The German Mujahid, by Boualem Sansal – A Review

The German Mujahid
Boualem Sansal, pg 227

Boualem Sansal’s The German Mujahid tries to link Islamist violence, the Holocaust, and the Algerian police state into a larger statement about totalitarian regimes and intolerance. In one way it is an ambitious idea: link seemingly disparate historical events like the Holocaust and Islamist violence in Paris suburbs, while creating a narrative that can plausibly hold the elements together. On the other hand, a book with such themes could easily veer into didactic sermonizing about the evils of totalitarian regimes, lumping them all into one group and not exploring what made them so horrible. While The German Mujahid does put together a plausible narrative, it also suffers from the later problem so that at times it seems as if Sansal can’t afford to wait any longer to tell us about how horrible these regimes are and has to shout it. If I lived in Algeria as he does perhaps I would be shouting, too. But as a work of literature it has a few deficiencies that don’t make it a bad book, just one that doesn’t understand subtly.

The German Mujahid is about two brothers, Rachel and his younger brother Malrich. They have lived in France since childhood, but their parents still live in rural Algeria, the Bled. Their mother is Berber but their father is German, a veteran of the Algerian war of independence.  In 1994, in the midst of the Islamist war in Algeria, their parents and several other villagers are murdered. Rachel returns to the village to take care of the estate and he finds a box with his father’s papers, which indicate that he had been, among other things, an SS officer at Auschwitz. It is a damning realization and Rachel sinks into a depression as he slowly untangles his father’s involvement in the Holocaust and then his subsequent flight to Egypt and Algeria. It is too overwhelming and Rachel sizes on the idea that he has to pay for the sins of the father.  Since his father died without atoning or facing justice, he will do it for him, dying in his garage overcome by car exhaust fumes.

Malrich, a petty criminal living in one of the high rise residences on the outskirts of Paris, follows the same investigation as Rachel. Using Rachel’s diary, Malrich also comes to terms with his father’s past. But Malrich, instead of wanting to pay for the sins of the father, internalizes the role of the victim and sees around him in the residence and in Algeria just more Nazis using whatever ideology they can to control and brutalize. Malrich sees the local imam and his thuggish Islamist  toughs as just a new incarnation of the Gestapo. He wants to take them on, fight them before they can start new death camps, which he fears the residences will become. Yet the French government seems unwilling to take on this fight at the end of the book he gives his summation of the state of things.

The Islamists are already here, they’re settled and here we are,  bound hand and foot, caught in the trap. If they don’t exterminate us, they’ll stop us from living. Worse still, they’ll turn us into our own guards, deferential to the emir, merciless to each other. We’ll be Kapos.

It is clear that Sansal sees the Islamist’s goals are not too dissimilar to those of the Nazi’s. He is not subtle about this at all. He also extends his criticism, though, to the government in Algeria, whose socialist state has been repressive from the beginning, only getting worse when it put down the Islamist terror campaign in the 90s.

While equivalency between horrors is wasted math, the totalitarian traits of all the groups is not in question and Sansal is right to make the links. In the context of Arab and Algerian literature, too, the book is important because it addresses topics that have either been avoided, or baned. Sansal it seems is trying to break the Islamist and Algerian issues from their respective religious and nationalistic imperatives, and make a comparison that is outside of the specific grievances that make for easy justifications, and say, look, you are doing the same.

The question, then, is how well does Sansal do this? Does he address the responsibility for guilt? Does he link the themes together adequately? In many ways he doesn’t succeed. The problem is the two brothers are so extreme they become embodiments of an inflexible rhetorical position that seems everything in black and white. Their approach to confronting these issues is to either die or to become paranoid, which could be called a psychic shock as the confront the past, but in reality makes them unable to actually confront the horrors they want to confront. Suicide is a private act that redeems no one and Malrich’s street tough persona doesn’t yet have the ability to organize and confront what he fears. And this is Sansal’s problem: he describes the problem, but doesn’t know what else to do but collapse in desperation.

The sense of desperation is partly from the literary device he uses: each brother writes their own journal entries. The journals are detailed and move the story along quickly, but they also create a myopia that places the individual’s experience at the center of the story and becomes a self reinforcing set of complaints, so that instead of seeing their lives in a larger context (even against the third person description of a street) you only have the one frame. While no writer has to put a story in context, Sansal seems to want to make a larger point, but what he produces is panic. A personal panic set against shadowy terror. Perhaps panic is the emotion you would feels if you were Malrich, but in the book it comes across an author more interested in warning the world than writing literature.

