The Correspondence of Kamel Daoud

Read an open letter to Kamel Daoud, signed by 19 academics, responding to Daoud’s recent writings.

Americans who know the Algerian writer Kamel Daoud most likely heard of him for the first time last summer, when his transcendent novel, The Meursault Investigation, came out in English. Its appearance in the U.S. was preceded by a blitz of publicity (from myself included) such that by the time the book was available, its reception had been primed in the pages of The New Yorker and in a thoughtful profile by Adam Shatz in The New York Times Magazine. But Daoud had long before established himself as one of the most vivid voices in the French language in his column, read faithfully by many Algerians in the Quotidien d’Oran, a daily in the city where he lives, and, after his novel won a number of prizes in France, including the Goncourt for best first novel, in the French press as well. Especially after the attacks at Charlie Hebdo in Paris last January, which were followed by more devastating terrorist violence in November, Daoud’s perspective, though it could be politically elusive and knowingly provocative, became a sought-after commodity.

At the end of January, Daoud published a column in Le Monde entitled “Cologne, Scene of Fantasies.” In his heavily literary and allegorical style, he took on the events of New Year’s Eve in Cologne, Germany, when several hundred women were allegedly assaulted en masse, resulting in more than 800 complaints of robbery and sexual aggression and more than 50 arrests of young men, most of them of North African or Middle Eastern backgrounds. “In the West, the refugee or immigrant may save his body,” Daoud wrote, “but he will not be able to negotiate his culture with the same ease, and if we forget this we do so out of disregard.” He suggested that any welcoming of refugees would need to be accompanied by efforts to “convince the soul to change.” Daoud went on to denounce the treatment of women in the unspecified homelands of these Cologne perpetrators, where the female body “belongs to everyone except the woman herself” and is “the incarnation of a necessary desire, and therefore guilty of a terrible crime: life.” He pronounces sex “the greatest misery in the ‘lands of Allah,’” a theme he took up in a second article that ran shortly thereafter in The New York Times, which addressed some of the same events and themes, and aroused equal controversy. A group of 19 academics responded by signing a petition, which also ran in Le Monde, in which they accused Daoud of “recycling the most worn-out Orientalist clichés.” They presented an analysis of what they considered to be his errors—“radical” essentialism and mass psychologizing. They took issue with what they described as his characterization of these immigrants as “psychologically deviant,” and with his “colonial paternalism.” They concluded by noting that Daoud is a “secular intellectual—a minority—in his country, fighting against a sometimes violent puritanism,” (he has been threatened by a fatwa in the past) but that “in the European context he nevertheless espouses an Islamophobia that is now shared by the majority.”

What follows here is the correspondence, initially private though subsequently made public in Le Monde, between Adam Shatz and Kamel Daoud. The letters were exchanged as the French press erupted over the clash, and Daoud announced, having only just won a prestigious journalism award in France, that he was quitting journalism altogether. The exchange between Shatz and Daoud is interesting for the way that the clear kinship between two writers allows them to circle around, without perhaps coming to any firm conclusions, the questions that weigh so heavily on the present moment: Who has the right to speak on behalf of whom, how can criticism be wielded in a highly charged and politicized context, and, as thousands of refugees from the Middle East arrive in Europe, what discussions should be had and which, if any, are off limits?


Dear Kamel,

A few days ago, a Tunisian friend sent me an op-ed that had appeared in Le Monde. The text bore the signatures of a number of academics I know. These academics are a bit bien-pensant*, I admit, but even so they are not your enemies—at least they ought not to be your enemies. The tone of their letter bothered me. I didn’t appreciate its style of public denunciation, which, in its leftist puritanism, reminded me of the Soviet-era excommunications. And you must know that as your friend, I wouldn’t sign such a letter against you, even though I do not at all share the opinions that you expressed in your article in Le Monde, and shortly thereafter repeated, even more vigorously it seems to me, in your editorial in The New York Times.

