The Challenge of Contemporary Historical Research in Algeria

Andrew Lebovich est étudiant en doctorat en Histoire Africaine à l’Université de Columbia dans la ville de New York. Il travaille sur les connexions religieuses entre l’Algérie et l’Afrique de l’Ouest dans l’époque contemporaine et les implications des changements religieux dans la politique, la société, et la culture. Il présente pour Textures du Temps son travail et son expérience de recherche, et la difficulté de connecter histoire de l’Algérie et histoire de l’Afrique.
أندرو لابوفيتش، طالب دكتوراه في التاريخ الإفريقي في جامعة كولومبيا بمدينة نيويورك. يدور بحثه حول علاقات الجزائر مع إفريقيا الغربية في الفترة المعاصرة وتأثير التحولات الدينية على السياسة و المجتمع و الثقافة. في هذا المقال الذي كتبه ل
حبكات الزمن، يقدم أندرو لابوفيتش تجربته في البحث وصعوبات الوصل بين تاريخ الجزائر و تاريخ إفريقيا.س

“Merci, now I have a better sense of your subject. Come back next Tuesday, and we’ll see what we’ve found.” This was how my research in Algeria began, at the new (and at least half-empty) National Library building built next to the erstwhile colonial gardens, now turned into a public park.1  A week later after the holiday marking the end of Ramadan, I returned to the National Library to find the librarian had returned a grand total of three books, none of which were remotely related to my subject. When I asked to look for copies from the early 1980s of the Algerian official daily El Moudjahid, another librarian informed me that I would have to go to the older National Library building in central Algiers, up the hill from the famous Grande Poste that once housed the French colonial administration here. Not the most auspicious start to any research trip.

Academic research on almost any subject is a challenge in Algeria, particularly so for a historian. While archives abound, they can be scattered, disorganized, and difficult to access – in order to get into the small Wilaya archives in Constantine, for instance, I was told that I needed the permission of the administration of the National Archives in Algiers. To acquire that permission, I needed to have submitted a dossier to the Algerian Embassy in Washington with a CV (in French or Arabic), a description of my project, a letter of attestation, and a letter of introduction. When the archivist told me they could not locate my dossier, she informed me that I could still come back to Algiers and present myself to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, before coming back to the National Archives and then returning to Constantine 400 kilometers to the east. Of course, I would have to have done that in the week in which I called, for the following week the Ministry would be closed for their annual congé. I opted to skip the permission, and try my luck elsewhere.

I’ve just spent the last month in Algeria conducting pre-prospectus research as part of my doctoral program in African History. I was in Paris before this exploring archives, and I began writing this piece in the boarding area of Houari Boumedienne International Airport in Algiers, waiting for a flight that would take me to Bamako, and then on to Dakar a week later. Already, the project has been a reminder of one of the truisms of Africanist historical research; if you want to find an archive, particularly for contemporary research, you are going to have to build it yourself. Such work is far from impossible, of course; as one archivist seeking to cheer me up reminded me, “the more you dig, the more you will find.” But such work – especially when it involves Algeria and the Sahel – requires patience, time, and a willingness to hop from archive to archive, place to place, ministry to ministry, in order to try to pull the thread of your inquiry.

Constantine, June 2011 ©M. Rahal
Constantine, June 2011 ©M. Rahal

Indeed, I saw these challenges firsthand even in my brief summer research. When state archival access during my trip proved difficult in Algiers and Constantine, I instead sought access to a number of private archives, including those of the Algerian Association of Muslim ‘Ulama (Jama’iyyat al-‘Ulama al-Muslimin al-Jaza’iriyyin, or AUMA in French) in the Hussein Dey district of Algiers, the Bibliothèque Nationale, the archives of the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Waqfs, the library of the University of Algiers overlooking the rue Didouche Mourad, and the Emir Abdelkader University of the Islamic Sciences. In each place and in private interviews, I benefited from incredible kindness and assistance, even when documents proved scarce.

