Clíona Hensey

ISSN 2516-8045

Download: Clíona Hensey, ‘“Ghostly encounters”: Haunting as postcolonial testimony in Zahia Rahmani’s Moze and Saliha Telali’s Les enfants des harkis’

While prescriptive definitions of trauma tend to centre upon individual processes of repression and latent re-enactment, with the transformation of ‘unspeakable’ affect into testimony accordingly proceeding from first-person lived experience, two aspects which complicate the definitions and categories developed by traditional trauma studies, introducing further layers and intersections of painful affect, are the ‘postgenerational’ condition and the legacies of colonialism. In this article, I propose that the stylistic and thematic tropes of haunting which recur in contemporary writing by daughters of harkis – indigenous Algerian men who served as auxiliary soldiers in the French army during the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962) – represent a productive mode of processing and testifying to the ‘unfinished business’ associated with colonial histories. In spite of the heterogeneity and generic hybridity of texts published by female descendants of harkis between 1993 and 2017, aspects of ghostliness, whether they are employed explicitly as plot devices or appear as implicit allusions to the transgenerational endurance of haunting histories, orient these narratives’ ‘postgenerational’ quests for personal closure and collective justice. As such, this article examines the prevalence – and productive, dialogic potential – of spectres, revenants and the uncanny in literature dealing with the legacy of colonial pasts, through a reading of Zahia Rahmani’s Moze (2003) and Saliha Telali’s Les enfants des Harkis: Entre silence et assimilation subie (2009). The multivocal nature of these works allows their authors to instigate textual and extratextual dialogues which challenge traditional notions of trauma as both unspeakable and potentially curable through testimony. Modes of haunting are shown to complicate Freudian binarisms, such as mourning and melancholia and acting out and working through, reconfiguring testimony as not simply an individual process of achieving closure, but, rather, a dynamic speech act in which the rules and roles of the testimonial encounter are continually questioned. Such a revised conception of the testimonial encounter would allow these ‘postgenerational’ individuals to imaginatively confront their own (inter)subjective relationships to traumatic pasts, while simultaneously revealing the ongoing traumatising post-and neo-colonial power structures which prevent comprehensive dialogues from taking place. The reader is ultimately positioned not simply as the passive recipient of testimony, but rather as an active witness who is called upon to take up the dialogues which are often foreclosed or interrupted within the confines of the texts, transforming one-dimensional, decontextualised forms of bearing witness into more ethically-attuned, historically-situated reciprocal speech acts.

Testimony’s postmemorial and postcolonial turns

Marianne Hirsch’s concept of ‘postmemory’ has been of particular value in addressing the ways in which descendants of individuals who experienced historical traumas process, and potentially ‘work through’, the tangled strands of individual, familial and collective affect associated with their ‘postgenerational’ status. As theories of trauma and witnessing have established that testimonial narratives of individual trauma rarely appear as straightforward representations of the original event, but are rather imaginatively re-created in what Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub consider to be performative speech acts,1 members of the postgeneration are similarly engaged in a creative dialogue with the gaps, traces and fragmented stories which they have inherited. In this sense, the ‘imaginative investment’2 which Hirsch identifies as central to this pluralistic dynamic of mnemonic reconstruction implies the presence of elements of distance and mediation, simultaneously recalling and complicating traditional, deconstructionist trauma theory’s insistence on the inherent unspeakability of trauma, and the attendant primacy of fictional, non-linear modes of representation. Perhaps most significantly, the analytic frameworks developed around postmemorial narratives of trauma allows us to conceive of models for the delivery and reception of testimony which transcend individualistic notions of bearing witness to, and coming to terms with, trauma. This turn towards considering the interplay between various levels and processes of memory beyond theorisations of individual responses to traumatic events has played an important role in foregrounding the historical specificity, and ongoing legacies, of past trauma, thus signalling a potential synthesis of psychoanalytic approaches to testimony and a situated understanding of its ethico-political potential.

This reorientation of the paradigm of testimony beyond individual affect has been extended in recent years in the context of a postcolonial turn which has further challenged the egocentric, event-based foundations of trauma theory. Despite the emphasis placed by early proponents of trauma studies, such as Cathy Caruth, on the interwoven connections between traumatised peoples, and the ethical, empathic potential of this understanding of our ‘catastrophic age’3 as founded on and defined by trauma, critics such as Stef Craps, Michael Rothberg and Ranjana Khanna have demonstrated that the traditional approach of defining trauma as a sudden, overwhelming psychological blow proves insufficient in explaining the ongoing legacies and repercussions of complex sociopolitical structures such as colonialism and, as such, precludes productive readings of narratives inflected with postcolonial traumatic affect.4 While Western-centric trauma theory has often tended to reify unspeakability, positing that trauma’s latency is a symptom of its initial repressed impact and that strategies for the communication of trauma are necessarily limited to repetitions, re-enactments and oblique representational strategies, the enduring effects and affects of postcolonial trauma introduce an ethical imperative to bear witness to the suffering of wider groups, communities and generations. Furthermore, texts by authors writing from a postcolonial standpoint challenge the tendency to conceive of experimental stylistic devices such as non-linearity, plurivocality and self-reflexivity as postmodern narrative modes symptomatic of trauma’s unrepresentability. Such authors frequently invoke non-Western modes of storytelling and mythological narrative, not only as a means of connecting to their ancestral heritage, but also of constructing creative dialogues between temporalities and subjectivities in a deliberate reconstructive and interpellative endeavour. In this reconfigured understanding of creative representations of ‘insidious’5 postcolonial trauma, which, owing to its pervasive, transgenerational nature, also frequently involves the dynamics and affects of postmemory, the stakes of representing the multiple intersections between individual and collective memory differ from those associated with personal testimony of one-off events ‘outside the range of human experience’.6 A consideration of authors of narratives of postcolonial trauma as historically-situated political and ethical agents who employ hybrid forms of literary testimony not simply as a means of working through individual and familial traumas, but also of drawing attention to the multiple forces which continue to restrict the narrativisation of traumatic histories, thus also calls for new readings of the possibilities of their reception.

