Zoulikha, Forgotten Freedom Fighter of the Algerian War

15 October, 2022


Fouad Mami


I first encoun­tered Zoulikha bent al-Chaib as a char­ac­ter in Assia Dje­bar’s La femme sans sépul­ture (The Woman With­out a Sepul­ture, 2002). There, I learned that Zoulikha bent al-Chaib or Zoulikha al-Chaib (1916–1957) was not an entire­ly fic­tion­al cre­ation. Zoulikha was the nom de guerre of the for­got­ten hero­ine, Yam­i­na Oudaï.

 Dje­bar was inspired to write a biog­ra­phy of a woman with this exact name, the one who had embod­ied insur­rec­tionary activism dur­ing Algeria’s War of Inde­pen­dence (1954–1962). Her sto­ry and strug­gles, like that of many oth­er mar­tyrs and mil­i­tants, con­tra­dict the post­colo­nial and tri­umphal­ist nar­ra­tive where­in Alge­ri­ans have been thrilled to sim­ply oust the colo­nial order and replace it with a nation­al­ist one. The gist of this establishment’s expla­na­tion of decol­o­niza­tion amounts to replac­ing the colo­nial order no mat­ter what; that is, a for­mal rein­state­ment of the colo­nial arrange­ment with a nation­al­ist one, with lit­tle or no qual­i­ta­tive change in sub­stance. Below, I try to explain the prob­lem with the rein­state­ment of colo­nial­ism in nation­al­ism. Those who suf­fered the brunt of colo­nial exploita­tion and mis­ery did not fight to oust flags or deodor­ize what is inevitably an incor­ri­gi­ble order of things. Nor did they put their lives on the line to sim­ply build bazaars, shop­ping malls, and impos­si­bly over­priced upscale hous­ing projects!

The char­ac­ter of Zoulikha, both the his­tor­i­cal fig­ure and fic­tion­al char­ac­ter, tes­ti­fies how Alge­ri­ans did not risk it all to mere­ly replace Jacque Soustelle (the last gov­er­nor-gen­er­al in the colo­nial sys­tem) with Ahmed Ben­bel­la (the first pres­i­dent of the inde­pen­dent nation). Zoulikha stands, I argue here, for a mir­ror­ing prin­ci­ple that induces a social cor­rec­tive. Her life chal­lenges and choic­es do spec­i­fy pre­cise­ly our des­tiny as Alge­ri­ans and Maghrébins (peo­ples of the Maghreb), where we val­ue qual­i­ta­tive rela­tions and liv­ing. Zoulikha lived in local­i­ties bor­der­ing on both Had­jout (ex-Maren­go) west of Bli­da and Cherchell (ex-Césarée) west of sea­side Tipaza. With a high school edu­ca­tion in Bli­da dur­ing the 1930s, she was very well-edu­cat­ed, a rare but for­tu­nate excep­tion dur­ing colo­nial times. Zoulikha could have eas­i­ly avoid­ed trou­bles with the colo­nial author­i­ties and led a pas­sive but boun­ti­ful life. Her father was among the few remain­ing local nota­bles of his times, with prop­er­ty, edu­ca­tion, and social posi­tion that could eas­i­ly lend his daugh­ter a mid­dle class, if not, bour­geois exis­tence. She mar­ried thrice, but only her third union was out of love. She divorced her first two hus­bands, a dar­ing pro­ce­dure that illus­trates her force­ful char­ac­ter. The first hus­band was too old, and the sec­ond was too assim­i­lat­ed and open­ly col­lab­o­rat­ed with the French admin­is­tra­tion. She left him at a cost of nev­er see­ing her child again. Her third love and union was an inspi­ra­tion for her, as it facil­i­tat­ed her deci­sion to join the nation­al­is­tic cause.

In each step she takes, we read (in Djebar’s telling), her father was sup­port­ive of her deci­sion. Plen­ty of unchecked details are attrib­uted to her and can be found on Face­book. My essay does not regur­gi­tate on that which is imme­di­ate­ly acces­si­ble with either the nov­el or the pho­to. Instead, the essay accel­er­ates the find­ings in both to con­struct a pic­ture of a mil­i­tan­t’s world­view, the one that is at odds with large­ly alien­at­ing and destruc­tive choic­es irre­spec­tive of the per­pe­tra­tor’s identity. 

