On the Curse of Being an Arab

and How an Arab Writer Might Escape It

by Anouar Benmalek





Literary Arts Institute of the College of Saint Benedicte, Saint John's University (Minnesota),  April 13, 2005

Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts, April 25, 2005


                                                                                                                                        text in french

retour à la page Octobre 88

retour au sommaire de la revue de presse

                                                                                                                                                   retour à la page d'accueil

publié dans la revue Algérie Littérature Action, n° 125-126, nov-déc. 2008


et dans le quotidien Le Soir d'Algérie, 4 nov. 2008  





    How does one explain to an American audience the profound bitterness that a writer from what we will call “The Arab World” (to proceed rapidly and a little in the spirit of caricature) feels when he places the extremely heavy term “curse” side by side with the word “Arab”? Arab: a term which a priori should be but a simple geographical indication of birth laden, like anywhere else, with cultural and religious meaning, but not condemned in advance to universal defamation. A defamation that is made even more slanderous by the fact that he who “merits” said slander, accepts it more or less tacitly, with bowed head, overcome by the enormity of his crime.


    Here it is then. I introduce myself to you, dear American friends and I plead guilty: I am an Arab. I belong to those nations, such as Algeria, gangrened by fanaticism, fundamentalism, the rejection of difference and the worship of purifying blood pools.


    But, in my defense, I will cite an argument that is weighty and paradoxical at first. Yes, I am truly an Arab.  I belong to a community whose women, children and men, intellectuals, artisans, people of culture, journalists, peasants, workers, died in Algeria by the tens of thousands under the knife and the gun of those that I will call in a sinister, and in my opinion, pertinent comparison the new “Khmer rouge” - though this time green.


    I belong – I insist – to this group of ordinary people who, despite their solitude, despite threats from Islamist killers and their supporters in the machinery of the State, despite the scorn, the distrust and the lack of solidarity from democratic nations, preserved enough courage and good sense not to succumb to hopelessness and nihilism by simply continuing to work, to produce, to dance, to sing (yes, in some quarters in Algeria, dancing and singing could be acts of incredible courage at given moments).


    I am ready to tolerate the infamy that the word “Arab” holds in the mouths of certain champions of the “Clash of Civilizations” because I recognize myself in these innumerable ordinary heroes. Arabs, nonetheless.  Arabs who have persisted in sending their children, and in particular their daughters, to school in the face of assassins who murder school children and teachers.  And this school, though crippled by the faults of our countries, monitored by intolerance, narrow thought and the rejection of discussion, has remained nevertheless a tool, certainly mediocre but a tool all the same, in the pursuit of social promotion and of a certain number of invaluable liberties (such as reading and writing, and for young women and girls, the occasional escape from the family prison).


    As a child, I was proud of this designation “Arab” though I didn’t know exactly what the word conveyed. Coming from a multi-colored family, a mix of North African and European, in which a Swiss trapeze artist grandmother, a Mauritanian slave great grandmother, a Bavarian great grandmother, an Algerian father who fought in the struggle for Independence and a Moroccan mother all crossed paths, for me this word “Arab” didn’t have a narrow ethnic meaning.   For those of my generation who came out of the War of Independence, “Arab” evoked: epic, courage, honor, etc.


    For a long time, the former colonizers used it as an insult against us, and we, the once flea-bitten indigenous people, we sent it back to them like a glorious boomerang, for it was us, the “dirty Arabs” who followed the “dirty Yellow” of Indochina, the liars, the lazy, those incapable of deep feelings, deceitful, cruel, false-hearted, it was we who had managed to make their military armada, so enormous at first sight, bite the dust.


    In truth, I am a native of an Arab country (well: almost Arab...  I apologize for using a linguistic simplification that would make more than one Algerian Berber jump up in protest).  I am a native of a country that has led a long and terrible struggle for liberation in order to join the family of free nations.   In my family, like in many Algerian families, relatives would recount stories of valor and heroism with pride – and without a doubt embellishing and also hiding the moments of horror and uncertainty.  And during this time, we their grateful offspring, we were still proud of our parents’ actions, actions full of suffering and greatness.


