Archive for the ‘Maghreb’ Category

The Évian Accords + 60

Today is the 60th anniversary of the ceasefire in Algeria mandated in the Évian Accords signed the day before by the French government and the Algerian FLN’s Tunis-based provisional government, formally ending the 7½-year Algerian war of independence and setting the heretofore crown jewel of the French colonial empire on the road to independence 15 weeks later. To mark the occasion, University of Virginia emeritus professor William B. Quandt—a top political science specialist of Algeria since the 1960s—has gathered several short essays and interviews on the Accords, plus links to other resources, and posted them together on the Just World Educational website. Great initiative.

Cambridge University historian Arthur Asseraf has a nice Twitter thread on the Accords. And France Inter had a nice interview on the subject with CNRS historian Malika Rahal, who has just published a major work on Algeria in 1962. If you have a half hour to spare, France 24 English had a debate yesterday, “Algeria 60 years on,” with academic specialists Todd Shepard and Meryem Belkaïd, former French diplomat André de Bussy, and filmmaker-journalist Dorothée Myriam Kellou.

If it grabs you to set aside a few hours and delve into the history of the Algerian war, a five-part 1984 documentary that first aired on Britain’s Channel 4 is available on YouTube: episode 1, episode 2, episode 3, episode 4, episode 5. I watched it on VHS some three decades back and remember it being very good, so recommended it recently to Adam Shatz, who knows the subject and is presently immersed in it for a book he’s writing. After binge-watching all five episodes, he pronounced the documentary to be “truly great.” And if Adam says that’s what it is, then that’s what it is.

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17 October 1961 + 60

Today is the 60th anniversary of the Paris massacre of October 17, 1961, when dozens of peaceful Algerian demonstrators were murdered by the police in Paris and surrounding banlieues, and with many thousands more brutalized and tortured. It was one of the darkest days in postwar French history. According to the British historians Jim House & Neil MacMaster—authors of the most important academic book on the subject (which happens to be in English mais traduit en français)—up to two hundred unarmed Algerians were killed by the Paris police—who were at the time under the command of the notorious Prefect of Police for Paris and the inner banlieueMaurice Papon—on October 17 and in the preceding weeks, though the exact number—which could have been more—will likely never be known (for a short backgrounder, see the Twitter thread by University of Cambridge historian Arthur Asseraf; also the article by Laurel Berger in the LARB, “How to forget a massacre: What happened in Paris on October 17, 1961″). During the Algerian war and the decade the followed it, books and films on the event were subject to censorship, so what happened on the night of October 17, 1961, was hushed up and largely ignored by the French public, including the educated classes and those who were old enough to remember at the time. This situation has changed considerably over the past three decades, with the proliferation of books and films on the subject, including this first-rate feature-length film from 2005 and two documentaries released shortly after the 50th anniversary, which I discussed here at the time. Emmanuel Macron commemorated the event yesterday—though stopped short of accepting responsibility in the name of the French state for the extrajudicial killings committed by the Paris police—as did Paris mayor—and Socialist party presidential candidate—Anne Hidalgo and the current Paris prefect today.

There was naturally a march to commemorate the anniversary as well, endorsed by dozens of associations and parties, on the left or Algeria-related, i.e. the usual suspects.

I naturally attended, as did my wife and several friends. There were maybe 2 or 3,000 marchers; not a huge demo but it was spirited. Here are a few photos I took.

Militants syndiqués (union militants)
She’s the one politician I saw, though not too many want to be associated with her these days. Other politicians who attended—whom I heard about at least—were EELV presidential candidate Yannick Jadot, EELV national secretary Julien Bayou, and LFI deputy Eric Coquerel.
The majority of the marchers were older Algerians and some Gen Xers (born in Algeria). Second/third generation Millennials and Gen Zers were not in evidence.
Lots of Algerian flags. Not a single tricolore to be seen.
Lots of signs and slogans against the current Algerian regime and system. Paris activists in the Hirak movement were present in force.
Personally speaking, I have a hard time sympathizing with this niche cause.
Union Communiste (Trotskyste), more familiarly known as Lutte Ouvrière.
Ex-Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire. Historically Trotskyist but not so much anymore.

The NPA is the one party of the extreme left that has young people.

Lambertistes (current of French Trotskyism, which was significant in the 1970s and ’80s but no longer). French Trotskyists strongly supported the Algerian cause during the 1950s.
The PCF presence was smaller than one would have expected.
High profile Algerian activist—who’s been a target of the repressive arm of the Algerian state—and a really smart Franco-Algerian political scientist.
End of the march at Place du Châtelet. Singing the Qassaman with ardor.
AWAV and a good friend.

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Algeria’s Hirak

Credit here

Algeria’s popular movement, which marked its second anniversary last Monday, and with the resumption of the weekly Friday demonstrations in Algiers and other cities and towns across the country, which had been suspended over the past year on account of the pandemic—plus the increasingly repressive hand of the government via arrests and detention (though without a single person suffering violent death or even serious physical mistreatment, and since the movement began). Though I’ve been generally following developments in Algeria I have refrained from commenting on them, as I haven’t been there since 2016 and with numerous on-the-ball friends and associates having been riveted to the Hirak, who are thus more competent to weigh in on the subject than I. So in lieu of offering my own thoughts—of which I have a couple, but whatever—here are a few worthy articles and commentaries that have appeared of late.

The best journalistic analysis I’ve seen this week is by the veteran Algiers reporter Abed Charef—one of Algeria’s best since the 1980s—writing in Middle East Eye, “Deux ans après, le bilan controversé du hirak.” The lede: “Le hirak a remis en cause l’ordre ancien, un peu à la manière de mai 1968. Mais ni les leaders, ni l’élite politique, ni l’armée n’ont su capitaliser sur le mouvement pour jeter les bases d’un nouveau projet national.”

Political scientist and friend Thomas Serres, who teaches at UC-Santa Cruz, has an interview in MERIP with activist Hakim Addad, “The Algerian Hirak between mobilization and imprisonment.

Serres, whose doctoral thesis on the Bouteflika years will hopefully be published in English in the near future, had a piece earlier this month in the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, “The Algerian counter-revolution or the obsolescence of authoritarian upgrading.”

Acting Executive Director of the Human Rights Watch MENA Division and good friend Eric Goldstein has a dispatch on the HRW website, “Algeria’s Hirak protest movement marks second anniversary: President frees prisoners but more remain.”

An Algerian friend today emailed me a piece from a website called The North Africa Post—heretofore unfamiliar to me—”CIA depicts gloomy picture of situation in Algeria, warns of risk of ‘general popular conflagration’,” and asked for my opinion on it. My response was that the CIA report discussed in the piece is, I regretted to say, largely accurate IMHO.

Speaking of the CIA and Algeria, the NYT ran an op-ed on January 27th entitled “How to defeat America’s homegrown insurgency,” by Robert Grenier, identified as “a former C.I.A. station chief for Pakistan and Afghanistan, Iraq mission manager and director of the C.I.A.’s Counterterrorism Center.” Bon, d’accord. The op-ed begins

As a former overseas operative who has struggled both on the side of insurgents and against them, the past few days have brought a jarring realization: We may be witnessing the dawn of a sustained wave of violent insurgency within our own country, perpetrated by our own countrymen. Three weeks ago, it would have been unthinkable that the United States might be a candidate for a comprehensive counterinsurgency program. But that is where we are.

Further down

As the Senate prepares to sit in judgment on Mr. Trump, we should be wary of the excuses put forward by his defenders — that his conviction will only divide the country further, that we should simply move on. No: It is far too late for appeasement. Those of us versed in counterinsurgency know that in violent extremism nothing succeeds like success, and that the opposite is also true.

I watched as enraged crowds in the streets of Algiers, as in most Arab capitals, melted away when Saddam Hussein was ignominiously defeated in the Persian Gulf war.

So Grenier was in Algiers in 1990-91, during my time there. This rang an immediate bell. I was pretty sure I knew him and which a Google Image search indeed confirmed. We met socially at US embassy events on a couple of occasions. I knew at the time that he was CIA—according to his Wikipedia page, he was the Algiers station chief—though forgot his name and had no idea about his subsequent postings.

One evening I went to the Hotel Saint-Georges for dinner and spotted him in the lobby with some louche-looking Algerians. We made eye contact and he abruptly looked away, indicating that he did not wish for me to come over and say hi.

BTW, what Grenier says about enraged Algerians ceasing to be after Saddam Hussein’s ignominious defeat is absolutely true. Everyone in Algeria was screaming bloody rage against the United States in the lead up to and during the Gulf war, but a week after it was over Révolution Africaine (the official FLN weekly) had an article in which one read “now that the Gulf war is over and forgotten…” (I saved the clipping, which I have filed away somewhere). And the July 4th reception at the US embassy that year was packed with the usual hundreds of Algerian invitees.

If Grenier’s views expressed in the op-ed are at all representative of CIA people these days, then that’s cause for some comfort.

À suivre, inshallah.

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A friend (Franco-Algerian) has asked me for my take on the rapprochement between Morocco and Israel, and the role of the United States, i.e. of Trump and his recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara (neither of these developments have been warmly received by Algerians, needless to say). As for the Israel-Morocco aspect of the matter, the reestablishment of diplomatic ties between the two states is normal and hardly necessitated US mediation, as they have enjoyed a close, unofficial relationship since the early 1960s—and which became official in 1994 with the opening of liaison offices in their respective capitals (Tel Aviv for the Moroccan one), and while closed by Morocco in 2000, during the second intifada, did not fundamentally change anything. Ronen Bergman has a piece in the NYT on the ongoing 60-year relationship and Yossi Melman writes in Haaretz on how the Mossad, over the same period, built “perhaps the most steadfast clandestine relationship between Israel and any Arab state.”

Morocco’s rich Jewish past and present is obviously the bridge between the two countries—and with Morocco valorizing and promoting that heritage. As one knows, Morocco had, along with Iraq, the largest pre-1948 Jewish population in the Arab world (around 250K), but, unlike Iraq, with Moroccan Jews emigrating pacifically (albeit surreptitiously in the decade after 1956) to Israel over time, with no pressure to leave or flight on account of persecution. And as one equally knows, Israelis with personal or family ties to Morocco (some 10-15% of Israel’s Jewish population) maintain an affectionate relationship with the country and freely travel there—which is unique to Israelis with roots in MENA lands (and despite the fact that the status of Jews in Morocco to the early 20th century was not significantly better than in Eastern Europe). For this reason alone, it makes total sense that the two states would have diplomatic and commercial relations, with tourism, direct flights, and all.

