Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Showcase- I Was a French Muslim, Memories of an Algerian Freedom Fighter by MOKHTAR MOKHTEFI Translated by ELAINE MOKHTEFI

Today I bring another Other Press new release this one from Algerian born Mokhtar Mokhtefi and this his memoirs was published post mortem.

ISBN-13: 978-1-63542-180-4
Publisher: Other Press
Release Date: 09-21-2021
Length: 448pp
Buy It: Publisher/Amazon/B&N/IndieBound



This engaging memoir provides a vivid account of a childhood under French colonization and a life dedicated to fighting for the freedom and dignity of the Algerian people.

The son of a butcher and the youngest of six siblings, Mokhtar Mokhtefi was born in 1935 and grew up in a village de colonisation roughly one hundred kilometers south of the capital of Algiers. Thanks to the efforts of a supportive teacher, he became the only child in the family to progress to high school, attending a French lycée that deepened his belief in the need for independence. In 1957, at age twenty-two, he joined the National Liberation Army (ALN), the armed wing of the National Liberation Front (FLN), which had been waging war against France since 1954. After completing rigorous training in radio transmissions at a military base in Morocco, he went on to become an officer in the infamous Ministère de l’Armement et des Liaisons Générales (MALG), the precursor of post-independence Algeria’s Military Security (SM).

Mokhtefi’s powerful memoir bears witness to the extraordinary men and women who fought for Algerian independence against a colonial regime that viewed non-Europeans as fundamentally inferior, designating them not as French citizens, but as “French Muslims.” He presents a nuanced, intelligent, and deeply personal perspective on Algeria’s transition to independent statehood, with all its inherent opportunities and pitfalls.

Read an excerpt:

