Some time ago, a French journalist asked me a question that has irked me ever since: “What is the most urgent philosophical question for this new century?”
I am not a philosopher, but a writer and a journalist, which is to say a man concerned with meaning and current events, with the immediate and that which is liable to approach eternity. But I remain a worried man, concerned about his lifespan and on the lookout for possible answers to the riddle of my presence in the world.
For a long time, I thought that death was a mystery to which one must devote reflection. But I recently learned that I was mistaken: living is the riddle. This coincidence between my essential ordinariness, the accident of my birth, and the absolute singularity of my life is an enormous mystery.
Algerian writer Kamel Daoud
It’s a kind of murder mystery where you conduct the investigation to learn not who was the killer but who is alive and why. To the French journalist’s question, I reacted almost spontaneously. I replied that the big question is that of otherness. The big question of the century, in my opinion, is this: “What to make of the Other?”
In times of peace and power, we can respond through exotic curiosity, orientalism or safari, travel, diversity or compassion. In times of crisis, the responses are denial, murder, indifference, or phobia.
While preparing this text, I considered speaking to you about identity, its pitfalls and its wonders. All that this word, identity, sums up both the need to be different and to preserve that difference in order to enrich each encounter with others, but it also contains a trace of selfishness, of rejection of the Other, and of a unanimity that can become radical and suicidal.
Identity is what I am so that I can share it, but it’s also what I am when I reject differences. In art, it’s what I display, but in fear, it’s where I withdraw to. Identity can be sharing or it can be fundamentalism, and is, therefore, as ambiguous as wealth; identity is a place of paradox.
Identity: A place of paradox
In my country, Algeria, some use it as an excuse to refuse to open up to the world. In other countries, in the West, some employ it as a reason to reject the world in all its diversity. The word approaches fundamentalism and singularity all at once.
If we go back to ancient myths and stories, one can speak of otherness through well-known stories: Cain and his brother Abel, Camus' Meursault and his murdered "Arab", Friday and Robinson, Andre Gide and the coveted young "Arab". There are a thousand variants of this story of encounter.
I’m responsible for my world, and this responsibility cannot be masked by post-colonial discourse, which, though once an appeal for redress and recognition, has become an ideological rant
Sometimes it’s a happy story, other times miserable and unbearably replete with contempt and condescension. Colonialism is a story of otherness, but then so is love, in daily life.
The Other is the distorted mirror of oneself and one can either break the mirror, reject the reflection, try to create a retouched portrait of one’s narcissism, or contemplate one’s own secrets. In his wonderful Friday, or the Other Island, the French writer Michel Tournier explores the Other's most erotic and philosophical roots.
We can also talk of otherness in the context of current events in the Mediterranean. Migration today poses a tragic variant of the question of the century: “What to do with the Other?”
At the writer’s home in Oran, Algeria, the different translations of his novel, The Meursault Investigation(MEE)
So, one can shoot at the migrant at the border, sunbathe while he drowns, help him while risking the fragile equilibrium of already troubled countries, see in him a source of abuse of guilt, the spectacle of a tragedy for which we’re not responsible, or a threat that will drown everyone’s comfort under the weight of the world.
Immigration and “what to do with the migrants?” are the questions that I get asked most often, along with “what do the Islamists want?” and "why do you write?" When we go back to Biblical mythology, there is this fascinating story of Jonah, the famous prophet known for his misfortune, for being cast into the sea, and for his extraordinary repentance. God orders him to save a city of people completely foreign to his faith. He refuses and flees.
I am a man tired of hearing that we are victims, that the West is our executioner, and that it alone is responsible for our current plight
What has often shaken me in this account is his reason for refusing to obey God. Jonah says, in essence: “Why would I go and save a city inhabited by people who are indifferent to me and different from me, who are foreign to my race and my skin? Why should the question of salvation be extended to a stranger unrelated to me?”
Jonah flees and, after a long detour, returns to the original site of his indifference and cowardice. Along his journey between Nineveh, the city of the strangers, and Tarshish, the city of his exile, Jonah's God takes the form of a commanding voice, of a devastating game of chance with sailors who throw him overboard, of a giant whale that swallows him, of a storm, and of a castor tree.
In the end, Jonah returns to Nineveh, which in the meantime has been saved by that same God. At the story's conclusion, the biblical God demonstrates another lesson that intrigues me still: he makes a castor tree sprout atop Jonah’s head, then swiftly kills the tree. The shrub’s death makes Jonah weep, illustrating what I call closing off the conscience.
Closing off the conscience
He can be moved by the death of a plant or an ecological commitment, but not for a whole city threatened by fire and retribution. The myth recounts that Jonah mourns the death of a tree under which he had found shade, that his God had made to grow then wither, but that he does not mourn potential victims elsewhere. Jonah, the man, reveals himself to be insensitive to the death of his fellow man.
