Algiers, the Black Panthers & the Revolution

1 October, 2018

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Algiers, Third World Cap­i­tal, Free­dom Fight­ers, Rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies, Black Pan­thers by Elaine Mokhte­fi (Ver­so, 2018)

Anthony Saidy

At 23, moti­vat­ed by lofty ideals for world peace and jus­tice, New York native Elaine Klein set­tled in post­war France, where she found work as a trans­la­tor and inter­preter for inter­na­tion­al orga­ni­za­tions. In 1960 Klein got involved with a New York-based group that was part of the Alger­ian Nation­al Lib­er­a­tion Front, or FLN. They lob­bied the Unit­ed Nations in sup­port of Alge­ri­a’s gov­ern­ment in exile, work­ing for Alge­ri­a’s inde­pen­dence from France. Klein soon found her­self swept up in the Alger­ian Rev­o­lu­tion and gave it two decades of her life, mar­ry­ing the Alger­ian intel­lec­tu­al and lib­er­a­tion war vet­er­an Mokhtar Mokhte­fi (author of J’É­tais Français-Musul­man). In Algiers, she got attached to Black Pan­ther Eldridge Cleaver, for whom she per­formed var­i­ous tasks and mis­sions, and was ulti­mate­ly deport­ed for refus­ing to be a spy for the Alger­ian secret police, hav­ing long known of their use of torture.

In Sep­tem­ber 2018, at the age of 90, she spoke in L.A., when I bought and soon devoured her book. Algiers, Third World Cap­i­tal would have to appeal to some­one like me who had lived through the 1960s and 1970s, in close touch with domes­tic and inter­na­tion­al ferment.

While Elaine Mokhte­fi worked devot­ed­ly for the Black Pan­thers, the men who ran it were, it turned out, deeply flawed. They were not equal to the task of keep­ing their move­ment afloat in the face of the U.S. gov­ern­men­t’s repres­sion. The col­lege activists who start­ed the Black Pan­thers, Huey New­ton (1942–1989) chief among them, were joined by a self-taught ex-con and author, Eldridge Cleaver (1935–1998), who nev­er sev­ered his crim­i­nal ways. Famous for his 1968 book of essays, Soul on Ice, Cleaver escaped to Cuba lat­er that year after a shoot-out with police in Oak­land, but Cuba did­n’t real­ly want him and sent him to Alge­ria. His group there enjoyed a priv­i­leged life in an “embassy.”

Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver and Elaine Mokhtefi in Algiers (archival photo)

Suc­cess­ful hijack­ers and ran­som-tak­ers grav­i­tat­ed to Algiers. 

Elaine Mokhte­fi was invalu­able to all of them, as no one was learn­ing French or Ara­bic. She allowed her­self to be used, pre­sum­ably glad to asso­ciate with rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies. One day Cleaver came to her office and con­fid­ed he had just mur­dered a com­rade whom he called a thief. Lat­er she learned that the vic­tim had dal­lied with Cleaver’s glam­orous and masochis­tic wife, Kath­leen (now a law pro­fes­sor). That Cleaver was a noto­ri­ous ser­i­al adul­ter­er did not enter his equa­tion. Did Elaine turn him in to the police? La. She point­ed out that he was beat­ing his wife, and accept­ed his macho reply that some women liked that. Lat­er she was a Pan­ther couri­er and arranged for false pass­ports doc­tored on site in Algiers by a vis­it­ing mem­ber of the Baad­er-Mein­hof Gang. She chron­i­cles the Pan­thers’ down­fall after a very pub­lic feud between its two hon­chos. She betrays no qualms about her per­son­al respon­si­bil­i­ty. Mokhte­fi appeared for half a minute in the film Bat­tle of Algiers, but in her book sheds no light on the gen­e­sis of that classic.

Expelled by the nation to which she had devot­ed her life, she brought her hus­band to the US, where he read aloud from the Koran after the death of Elaine’s Jew­ish mom and sur­vived till 2015. Elaine car­ries on.

Her account flows well and is at times fas­ci­nat­ing, despite the occa­sion­al typo. The book would have ben­e­fit­ted from an index, where you might have looked up her Rolodex of celebri­ty rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies and mis­fits, from Stoke­ly Carmichael (1941–1998, who dropped his Amer­i­can girl­friend for Miri­am Make­ba; when he split from the Pan­thers, Cleaver denounced his racial­ism); Frantz Fanon (she ridicules the sto­ry that he died in care of the CIA—but how did he get entrée to Bethes­da Naval Hos­pi­tal?); Ahmed Ben Bel­la (she was a friend of the beau­ty who was com­man­deered to mar­ry the deposed and jailed ex-pres­i­dent); Houari Boume­di­enne (who took pow­er in a coup which the peo­ple were too weary to resist); and cur­rent pres­i­dent in his dotage, Abde­laz­iz Bouteflika. 

For a deep analy­sis of failed rev­o­lu­tions, you must look elsewhere.

Antho­ny Saidy is a retired physi­cian and inter­na­tion­al chess mas­ter, as well as an author of sev­er­al books on chess, and the nov­el 1983: A Dialec­ti­cal Novel.