MESA Book Awards
Benjamin Claude Brower
University of Texas at Austin
2010 Albert Hourani Book Award Winner
A Desert Named Peace: The Violence of France’s Empire in the Algerian Sahara, 1844-1902
Columbia University Press (series “History and Society of the Modern Middle East” Leila Fawaz, editor)
This meditation on the persistence of violence in Algeria has both poetic depth and historical sweep; it is also a gripping read that is hard to put down. At the heart of the inquiry is what Brower calls "the multiple logic of violence." This book has extraordinary qualities, including an elegant literary framing around the quotation from Tacitus that provides the book’s title. Brower approaches French colonial documents with the eye of Faulkner for "patterns of poverty and racial conflict" that resist the "dualist perspective" of segregation and the Manichaeism of Fanon. Form and theme meld into a quest, not for answers, but for a better statement of the question.
This contribution not only provides a sharp analysis of the histories and discourses that underpin violence in contemporary Algeria, but also provides an example of how a dialectic of violence is kept alive more generally. The historical research is of very high quality and breadth, and the book's unusual organizational presentation of four “views” of the same story is particularly compelling. Brower’s consideration of the violence of colonial invasion and occupation is balanced by the examination of the violence of retaliation and the institutional violence of slavery. He theorizes violence in a thoughtful and moving way that does not evade the central moral questions.
In short, this book is a superior contribution to scholarship, which the committee unanimously recommends for the Albert Hourani Book Award.