North African diversities: layered past, confused present

The many strands of a singular life - Berber and Algerian, Jewish and Islamic, French and English, Arab and European - make today's Mediterranean tragedy all the more painful.

Francis Ghilès
15 July 2015

The education I received in England, Tunisia and France was unashamedly secular. Religion played no part in the schools I attended: the nursery founded and supervised by Anna Freud, Sigmund's sixth and youngest child, in Hampstead in 1948, the école primaire and the lycée in Carthage in 1951-57, and then the Lycée Charles de Gaulle in South Kensington. I completed my secondary education at the Lycée Champollion in Grenoble and stayed in the capital of the French Alps to take my first university degrees.

Both my parents were atheists. I knew my English great-grandparents had been practising Jews and my French grandparents practising Catholics, but I did not know until my 21st birthday that my paternal grandfather had been born a Muslim Berber in Algeria, and converted by force there in the 1890s. When, as an adolescent, I enquired about the origin of his family, I was told they were of Spanish origin - the name Ghilès sounded plausibly Spanish - and had lived in Algeria from the late 19th century. When pressed further, my father told me that his grandfather had been a Spanish consular official in Algiers.

I hardly ever met my father’s brothers and sisters when I lived in Tunisia in the early 1950s and did not know my cousins. Looking back, I realise I never quite believed what my father said - on this issue as on many others. I knew my mother’s family, with whom I lived when I was a very young boy, far better. Her parents chose, when they got married in 1917, not to follow Jewish religious rituals, as did many in their generation. They wanted to integrate into Britain and succeeded. At no moment during my adolescence did I suffer the slightest insult on account of my origins.

The Algerian Berber origin of my paternal grandfather was carefully hidden from me and my younger sister and brother. In retrospect, it is obvious why my parents chose to hide the facts. The early years of my life in Grenoble (1958-68) overlapped with the increasingly bitter war of independence of 1954-62, and Algerians were being murdered there every week - in many cases as the result of internecine fighting among different groups of nationalists.

The loss of Algeria remains to this day the secret wound of many in France, one which is healing very slowly. Indeed, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo murders it risks being reopened as the feeling spreads that many French of north African origin are the enemy within. Algeria is the true "black box" of French history: a country where the worst anti-Jewish riots of the Dreyfus affair occurred, where pulpits resounded to virulent forms of anti-semitic preaching in the 1930s, and where the Vichy authorities wasted not a moment in ordering that Jews be stripped of their French nationality in 1940. It thus hardly comes as a surprise to hear Jean Marie Le Pen - the founder of the Front National, who volunteered to serve in Algeria in 1958 and is alleged to have tortured native Algerian prisoners with his own hands - repeat his notorious dismissal of Nazi Germany's gas chambers as “a mere detail of history”.

Today, Marine Le Pen is busy attempting to ostracise her father from the FN and rebrand the movement in preparation for forthcoming elections. But only the face and the principal target of prejudice are changing. Today, Islamists - but often, in practice and by extension, Muslims tout court - are “the” danger. France continues to have troubled relations with its Jews and its Muslims alike. At the root of the unsettled climate are viral fears of the "other" among Jews, Muslims and Christians alike, fears capable of adjustment and juxtaposition according to circumstance.

These fears must also be seen in a public context: of a Europe dominated economically by France's hereditary enemy Germany, of the lack of economic and institutional reforms over thirty years (a delay which makes today's challenges all the more daunting), and of the absence of politicians capable of inventing a new myth of La République. My badge of honour is that I can say, with some pride, that I am a “fils de l’école de la République”. Few young French citizens would make that claim now. But the real question is whether France aspires to play a role in today’s world, or does it simply want to be a larger Switzerland? (The same question haunts the United Kingdom, except that Britain's island status gives political leaders at Westminster a little more leeway.)

Two encounters

I first paid attention to political Islam in spring 1981 when the governor of Le Kef - on Tunisia’s western uplands, close to the frontier with Algeria - told me how he had dismantled an Islamist cell, financed with money from Saudi Arabia. He swore me to secrecy, though it inadvertently entered the public domain when I mentioned it three years later at a formal, though private, gathering of the Tunisia-British friendship society. The Saudi ambassador got wind of my remarks and went on to raise an objection with the UK's then foreign secretary, Lord Carrington.

