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22 August 2018

Post-colonial party people: the revolutionaries of Algiers

The city of Algiers has been a byword for terror and corruption for so long now that it is hard to imagine this was not always the case.

By Andrew Hussey

The city of Algiers has been a byword for terror and corruption for so long now that it is hard to imagine this was not always the case. Its reputation was at its worst during the 1990s and early 2000s, when it was all but impossible to visit the city as Islamist terrorists and state death squads fought out a shadowy civil war. The few foreign visitors who braved the place were hardened war reporters such as Robert Fisk, who described hiding his face behind a newspaper when travelling by car in Algiers and staying no more than four minutes in a street or a shop – the minimum time, he reckoned, for kidnappers to spot a European.

The civil war was said to be over when I went to Algiers a few years back to research a book; but the atmosphere was none the less tense and conspiratorial. Almost every-one I spoke to was nervous, frightened or lying. This was clearly a very troubled place, still deeply locked into trauma.      

This is not, however, the Algiers described by Elaine Mokhtefi. She lived there for 12 years through the 1960s and 1970s – a time when the Algerian revolution was a model for anti-colonialist movements across the world, second only to Cuba in prestige. Crucially, unlike Cuba, Algeria was not shackled to the Soviet bloc and for this reason it became the newly-minted capital of tiers-mondisme – the belief that the non-aligned countries of the post-colonial world held the keys to the future. As such, Algiers itself was a hotbed of political and cultural activity as idealistic foreigners flocked there to help build a new world in the experimental nation. 

Mokhtefi, née Klein, was a young Jewish woman from Brooklyn, who arrived in Algiers via Paris, where she had drifted to in the early 1950s. At first she had no direction but soon ended up as a political activist, working as a translator for a variety of anti-colonial causes. Her “enlightenment” was the result of seeing police cruelty and racial discrimination against North Africans in Paris. She became a partisan for the Algerians in their war of independence against France, at one stage working for the New York office of the Algerian Nationalist movement.   

In 1962, only a few weeks after the French finally left the country, she moved to Algiers and was asked to work as a translator for the fledgling government. Suddenly Mokhtefi found herself plunged into history-in-the-making. She rubbed shoulders with Khrushchev, danced and flirted with Frantz Fanon, and went on a safari organised by Jomo Kenyatta. At times the text reads like a who’s who of the chic radical left in the 1960s and 1970s; Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Genet, Jean-Luc Godard and the Baader-Meinhof gang all put in an appearance somewhere.

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Her most extraordinary adventure, however, was her close friendship with Eldridge Cleaver, a leading figure in the Black Panther Party who had been smuggled into Algeria by the Cubans. Cleaver was a fugitive from American justice (he was accused of attempted murder, having been involved in a shoot-out with police officers in Oakland). In Algiers, Cleaver was paid a stipend by the North Vietnamese and housed in a villa said to be a haven for black “revolutionaries” returning to Africa, as well as a safe house for deserters from the US military. 

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Among those who visited Cleaver was Timothy Leary, the acid guru who was also fleeing prison in America. It wasn’t long too before other Black Panthers arrived in Algiers – many of them accomplished gangsters who began running rackets. Cleaver himself was suspected by the Algerian secret police of killing his wife’s lover (he in fact confessed to Mokhtefi that he had done this).

Despite all of this, the images of Cleaver in Algiers that made it into Life magazine in 1969 proclaimed Algiers as the cool capital of the Afro-American revolution. This status was confirmed that same year by a so-called Pan-African Cultural Festival attended by, among others, the South African singer Miriam Makeba, the free jazz sax player Archie Shepp, and a drunken Nina Simone.

Mokhtefi has a punchy style and tells her tale at a breathtaking pace. This book is great entertainment if nothing else. But it also reveals how quickly history can take unexpected turns, leaving individuals stranded. Mokhtefi was kicked out of Algeria in 1974, unaware that she had transgressed government doctrine one time too many. She immediately understood, however, that the post-colonial party, like much else of the 1960s, was now over.

She says at the beginning of the book that she bears “no grudges” and “no rancour” towards the Algerians whom she loved so much, but she clearly does. As Mokhtefi and her Algerian husband Mokhtar are being deported from the country they love, back to the Paris they had long since abandoned, he calls them “ungrateful motherfuckers”. Unsurprisingly perhaps, she has not been back since.

Andrew Hussey is the author of “The French Intifada: the Long War Between France and its Arabs” (Granta)

Algiers, Third World Capital: Freedom Fighters, Revolutionaries, Black Panthers
Elaine Mokhtefi
Verso, 256pp, £16.99

This article appears in the 22 Aug 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Will Labour split?