It is of such a closing off of the conscience (sometimes made in good faith) that the West is accused - called guilty by virtue of its colonial past, of its theft of land and wealth and dignity. Today still, the West is accused in the name of the past and of a sophisticated indifference that can set its people weeping for a movie, Titanic, but not for the hundreds drowned in the Mediterranean. This is true; the West is guilty.
But so am I.
It’s maybe the crudest expression of my indignation against my own people: this ability to accuse the West of all our evils while absolving ourselves of our own responsibility each day, in the face of each failure.
In the country where I live, I am rebuked for crude language, for exercising a right to clarity that is falsely characterised as self-hatred, but which really entails my being exceptionally demanding of myself and my people.
For me, the West is neither just nor unjust. I don’t enjoy waiting for justice, like some other’s largesse, like some gift. I’m responsible for my world, and this responsibility cannot be masked by post-colonial discourse, which, though once an appeal for redress and recognition, has become an ideological rant.
A classroom in Algeria (AFP)
This requirement extends to us all, and to each of us. I am a man tired of hearing that we are victims, that the West is our executioner, and that it alone is responsible for our current plight. I have called, as much as I can, for us to shoulder the weight of the world and reopen our consciences, which have been rendered sclerotic by outdated activism.
How to be clear in my remarks? Often, you invite me to speak about the migrant’s tragedy and part of those who question me expect either a trial or a condemnation. We are outraged - and rightly so - by this lack of solidarity in the face of the world’s tragedies. You ask me to accuse and to judge, and I give in. But I do so by amply and equitably blaming us all, in hopes of imagining a salvation of which we will all be the authors.
I remember that event, during the Frankfurt Book Fair, where it was almost assumed that I would speak of migrants as if speaking of a crime committed by the West.
I responded by affirming some sort of indifference to the treatment the migrants received on arrival. What matters more to me, as an inhabitant of the South, I said, are not the conditions of their arrival but the reasons for their departure: how to repair them, to overcome them, to reverse them.
It doesn’t satisfy the long intellectual tradition of post-colonialism, but there it is. I leave to others the legitimate task of advocating for a humane welcome, and instead reserve for myself the right to denounce the inhumane reasons for their departure. I refuse to close off my conscience to let it play host to a trial of the West without assuming my own inhumanity towards migrants in my own country.
Salvation for strangers
Of course, it’s not about absolving the West to please them: I don’t live there and I’m no fan of moral compromises nor of denials. Colonisation was a crime, but so too are our present failures. The elites of the "South" must accept it and stop denying it by accusing those who don’t think like them of being traitors. This denial of responsibility has led us, in the South, to defend a closing off of the conscience every bit as disastrous as condoning the crime.
Every day in my country, I read and reread articles in the conservative or Islamist newspapers that call sub-Saharan migrants "Africans" as if we, in the Maghreb, were Japanese. They claim that these migrants are culpable of crimes, violence, diseases and threats - in other words, the same offences of which clandestine migrants from the Maghreb are accused of in Europe.
All at once I’m both you and the migrant, the Westerner and the sub-Saharan. That’s the world today, for everyone
This same closing off of the conscience that in the West elevates sunbathing above saving the drowning, we practice it in the South too, in our attitude toward the flow of sub-Saharan migrants.
In the very same newspaper, you can read an article decrying the aggressive expulsion of Algerian immigrants in France alongside a brief clip noting that 500 sub-Saharan migrants were deported from an Algerian town on the supposed pretext that one of them had committed a crime.
The South’s intellectual and moral conscience is worth no more than the Western conscience that it puts on trial, accused of all the world’s tragedies. It must be said and denounced if we are to repair our humanity and our world. Jonah was guilty of refusing salvation for strangers; certain ideological currents and voters in Europe are guilty of it, and intellectuals and people of the South are guilty of it.
Algeria, known as a transit country, is also a host country: migrants choose to settle down and find a job (Terminus Algeria)
To be able to accuse the West, your hands must be clean, and mine are not. Each of us is like Jonah sometimes. The idea of salvation for strangers and the need to found an ethics of solidarity that surpasses this display of differences are important to me. We can talk endlessly of identity, of colonisation, of the West and the South. But we never speak of it as well as when we live the evil and the pain ourselves.
I have a one-year old child who was seriously ill. Suddenly, from beyond the reaches of my ideas, my books, and my own thinking arose the question of exile, this time in the flesh - the most sensitive flesh. To save my son, I was and am ready to leave, to exile myself, even though I have always rejected the idea of leaving.
