It's not easy making a phone call to Algeria. The connection is bad and you can be almost certain that the line is being tapped - if not by the government and the censors, then by Islamic fundamentalists. Boualem Sansal, one of Algeria's most famous writers, lives on the outskirts of the capital Algiers. He is a warm and friendly man, candid and very much interested in all matters concerning Israel. Although Sansal's new book, "Le village de l'Allemand ou le journal des freres Schiller" (which, like his other works, is not available in English translation), was published only a few weeks ago by the French publication house Gallimard, the storm is already raging. Not only because of this award-winning author's lively and innovative prose, but because of the book's topic: "Le village de l'Allemand" deals with the fine line between the destructive power wielded by Islamic fundamentalism today and the power of another movement that left an indelible mark on history: Nazism.
"Sometimes it is important to use exaggerated language to scare people and make them think," Sansal explains. "If Islamic fundamentalists attain positions of power, which they have succeeded in doing over the past few years through democratic means - although a religious or ethnocentric government contradicts the principles of the Algerian constitution - the line between Algeria and the Nazi regime could prove to be very thin."
Sansal's latest book tells the story of two Algerian brothers who embark on a search for their roots after their father's death. When they discover that their father was an SS officer who took refuge in Algeria, one reacts with horror, while the other, an Islamic extremist, easily accepts the news and its implications, and even falls in love with the idea.
In an interview with the French weekly Le Nouvel Observateur, Sansal says the plot is no mere figment of his imagination. A few years ago, he visited an attractive Algerian town that looked like a picture postcard of Old Europe. The town's residents told him that the mayor was a German, a former Nazi officer. They were not bothered by his past. On the contrary - they were delighted about their town's cleanliness, its cheesy bourgeois aesthetic and, above all, its orderliness.
Is this why so many Algerians joined the Islamic movement - out of a sense of nostalgia for this type of order and "parental authority"?
Sansal: "Absolutely. One of the reasons why people felt so sympathetic toward the Islamic movement was that they were sick and tired of 30 years of nationalist dictatorship. Today, many of them are saying that democracy, which allowed this to happen, is too weak a system for such a complicated place. The people of Algeria just aren't ready for democracy. I'm not saying that democracy isn't the preferable system of government, here and everywhere else, but some of the basic conditions to keep democracy viable are lacking here: You need a strong country with a strong economy that can provide people with jobs.
"Despite all its wealth, mostly oil-based, Algeria's economy is sluggish and backward. The military regime is to blame for this state of affairs, but it's also part of the 30-year legacy of Soviet socialism, which produced a bureaucratic, unwieldy industrial system. Before that, we suffered 20 years of war, which destroyed the entire infrastructure. Although oil brought in large sums of money, none of it was used to create jobs and move the country ahead. On the contrary, it only generated widespread corruption."
Sansal, an engineer with a doctorate in economics, was a high-ranking government official until the age of 50. When he retired in the late 1990s, he mailed the manuscript of his first novel, "Le serment des barbares," to Gallimard. He never expected a reply, but three weeks later, he received an enthusiastic letter of acceptance. Since then, he has won nearly every top literary award in France, and the book has even served as a script for a film.
"Le serment des barbares" and his next two books, which also enjoyed stunning success (especially "Dis-moi le paradis"), also sold well in Algeria up until a year ago. In 2006, Sansal published "Poste restante: Alger. Lettre de colere et d'espoir a mes compatriotes" - a kind of open letter to the citizens of his beloved country.
"Since then my status has changed," he says, his voice deceptively calm. "In that little book, I spelled out my complaints against the nationalist-Islamist regime, which basically erased Algerian identity and rewrote it. Algeria has been around for over 2,000 years. The Arabs and the FLN [the National Liberation Front, which fought against the French occupation of Algeria] were not something Algeria was born with. The young people here are being taught an edited version of history."
"Poste restante" was branded as a revisionist book and all of Sansal's work has since been banned in Algeria. His relationship with the country and its Islamic extremists has turned into a dangerous game of survival. Sansal attends book fairs in Europe, especially in France, and criticizes the regime on radio and television. Algeria, he says, is undergoing a process of "Iraqization." Religious fundamentalists and corruption are eroding Algerian society and weakening the state. Al-Qaida was among the first to grasp this change, and the terrorist group is busy establishing pockets of control in this strategically located part of the Maghreb. Every terror attack of recent years has strengthened the link between Algeria and Al-Qaida, Sansal explains.
The author refuses to bow to the trend sweeping Algeria and neighboring countries, embodied by a nostalgic embrace of Islam. "I am secular in every bone of my body," he insists. "I have no ties whatsoever to religion. I grew up in a secular home, and have spoken both French and Algerian Arabic from the day I opened my mouth. I went to a French school and a French university, but I am an Algerian. French is still the dominant language in this country, and this is true for the school system and the government, too. Only the legal system has become Arabized.
"I know what's happening here - because I live here and not in any other Arab country. But I read, and I meet people, and I see how similar the process is elsewhere," he continues. "The religious movements have become so strong that you can't hold a cultural or political discussion any more. Anything a person like me says is considered insulting to Islam and constitutes grounds for condemnation.
"The consequences are frightening: In the last 12 years, over 400,000 university graduates have left Algeria for France or Canada. Algeria is losing its doctors, jurists, authors, poets, artists, scientists and philosophers at a dizzying pace. This country's intellectual and moral underpinnings are being pulled out from underneath us. The void is being filled by Islamic fundamentalists."
While the French media have lavished the highest praise on his latest book, Sansal is aware that contemporary France, suffused with racism both old and new, may not take kindly to the provocative association he makes between Nazism and fanatic Islam.
"The Holocaust has been erased in the Arab world," he says. "It doesn't exist. It is not taught in the schools and gets no mention on television. Sometimes, if the subject does come up, they are quick to say that it's an invention of the Jews: 'Okay, a lot of people were killed, but it was war, and that's what happens in a war. All the rest is a Jewish conspiracy.'
"There are complex reasons for this and each Arab country has its own. In Algeria, they promote a misguided analogy between the ultra-nationalism that characterized the period leading up to Algerian independence, during which the Jews were identified as allies of French colonialism, and the anti-Zionist sentiment generated by the Middle East conflict. After all, that's what they see on television every day: killing, distress in the refugee camps, grinding poverty. That's the reality most TV viewers in Algeria were born into."
The French have also played a part in alienating Algerians from Israel and the Jews, he notes: "When France granted citizenship to the [Algerian] Jews, but not the [Algerian] Arabs, in the 1960s, it prompted a justified sense of victimization and discrimination. Since then, of course, things have improved immensely, but the wound remains. French society is always seething with racism, both concealed and unconcealed. What worries me now is that [President Nicolas] Sarkozy's methods are institutionalizing this racism, all in the interest of national values."
About a month and a half ago, when Sarkozy backpedaled on his intention to take Algerian-born Jewish singer Enrico Macias along on his trip to Algeria, Sansal was one of the only people who protested and blasted both the French and Algerian presidents for surrendering to the extremists.
At the 2007 International Festival of Literature in Berlin, Sansal was described as a writer "exiled in his own home." He doesn't like this description. He prefers to see himself as a man with a mission and regards emigration as a last resort.
"A person like me needs to remain in his country even if it seems futile," he says. "But there are some serious threats being leveled against me and my family, so I need to plan my moves. Every day, I need to reassess the danger. It could come from anywhere - the government, the Islamists, even the general public. Today I decided again that I'm not leaving. I need to be here. When the day comes that I can't take it anymore, I'll go. In the meantime, I'm staying put."
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