Algeria: a sparse memory

In 1962, France and the Algerian nationalists came to an agreement about Algerian independence. That was after 130 years of French colonization and eight years of brutal war including war against civilians. I participated in the evacuation of large number of French civilians from the country as a little sailor. The number who wanted to leave was much greater than anyone expected. It was too bad that they left in such large numbers. It was a pity for all concerned. The events were a double tragedy or a tragedy leading to a tragedy. The Algerian independence fighters who had prevailed by shedding quantities of their blood were not (not) Islamists. In most respects, intellectually and otherwise, they were a lot like me.

The true revolutionaries were soon replaced however by professional soldiers that I think of as classical but fairly moderate fascists. I went back to Algeria six years after independence. I was warmly received and I liked the people there. People invited me to lunch; I shared with them the fish I caught and a baby camel tried to browse my hair in a cafe.

I still think the nationalists were on the right side of the argument but I miss Algeria nevertheless. It’s like a divorce that should not have happened. And I am very sorry about where French incompetence and rigidity led everyone, especially the Algerians who keep migrating to France in huge numbers because they can’t find what they need at home.

Muslim Welcome

Here is a nice little story, I think.

I was once a pretend hippie. It was only “pretend” because my drug consumption was moderate and limited and I never dropped acid. Also, I never dropped out as recommended. I attended graduate school and I even worked quite a bit.

At the end of a work interlude in France from graduate school in the US, I thought I deserved a reward. (I often think I deserve a reward; it does not take much.) I was a big-time free-diver (no SCUBA) for most of my life, not so much for the beauty of it but always in search of something good to eat. I decided to leave gray Paris for a diving vacation in sunny Algeria.

It was only nine years after the end of the bloody war by which Algerians won their independence from France. Practically, the whole French population was gone. There were tensions between the French and the Algerian governments although hundreds of thousands of Algerians were working and living in France. I thought my good manners and my smiling face would get me through any difficulty. Also, I thought that with the French gone, there must have been precious little spear fishing in Algerian waters. I half-believed that big groupers would practically jump at me

I packed my VW bus I had outfitted for camping and I put a small borrowed plastic boat on its roof. My then-future ex-wife (“TFEW”) and I drove to Marseilles where we checked in bus and boat. We spent the night-long crossing of the Med on deck. There was a moving moment in the middle of the crossing when all the portable radios on board suddenly tuned them selves to Arab music from Radio Algiers. The dolphins accompanied our ship into the light blue waters of Algiers Bay.

One thing the Algerians had learned from the French and had not yet forgotten was running a non-corrupt bureaucracy. (I believe corrupt is good, that it expedites bureaucratic processes.) It took hours to clear us because the TFEW had an American passport, something unusual then and there. Clearing the bus and the boat through customs took even more time. By the time we were out of the harbor building, the sun was setting. We did not want to spend the night in some shabby overpriced hotel in the big city so, we drove on out of town in a general eastward direction.

After a couple of hours in deep-darkness, we were on a dirt road climbing some hills which made me admit that it was probably not the main coastal highway. I couldn’t see much with the weak VW headlights and there was a little mist. The torchlight I had packed was not much more useful. I ended up stopping the bus more or less at random. We stepped outside for a leak. There were not house lights, not street lights, and no sound except the song of the cicadas. We figured we might just bed down in the van till morning.

The sun was fairly high in the sky when we woke up. I saw some blue through a window of the bus. I opened the door to take out the equipment necessary for a cup of Nescafé. I discovered we were parked right in the middle of a low farmhouse courtyard. And old man in a djellaba was quietly sitting on a rock outside our door with an earthenware jar of cool water at his side and a basket of figs on his lap. “Bonjour, Salaam” he said pleasantly.

French Africa

This is a meandering essay; although it’s about history, it’s a bit personalized, for effect. In other words, it’s far from straightforwardly scholarly history but I think it’s all or mostly true. Be patient, at one point it will become about the former French African colonial empire and socio-cultural strata it deposited in France, and there to this day.

Acting Uncool

Often, in my dotage, I sneak a look at TV5, the French language cable channel. Often too, I fall asleep on the couch while watching its usually – but not always – insipid programs. One day, a short documentary catches my attention. It’s about sexual harassment of French women on the public way. It catches my attention because it’s not obvious to me what would pass for sexual harassment in France, I mean, this side of grabbing and such. So, it turns out that the makers of the documentary had placed a man with a hidden camera near a cafe on a street with a bad reputation. The street is near to one of the main railroad stations in Paris, guaranteeing a two-way flow of commuters, including women, of course.

In the course of twenty minutes, the documentary displays about thirty episodes of “sexual harassment.” I am only a man, of course, and thus limited, and a skeptic, but the worst harassment I witness takes the form of annoying mouth noises that I am not talented enough to reproduce with words. Mostly, there are gauche invitations to have a cup of coffee. The documentary ends with the expected boring, trite lamentations, blah, blah. There is zero mention of a striking fact: All the harassers without exception sport a thick North African accent.

I say a “thick” accent to signify recent arrival in France. The accent normally erodes in a few years or months. I imagine the harassers were young immigrants from small villages in Algeria and Morocco trying artlessly to deal with the knowledge that they were now in a society where sex could theoretically be had outside of marriage and outside of prostitution. Some may have been merely lonely and naively hoping to make a French friend. Political correctness clashes with political correctness: Harassing women, even if only verbally, is terrible but mentioning that the harassers all proceed from Muslim countries is terrible too. So, make the documentary and shut up about the obvious!

This is not a very interesting story, of course; I know this. Would anyone expect probably poorly educated rural young men from sex-segregated societies to learn to be cool with women as they are stepping off the boat? It will take quite a while, at best. For some, it will never happen; they will remain uncool forever. Then, they will marry an immigrant woman from their area of origin. Again, it would be absurd to expect anything else. In the same vein, would it be reasonable to imagine that all those immigrants would quickly come to appreciate the importance of the separation of religion from governance (of “church and state”) when it’s anathema in Islam?

Is it possible that a few will never appreciate at all the beauty of such separation? Is it possible that their ignorance, or their hostility, will be passively transmitted to their offspring, together with pork avoidance, for example? Will (would) that transmission have a cumulative effect on French society? France contributed more than its share of apprentice terrorists to ISIS, even would-be war brides, even young women ready for the sexual jihad. The one thing may have little to do with the other. And, it’s true that a startling number of the above are converts from Christianity or, more likely, from atheism.

