Shaking the status quo on women and Jews in Algeria

A number of Algerian writers and journalists are creating a stir both at home and abroad by taking on some of the most controversial subjects of our age, such as Islam and the position of Jews and women. It is an example to the whole Arab world

Kamel Daoud
Emily Boulter
On 10 July 2016 11:46

In Algeria, journalists and writers have to pick their words carefully as recent history shows that criticism in this country often leads to serious repercussions.

During the 1990s, the government censored and imprisoned writers for questioning the state´s handling of internal affairs, and many were charged with endangering state security.

By the mid-1990s, Algeria was considered to be the world´s most dangerous country to be a journalist, with many wondering if they would make it home each evening in one piece. Many were killed in brutal circumstances, while others dealt with constant harassment.

Although the country is no longer in the grips of an internecine conflict, it still remains a place where critical words are not appreciated in many circles. Nevertheless, writers have emerged in Algeria who are throwing caution to the wind and have been unafraid to express their views whether it concerns government corruption, social instability or the threat of radical Islam.

The most well-known is Kamel Daoud, who received considerable attention for the 2014 novel The Meursault Investigation, for which he received the prestigious French literary prize, the Prix Goncourt.

The book is a retelling of Albert Camus' classic´ The Outsider from the perspective of the brother of “the Arab” killed by the character Mersault. The book is laced with criticism about the state of modern Algeria, the role of Islam and the legacy of French colonialism.

Daoud was at the time editor-in-chief of the periodical the Le Quotidien d'Oran, in which he wrote a popular column called “Raina Raikoum” (“My Opinion, Your Opinion”.

Yet, earlier this year in response to the attacks against women in Cologne during New Year celebrations, Daoud triggered a firestorm when he expressed in Le Monde that there is a disconnect in the values many migrants have towards women: “In the West, the refugee or immigrant is able save his skin, but will not negotiate his culture as easily”.

He described that in relation to women and desire, the Arab Muslim world exists in “sexual misery”.

His candour generated a furious response, with many accusing him of lending succour to Islamophobic opinions. However, he was combative in his response telling his detractors that they do not have the right to speak in his place about his points of view.

Yet, as a result of the furore, he said that he was abandoning his journalistic activities to focus on his literary pursuits. Nevertheless, Daoud has numerous supporters, including high profile figures such as French Prime Minister Manuel Valls who praised him as a “courageous and rebellious intellectual”.

One of Daoud´s staunchest supporters is fellow writer Boualem Sansal who has long been considered among Algeria´s most controversial writers. Some articles have described him as ´Algeria´s Voltaire´ or the ´the writer that Algeria loves to hate´.

He regularly receives threats for his outspoken views concerning the Algerian government and Islamism. In 2003, he was dismissed from his job in Algeria's Ministry of Industry because of his political opinions.

In his most recent novel 2084, which came out last year, he is unambiguous in his views towards the role of Islam in society. The novel is about a totalitarian world where everyone is expected to show devotion by praying nine times a day to a deity called Yölah. Personal thoughts are forbidden and a rigid system of surveillance reigns in an empire called Abistan.

What makes Sansal especially unique in the Arab world was his decision to acknowledge the legacy of the Holocaust in his 2009 novel The German Mudjahid. It tells the tale of two brothers, born in Algeria to a German father and an Algerian mother, who later have to confront the news that their father was an SS officer.

Yet within Algeria itself, Sansal is not alone in questioning problems such as anti-Semitism. In 2014, following the announcement that Algeria was to have a new education minister (news that usually elicits a passing nod), many Algerians took to social media to express their discontent, since the minister in question Nouria Benghabrit-Remaoun was suspected of being of Jewish origin.

But on this occasion, the editor-in-chief of the news website Algerie-Focus, Abdou Semmar responded in an editorial by asking readers: “What is the problem?” “Whether Jewish or not, Nouria Benghebrit has as much right as any other Algerian citizen of respect”, he notes.

He also went further to decry what he called “the stupidity of the public debate in Algeria”.

To assess what motivates some in Algeria´s intellectual elite to take bold stances, one should remember that Algeria is a country that has seen more political turmoil than most. Its independence was granted after a bloody conflict and its one attempt to experiment with multi-party democracy at the start of the 1990s led to a brutal civil war that pitted the government against Islamist forces, with civilians bearing the brunt.

Algeria never had its own Arab spring in 2011, since for many it appeared a futile exercise. With such disenchantment, it is not surprising that some individuals are seeking what means still exist to explore new ideas about their country and its position in the world.

While writers such as Daoud and Sansal have been accused of selling out by focusing on subjects which play well to a European audience; they have chosen to be defiant.

Both refuse to publish under pseudonyms and, despite the potential dangers, both continue to live in their homeland. As Daoud notes: 

“I am Algerian, I live in Algeria, and I don´t accept that someone can think for me, in my name”.

Emily Boulter is a writer based in the Netherlands. She is the creator of the current affairs blog, “From Brussels to Beirut”

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