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Omar

Omar

Saw this last October. I should have written about it then, or perhaps last month, when it opened in the US and was in the running for the best foreign language film Oscar (it lost out to ‘The Great Beauty’, which is not surprising, as it was a long shot to begin with; it’s hard to imagine the Academy awarding an Oscar to a film regarded—incorrectly in my view—as being so anti-Israel). When I first saw Hany Abu-Assad’s ‘Omar’ I pronounced it a chef d’œuvre and the best Palestinian film ever. Period. Even better than Abu-Assad’s 2005 ‘Paradise Now‘. I’ve since had the opportunity to see ‘Omar’ a second time and, while still giving it the thumbs way up, will reserve judgment on it being the best ever Pal pic until I give ‘Paradise Now’ another look (re Elia Suleiman’s œuvre—which is favored by certain friends—, I find his films interesting but quirky; not masterpieces IMO). As for the reviews of ‘Omar’ by mainstream professional critics—very good in France, mostly good in the US—I’ve paid little attention to them. When it comes to films with such a heavy political content and on subjects I know well—e.g. Israel-Palestine, Algeria—I tend to ignore the regular film critics and look instead for the views of those with specialized knowledge (academics, journalists, political actors, etc) or who have a particular interest in the issue (activists, etc)—and with whom I may or may not agree. And on ‘Omar’, I find myself not entirely on the same page with the viewpoints on the film that I’ve come across (an exception being David Shulman’s fine review a week ago on the NYR blog). Those familiar with ‘Omar’ and the film’s politics will know that it is considered pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel, which is perhaps normal given the identity of the director, the fact that it was entirely Palestinian-funded, and with all Palestinian actors (that some may be citizens of Israel—including director Abu-Assad—and that much of the film was shot in Israel—Nazareth and Beit She’an—is irrelevant; it’s a Palestinian film, period). And, of course, the manner in which it depicts the occupation and the question of collaboration. On this, the film has been praised by pro-Palestinian activists. One is the engagé Nazareth-based journalist and writer Jonathan Cook, who reviewed the film last September on The Electronic Intifada website. Cook thus describes the mechanisms of collaboration

The reality…is that collaboration is Israel’s chief tool for maintaining what is effectively an occupation for Palestinians inside Israel as well as in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. It makes organizing resistance, or even struggling for basic rights, all but impossible. Over decades, Israel’s gatekeepers have devised a spider’s web of techniques for ensnaring ordinary Palestinians. Once caught, as a fellow prisoner warns Omar, escape is impossible. And sure enough, Omar soon finds himself trapped by a seemingly harmless remark. (…) The film fearlessly dissects how this system of control works and why Palestinians, like Omar himself, are mostly powerless to evade or subvert it. Abu Assad’s decision to put the problem of collaboration at the heart of his film is therefore a bold one indeed. It is also vitally important because, until Palestinians confront the issue openly and honestly, they have little power to break Israel’s stranglehold on their lives.The film’s message is more hopeful than this synopsis may imply. Real awareness is possible, Abu Assad concludes in the final scenes, and with it comes the only hope for personal and social transformation.

Writing on his blog last month, the très engagé Richard Falk—UN Human Rights Council Special Rapporteur for the Occupied Palestinian Territories for the past six years (a post from which he will soon be retiring الحمد لله)‎—pronounced ‘Omar’ superior to ‘Paradise Now’ in a number of respects. In addition to examining the film’s treatment of collaboration, Falk did likewise with question of Palestinian violence targeted at Israelis

The reality of Palestinian violent resistance has two important consequences even though it seems currently futile from the perspective of challenging the occupation in any way that promises to liberation: it gives dignity to Palestinians who seem united in their will to live-unto-death despite their defenselessness and it makes Israelis vulnerable despite their seeming total control of the situation… (…) [F]rom the Palestinian side, nothing is worse than becoming a collaborator, and yet only a hero among heroes, would have the super-human capacity to avoid such a fate given the brutality used by Israelis to acquire the information they need to enforce their will on a hostile population. For the occupier recruiting collaborators is a vital part of improving security; for the occupied, it is the final humiliation, making the fate of the traitor far worse than that of the slave.

Pro-Israel reviewers liked the film rather less. E.g. Village Voice film critic Nick Schager, in a review last October, wrote that

A screed is a screed no matter its superficial genre trappings, as evidenced by Hany Abu-Assad’s Omar, whose thriller machinations are merely a vehicle to deliver narrow-minded political preaching. (…) While Omar and his Palestinian loved ones are presented as uniformly funny, romantic and likable, Israelis are depicted as unjustifiably cruel and devious, be they the soldiers who harass Omar for no reason, the officers who torture him after he’s rightly arrested for the soldier’s death, or agent Rami…who tricks Omar into confessing and then blackmails him into becoming an informant. Throughout, Abu-Assad paints in such stark black-and-white terms that there’s no complexity to the ensuing saga, in which Omar is tasked with ratting out his friends if he ever wants to be with Nadia, only to discover that she may not be untrustworthy. With its deck so stacked that it plays out like a crude anti-Israeli sermon, the film – which ultimately determines that deception, betrayal and cold-blooded murder are acceptable if committed against Israelis (or by women), but not if done by Israelis – proves one-dimensional as both a political argument and a drama.

Tom Tugend of the Jewish Journal also thought ‘Omar’ demonized Israelis

As was the case in Abu-Assad’s earlier movie, “Rana’s Wedding,” the protagonists in “Paradise Now” do not hide their antagonism toward Israelis; nevertheless, the latter are portrayed as recognizable human beings, not merely sadistic oppressors… However, in “Omar,” Abu-Assad forgoes such artistic and ideological balance, painting the Israelis as heartless torturers and connivers with no redeeming qualities.

In a lengthy review essay in the March issue of The Tower, conservative writer and blogger Rich Richman—quoting the work of Hamid Dabashi and Joseph Massad, among others—likewise shredded ‘Omar’, labeling it propaganda and expressing indignation that it received an Oscar nomination over Yuval Adler’s ‘Bethlehem’, which was Israel’s Oscar submission and strikingly similar to ‘Omar’ (though is much more of a “genre film”; I saw it recently and will post on separately). And then there’s a review, which I stumbled across quite by accident, by a wacky right-wing blogger—and film critic à ses heures—named Debbie Schlussel, who called ‘Omar’ a “slow, boring, poorly-written Palestinian propaganda film” that shows how “Palestinians are lying, conniving pieces of crap who cannot be trusted…” Quelle conne.

People—myself included—read all sorts of things into movies. Palestinians on the West Bank have had mixed feelings about ‘Omar’, so I hear (seeing it, entre autres, as being destined mainly for Western audiences in the way it depicts the protag Omar). Hany Abu-Assad, for his part, said, in a Jerusalem Post interview, that “the heart of the film is the tragic love story” between Omar and Nadia. “[T]he pic’s romantic plot is the key component,” he insists: it’s “a love story, not a war story.” S’il le dit…

I have five general comments to make about the film—and in reaction to the reviews cited above, which are wide of the mark on several counts IMO. First, the depiction of the occupation is dead on accurate, notably the deleterious effects of the separation barrier on the daily lives of Palestinians—symbolized in the scenes of Omar scaling the wall at peril to his life to see his sweetheart Nadia—and of the behavior of Israeli soldiers toward the Palestinians more generally, and particularly young Palestinian men. The scene of the soldiers arbitrarily ordering Omar to stand on the rock—for no other reason than to humiliate him—happens everyday in some form or another somewhere in the Palestinian territories. It is utterly banal (as is the rifle-butting Omar received when he talked back to the soldiers). The aforecited pro-Israel reviewers may call the scenes in question propaganda but they cannot credibly claim that these distort reality. If the film made the Israeli soldiers look bad, it is because they indeed behave badly in such instances (and which is how Palestinians under occupation experience them). That said, it is inexact to say that the film demonizes Israelis. Israelis hardly figure in the film, in fact: of the ones whose faces we see—and apart from the soldiers who stop Omar next to the wall—there is only the Shabak agent Rami, who is not negatively portrayed. He is not an antipathetic character. He’s a professional doing his job and, as Omar’s handler, plays good cop more often than not.

As for the torture scene, it actually wasn’t clear to me at first that it was even the Israelis who were doing the dirty work. I assumed it was a joint PA-Israeli operation and with Pals inflicting the actual torture, mainly because of the manner in which it was carried out (bludgeoning, blow torches, stringing up from the ceiling…). Not that I don’t put it past the Israelis to behave brutally but, subsequent to the 1999 supreme court ruling, they’ve ceased these kinds of interrogation methods, and particularly methods that leave physical marks. Or so I assumed. To clarify the matter, I ran the question by persons-in-the-know—at NGOs that work on IP—, the response to which was that enhanced interrogation methods, if you will, are still practiced but not systematically and take forms other than what was depicted in the film (e.g. sleep deprivation, loud music, denial of medical treatment—i.e. not methods that draw blood and/or scar the skin). If one wants to be charitable here, one may say that Abu-Assad was taking artistic license in portraying Israelis employing torture techniques à l’arabe. Artistic license was likewise at work in the two chase scenes (the first of which I initially assumed involved PA cops), as the Shabak no longer stages hot pursuit daytime raids in the heart of the Nablus casbah… As so much of the film was metaphorical—e.g. it wasn’t explicitly set in any particular locale in Palestine—and accurately depicts the way Palestinians experience the occupation, I’ll give Abu-Assad a pass on this.

Second comment: the film effectively depicts the vise in which the Israelis have the Palestinians, “a spider’s web of techniques for ensnaring” them, to quote Jonathan Cook. When it comes to “organizing resistance,” the Palestinians are fucked, completely and totally, and through institutional mechanisms and methods that, as David Shulman notes, the Israelis have been honing since the Mandate era. But the Palestinians, with their patriarchal codes of honor and penchant for internecine violence—which is on full display in ‘Omar’ (e.g. Tariq willing to kill his best buddies over transgressions, i.e. sex, with his sister Nadia; it is not the case that the film portrays Palestinians as “uniformly funny” and “likable”)—, have greatly simplified the Israelis’ task, not to mention the manner in which the Pals’ “resistance” has been conceived. Resistance may take civil and armed forms—peaceful or violent—, and the Palestinians have almost always privileged the latter (even during the first Intifada, during which practically no demo did not involve mass stone-throwing; I doubt Gandhi or M.L.King would have approved). But the use of violence by the Palestinians has always been doomed to failure and which most of them have long been fully aware. Even during the 1960s to early ’80s heyday of the PLO and its fedayeen incursions into Israel, the constituents of the PLO all knew that they had no hope of posing even a modest military challenge to Israel, let alone defeating it. Their aim was to provoke a war between Israel and the Arab states—i.e. Egypt and Syria—, with the latter liberating Palestine and sending the Zionists packing. But that dream came to end with Sinai II and Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem. And if some Palestinian groups thought that kamikaze attacks on civilians could maybe provoke an exodus of Jews, that was put paid to by the catastrophic Palestinian defeat in the second Intifada and the erecting of the separation barrier.