Part One


“A woman’s opinion is not an opinion,” my father says.
His comment is directed at Imma, my mother, who’s clearing the dinner table. She has just told my older brother what she thinks of the money Baba has borrowed from the bank: “All his work will go to enrich Pastor.” (Pastor is the director of the bank.) She holds an empty platter in one hand and with the other wipes the tabletop, all the time shaking her head from side to side, her way of insisting how right she is.
“Have I ever told you what spices to put in the soup?” my father quips, half in jest, half serious. She shrugs her shoulders, grunts, and moves toward the kitchen. Baba is certainly right, he’s one of the rare Algerians to frequent the bank, who can get credit, and my mother is no businesswoman: she’s never left the house without being swathed in veils, she’s never entered a store in the village, not even my father’s butcher shop.
My thoughts fly to Madame Lavallée, the second-grade teacher, and I wonder if she doesn’t have some opinions that are as good as a man’s. She’s the only female teacher at my school and she certainly holds her own with the men, the way she does with her pupils. Madame Lavallée is as pretty as a flower in springtime, her walk is a stride, she’s so sure of herself. Her voice carries and with her ruler she batters kids’ fingers and palms and keeps the bullies at bay, or so says my brother Mustafa, who is in her class and is my chief informant on all things.
My mother doesn’t like Pastor because he put a lien on the house before granting the loan; she doesn’t want to lose her home. I can understand that and I should defend her, but I don’t say anything because I know that a child mustn’t contradict his father, or any of his elders for that matter. My brothers keep their mouths shut too. As soon as Baba finishes telling us about his meeting with Pastor, he clears his throat and pronounces the bismillah, as he does every evening after dinner: “In the name of God, the Beneficent, the Merciful . . .” Like my brothers, I repeat the bismillah after him and we begin reviewing the Koran. I should say they begin since the recitation starts with the longest sura, one I don’t know yet. I wait until my father finishes my brothers’ recitation and begins the sura I’ve memorized. As the singsong drags on, I fight against falling asleep and think about Madame Lavallée. At school she’s surrounded by men, just like my mother at home with her six boys and my father.
My mother’s main preoccupation these days is to marry Ahmed, my oldest brother, who was born in January 1919. He was called up for military service at the beginning of the war, but he hated taking orders, doing military exercises, and being closed in generally, so he took to the woods, he deserted. One day, there was a knock at the stable door and I went to see who was there. What a surprise, it was Ahmed!
He looked funny with his military cap askew, his leggings and heavy military shoes covered in mud. Imma was happy to see him, but she must have had some doubts because she asked right away if he was on furlough. From the way he explained things, I gathered that Marshal Pétain had declared the war over and that the food at the barracks was inedible. As he was taking off his shoes, he also mentioned that he had entered the village through the fields, so the gendarmes wouldn’t see him. My brother Mustafa, who is three years older than me, doesn’t believe the war is over.
Mustafa takes me to school, he’s my protector and my guide in life. When I told him that Blanchette is no longer at my school, he explained why. Every morning on entering the girls’ school where my classroom is located, Blanchette, wearing a nurse’s uniform, holds up two long sticks and uses them to inspect the heads of us Algerians to make sure we don’t have lice.
“She’s been fired because she’s Jewish,” Mustafa explains.
Since I don’t get what that means, he adds: “Hitler doesn’t like Jews.”
“Does Hitler like us?” I ask.
Disgusted by my stupidity, he shrugs his shoulders. “On the list of races, Hitler thinks the Arabs come after the frogs.”
The gendarmes arrested Ahmed for desertion. They turned him over to Mr. Tob, the head of the municipal jail; since Tob knows the family, he puts him to work in the vegetable garden next to the jail. I drop him off a container of food at noon and after school. Imma has warned me not to tell Baba, she doesn’t want to hear him reproach her for being soft on her “delinquent son.” Sometimes she reminds him that when Ahmed was little, he was gaga over him.
Before Ahmed there were two little girls, Zeineb, who died within the year, and Aouisha, when she was two. Four years after Ahmed came Mohamed. My father wasn’t lucky enough to go to school, but he managed to enroll his first-born, even though, for the local population, enrollments are limited. Growing up, Ahmed began to dress “modern”; he swapped the djellaba, the sarouel, and the skullcap for European-style clothes. Baba approved of his son’s modernity, he was pleased that he was in the same class as Benyoucef Benkhedda, the kadi’s son, but he wasn’t able to help him with his homework or control what he did at school. Left on his own, Ahmed failed the primary school final exam. He took to the streets.
Following Ahmed’s arrest, Imma worked on Baba to speak to someone in authority. He finally got Ahmed out of jail so he could go back to work at the slaughterhouse . . . and he started to drink. Furious and anxious, Imma never stopped repeating: “If he’s in trouble, it’s because of the riffraff he frequents.”
I think she’s right. Ahmed is a very sweet guy. He likes having me around and loves it when I sing the first French song I learned in first grade: “Il faut te marier, papillon, couleur de neige.” (You have to get married, butterfly, white as snow . . .) I adore that song, so he’s started calling me Butterfly. He loves it when he sees me in the street and I come running. He gives me a coin for candy or takes me to the bar with his friends and buys me a drink I love that tastes like sweet mint. Once he gave me a wonderful gift: he took me to ‘ammi Salah’s, the tailor and photographer, who set his magic box on a tripod and took our photo. I was seven, the first time in my life that I had my picture taken. Imma has put that precious souvenir away for safekeeping. On the other hand, she didn’t at all appreciate it the day I arrived home smelling of perfume like a beauty parlor, my pockets filled with candy. Ahmed had taken me to the brothel to meet Arbia, his special friend there. As soon as the women saw me they knew I was Butterfly: they started screaming, pinching me, covering me with kisses and lipstick. Arbia gave me a bag of candy and a coin to buy more, then she grabbed a vaporizer and sprayed me with eau de Cologne. When my mother opened the door, she smelled me, wrinkled her nose, and asked the ritual question.
“Where have you been?”
I replied in an offhand way, “With Ahmed.”
