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[update below]

Adam Shatz—contributing editor at the London Review of Books and dear personal friend—did a two-hour podcast interview with Olivier Roy, the well-known political Islam specialist, earlier this month, the first part of which is up on the LRB website. The podcast coincides with the publication of the English translation of Roy’s 2014 En quête de l’Orient perdu: entretiens avec Jean-Louis Schlegel, which is an interview-memoir about his life and career. In the first part of the podcast, Roy talks about his soixante-huitard youth, 1970s engagement with the Parisian extreme left, and his years of field work, as it were, in the 1980s with the mujahideen in Afghanistan. Très intéressant. I’ll post the second part of the interview in an update when it goes up this week.

UPDATE: The second part of the podcast is up on the LRB website. I find it even more interesting than the first. Roy talks, entre autres, about his knock-down-drag-out Parisian academic brawl with the Islamologist Gilles Kepel (for the uninitiated, see here, here, and here). The two really don’t like one another. For the anecdote, I received an invitation from a high-profile US-based foreign policy-oriented journal/webzine to write an article about the brawl when it was in full swing last year but politely declined. I didn’t want to touch this one with a ten-foot pole (as, entre autres, I had already published an essay some two decades prior rubbishing Kepel, which he neither forgot nor forgave). Though I lean toward Roy in the brawl, I don’t think their respective arguments—Islamization of radicalism vs. radicalization of Islam—are mutually exclusive. Both their approaches—and what they bring to the table generally—are interesting and can be synthesized. As an American political science MENA specialist friend—who is friends with Kepel but stayed clear of his conflict with Roy—wrote on social media last year: “The level of analysis and debate [on Islam, radicalization, and terrorism] is so far ahead [in France] of what we have in the US it’s almost embarrassing.”

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elena-ferrante-neapolitan-novels

Everyone has been talking about the apparent revelation of her veritable identity, published simultaneously, as one knows, in five different countries (in the US, in the NY Review of Books; in France, in Mediapart). Ça défraye la chronique. As for the reaction to the revelation, it’s been heavily negative, as reported in the press and that I have also noted on social media (though some argue that the revelation was both inevitable and not a bad thing). Now when I say “everyone” knows about this, it’s because everyone—i.e. everyone in my socio-educational stratum—has either read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, is presently doing so, or intends to. And, BTW, this includes Hillary Clinton, who recently revealed that she loves reading Ferrante and finds the Neapolitan novels “hypnotic” (kind of like Barack Obama telling a journalist during the 2008 campaign that his favorite TV series was ‘The Wire’: a reminder to part of his base that “I’m one of you; I share your highbrow cultural tastes”).

If, by chance, one does not yet know about the Neapolitan novels—which is actually a single novel in four parts—go here. I recently finished the second one, so still have two to go (the third, so I have been told by several friends, is the chef d’œuvre of the four). I am not a big literature person, as those who know me know, but love reading Ferrante—as do 98.5% of my friends, colleagues, and acquaintances who have read her. The last series of novels I so enjoyed was David Lodge’s campus trilogy, and that was some time ago. My Brilliant Friend is a page turner from page 1, so one gets into it right away (and my wife, who is a literature person, wholly agrees; she just started the first one en français and is already half way through; and the French translation is excellent, so she says, as I find the English). It is not only a vividly recounted story of the relationship between two women, from childhood onward, and with all the supporting characters, but also brilliantly depicts a society and culture at a particular moment in history, here—through the first two books—the (southern) Italian working class in the 1950s and ’60s. As social science, I find it fascinating. And it’s all very Italian, like so many epic Italian films—if I were to draw up a list, it would go into the double digits—that follow a person or group of friends over a lifetime, or a family over generations, and with repères of modern Italian history. It’s an Italian genre.

So if one has not yet read Ferrante, take this as a recommendation to do so.

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Riad Sattouf, 2014 (image credit: Laurence Houot/Culturebox)

Riad Sattouf, 2014 (image credit: Laurence Houot/Culturebox)

Adam Shatz—London Review of Books contributing editor and dear personal friend—has a “letter from Paris” in the October 19th issue of The New Yorker on the Franco-Syrian graphic novelist—and Charlie Hebdo contributor from 2004 to 2014—Riad Sattouf, whose two-volume graphic memoir, The Arab of the Future: A Childhood in the Middle East, has been a best seller in France (Vol. 1, which came out in 2014, sold over 200,000 copies, which was exceptional for a book of this type; it will be out in English translation next week). I have yet to read it myself—I plan to this weekend—but have heard from several persons who have that it’s absolutely worth it. Adam’s article definitely is.

