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BOOK REVIEWS: Algeria

European Travel Literature on Algeria and the Sahara, post 1800

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The works of Albert Camus, Isabelle Eberhardt and André Gide are inextricably bound up with the Algerian landscape. Their genius is now shared and appreciated across the world. This is not the usual fate of the travel literature from Algeria. There is no country that can quite match Algeria’s experience of European Imperialism and colonialism. Not even Vietnam or Mexico can quite equal Algeria’s catalogue of horrors. First there was the ruthless military conquest, then decades of land-grabbing and colonial settlement before the construction of a selective democracy that hid the realities of a brutal apartheid regime from mainland France and the eyes of the world. These events led to the 1950’s guerilla struggle for Independence and its bloody suppression, which was to be in its turn followed by the threat of civil war in France, the mass exodus of settlers while vengeance fell on their abandoned local allies. It all started so long ago, the initial invasion was back in 1820 but has yet ended so recently, in 1964. Nor can one seriously doubt that Algeria’s current civil war (which began in 1991 and is still not over) is not directly connected, like a tramline, to this terrible past.

There is not a Western audience for Algeria’s story - yet. France is still trying to forget it and move onto a new relationship with Algeria. The rest of Europe finds it too confusing, gloomy and complicated to attract its continued interest. Though there are are some startling exceptions such as Pontecorvo’s epic film, The Battle of Algiers and Alistair Horne’s masterly, A Savage War of Peace, which have brought home the truth. As the 21st century progresses, “the French in Algeria” will be studied as one of the decisive events of the 20th century, to put alongside the rise and fall of Communism. As you can see from the book list below there will be no shortage of distinguished texts upon which to base this study. The literature, whether published in Paris or Algiers, created by French or Algerian was predominately written in French.

The Algerian Sahara, the land of the Berber speaking Tuareg, is like another country. Ever since it was opened upto European eyes at the beginning of the 20th-century it has attracted a positive flood of travel writers, explorers, missionaries and scholars. There has always been a ready market to consume books about the magnificent desert landscape, its mysterious veiled occupants, their camels and the ancient heritage of rock art. The first explorers were all French and the great body of scholarship remains in French. There has also been a paralell tradition of British writers on the Sahara since the 1920’s, a distinguished list that includes F.R. Rodd, R.V.C Bodley, H.T.Norris and Jeremy Keenan.

