French Colonialism in Algeria and Ferrandez’s “Carnets d’Orient”

15 August, 2021

djemilah cover large jacque ferrandez.jpg

Amber Sackett

Pri­or to the 1986 release of Jacques Ferrandez’s pop­u­lar series Car­nets d’Orient, French graph­ic nov­els large­ly avoid­ed the sub­ject of the Alger­ian War. Pub­lished from 1986–2009, Car­nets d’Orient con­sists of 10 vol­umes span­ning a peri­od from the begin­ning of French occu­pa­tion in 1836 to the end of the Alger­ian War of Inde­pen­dence in 1962. Attempt­ing to show­case French colo­nial­ism in Alge­ria through a polit­i­cal­ly neu­tral per­spec­tive, each work cen­ters around diverse char­ac­ters from var­i­ous eth­nic­i­ties, ages, reli­gious back­grounds, and social class.

Ferrandez’s his­tor­i­cal fres­co was immense­ly pop­u­lar amongst the gen­er­al pub­lic, and the fifth and sixth vol­umes were award­ed pres­ti­gious lit­er­ary prizes in France and Cana­da for their exten­sive his­tor­i­cal research and inte­gra­tion of archival doc­u­ments. The series even gained polit­i­cal recog­ni­tion in 2012 as the cen­ter­piece and guid­ing nar­ra­tive for the spe­cial exhib­it, “Algérie 1830-1962 with Jacques Fer­ran­dez, 130 years of French mil­i­tary pres­ence in Alge­ria,” held at Paris’s Musée de l’Armée.

Notwith­stand­ing this pos­i­tive recep­tion from the pub­lic, French lit­er­ary crit­ics, and the Army Muse­um, some schol­ars have sug­gest­ed that Ferrandez’s 10-vol­ume mas­ter­piece nonethe­less per­pet­u­ates ori­en­tal­ist stereo­types and colo­nial nos­tal­gia. Crit­i­cal schol­ar­ship on Car­nets d’Orient has, until now, left impor­tant issues of colo­nial land devel­op­ment poli­cies un-inter­ro­gat­ed. Using eco­crit­i­cism as an inter­pre­ta­tive frame­work — which allows us to train our focus on rep­re­sen­ta­tions of food and agri­cul­tur­al pol­i­cy — opens up new under­stand­ings of the series and com­pli­cates some of the more mono­lith­ic inter­pre­ta­tions of the graph­ic nov­els as works of nostalgia.

Cen­tral to vol­umes 1–3, the themes of land own­er­ship, crop devel­op­ment, and food secu­ri­ty mer­it fur­ther exam­i­na­tion because Car­nets d’Orient tends to white­wash ear­ly set­tler colo­nial­ism, a peri­od which ulti­mate­ly dis­rupt­ed the agrar­i­an foun­da­tion of the Alger­ian econ­o­my and had immea­sur­able long-last­ing effects on Alger­ian soci­ety. The first vol­ume, Djemi­lah (1994), depicts ear­ly French colo­nial oper­a­tions in Alge­ria in 1853 through the eyes of Joseph, a fic­tion­al French painter. Like some painters of his time, Joseph trav­els to North Africa to immerse him­self in Alger­ian cul­ture, in order to paint authen­tic scener­ies. Djemi­lah takes place “dur­ing the era of ‘qui­et impe­ri­al­ism’ (1815–1882), marked by Europe’s indus­tri­al eco­nom­ic growth, with export­ing grain and viti­cul­ture being one of the most prof­itable indus­tries in Alge­ria” (Nay­lor).

A scene from Djemilah in which a French officer forces an Algerian servant boy to drink wine against his will and Muslim tradition.
A scene from Djemi­lah in which a French offi­cer forces an Alger­ian ser­vant boy to drink wine against his will and Mus­lim tradition.

