Algeria, 1962: A Close Examination of a Pivotal Space-Time



In 2022, Malika Rahal published an entire book dedicated to 1962 Algeria, which subverts immutable chronological narratives by compiling a “people’s history” through oral histories, rumors, emotions, objects, clothes, hand signals, and even airwaves. Sixty years later, she brings us into the tangible reality of this pivotal moment. All photos are from Malika Rahal’s book. Courtesy of La Découverte.

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A chronocartography of the Algeria 1962 space-time drawn by Léopold Lambert with data provided by Malika Rahal (2022).

LÉOPOLD LAMBERT: Your book, A People’s History of 1962 Algeria (La Découverte, 2022) describes many layers that traditional history books tend to leave out—for whatever reason. Could you describe the several moments that compose the year 1962 and their significance on Algerian people—be them, for most of them, formerly known as “French Muslims of Algeria,” or for few of them, European settlers who decided to become Algerians after the independence?

MALIKA RAHAL: Traditional history, as you call it, both in Algeria and France, focuses on the political events of the year 1962, when Algeria achieved its independence from France after 132 years of colonization and an eight-year-long war for independence. It therefore emphasizes several politically significant dates: the ceasefire that was put into place on March 19, 1962 and ended the war between the French army and the Algerian National Liberation Army (ALN). This began a so-called “transitional period” which ended when the country voted in a referendum of self-determination on July 1, 1962. The resounding “yes” vote led to the transfer of sovereignty from the French to the Algerian authorities on July 3 and to the official celebrations of independence on July 5. The date was chosen by the Algerian provisional Government in reference to July 5, 1830, when the city of Algiers surrendered after having been occupied by the French, thus offering a historical interpretation of 1962 as a cancellation or a reversal of French occupation.

What was striking during the transitional period was the level of violence, especially due to the pro-French Algeria fascist Secret Army Organization (OAS) which launched last-ditch waves of violence against Algerians, as well as against the French who chose to leave Algeria. The chaos this caused contributed to the speed of departures: while one million French inhabitants of Algeria had represented one tenth of the population of the colony, 650,000 of them left the country in 1962 alone. In France, this is the best-known aspect of the history of Algerian independence, since most “Pieds noirs” (settlers) resettled in France. Their story is of course a tragic one of displacement and loss of the country in which most of them were born.

The last series of political events of 1962 is less often referred to. In the fall, a conflict within the National Liberation Front (FLN) ended with the victory of a group headed by both Ahmed Ben Bella, one of the FLN leaders and future first president of independent Algeria, and Houari Boumédiène, the head of the liberation army. In September, permanent Algerian institutions were put into place: elections for the National Constituent Assembly were organized and Ahmed Ben Bella’s government started working. In Algeria, this political conflict of 1962 is often referred to as the cause of all the political difficulties the country has since experienced, as if the country had started off on the wrong foot, and never recovered. As a result, both for France and Algeria, 1962 was recovered by layers of tragic narratives. I became interested in uncovering a more nuanced understanding of this event, one that would include not only tragedy, but also hope and enthusiasm, as well as—I discovered progressively—a vast array of emotions that seemed to coexist at the same moment.

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Personal photographs of Hosni Kitouni of the maquis in 1956 and 1962 respectively. On the first one he holds his father’s gun; on the second, he also holds a gun on the first row (without hat).

LL: Oral history occupies an important space within your work but, in contrast with the way we often do not question the veracity of orality (as a way to better fight the “official history”), you read its imprecision or even its invention (through rumors in particular) as something extremely telling about the moment people were living in. Could you tell us how you go about it?

MR: Algerian independence is told through diametrically opposing narratives. One of the questions at stake is that of violence: were the French forced to leave Algeria because they were voluntarily driven out by Algerians authorities? Not to spoil any findings of the book, but I didn’t find traces of any decision supporting this stipulation.

In fact, Algerian authorities were keen on the idea that as many French people would remain in the country as possible, as they represented the majority of administration employees and skilled workers.

Their rapid and unforeseen departure contributed to the chaos of that year, the breakdown of public services, and the shutdown of many companies. These problems burdened the Algerian Republic considerably.

