“I was a French Muslim: Memories of an Algerian Freedom Fighter”

23 May, 2021

I was a French Mus­lim, Mem­o­ries of an Alger­ian Free­dom Fight­er, by Mokhtar Mokhte­fi
Trans­lat­ed by Elaine Mokhte­fi
Oth­er Press (Sept. 2021)
ISBN 9781635421811)

Mischa Geracoulis


Published by  Other Press , Sept. 2021

Pub­lished by Oth­er Press, Sept. 2021

From 1830, Alge­ria was France’s longest held colony. By the begin­ning of the Alger­ian upris­ing, near­ly 125 years lat­er, more than one mil­lion Euro­pean set­tlers, rough­ly four gen­er­a­tions, had called Alge­ria home. It had become such a pop­u­lar des­ti­na­tion for Euro­peans that for the French to give it up was unthink­able; unthink­able to the point of dis­mis­sive­ness when Alger­ian griev­ances and aggres­sions start­ed to surface. 

Coin­cid­ing with the end of WWII, anti-colo­nial sen­ti­ment was brew­ing in Alge­ria and around the world. Alge­ri­a’s Nation­al Lib­er­a­tion Front grew from a small and scat­tered upstart move­ment to become a force with which to be reck­oned, com­plete with an orga­nized and trained Nation­al Lib­er­a­tion Army. With odds stacked against the nation­al­ists, yet dri­ven to throw off the yoke of colo­nial­ism by any means nec­es­sary, Alge­ria took on France, then the world’s fourth largest mil­i­tary power.

From Novem­ber 1954 until the March 1962 sign­ing of the Évian Accords, the Alger­ian War for Inde­pen­dence raged. Before the diplo­mat­ic pact brought an end to one of the blood­i­est and most vio­lent peri­ods in France’s his­to­ry, the “inven­tors of human rights” had employed guer­ril­la tac­tics, sys­tem­at­ic tor­ture, and civil­ian attacks even with Napalm on its Alger­ian sub­jects. France lost cred­i­bil­i­ty on the world stage, and French soci­ety splin­tered, the reper­cus­sions of which con­tin­ue to rever­ber­ate even today. Though France had claimed Alge­ria as its equal, invok­ing the tri­par­tite mot­to (albeit con­di­tion­al­ly), it had effec­tive­ly reduced the native pop­u­la­tion to sec­ond-class sta­tus. This was the Alge­ria that Mokhtar Mokhte­fi (1935–2015) was born into. And so from a young age, Mokhte­fi cul­ti­vat­ed a strong sense of fair­ness and justice. 

Astute and sophis­ti­cat­ed beyond his years and means, his excep­tion­al­i­ty was rec­og­nized by a French ele­men­tary school teacher who groomed Mokhte­fi for the lycée. A rar­i­ty among the 90% illit­er­ate pop­u­la­tion, he left his vil­lage home to board at a French boys’ mid­dle and high school. Just as he excelled in school, he lat­er excelled in the sig­nal corps of Alge­ri­a’s new­ly emerg­ing army. 

Mokhte­fi wrote I Was a French Mus­lim towards the end of his life and in the present tense.  A record of his mem­o­ries and jour­nal writ­ings, begin­ning with child­hood, then detail­ing his time in the Nation­al Lib­er­a­tion Army as a radio oper­a­tor and head of com­mu­ni­ca­tions, he ends the book at Alge­ri­a’s inde­pen­dence. The use of French Mus­lim in the title is not arbi­trary or face­tious, but comes from an actu­al des­ig­na­tion used by the French colo­nial gov­ern­ment. Elaine Mokhte­fi, the author’s expat Amer­i­can wife and trans­la­tor, explains in the pref­ace that this par­tic­u­lar label­ing of native Alge­ri­ans was a func­tion of the struc­tur­al inequal­i­ty and duplic­i­ty in the colo­nial bureau­cra­cy. They gov­erned, she writes, “by vio­lence, trick­ery, and hate” (ix). More­over, that the pro­fessed sec­u­lar state cat­e­go­rized cit­i­zens by reli­gion was an irony not lost on either Mokhtefi. 

In spite of colo­nial sub­ju­ga­tion, Mokhtar Mokhte­fi was high­ly edu­cat­ed, and thrilled by the likes of Socrates, Berg­son, Hugo, and lat­er Marx. “I’m Frenchiz­ing,” he observes of him­self in the process, real­iz­ing that he’d even­tu­al­ly need to sort edu­ca­tion from incul­ca­tion (91). Because of colo­nial sub­ju­ga­tion, he was pas­sion­ate­ly ded­i­cat­ed to a free and equal Alge­ria. How long, he won­ders, can the French main­tain its divide-and-con­quer stance in the Maghreb? How long can it crank out hun­dreds of thou­sands of boots-on-the-ground in Algeria?

