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Having fled Algeria, Anouar Benmalek reflects on its bloody past

Suzanne Ruta

FEB/MAR 2007


The Lovers of Algeria by Anouar Benmalek. St Paul, MN: Graywolf Press. 288 pages. $16;

Child of an Ancient People by Anouar Benmalek. London: Harvill.256 pages. $14



        Algeria’s “war on terror” began in 1992, when a conclave of generals cancelled the country’s first ever democratic national elections, to forestall an Islamist victory. Islamic extremists reacted to a brutal crackdown by taking up arms against the state for over a decade. Terrorist massacres, bombings, targeted assassinations and the army’s dirty counterinsurgency campaign of torture, disappearances and summary executions, left 200,000 dead and many thousands missing.

The violence galvanized a new generation of novelists;  most ambitious and far reaching has been the work of Anouar Benmalek, a mathematician, journalist and novelist, who moved to France in 1992 to escape Islamist death threats. Friends and colleagues who stayed behind—novelist Tahar Djaout, reporter Said Mekbel, and many others—were murdered by Islamists in the mid-’90s. The memory of these losses cropped up often in phone conversations I had last fall with Benmalek. Recalling a non-political poet friend whose throat was slit because he dared to convene a meeting of both Arabic and French language poets (French, the colonial language, was anathema to the Islamists) or the Islamist leader who gloated on US TV in 1993 over the “execution” of Djaout, the Paris-based author was, understandably, bitter.

There’s no bitterness, however, in his novel The Lovers of Algeria, a bestseller in France, first published in 1998 and now translated into ten languages. “A novelist has to have compassion for all his characters, even the assassins,” he explained when we spoke. But the assassins clearly interest him less than their victims. Following an old Mediterranean tradition (Aeschylus in The Persians, Euripides in The Trojan Women) he looks at war from the perspective of widows and orphans. The opening chapter is set in an Algiers cemetery in the mid–’90s. A chorus of women in black Iranian style chadors search among freshly dug graves for traces of their missing sons, perhaps dumped from a nearby prison. Into this place of horrors wanders the novel’s heroine, an elderly Swiss woman once married to an Algerian. Their two small children were slaughtered during the war for independence. She has returned, forty years later, to visit their tomb. By now she’s an old hand at grief; the women in chadors are novices, but they have the rest of their lives to learn. This novel, an  elegiac  multi-layered meditation on Algeria’s violent history earned Benmalek, who turned fifty last year and currently lectures in mathematics at the Université Paris-Sud, comparisons to Camus and Faulkner, as well as the wrath of the Algerian diplomatic corps in France.  

“The only crime you’re allowed to talk about is colonialism,” he fumed. “We have a rolling amnesty, for the ’60s, for 1988” — when Algeria’s baby  boomers rioted and the regime sent in the troops, killing five hundred citizens in the streets and torturing hundreds more. At the time, Benmalek and colleagues founded the country’s first ever committee against torture, even managing to publish a grim exposé, The Black Book of October (1989), before they were forced to flee the country.

“These amnesties rob us of our dignity as a people,” he told me, adding, “What I reproach most in the Arab world is the failure to denounce its own crimes. It’s the attitude of the defeated. We have been the defeated for four centuries now. No one is more racist towards the Arab world than Arabs themselves. Our refusal to impose standards on ourselves is profoundly racist. We’re resigned to seeing Arab regimes crush their citizens. The Arab League should have got rid of Saddam Hussein.”

There’s no such resignation in Benmalek’s 1987 novel, LAmour Loup (Feral Love; as yet untranslated into English) written after a trip to Lebanon under Israeli occupation. This moving  portrait of a decimated Palestinian family inevitably implicates Israel but also excoriates Syrian torture cops, Jordanian soldiers, Palestinian slumlords and Shiite militias. Benmalek dedicated the book to his father, a passionate autodidact who taught his children to think for themselves. Another influential family member was Benmalek’s Swiss-born maternal grandmother, Marcelle Wagneres, who ran away as a child, to join the famous Knie Circus, where she became an acrobat and juggler. On tour in North Africa, she married a dark skinned Moroccan in blithe disregard of colonial racist attitudes. Benmalek was raised on her stories and dazzled by photos of her flying through the air. in tights. He recalled: “She was a woman who didn’t mince her words. She quarreled with my father, a complete patriarch. It was rough at times. But she gave me the idea that no one was superior or inferior to me. She gave me the feeling that the world was mine.”

