The New York Review of Books

Volume 16, Number 7 … April 22, 1971


In Search of North Africa

By Clifford Geertz

Saints of the Atlas
by Ernest Gellner
Chicago, 317 pp., $9.50

Revolution and Political Leadership: Algeria 1954-1968
by William B. Quandt
MIT, 304 pp., $8.95

Wolves in the City: The Death of French Algeria
by Paul Henissart
Simon & Schuster, 508 pp., $8.95

The Battle of Algiers (movie)
directed by Gillo Pontecorvo

Change at Shebika: Report from a North African Village
by Jean Duvignaud
Pantheon, 303 pp., $6.95

Ramparts of Clay (movie)
written by Jean Duvignaud, directed by Jean-Louis Bertuccelli

Physicists, novelists, logicians, and art historians have recognized for some time that what we call our knowledge of reality consists of images of it that we ourselves have fashioned. In the social sciences this is just now coming to be understood, and then only imperfectly. The contribution of the investigator not only to the description and analysis of his object of study but to its very creation still tends to be obscured by the sort of mentality which regards the Human Relations Area Files, the Gallup Poll, and the US Census as repositories of recorded truths waiting merely to be discovered. In the arts, the unimplicated observer has been reduced to a minor convention; in the sciences to an unreachable limiting case. But in much of sociology, anthropology, and political science he lives on, masquerading as a real person performing a possible act.

Part of the reason for this failure, on the part of investigators otherwise only too self-conscious, to reflect on the way in which they first construct the objects they then inspect is that the issue has generally been confused with the not unimportant but rather less profound one of bias. Concealing private prejudices in public language is certainly an affliction of social scientific research; for some people, that, in fact, is its vocation.

But beyond the tired debates about "value neutrality" and the pious unmaskings of other people's parti pris is the more disturbing question which the unreliable narrator raised for fiction, the complementarity principle for physics, and Rashomon for common sense: if what we see is to a considerable degree a reflex of the devices we use to render it visible, how do we choose among devices? Thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird are twelve too many for someone who still believes that facts are born not made, and that differences of perception reduce to differences of opinion.

That they do not so reduce is apparent from a recent series of rather desperate attempts to get a sociological hold on the contemporary Maghreb—i.e., western North Africa—a part of the world which, resembling everything but itself (when Tocqueville first saw Algiers it reminded him of Cincinnati), has an unusual capacity for inviting the application of standard notions about how societies work, and then defeating them.

Academic monographs, social realism documentaries, and belletristic essays compete to develop a representational form in which Maghrebi society can be caught and communicated. The first result of the dawning realization that though society doubtless exists independently of the activity of sociologists, sociology does not, is a proliferation of genres. The second, still so faint as to be scarcely visible, is the development of the sort of radically experimental attitude toward modes of representation that set in so much earlier elsewhere in modern culture.

As would be expected, the academic studies—Saints of the Atlas and Revolution and Political Leadership—are the least affected, in both senses of that term, in this way. Gellner and Quandt are old believers. For them, there is still an object "out there," like Everest, on the one hand, and on the other, a set of analytic abstractions, developed by scientists, designed to describe it. Research consists of the empirical investigation of the adequacy of the abstractions to the constitution of the object. And scientific works are systematic presentations of the results of research.

The document makers, whether in films, such as The Battle of Algiers, or magazine prose, as in the book Wolves in the City, are, if anything, even more bound to the notion that social reality is presented to them directly and that the main thing is to look at it with sufficient care and the appropriate attitude. But they are at least aware that some artfulness—the simulation of a Forties newsreel for Pontecorvo, Newsweek-Marches-On dramatization for Henissart—is necessary to convey the look of it to others.

Only Duvignaud (and, apparently, his cinematic translator, Bertuccelli) knows that the artfulness comes in very much earlier and very much more profoundly. His portraits of North African village life, both in his book and in the quite different, even contrasting, ways of Ramparts of Clay, the film made from it, are at base fictions, stories he has told himself and now recounts to others. There is not much left in Duvignaud's "inventions based on life" of the immaculate perception view of scientific understanding, and nothing at all of the relaxing notion that the world divides into facts.

