We Have Lived All Ages, All Times
by Suzanne Ruta
Elaine Mokhtefi and her husband had lived on the Upper West Side in New York City for twenty years. When he died in 2015, she brought him a bench in the park on Riverside Drive, where he liked to sit, gazing at the river through a mass of trees. She had his name, place of birth, date of birth and death, and a line from a poem he wrote to her, engraved on a small shiny plaque affixed to the bench.
Beneath in smaller type, is her own name, because the bench will be hers too at some point, a shared memorial. “You pay the Parks Department for it, and then it’s yours for the lifetime of the bench,” she told me with her usual thoughtful practicality. I am a recent widow too. She was looking out for me.
Mokhtar was eighty when he died, Elaine is approaching ninety with sturdy elegance. On the hot August day that we met, she wore raspberry linen trousers, a tidy straw hat and red open-toed sandals. Before New York, she had lived in Paris for many years. It shows.
Elaine and Mokhtar met in 1972 in Algiers, where he worked in desultory fashion in various government offices of the new nation, while she ran herself ragged solving practical problems—the only American in the administration—for hundreds of refugees, exiles, freedom fighters from other countries who had come to Algeria to pay homage, to find asylum or learn how to imitate the success of the freshly liberated colony. They left Algeria together in 1974. In Paris, for twenty years, they designed and sold folkloric silver jewelry and wrote books for young people about the history of Islam, the American Civil war, among other subjects. In 1994, they moved to New York. Mokhtar studied English at Columbia, Elaine enrolled at the Art Students League and discovered her talent as a portrait painter. Late in their years together, they wrote their memoirs, working in separate rooms of their spacious apartment, stopping to read each other’s work, every few pages.
Mokhtar’s memoir, intimate, ironic, charming and appalling, covers his life, from birth to Algerian independence in 1962, as a Français-Musulman, the term the French imposed on nine million Algerians from the end of the Second World War until independence. He completed it just before his death. The Algerian publisher Barzakh who brought it out a year later (J’étais français-musulman) left it untouched. Elaine has already translated about two-thirds of it into English. She would like to see it published here. So would I.
On Independence Day, July 5th, 1962, disobeying orders from his superiors in the Provisional Government of the Republic of Algeria, he crossed from Tunisia into Algeria with a French woman friend, a supporter of the rebels, in her tiny Italian car. Taking back roads to avoid the thousands of land mines the French had sown across the border region, they hit an obstacle at last, a young Algerian soldier, a djoundi, with his rifle slung over his shoulder. They hand him their papers. As he studies them, Mokhtar notices that he’s holding them upside down. The French, in 132 years, had taught less than 15% of Algerians to read. “Illiterates with rifles,” he grumbles, driving off, “what kind of future does that promise us?”
And there the memoir ends.
Elaine’s memoir, published this summer by Verso, takes a different tone. From her teens, this woman had a thirst for social justice, a strong streak of human kindness. “Sixteen and witless,” she enrolled in a Methodist college, Wesleyan College, in Georgia. It was 1945, segregation was entrenched. She made coffee for the black maid and drank it with her; offered her seat on the bus to black passengers. At the end of the year, she was told to leave and not come back. She studied languages in New York, joined the United World Federalists, left for Europe where she found her way as a translator working for international organizations, since in those McCarthyite days, American firms wanted your American signature on a loyalty oath.
At an International Congress of the World Assembly of Youth in Ghana in 1960, she met the two Algerian representatives, Mohamed Sahnoun and Frantz Fanon. The three of them hit it off well. Fanon took her dancing and—astute psychiatrist that he was—gave her sterling advice.
“He once asked me what I wanted in a relationship. When I answered, to put my head on someone’s shoulder, he was adamant. “Non, non, non… Stay upright on your own two feet and keep moving forward to goals of your own.” Precious advice that stood her in good stead later in Algeria, where she had the confidence to share it with other women.
In fall 1960, she followed Sahnoun to New York where the Algerians, who had run a small office near the UN since 1955, were preparing for that year’s General Assembly. And there she was hired on sight by the man who ran it the office, Abdelkader Chanderli, a UNESCO diplomat who would remain a lifelong friend.
The history of the eight-year Algerian war is still being rewritten. Colonialism dies hard. (Our own General Petraeus looked to a French army lieutenant, David Galula, who served in Algeria in the late 1950s, for guidance in Iraq during the “surge.” Undoubtedly he read the wrong book).
Julian Jackson’s recent 800-page biography of Charles de Gaulle (A Certain Idea of France, the Life of Charles De Gaulle) questions the General’s role in ending the brutal conflict. “He did not grant independence to Algeria, it was wrested from him…The truth is that the FLN had won independence by fighting and by mobilizing international support.” By 1960, the Algerian Provisional Government, based in Tunis, had established delegations in many countries around the world. But their center of operations was a few blocks from the UN where Elaine Mokhtefi and three or four others were the secretaries, editors, journalists, press agents working to win support for Algeria and condemnation for France.
