Dignity is essential. It means we are viewed by the other as a human being : an interview with Alice Cherki

A recent black and white photograph of Alice Cherki, sitting at a table, smiling.

Alice Cherki

ALICE CHERKI is a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and author. Born in Algiers, 1936. She knew Frantz Fanon well, working by his side in Algeria and Tunisia as a psychiatrist, and sharing his political commitment during the war of independence in Algeria.

Alice Cherki has lived in France since 1965. She is co-author of the books, Retour à Lacan (Fayard, 1981) and Les Juifs d’Algérie (Editions du Scribe, 1987), and author of La frontière invisible (Editions des Crépuscules, 2009) Frantz Fanon, portrait (Seuil, 2000) translated into English by Nadia Benabid and published as Frantz Fanon: A Portrait (Cornell University Press, 2006) and Mémoire anachronique (Editions De L’aube, 2016).

Gaele Sobott: Can you talk a little about the history of your family, your place of birth and your childhood?

Alice Cherki: I was born in a family of Jewish Algerians who were in Algeria since the Romans or before the Romans. My parents were born in the small towns of Medea and Ksar Bukhari but they met in Algiers. I was born and I lived in Algiers. I am Algerian, voilà!

Some of my family are Jewish Berbers.

GS: Were there Jews in Algeria before the Arabs?

AC: Yes, the majority were there well before. Some came later in 1492 from Spain through Morocco, others from Italy, and then Alsatian Jews, but at that point it was already colonial Algeria.  Many of those left again and went elsewhere. But most of the Jews of Algeria had been there for a very, very, very long. Some of them were Berbers who converted to Judaism. I belong to that history.

GS: Did you speak Arabic?

AC: Very little. I’m not very good at languages. I come from the same environment as Derrida. at school, we learnt Latin and Greek.

GS: Did you know Derrida?

AC: I knew Derrida very well. He was eight or nine years older than me and that represents a big difference but yes I knew Derrida well.

Like Hélène Cixous and Derrida, my childhood was marked by the Vichy anti-Jewish legislation which excluded Jews born in Algeria, denied us French nationality, the right to go to school, the right for Jews to work in government administration. This was hugely traumatic for me as a child.

One Christmas, I was 4 or 5 years old, my teacher said, “Tell your mother that after the break you must not come to school anymore.”

When I asked her the reason, the only answer I got was, “It’s because you’re Jewish.”

I didn’t know what that meant.  So, I gathered my courage and asked, “What’s Jewish?”

She replied, “It’s you with your big eyes, big mouth and big ears.”

Each of us, as Derrida also relates, was excluded from school, our parents could no longer work.

GS: How has this experience affected your adult life?

AC: It opened my eyes to the injustices of the world in which we live; a world marked by colonial ideology.  In Algiers in the 1950s, there was no intersection between Europeans, the Jews and Arabs –  the so-called natives. I didn’t experience it at home but we were caught up in all that. I talk about it a little in my book, Mémoire anachronique.  Everyone lived in their own sphere. Some of us would meet each other outside these spheres.

During my early years at primary school there was no mixing at all. In Grade 6, there were some girls; Rachida, Malika.  For the whole of my secondary schooling I only knew of one Algerian woman student even though my school was not the most snobbish high school in Algiers.

GS: It was the same principle as Apartheid?

AC: The same principle except that it was more camouflaged. Algerians were contained in their own neighbourhoods. Even the bourgeois had their areas. The Algerians passed like shadows in the European neighbourhoods

GS: What area of Algiers did you live in?

AC: I first lived on the border of a working-class suburb, near the boys’ school, known then as Lycée Bugeaud, now it’s called Lycée Abdel Kader. Later, at the age of 17, we moved to Central Boulevard in Hydra. Our house was on a piece of land owned by my uncle –  my father’s brother, my father’s sister, and my father. After some years, they managed to build a three-storey house there for the three families.

GS: What did your father do for a living?

AC: My father traded in cereal. He carried out transactions with farmers for the export and import of chickpeas and lentils.

