Book Review | Algiers, Third World capital

Elaine Mokhtefi writes beautifully about her time in the Algerian liberation movement in ‘Algiers: Third World Capital’.

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced on Sunday 10 February that he would run in the country’s forthcoming elections in April. He is 81 years old and confined to a wheelchair since having a stroke in 2013. He is rarely seen in public.

From the palace’s innermost chamber, Bouteflika’s ears remain attuned to the susurrations of the Algerian public. “In response to all pleas and calls … I declare today my candidacy for the presidential elections,” Bouteflika said, confirming his quest for a fifth mandate.

“Of course, I am no longer as physically strong as I was before. I haven’t hidden this one day from our people. However, the firm willpower to serve my country has never left me and will enable me to overcome difficulties related to illness.”

As a Zimbabwean, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Former president Robert Mugabe lorded it over Zimbabwe for a long time. Although not in a wheelchair, he was in an alarming and advanced state of physical and mental decrepitude. So much so that his wife, Grace, declared that if it came to it, she would push Mugabe around in a wheelbarrow for official functions.

In the last years of Mugabe’s rule, before the November 2017 coup, there were all sorts of rumours about his health. He wore disposable nappies, some sneered; he could barely see, said others; while still others speculated that he spent a large part of his working day in bed.

Mugabe’s final years in power were bathetic to witness: his amazing powers of recall were gone, his sharp brain had waned and his gift of repartee had vanished, reducing the man to a kind of zombie intellectual.

Tools of government

In some ways, Elaine Mokhtefi’s just-released memoir, Algiers, Third World Capital: Freedom Fighters, Revolutionaries, Black Panthers (Verso), is trying to answer the question of how the National Liberation Front (FLN), the movement that battled and won against France in Algeria, is intrinsically antidemocratic (when the Islamist Salvation Front was poised to win the 1992 elections, the all-powerful army annulled the election, resulting in a war in which about 250 000 people were killed) and incapable of reform and renewal.

Early on in the memoir, Mokhtefi writes of the slaughter that resulted when Benyoucef Benkhedda, then head of the provisional government, and Colonel Houari Boumediene, then head of the liberation army, struggled for supremacy once the ceasefire with the French was signed in March 1962.

In August, a few months later, Boumediene’s army marched on Algiers. The opposition then was not the French army but “men who had spent years battling the French military”. Ordinary men and women who took to the streets to protest against the continuation of war were shot.

Mokhtefi wryly notes: “These events had a lasting effect on Algeria’s future. Force and heavy-handedness, rather than the ballot box, became the essential tools of government.”


The now ailing president, in power since 1999, was the minister of foreign affairs in former president Ahmed Ben Bella’s first Cabinet. Ben Bella was president from 1962 to June 1965, when he was removed in a coup by Boumediene, then the defence minister and vice-president.

All of this detail is a side narrative to the story of Algiers, Third World Capital, a book in which the main concern is how, on gaining independence in 1962, Algiers became a lodestone for revolutionaries, activists and liberation movements troubled by the plight of “the wretched of the earth” (more about the author of that famous tome later) in their respective lands.

Activists from the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam, South West African People’s Organisation (Swapo), Mozambique Liberation Front (known as Frelimo), People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (popularly known as MPLA) and Zimbabwe African People’s Union (Zapu) soon established offices in Algiers. The country was not only a centre for organised resistance groups; exiles fleeing from Franco’s Spain and Salazar’s Portugal also found refuge there.

That Algiers attracted all these disparate revolutionaries and exiles shouldn’t be a surprise. The Algerian struggle against the French was an update on the biblical face-off between stone-slinger David and iron man Goliath, the Stone Age versus the Iron Age.

The 20th century contest was between a “ragtag army of peasants and barely literate villagers” and “a technologically advanced, well-armed European nation”, the fourth most powerful military establishment in the world. And they couldn’t have faced the mighty French without the support of certain countries in the Middle East, the Third World and the Communist bloc – and “once independence was achieved, no one forgot”.

‘The little Jewish girl’

Mokhtefi was born Elaine Klein to American Jewish parents in 1928, a “few months before the crash”. Prejudice against Jews was prevalent and in one small town in which they lived in Connecticut, she was referred to as “the little Jewish girl”.

Early on, she was already noticing the downtrodden and evincing empathy. “The town practised a form of segregation. Two black families lived in the shacks along the railroad tracks” because no one would rent to them. She was already asking difficult questions and wondering why African Americans were being treated “like creatures outside the human race”.

