Killed for a column

 

Two years before he was murdered, Said Mekbel told his eldest son, Hafid: "If anything happens to me, promise me you'll drink a beer in my honour." It was 1992 and the civil war was only starting, but Algeria's most famous newspaper editor and columnist had a premonition. "He received so many death threats that we kept them in a folder at home and laughed about them," Hafid, now aged 33, recalls in the small, threeroom apartment he shares with his French mother, Marie-Laure.

Hafid Mekbel fled Algiers in 1993, after witnessing the killing of a policeman by other policemen. "My father said I should go, that the war was his generation's problem, that it was created by those who gained independence from France in 1962, and that my generation shouldn't be involved." For three decades, the Mekbels and their two sons had formed an inseparable foursome, but the war began to chip away at their close-knit family.

Like the pieds-noirs of colonial days, the Mekbels were forced to choose between la valise ou le cercueil - the suitcase or the coffin. Following Hafid, Marie-Laure returned to France in January 1994. She is 55 years old now, and works as a secretary in a law firm. Said Mekbel knew he would be killed if he stayed. He survived two assassination attempts, but still refused to abandon his country.

On Saturday, December 3rd, 1994, Hafid Mekbel slept late. The telephone call from a family friend woke him. Later, the family would learn the details. Said Mekbel was eating lunch with a colleague in the Marhaba pizzeria, less than 40 metres from his newspaper, Le Matin. "He was careful, he never sat with his back to the door," Hafid says. But the well-dressed young assassin was a regular customer of the restaurant. No one tried to stop him as he approached Mekbel, took out a pistol and shot him twice in the head.

Mekbel's staff raced across the street from the newspaper office. One of them described what he saw: "In the back of the restaurant, sitting behind the table, still holding a knife and fork in his hands, his head leaning slightly forward, as if he were looking at the food on his plate, Said was still breathing. I told him, `Said, hold on. We're taking you to the hospital.' I reached out to caress his hair but pulled my hand back, covered with blood."

In their Paris suburb, MarieLaure and Hafid Mekbel were not surprised by the news. "We had been expecting it. Even so, I didn't really believe he was dead until I saw his picture on the television." Hafid's eyes fill with tears. "I went to the cafe at the Liberte Metro station and drank a beer, as I had promised."

His father had founded a football team at Sonelgaz, the state-owned gas company where he also worked as a mechanical engineer. Every weekend, Said Mekbel was the team's goalkeeper.

"I had a football game scheduled [in Paris] that afternoon. So I drank my beer alone, then I went to the match, and I played well and we won." That was Hafid's tribute to his father.

Said Mekbel's newspaper column was called "Mesmar J'ha" - "J'ha's Nail" after a North African folklore figure named J'ha, who sold a house but insisted on a keeping one nail stuck over the front door. Mekbel used the same title for more than 500 articles written between 1963 and 1965 and between 1989 and 1994. During his 24-year silence - his protest against the military dictatorship that took root in Algeria - Mekbel turned to photography, earned a doctorate in mechanical engineering and worked for Sonelgaz.

With caustic humour and in the perfect French that Mekbel had learned at French military schools, the last five years of "Mesmar J'ha" savaged the Algerian regime and fundamentalist rebels alike.

The column made the newspaper he worked for, Le Matin, the best-selling daily in Algiers; it has lost more than half its circulation since he was killed. Both sides in the war had reason to want him dead. In an unfinished article found in his office, Mekbel wrote, "I would really like to know who is going to kill me." Before anyone else, he dared to formulate the central questions of the conflict: Who is killing, and why?

Who killed Said Mekbel? It is unlikely the well-dressed young man who walked into the pizzeria that Saturday lunchtime will ever be arrested. "Said antagonised both sides," Marie-Laure says. "The government as well as the FIS (Islamic Salvation Front). I don't know which side killed him." The Armed Islamic Group (GIA), the extremist rebels blamed for most of the massacres in Algeria, claimed it murdered Said Mekbel because he was an "infidel". But his family, like many Algerians, see the hand of the Securite Militaire behind the GIA.

The Mekbels' small flat, in the drab high-rises to the east of the Gare du Lyon, is decorated with Algerian Berber pottery and carpets. Said Mekbel's black and white photos of flowers and animals hang on the walls. His wife, often photographed in Algerian costumes, was his favourite model. "He always said she looked like a movie star," Hafid recalls. Marie-Laure shows me the last photograph her husband sent of himself, seven months before he was murdered. His sad, mischievous eyes peer over the top of his bi-focals. His bushy moustache and mop of curly hair give him a comical look, like Charlie Chaplin or Groucho Marx.

"There are his glasses," Marie-Laure points to the table at the end of the sofa. "I wear them every evening."