French people who are not racist, or even “Islamophobic” in any mechanistic sense, carry this sort of question on their minds all the time. Some French people who have been in France for a long time but have Muslim names become themselves attached to secularism (la laïcité). They also discreetly worry about the very same issue. Those who will actually talk about it appear more worried than their fellow citizens with names like mine, or like “Pierre Dupont.” This is all impressionistic, of course. There is no survey. For one thing, it’s illegal in France to gather data about ethnicity.

How did it come to this, you might wonder. Why are these guys in France at all, the ones acting uncool in every conceivable meaning of the word?

Quitting Algeria

In 1962, the French Republic and the Algerian nationalists of the Front de Libération Nationale (“FLN”) came to an agreement about Algerian independence. That was after 130 years of French colonization and eight years of brutal war, including war against civilians, from both sides. The colonization had been in depth, with hundreds of thousands of French settlers convincing themselves that Algeria was a kind of second France, resembling the original in every way. Except, that is, for the inconvenient prior presence of numerous exotically dressed people who were neither Christians nor free-thinkers. Except for the fact that many of the French settlers were newly minted poor immigrants from Spain and Italy.

At Independence, I participated in the evacuation of large number of French civilians from the country as a little sailor. I mean “French French.” By that time and belatedly, the presumably Muslim population had been granted citizenship. Too little, too late. Probably in an an effort to divide to conquer, the numerous (Arabic speaking) Algerian Jews had all been granted citizenship in the 1880s. In the days of evacuation, the number of (old) French who wanted to leave was much greater than French authorities had planned for. An aircraft carrier – emptied of its planes – had to be used. It was a pathetic show, complete with broken, uncomprehending old grandmothers who had probably never set foot in France. There were no deluxe suitcases in sight but there were used mattresses. Some factions within the FLN were threatening the French with death if they did not go immediately; others would have liked to keep them, or some of them. The death threats prevailed.

It was too bad that the French left in such large numbers. It made the transition to independence technically more difficult than it could have been. It gave the upper hand in Algeria to those who had the best guns rather than to those who could govern, or to the people. It was a pity for all concerned. The French refugees faced an uncertain and harsh future in France, for the most part. For the Algerians, many positions were left for a while without competent personnel, including a budding oil industry in the Sahara. There was a shortage of medical doctors for many years.

Make a mental note of this fact: The French French were not the only ones fleeing. They were accompanied by tens of thousands of families with Muslim names and whose native language was other than French. They were Algerians who had chosen the wrong side in the war of independence and who feared to be massacred in the new Algeria (correctly so, it turned out). Those joined the other hundreds of thousands who had been living in France for economic reasons beginning with WWI.

I think of those events as a double tragedy or a tragedy leading to a tragedy. The Algerian independence fighters who had prevailed by shedding quantities of their blood were definitely not (not) Islamists. In most respects, intellectually and otherwise, they were a lot like me at the time, moderate, democratic leftists. In fact, I once spent a moving three hours drinking coffee with a convalescing FLN soldier my age, in a third country. He and I had most things in common, including the French language. (More needs to be said about communities of language.)

The true Algerian revolutionaries were soon replaced in power in Algiers however by the professional soldiers of an army that had never really fought because it had been formed outside Algeria while partisan-style forces battled the French army. The military is still in power, fifty-five years later. I think of their regime as a classical but fairly moderate kind of fascism. It has bloodily fought Islamism to a standstill on Algerian soil so, everyone pretends to like them.

The Poor Politics of Colonialism

I went back to Algeria – as a tourist, a spear fisherman, believe it or not- six years after independence. I was warmly received and I liked the people there. They felt like cousins, the sort of cousins you played with in childhood but have not seen in adulthood. I think now, as I thought in 1962, that the nationalists were on the right side of the argument but I miss Algeria nevertheless. It’s like a divorce that should not have happened if someone had been more reasonable. Even such a short time after the events, events I had lived through as an adult, it was difficult to comprehend what had gone wrong. It was difficult to find any trace of hatred for the French. A young man I wanted to thank for a favor done asked me to take him to a restaurant where he could eat Brie, made expensive by a tariff. (Do I have the talent to make up this anecdote?)

I blame the astonishing incompetence of a French political class that failed in the course of 130 years to invent a form of citizenship that would have accommodated a large and fast growing Muslim population. At the time, it was widely argued that the Muslims insisted on being ruled by a mild form of Sharia insofar as their personal affairs, such as marriage and divorce, were concerned. Such an arrangement was incompatible with the strictly secular laws of the French Republic, of course, they were told. The Muslim numerical majority thus had to remain subjects, with only individual access to citizenship, more or less like any Finn or any Bulgarian. I don’t know if this was a genuine obstacle or an excuse for a simple case of yielding to the local French population who did not wish to live under Muslim rule, even if only for local affairs. In spite of their well publicized humanitarian and liberal values, French parties of the left played a prominent part in colonization and in the attendant repression of native populations. The late Socialist Pres. Mitterand, for example, was vigorously policing Algeria when he was a young politician (who had had one foot in the Resistance and one foot in Vichy, earlier, another story, of course).

A brief history of imperialism

After completing the military conquest of Algeria in 1847, which had been arduous, France soon developed a vague appetite for easy territorial gains overseas. The age-old British rival’s imperialism probably inspired the French. By WWI, France had placed under its control, Algeria’s neighbors Tunisia and Morocco (the latter, split with Spain), and the present countries of Mali, Niger, Mauritania, Senegal, Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Chad, Benin, the Central African Republic, Gabon, and the Congo (the small one, next to the Belgian Congo). During World War I, France also took Togo, and the southern half of Cameroon from Germany. We must add Djibouti on the Red Sea and the large island of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean.

Most – but not all – of the population in the colonies was Muslim. Possibly close to half were native speakers of Arabic dialects. However in North Africa, large minorities knew no Arabic but were speakers of several varieties of Tamazigh (“Berber”). French colonial power did not fail to utilize this linguistic dichotomy, as you might expect. Be it as it may, at the close of WWII, you could travel straight south from Algiers on the Mediterranean to Pointe Noire, (across the river Congo from Kinshasa in the larger and better known Belgian Congo) without ever leaving French control.

The possession of a colonial empire seems to have generated monopolistic profits for a few French people, the extraction of which were accompanied by routine atrocities in some parts. The horrors of French rule in the equatorial colonies where hevea -rubber trees – grew, was documented by the great writer André Gide in his travel narrative Un Voyage au Congo. National possession of the empire gave the average French person much psychic income, I think. At least, it facilitated fantasizing – under the gray French skies – about palm trees and warm seas. And adventurous but skill-less young Frenchmen could always find jobs easily in the southern colonies, overseeing native (black) labor just for being white, French, and knowing the common language (French) well.

