A new documentary by the Algerian director Salem Brahimi is the best antidote to the lure of Daesh. Abd El Kader is based on the life of Emir Abdelkader (Ibn Muhieddine, 1808-83), within whose story we can find contemporary themes such as political Islam, Arab uprisings and religious coexistence.
Emir Abdelkader is a little known yet leading figure in Algerian history. He is a nationalist figure for the people of Algeria and an orientalist figure to the French. He was a pioneer and inspired what became the Algerian War of Independence in 1954. Usually depicted draped in a large white garment, his spiritual essays appealed to many people.
According to Brahimi, if Algerians don’t really know about him, it is because his life is not taught in school, even though he played a major part in the ousting of the French colonisers from Algeria. “Nevertheless, there have been some critics who say that the emir was a traitor who signed agreements with the French,” he explains, “but I don’t think that’s true. He fought for 17 years against what was the first army of the world back then as it carried out a scorched-earth policy and other war crimes.” What’s interesting, he points out, is that the emir was a military leader and a Sufi who believed that the war against the colonial power was a duty, but a duty that needed to be disliked and only carried out reluctantly, out of necessity. “It was only a duty to defend oneself against the invader, that’s it. Like every duty, there’s a beginning and an end.” This was the “small jihad; the “big jihad” was the struggle that every single human being carries on against their own desires. “The emir ousting the French seems to be the only thing that is remembered of him in Algeria. While that was a major part of his life it was far from being the only big thing he did.”
France, believes Brahimi, also has an influence over the way that Emir Abdelkader is remembered today: “The emir figure has been picked up by France for its postcolonial strategy. However, when only one person gets all the credit it’s like robbing the entire Algerian population of the honour that they deserve.”
Even so, Brahimi’s documentary does show the horror of the Algerian conquest. It brings context to the words of new French President Emmanuel Macron, who said during the election campaign that what France did in Algeria was a “crime against humanity.” The director agrees: “What happened in Algeria was indeed a crime against humanity to say the least. In 1967, it was decided to grant amnesty for all that had happened.” An amnesty, though, doesn’t mean that it is forgotten. “The pain and sorrow remains. History must be neither forgotten nor rewritten.” One of the other presidential candidates in France, François Fillon, “dared” to describe the colonial occupation of Algeria as a “culture-sharing experience”. That, says Brahimi, is basic colonialist discourse, implying that the coloniser brings “light and civilisation” to indigenous populations.
The film-maker insists that we have to consider what has been said and done before making such comments about the past. “For instance, General Thomas Bugeaud [1784-1849] said about the Arabs in front of the Parliament, ‘If necessary, kill them all!’ Marshall de Saint-Arnaud smoked out women and children. The conquest of Algeria started off with barbarism.” As far as Brahimi is concerned, Macron’s comment is interesting because it created a lot of commotion. “The tension is still here, no fire has actually been put out. But Emmanuel Macron is from a younger generation, which is quite interesting as well; he seems unabashed.”
The Algerian director attempts to give a human dimension to Emir Abdelkader, using international experts to put his life into perspective. “We could have just used Algerian experts, but I wanted a polyphonic narrative in order to give the story a universal meaning. The international experts are not linked emotionally to French-Algerian history which make them able to speak even more freely. Universalism really means that you take what defines you or makes you who you are and then see how people can actually relate to it globally. Algerians are not used to seeing themselves in that way; seeing that Algeria can be universal.”
The documentary treats the emir’s life very skilfully He is certainly not depicted as a saint, nor in a purely emotional fashion. Abd El Kader uses the Algerian Darija dialect of Arabic through the meditative voice of singer and musician Amazigh Kateb; the oud of Mehdi Haddad provides the rhythm to the story. The emir is seen as a complex and modern figure. Brahimi is proud to say that his documentary is not objective. “It can’t be. And the real struggle I had anyway was to avoid depicting the emir as a superhero or a romantic hero. I stake out serenity when it comes to this historical figure. The emir has been in the midst of an ideological battle in Algeria, and I was not interested in doing the same.”
Abdelkader was born in Guetna in 1808 when Algeria was under Ottoman rule. His father, Sidi Muhieddin Al-Hassani, was the Muqaddam (facilitator) of a Zaouïa (religious brotherhood). Having become a Hafiz (one who has memorised the whole Qur’an) by the age of 14, Abdelkader could have led the peaceful life of a religious man. Events, however, dictated otherwise. “Events made me more than I made events,” he once said.
