One Big Murder Mystery

Adam Shatz

It’s a good time to be a Muslim writing about ‘the trouble with Islam’, to borrow the title of a recent jeremiad by Irshad Manji, a Pakistani-Canadian lesbian feminist. Readers in the West, especially Americans, are eager to know ‘what went wrong with Islam’, as Bernard Lewis delicately puts it, particularly if it can be traced to cultural pathology and envy of ‘our freedom’. Carmen bin Ladin, the ex-wife of Osama’s brother Yeslam, and Farah Pahlavi, the Shah’s widow, have published memoirs to respectful reviews. Azar Nafisi’s Reading ‘Lolita’ in Tehran, which carries a blurb from Lewis, is an international bestseller and a favourite with suburban American book clubs not previously known for their interest in higher education in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Nafisi’s glowing endorsement appears on the jacket of the US edition of The Swallows of Kabul, a newly translated novel by ‘Yasmina Khadra’ – the pseudonym of Mohammed Moulessehoul, a former high-ranking Algerian military officer who writes in French under his wife’s name. Getting translated into English is a hurdle cleared by few novelists from the Arab and Muslim world; it helps if one writes against one of America’s enemies.

In The Swallows of Kabul, Khadra writes against the ultimate enemy: the Taliban. It’s a slender, didactic work, about a decent, civilised man, Mohsen Ramat, who, swept up by the seductive fury of the mob, takes part in the stoning of a prostitute. When ‘he sees a red stain blossom at the spot where his stone has struck her’ he experiences an ‘unfathomable joy’ – followed almost immediately by unbearable guilt. After he confesses what he has done to his wife, Zunaira, a brilliant, ravishing former magistrate confined to their home because she refuses to wear the burka, she spurns him in horror, setting in motion a predictably tragic chain of events.

For secular Algerians like Khadra, Kabul has long represented an abyss narrowly avoided. In the 1980s, roughly six hundred young Algerian men, many of them protégés of Muslim Brothers from Egypt and Wahhabi imams from Saudi Arabia, went to Afghanistan to join the anti-Soviet jihad. After the Russians withdrew, the Algerian ‘Afghans’ returned home to fight their own ‘impious’ government, in the charge, since independence, of the secular FLN (National Liberation Front). (The Algiers mosque they controlled was known as ‘Kabul’.) With the legalisation of political parties in 1989, Algeria’s Islamists formed the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), led by Abassi Madani, a veteran of the war of independence, and his fiery young deputy, Ali Benhadj, who delivered violent sermons against ‘the thieves of the FLN’ at the al-Sunna mosque in Bab el Oued, a working-class quarter of Algiers that became a hotbed of Islamic resistance. In January 1992, the FIS looked as if it was about to take power, after winning the first round of the country’s first free elections.

Many middle-class Algerians feared that after the second round there would be no more free elections, that a victorious FIS would establish an Islamic dictatorship. The army faced a difficult choice: either it respected the voters’ decision and intervened if the FIS tried to replace the (nominally) secular constitution – the path that the Turkish army followed a few years later – at the risk of a revolutionary convulsion; or it cancelled the next round, a decision that most observers believed would lead to clashes with the Islamist movement’s extremist wing. The army opted for the latter course, banned the FIS and detonated a war between Islamic rebels and security forces (and, later, a battle between rival Islamic factions) that has claimed the lives of more than 100,000 Algerians.

Khadra has chronicled the rise of radical Islam in Algeria in two thrillers, In the Name of God (2000) and Wolf Dreams, both translated into English. Unlike The Swallows of Kabul, they are steeped in local knowledge. Khadra’s terrorists aren’t readers of Sayyid Qutb or even of the Koran, nor are they fired by visions of restoring the Caliphate. They are aimless young men with no opportunities for advancement, furious with the corruption and stagnation of Algerian society and with the hogra, or ‘contempt’, that is their lot. Islamism’s appeal is not so much political as existential: it makes them feel their lives matter.

In the Name of God is a portrait of Ghachimat, a sleepy village that falls under the control of radical Islamists. Young Kada Hilal returns from the jihad in Afghanistan and launches a reign of terror against unveiled women, Algerians of European origin, and ‘traitors’: a ‘purification’ campaign which culminates in the kidnapping and beheading of the village’s senior imam. Before long, Khadra writes, ‘people began to find spectacular attacks had panache, the murderers a thrilling recklessness.’ The driving force isn’t religious principle or ideology, it’s score settling and an intoxicating Oedipal rage – the revenge of the repressed. In Ghachimat, where ‘collective memory fed on rancour,’ the most fervent supporters of the Islamic insurgents are either the sons of harkis – Algerians who fought alongside the French army during the war of independence – avenging the persecution of their parents, or simply young men rebelling against their elders, who ‘had lost face’.

