Kamel Daoud and the Paradoxes of Liberation

Kamel Daoud and the Paradoxes of Liberation

The Force of Looking

Kamel Daoud in the spotlight.


In early March, thousands of Algerian demonstrators occupied the Place d’Armes in Oran, Algeria’s second largest city. They were protesting the announcement by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika that he intended to run for a fifth consecutive five-year term, although the former officer has rarely been seen in public since suffering a stroke in 2013. Kamel Daoud arrived at the square early. A novelist and columnist for Le Quotidien d’Oran, one of the local French-language papers, Daoud has long been a ferocious critic of the military officers who have run Algeria since it won independence in 1962. Well before the recent protests, he denounced the ruling clique—le pouvoir, as it is locally known—as a gerontocracy that humiliated the populace under the guise of providing stability. He decried the regime’s theft of oil profits, its violent suppression of public dissent, and its creation of a political system based on paranoia and mistrust. In a column written in 2010, he despaired over “the mummification of Algerian society by its pharaohs” and asked, “How long has it been since Algerians went out in the streets to demand democracy?”

Daoud celebrated the March demonstrations as an Algerian renaissance. In a column for Le Point, he contrasted the dynamism of the protesters with the sclerosis of the regime, in prose that seemed to draw inspiration from the music and energy of the crowds:

On the one hand, the immobile body of Bouteflika, the incarnation of a generation that refuses to die and will not accept a transition, a handing-down of power; on the other hand, the body of the demonstrator, exuberant, laughing, singing, feminine, masculine. This was the first thought that struck me that day, marching with hundreds of thousands of others from Oran: the return of the body.

Chroniques is a selection of Daoud’s columns, primarily published in French-​language newspapers from 2010 to 2016, that exhibits his fierce yet frequently ebullient sensibility. To read these pieces now is to relive the sudden blooming of the Arab Spring and its bitter aftermath. It is also to meet a journalist primed for the moment. Daoud writes with his nerve endings. His columns are impulsive, risky, and full of punchy formulations. For Islamists, he once declared, “democracy is like a camel—you can climb on top of it, milk it, eat it, use it as shelter, make clothing of it, raise it, but never hesitate to slaughter, sell, or buy it.” His comments on the regimes in Algeria, Egypt, Libya, and the Persian Gulf nations are, if anything, more scathing: “We accomplish nothing by fighting a poorly dressed ISIS in Syria, while shaking hands with a well-dressed ISIS in Saudi Arabia.” Daoud casts the struggle against Arab authoritarianism as the unfinished business of the region’s wars for independence. (The original French edition of this collection is titled Mes Indépendances.)

Daoud’s pieces are stylishly written and often courageous in their pointed criticism of powerful regimes, but the real reason to read them is for his equally sharp treatment of would-be allies. He is dismissive of the slogans of the Arab left, which he finds out-of-date and even pernicious. Although friendly to the Palestinian cause, he rarely writes about life in the occupied territories, nor does he often criticize Israeli policies. Instead, he rails against the conformism of Arab intellectual life, accusing both Islamists and Arab governments of treating Palestine “like a G-string”—that is, a showy but thin contrivance to cover up their ineffectuality and corruption. When it comes to Arab unity and anti-imperialism, he is just as scornful, arguing that those causes have been turned into excuses for maintaining the status quo.

Daoud’s political hopes lie with the youth. Almost 60 years after independence, Algeria’s rulers continue to justify their reign by pointing to the trauma and triumph of the 1954–62 war with France. Born eight years after independence, he doesn’t deny the trauma, but he urges his readers to get over it. When French President Emmanuel Macron acknowledged last fall that France had tortured pro-independence activist Maurice Audin during the Algerian War, Daoud wondered what it had to do with his generation’s struggles for democratic governance and economic opportunity. In an op-ed published in The New York Times, he worried that “instead of using [Macron’s declaration] to start a discussion about Algerian memory, the Algerian government may, once again, try to bolster its legitimacy by pointing a finger at colonization.” In a country obsessed with national memory, Daoud offered a radical cure: “The decolonized must get beyond the past, and take responsibility for their present, with sincerity.”

