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Daoud’s Camus Fanfiction Is More of the Same

Kamel Daoud, The Meursault Investigation. Translated by John Cullen. New York: Other Press 2015.

Algerian journalist Kamel Daoud’s debut novel The Meursault Investigation, recently translated into English, retells the story of Albert Camus’s The Stranger from the point of view of Harun, the brother of the unnamed Arab that Camus's hero, Meursault, murders.

The Meursault Investigation has garnered great praise in American media, sparking multiple articles in the New York Times, Washington Post, and New Yorker. The portrait we are left with in all of these profiles is the same: Daoud is a brave writer, taking Camus to task for his blind spots (while still paying necessary homage to his literary genius) and defiantly criticizing Islamists despite the supposed danger to his life. Much has been made about the Facebook fatwa an obscure cleric issued, calling for Daoud’s execution. The story of this fatwa is often repeated alongside recollections of the writers and journalists murdered during Algeria’s Black Decade—for example, in the New York Times: “Algeria is a country in which more than seventy journalists were murdered by Islamist rebels during the civil war of the 1990s, the so-called Black Decade.”

But the subtext of this narrative—that Algeria is a dangerous place for journalists because of an Islamist threat that goes back for decades—is deceptive. In the first place, the Black Decade ended with a decisive victory for the “eradicators” in the Algerian army, and ever since Algeria has been a safer place for liberal journalists than for any Islamist opposition that survived the 1990s. Furthermore, this narrative about the Black Decade tells a misleadingly simplistic story that casts radical Islam as the cause of the violence, and feeds into a pernicious binary between progressive secularists and political Islam. The fatwa has only served to garner more attention for Daoud and his book. The publishers even made sure to mention the fatwa on the back cover of the book under “Praise for The Meursault Investigation.” Indeed, there is no greater praise one can receive in the Western media and no greater claim to fame than to be the object of a fatwa. Daoud should thank the cleric; he probably helped to seal a movie deal.

Camus’s The Stranger is about a pied noir living in Algiers who, after his mother’s funeral, casually murders an Arab on a whim. The Stranger has become part of the literary canon and is required reading for high school students throughout the Western world. As Edward Said remarked in Culture and Imperialism, Camus’s work is read as a parable of the human condition, ignoring its affiliation with the French colonial project.[1] Many readers fail to extend their evaluation of the text “to include what was forcibly excluded—in l’Etranger, for example, the whole previous history of France’s colonialism and its destruction of the Algerian state.”[2] Camus does not even give the murdered Arab a name. But Camus’s silence speaks volumes. As Said wrote, “Camus’s novels and stories…very precisely distill the traditions, idioms, and discursive strategies of France’s appropriation of Algeria.”[3] 

Ostensibly, in reimagining The Stranger from the point of view of the Arab’s brother, Daoud seeks to counter Camus’s erasure of the subaltern perspective. However, as Jeremy Harding pointed out in his London Review of Books article, “Despite his protestations, Daoud is a bit of a Camusian. Even though he’s kidnapped L’Etranger he treats his hostage with respect and there’s an undeniable complicity between the two novels.” The Meursault Investigation finally gives a name and a story to Musa, the murdered Arab. His brother Harun narrates the story to a Frenchman he meets in a bar, bemoaning Musa’s fate and contemplating his own absurd existence in the years that have since passed. Yet while answering part of Said’s critique in giving Musa a name and a story, in many ways, Daoud repeats the erasures and colonial idioms of Camus.

Harun begins his narrative by lamenting the fact that Meursault not only killed his brother, but also wrote a famous book about his death. In this account, Meursault does not even mention Musa by name. “Good God,” he proclaims, “how can you kill someone and then take even his own death away from him? My brother was the one who got shot, not him! It was Musa, not Meursault, see?” Meursault’s story is famous, but no one even knows Musa’s name. However, one must wonder if the problem is simply that no one who matters knows Musa’s name. After all, Harun tells his readers that crowds of people came to Musa’s funeral, and the entire neighborhood mourned for him and knew him as “the hero’s brother.” But the people who attended Musa’s funeral probably could not read Meursault’s book anyway, so they must not be the audience Harun seeks. He can only unburden himself by getting the attention of a French audience, like his companion in the bar. 

When he gets a chance to tell his story to this audience, he tells a story about Algerians that they are used to hearing. The French colonists liked to refer to the Algerians as rats, and Harun, using similarly degrading language, refers to them variously as lice, ants, and maggots. In the book, Algerian Muslims are described as idle young men, liars, and petty thieves who pee on walls, beat their wives and mothers, and play soccer with dug-up Frenchmen’s skulls. Harun makes a name for himself and his brother, but it appears he can only do so at the expense of his countrymen. Daoud is careful to distinguish his free, independent hero from the unwashed masses of Algeria. Harun remarks, “I’ve observed these people so often that today I see them as a single person, a man I avoid talking to for any length of time and keep at a respectful distance.”   