In Wolf Dreams, the story of a young man from the casbah who works as a driver for a venal, decadent family, Islamism is fed by class rage. The son of a railway worker ‘who couldn’t afford his own dignity’, Nafa Walid dreams of becoming an actor, but his job mainly consists of chauffeuring prostitutes for his wealthy boss and running errands on behalf of the daughter, ‘a venomous creature whose dangerous beauty hinted at hidden cruelty’. One day the girlfriend of his boss’s son dies of a coke overdose and he’s forced to dispose of her body. It’s too much. With the family bodyguard he drives deep into the forest, where they crush her face with stones. Overcome with shame, he heads to the mosque, where a radical imam makes the actor manqué an offer he can’t refuse: ‘the sky as your screen, and God as audience’. The jihad against Algeria’s ruling class provides Nafa with an escape from the hogra and futility of his life, as well as a shot at heroism, even fame, as a revolutionary ‘emir’.

The Swallows of Kabul is the first of Khadra’s novels to be set outside Algeria, and it shows. It’s a novel for export, in which Afghanistan is not so much a setting as a symbol: ‘Kabul has a horror of memory. She has put her history to death in the public square, sacrificed the names of her streets in horrific bonfires, dynamited her monuments to smithereens, and cancelled the oaths of her founders in their enemies’ blood. Today, Kabul’s enemies are her own offspring.’

The book’s flaws haven’t prevented reviewers in the English-speaking world from showering it with praise. ‘Khadra belongs in the ranks of those writers – J.M. Coetzee, for example – who make violence into art,’ Lenora Todaro wrote in the New York Times Book Review. In the daily Times, Michiko Kakutani conceded ‘just how deeply flawed The Swallows is as a piece of storytelling’, but placed Khadra’s ‘chilling portrait of fundamentalism’ squarely ‘in the tradition of Albert Camus’. In every review, it is dutifully reported that Moulessehoul took his feminine nom de plume to avoid military censorship, and that he lives ‘in exile’ in southern France. The impression given is that Khadra is a dissident, rather than a staunch defender of the Algerian army, an institution that bears considerable responsibility for the country’s descent into war.

Khadra is a talented writer, but he isn’t a dissident. (As anyone who has spent time in Algeria knows, everyone there fancies himself a critic of the pouvoir, as they call their political system; the closer one is to the pouvoir, the more loudly one’s dissidence is proclaimed.) Whatever troubles Khadra once had with military censors, they are now a thing of the past. In a recent interview he declared that Algeria has ‘no political exiles’, which will have been news to exiled opponents of the military government such as Mohammed Harbi, a former FLN leader and modern Algeria’s leading historian. Though witheringly critical of Algeria’s Islamists, and of its business and political elites (the ‘political-financial mafia’), Khadra is notably indulgent of the army, which runs the country along with the Sécurité Militaire, the secret police, the regime’s ‘spinal cord’. Khadra’s books are prominently displayed in every Algerian bookshop, while La Sale Guerre (2001), a scathing memoir by Habib Souaidia, a former officer exiled in France, is banned.

If Khadra remains a loyal partisan of the Algerian army, it is probably because it all but brought him up. Born in 1955, a few months after the outbreak of the war of independence, he entered cadet school at the age of eight. There he became ‘one of the adopted children of the army and the revolution’, as he recounts in L’Ecrivain, the memoir published in 2001 in which he unmasked himself. He forged a close bond with his fellow cadets, who, he says, ‘read, with the same bulimia, everything that fell into their hands from the library of classics. Reading was our primary form of escape.’ His admiring classmates anointed him ‘the writer’, while his anti-intellectual superiors (‘allergic to talent’) accused him of being the ringleader of a mutiny in which he played no role.