While there are many notable moments address­ing agri­cul­tur­al devel­op­ment in Djemi­lah, one series of images in this graph­ic nov­el clear­ly depicts the French colo­nial agri­cul­tur­al system’s spe­cif­ic social and eth­i­cal impli­ca­tions. In this par­tic­u­lar scene we find Joseph and his pied-noir friend Mario attend­ing a cock­tail par­ty host­ed by a French mil­i­tary offi­cer in Alger (fig­ure 1). Joseph is privy to a con­ver­sa­tion between the offi­cer and a French woman on the sub­ject of Alge­ri­ans refrain­ing from wine con­sump­tion (fig­ure 5). The French offi­cer com­mands a near­by Alger­ian ser­vant to toast to his good health, dis­re­gard­ing the fact that he is mere­ly a child. With­out any room for objec­tion, the French offi­cer forces two glass­es of wine down the servant’s throat to hon­or the General’s health and that of the French Gov­er­nor. Ingest­ing two glass­es of wine caus­es the young ser­vant to vom­it imme­di­ate­ly while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly shat­ter­ing sev­er­al wine glass­es as his serv­ing tray falls to the ground. The room erupts into laugh­ter at the expense of the servant’s humiliation.

Of course, the var­i­ous types of colo­nial vio­lence woven into this image sequence would mer­it fur­ther dis­cus­sion. How­ev­er, atten­tion to the agri­cul­tur­al ele­ments present in this scene will fur­ther con­tex­tu­al­ize the effects of French colo­nial­ism. While the pow­er imbal­ance and vio­lence between the gen­er­al and the Alger­ian boy are obvi­ous, less evi­dent to the casu­al read­er are the sub­tle ref­er­ences to colo­nial agri­cul­tur­al pol­i­cy. Before land­ing on Alger­ian shores, French devel­op­ers were aware that ancient Rome had cul­ti­vat­ed vine­yards across the Mediter­ranean coast. The investors also knew that these vine­yards would be in var­i­ous states of dis­ar­ray since the arrival of Mus­lim invaders from the Ara­bi­an Penin­su­la in the mid-7th cen­tu­ry. The plan to res­ur­rect and plant new vine­yards became urgent in the ear­ly 19th cen­tu­ry due to a blight cri­sis affect­ing Euro­pean vine­yards. Once it became clear that the dis­ease affect­ing Euro­pean vine­yards wouldn’t impact Alger­ian crops, the French colo­nial admin­is­tra­tion and pri­vate investors respond­ed to mar­ket demand by trans­form­ing Alge­ria into one of the largest pro­duc­ers of wine in the 19th cen­tu­ry (Amin 100). In order to accom­plish their lofty goal of mak­ing wine Algeria’s prin­ci­pal export, French devel­op­ers seized Alger­ian lands his­tor­i­cal­ly des­ig­nat­ed for grain bear­ing and trans­formed them into mas­sive vine­yards devot­ed to the pro­duc­tion of wine grapes, thus replac­ing exist­ing food sources with viti­cul­ture des­tined for export, fur­ther cre­at­ing “a land where hunger chron­i­cal­ly haunt­ed the col­o­nized” (Nay­lor 156). Although Djemi­lah doesn’t explic­it­ly depict mal­nour­ished Alge­ri­ans, the act of force-feed­ing a young boy wine sym­bol­izes the forced dietary changes in local Alger­ian com­mu­ni­ties at the expense of cap­i­tal­ist farming.

