“I beg you to tell me what has become of Djamila”: The Political Mobilization of Simone de Beauvoir’s Readers During the Boupacha Affair

By Sophia Millman

This is a condensed version of a Masters thesis dedicated to the political mobilization of Simone de Beauvoir’s readers. The citations from the letters were translated from French by the author.

***

On June 2, 1960, the French government ordered all copies of the daily Algiers edition of Le Monde seized and destroyed to suppress the publication of Simone de Beauvoir’s article “Pour Djamila Boupacha.” Beauvoir, a self-professed “woman of letters”, not “of action[1]”, and one who typically resisted revealing her political views to the public, had written an exposé that was as scandalous as Zola’s J’accuse. She accused the French government of covering up the torture and rape of Djamila Boupacha, a twenty-three-year-old Algerian militant who had been sentenced to death for purportedly planting a bomb in Algiers. News that Beauvoir’s article had been suppressed in Algiers traveled quickly, and readers began sending Beauvoir letters of support almost immediately. Hundreds of letters “poured in, from France and the rest of the world,” wrote Boupacha’s lawyer Gisèle Halimi in Djamila Boupacha, her 1962 account of the affair, which she co-authored with Beauvoir[2]. Readers wrote Beauvoir urgent letters, asking how they could help Boupacha and entreating Beauvoir to guide them in their future political endeavors.

This essay demonstrates how Beauvoir served as a political exutoire for readers living in France. In their letters to her, they revealed a wide range of emotional responses to the affair: fear, pride, shame, hope, and the fervent desire to act. “You’re fighting for all of us. You’re fighting for the redemption of the world,” wrote a priest to Beauvoir[3]. Beauvoir’s correspondents viewed the Boupacha affair as an opportunity to become part of a politically engaged community and to play a role in her fight for France’s political redemption. Between 1960 and 1963, they sent Beauvoir letters about the affair. At first, they wrote in response to her article in Le Monde and about the Boupacha Committee, a political group that Beauvoir formed to free Boupacha and bring her torturers to trial. Later, they wrote in response to the publication of Djamila Boupacha and Boupacha’s subsequent liberation.

While the name Djamila Boupacha appeared throughout their letters, Boupacha’s personal story was in fact missing from them. Readers wrote at length about the decline of the French nation or the corruption of the French army, but they did not comment on Boupacha herself, a Muslim activist who bravely chose to publicly confront her assailants. In one 1962 letter to Beauvoir, an aspiring author admitted: “Perhaps it seems inappropriate that I took advantage of Djamila Boupacha to tell you about my book. [4]” Paradoxically, French citizens who claimed to feel guilty about their country’s exploitation of Algeria took advantage of the Boupacha affair to write to Simone de Beauvoir about their personal lives. French readers, I argue, held a narrowly reductive view of Boupacha; they effaced the flesh-and-blood woman behind the name “Boupacha” even as they transformed her into a powerful symbol of political connection.

Could you tell us how we can do something?”

On June 3, 1960, a day after Beauvoir’s article ran in Le Monde, university student A. sent Beauvoir an impassioned letter about her article, writing: “Today it’s no longer enough to wait for the government to act justly. We have to fight for justice ourselves… What we need now is to propose action.[5]” Many of Beauvoir’s readers echoed A.’s words in their letters about Djamila Boupacha. In her Le Monde article, Beauvoir had castigated the French public for condoning the government’s actions: “When the government of a country allows crimes to be committed in its name, every citizen thereby becomes a member of a collectively criminal nation”, she wrote[6]. But while she had thus implicated her audience in the affair, she had not suggested how her readers could collectively help Boupacha. Pragmatically-minded letter writers, unprompted, began offering to aid the Boupacha Committee financially. On July 8, 1960, a young student wrote:

I am sending you this money for the ‘Djamila Boupacha Committee’. I did not know whom to contact, since the press reports did not publish any postal check account number. I believe that a committee needs to make itself known and for that, needs funds. I think this is the most useful way a high school girl can participate. Anyway, I will be very happy to serve the Committee in any way possible.[7]

Less than two weeks later, Beauvoir wrote an open letter to the public explaining how expensive it was to bring Boupacha’s torturers to trial. “The Djamila Boupacha Committee” was “opening a subscription” and checks could be addressed to Madame Audibert, the Committee’s treasurer. “Help us try the torturers of Djamila Boupacha. Help us begin this first public torture trial since the beginning of the Algerian war,” wrote Beauvoir[8].

