Friday,24 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1431, (21 - 27 February 2019)
Friday,24 May, 2019
Issue 1431, (21 - 27 February 2019)

Ahram Weekly

Memoirs of the Monde arabe

Gilles Kepel, Sortir du chaos, les crises en Mediterranée et au moyen-orient, Gallimard: Paris, 2018, pp514;Gilles Gauthier, Entre deux rives, 50 ans de passion pour le monde arabe, Lattès: Paris, 2018, pp426


Gilles Kepel - Gilles Gauthier

The well-known French Arabist Gilles Kepel begins his latest book, Sortir du chaos (Escape from Chaos), in reflective mode, looking back over more than 40 years to the beginnings of his career in the 1970s when he was a student learning Arabic at the French Institute in Damascus.

“It was a necessary rite of passage,” he explains, “for all young [French] Arabists at the time, introducing us like some ‘open sesame’ to the treasure trove within and the grammatical and phonological secrets of the Orient that so fascinated us.”

Very few French students took up the East as a career without having first spent time in the Sham, Kepel says, “the ancient term still used in Arabic dialect today to denote both the Levant and its traditional capital” of Damascus. However, “none of us could have imagined that 40 years on that same term would become the rallying cry of jihadists leaving the suburbs of French cities to join the ranks of the ‘Islamic State’ [Daesh] group in order to fight against ‘apostates’… before returning to kill their own compatriots at the Bataclan or the Stade de France” in the 2015 Paris attacks.

“Never in my worst nightmares could I have imagined that I would find myself condemned to death as a leading Arabist by a Franco-Algerian Daesh supporter based in the Syrian city of Raqqa, the short-lived capital of the ‘Islamic State’, in June 2016… and that I would be obliged to live under police protection as a result,” Kepel writes, casting his mind back to the comparatively untroubled period of the mid to late 1970s.

“My comrades and I at the French Institute in Damascus were fascinated by the civilisation of the Levant, onto which we projected many of our hopes and fears… Most of us were imbued with the kind of vague left-wing sentiments that reigned in [French] student circles after May 1968,” though these soon evaporated when confronted with the realities of life, to leave behind them a kind of mist through which only a few dimly held certitudes still remained.

It seems that some of these too later disappeared, or were extensively modified, under the pressure of the progressive re-evaluation that came with investment in the terrain, and Kepel’s book, a survey of what has taken place in the Middle East over the 40 or so years between those early years in Damascus and today, is also a record of a distinguished scholar’s four decades of engagement with the region from his student days in Damascus to the present day.

While the young Kepel’s youthful optimism may not always have survived the last four decades of Middle Eastern history intact, he is still able to end his account with the possibility of the renaissance of the Levant through a joint commitment on the part of Russia and the West to the reconstruction of Syria and the “moral reinsertion of the whole of the Middle East into the wider world order” after years of violent crisis.

In the meantime, in the book itself Kepel takes the reader on a tour of the region over the last four decades, dividing his analysis into three main parts. First, there was the “Islamisation of the political order” from the 1970s onwards followed by the rise of violent jihadism across the region and beyond in the 1980s and 1990s. Second, there was a shorter period from the Arab Spring revolutions in 2011 to the present day that has seen the collapse of some states and the survival of others against a background of sometimes enormous violence.

Third, there is the question of what the future may hold as the work of reconstruction begins, with Kepel detecting a “quasi-Hegelian movement” particularly where Political Islam is concerned, having experienced a period of expansion, followed by one of diminution, and finally one of looking beyond, suggesting that this major political and societal movement may have exhausted its capacity for mass mobilisation to give way to new forms of political expression.

This movement of the rise, fall and future possibilities of Political Islam also echoes Kepel’s own career, which began with an investigation of the jihadist groups in Egypt in the late 1970s, published as Le Prophete et le Pharaon (The Prophet and the Pharaoh) in 1984, before moving on to studies of the growth of Islamism in France (Banlieues de l’Islam [1987] and A l’ouest d’Allah [1994]) and then Jihad, expansion et déclin de l’Islamism, a synoptic account of Political Islam published in 2000, and Al-Qaida dans le texte (2005), a translated collection of jihadist writings.