GS: How did your interest in psychiatry come about?

AC: Firstly, it was a struggle for me as a woman to study. After I passed my baccalaureate, even though I was from the middle-class, it was not usual for women to continue their education. Women were expected to marry and so on. I had an older brother and a younger brother and was the only girl. Neither of my parents continued their studies. My father, a brilliant student, was pulled out of school at age 16 by his father. He was the eldest of ten children There were two or three girls before him so he had to work. I believe my mother chose to leave school to get married. When she met my father, she dropped out.

My parents were both very intelligent and relatively progressive. My father spoke Arabic, but they did not have a higher education.

I already had a certain outlook on society and I was more inclined towards literature. I wasn’t a good student and had never received any awards for excellence. I was impertinent and people always told me I would make an excellent actress. With no one to advise me, in those days, if I had decided I wanted to be an actress, it would have been worse than deciding to be a prostitute. Having said that, I did later have the luck to meet many people who became involved in theatre.

So, I found myself first in hypokhâgne and then khâgne. You know what they are?

GS: No.

AC: Preparatory literary classes for the grandes écoles. The equivalent also exists in the scientific field. I was interested in studying philosophy but decided that would mean cutting myself off from the real world. I made up my mind that I wanted to be useful so I chose to study medicine. But very soon I realized medicine didn’t meet my needs. It was all about identifying symptoms and responding with treatments. I remember a teacher saying, “But Mademoiselle, you ask too many questions.”

We never say, “Why” in medicine. Instead we talk about, “How to fix it.”

So, I was part of two cultures; one of interest for human beings and their psyche, and the other a group culture which stemmed from my medical studies.

GS: Were there other women you knew of who were studying medicine then?

AC: There were a few, but they were a definite minority.

There was a saying that summarized the situation quite well. It relates to sitting the intern examination:

If you are white, European and male, you have an 80% chance of sitting the exam. If you are female and European, you have a 60% chance. If you are Jewish and male, you have a 50% chance. If you are female and Jewish, you have a 25% chance. If you are Muslim and male, you have a 10% chance. As for being Muslim and a woman, you are not even mentioned because you just don’t get the opportunity.

Some managed to study medicine or become trainees but none got to sit the intern examination, voilà!

GS: When did you meet Fanon for the first time?

AC: I was part of a youth movement called AJASS (Association of Algerian Youth for Social Action) and Fanon was invited to give a lecture by a friend of mine, Pierre Chaulet, who died recently. It was a lecture on fear and anxiety in 1955. I must have been 19 or 20 at the time and had to leave my parents’ home where I’d been living. Most of the interns at the hospital were French-Algerian and because of my opinions I faced all kinds of problems. My car tyres were punctured, my white doctor’s coat soiled, my files stolen. So, when Fanon found out I wanted to do psychiatry, he told Pierre Chaulet I should come and intern under him at Blida psychiatric hospital.

GS: So you lived at the hospital in Blida?

AC: Yes, as an intern. That’s where I met my husband, Charles Géronimi. He shared my ideas, but having Corsican parents, teachers but Corsicans, they had trouble accepting a little Jew in their family, especially my mother-in-law.

GS: What were your first impressions of Fanon?

AC: My first impressions, at 20, I found everything he had to say very interesting and didn’t think of him as black. He analysed the subjectivity of racism which was very different from the discourse of the time. On the one hand, we had Existentialism and on the other, Marxist materialism which didn’t include questions of subjectivity. It was the first time I’d met someone who was only 10 years older than me but had immense experience, and a developed understanding of these two worlds, of the two ‘ideologies’.  He was neither on one side nor the other which met my expectations, answered my questions.

GS: He had practical ideas?

AC: Yes, he was a hands-on kind of man.

GS: That’s to say, the development of his thought was founded not only on the theoretical but also on his lived-experience?

AC: On his experience, yes. And that also pleased me. It was from his lived-experience that he elaborated his ideas. But he also had very advanced psychiatric training.

GS: What were some of the work experiences during your time with Fanon in Blida that influenced your practice of psychiatry?

