|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
17 - 23 January 2002
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Honest in essence
The heir to Morocco's war of liberation has some ideas of his own
Profile by Fayza Hassan
Once upon a time, there was a fair prince. He was born on a beautiful island, where he grew up among his loving parents and siblings. He had private tutors who encouraged him to develop his mind and helped him acquire a taste for reading; he spoke French and Creole like the indigenous people of the island, but addressed his parents in Berber, the language of their faraway country -- a country he had not known, but had heard of from his father. It is possible that the young prince, having learned his lessons and bored with playing in the vast garden of his house, sometimes looked out at the horizon and wondered if one day he would be able to sail to his family's lost kingdom, an enchanted place where fountains murmured and birds fluttered among blossoming trees.
It may sound like the beginning of a fairy tale, but this is not really a bedtime story. First of all, the young prince was not of royal descent, but the son of an upright judge who became a famous revolutionary, known to his followers as Amir Al-Mujahidin, the supreme commander of an army of freedom fighters who covered themselves in glory in their struggle for independence. The young prince's father fought long and hard to free his country from foreign occupation. He did not allow his children to grow up dreaming of sleeping beauties and knights in shining armour, but taught them early in life about law and justice, the woes of oppressed people and the price of freedom.
For five years the amir waged war on the French and the Spaniards, who had shared the spoils of his country after the First World War. He beat the invaders at their own game and remained victorious for that length of time. He had neither his enemies' power nor their equipment but, with his refined tactics and keen intelligence, he always managed to outwit them in battle, catching them by surprise and outmanoeuvring them. At their wits' end, his opponents decided to play dirty and, having developed a secret weapon, which rained poisonous gases on those they could not vanquish in regular combat, they endeavoured to experiment with their new discovery in order to put down the rebellion. Rather than see his people decimated by such a mortal weapon, the amir called off his mujahidin and gave himself up. He did not consider himself beaten, though; nor did his former enemies manage to humiliate him. As the resistance came to an end, the French and Spanish generals respectfully saluted his courage and fortitude. They sent him into exile nevertheless, on the island of La Réunion, where he remained for many years until, in the late 1940s, King Farouk invited him to settle in Egypt with his family. And this is where Said El-Khattabi, son of the famous Moroccan hero Abdel-Kerim El-Khattabi, arrived at the age of 13. He spoke no Arabic and was therefore sent to the French Lycée and later enrolled at the French School of Law in Munira, where he completed his studies.
The Khattabi apartment on Abul-Feda Street has a sweeping view of the Nile. Below, just as the river flows inexorably by, the traffic streams along uninterruptedly. On the other bank, the derelict houses of Imbaba stand as a reminder that not everyone can afford gracious living. Said El- Khattabi is quite aware of that. I sense his presence behind our backs, as I remain at the window of the charming sunroom with photographer Randa Shaath, watching inexperienced drivers negotiate the puddles left by last night's downpour. "I like the view of Imbaba," he says, as if he had read my thoughts. "This way, I am constantly reminded that there are poor people who need help."
El-Khattabi is wearing dark green corduroy trousers and a cashmere blazer. His voice is low and smooth, his smile contagious; he is naturally charming and easygoing in the way those born to culture and affluence can be. We had met before, when I was researching the condition of Palestinian refugees in Egypt, and his views on the subject had surprised me. He had pointed me in the right direction, however, indicating very valuable sources.
Now I had a chance to ask more personal questions. We began sparring at once: the Palestinians' right to a state, the difference between a terrorist and a freedom fighter, the meaning and consequences for the Arabs of 11 September, Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, and the US's role in the Middle East. We were on opposite sides of the spectrum on every count.
'The Egyptian media have got it the wrong way around: they encourage the Intifada, but if Arafat put an end to it and declared himself ready for serious talks, Sharon would no longer have a leg to stand on and the Americans would force him to make concessions. We did get Sinai in the end, didn't we?'
Photos: Randa Shaath
El-Khattabi has his own, passionate ideas on these issues, and they are not necessarily of a mainstream persuasion. He is proud to disagree and never shrinks from expressing his opinions. Indeed, he publishes them in Al-Akhbar on a weekly basis. He also contributes to Moroccan newspapers. Well, he does get censored sometimes, he admits with a tinge of irony; but, while not everyone can afford to tell it like it is, he is a free man: he has no boss, and no one can lord it over him. He hungers for neither money nor honours. His father once told him not to fear starvation but to beware indigestion. He has heeded the advice. Far from being poor, he is not rich (although he has the reputation of being a millionaire, he says), but he will not go out of his way to increase his wealth. He lives well, his children have received the best education, his daughter is well married. What else is required? There should not be very rich people while others, practically next door, go hungry. "My father taught us the meaning of social justice," he says seriously. "This is very important." I suddenly remember the bawwab who insisted on taking us up in the elevator: "The prince is a very generous man," he had told us emphatically. "He is a real prince, not like some people I know who are full of hot air."