While the Freudian binarism which opposes mourning and melancholia has been criticised for prioritising the ‘healthy’ introjection of losses, leading to a revalorisation and even reification of melancholia as ‘an ethical response to loss’ and a politicised ‘act of resistance that thwarts erasure’,7 haunting serves, in writing by daughters of harkis, to problematise the binarism itself. In this sense, haunting occupies a fluid, shifting space identified by Lucy Brisley as an iteration of ‘working through’ which is closely aligned with Adorno’s conception of ‘a sustained process of “working upon” history that seeks to unearth unconscious elements of the past that threaten to re-emerge hauntingly as the return of the repressed’.8 This ‘unearthing’ of the past in order to reconstruct and come to terms with unassimilated affect operates on a postgenerational level, allowing authors and narrators to reject monolithic notions of History in favour of giving a voice to plural, interwoven histories, while also confronting the structures which continue to uphold and inflict postcolonial trauma. Rather than offering full closure or straightforward palliatives, then, narratives of postcolonial haunting recognise the value of working through – or, in Suzette Henke’s terms, ‘writing through’9 – individual painful affect, while refusing to rebury the phantoms which they have conjured, instead offering them up to the reader as the remnants of a collective past which continues to haunt the present. Dualisms of past and present, reality and the imagination and even life and death exist in uneasy yet productive tension, allowing for complex expressions of memory, trauma and identity beyond the constraints of either psychoanalytic or juridical modes. These spectral testimonial platforms may be seen to facilitate what Mireille Rosello has termed ‘performative encounters’, a framework which she outlines in the context of Franco-Maghrebi relations as ‘a type of encounter that coincides with the creation of new subject-positions rather than treating pre-existing (pre-imagined) identities as the reason for, and justification of, the protocol of encounter – whether it is one of violence or trust, respect or hostility’.10 Authors whose works imagine such encounters are positioned as ‘skilled tacticians who are created as historians through a personal and collective quest’,11 and this vertical and horizontal engagement with memories, histories and spaces is particularly conducive to ‘ghostly encounters’, in which the dead are exposed rather than simply (re)buried,12 as a means of highlighting the impossibility of laying these ghosts of the past to rest under current conditions.

The double wound

In his anthropological study of the harki community in France, in particular its second generation which has been instrumental in breaking historical silences through social activism, court actions and the collection and publication of testimonies, Vincent Crapanzano notes that these descendants frequently use the term ‘trauma’ to describe the experiences of the first generation and its repercussions on their own generation.13 These descendants are thus ‘doubly wounded’, as they suffer from both the stigmatic identity which they have inherited, and the absence of full knowledge of their parents’ experiences, due to pervasive societal and familial silences.14 Crapanzano concludes that descendants of harkis are, despite their efforts to heal this ‘double wound’ through activism, unable to construct narratives which move beyond what he terms ‘the Harki story’.15 While acknowledging that this harki story is, by necessity, dialogic, resulting from a need to bear witness to layers of traumatic affect, Crapanzano’s study suggests that the community’s particular strategy of testimony is insufficient in healing individual or collective wounds. Repeated stories, crystallised around organising events and symbols such as massacres by the victorious Algerian nationalist forces after the ceasefire, and the surviving members’ subsequent relegation in transit camps and ‘forestry hamlets’ in France, are aimed at the French, inciting them to bear witness to this abandonment and discrimination. Yet, following Crapanzano, this re-enactment of static collective narratives strips these stories of both their rhetorical and reparative potential, serving only to deepen the community’s futile or even destructive anger, as the members of the French authorities and public to whom they address these narratives rarely fulfil the desired role of active witness.16 As such, the community’s recourse to testimony is configured as an unproductive and even negative endeavour, as the ‘duty of memory’ experienced by children of harkis towards their parents’ pasts is frequently structured and restricted by oppositional, competitive discourses framed by references to fidelity to the French nation and to the notion that the harkis deserve recognition for their victimhood based on this loyalty, which reinforces stereotypes without targeting the colonial structures which oversaw and perpetuate systems of discrimination. This stultifying effect of static discourses of victimhood informs Crapanzano’s hesitancy to use the term ‘trauma’ in relation to the experiences of the harki community, a decision which, he explains, reflects his desire to ‘steer as clear as possible of the articulation of their suffering in a psychiatric idiom that deflects its political dimension’.17 While Crapanzano’s approach is laudable, reflecting the productive impulse to transcend pathologising, and frequently individualising, discourses of traumatic victimhood and to instead envision more ethical, historically-situated frameworks of testimony and witnessing, I will argue, in what follows, that writing by daughters of harkis productively engages both psychoanalytic and political impulses, and thus provides a contrast to the activism and oral testimony described by the anthropologist.

While certain works by daughters of harkis at times reproduce narratives of loyalty and abandonment which Giulia Fabbiano has termed ‘saturated memories’,18 their writing may be broadly characterised as representing plurivocal, reconstructive quests which move beyond normative, state-sanctioned structures of commemoration and frameworks for recognition and reparation. Rather than reiterating ‘frozen – lifeless – discourse’,19 these works reinvest static narratives of harki memory and identity with new life, inserting the first generation’s experiences of war, torture, exile and imprisonment into broader postcolonial structures and acknowledging that the intergenerational affect associated with the harki identity is not only the result of these identifiable collective events, but also of a less easily quantifiable, more deeply rooted postcolonial condition which continues to impinge, both psychologically and materially, on their subjectivity and agency. It is, I would argue, precisely through tropes of haunting – which do not reject repetition and re-enactment, but rather work with and reconfigure these as creative modes of expression – that such works succeed in performing transformative dialogues across and between temporalities, spaces and subjectivities. The dialogic potential of haunting, represented both thematically and stylistically by disembodied voices, conversations with spectral figures, obsessive quests for justice, circular narratives and a lack of closure, thus challenges traditional conceptions associated with trauma and testimony.20

