From Algeria With Love

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Sefy Hendler
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Sefy Hendler

PARIS “Boualem never misses a chance to sit in the garden. Even if it’s snowing, he holds his meetings there,” a Gallimard representative says with a broad smile. As we leave the spacious sitting room and enter the private garden of the prestigious French publishing house, it is clear why the Algerian writer insists on holding his meetings in this verdant space, with its towering trees and well-groomed lawns. For most Parisians, a lush private space like this on the Left Bank is a luxury, but it’s nothing less than one expects at the publishing house of Proust, Camus, Saint-Exupery, Sartre and Jonathan Littell.

At this early hour on a mid-September day, the closed garden is almost empty. Only the buzzing of the bees, busily pollinating the flowers next to the small table where we sit, breaks the silence. Even the employees are quiet as they make their way across the grass toward another elegant wing, which houses the offices of La Pleiade, Gallimard’s highly acclaimed imprint. The La Pleiade collection consists of leather-bound, pocket-sized critical editions of the complete works of classic writers. Living writers are rarely included in the series. Every cultured person in France has La Pleiade editions at home, and every writer dreams of entering that pantheon.

“When one finishes here, at Gallimard, one moves in the best case over there, to Pleiade,” Boualem Sansal laughs, drawing an imaginary arc in the air. But Sansal, whose works have been published by Gallimard for a dozen years, is not yet there. His feet are planted firmly in a here-and-now that gives him no ease. He flew to Paris from Algiers the day before our meeting, and in another few hours will make the return trip home. He is devoting his brief visit to the French capital to organizing a meeting with intellectuals and writers from across Europe, and to a conversation with me, a journalist from Israel. Indeed, Israel runs like a thread through his current visit to the City of Light.

Israel lies at the heart of a storm that has been buffeting Sansal for months. The Algerian writer decided to visit Israel, returned “joyful” and even said so in writing. Since then, his life has been turned upside down.

Dual identity

Sansal’s tempestuous story begins in North Africa. He was born in 1949 in a small village in what was known as “French Algeria.” His father was killed in a road accident when he was a year old. Sansal grew up into Algeria’s “savage war of peace,” as Alistair Horne titled his definitive account of the eight-year struggle in which the country wrested its independence from France. After completing advanced studies, he became an engineer in the government service of newly liberated Algeria. As such, he followed the normative route of an educated young man in North Africa as the region shed its colonialist yoke.

Sansal had a successful career in the civil service, but as the years passed he discovered another passion: writing in French, the language of literature in Algeria. He was encouraged in his literary endeavors by a friend from his student days, the well-known Algerian writer Rachid Mimouni, who died in exile in France in 1995, after being forced to leave his native land under threat of the Islamists.

Sansal started on his first novel the following year, 1996. The book was accepted for publication by Gallimard, which recommended that he publish it under a pseudonym, out of concern for his personal security. The civil war in Algeria between the army and the Islamists was slowly winding down, but anyone who dared to criticize either side was taking his life in his hands. Nevertheless, Sansal decided to put out the book, “Le serment des barbares” (The Barbarians’ Oath) under his full name, and it was published in France in 1999, when he was 50. Through the story of the mysterious murder of an Algerian who returns to his country after 30 years in France, the novel casts a harsh light on Algeria at the end of the 20th century.

I ask Sansal to tell me about the rocky road he has been walking since then. He sinks into deep thought, then lapses into silence intermittently while speaking, but, in his soft-spoken manner, omits no detail. Dressed casually, almost carelessly, he is hard to miss, with his round glasses and long graying hair. The years have steeled him, and not diminished in the least his commitment to the inner truth to which he gives voice in his writing.

