The Burning Library

In 1962 the library at the University of Algiers was burned to the ground, turning hundreds of thousands of books to dust. But it was overshadowed by Algeria’s independence from the French, and was largely forgotten. So one man has made it his mission to answer a simple question: are these books really gone? Or were they smuggled out by the extremists who set the library on fire in the first place?

Thank you to Samir Hachani and Bruno Boulanger for speaking to us for this episode. Thank you also to Dr. Andrew Bellisari, and Rayane from @ze.art.nerd.

This episode was produced by Zeina Dowidar and edited by Dana Ballout. Additional support from Alex Atack and Nadeen Shaker, fact checking by Deena Sabry, with sound design and mixing by Paul Alouf. Additional production support from Abdelraouf Meraga.

Support this podcast on patreon.com/kerningcultures for as little as $2 a month.

Transcript

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Note: our transcripts are made with a combination of automated software and human transcribers, and may not reflect the audio with 100% accuracy.

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RAYANE: If you’re into books, art, history, libraries, you name it, you’re going to love this episode. It’s in the library of the University of Algiers – let’s go.

 

DANA BALLOUT: This story starts in the heart of Algiers. You’re hearing Rayane, from the instagram page @ze.art.nerd. He’s a self-professed architect geek, and today he’s taking us on a tour of one of his favourite buildings – the library of the University of Algiers.

 

RAYANE: It was actually built in 1888 by an architect called Louie Dauphin and it was built in the Beaux-Art style. It was much in the style of the buildings around it, although it was much more beautiful back then.

 

DANA BALLOUT: The University of Algiers was the first modern university in Algeria. When it first opened, almost all students were French settlers. We asked Rayane to describe what the library would have looked like back then.

 

RAYANE: You see a lot of shelves decked in old books and trying to read the titles here. You could see that. They are different topics from different specialties. And as I said in 1888, it was not one university, it was many faculties. And then in 1909, it became one faculty. And among the schools and the faculties were philosophy, medicine, maths, biology. And now they somehow all study in the same university, in this beautiful amalgam, diverse university campus.

 

DANA BALLOUT: But in between the margins of these beautiful shelves and this library Rayane is describing, is a painful past. 60 years ago in 1962, this library was in engulfed in flames.  The phosphorous bombs released black plumes of smoke that lingered on the horizon, and anyone in Algiers could see it. The smell of the gasoline lingered in the city for days. No one at the time knew who or what was responsible for the bombing. But given this happened as Algeria was fighting for independence from the France, they had a hunch.

 

The next day, the French newspaper Le Figaro published an article by a French nationalist, who said “600,000 books were burning … We were not going to leave them – and by them he meant Algerians – with our culture and our science”. End quote.

 

DANA BALLOUT: Today on Kerning Cultures, the burning of the library at the University of Algiers, its missing books, and a single librarian on a mission to retrieve them. 

 

This is Dana Ballout and you’re listening to Kerning Cultures, stories from the Middle East and North Africa and the spaces in between.

 

[INTRO STING]

 

DANA BALLOUT: Producer Zeina Dowidar takes it from here.

 

ZEINA DOWIDAR: My first conversation with Samir Hachani started in much the same way most of my conversations have started in the past two years.

 

ZEINAMIC: Uh Samir, I think you’re on mute? You can hear me?

 

ZEINA. Samir is a guy who loves libraries. He’s Algerian and works at the University of Algiers. He’s an academic through and through.

 

SAMIR HACHANI: I teach at the school of library and information management. I have been teaching there for the last 30 years. And I hold a PhD in library science.

 

ZEINA DOWIDAR: What is library sciences? So when you tell me you have a PhD in it, what does that mean?

 

SAMIR HACHANI: Library science is the –

 

ZEINA DOWIDAR: Samir explained that library sciences is a field of study that teaches how to manage books and other information, particularly through collecting, preserving, and organising books and other materials in libraries. Samir’s love for these bound volumes propelled him towards not only getting a bachelors but also a masters degree and a PhD in libraries. And most of his research happened, unsurprisingly, in a library – the library of the University of Algiers.

 

SAMIR HACHANI: Well, I’m going to give you – when I entered the library, that would give you perhaps an idea about my age. So I started my bachelor’s degree at the school of library in Algiers University in 1978.

 

ZEINA DOWIDAR: A couple decades after graduating, Samir came back to the University to do his masters. He needed some specific material for his research.

 

SAMIR HACHANI: And I had to work in the rare book room. And I noticed when I was there some books scattered, even some big books that were completely burned and not taken care of. And they looked very old. Then I asked Mr. Abdi, which was at that time, the head librarian, and he said these are books that were left after the fire of June 7th, 1962.

