Since he visited Israel and wrote a positive article about it, the prizewinning Algerian writer Boualem Sansal has been threatened, blacklisted and defamed. But he refuses to express contrition or flee his country. Now he wants to promote cooperation among all writers − Arab and Israeli.
By Sefy Hendler, Haaretz
Israel lies at the heart of a storm that has been buffeting Sansal for months. The Algerian writer decided to visit Israel, returned “joyful” and even said so in writing. Since then, his life has been turned upside down.
Islamism and Nazism
His decision to become the only Arab writer living in an Arab country who did not boycott the Paris Book Fair in 2008 − at which Israel was the guest of honor − did nothing to enhance his domestic image. The situation deteriorated sharply that same year, when he published his most controversial book to date: “Le village de l’Allemand ou le journal des freres Schiller.” (This is the only novel by Sansal that is available in English. Translated by Frank Wynne, it was published in the United States as “The German Mujahid” and in England as “An Unfinished Business.”) The novel tells the story of two Algerian-born brothers who, after their German-born father is murdered by Islamists at the height of the civil war in Algeria, discover that he was a Nazi war criminal. Sansal displays high sensitivity for the unique tragedy undergone by the Jewish people in the Holocaust, and simultaneously, through the moral qualms of his protagonists, posits an equation − not easy to digest − between extreme Islam and Nazism.
Doesn’t that equation justify crimes perpetrated by the Algerian authorities against the Islamists in one of the most blood-drenched wars the Arab world has seen in recent decades?
Sansal ponders the question in silence before responding. “There were some who were surprised by the equation,” he admits. “They thought that extreme Islam is only a tougher version of the Islamic religion. They expected me to explain the issue in depth. And I had to remind them, for example, of the story of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem in World War II [Hajj Amin al-Husseini, who collaborated with the Nazis and met with Hitler].
“But even after I provide these explanations, people tell me, ‘All right, it’s violent, but it’s not Nazism.’ Of course. I never claimed that extreme Islam is Nazism, but that there is a thin line. Nazism was born in industrialized German society, which possessed the means to put its madness into practice. The Iranian leaders are crazy, but that is not so dangerous as long as they do not have an atomic bomb. My contention is that extreme Islam has not yet found the way to develop the strength it needs to achieve absolute hegemony, militarily and ideologically.”
But some said that if only a thin line separates Islamism and Nazism, that is enough to justify de facto the massacre of extreme Muslims by Arab regimes, and first and foremost by the Algerian army.
“Really, does a military dictatorship need that argument to carry out suppression? They have always exercised suppression − suppression is their natural mode. They rule thanks to suppression and force of arms. They will go on protecting their regime with every means, as Assad is doing now and Gadhafi did before him. These are violent regimes that were established on foundations of violence. They don’t need me. And anyway, they never believed in the Holocaust. They were always sympathetic to the Nazis.”
Enchanted in Jerusalem
Sansal’s decision to visit Jerusalem in broad daylight, in full view of the world, should be seen within the context of his unorthodox willingness to tackle issues that are taboo in the Arab world. Still, he admits that he thought long and hard before deciding to accept an invitation to attend the 2012 International Writers Festival in Jerusalem.
“From the outset, it wasn’t neutral: an Algerian in Israel,” he says, but finally he decided to go. And also that he would not hide the decision. He announced publicly that he would visit Israel. Three weeks before the start of the festival (which took place in mid-May), Hamas denounced Sansal’s decision. For Sansal to go to Israel, the Gaza-based organization said, was “a crime against a million and a half Algerian martyrs who gave their lives for freedom.” The aggressive statement “severely unnerved me,” he says. “I talked it over with my wife. I told her that things would certainly happen − if not now, later. Let’s say the Arab Spring comes to Algiers [and the Islamists seize power]. We would have to leave home that same evening.”
Nevertheless, his mind was made up.
Not only did you come to Israel, you also spoke in public and sent the flames soaring even higher. What was the aim?