It is very difficult for me to imagine that you could really believe what you wrote. This was not the Kamel Daoud I know, and whom I profiled in a long article for the Times Magazine. When I was in Oran, we spoke at length about the problems of sexuality in the Arab-Muslim world. But we also spoke of the ambiguities of “culture” (a word that I dislike); for example, the fact that veiled women are sometimes among the most sexually emancipated. In your recent writings, it’s as though all the ambiguities that we discussed so extensively, and which you, more than anyone, could analyze in all their nuance, had disappeared. What’s more, you did this in publications read by Western audiences who will find in your writing little more than a confirmation of their own prejudices and preconceptions.

I’m not saying you’re doing it on purpose, or even that you’re playing the game of the “imperialists.” I’m not accusing you of anything. Except perhaps of not thinking, and of falling into strange and potentially dangerous traps—for example, the idea that there is a direct relationship between what happened in Cologne and Islamism, or even Islam itself.

I would remind you that several years ago a similar thing happened—not of the same magnitude, but it happened nonetheless—at the Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York City. The Puerto Ricans who molested women in the street were not under the influence of Islam but rather of alcohol … Without any evidence that it was “Islam” that drove the behavior of the men in Cologne, it seems curious to me to put forth such propositions and to suggest that this “illness” is threatening Europe … In her classic book, Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag demonstrated that this concept of “illness” has a somewhat dark history, often tied to Fascism. Jews, as you well know, were themselves considered a strain of illness; and European anti-Semites in the 19th century, at the very moment of emancipation, were extremely preoccupied with the sexual customs of Jews and with the dominance of Jewish men over women … the echoes of this obsession make me uneasy.

I’m not saying that we should refrain from speaking at all about the question of sexual freedom in the Arab-Muslim world—of course we shouldn’t. There are plenty of writers who have addressed the subject in ways that have been revelatory (the Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi, the Syrian poet Adonis, and, albeit a bit hysterically at times, the Algerian novelist Rachid Boujedra), and I know from our conversations, and from your masterful novel, that you are well poised to take on this subject. In fact there are very few who can speak of it with such incisiveness as you can—but after having reflected on it and in a manner that goes beyond provocation and cliché.

After I read the op-ed, I had lunch with an Egyptian author, a friend whom I know you would like, and she told me that all her young friends in Cairo are bisexual. Discreetly, of course, but they live their lives. They get their orgasms, even before marriage; they are creative about it, they invent a life for themselves, and, who knows, maybe even for the future of Egypt. There was no space for this reality in the articles you published. There was only “misery”—and the threat presented by these misérables who find themselves now as refugees in Europe. As Jews say at Passover (which Israelis in Palestine have forgotten): We must always remember that we were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Kamel, you are so brilliant, and you are tender as well, that I know. It is up to you, alone, to decide how you wish to engage in politics. But I want you to know that I am worried for you, and I hope that you will consider your positions carefully … and that you will return to the form of expression in which, in my opinion, you are truly at your best: literature.

I hope you understand that I write this to you out of the deepest feeling of friendship.

Dear friend,

I read your letter with care, of course. I was touched by the generosity and the lucidity within it. Strangely enough, your words have reinforced the decision I’ve come to over the last few days. I took from them, above all, the tender expression of your friendship and support, despite your concern. However, I would like to respond.

For a long time I have written with a spirit that is unencumbered by the opinions of others when they are the dominant ones. This has given me a certain freedom of tone, a style maybe, but also the liberty of insolence and irresponsibility, of audacity. Naiveté perhaps. Some have appreciated this style, others were not into it. I have taunted radicalism, and I have tried to defend my freedom in the face of clichés that I found horrifying. I have also tried to think. To do so by way of newspaper articles, or through literature. Not only because I wanted to succeed, but also because I was terrified of living a life without meaning. During the difficult years in Algeria, journalism allowed me to live the metaphor of writing, the myth of experience. So I wrote often, too much, feverishly, with anger, and amusement. I said what I thought about the fate of women in my country, of freedom, of religion, and the other big questions that may bring a person into consciousness, to the point of renunciation or fundamentalism, depending on what one wants in life. Except that today, with the media success that I’ve had, I’ve come to understand a few things.

