Kamel Daoud: ‘I refuse to let fear take centre stage in my life’

Kamel Daoud has changed his mind about Fridays. In The Meursault Investigation, the Algerian polemicist’s celebrated novel retelling Albert Camus’s L’Étranger from the Algerian perspective, the narrator describes them as the days “closest to death in my diary”, when the world is reduced to “testicles to clean and verses to recite”. But for the past two months in Algeria, Fridays have become the stage for an uprising against the two-decade regime of Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the 82-year-old wheelchair-bound leader who finally stepped down on April 2.

Sitting in the Marco Polo, a Left Bank restaurant popular with Parisian publishers, Daoud says fellow Algerians have lately taken to teasing him. He reports a message posted on social media in the morning: “Fridays have become the best days of my life and Kamel Daoud is not going to disagree.”

Daoud, who lives in Oran, Algeria’s second-largest port, stormed the literary scene in 2013 with the publication of The Meursault Investigation, a post­colonial bombshell of a book revisiting Camus’s 1942 absurdist chef-d’oeuvre from the viewpoint of the brother of the unnamed murdered Arab. The 48-year-old journalist at Le Quotidien d’Oran has since published another novel, Zabor ou Les Psaumes, a compilation of his most acerbic columns, and an essay on Picasso, released last autumn, Le peintre dévorant la femme.

These are exhilarating times for the north African country, the continent’s largest by size. Scarred by a decade of civil war in the 1990s between Islamists and the army, the authoritarian regime, presiding over vast oil and gas reserves, seemed immune from the popular revolts that rocked neighbouring Tunisia and Libya in 2011, in what became known as the Arab spring. But when Bouteflika, who was left paralysed by a stroke, decided in January that he would seek re-election for a fifth time, Algerians rebelled, ultimately forcing the president to step down.

A figure of the war of independence from France, Bouteflika is emblematic of a generation reluctant to let go, Daoud says. An old power confronts the country’s youth and fails to silence it by conjuring memories of conflicts it has not experienced. “It’s like a Greek tragedy,” he says. “The de-colonisers are unable to envisage the future and unable to conceive death.”

Dissent mounted almost unnoticed, emerging in unlikely places such as football stadiums, where supporters started chanting the USM Alger football club anthem “La Casa del Mouradia”, a sleepless boy’s lament about the elderly president and his clique of advisers. In a country where the press is muzzled and visas for the foreign press are hard to obtain, the internet has been used to disseminate unrest. One of the slogans seen in demonstrations was “We are no longer on Facebook, we are in the streets”.

“Twenty years ago, a youngster in Tamanrasset in the Sahara had no idea of how people lived elsewhere,” explains Daoud. “Now you just have to click on YouTube and get on Facebook to see that the world is there. The internet has standardised a certain idea of happiness, or at least of creature comforts.” He adds: “This is not just a political movement, it’s a desire to come to life again. We were in a sort of funeral, an endless one.”

This is an awakening Daoud has been urging for years, but the outcome is unclear and a military crackdown possible. The regime’s “oligarchs” more than Bouteflika’s inner circles, are clinging to power, he says. Daoud also worries about Islamist parties, which he says “have been tamed” over the years with cabinet roles and public contracts. They will seek to assert their power in the post-Bouteflika era, he believes. “I live this moment as something extraordinary but with extreme angst. It’s as if you won the lottery, but you lived in the wrong kind of neighbourhood,” Daoud says. “You are happy, but you worry someone is going to rob you.”

Daoud’s columns, in which he eviscerates the ruling class and Islamist parties’ influence over society, are published in The New York Times and El País. But at home he was the target of a fatwa. “These are troubled times. It would be easy, as during the civil war, to kill an intellectual and then claim Islamists did it,” he says. Mist forms on the corner of his glasses, which he takes off. “I refuse to let fear take centre stage in my life. My wife is scared, I feel it . . . I am prudent, I prefer not to give them any opportunity.”

I ask if he finds inspiration in the upheaval and the time to write. “One doesn’t write good novels during revolutions, only before or after,” is the brisk response. I must look unconvinced, because he adds: “Listen, there’s a difference between making love and writing a poem about love. You can’t do both at the same time. Never.”

Daoud’s writing is infused with a simmering revolt against Islamism, a form of “suicide”, and dictatorship, a form of “murder” — the dark forces he says have plagued his country. “I write about life in between,” he says. But what initially inspired him were the American detective novels his police officer father had left behind in Mostaganem, a small seaside town between Algiers and Oran where Daoud grew up, in his grandparents’ care. “The trigger was boredom,” he says. “Boredom gives rise to talent . . . There was no television, nothing to do. There were these books in French with beautiful women on the covers. I started learning the language on my own. It was an amazing discovery — the world was big.”

