The Stranger Stranger
Earlier this week a suicide bomber blew himself up on a beach in Tunisia.
He was a bomber without bomb-ees--nobody else hurt. Just that lone, wistful figure wandering among the cabanas, musing on life and the universe and Kaboom! It’s such a perfect lure for pseudo-intellectual screenwriters. I guarantee you, before the week is out, little wee existentialist pixies in Brooklyn and Paris are going to be making screenplays out of that headline, all harking back to a certain French novel we all had to read in high school, even though nobody in the room had a clue what it was about, least of all the teacher.
I’m talking about “The Stranger” by Camus, and if you went to a lame public high school like I did, you probably had to read it. Back then, we just assumed French people felt all kinds of exotic, high-priced pain that ordinary Californians would never understand. So everybody loved that book, or at least said they did. There was even a tribute song to the book by The Cure, “Killing an Arab”—which was enthusiastically received in the Red States by guys who didn’t get that it was, like, ironic—and there’s a band in Canada (naturally) called l’Etranger. (Psssst! That’s “The Stranger” in French! I never met a bilingual Canadian Anglo myself, but they like to keep the bluff going.) Discussions in English class at Pleasant Hill High were muted—I didn’t realize it at the time (most of my classmates gave me plenty of room due to certain hygiene issues) but everybody except me was stoned out of his or her mind. Maybe “The Stranger” actually makes sense if you’re floating around in a soup of THC and Mescaline.
I remember that the teacher kept repeating the word “malaise” with the hesitation English speakers get when they see the end of a French word coming up and face the Eternal Question: “Oh God, do I pronounce that final consonant or not?” While Mrs. Mohler worked on her pronunciation, I tried to figure out what “malaise” was supposed to mean. What was this guy Meursault’s problem, anyway? He was having all this sex, he lived in this cool place with a beach; what was the deal? I finally decided that “malaise” was one of those diseases that only strike people who are very cool (that is, the opposite of me). No wonder I couldn’t understand Camus; he was for cool people—and didn’t all the cool people in my high school stand around sneering and mumbling and looking tired all the time? Maybe they had malaise.
Looking back now, the real topic of “The Stranger” is painfully obvious. Camus and the French had a demographic problem. They were going to have to give up some prime Mediterranean beachfront. Which is why the idiot protagonist kills an Arab on the beach and gets himself executed. Spoiler alert: That’s the plot of “The Stranger.” French mama’s boy kills Arab on beach, whiles away the time in prison waiting to be guillotined thinking about…you know, I can’t even remember what he was thinking about. That’s probably because, like almost all the leftist European rhetoric of the postwar years, “The Stranger” is totally disingenuous. It can’t just come out and say, “God damn it, we like this beach! We conquered this beach! Why we gotta give up all this nice beach just because you Arabs are out-breeding us?” You look back now and it’s obvious that’s what Camus, a French Algerian (a now extinct tribe), was writing about. Normal tribal behavior, resorting to violence when you’re losing coveted territory. But God forbid Camus should talk that way out loud back in those post-Stalingrad days when everything was moral, except the nonstop lying.
Camus was a little more honest than Sartre—Titus Oates was more honest than Sartre—but not honest enough to say that the issue was demographics and beachfront. Nobody was, until Houllebecq, the first honest French writer since Celine, created “Bruno,” the kid warped forever by losing his home in Algeria. It’s a sad decline for a nation that once produced writers like La Mettrie, honest as sulfuric acid. All that courage died in Stalingrad, and in Camus’ day the only real purpose of European lit was to fill pages, make your rep, and say “Not a fascist, not a fascist” enough times that the Sovok critics in Paris believed you. And that, my friends, is how “existentialism” was born: As a way of not saying what really mattered, what was actually in everybody’s face in Europe from 1945 onward. When you can’t say what matters and you’ve got an intellectual ego the size of Jupiter, you’ve got a lot of pages to fill, and the time-tested way is a mix of over-writing and ultra-violence. Just ask our own domestic crafter of artisanal prose, Cormac (ne “Charlie”) McCarthy, about that.
And if you’re one of these deeply, instinctively dishonest writers, you must always fog up the windshield as much as possible. So Camus’ hero kills an Arab because…”existentialism, man.” The context is carefully removed, for fear it might explode and send literary egos flying all across the sidewalk café. And the context is obvious: The long war between the North Shore of the Mediterranean and the South Shore. The Northies had it all their own way for a long time until the two huge wars where they ripped each other’s guts out; after that, the tide slowly started going the other way. Camus lived when the Northies were leaving the beaches, but the process wasn’t even close to being finished when they took the Tricolor down in Algiers and Tunis for the last time.
