Skip to main content Accesibility Help


  • James McDougall

In Algeria as in many other cases, experiences of exile and diaspora played a major role in the creation of nationalist politics in the 20th century; exile has also been a recurring literary figure in expressions of Algerian cultural politics since independence. This article examines a range of literary sources to consider the politics of language and culture in Algeria since the 1940s. It shows how identification with Arabism has enabled Algerians to articulate claims to community, solidarity, and sovereignty, first in a conception of national “salvation” against the colonial state and then as both a state-sponsored project of political legitimacy and an indication of the limits of that project. A sense of these limits can be gained by a brief consideration of the complexity of the country's sociolinguistic landscape and the often unorthodox creativity of its literary self-expression since independence.

Corresponding author
James McDougall is a Fellow and Tutor in Modern History, Trinity College, Oxford, U.K.; e-mail:
Hide All


1 In his memoirs, the late Mostefa Lacheraf, the revolutionary FLN's leading intellectual and a significant personality in independent Algeria, excoriated what he saw as the intellectual subordination to the Mashriq of those “antinationalists” whom he termed “Baʿthists” or qawmiyyīn. See Des noms et des lieux. Mémoires d'une Algérie oubliée (Algiers: Casbah, 1998). A yet more vitriolic tone runs through Muhend Aarav (Mhand Arab) anti-Arabist, Bessaoud'sLe FFS: Espoir et trahison (Paris: FNAR, 1996 [1966]). Bessaoud, a militant nationalist of Kabyle origin and an ALN (Armée de libération nationale [National Liberation Army]) officer from 1954 to 1962, became a ferocious opponent of the regime after independence and played a major role in founding the Kabyle/Berberist movement in the 1970s.

2 See Harbi, Mohamed, L'Algérie et son destin: Croyants ou citoyens (Paris: Arcantère, 1992); and McDougall, James, History and the Culture of Nationalism in Algeria (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 225–38.

3 Historian Mahieddine Djender refers to the official Arabo-Islamism of the Algerian state as “a wish that that which is not should be [emphasis added].” See “La Berbérie, la Kabylie à travers l'histoire,” in Les Kabyles: Éléments pour la compréhension de l'identité berbère en Algérie, ed. Tassadit Yacine (Paris: Groupement pour les droits de minorités, 1992), 53–79, quote at 56. Although his suggested corrective is not a Berberist essentialism but a pluralist conception of “Algérie algérienne,” this term is historically associated with “Berberism” in Algerian politics.

4 This perception, internalized and allied in particular with a generally unflattering view of Egypt as the quintessential “Arab” state, has also occasionally been rearticulated within Algeria to express a distinctly Algerian national identity that would be something other than “fundamentally” Arab (a sentiment much in evidence following the Algeria–Egypt football clash in 2009).

5 I use “Arabism” here to translate ʿurūba and arabité (“Arab-ness”), connoting a positive identification with “being Arab” (culturally) and with “Arab solidarity” (politically) and to denote political programs organized around such (self-)identification. Arabism here includes “Arab nationalism” in Khalidi's sense as distinct from “pan-Arabism,” implying a transregional cultural and political affinity but not necessarily any project of unified or federated statehood. Khalidi, Rashid, “Arab Nationalism: Historical Problems in the Literature,” American Historical Review 96 (December 1991): 1363–73. Compare Dawisha, Adeed, Arab Nationalism in the Twentieth Century: From Triumph to Despair (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003), for whom “pan-Arabism” is inherent in “Arab nationalism.”

6 For Islamism as a rearticulation of elements of the nationalist register of legitimacy in Algeria, see McDougall, James, “The Fetishism of Identity,” in Counter-hegemony in the Colony and Postcolony, ed. Chalcraft, John and Noorani, Yaseen (London: Palgrave, 2007). Several hundred thousand marchers joined the Algiers demonstration on 18 January 1991, led by the FIS, the principal coalition of Islamist groups from 1989 to 1992, which has since been banned. A similar march in Casablanca, on 4 February, assembled “at least” 300,000 people and 500,000 according to the organizers. New York Times, 4 February 1991. For the Gulf War's impact in Algeria, see Roberts, HughThe Battlefield: Algeria, 1988–2002. Studies in a Broken Polity (London: Verso, 2003), chap. 3.