“The book was received extraordinarily well in Algeria,” he says of his first novel. “Under the influence of its tremendous success, I deluded myself. I thought the publicity was due to the substance of what I wrote. That was incorrect, but I didn’t yet grasp it. About a year later, opinion began to shift, because people read what I wrote and discovered the critique of the government, of religion, of the nation itself. What they liked was the fact that a work by an Algerian writer had been published by Gallimard, and that is all. This was 1999. [Abdelaziz] Bouteflika was elected president and the country emerged from a period that was blacker than black, when death ruled in the streets, like in present-day Syria. There was the army’s resort to bombing, to the use of napalm, and the Islamists’ crimes, their massacre of entire villages. And then the darkness lifted somewhat. Bouteflika came to power and talked about democracy and peace and national reconciliation. And it was just at that moment that my first novel was published.”

Sansal’s initial success at home was thus a function of the image the regime was seeking to promote: a kind of “new Algeria” whose native sons are culturally successful in France, the former occupier. “In one case, I received an invitation from the presidential palace to join Bouteflika’s entourage on an official visit to the United States,” Sansal recalls. “I was invited to fly on the presidential plane, but I declined the invitation politely. In another case, I was invited to join the president on a visit to Davos. I passed the time turning down official invitations of that kind. I said, ‘I am a civil servant, but I am not part of the regime.’ I refused to be made use of. Then they started to use the press to excoriate me. You know, no one actually reads in Algeria. People buy books to decorate their bookshelves, to show they are proud of ‘our Algerian,’ who made good abroad. The journalists and the critics started to explain exactly what I had said in my first novel.

“They claimed I had written positively about French colonialism. I never said that. All I did was try to explain that the world is not made only of black and white, and that only a complex gaze makes it possible to move forward. But because of my newspaper articles, I acquired the image of an anti-Arab, anti-Muslim writer who is nostalgic for the French occupation. My character was besmirched, and things got worse every time I published a new book.”

Sansal asked himself repeatedly whether he was doing the right thing by not resigning; he was castigating corruption in the public service, in which he was employed. The main reason he did not resign was his interest in the industrial reforms that were being implemented within the framework of his professional work. In addition, “I did not yet feel I was a writer. I saw myself as a civil servant who wrote. I did not intend to make literature my profession.”

Then he started to get “warnings.” “I was told I was being too critical of the government. That’s not so terrible in books, because that literature is published abroad, but I should be ‘careful’ about what I say in interviews to Le Monde or Le Nouvel Observateur.”

Sansal paid no heed, and soon the “friendly” advice morphed into genuine threats. “I was told that if I went on like this ... But I am stubborn, most of all when I am being threatened.” He continued to live a double life: weekends in Paris delivering talks and attending conferences, the rest of the time in his Algiers office. “It was the only time I saw the usefulness of the Muslim weekend Thursday and Friday because I could go to France and take part in events,” Sansal smiles.

A collision was inevitable. “I published an article in a French paper against Bouteflika’s policy and the decision was taken. Sitting in my office, I got a call from the minister’s bureau chief. ‘The minister requests that you leave the premises this instant,’ the bureau chief told me. I replied, ‘What’s going on? I am a civil servant you can’t just throw me out.’ He said, ‘It is an order from the president.’ I insisted: ‘President or no president, I want it in writing.’ He said he would speak to the minister. He called back to say that the president would not put the order in writing, but that I must leave the office immediately.”

Thus, in 2003, after publishing his third novel, Sansal found himself willy-nilly a writer full-time. “It was very difficult,” he recalls, “but in the end it worked out well. Since then I have devoted myself exclusively to literature. And the whole sequence of events just made me more stubborn.”

Islamism and Nazism

His decision to become the only Arab writer living in an Arab country who did not boycott the Paris Book Fair in 2008 at which Israel was the guest of honor did nothing to enhance his domestic image. The situation deteriorated sharply that same year, when he published his most controversial book to date: “Le village de l’Allemand ou le journal des freres Schiller.” (This is the only novel by Sansal that is available in English. Translated by Frank Wynne, it was published in the United States as “The German Mujahid” and in England as “An Unfinished Business.”) The novel tells the story of two Algerian-born brothers who, after their German-born father is murdered by Islamists at the height of the civil war in Algeria, discover that he was a Nazi war criminal. Sansal displays high sensitivity for the unique tragedy undergone by the Jewish people in the Holocaust, and simultaneously, through the moral qualms of his protagonists, posits an equation not easy to digest between extreme Islam and Nazism.

