Writer as Witness, Words as Struggle: Mouloud Feraoun

783373I wish I could clearly state what this book has meant to me, the twisting thought trails and brambled thickets surrounding writing and struggle and humanity it has uncovered, the old sadnesses it has opened and the new ones it has instilled. It is a gift, and one that came at great cost to its author.

The older I get the more I realise that saying things out loud or writing things down does not always help you. These pages were not for Feraoun, they were for us.

I have only scattered ways of marshaling my thoughts, they do not do justice to the ways that we have traveled together, Feraoun’s words and I. His pain shared at one remove as the days of this first Algerian war for independence progressed. I was thinking about grouping things thematically, but this progression over painful time must be honored I think.


arton8671-2ae1fReading this after Horne’s A Savage War of Peace, what first emerged most strongly to me was the necessity of freeing oneself inside and out from the conquerors, but god the complexities of this. The tragedies. The grief at watching the abyss between peoples grow, knowing it must in the cold light of that original colonial relationship translated into years of continuous oppression. Watching, without turning away, the damage it causes to those inflicting as well as receiving it.

There is also the distance between himself as an intellectual, a writer, a teacher and others — a distance that many of us must try and manage to some extent. He writes:

This time I saw clearly the glint of malice in his eyes that is so typical of the fellagha in our region. For them, the teacher is both educated and naive, a man with good advice who can inform you about laws and regulations and yet believes everything that you tell him.
–November 13 (18)

On the widening distance between the Kabyles and the French, the essentialising of identities that happens through violence, struggle and war:

…as soon as it is legitimate to judge them as a group, it is no longer troubling for anyone to point out their faults. It is no longer a question of Mr Eugène or Jojo but of the triumphant Frenchman who has taken over his place and gotten rich off our backs. Once you buttress yourself with generalities, you are amazed to discover some very broad horizons.
–December 18 (31)

This emerges among his fellow teachers:

…there is now an impassable breach between us; a rupture that both sides deplore but also endure, knowing that it is inevitable. We avoid talking politics. Our French colleagues are, however, quite tactful. When they comment on a crime, a bomb, an attack, or when they speak about their fears, they always assume that we are on their side, that our fates are identical, in short, that we are just as French as they are. We tolerate the assumption, and everyday life remains bearable.
–December 18 (37)


But I love this description of the meaning of the uprising for the people:

You feel that this crowd is wrapped in a new dignity as stiff as a new suit. A suit cut and made to measure, for which everyone is determined to pay the price.
–December 18 (38)

We come to the crux of the things, the reason for the abyss and this struggle itself, what Horne just did not quite understand and Feraoun struggles to express in this summation of the why and the how of the war at the end of 1955:

How does a European define a native? A common labourer, a maid. A bizarre creature with ridiculous customs, peculiar dress, and an impossible language. A more or less dirty, tattered, and unpleasant character. At any rate, a person on the fringe, quite alone, and let us leave him where he is. It is almost childish to revert to these clichés so quickly.  We have been co-existing for a century without the slightest curiosity. The only thing left to do is harvest this mutual indifference that is the opposite of love. (42)

It is still bad faith to talk about their mistakes. From the very beginning they knew what had to be done in order to be on good terms with the natives. they also knew what was required in order to be the only ones to benefit from colonization, much to the detriment of the native. They had to exploit him, make him sweat, beat him, and keep him ignorant. In the beginning there was still a choice to be made, and they made it. Why talk about mistakes at this point? Because now we are demanding accountability? Come on, accountability is more than confessing one’s guilt…By accountability, we mean recognizing our right to live, our right to learn and make progress, and our right to be free….So the positions are quite clear: the fight between two different peoples has begun — the master and the slave. That is all there is to it. To talk, like the press, about an awakening of the Algerian consciousness is frivolous….The Algerians did not wait for the twentieth century to realize that they were Algerians. the best proof of this is that right away they got together behind the liberators. They gathered together because they thought that they were strong enough to fight or die a meaningful death. They united because they expected to success. There were no miraculous phenomena… (43)

More than ever, we are secluding ourselves within our respective worlds, both of which are distinct and hostile. They have their nostalgia for the past, for which they have decided to fight. We maintain the crazy hope of a better future, for which we have decided to die. But as their confidence wavers and discouragement sets in, our self-assurance and courage get stronger. (46)

And this, when will this ever cease to be true?