7 A recent study viewing Arabism exclusively “from above” in this sense is Doran, Michael, Pan-Arabism Before Nasser: Egyptian Power Politics and the Palestine Question (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999); see the review by Gershoni, Israel in American Historical Review 106 (2001): 301303.

8 Sources are in the Centre des Archives d'Outre Mer, Aix-en-Provence, France: Archives du Gouvernement Général de l'Algérie (hereafter FR/CAOM/GGA) 25H/32/11, 25H/32/3, 25H/32/13; Archives du département d'Alger (hereafter FR/CAOM/Alger) 4I/14; and the National Archives, Tunis (hereafter TN/AN) E/509/126 and E/509/595.

9 TN/AN/E/509/126 folios 4, 10, 11. Lease of the land for the building was accorded to the association in February 1951 by the Conseil supérieur des Habous, but the project does not seem to have been completed.

10 Note on al-Thamara ’l-Ula with summary and translations (n.p.: n.d.), FR/CAOM/Alger/4I/69/5, and intelligence note, Centre d'information et d'études (hereafter CIE), Algiers, 19 December 1937, FR/CAOM/GGA/25H/32/11/874. The brochure was banned from circulating by decree on 7 January 1938. See “État des publications en langue arabe dont la circulation est interdite en Algérie,” CIE, Algiers, 29 March 1938, FR/CAOM/Alger/4I/178/6.

11 Jamʿiyat al-Talaba al-Jazaʾiriyyin al-Zaytuniyyin, al-Thamara al-Thaniyya, ed. ʿAmmar al-Najjar, Matbaʿat al-Tlili, Tunis, 1366–7/1947–8, FR/CAOM/Alger/4I/178/6.

12 The ENA (Étoile Nord Africaine, North African Star), founded by workers in Nanterre in 1926, became the PPA in 1937. Clandestine from 1939, the PPA reconstituted itself legally as the MTLD in 1946. An acrimonious split in the PPA–MTLD in 1953 and 1954 prompted a group of the party's radical activists to announce the creation of the FLN and simultaneously begin the armed struggle, on 1 November 1954. The FLN was subsequently the single legal party from independence until 1989.

13 Stora, Benjamin, Les sources du nationalisme algérien: Parcours idéologiques, origines des acteurs (Paris: L'Harmattan, 1988); Guy, Pervillé, Les Étudiants algériens de l'université française, 1880–1962 (Paris: CNRS, 1984).

14 Damis, John, “The Free-School Phenomenon: The Cases of Tunisia and Algeria,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 5 (1974): 434–49.

15 There were 360 Algerian students at the University of Algiers from 1945 to 1946, 227 from 1946 to 1947, 386 from 1950 to 1951, 442 from 1951 to 1952, and 589 from 1954 to 1955. The total number of Algerian students in the French system in 1954 was circa 1,200—up from a mere 100 in 1925—of whom about half studied in Algiers and the rest in the metropole, principally in Paris, Toulouse, and Montpellier. Pervillé, Étudiants algériens.

16 “Laison entre les oulamas et la Tunisie,” Commissaire principal chef de la Police des Renseignements généraux, Constantine, to Prefect, Constantine, 4 November 1942, FR/CAOM/GGA/25H/32/11/904; “L'Association des oulama d'Algérie,” Direction de la sûreté nationale en Algérie, Algiers, 26 October 1955, FR/CAOM/Alger/4I/14/1, p. 6. The Association of ʿUlamaʾ seems to have regularly published exaggerated figures for schools and students under its influence; it claimed in May 1955 to have 1,000 students enrolled at the Zaytuna (Pervillé, Étudiants algériens, 26–27).

17 Harbi, preface to Pervillé, Étudiants algériens.

18 Pervillé, Étudiants algériens, 87.

19 The movement coalesced in 1925 around the newspaper al-Muntaqid and its successor, the review al-Shihab, and was institutionalized as the Association of Algerian Muslim ʿUlamaʾ (Jamʿiyat al-ʿUlamaʾ al-Muslimin al-Jazaʾiriyyin [Association des Ulama Musulmans Algériens]) in Algiers in May 1931.