Which leads to the third comment, on the shooting of the soldier by Omar and his pals (with ringleader Tariq pulling the trigger), which is the central event in the film. Given the vise of occupation and the futility of armed struggle, one has to ask WTF were Omar, Tariq, and Amjad thinking when they decided to kill the soldier? What was the strategic logic of the act? And did they really imagine that the Israelis—with their dense network of informers and mania over protecting the lives of every last one of their (Jewish) citizens—would not eventually find them?  Now it is indeed the case that many such killings in these kinds of conflicts lack a clear strategic goal, at least vis-à-vis the enemy. Men commit the acts to impress their comrades, prove themselves to superiors, or simply to wreak vengeance (e.g. vengeance was a central motivation in the FLN’s terrorist campaign during the 1956-57 Battle of Algiers). Richard Falk suggests in the quote above that Palestinians—presented as eternal victims—commit such acts to maintain their “dignity” and make the enemy—whom they have no chance whatever of defeating militarily—feel “vulnerable,” even though the momentary restoration of dignity will most certainly land one in prison—and with all the humiliations that entails—and only reinforce the enemy’s military vise. Fabulous. If this is the finality of the Palestinian “resistance,” then one can only conclude that the Palestinians have the stupidest resistance movement in history. If one grades resistance or liberation movements on their ability to set clearly defined objectives and then elaborate a strategy to attain them, then the Palestinian “resistance” movement—present and past—gets an F!

The fourth comment—and which further bears out the stupidity of the Palestinian “resistance”—has to do with collaboration and the Palestinian psychosis over this, which is the central theme of ‘Omar’. “Collaboration” is, in fact, a misnomer in the Palestinian case, as this implies active support offered willingly to the occupier, for ideological reasons—e.g. Frenchmen who collaborated with the German occupation during WWII—or financial or other non-political considerations—e.g. harkis during the 1954-62 Algerian war. Palestinians in the West Bank/Gaza who “collaborate” with the Shabak do not do so willingly; they are coerced or pressured into informing; they are made offers they can’t refuse. They’re informers under duress, not collaborators. Palestinians all know this; they know that those in their midst—e.g. Omar in the film—whom they suspect of being informers have been coerced into it and that such could happen to any one of them. The last thing Omar wanted to do was rat on Tariq to Shabak agent Rami. He was not a traitor. But he was nonetheless socially ostracized following mere rumors that he’d been turned by the Israelis and risked execution by his comrades—his best friends from childhood—if the suspicions were even halfway confirmed. The Palestinian armed groups, instead of trying to turn the problem of informers to their advantage—to make them double-agents, or adopt an approach that saves all their skins, or something—, murder their own. They make it so easy for the Israelis. Again, as far as resistance movements go and in view of the utter futility of engaging Israel in armed struggle, the Palestinians are just so fucking stupid.

Fifth comment. One sees no sign of the Palestinian Authority in the film. It’s as if the Palestinians have no (para-)state authority and are on their own in their interface with the Israelis—but which is, in fact, not the case for the majority of the inhabitants of the West Bank, and particularly in urban areas (where the film takes place). And while Tariq and his pals are presumably in a cell of an armed group and with a hierarchical superior, one does not see this. Cf. Gillo Pontecorvo’s ‘The Battle of Algiers‘, which focuses on the FLN’s operation in the Casbah—initiated by Yacef Saadi, who, in the larger FLN organization, counted for nothing outside the city of Algiers—but makes sure to show the higher political leadership. In ‘Omar’, as in other Palestinian films, the Palestinians are depicted as leaderless, and with the “resistance” comprised of freelancing armed gangs. If this is what the Palestinian “resistance” is about, then it had might as well hang it up now, as it is utterly doomed.

As for the aesthetic/cinema side of ‘Omar’, it’s first-rate: excellent acting—particularly Adam Bakri as Omar and Waleed Zuaiter as Rami—, good dialogue, well-directed, gripping, and with an ending that knocked the wind out of me… Great movie!

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Nelson Mandela R.I.P.

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[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below] [5th update below] [6th update below] [7th update below]

I just learned of his death. He was truly un grand homme, what else to say? I first learned about him in the 1960s—before my teen years—, no doubt from my parents, who instilled in me a precocious indignation toward apartheid South Africa. And I most certainly mentioned his name in my first exercise at public speaking, at an all-day teach-in on South Africa at my high school—the organization of which I initiated—, on the 14th anniversary of the Sharpeville massacre. I was living in Algiers in Feb. ’90 when Mandela was released from prison; as I didn’t have a television I went over to my neighbors’ to watch the event live. Couldn’t miss that one. And three months later, on precisely May 17th, I saw him speak, at the Coupole du 5 Juillet on the outskirts of Algiers. As tiersmondiste Algeria had been in the international vanguard of the anti-apartheid movement and Mandela had received brief military training there in 1962, just before his arrest and incarceration, he made Algiers one of the first stops on his triumphal world tour following his prison release. I went with my friend Philip Shehadi, the Reuters bureau chief (who was murdered in Algiers nine months later, in circumstances having nothing to do with politics), so got to see Mandela speak from the press section right up front. The arena was packed with some 10,000 mostly young people—the event was formally sponsored by the FLN’s youth organization, the UNJA, though few of those present likely had ties to the party or empty shell UNJA—, with the government officials and other big shots—including Abdelhamid Mehri and Sid-Ahmed Ghozali—in the tribune behind the podium. Mandela, who naturally received a rapturous welcome when he arrived, spoke in English and with no interpretation; as the English language was not understood by maybe 98% of those present, including the big shots and (Algerian) journalists covering the event—I noticed exactly one who was taking notes during the speech—, hardly anyone knew what he was saying, mais peu importe. The crowd cheered deliriously each time Mandela mentioned the word Algeria, even in passing.

Amusing detail: when recounting his 1962 Algeria visit Mandela evoked his fond memories of Krim Belkacem and Mohamed Khider, FLN chefs historiques and members of the immediate post-independence regime, but who later went into dissidence and exile, were assassinated by regime agents, and whose names were still publicly taboo in Algeria in 1990; silence from the youthful crowd—most likely not recognizing the names—and gêne visible from the VIP tribune. Another amusing detail: when FLN Secretary-General Mehri got up to introduce Mandela the crowd booed loudly—booing Mehri and the FLN, and with some chanting the name of FIS leader Abassi Madani; the VIP tribune collectively cringed, with Mehri shouting “uskut!” (silence!) to the crowd and Mandela looking bemused; someone leaned over to say something to him, likely to the effect of “uh, we have a little political problem in Algeria at the moment…”

Anyway, it was great to be able to see him en chair et en os. He was impressive, as could have been expected.

The mark of Mandela’s greatness was, of course, his role in presiding over the orderly, peaceful transition to majority rule, reaching out to the white minority, and his utter lack of rancor over his 28 years of incarceration. But while the transition was peaceful, it is not as if the preceding years were so. In addition to the ordinary, daily violence of the apartheid system, there was the added violence and repression of the minority regime against the majority as the contestation increased from the mid ’80s onward. And though the ANC—to its great credit—eschewed terrorism as a strategy, it did engage in it on occasion. The level of political violence was high in the final years of the apartheid regime. And the orderly transition was no sure thing even with Mandela leading it. In his book The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa, Sasha Polakow-Suransky writes of the hostility of the Afrikaner rejectionists, led by General Constand Viljoen, to President F.W. de Klerk’s negotiations with Mandela and the ANC. The rejectionists, heavily armed, were ready to launch an OAS-style terror campaign in 1994, which, had it come to pass, would have plunged South Africa into a heretofore unheard of level of violence, brought about a bloodbath, and upended the transition, resulting in a who-knows-what outcome but that would have most certainly been catastrophic. But as Polakow-Suransky recounts, Mandela, just prior to the ’94 election, invited Viljoen and associates to his Johannesburg villa and, speaking to them in Afrikaans (which he had learned on Robben Island), assured them that the white minority would have its full place in the new South Africa and that there would be no retribution or vengeance. With that, Viljoen & Co were disarmed, both figuratively and literally. They dropped their plans for a terror campaign and agreed to participate in the transition. If Mandela’s gesture was not the mark of greatness, then I don’t know what greatness is.

Too bad we haven’t had any Mandelas in the Middle East these past decades. Oh well.

UPDATE: Raphael Ahren, diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel, has an interesting and detailed examination of Nelson Mandela’s relationship with Jews, Israel, and Palestine. The lede: “Late South African leader had strong friendships with many in the Jewish world, but never forgot his allegiance to the PLO — or Israel’s support for the apartheid regime.”

2nd UPDATE: The Algerian website Chouf Chouf has a post on “Nelson Mandela et l’Algérie.”

3rd UPDATE: NYT columnist Bill Keller has a good commentary on historian Stephen Ellis’s revelation—if one can call it that—that Nelson Mandela had been a member of the South African Communist Party in the early 1960s, a “revelation” that US right-wingers are using as a gotcha to defend their own support of the apartheid regime. Keller suggests—though he could have driven home the point—that the engagement of Mandela and the ANC with the SACP was irrelevant as a guide to their eventual behavior in power. To say the least. Anyone who has spent time with African or Arab communists will note that their communist convictions rarely go beyond mouthing slogans. And, as recent history has demonstrated, communists can become capitalists on a dime if the circumstances are right. (December 8)

4th UPDATE: On American right-wing attitudes toward Nelson Mandela—present and past (and it’s always useful to recall past views one so ardently asserted)—, on how GOPers despised and disdained him—and with many in the GOP base still despising and disdaining him—, see here, here, here, here, here, and here. Liberals are naturally having a field day with this one, though in the interests of fairness and balance here’s one reasonable conservative commentary on Mandela’s passing.

5th UPDATE: Giving credit where credit is due in regard to American right-wingers and Mandela, here is Newt Gingrich’s response to the racists in his camp who got on his case for his eulogy. Gingrich may crazy on a lot of things but on this, he is reasonable and principled.

6th UPDATE: On Mandela having supposedly been a communist in the 1960s, here is what John Comaroff says in the interview I linked to in the following post:

It was [Mandela], for example, who, against the rather different position of the black power movement, argued most forcefully [in favor of] a … post-racial South Africa, a unified nation founded on the sovereignty of the people rather than sovereignty of the party. In that sense, he was a profoundly liberal thinker, in spite of the efforts of the Ronald Reagan and Maggie Thatcher regimes to construe him as a raving communist. He was never that at all, he was always a very considered — if anything, a Christian — democrat.

7th UPDATE: An informative Algeria blog has a post on “Mandela et l’Algérie: cinq mensonges et une révélation,” which corrects some of the errors or misconceptions regarding Mandela’s relationship with Algeria. One of them—a factual error I made myself above—concerns his 1962 visit, which was, in fact, to an ALN base camp just over the Moroccan border, not to Algeria itself, a country he only set foot in for the first time in 1990.

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On this 59th anniversary of the outbreak of the Algerian war of independence, here is a noteworthy témoignage on Larbi Ben M’hidi—FLN chef historique—by the French army officer, Captain Aler, who arrested him in February 1957, at the height of the Battle of Algiers (Captain Aler’s views as to Ben M’hidi’s qualities were, it should be said, also shared by Lieutenant-Colonel Marcel Bigeard, who interrogated Ben M’hidi after his arrest—but who was not responsible for his murder). If the French army had not extrajudicially executed him, Ben M’hidi may well have become the first president of an independent Algeria. Given that Ben M’hidi towered over almost all the others in the FLN leadership—politically, intellectually, and as a man; and particularly over the man who (unfortunately) became the country’s first president—, his murder was a huge loss for Algeria. And for France as well.