Reintegrating North Africa into African History

Nedroma, June 2006 ©M. Rahal
Nedroma, June 2006 ©M. Rahal

Whether I chose my subject excellently or poorly remains to be seen, but the subject and my research efforts thus far certainly illustrate some of the challenges, opportunities, rewards, and frustrations of transnational historical research.

I am an Africanist by training, and my research focuses on religious and political connections between North and West Africa, as well as within the vast expanses of the Sahara. More specifically, my research begins with the study of a small group of West African students who traveled to Algeria in the 1950s, where they ended up in so-called “free schools” run by the AUMA. The brief séjour proved formative for the students, who returned to West Africa to establish the reformist Union Culturelle Musulmane. Although short-lived, this organization spread rapidly throughout West Africa in the waning days of French colonialism, drawing from the Algerian reformist experience while making their own distinct mark on Islam in Sahelian and sub-Saharan Africa that resonates to this day. My project also follows the religious and political connections between Algeria and West Africa after independence, in an effort to elucidate regional networks of Islamic reform and interaction that remains important but little-recognized today.

Yet already, this geographical and thematic focus poses problems for research. While a number of fantastic scholars in and outside of Africa in past decades and especially recently have pursued trans-Saharan research, institutional and conceptual divides remain strong.

For many within academia, including in history, “Africa” still means sub-Saharan Africa, often unfortunately reduced to “black” Africa. North Africa, meanwhile, finds itself not fitting very comfortably into any framework. For some, it belongs in the Middle East or the “Arab World” despite the high percentage of non-Arabs in the Maghreb, and some Middle East scholars still sneer at how North African dialectical Arabic isn’t “real” Arabic, as if Egyptian or Levantine Arabic were somehow closer to the language of the Quran or Modern Standard Arabic, and thus more “authentically” Arab, whatever that means. Other scholars prefer to see the Maghreb through the lens of colonial ties and postcolonial migrations.

None of these conceptions are fully true or fully false; North Africa has long served as a crossroads as well as focal point for trade and scholarly production, meaning it was not one thing or part of one world, but instead part of many all at once. But for contemporary academic scholarship the question still remains as to where North Africa “belongs”. In the United States and Europe, North Africa scholars generally find themselves more at home at the annual Middle East Studies Association (MESA) conference than at the African Studies Association (ASA) or the European Conference on African Studies (ECAS). Academic search committees sometimes still scratch their heads at North Africa-focused applicants for African history jobs, and research on North Africa remains less common in the United States than in Europe, although this has shifted in recent years and in particular since the Arab Spring.

Roadblocks still remain, however, including in the Maghreb itself. When I described my interest in contemporary educational and religious connections between Algeria and West Africa to Algerian friends and academics, I repeatedly received a variation on the same answer: “Your topic is very interesting, but I don’t think you’ll find very much here.” Others made reference to the Tijaniyya Sufi brotherhood founded in the 18th Century by an Algerian  who died in Morocco, and whose order has become widespread in West Africa. Equally telling was the way people discussed my topic: while I presented my interest in terms of West Africa (L’Afrique de l’Ouest in French and Ifriqiyya Gharbiyya in Arabic), my interlocutors almost always spoke only in terms of les Africains or alAfariqa. This was not necessarily a statement of racism or ignorance, but instead a reflection of nearly two centuries of efforts first by French authorities and later Algeria’s independent leaders to orient Algeria to the north or east, first in the form of l’Algérie Française and then as an expression of Ahmed Ben Bella’s famous declaration “nahnu ‘arab, nahnu ‘arab, nahnu ‘ashara milyun ‘arab” [“We are Arabs, we are Arabs, we are 10 million Arabs!”]