20 French text of the declaration of the general congress of the Association of ʿUlamaʾ in al-Basaʾir, no. 350, 20 January 1956 (Arabic text in no. 349), FR/CAOM/Alger/4I/14/2; reprinted in Harbi, Mohamed, ed., Les archives de la révolution algérienne (Paris: Jeune Afrique, 1981), 109–10. For the reformists’ relationship to the revolutionary FLN, see McDougall, James, “S'écrire un destin: l'Association des ʿulama dans la révolution algérienne,” Bulletin de l'Institut d'histoire du temps présent 83 (June 2004): 3852; Meynier, Gilbert, Histoire intérieure de FLN, 1954–1962 (Paris: Fayard, 2002), 189–91; and Nadir, Ahmed, “Le mouvement réformiste algérien et la guerre de libération nationale,” Revue d'histoire maghrébine 4 (July 1975): 174–83.

21 “Situation actuelle du mouvement réformiste en Algérie, et du Cheikh Brahimi en particulier,” Service des Liaisons nord-africaines (hereafter SLNA), Algiers, 17 July 1947, FR/CAOM/Alger/4I/14/7.

22 Intelligence note, SLNA, Algiers, 1 October 1947, FR/CAOM/Alger/4I/14/7.

23 Interview with ʿAbd al-Hamid Mehri, Algiers, 25 March 2007. Mehri was already a PPA militant on his arrival in Tunis and represented the party to the Tunisian Neo-Destour. He would serve in the major executive bodies of the wartime FLN and reentered political life in the 1980s, as ambassador in Paris and then as secretary general of the FLN from 1988 to 1996.

24 Among Algerian students in Cairo, Pan-Maghribi and Arab nationalist activity was also vibrant, both leading up to and after the July 1952 revolution. Conversation with Lemnouar Merouche (a student militant in Cairo in the early 1950s), Oran, 30 January 2008.

25 Tahar Ibrahimi, “Mablagh al-Ahsas al-Wataniyya fi al-Jazaʾir,” al-Thamara al-Thaniyya, 70–74 (quote at 70). All translations are mine unless otherwise accredited.

26 Muhammad Ibrahimi, “Ibn Badis wa-Wahdat al-Shuʿub al-ʿArabiyya,” al-Thamara al-Thaniyya, 74–81.

27 Deported to the Congo in April 1945, on his return to Algeria Messali was forbidden to settle in Algiers and stayed instead in Bouzaréah, a semirural suburb northwest of the city. His air of sanctity, reinforced by his newly pietistic style of dress, and the crowds of supporters who came up the mountain road to visit him, provoked complaints that he was practicing a “political maraboutism.” These would later become accusations that Messali had fostered a cult of his own personality and would contribute to the split in the party in 1953 and 1954.

28 Motions acclaiming Messali “uncontested leader” and demanding complete independence for Algeria were forced through by PPA activists at the March 1945 congress of the Friends of the Manifesto and of Liberty (Amis du manifeste et de la liberté [AML]), a federation of political parties formed to promote the 1943 Manifesto of the Algerian People as a reform agenda for negotiation with the colonial authorities. The adoption of the PPA line in its final resolutions torpedoed the AML as a coalition of parties around a compromise platform.

29 At the same time, the “moderate” parliamentary nationalists led by Ferhat Abbas had founded the Democratic Union of the Algerian Manifesto in an attempt to revitalize the legal reform process, and the PPA's own central committee was dominated by an electoralist group opposed to the immediate military action awaited by grassroots militants and advocated by the party's “activist” wing.

30 Al-Thamara al-Thaniyya, 8.

31 Tunis had long been an important center of education for Algerians, especially from the east and south; the Zaytuna was particularly frequented by young Ibadi scholars from the Mzab, whose own community experienced an intellectual revival in the early 1900s. The young Mufdi Zakarya (1908–77), a Mzabi who went on to write the words to Algeria's national anthem, studied there in the early 1920s. He became an early PPA militant, and the radical Pan-Maghribi politics he espoused in Tunis remained with him throughout his life. On the importance of Tunis to reformist Ibadis in this period, see Ghazal, Amal N., “The Other Frontiers of Arab Nationalism: Ibadis, Berbers, and the Arabist-Salafi Press in the Interwar Period,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 42 (2010): 105–22, esp. 108–109.