North Africa doesn't even divide into institutions. The reason Maghrebi society is so hard to get into focus and keep there is that it is a vast collection of coteries. It is not blocked out into large, well-organized, permanent groupings—parties, classes, tribes, races—engaged in a long-term struggle for ascendancy. It is not dominated by tightly knit bureaucracies concentrating and managing social power; not driven by grand ideological movements seeking to transform the rules of the game; not immobilized by a hardened cake of custom locking men into fixed systems of rights and duties.

These features, which loom so large elsewhere in the Third World, are, of course, present on the surface of life. But it is only surface. Anyone who takes them for more (as do most foreign observers, but hardly any domestic ones) finds the society constantly coming apart in his hands. Structure after structure—family, village, clan, class, sect, army, party, elite, state—turns out, when more narrowly looked at, to be an ad hoc constellation of miniature systems of power, a cloud of unstable micro-politics, which compete, ally, gather strength, and, very soon overextended, fragment again.

The social order is a field of small, pragmatical cliques gathering around one or another dominant figure as he comes, more or less transiently, into view and dispersing again as, largely traceless, he disappears. The cliques are somewhat more stable in the Moroccan High Atlas or the Tunisian steppe than they are in Algiers, but the difference is only relative. The social partitions of North Africa are everywhere movable and incessantly moved.

Gellner's reaction to the difficulties such constant rearrangement of loyalties poses for social description is to perceive a fixed and well-formed ground plan half-hidden beneath it. And as his object of study is a Berber tribe (the Ahansal), his training is in British social anthropology, and his conception of social order is organismic, the plan he perceives is genealogical.

According to Gellner, for all the maneuver and conspiracy, blood is still thicker than water. Whatever the surface irregularity of social life, it is played out within a grid of kinship relations which both contains it and gives it meaning. The famous Semitic proverb, "Me against my brother, my brother and I against my cousin, my cousin and I against the stranger," crystallized into a nested set of lineages and clans, is the basic organizing principle of Ahansal society:

[O]ne might ask whether…in fact the society is not much more fluid than the neat tree-like patterns of group genealogy and alignment would suggest. Such a conclusion would be quite mistaken…. [Genealogical] organization displays a set of alignments, ratified not merely by custom, sentiment and ritual, but more weightily by shared interests which provide the baseline for alliances and enmities, for aid and hostility, when conflict arises. Calculation, feeling, new interests, diplomatic ingenuity may at times cause the final alignments to depart at some points: but the initial and fairly strong presumption is that allegiances of tribe and clan will be honored, and that other inducements must have been operative if they were not so honored.

The trouble is that such "inducements" seem almost always to be "operative." "Final alignments" seem to depart not just at some points but at most. One could get about as far, possibly even further, with understanding North African society, Gellner's somewhat special sample of it included, with the principle, "My cousin and I against my brother, the stranger and I against the whole lot of my horse-thieving relatives."

Kinship alliances do play a role in North African social organization, especially in rural settings, but there is nothing particularly privileged about them. To raise them to the "constitutional" level of fundamental laws occasionally transgressed is to reduce the actual flow of North African social life to a collection of special cases arbitrarily explained. This is what happens to Gellner, as the surface of his initially so finely modeled book breaks up into a catalog of fragmentary observations. As he proceeds, the "neat tree-like patterns" become harder and harder to perceive, until at the end they seem overwhelmed altogether by "calculation, feeling…interests…ingenuity," and matters trail off into a series of one-thing-after-another descriptions of particular facts about particular settlements, groups, and even individuals—micropolitical situations.

The book as a whole gives a picture of an overplanned enterprise getting instructively out of hand. And although, from one point of view, this is testimony to the fact that Gellner is acute enough to rise above his principles, from another, it suggests that the best way to solve the intricacies of North African society is not to descend upon it with a finished theory looking for an instance.

