“One night, Fanon and I went dancing”: Elaine Mokhtefi, “Algiers, Third World Capital: Freedom Fighters, Revolutionaries, Black Panthers”

We walked in the Casbah, exchanged tales of the various struggles, and felt kinship: we were fellow militants and the future was ours. The Algerians had done it and so could they. (p. 54)

Between the end of colonial oppression and the beginning of post-colonial dictatorship, there was a brief moment of time when it seemed that the world might be made anew. Elaine Mokhtefi had a ringside view of that moment – the 1960s – in a place where it all seemed to come together – Algiers. Jewish-American, “anti-colonialist, antiracist, socialist” (p. 20), swept up in the student-led World Government movement after World War II, traveling to a France that she “had fallen in love with … even before stepping on board the ship that had carried me across the Atlantic” (p. 8), Mokhtefi eventually found her place in the successful, FLN-led movement for Algerian independence. She first helped the FLN in lobbying the United Nations in New York and, upon independence, moved to Algiers to work as a journalist and translator (often with or for the new government). As post-Independence euphoria withered into post-colonial infighting, military coups, and suspicion, Mokhtefi found herself out of favour with the regime, and sent back to France (where she was persona non grata for her support for the Algerian struggle).

Algiers, Third World Capital chronicles the years in between, when Algiers was a hub and a sanctuary for liberation movements worldwide, as it tried to navigate its own way through the world as the capital of a newly-independent African nation. The book features a somewhat unlikely central cast: the Black Panthers. The wing of the Black Panther party led by Eldridge Cleaver lived in Algeria for three years, from 1969 – 1972. Mokhtefi was instrumental in getting the Black Panthers sanctuary in Algiers, and then, subsequently, arranging for Cleaver’s escape (and stay) in Paris. Much of Algiers, Third World Capital is centred around Cleaver and the Black Panthers’ engagement with the Algerians, in the context of broader third world and liberation politics around the world.

This, perhaps, gives the book one of the most diverse and eclectic cast of characters one cam imagine: senior Algerian liberation and government figures – from deposed President Ben Bella to liberation veteran Mokhtar Mokhtefi (whom Elaine marries); the Black Panthers, at the moment of the damaging split between Eldridge Cleaver and Huey Newton; famous French figures, from Godard (who speaks of himself in the third person, and refuses to help Mokhtefi in finding safety for Cleaver in Paris) to Jean Genet, who disabuses Cleaver of his illusions about “French democracy”), with cameos by Sartre and de Beauvoir. Indeed, this is perhaps the most striking part of the book. Where else, for example, would you find such an anecdote about Frantz Fanon?

He [Fanon] once asked me what I wanted in a relationship. When I answered, “To put my head on someone’s shoulder,” he was adamant: “Non, non, non: stay upright on your own two feet and keep moving forward to goals of your own.” (p. 41)

But while Algiers, Third World Capital is a ringside view, it makes no pretence to be a detached view. In a manner reminiscent of, say, C.L.R. James’ Black Jacobins, Mokhtefi has picked a side, and makes no secret of it:

On November 1, 1954, All Saints’ Day, twenty-two brave fighters launched a series of attacks against French colonial targets across Algeria. Under the name National Liberation Front (… FLN), they called upon all Algerian nationalist organizations, all partisans of independence, to join them. They called on France to negotiate. This was the start of a nasty, deadly eight-year war, which pitted a technologically advanced, well-armed European nation (the fourth most powerful military establishment in the world) against a ragtag army of peasants and barely literate villagers.

Minister of the Interior Francois Mitterand reacted with force: “Algeria is France … the only negotiation is war.” And so the repression began. France dispatched thousands, then hundreds of thousands of troops, both conscripted and enlisted. Close to two million Frenchmen took part in the war as soldiers or police. Torture was systematic. Tens of thousands of men and women were arrested on any pretext and subjected to waterboarding (la baignoire), electric shocks on the genitals, broken bottles thrust into the anus, and summary executions. For France it turned into a “race war”, the ever-burgeoning population their obsession. Children and adolescents – Algeria’s future generations – were eliminated, wiped out, shot, starved, maimed.

Tallies of the number of people killed vary: of a population of nine million, it is estimated that between 300,000 and 500,000 died. According to French sources, over two million men, women, and children – one-quarter of the indigenous population – were herded into concentration camps. Their villages, their crops, and their herds were burned and slain. To quote the historian Alistair Horne, the camps “varied from resembling the fortified villages of the Middle Ages to the concentration camps of a more recent past.”

On the eve of independence, the 500,000 books in the University of Algiers library went up in flames. The fires were lit by the dean of the university and the head librarian, who fled, along with 900,000 other settles, across the Mediterranean to France: they torched the books “so as not to leave them for the FLN.” In Algiers, Oran, Constantine, the bodies of cleaning women, their traditional robes stained with their own blood, lay in the streets. Official buildings were bombed. The Radiology Department of the Mustapha Hospital in Algiers was demolished. Classrooms were destroyed, and whole schools burned. By the time of independence, 2.5 million children suffered from tuberculosis or rickets. According to the International Red Cross, 50 percent of the population was destitute, hungry, and sick. (p. 22)

Like Fanon, Mokhtefi draws a clear distinction between the colonial violence of the French regime (unjustified), and the liberation-struggle violence of the FLN. Unlike Fanon, however, Mokhtefi (perhaps understandably) does not actually spell out the argument, leading to the impression – at times – that the violence committed by her side is either glossed over or simply ignored. This appears at its starkest in her account of Eldridge Cleaver, who was known to repeatedly – and viciously – beat his wife. Mokhtefi acknowledges this (on more than one occasion), but throughout the book, this seems to take little (if anything) away from her estimation of Cleaver; indeed, she expresses more outrage about Cleaver’s mis-description of his time in Algeria in his memoir than about his proclivity towards domestic violence. This strikes a sharp and discordant note in an otherwise stirring story that has liberation and emancipation at its heart.

Algiers, Third World Capital is best read alongside Henri Alleg’s The Algerian MemoirsLike Mokhtefi, a Westerner, Alleg came to Algeria via France, and became a part of the liberation struggle; and like Mokhtefi, he too had his own moments of danger and (ultimately) exile. But Alleg’s memoirs end with Independence; Mokhtefi takes us further, into the post-colony.  Together, the two books capture both the illusion and the eventual disillusion of the revolutionary freedom struggles of the mid-20th century.

Other reviews: The GuardianThe New Statesman; The Publishers’ Weekly; Public Books.

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Filed under African Writing, Algeria, Elaine Mokhtefi, Uncategorized

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