Memoirs-Nadia « These soldiers who sacrifice amid debacle should be honoured as heroes… »

Through her last novel “Frères de l’ombre”, the journalist Nadia Hathroubi-Saf Saf pays tribute to « these forgotten » of France history, the African Riflemen. For the 10th May –dedicated since 2006 National day of remembrance of the slave trade, slavery and their abolition_ANA asked the author her point of view on the last initiatives taken in France over this memorial question, still so sensitive… 

Interviewed by Dounia Ben Mohamed

Why did you wrote this book? why this theme? and, especially why now?

I have carried this book with me for a long time. I already had it in mind when I was writing my first novel”Ce sont nos frères et leurs enfants sont nos enfants” which also relate with forgotten events of the Second World War on the existence of a network of Algerian resistance fighters etc. 

I also wanted to pay tribute to the colonial soldiers embroiled despite them in two world conflicts but also later in Indochina, in French Algeria. As has been seen with my great uncles. 

I could have written about the Tunisian «Tirailleurs » or the Moroccan Goumiers but I didn’t want to be locked in a box as we know so well In France. In other words, be presented as a novelist who deals only with north African subjects. I am already labelled as the chief editor of the «Courrier de l’Atlas». Regardless I say or write I am red with this prism.  

The choice of the novel, to come back on these “forgotten “the Senegalese, does it facilitate the memory work?

There has been both a little and a lot of writing about the soldiers. This paradox is explained by the fact that it is a topic which was dealt in the university framework through theses memoirs, scientific articles etc., but the fictional production remains at the margin. Although this is a novel, it required me to do some historical research. I had at heart to document these little-known facts: Who still remember the sinking of the liner « Afrique »? On January 12, 1920, around 570 people were drowned off the French coast in the sinking of the liner “Afrique”. Among the victims, nearly 200 Senegalese infantrymen returning home after the war. This is the French Titanic version and yet a few people know about this episode. This raises our memorial policy. Equally, how is it that the Chasselay massacre is so little taught? These soldiers who sacrifice themselves amid the debacle should be honoured as heroes…

Likewise, this saga of three generation of Senegalese men from 1917 to date, it’s a way to link past and present.

I wanted to play on different timelines, go back and forth between the past and the present. Therefore, address several topics that may seem distant from each other: the executed for example, forced enrolments, Mediterranean syndrome, racial profiling. An exercise made possible by the fictional action. This also allow today’s generation to be fully involved in the French national novel. They know, they belong to this common history by the sacrifice of their grandparents, great uncles. I like to repeat it but citizenship, it is to give everyone a place in the story of our country.

Several initiatives have focused on the issue of memory these recent month, are things moving in the right direction?

Yes, there is a growing consciousness. We have never talked so much about memory. It’s a topic that I defend since my first articles in 2002. I remember that my first news published in the magazine “Zanatane” (child of the earth in Malagasy, Editor’s note) titled: ” Dans la peau d’un esclave”.  We have an ambition We had a goal for this magazine, it was to cross one world to another, build bridges between different cultures, talk about the Maghreb to Africans and Asia to the Africans “. It’s a verbatim that I found in an interview with the news Afrik. in 2002… My statement hasn’t changed! I’m supportive for showing what brings us together rather than what divides us. Admit our mistakes, our failures it is not going towards division but on the contrary, reconciliation. Every victim needs to be recognised to start its reconstruction work. I am not in favour of tearing down the statues but instead helping to our citizen to face this history! How? By installing explanatory plaques next to the statues, at the entrance of establishments with a controversial name. By creating the museum of colonial history. There was indeed a ministry of immigration and national identity. Stop being timorous! 

The subject remains sensitive in France. You wrote a lot about this question of « memory » How can we reconcile French with this a past that does not pass?”

We need to be pedagogical, to explain relentlessly that France is rich in all these. It’s not about competing against each other. That’s why I immediately agreed the proposal of the historian Pascal Blanchard to integrate the scientific committee in charge of the development of a collection devoted to personalities who contributed to the cultural, political, artistic, sportive, military, academic history of our country. Despite their contributions, they still have not found their place in our collective memory

To conclude, what does this Day of 10th May means for you?

This year is special since it is the 20 years of the Taubira law which inscribes teaching slavery to school programs. It’s still too timid for me! France played an important role in triangular trade. Cities like Bordeaux, Nantes thrived through this. This day must be better and more commemorated. Many people are unaware of Its existence. Like the deputy Aurélien Tâché, I am in favour for it to become a bank holiday. 

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