Doesn’t that equation justify crimes perpetrated by the Algerian authorities against the Islamists in one of the most blood-drenched wars the Arab world has seen in recent decades?

Sansal ponders the question in silence before responding. “There were some who were surprised by the equation,” he admits. “They thought that extreme Islam is only a tougher version of the Islamic religion. They expected me to explain the issue in depth. And I had to remind them, for example, of the story of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem in World War II [Hajj Amin al-Husseini, who collaborated with the Nazis and met with Hitler].

“But even after I provide these explanations, people tell me, ‘All right, it’s violent, but it’s not Nazism.’ Of course. I never claimed that extreme Islam is Nazism, but that there is a thin line. Nazism was born in industrialized German society, which possessed the means to put its madness into practice. The Iranian leaders are crazy, but that is not so dangerous as long as they do not have an atomic bomb. My contention is that extreme Islam has not yet found the way to develop the strength it needs to achieve absolute hegemony, militarily and ideologically.”

But some said that if only a thin line separates Islamism and Nazism, that is enough to justify de facto the massacre of extreme Muslims by Arab regimes, and first and foremost by the Algerian army.

“Really, does a military dictatorship need that argument to carry out suppression? They have always exercised suppression suppression is their natural mode. They rule thanks to suppression and force of arms. They will go on protecting their regime with every means, as Assad is doing now and Gadhafi did before him. These are violent regimes that were established on foundations of violence. They don’t need me. And anyway, they never believed in the Holocaust. They were always sympathetic to the Nazis.”

Enchanted in Jerusalem

Sansal’s decision to visit Jerusalem in broad daylight, in full view of the world, should be seen within the context of his unorthodox willingness to tackle issues that are taboo in the Arab world. Still, he admits that he thought long and hard before deciding to accept an invitation to attend the 2012 International Writers Festival in Jerusalem.

“From the outset, it wasn’t neutral: an Algerian in Israel,” he says, but finally he decided to go. And also that he would not hide the decision. He announced publicly that he would visit Israel. Three weeks before the start of the festival (which took place in mid-May), Hamas denounced Sansal’s decision. For Sansal to go to Israel, the Gaza-based organization said, was “a crime against a million and a half Algerian martyrs who gave their lives for freedom.” The aggressive statement “severely unnerved me,” he says. “I talked it over with my wife. I told her that things would certainly happen if not now, later. Let’s say the Arab Spring comes to Algiers [and the Islamists seize power]. We would have to leave home that same evening.”

Nevertheless, his mind was made up.

Not only did you come to Israel, you also spoke in public and sent the flames soaring even higher. What was the aim?

“Before me, there were some who visited secretly, which I think is terrible. You have to speak out and act in the light of day. When you do it secretly it solves nothing, but only causes problems. On my way back from Jerusalem I told myself: If anyone needs to speak out in the service of the Arab community and Muslims around the world, it is the intellectuals. After all, we will not ask a bricklayer to work in Israel and give a speech about it when he comes back. But for an intellectual that is his profession. The Arab intellectuals do not merit that epithet. They take no responsibility for anything. They are afraid.”

Sansal found his visit to Israel a stunning experience. Immediately afterward, he published a short item on the Huffington Post website’s French-language edition under the headline, “I went to Jerusalem and returned joyful and enriched.” The text, which appeared toward the end of May, a little more than a week after the end of the journey to Jerusalem and back, generated fierce outrage across the Arab world. He received an “unimaginable number” of comments in reaction to the post, which relates how he went to Paris to obtain a visa at the Israeli consulate, flew to Tel Aviv and went on to Jerusalem.

