Adam Shatz, contributing editor at the London Review of Books and visiting professor at the Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at New York University—and dear personal friend—, has a must read essay/personal reflection in the latest issue of The Nation (dated August 4th) inspired by his fifteen-odd years of reporting on the Middle East and North Africa. The essay is a revised version of the Hilda B. Silverman Memorial Lecture, at Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies, that Adam gave this past May, and which he fraternally sent me for comments beforehand. It’s typically excellent. As for watching the lecture—as the above image indicates one may do—this will apparently be possible sometime this fall.
Archive for the ‘Maghreb’ Category
This is a continuation of my post of three days ago, on Franco-Algerians and issues of identity, which I put up before saying everything I wanted to say on the subject. Three more comments. First, when pondering—and dreading—a hypothetical France-Algeria World Cup quarterfinal—which thankfully did not come to pass—, one immediately thinks of the October 6, 2001, France-Algeria friendly de funeste mémoire, before a packed Stade de France in Saint-Denis, the first time the two national teams had met for a friendly match and in France (the one previous meeting between national soccer teams of the two was the 1975 Mediterranean Games final in Algiers—and which was won by Algeria). The game’s advance billing presented it as a beautiful—and heavily symbolic—moment of Franco-Algerian friendship and reconciliation, so numerous politicians and other public personalities were present at the stadium, including Prime Minister Lionel Jospin. Minister of Youth and Sports—and the then PCF Secretary-General—Marie-George Buffet had the brilliant—or, one should say, “brilliant”—idea to distribute free tickets for the game to thousands of young people of Algerian parentage in the surrounding, heavily immigrant populated banlieues (Saint-Denis being in the heart of the neuf-trois). A lovely gesture, or so she thought. The stadium was a sea of Algerian flags. When Les Bleus—the celebrated black-blanc-beur team that had won the World Cup three years earlier—entered, they were booed. And when the national anthems were played, La Marseillaise was likewise booed. And loudly. Throughout the game, whenever a French player took the ball, he was booed—even national hero Zineddine Zidane, and normally beloved by young Franco-Algerians—and with the Algerian players loudly cheered. And then at the 76th minute, with France leading 4-1, youthful spectators invaded the field. It was pandemonium (watch here, from 6:50). The game had to be called and with the players quickly exiting to the locker room.
What was to have been a beautiful moment symbolizing the friendship between the two countries turned into a fiasco. Jospin, Buffet, and the other VIPs were like statues during the game—their faces frozen—whenever the TV camera panned to them (and Mme Buffet was hit by a projectile). I watched the whole thing with my wife and we were speechless. And stunned, as was everyone we knew—including all the Algerians and other Maghrebis—who watched the game. And the reaction was likewise across the board in France. French society was blindsided by the spectacle, of tens of thousands of young French citizens—or citizens-to-be—booing France and the symbols—flag and anthem—of the French nation. It led the news the next day, was the headline in all the papers, and the cover story in the weekly news magazines, with analyses, tribunes, and debates as to the meaning of what had happened and how to interpret the manifest alienation from French society of a portion of the younger generation of Algerian immigrant origin. As the Front National was at an electoral low point at the time, there wasn’t much demagoguery from politicians over the event. Mainly shock and disorientation. The most sober reaction came from the Über-republican patriot Jean-Pierre Chevènement, who spoke of how saddened he was by the spectacle and what he interpreted as the failure of the Republic to integrate young Franco-Algerians.
The most virulent reaction, as it happened, came from Algeria, with the press there unanimously denouncing the youthful Franco-Algerians at the Stade de France, whose comportment disgraced Algeria and Algerians in France, so the Algerian press asserted. Algerians in Algeria spared their brethren in France no quarter. And the adults in France’s Algerian population felt likewise.
