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Cologne, December 31 2015 (Photo: Deutsche Presse-Agentur)

Cologne, December 31 2015 (Photo: Deutsche Presse-Agentur)

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below]

This is the first post I’ve had on what happened in Cologne on New Year’s Eve, though I’ve been riveted to the story and its aftermath since it broke in the days following that calamitous evening. My immediate reaction—apart from indignation over the actions of the hordes of men—was that the perpetrators were most certainly not recently arrived Syrian refugees. This made no sense to me and for a variety of reasons (that need not be elaborated upon here). And my supposition was correct, as police and journalistic accounts have revealed that the men were mostly from the Maghreb and undocumented migrants, not refugees.

As for why the men behaved toward the women in the way they did, the link with religion, i.e. Islam, was prima facie nonsensical, as if a mob of several hundred drunken non-Muslim men would have behaved differently. Not that there are not specific issues with gender and women in public space in a number of Muslim (mainly Arab) societies. On this, one naturally thinks of the numerous incidents reported in Egypt over the past several years and of feature films on the general subject. As I wrote in a post on one of these some 3½ years back

The attack on [CBS reporter] Lara Logan [in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in February 2011] no doubt gave many Americans the unfortunate impression that Egyptian/Arab men are misogynistic a**holes and that there is something sick about those societies. Well, there are indeed such men in Egypt—as there are everywhere—and on the matter of gender relations there are some issues that are specific to that part of the world. But it has to be said that Egypt was not always this way. When I lived in Cairo in the mid 1980s it was absolutely one of the safest cities in the world, on a level with Tokyo, and that likely had less crime than even Oslo or Stockholm. One could leave one’s apartment door unlocked and walk about anywhere at any time of the day or night without the slightest worry. And this was also the case for women too (maybe not late at night, but then hardly anyone went out late in Cairo back then; the city was asleep by 11 PM). The situation has changed considerably over the years, with the worsening economic conditions for so much of the population, overwhelming population density, etc, etc. Egypt is incontestably a coarser, more violent place nowadays than it was in past decades.

In reading the polemics over Cologne, of the European and North American commentators who have tried to establish a link between the men and the fact they were from Muslim cultures, I was reminded of my visit with relatives in India some twenty-five years ago, where a 16-year-old cousin (a few degrees removed) told me that she avoided walking around the center of the city (Allahabad) even during midday, as she was constantly harassed by groups of men (whom she specified were mainly country bumpkins recently arrived in the city). And, as one knows, there have been numerous incidents (reported in the international media) of gang rape in Indian cities, which, until proof to the contrary, were not committed by Muslim men. Indian cities are not necessarily safe spaces for unaccompanied young women.

Whatever cultural variables one may isolate regarding the men in Cologne, the determinate ones were, I will venture, the mob and inebriation. On this, one recalls New York City’s Puerto Rican Day parade in June 2000, during which dozens of women were sexually assaulted by packs of men (e.g. here, here, here, and here). And none of the men arrested or otherwise identified were refugees and/or from Muslim cultures.

One thing Cologne and New York City in June 2000 had in common: the police were not present. The packs of alcohol-imbibed young men had free reign of public space.

What is prompting me to write about Cologne at this particular moment is a debate/polemic on the subject that has been raging this month, including this weekend, which was initiated by the now well-known Algerian writer and commentator Kamel Daoud, who published a full-page tribune in Le Monde dated February 5th, “Cologne, lieu de fantasmes,” in which he sought to establish a link between what happened on New Year’s Eve and Islamism, and which he followed up with an op-ed in The New York Times (February 14th) carrying the titre de chocThe sexual misery of the Arab world.”

Daoud’s linking of Cologne with Islamism and sexual pathologies in the Arab/Muslim world was too much for a certain number of readers. Nineteen MENA specialist academics of varying nationalities thus signed a tribune in Le Monde dated February 12th, “Nuit de Cologne: ‘Kamel Daoud recycle les clichés orientalistes les plus éculés’” (Kamel Daoud is recycling the most hackneyed Orientalist clichés), which was translated into English by the Jadaliyya webzine, under the title “The fantasies of Kamel Daoud.” A full-throttled polemical pushback, with no mincing of words. Disclosure: I know several of the 19 signatories personally and am personal friends with the tribune’s veritable authors.

