When I thought of you from my abode in Africa I also often thought of the United States. You were both unreachable places, at once too sophisticated and too fabulous for me. You, France, the most cultured nation in the world, the land of Human rights, of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, and you America, the country of the future, with your sleek cars, your skyscrapers, your modern inventions and your Hollywood stars.
When, in my teens, I first arrived with my mother to visit Paris, I was bowled over by your monuments, the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, Montmartre and the famed Champs Elysées, and, yes, I agreed that you were the most beautiful of all cities.
But when as a young adult I chose to live in the French capital, in the late 1970s, everything I believed in got distorted and I had to revise my hopes, and then, for the first time, I began to dream of Africa, the continent of my birth, with its bright light, its kind people, its wide expanses and its simple ways. Suddenly I realised how dark your moods were, how grey and black your façades looked, how unpleasant your buses and the métro smelled, and how smokey and mediocre many of your brasseries were.
My first rented apartment, not far from Porte de Champerret, had a basic washroom, with a shower linked to the basin by a rubber pipe, with a medicine cabinet whose mirror was cracked, and an old narrow WC. My desk room gave onto the Périphérique – ring road – which surrounded the city; the traffic was so noisy that I had to put the volume of France Musique at the loudest, so as to neutralise the din the hundreds of cars and trucks made, which prompted the concierge to warn me that the other tenants were complaining, and that was only during the day, so I had to buy earplugs to be able to work. As for my bedroom, it was covered with wallpaper, so old and faded you couldn’t tell whether it was originally green, brown or even rust, and it was pealing in every corner, and yet I was supposed to be living in the better part of the 17th arrondissement.
If I insist on the description of this place it is because, apart from the luxurious Hôtels particuliers – mansions, not hotels – in which the very rich and famous lived, my apartment was considered standard, even somewhat bourgeois. The walls were so thin you could hear the conversations next door, as well as from the floors above and below mine. I was lucky to get a telephone line within three months, because the landlord knew a director at France Télécom. Some people had to wait up to five years to get connected. It was hard to believe, since this was supposed to be a rich and developed country.
But most of all, it is the population that surprised me. I later learned what the word parisianisme meant: arrogance, clannishness, rude manners, and no matter if you came from the provinces or from abroad, you were considered naive, if not downright stupid.
Where were the elegant women, so praised around the world, where were the gentlemen? Wasn’t France, and especially Paris, known for l’étiquette, le bon goût, la politesse, la joie de vivre, la haute couture and, particularly, la cuisine raffinée?
Yes, all those qualities existed, but I seldom saw or felt them, only on the Television screen when they interviewed famous actors and singers, dressed to the tee, during the Cannes film festival, or when the country laid down the red carpet for the royals, the presidents or the sheiks, and on the 14th of July, when in 1792, the monarchy was abolished, giving way to la Révolution française. Oh, Paris receives foreign officials more lavishly than anywhere else on the planet, and from Place de la Concorde to the Champs Elysées, the spectacle is dazzling; very few can compare to the French: Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, maybe, and much more recently, the opening session of the Beijing Olympic games; actually the Chinese have become the masters of mass celebrations, for they are the ones who have invented fireworks and so many other artifacts unknown in Europe for centuries.
All of what precedes may lead you to think that I dislike France, and Paris in particular. I grew up in both English, my mother tongue, and French, my adopted tongue, since I studied in both languages, then I have to add my ‘paternal’ tongue which is Italian, the language I find most soothing when I read it. Around me, during my childhood, I heard Judeo-Spanish, the language spoken by the Sephardic Jews who were lucky enough to flee Spain, albeit penniless, and thus to have their life spared by the Inquisition executor, Torquemada, under the reign of Isabel The Catholic and her husband King Ferdinand, all of this with the blessing of the Pope. So much said for Christian charity and compassion. And to think that a few years ago, the Vatican had the intention of canonising, i.e., of declaring Isabel the Catholic a saint. There is a French king still known as Saint Louis, in spite of the fact that he was extremely cruel with the Jews who lived on his territory.