It took me some time to face the fact that political Islam was on the rise, in Tunisia and in Algeria. My very secular education, my conviction that religion had little role to play in modern society, for a while blinded me to what was happening on the ground. It was only after the riots of October 1988 in Algeria brought the Islamic Salvation Front to the fore that I started reading about Islam and the role of religion in history.

In the process I recalled my first visit to Israel in 1965, and how I had felt very uncomfortable about the way the settlers in the kibbutz I worked in, Ein-Dor, treated their Israeli Arab neighbours. Ein-Dor was a kibbutz of Hashomer Ha’Tsahir, affiliated with Mapam, the party to the left of the main Labour Party, Mapi. I thoroughly enjoyed my five weeks in Galilee though foreign guests were not encouraged to mingle with the kibbutz girls, unless they were Jewish. It was also a pleasure to discover the area around Jerusalem, riding on the back of a scooter with my younger second cousin, Benjy. I stayed in the city's Rehavia district, at the house of Cecil Hyman, my grandfather’s younger brother and a recently retired diplomat. At dinner there I told the guests, including my cousins, that I did not feel any “call” to come and settle in Israel; the behaviour towards the Israeli Arabs in Galilee, I explained, reminded me of how Tunisians were treated by the French before independence. That really stopped the conversation in its tracks.

It is fair to say that in Cecil’s eyes an Israeli Arab and a Sephardic Jew were not very different: he would not have looked kindly on one of his sons marrying a girl of Sephardic origin, unless they hailed from one of Jerusalem’s old Sephardic upper class. The term "Sephardi", which in Europe was regarded as denoting some sort of aristocracy, had become synonymous with "oriental". There was a class element in all this: the Ashkenazi were the new social elite of Israel, the Sephardi were not. But equally, many Sephardi parents would not have been happy with their daughters marrying Ashkenazi. My ten days in Jerusalem were spent in carefree fashion.

Cecil Hyman had been a senior member of the Israeli diplomatic corps, for which he had served inter alia as envoy to South Africa (1952-55) and consul-general in New York (1955-57). In the former post he had hosted Israel's foreign minister Moshe Sharret, a visit which cemented the growing links between Israel and South Africa, notably the export of Uzi sub-machine-guns (a great improvement on the British sten-gun). During the first world war, Cecil had joined the Jewish battalion of the Royal Fusiliers of the British army and been dispatched to Palestine. He then settled on the territory of the League of Nations mandate for Palestine in 1922, wrote editorials for the Palestine Post (later the Jerusalem Post), and became head of Barclays Bank in Palestine.

During my stay in Jerusalem, Cecil’s wife Ann - who was a doctor at the Hadashah hospital in the city - expressed to me her misgivings about Israel's training of the Savak, the Shah of Iran's ruthless secret police. Both of them certainly knew about my father’s Berber origins, which I was to discover a few months later on the day I turned 21; but whereas Cecil pressed me to come and live in Israel, Ann did not. When the six-day war of 1967 erupted, I was still living in Grenoble. My mother made clear her view that the longer Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza, “the more likely the situation would end up as something akin to French Algeria”.

Algeria's deep pasts

A decade later my years at the Financial Times (1977-95) began, a period when religion and identity was to feature in my work in several ways. Algeria was at the heart: both its attempt to build an identity after the long colonial period, and its continuing role inside French history. But the violent denunciation of Shi’sm and Iran after the fall of the Shah was also prominent. As a capital-markets reporter I covered the freezing of Iranian assets by the United States on 14 November 1979 which followed the seizure of American diplomatic hostages in Tehran and, in 1981, the role played by Algerian diplomats (some of whom I knew) in freeing them. In Morocco, whose King Hassan had hosted the fallen Iranian monarch, the hostility to Iran was intense.

Just how intense I discovered one day when, having written a long article on how to save the old city of Fez, I was called to account by a senior official of the interior ministry who took me to task for insulting the king. I had no idea of what he was talking about until he upbraided me for writing that Moulay Idriss, the founder of Morocco’s oldest capital, was a Shi'ite. I finally convinced him to have a look at the Encyclopedia Britannica. To my surprise, he turned up a few days later at the Hilton in Rabat, where I was staying, to apologise and offer me a glass of champagne.

