An open letter to Achille Mbembe
I was recently invited to write about the “future” and was reminded of the workshop you organised twelve years ago in Johannesburg around the same theme. The most striking memory of the “future” I retain from my visit is not an argument or a paper, but rather the strong sensation of being in the future of a collapsed apartheid system, playing in my mind a fast-forward movement toward the future following the still-expected fall of the Israeli regime of occupation. I didn’t anticipate then that shortly after that visit, instead of fast forwarding, I’d experiment with an expansive form of rewinding that would actually bring me back to Africa. This time, I would go to its northern tip, and not as a guest, but as a native, a prodigal child.
You could not help thinking, you wrote to me after you read my open letter to Sylvia Wynter about the disappearance of Jews from Africa, that it was addressed to you too. You were not wrong. I have taken a break from writing the kinds of texts that are addressed to everyone and to no one in particular at the same time, and now I’m writing only letters, addressed to people whose language rebels against the spatial and temporal condition of empire. Reading your essays on Africa, I felt addressed by their speculative descriptions of a borderless world, and your notion of “redistributions of the earth.” Instead of fast forwarding toward a utopian project for the future, I’m interested in rewinding imperial history and thinking within the incompleteness of the past. Lately, I have been writing letters to my ancestors buried in North Africa, in the hope of awakening them from the slumbered colonial consciousness in which they were trapped, while they saw their descendants being hijacked by and into dissociated and manufactured histories and memories of other nation states. Disrupting imperial onto-epistemologies cannot be achieved without recalling our ancestors and stirring up their refusal of empire’s new realities and geographies.
I was born to an Algerian Jewish father but was not allowed to recognise myself as an Algerian Jew. With me, and others in my generation, thousands of years of Jewish life in North Africa were disrupted. I was born to a Palestinian Jewish mother. I was not allowed to recognise myself as a Palestinian Jew. I reclaim these two identities that were made unimaginable. To be what my parents were, became with the creation of the state of Israel and France’s obstinate refusal to decolonize Algeria following WWII, an onto-epistemological aberration that I nonetheless insist on embodying. I was born in 1962, in the year when the idiom “no longer” could be used to describe Arab Jewish life in the Maghreb, as if it were a bygone past. This “no longer” is imperialism’s signature, which aims to make Africa forget its prodigal children, but Africa listens to the sighs of their ancestors, who are ready to be awakened and recalled, and to attest to their own chagrin, after being left alone with no one allowed to come to hear what they still have to say.
In 1962, when I was born, Algeria, my ancestors’ home for thousands of years, was liberated from 132 years of colonialism. For many years, as I taught The Battle of Algiers, it was like teaching others’ anti-colonial struggles. Enraged, I was slowly awakening out of my own imperial slumber, and I came to understand that this film is about our people, Algerians, a people France told us we were “no longer” part of, as Israel then reaffirmed. During the battle of Algiers, the idea that Arab Jews would soon live there no longer was inconceivable. That it took decades of unlearning imperialism, and almost a decade of writing Potential History, for me to say I am an Algerian Jew shows how deep imperial human engineering goes and how entangled it is with what you call “risk management techniques.”
In the year when I was born, four basic facts disappeared from the global imaginary of the anti-imperial and anti-colonial annals: that the Jews in Algeria were colonised in 1830 like everyone else in Algeria; that they were endemic to Algeria no less than Muslims or Kabyle people among whom they lived; that in 1870 they were not granted citizenship but forced to become French citizens in their own country; and that decolonisation should have been their fate too, even if they had become French in some sense when they were made citizens of France. These facts, stirred from oblivion, become impediments to imperial progress.
I was born fourteen years after the Zionists destroyed Palestine and established Israel in its place. I was assigned the role of a weapon instead of an identity. Being “Israeli” means keeping Palestinians outside of Israel, making their return impossible and normalising the theft of their lands and property. At the same time, this command to live as a human weapon forces different Jews to gravitate toward a new violent common—Israel. This new common blurs their memories of having been diverse hyphenated Jews, whose history had little, if anything, to do with what was offered to them as their history—the history of the Jewish people, a historical subject crafted by Europe, whose destiny was to be fulfilled in Israel. I was made to forget my ancestors’ life and history in the Maghreb, and to prove, simply because I had been born on this land, that a state for the Jews in Palestine has a right to exist, regardless of the harm and the lies it produces to justify its existence. Its existence comes at the expense of people whose rights to live with others, in justice, while caring for their shared world, continue to be superseded.
The creation of the state of Israel was part of the “new world order” imposed by Euro-American imperial powers, who appointed themselves as liberators, while they continued to pursue genocidal practices in their colonies and in the settler-colonial spaces they crafted. A state for the Jews that European powers granted to the Jews, on lands they had no right to distribute, was a violent solution to the “Jewish problem.” This was what the Zionists, self-appointed representatives of the Jewish people, aimed to achieve, not the survivors of the Nazi extermination plans. The survivors’ urgent need to heal, wherever they found themselves at the end of the war as they recovered from campaigns of extermination and world destruction, were forfeited. Instead of redress, repair, and cessation of the imperial violence that these Euro-American powers had directed against different racialised peoples for centuries, Jews were offered a bargain: a state of their own that would make them just like others, a Judeo-Christian state apparatus programmed against Muslims and Arabs. The creation of the state of Israel was not for the Jewish people, but rather against many different Jews, primarily Arab Jews, whose life in North Africa and the Middle East was jeopardised by its creation and unsurprisingly was “no longer” within a few decades. Unlearning assigned identities is necessary for the past to become incomplete and for borders to collapse, so that a borderless world will not seem like an unattainable utopia but rather, like a return to the non-imperial geography that was stolen from our ancestors.
Yours, Ariella Aïsha, January 17th, 2021
Ariella Azoulay is an author, art curator, filmmaker, and theorist of photography and visual culture. She is Professor of Modern Culture and Media in the Department of Comparative Literature at Brown University. Her latest book is Potential History—Unlearning Imperialism (Verso, 2019).
This piece was commissioned as part of the Imagined Futures Series.