While testimony appears in these works as an arduous, halting process, the authors’ employment of elements of fiction and experimental stylistic devices may be read as not simply an expression of the impossibility of communicating ‘unspeakable’ traumatic affect through realistic modes of representation, but also as an engagement with their history and heritage which transcends the boundaries of the harki story. Similarly, the ‘belatedness’ evident in these works is not merely a pathological psychoanalytic symptom, but rather a deliberate stylistic choice intended to highlight the ‘unfinished business’ associated with haunting histories. The authors’ position as members of the harki postgeneration allows them to perform ‘the vital betweenness that arises across individual and collective memory’,21 while what Régis Pierret terms their ‘triple belonging’ (‘triple appartenance’)22 – the fact that they may self-identify as belonging to three distinct yet interwoven ‘communities’: French, Algerian and harki – points to their capacity to create plural forms of bearing witness to complex history and identity. Just as memory is not merely transmitted along vertical lines, but is also constructed horizontally,23 so the reparative power of testimony does not simply involve reconstructing familial narratives, but also implies the necessity of delving further into collective and shared pasts, and of performing ‘multidirectional’24 encounters with other groups. Reading these texts in their historical and sociocultural contexts, while not reducing them to a narrow description of writing about the harkis’ history, may therefore allow us to envisage a more politically-engaged form of testifying and receiving postcolonial testimony, in which haunting is reconfigured as a deliberate, productive representational strategy rather than a static, passive re-enactment of a past that has not been effectively introjected.


Zahia Rahmani has described her writing project as ‘the writing of disinterment’, and her three published texts – Moze (2003), “Musulman”: Roman (‘“Muslim”: A Novel’; 2005) and France: Récit d’une enfance (‘France: Narrative of a Childhood’; 2006) – accordingly explore diverse strategies of unearthing and bringing to light silenced stories at familial, collective and transnational levels.25 The ghostly legacies of the harki identity are at the heart of Moze, a fragmentary, autofictional work which was published more than a decade after her father’s suicide and is structured around the narrator’s question: ‘How does one emerge alone from assumed guilt? This life given at birth.’26 While centred on the difficulty, and necessity, of bearing witness, the text departs from traditional conceptions of testimonial writing and may instead be read as a polyphonic ghost story in which haunting is appropriated by the narrator as a subversive force of resistance to neo-colonial power structures. The effects of intergenerational transmission are symbolised by tropes of possession, incorporation and melancholic re-enactment which are signalled by the title, a combination of the first name of the author’s father, Mohammad, and her own given name, Zahia, and which refers to the name given to the unnamed narrator’s father.

While the narrative deals with the aftermath of Moze’s death by drowning, the titular character exists within its pages not simply as a distant spectral presence, but rather a ‘deadsoldier’ (‘soldatmort’)27 who constitutes a member of the living dead, and is accordingly referred to in the present tense throughout the text. The narrator contends that history had already rendered her father a ghostly figure when he was alive.28 As such, Moze shares the characteristics of the still-living harkis whom the narrator describes as ‘half-dead’ (‘demi-mort’), immobilised by social stigma and mental illness and thus existing outside normative realms of justice and reparation.29 The narrator’s melancholic re-enactment of her father’s death through the symbolism of drowning30 and her description of herself as living in the company of ghosts31 align her with this liminal position. This is, however, not simply the result of the narrator’s inability to mourn her father, but rather constitutes a broader reflection on the destructive effects of the absence of meaningful dialogue on the harkis’ experiences, which are transmitted to the members of the postgeneration, revealing the impossibility of coming to terms with their inheritance of the harki identity within the narrow context of discourses of loyalty and recognition.

Although the text is built around the narrator’s impulse to testify to her father’s experiences, which she describes as not simply a duty of memory but ‘the duty of testimony’,32  she is initially reluctant to acknowledge that she is the daughter of a harki, and expresses a desire to rid herself of his haunting, possessive presence: ‘I don’t owe him anything. He owes it to me to leave me, to leave my mind; he owes it to me to leave. He owes it to me not to come back again.’33 Significantly, it is during an imagined journey to Algeria undertaken with her sister, with the intention of attempting to rebury their father in his homeland, that the narrator comes to accept the necessity of confronting and testifying to the legacies of familial and collective pasts as a means of extricating herself from her father’s identity. Yet, while Moze channelled his trauma and sense of abandonment into the demands for recognition and reparation which he obsessively sent to army officials and political representatives, the narrator considers this a futile exercise which merely perpetuates the harki community’s subjugation within neocolonial power structures. Her reconfiguration of testimony as a more complex, comprehensive reparative force thus constitutes a critique of the harki community’s recourse to frameworks of institutional recognition characterised by tokenistic, insufficient gestures which she considers to mask the necessary task of speaking openly and honestly about the harkis’ experiences, and, ultimately, of confronting the broader legacies of French colonialism: ‘No questions. Measures.’34 She describes herself as an inheritor of a ghostly injunction to remember the harkis’ history and to gain recognition for their suffering, claiming that she has even inherited her father’s writing and could ‘rewrite all his letters, falsify them, change his life, make forgeries, continue to make him live, hound his superiors and his masters, write to his jailers. Become a ghost. A ghost that would understand what it had to do. A deadsoldier returned from the dead!’35 Yet, her exploration of the vicissitudes of bearing witness allows her to come to the realisation that in order to effectively transmit her father’s story, she must first disentangle herself from him as a means of asserting her own subjectivity, which had been displaced by her incorporation of his ghostly body.