“What a journey, what a welcome,” he wrote. He reserved his warmest words for Jerusalem, which enchanted him. He described it for his readers in the Arab countries, few of whom are likely to get a chance to visit the city: “A true capital city, with clean streets, well-scrubbed sidewalks, solid buildings, cars, hotels and affable restaurants, neatly trimmed trees and so many tourists from all over the world apart from the Arab states. They are the only ones who are not coming or cannot come to this cradle of civilization, where their religions were born, be that Christians or Muslims.”

Isn’t your take on Israel overly naive?

“I wrote about that in the post. It was an impression from a five-day visit. It was a feeling of being in a wonderful place. Tel Aviv is a marvelous surprise. Jerusalem floods you with powerful feelings. I spent evenings there with marvelous friends. It really was very good, very moving, and I told myself that these things needed to be spoken.”

What riled his critics in the Arab world most other than his manifestly politically incorrect sincerity was that Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman lavished praise on Sansal amid the storm unleashed by the visit. “That was the umpteenth proof of my dark ties with Israel,” Sansal says and, by now used to preposterous accusations, bursts into raucous laughter. Lieberman, who met in July with his French counterpart, Laurent Fabius, declared that Sansal should be protected in the wake of the ruckus.

Does the public support of the Israeli foreign minister bother you?

“I understand that everyone plays his part. Lieberman makes no secret of his approach and uses the means available to him. It does bother me, because it taints my image and is liable to cause a breakdown of communication. But that’s life: One image undercuts another. At the same time, allow me to draw a comparison. Hamas, too, used my visit to Israel and uttered a threat that was directed at all the intellectuals in the Arab world, namely: Caution, it is essential to support us and remain united, because otherwise ... That is how they exploited my visit; Lieberman exploited it in his way. All in all, I prefer Lieberman’s exploitation over that of Hamas, which always threatens death. After all, Lieberman could have said, ‘Why should I give two hoots about an Algerian intellectual coming to Israel as a tourist?’ He could have shrugged off the situation, but chose not to.”

In any event, Sansal promises with his characteristic sincerity, he will be happy to meet both Lieberman and [Gaza Prime Minister] Ismail Haniyeh, because “it is not for an intellectual to close doors.” As of this writing, there has been no invitation from Gaza City or Jerusalem.

Tell me about your response to the fury in Algeria.

“It was extremely rough before the visit, while it was taking place and after I returned. Since then I have been living with very great anxiety. There are two aspects here. First, I live in an Arab country and I went to Israel, thereby betraying the religion, the Arab world and the martyrs. Second, reactions in the Western world were also very harsh. The anti-Semitism in the West is incomprehensible. There is a great deal of hatred. Many people no longer speak to me Europeans who read me in the past. I see what is being written about me in blogs all over the web. It is very simplistic in terms of the arguments, but the hatred never ceases to surprise me.”

Fighting back

The “official” punishment was inflicted three weeks after the visit to Jerusalem and a few days before a scheduled ceremony at which Sansal was to accept the prestigious Arabic Novel Prize for his latest book, “Rue Darwin” (Darwin Street). The semi-autobiographical novel, which has been universally praised, describes life in the quarter in which another well-known Algerian-born author, Albert Camus, was raised. Sansal had already been informed that he was the recipient of the 2012 award, and the invitations to the ceremony to be held at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris had already been sent out. But upon returning to Algeria, Sansal received an email message from the Jordanian Embassy in Paris stating that “due to the situation in the Middle East, the award ceremony is being postponed.” This doublespeak concealed an ugly truth: The Arab ambassadors to France, under whose auspices the prize is awarded with the aim of publicizing Arabic literature in France, had decided to deny Sansal the prize because of his visit to Jerusalem.

Sansal planned to let it go, but then Olivier Poivre d’Arvor, a writer and diplomat who is currently director of France Culture radio the beacon of the cultural elite in France stepped in. D’Arvor, a former official in the French Foreign Ministry who knows and values the Arab world and its culture, was on the panel of judges that awarded the prize to Sansal. D’Arvor was surprised and incensed to learn that the ceremony had been “postponed” and that, effectively, the award had been withdrawn. He called Sansal.