Wine is obvi­ous­ly an essen­tial aspect of French gas­tron­o­my and is a foun­da­tion­al ele­ment of French cul­tur­al iden­ti­ty. In oth­er words, wine sym­bol­izes France. The above-men­tioned scene in Djemi­lah shows French set­tlers dis­re­gard­ing the Alger­ian child’s Mus­lim cus­toms and impos­ing their own cul­tur­al prac­tices with­out con­sid­er­ing that his reli­gion con­sid­ers alco­hol to be a for­bid­den sub­stance. In this moment of the nov­el, Alge­ri­ans’ reli­gious beliefs and basic needs are not a con­cern because Alge­ria func­tioned as a resource to increase the metropole’s wealth, reaf­firm France’s strong rep­u­ta­tion in Europe, and secure eco­nom­ic con­trol. The depic­tion of forced wine con­sump­tion illu­mi­nates more broad­ly the per­ni­cious real­i­ty of la mis­sion civil­isatrice, because “Viti­cul­ture sym­bol­ized the sever­i­ty of colo­nial­ism upon the col­o­nized. The phys­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion of the land was also a cul­tur­al affront, giv­en Islam’s pro­scrip­tion of alco­hol” (Nay­lor 156). Vom­it­ing wine metonymi­cal­ly func­tions as a phys­i­cal rejec­tion of the cul­ture that French insti­tu­tions forced onto Alge­ri­ans. The young Alger­ian chok­ing vio­lent­ly illu­mi­nates the colo­nial admin­is­tra­tion weaponiz­ing wine — and, ulti­mate­ly, French cul­ture — to deprive this Alger­ian of food sources and com­pro­mise his reli­gious beliefs. Read­ing Ferrandez’s scene cen­tered around mil­i­tary vio­lence through a food and land-cen­tered per­spec­tive iron­i­cal­ly con­tra­dicts the very insti­tu­tion pro­claim­ing the series’ neutrality.

The sec­ond image we’ll exam­ine here speaks direct­ly to the grandiose notion that Alge­ria pos­sessed a boun­ty of unused land at her dis­pos­al, and that only France could mold Alger­ian land to its high­est poten­tial. In this scene, an Alger­ian fan­ta­sia ambush­es Joseph and his trav­el­ing escorts. As the French army com­bats the fan­ta­sia, Joseph and the mil­i­tary offi­cer (known only as le Maréchal) observe their sur­round­ings while remain­ing unharmed and out­side the battle’s thresh­old. Le Maréchal informs Joseph of his future plans, ges­tur­ing to the land around them: “Look at these fer­tile hills! I will send 5 or 6,000 French farm­ers to cul­ti­vate all this [land]!” (fig­ure 4). Notwith­stand­ing the fact that the illus­tra­tion implies arid­i­ty and des­o­la­tion, the fer­tile hills ref­er­enced are cru­cial resources for Alger­ian herd­ing com­mu­ni­ties and the exist­ing trade-econ­o­my. Acqui­si­tions such as those attrib­uted to the fic­tion­al Maréchal would go on to dis­rupt the foun­da­tion of the Alger­ian econ­o­my and have immea­sur­able long-last­ing effects on Alger­ian soci­ety. Pri­vate investors and the French gov­ern­ment used duplic­i­tous lan­guage and under­hand­ed tac­tics to deny tribes access to their most fer­tile lands, and ulti­mate­ly erod­ed the exist­ing mul­ti-net­work trade-based econ­o­my (Ben­noune). This ero­sion hap­pened through the dis­place­ment of Alger­ian com­mu­ni­ties from their ter­ri­to­ries and con­fis­cat­ing their most cul­ti­vat­able lands, con­se­quen­tial­ly lead­ing to dire food short­ages and star­va­tion (Nay­lor 155). In sum, the Alger­ian eco­nom­ic net­work would begin to col­lapse due to the seizure of graz­ing land nec­es­sary to pro­duce wool and livestock.

Bear­ing in mind that ear­ly writ­ers in colo­nial Alge­ria “tend­ed to exag­ger­ate the polit­i­cal frag­men­ta­tion of pre-colo­nial Alge­ria in order to prove that the coun­try had ‘nev­er formed a nation” as a way to jus­ti­fy French occu­pa­tion and con­trol of nat­ur­al resources, it fol­lows that por­tray­ing an under­de­vel­oped agri­cul­tur­al net­work plays a prin­ci­pal role in craft­ing the nev­er formed nation myth (Ben­noune 18). Of course, lands were nev­er tru­ly vacant upon French arrival. Whether the land appeared to be in use or not, every bit of Alger­ian soil was on some lev­el claimed by some­one as belong­ing to their ter­ri­to­ry. There­fore, any French land acqui­si­tion had to be at the expense of some­one home or food sup­ply (Halvors­en). Thus, Djemi­lah again cri­tiques la mis­sion civil­isatrice pil­lar of the colo­nial nar­ra­tive through the fic­tion­al le Maréchal’s cap­i­tal­ist endeavors.