Perhaps given Sansal’s theme that is not a bad thing.

Inland – A Review

The mistake I made in selecting this film was not paying attention to the last line of the review which said the film ” compared to Antonioni.” Oh, the tedium for this loose (which is kind) and boring film. When you read the description below you might think it has potential but only when you get one hour into it do you even know why Malek is in the country side. But what was worse were all the long scenes of almost nothing, just the country side going by. Perhaps there was 20 minutes of dialog in over 130 minutes. Definitely not worth seeing. The only saving grace was the five minute Raï party, which gave you some idea how a traditional party might go. Otherwise not worth the time. If only someone had written a better movie to go along with the synopsis.

Malek is a reclusive topographer who accepts a commission to survey a remote part of western Algeria in order to extend the electrical grid. He arrives to find the area has been decimated by religious fundamentalists who have only recently cleared out. Malek meets the local police, the shepherds who are beginning to return, and villagers who invite him to a makeshift party. In the middle of the night, he is awakened by the sound of explosions. Not to worry, explains a local man. When the cicadas land in the sand, it’s enough to trigger off the buried booby-traps. But as Malek soon realizes, it isn’t cicadas setting off the mines, but refugees trying to reach the coast and a boat for Spain. The next day he finds a young woman, exhausted and terrified, hiding in a corner of his shack. Malek decides to drive her to the border, and together they set out toward some indeterminate vanishing point on the horizon. These present-day realities are interspersed with flashbacks to the idealistic political debates of his youth, and set against a soundtrack that mixes alternative rock, Nigerian Afrobeat, and Algerian Rai. With his minimalist approach to plot and dialogue, and mesmerizing cinematography, director Tariq Teguia has been compared to Antonioni. (from the SIFF site)

100% Arabica – A Review

If you want an insightful film that will explain the problems of Algerian immigrants in France, this is not the film. Yet it does have its moments and is a Raï fan’s attack on those problems, which gives it a certain weight. At the same time the film is a was a young persons film, one of those films that celebrates youth culture and asks why the adult world is so afraid of what the kids are doing these days.

The film follows a Raï band as they try to break out of their ghetto and make a living from their music. They are all former criminals and the temptation to steal is strong, especially since there are not too many opportunities in the ghetto. French discrimination of immigrants is quite well known and the film does not shy away from suggesting there isn’t much beyond the ghetto. While the band and the inhabits of the neighborhood try to live in peace, the local imam tries to get rich by imposing a fundamentalist form of Islam on the neighborhood. The imam is completely corrupt and is only interested in getting more people to support him. He works with the mayor, who is only interested in getting reelected and doesn’t care about what happens in the neighborhood, and takes his money to try and convince the neighborhood it should follow him.

The members of the band, fronted by Khaled, fight against all of these problems. They struggle to get money for a show, struggle against the imam who says music is forbidden, struggle with their parents who think they are bums. As in all musicals, though, the music is all powerful and everyone except the imam love the music. In the end, despite the machinations of the imam, the band celebrates with a triumphal show in the neighborhood and and the imam is driven from the neighborhood in a pork delivery truck. Music defeats intolerance.

The film is supposed to be a comedy and in a way it is, but it is seldom funny. Instead it comes off as a problem film with music. It is much better than Blackboard Jungle which is another problem film with young people’s music, because the musicians made the film. It shows the real preoccupations and problems the Algerian youth in France have. Every element, lack of jobs, corrupt officials, fundamentalist Imams, all have their bases in reality, and in this sense the movie is interesting. However, the narrative thread is week and so many characters come and go throughout the film that no character can develop very much. Everything in the film is for the insiders who can fill in the gaps, who know what it is like to live there. If you are an insider it makes for a pleasing film, if not, it makes for a film that is uneven.

The music, however, makes the film worth watching. There are several good performances by Khaled and Cheb Mami of some of their well known songs. The versions are not the album versions. Khaled has several good scenes where they show him working out a song and he is working with just one keyboard player and no mic. The performance is very intimate and well worth a watch.

In all, 100% Arabica is not one of the best movies but it if you have even a passing interest in Raï it is worth it.