Elaine Mokhtefi arrives in Paris in 1951. Over the following decades she gives her all to facilitate the movement for Algerian Independence, on the way mingling with the best — and worst — political figures of the time.
Mokhtefi ascribes her political awakening to May Day 1952 when she witnesses a huge protest and is at first “bewitched by the formidable display of worker solidarity and trade unionism.” At the rear of the parade she notices thousands of men “young, grim, slightly built and poorly dressed” without banners, rushing with arms raised to join in.
These had been scheduled to be on the demonstration but at the last minute the General Confederation of Labour had tried to block their inclusion. The unions had been told to prevent demands for Algerian Independence at this time as France was trying to crush political insurgence against them in North Africa. From this day the famous French motto “liberté, égalité, fraternité” seemed insincere to Mohkti: “Colonialism and racism stood out as the two pillars of power and supremacy. I was shocked into reality.”
After making herself useful to the provisional Algerian Republic Office in New York Mokhtefi moves to Algiers to help the new independent state. We can only guess at the difficulties faced by a country of 9 million people (of whom only 500 were graduates) suffering many thousands of fatalities from their eight year guerrilla war.
Despite all of that, Mokhtefi describes how Algeria became a haven and catalyst for artists and liberation movements from around the globe. She meets with superstars such as Oscar Peterson, Nina Simone, Maya Angelou, Fidel Castro, Simone de Bouvoir, and Franz Fanon.
The main focus though is her dealings with the Black Panthers, particularly Eldridge Cleaver and his wife Kathleen. When Cleaver is kicked out of the US for attempted murder Mokhtefi becomes his (and the Panther’s) interpreter, fixer and influencer, obtaining a stipend, a villa and national acceptance. When Germany donate a Volkswagen she even fetches it from Hanover to Algiers. At this point I would argue Moktefi’s talents were squandered on the Panthers.
The Black Panthers were famous for their breakfast and educational initiatives (facilitated by female Panthers) in poor black communities in the US but close scrutiny of their dealings in Algiers reveal a violent, macho aspect. Rapes and murders along with commonplace wife-beating is all recounted here.
Contrasting with the difficulty and challenges of her time serving the Panther men, Mokhtefi enjoys the company of the women but it seems that they could only unite when the men were not looking. For instance, when she and Kathleen Cleaver are picked to lead a US speaking/fundraising tour of the newly reformed Panthers, Elaine says those: “days in the states gave me a new perspective on Kathleen. I had known her in Algiers as...subordinate to Eldridge’s whims and decisions. I had witnessed her mean side. Here, she was clearheaded...I once challenged Eldridge on his treatment of her, the verbal abuse and the physical violence we all observed.”
Inexplicably, Mokhtefi states more than once how “I admired the man”. Unfortunately he did not seem to value her as much. When she is deported to Paris for refusing to inform on a friend and asks Eldridge for help (as he is by now well in with the finance minister) he refuses to return her calls. At the last, Elaine Mokhtefi leaves us this absorbing record of survival; both from the Panther’s claws and the heartbreak of being expelled from Algeria.