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What Camus Understood About the Middle East

Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Albert Camus’ Algerian Chronicles have never been presented, until now, in a full English translation, and this is a pity. The Chronicles contain his articles on Algerian themes for the French and Algerian press beginning in 1939 and continuing until he brought out the book in 1958, at a moment when the Algerian War had reached its halfway point. He made a number of arguments in the course of the collected articles, and some of those arguments are well known in English even without having benefited from a complete translation. These are his positions on torture (he was opposed), terrorism (likewise), and the duty of intellectuals (they ought to keep their cool). One of his arguments has been pretty much forgotten, though—and this additional argument ought to strike us as curious and thought-provoking and, given the circumstances of our own moment, more than a little insightful.

His own evaluation of Algerian Chronicles was modest. In his preface in 1958, he explained that a principal reason to collect the articles was merely to defend his reputation against his detractors. “If you write a hundred articles, all that remains of them is the distorted interpretation imposed by your adversaries. A book may not avoid every possible misinterpretation, but at least it makes certain kinds of misunderstandings impossible.” Nor did he gaze back on his Algerian journalism with any kind of satisfaction. Whatever he had hoped to achieve had not been achieved. “This book is among other things the history of a failure.” Only, what exactly had been the failure? His dashed hopes—what did they add up to? This is what hardly anyone remembers today, or, more precisely, what everyone remembers only in the distorted versions imposed by his adversaries.

Algeria in the mid-twentieth century consisted, in Camus’ sometimes variable figures, of some nine million people, of whom eight million were conventionally described as Arabs—meaning, a mixture of Arabs and Kabyles, who are Berbers. The other million or million-plus were people denoted as French, which tended to include a number of Spaniards, too, together with a scattering of other Europeans. There were Turks and also Jews, who were caught, as he explained, between the old-fashioned French anti-Semitism and Arab mistrust. In Camus’ interpretation, all of these people counted as indigenous Algerians, the million-plus French Algerians no less than the eight million Arabs. It is true that, here and there in his journalism, his language lapses into a more conventional terminology, with the Arabs labeled as “indigenous” or “natives,” and the French as “settlers,” not to mention as “colonists,” by which he meant settlers who were also exploiters. Mostly he insisted on his own vocabulary, though, which decreed that French Algerians and Arab Algerians were, in both cases, “indigenous” populations—separate communities uneasily inhabiting together the same Algeria.

Illustration by Kuin Heuff

He knew that, to a great many of his readers in France, whose knowledge of Algerian affairs seemed to him laughable, the French Algerians appeared to be singularly unattractive. “If you read certain newspapers, you get the impression that Algeria is a land of a million whip-wielding, cigar-chomping colonists driving around in Cadillacs.” But, on the contrary, an overwhelming majority of French Algerians, 80 percent of them, were workers and small-businessmen. They were people who enjoyed a standard of living superior to that of their Arab neighbors, but inferior to that of ordinary workers in France—humble people, significantly poorer than Camus’ left-wing critics in France, the haughty intellectuals. They were different from the French populations in Tunisia and Morocco. The French populations in those other countries were relatively new, and none too numerous. But the French Algerians were an old and well-established community, with roots tracing back into the mid-nineteenth century. And, after many a generation in Algeria, those roots had mingled in the Algerian soil and the people themselves had sprouted, as it were, leafy cultural traits of their own.

Camus was an entirely humble French Algerian himself, Spanish on his mother’s side, which meant humbler yet. Every stage of his schooling had taken place in Algeria, unto the University of Algiers, where (although he does not make this point) his thesis topic was itself Algerian. This was a study of neo-Platonism and Augustine of Hippo, which was the town known in Camus’ time, in French, as Bône, and is known today, in Arabic, as Annaba—and happened to be, under any name, next door to Camus’ earliest home. He judged the French Algerians to be indigenous because he knew himself to be indigenous, not merely because of his postal address. He believed in the existence of a Mediterranean culture not confined to any particular nationality, nor to any nationalism, except “the nationalism of sunshine” (as spelled out in a still earlier article from 1937, included in the new edition); and this culture, fragrant and balmy, was his own.