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This is a 3½+ hour, four-part documentary on the history of Jewish-Muslim relations—from the 7th century to the present—by French filmmaker Karim Miské. Parts 1 and 2 aired on ARTE last night and may be watched here (for one week at least). The documentary is quite good and with an impressive number of francophone and anglophone academic and other specialists interviewed. I noted in the credits that the film received the support of the cultural services of the US embassy in Paris. Parts 3 and 4 will air next Tuesday (and which will be on ARTE’s website linked to above).

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yema-affiche

My previous post was on three worthy Moroccan films I’ve seen of late. Moroccan cinema has become quite good, probably the most interesting in the Arab world at the present time. There’s also some good stuff coming out of Algeria, including two films I’ve seen in the past three months. The most recent one is ‘Yema’, which is set at an undetermined moment during Algeria’s army-led regime vs. Islamist insurgents sale guerre and entirely in a small farm on a remote hillside (somewhere in the petite Kabylie). I’ll let Variety’s Jay Weissberg—the anglophone world’s premier critic of Maghrebi cinema—describe the pic

Algeria’s fratricidal battle between the government and fundamentalists is played at the micro level in Djamila Sahraoui’s three-hander “Yema.” Designed as a Greek tragedy, the telegraphic story is set in a stunning landscape where a mother grieves for her soldier son, killed by Islamic insurgents affiliated with his brother. Beautifully lensed by Raphael O’Byrne (“The Portuguese Nun”), “Yema” (meaning “mother”) has all the trappings of the ancient classics, yet feels equally antiquated; it’s worthy without transcending a static iconicism…

Like a grieving Virgin Mary, Ouardia (helmer-scripter Sahraoui, “Barakat!”) prepares her son Tarek’s body for burial. She’s confined to her home and environs by a one-handed guard (Samir Yahia), taking orders from his superior (Ali Zarif). Gradually it’s revealed that the superior is Ouardia’s younger son, a mujahideen fighter she blames for Tarek’s death. The younger brother also stole the elder’s wife, further embittering their disconsolate mother. Everyone is wounded emotionally and physically by the country’s conflicts, and only Ouardia’s dogged cultivation of her garden produces life from the parched soil. Visuals further the sense of an epic tale recounted on a human scale.

There’s not a lot of action in the film but it’s absorbing. I recommended it (particularly for Algeriaphiles and those interested in the dynamics of civil wars). Another review is here, French reviews (good) here, and trailer here.

The other Algerian film seen lately—actually a French film with Algeria theme—is ‘Né quelque part’ (literally, “born somewhere,” but given the unsatisfying English title ‘Homeland’), by first-time director Mohamed Hamidi (from the Paris area, a founder of the well-known banlieue-themed Bondy Blog, and who normally teaches economics and management for a living). This is a comedy (or perhaps a dramedy) for le grand public, about a 26-year-old Parisian law student named Farid (actor Tewfik Jallab) from an Algerian immigrant family, who’s asked by his ageing father to go en catastrophe to the family’s village (near Tlemcen), to deal with the local authorities’ intention to raze the house the father had built there for his retirement. So Farid has no choice but to drop everything and go to Algeria, where he had never set foot. Now this wasn’t too credible—immigrant families who periodically return to the bled invariably take the kids with them—, nor was it credible that he wouldn’t understand a word of Algerian darija, but that’s okay. At the airport he’s met with open arms by relatives he’s seeing for the first time, one a cousin played by comic Jamel Debbouze—who is hugely poplar in France (and in my family)—, who take him to the bled, where he encounters the whole range of wacky, offbeat characters. And the rocambolesque story takes off (in short: Farid intends to stay only a few days but, against his will, is retained there for considerably longer). The movie is quite funny—indeed hilarious—, particularly if one knows Algeria and Algerian humor. Immigrés vs. blédards dynamics are naturally a theme. Algeriaphiles will definitely appreciate it. So despite a few contrivances and implausibilities I give it the unreserved thumbs up. I was thoroughly entertained. Review in English is here (the film showed at Cannes), French reviews (good) here, and trailer here.

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This is a slick new Moroccan film I saw recently, about three youthful petty thief layabouts in Tetouan and how they decide to go legit. One, the thuggish Allal, takes the Islamist route (which is legit for some, though not all); another, the protag Malik, falls in love with attractive hooker Dounia and seeks to settle down and leave the life of crime. But corrupt police inspector Debbouze, played by director Faouzi Bensaïdi, twists Malik’s arm to become an informer in return for releasing Dounia from jail, where she found herself after a police raid. And all sorts of problems for Malik ensue. The screenplay is not extremely original—as this review justly observes—but the film is engaging and with incontestable qualities (acting, camerawork, sociological interest).

A nitpicking remark: contrary to what this review says, Tetouan is not a port city. The seaside scenes in the pic were in Martil, which is several km to Tetouan’s east. The film being set entirely in Tetouan and Martil was of particular interest to me personally, as I was in both last month. Tetouan is well worth the visit if one is in that part of Morocco: the medina is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the new city that juxtaposes it was entirely built by the Spanish—as it was the capital of the Spanish protectorate in northern Morocco (1912-56)—, so has the character and feel of a city in southern Spain. And Martil is one of the resort towns on Morocco’s westernmost Mediterranean coast. It is not particularly interesting so far as beach resorts go except that the tourism along that stretch of coast—running north to M’diq and Marina Smir (due south of Ceuta)—is entirely Moroccan—middle and upper-middle class, and with many Moroccan immigrants in Europe home for the holidays, but hardly any Europeans—and with some of the Moroccan women in two-piece bathing suits, which one would not see among nationals in any other Arab country (Christian parts of Lebanon excepted and maybe a restricted-access beach or two in Algeria or Tunisia). Culturally speaking, Morocco is not the Middle East, Egypt, or—when it comes to the status of women—Algeria.

Most of the above paragraph admittedly has little to do with the film, which offers a representation of the bas-fonds in contemporary urban Morocco. For this reason alone—but in addition to its cinematic qualities—I recommend it. French reviews are good. Trailer (with English s/t) is here. Et voici un entretien sur France 24 avec le réalisateur (à partir de la 4ème minute).

Another Moroccan film I saw recently was ‘Rock the Casbah’—which is, bizarrely enough, the second film with this exact title I’ve seen in the past six months (the other was from Israel)—, by director Laïla Marrakchi, who did the 2006 hit pic, ‘Marock‘, the subject of which was Casablanca’s jeunesse dorée. This one, which focuses on the same social stratum as does ‘Marock’, is set and shot entirely in Tangier (where I spent two weeks last month). The story in brief: rich family patriarch, Moulay Hassan (played by Omar Sharif), dies—he’s seen in the movie in flashbacks—, which brings the whole family together for the funeral, and with the usual family histoires one gets at such gatherings. The mainly female cast is stellar; it is, in itself, a draw for the film. The Israeli-Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass (whom I’ve seen in at least 15 films over the past decade) is Moulay Hassan’s wife, Aïcha, and who has three grown daughters, two of whom live in Tangier—Mariam (played by Lebanese actress/director Nadine Labaki) and Kenza (the Moroccan-Spanish-Belgian Lubna Azabal)—and one in New York, Sofia (the rather beautiful Moroccan-American actress Morjana Alaoui), who’s married to an American—and with a kid who speaks neither Arabic nor French—and arrives in Tangier en catastrophe after many years of absence. There was a fourth sister in the past but she committed suicide under murky circumstances that are revealed in the film. Sofia does not get along with Mariam or Kenza and there are issues with her mother, and all sorts of stuff comes out while they’re supposed to be mourning their deceased father/husband, with deep, dark family secrets revealed and la totale. The film is alternately humorous and melodramatic—it’s one for le grand public, not a film d’auteur, and with more French spoken than Arabic, signifying that the director had an international audience in mind—, and with a screenplay that is—like ‘Mort à vendre’—not entirely original. We’ve seen it many times before. But while not a chef d’œuvre, the pic is entertaining, the ensemble cast is great, the deep class and gender hierarchies in Moroccan society are dealt with head on, and I loved the scenes of Tangier (places and streets I strolled along just three weeks before). So I recommend it. Hollywood press reviews are here and here. French reviews are here. Trailer is here.

For the record, I saw a film at the Tangier cinémathèque last month, ‘Le Temps du terrorisme’ (‘The Time of Terrorism’), by director Aziz Saadallah, which so far has opened only in Morocco. It’s a curious film, set in a residential quartier in the heart of Casablanca, of a divorced middle-aged television screenwriter, played by Saadallah, working under a deadline but en mal d’inspiration and who becomes the target of ire of his neighboring Islamist greengrocer, who reproaches him for moral turpitude and a generally decadent lifestyle (consuming alcoholic beverages, frequenting women with whom he is not related). The film goes back-and-forth between the screenwriter’s cultural, social class, and ideological clash with his intolerant, increasingly fanaticized neighbor and the screenplay he needs to finish, which is progressively inspired by this real life clash. The worthy message of the film is the mounting danger of Islamist extremism in Morocco. The one English discussion of the film I’ve come across is here. Trailer is here. As the film won’t be making it to Paris—let alone outre-Atlantique—anytime soon, at least one can read about it here on AWAV.

rock the casbah laila marrakchi

zaman al irhab

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On Ibn Khaldun

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Ibn Khaldun, the great Maghrebi historian and thinker, has been in the news this week. Or, to be exact, on high-profile blogs and op-eds. E.g. Paul Krugman had a blog post the other day on Ibn Khaldun’s 14th century magnum opus Muqaddimah, that Krugman called a “truly…awesome work, centuries ahead of its time.” And the Israeli (Druze) poet and writer, Salman Masalha, has an op-ed in the current Haaretz on how “Light comes from the West, nostalgia from the Middle East.” The lede: “The Arab world will never be able to improve its future if it keeps harking back to the past.” As there are access issues with Haaretz, here’s the whole thing (and with the passage on Ibn Khaldun highlighted).

How is it that the Arab world, which in the past was a leader in many fields, hasn’t managed to emerge from its backwardness? Arabs have been wrestling with this question for a very long time.

For years, Arabs have learned about their glorious past and the greatness of Islam. And for years, Arab intellectuals have made the fundamentally erroneous claim that the root of the Arabs’ miserable condition lies in the hundreds of years of Ottoman rule. The amusing part is that the Turks claim Turkey was left behind due to Arab rule.

Arab intellectual discourse found other excuses, too. It cast the blame on Western imperialism, and not only that. Since the middle of the last century, another cherry has been added to the whipped cream of excuses: The source of Arab backwardness is Israel, of course.

The Arab nations were “liberated” from the yoke of Ottoman rule and imperialism long ago. They have been living in independent states for dozens of years. Officers even booted out the kings and established regimes that decked themselves out in the colorful plumage of pan-Arab nationalism, socialism, democracy, progress, and so forth.

Who prevented them from investing in education, developing their economies and advancing their societies? The Ottomans, who no longer exist? Imperialism, which has retreated? Israel?

All the sweet slogans and all the crowns the Arab regimes gave themselves were devoid of content.

United Nations reports on the state of human development in the Arab world compared to the rest of the world reveal the bitter truth. The Arab illiteracy rate, for instance, is among the highest in the world, and the percentage of people attending school is even lower than it is in developing countries.

All their oil wealth exists only on paper from the standpoint of the Arab people, for the gross domestic product of all the Arab states together doesn’t equal that of Spain alone. And the Arab world’s investment in research and development is among the lowest in the world.

The global knowledge revolution hasn’t penetrated the Arab world. The Arab world doesn’t participate in either acquiring or translating knowledge, to say nothing of creating it.

