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Writers or Missionaries? | The Nation

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Writers or Missionaries?

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V.S. Naipaul

V.S. Naipaul

The author would like to thank Sara Roy and Elias Muhanna. This essay is an adaptation of the 2014 Hilda B. Silverman Memorial Lecture delivered in May at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies of Harvard University.

France’s ultimate responsibility for everything that had gone wrong in Algeria, I found, was about the only thing Algerians agreed on. I interviewed dozens of people, from high-ranking officials to Islamist sympathizers; from mothers of the disappeared to hardline generals; from Berber activists to human-rights campaigners. Each claimed to be a critic of le pouvoir, including those who were plainly its beneficiaries. Each expressed disappointment in the post-independence era. Each claimed unimpeachable nationalist credentials and believed that his or her views were faithful to the “historic FLN,” the leadership that had lost out to those who had “confiscated” the revolution. What no one seemed to agree on was what the Algerian nation actually was. One man, a former member of the maquis who fought in the Aurès Mountains during the independence struggle, insisted that Algeria was not an Arab country like Egypt; it had more in common with Mediterranean countries like Italy, Spain and Greece. A Kabyle activist told me, no less passionately, that Algeria was a Berber country, and that its true character had been perverted by state-led Arabization. Others told me that Algeria was profoundly Arab and Muslim in its identity, and that anyone who told me otherwise was self-hating, a victim of a colonial complex. Algerians had been having this argument for years. The feud had started before the war of independence, when “assimilated” Muslims, populists, Islamists and Communists quarreled over Algeria’s identity, and it continued after independence was achieved. To be an Algerian was, in a sense, to participate in this debate, to have a stake in it. The fact that it remained so alive and so fraught after four decades of “liberation” led me to a realization that applies with equal force to the Middle East: nothing that is solid melts into air.

Algeria had been the prism through which I understood the Israel-Palestine tragedy and, to some extent, the rise of an insurgency in Iraq. Now Algeria helped me to develop a more nuanced understanding of power and identity in the region. The Algerian story was, in part, the story of a military government that refused to hand over power to civilians; but to tell that story was barely to scratch the surface. The obsession with France and with French plots, real and imagined, also suggested to me that the French/Algerian story had never really ended with the rupture that decolonization had brought about in 1962: independence was but a new and more subtle chapter in a history of unequal relations between the two countries, the two peoples. Every morning outside the French consulate in Algiers, there was a line of Algerians requesting visas, hoping to get into the country they at once hated and needed. There was no “solution” to France’s influence over Algeria; it was too late for solutions.

Algeria made a mockery of my nostalgia for the heroic certainties of anticolonialism and cured me of my lingering Third World–ism. The problems of post-independence Algeria could not be divorced from the history of colonization, but the failures were also homegrown, and they could not all be laid at the foot of France, the native bourgeoisie or even le pouvoir. And what was le pouvoir anyway? As one friend of mine put it, “Le pouvoir, c’est nous.” Algerians deserved better than a regime that had kept itself in power by distributing rents from natural gas. They had suffered terribly, and the world had largely ignored them in the darkest hours of the civil war. I wanted to give an account of their suffering, but I had to do so with a measure of humility, without pretending that I knew more than I did—or, more to the point, more than they did. Algerians were at once impressively informed about their country and stunned by what had happened to it during the civil war. Reporting on Algeria, I was forced to own up to my own uncertainty and to make it a part of my writing. This is easier said than done: readers want to be informed, not given a lecture on the limits of knowledge. I don’t claim to have a method, but admitting to the murkiness is a start.

I wish I could say that I always adhered to the uncertainty principle and listened to my own advice, but I didn’t. Algeria changed me, but it took a while for these changes to inform my writing. And the closer I got to the Israel-Palestine conflict, the more of a missionary—a Fiskian—I became. This is, as it were, an occupational hazard, the “Jerusalem syndrome” of journalists, whatever their ideological bent.

I was reminded of this a few years ago, when a mysterious man living in Damascus was killed in a car bombing. Imad Mughniyeh was one of the founders of Hezbollah and the architect of some of its most spectacular “operations,” from the 1983 bombings in Beirut to the attacks in Argentina in the early 1990s. Sometime in the 1990s, Mughniyeh went underground, and he was never mentioned by Hezbollah again until he met his fate in February 2008.

