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Kamal Daoud: L’Étranger Nouveau

By Richard Marshall.


[Photo: Ferhat Bouda/Agence Vu, for The New York Times]

Algerian author Kamal Daoud writes to the existential ambiguities of a modernising Algeria, like Camus did before him, and it’s not incongruous to push these two Algerian writers together. Daoud’s last novel explicitly talks back to Camus and in so doing he hasps his contemporary dilemmas and grievances with a provocative, engaged and vital writing tradition needed more than ever these days. He’s writing about the choices of our precarious times, and doing so from a perspective that isn’t Anglo/American or European but one that’s young, modern, Algerian and existential. It’s angry, poised, clever, Muslim, playful, generous, anguished and cosmopolitan, nimble enough to engage with ambiguity and openness whilst driven by an urgency to seek solutions that refuses the temptations of paralysis in the face of the enormity and complexity of the situation. It’s a perspective I like.

Algeria was once the place socialists and revolutionaries of the last century thought of as the promised land. Liberation from the French was a key event and has been a contested site of debate and controversy ever since. It’s a debate endlessly using the revolutionary rhetoric out of a secularised European history of Revolution. Consequently Fanon has been the go-to guide, read by romantic socialists everywhere as the guy telling the world what was happening. But Fanon’s anti-colonial, anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist secular socialist analysis misread what happened. Something else was in play, and still is; an Islamic Puritan Reformation worthy of an Ibn Knox or Ibn Calvin. We’d have been better reading Ben Badis not Fanon. I’m not saying that everything is about religion there, but it wasn’t expected and wasn’t something secular Marxist or socialist creeds could accommodate.

The new reformed Islam is modern – it’s annoying when commentators keep going on about how old and anachronistic it is- it’s less than a hundred years old and was exactly what was needed to bring about a new modern independent nation. It’s indigenous nature meant it was able to provide a unifying ideology against foreign masters like the French. It provided a satisfying home grown ideology that foreclosed the need for any foreign one. It had the added advantage of being a completed blueprint for a nation state, readymade and ready to go, so to speak, which obviously saved the time and effort of having to build one up from scratch – or import one from foreigners. Its literate, scholarly, individualistic and sober idiom made it perfectly serviceable for the urban literate individualistic modernity fast replacing a backward agrarian ruralism. It provided the only unifying ideology for all the groups in the territory to stand behind. (It’s capacity for permanent reformation, analogous to Marxist permanent revolution, has engendered multiple charismatic Ibn Trotskys but these tend to be used in the exportation of the ideology and is frowned upon by most urbanites). Unlike the Marxist versions of revolution of the last century which saw itself as restoring a lost romantic gemeinschaft, the Islamic reformation presents a continuity rather than a break, providing a nationalism in a sober, puritan idiom that appeals to the educated urban traditionalists, intellectuals and shopkeepers. For this latter group the provision of an orderly and law governed nation in their own home-grown idiom has enormous appeal. And why not?

The opposition between community and society – gemeinschaft and gesellschaft – is in Europe thought of as a matter of succession. (Gellner made this point years ago). There the agrarian traditional community is replaced by industrial society. It’s a transformation from status to contract. Since then, in Europe and the Anglo-American nexus, the merits of this polarity has been the subject of heated debate. On the one hand a vigorous re-enchantment industry dreams of returning to the organic, seamless cultures of collective brotherhoods, intertwined sentiment, understanding and solidarity whilst on the other hand modernists celebrate the association of free individuals linked via freely entered-into contractual arrangements of rational means-ends calculation. It’s a debate that I can’t see ending anytime soon.