But financial donations did not suffice for many letter writers; they wanted to take political action in a more overt way. Some insisted that they would like to be part of the Boupacha Committee themselves, and some wrote that they were forming their own local committees. In a July 15, 1960 letter, a middle school teacher in Nantes explained that he supported the Boupacha committee “de tout coeur” and hoped to interest his collegiens in it[9]. Readers’ desire to actappears to become more imperative as the Boupacha affair progressed. In December 1961, another letter writer, who had met Beauvoir in person, wrote urgently about wanting “to do something”:

Last Sunday, you talked to me more or less dans le vague about helping Algerians. I apologize for disturbing you about this, only my sister and I would like to do something concrete and I think maybe you know how. Could you tell us how we can do something? I blame myself for seeming pressée or impatient, but I tell myself that one day or the next we could wake up in a fascist regime and it would be even more difficult to act.[10]

“Fascism is mounting quickly” was a common refrain throughout the Boupacha affair letters. Readers saw themselves as living in a critical moment, one in which it was “difficult to act”, but essential that they do so. Some readers claimed that Beauvoir had opened their eyes to the current political situation. “I always thought that Germany and Germans were guilty because they tolerated the famous death camps where torture was the rule”, explained one letter writer, who described himself as a member of the French resistance during World War II, “What is unthinkable is the apathy of the masses before such trials and in FRANCE. I do not want to belong to this mass.[11]

Had Beauvoir shaken her French readers out of their political complacency with her writings about Boupacha? It is likely that many readers were already worried about the situation in Algeria before learning of the Boupacha affair, and, after reading “Pour Djamila Boupacha”, believed that they had to prove themselves in some way–or at least set themselves apart from the apathetic “mass” of citizens. Many readers explained to Beauvoir that they felt politically paralyzed, and did not know who else to turn to than the author herself. A young doctoral student in philosophy sent a letter in which she praised Beauvoir’s courage and moral principles, but regretted that she herself did not know how to “act in the name of truth.” “I thank you and Sartre for signing the Manifesto of the 121 and for your interest in the case of Djamila Boupacha”, she wrote. “Those who read you have the impression of doing nothing, being helpless while participating in pain… while having a sense of responsibility and the desire to act, too. [12]

“Pour Djamila Boupacha” had induced “a sense of responsibility” not only in Beauvoir’s French audience. S., an Algerian woman who lived in Paris, confessed in her letters to Beauvoir that she felt responsible for Boupacha’s fate:

Impossible to explain to you how I feel–I am ashamed, I who am sheltered in Paris while my brothers and sisters fight and get tortured. I would like to make myself useful and do something. I want it with all my heart. Know that these are not sentimental words I tell myself to relieve my conscience. I tried to do something for Muslim women in France but I ran into a wall of organizations (all Catholic). Dear Simone de Beauvoir, I think I can do something. I want my life to be useful… Help me, I would be eternally grateful.[13]

From S.’s letters, it becomes clear that she not only battled with feelings of shame, but also of political isolation. Her letters are distinct because she connected her desire to help Boupacha with her wish to “do something for Muslim women”; the majority of readers did not mention Boupacha’s religious identity. Aside from S.’s allusion to Boupacha’s religion, however, her discourse is strikingly similar to that employed by French citizens. This discourse is, principally, one of shame, or la honte.

Confessions of shame were not new to Beauvoir. Throughout the 1950s, she had received letters from readers who had never before felt comfortable speaking about their sexuality. “Many of the letters [dating from the ‘50s] in the archive were penned in anguish. Lonely, isolated, and trusting Beauvoir’s intelligence and humanity, the writers rushed to confide in her”, observes Judith Coffin[14]. In the letters written during the early 1960s, sexual and political shame coalesced. From the beginning, the Boupacha affair had been about a woman’s body and the government’s attempt to ignore it. As Halimi made clear in Djamila Boupacha, the first military doctor to examine Boupacha had not, for the sake of “discretion”, performed a gynecological exam on Boupacha and could not say for certain whether her hymen had been perforated. Boupacha therefore had to undergo further examination (both physical and psychological) in preparation for her trial so that experts could evaluate whether her claim to have been raped was true. Those who read Beauvoir’s account of the Boupacha affair in Le Monde and in Djamila Boupacha perhaps found it “impossible to explain” how they felt because they could not fully distinguish between Boupacha’s physical and psychological humiliation and their own. Were they ashamed for Boupacha–ashamed that her bodily dignity had been robbed from her–or perhaps ashamed that they had read intimate details about her rape?

