After the Battle of Algiers

Algiers, Third World Capital: Freedom Fighters, Revolutionaries, Black Panthers BY Elaine Mokhtefi. Brooklyn, NY: Verso. 256 pages. $16.
Algiers, Third World Capital by Elaine Mokhtefi

Born in New York, journalist and artist Elaine Mokhtefi became active in the youth movement for peace and justice in the early ’50s. In 1951, she went to Paris, where she first became aware of France’s colonial involvement in Algeria, and in 1962 she moved to Algiers to work in the newly independent Algerian government. Algiers, Third World Capital captures the author’s experiences in Algeria after its liberation from French colonial rule; her interactions with figures there such as Frantz Fanon, Stokely Carmichael, Timothy Leary, Ahmed Ben Bella, Jomo Kenyatta, and Eldridge Cleaver; and the presence of the Black Panthers in Algiers. Recently, Bookforum talked with Mokhtefi about her memoir, which has just been released in paperback by Verso Books.

Paris is often idealized, but when you first moved to Paris from the United States as a young woman in 1951, you encountered a more sober reality. Parisians rarely mentioned World War II, although it had ended only six years before.

In France the people I met were not fascists, but they hesitated talking about the war. They were ashamed of people in their family, in their villages, who had supported, collaborated with Vichy. It was a delicate issue. French people have always avoided it, even today. They also do not talk about their role in Algeria. Their role as a colonial power.

You first became aware of Algeria during Paris’s annual May Day parade in 1952, when, despite having been excluded by the trade-union confederation, thousands of Algerian laborers showed up anyway.

I was terribly affected by that. I saw thousands of men, thin and poorly dressed, running through this boulevard in Paris with a message that was silent. There were no posters. It was very impressive. They kept on running and they kept on coming. I had never seen anything like it. Up until then the parade had been peaceful. Very militant, but calm. There are pictures that remain in your head, and as long as you live you can go back to those pictures, and that’s one of them. I could never forget that. I can still see them running. I knew they were running for something, but for what? And of course I found out by reading the newspapers that they were Algerian workers and they were fighting to be part of the annual workers parade in Paris. They had demands, and their major demand was independence.

Was that how you first became involved in Algeria’s independence movement?

It was that day that set a spark in me. It was an awakening. It was not that I was completely ignorant of colonialism, but it was just so striking that all of a sudden it meant something particular.

You moved to Algeria in 1962, the year it achieved independence.

Yes, right after independence. I had been working before independence in the Algerian office in New York. It was a propaganda office run by the Algerian provisional government in Tunis. Our main job was to influence the United Nations to pass a resolution in favor of Algerian independence.

In Algeria, you worked as a civil servant. What kind of challenges did the newly independent government of Ahmed Ben Bella inherit after more than a century of colonial rule?

There was a very strong commitment to a kind of socialism. It was called self-management. You must remember Algeria became independent in 1962, after 132 years of French colonialism. It was 90 percent illiterate. There were very few educated people. As independence came, one million French settlers moved out of Algeria. There was a terrible need of teachers, of doctors, of technicians. All sorts of employees that the Algerian population could not cover. There were all sorts of countries that had supported Algerian independence that sent delegations of workers to help rebuild the country. To help get it on its feet. It was a very difficult time.

From which countries?

They came from everywhere. They came from Egypt, from Syria, from Iraq. They came from the Communist world. From the Soviet Union, from Bulgaria, from East Germany, from Yugoslavia, from Czechoslovakia, and from Hungary.

And they came too from France. Lots of French people who had supported Algerian independence and had fought against the politics of their government. For years they gave up jobs in France and came to live in Algeria. Later on, there was an agreement between France and Algeria where rather than do military service they could do service as “coopérants.” A lot of people fresh out of college came and took up jobs in Algeria.

