Sometimes in class, I feel like I am a stranger. You know, like a friend asked me to meet them at a party, but didn’t show up. So I’m stranger at a party that I was not invited to. And everyone is trying to be friendly but wondering how I fit into the equation. What can I do? I try to find commonality and be gracious as possible. But class is not a party. Sometimes a class is not a class, but a performance and a game. My classmates drop names, referring to texts and contexts that I’m only vaguely familiar with. Not only do I feel confused, but I feel like I’m losing every round. How does one become engaged intellectually when it becomes more about performance and winning points?
Despite the downfalls of class performance, I am sometimes inspired in my intellectual pursuits. Recently, I have been inspired by my friend’s epic journey into mysticism, postmodernism, and existential phenomenology. We do very different things, but we are both studying something that moves us. I am interested in what moves people and moving people. Specifically, people who migrate and become strangers in foreign lands for religious purposes.
I had big ambitions this evening. I began doing a little research on theoretical and analytical tools that might help shape my research and writing. My three goals this next year are to develop my languages, to sharpen my intellect, and broaden my base of knowledge. I have lots of questions and some fuzzy ideas about things I would like clarified. Then big idea came to me: look for critical summaries of the books I would like to read before I leave for Egypt. If I familiarize myself with the concepts, I might be more comfortable approaching these Great Books, the canon of western thought. I want something to work with as I write another seminar paper.
Almost every serious study on Africa and the Middle East indicates the importance of knowing about European thinkers, philosophers, and theorists. Even if you can’t apply the theoretical or analytical tools of Marx, Foucault, Gramsci, Weber, Wallerstein, etc. to Africa, you still have to contend their analysis. While it is important to recognize how they can be useful, you have to be familiar with them to know their shortcomings.
From my conversations with my friend, I began to think about how existential phenomonology may be useful in critiquing materialist analysis of religious movements, such as rational choice theory and poltical economy theory. I remember asking one of my professors, a Marxist historian, “why should we assume that human beings are rational actors?” My big question: How do we take into account non-material motivations? What about people who sacrifice themselves for religion or ethnics? Specifically, can you make a rational choice equation figuring in a religious person’s desire for union with God? What about the insane and irrational? How do we factor in culture and faith? Often the conventional histories and euro-centric approaches disregard the experiences of vast majority of people. I have often found books written by Western scholars troubling because they seem to belittle people’s lived experiences and the ways they understand the world.
I began looking into ways existential thought could be a tool to think about my work. Since I am interested in religiously motivated mobility, I didn’t want to focus on a material analysis of migration. As I was researching various writers and creating a little database to save my notes. I came several people who interested me. But one stuck out because I remember being really upset about reading his work–Albert Camus.
I first read Camus in a Maghribi social history class three years ago. We read an English translation of his novel, L’Étranger, The Stranger(1942).It is set in Algeria and the main character, Meursault, is a French settler colonist kills an Arab. Here is a bit about what Robert Royal wrote about Albert Camus:
Robert Royal writes that Albert Camus “was both shadowed and inspired by the voiceless mass of people, who, like the Algerians of his youth, go through their lives leaving barely a trace of their existence” (Royal, 1995: 54).
Royal tells us that Camus devised a three stage writing plan. In this first phase, Royal tells us, Camus wrestled with the nihilistic movement. This context offers an important lens by which to view the novel. Camus tries to come to terms with the absurd. Royal writes that Camus believed this was an important step towards a “fuller vision of human meaning and value” (Royal, 1995: 56).
Here are some of my thoughts on the story:
Clearly from The Stranger Camus told the story of an Algeria from the pied noir, perspective of a settler colonist, perspective. The books serves a dual purpose, giving voice to an overlooked community and reflecting an international intellectual movement–existentialist movement. At the same time, it is an artistic creation that offers a view of how a pied noir viewed his world. In order to understand Meursault’s view of Algerians, and Camus rendered them invisible and voiceless, it is important to consider the reasoning and workings of settler colonialism.
Camus does something important, he shows how settler colonialism builds within itself a number of contradictions. It dehumanizes both the colonized and the colonizer. Activists have demonized the colons, and Camus shows how one man could take the life of a dehumanized “other.” Camus, however, refrains from a didactic tale because the contradictions reflect absurdity of existence.
Writers like Memmi and Fanon have explored the psychological effects of colonialism on the colonized. But few writers have elaborated on the psychological effects of being the colonizer. Camus offers a glimpse of the colon’s anxiety. Camus novel starkly reminds us that Europeans and indigenous North Africans lived in a parallel world. How were the distinctions drawn when their lives intersected? The colons were privileged and rendered Algerians voiceless. In the novel, they were like cardboard characters, drawn out to fill space. Through the novel we are given the names of Europeans but those who were seen as Arabs were without names and without history….
A classmate called the main character, Meursault, an existential hero. That to me was the most absurd thing about the novel. I was deeply troubled when I read the bok. I remember in class spinning off into some tangent about how white colonizers render the colonized subjects invisible. People thought my my tangent was actually funny because I went off about Tolkien–who likely saw people of color in South Africa–and his ultra white Lord of the Rings. People are really dismissive about the racist assumptions that were commonly held during that time. But I have found some articles that point out that a few scholars have pointed out Tolkiens racial symbolism. In a similar way, I found Camus’s novel to be racist. I really doubt that he was a racist, but the novel promoted the image that Algerian Arabs were objects. They were mistreated, abused, ignored, and murdered in the novel. They also did not have a voice. Nor were they valorized as existential heroes. That day, more than any other day, I felt like a familiar stranger. I related to those voiceless Arabs in Camus’s novel. I felt like those great European writers, like Tolkien wished me away as they created a perfect white world. Sometimes it is difficult to read and absorb the works of Great thinkers, become so intimately familiar with their ideas, while at the same time always being that “other.” The ones who say that I don’t have a history. The ones who overlook my experiences because it is not meaningful to them. The ones who have disregarded the lives of countless people who exist in the Global South.
In order to engage in broader debates I have to be that familiar stranger. But this raises the question, can those who do not see us tell us a great deal about our lives and experiences? I am not sure.But in order to engage in a discussion with those who view the world through a western lens, I have to understand how they order their world. So, in the end I think that understanding their philosophies may be useful. Perhaps something can be legible…