My dear friend Adam Shatz, who published a profile of Kamel Daoud in the NYT Magazine last April—and with the two becoming good friends—had a few issues with the critique of Daoud, but was also disturbed by what he considered to be excesses by his friend. So he wrote him a letter/email several days ago and which prompted a response by Daoud, the two being published in Le Quotidien d’Oran this week (here and here) and then together in this weekend’s Le Monde, under the title “Kamel Daoud et les ‘fantasmes’ de Cologne, retour sur une polémique.” It’s a moving exchange between two friends, not to mention intellectuals.

On making sense of what happened in Cologne, the best analysis I’ve seen is a lengthy article that led Le Monde’s Culture & Idées supplement (February 6th), “Cologne: peut-on expliquer cette nuit de cauchemar?” by Frédéric Joignot. The lede: “Faut-il voir dans les agressions sexuelles massives de la Saint-Sylvester une conséquences des rapports compliqués qu’entretient le monde arabo-musulman avec les femmes et leurs corps? Plusieurs thèses s’affrontent.” Several major French MENA specialists weigh in. As the article is behind the wall, I’ve copied-and-pasted it in the comments thread below for non-subscribers.

While I’m at it, The New Yorker (February 8th-15th) has a must-read article by staff writer Elif Batuman, who’s Turkish-American, “Cover Story: The head scarf, modern Turkey, and me.” Don’t miss this one.

UPDATE: The Adam Shatz-Kamel Daoud email correspondence has been translated into English, by Elisabeth Zerofsky, and posted on the blog of the World Policy journal. (February 26th)

2nd UPDATE: The intellectual food fight debate over Kamel Daoud’s February 5th Le Monde tribune has continued into the second week of March, with all sorts of intellos, talking heads, and even politicians (qui ont perdu une bonne occasion de se taire) weighing in. As for contributions by the principal parties to the debate, Thomas Serres (one of the 19 signatories of the counter-tribune) launched a polemical salvo, “Autopsie d’une défaite et notes de combat pour la prochaine fois,” in the neo-anarchist Article 11 (March 2nd); Adam Shatz wrote a follow up, typically thoughtful essay on “The Daoud Affair” in the LRB Online (March 4th); Muriam Haleh Davis (one of the 19) has a post in the World Policy Blog (March 7th), “The ‘Daoud Affair’ sparks debate;” and Kamel Daoud penned a column entitled “Mes petites guerres de libération” in Le Quotidien d’Oran (March 7th).

3rd UPDATE: Olivier Roy is interviewed in the April 7-13 issue of L’Obs on a variety of topics, one of which is Cologne and the controversy over Kamel Daoud’s position. Here’s the question and Roy’s reponse

A la suite de votre tribune «Cologne ou “le tartuffe féministe”», parue dans «Libération», on vous a reproché d’apporter votre caution au «procès en sorcellerie» intenté au romancier algérien Kamel Daoud pour ses propos sur les violences sexuelles en Allemagne. Vous dénonciez en effet l’analyse culturaliste des agressions du Nouvel An. Quelle était votre intention ?

J’avais précisément refusé de signer la tribune contre Kamel Daoud. Car ses signataires, dont beaucoup me sont proches, me l’ont évidemment proposé, et j’ai décliné, parce que, si je partage leurs idées, je ne partageais par leur indignation. Pour ma part, je n’attaque pas Kamel Daoud, qui en tant qu’écrivain a le droit d’écrire ce qu’il écrit et d’être excessif, de même que chacun a le droit de critiquer ses opinions.

Ce que j’attaque, c’est l’idée qui traîne désormais partout qu’un musulman harcèle parce qu’il est musulman, et qu’un Européen harcèle parce qu’il a une pathologie particulière. Je ne comprends pas cet essentialisme. Qu’on nous dise qu’il y a une culture musulmane machiste, oui ; que la société algérienne soit une société où les femmes ont beaucoup de mal à aller dans l’espace public, oui. Mais qu’ensuite on nous décrive les musulmans, où qu’ils aillent, comme se trimballant avec un petit logiciel culturel de violeur potentiel dans la tête, non.

A contrario, on dit que les Occidentaux respectent la femme. Mais quand Cécile Duflot se fait siffler à cause de sa jupe à l’Assemblée nationale, ce n’est pas le petit beur de banlieue qui siffle ! Nous sommes dans des sociétés où le féminisme est un combat permanent. Le machisme est certes prégnant en Méditerranée, dans des sociétés qui n’ont pas fait Mai-68, mais il n’est pas spécialement religieux et, surtout, c’est la chose la mieux partagée au monde. Regardez Donald Trump.