His resolve to move beyond the idées fixes of postcolonialism is the reason that his work has generated so much excitement in some quarters and so much wariness in others. He writes as the representative of a generation for whom the pathos of the Algerian War and, by extension, other wars of national liberation has been exhausted, their lessons turned into dogma. “It’s a tragedy,” he writes, “to be confined to this decolonization without end, this perpetual jeremiad, this complex of the periphery.” To break free of this complex, Daoud writes with a rage and clarity that are exhilarating to read. His skepticism toward the orthodoxies of the left and his faith in “the present” as a time of unpredictable transformations perfectly suit the mood of the thousands who occupied mayadeen across the Arab world eight years ago—and who seem to have returned in Algeria and Sudan. Anyone interested in knowing what brought those crowds into the squares, what happened to them during the past eight years, and where things might be headed next would do well to read Chroniques.

Daoud is best known for his slim novel The Meursault Investigation. First published in Algeria by Éditions Barzakh in 2013 as Meursault, Contre-​Enquête, it appeared a year later in France and soon was widely translated. The novel’s premise is so simple and elegant that one wonders why no one thought of it before. The book is a kind of sequel to Albert Camus’s The Stranger, in which the anonymous Arab of the original, who was shot to death on a beach outside Algiers by Meursault, Camus’s narrator, is given a name (Musa) and a family history. Daoud’s narrator, Musa’s brother Harun, tells us that he has learned French expressly to tell the murdered man’s story—the one left untold by the local boy who went on to literary fame in Paris.

The Meursault Investigation mimics Camus’s novel by turning it inside out. The first sentence reads, “Aujourd’hui, M’ma est encore vivante” (in John Cullen’s translation, “Mama’s still alive today”). Other reversals are less mechanical. Unlike Camus’s flinty prose and Meursault’s tough-guy silences, Harun is talkative and self-dramatizing. (Like the narrator of Camus’s The Fall, Harun delivers his monologue at the end of a bar.) In place of Camus’s stoic philosophy of the absurd, Harun announces an ethics of witnessing. “That’s the reason why I’ve learned to speak this language,” he tells us on the first page of the novel. “So I can speak in place of a dead man, so I can finish his sentences for him.”

So far, so familiar. We seem to be reading a late addition to the canon of “The Empire Writes Back” (in Salman Rushdie’s phrase). But then things get more interesting. After telling the story of Musa, Harun relates his own, which turns out to mirror his nemesis’s in ironic fashion. For Harun, like Meursault, is a murderer: Driven by his mother’s thirst for vengeance, he kills an unarmed Frenchman during the early days of Algerian independence. Harun is interrogated by an Algerian officer, who notes that if he had just killed the man a few days earlier, his deed would have been an act of resistance; since it occurred after independence, however, it’s a common murder (though since the victim was French, Harun is still let go). In other words, Harun’s killing of the Frenchman is as meaningless in the existentialist sense as Meursault’s killing of the Arab, a mere acte gratuit.

But Harun’s similarity to Meursault goes even deeper. Both are nonconformists of a peculiarly French type—passionately atheistic and anticlerical. In the final scenes of Camus’s novel, Meursault is visited in his cell by a chaplain, who needles him with questions about the afterlife and offers to pray for him. Meursault, who spends most of the novel in a haze of je-m’en-foutisme, seizes the priest by his collar and tells him not to waste his breath: Meursault’s certainty of God’s absence is more than a match for the priest’s faith. Daoud has called this the most powerful scene in the novel, and his Algerian narrator also feels besieged by meddlesome believers. His neighbor reads the Quran at the top of his lungs, and the bars in Oran are all closed on Fridays. Harun describes his dilemma as that of a man caught “between Allah and ennui.”

Daoud’s admiration for Camus puts him in the minority in Algeria. For most of the country’s Arabophone writers, as for many postcolonial intellectuals, Camus is a political dead end—the last, most ambivalent of the imperialist writers who refused to support Algeria’s fight for independence. For Conor Cruise O’Brien, writing in 1970 at the height of third-worldist politics, Camus was a writer who “flinched from the realities of his position, as a Frenchman of Algeria.” Edward Said, in an influential essay written some 20 years later, largely agreed with O’Brien’s diagnosis of the philosopher’s blind spots, saying, “The Arabs of The Stranger are nameless beings used as background for the portentous metaphysics explored by Camus.”