France ousted the Ottomans from Algeria in 1830, after a diplomatic incident between the Dey of Algiers and the French Consul. In order to drive back the invaders, Abdelkader became an “Emir”, becoming a political, military and religious leader; he fought the French army for 17 years, throughout which his political intelligence was obvious, not least his use of a mobile headquarters. When he eventually surrendered, he was imprisoned in Ambroise in France, even though he had been promised that he would be exiled to an Arab country. “He had always been able to reset the circumstances that were thrown at him,” says Brahimi. “He reset the war in such a way that prisoners were protected. He reset France’s colonisation so that it led to the establishment of an Algerian state. His life is full of surprises; when in Ambroise, he refused a deal.”
When Louis Napoléon Bonaparte came to power in 1848 he authorised the emir to go to the Levant; his first stop was Turkey followed by Damascus, where he studied further and found a spiritual balance. This is what he called the “Great Jihad”, the fight against our nafs (personal ego) and the study of Sufism, mainly through the teachings of Ibn Arabi. Indeed, Sufism is something that we can find throughout his whole life, Brahimi claims: “His political skills came from Sufism and its intellectual discipline. Sufism incites people to be free from appearances. It has its own vision of the world. How to accommodate the ideas of peace and war, of oneself and the other. Free from duality concepts. Everything has a purpose and makes sense. Thanks to that philosophy he was able to manage the logistics of the war, to oust the invaders without getting too passionate about the war and fuelling hatred towards the enemy. He was a spiritual man and a very good strategist.”
In Damascus, Abdelkader became the protector of the Christian and Jewish communities when 12,000 of them were threatened by riots. Brahimi’s documentary makes a clear link between past and present, getting us to think about the current horrors in Syria.
“The emir saga is a pan-Arabian story set in colonial times. We find a lot of links with Arabic culture, poetry and Islam. And the questions asked during the Ottoman period make us think even more about Syria today, for the war there is an international war with the different actors seeing only their own interests while the people pay for their foolishness.” In the name of Islam, he claims, the emir chose a different route and made everyone face their own responsibilities. “He was opposed to the Ottoman Empire, which had turned a blind eye to the massacres of Christians and Jews in 1860, and to the French, who claimed to be the only protectors of Christians in the Middle East.”
Emir Abdelkader was a military, spiritual and humanitarian figure. His life was the basis of reflections about war and prisoners of war long before the 1929 Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War came along. “This is what I find interesting about him,” Brahimi points out, “for whoever you might be, you can choose to be whoever else you want to be. The Arab world has a very pessimistic view about itself, but it is not a lost cause. We can choose to act differently. The emir chose not to respond to the enemy in the same way that the enemy was attacking his people. He overcame this vicious cycle by creating another way of waging war.”
Abdelkader practised his faith rigorously; he did not take it lightly, but this did not prevent him from protecting other people. “If political Islam in Algeria was not corrupted, I would be honoured to respect it, even though I disagree with it,” insists Brahimi. “Islam in Algeria is based on values that are not those of my country; they have been imported and we don’t understand them. What’s happening with these people obsessing over beards, wearing traditional outfits that are not even North African? Men are wearing the qamis from Afghanistan; how is the qamis an Algerian religious outfit? It’s only a reference to the Afghani mythology about jihadism.”
The real cure to Islamism is the life of Emir Abdelkader, he insists. “He was rooted in a culture and had values. Secularism is not the key, even though I believe in that too. The way the emir was practising Islam was simple.” Thus, he adds, in Algeria’s own history lies the solutions to its problems. “These solutions are deeply-rooted and peaceful. Algeria was a land of coexistence between cultures and religions and we won’t accept any lessons about this from anyone.”
In a broader way, Emir Abdelkader’s life puts into perspective the current questions which human civilisation is trying to answer. “The emir’s way of practising Islam is a protection against Salafism,” concludes Salem Brahimi. “The emir was not half-hearted when it came to religion; he was strict. But the way that he viewed a Christian, a Jew or a prisoner was the opposite of what Daesh or the GIA in Algeria during the Civil War put forward. His spiritual viewpoint was, therefore, very modern.”