In French-speaking Africa, historians face a major resurgence of the ‘national novel’

The relationship – intimate but also paradoxical – between history and memory remains open: each publication presents a different discourse through its forms, criteria and functions.

In the second half of the twentieth centurye By the end of the nineteenth century, official discourse about the pasts of the countries of the Middle East and North Africa (Middle East and North Africa) and sub-Saharan Africa was largely linked to the so-called national narrative (or narrative). The body of texts produced by historians who have studied state-building in the 1960s and 1990s attests to the importance of identity-forming backgrounds to this discourse of the past, which serve to reinforce a sense of belonging and culminate in the nation-state in (a) the work of a long and partially coherent history.

Certainly, the fact that African politicians have attempted to legitimize their identity in their country in the past in this post-colonial era is not trivial. In a sense, this makes history a “disguised theology,” in the famous words of Friedrich Nietzsche.

It is clear that the linear concept of history that prevailed in this part of the world between the sixties and the nineties of the last century obscures the representation of a space with a similarly long history. Thus, the historical narrative was essentially based on a continuity that is not historical, but geographical, to tell the truth.

In the schools we were taught a kind of Christian teaching that had to be recited from generation to generation. It hasn’t changed since then…but since when? Because Tunisia is Tunisia? Since Algeria Algeria? Since Morocco Morocco? Since Senegal is Senegal… (etc)? But history in the scientific sense says that it is impossible to give a date of birth to a country or a nation. However, many men and women of the pen have defended the idea of ​​a supposedly immobile “national history”, a fixed history that proves the roots and ancestry of these young nations.

“Historical Truth”: one method among others

It is not easy to define possession of truth by historical discourse. Philosopher Paul Ricoeur has noted in this context that “the reader expects a historical text to be presented by the author with a ‘true story’ and not a fictional story. So the question arises whether, how and to what extent this implicit reading convention can be retrieved through historiography.” “This text is in a context marked by the decline of the great narratives of the West. However, in the Middle East, North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa during the same period, we have found a great capacity for descriptive discourses to justify its correctness,” Ricoeur wrote.

In this region, history as discourse is directly influenced by the state apparatus, since it produces a cultural and social statement. The process of collecting historical memory, sometimes in a crude manner or even with a limited analytical framework, has occupied the minds of policy makers since the 1960s. In Tunisia, for example, Mohamed Sayah. Bourguiba’s multiple ministers, to whom he was very close, devoted himself for many years to the “official” history of the national movement that made the then president the only hero in this epic of independence. The phenomenon of nationalizing historiography can also be found in Algeria, Morocco and Senegal. It stems, directly or indirectly, from the political desire to keep pace with modernity and build a strong national consciousness that has an outdated relationship with historical time.

Supporters of this approach tend to simplify the terminology and refer to some symbolic figures around which a sense of national belonging is built (Hannibal for the Tunisians; Messinissa for the Algerians; Tariq ibn Ziyad for the Moroccans; the Pharaohs for the Egyptians…). Thus became the seniority of the nation real fantasy For a large part of the consumers of this historical identity discourse.

Therefore, knowing how to build the land they inhabit throughout history is just as important to the decision makers in this part of the world as it is to those who make up the national community. However, if we immediately understand what a nation is and its deep connection to the modern era, it is very difficult to verify the correctness of this outdated approach to national roots in the ancient and medieval past from a purely scientific and academic point of view.

Tunisia, for example, was formed not by the Phoenicians as a nation-state, but by the Husaynid dynasty (1705-1957). The same observation can be made regarding the authorship of the Algerian, Senegalese, Malian national narrative, etc. The history of these young states is not the result of the simultaneity of eras that occurred on this or that land: geographical continuity does not in any way signify historical continuity. So how can we be surprised or regretted that the historical novel is given more importance than the historical truth?

Place of remembrance: Habib Bourguiba Museum in Monastir (Tunisia).

use history

In addition to history – fact / history – fiction, the way of dealing with history without an explicit or fundamental attachment to knowledge has been developing for a number of years, making the past an object of immediate consumption.