Some Francophone Algerian writers have dissented from this postcolonial reading. For Assia Djebar, the most internationally celebrated Algerian novelist and a member of the Académie Française before she died in 2015, Camus represented a road not taken in her country’s history: the possibility of a peaceful decolonization. In 1995, in the midst of a bloody conflict between the Algerian regime and Islamist groups and a year after the posthumous publication of Camus’s unfinished novel The First Man, Djebar eulogized him as a pacifist of principle. She recalled his 1956 proposal for a truce between France and Algerian nationalists—a truce that neither side was interested in at the time—and wondered whether it might have led to “a solution like the one Mandela found in South Africa.”

Daoud’s enthusiasm for Camus is more personal, even intimate. The Meursault Investigation is an homage not only to The Stranger but to all of Camus’s novels and essays, which serve him (and Harun) as a secular litany. In one of his more affecting columns, Daoud writes of a trip to Yale’s Beinecke Library, where he finds a handwritten manuscript of The Myth of Sisyphus. Daoud pores over Camus’s scratched-out lines, noting that “the manuscript is the place where the book hasn’t erased its other possibilities.” He compares the yellowing pages to “a desired body” and suggests that Camus’s crabbed script was a symptom of his famously short breath: “To read the manuscript is to experience this rhythm directly, hear his respiration, perceive within it the noise of the earth beneath his tread.” This is reading and writing as bodily inhabitation.

One might say The Meursault Investigation is an actualization of the “other possibilities” latent in The Stranger. This is what makes it a pleasure to read, but it is also a limitation, since it’s difficult to imagine enjoying Daoud’s novel without first caring about Camus’s. (Lots of people do, of course, and Daoud’s book has become an international best seller.) The Meursault Investigation was born out of a newspaper column, a short monologue that Daoud later used in the novel’s opening pages, and the story feels like a clever conceit that has been fatally overextended. For all his interest in godless freedom, Daoud’s fiction is somewhat cramped. The plot is static, the characters (particularly the bloodthirsty mother) are types, and the narrator’s disquisitions—on Algerian society, Camus’s novel, and the guilty pleasures of drinking wine—come to seem more like a series of amusing op-eds than a barroom confession.

But Daoud’s devotion to Camus garnered him a significant readership in France and now widely across the rest of Europe and in the United States. Metropolitan tastes for Algerian literature have traditionally skewed toward a fascination with intégriste violence and retellings of the Algerian Revolution—things one finds in the works of Yasmina Khadra and Rachid Boudjedra, for example. Daoud’s novel, which came within two votes of winning the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious award for fiction, appealed to a different set of Parisian readers: those convinced of the universalism of French culture and with a particular reverence for its classics. For them, Daoud’s dedication to The Stranger (an all-time best seller in France, though it isn’t taught in Algeria) was gratifying evidence of, if nothing else, the enduring and widespread appeal of French literature. “I know the book by heart,” Harun says of Camus’s novel. “I can recite it to you like the Koran.”

Daoud’s next moment in the spotlight came in the winter of 2016, at the height of the European migrant crisis and in the wake of mass sexual assaults in Cologne and other German cities during the celebrations on New Year’s Eve. The perpetrators were mostly men of North African or Middle Eastern background, and the incidents became a flash point in debates about immigration policy on the continent. In a pair of op-eds published in Le Monde and The New York Times, Daoud criticized those on the right who argued for barring Europe’s doors against Muslims, but he reserved his harshest words for those on the “naively optimistic” left who shut their eyes to what he called “the sexual misery” of “the lands of Allah,” where an ongoing “war on women” amounted to an undiagnosed and fast-spreading “sickness.”

A group of 19 mostly American and French academics published a letter in Le Monde accusing Daoud of trading in Orientalist clichés and giving rhetorical support to Islamophobia. In response, he called his critics “coddled petitioners” who were mounting a Stalinesque show trial from the safety of Western capitals and café terraces. One can understand his umbrage, given the risks he runs in publishing his opinions while living in Algeria, where an Islamist imam issued on Facebook a call for his death. Less fathomable, however, was his surprise that his most passionate defenders—including the philosopher Pascal Bruckner, who called Daoud’s critics “fatwa-writing guard dogs disguised as scholars”—should come from the secular French right, long obsessed with the threat of sexual barbarism from the East as well as that of so-called Islamic totalitarianism. That he would be embraced by such figures was in fact entirely predictable, and naive optimism seems like a charitable interpretation of Daoud’s lack of concern.

