Archive for the ‘Africa’ Category

Mory Kante, R.I.P.

I know that AWAV is coming to look like an obituary page these days but when someone noteworthy passes away—worthy of note for me at least—I have to make mention of it. The latest is this great Guinean singer, who died today in Conakry at age 70 (not of Covid-19, though the pandemic’s travel restrictions did prevent him from traveling to France to seek treatment for a chronic condition). I was turned on to Mory Kante in the early ’90s by a friend, who made a play list cassette of his songs for me—for which I am eternally grateful to her—which I’ve listened to countless times—particularly in the car on trips (my wife is also a fan) plus at my wedding party. His best known hit was, of course, ‘Yé ké yé ké’. What a great, fantastic, totally excellent song!

I spent a week in Conakry in 2000. Great music scene there, with more music on the streets—from stores and cars—than other African cities I’ve visited.

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Johnny Clegg, R.I.P.

He died today. He was the “White Zulu.” His 1987 ‘Asimbonanga’—a tribute to Nelson Mandela, then imprisoned on Robben Island—is being posted by all and sundry on social media. It’s a beautiful song (here). Also ‘Scaterlings of Africa’ (here).

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[update below] [2nd update below]

Emmanuel Macron gave a powerful speech last Sunday, on the 75th anniversary of the Rafle du Vél’ d’Hiv, in which—following François Hollande’s equally powerful speech of 2012—he reaffirmed the responsibility of the French state in one of the greatest crimes committed on French soil on a single day in the modern era. Macron’s words were, among other things, a pointed jab at Marine Le Pen, who, in the final phase of the presidential campaign, mouthed the now thoroughly discredited notion that the French state bore no responsibility for the roundup of Jews in France during the German occupation—and which was astonishingly repeated by Jean-Luc Mélenchon—and to his discredit—in an anti-Macron broadside after the event.

Macron’s otherwise excellent speech did, however, contain one sentence—a single word, in fact—that has caused a storm of indignation and polemics on social media—and biting critiques by gauchistes and other tiersmondistes—which was the equating of anti-Zionism with antisemitism: “Alors oui, nous ne céderons rien aux messages de haine, nous ne céderons rien à l’antisionisme car il est la forme réinventée de l’antisémitisme” [emphasis on the definite article “la”]. (N.B. The official English translation of Macron’s speech does not accurately translate the phrase in question.)

Now it is incontestable that “Zionist” has become a code word for “Jew” on the far right and the gauche rouge-brune, not to mention among Arabs, Muslims, and all sorts of other people, and that those who use it as such are indeed antisemites. Ça va de soi. À propos, the Irish Marxist writer-militant Richard Seymour had a well-informed essay in the très gauchiste Jacobin webzine, dated August 8th 2014, on “The anti-Zionism of fools,” in which he wrote that “[h]owever distorted and exaggerated, antisemitism [cloaked as anti-Zionism] is a real current in France that needs to be confronted.” But to assert—as Macron appeared to do—that everyone who calls him/herself an anti-Zionist is ipso facto a Jew-hater is not only empirically false but dangerous. It is also bullshit.

Zionism needs to be defined, of course, and what it means to be opposed to it. The fact is, many, if not most, people out there who casually say they’re anti-Zionist don’t actually know what Zionism is. If the question is put to them—and I have done so on numerous occasions over the years, particularly to Maghrebi friends—the response is usually framed as opposition to the occupation and all the bad things Israel does. The understanding of the term is, to put it mildly, not informed.

As for what Zionism does in fact mean, the Israeli writer A.B. Yehoshua offered, in a 2013 tribune in Haaretz, a succinct definition

A Zionist is a person who [prior to 1948] desires or supports the establishment of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel, which in the future will become the state of the Jewish people. This is based on what Herzl said: “In Basel I founded the Jewish state.”

The key word in this definition is “state,” and its natural location is the Land of Israel because of the Jewish people’s historical link to it. (…)

A Zionist, therefore, is a Jew who supported the establishment of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel, and not necessarily one who actually settled in the land. Herzl himself and many Zionist leaders never settled in the land, yet you wouldn’t hesitate to call them Zionists.

Yehoshua specifies

Zionism is not an ideology. If the definition of ideology, according to the Hebrew Encyclopedia, is as follows − “A cohesive, systematic combination of ideas, insights, principles and imperatives that finds expression in the particular worldview of a sect, a party or a social class” − then Zionism cannot be considered an ideology, but merely a very broad platform for various ideologies that may even contradict one another.

Ever since the State of Israel was founded in 1948, the definition of “Zionist” has been revised, since we don’t need to establish another state. Therefore, its definition is as follows: A Zionist is a person who accepts the principle that the State of Israel doesn’t belong solely to its citizens, but to the entire Jewish people. The practical expression of this commitment is the Law of Return. (…)

According to Yehoshua’s definition of what it means to be a “Zionist” today—to which I have no particular objection—a certain number of Jews themselves—American, French, etc, who are, for the most part, on the left—would have to call themselves anti-Zionists, as they do not consider that Israel belongs to them—at least any more than it should to a diaspora Palestinian—that Israel should indeed belong only to its citizens, but which includes the 20% of the Israeli population that is not Jewish. The suggestion that a Jew—or, say, a Palestinian citizen of Israel—who feels strongly that Israel should be a state only for its actual citizens—with all enjoying exactly the same rights and duties, regardless of confession—is, ipso facto, an antisemite is not only preposterous but also libelous. This kind of demagogic accusation only discredits the person making it.

The journalist Sylvain Cypel—formerly of Le Monde and who lived in Israel for most of his formative years, including university—has a pointed response to Macron in the Orient XXI webzine, “Non, l’antisionisme n’est pas un antisémitisme réinventé.” The key passage:

Quant au fond, l’assimilation de l’antisionisme à une nouvelle mouture de l’antisémitisme est une erreur funeste. Cette assertion est l’une des clefs de voûte depuis des décennies de la hasbara, la communication israélienne. Et plus Israël s’enfonce dans la domination coloniale d’un autre peuple, les Palestiniens, plus l’assertion «antisionisme égal antisémitisme» est répétée pour stigmatiser quiconque critique cette domination.

En soi, la méthode consistant à délégitimer la critique en démonisant son auteur est vieille comme la politique. Ainsi Joseph Staline et ses émules assimilaient-ils toute critique du communisme soviétique à du «fascisme». Si les fascistes étaient viscéralement anticommunistes, cela ne faisait pas de tous les contempteurs du régime soviétique des fascistes. Mais les staliniens continuaient à vilipender leurs adversaires, sans distinction, sous ce vocable infamant. Aujourd’hui, un Robert Mugabe, au Zimbabwe, qualifie régulièrement ses adversaires de «défenseurs de l’apartheid». Que des racistes patentés figurent parmi les dénonciateurs de l’autocrate zimbabwéen est évident. Mais que tous soient des nostalgiques de la ségrégation raciale est une accusation délirante et dérisoire. On pourrait multiplier les exemples.

Il en va de même de l’idée selon laquelle l’antisionisme serait la version moderne de l’antisémitisme. D’abord parce que l’antisionisme n’est pas une idéologie très définie. Historiquement, il a consisté à récuser l’idée d’une solution nationaliste à la question juive. Aujourd’hui, il y a en Israël des gens qui se disent antisionistes par simple hostilité à une occupation des Palestiniens menée au nom même du sionisme. D’autres se disent «post-sionistes» parce qu’à leurs yeux, l’ambition du sionisme étant la constitution d’un État juif, son existence annule d’autorité la nécessité du sionisme. Je connais enfin des Israéliens tout à fait sionistes qui sont si révulsés par la politique de Nétanyahou qu’ils se disent honorés d’être traités d’«antisionistes» par un gouvernement d’extrême droite raciste et colonialiste. Ces derniers remplissent par exemple les rangs d’une ONG comme Breaking the Silence, qui regroupe des soldats dénonçant les crimes commis par leur armée contre des Palestiniens et dont plusieurs des dirigeants sont des officiers et aussi des juifs pieux. Ils ne sont pas antisémites. Ils sont même l’honneur d’Israël. Quant à moi, je considère le sionisme comme une question philosophiquement désuète. En revanche, si le sionisme, comme le prône Nétanyahou, consiste à exiger la reconnaissance d’Israël pour mieux empêcher le droit des Palestiniens à l’autodétermination, alors je suis antisioniste. Serais-je donc antisémite?

So if Netanyahu and others on the Israeli right define Zionism as giving Jews the right to settle anywhere in Eretz Israel—i.e. in Judea and Samaria—does this mean that those who oppose such settlement are antisemites?

The Israeli historian Shlomo Sand, in a “Lettre ouverte à M. le Président de la République française,” published in Mediapart, rhetorically asked if Macron, “[l]’ancien étudiant en philosophie, l’assistant de Paul Ricœur a-t-il si peu lu de livres d’histoire, au point d’ignorer que nombre de juifs, ou de descendants de filiation juive se sont toujours opposés au sionisme sans, pour autant, être antisémites?” My dear friend Adam Shatz, in a social media commentary on Sand’s letter, remarked

on the unfortunate and tendentious conflation of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism in Macron’s otherwise admirable Vel d’Hiv address. Sand eviscerates Macron’s claims, but the pièce de résistance is his remark that thanks to Israel’s self-definition as the state of the Jewish people (not of the people – even the Jews! – who live in it), the state belongs far more to diaspora Jews like BHL and Alain Finkielkraut than it does to Sand’s Israeli-Palestinian students, whose Hebrew in some cases is better than his!

