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from the November 2021 issue

In “I Was a French Muslim,” a Writer Revisits Internal Tensions of Algeria’s Independence Struggle

Reviewed by Jocelyn Frelier

The strength of Mokhtar Mokhtefi's memoir is in the invitation it offers the reader to experience the personal stakes at the center of all collective struggles.

In the late 1940s, with World War II over, tensions were mounting in the French colony of Algeria. It is during this period that Mokhtar Mokhtefi gains admission to a prestigious French boarding school, Duveyrier, in Blida, Algeria, not far from his home. From the classrooms of this school, he learns about the philosophical and political principles that underpin French governance: liberté, égalité, fraternité. During his weekends at home among his family and friends, he will witness various injustices perpetrated under French colonial rule that undermine those same principles. Mokhtefi’s memoir, I Was a French Muslim: Memories of an Algerian Freedom Fighter, chronicles the formative experience of inhabiting these juxtaposed realities. His detailed account of his first-hand observations of the hypocrisies of French colonialism sheds light on the process by which average Algerian citizens eventually joined together in the struggle for independence.

The book begins with the author’s arrival at a French preparatory school, where he would become the first member of his family to receive an education beyond primary school. Mokhtefi’s writing in this initial section is as much a coming-of-age story as it is the tale of his scholastic endeavors and exposure to Algerian resistance movements. As he learns about the environment that produced him, the young boy also wrestles with feeling like an outsider in a space he does not fully understand. In one particular passage, the boy’s perception of his outsiderness manifests in something as simple as his lack of pajamas:

After going to the shoe storeroom, the dressing room, and the bathroom, I realize that all the Algerians are wearing pajamas, I’m the only one not. When I put on my gandoura, the terrified look of a neighbor, the disdainful look of another, are chilling. All of a sudden I feel like an outsider, an intruder. Mortified, I get under the covers and let the tears flow. I hold it against those boys but also against my father, who refused to buy me pajamas, the article of clothing that would have helped me integrate in this environment. I know that pajamas are worn by people who have “evolved,” that they signal modernity.

Mokhtefi reveals not only the humiliation he felt but also the French perspective he has internalized—that he has not “evolved.” The author’s advanced age at the time he penned the memoir provide a retrospective gaze and the necessary distance for him to reread his own adolescence and ascribe meaning to formative moments like the one above.

Part two (the narrative is divided into three parts) is a granular look at the struggles faced by the average young nationalist at the dawn of war. Titled “Awakening,” this section delivers on its promise to illustrate how Mokhtefi wrestled with and eventually joined up with pro-independence movements. At this stage, the young man spends his time rallying student support for the nationalist cause. He spends his free time debating the contours of revolutionary efforts with friends and colleagues before eventually concluding that the National Liberation Front (FLN) represents the future of his nation, shown in this exchange:

I answer: "The three-step proposal being put forward—'ceasefire, elections, negotiations'—is certainly unacceptable."

"I totally agree with you."

I continue: "Algeria must go forward, like Morocco and Tunisia, with negotiations that recognize our rights to independence."

"The problem is more complex," he notes. "Neither Morocco nor Tunisia have nine hundred thousand Frenchmen on their land. Given the diversity of the population, we could envisage an independent Algeria in association with France."

"Ferhat Abbas suggested that formula ten years ago," I point out, "and as you know, he just joined the FLN in Cairo."

The memoir provides a reminder that the path to independence was uncertain, compelling young nationalists, who shared pro-independence goals but who could not always agree on how to achieve independence or on what governance post-independence should be structured, to work towards finding common ground and compromise. Differences in opinion among nationalists often led to infighting and individuals like Mokhtefi were consistently challenged to reconcile diversity of opinions with their own objectives.

In the third and final part, Mokhtefi succeeds in enlisting and joining the ranks of soldiers who leave their families for the maquis,a group of resistance fighters who would eventually bring about the Algerian Revolution. He learns how to operate telegraph equipment and transcribe Morse code used by freedom fighters, but not without noting how the militants have assembled a mirror image of French military forces:

As much as I am delighted to discover, the morning of my arrival, that the [training] center resembled a small military barracks, this caricature of an exercise taken from the enemy army is grotesque. In order to appear soldierly, Hassani expands his torso, salutes with rapid-fire gestures, and speaks forcefully. Somewhere between the phony tough guy and this corporal who walks and acts embarrassed, the sergeant looks ill at ease.

The remainder of the book follows Mokhtefi’s journey as he throws himself and his energies into the fight for Algerian independence while remaining observant and critical of the choices made by leaders around him. The memoir ends with a final, formative moment in both his own coming-of-age and in Algerian history: the crystallization of independence.

First released in French in 2016, the memoir is far from the first autobiographical narrative to be penned by an Algerian freedom fighter. The strength of this coming-of-age journey, set against the backdrop of the struggle for independence, lies in the invitation it offers the reader to experience the personal stakes at the center of all collective struggles.

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