There were all sorts of organizations of freedom fighters, of militants from South Africa, Namibia, Angola, and Mozambique. There was an office set up by French-speaking Canadians. There were delegations of all sorts set up in Algiers, even from Portugal and Spain in the time of Salazar and Franco. They were all there. I don’t know how many offices were set up with the help of the Algerians, in training military people, in training political people. It was a very exciting time in Algiers. It was a center of Third World emancipation. It was an extraordinary time of solidarity. We felt that we were building a new country and in a sense we were building a new world. It lasted a certain amount of time and then gradually petered out.

As a newly independent country, Algeria became committed to supporting liberation movements across Africa.

At the time of independence, Algeria did very much to support the independence of all of Africa. Of any country under colonial rule. Also organizations that were fighting against their fascist governments.

Algeria was responsible for the liberation of about twenty countries in Africa. [French President] Charles de Gaulle gave independence during the Algerian war to the other French colonies in Africa. Algeria was his obsession. He was fighting a war in Algeria in order to maintain Algeria in the French orbit. He had to relax and let Algeria go finally because the rest of the world was turning against him. In a sense, Algeria was fighting for all of Africa, not just for its own independence.

Nelson Mandela trained during the Algerian war with the Algerian Liberation Army. When Mandela was freed from prison and left South Africa, the first country internationally that he visited was Algeria. He stood before crowds screaming, “Je suis Algérien” [“I am Algerian”]. It was unbelievable. I think the importance of the Algerian war has been understated. I think it was completely unknown in the United States. It was not followed, even though it was on the front page of the New York Times practically every day.

In the 1950s, psychiatrist and political philosopher Frantz Fanon lived in Algeria, where he was in charge of a psychiatric clinic. He wrote about these experiences in The Wretched of the Earth. In 1960, you met Fanon in Accra when he was appointed ambassador in Ghana by Algeria’s provisional government. You became friends during the last year of his life.

We became friends very quickly. Before he was a diplomat and politician, he was primarily a psychiatrist. He was amazingly quick at judging people. After resigning his post at the psychiatric clinic in Blida, he was expelled from Algeria. He headed for Tunis where the Algerian war headquarters were installed and joined the struggle for Algerian independence.

His work as a diplomat, as a representative of Algeria, was always first and foremost in his considerations. At the congress where I met him, he was tireless in explaining the task of African liberation and the Algerian independence struggle. He considered himself Algerian. When he recalled his comrades, he would say, “my brothers.” He missed Tunis and his work within the provisional government, but his position as ambassador to Africa was essential and he was influential in African liberation politics.

He was from Martinique and understood colonialism from the ground up. Racism was not new to him. He knew all about it.

Eldridge Cleaver, who had been living clandestinely in Cuba, came to Algeria in 1969 after Reuters disclosed his location. You write that after years of adapting to France and Algeria, the Black Panthers made you “conscious” of your American identity. How so?

Yes, they did. They brought me back to the problems that were solely American, and which had been mine. Problems of racism, problems of justice. It made me very conscious. It was important for me to work for the Black Panthers and to help them set up in Algeria and keep the organization going abroad.

When Eldridge Cleaver came to Algeria, you became his interpreter?

Yes, I became the [Panthers’] contact for the Algerian government. The Algerian government considered me the in-between. No one spoke English at the time. I was a rare bird in a sense. I was able to help the Panthers set up and get installed. I felt very privileged being able to do that.

What was the linguistic landscape in newly independent Algeria? Was the bureaucratic language French?

All the government work was in French. At the time there was Arabic and there was Darija, the Algerian dialect, which is very different from classical Arabic. I learned kitchen Arabic. I could speak ordinary phrases. I could get the drift of things at the time.

What was Algeria’s relationship to the French language after independence?

People did not stop speaking French. The government required it. It was a very useful tool. Even though there was a strong feeling about France and French culture and French politics, they had to use the French language. It was impossible to give it up. It became a language that was used broadly.

There were no Arabic schools during the French occupation. There was only French language schools and they were primarily for the settlers. A few Algerians were admitted to the French schools, the French lycées, and once they had been through the school system they spoke perfect French. For an educated Algerian, it was an important link to the world.