All the sub-Saharan African countries achieved independence peacefully in the late fifties or early sixties. Morocco and Tunisia had preceded them in 1956. Before that, in Sétif, Algeria, a peaceful demonstration against the French government was put down in 1945 in a massacre where thousands perished. In 1947, an attempted insurrection against French colonial power in faraway Madagascar was ended with another bloodbath. One concrete objection to colonialism is that it regularly places mediocre men in charge of the destinies of many others, some of whom are not mediocre. Those who gave the order to shoot in both Sétif and Madagascar where low level public servants.

Compare

There is an intuitive tendency to view colonialism largely or completely in terms of the culture of the colonial power. This is probably wrong. What matters is the circumstances of the colonial acquisition and the use to which it was put. The contrasting cases of Algeria and Senegal are instructive in this respect.

Algeria was conquered militarily between 1830 and 1847 in a thoroughly ravaging war. Note that 1830 was only 18 years after the Waterloo defeat. The Napoleonic era’s stupendous French military victories (excepting Waterloo) were fresh in the collective consciousness. Plus, the political entity centered in Algiers had been far from a bucolic and peaceful place before the French conquest. Its economy relied heavily on piracy and various forms of slaving. It made a likely prey. No one or almost no one was going to miss it. (It’s a mystery why Thomas Jefferson ran out of breath before he got to that Barbary state.) Algeria always mattered because it seemed a likely colony of settlement. It became one, a good one, in spite of the existence of a large native population.

The balance of France’s African colonies – with the exception of Tunisia that was wrested from nominal Ottoman rule by a brief military invasion – was acquired without much purposefulness and with little fighting. A large swath of land near the Equator was taken without a fight by an Italian adventurer, a naturalized Navy officer, a contemporary of Stanley. Brazza was usually accompanied only by a handful of native troops. Wherever he went, he cheekily raised the French flag and abolished slavery. The capital of the Congo bears his name to this day (indicating that he left a pretty good memory).

The smallish country of Senegal in western Africa is a special case of French colonization. French political presence there dates back to the 17th century, first in the form of slave trading posts. Later, the four main cities of Senegal were re-formed as French political municipalities. This, in the absence of a significant local French population. The inhabitants of those cities obtained French citizenship in 1792, that is, earlier than many inhabitants of France. They were eligible to vote and to be elected. French power over the countryside extended slowly from those four towns meeting little resistance.

This special case matters because the assimilationist current in Senegal was strong before independence in 1960 and it continued after independence. Today, it’s difficult to find a Senegalese who does not speak good to excellent French. The unknown percentage who can write do it in French. Interestingly, the casual racism guiding the interaction with the natives of the few French administrators and military personnel, plus a handful of businessmen, was largely suspended when they dealt with the Senegalese. (Personally, I think labels matter, “citizen,” for example. Obviously, that’s another story.)

The narrative of the colonization of Senegal is fairly important because it shows one case where a Muslim country (95%) is explicitly friendly toward the West and well informed about it (via the French language). It is also politically stable and democratic although it is poor (GDP/capita of only about $2,600 around 2015). It’s a case of successful intellectual colonization. I have even personally heard English-speaking Africans accuse Senegalese intellectuals of the same sins of arrogance and obstinacy that usually stick to Paris Left Bank intellectuals. Something went right in Senegal.

By the time of WWII, much of public opinion – including the still-large officer class – was enamored with the notion of France as a great Muslim power.

Colonial strata within France

Every new acquisition of territory in Africa generated a new wave of emigrants to France: students, low-level civil servants climbing the bureaucratic ladder, and some laborers. Public school teachers of native extraction – a large number – would go to France for training through what was intended as a revolving door. There, some would find true love, marry and stay. Every loss of a colony did the same as every acquisition because – as I have mentioned – not everyone knows how to choose the right side in a conflict. Every war also brought Africans to France, as soldiers and as laborers both. Many won French citizenship and remained too. Over the twentieth century that African-originated population grew inside France because immigrants, mostly from rural areas, usually multiply faster than the more urban host population. All immigrants and all their children and all their grandchildren attended the Republic’s schools, or, more rarely, the few Catholic schools.

There was comparatively little true racism, racism by color. (Read the subtle observations of the black American writer Richard Wright, for example.) The existence on the soil of Metropolitan France of a long assimilated black West Indian population may have contributed to deny conventional racism much traction. Despised cultural traits and a condition of economic inferiority on the one hand, and skin color on the other, just did not coincide well enough.

The relative rarity of color sentiment and its shallowness, does not mean that the French were or are free of prejudice, of course. For more than one century, the worst jobs in the country were occupied by immigrants from North Africa, mostly Algeria. Those were people from deeply rural, primitive regions, literate in no language. For most of that period, they lived in ghettos, while their wives and children remained behind in a Maghreb that was always fairly near.

Those people were subject to systematically poor treatment. It was made much worse by the Algerian war of independence that was fought partly in France, with numerous acts of terrorism. French French people never knew enough about Islam until recently and they were too religiously indifferent to call that prejudice “Islamophobic,” I think. What is now the largest political party in France, the Front National, used to be overtly anti-Muslim. Under new leadership, it has cleaned up its act in this respect, avowedly because that stance was doing it more electoral harm than good. It’s now against all immigration. In the current (2017) presidential campaign, some people with Muslims names have said publicly that they would vote for the Front. (They remain a curiosity, I am guessing.)

I am trying to be fair and descriptive here. Two relevant stories. When I was a teenager, I worked part time in an expensive hotel in Paris. Luxury hotels are like theaters; they have a public stage and a backstage. There was a middle aged guy who was the fix-everything man. He was knowledgeable and he had all the tools of most trades. His name was “Ahmed” backstage but it became magically “Jean” when he was in the public area. The great and luminous French movie star Isabelle Adjani (b. 1955) kept her half Algerian origins in the closet for half of her career. To be fair, when she disclosed that she was the daughter of an Algerian Amazigh (a Muslim) a consensus quickly formed that her secrecy had been silly. It’s also possible that she feared the nude scenes in her movies would meet with dangerous disapproval from her father’s group of origin.

