Reading Kamel Daoud in America

Danielle Charette
18 December 2018

Review of Kamel Daoud, Chroniques: Selected Columns, 2010-2016 (Other Press, 2018)
Translated by Elisabeth Zerofsky

I’m a latecomer to the Affaire Daoud. I overlooked the fawning coverage that Kamel Daoud’s novel, The Meursault Investigation, received from the international press in 2015. And I also missed the international indignation at a column he wrote for Le Monde the following January. That piece, “Cologne, lieu de fantasmes,” presented the New Year’s Eve assault of some 600 women in Germany as an unassailable clash in values. Daoud argued that the attackers—most of whom were of North African or Middle Eastern descent and were rumored to be recent refugees—had confirmed the “sexual misery” and “pornographic Islamism” of the Muslim world. The outrage was predictable and swift, with prominent professors issuing an open letter against Daoud’s orientalism, essentialism, psychologization, and “colonialist paternalism.”

But when a friend gave me an English translation of Daoud’s Chroniques, I didn’t know the Algerian journalist was such a lightening rod (the French edition, Mes Indépendances appeared last year). I opened Daoud’s collection—culled mostly from his regular column with the Le Quotidien d’Oran—not realizing that Daoud was a writer who had managed to provoke both a fatwa from a Salafist imam and what Daoud has called the “Stalinesque” rebuke of Western academics. I just knew that his columns were alluring, sometimes agonizingly beautiful. Daoud alternates between anger with Algeria’s décideurs, metaphysical reflections on whether self-immolation is a crime, and poetic interludes on the night sky over the desert. He complains of how oil killed his country’s aesthetics and muses on the ethics of taking a selfie at Mecca.

His prose can be seductively clever. Take, for instance, Daoud’s definition of “democracy”:

Not the name of a woman from a foreign country, but your right to be a president, a people, a woman or a man, a merchant, an activist, an architect, a calm sunset, a person who goes for walks alone. When you have democracy, you will no longer need to get a visa to go to Europe, to walk over the sea, to howl. Democracy is when we are all presidents of the republic, and the president of the republic makes you dinner while you watch TV.

I’ll admit to liking the notion that democracy could be so domesticated that our leaders would serve up supper. Then again, this fantasy may have something to do with Americans’ choice of a reality TV star for president. Daoud’s translator, Elisabeth Zerofsky, suggests in her introduction that today’s Americans may find themselves more receptive to Daoud. Washington is not exactly Damascus. But we might appreciate Daoud’s willingness to condemn kleptocrats of all types and the tone in which he does it. He mourns the state of world politics at the same time that he can’t help but be bemused at the brazenness of the world’s politicians.

Daoud is quite good on how our relationship with screens is distorting political behavior on a global scale. The imam who issued the fatwa against Daoud turns out to be a low-level televangelist, who used Facebook to post his death threat. Perhaps we can shrug this off as Internet trolling, yet Daoud also writes of the surreal indifference we feel seeing Syrians die on Youtube. Technology is numbing us all around. Daoud describes how the 2010 feud between the wives of Yasser Arafat of Palestine and Ben Ali of Tunisia—exposed via an early Wikileak cable—played out as “a kind of pathetic pan-Arab sitcom, where the countries and the kingdoms serve as set pieces.” All the while, Al-Jazeera’s media empire projects a passive solidarity across the Middle East, at the expense of holding regional actors accountable. Daoud wishes that Arabs would prioritize national (i.e. secular) identities rather than Muslim ones. He insists that he speaks “Algerian”—not Arabic. Of course, to make this cultural distinction—teasing out Algeria from the rest of the “Arab world” and then defining the borders of the Arab wold vis-à-vis the West—Daoud paints with the sort of broad strokes that have gotten him into trouble.

But in his bid for a healthier nationalism, Daoud criticizes “the Algerian who is seeking a place where there will be no Algerians other than himself.” By indulging in such political solipsism, Daoud’s countrymen “are trying to escape ourselves in the name of the people, and the people in the name of themselves.” The same, I suspect, could be said of any number of Westerners who live out their populist dreams in front of cable news.

What I know of Algeria comes from a little Albert Camus in high school, viewing The Battle of Algiers for a French class, and 1840s Tocqueville—which is to say, not much. So Zerofsky is right that Daoud’s Chroniques have the capacity to open Americans up to Algeria. Daoud is well aware of his diplomatic role. In a column from 2010 titled, “An American Ambassador’s Guide to Algeria,” he remarks that Algeria is her “own widow.” His nation is hesitant and unhappy but too wedded to the past to change. Politicians like longtime president Abdelaziz Bouteflika continue to wield their reputations as former FLN fighters against the French, to the point that anyone not alive during Algeria’s initial days of decolonization (like Daoud, born in 1970) feels disenfranchised or indifferent. In a 2013 column, “Algeria: A Brief Introduction for Foreigners,” Daoud explains that Algeria is neither a dictatorship, nor a democracy. His country is open to markets, yet statist; it’s full of citizens scornful of France who nevertheless wouldn’t mind emigrating there. As Daoud puts it, Algeria is “a black hole of meaning in the empire of clichés.” The challenge for an American reading Daoud, then, is figuring out if he transcends political clichés or reinforces them.