The editor of the new edition is Alice Kaplan, a well-known scholar of French intellectual life, and she remarks in her introduction—inaccurately, I think—that only once in his writings does Camus suggest a familiarity with Arabic. I notice that, on the contrary, he describes conversations in the course of his journalism with one and another person who is extremely poor—an impoverished child, a suffering peasant, etc.—and I find it hard to suppose that any of those conversations took place in French. Conceivably Berber could have been the language, if Camus knew Berber. Or he could have made use of interpreters, though he leaves them unmentioned. In any case, Camus wanted his readers to appreciate that he was at ease with the poorest of non-French Algerians, and that Algeria, its French and Arab sides, was, for him, a question of “us.”

He never doubted that, in the twentieth century, the old nineteenth-century imperial grotesqueries of metropolitan domination and colonial subordination were destined to disappear. This did not fill him with regret. He was a man of the left. He had been a communist for a while in the mid-1930s who went on to become a free-floating “liberal” of the left (although “liberal,” his own word, is an unusual term on the modern French left), hostile to the Soviet Union, nostalgic for the old anarchists, and sympathetic to the Scandinavian social democracies. Some of his earliest articles on Algerian themes, for Alger républicain, presented an indignant portrait of destitution among the Kabyles. Alger républicain was an anti-colonialist newspaper, and social protest on behalf of the Algerian poor was Camus’ starting point. Among the French writers, not too many people in those days, back in the 1930s, appeared to care one way or another about Algeria and its poverty. You could read about the erotic and exotic dream-life of André Gide, but not about injustice. Camus was a pioneer.

Kaplan, the editor, tells us that Camus’ social-protest journalism got him in trouble, too. He was blacklisted by the French government and was obliged to leave Algeria for a while in search of work. “For the rest of his life,” Kaplan remarks, “he believed he had risked everything for his anti-colonial activism”—although if you knew about Camus only from the accusations against him, you might assume otherwise. As to what France should have done about Algeria, or what the French Algerians and Arab Algerians should have done, he was fairly consistent. He recalled that, in the 1930s, the Socialist politicians in France came up with a practical proposal to incorporate Algeria into metropolitan France, beginning with a reform to grant full French citizenship rights to at least a portion of the Arab Algerians. Only, the Socialists were unable to pass even this very modest reform, and, after a while, the time for modest reforms was gone.

In the immediate post–World War period, one of the Arab French-language newspapers, Égalité, came out in favor of an independent Algeria that was going to remain tied to France in some kind of federation. Camus liked the proposal, and he applauded the practical and constructive spirit of the people around the newspaper. This idea, too, failed to prosper. He demanded that metropolitan France offer massive reparations to the exploited Algerians. The demand never caught on. Mostly he wanted to ensure that, whatever might be the shape of a future independent Algeria, there should be a provision to alleviate Algerian poverty. And there should be room for the French Algerian minority to subsist side by side with the Arab majority. “The freedoms of two groups of people must be guaranteed.” Even in 1958, he dreamed a little wistfully of an independent Algeria consisting of federated communities, linked, as the people at Égalité had wanted, in some fashion to France. He wondered about a Swiss-style cantonal system, perhaps with a provision for Muslims to live under Islamic law (although I do not think that he had in mind a full-scale fundamentalist sharia). But the war for Algerian independence had already taken a direction that was not conducive to federal arrangements.

The Arab nationalist combatants of the National Liberation Front, or FLN, declined to make any distinction between the French Army, the French government, and the ordinary French Algerian civilians. And the FLN made war against all of them. The two communities, Arab Algerian and French Algerian, ended up in opposite corners, even if a good many Arab Algerians fought on the French side. Terrorism on the part of the FLN—bombs tossed into crowds of random French Algerians—together with the French army’s policy of torture and other atrocities made each community odious to the other. Camus tried to talk reason to both sides, because he wanted everyone to recognize that ultimately the war was not just a struggle for independence. It was also a civil war. Wars of independence need to be resolved by getting the two parties to go their separate ways. Civil wars need to be resolved by achieving a reconciliation. He condemned Arab terrorism, and condemned French torture, on grounds of principle but also because, pragmatically speaking, terror and torture make reconciliation impossible.

