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Kamel Daoud: Measure a country's health by its relationship with women

The Algerian writer who's revisited Albert Camus was a guest speaker at Germany's top literature festival. He's been the target of Islamists and accused of Islamophobia - but claims he only aims for women to be free.

"Women's freedom is my freedom," said Kamel Daoud - and applause thundered at the Lit.Cologne, Germany's most important literature festival, even before he could finish his sentence. Although his voice was slightly distorted through the Skype call, his message was strong and clear: You can measure a country's health by its relationship with women, he declared.

He was invited to the festival to read his book "The Meursault Investigation," but a recent car accident has left him unable to travel, which is why he did the talk via video from his home in Oran, Algeria. In the opening words of his presentation, the author mentioned how he hopes to discover Cologne for himself one day. When the city became world famous for its sexual assaults on women over New Year's Eve, the Algerian author had reacted to them in the French newspaper "Le Monde."

Cologne train station, where a number of assaults took place on New Year's Eve. Copyright: Reuters/W. Rattay

The New Year's Eve attacks in Cologne were reported all over the world. Kamel Daoud also asked: Who was behind the assaults?

Cologne, 'a place of fantasies'

The arrival of refugees in Europe has highlighted the naivety of Western countries, he wrote. "The average refugee may take a long time to understand the relation to women that's fundamental to Occidental modernity."

Having managed to save his life by giving up his home, a refugee will not give up his culture so lightly, he wrote. Herd instinct or the slightest emotional obstacle may painfully bring it all back at once, he added.

His op-ed did not go unnoticed. It was published in different countries, including in German in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung." It was strongly criticized: Academics accused Daoud of further spreading the hatred that already existed in Europe against refugees from Muslim countries.

Yet in that same piece, Daoud starts out by pointing out that Cologne is "a place of fantasies," referring not only to the sexual fantasies of the assailants, but also to the quick interpretations of far-right extremists, who have feared a barbarian invasion in their civilized world for ages, he wrote.

During his Skype presentation in Cologne, he specified that he is not fighting specifically against Islamism, but it happens to be the form of terrorism affecting his country now.

"Terrorism is a universal disease. It doesn't matter if we are talking about Muslim, Jewish or Catholic fundamentalists. They all have a disturbed relation to the body. Women are the ones who give life, and because terrorists do not love life, they hate women," the author said at the Lit.Cologne.

A reply to Albert Camus: Who was that unnamed Arab?

Kamel Daoud has become one of the most respected intellectuals in the Arab world over the last two years. His novel "The Meursault Investigation" sparked controversy when it was published in France in 2014. The Algerian author had dared rewrite the great French classic "The Stranger" by Albert Camus.

In this revisited version of the book, Daoud gives an identity the nameless Arab who gets shot on the beach by Camus' existential character Meursault, who claims he did it for no real reason, but "because of the sun." Daoud calls him Musa, and tells the story after his murder from the perspective of his brother. This tale is filled with anger at the French colonialists who can simply kill an Arab without even bothering to name him.

"I'm sorry to disappoint you, but I'm not a postcolonialist who wanted to take revenge on Camus. I loved reading 'The Stranger' too," Daoud said in Cologne. He simply wanted to continue the story, he added.

In his novel, Harun, the main character, turns out to be a mirror image of Meursault. He kills a Frenchman who happens to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Harun can't even claim to have done it in the name of the Algerian Revolution unfolding at that same period, even though freedom fighters would have preferred him to do so and save the honor of the Algerian man.

French author Albert Camus, Copyright: STF/AFP/Getty Images

Inspiration or opponent? Albert Camus is one of the most famous French authors of the 20th century

Women also play an important role in his novel. The main character continuously refers to his mother, and to a woman called Meriem, described as the kind of woman no longer to be found in the country, "free to conquer and to be conquered, surrendering to no one - her body a gift, not a sin or a shame."

A fatwa and an unprecedented court decision

Kamel Daoud had been targeted by Islamists way before he wrote this sentence. He has been a columnist for the Algerian newspaper "Le Quotidien d'Oran" for the last 20 years. There, as well as in French newspapers and TV shows, he has repeatedly referred to Islamism as "the biggest enemy of freedom."

In December 2014, Abdelfattah Hamadache, leader of the banned Islamist party Front de la Sahwa islamique salafiste, declared a fatwa against Daoud. The preacher wrote on his Facebook page that Daoud is attacking God and his Prophet and that he should be publicly executed. The Algerian authorities did not provide police protection for Daoud afterwards. He suspected the state wanted to drive him into exile, but he refused to leave.

A few days ago, a court surprisingly condemned the Salafist preacher to six months in prison, three without parole. According to experts, this is the first time that a fundamentalist is condemned in the Arab-Muslim world for death threats against an intellectual - a huge success for Daoud, who had sued him.

Nevertheless, the author has decided to stop writing essays in newspapers and concentrate on his novels. He managed to fight against Islamists, but when he had to start dealing with left-wing intellectuals in France and Europe, who accused him of being Islamophobic after his text on Cologne, he felt it was too much. "I'll take a break for one or two years," he revealed in Cologne, "and then I'll come back. But don't tell anyone."

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