Mokhtar Mokhtefi: A Free Algeria Was Always Worth the Fight

In 1951, Elaine Klein, a young Jewish radical from Hempstead, New York, moved to Paris and soon became involved with the impoverished and persecuted Algerian immigrant community there. By late 1954, when the Algerian War of Independence began, she was swept up in the exploding struggle against over a century of French colonial domination. After Algeria won independence in 1962, Elaine worked for the new Algerian Ministry of Information, which, at one point, asked her to help Black Panther Party members fleeing the United States find a home among other revolutionary groups in Algiers. And, in 1972 — as if she hadn’t already encountered enough life-changing events — Elaine met Mokhtar Mokhtefi, a devoted nationalist who had fought in the armed branch of Algeria’s National Liberation Front (FLN) during the war.

Elaine and Mokhtar lived together on three continents over 45 years. During that time, they married and remained engaged in various political and intellectual battles for revolutionary justice — even if that battle at times led them to confront aspects of the revolution itself. After Mokhtar’s death from cancer in 2015, Elaine published a memoir of her time with the Panthers, Algiers, Third World Capital. And early this year, she finished translating the forthcoming English edition of Mokhtar’s book, I Was a French Muslim: Memories of an Algerian Freedom Fighter. In his memoir, Mokhtar writes of growing up, a butcher’s son in an obscure Algerian village, while growing into a widening political awareness.

Elaine Mokhtefi still lives in the Manhattan apartment she and Mokhtar shared for years. Some weeks ago, I sat with her at the table where she and Mokhtar had talked so often and so long. I asked her about Algeria, about Mokhtar, about his work. First, I wanted to know just what the title “French Muslim” means.

Elaine Mokhtefi: This was Mokhtar’s French ID. Algeria was considered part of France, but that identity told him precisely that he was not French. It’s like, during the Second World War, France identified Jews as “juif” in national papers, to differentiate them from the rest of the population. Mokhtar’s ID, “français musulman,” separated him and all Algerians from the pied noirs, the French women and men. If you were one of the colonized people, you were considered Muslim — you weren’t even asked if you actually were Muslim. There were all sorts of regulations, and the French used whatever means they had — the police, the army — to make sure the “Muslim” population stayed under their control.

susie day: Mokhtar was the youngest of six boys in a traditional Algerian family, right? He writes about his family so beautifully.

He had a great family — a rather extended one. He was loved by everyone, except maybe Mustafa, the brother just before him; he was the bane of Mustafa’s existence. His mother, as he explains in the book, was veiled and didn’t go out alone, had never been to his father’s butcher shop. But at home, she was the sultan and she ruled. He felt very close to her and knew all of her defects — he’d go through them — but he did adore her.

Mokhtar’s grammar school teacher notices his intelligence, and Mokhtar wins a competition to attend this lycée, a prestigious French high school in another town. No one in his family had ever gone to middle or high school before. So now he’s away from home, alone among French kids, and he describes himself as feeling “mutilated.”

Yes, leaving the family when it was so closely intact, everything he had learned — every meal, every thought, the street — was through the family. Suddenly there was no family.

Did he put up a fight at first?

At 12 [years old], he read Egyptian history. He couldn’t believe there’d been a religion based on pharaohs. [Laughs] Oh, no, that can’t be true — Egyptians were Muslims from the beginning of time! Eventually, though, he was very startled by his French education — he’d expected to be in eternal opposition — he hadn’t expected to like it. But as he kept learning, there were subjects he couldn’t discuss with his family. They’re village people and he’s becoming worldly — and very political. He was very confused at several points: Who was he?

It’s ironic that, as Mokhtar was becoming educated — and increasingly conscious of French occupation — he came to embrace the Enlightenment-based values of France’s purported “liberté, égalité, fraternité.”

He was able to translate them into an anti-colonial struggle. You know, I think that neither Mokhtar’s book nor mine really show you how the French came with their tanks and their airplanes and napalm and helicopters — American helicopters — and killed, from west to east Algeria. They must have killed 2 million people out of a population of 9 million. They wiped out whole villages and fields and animals and locked people up in concentration camps. This was a vile war. Vile, violent, venomous.

Mokhtar writes that, like thousands of Algerians, he was ready to give his life for a free, independent Algeria. So, in 1957, he joins the National Liberation Army (ALN). They assign him to the Signal Corps, where he learns to code. But then, to deepen this ongoing tragedy, Mokhtar begins to see corruption and abuse inside the army.

He found it difficult to guide himself through the mess and maze that the Algerian wartime organizations became. But at some point, as he got a little more secure in the ranks, Mokhtar decided to strike out and tell people what he thought. He became an anomaly in the military. Most people were obedient, but he often didn’t watch his back. He judged some of his commanding officers as ignorant and ego-bound and corrupt — and sometimes very violent.

I remember Mokhtar’s horrible story, where a commander orders him to prove his manhood by strangling two men who were suspected of treason. Somehow, the task is passed down to another soldier, who repeatedly wakes up screaming after he executes the two. Like Mokhtar, he believed they were innocent.

A woman sits at her table
Elaine Mokhtefi sits at a dining table on July 25, 2021.

The fact that he even tells this story is amazing. It was complicated by the origins of the individuals. There was also a class warfare going on. The commander was of a different Algerian social background (but from the same town) as the man ordered to strangle the two dissidents. Mokhtar doesn’t shy away from that. Many Algerians have written stories of their lives in this war, but few have been as frank.