I have experienced the civil war and have seen how the Islamists behave, how they will portray women as victims to advance their cause

As a teenager, he grew a beard and embraced an orthodox form of Islam. Like many of his friends, he could have taken up arms against the army when it cancelled elections to prevent the Islamist party from coming to power in the 1990s — a conflict that left 100,000 Algerians dead. But he distanced himself from religion shortly after starting university, finding faith in French literature. “I stopped practising in 1988,” he says. “The problem was I liked doubt . . . I was deeply wary of totalitarian explanations. I was born in a collectivist period. The primary value was the group, not the individual. And I am profoundly individualistic.”

Camus, born in Algeria, “cured” him, he says. “His priority is not an ideology, but his life, his body. I like philosophers who know we have only one body. Others believe in a group, in the people, the nation. I was born with one body and when I die, I will lose it.”

Daoud speaks French as he writes it. His prose is concise, elegant, sensual. “I read Joseph Conrad in French. I fell in love with its music, with the culture, and this window to the world. No one forgets a lover or a parent who offered you the greatest adventure of your life. I like it to be precise. I don’t like verbiage.”

It is a language closely associated with eroticism, he says. “I have read Henry Miller and Tennessee Williams in French. I have discovered sexuality in French books. I have discovered the prohibition of sex with Arabic.”

Ailing Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika resigned under pressure this month, but Daoud says the ‘oligarchs’ of his inner circle are clinging to power
Daoud caused an uproar in 2016 by denouncing the Arab world’s “sexual misery” and “sick relationship with women”, which he said led migrants to molest women during New Year celebrations in Cologne. “One hopes to experience love, but the mechanics of love — encounter, seduction, flirting — are prohibited,” he wrote in The New York Times.

Even more controversially perhaps, Daoud is a staunch defender of France’s secular laws, which ban the public wearing of face-covering headwear, such as the burka, and forbid civil servants and state school pupils from wearing ostentatious religious signs. He says the US press “unfairly” portrays the recurrent controversies around the hijab as a mere manifestation of Islamophobia. France has a large Maghrebi population, he points out, and American liberals who criticise the French dislike for the veil would react differently if Latino women started wearing it. “I am between the two cultures. I have experienced the civil war and have seen how the Islamists behave, how they will portray women as victims to advance their cause,” he says.

In France, a country still grappling with its colonial guilt — Algeria was a French département for more than a century and 1m colonialists were repatriated in 1962 — Islamist radicals have managed to link Islam and the Maghrebi communities. “The result is that if you criticise Islam, you attack the entire community,” he says. Islamists have also exported the idea that French laïcité is equivalent to atheism and betrayal. France is “trapped”, he says, and is unable to debate the place of Islam.

I confide that my views have changed since living in the UK, where it is not unusual to see police officers and teachers with headscarves. His eyes turn a darker brown. He does not have fond memories of Britain, which he says welcomed Islamist radicals during Algeria’s civil war. “The barbus were granted visas, not us . . . People use the UK as a model. I am sceptical. Because they forget that they are not dealing with cultural customs, but a political project. I am a Muslim, I am with you, drinking wine. Islamism is a global totalitarian project.”

He would like Algeria to move on from its colonial past and its fraught relations with France. “I am a child of the independence, not colonisation,” he says. “It’s as if you break up with your boyfriend but keep watching what your ex is doing for the rest of your life. It means you didn’t really break up,” he smiles.

I remark that he often uses love-related metaphors. This is also a feature of his books, including his latest essay on Picasso’s voluptuous portraits of his lover Marie-Thérèse Walter, featured in an exhibition in Paris and London last year. He writes about sex and love as if they were part of a spiritual quest. He confirms: “The most overwhelming en­counter is the love encounter. It results in something extraordinary: you literally end up naked,” he says. “It’s a philosophical enigma. Why is love so necessary since the loved one cannot die with you? Why does a relationship born in the precarity of chance become the expression of an absolute? It fascinates me.”

We return to the revolution unfolding across the Mediterranean. He predicts it will take time for the entire system to “disintegrate and leave”. “Don’t expect it to be a blockbuster film — there’s a revolution and in two months you end up with Switzerland . . . History is not human, it’s inhuman. Will we lose, succeed? Maybe, but for now we have won the lottery.”

Anne-Sylvaine Chassany is the FT’s world news editor


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