I agree with Roy, needless to say.

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Two films from Tunisia

على حلة عيني

على حلة عيني

Last Thursday was the 5th anniversary of the end of the Ben Ali dictatorship in Tunisia, climaxing that country’s famous Jasmine Revolution—so designated by the Western media—and which launched the so-called Arab spring—or, rather, the Arab winter, as The Economist calls it—that swept the Arab world over the subsequent months, notably in Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen. Of the countries that witnessed popular uprisings during that exhilarating, ephemeral historical moment, only Tunisia has succeeded in effectuating a transition to democracy, or at least to a non-authoritarian political order this is incontestably preferable to the regime it replaced. Two analyses by Tunisia specialists writing on the anniversary’s occasion get it exactly right, one by the excellent journalist Thierry Brésillon—who did some of the best reporting from the country during the transition period—in the CCFD-Terre Solidaire’s Paix et Conflits website, the other by Tunis-based political scientist Laryssa Chomiak, in a post on WaPo’s Monkey Cage blog. There is also Al Jazeera’s 25-minute reportage-debate, aired on January 15th, “Where is post-revolution Tunisia heading?,” with specialists Amel Boubekeur, Youssef Cherif, and Simon Mabon.

As for me, I will recommend a terrific Tunisian film I saw the other day, À peine j’ouvre les yeux (English title: As I Open My Eyes), by youthful, up-and-coming director Leyla Bouzid, that is set in the summer of 2010, half a year before the onset of the Jasmine Revolution. In lieu of describing it myself, I will cut-and-paste the review by Variety’s great critic Jay Weissberg, who knows Maghreb cinema better than any critic writing in any language, who saw the pic at one of the film festivals where it debuted (Dubai, Venice, Toronto), before hitting the salles in France last month

A headstrong young woman in Tunisia bucks her parents and her repressive society in Leyla Bouzid’s impressive debut.

On the eve of Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution, a young woman struggles against family and society to pursue a singing career in Leyla Bouzid’s impressive, generally nuanced debut, “As I Open My Eyes.” Sharply yet subtly capturing the atmosphere of fear fostered by the dictatorship of President Ben Ali, this skillfully made drama is especially attuned to the myriad forms of surveillance, from the prurient to the political. Showcasing a stand-out lead perf by first-timer Baya Medhaffer, with intriguing compositions by Iraqi musician Khyam Allami, “Eyes” will open eyes to several new talents and could see a small international rollout.

There’s an appealing youthfulness about the film: the characters’ ages, of course, and the indie music, but also the fluid lensing and the irresistible freshness of Medhaffer’s slightly pouty face, her fixed determination giving character to doll-like features. The actress plays Farah, an aspiring thrush in a new band about to perform their first gig. The young woman has just graduated with honors, and everyone expects her to go on to study medicine, but she’s more interested in musicology.

That doesn’t sit well with mom Hayet (singer Ghalia Benali), once a free spirit herself but now determined to do everything she can to “protect” her daughter from making wrong choices. Life in this middle-class Tunis household is tense, owing to both Mom’s overprotective nature and the frustration that dad Mahmoud (Lassaad Jamoussi) lives in the center-west city of Gafsa, unable to get a transfer to the capital because he refuses to join the ruling party.

Farah is in a heavy-petting relationship with fellow band member Borhene (Montassar Ayari), a cool lute player with sensuous hands that caress her skin. They try to keep their liaison hidden, but the moment a man touches a woman or vice-versa, people notice and stare. Their band is poised for a breakthrough, and the preview gig goes over like gangbusters, especially the new song “My Country,” with its line, “Oh my country, land of dust/Your gates are closed and bring misfortune.”

That sort of lyric makes the authorities wary, and Hayet receives a visit from old acquaintance Moncef (Youness Ferhi), an Interior Ministry employee who warns that Farah is drinking and hanging out with people known to the police. Hayet flips (she’s given to over-dramatization) and makes her daughter swear she won’t go to the gig, but Farah locks her mother in and does the show. Professionally things seem to be going so well, but then manager Ali (Aymen Omrani) wants the band to censor themselves, and tensions mount from every corner: How can Farah fulfill her dreams as an independent young woman in a society that allows only a semblance of freedom?