To oppose such ethno-racial exclusion inside Israel, as well as the apartheid in the Occupied Territories, is hardly to engage in anti-Semitic discrimination, much less call for the “destruction” of Israel or the Jews. (This is a well known Zionist canard, which curiously asks us to imagine that without such discrimination, the state itself would crumble: so much for the dream of “normalizing” the Jews in a modern nation-state.) Rather, to critique actually existing Zionism is to oppose discrimination, racism and oppression, which, outside Israel (and among a dwindling number of Israeli Jews), has been a venerable Jewish tradition. As Sand points out, some of the finest members of this dissenting tradition have been French: Pierre Vidal-Naquet, Maxime Rodinson, Esther Benbassa, Daniel Bensaïd, Rony Brauman. If the new French president, justly praised for his intellect, thinks anti-Zionism is simply the contemporary form of anti-Semitism (which is not to say it never is), and if he thinks he’s combating anti-Semitism by cozying up to the likes of Netanyahu (who is all too happy to cover for Hungarian Jew haters sympathetic to Israel), he still has a lot of learning to do.

An AWAV friend—a secular French Jew who would no doubt refer to himself as non- or anti-Zionist—pointed to one possible unintended consequence of Macron’s words, which is its implication for France’s hate speech laws, notably the 1972 Loi Pleven:

Puisque antisionisme = antisémitisme, il sera donc désormais illégal en France de critiquer publiquement le sionisme et tout particulièrement d’émettre des réserves sur les pratiques des défenseurs du sionisme tel que mis en œuvre actuellement en marge du droit international par l’état d’Israël, au hasard et par exemple le développement constant des colonies en Cisjordanie occupée. Critiquer cela équivaut peu ou prou à tenir des propos antisémites.

Then there was the very presence of Netanyahu at the Vel’ d’Hiv commemoration. I initially chalked this up to diplomacy and realpolitik, as an astute maneuver by Macron to cultivate a relationship with the Israeli PM (as he did with Putin and Trump). But the symbolism of Bibi at the ceremony was difficult to swallow for many—president Reuven Rivlin would have been more palatable—and particularly the place of honor of the Israeli flag. The Rafle du Vel’ d’Hiv is a French (and German) story, not an Israeli one. It has nothing to do with Israel (which of course did not exist at the time). There was, objectively speaking, no good reason to invite any high Israeli dignitary to the event. Now Macron could have perhaps justified the Netanyahu invitation if this would eventually yield diplomatic dividends. But as we were reminded during his visit to Hungary last week, Netanyahu couldn’t care less about France or the European Union, both of which he disdains. The notion that France can exercise any influence over Israel when it comes to the “peace process” is the height of naïveté. So rolling out the red carpet for Bibi last Sunday was ill-advised on Macron’s part.

C’est tout ce que j’ai à dire, pour le moment au moins.

UPDATE: Emmanuel Macron, prior to the anti-Zionist/antisemitism brouhaha, got into hot water on social media for his words at the G20 press conference in Hamburg, on July 8th, in which he made a remark on the fertility rate in Africa that rubbed people the wrong way, including well-known specialists of the continent. Some on social media even went so far as call Macron a “racist” and with others comparing what he said in Hamburg with Nicolas Sarkozy’s notorious 2007 Dakar speech. As for the latter, it was precisely that: a text written by Sarkozy’s top political adviser and that Sarkozy presumably read over before delivering. What Macron said at the G20 was extemporaneous. He was responding to a question at a press conference from an Ivorian journalist about development aid to Africa and who mentioned the Marshall Plan, and with Macron responding as to why the Marshall Plan parallel is not an appropriate one for Africa today (watch it here, from 25:26). He would have no doubt rephrased what he said about African demography if he had had advance knowledge of the question—and perhaps not pronounced the word “civilisationnel“—but the fact of the matter is, nothing Macron said, substantively-speaking, was ill-considered or wrong. To call him “racist” is so ridiculous as to not merit a response. And what he said cannot be compared to Sarkozy’s Dakar speech. Case closed.

Watching Macron at the press conference, one is struck by how smart, knowledgeable, and well-spoken he is. The total, 180° opposite of his counterpart outre-Atlantique, ça va de soi.

2nd UPDATE: Jacobin magazine has published (August 2nd) an English translation of Shlomo Sand’s “open letter to Emmanuel Macron.”

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Last week I had a couple of posts on immigration, migration, and refugees. Continuing in this vein, I want to mention a few films I’ve seen over the past couple of years on the general theme. One of the more noteworthy was ‘Mediterranea’, by American-Italian director Jonas Carpignano, which opened to good reviews in France last September and in the US two months later. Its timing was uncanny, in view of the refugee crisis of last summer and fall (and ongoing, of course). The film follows the journey of two young men from Burkina Faso, Ayiva (Koudous Seihon) and Abas (Alassane Sy), who head across the Sahara to the Libyan coast, to be smuggled across the Mediterranean to Italy. This part of the film—much of it, in fact—is documentary-like, particularly the scene, in Algeria or Libya (shot in Morocco), where the African migrants are robbed—and with a few killed—by criminals/terrorists (AQIM or one of those groups). The pic doesn’t linger on the maritime crossing—a whole film, La Pirogue, has been devoted to this aspect of African migration to Europe—the story mainly focusing on what happens to Ayiva and Abas once they make it to Italy, where they work as agricultural laborers, obviously exploited, with some of the locals being kind and welcoming but more not. Europe is not the promised land they imagined, that’s for sure. One naturally sympathizes with the two Burkinabé protags, though they’re not always angels (not that there’s any reason they should be). And, as tends to be the case with migrants, they are not les damnés de la terre in their home country, communicating regularly with their folks there via Skype—conversations in which they accentuate the positive and downplay the negative—home computers in a country like Burkina Faso signifying what may be considered middle class status there.

Director Carpignano’s inspiration for making the film was the events in Rosarno—a town of some 15,000 on the southern tip of Reggio Calabria province—in January 2010, which witnessed a riot by Africans after repeated harassment, beatings, and shootings of migrants by local residents (and with implication of the mafia), and which the pic reenacts. And, as it happens, actor Seihon was an actual Burkinabé/Ghanaian migrant in Rosarno, who had made the clandestine passage to Italy and participated in migrant protests there, which is where Carpignano met him (and with the two becoming close friends). In order to make the film, Carpignano did anthropological-like field research in African migrant communities in southern Italy, as he discussed in this interview. Carapignano also explained the reason for casting the film’s protags as Burkinabé, as he didn’t want to focus on refugees fleeing war but rather on people migrating to better their lives, as did the Sicilians and Calabrians who emigrated to the United States in the late 19th-early 20th century—and with southern Italy having been as “Third World” compared to the US—and as culturally alien to American society of the time—as sub-Saharan Africa is to Italy today. Trailer is here.

Another film on African migration seen last year was ‘Hope’, by French director Boris Lojkine. This one follows the journey of a Nigerian named Hope (Endurance Newton), as she crosses the Sahara to Morocco (where the entire film was shot), with Spain the destination. A single woman in a pitiless world of men, where it’s chacun pour soi. No need to say what happens to her along the way or what she has to do to survive financially. The social organization of African migrants is depicted in detail, particularly in the sequence in the migrant shantytown in Tamanrasset, Algeria, which is segregated by nationality, the migrants sticking with their own—Ivorians with Ivorians, Malians with Malians, etc—imposing strict rules of conduct and with hierarchies replicating those back home. Like Carpignano, Lojkine—who normally makes documentaries—did field research among African migrants, here in Morocco and particularly in Rabat’s African quartier, Takkadoum, where he recruited the cast, including the remarkable Newton, who was a migrant herself (she recounts her personal story here). In the words of one critic, some of the actors are basically playing versions of themselves on screen. After an act of sexual aggression committed against her, Hope hooks up with a Cameroonian named Leonard (Justin Wang)—she wants nothing to do with her fellow Nigerians—the sole man in the migrant column who showed concern for her. Their relationship is purely self-interested at first but they develop mutual affection in the course of their journey. The film does not, however, descend into sentimentality or pathos, nor is it misérabiliste in its portrayal of the migrants’ plight. It’s a good film and that I recommend, particularly to those who have a prioris on the subject. Reviews in France were good and with Allociné spectateurs giving it the thumbs way up. See, in particular, the reviews in Africultures and Variety. Trailer is here and here.

Though the two films portray “economic” migrants, many Africans who reach the shores of Europe are indeed bona fide refugees. For the anecdote, last August I went to a corner of the 18th arrondissement—near La Chapelle, on a quiet side street, seen only by riverains—where recently arrived migrants from the Horn of Africa congregate, just to try to talk with them. They were all from Sudan and Eritrea, with a few Ethiopians, so I was told. A couple of dozen men were lingering about, most riveted to their cell phones. None spoke French and only one English with any level of proficiency, the oldest man present—around 40 years of age—who said he was from western Sudan (i.e. Darfur). He was a truck driver by profession and said that he had decided to leave Sudan due to the security situation, i.e. civil war and absence of state protection. Sudan was a country one fled from if one could. He made his way to Europe via Libya, which he described as in a state of anarchy, with armed gangs running the show. I thought better than to ask nosy questions about the Mediterranean crossing or how they all made it to Paris. Or to delve too deeply into their actual circumstances back home and decision to migrate (which one cannot know or verify). One young Eritrean, who was listening to our conversation—which went on for half an hour—and spoke rudimentary English, said that he left his country because of its military service requirements, which last many years—ten years or even longer; it’s totally arbitrary—and that such was the case for all the Eritreans in the group. All had England as their final destination—naturally via Calais—though not necessarily because they knew anyone there (migrants invariably heading to a place where they have family or friends) or saw it as some kind of El Dorado. As asylum seekers—but in a legally precarious situation—they would, in principle, have been wiling to stay in France, except that the French state administration, such as they had dealt with it, was impenetrable. Not knowing French, they couldn’t communicate with it, and no translators were provided. And they were bereft of resources and with no local organism to help them (a middle-aged woman—in a hijab, no doubt Algerian—came to speak with some of them while I was there; my Sudanese interlocutor, who identified her as “French,” called her their guardian angel, a wonderful person who brought them cooked meals daily; no one else in Paris had shown them such kindness). As there was “nothing in France for us,” so I was told, the men wanted to move on to England, where they knew asylum seekers received temporary accommodations and assistance.

