When Elaine Mokhtefi landed in newly independent Algeria in the early 1960s, she was only planning for a short visit. But she quickly found herself at the centre of a special period in the country’s history, as Algiers played host to liberation groups from across the world – earning a reputation as the “Mecca of revolution”.
In this unlikely setting, Elaine moved in the same circles as world famous radicals, rag tag political parties, spies and military leaders. And she became an unlikely sidekick to one of the most iconic liberation groups of our time, just as it was beginning to fall apart.
This episode was produced by Deena Sabry and Alex Atack, and edited by Dana Ballout. Fact checking by Eman Alsharif, sound design by Mohamad Khreizat, Paul Alouf and Alex Atack. Our team also includes Zeina Dowidar, Nadeen Shaker and Finbar Anderson.
Elaine’s book is Algiers: Third World Capital
Justin’s book is Revolution or Death: The Life of Eldridge Cleaver
Support this podcast on patreon.com/kerningcultures for as little as $2 a month.
Find a transcript for this episode at our website, kerningcultures.com/kerningcultures.
Editor’s note: our transcripts are made with a combination of automated software and human transcribers, and may not reflect the audio with 100% accuracy.
DANA BALLOUT: A warning before we start: this episode contains references to sexual assault and violence.
I’m Dana Ballout, and this is Kerning Cultures.
ARCHIVE [children singing]: Revolution has come… (off the pigs!)… time to pick up the gun… (off the pigs!)
ARCHIVE [Eldridge Cleaver]: All power to the people! All power to the people!
ARCHIVE [African resistance leader]: The meeting today is a formal get together of all the brothers who are involved in the struggle from various parts of this continent, and various parts of America.
ARCHIVE [African resistance leader]: We are facing a common enemy, and it is this common enemy that we must all crush.
ARCHIVE [newsreel]: A delta Airlines jet from Miami was taken over by eight passengers who demanded $1m and a one-way trip to Algeria.
ELAINE MOKHTEFI: I was raised in small towns. Upstate New York and in Connecticut. My grandfather had a farm and I lived on the farm as a child.
DANA BALLOUT: When Elaine Mokhtefi grew up and became a young adult, she moved away from the family farm, and became obsessed with politics. As a student in the 1940s, she got involved involved in U.S. anti-war political groups.
ELAINE MOKHTEFI: Worked with an organisation called the United World Federalists…
DANA BALLOUT: But by the end of the second world war, she wanted to see more of the world. She was 23 when she got on board a ship from Virginia, bound across the Atlantic for France.
ELAINE MOKHTEFI: In those days we travelled by boat. There were no planes crossing the Atlantic.
DANA BALLOUT: She loved Paris before she’d even arrived.
Her imagination was full of the romance of being an American in Paris in the first part of the 20th century: it was where Scott Fitzgerald had lived. Where Hemingway had written A Moveable Feast.
But when she arrived, that dream quickly crashed into reality.
ELAINE MOKHTEFI: And it was there that I discovered that there was a big problem with Algeria.
ARCHIVE [1950s newsreel]: As tension rises in French North Africa, France arms her Algerians supporters for defence against rebel raids.
DANA BALLOUT: By the 1950s, when Elaine arrived in Paris, France was struggling and divided; desperately trying to cling on to its colonial rule in Algeria, which had been occupied by France for more than 120 years: A violent tyranny, where torture, mass displacement and discrimination against the local population were endemic.
ARCHIVE [1950s newsreel]: Following the killing of 9 soldiers in a rebel ambush, French troops launched a full scale drive against terrorists in Algeria.
DANA BALLOUT: But around this time, the world was coming into the age of de-colonisation. Resistance movements across the globe were successfully launching opposition campaigns against colonial occupiers. In Algeria, the independence movement was called the Algerian National Liberation Front, or FLN. And in 1954 they launched a guerrilla war against the French military.
ELAINE MOKHTEFI: The Algerian war was one of the most important, most significant wars of the 20th century. We don’t always realise what it meant for a victim of colonialism to stand up and fight.
ARCHIVE: [1950s newsreel] Only negotiations with the Algerians will solve the problem. Only the recognitions of the Algeria national reality and the right of that country to independence will end the shedding of blood.