The fallout from the game was long-lasting. It was not forgotten. In debates over post-colonial immigrant integration, there was a before and after October 2001. A France-Algeria match today—and a high stakes one at that—would certainly see similar type behavior from young Franco-Algerians. But there would be fewer soul-searching reactions à la Chevènement from politicians. In view of the current electoral strength of the FN, the surge of the hard right-wing of the UMP—thanks to Nicolas Sarkozy and Jean-François Copé—, and the Internet réacosphère (with countless right-wing blogs and reactionary websites, e.g. Valeurs Actuelles), the political récupération and exploitation would be terrible. The well would be poisoned big time. As I have said, France does not need this.
A second comment, and to put things in perspective: Except when playing Algeria—or Morocco or Tunisia—the French national team is actively supported by young Franco-Algerians/Maghrebis. In the wild celebrations that followed France’s 1998 World Cup victory over Brazil, young Franco-Maghrebis were out in force—and marking the French victory by waving Algerian, Moroccan, and Tunisian flags (which I was able to observe, having been out and about on that glorious July night). Again, hybrid/multiple identities issuing from post-colonial immigration.
Third comment. On the phenomenon and significance of waving flags of former French colonies at events in France—including political rallies—see the guest post on this blog by sociologist (and personal friend) Didier Le Saout dated May 7, 2012, in which he analyses “les drapeaux étrangers et le débat de l’intégration des populations étrangères dans la société française” (scroll to nº2; see also my exchange on this with a conservative American who commented on the blog).
Political scientist and Algeria specialist Thomas Serres has a pertinent article (June 29th) on the webzine Jadaliyya, “From the World Cup to the ‘Great Replacement’: Football and Racist Narratives in France.”
On Team USA’s elimination by Belgium last Tuesday, I have nothing in particular to say about it except too bad, better luck in 2018, and Tim Howard was awesome. Everyone is remarking on the upsurge of interest in the World Cup in the US, with statistics published in WaPo “[proving that] Americans care more about soccer than you think.” And in case one missed it, the NYT’s Sam Borden had a good piece after the Belgium game, “Wild ride by U.S. comes to end, but soccer is the winner.” On the engouement for soccer in the US
World Cups have been growing in popularity among Americans for some time, but this tournament has felt different. Explanations for the surge vary, with some pointing to Brazil’s time zone being favorable for American viewers, especially compared to South Africa four years ago. Others say soccer’s spike is simply the result of a growing Hispanic population in the United States as well as the inevitable aging of Millenials. A great number of soccer-loving children have now become consumer adults.
“These are all young people who grew up with the game, whether it be the English Premier League or Major League Soccer, and they don’t need to be convinced that soccer is a sport that is worthy of their attention,” said Don Garber, the commissioner of M.L.S. “The country has changed. This is a new America.”
Statistics seem to support that claim. Fourteen percent of people between the ages of 12 and 24 said professional soccer was their favorite sport, second only to the N.F.L., according to Rich Luker, who runs a sports research firm. That means a greater number of fans are more likely to continue following the sport even when the pageantry of the World Cup is over.
Millennials are not just knowledgeable about the Premier League and MLS but have grown up playing the game—which was not the case in my generation (and certainly not among boys in the Midwest). And, as Ann Coulter and other soccer denigrators—of which I was one until two decades ago—surely know, those Americans who play soccer and/or follow it are mainly middle and upper-middle class and include many from Republican families (and whose grandparents were born in the US…).
Hypothesis: One reason Ann Coulter and her ideological ilk are suspicious of soccer—apart from the fact that they didn’t grow up with it—is that an interest in the sport necessarily and positively engages one with the rest of the world, and particularly Europe. One cannot follow soccer without an on-going knowledge of—and respect for—the major European leagues—and which will be superior to MLS for a long time to come. One cannot be a soccer fan and America-centric.
I like these pics of “fanatical ‘gringo’ fans suffering defeat in the round of 16,” on a Venezuelan website I stumbled across.
Hypothesis: Ann Coulter and ilk also dislike the rise of soccer in the US because it is a team sport in which Americans are not the best and where the US national team will inevitably lose to some European or Latin American country, that Americans will have to get used to defeat—as do all other countries, including Brazil—, but that it’s not a big deal. The playing field will always be level.