The great achievement in Camus’ Algerian journalism from a literary standpoint was to strike a warm and affectionate tone and to remain faithful to it almost as an act of defiance, even as the two communities sank into ever deeper mutual ugliness. An Algerian Arab with socialist affiliations named Aziz Kessous brought out a newspaper in 1955 called Communauté algérienne, devoted to principles like Camus’, and Camus contributed an open letter to Kessous for the first issue. The tone is moving:

So now we find ourselves pitted against one another, with each side determined to inflict as much pain as possible on the other, inexpiably. This thought is unbearable to me, and it poisons my days. And yet you and I, who are so alike, who share the same culture and the same hopes, who have been brothers for so long, joined in the love we both feel for our country, know that we are not enemies. We know that we could live happily together on this land, which is our land—because it is ours, and because I can no more imagine it without you and your brothers than you can separate it from me and my kind.

Camus understood all too well how hopeless this sort of plea was bound to seem. To Kessous he continued:

But I know from experience that to say these things today is to venture into a no-man’s land between hostile enemies. It is to preach the folly of war as bullets fly. Bloodshed may sometimes lead to progress, but more often brings only greater barbarity and misery. He who pours his heart into such a plea can expect only laughter and the din of the battlefield in reply. And yet someone must say these things, and since you propose to try, I cannot let you take such an insane and necessary step without standing with you in fraternal solidarity.

He specified the mutual obligations, beginning with his own side, the French:

The escalation must stop, and it is our duty as Arabs and Frenchmen who refuse to let go of one another’s hands to stop it. We Frenchmen must fight to stop collective repression and to ensure that French law remains generous and clear. We must fight to remind our compatriots of their errors and of the obligations of a great nation, which cannot respond to a xenophobic massacre with a similar paroxysm of rage if it wishes to retain its stature in the world. And we must fight, finally, to hasten the adoption of necessary and crucial reforms, which will once more set the Franco-Arab community of Algeria on the road to the future.

This is what his critics and detractors could never understand. The mere concept of a Franco-Arab community was, in their eyes, a delusion or perhaps an imposture. The operating assumptions on the part of Camus’ critics and detractors descended from the categories of analysis of nineteenth-century European imperialism, which designated some people as colonists and others as natives, depending on where their ancestors had lived. From that standpoint, you could favor the French Algerians if you happened to look upon French imperialism as a good thing. But you could not regard the French Algerians as indigenous. To anyone who accepted the imperialist categories, Camus’ attempt to draw a distinction between the well-rooted French Algerians and the not-so-well-rooted French in Tunisia and Morocco could only seem like sophistry. Colonial occupations did not cease to be colonial occupations just because they endured generation after generation and involved large populations. Quite the opposite! Longer and larger meant worse. In the eyes of his critics, Camus had composed this sophistical journalism of his in the hope of brokering a wholly contemptible compromise between imperialism and anti-imperialism, which is to say, between wrong and right, for reasons that no one could mistake as justice. The argument against him was not gentle.

Camus’ most famous statement on Algerian matters—the one mini-argument that everyone does remember—was a commentary about terrorism and his mother. The remark is typically recalled with apocryphal crispness, but Alice Kaplan and Arthur Goldhammer, the skillful and disciplined translator, have added to Algerian Chronicles an interesting appendix, drawing on the Pléiade edition and other sources, of additional articles, statements, and even private letters from Camus to the president of France requesting mercy for various imprisoned Algerian Arabs; and in the appendix, they have given us the famous remark in its fact-checked version. Camus went to Stockholm in 1957 to receive the Nobel Prize, and while he was there, he participated in a student discussion, where he was stridently and rudely challenged by a young Algerian supporter of the FLN. A correspondent for Le Monde reported on the discussion, but in doing so he sharpened Camus’ famous comment about his mother and excised the nuance (and Kaplan in her introduction, although not in the appendix, compounds the confusion by transposing the scene of Camus’ remark from the student discussion to a press conference).

A French soldier in Algiers, June 1957.

What Camus actually said, in any case, was sharp enough. He told the students: “People are now planting bombs in the tramways of Algiers. My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.” Three days after the press conference, Camus sent a letter to Le Monde clarifying his view—and this letter, too, appears in the appendix of this volume. He wrote: “I would also like to say, in regard to the young Algerian who questioned me, that I feel closer to him than to many French people who speak about Algeria without knowing. He knew what he was talking about, and his face reflected not hatred but despair and unhappiness. I share that unhappiness.” He offered still another clarification in 1958 in the preface to Algerian Chronicles: “When one’s family is in immediate danger of death, one might wish that it were a more generous and just family and even feel obliged to make it so, as this book will attest, and yet (make no mistake!) remain in solidarity against the mortal threat, so that the family might at least survive and therefore preserve its opportunity to become more just.”