Differing from most intellectuals, El-Khattabi argues his point without ever becoming angry or tetchy. He remains calm and composed, exquisitely polite and warm while listening attentively to any objection. He seems genetically imbued with a sense of fairness in any exchange, which curiously ends up giving him the upper hand in the discussion. He is not out to advocate his ideas or convince an antagonist, however; rather, he states personal thoughts only when requested to do so. He formed his political opinions through first-hand observation and extensive reading, he says, and expects any reasonable interlocutor to concur. On the other hand, he does not mind if the other party has reached other conclusions. "All discussion should be based on honestly expressing one's beliefs. Honesty is of the essence," he states.
We talk some more about the Israeli occupation of Palestine. "You think the Americans are responsible for all the Arabs' woes," he says. He sips at the glass of green tea served by a silent butler and plays with a cigarette that he has decided not to light. "Your paper is always mentioning the power of the Jewish lobby in America, but did you ever stop to wonder what prevents Israel from annihilating the Palestinians once and for all? Let me tell you: the Americans are stopping them. Without the Americans, Arafat could never have dreamed of setting foot in Gaza."
Before I have a chance to present a suitable rebuttal, he continues: "When Sadat began to hint at the possibility of making peace with Israel, I wrote him a letter in which I told him that he was following the right course. At the time, peace with Israel was anathema. I did not know how to give him the letter personally, but I wanted him to receive it in person. I didn't want to give it to some secretary who would discard it as the work of a lunatic. So I sent it through a friend's friend, who saw him read it. Instead of handing my letter to his secretary for filing as usual, Sadat slipped it in his pocket, saying that he needed to read it more carefully in the evening. Of course, I do not claim that I was instrumental in any way in Sadat's decision to go to Jerusalem, but that was the only reasonable thing to do. He forced the Israelis to sign a peace treaty. The Egyptian media have got it the wrong way around: they encourage the Intifada, but if Arafat put an end to it and declared himself ready for serious talks, Sharon would no longer have a leg to stand on and the Americans would force him to make concessions. We did get Sinai in the end, didn't we?" I try to argue that the Intifada is not violence but a fight against an occupying force. Why is it different from the liberation of Morocco?
But El-Khattabi is adamant. "Never," he says. "Abdel-Kerim never attacked civilians. He fought honourably against armies of men. It was a war. He never planted bombs among innocent civilians. He went after soldiers. When the Palestinians killed an Israeli officer and two or three soldiers it was hardly mentioned, because this is normal. Soldiers are liable to die because they are soldiers. Not so civilians." Although he makes a clear distinction between professional soldiers and innocent civilians, he is in favour of a war of attrition, and believes that had the Palestinians taken this course they might have achieved better results. In 1948, he recounts, his father went to see King Farouk at the time of the first war against Israel. "My father offered to train a group of fida'iyin and instruct them in his tactics, which were studied by leaders like Ho Chi Minh and all the revolutionaries who resorted to guerrilla warfare The king, however, refused." El-Khattabi smiles: "And the rest is history."
I earn no kudos with him for my opinions on Bin Laden, either. He considers 11 September an indelible black mark inflicted on those who harboured, financed and encouraged him. He refuses to consider that Bin Laden is an American creation. "He was useful to them when they were fighting the Russians," he says. "They armed him then, granted; but could anyone dream that he would turn around and unleash such evil vengeance on innocent civilians? Who said that ordinary people should lose their lives while performing such mundane tasks as catching a commuter plane or going to work? And who benefited? Do you think he has advanced the Palestinian cause?"
El-Khattabi dreams of a world where everyone is free to speak his mind and go about her business unhindered as long as that does not harm others. "Believe me, the Americans have got it right. They have freedom in their country and are genuinely interested in making other countries profit. Of course it is to their advantage, because the richer the rest of the world gets, the more affluent America will become. But it is not true that all the aid they have been meting out to the Third World is based on their selfish desire to enslave other peoples. If you are looking for a villain, why not consider Europe? Think of imperialism: the way they conquered and exploited the rest of the world. Americans have never harboured imperialist dreams. They never took over the government of a foreign country and made its inhabitants into second-class citizens. On the contrary, they have been generous with their technology, opened their universities, accepted immigrants and generally contributed to the welfare of the world." Should I bring in the Native Americans, talk about slavery, racial profiling, discrimination, or the multinationals? By now, I know that El-Khattabi will have an answer. I choose to ask about his projects: he is leaving shortly for Morocco, where he will attend an international conference on the use of poison gas by the French and the Spaniards during Morocco's war of liberation in 1926. "Believe me," he says again, "it is the Europeans -- although I make an exception for the British, who know what is good for them now -- who are evil, not the Americans." The silent butler has called the elevator, and we part the best of friends -- having agreed, at last, to disagree.
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