North Africa feels Europe’s pull

ORAN, Algeria — The French-speaking North African countries are technically part of the Arab world. The political rhetoric from the Arab East has its audience here and al-Jazeera television is omnipresent.

Appearance is, however, deceptive. North Africa is separated from Europe merely by the breadth of the Mediterranean, and the pull of Europe felt here is far greater than that of the Gulf.

I am in Oran, whose most famous citizen was Albert Camus, the French-Algerian Jew.

I have been drawn to Oran by Camus’s memory and to visit the home of a much-loved Algerian, Sufi Sheikh.

In Oran, Camus found refuge during the Second World War. It was the setting for two of his novels, L’Etranger (The Outsider) and La Peste (The Plague) that made him a literary star in the firmament of French letters.

Camus is a touchy subject here. He is part of the repressed memory of Algerians. But once one goes past grievances and the praise for Jean-Paul Sartre, who supported Algeria’s war of independence, the respect, if not pride, for Camus is sincere.

This is my second visit to North Africa. I have learned from my travels, especially in Muslim countries, that one must listen carefully. It also helps if the people are warmly embracing, and as a Canadian Muslim of Indian origin I am readily embraced.


References to Camus pry open tensions beneath the surface of Algerian politics. People have bitter memories of sufferings during their liberation war against France and stand proud of their independence.

Yet with a little prodding, recrimination against their own failed politics of duplicity and waste pours forth. Sitting with people of different ages I hear the lament that will not be reported on al-Jazeera, and will not be reflected in opinion polls by which the West seemingly learns about the Muslim world.

North Africa’s population is young, the bulk is under 30. The political restlessness here is more a symptom of anger against corruption than any attraction for political Islam exported from the Arab East.

Algeria, for instance, is yet to recover from the violence of Islamists in the 1990s. The surface appearance of political Islam’s influence by the sight of bearded men and women with scarves is deceptive when one listens to Algerians speak freely.

I ask about Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s president, and his outspoken views on political Islam. I am not surprised when I hear some people without any prompting utter “Viva la France.”

There are some seven million Algerians in Europe, most in France, and many more wish to head West. It seems North Africans are voting with their feet, and it is not for political Islam.

A window

The quandary of North Africans is a window into the Muslim world. I am limited by space here to unravel it.

But one among many questions posed to me stands out as if it is a rebuke.

Many here are bewildered about why Canada and the West entertain any political demand of Islamists instead of expelling them.

The message to the West from Oran is remain assertively uncompromising on essentials of freedom, secularism and democracy. The West’s vacillation over its own values is unhelpful to those elsewhere seeking the same.

6 thoughts on “Algeria”

  1. The Jews, the Jews!

    If the soldiers of allah didn’t have the Jews to blame they would have to invent them:

    Algeria: Interior minister blames “Zionists” for calls for protests

    Exactly how would Israel benefit from yet another regime in the region being replaced by an even more hostile one? That’s the handy thing about conspiracy theories, of course: they do not have to make sense, and even evidence against the conspiracy is somehow evidence of the conspiracy’s existence.

    “Algeria links uprising call to Camp David peace accords,” from Middle East Online, September 15 (thanks to Twostellas):

    ALGIERS – Foreign parties linked to Zionists are behind an online campaign urging Algerians to stage anti-government protests this weekend, Algeria’s interior minister told local media Thursday.
    Since late August, a call for an “Algerian revolution on September 17, 2011” has circulated on Facebook encouraging young people to flood the streets in opposition to President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s regime.
    “Had it been people inside (the country), we would have exposed and arrested them, but the clues point us toward foreign parties in relation with the Zionist entity,” Interior Minister Dahou Ould Kablia told the Ennahar daily newspaper.
    The “proof”:

    The “proof”, according to Ould Kablia, is that date chosen for the uprising is the anniversary of the Camp David peace accords, signed by Egypt and Israel on September 17, 1978.
    The minister further noted that the massacres of Palestinian refugees carried out by an Israeli-allied Christian militia at Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon happened on the 16th and 17th of September, 1982.
    “The choice of September 17 is no accident for the enemies of the Arab people,” Ould Kablia told the paper.
    “The calls are failing to elicit any response and there won’t be any demonstrations or any trouble on this date,” he said.
    Protests in Algeria, inspired by uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, intensified at the start of the year, but were effectively suppressed by the government.
    Since then scores of political and social movements have emerged across the country, prompting Bouteflika to create a presidential panel that is currently weighing reforms.
    Since the holy fasting month of Ramadan ended in August, riots broke out over insufficient housing.