As for the Palestinians, I argued in a social media exchange (with Algerians) that the Israel-Morocco rapprochement won’t change a thing one way or another, though it was observed in a very good 40-minute International Crisis Group podcast conversation—with Rob Malley, Richard Atwood, Dahlia Scheindlin, and Riccardo Fabiani—on “Trump’s Morocco-Israel transaction,” that this will further comfort Netanyahu & Co in their calculation that Israel can normalize with Arab states—as it already has with the UAE, Bahrain, and Sudan—without conceding a thing to the Palestinians. Good point. It is increasingly evident, however, that no state—even a powerful one like the USA—or coalition of states can compel Israel to make substantial concessions to the Palestinians that it doesn’t want to make—that it believes will compromise its security and/or be rejected by Israeli pubic opinion. E.g. when I visited the Beit El settlement on the West Bank in 2009 and talked to a few people there, it became clear to me that no Israeli government will ever get those settlers out of there were it to try, that there would be refusal and resistance, and that such would be the case with just about every settlement in the occupied territories. Israel is content with the status quo—which I argued over eight years ago—as are most Arab states in regard to the Palestinians, alas.

N.B. The normalization with Israel by Arab states may not only not prejudice the Palestinians but even work to their benefit, with the UAE and other Gulf states financially supporting the Palestinian Authority, investing, and the like (and which may be part of the deal with the Israelis, who will have an interest in that).

The American aspect of the Morocco-Israel deal is another matter. Not only was the US role superfluous—it was thoroughly unnecessary—but the US got nothing whatever out of it. No tangible US interest is advanced in the two states reopening liaison offices and establishing direct flights. Trump was simply doing Netanyahu’s bidding, to reinforce the latter’s election prospects and further solidify Trump’s evangelical base as he tries to stage an autogolpe before January 20th. Not only can this not be considered a foreign policy triumph for Trump—and it’s likewise with the UAE-Bahrain-Sudan deals—but, in recognizing Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara, it’s a big foreign policy blunder and setback for the US. The US thus becomes the first Western state (Albania excepted, if that counts) to recognize Morocco’s annexation of the Western Sahara.

À propos, one notes with interest the left-right consensus on Trump’s action among the handful of US academic and policy specialists of the Western Sahara question. E.g. on the left, the engagé University of San Francisco political scientist (and friend), Stephen Zunes—who’s co-authored a book on the subject—fired off a Washington Post op-ed arguing that “Trump’s deal on Morocco’s Western Sahara annexation risks more global conflict.” Human Rights Watch—which is not stricto sensu on the left (though I’d be most surprised if a single one of its American staff members did not vote for Biden-Harris)—issued a communiqué (in which acting HRW-MENA director and good friend Eric Goldstein is quoted) stating that “US recognition of Moroccan sovereignty doesn’t change territory’s status.” And FWIW, in the Uber-gauchiste Jacobin, Madrid-based writer Eoghan Gilmartin asserted that “Donald Trump has just traded Western Sahara like a Victorian colonialist.”

The left-leaning Scholars’ Circle Interviews has a worthwhile one-hour podcast conservation on the “Western Sahara conflict towards peaceful resolution,” with academics R. Joey Huddleston, Randi Irwin, Stephen Zunes, and Jacob Mundy.

Particularly interesting are the reactions from Republicans. James A. Baker III, who was the UN Secretary-General’s personal envoy for Western Sahara from 1997 to 2004, penned a Washington Post op-ed bluntly stating that “Trump’s recognition of Western Sahara is a serious blow to diplomacy and international law.” And then there’s John Bolton, who knows the WS dossier comme sa poche, with a strongly worded piece in Foreign Policy, “Biden must reverse course on Western Sahara: Trump’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty dangerously undermines decades of carefully crafted U.S. policy.”

Accompanying Bolton on the GOP right-wing is the ultra-conservative Oklahoma senator James Inhofe, who has long felt strongly about the Western Sahara and been a strong supporter of Polisario, and who pronounced Trump’s action “shocking and deeply disappointing,” declaring himself “saddened that the rights of the Western Sahara people have been traded away.” As one learns in an informative dispatch in Axios by Tel Aviv-based reporter Barak Ravid, it appears that a recent dispute between Trump and Inhofe—who otherwise 100% supports the SOB—paved the way for Trump’s gift to Morocco.

Another Western Sahara/Polisario supporter way out there on the Republican right-wing is the longtime Washington conservative operative David Keene—who also happens to be Algeria’s well-remunerated Washington lobbyist—who ran an op-ed in the Washington Times (which is read exclusively on the right) explaining “Why Trump’s deal with Morocco is immoral and shamefully cynical: The people of the Western Sahara had no say in it’s making, another blow against self-determination.”

I find it intriguing that these right-wing Republicans are so harshly critical of Morocco—which has always been such a faithful ally of the United States and the West—favorable toward Algeria—which has had correct to good relations with the US but, while a leader of the non-aligned movement, tilted toward the Eastern bloc during the Cold War—and supportive of Polisario, which has otherwise been a Third World movement of national liberation and identified with the tiersmondiste camp (and with an always large stand at the French Communist Party’s annual Fête de l’Humanité; for pics of the stand, go here and scroll way down). And that these America-firster conservatives should care so much about a sparsely, exclusively Muslim-populated patch of desert in Africa—and as they have not objected to land-grabs elsewhere (e.g. Israel and its neighbors). There is not a single right-wing person in France who would break ranks with Morocco on this question or touch Polisario with a ten-foot pole. Perhaps Polisario has had an effective US lobbying operation (for the anecdote, I was acquainted with Polisario’s Washington representative back in the mid-80s, who was romantically involved with a college friend of mine; he must have been doing a good job).

The most reliable establishment commentary on Trump’s action IMHO is by Christopher Ross, who served as the UN Secretary General’s personal envoy on Western Sahara from 2009 to 2017. Ross was a US Foreign Service officer, spending most of his career in the Arab world (he’s a fluent Arabic-speaker), including as US ambassador to Algeria from 1988 to 1991. Those were my years in Algiers and I saw him a number of times (I was on a Fulbright grant but otherwise had no relationship with the US embassy), at events and dinners, plus a few tête-à-têtes, at the residence and in his office, with him inviting me in to discuss the political situation in Algeria (we were much on the same page, particularly in regard to the rise of the Islamist FIS). Chris Ross represented the best of the US Foreign Service. Voilà his commentary on Trump’s action, posted by Stephen Zunes (Dec. 13th) on his Facebook page:

This foolish and ill-considered decision flies in the face of the US commitment to the principles of the non-acquisition of territory by force and the right of peoples to self-determination, both enshrined in the UN Charter. It’s true that we have ignored these principles when it comes to Israel and others, but this does not excuse ignoring them in Western Sahara and incurring significant costs to ourselves in terms of regional stability and security and our relations with Algeria.

The argument that some in Washington have been making for decades to the effect that an independent state in Western Sahara would be another failed mini-state is false. Western Sahara is as large as Great Britain and has ample resources of phosphates, fisheries, precious metals, and tourism based on wind surfing and desert excursions. It is much better off than many mini-states whose establishment the US has supported. The Polisario Liberation Front of Western Sahara has demonstrated in setting up a government-in-exile in the Western Saharan refugee camps in southwestern Algeria that it is capable of running a government in an organized and semi-democratic way. The referendum proposal that the Polisario put forward in 2007 foresees very close privileged relations with Morocco in the event of independence. It has answered the claim that it could not possibly defend the vast territory of Western Sahara from terrorist or other threats by stating that it would request the help of others until its own forces were fully in place.

It is true that the US has always expressed support for both for the UN facilitated negotiating process and, since 2007, for Morocco’s autonomy plan as ONE possible basis for negotiation. The word ONE is crucial because it implies that other outcomes might emerge and thus ensures that the Polisario stays in the negotiating process instead of retreating into a resumption of the open warfare that prevailed from 1976 to 1991. It was in that year that Morocco and the Polisario agreed to a UN settlement plan that promised a referendum in exchange for a ceasefire. Thirteen years were spent trying to reach agreement on a list of eligible voters, the last seven of them under the supervision of James Baker. In the end, these efforts failed because Morocco decided that a referendum was contrary to its (claims of) sovereignty and, in doing so, got no push back from the Security Council. In 2004, this caused Baker to resign.

The Security Council then substituted direct negotiations between Morocco and the Polisario as an alternative approach. Chaired by three successive UN envoys from the Netherlands (van Walsum), the U.S. (yours truly), and Germany (Kohler), thirteen rounds of face-to-face talks in the presence of Algeria and Mauritania took place from 2007 to 2019. To date, these efforts have also failed because neither party has been prepared to alter its position in the name of compromise. With the resignation of the most recent envoy in 2019 “for health reasons” but more likely out of disgust for Morocco’s lack of respect and efforts to impede his work (as they did with me), the UN Secretary-General is looking for yet another envoy. Those approached to date have demurred, probably because they recognize that Morocco wants someone who will in effect become its advocate instead of remaining neutral and that, as a result, they would be embarking on ‘mission impossible.’

If we are ever to arrive at a settlement, it will be through a drawn-out negotiating process of some kind. President Trump’s decision to recognize Moroccan sovereignty destroys any incentive for the Polisario to remain in that process. It also threatens US relations with Algeria, which supports the right of Western Saharans to decide their own future through a referendum, and undercuts the growth of our existing ties in energy, trade, and security and military cooperation. In sum, President Trump’s decision ensures continued tension, instability, and disunion in North Africa.

Pour l’info, my principal source of knowledge on the Western Sahara is Western Sahara: The Roots of a Desert War, by Tony Hodges (Lawrence Hill Books, 1983). It’s a terrific book (reviewed here in the NYRB), the first one to read on the subject, in which one learns, among many other things, that Morocco has no legitimate claim to the WS—historically or legally—and that the Sahraoui people, historically mostly pastoral nomads, were largely sedentarized by the early 1970s, had developed a national consciousness under Spanish colonialism, and possessed all the attributes of a nation deserving self-determination. Whether or not Morocco will ever surrender the WS—I have my doubts—is another matter, but the conflict remains,

The parallel between the Moroccan occupation of the WS and the Israelis in the West Bank-Gaza is evident (Moroccans naturally go ballistic over the comparison). There are similarities and clear differences (e.g. the cultural proximity of Moroccans and Sahraouis is obviously closer), but on the level of human rights violations, Stephen Zunes, whose left-wing credentials are ironclad, asserted on his Facebook page last week that these are “much worse” in the Western Sahara than in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Returning to the subject of Moroccan Jews and Israel, I want to briefly mention two feature-length films I’ve seen on the subject over the past several years. One is the 2010 ‘Où vas-tu Moshé?’ (Where Are You Going, Moshe?), directed by Hassan Benjelloun, who recounts-reenacts the sudden, literally overnight exodus in 1963 of the Jewish community in his town in the Atlas mountains, which he witnessed as a boy. There was no particular problem between the communities, which co-existed cordially, but the deeply religious Jews dreamed of aliyah to the ‘land of Zion’, of which they concretely knew little, and as emigration to Israel was not authorized at the time, the collective departure was organized clandestinely by the Jewish Agency. So one day the townspeople woke up to find that the local Jews were all gone and with their shops shuttered, having slipped out of town en masse in buses in the middle of the night. It’s an interesting, original film, needless to say.

