Tag Archives: Algeria

“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

“No, it is not the ‘end of history’”: Henri Alleg’s Algerian Memoirs

“We came to the crossroads where he was to leave us, as we got of the cart, he turned to us, raising his finger like a grandfather giving his grandchildren a lesson: ‘Listen to me and always keep in mind what I am telling you today. France has three enemies – the English, the Bolsheviks and the Jews! Don’t ever forget it!’ As the carriage drove away in a cloud of dust, Alfred let out the laugh that he had been holding back. ‘If only this idiot had known,’ he said, ‘that he had in you his three enemies sitting right beside him in his wagon.”

Like many others, I read Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth in college, and was horrified – yet strangely fascinated – by his prescription for pure, cleansing, anti-colonial violence. Henri Alleg’s Algerian Memoirs describes the crucible in which Fanon was shaped, and in its own way, a journalistic, dispassionate way, helps to make sense of the polemics in The Wretched of the Earth.

Henri Alleg himself was born in France, but went to Algeria in 1939 as an eighteen-year old, and was involved with the Algerian independence movement thereafter. Joining the Communist Party of Algeria, he also founded – and ran – the Alger Republicain, described by him in the Memoirs as the only newspaper at the time that opnely advocated anti-colonial policies. Alleg was eventually arrested, and tortured by the French authorities, and his description of his torture in a tract called La Question caused a storm in France, was censored, and is credited with significantly accelerating the freedom movement. This, in itself, would have made for a full life, but the Algerian Memoirs recounts more than that: beginning with the early years, the onset of World War II, the determination of France to hold on to Algeria after the end of the War, the massacres, the increasingly violent freedom movement, Alleg’s own conviction and imprisonment, his eventual escape from a prison in France, independence and how quickly it soured, and eventual exile again. By any account, we would have to live three or four lives to begin to approach the fullness of Alleg’s!

The consistent theme that emerges out of the book is the brutality and racism of French colonialism. It is a particularly salutary time to be reminded of it. Over the last year, French culture, and the French way of life, have been rightly held up as ideals to strive for, and to protect and defend. But a book like Alleg’s reminds us that the same culture that produced Voltaire habitually tortured anti-colonialists through “the use of sticks and bottles shoved up the anus“; the authors of the Declaration of the Rights of Man belonged to the same society that massacred thousands of civilians demanding independence at the very time the Nazis were defeated in Europe; and that the principles that defined the French nation were never applied to the Algerians, until independence was seized by force of arms. These are well-worn points; but in light of French legislation that expressly required schools to recognise the “positive role” played by French colonialism in North Africa, and the present discourse which seems to deny the constitutive role played by colonialism in both the material and cultural shaping of Europe, memoirs like Alleg’s – once again – are a reminder that we cannot pick and choose our histories.

This is not to say that Alleg’s work is free of its own biases. As a card-carrying communist, he goes to extreme lengths to defend the French Communist Party’s quietism – and in fact, opposition – to Algerian independence. For Alleg, the Communist Party has been misunderstood, its pragmatism mistaken for an indefensible commitment to the continuation of colonialism. History – I think correctly – has not been so charitable.

That blind spot apart, Alleg is a compelling and reliable guide. The journalist’s eye for detail is complemented by – in the tradition of C.L.R. James – an absence of any faux pretences to neutrality. Alleg is anti-colonialist and a leftist, and never bothers to hide the fact that his world-view and assessment is shaped by those ideological forces. And over and above that, he has a sharp sense of humour, one that has not been dulled by decades of repression and censorship. He recalls an event, for instance, when:

“One night, an over-hasty police superintendent exhibited a seizure notice signed by the Prefect of Algiers for an issue that neither he nor his superiors could have read since it was yet to be printed. Despite the grotesque insistence of the police, looking for material proof of the non-existent offence, the staff categorically refused to print a newspaper that was condemned in advance to be seized.”

Asides like these – humorous, but darkly so – are scattered throughout that book, lightening it – and the readers – of some of the burdens that such accounts must inevitably inflict. It’s a burden which, one feels, Alleg needs to get off his own shoulders, by forcing himself to remember the funny side of things:

“One of my friends, Antoine Reynaud, who held a high position in the administration of the post office before his arrest, was talking with an FLN militant from Dra El Mizan in Kabylie. ‘I know it well,’ said Reynaud, ‘I supervised the installation of telegraph poles from Dra El Mizan to Boghni and beyond.’ ‘Oh! You’re the one who installed them. Nice to meet you! I’m the one who cut the connections after 1 November.’”

And who could grudge him that. In a life spent working on a magazine while having “to take refuge in the bathroom, the only relatively safe space, and take the copy to the shop on the other side of the avenue, which was intermittently sprayed by machine-gun fire”; while having to play a constant game of language with the censors, because “using the term ‘patriots’ and ‘moudjahidine’ to describe those who had taken up weapons was obviously prohibited. Since we refused to call them ‘rebels’, ‘bandits’ or ‘fellagha’ – the vocabulary of the newspapers – we were reduced to speaking of action conducted throughout the country by mysterious ‘armed men’. But the readers were not fooled. It was also forbidden to mention the fighting in Tunisia and problems related to the political situation of the country. The same was true for Morocco. Ultimately, we had to give up our effort to cover Tunisia and Morocco when our special correspondents were expelled from both countries”; and of course, a life spent living in a country where the colonisers “complained of the noise they had to endure living near a police station. The screams kept them up at night“: one would take one’s humour where one finds it.

It is almost trite now to quote Chinua Achebe: ‘Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.’ Alleg is a historian of the lions. An imperfect one, but there are few, probably, who have greater authority to recount the history of the hunt.

A brilliant interview with Alleg can be found on Jadaliyya.

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