If we sit­u­ate sim­i­lar illus­tra­tions con­tex­tu­al­iz­ing food sys­tems and colo­nial agri­cul­tur­al prac­tices into the broad­er con­text of the graph­ic nov­el, it becomes clear just how eas­i­ly read­ers can over­look them due to their indi­rect rela­tion­ship to Joseph’s char­ac­ter arc. Appear­ing as seem­ing­ly super­flu­ous ele­ments in Djemi­lah, such as off­hand com­ments in casu­al con­ver­sa­tion, objects in the back­ground, or an item of con­sump­tion, each moment com­pli­cates the dia­logue around French colo­nial­ism in Alge­ria — whether it be artis­tic depic­tions of their land, writ­ten and oral descrip­tions relat­ed to land, or finan­cial hard­ship due to destroyed local economies. Despite nev­er being ful­ly artic­u­lat­ed in the series, the devel­op­men­tal endeav­ors allud­ed to in Djemi­lah leave an incom­plete yet aes­thet­i­cal­ly beau­ti­ful rep­re­sen­ta­tion of French colo­nial­ism. The graph­ic nov­el genre, known for being inex­pen­sive and wide­ly cir­cu­lat­ed, ensures that Ferrandez’s colo­nial nos­tal­gia reach­es the broad­est pos­si­ble audi­ence. Adopt­ing a post­colo­nial lens influ­enced by crit­i­cal envi­ron­men­tal stud­ies cen­ter­ing around food and agri­cul­ture reframes rep­re­sen­ta­tions of prop­er­ty acqui­si­tion and farm­ing devel­op­ment that com­pli­cate the series’ pro­claimed neu­tral­i­ty, thus uproot­ing colo­nial lega­cies that con­tin­ue to influ­ence envi­ron­men­tal poli­cies and pro­duc­tion meth­ods relat­ed to farm­ing, vine­yards, and land own­er­ship in North Africa.

In a sim­i­lar vein to Tin Tin in the Con­go (1956) and oth­er comix used for teach­ing France about their exot­ic colonies, Car­nets d’Orient delights read­ers with ink sketch­es, chalk draw­ings, water­col­or paint­ings, and authen­tic colo­nial pho­tographs. In effect, these real­is­tic illus­tra­tions impress upon read­ers a false sense of authen­tic­i­ty regard­ing French-Alger­ian colo­nial rela­tions. If we con­sid­er Alger­ian advo­ca­cy groups’ wide­spread crit­i­cism of Ben­jamin Stora’s recent report detail­ing the mem­o­ry of col­o­niza­tion and the Alger­ian war (pre­sent­ed to French Pres­i­dent Emmanuel Macron in Jan­u­ary 2021), it becomes clear that per­cep­tions of the colo­nial peri­od lack uni­fi­ca­tion and sta­bil­i­ty. Giv­en this ongo­ing polit­i­cal and social ten­sion con­cern­ing Euro­cen­tric nar­ra­tives, Car­net d’Orient’s enor­mous pop­u­lar­i­ty and pres­ti­gious acco­lades raise con­cerns over how deeply colo­nial nar­ra­tives are root­ed in cul­tur­al pro­duc­tions. There­fore, reex­am­in­ing this graph­ic nov­el series with the goal of mak­ing vis­i­ble its rep­re­sen­ta­tion of exploita­tive land and agri­cul­tur­al pol­i­cy is an impor­tant crit­i­cal ges­ture, one that con­tributes to the broad­er project of ques­tion­ing exist­ing nar­ra­tives and refram­ing Alger­ian his­to­ry around Alger­ian voic­es. This type of eco­crit­i­cal research might even prove to be a cru­cial tool in con­ver­sa­tions around pos­si­ble repa­ra­tions to Algerians.

Works Cit­ed 

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