I read about the film when it opened—it came and went—but heard more about it in 2011 from a former Franco-Moroccan student of mine, who happened to be in Israel-Palestine (working with a Palestinian-oriented NGO), who was so impressed with the film (which she had seen in Canada, where it was co-produced) that she took the initiative to promote it in Israel and organize screenings, particularly in localities with sizable Moroccan communities. It received an enthusiastic reception and showed at the 2011 Maghreb film festival in Ashdod, which saw a good turnout.

The other film is a 2012 documentary, Tinghir-Jerusalem, Echoes from the Mellah, by Kamal Hachkar, a Franco-Moroccan public school teacher in Paris, whose family hailed from Tinghir, a town in southern Morocco, from which Kamal’s parents emigrated to France shortly after his birth in 1979 but which he regularly visited on family vacations while growing up. On one visit he learned, to his surprise, that Tinghir had had a Jewish community but which suddenly departed in the 1960s, to Israel, and which the younger generation in the town knew almost nothing about. Fascinated by the discovery, Hachkar decided to research his ancestral town’s Jewish past and make a documentary—he talked about it at a screening I attended in 2013 and heavily promoted the film on Facebook—which involved interviewing inhabitants of Tinghir about their memories of the town’s Jews, then tracking down the latter in Israel and traveling there to meet them. This part is quite interesting. The Tinghir Jews imagined they were going to a mythical Jerusalem in the mythical land of Zion but when they arrived in Israel they were settled in apartment blocks in soulless development towns. It wasn’t what they were expecting. When Hachkar met the Tinghir old-timers in Israel, who spoke with him in Tamazight, they welcomed him like a long-lost member of the family (watch the moving segment here of one of them on a Skype conversation with Hachkar’s father). It’s too bad it’s not likewise with other Israeli MENA Jews and their countries of origin.

Hachkar’s film was shown on Moroccan television in 2012 and screened publicly, provoking a firestorm, with Hachkar and the film denounced by Islamists and others in the anti-normalization crowd, and which was perhaps stoked by Hachkar’s rather manifest philo-semitism. Jamal Bahmad, who teaches at Mohammed V University in Rabat, has an informative post on this from February 2013 in Africultures, “Tinghir-Jerusalem-Tangier: The Jew, the imam and the camera in Morocco.” But that’s all in the past, so says Hachkar—who now lives in Morocco—in an interview last week in the Moroccan Le 360 website, with the film and its message of fraternity no longer arousing controversy. C’est bien.

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Idir, R.I.P.

Idir in Algiers, 2018 (credit here)

He died yesterday, at age 70 (not of Covid-19). Lots of people in my social media network are posting on him today, invariably linking to his beloved 1973 ballad A vava inouva. He was one of Algeria’s greatest singers—a Kabyle Brassens or Aznavour, as the slam poet-chanteur GCM put it in Le Monde. Al Jazeera English has a report on Idir’s life here. France 24 has videos of his career and music here, and a YouTube ‘best of’ playlist is here. Beautiful songs.

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I’ve been closely following events in Algeria over the past three weeks, along with everyone who has the slightest interest in that country, of the dramatic, exhilarating, and quite unexpected movement of civil society against Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s candidacy for a 5th presidential term—now forsworn, though not really. The popular movement is being compared to the early stages of the 2011 “Arab spring”—particularly in Tunisia and Tahrir Square in Cairo—but is more than that, in that it has swept up the entire country—there have been simultaneous Friday demonstrations in all cities and towns—all social classes, age cohorts, and political sensibilities. And the movement, which has no leaders for the moment (and with Islamists not in evidence), has been entirely peaceful. Gilets Jaunes these are not. Academic specialists of Algeria are all weighing in with their analyses—which I’ve been linking to on my French Twitter account (I know most of the specialists personally and several are friends)—though not me so far. I was invited last week by a very high-profile US publication to write on the subject but declined, as I haven’t been to Algeria in 2½ years and didn’t feel like repeating what others are saying, and with my words being dépassé in a couple of days. We’ll see down the road, as the Algeria story is not going to fade anytime soon. And for the moment, I’m not going to offer a full-fledged commentary on AWAV. Instead, I want to post some photos, most from last Friday’s huge demonstration in Algiers (coinciding with International Women’s Day), taken by unidentified persons present and posted on social media (Facebook and Instagram; if there’s a credit here, it goes to Franco-Iraqi film director Abbas Fahdel, who assembled the pics and posted them on Facebook), and which will give a good sense of the movement.

For journalistic sources on Algeria, the best, in addition to the major French organs (e.g. Le Monde, Libération, Mediapart) and Algiers dailies (El Watan, Liberté, etc), are Huffpost Maghreb, Middle East Eye, and Orient XXI. À suivre.

Messali Hadj is on the banner.

Dancer Melissa Ziad, Algiers, March 1st (photo: Ranougraphy)

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Voyage to Algeria


This is a post that should have gone up six months ago. Better late than never. I spent two weeks in Algeria last May-June, my first trip there in twenty-five years. I had originally intended to write a lengthy commentary on my impressions of the country after such a long absence; in lieu of that, I will simply link to two albums of photos I took (N.B. the above pic is not mine). The first album here is of Algiers and environs, where I spent most of the two weeks. The second here is of a three-day road trip I took with my friend Hacene, who lives in the Paris area but happened to be in Algeria when I was there—he’s an Algiers native and has an entrepreneurial activity there—and informed me that he was going to take me out east, to show me a part of Algeria I didn’t know. So we went to Constantine (not my first time there), then to Batna, in the Aurès, where we spent the night, and then the next day to nearby Timgad, which has to be the least visited large Roman ruin on the African continent (and to which Carthage does not hold a candle). From there we headed to Biskra via the secondary route, past the Balcons de Ghoufi—the Ghoufi canyon—which, again, has to be one of the more spectacular natural sites that practically no one has seen, as Algeria has never encouraged tourism and has no tourist infrastructure to speak of. Even Hacene, who did part of his military service in Batna in the 1970s, had never been to the Ghoufi canyon. To go there one needs a car but also for it to be a destination.

From Biskra, where we spent the night, we headed back to Algiers along the edge of the Sahara, stopping in Tolga—which is one of the larger palm groves in the country—and then via the High Plateau, briefly stopping in Bou Saâda. I’ve added legends to the photos, which may be seen in small print on the bottom or in clicking on the info icon on the top right.

I have much to say about Algeria, of course, but will limit myself here to five short comments. First, the country is safe. And it feels so. The security forces are everywhere. Their presence in no way feels sinister or oppressive (as was, e.g., the case in Syria on my visits there in years past). They’re there to protect the population. And the state, of course.

Second—and in this vein—Algeria is politically stable (and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise). There is little to no prospect, in the foreseeable future at least, that the country will witness state collapse or descend once again into the civil strife and violence such as it experienced in the 1990s. Algerians are traumatized by that decade—which they call “the years of terrorism,” during which 40 to 50,000 persons suffered violent death—and are not about to repeat the experience. The society is conservative and religiously pious but there is no threat from jihadist or other extremist groups, which—apart from armed bands in the desert and other remote areas—have been smashed or brought to heel. In this respect, the situations in Tunisia and Morocco—with the sizable numbers of jihadists returning from the Middle East—are more preoccupying. When Algeria’s current president finally passes away, an orderly succession will be organized. And life will go on.

Third, the status of women has evolved significantly since my time in the country in the late 1980s-early 1990s and for the better. Women are present in public space in a way they weren’t in the past, and not just in the capital but in the interior of the country as well (e.g. even in Batna one sees groups of women in outdoor cafés, which was inconceivable two decades ago). And while the great majority cover their hair and wear some kind of hijab (in gay colors)—but with a visible minority in Algiers not veiling—the haïk (face veil) has all but disappeared and the somber black salafist jilbab is a rarity. And old codes of honor in regard to the virginity of women at marriage are a thing of the past for much of urban society.

Fourth, the country remains totally dependent on rentier income from hydrocarbon (oil and natural gas) exports. There is no economic dynamic otherwise, despite significant liberalization and dismantling of public enterprises. But while there’s the usual corruption a sizable portion of the rent finds its way to the population at large. There is no grinding poverty in Algeria such as one sees in Morocco. And the entire country appears to be a construction site. There are chantiers everywhere, even in hamlets in the middle of nowhere. Also, the country’s catastrophic water shortages are a distant memory. The water flows in fountains in Algiers, something one did not see way back when.

Fifth, there has been a marked decline in the French language. When I lived in Algiers in 1989-90, practically everyone spoke French at some level, and with many speaking it fluently. Algeria was the most Francophone country in the world where French was not the native language of the population. One did not need to speak Arabic at all to communicate with people, in Algiers, Oran, and other large cities at least (and in the Kabylie of course). Such is no longer the case. The younger generation—which, for me, means those under age 45—no longer speaks French with any degree of proficiency, and particularly in the interior of country. But somewhat paradoxically, French is much more visible than in the past. From the 1970s through the ’90s—when the language issue was highly politicized, of Arabophones vs. Francophones—French was largely proscribed in signage and advertising (such as this existed in the era of  “specific socialism”). But that ended when Abdelaziz Bouteflika—an unrepentant Francophone—acceded to the presidency in 1999. So all stores now have bilingual signs, even in places like Biskra, where hardly anyone actually speaks French.

There is much more to say about all of this. I’ll come back to the subject at a future date.


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Nice, August 23rd (photo: Vantagenews.com)

Nice, August 23rd (photo: Vantagenews.com)

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Alhamdullilah for the Conseil d’État. It is not par hasard that the judges of France’s supreme administrative law court are nicknamed les sages (the wise men)—though the Conseil’s ruling yesterday striking down the anti-burkini municipal ordinance in seaside Villeneuve-Loubet—which will serve as jurisprudence for abrogating like ordinances in other municipalities—was an obvious no-brainer. It would have been truly stunning had the Conseil ruled otherwise, as, in point of fact, there is no serious argument for legally banning the burkini. None whatever. If a person—woman or man—on a beach in a free society wishes to wear a garment that covers the entire body minus face and maybe feet—or, alternatively, an itsy-bitsy cache-sexe concealing only that most intimate part, or anything in between—s/he has the right to do so. Point barre.