After a point I began to feel embarrassed with my inquiry, me the well-to-do, bleeding heart local who would go back to his comfortable home and life, and with nothing to propose or say to these desperate persons in a desperate situation. Apart from my questions, what could I say to these men or do for them? The one thing I did feel was revulsion at the demagoguery and general insensitivity of politicians and other public personalities who were piping off on the migration/refugee issue, presenting it uniquely as a threat to France and Europe. The men I met clearly cannot be sent back to their countries and it would be unconscionable, indeed downright immoral, to demand otherwise. Any ideas of what to do for them?


Briefly, two other films. One, ‘Macondo’, by Iranian-Austrian director Sudabeh Mortezai, came out in France a year ago—and to good reviews—under the title ‘Le Petit homme’. Borrowing from Variety’s positive review

This sensitive Austrian social drama from docu helmer Sudabeh Mortezai focuses on a [Chechen] refugee settlement outside Vienna.

Visit Vienna as a tourist and you aren’t likely to see kids like Ramasan, the 11-year-old [Chechen] subject of docu director Sudabeh Mortezai’s empathetically observed fiction debut, “Macondo.” To find such foreigners, one must venture to the outskirts, where the eponymous immigrant settlement offers housing to nearly 2,000 refugees taking shelter from their home countries. As an Iranian who split her childhood between Tehran and Vienna, Mortezai can clearly identify with the confused emotional state of her young protagonist, treating his unique situation as one example of Austria’s complex immigrant experience — a deeply humanist perspective…

It’s a coming-of-age story about a Chechen refugee boy caught between two cultures, whose combattant father was killed by the Russians, and who thus has to assume the role as head of the family, composed of his mother and two sisters. An impressive performance by the youthful actor Ramasan Minkailov. Hollywood Reporter and Indie Wire critics who saw the pic at the Berlinale also gave it the thumbs up. I thought it was pretty good too. Trailer is here.

The other film is a documentary seen in late 2013, ‘Stop-Over’ (in France: ‘L’Escale’), by Iranian-Swiss director Kaveh Bakhtiari, which offers an up-close portrait of the daily tribulations of seven undocumented migrants—six Iranians and an Armenian—in Athens, who had been smuggled into Greece from Turkey but found themselves blocked in the country, that they initially considered to be a mere stop-over in their projected journeys north (to Germany or Scandinavia). And given the situation in Greece, it clearly could not be their final destination. The film is worth seeing for those with a particular interest in the subject. Variety’s great critic Jay Weissberg reviewed it here, The Hollywood Reporter’s review is here. French critics were particularly enthusiastic. Trailer is here.



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timbuktu affiche

Everyone who pays any attention to cinema has at least heard of this by now, on account of the buzz, stellar reviews in France and the US alike, the Oscar nomination for best foreign language film (Mauritania’s submission) and its no less than eight César nominations, including best film (as the pic is French produced, it’s considered French here) and best director (Abderrahmane Sissako, who’s Mauritanian-Malian but lives in France). It’s a beautiful, powerful film, and understated, which adds to its force. As one knows, its subject is the jihadist (Ansar Eddine et al) takeover of Timbuktu in 2012—though the film is not situated in time and no organization is named (and, for security reasons, it was not shot in Timbuktu but in Oualata, Mauritania)—, the jihadists imposing their particular conception of Islamic law, and the destruction of a good part of the city’s architectural and historical patrimony. Anthropologist and northern Mali specialist Andrew Hernann has a good review of the film (dated February 9th) in the Africa Is a Country blog, “Abderrahmane Sissako’s film Timbuktu complicates the Jihadist narrative,” which expresses many of the thoughts I had about it. He writes

Timbuktu, which opened in the United States on January 28, centers on a Tuareg family living in a tent on the outskirts of Timbuktu. Both honor and fatigue make the family reluctant to flee with their family and friends. This leaves them worried and lonely. It also makes them vulnerable to the jihadist regime, as well as fellow Timbuktians, who are equally frightened and on edge. But the film also highlights other residents—including locals and jihadists—as they negotiate the demands of the occupation.

Many film critics have lauded Timbuktu as a “visual masterpiece,” praising Sissako’s use of vast landscapes and captivating cityscapes. However, the cinematography accomplishes more than stunning images. Instead, it evokes the loneliness, confusion, desperation and sense of abandonment that so many Timbuktians experienced. Who could they rely upon and trust aside from the few who remained? How were residents to gauge the jihadists’ often conflicting motives?

Others critics have also applauded the film’s supposed comedic and satirical script. Such praise is somewhat misleading in my opinion. Timbuktu does not portray the jihadists—at least not all of them—as either purely ideological or bumbling buffoons. Many are depicted as critical thinkers in their own way. Others—(former) lovers of rap music and soccer—are depicted as youths who are way over their heads. Contrary to certain criticism following the Charlie Hebdo attack, however, this is not to suggest that Sissako is an apologist for extremism. Far from it. Instead, he depicts the jihadists as real, not as a caricature.

Sissako also demonstrates local resistance to shari’a. He includes a scene of a fishmonger critiquing new regulations that force her to wear gloves. And he includes another of lower-level jihadists searching for singers and guitar players. Some viewers and critics find these scenes amusing, and perhaps they were partially intended to be. Nonetheless, rules enforcing public veiling and prohibiting music were far from amusing to the Timbuktians with whom I worked in 2013. And as Sissako accurately illustrates, the jihadists brutally countered these local expressions of resistance.

To read all of Hernann’s review, go here. See also the review by NYU grad student Ethan Gates in TNR (February 9th), “Oscar-nominated ‘Timbuktu’ shows the terrors of life under Islamist extremism.”

One of my takeaways from the film was precisely the depiction of the jihadists not as a caricature of wild-eyed, bloodthirsty fanatics wreaking terror in the city—even though they are fanatics and who do terrorize—but rather as cold, determined men out to impose their vision of an Islamic order ruled by Shari’a law as they interpret it. In this respect, one notes their attachment to procedure and the law, though their knowledge of Islamic law is, to put it charitably, rudimentary. E.g. the scene where the protag Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed Pino) is hauled before the Shari’a “court” for having (unintentionally) killed the fisherman. He is assured that the “judge”—who, one may safely assume, had never set foot anywhere near Al-Azhar—is wise and just, but who is as inculte as the rest of his jihadist associates, making up the law as he goes along. The law is whatever the jihadists say it is.

Another takeaway was the incredulity of the Timbuktians—every last one a practicing Muslim—when confronted with the jihadists’ crackpot understanding of Islam: banning music, sports, and just about everything else, and the ordering of women to wear niqabs and gloves. As Andrew Hernann, relating his experiences in Timbuktu after the French army liberated the city in January 2013, writes in his review

[I]t’s important to consider that most Timbuktians themselves refused to identify the occupiers with Islam. Almost every time I referred to them as “jihadists” or “Islamists”, my friends would (sometimes angrily) correct me, saying, “No, these people know nothing about Islam. This is not Islam. They are terrorists, pure and simple.”

One notes Hernann’s remark about some of the young jihadists being in “way over their heads.” Hailing from various countries in West Africa, the Maghreb (jihadist commander Abdelkrim, played by actor Abel Jafri, is Algerian), and Europe, they don’t always speak a common language; thus the amusing scenes of the jihadist comrades trying to communicate with one another in broken English. As some appear nostalgic for music, football, and cigarettes—i.e. their pre-jihadist lives—one gets the feeling that at least a few among them could possibly waver in their ideological commitments and be lured back to the real world.

Though I ranked ‘Timbuku’ as one of the top films of 2014 it won’t be receiving my vote in either the Oscars or Césars. The Tuareg family at the center of the film is a little too idealized, both the family idyll and the Tuaregs more generally, who have long had a lofty stature in the French imaginaire (though the Malian Tuareg MNLA fighters have hardly been enfants de chœur, engaging in their share of bloodletting in recent years, as one is reminded in this critique of the film by Sabine Cessou in Rue89). Mais peu importe. The film is a must-see. Trailer is here.

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The tragedy of the Congo

Congo David Van Reybrouck

Adam Shatz, who writes excellently on every topic he chooses to write on, has a fine review essay in the latest London Review of Books—at which he is a contributing editor—of prolific Belgian author David Van Reybrouck’s Congo: The Epic History of a People, a 600+ page tome that sold over 300,000 copies in its original Dutch version—which is a lot given the number of Dutch-readers in this world—and has won numerous prizes, including two in France, whose French publisher refers to it as “Le livre du Congo, un essai total écrit comme un roman” (and which is akin to the assessment of one Dutch reviewer, who deemed it “More gripping than a novel. The style is casual, yet captivating.”). Adam doesn’t quite describe Van Reybrouck’s book in these terms, presenting it rather as the latest contribution—and an ambitious one—to the already extensive and accomplished literature on the tragic history of that country.

