Algiers, Third World Capital (book review)

Not just for a development-related autobiography enthusiast like me is Elaine Mokhtefi’s Algiers, Third World Capital-Freedom Fighters, Revolutionaries, Black Panthers a literary treat!
Mokhtefi’s memoir centres around the decade after the defeat of France and independence in 1962 until she is forced to leave Algeria.
A journalist, translator, ‘fixer’ as well as book author and seller in later life, Mokhtefi’s vivid anecdotes bring to live a time when ‘alternative development’ meant more than arguing about the best methods for an RCT or what kind of microcredit is more sustainable.
Between Algeria’s competing visions of development, visitors from all across Africa and global connections to various freedom movements a time comes to live that promised so much-a radical shift in world politics and decolonized world long before it became the topic of increased academic interest.

There were so many reflections her book triggered when I read it over the course of a weekend: How the development discourse has changed, of course, but also how we have become so professionalized in everything from education to traveling, journalism and adventure.
Following the journey of a strong-willed young American woman who develops an interest in Algeria during her stay in post-war Paris and subsequently becomes part of the new Algerian independent state is refreshing in its simplicity, in the way of making up things as you go along, improvise and be part of epic historic changes. Quite literally a new state emerges around Mokhetfi and the new elite is happy to have her around as translator, tourism board promoter, news agency staff, journalist and quasi-diplomat.

Black Panthers skyjack their way into town
A key part of the book is dedicated to the stories around the Black Panthers who found exile in Algiers during the turbulent civil rights movement days in the United States. When those two very different worlds of movement politics, fighting imperialism and envision a new society meet, Mokhtefi becomes their interpreter, including for leading Panther Eldridge Cleaver:
I was his interpreter, both linguistically and for an understanding of the society that harbored him. I gave him news of the outside world. When he had a vocabulary loss, he turned to me for the word and meaning. I was less given to compliments than his fans, although I sensed he wanted my approval, especially when we came out of meetings with functionaries, foreign militants, or diplomats (p.195).
In a pre-globalized world Algeria turns into a unique hub for shelter, re-grouping and exchanges that attracts many different liberation and freedom movements:
The Algerians (…) had never known any Americans, let alone Black Panther Americans. (…) They were suspicious of them and in awe of their lifestyle, their prowess and efficiency. (…) When the Panthers arrived, Algeria was a leading light in the Third World, active in international politics and the non-aligned group of nations. They were hosting and training liberation movements from Latin America, Africa and Asia (p.167).
Alas, as exciting as it is to read about an alternative world in transition we also know that it did not last. Neither a progressive, liberal state in Algeria nor the Black Panthers survived beyond the mid-1970s and Mokhtefi’s expulsion, after all she was still an American citizen, brings personal and political stories full circle.

The ambivalence that marked the engagement with global politics and the Black Panthers gives way to authoritarian leanings across North Africa.
While Algeria was avowedly Third World and an outspoken critic of the colonialist and imperialist West, it was in no way a “rogue” state. The authorities wanted it to be known that anyone entertaining thoughts of skyjack aimed at their country should understand that the Algerian government was not their accomplice, even if it judged the hijackers to be victims of an unjust society and was willing to guarantee their personal safety by granting asylum (p.164).
Learning about development from alternative genres
Algiers, Third World Capital, brings out the best in what I appreciate so much about alternative writings about the history of development: Through the eyes of a fascinating personality the reader is immersed in a historical puzzle that vividly and also entertainingly, outlines the complexities of transformation, of alternatives ideas, different ideals and insights into societies, countries and larger parts of the world in limbo. When it comes to popular forms of writing on global developments and using autobiographies as resources for teaching, research and communicating #globaldev, make sure you pick up your copy of Elaine Mokhtefi’s book!

Mokhtefi, Elaine: Algiers, Third World Capital-Freedom Fighters, Revolutionaries, Black Panthers. ISBN 978-1-78873-000-6, 242pp, GBP16.99 (currently on sale for GBP8.50),
London: Verso, 2018.

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