In 1951, aged 23 and with an already solid reputation as an activist, Mokhtefi boarded a ship in Newport News, Virginia, and headed for Paris.

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An account of how her formative years shaped her activism is included in the memoir as a postscript, as though of no consequence, showing her self-effacing personality.

When Mokhtefi arrived in Paris, the country’s citizens were still smarting from Vichy France’s collaboration with the Nazis and she rarely heard mention of the just-ended war.

Like most people with no direct experience of France, she believed in the country’s mantra of liberté, égalité, fraternité (liberty, equality, fraternity). That was until French police officers shot and killed seven Algerian demonstrators and wounded hundreds others on, of all days, Bastille Day.

“The events I witnessed gave the lie to French egalitarianism: the famous motto liberté, égalité, fraternité was flipped upside down. Colonialism and racism stood out as the two pillars of power and supremacy. I was shocked into reality.”

The struggle begins

Mokhtefi soon became attentive to the plight of North African workers in Paris and its surrounds. What she saw shocked her. “Just outside the city was a ring of bidonvilles, shantytowns constructed from crates, tin, cartons and planks that were home to thousands of migrants.”

On 1 November 1954, just 22 fighters attacked a series of targets in Algeria to begin the struggle. Francois Mitterand, then France’s interior minister and later its president, declared: “Algeria is France … The only negotiation is war.”

About two million French would be involved as soldiers or police officers in a war in which 300 000 to 500 000 people out of a population of nine million are estimated to have been killed. In this war, “torture was systematic”. Waterboarding, broken bottles thrust into the anus and arbitrary arrest was the norm, and summary executions took place.

On gaining independence – in an act reminiscent of what departing Portuguese nationals living in Mozambique did when that country gained its freedom in 1975, wrecking factories and pouring concrete into toilets – the dean and librarian of the University of Algiers set alight 500 000 books in the library “so as not leave them for the FLN”.

Fanon and the fighters

As the war continued, Mokhtefi was back in New York, lobbying the United Nations, the press and diplomats, along with Algerian nationals. They wrote press releases and leaflets, and organised meetings with non-governmental organisations and community groups. “I was integrating into a society whose rules were not those of my native country, nor of the Western countries in which I had lived.”

It was while she was in the United States that Caribbean theorist Frantz Fanon, author of The Wretched of the Earth, arrived in Washington DC, terminally ill with leukaemia.

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Fanon had been working in an Algerian hospital when he made contact with the fighters. He gave them shelter, medical and psychiatric support. When he resigned from his position at the hospital, Fanon wrote an open letter in which he said that “if psychiatry is the medical technique that aims to enable man no longer to be a stranger in his own environment, I affirm that the Arab, permanent alien in his own country, lives in a state of absolute depersonalisation”.

Of interest to poets and writers is Fanon’s mode of writing, which Mokhtefi refers to in passing in Algeria, Third World Capital and to which Fanon’s secretary, Marie-Jeanne Manuellan, was a witness. In her memoir, Sous la dictée de Fanon, Manuellan writes that “Fanon didn’t have any paper in hand. He would walk and ‘speak’ his book as if his thought shot smoothly from his steps, from his body’s rhythm, with very rare interruptions or reprises.”

As American critic Adam Shatz writesA Dying Colonialism and The Wretched of the Earth “originated, in effect, as spoken word performances, with Manuellan the sole member of the audience”.

Activist as translator

When independence was eventually achieved, Mokhtefi moved to Algiers and her facility with French and English proved invaluable whenever English-speaking guests were in town. So when South Africa’s Oliver Tambo or Joshua Nkomo, Zimbabwe’s founding nationalist and the man who should have become Zimbabwe’s first president if history had a heart, or Swapo leader Sam Nujoma were in Algiers, “I was sure to get a call.”

Of all her commitments while living in Algiers, it is Mokhtefi’s involvement with the Black Panther Party that is the most remarkable and dramatic.

When African American activist Stokely Carmichael arrived in Algiers in September 1967, Mokhtefi was by his side to translate his memorable first words on African soil: “Here I am, finally, in the mother country.”

Carmichael, though, was just passing through Algeria. His destination was Guinea, where he would be then president Sékou Touré’s guest and meet and fall in love with South African singer-songwriter Miriam Makeba.