She lowered her head and sniffed my hair; then with a threatening voice and her arm raised to slap me, she repeated the question. Forgetting my promise not to say where I’d been, I told her: “With Ahmed in a kind of hammam [bath house] with a lot of women.”
I thought she was going to lacerate her cheeks as the women criers do over a dead body. She screeched, let out a long scream and damned Ahmed over and over. Then she grabbed me by the collar and took me to the bottom of the staircase and stood me next to the water tap in the courtyard. She stripped me down, she was beside herself. In a panic, I screamed it wasn’t my fault and sobbed as she filled the water pail. I shouted that I had been to the hammam the day before with my father. Nothing stopped her. She lathered me with soap and scrubbed as hard as she could, then threw the pail of water over me.
“So you saw that bitch of a woman,” she said.
I raised my head, and with my eyes and mouth closed, murmured “Ahum.” Then she rinsed me off and dried me. I no longer smelled of the accursed perfume and I could feel her anger fading. As though nothing was amiss, of any importance, she proceeded with the inquiry.
“What’s she like?”
“She has tattoos on her face,” I said, pulling away, pretending to be hurt.
The last time I heard Imma mention Arbia was when her friend Fatma Bent al Ouenes, the village talebearer, came to visit. Since she wanted to be alone with her friend, she told me to go out and play, but I hid on the staircase and listened to them talk.
“You’re giving yourself heartaches over that woman,” Bent al Ouenes was saying. “Forget her, let Ahmed do what he wants. That shouldn’t stop you from helping Mohamed get married.”
“Oooh, but I can’t marry the second boy before the first. That’s not done.”
“You worry too much about what people say. Think of your boys. Who invented the custom that the firstborn must marry first? Men did. It’s not one of God’s dictates. You’re not going to deprive Mohamed of founding a family because his brother has a mistress!”
My mother is always happy to see Fatma, even if after she leaves she criticizes her. “I thought she’d never go home,” or “She thinks she’s something because she took the boat from Morocco to Algeria with a group of French women, the wives of some French generals. What’s there to be so proud of?” I think Imma’s envious of her experience and of her frank way of speaking her mind. Fatma Bent al Ouenes is older than Imma, she’s a widow and has no children.
She was also the first woman from the village to go to school; she speaks beautiful French. “Boys waited for me in front of the school and threw stones at me,” she once told me. Among them was the man who’s the village imam today but we’re both old now, so I forgive him,” she added laughing. Her husband served under Lyautey in Morocco; the wife of the future marshal of France was an acquaintance of hers.
My mother must have followed her advice. She stopped criticizing Baba for “working for Pastor” and set about convincing him to let Mohamed marry first. She also talked him into selling our car, a six-cylinder Citroën. She never stopped repeating: “That car is of no use to anyone.” Given the war- time restrictions, there wasn’t any gas for sale anymore so it never left the garage. On the back window were letters in white: delivery.
I’m mad at the war for requisitioning our livestock for the military and ruining the butcher business. The number of animals authorized for slaughter and the consumption of meat by the local population have been severely limited. The mayor is French and has issued orders for the local butchers to serve the European population first. The Muslims and the Jews get what’s left. Given the lack of animals and the need to supply his customers, Baba has been slaughtering sheep secretly. His friend Nedjar, the rabbi, comes to the house and slaughters them, too. I carry around a basket and make deliveries to my father’s Muslim and Jewish customers.
Baba has begun following the war news. In the evening, after we’ve recited the verses of the Koran and repeated the day’s prayer, he turns on the radio on the nightstand next to his bed. He listens to Radio London in Arabic on shortwave. The crackling noise on the frequency bothers him so he ups the sound, provoking Imma’s protests: “Turn down the noise, the kids have to get their rest.” Mustafa and I sleep in the far corner of their room.
Since Berrouaghia is located in a hollow surrounded by the Titteri Mountains, Baba has my brother Basha go up on the roof and change the direction of the antenna. Later he learns that the crackling noise is due to the Germans’ jamming of the frequencies.
In the summer of 1942, when an unidentified airplane crashes into the quarry at the edge of the village, rumor has it that the pilot was German. Another rumor that spreads around is that we are going to be bombed. But the rumors don’t frighten the local population, on the contrary, the plane becomes an object of curiosity. I go to see it with Mustafa and some other kids from the neighborhood. It’s a one-seater and didn’t explode. One adult says it must have run out of gas and the pilot must have parachuted. He doesn’t know whether he ran away or gave himself up, nor what his nationality was.
For my mother, the plane is a bad omen. She enumerates over and over again the calamities that will befall us: drought, famine, typhus, rationing, black market, crickets, and insists that we don’t need any more invasions or bombs. She invokes God and asks him to relieve his creatures of their suffering.
Baba doesn’t miss an occasion to chastise the population for its lack of faith: “First of all, his creatures should think about obeying him. The mosque is empty and the cafés are full. In addition to which there are those sinners who drink, who steal, and worse.”
“You want everyone to be like you,” Imma comments, mocking him. “If we’re all different, it’s because God wanted it that way. You think that it would be better if we all resembled one another?”
Appealing to religion is standard procedure, but ever since Baba heard on Radio London in Arabic that the Americans have landed in North Africa, he talks politics more. He initiates discussions with Mohamed, who reads the French newspaper. He’s so interested in politics that he’s even begun cutting the time spent reciting the Koran so as to get into bed and listen to the radio. Mustafa and I are hoping that the Allied landing in Oran will make him forget the recitation of the Koran altogether. But no such luck.
“The Americans are here,” my neighborhood friend tells me when I meet him after school, a school where he hasn’t been admitted. “They’re going to live in the village.” He repeats what he’s heard some adults say. Because of their equipment and their language, the villagers have taken the English for Americans, but the confusion lasts barely a day. They set up their command center in the former postal relay station next door to the gendarmes. Their troops have been quartered near the railroad station not far from the town soccer field.