Of all the reactions to the Boupacha affair, many of the strongest came from soldiers, whom Beauvoir had shamed with her accusations against the French military. Their letters best exemplify the way in which her political discourse created a manichean divide within readers who were affiliated with the French army. While some soldiers were estranged by her criticism of the institution, others wrote to her eagerly, appearing excited at the idea of sharing their thoughts about their service with a celebrated intellectual whom, in ordinary circumstances, they would never have dared contact. The Boupacha Affair prompted an intimate correspondence between Beauvoir and Lieutenant M., who, stationed in Germany and grappling with feelings of isolation, had written the author in hopes that she could send him a copy of Djamila Boupacha. She sent him the book, and the two exchanged at least seven letters, which offer a rare glimpse into the political advice she gave (or, at least, the political books she recommended) to her readers. Thanks to Beauvoir, M. read William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. M. had a flair for the dramatic, and the postscript that he added to his letter in which he thanked Beauvoir for Djamila Boupacha is one of the most emotionally charged pieces of writing that she received during the affair. In his letter, M. did not in fact write about the content of Djamila Boupacha (that is, Boupacha’s life, torture, and trial). Instead, he used the book as a means to write about his own problems and personal experiences in the army. His postscript is the first and only time that M. showed interest in Djamila Boupacha as an individual, rather than as a symbol for all that was wrong with the French army. Scrawled at the end of his letter is the following:

I knew everything was sordid, but I could not imagine how much. Madame, I beg you to tell me what has become of Djamila… Does the Committee still exist? Madame, I would like to do something for all this… I want more than anything to help give birth to a peaceful atmosphere in France, as well as in Algeria.[15]

For M., a French citizen ashamed of his country and people, helping Djamila symbolized fighting for the redemption, or the rebirth, of France. While he may have been concerned about the future of Algeria, the final sentence of his postscript indicated that peace in Algeria was an afterthought–his primary objective was to save his own nation.

What has become of Djamila?

Because Djamila Boupacha ended ambiguously (Boupacha was still in prison when the book was first printed and the Committee was still attempting to bring her torturers to trial) almost all readers who wrote to Beauvoir about the affair during the first half of 1962 asked the same question: “What has become of Djamila?” Many also asked Beauvoir to convey their feelings of sympathy to Boupacha, imagining that the two women were in close contact with each other. “I know that you are part of the Committee ‘For Djamila Boupacha’, wrote S. to Beauvoir, “This makes me very happy, and, if you see her or write her, say that in Paris the young Muslim girls of her age are proud of her and admire her a lot. [16]” Readers assumed that Beauvoir, like Halimi, met with Boupacha frequently, and that Beauvoir would serve as a willing intermediary, helping them connect indirectly with Boupacha. Their assumptions were not entirely unfounded. In Djamila Boupacha, Halimi had described visiting Boupacha in prison, telling her about Beauvoir’s article in Le Monde, and describing the founding of the Committee to her. As though foreshadowing a future encounter between Boupacha and Beauvoir, Halimi wrote, “[Djamila] tried to imagine what Simone de Beauvoir was like. ‘She must be very beautiful, mustn’t she?’ she asked me, ‘Will I see her one day? [17]’” In fact, Boupacha never did see Beauvoir, and Beauvoir’s reluctance to meet with her in person still puzzles scholars[18].

While Boupacha and Beauvoir never met in person, Boupacha sent Beauvoir multiple letters that suggest that the two nevertheless established a relatively close relationship. In a letter dated November 25, 1961, Boupacha wrote Beauvoir explaining that she was weak from having recently finished a hunger strike, but that she felt it was necessary to thank her “and all the French people who, for eighteen months, had done everything within their power to punish [her] torturers.[19]” Boupacha signed her letter with “Je vous embrasse très fort,” an intimate closing that suggests that she viewed Beauvoir as a friend and equal, much as she viewed Halimi. On January 12, 1962, she wrote Beauvoir again, asking her to thank the Boupacha Committee members once again for all their efforts and “for the touching concern they [had] constantly shown [her].[20]” Beauvoir, thus, appears to have assumed a position of go-between, transmittingmessages between readers and Boupacha.

Julien Murphy has argued that, in order to successfully reach her French audience, Beauvoir highlighted Boupacha’s youth and purity in her Le Monde article, thereby diminishing Boupacha’s role as a militant activist[21]. It is not surprising, then, that, in their letters, readers wrote about Boupacha as though she were an Algerian martyr, or one of Beauvoir’s fictional creations. “Before buying your book [Djamila Boupacha], I had read only your play Les bouches inutiles. C [one of the play’s characters] and Djamila would have appreciated each other. Same sincerity, same purity”, wrote one letter-writer. Readers even compared Boupacha to Joan of Arc, effectively erasing her Muslim identity by likening her story to that of a French Catholic saint. Ultimately, the letters written to Beauvoir during the Boupacha affair reveal both a desire for political connection and a discomfort to speak about Boupacha’s religious and political identity.

