No Sympathy


Photograph by Omar D

by Suzanne Ruta

In My Time A Personal and Political Memoir,
by Dick Cheney,
Threshold Editions: New York, 565 pp.

by Anouar Benmalek,
Arabia Books, Haus Publishing Co: London, 299 pp

Dick Cheney’s memoir, In My Time, is self serving, stonewalling and riddled with glaring omissions. But it does contain some startling revelations. Cheney was twenty-nine when he made his first trip abroad, in 1970 and then only on official White House business. His boss and mentor Donald Rumsfeld, head of Nixon’s Office of Economic Opportunity, invited him to attend Nasser’s funeral. Cheney scrambled to obtain his first passport. Makes you wonder, did our former VP and war leader ever in his entire life travel abroad as a simple citizen, without layers of protection from the grief of others?

In Cairo 1970, Cheney did not mingle with the crowd. He had been ordered not to. But the next night, when the crowds had dispersed, Rumsfeld, Cheney and Eliot Richardson, in dark business suits, rented camels and rode out to the pyramids.   Three soon to be famous men perched (like Steve Martin’s ¡Three Amigos!) on their mounts in the Cairo dusk, with no idea of the power destiny would place in their hands. We know of course and shudder at the ironies. Buried in Cheney’s book, in scenes like this one, is the material for some sort of drama. Tragedy or farce?

“Americans feel only their own pain,” read the headline in an Algerian newspaper on 9/11. That’s a silly statement, I thought, but after reading Cheney’s memoir you could almost agree. He’s particularly disappointing on the subject of torture, a word you won’t find in his book, and he clings to the euphemism : enhanced interrogation techniques. Bagram, black sites, extraordinary rendition to Morocco, Egypt and Syria are never mentioned. The aid and comfort our conduct of the war on terror gave to dictatorships that torture their own citizens, is not an issue for him, not even in this year of revelations from the Arab world.

Cheney by his own account doesn’t seem to be much of a reader; he’d rather go fishing. But he might benefit from Anouar Benmalek’s latest novel, Abduction. The two authors could swap. Pound for pound, Cheney would be getting the better deal. Benmalek is one of Algeria’s leading novelists writing in French and this is his sixth novel, the third to be translated into English. It is a thriller; a page turner about a hard working underpaid Algiers civil servant circa 2007, whose teenage daughter is abducted by a madman. It contains suspense and some humor, and the translation by Simon Pare is fast paced and snappier than the original. What’s more it is set in a country Cheney knows something about; Halliburton subsidiary Brown Root has lucrative contracts in Algeria’s oil fields. Some were signed during Cheney’s mid 90’s tenure as CEO, while the Algerian civil war raged and thousands disappeared into the regime’s notorious string of torture centers.

Benmalek, as I know him slightly, is a gentle, humorous, unassuming, man. As a novelist he is drawn to painful, difficult subjects: child murder by the Algerian rebels, during the war of liberation (the beautiful The Lovers of Algeria, a best seller in France, Graywolf, 2001); genocide in 19th century Tasmania (The Child of an Ancient People, Vintage 2004); ethnic cleansing of Muslims by church and crown in 17th century Spain (O Maria, Fayard 2006) and now this novel about the scandal of violence against children.

Whilst the book is heavy going at times, it is important to look where he’s coming from. Algeria had its Arab spring in October 1988. It was a very Algerian sort of rebellion, in that it didn’t start in the streets but with a bitter rivalry between two power hungry cliques in the monopoly ruling party that abducted the country at independence. One clique, hoping to upstage the other, spread rumors about a general strike at the end of a hot summer of acute food shortages. But the wicked cooks who dreamed up the Oct ‘88 rebellion miscalculated the real anger of the younger generation and their parents. The riots took on a life of their own. Unable to control what it had started, the regime sent tanks and troops into the streets, and by the end of the week five hundred men and teenage boys had been killed. Thousands more were arrested and tortured in police stations and military bases around the country.

After the shock of that week something had to give. Out of ‘88 came a short lived democratic opening, a new Constitution, many new political parties, independent newspapers and pressure groups, including the Algerian Committee against Torture, with Benmalek as recording secretary.

He and colleagues collected testimony from torture victims and published a book both horrible and hopeful (Le Cahier Noir d’Octobre) as its authors actually aimed to abolish torture in Algeria and bring the perpetrators of the ‘88 atrocities to trial. But as so often in Algeria, the torture cops were amnestied within the year. By 1992 the generals who still ran the country had mismanaged the tightly controlled democratic experiment into brutal civil war – with the help of a violently impatient Islamist coalition with its own authoritarian agenda.

Benmalek left for France in ‘92 and has lived there ever since. A mathematician by training, he teaches biostatistics at the University of Paris. In their graphic descriptions of atrocities, his novels continue the work he began with the committee against torture. Euphemism, abstraction, fake poetry, would betray the trust of the men who relived their ordeals in his hearing, a generation ago.

Algeria, in Abduction, is a dismal place. After the long trauma of the 90s civil war, there is no reliable police protection, no solidarity among neighbors, no sympathy for others’ suffering. Religious hypocrisy and outright bigotry prevail. A husband calming his troubled wife with a hug in the street is scolded for obscene behavior. A grief stricken woman, whose husband has just died in a car crash, is pelted with stones by the faithful outside the mosque damaged in the accident. The kidnapper, as if modeling himself on the regime he abhors for his own reasons (they have abducted a chunk of his past), harangues the kidnapped girl’s father, “…I exist and I have just proved that by making you my slave. Don’t be startled: the Arab world, the whole fucking Arab world, is made up of masters and slaves.” He mutilates the captive child’s hand, to prove his point.

Ouch. At times the novel staggers under the weight of its demanding agendas. But Benmalek’s generous moral imagination discovers moments of reprieve. The most original and affecting character is a French soldier, son of a poor Breton fisherman, who through a series of odd coincidences and sheer boredom and self hatred, winds up serving with a DOP in eastern Algeria, in 1957, a détachement operationnel de protection, a French army euphemism for torture centers. There were eighteen of them working full time around the country that year. After torturing an Algerian child in his father’s presence, the French soldier calls it quits. He deserts the army, deserts France itself, and many years later, in Algiers, atones for his past with a selfless, courageous act.

It’s no accident, I think, that this lonely, repentant torturer goes by the same name, Mathieu, as the colonel in the film, The Battle of Algiers. Mathieu, a riff on the name of the actual commanding officer in the city under military lockdown in 1957, General Jacques Massu. Massu, who late in life told French journalist Florence Beaugé (in Algerie, Une Guerre Sans Gloire, Calmann-Levy, 2000), “When I think back about Algeria, it grieves me. We could have done things differently.”

Add that one to Cheney’s reading list. But could he learn to grieve for past mistakes? Don’t hold your breath.

About the Author:

Suzanne Ruta is an author and translator. Her novel To Algeria, with Love (Virago, 2011), will be published in Italy next year by Einaudi under the title La Repubblica di Wally.

About Omar D:

Omar D was born in Annaba, Algeria in 1951 and is a photographer living and working in France and Algeria. He was recently commissioned to document the lives and traces of the disappeared during the Algerian civil war. Images from the resulting book  Devoir de mémoire / A Biography of Disappearance, Algeria 1992 – (2007) was shown at the exhibition, New Cartographies: Algeria-France-UK