolution (Fanon, 1965: 47). The urgency and gravity of the Revolution necessitates and inspires the involvement of women. The woman is an unsuspecting participant in the movement of arms and intelligence in the city – she is even more unsuspecting when she is not wearing her veil. The “modern” Algerian woman in the city, head held high and striding confidently – she is a woman who welcomes “modernity” and “progress”; of course she is not a revolutionary. The symbol of “unveiling” is transformed. It is appropriated by the colonized in the interests of the Revolution. It becomes a tool for a true liberation. But then colonial authorities soon discover the ploy. The Revolution is a period of dynamism, shifting and adaptive, so the veil is simply reassumed (Fanon, 1965: 62). The middle-aged, veiled, Algerian fatma, shuffling in the street - she is a timid woman, who doesn’t dabble in political affairs; of course she is not a revolutionary. At the height of the Revolution an aggressive display “westernisation” of the Algerian women ensued, with the vulnerable being symbolically unveiled in public (Fanon, 1965: 62). The veil was resumed with even more resolve (Fanon, 1965: 63). Unveiling and veiling were symbols appropriated, adapted and transformed under the conditions of the Revolution. Fanon also shows how the radio, once the voice of oppressive culture, soon became a symbol of hope.

“Gone were the days when mechanically switching on the radio amounted to an invitation to the enemy. For the Algerian, the radio, as a technique, became transformed. The radio set was no longer directly and solely tuned in on the occupier” (Fanon, 1965: 95).

The radio represented a cultural assurance for the settler, a familiar voice, conveying a familiar set of values – a link to Frenchness. In contrast, most Algerians saw the radio as an affront. The programmes were not cognisant of Algerian cultural sensitivities, and used the language of the oppressor (Fanon, 1965: 70). The radio was transformed under the conditions of the Revolution. As the struggle intensified, the local colonial authorities increasingly monopolised the “truth” (Fanon, 1965: 77). The local media only reported the deaths of insurgent combatants or foiled attacks, while whispers from the djebel (mountains) shared encroaching successes. This is where the role of the radio was transformed – the radio was liberated by The Voice of Algeria. The Algerian people and the liberation struggle appropriated the radio. Radio purchases surged as the people looked to satisfy their thirst for the truth. The Voice of Algeria, even when reduced to mere static by colonial authorities, served as an invigoration of hope, a sign of progress, a call for continued action (Fanon, 1965: 86). The radio was transformed into a revolutionary tool.

Like the radio, Fanon shows how Western medicine and the doctor were also unrelenting symbols of colonialism. To acknowledge the benefits and value of Western medicine was seen by the coloniser as an affirmation of the “benefits” of colonial rule (Fanon, 1965: 122). The European doctor was not the neutral caregiver – he was more often than not a settler who dabbled in farming outside of his practise, and who had a vested interest in maintaining colonial rule. In many instances he, or his colleagues, may have colluded with police, given false physical assessments, or helped a patient recover only to face a new bout of torture (Fanon, 1965: 137). Medicine and the doctor were a symbol of colonialism. But then there was the transformation. When the fierce struggles of the Revolution were leading to widespread civilian and soldier injuries – the authorities placed strict restrictions on access to medical care. Under these circumstances the FLN met with Algerian doctors, and the doctors and their medicine became an indispensable part of the struggle. “He was no longer ‘the’ doctor, but “our” doctor, ‘our’ technician” (Fanon, 1965: 142). These symbols were now removed from the colonial framework, and instead became oppositional to it. 

It was not the intrinsic value of the thing itself that was rejected, but the association of the thing, the location of the thing within a greater system of oppression. These were “colonial” things. Fanon shows how the rejection of the radio and medicine were not, as some sociologists or anthropologists had said, due to the irrationality of a traditional society, a society fearful of technology. Instead, these rejections were often explicit political decisions. Under the Revolution, these symbols were transformed and appropriated – relocated to another framework. The “things” became theirs. These were decisions by people who had taken their destiny into their own hands (Fanon, 1965:145).

Transformation of society

“I am my own foundation. And it is by going beyond the historical and instrumental given that I initiate my cycle of freedom” – Fanon, Black Skins White Masks.

In A Dying Colonialism, Fanon illustrates the adaptive nature of Algerian society and the agency of the Algerian. This challenged many a colonial discourse about the static and unwavering nature of the societies and cultures of the “colonised”, of the passive Algerian who is a victim of his circumstance. In the interest of an alternative society, in the interest of the struggle, Algerian society undergoes a dramatic transformation. Fanon explores this transformation, particularly at the level of the Algerian family.  

As discussed earlier, the role of women was transformed under the circumstances of the Revolution – she was as immersed in the struggle as her husband or her brother. The traditional sexual hierarchy was unseated as women joined the maquis in droves. Men’s views and behaviour towards women was shaped by these changes. “The men’s words were no longer law. The women were no longer silent” (Fanon, 1965: 109). It started at the level of the family, with the revolutionary daughter who stared unwaveringly at her father’s eyes when they spoke (Fanon, 1965: 106). The traditional age-based hierarchy between brothers also changed – the cell leader may have been your younger brother, but this did not undermine his authority (Fanon, 1965: 110). Perhaps most intriguing was the change to the traditions of marriage. The traditional familial “contract” of marriage was no longer feasible under the context of a Revolution (Fanon, 1965: 114). Love in time of the maquis meant that marriage had to adapt to the circumstances. The rest of society felt this shift. The Revolution had engulfed and transformed the everyday, challenging some of Algerian societies most entrenched social hierarchies. The historical and cultural ties did not limit the Algerian – he initiated his own “cycle of freedom.”  The transformation of Algerian society is an active choice – under the circumstances of the Revolution, the Algerian chooses an alternative society.

 “…The people come to realise that if they wished to bring a new world to birth they would have to create a new Algerian society from top to bottom. In order to fulfil his aspirations, the Algerian must adapt himself at an exceptional pace to his new situation” (Fanon, 1965: 101).

In A Dying Colonialism, Fanon illustrates the creative and transformative potential of the Algerian Revolution. By exploring the everyday of the Revolution, Fanon sheds light on the politicisation of things, of actions and of culture. The imposing colonial “thing” is appropriated and liberated, and society’s traditional hierarchy is challenged and unsettled. Although, at the time, Fanon thought that these transformations were “irreversible”, the progression of independent Algeria countered some of these claims. But this is not to say that anything should be taken away from this text, as Cherki (2006:138) says, “Fanon was not a prophet”. Perhaps what this book shows most clearly, what will continue to have universal resonance, is that the Revolution, the liberation struggle, is as a period of dynamism, of agency, and – above all, of positive, heightened transformation. In the interest of nothing less than an alternative and free society, in the midst of a struggle, the “colonised” society transforms.

Cherki, A., 2006, Frantz Fanon: A Portrait. Cornell University Press: Ithaca & London.

Fanon, F., 1965, A Dying Colonialism. Grove Press: New York.

Fanon, F., 1967, Black Skins, Whites Masks. Grove Press: New York.