22 October, 2021 • • 47.4AfricaHistoryPsychology

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The Open Wounds of Colonial Trauma

Fouad Mami

Karima Lazali
Colonial Trauma:
A Study of the Psychic and Political Consequences of Colonial Oppression in Algeria
Polity 2021
272pp

Karima Lazali’s Colonial Trauma does not give itself easily to readers, particularly Anglo-Saxon ones. The book’s structure challenges the ABCs of academic book writing where the introduction is expected to explicitly lay out the claim while the chapters elaborate the details of the evidence and the stakes from this claim. Had it not been a translation from the French and already published in France, the manuscript would not have made it beyond the early editorial checkups. Anyone trained to read and write in the above-mentioned tradition – which for better or for worse has become the universal approach to academic publishing and reception – will scarcely maintain the energy and patience to engage with the subject matter until Chapter 7. Chapter 8 continues rambling, but Chapter 9 truly adds pulse and energy to the initial claim. Instead of wrapping up the argument and synthesizing the findings, the conclusion draws on new connections and theoretical armaments.

This shortcoming in structure aside, the book raises an important question in respect to the reasons behind the alleged despondency and melancholia of a large section of the Algerian population. Lazali has been a practitioner of clinical psychology in both Paris and Algiers for more than two decades. She remarks that her patients’ symptoms of trauma suggest a communal solution because the symptoms do not speak of isolated or private challenges or stigmas. Rather, such cases underlie a wider phenomenon, requiring a broader framework of analysis to address colonial trauma. The latter operates like a syndrome that puts in movement an alienating mechanism, one that Lazali finds more gripping than ordinary trauma.     

The book claims that Algerians’ general malaise and existential fatigue can be attributed to colonial trauma. The word ‘trauma’ in this context operates as a psychic state marked by intergenerational terror, handed down from France’s War of Conquest on Algerians, beginning officially in 1830. Ordinary trauma, according to the imminent Argentine psychoanalysis Mariana Wikinski (who wrote the foreword for the English translation), allows for a resurgence of a self-reflexive agency whereby the destructive mechanism of trauma can be reversed. But the trauma which Lazali underlines, that is, the signifier, blurs the boundaries between the self and the collective. The multitudes of the disappeared refuse to die because they lack a peaceful memory; and thus their memories come to haunt the living with vengeance. What this amounts to literally is that, more often than not, failing to grant a material tombstone to the disappeared fails to close the atrocious chapter. The wound stays open and colonial trauma remains unhealed, damaging both the present and the future of the living.

Colonial trauma has been running wild since the War of Conquest, as advancing French armies massacred, exiled and forced the disappearance of resistant leaders and elites. The descendants of those fatherless sons were psychologically damaged. Because they lack a gravestone to bury their grief, those sons perpetuate their pathology (acts of orphanage) as they subscribe to fratricidal feuds, acts of disappearing rivals with or without a cause. The Liberation War 1954-1962, Lazali tells readers, has not been fought exclusively between FLN freedom fighters and French armies. (Or at least this official story should not blind individuals to the fratricidal war between FLN militants and their Missalist rivals.) The postcolonial period (1962 to the present) has a crucial role in disappearing former brothers-in-arms. The tipping point, however, came with the Internal War 1992-2000, in which both members of the security apparatus and insurgent Islamists ravaged land and killed the innocent.

Lazali brilliantly underscores that instead of addressing the problem by activating the judiciary to heal the wounds and close such a violent chapter in Algerian history, the authorities’ reconciliation charters and laws did exactly the opposite. State laws and charters provided immunity to the killers and in the meanwhile opened the doors of hell for the victims’ loved ones. Since they could not bury their dead or access accurate data that specified the fate of their loved ones, the relatives of the disappeared have experienced repeated devastations and wretchedness from colonial trauma. Indeed, they risk perpetuating the trauma to their offspring. For the trauma now has become a fixation or a free agent that not only paralyzes but sabotages civic engagements and true nation-building.

Colonial Trauma does not claim that the postcolonial governing elites have been simple appendages of the colonial administration, the way postcolonial theory classically promulgates. For Lazali, the biological affiliation of postcolonial governing elites with colonial visionaries (as adopted by postcolonial theory along with certain opposition movements in Algeria and elsewhere) is a reductive approach and does not register the magnitude of the damage put in movement by colonial trauma. Lazali’s specification of the trauma outlines that the latter works through an overarching and immanent structure regardless of, and perhaps, in spite of, the collective intention for reversal. It is true that coloniality – the matrix, Lazali theorizes – follows an ontological and not a chronological order. Still, Lazali’s attempts to sell colonial trauma as an underlying principle that defines the postcolonial stalemate in Algeria remains overstretched and far from convincing.

Repeatedly referring to literary works, such as novels, poems, and plays, and reading them at face value, proves to be a questionable method. The problem is that Colonial Trauma could be classified as a work of literary criticism and not collective psychology, allowing Lazali to overlook highly nuanced passages (sometimes full of puns and ironies) to accommodate the flat narrative of her shaky argument. Unlike Lazali’s project, the thrust behind Kateb Yassin and Tahar Djaout’s work – to refer only to these two repeatedly cited authors in Colonial Trauma – have never been in favor of reworking or reorganizing politics. Instead, these two have ardently campaigned for an Algeria beyond politics – for a restoration of the primordial order that predates the Neolithic Revolution.  

By the end of the book, it becomes unclear if Lazali is referring to the direct victims of state terror, that is, the relatives of the disappeared, or to all Algerians. She seems to abandon generalizations and focus instead on the patients she sees in her practice. Regardless how seductive, and even persuasive, the argument for a cross-generational victimization might be, it does not hold. The volume originally appeared in 2018, in French. It was an exceptional situation where Algerians gave the world the false impression that they ­– of all people – nursed a pathological pleasure from tolerating a medically unfit dictator to run for a fifth term, defying constitutional procedures, common sense, and human logic. Lazali, like many, thinks that she has cracked open the organizing principle that allows Algerians to be so disengaged and apathetic. But like their forefathers, who resisted colonial conquests and armies 1830-1962, Algerians went to the streets in February 2019 and brought down Bouteflika and his Mafia. It is true that the same Algerians Lazali deems afflicted, beyond repair, have not succeeded in building a sustainable polity. But that shortcoming – if that is how it should be qualified – speaks of a counterrevolutionary conjuncture of neoliberal policies worldwide. Algeria is no exception.

With her abundant use of the passive voice, as well as her borrowings from the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (1901-1981), Lazali adopts a conservative stance vis-à-vis her fellow citizens. At heart, that stance is the culturalist one predominant in North Africa and the Middle East, where victims are found at fault and blamed for their backwardness, or predisposition to dictatorship, or both. Pseudo-studies keep calling for a revolution in the mind and ruptures with the past. The gains from circulating similar politically correct stances is that one risks nothing, and stays disengaged from public concerns, justifying and never explaining the phenomenon in question. But the cost from trusting in the arguments of Lazali’s is that they allow one to overlook colonial trauma, with both its state terror and state of terror. Missing from the culturalists’ calculations are the desires, the eroticism, the passion and will of people.   

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Fouad Mami is a literature scholar from Algeria. An Africanist by training, his field of interest lies at the crossroads of North, West African, and Mediterranean literatures and arts. Over the last few years, his essays have appeared in outlets such as Postcolonial Studies, The Journal of North African Studies, and Mediterranean Politics, among others. For more on his work please visit his website.