Among the many Congolese tragedies was the short-lived rule and assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the Belgian/CIA/et al plot against whom Adam naturally discusses in his essay. À propos, the July-August 2014 issue of Foreign Affairs had an article by Stephen R. Weissman entitled “What Really Happened in Congo: The CIA, the Murder of Lumumba, and the Rise of Mobutu.” Weissman, a former Staff Director of the US House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Africa—and who likely knows the subject of US-Congolese relations better than anyone—, has examined recently declassified documents—Church Commission, State Department—and parliamentary reports from Belgium, which “[paint] a far darker picture [of the role played by the US government in the Congo] than even the critics imagined.” As it happens, the incoming Kennedy administration was considering a reassessment of US policy toward the Congo, leading the CIA station chief in Léopoldville—who was intimately implicated in the plot against Lumumba—to keep his superiors in Washington out of the loop until the Belgians and their Congolese allies carried out the murder.

On the subject of Lumumba, for those who don’t feel like reading about him—and even for those who do—, there’s the 2000 movie, ‘Lumumba‘, by Haitian director Raoul Peck, which I rate as one of the best biopics ever made (or, I should say, that I’ve seen, and I’ve seen many). The film, which was shot on location in Zimbabwe and Mozambique, is historically accurate, at least insofar as I understand the history of Lumumba’s life and times (and the scene of the meeting where the decision is made to liquidate him is likely close to the reality of how it happened).

A more recent Congolese film is ‘Viva Riva!’, which I wrote on 2½ years back (and included mention of my own visit there in 2008). This one is fun, entertaining, and not at all political.

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OMG-Ebola-still-Doktor Zoom-Wonkette

[update below] [2nd update below]

Voilà the tagline of a spot-on post by Wonkette blogger Doktor Zoom, “What stupid pointless Ebola freakouts are we having today?” It begins

Now that the first group of people to be exposed to Thomas Eric Duncan — including his fiancée and other members of his family in Dallas — have made it through their 21-day quarantine period without developing the disease themselves, you might think that maybe people might be calming down just a little bit, maybe. But then, maybe you are not a panic-mongering moron, so you may not be typical, you un-American weirdo. Maybe you’re not rushing out to buy flimsy “protective” gear or Vitamin C (or “colloidal silver” to turn your skin blue), but plenty of people are — or at the very least, scammers hope so. And it’s never a bad time to have a good old-fashioned panic over every last rumor and sneeze, like the nice people in Mississippi who pulled their children out of the local middle school when they learned that the principal had recently visited Zambia, which doesn’t even have any Ebola diagnoses, but is very definitely in Africa. Or the timid souls of Strong, Maine, who insisted on turning their town’s name into a possible Twilight Zone locale when they convinced the school board to place an elementary-school teacher on a 21-day leave because he’d been to an educational conference in Dallas. Those monsters should be coming down Maple Street any minute now…

And then there’s this freak-out story from New Jersey, where

The start of school for two students at Howard Yocum Elementary School is being delayed 21 days, Fox 29 reports, because the children recently arrived to the U.S. from Rwanda. Which is in east Africa. Which puts those students approximately 2,600 miles away from the closest West African country with Ebola cases — a distance roughly equivalent to that between Seattle, Washington, and Philadelphia…

And this one, about the good citizens in Beeville, Texas, who

are worried about what they claim is a potential risk of Ebola after 4 new students from West Africa [from Ghana and Nigeria, the latter having had eight Ebola deaths, out of a population of 175 million], enrolled in schools there just this past week.

And now we learn that the Ebola hysteria is shifting the dynamics of the North Carolina senate race and in favor of GOP candidate Thom Tillis, who, in a rally the other day,

sent a deep sigh and a shudder rolling through the crowd of Republican activists with just one word: ­“Ebola.”

Contrast this with France, where there is no particular panic over Ebola, or even great concern, with the exception of Air France personnel working the daily Paris-Conakry flight (yes, Air France is still flying to Guinea; pour l’info, there are 79 flights a week to Paris from destinations in West Africa, compared to 37 to the entire United States—and there has never in history been a direct flight between the US and Guinea or Sierra Leone, and none to Liberia since the 1980s).

Question: Could somebody please explain to me why Americans, in addition to being stupid dumbfucks so ill-informed, are such pussies so fearful? Just asking.

UPDATE: As we learn via MoJo, there are still Americans made of stern stuff

Peter Pattakos spent 20 minutes Saturday in an Akron bridal shop, getting fitted for a tux for his friend’s wedding. Thursday, his friend sent a text message, telling him that Ebola patient Amber Joy Vinson had been in the store around the same time.


Pattakos, 36, a Cleveland attorney who lives in Bath Township, called the health department, which told him to call back if he exhibits any Ebola symptoms. He called a doctor, who told him not to worry.

“I didn’t exchange any bodily fluids with anyone, so I’m not worried about it,” he said. “I’m much more likely to be mistakenly killed by a police officer in this country than to be killed by Ebola, even if you were in the same bridal shop.”

Tout à fait.

2nd UPDATE: The Onion has an informative map 🙂 “Tracking Ebola in the US.”

Aasif Mandvi_Ebola

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Photo credit: AFP

Photo credit: AFP

This a smart, informative free access article I just read on the paywalled independent journalism website Beacon. The author, Lagos-based journalist Peter Tinti, says that

The goal of this article is to contextualize Boko Haram. It is an attempt to fill in the gap between journalistic accounts and existing academic literature in a way that is accessible to readers who wish to better understand Boko Haram, its historical basis, and the current socio-political environment in which it operates. A list of non-journalistic works, to which this article is heavily indebted, is included at the bottom of the page.

For those interested in learning more about Boko Haram—and I presume many people are these days—Peter Tinti’s article is well worth the read.

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[update below]

Saw it the other day. As I’ve said before, it’s hard to make a really good biopic. This one is acceptable. It’s engaging enough and with its strengths, though is not perfect. Squeezing the high points of a life such as that of Nelson Mandela into a 2¼ hour film would be a challenge for even the best of screenwriters and directors. William Nicholson and Justin Chadwick did a reasonably good job here—if one keeps in mind that it is indeed merely a biopic of a man, not a comprehensive treatment of apartheid South Africa or the ANC’s struggle in all its features and complexity. The film races through Mandela’s young adulthood as a lawyer and ANC activist and up to his 1962 arrest and the Rivonia trial; his early ’60s period is well portrayed, as are his 26 years on Robben Island and Pollsmoor prison. The film is particularly strong on Mandela the man, Winnie, their relationship, and how they began to diverge politically during his incarceration—of how Mandela was transformed from an “angry man” to one who “[came] to see that hatred and enmity were mimetic, a trap laid by the ‘evil’ other: fall into it and you and your adversary become hard to tell apart,” whereas Winnie moved in the opposite direction (quotes are from Stephen Smith’s fine essay, “Mandela: Death of a Politician,” in the January 9 2014 London Review of Books). The film is not a hagiography, as this review in The Economist correctly observes. Idris Elba (Stringer Bell in ‘The Wire’) is very good as Mandela, as is (the rather beautiful) Naomie Harris as Winnie. The secret negotiations between Mandela and the white regime in the late 1980s are a high point of the film, though the four years between his release from his final prison dorée and the 1994 election are superficially depicted. E.g. those not familiar with the history will be utterly confused by the reenactment of the Boipatong massacre and who committed it (the Inkatha Freedom Party, the name of which is not uttered). All in all, Clint Eastwood’s feel good ‘Invictus’ is a more satisfying film. But this one may be seen—and should be by anyone with more than a passing interest in Nelson Mandela and South Africa. And it was a commercial and critical success in South Africa, which is a recommendation in itself. Trailer is here, the NYT review—the best on Metacritic—is here, French reviews—mostly good, and particularly the Allociné spectateurs—are here.

On the subject of South Africa, I saw last month Jérôme Salle’s ‘Zulu’, a French-South African police action movie set in contemporary Cape Town (and based on a 2010 novel by French crime fiction author Caryl Férey). The film, which stars Orlando Bloom and Forest Whitaker “as two detectives uniquely scarred by their nation’s cruel racial legacy” (quoting Justin Chang’s Variety review), is extremely violent. This should be normal given the exceptional level of violence in South Africa, but still… The cops are black and white, the criminals coloured and white, and there’s an Indian in there, so the entire Rainbow Nation is represented, as both good guys and bad. French reviews are mostly good (and with Allociné spectateurs giving it the thumbs up). The reaction of Hollywood critics who saw the pic at Cannes was mixed. Trailer is here.

UPDATE: Uri Avnery saw the Mandela biopic and liked it. His review is here.


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Plot for Peace


[update below]

As the death of Nelson Mandela has been dominating the news the past two days, I should mention this fascinating 1½-hour documentary that opened 2½ weeks ago in two Paris cinemas (and that I saw in the nick of time, as it’s already gone; it wasn’t a box office hit, needless to say). It tells an “untold story” of how the apartheid regime in South Africa came to an end, the story being the indefatigable, behind-the-scenes effort of a French businessman and adventurer, Jean-Yves Ollivier, to broker an agreement to end the South African cross-border war in Angola. The effort achieved fruition in 1988, resulting in the mutual withdrawal of South African and Cuban troops from that country, which set in motion the process that led to the independence of Namibia the following year and, in 1990, the freeing of Mandela. Here’s the synopsis from the film’s website

THE UNTOLD STORY BEHIND HISTORY, a well-kept secret behind the world-wide icon: Nelson Mandela’s release was a Plot for Peace. For the first time, heads of state, generals, diplomats, master spies and anti-apartheid fighters reveal how Africa’s front line states helped end apartheid. The improbable key to Mandela’s prison cell was a mysterious French businessman, dubbed “Monsieur Jacques” in classified correspondence. His trade secret was trust.

In the mid-1980s, township violence raged in South Africa and one of the Cold War’s most vicious proxy conflicts devastated Angola. “Total onslaught” was writ large across the horizon. It was then that a foreign commodity trader with connections to all stakeholders in the region became the lifeline for top-secret contacts. To build trust, he organized a vast prisoners’ exchange. A year later, in 1988, South Africa’s forces and 50,000 Cuban troops began withdrawing from Angola.