One of the sources often cited to “prove” the level of violence on the Algerian side is a diary by French priest Michel de Laparre, who worked in Oran and later went on to publish articles in the far-right newspaper Rivarol. But if you read his diary very carefully, it is quite possible to distinguish the violence he witnessed directly (quite often, OAS violence) from the violence he heard terrifying rumors of (often attributed to the FLN). One of the rumors that spread amongst the French during the last weeks of French Algeria is that of stolen blood, whereby FLN men kidnapped French men and women to steal their blood and transfuse it to Algerians wounded in OAS attacks. Such rumors of stolen blood mirror those analyzed by Luise White in Western Africa in the early stages of colonization. Despite what pro-French Algeria historians continue to defend today, there is no evidence proving that this ever happened. There is however significant evidence of how widespread the rumors were, and how they contributed to the breakdown of French Algeria by accelerating decisions to leave the country. The symbolic analysis of the rumors is also quite clear. In the eyes of settlers who believed they had constructed the country from scratch and were deeply influenced by racialized and racist interpretations of what Algeria should be, the citizens of the new country would feed on their vital energy.

By the same token, there were many false stories and rumors—though not as spectacular as the stolen blood—on the Algerian side. In fact, the intensity of the circulation of rumors and stories was specific to the time in which people were living. This was a period during which people were constantly trying to acquire knowledge of what was going on, of what had happened and what would happen because everything was constantly in flux.

LL: What is striking about your book is the precision with which it shows what happens when a revolution is won. Official history decided July 5, 1962 as the day when we shifted from colonial to independent Algeria, but the process is much more floating in time, starting earlier and ending (if ever) later. Could you please describe this process to us?

MR: Just exactly when is the Revolution won? That is a good question. Was it when the ceasefire was obtained on March 18, 1962? Its announcement was celebrated as a full-fledged victory in the streets of Tripoli, Libya, of Cairo, or Karachi—even in Algeria, although it was only the beginning of a process leading to Independence, March was the beginning of the end of the war and, as such, a moment of victory. In rural areas, families put on their best clothes and climbed up into the mountains bringing food to maquis survivor combatants to celebrate with them. For others however, the Revolution had not yet been won, in particular for those who fought against the OAS or for Algerian authorities or military stationed at the borders, in Tunisia and Morocco.

Another significant date is July 5, when official celebrations occurred. But in reading memoirs and autobiographies, I realized the most significant date varies from person to person, or perhaps there simply are several. For example, one author, Mohamed Sari, grew up in a camp—by the end of the war one quarter of the Algerian population had indeed been forced into so-called “camps de regroupement,” similar to concentration camps in other colonial situations. For him, the end of the war was the moment when the French army left the camp. That day, the French flag was replaced by the Algerian flag and the barbed wire fences of the camps were destroyed by its occupants. For the first time, he saw men dancing, and his entire family, men, women, and children sharing a meal around the same table without respecting the usual separation of age and gender. However, this is the same author who tells the story of the July 5 celebration in the city of Cherchell where, as a young child, he appears to have been drunk with excitement, sound, and sun.

And in September, when Algerian newspapers were printed legally again, the reader’s letters reveal that for several of them, it was now time to stop celebrating and get back to work to build the country, thus revealing that the celebrations continued and giving credit to what several witnesses also told me:

“For weeks and weeks, we celebrated.” However, for those who were ready to “get back to work,” this was also a revolutionary task: getting children back to school in October, plowing and sowing in the countryside, re-launching economic activities; housing and feeding the population was as essential to the success of Independence as winning the war.

In other words, rather than there being one sole moment when the Revolution was won, there were, for most, a series of events, sometimes in rapid succession. This is also what allows for a mixture of (at time apparently conflicting) emotions, from intense joy to sorrow.

LL: Never before had I read such powerful and evocative descriptions of the “orgasmic” joy—a term one of your interviewees uses himself—that characterized the festivities on July 5, 1962. Can you tell us about this potent emotional layer that accompanies the liberation from colonialism?

MR: This is in fact where the idea of the book started. I’d been conducting interviews for various projects on the history of Algerian for years, and I realized how important 1962 was for those who lived through it, if you gave them the chance to talk about it. However, their first answer might be the expression of powerful emotions, through laughter, tears, or the inability to find words adequate to express the magnitude of the event. Even before I started on this book, I thus began integrating a question about “1962” in each interview, whether with former left-wing activists, or with families of victims of forced disappearance during the 1957 “battle of Algiers.”