In Muslim society (with the huge exception of the Ottoman Empire) the polarization doesn’t exist and so the endless debate doesn’t happen. For Muslims the polarization isn’t a succession but is rather, in Ernest Gellner’s words, ‘… an essentially synchronic phenomenon. The two social forms are not merely present at the same time, they have to be present at the same time; they need each other; neither of them can possibly manage without the other; they are complementary.’ Consequently if you’re discontented with the way of life in such a setting it’s not about identifying yourself with one side or the other. Any idea of nostalgia for the lost gemeinschaft of a traditional past, the sort of thing we get in philosophers like Heidegger and the late Wittgenstein, a romantic longing to return to the womb-like social arrangement of pre-industria, just isn’t as easy to imagine from a Muslim perspective. For a Muslim gemeinschaft comes with gesellschaft attached; so any attempt at nostalgia would involve having both – perhaps with an older version of gemeinschaft granted – but with gesellschaft there nevertheless. Weber’s famous disenchantment theses doesn’t apply, nor any of the familiar criticisms of modernity from the re-enchantment merchants which have been so de rigueur these last fifty years or so. It’s no wonder some have found it hard to understand what’s really going on in Algeria and other Muslim nations. The European hats don’t fit.

What has happened is that the contemporary scene for a Muslim living in, say, Algeria, is that the institutions that enabled the polarity to synchronically coexist have changed and so the form of the gemeinschaft has changed. The rural infrastructure has largely been replaced by an urban one. The Islam of urban industria (scriptural, complete, scholary, sober) has now completely wiped out the Islam of the rural agraria (charismatic, illiterate, localized, Dionysic). To be nostalgic for the loss of the marabout is a possibility of course, just like Western urban sophisticated intellectuals still go on as if they’d like to get back to the gemeinschaft womb of the medievals. In fact it may be that there’s a type of urban intellectual that always finds any version of gesellschaft too disenchanting. In such a case anything that tempers that disenchantment will appeal. A sophomoric Marxist rhetoric promising to bring a liberating gemeinshaft to replace the iron cage has definite appeal if you believe it. But the gemeinschaft in Muslim society was never historically replaced, it just changed its form (going from the saintly antics of a Maghrebian Russell Brand-like marabout to the stern puritan sobriety of an Ibn John Knox, to offer a cartoon translation for the European readers). Any discontent needs to negotiate both polarities rather than fixate on one being the solution to succeed and replace the other.

Traditional agrarian society uses culture and ethnicity to distinguish privileged groups. The cultural and ethnic markers give the powerful a recognized and exclusive idiom to work in. For it to work the markers and idiom must be well known and unambiguous. Any outsider using the culture or assuming the privileges of the ethnic group in charge is seen as either a presumptuous clown or else a polluting, sacrilegious actor of lèse-majesté. So here’s the first thing no one likes to talk about and Daoud draws attention to. Algerian power is in the hands of groups whose aura is based largely on distinctions of ethnicity and cultural distinction taken from the previous, non-nationalist settlement. The Berber’s still rule (and Daoud is of Berber heritage himself), Arabic is still the language of power and so on. Dissolving old ethnic markers is taking time and is opposed by self-serving interest groups and Daoud wants to talk about it without the pieties of the recent past always stifling the criticisms. But more of that later.

In pre-industrial society the same cultural and ethnic markers that provide the elites also provide a way of marking out the pariah groups for the necessary bureaucratic jobs. Eunochs, priests, slaves and foreigners were traditionally the best sorts for this. They could do their jobs without strengthening their own groups, and so could be trusted by those in power more than those with potentially upwardly mobile local and kin groups waiting in the wings.

