“Danger” Was Not a Word We Knew: Elaine Mokhtefi in Algiers With the Panthers

Few veteran US radicals discussing the 1960s seem to remember how Algeria’s independence from France in 1962, after eight years of relentless guerrilla war, resounded throughout the Global South. Algiers, the nation’s capital, became a center of hope and political organizing for revolutions brewing in Africa, Latin America, Asia – and in the US for revolutionary groups like the Black Panther Party.

Elaine Mokhtefi remembers Algiers. Mokhtefi, author of the new book Algiers, Third World Capital: Freedom Fighters, Revolutionaries, Black Panthers, is an American woman born in 1928 to working-class Jewish parents. In the 1950s and ’60s, Mokhtefi was one of the many thousands who supported the Algerian struggle for national liberation. She has written a quietly spectacular memoir of her time in Algeria; of her relationships with Panther Party members – notably, Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver – who came to Algiers, seeking freedom outside the US; and of all the painstaking, anonymous activist work that goes into making what the world comes to know as “history.”

Susie Day: Why did you write this book?

Elaine Mokhtefi
Elaine Mokhtefi.
Jeremy Harding

Elaine Mokhtefi: Because nobody knows anything about the Black Panthers in Algiers. Or anything about the international section of the Black Panther Party. Some of what little has been written about it is OK; some is completely false. And, as I travel the United States and talk to Americans, I realize they don’t know anything about Algeria or the Algerian War, either. My husband was a writer and Algerian, and he encouraged me. I had a unique role in Algiers, so I felt it was time to write it down.

Your story begins in 1951, when you, a 23-year-old in the States, move to Paris. The early 1950s wasn’t exactly a time to foment youthful rebellion. What made you go to France?

Just out of curiosity. I got very involved with an organization for world peace, the United World Federalists. That’s when I started political organizing. Once I got to France, I found it was amazing, so I got myself a job, and one job led to another. I learned French and became a translator.

You write about how the 1952 May Day Parade in Paris woke you up. You discovered the “French lie.”

The French unions had their yearly march on May Day. Suddenly, at the end of the march – things were closing down and I could see the floats and marchers ebbing away – there arrived this whole battalion of young, thin, poorly dressed workers. There must have been several thousand, twelve abreast, with their arms out, running to catch up with the parade. I learned afterward they were Algerians. I was living in a neighborhood that was then very North African, close to the Place Saint Michel, so that really shook me up.

A few days later, I read about it in France Observateur, a weekly I translated and read assiduously at the time, and got the explanation. France was worried about Algerian protests, so the unions blocked their passage in the parade. Later I heard that the leader of those workers had been put under house arrest.

Do you think those Algerians were like immigrant workers now in this country?

They were definitely comparable to Latino workers in the States today. You saw Algerians everywhere, working on the roads, on the garbage, on buildings – low-paying, backbreaking jobs. Getting a factory job, like at the Renault automobile factory, was considered top-notch. Like immigrants in the US, the French economy would have stopped functioning without them.

So, I became aware there was an “Algerian problem.” But Algerians were not discussed openly – until the war started, on November 1, 1954. Then it was impossible to live in France and not have an opinion; everyone took sides. I took a side. I was active in protest marches, organizations, meetings that discussed France’s role as a colonial power.

Did you identify as a revolutionary?

Oh, never. I don’t know what I called myself. A militant, I suppose.

You didn’t see the Algerian war for independence as revolutionary?
I definitely saw it as a revolution. It was taking Algeria out of colonial status and getting the country globally respected as having a socialist policy. I believed in Algeria’s revolution. I believed in colonial emancipation and liberation – and I worked for it.

Talk about Franz Fanon [(1925-1962), the political philosopher, revolutionary psychiatrist and author whose book The Wretched of the Earth remains a classic analysis of racism and the rage of colonized peoples]. I enjoyed the guilty secret you and Fanon shared of smoking Gauloises cigarettes together, at a time when the resistance had pledged to boycott French-made goods. Then, once when you and Fanon were talking, you mentioned how you wanted a relationship with someone whose shoulder you could rest your head on. Fanon said: “Non, non, non: stay upright on your own two feet and keep moving forward to goals of your own.” Regardless of time, place or race, that’s amazing advice from any man to any woman.

