‘When I was a student of Fanon’: an interview with Frej Stambouli

In an interview with ROAPE, the Tunisian sociologist, Frej Stambouli, remembers his teacher Frantz Fanon. Stambouli describes Fanon’s lectures at the university in Tunis in 1959, and his unique conception of psychiatry and promotion of open psychiatry as a “pathology of freedom”. Stambouli considers Fanon’s legacy and his anger, reason and kindness, recalling, ‘I will never forget the generosity of Fanon’.

You were in Tunisia the late 1950s; can you explain how you came to be there and what you were doing?

I am Tunisian, born in December 1935 in a prestigious small city called Monastir, which lies on the Mediterranean coast. I am married to a Finnish woman, Anja Toivola-Stambouli, whose career was in the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. We are now both retired and have lived in Helsinki since 2008, with frequent visits to Monastir, Tunisia.

At at an early age, in 1942, I was hiding with my parents in a small tunnel dug by my maternal grandfather in his field. This was during the Second World War when the Germans were attacking the French in Tunisia. I had just started my primary school, run by a French headmaster. For me, it was rather hazy what was going on. My parents were illiterate. They just told me that it was a battle between Europeans.

While I went to school and learned French, my sister, who was younger than me, remained illiterate. That was the mood of the time: girls do not go to school. Also, my two older brothers did not finish primary school. My father owned one hundred olive trees and was a merchant of olives. In addition, he rented three houses to officers of the French army in Monastir.

In Tunisia, where a nationalist movement was on the rise, the struggle against French domination intensified until the nation gained its independence in 1956. Just after, in 1957, I finished secondary school in the city of Sousse and left for Tunis for my first year of university. In the late 1950s, the university offered only two years of education, for this reason I went to Paris in 1960 and obtained a master’s degree in sociology. I then finished my Doctorate in College de France under the well-known orientalist Jacques Berque in 1964.

While in Paris, I discovered the influence of Fanon there, having been his student in Tunis in 1959. Unhappy about the timidity of the French political left concerning the Algerian revolution, Fanon met with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir and convinced them to act. I could now personally witness Fanon’s influence. I saw Sartre in the Latin Quarter of Paris distributing leaflets in favour of Algerian independence and spoke with him. I also invited him to talk to the Tunisian students about the Algerian revolution. Later I asked Simone de Beauvoir to talk about the condition of women in Algeria. With Gisèle Halimi, the talented lawyer of Tunisian origin, she was defending the Algerian woman fighter Jamila Bouhired.

From 1964 to 2000, I taught sociology at Tunis University, where Michel Foucault was in 1967 my colleague and friend. During that time, I did field research in Tunisia on regional development, urbanization, and slums in the periphery of Tunis. I wrote several articles that were published in journals and edited books on these topics.

As you know, Frantz Fanon and his wife Josie and son, were in exile in Tunis. Fanon worked as a psychiatrist in the capital, but he also taught. You were one of his students. Please tell us a little of your experiences with Fanon, how you first met him, your personal impressions and your direct contact with him?  

Fanon arrived in Algeria for the first time in 1953. A year later, the Algerian revolution started while Fanon was working at Blida Hospital. The French colonial administration feared his influence on the events, leading Fanon to resign from his post two years later (see his letter to the French colonial minister in Algeria, Robert Lacoste, in his posthumous collection). Pierre Bourdieu arrived in Algiers in 1955 and was teaching and doing research there until 1960. He was critical of Fanon, whom he never met.

It is in Tunisia during the years 1956-1961 that Fanon came to fully develop his political engagement for the liberation of the Algerian people. This was precisely when I became a student of Fanon, attending his lectures at Tunis university in 1959. I followed a course of social psychopathology. Fanon was critical of the somatic conception of psychiatry and promoted open psychiatry as a “pathology of freedom.” He also spoke about his time at the Blida hospital in Algeria and his fights with his orthodox colleagues there.

I rarely came across a fascinating personality like Fanon. An intelligent and sharp man, passionate and fully mastering his discourse. Fanon spoke with elegance, conviction, and a superb art of persuasion. In particular, he made you realize the ferocity of the colonial system and the necessity to fight against barbarity, violence, and injustice. As first-year students of sociology, it was for us an unsurpassable introduction to our future specialization.

We were surprised that Fanon’s lectures were attended by a non-student public, such as medical doctors, academics, Algerian militants, and politicians, creating an unusual atmosphere that fascinated us as students. After his lectures, Fanon would invite us to be present at some of his consultations in the psychiatric hospital. We were enormously impressed by his ability to listen to his patients and his art of making them talk without fear. It was often about trauma while fighting in the Algerian mountains during the revolution.