The psychodrama France has descended into over this fabricated issue has to be the most preposterous and irrational in the 25-odd years I have lived in this country—not to mention one of the more pernicious, in view of the overt Muslimophobia that has been unleashed by politicians and media alike. The spectacle of the Muslim women in Nice and Cannes—who were minding their own business and troubling no public order—being harassed and humiliated by the police was a disgrace, accomplishing nothing but the degradation of France’s image abroad and making the country look ridiculous in the process—and, one may also add, intolerant, racist, and sexist (yes, sexist France, as the latest hysteria over French Muslims concerns, as usual, only woman, with men, including the most bearded Salafist, naturally being free to wear any damned outfit they please in public space). And all over a piece of clothing that practically no one in France had heard of—and even fewer had actually seen—before this month of August 2016.

Numerous commentaries over the past two weeks on the absurd burkini affair have gotten it exactly right, e.g. the New York Times’s August 19th editorial—penned by sharp, Paris-based editorial writer Mira Kamdar—”France’s burkini bigotry.” Other spot on critiques of the anti-burkini crusade include public law professor Thomas Hochmann’s Le Monde op-ed (August 19th), “L’interdiction du ‘burkini’ est une faute juridique et politique;” Edwy Plenel in Mediapart (August 14th), “‘Un vêtement comme les autres’…;” political scientist Jean-François Bayart, also in Mediapart (August 18th), “La laïcité, nouvelle religion nationale;” and law professor Stéphanie Hennette-Vauchez, writing in Libération’s “Do you law?” blog (August 23rd), “Le burkini de l’état d’urgence.”

One may also profitably reread the invariably excellent Patrick Weil’s 2013 interview in L’Opinion, “‘Qu’on laisse en paix les femmes voilées’.”

French public opinion is, as one may expect, not favorable toward the burkini, with 64%, according to an IFOP-Le Figaro poll released on Thursday, opposed to it being worn on the beach. Majorities can be wrong, of course. Even if 94% were opposed, that wouldn’t suddenly make the masses right. Politicians, as one may also expect, have been indulging and stoking the fears of the public—naturally traumatized over the recent terrorist atrocities—with, not surprisingly, the unspeakable Nicolas Sarkozy, now on the campaign trail, leading the demagogic charge, demanding, entre autres, a legislative ban of the burkini—though Sarko knows full well, in principle at least, that any such law is impossible, that it would be nullified illico by the sages of the Conseil Constitutionnel.

Not to be out-Sarkozy-d, the insufferable Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls has likewise been gesticulating over the burkini, labeling it “a political project, a counter-society, based in particular on the subjugation of women” and, on his Facebook page yesterday, the expression of “a deadly, backward-looking Islamism” (un islamisme mortifère, rétrograde). Ouf! Even academic savants have been echoing these themes, e.g. emerita philosophy professor Catherine Kintzler, who, in an interview in Le Figaro (August 26th), called the burkini a symbol of “communautarisme” (mais bien évidemment; what else could it possibly be for any self-respecting defender of le modèle républicain français?) and “an ultra-reactionary, totalitarian political Islam,” that represents “an effort to stigmatize all Muslim women who refuse to wear it, who refuse to veil themselves, who refuse the uniformization of their lives.” No less.

And then there’s the well-known social scientist Philippe d’Iribarne, who wrote in Le Monde (August 19th) that the burkini is “unacceptable,” as, entre autres, it violates an apparent French “social norm that asks for a certain discretion in the public expression of that that distinguishes one’s social status or political or religious convictions.” Women who wear the burkini are imposing an alternative social norm, indeed a “projet de société,” so d’Iribarne has it: A “societal project,” whatever that’s supposed to mean. Monsieur d’Iribarne suggests that women who wear the burkini and other Islamic articles of clothing do not really do so of their own free will, that they may “simply be seeking not to be bothered in the neighborhoods where they live, or wish to please their entourage, or are constrained to do so by their fathers or husbands, or fear burning in hell, or are perhaps militants of an islam de combat.”

This is one of the stupidest pieces I’ve read by an otherwise smart person in I don’t know how long. Fortunately Le Monde published an op-ed (August 24th), by Patrice Obert—president of the center-left association Le Courant des Poissons Roses—that critiqued d’Iribarne, explaining why it is “unacceptable not to ‘accept’ the burkini.”

Islamism, projet de société, counter-society, Islamic “cultural imperialism,” women being ordered by men, subjugation of women, fundamentalism, burkini-wearing women willfully seeking to provoke and shock…

Let me make an assertion: the legions of pundits, politicians, and other commentators and academic savants who have made these allegations and/or imputed hidden motives to the Muslims in question have not a shred of evidence to support their contentions. They have not a shred of evidence to refute the manifest fact—and, until proof to the contrary, I am asserting it as fact—that 99+% of the women who wear the burkini do so on their own volition—that no one has forced them into it—and that their motives have nothing to do with politics or trying to make a statement. The burkini-detractors could not credibly support their assertions if their lives depended on it.

And the threat to public order that the burkini supposedly constitutes, which was one of the stated reasons for the municipal ordinances? Read this interview with Radio France Internationale’s David Thomson, who has written a book on French jihadists, and tell me if the threat comes from the burkini-wearers or, rather, the actions of the burkini-banners themselves.

As for those who consider the burkini to be Islamist or reflecting of a rigorist interpretation of Islam, they have no idea what they’re talking about, as Salafi women would never go to a mixed beach or don such a piece of clothing that reveals the shape of their body—as the burkini does—in the first place.

But what if, for the sake of argument, some of the above allegations were at least partly true? As social scientist and friend Nadia Marzouki wrote on social media the other day

What if there *is* something political in wearing a burkini, in criticizing the French religion of laïcité, in not eating the French republican “soupe au cochon”, in performing alternative ways of life etc.? What’s wrong with being political?

Yes, if some Muslim women do, in fact, seek to make a statement in wearing a burkini, if they are indeed signaling that their religious faith is primordial in their lives, what of it?

And what about the burkini itself? Even pundits critical of the anti-burkini campaign have felt the need to assure readers that they do not approve of the offending swimsuit. Libération’s Laurent Joffrin thus editorialized (August 17th) that

one would have to have a particularly twisted mind to maintain that the wearing of a piece of clothing that covers all parts of the female body, including swimsuits, is merely a harmless fashion, or a vector of the emancipation of women. In the great majority of cases, it is a religiously ostentatious signifier reflecting a rigorous interpretation of sacred texts that relegates women to a secondary role.

I beg to differ, though this is admittedly a complex question. The Nation’s Katha Pollitt, in an aptly titled column (August 25th), “France has a strange concept of feminism—and secularism,” opposed the burkini bans but did specify that

I actually agree with the critique of veiling. Whatever else it may be, it’s inextricably bound up, like the Orthodox Jewish dress code, with notions of female-only “modesty”—i.e., the acceptance of the female body as the site of sexuality, which must be concealed as a danger and provocation to men. If covering is just about faith, why don’t men do it too?

Yes, of course. These are old questions. We know it. Veiling, objectively speaking, does reflect patriarchy. What else is new? But at the risk of being provocative, I will argue that the creation of the burkini is, in fact, an advance for pious Muslim women, that it represents progress—and particularly for women in the Arab world itself and other Muslim majority countries. For these women, the choice is not between the burkini and a more conventional swimsuit, but rather between the burkini and either going to the beach fully clothed (hijab and all)—and, at most, wading into the water—or not going at all—and not because they are forbidden by men but simply because they won’t go, period. In a country like Algeria, there are a number of “family” beaches where women sunbathe in one or two piece swimsuits, but in long stretches of coastline one sees only young men. Women simply won’t go to these beaches. Gender relations in that society and cultural attitudes toward the body are what they are. If the burkini succeeds in bringing more women to these beaches and learning how to swim while they’re at it, well, tant mieux, n’est-ce pas?

As Saul Alinsky used to say, in order to change the world we first need to see the world as it is, not as we would like it to be. If patriarchy and conservative notions of gender among Muslims are going to change, it’s going to be brought about by Muslims themselves—gradually, one step at a time—and not by laïcard Frenchmen ideologically browbeating them.

And then there’s the inventor of the burkini herself, Aheda Zanetti—who has no ties to Islamist organizations or personal convictions of this nature (if she did, we would know about it)—who explained in a Guardian op-ed (August 24th), “I created the burkini to give women freedom, not to take it away.” The piece—qu’on peut lire en français—carries this lede: “The burkini does not symbolise Islam, it symbolises leisure and happiness and fitness and health.”

As for the burkini not symbolizing Islam, good point. One may bet that it will find a growing market among women of all faiths—or of no faith at all—and particularly in a country like India, where women traditionally do not wear swimsuits on the beach (those who actually go to one). À propos, the NYT has an op-ed (August 26th) by writer Jennifer Weiner on “The women who won’t wear swimsuits,” in which the burkini is not mentioned once. There are a lot of women out there—including a member of the older generation in my own family—who have never felt comfortable in a bathing suit. Just as there are certainly many men in France—perhaps myself included—who don’t like the rule in public swimming pools that men have to wear swim briefs, a.k.a. moule-bites. They feel self-conscious wearing the stupid thing. The burkini is probably not a solution for them but can be for women.

Back to the case of France, today’s Washington Post has an article on “France’s burkini debate: About a bathing suit and a country’s peculiar secularism,” in which the well-known specialist of French laïcité, Joan Wallach Scott, is quoted

For Scott, the greatest irony in the entire affair is that the burkini in fact embodies the achievement of a secular, integrated society.

The women who wear burkinis, she said, cannot be called oppressed. They are not the women subservient to a conservative Islam; they are the women who sit on beaches unsupervised by men, enjoying their leisure time in mixed social company.

But because of the same type of secularism ostensibly designed to foster equality among citizens, those same women could in fact be driven further from the social mainstream.

“It just convinces Muslims who are already feeling discrimination and alienation that indeed they’re right,” Scott said. “And that the French government is interested in getting rid of them, not in integrating them.”

In conclusion, check out the images of the burkini here and here. C’est chic, non? How can anyone object?

UPDATE: Jean Baubérot—the well-known sociologist and specialist of religion in France—was interviewed in Libération (August 17th) on the burkini affair. This passage is particularly interesting:

Cette polémique a été précédée d’une autre, en mars, autour de la «mode pudique», qui ne pose pas de problème dans d’autres pays occidentaux, par exemple en Angleterre. Pourquoi tant de stress ?

