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  • The Provocations of Kamel Daoud
  • Elisabeth Zerofsky (bio)

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Americans who know the Algerian writer Kamel Daoud most likely heard of him for the first time last summer, when his transcendent novel, The Meursault Investigation, came out in English. Its appearance in the U.S. was preceded by a blitz of publicity such that by the time the book was available, its reception had been primed in the pages of The New Yorker and in an expansive, considerate profile by Adam Shatz in The New York Times Magazine. But Daoud had long before established himself as one of the most vivid voices in the French language in his column, read faithfully by many Algerians in the Quotidien d’Oran, a daily in the city where he lives, and, after his novel won a number of prizes in France, in the French press as well. After the attacks at Charlie Hebdo in Paris in January 2015, and then more devastating terrorist violence in November, Daoud’s perspective, though it could be politically elusive and knowingly provocative, became a sought-after commodity.

At the end of January, Daoud published a column in Le Monde titled “Cologne, scene of fantasies.” In his heavily literary and metaphorical style, he took on the events of New Year’s Eve in Cologne, Germany, when several hundred women were allegedly assaulted en masse, resulting in more than 800 complaints of robbery and sexual aggression and more than 50 arrests of young men, most of [End Page 62] them of North African or Middle Eastern backgrounds. “In the West, the refugee or immigrant may save his body,” Daoud wrote, “but he will not be able to negotiate his culture with the same ease, and if we forget this, we do so out of disregard.” He went on to suggest that any welcoming effort for refugees in Europe would need to include a heavy regimen of cultural reeducation, and he vehemently denounced the fraught treatment of women in the unspecified homelands of these Cologne perpetrators. Daoud proclaimed sex “the greatest misery in the ‘world of Allah,’” a theme he took up in a second op-ed that ran shortly thereafter in The New York Times.

A group of 19 academics responded by signing a petition, which also ran in Le Monde, in which they accused Daoud of “recycling the most worn-out Orientalist clichés.” They presented an analysis of his “radical essentialism” and mass psychologizing, and took issue with his “colonial paternalism.” They concluded by noting that Daoud is a “secular intellectual—a minority—in his country, fighting against a sometimes violent puritanism,” (he had been threatened by a fatwa) but that “in the European context he nevertheless espouses an Islamophobia that is now shared by the majority.”

Though Daoud had written both pieces in January, his second column was published in the Times shortly after the academics’ petition appeared, creating the impression that Daoud was contemptuously stoking the fire. The French press erupted, and it seemed that every journalist, writer, intellectual, politician, anyone with a name and reputation to uphold felt a duty to weigh in. The final grand gesture was a text that the prime minister of France, Manuel Valls, posted on Facebook, under the headline “Support Kamel Daoud!” Valls criticized the petitioners and reproached their “manner of conducting public debate, which is symptomatic of a profound lapse in intelligence, a great difficulty in this country with thinking calmly about the world today and its dangers, and a too-ready willingness to reject those who do.” Valls composed a defense of Daoud that was not entirely inopportune to his own agenda. “What Kamel Daoud is asking is that we not deny the weight of political and religious realities, that we open our eyes to these forces that constrain the emancipation of the individual, to the violence done to women, to the increasing radicalization in our neighborhoods, to the insidious indoctrination of our youth,” Valls wrote. “To abandon this writer to his fate would be for us to abandon ourselves.” It appeared that Shatz’s conjecture in his New York Times Magazine profile from the previous year, that...


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pp. 62-63
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