 

ZEINA DOWIDAR: June 7th 1962. I want to pause here to set the scene of this day – a day that changed everything.  

 

Back then, the city was a metropolis of almost one million people, a third of whom were what was called pied-noirs. Pied-noirs were people  of French or European descent, who were born and lived in Algeria during the French rule which began in 1830.

 

And at this time, Algeria had been fighting a bitter independence struggle against the French for almost ten years. The main partiers fighting were the French government and the FLN – the leading Algerian nationalist party that wanted independence from the French. Bloodshed and destruction were an almost daily occurrence for the citizens of the city. At this moment though, in 1962, the parties had signed peace accords, paving the way to Algeria’s independence.

 

[ARCHIVAL RECORDING]

 

Of course, not everyone was supportive of the independence movement. The OAS, an extremist French nationalist group made up of French army generals and pied-noirs, refused to accept that Algeria will no longer be part of France.

 

ANDREW BELLISARI: When it comes to Algeria, even they can not escape this mentality that l’Algerie cest la France! Algeria is France. We just can’t give it up. 

 

ZEINA DOWIDAR: This is Andrew Bellisari, a historian who is currently writing a book called: The Loose Ends of Empire: Cultures of Decolonization in France and Algeria. He explained that the OAS had led a rampage through Algiers since the late 1950s, killing FLN activists and sympathisers to the independence movement. They were trying to ensure that Algiers remained as the second largest city in France – a gem in the crown of the French empire. But after those peace accords were signed in 1962.

 

ANDREW BELLISARI: General Salon and the other leaders of the OAS feel like the irreversible has happened. This is the word that they’ve used. You know, they’ve passed the point of no return. And their strategy becomes even more violent than it had before.

 

[ARCHIVAL RECORDING]

 

ZEINA DOWIDAR: Their destruction escalated. In 1962, over 100 people were being killed in the streets each week, and the walls were lined with OAS posters, slogans, and mobilisation  orders written in French and Arabic. Plastic explosives like C-4 were frequent in the city, and you could never go a few days without hearing gunshots.

 

ANDREW BELLISARI: The mentality of the OAS is, well, if France is not going to have Algeria, if we, the army and the settlers can’t have Algeria, well, then the Algerians, certainly aren’t going to have it. We will return it to 1830. This is actually a phrase that they use. We will return Algeria to the way we found it.

 

ZEINA DOWIDAR: And that’s what they did. They began bombing everything they believed was theirs. Just two months previously, in April, they put over 30 kilos of platic bombs in the Algiers Rectorate of the University, turning it into a skeleton of what it used to be. A day after that, they bombed the Algiers daily newspaper, forcing it to close. They were on a rampage through the heart of education and culture in the city, burning it down into pieces.

 

ANDREW BELLISARI: All of the sort of benefits of colonisation as they saw them, right? Infrastructure, culture – we will destroy And they undertake a scorched earth campaign, to do exactly that.

 

ZEINA DOWIDAR: And as a result, decades later, Samir found himself starting at these burned books before him. He was angry. Angry at how many books were lost – books just like the ones he had spent most of his life studying about and taking care of.

 

SAMIR HACHANI: There was a systematic destruction of everything that was Algerian.

 

ZEINA DOWIDAR: But for Samir, something felt off. The story of the library bruning was well known, but the details were kind of murky. Some rumours were that the books were all burned. Some said that  they were stolen. But there were no records of which books were gone, or how many were saved and what exactly was lost. And so, like any good library scientist, Samir began to look deeper. First of all, the numbers didn’t add up.

 

SAMIR HACHANI: Some people, for example, said that 600,000 books went up in fire, which is not true because otherwise there would not be a single book left.

 

ZEINA DOWIDAR: He spoke about his concerns with Mr. Abdi, the head librarian. Turns out, Mr. Abdi had been thinking about this too.

 

SAMIR HACHANI: He calculated, it was around 252,000 books that were burned. 

 

ZEINA DOWIDAR: And while many of the books that were burned could be partially identified after the fire, the books in the room he was in – the rare books room – they had mostly disappeared. There was no trace of them anywhere.

 

SAMIR HACHANI: But the big problem is those rare books. Those books were not found anywhere.

 

ZEINA DOWIDAR: Amidst the over half-a-million books at the library lay dozens of real treasures. Manuscripts of sailor’s memoirs from the 14th century, war narratives from the 13th century, and also many incunabula. Incunabula are books that were printed in Europe before the printing press got popular in 1500. They’re the sort of books you see in period movies from the 1400s – those tightly bound volumes with intense calligraphy and beautiful illustrations.

 

SAMIR HACHANI: That means the book could be 500g – let’s say a kilogram, but it could cost millions and millions of dollars if it’s an older book.