In the end, there is a large sub-population in France today that traces its ancestry to various parts of Africa, north, west, and central. By American standards, some are black, some are white. Many or most are citizens. Many are not but have a legal right to live in France by virtue of some international post-colonial agreement or other. Some almost have that right. Many – and still coming – don’t have any such right at all but their cousin lives there. Their children all attend school. They all arrive knowing some French from the schooling in their countries of origin. Given the comparatively effective (comparatively) French school system, and given the unsmiling, generalized French contempt for multilingualism, they all end up “French” in some sense, knowing the French language well, familiar with the fundamentals of civics, well versed in basic French history.

Muslim identity

The only trait that consistently differentiates some, or probably most people of African origin from the rest of the French population, is their presumed Muslim identity. (Notably, you almost never hear of people of African descent who are Christian, or even nothing at all.) Islam matters as a cultural fact, even irrespective of genuine religious sentiment, because it prevents mixing to a large extent, and especially, intermarriage. Previous immigrants, from Poland, Germany, Italy, Spain, and more recently, Portugal all tended to marry French. Even more so did their daughters. Muslims from Africa mostly don’t except that a few men marry non-Muslim women.

I say “presumed” Muslim identity because there is no rigorous way to estimate the current Muslim population in France. That too, is forbidden. Going by names – which is often done – is sure to give bad results. It’s likely that most French people with a Muslim name are like the bulk of other French people, religiously indifferent.  Hence name counting inflates the number of Muslims in any meaningful sense. Still, there are many mosques in France and many recriminations about their being in insufficient number. There is a large, monumental, highly visible mosque near central Paris. It shelters the headquarters of the official national organization that represents the interests of French Muslims with the government. I don’t know how representative that representative organization currently is, of course.

People with Muslim first names and last names are everywhere in France, over the latitude and longitude of the territory but also from the bottom – sweeping the streets of Paris – to the top of the socioeconomic pyramid. (A while ago, I was half in love with a French woman named Rachida Dati. She was a minister in Pres. Sarkozy’s cabinet. It did not work out!) The first French soldier to die in the NATO expedition in Bosnia was named El Hadji. The Paris cop terrorists killed outside of Charlie Hebdo also had a Muslim name.

There are many other markers of long-term African presence in France. Here are some, pell-mell: Best couscous in the world. The North African Arabic word for “fast” is commonly used in French, including by people with 32 ancestors born in France. One of the many vocables for the male appendage in French, also one of the most commonly used, is straight from Arabic. (Don’t count on me to satisfy you salacious curiosity; do your own research.) Paris is the world center for the promotion and recording of rich West African music. Same for most fiction and poetry in French, including a significant production from Africa. The strange, often baffling intellectual movement “la négritude“(“negroeness,” I think) developed in France. The largest or second largest collection (after that of the British Museum, maybe) of black African art in the world is in a Paris museum, etc.

Cultures

Those who know me, in person or through Notes On Liberty, or Liberty Unbound, those who spend even a little time on my blog (factsmatter.worldpress.com), or on my FB page will have heard me lamenting loudly the sterility of contemporary French culture. I cry torrents, especially over the impoverishment and the muddiness of the current French public French language, I mean, as spoken in France, specifically.* For the past fifty years, the French have had precious little to show by way of visual arts, or music and much of their contemporary literature projects the very cold of the grave. Aided by endless government subsidies, the French make many mediocre movies whose slowness and technical imperfection passes for intellectual depth, especially among a certain category of Americans.  (On this topic of government help to the French movie industry, you might read Delacroix and Bornon: Can Protectionism Ever Be Respectable? A Skeptic’s Case for the Cultural Exception, with Special Reference to French Movies.” [pdf])

French public figures talk like teenagers and they generally don’t know how to finish a sentence. If a member of the French intelligentsia speaks to you about Iraq, for example, say a journalist at prestigious Le Monde, you know no more about Iraq when he is finished than you did when he begun; you may know less. It was not always like this. (And, I will not insist that the decline of French culture and language are due to my emigration to the US at age 21 but the dates coincide pretty well.) Incidentally, the museums are still good; actually, the whole country of France is like an attractive museum that would have a superlative cafeteria attached. But I digress. This is all to let you know of a certain critical pessimistic state of mind of mine.

Still, there are French cultural phenomena that continue to interest me. One is a “culture” TV show with a strong political component that’s tougher on politicians than anything we do in the US. (It’s called, “On nest pas couchés.“) Another is a pure political show, also hard on the politicians interviewed there. (It’s called simply, “L’ Emission politique.“)

So, another time, I am watching French TV intently because there is a retrospective show on the anarchizing singer/composer George Brassens who died in 1981. Brassens is the closest thing France has – except for Edith Piaf –  to a secular modern saint. He wrote elegant poems addressed to ordinary people that the intellectual elite also admired. He also put to music Victor Hugo and even the medieval poet François Villon. He sang all with a distinctive stage presence.

That night several current stars of French popular song have been gathered in one setting to each sing one or more of Brassens’s songs. A man named “Slimane” takes one of the three or four most popular, most familiar of Brassens’ pieces and sings it in a deliberately Arabized manner. When he is finished, the eyes of several women singers sparkle. I am strongly moved myself. Slimane has given new life to a classic. No one will ever forget his hybrid rendition of the song.

This is yet another time, I am dozing on the couch (again) after a good French political show I mentioned elsewhere. The TV is still on, of course. Something stops me from falling right asleep; something drags me back to consciousness. This has never happened to me before. What’s waking me is the clarity of the language used by a youngish man being interviewed for one of those culture/literature shows that abound on French television.** The man to whom the voice belongs enunciates precisely; his words are well chosen without being precious; his grammar is impeccable; he finishes every one of the sentences he begins; he does not stutter. He speaks like a man who has thought of what he is speaking about.

Soon, I am alert enough to realize that the fine speaker of French is on the show to flog his newly published book. The book is about conversations he has had in his mind with the writer/philosopher Albert Camus. Now, Camus died in 1960, by the look of it, before the current writer on Camus was born. Camus has a special place in the minds and hearts of several generations of a certain category of French men that used to include me. He is one of the fathers of popular “existentialism.” (I have to use the qualifier and the quote marks to avoid the predictable correction by pedants who will push quotes in German into my email to prove that Camus is in no way a real existentialist. WTF!) Camus received the Nobel in literature in 1957 but that’s not why we care about him. I cannot describe here in detail the particular category of French men who revere him but here is a pointer: Early on in his fame Camus broke up very publicly with his good buddy, the better known Jean-Paul Sartre because Sartre would not denounce Stalinism.

