Zohra Drif’s Inside the Battle of Algiers: Memoir of a Woman Freedom Fighter, Charlottesville, Va.: Just World Books, 2017, reviewed by William B. Quandt, Professor of Politics, Emeritus, University of Virginia, September 25, 2017
I do not claim to be an unbiased reviewer of Inside the Battle of Algiers. I have known the author for many years, my wife is the publisher of the English translation, and I have just come from a week of accompanying the author on a book-launch tour in Washington DC and New York. But despite my lack of “objectivity”, I do claim to be an informed reviewer. I have written two books of my own on Algeria and its politics, have read much of the literature in both French and English, and have visited the country at least twenty times.
Anyone who has seen the remarkable film The Battle of Algiers will know the major events covered in this memoir. But the book goes much further in introducing readers to one major player in that saga, Zohra Drif, a member of a small number of young women who joined the armed-wing of the nationalist movement in 1956, at the age of twenty-two. Before getting into the details of the struggle, however, Mme. Drif starts with her family and social background – the daughter of a rural notable, a judge, and his very traditional, illiterate wife. Her mother and other female relatives and friends, gave Zohra a deep rootedness in the traditional values of her society, while her father provided her with the opening on the modern world through the French schools that she attended from the age of six onward. There she learned the French language, saluted the French flag, and learned that no matter how well she did in school she would never be treated as an equal by her European counterparts.
While Zohra was studying at the prestigious Lycée Fromentin in Algiers, the Algerian war for independence broke out on November 1, 1954. She and her best friend, Samia Lakhdari, were eager to connect with the “Novembrists”, but they had no idea of how to reach them. The account of their self-recruitment into the armed wing of the National Liberation front is fascinating. They realized that their ability to speak French fluently and to pass as European could be an asset, and the FLN leaders soon put them to the test. Once they had proved themselves, they moved into the clandestine world of the militants in the Casbah. Zohra and several other women, as shown in the film, planted bombs in the European parts of the city. But the book goes well beyond the film’s dramatization of these gripping events, telling us how Zohra felt before, during and after the bombing. To this day she justifies the bombings as the only means available to force the French colonizers to take seriously the demands for freedom of the Algerian people.
Inevitably the French cracked down harshly. Large parts of the book tell of the close escapes of the top leadership. Names that a few specialists will know, but who have never seemed like real personalities, such as the legendary Larbi Ben M’Hidi, have a voice here, as well as a personality. Drif’s account of Ben M’Hidi’s explanation of the importance of seeing the struggle in political rather than as a military terms is remarkable (pp. 182-184). When he was captured, tortured and killed by the French, Algeria lost a potentially great leader.
In the last part of the book, Zohra and her commanding officer, Yacef Saadi, are still at large, but eventually they too are captured. The details are told in a riveting style. In September 1957, she was sentenced to prison, served five years, and was released along with other political prisoners at the time of independence in July 1962.
No one else could have written this book. No one else will. This is a personal memoir, told by a woman who played a significant part in her country’s history. Andrew Farrand has provided an excellent translation into English of the French original.
William B. Quandt