The number of books translated every year in Spain alone is equal to all the books ever translated into Arabic since recorded history began, according to the UN reports.

If so, it’s no wonder that, in the rankings of the world’s best universities, not a single university from the Arab or Muslim worlds appears. By comparison, three Israeli universities made the top 100 list.

Muslim “intellectuals” have been reiterating for generations that all truth and knowledge can be found in the Koran. Anyone who holds such a view, like a donkey, is guaranteed to remain behind forever.

The great Arab historian Ibn Khaldun dissected this view way back in the 14th century. When the Muslims conquered Persia, he recounted, a huge trove of Persian scientific writings fell into their hands. The commander asked permission from the Muslim caliph, Umar Ibn Al-Khattab, to translate them for the benefit of Muslims. The caliph’s response was, “Throw them into the water, for if there’s anything in them that guides one toward the right path, Allah has given us a better guide. And if there’s anything in them that would lead one to stray from the right path, Allah has spared us this.” And thus, all the wealth of Persian culture was thrown into the water or burned.

The imaginary faith of the Arab past is the principal obstacle facing these nations. Someone whose eyes are always fixed on the past will never see the future. Arab nostalgia for the past has turned into an incurable illness.

More than anything, it show the impotence of this society in the here and now. Both Arab tribalism and the Islamic faith are built on patriarchal foundations and leave no space for the individual to live and create – all the more so if the individual happens to be female.

“It’s true the sun rises in the east,” wrote Egyptian author Salama Moussa in the 1920s, “but light comes to us from the West.” The Arab world needs a real revolution that will give a bill of divorce to its tribal and religious past. Without this, the Arabs will never experience a renaissance.

One correction. Masalha cites the canard about the number of books translated each year in a given European country as surpassing all those translated into Arabic in history. This is untrue. Many books from the West are translated into Arabic and published in the Middle East and North Africa. But the publications are often pirated and with no royalties paid to the Western publisher, so don’t show up in official statistics.

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black_panthers

1960s activist Steve Wasserman has a most interesting review essay in The Nation on the recently published Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party, by Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin Jr., academic historians both. Wasserman, who knows the subject rather well, is critical of the book, which he says is “about as close to an official history as can be imagined.” Reading the essay brought back memories from my early ’70s gauchiste teen years, when I thought the Black Panthers were cool. I subscribed to the Black Panther Party’s official newspaper for a stretch—and remember well its exalting The Great Leader Kim Il-Sung—and, of course, read Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice (didn’t everyone?). My main memory from that is Cleaver recounting his pre-revolutionary youth, when he would rape black women as practice for raping white women. Nice.

On Cleaver, who was the BPP’s “minister of information,” Wasserman writes

Cleaver was regarded by many of the younger recruits within the party as their Malcolm X. A strong advocate of working with progressive whites, Cleaver was a man of large appetites, an anarchic and ribald spirit who relished his outlaw status. After years in prison, he was hellbent on making up for lost time and wasn’t about to kowtow to anyone—neither to Ronald Reagan, whom he mocked mercilessly, nor, as it would turn out, to Huey Newton. He was the joker in the Panther deck and a hard act to follow. Like so many of the Panthers’ leaders, he had killer looks, inhabiting his own skin with enviable ease. (The erotic aura that the Panthers presented was a not inconsiderable part of their appeal, as any of the many photographs that were taken of them show. And in this department, Huey was the Supreme Leader, and he never let you forget it.) Eldridge was the biggest mouth in a party of big mouths. He especially loved invective and adored the sound of his own voice, delivered in a sly baritone drawl. He was a gifted practitioner of the rhetoric of denunciation, favoring such gems as “fascist mafioso” and given to vilifying the United States, at every turn, as “Babylon.” He was a master of misogynist pith, uttering the imperishable “revolutionary power grows out of the lips of a pussy.” He was fond of repeating, as if it were a personal mantra: “He could look his momma in the eye and lie.” He was notorious in elite Bay Area movement circles for his many and persistent infidelities and for his physical abuse of his equally tough-talking and beautiful wife, Kathleen. About these failures, however, a curtain of silence was drawn. He was, all in all, a hustler who exuded charm and menace in equal measure.

I wasn’t too crazy about Cleaver—who, pour mémoire, converted to Mormonism in the 1980s and became a conservative Republican—but thought Huey Newton was pretty good, particularly after watching him on William Buckley’s Firing Line in 1973 (YouTube excerpt here). But Newton was as much a thug as Cleaver and which Wasserman reminds us of in quoting later published accounts of BPP members—but which Bloom and Martin leave out of their book. They leave a lot out, it seems

You won’t learn from Bloom and Martin the hard truth about Flores Forbes, a trusted enforcer for Newton, a stalwart of the party’s Orwellian “Board of Methods and Corrections,” and a member of what Newton called his “Buddha Samurai,” a praetorian guard made up of men willing to follow orders unquestioningly and do the “stern stuff.” Forbes joined the party at 15 and wasted no time becoming a zombie for Huey. Forbes was bright and didn’t have to be told; he knew when to keep his mouth shut. He well understood the “right to initiative,” a term Forbes tells us “was derived from our reading and interpretation of Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon.” What Forbes took Fanon to mean was “that it is the oppressed people’s right to believe that they should kill their oppressor in order to obtain their freedom. We just modified it somewhat to mean anyone who’s in our way,” like inconvenient witnesses who might testify against Newton, or Panthers who’d run afoul of Newton and needed to be “mud-holed”—battered and beaten to a bloody pulp. Newton no longer favored Mao’s Little Red Book, preferring Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, which he extolled for its protagonists’ Machiavellian cunning and ruthlessness. Nor will you learn from Bloom and Martin how Newton admired Melvin van Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, the tale of a hustler who becomes a revolutionary. Military regalia was out, swagger sticks were in. Newton dropped the rank of minister of defense. Some days he wanted to be called “Supreme Commander,” other days “Servant of the People” or, usually, just “Servant.” But to fully understand Huey’s devolution, you’d have to run Peebles’s picture backward, as the story of a revolutionary who becomes a hustler.

The political consciousness of the BPP cadres was clearly not raised during their period in Algiers, the world capital of tiersmondisme back then. For the anecdote, an Algerian-in-the-know told me stories some two decades ago about the BPP’s Algiers years (1969 to ’71 or thereabouts). The Algerians were initially thrilled to receive Cleaver and other Panthers (Algeria and the US did not have diplomatic relations at the time), who were set up in a villa in a nice neighborhood (probably Hydra) and supplied with resources, including women (i.e. prostitutes on the state payroll). But the Panthers quickly became a problem for the Algerians, with their loud parties—Algiers is a sleepy city after dark—, doing drugs, trying to pick up women in public… Instead of getting bona fide American revolutionaries, the Algerians got American urban voyous. The 1954-62 FLN had its share of voyous but also advanced political leadership. The BPP had a lot of the former but little of the latter. So the Algerian authorities quietly encouraged the Panthers to move on—and which they did (as they must have been bored out of their minds in Algiers; if one doesn’t speak French or Arabic and has little interest in Algeria, it would be a deadly dull place to live in).

PANTHERS IN KASBAH 1969

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muslim-brotherhood-hassan-al-banna

France 3 a eu un documentaire très intéressant hier soir sur le mouvement des Frères musulmans—en Egypte et à travers le monde—, écrit et réalisé par Michaël Prazan. Je le recommende vivement. On peut le regarder ici pendant une semaine.

MIS À JOUR: Voici le documentaire sur YouTube.

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Le Premier Homme

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[updates below]

Voilà some publicity for Harvard University Press’s recent publication of Albert Camus’s Algerian Chronicles—a compilation of Camus’s essays and letters on Algeria from the 1930s through the ’50s—, translated into English by Arthur Goldhammer—of French Politics blogging fame (and who has been translating French social science and humanities since my college days)—and edited and introduced by Alice Kaplan (reviews here and here). On the subject of Camus—whose birth centennial is this November 7th—I recently saw the cinematic adaptation of his unfinished autobiographical novel Le Premier Homme (in English, The First Man), by Italian director Gianni Amelio. I liked the novel—and more than any other I’ve read by Camus, including L’Étranger and La Peste—, in particular for its vivid imagery of lower-class pied-noir life in Algiers in the 1910s and ’20s. The film closely follows Camus’s childhood such as depicted in the novel via the character of Jacques Cormery and with flash-forwards to the 1950s—of Cormery’s return to Algiers during the war—, scenes that weren’t in the novel. Technically the film—which was entirely shot in Algeria (mainly in Algiers and Mostaganem) and employed Benjamin Stora as historical adviser—is impeccable. Nice to watch. But it doesn’t work. This is one of those novels that cannot be adapted to the screen. And if one has not read it—and is not aware that Jacques Cormery is Albert Camus (and does not know too much about Camus or Algérie française)—, the film will make no sense at all. So if you haven’t read the book—and are not familiar with France’s history in Algeria—, do not see the movie; you will be wasting your time. Gianni Amelio directed two very good films in the ’90s, ‘Il ladro di bambini‘ and ‘Lamerica‘, so I had somewhat high expectations for this one. Oh well. US reviews are here and here, French reviews here, and the NYT review of the book here. [And see updates on Camus below]

Needless to say, the film was not a box office hit in France. I saw it on the first Saturday night after its opening and in a big Paris multiplex. The salle was well over half empty. Un échec annoncé. As I’ve said before, the French movie-going public is simply not interested in Algeria, post- or pre-1962.

À propos, another movie about Algérie française—and likewise based on a novel by a major author—opened in France last fall: ‘Ce que le jour doit à la nuit’, from Yasmina Khadra’s eponymous 2008 novel (in English: What the Day Owes the Night), which I have not read. This director of this one was the middle to lowbrow Alexandre Arcady, juif d’Algérie who is not precisely known for making films d’auteur. I hesitated on seeing it and despite the compelling subject matter, in view of its 2 hour 40 minute length and the fact that Arcady has never done anything that could remotely be called a chef d’œuvre, but decided to throw caution to the wind (Saturday AM matinee) before it disappeared from the salles. I’ll let Le Monde’s Noémie Luciani—who liked the pic more than did other French criticsdescribe it

Dans l’Algérie des années 1930, Younes, 9 ans, est recueilli par son oncle et sa tante et rebaptisé Jonas. Elevé par ce couple peu ordinaire (Mohamed est musulman, Madeleine chrétienne), Jonas grandit à Oran puis à Rio Salado, véritable jardin d’Eden où la vie est douce et lente, jusqu’à ce qu’Emilie n’amène les premières violences de l’amour, et l’Histoire les premiers feux de la guerre.

Adapté du roman à succès de Yasmina Khadra, Ce que le jour doit à la nuit est une fresque monumentale dans tous les sens du terme. Reconstitution détaillée à l’extrême, musique grandiose, mise en scène toute dans l’ampleur, jusqu’aux orages, qui répondent avec un mimétisme verlainien aux émotions : que Jonas perde un instant le goût de vivre, et “il pleure dans son coeur comme il pleut sur la ville”.

Ce totalitarisme de moyens, s’il est indéniablement l’expression vibrante d’un amour fou du réalisateur pour le livre auquel il offre un monde visible, a ses charmes et ses limites. D’un côté l’élégance du décor, la belle musique d’Armand Amar, une intelligence remarquable du rythme, tenant de bout en bout l’histoire sur presque trois heures de film.