The French were bad at administration, compared to the English, but good at culture, and they left a Frenchified elite, especially in Tunisia, the most Europeanized of the Maghrib countries. In France, Algerians said “I’m Tunisian” in the way Germans say they’re Swiss, or American backpackers say they’re Canadian. After all, Tunis is north of Malta and due west of Palermo, with all that Carthago-Roman miasma tempering the Jihad climate. And that’s the problem at the moment: Not everybody in Tunisia wants it to be a lukewarm, semi-Muslim country. Sunni power is growing across the world, after a long, unhappy sleep, and in every Sunni-majority country, the silent majorities in the small towns, the farms, the downscale city streets, want their countries to be more Sunni, less bikini.
I don’t know why this seems to scare and surprise so many Americans. Ever notice anything about the country you live in? We’ve got our own back blocks, and they’re not hard to find once you leave your pixie digs in Brooklyn. They want the place to jolt back to the ways of their forefathers, right now. They’re not interested in having a historical argument with you over whether those forefathers were actually a bunch of effete Francophile philosophes. They don’t want to argue at all. They want action. Why is it so hard to understand that Muslim countries have their silent majorities too? Maybe if you gauge power by the amount of fancy talk you might think all these countries are full of Zapadniki, but Nixon’s speechwriters were really onto something with that “silent majority” phrase. Even here, in a dominant culture and economic model, the changes have come so fast that the provincials are terrified. And like I’ve said before, the changes are coming much faster, causing much more disruption, in the Muslim countries.
The surprise isn’t that there are jihadis popping up in these places, it’s that there are so few of them. What else is available? The Westerners have monopolized the public culture, which means talking doesn’t really work. When the enemy sets the major premises—which Western liberal culture does across most of the world—you can’t make an enthymeme, at least not one you’d care to express in public. And besides, Heartland people are not very public speakers, whether in North Georgia or Goubellat.
They express themselves epideictically, by voting (when you come down to it, voting is just precision epideictic behavior, like crows with an abacus) or massing in public places—and, if the epideictic shit doesn’t work, then they have no choice but to express themselves kinetically, in the Eric Rudolph manner.
(Just BTW, I love the way “kinetic” is the latest NatSec wonk buzzword for “blowing shit up.” Makes it sound so scientific!) Eric even called his little group by the most popular Arabic jihadi title, “Army of God”—“Jaysh Allah” or, more commonly, “Hizbollah.”
These voices from the Heartland have been making themselves felt in Tunisia. This is where the Arab Spring started, when a vendor who was shamed and ripped off by bureaucrats set himself on fire.
You’ll notice that he set himself on fire, not anyone else. Weird echo of today’s beachside suicide bombing. Tunisians have been infected with the squeamishness of post-Stalingrad Europe about disorganized, individual violence. Today’s victimless suicide bombing was the first in more than ten years in Tunisia. The last one was in 2002, and the man behind that was a German/Polish convert to Islam, not a Tunisian.
The Tunisian heartland—basically everyplace that doesn’t have a tourist beach—is angry, but still not ready to kill as many people as heartland groups in other countries. They tried the method recommended to them by the West, that sacred cure-all, the voting booth. And Ennahda, the big Islamist party—might as well say “the Red State party”—won.
The trouble is that Ennahda is a genuinely “moderate” Islamist party. “Moderate” is usually a misleading term, but Ennahda is real mix of French-coastal and inland-Sunni culture—a center-right party that caters to the grumpy nostalgia of the heartlanders without really wanting to shake up Tunisia’s tourist-dependent economy. And that just annoys the life out of Tunisian kids who want full metal Sharia. If you’re one of these kids, with the vision of a caliphate floating around in your head, the idea of Tunisia as France’s playland-on-the-beach is disgusting, and the fact that the resorts are still open, the foreigners are still traipsing around on the sand without any clothes on is just unacceptable. You can see that reaction all over the tropics, like Southern Thailand, where Malay families sit on the beach looking like bundles of laundry poured out on the sand, with nothing showing on the women but their eyes—and here come some Northern European ladies on vacation, determined to get a topless tan if it means global jihad. I remember the look in the Malay men’s eyes on that beach and think it’s amazing how little jihad there is in the world.
