Abd el Kader at the Mucem: a colonial vision of the Emir

11 July, 2022
Paint­ing from the Actes Sud exhi­bi­tion cat­a­logue by Eugène Fro­mentin — Halte pr‘es d’Oran


This sum­mer’s major exhi­bi­tion at the Mucem in Mar­seille is devot­ed to Emir Abd el Kad­er, the great Alger­ian resis­tance fight­er against France’s colo­nial inva­sion. One might see this as a sign of progress in the recog­ni­tion of the ille­git­i­mate nature of the colo­nial enter­prise. This is not the case. Behind its for­mal beau­ty hides the same colo­nial vision of the “good” Alger­ian rebel, as opposed to the “bad fel­laghas” of 1954. The exhi­bi­tion is on view through August 22, 2022. For those who read French, the exhi­bi­tion cat­a­logue, pub­lished by Actes Sud, con­tains texts that are more crit­i­cal than the exhi­bi­tion itself.


Pierre Daum


Louis Jean Del­ton, por­trait Abd el-Kad­er on horse­back, 1865 (Archives nationales d’outre-mer, Aix-en-Provence © FR ANOM).

For its major sum­mer exhi­bi­tion, the Muse­um of Civ­i­liza­tions of Europe and the Mediter­ranean (Mucem) in Mar­seilles has cho­sen to present the life of Emir Abd el Kad­er (1808–1883), a great Alger­ian his­tor­i­cal fig­ure. This exhi­bi­tion, which opened in April, has received unan­i­mous praise from the press and var­i­ous commentators.

Con­struct­ed accord­ing to an effi­cient chrono­log­i­cal sequence, with paint­ings, swords and orig­i­nal man­u­scripts quite well dis­played, the exhi­bi­tion does not suf­fer from any for­mal imper­fec­tion. Sim­i­lar­ly, we can only praise the inten­tion of the Mucem to high­light an Alger­ian char­ac­ter as impor­tant but lit­tle known to the French, and con­sid­ered by the Alger­ian author­i­ties as one of the first heroes of resis­tance to French colonization.

How­ev­er, on clos­er inspec­tion, one is appalled to note that behind the mag­nif­i­cence of the pre­sen­ta­tion reap­pears, with­out any crit­i­cal per­spec­tive, the same nar­ra­tive of the “fierce fight­er who ends up sur­ren­der­ing and lov­ing France,” con­struct­ed by the col­o­niz­er as soon as Alge­ria was “paci­fied.”

A lit­tle his­tor­i­cal reminder: Born in a fam­i­ly of the Alger­ian marabout aris­toc­ra­cy in the west of the coun­try, near Mas­cara, Abd el Kad­er unit­ed sev­er­al tribes under his com­mand in 1832, and led a war of resis­tance for fif­teen years against the French invaders. He final­ly sur­ren­dered his arms in 1847 in exchange for the promise of free exile to the East with his family.

A few weeks lat­er, the French author­i­ties per­jured them­selves and impris­oned him and his fam­i­ly (about a hun­dred peo­ple) first in Pau, then in the cas­tle of Amboise. He remained there for four years, in very harsh con­di­tions (cold, humid­i­ty, mal­nu­tri­tion), before being released in the fall of 1852 by Pres­i­dent Louis-Napoleon Bona­parte, two months before the lat­ter pro­claimed him­self Emper­or of the French.

Emir Abd el Kad­er then went into exile in Turkey, then in Syr­ia, where he spent 28 years (from 1855 to 1883), before dying there, at the age of 74. In 1966, Pres­i­dent Boume­di­ene had his ash­es repa­tri­at­ed for a bur­ial with great pomp in the “mar­tyrs’ square” of the El Alia ceme­tery in Algiers.

The exhi­bi­tion at the Mucem does not in any way dimin­ish the vio­lence of the French army, even evok­ing the mas­sacres of Alger­ian civil­ians who were sup­port­ers of Abd el Kad­er dur­ing the “enfu­mades” car­ried out accord­ing to the “Bugeaud doc­trine” by gen­er­als Cavaignac and Pélissier in 1844 and 1845.