Dje­bar knew Zoulikha’s daugh­ters in per­son, as Dje­bar painstak­ing­ly details in the ear­ly part of the book. Zoulikha’s three daugh­ters were Djebar’s neigh­bors in Cherchell and, impor­tant­ly, were in her age group. More­over, the daugh­ters were the ones who invit­ed the author over to write their mother’s biog­ra­phy when Dje­bar came to set­tle for good in Alge­ria in 1976. The nov­el is part nov­el, part biog­ra­phy. And I think that Dje­bar pub­lished the book in 2002 in the spir­it of mir­ror­ing Zoulikha’s strug­gles and choic­es against ram­pant devel­op­ment. By then, the Alger­ian estab­lish­ment enact­ed a pol­i­cy that Dje­bar, like many, found to be adrift from the social­ist lean­ings that inhib­it­ed full-scale cap­i­tal­ism in the ear­ly decades since independence.

Zoulikha bent al-Chaib, pris­on­er of the French colo­nial forces in Alge­ria, 1957.

In the pho­to, she is calm, almost serene. Her pen­e­trat­ing gaze spec­i­fies that she does not shud­der before what inevitably awaits her, the peel­ing off of her skin. Close­ly con­sid­ered, she is joy­ous. Giv­en the cur­rent predilec­tion for joy­ful liv­ing no mat­ter what, con­tem­po­rary view­ers look­ing at this pho­to find that joy is the last thing on Zoulikha’s mind. Fear, even ter­ror, comes imme­di­ate­ly to mind as the first sen­ti­ment that assumed­ly defines Zoulikha and her cir­cum­stances of deten­tion, inter­ro­ga­tion, tor­ture, and even­tu­al­ly phys­i­cal liq­ui­da­tion. The moment one reg­is­ters the photo’s impli­ca­tion, there comes pity for the mar­tyr­dom that was her des­tiny. The com­man­do in the back­ground savors his cig­a­rette before what is like­ly to be yet anoth­er tor­ture ses­sion, per­haps her last. She is a high-pro­file cap­tive. That explains why she is chained into the mil­i­tary truck and there­fore pity reads as prob­a­bly the most appro­pri­ate sen­sa­tion with which to approach some­one in these circumstances.

Nev­er­the­less, pity under­lines a gap in the present sen­sa­tion. Zoulikha as shown through her deter­mined look does not only solic­it pity and emits no signs of regret for her insur­gent deeds. The gap between our expe­ri­ence of her fate and her actu­al des­tiny uncov­ers the pro­jec­tion of our Hol­ly­wood-infect­ed sense of pathos, ethos, and logos. What we pre­sume as the lack of appar­ent sen­sa­tion in her fea­tures under­lines a dis­tance from nar­cis­sis­tic exis­tence, indi­cat­ing that what we prize is any­thing but per­verse. Nev­er­the­less, the pho­to is haunt­ing because Zoulikha con­tra­dicts all these expec­ta­tions. She is final­ly at home: peace­ful, and even serene. She embraces her end­ing with resilience. Indul­gent and anes­thetized audi­ences, liv­ing in the post-truth world, can­not com­pre­hend Zoulikha’s exact state of being.

The key to reg­is­ter­ing Zoulikha’s wealth of being, her inner world as dis­played in the pho­to, is to acknowl­edge before­hand that she does not share at all our own con­tem­po­rary frame of ref­er­ence, where the cap­i­tal­is­tic onslaught on inner space is com­plete. Dif­fer­ent­ly put, had she been alive now, she would not post pho­tos of her­self on Face­book, or at least, not so eas­i­ly as we do. She would want to leave inti­mate mem­o­ries a pri­vate affair, and not share them with the out­side world. Why? She under­stands enjoy­ment to be inher­ent­ly a growth of being, a flour­ish­ing, and a surge toward becom­ing one­self. We now fail (mis­er­ably per­haps) to reg­is­ter that the pub­lic gaze is the antipode to cap­tur­ing that qual­i­ta­tive growth and surge. Enjoy­ment, not seek­ing a joy­ful exis­tence even if the world is hit­ting rock bot­tom, incar­nates her essence, pre­cise­ly that which tru­ly mat­ters not, what super­fi­cial real­i­ty deems of value.