The patients were invited to verbalize their symptoms freely, explain their problems, and learn to make again contact with reality. As for Fanon, “social therapy helps free the patient from his fantasms and confront reality.” I will never forget the generosity of Fanon with his patients and his ability to free them from anxiety and guilt.

Can you talk us through the years you were in Tunisia, and your contact, experience of the Algerian exiles, and FLN members at the time?  

In 1956 Tunisia had just won its political independence under the leadership of Habib Bourguiba, having fought for it since the birth of the Nationalist Party in 1934. Bourguiba was a great leader, very popular, realistic, and pragmatic. He was born in Monastir and came from the educated petty bourgeoisie. This was the time when Tunisia became the safe haven for the Algerian political leadership and a great number of political activists. An intensive beehive!

In 1957 Fanon, using Dr. Fares as his pseudonym, arrived in Tunis, which became the main harbour of the FLN (Front de libération nationale) in exile. Ferhat Abbas, a moderate Algerian nationalist leader, founded in 1958 in Tunis the Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic (GPRA) in exile. He also used to meet with President Bourguiba for deliberations. Later on, in 1961, he joined the most revolutionary wing of the FLN led by Ben Bella and Boumediene. Great figures of the Algerian political spectrum were based in Tunis, such as Reda Malek, Ahmed Boumendjel, M’hamed Yazid, Mohamed Harbi, Abane Ramdane, Pierre Chaulet, and others.

From time to time, I interacted with some of them. Reda Malek, who later on would have several ministerial positions, was a fine man. Bitter about the timidity of the French left and especially the betrayal of the communist party, he was rather happy to be in Tunisia, praising the active solidarity of the Tunisians with the Algerian people. Dr. Pierre Chaulet, expelled from Algeria in 1957 along with his wife Claudine, used to visit us at the university, where I met them in 1959 (Pierre had introduced Fanon to the FLN). Claudine sometimes joined lectures on sociology in the department where I was studying.  Both were passionate about the Algerian revolution. Pierre Chaulet was also writing for El Moudjahid, a daily newspaper of the Algerian revolution since 1956, available in Tunisia but, of course, banned in Algeria. He even conducted secret operations under the strong leader Abane Ramdane.

Fanon became a fierce political speaker of the Algerian FLN. He was a brilliant polemist and active journalist for El Moudjahid. There were papers of Fanon published in El Moudjahid, which are available in a book called Pour la Revolution Algerienne, (published in English as Towards the African Revolution in 1967) edited by Maspero, Paris, in 1964. In some of them, one can feel the strong attacks of Fanon against the timidity of the French political left. Fanon’s style is a unique synthesis of passion rooted in rigorous national analysis. Several journalists who approached Fanon described their impressions. The famous Giovanni Pirelli from Rome speaks of his “burning eyes which cut my defences.”

One can conclude from his articles how much Fanon represented the left of the Algerian FLN, contrary to the first Algerian President Ben Bella. Fanon’s dream was a future Algeria leading the way to a revolutionary Africa, secular and modern. Here, Fanon underestimated the Islamic dimension of Arab-Algerian society, which he did not master. During the terrible decade of the Algerian civil war in the 1990s, I met some of the modernist Algerian intelligentsia who had fled Algeria. For example, Ali El Kenz joined my sociology department of Tunis university in 1993-94, and Faysal Yachir, a leftist. The three of us joined Samir Amin as members of CODESRIA (African Council of Social Sciences and Development) in Dakar.

The whole position of Fanon regarding religion is very peculiar. In particular, he was too quick and too optimistic when he wrote, “The old Algeria is dead, and a new society is born.” One should remember here two decisive sinister heritages from the colonial time in Algeria and elsewhere in the Maghreb: the extension of illiteracy and the marginalization of the Islamic patrimony, which started early in the process of colonization.

Until 1954 illiteracy rate in Algeria was about 86%. The country lost one hundred and fifty years compared to European societies. This is probably the most catastrophic heritage of colonialism, and the origin of what analysts will later on call “under-development.” Jacques Derrida, who was born in Algeria, denounced such scandalous trauma. Albert Memmi, born in Tunisia, characterized bilingualism in a colonial context as a “linguistic drama.” In order to identify the nature of present-day Algerian society, one should consider not only the colonial legacy but also its specific Arab-Islamic matrix, Islam being simultaneously a society, a state, and culture, the well-known: Din, Dawla, Dunja.

While in Tunisia, Fanon enjoyed meeting the famous radical scholar Jacques Berque and listening to his analysis of North Africa and the Arab world. Berque talked about Fanon, “sa colère, sa raison et sa bonté” (“his anger, his reason, and goodness”).