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My People, Black & White

(Illustration by Michael Hogue)

(Illustration by Michael Hogue)

On the occasion of the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina making landfall in New Orleans, I’m linking to the cover article of the September-October issue of The American Conservative, “My People, Black & White: How I came to see my country through African-American eyes,” by TAC senior editor Rod Dreher. The subject of Dreher’s article is his collaboration with actor Wendell Pierce—best known for his role as Detective Bunk Moreland in The Wire—in the writing of Pierce’s memoir, The Wind in the Reeds: A Storm, A Play, and the City That Would Not Be Broken, which will be published on September 8th by Penguin. Pierce, who was born and raised in middle class black New Orleans, sought out Dreher’s collaboration after having read the latter’s 2013 memoir of growing up in a small town north of Baton Rouge. The collaboration seemed unlikely but as they were both native Louisianans—with cultural commonalities spanning the racial divide—and of the same generation—both born in the mid 1960s—it worked.

I thought this was a very interesting article. Dreher thus writes

The centerpiece of [Pierce’s] book would be the unparalleled devastation that Hurricane Katrina wreaked upon the city in 2005 and how that catastrophe galvanized him to help rebuild his hometown. Wendell starred in a nationally celebrated production of “Waiting for Godot,” staged in the ruins of the Lower Ninth Ward and Gentilly neighborhood. In his book, he wanted to write about the power of art to move and to heal a people.

All of that sounded great to me and was something I confidently thought I could help with. There was a part of it that made me feel extremely uncomfortable, however: racism.

I was born in 1967 and went to integrated public schools in my small Louisiana town. Nobody talked about what things were like under segregation. Looking back, it’s bizarre how we kids—we white kids, anyway—were raised with near-total ignorance of the world into which we were born, a world that was passing away even then. We knew that segregation had happened, of course, but we only heard about Jim Crow and civil rights on television, and it was easy to believe all that was a long time ago and far away.

My memory of my hometown did not include Klansmen, racial terror, or any of the things that were common throughout the Deep South. So you can imagine my shock when, shortly after I returned to my hometown in 2011, a white friend passed on to me an Ebony article from 1964 that described the scene outside of the West Feliciana Parish courthouse on October 17, 1963, when the Rev. Joseph Carter became the first black parish resident to register to vote in 61 years.

It was ugly, and that night ended with Klan terror. The sheriff and the registrar of voters quoted in the story speaking with racist gruffness to the old black preacher are now long dead, but they were men whose names I grew up respecting. The courthouse where a white mob cursed the blacks was on the other side of my backyard fence. (…)

And further down

With the digital recorder running, Wendell reminisced at length about growing up in Pontchartrain Park in the 1960s. He talked about the sports leagues, the church fairs, the adventures he and his pals had on the golf course. “Every home had a mother and a father in it, and you knew that everybody’s mother and father was like your own,” he said.

It was a close-knit community that inculcated a culture of hard work and perseverance. Pontchartrain Park became an incubator of the rising black middle class in New Orleans. Ernest Morial, who in 1978 would become the city’s first black mayor, lived in the neighborhood and raised his kids there—including son Marc, who would also be a New Orleans mayor. Lisa Jackson, who headed the Environmental Protection Agency under President Obama, grew up in Pontchartrain Park, as did jazz legend Terence Blanchard.

Pontchartrain Park may have been founded as a way for the white power structure to bleed off black restlessness, said Wendell, but it became a haven for African-Americans in a heartless Jim Crow world. Inside the neighborhood, black children found peace, order, and love, which fortified them to meet racial hostility and other obstacles with resilient determination. Wendell cited the judgment of Herman Plunkett, a longtime resident of Pontchartrain Park: “It came out of something ugly, but it turned out to be something beautiful.” And it was this beautiful community—the one that had nurtured him but had been wiped out by Katrina—that the actor was determined to restore.

On the long drive back to the hills, I thought about how I had never heard of Pontchartrain Park, indeed how none of us outside the city ever heard about its black middle class. When race is in the news, it’s almost always about poor black people and their problems. African-Americans who live middle-class lives are all but invisible to many in white America.

