Algeria’s Invisible Arab

Conflict is illuminated as the nameless murder victim of Camus's "The Stranger" becomes a human being in a new novel.

Comments: 49

  1. Thanks, Roger, for this explanation of Camus and Daoud. It made me immediately think of Trump's and our Congress's current view of immigrants, Republican view of Democrats, and especially Congress's view of the proposed Iran nuclear treaty. There sure is enough blindness going around!

  2. Any discussion of Western values make me think of Francis Fukuyama's closing words in "The End of History?" (1989):
    "The end of history will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one's life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands. In the post-historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history. I can feel in myself, and see in others around me, a powerful nostalgia for the time when history existed. Such nostalgia, in fact, will continue to fuel competition and conflict even in the post-historical world for some time to come. Even though I recognize its inevitability, I have the most ambivalent feelings for the civilization that has been created in Europe since 1945, with its north Atlantic and Asian offshoots. Perhaps this very prospect of centuries of boredom at the end of history will serve to get history started once again." (p. 17)
    Except I find it hard to be as optimistic as Fukuyama. So I listen to Tim Minchin's commencement speech:
    Or I read something by Oliver Sacks.
    Or I re-read Camus, especially his essays as a young man growing up in Algeria.

  3. "At the moment of liberation, or just after it, Harun kills a Frenchman, Joseph Larquais". It brings no respite.
    I do not quite understand then how Mr. Cohen gets from a reciprocal, senseless murder to the message of "a shared loathing of hypocrisy, shallowness, simplification and falsification" renders the world visible, which is the only path to understanding between Arab and Jew and American and Iranian, according to Mr. Cohen.
    In all honesty, Mr. Cohen, and sorry for the cynicism, but better visibility just offers a better target or shot.
    The pointless (or possibly not pointless), reciprocal murder seems to belie your logic.
    But then I have not read the novel.

    For an excerpt see:

  4. Amazing,you are getting better and better,Roger.

  5. I don't enough of Mr. Cohen's writing to know if this is true.
    But this article by Mr. Cohen is worth reading and worth discussing.

  6. Invisibility is in the eye of the beholder!

    Donald Trump wants more and more visibility. He wants to become elected so he can change the flag to Red, White and Trump. Desire determines visuality. "We see what we want to see." My mother frequently mentioned that in my childhood.

    This thought provoking, editorial was especially we'll written!

  7. Invisibility is the root of all evils. When some people are judged as inferior or stereotyped, anger can incite terrible consequences and acts from individuals, groups and nations. Colonialism, racism, and exploitation breed contempt and affect generations. The silenced majority rises up in the end. We have many examples surrounding us every day.

  8. I'm not a religious believer.
    But the Christian Bible says "the love of money is the root of all evil."
    Yet today in the western the love of money aka Capitalism is THE only viable system in place.
    And Islamic leaders are allied with nominally Christian Capitalism in the search for money because contrary to what Jesus said, it seems that one can ride a camel through the eye of the needle into heaven and take all of one's wealth there.
    Just as godless Capitalism once took on godless Communism, Islamic radicals are taking on godless Capitalism.
    And how can the two compete? The jihadist who dies in battle really believes that he will wake up in Heaven in the presence of God. The western soldiers will give his or her life is necessary. But he or she would prefer to survive, even though her or his future may be an underfunded VA hospital with inadequate care.

  9. Is the Arab world a work in progress, just as the West is? It’s not yet a hundred years since women won voting rights (USA and UK). Black males had a legal right to vote in the USA since 1870, but legislation was needed in the 1960s to guarantee such rights. This story has not concluded.

    Of the Irish Easter Rising, 1916, Yeats said much, the best remembered being "a terrible beauty is born." He also wrote "Too long a sacrifice/ Can make a stone of the heart." In the world of Islam, Arabic and Persian, are we not now seeing the stony hearts promoted by Western exploitation? Not only did Western leaders carve up and exploit Mesopotamia and Persia, but they installed dictators of one or other fanatical religious stripe. Those who promoted the Sauds promoted extremism.

    Christianity had a head-start of 600 years on Islam, yet it is less than 400 years since European powers agreed the Accords of Westphalia, bringing most religious wars to an end there. They also recognized the rights of three confessions: Catholics, Lutherans, and Calvinists. It is less than 100 years since the worst holocaust in the modern world--perhaps ever--when Hitler used every pretext to attack Jews.