But the point was always the same. The remark about his mother introduced a note of human reality into an angry and ideological discussion, and this was one reason it became famous. But it became famous also because the remark allowed Camus’ critics to dismiss his larger views on the Algerian situation, almost as if, by introducing his mother into the discussion, he had recused himself from making any kind of moral or political judgments at all. Recusal was taken to be his position. He and Sartre had already fallen out with one another over their respective views of the Soviet Union, and in the course of the 1950s, the two of them came to represent diametrically opposite positions on Algerian matters as well. Sartre made a clear choice in favor of the FLN and the Arab revolution, an anti-imperialist choice—though he somewhat smudged (in some people’s estimation) the attractive luster of his clarity by coming out in favor of terrorism. Sartre’s position offered clarity without nuance. Camus, by contrast, appeared to have opted out of taking a stand—though he ennobled his abstention by invoking the superior claims of filial loyalty, a touch of decency. Here was nuance without clarity. Sartre seemed hardheaded, though cruel; and Camus, soggy. “Vaguely humanitarian,” as Sartre’s magazine once said of him—a sneering dismissal. Albert Memmi took the position that Camus had failed to run the risk of a proper intellectual, which is the risk of being denounced as a traitor by his own people.

These judgments have settled into the loam of conventional wisdom. Something of the conventional wisdom may even linger in Kaplan’s introduction to her edition of Algerian Chronicles, where she takes the occasion, as if performing an intellectual obligation, to extol the anti-colonial writings of Sartre and Memmi, which Camus might not have appreciated. We might wonder about the conventional wisdom, though. The categories “imperialists” and “natives” are useful for making sense of many a difficult situation around the world, but is it really so hard to imagine instances in which the simple categories are simple to a fault? Camus’ argument about a “Mediterranean culture” that includes Arabs and French Algerians both, not to mention Genoans and Greeks and Turks and so forth—is such an argument really so absurd? The Egyptian writer Taha Hussein, who was the minister of education in Egypt for a while, made a similar argument from an Egyptian nationalist standpoint. Tides wash up and down the Mediterranean Sea, and so do populations, and this has been the reality since Day One. Hellenes, Phoenicians, Jews, Romans, Arabs—everybody has had his moment to lap up on the North African shore, and some peoples, like sea shells, have remained stuck in the sand, which does not make them foreign objects.

If you could interrogate the Roman ruins in Algeria, they would surely declare themselves to be authentically Algerian, even if the stonemasons came from Italy and the original designs from Greece; and this was true of the Camus family as well, even if the Camus family tree reached back into France and Spain. To be sure, you could offer a similar trans-Mediterranean brief on behalf of the Arab and Muslim populations in Europe today—immigrants and the spawn of immigrants who have every right to invoke ancient European precedents and long-ago Arab histories in demonstration of their own hyphenated European identity. It may be that, in matters of demography, fluidity is reality, and purity is fantasy.

Camus’ view of the French Algerians allowed him to make an observation about the Arab nationalists that somehow escaped and still escapes his critics and detractors. In the eyes of the anti-colonial dogmatists, the FLN expressed a political and geographical truth, which was the legitimate desire of indigenous people to govern themselves. This was a great truth, but, in the eyes of the dogmatists, the great truth dwarfed any conceivable doubts or worries about the revolutionary cause that somebody might reasonably entertain. Camus entertained doubts and worries, even so. In the nationalist ranks, he saw people whom he respected, but also he noticed an aspiration for a new imperialism in place of the old imperialism of the French. The new imperialism was, in his phrase, an “Islamic empire,” and its inspiration came from Cairo. This meant the revolutionary Arabist doctrines of Gamal al-Nasser, the Egyptian dictator—though Camus surely had in mind the broader revolutionary ideology that was also upheld, in slightly different ways, by the FLN, the Baathists, and various other people who, like Nasser in the course of the 1950s, tilted their nationalist and Islamic doctrines ever more closely to the Soviet Union, which was advancing its own new imperialism.