Yet, as Quandt's book on the Algerian revolution strives to show, scientific opportunism doesn't work very well either. Rather than proceeding with some organized set of prior principles to see how they fare in the world of facts, Quandt describes, in more or less everyday, "common sense" language, the social process he is investigating—the evolution of the Algerian political elite from the outbreak of the revolution in 1954 to the consolidation of the Boumedienne regime in 1968—and then puts together ad hoc categorial schemes and generalized hypotheses to order and explain it.

This makes for more flexibility than Gellner's approach has; one feels less caught in a conceptual cage. But it also makes for more eclecticism. Although the schemes are inventive and the hypotheses more or less unexceptionable, they don't do much more than restate the fact that rivalry is as pervasive among the Algerian elite as among a Berber tribe—a restatement made in phrases fashionable enough in Cambridge and Santa Monica to permit Harold Lasswell and Daniel Lerner to pronounce them, in their Foreword to the book, "the nascent language of the policy sciences."

The language, alas, remains nascent, not to say embryonic: it is all banalities and promises. Quandt explains the fragmentation of the Algerian elite by the fact that its members entered it at different points in the development of nationalism and thus have different conceptions—"liberal," "radical," "revolutionary," "technocratic"—of the nature of politics. He explains political instability by the fact that men seeking power naturally strive to attract as wide a variety of supporters as possible, while men arrived in power, when payoffs have to be made, seek, equally naturally, to narrow their base to a "minimum winning coalition," thus creating disappointments, resentments, and lasting enmities as superfluous backers are cast off. And he explains why government tends to be ineffective by the fact that the Algerians generally are marked by a high level of distrust, an exaggerated sense of honor, and a chronic resentment of authority.

There is probably some truth in all of this, even if only of the kind we get in statements like "Opium puts you to sleep because it has dormitive powers." And, like Gellner, Quandt assembles a good deal of useful information. But one would expect, somehow, the scienza nuova to come to something more, and to a firmer conclusion than,

…Algerian leaders may eventually either create an authoritarian regime, unresponsive to the people, or a relatively open political process which permits considerable mass participation. One result of extreme elite instability has been that few irreversible choices have been made as to the nature of the political system, and from this situation stem both the liabilities and promises of Algerian political development.

In short: "Where there's life, there's hope."

In any case, where the monographs draw blueprints of North African society in order to represent the form they profess to find within its motion, the documentary realists construct strong narrative lines, rigorous dramatic progressions—well-told tales—toward the same end. Both the film The Battle of Algiers and the book Wolves in the City are, in form at least, social thrillers, with historical personages as protagonists, historical events as scenes, and historical outcomes as morals. They gain their aura of factual immediacy and natural revelation—the sense that truth is being delivered neat—by depicting life as better plotted than it really is: its meaning is written, self-declaiming, directly on its face.

This is not in itself an argument against them, any more than schematicism is, as such, an argument against Gellner or Quandt. Pontecorvo's film projects a powerful, and so far as one can see not inaccurate, view of what the beginning of the end of French Algeria was like, and Henissart's book, a certain weakness for melodrama aside, a vivid view of what the end of the end of it was like. The story is savage in both cases, but heroic and romantic in the first; mean and romantic in the second.

The limitations of such storytelling are clear: anything the surface flow of social life—the actual events of 1956-57 and 1960-62—can't somehow be made to say can't be said. Once you've projected the story line—the ironic confrontation of the French General Massu's rÈsistance d'hier and the Algerian Ben M'Hidi's de demain; the mindless violence in frantic search of direction which hummed about the aloof General Salan, a man who seems as mysterious as a Buddha—you are stuck with it, and the chance of the medium not so much becoming the message as impoverishing it grows very real.

In The Battle of Algiers, this leads to a view of what held the casbah insurrection together that is excessively Leninist, emphasizing the role of the revolutionary elite. There is a failure to penetrate the cacophony of diverse personal alliances and personal rivalries, to say nothing of personal motives, that was the FLN then. Nor does the film even recognize that there was such a cacophony rather than the neat pyramid of guerrilla organizations which the figure representing Massu draws, like some war college instructor, on the blackboard, and which the film, intent on keeping the drama defined, accepts for fact.