    The deep well of science and art that is Persia may again fertilize arid sands. And, yes, the plight of Arabs is lamentable, but let's not preach too much.

  10. "Is the Arab world a work in progress, just as the West is?"
    Interesting point.
    Post-Historic Western society seems to no longer stand for "progress."
    From the Dark Ages to the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, through the U.S. civil rights movement, there was a certain path of progress in the West. But who defends the western notion of progress today? The world's greatest advocate for western values is the 18-year-old Pakistani Muslim girl named Malala. We in the west have no such advocates...except 90-year-old Jimmy Carter.

    And Islam had its "renaissance" in southern Europe during the European Dark Ages.

  11. Today Muslims live in the 14th century A.H. (after hegira).
    Remember how Christians lived in the 14th century A.D. (the crusades and the black death).
    However, while the Dark Ages in the West became the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment in the Islamic World had ended by the end of the 15th century A.D.

  12. "At the core of any conflict lies invisibility. The enemy cannot be seen, at least not if seeing betokens the start of understanding."

    Yes and no. If one cannot see oneself as the enemy sees one, one can never understand the enemy. Thoreau wrote the "It is never too late to give up our prejudices." But most Americans seem to think that any attempt to understand an enemy is tantamount to justifying the enemy's cause.

    "Demonization blocks any glimmer of shared humanity or sympathy."
    But it rallies the troops, whether one is Christian crusader, a Nazi SS trooper, an ISIS jihadist, an Iranian ayatollah, or a U.S. soldiers on her or his way to Iraq.

    "...Kamel Daoud’s remarkable first novel, “The Meursault Investigation.”
    I love Paul Bowles, Albert Camus, Tahar ben Jelloun and Naguib Mahfouz. I'll check this novel out.

    The film "La battaglia de Algeri" by Gillo Pontecorvo is a must-see.


    Thanks, Mr. Cohen.

  13. [The author, in turn, has called the absence of alternatives to Islamism “the philosophical disaster of the Arab world.”]
    Beautiful poetry preceded Islam and flourished in the desert. Works of art using material to fashion gods and godesses from dates also did. Then Islam came and poetry declined because the "word of god" is the most perfect. Art in any form apart from Calligraphy (sublime as it may) declined as well. Islam has always played a retarding role for intellectual life. The great Arab empires succeeded in as much as it departed from Islam.

  14. Meursault said he killed "the arab" "au cause de soleil" - because of the sun. He could not be bothered to tell the court that it was because of the sun that he saw the glint of the gun pointed at him by "the arab." In fact, he killed him in pure self defense. The confusion of action and reaction, often deliberate, has characterized much coverage of the Middle East. Daoud clearly knows better, as should the New York Times.

  15. The glint was actually from a "couteau", a knife, "comme une longue lame étincelante", like a long sparkling blade, perhaps amplified by the sun and the heat. "Meursault" uses multiple terms for the knife but the only gun, at least on that part of the beach, was in his hand and the shot broke the silence on the beach on which he had been happy. Then he fired four more shots. There was no self-defense involved at all. It is M. Onia who should know better.

  16. The Arab was holding a knife not a gun.

  17. Your report on that book fits in nicely with Jennifer Schuessler’s on the recent identification of the owner of William Carlos Williams’s “Red Wheelbarrow” (July 6th issue).

  18. Roger,

    THIS is a Fascinating Essay with the greatest line at its debut: "At the core of any conflict lies invisibility".

    HERE are some interesting Observations:

    I. ARABS and Hebrs (Ebrs) are the same people as Arabic and Hebrew Languages are similar if not identical.

    II. PROPHET Abraham was Persian and his real name is "Abram" which means "Peaceful Water" and his father's name was "Azar" meaning "Fire in Persian".

    III. SARA the wife of Prophet Abram was Persian also that makes Isaac Persian as well.

    IV. STUDYING Moses' Genealogy reveals that he is also Persian as Isaac's children all went back to Harran (now is situated in southeast Turkey near the Iranian Border) to get Married.

