Giving the Arab his name


“Mother died today.  Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.  The telegram from the Home says: YOUR MOTHER PASSED AWAY. FUNERAL TOMORROW. DEEP SYMPATHY.  Which leaves the matter doubtful; it could have been yesterday.”

I was a senior at a prep school in New Jersey when I first met Meursault, the speaker of these words.  They open Albert Camus’ 1942 novel, “L’etranger” – translated from the French by Stuart Gilbert as “The Stranger” (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1946), one of the most celebrated works of fiction in the 20th Century. 

Meursault, a French colonial Algierian, is an unremarkable young man, an anti-hero, who earns a modest salary at a routine desk job in the coastal city of Algiers. One torrid summer afternoon on a nearly deserted beach, Meursault kills a nameless Arab in his late teens with a single bullet and then fires “four more shots into the inert body on which they left no visible trace.” Meursault is tried, convicted and sentenced to death by guillotine, not so much for the crime of killing the Arab as for the “crimes” of showing “great callousness” at his mother’s funeral and of choosing to initiate a liaison with a young woman the very next day.

A primary purpose of Kamal Daoud’s recent novel, “The Meursault Investigation” – translated from the French by John Cullen (New York: Other Press, 2015) – is to give a name to the unnamed Arab who Meursault has shot dead. It is the slain brother’s younger brother, Harun, who tells the tale.

Daoud’s very first sentence – “Mama’s still alive today.” – is an ironic echo of the first words of Camus’ “The Stranger.” Again and again, Daoud pays tribute to Camus by quoting almost directly from “The Stranger.” At times Daoud reverses Camus’ intention. For example, Harun as narrator, observes: “I recently saw a group of French tourists standing in front of a tobacco shop at the airport. Like discreet, mute spectators, they watched us – us Arabs – in silence, as if we were nothing but stones or dead trees.”

In Camus’ novel, Meursault makes the exact opposite observation regarding the way the Arab and the Frenchman view each other: “I saw some Arabs lounging against the tobacconist’s window. They were staring at us silently, in the special way these people have – as if we were blocks of stone and dead trees.”

Were they to have met, the two narrators would have been mortal enemies, since Meursault had murdered Harun’s older brother. Nevertheless, the two of them possess similar personalities and worldviews.

Both are emotionally remote – strangers to themselves and to others.  Both hold to the notion that life is inevitably bleak, unfair and absurd.  Both are fiercely anti-religious.  As Harun puts it, “... I abhor religions.  All of them!  Because they falsify the weight of the world.”   Meursault and Harun especially despise the self-satisfied certainty of those religious leaders who claim to know the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth – be they Catholic priests or Muslim imams.  Both men assert that a single hair of the women they have loved is worth more than all of these so-called certainties.

Though “The Meursalt Connection” overflows with existential drama, I am most moved by the social and political dimensions of the novel, which focus upon Harun’s need to proclaim to the entire world his brother’s name: Musa.  Musa, not insignificantly, is the Arabic form of the Hebrew, Moshe, and the English, Moses.  It is so much harder to hate “the Arab” when you know his name, especially when his name is Musa. 

Reading Daoud’s novel suggests to me that the role of Arabs in certain areas of the Middle East has some similarities to the role that the blacks play here in America. Indeed, Daoud makes this connection explicit when he has Harun declare: “Arab. I never felt Arab, you know.  Arab-ness is like Negro-ness, which only exist in the white man’s eyes ... And so my brother had to be seen through your hero’s (Meursault’s) eyes in order to become an “Arab” and consequently die.”  That is to say, “Arab-ness” and “Negro-ness” are artificial social constructs designed by white men to keep these “others” in their place at the very bottom of the social pyramid.

We are now in the midst of the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe – awesome because they demand that we ask ourselves the most difficult questions as we engage in our heshbon ha-nefesh, our spiritual accounting, our searching of our soul.  In a previous column on Ta-Nehisi’s new book, “Between the World and Me,” I asked myself as an American Jew: “Am I just one more child of the American Dream, one of the millions of fellow citizens corrupted by the false and dangerous belief that I am white?”  In a similar vein, I dare to ask:  Could it be that for some of my co-religionists in Israel “the Arabs” function as the bottom rung, the lowest of the low, just as “the blacks” function as the bottom rung, the lowest of the low, for so many of us Americans who think that we are white? 

JAMES B. ROSENBERG is Rabbi Emeritus at Temple Habonim in Barrington. Contact him at