Assertion: Ann Coulter and ilk will just have to get used to their fellow Americans liking soccer. There’s not a thing they can do about it.
This post is a couple of days late. First of all, here’s a post by poet and essayist Charles Simic on the NYR Blog (July 2nd), “Confessions of a Soccer Addict,” that I can relate to. Now I am not nearly as much of a soccer addict as Simic, as I only follow international tournaments—World Cup and European nations championships, and France’s qualifiers for these (and only since the mid 1990s)—and have not watched every last game of this tournament, but have still been caught up in it. Every two (even) years in June-early July, I become obsessed with international soccer. And once it’s over I move on to other things.
But this one’s not yet over, with the quarterfinals tomorrow and Saturday. In round 16 I was particularly focused on the games with France, Algeria, and the USA. Not much to say about France-Nigeria other than the Nigerian Super Eagles played a good game—their players are all with top flight clubs in Europe—and Les Bleus weren’t too reassuring for the first two-thirds of it, but they got it together in the final 20 minutes and deservedly won. I am not pessimistic for their chances against Germany.
As for Algeria’s Fennecs, they went out against Germany les têtes hautes, which is just as it should have been. As I wrote in the last post, I was thrilled by Algeria’s draw against Russia and qualification for round 16 but did not want Les Fennecs to defeat Germany, as this would have set up an Algeria-France quarterfinal—assuming, of course, that France beat Nigeria, as expected—, which was to be avoided at all costs. Living in France, my dread of an Algeria-France QF seemed to require no explanation—it went without saying—but then a friend asked me this question on FB after the Algeria-Germany game ended (with the German victory but Algeria valiantly attacking to the very end):
Arun, what was the political and social fall-out that we just dodged by avoiding a France-Algeria quarter-final? What in your view would have happened?
Response: I cannot say concretely what would have happened but such a match would put a few million Franco-Algerians in France in the position—uncomfortable for some, less so for others—of having to root for Algeria against France and, in the event of an Algerian victory, publicly celebrating France’s defeat on the streets of French cities, and in the event of Algeria’s defeat, being disappointed at France’s victory—and these are people who would otherwise be cheering for France if Algeria weren’t involved. The reaction in the larger French society would naturally be very negative, Marine Le Pen & Co. would make a huge deal about it, and would further poison what in America is referred to as “race relations,” which does not need any more poisoning in France right now. The Franco-Algerian relationship—a relationship with a long colonial history and bitter war of independence, for which there is no equivalent in American history—does not need this. It would generate a nasty political polemic—about immigrant integration (or the presumed lack of it)—, increased anti-immigration rhetoric within the parliamentary right and with calls for a revision of French nationality law (e.g. suppressing dual nationality), foster bad feelings all around, and which would not be quickly forgotten. Such an Algeria-France match would not be a big deal between Algeria and France or in any way affect state-to-state relations between the two countries; it would strictly be an affair of Algerian-origin French citizens.
We’re dealing here with multiple/hybrid ethnic identities clashing head on. Americans have little to no experience with this, as clashing identities are played out mainly in international team sports competition, and American sports do not have major international tournaments (and with American football having none at all). The only time (some) Americans have witnessed this is in USMNT soccer games with Mexico played in the United States, where stadiums—except in Columbus, Ohio—are invested by spectators cheering for Mexico, waving Mexican flags, and booing the US. But as most Americans don’t pay attention to soccer, most are not aware of this—and it is not clear what proportion of those fans are Mexican-Americans or simply Mexicans living in the US (or travelling to the US for the game).