“Olivier was distraught,” Sansal recalls. “He told me, ‘It is a scandal, I am resigning from the prize jury.’ I replied, ‘Forget it, they are Arabs, it is complicated, your resignation will make things even worse. And besides, it doesn’t bother me, let them keep the prize for themselves.’”

D’Arvor published an article in the newspaper Liberation in which he protested the cowardly annulment of the prize. The result was that the judges awarded the prize independently in a ceremony held in Gallimard’s private garden. The low-key ceremony became the talk of Paris.

But the scandal led to a far more significant development. A group of French and European intellectuals was formed to promote the right and obligation of Arab writers to meet with whomever they wish, even Israelis. At their initiative, and with the support of the Council of Europe, Sansal and the celebrated Israeli writer David Grossman (who met Sansal in Jerusalem), a conference was organized that is scheduled to be held October 6-7 in Strasbourg. Its purpose is to formulate an initial text that will make possible the establishment of a formal body to advance the idea of cooperation among writers. This will be no simple matter, in a period of boycotts not only against Israeli settlements but against Israelis as such, and against Israeli cultural figures in particular.

On the evening before we met in the Paris garden, Sansal attended a meeting of the new initiative, held in the offices of France Culture on the 10th floor of the headquarters of French public radio, Maison de la Radio, on the Seine. Cloudy late-summer skies were visible from the office in which some of the most influential figures of contemporary Francophone culture gathered: Olivier Poivre d’Arvor; Jean-Marie Laclavetine, a highly influential literary editor; Michel Le Bris, a writer and the director of a major literary festival; Martin Schult, the director of the German Publishers and Booksellers Association, whose annual Peace Prize was awarded to Sansal in 2011, and the year before to David Grossman (the Peace Prize is considered a possible Nobel forerunner); and Denis Huber, executive director of the North-South Center of the Council of Europe, which provides financial support for the Sansal initiative.

As the participants try to come up with a list of invitees to the conference, they exude cautious optimism, thanks in large measure to David Grossman’s agreement to join Sansal in leading the initiative. “Did you consider inviting Gunter Grass?” I ask and get a polite smile in response. “Somehow we did not consider him,” d’Arvor says, his face expressionless.

Maybe you are naive. Your intentions are good, but who will dare to violate the boycott?

D’Arvor: “I am anything but naive; I am pragmatic. But the one overriding issue today for the Arab world is censorship. In Tunisia, and to a slightly lesser extent in Egypt, a new form of censorship has been introduced: religious censorship. At this rate, the press will not be able to print what it wants, and next in line are the writers. It is not smart for them to be the first to exercise censorship (such as of a meeting with Israelis), because they will be the first to get censorship hurled back at them. My subject is more the Arab world than Israel.”

It is important, he adds, “for writers in the Arab world not to become hostages of their governments and also not to be faithful copies of national or patriotic approaches. In taking the step of refusing to meet an Israeli or Jewish writer, the Arab writers tend to take a step backward. By this means they represent their governments, which censor their literary works, whereas the Israeli writers do not represent their government in their writings. That reflects a serious misunderstanding by the Arab writers. You can have pan-Arab solidarity and you can have solidarity with the Palestinians. That should not prevent them from talking to whoever can explain Israeli society to them. They have adopted what I see as an entrenched, illegitimate stance.”

Subjective and objective

In the meantime, Sansal is living in a state of siege. A recurrent motif in his writing is that of a journey from one place to another and the existential questions that generate a sense of belonging or of alienation. At the same time, he chooses to go on living in his native land, Algeria, where he first gained glory but also where the seeds of trouble were sown.

Why doesn’t he seek a more comfortable domicile in Paris, for example? The question vexes Sansal, because he himself is constantly mulling this very idea. “Every day I tell myself that I am leaving that country, getting out once and for all. The subject also comes up frequently with my wife: What in the world are we doing here? It’s hard, it’s dangerous, it’s very painful. We are suffering. But then we ask ourselves: If we do not fight for our state, what other struggle of ours will be credible? Can you trust someone who fights for peace in the world but does not struggle for his country? The primary struggle is where you live, at home.”