    V. SO that makes Judaism an Iranian Religion!

    VI. I have not yet done the Genealogy of Jesus, but judging from his mother's name, Maryam/Miriam/Mary, which is the name of a flower in Persian and the three Wisemen traveling to Bethlehem to witness the Star of David and the Persians trying to save Baby Jesus from the Roman Swords, tells me that in all likelihood Jesus was Persian also!

    V. AND finally the Algerians and Egyptians and ALL Arabic speaking countries are NOT Ethnic Arabs, they are Berbers, Carthage, Egyptians, Canaanites, Hittites, Assyrians, Yemenis, Persians et al.

  19. We must all be in the same mindset lately, although, I recently had the daylights frightened out of me. However, having had, I realized I had a choice --- I could be paralyzed by the fear (buy a gun, too), of those thinking differently than myself, or I could let my fear be in my God and carry on, beating my sword into a plowshare and that's what I did.

  20. This insight has been done much better and closer to home with more current and historical relevance by Richard Wright in "Native Son" and Ralph Ellison in "Invisible Man". I am not a Francophile nor Anglophile. Nor am I a Jew nor Muslim nor Arab nor European nor Israeli nor Palestinian nor Algerian nor Catholic.

    I am an American Protestant with white European roots beginning in 1640, black free-person of color roots from 1790, black African slave roots from 1835 and brown Native roots from 12,000 years ago. I am only colored black in America.

    I hear, see and feel you Roger. But what does this have to do with the lingering American cancerous dilemma of white American supremacy born in enslavement and nourished in Jim Crow that denies the equal certain unalienable rights of black African Americans?

  21. Sir your commentary is stunning. I am a born in America Jewish person, my mother was born in America, my grandmother was born in America. I am now 83 years old and though I am considered "white" I am still looked upon as an immigrant Jew even though I am not religious at all. After 0ver 5,700 years all Jewish people either Sephardic or Ashkenazi we are still looked upon as not belonging anywhere. Millions killed and for what? Nameless people that were once real people.

  22. REBLACKMAMBA:This is what the TIMES would call "off topic," irrelevant to the subject of the piece, which is a book review of Daoud's best seller, "Meursault: An Investigation." I criticized the book because one should never tamper with a classic, and Daoud is, in some respects, a literary thief, pilfering Camus's ideas. I mentioned that if Daoud wants to write a book about the negative aspects of French colonialism in Algeria, let him do so. But to take a literary masterpiece and write a "sequel" to show that the Arab on the beach is a human being is dishonest. The plot, the idea for l'Etranger is Camus's and his alone. Let Daoud employ his creative juices to write his own, ORIGINAL work. It would be as if I wrote a sequel to "EBENEZER SCROOGE: A CHRISTMAS CAROL" and imagined that Scrooge's friendship for Tiny Tim at the end was really a cover for his ulterior motive of sexual abuse of children. Ironically, Mouloud FERAOUN, the great Kabyle writer and a contemporary of AC, had only the highest praise for him. Writing a sequel would have been, in the eyes of FERAOUN, profoundly insulting to the author.

  23. Of greatest interest to me is Daoud's accurate lament that there is no philosophical alternative to Islamism in North Africa.This phenomenon manifests itself in countries like the U.K. and The Netherlands.

    Is there something deep within Islam that cannot abide the philosophical values of The Enlightenment? I do wonder. A secular American, I glide through the Christian and Jewish holidays with my Christian and Jewish friends, and quickly return to my decidedly secular, non-religious life. The handful of Muslims I know seem to always have their religion high in their consciousness; it plays a large role in their daily lives. One can't have a conversation with hearing a reference to Islam.

    I'm not passing judgment; I'm trying to understand how Islam can achieve a harmonious relationship not with Christianity but with those who live by the values of The Enlightenment, be they in Rotterdam or Algiers.

  24. Kilroy Jersey City NJ 11 minutes ago
    "Of greatest interest to me is Daoud's accurate lament that there is no philosophical alternative to Islamism in North Africa."
    There is no philosophical alternative to Islamism in most of the world, i.e., most of the world, including the U.S., offers no philosophical alternative for which most people will pull together to defend and even die. The U.S. philosophy, that the only thing worth achieving is money and/or fame, under a system in which the leaders of one party consider the president from the other party to be the greatest enemy of their country that both parties claim to defend, is not going to defeat Islamism.