Les pays anglo-saxons ont une culture de la diversité, cultuelle et culturelle, plus forte. C’est Voltaire qui a écrit: «Un Anglais, comme homme libre, va au ciel par le chemin qui lui plaît.» En France, une mentalité «catholique et français toujours» perdure, une mentalité de l’unité. On parle encore de «la France une et indivisible» alors que, depuis la Constitution de 1946, «une» a été enlevé au profit de «indivisible, laïque, démocratique et sociale», et ça n’est pas pour rien! Or, culturellement, on a l’impression que ça n’a jamais été intégré, et «démocratique et sociale», on l’entend peu. C’est une conception de l’unité assez uniforme qui prédomine, peu inclusive de la diversité. Résultat, on ne sait plus séparer ce qui peut être dangereux de ce qui peut choquer mais peut être accepté par la démocratie. On ne met pas la frontière au bon endroit.

2nd UPDATE: Moroccan sociologist Abdessamad Dialmy—who specializes in sexuality, gender, and religion—has two pieces in Al Huffington Post that are worth reading: “Le burkini, un compromis anti-islamiste” (August 21st) and “Le burkini, entre féminisme blanc et féminisme islamique” (August 23rd). N.B. Dialmy is equally opposed to the burkini and attempts to ban it.

3rd UPDATE: The Forward’s The Sisterhood blog has a post (August 24th) asserting: “Seriously, what Orthodox [Jewish] women wear to the beach is no different from a burkini.”

4th UPDATE: Le Canard Enchaîné has a short piece in the latest issue explaining—in its trademark ironic style—why the burkini would not pass muster with those who adhere to a rigorist interpretation of Islam.

5th UPDATE: Robin Wright has a piece in The New Yorker (August 26th), “A court overturns a burkini ban, but not its mindset.” Money quote

The irony of the swimsuit crisis is that the laws—and their enforcement—shamed the Muslim women who want to participate in French society. “Tying the burkini to extremism is absurd. Actual Salafis are against the burkini because they don’t think women should be swimming in public in the first place,” Shadi Hamid, the author of “Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle over Islam is Reshaping the World,” told me on Friday.

Also see the article by Alissa J. Rubin in the NYT (August 27th), “From bikinis to burkinis, regulating what women wear,” in which interesting people are quoted.

6th UPDATE: Philippe Marlière, who teaches political science at University College London, has a must-read post on his Mediapart blog (August 26th), “La gauche de l’entre-soi et le burkini.” The lede: “Cet article revient sur les récentes controverses sur le port du burkini en France, montre la ligne de fracture qu’elles ont créée au sein de la gauche française, et réfute les arguments qui sont déployés pour justifier des attaques racistes et sexistes contre les femmes musulmanes.”

Marlière notes, entre autres, that the French left—which is almost entirely atheist and with an anti-clerical tropisme from another era (which is specific to France’s history; we’re not talking about universal values here), and that has been transposed to any public manifestation of religiosity—is an outlier among its progressive European counterparts when it comes to conventional Muslim veiling. On the European left—not to mention the left in the Americas, north and south—only in France does the sight of a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf provoke a negative reaction—and automatically excludes her from participation in a left-wing political party.

7th UPDATE: Here’s the official English translation of the Conseil d’État’s ruling on the burkini affair.

8th UPDATE: Benjamin Haddad, a French research fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, has an essay (August 30th) in The American Interest entitled “Behind the burkini.” The lede: “The overturned ban is not a religious issue, but the symbol of a broader political struggle.” Now Haddad is normally incisive in the analyses I have read by him but is in error on a number points in his piece here. E.g. he opines that

The fact is that many in France consider the aggressive display of this brand of Islamic fundamentalism in a public space to be a provocation, an intentional rejection of the French Republic’s long tradition of secularism, and an attempt at self-exclusion from the rest of the population.

As I have written above, the burkini has nothing whatever to do with “Islamic fundamentalism.” This is a phantasm. And no one who thinks this has a shred of evidence to defend the contention that even one single woman—une seule—who wears the burkini does so to provoke, to signal a rejection of secularism, is attempting to exclude herself from the rest of the population, or is an “Islamic fundamentalist.” This is a figment of the addled French imagination. (But then, even if a burkini-wearing woman did have these things in mind, eh alors? La belle affaire! Dans un pays libre comme la France, c’est son droit. Qu’est-ce que ça peut vous faire?).

And while the vast majority of French Muslims keep their faith privately and are peaceful citizens, this model of integration makes the country an inviting target for those who don’t.

What is this supposed to mean? How does one “model of integration” make a country a target for—what precisely?—more than another “model”?

To be clear, wearing a burkini is manifestly not considered a mandatory religious requirement by France’s overwhelmingly moderate Muslim population, who don’t wear it.

But no one has even hinted that the burkini is religiously required. Pour mémoire, the burkini is the trademarked product of an Australian fashion designer named Aheda Zanetti (see above), who created the garment for pious Muslim women—but also for non-Muslim women (why not?)—who wish to go to the beach but, for their own reasons, will not wear a conventional swimsuit. The burkini is, above all, a business proposition that aims to satisfy a heretofore underserved market.

À propos, how much would one like to bet that the burkini® under another name sells like hotcakes in Israel among Jewish women?

That the burkini may be worn free of pressure does not change the underlying message.

But what underlying message?! And sent by whom precisely? (and please give names). The notion that there is a message in the burkini is a collective French phantasm.

Please, there is no message here. No burkini-wearing woman is sending a message, even subliminal. This I promise you.

Moreover, the burkini, which was seemingly absent from beaches before this year, is seen as a mere episode in a broader pattern of every-day incidents in which republican principles are challenged by a radical minority constantly testing and pushing the boundaries of what is or is not acceptable. It is not a religious issue, but the symbol of a broader political struggle.

What “radical minority”? Who are you talking about? Please name names. And while you’re at it, please provide references of what this “radical minority” has written about the burkini.

The censure (and worse) of moderate Muslims who don’t observe Ramadan, the requests of community leaders for gender-segregated hours in public swimming pools, the pressure on women not to accept the care of male physicians even in cases of emergency, the refusal of children to listen in biology class or to learn about the Holocaust: These incidents don’t make international headlines but are becoming increasingly ubiquitous.

Such incidents have indeed happened but how do you know that they “are becoming increasingly ubiquitous”? In point of fact, you don’t know at all. There have been numerous anecdotes over the years of disturbing and unacceptable things happening—as there inevitably will be in a society of 65 million inhabitants—but the extent of this has not been established. Seriously, we really don’t know.

In June, a young Muslim waitress was attacked in the name of Islam in downtown Nice for serving alcohol during Ramadan.

A fait divers. It was outrageous and with the perpetrators meriting prosecution, but it was still just one incident.

But not reacting to the burkini also has its consequences and runs the risk of normalizing such practices.

But so what if the burkini is “normalized”?? In point of fact, it should be normalized. If the burkini succeeds in bringing more Muslim and other women to the beach, that’s a good thing, is it not? À propos, see the quotes above of Joan Wallach Scott and Shadi Hamid.

In the coming years, Europeans will continue to grapple with the tension between their liberal principles and the necessity of rolling back the hold of a radical minority.

But what “radical minority”?? Please give names of such radicals in France.

These attempts, however clumsy, deserve a more understanding reception than scorn and conceit.

Oy vey, the attempts by demagogic French politicians to “roll back” the hold of this imagined “radical minority” deserve not only scorn and conceit but disdain as well.

9th UPDATE: Christine Delphy—a sociologist and leading personality in France’s feminist movement of the 1970s—has an excellent tribune in The Guardian (August 29th) on “How a legal misunderstanding is fueling France’s witch-hunt of Muslim women.” The lede: “Of course, banning women from wearing what they want is illegal in France. The establishment claim they want Muslim women to achieve independence yet are depriving them the means to do so.”

Also see Delphy’s 20 July 2015 Guardian tribune, “Feminists are failing Muslim women by supporting racist French laws.” The lede: “If women’s groups see Muslims wearing headscarves as an oppressed minority, it should be a reason to embrace them and understand why, not collude in widening one of the worst rifts within French society.”

10th UPDATE: Nathalie Heinich—a sociologist and ideological warrior for the cause of laïcité de combat—has a virulent op-ed in Le Monde (August 30th), “Burkini: Il faut combattre le prosélytisme extrémiste et le sexisme,” in which she responds to the well-known sociologist Michel Wieviorka’s thoughtful tribune (August 26th) in The Conversation, “Panique morale autour du ‘burkini’.” Heinich’s broadside has the merit of arguing that opposing the burkini concerns neither laïcité nor public order but is all about fighting against “an extremist, totalitarian conception of Islam.” Tout court. The piece is a doozy. E.g.

Dans le contexte de la France d’aujourd’hui (qui n’est ni celui des Etats-Unis, ni celui de la France d’il y a une génération), l’interdiction des signes religieux les plus extrêmes – la burqa dans les rues, le burkini sur les plages – ne doit plus être une question de laïcité: ce doit être un combat politique contre une manipulation de la religion à des fins d’ordre sexuel, moral, juridique, civique, voire guerrier.

En faire une question religieuse, c’est entrer dans le jeu de nos adversaires, qui utilisent cet argument pour imposer leur conception rétrograde de la citoyenneté – la soumission à l’ordre religieux – et de la différence des sexes – la soumission des femmes.

C’est pourquoi, dans le contexte actuel, l’affichage de comportements manifestant l’adhésion à une conception fondamentaliste de l’islam, tel que le port du burkini, ne relève pas de l’exercice d’une religion (va-t-on à la plage pour prier?): il relève de l’expression d’une opinion, et d’une opinion délictueuse, puisqu’il s’agit d’une incitation à la discrimination sexiste, qui en outre banalise et normalise l’idéologie au nom de laquelle on nous fait la guerre. C’est pourquoi le Conseil d’Etat aurait pu, aurait dû valider les arrêtés antiburkini, en vertu de la légitime limitation du droit à la liberté d’expression.

The wearing of the burkini is an “opinion délictueuse“… Translation: the expression of a “criminal opinion.”

Wow. That’s intense. Mme Heinich is lusting for blood.

Another morsel:

Il faut donc choisir son camp: non pas le camp des sectaires contre les «tolérants», mais le camp des partisans d’un islam respectueux des lois et des valeurs de notre pays – au premier rang desquelles l’égalité entre hommes et femmes et le droit pour celles-ci d’occuper librement l’espace public – contre un islam dévoyé, sexiste, intolérant, violemment prosélyte, et ­ ennemi des libertés car exerçant de puissantes pressions communautaires contre ceux et ­ surtout contre celles qui ne se plieraient pas à ses règles archaïques.

«Pas de liberté pour les ennemis de la liberté»: c’était bien un slogan politique, n’est-ce pas? Est-ce parce qu’il est ici question de femmes qu’on dénie la dimension politique du problème, au profit d’une dimension religieuse et morale?