“A rebel and freedom fighter, Elaine Mokhtefi translates their remarkable life in her husband’s memoir…[I Was a French Muslim] is heterodox to other memoirs of the period in part due to its portrayal of religion and its portrayal of European settlers as individuals.” —Washington Post

“The life of the late Mokhtefi (1935–2015), a key figure in Algeria’s struggle for independence, is vividly depicted in this stunning translation…This multifaceted story inspires.” —Publishers Weekly

“Mokhtefi was able to reconstruct the sights and sounds of life in his village of Berrouaghia and the constant pressure he felt to be [a ‘French Muslim’]…moving.” —Alice Kaplan, The Nation

“[An] eyewitness account of a revolutionary’s disillusionment with the revolution to free Algeria not only from France, but from its own lack of political enlightenment…An intelligent chronicle.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Mokhtefi’s witty commentary illuminates his buoyancy even in the midst of destruction and heartbreak…His story is a page-turner…his colorful portrayal of the character of time, place, and people in colonial, wartime Algeria provides captivating reading, as well as context for the relations between France and Algeria then and now.” —The Markaz Review

“Mokhtar Mokhtefi’s autobiography holds an original position in the panorama of increasingly abundant memoirs of veterans of the war fought by the Algerian Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) against France between 1954 and 1962…For freedom of tone, irreverence, assumed subjectivity, as well as for the elegance of a swift and precise style, the work is also an anomaly.” —Journal of North African Studies

“Dashing and charismatic, Mokhtar Mokhtefi dedicated himself to the liberation of his country, French-occupied Algeria, only to become an exile in France, then in the US, because the post-independence government could not tolerate a man of his integrity and democratic principles. Instead of succumbing to bitterness, nostalgia, or vanity, the sanctuary of many political exiles, he remained faithful to the ideals of self-determination and freedom that had led him into the liberation struggle. And at the very end of his life, he wrote this powerful memoir of his revolutionary years, lyrical in its evocation of the Algerian independence movement, yet keenly aware of the tragic dimensions of that history. I Was a French Muslim—fluently translated by his widow, the writer, artist, and activist Elaine Klein Mokhtefi—is more than a chronicle of one man’s life; it is the story of a generation, a bildungsroman of the Algerian freedom struggle.” —Adam Shatz, contributing editor at the London Review of Books

