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Obituary of Jacques Berque

in The Guardian July 11, 1995

The settlement of accounts between colonisers and colonised has not yet taken place. When it does, Jacques Berque, who has died aged 85, will be a key witness. The decolonisation of Algeria and Morocco was his life as well as his expertise.

Born of French parents in provincial Algeria, he was a pied-noir, though hardly a typical one. His father, Augustin Berque, was a scholar and Arabist of distinction, one of the few to take an interest in Muslim culture of the Maghreb during that dark night which followed Louis Napoleon's flirtation with an Arab Kingdom under his own patronage, and the emergence of modern nationalism in this century.

The fate of the two larger Maghrebin countries under colonialism was quite different. In Algeria, the Third Republic meant that power passed to the European settlers (Italians, Spaniards, Alsatians, Maltese, as well as Frenchmen proper), who pretended that the natives did not exist or did not matter. Scholarship did not flourish, though among the few scholars who did exist there were some who noted that it was the new purified, scripturalist Islam replacing the hitherto pervasive saint cults, which posed a threat to the status quo. It bestowed a sense of religious-national identity on what had been a pulverised rural proletariat. Few if any (including eventually Berque himself) saw how radical that change would be in the end and that eventually it would threaten not merely the French regime, but also its revolutionary nationalist successor.

This was the country in which Jacques Berque was born. Like others born there, he had to learn good Arabic later in life, attaining great mastery of this esoteric art. He was certainly not typical of the European community in Algeria, which was petit-bourgeois, macho, un- or anti-intellectual, populist-philistinical.

For all his literary elegance, Albert Camus was a more typical product of it than Berque. Camus's existentialism was, in a way, just the brazen, un-theoretical self-reliance of the street urchin of a Mediterranean port. The real symbol of the pied-noir spirit was Monsieur Cagayus, a fictitious but beloved and emblematic folk figure, humorous, limited, ordinary and earthy, a kind of Gallic Svejk-on-the-Med.

Berque came from the land of Cagayus, but, being an intellectual aristocrat with a tortuous inner life, in no way resembled him. He made his career at first in neighbouring Morocco, where the colonial regime was very different from Algeria. It had been set up in the early decades of this century, by men eager to avoid the mistakes made in neighbouring Algeria, where an indigenous society was dominated by parvenu settlers. In Morocco, the local elite was strengthened. It did not greatly suffer from the war of conquest (which pitted the Teutons and Slavs of the Foreign Legion against the Berber Highlanders, who in any case fought on both sides), or from the liberation (which pitted de-tribalised shanty-town dwellers against the heavily Corsican police and petty administration). The settlers were not without influence but had to share it with a military-aristocratic-industrial complex, not committed primarily to the preservation of the privileges of poor whites . . .

The Moroccan system worked better than the Algerian, but it did not work perfectly. In his memories (probably his most interesting book), Berque observes with irony, and a measure of exaggeration, that the two communities met only in the quartier reserve (red-light district). Berque was a regular visitor, as he tells us. He firmly repudiates any idea that these places merely provided an exchange of sex for cash. On the contrary, alluding to the classical work of the anthropologist Marcel Mauss, Le Don (The Gift), which elucidates the role of prestations in maintaining social order, he insists that what took place was an intricate, absorbing and reciprocal exchange of gift and counter-gift. But however satisfying this game may have been to young Jacques Berque, its venue was too exiguous to keep the two communities in perpetual amity. As another Frenchman put it, though the conquest of Morocco was a rape, the fact that the two parties had embraced each other ardently was a reality.

When not otherwise engaged in the quartier reserve, the apprentice civil servant Jacques Berque was busy as an agronomist in attempts to improve Moroccan agriculture and the lot of the peasants. Excess of zeal led, by way of punishment, to his being offered the post of administrator of the Seksawa tribe, at Imi n'Tanout at the (then) end of the road, in the recesses of the western High Atlas. Five years of residence among them led to the book which established his scholarly reputation, Les Structures Sociales du Haut Atlas (1955). Perversely, he declared that the work was not meant to be a piece of political sociology, though Berber politics is the most interesting thing about them. It remains one of the most thorough ethnographies of the Berbers.

His administrative and ethnographic experience eventually took him in a direction adopted by few North-African-born Frenchmen (Camus declared that he would remain loyal to his mum in her poor-white Algiers slum of Bab el Wad) or by colonial administrators: he came out in favour of independence. The "fortunate empire" of Morocco remained fortunate: independence was secured after a short and relatively restrained struggle. The liberation of Algeria was secured only by a protracted, unbelievably ruthless and bloody struggle, traumatic for all those involved in it, and concluded without compromise. Virtually all the million local Europeans left, voluntarily or through intimidation. Berque was one of the few who retained links with the new Algeria.

Thereafter, Berque became the theoretician of the entire Arab-Muslim world, and even of the Third World as a whole. Yet as the theoretician of Tiers-Mondiste romanticism he never displaced Frantz Fanon, and his personal crisis never received the same attention as that of Camus, notwithstanding the fact that he ended upon the right side and that his involvement was based on a superior knowledge of the rival civilisation. (Camus was a typical pied-noir in that the natives form a backcloth to the Oran of La Peste, their inner life making no contribution to the scene).

Why was Berque never fully acclimatised on the Left Bank? Failure to have passed through Marxism-and-phenomenology? It can hardly be blamed on the lack of clarity of his theorising, which, from Sartre to Lacan and Derrida, has hardly been a disadvantage on the Left Bank.

In fact, provinciality, decolonisation and sexuality are the three intertwining themes of his remarkable memoirs. Unlike the fellow Algerian-born journalist Jean Daniel, not to mention Camus himself, Berque never became a full Left Banker notwithstanding the professorship at the College de France. Among his fellow Arabists Maxime Rodinson went pro-Independence in a more conventional, that is Marxist, manner, while Vincent Monteil converted to Islam. Berque went his own idiosyncratic way. The passionate nature which led him to a Mauss-ian interpretation of the quartier reserve led him later in life to re-marry an aristocratic Italian lady. He had links by his first marriage to the liberal-but-patriotic Maghreb scholars, and in his memoirs he complains bitterly of their reaction: drunkenness or debauchery would have been tolerated, but not the setting up of a second household! As a moralist he could reject these values, but as a sociologist he should hardly have been surprised by them.

He became the metaphysican-poet of decolonisation in French and Arabic, and internationally much in demand as such. As a theoretician of North African society he is not quite in the same class as Emile Masqueray or Robert Montagne, let alone Ibn Khaldun: he was too much in love with conceptual and verbal flourishes and fireworks, and lacked simplicity and directness. In his age he was surrounded by admiring North African students whom he provided with much stimulus and support. He will be remembered for his ethnography and for his involvement in that great transformation of the North African world which he strove so hard to understand and assist.

Jacques Berque, Islamic scholar, born June 4, 1910; died July 4, 1995