European studies blog

3 posts categorized "Decolonising"

20 October 2021

‘Writing is a tattoo’ — Kamel Daoud and his work

Kamel Daoud is an Algerian journalist based in Oran, where he has been for several years the Chief Editor for Le Quotidien d’Oran, the third largest French-language Algerian newspaper, and the author of a much-read column ‘Raïna Raïkoum’ (‘My Opinion, Your Opinion’). His articles have appeared in Libération, Le Monde, and Courrier International.

Daoud’s first novel, Meursault, contre-enquête is a response to Camus’ L’étranger. Meursault, the protagonist of Camus’ novel murders a character known only as ‘the Arab’. Camus never gave a name to Meursault’s victim, but Daoud names him Moussa, and re-tells the story from the point of view of Moussa’s brother, Haroun. Daoud’s novel was first published in Algeria by editions Barzakh in October 2013, but mostly started to garner international attention after its publication by French publisher Actes Sud in May 2014; it was a finalist for the Prix Goncourt in 2014 and came second, just short of winning the prize. It did, however, win the 2015 Goncourt First Novel Prize, and was also awarded the prix François Mauriac, le prix des Cinq Continents de la Francophonie. It sold more than 130 000 copies in France and 14 000 in Algeria, ‘A very high number for a novel in French’ according to its Algerian publisher Barzakh.

Although it is often labelled as Daoud’s debut, Meursault, contre-enquête was in fact the third in a series of texts beginning with O Pharaon published in Oran in 2004. As recalled by Joseph Ford, far from being solely a journalist, Daoud was already a writer of note in Algeria, and knew how to use text to express and magnify his ideas about conflict and power. Daoud’s positions have not been exempt from controversy, be it in France or in Algeria and his work as novelist, as well as journalist and polemist are often the subject of examination, particularly through the prism of postcolonial studies. He has in the past expressed his dreams of forgetting journalism to dedicate himself to pure literature, but a collection of Daoud’s journalistic works: Mes indépendances: Chroniques 2010–2016 was nevertheless published in 2017 and he currently contributes a weekly column to the French magazine Le Point

Two of Daoud’s latest texts, however, have been less embroiled in obvious politics, if still actually describing some facets of Power. They explore the acts of writing and narrating, and hidden aspects of language, and of materiality: the materiality of books and of the body, and the beauty of both.

Cover of Kamel Daoud, Zabor ou les psaumes

Cover of Kamel Daoud, Zabor ou les psaumes (Arles, 2017) YF.2017.a.25074

Zabor ou les psaumes (translated this year in English by Emma Ramadan as Zabor, or The Psalms), first published in French in 2017, is a work of magic realism, but also a hymn to the power of fiction. The narrator is a young man who possesses a gift: he can fight death by writing, and the people whose stories he narrates in his notebooks live longer. This is his gift, his responsibility and his mission. But does everyone deserve to be saved? This allegorical novel draws on myths, religion and fables, and as in One Thousand and One Nights, the storytelling can temporarily stave off death. But the book is also an ode to language, or rather languages, and to their transformations and appropriations, particularly in a post-colonial context: ‘C’est à partir de ce capital que je construisis cette langue, entièrement, seul avec mon propre dictionnaire sauvage’ (‘I built this language, entirely, alone with my own wild dictionary’) and so created ‘une langue folle, riche, heureuse, amalgamée avec des racines sauvages, hybride comme un bestiaire de mythologie’ (‘a mad, rich, happy, amalgamated language, with wild roots, hybrid like a mythological bestiary’).

‘Writing is a tattoo’ reads one of the last chapter’s openings. This image of the book as a body is permeating one of Daoud’s most recent published piece, tellingly titled ‘Textures ou comment coucher avec un livre’.

Cover of BibliOdyssées

Cover of BibliOdyssées: foudre, index, exil, talismans, text by Kamel Daoud, Raphaël Jerusalmy; notes by Joseph Belletante, Bernadette Moglia. (Paris, 2019.) YF.2020.a.5142

This is the opening text of BibliOdyssées, and is a ‘literary piece’ companion to a book published on the occasion of the exhibition ‘L’Odyssée des livres sauvés’ held in the Musée de l’Imprimerie and Communication graphique in Lyon in 2019. Here, books have a skin, and again, this skin is ‘tattooed a thousand times’, with words and with the imprints of the hands that manipulate. In his text, Daoud compares sacred and profane books, licit and illicit objects, books for the ritual and the soul and books for the earthly body; both, with their words, magically able to express the ‘eternal unspeakable’.