In John LeCarré style, the land of apartheid and the front line states come out of the Cold War long before the Berlin Wall crumbles. Within fourteen months, Mandela walks out of jail – a free man and, soon, South Africa’s first democratically elected President.

For the first time, the protagonists of this high-risk venture – African heads of state, battle-tested generals, international diplomats, secret service operatives, and anti-apartheid icons such as Winnie Mandela and ANC leader Thabo Mbeki – recount the true story of how the front line states put paid to apartheid.

“Monsieur Jacques” leads this action-packed documentary through a rugged landscape of moral dilemmas. To some, such as Thabo Mbeki and militants for transparency, he was a sanctions buster, a secret go-between, a French spy. For others, such as Winnie Mandela and Mozambique’s former President Joaquim Chissano, he is a trusted friend and a man of bold vision. “I shake the hand I cannot sever”, says Jean-Yves Ollivier. As a matter of fact, he was bestowed upon highest honours by both the last impenitent stalwart of apartheid, P.W. Botha, and the first President of the new South Africa, Nelson Mandela.

As with most people not intimately connected with this aspect of the story, I knew nothing about Jean-Yves Ollivier. When I saw in the opening credits that the documentary’s historical consultant and scriptwriter was Stephen Smith—whose reporting and writing on Africa I’ve been following for the past 25 years—, I knew that it would be good. Jean-Yves Ollivier’s story is gripping. He was intrepid, knew Africa like the back of his hand, and had an ample carnet d’adresses—on the continent and in Paris, Washington, and other capitals. He is also a Pied-Noir from Algiers and in 1962, at age 17, spent five months in a French prison for politically related activities; he doesn’t detail these in the film but one may surmise that he had been in the OAS and had done things he may not wish to talk about. He recounts his first visit to South Africa in 1981, of the isolation of the country—both physically and as an international pariah—and how cut off the white population was from the rest of the world. He viscerally identified with the whites but knew that apartheid was untenable, that the system was doomed. As a Pied-Noir he felt it was imperative that South Africa not experience what Algeria had two decades earlier—with the calamitous demise of Algérie française—, that a transition to majority rule had to be negotiated and which would not result in an exodus of the white population. So he took it upon himself to persuade whites at the elite level and use his numerous contacts in the African frontline states to initiate a process of negotiation. The larger context was the Cold War and with Angola the principal regional theater. One of the leitmotifs in the discourse of white South Africans was the dread fear of communism, of what they saw as Soviet expansionism and their conviction that the ANC was part and parcel of this. This was also, of course, the view of the Reagan administration, and which Chester Crocker affirms in the film.

The interviews in the film—with the major actors on all sides—are exceptional, as is the narrative of the geopolitics of the region in the 1980s. An impressive job by directors Mandy Jacobson and Carlos Agulló, not to mention Stephen Smith. So if one is at all interested in the subject and has the opportunity to see the documentary, do so. The trailer, on the film’s website, is here.

BTW, Stephen Smith has an LRB blog post here on Nelson Mandela’s death. And here’s an assessment of Mandela’s legacy by Harvard anthropologists Jean and John Comaroff—who are specialists of South Africa and from there—published on the Harvard Gazette website.

UPDATE: Those who have seen the documentary—plus those who haven’t—will want to read the article by Piero Gleijeses, professor of American foreign policy at Johns Hopkins-SAIS, published on The National Interest website, on “Why South Africa loves Cuba.” (January 14, 2014)

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Nelson Mandela, R.I.P.


[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 heard 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, relayed by Ta-Nehisi Coates, to the racists in his camp who got on his case for his eulogy. Gingrich may be crazy on a lot of things but on this, he is reasonable and principled.

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

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

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

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The Hunt & A Hijacking


This film from Denmark, which opened in the US in July, has left no one indifferent, at least not among those I know who’ve seen it. E.g. one cinephile friend, in an email, called it “a must-see film…reminiscent of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.” Another wrote that “Mads Mikkelsen was excellent in this film…I recommend highly.” But then one couple—and with highbrow tastes— “actively hated it”… Such contrasting reactions are probably inevitable given the subject matter: a middle-aged man—divorced with children—in a well-to-do Danish town, an upstanding member of the community known and respected by all, who works with the children in a nursery school and, out of the blue, comes under suspicion of molesting one—based on a tale the child recounted to the school director—, and overnight becomes a social outcast and kept at a distance even by his best friends, all while vehemently protesting his innocence (and he manifestly was innocent). US reviews of the film have been good on the whole, as were reviews in France, where the pic opened last November. Le Monde’s critic panned it, however—putting it in its films “to avoid” category—, prompting me to initially strike it from my “to see” list. But after a few weeks of its run I noted that the audience reviews on Allociné were particularly high. And as I have asserted numerous times, when in doubt go with the Allociné spectateurs over the snooty Parisian critics. So I went to see it and am glad I did. It’s an engaging film, well acted, and at no point rubbed me the wrong way. And it effectively depicts the Kafkaesque nightmare of a man falsely accused of one of the worst crimes possible short of murder. One comprehends why those accused of pedophilia, even if they are utterly innocent, contemplate suicide, or even end up committing it. I was reminded of the numerous day care abuse scandals/hysterias in the US—e.g. the one in Minnesota in the 1980s—and that ended with the defendants’ acquittal, and of the outrageous Outreau affair in France. Of course there are pedophiles out there but the issue here—the one treated in the film—is those who are falsely accused of this—by mythomaniacs or children under the âge de raison, invariably coaxed by adults—and of the collective hysteria that ensues. It’s a delicate subject, needless to say. I recommend the film. If one doesn’t like it, that’s okay. Chacun son goût.

Another Danish film seen recently was ‘A Hijacking’, about a Danish-owned freighter on its way to Bombay—and to the scrapyard after—that is seized by Somali pirates and held for ransom, with the hostage drama lasting for several months, the ship—having dropped anchor out in the ocean—being provisioned with food and water by boats from the Somali coast. The film alternates between the ship and the shipping company headquarters in Copenhagen, which has to deal with the situation and the pirates’ ransom demands. It is very effective in depicting both. On the ship—where the drama is seen through the eyes of the ship’s cook (played by actor Pilou Asbæk)—, one feels the despair of the crew as the crisis drags on and the sanitary conditions go from bad to worse, not to mention the hostages’ permanent state of terror, of being at the mercy of the kidnappers—the actors here are all Somalis, recruited in Kenya— who speak nothing but Somali, are totally inculte, their fingers permanently on the trigger, have a distinct lack of empathy, and little regard for human life. At the Copenhagen HQ, one equally feels the dilemmas of the company CEO (actor Søren Malling)—and the intense pressure which he is under—as he negotiates with the pirates—who have an English-speaking intermediary on board (he says he’s just the translator, not a pirate, but who knows?)—by satellite phone and fax, and their absurdly unreasonable ransom demands—and who has to decide when to follow or not to follow the advice of his hired negotiating expert, who is experienced in dealing with Somalis (played by Gary Skjoldmose Porter, who does this in real life; when it comes to cultural codes, Somalis and Danes—and Westerners in general, and even most non-Westerners—are not on the same wavelength). Again, the film is very effective on all counts. Slick, well done, and absolutely “realistic.” The way things were depicted in the film are no doubt the way they really happen. Kudos on this to director Tobias Lindholm (who, BTW, co-authored the screenplay of ‘The Hunt’ with that one’s director, Thomas Vinterberg). Reviews in the US (where the film opened in June) have been very good. In France too (both critics and Allociné spectators). But I won’t say that I enjoyed sitting through it, as I felt too strongly the hostages’ terror, the anguish of their families in Denmark, and the pressure on the negotiators at company HQ as they had to deal over several months with the crazy Somalis thousands of miles away. For me at least, the film was a little too angoissant. But that’s me. Others are less squeamish (which I know for a fact). So I recommend the pic, malgré tout.

As it happens, the lead article in last week’s New York Times Magazine, “12 Minutes of Freedom in 460 Days of Captivity,” is an excerpt of a book due out this month about a young Canadian woman’s hostage ordeal in Somalia (A House in the Sky, by Amanda Lindhout with Sara Corbett). And Slate had a piece on it a week ago, “460 days in a hell of captivity: An interview with Amanda Lindhout.” Given the high-profile advance publicity, it’s bound to be a best-seller. And à propos, Business Insider—a trashy but fun website—had a slide show recently entitled “The worst place in the world: See what life is like in Somalia.”

I actually have a personal relationship with Somalia, which I’ve mentioned here.

Back to movies: For the record, I saw a film from Iceland—a country that was part of Denmark until sixty years ago—last spring, ‘The Deep’ (en France: ‘Survivre’), by Icelandic auteur Baltasar Kormákur. The pic reenacts a real life story from 1984, of a young, corpulent fisherman (actor Olafur Darri Olafsson) whose trawler capsized and sank in the ice-cold waters a few kilometers off the Icelandic coast, and who managed to swim to shore. Having spent six hours in the water—and with the air temperature below freezing—his survival was literally a miracle, as lasting that long in such cold water was/is simply not possible for the human body. He thus became an object of medical/scientific study—in Iceland and the UK—, with doctors and scientists trying to comprehend how he could have possibly survived the ordeal. A freak of nature. But he was otherwise just a regular guy (though who, as a child, had lived through his town being buried in lava from a volcanic eruption; so for a simple country boy from Iceland he’d been through a lot). It’s not a bad film. Reviews are positive (here, here, and here; French here). I won’t recommend going out of one’s way for it but it’s good for DVD.