Meanwhile living with Sahnoun, a student at NYU, in a sixth floor Village walkup, she was asked to show the city’s charms to visiting Algerian VIPs, shopping for records at Sam Goody, sampling the wares at Chock Full O’Nuts. The French were not amused. “They even objected to Algerians entering the United States on passports from friendly Arab countries. Washington replied,” Mokhtefi reports, “that no U.S. laws were being flouted.” Read from today’s perspective, such a relaxed attitude on the part of our State Department, could make you weep.
“I felt comfortable with the Algerians. They were dedicated, affectionate and generous combatants” she recalls. In spring 1961, she saw Fanon again as he lay dying of leukemia at Walter Reed hospital in Washington DC. The New York Algerians looked after him in his last months. Mokhtefi took Fanon’s son, Olivier, six years old, to New York City on weekends. Fanon noted his son’s easy attachment to this unknown woman who would take him to ride the merry-go-round in Central Park and the Staten Island Ferry. Fanon died that winter. He was thirty-six.
Books about Fanon are not in short supply, but the chapters in this memoir, written from the point of view of a young woman just beginning to understand what’s happening around her, deserve attention.
Then the war was over, five hundred thousand dead, more than two million Algerians hunkered in “regroupment camps” as their villages had been razed. Elaine went to rejoin Sahnoun and to help rebuild the country, hired—the only American in the new administration—to solve practical problems for visiting dignitaries, exiles, refugees, freedom fighters, wannabes of various stripes. Algeria in the 60’s and 70’s was hospitable to the new countries of the third world, to the leaders of liberation movements. Of course, the North Vietnamese were there, also Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo. Algeria welcomed Miguel Arraes (why is he consigned to a footnote?) the exiled governor of the Brazilian province of Pernambuco, denied asylum in France after the 1964 military coup (set in motion—she doesn’t mention it—by Kennedy).
In Cuba in 1967, she met Stokely Carmichael and invited him to visit Algeria on his planned African tour. He came as promised, she showed him around and then he went on to Conakry where he met and fell in love with Miriam Makeba, consigning his smart attractive American girlfriend to Mokhtefi’s care. They became friends; she encouraged Stokely’s cast-off to forget him, as she forgot Sahnoun, swept up in his career as a rising diplomat.
When Eldridge Cleaver, on the lam from jail in California, and for some reason not popular in Cuba, turned up in Algeria, he didn’t know how to read his situation in this strange new country until Mokhtefi went through her rolodex and found the right contacts. “You saved my life,” he told her gratefully as she scheduled his first press conference. Her reply, typically modest: “Come on Eldridge, all I did was make a phone call.” When Eldridge grew restless for a position and a title, she called Mhamed Yazid, her boss at the UN in New York, married to Mayor LaGuardia’s niece, who set the Panthers up with their own lodgings and financing. Eldridge was thrilled. The Panthers became the first black American movement to establish a delegation abroad. With Eldridge in charge of course. And when, in time he began to tire of Algeria, she used her connections to sneak him into France on a forged British passport, found escorts to see him from Tunisia to Switzerland, and over the border into Southern France. Eventually, he reached Paris and made his own connections. When Mokhtefi needed his help in France soon thereafter, he was not available.
The paradox of Algeria in those years was public support and sympathy for third world aspirations on the one hand; bitter private feuds among the Algerian military determined to tighten their grip on power, on the other. Algeria’s first President, Ahmed Ben Bella, overthrown in 1965, would remain under house arrest till 1978. Aït Ahmed and Boudiaf, early heroes of the revolution, lived in exile for many decades. Torture, prison, assassinations, Mokhtefi tells only just as much of this as her story requires. But it is alas, her story too. When former president Ben Bella is permitted to marry in 1971, his bride is a close friend and colleague of Mokhtefi’s. Ordered by military security to inform on the happy couple, Mokhtefi refuses and is ordered to leave the country at once.
“Ungrateful motherfuckers,” Mokhtar, who has just met Elaine, exclaims. (She translates here, from his French slang.) She doesn’t run for the border, but calls on old friends from The Battle of New York, to intervene. But these friends have lost their clout or their inclination to help. In the end she is banned from Algeria—her name on a list of the forbidden at the Algiers airport. Mokhtar follows her into exile. He returns to Algeria to see his family each year, but she may not accompany him. This situation lasts for forty-four years.
This fall at last, thanks to the intervention of the UN delegate’s wife, she will be returning for a visit, barring the unforeseen.
