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A city built by the Other: Reckoning with the traces of "things left behind" by settler-colonialism and its aftermaths in Oran, Algeria
(City University of New York (CUNY), The Graduate Center)
Paper short abstract:
Drawing from 18 months of ethnographic field research, this paper examines how Algerians reckon with the "things left behind" by settler colonialism. These material traces of the past remain at the center of contemporary urban life, including as a narrative trope of the 2019 "second revolution."
Paper long abstract:
Contemporary Oran, Algeria is a fractured, heterogeneous cityscape, marked by absence, ephemerality, pockets of un-reclaimed space, and things left behind or left to decay. Once the archetypical settler-colonial city of French Algeria, settler-colonial urbanism built a city oriented around European imaginative geographies. At independence in 1962, the vast majority of French Algerian settlers were "repatriated" to France, vacating their homes, businesses, and leaving behind anything they couldn't carry with them. These "abandoned goods" (biens vacants) became the "raw materials" of the newly independent Algeria. Nearly 60 years after independence, the material traces of settler-colonialism remain at the center of urban life. To what extent can these "abandoned goods" be understood as a shared inheritance? Or are they better understood as imperials ruins that serve as "the fragile and durable substance and signs, the visible and visceral senses in which the effects of empire are reactivated and remain" (Stoler 2013: 196)? Drawing from 18 months of ethnographic field research, this paper examines how Algerians reckon with the "things left behind" by settler colonialism, which continue to disrupt "the experience of the city as a whole, as a continuous, enduring identity in people's lives" (Munn 2013: 367). Through narratives I collected during fieldwork from 2018-2020, I argue that the juxtaposition of what the French "left behind" and what independent Algerians "have built" has become a powerful spatial metaphor for Algerians' grievances towards their government. These grievances hit the streets in 2019, when millions of Algerians mobilized in the "second revolution" (al-Hirak).
Knowing Historical Traces, Eliciting Possible Futures