Writing a history of independent Algeria in America? The myth of the archive

By Arthur Asseraf and Malika Rahal

Foreign archives are a great temptation. Faced with the impossibility of gaining access to the Algerian National Archives after 1962, the national archives of any other place seem like the next-best-thing to the sacrosanct state fortress of Birkhadem.

‘The’ archive, that is, the national archive, creates a strong fantasy. In Algeria, one often hears laments about the impossibility of writing history ‘of course the archives are closed’. When historians answer back that actually, when it comes to the colonial period, most things are open and things are not that difficult, friends looked back at the researcher with pity, thinking them desperately naïve: ‘they must not have shown you the real archives.’ As Judith Scheele has pointed out, real history, in the popular imagination of most Algerians, can only be written by people with political power.1 In a contemporary system where most Algerians feel disempowered, the past does not belong to them, because the paper necessary to prove it is locked away. The archives can only open in an indeterminate, eschatological future, when the world is as it is meant to be.

Concerning the post-independence however, the existing literature is indeed scarce, and accessing the history of institutions through state records is most-often impossible. Faced with such limitations, the historian can turn to micro-historical or oral history approaches. Micro-history has long been understood as a form of social (and cultural) history, in contrast to the old-style political history (dubbed by the French “histoire bataille”, listing names and dates of battles).2 Other local studies—such as those by anthropologist James C. Scott on Chinese peasants3 — have shown how the intensive investigation of a well-defined topic, event, or area can contribute to a broader political history. But the link between the micro- and the macro-level of society posited in micro-storia theory is what grants the analysis of a limited subject considerable explanatory power, as well as the ability to reveal the complexities of the social material.4 In countries such as Italy or France were seminal micro-history pieces were produced, such micro-history or oral history methods not solely based on state archives were all the more important, creative and thought provoking that they wrote against an existing body of literature that was by that time considered outdated. And state archives too, could be used to write microhistory.

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in the suburbs of Washington D.C. in College Park, Maryland, at first, might seem like just this kind of unattainable fortress.5 The intense airport-style security, and the bewildering system of classification can only serve to conceal deep state secrets. The Record Group 59 (RG59) inventory for the Department of State archives has no names for the files, only lists after lists of numbers, following a code that one must learn to decipher. But the cataloguing system changes once every few years, 1955-59, 1960-63, 1963-1973, so you have to figure out the code for each chronological slice. Few archivists still really know how to navigate the system. According to popular reading-room lore, such magicians are slowly retiring and won’t be replaced due to government budget cuts, creating amongst historians the fantasy of an unusable archive in the future.

Two Record Groups, both pertaining to consular activities, are obvious choices for historians of Algeria. RG 59 contains the central files of the DC offices, in other words the reports that were sent by consuls to the Department of State in Washington. Files concerning Algeria also contain all reports written by any consulate in connection with the country. RG 84, on the other hand, contains the records of the posts of the Department of State, archives of the consulates themselves, including all the material consuls didn’t deem fit to be send back to Washington.

During our research trip in 2014, it took us several days to locate any “Algeria” boxes in RG 84. For some time, we were told perhaps they had been destroyed in the war. Which war, we wondered… the 1990s? It turned out this was not at all the case. Following the suggestion of one of these magician-archivists, we blindly requested something called Entry P.8, which consisted of 19 boxes of very heterogeneous material that could definitely be of use, if one had time to sift through it. Reading the reports carefully did make the archival chronology clearer. For one thing, diplomatic relations were severed between the US and Algerian after the 1967 war, which in effect ended the series of consular reports. During that period, the Department of State used the Swiss embassy and consulates as a way into the country. Not only that, but following youth demonstrations in June 1967 during which the American Cultural Center on Abane Ramdane street was targeted, is seems that consulate employees destroyed some of their documentation themselves, for fear that the consulates would be attacked.