Just as many of us who came up outside of New Orleans had our opinions formed largely by media reports of its violence, the history of the city’s black middle class was hidden by its simple success. People who go to work day in and day out, coach softball in their neighborhoods, and raise their kids without drama never make the news. (…)

Dreher’s writing about having known nothing of New Orleans’ black middle class neighborhoods brought back a memory of mine. In 1987, when I was living in Chicago, four friends from the east coast came to town—precisely over Memorial Day weekend—for the wedding of a couple with whom we were all friends. As it was the first time in Chicago for all four, I took them on a driving tour of the city. Showing them the University of Chicago campus in Hyde Park, I then headed south, to the black neighborhoods of South Shore and Avalon Park, just to show my friends black middle class Chicago, where people live in single family homes (that they own), mow their lawns, maintain their property, etc. (pour l’info, this is the part of town Michelle Obama is from). My friends—all well-educated liberals—were surprised by what they saw. One called it an “eye-opener”: like Rod Dreher, she had no idea. Like almost all white people—and across the political spectrum—my friends’ image of black neighborhoods was the ghetto, of slums and housing projects where one risked physical aggression, if not violent death, if ventured into. As white people never see black neighborhoods unless they make a wrong turn in the car, their stereotypical images are not surprising. (It’s likewise in France with the cités in the banlieues, BTW).

Reassuring his ideological kindred spirits, Dreher offers this

I did not become a liberal Democrat from this experience. In fact, conservatives who read the book—The Wind in the Reeds—may be astonished by how culturally conservative the Pierce and Edwards family ethic is. The well-ordered Pontchartrain Park world Wendell grew up in, and is trying today to re-create, is one that nearly every social conservative longs for. Few will read of the religious devotion and the fierce patriotism of the actor’s clan without shedding tears. (…)

I’d be curious to know if TAC founder Patrick Buchanan’s views on race have evolved, as he was an ardent defender of apartheid South Africa and whose attitudes toward blacks were comparable to his well-known ones toward Jews. People’s world-views can change, even late in life.

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the onion v51 i19 05-15-2015

A decades-long opponent of the death penalty, I could not feel satisfaction at the sentence meted out to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on Friday. And my sentiment was shared by many Bostonians, indeed the overwhelming majority according to a Boston Globe poll, “that found little support for the death penalty in general [but] even less when it came to Tsarnaev.” My view was precisely expressed by New York magazine editor Jesse Singal, who wrote

When I saw that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had been sentenced to death, a cold, queasy feeling settled in my gut, and I got very sad. From a certain perspective, this doesn’t make much sense — Tsarnaev murdered people in cold blood, and if anyone deserves the death penalty, it’s him. And yet I couldn’t — can’t — shake the feeling that the U.S. government is going to commit a barbaric wrong. And I’m far from the only Bostonian who feels this way — most of us don’t want to kill Tsarnaev.

In one of my Boston bomber posts of two years ago, I remarked that the younger Tsarnaev was, at that moment, 19-years-old, the same age as my daughter, and that my daughter was—for me, at least—a kid. 19-year-olds do not hatch terrorist attacks; they are recruited into them, and/or brainwashed into participating. In a trial, this is a manifest attenuating circumstance. Tsarnaev should clearly spend the better part of his life in prison for his participation in the bombing and for the killing and maiming it sowed. But he should not be judicially murdered for it. Nor put in a Super Max prison and/or solitary confinement, both a manifest violation of the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution.

Writing in Slate, Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen, looking at the jury, pins the responsibility for the verdict on the prosecution, which “framed Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as an enemy combatant, [thus] help[ing] seal his fate.”

Also in Slate, writer Seth Stevenson ponders “[t]he baffling reasoning of the jury that just sentenced Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death.” In his commentary, Stevenson concludes with a reference to the trial in Harper Lee’s To Kill Mockingbird, of a black man in a small town in Alabama in the 1930s. As it so happens, I just finished reading this great American novel (and for the very first time). If any Americans reading this post have not read Harper Lee’s chef d’œuvre, they are strongly encouraged to do so. Not only does the novel offer what is probably the best, most dead-on accurate depiction of life in the Deep South in its era that one will find in a work of fiction, but is also a backhanded argument for abolishing the death penalty, as popular juries should never, ever have a say over the life or death of a man. C’est tout c’que j’ai à dire.