 

ZEINA DOWIDAR: Not only were the books gone with no trace, but so was their card catalogue – the only one missing in the rubble and wreckage of the bombings. As a library scientist, Samir knows that any book logged into a library, particularly in the early 1900s, was recorded on a card catalogue. 

 

SAMIR HACHANI: The card catalogue is the ID  of the books. If you don’t have ID, that means that book does not exist. 

 

ZEINA DOWIDAR: With the missing card catalogue, Samir became more and more convinced that the French extremists had stolen the books, rather than let them burn.

 

SAMIR HACHANI: Where did all these invaluable books, because you know, most of them are one of a kind, where did they go? And I started like an investigation like Colombo. I said, how come these books disappeared?

 

ZEINA DOWIDAR: One of his first hypotheses was this: maybe the attack had been planned as a distraction so the books could be smuggled out. So as an academic, he did the thing he knew best: he started doing research, and wrote a couple of articles about what he was finding. And then at some point, he decided to share  one of the articles he had written with his friend, Bruno Boulanger. 

 

BRUNO BOULANGER: Yes. I remember vividly, you know, because, because he sent me his article, so I read it and I said, well, this is Samir. This is typical, regular Samir, because I mean, the article was, no pun intended, fiery.

 

ZEINA DOWIDAR: And when Samir shared his research on the library with Bruno, he got just as excited about the project, and offered to help try to solve the mystery of the missing books.

 

BRUNO BOULANGER: So I said, what about trying to do something about it and trying to do some research about it?

 

ZEINA DOWIDAR: Samir agreed, and filled Bruno in on what he had found so far. Just like Sherlock and Watson, or Hercule Poirot and Captain Arthur Hastings, they were on the hunt. The two of them decided to go look for the books in person, in France. Samir thought that, given the books where nowhere to be found in Algiers, the only other place they could be is in the home of the group that burned the library down to begin with.

 

SAMIR HACHANI: And I want with my friend – again, Bruno Boulanger – we went to Archives Nationales D’outre-mer, the overseas archive, which is in Aix.

 

ZEINA DOWIDAR: I’m not going to try and pronounce that – but in English, that’s the French Overseas Archives. And it is where the French keep everything to do with their colonial history. It’s based in Aix-en-Provence – which is also known for being a stronghold for the OAS – that French extremist group. So they figured that if the OAS took the books anywhere, it was probably going to be there.

 

SAMIR HACHANI: And then we tried to look for the books. We spoke to people. We couldn’t find anything.

 

ZEINA DOWIDAR: For a while, it seemed like they’d fallen at the first hurdle. Years passed, but Bruno and Samir were still invested in the mystery.

 

SAMIR HACHANI: Then what happened in 2009 when I was in Paris to finish my doctorate. I met my friend Bruno Boulanger and he talked to his father.

 

ZEINA DOWIDAR: Bruno spoke to his dad and told him the name of the head librarian of the university at the time. Given that he was originally French, they figured he probably went back to France after independence. With his father’s help, Bruno asked around until finally, they found him.

 

BRUNO BOULANGER: In 1962, he was repatriated and sent to the university of Aix-en-Provence. Probably, Samir he told you about that already, right?

 

ZEINA DOWIDAR: They got in touch with the ex-head librarian.

 

BRUNO BOULANGER: This man didn’t know anything about anything – about books being sent to Aix-en-Provence, but he knew the chief librarian in Aix-en-Provence. 

 

ZEINA DOWIDAR: That’s perfect!

 

BRUNO: Yeah! That was absolutely perfect because he got us in touch with that person. And she said, oh, that’s interesting. Tell Bruno Boulanger that I’d like to talk to him.

 

ZEINA DOWIDAR: After the break: these two now-detectives finally start to untangle the mystery. But like any good detective novel – their answers just lead to more questions.

 

[MIDROLL]

 

ZEINA DOWIDAR: We’re back, and Samir and Bruno are on an adventure to find and recover the supposedly bombed books. It’s a lot of librarians to keep up with, I know, but bear with me. They’ve tracked down the head librarian at the University of Algiers when it was burned, who put them in touch with the head librarian of the University of Aix-en-Provence. So our favourite library scientist Samir and his friend Bruno Boulanger travelled there to meet her.

 

BRUNO: So we had this conversation and she said, well, I’ve been intrigued for a few years now because there is a set of documents – books – in boxes left out on the shelf somewhere and no one knows about them. And I think that they come from Algiers.

 

SAMIR HACHANI: And then we found a batch of 700 books, not belonging to the university library of Algiers, but belonging to the national library.

 

ZEINA DOWIDAR: The books Samir and Bruno were looking for were from the university library. These, were from the national library. They have similar names – but they’re entirely different places.

