The Algerian Tragedy

The Algerian Tragedy

ALGERIA: THE REALITIES, by Germaine Tillion. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. 1958.

Germaine Tillion’s Algeria is a beautifully written, but seriously flawed, book. The author, an ethnologist and a leading French authority on the sociology of Algeria, has put together this study of the Algerian reality with a precision and firmness hard to surpass. Mile. Tillion knows what she is talking about; further, her presentation is as sure as her grasp.

Her thesis is a simple one: Between France and Algeria there is a two-way current of dependence, an “objective interdependence” as she wrote earlier (Encounter, July, 1958). Two more mutually linked communities would be hard to imagine. Yet each can destroy —and are—the other; the author cites the example of North American male deer and bucks who, when fighting, frequently interlock their antlers and die together, “snout to snout.”

More concretely, there are 400,000 Algerian workers who have immigrated to work in France; a minimum of 2,000,000 of their countrymen depend primarily on the money order remittances these industrial workers send home each month in order to eat; by the same token, of the 1,200,000 non-Moslems living in Algeria, we can eliminate perhaps 100,000 who are “colons” (settlers) or of their milieu. This leaves a balance of over one million non-Moslems who are skilled workers, government officials, white collar employees, taxi drivers, service managers, small merchants, laborers etc. Economically, they represent more than three-fourths of the country’s economic structure which is to say their future lies with the development of Moslem economic health.

Mlle. Tillion analyzes in sharp strokes the origins of the current disaster. In essence, it is the now familiar story of 19th century imperialism uprooting and tearing apart the fabric of an archaic, yet fairly stable and harmonious order of life. A ruthless cycle begins: hopeless indebtedness of the peasant; unprecedented increase in population; dwindling of resources; destruction of native craft industries by foreign techniques, etc. Algeria was particularly vulnerable:

Weeks of work and seven fleeces are needed for the weaving of a burnous, and each fleece is worth between five hundred and a thousand francs. It is ridiculous for people who eat meat only four times a year to spend all that time and money on a garment when for next to nothing they can get a handme-down that may be seedy but will at any rate keep out the cold. It is the same wherever you look, and so in every field the seedy and the sordid are . . . replacing the splendid survivals of the past.

So much for what Mlle. Tillion splendidly calls in an untranslatable world, the “clochardisation” (literally, bum-ification) of Algeria; I have never read such a terse yet brilliant analysis of the degradation and pauperization so characteristic of the A...