Helmer Bouzid brings so much shading to the script that the more cut-and-dried last quarter is a slight letdown, as if she felt things had to suddenly be made starkly clear when they already were powerfully drawn. Similarly, wedging in a few scenes about worker tension at the phosphate mines of Gafsa (where unrest was one of the sparks leading to Revolution) feels unnecessary, but these minor quibbles don’t compromise the film’s overall impact, which skillfully conjures the pressure-cooker atmosphere lying just below Tunisia’s surface during the waning days of the dictatorship in 2010.

Especially striking is how the pic evokes the illusion of normality, which makes the roadblocks Farah stumbles over that much more disturbing. This is a society where informers are discovered in unlikely places, and expectations for women, even among the young and hip, run counter to self-expression. With his long hair and easy projection of nonconformity, Borhene seems like a guy happy to see Farah be the fearless woman he praises, but when she draws attention to herself at a party, his traditional concept of woman’s place takes over: Women should not make a spectacle of themselves. This emphasis on the gaze carries an enormous impact: As a free-spirited young woman, Farah is the target of censure from everyone, including her mother, whose past gutsiness has been deformed by a state that rules through fear and coercion.

Benali’s gutsy perf as Hayet fills the screen with highly-charged energy, so it’s to Medhaffer’s enormous credit that the novice so potently holds her own. As both singer and actor, she projects an outer fragility consistently overpowered by heady determination, making Farah a deeply satisfying character. D.p. Sebastien Goepfert, who worked on “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” has a sensual feel for figures and textures, and the top-notch lensing exhibits a pleasing freedom of movement, with smooth pans and gliding camerawork. Allami’s songs have a biting insistence.

Weissberg gets it exactly right. A few comments on the film. First, the two lead actresses, Baya Medhaffer and Ghalia Benali—the 18-year-old daughter (Farah) and mid-40ish mother (Hayet), respectively—and who dominate the film, are absolutely excellent. And it’s apparently the first cinematic role for both, though with Benali being a well-known Tunisian singer. While Medhaffer is spunky and pretty in a youthful way, Benali is maturely beautiful and sublime. She’s fabulous (and on this, two mid-40ish female colleagues/friends—so far the only persons I know who’ve seen the pic—entirely agree with me). Secondly, the family dynamics are just right, in the relationship of mother with daughter, father and daughter—and he’s a good man, the father—and the couple with one another. They’re middle class educated, were clearly opponents of the regime in their youth, but have been beaten down by the system and made their compromises with it—the father only up to a point, though in the end he finally throws in the towel on his passive resistance. Thirdly: though the milieu portrayed in the film is liberal and Westernized, the deadweight of patriarchy and social pressure in regard to gender weighs down on everyone, as Weissberg suggests. It’s really hard to break with prevailing social norms when everyone is watching over and judging you. Fourthly, the workings of the Ben Ali police state, of the mechanisms of its surveillance and control over the population, are brilliantly depicted. And—spoiler alert!—the interrogation sequence of Farah by the secret police is chillingly realistic. If one wants to know what it’s like to live in an authoritarian regime, to (innocently) test its limits—even if one is not overtly political—and have a run-in with the authorities, see this movie. Fifthly, people want to be free. They don’t want to live in a fucking dictatorship and with the constant threat of being suddenly hauled off by the mukhabarat, detained in some secret interrogation center, and tortured and sexually abused at the slightest transgression. Sixthly, the music—original, apparently composed for the film—is quite good IMO. As a singer Medhaffer has talent. And seventhly, the ending was just right. I feared one that would mar the film but happily this was not the case.

Indiewire and Screen Daily gave the pic the thumbs way up. French reviews of the film are also very good, with Allociné spectateurs particularly enthusiastic. The Huff Post has an interview with director Bouzid. Trailer is here.

Another good Tunisian film seen recently—last spring, actually—is Le Challat de Tunis, a mockumentary by Kaouther Ben Hania, another youthful, up-and-coming feminist director from that country. Here’s the description by Hollywood Reporter critic Stephen Dalton, who saw it at the 2014 Cannes film festival

This playful blend of real and fake documentary uses a bizarre true story of unsolved knife attacks against women to examine gender politics in newly democratic Tunisia.