Kamel Daoud will be in conversation with Anne-Sylvaine Chassany, the Financial Times’s World News Editor, at the Institut Francais on Thursday the 21st October

Sophie Defrance, Curator Romance Collections 

References/further reading:

Kamel Daoud, Meursault, contre-enquête (Arles, 2014) YF.2014.a.27110; English translation by John Cullen, The Mersault investigation (London, 2015) H.2016/.7708

Kamel Daoud, Mes indépendances: Chroniques 2010–2016 (Arles, 2017) YF.2017.a.18552

Albert Camus, L’étranger (Paris, 1947) 012550.p.23.

Sami Alkyam ‘Lost in reading: The predicament of postcolonial writing in Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation’, Journal of Postcolonial Writing, vol. 55 (2019), no. 4, pp. 459-471

Sylvie Ducas ‘L’entrée en littérature française de Kamel Daoud : «Camus, sinon rien!»’, Littératures, 73/2015, p. 185-197. 

Joseph Ford, Writing the black decade: conflict and criticism in francophone Algerian literature (Lanham, 2021) ELD.DS.582067

14 October 2021

Investigating German colonialism in the British Library’s collections

Content warning: This blog reproduces an image from a historical publication which is now considered racist

Last week, the Zanzibari writer Abdulrazak Gurnah became the first black African author in 35 years to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Judges from the Swedish Academy highlighted his ‘uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism’ as a key reason for the distinction.

Much of Gurnah’s writing is set in East Africa, and his latest novel, Afterlives, explores the impact of German colonialism on the region. The novel’s protagonists are residents of a coastal town whose lives become shaped by interactions with German soldiers, settlers and missionaries.

Gurnah’s receipt of the Nobel Prize is not only a testament to his literary prowess, but also reflects a long overdue process of engagement by European cultural institutions with the history of colonialism. As part of a three-month PhD placement, I am investigating what the British Library’s collections reveal about German colonialism and its legacies.

Cover of Afterlives by Abdulrazak Gurnah

Cover of Abdulrazak Gurnah’s latest novel, Afterlives (London, 2021)

By consulting curators in various collections and exploring the Library’s holdings in their full breadth, including sound recordings, maps and postage stamps as well as written material, I hope to identify the potential for interrogating European accounts and locating under-represented, colonised and subaltern voices.

The era of formal German colonialism was short compared to other European empires such as Britain and France. Germany, which did not become a unified state until 1871, expanded into eastern Africa and modern-day Namibia, Cameroon and Togo in the 1880s, and established colonies in China and the Pacific a decade later. After defeat in World War One, Germany lost all of its overseas territories, with Britain taking over most of German East Africa.

The involvement of German speakers in colonial projects, however, has a longer history. In the first half of the 19th century, missionaries from German regions travelled to Africa to propagate Christianity.

One such individual was Johann Ludwig Krapf, whose activities were pointed out to me by Mariam de Haan from the British Library’s Asian and African Studies department. A clergyman from Württemberg, Krapf worked in East Africa between 1837 and 1855, and was one of the first Europeans to document the Swahili, Maasai and other regional languages.

In an account of his travels, available digitally in German on the British Library’s website, Krapf proposed that European nations take charge of different areas of Africa and Asia. Each power would place the indigenous peoples under their tutelage until Christianity had brought them to ‘full maturity’.

W.D. Cooley’s ‘Map of part of Africa, South of the Equator, shewing the discoveries of the Rev. Dr. Krapf and Rev. J. Rebmann'

Krapf’s geographical findings are shown on W.D. Cooley’s ‘Map of part of Africa, South of the Equator, shewing the discoveries of the Rev. Dr. Krapf and Rev. J. Rebmann' (London, c. 1864) 2.b.14.