“Why aren’t you angrier?” I asked her lately. “You say nothing about the 1988 riots, the 1990s civil war.” One understands that would be a different book, not the work of an eyewitness to the years of creation when as she tells me, “There was so much hope.”
How did you wind up on the Upper West Side?
We left France in 1994, there was so much racism against Africans in those years. I took Mokhtar to Greenwich Village, but he found the area strange and cold and if anything we were too old. It was no longer the bohemia I had known. He loved the Upper West Side. There was a fabulous mix of young and old and of every color and origin. There was the University and the Park and the River and restaurants and bookshops and Harlem close by. It was calm. He barely knew New York and hadn’t lived its history. The region around Columbia fitted him, the outsider, just fine. Not long before he died, he looked out over the river and told me to shed his ashes in the Hudson as close as possible to our building. It was where he wanted to spend eternity. And so I come down to the bench that carries his name and we commune.
You found your way into politics early? Family influence?
My parents were both apolitical, though my father once told me he attended meetings of the socialist party when he was young. They voted straight Democrat. My mother was especially anti-racist. She was born in New York but when her mother died, she was a child, and was taken to small towns to live and finally on a farm in Connecticut, until she came back to New York as an adult and met my father. She was a very upright, hardworking, kind person, who knew no malice… and she suffered me.
You encountered anti-Semitism in the US as a child.
Anti-Semitism was rank when I was growing up and there was no way around it. The hard knocks I received as a Jew in small towns where there were no Jews at the time prepared me for the hits I would take as an adult. Anti-Semitism may be less rank today, but it’s still there, just more covert.
Algeria is known better for its fighting than its diplomacy. You saw a great deal of the latter.
Algeria owes a lot to its international antennas. The French were the fourth most powerful army in the world and benefitted from very modern armament from NATO, indirectly from the United States. Kennedy blasted Eisenhower openly on the floor of the Senate on that score. France could have and would have gone on for years if they hadn’t been shamed in the international arena daily. Finally, de Gaulle couldn’t take it any more. The world was fed up with the French, their Indochina wars (their Vietnam) lasted for eight years and ended with a spectacular French debacle at Dien Bien Phu and then Algeria for another eight.
What became of those diplomats in independent Algeria? They would have been the government but the military came in in summer ‘62, and took over. But they weren’t thrown out. Their talents were needed, although some were shoved aside for decades.
Most of the men I knew at the Algerian office in New York took up major posts in independent Algeria. Ministers, ambassadors and such. Chanderli, Yazid, Benyahia, Taleb, Francis, Boumendjel, Lakhdar Brahimi and so on. With the exception of Belkacem Krim, the leader of negotiations with France and the head of the annual delegation at the UN, but that’s another story. Mohamed Benyahia for example, was exemplary as both a diplomat and a minister. As minister of Information he organized the 1969 Pan-African cultural festival in Algiers, an outstanding one-of-a-kind event.
As minister of Foreign Affairs, he led a successful peace mission to Iran in 1981 that released the American embassy staff that had been captured and held hostage by Iranian militants since 1979, the year of the revolution against the Shah’s regime. And finally Benyahia was killed in 1982, on a flight between Iran and Iraq, with fifteen other Algerian foreign affairs staff, on a peace mission between Iraq and Iran at war. It’s a case that has never been totally elucidated and is open to various interpretations but the finger has always pointed towards Iraq.
The French withheld education from the Algerians for over a century. As a result, after the Revolution there was resentment and suspicion among would be leaders.
The Algerian Revolution gave way to many injustices. You had to be clever, not to say wily, to navigate the corridors of power in those first years, maybe still today. Now that I see how our own government and congress uses its power, I can make comparisons. Leaders were used to using force to settle disputes, to decide who’s first and leads others. Hadn’t they done so in the maquis, in the army guerrilla units? And in Tunis and Morocco? Boumediene had a modern army at his disposal at the end of the war and he used it to place Ben Bella in power despite the existence of a Provisional Government. The men in government, even at ministerial levels, had often minimum education, were not used to discussing the how’s and whys of leadership. They delivered orders.
And of course the French were especially murderous for those with education and authority and eliminated them physically when possible. The story my husband Mokhtar told of the Algerian writer Maissa Bey is typical.
In a town in central Algeria, Boghari, just up the road from where Mokhtar was raised, French soldiers tortured and killed her father and two or three other men one night simply because they were educated and local leaders. Her father was a schoolteacher. Then they buried them in the cemetery down the road in that other town, Berrouaghia, threatening local men with their guns, so that they dug the graves. The old man who told Mokhtar the story when he visited his parents’ graves in that town was one of the gravediggers.
You are very generous to Eldridge Cleaver, both in life and in your book. When you think about how some former lefties, David Horowitz for example (I went to high school with him in Queens) founded a whole career on their revulsion with the Panthers whom they had previously supported, your response is infinitely more human and philosophical.