 

SAMIR HACHANI: So we started from the hypothesis that the fire was a practical way to hide the taking of very valuable books. We could not find them. We don’t know where they are so far, but we found, on the other hand, 700 books, some of them very valuable incunabulum that were at the library of the University of Aix.

 

BRUNO: 700 books – all of them have been published in Algiers and all about colonisation. So that is a unique set of documentation about French Colonisation in Algeria. And that’s very impressive. That’s very rare.

 

ZEINA DOWIDAR: Given that the books had the national library of Algeria’s stamp and were never registered onto the University of Aix’s card catalogue, Samir and Bruno knew that these books were never meant to leave Algeria. They were probably smuggled out – in the same way they thought the University of Algiers’ books were smuggled out.

 

BRUNO: And that’s the funny thing because we were looking for something, and we found something else. Yeah. That’s called surrender serendipity, isn’t it?

 

ZEINA DOWIDAR: While talking to Samir and Bruno, I really had the same question in my head the whole time – why would the OAS, or anyone, want to take these books in the first place? I asked Andrew Belissari, our historian.

 

ANDREW BELLISARI: How do I want to put this? It’s one thing to blow up a power station. It’s one thing to blow up an oil refinery, It’s another thing entirely to go after the books. And that sends a particular kind of message. Right? It’s not just that we’re not going to let you have the material elements of the colony that are needed to function after independence. We’re going to ensure you don’t have the intellectual capacity to do so.

 

Most Algerians were artisans, labourers. Maybe they worked in the service industry, but kind of at a lower level. The French had not put a lot of emphasis on higher education for the indigenous population.

 

So you didn’t have a lot of technically trained Algerians with a lot of experience. And this was evident to the leaders of the FLN from the very beginning that they might actually remain reliant on French expertise and they ended up reliant on French expertise actually into the post-independence period as well.

  

ZEINA DOWIDAR: So these books, in some ways, represented the heart of the independence struggle. They represented France gatekeeping Algeria’s education. And Samir’s hypothesis proved to be right – the OAS actually did smuggle books out of Algeria and into France. They just weren’t the books Samir and Bruno were looking for.

 

SAMIR HACHANI: ​​So we started from one hypothesis. We found something else, but it’s still the same thing. It’s still books that belong to Algeria even by the law, they belong to Algeria because they have a stamp of the national library of Algeria.

 

ZEINA DOWIDAR: So here’s what happened to the books they did find. Samir and Bruno worked hard to try and get them back to Algeria. But when Samir contacted the Algerian government to help him return the books, they just ended up dragging their feet. 

 

SAMIR HACHANI: Everything between Algeria and France is always very very sensitive. Speaking about something like that 60 years later after the independence we still – it’s  very sensitive between Algeria and France. It’s more political. It’s not, it’s not ‘these are books that we are going to do to bring back’, but it’s more, political, happening, which makes it a little bit hard to advance.

 

ZEINA DOWIDAR: So I guess I’m sort of wondering, what do you think the future is for these books?

 

SAMIR HACHANI: My hope is that they go back. And I was even thinking a little bit like a movie thing that me, Algerian, and my friend Bruno Boulanger would bring these books.

 

BRUNO BOULANGER: We actually wanted to do something about that dreadful relationship between France and Algeria which has been going on for so long now. And I mean, we were probably naive and wide-eyed about it because we thought that something would happen about it. And we thought that the national library of Algeria would be really happy about recovering those books, which never happened.

 

ZEINA DOWIDAR: An Algerian and a Frenchman had walked into a library, hoping to find some smuggled books. While they didn’t find the books they were looking for – the books supposedly burned during the fire at the University of Algiers – they ended up finding some other stolen books instead.

 

BRUNO BOULANGER: ​​As everything related to Algeria, one question leads to another, and most of the time there is no real answer to be found.

 

ZEINA DOWIDAR: While we might never know the fate of the rare books from the University of Algiers, either smuggled in darkness or smouldered into dust – in spite of the what the French extremists did to destroy Algeria – the University was rebuilt, and lives on as a home for future generations.

 

Samir is still working at the University of Algiers as a lecturer at the School of Library Science, and Bruno is based in Paris, working as a professional coach. They’re good friends, and have long phone calls at least once or twice a month. Samir still hopes to find the books one day.

 

DANA BALLOUT: This episode was written and produced by Zeina Dowidar and edited by myself, Dana Ballout with additional support from Alex Atack and Nadeen Shaker. Fact checking by Deena Sabry and sound design by Paul Alouf. Thanks to Samir and Bruno for sharing their story with us. Thank you to Andrew Bellisari and Reyan – you can find his instagram at @ze.art.nerd. 

 

We’ll be back with a new episode next week. Thanks for listening.