BOOKS AND ARTS JANUARY 27, 2010
The German Mujahid
By Boualem Sansal
Translated by Frank Wynne
(Europa Editions, 240 pp., $15)
From the terrible Algerian slaughter, and its terrible silence, comes this small tale, told by an officer of the special forces who broke with “Le Pouvoir” of his own country and sought asylum in France. It is the autumn of 1994, deep into the season of killing. An old and simple Algerian woman, accompanied by two of her children, comes to the army barracks, to the very building where the torturers did their grim work, in search of her husband and her son. The two men were there; they had already endured three days of torture. The woman was quite certain where the men were being held. It was the same place, she told the astonished young Algerian officer, where the French held and tortured their prisoners during the “war of liberation” decades earlier. Her husband had been an old mujahid, a soldier in the holy war, and had known imprisonment under the French--and now again, during this most recent time of horror and sorrow. The old woman was never to see her husband and her son again. They perished in the ordeal of the new Algeria.
We shall never know, with precision, the numbers of Algerians who perished in the civil war that broke out in 1992. The Algerian rulers, not known for their fidelity to truth, and with so much to hide, owned up, in 1999, to a toll of 100,000 lives. More reliable estimates by Algeria’s civic organizations put the toll at 200,000. The killing went on, a veritable hell, on the shores of the Mediterranean, some five hundred miles south of Marseilles. This was not the “African darkness” of Rwanda and Burundi; this was not the isolated jungle of Cambodia. The killing went on in the Mitidja plains, a stone’s throw from Algiers. Meanwhile, in the Sahara, the work of the oil industry, and of natural gas, went on uninterrupted. An internal passport was needed for Algerians to gain access to the oil and gas fields. Expats and lucky Algerians lived here, behind high walls and checkpoints, guarded by the most sophisticated means of surveillance. The generals were unapologetic: this was l’Algérie utile, useful Algeria, sealed and off-limits to the terror. The generals and the men in the ruling party needed the money for their wives and their children, for the plunder and the structure of repression that they had put in place.
The war had begun, if a beginning can be assigned to it, in the fall of 1988. Riots swept the principal cities as the young took to the streets. Their grievances were bottomless: underemployment, a lack of basic consumer goods, rising food prices, the monopoly of the nomenklatura of the ruling National Liberation Front on power and privilege and opportunity. A quarter-century after the glory of independence, the Algerians tired of their own rulers. This was a ferocious revolt, and a harbinger of much grief to come. Government buildings and state-owned properties were sacked, and several hundred demonstrators were gunned down by the forces of order. Chadli Bendjedid, a colorless, mediocre man at the apex of power, but in truth a front man for the brigade commanders and the security services, was cast in an impossible role: he was at once the cop and the would-be emancipator. And when the riots were put down, Bendjedid (the spitting image of Jeff Chandler, one of Hollywood’s leading men in a bygone era) was repentant. He told his people that he understood the message of their revolt, and conceded that many of those detained had been subjected to torture, and promised that the state would change its ways and open up the political system. Here was the Algerian Gorbachev. And as in the case of the Russian Gorbachev, the rot was deeper than he could comprehend. The bond between rulers and ruled had ruptured. The order had used up its myths. And there remained the fearsome officer corps: the state, Algeria in its entirety, had been their ghanima, their war booty, seized from the French in the war in which a million shuhada, a million martyrs, had fallen.
The doors to power were suddenly ajar, and the Islamists rushed in to fill the void. The Algerians were keen to teach the nomenklatura a lesson, and so countless voters gulped down a beer or two before they cast their votes for an Islamist opposition, Le Front Islamique du Salut (FIS)--the Islamic Salvation Front. In June 1990, the FIS handed the ruling party an overwhelming defeat in the municipal elections, and then trounced the ruling party again in the first round of legislative elections in December 1991. This was a broad, inchoate Islamist movement that had emerged from the deprivation and the anger. A philosophy professor was one of its leaders, but its rank-and-file were not philosophically inclined. They were merciless men keen to impose their reign of virtue and terror on an “ungodly population.” They had no serious political rival. For the new men draping their desire for revenge and hegemony in Islamic colors, the time for retribution had come.