    Meanwhile, however, already recruited by the two single parties in every Arab country (on the one hand, the clergy of Mosques with prohibitive droning, and on the other, the clique in power with its military police machinery), some school teachers took it upon themselves to pervert our admiration by teaching us that the heroism of our kin was of the same nature as the bravery of the first soldiers of Islam. And that, rather than having chased out the French occupiers because they were colonizers, exploiters and racists, our fathers, Muslims, kicked them out above all because they were “kouffars”: Christian miscreants – not to speak of the Jews who had to follow them in their flight.  According to these racist educators (who now took their place as racists after the French), Jews broadly merited the misfortune that chased them from their homes despite the fact that they were Algerians for centuries and centuries.  (The Jews were not accused and treated as “God killers” or “deocides,” as they were by Christians, but they suffered nevertheless due to the grave and unacceptable fault that they were not Muslim like the majority of the population…).


    With the complicity of the highest authorities of the country, Islamism had started its long work of undermining society, identifying patriotism little by little with religion (which had become the State religion) until it finished by substituting itself for religion.  Essentially it defined the Algerian through his obligatory Muslim faith and by imperceptibly replacing the good natured Islam of our ancestors with a new Islam inspired by the Wahabi model of the Saudis: violent, cantankerous, medieval, no longer hesitating to denounce those who grumbled against the disfiguration of their country’s values of hospitality and tolerance, not only as traitors to the homeland but also as apostates, thus subject to the death penalty reserved to those who abandon Islam.


    As we slowly grew up, confused, we felt as though we were not really free.  Adolescents, we were already discovering that the television and newspapers in our country (in our countries) lied with impunity, and we felt a vague sentiment of indignity because the predators who governed us did not even take the trouble to lie “well”: assured as they were of their impunity and of the power of the “information services” that took control of our societies. Above all, we started to feel contempt for our liberator parents, those who packed their dreams of citizenship and democracy into the attic and accepted with varying degrees of resignation the regulated letting of blood that drained the richness of the country, and the degradation and the submissiveness of political life in our society, our societies.  Some of these former fighters for liberty even transformed themselves into worthy mimics of the former masters in order to better repress the weak will of revolt, and for their profit, they recovered the most honored methods of the former colonial army: torture, imprisonment, assassination…


    But fine, to us, all this seemed to be but a passing darkness. We thought that time would do its work and good or bad, our societies, as wobbly as they still appeared, were not condemned to misfortune.  There were such resources of joy and of youth, such richness equally given by nature, that surely we would finish, as naturally as water runs from the mountain towards the sea, by loosening the stranglehold of dictatorship, by learning tolerance, discovering honor and the challenge and difficulty of being a citizen of a free country, an adult country…


    Why would we have thought differently? We were women and men like others; we merited our little place in the sun (the sun that beats down so hard here!).  Our feelings, from the grandest to the most petty, were not distinguishable from those of the rest of the planet: we knew how to love and hate, to work and to laze about; we knew how to take care of our children and our elderly; we possessed the art of being loyal and the art of betrayal; we thought of ourselves as naturally tolerant while also letting ourselves be sometimes tempted by xenophobia and even racism; we were neither more foolish nor more intelligent than those who surrounded us; like them, we aspired to a better life, to earn as much money, if not more than our neighbor…


    In short, we were like the rest of the human race, serial models of a species so widespread on earth that someone had named it, probably with derision, the too often unmerited homo-sapiens.


    And then, at the end of the 1980s, at a moment when the whole world was breaking up, with, in particular that wall in Berlin that was preparing to fall, the time of Islamist misfortune came for us (in Algeria at least), a political misfortune at first that was rapidly followed by arms and assassinations.


    The Iranian precedent had not taught us much.  We thought that Algeria and Algerians were too rebellious, too full of humor to exchange, if the occasion presented itself, to exchange an oppressive regime for a regime that was even more dictatorial and represented the negation of freedom, of laughter, of singing and the freedom of speech.


