NEW YORK—When Zohra Drif was 5 years old, she was the only native among many French kids at her kindergarten in Algiers. Mixed schooling wasn’t usual during the French colonial rule in Algeria, which stretched from the 1830s to the end of the War of Independence in 1962. She recalled that first encounter with the French world last Thursday, in front of a small audience at NYU’s Center for Near Eastern Studies: “I had to stand and salute a flag that I had never seen in my life.”
Back home, her mom explained her the meaning of that banner and told her it belonged to the occupiers. She also told her that they were not French Muslims, as the French called them, but Algerians.
As for today, Drif has become a symbol of the Algerian liberation movement. Her personal memoir of the revolution as a member of the National Liberation Front, Inside the Battle of Algiers, has just been translated to English from its original French. At age 82, she represents the living memory of a savage colonial war which left open wounds that still echo in French politics and society.
With her French-accented English, Drif read an episode of her book in which she recalled a meeting with a revolutionary leader on the eve of an operation to hit the French military staff.
“Remember that none of us are ordinary soldiers,” he told Drif, while urging her not to proceed with the attack. He reminded her of the huge asymmetry that existed between the French army, a powerful colonial force, and the Algerian rebels: “We are not killers, we are fighters for our cause, and we have to diminish France politically and symbolically”.
In the memoir, Drif also recounted the circumstances that dragged her to join the revolution. Hers wasn’t the typical profile of a freedom fighter; she was the daughter of a judge, who granted her the privilege of an educated life in a time of widespread illiteracy among Algerians.
In fact, when the revolution broke out in November of 1954, Drif was a 19-year-old student at a private French school in Algiers. As such, she was far removed from the “terrible misery and oppression” in which most of the population lived. “By that time, 99 percent of the Algerian population was illiterate,” she said. However, her family’s political leanings made her sympathetic to the “Novemberists,” as the rebels soon started to be called.
By that time, international events such as the first Indochina War had started to influence the public perception of the immutability of French rule. “We saw that the French weren’t invincible,” said Drif. The shifting geopolitical winds after World War II made many Algerians self-conscious of their lack of citizenship or nationality. Many Algerian soldiers had fought in the French army during the war, but none were being rewarded for it; “Europe was celebrating France’s liberation from the Nazis. We also wanted our chance to be free.”
Before all, Drif had one question to solve: how does a teenager of the bourgeois get in touch with the armed insurgency? It was not an easy feat. “We had no political training,” she said. “Once we saw two men who we thought were rebels. We walked straight to them and told them we wanted to belong to their armed branch.” The men left right away.
Eventually she managed to join the National Liberation Front, and she became an active member. She spent the five last years of the war in jails in France and Algeria, accused of terrorism by the French authorities, and gained her freedom in 1962, in time to see a newly independent country which had to build itself from the ruins. Looking at all the challenges that they had to face afterwards, one could say that that was when the real struggle began.
“We had to go on completely alone afterwards,” said Drif. “The entire world punished us.”