At the French Institute

Jeremy Harding

Meursault, contre-enquête by Kamel Daoud came out in English translation last month. The plaudits in the UK and US have a rare ring of authenticity: Daoud’s book is a dazzling appropriation of L’Etranger, sceptical, impatient, yet full of admiration for a canonical little fiction. He is The Outsider’s nerdiest insider. He knows every line (and occasionally quotes or tweaks them in his ‘own’ novel): he has inhabited the text and argued with it for years. Edward Said published Culture and Imperialism in 1993, as the war between Algeria’s Islamists and the ancien régime – still in power today, after half a century – was getting under way. That’s over. But so is the age of postcolonial condescension, a confident, proscriptive age, which threw out Camus’s best work along with a lot of his high-minded anguish. Daoud has reopened the conversation about an interesting novel.

‘I am not a Camusian,’ he announced last week to his audience at the French Institute in London. (I was one of his hosts there.) He wouldn’t dump the memory of colonialism; it wasn’t just a matter of walking away and getting over himself. L’Etranger, he reasoned, was part of the bitter record of the colonial era – Camus had opposed independence for Algeria – but the best writings were a gift you could retrieve from a bitter legacy and he laid claim to both. Whatever the weight of the past, he added, he also had a right to live in the present. (The ruling party still harps on liberation from France, binding older Algerians to a disconsolate, instrumental story of sacrifice and entitlement, but many people of Daoud’s age – 45 – and younger have run out of patience with it.)

Despite his protestations, Daoud is a bit of a Camusian. Even though he’s kidnapped L’Etranger he treats his hostage with respect and there’s an undeniable complicity between the two novels. Then, too, he’s a fierce believer in individual liberty, which often puts him at odds with the regime, and with the Islamist ideologies that began to gain ground in Algeria during the 1980s. Unlike Camus he doesn’t think in terms of big, regional identifications (Camus argued for a ‘Mediterranean’ identity): he’s been in trouble for calling himself Algerian rather than Arab and announcing that it’s not because you’re ‘Arab’ that you get the Palestinian struggle. But like Camus, he’s a humanist with a strong notion of ‘universal’ values, and opposed to violence. Then too, the strength with which Camus came down against communism, after an early spell in the party, is mirrored by Daoud’s brusque turn away from Islamism, which he embraced with a passion in his twenties.

Daoud also writes for Le Quotidien d’Oran, where he lists the shortcomings of his fellow Algerians in hasty, sonorous generalisations that you wouldn’t associate with Daoud the novelist. As a journalist he likes to go to the edge, overstating his case in any medium, including television. He’s eloquent, reckless, ready to die for a couple of well-turned opinions, and now lives under the burden of a pseudo-fatwa issued last year by an obscure Algerian imam: a much more insidious threat than a down-the-line fatwa from a powerful cleric, which might have forced the government to take action.

On the 26 June atrocity near Sousse, Daoud the journalist pulls out all the stops. You wouldn’t have thought the massacre of 38 tourists was the moment to allude to your masterpiece, or even Camus’s, but he goes straight for murder on the beach: under a ‘harsh sun, between salt and solitude, a man takes a weapon and fires...’ Readers are then warned that Islamisation is creeping forward in Algeria, the caduceus is disappearing from pharmacies, leaving only the crescent, halal beaches already exist and surely they foreshadow Sousse-like horrors, but nobody in Algeria is lifting a finger: they’ve simply succumbed to their fate like the spineless, ‘impotent and half-starved’ nation they are, plodding along on ‘the back of the she-camel and the pipeline’ (Algerian oil output is about 1.4 million barrels a day).

This is brave, incendiary journalism, but it downplays the step-by-step advance Algerians have made, with or without their ministers or imams, since they emerged in a state of shock from the civil war of 1991-2002. Algeria is now a precarious point of stability in the Maghreb and doesn’t need revenue from large numbers of Europeans performing home-style holidays in bubble environments a long way, culturally, from home. Daoud can knock off a column in 20 minutes, but there must be more to add.