Yes, I still love the city of Paris and France, it’s fabulous culture, its cinema, its art, its great music and singers, its provinces, specially some parts of Ile de France (the region around the capital), Normandy, Brittany, the Auvergne and Provence, among others, which so many great painters immortalised. That is the France I wish to remember, not what it has become: a violent, uncouth and unwelcoming country, which is now suffering from Islamic terrorism, and this will be lasting for generations. I mostly blame the governments and the media because they have been lying to the population during these last fifty years, being so politically correct, that no one dares mention the criminals for what they are or who they represent.
I often claim that History is a very unreliable field and that it ought to be constantly updated in order to approach the truth – facts seems a better word -, for it is always written subjectively and, still worse, it reflects the ideology of the historian. A leftist researcher will undoubtedly offer you the clichés of his beliefs, so will the rightist. History should never be about feelings or about what one deems moral or immoral. It should reflect reality. Easier said than done, I must admit. During the colonial period – and I always deem that to conquer a territory is a violation of the peoples who live in it, the more so when it is obtained by suppressing the majority. Did I say, morality is not a good argument where History is concerned? Well, here I am behaving, not like an ideologist, but like a normal human being who believes one must respect one’s fellowmen, however different they may be. You can’t really express yourself about such important matters without being political.
Yes, indeed, that is a contradiction, after what I just stated a bit earlier. We writers are forever doubting, since we are always trying to approach the truth, or what we believe to be right, and most of the time, we don’t succeed, for one’s truth is often another’s lie.
This being said, the History of colonisation is an extremely varied one. And yes, some colonisers were more benevolent than others, some were more cruel. What irks me as regards Historians, and even worse, reporters, is how ignorant they still are of the facts, and how tendentious they can be – here I include people who write for the so-called prestigious media like The New York Times, The Times of London, the Guardian, Le Monde, or even the BBC, for nothing is either all black or all white, and when I discuss that with my African friends, we see eye to eye about this. Now, how politically bold it is that some of my Congolese, Rwandan or Burundian colleagues, be their university professors or writers themselves, claim that their countries were much better off under Belgian rule and that the former colonisers should return to put order in the terrible state which the presidents of these nations have cast their peoples, destroying so much of what was good under the Belgians, the more than 6,000 kilometres of railway, the superb fluvial and air transportation, as well as the thousands of hospitals and dispensaries, scattered around that huge state, as large as the whole of Western Europe, 80 times the size of Belgium itself, and which now have all but disappeared, for the misfortune of their populations, who are now begging in the cities or starving, when there was such abundance of food and an excellent sanitary system.
An aside here is necessary, for most of the world is still not aware of it. Unlike all the other powers, Belgium, never wanted a colony in the first place. It was king Léopold II, after the scandals of ill-treatment of the Congolese folk – denounced mainly by Great Britain, which was now seething with rage for not having absorbed ‘the heart of darkness’, along with its other possessions -, who threw his ‘personal property’ (something unimaginable, nay, unheard of in the history of colonialism) like a flow of incandescent lava, into the halls of the Belgian Parliament in 1908. And that little country transformed the Congo in just 52 years in what was deemed a success, both economically and socially. Another example is Zimbabwe – with a very different history -, which was the bread basket of southern Africa, and which Mugabe has ruined to such an extent, that millions of his compatriots are now forced into exile in South Africa, in order to sustain themselves, and this to the utter dismay of the poor people of the guest nation, causing riots and even deaths among the refugees, be they from the Congo or other parts of Africa.
I am well placed to speak about these matters, inasmuch as I have lived through five decolonisations: that of the former Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is by far the largest of the two countries that bear the same name, the other one being Congo/Brazzaville, a former French colony), Rwanda, Burundi, Zimbabwe and apartheid South Africa. One of my anti-apartheid books was banned in the latter country when it was still under white rule. I was born in Katanga and grew up in all the afore-mentioned nations, till I finished high-school. I still speak some Swahili, when I am in the company of my Congolese friends of Katanga and Kivu provinces. But what I am most proud of is that all my books on Africa, in both my own French and English versions, are being either studied, like in the Congo,Rwanda and Burundi, or read, like in Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa, by the new generation of Africans who did not live under the colonial yoke. They have a thirst to learn what happened then. And I always try to be as fair as possible, never hiding the negative sides of colonialism, but also showing the benefits they could get from it. A point in case is formidable India, which now cooperates with the UK in many fields, and in the most friendly terms.