As it happens, Moulay Idriss - whose mausoleum stands at Volubilis, not far from Fez - was a Zaïdite, a heterodox branch of Shi'ism (whose followers today include the Houthis, now central to Yemen's internal conflict and the assaults of Saudi Arabia). He was a great-great-grandson of Ali and Fatima, the son-in-law and daughter of the prophet Mohammed and a member of the prophet’s house, Ahlul Beyt. The incident in Fez brought home to me the depth of ignorance of their own history which is true of many educated people across north Africa. Decades of Saudi money proselytising the Wahhabi version of Islam have erased memories of Sufism, knowledge of history, and any appreciation of the immense contribution of Persia to supposed “Arab” culture - be it in architecture, philosophy, poetry, cooking or other forms of art.  

That ignorance can have real political consequences. Ever since it wrestled independence from France in 1962, Algerian leaders have sought to arabise the country, notably its education system. They are fond of quoting such figures as Sheikh Abdelhamid Ben Badis. “Le peuple est musulman mais il s’apparente a l’arabité”, wrote this father of Algerian nationalism. 

Yet he would always sign his name Abdelhamid Sanhadja, and is interesting that he should use a Berber patronymic. The Sanhaja were one of the largest tribal confederations of the Maghreb, along with the Zenata and Masmuda. Many tribes and regions in the Berber world still bear this name, and my Berber friends never fail to remind me that I am a a Sanhaja rather than a Kabyle Berber. After the arrival of Islam, the Sanhaja spread out to the borders of the Sudan as far as the Senegal and Niger rivers. From the 9th century, Sanhaja tribes were established in the middle-Atlas range, in the Rif mountains and on the Atlantic coast of Morocco. They played an important role in the rise of the Fatimids; and after some of their tribes were united by the theologian Ibn Yassin, regrouped in the Almoravid alliance which was established in Morocco in the 11th century, conquering western Algeria and Al-Andalus. That fierce and noble history is recalled with a defiant richness that the aridities of Saudi Wahhabism cannot come close to matching.

A diplomatic interlude

In other areas, notably diplomacy, the Algerians have, at times, proved to be supreme masters of the craft. “We often try to raise the issue of Palestine with our Arab visitors but they usually refuse to discuss it”, the United States president told his visitor, the Algerian head of state, during their talks at the White House on 17 April 1985. It was a bright spring morning in Washington and Ronald Reagan had just thanked Chadli Bendjedid in his welcoming address for the role which the Algerian government had played four years earlier in obtaining the release of the US diplomats held hostage in Tehran. “It was a gallant effort and was in keeping with Algerian tradition. The records show that your great national hero, Abd Al-Qadr Al-Jaza’iri, personally saved Americans and others from similar danger in Damascus in 1860.”

Chadli's frankness in the talks, as he launched into a passionate defence of the Palestinian people, surprised Reagan. Indeed, plain talking is a virtue of many Algerians, often laced with a strong dose of black humour. Oddly enough, I owed my presence on the White House's west lawn to the then Algerian ambassador in Washington, Mohammed Sahnoun, to whom I had explained a few weeks earlier that it would take me two months to get security clearance from the US authorities (even though I was one of twenty foreign journalists visiting the country for two months as guests of USAID). “You are asking for a great favour”, answered this most polished of diplomats. I told him that I did not think so because, as my paternal grandfather had been baptised by force nearly a century earlier, in Algeria, I have the right to an Algerian passport. Mohammed Sahnoun got my name included in the list of Algerian journalists accompanying their president and thus I paid my first and only visit to the White House - ironie de l’histoire, as an honorary Algerian.

Later that evening, with an American woman friend, we decided to turn up earlier at the banquet Chadli Bendjedid was offering the US vice-pesident George Bush, who was standing in for the president (himself still recovering from being shot in an assassination attempt). After shaking hands with Halima Bendjedid, I said to Chadli, whom I had met a year earlier: "Bonsoir Monsieur le president, je suis heureux de vous retrouver a Washington." Chadli broke into a broad smile and asked me: "Mais que fais tu ici? to which I answered, "J’escorte une jolie femme au banquet que tu offres a George Bush." Chadli broke into laughter and just said "emshi!" which in vernacular Algerian means, "move on". The person following me in the queue, Rashid Ghozali, who worked at the World Bank, broke into an uncontrollable fit of giggles and had the greatest difficulty in shaking the hand of George and Barbara Bush. The laughter spread down the line, nobody of course knowing the cause of the laughter. Algerians' diplomatic coup, it seemed, had put everyone in a light-headed mood. 