In France, those cheering the Algerian team are, in their majority, citizens of France and with most of the younger ones having been born and raised in the country. That they support the Algerian national is only normal, as their parents are Algerian and Algeria is a part of their identity. Anecdote: I watched the Algeria-South Korea game on June 22nd chez a friend, who is Algerian naturalized French, in his mid 40s, came to France in his 20s for university, has an Algerian wife, is middle class—works in the private sector, as does his wife—, is thoroughly integrated into French society, with house in the suburbs (not far from Disneyland), and all. Moreover, he is a card-carrying member of one of the major French political parties and was a candidate in the last municipal elections in his town. His 13-year-old son—born and raised in middle class suburban Paris—, who is very knowledgeable about soccer, was, of course, all for Algeria. I asked him who he’d be for if Algeria played France. His response (I’m paraphrasing here and the exchange was obviously in French): “Uh, I’d be for Algeria.” Me: “But you’re French and live in France!” Him: “Yes, but I’m Algerian.” Me: “But you’re French too.” Him: “Bah, oui.” Me: “Are you for the Les Bleus too?” Him: “Bien sûr.” Me: “So?” Him: “Je ne sais pas. C’est comme ça. Je suis pour l’Algérie.” Okay, he’s a kid, but there are hundreds of thousands of kids like him in France, or young adults who were kids not too long ago (and not just Algerian but other immigrant origin too). And in all of the French national team’s games—except with Algeria—he will be loudly cheering for France.
Complex this issue. I’ll continue with it in the next post. And will discuss the US too.
I was absolutely thrilled by Algeria’s qualification for the knockout phase on Thursday night. For the anecdote, I watched the second half of the game in a bar in Bayeux, managing to persuade the barman and sympathique table of Belgian fans—wearing goofy caps with horns and Belgian flags painted on their cheeks—that the Algeria-Russia match was more interesting and with greater stakes than Belgium-South Korea—being played simultaneously—, as Belgium was going to round 16 anyway, so they agreed to flip the channel. I also informed the French in the bar that they should be for Algeria, as the majority of Algerian players are, in fact, Franco-Algerian dual nationals from France, so the Algerian national team may also be seen as the French B team… At the end of the Algeria-Russia game the Belgians all applauded the Algerian qualification and a couple of the French gave me the high five. Sympa….
The Algeria qualification was a lead story in the French media yesterday morning, with the explosion of joy by Franco-Algerians across the country after the game (pics here), acting like Les Verts had won the World Cup final. But not everyone in France is happy about it, or at least for the same reasons. There was the expected bad humor from the extreme right (FN etc), who predictably focused on incidents of vandalism and torching of cars in various cities during the celebrations (which has been going on in this country for over three decades; it’s a permanent phenomenon; it always happens when there’s a pretext for lumpen youths to do so; so what point is one trying to make in fixating on it?). And then there were reactions from non-extreme right commentators, e.g. Le Figaro’s nitwit editorialist Ivan Rioufol, who asserted that “le patriotisme algérien en France révèle l’échec de l’assimilation.” Quel con. Monsieur Rioufol—as with so many others on the right (and some on the left as well) who opine on the subject—has zero understanding of the immigrant experience—in all immigrant populations in France and everywhere in the world, present and past—and the multiple or hybrid identities that ensue from this. And when it comes to Algerians and other post-colonial immigrant-origin populations in France, there is also a considerable mauvaise foi in Rioufol & Co.’s attitude.
To illustrate this, I will recount an exchange I had with a student (French) on precisely November 20th last fall, in one of the Master’s level courses I teach at the Catholic University here. It was the day after the French national team’s stunning victory against Ukraine, that (unexpectedly) qualified Les Bleus for the World Cup tournament in Brazil, and with the game happening at the same moment as the Algeria-Burkina Faso playoff—which Algeria won, thereby earning the ticket to Brazil as well. And, as it happened, Portugal also qualified for Brazil that evening, winning its playoff against Sweden. So there were celebrations on the Champs-Elysées that night after the games, of fans of all three winning teams waving flags of the three countries. My very right-wing student—who was not FN but not far from it; and, as I learned, had been an activist in the anti-gay marriage movement several months earlier—brought up the incidents of vandalism and arson (hugely exaggerated by hard right websites) and expressed indignation at the waving of Algerian flags by youths who were certainly born and raised in France. I responded to this by asking him about all the Portuguese-French fans who waved Portuguese flags during the celebration, adding that in my banlieue—where there is a significant Portuguese community—Portuguese flags hang from windows when the Portuguese national team plays a game, and that when it’s Portugal vs. France—as happened in the semifinal in both the Euro 2000 and 2006 World Cup—, these fans root for Portugal against France, and that this includes members of the second generation, who are full French citizens, so what does he have to say about that? The student’s response: “Ah, but that’s not the same thing…” Me: “Oh, really? So it’s okay for a French citizen of Portuguese parentage to wave a Portuguese flag but not okay for a French citizen of Algerian origin to wave an Algerian flag? Please explain.” The student: “Behind the Algerian flag are revendications…” Me (surprised): “Revendications? What revendications?” The student would not or could not say. And he clearly did not want to continue the exchange. I invited him to elaborate on what he said in a future class, to do a short presentation on it, which we would then discuss as a class, but he manifestly wasn’t interested in my proposition.