These people are politicians. Given that we are living in an era in which they are carving words into the flesh of men, this word politician makes us feel like vomiting. (50)


Never for a moment does Faraoun cease to take the side of the rebels in this conflict, and there is never an alternative discussed to the FLN. This does not mean he is not highly critical, or deeply troubled by their strategies while recognising it is hardly his place and feeling guilt over this very critique as he is not the one carrying out this war with a gun in his hands. Still, he writes his thoughts:

The rebels’ expectations are both excessive and disappointing. They include prohibitions of all kinds, nothing but prohibitions, dictated by the most obtuse fanaticism, the most intransigent racism, and the most authoritarian fist. In a way, this is true terrorism. There is nothing left for the women of T.A. [ referring to the mosque which this story is describing] except to shrill with enthusiasm in honor of the new era of freedom that they seem to perceive beyond the foggy horizon that our dark mountains inexorably obstruct.
–January 8 (53)

He relates a story about the fellagha — they stop a jeep carrying a commander and his aide, demand their guns and ammunition and when they are handed over release them and say ‘Thank you sir. Have a good day.’ Faraoun writes

There are several stories like this one that are making the rounds. In the future they will be worthy of becoming folk stories. This is how people create History.
–January 11 (56)

Another trail leads from this along the tracks of history and its makings, but this is already too long.

The abyss between French and Kabyles has been long opened, yet the pain continues as it stretches wider and deeper, he describes his French Colleagues after another ‘terrorist’ arrest:

I read anger and hatred in their eyes. there they were, all four of them ready to contradict me, all four ready to insult me with their arrogance, all four of them ready to put me in that category that they despise, that they exploit, that they would massacre, and that they fear. A crazy fear.
–January 30 (65)

Here insights into village life, the need to know what is happening in this place you belong in a sense, for all the complications of that and even if you are far away.

I have received news from back home. Amar spent the night here, and we talked. He began talking, going back in time, one day at a time…I was happy. There are no more empty moments in my mind, and I am able to imagine what it is like without any difficulty.
–February 2 (66)

I love this critique of the French Left, this seems to hold true always and everywhere where histories of race, class, gender and colonialism hide the true nature of oppression from those on the other side of it:

I could say the same thing to Camus and to Roblès. I feel a lot of admiration for the first and brotherly affection for the other. But they are wrong to talk to us when we are waiting for generous hearts if there are any…It is a hundred times better that they remain quiet. Because, in the end, this country is indeed called Algeria and its inhabitants are called Algerians. Why sidestep the evidence? Are you Algerians my friends? you must stand with those who fight. Tell the French that this country does not belong to them, that they took it over by force, and that they intend to remain here by force. Anything else is a lie and in bad faith. Any other language is criminal because, for several months now, crimes have been committed in the name of the same lies…
–February 3 (71)

This…this exposition, a day’s entry written entirely in the voice of a French settler, it is so chilling. Both for what it meant for Algeria, but for how precise an echo it is of U.S. whites, whether on African Americans or Indigenous peoples and whether two hundred years ago or today.

All I do is ignore them — well, almost. Why are they now rising against me? All they had to do was get themselves a job, just like I did. They are unhappy, they are always unhappy. Is it my fault, damn it? I agree that I have always been aloof with them and that, in my mind, I cannot get used to the idea that they are my equals. I have to admit this with total sincerity, and admit just as sincerely that, deep down, we settled here as winners, that consequently we are the race that rules, that must serve itself first. Why deny it? And, in all modesty, I never display this attitude, and generally we all have enough tact so that life is bearable for the Arabs, and we all deal with enough good faith to give to the best of them almost everything they deserve, especially the more obedient ones. But these people want everything….
–February 15 (75)

And back to the abyss still growing between two peoples:

Will they be trapped in one or other of two molds that are separated by an abyss from which one can only escape as a traitor?

I am reading a few notes about the torture methods used by the Algerian police. I got this from a reliable witness, an intelligent and idealistic young man who looks a bit weary and carries in his eyes the immense distress of those who suffer, of those who have stopped calling for help because they know they are wasting their time. However, they still have hope of finding justice by their deeds.
— March 31 (103)

I sat on the bus with tears rolling down my cheeks reading of the torture. I cannot bear the thought that one human can do these things to another. Working with refugees from Central America all those years ago, I know the marks it leaves. I still see their faces whenever I read these things and my love for them chokes me.

And still Feraoun charts the changes inside of him, the changes he see in others:

Up to now the rebels were aiming to right wrongs; now they are claiming to defend great principles.
–April 6 (106)

We have been relieved of the heavy burden that was choking us: the burden of our common hypocrisy, which is as old as our common history.