I tell Sansal that two years ago I interviewed the famed Italian historian Carlo Ginzburg when he visited Israel, and he told me something that has stuck with me: “Which state is mine? The state in which I am ashamed.” Sansal is impressed. “Lovely, I fully accept that definition. It’s true, I am ashamed of my country, which had everything it needed in order to succeed. After our war of independence, thousands of people from all over the world came to Algeria to be part of the revolution. Everything was ruined in the stupidest and most monstrous way imaginable.”

Maybe the solution lies in the Arab Spring?

Sansal smiles bitterly. “I never believed in it for a minute. From the day the Arab Spring broke out, in Tunisia, I said that in Algeria we have five uprisings of that type every morning and five every afternoon. Those types of events end up bolstering the government, which steps up suppression, recruits more policemen and develops processes of manipulation vis-a-vis the population and the international community. They say things like, ‘If you don’t support us, the result will be a surge of Islamists and illegal migrants.’ Those are deep traps.”

The only solution Sansal is aware of involves long-term work to ensure that nonreligious values become the broadest common denominator in society. I ask him if the secularization process fomented as part of the pan-Arabism of Gamal Abdel Nasser and others failed. “That was just a semblance,” says Sansal. “The government is like a chameleon, which adjusts itself to its surroundings naturally, without thinking. Let us not forget the existence of the Cold War at that time. The Arabs did what other nations around the world did in Latin America, for example. They asked who will protect them, the Americans or the Soviets, and then you had to play the game with them, to say, ‘We are also somewhat socialist.’ These are tricks engaged in by those who want to survive.

“I saw Algeria shift from a relative democracy during the period of French rule to the socialist utopia of the early 1960s and then the military dictatorship, the reversion to Islamization. The society did not change, it only adjusted itself. There was no emancipation, either personal or societal. At present, I am concerned by the headway being made by the Islamists. The desire to establish the Islamist ‘alternative’ has reached a high level of feasibility. That is extremely dangerous.”

So the time has come to leave.

Sansal sighs. “I tell myself time and again that I am leaving, packing it in, that the struggle can also be waged from elsewhere, not only from here. But at the same time I tell myself: It is out of the question to leave them this country. It is abnormal.”

Sansal’s commitment to his country evokes the memory of another great Arab writer, the only one to be awarded the Nobel Prize: Egypt’s Naguib Mahfouz.

Like Mahfouz, who was the victim of an assassination attempt by Islamic fundamentalists, do you also fear for your life if you go on writing from inside Algeria?

“Fear is a feeling that is simultaneously objective and subjective. Some of the things I say hurt people: the members of government whom I accuse of corruption, the Islamists against whom I come out every day. They are all capable of attacking me, so I am fearful. By the same token, fear is also very subjective and very dangerous. It functions like a drug, because human beings like to feel fear. It partakes of desire, contains an element of pleasure and is also a type of romantic ideal, especially when one is fighting for freedom, for peace. Fear, then, has a very personal side, and we need to be careful of that. I would rather try to observe fear from an objective angle, because that makes it much easier to cope with. Only very simple precautions are needed.”

Sansal’s open and straightforward manner of speech overlies a complex, oppressive situation. “My wife and I avoid public places. We do not go to the market, as in the past, or on outings. Caution is the byword.”

What are you more fearful of the Islamists, or the government and its emissaries?

“The government. Islamists mean violence. Someone will come and stab you, like they did to Naguib Mahfouz, or they will put a bullet in my head. I have friends who were murdered like that, such as Tahar Djaout, who was shot as he got out of his car. [Djaout, an Algerian writer and defender of secularism, was assassinated in 1993 by extreme Islamists].

“The threat from the government is more complex. I was fired. My wife, who was a teacher, was pushed to leave her job. When I published ‘The German Mujahid,’ the authorities saw to it that the parents association demonstrated and demanded that their children not be taught by a woman whose husband ‘works for the Mossad’ in those words. I thought that wave would pass, but months passed and the opposition only grew. My wife felt like she wanted to die. Finally I said: Leave. Now they are attacking my brother, a small entrepreneur whom they drove to bankruptcy.”