In Wolves in the City, where attention to the native population is absent altogether (apparently because Henissart knows nothing about it, but perhaps also because to include it would destroy the narrative line), it leads the story to a view of the OAS as a gang of desperadoes. The way in which the OAS grew out of and was integrated into the pattern of European life in colonial Algeria is almost completely obscured, sacrificed to the detail of surface realism. Though Pontecorvo's film is a far finer achievement, a masterpiece of sustained tone, both works share a similar defect: intensely concerned to be interesting to Westerners, they make what they describe seem too familiar. Lacking the courage to be dull, they can go only so far in presenting to us a social reality not our own.

Not that dullness itself, as opposed to the willingness to risk it, is of any use. What makes Jean Duvignaud's work so much stronger than the monographs and documentaries is his awareness that the passage from the experiences the outside observer has when confronted by North Africa to those the North African has while living there is a complex and treacherous one, and that unusual means are necessary to negotiate it. This obsession with the difficulty of merely seeing what is before one's eyes (and having seen it, communicating it) does render both his book Change at Shebika and the film Ramparts of Clay, which is based on it, somewhat trying to the patience. The book is a field diary including sociological homily turned worriedly in upon itself; the film a tableau vivant, a movie which barely moves at all. Neither logical elegance nor narrative force is Duvignaud's talent, nor for that matter is erudition or descriptive precision. But a sense for the elusiveness of the ordinary, in sociologists a rarer talent, is.

Change at Shebika is the record of an out-of-doors teaching project of the sort so many American students are just now urging upon their schools. Duvignaud, then (1960-65) Professor of Sociology in Tunis, selected a number of university students—fifteen over the five-year period—to take with him, in small groups, a few days or weeks at a time, to what, even for North Africa, is a rather beaten-down, end-of-the-world village.

The students were all New Tunisians—highly Westernized, highly ideological, highly urban. Only one had ever been south at all, and she as a tourist; and though ten had peasant grandparents, only three still had rural ties of any significance. The professor, a man in his early forties, was a Parisian intellectual struggling to reconcile ideas from LÈvi-Strauss, Sartre, and Jacques Berque. Apparently without more than a superficial knowledge of Islam, Arabic culture, or North African history (it is not entirely clear from the text, but he seems not even to speak Arabic), he was animated by an intense desire to educate the Tunisian elite to the deficiencies of their own view of their own country. And, finally, the objects of all this hope and attention were a small band of impoverished share-croppers, plus their wives and children—about 250 people in all—fumbling with the shards of a dismembered tradition in a marginal economy deteriorated and getting worse.

The object of Duvignaud's book is thus not social description as such. He makes a claim, in a methodological appendix, to have produced a "total Utopian reconstruction" of Shebikan village life, invoking, among others, Flaubert, Joyce, Hermann Broch, and Truman Capote as models. ("If Balzac and Dickens were alive today, they would be sociologists.") But, in fact, his portrait of that life is anecdotal, unsystematic, and more than occasionally stereotyped.

Nor is its object directed social change. Duvignaud wants to understand how change occurs in a place like Shebika, but, aside from inflicting himself and his students upon them, he did not attempt to intervene in the villagers' lives. He is not concerned with drawing up plans or instituting programs, but with causing mentalities to alter—those of his students, those of the Shebikans, and, though (curiously) he doesn't explicitly say so, his own.

In this, he regards his micro-experiment as strikingly successful:

The five years that we spent in Shebika were, both for the villagers and for the researchers from the city, a truly phenomenological experience of change. That is, the fundamental mental categories by which each side had conceived of change, if they had conceived of it at all, underwent a modification directly as a result of the study. A project on change became…an example of change itself. For the phenomenologist, who argues that the conceptual reality that actors present is perhaps the most fundamental form of social life, this is a dramatic experience. A village which had lost…its collective identity, gradually became the subject of change and of a history, a history that lay mostly in the future.