First of all, that we have entered into an age of litmus tests. If you are not on one side, you are on the other. With regard to the Cologne text, I actually wrote about part of it—the piece about women—several years ago. At the time it elicited no reaction, or very little. Today, the temperament has changed: Tensions lead people to read into it, and over-interpretation leads to prosecution. I wrote both this article and the one that appeared in The New York Times in early January; that the publication of the first was followed so quickly by the second was merely an accident, and not an insistence on my part. I was moved to write out of shame and anger at my own people, and because I live in this country, in this land. I said what I think and offered my analysis of something that we can’t bury away beneath the pretext of “cultural benevolence.” I am a writer, and I do not write academic papers. What I write is also emotion.

I find it immoral that these academics should now sign a petition against me because of this text. They do not inhabit my flesh, nor my country, and I consider illegitimate if not scandalous that some of them pronounce me guilty of Islamophobia from their Western capitals and their café terraces, where comfort and security reign. All of it served up in the form of a Stalinesque trial, and with the bias of the expert: “I lecture the native because I speak better than he does of the interests of other natives and post-decolonials.” It is, to me, an intolerable position. I think it is immoral furthermore to offer me as fodder to local hatred under the verdict of “Islamophobia,” a banner that serves today as an Inquisition. It’s shameful to accuse me of all this, all the while remaining very far away from my daily experience and that of the people I live with.

There is great beauty in Islam, depending on who carries it, but I like for religion to be a path toward a god, and that the steps of the man who follows it resonate along the way. These coddled petitioners have given no thought to the consequences of their actions on the lives of others.

Dear friend, I also understand that we are in a difficult moment. In another era, it was the writer who came in from the cold; today it is the writer who comes in from the so-called “Arab world” who is entrapped, ordered around, shoved in the back, and cast off. Over-interpretation follows him everywhere, and the media harasses him, on the one hand to reinforce a certain worldview, on the other to reject and deny. The treatment of women is tied to my future and to the future of my people. In our lands, desire is unwell, and the body is under siege. That is undeniable, and I must say it aloud and denounce it. But all of a sudden, I find myself responsible for how this will be interpreted depending on the place and the atmosphere. Denouncing ambient theocracy at home becomes an Islamophobic argument elsewhere. Is this my fault? Partly. But it is also the fault of our time. That is what happened with the article on Cologne. I accept it, but I am also saddened that it could be used to deny the humanity of the Other. Today the writer from the land of Allah finds himself the target of unbearable media solicitations. I can’t do much about that, but I can remove myself from it; I had believed I could do so with wisdom, but I can also do it with silence, as I choose to do henceforth.

And so I am turning to literature, and on that point, you’re right. I will leave journalism shortly. I am going to go listen to trees or to hearts. Read. Recover my confidence and my tranquility. Explore. Not give up, but go beyond the trends and the media games. I have resolved to pry deeper rather than perform.

I have for my country the affection of the disenchanted. A love that is secret and strong. A passion. I love the people and the skies, which I try to decipher in books and in glimpses at night. I dream of power, of sovereignty for my people, of consciousness and togetherness. And I am disappointed that I’m not living this dream. It makes me angry, pushes me to chastise lovingly. I do not hate my own, nor the humanity of others. I’m not insulting their reason. But I exercise my right to be free. This right has been misinterpreted, sought out, mistreated, and judged. Now, I also want the freedom to do other things. And I apologize a thousand times, dear Adam, if at any moment I have let you down.

If I now choose to make this letter public, it’s because it is addressed to caring people of good faith like you. And above all to you.

*a combination of self-righteousness and well-meaning intention



Introduction and translation by Elisabeth Zerofsky. 

[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

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