Accus­tomed to the strat­i­fi­ca­tions of col­o­nized Alge­ria and its own trib­al­is­tic divides, when Mokhte­fi goes to Moroc­co at age 21, Moroc­can hier­ar­chy demotes him, an Alger­ian, to “sec­ond-cat­e­go­ry French­man.” That he’s an intel­lec­tu­al only adds to the ran­cor, as well as works against him when he con­fides in oth­er Alge­ri­ans in Moroc­co of his long­ing to join the under­ground Alger­ian Nation­al Lib­er­a­tion Army. His roman­tic view of the strug­gle ele­vates Alge­ria as his truest love, but like any­thing placed upon a pedestal, there’s bound to be a fall from grace. 


Algiers, the Black Panthers and the Revolution, a review of Elaine Mokhtefi’s memoirs, by Anthony Saidy


After offer­ing to dis­trib­ute Résis­tance Algéri­enne, the news­pa­per of the Nation­al Lib­er­a­tion Front, his com­pa­tri­ots take him more seri­ous­ly. Final­ly, his “day of glo­ry” arrives, and accep­tance in the Nation­al Lib­er­a­tion Army begins with months of clan­des­tine train­ing in Moroc­co and Tunisia. With no com­mand of Ara­bic and extreme­ly poor eye­sight, he’s rather ill-suit­ed for boot­camp. He blames the French col­o­niz­ers for his igno­rance of Ara­bic, and looks for­ward to what the Rev­o­lu­tion will teach him about his homeland. 

The Rev­o­lu­tion and its atten­dant mil­i­tary train­ing, dis­turb­ing tests of courage, and demands for unwa­ver­ing loy­al­ty are indeed rev­e­la­to­ry of Alge­ria and of him­self. At a cer­tain point, Mokhte­fi’s col­umn is sent to the “inte­ri­or,” neces­si­tat­ing treach­er­ous bor­der cross­ings. The com­man­der informs the col­umn that “three-quar­ters will die, either from step­ping on a mine or hit­ting the elec­tri­fied fence. If you’re not ready to make this sac­ri­fice, speak up. Lat­er will be too late (215).” If Mokhte­fi ever con­sid­ered back­ing out, he does­n’t share that with readers. 

He writes of the Morice and Challe Lines, the French-installed elec­tri­fied bor­ders between Alge­ria, Moroc­co and Tunisia were pur­posed to dis­suade the pro­gres­sion of the Alger­ian Nation­al Lib­er­a­tion Front. Named for French Min­is­ter of Defense, André Morice, the Morice Line was pow­ered by 5,000 volts of elec­tric­i­ty, entan­gled with barbed wire, and accom­pa­nied by mine­fields on either side of the bor­der. The Challe Line, named for Gen­er­al Mau­rice Challe, dou­bled the dan­ger; and, in fact, this dan­ger lin­gered well after the end of the war. For decades, left­over land­mines were the cause of undue civil­ian casualties. 

As much as Mokhte­fi was Alger­ian, his west­ern edu­ca­tion and trav­els pro­vid­ed him with a broad world­view. He’d embraced lib­erté, égal­ité, fra­ter­nité, and sought dig­ni­ty and jus­tice for all.  Accord­ing to Elaine Mokhte­fi, in his last years Mokhtar took to wear­ing a label pin that read, “I am a world cit­i­zen.” Worn nei­ther care­less­ly nor with con­tra­dic­tion, she says, the ges­ture seemed to con­vey that though his nation­al­is­tic illu­sions were long gone, Alge­ria remained in his heart (xxv).   

Nous avons vécu tous les âges, tous les temps  (

Nous avons vécu tous les âges, tous les temps (“We’ve lived every age, every time”) is a line from a poem writ­ten by the author to his wife.  This line is embla­zoned on the memo­r­i­al bench in River­side Park, New York City ded­i­cat­ed to Mokhtar Mokhte­fi after his death in 2015 (pho­to Suzanne Ruta).

He’d whol­ly devot­ed him­self to a uni­fied Alge­ria, but his ideals had become con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed. He failed to com­pre­hend such inner divi­sions as those between Arab and Berber, peas­antry and nou­veaux rich­es, or among those who spoke with vary­ing region­al accents. These dif­fer­ences and ensu­ing social slights or open mis­treat­ment of one anoth­er appeared pet­ty and futile, par­tic­u­lar­ly after 130 years of French rule, the final eight fur­ther marred by the bru­tal­i­ties of war. He was dis­ap­point­ed by a seem­ing­ly unre­lent­ing resent­ment towards the lit­er­ate, and per­pet­u­a­tion of the “com­plex of the col­o­nized.” Mokhte­fi had end­less empa­thy for the trau­ma­tized, but no patience for hyp­ocrites, brutes, and fools (323). 

