Teaching the Conflict

Writers and cartoonists who refuse to honor Charlie Hebdo aren’t thinking straight. Yet I don’t hate their impulse to distance themselves from those who are down with gratuitous humiliation of Muslims in France or anywhere else. That impulse feels homey to me in part because my wife is a practicing Muslim. Perhaps those of us who bow to the bravery of Charlie’s glorious nerds can agree, at least for a start, this old line from John Rawls is ponderable: “The best way to cause people long-lasting pain is to humiliate them by making the things that seem most important to them look futile, obsolete and powerless.”

Rawls’ point might stick when it comes to Pamela Geller’s history of spite toward Muslims. (Though her fraught free speech demo in Texas seems more justifiable than her attempt to suppress freedom of religion by inciting a moral panic over the “Ground Zero” mosque.) Rawls’ point seems less dispositive, though, when it comes to Charlie, given the uncommon magnanimity displayed by the magazine’s stalwarts. The cartoonist Luz, for example, not only drew the famous “All Is Forgiven” cover, but amplified its message with a soulful expression of sympathy toward the Kouachis: “The terrorists were once kids, they drew like us, like all kids, then one day they perhaps lost their sense of humor, perhaps their child soul able to see the world from a bit of a distance…”

Luz—and other Charlie staffers who have incarnated a spirit of forgiveness—may be secularists but their instincts seem pretty Christian. After all, Christians are supposed to be good to those who persecute them and pray for their enemies. This demand, as Leszek Kolakowski once noted (and the Pope just allowed[1]) “violates human nature”: “We can be sure that there are, and there always have been, only very few people truly mature enough to meet this demand, but the edifice of civilization rests upon their shoulders, and whatever small accomplishment we have made, we owe to them.”[2]

We should give thanks for Luz et al.’s thin shoulders (though, pace Kolakowski, their charity may be a credit to that “child soul” not “maturity.”) Pamela Geller’s fear-mongering, OTOH, isn’t giving civilization much of a lift.

Charlie’s link to the French tradition of laicité place their contributors in the same camp as militant atheists like Richard Dawkins and the late Hitchens, but the cartoonists’ light touch seems at odds with the zeal of those know-it-all scourges. I found an email from an acolyte of Dawkins/Hitchens (who’s also a Geller fan) in my inbox last week. Titled “Good News,” it celebrated the recent poll registering a decline in the number of Christians in America. The emailer was thrilled by the rising tide of unbelievers in the USA: “soon it will be ONE THIRD!”

Such triumphalism runs counter to one of the essential passages in recent American letters—Scott Spencer’s rendering, in his novel Man in the Woods, of a Christian convert’s sudden loss of faith. That loss isn’t presented as a freeing-up: “Conversion is convulsive, but reversion is strictly, stiff upper lip.” “Progressives” who assume losing your religion is all good might wise up if they check the faith-based experience of Spencer’s heroine. So let’s recur to this character’s movement of mind now. She has made a career out of being born again, writing books and becoming a Christian broadcaster. Her crisis comes as she’s testifying on her quirky radio show, “Prays Well With Others.” In the midst of a rap on Jesus and neediness and giving back she stretches for her next riff and the rest of her Christ-less life begins: “The thing she reaches for—her next sentence—is not there. And its absence is immense. It’s like walking into a familiar room, and realizing, without precisely knowing why, that intruders have been here and you’ve been robbed.”

