Kamel Daoud is an angry man and it is difficult for him to conceal it. You can tell by the way he speaks, as if he is slapping away his words. Not only that, but he is in a hurry, hungry for life. He was 20 years-old when the civil war broke out in Algeria in the early 90s, and is determined to catch up on his 10 years of “non-living”. He is doing so with the publication of his new book, Mes Indépendances (“My Independence”), which is getting a lot of media coverage and publicity in France.
The 47 year-old author seems to annoy people in Algeria while in France he is being wooed. At home, he is criticised for his unflinching depiction of the country and is also occasionally criticised for being praised by the intellectual elite of the former colonial power. In France, we like his style and how he criticises his country, Islam and the Arab identity.
His breakthrough novel was published in 2014: Meursault contre-enquête (“Meursault, Counter-investigation”), which won the Prix Goncourt for the Best First Novel in 2015. Through his harsh writing, Daoud told the story and pain of Haroun, the brother of the “Arab” character created by Albert Camus in L’Étranger (“The Stranger”), who is foolishly assassinated by Meursault in the novel. Daoud’s book is amazing, depicting Algeria as if it is stuck in the past, between the 1962 War of Independence and the military dictatorship ruling since the end of the civil war. He was able to explain the origin of the madness in which Algeria now finds itself, a country where young people have to choose between idleness, migrating or radical Islam; in other words, between boredom, trying to reach Europe by crossing the sea or wishing for a better life in Paradise after the Hell that is living in Algeria.
Mes Indépendances is a collection of the chronicles he wrote between 2010 and 2016 for the newspaper le Quotidien d’Oran. His articles splashed everywhere. His analyses of current events are witty and cutting. He loves writing, and is in love with the words. He has written of the day when “clowns will rule the world”; this was long before Trump became US President, although Umberto Eco before him once wrote about the “fools” who would become kings. “If the US can ‘produce’ a Donald Trump,” said Daoud, “why are we surprised that a Bin Laden could have been created?”
The book opens on 17 July, 2010. Daoud is in Algeria, gazing upon the Mediterranean Sea, “as part of his sole legacy.” This sea creates a prison which will become, through the book, a “crib and a tomb”, which has been hijacked by religious fanatics obsessed by the body and its image.
The author is also obsessed, but by his identity, whether Arab, Muslim or Berber. Basically, this is an obsession that all Algerian people have, even though they fought for the country, for its uniqueness. In one of his chronicles, he quotes the former US ambassador in Algieria, who was describing it as a “forlorn country”. Daoud’s response was to the point: “As a journalist, I have never come across such a short but accurate description of my country and my people.”
Fantasising about what was happening in Tunisia during the 2011 revolution against Ben Ali, he wrote: “I’m dreaming of being Tunisian… In my own country, in my own streets, my people having my back while we are all facing the governing thieves. We would make them lower the prices, lower their gaze and then bow their heads.” This might have been the only way for him to feel fully Algerian, in a sense. He dreamt that the revolution would cross the border, minus the violence: “We can avoid the violence but not the revolution.” Daoud is adamant that he doesn’t like the Islamists, nor do the Westerners. However, once again, “They prove not to know what to do with us and the rest of the world.” By “us”, he means the “Arabs”.
The fire of the Tunisian revolution could be felt in Algeria, although it remained “cold”; 2011 was an eventful year. Daoud suggested that “jihadists are the children of dictatorships and not revolutions,” but by 2013 he was writing, “I, too, like waging war to free myself and celebrate, sometimes, my independence.”
Colonisation is obviously a topic that the Algerian author also obsesses over. Kamel Daoud is clearly against what the Algerian authorities have done with the history of the country. That is a key issue, he insists, for when you accept your past you get power over your own future. “Can we still ask France to apologise?” he asks. “When people are coming to your country, when they settle in, get medical care, buy properties, I think it is a bit cheeky [for them] to ask for apologies.” The targets of his comment were the Algerian military and the oligarchs who get medical care in France; President Abdelaziz Bouteflika was the first to do so.
Daoud’s love for words can sometimes lead him into the bad habit of only listening to his own voice as he sheds light on past and current events, sometimes subtly, sometimes more obviously. He also occasionally gets very dark, which is perhaps why he is so popular with the Western media. What is expected from him is an explanation, some enlightenment, about the mysterious Arab world. He is the oracle of Oran, the “prophet” who has to explain this “complex” world to Westerners who keep trying to explain it through their own “simple ideas”. His words are oft-repeated, becoming concepts in their own right: “Saudi Arabia is a successful Daesh,” for example. And, “The Palestinian cause is a human tragedy turned into an Arab/Muslim fight, until a point where the rest of the world doesn’t care anymore in good conscience.” Very weighty punchlines.
Perhaps his most emblematic chronicle was “Cologne, full of fantasies”, in which he denounced “the Arab-Muslim world, how people in these countries view women’s bodies and sexual desire.” Writing on 18 January last year, he wrote about the “Cologne-isation of the world”; how “a crowd of ‘the others’, meaning North Africans, Syrians, Arabs, refugees, exiled, invaders, took to the streets and assaulted women.” He also talked about how “the woman’s body had become a public place where everything is possible.” And then, carried away by his own lyricism, he wrote, “Sexual misery in the Arab world is so great that it has led to either portraying it crudely or to terrorism. A suicide bomber orgasms through his death.”
Well written, maybe, but so untrue. His “racism and Islamophobia” were denounced in France by a number of intellectuals. “Cologne-gate” has been the most revealing example of the author’s blurred lines, by which now he seems to be confined. After watching 590 hours of surveillance videos and questioning around 300 people, Cologne prosecutor Ulrich Bremer told Die Welt that over 60 per cent of the New Year’s Eve assaults were thefts but not rapes, and that out of 58 attackers, 55 were not refugees. Most were Algerians and Moroccans who had been living in Germany for decades, along with a few native Germans. Only two refugees were arrested; an Iraqi and a Syrian. Despite this, Kamel Daoud has never gone back on what he wrote.
He thus finds himself in a tricky position, torn between the responsibility of telling the truth to his people and avoiding any association with the Western viewpoint about Arabs and their countries. This is all the more important as he is being read on both sides of the Mediterranean, in France and in Algeria, both of which are still trying to get over the War of Independence. The topic even found its way into the current French presidential campaign, when independent candidate Emmanuel Macron visited Algeria and said that what France did there was “a crime against humanity”. When he faced the inevitable backlash in France, he qualified his comment by describing it as “a crime against individual human beings”. For Daoud, “too much pleading over what happened between France and Algeria has to stop, because here in Algeria, we are getting tired of it.”
Was this an epiphany? Has Kamel Daoud realised that he needs to be cautious when he writes about two worlds colliding? “I’m neither the intellectual-to-the-rescue being used in my country nor I am an indigenous intellectual used to serve Western ideologies. I know I can be overwhelmed but I remain clear-headed.”
He told El Watan, “Western countries keep trying to involve me and to use my chronicles to prove their points. I am aware of that, and I’m fighting that, my aim being either to destroy this mechanism or to use it to my advantage.”
It would have been better for Daoud to have added a disclaimer to his Cologne chronicle; he would not now be seen as a predictable herald, part of the great mechanism that is “Western ideology”. While it is true that “being free can sometimes be more difficult than being dead,” no one is a prophet in his own country. This is a saying Kamel Daoud could do well to meditate on, thinking of Jesus in Galilee. After all, does a person viewed by some as a prophet apologise for being wrong once if he has all too often been right before?
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.