Krapf’s life provides an example of the transnational entanglement of European actors in ‘civilising’ projects. He did not travel under a German organisation, but rather as a member of the British Church Missionary Society, and likened his activities to Scottish counterpart David Livingstone’s work in southern Africa. In London, the cartographer William Desborough Colley published a map (shown above) charting the geographical findings of Krapf and fellow German missionary Johannes Rebmann.

In the mid-1880s, the German East Africa Company sought to gain economic and political power in the region. Following heavy local resistance to the company’s administration, the German government took control of the territory in 1891.

The contemporary and retrospective literature published by colonial officers active in East Africa contains racist stereotypes, and frequently masks the brutal realities of German practices. However, the texts occasionally reveal how local resistance undermined imperial authority.

Early opposition came in particular from the Hehe ethnic group. In 1891, Hehe warriors ambushed a German column in what became known as the Battle of Lugalo. The German defeat, with heavy losses, was described as a ‘catastrophe’ in the memoirs of the officer Tom von Prince, who acknowledged admiringly how the Hehe leaders had exploited their enemy’s vulnerability when marching in line.

Cover of Tom von Prince’s Gegen Araber und Wahehe

Cover of Tom von Prince’s Gegen Araber und Wahehe. Erinnerungen aus meiner ostafrikanischen Leutnantszeit, 1890-1895 (Berlin, 1914) 9061.d.35.

Accounts of indigenous resistance in the British Library’s collections are not limited to German perspectives. The Sound and Moving Image catalogue contains interviews recorded by Alison Redmayne, a researcher who conducted fieldwork in Tanzania during the 1960s. Redmayne collected interviewees’ descriptions of the Battle of Lugalo and the Maji-Maji Rebellion, a major uprising between 1905 and 1907.

The uprising began when a spiritual medium, Kinjikitile Ngwale, claimed that a water-based medicine (maji means water in Swahili) would protect rebels from German bullets. After Tanzania became independent in 1961 following British rule, the Maji Maji Rebellion was celebrated as a moment of unity between different ethnic groups.

Ebrahim Hussein’s popular play Kinjeketile, published in 1969, reimagined the leader – who was executed by colonial officers early in the rebellion – as a tragic hero who privately doubted the power of his ‘sacred water’ but kept silent to preserve the newfound solidarity among the rebels.

Cover of the English translation of Ebrahim Hussein’s Kinjeketile

Cover of the English translation of Ebrahim Hussein’s Kinjeketile (Dar es Salaam, 1970), X.908/26258

Early postcolonial interest in the Maji Maji Rebellion was also reflected in an oral history project at the University of Dar es Salaam in the late 1960s, in which students interviewed individuals who experienced the uprising. A published collection of material from the project, including transcriptions of the interviews in local languages and translations into English, can be found in our holdings.

In recent years, historians have revisited the interviews and highlighted underexplored passages which challenge the notion of the Maji Maji Rebellion as an interethnic struggle against European domination. Thaddeus Sunseri, for example, has pointed to instances of collaboration with the Germans and emphasised the variety of motives behind participation in the revolt.

Introductory page of the University of Dar es Salaam’s Maji Maji research project

Introductory page of the University of Dar es Salaam’s Maji Maji research project, 1968. Collected papers (Dar es Salaam, 1969) X.805/195.

Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Afterlives, too, illustrates the complex choices faced by individuals whose lives are disrupted under foreign rule, and Gurnah’s works are a reminder that understandings of the colonial past are constantly evolving. The British Library does not contain everything there is to know about European colonialism: accounts from colonisers and European perspectives are likely to be better represented than the voices of the colonised, which sometimes survive only in mediated form. Nonetheless, the collections offer potential for new insights which can only be realised through dialogue across departments and across source collections.

I have been astounded by the wide range of relevant material which I have found in the library so far, and, when speaking to colleagues, I think they have been surprised too. As my project continues, I look forward to sharing further library resources for investigating colonialism with colleagues and library users.