RG 84 - Entry P B - Box 1. Document referring to the destruction of documents in US consulates.
NARA, RG 84 – Entry P B – Box 1. Document referring to the destruction of documentation in US consulates « for security reasons ».

Nevertheless there is a lot of material, and despite how bureaucratic the organization of the archives and the building are, once you access the forests of grey boxes, what comes out is remarkably not bureaucratic. There are surprising gems: in October 1962, John F. Root, the ‘counselor of Embassy’ in Algiers wrote to Washington, obviously in answer to a request to find the music sheet of the brand new Algerian Anthem. ‘The enclosed sheet, he wrote, was prepared for us by a man who represented himself as the composer. I hope it is the real thing.’ But a tape was to be sent soon to confirm. One wonders who was the man: was it Algerian Mohammed Touri, who had been asked to compose the music to the anthem, or Tunisian Mohammed Triki who was asked to write a second version, or perhaps Egyptian Mohammed Fawzi who wrote the final version? Or perhaps some random person?

Despite the confusion of the times, this was a new country, whose leader, Ahmed Ben Bella was getting ready for an official trip to the US. The anthem would soon come in handy and it was a pressing matter.

NARA, RG54, Central Decimal File, Box 1804.

Perhaps owing to their international position, and lack of involvement in the war for independence, in the immediate post-independence, US consuls were remarkably well informed. They were able to travel and talk to many different people. William J. Porter, (the chargé d’affaires in Algiers until he was formally named ambassador in November 1962), was constantly on the road. Based on his observations of cities and countryside, he wrote some of the rich, close-to-the-ground reports that keep historians happy.

Take this report by the consul in Oran: August 1966. Oran is dead, empty due ‘the good French institution of the August vacation’. You have to walk several blocks to get a loaf of bread. ‘Saturday afternoon half of Oran seems to be getting married or at least participating in weddings.’ On Sunday afternoons the Oran corniche is a line of cars headed for the beaches.

Popular sentiment, thwarted in normal political activity, manifests itself in wild riots at soccer games, particularly when teams from Algiers or Tlemcen appear at local parks.

In the cafés people sip Ricard and beer, untroubled by the police, which apparently was not the case under the previous régime of Ben Bella in 1965.6

In this revolutionary period of independence, American consuls in Algeria did not restrict themselves to just talking about high politics — their reports are random, humorous, florid descriptions of everyday life in socialist Algeria. In some, we hear tragi-comic stories about French coopérants going crazy, about roadblocks in the countryside, about popular animosity towards visiting Egyptians who ‘haggle over prices in the market place’, only seeking to get rich in Algeria before going back home.

Of course, as is to be expected of any diplomatic correspondence, the boxes are full of ‘high political’ reports on various notables, potential coups, assessments of Algeria’s position in the Cold War game, yet American consuls do not seem to have been better informed about these things than anyone else – they deal in rumors, in the speculations of various apparatchiks, as uncertain as anyone else about the future of the regime under both Ben Bella and Boumediene. To the kinds of questions that most Algerians now think are decisive (Who was really in power? Who killed whom? How was independence stolen?), they offer little definite answers.

If one skirts around these ‘big’ questions, consular records of Americans in Algeria, like those of other countries, can be surprisingly enchanting. Americans were hardly neutral observers of the socialist Algerian régime, and their ideological agenda in a Cold War context is unmistakable. They are regularly convinced that Algerians are not ‘really’ socialist and instinctively pro-American, if only the leadership were to change. One would love to know, on the other side, what the Russians and Cubans were saying. For this reason their accounts of everyday life are surprisingly amusing and revealing, though as untrustworthy as any other source. They were witnesses (no more, no less) to a period of Algerian history so formative but so lacking in contemporary accounts beyond the official ones.

To take another example, in September 1966, the consul in Constantine found that his car had broken down, and this

gave [him] the chance to sit in the front seat with drivers and zoom at 110 kilometers per hour (no seat belts!), and to learn about the tribulations taxi drivers face under socialism, Algerian style.