Well, he was an amazing man, and very political. He became very animated talking politics. He was also a psychiatrist – you should never forget that. He would decide, almost immediately, sort of like his nose told him, which people to speak to and which to avoid. He could just close down, or he could become very animated. Always about politics.

Of course, he was the roving ambassador for the Provisional Government of Algeria in Africa. That’s where I met him, in Ghana. I saw him often at the World Assembly of Youth that I helped organize. I visited his embassy. I had lots of talks with him. We even went dancing once. He was also a very competent writer.

I was blown away by your description of how The Wretched of the Earth came about.

Yes. He dictated it to a French woman working in Algeria at the time. He dictated the whole book. She says that he walked around the room sort of like a college professor and just talked and talked and talked. He never went back over his statements. Then she would give him a typed-up copy of what he had said, and she never saw any changes he made. It was quite amazing.

You came back to the States in the early ’60s?

I worked in the Algerian office in New York the last years of the war.

I was impressed with the “skill set” you used then, and later, when you moved to Algeria. Translation, interpretation, PR work, strategizing, secretarial grunt work, errands – you did everything – and most of it under the radar.

The work in the New York Algerian office was daily and hard. It was difficult then to garner a positive opinion for the Algerian revolution, or to condemn France. Many African countries voted against the UN Resolution on Algerian Independence, if you can imagine. France had a hold on countries’ opinions and politics, and it remained in control for years after Algeria’s independence.

But work was the way things were. You just worked. You tried to influence, you wrote papers and speeches and you worked on resolutions and talked to UN delegations and went to cocktail parties and you did what you could. We were only four in the New York office, that’s it. Meanwhile, the French had a UN mission of 94 people, plus a full embassy in Washington. It was an uphill struggle.

When Algeria finally gained independence, how did you feel?

Elated. Oh, I was completely taken. I had never been to Algeria, so I went immediately after independence, in 1962.

Considering all you did in the new Algerian government, why did you focus your book on the Panthers in Algiers?

I’d written about the Panthers as a journalist for the Algerie Presse Service and I did three programs for Algerian radio and television. I felt close to their cause, and I saw that they were in a dire situation. I was very moved by Eldridge and Kathleen [Cleaver]’s story. Also, they were Americans and English speaking. No one in Algeria spoke English, except me. [Laughs]

So, Eldridge Cleaver, fleeing a possible prison sentence in the US, lands, December 1968, in Cuba. Six months later, Cuba flies him and his wife Kathleen to Algiers. Later, more Panthers arrive.

The Panthers sort of plopped down in Algeria. I felt they’d definitely be welcomed – which they were – immediately. So I had to do what I could to see that they stayed in Algeria. I thought they’d be able to undertake political activity there.

"Eldridge Cleaver, 1970" by Elaine Mokhtefi; oil on canvas, 2018.
“Eldridge Cleaver, 1970” by Elaine Mokhtefi; oil on canvas, 2018.
Elaine Mokhtefi

They certainly did. You wrote that some Panthers became bodyguards for the African National Congress’s (ANC’s) Oliver Tambo. Did they get involved in other African movements?
They had joint activities and even training courses with many people, especially with English-speaking Africans in liberation movements like South Africa’s, Zambia’s, Zimbabwe’s. There were also Ethiopian students in Algiers they worked with, and some people from the Portuguese colonies. They were very hard working. They had discussions and work sessions. It was almost like an army camp. They had their daily schedules and work assignments…. The ’60s was a time when Black people started feeling who they were, politically. Women, the same. And we basically saw an end to colonialism. We saw revolutions; we saw so many things that were positive. We felt we were part of the world that was changing, that would continue to change.

And Algiers, itself?

