Inside the Battle of Algiers: Memoir of a Woman Freedom Fighter
By Zohra Drif. With an introduction by Lakhdar Brahimi. Translated from the French by Andrew G. Farrand.
Just World Books, $29.95, ebook $27.95.
Anyone who has seen the classic film “The Battle of Algiers” will remember the mesmerizing segment in which three Algerian women put on European dresses and makeup, leave the Casbah, the Muslim quarter, and go down into the colonial zone carrying picnic baskets that contain bombs. To the sound of a drumroll, they pass through French military checkpoints, enter restaurants and an airline office, and leave their baskets behind. The timed explosions kill several and wound many more.
Zohra Drif, who wrote this stunning memoir, was a 22-year-old law student back in 1956, when she left a bomb at the Milk Bar on the Rue D’Isly. Her account is a vital addition to a sparse literature: the Algerian side of the 1954-62 war for independence, in which up to one million Algerians died before France was forced to leave its colony.
Inside the Battle of Algiers has tremendous relevance today for Israel/Palestine. Zohra Drif shows clearly that even though France had occupied her country for 124 years when the fight for freedom broke out, the Algerian people had remained faithful to their own culture and history, and were willing to fight to the death to win their independence.
Anyone who believes that Israel’s occupation of Palestine can last forever must read this book.
Inside the Battle of Algiers has everything: it is the autobiography of the first part of the life of a remarkable woman; an insight into vital historical events; a first-hand view on the ethics of revolutionary violence; and a page-turning true adventure story. Zohra Drif has been well-served by her translator, Andrew Farrand, who lives in Algiers and is fluent in both French and Arabic.
Zohra Drif (her first name is “Sarah” in Arabic) was born in 1934 into a relatively-privileged Muslim Algerian family. Her father, an enlightened scholar and judge, sent her to a colonial primary school, where she was the only “native” girl in the class; later she would be one of 4 “natives” (out of 2000) at her high school in Algiers, the capital. When the independence war broke out, one out of 10 of the people who lived in Algeria were “colons,” colonists, who ran an apartheid system that had stolen the land of the native Algerians, segregated them with no political rights, and routinely called them “melons” and “rats.” Zohra Drif is still angry today as she recalls that even after more than a century as a colony, less than 10 per cent of her people attended school.
After years of trying to win a path to independence by peaceful means, in 1954 the FLN, the National Liberation Front, launched an armed struggle. Zohra Drif was by then a law student (one of 6 Algerians out of 200). She and one of her classmates, Samia Lakhdari, immediately tried to find a way to contact the clandestine liberation movement. After a couple of amusing false starts, the two young women do connect with the FLN, and they leave their law school dormitory to go underground up in the Casbah. Zohra Drif’s memoir includes lengthy, vivid portraits of legendary figures in the independence struggle: Larbi Ben M’Hidi, one of the original FLN leaders, who would be captured and then murdered by the French; Yacef Saadi, who coordinated the armed resistance in Algiers itself; and Ali la Pointe, a former petty criminal who joined the struggle in prison and is one of the heroes of the film.
Zohra Drif emphasizes that the FLN’s escalating revolutionary violence came only after terrible crimes by the French army and their colonist allies: mass killings; gang rapes; execution of Algerian political prisoners; torture, which sometimes actually happened inside Casbah homes, in front of family members; colon lynchings of innocent Algerian bystanders; and violent efforts to break the peaceful 8-day general strike in early 1957. She witnessed some of these events, and she still has nightmares, 60 years later.
She and Samia Lakhdari carried out their own bombings as a response to an especially cruel French attack. On August 10, 1956, colonial agents planted a huge bomb in the upper Casbah, which killed more than 70 Algerians. The FLN decided to strike back by taking the fight to the colon areas, which had been peaceful until then. Zohra Drif writes:
Perhaps the reader of today expects me to regret having placed bombs in public places frequented by European civilians. I do not. To do so would be to obscure the central problem of settler colonialism by trying to pass off the European civilians of the day for (at best) mere tourists visiting Algeria or (at worst) the ‘natural’ inheritors of our land in place of its legitimate children.
Zohra Drif and Samia Lakhdari, thanks to their French educations, could recite Article 35 of the 1793 Declaration of the Rights of Man by heart:
When the government violates the rights of the people, insurrection is for the people and for each portion of the people the most sacred of rights and the most indispensable of duties.
Zohra Drif put on makeup for the first time, to improve her chances of passing through French army checkpoints, picked out a European dress, and started off with her picnic basket:
Today I have trouble recalling that walk. . . Human existence seems to be to be interspersed with moments of such intensity and such violence that in truth we live them as if they weren’t real, or as if we were drugged. I have lived these moments but have never known how to describe them.
She objects to calling the struggle in Algiers in 1956 a “battle,” a term she points out was chosen by the French occupiers, not the Algerians themselves:
What cowardice, to call it a ‘battle,’ this operation carried out by the army, the police, and their torturers against a people unprotected by any law or any rights — a long war of ethnic cleansing right in the capital.
She and the band of independence fighters managed to hide out in the Casbah for nearly a year afterward, protected by the local people. Her memoir is as gripping as any thriller, as she describes hideouts carved out of walls in the Casbah, raids by French paratroopers, and flights across rooftops to the next safe place. Finally the French paratroopers torture enough Algerians to locate her and Yacef Saadi. One of the book’s photos shows her just after she was arrested, a slight, defiant young woman in a sleeveless blouse, surrounded by large, armed French soldiers.
This book ends here. She was sentenced to 20 years in prison at hard labor. She served five of them, and was only released as part of the general amnesty at Algeria’s independence in July 1962. Today, she is 83 years old, but still vigorous, and she wants to write another book, to continue the largely untold story of the Algerian side of the fight for freedom:
My hope now is to have the energy and strength to deliver my testimonial — to our youth — about my years in detention alongside dozens of sisters, about the euphoria of independence and then the difficult work of building our country, Inchallah, if God grants me life.”
Postscript: Zohra Drif will be doing several appearances on the east coast in coming days.
Friday, Sept. 29, 6:15 pm, NYC: Mme. Drif will be co-hosted by Columbia University’s Middle East Institute and Maison Francaise for a book talk and discussion, to be held in the Jerome Greene Annex– behind Wien Hall; access from 116th St between Amsterdam Av & Morningside Drive.
Sunday, Oct. 1, 6 pm, NYC: Mme. Drif will be honored at a Palestinian-American community event and film screening at Anthology Film Archives, 32 2nd Av (also in the East Village.) Details here.
Monday, Oct. 2, 4pm, Cambridge, MA: Book talk & discussion at Harvard’s Kennedy School (Taubman Bldg, Allison Dining Room, 5th Floor.) Followed at 5:30 pm by a book signing at the Harvard Coop Bookstore.
Wed., Oct. 4, 12 pm, Medford, MA: Book talk & discussion at Tufts University’s Fares Center (Fletcher School Building.) Lunch provided. Details below.