I’m a big fan of the Algerian novelist Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation, which I read last year. It was a brilliant deconstruction of L’Etranger, which movingly and provocatively imagined the voice of the Arab colonial subject that was missing from the Camus’s novel.
In doing so, it invited Camus’s readers to re-think the essential assumptions of a novel generally considered to a triumphant expression of 20th century humanism, and exposed the narrow prism through which Camus viewed colonial Algerian society, and which reduced its non-French members to props and bystanders in a supposedly universal existential fable.
The result was a combination of homage/critique and essential companion piece to Camus’s novel, which fused a profound meditation on the impact of French colonialism and French culture on Algerian society with an equally unsparing overview of the failings of post-colonial Algerian history, from the War of Independence to the Islamist surge of the late 1980s and the bloody civil war that followed.
To have achieved all this in 160 pages is no mean feat. It was fearless, moving, and audacious. All the more disappointing therefore, to read Daoud’s response to the Cologne sex attacks in the New York Times last week entitled ‘The Sexual Misery of the Arab World.’. To say that Daoud’s article is not helpful doesn’t really begin to describe it. Where The Mersault Investigation challenged prejudices and received ideas, Daoud’s take on the Cologne attacks reinforces clichés, stereotypes and assumptions that routinely emanate from people far less intelligent than he is.
Daoud’s essential premise is that
‘The attacks on Western women by Arab migrants in Cologne, Germany, on New Year’s Eve evoked the harassment of women in Tahrir Square itself during the heady days of the Egyptian revolution. The reminder has led people in the West to realize that one of the great miseries plaguing much of the so-called Arab world, and the Muslim world more generally, is its sick relationship with women.‘
Daoud rightly attacks some of the brutal absurdities resulting from fundamentalist sexual repression in Algeria and other Arab countries and the obsessive fixation with female sexual behaviour at the heart of it. But his notion that what happened in Cologne was a product of a uniquely Arab sexual pathology seems oblivious and even indifferent to what actually took place, or to the utterly spurious interpretations placed on the horrific events of New Year’s Eve.
When news of the Cologne attacks first broke, they were initially blamed on refugees, and on Syrian refugees in particular. Across Europe Cologne was cited by the far-right as evidence of the cultural and civilizational incompatibility of Europe’s refugees or the product of ‘Arab’ or ‘Muslim’ savagery. In newspaper comments pages, twitter and Internet websites the outrage at the treatment of ‘our’ women was often combined with a morbid and gleeful condemnation of Europe’s ‘bleeding heart’ liberals, who had led these savages into the metropolis and been hoist by their own petard.
In various European cities, this outrage spilled into chivalry, as militiamen and motorcycle gangs established vigilante groups to defend the flower of European womanhood by attacking anyone who looked like a refugee. The Cologne attacks also produced cultural commentary, such as this ‘satirical’ image from Charlie Hebdo:
In some German cities local authorities handed out leaflets informing refugees how women should be properly treated. Personally, I suspect that the scumbags who carried out the attacks in Cologne know perfectly well how women should be treated – they simply chose to use their power of physical intimidation and domination, as some men will do pretty much anywhere when they get the chance.
Daoud sees these events as a product of an explosive collision between the repressed and forbidden desires of the Middle East and the continual orgy that takes place in the liberated West. After all
‘Paradise and its virgins are a pet topic of preachers, who present these otherworldly delights as rewards to those who dwell in the lands of sexual misery. Dreaming about such prospects, suicide bombers surrender to a terrifying, surrealistic logic: The path to orgasm runs through death, not love.’
Yeah, sure it does. And Daoud also seems to believe that the path to orgasm also runs through Cologne Central Station. Never mind that Cologne was not quite what it seemed to be, let alone what it was portrayed as being. According to the Cologne public prosecutor only three of the 58 suspects arrested in connection with these attacks were refugees. In addition, 600 out of 1000 reported incidents that took place in Cologne on New Year’s Eve were related to theft, and were not sexual attacks.
That still leaves 400 incidents that were sexually-related, so we are still dealing with a major incident of sexual violence and harassment perpetrated mostly by men of Middle Eastern or North African origin. But that does not support Daoud’s crass notion of a cultural and civilisational clash that comes straight out of the counterjihadist playbook.
‘… today, with the latest influx of migrants from the Middle East and Africa, the pathological relationship that some Arab countries have with women is bursting onto the scene in Europe. What long seemed like the foreign spectacles of faraway places now feels like a clash of cultures playing out on the West’s very soil. Differences once defused by distance and a sense of superiority have become an imminent threat. People in the West are discovering, with anxiety and fear, that sex in the Muslim world is sick, and that the disease is spreading to their own lands.’
Tommy Robinson and Pegida couldn’t have put it better. Neither they – nor Daoud – seem to care that this ‘disease’ was already present before the refugee hordes came here. As I’ve argued in another piece, women have been subjected to sexual harassment, rape and the threat of rape in liberated Europe for a long time. Many women in Europe continue to experience ‘anxiety and fear’ at the hands of men on a daily basis. German women are regularly assaulted at the Munich beer festival, amongst other events, yet such things only ever seem to become politically important when Arabs or Muslims are responsible.
Daoud’s intervention is no exception. He notes that ‘ The West has long found comfort in exoticism, which exonerates differences’, yet he himself merely reinforces spurious notions of cultural difference and incompatibility that are already reflected in magazine covers like this one:
That cover ‘exonerates differences’ alright, even as it references long established cultural tropes about white women being sexually molested by brown-skinned savages as a kind of metaphor for the ‘Islamic rape of Europe.’
Daoud seems uninterested in why such things happen. Where the likes of wSIECI have used the Cologne attacks to recycle racist imagery, he has used these attacks to support the notion of a cultural clash between a ‘sick’ Arab world and a presumably healthy and liberated West.
It’s shallow, crude, and dangerous stuff. In The Meursault Investigation Daoud was an unsparing critic of colonial and post-colonial Algeria. Here he acts like a ‘native informant’, telling a Western audience what too many of its members already like to believe about themselves – and about the others who can never be like us.