Marcelle was the model for Anna, the courageous, cantankerous heroine of The Lovers of Algeria, who searches for the grave of her children killed not under the French aerial bombardment, but by Algerian rebels. They slit the children’s’ throats, in reprisal against their father, a “traitor” who broke under French torture and named names. This central episode is grisly but also, somehow, liberating, because it explodes the regime’s self serving and dangerous  myth of the glorious war for independence, where every rebel was a hero. The love story between Anna, the trapeze artist on the lam, and her dreamy Algerian lover Nassreddine, plays out in vivid flashbacks spanning half a century, giving the book an unexpected lyric buoyancy. The tale evidences Benmalek’s faith that an erotic joie de vivre can make life bearable.  

The ’90s conflict “was not a civil war,” he wrote (in an untranslated collection  of  his journalism, Chroniques de l’Algerie Amère, 2003)  “but a war against civilians” because both sides attacked easy targets. In The Lovers of Algeria, a terrorist who has just cut three prisoners’ throats  justifies the killing because  the army did far worse when it tortured his innocent father to death with a blowtorch. A war of furious vengeance, of escalating reprisals, this is the conflict the Pentagon should have studied before the Iraq invasion, alongside Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, which was viewed in 2003 by Pentagon strategists searching for insights into the escalating insurgency in Iraq.

 Child of an Ancient People, (2002) a  historical novel, brings together an Alsatian woman, Lislei, deported after the Paris Commune, and an Algerian rebel, Kader, deported after a failed 1871 uprising, to the French Micronesian colony of Nouvelle Caledonie. The echoes of Les Miserables are suggestive, even provocative. Lislei sells not her teeth, but her virtue, to buy her freedom. Kader, an Algerian Jean Valjean, kills the fellow prisoner he’s chained to. On their getaway ship, they discover a traumatized nine-year-old Tasmanian boy, the last of his tribe, about to be sold as a scientific specimen. The unlikely couple rescues the boy and raise him as their own child.  From Benmalek’s African perspective, imperialism is totalitarianism on a global scale. His novel shows how the survivors of   genocide in North Africa were sent halfway round the world to collaborate in genocide against another native people. Yet this South Sea adventure doesn’t quite do justice to this complex subject.

An unapologetic secular humanist  (“democracy can only thrive where there is separation  of church and state” he said), Benmalek is glum about Algeria’s current path. The violence has abated. The  pouvoir—the secretive shifting clans of military and political bosses who run the country as their private fief—achieved their aims during the violence: They cling to power, while in the public sphere the Islamist agenda advances. He listed the signs: The firing of TV news show producers who dared display the Danish cartoons; the introduction of the call to prayer five times a day on radio and TV; the many women wearing headscarves at his hometown university, and most egregious, Algeria’s latest amnesty law, decreed last winter, that pardons crimes committed by state agents and most Islamist rebels in the course of the  recent “national tragedy” (the official euphemism ) and even makes it a crime to write or speak publicly about it “in a way that could tarnish the country’s international image.”

“We’re not Rwanda with its commission,” Benmalek conceded, “although there was something genocidal in the slaughter of children, but there has to be some way of saying in the simplest language: This was good, this was bad. And since the amnesty deadline keeps being extended, they get away with it.”

His latest novel, the picaresque, sprawling, O Maria (Fayard 2006) is about the loss of Andalusia, which for Benmalek is less a place than a concept, that of religious tolerance. The andalusian dream died in 1610 with the deportation of half million or more crypto-Muslims from Catholic Spain to North Africa in leaky ships. The novel includes eyewitness testimony from a contemporary Catholic bishop, “overcome with emotion” at the sight of passive crowds herded onto the docks, like “lambs to the slaughter” The bishop felt, however, that it was his religious duty to suppress his human feelings.

“It’s a historical novel but a modern book,” Benmalek told me. Too modern apparently for Algeria, where right now “it’s almost impossible to discuss the place of religion in society.” The novel will not be published there any time soon.


Suzanne Ruta writes frequently about world literature.