Why is Albert Camus Still a Stranger in His Native Algeria? | Innovation | Smithsonian
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Albert Camus was born on November 7, 1913, in Mondovi, now Drean, a town near Algeria's northeast coast. (Hulton-Deutsch Collection / Corbis)

Why is Albert Camus Still a Stranger in His Native Algeria?

On the 100th anniversary of the birth of the famed novelist, our reporter searches the north African nation for signs of his legacy

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The Hotel El-Djazair, formerly known as the Hotel Saint-George, is an oasis of calm in the tense city of Algiers. A labyrinth of paved pathways winds through beds of hibiscus, cactuses and roses, shaded by palm and banana trees. In the lobby, bellhops in white tunics and red fezzes escort guests past Persian carpets and walls inlaid with mosaics. Beneath the opulence, violence lurks. During the week I was there, diplomats descended on the El-Djazair to repatriate the bodies of dozens of hostages killed in a shootout at a Sahara natural-gas plant between Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Algerian Army.

Violence was in the air as well in January 1956, when the celebrated writer Albert Camus checked into the Hotel Saint-George. The struggle against French colonialism was escalating, with civilians becoming the primary victims. Camus was a pied-noir—a term meaning “black foot,” perhaps derived from the coal-stained feet of Mediterranean sailors, or the black boots of French soldiers, and used to refer to the one million colonists of European origin living in Algeria during French rule. He had returned after 14 years in France to try to stop his homeland from sliding deeper into war. It was a perilous mission. Right-wing French settlers plotted to assassinate him. Algerian revolutionaries watched over him without his knowledge.

The Casablanca-style intrigue—freedom fighters, spies and an exotic North African setting—seemed appropriate. Camus, after all, was often thought of as a literary Humphrey Bogart—dashing, irresistible to women, a coolly heroic figure in a dangerous world.

Camus is regarded as a giant of French literature, but it was his North African birthplace that most shaped his life and his art. In a 1936 essay, composed during a bout of homesickness in Prague, he wrote of pining for “my own town on the shores of the Mediterranean...the summer evenings that I love so much, so gentle in the green light and full of young and beautiful women.” Camus set his two most famous works, the novels The Stranger and The Plague, in Algeria, and his perception of existence, a joyful sensuality combined with a recognition of man’s loneliness in an indifferent universe, was formed here.

In 1957, Anders Österling, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, acknowledged the importance of Camus’ Algerian upbringing when he presented him with the Nobel Prize in Literature, a towering achievement, won when he was only 43. Österling attributed Camus’ view of the world in part to a “Mediterranean fatalism whose origin is the certainty that the sunny splendor of the world is only a fugitive moment bound to be blotted out by the shades.”

Camus is “the single reason people outside Algeria know about this country,” says Yazid Ait Mahieddine, a documentary filmmaker and Camus expert in Algiers, as we sit beneath a photograph of the writer in the El- Djazair bar, alongside images of other celebrities who have passed through here, from Dwight Eisenhower to Simone de Beauvoir. “He is our only ambassador.”

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Yet despite Camus’ monumental achievements and deep attachment to his native land, Algeria has never reciprocated that love. Camus is not part of the school curriculum; his books can’t be found in libraries or bookshops. Few plaques or memorials commemorate him. “Algeria has erased him,” says Hamid Grine, an Algerian novelist whose 2011 Camus dans le Narguilé (Camus in the Hookah) imagines a young Algerian who discovers that he is Camus’ illegitimate son, and embarks on a quest to learn about his real father.

In 2010, the 50th anniversary of Camus’ death in a car accident in France, a committee of intellectuals organized an event they called a “Camus Caravan”—readings in seven Algerian cities. But “the authorities refused to allow it,” I was told by one of the organizers, Fatima Bakhai, a lawyer in Oran, Algeria’s second-largest city. When Camus turns 100 this year, not a single official commemoration is planned. The neglect reflects, in part, the scars of the civil war that tore apart Algeria in the 1990s, leaving 100,000—mainly civilians—dead in fighting between Islamic militants and the military regime. Most Algerians “were too busy trying to survive to worry about our literary heritage,” say Mahieddine.

But it is also a product of Camus’ complex political views. Despite his revulsion toward French colonial prejudices and his sympathy toward Arabs, Camus believed until the end of his life that Algeria must remain part of France. Five decades later, as I discovered during a weeklong trip through Algeria on the eve of Camus’ centennial, memorials to the independence struggle are ubiquitous, resentment toward France remains strong and the Algerian government, largely made up of former freedom fighters, has willed a national forgetting of its country’s greatest writer. “Camus is regarded as a colonialist, and that’s taught in the schools,” says Catherine Camus, the author’s daughter, who lives in France and last visited Algeria in 1960, six months after her father’s death when she was 14, and who now manages his literary estate. But she insists that although her father spent his last decades in France, “he was entirely Algerian.”

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About Joshua Hammer
Joshua Hammer

Joshua Hammer is a foreign freelance correspondent and frequent contributor to Smithsonian magazine.

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