In the old set-up the high cultures needed low cultures, and a clerkly guild to sustain it. In Algeria Islam transformed itself from a shared idiom for the dispersed agrarian poor into a tool of the new nation. Nineteenth century Islam was defined by reverence for holy lineages, rural shrines and saint cults used to define tribes and tribal boundaries . Now it has removed all that and identifies itself with a strict puritan reformist scripturalism, seeing the saintly dervish Russell Brandians mediating between man and God as beyond the pale and ridiculous. The new reformist Islam has underwritten the new urban bourgeois idiom and replaced the illiterate, localized and rural idiom of the marabout version. It has provided the unifying ideology of the new nation state as well as indigenously conferred legitimacy against colonialism. This is why the French had to go. Algeria is a nation built out of the shared High Muslim religion conferring indigenous sources of modernity such as literacy upon it, plus an ascetic, bourgeois, puritan idiom which formally emphasizes the equality of everyone before God and reverses the European idea that religion and modernity can’t mix. And for Algerians the great thing about Reformist Islam is that it really is indigenous. It isn’t a foreign import and so can speak with unique collective authority against foreign powers. As I said before, I think this is why Algeria bemused radical foreigners who expected to find a secular promised land. Foreign radicals like to read their Fanon but rarely their Ben Badis, founder of the reformist movement in Algeria. It’s a great shame.


Douad lives in all this. He’s part of an Algeria that has now moved towards a mobile, anonymous, centralized mass society with urban styles of living, habits of rational calculation, commercial probity, literacy, and a scriptural religion. It’s a heady mix where the young modernists living in Algeria feel the tension as monopolies of social exclusion and inclusion break. What tension? Well, all those double standards that traditional society underwrote are now seen (or at least half seen) as corrupt. The services that were once the preserve of the reliable pariah groups in agraria have become generalized. In the traditional agrarian set-up a commercial deal with a pariah was one that didn’t involve any worries about deals, cousins, betrayals or promises. These groups were so below the radar of kinship and honour that you could just have a straight, reliable commercial deal. In contrast, any deal between kinsmen, clansmen, allies, enemies and so on were complicated by a whole range of considerations, where grudges, betrayal, marriage and insider advantages had to be worked out and planned for. These were long term calculations of intangible and multi-stranded complexity that feuds, bonds of friendship and brotherhood delivered over generations.

The rule back in the day was: those who lack status can honor a contract. Modernity and the new idiom generalises this. Now everyone is inedible, unmarriable, a neutral single-stranded individual capable of making a deal solely based on commercial, contractual considerations. Modernity also erodes the elites from their protected sphere of high status. But it also erodes the disabilities of the pariahs. A good thing in and of itself, but by so doing they in turn lose their monopoly in their specialized place and the protection their previous pariah status gave them. Everyone takes the place of the excluded pariah, and the sort of multi-stranded deals between families and clans are proscribed as a thing of the past and corrupt. In light of the new idiom everyone is a pariah.

And what happens when the central power finds itself with this new situation? The pressures of agrarian social temptation are gone but new ones arise. This is where we are now. Everyone needs to take up the areas that were once the preserve of the pariah groups, but that’s not to everyone’s taste. At the same time the former elites are now deprived of wealth and status, or else hanging on to it using tactics that are disreputable according to the new idiom but are traditional and well understood.

So what’s Douad doing? He’s not buying bullshit. Algeria is shuddering towards modernity from an agrarian past but it’s modernity is not a blueprint that a secular socialism and its European assumptions can fully imagine. He’s aware of the heinous crimes committed by the French during the war of independence but he’s also aware of the ignorance of many who have tried to theorise about it all. The idiom that sustained Algerian nationalism is an Islam that is permanently reforming itself and the most protestant of all the great monotheisms. It’s the one religion that fits the modern world as a blueprint, but for the ultra-cool youth of the modern urban style its Puritanism lacks the smooth sexy sophistication of cosmopolitan industria with its Prada bags and nighclubs. Puritans are not that kind of cool. So for urban sophisticated cosmopolitan Muslims in Algeria there’s a choice to be had. Not being Muslim is an option, but it’s pretty unappealing for obvious reasons. A better option is the ‘amnesia’ option.