32 Most notably, Muhammad Saʿid Ibn Zakri (1853–1914) in Algiers; ʿAbd al-Qadir al-Majjawi (d. 1913) and Mawlud Ben Mawhub (b. 1863) in Constantine; M'hammad Ben Rahhal (1858–1928) in Nedroma.

33 Al-Thamara al-Thaniyya, 5.

34 Messali Hadj, “Dawr al-Shabiba al-Muthaqqafa fi Takwin al-Haraka al-Wataniyya bi-Maghribina” (unpaginated seven-page insert between pp. 16 and 17 of al-Thamara al-Thaniyya).

35 Ageron, Charles-Robert, “L'émigration des musulmans algériens et l'exode de Tlemcen (1830–1911),” Annales: Économies, Sociétés, Civilisations 22 (1967): 1047–66; Clancy-Smith, Julia, Rebel and Saint: Muslim Notables, Populist Protest, Colonial Encounters (Algeria and Tunisia, 1800–1904) (Berkeley, Calif., and Los Angeles, Calif.: University of California Press, 1994), chap. 5; James McDougall, History and the Culture of Nationalism in Algeria, chap. 1.

36 Al-Thamara al-Thaniyya, 8.

37 Shadhli Mekki (1913–88), an early nationalist militant, was president of the Association of Algerian Zaytuna Students in 1935 (and editor of their first publication, al-Thamara al-Ula). Condemned to death in absentia in 1945, in 1947 he was one of the founders of the revolutionary Pan-Maghribi Bureau du Maghreb Arabe in Cairo.

38 Al-Thamara al-Thaniyya, 57.

40 “Dawr al-Shabiba al-Muthaqqafa,” 6–7.

41 Al-Thamara al-Thaniyya, 65.

42 Ibid., 86.

43 Ibid., 56.

45 Ibid., 80.

46 Ibid., 56.

47 Allal al-Fasi of the Istiqlal, Messali Hadj of the PPA, and Habib Bourguiba of the Neo-Destour. Interview with ʿAbd al-Hamid Mehri, Algiers, 25 March 2007.

48 Al-Thamara al-Thaniyya, 74–75.

49 Anticolonial activity increased there during World War I. TN/AN/MN16.1, “Actes séditieux commis par les Zeitouniens contre la présence française en Tunisie (1915–23).”

50 Egyptian theater, and later cinema, arrived in Tunis before spreading through the Maghrib; Ottomanist, and then Arab nationalist, ideas also flourished among the city's literati before and during World War I.

51 Jeune Afrique, 21 January 2007.

52 Mostaghanemi surprised observers by announcing that she would be moving her Malek Haddad Prize for literature to another Arab country. Al-Khabar, 21 January 2008.

53 Personal communication, May 2008.

54 See, for example, “Alger, capitale de la culture arabe 2007: Un bilan mitigé” and comments posted by readers, 11 January 2008, (accessed 28 May 2008).

55 “Alger capitale de la corruption” or “Alger, capitale de la culture arabe: Des milliards détournés!” (accessed 12 June 2008). The text was also circulated via email.

56 Law no. 91–05, Journal officiel de la République algérienne/Jarīda rasmiyya 30–03, 16 January 1991, 38ff. Reintroduced on 17 December 1996 under the presidency of Liamine Zeroual, it came into force on 5 July 1998.

57 On Arabization, see Grandguillaume, Gilbert, Arabisation et politique linguistique au Maghreb (Paris: Maisonneuve et Larose, 1983); idem, “Arabisation et démagogie en Algérie,” Le Monde diplomatique, February 1997, 3; idem, “Arabisation et légitimité politique en Algérie,” in Langues et pouvoir de l'Afrique du Nord à l'Extrême-Orient, ed. Salem Chaker (Aix-en-Provence, France: EdiSud, 1998), 17–23; Benrabah, Mohamed, Langue et pouvoir en Algérie: Histoire d'un traumatisme linguistique (Paris: Séguier, 1999); and idem, “Language and Politics in Algeria,” Nationalism and Ethnic Politics 10 (2004): 59–78.