AC: Everything he brought to psychiatry, especially his critique of the School of Algiers’ theory of primitivism. He also introduced social therapy, institutional psychotherapy.

GS: How do you define institutional psychotherapy?

AC: Institutional psychotherapy, as developed by Tosquelles, took off in France with the support of Oury and Bonnafé. It encourages the residents of psychiatric institutions to share things with their caregivers. Through humanising the functions of these institutions, it allows understanding not only of patient symptoms but also the roots of these symptoms. There are still two or three people in France who are struggling to create places that foster institutional psychotherapy, but it is becoming more and more difficult.

GS: Why is it becoming more difficult?

AC: Because of the prevailing ideology. Now we have DCM 3, DCM 4, DCM 5. It is a performative ideology that absolutely bypasses all subjective aspects of alienation.

GS: Did you have any significant experiences in the hospital setting as a female doctor caring for patients in that historical and social context?

AC: What do you mean by significant experiences?

GS: For example, when you worked at Joinville-Blida Hospital, were there certain events that affected you?

AC: Yes, of course.

GS: What were they?

AC: So many things. For example, I saw women hospitalised after childbirth for postpartum, transitory delirium. Some doctors didn’t understand and sometimes even people in the women’s families said, “It’s the djnoun who came to inhabit her.”

It affected me deeply because  I wanted to ascertain their experience of the delivery because it influences their relationship to the newborn baby.  It’s a complicated relationship.

GS: Did you have your own children at that time?

AC: No, I had no children at the time. I now have a son who is 40 years old. He studied political science and then he got involved in theatre.

GS: So, he is fortunate?

AC: Well there you have it.

Black and white photograph of Alice Cherki as a young women. She has short, dark hair, is wearing a white, V-neck dress and a necklace, and she is smiling.

GS: As a female doctor, what were your professional relationships like with your colleagues at the hospital?

AC: Amongst us interns at the psychiatric hospital of Blida, I was considered an equal.

I married an intern from the hospital. No, I can’t say I had any problems. On the other hand, before that when I was at the Mustapha Hospital in Algiers, I was very young, I did my hair in a bun and put on big glasses to make myself look older so I’d be left in peace.

GS: Was your husband originally from Blida?

AC: No, he was also from Algiers but he was an intern with Fanon in Blida. They wrote a paper together on Algerian women and the cultural specificity of TATs (Thematic Apperception Tests).

GS: In your book, Fanon, Portrait, you mention a meeting between Fanon and Jeanson. (1)

AC: Yes.

GS: In that meeting Fanon expressed his wish to go beyond certain ideas so that readers can experience aspects of life that they could never know firsthand.  You talk about Fanon exploring the sensory dimension of language. Do you think that this approach to writing could enable us to communicate experiences around difference, to understand our differences from an egalitarian point of view – not superior or even inferior?

AC: Yes, I think this type of writing is essential. In my experience, sensory writing starts from perceptions, sensations to try to improve communication with the other, I think it is very, very necessary.

GS: Do you know any writers today who write like that?

AC: I’m not qualified to say. I don’t know today’s writers that well. But Kateb Yacine wrote like that.

GS: Do you see difference as a dialectical space that can trigger creativity and imagination?

AC: Yes, that’s what I call the relationship to the other, the recognition of the outside, the stranger. It is important. I wrote another book called La frontière invisible, in which I insist on the relationship to the other. This allows you to accept the outsider in yourself.

GS: In your book, La frontière invisible, you link psychoanalysis and politics. I understand colonial violence, violence of displacement, violence against the subject in the social context, the context of specific historical and political circumstances, for example, those of Algeria and France. But when I try to analyse this violence from a psychoanalytic point of view, I find it difficult to understand.

AC: It is complicated. But you have sought out strangers?

GS: Always, yes.

AC: Perhaps it’s not by chance.

GS: Perhaps not.

Did you know Fanon outside his work, in his family life? What kind of man was he as husband and father?