We are gradually becoming insensitive, just like those who, privilged by fate, become luckily immune to contagion while providing devoted care to others who suffer from them. We may well be spared from the epidemic, but we will not be grateful.
–May 10 (110)

This now, is what the war feels like, how it shapes lives, destroys families and villages:

The village [Tizi-Hibel] has lost almost all of its young men…People are leaving in anticipation of another police sweep, and able-bodied men no longer dare to sleep at home. They leave at sunset.
–May 11, Aïd (111)

I no longer dare to go out for news. We are all suspects.
–May 21 (114)

I came back from Algiers with Djidj the day before these assassinations. Before reaching Tizi-Ouzou, we were checked six times. From the turns in the road shaded by eucalyptus trees extending from Haussonvillers toward Camp-du-Maréchal, one could see three villages that were burning on the Bou Segza-Sidi Ali Bou Nab. Old and young Kabyle women and children were waiting on the side of the road with shapeless bundles at their feet. They have evacuated the population over there in order to fight a real war. The spring sky cannot dispel the sadness from these drab images.
–May 27 (115)

On men from his hometown hanged by the FLN:

It is difficult to condemn or approve the dispensers of justice. It is just as difficult to expect a kind of infallibility that is not within man’s scope. The heart bleeds, however, when it witnesses this kind of spectacle: today’s executioner inescapably becomes tomorrow’s victim, and this, in turn, will call for another executioner.
–May 31 (117)

He returns from a month in his village, Tizi-Hebel, tries to understand what he has seen and learned:

I wanted to know, once and for all, what dangers were threatening me. I wanted to form my own personal opinion about the mind-set of the liberators. I have returned with my doubts, but I have left my illusions and my candor behind. I discovered much suffering and little enthusiasm, much injustice and little devotion, and cruelty, egoism, ambition, arrogance, and stupidity: a people that is used to being beaten, that continues to take it, but is tired, very tired and on the edge of despair. My people from back home inspire pity, and I am ashamed that I have peace of mind. What follows is a series of events that I witnessed and that may help to explain my overall dismay. But from the start, you must renounce any formal condemnations and look for the source of the evil. There are only victims; there are only guilty people; there are only dispensers of justice. At any time, you could be one or the other. There is no other alternative. (133)

Will I ever be able to say all that I have felt and all that I have promised myself I would say? Where would I find the necessary patience to do all of this? How will I sort out my conflicting feelings without forgetting about the victims themselves or the cruel God or the human beast? Why not forget all of this just as the dead are already forgotten? (135)

A friend Moubarek tells him of his cousin’s death, another view into speaking, bearing witness, telling stories, remembering:

I listened to him as he told his story for the hundredth time. He feels that, as long as he lives, he has to tell it. It is as if he now has nothing else to do in this absurd world where our lives have no more value or meaning than those of wild beasts in the eyes of well-equipped hunters.
–September 9(136)

Faraoun’s view of his own role as witness, his fatigue:

It has been a year since I started writing down my feelings. God knows that I did not lack material, but I was short on desire, taste, and drive. I did not write down everything, of course. Only guide posts, so that later, if my life is long, I will still be able to fee the sad memories of the dark years, of the gloomy days.
–November 2 (145-46)

This. This sentence true of so many peoples in so many places.

Each one of us is guilty for the sole reason that we belong to a category, a race, a people. you fear that someone will make you pay with your life for your place in the world, pay for the color of your skin. You fear that someone will attack you only because nobody has done it yet.
–November 2 (146)

2This one ray of light, this one possibility of the human heart being big enough to transcend all of this at some level at least:

I receive letters from Roblès on a regular basis. At a time when a sense of camaraderie and friendship is failing me, his has remained fraternal and strong. Roblès is more than just a friend or a Frenchman. I cannot connect him to any motherland because he is from everywhere, and that is exactly where I come from, poor friend.
–November 2 (147)


There are more and more gaps now, years marked by a handful of words as though everything has been said. There is a litany of incidents. Then these thoughts on strategy, the UN, the role of Nationalism — these echo so strongly with the African American strategies of the same period, and Black Nationalism as it would grow inspired by such independence movements:

The UN conference on the Algerian question will open in a week. Here in Algeria, and insurrectionary strike — one that the French are trying to quell — will start simultaneously. We understand the sacred character of this strike. The Algerians must proclaim their suffering and anger to a world that hesitates to believe them. Those sickly sweet and hypocritical voices that will protest their innocence and will overwhelm us with imaginary kindness–fanatical and ungrateful that we are–must be drowned out by our shouts, the shouts of those who are skinned alive, the shouts of those who are afraid, and the groans of those who are dying. The best possible scenario would be if all our dead crossed the Atlantic so their sinister laughter might be heard at the tribune of the UN, behind the Parisian sirens who already flatter themselves with having seduced Uncle Sam.