One point that keeps eluding us is the scarcity of international support for Tunisia since everyone got to their feet to applaud the revolution in 2011. Shovelling tourists into the country is obviously helpful, and it’s true, as Daoud says, that Isis wants to smash the sector, directly responsible for about 8 per cent of the country’s jobs and 10 per cent of GDP. But even without the Sousse atrocity and the attack on the Bardo National Museum in March (also claimed by Isis), a torrent of holidaymakers was never going to be enough. Since the Bardo massacre, voices have been raised in favour of helping Tunisia sort out its army – the police force, much bigger than the military, is tainted by its association with the former president, Ben Ali – and seal off its border with Libya, which is leaking weapons and angry people.

But we should really be talking about money. Post-revolution, Western lenders have tightened credit lines to Tunisia in the hope of forcing economic reforms: they fear that the cronyism of the Ben Ali era is still in play; they worry especially about the public sector payroll; they don’t like the size of the informal sector either (estimates range from 30 to 50 per cent of the economy); the balance of trade figures are a problem; so are the budget deficits, the 6 per cent inflation and the fact that the rich don’t pay taxes. But Tunisia is reeling from the Nato intervention in Libya, soaking up hundreds of thousands of Libyans along the way – many are still in Tunisia – plus quantities of arms and the contagion of insecurity. It is dealing with 17 per cent unemployment and plenty of homegrown Salafists. No other country has seen more youngsters leave to fight in the Levant. In these circumstances you have to be suffering from lean-state monomania to insist on pruning the civil service before you offer to help.

Things are moving. The African Development Bank has approved more than $2 billion in loans and grants. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development has opened offices in Tunis. The last IMF review brings fund releases to about $1.3 billion. Four weeks ago president Béji Caïd Essebsi grappled his way to the G7 summit and shook a few hands. Tunisians aren’t holding their breath for the cheque. In May, as Essebsi was due in Washington, a group of sixty North Africa and Middle East experts published an open letter to Obama begging for more US assistance. They called, among other things, for a donor conference that would raise $5 billion a year for three years to support the Tunisian ‘transition’.

Francis Ghilès, a basilisk observer who’s written on the Maghreb for 35 years, thinks a four-year plan providing $15 billion in foreign loans and investments would cushion Tunisia against the trouble ahead. But the country’s cheerleaders abroad are offering nothing like that figure, even in pledges. Ghilès factors in one other potential lifeline: debt forgiveness. He’s out on a limb there. In 2015, lenders are the wounded heroes and borrowers are the villains: Tunisia’s external debt is roughly $30 billion.

Tourists in the Maghreb may be more at risk than they’ve been led to believe, but they enact about 10 per cent of the transfers that governments who admire the Tunisian revolution ought to be making. They’re volunteeers for a difficult part of the world. Mostly it’s quiet on the holiday front. When it isn’t, we’re dismayed and flail about for answers (targeting missions over Syria!). Poorer holidaymakers take $1.5 billion per annum into Tunisia’s economy, slightly less than what it costs the country to service its foreign debt. Whether or not they come home from their high-risk, low-cost vacations in one piece, a proportion of what they spent goes back to their treasuries. It might as well be national service.

In a good year, more than quarter of a million British tourists hit the beaches in Tunisia. Eastern Europeans go in large numbers, as the West Germans did in the 1970s and 1980s. Tunisians cross frontiers too. In 2011, 28,000 Tunisians pitched up in Italy (they’re drawn to beaches for different reasons); in 2012, Tunisians living abroad sent home $2.2 billion. In economic terms, freedom of movement makes a lot of sense, but it’s not playing well in Europe. Britain is severe both about ‘burden sharing’ and about issuing visas in the ordinary way to non-EU visitors.

Last year the government handed its visa processing to ‘our new commercial partner Teleperformance’, a French company. In Algiers the ambassador said: ‘I am delighted to open this new visa centre and I am impressed with the UK branding.’ The most notable feature of the French Institute’s evening with Daoud in London was his absence. Despite the British embassy’s efforts, Daoud could not get a UK visa in Algiers. The option of applying in Paris was too sensitive for a writer with many enemies: at home Daoud is (grotesquely) accused of being a cultural plaything of the French. No visa, no novelist. The event went ahead with a link to Oran and Daoud the novelist was sometimes audible and always thoughtful. The British government and Teleperformance – ‘committed to improving customer service’ – should play up the consolations of Skype to disappointed visa applicants in the Maghreb.