AC: Yes, of course I had the opportunity to know Fanon outside his work. I knew his wife well and I know his son very well. As a dedicated husband and father. At the same time, he was a very busy man. But he was very dedicated to his family. When his father left for Africa, Olivier didn’t see him that often only from time to time when Fanon came back from working there.  Olivier was only five when his father died.

Fanon loved life. He liked to go out to dinner, go dancing, things like that.

GS: What type of dancing did he like?

AC: All the dances of that time, le slow, the rhumba . . .

GS: Did you like to dance?

AC: It has been a long time since I really danced but yes at the time I loved it.

GS: At friends’ places?

AC: Yes.

GS: What type of music did Fanon like?

AC: He especially loved Caribbean music.

GS: And you?

AC: Back then my tastes were very eclectic. I liked the Arab-Andalusian, Jewish-Andalusian music right through to Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and then Jean Ferrat, Barbara, Montand. More and more now I love Musique Concrète.

GS: Tell me more. 

AC: When I was a psychoanalyst, I was working very hard. In the evening, when I had finished working and my head was full of words, words, words, I’d play the likes of Kurtág and Blériot. The music is largely based on the sonority of the human body. It defies the normality of melody. It’s best to listen to it alone. There are not many people who love and desire that genre of music. It scares them.

GS: What kind of a sense of humour did Fanon have? What made him laugh?

AC: He had a great sense of humour, Fanon. It was humour that made him laugh.

GS: People who are very involved in revolutionary struggle often dedicate huge amounts of time and energy to the cause, and I suppose that doesn’t allow them to be very good parents.

AC: That’s true, yes. Especially at the time because the people involved in the struggle were very young.

GS: Have you met children whose parents were not only very involved but who were tortured, wounded or killed as part of the struggle?

AC: Yes, children who became orphans.

GS: Regarding the children of revolutionaries, what observations have you made?

AC: It was very variable. For example, Fatma Oussedic, her father was a great militant and she has good memories of her relationship with him. In addition, many families did not only consist of the father and mother, there were, aunts, uncles, cousins etc. They weren’t nuclear families. If we’re talking about orphans this helps a little. But when you see your parents killed before your eyes, that’s not the same thing. As for the children of the surviving revolutionaries following independence, the notion that their fathers are heroes has weighed heavily on many of them.

GS: Would you mind giving me a brief definition of your concept of alienation and the ways it may be experienced in countries marked by colonisation.

AC: That’s a big question. Both the coloniser and countries who achieved their independence, like Algeria, deny in various ways the colonial wars that have taken place. Algeria swept a large part of the past away by claiming the national story begins at the time of Independence. Generations have been taught that they have one history, one language, one origin. This kind of discourse has done a lot of damage. There are many young people who now don’t know who they are.

GS: How does that manifest psychologically?

AC: It varies considerably and is different in Algeria and in France. Here in France these young people are excluded from participating in the inner circle, In Algeria they are divided. There is group of social conformists who represent the youth, and another group of which no one ever speaks but which gnaws away at the heart and soul of the country.  Young people are suffering a great deal, even those who are socially successful. Many young people ask, “What was Algeria like before 1962?” Many are Berbers. The heterogeneity of their roots has been hidden from them. It is as if these roots don’t exist but they are longing for what I call multiple identification … not to be cast in a single mould.

In France there are many young people who describe their lives very well and write novels. Some are very interesting, written in the language of the suburbs. For example, Sabri Louatah, Les Sauvages.

GS: What is your definition of dignity, especially the dignity of colonised people, people considered mentally ill or disabled?

AC: Dignity is essential. Dignity means we are viewed by the other as a human being.

GS: In revolutionary situations, when a group of people can no longer withstand massive pressure and extreme violence, they react violently to create a change in the power structure. This changeover is often quick, lasts for a moment, the objective is specific: to get rid of the immediate cause of the violence that oppresses them. Beyond this moment of revolutionary violence, what measures do you think people can use to get rid of the everyday violence that continues?

AC: Firstly, to speak.

GS: To whom?

AC: Speak, tell, write. . . I think there are many forms of expression, of creation. Because we must get by. We must get out of the stupor. The essential thing is to get out of it, including through collective struggle.