ADDENDUM: It occurred to me after posting this that there is a common thread in these three films, which is the protagonist—a man in his 30s-40s—going through a terrible ordeal that hits him out of the blue and that could end in personal ruin or death. He is a victim of circumstances—of larger forces—over which he has no control but that are linked to his employment, and that were a possible, if unforeseen, occupational hazard given the nature of what he does (and that he would not have contemplated when taking up his line of employment). Each man is saved (or vindicated) in the end but does not come out of the ordeal unscarred.



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This is the film that won the Oscar for best documentary last month, beating out ‘The Gatekeepers‘. Having just seen it, I’m hardly surprised. ‘The Gatekeepers’ is a first-rate documentary, as I wrote last week, but there was no way this one was not going to get the Oscar. It is a wonderful, exhilarating film and that tells an absolutely amazing story, about Sixto Rodriguez, a great American singer who is practically unknown in America (including by me until now). Rodriguez, who is 70 years old, has lived his entire life in Detroit and been a manual laborer for most of it, became a musician on the side, and cut two albums in the early ’70s. His music is Bob Dylan-esqe and is every bit as good as Dylan’s. Even better. But his records did not sell, he got practically no publicity, and hardly played outside bars in Detroit. His career as a musician went nowhere and was soon abandoned. But his albums made it to Cape Town, South Africa, at the time, where his music became huge among progressive whites chafing under the chape de plomb of apartheid—and what was a repressive regime even for whites—and inspired anti-apartheid Afrikaner singers. From the early ’70s to the mid ’90s Rodriguez’s albums sold maybe half a million copies in South Africa, where he was “bigger than Elvis,” except that no one in South Africa knew a thing about who he was. The country was subject to sanctions and boycotts, isolated from the rest of the world, and in the pre-Internet era there was no way for anyone there to get information on him. And Rodriguez knew nothing of his popularity in South Africa (and saw no royalties from his record sales). His fans in South Africa thought he was dead, having killed himself on stage in the US, so rumor had it. The documentary recounts how Rodriguez and his South African fans serendipitously found each other in 1997 and of his trip there the following year, where he was received as a big time rock star. It’s a great story and very moving. Here are the reviews by Roger Ebert and Manohla Dargis. French reviews are stellar, as is the word-of-mouth in Paris, where the film is still playing three months after it opened.

The film’s director is Malik Bendjelloul, who is Algerian-Swedish, and it’s a Swedish production (filmed in Detroit and Cape Town).

As for Rodriguez’s music, it’s great. My wife bought his CDs after seeing the movie and we’ve been listening to them.

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I’ve been asked about my position on the BDS campaign. In lieu of writing a fresh post on it, I am going to cut-and-paste my contributions to an extensive Facebook exchange I had on the question in August 2009, with the managing editor of a well-known New York-based progressive weekly, whom I will call Ron (not his real name; we know one another and are friendly, BTW; we met for the first time in Jerusalem in April 2009). There were exchanges on two separate threads, the first one provoked by a link Ron posted on the political science professor Neve Gordon (whom I also met in Jerusalem, with Ron), who was being threatened with dismissal from his post at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev for his support of BDS. So here’s me replying to Ron:

On the reaction against Neve, I think it mainly has to do with nationalist hysteria in Israel—akin to the US in the post 9/11 period—plus the fact that Israelis like to yell at and insult one another. I doubt there’s much fear of BDS, which is ill-conceived and has no chance of gaining traction. BDS supporters are dreaming if they think their campaign will achieve South African proportions.

[Ron]: You may be right, Arun, but it’s early days yet, early days. Re South Africa, it took a LONG time.

The South Africa analogy is tempting but just won’t fly. First, the South Africa boycott campaign had a simple, explicitly clear objective: majority rule and the end of apartheid, which the white regime was called upon to do more or less unilaterally (sure, this was coordinated with Mandela and the ANC but the end point was clear). It was all so simple. The Israel BDS objective is the end of the occupation. But apart from the fact that even most Israelis are for this, at least in principle, this is something that can only come about through negotiations with the constituted Palestinian leadership (presently the PA). But once one gets into the details of this it becomes very complex, as other issues apart from the occupation start looming large—Jerusalem, Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, refugees and “right of return,” sovereignty, borders, settlement blocs, narratives of 1948, Hamas, etc, etc—and which could scuttle the whole process even if Israel were willing the quit the near entirety of the West Bank. For the Palestinians, ending the occupation of the West Bank is NOT the only issue on the table. And, it needs to be said, not everyone who hates the occupation of the West Bank is entirely with the Palestinians on these other issues.

Secondly, there was a global consensus in regard to South Africa and apartheid, and much of the world was already boycotting that country by the time the campaign took off in the US in the mid-80s (and which even swept up the GOP-majority Congress of the time). There is not the slightest chance this will obtain with Israel. The only part of the world that boycotts Israel is the OIC, but even here there are significant exceptions (N.B Israel has diplomatic and economic relations with close to 40% of OIC member states). Israel has robust relations (economic, military, etc) with India, China, Japan, Russia and the other USSR successor states, Latin America, and much of Africa. And then there’s Europe, not to mention the US. Anyone who thinks that any government in the West, or any significant sector of the economy or civil society will jump on the boycott wagon is living in a fantasy world. In France, which has the largest Muslim population in the western world, both in absolute numbers and percentage, BDS supporters pushed their campaign four or five years ago but the pushback was swift and decisive. French Jews hit back hard and not even the mainstream left (Socialist party, intellectuals, academics) would hear of it. Since then there has been practically nothing. It is likewise across the continent. The BDS campaign is a waste of time. That’s my view, in any case.

The second thread began with a link to an August 2009 column by Uri Avnery in Gush Shalom (also on the Ma’an News Agency website) that critiqued BDS:

I’ve been a fan of Uri Avnery for close to four decades now and his commentary in Gush Shalom is right on target. A couple more comments about the BDS campaign, and specifically the South Africa parallel. First, the South Africa boycott was primarily a matter of states, international organizations (UN mandated embargos, etc), and—as Avnery alludes to—governing bodies of international sports (IOC, FIFA et al). Civil society action was secondary and mainly symbolic. Consumer boycotts were mostly irrelevant (as there were few visible South African goods on the US and European markets), there was little talk about boycotting academics, and the divestment campaign didn’t have much impact (and was partly checked by the Sullivan Principles). The Israel BDS people seem not to be adopting a South Africa model here (and would have no chance of success if they did). Secondly, South Africa had no organized constituency in the US or anywhere in Europe. American right-wing publications and commentators (National Review, Pat Buchanan…) did support the apartheid regime—for both Cold War and ideological reasons—but this did not translate into anything on the level of public opinion. When the shit hit the fan in South Africa from the mid-80s onward, hardly anyone in the US, UK etc was willing to go to bat for PW Botha & Co. It hardly needs to be said that this is not at all the case with Israel, which has strong constituencies in the US and major European states, and wide support in public opinions. And even if the latter is becoming more critical of Israeli policy, there will never be broad based support for isolating the country as was apartheid South Africa. Avnery is right here and on all counts. The BDS folks are wasting their time. They need a new and much more modest strategy.


[Ron], your position seems to be never say never and all sorts of great things may happen if one is shrewd and strategic. Sure. But let’s be serious now. There is not the *slightest* possibility of global sanctions against Israel such as were implemented against South Africa and backed by the UNSC (where the US has a veto, lest one forget…). The Arab League secondary and tertiary boycott had some effect—e.g., Israelis were deprived of Cola-Cola for decades (horrors!)—but changed nothing on the ground and was entirely abandoned with Oslo. And for all sorts of rather obvious reasons, these Arab League boycotts will not/cannot be revived. The EU, which is Israel’s most important trading partner, may freeze progress toward deeper economic integration but won’t cancel it, let alone impose sanctions. These is no chance whatever of this. As I said before, the BDS campaign in France is practically non-existent (outside marginalized sectors of the far left). And can one see Germany taking part in this? Or states like China, India, Japan, South Korea, Brazil, Russia…, whose foreign policies are determined exclusively by realpolitik? In international sports, does one imagine for a second that Israel will be suspended from UEFA or the IOC? I don’t even think the BDS folks have put this on the agenda. As for the last Gaza war and Lebanon 2006, there was certainly a lot of anger at Israel and across the board—including from Jews normally supportive of Israel—but who’s talking about Gaza today? It’s sad and tragic for the Gazans but world opinion—where the attention span has become ever shorter—has moved on to other crises and preoccupations. Gazans feel forgotten and, terrible as it may be, they pretty much have been. Or, to put it another way, it is up to the political leadership there—making use of the agency that it possesses—to find a way to extricate themselves from their predicament. And given the ideological character of the charming crowd that runs the show in Gaza, they’re not going to get a lot of help on this from the outside. In his blog post, Uri Avnery made an important point about the eventual effect of a successful BDS campaign on Israel: the country would recoil into an even greater nationalist hysteria and with the extreme right reinforced. So instead of softies like Bibi the country would end up being ruled by the likes of Avigdor Lieberman, Moshe Feiglin, and Effi Eytam. Now it is possible that BDSers and militant pro-Palestinians may actually welcome this, so as to accentuate the contradictions and pave the way to, well, what? Israel withdrawing unilaterally from the West Bank and  East Jerusalem, evacuating hundreds of thousands of settlers, and ceding on the right of return? Does anyone imagine that any Israeli government can be constrained through international pressure to do all this, and under a right-wing government no less?…


[Ron], the substance of my argument here is that, yes, the BDS campaign is indeed doomed to failure and for the reasons I have explicated. My well-considered assessment is that it has no chance of succeeding in either of its objectives, to wit, snowballing to the point where Israel eventually finds itself globally boycotted and sanctioned economically, culturally, academically, sportingly, etc;  and prompting Israel to capitulate to BDSer demands. As you may have noted, I have not debated the politics or principles of the campaign, which is another matter altogether. My argument has been driven by Naomi Klein’s in The Nation last January, where she stated that the boycott is a tactic, not dogma, and should be tried against Israel for practical reasons, i.e., because it might work. I say no. Okay, time will tell.