The young writer on TV is black. I am told he is a well-known rapper in France. His name is Abd el Malik. Anecdotal evidence about nothing, some will say. Will it influence me in the future in spite of my good social science training? You bet. How can I avoid it? How can millions of French people ignore this kind of episode irrespective of their views on immigration? That man’s short presentation was like a ray of sunshine in a uniformly dark forest. Why should they not let it impress them?

The story does not end here, Camus himself was a Frenchman from Algeria, obviously not a Muslim. He was born to a widowed, half-deaf and illiterate Spanish immigrant woman who cleaned houses to support herself and Albert. The French are not so much confused about the legacies of their former colonial Empire as they are faced with a confounding reality.


* French is well spoken in various places, in Senegal, first, in much of urban Morocco and Tunisia, and among the Haitian elite, of all places. Romanians and Lebanese also tend to speak a very classical French as a second language.

**I say this with a little bitterness because, as someone who is still practicing being a commercially unsuccessful American writer, I regret strongly that we don’t have a plethora of such shows in the US of A.

My favorite posts at NOL this year

Last week I promised y’all a post on my favorite reads at NOL this year. I almost always keep my promises, so below is a long-ish list of essays I really enjoyed reading and learning from this year.


My absolute favorite essay of 2016 at NOL was Barry Stocker’s analysis of the attempted coup in Turkey. Dr Stocker has spent a quarter of a century in the Turkish-speaking world and all of his acquired wisdom of the region is on display in the piece. Barry didn’t post much here this year, but I am hoping that, given the geopolitical situation in his neck of the woods (Dr Stocker teaches political philosophy at Istanbul Tech), he’ll be able to provide much more insight into the challenges the region will face in 2017.

Jacques, who has become sidetracked ever since Donald Trump became the GOP nominee, had an excellent post titled “A Muslim Woman and the Sea” that everyone should read. I don’t agree with it, but the quality of his writing almost demands that you read through the entire piece. In it is the peaceful nostalgia for both youth and French Algeria, the almost careless way he describes his surroundings, and the slow, deliberate manner in how he attacks his enemies. It is all on display for you, his audience, to devour at your leisure. Dr Delacroix is a world-class storyteller.

Mark Koyama’s piece on Jewish communities in premodern Europe garnered a lot of praise, but I found his post on medieval China to be much more fascinating. In the post, Dr Koyama summed up his recent paper (co-authored with UCLA Anderson’s Melanie Meng Xue) on literary inquisitions during the Qing era (1644-1912). What they did was tally up the number of times the state dragged scholars and artists to court in order to accuse them of delegitimizing the Qing government. This had the unfortunate (but predictable) effect of discouraging discussion and debate about society in the public sphere, which stifled dissent and emboldened autocratic impulses.

Chhay Lin had a number of great posts here, some of which were picked up by major outlets like RealClearWorld and 3 Quarks Daily, and Notes On Liberty is lucky to have such a cool cat blogging here. My favorite post of his was the one he did on his childhood in a Cambodian refugee camp along the Khmer-Thai border. What an inspiring story! I hope there are more to come in 2017. (Chhay Lin, by the way, splits his time at NOL with SteemIt, so be sure to check him out there).

Zak Woodman had lots of good posts in his debut year (including NOL‘s most-read article), but the two I enjoyed most were his thoughts on empathy in cultural discourse and his Hayekian take on safe spaces. Both pieces took a libertarian line on the freedom of speech, but Mr Woodman’s careful articles, which are as much about being true to the original meaning of some of the 20th century’s best thinkers as they are about libertarianism, suggests that he has a bright future ahead of him as one of the movement’s deeper thinkers (he’s an undergraduate at UM-Ann Arbor). I look forward to his thoughts in 2017.

Bruno Gonçalves Rosi burst on to NOL‘s scene this year with a number of posts (in both English and Brazilian Portuguese). His blistering critiques of socialism were fundamental and – to me, at least – reminiscent of the debates between libertarians and statists here in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s. My favorite of Dr Rosi’s 2016 posts, however, was his reflection of the 2016 Rio Paralympics that took place in the late summer (at least it was late summer here in Texas). Bruno brilliantly applied the Games to the famous argument about inequality between 20th century American philosophers Robert Nozick and John Rawls. I hope the piece was but a glimpse of what’s to come from Dr Rosi, who also has a keen interest in history and international relations.

Lode Cossaer is probably busy with his very intriguing dissertation (“the institutional implications of the tension between universal individual rights and group self governance”), but he did manage to find some time to dip his feet into the blogging pool with a few insightful posts. My favorite was his explanation of Donald Trump’s Carrier move, which was blasted from all sides of the political spectrum (including libertarians) for being a prime example of “crony capitalism.” Cossaer, in his own delightfully contrarian manner, pointed out that there is a trade-off between the rule of law and lower taxes. This trade-off might not be pretty, but it exists regardless of how you feel about it. Lode, in my opinion, is one of very few thinkers out there who can walk the tight-rope between Rothbardian libertarianism and plain ole’ classical liberalism, and he does so ruthlessly and efficiently. I hope we can get more contrarianism, and more insight into Cossaer’s dissertation, in 2017.

Vincent has been on a roll this month, and I simply cannot choose any single one of his 2016 posts for recognition. His pêle-mêle comments on the debate between historians and economists over slavery is well-worth reading, especially his insights into how French Canadians are portrayed by economic historians in graduate school, as are his thoughts on the exclusion of Native Americans from data concerning living standards in the past. These posts highlight – better than his more famous posts – the fact that economists, along with political philosophers and anthropologists, are doing way better historical work than are traditional historians. Dr Geloso’s post on fake news as political entrepreneurship did a wonderful job, in my eyes, of highlighting his sheer passion for history and his remarkable ability to turn seemingly boring topics (like “political entrepreneurship”) into hard talking points for today’s relevant policy debates.

Federico is still practicing corporate law in Argentina, so every article he writes at NOL is done so in his free time. For that I am deeply grateful. His early August question, “What sort of meritocracy would a libertarian endorse, if he had to?” was intricately stitched together and exemplifies Federico’s prowess as one of the world’s most novel scholars of Hayekian thought. I also enjoyed, immensely, a careful, probing account of human psychology and our ability to act in this short but rewarding post on homo economicus. I look forward to a 2017 filled with Hayekian insights and critical accounts of social, political, and economic life in Buenos Aires.

