Monday 26 January 2015

JE SUIS CHARLIE Carol Drinkwater

I am writing this ahead of my regular blog date because I will be away on a work commitment and possibly without internet. Much could happen between today and the 26th...


This month of January has been a tragic opening to the year of 2015. One of the murdered Charlie Hebdo team collaborated with my husband on a film proposal quite recently, so we feel the loss personally.

For twenty-two years here at our Olive Farm in the south of France, we employed an Algerian gardener whose family name I gave in my series of Olive Farm books as “Quashia”. In fact, his real family name is Kouachi. “Quashia” is a man I have described as owning a passport stamped direct to heaven. His heart is huge and his soul is just. He is a practicing Muslim who doesn’t smoke or drink, although he indulged in both when he was younger, and who has made the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. When his eldest son was killed in a car crash some years ago, he wept in my husband’s arms. When one or other of his daughters or daughters-in-law gave birth to yet another of his thirty-three grandchildren, we celebrated with him. When one of our farm dogs died, he dug the grave with Michel and together we grieved the creature’s loss.

When his carte d’indentité needed renewing Michel accompanied him to the immigration offices because in this high-percentage Le Pen area of France the officers are not always known to be gracious to the Arabs. When “Quashia” had an accident, I drove him to the hospital and sat with him in Emergency until they were ready to treat him and then I signed myself as his local next of kin to allow him to be released from the hospital. When one of his comrades died and he was helping to raise the money to have the body returned to its family in Algeria, we, of course, chipped in.

“Quashia” is family. Now that he has finally retired, aged eighty-two, and returned to his wife and children in his Berber village near Constantine in Algeria, I miss him deeply. Every day, I hear his laughter.
Imagine my horror then as I watched the events of early January play out. “Quashia” has five sons. Dear God, I was praying, please don’t let these murderers be related to our man. Of course, they were not. The two Kouachi terrorist brothers were Parisian born, runts of a society that does not always make it easy to be Maghrebian and unemployed here, does not pave the way for immersion...

On 11th April 2007, I landed in Algiers intending to travel the length and breadth of the country alone questing the history of the olive tree. 

As I was leaving the airport, chaos ensued. I assumed it was the usual state of affairs. In fact, Al Qaeda had bombed the offices of the prime minister in Algiers and then set off another bomb close to the airport. The death toll was frightening, shocking. The phone lines were all down. I couldn’t get a signal, couldn’t ring home to let Michel, my husband, know that I was safe because for sure he would have heard the news and would be concerned. I was meeting up with an Algerian historian working at the university who also happened to be a beekeeper. His contact details had been given to me by our beekeepers back here on the farm. Finally, he and I managed to locate one another and he drove me directly out of town south of the capital to lunch with the man who was the president of Algeria’s national beekeeping society, a vast network. The three of us sat together in a restaurant in the middle of what seemed to me to be nowhere, drinking soft fizzy drinks and eating grilled Halal lamb and chips.

I suppose you will go home? the president sighed.

The truth was I was still digesting this Algerian welcome and had not considered my immediate future. All I knew for certain was that I had a book to complete, a Mediterranean journey, and that no other modern travel writer had included Algeria in their itinerary. I really wanted to make this leg. Paul Theroux skipped Algeria when he wrote his Grand Tour of the Mediterranean, Pillars of Hercules. I was determined that I wouldn’t. And I am a woman. An even greater coup, I had been smugly reckoning. Monsieur Le Beekeeping President and the historian talked me through modern Algerian politics: before, during and most importantly after their exceedingly bloody war of independence with France. It was a sobering afternoon.

The bottom line was, they said, they needed me.

Need me?

You can be a witness to what we are living through. You can take what you see out of Algeria and help us. We need a life line, a voice.

The two men struck a deal with me. If I agreed to continue with my planned month-long trip they would guarantee hospitality and, as far as they were able, my security. It was a madness to accept, to stay on. American Express who serve as my travel insurance declared the country a high risk zone. This meant if I stayed on of my own accord, I was travelling without cover.

I stayed on.

I was parcelled east across the country and then south towards the Sahara always staying with beekeepers, many of whom have remained friends. My book, The Olive Tree, recounts my experiences of that extraordinary month, unforgettable and very challenging, so I won’t re-narrate those chapters here.

I am mentioning the experience now in the light of these recent events in Paris.

There have been so many articles written over these last few days, so many opinions set out, which is as it should be. We, in Europe, are exceedingly fortunate to live in countries where freedom of speech and debate are essentials; food for our daily lives. For others, this is not necessarily the case. Algeria is a land in question. Algeria is still reeling from over one hundred and fifty years of French colonialization and before that Ottoman rule. The vast landmass of desert, mountains and coast, that is a nation of Berbers more than Arabs has not yet established its own post-colonial identity. This has left it wide open to the fanatics.

I am reading articles everywhere saying that Muslims worldwide if they are TRULY peace-loving Muslims MUST speak out now against the horrors that have been perpetrated in recent months. We all must speak out, of course we must, but such a command is simplistic.