In 2004, several years before his assassination, I spent a few weeks in Lebanon reporting on Hezbollah’s “Lebanonization” under the leadership of Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah. While Israel and its spokesmen in the press continued to denounce Hezbollah as a “terrorist” outfit, Hezbollah appeared to have evolved into a more pragmatic political organization, moderating its rhetoric and entering Lebanese politics—including the confessional system that it had excoriated in its founding manifesto. It no longer seemed fair, or accurate, to describe Hezbollah merely as a proxy of the Islamic Republic of Iran or as an unreconstructed global “terrorist” organization, as Jeffrey Goldberg had argued in an alarmist series for The New Yorker. Goldberg’s articles on Hezbollah read as if they had been written by committee at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy; he even predicted that Hezbollah, a Shiite organization, might attack the United States in solidarity with Saddam Hussein, the great persecutor of the Shiites, a modern-day Yazid.

The fact that Hezbollah is a social movement and not just a militia or a pro-Iranian proxy is widely accepted today, but at the time it was a highly controversial thesis. My article came close to being killed. A platoon of fact-checkers spent nearly half a year investigating my claims. The excerpts from my interview with Nasrallah, with whom I had met for more than an hour at the party’s headquarters in the southern suburbs, were severely cut for reasons that were never explained. I had asked Nasrallah why the movement hadn’t laid down its arms after Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000. Wasn’t Hezbollah handing Israel a pretext to attack again? Israel, he replied, has never needed a pretext to attack Lebanon. He pointed out that when Israel invaded Lebanon in order to destroy Arafat’s PLO, it claimed to be responding to the shooting of Shlomo Argov, the Israeli ambassador in London, even though the shooting was carried out by the renegade Abu Nidal, an enemy of Arafat. Nasrallah’s argument was self-serving, to be sure, but he was right about the Argov pretext, and I succeeded in getting this passage restored.

Still, in my zeal to present a corrective to Goldberg’s take on Hezbollah, I made errors of my own. When I asked Nasrallah about Mughniyeh, who Goldberg claimed was still deeply involved in Hezbollah, he played with his prayer beads and told me that Mughniyeh was no longer in the organization and that his whereabouts were unknown. I was not fooled, but I didn’t push him further; I did not want to be shown the door, and I was willing to entertain the possibility that Mughniyeh had offered his services to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Was I flattered by Nasrallah’s generosity and politeness? Was the Mughniyeh relationship simply inconvenient for the case I was building about Hezbollah’s evolution? Whatever the case, I remembered these conversations when Mughniyeh was assassinated in Damascus. After Hezbollah staged an enormous funeral procession for him, the world learned not only that he had never strayed from Hezbollah, but that he had directed the 2006 war. His image was revealed for the first time in years and is now a fixture of Hezbollah iconography. I don’t blame Nasrallah for lying to me when he denied knowledge of Mughniyeh’s activities: he was merely doing his job. But I wasn’t doing mine.

Mughniyeh was, for Hezbollah, a heroic figure in what they call “the resistance.” No word is more sacred for Hezbollah, which has sought to portray itself as a “national resistance” rather than another sectarian militia. When I started out in journalism, I was more willing to use this word without quotation marks; it seemed preferable, after all, to the alternative, “terrorism.” Today, I am more skeptical of terms like “resistance,” “armed struggle” and “solidarity.” When I read these words, I want to ask: What do they actually mean, and what do they conceal? What do the people who use these words actually do? What does the word “resistance” mean if it can describe a Sunni-based insurgency against Bashar al-Assad and the Shiite-based insurgency in Lebanon that is fighting to crush that uprising? What ambitions, what goals, lie behind floating signifiers like “resistance”? What do those who hold up its banner hope to achieve? Mouloud Feraoun, an Algerian novelist who kept an extraordinary diary of the Algerian war before he was murdered by the OAS in 1962, put it well when he stated: “Sometimes you start asking yourself about the value of words, words that no longer make any sense. What is liberty, or dignity, or independence? Where is the truth, where is the lie, where is the solution?”

A writer’s job, I believe, is to ask these questions, even when—especially when—they are inconvenient. And the answers lie in the verbs, not the nouns. They lie in the distance, sometimes the chasm, between words and deeds.

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