Rick spent the year at NOL blogging about whatever the hell he wanted, and we were all rewarded for it. Dr Weber is obviously emerging as important conduit for explaining how “politics” works in democratic societies, and perhaps more importantly how to be a better, happier person within the American system. I hope Rick continues to explore federalism though a public choice lens, but I also suspect, given Dr Weber’s topics of choice this year, that Elinor Ostrom would have been interested in what he has to say as well. 2017 awaits! Here is Rick breaking down Trump’s victory over Clinton. You won’t get a finer explanation for why it happened anywhere else. Oh, and how about a libertarian argument for an FDA?

Michelangelo, who is now a PhD candidate in political science at UC Riverside, won my admiration for his brave post on safe spaces and the election of Donald Trump. While 2017 may be composed of uncertainties, one thing that is known is that Trump will be president of the United States. We need to be wary and vocal (just as we were with Bush II and Obama).  Michelangelo was in top form in his piece “…Why I Don’t Trust the Police,” so much so that it stuck with me throughout the year. It is libertarianism at its finest.

William Rein, a sophomore (“second-year”) at Chico State, has been impressive throughout the year. His thoughts do very well traffic-wise (literally thousands of people read his posts), and it’s all well-deserved, but I thought one of his better pieces was one that was relatively slept on: “Gogol Bordello & Multiculturalism.” Mr Rein points out that Political Correctness is destroying fun, and the election of Donald Trump is merely the latest cultural challenge to PC’s subtle tyranny. William weighed in on the safe spaces concept as well and, together with Zak’s and Michelangelo’s thoughts, a coherent libertarian rationale has formed in response to this cultural phenomenon. If you want to know which clouds young libertarian heads are in, NOL is a great place to be.

Edwin initiated the best debate of the year here at NOL with his post on classical liberalism, cosmopolitanism, and nationalism. Barry replied (in my second-favorite post of his for 2016), and Dr van de Haar responded with a third volley: “Classical Liberalism and the Nation-State.” At the heart of their disagreement was (is?) the concept of sovereignty, and just how much the European Union should have relative to the countries comprising the confederation. Dr Stocker concluded the debate (for 2016, anyway) with a final post once again asserting that Brexit is bad for liberty. For Edwin and Barry, sovereignty and international cooperation are fundamental issues in Europe that are not going away anytime soon. NOL is lucky to have their voices and, like Dr Stocker, I hope Dr van de Haar will be able to provide us with many more fascinating and sometimes contrarian insights in 2017.

Lucas Freire wasn’t able to post much here this year (he is doing postdoc work in South Africa), but his post on economics in the ancient world is well worth reading if you are at all interested in methodology and the social sciences. Dr Freire has continually expressed interest in blogging at NOL, and I am almost certain that 2017 will be his breakout year.

Those are my picks and I’m sticking to ’em (with apologies to Rick). Notewriters are free to publish their own lists, of course, and if readers would like to add their own in the ‘comments’ I’d be honored (you can always email me, too). The post I most enjoyed writing this year, by the way (thanks for asking…), was a snarky one questioning the difference between Saudi Arabia and Islamic State. Thanks for everything.

At a Muslim Wedding

I was on that free diving and fishing trip through Algeria I have written about before. The French, who had seemingly deeply colonized the country, had been gone for a few years. They had left behind their language and many buildings in the big cities and in some other, fertile parts of Algeria. In remote areas though, it was almost as if they had never been there. I was in one of those areas with my then-future-ex-wife (“TFEW”) in our VW camping bus.

It was in the east, in Kabylia, in a small town squeezed between the mountains and the sea. There was a tiny harbor protected by a tiny breakwater that sheltered four or five boats. There was also a café a hundred yards away. A big rock with steep sides emerged within swimming distance of the harbor. The town was a spear fisherman’s dream as well as a vacationer’s dream. It was the kind of place that travel agencies use to arouse you on TV in the winter and never, never deliver.

When we arrived, in the middle of a hot afternoon, there was no human being in sight; even the café was empty. I was an instinctive believer in the adage that it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission even before I heard it spoken. So, we parked at the harbor and had our cheese, bread, and figs lunch. I prepared instant coffee on the stove. I thought I was giving whatever authorities might exist in the town ample time to chase us off if they wished. Nobody came.

Toward evening, I walked to the café where four or five men were sitting and talking quietly. I said Hello in French and they replied in the same language. I could read the curiosity in their eyes but they were too polite to inquire. So, I ordered some tea and explained briefly what I was doing in Algeria. This interested them. Being a fisherman works everywhere as an introduction. Everyone knows what fishing is (unlike “touring,” for example). Every man either is a fisherman or wishes he were. Or has a brother-in-law who is a fisherman. One of the men volunteered that the café served wine. I ordered a glass for myself and offered to treat the men. Only one accepted.

My companion and I has a small dinner under the light of an oil lamp and went to sleep in the back of the bus. In the morning, I quickly located a bakery by smell. There was hot fresh bread. (Good bread is an undeniable gift of French colonialism.) After breakfast; I cinched on a light weight belt and grabbed my speargun; I put on my mask and snorkel and my flippers. I entered the clear water of the harbor and swam to the offshore rock. The sea was bountiful. There were groupers there that did not even know I was a predator and various edible fish that seemed to only have Arabic names. (If you don’t believe me, I have a picture.)

The location was so idyllic that we lingered on. In truth, we didn’t even have anyplace to go in a hurry anyway. We ate fresh fish at every meal, with fresh bread and tomatoes, plus some fruits. There were no authorities. Only the village kids came to visit. They were sweet and full of good questions. We gave them fish. I had become almost an old-timer at the café. One of the guys there told me his name was Pierre. He was the same guy who had accepted a glass of wine the first day; I should have known. I never got the story of why he had stayed behind after all the other French left. Maybe, there was a woman involved. Or, he had no relatives in France. Asking would have been pushy

One morning, early, two older children with solemn expressions came by with a message. There was going to be a wedding the next day and we were invited. We were both flattered and intrigued. The TFEW immediately went into a flurry of activity looking for a suitable present for the bride. It was no easy task because we were camping, with minimalist baggage. Eventually, she found a small silk kerchief that she thought might do because, frankly, the locals seemed so poor. She (and I too) was thinking in terms of what we knew about: American and French weddings, pretty much variations on the same basic model: The bride is the queen and she gets presents, the bride’s mother is the dictator, the groom is a little drunk, so are many of the guests, including children. There is dancing. Most unmarried women are a little or much turned on; single guys try their luck.

On the wedding day, we cleaned up as well as we could, birdbath manner. My companion even washed her hair in cold water. Fortunately, she was wearing it in a very short afro, almost a buzz cut. She put on a light cotton mumu that looked almost ironed. It was a decent, loose garment but with discreet curves in the right areas. I thought she looked more than presentable. I don’t know about myself. I had on clean jeans and my only shirt with a collar. The kids had been vague about time. Around noon, we walked up the steep street with the same children guiding us.