Daoud’s novel provides a rather ambiguous critique of colonialism. True, he goes a step further than Camus in making references to the land stolen from Algerians during colonization and the pauperization of the population. Absent, however, is any reference to the degree of physical and epistemic violence by which 130 years of colonialism broke down and transformed communities, politics, and religion in Algeria. The entire colonial project and anticolonial resistance appears in the novel only as a fight over land (and Daoud seems to particularly enjoy the use of crude, clichéd metaphors of land-as-woman). Besides, our narrator makes it clear that he does not wish to dwell on the colonial past. Harun makes sure to tell his French companion that he is not “one of those,” and that he does not care that Meursault was French and Musa was Algerian. That, apparently, is irrelevant. The real problems that plague contemporary Algeria can be traced not to the distant colonial past, but to the War of Liberation and his countrymen who have been plundering the land ever since. Apparently, there are no more forests or animals in Algeria, and the lovely buildings of the colonial districts have been gobbled up and ruined. Daoud writes, “The people were devouring the incredible country that had been given back to them.” Of course, the country was not given back to the Algerians, but the brutally fought War of Liberation (and generations of resistance previous to the National Liberation Front [FLN] coup) is glossed over in Daoud’s novel. The war is reduced to a land grab and revenge, and a false moral equivalency is implied between the colonizer and the colonized.      

Daoud is not the first writer to point to nationalism and the War of Liberation as the root of the problems that plague contemporary Algeria. Historians like Benjamin Stora and Mohammed Harbi and novelists like Ahlam Mosteghanemi examine the war and its legacies with far more complexity than Daoud does in his novel. Furthermore, however, tracing the political and social problems of Algeria exclusively to the shortcomings of nationalist resistance fails to deal seriously with the legacies of colonialism and the ongoing role neocolonialism plays. Consequently, Daoud critiques the FLN but does not question the nation-state project itself, or the ways in which nationalism was inherited from the colonial encounter.

Rather than dealing with the social and political problems in Algeria with the nuance they deserve, Daoud falls back on Orientalist tropes, repeating many of the same stereotypes of colonial discourse. His countrymen are animalistic, idle plunderers, and the problems of nationalism are reduced to the collectivist passions of “the people.” Especially to blame is Islam, which breeds both passivity and zealous violence. In his article, Harding tries to distinguish between Daoud’s political and literary writing, saying: “Daoud also writes for Le Quotidien d’Oran, where he lists the shortcomings of his fellow Algerians in hasty, sonorous generalizations that you wouldn’t associate with Daoud the novelist.” This may be true to an extent, but the novel still contains plenty of harsh generalizations about Algerians—described most of the time with a disdainful “these people.” We would be mistaken to overstate the difference between Daoud’s political writing and his novel. 

In his interview with the New Yorker, Daoud tries to assert that this work is not offensive to Muslims, but only to Islamists. If this is true, by “Islamists” Daoud must mean Muslims who practice Islam. He does not once in the book target the political activities of Islamist parties. Rather, the “Islamist” activities he rails against are reading the Qur’an (which he disrespectfully describes as being full of “strange redundancies, repetitions, lamentations, threats, and daydreams”) and especially attending Friday prayers. Below is an excerpt of a tirade that goes on for over three pages: 

“Today’s Friday. It’s the day closest to death in my calendar. People dress ridiculously, they stroll through the streets at noon still wearing pajamas, practically, shuffling around in slippers as though Friday exempts them from the demands of civility. In our country, religious faith encourages laziness in private matters and authorizes spectacular negligence on every Friday…It’s the Friday prayer hour I detest the most—and always have, ever since childhood, but even more for the past several years. The imam’s voice, shouting through the loudspeakers, the rolled-up prayer rugs tucked under people’s arms, the thundering minarets, the garish architecture of the mosque, and the hypocritical haste of the devout on their way to water and bad faith, ablutions and recitations. You’ll see this spectacle everywhere on Friday, my friend—you’re not in Paris anymore…” (emphasis added).

Like any good, free liberal, Daoud and his narrator celebrate the autonomous individual and rage against community, and any collective public expressions of religion. Daoud contemptuously equates practices of Islam with backwardness, incivility, and laziness. In doing so, he is being neither original nor brave. Contrary to praise for Daoud’s novel as a bold and daring attack on the Algerian establishment and radical Islam, there is not much that is courageous or even original about this book. Daoud makes a name for Musa and for himself with a Western audience by recycling old colonial narratives about Algerians and Islam.

[1] Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Vintage, 1994), 175.

[2] Said 67.

[3] Said 184. 

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