Algerian author sparks uproar with Israel visit

Boualem Sansal at Jerusalem writers festival: "What are we boycotting? This is a country with a flag."

Boualem Sansal_370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Boualem Sansal_370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
An Algerian author participated in a literary festival in Jerusalem this week, defying censure at home and across the Arab world for visiting Israel.
Boualem Sansal shared a panel discussion on Wednesday with Daniel Ben-Simon, a Moroccan-born Labor MK, at the third International Writers Festival at Mishkenot Sha’ananim.
The festival, which ends on Friday, brings together writers from 12 countries to meet with their Israeli colleagues.
On Tuesday, Sansal participated in a public reading at Jerusalem’s iconic Tmol Shilshom cafe with writers from the Netherlands and Hungary.
“When I accepted this invitation I became the target of condemnation, but I decided to come because it was important,” Sansal, sporting a ponytail and dressed casually in jeans, told Wednesday’s panel. “I talked with my wife and she said I’d have problems. But to me it was important to come to Israel to prove my autonomy from the government. So my wife said, ‘Great – go for it.’”
Sansal, 62, was raised in a Berber mountain village 200 km. southwest of the capital, Algiers. His résumé is that of a renaissance man: a certified engineer with a doctorate in economics, he began writing novels at age 50 after a long career in government.
Wednesday’s discussion – held in French with simultaneous Hebrew translation – ranged from politics to history and art.
“I discovered Israeli literature in 1988, but only as the literature of Mr. X or Y, who happened to be Israeli. I went to a literary salon in Paris, and when I got there I was told there were Israeli authors there. Then too there was a big uproar,” the author recalled.
Turning to Ben-Simon, he said, “It began with you guys in Morocco, and was then followed by the Tunisians, Iraqis and the Arabs living in America.
“I said, ‘What are we boycotting? This is a country with a flag that flies in the institutions of the international community,’” he recalled.
Today the novelist is a vociferous critic of Algeria’s authoritarian government as well as the country’s Islamic extremists, and since 2006 his books – all of them written in French – have been banned. (Sansal was introduced at the following year’s International Literature Festival Berlin as a writer “exiled in his own country.”)
In a speech opening the festival on Sunday evening, Uri Dromi, the director-general of Mishkenot Sha’ananim, applauded Sansal, and other writers who defied pressure to visit Israel.
“Some of our friends from abroad confronted some, how shall I say, unfriendly criticism,” he said.
In 2008 Sansal published his fifth novel, the first to be translated into English (it was published in the US as The German Mujahid and in the UK as An Unfinished Business).
The book tells the story of two Algerian brothers who discover their father had been a Nazi SS officer who had fled to North Africa after World War II. It also explores the links between Nazism and Islamism, two movements the author sees as sharing totalitarian visions.
“There is the concept of conquering – the conquering of souls, but also of territories. And there is the idea of extermination – the extermination of all those who do not submit to the ideology of Islamism,” he told the Muslim-oriented German website Qantara in 2009. “I certainly do see parallels, and I believe we have to analyze National Socialism if we are to keep Islamism in check.”
On Wednesday, Sansal, a staunch secularist, reiterated his warnings about the rising tide of Islamism in the wake of the Arab revolts.
“I feel we’re in the 1930s in the last century – then, no one responded properly. Today Islamism is becoming fascism,” he said. “If there’s no democracy, people will look for religion to be their parliament, their government and so forth. There’s a lot of work to be done.”
“Let’s not delude ourselves that this will take 10 or 15 years – this will be very difficult work,” he added.
Sansal said reactions in Algeria to his Israel visit were mixed.
“On my website it was 50/50 – half said they should do to me what they did to Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. The other half said it’s great, that it’s wonderful and we can learn from Israel’s experiences.”
In the wider Arab world, reactions to Sansal’s visit were overwhelmingly negative.
“This Orientalist tendency to meet ‘locals’ as colonialist subjects for show, through colonialist mediators, should be condemned and strictly boycotted,” the General Union of Palestinian Writers said. “They have to choose whether to stand by occupation or freedom. There is no place in between.”
Hamas blasted the author’s visit as a “crime against the 1.5 million Algerian martyrs who sacrificed their lives for freedom under the French occupation,” and said he was legitimizing “crimes perpetrated against the Palestinian people.”
Writing in the leftist pro- Hezbollah daily Al-Akhbar, Lebanese columnist Najwan Darwish described Sansal as Israel’s “token Arab.”
“Salsal will be a ‘guest of honor’... at Zionist festivities on the 64th anniversary of the occupation of Palestine – centered around Israel’s ‘Declaration of Independence!’” she wrote.
“Worn-out cliches about dialogue and peace do not fool even the idiots,” she added.
“The game is open. The colonialist fascist regime is aiming to clean its hands of the blood of its victims using arts and literature.”
Sansal said he would explain the reasons for his visit once he returned to Algeria. “I will have to explain myself through articles I will write in France that will be read in Algeria,” he said. “I’m listened to a lot in Algeria, even if I’m not allowed freedom of speech there.”
Rachel Marder contributed to this report.