Offering a wry feminist critique of macho chauvinism in Arab culture, Tunisian writer-director Kaouther Ben Hania’s second feature is an intriguing addition to the boom in low-budget filmmaking inspired by the recent wave of Middle East revolutions. (…)

Challat of Tunis takes a real event as its starting point. In 2003, a mysterious knife attacker rode through the Tunisian capital on a motor scooter, slashing the buttocks of women on the sidewalk. Nicknamed the “Challat” [“slasher” in Tunisian Arabic], the assailant was never caught, but he achieved a kind of folk-hero notoriety, particularly among religious and social conservatives who believed women in jeans or short skirts were being rightfully punished for not dressing “respectfully.”

Ben Hania has examined the gap between European and Arab cultural values before, in her well-reviewed 2010 documentary Imams Go To School. Indeed, she initially planned to make a straight non-fiction film about the Challat, but soon came up against the bureaucratic brick walls of the old regime under former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Following the Tunisian Revolution of 2011, however, she reworked the project into a playful docu-drama hybrid that uses the Challat story to interrogate the sexual politics of her newly democratic homeland.

Shooting in hand-held mock-doc style, Ben Hania straddles the line between director and actor. She interviews slasher victims, prison guards, detectives, lawyers and ordinary citizens — some clearly fictionalized, others apparently real. She finally meets a young man who claims to be the Challat, Jallel Dridi, a hotheaded mummy’s boy who models himself on Al Pacino in Scarface.

The film’s most powerful sections are the vox pops with real Tunisians. One man suggests the knife attacks were “a sign of virility” and “part of our Arab culture.” A religious cleric even claims women with “beautiful hair” are sent by the Devil to tempt and corrupt helpless males. The Challat’s female victims, meanwhile, share grim memories of shame, suicide and sexual molestation by the police. “I felt as if I had been attacked by the whole society,” one recalls. Predictable enough, but still sickening. (…)

Variety’s Jay Weissberg, calling the film “audacious” and “hilarious,” also gave it a thumbs up review, as did academic film critic Shelagh Rowan-Legg—for whom the pic is “brilliant and disturbing satire”—on the TwitchFilm website. French reviews—critics and Allociné spectateurs—were good to very good. Trailer w/English s/t is here.

UPDATE: Francis Ghilès has a well-informed article in OpenDemocracy (January 29th), “Something is rotten in the state of Tunisia,” which paints a somber, indeed pessimistic, portrait of the situation in the country.

le-challat-de-tunis-affiche

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Hocine Aït Ahmed R.I.P.

hocine_ait-ahmed

[updates below]

Those who know Algeria need no introduction. For those who don’t know that country too well—its modern history and politics at least—Hocine Aït Ahmed was a major figure in the Algerian national movement of the 1940s and ’50s, one of the nine founding members of the Front de Libération Nationale in 1954, and an actor in the country’s politics in the decades that followed independence in 1962. He was, until his death last Wednesday, the last surviving member of those 1954 chefs historiques and the sole one of the six who survived the war who never held a position of institutional power, even for a day. Aït Ahmed was an opponent of the post-1962 authoritarian regime from the outset, inside Algeria—partly from prison—to 1966, then from exile—in Switzerland and France—until his return in 1989. He was a genuine democrat, advocating and agitating for political and cultural pluralism—and with not a hint of religion in his discourse—well before anyone else issuing from the wartime FLN. And democracy was not a mere slogan for Aït Ahmed; every non-Islamist political or civil society actor wrapped him or herself in the mantle of democracy from 1989 onward, which did not prevent many among them from supporting various dictatorial regimes (e.g. Saddam Hussein)—or the Algerian regime itself when it decided to crack down on legal political parties from 1992 on. Never Aït Ahmed. His Front des Forces Socialistes—the party he founded in 1963 (illegal until the advent of multipartyism in 1989)—has long been Algeria’s constituent member of the Socialist International, thereby aligning it with European social democracy, for which liberal democracy is the core value.

I felt a particular affinity for the FFS during my Algeria years (1989-90 and beyond). I interviewed Aït Ahmed in June 1990, spending an hour with him at his office (in El Biar). I was deeply impressed being in his presence—more so than with any other dignitary I’ve ever met, in Algeria or elsewhere—in view of his historical stature. The FFS’ boycott of the June ’90 municipal elections—Algeria’s first-ever free and fair, multiparty contest—didn’t make a lot of sense—Aït Ahmed’s frequent politique de la chaise vide was his principal political shortcoming—but the party did participate in the 1991 legislative elections, winning 7.4% of the national vote and arriving in third place, behind the Islamist FIS (47%) and ruling FLN (23%), confirming its stature as the country’s leading democratic party and preeminent voice of Algeria’s Kabyle Berber population (the FFS’ frère ennemi Berberist party, the RCD, received but 2% of the vote).