France and Israel

In those years of the 1970s-80s, there were a few occasions in Paris when I was asked by senior civil servants whether my Algerian origins coloured my analysis of north Africa. At the World Bank one day, the head of the North Africa section - who was Dutch - told me that the Trésor was unhappy with my coverage. I responded that the Trésor spoke French, so did I, we hardly needed a Dutch intermediary. One memo of a meeting in November 1989 at the Quay d’Orsay’s CAP (Centre d’Analyse et de Prévision) has a handwritten note scribbled under my name:“Francis Ghilès: agent M16?”.

These were rare exceptions. Most diplomats, bankers and officials I came into contact with simply treated me as a Frenchman or the Financial Times correspondent for north Africa.  But on the other side of the Mediterranean, my Algerian roots could play up in equally puzzling ways. After scolding me for an article on Algeria he claimed was too critical, the minister of defence, Khaled Nezzar, quipped: “But we are proud to have an Algerian at the FT.” In Morocco I had to face an ambassador in London, M Ben Abdeljallil, who sent reports to King Hassan about my alleged spying activities on behalf of Algeria; this led the chairman of Pearson Longman, owners of the FT, to introduce me to the said ambassador at lunch one day by saying: “I always thought it was good to have a few spies on the staff.”

The matter of Jewish origins rarely came up: one senior Algerian minister said to me, ”we lost our Jews in 1962 and Algeria misses them.” Such attitudes have deep roots. In the late 14th century, Sheikh Ammi Said ben Ali El Djerbi, an Ibadi Muslim whose family hailed from Djerba in southern Tunisia, was asked to try and bring more Muslims to settle in Ghardaïa in southern Algeria. After travelling for a few months, he returned with a Jewish tribe. The inhabitants are puzzled: "Why Jews, we asked you for Muslims?". The sheikh answered: " A city without Jews is like a legal act without witnesses."

The echoes of this entangled past, and the costs of its unravelling, endlessly reappear. An eminent Algerian sociologist recently visited a group of Jews living in Strasbourg who in 1962 had left the M'Zab region of Algeria (the "Mozabites", in and around the capital, Ghardaia, follow a variant of Shi'ism). These exiles told the scholar, who knows the area well: "We considered ourselves Mozabites first, Jews after that, and then French - Israelis quite out of the question."

My Jewish roots have played up in unexpected ways. During the Suez crisis in October-November 1956, I was attending my first year secondary school at the Lycée de Carthage. When I walked into class one day with my sweetheart, whose mother was a Lebanese Christian, my twenty or so schoolmates all stood to attention and saluted. The Egyptian army had run away “leaving their boots in the Sinai”, one friend told me, and “we have just learned you are Jewish”. I was astonished.

During the six-day war in 1967, Grenoble witnessed its biggest demonstration, in support of Israel, since 1945. It was headed by Pierre Mendès-France, who had been triumphantly elected MP for the city in the general election three months earlier. When he was told that the extreme-right Poujadistes (Jean-Marie Le Pen was one of their stars) had joined the march, he simply said: ”cela n’augure rien de bon”. Nor will I forget the north African workers toiling away on the new university campus of Grenoble, which was then being built: they literally lowered their eyes in fear as students passed by. The Israeli victory had increased their feeling of humiliation as immigrant workers.

In November 1967, General de Gaulle described the Jews as an “elite people, sure of themselves and domineering” and Israel as an expanding state. It was a caution not a compliment: the French head of state was expressing his disappointment that Israel had launched the 1967 war against his strong advice and then had occupied large areas containing nearly a million Palestinians. A firestorm of charges of anti-semitism followed his remarks, culminating in an interesting exchange between two of the world’s elder statesmen, David Ben-Gurion and De Gaulle. Less noted than the headlines at the time was the profound geopolitical shift taking place. France was ending its strong support for Israel, and the United States was replacing France as Israel’s major patron. Up to that point, Washington had sometimes taken a fairly balanced attitude to the Middle East conflict.