Khadra declined to choose between his ‘enemy vocations’. While writing novels under his real name – interestingly, he adopted his pseudonym in 1989, at the dawn of the country’s short-lived perestroika – he rose through the ranks of the army. Before leaving Algeria in 2000, he fought against the Islamists for eight years, and even helped lay two ambushes intended for his cadet school classmate Said Mekhloufi, by then an Islamist militant. (Mekhloufi was eventually assassinated by Antar Zouabri, a rival Islamist.) Thus, when Khadra revealed that he was a senior military officer who had taken part in combat operations, the news aroused heated speculation among Algerians, for whom the search for a sinister plot is – not without reason – a national pastime. As Khadra reports in L’Imposture des mots (2002), a witty, vituperative response to his critics, some suggested that he was an agent of the Sécurité Militaire, assigned to the task of writing novels – if indeed he was their actual author – in order to whitewash the army’s crimes; others claimed that he was an invention of the neocolonial French media, determined as ever to blacken Algeria’s reputation. Those who accepted Moulessehoul as the author of Khadra’s novels hurled a different set of accusations at him. Some said he was an opportunist who had written under a woman’s name in order to win the Prix Femina; others that he had cruelly deceived those who had devoted magazine articles and dissertations to the ‘écriture féminine’ of Yasmina Khadra. For muckraking French journalists, the disclosure was just another mask.

Khadra’s best work – an enormously popular trilogy of detective novels starring Inspector Brahim Llob, the first of which, Morituri, has just been translated into English – is lovingly devoted to the theory that, in Algeria, things are never what they seem. The Llob series does not recall Camus, except in its one-sided vision of the violence that has plagued their country. Lean, acerbic and sometimes pornographically violent, the writing here is far more reminiscent of Simenon – or, better yet, of Chandler and James M. Cain, the American noir novelists Camus so admired. Set in Algeria at the height of the civil war, at a time when reporters were often banned from entering the country, the Llob novels illuminate the darkest, most treacherous corners of Algeria’s underworld.

It’s fitting that Algeria’s leading novelist of the last decade should be a writer of noir, especially one whose identity was long a mystery. The Algerian civil war has been, in a sense, one big murder mystery. In the 1990s, the country led the world in disappearances; there are more than 7000 missing persons: 7000 murder cases that the Algerian government has been exceedingly wary of investigating, for fear of stirring up old ghosts or, worse, tarnishing the reputation of the security services, believed by human rights groups to be largely responsible. Another enduring mystery is who carried out the large-scale massacres in villages just outside the capital, most infamously in the town of Bentalha, where, a few dozen metres from an army barracks, more than 400 men, women and children were slaughtered on the night of 22 September 1997. The killers are believed to have been insurgents with the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), an especially ferocious jihadi militia that split off from the FIS’s armed wing, but questions remain. In Qui a tué à Bentalha?, published in France in 2000, but unavailable in Algeria, Nesroulah Yous, a survivor, asked why the soldiers did nothing to stop the killings. Were they accomplices of the killers? Were the killers army officers in disguise, as some have hinted? Unlikely, but one thing is clear: the soldiers weren’t about to risk their lives saving villagers who had voted overwhelmingly for the FIS in 1991. (In Wolf Dreams, Khadra parrots the army’s official explanation for its failure to prevent massacres like the one in Bentalha: ‘Too cumbersome: the military betray their presence from the outset, and always arrive too late.’)

The question of who’s killing whom continues to haunt the discussion of Algeria’s dirty war. Since the signing of the Civil Harmony Law in 1999, which granted an amnesty to rebels who hadn’t committed rape or murder, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has brokered a precarious peace, if it’s possible to describe as ‘peaceful’ a country in which well over a thousand political murders take place each year. But the perpetrators of Algeria’s war crimes have yet to be identified and punished, and many rebels with blood on their hands have walked free. The narrative structure of the policier is thus morbidly suited to the Algerian tragedy, and for a nation desperate for answers, the appeal of the genre could hardly be more plain.

Khadra brings to the genre an unrivalled flair for capturing the coarse argot of the Algerian street, and an intimate knowledge of Algiers, from its opulent villas to the wretched slums where Islamic radicals rallied the poor, or the nightclubs popular among ‘high officials with a fondness for virgin boys – which is why one notices a surreptitious odour of Vaseline in the air’. Inspector Llob, Khadra’s wonderfully deadpan narrator, is a faithful husband, good Muslim and fierce patriot, an incorruptible 58-year-old cop in a sea of opportunists, liars, thieves, seedy entrepreneurs, drug-dealers and terrorists. Like his creator, he writes detective novels in his spare time, under the name of Yasmina Khadra, attracting the suspicion and envy of his peers. As a cop and a writer, he is doubly a target for the Islamists, who have turned Algiers into ‘a barbecue suspended between God’s hell and the purgatory of men’. His lieutenant, Lino, ‘no longer goes back home, to Bab el Oued, ever. Not since a trio of bearded guys came to measure his carotid in order to select an appropriate knife for the purpose.’

