Albert Camus and the French-Algerian War

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Albert Camus and the French-Algerian War
When it comes to revolutionary writers, the French have many claims to fame. Very few look as chic, handsome and, well, French, as the philosopher and novelist Albert Camus. He’s a kind of an international literary super-star, the James Dean of philosophy. Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy went so far as to make a huff about his remains being moved to the Panthéon- a breathtaking monument in Paris where Victor Hugo and Voltaire lie. That never happened, and I’m pretty sure that in his request for the burial transfer, Sarkozy never mentioned the Algerian-born writer’s lifelong plight over the French-Algerian war. Just as Camus’s French-Algerian identity crisis is somehow omitted in contemporary discussion, so too is the bloody war over Algerian independence. But if we talk about Camus, we must talk about the French-Algerian war, and let’s face it, we must talk about Camus. With the famous image of Camus along a dimly-lit Parisian street with a hand-rolled cigarette tucked between his lips and an asymmetrical coat collar framing his face, it is hard to image that he was almost 30 before ever coming to Paris. Upon arrival in France in 1940, he quickly fell into the intellectual scene thanks to his lyrical philosophy – part sensualist, part humanist, and highly comparable to Nietzschean prose. But despite his new fame, his heart was tied to the impoverished Algerian community. He never seized writing about Algeria and was one of the few to anticipate the discord that would sweep through Paris concerning the Algerian question.  He knew a war was coming; he felt it for a long time. He didn’t know he would be alone in trying to prevent it. “A Whole Race Born in the Sun and the Sea” Before falling in and out of the Sartre-dominated intellectual roundtable at the jazz infused Café de Flore, and before his novel L’Etranger found him a spot among the highest echelon in the cannon of existential literature, Camus lived in the slums of Belcourt, a city in the south-eastern pocket of Algiers. As a boy who grew up in poverty amidst the olive trees along the Mediterranean, he found solace in the sun and the sea. In a three-bedroom apartment without electricity, a bathroom, or running water, Camus lived with his mother, brother, uncle, and grandmother. His father died when Camus was an infant, and his mother, illiterate and deaf, supported the family by cleaning the seaside homes of well-off European settlers. They belonged to the working class which constituted 80 percent of the European inhabitants of Algeria known as pied noirs. In this poor corner of Algiers, the indigenous-Algerians, Muslims from various origins including Kabyle, Turkish, and Arab, and French-Algerians were commonly and inoffensively shuffled together, creating a relatively pluralistic atmosphere. Here “Frenchmen” and “Arabs” lived in harmony, and Camus saw little difference in their economic status. As far as he was concerned, his family oppressed no one, and no one oppressed them. But the love that Camus shared “with a whole race born in the sun and the sea” could not eclipse the injustices and uncertainties that colonialism invariably fosters. When the French colonized Algeria in 1830, the Muslim population was politically and economically marginalized. The French stripped the indigenous Algerians of any important role in the government and denied them French citizenship. As the French made vast improvements to Algeria, turning barren soil into rich farmland, igniting the Algerian wine industry, and building roads and railways, they felt increasingly justified in arrogating the right to rule, and Algeria was eventually annexed. But as Algeria became more French, Muslims were becoming less included in French society. Muslims received paltry wages, had little to no voting power, and received less education than Europeans. The inequality was blatant and the discontent mounting. In 1937 Camus took up a job at the Alger-Républicain, a socialist newspaper concerned with and directed to the Muslim and lower class populations, and the horrors of colonialism were finally unveiled. In an 11-part series for the paper, Camus disclosed the inhumane living conditions he witnessed in the predominantly-Muslim region of Kabylia. Gripped by the starving children he saw in the streets scavenging for food in a sea of rags and decay, he began lashing out at the French government and reprimanding colonialism. In a fit of empathy redolent of Dostoevsky, he said, “Perhaps we cannot prevent this world from being a world in which children are tortured. But we can reduce the number of tortured children.” Hence be began a lifelong Literary-liaison with the poor of Algeria and a personal crusade for human rights, justice, and equality. The War of Two Peoples The simple truth about the French-Algerian war is that the Algerian Muslims lost their patience and the French lost their chance. Before the outbreak of war, native-Algerians modestly called for more autonomy, asking for citizenship, religious freedom, and equality in education and work. But the French, particularly the French pied noirs, were afraid of losing their stronghold in the region and wouldn’t budge until it was too late. After rigged elections denied Muslims weight in Algerian politics and the French were defeated in Indochina, Muslim nationalist movements began forming, eventually culminating in the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN).  The FLN launched its fight for independence with an armed revolt on All Saints’ Day in 1954. From Paris, Camus heard of the Muslim populations in Algeria rallying against French rule, and he read about the brutal massacre of Europeans at the hands of Muslims in Sétif. The FLN was calling for the removal of Europeans from Algeria. Camus’s Algiers, the sanguine and sunburnt city by the sea, was giving way to volatility and turmoil. The war escalated, and with it, the massacre of civilians in Algeria and Paris. Pied Noir families, not unlike Camus’s, were the first to be mowed down by FLN gunmen while…

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  • Faiz
    2015-12-13 04:48:23
    After reading this, it made my ignorance of my country's "13th May" to what really happened since history is repeating every where in the world.