Learning How to Talk, Learning How to Build: Elaine Mokhtefi in Post-Independence Algeria

Elaine Mokhtefi.

This profile is reprinted from Publishers Weekly

Elaine Mokhtefi has waited 44 years to return to Algeria. It’s not that she lacked the ability to travel; in fact, as we speak she’s preparing to head to Brazil. Rather, in 1974, she was deported under suspicious circumstances — barred from reentering the North African nation that defines a core period of her life and of which she writes in her stirring memoir, Algiers, Third World Capital: Freedom Fighters, Revolutionaries, Black Panthers. So how did a young American woman, born to a secular, working-class New York Jewish family and raised during the Depression, end up in Algiers during such a heady period of revolutionary fervor?

“In the 60s, we had the impression that what we did could have an impact,” Mokhtefi says as we talk in her Manhattan apartment. “We felt that we were on the edge of a new world. It was the end of colonialism; the Cold War had only begun.” Mokhtefi has lived here since 1995, around the time she and her late husband, Mokhtar Mokhtefi, returned to the US after two decades in France.

Algiers begins in 1951, as Mokhtefi finishes college and heads to a Paris that she describes as “still bandaged and suffering from the loss of status and self-respect” inflicted during WWII. On May Day 1952, she writes that she experienced an “enlightenment” regarding colonialism and racism that stemmed from seeing the French trade union confederation block Algerian laborers from marching with them in the parade. “I was shocked into reality,” she says.

Not long after, Mokhtefi began work as a translator and interpreter, which allowed her to travel to India, Italy, Mali, and Sweden. “At international meetings, you would always meet representatives of Algerian independence movements,” she says.

In the background, France had commenced and continued to wage a brutal war, which would last nearly eight years, against Algeria, which was bent on independence. In 1960, Mokhtefi landed in Brussels at the World Assembly of Youth headquarters. “I organized the international conference in Accra, and as a result I met these people from all around the world.”

The hustle took its toll and Mokhtefi soon returned to New York, where she worked with the Algerian Front de Libération Nationale until 1962, when France finally conceded to Algeria’s demands for independence. “Our role was to convince the world that Algeria had to be independent and France had to stop this crazy war,” she says. “It was difficult, but very fulfilling. Once Algeria was independent, I decided I would go there. I had never been.”

Algeria was an underdeveloped rural nation pillaged by generations of French settlers, nearly all of whom left at the end of the war. “It was really a new country,” Mokhtefi says. “They had to become a real country, not just an appendage to France.”

Mokhtefi became a journalist, and in 1969 she was tapped to help organize the Pan-African Cultural Festival in Algiers that year. “How we did it I really don’t know, but it came off and it was a beautiful event,” she says. “Every single country of Africa came, with theater groups, musicians, dancers; it was absolutely extraordinary. And from the African diaspora as well — from Brazil, from the United States. It was a total success.”

It followed on the heels of another momentous occurrence: “The Panthers arrived one month before the festival opened. Eldridge arrived in early June 1969 and the festival took place in July,” Mokhtefi says. Facing attempted murder charges, Cleaver fled the US to Cuba, then headed to Algeria, which, since obtaining independence, had become a haven of sorts for revolutionaries.

Over the next few years, Mokhtefi, Cleaver, and other exiled Panthers engaged in an array of over-the-top adventures and international intrigue. Her descriptions of Cleaver shed new light on the controversial figure. “He was very smart, he was funny, he was very attractive as a man,” she says. “He was bigger than life. I think I served as a kind of conscience for him. He could tell me whatever he wanted to tell me, he could ask my advice, he could talk to me and it had no consequences.”

But Mokhtefi has no illusions about Cleaver’s dark side. “Eldridge was an operator,” she says. “He liked to push things further than they should go.”

Did Mokhtefi ever doubt his revolutionary zeal? “He changed his life when he had to,” she says. “He became a revolutionary, and when it was no longer useful for him, he became something else. He became a born-again Christian, and he became a drug addict, which he wasn’t when he was in Algiers, of course — not at all.”

As Mokhtefi explains, in the revolutionary milieu of the time, there was much more to liberation than just political institutions: it was about living in a way that felt liberatory and new and open. “Independence isn’t just a question of a flag,” she says. “Independence was learning how to talk, it was learning how to build, it was learning how to accept others. Concretely, how is this country going to survive?”

In the midst of the liberation war, oil and gas were discovered in Algeria. “They didn’t know they were going to be one of the suppliers of gas and oil to the world,” Mokhtefi says. “So they had to build that industry. And they had to build other industries. Imagine a country without any doctors, without any teachers — a university with no professors. They were tough times but very exciting. When something succeeded, it was so wonderful.”

Mokhtefi runs through the numerous quandaries the Algerians faced. “The main tendency was toward socialism,” she says. “So they started taking over everything that the French left behind, which were apartments, small industries, small businesses, but then they had to manage it all.”

“I personally felt very involved,” Mokhtefi says of her engagement with nation building. But in 1974, she was forced to leave, suspecting that a refusal to inform on a friend tipped the Algerian police apparatus against her. She returned to France, where she was technically also banned, but through some fortunate connections was able to rectify her residency status. She and Mokhtar lived in Paris making and selling jewelry, among other things, until family circumstances brought them to the States.

Mokhtefi no longer makes jewelry, but paints instead, and some of her portraits hang in her apartment. “I was always interested in art, but I never drew or painted during that period of time,” she says. One day, she walked by the Art Students League in Manhattan and said, “That’s it — I’m going there.”

Mokhtefi’s painterly eye is apparent throughout the book, and she describes her experiences in painstaking detail. Yet she never kept journals. “All of those memories are stuck in my mind,” she says. “They’re rich and full; they’re not things you forget. I can’t remember who I met yesterday, but I can pull all that stuff out. And with my husband, we would talk about it all the time. A main topic of conversation was Algeria and everything that happened to him and to me. It remains with me.”

Mokhtefi informs me that she recently received clearance from the Algerian consulate in New York to enter Algeria again. She has already made plans to visit in the fall, after she launches the book. “It’s a magnificent feeling that I can get to go back,” she says.