South Africa is an example where at least two generations suffered from lack of education because education was not provided for them. The same is true in countries such as Algeria where the French colonials took the best pickings and left little opportunities for the indigenous people, where many of the colonials treated the local people cruelly and seeded resentment, hatred. The same was true in my own land of Ireland. Catholics under centuries of British rule were forbidden education and we know how long it has taken to sort-of iron out that complex legacy.

I am sometimes accused of being soft, hippy, peace-loving... yes, I am all of these. Most importantly, I believe in dialogue and education and taking responsibility. I think we need to look, to penetrate, to understand the seeds of this Islamic fanaticism. We need to understand that millions of Islamised peoples are ignorant of what is really going on. They are just being fed violent shortcuts.

When I penetrated the sandy wilds south of Constantine to villages and settlements where herders trudged the desert distances alone with their beasts, where young boys received no education and had no future and were facing the same illiteracy as their grandparents, I passed many Al Qaeda bases on my way to nowhere, to where the winds roared and the sand whorled. How simple, I thought back then, to lure these boys with promises of a future, offering them the opportunity to make their mark as martyrs to a cause, offering a false spiritual wealth to their closed-in impoverished lives, offering their families a little money to help them along and the assurance that their offspring would, for the first time in centuries, be educated.

I don’t have any simple answers. I can only ask questions, point at unresolved situations, attempt to understand some of the complexities.


I feel these murders acutely, this attempt at destruction of freedom of speech and of expression, the mindless loss of talented work colleagues, but I also believe that if we don’t begin to take responsibility, everyone of us, for the ignorance, the lack of direction these murderers have lived with, we give the word to the fanatics and lost forever will be the path to dialogue. 

The 11th January demonstrations all across France have proved that this nation will stand up proudly for its right to freedom of speech. Three and a half million people on the streets, and no skirmishes, in the biggest national demonstrations this country has ever known.

‘Paris is the capital of the world,’ said our President Hollande. ‘Our entire country will rise up towards something better.’

There was barely a dry eye in the house, as we say in show business.

But this is just the beginning.

What I hope now is that we all begin to ask ourselves in which ways we can reach out to those who are disenfranchised, to the nations who are cut off from the west, to provide education and opportunities for those who live amongst us and are lost. The outer suburbs, for example, where the Kouachi brothers were brought up would be a very good place to start to turn fine words and sentiments into actions. 

What do you think or hope for from this experience?

PS: I have used "Charlie" photos taken from the internet and I could not find names to credit to them. I apologise for using others' copyright. If anyone knows who took these images, I will happily credit them.


Sue Purkiss said...

The most thoughtful and balanced piece I've read on this subject. Thank you, Carol!

Kate Lord Brown said...

Love the descriptions of your man, Carol. It feels like we are all at the beginning of a long road.

Clare Mulley said...

Great piece Carol, thank you, am about to repost it.

suechef said...

Thank you for this Carol - heartfelt but balanced. Have a safe journey wherever you are going now. x

Jacqui Brown said...

A lovely piece Carol. I too am in France and stood with other villagers on January 11th. It was a dark week for France, but I felt the pride of unity.

Maggie said...

My first visit to your blog, discovered through a post on facebook.
Carole, your article is so insightful; poignant and personal; intelligent and reasonable. I'll be back for more as a follower.

Penny Dolan said...

Thank you for sharing your brave experiences and wise thoughts, Carol. If only Pickles and company could understand the complexities of the situation, maybe they wouldn't send out simplistic letters.

(I have just been reading your account of visiting the then beautiful Aleppo!)

Gillian Polack said...

One of my friends was close to the Charlie people, I am Jewish and a historian of France, and my lunch this Saturday was a halal treat for me from some Muslim friends who are grounded and sensible and who I'm very lucky to have in my life. So many of us lie rich and complex lives and our friend come from different backgrounds to us. Thank you for reminding us that this is as true of France as it is of Australia. Thank you for sharing the people you love with us.

Leslie Wilson said...

Very thought-provoking. We live in a complex and unequal world - and there is a lot of wilful lack of understanding. Yes, what happened in Paris was totally horrific, and the murders were cowardly and despicable - and yet, how can we demand that all Muslims take responsibility for them, which is what seems to be being demanded, including by some who should know better. Would fundamentalist American Christians listen to British Quakers, or even the Church of England? Thank you for enlarging my understanding of Algeria, for one thing!

Lisa Pan said...

Well said Carol - I believe everyone is impacted by these inhuman acts

Corgi Hollows said...

Your love, concern, and passion shines through, Carol. I do think beekeepers have a humanitarian bond, no matter what faith, too. It's a beautiful thing.

bright star said...

That is a really inspiring article and I am going to share it. I agree with you Carol.Thanks.

Mark Burgess said...

Thank you, Carol, for such a sensitive and fascinating post. You show how rich our lives are if we embrace variety and that cutural diversity is to be celebrated.

Lydia Syson said...

So well said. Thank you for putting it so very well.

Alice E. Smith said...

I visited Algeria this past spring against many warnings. I am also a woman and went overland into the Kabylie lands. Of course I was inspired by your travels Carol and like you I was on a working mission. I found friendship and hospitality.

We do need to reach out to those in all lands with understanding and respect and at the same time we must stand up for human rights and dignity for all peoples.