History here is “strange”, distracted elsewhere by its difference, a projection that can easily be carried over to distant times. One could argue that this latter type of cultural activity can also claim a form of knowledge, sometimes striving to reproduce ‘reality’. Away from patterns, it is therefore appropriate to underline the scale of these productions and consumptions of history with a broad social and political spectrum: whether we think of the thousands of Tunisians gathered in Monastir to celebrate the anniversary of the death of the head of state. Bourguiba, or Algerians from France gather in great numbers to discover the Emir Abdelkader Gallery.

In the African region of Francophone culture, historical festivals proliferate with the aim of codifying the present into the past. However, the stakes and goals of this takeover remain to be determined.

There is always a story that must lead to the struggles of the present; There are also local productions of identity, or history in Repetition She tries to build her own timings while having fun. At the interface of the political uses of the past and the formation of identity, gatherings are taking shape to demand new readings of history and public appreciation of historical memory.

The various players in the media world – journalists, producers, mediators – also contribute to the regulation of the past and the formation of “historical questions”. For several years, radio, television and social networks have been involved in public debates about history, collective memory and heritage.

We cannot return here in detail to these questions, which have already been the subject of numerous studies by historians. The impact remains reported. Indeed, the formation of historical or historical questions in the media and/or social networks stems from unscientific logic, including the logic of current events, combined with a revealing and empowering mindset. The media have managed to give the greatest theses a lot of space at the moment, such as Beys von TunisAuf Mali-Reich or the beginnings of the liberation struggles against colonialism in Algeria. Therefore, historians are in a complicated situation with history makers who present them with large audiences, challenge their certainty, and can produce sources (particularly oral sources), but their training frameworks from the past are largely far from them.

“Revenge of the peoples is found today in the “black books” that commemorate the atrocities, even genocides, committed in contemporary history. Gulag Archipelago By Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is the best example of this. But if outrage is justified, it is of paramount importance to respect the rules of historical style, while at the risk of de-centralizing the suffering of the victims.” (Henry Lorenz, supposed pastParis, Fayard, 2022, p. 85).

The challenges of the ‘memory boom’

Among this emerging “memory boom” are some specific questions that affect the historian’s profession, or at least the definition of professional identities.

Contemporary “general history”, questions of collective memory, the forms of memory that historians confront today develop in ambiguous terrain. It is clear that the national framework that often housed the public uses of history, whether legitimate or controversial, is now just one measure among others. Military engagement has already made extensive use of history, past and time in order to question the official sovereignty of the state or to legitimize the chosen political frameworks.

“What History Can Do,” the opening lesson of Patrick Boucheron at the Collège de France.

Since the early 2010s, we note the return of the “national narrative” through the “memory boom” in many countries in the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa. There is a clear exploitation of history and, therefore, a struggle over cultural terrain. History here turns into a frozen scaffold that we must inherit and take for granted.

So the past is valued as a component of identity. The story that takes shape is one that wants definition and/or genetics. This requires the historian to make an intellectual effort to renew his conceptual and methodological tools. He must reflect on the foundations of history which is no longer a history of the past, but, like every science that emerges from the uncertainty of new interpretations of the world, is a matter of history.

Historical knowledge makes it possible to live in a space until it belongs to the individual – be it a city, a country, or a region of the world. Living somewhere means staying somewhat conscious, more or less familiar with its past, without falling into anachronisms and misinterpretations of a historical past that has its own philosophy alien to our modern postmodern corporations.

As Serge Grosinsky says, in A story for what?:

« Memory cards are being redistributed everywhere, more by artists and producers than by historians. But can they ignore it if they want to think about historiography which might be in a globalized context plagued by the new hegemony? ? “

So the doctrine of remembrance is the fabric of a massive misunderstanding of historical production in the scientific sense. The emergence of a frenetic memorial connected to the recent tragic past seems to have pushed the actors of history into the stable positions they have held until now, but it does not solve any historical problem. In this way, the close but also contradictory relationship between history and memory remains open. For it is clear that each of these two fields propagates a discourse that differs in its forms, rules, and functions.


Muhammad Arabi Nasiri is a doctor in ancient history. University of Paris Nanterre – University of Paris Lumiere

This article has been republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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