Before long, two armed camps would divide the country: Hizballah, the Party of Allah, and Hizb Fransa, the Party of France. Jeans were yielding to kamis in the urban alleyways, and the Islamists quickly imposed their writ on “liberated zones” they claimed as their own. Smoking was banned, as was the reading of magazines. The movement of women--to schools, to their places of employment--was severely restricted. The “Afghans” made their appearance in the land--the mujahedin who had done holy battle against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. They were easily recognized by the paratrooper pants they wore, the long beards streaked with henna, the kohl around their eyes.
But meanwhile the generals were girding for battle, and in January 1992 they called off the scheduled national elections, sacked Bendjedid, dissolved the Islamic communes, and hauled off to prison the leaders of the FIS. In his book La Sale Guerre, or The Dirty War, which appeared in 2001, Habib Souaïdia, with a military officer’s knack for unadorned fact, captures the great tension, and panic, of this time. The lines were drawn, even in the ranks and in the military academies: it was the kaffirs, the heretics, versus the traitors. The generals cast about for a titular figure, another front man, and they found him in Mohamed Boudiaf, one of the “historic leaders” of the war of liberation, a decent man who had been biding his time in a long exile in Morocco. He was brought in by the dominant cabal in the army, the Janvieristes, named for the coup they had mounted in January of the same year.
But Boudiaf still had the decency of his early break with the ruling party: he spoke openly of the “mafias” that controlled and plundered the economy. In June 1992, he was struck down by an officer of the presidential guard. The military cabal was done with the “historic leaders.” No one believed the official story that the assassin was an Islamist who had acted alone. In Habib Souaïdia’s words, Boudiaf was caught between the hammer and the anvil: he was loathed by the Islamists for his unyielding secularism and detested by the “deciders” in the military for his campaign against the privileges of a ruling caste. Boudiaf disappeared as suddenly as he had appeared--a parenthesis, says Souaïdia, in the drama.
In the escalating war, the generals certainly proved their mettle: they killed without pity. They were also skilled in exploiting the fissures in the ranks of the Islamists and the travesties committed by the terrorists. In hindsight, we can grasp the cold-blooded and chilling efficiency of the Algerian military. The war to which they summoned their men was in truth a war against the population. There were standing orders for army units to stay in their barracks even as massacres were being committed nearby. The military said that it was important to terrorize the terrorists--which they did, and the Algerian population as a whole in the process. And there were also the “dirty tricks”--the killer squads of the army and the special forces and the Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité (DRS) donning the attire of the Islamists, false beards and all, and taken by helicopter to targeted towns and villages to perpetrate frightful massacres. “Fear must change sides,” the commanders exhorted their men. A killer colonel, surveying his command by helicopter, summed up the attitude of the cabal: “We are to spare no dog, no cat, no mules, no donkeys, and naturally, no Islamists. Each one of our soldiers is worth ten Islamists, be vigilant and merciless.”
The corpses piled up, and no witnesses were to be left behind. There was a massacre strategy at work. The terror was pervasive, but targeted: the assailants knew their victims, sought them out, slaughtered entire families. Men and women were cut down by chainsaws. A boy who peddled cigarettes in the streets was killed in cold blood: an informer for the terrorists, it was said. Women suffered an ordeal all their own. The Islamists singled them out. Untold numbers of them were kidnapped, forced into zawaj al motaa (marriages of convenience) with the jihadists before they were murdered. The secret police had their own way with the young women: they had the kabous et carta, the gun and the professional badge, and so they blackmailed the women, forced them into sexual liaisons, and then turned them into informers.
Bodies turned up everywhere, even on treetops, dumped from the helicopters, and the grim practice of burning the cadavers developed. The other victims were buried, unrecognized, as “l’Algérien X.” The forces of order and the Islamists were alike in their greed. They raided jewelry stores and extorted merchants; death came to those who paid and to those who did not. There were terrorists--the Tangos, they were called by the military--who posed as soldiers and soldiers who posed as terrorists. For the colonel who wanted to eradicate all the Islamists, along with the dogs and the cats and the mules, there was a prominent Islamist leader who told his men that the road to paradise was made easier, and a sure thing, if one beheaded a paratrooper. No need to bring back the bodies, one commander decreed, just the heads. The only bodies displayed atop military vehicles were the bodies of well-known Islamist leaders, to teach the population a lesson. Hooded men did what hooded men do in places where killers and their victims know each other. One young woman recognized her physics teacher hiding under his hood.
For all its radicalism,and for the temperamental violence of Ali Belhadj, one of its pre-eminent leaders, the FIS still bore the mark of its early beginnings. It had hoped to win through the ballot box. It sought to endear itself to the population, with the usual mix of social services that are the familiar trademark of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab East. But two or three years into the terror, the Algerian war was to hatch a true monster, the Groupe Islamique Armée (GIA). Indisputably, the GIA was a bastard child of the encounter between the Islamists and the security services of the regime. The mercy had drained out of the Islamists; they had lost faith in their ability to push the nomenklatura aside. For their part, the military commanders got the opposition they wanted--a nihilist breed who would scare the people and push them into the arms of the security forces. The terror and its dirty tricks had done its work: the ranks of the GIA included killers for hire, Islamists who had been turned around by both torture and inducement, and genuine fanatics making war against God’s enemies.
Kill the adults to punish them, kill the children to save them: this was the code of the GIA. In the catacombs of this fight to the death, hell had found its enforcers. Many false emirs came out of the bowels of the security forces. The GIA could not win: this was a big country and a regime with means. (The oil despotisms must always be seen as a case apart--they can kill as long as the revenues keep flowing in.) For the military establishment, that was the sweetness of the thing: it was not pretty, but it was deliverance nonetheless. It was hard to do the decent thing in this war. The scruples of Habib Souaïdia, and no doubt the scruples of so many good people caught between the two horrific camps, landed him, and them, in prison. Souaïdia had always wanted to be a soldier, but now he found himself in the company of assassins, brigands, and thieves. He arrested terrorists at great risk to himself and his men, only to see them released by his superiors. He grasped early on that for the army command, the soldiers and the police were cannon fodder. Clan wars made their way into the ranks, as the top commanders fought for privilege and turf. Reality mocked all custom and all tradition. The violence grew particularly intense during the holy month of Ramadan, when the Islamists upped the ante because “martyrdom” in the course of that month had great religious merit. And the army command obliged.
It is no wonder that the Algerians needed a breathing spell before the silence could be breached and the truth told. A civil concord was declared in 1999, and an old retread from the ruling hierarchy, Abdelaziz Bouteflika--a foreign minister in the days when Algeria strutted on the world stage as a leader of the non-aligned movement, and then spent a decade in exile--was thrust to the presidency of the republic. Algerians still could not be sure that their world had been brought back from the abyss. Bouteflika and the guardians of order were ready to be done with the violence, but there was to be no truth and reconciliation here. It was best, Algerians were told, not to look back. “Amnesty and amnesia” was the Algerian way out of the slaughter.
Yet some Algerians were to find their voice, and in the literature of reckoning there is a special place of honor for the work of Boualem Sansal, particularly for his extraordinary novel The German Mujahid. Published by Gallimard, in 2008, under the title Le Village de l’Allemand, ou Le Journal des Frères Schiller (The Village of the German, or the Diary of the Schiller Brothers) this unsparing work of fiction is set--no, it is embedded--in that dirty war, which it renders it with uncompromising honesty. Its author, we are told, was born in 1949. He studied engineering and attained a doctorate in economics. By the arithmetic of it, he would have been thirteen years old when the French gave up and left in 1962 after the savage war of liberation. That is, he would have come into his own amid the high hopes of the Algerian revolution. Sansal served in the Ministry of Industry until 2003, when he was dismissed because of his writings. He continues to live in Algiers with his wife and two daughters. His first novel, Le Serment des Barbares, won a prestigious prize in France in 1999, and The German Mujahid is evidence of an honest man who is keen to bear witness to the horrors of his country’s history.
As though Algerian reality did not provide Sansal with enough material, there falls upon this great work also the shadow of the Holocaust. Based on a true story, we are told by Sansal and his publishers, the larger inspiration for his novel comes from the work of Primo Levi. Somehow the Shoah had found its way into the remote Algerian countryside. Sansal’s narrative tells the story of two brothers born in a small village to a German father and an Algerian mother, and raised in France by an old friend of the father from the days of the war of liberation. Hans Schiller, the German father, had been in the Hitler Youth and served in the SS. Before this material, Sansal does not flinch. Arabs have had the hardest time dealing with the Holocaust--there has been denial, and an insistence that the numbers, the six million, were a premeditated fabrication, and protest that the dark history was no affair of theirs, and an odd “resentment” that the Jews have this history of victimhood--but Sansal sails directly into the storm.
Nazi fugitives sought shelter, after all, in Cairo, Damascus, and Algiers. There were scientists among them, and propagandists, and military officers and doctors of death, and an Orientalist or two, and, of course, experts on “the Jewish question.” They had been taken in by their Arab hosts, and given the chance to bury their past. They were much-admired men, persecuted men on the run who had done battle against the Anglo-American world, and against the Jews who pulled the strings in the Western democracies.
And so a certain Hans Schiller--he is “the German mujahid”--had made his way to a remote village called Aïn Deb, “The Donkey’s Well,” in Algeria. He was in middle age, a man of forty-five, when he came to Aïn Deb, and he was never to leave the place again. He married the beautiful eighteen-year-old daughter of the local sheikh. And he fathered two sons: Rachid Helmut, the older of the two, nicknamed Rachel, and a wild younger son formed in the anarchy and violence of France’s Muslim quarters, Malek Ulrich, known as Malrich. Rachel made a success of his life in France. He studied hard, and married well, and worked for a big multinational company--aided, no doubt, by the Germanic looks he had inherited from his father.
The old Nazi horrors and the new Muslim terrors came together on the eight o’clock news in Paris on April 25, 1994. Aïn Deb, once “a bubble beyond time,” was the lead story that day: armed men had stormed the village and cut the throats of thirty-eight of its inhabitants. The GIA had done it, Algerian officials said. Rachel scrambles to learn of the fate of his parents from the Algerian embassy in Paris. At first he is told that there were no Aïcha and Hans Schiller on the list of the Islamists’ victims. But the embassy man said that there were two names, Aïcha Madjali and a Hassan Hans, known as Si Mourad. This was Hans Schiller and the daughter of the local sheikh, the parents of the Schiller brothers.
Algeria had always hovered over the lives of the brothers as they negotiated their new world in France. It was the Algeria of the emigrants and of the imagination, the “North Star” of the emigrants’ memory. The real Algeria, on the other side of the Mediterranean, had its own life--pillage and terror and rulers “actively preparing for the end of days.” The talent that had taken Rachel into the mainstream of French corporate life, his meticulous attention to detail, now pushed him back into his past, and into his parents’ world. He embarks on a quest that carries him all the way to Algeria, and then further back into his father’s German world and the death camps of the Third Reich in Poland. This was his road to Damascus, he said.
Rachel conquers his fear of Algeria’s ghosts and sets out to visit Aïn Deb and the graves of his parents. “Schiller, what is that … English … Jewish?” the man at the Algerian consulate asks. No, it is Algerian, and they and dozens of their neighbors were massacred on April 25 in Aïn Deb. “Oh, yes, Aïn Deb … You should have said.” He is issued an Algerian passport, after much waiting and pleading. “God, it must be degrading and dangerous to be Algerian full time.” He pushes aside his wife’s objections, and arrives in an Algeria altered by the terror.
A journey deep into the countryside, a dark pilgrimage of three hundred kilometers from Algiers, takes him to the bled, his ancestral village. Sansal is exquisite in his rendering of landscape; in his depiction of the connection between man and his physical setting, he puts one in mind of Cormac McCarthy. It is a solitary landscape, the world of Aïn Deb--“bare, rugged, silent wasteland ringed by infinite horizons…. In mathematical terms, I’d say that by some quantum shift we seem to have entered non-Euclidean space; there are no signs, no landmarks here that a human being can relate to, there is no sense of time, no possible human compassion, nothing but an insistent drone like the echo of some cataclysm from before the flood.” The people who settled here were “clearly trying to hide from the world.” Yet this was where Rachel was born, and had played in childhood enchantment: he carried in his memory a more contented place. The villagers who survived the carnage remember him as Rachid, Sheikh Hassan’s son, and they take him in. The little Arabic he learned in Paris proves useless, but still he tries, in an argot of French, English, German, and the “crumbs of Arabic and Berber” that he remembered.
Rachel returns from Algeria a different man, a man with terrible secrets. He keeps what he learned to himself, and confides only to a diary, which he hides from his wife, and from his younger brother. What happened in Aïn Deb was that Rachel stumbled upon an old suitcase that contained his father’s files, and his trail. There were three medals in the suitcase: the first had the symbols of the Hitler Youth; the second was a medal from the Wehrmacht; the third bore the insignia of the Waffen SS. There were photos of his father as a young man, and then older in a black SS uniform. There were more recent photos from the time he was in the Algerian maquis, the war against the French. In one photo he is standing next to a “tall, bony guy with a haunted look wearing battle dress, smiling like his teeth hurt.” Rachel recognized the bony guy. He was Houari Boumediène, the leader of the Algerian maquis.
In the suitcase there were also newspaper clippings in French, English, and Italian, dispatches about the Nuremberg trials, about Bormann, Göring, Hess, and others captured later, Eichmann, Stangl, Barbie. There were Algerian documents, one of them signed by Colonel Boumediène in 1957, appointing Si Mourad an advisor on logistics and weaponry. A battered little booklet in the suitcase gave Hans Schiller’s history and military record: his birth in 1918 in Uelzen, his education and degree in chemical engineering, his regimental number. Schiller had risen to the rank of captain, and he was a hero, having been wounded “a bunch of times and decorated over and over.”
So the man who had made his way to Aïn Deb, who was good at making things run, the man known as Si Mourad, had been in his earlier years a killer, and worked in places that meant nothing to his neighbors and his children: Dachau, Drancy, Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Majdanek. It would have been the better part of wisdom to leave this history alone, but Rachel peers into the shadows, and he cannot turn back. He goes to Uelzen, where he is jolted by the ordinariness of the place, so unlike the “grief and distress” he had expected. The terrible history he was looking for “had been erased, forgotten, swept under the carpet.” He is on the verge of giving up, but a chance encounter on a park bench throws a floodlight onto the past: an old man remembers good old Hans, he last saw him in June 1941. But the old man has nothing else to offer, except that Hans was called to duty and did his duty. It is all ancient history, the old man says, he was the last of the Uelzen boys from the days of the war. “My family and your family and many other families had died in the bombings.”
Rachel’s diary captures the coming apart of a man’s life under the weight of a terrible knowledge. The marriage to a local beauty, the comfortable house, the career in a multinational: all of it gave way. “My house has crumbled, grief has made me powerless, and I do not know why my father never told me.” He learns at great cost to himself that trying to retrieve the truth about past wars is an infernal enterprise--there is “the silence, the selective amnesia, the half-truths, the carefully rehearsed lines, the pleas by devil’s advocates, speech after speech, the worm-eaten papers.” (Sansal knows whereof he speaks: this describes both the Third Reich and the war that consumed his country.) Rachel talks to his father across time, which was after all the purpose of the hectic travel. He tries to see his father in the “conscientious schoolboy, the fun-loving student, the decent, happy-go-lucky soldier.” Surely he knew nothing of the Final Solution, which was a terrible state secret known only to the “Führer perched in his Eagle’s Nest.” He tries to absolve the young Hans: hadn’t he fallen in with the Hitler Youth in the same way Rachel--or Rachid--had fallen in with the Youth of the FLN back in the village? It was nothing extreme, “just the crackpot rantings of rank amateurs.”
Rachel has his father’s papers, and his own imagination. A vast underground network had aided the Nazi fugitives, and the son stays on the father’s trail. He goes first to Turkey, technically neutral during the world war, but complicit, says the son, in the crimes of the Third Reich. And “they have a genocide of their own, one which is all the more terrible since they have the gall not to admit to it.” But he is his father’s son, and he cannot cast the first stone: there is guilt aplenty. After Turkey, he is off to Syria, and his final destination is Egypt. It is “a journey of thousands of miles underneath an ancient implacable sun.”
Rachel knew Cairo on his own; he used to visit Egyptian clients on behalf of his corporate employers. But this new reckoning with Egypt was different. This was a journey to an Egypt haunted by his father--by Hans arriving there nearly five decades earlier, with his crimes in his suitcase. In Egypt, Hans became a new man. The secret services gave him a position, and the horrors of the death camps were set aside. This was a new land where a hookah and a glass of mint tea were easy to find, and a “belly dancer’s navel is always at eye level.” The Egypt of King Farouk and the Egypt of Nasser made a place for Hans Schiller. The years of the monarchy must have been particularly kind to Hans: he was an educated man, he spoke several languages, he was well-dressed. He charmed the ladies and their powerful patrons.
In Cairo, Rachel slips into his father’s thoughts. But he wants an additional bond with Hans’s horrific past, and he finds it in a picture of his father with some English ladies at the Great Pyramid. Rachel wants a similar picture of himself on the same site. Rachel borrows a pith helmet from a Dutch tourist, and some “old dears,” English ladies on an outing, are happy to oblige, and he poses amidst them. In five minutes he has a picture of himself in his father’s pose on the same ground. And on the back of the new photograph, he writes an inscription: “Helmut Schiller, son of Hans Schiller, Giza, 11 April 1996.” In this way he has become one with his lost father: “Half a century separates the two photographs, that and six million dead gone up in smoke.” His quest has been fulfilled. Rachel returns to Paris, to his big house, and on the second anniversary of his parents’ death he kills himself. When his neighbors find him dead in his garage, he looks as though he is asleep. He had been there all night, in the exhaust fumes. He was wearing these “creepy striped pajamas,” his brother says, and his head was shaved like a convict.
The diary, and the legacy, now pass on to the younger brother, to the young man from the banlieue, with the police record, and without the learning of his older brother. But young Malrich has his own pertinent knowledge: he knows the hell of the new Islamists in France, the squalor and the cynicism of that world.
A self-appointed imam, a kind of kapo of the neighborhood, with his guards and enforcers, offers Malrich a particular sort of solace. “When I heard that your parents had been savagely murdered, it grieved me truly,” he tells him. “I immediately got in touch with our brothers in Algeria who are fighting for Allah, for His religion…. I need to tell you that your parents were murdered by the Algerian government, not by the holy warriors of Allah. It is their way, to kill people and put the blame on us.” But Malrich, known also as Malek, needs no such comfort or encouragement. “Tell me, imam,” he replies, “if you had power over the earth, where would you begin the genocide?”
The imam squirms, and then tries to bully Malrich: a bunch of thugs is waiting outside, and Malrich had been body-searched and brought in for this talk “like a prisoner of war.” But Malrich persists. He wants to know about the fate that would befall those who reject Allah’s rule. The imam says that it is for Allah to decide: “He shall tell us what we should do and how we should do it.” But Malrich is beyond religious intimidation: he already knows how the heretics and the infidels will be dealt with. “The way I see it, you round the kaffirs all up into camps surrounded by electric fences, you gas all the useless ones straight off, the rest of them, you divide into groups based on their skills and their gender, and you work them till they drop dead. Anyone who disobeys, you gas them. What do you think?” The imam of the banlieue tells Malrich that he is “dreaming” and asking for trouble; but the younger Schiller brother does not scare. “You don’t get the point, imam, killing six million infidels isn’t burning some girl like Nadia, or slitting the throats of forty villagers in Aïn Deb. Half-assed methods just won’t work, it takes productivity. When you’ve worked it out, let me know, I’ll drop by. Salam.” Malrich was ready for anything the imam and the emir and their followers could throw at him. He was ready for battle with the imam and the emir and their followers, and he was ready to tell the jihadists about his father, and to lend them his brother’s books.
In Sansal’s unforgettable portrait of this malevolent figure, the totalitarianism of the first half of the twentieth century speaks to, and finds an echo in, a new totalitarianism. Its insistence upon this echo is one of the novel’s most significant contributions to our understanding. After all, the Islamists did not descend from the sky. They were radical children of the faith, literalists in the way they read the scripture, angry men committed to forcing history’s pace. They were convinced that the society around them had abandoned and betrayed the true faith. And in their attitude toward the Jews, in the way they dealt with the Zionist project in Palestine, and in the manner in which they came to read the Holocaust, the Islamists worked their will on older and “traditional” forms of prejudice, and forged a new and very lethal version of anti-Semitism.
As the Oxford scholar Ronald Nettler ably demonstrated years ago, it was Sayyid Qutb, the Lenin of the Islamists and their most relentless theorist, who made the intellectual breakthrough from the old biases and stereotypes of the Jews as a tolerated but vulnerable community in Islamic lands to the new view of the Jews as a deadly menace to God’s people. Qutb accomplished this in a canonical document of the early 1950s called “Our Struggle with the Jews.” No doubt he was aided in this ideological work by the panic, and the surprise, that had overwhelmed the Arabs after the defeat of their armies in the war of 1948. Military defeats were common in Arab history, but this one was different: it was at the hands of a people not exactly famous for their martial traditions. In truth, the Arabs did not know the Zionists who had prevailed in that test of arms, they knew only the Jews in their midst, the people of harat al yahud, the Jewish Quarter, in Beirut and Fez and Baghdad and Damascus. Qutb was speaking to this panic; and he bequeathed this new malignancy to the Islamists who gloried in his teachings, and in his martyrdom at the hands of the secular autocracy of Nasser in 1966.
Qutb’s “children” were to produce a worldview of the Jew cut to their own needs. The Jews became an apocalyptic myth and a vast threat to Allah’s community. In Nettler’s words, “All these ancient Islamic notions were here applied to the contemporary horror of Jewish statehood, in the context of Islam’s general failings in the modern world. The result was a massive new literature of obloquy, pain and rage, completely derived from the most ancient Islamic sources, made modern by appropriate commentary, and supplemented by felicitous borrowing from such classical Western anti-Semitic philosophies as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”
The jihadists who wrote off mainstream Muslims as apostates and strangers to Islam had no trouble formulating a virulent anti-Semitism. As they alternately winked at and denied the Nazi atrocities, they could partake of the Nazi inheritance--it was there for them, in Islamic lands, and also among the gangs of the banlieue, with their imams and emirs and storefront mosques. Young Malrich had drawn the essential distinction: the old totalitarianism had technology and industrial power at its disposal, whereas the new one had only the limited means of its adherents with which to keep the animus alive.
In this astonishing--and in contemporary Arab literature, perhaps unprecedented--mingling of old and new totalitarianisms, this skillfully drawn analogy between Islamic fascism and Nazi fascism, The German Mujahid is a genuinely brave book. It goes against the grain of the writer’s own culture, and tears down its taboos. And it is not the first evidence of Sansal’s valiant dissent. Two years earlier, he had given his country the gift of a powerful polemic--a brief tract, a letter to his compatriots, called Poste Restante: Alger. More directly than in his novel, this brief polemic explains why the matter of the Holocaust is taken up in so frontal a manner.
For Sansal, the matter of Algeria’s identity is the essential point of departure. Arabs claimed Algeria in the 1950s when it erupted against French rule. I still recall, in the Beirut of my boyhood, in the mashreq, or the Arab East, the agitation and the exhilaration that greeted Algeria’s war of liberation. We did not know much about North Africa--France had effectively severed it from the culture of the Arab East--and the impressions of North Africa in my native Lebanon consisted in memories of the French colonial troops, Senegalese and Moroccans, who had carried out the orders of the French mandatory power and put down local rebellions. They left no goodwill behind them, the Moroccans: their Arabic was odd and incomprehensible, and they were obedient to their French masters. But Algeria was a case apart. On the eve of its eruption in 1954, the French settlers were one-tenth of the population, but France had implanted its vineyards, its language, and its customs on that North African soil. The anti-colonial war, as Sansal brilliantly remarks, was waged in French, and the proclamation of the great revolt against France was issued in language that the French Academy itself would have praised.
Algeria had been a long time in France’s grip--132 years, to be exact. So it was willful for the Egyptians and the Syrians and the Lebanese to assert the Arabism of Algeria. It was a grand historical falsification, says Sansal, for the nomenklatura to proclaim that Arab identity. For Sansal, his “big and beautiful” country, at the heart of the world, cannot possibly be Arab. For a start, Berbers (Kabyle, Mozabites, Touareg, Chaoui) make up 80 percent of its population, and a bare 16 to 18 percent are Arabs, and there are also the small communities from Algeria’s rich and mottled past--Jews, pied-noirs, Turks, Africans. Sansal is unwilling to trade his country’s true history for a fake Arab myth. A thousand peoples, he says, have lived in Algeria, bequeathing it a multiplicity of languages and loyalties. It has taken in the heritage of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The Numidians, the Jews, the Carthaginians, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Arabs, the Ottomans, the French have all played their role in shaping the true character of the place.
Arabic may be the official language of Algeria, Sansal writes, but the Algerians do not know classical Arabic. The Arabic of the books, and the Arabic of official pronouncements, is alien to them--both reflecting and deepening the impasse between ruler and ruled. Modern Standard Arabic to the Algerians is what Latin was in the High Middle Ages in European life. Berbers speak and savor their own language, while ordinary Algerians speak the colloquial language of their daily life. And there is French--French is our war booty, as a celebrated Algerian adage poignantly said--the language of high administration and intellectual life. The self-appointed guardians of the temple, Sansal says, have offered up this myth of Arabism--but “the world is the world,” and the myths of the rulers, the legend of the war of liberation, have all been shattered.
It is within its own frontiers, Sansal insists, and working with the true material of its history, that Algeria can dig its way out of the slaughter and the waste. It would be false and ridiculous for an Algerian to say “our ancestors, the Gauls,” but no more false and ridiculous, Sansal declares, than speaking of “our ancestors, the Arabs.” Algeria’s history was not written by “free men,” and it was time for Algerians to name and to honor their own world. A Nazi had made his way to the bled, the commanders and their death squads (who were known among the terrified population as the Ninjas) had plundered and raped, the emirs and their warriors of the faith had tortured and murdered: the whole unedifying truth must be acknowledged if it is to be exorcised. Amnesty and amnesia have their saving graces, but so does an honest rendition of the actual saga of Algeria.
When I read Sansal, I recall another Algerian writer. Long before the Ninjas and the Tangos and the slaughter, a native son of the Algerian soil looked into the future and, with remarkable prescience, foresaw its ordeal. “Tomorrow Algeria will be a land of ruins and corpses, that no force, no power in the world, will be able to restore in our century,” Camus wrote in 1955, when the war of liberation was one year old. “I am very anguished by the events in Algeria, a country that is stuck in my craw to the point where I can think of nothing else.” By the evidence of things, and of The First Man, the heartbreaking autobiographical novel published posthumously, Algeria was Camus’s North Star as well. He could not, or would not, say much about it--and the French left, as we know, had written him off as the “little white,” the pied-noir who favored his mother’s cause in Algeria over the abstract claim of justice. There was a “French fact” in Algeria, and Camus honored it, and there were the claims of the Algerians, and he honored those as well. He could hardly disown his own community. In The First Man, he gave stirring voice to his fidelity to his own: “Whole mobs had been coming here for more than a century, had plowed, dug furrows, deeper in some places, shakier and shakier in others, until the dusty earth covered them over and the place went back to its wild vegetation; and they had procreated and then disappeared. And so it was with their sons. And the sons and grandsons of these found themselves on this land, as he himself had, with no past, without ethics, without guidance, without religion, but glad to be so and to be in the light, fearful in the face of night and death.”
In language that foreshadows Sansal, Camus observed that “men are abominable, especially under a ferocious sun.” After two savage wars, the silence of Camus in the face of the first cycle of terrors has been justified and ennobled. More importantly for the legacy of this special son of Algiers, more and more Algerians now recognize Camus as one of their own, ibn balad, a son of the land. “Camus is an Algerian writer,” Mohammed Dib, one of Algeria’s best writers, said. Algerians honor him, he said, because they, too, “know the heartbreak that comes from living upside down.” And across a long, tormented history, Camus would recognize his themes in Boualem Sansal, and their shared love of the land, and their panic and dread before its terrible beauty and its ferocious sun.
Fouad Ajami is a professor at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is the author, most recently, of The Foreigner’s Gift: The Americans, the Arabs and the Iraqis in Iraq (Free Press).