The reason is obvious: to save my child. It’s a right, a duty, a requirement that goes beyond my reflection and plunges to the roots of pure instinct. This necessity arises for thousands of people who want to save their lives or their children.
Heracles vs Antaeus
But, on the other hand, I am Algerian, from Oran. The spectacle of African migrants just a few hundred meters from my house distresses me too. I don’t know how to balance between my fear, my indifference, and on the other hand, my humanity and my generosity.
I fear for this comfort that I have spent years constructing. I fear for my safety. All at once I’m both you and the migrant, the Westerner and the sub-Saharan. That’s the world today, for everyone. I don’t know how to decide; sometimes I find the courage to try imagining it, but I can't. I understand the reasons of those who refuse to welcome others and of those who leave.
A man cannot walk thousands of kilometers to be free and then reject this freedom for his own wife who walked the whole way behind him
The Greeks have a fascinating myth that recounts when Heracles battled the monster Antaeus at length. Whenever he pushed him down, the monster touched the ground and was resuscitated, brought back to life through contact with the earth, his mother. Heracles overcame him only when he realised that he must lift him onto his own back and suffocate him.
We, too, must take on evil and radicalism and carry them on our backs in order to stifle them. What’s specific about radicalism is that it comes back to life when we throw it to the ground rather than carry it, listen to it, dismantle its discourse, and reclaim its capacity to better describe our fears than we ourselves can. Antaeus can only be defeated by responsibility, not by denial.
In an article on “the Cologne events” two years ago, I concluded with the need to help and also with the refugee’s duty to preserve and defend this freedom and security that he has come north to share in.
A man cannot walk thousands of miles to be free and then reject this freedom for his own wife who walked the whole way behind him. I thought, and I still think, that one cannot dream of freedom and destroy it, that one must build it through one’s differences but also by one’s concessions, sacrificing and giving, accepting but also preserving - by roots and harvests.
To leave and seek care for my son is imperative, but to denounce what is happening in our hospitals in Algeria - the filth, the moral abdication, the despondency, the resounding failures - is an ethical duty. For one of the few times in my life, I pondered the question of my own exile. Since I came to know this pain, I look differently on each sub-Saharan child carried by her mother at the street crossings in Oran. In every life, I see my duty, my responsibility, my cowardice, and my right to live.
A religious conscience closed off by denial
Recently, while waiting for a traffic light to turn green in an Oran suburb, I noticed a poster stuck on a pole: “Take advantage of these few minutes to ask forgiveness from Allah.” Religious zealots had posted them everywhere.
This offended me to the greatest degree: here, under the same red light where a sub-Saharan woman waited with a baby, this religious conscience closed off by denial somehow manages to recall my supposed liability toward God, rather than toward a human being. For the rest of my years, I want to speak of this denial. There too, I am Jonah.
The West is the imaginary space of the South’s ambiguities
I dream of ethics of responsibility that are not conditioned by the post-colonial, by the jeremiad, by the refusal of lucidity, by comfort, by the East or the West, by a religion or its opposite. And it is so difficult to defend this position that seeks to understand the fear of one side while accepting the other’s right to live. I dream of a sort of Jonah who wastes no time escaping, plunging into the sea, returning to land, or mourning a tree. I plead for responsibility.
Muslim women pray in a mosque in Germany (AFP)
In the end, I want to conclude on the right to fight for dignified and humane hospitals in my country and on everyone’s duty to save their children’s lives. It’s the fundamental law of our story: travel, hope, overcome and fight. Die and give life.
My vision is one of a responsible South and a North that owns up. Migrants don’t come without their own culture, and they can decide whether to share this culture rather than to make a hideaway of it and retreat inward.
The host country will make their culture a human value rather than a pretext for turning inward. The earth is round, not flat, despite what the conspiracy theorists say, meaning that when we travel it we return to ourselves, no matter the route.
Orientalism is a rather dead idea, nearly dead for half a century. In it we reached the climax of misunderstandings even though it held a peaceful option, however disorderly or limited, to understand one another. Today, nothing of it remains. Discourse on the self is claimed by radical and racial difference, and discourse on the Other is approaching phobia, not curiosity. We recuse ourselves.
Here again, I have a kind of career dream: to make myself into an “Occidentalist.” To think about the West, dissect my fantasies on this geography, my contradictions, my disorders, to recount my travels to my people and confront my differences.
Discourse on the self is claimed by radical and racial difference, and discourse on the Other is approaching phobia, not curiosity. We recuse ourselves
The West is the imaginary space of the South’s ambiguities. We dream to go there but also to destroy it, to live there and to make it die, to convert it but to enjoy there the possibility of freedom. The West is a sex, a body, a liberty, a story, but also a memory of violence, a place of our contradictions, a boundary and a place of denial.