Rory Hanna, PhD Placement Student, German Collections

References and further reading:

Abdulrazak Gurnah, Afterlives (London, 2021), in order

Abdulrazak Gurnah, Paradise (London, 1994), Nov.1994/631

Sebastian Conrad, German Colonialism: A Short History (Cambridge, 2012) YC.2011.a.17036

Clarissa Vierke (ed.), Johann Ludwig Krapf: the life and work of a missionary and scholar-traveller in nineteenth-century East Africa (Nairobi, 2009) YD.2009.a.6998

Clemens Gutl (ed.), Johann Ludwig Krapf: „Memoir on the East African slave trade“. Ein unveröffentlichtes Dokument aus dem Jahr 1853 (Vienna, 2002) X.0909/1053.(73)

J.L. Krapf, Reisen in Ost-Afrika, ausgeführt in dem Jahren 1837-55, etc (Stuttgart, 1858) 10096.e.30. 

J.L. Krapf, Travels, researches and missionary labours, during an eighteen years' residence in Eastern Africa (London, 1860) 010095.gg.34. 

Andrew Roberts (ed.), Tanzania Before 1900 (Nairobi, 1968), X.709/15877.

Alison Redmayne, 'The Wahehe people of Tanganyika', PhD thesis (Oxford, 1965) 

J.B. Gewald, ‘Colonial Warfare: Hehe and World War I, the Wars Besides Maji Maji in South-Western Tanzania’, African Historical Review 40:2 (2008), pp. 1-27, 0732.493000

Tom von Prince, Gegen Araber und Wahehe. Erinnerungen aus meiner ostafrikanischen Leutnantszeit, 1890-1895 (Berlin, 1914) 9061.d.35.

Carl Peters, Das Deutsch-Ostafrikanische Schutzgebiet (Munich, 1895), 10094.e.29.

Felicitas Becker und Jigal Beez (eds), Der Maji-Maji-Krieg in Deutsch-Ostafrika, 1905-1907 (Berlin, 2005) YF.2006.a.30647

James Giblin and Jamie Monson (eds), Maji Maji: Lifting the Fog of War (Leiden, 2010) 0733.775000 v. 20

Ebrahim Hussein, Kinjeketile (Dar es Salaam, 1970) X.908/26258

University College, Dar es Salaam, Department of History, Maji Maji research project, 1968. Collected papers (Dar es Salaam, 1969) X.805/195.

Thaddeus Sunseri, ‘Statist Narratives and Maji Maji Ellipses’, The International Journal of African Historical Studies 33:3 (2000), pp. 567–84, 4541.580000

Elijah Greenstein, ‘Making History: Historical Narratives of the Maji Maji’, Penn History Review 17:2 (2010), pp. 60-77 

Stefan Noack et al (eds), Deutsch-Ostafrika: Dynamiken europäischer Kulturkontakte und Erfahrungshorizonte im kolonialen Raum (Berlin, 2019), YF.2020.a.11433

12 November 2020

PhD Placement Opportunity - Interrogating German Collections

Applications are now open for an exciting new PhD placement working with the German collections at the British Library. Under the title Interrogating German Collections, current PhD students are invited to spend three months (or part-time equivalent) challenging the conventional history of knowledge of German-speaking regions, and to explore under-represented perspectives. Co-supervised with Expanding German Studies, a group seeking to expand and diversify the German Studies curriculum across the UK, the placement offers an opportunity to understand how German culture has constructed categories of racial difference, and how the voices of racialised others (including Jewish, Eastern European, Black, East Asian, Turkish and Middle Eastern people) have been represented within the discipline. The British Library’s German Printed Collections are of worldwide importance and will serve as a comprehensive source.

Covers of four German books
A selection of books by German authors who feature on the Expanding German Studies interactive bibliography

While the student will be expected to propose a specific focus, the placement will involve researching the collections, writing blog posts on items and on methodologies around collecting and curation, improving catalogue records, presenting to different departments on the results. The student will also have the opportunity to work with Expanding German Studies on teaching resources, and on preparing translations of neglected works for German Studies undergraduates, among other potential outputs.

This placement project offers an opportunity for a PhD student to put their research and critical thinking skills into practice at a major cultural institution through a topic that will be crucial to every aspect of the Library and to the cultural sector more widely in the coming years.

Further information on eligibility, conditions and how to apply is available on the British Library website. The deadline for applications is 18 December 2020.

For informal enquiries, please contact Pardaad.Chamsaz@bl.uk, Susan.Reed@bl.uk, Nicola.Thomas@bristol.ac.uk

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