The controversy that his two op-eds provoked caught many readers’ attention, but the writings collected in Chroniques show that Daoud’s commentary on Cologne wasn’t a fluke—nor, as he has sometimes suggested, an emotional outburst. On the contrary, the sexual misery of “the lands of Allah” is a subject he returns to again and again in his journalism, where he suggests that the root problem is the spread of Islamist teachings and social movements. Islamism, for Daoud, is an especially joyless version of Platonism, morbidly suspicious of the body and its pleasures, intolerant of dissent, and disdainful of the world’s actual, teeming diversity. The Islamist is “unsettled by difference,” Daoud writes. “He dreams of a world that is uniform, unanimous.” Islamism is “an affliction of Islam,” a death-haunted cult spread by Saudi-funded media, cable television theologians, and a lack of ideological alternatives. “Islamism is a kind of fascism,” he concludes, “a kind of muffled totalitarianism [that] can’t be moderated.”

Daoud was an Islamist in his youth, and his writings bear the stamp of a convert’s disillusionment. They recycle, wittingly or not, the tropes of right-wing opinion in France, as well as those of Arab secularists like the Syrian poet Adonis—comparisons of Islamism with fascism, metaphors of illness, and fixation with veiling practices. And they fail to explain why Islamist politics—hardly a monolithic phenomenon—attracts so many millions of ordinary and intelligent people, from Algeria to Egypt to Indonesia: its ethos of asceticism, its practical support for the poor, its impressive methods of mobilization. Nor does Daoud mention, except in passing, the Cold War history of Arab governments, often supported by the United States and its allies, that co-opted and murdered leftists, thereby opening the door to precisely those Islamists whose rise gave the regimes a pretense for demanding further handouts and friendly treatment from the West. Daoud knows this history, as every Arab intellectual does, but it falls victim to the same scalpel he uses to divide contemporary Algeria from its war for independence. It is as if taking responsibility for the present meant simply forgetting the past.

If Daoud’s analysis of Islamism is insufficient, his emphasis on its puritan elements usefully highlights his celebration of the body—that laughing, dancing, singing body whose “return” he recognized in the crowds occupying Oran’s Place d’Armes. Here it becomes clear that Daoud’s deepest affinity is not with Camus the novelist—the steely-eyed moralist of The Stranger, The Plague, and The Fall—but with Camus the lyrical essayist. Camus’s essays of the late 1930s are his most obviously “Algerian” texts, ecstatic evocations of a sun-drenched, sensually abundant landscape “where the mind finds its justification in the body.” In the splendor of the Mediterranean littoral, the young Camus detected “an invitation to life,” a summons to this-worldly pleasure and corporeal gratification. He praised his countrymen’s healthy devotion to the here and now:

This people, plunged wholly in the present, lives with neither myths nor consolation. It has placed all its goods on this earth and hence remains defenseless against death. The gifts of physical beauty have been heaped upon it.

Camus’s Mediterranean paganism was a rebuke to Catholic thinkers like Charles Maurras, founder of the right-wing Action Française. For Daoud, the enemy is the arid idealism of Islamist theology. “I like ancient religions,” he writes in his homage to the topless activists of Femen, “those of the body and the sun, which were extinguished by guilt, abstinence, and mortal fear.” Daoud’s form of body worship is also a fantasy of escape from what he calls “identity pathology,” the demand made by Islamists on the one hand and political regimes on the other that people identify themselves as Muslim or Arab, with all the historical baggage that comes with such a choice. For Daoud, the liberation of the body, its release from the shackles of the past, is paramount:

The body is the only thing that’s divine, the only eternity that I can touch with my hands…. It’s in the body that I find heaven or lose it, not in prayer. I dream of it, naked, proud, vigorous, praised for its performance, revered as a fortune, a conquest. I want it to be free; I don’t want the body to apologize for itself, to hide, retreat, suffer, become isolated, or want for anything other than itself. The body is not a nationality; it’s my only source of humanity.

But all this talk about the body can quickly feel rather abstract, as if Daoud’s reverence for it were merely the mirror image of the Islamists’ denial of it. To dream of nakedness as a liberation from the past is, after all, another form of idealism. Actual bodies are marked precisely by their individual histories. Likewise, Daoud’s fantasy of freedom—“I don’t want any more history,” he declares in one of his more categorical moods—is of a piece with his desire to think everything anew, outside all the old categories and traditions. While the Islamists imagine a past purified of the fallen present, Daoud images a present purified of its own history. It isn’t by chance that his favorite myth, omnipresent in his fiction as well as his essays, is that of Robinson Crusoe, the man of new beginnings.