The name that comes to mind is that of Orhan Pamuk, from Turkey, a Nobel laureate, who also has a hard time making his voice heard in his country. The intertwining of the personal and the public is liable to become a nightmare.

“Those who are most critical of me in Algeria are the intellectuals,” Sansal notes. “But when they come here, to Paris, they deliver speeches and everyone straightaway wants to give them a Nobel Prize for democracy. That’s a trait of all the Arab states. There are two brains: One that functions inside the country and one that functions outside it. The latter is faultless, because most of them went to university abroad and are cultured. But when they get back home, in the family, with the mosque nearby, the conditions are so oppressive that they dispense with that brain and install the Algerian, Tunisian or Moroccan brain. That is how they function.”

So the question of questions is whether they listen to you at home, in Algeria?

“That is a question I ask myself all the time.”

A necessary parting

Sansal has two daughters from a first marriage with a woman of Czech origin. That “mixed” marriage did nothing to make life easier, not even in ostensibly secular Algeria. “You can say that Algeria separated us,” he says. “We, the Algerians who married foreign women, feel guilty. As though we betrayed Allah, the Prophet, the revolution, by marrying Christians or Jews. The spouse also finds herself in a tricky position, and when the children reach school age, things get even more complicated. You know, children can be cruel among themselves. It was very hard.”

Sansal sinks into a reverie, then launches into a story from the period of his first marriage. Plainly, it is not easy for him to bring these events to mind, but it is important for him to tell things as they happened.

“One day my daughter disappeared. It was an afternoon like any other. We went to pick her up from school. The children came out one after the other, but my daughter wasn’t there. I asked in the school and was told that everyone had left. I started looking all over the neighborhood. I asked her girlfriends they were already home but no one knew. I decided to go to the police to report the disappearance of my daughter. On the way to the station I passed the mosque, and I saw children emerging from it, including my daughter, who was then 6 or 7. I asked the young guy who was leading them out what was going on. He told me they had just finished a lesson in religion, according to an agreement with the school.”

Deeply agitated, Sansal returned home with his daughter and the next day went to see the school headmistress to understand the event. She explained calmly that it was a program of the Algerian Education Ministry. It is geared “especially for mixed couples, to strengthen the children’s attachment to Islam,” the headmistress told him. The incident left Sansal deeply shocked. “I told myself that we were living in a totalitarian regime. We decided to get our daughters out of Algeria. Two weeks later, they were in Prague, staying with my wife’s parents.”

The excruciating parting from the girls, who henceforth lived with their Czech grandparents, ultimately brought about the end of Sansal’s first marriage. “It lasted another 10 years,” he says. “My younger daughter started to suffer from complicated problems. We thought we were going to lose her, and her mother went there to take care of her.” Sansal’s second wife is Algerian; the two live in Algiers.

When we meet, Sansal is immersed in preparations to ensure the success of the Strasbourg meeting. “We are very aware of the complexity of this endeavor, of the difficulty involved in getting it off the ground. It is very important for there to be Arab and Muslim writers at the conference. We have to help them get there and take part, get them involved, help them get over the fear. I am almost tempted to say that they have to be obliged to come. They are obliged to understand that they are not committing a sin when they work for peace alongside the Israelis. On the contrary, it is a blessing. Being an intellectual entails self-commitment. One can attend and also stick to all the positions every participant can hold about Israel and Palestine. But it is obligatory to be there; there is work that we are obliged to do together. We need the contradictions that separate us in order to live.”

The fact that his Israeli opposite number will be David Grossman is a source of great pride to the Algerian writer. “I have followed his work for years, and he is just the person for this mission,” Sansal says. “Besides the fact that he is a great writer, he is simply a wonderful person. I admire him.”

And after Strasbourg next year in Jerusalem?

Sansal laughs. “In Jerusalem, in Ramallah, why not? It would be marvelous if Grossman and I could go together to Ramallah.”  

