Coming to Terms with the Past

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    Fikrun wa Fann was a cultural magazine published by the Goethe Institute from 1963 to 2016 that supported and shaped the cultural exchange between Germany and Islamic countries. Together with the publishing of the last issue, “Flight and Displacement” (issue 105), in autumn of 2016 the maintenance and updating of this online portal was ceased.

    The Composite Past of the Future
    An Interview

    Fifty years ago, on 5th July 1962, Algeria officially became an independent state. The war of independence from 1954 to 1962 and the civil war in the 1990s were extreme collective experiences of violence, which so far Algerian society has scarcely been able to process.

    Since 2011 the Berlin-based Franco-Algerian artist Dalila Dalléas Bouzar has been exhibiting, among other things, a project entitled The Composite Past of the Future. In the summer of 2012 a bilingual book of essays about the exhibition was published in Algeria under the title Algérie, Année 0. Martina Sabra spoke to Dalila Dalléas Bouzar in Berlin.

    Martina Sabra: You were born in Oran, Algeria in 1974. In 1976 you moved to France with your parents. You’re a French citizen. When did you start to take an interest in your Algerian family history, and what part did the civil war of the 1990s play in this?

    Dalila Dalléas Bouzar: In our family no questions were asked. Politics was not a subject we discussed. You won’t believe it, but I started to take an interest in Algerian history for the first time long after the civil war had finished. The trigger was a 2004 documentary, Algérie(s), by Patrice Barrat, Malek Bensmail and Thierry Leclerc. The film describes the events of the civil war in the 1990s. The film affected me like an electric shock. Like most ordinary people I’d followed the news in the media in the 1990s. But I hadn’t consciously understood that this terror, these massacres were affecting thousands upon thousands of people.

    That’s hard to imagine…

    Yes. I was aghast at myself. I asked myself: how can it be that I didn’t consciously witness this, even though I was already eighteen when the civil war started? The only answer was that I had censored myself. I don’t think I was the only one. You know there’s a secret, and you don’t want to deal with it, because it would call all the beliefs you’ve held up till now into question. I wanted to get to the bottom of it. In doing so I suddenly realised that when Algeria became independent in 1962 my father was twenty years old. For the first time I asked myself: what did he do during the war? Why did we go to France back then?

    You interviewed your father for your art project Algeria, Year Zero. What did he tell you?

    In the early 1960s, just as the war of independence was coming to an end, my father was forcibly conscripted by the French army. What I wanted to find out from him was: you were officially a soldier of the French army. Whose side were you on? Did you see yourself as being on the French side, or the Algerian? Did you ever think about the fact that you were fighting against your own country, against your own people? What’s difference between you and a harki? This was a sensitive point for my father. No, he said, he wasn’t a harki, and he wasn’t a traitor. He was forced to join the army. I asked him, ‘Did you kill Algerians?’ He said no, and explained that he had guarded the border between Tunisia and Algeria, but had never pointed a gun at an Algerian. At some point he said, ‘That’s enough now, why are you asking me all this?’ He just didn’t want to answer.

    What conclusions did you come to as a result?

    I understood that things weren’t as simple as I’d thought. When the official side claims nowadays that the entire Algerian people were behind the Liberation Front, the FLN, it’s not the truth. In fact it was far from everyone who was in the Maquis. I wanted to understand this complexity better, but I soon realised that my father didn’t want to answer my questions. And I didn’t get any answers from other interview partners in Algeria, either. The whole subject is still a big taboo in Algeria. People don’t like to admit that a lot of people acted opportunistically and turned their coats depending on the way the wind was blowing, and that the whole thing wasn't as black and white as people like to portray it.

    Inability to grieve

    What connection do you see between the war of independence and the terror of the 1990s?

    I see the civil war of the 1990s as a direct consequence of the way people dealt with the violence that took place during the war of independence. The fact that you couldn’t speak openly about inter-Algerian violence means that many people were unable to grieve. This meant there was a latent potential for violence simmering within Algerian society.