The literary text, therefore, becomes a symbolic creative platform which facilitates the performance of silenced memories and histories, while transcending the static framework of the ‘harki story’. The site for this channelling of spectral familial and collective memory takes the form of a fictional tribunal, or ‘National Reparations Commission’ (Commission nationale de réapration), facilitated by the French state. Having been persuaded by her sister, the narrator agrees to testify before this tribunal on behalf of her deceased father, as a means of providing a voice for her him and for other absent harkis and, in so doing, separating herself from his identity in order to (re)construct her own self. In contrast to Moze’s repeated attempts to gain recognition and compensation, however, she does not simply reproduce narratives of loyalty to France in order to reinforce the community’s sense of abandonment. Rather, faced with a commission which seeks to define and limit her speech, and whose members refuse to accept testimony which strays beyond the pre-established boundaries of her father’s experiences, the narrator reconfigures haunting as a productive force which allows her to subvert the commission’s function and to reposition the balance of power in favour of the previously silenced harki community. Tropes of haunting allow her to perform plurivocal ‘acts of memory’,36 as in her summoning of the wider community of ‘living dead’, absent yet present harkis, to whom she delivers a ghostly address: ‘You, the former soldiers, you bear a much too heavy burden. You fought for a lost war, a shameful conflict and this State which does not want to be your voice forces you to bear the responsibility of its error, as long as it remains silent.’37 As these spectral figures cannot engage in dialogue, the narrator’s address obliquely interpellates the members of the tribunal and, by extension, the readers, highlighting the unfinished business which remains to be worked through in the context of colonial history both within and beyond the context of the Algerian War.

The subversive power of speech is further emphasised by the narrator’s mimicry of the ‘voices’ of colonial authority, allowing her to ‘resignify’38 the insults and prejudices directed at harkis and their descendants. The destructive effects of melancholic incorporation demonstrated by her identification with her dead father are replaced by a more productive use of haunting in the form of her symbolic, politically-motivated decision to allow herself to become ‘possessed’ by the ghostly voice of the chairman of the tribunal, who comes to embody the silenced colonial underpinnings of the harkis’ history: ‘I address him and suddenly I get the desire, the urge to be him – the chairman of this tribunal. I turn my back on him, stare into space and I say, “Yes, it was so that he could kill his brother that he betrayed his brother for me. I, who was supposed to kill his brother, made him commit this crime. I made him kill his brother, whom I was supposed to kill”.’39 This creative iteration of haunting as a platform for transgressive speech allows her to place the burden of shame on the French state for its exploitative colonial rule which pitted brother against brother, facilitating a reversal of roles which may be aligned with Rosello’s definition of ‘performative encounters’ as ‘those rare and defining interventions when the dialogue between those who believe that they are the only legitimate participants in the conversation is interrupted by the voice whose story the community pretends is a form of noise’.40 While Rahmani’s work may, in this sense, be regarded as building upon the interpellative nature of the juridical action, activism and political mobilisation associated with the ‘harki community’ more broadly, her subversive appropriation of the authoritative voice of the French colonial system transcends discourses of loyalty to instead present the figure of the harki as a social and political construction rooted in colonial history.

This historically-attuned, ‘multidirectional’ approach to delivering her father’s testimony allows her to simultaneously bear witness to her own complex identity. The dialogic structure of her imaginative, reconstructive memory work facilitates the confrontation of painful postgenerational affect and ambiguity, leading her to a more nuanced position in which she lives with her father’s spectre, rather than allowing herself to be consumed by it by reifying melancholic incorporation in the repetition of static collective narratives of loyalty. The act of testifying to Moze’s experiences is, therefore, imbued with a broader dynamic of postcolonial witnessing:

Just as I don’t know how one can live in the knowledge that one is the child of a torturer, I find the idea of wanting to identify mitigating circumstances for Moze’s actions ridiculous. But you won’t stop me from thinking that colonisation was a serious error, and that even today this country’s violence should be considered in the light of the destruction caused by colonial policies.41

This reorientation of the ‘harki story’ towards the pervasive structures of colonialism which permitted their exploitation leads her to suggest that testimony alone is insufficient, and that real, meaningful dialogue about France’s colonial past is necessary in order to resist forgetting and the reburial of history: ‘We talk about Vichy, 1941, the war and collaboration. We say that we need all these words so that we can put them to good use, and those who hear this do not understand that their story is being buried along with them.’42

The narrator’s ‘multidirectional’ testimony thus transcends both juridical and psychoanalytic modes of bearing witness, instead constituting a pluralistic encounter in which ghostly voices are summoned not in order to ‘act out’ historical traumas and fixed roles, but rather as a means of instigating reconstructive dialogues:

What should be condemned when you condemn Moze is what allowed him to be what he was. We must say that, yes, a serious incident occurred in this country! We need to write it down. We must speak, speak about what happened!’43

Rather than continuing to wait passively for recognition and reparations from the French state, the narrator frames her demands in terms which transcend the conventional language of institutional commemoration: ‘I want the ambitious truth and not just an inscription on the national calendar.’44 History, memory and truth are presented in this reconfigured testimonial platform not as static, one-dimensional concepts over which dominant groups may claim ownership, but rather as elements which are subject to renegotiation and reappropriation, echoing Mieke Bal’s description of cultural memory as ‘something you actually perform’45 and Marianne Hirsch’s discussion of the potential of memory work to ‘propose forms of justice outside of the hegemonic structures of the strictly juridical’.46 The largely monologic nature of the narrator’s creative testimony at once centres the importance of speech and questions its value in the context of circumscribed state-sanctioned discursive frameworks. The absence of successful communication with the spectral juridical figures within the confines of the text thus opens instead to a form of extratextual dialogue which, in alerting the reader to the ongoing need for comprehensive, constructive engagement with colonial pasts, suggests not only the necessity of an alternative conception of justice, but also of a renewed understanding of bearing witness.