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Kamel Daoud (photo credit: Denis Allard/REA)

Kamel Daoud (photo credit: Denis Allard/REA)

[update below] [2nd update below]

Adam Shatz’s portrait of Algerian writer Kamel Daoud—on whom I posted last December—is up on The New York Times website (it will appear in hard copy in this Sunday’s NYT Magazine). It’s an excellent piece—as one would expect from Adam—and is as much about contemporary Algeria as about Daoud himself. It’s a must-read for anyone with an interest in that country but also in the Arab world more generally.

On the subject of Algeria, France 3’s weekly documentary television series, Thalassa—a great program and popular; I’ve been watching it off-and-on for decades—will be entirely consecrated to Algeria this Friday (April 3rd). Anyone with the slightest interest in Algeria will want to watch it. It will be on replay on the program’s website for a week following the broadcast.

UPDATE:The English translation of Kamel Daoud’s book, The Meursault Investigation, has been published by Other Press. (June 3rd)

2nd UPDATE: Here are reviews of the English translation of Daoud’s novel in The New York Times, The Observer, NPR, and The Guardian. And here’s an interview with Daoud by Albert Camus specialist Robert Zaretsky in the Los Angeles Review of Books. (June 30th)

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houellebecq soumission

Adam Shatz, contributing editor at the London Review of Books and writer in residence at New York University’s Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies—and dear personal friend—has a fine review essay in the latest issue of the LRB on Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel, Soumission. As one is no doubt aware by now, the novel is about a Muslim takeover of France following the 2022 presidential election, in which Marine Le Pen squares off in the 2nd round against one Mohammed Ben Abbes—candidate of a new (moderate) Muslim party, La Fraternité Musulmane—who, supported by the Socialists and everyone else seeking to block Marine LP, wins. And then the Islamization of France en douceur begins. The pre-publication hype around the novel—which fatefully hit the bookstores on January 7th, the day of the Charlie Hebdo massacre—made it out to be Islamophobic but Adam says that it’s not, that while “deeply reactionary” it is not only not hostile to Islam but is almost sympathetic. And as Adam emphasizes—as have Adam Gopnik and Mark Lilla in their reviews of the novel—the veritable targets for backhanded scorn are the French political class and French people themselves, who willingly, without resistance, slouch towards the new Islamic republic. It is more a commentary on France than on Islam.

Soumission is, not surprisingly, a best-seller, the nº3 ranking novel two months after its release. And one may predict that the English translation, due out this fall, will also sell well. So will I read it? Most unlikely. I’m not a big fiction person to begin with, Houellebecq has a well-known twisted mind, and my fiction-reading wife, among others, says she doesn’t like his style. That’s enough for me. I also find both preposterous and mystifying the lurid fantasy—more in the Anglo-American world than in France—of Muslims/Islam taking over the European continent in the coming decades. It is such a crackpot notion that I will definitively cease listening to or taking seriously anyone—by definition an ignoramus—who adheres to it. For starters, identity Muslims in France—the Western country with the largest Muslim population, in both absolute numbers and percentage—number 4.5 million max (and probably less), representing some 7% of the French population (the higher figures one sees in the media and elsewhere are exaggerations based on not a shred of published data). And the number is unlikely to increase by even 50% in the coming decades, let alone reach 50%. How an ethno-confessional group making up a tenth of the population “takes over” a country is not apparent to me. Moreover, Muslims in France do not constitute a “community,” as Olivier Roy—whom Adam cites—has insisted. It is a disparate population divided by national origin, ethnicity, degree of religious observance, generation, social class, and you name it. French Muslims do not constitute a bloc for anything and there is not the slightest chance in the foreseeable future that even a small number among them will coalesce qua Muslims in the realm of national electoral politics or representative bodies (assertion: there will never be a “Muslim caucus” in the French National Assembly as, e.g., Afro-Americans have in the US Congress; the mere notion is ludicrous). So even if I were a novel-reading person and liked Houellebecq’s style, I am not a science fiction fan, so doubt I would expend time on one based on such a harebrained, science fiction-like premise. The reviews will suffice.

BTW, Adam has a major article coming up in The New York Times Magazine, on the Algerian writer Kamel Daoud. Stay tuned.

UPDATE: Benjamin Haddad, a research fellow at the Hudson Institute, has a very good review of Houellebecq’s novel in The American Interest. (October 24th)

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