Arab Victims

Kamel Daoud. The Mersault Investigation. Translated by John Cullen. New York: Other Press, 2015.

“Today’s Friday. It’s the day closest to death in my calendar. People dress ridiculously, they stroll through the streets at noon still wearing pajamas, practically, shuffling around in slippers as though Friday exempts them from the demands of civility. In our country, religious faith encourages laziness in private matters and authorizes spectacular negligence every Friday. … Friday? It’s not a day when God rested, it’s a day when he decided to run away and never come back. I know this from the hollow sound that persists after the men’s prayer, and from their faces pressed against the window of supplication.”

gunDeath, especially the unfair, meaningless, and nameless death that comes in the wake of imperialism and war, leaves people beyond belief. It is one thing for the white man to find God merciful as he agonizes over how much aid to send and how many refugees should be allowed to cross his borders; it is quite another for the man whose son washes up on the beaches of the Mediterranean. “What would I do if I had an appointment with God and on the way I met a man who needed help fixing his car?” Asks Kamel Daoud, the author of The Mersault Investigation (2015). “I don’t know. I’m the fellow whose vehicle broke down, not the driver looking for the way to sainthood.” Daoud’s novel is not a treatise on religion, but a response to another novel by one of France’s most revered atheists: Albert Camus (1913-1960). In Camus’ famous novel L’Étranger (The Other, 1942), the hero, Meursault, shoots an Arab while walking on the beach with his friends. Meursault says that he shot him because he was hot, “the sun was starting to burn my cheeks,” and he pulled the trigger, embracing his absurd fate without even thinking.

lecc81tranger-de-visconti-1Mersault is the only character who matters in Camus’ novel. His victim is referred to as “the Arab” twenty-five times, as Daoud tells us repeatedly. “He’s the second most important character in the book, but he has no name, no face, no words.” The Meursault Investigation starts to rectify that. “He was Musa to us,” Daoud writes, “his family, his neighbors, but it was enough for him to venture a few meters into the French part of the city a single glance from one of them was enough, to make him lose everything, starting with his name, which went floating off into some blind spot in the landscape.” If killing the Arab was a meaningless action for Meursault, it was not so for Musa’s family. Daoud’s narrator spends the novel trying to come to terms with his brother’s death, and the tragedy shapes his entire life, overwhelming his whole identity in a way that can only be overcome by murder and alcoholism. Encountering the violence of the French occupation takes Musa’s individuality away from him. “I never felt Arab, you know,” says Daoud, “Arab-ness is like Negro-ness, which only exists in the white man’s eyes. In our neighborhood, in our world, we were Muslims, we had given names, faces, and habits. Period. The others were “the strangers,” the roumis God brought here to put us to the test, but whose days were numbered anyway: One day or another, they would leave.”

ALGERIE 'Oran VUE la radieuseThe Arab victim doesn’t matter for Camus, but he matters extraordinarily to Daoud, whose whole country’s history is indelibly marked by French colonialism. Sitting in prison after his trial, Meursault commented that “I had only a little time left and I didn’t want to waste it on God.” Camus rejects God as an individual living in an absurd world, but belief is torn from Daoud’s narrator by the meaningless of his country’s destruction and his inability to move beyond his own victimhood: “I’ve loathed Fridays ever since Independence, I think. Am I a believer? I’ve dealt with the heaven question by recognizing the obvious: I realized very young that among all those who nattered on about my condition, whether angels, gods, devils, or books, I was the only one who knew the sorrow and obligation of death, work, and sickness.” Musa floats out to sea (in Daoud’s telling), and it is from the sea that the French come and desecrate Algeria. “This is a city with its legs spread open toward the sea,” Daoud writes. “Take a look at the old port when you walk down toward the old neighborhoods in Sidi El Houari, over on the Calère des Espagnols side. It’s like an old whore, nostalgic and chatty.” Daoud’s Algiers is an ironic, schizophrenic shadow of its former self; full of bars inhabited by empty old men and strict laws prohibiting more and more bars from selling alcohol until the whole city ends up crammed into the only establishment left open.

MainsThe jury in Camus’ novel ultimately condemns Meursault because he doesn’t seem to care that his mother dies. Musa’s mother, on the other hand, dominates Daoud’s entire book: “Among us, the mother makes up half the world.” She dominates her younger son in her grief, almost blaming him for Musa’s death and forcing him to grow up in the shadow of his brother’s ghost. Whereas Meursault does not love Marie (or his mother) because he is empty, women flee from Daoud’s narrator because they sense that he “is another woman’s son.” Musa’s murder destroys his family completely. They are far from innocent – they occupy a French family’s house, and Daoud admits that Musa was violent, thoughtless, and a bad son – but they are not suffering for their own shortcomings; they are suffering because they have been marked as Others by Camus and therefore as individually insignificant. The challenge that Kamel Daoud presents us with in The Meursault Investigation is to refuse to classify people according to race, gender, or creed, and to encounter them as they are in their full personhood. As Martin Buber put it so beautifully, “Man wishes to be confirmed in his being by man, and wishes to have a presence in the being of the other…Secretly and bashfully he watches for a YES which allows him to be and which can come to him only from one human person to another.”

5 thoughts on “Arab Victims

      • Sorry, I slipped into jargon there. I think that a reading that places both novels together, and finds them as mutually illuminating, but without either side gaining the ultimate ‘upper hand’ in a one-sided sense, might be very useful and instructive. Neither:
        A. A weak or woolly compromise between the implications of the two novels.
        B. One novel finally vanquishing or conquering the other.

  1. The book is still too new, but what I’d really like to see from someone who has the time and proper training is a discussion of how Daoud’s postcolonial critique modifies Camus’ existentialism. To what extent does French existentialism work in a postcolonial setting and to what extent are its presuppositions too firmly grounded in a Western, imperialist modernity? And to be (negatively) dialectical, if we must clarify or abandon Camus’ existentialism in Algeria, to what extent has Daoud offered a useful alternative that goes beyond negating Camus?

  2. You are right, that is a great idea. I have seen critiques of (for example) forms of feminist or LGBT critique that are said to be ethnocentric, but there are a lot of other frameworks and philosophies that possibly may not yet have been critiqued in detail in a similar manner.

    So it would be interesting to see how people have done this for Camus and other ‘existentialist’ thinkers (although I acknowledge ‘existentialist’ is a vague term). And then there is Sartre too… I am sure that because he was a critic of colonialism, it doesn’t make him free of his own prejudices.

    It would be interesting to see whether Sartre or other critics in Europe might have seen in colonised countries a ‘supplement’ for the deficiencies (real or imagined) of Europe. That, of course, is also a potentially insulting perspective.

    Another point: you mention the question of the potential implications of an encounter between Camus and Daoud’s work. I wonder how far the ‘value’ or ‘use’ of such a clarification might be contingent to particular contexts and identities, and how there might be some kind of highly qualified ‘universality’ (given that ‘universal’ and ‘particular’ are very controversial notions anyway). Perhaps the ideas you have mentioned and that I have mentioned will set someone thinking about it. Perhaps there is a good PhD thesis in there for someone!

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