Rupture, Repression, Repetition? A conference on the Algerian War at the University of Leeds

One of our affiliated staff members, Hugh McDonnell, attended a conference on the Algerian War held at the University of Leeds on 7-8 September 2017. Here he reports on some of the things he heard.

Mohamed Ben Kassen, Fusia El Kader, and Brahim Hadjadj in ‘The Battle of Algiers’ (1966)

Newcomers to the conference organising scene will have good reason to resent University of Leeds PhD student Beatrice Ivey and her colleague Dr Daniel Hartley for having set the bar quite so high with their hosting of ‘Rupture, Repression, Repetition? The Algerian War of Independence in the Present.’ That said, their debut was no doubt facilitated by the exciting offering of papers, spanning the spectrum of French and North African studies. Particularly satisfying was the constructive and sympathetic engagement between historians and those speaking from more theoretical or text-oriented backgrounds. The event did justice to the ambitious range of topics underlying the call for papers, ranging from French and Algerian wars of memory, and past and present states of emergency on both sides of the Mediterranean, to historical temporality in the thought of Alain Badiou.

Pinpointing particular papers inevitably fails to reflect the quality and insights across all panels, not least in the welcome roundtable for current PhD students. Nonetheless, personal highlights included offerings on cultural transpositions from the Algeria’s war of independence to its décennie noire; the war in contemporary Algerian literature; Nina Wardleworth’s exposition on the Algerian war in the French detective novel; Maria Flood on Jacques Panijel’s documentary on the Paris October 1961 massacre, Octobre à Paris; Patrick Crowley’s ‘Temporalities of War, Figurations of the Present: Literary Afterlives of the Algerian War of Independence’; and Andy Stafford’s insights into Mohammed Dib and the responsibility of the writer.

These were complemented by penetrating historical analyses of the same period. Stand-out contributions here included Tom Hunt on the unrecognised legacy of Algeria in the invention of Late Antiquity; Selim Nadi on the Algerian Revolution, the French State and the Counter-Colonial Strategy of the Holy Republic; Dónal Hasset on the narration of Algeria’s First World War through the lens of the War of Independence; and Claire Eldridge’s talk on generational change and memory transmission within the Algerian pied-noir community.

Emblematic of this exchange between literature and history were the two keynotes from Jane Hiddleston and Natalya Vince from Oxford and Portsmouth Universities respectively. Hiddleston’s compelling interpretation of ‘revolving memories’ in the work of figures from Boualem Sansal to Kateb Yacine was counterpoised by Vince’s stylish paper on ‘The Permanent Reinvention’ as a lens through which to view the Algerian Revolution in recent pasts. Nicely weaving together questions considered over the two days, Vince’s conclusion pinpointed the importance of memory as refracted, repackaged, repurposed. She stressed the periodisation of memory post-event and critiqued the notion of “Franco-Algerian” “memory wars”. At the same time, she urged scholars to avoid methodological nationalism, by encouraging them to reflect on Algeria in an international and local memory context. She ended by questioning the dichotomy between ‘public’ and ‘vernacular’ memory, which seemed an appropriate way to end a stimulating conference.

Hugh McDonnell is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow in Politics and International Relations on the European Research Council Starting Grant project entitled: Illuminating the ‘Grey Zone’: Addressing Complex Complicity in Human Rights Violations. He has recently published ‘Europeanising Spaces in Paris, c. 1947-1962’ (Liverpool University Press, 2016). He is an affiliated staff member of the CSMCH.