Again, as concerns the burkini, all this is a figment of the French imagination. Mme Heinich & Co are seeing heavy symbolism in an article of female clothing that, until proof to the contrary, is not seen by the women wearing it. One thing that strikes me in reading viewpoints such as this is that women who wear the burkini or hijab are accorded no agency. They are seen as either passive victims living under the yoke of misogynistic men or as fanaticized zombies in the service of a totalitarian ideology. And they have no voice. I will wager that Mme Heinich and others who share her views have never engaged veiled Muslim women in dialogue or had the slightest interest in hearing them out. Veiled Muslim women are the ultimate Other. At minimum, there’s a lack of empathy here, not to mention absence of intellectual curiosity. I don’t relate to this way of thinking.

11th UPDATE: Gershom Gorenberg—The American Prospect’s Jerusalem-based senior correspondent—nails it in a commentary (August 31st) entitled “The beach movie of the absurd.” The lede: “The Burkini fuss isn’t just an embarrassment for France. Diversity is under attack across the West.”

12th UPDATE: Daniel Pipes, like that proverbial stopped clock, gets it exactly right on the burkini. And he links to a site selling “original kosher swimwear.” I rest my case.

13th UPDATE: The NYT (September 2nd) seeks out the views of Muslim women in France and Belgium—gives them voice—in an article (and that may be read in French translation), “‘The way people look at us has changed’: Muslim women on life in Europe.”

14th UPDATE: Libération (September 1st) has a meditation by Université Paris 1 philosophy professor Sandra Laugier, “SOS fantasmes.” Observing the negative reaction on social media to the all-female cast of the latest “Ghostbusters” movie, Laugier offers this

Ce déferlement de misogynie a trouvé un équivalent plus tragique en France avec le débat politique, virtuel et public, sur le droit des femmes musulmanes à choisir leur tenue de plage. Quelle que soit l’opinion ou l’affect qu’elles suscitent, le plus extraordinaire est que tant de gens se soient sentis autorisés à l’exprimer.

Comme l’indique déjà la façon de nommer ce débat («le burkini»), les femmes concernées sont les dernières qu’on va consulter sur la question, et il a été fort pénible ces dernières semaines de lire et d’entendre les uns et les autres, hommes en majorité, des femmes de pouvoir aussi, énoncer doctement ce que ces femmes musulmanes doivent faire, voire traduire ce qu’elles pensent et expriment par leur comportement.

It occurs to none of the burkini critics to solicit the viewpoints of the women who wear it…

In this vein, Laugier links to an important analysis by Université Paris 13 linguistics professor Marie-Anne Paveau, “Parler du burkini sans les concernées: De l’énonciation ventriloque,” posted August 17th on the website “La pensée du discours: La théorie du discours ouverte à de nouvelles épistémologies.”

15th UPDATE: Dominique Rousseau, the well-known professor of public law at the Université Paris 1, settles the legal/constitutional side of the question (September 1st) in Le Huffington Post, “Sous le burkini, l’Etat de Droit.”

Also see Etienne Balibar’s tribune (August 29th) in Libération, “Laïcité ou identité?” The lede: “Alors que le Conseil d’Etat vient d’invalider l’interdiction du burkini, il faut mettre fin au développement de la «laïcité identitaire». Cette conception, obsédée par le communautarisme en vient à construire un «communautarisme d’Etat».”

16th UPDATE: The Times of Israel has an AP dispatch (September 4th) on how the “French uproar [has created an] opportunity for Israeli burkinis.” One learns that Israel

home to large populations of conservative Jewish and Muslim women, has cultivated a local industry of modest swimsuits, and the full-body outfits that have caused uproar in France have been a common sight on Israeli beaches for several years.

On the uproar in France, the founder of one of the first Israeli modest swimwear companies rhetorically asked

“What does a woman do in France who wants to cover up for sun protection or who wants to cover up some scarring, or if she is a little overweight and she doesn’t want to wear a bikini?…It doesn’t make any sense that they are banning a specific type of modest swimwear. It’s very racist to me.”

As for Palestinian Muslims

Sahab Nasser sells SunWay burkinis at her lingerie shop in Tira, a mostly Muslim town in central Israel. She said she sold burkinis for four years before she finally bought one so she could accompany her three-year-old daughter in the pool. It has been life-changing for her and other Muslim women, she said, because previously they would stay out of the water while the men and children in their families would go swimming.

“The burkini has let (Arab women) go to the beach, spend quality time with the family, to go to mixed gender pools, to swim with their families and feel comfortable, without criticism,” she said. “Who said the bikini is the right look for the beach?”

Personally speaking, I prefer seeing women in bikinis, particularly if they have the body for one. And if they want to go topless, tant mieux (en tant qu’homme hétéro je ne vais pas être hypocrite là-dessus). But if women want to wear burkinis, no prob’. Laissez les gens vivre, bon sang !

17th UPDATE: Michel Wieviorka has a tribune in Le Monde (September 4th) responding to Nathalie Heinich’s unhinged diatribe (above), “La sociologie à l’épreuve du burkini.” The lede: “Afin de pouvoir légitimement intervenir dans le débat public, les intellectuels doivent s’appuyer sur des recherches et des faits établis. Non pas sur des opinions et des préjugés.” Money quote:

Le sociologue qui s’exprime sur le «burkini», puisque c’est le dossier qui nous occupe ici, devrait s’appuyer sur des recherches portant directement sur ce phénomène, ou sur des phénomènes proches – burqa, par exemple (je dirige des travaux de doctorantes sur ce thème): que signifie le port de ce vêtement islamique pour les femmes concernées? Quelles sont ces femmes, qu’ont-elles à dire? Quel est le sens du refus énergique du burkini: républicain? féministe? nationaliste? islamophobe? Quel est celui de la tolérance à son égard: républicain, féministe, naïf…? Chez qui? Etc.

Faute de s’appuyer sur des travaux solides, le sociologue perd une bonne partie de sa légitimité à intervenir, pour devenir au mieux un essayiste et plus vraisemblablement un acteur, ou l’intellectuel organique d’une cause, et non plus un analyste.

See also the tribune in Le Monde (September 6th) by IEP–Aix-en-Provence sociology professor Raphaël Liogier, “Contre les idées reçues sur l’islam, créons un ‘Observatoire des identités plurielles’.”

18th UPDATE: The well-known political science specialist of Islamism, Shadi Hamid, who is presently a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Project on US Relations with the Islamic World, has a piece (July 20th 2017) in The Atlantic on “The Dilemma of the Burqini: Is there any right way to react to the swimwear?”

19th UPDATE: Writing on the Islamic headscarf—though he could be on the burkini—Matthew Kaemingk—who teaches theology, ethics, and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena CA—has an outside-the-box commentary in the Summer 2017 issue of the magazine Comment: Public Theology for the Common Good that will no doubt ruffle French feathers, “The headscarf: Islam’s gift to Western democracy.” The lede: “Learning to welcome Islam is a way to relearn what democracy is about.” I don’t necessary adhere to Kaemingk’s views across the board but what he says is worth the debate.


Sydney, Australia (photo: Aheda Zanetti)

Sydney, Australia (photo: Aheda Zanetti)

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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] [4th update below] [5th 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 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 migrants from the countryside 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 (online on January 31st), “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.

4th UPDATE: Kamel Daoud’s January 31st Le Monde tribune has been translated by Elisabeth Zerofsky and published in the summer 2016 issue of World Policy Journal, under the title “Cologne, scene of fantasies.”

5th UPDATE: Adlène Meddi, an editor at the Algiers daily El Watan and one of Algeria’s sharper journalist-essayists of the younger generation, has an opinion piece (March 9th 2017) in the French edition of Middle East Eye, “Le cas Kamel Daoud, contre-ênquete.”



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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 first-rate 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.

Rather than offer my own thoughts, 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 copy-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.


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Hocine Aït Ahmed, R.I.P.


[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 (FFS)—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’s 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’s 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.


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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À l’occasion du 60ème anniversaire du déclenchement de la Guerre d’Algérie par le Front de libération nationale, voici un peu de publicité pour ce bon documentaire—co-produit, il convient de le dire, par le grand réalisateur chinois Jia Zhang-ke—qui est sorti à Paris cette semaine—et que je me suis précipité de voir—sur la mémoire de la guerre à travers un fidaï (combattant) du FLN. La critique de cinéma Sandrine Marques a eu un bon compte rendu du film dans Le Monde

Un « fidaï », en arabe, est un soldat, soumis à un code de l’honneur strict et prêt à sacrifier sa vie pour une cause, sans pour autant aspirer à devenir martyr. Le terme se rapporte, dans le remarquable film de Damien Ounouri, à son grand-oncle Mohammed El Hadi Benadouda qui, pendant la révolution algérienne, a secrètement intégré un groupe armé du Front de libération nationale (FLN) en France. Là, on lui confie une arme et l’ordre d’assassiner un traître. El Hadi s’exécute. Il connaîtra le maquis, les règlements de compte, la clandestinité. Aujourd’hui âgé de 70 ans, il rompt enfin le silence autour de cette période obscure de sa vie.

Ses souvenirs, d’abord imprécis, sont réactivés à la faveur de reconstitutions étonnantes, organisées à la demande du réalisateur qui avait auparavant réalisé un portrait du cinéaste chinois Jia Zhang-ke. A cette occasion, Damien Ounouri se glisse dans la peau de la victime que El Hadi a grièvement blessée et qui devait décéder quelques heures tard, lors de son transport à l’hôpital. Il répète avec précision les gestes par lesquels, cinquante plus tôt, il a ôté la vie à un homme, simplement parce qu’on lui avait ordonné de le faire et que la cause n’appelait pas d’autre considération.

un double geste de transmission

La chorégraphie meurtrière contraste avec les moments de vie au présent de la famille, radieux, complices et bigarrés. Femmes, petits-enfants, cousins ignoraient tout ou presque des activités passées de l’aïeul. En exhumant son histoire des limbes où il l’avait enfouie, c’est celle de la guerre d’Algérie qui a refait surface. Les jeunes générations la méconnaissent, constate El Hadi.

Fidaï s’organise conséquemment autour d’un double geste de transmission. C’est le legs mémoriel d’un homme à sa famille qui se superpose intimement à l’histoire politique d’un pays. Damien Ounouri est dépositaire de cette mémoire. Il en explore les béances, questionnant par là-même ses origines et sa propre appartenance à l’Histoire. Elle s’incarne par le truchement des images d’archives. Elles achèvent de documenter un film puissant, qui s’offre comme un ouvroir sur le temps présent.

un documentaire qui compte

Avec lui, c’est le Printemps arabe qui résonne de toutes ses forces, en même temps que notre propre engagement. Celui du réalisateur est très physique. Ses images sont arrimées aux corps qu’il met en scène (y compris le sien) et leur élaboration produit progressivement des effets inattendus. Comme dans la séquence où El Hadi est allongé sur son lit, en proie à un malaise. Les Djinns, dit-il, sont venus à sa rencontre sur le chemin qu’il a emprunté à rebours pour faire renaître ses souvenirs. Doit-on voir, dans ce soudain effondrement, la manifestation tardive d’une culpabilité ?