Two final points. First, I have participated in a number of boycotts over the decades, including on the organizational level (leafleting, picketing…), mainly union-led consumer ones in the ‘70s (iceberg lettuce, grapes, Gallo wine, Farah trousers, Gulf Oil…). A number of these were ultimately successful, as they were narrowly targeted, easy to explain and understand, had explicit objectives, and did not demand undue effort by consumers or have indefinite time frames (i.e., there was the expectation that the target of the boycott—corporate management—, feeling the pain, would negotiate within a reasonable amount of time and cede to the demands, which mainly involved recognition of a union). I think I know what it takes to organize a successful boycott. If I were called in to advise the BDS campaign as a neutral outsider (which I am not), I would tell them that they have it all wrong: the boycott is way too broad and scattershot, too onerous and complicated for consumers (asking people to verify the origins of what they put in their shopping carts, decipher bar codes…)—when not unreasonable (e.g., if anyone asks me to boycott Israeli cinema, I will impolitely tell him/her to go f*** off)—, an impossibly large population to be organized (the whole planet), and with no realistic time frame (open ended consumer boycotts are destined to fizzle). And the ultimate objectives are murky. Which is why BDS-type campaigns against states must ultimately be led by states, not civil societies.

Secondly, and in this vein, the world has had extensive experience in recent times with comprehensive sanctions against states (South Africa, Rhodesia, Iraq, Serbia, Burma, Israel during the Arab League boycott…). The general consensus is that they simply don’t work, and have numerous perverse effects to boot. Regimes dig in their heels, ordinary people suffer while regime-linked profiteers profit, there are countless ways to circumvent them, nationalism is whipped up… In the case of South Africa—and with all due respect to Desmond Tutu—, sanctions did not play a role in bringing the apartheid regime to its knees. It was the (unarmed) struggle of the black majority—which was blessed with the enlightened leadership of Nelson Mandela and the ANC—and realization by the Afrikaner elite that the game was up, that apartheid was untenable and unsustainable. I’ll leave it up to others to see similarities and differences here with Israel-Palestine. That’s it. You get the last word.

UPDATE: I had another Facebook exchange in 2009 with “Ron,” on the issue of Palestinian refugees, the “right of return” (ROR), and UN General Assembly Resolution 194. As the ROR is a BDS demand and with such based on a reading of UNGAR 194, what I had to say is relevant here:

The problem with the refugee problem is that it is, in fact, not a problem anymore, because most of the ’48 refugees are now dead and those who are still around were children back then and have few if any memories of the period. The people who continue to live in “refugee camps”—which are now for the most part fully integrated quarters of urban areas (we’ve all visited one or several)—are the *descendants* of the ’48 refugees—now into the fourth, even fifth, generation—, not refugees themselves. As such, they have a claim to compensation for the lost property of their ancestors but to nothing else. The only solution to their current status is to be granted citizenship in the countries where they were born and have resided all their lives (a future West Bank-Gaza Palestinian state, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt;  those in Jordan already have citizenship there).  If they and/or the states in question reject this and continue to insist on a phantasmic “right of return”— however symbolic—, that will really be too bad, as the refugee descendants will continue to bang their heads against the wall for the indefinite future.

What I’m saying here is so obvious and I am amazed that it is not to others (not even in Israel, BTW).


What I propose may resemble a discourse one hears from Israelis, as you say, but that does not a priori invalidate it (and that’s not where I get it from). On Resolution 194, a few comments: (a) As it is a General Assembly resolution, it is not binding; (b) For the record, the Arab League vehemently opposed 194 when it was debated and enacted, and the PLO rejected it—along with all other relevant UN resolutions—until 1988, when it changed its position; (c) As a non-binding resolution enacted over sixty years ago, 194 is now irrelevant; it has been superseded by events; there’s been a lot of water under the bridge since then; (d) Most importantly, the formulation “right of return” appears nowhere in 194; the resolution’s critical article 11 thus reads:  “…refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date…”; parsing this backward: (i) The “earliest practicable date” presumably means when an end-of-conflict peace settlement is finally signed; by the time this happens—the way things look nowadays—every last 1948 refugee will be dead; (ii) “should be permitted” is the conditional tense, not the imperative;  it expresses a desire, not a mandate; (iii) “return to their homes”: but their homes are long gone, having been razed, demolished, or occupied by others; there are no homes to go back to; (iv) “refugees”: the ’48 refugees are almost all dead (see point (i)). Conclusion: 194 is caduc (borrowing from Yasser Arafat, who thus pronounced the Palestinian National Charter in 1989).

On the matter of compensation, I entirely agree. The Palestinians suffered a massive spoliation of property and assets in 1948, and the presumptive heirs have a right to just compensation. But the Arab League enacted a resolution in 1965 forbidding individual Palestinians from accepting compensation from Israel and this has been longstanding PLO doctrine. This is a highly sensitive issue among Palestinians even today, with many rejecting compensation if it involves surrendering the “right of return.”  But the Palestinians cannot have their cake and eat it too on this, or they’ll end up losing out on all counts (and not for the first time…). The Israelis, for their part, were long willing to settle compensation claims, formally at least, though at this point will no doubt want to send the bill to the US Congress and “international community,” which would not sit well with me.  They should cough up the money themselves, or most of it, but we’re not at this stage yet, far from it…

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War Witch & Tabu


Two nights ago I watched a documentary reportage on LCP (French C-SPAN) on the Lord’s Resistance Army and its psychopath cult leader, Joseph Kony, which focused specifically on the accounts of soldier-slave children who had been abducted into the LRA, managed to escape, and regain their villages. The documentary was filmed in the southern Central African Republic, where the LRA has been operating (plus the DRC) since it was driven out of Uganda several years ago. A remote region of one of the most remote countries in the world (and with one of the most deliquescent states on a continent replete with such states). One can’t get much more off the beaten track than the CAR. One almost felt the dread of the film crew moving about the area with the LRA lurking in the bush—and despite the escort of CAR soldiers—, not to mention that of the villagers and the children. Unspeakable what happened to the latter at the hands of the LRA, and of the atrocities visited upon the former. Small wonder that Kony is at the top of the list of war criminals actively sought by the ICC in The Hague. US Army Special Forces, despite years of effort, have not been able to get their hands on him. Dismaying.

The subject of child soldiers is a heart-wrenching one. The children interviewed in the LCP reportage—aged 12 to 16—were nice, innocent kids when they were abducted into the LRA—when they were as young as 8 or 9—, where, by their own accounts, they killed innumerable villagers and participated in massacres. They had no choice. How does one deal with children who have been through this? Most of them seemed normal while interviewed but they’ve pretty clearly been psychologically damaged to varying degrees. The child soldier phenomenon has, of course, been present in many conflicts in the world—e.g. Khmer Rouge, Sri Lankan LTTE, Colombian FARC—but it’s mainly an African one. As it happens, I saw a feature-length film on the phenomenon a couple of months ago, ‘War Witch’ (French title: ‘Rebelle’), by Canadian director Kim Nguyen, and that is one of the nominees for best foreign film in the upcoming Oscars. The film is set in an unnamed African country, that I determined could only be the DRC, and, sure enough, that’s where it was shot (in the area around Kinshasa). It opens with the assault on a riverside village by an armed gang, who pillage, massacre, and abduct children, including the 12-year old girl and protagonist, Komona—played by the nonprofessional Rachel Mwanza, who won the best actress award at the 2012 Berlinale—, who is forced to murder her parents. If there were ever evil people in the world, the adult leaders of these armed gangs—who call themselves rebels, or revolutionaries, or whatever—are it. The film follows Komona—who is declared by the gang’s leader to be endowed with supernatural powers—as a child soldier, her budding romantic relationship with a veteran (age 14), an albino boy named Magician, and ultimately what happens to them. It’s a disturbing but powerful film, and important to see, as it deals with a tragically real phenomenon, of killer children but who didn’t choose to be that way. I’ve seen two other films in recent years on child soldiers in Africa—’Johnny Mad Dog‘ (shot in Liberia) and ‘Ezra‘ (set in Sierra Leone)—and would rate this one the best, or at least the one to see (if one wishes to see just one film on the subject). Reviews in the Hollywood press—which are positive—are here, here, and here. French reviews are here.

While I’m at it, I should mention another film I saw late last fall, ‘Tabu’, by Portuguese director-auteur Miguel Gomes, that was partly set in Africa (though which has nothing to do with child soldiers). The pic is divided into two parts. The first part is in contemporary Lisbon and focuses on an elderly woman into her dotage and who has a long-buried secret from her past. The second part is a flashback to the 1960s, of the estate in an unnamed Portuguese colony in Africa—the segment was shot in Mozambique—in which she lived and the revelation of the secret, which involved romance. I found the first part of the film confusing and not particularly interesting, to the point where I thought the pic was going to be yet another insufferable film d’auteur that critics love but causes walk outs in the audience. But it really came together during the second half in Africa. One’s attention was riveted to the recounting of the buried memory—and which was narrated, as this part of the film was silent (and, as with the first part, was in black-and-white).  The second part made the film. And my sentiments on this were echoed by a friend, as well as by several critics. As Variety critic Jay Weissberg put it, the film “starts off merely perplexing and winds up insinuating its charms.” Critics on both sides of the Atlantic have, not surprisingly, been gushing over the pic, e.g. here, here, here and here, and French reviews here. Weissberg again: “‘Tabu’ is nearly uncategorizable and strictly for patient arthouse crowds, yet those who wait are likely to come away still puzzled but deeply moved.” I agree. Highly recommended.