Spencer’s bereft woman recalls what fulfillment felt like:

Once, nearly five years ago, sitting on a bridge chair in the cinder-block florescent-lit basement of a Methodist church, and trying to plug in whatever humanist generalization she could claim as her Higher Power, Kate had cast her thoughts this way and that, wondering if her writing was her higher power or if it was [her daughter] Ruby. and then one of the A.A. people, a girl named Joy W., gone now, maybe drinking again, maybe off to California to zigzag after her dream of becoming a recording star, had her guitar with her and she had this sneaky way of performing which was to pretend she was just strumming and humming privately and the rest of the room was simply overhearing her. Joy, the pain in the ass, sang “I Don’t Want to Get Adjusted to This World,” in a lovely, clear, kind voice, and the song itself, so simple and so plaintive, forced Kate to look away. And there it was, a simple wooden cross on the basement wall, and really out of no impulse more elevated than curiosity, and even with a degree of irony and self-mockery, Kate thought the words, Thank you Jesus, and she whispered them aloud and felt, actually and unmistakably felt a presence. The sensation of being entered, filled, radiantly occupied did not make her feel larger but instead made her feel smaller, practically dismantled past the point of self-recognition and so it was no wonder that like millions before her, she wept. For the cross, for the words to that old church song, for the Father and for the Son, for the suffering, for the sacrifice, for the love, she wept because she was no longer alone, she wept because she knew she was going to stop drinking, she wept because she was—she could barely say the word, even to herself—saved.And now it is gone, just as suddenly as these feeling came, they have disappeared.

They are gone.

It is gone.


I once could see and now I’m blind/I once was found and now I’m lost.

Spencer’s now graceless lady realizes she’s not only saying good-by to the Christian Nation…

But adios to the Jews, the Hindus, and the Muslims, and to all the New Agers with their brains like banana-bread and everyone else out there who like to pretend that there is some over-arching shape and meaning to life on earth, benign or otherwise, that there is someone to turn to in times of trouble and someone to honor with gratitude that we are not now forever on our own, making it up as we go along.

It takes negative capability (and stones?) for a novelist like Spencer to lament “making it up as we go along.” But after reading that passage it’s not hard to guess why he signed the letter from the PEN contingent protesting against Charlie Hebdo. He won’t reduce religion to God-botherers and, as a good novelist, he must suspect cartoons are too thin a medium to take in consolations of faith.

Such consolations may seem especially necessary to practicing Muslims among France’s marginalized population of North Africans. Not all believers Over There, though, deserve respect. And, on the real side, Spencer—and his PEN allies—aren’t placed to engage those among the devout who don’t merit a dis (or a bullet).

Instead of trying to fend off insults to believers, they could do something more useful for Maghrebis, with or without faith, by calling attention to artists whose work is rooted in the experience of that population. Take, for example, Mehdi Charef, who’s been making a case for the joys of “making it up as we go along” for more than a generation. Charef’s ‘80s novel and (later) film, Tea in the Harem of Archimedes sparked the “Beur movement” among France’s second generation of North African immigrants. (The term Beur being an amalgam of Berber and Europe.)

Charef summed up that cultural explosion:

Our parents who arrived in France after the war comprised a generation who came solely with the intention of working. They could not speak and they could not express themselves. It was work and nothing more. They sent money back to the family and that was it. But later their children came along. and they wanted another life which was not only working and having a job and going to school, but also included the possibility of expressing themselves culturally, in dance, literature, cinema, music, painting, sculpture…and that is what the Beur movement is.

Charef has refused to choose a purified Arab or French identity. Though he’s surely an heir to that young French Revolutionary who once declared “happiness is the new idea in Europe.” Tea in the Harem of Archimedes is a portrait of two no-future kids—one Arab, the other French—coming of age with their crew in a bleak suburban housing project. (Thirty years on, it may still have something pertinent to say about how the Kouachis became hard guys: “The children grow up as part of the cement and the concrete. They grow up and they begin to take on the characteristics of concrete: they’re dry and cold and hard, to all appearances indestructible—but they’ve got hidden cracks.”) Charef’s protest against that oppressive surround has resonance because he’s alive to his anti-heroes’ irrepressible instinct for fun and their knack for…making it up as they go along. In the film’s most indelible scene, the French boy (an illiterate who turned “Archimedes’ Theorem” into “Tea in the Harem of Archi-Ahmed”) acts like a novelist. On a road trip to the seashore, from the back seat of a stolen car, he entrances his buddies with a tale of romance in a warm climate. His gigolo plot isn’t much more sophisticated or believable than a Penthouse letter, but the emotion in his telling carries his audience away.