De l’autre, l’explicite imposant, le poids des fatalités trop visibles, la place ténue de l’humour. Surtout, le jeu d’acteurs enivrés de se voir devenus Rhett et Scarlett, Juliette et Roméo : exalté, plus rarement exaltant, tout en grands gestes, grands mots, grands yeux noyés de larmes. Fu’ad Aït Aattou (Younes/Jonas) : la gravité un peu appuyé de la voix, le port de tête. Nora Arnezeder (Emilie) : le sourire lentement construit pour illuminer, un peu trop lent à venir. Anne Parillaud (madame Cazenave, la mère d’Emilie) : la démarche alanguie, la diction lourdement sensuelle, les tics de séductrice aguerrie.

On hésite à leur autoriser tant de fards : peut-être faut-il autant pour que l’histoire ait moins à voir avec le commun amour qu’avec le mythe. Peut-être avons-nous perdu l’habitude. Dans le doute, être un peu plus crédule, glisser sur certains traits. Tout travaillé qu’il soit, tout alourdi d’art qu’il peut être, Ce que le jour doit à la nuit garde au coeur un souffle romantique volé à l’Hollywood des heures anciennes : naïf et flamboyant à son image, emportant furieusement tout ce que l’on consentira à lui laisser prendre – l’amour, le feu, la guerre…

A ‘Gone With the Wind’ in the waning days of Algérie française (for a synopsis of the pic in English—there are as yet no reviews from the US or UK—, go here). One gets the general idea. The film is melodramatic and maudlin, i.e. it’s schlock. But… I was thoroughly entertained (as were others who saw it, to judge by Allociné’s audience ratings; though, as befitting films in France with an Algeria theme, it was a box office failure). It’s a grand spectacle and in which the director pulls out all the stops (trailer here). So for this one I suspended critical judgment and decided to just take it in (it’s also hard for me to give the total thumbs down to a film on Algeria whose historical adviser was the incontournable, inévitable Benjamin Stora). As it will likely not be making it outre-Atlantique or outre-Manche anytime soon, the only way to see it will be via streaming (if one requires English subtitles, that might be a problem).

There was a special projection of the film in Algiers last October, which was the subject of an amusing reportage by El Watan’s Chawki Amari, “Le film d’Arcady n’a pas réconcilié les Algériens.” The lede

«Ce que le jour doit à la nuit», le film d’Alexandre Arcady, tiré du chef-d’œuvre de Yasmina Khadra, a été projeté à Alger sur fond de rivalités entre des ministres et de rumeurs sur la mort du président Bouteflika. Récit cinématographique.

Among other things, one learns that Arcady’s film, despite the sponsorship of the Algerian Ministry of Culture, failed to receive the necessary authorizations in time, so had to be shot in Tunisia. Une histoire algérienne. Amari’s article, which is quite funny—I was cracking up while reading it—, will be appreciated by those who know Algeria well.

UPDATE: Columbia Univ. doctoral student Thomas Meaney has a review essay, entitled “The colonist of good will,” on three books on or by Camus—including Algerian Chronicles—in the September 16 2013 issue of The Nation. And the LDH Toulon website has posted a critical analysis by Christiane Chaulet Achour—delivered as an academic paper in October 2011—on “Albert Camus face à la question algérienne.”

2nd UPDATE: Benjamin Stora is interviewed in La Provence (September 7) on his latest book (co-authored with Jean-Baptiste Péretié), Camus brûlant.

3rd UPDATE: Benjamin Stora is interviewed again (September 19) on his new book, this time in Mediapart (via Jeune Afrique).

ce que le jour doit à la nuit

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Understanding terrorism

aqmi mali

Journalist Kremena Krumova of Epoch Times—a publication that is new to me—has a useful “guide to understanding terrorism” and with good quotes by specialists (two of whom I know personally).

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Le Repenti

affiche-le-repenti

I just saw this terrific film by Merzak Allouache (English title: ‘The Repentant’; in Arabic: التائب). It is Allouache’s best film ever IMO and one of the best ever to come out of Algeria (and is certainly the best ever Algerian-directed film with a political theme). The “repentant” is a young Islamist fighter who, benefiting from the 1999 law conferring amnesty on members of armed Islamist groups (and updated in 2005), flees the maquis, turns himself into the authorities—who press him into being an informer—, and tries to reintegrate into civilian life, while seeking to settle an affair from his years as a guerrilla/terrorist, the details of which are only revealed toward the end. It’s a riveting film and with an excellent screenplay that bears out the complexity of the Algerian sale guerre—of armed Islamists vs. the Algerian state—of the past two decades. There are no caricatures, either with the characters or the politics. And the acting is first-rate, as is the cinematography (it’s set in the western High Plateau, mainly in El Bayadh).

I normally pay no attention to reviews of Algerian films, as the critics (French, American, etc) lack the requisite knowledge of Algeria to properly assess what they’ve seen. And this one presents additional challenges, as any description of the plot will almost inevitably contain spoilers (as did, e.g., Le Monde’s review, which basically gave the whole thing away). The pic has been reviewed by two American critics, who saw it at Cannes last year; one, from The Hollywood Reporter, was off-the-wall; the other review, by Jay Weissberg in Variety, absolutely, totally nailed it. It’s an excellent review and tells the reader precisely what s/he needs to know about the film, and without spoilers. I couldn’t have written it better myself. Here it is

A beautifully made, deeply emotional drama that catches auds up in its troubled protags’ lives, all the way to a staggering finale.

After several misfires, Merzak Allouache delivers not just his best film of the past decade, but arguably his best in 36 years in the helmer’s seat. Tracking a former jihadist and a separated couple whose lives were destroyed five years earlier, “The Repentant” is a beautifully made, deeply emotional drama that catches auds up in its troubled protags’ lives, all the way to a staggering finale. Though cinema is awash in Islamic fundamentalist themes, Allouache goes beyond mere issues with his intimate approach and narrowed focus. This is one Algerian movie that could finally see worldwide exposure, including Stateside.

Allouache not only strips the story down to basics but reduces the exposition: Background details are spare, and what’s not said is more powerful than what is. This suppression is tied to the helmer’s message of a country paralyzed by a self-imposed gag order, in which the past remains an unbearable weight that cannot be discussed. But as “The Repentant” demonstrates, the past is very much alive, and a refusal to confront it head-on allows fear, corruption, and fanaticism to thrive.

In the late 1990s, the Algerian government attempted to end years of terrorism by offering jihadists amnesty. Islamic fighters came down from their hideouts, registered with the authorities as “repentants,” and were integrated into society. Rachid (Nabil Asli) runs away from his fundamentalist compatriots in the mountain and reports to the cops; the police chief, Redouane (Mohamed Takiret), gets him a job with embittered cafe owner Salah (Hacene Benzerari), and Rachid appears to be fitting into normal life.

Then, he meets pharmacist Lakhdar (Khaled Benaissa). What actually transpires between these two isn’t seen or heard: first a one-sided phone call that visibly upsets Lakhdar, then a meeting that isn’t shown. What’s clear is Lakhdar’s intense isolation: He lives in a bare apartment, drinking copious amounts of wine and watching Chinese television at night, though presumably he doesn’t understand the language. Like everything else in his life, the boob tube merely fills the hours, since Lakhdar’s only engagement is with his inner demons.

After meeting Rachid, he calls his ex-wife, Djamila (Adila Bendimerad), who angrily makes the long drive to see him. They exude tension when together, uncertain how to behave and unsure if the chasm between them can be bridged. When she snaps that she can’t go back to the same hell as five years earlier, he replies, “Go back? I’m still in it.” They tensely wait for Rachid to call again, yet Allouache withholds explanation of how these three fit together until late in the film. Before the wrenching finale (bring hankies), all that’s clear is that Djamila and Lakhdar had a daughter who died five years earlier.

Many of Allouache’s films express disheartened concern over the rise of fundamentalism (“Bab el Oued City,” “The Other World”), but in “The Repentant,” possibly for the first time, he’s fully engaged with a jihadist’s psyche. Rachid’s escape from his Islamist life is real, and his desire for re-entry into society feels genuine. He has a childlike appreciation of the world around him, yet there’s something else that prevents him from fully assimilating; his denial of past atrocities isn’t convincing, and a skirmish with a revenge-seeker reveals an animal-like violence that’s never far from the surface. On one level, Rachid really may be sorry for what he did, but his personality shift following inculcation into the cult of terrorism can’t be completely buried.

All three leads deliver perfs of stunning emotional depth and complexity, quietly embodying the conflicts raging within. Only Djamila explodes, and when she does, Bendimerad’s expression of rage and grief is devastating. Young d.p. Mohamed Tayeb Laggoune displays a firm control of his handheld camera, appropriately responding to emotions onscreen. Visuals reflect the story’s intimacy while capturing the region’s empty landscape, whose vastness can feel crushing.

The film has unfortunately—thought not unexpectedly—not been a box office hit in France. It opened in Paris 2½ weeks ago and is fading fast. The French highbrow movie-going public—the kind that goes to see non-French and non-Hollywood films—is not interested in Algeria (pre- or post-1962), no matter how well-reviewed the film may be. But Algerian-origin audiences in France aren’t interested either. With the exception of Rachid Bouchareb’s ‘Indigènes‘—which was as much about France as it was Algeria—every last movie with an Algerian theme has either been a box office failure in France or simply not found its public, including in the immigrant population. E.g. one not too bad Algerian film I saw back in 2006, ‘Barakat!’, I was the only person in the theater (and which was in the Latin Quarter no less). Algerians are just not a cinema-going people, and certainly not serious cinema (I know I’ll get into trouble with some for saying this but I don’t care, because it’s true). There are hardly any cinemas in Algeria and most that exist are for young males only—adults and women do not set foot in them—and show trash. And that culture carries over into the immigrant community in France. And when Algerians do go to the movies, they show little to no interest in movies by Algerian directors. C’est dommage.

But if French and Algerians are not going to see ‘Le Repenti’, Americans and others should. So if you have a chance to see it, do so. You won’t regret it. Et si vous êtes à Paris, voici les séances actuellement.

the repentant

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Horses of God

les chevaux de dieu

I’ve been intending to write about this very good Moroccan film I saw last month, which has as its subject jihadist terrorism and the socio-political terrain that spawns it. It’s set in the sprawling Sidi Moumen shantytown on the periphery of Casablanca—the pic wasn’t shot there but sure looks like it was—and follows a gang of boys from mid childhood to their early 20s, in particular two brothers, Yacine and Hamid, who are the film’s protags. The early scenes, set precisely in 1994, are straight out of ‘Los Olvidados’ or ‘Pixote’, of the world of slum boys and its destitution and violence, and with Hamid the exceptionally wild, violent one. Jump to 1999 and Hamid, now in his teens, has become a drugged-out, alcohol-drinking voyou, who turns over the proceeds of his thievery and thuggishness to his mother, who doesn’t ask questions as to where the money comes from (the father is a catatonic invalid, sitting in front of the television all day). Morocco’s bas-fonds. This is not Anfa (Casa’s Beverly Hills) or the social stratum of ‘Marock‘. Hamid eventually gets arrested and is sentenced to two years in prison, during which time Yacine, who is more sage, gets an honest job in a shantytown repair shop. When Hamid returns to Sidi Moumen he is inevitably sporting a beard and has become calm and soft-spoken, as he found religion in prison, i.e. became a salafist. Of course. He then sets about converting older brother Yacine—initially reluctant—and boyhood friends into takfirist salafism, of which there is a cell in Sidi Moumen.