  25. As a non-Christian, non-Jew, non-Muslim and non-American, I can't say that Muslims bring up their religion more than Christians or Jews do. North American life is so deeply based on Christianity, that most Americans do not realise how a non-Christian feels around them. They don't realise how Chistianity based a very aspect of life is. A little more sensitivity towards others way of thinking would help.
    Moderate Muslims are not too outgoing at this time primarily because how people think of Islam. I don't see my Muslim friends less enlightened than non-Muslin friends. I just hope that the carnage in the Middle East amongst the extremists would end soon, and that these people can use their talents and money toward something positive.

  26. My limited experience with most Muslims is that most want to make a living and feed their families, while remaining at least somewhat close to what they perceive of as God.

  27. Thank you -this is commentary as profound literature!

    You have been a foreign correspondent in 15 different countries and your insights perspective and downright wisdom are greatly appreciated by me.

  28. Appropos of Richard's previous column, I eagerly await his sentimental examination of the life of the Jews that were kicked out of Algeria and the rest of the Arab world in 1948. Oh, wait, those Jews went to Israel instead of festering in refugee camps. If there was only an Arab country with enough space and enough money from selling some sort of commodity, like say, oil, to be able to house the refugees from a war that themeselves started.

  29. Good point raised by TM. Benjamin STORA, historian of French colonization, was among those Jews from Constantine who emigrated following the killing of the famous interpreter of music known as MALOUF, CHEIK Raymond LEYRIS, in the marketplace in 1961. Leyris was killed by a bullet in the neck.Total Jewish population in ALGERIA was, grosso modo, 130,000. Whereas they enjoyed the benefits of French citizenship due to the Decret Cremieux, the same was not accorded to the native Arab population.As one former "caid" or judge under French rule inormed me,"Les juifs etaient nos cousins, mais après le Decret Cremieux, le vers etait dans le fruit.(We and the Jews were cousins, but with the Cremieux Decree, the worm was in the fruit)!"Some Algerian Jews joined the counterterrorist OAS, since they, along with the pieds noirs, had become, as a result of the war, targets of the FLN. Cruel irony: Algeria's Jews fled the insecurity of Algeria during the war(1954-1962) because of FLN depredations, and now, in France, because of a very small group of Islamicist extremists, are under pressure again, and some contemplate emigrating to Israel, which would be very sad. As the father of a son who speaks fluent Hebrew(he attended the bilingual RAMAZ), and a friend of Algerians, whose anguish I shared, I can view events from more than one window.

  30. I read "The Stranger" many years ago, haven't read Daoud's work, but probably will after reading this exegesis. I use that word because I took this to be much more than a book review. I'm perhaps reading too much into this, but I found Daoud giving the murdered Arab the name "Musa" to be extremely interesting in that "Musa" is Arabic for "Moses." A Musa who never saw his promised land of an independent Algeria -- a Moses whose promised land was death on a beach.

  31. At the core of any conflict lie opposed interests, which are not invisible, or shouldn’t be. In many cases, demonization is inappropriate because the interests are understandable from the perspective of the combatant holding them; but is employed in order to attract support for one viewpoint over another when compromise is either truly impossible or simply not achievable given the limitations of the combatants. Or when an excuse is required to do terrible things with impunity, and remain able to live with oneself.

    The French had interests in Algeria that required the essential subjugation of a people, not as fundamental a subjugation as our white forebears once practiced against our black ones, but not entirely dissimilar, either. The “Arabs” were demonized much as our black slaves were, to allow some to exploit and abuse them so horrifically while still respecting themselves. They had interests that they were unable to deny, and limitations they were unable to overcome to secure interests without recourse to either demonization or exploitation and abuse.

    Roger, and Daoud, seek to give a face and an identity to everyone, to assert a unique human consequence to every act of abuse and to note the role demonization plays in tolerating it. I respect and honor that attempt.

    When we see such demonization on both sides of current-day conflicts, we should first question the capacities of the combatants: they may not be the best ones to seek protection of legitimate interests.

  32. Wow !
    " ..... invisibility, demonization, seeing, understanding ....... "
    Thank you for recommending this book.
    And, thank you for your column - always food for thought.