“Before me, there were some who visited secretly, which I think is terrible. You have to speak out and act in the light of day. When you do it secretly it solves nothing, but only causes problems. On my way back from Jerusalem I told myself: If anyone needs to speak out in the service of the Arab community and Muslims around the world, it is the intellectuals. After all, we will not ask a bricklayer to work in Israel and give a speech about it when he comes back. But for an intellectual − that is his profession. The Arab intellectuals do not merit that epithet. They take no responsibility for anything. They are afraid.”
Sansal found his visit to Israel a stunning experience. Immediately afterward, he published a short item on the Huffington Post website’s French-language edition under the headline, “I went to Jerusalem − and returned joyful and enriched.” The text, which appeared toward the end of May, a little more than a week after the end of the journey to Jerusalem and back, generated fierce outrage across the Arab world. He received an “unimaginable number” of comments in reaction to the post, which relates how he went to Paris to obtain a visa at the Israeli consulate, flew to Tel Aviv and went on to Jerusalem.
“What a journey, what a welcome,” he wrote. He reserved his warmest words for Jerusalem, which enchanted him. He described it for his readers in the Arab countries, few of whom are likely to get a chance to visit the city: “A true capital city, with clean streets, well-scrubbed sidewalks, solid buildings, cars, hotels and affable restaurants, neatly trimmed trees and so many tourists from all over the world − apart from the Arab states. They are the only ones who are not coming or cannot come to this cradle of civilization, where their religions were born, be that Christians or Muslims.”
Isn’t your take on Israel overly naive?
“I wrote about that in the post. It was an impression from a five-day visit. It was a feeling of being in a wonderful place. Tel Aviv is a marvelous surprise. Jerusalem floods you with powerful feelings. I spent evenings there with marvelous friends. It really was very good, very moving, and I told myself that these things needed to be spoken.”
What riled his critics in the Arab world most − other than his manifestly politically incorrect sincerity − was that Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman lavished praise on Sansal amid the storm unleashed by the visit. “That was the umpteenth proof of my dark ties with Israel,” Sansal says and, by now used to preposterous accusations, bursts into raucous laughter. Lieberman, who met in July with his French counterpart, Laurent Fabius, declared that Sansal should be protected in the wake of the ruckus.
Does the public support of the Israeli foreign minister bother you?
“I understand that everyone plays his part. Lieberman makes no secret of his approach and uses the means available to him. It does bother me, because it taints my image and is liable to cause a breakdown of communication. But that’s life: One image undercuts another. At the same time, allow me to draw a comparison. Hamas, too, used my visit to Israel and uttered a threat that was directed at all the intellectuals in the Arab world, namely: Caution, it is essential to support us and remain united, because otherwise ... That is how they exploited my visit; Lieberman exploited it in his way. All in all, I prefer Lieberman’s exploitation over that of Hamas, which always threatens death. After all, Lieberman could have said, ‘Why should I give two hoots about an Algerian intellectual coming to Israel as a tourist?’ He could have shrugged off the situation, but chose not to.”
In any event, Sansal promises with his characteristic sincerity, he will be happy to meet both Lieberman and [Gaza Prime Minister] Ismail Haniyeh, because “it is not for an intellectual to close doors.” As of this writing, there has been no invitation from Gaza City or Jerusalem.
Tell me about your response to the fury in Algeria.
“It was extremely rough before the visit, while it was taking place and after I returned. Since then I have been living with very great anxiety. There are two aspects here. First, I live in an Arab country and I went to Israel, thereby betraying the religion, the Arab world and the martyrs. Second, reactions in the Western world were also very harsh. The anti-Semitism in the West is incomprehensible. There is a great deal of hatred. Many people no longer speak to me − Europeans who read me in the past. I see what is being written about me in blogs all over the web. It is very simplistic in terms of the arguments, but the hatred never ceases to surprise me.”
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