The Fundamentalist Reader

An interview with the real 'Yasmina Khadra'

"I don't seek to comprehend a kamikaze's state of mind, I do understand it! It's you who needs to understand, and my novels help make it clear if you're willing to bother," snaps Algerian Yasmina Khadra at an Israeli interviewer (me) who has the temerity to ask if the author is attempting to understand the mind of a suicide bomber, who blows herself up in a Tel Aviv restaurant, in the novel "The Attack." Yasmina Khadra was somewhat of a cause célèbre in French literary circles at the turn of the century. Here was an Arab woman writing hard-hitting novels delving into the harsh realities of Islamic fundamentalism. Turns out that the she was a he; in fact, a former Algerian army counterterror officer. Mohammed Moulessehoul, 52, a career military man, had written some detective novels back in the old country, without offending his superiors too much. But when he turned to realistic, politically-charged topics, his army bosses demanded that he submit his material to censorship. Moulessehoul deemed it expedient to write under an assumed name and chose his wife's. Thus authoress Yasmina Khadra was born into fleeting fame until the former terrorist-buster came out of the closet in 2001, after he had departed Algeria for the more liberal French literary climes. He still writes under his nom de plume, his wife's name. Six of his novels have been translated into English. Moulessehoul's major oeuvre is a trilogy of novels, "The Swallows of Kabul" (2003), "The Attack" (2006), and "The Sirens of Baghdad," published in English in May. The landscapes of the books are bleak and grim; the protagonists are buffeted by even bleaker and grimmer fates. The common theme is the malevolent influence of Islamic fundamentalism. "The Attack" takes place in Israel and the occupied territories. The life of Amin Jaafari, an apolitical Israeli-Arab surgeon is blown apart one evening when, after treating the victims of a suicide-bombing in a Tel Aviv restaurant, he finds out that the bomber was his wife Sihem. Driven to distraction by the inexplicable act by the woman he loved and who gave no indication of her intention, Jaafari becomes obsessed by the need to find out why. A U.S. company has purchased the film rights to "Attack." Moulessehoul doesn't speak English, so in order to interview him I e-mailed some questions. His publisher translated them into French and his responses back into English. He summed up the character of Jaafari and the message of the novel: "My character seeks a truth to which he will never have access. He's nonviolent, a surgeon with much humanity. All of the explanations given by his adversaries don't hit him. It's a little like what is happening in Israel. The conflict lasts because nobody wants to listen to the other. And when I see to what extent the proponents for peace are mistreated in the land of prophecy, I measure how hypocritical, malevolent and extremely deceitful the discourse is." Moulessehoul pays lip service to condemning terror against civilians. Despite saying that it is not justified under any circumstances, he places Palestinian terror in a separate category. "In Palestine, it's another form of violence, that of resistance, dignity and autonomy. The Palestinians reclaim a homeland and the dreams that go with it. They refuse to submit to the humiliation, to live under embargo, to be thrown to the lions for geostrategic means that aim to change the face of the Middle East at their expense. I'd like to point out that in "L'attentat" ("The Attack") there are two types, that of Sihem [Jaafari's wife] and that of the Israeli army. Now it's my turn to ask you the question: 'Which one is more monstrous?'… For me, the two are equally so." On the other hand, in the novel itself Moulessehoul seems somewhat sympathetic to Israelis and bitter about the terror against them. Jaafari pursues his ill-fated compulsion to find out what motivated his wife and confronts a terrorist chief with uncompromising questions: "What tales did you tell her? How did you make a monster, a terrorist, a suicidal fundamentalist out of a woman who couldn't bear to hear a puppy whine?" Two of the few characters who display any compassion or tenderness in the trilogy are Israeli friends of Jaafari, a police officer and a female colleague at the hospital, who make determined efforts to bring him out of his trauma. The author was somewhat defensive when I asked him whether he'd visited Tel Aviv, Bethlehem and Jenin, major sites he describes in "The Attack." "I'm not fortunate enough to be a writer from the West and to have the fame that would allow me to work in such an efficient manner," he asserts. "I can't meet Bush or Sharon Stone and whenever I try to solicit technical assistance, my efforts are in vain. That being the case, instead of going to the countries where