The French per­jury is wide­ly doc­u­ment­ed, as are the con­di­tions of life in Amboise: an archive tells us that of the 94 peo­ple mak­ing up the court of the Emir, 25 died there, includ­ing one of his wives and two of his chil­dren. Then comes the release of the unfor­tu­nate pris­on­er, after a short vis­it of Louis Bona­parte to Amboise.

A large paint­ing by François-Théophile-Eti­enne Gide, Les chefs arabes présen­tés au prince prési­dent (1852), appeared in the exhi­bi­tion, show­ing Abd el Kad­er kneel­ing before the mas­ter of France and humbly kiss­ing his hand. A text writ­ten by the cura­tors of the exhi­bi­tion explains that the Emir, rather than leav­ing imme­di­ate­ly for the Mid­dle East, decid­ed to go to Paris to thank the French prince for his mag­na­nim­i­ty. There is no oth­er expla­na­tion — as if it were nat­ur­al that this betrayed rebel leader, undu­ly impris­oned, who saw a quar­ter of his fam­i­ly and fol­low­ers die of hunger and dis­ease in the freez­ing rooms of the cas­tle of Amboise, whose thou­sands of fol­low­ers were “smoked” on the orders of the French gen­er­als, should decide to delay his instal­la­tion out­side the coun­try of his prison to come and humbly kiss the hand of the head of the ene­my state.

Was the Emir a vic­tim of a Stock­holm syn­drome before its time? Or was there a secret nego­ti­a­tion between him and Pres­i­dent Bona­parte in which, in exchange for his free­dom (and an annu­al pen­sion of 100,000 francs, we learn from a fac­sim­i­le of the Jour­nal illus­tré of 1852), he under­took to help the lat­ter to build up an image of pow­er and good­ness use­ful for his insti­tu­tion­al coup d’é­tat orga­nized two months lat­er — and in the cer­e­monies of which, fur­ther delay­ing his depar­ture, Abd el Kad­er was to participate?

The exhi­bi­tion does not ask any ques­tions, implic­it­ly adopt­ing the idea of the time that all Alge­ri­ans, espe­cial­ly if they were wise and intel­li­gent like the Emir, could not but rec­og­nize not only the mil­i­tary strength of France, but above all the pow­er of its val­ues of moder­ni­ty and humanism.

From then on, it is in this vein that the exhi­bi­tion continues.

We see Abd el Kad­er exchang­ing cor­re­spon­dence with sev­er­al great French minds, in which he express­es his admi­ra­tion for France, its peo­ple and its spir­it of moder­ni­ty. He made sev­er­al trips to Paris to par­tic­i­pate, as a dis­tin­guished guest, in the uni­ver­sal exhibitions.

The exhi­bi­tion cat­a­logue pub­lished by Actes Sud.

An entire room is devot­ed to his unwa­ver­ing sup­port for the project to build the Suez Canal by the French diplo­mat and entre­pre­neur Fer­di­nand de Lesseps, an emi­nent­ly colo­nial project designed to trans­port raw mate­ri­als from Indochi­na and India to Europe at low­er cost — yet the exhi­bi­tion says noth­ing about this, pre­fer­ring to report the Emir’s praise for a canal “link­ing the peo­ples of the East to those of the West.”

And above all, the Mucem shows us an Abd el Kad­er who is cer­tain­ly Mus­lim, even very pious and very prac­tic­ing, but Sufi — which means, in the West­ern imag­i­na­tion, a nice Mus­lim who is not at all aggres­sive. And more­over, he was vague­ly a Freema­son, a clear proof of his “tol­er­ance”!

The exhi­bi­tion con­cludes with the famous anti-Chris­t­ian riots of July 1860 in Dam­as­cus, where Abd el Kad­er would have inter­posed him­self at the risk of his life to save them. This episode is repeat­ed ad nau­se­am as soon as it is about Emir Abd el Kad­er (the exhi­bi­tion even makes him a “pre­cur­sor of human rights”), as if it were a pri­ori sur­pris­ing that a Mus­lim would want to save Chris­tians. On the oth­er hand, there is no men­tion of the reli­gion of the assailants, sug­gest­ing that they were Mus­lims, when in fact they were Druze, an eth­nic group whose Ismaili beliefs are far removed from Islam.