In 1972, President Houari Boumédiène’s spy agency within the ministry of defense—the Military Security—asked you to inform on Zohra Sellami, a journalist and friend of yours. Sellami had married Ben Bella, who had been deposed by Boumédiène after a coup d’état in 1965.

I refused to rat on Zohra and let her know. They were furious with me and I was deported.

After you left Algiers, you and your husband, Mokhtar Mokhtefi, lived in Paris. You mentioned racism as the reason for leaving France in 1994.

My husband couldn’t stand it anymore, and I had been pushing for a long time for us to come to the United States. He hesitated because he didn’t speak English. He felt hamstrung in a way. But it got so bad. The French police were constantly in the streets mounting patrols, stopping anyone who looked foreign. He finally felt that he just couldn’t take it anymore. We left and came to New York.

And you did not return to Algeria.

[My husband] had made the decision many years before that he couldn’t live with that regime.

Under Houari Boumédiène?

Under both Ben Bella and Boumédiène, he suffered from deception after deception. The country was undemocratic, anti-justice. It wasn’t what he had fought for. He had fought for democracy, a country in favor of justice for all. He had been ready to die for Algerian independence. He never expected to come out of that war alive. He wanted to see his country as a model for others, for its own people. Deceptions were numerous and on many levels. When I was deported, it was the last straw.

You were in Algeria recently.

I was in Algeria on a book tour. I did a few talks. I started in the Oran region, and then I went to Algiers. It’s the third time I’ve been to Algeria in the last three years. I finally got a visa. It had been forty-four years since I was there last. The country changed tremendously, and I didn’t recognize the Algeria I knew.

What changed?

The population. When I left there was maybe around nine or ten million people. Now there are over forty million. It’s crowded. You used to be able to walk down the streets with very few people. Now it’s just a completely different sight. It’s a youthful country. There’s also been years of political difficulties, of lack of freedom, and lack of justice. And it would tell in the way people were reacting and the way they were closed to conversation.

And it’s still changing. It was a complete change from the time I went there [in fall 2018], when you felt no reaction politically, to the time I went there in the middle of the Hirak—a movement of literally millions of people out on the streets contesting their leaders. All of a sudden in February 2019 there was a tremendous outburst of youth to contest the government. And they would demonstrate weekly. It was an amazing shift. It was an outburst. Of course the virus has had its effect on the movement.

How are we to understand Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Algeria’s president from 1999 to 2019, and politicians like him who form part of “le pouvoir”—the name given to the oligarchy that has been in power since Algeria’s independence—within the context of Algeria’s early commitment to liberation movements and the oligarchy’s own revolutionary past?

Many of the leaders of Algeria were previously freedom fighters. That doesn’t necessarily mean they were progressive or democrats or that they were in favor of justice for all. Bouteflika was very early on one of Boumédiène’s right-hand men, and was promoted in the very first Boumédiène government. In the Ben Bella government, he was already a minister of youth and tourism. He very quickly became a minister of foreign affairs. After Boumédiène’s death [in 1978], he tried desperately to become the next president. After the civil war in the 1990s, Bouteflika was called to power, and was in power until a few months ago. He was contested by the [Hirak] movement and was forced to resign as president.

You say your mother raised you to be an antiracist—did you first become involved in militant causes because of the way you were raised or because of what you had experienced growing up in the United States?

I was very affected by the fact that we were the unique Jewish family in small towns in the US. Anti-Semitism was rampant. We experienced it and fought against it. It influenced my whole thinking about the world. I could empathize with people who had been the objects of racism. I felt that I was an object of racism.

It’s been wonderful to see the outbreaks of enthusiasm for antiracism causes and the demonstrations that have been going on since George Floyd was killed. It’s so needed. I’m in total admiration.

What does an experienced militant like yourself think about the current movement in the United States for liberation from systemic oppression?

I know we have to get out on the streets. We have to scream. We have to call for justice. The world has become so militarized. It’s a lot more difficult to organize. It’s a much more difficult struggle today.

Julia Pagnamenta is a fact-checker and researcher living in New York.