Aït Ahmed’s political base was almost exclusively Kabyle (who constitute perhaps 12% of the Algerian population) but Berberism was not central to his public discourse—he rarely made reference to specifically Berber issues—and he was widely respected beyond his Kabyle base. And, to his great credit, he condemned the January 12th 1992 military-dictated cancellation of the 2nd round of the legislative elections, which ended Algeria’s brief period of political liberalization and set in motion the Islamist insurgency—and army counterinsurgency—and wave of terrorism that ravaged the country for the rest of the decade. The FIS was headed for a landslide victory in January ’92, causing the RCD and other self-proclaimed “democrats” to take fright and support the military intervention. But Aït Ahmed, sure of his legitimacy and unwavering base among Kabyles, was ready to live with a FIS-led government—which he didn’t think would be permanent (for my detailed view on this, go here)—with him leading the opposition in the national assembly. The watchword of the big January 2nd ’92 demo in the center of Algiers that he organized, “Neither a police state nor fundamentalist state” (ni Etat policier, ni Etat intégriste), summed up his position. In view of the nightmare Algeria lived through after the fateful cancellation, Aït Ahmed’s stance was vindicated IMHO.

Algiers-based journalist Mélanie Matarese has an obituary of Aït Ahmed in Middle East Eye, “Algeria: the difficult legacy of Hocine Ait Ahmed,” which is a translation of the original French article (link at the end), and journalist Saïd Djaafer has a tribute in Al Huffington Post, “Hocine Aït Ahmed: l’homme qui aimait les militants et les Algériens.” And here’s a seven-minute video interview by Mohammed Harbi, Aït Ahmed’s contemporary in the independence movement and who knew him well.

UPDATE: Le Monde’s issue dated December 26-28 consecrated its entire page 3 to Aït Ahmed, with an obituary, “Hocine Aït Ahmed, l’âme du résistant,” co-written by Paul Balta, the paper’s Algiers correspondent in the 1970s and well-known MENA commentator about town in Paris since then. See also LM’s back page editorial, “Les illusions perdues de la démocratie algérienne.” N.B. President Bouteflika decreed eight days of official mourning for Aït Ahmed, despite the latter’s permanent opposition to Algeria’s post-1962 political order.

2nd UPDATE: Here’s a photo of Aït Ahmed looking over the Jan. 2nd ’92 demo.

Hocine Ait Ahmed_Alger_02011992

3rd UPDATE: Two moments from the December 29th memorial service for Aït Ahmed in Lausanne: The hommage of Kabyle singer Idir and the traditional Kabyle acewiq (chant, by women, at a wake) by Nna Aldjia, the mother of Lounès Matoub.

4th UPDATE: Libération has a tribute, “Aït-Ahmed, ‘un long rêve de liberté et de démocratie n’est plus’,” by José Garçon, the paper’s longtime Algeria reporter and who was personally close to Aït Ahmed.

Algiers, 22 October 1956: Ahmed Ben Bella, Mohamed Boudiaf, Hocine Aït Ahmed, Mostefa Lacheraf, Mohamed Khider (photo: AFP)

Algiers, 22 October 1956: Ahmed Ben Bella, Mohamed Boudiaf,
Hocine Aït Ahmed, Mostefa Lacheraf, Mohamed Khider (photo: AFP)

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Tunisia’s Nobel Peace Prize

Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet: Wided Bouchamaoui (UTICA), Houcine Abassi (UGTT), Abdessattar Ben Moussa (LTDH), Mohamed Fadhel Mahfoudh (ONAT), 21 September 2013 (photo: Fethi Belaid/AFP)

Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet: Wided Bouchamaoui (UTICA), Houcine Abassi (UGTT), Abdessattar Ben Moussa (LTDH), Mohamed Fadhel Mahfoudh (ONAT),
21 September 2013 (photo: Fethi Belaid/AFP)

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below]