The revolutionary parties in the mid-twentieth century dreamed of purifying society by eliminating entire social classes, either through expulsion or extermination, and this was precisely a Soviet concept, even a Soviet invention, although widely adaptable. Nasser in Egypt was keen on expulsions. Under his nationalist revolution, the city of Alexandria gradually lost its Europeans as well as, by decree, its Jews—ancient populations in Egypt, who did not owe their existence to the European empires of the previous century or two. Arabist doctrine deemed the non-Arab populations to be nonetheless incompatible with the revolutionary goal. Camus observed that, by the 1950s, the Jews of Algeria were likewise beginning to flee. The gigantic exodus of the French Algerians, the pieds-noirs, took place only later, after his death. But the logic of expulsion was already evident. It goes without saying that during the last few years we have been witnessing still another phase of mass expulsions, namely, the flight of Arab Christians from many places across the region—in their case, fleeing not from the nationalist wing of the “Islamic Empire” that Camus feared but from its overtly religious wing, the fanatical Islamists.

It is an odd fact that mass expulsions tend, more often than not, to be invisible, except to the victims; and this appears to be especially so with the Arab Christians today. Their flight has been, in the eyes of the world, singularly hard to detect—not exactly invisible, but not a topic of general concern, either. Why is that? Camus’ Algerian journalism, seen in a proper light, offers an explanation, and this has to do with the “failure” that he acknowledges in his preface. The failure—his own failure—was an inability to talk his readers into acknowledging the dogmatic quality that had invaded the anti-colonialist doctrine. His adversaries and detractors accepted the dogma. And, by accepting it, they ended up blinding themselves to enormous tragedies. They gazed at a new imperial politics of purity and mass expulsion; and they saw, instead, merely a politics of self-government.

In our own time, the one example of ethnic or religious expulsion in the broader region that does manage to attract the attention of the world has been the case of the Palestinians. But this example has come to figure so prominently in the conscience of the world chiefly because the fate of the Palestinians can be presented, satisfactorily in some people’s eyes, although not in everyone’s, as still another crime of the imperialist powers. And then the prominence of the Palestinian tragedy in world opinion, by appearing to reinforce the anti-colonialist dogma, has served only to occlude, with the willing complicity of entire regiments of observers and commentators, the many other and sometimes larger and continuing expulsions and mass flights. The visibility of the one tragedy has contributed to the invisibility of the others. And the multiple tragedies across the region have finally cast a shadow over the supposedly victorious populations, who, in chasing away their neighbors, have managed only to impoverish their own lives and culture—as Camus predicted in 1958.

Camus died in a car crash in 1960, two years after the publication of Algerian Chronicles, and this, his untimely death, is still another misfortune for us today. He was not someone to waste energies on half-finished enterprises. It is easy to imagine that, if only he had lived through the next decades—he was two years younger than Ronald Reagan and might have remained active and alert a long time—he could well have returned to his theme in order to elaborate additional observations about what happened next in Algeria and elsewhere in the region. It goes without saying that any additional rueful commentaries from Camus would have been shouted down, just as happened to his Algerian journalism—and in the case of Algerian Chronicles, shouted down with sufficient gusto to keep the Chronicles from being translated in a complete version until right now.

Everything has its moment, though. We are living just now through an ideological collapse of every one of the old revolutionary movements in the Arab world—a collapse that began with the pan-Arabist dictatorships and has now begun to overtake the hitherto triumphant Islamist revolutionaries. A giant broom is sweeping across the region, and someday the giant broom will gather up the old simplifying dogmas of the anti-colonialist doctrine among the Western and Middle Eastern intellectuals as well. Then Camus’ moment will arrive. Alice Kaplan shrewdly reminds us in her introduction that Algerian literature has never been able to reject Camus entirely. Sooner or later he will be admitted into the pantheon of North African writers. He has halfway been admitted already, although not officially. A recent novel by the Algerian writer Boualem Sansal, called Rue Darwin, makes a fulsome bow in Camus’ direction—and Rue Darwin did win the Arab Novel Prize in 2012, even if the Arab ambassadors found Sansal an embarrassment and declined to give him his prize money. What will it mean when Camus is someday officially recognized, and not just by his rebellious fellow-writers, as one of Algeria’s greatest sons? That day will come, and the recognition will be proof that his concept of French Algerians as authentic Algerians was on the mark all along, and the implications in regard to anti-colonialist dogma will take a hundred years to untangle.

Paul Berman is a senior editor at The New Republic and was the Anschutz Distinguished Fellow in American Studies at Princeton University in spring 2013.