Cleaver’s confession

Mokhtefi’s relationship with the Black Panthers was her most enduring while in Algeria. One night in June 1967, Zapu’s representative in the country, Charles Chikerema, a cousin of Mugabe’s, called Mokhtefi: “Eldridge Cleaver is in town and needs help. Go and see him!”

Cleaver, author of the bestselling confessional Soul on Ice, was the minister of information of the Black Panthers Party. He had been caught up in a shootout in which fellow Panther Bobby Hutton and three police officers had been wounded, and been charged with attempted murder. He fled to Cuba via Canada and, from Havana, crossed the Atlantic headed for Algeria after falling out with his Cuban hosts.

Following this initial contact with Cleaver, Mokhtefi was in contact with him “almost daily”. She often left the keys to her car and apartment in Cleaver’s hands. It was in Mokhtefi’s flat where Cleaver met his lovers. (Cleaver “had no qualms about sex: every woman he desired was a legitimate quarry. He didn’t hesitate with the women of his best friends and closest allies, essential collaborators, whatever the consequences.”)

Then one day Cleaver came to Mokhtefi’s office, drew up a chair and sat to the side of her desk. “I have something to tell you. Something happened last night. I killed Rahim last night.”

Rahim’s government name (as they would say in Jamaica) was Clinton Smith, a Black Panther who had come to live in Algiers in rather dramatic fashion. Together with a co-conspirator, he escaped from prison, hijacked a plane and flew to Algeria via Cuba. Rahim had been buried in a shallow grave on a hill in Pointe Pescade, just outside of Algiers.

It was as she tried to make sense of Cleaver’s confession that she heard from a friend that Rahim and Kathleen Cleaver had been seen in a nightclub, “dancing cheek to cheek and ‘smooching’”, while Cleaver was away.

Mokhtefi writes: “It took me some time to get used to being party to Cleaver’s crime. I have often asked myself what could I have done. Turned him in? To whom? The Algerian police, the American embassy? No way.”

No haven of lawlessness

The Algerian authorities must have known about this, but appear to have decided to look the other way. Of course, this didn’t mean the Algerian authorities wanted their country to be a haven of lawlessness.

In June 1972, hijackers took control of a plane with 78 passengers on it in Los Angeles. From there, the plane flew to Seattle and then San Francisco, where a jet able to cross the Atlantic was prepared. Not only had they managed to organise a plane capable of crossing the Atlantic but also $500 000 in ransom cash.

As the hijackers had spoken of the Panthers, Algerian authorities asked Cleaver, Mokhtefi (to translate) and two others to be at the airport. When the hijackers landed, the Algerian authorities took the bags of money and returned them to the airline. Another plane landed in Algeria a couple of months later – this time, the hijackers had $1 million in ransom – and the Algerian government again returned the money to the airline.

“While Algeria was avowedly Third World and an outspoken critic of the colonialist and imperialist West, it was in no way a ‘rogue’ state. The authorities wanted it to be known that anyone entertaining thoughts of skyjack aimed at their country should understand that the Algerian government was not their accomplice,” writes Mokhtefi.

American interests

The Panthers’ relationship with Algeria reveals the difficulty in bridging the vast chasm that developed during the period in which African slaves captured from the continent settled in the Americas. In Algeria, the Black Panthers never explored the land outside the capital, “didn’t read the press or listen to the local radio”, “knew few Algerians and never visited Algerian homes”. Their preoccupation with Algerian policy was limited only to American interests in the country.

Just like most romantic notions of African liberation movements, Mokhtefi’s involvement with Algeria ended in heartbreak.

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When she turned down a request from the military police to spy on her friend Zohra Sellami – who in marrying the deposed Ben Bella, then in prison, had spurned the advances of Boumediene – Mokhtefi became a target for deportation, which duly happened in 1972.

Until her memoir went to press, Mokhtefi was a prohibited immigrant. She was barred from entering Algeria for 44 years.

As her Algerian husband Mokhtar Mokhtefi wrote at the time of her deportation, as the two were settling back in Paris: “My last illusions are gone. Exile remains the ultimate solution when mediocrity and feudalism triumph and return as our judges.”

Revolutionary causes

In the end, the memoir is really about Mokhtefi’s time in the Algerian liberation movement and her involvement with the Panthers.

Southern Africans who were hoping to see activists from Zapu, MPLA and the ANC play starring roles in Algiers are going to be disappointed.

Still, Algiers, Third World Capital is at times a moving record of those fabled times in Algiers and a beautifully written account full of fascinating anecdotes of a life totally given to revolutionary causes.

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