Con­trary to pos­i­tivist think­ing or Zen prac­tices, Zoulikha’s delight seizes on the insight that sub­mis­sion insti­gates depres­sion, the oppo­site of enjoy­ment. In oth­er words, part of authen­ti­cal­ly expe­ri­enc­ing my inner thrill, Zoulikha rea­sons, is to rise against sub­mis­sion, to be angry, and fight the caus­es that upset that thrill. That is, my enjoy­ment is expressed ful­ly when I stop apply­ing make­up to the unfor­tu­nate cir­cum­stances around me, when I am active­ly address­ing the caus­es of anger or unhap­pi­ness, not under­tak­ing to ter­mi­nate that which only trig­gers anger or mis­ery. Again, Zoulikha’s true grat­i­fi­ca­tion can­not man­i­fest with­out engag­ing her defense arse­nal so that she can lit­er­al­ly fight, less because she derives a cer­tain plea­sure from the act of fight­ing than sim­ply because fight­ing is pre­cise­ly her last resort to restore a chal­lenged enjoy­ment, her bal­ance, and the state of her authen­tic being in the world. 

To cap­ture the depth of the dif­fer­ence between enjoy­ment and joy­ful life, one needs to under­line that enjoy­ment is not an object or even a state of mind that can be attained out­side space and time, the way yoga, for instance, is said to work. Instead, enjoy­ment is a social rela­tion. Zoulikha artic­u­lates her­self by advanc­ing:  I want to live and I want to be hap­py, but not nar­cis­sis­ti­cal­ly hap­py. Nar­cis­sis­tic hap­pi­ness spec­i­fies how I want to live and I want to be cheer­ful, irre­spec­tive of the mis­ery around me.

La femme sans sépul­ture, Assia Djebar.

Zoulikha want­ed to be hap­py and enjoy liv­ing by rig­or­ous­ly seek­ing to reverse the mis­ery of the world around her. Oth­er than an eco­nom­ic or geopo­lit­i­cal deter­rent that only upsets or just dis­fig­ures her joy, the colo­nial sit­u­a­tion marks a log­i­cal impos­si­bil­i­ty for rev­el­ing in her exis­tence; that is, for access­ing that thresh­old with­out which her life would be mis­er­able and not worth liv­ing. Zoulikha joined the moun­tain fight­ers (or le maquis — note how the French equiv­a­lent has keen over­tones with elder­ly Alge­ri­ans, a sign of chang­ing times!), because in her cir­cum­stances only the way of the moun­tain, or incen­di­ary anger, promis­es to recon­nect her with her life, the cord that keeps vibra­tion alive, and the promise for restor­ing pre­cise­ly one’s enjoy­ment. The way of the moun­tain for Zoulikha, and con­trary to per­sis­tent but erro­neous per­cep­tions, is not an ide­o­log­i­cal choice. Zoulikha’s strug­gle is onto­log­i­cal, not ide­o­log­i­cal, a dis­tinc­tion that brings the dis­cus­sion (here below) to more than just polit­i­cal pow­er and the reign of FLN (Front de lib­er­a­tion nationale or the rul­ing par­ty) after the demise of French colonialism.

Before broach­ing exam­ples that show­case present defor­mi­ties in Alge­ria, let me try one final time to explain what I see in the pho­to. Zoulikha aimed at qual­i­ta­tive affini­ties with her kids and loved ones, nev­er just quan­ti­ta­tive rela­tions. The dis­play of mater­nal affec­tion, the crack­ing of jokes along with sin­cere laugh­ter and true joy — all sug­gest that Zoulikha can become extreme­ly angry. Dialec­ti­cal­ly posi­tioned, anger in her case (and con­trary to ours) has no auton­o­my of its own. Con­tem­po­rary Alge­ri­ans are noto­ri­ous­ly defined by their irra­tional anger. Zoulikha’s anger, how­ev­er, can­not be a time­less mark of char­ac­ter. In cir­cum­stances where colo­nial­ism is viewed as an injus­tice, an affront to the order of being and things, Zoulikha deems it too odd not to be angry. She real­izes she is gov­erned by a struc­ture that ends in the crash­ing of her spir­it no mat­ter how Zen she tries to stay. There­fore, she becomes furi­ous. Lest she allow that imma­nent struc­ture set by colo­nial­ism (a gross injus­tice) to stran­gle her, she strug­gles to alter these unto­ward cir­cum­stances. She strug­gles less because some­one tells her she has to, and more because she has extin­guished all options to kill death and resist that force oth­er­wise. Resist­ing death to the point of mar­shal­ing the courage to active­ly seek its killing under­lines a vibrant life. 

