The relationship - intimate, but also conflicting - between History and Memory remains open: each prism offers a different discourse by its forms, its norms and its functions.
In the second half of the XXe century, the official discourse on the past of the countries of the MENA region (Middle East and North Africa) and sub-Saharan Africa was very largely linked to what is called the national novel (or narrative). The corpus of texts produced by historians engaged in the process of state building during the years 1960-1990 bears witness to the importance of the identity background of this discourse on the past which served to fortify a sense of belonging and to make the nation-state the culmination of a long and partly coherent history.
The fact that African politicians in this postcolonial era sought a identity legitimization in the past from their country is certainly not entirely trivial. In a way, this makes history a “masked theology”, to use Friedrich Nietzsche's famous expression.
The linear conception of history that reigned in this part of the world between the 1960s and 1990s obviously conceals the representation of a space endowed with an equally long history. The historical narration was therefore essentially based on a continuity, which, to tell the truth, is not historical, but geographical.
In the schools, we would have been taught a kind of catechism recited from generation to generation. It would never have varied since… but since when? Since Tunisia is Tunisia? Since Algeria is Algeria? Since Morocco is Morocco? Since Senegal is Senegal… (etc.)? But history in its learned sense says that it is impossible to give a date of birth to a country or a nation. However, several men and women of the pen have defended the idea of a "national history" that is said to be immovable, an immobile story that proves the rootedness and antiquity of these young nations.
“Historical Truth”: One Path Among Others
It is not easy to determine the appropriation of truth by historical discourse. The philosopher Paul Ricœur noted in this respect that “it is an expectation of the reader of the historical text that the author offers him a 'true story' and not a fiction. The question is thus posed as to whether, how, and to what extent, this tacit pact of reading can be honored by the writing of history”. Ricoeur wrote: this text in a context marked by the decline of metanarratives in the West. Nevertheless, during this same period, in the MENA region and in sub-Saharan Africa, we note a great capacity for metadiscourses to justify their validity.
In this region, history, as a discourse – since it produces a cultural and social statement – is directly affected by the state apparatus. The process of collecting history-memory, sometimes crude or presenting an even reduced analytical framework, occupied the minds of political decision-makers from the 1960s. In Tunisia for example, Mohammad Sayah ; several times Bourguiba's minister, to whom he was very close, had dedicated himself for many years to the "official" writing of the history of the national movement, which made the president of the time the one and only hero of this saga. for independence. This phenomenon of nationalization of historical writing is also found in Algeria, Morocco and Senegal. It stems, directly or indirectly, from a political desire to catch up with modernity and build a strong national consciousness, bearing an anachronistic relationship with historical time.
Advocates of this approach tend to simplify notions and refer to a few symbolic figures around which the awareness of national belonging is built (Hannibal for the Tunisians ; Massinissa for the Algerians ; Tariq ibn Ziyad for Moroccans ; the Pharaohs for the Egyptians…). Thus, the seniority of the nation became a true-fiction for a good part of the consumers of this historical-identity discourse.
It is therefore important for the decision-makers of this part of the world as for those who make up the national community to know how the territory they inhabit has been built through history. However, if we immediately understand what a nation is and its deep relationship to modern times, it is infinitely difficult to validate, from a purely scientific and academic point of view, this anachronistic approach of national rooting in the Ancient and medieval past. .
Tunisia, for example, as a nation-state, was shaped not by the Phoenicians but by dynasty of the Husseinites (1705-1957). The same observation can be imposed for the composition of the Algerian, Senegalese, Malian national novel, etc. The history of these young nations is not the result of the meeting of eras which occurred on such or such soil: geographical continuity does not absolutely mean historical continuity. How then can we be surprised, or even regret, that importance is given to historical fiction rather than to historical truth?
The uses of history
Alongside history-truth/history-fiction, a use of history has been developing for several years, without an explicit or priority link with knowledge, which makes the past an object of immediate consumption.