Congratulations to Tunisia! Everyone who knows that country is very happy over the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the National Dialogue Quartet, which is comprised of four organizations: Tunisia’s venerable trade union federation (UGTT), the private sector employers association (UTICA), the human rights league (LTDH), and the national lawyers guild (ONAT). These are the pillars of the non-religious portion of Tunisian civil society—the most robust in the Arab world—which banded together in 2013, at a moment when Tunisia’s transition to democracy was in grave crisis, to form the National Dialogue, the aim of which was to save that transition. Other actors were involved in the effort but, thanks to the mediation of the National Dialogue, the transition was indeed saved, confirming Tunisia as the only real democracy in the Arab world (Lebanon is also one, of course, but it’s having some problems). For a discussion of the National Dialogue, see the 16 December 2013 article by Monica Marks, “Tunisia’s transition continues,” on the Foreign Policy website. Monica, who is presently a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, has lived in Tunisia for the past several years, where she is conducting research for her doctoral thesis at Oxford University (pour l’info, she hails from Kentucky) on Tunisian politics, so knows her subject well.

UPDATE: Benoit Challand, who teaches history at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, has a good analysis on the New School for Social Research’s Public Seminar website, “Just a peaceful quartet?”

2nd UPDATE: Monica Marks has a four-minute interview on PRI on the prize.

3rd UPDATE: Nicholas Noe, who is co-director of the Tunis Exchange Politics Conference, has an important article in Tablet on “[t]he problem with awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Tunisia’s National Dialogue Quartet.” The lede: “The group deserves to be lauded for steering a country’s transition towards democratic governance following revolution. But its recognition comes at a cost.”

4th UPDATE: Monica Marks has a comment on the European Council on Foreign Relations website (October 14th), “Maximising the impact of Tunisia’s Nobel Peace Prize,” which Nobel Prize.org saw fit to tweet.

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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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Kamel Daoud (photo credit: AFP/Bertrand Langlois)

Kamel Daoud (photo credit: AFP/Bertrand Langlois)

[update below]

Kamel Daoud, the excellent Algerian commentator and author—whose latest novel was a finalist for the 2014 Prix Goncourt—, has been hit with a fatwa by salafi imam Abdelfatah Hamadache (a.k.a. Shaykh Abd al-Fatah al-Jaza’iry)—who preaches in salafi Algiers mosques and leads a micro-political party (not recognized by the Algerian state) called the Islamic Sahwa Front—, calling Daoud a “Zionized…apostate” who insults “Allah” and the Qu’ran, and who would, if Algeria were governed by Shari’a law, be put to death for “apostasy” and “heresy” (the good imam published the fatwa yesterday on his Facebook page; the post begins with this: دعوة لتطبيق الحد عليه). Here is Daoud’s brilliant riposte, published on his FB page. It merits translation into English and other languages

 50 nuances de haine

Question fascinante: d’où vient que certains se sentent menacés dans leur identité, dans leur conviction religieuse, dans leur conception de l’histoire et dans leur mémoire dès que quelqu’un pense autrement qu’eux ? La peur d’être dans l’erreur les poussant donc à imposer l’unanimité et combattre la différence ? De la fragilité des convictions intimes ? De la haine de soi qui passe par la haine de l’Autre ? De toute une histoire d’échecs, de frustrations, d’amour sans issue ? De la chute de Grenade ? De la colonisation ? Labyrinthe. Mais c’est étrange: ceux qui défendent l’islam comme pensée unique le font souvent avec haine et violence. Ceux qui se sentent et se proclament Arabes de souche ont cette tendance à en faire un fanatisme plutôt qu’une identité heureuse ou un choix de racine capable de récoltes. Ceux qui vous parlent de constantes nationales, de nationalisme et de religion sont souvent agressifs, violents, haineux, ternes, infréquentables et myopes: ils ne voient le monde que comme attaques, complots, manipulations et ruses de l’Occident. Le regard tourné vers ce Nord qui les écrase, les fascine, les rend jaunes de jalousie. Le dos tourné à l’Afrique où l’on meurt quand cela ne les concerne pas: Dieu a créé l’Occident et eux comme couple du monde, le reste c’est des déchets. Il y a des cheikhs et des fatwas pour chaque femme en jupe, mais pas un seul pour nourrir la faim en Somalie. L’abbé Pierre n’est pas un emploi de musulman ?