“I Was a French Muslim is an extraordinary document—a lively and moving record of colonial life and anticolonial struggle narrated with generosity, eloquence, and candor. Mokhtar Mokhtefi’s memoir is a rare beast, a powerful and all-too-human tale of revolutionary striving and disappointment, shorn of romance but full of grace.” —Ben Ehrenreich, author of The Way to the Spring and Desert Notebooks

“The tale of the decolonized is well-known. They are born by degrees, they awaken to injustice, they combat it, and then they die, quite soon or perhaps later, they or their convictions. Their tale is the glory of the dead. Except here: this is a tale of life, told in its praise. Before Victory freezes life and life’s palpitations.” —Kamel Daoud, author of The Meursault Investigation and Zabor, or The Psalms

“Mokhtar Mokhtefi and I met and became friends in the last year of his life. We spent hours discussing the manuscript of his memoir; it was his reason for being. He had two essential objectives: one was to remind today’s youth that under colonialism one was never a citizen but a ‘French Muslim,’ a subhuman being, treated as such. His second goal was to display how independent Algeria, as other former colonies, became the continuation of colonization, in the form of dictatorship. The colonialists departed but would be replaced by Algerians who in effect colonized fellow Algerians, and it is not over.” —Amara Lakhous, author of Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio

“Mokhtar Mokhtefi’s singular memoir of Algeria’s War of Liberation has something for every reader—a vivid portrait of a young man’s rise to political consciousness under the French colonial system, a blow-by-blow account of military training and combat that will be of great interest to historians. A gifted storyteller, Mokhtefi communicates an infectious love of country, yet he firmly dispenses with the pieties of official nationalism by depicting infighting, internal purges, and political ambitions within the nationalist ranks. I Was a French Muslim has been brilliantly translated from the French by the person closest to the author—his widow, Elaine Klein Mokhtefi, in her own right a talented writer and veteran of the Algerian Revolution.” —Madeleine Dobie, Professor of French & Comparative Literature, Columbia University

“This memoir is history written in real-time, intimate and compelling. Yet Mokhtefi never loses sight of the larger historical importance of his personal commitment and the wider dimensions, and potential dangers, of the Algerian struggle for independence. A book to be read by any serious student of the tangled relationship between France and Algeria, past and present.” —Andrew Hussey, Professor of Cultural History, University of London, and author of Speaking East: The Strange and Enchanted Life of Isidore Isou

“This marvelous book takes the reader inside the society of Muslim Algeria in the late colonial period, then inside the evolving anticolonial nationalist movement, and finally inside the National Liberation Army (ALN) and its fledgling signal corps, conveying with savory details the particular flavor of each, while recounting the author’s step-by-step road to freedom in the process of transcending his original condition of a second-class Frenchman denied citizenship in his own country. The narrative of a free spirit if ever there was one, told in an extraordinarily engaging tone of voice faithfully captured by Elaine Mokhtefi’s translation, this is one of the finest memoirs of the Algerian national revolution—fascinating, moving, and a delight to read from start to finish.” —Hugh Roberts, Edward Keller Professor of North African and Middle Eastern History, Tufts University

“Sixty years after Algeria won its independence from France, the individuals who formed the backbone of the liberation movement remain, with a few exceptions, anonymous actors. The publication of Mokhtar Mokhtefi’s war chronicles, I Was a French Muslim: Memories of an Algerian Freedom Fighter, brings one such actor—and his entourage—out of the wings and onto the stage of world history. For those unfamiliar with the Algerian War for Independence, this historical fresco in the first person offers a gripping account of life in colonial Algeria and a poignant tale of a generation’s struggle for self-determination. Expert readers—especially those steeped in the lore of Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers—will be struck by Mokhtefi’s version of events, which sidesteps that perhaps most famous episode of the war, preferring instead to expose the daily grind of logistics and politics that was rural warfare. If Mokhtefi’s experiences seem far removed from spectacular urban warfare of an Ali La Pointe, his account of one of the world’s longest-lasting liberation struggles is at once more politically complex, and, ultimately, more personal.” —Lia Brozgal, Associate Professor, French and Francophone Studies, University of California, Los Angeles