There were, it turns out, too many taxis. The government had stepped in to prioritize mujahidin and their relatives, without taking into account professional qualifications. The older drivers are bitter about the young ones, who they think are rude and drive too fast.7

Complaints about the privileges of mujahidin were common. In an April 1965 report on cafés in Oran, the consul René Tron says that licenses left ‘vacant’ by the departure of Europeans were being redistributed, officially to former mujahidin but that ‘the opportunity to take over valuable commercial sites and plants “for nothing” is a powerful instrument of patronage.’ In fact, he says, the owner of the café next to the consulate, which runs all night, though he claims to be a mujahid who was in the maquis for ‘nine years’ [sic], was a harki who fought against the FLN until 1959. By ingratiating himself with Ben Bella’s faction, the former harki is able to parlay himself into various privileges (the café license, an apartment) but these are fragile, and he may well lose favor with the préfet (not yet, it seems, known as a wali) soon. The description of corrupt local politics is trenchant and uncompromising – whiskey rackets, crackdowns on prostitution, ‘all this is a far cry from “socialism” or the just reward for wartime services claimed by the regime.’8

In these tidbits, one gets the feeling of a country rustling everywhere with rumors of coups and potential insurrections yet where daily life was strikingly static. A place that refused to settle down after seven years of war, and a place where the structures of Algerian society seem so familiar to those which we know now – men sitting in cafés waiting for the time to pass, a covert politics which happens in the shadows, a revolution sacralized whose legacy is hotly contested, people proud of their victories but uncertain of the struggles to come.

The US archives can help write a certain history of Algeria in the 1960s, but to do so, the historian has to be careful not to worship the archive, whether in the French colonial state’s archives in Aix-en-Provence, the independent Algerian archives in Birkhadem, or the Americans archives in College Park. Even when he or she has access to profusions of paper, what is gained should not be obvious.

The sociologist Philip Abrams, once criticized the idea that ‘the state’ is the power which prevents us researchers from getting access to the truth. This belief in the importance of state secrets is shared by many historians as well as by many ordinary Algerians. But Abrams says, the state is a myth, it is the belief that there is something hidden in the first place ‘the state is not the reality which stands behind the mask of political activity – it is the mask that hides us from political activity.’9

Once you’re in the archive, there’s nothing behind the veil. The consuls are just men, with cars who break down, who get drunk with men who tell them funny stories that make themselves into reports, that end up in Washington, that end up in a box.



  1. Judith Scheele, Village Matters: Knowledge, Politics and Community in Kabylia, Algeria, James Currey, 2009. []
  2. Carlo Ginzburg, John Tedeschi, and Anne C. Tedeschi, “Microhistory: Two or Three Things that I Know about It,” Critical Inquiry 20, no. 1 (October 1, 1993): 10–35. []
  3. The author claims that during his work, to his astonishment, he became a historian, underlining the connection of approaches. See James C. Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (New Haven (Conn.): Yale University Press, 2009), xi. []
  4. Jacques Revel, ed., Jeux d’échelles (Paris: Gallimard-Le Seuil, 1996). []
  5. The opportunity to conduct the research on which this post is based was given to us by the International Seminar on Decolonization, organized in Washington DC. Malika Rahal participated in the 9th edition in July 2014, and Arthur Asseraf in the 10th and final edition in July 2015. Many thanks to Jason Parker, of the Decolonization Seminar, for helping us begin to understand NARA. []
  6. RG 59 – 1964-66, Box 1877. []
  7. RG 59 – 1964-66, Box 1877, Report, 15 September 1966. []
  8. RG 59 – 1964-66, Box 1877, Oran, April 1965. []
  9. Philip Abrams, ‘Notes on the Difficulty of Studying the State’, Journal of Historical Sociology, 1:1, March 1988, 58-89. []

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