"Think of me as a kind of machine that was going through, photographing pages and pages of books, seeing titles and taking pictures because they looked good, but not having much time to digest their meaning or significance," said Laurie Brand, the Robert Grandford Wright Professor and professor of international relations in USC College of Letters, Arts & Sciences.
Brand’s description sums up her trip to Algeria, which was intense, hectic and yet productive by any measure. The four-week research journey aimed at locating primary source material, most centrally, old school textbooks, for her research on the Algerian national narrative. This trip followed a similar “mining for information” mission she completed in Jordan this past summer. She will also conduct research in Egypt and Lebanon as part of her two-year Carnegie Fellowship on nationalism and religion in official narratives.
Best Laid Plans
Brand selected Algeria’s capital, Algiers, and Oran, its second largest city, a four- to five- hour car drive apart along the coast, as her research destinations. Two years ago she had visited Algeria knowing that she would return later to conduct research. While there, she made connections at the American center in Oran, CEMA, (Centre d’Etudes Maghrébine en Algérie), a member of the Council of American Overseas Research Centers, as well as with an Algerian center, CRASC (Centre de recherche en anthropologie sociale et culturelle).
As is oft the case with “best laid plans,” Brand had to improvise after arriving. Having been told that CRASC had a collection of old textbooks, she was surprised to find that most of its holdings were currently used school books, copies of which the CEMA director had already sent to her as preparation for her fieldwork.
To locate older textbooks, contacts in Oran suggested that she visit several key secondary schools. While delighted to find textbooks in the library of one such high school in Oran, she was quickly informed by the school’s director that before she would be allowed to work on the books, she needed to obtain written permission from the Educational Directorate in Oran (known as l’Académie). The pursuit of the letter consumed a full week, which altered her timetable, leaving her only three weeks to conduct the bulk of the research.
Going the Extra Mile
While waiting for the letter to materialize, a resourceful Brand looked under every rock to uncover useful information. In a junior high school in Oran, she was thrilled to meet a principal who, excited about the nature of her project, brought eight old Islamic and civic education textbooks from home that her own children had used in the 1990s. This was an interesting and surprising find. “Textbooks in Jordan do not combine religion and civics as they do in Algeria. I am not sure, but I would venture that this is because of the small but significant Christian population in Jordan, whereas in Algeria today, Algerian means Muslim almost by definition.”
Sitting in cramped and sometimes poorly lit rooms with no air conditioning, Brand slogged through textbook after textbook. “I also went to the archives in Oran, where I reviewed old bound newspapers, tracked important speeches and read a tremendous amount of background material,” Brand said. “The high school libraries were usually one or two room affairs. I put my camera on a stand and went to work. Fortunately, I was permitted to use my camera in the archives as well.”
With limited time to conduct the fieldwork, she felt very fortunate to have been able to access copies of relevant laws and decrees before arriving, thanks to the fact that the Official Gazette, the Algerian version of the Federal Register, is now available online. “That saved me a huge amount of time.”
Algerians Seek Truth in National Narrative
In all, she took some 3,000 photos of textbooks and published studies regarding curriculum development, history writing, and national identity in Algeria. “There are more academics in Algeria than in Jordan who work on questions centering on the evolution of the school system,” she said. “There is also far more published material on questions relating to the writing and rewriting of national history.” According to Brand, “Algerians today are very concerned with writing that centers on their past.
“The deep concern Algerians have with how their history is written owes in no small measure to the fact that for years it was France — the former colonizing power — and its scholars and former colonial administrators that produced most historical ‘knowledge’ about the country. There is a strong desire to reexamine the assumptions and conclusions of existing works and to assert sovereignty over what is still a very contested narrative, despite state attempts to enforce a single story line.
“While I was there, two major figures died who had not written memoirs. In response, several newspaper articles lamented the loss, not only of men who had played an important role in the country’s independence struggle, but of the piece of history each represented which may never be fully captured or understood.”
Brand’s trip included one delightful moment of serendipity. “One day, after finishing the bulk of my research work in Oran, I took a day trip to Mostaghanem, a coastal city about an hour from Oran, which included a visit to the shrine of a Muslim saint, Sidi Lakhdar Ben Khluf. It just so happened that my trip coincided with the saint’s annual celebration day, or wa`idah. As someone interested in the relationship between religion and nationalism, it was fascinating for me to see Algerian flags flying prominently across the courtyard of this religious shrine. The interconnection between religion and nationalism could not have been more clearly illustrated.”
“The trip was intense and very challenging. But it worked out all right in the end, and now I have a mountain of material to read through,” Brand said. “I can’t wait to get started.”
Next up: Egypt