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Kamel Daoud, and Algeria's true selves

The journalist and author of The Meursault Investigation illuminates the way Algeria is torn between religious observance and the freedom of the individual.

Francis Ghilès
19 June 2015

For more than a decade, the readers of Le Quotidien d’Oran, one of Algeria’s leading French-language daily newspapers, have enjoyed a tart column entitled Raïna Raïkoum (Let’s share thoughts). More often than not it is signed by Kamel Daoud. Daoud is a harsh critic of the Algerian government and of the country's president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika. He writes in a pithy French worthy of  Albert Camus - a French of a quality few of his peers in France can muster. Like Indian novelists with a marvellous command of the language of the former ruler, Kamel Daoud has fully appropriated the language of the country which colonised Algeria for 132 years, and followed the advice of Algeria’s greatest writer Kateb Yacine (1929-89) when he wrote that the French language was “son butin de guerre” (the spoil of war).

Daoud's book Meursault, contre-enquête (Actes-Sud, 2014) - translated as The Meursault Investigation - was first published in Algeria in 2013. The book retells the story of Albert Camus’s classic L’Etranger from the perspective of the brother of the Arab man killed by the protagonist, Meursault. It went unnoticed abroad, but when made a finalist in France’s most prestigious literary award, the Prix Goncourt, in November 2014 it became famous and quickly sold 122,000 copies. In the event it was awarded the Goncourt prize for first novel. It has now been translated into twenty-two languages and reviewed across the world. 

In his appearances on French TV programmes, Kamel Daoud said nothing he had not said in his columns for years. But because he was speaking in France he came to the notice of senior politicians back home in Algeria who ignore the Algerian French-language press but lap up what is fashionable in Paris. This colonisé mentality is still all too common in Algiers, Tunis and Casablanca. Across north Africa  the political elites claim to speak in classical Arabic, which few of them in fact master, rather than vernacular Arabic or Berber which they consider vulgar. This confused, self-divided mentality is particularly pronounced in Algeria.

A little-known imam, Abdelfattah Hamadache, who is believed to have links with the security forces, attacked Daoud for being an “apostate” and “Zionist criminal”. He argued on his Facebook page that the writer should be tried for insulting Islam and, anticipating the judgment, publicly executed. It may not have been a direct call for assassination but the Facebook fatwa provoked an outcry in a country where scores of journalists, writers, musicians and theatre directors were murdered during the "black decade" of the civil war in the 1990s. The government failed to respond; Daoud filed a  complaint against Hamadache for incitement. A few weeks later the murders at Charlie Hebdo, committed by two brothers of Algerian descent, put the whole issue of blasphemy at the top of the political agenda. Hamadache has since called for Islamic State to be allowed to open an office in Algiers.

The book speaks of disappointed love, of a writer who passionately believes that the people of Algeria and the wider Muslim world deserve a great deal better than military rule or Islamism. Many western commentators do not seem to understand that millions of north Africans crave a menu which offers more than just two dishes. Coming to the attention of the wider world four years after the beginning of the great wave of Arab revolts,  the fearlessness with which the author defends the cause of individual liberty - a fearlessness that borders, as his articles often do, on recklessness - offers clues to the nature of the Algerian state (which has been described by Adam Shatz as “a peculiar hybrid of electoral democracy and police state”.)

Kamel Daoud describes himself as an Algerian, not an Arab. Such an outlook is fiercely opposed by Algerian nationalists and Islamists alike. He insists that he prefers to meet God “on foot, by himself” rather than in an “organised trip” to a mosque. His voice is all the more powerful because Daoud himself was a militant Islamist when he was younger and belongs to a country whose modern history offers a casebook study in political violence. Those who rule the country are now in their 70s. The next generation of political and military rulers are going to have to build a legitimacy with new foundations, not just the sanctity of the bloody fight against France in the 1950s.

There appears to be no transition plan for the post-Bouteflika period. The workings of le pouvoir (as the rulers of Algeria are called) are opaque. That is their strength, but the current situation holds uncertainties. Algeria is on a permanent war footing, and that cannot go on forever. Sooner or later, a younger generation addressing immediate social needs will have to come to power. By the same token, Algerian society needs to throw aside the shackles of authoritarianism and Islamic piety if it is to move forward. Le pouvoir is neither secular nor Islamist. It only once pursued a policy which was not one of deliberate indecision: that was in the wake of the first great Arab revolt, the riots of Algiers in October 1988, when bold economic and political reforms were launched.

A tongue on fire

Algerians love and hate Kamel Daoud in equal measure because his writings hold up a mirror to their true selves. Many Algerian leftwing intellectuals are convinced they speak on behalf of the people, the proletariat or the Berbers. They have convinced themselves that they are aristocrats guiding the masses and that Kamel Daoud is self-hating - which is quite untrue. They criticise the powers that be, never the people. But Kamel Daoud criticises people, not the people.

The one serious danger he runs is that of being lionised on French talk shows and subtly used by the Paris establishment as a symbol of how bad things are in Algeria - and, by inference, to justify why it was a bad idea to grant Algeria its independence. Many Algerians are suspicious of Daoud's success in France: widening his profile towards the other media markets where his book is being translated could allay this, as well as being true to his uncapturable spirit.  

Here as elsewhere in the Arab world, the pressure to unify has been a defining feature of nationalism, one which has killed the freedom to debate and modernise society. In 2014, during the latest war in Gaza, Kamel Daoud explained to his readers that he was not in solidarity with the Palestinians - nor, for that matter. with the Israelis. He just could not accept that he had to be in solidarity with the Palestinians because he was a Muslim. His opposition to Israeli bombings was based on humanitarian reasons, not religious or ethnic ones. Not one of his readers will have failed to understand that his real target was Algeria.

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