The migrant dreams to come live there, all the while dreaming of maintaining his difference there. The Islamist subjected to regime repression comes to seek refuge there and yet it’s to this same West that he addresses his rejection.
The regime exploits colonial memory to “sculpt” its legitimacy in the eyes of disenchanted populations - the populism of the post-colonial - and yet it’s to the West that they send their children, go for shopping, and retreat in the event of chaos and revolution.
The West is used for everything - especially to not be held responsible for one’s own world.
The famous 'What to do?'
A space of contradictions, this West thus traps free intellectuals from the South. Here we are accused, from Morocco to Oman, of all evils because we defend human values like freedom, the orgasm, the body, democracy, or equality - which are not banners of Westernism but values of salvation for all.
Because these values are also Western, whoever makes them his life’s cause finds himself faced by exclusion, dubbed Westernised, and therefore a traitor. Conservatives, like the religious, have awarded themselves this role of custodians, overseeing the value of authenticity in the so-called "Arab" world, and of tradition and patriotism, pushing us to the margins and toward death.
The Southern intellectual who revolts against the religious and the regimes is confronted with Jonah’s dilemma: stay and sacrifice himself for the salvation of his people, for some possibility of salvation in two or three generations? Or leave, save his life, his body, his children? Join in for the benefit of a population that might be indifferent to your argument, your books, and your articles... or leave?
A Muslim man passes in front of a church in France (AFP)
Jonah refused to save a city of strangers, of foreigners. He left and then returned. One of the lessons of his fable is to extend the domain of intellectual responsibility to reach that unknown, foreign Other.
This is a long answer to the question "What to do for the Other?" When the West helps us, it condemns us. But when it stands indifferent to our commitments, it condemns itself to solitude and defeat.
In my eyes, culture remains the best path for this solidarity. This vast field of meaning, of creation and effort, and of claims to eternity. Culture is what fascism, radicalism, and periodic madness attack first.
For culture affirms the essential: difference. It makes beliefs relative, recalls the value of the individual beyond the utopia of society, offers travels and encounters to those without the means, opens the Other to the intimate self, and reduces distance to the benefit of curiosity.
Can literature save the world? Can a book give life? I often answer yes; since one can kill in the name of a book, I like to imagine that we can also save through books
It is, therefore, the circulation of culture that we must promote - in both directions, in all possible directions. I like to advocate for translations, for exporting books and other works, for exchanging languages and narratives. I see it as an opportunity to save the world through translation.
Can literature save the world? Can a book give life? I often answer yes; since one can kill in the name of a book, I like to imagine that we can also save life through books.
My relationship with literature is one of faith. Reading gave me the world, this universal intimacy with different epochs and geographies, even as I lived in a village disconnected from the wider world.
To read is to soothe
Reading led me to travel, to share a thousand lives, and to ponder my differences not as truths but as happy and confident negotiations. Writing is a fabulous exercise in giving of one’s self and affirming one’s singularity, the seat of one's perfectly playful and generous identity. With age, few of my beliefs remain, but I hold onto this one with fervour:
Literature is the only nearly universal dialogue of which we are capable and that gives us the unique privilege of making conversation with strangers, with the distant and the dead, with those who are not yet born and those who dislike one another. To read is to soothe, and not just to travel.
Literature helps to convert identity into solidarity and opens humans to their worrying condition. There we are equal and common, singular and distinct, and we take turns occupying the centre of the world, its shifting heart. It is this dialogue that we must pursue through books and other works.
Literature can heal withdrawal into oneself or one’s people, and offers the world as a spectacle for all. It helped me to survive, and I love to share this survival tale now and then, to defend it and advocate a bit for the possibility of writing and reading.
We all know this common question: “What books would you take with you on a desert island?” Everyone has their list. But if the question is endlessly fascinating, it’s not because of the choice that it imposes, but because of the metaphor that it implies. The question demonstrates that the only way to cure an island of its desert and of its isolation, the only possible counterweight to this prison, is books.
The more books you take to a desert island, the less deserted it will be. And in the end, it will become a continent or a world of its own.
This text was read by the writer during a lecture given at the Théâtre de Vidy in Lausanne, Switzerland on Monday, 12 November.
- Kamel Daoud is an Algerian writer and journalist. An author and intellectual recognized worldwide, he is the author of Ô Pharaon, La Préface du nègre, The Meursault Investigation, Mes Indépendances, Zabor ou les Psaumes, and Le Peintre dévorant la femme.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: A Syrian displaced child poses for a photograph in a flooded refugee camp in the Idlib countryside, northwestern Syria, on 25 October 2018 (AFP)