  2. Yesterday it was Lebanon. Today its Algeria that wants to remove the last Muslim corrupting liquor shops:

    Last call in Algeria: Islamic supremacists demand shutdown of bars, say “alcohol is perverting our youth and destroying our religious morals”

    As always, the Islamic supremacists aren’t just talking. “A bistro in the Ruisseau neighborhood of greater Algiers barely escaped an arson attack by a group of men after evening prayers.”

    “2 Algerian Islamists call for bars to close, saying drinking perverts youth,” by Aomar Ouali for the Associated Press, October 5

  3. Algeria: Misunderstanders of Islam ransack church, dismantle crucifix

    Islamic law forbids Christians to display the cross openly. “Church Ransacked In Eastern Algeria,” by Youssef at Maghreb Christians, February 14:

    International Christian Concern (ICC) has learned that armed men raided a church in Ouargla, Algeria on Wednesday tearing down the gate to the church’s compound and damaging the iron crucifix on the church’s roof.
    The Protestant Church of Ouargla in eastern Algeria was vandalized by an unknown number of armed men late Wednesday evening, the Protestant Church of Algeria (EPA) told ICC. After breaking through the gate, the church was ransacked and the crucifix rising high above the premises was dismantled.

    “We heard noises on the terrace, but we could not get out because the threat was real. They could kill us,” said Pastor Mourad, who was inside the building with his wife and children, according to a statement released by the EPA. Afraid to leave the church compound on Wednesday night, Pastor Mourad reported the incident to the local police the next morning.

    The Church of Ouargla is the only church in the region and has been recognized by the government since its establishment in 1958. Mourad has been repeatedly threatened and attacked since being ordained as pastor in 2007. In the summer of 2009 his wife was beaten and seriously injured by a group of unknown men. Then, in late 2011, heaps of trash were thrown over the compound walls while an angry mob shouted death threats at Pastor Mourad.

    Aidan Clay, ICC Regional Manager for the Middle East, said, “Whether under the harsh laws imposed on Christians by the government or at the hands of angry mobs, Christians and their places of worship continue to be discriminated against or outright attacked in Algeria. We urge officials in the Ouargla province of Algeria to conduct an immediate investigation and arrest those responsible.”

  4. February 24, 2011
    Between Heaven and Earth

    By A. O. SCOTT

    In the 1990s, Algeria was gripped by a gruesome, protracted civil war between the government — which declared martial law after annulling elections it appeared to have lost — and a ruthless Islamist insurgency.

    The country foundered in a state of terror, with beheadings, throat-slashings and large-scale massacres an almost daily feature of life. These grim circumstances provide the setting for “Of Gods and Men,” a beautiful, somber and rigorously intelligent new film by the French director Xavier Beauvois.

    Though it takes place in the recent past, “Of Gods and Men” has an unmistakably timely resonance, evoking as it does both the messy wars on terror and the rebellions currently convulsing North Africa and the Middle East. And yet while it takes pains to be historically authentic, the film, closely based on the true story of a group of French Cistercian Trappist monks caught up (and ultimately killed) in the violence, also keeps an eye on less worldly, temporal concerns.

    Courses on religion in cinema are a staple of the film studies curriculum, but movies that try to illuminate religious experience from within constitute a tiny and exalted tradition, in which Mr. Beauvois’s story of faith under duress clearly belongs. Its more-or-less recent peers include movies as diverse as Carlos Reygadas’s “Silent Light,” from Mexico, Philip Gröning’s sublime documentary “Into Great Silence,” Bruno Dumont’s “Hadewijch” and “The Apostle,” Robert Duvall’s acute and sympathetic study of the glorious contradictions of American Evangelical Christianity.

    The eight monks in “Of Gods and Men” belong to a quieter tradition than Mr. Duvall’s spirit-stung preacher, devoting themselves to contemplation, service and humility. Their conversation is quiet, minimal and gentle, making the occasional spark of anger or glimmer of humor all the more notable. Ranging from sturdy middle age to elfin decrepitude, the monks spend their days tending bees, growing food and praying.