  33. It may be informative to consider how we in the Post-Historic West use social media to how jihadis living the Historic Islamic world use it. I don't have a Facebook page, but I have seem the pages of my friends. Everyone in my friends' circle of "friends" knows everyone else, including what each person believes. No posting is a surprise to anyone since everyone is part of the same group. However, Islam requires that a person submit to God every moment of every day. And if one truly believes that killing anyone who gets into the way of the Caliphate is God's will, social media becomes a great tool for war.

  34. I cut my teeth on Albert Camus, read l'Etranger in 3 languages, French, Spanish and English, as well as shorter works such as "L'Ete." and "Minotaure". I also interviewed, "tout a fait comme par hasard,"the OAS unit that killed one of his best friends and a fine writer as well, Kabyle author MOULOUD FERAOUN, in March 1962 in the course of a "b.r.," or "operation ponctuelle." in the waning days of French Algeria.(See my video, "Death of FRENCH ALGERIA,AN INSIDE LOOK."Feraoun was killed because he was a liberal. Camus, among other French Algerian authors, has been one of my principal preoccupations. Having said this, I believe that one should never tamper with a classic.Conrad wrote that indigenous classes in colonized countries "moved like shadows among us."That is what the nameless Arab should have remained, for literary purposes, a shadow. To write a fictitious sequel to Camus' classic is, in my view, a form of theft.If Daoud wants to write about the lack of humanity shown by France to Algerians under colonial rule, let him do so, but w/o cadging anything from Camus. .I read that his book is also being hailed by the politically correct, some of whom r comparing the pied noir author, so many words,to the "mean spirited" GOP, opposed to Obama's policy of letting hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants into the country.What a stretch! No author, Daoud included, should be engaged in pilfering another writer's ideas!

  35. I learn to read French specifically to be able to read all of Camus' works in the original language. I re-read something by Camus every year.

    But I once read a French travel book about Algeria, written in the late 1950s, shortly before the Algerian war for independence broke out. In the book the writer, a Frenchman, describes Algeria was an integral part of France, as French as Paris, and one of France's most beautiful regions. The writer, clearly very familiar with Algeria, had no idea what most Algerians were actually thinking. If I still had the book I would re-read it as well.

  36. I hate to go all Torah-Biblical-Koranic on the readers. But at the core the Western-Islamic conflict lies a shared set of core beliefs. All Jews, Christians and Muslims, if they are actually "believers" in what their religion teaches, believe the following:

    1) In the beginning God created a perfect world with perfect people;
    2) Satan tricked the first humans into sinning; thus, the world and the people became imperfect;
    3) All humans must now seek salvation, leading to heaven, in order to avoid Hell.

    The problem for the members of the three groups is that each religion claims that God gave the members of their group and only their group the exclusive path to salvation.

    And although for most modern Jews and Christians religion is like a hat that one can take off and put back on, or a cafeteria where one can choose one belief and reject another belief, the proportion of Muslims in the world who still literally believe in the original sin and the need for salvation and submission to God is probably much, much higher.

    The problem for the rest of us who are not believers is that we are minority in their believers' world.

  37. This is why the invention of monotheism has proved to be the worst construct of the human mind.

  38. This is not true of Jews, who do not proselytize except among themselves.

    Neither Christians nor Muslims ask the achingly obvious question of why God allowed two holy books to emerge, both ambiguous enough that followers of each fight, kill, and oppress each other about the correct interpretation.

    The equally obvious answer is that either God is a sadistic monster who is amused by seeing us kill each other in His name, or that He wants us to grow out of depending on Him and figure out things on our own, as the Founding Fathers of this country did. We stand on their shoulders, improving their successes and fixing their failures, with God and his scriptures as inspiration but not as recipes or directions.

  39. I find it entirely reasonable to think that "God" past through this area of the universe, started a creative process, and then left. However, that's not the kind of religion that attracts followers.

  40. The Stranger is a short book. It makes clear that the callous indifference of the Frenchman is to his own life, not to the life of the Arab, who was trying to kill him. Embracing its repurposing as a tale of colonial victimization is emblematic of how the West is often insufficiently critical of attempts to manipulate it into misplaced guilt and self-disarmament in the face of unambiguous enemies.

  41. It remains taboo, even after tens of thousands of years of human experience, to state, and even worse, to feel the obvious: human beings believe that there are situations and circumstances under which killing other human beings, putting an end to life, is acceptable; rarely senseless, after all, because my life means the world to me. What’s more, the deaths of strangers bother most of us only in a Church sermon kind of way. Meursault then is guilty of being a human being, and for that he must be punished—at least if you’ve accused others of the same.

  42. The real challenge is to render the world visible to those who practice hypocrisy, shallowness, simplification and falsification. Many efforts were made French officers to that end during the War of Algeria. But their efforts fell on deaf ears. Administrations are no good at innovation but excel at maintaining their own existence, which of course, involves the use of simplification to pretend having things under control and being useful. The French officers I refer to have names: General Paris de Bollardiere and Colonel Barberot. Those interested in knowing more can read the book written by Barberot just after his dismissal from the army (malaventure in algerie). The book becomes fascinating after a slow start in the first 80 pages.

  43. And while you're at it, ask the Berbers -- the indigenous peoples of North Africa -- how they were treated by the Arabs over the centuries. And how the so-called international community could care less. Food for thought next time you hear people going into paroxysms of rage and boycott fever over what Israel does or supposed does in the Israel/Palestinian conflict against a people still wanting to destroy them. The Berbers never attempted to annihilate the Arabs.

  44. Oh dear.... Camu's 'Arab' was no more voiceless or faceless or invisible than was Meursault, his heartless assassin. Both represented the dichotomy of Algeria of that time: the 'Arab'* representative of Algeria and Algerians enslaved, invaded and exploited for well over a century; the policeman representative of the French colons who attempted to strip the indigenes of their dignity and human rights, not to mention their right to self-determination and return of properties and natural resources wrested away from them.

    Neither you nor Daoud can change the raison d' être of Camu's L'Etranger, no matter how you attempt to pretentiously know more than he about the country and its indigenes he loved whose conditions then are beyond your ken. You at least have the excuse because you do not know Algeria and have no vested interest in it-other than, shamefully, political. Daoud has no excuse, and prefers to bolt rather than to remain-as too many have done before him- and work for the change he believes is needed. But for everyone who may believe as he does, there is the opposite that believes otherwise.

    BTW: Just because Algerians speak Arabic-imposed on them by official decree, does not make them Arab. In the case of Camu's book, the murdered man was described a Arab to separate him from Berbers who were considered superior to the 'Arabs' by the French colons.

    No one who kills his/her neighbor or who aggresses onto land not their own loves God/nor has respect for anyone.

  45. Voicelessness and facelessness is in the ear and the eye of the beholder.

  46. Great column, Roger, about a great novel. If I were still teaching, I would teach this novel right after teaching *The Stranger*. As Roger points out in his last paragraph, Daoud's hero comes to resemble Camus's hero more and more deeply and strikingly as the novel progresses. In addition, the structure of the novel, a first-person confession in a bar, mirrors the shape of my favorite Camus novel, "The Fall*. This is a work of fiction of real literary, social, and historical value. Thanks for opening it up to all those who read your column.

  47. "But there is more that binds their protagonists than separates them — a shared loathing of hypocrisy, shallowness, simplification and falsification. Each, from his different perspective, renders the world visible — the only path to understanding for Arab and Jew, for American and Iranian, for all the world’s “strangers” unseen by each other."

    I haven't read Daoud's book, but as regards Meursault this summary seems a little too pat, especially with regard to that feel-good peroration in the citation about "understanding". One can as easily view Meursault's "honesty" as emanating not from some quasi philosophical conviction about the harm due to hypocrisy but rather from some psychological malady such as Asperger's. Maybe as a practical matter, the resultant "honesty" comes to the same thing but the latter interpretation seems a pretty thin reed upon which to base a plea for brotherhood.

  48. I suspect Camus doesn't name the Arab victim because, at the least, he represents all of the colonized Algerians. At most, he may be representing all North Africans, sub-Saharan Africans and Asians who experienced French colonization. Also, it is well to be mindful of the times when Camus wrote L'Etranger, when England, France and, to a lesser extent, other European nations were still exploiting their African and Asian colonies.