Le vertige qui s’empare de ce vaillant septuagénaire est aussi celui de l’Histoire qui nous happe et nous rattrape jusque dans les arcanes les plus souterraines de notre existence. Ce courant caché et tendu comme le secret, est ce que parvient à saisir, avec beaucoup de grâce, d’intelligence et d’engagement, Damien Ounouri dans un documentaire qui compte.

Voir également la critique de Jean-Michel Frodon, anciennement du Monde, dans Slate.fr, celle du HuffPost Algérie, l’entretien avec Damien Ounouri dans Algérie-Focus, et les critiques en anglais dans Variety (très bon), IndieWire, et Middle East Monitor. La bande annonce est ici.

Pour le moment le film ne se joue que dans une salle parisienne mais on suppose qu’il sortira ailleurs en France dans les semaines à venir.

J’ai vu un autre documentaire en salle récemment, sur un moment de la lutte nationale algérienne, “Les Balles du 14 juillet 1953,” réalisé par Daniel Kupferstein, qui a fait des documentaires sur le 17 octobre 1961 et le 8 février 1962. Voici le synopsis

Le 14 juillet 1953, un drame terrible s’est déroulé en plein Paris. Au moment de la dislocation d’une manifestation en l’honneur de la Révolution Française, la police parisienne a chargé un cortège de manifestants algériens. Sept personnes (6 algériens et un français) ont été tuées et une centaine de manifestants ont été blessés ont plus de quarante par balles. Un vrai carnage.

Cette histoire est quasiment inconnue. Pratiquement personne n’est au courant de son existence. Comme si une page d’histoire avait été déchirée et mise à la poubelle. En France comme en Algérie.

Ce film, est l’histoire d’une longue enquête contre l’amnésie.

Enquête au jour le jour, pour retrouver des témoins, pour faire parler les historiens, pour reprendre les informations dans les journaux de l’époque, dans les archives et autres centres de documentation afin de reconstituer au mieux le déroulement de ce drame mais aussi pour comprendre comment ce mensonge d’Etat a si bien fonctionné.

Avant que les derniers témoins ne disparaissent, il est temps que l’histoire de ce massacre sorte de l’oubli.

C’est dommage que le documentaire ait été fait après que la majorité des acteurs de l’événement sont décédés mais mieux tard que jamais. Voici un compte-rendu dans le Bondy Blog et un retour sur la manifestation du 14 juillet 1953 par un archiviste du journal L’Humanité. On peut voir un extrait de 6 minutes du film ici.

les balles du 14 juillet 1953

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The Tunisian election


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

What a pleasant surprise. I had assumed that Ennahda would come in first place, as it has been my operating assumption for the past 25 or so years that the Islamists will always come in first place in any genuinely free and fair general election in an Arab country. It looks like I may be behind the curve, or maybe need to rethink my assumptions. Félicitations au peuple tunisien! La Tunisie a sauvé l’honneur du monde arabe (et pas pour la première fois). If only the Egyptian military had patiently waited for the next election there, so that the Muslim Brotherhood could bite the dust legitimately and without violence (or at least a minimum of it). Or if Bashar al-Assad had sought dialogue with the Syrian opposition in spring 2011…

As for analyses and commentary, I thought this one by Bernard Guetta—this morning on France Inter—on “the three lessons of Tunisian democracy” was pretty good

Et maintenant, les ennuis commencent. Nidaa Tounes, la grande coalition des laïcs tunisiens l’a largement emporté, avant-hier, sur les islamistes d’Ennahda mais, faute d’avoir obtenu la majorité absolue à la nouvelle Assemblée nationale, elle devra se trouver des partenaires avec lesquels gouverner et n’a que deux choix devant elle.

Soit Nida Tounes – l’Appel de la Tunisie – cherche à s’agréger de petites formations et entre alors dans des marchandages sans fin qui ne mèneront qu’à l’instabilité permanente soit elle respire un grand coup et accepte de former le gouvernement d’union nationale que lui proposent les islamistes.

Cette décision révolterait beaucoup des laïcs dont la constante et si courageuse mobilisation avait forcé Ennahda, majoritaire aux élections de 2011, à finalement accepter une Constitution démocratique puis la formation d’un gouvernement de technocrates chargé d’organiser les législatives de dimanche. Cette décision ne serait pas non plus sans risques car elle impliquerait une répartition des grands postes de l’appareil d’Etat dans lequel les islamistes continueraient ainsi de s’installer alors même que tous leurs cadres ne partagent pas, et loin de là, la modération de leur direction.

Cette union nationale serait tout, sauf évidente pour les laïcs mais, d’un autre côté, rien ne serait plus dangereux pour eux que de laisser les islamistes se refaire et se radicaliser dans l’opposition alors que la situation économique est si mauvaise, que des mesures douloureuses s’imposent et que le mécontentement social ne pourra que s’accroître. Les ennuis commencent mais « Vive la Tunisie ! », car ce petit pays sans autres ressources que son intelligence collective vient de nous rappeler à trois réalité d’importance.

La première est que rien n’est plus infondé que ces théories tellement répandues sur l’incompatibilité de l’islam et de la démocratie. La Tunisie est musulmane, tout ce qu’il y a de plus musulmane, mais non seulement elle sait ce que sont la liberté, la tolérance et la démocratie mais elle sait aussi les défendre.

La deuxième réalité à laquelle rappelle son évolution depuis janvier 2011 et que l’adjectif « islamiste » ne veut plus rien dire tant les forces politiques qu’il qualifie sont différentes et même divergentes, tant il n’y a rien de commun entre les illuminés sanguinaires de l’Etat islamique, les conservateurs musulmans au pouvoir en Turquie, les Frères musulmans égyptiens et, maintenant, Ennahda dont les dirigeants veulent ancrer dans la vie politique un parti conservateur, clérical et thatchérien mais nullement jihadiste.

Quant à la troisième réalité que nous rappelle la Tunisie elle est que la Syrie aurait parfaitement pu suivre la même voie qu’elle parce qu’elle avait des élites tout aussi larges, éclairées et démocrates que les siennes. Le drame est que ces élites, on les a laissé massacrer par une dictature sanguinaire et que le monde en paie désormais le prix qui a pour nom « l’Etat islamique », l’armée de barbares que l’on sait.

This post-election interview in Mediapart with Choukri Hamd, who teaches political science at the Université Paris-Dauphine, is also worth the read.

UPDATE: Tunis-based Oxford doctoral student Monica Marks has a commentary in The Guardian (October 29th) in which she argues that “The Tunisian election result isn’t simply a victory for secularism over Islamism: The battle between Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda is more complex than enlightened secularists versus backwards Islamists.”

2nd UPDATE: Laryssa Chomiak, director of CEMAT in Tunis, has a commentary on WaPo’s Monkey Cage blog (October 29th) on “The richness of Tunisia’s new politics.” And Hussien Ibish, writing in NOW, celebrates “Tunisia’s triumph,” saying that “As much of the rest of the Arab world sinks into chaos, Tunisia shows there is real hope for the future.”

3rd UPDATE: Well-known neocon author and commentator Max Boot visited Tunisia, for the first time it seems, as a member of the International Republican Institute’s election observer mission. He was suitably impressed with the country—American and Brit pundits are invariably impressed with Tunisia, be it a dictatorship or struggling democracy—, though was disappointed with the absence of McDonald’s and Starbucks franchises in the dumpy seaside town near the Algerian border where he was based. His observations, “Tunisia Stands Alone: A peaceful election in the birthplace of the ‘Arab Spring’,” are in the November 10th issue of TWS.

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Adam Shatz, contributing editor at the London Review of Books and visiting professor at the Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at New York University—and dear personal friend—, has a must read essay/personal reflection in the latest issue of The Nation (dated August 4th) inspired by his fifteen-odd years of reporting on the Middle East and North Africa. The essay is a revised version of the Hilda B. Silverman Memorial Lecture, at Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies, that Adam gave this past May, and which he fraternally sent me for comments beforehand. It’s typically excellent. As for watching the lecture—as the above image indicates one may do—this will apparently be possible sometime this fall.

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Celebrating Algeria's World Cup qualifying victory over Burkina Faso, November 19 2013

Celebrating Algeria’s World Cup qualifying victory over Burkina Faso, November 19 2013

This is a continuation of my post of three days ago, on Franco-Algerians and issues of identity, which I put up before saying everything I wanted to say on the subject. Three more comments. First, when pondering—and dreading—a hypothetical France-Algeria World Cup quarterfinal—which thankfully did not come to pass—, one immediately thinks of the October 6, 2001, France-Algeria friendly de funeste mémoire, before a packed Stade de France in Saint-Denis, the first time the two national teams had met for a friendly match and in France (the one previous meeting between national soccer teams of the two was the 1975 Mediterranean Games final in Algiers—and which was won by Algeria). The game’s advance billing presented it as a beautiful—and heavily symbolic—moment of Franco-Algerian friendship and reconciliation, so numerous politicians and other public personalities were present at the stadium, including Prime Minister Lionel Jospin. Minister of Youth and Sports—and the then PCF Secretary-General—Marie-George Buffet had the brilliant—or, one should say, “brilliant”—idea to distribute free tickets for the game to thousands of young people of Algerian parentage in the surrounding, heavily immigrant populated banlieues (Saint-Denis being in the heart of the neuf-trois). A lovely gesture, or so she thought. The stadium was a sea of Algerian flags. When Les Bleus—the celebrated black-blanc-beur team that had won the World Cup three years earlier—entered, they were booed. And when the national anthems were played, La Marseillaise was likewise booed. And loudly. Throughout the game, whenever a French player took the ball, he was booed—even national hero Zineddine Zidane, and normally beloved by young Franco-Algerians—and with the Algerian players loudly cheered. And then at the 76th minute, with France leading 4-1, youthful spectators invaded the field. It was pandemonium (watch here, from 6:50). The game had to be called and with the players quickly exiting to the locker room.