A whole other street, a flat one, had been blocked off and long tables, benches and chairs lined up on the sidewalks. It appeared that our being invited had not been such an extraordinary honor after all. We guessed the whole village was invited and it would have been unseemly to leave the tourists out. (But wait….) However, we saw only male human beings on the street, from boys in short pants to bent old geezers. A band played somewhere close-by but we couldn’t see it and there were no dancers in sight. The action took place behind bed sheets hung from a rope that stretched across the street. We were instructed with smiles to sit down. After a few minutes, young men came bearing enamel basins of food. They placed a piece of mutton next to us on the table oilcloth and a bowl of semolina (grits, more or less) with two spoons. Another boy set a recently rinsed glass full of limonade in front of each of us. We noticed that other guests were waiting for our seats.

We were going to hurry off the table but a tall, handsome man in a dark suit – the only suit in sight – came by. He was the groom and he had taken it to heart to greet us personally, which he did graciously, in perfect French. We were told later that he was a fighter pilot back from training in the Soviet Union who had returned to his native town just to get married. The man was elegant and he had a great deal of presence. He would not have been out of place in an upscale bar in Palo Alto, California where we lived most of the time. I told him that my wife had a small gift she would like to give to the bride in person. He said not to move, that he would send us someone quickly.

After a short time, an older man came to tell my companion to follow him. He took her a few feet away behind a low wall where I could still see her. There, he handed her over to two old crones. One of them had red dyed hair that would not have fooled a blind man ten feet away. The three women walked away through an unlit area but in the direction of a brightly lighted structure where I lost sight of them.

About ten minutes later, the TFEW came back by herself steaming. (I was a grown man; I felt the vibes; I knew the signs.) So, I asked, did you meet the bride and did you give her the present? She said she had and she had and the bride, sitting all made up and coiffed in a gilded armchair, surrounded by her handmaidens, seemed touched. But, she said, you won’t believe what happened before that. Just as we reached the bridal pavilion, one of the two old women held me by the shoulders while the other lunged for my crotch and tried for a grab.

What do you think? Would I make this up? Do I have the talent, the imagination?

Several things. First, yes, of course, this is intended to be a pop-sociological story. It’s a commentary on something. Your guess.

Second, it should be obvious that I liked everyone I met during that stay and in that episode, every single person. That’s more than I can say for the people with whom I cross paths daily in California, for example. And, don’t get me started on the French! (Many of whom are holes in the ice as my decorous granddaughter would say.) Now, I know why I liked them but it’s hard to tell why they were so likable. Everyone in the small town was courteous and generous if he had a chance to be, even if only by offering a glass of hot tea after my long stay underwater. Again, I can’t tell why they were so gracious. Perhaps small towns are like that. Perhaps people used to be generally like that when they live in places small enough to be real communities. I can’t really believe this though because I have read too many stories (beginning with Maupassant’s), seen too many movies, where small town people behave in a completely beastly manner.

In the absence of perfect sampling, I tend to put some faith in cultural redundancy: If blondes keep treating me shabbily, I begin suspecting that there is something wrong with blondes (or about blondes and me). So, I have been treated courteously by Muslims and by people who appeared to be Muslims whenever I spend time in Muslim surroundings, even thousands of miles apart. So, until proven otherwise, I think it’s their culture that makes them friendly. Yet, naturally, I find the crotch grabbing incident and what I take to be its many implications repulsive. I don’t think it would have happened anywhere in the formerly Christian West.

The gesture and its sexual implications have a historical association with Islam, I believe. (See how carefully I chose my words.) Yet, there is almost certainly nowhere in the Islamic Scripture that mandates, commands, or even condones such behavior. Contrary to many Muslim apologists I hear on TV and on radio, that’s not the end of the story, as far as I am concerned, however. You are responsible for the baggage your religion carries. So, there is absolutely nothing in the Christian Scriptures ordering that theological deviants be burned alive. And yet, it happened in Christian lands, over and over again. Historically, it’s a sort of Christian specialty although Christ would not have applauded the practice, I am pretty sure. If you are a Christian, it’s disingenuous to say that burning people alive has nothing to do with you. It’s as much part of your heritage as are the glorious Gothic cathedrals.

And, yes, you are right; I loaded the dice by entitling this story “A Muslim Wedding.” I could have called it equally well: “An Algerian Wedding,” or “A Kabyle Wedding” (for the area), or “An Amazigh Wedding” (after the local people’s ethnicity), even “A Village Wedding.” Was I wrong? You decide.

A Muslim Woman and the Sea

Here is another short story. (I don’t have the talent to compose characters so, most of my stories are autobiographical by default.)

I am on the same free-diving and spear fishing expedition I mentioned in another story. We are driving and living in a VW bus I equipped myself for the purpose. This time, my then future ex-wife (“TFEW”) and I are stopped in a small town in coastal western Algeria. We just arrived and it’s a sunny quiet morning. We are enjoying a rare cup of real coffee at the also rare terrace of a small café. I will never forget that insignificant non-event, because, suddenly, out of nowhere, a baby camel came ambling down the street. The charming animal walked straight up to me and began browsing my hair. (Go ahead, don’t believe me; I have a picture!)

So, we are just lingering when a handsome teenage boy stops by to make conversation (in French, of course): Where are you from? What are you doing here? What kind of fishing, again? How do you like Algeria?

We invite him to sit down and have coffee with us but he insists he is in a hurry. He wishes us a good vacation and walks away. Then, suddenly, he wheels around to tell us he would like to invite us to his house for couscous. He is too young to be married and to have his own house. I ask him how his mother would respond to sudden unannounced guests. He replies that she would love it, that she misses her old French bosses; that she likes to speak French with real French people. I am beginning to feel peckish. Against my better judgment, we follow him around the corner.

We drive through a metal gate he closes behind us. The young man stops at the door to the house and calls out with several sentences in Arabic. A woman’s voice responds and the door opens immediately. A woman in her early forties stands smiling at us. Her dark shiny hair is partially covered. She has beautiful apricot skin and dancing black eyes. Under other circumstances, in spite of a fifteen-year age difference, I might have fallen in love with her on the spot. I must have been fairly obvious because the TFEW secretly yanked hard on the back of my shirt.