Khadra’s Algiers is a labyrinth of political intrigue and corporate crime – or, more precisely, corporate crime disguised as political intrigue. Through Llob’s investigations, Khadra advances a theory espoused by many Algerian secularists: that Islam is only a cover for the political-financial mafia, who seek to privatise the economy. In Morituri, Llob is hired by a senior member of the pouvoir, Ghoul Malek, to find his daughter. She has run off, à la Patty Hearst, with a band of Islamic radicals who, like Llob himself, are unwitting pawns in Malek’s conspiracy. The war, Malek explains to Llob, is ‘sheer providence . . . To progress from a caricature of a socialist system to the opening up of the market, we must pay a customs duty.’ ‘In the world of business,’ Llob is reminded by a temptress in Double Blanc, ‘there’s only one Mecca: the stock exchange. And only one practice of faith: to turn a profit.’

Khadra is echoed by, among others, Luis Martinez, an Algerian political scientist in Paris who writes under a pseudonym. ‘The systematic destruction of the state sector,’ Martinez argues in The Algerian Civil War 1990-98 (2000), ‘made things easier for the government policy, recommended by the IMF, of ending subsidies for loss-making enterprises.’ Yet Martinez also suggests that the army has exploited, and even cynically encouraged, the Islamist insurgency: ‘Might the GIA not be the hidden face of a military regime faced with the need to rearrange its economic resources?’ Khadra’s terrorists are often linked to the political-financial mafia, but never, strangely, to Algeria’s military government. It is telling that his hero is an honest cop, sometimes brutish but never cruel. This is, of course, a conceit of the genre. As Fredric Jameson observed in his classic essay on Chandler, ‘the honesty of the detective can be understood as an organ of perception, a membrane which, irritated, serves to indicate in its sensitivity the nature of the world around it.’

Yet this membrane’s sensitivity to its surroundings extends only so far. (And unlike Marlowe, Llob is not a private eye, but an agent of the state.) Much as the French army treated the FLN moudjahidine as outlaws, so Khadra’s Islamists are depicted as criminals and bandits. (‘Brahim Boudem . . . was killing cats before he discovered Allah.’) Even their piety is a put-on, a mask for either a desperate bid for glory or a viciously calculating will to power. (An Islamist in Morituri sounds like Nietzsche: ‘There’s no absolute truth, only things one believes and others one doesn’t believe.’) Khadra is not entirely off the mark: by the mid-1990s the lines between holy warfare and war profiteering had blurred, with the emergence of what Martinez calls a ‘war-oriented imaginaire in which violence is a form of accumulation of wealth and prestige’. But Islamic populism has been a powerful current in Algerian nationalism, particularly among non-French-speaking citizens, ever since the 1930s, when Sheikh Abdelhamid Ben Badis founded the Association of Algerian Ulemas; its rallying cry was: ‘Islam is my religion, Arabic is my language, Algeria is my homeland.’ This assertion of an indigenous Muslim identity was aimed as much against the French-speaking elites, with their dreams of creating a secular republic modelled on France, as against the colons. The FLN had a significant Islamist element, and its rhetoric during the war of independence was shot through with Islamic slogans. Like many Algerian secularists, Khadra simply overlooks all this.

He also overlooks the most obvious explanation for the popularity the GIA once enjoyed in the slums of Algiers: the brutal methods of the army. As Martinez and others have shown, many young Algerian men signed up for the jihad not because of any enthusiasm for an Islamic state, but because the army had killed one of their siblings during a raid or tortured them for information – in a dirty war, you didn’t choose sides, your side was chosen for you. Khadra’s work obfuscates the military’s handsome contribution to the country’s nightmare. Reading his work one would never know that the Algerian army disappeared several thousand citizens (most of whom, as the government now admits, ‘had nothing to do with armed violence’), or that it detained tens of thousands of suspects in open-air camps in the Sahara, or that – according to Souaidia’s La Sale Guerre – it infiltrated radical Islamic groups and encouraged them to carry out terrorist attacks in Algeria and France to discredit the FIS in the eyes of the population and, more important, those of the old colonial master. Souaidia describes a systematic pattern of torture, summary executions and rape by the army. He says he became a ‘savage’ who took part in indiscriminate killing, and that he saw fellow soldiers growing beards, putting on civilian clothes and fighting with hunting rifles confiscated from rebels. ‘Many of us believed,’ he writes, ‘that there were, in reality, genuine armed Islamic groups, on the one hand, and, on the other, armed Islamic groups manipulated by the men in the intelligence services.’

