Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Welcome to my occupation

I am launching this blog as a record of my tenure as the 2010-11 Fulbright scholar in Algeria. More accurately, I am launching it as a record of an intellectual process, the end of which remains somewhat obscure. Although I am traveling to Algeria to teach American literature, while I am there, I will be studying the ways in which the idea of "America" figures in contemporary Algerian political culture.

This very general research project grows out of an interest in the ways that Algeria has, over the past ten years, begun reinventing its past in response to the political crises of the present. Since the end of the civil war, in 2001, many Algerian intellectuals have advocated for a more thoroughly nationalized curriculum in Algerian history, one that might serve as an antidote to the ostensibly right-wing internationalism of the greater Islamist movement. In this curriculum, America appears as a sort of anti-colonial forebear, a template for thinking about Algerian history outside the parameters of Arab nationalism, Salafiyya Islam, or French imperialism.

Perhaps the most bizarre manifestation of this intellectual movement has been the emergence of a political relationship between the Algerian state and Elkader, Iowa, a small farming community named for the Sufi revolutionary that Arab Algerians recognize as the father of their nation, Abd al-Qader al-Jaza'iri. The history of Elkader has been used to underscore the glory of Abd al-Qader for contemporary Algerians, as part of a broader effort--on the part of the state--to mediate the revolutionary currents at the center of recent Algerian history.

These cultural politics are part of a very ambitious project to secure the nation as a site for foreign investment by establishing the state as the legitimate heir to the Algerian revolutionary tradition. Indeed, Elkader has itself played a crucial part in Algeria's overtures to American capital. Over the last two years, in addition to regular engagements with officials from the Algerian government, the mayor of Elkader (population 1500) has met with representatives of both the World Bank and the US-Algerian Business Council, a consortium of Fortune 500 companies that includes Raytheon, Shell, and Halliburton.

Obviously, this is not quite what Frantz Fanon had in mind when he described the "red-hot cannonballs and bloody knives" of the decolonization process, nor what he meant when he talked about the Messianic rendering of Algerian society such that "the last shall be first." For Fanon, writing in "The Wretched of the Earth," the revival of Abd al-Qader's memory presaged native Algerians' leap onto the unwritten page of history, a revolutionary break with the past as it had been constituted by France. "This is proof," he argued, "that the people are preparing to march again, to break the lull introduced by colonialism and make History." (30)

Fanon was not alone in this conclusion. When Abd al-Qader's flag--the green star and crescent--appeared on the scene during marches at Setif in May 1945, the French gendarmes were so alarmed that they fired upon the protesters, inaugurating a vengeful tit-for-tat that left more than a hundred colonists, and many thousands of Arabs, dead in the sand. The violence that began at Setif helped galvanize the Algerian nationalist movement, and Abd al-Qader's memory was soon conscripted to the service of the revolution. His banner would be adopted by both the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN) and, later, the post-colonial state. After the revolution, his body was repatriated from Damascus and interred, amid much ceremony, on the fourth anniversary of Algerian independence, July 5, 1966.

By contrast, the Abd al-Qader that now appears on the scene is less the fearsome leader of the revolutionary mujihadeen than an icon of capitalist entrepreneurialism--a broker of compromise, a voice for peace, and a champion of the free market. In Algeria, as in the US, this sort of revisionism is not particularly novel. Abd al-Qader's fortunes and fame have shifted dramatically over the years, depending on who's telling his story, and what interests they have in the tale. During his jihad against the French, he was beloved by the British, so much so that--shades of Ibn Saud eighty years later--they bankrolled his insurgency. For the French, of course, he was a demon, but after the fall of the July Monarchy and the rise of the Second Empire, he was remade as a great Arab statesman, a client through whom Louis Bonaparte might rule the greater Arab world. Nearer the end of the nineteenth century, the first generation of Arab nationalists, agitating for independence from Istanbul, would claim him as a figurehead.

Given the long history of his opportunistic misrepresentation, then, what is most interesting about the way that Abd al-Qader is being remade, now, is his Americanization. Through the relationship with Elkader, Abd al-Qader has been made over as a sort of generic founding father figure, an object lesson in moral philosophy rather than an inspiration to action. He is, as many an Algerian will now tell you, merely George Washington in Mascara. While Abd al-Qader has always been something of a cipher for the various political currents that have shaped modern Algeria, this latest manifestation has much to tell us about the ways in which the Algerian state is reconfiguring its authority by an engagement with the cultural politics of American empire.