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Celebrations of the Independence in Nanterre (Paris’ most Algerian banlieue of the time).

One day I mentioned the vague idea of writing about 1962 to historian Ouarda Tengour, who told me about “her 1962” as a child of the war who, at the time, danced for the first time. She told me she felt sorry for younger generations like mine who had never known such an event and added: “if you have experienced an event similar to this one once in your life, you can withstand anything.” This made me want to explore the emotions connected to such a foundational event.

I was amazed to discover, for instance, that no one had written about the spectacular celebrations of July 5, despite the number of photographs and (I later discovered) films shot on that date. I also discovered that celebrations did not start in July, but had begun as soon as the ceasefire had been declared on March 19, though in a more subdued fashion as the French army was still present and the situation was still dangerous.

After the ceasefire, families began reuniting as combatants demobilized and left the maquis, or as political prisoners were freed from French prisons and detention camps (in Algeria or in France) and returned to their regions of origin.

Their return was always an opportunity to celebrate. However, they were often bearers of bad news: in a situation where families had been displaced, combatants joined the maquis under pseudonyms, and where the French army massively used forced disappearance, many families often had lost track of several of their members. Therefore celebrations (for the return of children, fathers, sisters or of a neighbor) alternated in rapid succession with times of bereavement, celebrations of mourning, and invention of rituals often performed in the absence of a body.

In fact, collective bereavement was present and expressed even at the heart of the celebrations at the beginning of July. Several silent films show crowds marching together with their index towards the sky, in a gesture that, for Muslims, expresses the belief in the oneness of God. While everyone remembers some of the more joyous slogans of the time (“Tahiya al-Jazair!”, i.e. “Long live Algeria!”), it took me a while to realize that what they were singing as they marched was: “May God have mercy on the martyrs,” thus expressing the massive collective mourning of those who died during war.

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Celebrations of the Independence in Nanterre (Paris’ most Algerian banlieue of the time). Regular readers of The Funambulist will surely recognize the cover of our Politics of Food issue (#31 Sept-Oct 2020). / Unknown photographer (L’Humanité archives).

Analyzing photographs and films carefully allowed me to describe attitudes, gestures, words including very fleeting ones. One film shows the return of Algerian refugees from Morocco, and the impressive repatriation operation put together by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, along with the Ligue of Red-Cross societies and the Algerian, French, Moroccan, and Tunisian authorities. While such films were often commissioned to highlight NGO activities, one image drew my attention: a woman on the platform of the station waved goodbye to those who were leaving to return to Algeria. She seemed to be making a V for victory with her hand, except for the fact that she was actually raising three fingers. The explanation was given to me by Algerians who had lived in Morocco during the war: ever since the return of Sultan Mohammed from forced exile in 1955, the gesture had been used to express solidarity between the three North African countries, Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco, in their struggle for independence. Finally, in 1962, the last of the three joined the two others in independence.

It really was one of the challenges in writing this book to describe such a multitude of emotions and feelings: joy and excitement as well as sadness and mourning; fear and anxiety as well as hope and fervor.

LL: One other aspect you describe in the book is the massive de-carceralization of Algerian prisoners from prisons and detention camps both in Algeria and in France, as part of the March 18, 1962 Evian ceasefire accords. It was hard for me not to read these descriptions through an abolitionist framework, imagining with emotion these thousands of people who are freed from carceral environments. Could you please describe these scenes to our readers?

MR: Aside from the populations forcefully displaced into concentration camps, detainment spaces—such as prisons, penitentiaries, and detainment camps—had been one of the main tools for the repression of the colonized population and the nationalist movement.

Even before the war began in 1954, detention centers, prisons, or penal colonies had been a constant tool for domination of the colonial population.

However, I found it impossible to give an estimate of how many Algerians were imprisoned at the end of the war, in Algeria and in metropolitan France. According to the Algerian provisional government, there may have been as many as 100,000 in Algerian and 20,000 in France in 1960, but these figures remain uncertain, and it is so far impossible to say how many were left by the end of the war.