What was to have been a beautiful moment symbolizing the friendship between the two countries turned into a fiasco. Jospin, Buffet, and the other VIPs were like statues during the game—their faces frozen—whenever the TV camera panned to them (and Mme Buffet was hit by a projectile). I watched the whole thing with my wife and we were speechless. And stunned, as was everyone we knew—including all the Algerians and other Maghrebis—who watched the game. And the reaction was likewise across the board in France. French society was blindsided by the spectacle, of tens of thousands of young French citizens—or citizens-to-be—booing France and the symbols—flag and anthem—of the French nation. It led the news the next day, was the headline in all the papers, and the cover story in the weekly news magazines, with analyses, tribunes, and debates as to the meaning of what had happened and how to interpret the manifest alienation from French society of a portion of the younger generation of Algerian immigrant origin. As the Front National was at an electoral low point at the time, there wasn’t much demagoguery from politicians over the event. Mainly shock and disorientation. The most sober reaction came from the Über-republican patriot Jean-Pierre Chevènement, who spoke of how saddened he was by the spectacle and what he interpreted as the failure of the Republic to integrate young Franco-Algerians.

The most virulent reaction, as it happened, came from Algeria, with the press there unanimously denouncing the youthful Franco-Algerians at the Stade de France, whose comportment disgraced Algeria and Algerians in France, so the Algerian press asserted. Algerians in Algeria spared their brethren in France no quarter. And the adults in France’s Algerian population felt likewise.

The fallout from the game was long-lasting. It was not forgotten. In debates over post-colonial immigrant integration, there was a before and after October 2001. A France-Algeria match today—and a high stakes one at that—would certainly see similar type behavior from young Franco-Algerians. But there would be fewer soul-searching reactions à la Chevènement from politicians. In view of the current electoral strength of the FN, the surge of the hard right-wing of the UMP—thanks to Nicolas Sarkozy and Jean-François Copé—, and the Internet réacosphère (with countless right-wing blogs and reactionary websites, e.g. Valeurs Actuelles), the political récupération and exploitation would be terrible. The well would be poisoned big time. As I have said, France does not need this.

A second comment, and to put things in perspective: Except when playing Algeria—or Morocco or Tunisia—the French national team is actively supported by young Franco-Algerians/Maghrebis. In the wild celebrations that followed France’s 1998 World Cup victory over Brazil, young Franco-Maghrebis were out in force—and marking the French victory by waving Algerian, Moroccan, and Tunisian flags (which I was able to observe, having been out and about on that glorious July night). Again, hybrid/multiple identities issuing from post-colonial immigration.

Third comment. On the phenomenon and significance of waving flags of former French colonies at events in France—including political rallies—see the guest post on this blog by sociologist (and personal friend) Didier Le Saout dated May 7, 2012, in which he analyses “les drapeaux étrangers et le débat de l’intégration des populations étrangères dans la société française” (scroll to nº2; see also my exchange on this with a conservative American who commented on the blog).

Political scientist and Algeria specialist Thomas Serres has a sharp analysis (June 29th) in the webzine Jadaliyya, “From the World Cup to the ‘Great Replacement’: Football and Racist Narratives in France.”

Celebrating Algeria's World Cup qualifying victory over Egypt, November 18 2009

Celebrating Algeria’s World Cup qualifying victory over Egypt, November 18 2009

On Team USA’s elimination by Belgium last Tuesday, I have nothing in particular to say about it except too bad, better luck in 2018, and Tim Howard was awesome. Everyone is remarking on the upsurge of interest in the World Cup in the US, with statistics published in WaPo “[proving that] Americans care more about soccer than you think.” And in case one missed it, the NYT’s Sam Borden had a good piece after the Belgium game, “Wild ride by U.S. comes to end, but soccer is the winner.” On the engouement for soccer in the US

World Cups have been growing in popularity among Americans for some time, but this tournament has felt different. Explanations for the surge vary, with some pointing to Brazil’s time zone being favorable for American viewers, especially compared to South Africa four years ago. Others say soccer’s spike is simply the result of a growing Hispanic population in the United States as well as the inevitable aging of Millenials. A great number of soccer-loving children have now become consumer adults.

“These are all young people who grew up with the game, whether it be the English Premier League or Major League Soccer, and they don’t need to be convinced that soccer is a sport that is worthy of their attention,” said Don Garber, the commissioner of M.L.S. “The country has changed. This is a new America.”

Statistics seem to support that claim. Fourteen percent of people between the ages of 12 and 24 said professional soccer was their favorite sport, second only to the N.F.L., according to Rich Luker, who runs a sports research firm. That means a greater number of fans are more likely to continue following the sport even when the pageantry of the World Cup is over.

Millennials are not just knowledgeable about the Premier League and MLS but have grown up playing the game—which was not the case in my generation (and certainly not among boys in the Midwest). And, as Ann Coulter and other soccer denigrators—of which I was one until two decades ago—surely know, those Americans who play soccer and/or follow it are mainly middle and upper-middle class and include many from Republican families (and whose grandparents were born in the US…).

Hypothesis: One reason Ann Coulter and her ideological ilk are suspicious of soccer—apart from the fact that they didn’t grow up with it—is that an interest in the sport necessarily and positively engages one with the rest of the world, and particularly Europe. One cannot follow soccer without an on-going knowledge of—and respect for—the major European leagues—and which will be superior to MLS for a long time to come. One cannot be a soccer fan and America-centric.

I like these pics of “fanatical ‘gringo’ fans suffering defeat in the round of 16,” on a Venezuelan website I stumbled across.

Hypothesis: Ann Coulter and ilk also dislike the rise of soccer in the US because it is a team sport in which Americans are not the best and where the US national team will inevitably lose to some European, Latin American, African country, that Americans will have to get used to defeat—as do all other countries, including Brazil—, but that it’s not a big deal. The playing field will always be level.

Assertion: Ann Coulter and ilk will just have to get used to their fellow Americans liking soccer. There’s not a thing they can do about it.

Watching Belgium-USA on the big screen at Soldier Field, Chicago, July 1st (photo: Scott Olson/Getty Image)

Watching Belgium-USA on the big screen at Soldier Field, Chicago, July 1st
(photo: Scott Olson/Getty Image)

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Algerian national team homecoming, Algiers, July 2 2014 (Photo: Getty Images)

Algerian national team homecoming, Algiers, July 2 2014 (Photo: Getty Images)

This post is a couple of days late. First of all, here’s a post by poet and essayist Charles Simic on the NYR Blog (July 2nd), “Confessions of a Soccer Addict,” that I can relate to. Now I am not nearly as much of a soccer addict as Simic, as I only follow international tournaments—World Cup and European nations championships, and France’s qualifiers for these (and only since the mid 1990s)—and have not watched every last game of this tournament, but have still been caught up in it. Every two (even) years in June-early July, I become obsessed with international soccer. And once it’s over I move on to other things.

But this one’s not yet over, with the quarterfinals tomorrow and Saturday. In round 16 I was particularly focused on the games with France, Algeria, and the USA. Not much to say about France-Nigeria other than the Nigerian Super Eagles played a good game—their players are all with top flight clubs in Europe—and Les Bleus weren’t too reassuring for the first two-thirds of it, but they got it together in the final 20 minutes and deservedly won. I am not pessimistic for their chances against Germany.

As for Algeria’s Fennecs, they went out against Germany les têtes hautes, which is just as it should have been. As I wrote in the last post, I was thrilled by Algeria’s draw against Russia and qualification for round 16 but did not want Les Fennecs to defeat Germany, as this would have set up an Algeria-France quarterfinal—assuming, of course, that France beat Nigeria, as expected—, which was to be avoided at all costs. Living in France, my dread of an Algeria-France QF seemed to require no explanation—it went without saying—but then a friend asked me this question on FB after the Algeria-Germany game ended (with the German victory but Algeria valiantly attacking to the very end):

Arun, what was the political and social fall-out that we just dodged by avoiding a France-Algeria quarter-final? What in your view would have happened?

Response: I cannot say concretely what would have happened but such a match would put a few million Franco-Algerians in France in the position—uncomfortable for some, less so for others—of having to root for Algeria against France and, in the event of an Algerian victory, publicly celebrating France’s defeat on the streets of French cities, and in the event of Algeria’s defeat, being disappointed at France’s victory—and these are people who would otherwise be cheering for France if Algeria weren’t involved. The reaction in the larger French society would naturally be very negative, Marine Le Pen & Co. would make a huge deal about it, and would further poison what in America is referred to as “race relations,” which does not need any more poisoning in France right now. The Franco-Algerian relationship—a relationship with a long colonial history and bitter war of independence, for which there is no equivalent in American history—does not need this. It would generate a nasty political polemic—about immigrant integration (or the presumed lack of it)—, increased anti-immigration rhetoric within the parliamentary right and with calls for a revision of French nationality law (e.g. suppressing dual nationality), foster bad feelings all around, and which would not be quickly forgotten. Such an Algeria-France match would not be a big deal between Algeria and France or in any way affect state-to-state relations between the two countries; it would strictly be an affair of Algerian-origin French citizens.

We’re dealing here with multiple/hybrid ethnic identities clashing head on. Americans have little to no experience with this, as clashing identities are played out mainly in international team sports competition, and American sports do not have major international tournaments (and with American football having none at all). The only time (some) Americans have witnessed this is in USMNT soccer games with Mexico played in the United States, where stadiums—except in Columbus, Ohio—are invested by spectators cheering for Mexico, waving Mexican flags, and booing the US. But as most Americans don’t pay attention to soccer, most are not aware of this—and it is not clear what proportion of those fans are Mexican-Americans or simply Mexicans living in the US (or travelling to the US for the game).

In France, those cheering the Algerian team are, in their majority, citizens of France and with most of the younger ones having been born and raised in the country. That they support the Algerian national team is only normal, as their parents are Algerian and Algeria is a part of their identity. Anecdote: I watched the Algeria-South Korea game on June 22nd chez a friend, who is Algerian naturalized French, in his mid 40s, came to France in his 20s for university, has an Algerian wife, is middle class—works in the private sector, as does his wife—, is thoroughly integrated into French society, with house in the suburbs (not far from Disneyland), and all. Moreover, he is a card-carrying member of one of the major French political parties and was a candidate in the last municipal elections in his town. His 13-year-old son—born and raised in middle class suburban Paris—, who is very knowledgeable about soccer, was, of course, all for Algeria. I asked him who he’d be for if Algeria played France. His response (I’m paraphrasing here and the exchange was obviously in French): “Uh, I’d be for Algeria.” Me: “But you’re French and live in France!” Him: “Yes, but I’m Algerian.” Me: “But you’re French too.” Him: “Well, yeah.” Me: “Are you for the Les Bleus too?” Him: “Of course.” Me: “So?” Him: “I dunno, that’s the way it is. I’m for Algeria.” Okay, he’s a kid, but there are hundreds of thousands of kids like him in France, or young adults who were kids not too long ago (and not just Algerian but other immigrant origin too). And in all of the French national team’s games—except with Algeria—he will be loudly cheering for France.

Complex this issue. I’ll continue with it in the next post. And will discuss the US too.

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