Total French right-wing mauvaise foi. And on this, I don’t imagine I would have received a more elaborate or sophisticated response from Ivan Rioufol. The French right has a problem with the presence of Muslims in France and doesn’t know how to think about Algeria, Algerians, or the Algerian war—or about France’s colonial past more generally. And this mentality is clearly being transmitted down the generations, at least in the more politicized portion of the hard right.
As it happens, the CRIF saw fit to publish Rioufol’s commentary on its website. This is lamentable. What point does the CRIF wish to make here? Rhetorical question: If Israel had qualified for the World Cup, finished in the top two in its group, and thereby proceeded to the knockout phase, would not there not be celebrations by French Jews and who would proudly wave the Israeli flag? Poser la question c’est y répondre…
What on earth is wrong with individuals having multiple or hybrid national identities? What’s the big deal? E.g. the big pro-Israel march in Paris on April 7, 2002 (along Bd Voltaire, from République to Nation)—which I attended as a spectator—, was a sea of French and Israeli flags (and in equal proportion). Absolutely no one in the French political or media mainstream expressed disapproval of this display of multiple national identities on the part of the marchers—and whose ranks included high-profile politicians from the right, center, and left, who came to express solidarity with the Jewish community and Israel at the height of second Intifada (those I remember seeing: Alain Madelin, Claude Goasguen, Pierre Lellouche, François Bayrou, Corinne Lepage, Jean-Marie Le Guen, Julian Dray). Rhetorical question: So if it’s okay for Jews, why not for Muslims too?
Nouvel Obs columnist Bruno Roger-Petit has a fine commentary (June 27th) on the celebrations following the Algeria-Russia game, which he says were “un formidable pied de nez aux réacs.” And Laurent Dubois had an equally fine essay in January (which I just read, h/t Muriam HD) on the Roads & Kingdoms blog, “Afro-Europe in the World Cup.”
Though I’m pleased that Algeria has qualified for round 16, I will not be rooting for Les Verts to beat Germany on Monday, as this will—assuming that France defeats Nigeria in that day’s earlier match-up—set up an Algeria-France quarterfinal, which is to be avoided at all costs, not because of what will happen on the field but off it—in the cities and banlieues of France. The hybrid/multiple identities will brutally clash and with a certain deleterious political fallout. An Algeria-France World Cup match is not in the higher interests of the French polity or French society. So Algeria needs to lose to Germany with honor, allowing for a (logical) France-Germany face-off in the quarterfinal.
I was also pleased with the outcome of the Germany-USA game on Thursday—which I watched at the aforementioned Bayeux bar earlier in the evening, packed with Americans—plus that of Ghana-Portugal, thereby allowing Team USA to proceed to the knockout phase and in second place. Had the Americans defeated Germany to finish first in the group, this would have set up an eventual France-USA quarterfinal—and with me being for France against the USA, a position I would rather not find myself in. So now Team USA will face off against the Belgian Red Devils on Tuesday. I will be favoring the former.