Algeria adopted an “open-door” policy to the oppressed. At the time of independence, there was over 90 percent illiteracy, so Algeria developed one of the highest education budgets in the world. Women were not free, but I had a feeling that, with time, women would come into their own. And Algiers itself became a hub for liberation and antifascist organizations. I came to know exiles from Spain and Portugal, opponents of the military dictators Franco and Salazar, as well as others from Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Central America…. Every imaginable liberation organization had an office in Algiers, from the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam to the ANC, SWAPO [the South West African People’s Organisation], student hijackers and Palestinian liberation organizations. The reception the Panthers received in Algiers was in line with Algeria’s foreign policy at the time.

Do you think that world could ever exist again?

That’s a hard question, because the situation is so completely different now. And complicated. Countries may technically be out of colonialism but colonized in new ways.

Do today’s organizations, like Black Lives Matter or the Dreamers, remind you of the Panthers?

To some degree. I don’t see organizations today as essentially different from the Panthers. They’re grassroots, then and now. But the Panthers showed the way. Even when they floundered, their voices remained current – they’re current today. I think that’s partly why there’s nostalgia for the ’60s.

Tell me about your husband. How did you meet?
I met Mokhtar 10 years after I came to Algeria, quite by chance. I was working at the Ministry of Information and he was coming out of the bakery across the street. I was with a friend who happened to know him, and she introduced us…. He was a wonderful man. One of six boys, the only one to get an education, and when I say education, I mean high school. He joined the Algerian Liberation Army and learned Morse code in a school the Algerians set up in Morocco. Mokhtar was defiant, principled. He dedicated his life to justice. He couldn’t bear to see it trampled on.

Did he call himself a militant, too?
I’d say he’d call himself an Algerian patriot and a world citizen. He may not have called himself a revolutionary – but I can. He came to abhor nationalism as narrow and unjust.

"Mokhtar" by Elaine Mokhtefi; oil on canvas, 2000.
“Mokhtar” by Elaine Mokhtefi; oil on canvas, 2000.
Elaine Mokhtefi

If Mokhtar came to abhor nationalism, did you come to distrust some of the Panthers’ nationalist politics?

Nationalism can become xenophobic or chauvinistic. I don’t think the Panthers wanted to create a separate country; they wanted justice in the United States, for themselves and others. They worked with people of all stripes, Latinos and poor whites.

Did Mokhtar know that you occasionally went on secret missions with the Panthers?
He knew. He knew Eldridge and the Panthers. Actually, he taught them coding.

And he didn’t have a problem with you on dangerous assignments?

No. Danger wasn’t a word we knew. We took a lot of chances.

How were you able to put all these long-ago events, names, places and facts back together for this book? Did you keep a journal at the time?
I never kept a journal. That whole time – from the meetings in Ghana until today – is just so clear in my head. Especially in the New York Algerian office, and then in Algeria. Such extraordinary events, I couldn’t forget them. I’ve forgotten my childhood, but not those times.

What made you leave Algeria?
I was put on a plane and deported in 1974 because I refused to work for the Algerian spy agency. I had a close friend, a woman the Military Security wanted to know about, and they wouldn’t let me off the hook. I kept saying, “No.” One day, they just deported me.

What was that like?

It was like my life had stopped. I wasn’t even able to gather my stuff. Mokhtar came after me a few months later. He was already disappointed in the people governing Algeria and the encroaching military. My being deported was his last straw.

Are you politically active now, in the States?

I still go to demonstrations. Let’s see … the last one I went on was over the Brooklyn Bridge a couple of weeks ago, for the Dreamers.

What, to you, is now the most important political cause?

Palestine. With the regime in Washington, I am trembling for Palestine. I lament the constant US support of Israel, a nuclear power that goes unrecognized as such.

So many formerly revolutionary governments today aren’t much to brag about, yet you haven’t done an about-face to decry the history that you helped make.

I think I’m only in a position to decry what’s happening in the United States.

Why?

Because we have a regime that’s breaking the world up, rather than bringing it closer together. We are all responsible to some degree for Trump’s arrival and for getting him out. Let’s organize! Let’s get out in the streets!