    How did the exhibition and the book Algeria, Year Zero come about? How did you go about doing your research?

    It all began with this documentary, Algérie(s). The film made clear to me that hardly any images of the Algerian civil war existed abroad. People knew that a massacre had taken place in Algeria, people knew that there was this horror, this terror, but they couldn’t see it. I found that shocking and difficult to comprehend. We live in a society that is permanently flooded with images, but here the most appalling crimes were taking place and yet there are no images of it. So first of all I looked for images of the war, in the media to which I had access. For me it was also a question of reconstructing part of my own personal history. There was just this enormous gap.

    What criteria did you use when looking for images?

    I didn’t select the photos according to historical criteria, but according to aesthetic and emotional ones. The pictures that interested me from an artistic point of view I copied parts of by drawing them on paper and altering them with colours, contours and different painting techniques. Mostly I didn’t use the whole image, just a section that particularly interested me. At the same time I was writing. That was very exciting for me, this going back and forth between drawing, painting and writing. It happened quite instinctively, and yet it was methodical. Then I asked other authors to write something as well, because I wanted to talk about memory, but by exchanging thoughts with other people. There were six of us altogether writing the book.

    Many of your pictures give an impression of something flowing, translucent, transparent, fragmented – a stark contrast to the heroic style in which the story of Algerian independence is often presented. How have Algerian visitors reacted to your exhibition? Were they open to what it was saying?

    I was afraid people would say I had no right to tackle the subject because I’m an Algerian who doesn’t live in Algeria, and because I didn’t personally experience any of this. In fact, I was positively surprised. Most people thought it was a good thing that someone was addressing the subject through the medium of art. This is still very rare. And people also appreciated the fact that I’ve tried to remain politically neutral. I don’t judge anyone, I don’t denounce anyone. No one is attacked or has to defend themselves. I also wanted to honour all those who died in total anonymity, who’ve been forgotten, and who their relatives cannot mourn because they weren’t able to bury them.

    Unveiling memory

    In your book you talk about unveiling memory. Is there a single reality behind the veil? Are you seeking the truth, or is this more of a process for you?

    Yes, there is a veil I would like to lift. Because one thing is clear: in the formal sense, Algeria is a democracy, but in reality it is an authoritarian state that conceals many things and keeps many things secret. Above all it is concealing their own history from the Algerian people. You just have to take a look at the schoolbooks to realise this. But as I say, for me it isn’t about denouncing anyone or even judging anyone. I just wanted to point out that there is another truth. This truth is not subjective, it is based on facts, on events that can be proven to have happened in a particular place at a particular time. We all know that many mistakes are made in war, that sometimes you have to throw your own values overboard in order to survive. But you have to face your own past.

    You’ve lived in Berlin since 2010 – a city marked by history and collective traumas. To what extent has the interaction with this city and its inhabitants affected your life and your work as an artist?

    Very, very much. I came to Berlin for the first time in 1995. I’d been invited to a workshop for art students, in the House of the Wannsee Conference memorial site, that is to say, the place where the so-called ‘Final Solution’ was decided upon, the extermination of the European Jews. Back then I was still studying Biology in Paris; it was more of a coincidence that I was taking part in the workshop. But it was in those few days staying in the villa that I decided to study art. And I already knew then that at some point I wanted to come and live in Berlin. The city had an incredible power; I was fascinated by it. I’ve been back here since 2009, and I don’t think the Algeria project would have come about if it hadn’t been for Berlin. The way the Germans have of dealing with their history made a deep impression on me. I very deliberately went to see the exhibition Topography of Terror. I also thought the ‘stumbling stones’ were really good, and I started to get to know German artists like Jochen Gerz, who also works with art and memory. I hope that in future we will also develop such creative ways of dealing with the past in Algeria. At the moment the political context doesn’t allow for that. But I think that just thinking about it is already a step forwards.
    Martina Sabra
    is a journalist specialising in topics relating to the Middle East and North Africa.

    Translated by Charlotte Collins
    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    November 2012

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