What happens in the film is fairly predictable and I’d pretty much seen it all before, notably in Philippe Faucon’s first-rate ‘La Désintégration‘, which is set in a cité in France and among the offspring of mainly Moroccan immigrants. ‘Les Chevaux de Dieu’ is essentially ‘La Désintégration’ set in the bidonvilles of Morocco’s cities (though the mother in the former pic is a rather less sympathetic character than in the latter). But this is not to diminish or denigrate the film. Director Nabil Ayouch did a very good job across the board, in the casting (all amateurs) and depicting the world of Morocco’s shantytowns, whose inhabitants are entirely excluded from society—the boys had never ventured into the center of Casablanca until their recruitment into the jihadist cell—and where the state is almost entirely absent, save for the occasional police raid (and carried out with the usual brutality). There are no public services, no schools in sight, no anything that comes from the state except for repression. Above all, Ayouch nailed it in portraying the mechanisms by which young men from the slums are indoctrinated into radical Islamism, through material incentives, peer pressure, offers one can’t refuse, and doses of brainwashing, and where the jihadist cell ringleaders are violent criminals for whom the young recruits are nothing more than cannon fodder for their suicide terror attacks and other acts of iniquity. Once inside a jihadist cell—which is a religious cult cum criminal enterprise—there is no exit, and one does not decline invitations to participate in a “martyrdom” operation. The film climaxes with the May 16 2003 terrorist bombings in Casablanca (and with the Sidi Moumen boys sent to the Casa de España restaurant in the city center). Hamid has états d’âme and tries to find a way out (and to persuade brother Yacine) but there’s no way. One way or the other, it’s near certain death.

This is one of those films with which I was increasingly impressed as it moved along, and particularly in thinking about it afterward. French reviews are good (with spectators on Allociné rating it even higher than the critics). Variety’s Jay Weissberg and The Hollywood Reporter also gave it the thumbs up. It is recommended to anyone interested in the question of jihadist terrorism and particularly for courses taught on the general subject. Pedagogically it’s very good, indeed one of the best on the subject. And on the subject—on reading to accompany the film—, I recommend academic specialist Selma Belaala’s pertinent 2004 article “Morocco: slums breed jihad.”

For the record, I will briefly mention another film, ‘Goodbye Morocco’, that I saw just after ‘Les Chevaux de Dieu’. As the title suggests it’s set in Morocco (Tangier), though the director, Nadir Moknèche, is Algerian. I’ll let Hollywood Reporter‘s critic introduce it

Writer-director Nadir Moknèche’s superior multicultural drama weaves together a dark tangle of subplots about art theft, infidelity, kidnapping, murder and immigration. Inspired by real events, this multi-layered suspense thriller is part murder mystery, part film noir and part dysfunctional love triangle.

Screen Daily‘s critic is on the same page

An impressively steamy and complex mystery thriller, apparently inspired by real events, writer/director Nadir Moknèche’s nicely shot film, which had its world premiere at the Doha Tribeca International Film Festival is a classily made film…

Variety’s critic, who also gave it thumbs up, aptly called it “[a]n eminently watchable curiosity.” Yes, definitely watchable. French reviews, though a notch below the aforediscussed pic, are good. It may not be worth venturing across town to see but one may definitely do so chez soi on DVD or streaming.

goodbye-morocco

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Marseille 1973

Marseille 1973

In 1973. Before I get to that, a few words about a story that has been all over Israeli and (mainly right-wing) Jewish websites the past three days, of an apparent physical aggression perpetrated against Israeli filmmaker Yariv Horowitz on Thursday in Aubagne—just outside Marseille—, where he was attending a film festival (and where his film ‘Rock the Casbah’ won an award). The apparent aggression occurred at an ATM and, so reported Israeli news sources—including Haaretz, Ynetnews, and The Times of Israel—, was committed by a group of “Arabs” and who knocked Horowitz unconscious. Ynetnews headlined its Facebook post of the dispatch with one word: Anti-Semitism.

Sounded bad except that I was immediately dubious about the story, not that something didn’t happen—I didn’t imagine that Horowitz would have made it up—but of the details as reported in the Israeli media. First, there was nothing at all on it in the French media, which would not have ignored the incident—au contraire—had it happened the way the Israelis were reporting it. It would have been a news story, and likely a big one. Secondly, I wondered how Horowitz—who did not report the alleged assault to the police or even seek medical care—and his friend knew that the assailants were Arabs (or of Arab origin, as they were most certainly French). Thirdly—and regarding the inevitable mention of anti-Semitism—I rhetorically asked (a) how the alleged assailants could have known that Horowitz was a Jew and (b) why the latter assumed he was attacked for this reason. In the news reports there was nothing to suggest that the incident had a Jew-hating character.

But now we have more information on the incident, via the Aubagne film festival organizers and as reported in the Marseille daily La Provence. Nothing happened the way the Israeli websites reported. Horowitz received exactly one punch, but which did not seriously hurt him. The perpetrator was a minor and whose ethnic identity—as if it matters—was undetermined. There was no indication that he was of Arab origin and the incident clearly had nothing to do with Horowitz being Jewish. This was not a hate crime. Horowitz quickly rejoined the festivities. The incident should have never been the subject of a news story, let alone one with such incendiary allegations. I was going to do a longer post on it but see that blogger Ali Abunimah—who knows the French language, or has a collaborator who does—has already done the spade work and rubbished the story (here and here) as it was reported in the Israeli media. So will the Israeli websites that spread the disinformation—and particularly Haaretz, from which one expects higher professional standards—retract and apologize to their readers?

As for the title of this post—which is not entirely irrelevant to what I’ve written above—, the website Oumma.com has a post with a 55 minute documentary that aired in 2006 on Canal+, “Marseille 1973: les ratonnades oubliées.” In English: ‘Marseille 1973: the forgotten ratonnades‘. There is only one way to translate ratonnade, which is “pogrom against Algerians.” The etymology of the word: raton means ‘little rat’,which was one of the racist terms for Algerian Muslims during the French colonial era, and during which time Europeans settlers and soldiers periodically carried out bloody ratonnades. In the summer and fall of 1973 there was a wave of racist attacks on the sizable Algerian immigrant community in Marseille—with eleven murdered at random during the month of August alone—, culminating in the December 14th terror bombing in front of the Algerian consulate (causing four deaths and dozens injured—many seriously—among the Algerian immigrants waiting in line outside). Only one of the murderers was arrested and tried—receiving a five-year suspended sentence… All the other murder cases were classé sans suite, i.e. closed with no further action. Marseille at the time—and it was hardly unique in that part of France—had a significant population of repatriated pieds-noirs—a certain number of whom had been in the terrorist OAS (the KKK of Algérie française in its dying days)—, as well as military personnel who had served in Algeria during the war. Revanchists of Algérie française—with their violent hatred of Algerian Muslims—were present in force in the city’s institutions, and notably the police, judicial system, and right-wing press organs (most of the racists were on the right—including the recently founded Front National—but some were in the local Socialist party). Marseille was akin to a Mississippi town during the Jim Crow era, and with Algerians and other Maghrebis as the Blacks. What happened in Marseille in 1973 was a pogrom, even if the murders were committed by small groups of men and not rampaging mobs. There is no other word to describe it. I knew the history of this well but hadn’t seen the documentary. It’s very good. Do watch it.

It is, among other things, a reminder that the greatest victims of racist hatred in France over the past six decades have been Maghrebis, not Jews. Anti-Semitism was, of course, a scourge in France through the mid 20th century—and culminating in the collaboration of the French state with the Nazis in the deportation of Jews to the death camps—but it must be mentioned for the record that, with the exception of the Nazi occupation, not a single Jew in metropolitan France, from the Dreyfus Affair to the present day, suffered violent death in a manifest hate crime (in fact, I am not aware of any Jews being killed even in the unoccupied zone in the 1940-42 period). Such has not been the case with Algerians, needless to say. During stretches of the 1960s Algerians were murdered in hate crimes somewhere in France at the rate of almost one a week. And it didn’t end with the Marseille ratonnades of 1973. Just a historical reminder. Again, if one’s French is up to it, do watch the documentary.

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Mohamed Merah sur France 3

[mise à jour ci-dessous] [2ème mise à jour ci-dessous]

France 3 a eu un bon documentaire hier soir sur l’Affaire Mohamed Merah, et qui complémente celui de M6 du novembre dernier. Voici le synopsis

Le 22 mars 2012, la France est sous le choc, effarée par les tueries commises par un certain Mohamed Merah. En pleine campagne présidentielle, les Français découvrent avec stupeur que le monstre, tueur d’enfants, est un jeune de la banlieue toulousaine, à peine âgé de 23 ans.

Qui est-il vraiment et comment en est-il arrivé à tuer sept personnes de sang-froid?

Pendant plus de six mois, les auteurs de ce film ont rencontré des dizaines de témoins de l’affaire, proches de l’enquête. Ils ont eu accès à des documents exclusifs pour tenter de comprendre ce qui, dans l’histoire de ce petit délinquant de banlieue, a pu provoquer un tel passage à l’acte.

Pour la première fois, sa famille et ses amis ont accepté de participer, permettant de mieux cerner la personnalité de Mohamed Merah.

Ainsi, les auteurs ont pu reconstituer, année après année, les différentes étapes de sa vie : la cité, la prison, les voyages, qui ont pu le mener à commettre ces atrocités.

Ces crimes sont-ils l’oeuvre d’un fou ou bien celle d’un fanatique religieux? Quels étaient ses liens avec la mouvance islamiste ? Quel rôle a joué sa famille ? Etait-il un “indic” manipulé par les services de renseignement?

Autant de questions auxquelles ce documentaire tente de répondre à la suite d’une enquête minutieuse et d’une investigation sociale, dévoilant les failles d’un système judiciaire et les “loupés” de la police (DCRI + PJ) qui ont empêché de neutraliser Mohamed Merah plus tôt. Les révélations contenues dans ce film vont souvent à contre-courant des versions officielles.

De Toulouse au Pakistan, en passant par le Moyen-Orient, ce documentaire retrace tout l’itinéraire de Mohamed Merah, depuis la petite enfance jusqu’aux meurtres de 2012.

On peut regarder le documentaire ici.

MISE À JOUR: Oumma.com, site un tantinet orienté, a publié un “décryptage” du documentaire.

2ème MISE À JOUR: Voilà la une du Monde aujourd’hui (10 mars) : “Mohamed Merah a été repéré par les renseignements dès 2006.”