At the war’s final stages, Mokhte­fi is aggriev­ed by the incom­pe­tence of a sol­dier who can’t read. “Igno­rance out of the bar­rel of a gun is prepar­ing us for bit­ter tomor­rows,” he writes, dis­il­lu­sioned (399). Per­haps it fore­shad­owed the com­plex­i­ties of nation heal­ing and build­ing, and peace mak­ing. Post­colo­nial Alge­ria was a ground zero of sorts, socioe­co­nom­i­cal­ly bereft, and with a pro­vi­sion­al gov­ern­ment fraught with dis­cord. Often, author­i­tar­i­an­ism has a way of refor­mu­lat­ing and repeat­ing itself, and Alge­ria has­n’t exact­ly extract­ed itself from that blueprint. 

I Was a French Mus­lim is the oppo­site of light read­ing, but it’s not with­out humor. Mokhte­fi’s wit­ty com­men­tary illu­mi­nates his buoy­an­cy even in the midst of destruc­tion and heartbreak. 

Che Gue­vara famous­ly assert­ed that it is impos­si­ble for a gen­uine rev­o­lu­tion­ary to exist with­out the guid­ing force of intense love. Cor­re­spond­ing­ly, Mokhte­fi’s rev­o­lu­tion­ary zeal inspires awe. His sto­ry is a page-turn­er, if not also a mul­ti­tude of acronyms and alias­es of which to keep track. Nonethe­less, his col­or­ful por­tray­al of the char­ac­ter of time, place, and peo­ple in colo­nial, wartime Alge­ria pro­vides cap­ti­vat­ing read­ing, as well as con­text for the rela­tions between France and Alge­ria then and now. 

Colo­nial Alge­ria had been genet­i­cal­ly mod­i­fied. As such, Mokhtar, his gen­er­a­tion, and suc­ceed­ing gen­er­a­tions that lived through civ­il war (1991–2002) were nev­er quite free of a lega­cy of muta­tions and muti­la­tions. Formed from a French imag­ined sense of “civ­i­liza­tion,” the arti­fi­cial­ly-engi­neered soci­ety, replete with its strat­i­fi­ca­tions, injus­tices, and obstruc­tions, lin­gered in Mokhtar’s “inner­most thoughts and feel­ings” (xxi). But from 1995 onward, the Mokhte­fis made their home in New York’s Upper West Side where, accord­ing to Elaine in a 2018 inter­view with author Suzanne Ruta, Mokhtar found res­o­nance and con­tent­ment in the mul­ti­cul­tur­al city. 

Though Mokhtar did­n’t live to see Alge­ri­a’s 2019 Hirak (“The Move­ment”), Elaine is sure that he would have cheered along with the protest cry to “let us live, give us back our coun­try, give us back our past, enough is enough!” Mak­ing peace with his lega­cy in the sun­set of his life, Mokhtar affirmed, “Alge­ria lies under our feet and in our hearts until death” (xxv).  

Approx­i­mate­ly three years after Mokhte­fi’s pass­ing, in 2018, Pres­i­dent Macron became the first French leader to pub­licly hint at France’s war crimes in Alge­ria. And final­ly, the remain­ing land­mines along the Morice and Challe Lines were ful­ly deac­ti­vat­ed and removed by the Alge­ri­ans, with French coop­er­a­tion, that same year. 

As Mokhte­fi’s mem­oir reveals, the ghosts of the Alger­ian war live on in both coun­tries. Last Jan­u­ary, while refus­ing to issue an offi­cial apol­o­gy for his nation’s abus­es dur­ing the occu­pa­tion of Alge­ria, Macron pro­posed a truth com­mis­sion to shed light on France’s colo­nial past. 

 

AlgeriaAlgerian warAlgiersEmmanuel MacronOranReview

TMR contributing editor Mischa Geracoulis is a writer and educator of critical media literacy, English for speakers of other languages, and those with learning differentials. Her writing, teaching and approach to life are informed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Some of her topics of research include the Armenian Genocide and Diaspora, restorative justice, equitable education and child welfare, and the multifaceted human condition. Her work has appeared in Middle East Eye, The Guardian, Truthout, LA Review of Books, Colorlines, Gomidas Institute, National Catholic Reporter, and openDemocracy, among others. Follow her on Twitter @MGeracoulis.

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