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

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

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

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


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mali-france-conflict photo ERIC FEFERBERG

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

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

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

mali_le point_26012013


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La Pirogue

La Pirogue

This is one of the better films I’ve seen over the past couple of months. It’s from Senegal, about a major, real life subject, which is migration—irregular, clandestine—from sub-Saharan Africa to Europe: in this case, of the treacherous 1,500 km passage in pirogue fishing boats from Senegal to the Canary Islands in Spain (see the map here), which African migrants determined to reach Europe began to take toward the middle of the last decade, and that peaked in 2006, when some 30,000 came ashore in the Canary Islands. As the islands couldn’t cope with the influx, most of the migrants were transported to reception centers on the Spanish mainland, at which point they were home free—to move on to their destinations on the continent (mainly France)—, which the well-informed migrants knew would happen. The pirogues were piloted by Senegalese fisherman driven out of their waters—and into unemployment—by big fishing trawlers, mainly from South Korea. And the voyages—which have for the most part ended due to concerted international action—were organized by unscrupulous traffickers.

The film—which is an homage to the thousands of migrants who perished at sea (some 6,000 in 2006 alone)—reenacts, in documentary-like fashion, the journey: of the recruitment of the pilot by the sleazy trafficker in a coastal village outside Dakar, the assembly of the 30 migrants—native Senegalese and Peuls from Guinea—on the beach, the crossing to the Canaries on the high seas, the dynamics among the passengers—who are divided by ethnicity and language—, their contrasting reactions when they come across a pirogue whose engine has failed and is packed with desperate migrants (Guinean Peuls), and then what happens when things start to go wrong with their own boat. The portrayal of all this is no doubt totally accurate. It’s quite a powerful film for this reason, but above all because it shows the migrants as real, flesh-and-blood individuals seeking to better their lives—and at huge risk to their lives—and not as statistics, some faceless mass, or objects of phantasms and fear stereotyped by European public opinions and demagogic politicians. Seeing the film increases one’s revulsion—well, mine at least—toward the anti-immigrant demagoguery in immigrant-receiving countries. Not that Europe (or the US) should throw open the doors to unfettered immigration—which no one is proposing—, but that policy responses to the issue must involve respect and consideration for the migrants, that we’re talking about real people and who, again, seek nothing more than to better their lives. The film should be required viewing for anyone expressing a decided viewpoint on the issue, not to mention politicians and policy-makers engaged with it. Variety gave the film a good review, as did French critics. Pierre Haski of Rue89 had a nice essay how “the African boat people finally have their film.” Trailers are here and here.

On the subject of irregular immigration to the European continent, I saw a small Italian film a few months ago, ‘Io sono Li’ (English title: ‘Li and the Poet’; en France: ‘La Petite Venise’), on a young Chinese undocumented immigrant who works in a bar-restaurant in Chioggia, on the Venitian Lagoon, where she was sent by the Chinese trafficker who brought her into the country, initially to work in a clandestine textile factory near Rome. The story is of her effort to accumulate enough money to bring her young son from China to join her—while still owing money to the trafficker—, of her isolation in Chioggia, and the friendship she develops with a retired Slovenian fisherman, who has lived in the town for many years—he’s nicknamed “the poet” and is a regular at the bar—but, as an immigrant, is also an outsider. The review in Variety, which called it “a gentle pic,” is here. French reviews, which were positive, are here.

io sono li

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Voici une analyse de Bernard Guetta sur France Inter hier, que je trouve assez juste

Ça n’a pas été « non » mais ca n’a pas été, non plus, un «oui concret». Malgré les « discussions approfondies » qu’elle a menées, hier, avec le président algérien, la secrétaire d’Etat américaine, n’a pas encore su le convaincre d’approuver et appuyer l’intervention contre les groupes islamistes qui font régner la terreur au Nord Mali depuis le printemps.

Les contacts vont se poursuivre, a déclaré Hilary Clinton en assurant avoir « beaucoup apprécié » l’analyse de la complexité de la situation malienne que lui a présentée Abdelaziz Bouteflika mais, courtoisies diplomatiques ou pas, quatre raisons retiennent l’Algérie de s’engager dans cette crise aux côtés de la France, des Etats-Unis et de pays de la Cédéao, la Communauté économique des Etats d’Afrique de l’Ouest.

La première est que l’Algérie reste allergique à tout renforcement de la présence ou même de l’influence française à ses frontières. Un demi-siècle après avoir recouvré son indépendance, l’Algérie continue de se méfier de son ancienne puissance coloniale et cela d’autant plus qu’elle a désapprouvé son rôle dans le renversement du colonel Kadhafi et, plus généralement, le soutien des Occidentaux aux révolutions arabes qui sont perçues comme une menace par le pouvoir algérien.

La deuxième est que l’Aqmi, al Qaëda au Maghreb islamique, l’un des groupes qui a pris le contrôle du Nord Mali, est essentiellement constitué d’islamistes algériens qui avaient trouvé refuge au Sahel après avoir été militairement défaits à la fin des années 90. L’Algérie ne veut pas se retrouver aux prises avec eux et la troisième raison pour laquelle elle est si réticente à appuyer cette intervention est que 50 000 de ses citoyens sont des Touaregs, vivant aux frontières du Sahel et très proches des Touaregs du Mali, ceux-là mêmes dont l’aspiration indépendantiste a permis aux islamistes de prendre pied au Nord de ce pays.

L’Algérie craint de susciter une question touareg sur son territoire et la quatrième raison de sa réticence est qu’elle veut encore croire en la possibilité de faire éclater par la négociation le fragile front qui s’est formé entre les islamistes touaregs et Aqmi. L’Algérie est tout, sauf allante et sa prudence gêne considérablement la France et les Etats-Unis qui ne voient pas comment leur appui logistique pourrait garantir le succès de l’intervention africaine qu’ils préparent si le plus puissant Etat de la région ne leur prête pas la main. Français et Américains vont donc continuer à tenter de convaincre l’Algérie de sortir de son attentisme mais, s’ils n’y parvenaient pas, un point d’interrogation supplémentaire pèserait alors sur cette opération dont les points faibles sont nombreux.

Mal entraînées, les troupes du Mali et de la Cédéao peuvent sans doute reprendre les villes du Nord Mali mais plus difficilement les sécuriserà long terme et moins encore rétablir l’ordre dans le vaste Sahel si la frontière algéro-malienne n’est pas hermétiquement fermée et si les renseignements algériens ne leur apportent pas un complet soutien. Cette intervention reste aussi nécessaire qu’aléatoire.

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[update below]

Last week I had a post on “The crime in Timbuktu,” where I rhetorically asked why a couple of thousand American and/or French special forces couldn’t just go in and clean the Ansar Eddine fanatics outta there. My question, I will readily admit, was not entirely grounded in reality, as I know well that such an intervention is not in the cards. I was getting carried away in my emotion at the destruction of Timbuktu’s shrines. The US is certainly not going to send troops to some country most Americans have never heard of and to save historical patrimony in a town hardly anyone has ever been to (on my one trip to Mali I got within 500 km or so of Timbuktu; it’s not easy to visit even when one is in that country). Earlier this week Le Monde had an analysis by Africa specialists Patrick Gonin and Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos on why an outside intervention in Mali would be exceptionally difficult. France, the ex-colonial power, is intensely distrusted by Malians, ruling out any intervention on its part (anti-French sentiment is strong in most former French colonies in west and equatorial Africa, as anyone who has spent time in the region will quickly pick up on). It is not likely that the United Nations will act, as what is happening in Mali does not undermine world peace, nor does it (yet) seriously threaten stability throughout the region. And the humanitarian crisis provoked by the conflict is not (yet) such that the R2P (Responsibility to Protect) principle can be invoked. Neighboring African states could intervene with the benediction of the UN, as they did in Liberia and Sierra Leone in the 1990s, but these operations were not brilliant successes (and with Nigerian and other troops participating in the pillage of Liberia). An American intervention is not even mentioned, as it so out of the realm of possibility.

As for the deliquescent Malian state itself—and which has been in conflict with the Tuareg secessionist movement in the north (Azawad)—, it does not presently have the ability to drive the Islamists out. But Gonin and Pérouse de Montclos conclude that the situation could eventually change in favor of the government in Bamako

D’ores et déjà, il paraît très peu probable que les Maliens puissent revenir au statu quo ante. A défaut d’une indépendance de l’Azawad qui ne serait reconnue par personne, et surtout pas par les pays voisins, une forme d’autonomie régionale devra sans doute être négociée en vue de construire un nouveau contrat social et national. A l’heure où les combattants du MNLA  [Mouvement national pour la libération de l’Azawad] sont en déroute, c’est peut-être paradoxalement l’intransigeance des islamistes qui permettra au gouvernement malien de regagner “les coeurs et les esprits” des Touareg en les convainquant que le pouvoir éloigné de Bamako vaut mieux que la dictature de proximité des fous de Dieu.

In the meantime, all one can do is weep for Timbuktu.

UPDATE: Francis Ghilès and Bill Lawrence have a good analysis (en français) in Slate Afrique from earlier this week on “how to save the Sahel.” The situation in Mali could indeed destabilize the whole region, including the Maghreb. Armed intervention would only worsen the chaos, they argue. Europe does need to intervene but as a disinterested mediator—something the French, at least, have never been. On peut toujours changer; il n’est jamais trop tard…

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