Titles

  • Abbas, Ferhat, Autopsie d’une guerre, Paris 1981
  • Abun-Nasr, Jamil M., History of the Maghreb in the Islamic Period, Cambridge, 1987 - one of the prime sources but not an easy first read to those first approaching the subject.
  • Ageron, Charles Robert, Histoire de l’Algerie contemporien, 1871-1954, Paris 1979 with an English translation by Micheal Brett - the best and most concise single explanation of modern Algeria.
  • Bazin, René, Charles de Foucauld, Paris 1921, trs by P. Keelan, London 1923 - still the ultimate source for many of the later biographies, studies and articles of this most extraordinary of Frenchmen (see entry under Foucauld in Morocco).
  • Belloc, Hilaire, Est Perpetua: Algerian Studies and Impressions, London 1906 - a curious period piece of colonial propaganda, washed over by a dangerous enthusiasm for the re-planting of the Roman Catholic church in North Africa.
  • Berque, Jacques, Le Maghreb entre deux guerres, Paris 1962 - a study of how the magnificent early success of French ruled North Africa began to turn sour around 1934.
  • Bodley, Ronald.V.C., Wind in the Sahara, London 1947, TheSoundless Sahara, London 1968, Algeria from Within, London 1926, The Warrior Saint, London 1954- all by Britain’s leading Algeria and ‘sahara hand’. The son of a Paris-based British historian of France, Ronald fought in the First World War trenches before rising, aged 26, to become one of the yongest Lt Colonels in the army. After the war he turned his back on western civilization, travelling through Algeria with nomad shepherds for the next 8 years. Later work as a journalist, a script writer, and a lecturer prepared him for work in the intelligence services during the Second World War.
  • Bowles, Paul, The Sheltering Sky, London 1949 - although reknowned for his Moroccan connection, Bowles’s most powerful novel and many of his short stories are set in the Algerian Sahara.
  • Buchanan, Angus, Sahara, John Murray, London 1926 - endearing but very British Saharan adventure where animals -especially camels- come first.
  • Cauneille, A., Les Chaamba - leur nomadisme, Paris 1968 - regional study of the Arabic speaking Chaamba tribe of the northern Sahara.
  • Camus, Albert, Noces, Paris 1938, L’Etranger, Paris 1942 (translated as the Outsider, London 1946), La Peste, Paris 1947 (trs The Plague, London 1948), Le Mythe de Sisyphe, (trs The Myth of Sisyphus, New York 1954), Resistance, Rebellion and Death, London 1961 and most recently - in 1995- his memoir of an Algerian childhood, The First Man. Camus is one of the great and original writers of the 20th century whose works now also keep the vannished culture of the pied noir colonial settlers alive.
  • Chapelle, Jean, Nomades Noirs du Sahara, Paris 1957 - scholarly look at that mosy unpinnable down of all people, the Tebu of Tibesti.
  • Crewe, Quentin, In Search of the Sahara, London 1983 - entertaining travels by wheel-chair bound travel writer, wry, humurous but like many a similar Saharan expedition travelling too quickly, too far. enriched by Tim Beddow’s photographs.
  • Eberhardt, Isabelle, A L’Ombre chaude de L’Islam, Notes de Route, Pages d’Islam, Au Pays des Sables - possibly the greatest female travel writer of the 20-th century with a life as vivid as any of her writing. She was the bastard daughter of an Orthodox priest who lived as rough as any of her corporal lovers from the Algerian ranks of the French army.
  • Ferraoun, Mouloud, Le Fils du Pauvre, 1950, La Terre et la Sang, Paris 1953, Les Chemins qui montent, Paris 1957 - novels that portray with documentary accuracy the reality of Algerian peasants in the last years of the colonial society.
  • Fromentin, Eugene, Une Année dans le Sahel, Un ete dans le Sahara - 19th century travel writing from one of the greatest French painters of the steppe, delighting in the freedom of horse, wind and falcon, seemingly images of the old pre-colonial life of the tribes.
  • Gautier, E.F., Le Sahara, (2nd edition), Paris 1928, trs Sahara: The Great Desert by D.F.Mayhew, New York 1935 - one of the first Saharan compendiums, filled with geology, geography, climate and some history.
  • Germain, J. and Faye, S., Le General Laperinne, Grand Saharien, Paris 1936 -biography of the conqueror and gentle administrator of the Sahara, a colonial hero of the old school to put alongside such other great Frenchmen in North Africa as Foucauld and Lyautey
  • Gidé, Andre, L’Immoraliste - the first great novel to chronicle the destruction of European morality in the alien culture of North Africa, and in particular the Algerian oasis of Biskra.
  • Horne, Alistair, A Savage War of Peace, Algeria 1954-1962, London 1977 and later editions - one of the great histories of the 20th-century by a distinguished British historian specializing in the role of the army in French politics. Also contains a reasonably selective 6 page bibliography for those wishing to dig further.
  • Julien, Charles-André, Histoire de L’Afrique du Nord (2 volumes) , Paris 1978 a prime source to put aside Abun Nasr.
  • Keenan, Jeremy, The Tuareg: People of Ahaggar, London 1977 - the heir to Rodd’s People of the Veil, a classic example of a well ordered regional study, lucid, personal yet scholarly.
  • Lajoux, J-D., The Rock Paintings of the Tassili, London 1963 - good quality photographs, as opposed to Lhote’s enhanced drawings.
  • Lhote, H., The Search for the Tassili Frescoes, trs. A.H.Brodrick, London 1959 - the classic work, the chronology slightly chipped away by later experts but still standing as a work of scholarship.
  • Maugham, Robin., The Slaves of Timbuktu, London 1961.
  • Maupassant, Guy de., Le Vie Erranate, Pierre et Jean, Au Soleil - novellas set in Algeria.
  • Memmi Albert, Anthologie des ecrivains francais du Maghreb, Paris 1969 - a very useful source and sampler.
  • Monod, T., Meharees. Explorations au Vrai Sahara, Paris 1937 - one of the many publications by this key figure in saharan exploration.
  • Nachtigal, G., Sahara et Soudan, trs. Goubault, Paris 1881.
  • Norris, H.T., The Tuaregs: Their Islamic legacy and its Diffusion in the Sahel, Warminster 1975, Saharan Myth and Saga, 1972, The Berbers in Arabic Literature, London 1982 - three books from one of the great British experts on the indigenous literature and poetry of the Saharan peoples.
  • Norwich, John Julius (Lord), Sahara, Longmans, London, 1968 - animated travels into the Tassili and Tibesti mountains by the erudite historian of Byzantium and Venice.
  • Ossendowski, Ferdinand, Breath of the Desert, London 1927
  • Porch, Douglas, The Conquest of the Sahara, London 1985 - not the brutal conquest of northern Algeria but the more quixotix story of 19th-century Saharan exploration and 20th century conquest. A companion volume to the Conquest of Morocco, both books conceived from a French perspective.
  • Prorok, Byron de, Mysterious Sahara, John Murray, London 1930 - a name that still makes many a professional archaeologist spit blood. Showman, publicist and adventurer though he may be he also unearthed the sanctuary of Tanit at Carthage and the tomb of Tin Hinan, the legendary ancestress of the Tuareg of the central Sahara.
  • Raven, Susan, Rome in Africa, London 1969 though you should use the updated 3rd edition, Routledge, London 1993 - indispensable general history to Algeria’s pre-Islamic period and its gorgeous Roman ruins and Numidian royal cemetries.
  • Rodd, F.Rennel., People of the Veil, London 1926 - one of the first serious studies of the Tuareg, standing in direct succession to Foucauld’s work.
  • Rogerson, Barnaby, Traveller’s History of North Africa, 1998 - regional history on a broad sweep, from the Nile to the Atlantic from the stone age to the 21st century but with a suprisingly detailed narrative and useful ruler’s list.
  • Scott, Chris and contributors, Sahara Overland: A Route and Planning Guide, Trailblazer Publications, 2000 - the most upto date and comprehensive guide to the practicalities of Saharan travel.
  • Seguin, L.G., Walks in Algiers and its Surroundings, London 1878 - half guide, half travelling companion to Algiers when it was the undisputed expatriate resort and ‘wintering’ station.
  • Servan-Schreiber, Jean-Jaques, Lieutenant en Algérie, Paris 1957, Lieutenant in Algeria, New York 1957 - devestating critique of the French military supression of the Algerian rebellion by a serving officer who went on to found L’Express.
  • Swift, Jeremy, The Sahara, Time-Life books, 1975
  • Trench, Richard, Forbidden Sands, London 1978
  • Trumelet, C., Le Francais dans le Desert (3rd edition), Paris, 1886 - early account of French military life in the Saharan regions.
  • Turnbull, Patrick, Sahara Unveiled, London 1940 - sub titled ‘A great story of French colonial conquest’ by an Foreign Legionnaire.
  • Wellard, James, The Great Sahara, New York, 1965

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