I repeat: it is criminal to colonise other nations and to destroy their culture – the way the Spaniards and the Portuguese did in South America, the English in North America, or the Ottomans, who massacred more than 1.5 million Armenians. I shall add the Arabs, who invaded North Africa and subjected the original populations there to near slavery – unfortunately some still haven’t abandoned that despicable human trade, like Mauritania, and now, in a much more cruel form, the so-called Daesh Caliphate. Today the Berbers, in the three Maghreb countries (Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia), and the Copts (ten million Christians) in Egypt, who, I repeat, were the original inhabitants of that whole region, suffer under the Muslim Arab majority; their churches are often burnt down, some get killed, others chased. Morocco has colonised the former Spanish Sahara and its population, and, as a consequence, the Sarahoui are suffering under their yoke. Israel too should abolish all the colonies of the West Bank, for that too is a bad example. Yet, the whole world mainly focuses on Israel, almost never on the much worse and inhuman treatments inflicted on immigrants by the majority of the Muslim dictatorships or autocracies, which practice the shariah law. In this regard, I find the West terribly at fault: they favor their economic interests over human rights. Just one example summarises all that is wrong and so contemptible with Western attitude: Saudi Arabia, with its appalling treatment of women, LGBT members, immigrant workers and other religions – actually, it only allows the practice of Islam -, is one of Europe’s and, especially, America’s major allies.
These abuses notwithstanding, one should not erase the positive things the Belgians or the British achieved – here I refer again to India, the world’s largest democracy – in their former colonies, in spite of the fact that they too dominated the majority of the population and gave them no political voice whatsoever until the early 1950s; the Belgians, as benevolent as they were, treated the Congolese for a long time as if they would remain children their whole life, yet, as late as 1958, i.e., two years before the Independence of Congo / Zaïre, an international UN commission visited the country and praised what the Belgians had done for the African population, as far as free health service, primary education, and the start of interracial universities, were concerned, including an infrastructure that was exemplary. It is a fact that the Belgians greatly benefitted from the Congo financially, but it also repaid the Congolese in a way that no other colonial power did. It had a thirty then a ten-year plan to prepare the population to attain Independence, but it is mainly the great powers of the time, the USA, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, France, China, India and the Third World, which precipitated that Independence, because, greedy that they were, for the huge resources the country contained – and here I focus especially on the former nations cited -, they pressed Belgium to ‘liberate’ the Congo just within less than a year. As a consequence, the country was totally unprepared, and it collapsed a few weeks after it gained independence, with tribal wars raging like never before, the deadly illnesses that the Belgians had obliterated, all came back, and, in a few years, the whole stupendous infrastructure was destroyed, yes it was stupendous, when you think that there were only 100,000 whites in the Congo, 3/4 of them working in the civil service, and who usually did a pretty good job administering that immense territory. Apart from Société Générale, Unilever and Union Minière, the three mammoth companies that acted as states within a state, yet offering their black employees a relatively decent life, these Europeans lived comfortably, thanks to their Congolese servants and employees, but they were certainly not rich people. Because of the ‘great powers’, with their insatiable thirst for the mineral wealth of my country of birth, Congo / Zaire lost a large segment of its population: in the last ten years more than six million, some claim more, people died, particularly in its eastern provinces. This is in fact the Third international war, after WWII, but it is never acknowledged as such – for it is still going on -, because of the UN’s blindness. Yes, this war involved the Congolese army, the so-called rebels, as well as the armies of Zimbabwe, Angola, Rwanda and Uganda, which, instead of helping the population, raped or massacred them and divided the spoils, along with the other big powers. Did you ever realise how important the DRCongo is for the world? Without its minerals: its industrial diamonds, its copper, its gold, and particularly its coltan, you couldn’t use either your cell phone or your computer, and neither could you operate them without the Israeli particles that are inserted in these electronic devices. So much said for BDS. A bon entendeur salut!
As for the Israeli-Palestinian question, the West and the Muslim world, you may wish to revert to my essay,
J’ACCUSE, J’ACCUSE ET J’ACCUSE, published in The Israel Times: