By John W Kiser
An enjoyable and easy introduction to an amazing life. The book is strongest in the first third, showing his upbringing and describing Algerian society in that period, and in the last third, when his exile and travels involved him in many important and unexpected events. Meeting Imam Shamil the Chechen Mujahid at the opening of the Suez Canal! The middle third is awful, for obvious reasons. Anti-colonial resistance in the 19th century only went one way. I’m not spoiling anything to tell you that the Emir didn’t defeat the French.
The author is thoughtful and sympathetic toward the Emir but clearly sees his work as a sort of interfaith or intercultural rapprochement. This leads him to make much of a lone righteous Catholic priest’s involvement for example, or to downplay the brutality of the French occupation. In one instance, the reader is first informed of the intentional massacre – live burial – of thousands of unarmed women and children by the French in a footnote! It is admirable that the author doesn’t assign blame or seek a villain and yet “mistakes were made” is an awfully bloodless way to approach a colonial occupation that eventually took the lives of one Algerian in ten. If the goal of the book is to allow a Western, non-muslim audience to overcome their preconceptions and appreciate the Emir as the noble and righteous mujahid he was, it succeeds. But it stops short of giving a full reckoning of the times.