The text’s final ‘act’ stages another ghostly dialogue, in this instance involving the narrator and her dead father, suggesting that the delivery of her cross-temporal postcolonial testimony has allowed her to confront his haunting presence without fear of being consumed by it.47 Yet, this ‘return’ complicates received understandings of effective mourning, pointing to the necessity of unearthing the dead in order to confront the legacies of colonialism. Moze’s ultimate refusal to speak, even in death, of his experiences, suggests that his death cannot – and perhaps should not – be fully mourned. Although the narrator attempts to incite her father to speak openly, his ghostly manifestation does not offer closure or clear answers, reflecting Rosello’s contention that ‘ghostly encounters’ do not involve epiphanies or revelations, but rather serve to emphasise the conditions which perpetuate structures of silencing:

Neither the ghost, nor the body, nor the survivors have found (or will find) any rest or peace. […] The encounter shares with the ghost the determination to linger on and not be silenced. Something remains to be said, to be heard. Perhaps this is why cemeteries are not resting places.’48

The narrator’s dialogue with her father does, however, offer a certain degree of closure on an intimate, familial level, allowing her to come to a new understanding of his overwhelming sense of shame as resulting not only from his actions, but also from his continued inability to speak of his experiences, which, in spite of his traumatised silence, were transmitted to his children and internalised along with the social stigma attached to the title of harki: ‘– They say that we are your children! – I am ashamed of this shame which I never told you about.’49

While such ghostly dialogues may facilitate reconciliation in the context of individual processes of mourning, Moze’s ongoing inability to speak of his experiences, in addition to the circularity of the narrative, which repeats towards the end the words with which it begins (‘I remember. Write that you remember. That you remember it’),50 underlines the limits of testimony in the absence of active witnesses, and may instead be read as an interpellation to readers which proceeds from the haunting traces of the harkis’ history. While the narrator defies the silent, subservient role traditionally assigned to the harki community, the text contains further examples of unsuccessful attempts to communicate with potential witnesses, notably in her dealings with the police inspector who questions the family after Moze’s death, and in the refusal of the members of the Commission de réparations to accept her disobedient testimony. These individuals initially respond to the narrator’s words with anger and evasiveness, then proceed to treat her with indifference, ultimately shutting down the dialogue with repeated interjections.51 Yet, after these characters abandon the narrator to her testimony, one key, extra-textual witness remains in the form of the reader. Frequently interpellated as ‘you’ (‘vous’), the reader is invited to read – in Gillian Whitlock’s terms – ‘in the second person’,52 following the narrator as she comes to acknowledge that Moze’s silence, depression and outbursts of destructive anger were not only the result of specific painful events, but may also be traced to broader, ‘insidious’ structures of (post)colonial trauma which configured the harkis as traitors and pariahs, rather than uncomfortable reminders of the spectral legacies of colonialism. The narrator does not present testimony as a curative endeavour in itself, but rather suggests that fictional platforms for bearing witness to intergenerational postcolonial trauma represent a means of instigating dialogues which should be carried over into reality, providing an opportunity for the development of an ethical model of confronting and witnessing the wounds of history. In this sense, the rhetorical question which she delivers to the chairman of the Commission resounds beyond the confines of the text: ‘I am telling of my shame. But who will tell of yours?’53

Les enfants des harkis

Saliha Telali’s Les enfants des harkis: Entre silence et assimilation subie (‘The Children of Harkis: Between Silence and Endured Assimilation’, 2013) similarly moves between an individual and collective approaches to bearing witness to trauma beyond static iterations of memory. In spite of its title, which suggests a sociological or anthropological study of the harki postgeneration in the style of the works by Crapanzano and Pierret, the narrative is a deeply personal, experimental account of the destructive effects of familial silence and societal taboo on the author and, by extension, on the broader community of descendants of harkis. Like Moze, it is also structured around tropes of haunting which facilitate ‘ghostly encounters’, while also serving to avoid closure by interpellating the reader as an active witness to the ‘insidious’ effects of colonial power structures. While not discounting the value of commemoration and material recognition, the narrator’s emphasis on the need for comprehensive dialogue on the harkis’ history allows her to nuance fixed narratives of loyalty in favour of a critical discussion of the legacies of broader colonial structures, particularly in the context of the postgeneration’s experiences of racial discrimination and social stigma. Her focus on structures of silencing and strategies of resistance is not restricted to the taboo surrounding the harkis’ experiences, but extends to consider the silence of French authorities and wider society towards ongoing forms of postcolonial trauma, such as racial profiling, moving her testimony beyond discourses of victimhood to a position of critical agency.

While both Moze and Les enfants des harkis navigate the often fluid borders between individual and collective memory, it is a collective event – a public commemoration of the First World War which she attends in her role as a local councillor – rather than a specific personal trauma which impels Telali’s narrator to address the legacies of the harkis’ experiences. This task, in turn, alerts her to the need to work through her own buried memories, leading her to perform a belated process of memorial reconstruction and witnessing in which binarisms such as past and present, self and other, and acting out and working through are collapsed. Recounting her sudden realisation of the unequal treatment of memory groups by state and society, the narrator describes the ‘strange impression’ of feeling ‘present and absent at the same time’.54 This uncanny sensation leads to further imagery of haunting, as her family’s past, which she had sought to ‘bury’ as a child and adolescent in an attempt to assimilate into French society, is depicted as a spectral presence which similarly oscillates between absence and presence and reflects the symbolism of disinterment and drowning employed by Rahmani: ‘While parading that day, my origins and the history of the Algerian War which I had repressed resurfaced like an inanimate body.’55She comes to realise that the silencing of her father’s history troubled her not only in terms of its absence from public memory, but also in the context of her own sense of self: ‘I felt French and yet the thought of my harki father, whose history had dissolved into silence, taboo and things unsaid, permeated me, like a supplication which had arrived from the past to reawaken my origins.’56 Describing how the arduous process of breaking her own silence was made possible by the solidarity shown to her by other children of harkis, who corroborated the socio-historical aspects of her own story and inspired her to share this testimony with others, she reframes the potentially static conception of the ‘duty of memory’ as a ‘need for memory’57 which implicates both individual and collective processes of bearing witness to painful histories.