Mokhtar saw the lack of democracy. He saw decisions imposed — not discussed — by the strongest and those who had the best weapons. Some of the decisions were absolutely inhumane. Former leaders were arrested, some were tortured — torture for an independent Algeria? Mokhtar couldn’t get over it.

At the end of his book, Mokhtar, who’s been serving in the ALN in Morocco, casts his ballot for independence and drives into a now-free Algeria — only to be met by an armed guard who holds Mokhtar’s papers upside down, pretending to read them. Mokhtar writes: “Ignorance out of the barrel of a gun is preparing us for bitter tomorrows.”

Mokhtar expected a radiant Algeria that would fulfill his dreams of independence, freedom — and the first person he meets going back is this soldier who seems to think it’s enough to hold a gun. But Mokhtar kept working for independence.

After 132 years of colonization, Algeria was about 90 percent illiterate at [the time of its] independence. But the new government also had the largest percentage for education of any national budget in the world. So Mokhtar became the first head of the General Union of Algerian Muslim Students and launched the student publication Revolution at the University. He went on to work at the Ministry of Agriculture and Land Reform.

You worked in the new Algerian government yourself. How did you two finally meet?

I met him accidentally in 1972. I was in Algiers, driving my friend Behja, who saw Mokhtar on the street and told me to stop. Mokhtar walked over and poked his head through the car window. Next day, he asked my friend to organize a dinner and invite me.

And at dinner?

I thought he was very handsome. And funny. He had a way of telling stories and cracking jokes. When he asked if I’d drop him off at home — I had a car — I said, “Of course.”

Did he get fresh?

No, no, no. He smoked a cigarette — we both smoked at the time — and said he’d call me. A couple of days later, he called, and things moved faster.

We would do things I had never done, closely, with anyone. We would read together — poetry, essays. Not only did we get to know each other better, we got to know ourselves better. He taught me a lot about my own parents. [Laughs] He felt Americans were much too hard on their parents. He used to say, “They gave you life — why be so critical?” I remember, we’d wake up in the morning and start writing down all that had passed in our heads during the night. There was a sense that we didn’t know enough.

About each other?

An oil oainting of a man wearing glasses
“Mokhtar” by Elaine Mokhtefi; oil on canvas, 2000.

About the world. Algeria was our main subject of conversation: our stories of the war, the political activity leading up to the war, different people. After all, we had gotten to know most of the major political personalities. So we could compare thinking, compare experiences.

You wrote a book about your experience as Algeria’s liaison to Black Panther Party members like Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver. Did Mokhtar also hang out with the Panthers?

He knew them all because he knew me, though they didn’t speak any French at the time. He thought they were much too open in their communications — and they were. They were Americans, after all. Algerians are very closed; they don’t tell secrets. Mokhtar thought they needed some kind of coding system and taught Don Cox [a Black Panther Party member, also known as “DC”] some coding. He was also very fond of Kathleen.

Then, two years later, in 1974, the Algerian government banned you.

Right. I was kicked out because I refused to spy on my friend for Algerian military security. She was visiting [Ahmed] Ben Bella in prison [the first Algerian prime minister, then president, deposed in the 1965 coup]. Mokhtar did his best to get that decision changed. He went to several people, including a government minister, but there was no way. For Mokhtar, it was the last straw. So he gave up the idea of staying in Algeria.

He could have moved high up in the government — he knew all the Algerian leaders — but he cared more for principle and ethics. It tore at him, what things had become. So he straightened out his affairs, got rid of his apartment, folded his clothes, put them in a suitcase, and left Algeria to join me in Paris. When he [made] a decision … it was very difficult to get Mokhtar to change his mind.

You lived together in Paris for 20 years. Why did you come to New York?

French laws were tightening on immigrants, legal and illegal, from former French colonies, mainly from Africa. To be brown-skinned and Algerian in France was the equivalent of being Black in the United States. You couldn’t get into the metro without squads of police asking for your papers. The communist and socialist parties were in decline. The National Front, the far right party, under the aegis of the Le Pen family — now Marine Le Pen — had gained strength. All this had grown out of Islamophobia and Holocaust denial. It’s nationalism in the worst sense of the term.

We came to New York in the late 1990s, and Mokhtar immediately took English as a Second Language at Columbia University’s Teachers College. He got good enough to make a speech. After 9/11, he was often called upon to attempt to explain the Islamic world he came from. We also took part in antiwar and Free Palestine demonstrations. We joined climate marches, Occupy Wall Street, anti-racist mobilizations…

How did Mokhtar change, politically, over the years?

Until his death, Mokhtar said that Algeria would be part of him. He went back every year to visit his family. But he’d lost his nationalism. He came to dislike nationalism as dangerous, conflictual. His love of country, though, was something beyond that.

Personally, I understand the nationalism of a country like Algeria, fighting colonialism. But I find it difficult to accept when it’s used to define a nation as superior, as opposed to seeking a shared humanity. The U.S. Republican Party now is an example of destructive nationalism: anti-immigrant, anti-Black, anti-Muslim, antisemitic, anti-voting rights…

Mokhtar died in 2015, before he knew his memoir would see daylight. What has translating and editing this book meant to you?

Everything. Mokhtar would be over the moon. He never imagined it would be published in New York. I can’t wait for the day when I see it in a bookshop.

Because what I think Mokhtar wants you to see is that, even with all its disappointments and disillusionment, the belief in an independent Algeria was extraordinary. That any time you stand up for freedom, it’s worth the fight.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

CORRECTION: This article was updated on September 22, 2021, to reflect Elaine’s maiden name as Klein.