Front Men


Despite some aberrations—as in the sustained and often extraordinary reporting of the war against Bosnia—American journalism is still dictated by the sound bite, devoid of history and context. The slant a story takes almost always reflects which way the White House wind is blowing. The notorious American practice of attempting to ignore everything that doesn’t take place in English constrains us even further. Stuffed in this intellectual phone booth, we have cause to celebrate the appearance of translations of major, politically informed and motivated writers such as Mouloud Feraoun and Juan Goytisolo.

The Palestinian photographer George Azar’s stunning cover (a child hurling a rock in a landscape teeming with fire and otherworldly clouds of green gas) opens Juan Goytisolo’s journey into Landscapes of War: From Sarajevo to Chechnya, a book riddled with illuminating insights, both historical and contemporary. Born in Barcelona in 1931, Goytisolo has lived outside Spain since 1956. Through novels, historical and literary essays, memoirs and reportage, Goytisolo has been Spain’s memory, never ceasing to castigate the country’s obsession with racial purity, while constantly reveling in its mixed Arabic and Jewish ancestry.

Such historical concerns have prepared Goytisolo well to report from Gaza, Algeria, Chechnya, and Sarajevo—our era’s version of the Crusades. Goytisolo navigates this treacherous “universe of signs” with the gifts of a great novelist and literary historian. He studies the signs he is given, interpreting the gestures and comments not only of politicians but of writers, taxi drivers, guards, and waiters. Speaking North African Arabic, Goytisolo shares fond memories of Casablanca and Cheb Khaled with some men in a café in Gaza:

Before I bid farewell, the owner points to a rusty container full of earth, with holes that serve to drain it, protected by a metal gauze from the wind or children’s vandalism, a kind of cage where a spindly tree prospers or, rather, agonizes despite the care bestowed on it.

“Photograph that,” he tells me, “and you’ll have a concrete image of the reality of the Palestinian National Authority.”

Goytisolo notices things few others see: In Sarajevo, all the graves, whether Orthodox, Catholic, or Muslim, point toward Mecca. In the West Bank, he notes that, for the many American-born Jewish settlers, “the existence of Palestinian ghettoes is neither surprising nor shocking since they grew up alongside the neighborhoods in conflict that envelop vast areas of Washington, Chicago, and New York.” During a Sufi zikr ceremony amid the ruins of Grozny, he captures the essence of the Islamic philosophy of time: “Unashamedly I can affirm: I levitated in a sea of serenity. Not a moment of exaltation or a fleeting eclipse of the senses: it was this moment’s beauty, its perfection. Didn’t such melodious song in the silence of that night, if only for a few seconds, compensate for the accumulated barbarism?”

Goytisolo’s writings on Algeria and Chechnya are brilliant and should serve as a primer to anyone interested in probing the complex relationship of Islam, colonialism, revolution, and modernity. When he writes, for example, of the conflicts in Algeria between “the religious and the secular within Islam itself,” we are suddenly thrust back into the autonomous zone of subjects who are not simply victims but people deeply divided, with conflicting allegiances.

Nowhere is this more poignantly illustrated than in Mouloud Feraoun’s superbly translated Journal, which has taken 38 years to find its way into English. A French-educated Berber-speaking Algerian Kabyle who did not even speak Arabic until later in life, Feraoun was a great novelist and an educator in the colonial system until his assassination by the OAS, a right-wing French terrorist group, just three days before a cease-fire ended Algeria’s eight-year battle for independence from France in 1962. His first entry, from November 1, 1955, prefigures the complexity, irony, and compassion that dictate the intellectual rigor and honesty of his life’s work:

The Muslims, like the Christians, have nothing to say to one another. The “Kabyles,” like the “French,” are not thinking about anything. This morning it seems that everyone has lost the desire to speak, joke, laugh, drink, come or go. It is as if each person feels trapped in an airtight bell jar. Vision is still possible, but any attempt at communication, even on the most ordinary and superficial level, is futile. No, really, they have nothing to say to each other today, the 1st of November. This is a sad day—the dead are indifferent, the living anxious, the French are not willing to understand, and the Kabyles refuse to explain.

In passage after passage, Feraoun’s Journal reads like a message in a bottle. Less than a year before he was assassinated, he remarked while going over his notes, “I am frightened by my candor, my audacity, my cruelty, and, at times, my blind spots and prejudice. Do I have the right to tamper with what I have written, to go back, to alter or rectify it?” To alter the record, in Feraoun’s mind, would be to become what he calls a “future moralist,” standing outside the integrity of his own experience and falsifying the emergence of consciousness. Far beyond the particulars of Algeria, it is precisely this gesture that makes Feraoun’s Journal such a timely and timeless historical, political, literary, and human document. To paraphrase Goytisolo, these texts are like “bombs ready to explode” in our “moral security zones,” to rupture our passive reception of everyday barbarism and make us comprehend the larger political and human context of which we are an indivisible part.