I spent the first four years of my life in Algiers, during the dictatorship of Boumédiène. I was, of course, unaware of politics or history, the larger world—I was barely conscious of mine. I do, however, remember my father waking me in the mornings, taking me by the hand to the back yard, and, perched on a step, pointing out ants passing fragments of leaves to one another. I also loitered in the garden after school under the watchful gaze of the old Albanian who rented out to us the ground-floor portion of a modest double-storied house on Rue Blaise Pascal. He smoked cigarillos leaning out of the window above, nodding in approval when I turned cartwheels or chased striped stray cats, twig in hand. Sometimes I hopped over to our neighbors, a large, raucous family with a boy my age, who was known to all and sundry as Abdhanou. One of his older sisters, Hamida, wore frocks and carried me up and down the street in her arms. I picked up Arabic and French from them, and an appreciation of couscous. In the evenings, I would watch dubbed Japanese cartoons on the television, then arrange toy soldiers on the table in the kitchen while my mother fried onions for dinner. It was a simple routine, a good life. I remember clear skies, the turquoise Mediterranean.
Once we drove up to the mountains—the Atlas Range rises up beyond the city—on a cold winter morning. There was a monkey in a cage at the summit. As I fed the monkey popcorn or peanuts, he yanked my red mitten right off. I was devastated. After due consideration, my father hatched an ingenious plan: he told me to throw my other mitten on the ground. The monkey mirrored the gesture, dropping his. Then my father slipped his hand underneath the bars of the cage and retrieved the mitten.
Another time, I stole matches from the nice Nigerian family down the street and lit the local rubbish dump on fire. I thoroughly enjoyed the spectacle. Paper burned fast. Plastic burned in slow motion. Then, I think, I heard sirens. I think I ran—a fugitive at age four. I think, if I remember correctly, I lit the garbage dump again.
I forgot Arabic and French soon after I left Algiers. You could say that I forgot Algiers after I left Algiers. In the past few years, I’ve started forgetting other things: names, faces, birthdays, anniversaries, appointments, events, words. Recently I turned up at a dinner a week late. I forgot an expensive phone in a rickshaw last year. The other day I forgot my email password. I remembered it only after I changed it.
The act of recollection is also a communal one: you rely on your family, your parents, sister, brother, aunts, uncles, friends, neighbors to corroborate the episodes that reside in the further recesses of your consciousness. Although I will never meet Hamida and Abdhanou or the old Albanian again, I called my father to validate my memories of the time. He recollected the morning ritual regarding the industrious Algerian ants only when I reminded him.
“Do you remember the snails?” he asked.
It was only when he reminded me that I recalled the heavyset washerwoman who would secretly prance in our back yard, collecting snails in her headscarf to sauté.
“What about the monkey?” I asked.
“The monkey that stole my mitten.”
“You got it back?”
Algeria occupies a unique place in the annals of the colonial enterprise, particularly in the French collective memory. France ruled Algeria from 1830 to 1962, longer than the British Crown ruled the Subcontinent (from 1857 to 1947). During the French conquest, in 1830, the population halved because of “war, famine, and disease.” Halved! Then a million died during the War of Independence, in the early 1960s. The proportional numbers are staggering. Indeed, French rule might be characterized as genocidal.
Lieutenant Colonel de Montagnac, an architect of the campaign, wrote:
All populations who do not accept our conditions must be despoiled. Everything must be seized, devastated, without age or sex distinction: grass must not grow anymore where the French Army has set foot. Who wants the end wants the means, whatever may say our philanthropists. I personally warn all good soldiers whom I have the honor to lead that if they happen to bring me a living Arab, they will receive a beating with the flat of the saber.... This is how, my dear friend, we must make war against Arabs: kill all men over the age of fifteen, take all their women and children, load them onto naval vessels, send them to the Marquesas Islands or elsewhere. In one word, annihilate all who will not crawl beneath our feet like dogs.
It all began, so the story goes, because of a flyswatter. The French had purchased wheat from a couple of Algerian merchants in the late eighteenth century but refused to pay up. When the bey, the ruler of Algeria, asked the merchants to pay their debt to him, they told him they could not fulfill their obligations because of their outstanding liabilities. So when the French representative was summoned to court some thirty years later—C’est dommage, he must have shrugged—the bey struck him with a flyswatter.
Of course, nobody remembers the Episode of the Flyswatter anymore. Nobody seems to remember much of the bloodshed at the beginning of French rule at all, though the bloodshed toward the end is etched in the public consciousness, in part because of the exigencies of the Pieds-Noirs, the French settled in Algeria. In 2005, a Pied-Noir organization supported a bill in the French legislature pushing for textbooks to edify children on the positive contributions of colonialism. When Article 4 was passed, there was uproar in France as well as Algeria. Jacques Chirac, the president of France at the time, was compelled to repeal it. It was only in 1995 that the French National Assembly had recognized the Algerian War of Independence as a war rather than a “public order operation.” This sort of historical gerrymandering is not a recent phenomenon: Alexis de Tocqueville, considered to be a great liberal political thinker, was a prominent cheerleader for the French colonial enterprise in Algeria more than a century ago. “I have often heard people I respect, but do not approve, deplore burning harvests, emptying granaries and seizing unarmed men, women and children,” he wrote. “As I see it, these are unfortunate necessities that any people wishing to make war on the Arabs must accept.” Although institutional colonialism is addressed, the decolonization of memory persists.
I never returned to Algiers, but as a young man I returned to Algeria via the catchy, throaty numbers of Cheb Khaled and Mami, and through the works of Albert Camus, a Pied-Noir hailing from Belcourt—a ten- or fifteen-minute drive from the Albanian’s place on Rue Blaise Pascal—and Frantz Fanon, who is buried in the mountainous hinterland. I have leafed through the tome titled A Savage War of Peace that resided on my father’s bookshelf, and watched Gillo Pontecorvo’s magisterial Battle of Algiers again and again. I even spent time with one of the storied rebels of the Algerian War of Independence—Eqbal Ahmed, the great leftist intellectual and activist from Pakistan, who wound up teaching politics at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. And although I am no great fan of football, I find myself rooting for Algeria during the World Cup.
But then this is another, different Algeria, an imagined Algeria, transposed onto my consciousness. I have often wondered what I would find if I ever really returned to Algiers, to Rue Blaise Pascal, to the garbage dump. There is probably real estate there, a squat, whitewashed house perhaps, with wooden shutters closed. Nobody could corroborate the fires.
The crowds had gone. They were the last two men on the bridge. One was dressed like a laborer, and the other—who looked to be about the same age—like a sailor. They were sitting side by side, smoking in silence as they gazed across the water in the direction of Üsküdar.
I thought of it as England itself, and I can’t say I loved it, only that it was what life was: rain falling outside the window, the fridge empty except for the ice trays, half a bottle of Irish whisky on the shelf, voices on the radio.