Reviewed by Anthony Kapolka
In Algiers, Third World Capital: Freedom Fighters, Revolutionaries, Black Panthers (Verso, August 2018), Elaine Mokhtefi found Paris, after the Nazi occupation, a beleaguered city; despite a romanticized resistance, the reality of collaboration weakened its people like a wound weeping from beneath the surface. She loved the American idea of France, but experience soon refuted expectations. Her experience was that of Colonialism and racism, the very problems she meant to leave behind in the United States. Idealism, interest in politics, sympathy for the underdog, and a need for income found her returning to New York, working at the United Nations office of the provisional government of Algeria, even as that government fought a war of independence from France. She fought on paper. Diplomatic battles were won by the Algerians, the brutality of actual war alienated the people of Paris, and De Gaulle withdrew, leaving Algeria little in the way of governing structure. Of nearly ten million Algerians, ninety percent were illiterate. Only two thousand or so had any college or technical training. All in, Mokhtefi would make this Algeria her home.
Employed early by the government, she found the country’s politics unstable and settled into the Algérie Presse Service. Her skills kept her in demand as a journalist, speaking and translating between English, French, and an Algerian Arabic. In that capacity in 1967 she would visit Cuba, meeting Fidel Castro and inviting Stokely Carmichael to Algeria. Eldridge Cleaver, other Black Panthers, and LSD proponent Timothy Leary would follow.
Writing long after the events, Mokhtefi corrects earlier accounts with confidence. She’s done her homework reading. Lanzmann has it wrong about Fanon. Leary’s tales of his time in Algeria are “delirious, lie-packed fantasies.” Willie Roger Holder, hijacker, hadn’t been vetted by the President of Algeria on his arrival in 1972. And Eldridge’s claims his Black Panthers in North Africa were passport counterfeiting experts was hyperbole. They merely obtained blank United States passports stolen in Paris and Mokhtefi herself carried them to Germany to be doctored.
Many other laws were broken. Mokhtefi became unwelcome in France (association with hijackers does not enhance a resume). Power shifts in Algeria made it unsafe to remain. A false passport settled her in France, but her heart was in Algeria; she struggled with both governments to obtain official status.
Mokhtefi’s book is one of names and acronyms and dates; a detailed history offering little imputed motive. Of Cleaver she writes, “Today I try to see things as they were – without emotion, if that’s possible.” She extends this no-nonsense approach to her memoir and she grinds no axe. A perfect history, but her story cries out for a little vitriol. Perhaps her restraint was the key to her successes.