History here is an “exoticism”, a distracting elsewhere by its very otherness, a projection that easily carries over to remote times. One could argue that this last type of cultural activity can also claim a form of knowledge through the sometimes meticulous concern to reproduce “reality”. Beyond the typologies, it is therefore appropriate to underline the extent of these productions and consumptions of history, with a broad social and political spectrum: whether we think of the thousands of Tunisians gathered in Monastir to celebrate the anniversary of the death of leader Bourguiba or Algerians from France who gather in large numbers to discover the exhibition of Emir Abdelkader.
In the African space of French-speaking culture, historical festivals are multiplying with the aim of inscribing the present in the past. However, it remains to identify the stakes and the objects of this seizure of the past.
There is always a story that must lead to present struggles; there are also local identity productions, or also history in replay which tries to build its own temporalities while entertaining. At the junction of these political and identity uses of the past, collectives are formed to call for new readings of history and the public valuation of historical memory.
As for the various players in the media world – journalists, producers, presenters – they also contribute to the staging of the past and the formation of “historical questions”. For several years now, radio, television and social networks have been participating in public debates on history, collective memory and heritage.
We cannot return here in detail to these issues, which have already been the subject of numerous studies by historians. It remains to report the impact. Indeed, the formation of historical or historical questions in the media and/or on social networks stems from logics foreign to the scholarly sphere, among other things a logic of current affairs, linked to a mentality of unveiling and empowerment. This is how the media were able to devote a large place to the most fantastic theses on the latest Beys of TunisOn Mali Empire or the beginnings of anti-colonial emancipation struggles in Algeria. Historians are therefore in a complex position faced with makers of history who can provide them with a large audience, question their certainties, bring out sources (notably oral), but whose training frameworks from the past largely escape them.
“This revenge of the peoples is found nowadays in the “black books” which evoke the atrocities, even the genocides, which have been committed in contemporary history. The Gulag Archipelago by Alexander Solzhenitsyn is the greatest illustration of this. But if the indignation is justified, it is even more necessary to respect the rules of the historical method, at the risk of appearing to desacralize the sufferings of the victims”. (Henry Laurens, The imposed past, Paris, Fayard, 2022, p. 85).
The challenges of the "Memory Boom"
From this emerging “Memory Boom” certain specific issues that affect the profession of the historian or, at least, the definition of professional identities.
Contemporary “public history”, the challenges of collective memory, the commemorative forms confronting historians are evolving today in an uncertain topography. Clearly, the national framework which often housed the public uses of history, whether legitimate or more controversial, is now only one scale among others. Militant engagement had already made extensive use of history, the past, time, to contest the official pre-eminence of the state or to legitimize chosen political frameworks.
Since the beginning of the 2010s, we have observed in several countries of the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa the return of the “national novel” via the “Memory Boom”. There is a clear instrumentalization of history and, more broadly, a struggle on the cultural terrain. The story is transformed here into a frozen framework which we must inherit and which we must adopt as it is.
It is therefore as an element of identity that the past is valued. The story that takes shape is a story that wants to identify and / or heritage. This obliges the historian to make an intellectual effort to renew his conceptual and methodological tools. He must reflect on the foundations of a history which is no longer a story of the past but, like any science born of the uncertainties induced by the new explanations of the world, a history-question.
Historical knowledge makes it possible to inhabit a space until it becomes one's own – be it a city, a country or a region of the world. Living in a place means maintaining a familiarity, more or less conscious and more or less scholarly, and methodical, with its past, without falling into anachronism and false interpretations of a historical past which has its own philosophy, foreign to that of our modern and postmodern societies.
As Serge Gruzinski says, in History for what?:
« Memory cards are being reshuffled everywhere, more so by artists and producers than by historians. But can they ignore them if they want to reflect on what the writing of history could be in a globalized context plagued by the new hegemony? ? "
Memorialism is therefore the fabric of an immense misunderstanding with historical production in its scholarly sense. The rise of a feverish memorialism reconnecting with a recent tragic past seems to have jostled the actors of history on the stable positions they occupied until then, but does not solve any historical problem. Thus, the relationship, intimate but also conflicting, between History and Memory, remains open. Because it is clear that each of these two domains disseminates a discourse that is different in its forms, its norms and its functions.
Mohamed Arbi Nsiri, Doctor of ancient history, Paris Nanterre University - Paris Lumières University