Can you explain what happened to you after 1961, and in the subsequent decades? How do you measure (or weigh) this early period in terms of your life and its trajectory?  

Because I belong to an in-between historical period and generation, I can clearly see the advantages and the inconveniences of such a position.

My generation had better access to universal and global knowledge than the previous ones. I was trained in Paris, Sorbonne, in the sixties and later for one year in 1973 at LSE, London, under Ernest Gellner. I also had the chance to spend one year in 1987 as visiting professor at UCLA, Los Angeles, and a similar period at Ann Arbor, University of Michigan in 1991.

The shortcoming of such an itinerary is that my rootedness in my own culture and history remained insufficient. I realized it clearly when I started teaching at Tunis University in 1964. I was lecturing on the sociology of North African societies, which I had not sufficiently mastered. My knowledge of my own civilization – Islam and Arabism – was simply not sufficient.

I was not ready to understand, for example, the failure of the Arab armies in 1967 against Israel, nor the spectacular success of the Islamic turn of the Iranian revolution of 1979. The massive return of political Islam was an unforeseen surprise. I had to work hard to catch up and adjust to my own history. This is one lesson among others about the ravages of alienation and dispossession of our history from colonialism, which Fanon has scrutinized all his life. Despite all these shortcomings, I still feel privileged in contrast to the present-day challenges of our societies in nearly every domain, including education, health, employment, etc.

Albert Memmi, who wrote a book on Fanon, is intrigued by our societies’ present-day stagnation. “Why such failure?” he kept asking in a book called Decolonization and the Decolonized in 2006. “In formerly colonized peoples, fifty years later, nothing really seems to have changed, except for the worse.” And he adds: “The gulf between the rich and the poor grows wider… a police state and tyranny maintain an oppressive system”.

Since decolonization, more than 60 years ago, the global political configuration of most Arab and African societies remained similar to what Fanon analysed: A micro-bourgeoisie controlling its wealth and power inherited from the direct colonialism era with the help of the army and a party regime.

Here and there, there are small changes, new variations, but the overall scenery remains unchanged. For example, the ‘Arab Spring’ of 2011 had been an uprising by the excluded, such as the peasantry of the interior regions, but also and especially the proletariat and semi-proletariat around the main cities, in rebellion for a share of wealth and for respect of their dignity and for justice. But the weakness of their organizations and their internal division did not allow them to win.

As we know, in all of Africa south of the Sahara, the historical heritage is as complicated as it is across the Arab world: manipulation of the frontiers by colonialism and hence arbitrary separation of communities and people. It is impressive how Fanon had dealt with these structural characteristics of Arab and African societies in the The Wretched of the Earth under the title “Pitfalls of the national consciousness“.

Fanon was fully aware of all the complexities of these societies. In his last book in 1961 he wrote: “One should get away from the ethnic and tribal dictatorships and promote a national policy in favour of the periphery and the masses.”

Therefore, the road to liberation of the oppressed is still long and tortuous. But Fanon has offered precious tools and hope. His contribution to the liberation of the oppressed (Mustathafin in Arabic) is infinite. And his optimism for the future of humankind is energizing. Fanon’s humanism is refreshing. It purifies history from segregation, racism, humiliation (Hogra in Arabic), and injustice and opens the door of freedom for every human being, regardless of race, culture, or religion. Recognition of the hominization of human beings (Hegel) leads to a revitalized universality. Time has come for an alternative civilization – this is what Fanon teaches us.

The most recent protest movement in the US, “Black Lives Matter,” shows how much Fanon’s struggle for the liberation of humankind is alive, and his ideal for justice and dignity will never be defeated!

Frej Stambouli is a scholar of urbanization, migration and the urban poor, and worked for years a professor of sociology at Tunis university. He currently lives in Finland.

1 COMMENT

  1. Im delighted that RoAPE has been able to interview the modest but Important Tunisian sociologist, Frej Stambouli. I am familiar with his work, and I seem to recall we met (at conferences); but did not know until now that we ‘shared’ Ernest Gellner as a tutor and a colleague – I worked with Ernest on my doctoral thesis on Morocco between 1968 and 1975 and then ran a joint University of London seminar on ‘the Sociology of Islam’ with him and I M Lewis between 1970 and 1972. But Frej’s unique position as a former student of Fanon’s – actually hearing him lecture at the University of Tunis in 1959 – enables him to provide a valuable personal impression of the man and his passion, as well as with a more objective assessment of his ideas and his political involvement over a longer period.

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