Today, Kepel’s gaze is on the Middle East after Islamism and the possibility of new paths being blazed across the region. Has Islamism, he asks, “exhausted its model of political mobilisation… or will it find some new form of expression and even galvanise the poverty-stricken masses living in countries whose economies and societies have been devastated [by war], such as Syria, Iraq, Yemen, or Libya, to give just the most tragic of recent cases?”

While the first-person reflections that enliven the introduction to Sortir du chaos are not kept up in the text that follows, which adopts the soberer style of a survey directed at the general reader, there are flashes indicating Kepel’s first-hand reflections on the developments that he describes or even his irritation at the less-considered views of others.

Writing of the “second jihadist phase” that saw terrible atrocities carried out in the 1990s and beyond, Kepel comments on the “Western liberal intellectuals” who could not hold back from attacking US political scientist Samuel Huntington’s surprise best-seller The Clash of Civilisations (1996) on the grounds that it reduced “civilisations to their essence and denied their hybrid and post-modern character” without noticing that this was also the view of Al-Qaeda ideologue Ayman Al-Zawahiri who saw a “radical incompatibility between his jihadist version of Islam and the West.”

In the second part of his book, Kepel says that of all the countries that experienced revolutions in the 2011 Arab Spring “only Tunisia has seen the movement’s original aspirations realised in the establishment of liberal institutions,” explained by local features and by the readiness of the country’s leaders to compromise. This was expressed to Kepel in person by Moncef Marzouki, president of the country after the flight of former president Zein Al-Abidine bin Ali, and Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the Islamist Al-Nahda Movement.

Of the 25 January Revolution in Egypt, Kepel writes of the “theatrical” atmosphere of Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the revolution, an “ongoing spectacle of tens of thousands of mostly young and educated people” whose demands were relayed to audiences worldwide on television. However, these young people did not always succeed in connecting up to the majority of a country that had a population of some 80 million in 2011, Kepel writes, or to much of the country’s middle class.

Damascus, 1952

PERSONAL MEMORIES: A rather different memoir of the last half century in the Arab world has been produced by former French diplomat and now translator of Arabic literature Gilles Gauthier in his Entre deux rives, 50 ans de passion pour le monde arabe (Between Two Shores).

Gauthier is not an academic like Kepel, and his remit is not to try to explain the Arab world’s recent history to wider audiences. Instead, he describes the history of a 50-year involvement, at once “personal and commonplace”, with an Arab world that long ago appeared “luminous, calm, and desirable” to a child growing up in the cold, grey villages of northern France, but that tragically for many may since have been reduced to “desperate scenes of noise and anger” on European television screens.

“I could have gone elsewhere, to Asia or the Caribbean, or to Brazil or Cuba,” Gauthier says, reflecting on a lifetime’s travel across the Arab world. But instead he was sent to Algeria, just four years after the end of that country’s War of Independence against France, as part of an educational-exchange scheme and then on to Morocco.

Following a period spent learning Arabic at the famous Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales in Paris, he became a diplomat and was posted at various times to Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and Egypt where he became French cultural attaché and took up a secondary career as a literary translator.

Gauthier comes across as a sensitive observer of the countries he lived in, though like in Kepel’s memoir youthful hopes did not always survive the test of circumstances, perhaps particularly in post-independence Algeria which turned out to have little use, and left an ever-smaller place, for even the most well-meaning Europeans. In Morocco, which Gauthier lived in from 1972 to 1977, a situation emerged of a generation of French exchange-teachers coming out of the general shake-up of 1968 in France only to be confronted by the harsher circumstances of their postings abroad.

Gauthier was arrested and threatened with torture while in Morocco, an experience described in detail in his memoir, and things were not much better when on his first diplomatic posting in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq between 1982 and 1984. Terrible things were going on in Iraq at the time, not least because of the Iran-Iraq War, but “for those who managed to keep themselves out of harm’s way… building luxurious airports or covering the walls of the tyrant’s palaces with watered silk and gold… life was good in Baghdad” during the oil-boom years.

Similar thoughts seem to have struck Gauthier later in Algeria, to which he returned in 1984 as secretary at the French embassy in Algiers. Appearance and reality by then seemed to be going their separate ways, as the “socialist management of industry”, the official doctrine of the time, too often turned out to mean “laxity, mismanagement, and the reign of petty demagogues”.

Not for the first time, Gauthier writes, there was an impression that the “government was advancing up one valley while the people were to be found in quite another”.

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