Islamists in Tunisia did what the West told them to do, voted in a supposedly Islamist party…and then somebody in Ennahda did the math, and figured out that if the country actually demanded that tourists wear full hijab on the beaches, Tunisia would lose about 5.7 million of the 5.8 million tourists it gets per year. (And don’t even START on the endless argument about whether the Quran demands the hijab or we’ll be here til the sun goes out.) Anyway, one of those Western-infected citified wonks in Ennahda realized that without those tourists, Tunisia’s economy…well, Tunisia wouldn’t have an economy.
So, this spring, Ennahda announced that they don’t intend to enforce Sharia.
Tunisia’s strongest Islamist group calls itself Ansar al-Sharia (“Sharia Supporters”), so this was a little too much. Slap in the face. These guys aren’t used to Tunisia’s soft, Frenchified ways; they’re mostly local hotheads who got bored with peaceful ol’ Tunisia and enrolled in the Junior Year Jihad Program in rougher neighborhoods of the Maghrib--like Libya, right next door. They believe that non means non, or la means la si vouz preferez, Sharia means Sharia, and they both mean “No bikinis on the beach.”
So, if you actually look at the context, today’s bombing makes perfect sense, just like Meursault’s supposedly “random” murder of an Arab did. Neither one is random, though Meursault’s was fictional (and not all that fictional, either, if you count what the French colonists and Army did across the border in Algeria).
The only odd part of the beach bombing was the fact that the suicide bomber didn’t take anyone with him. At the moment, the story is still vague, with some agencies saying he was chased away by guards and some saying he blew up in the entrance—premature obliteration, you might say.
See, this is the thing: Suicide bombers are funny. I can’t help it, they just are. Like the idea of a suicide bomber getting chased away by guards; what’d they threaten him with, a fine? Two weeks in county jail? “Stop or I’ll shoot”? On the surface, it makes no sense that a man already wired up with an explosive vest, ready to blow himself up, would be chased off by guards. But it’s very possible that’s what happened, because the man inside the vest is just a schmo like the rest of us, with the same ridiculous flinches and aversions. And in Tunisia, a relatively wealthy, peaceful country, those aversions won’t be easy to overcome, the first few times.
But there are plenty of volunteers, and with practice, Ansar al Sharia will recruit steelier guys, most likely from tougher countries at first, before the locals get accustomed to the idea. Volunteers aren’t a problem in the suicide-bombing business. I don’t know why that surprises some people. I mean, haven’t we all dreamed of becoming suicide bombers?
Awkward silence, pitying looks. See? It’s comic, but it’s what you’d call rough comedy.
Well, I’ll admit it if nobody else will: I’m a born suicide bomber.
If anybody’d offered me the chance to die for something when I was young—for the Lemurs, say—my only readers would be the spatter experts at CSI Tananarive. Any young male worth his zits wants to go out in a blaze of glory. That’s my opinion as an old Heartland type; you coolsters are free to form your own opinions. Your own decadent, shameless opinions.
What you coolsters are not free to do is turn today’s suicide bombing into “The Stranger II.” But I swear, before the day is over, some bastard in a Sinatra hat will be hitting the keyboard on that script. His beach violence story will be just like Camus’: totally drained of context. Context dialysis, the key to being a bohemian idiot. I can see the movie now, kind of like a Pinder play, with the bomber sitting around doing a monologue without jokes while he waits for the resort to open: “What am I doing here? You know what they call a quarter pounder in France?” Director screams “Cut!” Take 2: What am I even doing here? Life or death, death or life? What is life, anyway?” They won’t even make it funny. If you have to do this bombing as Camus Two, at least make it funny. Have the guy waiting on the beach, but his handler, unused to the decadent ways of Western tourists, scheduled the bombing too early. None of these hungover kaffirs are even out of bed yet.
Now our bomber—I see him as a young Woody Allen with the rabbi/salafi beard from Take the Money and Run -- is walking around on the esplanade waiting for the hotel doors to open: “Jeez it’s cold, you wouldn’t think it’d be so cold, I mean—Tunisia and everything—why didn’t I bring a coat? I’m gonna freeze here…I feel like that French guy we had to read in lycee, the Stranger, only whoa, I’m the Stranger and I’m the Arab who gets killed, that’s too weird…God, I’m talking like my stoner cousin, it’s the anxiety…When do they wake up in this joint anyway? It’s true what they say, ‘Tunis goes to work, Sousse sleeps in,’ the lousy kaffir bums, but meanwhile I have to pee like a djinn! Maybe I should just wait until… you know… no, that wouldn’t be fair to the cleanup crews…What if I just ease off the vest and…”
If you gotta decontextualize, that’s the way to do it—and that goes for you toos, Camus, ya lousy dead syllabus-filler.