    But they are nonetheless very much a part of everyday life in the village in the Atlas Mountains where their abbey has stood since the mid-19th century. They sell their honey in the local market and participate in rituals and celebrations with their Muslim neighbors.

    One of them, Brother Luc (Michael Lonsdale), almost single-handedly runs a medical clinic, dispensing advice and hand-me-down shoes along with prescriptions.

    Simplicity and charity may be central aspects of their mission, but the monks’ presence, as European Christians in a land of Arab Muslims, is part of a complicated political legacy, fraught with resentment and bad memories. France’s colonization of Algeria and the brutal war of independence that ended it cast their shadow over the monastery, and while the monks are not overtly trying to expiate the sins of colonialism, they are surely committed to healing its wounds.

    The prior, Christian (Lambert Wilson), spends nearly as much time with the Koran as with the Bible, and he regards himself as neither an interloper nor a native but rather as a sincere and dedicated friend of Algeria. Though it is not mentioned in the film, the actual Brother Christian, who came from a distinguished military family, served in the French Army during the Algerian War. His decision to stay in that country after taking his monastic vows represented a stubborn and passionate belief in the possibility of reconciliation. (A richly detailed and moving account of his life and the fate of his abbey can be found in “The Monks of Tibhirine,” a 2002 book by John Kiser.) Mr. Wilson’s Christian, with a hint of steeliness beneath his calm demeanor, holds onto that belief as circumstances become more and more dangerous.

    A group of Croatian highway workers are slaughtered in broad daylight, in keeping with the militants’ drive to rid Algeria of foreigners and other infidels. News reaches the abbey of other killings, and the local civil and military authorities try to persuade Christian to abandon the abbey. Several of the other monks are tempted to leave, and some of the most dramatic scenes in the movie show them debating the merits of various courses of action. Christian is scolded for asserting his authority without honoring the order’s communitarian ethic, and what seems like a beside-the-point procedural debate touches on the film’s deepest spiritual and ethical concerns.

    The monks are clearly risking their lives — as nocturnal visits from armed militants make clear — but martyrdom is not part of the Cistercian creed. What motivates Christian and the others is rather an almost fanatical humanism, strict adherence to an idea of compassion that leads Luc to treat a wounded jihadist and Christian to pray for the soul of a murderer and to pre-emptively forgive his own likely assassins.

    Mr. Beauvois, an actor who has directed and written a handful of features, is clearly fascinated by the radicalism of the monks, an expression of religious zeal whose extremism lies in its insistence on preserving peace and dignity in all circumstances. But though his sympathy for the Trappists is evident, the film does not treat them as saints, or as mouthpieces for any particular theology. Rather, “Of Gods and Men” works to balance the two terms of its title and treats the relationship between them as a grave and complex mystery.

    The theme may be piety, but Mr. Beauvois and his cast do not address it piously. “Of Gods and Men” is supple and suspenseful, appropriately austere without being overly harsh, and without forgoing the customary pleasures of cinema. The performances are strong, the narrative gathers momentum as it progresses, and the camera is alive to the beauty of the Algerian countryside. (The film, a big hit in France last year, was that country’s submission for the foreign-language Academy Award, though it was not among the five nominees.)

    In place of a traditional soundtrack, most of the film’s music comes from the monks’ chanted prayers and the cries of the muezzins at nearby mosques. The notable exception — the only time recorded, secular music is heard — comes during a meal, when the residents of the abbey sit and listen to a famous passage from Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” and lose themselves as completely in aesthetic reverie as they otherwise do in religious devotion.

    The identical music figures, coincidentally enough, in “Black Swan,” a movie so utterly different from “Of Gods and Men” that they barely seem to belong to the same medium. In “Black Swan,” Tchaikovsky delivers the extravagant melodrama that is the film’s entire reason for being, whereas here his lush, emotive orchestration emphasizes the utter absence of such wanton emotionalism. And yet it also serves as a reminder that even in wartime, and even in lives governed by restraint and self-denial, there is an essential need for beauty, feeling and art.

    “Of Gods and Men” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). It has some bloody, violent scenes.

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