I have seldom felt compelled to write a review or an essay after reading a book. I am often inspired, saddened, or reflective after finishing a book, but normally I don’t feel compelled to publicly think through issues that emerged for me in the course of reading someone’s work.
Zohra Drif’s Inside the Battle of Algiers: Memoir of a Woman Freedom Fighter left me in a very different place. I grew up inspired by the Algerian national liberation war against France and had, along with thousands of other activists of my political generation, seen the famous Gillo Pontecorvo film The Battle of Algiers—and Drif played a key role in some wrenching scenes depicted in it. What I failed to grasp was how close the film had actually been to the facts, at least as described by Drif.
Yet Drif’s book is striking less because of its connection with the Pontecorvo film than because it is the story of a woman who, in the very conservative climate of colonial Algeria, became a revolutionary in the cause of Algeria’s freedom. Drif had to overcome the reluctance that existed within her own family, in addition to the repression carried out by the French authorities.
These issues, in and of themselves, would be enough to lead one to appreciate Drif’s story. But it is her discussion of the armed activities in which she was involved, including the bombing of civilian targets, that sent chills up my spine and caused me to stop and reflect.
Anyone who has seen The Battle of Algiers will remember that the urban guerrillas of the FLN (Front de Libération Nationale) carried out bombings of civilian targets in retaliation for the torturing and killing of Algerians by French troops and terror attacks against Algerian civilians by French colonists. Every time I have watched those scenes—and I have seen the film multiple times—I have been deeply unsettled at the sight of settler civilians killed and wounded. I wondered how Drif would handle this question in her book. To some extent I was surprised by her direct and unapologetic approach.
Drif’s description of the Algerian Revolution can be more fully appreciated when one looks at the entirety of the situation and, especially, the treatment to which the Algerian people were subjected. Algeria was among those colonies of Europe that could be defined as “settler states” or “settler colonies.” These were colonies where the Europeans not only controlled the territory and seized its resources but where there had been a conscious decision to settle Europeans. Other such settler states included Ireland, Kenya, Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, South Africa, Palestine/Israel, Canada, the USA, Australia, and New Zealand.