Laissons de côté. Gardons l’œil sur la mécanique: de quoi est-elle le sens ? Pourquoi l’identité est morbidité ? Pourquoi la mémoire est un hurlement par un conte paisible ? Pourquoi la foi est méfiance ? Mais que défendent ces gens-là qui vous attaquent chaque fois que vous pensez différemment votre nationalité, votre présent ou vos convictions religieuses ? Pourquoi réagissent-ils comme des propriétaires bafoués, des maquereaux ? Pourquoi se sentent-ils menacés autant par la voix des autres ? Etrange. C’est que le fanatique n’est même pas capable de voir ce qu’il a sous les yeux: un pays faible, un monde «arabe» pauvre et ruiné, une religion réduite à des rites et des fatwas nécrophages après avoir accouché, autrefois, d’Ibn Arabi et un culte de l’identité qui ressemble à de la jaunisse.

C’est qu’il ne s’agit même pas de distinctions idéologiques, linguistiques ou religieuses: l’imbécile identitaire peut tout aussi être francophone chez nous, arabophone, croyant ou passant. Un ami expliqua au chroniqueur que la version cheikh Chemssou laïc existe aussi: avec la même bêtise, aigreur, imbécillité et ridicule. L’un parle au nom de Dieu, l’autre au nom des années 70 et de sa conscience politique douloureuse et l’autre au nom de la lutte impérialiste démodée ou du berbérisme exclusif. Passons, revenons à la mécanique: de quoi cela est-il le signe ? Du déni: rues sales, immeubles hideux, dinar à genoux, Président malade, une dizaine de migrants tués dans un bus sur la route du rapatriement, dépendance au pétrole et au prêche, niveau scolaire misérable, armée faiblarde du Golfe à l’océan, délinquances et comités de surveillance du croissant, corruption, viols, émeutes. Rien de tout cela ne gêne. Sauf le genou de la femme, l’avis de Kamel Daoud, le film «l’Oranais», dénoncer la solidarité assise et couchée avec la Palestine, l’Occident en général, le bikini en particulier et l’affirmation que je suis Algérien ou le cas d’Israël comme structure des imaginaires morbides.

Pourquoi cela existe ? Pourquoi l’âme algérienne est-elle encerclée par une meute de chiens aigus et des ogres pulpeux ?

A petition has been launched in Algeria expressing solidarity with Kamel Daoud and calling on the Ministry of Justice there to prosecute Abdelfatah Hamadache for his call to murder. Très bien.

UPDATE: A well-known Algerian journalist and blogger informs me that Abdelfatah Hamadache is “nothing other than a pawn in the hands of the security services” (n’est rien d’autre qu’un jouet aux mains des services). And Éditions La Découverte’s engagé CEO François Gèze—a longtime critic of the Algerian regime—has a post (December 21st) on his Mediapart blog in which he informs the reader that Hamadache is indeed an agent of the DRS. Perhaps. Algerians will always tell you that so and so is in the pay of the DRS and offer all sorts of evidence (or “evidence”) to back it up. On en prend acte, c’est tout.

solidarité avec kamel daoud

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Abdelwahab Meddeb R.I.P.

Abdelwahab_Meddeb_-_Comédie_du_Livre_2011_-_Montpellier

He died today, following a “terrible illness” so it was reported. Triste nouvelle. I didn’t know him personally and only saw him speak once—at a small conference here in Paris three years ago—, which was enough for me to decide that he was one of the smartest and, from my standpoint, most politically sympathetic Arab intellectuals I had encountered in a very long time. As I wrote after the event

The conference speakers…were very good but there was one in particular who stood out: Abdelwahab Meddeb. First time I’d ever seen him in person. Listening to him talk, it was one of those times when I say to myself “this person is quite simply brilliant.” His erudition on Islamic thought, past and present, plus his analyses and commentary of what’s happening today in Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, and elsewhere in the region, are simply on another level.

I appreciated his public declarations over the past few years, e.g. the one he initiated during the early months of Tunisia’s post-Ben Ali political transition, “Pour la responsabilité civile” (here, scroll down), and his call to create a “global network of liberal Muslims.” In last month’s Tunisian election he announced that he would be voting for Nidaa Tounes—a perfectly understandable choice IMO—and explained why here (and he took pains to respond to his numerous, mainly gauchiste detractors). And then there was his 2011 televised debate with that overrated bloviator Tariq Ramadan (no need to say whose side I took in that one).

Meddeb published numerous books, a few that were translated into English, including The Malady of Islam and Islam and the Challenge of Civilization, plus the edited volume (with Benjamin Stora) A History of Jewish-Muslim Relations: From the Origins to the Present Day. In his memory I think I will finally read at least the first one.

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