- The Washington Times - Monday, August 23, 2010

BETWEEN TERROR AND TOURISM: AN OVERLAND JOURNEY ACROSS NORTH AFRICA
By Michael Mewshaw
Counterpoint, $16.95, 384 pages

In his novel about Italy, “The Year of the Gun,” Washington writer Michael Mewshaw portrayed a fictional American reporter who becomes entangled with terrorists battling to overthrow a corrupt Mediterranean nation. In his latest nonfiction book, Mr. Mewshaw seems determined to find out how his character felt as he himself undertook an extraordinary, 2,100-mile reporting journey through North Africa on the trail of Islamic terrorism and its state opponents in Algeria and its volatile Maghreb neighbors.

For the few Western reporters granted visas, working in Algeria and Libya can be an uphill battle against suspicious authorities whose maddening red tape will test the stamina of the fittest correspondent. At age 65, Mr. Mewshaw courageously shrugged off the risks, calculating rightly that his experience often would bring out the exquisite hospitality that used to be shown to foreigners throughout the Arab world.

Preparing to enter Algeria’s Kabylia regions, where al Qaeda die-hards fight a persistent insurgency against the army, Mr. Mewshaw noted that “north Africa was a shatter-zone in more than the geological sense. It crackled with enough tribal conflicts, political instability, personal quarrels and prejudices to cause nightmares.”

In Algiers he made a pilgrimage to the Basilica of Notre Dame d’Afrique, where Mass still is said for the beleaguered Christian community. But in a Kafkaesque twist, Catholic priests have been forbidden to exhibit in the Basilica photos of seven French Cistercian monks from the monastery at Tibhirine, south of Algiers, who were kidnapped and beheaded during the civil war in 1996. The murder of the seven initially was blamed on Islamist terrorists, but persistent reports from French diplomats suggest the monks were killedby an Algerian army helicopter gunship and then beheaded to make their deaths appear the work of terrorists.

“The Government feared the pictures were an incitement to anger and revenge,” a guide explains. “Officially it’s against the law to call someone a terrorist or to say somebody was killed by terrorists in the ‘90s. The press is supposed to describe them as ‘victims of national tragedy.’ “

Mr. Mewshaw explores deftly how Algeria’s military-backed leaders turned their battle against Islamic militancy to their advantage by forging an unlikely alliance with Washington after Sept. 11, 2001. Visiting the streets of the Algiers Casbah where the Battle of Algiers was fought, he considers how in 2003, during the occupation of Iraq, Gillo Pontecorvo’s movie about the battle enjoyed a comeback when the State Department and Pentagon studied it for lessons in defending against urban warfare. “This fictionalization of the Algerian War had flipped from a revolutionary bible to a neo-con textbook.”

One of the most controversial parts of his book is Mr. Mewshaw’s meeting with Thomas Daughton, then-deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Algiers. Mr. Mewshaw quotes Mr. Daughton giving a candid appraisal of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s policies. “If Algeria didn’t have oil, this would be Zimbabwe.”

Mr. Daughton also warned Mr. Mewshaw flatly that his life was at high risk from kidnapping by al Qaeda during his travels. “You represent a very juicy target.” Algerian authorities expressed outrage when the book was published, and Mr. Daughton, now in Beirut, claimed he had been misquoted.

Regardless, Mr. Mewshaw pressed on for Medea, in the so-called Triangle of Death, undergoing some anxious moments after terrorists killed six communal guards and stole their uniforms. “There was no way of knowing whether the men who signalled us to stop were assassins or policemen.”

In Libya, Mr. Mewshaw paints a gripping picture of a dictatorship that, despite a rapprochement with the West, evidently remains incapable of providing a future for its population. “This country, this whole world is a disaster,” one Libyan tells him. In Alexandria, he probes the limits of U.S. pressure to open up the Egyptian political process. In Morocco, Mr. Mewshaw visited the mud streets of the Tetouan neighborhood of Jemaa Mezuak. Five local men from the district in 2004 bombed commuter trains in Madrid, killing 191 people.

Unsurprisingly, Mr. Mewshaw found no easy solution for the Maghreb during his three-month trip. “Who would persuade [Moroccan King] Mohammed VI, Bouteflika, Ben Ali, Qaddafi and Mubarak, not to mention politicians in the United States and Europe, that they were not going to end terrorism … unless or until they provided these shantytown residents with more attractive alternatives?” he asks.

Nevertheless, this heartfelt book will be required reading for students, diplomats and intelligence officers working in a region that remains largely unreported even though only an hour’s flight from Europe. Mr. Mewshaw acknowledges that his close-up view of Algeria is the crux of his dazzling work.

“From the moment I arrived in Algeria, I had had the impression of being trapped in a film projected at the wrong speed, twice as fast as it was supposed to be. … Egypt and Libya and Tunisia had also been chaotic, but in a desultory fashion, like a terminal patient falling to pieces on an operating table. But in Algeria the patient was more like Frankenstein, with his disparate parts stitched together … the monster was coming alive.”

By breathing life into some of the world’s most opaque but strategically important countries, Mr. Mewshaw has proved once again that he is one of the foremost travel writers in the tradition of his friend and mentor Graham Greene.

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