Trauma Then, Trauma Now: In conversation with Youcef Hadjazi

Youcef Hadjazi
6 min read
19 November, 2021
The New Arab Meets: Algerian artist, Youcef Hadjazi, whose exhibition and workshop Trauma Then, Trauma Now attempts to grapple with the pain the people and country continue to face.

As Algeria commemorates the 67th anniversary of its War of Independence from French colonialism, we are reminded of the country’s unhealed wounds. Algerian history is marked by intergenerational, persistent, stubbornly unfading, and deep-rooted pain.

Youcef Hadjazi is an Algerian artist whose art and research grapple with the concept of trauma. His exhibition and workshop Trauma Then, Trauma Now were recently featured within the programme of the 2021 Liverpool Arab Arts Festival. Youcef talked to The New Arab openly and eloquently about his artistic approach to understanding trauma and its afterlives.

"One of the conundrums that continue to fascinate Hadjazi is the survival of the colonial gaze in Algeria. Some Algerians continue to internalise the colonial gaze and weaponise it against themselves and each other"

“My process of mental healing and taking care of my mental wellbeing has inspired me to dissect and deconstruct my personal past and bridge it with the Algerian past," Youcef begins. "The therapeutic practices that I go through are everyday healing, but also quite eye-opening to the relevance of history to one’s own psyche,” he tells The New Arab.

Hadjazi’s workshop Trauma Then, Trauma Now follows a sensory-based bilateral psychotherapeutic approach used to resolve trauma through EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing).

“It is not as hypnotising as it sounds," Youcef assures The New Arab, "but it has proven to be very efficient in distracting the physical body with subtle buzzers, for example, in order to disconnect the body from the mind. That helps the mind to re-process memories. My method combines this psychotherapeutic practice and performance art.”

The workshop itself was bilateral in the sense of creating a conversation about various different traumas.

Youcef describes himself as a “half diasporic migrant” because his family moved to Kuwait when he was young, and he grew up in an Arab country before moving to the UK.

Regularly visiting Algeria, he knows enough of and about the North African country to be Algerian and has experienced ghurba (estrangement or separation) enough to be diasporic. He, therefore, observes the Algerian society from the vantage point of the outsider insider, or the distant insider. Youcef believes that the historical context of Algeria continues to shape societal collective behaviour.

Historically, Algeria witnessed multiple waves of conquests and foreign invasions, followed by over ten years of civil unrest known as The Black Decade during which the nation suffered from cycles of terror and counter-terror.

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Several traumas have mostly gone unaccounted for, and the nation never had a chance to heal from these traumas.

It is this very trauma that has been a link that relates one generation to the other, present to past and nation to land. Algerians are bound to each other by trauma, pain, and fear.

Youcef describes the Algerian nation as a “postcolonial and post-conflictual nation”. He emphasises that his choice of the term post-conflictual does not mean “living in peace”, but rather speaks of a post-traumatic consciousness.

“A conflict, at a specific point in time, will continue to generate trauma later on,” he comments. His choice of words are of utter importance here, it signifies the constant rebirth of trauma. The latter is not simply remembered; it is perpetually recreated. French colonisation and the Black Decade continue to shape the Algerian collective behaviour.

"In Algeria, the inherited colonial trauma is hard to be separated or distinguished from first-hand trauma. In other words, the wound is not simply remembered, it continues to bleed"

In Algeria, the inherited colonial trauma is hard to be separated or distinguished from first-hand trauma. In other words, the wound is not simply remembered, it continues to bleed. 

Growing up during the Black Decade

“I was born right in the middle of the Black Decade, but I do not remember much about it, because I was a child. However, I carry with me both the traumatic and the healing energies that surrounded me during my childhood. By the healing energies, I refer to my parents, my family, society. My closest proximity to the civil war was those opposing energies” Youcef tells The New Arab.

Conflict and trauma shape people’s behaviours, it determines both their actions and reactions for generations to come. The early years of childhood, more particularly, are crucial to the formation and development of personality, the artist confirms that trauma determines who you are and who you will be.

“Behaviour including how you raise your children is impacted by trauma. What are the stories we tell and hear when we’re gathered around the table? Talking about the tens of slaughtered kids and families was the material for casual conversations, during the Black Decade. I was born during that violent decade and was conditioned into accepting the ‘normalcy’ of those conversations,” he recalls.

After the Black Decade, the relationship of mistrust between the people and their government and the global civil society that “abandoned” them during the Black decade created a void that was only filled with anger and shame, the shame of descending to a debased level of gruesome terror.

Youcef comments about domestic unrest in Algeria: “The internal conflict between Algerians stems from the fact that we are still undergoing a process of finding out who we are. Artistically speaking, that is very interesting, but it is not as interesting when you are drowning within that identity crisis.”

The pandemic and other terrors

The Covid-19 related lockdown vividly reminded Youcef’s family of the Black Decade. “My family were subconsciously drawing analogies between the dynamics of the pandemic and the dynamics of the civil war in Algeria, especially the anxiety of being locked in and the uncertainty of what will happen next,” the artist reveals to The New Arab.

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It most certainly was not only Youcef’s family that was comparing the pandemic to the years of rampant terror; the Algerian government was also bewilderingly treating the virus as a terrorist and Youcef believes that such regulations are part of the collective way of coping with the country's past trauma.

One of the conundrums that continue to fascinate Youcef is the survival of the colonial gaze in Algeria. Some Algerians continue to internalise the colonial gaze and weaponise it against themselves and each other, which is also a manifestation of postcolonial post-traumatic disorders.

This colonial gaze covers a broad canvas, from the tone of one’s skin to the language one uses. This boggling persistent internalisation of the colonial gaze is one of the factors that pushed Youcef to describe French colonialism as “brainwashing”.

As Algerians try to heal from past traumas, Algeria is still decolonising.

Ouissal Harize is a UK based researcher, cultural essayist, and freelance journalist.

Follow her on Twitter: @OuissalHarize