Relations between France and Israel had been especially warm when France was losing its colonial grip on Algeria: indeed France joined Britain in attacking Egypt because many in the French political and military establishment were convinced that destroying Egypt's president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, was the key to stopping the “rebellion” in Algeria, then still only two years old. When the US president, Dwight Eisenhower, forced Israel, France and Britain to withdraw their forces from the Sinai peninsula, the shared humiliation left Franco-Israeli relations closer than ever. But a year after the Suez crisis, nuclear cooperation between France and Israel, which had started in 1953, was substantially broadened. In 1967, I was no Gaullist but as years passed, I came to understand the saying “tout Français a été, est ou sera Gaulliste”.

A slow unravelling

My last visit to Israel was in 1994-95 as a guest of Shlomo Ben-Ami, a noted historian of Spain (who was born in Tangiers) and head of Tel Aviv University's school of history. I had first met him in the early 1970s at Oxford University's St Antony’s College, where I was writing my thesis on French colonialism in Algeria. Shlomo went on to serve as Israel's ambassador to Madrid, its minister for internal security, and  its foreign minister. During that visit I lectured on north Africa, in particular on Algeria, which was then going through the bloodiest year of its civil war. While I was in Israel, in December 1994, the Islamic Armed Group had hijacked an Air France plane on the tarmac of Algiers Houari Boumedienne airport and wanted to fly it into the Eiffel Tower - a foretaste of 2001.

Nonetheless, as peace talks with the Palestinians seemed to be moving forward, a number of Israeli companies were still interested in investigating links with north African countries, and in Jerusalem I found myself discussing a future which then did not seem quite out of reach. The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995 rendered that a day-dream, and put an end to a process that had started after the Gulf war of 1990-91 and reached a high point with the signing of the Oslo accords in September 1993.

I had met Rabin at a press conference in Rabat that month when, with Shimon Peres, he made a brief stopover in Morocco on his way back to Israel from Washington where the accords had been confirmed in the historic appearance of Ronald Reagan, Yasser Arafat and Rabin on the west lawn of the White House. I had been warned the day before of this unexpected visit by one of King Hassan's advisers, André Azoulay; but my foreign editor at the Financial Times, Andrew Gowers, refused to believe me and never published an article I wrote on King Hassan’s role as a mediator between the Palestinian and Israeli leadership.

Then as now, ignorance of north Africa in London can be so deep that even Middle East specialists simply fail to appreciate that the countries of the region are not simply former French colonies or some kind of backwater of the Arab world. Few in London or elsewhere recall that the first major modern revolt in the Middle East occurred in Algeria in 1988-92: had those four years been remembered, the optimism about the Arab spring that caught on in the west in 2011 after the fall of Tunisia's Ben Ali and Egypt's Mubarak might have been laced with more wariness.

In Israel in 1995, I had a very interesting conversation with the president of the University of the Negev, Avishai Braveman, whose idea it was to invite me to lecture on north African history as a way of improving Israeli understanding of the region. I also travelled to Gaza which gave me a glimpse of what it is like to live in a rat hole. No television documentary, however good, can quite convey the situation on the ground. No reportage can convey the uncomfortable feeling I always felt when visiting Jerusalem after reunification - that of aggressively competing symbols of different religions. I simply loathed it. For that matter, no reportage could convey the deep fear which stalked the streets of Algiers, even in broad daylight, at the height of the "black decade" after 1992.

A Soviet bloc collision

Until I rediscovered my father’s Algerian roots, I was deeply interested in eastern Europe from where my great-grandparents had come a century earlier. And as a left-wing French student, I was fascinated by communism. In 1965, I led a group of forty students from SciencesPo Grenoble on a month-long tour of East Germany, Poland, the USSR and Czechoslovakia. In East Berlin I paid a visit to Laura Friedlander, my nanny in London from 1945-47. She and her husband were German Jewish communist refugees to Britain in 1938 and returned in 1947 to what was soon to become the German Democratic Republic (GDR). He was a senior member of the party, and it was Laura who invited me to lunch in East Berlin. Her small car, in a street devoid of any other, drew up outside what proved to be a vast, empty restaurant. During the truly awful meal I proceeded to attack communism in no uncertain words. Twenty-five years later, Laura told my mother (on her first visit to Britain since 1947) that she instantly recognised the “argumentative little boy” she had helped to bring up in the preceding years.