As in Moze, testimony is not merely a linear representation of experiences, but rather an arduous performance which presents more questions than answers, thus challenging curative discourses associated with bearing witness. Themes of haunting and the importance of dialogue are not only present in the narrator’s discussions of the necessity of confronting the haunting traces of past trauma, but are also implicit in the text’s form. Telali’s reconstructive narrative is structured around a conversation between the narrator and her childhood self, which is primarily oriented by the child’s insistent questions: ‘That child is me. It emerged, without a sound, to ask me to lay down its burden, and my own!’58 In a similar fashion to Rahmani’s use of the juridical setting to stage a platform for the delivery of a dialogic, plurivocal form of testimony, the rhetorical figure of the child performs a subversive and potentially reparative dialogue between subjectivities and temporalities. While the narrator, at the beginning of the text, expresses the desire to share her story with this symbolic child as a means of allowing her younger self to reconstruct her subjectivity,59 it is, in fact, the child who ultimately assumes the role of an analyst, bearing witness to her own testimony. This spectral figure – which is not a ghost in the traditional sense, but rather simultaneously represents both a ‘revenant’ and an ‘arrivant’ in the Derridean construction,60 and thus reflects Pickering and Keightley’s description of the role of the ‘mnemonic imagination’ in bringing ‘different temporal tenses […] to bear on one another’61 – encourages the narrator to explore the source of her residual anger, in order to sublimate it into agency. The child leads the adult narrator through the arduous, ongoing process of working through, by posing questions and delivering strategically-placed deictic prompts and observations.

While this structure reflects the therapeutic value attached to testimony as a means of working through painful affect, the traditionally oppositional force of acting out is of equal importance in allowing both versions of the narrator to expose and confront their shared memories in a creative, reconstructive manner. The child frequently abandons its omniscient analytic position and instead acts out repressed trauma. In contrast to the resolute silence of fathers in these texts, the narrator describes how her mother insisted, for several years, on repeating to her children static memories of painful events which she had experienced. The figure of the child allows the narrator to explore the damaging effects of her internalisation of her mother’s trauma in a process of transferential witnessing, describing in vivid, immediate detail the manner in which she experienced these memories as a force of possession: ‘I’m scared! My memories are present. I feel as though I lived through this confrontation. The trauma has become mine. Her stories inhabit me’.62 In this sense, the narrator also contributes to the process of reconstructive memory work, acting, in turn, as the recipient of the child’s urgent testimony. The child’s re-enactment of her forced reception of her mother’s trauma prompts the adult narrator to explore her suppressed emotions regarding her family’s story, and this provides the child with the necessary context, which she could not have possessed at that age, to understand and come to terms with her mother’s desperate need for a witness to her trauma. The child thus succeeds in distancing herself from these memories which she had internalised and incorporated, as she recognises the suffering and lack of a suitable witness which prompted her mother to confide in her, and concludes: ‘Your mother suffered a lot from solitude’.63 As in Moze, melancholic incorporation is not valorised, as the narrator succeeds in detaching herself from her childhood self, a process symbolised by the change in pronouns which suggests that both adult and child have succeeded in coming to terms with their shared past, absolving the child of the need to continue haunting the adult narrator in the present.

However, Telali’s narrative is not merely a forum for the confrontation and exploration of individual trauma, but also acts as a rallying cry that emphasises the need to confront these haunting traces of the past on a broader scale. Her interweaving of the effects of both personal and collective trauma calls for a form of witnessing which would be mindful of the ways in which destructive silence is generated and upheld not just within family environments, but also through social and political structures. Her conversation with the child demonstrates that the delivery of testimony is not only an individual curative strategy involving the re-enactment of past traumas, but should be employed to challenge French society’s refusal to work through its history of colonial exploitation, which perpetuates the conditions for the discrimination and marginalisation which have defined the experiences of many members of the harki community. In this sense, the adult narrator resists the therapeutic incentive to gain full closure on the past, notably by leaving certain questions posed by the child unanswered, rather presenting these as rhetorical questions which invite further consideration and demonstrate the ‘unfinished business’ associated with the legacies of the French colonial past.

Working through the past, therefore, represents an ethical response to trauma which seeks to keep the memory of collective injustices alive, while not neglecting the importance of addressing the wounding effects of these painful pasts on one’s own psyche. As the members of the tribunal in Moze represent textual manifestations of political and social resistance to meaningful dialogue on the legacies of colonialism, so the narrator of Les enfants des harkis encounters obstructions in the form of a disembodied silencing voice which periodically interjects ‘SHH! SILENCE!’ (‘CHUT! SILENCE!’), interrupting her dialogue with the child, in particular at moments in which either character speaks of discrimination or poses an uncomfortable question such as ‘Is equality a myth?’64 Significantly, this rhetorical technique is used to subversive effect on the final page, in which the words repeated by this voice become a question rather than an exclamation: ‘SHH? SILENCE?’ (‘CHUT? SILENCE?’).65 This ending resists closure and instead turns outward towards the reader, reflecting the expectant tone of the narrator of Moze in her call for an active recipient of testimony who would bear witness to, and speak of, the silence and shame attached to colonial legacies. This incomplete address by the ghosts of the past reflects the function of postcolonial modes of haunting, echoing Rosello’s contention that such ‘ghostly encounters’ demand the exposure, rather than (re)burial, of haunting histories. Such texts which incorporate these critical forms of spectrality place an emphasis on ethical and political agency, eschewing the imperative to ‘move on’ implied by traditional models of mourning, without falling victim to the destructive, repetitive cycle of melancholia, and thus constitute a particular form of ‘working through’ which, following Craps:

resist[s] the temptation to leave the reader with the sense that the story has been told, consigned to the past; that it has been taken care of and can therefore now be forgotten. Rather than affirming a clear distinction between the past and the present, they demonstrate how those two are imbricated in one another: the past continues to structure the present.66

The creative, cross-temporal structures of these texts allow their authors to place various levels of intimate traumatic affect in dialogue with one another, while also pointing to the potential for – and necessity of – broader communication on the legacies of colonialism through the insistent presence of unearthed, unhomely spectres. As ghosts respect neither solid borders nor linear time, so Telali and Rahmani represent the effects of (post)colonial trauma in a manner which places their claims outside of traditional avenues of justice and reparations, and this recourse to spectrality may ultimately provide a productive means of analysing the diverse ways in which the extratextual other is interpellated in such texts.