Dje­bar minute­ly details all those “less moth­er­ly, less wom­an­ly” pos­si­bil­i­ties before Zoulikha jumps into what we reg­is­ter as “out­landish” choic­es. We dis­cov­er near the end of the nov­el that Zoulikha’s choic­es, those we tagged as being “unmoth­er­ly,” out­landish or unusu­al are so only in our present, that is, alien­at­ed exis­tence. The moment we start mea­sur­ing qual­i­ta­tive liv­ing, a thresh­old is crossed, and we cease find­ing Zoulikha’s choic­es odd or outlandish.

Pq With Zoulikha, one pre­cise­ly finds no trace of nar­cis­sis­tic courage. Instead, one finds her burst­ing with his­tor­i­cal courage. Her logos under­lines my people’s col­lec­tive resolve to jump in into his­to­ry, reverse enslave­ment, and mount a revolution.

The nov­el is an exer­cise in read­ing. Its mes­sage does not thrive on rep­re­sen­ta­tion but on emit­ting vibra­tion, a rad­i­cal­ly sub­ver­sive par­a­digm in writ­ing. Approach­es that deploy post­colo­nial read­ing to grap­ple with Zoulikha’s inner world do not even begin to approx­i­mate the idea behind that par­a­digm, let alone do jus­tice to the char­ac­ter and the woman behind that character.

In a series of arrest­ing scenes and before falling a pris­on­er of war to French para­troop­ers, their tor­ture (includ­ing rape), and push off from a heli­copter, the rev­o­lu­tion­ary Zoulikha embraces one of her daugh­ters (Mina, diminu­tion of Ami­na) while ful­ly aware that she is no longer among the liv­ing. Read­ers can­not miss how Zoulikha’s mas­tery of detach­ment or what Slavoj Žižek qual­i­fies as “the pre­emp­tive self-exclu­sion from the domain of the liv­ing” is rarely paired. We read how Zoulikha is men­tal­ly clear and, impor­tant­ly, at peace with the fact that she is an atyp­i­cal moth­er; she has no qualms regard­ing her insur­rec­tion­al choic­es and how such choic­es close on her rela­tion­ship with her loved ones includ­ing her tod­dler. For under colo­nial occu­pa­tion she under­stands she can­not pre­tend to over­look the imma­nent struc­ture effus­ing injus­tice and focus sole­ly on the domes­tic. Like­wise, read­ers can­not over­look how Zoulikha for two years had left her lit­tle chil­dren unpar­ent­ed while she had been in the moun­tains pro­mul­gat­ing rev­o­lu­tion­ary corps. 

So far, this read­ing has zoomed on the logos (or the col­lec­tive con­scious­ness) of the col­o­nized pop­u­la­tion, less to cel­e­brate the role of Zoulikha as a woman and more to under­line the human­ist dimen­sion in that excep­tion­al woman as she incar­nates her people’s syn­the­sis for eman­ci­pa­to­ry action. It is that eman­ci­pa­tion that I find large­ly impaired now, six­ty years after for­mal inde­pen­dence. With Zoulikha, one pre­cise­ly finds no trace of nar­cis­sis­tic courage. Instead, one finds her burst­ing with his­tor­i­cal courage. Her logos under­lines my people’s col­lec­tive resolve to jump in into his­to­ry, reverse enslave­ment, and mount a rev­o­lu­tion. It is a col­lec­tive cross­ing from a pas­sive thresh­old of con­scious­ness to an active one, where­upon a his­tor­i­cal sub­ject reg­is­ters his or her per­ma­nent move­ment toward eman­ci­pa­tion. Acquir­ing the cer­ti­tude of her­self is the under­stand­ing that Zoulikha’s sin­gu­lar­i­ty finds its rai­son d’être only in the his­tor­i­cal motion that cel­e­brates her becom­ing one with the world, a uni­ver­sal sub­ject, despite geog­ra­phy, lan­guage, reli­gion, or cul­ture. Rev­o­lu­tion — she finds — is noth­ing but the individual’s return to ori­gins, to a desali­nat­ed exis­tence. When risk­ing her life and active­ly antic­i­pat­ing the desali­nat­ed world, Zoulikha can­not help but expe­ri­ence joy. The lat­ter crys­tal­lizes the inten­si­ty and deter­mi­na­tion for free­dom includ­ing the free­dom from free­dom as defined by the post­colo­nial order.