I wish my people–my country–all the happiness of which it was deprived and all the glory it is capable of achieving; when I have witnessed its blossoming, its joy and pride, I will be able to despise my patriotism just as I despise other examples of patriotism.
–January 16 (170-71)

Another curious phrase on the distance imposed by intellect:

I am one of these complicated people who learned a lot of useless things in school. These useless things make me, as well as others like me, physically ill, and all of us together become strangers in our own land.
–January 24 (173)

This paradox of heroes of the French resistance against fascism using their experience to in turn oppress another people is not something Faraoun explores, cares much about, but there is this:

I had already encountered another SAS officer a long time ago who, acting on the same prejudice, wanted to deny us everything. This particular wretch would talk every chance he got about his exploits in the French Resistance in an effort to persuade us that our situation was not the same.
–December 25 (230)


It has been a month since I last opened this notebook in which, for three years, I have made a practice of writing about my anxiety or my confusion, my pain and anger. In truth, I believe that I have said and rehashed absolutely everything about the subject. What good does it do to repeat and reframe the same matters one more time? What else has happened during this past month of war except what could have happened during other months? I am overwhelmed, and I live here as though in another world…
–April 1 (241)

It sometimes happens that some poor fellow’s nerves suddenly snap, and as he becomes submerged in a state of lucid madness, he begins to talk and talk and talk. At the djemaâ, in the cafes–everywhere–he says exactly what he thinks about “his brothers”. The people watching him become alarmed and try and feel sorry for him. They know that it is futile to try and stop him. If they enjoy listening to him, it is because, in a sense, he reads his words from their hearts…No, it will not last long. One fine morning, he disappears.
–April 3 (243)


…it is always the fellagha who, no matter what they do, inspire confidence and win hearts. No matter what they do, they are still soldiers fighting the enemy, soldiers doomed to a certain death because they are defending the country.
–April 26 (265)


So today, I had to get back to this notebook, which I abandoned several months ago. It is not that I had nothing to record concerning myself or anyone else, but the gap is always easiest to bridge when there is nothing special about the details…all this is sad, really too sad. So I say to myself, “What good will it do?”

I think that I am content to limit myself to an objective reporting of the facts as I see them unfolding in front of my eyes. Later on, this will allow me to recreate the atmosphere. Of course, that is if I live long enough.
–January 25 (272)


To Horne the youyous were a signal of otherness, of eerie disregard, I knew they were not.

A rational fellow told me that the rage of the French in Algeria is out of control. Their rage is filled with hatred and fear, but not madness. They have money, and they use it to pay ruthless commandos to go terrorize the Arabs at night during curfew: they bang on doors, brutalize or kill people, and start fires. They must have lists and get specific orders. These people are killers. The Arabs fight back by yelling youyou and counterattack with bottles filled with water, pebbles, and sticks. As soon as someone knocks on your door, start youyouing but do not open your door; your neighbors will cry youyou also, and then others will do the same. When the alert has been heard everywhere in the vicinity, you must come out and make threats. Then the black 403 Peugeot or the D.S. Citroen of the same color will hightail it into the night, with its cargo of rowdies wearing civilian clothes or paratrooper outfits.
–January 16 (287)

This reminded me of El Salvador again, the precise descriptions of the vehicles carrying death squads, the assumption that everyone knows the meaning of the Ford Bronco pulling up to your door and me knowing the immigration officer would require more proof as a political matter.

And these, almost his final words, so much more meaningful here at the end of this war and just before the end of his life rather than pulled out of context and quoted as they so often are:

I have spent hours upon hours rereading all of my notes, newspaper articles, and small clippings that I have kept. I have become reimmersed in a sad past, and I am leaving it overwhelmed. I am frightened by my candor, my audacity, my cruelty, and, at times, my blind spots and prejudice. Do I have the right to tamper with what I have written, to go back, to alter or rectify it?

Did I not write all of this day by day, according to my frame of mind, my mood, the circumstances, the atmosphere created by the event, its reverberations in my heart? And why did I write it like this, bit by bit, if it was not to witness, to stand before teh world and shout out the suffering and misfortune that have stalked me….

If all this is printed and published, as I believe that it must be, if this publication incites even the least bit of anger or hatred, if it increases by any amount the misfortune of an individual or the community rather than comfort, rehabilitate, and instruct, this work will be futile and detrimental. I will regret having completed it. At least I will not have evaded my responsibility by remaining silent. This would be even more reprehensible…
–August 17 (294-296)

He was killed by the fascist OAS on March 15, 1962 but he is not forgotten. Mouloud Feraoun, presente.



6 thoughts on “Writer as Witness, Words as Struggle: Mouloud Feraoun”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.