my novels are set, I summon them. I am an attentive observer. I try to describe a country through the mentality of its people. I have some Jewish friends, some of whom are Israeli, and I sometimes discuss controversial subjects with them. As for the rest, I research through books and audiovisual records that cross my path," he added. A previous novel "In the Name of God," set in his native Algeria, deals with the rampages of al-Qaeda-inspired fundamentalists in the bleak Algerian desertscape. Despite the lack of a foreign occupier since the French left in 1962, Moulessehoul is a firm believer that al-Qaeda is to blame for the homegrown, ongoing Islamic terror and military counterterror in his country, which claimed some 160,000 lives between 1992-2002. This April, multiple suicide car-bombings, previously unknown in Algeria, targeting the prime minister's offices and police headquarters in Algiers, killed almost three dozen people. Moulessehoul is insistent that terrorism in Algeria is totally different from the situation in Israel and the territories. "There is a big difference between what takes place in Algeria and in your country. In my country, we are witnesses to a Utopian terrorism, one that is senseless and without end. A gratuitous terrorism that is destined to fail and continues out of spite. It results from an international fundamentalism, a movement that is much more spectacular and media-friendly than it is truly ambitious. "Besides being an exercise in death and burnt earth, there is no comparison to be made. Algeria battles against al-Qaeda and thus fights to save the world. Palestine fights for its integrity, just its integrity and the hope to live with dignity and freedom." Moulessehoul dodges the question when asked if he expects the phenomenon of Islamic fundamentalism to intensify in the coming years: "There again you are mistaken. I do not speak about fundamentalism, I speak about human frailty. I speak of the humiliation, injustices, and the folly of mankind. Of course, fundamentalism feeds off all that. There is a serious misunderstanding that threatens international relations. Even more serious, there is a lack of intelligence or presence of mind to remedy it. Politically speaking, it leads to stagnation and incompetence. Intellectually speaking, it's foolishness that predominates. In this way, as long as we don't understand from where it stems, the fundamentalist phenomenon will toughen and spread throughout the planet. The Occident is too arrogant to question itself, and the fundamentalism will take advantage of all the hesitations and indecisiveness to enlarge its field of operations." The first novel in the trilogy, "The Swallows of Kabul," deals with the tribulations of Afghanis under the Taliban. "Kabul" traces how a couple's life is wrecked by the harsh dictates of Taliban fundamentalism. South Africa's Nobel Laureate J. M. Coetzee describes it thus: "Yasmina Khadra's Kabul is hell on earth, a place of hunger, tedium and stifling fear." In his latest novel "The Sirens of Baghdad," the nameless Iraqi protagonist is driven like an automaton to seek vengeance for a slight by U.S. occupiers to his family honor. He finally comes to an epiphanic realization that a suicide bombing attack (by him) is not the answer: "They deserved to live for a thousand years. I have no right to challenge their kisses, scuttle their dreams, dash their hopes. What have I done with my own destiny? I'm only twenty-one years old, all I have is the certainty that I've wrecked my life twenty-one times over." He is part of Moulessehoul's cast of flat, two-dimensional characters, like the suicide bombers in "The Attack" (Sihem is not the only one) and bloodthirsty Islamic guerrillas in "In the Name of God." Despite the portraits of shallow, barely credible human beings, he paints a compelling portrait of figures driven by motives larger than themselves. Moulessehoul poses hard questions about people living in harsh moral climates. Asked if his novels, which depict the evils of extremism, could help stem the fanatical tide, Moulessehoul replies: "That's for you to decide. If you think that my books are capable of bringing the necessary light to the beginnings of a solution, please advocate and support them. But if you believe that they're simply ordinary fiction, throw them in the garbage. My readers, in all of the countries where I am translated, have accessed a certain reality of the world. What they write me encourages me to believe that my work is useful. But from that to thinking that I am capable of changing something without your commitment is too much to ask. The planet's problem concerns all of us. Those with good consciences need to find one another and assemble around a common ideal. A writer needs the press, the press needs its readership, and the readership needs the intellectual integrity of both."