Ernest Gellner wrote about this option when he told us: ‘Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once observed that to be a gentleman one does not need to know Latin and Greek, but one must have forgotten them’. That’s the amnesia option. For those in the new nationalist settlements of Islam many would prefer to have Islam as the faith they lost. Or Anglicanised. Anglicanism as practised in the UK has been the preferred religion of those who take the amnesia option. It appeals to the sober, non-ideologically addicted type. These are the types who when faced with uncertainty as to whether God proscribes or prescribes dancing will not dance themselves but not stop others. It leaves options open and is rational without causing a fuss.

Daoud is not writing about being Islam, he’s writing about the whole damn thing, about living the contemporary Algerian metropolitan life. He can see cultural and ethnic markers as just codes for class bias and racism and his fresh new Algerian urban modern sensibility will have nothing of that. A communication and life that requires unimpeded transmition and transport, where ethnicity, inherited culturally coded social status and differentiation are obliterated, these are the base lines that Daoud and his new urban Algerians want to see drawn. Mobility and equality bring in a new frontier. Individualism isn’t an added extra, it’s what modernity brings with it and this is what his novels fiercely delineate.

So Douad is taking issue with what is left out of the discussion about Algeria. Language is one of them. Algeria imposed an extremely foreign, literary Arabic language on local Arab and Berber dialects to create its formal internal homogeneity. It’s only recently that Berber has been recognized as a national language. This in turn has created a Kabyle nationalism within Algeria that works a bit like that the Basques in Spain. Daoud asks hard questions such as: if Algerian nationalism isn’t discussed in terms underwritten by the F.L.N. – which suppressed Berber identity even though it was a Berber led group – then why does French have to be classified as foreign when most people actually speak it along with a mongrel Arabic Douad calls Algerian? And why does he have to cow tow to forces and ideas he can hardly bring himself to even pretend to respect? For Daoud it seems as if some supporters of Algeria are too defensive to criticize the internal failings of the place. What Douad points to in his writing is that to continue to discuss Algeria in terms of the tropes of colonialisation, nationalism, Islamicisation and so on is to deny its developing maturity. Such talk denies the fact that Algeria faces new concerns and that continually talking of a colonial past and the evils of international capitalism suffocates any new agendas. He’s a modernist of Berber ancestry but what he wants to do is assert the importance of the Algerian existential voice outside of the too familiar sectarian, Islamic and quasi-socialist rhetoric of an old guard that is still too keen to fight on old fronts.

He says that there’s a schizophrenia in the Algerian sensibility at the moment, and a dark hypocrisy where the modernists fail to come out and make a stand. Islamicists hate him but so do the nationalists and the leftists because his story doesn’t endorse their reading of the situation. But Daoud isn’t bothered about the story they want to impose, that of some essentialist Arabic Islamic identity fighting world capitalism. He doesn’t think that identity exists. For that reason he will call out Israel as a neo-fascist state and yet resist having to identify himself with Palestines just because they’re Islamic. He doesn’t feel the need to pretend there’s some sort of solidarity between all Muslims courtesy of their just being Muslims when clearly there isn’t one. Being a Muslim isn’t like being a football fan. He’s a grown up Muslim. A modern one. Most are.

In a great recent review in the New York Times he is quoted as saying that ‘…they accuse me of hating Algeria, which is absurd. Of course capitalism exists, and when you have an empire, you also have imperialism. But imperialism doesn’t explain everything. And it doesn’t absolve us from solving our own problems.’ Daoud is demanding that Algerians grow up. It won’t do to continually find excuses when many of the problems are homegrown. He wants them to stop their cultural cringe and tendency to find scapegoats elsewhere and instead imagine and implement indigenous solutions. He wants to play and be brash, to work his education and modern high culture to his own ends. His Algerian nationalism is cosmopolitan in its breadth and depth. His discontent is that of cosmopolitan individuals everywhere. He’s also a Muslim, which isn’t irrelevant but doesn’t exhaust what he is or what he’s thinking about.

I’m raising my glass to him. Cheers.

Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

Buy his book here to keep him biding!

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, April 11th, 2015.