Algeria: Independent Publishers Are Opening New Vistas for Books and Archives

In a period marked by commemorations of the sixty years of Algerian independence and in a hampered society, independent publishers, on both shores of the Mediterranean, have gone their own way, bringing out ground-breaking books and journals. With a resolutely modern take on the world, a younger generation is dusting off the archives, working more collaboratively and asserting its political views.

Lydia Amarouche, editor and Khadija Roul, author, in the offices of Shed Publishing
© Kenza Merzoug

“If I’d managed to join some cultural association I’d never have gone into publishing”, Maya Oubadi recalls. In 2018, she founded Motifs in Algiers. She had just resigned from her job as an editorial assistant with Barzakh, an independent publishing company where she had worked for six years. She was trying to revive Chrysalide, a cultural association which had seen the light of day in 2000, and most of whose members were writers’ad filmmakers. She herself had joined the group in 2014 but administrative obstacles had stymied that initiative. Her intention was to use the association to publish a journal of literary criticism. “My experience with Barzakh had taught me that though a book might get published, it had very little impact. There had to be some way for books to reach their readers.”

Anxious to participate in the literary vibrancy that Algeria was experiencing and above all to keep a record of it, she overcame her reluctance to become involved any kind of business and founded Fassl, a journal of literary criticism. Each issue is an actual “object,” a hand-stitched showcase containing in-depth criticism, interviews, and portraits of Algerian and foreign authors as well as long extracts from forthcoming novels, all of this in Arabic and French. “Bilingualism has always been one of our principles because a journal devoted to contemporary Algerian literature would not otherwise be complete. There are just about as many French-speaking readers as Arabic speaking, though today Arabic appears to be gaining ground”, says Ms. Oubadi. “I’ve also noticed that English is really very popular among the younger generations who use it in everyday life, even outside the capital. So, one thing we might consider for the future would be an English edition of Fassl

Besides the journal Fassl, which will be bringing out its fifth special issue devoted to Assia Diebbar in January 2023, Motifs has just published the first issue of a feminist journal, La Place, a collaborative venture by Maya Ouabadia and Saadi Gacem, a doctoral candidate in legal anthropology. This was a project imagined by the two women during a conversation about subjects in which they shared a common interest. The journal is in line with the long struggle of Algerian women of which these two are the inheritors and is based on the material collected and shared by the Archives of women struggles in Algeria.

Journals {Fassl} and {La Place}
Journals Fassl and La Place
© Sonia Merabet

Archaeologists of the Algerian women’s movement

In March 2019, Hirak, the popular protest movement against the ruling system was in full swing. The women’s marches arose out of this movement on International Women’s Day. On that occasion, a scholar by the name of Awel Haouati, created a Facebook page entitled “Archives de luttes des femmes en Algérie”. The idea was to collect, digitise and share the documents produced by the associations of feminist activists and make them available on an IT platform. "I found the first traces in my home before Hirak began. The active feminists in my family had carefully preserved such documents as the “ABC of women’s struggles in Algeria from 1990 to 1992″.

Thus this project, which she had had in mind for a long time, came into being at the same time as Hirak. “That was a real catalyst,” she remembers, “It was going out and demonstrating that prompted us to go back and explore what had existed in the eighties and nineties”. She and Sadia Gacem laid the basis for the project and then got in touch with their network of militant feminists. The result exceeded their expectations. “We were surprised by the quantity and the variety of documents we collected. Some of the topics dealt with were very daring for the period. And the graphics were of a high quality too.” The two women wondered why it was always claimed that there were no archives on contemporary Algeria after 1962. “We wondered where that idea came from and why it was so deep-rooted.” For indeed, with the help of Lydia Saidi, a photographer and archivist, they collected and digitised some 800 documents: public declarations, leaflets, posters, journals, and cartoons, in Algiers and Kabylie, in Constantine and Oran.

Most of them date from between 1989 and 1991, during the democratic “breakthrough” which enabled women to organise. “Taking part in the street protests we realised that the slogans of the eighties and nineties had resurfaced in the 2019 feminist movement. Which goes to show that there is a memory of the struggles, the bodies, the songs, even if they aren’t always archives to bear witness.” In the nineties, the production of the feminist groups gradually dwindled and finally ceased altogether. The “Black Decade” halted the momentum. “The period preceding that breakpoint really deserves examination but it is still difficult for militant feminists to talk about, it represents an open wound for them. They are glad someone is interested in those documents, but they are painful memories for them.”

The scholars have stored all those documents on a hard drive-in order to constitute a fund available on request, the idea being to create a sharing platform. In the meantime, the project has already come to life in the form of two exhibitions, one at the behest of the FRAC (Fonds Régional d’Art contemporain) in Orléans and the other as part of Dokumenta Fifteen in Kassel, Germany, world’s largest exhibition of modern and contemporary art. What was originally meant to be the exposition’s catalogue has become a trilingual reference work – in English, Arabic, and French – entitled Archive of Women’s struggles in Algeria. A thousand copies were printed, some of which are on sale in the bookshops at Dokumenta Fifteen. The team behind the project handle another stock in Marseilles where the volume was printed and distribute it themselves, via Instagram. The remaining copies will be distributed at gatherings in Algeria and elsewhere and through an Internet site meant for international distribution.