We sit down on cushions in the living room. There is an opening into the kitchen so we can communicate with the mother while she works. Actually, I am pretty much the only one doing the communicating because the TFEW is not a native French speaker and she is a little hesitant on that account. The thought crosses my mind that the mother is flirting with me verbally a little from the kitchen where I cannot see her face. The charming son soon serves us tea and two quiet teenage girls dart in and out on what I think is a mission to keep us company although they do not say anything. I am not sure whether they were shy or if they did not know French. There is no man in sight and no mention of any adult male.

After quite a long time bantering back and forth without the help of an adult beverage precisely, the steaming couscous garni appears on the rug in front of our knees. (Tech note: “couscous” is the grits-like grain; it’s “garni” when it is accompanied by a vegetable stew including chickpeas, and meat, usually boiled mutton, sometimes chicken.) Everyone is starving by that time and the family sits around and next to us each holding a bowl into which the mother dishes out couscous topped with veggies and mutton. One of the girls has thoughtfully placed a spoon in front of us, the visitors, which we make a point of honor to ignore, of course because we want to appear cool.

The mother tells us gaily how she had worked for fifteen years for a French family, as a servant with broad responsibilities, including the care of small children and the kitchen. She says she loved the lady of the house and the lady of the house loved her “like a niece.” I guess that’s how she has learned her grammatically perfect and lively French. After the French left, suddenly, feeling threatened (and probably with good reason) there was no work for a woman with her skills. Nothing is said, again in this story, about a husband. There is no explanation about how the family sustains itself.

It’s often difficult to say how poor people are following a revolution. Those don’t look poor. They are all well though simply dressed. The house in which they live is consequential and Western-style. (I mean that I would have moved into it in a minute.) As far as I know, it is her beloved lady boss’s house they are all occupying. Perhaps, the lady boss has slipped her the title before fleeing. I am told there was a lot of that that went on. I am also told the new Algerian government, its hands full of pressing matters, was happy to let sleeping dogs lie on this issue. I can’t judge what the family’s everyday food is like but none of them look skinny and the couscous was well garnished and ample. (But then again, the latter is not a good indicator of anything in North Africa where a feast is a feast however meagre the fare on ordinary days.)

If you eat enough food and it’s tasty enough, at the end of the meal, you will feel a little like drunk. Those who talk after dinner, including the Mom, talk louder. The pleasant son tells me of his wish to go work in France and of his modest ambitions in general. Even the young girls smile more broadly. Perhaps seeing their mother happy makes them feel happy. I am asked to explain for the tenth time in Algeria what I am doing there. I explain my quest for big fish and spiny lobster (and also for slipper lobster, a grotesque looking but delicious creature). I describe how I go under water holding my breath to shoot them in the face with a rubber spear gun. The family seems a little incredulous but they are visibly charmed by the concept. They have already made themselves believe that the TFEW and I really sleep in the VW bus as we travel from place to place. (The bus was parked out of view in their courtyard while we ate.)

Then, out of nowhere, the mother says something astounding: I envy you – she says to spend so much time looking at the sea. I love the sea and I haven’t seen it for so long. Say this again, I request. Isn’t this house, your house, about four or five blocks from the sea cliff? It is, she said but I can’t go there (“Je ne peux pas y aller.”) French does not not distinguish between physical impossibility and moral interdiction. So, I am a little confused but not for long. I guess quickly what’s on her mind.

I have an idea, I say. I tell you what: Tomorrow morning at five when the sun is up but everyone is still asleep, you will put on your hijab and wear a shawl around your shoulders that you can raise to hide your face if necessary. Your son will open the gate to let my bus out and then, he will sit next to me in front where everyone can see him. You will be in the back next to my wife with the curtains drawn. Your son will direct me to a suitable point on the cliff where I will park. There, you will raise the curtain as much as you want to and look at the sea as long as you wish. She agrees and her face is filled with anticipation.

Early the next morning, the son wake us up with cups of hot coffee. There is a defeated look on his face. He tells us that his mother has changed her mind and that she will not take up my proposal after all; that she says thank you and good-bye. He adds she is too embarrassed to get up and wish us a good trip face-to-face. We shake hands and leave with much sadness in our hearts.

Is this a story about religion? All Algerians were Muslims, if nothing else, by default; so was our pleasant hostess, no doubt Yet Muslim intellectuals will point out that there is no part of the Islamic sacred scriptures that enjoins women to hide at home. There is certainly nothing in the same scriptures that says they can’t enjoy contemplating the sea, one of God’s first creations, in Islamic as well as in Jewish and Christian tradition.

Personally, I disagree. I think this is a story about religion although indirectly. If the woman had been a Lutheran, a Catholic, a Buddhist, a Zoroastrian, or a Mormon, she would have had her fill of the sea before I met her. I can even imagine a Hindu woman being somewhat self-cloistered but not one fluent in a foreign language, not one with a long history of happy interaction with Westerners.

Two main points. First, every follower of a religion is not a scriptural expert. What people think is their religion often differs a great deal from what theologians say is true religion. I addressed this issue in an article in Liberty Unbound. (“Religious Bric-a-Brac and Tolerance of Violent Jihad.”) Second, religions are vehicles for all kinds of cultural practices that are not religious or only in a distorted manner. Thus, Catholicism, besides its rich history of burning people alive for their opinions, is largely responsible for the consumption of fish among inland Catholics. It probably even had a lot to do with the establishment of the long lasting Newfoundland cod fishery. (Ask me.) It’s fair to judge religions for the cultural baggage they carry and that they could put down if they really wanted to. Passive assent is a form of complicity.

The Israeli-Palestinian Mess: Some Historical Context

I just finished up an anthropology course on the Middle East as a culture area, and for reasons beyond my explanatory power, I got to look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a bit more in depth. A brief narrative of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict follows.

The historical context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can best be understood by breaking it up into three separate but interrelated segments: the collapse of cosmopolitan empires, the emergence of nation-states, and seismic shifts in demography that accompanied collapse and rebirth.

The post-World War I era can be defined largely in terms of the collapse of the cosmopolitan Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. The spectacular collapse of these centuries-old empires has been attributed to the policies of democrats in western Europe and the President of the United States at the time, Woodrow Wilson, by a number of historians. The underlying idea being promoted by Western elites for central and eastern Europe was that of national self-determination, a belief that each ethnic and linguistic group should have the right to govern itself within a free and democratic state. The movement was intended to break the back of “despotism” in eastern and central Europe (as well as the Near East), but the policies unleashed instead a hotheaded nationalism amidst pockets of power vacuums prevalent throughout the now-dead empires. Continue reading