Tea in the Harem is a movie about fraternity. Nothing trumps the friendship between the two boys. In the movie’s final scene the Arab kid seems done-in. He sits on the beach waiting to be arrested by cops instead of running away with his best bud (and the rest of his friends). But the movie doesn’t fade into anomie. Asleep in the police van, Magid wakes up to see his French friend on the road up ahead, flagging down the police van, ready to go to jail with him. Solidarity whatever…

If Tea in the Harem is a boys’ movie, Charef’s Daughter of Keltoum[3] is one for women. It starts with its young westernized heroine on a bus in the mountainous desert region of Algeria. Rallia is returning from Switzerland to her birthplace, hoping to find her mother, Keltoum. Rallia stands in for Euro-strangers in the audience, noticing everything that seems exotic on her way to a stone house to which the bus driver had directed her. There she meets a weathered old man with warm eyes who she learns is her grandfather. Their encounter and blood-on-blood hug, a few minutes into the movie, manages to evoke deep comforts of home-coming, though we’re only a few minutes into the movie.

But the sense Rallia has found a haven is this harshly beautiful land soon gives way. Grandpa’s charm can’t sublate poverty and the relentless daily rounds of women who are treated as beasts of burden—water-bearers in particular—in the hill country. Rallia’s mother is said to work far away in a luxury resort, and when she fails to turn up, Rallia leaves the mountains to go find her in the city. The film becomes a road movie again. She’s accompanied by Nedjma, whom she believes is her aunt. On the road, Nedjma, who is disturbed and sometimes acts Out, will find a prospective mate—a handicapped man whose marriage proposal provides comic relief to the small crowd of bystanders who witness his offer but his neediness—and Nedjma’s—is no joke. Nobody in this film (or inTea in the Harem) is made into a cartoon.

On their journey, Rallia and Nedjma meet an assortment of men and women—figures who reveal everyday realities of Algeria without becoming stereotypical. The defining sequence comes early when they encounter a man riding a mule—a rope attached to his waist stretches behind him around a corner where a woman he’s tied up walks into the frame. She’s his “repudiated” wife whom he means to replace with a younger woman. After he unties her, she tries to follow him back to her home and children but he threatens to beat her with a club. She ends up joining Rallia and Nejdma for a scene or two as the road leads them ineluctably to feminist resistance.

Daughter of Keltoum, though, is more serious than, say, Thelma and Louise. Charef doesn’t settle for compensatory fantasies of killer women or matinee martyrdom. The film’s final scene is grounded in perdurable facts of globalization, even as it’s memorably open to interpretation. Rallia is headed back to Europe, having reconciled with her mother (who turns out to have been Nedjma, not Keltoum). As her bus heads out, she notices other passengers are smiling out the window—where she sees Nedjma running hard, hoping against hope to stay close to her modern daughter.

Charef’s scenarios of underdevelopment allow there are always good people who can’t keep up. Before Rallia catches that bus she exchanges a heavy look with her grandfather who gazes down at her from on top of his blasted hill. He’s going nowhere but he sends her off with love. Thinking of his kind face, I flashed on an anecdote of Richard Hoggart’s:

As my wife and I travelled, a quarter of a century ago, through the man-rejecting mountains of Afghanistan, our illiterate Muslim driver wound down the car window so as to allow a wasp to escape unharmed, saying as it made away: “Go with God…”

Hoggart looked back before 9/11 and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Daughter of Keltoum is a pre-9/11 story too. (Made around 2000, it was first screened a couple days after 9/11.) But Charef was already on the right side of history. His artful response to Reaction in the Middle East reminds me of a passage in the ‘30s correspondence of Erich Auerbach (who’d confront the civilizational challenge of that time by writing his classic exegesis of the humanist tradition, Mimesis, as he lived in exile from Nazi Germany):

The challenge is not to grasp and digest all the evil that’s happening—that’s not too difficult—but much more to find a point of departure for those historical forces that can be set against it. . . To seek for them in myself, to track them down in the world, completely absorbs me.

