The Battle of Algiers- in Iraq

World Literature’s November issue has excerpts from “My Father, The Rebel”, written by Maissa Bey., the daughter of Larbi bin M’hidi on whom was based one of the characters in the film The Battle of Algiers, a  movie as disturbing today as it was when it was released in 1966. The daughter’s memoir about her father, who was tortured, denied a trail and hanged by the French colonialists during what was termed as the ‘Battle of Algiers’, is touching. The author’s father was summarily executed by the French colonialists, along with others like Larbi bin M’hidi, the FLN head on whom was based one of the characters in the movie The Battle of Algiers, a  movie as disturbing today as it was when first released in 1966.*

Screened at the Pentagon in 2003, the film has been subsequently re- released and has often been recalled in context of the Iraqi “resistance”. In the same issue of the magazine, the book’s translator Suzanne Ruta brings out a more gory dimension of the movie.

The film- released in 1966- could only speculate about the death of M’Hidi. Now we know that General Paul Ausssaresses, one of the commanding officers in Algiers that year, had him hanged at a farm outside the city a month after he was arrested. Ben M’Hidi died surrounded by his jailers, who denied him his last request, that he be allowed to die with his eyes open. They blindfolded him and then told the world that he had committed suicide in his jail cell with his necktie….. Protected by amnesties concluded in the 1960s, Aussaresses could not be persecuted for war crimes. But he was prosecuted successfully for ‘complicity in apology for war crimes’, along with his publisher, then stripped of his rank and the right to wear his uniform in public.

And yet, in the aftermath of 9/11 and in the run-up to the Iraq war, Aussaresses’s shocking book, in English translation, was studied by our (i.e. US) military as a contribution to the new debate on the uses of torture. “To cause sufferring is not the same as torture, no matter how intense or sustained the pain- as long as there is no other alternative and the pain is in proportion to the desired outcome”. This sounds like Rumsfield or Gonsalves. In fact, it is taken from instructions given his troops in Algiers in 1957 by Aussaresse’s colleague and mentor in the Battle of Algiers, Colonel Roger Trinquier. The resemblance is probably not accidental.

A note about the online World Literature site: limited pages available online, and whatever is there is in barely readable font color and the pages appear as image files! Apparently this is a further regression from the pdf files that used to appear earlier.

If you have not seen the movie, it is very highly recommended. It was much discussed when its director Gillo Pontecorvo passed away a year ago, on 22 Oct 2006.

In the trailer below, M’Hidi appears briefly 1:21s from the end (the bespectacled man speaking the sentence: “It is difficult to start a revolution, even more to sustain one and still more to win one.”)

youtube link

*Note: This blogger’s (imaginative!) deduction that Marissa Bey is Larbi bin M’hidi’s daughter, stands corrected by Suzanne Ruta who has commented:

Bey is NOT the daughter of Larbi Ben M’Hidi…the French tortured and summarily executed thousands of Algerian rebels, her father and Ben M’Hidi met the same fate, but M’Hidi was the head of the FLN in Algiers, Bey’s father was a school- teacher in el Boghari…I took a round about way into the subject, sorry if it wasn’t clear. Part I is about Algeria and the ways its history has been used lately by the Pentagon, part II is about Bey.

Also the essay stands by itself, Bey hasnt written a book length memoir about her father, but she has written a number of novels, all marked by early trauma.

glad to see people are reading WLT. best wishes, S Ruta

Thanks for the correction, Suzanne! And thanks, of course, for the translation and the essay.

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