In foregrounding the historical specificity of the traumatic effects of individual and shared pasts, not only in relation to the Algerian War and its aftermath, but also in the broader context of post- and neo-colonial power structures, works by daughters of harkis demonstrate the potential of critical literary modes of haunting to transcend depoliticised, identificatory models of witnessing. Haunting thus provides a reconfigured platform for both the representation and reception of trauma by straying from the traditional contours of the analytic encounter in which ‘the analyst / reader “knows” and “understands” a victim who is “ignorant” and “fails”’,67 instead pointing to a reciprocal, dialogic relationship between the author-narrator as testifier and the reader as active, engaged recipient of narrative testimony. If, following Brisley, ‘working through the past is an interminable process that begins not with the transmission of knowledge, but with its critical reception’,68 these postgenerational, postcolonial works allow us to explore what this ‘critical reception’ might mean. The non-linearity, circularity and invocation of the uncanny which characterises much of the cultural production by female descendants of harkis encourages engaged readers to consider their own potential implication or, to use Gillian Whitlock’s term, ‘complicity’ within broader historical and sociocultural structures that have contributed to the traumas which they seek to purge through writing.69 Their works challenge Western-centric trauma theory’s tendency to overlook the intersections between postgenerational and postcolonial iterations of trauma, and may thus allow us to conceive of a more ethical form of witnessing which would provide a creative, historically-situated framework for establishing empathic connections with groups outside one’s own networks of identification and affiliation.


