March 31st, 2010 09:01 EST
WWII Film About Algerians Fighting for France Raises Questions About Our Veterans
I watched France lose Algeria last night. Not to revolution "that came later "but to its own stubborn bigotry.
There are those who say that when independence finally came in 1962 it was inevitable. There are those who say Algeria could have become part of metropolitan France, as the French claimed it was, if the French had governed justly.
Whatever is true, the film Indigenes, Days of Glory makes it heartbreakingly clear that as Algerian soldiers under French command fought their way up the Italian boot and into France itself the French lost their hearts and minds discriminating against them in squalid ways even as the Algerians earned an indelible reputation for patriotism and courage, often in hand to-hand fighting with the Germans while their French officers watched from afar through binoculars.
On the troop ship to France the natives, " which included Senegalese, Berbers and Arabs, are refused the fresh tomatoes given French soldiers. When an Algerian soldier and a French woman in Marseilles fall in love a bigoted army censor refuses to let her letters reach him and throws away his letters to her. A pied noir sergeant ashamedly hides the fact from his Arab soldiers that his mother is Arab.
And finally, in Alsace, after a handful of Algerian riflemen fights a German company to a breathtakingly bloody standstill, a French colonel refuses even to speak with the one remaining Algerian corporal, who simply wishes to tell his story. The villagers pat the corporal`s arm as he walks out of their lives, but his own officers ignore him. He has come to the middle of the story of his life in that foreign village, which French recruiters had asked him to call his homeland.
If the French army had fought in the initial stages of World War II with the bravery shown by these colonial enlistees in 1943, France might not have fallen, but the French are unable to show admiration for their own colonial soldiers. How could they have hoped to hold on to Algeria after such a mean display of their racist views?
My mother, who lived among Algerian Bedouins in the 1930s, told me that the term les indigenes, " although pejorative, was mild compared to the usual epithet "the dirty Arabs " she heard among Foreign Legion soldiers. She said that although she often saw the Bedouins shaking their heads at mention of French attitudes she never heard derogatory words. I think this is something an artist, particularly one as taciturn as my mother, would notice.
Indigenes ends with the sole survivor of that heroic Algerian rifle unit visiting his comrades` graves in Alsace as an old man, sixty years later. Their markers, inscribed in Arabic as well as French, say they died for France. This corporal, the one who spoke out against French injustice, has remained in France, lonely and dismayed. All he had wanted was to earn better treatment by showing his loyalty under fire. An ethnic Frenchman as brave as he was would have been decorated, revered and trotted out on holidays, but his own colonel who had led from behind wouldn`t even speak with him. The film notes that the French even cut the pensions of the Algerian soldiers who stayed in France instead of fighting in the revolution.
Today millions of North Africans live in France, many of them descendants of these loyal soldiers, and are treated as inconveniences or worse by the ethnic French. The name of this disturbing and poignant 2006 film could have been Shame.
Again and again the French have argued over whether to cancel or reduce the pensions of these North African veterans who stayed in the French army instead of returning to their homes and stayed in France when they retired. The French cut the pensions, then restored them, then froze them in 1959 shortly before Algerian independence, the film notes.
How are we treating our veterans while we moan and groan about taxes? Not very well. We sent them off with fanfare and braggadocio, but when they come home we don`t want to hear about their awful wounds, their needs, because they cost too much. Well, war costs too much.
Djelloul (jeh-lool) Marbrook was born in 1934 in Algiers to a Bedouin father and an American painter. He grew up in Brooklyn, West Islip and Manhattan, New York, where he attended Dwight Preparatory School and Columbia. He then served in the U.S. Navy.
His book of poems, Far From Algiers, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University in 2007 and was published in 2008. His story, Artists Hill, adapted from the second novel of an unpublished trilogy, won the Literal LattÃ© first prize in fiction in 2008. His poems have been published in The American Poetry Review, Barrow Street, poemeleon, The Same, and other journals. The pioneering e-book publisher, Online Originals (UK), published his novella, Alice MIller`s Room, in 1999.
He worked as a reporter for The Providence Journal and as an editor for The Elmira (NY) Star-Gazette, The Baltimore Sun, The Winston-Salem Journal & Sentinel and The Washington Star. Later he worked as executive editor of four small dailies in northeast Ohio and two medium-size dailies in northern New Jersey.
Del`s book, Far From Algiers: http://upress.kent.edu/books/Marbrook_D.htm
New review of Far from Algiers: http://www.rattle.com/blog/2009/05/far-from-algiers-by-djelloul-marbrook/
Artists Hill, Literal LattÃ©`s fiction first prize: http://www.literal-latte.com/author/djelloulmarbrook/
His blog: http://www.djelloulmarbrook.com
His mother`s art: http://www.juanitaguccione.com
His aunt`s art: http://www.irenericepereira.com