The Colonial Predicament of Colonized Bodies
"Any of the Arab-looking girls in some postcards sent from Algeria in the early 20th century, could have been my ancestor. In 1850, a British traveler who visited one of the embroidery schools in colonized Algeria reported: “there were several little Jewesses squatting most amicably among the Mauresques, conspicuous only by their simpler robe of colored stuff and a conical cap of red velvet, tipped with gold lace.” The photographs I have of my grandmother in Algeria, taken a few decades later, show her already as a French-looking woman, a Jewish Arab who has learned the lesson of Frenchness these schools were established to impart. Where did my great-great grandmother, who was a native Algerian and could have been one of these girls, disappear to? This lesson of Frenchness, standardization, eradication has a name in French: laïcité. The term “secularism” doesn’t quite capture the stripping bare the worldliness, or being-in-the-world, of a person, which laïcité requires. Part of solving the “Jewish question” in Europe required the refashioning of Jews as secular Europeans (who could still be “Jews” at home) before they could go in public. With the French conquest of Algeria, the Jews were singled out from the Arabs and were made into a “problem,” forced to get rid of what identified them as indigenous, so that a few decades later the colonial regime could reward them for their efforts with the gift of French citizenship. The lecture will explore some aspects of the colonial predicament of the decolonization of bodies."