This past semester I studied at the American University in Paris, and was enrolled in a “topics” history class. The instructor of the course was an outspoken and eccentric American who among his myriad of accomplishments could boast of spending a year working in Hollywood, teaching for several years at NYU and publishing a collection of successful history novels. The network he had created as he traveled and his years of experience examining the histories of other countries allowed him to lead the class discussion with a broad perspective and open mind. His next endeavor was a book that would be a study of one of France’s most infamous men: Charles de Gaulle. The class was comprised of a mix of American and European students that all lent an individual perspective to our analysis of the period that de Gaulle was in power in France, then out of power, and then eventually back in power. It was the first time that I had ever taken an in-depth look at another country’s rich and intricate history, and was learning about in the very place where the original events occurred.
Though de Gaulle proved to be an eloquent and powerful leader, we learned that foreign policy was not one of his strong suits. During the later years he was in power, many serious issues arose as the colonies that France was controlling at the time began to voice their discontent with the lack of representation they had in their native land, and how they were being treated by their foreign colonizers. Many of the French felt that the changes their government leaders and missionaries were imposing in their colonies like Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia were for the ultimate well-being of the natives who they believed simply did not know there was a “better way”, while simultaneously expanding the nation’s empire to other continents. Their authority over Algeria became a particular issue that came to a head while de Gaulle was in office. The Algerians were in turn upset by the disturbance of customs and traditions that had been practiced for centuries. The occupation resulted in a loss of their land, and an indifference to the well being of the native citizens. It was pretty appalling to learn how the civilized Frenchmen were treating the equally civilized Algerians, and very interesting to see the similar reactions of students from very different backgrounds to the issue.
Epeli Hau’ofa, in his essay Our Sea of Islands, emphasizes the idea that there is not one singular way to view things, but rather several. It is evident that the French, by refusing for awhile to allow Algeria to have its independence and finding it necessary to impose standard European policy in the state without very much regard to the Algerians opinion on the matter, felt they were doing so for the greater good of the natives. Hau’ofa also voices the tendency of those in power to attempt to fit the Pacific Islands into a standard economic mold, and the perils of a such a narrow singular view of what is “good”: “If this narrow, determinitistic perspective is not questioned and checked, it could contribute importantly to an eventual consignment of groups of human beings to a perpetual state of wardenship wherein they and their surrounding lands and seas would be at the mercy of the manipulators of the global economy and “world orders” of one kind or another.”(30) Promoting an idea of a prosperous nation that so differs from the structure of the Pacific Islands was only disheartening the inhabitants, and throughout the essay Hau’ofa emphasizes that there are several ways that they to can be an important part of the world’s economy, without sacrificing their cultural identity. In particular, the geography of the Pacific Islands has fostered a traditional relationship to the sea, and has been passed through generations.
Our professor emphatically related the events that led de Gaulle to concede to the necessity of Algeria becoming a free, sovereign nation. Perhaps the removal of the wealth of resources of the European nation from Algeria did not necessarily foster the economy of the African country, but it did allow the Algerians to freely practice their traditional customs and lifestyle. Hau’ofa takes the same stand for Oceania when he asserts the importance of the Oceanic cultures traditions of reciprocity: a simple, beautiful give-and-take relationship with one another, which may not fit the standard Western economic plan for success, but as he states, is an “interdependency, which is purportedly the essence of the global system”.(35) The history class, as well as the Post-Colonial literature class I had previously taken has allowed me to realize the merit of preserving ancestral tradition and unique cultures, as well as understanding the possibility of the amiable marriage of old and new.