The manuscript of Said Mekbel's last column, published on the very day he was murdered, also lies on the table. His handwriting is easily legible, and he made very few changes to the text. "He wrote his columns in his head first," Marie-Laure says. "He would start twisting a lock of hair on his temple with his fingers. Then I knew there was no point talking to him. He was gone, somewhere else, in his imagination."

Marie-Laure and Hafid Mekbel are hurt by French indifference to Said's assassination. "It's the same lack of respect they show for the tens of thousands of people who have been killed in Algeria," Hafid says. But in Algeria, Said has not been forgotten. The Said Mekbel Theatre was inaugurated in Algiers this month, and a collection of his writings will be published later this year.

Said Mekbel's last column was a tribute to the courage of his fellow journalists, but it was also the chronicle of his own death foretold. Sixty-nine Algerian journalists have been murdered - by fundamentalists and the government, it is commonly believed - and Mekbel's short text has come to symbolise their plight. It has been printed and reprinted. It hangs on the walls of newspaper offices, and has been committed to memory by his colleagues:

"This thief who slinks along walls in the night to go home, he's the one. This father who warns his children not to talk about the wicked job he does, he's the one.

This evil citizen who hangs about in courtrooms, waiting for judgment, he's the one. This individual caught in a neighbourhood raid, whom a rifle butt pushes to the back of the truck, he's the one. He's the one who goes out of his house in the morning unsure whether he'll make it to the office. And he's the one who leaves work in the evening, uncertain he'll arrive home.

This tramp who no longer knows where to spend the night, he's the one. He's the one they threaten in the privacy of a government office, the witness who must swallow what he knows, this bare and helpless citizen . . .

This man who makes a wish not to die with his throat cut, he's the one. This body on which they sew back a severed head, he's the one. He's the one whose hands know no other skill, only his meagre writing, the one who hopes against hope, since roses grow out of dung heaps.

He is all of these, and a journalist only."

The Mekbel family's story is also that of France's tormented, schizophrenic relations with Algeria. Because his paternal grandfather fought for France in both the first and second World Wars, Said Mekbel was "un enfant de la troupe" entitled to a French military education. The son of an illiterate merchant seaman, Mekbel so impressed the French officers who taught him in Algeria that he was sent to France.

While his fellow Algerians were fighting for independence, Mekbel, still a teenager, was preparing for admission to the St Cyr Military Academy. In 1957, he met Marie-Laure Ost, his neighbour in Strasbourg. She fell in love with the solitary, taciturn 17-yearold, whose sense of irony made her laugh. When Algeria won independence five years later, Said abandoned his shooting medals and his military career to go home. And he asked Marie-Laure to go with him.

Marie-Laure's father, a construction-site foreman, opposed her marriage to Mekbel. For decades, she had no contact with her family, and there were few Europeans left in post-independence Algeria. "When the French were leaving, I arrived with Said," she says. "When you love someone, you have the impression that you can do anything."

Said's family was also unhappy with the match, so the couple married in a civil ceremony in the war-damaged Algiers town hall, with only two witnesses. "His family saw this roumiyah (a derogatory term for a Christian woman, going back to the crusades) arrive with their son. It went down very badly. I didn't understand Arabic. I didn't know their customs. For example, any sign of affection between a man and a woman was an insult - I didn't know not to touch his hand in public."

The Mekbels tried to teach their sons both cultures. They celebrated Christian and Muslim holidays. But as children, Hafid and his younger brother Nazim (who now lives in Perpignan in the south of France with his Algerian wife) still worried that France and Algeria would go to war again. "We didn't know which side we would be on. We spent days talking about it, and in the end we decided we'd just refuse to fight," Hafid says.

An angry young preacher named Ali Belhadj was the imam of the nearby Kouba mosque when Hafid was growing up. "In 1979, Ali Belhadj came to see me and said, `Your mother has to become a Muslim'. Nazim said we should say her name was Mariam (the Muslim version of Marie) so he'd leave us alone." Ali Belhadj, the deputy leader of the FIS, has been imprisoned since 1991. Neither his family nor his lawyers have had any news of him since 1994.

Hafid and Nazim Mekbel encountered prejudice in France too.

"Back in Algeria, I was the son of the roumiyah," Hafid says. "Here, I'm the son of an Arab. When I go to renew my French identity papers, they ask me why my father wasn't French."

Except for occasional freelance articles for his father's former newspaper, Hafid is unemployed. Nazim finds short-term jobs as a computer programmer.

The Mekbels live in their own little world now, with Said's manuscripts and their photo albums. Theirs is the fate of all exiles, but loss seems to have precluded their building a new life. "There is no tolerance anywhere," Marie-Laure says sadly. "Not in Algeria, not in France. I have the impression I'm living outside the real world; I create my own little world of tolerance that does not really exist. I try to forget, because if you think about these things you become too bitter. I have my pigeons, my flowers, my knitting - and my sons."