This is despite Algeria’s own multilingual and multicultural history, and the fact that the connections between Algeria and West Africa endured after the colonial period; thousands of West Africans studied at political and economic institutions in Algeria, and hundreds studied at Islamic institutes in Algeria from 1962 until 1977 (when they were briefly suppressed) and then again from the 1980s until today. Fascinatingly, documents from the Ministry of Religious Affairs indicate that many of these students worked not just in the main cities of Algeria’s north, but also in Saharan and pre-Saharan cities and towns like Ain Salah, Ouargla, Laghouat, and Biskra. And in Mali and Senegal, interviews as well as casual conversations while waiting for interviews revealed surprising numbers of students who traveled for secondary religious education to Algeria, before pursuing further studies in places like Morocco, Egypt, and the Hijaz.

Digging into the Archives

Nedroma, juin 2006 ©M. Rahal
Nedroma, juin 2006 ©M. Rahal

A secondary problem to conducting contemporary research in Algeria has to do less with geographical divisions and more with the nature of archives themselves. While theorists like Achille Mbembe and Jacques Derrida have discussed the archive as a means of state control, in practice the postcolonial archive is often more a reflection of state uncertainty and bureaucratic confusion, or simply documents that remain uncatalogued or poorly organized from the colonial and postcolonial period. State archives in Algeria, for instance, are the inheritors of those colonial documents that were not looted just before decolonization or destroyed during the Algerian war of liberation, as was the case when far-right wing terrorists in the Organisation de l’Armée Secrète torched the Algiers University library in July 1962. Additionally, in Algeria as in other countries state archives tend to stop at the end of the  colonial period, meaning that official archives in many cases do not even cover events that took place after independence.

In order to write a contemporary history of Algeria, then, researchers have to look elsewhere and turn to private archives, periodicals and newspapers, interviews, and archives still held in different ministries and libraries. This is a problem that is familiar to any contemporary historian, but it is particularly acute for historians working in Africa.

In Algeria this information is available, but it is not easy to access. Again, this is not necessarily due to state policy, but entrenched bureaucratic ideas require patience and sustained effort required to have numerous introductory meetings, to present topics and research bona fides, and then to work with individual archivists who in general do not receive many researchers and must cope with limited resources, scattered documentation, and often unclear rules governing the reproduction of documents. Still, this research is as rewarding as it can be frustrating; in my interactions with them, the Algerian academic and archivists I met were unfailingly kind and generous in sharing their knowledge, their space, and in two cases deliciously fresh figs from Kabylia. Various scholars and religious leaders also made calls on my behalf, contacted friends, and searched on their own time for sources to help with my research. This may not be the case for everyone, but it speaks to the interest for discussion and research into contemporary histories in Algeria.

My goal for my work is to show that efforts to change Islamic practice happened on a regional basis, and were not just driven by “foreign” influences and money. Africans on both sides of the Sahara sought out the knowledge to accomplish their own religious and political goals, in ways that responded to colonial concerns as well as ongoing efforts to define and redefine citizenship, national identity, and the relationship between believers and their government. In Algeria, this research also illustrates the ways in which religious figures forged numerous alliances beyond the Arab world, and sought to shape the role of religion in public life from the earliest days of independence through the present.

This work is more important than ever. In order to break down binaries that divide the colonial from the post-colonial, in order to shed light on the evolution of Algerian and West African societies , and in order to perhaps see where Algeria may be headed, historians can and must be involved in researching not just the Algeria that was, but the Algeria that is today. For a country in flux this research is challenging, but indispensable.

Nedroma, juin 2006 ©M. Rahal
Nedroma, juin 2006 ©M. Rahal

Citer ce billet
Andrew Lebovich (2015, 8 octobre). The Challenge of Contemporary Historical Research in Algeria. Textures du temps- حبكات الزمن. Consulté le 28 février 2024, à l’adresse

  1. I was able to conduct a month of fieldwork in Algiers and Constantine thanks to generous funding and assistance from the American Institute for Maghrib Studies and the Centre d’Études Maghrébines en Algérie. []

Par Andrew Lebovich

Andrew Lebovich is a doctoral student in African History at Columbia University. His research focuses on reformist Muslim movements and the relationship between Islam, politics, and society in North Africa, the Sahara, and the Sahel from the 1950s until today.

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