La Sale Guerre caused a tremendous stir in France, especially among Algerian immigrants, and it placed the recently unmasked Commander Moulessehoul – who was in Paris promoting his memoir, L’Ecrivain – in an impossible bind. As his publisher put it, ‘If you don’t respond to the accusations against the army, all our efforts to raise your profile risk being in vain. If you respond, you risk appearing to be a zealous defender of an institution the French more or less openly condemn. And we don’t see a solution to this problem.’ Khadra finally issued a statement: ‘I declare solemnly that, during eight years of war, I never witnessed nor had reason to suspect any army involvement in even the smallest massacre of civilians.’ During the first two years of the war, he admitted, ‘grave errors’ had occurred, but, he insisted, ‘these were isolated acts (vengeance, incompetence, mistakes or psychosis) that did not implicate the military as a whole.’

Within a matter of months, the Algerian army had orchestrated a veritable campaign against Souaidia – centred, of course, in the métropole. The retired General Khaled Nezzar, who reportedly masterminded the cancellation of the elections and who remains an influential figure in the pouvoir, sued Souaidia for defamation in a Paris court. (Bizarrely, Souaidia’s estranged ghostwriter Mohamed Sifaoui – who repudiated the book, accusing the editor of censoring passages critical of the rebels – appeared as a witness on Nezzar’s behalf.) At the trial in June 2002, Souaidia received impressive support from numerous Algerian witnesses, including Mohamed Samraoui, who is now exiled in Germany but was the second in command of Algeria’s counter-intelligence services before he quit in protest. Samraoui told the court that the Sécurité Militaire ‘created the GIA’ in order to undermine the FIS in the months leading up to the 1992 coup which followed the FIS’s first-round election victory. ‘We were trying to radicalise the movement.’ The court ruled in Souaidia’s favour.

La Sale Guerre veers recklessly into conspiracy theory at times, and sometimes downplays the violence of the Islamists. But it has the virtue of showing that state repression and Islamic terror were involved in a lethal pas de deux. Led by General Nezzar, the ‘eradicators’ in the army sought to radicalise the Islamist movement from the start of the 1991 electoral crisis by refusing to negotiate with the FIS. And, as Human Rights Watch and other monitoring groups have documented, once the war erupted the army presided over widespread abuses. Khadra’s statement, portraying a professional army locked in battle with savage terrorists and guilty only of a few ‘isolated’ crimes, is eerily reminiscent of Nezzar’s. And it highlights a problem in his fiction. For all its authenticity, the failure to reckon with the army’s troubling behaviour is, as Althusser might have put it, the ‘structuring absence’ of Khadra’s work. The epigraph from Nietzsche in Morituri suggests that he knows more than he lets on: ‘The greatest periods of our life are those in which we finally have the courage to admit that the evil we carry within us is the best part of ourselves.’

Since independence, Algeria has been a country ruled from the shadows. The transition to multiparty rule in 1989 did little to change this. As Hugh Roberts points out in The Battlefield: Algeria 1998-2002 (2003), an almost indispensable book, the introduction of pluralism merely ‘replaced a monolithic façade with a pluralist one’. The real power in Algeria resides, as it always has, with the generals, many of whom, like Nezzar, are former officers in the French army who joined the independence movement only when it became clear that de Gaulle was preparing to pull out. In L’Ecrivain, Khadra fondly recalls a visit to his classroom by Colonel Houari Boumedienne, Algeria’s president from 1965 to 1978. For Boumedienne, he says proudly, the young cadets were ‘the guarantee of the stability of the nation and of the preservation of the gains of the revolution’. But, since Algeria embraced the market in the 1980s, those ‘gains’ – from the revenues of oil and natural gas to the benefits of education – have increasingly flowed to a narrow elite with connections to the military. This, not Islamic piety, is the principal reason the FIS swept the 1991 elections, as Khadra knows. Although the insurgents have been largely crushed, the army still refuses to allow the ‘dissolved party’ – code word for the FIS – to take part in elections, invoking the threat of fundamentalism to maintain its stranglehold on the country’s political system. ‘The United States has much to learn from Algeria on ways to fight terrorism,’ William Burns, the US assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs said on a visit to Algiers in December 2002. Indeed it does: as a new report from the International Crisis Group concludes, ‘Algeria has been a case study in how not to deal with Islamist activism.’ With the enthusiastic support of the Bush administration, the generals continue to run the show. This is the story of post-colonial Algeria, and it explains why La Sale Guerre resonates with so many Algerian readers. ‘It’s him they believe,’ Khadra’s wife told him. Is it any wonder?