Eldridge was Eldridge. He was number one. He fought for his survival first and last. He was courageous and took chances. He found people everywhere—mostly women—who supported him. He had many lives. Some were admirable, like his leadership of the Panthers and his creation of the International Section. Some were unscrupulous, some devastating. He was a propagandist, he had a gift for language. He could be specific when invoking the need for soy sauce for Chinese recipes but vague on big topics like the U.S. judicial system, “that had to be moved against”. He used a mix of invented words with street talk and biblical phrases thrown in. He was very intelligent but he didn’t know how to spell. He was also a sexist and a killer. I find it difficult to talk about him. I admired him but saw his faults and how unscrupulous he could be. His colleagues found him difficult. Few found favor with him. But they too admired him. He was smart and survived. And then he fell into religious politics, even the Republican party.
When you were called in for interrogation by military security, you refused to answer their questions. You were very courageous.
I certainly didn’t think that my refusal to become a spy for military security would lead to a 44-year banishment from Algeria. I do think that the government has been complicit in corruption, that democracy has been thwarted, that the leaders have treated their country like their own property, that they have not been far-sighted enough to feed everyone, to make people happy, and women free, and for the youth to want to stay and work for Algeria. It seems that they have attained some measure of efficiency: ministries and prefectures are digitalized now. A friend has just told me that at the Prefecture in Algiers, you get a number on entering, lines are no longer chaotic, the functionaries know their stuff and many are young veiled women behind computers. Perhaps I have benefitted from the new efficiency, although most of the players in my particular drama are either gone or no longer care.
But I certainly benefitted from the Algerian consul in New York’s desire to right a wrong and her pursuance of that goal. An admirable woman who has made it possible for me to return to Algeria, at last, this fall.
In the ‘60s, Algeria was a beacon to the rest of Africa. Whereas today migrants from sub-Saharan Africa have a hard time.
I deplore the racism displayed in Algeria today with African refugees. In the last few years, with the migrations of black Africans from sub-Saharan Africa into Algeria, mainly from Mali, Niger and Libya, of individuals struggling for a better life, anti-black racism cannot escape its name whatever the official denial. There have been some unpardonable, disgraceful events of rape, murder, collective punishment, and massive deportations, by the planeload, of black African exiles in their midst. Many Algerians have expressed their shame and openly denounced these practices.
Could you say something about Amara Lakhous, the Algerian novelist, who writes in Italian and Arabic? You met him in New York, an exile of a younger generation, born in Algiers around the time you left Algeria. He fled to Rome in 1995, to save his life.
As to the friendship of Amara Lakhous, the Algerian novelist in New York, Mokhtar was a sharp, unbending Algerian of an older generation, the war generation, hard and questioning; he echoed so many Algerians of past generations. Amara must have felt that those preceding generations had left him with a country impossible to navigate, that had not settled its basic choices in proper fashion: the questions of democracy, of the place of religion, the liberation of women, of its place in the world. He must have felt that the war had not settled those questions and another war of Algerians against Algerians came to pass, a civil war that affected his generation viscerally.
So many of his friends died. And if he hadn’t succeeded in getting a visa for Italy might have been a goner too. Whereas Mokhtar had difficulty understanding that young Algerians could question their singular accomplishment: independence, the flag, whatever their shortcomings. But they did understand each other on some mysterious level. Was it the food, the child’s games, the mosque, their mothers’ love, the brothers’ rivalry, the jokes, the music, the dilemmas, the ceremonies, the Algerian dialect? As Mokhtar told him, Algeria was part of the two of them from the top of their heads to the bottom of their feet, even if they were trampling in mud, until their death.
Wasn’t there a film called It’s Complicated? Well, it is, it’s difficult to talk about a country you love but don’t live in or visit. It’s like an old liaison you can’t get out of your blood despite the mess you know he’s made of his life.
Algiers, Third World Capital: Freedom Fighters, Revolutionaries, Black Panthers
by Elaine Mokhtefi
Verso, UK, 2018, 242 pp.
Itinéraire d’un soldat de l’ALN
by Mokhtar Mokhtefi
Editions Barzakh, Algiers 2016, 342 pp.
Clash of Civilizations over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio
by Amara Lakhous, translated by Ann Goldstein
Europa Editions, New York, 2008, 144 pp.
Divorce Islamic Style
by Amara Lakhous, translated by Ann Goldstein,
Europa Editions, New York, 2012 194 pp.
My Father, the Rebel
by Maissa Bey, translated by Suzanne Ruta,
World Literature Today Vol 81 No. 6, Nov Dec 2007 pp.27-31
About the Author:
Suzanne Ruta is the author of To Algeria, with Love (Virago Books, 2011), a translator from French and Spanish, and a rights activist.