  1.  Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub, Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History (London and New York: Routledge, 1992), p. 5.
  2.  Marianne Hirsch, The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), p. 247.
  3. Trauma: Explorations in Memory, ed. by Cathy Caruth (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), p. 204.
  4. See, for instance, Stef Craps, Postcolonial Witnessing: Trauma Out of Bounds (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013); Michael Rothberg, ‘Between Auschwitz and Algeria: Multidirectional Memory and the Counterpublic Witness’, Critical Inquiry, 33.1 (2006), pp. 158–184; Ranjana Khanna, Dark Continents: Psychoanalysis and Colonialism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003).
  5. Maria Root quoted in Craps, Postcolonial Witnessing, p. 26.
  6. DSM – III, cited in Laura Brown, ‘Not Outside the Range: One Feminist Perspective on Psychic Trauma’, in Trauma: Explorations in Memory, p. 100.
  7. Lucy Brisley, ‘Detective Fiction and Working Through: Investigating the (Post) Colonial Past in Boualem Sansal’s Le Serment Des Barbares (1999) And Yasmina Khadra’s La Part Du Mort (2004)’, International Journal of Francophone Studies, 16.1 (2013), (91-112), p. 92.
  8. Ibid, p. 93.
  9. Suzette A. Henke, Shattered Subjects (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998), p. xii.
  10. Mireille Rosello, France and the Maghreb: Performative Encounters (Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press, 2005), p. 1.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid, pp. 163-164.
  13. Vincent Crapanzano, Les Harkis: Mémoires sans issue, trans. by Johan-Frédérik Hel Guedj (Paris: Gallimard, 2012), p. 127.
  14. Ibid, p. 129.
  15. Vincent Crapanzano, The Harkis: The Wound that Never Heals (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), p. 10 (emphasis in original).
  16. Crapanzano, Les Harkis, p. 131; p. 135.
  17. Crapanzano, The Harkis, p. 218.
  18. Giulia Fabbiano, ‘Writing As Performance: Literary Production and the Stakes of Memory’, in A Practical Guide to French Harki Literature, ed. by Keith Moser (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2014), (17-35), p. 20.
  19. Vincent Crapanzano, ‘The dead but living father, the living but dead father’, in The Dead Father: A Psychoanalytic Enquiry, ed. by Lila J. Kalinich and Stuart W. Taylor (New York: Routledge, 2009), (163-174), p. 172.
  20. While beyond the scope of this study, the dialogic, ethical and political potential of aspects of haunting in postcolonial literature has also notably been contextualised within postcolonial Gothic theory, in which the traditional tropes of colonial Gothic literature, in particular the spectral presentation of colonial lands and their peoples, are (re)appropriated and subverted by authors writing from a postcolonial standpoint. Elements of ghostliness and horror which appear in such works are frequently drawn from indigenous spirituality and oral traditions, and thus perform productive, historically-situated contestations of the boundaries between binarisms such as centre and margin, self and other, and past and present. See, for instance, Ken Gelder, ‘Postcolonial Gothic’ in The Handbook of the Gothic, ed. by Marie Mulvey-Roberts (London: Palgrave, 2009); Alison Rudd, Postcolonial Gothic Fictions from the Caribbean, Canada, Australia and New Zealand (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2010); Barash Ali, ‘The Postcolonial Gothic: Haunting and History in the Literature after Empire’ (PhD dissertation, SUNY, 2005); Gerald Gaylard, ‘The Postcolonial Gothic: Time and Death in Southern African Literature’, JLS/TLW, 24.4 (2008), pp. 1 -18, and Kathrin Bartha, ‘The Specter of Landscape: The Postcolonial Gothic, Preternatural, and Aboriginal Spiritual in Alexis Wright’s Plains of Promise’, Preternature: Critical and Historical Studies on the Preternatural, 5.2 (2016), pp.189–212.
  21. Michael Pickering and Emily Keightley, The Mnemonic Imagination: Remembering as Creative Practice (Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), p. 9.
  22. Régis Pierret, Les filles et fils de harkis: Entre double rejet et triple appartenance (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2008).
  23. See Pickering and Keightley, ‘Communities of Memory and the Problem of Transmission’, European Journal of Cultural Studies, 16.1 (2013), pp. 115–131.
  24. See Michael Rothberg, Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization (California: Stanford University Press, 2009).
  25. Zahia Rahmani, ‘Le “harki” comme spectre ou l’écriture du “déterrement”’ in Retours du Colonial?: Disculpation et Réhabilitation de l’Histoire Coloniale Française, ed. by Catherine Coquio (Nantes: L’Atalante, 2008).
  26. Zahia Rahmani, Moze (Paris: Éditions Sabine Wespieser, 2003), p. 23. Original: ‘Comment sortir seule d’une culpabilité endossée? Cette vie donnée au berceau.’
  27. Ibid, pp. 20-21.
  28. Ibid, p. 38.
  29. Ibid, p. 92.
  30. Ibid, pp. 84-85.
  31. Ibid, pp. 154-155.
  32. Ibid, p. 131. Original: ‘le devoir de témoignage’.
  33. Ibid, p. 85. Original: ‘Je ne lui dois rien. Lui il me doit de me quitter, de quitter mon esprit, il me doit de partir. Il me doit de ne plus revenir.’
  34. Ibid, p. 54. Original: ‘Pas de question. Des mesures.’
  35. Ibid, p. 77. Original: ‘Je pourrais refaire toutes ses lettres, les falsifier, changer sa vie, faire des faux, continuer à le faire vivre, harceler ses supérieurs, ses maîtres, écrire à ses geôliers. Devenir un fantôme. Un fantôme qui aurait compris ce qu’il a à faire. Un soldatmort revenu de la mort!’
  36. Mieke Bal, ‘Introduction’, in Acts Of Memory: Cultural Recall In The Present, ed. by Mieke Bal, Jonathan Crewe and Leo Spitzer (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1999).
  37. Rahmani, Moze, p. 116. Original: ‘Vous, les anciens soldats, vous portez un fardeau bien trop lourd. Vous vous êtes battus pour une guerre perdue, un conflit honteux et cet Etat qui ne veut pas être votre voix vous fait porter tant qu’il sera silencieux la responsabilité de son erreur.’
  38. See Judith Butler, Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative (New York: Routledge, 1997), p. 244.
  39. Rahmani, Moze, pp. 140-141. Original: ‘Je m’adresse à lui et me vient tout à coup l’envie, le désir d’être lui. Lui, le président de cette commission. Je lui tourne le dos, je regarde le vide et je dis, Oui, c’est pour tuer son frère qu’il a trahi son frère pour moi . Moi, qui devais tuer son frère, je lui ai fait commettre ce crime. Je lui ai fait tuer son frère que je devais tuer.’
  40. Rosello, p. 18.
  41. Rahmani, Moze, p. 135. Original: ‘De même que je ne sais pas comment on peut vivre en sachant qu’on est l’enfant d’un tortionnaire, je trouve ridicule de vouloir trouver des circonstances atténuantes aux actes de Moze. Mais vous ne m’empêcherez pas de penser que la colonisation fut une erreur grave et qu’aujourd’hui encore il faut considérer la violence de ce pays au regard de la pulvérisation opérée par la politique coloniale.’
  42. Ibid, p. 109. Original: ‘On parle de Vichy, de 1941, de la guerre et de la collaboration. On dit qu’il faut toutes ces paroles pour s’en servir en bien et eux, qui entendent, ne comprennent pas qu’on enterre leur histoire avec eux.’
  43. Ibid, p. 136. Original: ‘Ce qui doit être condamné dans la condamnation de Moze c’est ce qui a permis son existence. Il faut le dire, c’est vrai qu’il y a eu dans ce pays un acte grave ! Il faut l’écrire. Il faut parler, parler de ce qui a eu lieu!’
  44. Ibid, p. 114. Original: ‘Je veux l’ambitieuse vérité et pas une inscription au calendrier national. Je ne veux pas de commémoration.’
  45. Bal, p. vii.
  46. Hirsch, p. 16.
  47. Rahmani, Moze, p. 175.
  48. Rosello, p. 164.
  49. Rahmani, Moze, p. 179. Original: ‘– Ils le disent que nous sommes tes enfants! – J’ai honte de cette honte que je ne vous ai jamais dite.’
  50. Ibid, 175. Original: ‘Je me souviens. Écris que tu te souviens. Que tu t’en souviens.’
  51. Ibid, p. 143.
  52. See Gillian Whitlock, ‘In the Second Person: Narrative Transactions in Stolen Generations Testimony’, Biography, 24.1 (2001), pp. 197-214.
  53. Rahmani, Moze, p. 138. Original: ‘Moi je dis ma honte. Mais qui dira la vôtre?’
  54. Saliha Telali, Les enfants des harkis: Entre silence et assimilation subie (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2009), p. 11. Original: ‘Étrange impression que celle de se sentir présente et absente à la fois.’
  55. Ibid., p. 13. Original: ‘En défilant ce jour-là, mes origines et l’histoire de la guerre d’Algérie que j’avais refoulées refaisaient surface tel un corps inanimé.’ Original: (‘Je me sentais Française et pourtant la pensée de mon père harki, dont l’histoire s’est diluée dans le silence, les non-dits, le tabou, m’imprégnait, telle une supplique venue du passé pour réveiller mes origines.’
  56. Ibid, p. 12.
  57. Ibid, p. 100.
  58. Ibid, p. 16. Original: ‘Cet enfant, c’est moi. Il a émergé sans bruit ni fracas, pour me demander de poser son fardeau, et le mien!’
  59. Ibid, p. 17. Original: ‘C’est un voyage dans le passé qui le délivrera et lui restituera une identité entière.’
  60. Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International (New York: Routledge, 1994), p. 175.
  61. Pickering and Keightley, The Mnemonic Imagination, p. 118.
  62. Telali, p. 34. Original: ‘J’ai peur! Mes souvenirs sont presents. J’ai l’impression d’avoir vécu cette confrontation. Le traumatisme est devenu mien. Ses récits m’habitent.’
  63. Ibid, p. 63. Original: ‘Ta mère a beaucoup souffert de solitude.’
  64. Ibid, p. 66. Original: ‘L’égalité est-elle un mythe?’
  65. Ibid, p. 122.
  66. Craps, Postcolonial Witnessing, p. 6.
  67. Irene Kacandes, Talk Fiction: Literature and the Talk Explosion (Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2001), 96.
  68. Brisley, p. 109.
  69. Whitlock, p. 209.