After the game I saw a “commentary” by the wacky right-wing bloviator-entertainer Ann Coulter, in which she says that “growing interest in soccer a sign of nation’s moral decay.” It reads like a parody of an Ann Coulter column. Numerous Facebook friends posted it and with indignant comments but I thought it was hilarious, as it’s so wildly over-the-top that it can’t be serious. Ms. Coulter cannot possibly believe what she’s saying. It has to be tongue-in-cheek: click bait written with the expressed purpose of getting liberals all worked up and talking about her. But there is, of course, the possibility that the unhinged Coulter is 100% serious and is seriously throwing red meat to her numerous right-wing fans. If so, the intellectual depravity of the American right is even worse than I thought.
Team USA played one great game last night! Too bad about the Portuguese goal in the final seconds, as the Americans deserved to win it. Everyone was impressed with their performance, which is to say, my friends—Facebook and those who sent me text messages when it was over (1:50 am local time)—and the French commentators on beIN Sports. The USA is now definitely in the elite of international soccer. And they have the respect to go with it. Such has, in fact, been the case with sports commentators in France since the 2002 World Cup, when Team USA went to the quarterfinals. I distinctly remember one of the TV announcers back then exclaiming, in regard to Team USA’s soccer style, “J’adore ces Américains!” And another approvingly observing that the reason the Americans had upped their game was that they were now “playing like Europeans”: with “opportunism” and “cynicism”…
And then there was this commentary by Aimé Jacquet, the beloved coach of France’s 1998 World Cup team, in Le Monde dated June 22, 2002 (he had a column in Le Monde’s daily World Cup supplement during the tournament that year)
Dans chaque Coupe du monde, il y a des révélations. Cette 17e édition n’échappe pas à la règle, et bouleverse même de façon extraordinaire un ordre peut-être trop vite établi. La participations aux quarts de finale de la Turquie, du Sénégal, mais surtout des Etats-Unis et de la Corée du Sud, confirme que le fossé entre les «petits» et les «grands» n’existe plus. Pas plus qu’un complexe dont souffriraient ces nations qualifiées d’inférieures.
Pour autant, ne tirons pas de conclusions hâtives: les Etats-Unis ne sont pas devenus un plus grand pays de football que l’Italie, par exemple. La vérité de ce Mondial asiatique n’est qu’une photographie du moment. Pour ma part, je ne peux que me réjouir du parcours de ces quatre équipes. Il est indispensable, pour que le football reste vivant et attractif, d’assister à cette petite révolution. (…)
… Pour moi, [les Etats-Unis] ont réussi un coup. Pour commencer, une victoire (3-2) face au Portugal, l’un des favoris de la compétition. Après ce déclic, un nul face à une Corée malheureuse ce jour-là, avant de trébucher lourdement face à la Pologne, pourtant dernière du groupe. Leur succès en huitièmes de finale, face au Mexique peu inspiré, est leur deuxième coup. Cette équipe s’appuie sur sa force athlétique et s’applique méthodiquement à empêcher l’adversaire de jouer. De plus, les hommes de Bruce Arena bénéficient d’une réussite maximale devant le but et les deux attaquants Landon Donovan et Brian McBride font preuve d’un opportunisme tout à fait étonnant.
Ces quatre formations ne doivent leur bon parcours qu’à elles-mêmes. Elles ont eu le mérite d’être présentes dès le premier jour. Le Sénégal, les Etats-Unis, ont en commun d’avoir battu d’entrée deux grosses cylindrées, respectivement la France et le Portugal. Pour son entrée, la Turquie a fait jeu égal avec le Brésil et n’a été battue que par le talent des individualités sud-américaines. Une entame qui a placé les joueurs dans des conditions psychologiques idéales. Enfin, si la Turquie, la Corée du Sud, les Etats-Unis et le Sénégal en sont là, c’est que, à la grande différence des grandes nations européennes, elles ne sont pas aspirées par les compétitions. Au contraire, elles n’aspirent qu’à en disputer.