58 Taleb-Ibrahimi, Khaoula, Les Algériens et leur(s) langue(s): Éléments pour une approche sociolinguistique de la société algérienne, 2nd ed. (Algiers: Éditions al-Hikma, 1997), 233, 235.

59 Benrabah, Mohamed, “The Language Planning Situation in Algeria,” Language Planning and Policy in Africa, vol. 2, Algeria, Côte d'Ivoire, Nigeria and Tunisia, ed. Kaplan, Robert B. and Baldauf, Richard B. Jr. (Clevedon, U.K.: Multilingual Matters, 2007), 25148, quote at 117. An incisive sociology of the ideologically valorized but functionally subordinate position of arabophone intellectuals in the 1970s and 1980s is provided in Mustafa Haddab, “Les intellectuels et le statut des langues en Algérie” (PhD diss., Université Paris-VII [Jussieu], 1993).

60 Benrabah, Mohamed, “Language Maintenance and Spread: French in Algeria,” International Journal of Francophone Studies 10 (2007): 193215, quote at 194.

61 Eyebrows were raised in particular when Bouteflika attended, as an observer, the 2002 Francophone summit in Beirut. Algeria has always refused to join the Organisation de la Francophonie.

62 “Let's roll up our sleeves for Algiers the White”: the term Alger la blanche is a throwback to the colonial period.

63 Observation made in 2003.

64 Observations made in Algiers, Oran, and Constantine, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2008, and conversations with Ouadi Bousaad, Algiers bookseller, 2007. These are admittedly impressionistic observations: a properly quantified study would be required to verify or refute them.

65 Bentahila, Abdelali and Davies, Eirlys E., “Language Mixing in Rai Music: Localisation or Globalisation?,” Language and Communication 22 (2002): 187207; Gross, Joan, McMurray, David, and Swedenburg, Ted, “Rai, Rap and Ramadan Nights: Franco-Maghribi Cultural Identities,” in Political Islam: Essays from Middle East Report, ed. Beinin, Joel and Stork, Joe (Berkeley, Calif., and Los Angeles, Calif.: University of California Press, 1997), chap. 22.

66 The real “crisis” in language use in Algeria is the frequently encountered concern among ordinary young Algerians about their incomplete command of either “standard” Arabic or French.

67 Lârej, Waciny, Le ravin de la femme sauvage, trans. Lâwaj, Zeineb and Virolle, Marie (Algiers: ENAG, 1997). The novel was first serialized in the (now defunct) Algiers daily Le Matin from January through March 1997, having been published as La gardienne des ombres in France in 1996.

68 Quoted in Cheurfi, Achour, Écrivains algériens (Algiers: Casbah, 2003), 232.

69 Mostaghanemi, Ahlam, Algérie, femme et écritures (Paris: L'Harmattan, 1985).

70 Mostaghanemi, Ahlam, Dhakirat Al-Jasad (Beirut: Dar Al-Adab, 1985); translated into English by Sreih, Baria Ahmar as Memory in the Flesh (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2000).

71 Published in al-Nasr, 3 June 1967, quoted in Claude Reynaud, “Panorama de la poésie maghrébine de langue française” (Brussels: Centre culturel arabe Wallonie-Bruxelles, 2006), (accessed 28 May 2008).

72 Dawisha, Adeed, Arab Nationalism in the Twentieth Century: From Triumph to Despair (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003) for elegy; Kedourie, Elie, Nationalism in Asia and Africa (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1971) for dismissal; Haim, Sylvia, Arab Nationalism: An Anthology, 2nd ed. (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1976) for contempt.

73 See, for example, Charles D. Smith's critical review of Jankowski, James and Gershoni, Israel, Redefining the Egyptian Nation, 1930–1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), in International Journal of Middle East Studies 29 (1997): 607–22.

74 Lewis, Bernard, What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002); Kedourie, Elie, Politics in the Middle East (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992).

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

International Journal of Middle East Studies
  • ISSN: 0020-7438
  • EISSN: 1471-6380
  • URL: /core/journals/international-journal-of-middle-east-studies
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed