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Mokhtar Mokhtefi’s Literature of Refusal

The recently published memoir of Algerian revolutionary Mokhtar Mokhtefi, I Was A French Muslim, powerfully portrays a life spent in the struggle against French imperialism and for the unlocking of all human potential.

Painting by Elaine Mokhtefi

In her 94 years, Elaine Mokhtefi has lived several lives. Born Elaine Klein in New York, just months before the stock market crash of 1929, she was expelled from university for refusing to obey segregation on public transport. After becoming the student leader of an international movement for world federalism, she was expelled for being too left-wing, exiting the claustrophobic environs of post-war America for Paris, where she sought a more egalitarian life. But witnessing the forcible exclusion of Algerians by local authorities from the 1952 May Day parade provoked doubt. ‘They seemed to be very young, rather simply dressed, marching 12 abreast with their arms extended, running along the avenue, and seemed to me to be never ending,’ she remembers. ‘This,’ she tells Tribune, ‘was my first realisation there was a problem.’

After a string of jobs with international organisations, Elaine was employed to organise the 1960 World Association of Youth congress in Accra. In Kwame Nkrumah’s Ghana, she befriended its first free Algerian ambassador, Frantz Fanon, and three quiet Algerian comrades. She later learnt they had left Ghana for northern Mali, where they had considered opening a southern front in the revolution that had raged since the National Liberation Front (FLN)’s uprising on 1 November 1954. But in Accra, they chased delegates and passed a resolution against French imperialism and for Algerian independence — leading the French national youth council to withdraw from the organisation. ‘My perception of Fanon was that he was wonderful,’ she remembers. ‘A politician, that’s true — but he was always interesting. Anybody he met, he judged immediately.’

Returning to New York, Elaine worked for the local bureau of the Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic, where her job was mostly to lobby United Nations delegates to support Algerian independence — a task that was complex and difficult. ‘I mean, [Charles] De Gaulle let go of 20 French colonies to maintain Algeria within his realm … it was not easy.’ Following the revolution’s victory in 1962, Elaine worked as a fixer in Algiers, assisting revolutionaries in Vietnam, South Africa, and Mozambique and aiding exiled Black Panthers. She appeared in Gillo Pontecorvo’s seminal The Battle of Algiers, attending a French press interrogation of the captured revolutionary Larbi Ben M’Hidi (‘This never happened in reality,’ she is quick to add. ‘In reality, French soldiers hanged him in a farm. The rope broke, so they put a new rope on him. Then, they took him to a hospital and told the doctors he had hanged himself.’)

But one meeting in 1972 defined her life profoundly. At a comrade’s house over dinner, Elaine met Mokhtar Mokhtefi — a veteran of the underground movement and the armed struggle, who she had heard being praised by her friends for a long time. After this chance meeting, she recalls, ‘He called me a few days later, we started to date, and that was it.’ Within a few years, Elaine was expelled from Algeria for refusing to become an informant, and they left together for Paris and New York, where Mokhtar died in 2015 and Elaine now lives. As a result of Elaine’s efforts, Mokhtar Mokhtefi’s posthumously published memoir, I Was a French Muslim, is now available in English.

In this piercing work prefaced by Elaine, Mokhtefi casts an unusual and rare light over the first decades of an Algerian revolutionary’s life. Beginning in Berrouaghia, a town south of Algiers, Mokhtefi portrays his life as the youngest child in a butcher’s family. Though the charms of rural Algerian life are carefully woven into his narrative, history is never too far away. From an early age, he is getting involved in slanging matches with British soldiers temporarily stationed near to the village, learning French songs in anticipation of Nazi defeat, and listening to the grown-ups, who seem to be far more interested in discussing the advance of the Red Army.

But if wartime has Mokhtar singing songs of liberty, the peace won in Europe on 8 May 1945 sees the massacre of thousands of Algerians on the same day. Soon, his beloved older brother Mohamed is jailed for belonging to an anti-colonialist organisation, though this does not stop teachers from noting Mokhtar’s intellectual talents and arranging for him to sit the exams to enter a French lycée. He enters on a scholarship to this elite institution, one of the few Algerian boys to do so. Soon, he feels a growing cultural estrangement from his compatriots, of whom less than 14 percent are literate. Mixing with settlers’ children, he tries to bond over the shared knowledge of land occupied by the colonial elite, eliding the fact that while his schoolfriends’ families sit in the mansions, his family live in the ‘hamlet of adobe houses’ reserved for those who work the land. ‘I go from discovery to discovery,’ he says of the poverty completely unfamiliar to his fellow pupils. ‘For the first time, I use what is called a urinal.’

Residing in this privileged institution as a ‘French Muslim’ — as is mentioned on his identification papers — Mokhtefi occupies a unique role. Despondently writing of the ‘eroding’ nature of the French school system on his habits and beliefs, he also remembers things worth discovering. He falls in love with the writings of Bergson, the Enlightenment thinkers, and the great French novelists, writing in his diary excitedly: ‘I want to be Victor Hugo.’ But he is far from unaware of the growing struggles back home. His brother Mohamed, now serving as an elected nationalist councillor, faces regular humiliation at the hands of the authorities and collaborationist Algerians, who denounce him and his comrades as ‘enraged young men who want to chase the French Army out of Algeria with slingshots’. To be sure, Mohamed himself would soon become instrumental in building armed revolt against the French. But Mokhtar movingly mentions the movement’s ability to create cultural opportunity for those long denied such avenues by the colonial elite, with nationalists organising ground-breaking Arabic-language plays, establishing cinemas specialising in Arab films, and setting up local football teams that play in green and white.

Throughout this period, nationalist confidence grows. But despite this, the FLN’s declaration of revolution in November 1954 comes as a shock to many. Soon, Mokhtar’s schoolmate invites him to help organise a national student association locally to spread revolutionary consciousness among the youth. ‘Our comrades ignore their responsibility towards the Algerian people,’ one young idealist tells another. ‘Our associations can become the springboards of their awakening.’ Returning to school to organise a branch that can lecture about culture and social issues, Mokhtar becomes a voracious reader of the underground revolutionary press in the sanctity of the school toilets, eager to play his role in the liberation of his country. After a brief graduation period where he holidays in France with friends (meeting a Yugoslav Muslim surgeon attempting to travel to Algeria to aid the FLN), he returns to Berrouaghia. There, he finds, the people have been changed by the uprising. People are now discussing guerrilla actions and politics, the once hesitant are now deeply enthusiastic about the struggle, and many who have never met an FLN maquisard are discussing their heroism in ways that ‘combine irrational reasoning with divine intervention’.

Mokhtar is not untouched by this revolutionary mood. Soon, he is collecting money for the FLN. His organising skills are being picked up on, and the trade unionist Mohamed Drareni asks for his help in organising an Algerian education workers’ union. Meeting a comrade returning from the guerrilla war in the mountains and wearing obvious ‘partisan boots’ in public, he attempts to warn him, only to be rebuffed: ‘I’ve seen the Algerian flag floating over free territory. These army boots I’m wearing carry traces of freedom’s soil.’ The FLN’s rule that people may only join the maquis if they are being hunted by police or have military experience soon no longer applies to Mokhtar; ahead of a general strike called by the FLN, the police have found his name on a list, and many trade union figures and nationalist activists have already been arrested. Under the alibi of visiting a childhood friend, he tells his mother he is leaving for Morocco, where he joins the FLN’s armed wing, the ALN.

Under his revolutionary pseudonym Amara (taken in honour of a comrade he discovered had been killed after he saw a crumpled newspaper carrying his photograph), Mokhtar begins specialist training in the signal corps, where he is taught decoding and transmitting work. Practising the morse code with his knife and fork over dinner, he describes the volunteers. Here, there are the peasants, teachers, young women, communists, disillusioned criminals, and reformed colonial policemen who hesitantly reference their pasts before reminding each other they must refrain from discussing further. These are the people who have built a small, committed struggle into a peoples’ movement spanning several countries and thousands of miles — the future country that Mokhtar has great faith in. Less could be said of many of its military leaders, who Mokhtar dismisses as a petty, mean-spirited clique. In a matter of time, he finds himself clashing with the more arrogant and ignorant of these elements, evading serious consequences with luck alone.

Meanwhile, the war continues to take its toll. Moving through the borders of Algeria, Libya, and Morocco, Mokhtar sees the extent of the damage in physical and human terms. At one point, he accidentally discovers that his orders to aid an FLN combat zone are annulled without him being informed; the maquis base has been destroyed. All the while, he rages against the lack of international support for their cause, and shows his anger at the French labour movement and its intellectuals. ‘What are the “possessors of knowledge” waiting for to denounce loud and strong these crimes against mankind’s conscience and their universal principles?’ he asks. ‘Where is past proletarian solidarity, what has become of the values of the Enlightenment?’ It is perhaps for this reason that Mokhtar also grants significant space in his narrative to the actions of non-Algerians who have aided the cause, such as the French doctor and FLN recruit Pierre Chaulet and the former anti-Nazi resistance fighter Annette Roger. Indeed, if the resistants from the Second World War saw their own youthful dreams reflected in the Algerian partisans, the feeling was often ironically mutual: to test the strength of transmitters Mokhtefi’s corps would play the Chant des Partisans, which would become the Voice of Fighting Algeria, the national liberation radio station.

When the Algerian people humiliated the French government for the last time and gained independence in 1962, Mokhtefi was already jaded about the quality of the movement’s leadership. Using his education to join government planning departments, his radical ideas about redistributing the land ended up clashing with those of Abdelhafid Boussouf, his former comrade, and other colleagues, who warned him to keep his ‘Marxist ideas’ to himself. And as Ben Bella — the first president, who had faced imprisonment with Mokhtar’s brother Mohamed — was overthrown by his erstwhile comrade Boumedienne, Mokhtar became incredibly despondent about the direction the fledgling state was taking. ‘By the time I met him he was already very disillusioned,’ Elaine remembers. ‘He didn’t have any respect for the military. He knew them all well; he saw it in operation.’ For Mokhtar, it was the people that made the revolution, and it was they who should have been controlling it and receiving its fruit; in Elaine’s words, it ‘must have killed him’ to see the reverse happening and to see the power being concentrated in the hands of military and security figures.

Though Mokhtar left Algeria, the country didn’t leave him. Residing in his later years in New York, he keenly kept abreast of events through visiting Algerians (Elaine recalls a meeting with the novelist Ammara Lakhous, where he put his arms around both Ammara and herself and declared, ‘Algeria will remain from our heads to our feet forever’). ‘The country was the love of his life,’ Elaine tells Tribune. ‘He couldn’t bear it being endangered in such a way, to see it manipulated and degraded.’