According to the Evian agreements, Algerian prisoners were to be freed in the following 20 days. Operations were quite spectacular, rapid and, at times, chaotic—the French authorities were not always able to say who were the detainees and to follow procedures. The FLN endeavored to put together a strong organization, to produce lists of detainees and order them by regions of origin so as to transport them back. Algerian emigrants to France played an important role in collecting clothes distributed to those who came out of prisons and housing them until they could travel back. Until the last moment, the identity of the prisoners and the nature of their political involvement was questioned: for example, when French administration first refused to free nationalist activists of French origin fighting for Algerian independence, arguing that the Evian agreements did not apply to them; or to free nationalist activists of the National Liberation Movement (MNA), a rival organization to the FLN.

An activist from Tlemcen recounted in his memoirs that leaving the prison was bittersweet, as it meant being separated from comrades from other areas of the country he had strongly bonded with. On the trip back to Tlemcen, he remembered stopping in several towns and villages for tea, or meals or to spend the night, families sometimes arguing over who should have the honor of receiving such desirable guests. Upon arrival too, prisoners were greeted with successions of reception after reception.

This homecoming of freed prisoners took the form of a flow of men and women greeted in temporary transit centers, where families congregated in the hope of recognizing a loved one whom they had no news of. The stream of returnees brought its share of miracles, when families discovered a member whom they had thought to be dead, as well as deep sorrow, when those coming home brought with them bad news, or simply when a long-awaited person failed to show up.

LL: As we will talk about, your book approaches the concept of time through many angles, but you make sure that space is also investigated, thus providing us with potent space-time considerations. The way you approach space however is not through the bidimensional cartographic imaginary, but through the thickness and multiplicity of layers of the land: the earth itself (and the toxicity of colonialism), the air…even through airwaves. Could you tell us more about these various spatial dimensions?

MR: Independence is a question of sovereignty, when a country frees itself of colonial domination and creates a state that has control over its own territory. This begged the question of how (and when) sovereignty shifted over the Algerian territory.
The Evian agreements provided a framework for maintaining the status quo, with territories remaining under French or Algerian control during the transitional period as they had been on March 18. Instead, the French army progressively pulled back and the Algerian army progressively took over regions and towns. This is exemplified on a very local scale, by the ways sovereignty over one given regroupment camp changed after the departure of the French, when the occupants took over and the National Liberation Army arrived.

I was also interested in describing how, on the local level of each neighborhood, end of war violence increased the apartheid between Algerian and French populations, by pushing Algerians living in mixed neighborhoods to seek refuge from OAS violence in Algerian quarters, while the Europeans also tended to congregate in specific quarters of coastal cities. In cities such as Algiers, Oran, or Sidi Bel-Abbès, the OAS besieged Algerian quarters, preventing workers from reaching their workplace, sick or wounded people from reaching hospitals, and children from going to school.

Several foreign observers such as U.S. consul William Porter, or International Committee of the Red-Cross envoys described how inhabitants of these neighborhoods organized in order to ensure their security, their activity and even their health.

In doing so, they became less reliant on French administration and, in an unforeseen development, tended to become autonomous, or to Algerianize, even before the country reached its independence.

Circulations were intense throughout the year 1962: with Algerian combatants demobilizing, refugees coming back from Morocco and Tunisia, concentration camps finally opening, as did prisons, penitentiaries, and detention camps, and many aiming to occupy the houses and apartment of the French inhabitants who left the country, it sometimes felt like everyone was on the road. I did wonder how such circulations affected the relationship of Algerians to territory and space. Or, to put it differently, such circulations might be seen as a form of appropriation of the country. In order to explore this, I tried to dig into first-hand accounts. I was, for instance, fascinated to see how many former Algerian combatants used the description of landscape to describe the intimate transformation produced by the implementation of the ceasefire: from one minute to the next, the landscape goes from being described as a “rough terrain,” a resource in revolutionary warfare, to a quiet, poetic space that is also the resting place of all their comrades who died in combat throughout the war.

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Concentration camp in the region of Guelma (northeastern Algeria) in 1960. / CICR.

