In memory of the anthropologist Germaine Tillion

Yesterday, Germaine Tillion has died at the age of the age of one-hundred. Few students of anthropology probably can tell you who Germaine is despite the fact that she has been one of the anthropologists who have contributed not only to the understanding of the Mediterranean region, particularly North Africa, but also to the freedom of Europe from the nightmare of fascism and Nazism. She has been a ‘partigiani’ and also a prisoner at Ravensbrueck; a personal experience which would mark her life and her future commitment against torture and oppression.

Germanie Tillion’s fieldwork took place in the Aures region of Algeria from 1934 to 1940. The material she collected has been at the centre of her two most famous works The Republic of Cousins: Women’s Oppression in Mediterranean Society and Il etait une fois l’ethnographie.

After the end of the Second World War, Germaine Tillion, despite wishing to study the ideology and reasons behind the Nazi crimes and the use of the camps, accepted professor Louis Massignon’s pressing suggestions and decided to go back to Algeria in 1954. She observed, and was the first to do so among ethnographers, that one of the main issues which Algeria was facing, and that would have affected its future, was the migration from the countryside to the cities, which caused a severe impoverishment of the migrants.

Recently, starting from her experience in Algeria under the French occupation, she had condemned the use of torture in Iraq and the ‘CIA secret prisons’ as part of the Bush administration’s ‘war against terror’. Her resistance against injustice and inhuman treatment never ceased despite her age.

In 1999, she became one of only five French women to be awarded the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour. In 2002, Alison Rice interviewed Germaine Tillion. The interview has been published in Research in African Literatures, I shall offer some of the interesting insights from this, often controversial but surely intriguing, anthropologist, whose words on the current war on terror should be kept vivid in our minds. Some of her words:

Gender and veil

GT: The veil can be ambiguous. It cuts both ways. The veil can also be a religious vindication, and this religious vindication is also ambiguous. I see countries like Afghanistan, where we find people of different languages united. In a place like that, I wonder if women weren’t responsible for bringing the famous Talibans to power. For, in a country where men engage in battles street by street, where different languages are spoken in each block, women fell back on Islam as a unifying force. Since what resulted from this action was the emergence of what I consider a repulsive Islam, it is surprising to discover that women played a role in championing this version of their religion. I am convinced that in Algeria it is women who carry the Islamic movements. They do this because they are not as advanced as the men in their thinking-I say this even though you and I are feminists-because they travel less. There is nothing like travel (metaphorical as well as literal) to open up the mind, but women who must remain in place are crushed intellectually. Who is victimized by these circumstances? The entire society! And this is why Islamic countries are all below normal standards of living. Keeping women in a stagnant state, behind the times, results in a big victim: the State.

The Experience of Ravensbruck

GT: When I reached Ravensbruck, they confiscated a suitcase that contained my thesis. It was filled with genealogies that were impossible to reconstitute, genealogies of all the families in the Aures. I had carefully noted the historical structure of the families in this region of Algeria, including relationships and inheritance. I discovered details such as if a certain tribe disappeared, which branch of another tribe would inherit the land. There was a whole mechanism of inheritance and this mechanism was dependent on genealogical structures. This was an enormous historical work. I retained the general overview in my head, but what I lost were the concrete aspects on paper: which group was the cousin of which group, to what degree, etc. It was quite simply a general genealogy, but the global understanding came with it. The substratum underlying this genealogy was the knowledge of each level of this society: if you place your foot there, you’ll fall, but if you place your foot there, you’ll hold up.

Resistance: “Dire non, c’est une affirmation”

GT: For me, resistance consists of saying “no.” But to say no is already an affirmation. It is very positive, the movement of saying no to an assassination, to a crime. Nothing is more creative, more life-affirming than saying no to an assassination, to cruelty, to the death penalty. One cannot say no to something one knows nothing about. You must have put your hands in something you hate to be able to catch it and throw it in the air.

On the War on Terror

GT: We see the United States as deeply worried about terrorism. But effectively fighting against terrorism does not mean increasing the number of military operations; it means fighting against what causes terrorism. If you introduce kindness and gentleness at the place where terrorism begins, you will eradicate terrorism without pain. It is necessary to examine the most sensitive areas of the earth. You can do nothing to stop the seventeen-year-old kid who has decided to place a bomb somewhere. You can do strictly nothing, and any effort against him will just fly back in your face. Countering violence with violence is the most melfective response imaginable. Instead, we should target the pain, with the goal to alleviate it. I firmly desire a worldwide dialogue, and I would like to see the United States discharged from the monologue. The period of great wars is over. Science has put in the hands of children extraordinary means of death. The greatest error the United States is currently making is to think that international military operations can stop a seventeen-year-old child from acting. The focus should be placed instead on alleviating the pain in the most sensitive regions of the world, beginning with Jerusalem.

About Life

GT: Learning to die, that’s what life is. For everyone. We know from the beginning, indeed we are born learning that we are mortal.

Adieu, Germaine!


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