One student, angered by the "irrationality" of local customs, finds himself drawn, simply because the villagers are so evasive about it, into an investigation of the local saint shrine, and though he doesn't find out very much about it, he does find out a great deal about why the villagers are so determined that he should not. Another, a girl, breaks under the strain of resisting her father's wish that she advance her education in Paris, as befits the daughter of a nationalist hero and high civil servant, instead of scrambling about in "this scorpion's nest." A third is paralyzed by the gap between what the villagers expect him to do for them and what he can do for them, which is essentially nothing.

On the village side, the disturbance is even more profound. A young girl, an orphan servant, dazzled by the example of the girls from Tunis, teaches herself to read and dreams of going away with the researchers; but, when she expresses the dream, the other women pronounce her deranged and crush her spirit. A picture essay on the village in a mass magazine, prepared by the team, finds its way back, giving the villagers their first look at themselves from outside and enlarging, rather beyond reality, their sense of their importance in the world. The men of the village, employed by the government to cut stone for what they think is the repair of their houses, stage a protest when they discover that they are cutting it for the construction of a building to lodge civil servants and gendarmes coming through on inspection tours. This was the first collective political action any of them can remember occurring in the village.

The students grew more "realistic," Duvignaud says, the village more "purposeful." The first threw off the technocratic optimism of the Tunis elite for a juster appreciation of the gap between political plans and social realities; the second was "called…out of a state of passive mediocrity and bitterness into a consciousness of its own existence…discovered its own identity, and…the expectation of change grew sharper and more impatient than ever." Thus, microscopically and tentatively, was begun the process of inner transformation that, generally and decisively, will have to occur if Tunisia is to become what it pretends to be, dynamic:

Shebika's latent dynamism is not to be doubted. On the contrary, its people have a greater capacity for creating new social structures and making practical adjustments to them than do the dwellers in the industrial suburbs of the cities. The expectation and frustration felt by the people of Shebika, and their dramatic display actually led to broad possibilities of creation…Shebika is a "social electron," which, if it is given the tools, can create a new situation quite on its own.

This is encouraging, but it all sounds, if one may say so, a bit American. It is a powerful picture, this bringing to earth of the children of privilege and stirring the life of a sleeping village; and the picture is sensitively and imaginatively drawn as Duvignaud searches through the fine details of events for the faintest traces of dynamism. But is it true? Are the changes real, the dynamism genuine? Or has sentiment born of commitment merely made it seem so? Interestingly, the film Ramparts of Clay suggests that Duvignaud himself may not be so sure. For the film, tracing over some of the same events, gives a picture not of inner dynamism and purposeful change, but of passing, quite ordinary tremors in a fundamentally immobilized society.

In the film, the presence of the researchers has disappeared altogether. Shebika is rendered as hermetic and self-absorbed. The orphan girl's rebellion, the stonecutters' protest, the disappearance of a lone salt digger in the mountains are presented imagistically—the old women spattering the girl's face with sheep blood; the stonecutters standing up after three days of soundless protest to reveal the corpses among them; the horse of the salt gatherer returning alone. They are mere occurrences in a basically steady flow of life, like those small whirls of dust that are always blowing up for a few seconds in the steppe and then, as suddenly, dissolving. The rhythm of the film is largo, the angle of vision external, as from the helicopter shown photographing the girl dissolving into the steppe as it rises out of Shebika in the final scene. Even the alteration of title suggests the reversal of emphasis on fixity and a closed-in quality from openness and change.

The film is beautifully done, greatly courageous in its determination to risk boring most people for the sake of informing a few. Nor is it, finally, so much a contradiction of the book from which it was developed as a part of it, a complement to it. Diary and tableau comprise, in a sense, a single work. This is one movie where you must also read the book, not only on the pain of mere incomprehension, because the film is made in a kind of pictorial shorthand, but because together they suggest, better than anything else I know, not only how difficult it is to understand North African society, but some of the paradoxes that understanding must contrive to contain.

For that society is both full of motion and also barely moving. And, willing as very few sociologists are to experiment with forms of representation, Duvignaud, powerfully aided by Bertuccelli, has managed, for all his limitations as a scholar, to make us see precisely this.


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