GS: What for you is the most urgent task required to change human relations in the future? What needs to be done to update and develop new definitions of power?

AC: We need to do work in many areas if we are going to change human relations and bring about new definitions of power. Each person should focus on their own domain, the place where they live. It’s true, like many people, I feel I am very active and committed. At the same time, I denounce all modes of liberalism and things like that.

GS: How do you define liberalism?

AC: It is being governed by financial capitalism which transforms the subject into an object.

GS: Is it enough to denounce? Sometimes I get the impression that it is useless.

AC: I know it well. Organisations are important. There are organisations, people who are militant. I am fortunate to have a son, and nephews who are politically engaged in their fields. Me, everyone knows my positions, my writings. My son works in theatre. They go to schools, to high schools. I am not against the revolution.

GS: Do you think that as individuals, we are afraid of revolutionary violence, afraid of revolutionary confrontation?

AC: It depends. There are many people who are afraid of violence. In my case, I’m not afraid. Many French people want to stay in their little cocoons. In Europe, the French are very much like that, withdrawn on their plots of land, and yet they made a revolution.

But I believe violence is . . . for example, what happened in 2005 in the housing estates, with Sarkozy insulting everyone. People called them riots but I called them revolts. Those young people were not afraid.

GS: It is temporary, a moment?

AC: Revolution is always like that. It’s a moment. But moments that produce difference. Every revolutionary moment must be seen as the introduction of change.

GS: Even if it takes a long time to get to that point.

AC: Yes, like psychoanalysis.

GS: Why did you choose to become a psychoanalyst?

AC: Because I found it was the best way to understand the psyche and help people. It’s exciting, I love it, yes, I like it very much.

GS: You must undergo psychoanalysis for several years to be a psychoanalyst?

AC: Yes, you do. It’s experience. You see, even you talk to an 80-year-old woman who is a psychoanalyst and it’s fine.

GS: Yes, it’s been good.

AC: I have lots of stories to tell. I am attentive to other human beings.

GS: Ah yes, but not all psychoanalysts are like you.

AC: That’s true.

GS: Did you have any conversations with Fanon about the ‘Jewish question’ or the events that led to the establishment of the State of Israel?

AC: Of course, Algerian Jews, like myself and Jacques Azoulay, worked with Fanon in Blida. Fanon had very close Jewish friends in Tunis. The subject of the establishment of the State of Israel was far from our concerns. Fanon was profoundly atheist. I, too, am an atheist. We were part of the struggle for Algerian independence, there was never any conversation about the existence of God for example. Those questions and discussions were not on our radar.

GS: But religious discourse was there nonetheless with Messali . . .

AC: Oh, yes. Those discussions took place within the independence movement. It was very heterogeneous. There were plenty of different poles of thought, different ideas. For example, Fanon, returning from sub-Saharan Africa, jokingly said to his colleagues, to the revolutionary friends of the mujahidin, that they should follow the example of Islamic Africans, their wives can walk topless. He said that jokingly. I mean the issue of Islam as a fundamental direction was probably underestimated, but religion was not ubiquitous in our workplace. I think, even Messali, he was for independence from France, he was married to a French woman, he wasn’t a religious Iman.

GS: When and why did you leave Algeria? Do you consider yourself a woman in exile?

AC: I did not really leave Algeria. I settled in Paris but with frequent trips to Algeria and back. I’m not in national exile and I think exile of the psyche is the hallmark of any successful human life.

Notes:

1. Alice Cherki refers to a meeting  between Fanon and Jeanson in her book, Fanon, portrait (Seuil, 2000), however the English translation, Fanon: A Portrait, (Cornell University Press, 2006) refers to a letter.

Alice Cherki was interviewed by Gaele Sobott in Paris, 26 September 2015 and by email between 18 and 20 November 2016.

Translated from French by Gaele Sobott

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“Dignity is essential. Dignity means we are viewed by the other as a human being”: an interview with Alice Cherki by Gaele Sobott is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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