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Inside the FLN

inside the fln neil macmaster

Full title: Inside the FLN: The Paris Massacre and the French Intelligence Service. This is a new, unpublished monograph by historian Neil MacMaster on the events of October 17, 1961 (which I’ve posted on here and here), and that may be downloaded here. Haven’t read it yet but it looks most interesting. MacMaster is the leading historian in the English-speaking world of this dark episode in modern French history, and one of the top ones of France and colonial Algeria more generally. Among his books are Colonial Migrants and Racism: Algerians in France, 1900-62; Paris 1961: Algerians, State Terror, and Memory (co-authored with Jim House); and Burning the Veil: The Algerian War and the ‘Emancipation’ of Muslim Women, 1954–62 (disclosure: I have a long overdue review of this to write). All excellent and must reads for anyone interested in the subject.

macmaster colonial migrants and racism

paris 1961 house macmaster

neil macmaster burning the veil

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Tariq Ramadan (Photo credit: Sia Kambou / AFP)

Photo credit: Sia Kambou / AFP

In my January 27th post on France’s Mali intervention I linked to a tribune by a Senegalese academic, Bakary Sambe, who skewered Tariq Ramadan for his opposition to the said intervention, and where I referred to the celebrated Egyptian-Swiss philosopher as an “overrated bloviator.” I am not a fan of the très médiatique Ramadan, needless to say, though used to have a positive image of him, taking him to be a moderate, modernist Islamic thinker based on numerous op-ed type articles he published over the years in the French press, plus flattering portraits of him that appeared here and there (I never did bother to read his books, which mainly focus on Islamic thought, not a subject of great interest to me and who has the time?). I also did not (and do not) care for some of Ramadan’s high-profile detractors in France and the US (e.g. Caroline Fourest, Paul Berman, Daniel Pipes), who have been engaged in an obsessive vendetta against him for years. And I considered indefensible his temporary banning from France in the mid ’90s—over which I initiated a letter of protest by MESA to then interior minister Jean-Louis Debré—and exclusion from the US during the Bush administration.

But after seeing TR up close—for the first time some five years ago, in a classroom talk—and exchanging a few words with him, I decided that he is a slick, smooth-talking self-promoter, who wows audiences with his affability, eloquence—he can give a one-hour talk in flawless English, with no notes and without skipping a beat—, and dapper good looks but ultimately says little of substance. And his answers to questions on politics and social issues during a Q&A are for the most part langue de bois (e.g. I asked him to give his assessment of the AKP government in Turkey—which had been in power for five years—, to which he responded something to the effect of “What is happening in Turkey is very interesting and we need to follow it closely and see where it’s going”… Not terribly deep or enlightening). He’s a friendly fundamentalist, adapting his discourse to the circumstance. He does not, however, merit the demonization to which he has been subjected by Fourest, Berman et al—he’s not significant enough—, but nor does he merit the celebrity he’s attained beyond his following among youthful pious European Muslim post-migrants (and notably by European policy makers anxiously seeking European Muslim interlocutors). Intellectually and politically speaking, TR does not impress me.

And I do find his apologetics for the Muslim Brotherhood disturbing, not to mention his views and equivocations on a host of other issues.

I bring all this up as I read just the other day a review essay in TNR, dated October 1, 2012, of Ramadan’s latest book, in which he offers analysis and commentary on the so-called Arab spring. Reviewer Samuel Helfont, a Near Eastern Studies Ph.D. candidate at Princeton, was not impressed, taking to task Ramadan’s “problematic views,” “sloppy analysis and inconsistencies,” and “contorted arguments and anti-imperialist platitudes,” all of which are quite simply “not serious.” Very good. Couldn’t have said it better myself, even though I haven’t read the book (and have no intention of).

While I’m at it, here is a tribune I also read recently, by the Franco-Tunisian intellectual Abdelwahab Meddeb—a political and philosophical enemy of TR’s (the two have publicly crossed swords)—, “Towards A Global Network of Liberal Muslims,” that was first published three weeks ago in a Bangladeshi newspaper. Excellent initiative.

I mentioned Daniel Pipes as one of TR’s detractors. Pipes is no dummy when it comes to subjects of which he is a specialist but is politically reactionary and a crackpot on a number of issues (e.g. flirting with Obama birtherism, obsessively trying to “prove” that Obama is a Muslim, situating himself well to the right of Netanyahu on the Israeli political spectrum). I generally don’t touch him with a ten-foot pole. Which is not to say I don’t read him every so often. The other day I came across an interview with him in the current issue of The American Spectator, on “Islam and Islamism in the Modern World,” and which is surprisingly unobjectionable for the most part. I give it the green light.

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French President Hollande arrives in Mali's TimbuktuThat was quite a reception François Hollande received in Bamako and Timbuktu yesterday. Looked like the entire population of the two cities turned out to greet him and as their savior (see here, here, and here). The Baghdad victory parade Bush and Cheney could only dream of. This was hardly a FrançAfrique intervention of bygone days, with the French sending a battalion of legionnaires to prop up a client dictator facing internal contestation. I certainly felt gratified by the scènes de liesse. The Mali intervention has so far gone off without a hitch. Moreover, who would have expected two weeks ago that not only would Timbuktu already be liberated from the yoke of the Ansar Eddine and AQIM psychos but that the French would be in control of Kidal’s airport? Pace my blogging confrère Art Goldhammer, who appears unimpressed, this is a huge success for Hollande and will no doubt modify his image among a certain number of his compatriots (à propos, note the pertinent comments by Massilian and Myos in the thread of Art’s post), not to mention outside France. I doubt we’ll be hearing too many references to “Flanby” henceforth, or cutting remarks on him being indecisive.

There has notably been no triumphalism on Hollande’s part nor any declarations of “mission accomplished.” Everyone knows the thing isn’t over and that the narco-jihadists—who withdrew from Timbuktu without firing a shot—are out in the desert somewhere, likely holed up in the mountain ranges along the Algerian border. Good. Let them stay there. At some point they’re going to have to come out for supplies, which will be rather more complicated for them than it was for the Taliban after 2001, as there is no Waziristan to fall back on. As I pointed out in my last post—and that political scientist Laura Seay reiterated the other day in FP—, northern Mali is not Pushtunistan and Ansar Eddine & Co are not the Taliban (not in number or hegemony over their areas of ethnic strength). It will take a while to eradicate them, or render them a non-threat to the areas from which they have been driven, but it is definitely an attainable objective, particularly if necessary political process between the government in Bamako and the MNLA yields results.

Hollande and defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian—with whom I have been impressed (I didn’t have an opinion on him before the intervention)—have been wise in not setting fixed objectives or timetables, and in saying that France will stay “for as long as it takes.”  And while the rhetoric of African soldiers taking over the job is still there, it is pretty obvious that not only is this not going to happen but cannot happen. Soldiers from the ECOWAS states (Niger excepted) not only have no experience operating in the desert but would  also only make the situation worse, as this analysis in Rue89 suggested. African armies are not only not efficient fighting forces but are given over to extreme violence (committing massacres, mistreatment of prisoners) and raping, looting, and pillaging. If soldiers from neighboring African states took over from the French, it would be a fiasco: they would likely get chewed up by the narco-jihadists and the civilian population of northern Mali would very possibly welcome the latter back as liberators. As for the Malian army, it would not be a good idea for it to enter the Tuareg lands (and one notes that the French did not bring the Malians with them to Kidal). So it’s a French job to the end (and with the Algerians discreetly doing their part).

Early critics of the Mali intervention have been laying low the past week. Algerians on social networks have been reacting with bad humor to Hollande’s victory parade yesterday, so reports Akram Belkaïd. In case anyone didn’t see it, the normally excellent Africanist Stephen Smith had an article on the Mali intervention, dated January 24th, in the LRB. Smith knows the region—not to mention French policy there—better than just about anyone but I was somewhat underwhelmed by the piece. It’s not one of his best. He pulls his punches and avoids taking a clear position one way or the other. I was pleased to note that he makes some of the same points I did in my post of a week ago, particularly on the FrançAfrique, but it is preposterous to suggest that Hollande’s action may have been linked to his domestic political standing and low poll ratings. Not even Hollande’s UMP adversaries have (yet) alleged this. But if Hollande does start to rise a little in the polls, ça ne va pas tarder.

Bamako AFP KAMBOU SIA

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mali-france-conflict photo ERIC FEFERBERG

It’s been over two weeks since France launched its intervention in Mali, which I’ve been following closely and have been intending to write about, but haven’t gotten around to until now. And as all sorts of people more knowledgeable than I have been on the story and weighing in with analyses and commentary, I was wondering if I had anything original to add. But then, numerous persons not more knowledgeable than I (of which more below) have also been tossing out their opinions and on high-profile websites, so if they can, pourquoi pas moi? And a few faithful readers have indeed asked what I think of the French action—and about the situation in Mali more generally (on which I posted three times last year)—, so voilà, here’s my two cents.