“In chronicling his personal journey from ‘French Muslim’ to ‘Algerian freedom fighter,’ Mokhtar Mokhtefi leads the reader, with candor and humor, through Algeria’s transition from colonial territory to independent nation. Keenly attuned to the complexities of both colonial society and the nationalist struggle, Mokhtefi’s memoir eschews simplistic narratives in favor of a richly detailed, nuanced portrait of Algerian history, and of the men and women who shaped it during these pivotal decades.” —Claire Eldridge, Associate Professor in Modern History, University of Leeds

“I Was a French Muslim is an astonishing eyewitness account of twentieth-century Algeria by Mokhtar Mokhtefi, an anticolonial activist who was on the front line of this history. Brilliantly portraying the anger and disaffection that drove Algerians to rebel against French rule, the book is equally unsparing about the divisions which beset the National Liberation Front and shaped post-independence. A remarkable book that is required reading for anyone interested in the history of the Global South.” —Martin Evans, Professor of Modern European History, University of Sussex, and author of Algeria: France’s Undeclared War

“This coming-of-age story follows the transformation of a young boy into a man of conviction and a colonized country into an independent nation. Neither saccharine nor cynical, Mokhtar Mokhtefi’s memoir skillfully depicts the struggle of ‘French Muslims’ during French colonial rule and the Algerian revolution while also foreshadowing the paradoxes and unfulfilled promises of independence. This graceful translation from French provides much-needed access for Anglophone students of history. His memoir will surely take a central place among autobiographies and memoirs of the era for its balanced and compassionate evocation of the tensions of nationalism and—equally important—for its exploration of a young man’s political awakening.” —Elise Franklin, Assistant Professor, University of Louisville

“Mokhtar Mokhtefi’s (1935–2015) gripping memoir, I Was a French Muslim, recounts meticulosity both his life in France’s colonized Algeria and his anticolonial activities as a radio operator and head of communications in the Algerian National Liberation Army during the Algerian Revolution (1954–1962). Mokhtefi believed in and fought for justice, freedom, and the dignity of the Algerian people. His breathtaking autobiography presents a nuanced testimony to French coloniality, modern warfare, and the premise and the promise of independence. It is a fundamental source.” —Samia Henni, Assistant Professor, Cornell University, and author of Architecture of Counterrevolution: The French Army in Northern Algeria

“Mokhtar Mokhtefi’s autobiography holds an original position in the panorama of increasingly abundant memoirs of veterans of the war fought by the Algerian Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) against France between 1954 and 1962. For freedom of tone, irreverence, assumed subjectivity, as well as for the elegance of a swift and precise style, the work avoids any eagerness of edifying narrative or systematic theories; what emerges is, in contrast, almost a social history of Algeria during the colonial era.” —Andrea Brazzoduro, Marie Sklodowska Curie Global Fellow, Ca’ Foscari University of Venice and University of Oxford

About the author:
Mokhtar Mokhtefi, born in Algeria in 1935, joined the National Liberation Army (ALN) in 1957. Trained as a radio operator, he became head of a communications unit during the Algerian War. After independence, he was elected president of the General Union of Algerian Muslim Students and went on to study sociology and economics at universities in Algiers and Paris. After living in France and publishing several books on North Africa and the Arab world for young adults, he moved to New York in 1994. He died in 2015, and his memoir, I Was a French Muslim, was published in Algeria the following year.

The Translator:
Elaine Mokhtefi was born in New York City and raised in small towns in New York and Connecticut. She lived for many years in France and Algeria, where she worked as a translator and journalist, and is the author of Algiers, Third World Capital: Freedom Fighters, Revolutionaries, Black Panthers. She is the widow of Mokhtar Mokhtefi.