Reviewing his op-eds from the distance of several years lends a little perspective. Over the course of the Chroniques, which span from 2010 to 2016, we see Daoud coming to terms with events that already feel remote: the evangelist pastor in Florida who threatened to burn the Koran, Qatar winning its World Cup bid, Wikileaks, the early days of Arab Spring, the rise of the Islamic State. In pieces from 2011, Daoud celebrates the protests in neighboring Tunisia, even if his joy is tinged by a shame that similar demonstrations weren’t underway in Algeria.

As the Arab Spring unfolds, Daoud stresses the necessity of revolution to overcome the stasis of “Waithood,” while also expressing his disappointment, come 2014, that Tunisia’s election suffered low turn-out and an Islamist plurality. Daoud still registers the election as a victory but worries about branding the Arab Spring with a “Made in Tunisia” stamp. The Tunisian case, he cautions, “thrills the dormant orientalism of foreign observers.” All this seems pretty prescient. Daoud is concerned with protecting the Arab Spring from Western clichés, which are, simultaneously, too optimistic and too contemptuous when it comes to peaceful democracy in the Middle East. Daoud’s more dramatic turns of phrase might lend themselves to a “clash of civilizations” narrative, yet his main interest lies in preserving cultural particularities.

Daoud strikes a less moderate tone on subjects like the control of female sexuality and unthinking solidarity for Palestine. Here, his critics from the academic left may have a point that Daoud plays to Western sensibilities. But note his choice in language. When he describes how Islamic fundamentalism disciplines the “spectacle” of women’s bodies, Daoud calls it a “disease,” symptomatic of dysfunctional power relations. Men “codify” sexuality as an exercise in bodily control. Likewise, Daoud would prefer to treat the Palestinians’ plight as a humanitarian disaster, rather than a trans-Arab cause, because he thinks portrayals of the conflict are too “emotive” and appeal too immediately to the “affect.” Daoud thumbs his nose at the academic establishment but does so using the vocabulary of Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze. So, yes, Daoud is a provocateur, but one who’s especially difficult to categorize.

In light of the recent murder of Jamal Khashoggi, it’s interesting to read Daoud referring to Saudi Arabia as the “white Daesh” for its more discreet use of violence and the way the regime exports Wahhabism. In 2015, Daoud decried the “amateurs in the art of denial on the Internet” who believed that Mohammed bin Salman, the young Saudi Crown Prince, would save the region. Daoud’s mantra is that jihadists are not born but made. We must be patient but clear-eyed about not tolerating governments that nurture more jihadists. America cannot battle “a poorly dressed ISIS in Syria, while shaking hands with a well-dressed ISIS in Saudi Arabia.” Daoud compliments Michelle Obama for not covering her head at King Abdullah’s funeral.

The main benefit of reading Daoud in America is that he can train us to think obliquely. Beneath the bluster and generalizations, it’s clear Daoud is searching to see conflict from a more productive angle. He warns repeatedly against the sort of power that sneaks up from behind. In 2015, Daoud dedicated a column to Shaimaa al-Sabbagh, the murdered Egyptian activist who haunts us with the “gaze of a woman wounded in the back.” Relatedly, Daoud fears that Arab solidarity is “killing Palestinians from the back.” And after the reaction to his “Cologne” column, Daoud responds that the contemporary journalist is “entrapped, ordered around, shoved in the back, and cast off.” Daoud is stubborn and paradoxical. But, at his best, his columns read as pleas for citizens across the world to stand up and turn around, in the hope that our politicians won’t catch us unaware.

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1 Comment

  • Chris says:

    “The main benefit of reading Daoud in America is that he can train us to think obliquely.”

    I think this is absolutely correct. After two years in Morocco and close relationships with Algerians here in Paris, I think very differently from a lot of my American progressive friends.

    Just one topic that I think deserves a lot more attention (and to which Daoud helps point the way) is Algeria’s own experience of Islamist violence in the 1990s. My Algerian friends here in Paris reacted very differently to the spate of terrorist attacks these past few years. More sang-froid, less freak-out melodrama. They had personal experience of Islamist violence that most Westerners do not have, and that showed.

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