    To say that we were surprised by the tidal-wave of Islamist violence is a euphemism.  Especially since its appearance, at least in Algeria, had been paradoxically preceded by an explosion of democracy without precedent, to the point where some of us had called this period the “Algiers Spring” in reference to the famous “Prague Spring”…


    In 1988, following riots that were bloodily repressed by an army who used weapons without restriction and institutionalized torture, an unprecedented movement of contested democracy rapidly took hold of Algeria. The governing powers accorded the beginnings of a multiparty system and allowed for less tightly restricted access to the different national media.  For one full year, maybe even a little longer, democrats or democrat-apprentices like me believed that the movement of liberation from dictatorship that had swayed Eastern Europe had found its natural extension in an Arab country.


    Finally, like a beacon in North Africa, we were going to shake out the blanket of lies and submission that had disfigured until then all the societies of that immense Arab garrison.  Our nation, by its example, would show the way to other peoples of the region.  We were not condemned to rot eternally as subjects without rights, held prisoners with some local variations by the different caliphates and self-proclaimed potentates of the so-called Arab world. We were completely ready to start experiencing a status so new for us: that of citizen.


    Those people like yours truly who felt the exaltation of this period would quickly come to know a cruel disillusionment, made all the more cruel by the fact that the blow given to their hopes would come not from the despotic state, but rather, in the end, from the population at large itself. Our people…


    We thought that because we came from this people, because we did not belong to the predatory elite in power, because our parents had come from the small middle class struggling to make ends meet, we thought that because in the end, we had fought for the people against the hated state with only our democratic weapons – first and foremost free speech, an act so dangerous in an Arab country – we thought that this people would naturally recognize us as its children.


    And well, no! Confronted with the power of the helmeted thieves that governed Algeria, a substantial slice of the Algerian people did not choose democracy and its corollary of mandated tests in order to arrive at the stage of mature nationhood. Rather they chose a political project that was even more repressive, violent and archaic: that of generals and obfuscating Islamism.


    How was that possible? I do not have any precise answers, but rather some stupifying questions that maybe, all proportions considered, are of the same type as those questions that besieged German democrats on the eve of the Second World War when they saw the majority of their people welcome the bellicose and racist regime of the Nazis with just as much enthusiasm.


    Very quickly, faced with the popular success of Islamism, we found ourselves confronted by insurmountable contradictions.  In presenting a few disparate examples taken from here and there, I hope to convey the extreme pain of finding yourself one beautiful morning labeled with the shameful title of “enemy” of the people, renegade, and sold-out to the military powers by those very people that you defended day after day, with all your might, through spoken and written words.  


    In the aftermath of the October 1988 riots, a certain group of intellectuals, myself included, created a committee against torture. As our goal, we pledged to denounce the many assassinations and acts of torture that the Algerian authorities were guilty of having committed in their repression of young people during the revolt. “The Black Notebook of October,” that the committee published in Algiers is an unbearable anthology of some of these unspeakable crimes committed by the Algerian “Security Services” during the riots.


    Among the directors of the committee was an agronomist of a rare moral and physical courage whom I will call here by the initial of his name: H. He himself had been arrested during the disturbances and imprisoned in an infamously sinister garrison near Algiers.  With a bitterness that you can imagine, he later told me that these barracks were the same barracks where his own father had been tortured by French parachutists during the War of Independence. Almost thirty years after independence, soldiers of new masters, Algerians this time, tortured the son with the same savagery as they tortured the father.


    During his time in the barracks, other people more vulnerable than he also suffered the same fate.  And so, H consecrated the little strength that he had left – and herein lies the greatness of spirit of this human rights militant – to support and uphold as best as he could the morale of the youngest prisoners, the most terrified and the most broken by the sadism and violence of the soldiers.


    A few months later, he happened to find himself near the mosque of his village during the call to Friday prayer, a small town forty kilometers or so from the capital.  It must be said that at that time, Islamists had vested power in practically all the mosques in Algeria.  Thanks to the enormous loud-speakers placed on their exteriors and thanks to the passive complicity of the authorities, they had transformed each collective prayer (and there are five per day) into electoral meetings in which the extreme violence of their words contended with the most closed-minded fanaticism.


    That day, to his great surprise, H heard someone mention him by name through the loud-speaker.  The voice, which half the little town could hear, accused him of not being a good Muslim and with an outcry declared that he deserved to die for his profanity.  For H, the shock came not so much from the call for his lynching, but more from the fact that he recognized the voice screaming with hatred as the voice of one of the young torture victims that he had most helped, for whom he had taken the most risk and danger during his imprisonment in the torturer’s garrison.


    “I felt like I had been ripped from the flesh of this country,” he later admitted to me.  “I’d thought that I had conducted myself in a manner that would merit the respect of my countrymen and thus continue my father’s, the martyr’s, fight for freedom.  And here, in front of the whole community, I was declared unworthy, someone who had betrayed my country.  And in this community, where I was known as honorable, there was no one, no one who rose up to stand against my death sentence.  That day, yes, something died within me.”


    Another member of our committee, Doctor B., a very well-known pediatrician underwent a fate more radical.  Through his engagement with the committee and through his service as a doctor in a public hospital in the capital, he labored to help torture victims.  However – and this was evidently not a contradiction for him, far from it – he never ceased to denounce the wrongdoings of totalitarian Islamist thought in the popular electorate, the same electorate that he looked after with the utmost devotion and care.


    Doctor B., vice-president of our committee, was gunned down in the confines of his hospital by two young terrorists whom I can easily imagine to be the neighbors or relatives of those patients he cared for.  The most revolting aspect for me was to hear with my own ears, “honest” and “ordinary” neighbors, not particularly fanatical or Islamist, murmur that Doctor B had probably deserved it, “because there is no smoke without a fire, that the ‘brothers’ do not kill without a reason, and that if they had decided to administer the supreme punishment, there must have been a good reason for it…”


    I would return to this curious explanation, so slanderous to the victim because it strips away his status as a “victim,” on the occasion of the assassination of the great writer Tahar Djaout, with whom I had the honor of working at an Algiers weekly newspaper.  Some time before he received two bullets in the head, he had written a premonitory poem:


Silence is death

and you, if you remain silent, you die

and if you speak you die.

So speak and die.


    The assassins could not tolerate the caustic and yet humor-filled pen of this novelist who made fun of those who wanted to prohibit weather forecasts because, according to them, it was an offense to predict something that only God knows!  Even worse for me was the idea that part of the population cowardly agreed to accept the extermination of men and women of Djaout’s quality, individuals who said high and loud that like DNA, democratic values are the patrimony of all humanity.


    Did my friend and colleague know that he was right on the mark when he cited the president of reunified Germany on neo-Nazism: “If fascism triumphed in Germany in the nineteen thirties, it wasn’t because there were many fascists; it was because there were not enough democrats.”


    And so, how can one be an Arab writer coming from the Arab world, without disowning what one loves the most in this Arab world: its generosity, its hospitality, the warmth of human interaction, the refinement of the remains of a great civilization where poetry for example was considered, as I recently read, “as the highest state of beatitude to which a human is allowed to approach”? At the same time, how can one be an Arab writer while loudly decrying the repulsion that one feels faced with a culture of death, faced with the hatred of others, faced with the condition of women in particular, and faced with a resentment towards the rest of the world that has insidiously become the norm?  This nihilism, at once messianic and apocalyptic, is of course only the doing of a minority – a very effective one that does not hesitate to violent recourse – a minority that is fought without much energy, and that not so rarely has the more or less explicit support of a bitter public, a public that has been subjugated, humiliated by both its own leaders and by those with great power, a dizzy public attracted by the mortifying mirage of absolute revenge for the loss of past greatness.


    There is no answer based on ethnicity. I do not claim to be an Arab in the sense understood by those sycophants who imprison the Other in an essence that defines him once and for all as a hard-line enemy, or in the sense understood by Islamist fundamentalists of various allegiances who see every human being that is unsupportive of their cause for religious purification as “human waste,” as elements merely to be liquidated because their presence on earth offends their Creator.


    If I happen to claim to be an Arab, it is a little like the agnostic Jew who only claims his Jewishness when faced with the defamation of anti-Semitism.  In the end, I am, I reveal myself as an “Arab” writer only in the eyes of:


    1) Those in the West, for example, who see me as afflicted by a stain (a term used by Spanish inquisition on the subject of the Moors) that would make me, for better or worse, almost genetically more or less passively complicit with “my brothers” the Islamist terrorists.


    2) And on the other hand, in the eyes of these same terrorists, for whom the simple fact of being an Arab imposes a certain number of obligations towards them, in a sort of fraternity and ethnically-religiously exacerbated patriotism, obligations the non-observance of which would make me a traitor deserving of capital punishment.


    I refuse both the essentialist prison in which those who defend the West from the barbarous hordes wish to confine me (a symmetrical synonym of those who defend the Arab world from the imperial hordes) and the criminal fraternity of apostles of world Islamization through bombs and decapitations.


    And so, I must find my place.  For me, the answer is very simple:  it is being simultaneously Arab and non-Arab.  I claim to be an Arab when someone believes that they are insulting me for being one. I refuse to be an Arab when, for so-called “good” reasons, someone wants to suck me into a xenophobic Arabness that would cut me and distance me ontologically from others.


    This is not easy. One believes oneself to be free to live one’s life as a human and a writer without having to acknowledge obligations other than those told to you by your ordinary human conscience – a conscience unique yet similar to that of millions of other human beings.


    And yet, you find yourself constantly confronted with people and institutions who dream only of including you, by will or by force, in the division of the world into ethnic herds, with evidently hierarchical relationships between them, each one, reciting to the turned back of the other:


All the roaches resemble each other

To the point that I come to ask myself

“But how do they thus

distinguish themselves from each other?”


While, We, the bugs

Ah, we the bugs…


    To conclude, a rather bitter anecdote: a French friend told me that he had invited a North African colleague to his place for dinner.  At one point, the mother of this friend, a charming older lady, had wanted to talk about her foreign neighbor. Wanting to specify his origin, she had started to say “A…” but stopped herself, blushing intensely in front of the brown-skinned guest.  She had not dared to finish her sentence. My friend told me that his mother sincerely believed the word “Arab” was the equivalent of a dirty word.  She finally pulled herself out of the situation in a rather clumsy fashion by replacing the dubious noun by its slang synonym from the working-class suburbs, “beur” which is, as everyone knows, only the same word backwards…


    “To be or not to be an Arab?” Hamlet of Syria or of Algeria would ask himself.  And his response, at once world-weary and sarcastic, would probably be: to be and not to be an Arab!


    And maybe this provocative Hamlet, in full dialectical stride, would succeed in tempering my deep pessimism? After all, according to the once-Danish prince now converted into an improbable Oriental sage, if despite it all, one agrees to carry judgment on the last hundred years of the two worlds –Western and Arab – the result would obviously be almost always in favor of the West in the quasi-totality of domains: democracy, the respect of the individual, the status of women, technological accomplishments and the well-being that the above have brought into everyday life, the thirst for knowledge, the immense progress accomplished by science in all imaginable areas…


    Almost always, but not always. 


    In fact, if one decides to look at another very specific indicator: the number of deaths for which such and such civilization is guilty during the past century, and if one decides to consider (I am stating this because it is not so obvious) that the higher the number, the less it is in favor of the civilization in question, one sees that the civilization we call Western (whether or not we include Russia and the victims of totalitarian communism) is very widely beaten. Which massacres committed by the world tied to Islam, and not forgetting any of the most devastating and mad acts of terrorism, which massacres can claim to compete with the mass slaughters and cruelty of the most murderous and most effectively destructive civilization of all human history, with its world wars and genocides, its bloody wars of plunder and colonization, its napalm, agent orange and other chemical weapons, its nuclear bombs, with fission, with phosphorous and tutti quanti?


    “Come on,” the son of the great Shakespeare would say, reminding me of the tragic deeds of our time, “don’t despair unconditionally and don’t make your Arab world darker and more diabolical than it is.  It is certainly a bad moment, a really bad moment, passing through the world you come from, but do you believe that it was more joyful to be a German democrat in the 1930s or a dissident under Stalin or Mao Tse Tung?  While waiting, even if you see nothing coming, even if you don’t know yet how you should conduct yourself to fight against the irrationality and the objective complicity of those who perpetuate that irrationality,




 translated by Katarzyna Pieprzak