Almost a cen­tu­ry lat­er, in 1949, four years after the upris­ing in Sétif and Guel­ma and the sub­se­quent mas­sacres of Alge­ri­ans, the French gov­er­nor gen­er­al of Alge­ria erect­ed a large stele near Mas­cara in mem­o­ry of Abd el Kad­er. On the main face of the mon­u­ment is inscribed a phrase attrib­uted to the Emir:

“If Mus­lims and Chris­tians would lis­ten to me, I would put an end to their dif­fer­ences and they would become broth­ers inside and outside.”

This is a mag­nif­i­cent piece of pro­pa­gan­da, which emp­ties all polit­i­cal mean­ing from the protest against the colo­nial order inau­gu­rat­ed in Sétif, and which, instead of denounc­ing the crimes per­pe­trat­ed by France on the Alger­ian peo­ple over the last cen­tu­ry, pro­pos­es “the appease­ment of com­mu­ni­ties.” This stele does not appear any­where in the Mucem. And yet, under­stand­ably, it would have been wel­come there, so much does its quo­ta­tion reflect the Macron­ian state of mind at the ori­gin of the exhibition.

The Mucem is indeed a nation­al muse­um, inau­gu­rat­ed by Pres­i­dent François Hol­lande in 2013. The appoint­ment of its direc­tor is made by the Coun­cil of Min­is­ters, and the choice of its major exhi­bi­tions requires the approval of the Min­is­ter of Culture.

After inau­gu­rat­ing the erec­tion of a stele in homage to Abd el Kad­er in Amboise on Feb­ru­ary 5, 2022, the Élysée cit­ed the exhi­bi­tion at the Mucem in a press release dat­ed March 18 as part of the “truth­ful approach [of Pres­i­dent Emmanuel Macron] aimed at build­ing a com­mon and appeased mem­o­ry.” The next step will be the cre­ation of a “muse­um of the his­to­ry of France and Alge­ria,” which should open its doors in Mont­pel­li­er, the state­ment said.

A sci­en­tif­ic com­mit­tee has already been set up, led by Flo­rence Hudow­icz, cura­tor at the Fab­re Muse­um in Mont­pel­li­er, who hap­pens to be co-cura­tor of the Abd el Kad­er exhi­bi­tion at the Mucem. In 2003, a first project for a “Muse­um of France in Alge­ria” was launched in Mont­pel­li­er by Georges Frêche, the city’s sul­phurous for­mer may­or. In the words of the may­or, this muse­um was intend­ed to “pay trib­ute to what the French did there.” After a first res­ig­na­tion of the sci­en­tif­ic com­mit­tee, shocked to be insult­ed by Mr. Frêche (“I dont give a shit about the com­ments of ass­hole aca­d­e­mics, well whis­tle at them when we ask for them!), the may­or had asked Flo­rence Hudow­icz to try to relaunch the project. Then he died, his suc­ces­sor took up the torch, and a new sci­en­tif­ic com­mit­tee was formed, still under the direc­tion of Ms. Hudowicz.

In 2014 came a change of may­or and the project was abrupt­ly aban­doned. Today, it reap­pears at the heart of Emmanuel Macron’s memo­r­i­al pol­i­cy, sup­pos­ed­ly in a rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent spir­it, accord­ing to the few ele­ments gath­ered here and there. If we look close­ly at the exhi­bi­tion at the Mucem, we have every rea­son to doubt this.


* A small­er exhi­bi­tion devot­ed to Abd el Kad­er, L’Emir Abd el-Kad­er, un homme, un des­tin, un mes­sage, is on view in Mont­pel­li­er at L’Art Est Pub­lic, through July 31, 2022.



This col­umn first appeared in French in Pierre Daum’s Medi­a­part blog, and is trans­lat­ed here by Jor­dan Elgrably.

Abd El-KaderAlgeriaAlgierscolonizationFranceMacronMarseilleMontpellier

Pierre Daum is a French journalist who has written at length on France's colonial past. His reporting has appeared in Le Monde, L'Express, Libération, Le Monde Diplomatique and other dailies. He is the author of several books, among them Immigrés de force, les travailleurs indochinois en France (1939-1952) from Actes Sud, as well as Ni valise ni cercueil, les Pieds-noirs restés en Algérie après l'indépendance, also published by Actes Sud. 


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