This is the fifth post in Fire Stories, a 12 part series of pieces edited by Mica Jorgenson and written by environmental historians and their disciplinary neighbours about encountering fire in the archives and on the land.
A closed border leads to bigger flames
In the early days of August 2021, on the road from the cities of Tabarka to Jendouba in the heart of the Northwest of Tunisia, you could no longer see the sky. Instead, a dirty yellow heavy curtain seemed to have replaced the bright blue shade of hot summer days. The second you stepped outside, ashes filled your throat, slowing your breath. The smell of smoke seemed to follow you everywhere, as if it was embedded in your skin.
The fires began in Algeria, in the region of Kabylia. Entire forests caught on fire and villages had to be evacuated.1 Yet on the other side of the border in the Tunisian northwest things seemed unusually quiet. In the past, this border had seen frequent crossing, especially in the summer when Algerian tourists flocked into Tunisia, Tunisian traders bought and sold across both countries, and after dusk, trucks of contraband traffickers raced through mountain roads to pass gas, coral, or household goods from a side to another.
Until French colonisation, this mountainous region, historically known as the Kroumirie, hosted a large tribal federation that spanned both sides of the border. The region had always been a site of passage that subverted nation-states as people on both sides claimed a belonging that rendered the border blurrier than political boundaries would suggest.
During the Covid-19 pandemic the border had been, for the first time in decades, completely closed. So it was that in 2021 the flames crossed before anyone on the other side knew. They decimated the thick forests of the northwest, leaving thousands of trees under a coat of black ashes.2 The region is one of the greenest in the Maghreb, and is known for its tree species, particularly the unique cork oak. In 2021, the border closure prevented firefighters from coordinating between Algeria and Tunisia.
The border closure reveals how fires are entangled in socio-political processes. In the northwest, as fires spread, many interpretations emerged. For example, people in surrounding villages claimed that small animals running away from the flames with burning fur spread the fire across the border. These narratives reveal social understandings of the mobility of the fauna and flora beyond the border. They show how people understand the spread of fires as linked to the movements of organisms, including bothhumans to non-humans.
Other interpretations were less benign. As flames took over trees and buildings, rumours spread that malicious individuals were sadistically causing chaos by starting fires intentionally. The rumours turned into conspiracy and anger as, for example, a video circulated showing people in Algeria arresting a so-called “pyromane” (pyromaniac) and beating him to death. In fact, the young man had been a local artist who had come to give donations.3
The Maghreb’s pyromanes represented a particular social category: usually young men from working-class backgrounds who used green spaces as sites of leisure and socialization, often gathering to smoke and drink outside the city. The pyromane evoked the figure of an unproductive young man, racialized and classed, sitting idly. The pyromane was a danger not only because he started fires but because he represented a social danger to capitalist productive ethos, to the nation, and to the authoritarian regimes in North Africa.
Colonization amid the fires of Kroumirie
The figure of the man initiating fires intentionally and for malicious reasons is not new. On August 16th 1887, the newspaper La Depêche Algérienne recounted how “a great fire has devoured the beautiful forests of Kroumirie near the Algerian border.” The newspaper added that “we believe the fire is due to malicious intent.”4 The idea that the border fires were malevolent or intentional in origin appears frequently through in colonial archives, from scientific reports on the region’s vegetation to news clips about seasonal summer fires.
Significantly, in colonial scientific reports, the transformations of the region’s flora, especially the seminal cork oak trees and their progressive degradation, is often linked back to such malevolent fires. For example, a report entitled “The Kroumirie and its colonization” from 1892 evokes forest fires as responsible for the loss of certain animal and plant species, as “frequent fires, almost always due to malicious intent, destroy every year a part of the forests.”5
Besides idle young men, the colonial regime tended to link fires with the “savage Kroumir” who burned the forests. The idea of the “angry native” became central to the French colonial imaginary. In her work on environmental science and the colonisation of North Africa, historian Diana Davis documents how French colonisers used the environment to make claims that “Arabs” were destroying the natural resources of the region.6 In particular, French colonisers used texts by the philosopher Ibn Khaldun on the Arab conquest in the 14th century. In it, Ibn Khaldun described, in a metaphorical sense, how Arab tribes would burn everything in their way. French colonisers translated and circulated these passages to highlight how the Arab threat – in contrast to the more acceptable Berber minority – had altered North Africa: the former “granary of Rome.” By contrasting Roman images of the region with colonial documents depicting desertification, the French identified themselves as “conservators” of the Maghrebi ecosystem.
In the 1880s the Kroumirie was still a tribal confederation and had become both a source of worry and desire for the French, following their annexation of Algerian territories. The Kroumir tribes were semi-nomads and their territories often stretched to new French settlements in Algeria. The French, to justify a military campaign, warned of “these enraged savages ambushed in mountains covered with forests of the Kroumirie from which they would jump over French battalions attempting to penetrate in Tunisia and leave only crumbs.”7
The region of the Kroumirie occupies a particular place in the colonial mindset as a space “where the fresh greenery of trees always brings an agreeable sensation in this land of Africa naked and deforested in so many other parts.”8 Through statements like these, French colonisers contrasted Kroumirie against the rest of the continent, which they proclaimed had been rendered a desert by “ignorant natives” and “pyromanes Arabs.” By colonial logic, the green region of Kroumirie should be preserved through French occupation. As the French argued for the annexation of the region, they used fire and its ecosystems as an entry point. While for other geographies, armchair anthropologists documented the cultural practices of the locals, reports on the Kroumirie prioritised listing all the types of plants found in the region which might be preserved from burning. Fires became the crucial link between colonial aspirations to exploit the forests of the region and anxiety about controlling local tribes. Fires became a way to posit the inherent “savageness” of the Kroumirs, as pyromanes who burned even their own forests.
Fires are neither a contemporary catastrophe nor are they solely an environmental issue. Instead, a fire is a complex enmeshing of socio-economic processes. As fire burns across the land it casts light on the social arrangements of a place and time. Fires can be used as tools to make social meaning. In the border region of the Kroumirie, fires from colonial times up to today have produced social categories that set some people as pyromanes and others as conservators in order to fulfil colonial aspirations and entrench hierarchies. In the Kroumirie region and elsewhere, fire can tell us much about the nature of power.
- Le Monde, “Algérie : la plupart des incendies « maîtrisés », un bilan estimé à plus de 90 morts et disparus,” 14 August 2021.
- La Presse, “Jendouba: Incendies: poursuite des efforts pour maîtriser les feux de forêt,” 23 August 2022.
- ObservAlgerie, “Incendies en Kabylie : Un jeune lynché à mort à Larba Nat Iraten,” 12 August 2021.
- “La Depêche Algérienne,” Journal Politique Quotidien, 16 August 1887.
- H. Guérard and É. Boutineau, La Khroumire et sa Colonisation (Paris: 1892)
- D.K. Davis, Resurrecting the granary of Rome: environmental history and French colonial expansion in North Africa (Ohio University Press: 2007).
- Jacquillou, “Lettres d’un Paysan,” La Politique Coloniale, 2.
- E. Fallot, Par-delà la Méditerranée: Kabylie, Aurès, Kroumirie (Librairie Plon: 1887), 257.
Feature Image: Smoke from a fire. January 2022. Photo by the author.
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