Daughter of Keltoum seems to reflect Charef’s own search for such a point of departure. Unillusioned about prospects for quick and easy progress, his movie leaves you in a quandary even as it tries to answer the question: How do you bring woman’s liberation and the best of the West to Muhammadan mountains?

There are mountains beyond mountains—those housing projects in France where so many Beurs live (and which Charef knows inside out). This video for “Banlieu,” Karim Kacel’s song on the soundtrack for Tea in The Harem, goes there. It, in turn, sent me on a search for Cheb Mami’s “Douha Alia,” which I first heard in another French movie.[4] Cheb Mami is one of the originators of rai—the rebel music of young Algerians in-country and in the North African diaspora who resisted Algeria’s military dictatorship, Islamism and racism against Maghrebis in France. I’ll never tire of Mami’s song about being tired of love but in my search for it I bumped into something ugly. Mami was convicted in France a few years ago of kidnapping his ex-girlfriend, imprisoning her in a house in Algeria and trying to force her to have an abortion. Misogyny may not be that rare among pop stars, but I’ll allow the news in yesterday’s papers about Cheb Mami didn’t make me think of “Under My Thumb”; it seemed more directly related to that bound woman in Daughter of Keltoum.

I watched Keltoum with my wife on Mother’s Day. Thanks to Charef’s patient, close imagining, it drew her into a Muslim world of love and pain. (Forgive me for underscoring the difference between his approach and that of a cartoonist whose mockery of her religion might put her off.) The opening scenes that culminate in Rallia’s familial embrace with her grandfather had my wife wishing to visit her own beloved elders who raised her in West Africa. But when that home on the hill, with its dry well and benighted neighbors, took on the aspect of a hell-hole, she could handle the truth.

My secular son should have an easier time on this score, though I was worried when he reported most kids in his 6th grade class at his Upper West Side school assumed Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists were blame-worthy. There’s a need to breed an anti-fascist culture on the American left. I’ll try to do my part (without twigging to the atheism of twits) by steering my son to Smoler’s and O’Brien’s defenses of Charlie Hebdo as well as to the art of Beurs like Medhi Charef. These lines from an email by a First reader responding to Smoler’s post might also help teach my son what’s at stake: “a distant relative of mine, young middle aged fellow, two kids, nice wife, was himself shot in [Charlie Hebdo’s] offices and now lies somewhat paralyzed in a hospital, part of a leg missing; shot all over; entirely traumatized; no one knows whether he’ll ever be able to leave the hospital; it was the second time he was caught in Muslim terrorist fire in France; horrible.”

That excruciation makes the Rawls quote that launched this trip seem almost quaint. Rawls was writing before 9/11 when it seemed natural for imperial middle Americans to put mental cruelty first. But, as we all know now, older ways of causing “long-lasting pain” are back with a vengeance.

1 Pope Francis has weighed in as follows: “If my good friend… says a curse word against my mother,” Francis joked, “he can expect a punch. It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.” His common sense has its demotic charm. And it shouldn’t be understood too quickly. Francis might excuse a punch but he wasn’t justifying deliberate terror.

2 Adam Michnic quoted this line of his “master” Kolakowski in the Fall, 2014 issue ofSalmagundi.

3 It seems likely the film’s title is a play on the name of the last century’s greatest Arab diva, Umm Kaltoum, which translates as: Mother of Kaltoum. Umm Kaltoum’s legacy is complex, but her voice is loved throughout the Arab world, though it’s anathema to anti-modern, Salafi extremists.

4 Andre Techine’s Les Voleurs.