But of course, both colonization and war transformed the land deeply: land appropriation and agriculture created specific landscapes, for example. This raises the question of how independence transformed these landscapes in return. The war itself had made vast swathes of land uninhabitable, for instance where forests had been burned down by the French army’s use of napalm, or the placement of anti-personnel mines. In 2017, as I was already writing this book, it was announced that the demining operations had finally come to a close, though not all of the 12 million mines set by the French army had been located. The maps of the mined areas had only been handed over to the Algerian authorities in… 2007. So the reversal of the effects on the ground of this particular aspect of occupation and war had taken almost 60 years.

You mentioned the question of a three-dimensional sovereignty. During the war, the Algerian provisional government had a cartographic service that produced maps in order to survey the situation while conducting the war, as well as to anticipate governing the country. Obviously, these maps are two-dimensional. One thing that was not discussed during the Franco-Algerian negotiations of Evian was the question of air traffic control, which is after all a form of sovereignty over the air, and which remained in the hands of a Franco-Algerian company until the 1967 war in the Middle-East, when it became obvious that this gave French authorities too much control over air traffic. By the same token, it took several months for the Algerians authorities to regain control over the television and radio broadcasting network by physically occupying the building in the capital city during the fall, in a move considered extremely hostile by the French.

LL: Your book could surely be studied as an exemplary method—not a recipe, mind you!—to transcribe people’s histories onto paper, whether in Algeria or elsewhere. One important reason for this is the relationship you have with time in your writings. The events you describe are not understood in the usual retrospective sequential reading historians usually provide us with: these events are understood as indissociable parts of people’s own life trajectories, of Algeria and France’s own histories, but also parts of a global simultaneity of events that may or may not influence those in Algeria. As a conclusion to this conversation, may I ask you to speak about this relationship with time?

MR: Yes, and thank you for pointing this out! It took me a while to think about how I wanted to talk about 1962: not solely as an end (of war, of colonial domination) and not solely as a beginning (of independent Algeria’s history), but not as an isolated moment in time either, so that I might give the impression that everything happened in 1962. For instance, when I mentioned the Algerianization of certain neighborhoods isolated by OAS violence, I had to pay attention not to erase the long-term struggle for sovereignty over spaces as well as over bodies that had taken place in prior decades and more intensely since the beginning of the war.

I should also point out that I was able to write this book after a decade of working on the post-independence history of Algeria. When I first began doing this, in 2010, there had been virtually no other historian working on the sequence of what followed 1962, and it took time to start from scratch.

But many questions arose from studying what followed independence, such as the question of property: thinking about urbanization, and the way neighborhoods are organized in the main Algerian cities today led to wonder how 1962 had affected them.

Rather than following the French after their departure from Algeria, as other important books have done, I wanted my focus to remain where the departees used to live and describe the surprise of their former neighbors at discovering empty streets; or how Algerian families had occupied homes, what they had done with the furniture or the objects that they found; whether they considered high tables (as opposed to the low mayda tables) to be desirable or awkward.

Recently, during a book presentation, I met a woman from a French Algerian family. She had gone back to Algeria, and following her grand-mother’s instructions, had found the family apartment. The grand-mother was very keen on finding a cane with a silver handle that had belonged to her own grand-father and that had been left behind.
The woman found the apartment, where she was invited in for coffee and pastries. When asked about the cane, the owner silently went into a bedroom, and looked into a wardrobe. She came back with the ancient cane, as well as a box of old photographs she had found in the apartment which she gave back to their owners. The anecdote is wonderful, because beyond the gesture, it reveals how some Algerian family may have set aside such objects and lived alongside them for decades. In other words, it brings out the sense of duration of Algerian history.

Some of the words connected to 1962 are still very present in Algeria today: the word “bien vacant” (“vacant properties,” the properties left by the French) is still commonly used because the effect of how properties changed hands following 1962 continues to have consequences in the present. I wanted to give the readers the feeling that the messy events of that year had long lasting effects: the March 1963 decrees on the biens vacants for example made the state the largest landlord in the country, occupants paying the state lower rents then they would have for privately owned apartments. This lasted until the 1980s, as the country moved away from socialism, and state properties were progressively privatized, allowing their occupants to acquire the houses and apartments they lived in. Bringing this into perspective and showing how profoundly and rapidly private property was transformed allows us to better understand just how deeply revolutionary Algerian Independence was. ■