Algiers, third world capital: Love in time of revolution

Algiers, third world capital: Love in a time of revolution
7 min read
31 October, 2018
Book Club: Elaine Mokhtefi's moving account of Algeria's struggle for independence is brought to life with personal anecdotes and a bittersweet dose of hope, writes Malia Bouattia.
Algeria finally gained independence from France in 1962, after 132 years of colonial rule [Getty]
When I first received Elaine Mokhtefi's Algiers, Third World Capital: Freedom Fighters, Revolutionaries, Black Panthers, I was a little apprehensive. 

Partly, because if I'm honest, I was worried it would be yet another white person - in a very long list that includes barely any Algerians - talking about the country's history without acknowledging the realities of its people, and partly because I feared that delving into my homeland's revolutionary past would send me into a further state of depression over Algeria's current political reality.

But as soon as I landed into Houari Boumediene airport in Algiers, I took the plunge, and found myself unable to put the book down for the next two day.

Prior to this read, I had no idea about Mokhtefi's story.

The book chronicles her deep involvement with the Algerian liberation struggle, which started when she lived in Paris in the early 50s, through to her time spent in the corridors of the UN in New York - all before the country's independence.

Her engagement continued following the end of colonised "French-Algeria" in 1962, when she eventually moved to Algiers to work for the FLN (Front de Liberation National).

In this detailed account of Mokhtefi's active years of struggle at the height of anti-imperialist movements around the world in the 60s and 70s, the writer and artist confidently shares her experiences, with "no regrets", as she states.

Recounting the political hopes and ideals, the victories and the defeats, the book narrates the personal journey of a young Jewish woman from the US who found herself at the centre of one of the most important revolutionary projects of her time. She lived through the beginning - and arguably also the end - of Algiers as the Mecca of freedom fighters and revolutionaries. 

She lived through the beginning - and arguably also the end - of Algiers as the Mecca of freedom fighters and revolutionaries

Mokhtefi writes: "I came to know exiles from Spain and Portugal, opponents to the military dictators Franco and Salazar, as well as others from Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, and Central America, political opponents as well as representatives of guerrilla movements.

"Every imaginable liberation organisation had an office in Algiers, from the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam (the Vietcong) to the ANC, SWAPO, FRELIMO, the MPLA, student hijackers from Ethiopia, and Palestinian liberation organisations."

For anyone who has read much on Algeria's anti-colonial struggle, the book feels like a piece of a hugely complicated 1000-piece puzzle. In so many of her stories, I felt like I was revisiting landmark events in Algeria's path to independence, but with from someone who was sitting on a completely different side of the room.

The book is published as part of Verso's '1968 series'

The same outcome, a little more detail, at times differing analysis on what each moment meant, and importantly, how it impacted the people involved.

This may have much to do with her background - she is a North American woman who grew up in the US, and this has shaped her engagement with political events and the conclusions she draws on them. 

Either way, I was very happy that the scenes of so many historical moments, which I'd painted in my head through different readings and accounts, were sharpened by the details she shares.

One particular gem is her friendship with intellectual and writer Franz Fanon, and the personal elements of his life she includes in her book.

All I'd ever known of him I'd learned through his writings and the role he played in Algeria's revolution. To hear more about his character - through his wife, Josie Fanon - how he dealt with illness at such a young age, and of his travels as he sought to unite oppressed peoples across the global South, was a real highlight of the book.

We learn of the relationship advice he gave Mokhtefi during an evening of dancing, which left me feeling both jealous, but also amused by the empowering words he shared. He told her that one must "stay upright on your own two feet and keep moving forward to goals of your own".

If the snippets of the life Elaine Mokhtefi shared with her late husband Mokhtar Mokhtefi were anything to go by, it seems she took Fanon's advice on board. I can't imagine many not wishing a lifetime of revolutionary love, which in many ways transcended borders and was shaped by an absolute and unyielding commitment to the liberation of the many by the many, across the globe.

Alongside the love story between the Mokhtefis, a considerable chunk of Algiers, Third World Capital provides an extensive account of the Black Panthers' (BPP) time in the city, when their international chapter was established.

The period of 'exile' for Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver is often mentioned as an important juncture for anti-racist movements in the West, and anti-imperialist efforts in the global South. Mokhtefi's heavy involvement in the setting up and resourcing of the chapter offers a rich and lengthy understanding of the BPPs experiences and difficulties during the years spent in Algeria's capital.

We learn of the relationship advice Fanon gave Mokhtefi during an evening of dancing, leaving me feeling both jealous and amused

The recounting is bittersweet, and she speaks of the many contradictions within the BPP at the time, as they unravelled in the US as well as on African soil, and how the members dealt with a changing political landscape as Boumediene seized power of Algeria following a coup d'état.

While it was certainly an exciting account, one that included all the revolutionary favourites at the height of third wordlist solidarity and organising, it was also a heavy read; as a child of Algeria.

The history of the liberation struggle has shaped my life's direction in so many ways. The fire that drives me to fight against injustice today, was lit long before I was born.

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Reading the book while in Algeria certainly added to the depth of the experience. Meeting family and friends in the centre of Algiers, in streets named after martyrs such as Larbi Ben Mhidi, catching up with academics in institutions which once served to maintain their oppression, only to hear about the current repressive practices of the state; the violence, the price of food and electricity skyrocketing, Bouteflika potentially presenting himself for a 5th mandate…

All this pushed the revolutionary chapter of Algeria even deeper into the past. Mohketfi's own experiences of defeat, put mine and the very few which I have witnessed in comparison, into perspective.

The ideas, hopes, and spirit that were captured during the 50s and 60s in Algeria are universal and timeless, and our fight continues today. Defeat, much like victory, is a moment - a temporary reality - and one which is the outcome of specific twists and turns in struggle. A struggle which is built back up by millions every day.

The fire that drives me to fight against injustice today was lit long before I was born

By the time you reach the end of the book and learn of the details of Elaine Mokhtefi's deportation from Algeria in the early 70s, you are left wondering whether she'll ever return to see what has become of the country and its people, to whom she dedicated so much of her life, despite her warning that "this is a story with a beginning and an end".

Word in the casbah was that upon the release of the book, her ban from Algeria has finally been lifted, so who knows?

Talking about her husband, Mokhtefi wrote,

"Mokhtar had given his life to Algeria. He and his comrades joined the liberation army prepared to die for their flag and more - for an idea, for justice. Following independence, to see the ideals they had fought for soiled, spit upon, was more than he could bear."

Yet the idea for which they fought so hard, remains. And the life of struggle both Mokhtar and Elaine led, along with countless others, laid the foundations on which a new generation would build, towards achieving the liberation for which Algeria's countless martyrs died.

Algiers, Third World Capital: Freedom Fighters, Revolutionaries, Black Panthers' is published by Verso.

Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.