The Boupacha affair gave Beauvoir’s readers an impression of human contact and political solidarity. For them, the affair was not about the suffering of a young Algerian girl, but rather their own yearning for political connection. “I think it would be desirable to see an extension of the ‘Boupacha Committee’ into a larger organization allowing all French people to belong to it”, wrote one reader to Beauvoir after finishing Djamila Boupacha[22]. The Boupacha Committee represented a sense of political belonging, and even after Boupacha was freed from prison on April 21, 1962, readers wondered in their letters if they could still join the organization.

In her preface to Djamila Boupacha, Beauvoir described how it was common for an Algerian nationalist to be tortured in Algiers; his body would disappear, someone would call for an investigation, there would be no evidence of a crime committed, and “le silence se referme.[23]Sortir du silence, breaking the silence, was Beauvoir’s objective when she wrote “Pour Djamila Boupacha”. The French government first tried to silence Boupacha, and then to silence Beauvoir when her article appeared in Le Monde. Beauvoir’s writing about Boupacha inspired readers to come forward and break their own silence over their political fears. But just as readers in the 1950s had been hesitant to write directly to Beauvoir about their private sexual lives, alluding only obliquely to their desires in their letters, most could not bring themselves to participate in Boupacha’s emancipation by writing about her personal identity and the sexual violence she had been subjected to. They trusted Beauvoir to understand the feelings they couldn’t communicate and to transmit their words of admiration to Boupacha. “I would also like to write to Djamila Boupacha herself, to tell her how much I admire her determination,” wrote C. to Beauvoir in December 1962, several months after Boupacha’s liberation. Did Beauvoir reply to him? Was he able to write to Boupacha directly? Or did his letter remain unanswered as silence closed over the Boupacha affair?

 

[1] Beauvoir, Simone de. Hard Times: Force of Circumstance, II. Paragon House, 1992, p. 280.

[2] Beauvoir, Simone de, and Halimi, Gisèle. Djamila Boupacha. Gallimard, 2006, p. 66.

[3] Beauvoir and Halimi, Djamila Boupacha, 67.

[4] Beauvoir, lettres reçues, NAF 28501 (13), BnF.

[5] Fonds d’archives d’Hubert Beuve-Méry, Courrier des lecteurs, articles de presse, 1945-1969. BM 107-108 1960. Letter addressed to Beuve-Méry, Halimi and Beauvoir.

[6] Beauvoir, Simone de. “Pour Djamila Boupacha.” Le Monde, 1 June 1960, www.lemonde.fr/archives/article/1960/06/02/pour-djamila-boupacha_2092987_1819218.html.

[7] NAF 28501 (13).

[8] This letter can be found in the BNF archive: NAF 28501 (14), Paris, July 21, 1961.

[9] NAF 28501 (13).

[10] NAF 28501 (14).

[11] NAF 28501 (15).

[12] NAF 28501 (15). J. M. B., Toulon, February 16.

[13] NAF 28501 (13).

[14] Coffin, Judith G. “Sex, Love, and Letters: Writing Simone de Beauvoir, 1949–1963.” The American Historical Review, vol. 115, no. 4, 2010, p. 1077.

[15] NAF 28501 (15), April 15, 1962.

[16] NAF 28501 (13), F 163, undated.

[17] Djamila Boupacha, 77.

[18] Mary Caputi, in “Beauvoir and the Case of Djamila Boupacha,” attempts to justify Beauvoir’s decision not to meet with Boupacha. She describes how Halimi was surprised and disappointed when she realized that Beauvoir had no interest in having a personal relationship with Boupacha. See Marso, Lori Jo., and Patricia Moynagh. Simone de Beauvoir’s Political Thinking. University of Illinois Press, 2006, pp. 118-121.

[19] NAF 28501 (14)

[20] Ibid.

[21] Murphy, Julien. “Beauvoir and the Algerian War: Toward a Postcolonial Ethics.” Feminist Interpretations of Simone de Beauvoir, by Margaret A. Simons, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995.

[22] NAF 28501 (15).

[23] Djamila Boupacha, 3.

 

The author : Sophia Millman studied English and French literature at Hamilton College and completed a master’s degree at New York University’s Institute of French Studies. In 2019, under the supervision of Professor Herrick Chapman, she worked on a research project about Simone de Beauvoir at the archives of the Bibliothèque Nationale.

 

To cite this article: Sophia Millman, « ‘I beg you to tell me what has become of Djamila’: The Political Mobilization of Simone de Beauvoir’s Readers During the Boupacha Affair », Chère Simone de Beauvoir, mars 2020, URL : https://lirecrire.hypotheses.org/2952

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Marine Rouch

Doctorante à l'université de Toulouse Jean Jaurès - Histoire contemporaine des femmes et du genre - Histoire littéraire - Laboratoire FRAMESPA (UT2J) - Laboratoire ALITHILA (Lille 3). CV ici : https://lirecrire.hypotheses.org/curriculum-vitae

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