  • First, François Hollande did the right thing in sending French troops to Mali en catastrophe, with the sudden, unanticipated Ansar Eddine/AQIM/MUJWA offensive across the demarcation line, seizure of Konna, and the manifest goal of the Islamist fanatics to seize the airport at Sevaré and then advance on Mopti just down the road. This would have been a disaster and could not be allowed to happen, so Hollande had no choice but to act illico. The narco-jihadists had to be stopped and quickly. If they had taken Mopti—Mali’s second city—it would have been a cakewalk to Bamako in view of the worse than pitiful state of the Malian army. Now it is possible that Ansar Eddine & Co would not have advanced on Bamako, as argued by Andrew McGregor of The Jamestown Foundation: fighting in southern Mali and trying to occupy Bamako and its hostile population would have been too tall an order for the Tuaregs and their non-Malian allies, and of which they were no doubt well aware. Perhaps. But this couldn’t be left to chance, and certainly not with the thousands of French and other European expatriates in the capital. The French would have had absolutely no choice but to intervene had an assault on Bamako come to pass but the costs would have been infinitely greater than they are now.
  • A narco-jihadist takeover of Bamako—and thus the entire country—and the consequent collapse of the Malian state would have been a catastrophe of the first order. First, the humanitarian consequences, of the huge numbers of civilians killed and the even huger number of refugees fleeing to neighboring states, some of these only recently exiting from major instability or civil wars of their own (Ivory Coast, Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone). And, as is too well-known, the presence of large numbers of war refugees in an African state can only engender instability and very big problems—humanitarian, political—in that state. Secondly, once ensconced in Bamako—and after the inevitable bloodbath and destruction—there would be no getting Ansar Eddine and its Al-Qaida allies out of there. Bamako would become a Kabul circa 1998 (or perhaps 1992-96, when rival groups fought each other and destroyed the city in the process). Thirdly, it wouldn’t end there. A Mali turned into an Afghanistan circa 1996-2001—and with Al-Qaida in the saddle—would be a grave threat to its neighbors—most with weak states and armies no stronger than Mali’s—, particularly Guinea, Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso, the Ivory Coast, and, above all, Senegal. A domino effect is not to be excluded here, particularly in view of the increasing influence of Wahhabi-style Islam across west Africa, including in Senegal. But the threat would also extend to Europe and the US. If Senegal and Mauritania were to succumb in turn, Al-Qaida Islamists in league with Latin American drug cartels would be in control of the Atlantic coast of west Africa. The security threat to the West here is, I think, rather obvious. So, IMHO, the French decision to intervene was a no-brainer.
  • It is being said that everyone supports France’s Mali intervention—and which is backed up by UNSC resolutions and all that—but that the French are also on their own. Both are true. The EU, US, ECOWAS, African Union, and Arab states (most of them) are all supportive of the French, and the Russians and Chinese haven’t said a thing against (and why would they? as they hardly have an interest in Al-Qaida gaining a durable foothold in an African state). But France’s European Union allies are making it clear that their support of France will be moral and modest at most. And absolutely no boots on the ground. The Brits, burned by Iraq and Afghanistan, will offer light logistical support at most; the Germans, typically prudent, are giving the thumbs up but little more; Italy, forget it; and the Spaniards, terrified of terrorist attentats, even restricted French air force overfly rights on their territory over a four-day period, authorizing them on a case-by-case basis so reported Le Monde the other day. This is crazy, if not downright scandalous. To paraphrase a well-known Parisian islamologue pundit, France’s solitude in a conflict whose stakes concern all of Europe, and particularly its southern rim, voids the European Union of its very essence and meaning. Indeed.
  • As for the US, the Obama administration is supportive of the French and has offered logistical support—transporting soldiers and equipment in C17s, offering satellite intelligence, and now refueling tankers—but has been holding back (until today at least). So the Americans don’t want another Afghanistan. And, as it happened, the American engagement with the Malian army over the past four years, as the NYT reported two weeks ago, was a complete fiasco. But west Africa is a lot closer to the US than is Afghanistan and, for the reasons mentioned above, there are real security interests at stake, not to mention economic as well, as a radical Islamist Mali would inevitably send shock waves into Nigeria and strengthen Boko Haram and other fanatical Salafists there. And immigration from west Africa into the US has become significant over the past three decades, with a lot of movement back and forth. So there is no avoiding increased American support of the French intervention. Troops are out of the question, of course, but increased logistical support may be needed (i.e. drones).
  • The key regional actor, obviously, is Algeria. Algeria’s game in Mali over the past year—which the well-informed blogger Andy Morgan, writing last July, called “masterful”—is well known (of trying to split Ansar Eddine—Malian Tuareg Islamist fanatics, with whom one may presumably deal—from AQIM/MUJWA—transnational terrorist jihadist fanatics, with whom one may absolutely not deal). (BTW, see Andy Morgan’s other posts on Mali and the Sahel; they are very interesting). The Algerians decreed northern Mali to be their chasse gardée and told France and everyone else to either fall in line behind their diplomatic strategy or butt out. The Algerians were being a pain in the rear, as can be their wont, but were defending their interests (at least as the Algerian military defined them). But Algeria’s game blew up in its face with the Ansar Eddine/AQIM/MUJWA offensive of 2½ weeks ago. The alacrity with which the Algerians allowed the French air force overfly rights was striking. Given Algeria’s relationship with France—which may be mildly characterized as neurotic—and its psychosis over its sacrosanct sovereignty, this was amazing indeed. Lucid Algerian analysts have favored the move (overtly or implicitly)—e.g. journalists Omar Belhouchet, Akram Belkaïd, Kamel Daoud—but most Algerians are uncomfortable to shocked by the tacit alliance with France (though Algerian public opinion seems to have evolved somewhat since the hostage crisis at Tiguentourine). What is clear is that Algeria, however much it may have been part of the problem, is a necessary part of the solution. The Algerians are not going to openly send troops into northern Mali—and will certainly not be seen openly collaborating with the French—but unless Algeria wants to be “Pakistanized,” as Kamel Daoud put it, it will have to do all it can to seal its southern border and eradicate the jihadists down that way. So France, the US, and everyone will have to continue indulging the Algerian regime, and regardless of how it deals with hostage crises involving their citizens.
  • Mali has shown that it hardly has a functioning state and an even less of a functioning army. However one evaluates the presidency of ATT over the past decade—I’ve read contradictory arguments by specialists, some arguing that it was positive (that ATT was a visionary and a democrat), others negative (that ATT’s elections were less than free and fair and that his rule was heavy-handed)—, there is no denying Mali’s deliquescence. My faith in the argument that democracy could take root in poor countries suffered a blow with what has happened in Mali. One thing is for sure, though, which is that Mali is not a nation, never has been, never will be. The Tuareg are akin to the Iraqi Kurds: they want independence and absolutely not to be in the country of which they are a part. But as an independent Azawad, like an independent Kurdistan, is not going to happen—they’re landlocked and every bordering state is hostile to the prospect—, the only solution is autonomy or a confederal arrangement. Hardly an original thought on my part. At least there’s a prospective Tuareg partner for this, the MNLA, and that can retake the initiative if/when Ansar Eddine is brought to heel.
  • Critiques of the French intervention that excoriate French colonialism, neocolonialism, imperialism, the FrançAfrique blah blah are so stupid, asinine, idiotic, and utterly irrelevant that they do not merit a response. Some of these critiques have been penned by trendy leftist academics (e.g. here and here), others by nutty bloggers (e.g. here), who, until proof to the contrary, have no greater knowledge of or insight into Mali (or the history of French colonialism) than do I or any other halfway informed person. Other critiques of the same tenor issue from Arab (mainly Algerian) and African tiersmondiste intellos frozen in the 1970s and who operate in their own intellectual and political universe (for one prolific and representative case, see here). No point in responding to them. That thankless polemic may be assumed by their Arab/Algerian and/or African detractors (as, e.g. this Senegalese academic has done with that overrated bloviator Tariq Ramadan). (For those who haven’t been paying attention, the FrançAfrique and French neocolonialism are dead; a thing of the past; they’re over; finished).
  • Numerous, marginally less stupid critiques of the French intervention have insisted on the link between the jihadist takeover of northern Mali and the NATO Libya intervention, of the perverse effects of the latter and its engendering of the former. I wish to know if these critics of the Libya intervention warned loudly of the impact a collapse of the Qadhafi regime would have on Mali while the intervention was underway, i.e. in 2011—and if any insist that they did, I invite them to furnish documentary proof of their prescient warnings. But even if one or two of these brilliant Cassandras can do this, so what? (for my view of the Libya intervention, see here). Not every perverse effect can be anticipated when undertaking an urgent course of action and, in any case, the eventual impact on the Malian Tuaregs was hardly a clinching argument against ridding Libya and the world of the psychotic Qadhafi regime once that opportunity presented itself.
  • Yet other critiques have warned of France getting bogged down in an endless Afghanistan-like conflict and from which the lessons have not been learned, or so it is asserted (e.g. here). Retort: Mali is not Afghanistan (see below). The comparison is specious. And then there are critiques coming from within the French political class, e.g. the howler from Valéry Giscard d’Estaing evoking “neocolonialism”—the same Giscard who sent troops to Kolwezi and palled around with Emperor Bokassa—, or the neo-pacifist Dominique de Villepin warning against engrenages (quagmires) and wondering how France could have been infected with the “neoconservative virus” (whatever neoconservatism has to do with anything here), or of Jean-Luc Mélenchon deploring the fact that the parliament wasn’t consulted before the intervention (as if the French parliament is ever consulted on such matters, and particularly before they happen), or of UMP personalities (J-F Copé, L.Wauquiez etc) breaking with the union sacrée and criticizing Hollande because France is all alone in Mali and without its EU partners (these very same UMP personalities who uncritically supported every unilateral action of Sarkozy). Quite simply, any critique of the French intervention with a valid point or two but that is not policy relevant, that does not propose an alternative course of action, is worthless, in my book at least.
  • What is remarkable about the intervention is how French soldiers are being welcomed by the Malian people as saviors (the scènes de liesse in Gao today offering the latest spectacle). Given how unpopular and unloved the French are in their former African colonies, this is something indeed (in this respect, I challenge anyone to visit francophone Africa and ask people how they feel about France; one will not find many positive responses). Not even leftist/tiersmondiste detractors of the French will deny that the Malian people are greatly pleased and relieved by the French intervention.
  • It has almost gone without saying that the French are not only on their own in Mali—and that a Malian/ECOWAS fighting force to take over from them is illusory—but that the conflict against the heavily armed, well-trained, and highly motivated and fanaticized narco-jihadists will be a long one, and for which France lacks the men and resources. Maybe but I’m not convinced. As asserted above, Mali is not Afghanistan. Ansar Eddine is not the Taliban (not in numbers) and there is no Waziristan-like sanctuary. The narco-jihadist forces number in the thousands at most and though well-armed from Qadhafi’s arsenal, can only get around in pick-ups in the open desert, which is perfect terrain for air power and drones. The Tuaregs are not Pashtuns and northern Mali is not southern Afghanistan. And Ansar Eddine and its AQIM/MUJWA cohorts are not Qadhafi’s Libya and with its resources. They are also not fish in the water in the areas they have occupied. Au contraire, they rather manifestly appear to be hated by the population under their yoke. If Algeria, Niger, and Mauritania can effectively seal their borders, the narco-jihadists—bereft of gasoline to fuel their pick-ups and with reinforcements choked off—can well be asphyxiated. Some may retreat into the Adrar mountains. They can stay there (and where the Algerians could make discreet incursions to smoke them out). The French, despite limitations in manpower, will have the logistical support they need. And they have the Malian population behind them. If the MNLA can gain the upper hand among the Tuaregs—and with part of Ansar Eddine rallying to it—and make a deal with whoever is in power in Bamako—and brokered by the French—, the intervention could wind up successfully in a matter of months. Call me Pollyannaish but I think this is definitely in the realm of the possible.

Voilà my two cents. For others on the same page as mine, see David Rodhe’s defense of the French intervention in The Atlantic, Gregory Mann’s post in the Africa Is a Country blog—plus this one in The Guardian—, Jean-François Bayart’s in Le Monde, and this by François Heisbourg, also in Le Monde. This Timbuktu Who’s Who from last July is also useful. À suivre.

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mali-carte-14ejour_0

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Following from my last post, I just read another (somewhat) Egypt-related article, this one a review essay in the August-September 2012 issue of Policy Review of Ian Johnson‘s A Mosque in Munich: Nazis, the CIA, and the Rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in the West, a book that purports to reveal an apparent US collusion with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood going back to the 1950s, specifically a covert relationship between the CIA and Said Ramadan, MB founder Hassan al-Banna’s son-in-law and spiritual heir—and father of Tariq Ramadan—, who lived in exile in West Germany, then Switzerland, from the mid 1950s on. The notion that the US has long supported Islamist movements across the Muslim world has been out there since the 1980s and fervently believed by many—and fueled by the misconstrued, misunderstood US support of the Afghan “freedom fighters” against the Soviet Union—but there has never been anything to it (e.g. it has been widely believed by secular Algerians—and more than a few French observers—that the US supported the FIS and its successors during that country’s tumultuous political conjuncture in the 1990s; the notion is pure fantasy, a complete figment of some collective imagination and which I have argued against for decades, but there is no refuting it for those who believe it dur comme fer). That the US could have actively cultivated the Egyptian MB, and at any point along the way, has never made sense to me. So I was skeptical of Johnson’s thesis—summarized here in the NYRB—, needless to say, but was willing to give it a look, so I got hold of a copy and read it en diagonale. Not convinced.

Reading John Rosenthal’s Policy Review essay confirmed my assessment. Rosenthal, who writes on security issues and is a German-speaker—thereby enabling him to look at Johnson’s original source material plus others—, pronounced Johnson’s supposed revelation of a CIA-Said Ramadan collaboration to be without foundation, that Johnson in no way proves it in his book. In his essay Rosenthal refers extensively to a book published in Germany (as yet untranslated into English) shortly after Johnson’s and on precisely the same subject, A Mosque in Germany: Nazis, Secret Services, and the Rise of Political Islam in the West, by Stefan Meining. This work, which carries more extensive documentation from American and German archives than does Johnson’s, comes up with no evidence pointing to a US-MB collusion. So for me at least, Rosenthal’s essay settles the issue.

What Meining’s book does do, as Rosenthal explicates, is document some of the liaisons dangereuses between German intelligence and Islamist movements over the decades—continuing from the extensive Nazi collaboration with Muslims during WWII (Haj Amin al-Husseini, the recruitment of Bosniaks and anti-Soviet Muslims from the Caucasus and Central Asia into the Wehrmacht and Waffen SS, etc)—, and of a general German complaisance toward Islamists. So if one is looking for covert Western collusion with the MB & Co., look to Bonn and Berlin, not Washington.

Eine Moschee in Deutschland

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