Publishers who focus on collective work

Motifs continues to come up against the same distribution problems and they just must make do. “Foreign distribution was a problem, we crammed the mags into our suitcases but we couldn’t take thousands of trips abroad so we relied on our families and friends. It was the only way to survive and grow in Algeria as it is today”, Maya explains. Collaboration is at the heart of their project. The young woman became aware of the need to work together on several projects at the same time. “Sometimes I’m an assistant on a friend’s film project and she in return will help out on a project of mine. I believe that changing roles to help each other creates a sense of emulation and even helps us to survive when our moral and motivation are flagging in this difficult environment.

We encounter this same collective approach to publishing across the Mediterranean at Shed Publishing, an independent company founded in 2020 by Lydia Amarouche and based in Marseilles. It began in March 2030 as an atelier d’arpentage or study workshop organised in Aubervilliers, a suburb North of Paris, half by Lydia Amarouche and Anys Merhoum, cofounder of les Ateliers d’Alger. The word “arpentage” (“surveying”) refers to a method of collective reading used by the community education movements in the fifties and which consists of dividing into separate leaflets a text considered difficult and distributing them among the people attending a session. This multidisciplinary collective, based in Algiers and Paris, specialises in citizen consultation and participatory workshops for urban space development. Its mission consists in accompanying local citizens’ initiatives for investment in public spaces. The March 2020 workshop was devoted to Samia Henni’s book, Architecture de la Contre-Révolution which dealt with the use of architecture for military purposes during the Algerian war of independence and maps out the strategies deployed to keep the control of Algeria. This workshop inspired participants to find a way of continuing to study Samia Henni’s ideas on colonial architecture and its function after independence. “I wanted to develop colonial issues but also those related to queer culture and LGBT. A publishing company seemed to me the right place to explore these issues, printed paper was an easily accessible medium,” Lydia Amarouche explains.

Archives of women's struggles
Archives of women’s struggles
© Archives des luttes des femmes en Algérie

Everything came together for the aspiring young publisher, and she launched her company. She was soon joined by two other women: Laura Bouillie, a poet and Nesma Merhoum, cofounder of Les Ateliers d’Alger. The latter gave us the reasons why she made the leap: “I’ve been involved in various writing activities, including journalism. As far as books are concerned, we try thinking in terms of an ethic which is sustainable, individual, and ecological. A book is an object which carries weight in the culture industry, both literally and figuratively. We conceive it in such a way that it will take its place permanently in the collective memory.” Since its inception, the company has already published three books. The most recent is Habiter l’indépendance. Alger : conditions d’une architecture de l’occupation. It came out in the autumn of 2022. The book focuses on Algiers and examines the conditions in which an urban experiment was conducted and questions the colonial ingredient of the city’s architecture. When Algeria became independent in 1962, the population inherited a space which had been fashioned over a period of 132 years by French colonial architecture and, for the first time in their history, took over a space built to exclude them.

Eliminating propaganda from the archives

Like Sadia Gacem and Awel Haouati with their archive on women’s struggles in Algeria, the authors who contributed to Habiter l’Indépendance have dusted off Algerian and French archives, some of them classified material, through conversations with Samia Henni, based on her book, about the use of architecture and urbanism to impose a disciplinary social and political order. In their text, Khadija Roul and Anys Mehroum of the Ateliers d’Alger tell the story of the remodeling of Algiers as a model city, n particular by deciphering the colonial cartography. Getting access to official archives in both France and Algeria is not always easy, and when they are accessible, they are sometimes not indexed, which does not make researching them any simpler. “The reasons adduced are security-related. I get the impression that there is no wish to reassess the French Empire or the two world wars” Lydia Amarouche regrets. Gaining access to the archives is important but “getting rid of the propaganda” they contain is indispensable, the group believes. “In architecture, I haven’t seen many texts with a critical point of view in discussing appropriation and relocation”, Anys Merhoum adds. In the very first lines of their text, Anys Merhou and Khadija Roul denounce the use of the city of Algiers as an architectural laboratory and testing ground for European architects between 1930 and 1950, sometimes for crazy projects.

View of the exhibition at Documenta Fifteen, Kassel, Germany
View of the exhibition at Documenta Fifteen, Kassel, Germany
© Archives des luttes des femmes en Algérie

Beyond books

Besides the collection entitled “Essais”, which deals mostly with the colonial period, Shed Publishing puts out a youth-oriented collection, to get away from politics, “to repair and turn to youth, who symbolise hope”, Lydia Amarouche explains. The first book, Tout est si brillant, deals with the issues of cultural heritage and the need for self-confidence. The young publisher had wanted a trilingual edition, in English, Arabic and French but for financial reasons this was not possible. “We would like to collaborate with publishing companies abroad, produce co-publications.” She dreams of being able to present her books in Algeria. A dream shared by Saadia Gaacem, Awel Harouati and Lydia Saïdi, besides wanting to repeat their experiment with, on the one hand, a more developed publication with other contributors dealing with a period broader than 1989–1991 and, on the other hand, an exposition for Algerians.