That 1965 trip led us to Warsaw, arriving on a warm summer evening. After a bad meal at the hostel where we were staying, three of us decided to go into the centre of town where we quickly realised that buying money on the black market was easy. At the Palace of Culture, Stalin's "gift" to the city which towers above central Warsaw, we entered the lift, pressed the top-floor button and landed bang in the middle of a Warsaw Pact party. The officers and their wives were as surprised as we were but, upon discovering we were French, invited us to join then. They toasted General de Gaulle and the Poles in particular turned out to be very pro-French.

The following day, about half the group decided to have dinner in the most expensive hotel in Warsaw, where the food would be better than in our hostel and we could spend our black-market money. As the orchestra played rock-and-roll, one of us asked the musicians whether they could accelerate the tempo which they duly did. The ensuing, dazzling display of rock-and-roll à la française brought one of the officers (whom I had met the night before) to ask us if we could teach him and his dining companions how to dance this version. It turned out to be an enchanted evening: French culture and sophistication somehow blending with a Polish spirit (and the hotel's excellent cuisine) that rose above the city's political ambience.

As our group moved to the USSR, we got stuck at the frontier at Brest-Litovsk railway station and I had to negotiate with the Soviet border police, one of the only times in my life when I was mentally scarred. After twenty-four hours without being able to lie down, and with women in the group (half the number) getting very anxious indeed, we decided to treat those in the station concourse at the time to a display of  French rock-and-roll. The guards were amused but the cleaners looked on in utter horror at this display of French decadence.  At last the guide waiting for us, a handsome and polished university graduate from Leningrad, escorted us to the other side. On arrival in Moscow, a second guide was attached to us because we were deemed “difficult”. While our first charge Vladimir proceeded to charm a number of the young women in our group, this later appointee proceeded to explain that the French were a "superficial" people, which only encouraged us to play up to the image for the rest of the stay.

Four scenes from the USSR stick in my mind. In Leningrad, as we were greeted by the usual welcoming committee, at 6am just off the express from Moscow, I declared that I would call the city St Petersburg and not Leningrad. The Russians were furious, as was one of my friends who told me I represented General de Gaulle and could not behave thus. “I may represent SciencesPo Grenoble but not France”, I retorted. For anyone who knew the great Russian classics, Leningrad was fascinating. Vladimir took me to his parents’ flat which was just above that of foreign minister Alexei Kosygin’s overlooking the River Neva. The museums and palaces were truly astounding, the Marynski Theatre a wonder, but what I could not get over was the absolutely disgusting state of the toilets in the Hermitage Museum.

In Kiev a week later, we literally brought the beach on the Dniepr to a standstill when we proceeded take our clothes off, revealing swimwear beyond the imagination of those present. We were unable to go to the cathedral for the Feast of the Virgin on 15 August because, as we were told, “no cathedral exists in Kiev.” On the last night, we were entertained by the Young Communist League of Ukraine, got totally drunk and had difficulty in catching the train to Prague the next day. As we briefly stopped in Lvov, a closed city to foreigners in those days, I could only glimpse at the town where my maternal grandfather’s family had been rabbis for centuries until they came to London in the 1870s.

Arriving in Prague, we felt we were back in the civilised world. By the time we returned to Grenoble at the end of the month, many of my middle-class friends were not quite so sure that America was worse than Russia, a common belief among bourgeois intellectuals and students in France in the 1960s. When visiting a factory on the outskirts of Moscow, I had told the director, a punchy lady who had asked me to convey the greetings of the workers of the factory to the workers of Grenoble that “unfortunately, not one of us actually knows a worker in Grenoble”.

A Mediterranean lesson

What my family roots, my education and my years of working as a journalist and analyst have taught me is the ease with which war and fear and dogma can bring us to demonise others and deny them a common humanity. This in my view is the lesson of the 20th century, and it will have to be relearned in the 21st. My worldview was influenced by watching the performance of the great classical plays of Racine played by the Comédie Française in the Roman theatre in Carthage in 1953. Kicking up Roman coins when playing football in Carthage was no doubt character-forming. In that same theatre, on 1 June 1943, Winston Churchill had addressed 3,000 British and American troops who had witnessed the endgame of the Axis forces in Africa during the battle of Tunisia which began after November 1942.