Innocents abroad: Why David Grossman backs Boualem Sansal’s initiative

Last May, David Grossman decided to attend a conversation with Boualem Sansal at the Jerusalem Writers Festival. At the time, he did not know the Algerian writer personally and had not read his work.

“I came to express appreciation for his courage,” Grossman says, “for his willingness to come to Israel and expose himself to the complexity of life here, and not protect himself by means of stereotypes and prejudices.”

After the public meeting between Sansal and the audience, he and Grossman spoke briefly. Even though the Algerian does not speak English and the Israeli writer’s French is not fluent, “there was a translator and a feeling of an instant connection. There was warmth and there was friendship,” Grossman recalls ahead of the international conference in Strasbourg, in which he will also take part. Grossman prefers to leave the honor of leading the initiative to Sansal, but will go to France to stand by the courageous intellectual from the other end of the Mediterranean.

What made you decide to join Sansal and the others who are organizing the Strasbourg event?

“There were two reasons. The first is that even if I am not certain the event will have immediate practical implications, I hope that it will help create public opinion in Europe concerning the solution to our conflict here. I don’t know how it is possible to achieve world peace [which Sansal hopes to see as one of the results of the meeting], but I am focusing on smaller things. We need to note the possibility that one day these things will be achievable, that there is an alternative.

“In addition, I very much like people who possess acquired innocence. People who are not innocent, who have gone through much and know a thing or two about life, but are still ready to be innocent in a world that is cynical. A world in which the clear-eyed sobriety is so absolute that it prevents doing and stifles all desire to act. I am all for the self-aware innocents. Sansal is one of them.”

Daring to speak out for a secular Algeria

Emmanuel Sivan, professor of Islamic history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is well acquainted with the work of Boualem Sansal. He situates the writer in a large group of Algerian intellectuals of whom the best known is Assia Djebar, who lives in voluntary exile in the United States. Djebar, who is about 13 years older than Sansal, “belongs with him to a school of Algerians who came from the left and believed, and continue to believe, in the secularity of Algeria after its liberation from the yoke of the French occupation,” Sivan says.

“This secular, liberal stream is also critical of the corrupt government of the FLN, the national liberation movement that fought against France and became the ruling party. The current president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, comes from its ranks. The people of culture, among them Sansal, speak out against him. Sansal is not a unique case in this serious stream. And in contrast to most of the Arab states, it is also not a cowardly stream.”

This is a group, Sivan says, that dares to speak its mind in the face of the authorities and society, in literature and in film. They are very concerned about “the Islamization of society.”

What influence do they wield in the politics of their country?

“It is negligible in that sphere.”

Sivan finds it difficult to believe that many will follow in Sansal’s footsteps, and like the event’s organizers in Paris, he too is asking himself how many Arab writers will show up for the Strasbourg meeting. Indeed, the storm over the movie that mocks the Prophet Mohammed seemed to make it even less likely that well-known figures from the Middle East will attend the event.

As an expert on the modern political history of Algeria, to what extent do you agree with the criticism hurled at Sansal for drawing a comparison between Nazism and extremist Islam?

“Any comparison with Nazism is impossible,” Sivan asserts, adding that he is also against this analogy when it is used in Israel in regard to various issues. “Fanatical Algerian Islam is a type of fascism, a totalitarian form most researchers would agree with that. This certainly does not justify the government’s crimes, but in any case the regime had no problems when it launched a blood-drenched war against the Islamists after they won the elections in 1991, a result the army refused to accept.

“The Algerian leadership had no moral qualms about unleashing tremendous force against the Islamists. And it did not encounter the kind of international problems Assad now faces in Syria. After all, if you are a regime that supplies gas to Europe with the quality and reliability of Algeria, all is forgiven.”

Boualem Sansal.Credit: Amit Israeli
An explosion at the Algiers City Hall during the War of Independence against France.Credit: AP
David Grossman. Credit: Daniel Bar-On
Boualem Sansal in Jerusalem. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi