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Frantz Fanon made this observation in his classic text on revolutionary struggles for national liberation: “National liberation, national renaissance, the restoration of nationhood to the people, commonwealth: whatever may be the headings used or the new formulas introduced, decolonization is always a violent phenomenon.” Like childbirth, it is simultaneously the creation of a new relationship and the creation of a new human. No longer is the oppressor, the colonizer, alone in their supremacy. Indeed, it is now the oppressed, the colonized who has demanded an equality. Of course, to the colonizer unwilling to release their power, this demand is not only impossible to fulfill, it must be put down with all possible means.
It is this understanding of the struggle against colonialism (and its successor imperialism) that forms the essence of Algerian freedom fighter Zohra Drif’s memoir, Inside the Battle of Algiers: Memoir of a Woman Freedom Fighter. A bestseller in Algeria and France, this recently translated history stands with texts like George Jackson’s Soledad Brother and Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass in terms of its honesty and desire for justice. In addition to being the personal history of a revolutionary Algerian patriot, Drif’s memoir is also a study of the tightrope women in movements like Algeria’s Frente Liberacion National (FLN) must sometimes walk, given the nature of patriarchal societies and the armed struggle.
Although Inside the Battle of Algiers is informed by Fanon and the international struggle against European colonialism of the Twentieth century, it is first and foremost a narrative of the day to day events of a cell of dedicated revolutionaries. Zohra Drif begins her tale by describing her childhood. An intelligent student, Drif’s education was encouraged by her family—especially her father—and was ultimately the means by which she made it to Algiers. Her awareness of the growing struggle for Algerian independence began when she was quite young and by the time she went to the equivalent of high school, Drif was a supporter of the most militant wing of the independence movement. Indeed, when they weren’t studying, she and a good friend spent much of their first couple years in Algiers attending political meetings and hoping to be introduced to members of the underground.
When they finally did make a connection and gained the trust of their cell, the two young women were given their first assignment. This involved delivering weekly stipends to families of those fighters who were in the country training, in prison or dead. These tasks not only provided an essential service to the struggle’s fighters and their families, they also helped Drif and her comrade gain a familiarity of the Casbah, a city within the city of Algiers. It is the Casbah that is the oldest part of the metropolis and was the heart and soul of the era of the revolution Drif and her comrades took part in. It was also the Casbah, that was sealed off by the military and police authorities, much like the Israelis have done in Gaza and US forces did in Vietnam and Iraq. The scenario she describes is one of increasingly brutal police and military repression amidst a growing sense of the inevitability of the independence struggle’s ultimate success. The reader is introduced to a number of Drif’s comrades and confidantes as she describes her growing involvement.
That involvement included setting bombs. In her descriptions of these operations, Drif carefully describes the reconnaissance undertaken, developing of disguises and the actual carrying out of the operations. It is a narrative that brings to the forefront the issues of violence in the pursuit of freedom and justice while keeping the engaged reader on the edge of their seat, wondering if the freedom fighters will pull off their action without being killed or caught. In between these escapades, the reader is provided a glimpse into the day-to-day lives of those who decide to commit their lives to armed struggle. In essence, these details describe a growing camaraderie that compares to that of a family. There is a sense of a genuine love amongst the fighters and those that provide safe houses and cover for them. As the campaign of bombings and other attacks intensifies, however, those familial-like bonds are tested, with some members of the underground forces caving to the oppressor. To their credit, most members of the revolutionary forces did not cave either to bribery, threats or torture. Also to their credit is that those who did succumb to torture were not branded as traitors (like those who bend to bribery), but as victims of the same oppressor who had colonized the Algerian people for decades with dehumanization, violence and torture.
Although relatively light on political discussion, Inside the Battle of Algiers presents the reader with enough history and political discussion to provide the understanding necessary to appreciate the political struggle the FLN was engaged in. For this reader, the crucial political statement in the book is one spoken to Drif by her cell leader after she expresses impatience over a decision to cancel an operation she was involved in and had been preparing to undertake. “However you must remember that you are not—that none of us are—ordinary soldiers in a conventional army…. Never lose sight of what we are: political activists whom the colonial regime’s arrogance has forced us to become fighters in a war of national liberation….we will oblige France to meet us on a different battlefield: the political one, where it can never win.” In other words, the very asymmetry of the war demands that the national liberation struggle be primarily a political one. As it would in Vietnam, this approach turned out to be the correct one in Algeria, too. Also important are her discussions of the role of women in such a struggle; how far does one push for one’s freedom as a woman in the context of fighting to free one’s people? How does one address the psychology of patriarchy without alienating the masses?
Zohra Drif’s Inside the Battle of Algiers is an emotionally riveting historical adventure that is both exhilarating and breathtaking. It is also an intellectually provocative study of a once-common form of political struggle that combined Marxist and nationalist thought in order to free the colonies from their yoke. Intensely personal, it is proof that a popular struggle must be of the people and by the people in order for it to succeed. Like Gillo Pontecorvo’s masterpiece film The Battle of Algiers, Drif’s memoir is a powerful and unforgettable work.