One of the nice things about the American team is that they’re sympathique. They play collectively and don’t flop, dive, or act like assholes on the field. In the USA victory over Mexico in the 2002 round 16, the Mexican players behaved so odiously—as if they could not bear the prospect of losing to the Americans—that we were extra satisfied that they did indeed lose. And in the 2006 group game against Italy—which ended in a tie—, those chez moi who were watching—and which included a militant in an extreme left party—started out for Italy but by the second half were cheering for Team USA, as the Italians were such assholes. And the Portuguese last night were hardly sympa. So good for Team USA. Here’s hoping they go to at least the quarterfinals, if not the semis.
But I do hope they don’t beat Germany on Thursday and finish first in Group G, as that will set up an eventual France-USA in the quarterfinals, which I absolutely do not want. Let Thursday’s game end in a tie, so USA takes second.
John Cassidy has a post up (June 23rd) on The New Yorker web site, “The day America fell in love with the World Cup.”
And then there was yesterday’s Algeria-South Korea, which I watched with some ten enthusiastic (understatement) Algeria fans. Great to see Les Fennecs finally win a World Cup game—and decisively—after their unfortunate experience in 1982. Now the Algerian nation can finally put that one that behind it and move on.
In view of the insipid Belgium-Russia match (zzzzzzzz), one cannot exclude a first place Algerian finish in Group H. On verra jeudi.
For those interested in Algeria, Francis Ghilès, who has been reporting from and writing on North Africa for several decades, has a great essay of this title (dated April 16th) in OpenDemocracy. The lede: “Algeria’s circles of power and their relationship to a complex society and history are hard to grasp. Francis Ghilès describes his own route to understanding the country in the post-independence era, when the heavy legacy of the past mixed with the confident idealism of the present.” Ghilès recounts personal stories from the 1970s and ’80s, and which resonated with me, as I know that period of Algerian history rather well, having lived in Algiers (late ’80s-early ’90s) and written a doctoral thesis on the country’s post-independence politics. Lots of good anecdotes and information in Ghilès’s piece. I particularly like this passage
The “third worldism” of the 1960s and 1970s seems lost in time today – hence the difficulty of recreating the atmosphere of the Algiers I got to know after 1975. European left-wing intellectuals projected their ideals onto the seemingly virgin lands of the newly independent, less developed nations – foremost among them (if not alone) China, Cuba and Algeria. A few decades earlier, the European left’s predecessors had celebrated colonial expeditions in the name of universalism and as a prerequisite to the third-world’s own development…
After 1962, Algeria enjoyed immense prestige – second only to Vietnam in the third-worldist historiography of sacrifice – owing to the ability of its poorly armed and ill-trained guerrillas to frustrate one of the world’s major military powers. It also played a leading role in calling for a new world economic order. Thousands of European revolutionaries flocked to the country, their own anti-colonial attitudes making them feel entitled to judge and even to formulate Algeria’s national policy. When I met some of these people in Algeria in 1975-78, they quickly struck me as half-tragic, half-absurd – and at times half-farcical. Their hosts nicknamed them pieds rouge – a cruel label indeed, since the pieds noirs designated former French settlers in Algeria who had been the most steadfast defenders of colonial rule.
One could say much the same—and then some—about a lot of the Western solidarity activists in the West Bank-Gaza (the subject of a future post). The story about the journalist Malika Abdelaziz’s relationship with Eldridge Cleaver was new to me (on the Black Panthers’s Algeria period, see my blog post from last June). I never had the opportunity to meet Mme Abdelaziz but read just about every article she published in Algérie-Actualité from the late ’70s to the early ’90s. She was one of Algeria’s best journalists of that time, hands down (and there were quite a few good ones back then).
BTW, I had intended to write an instant analysis of Algeria’s presidential election farce of two weeks ago but didn’t get around to it. Or, rather, I couldn’t bring myself to. I do have something to say about it, of what Abdelaziz Bouteflika continuing on as president—despite his physical and mental incapacity—tells us about the functioning of power in Algeria. I’ll write about it at some point.
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!
[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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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 critics—describe 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).
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.
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.
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.