In Alger­ian par­lance, dis­grun­tled peo­ple always ask what would true rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies, les vrais maquis­ards (both liv­ing and dead) — those who fought dur­ing the war of inde­pen­dence against colo­nial troops — think today of their sac­ri­fices when they note the bru­tal cap­i­tal­is­tic poli­cies and prac­tices, almost delir­i­ums, of the post­colo­nial order? Delir­i­um is nei­ther a rhetor­i­cal nor par­a­bol­ic approximation.

Still won­der­ing why Zoulikha? And why now? Zoulikha stands as the true mea­sure that qual­i­ta­tive­ly weighs our choic­es. The dif­fer­en­tial between hers and ours cap­tures whether for­mal inde­pen­dence only was worth the trou­ble. Why now? Because her sto­ry does not cor­re­spond to cap­i­tal­is­tic cast­ings as spear­head­ed by the FLN. Hence, the neces­si­ty to won­der what would true maquis­ards think of the entire frame­work of inde­pen­dence and its sick propul­sion end­ing in bazaars, shop­ping malls, and res­i­den­tial areas exclu­sive­ly devel­oped for the filthy rich — all amidst mas­sive pover­ty, youth unem­ploy­ment, and sav­age liv­ing standards.

If there is one les­son to glean from Zoulikha’s sto­ry, it is how the post­colo­nial pol­i­cy­mak­er should avoid grant­i­ng per­mis­sions for upscale and posh res­i­dences. With their exclu­sive pri­vate edu­ca­tion cater­ing to the nou­veau rich, these res­i­dences are time bombs. Irre­spec­tive of how the local media will­ing­ly avoids cov­er­ing the issue, let alone gaug­ing its grave impli­ca­tions, the next social explo­sion will be unlike any­one expe­ri­enced before.

Thus, the like­li­hood of Zoulikha’s telling revul­sion and anger does not reg­is­ter if Alge­ri­ans real­ly want­ed FLN rule. For precision’s sake, let me rephrase the ear­li­er sen­tence. It is not like Alge­ri­ans enjoyed French colo­nial­ism, nor that they sought an indef­i­nite war of all-against-all with colonists (les pieds noirs) and met­ro­pol­i­tan France alike. They fought — like Zoulikha — for repli­cat­ing that wealth of being, aspir­ing for authen­tic joy, and not meek­ly repro­duc­ing con­sumerist and ephemer­al glee. In what I think the best biog­ra­phy ever avail­able about Zoulikha, Dje­bar clev­er­ly under­lines la déchirure or the rup­ture with les maquis­ards’ insur­gent life in the moun­tains and the dif­fer­en­tial between the country’s propul­sion for the future both then and now. Before being a denun­ci­a­tion of FLN mis­rule, cor­rup­tion, or incom­pe­tence, Zoulikha’s sto­ry reminds Alge­ri­ans along with the world at large of the civ­i­liza­tion­al decline, where liv­ing does not have to be syn­ony­mous with breath­ing. She insists that liv­ing has to be a vibra­tion, a per­ma­nent rev­o­lu­tion, or not at all.


Fouad Mami is an Algerian scholar, essayist, book critic, and devotee of the writings of Hegel and Marx. His opinion pieces have been featured in The Markaz Review, Counterpunch, International Policy Digest, Mangoprism, The Typist, Jadaliyya, The Left Berlin, London School of Economics Review of Books, Cleveland Review of Books, Anti-Capitalistic Resistance, Michigan Quarterly Review, Oxonian Review, and Al Sharq Strategic Research. Likewise, his academic work has appeared in the Marx and Philosophy Review of Books; Research in African Literatures; Theology and Literature, Postcolonial Studies, Cultural Studies; Clio: A Journal of Literature; History, and the Philosophy of History; Amerikastudien/American Studies; The Journal of North African Studies; Critical Sociology; Forum For Modern Language Studies; the European Journal of Cultural and Political Sociology; Mediterranean Politics, Prose Studies: History, Theory, Criticism; and the Journal of Advanced Military Studies.

Algerian nationalismAlgerian war for independenceAssia DjebarFrench colonialismresistancerevolution


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