At that event was Harold Macmillan, the future Conservative leader and prime minister, who represented the British government in the western Mediterranean from 1943-45. A quasi-viceroy who enjoyed the trappings as much as the power of office, he put his classical education to good use in advising the master of ceremonies Lord Alexander to do without the acoustics after hearing the loudspeakers' awful reverberation. "It worked like a charm", he later said. "You only had to stand on the stage and whisper to hear as well as the Romans when they held their great assembly." Churchill wrote to his wife Clementine after the speech: "The hour and the setting lent themselves to oratory. I have no idea what I said but the whole audience clapped and cheered as doubtless their forebears of two thousand years ago had done as they watched gladiatorial combats." The great man had mistaken the theatre for the amphitheatre; the sense of history was inevitably overwhelming.

I was able to recall that scene with Richard Crossman, my mother’s former boss at the Political Warfare Unit in Tunis when I met him at Sir Isaiah Berlin’s table at Wolfson College in 1972. By then Crossman had played a role in securing British support for Israel's creation, and served both as a Labour cabinet minister and editor of the New Statesman.

Tunis and Carthage had hosted another unlikely British visitor in 1816 when the Princess of Wales, Caroline of Brunswick had come to visit. Her visit came at an awkward time as Lord Exmouth's fleet, having just bombarded Algiers, was lying off the coast of Tunis. But the princess, enjoying a Mediterranean cruise, refused to curtail her programme. After lunching with women of the Tunisian ruler's harem, and being greatly amused at the institution, she observed "what a joy it would be for the Prince of Wales to have one". But she also concluded from her visit: "I find the Berbers much less Barbarous than the Christians". To this day, it is a judgment which a number of Europeans encountering the region have come to share.

In 1995, the "Barcelona process" was launched with great fanfare. It aimed to bring closer the two shores of the Mediterranean. Today the mare nostrum has become the cemetery of would-be migrants, the domain of people-smugglers, and a vast deep for Europe's overblown rhetoric on democracy. The Mediteranean is an object lesson in Europe's inattention and disunity, its incapacity to think other than in terms of short-term economic gain, let alone engage in dialogue with other cultures on a basis of equality and without demonisation. It is also at the centre of the contest for the soul of the Muslim world, and between religious observance and freedom of the individual, which is going on across the Arab and Berber worlds. Polarisation rather than dialogue seems to characterise the Mediterranean today. As long as the interpretation of the recent past is allowed to dissolve into fragments of assertive victimhood (Palestinian, Jewish, Greek, Armenian, Algerian, pied noir) the resulting mosaic will separate all of us from our shared inheritance. Nowhere more than in the Mediterranean does this spell tragedy.


Lines in honour of Francis Ghilès

Le Truffe Noir, 16 December 1994

We gather here today, heavy-hearted and grieving,
Wearing sackcloth and ashes, to lament the sad leaving,
Of a colleague so distinguished, so widespread his fame,
That in the Land of the Maghreb he is a household name.

For nigh fifteen years, the writer most respected;
Though many maintain that by the FT neglected.
Esteemed abroad, like those prophets from ancient years,
And less honoured at home - except by his peers.
Woe, thrice times Woe, Francis must leave us - it is so decreed!
Had this table the power, we would undo the deed.
Woe, thrice times Woe, Ghilès is leaving.
But enough lamentations, let us turn from our grieving.

Instead sing the praises of North Africa's Sage
Whose writing adorned the Middle East page.
In the ways of the Maghreb, there is none wiser than he,
Oh would this were known to the powers that be!

Your prose, we admit, was sometimes opaque,
Faint hearts on the desk said it made their heads ache.
Your intros were buried, the syntax perverse,
Yet your insights profound, the sources diverse.

But grammar alone does not a journalist make.
To those who did cavil, heed a banker's retort:
"I'd rather read Ghilès, than a World Bank report!"

So listen well, dear Francis, draw strength, and take heart,
As we raise our glasses, with hosannahs and cheers,
Let these words stay with you, although we now part:
"The judgment that counts is that of your peers!"

Michael Holman

[From Michael Holman's African Deadlines: 'Twenty Two Years in the Long Grass of Central Africa Without a Break' (1995), republished by kind permission of the author]


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