Daoud’s idea that history is something to escape rather than something to revisit and revise leads to some of his weakest writing and most risible judgments. What he has to say about women is a case in point. Throughout Chroniques, he condemns Arab governments and Islamist preachers for their reactionary treatment of women and especially for their view of female bodies as a source of shame. Here the various strands of Daoud’s thought—his critique of religion, his reverence for the body, and his outspoken feminism—come together: “The Islamist is uncomfortable with a woman because she reminds him of her body, and therefore of his own body. The Islamist wants to veil woman to forget her, deny her, disembody her, escape her.” Over and over in his writings, Daoud claims that the problems of the Arab and Islamic world result from the repression and coercion of bodies and of women’s bodies in particular. Rather than a source of shame, Daoud argues, women’s bodies should be a source of hope and resistance.

But this is a severely limited version of feminism—one that pays scant attention to women’s minds, for example, or indeed to the long history of feminist movements in the Arab and Muslim worlds, about which Daoud has almost nothing to say. When he travels abroad (the countries he visits are postcolonial, postsocialist analogues of Algeria), he describes himself as a journalist “who judges people based on how they treat women.” But the evidence he cites appears limited to dress codes. In Vietnam, women “can have bare legs, they are elegant, and not harassed.” In Romania, “short skirts don’t cause earthquakes.” In Senegal, Daoud finds women “so elegant as to take your breath away…. Smiling. Bodies betraying desire, precise in their movement. Free.” Senegalese women might quibble with this, but in any case, what sort of freedom is Daoud talking about? Beyond the ability to wear short skirts and go unveiled, it’s hard to know.

In 2017, Daoud was invited to spend a night in the Picasso Museum in Paris without books or companions and to write about his experience. The show on exhibit was “Picasso 1932, Année Érotique,” which included many nude portraits of Marie-​Thérèse Walter, the artist’s love interest at the time. In his earlier writings, Daoud never evinced any interest in Picasso, but something about the setup must have appealed to him: the empty museum as a kind of desert isle, in which the solitary man of sensibility attempts, à la Crusoe, to fashion a world of ideas from scratch. And then, as Daoud explains in the resulting book-length essay, Le Peintre Dévorant la Femme (The Painter Is Devouring the Woman, not yet translated into English), “Eroticism is the key to my vision of the world…proof that the Beyond is a body that one can hold and eat, here and not ‘after.’”

Daoud’s descriptions of Picasso’s canvasses are always vivid, but these nudes have hardly been ignored by scholars, so the idea that one might have something fresh to say about them simply by the force of looking—Daoud doesn’t cite any previous work—implies a peculiar sort of hubris. The strangest, perhaps most telling moment comes when Daoud imagines himself as an Islamist fanatic, a man with no knowledge of figurative art, confronting these icons of desire:

In the cold of the museum, it’s the nude that unsettles me…. It’s the nude that attracts the child of calligraphy in me, the man of the South, the planet of Allah. The West, for us, is the nude. (The Orient—is it the eternal veil?) No matter what they say, no matter how they hide it.

It can happen that in the fight for independence, one set of constraints gets exchanged for another, possibly tighter set. In his exasperation with the norms of modern Arab life and politics, Daoud has liberated himself from the straitjacket of postcolonial thinking, only to end up, at times, repeating platitudes about Western culture and Eastern primitivism, sexual mores, and the eternal veil. In his impatience with the Arab left’s slogans, Daoud tells his readers that Arab nationalism, Marxism, and feminism have little to teach.

Those traditions have flaws, of course. Some have been co-​opted by autocratic states, which use them reflexively to stifle dissent. But these traditions also offer flexible visions of history and substantive notions of freedom that Daoud’s politics—like those of the demonstrators in the squares—frequently lack. “The planet of Allah” does not have a monopoly on dogma disguised as knowledge; France and the West have their own orthodoxies and complexes. One hopes Daoud will acknowledge as much and begin the difficult work of liberating himself from them as well.

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that moves the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories to readers like you.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Thank you for your generosity.

Ad Policy