DANA BALLOUT: In France, the war became a defining political issue, and everyone took sides. Thousands of people marched through the streets of Paris against – and in support of – French rule in Algeria.
Elaine had found herself an apartment in the North African quarter of Paris. Here, the way North Africans were treated in France reminded her of the way Black Americans were treated in the United States during the 1940s. It made her angry.
And as she learned more about the colonial war in Algeria, she wanted to join the protest movement to fight it.
She began making connections in the Algerian resistance community, marching in anti-war demonstrations and working to support the cause however she could.
ELAINE MOKHTEFI: Our job mainly was to try to get the United Nations to pass a resolution in favour of Algerian independence, it was very difficult at the time.
DANA BALLOUT: It took decades of struggle, and hundreds of thousands of lost lives, but in March 1962, France reluctantly conceded, and signed a set of peace treaties with the Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic.
In a referendum later that year, the people of Algeria were asked if they wanted their country to become independent. Six million people came out to vote, and over 99% of them voted yes.
After the withdrawal, it was finally possible for thousands of people like Elaine, who had supported Algerian independence from afar to finally see the country themselves.
She got on a plane as soon as she could, arriving one evening in October 1962 on a packed out Air France flight.
ELAINE MOKHTEFI: I was there for the November 1st celebrations of Algerian independence. Very exciting time of celebration with lots of friends of Algeria at war, at present, at the celebrations.
DANA BALLOUT: She had never planned to stay in post-independence Algeria permanently, but that changed within a few days.
She found a three bedroom apartment, a job with the tourist authority, and began to settle in.
ELAINE MOKHTEFI: And I felt that this was maybe my home.
DANA BALLOUT: Elaine had settled into her new home right at the beginning of an extraordinary period in Algeria’s history.
Over the next decade, she would have a front row seat as resistance movements from all across the world converged on the country, turning it into a melting pot of left wing political ideas.
In this unlikely setting, she moved in the same circles as revolutionaries, rag tag political parties, spies and military leaders.
And she was witness to the final days of one of the most iconic liberation movements of our time: the Black Panthers.
ALT: And… she would become an unlikely sidekick to one of the most iconic liberation movements of our time during its final days.
As Elaine puts it, a brief window of hope, before it was all swept out from underneath them overnight / before it crumbled, and the world changed forever.
ALT: As Elaine puts it, a brief window of hope, before it crumbled, and the world changed forever.
Producer Deena Sabry takes the story from here.
DEENA SABRY: During French colonial rule, most ordinary Algerians had very little contact with French institutions. And there weren’t very many Algerians in positions of power.
So when the French settlers left, they left behind a power vacuum.
NATALIA BENKHALED-VINCE: So this creates an immediate practical problem that the new Algerian government has to deal with.
DEENA SABRY: This is Natalya Benkhaled-Vince. She’s a historian of the French empire, decolonisation and post-colonial histories and a professor at the University of Oxford.
Following independence, the Algerian National Liberation Front – the FLN – suffered an internal split.
After a bit of infighting, eventually a man called Ahmed Ben Bella created the political wing of the party, and the army installed him as the first president of the newly-independent Algeria.
NATALIA BENKHALED-VINCE: There is some opposition to that, but by that point, you know, the Algerian people are pretty sick and tired of war. So sort of an uneasy compromise comes about and by autumn 1962, at least publicly, the people in power, Ben Bella, and the people around him are not particularly openly contested.
DEENA SABRY: As Elaine was settling into her new home in Algiers … halfway across the world in California, a man called Eldrige Cleaver was on the run from the police.
In a twisted interpretation of justice, he saw the sexual assault of white women as part of his so-called revenge against white people, and he was wanted on several charges of rape, assault and attempted murder.
JUSTIN: I think that one of the things that’s important about Cleaver is that we look at him by holding kind of two contradictory thoughts in our head at once.
DEENA SABRY: This is Justin Gifford. He’s a professor of English at the University of Nevada in Reno and the author of Revolution or Death: The Life of Eldridge Cleaver.
And one of those ways of thinking about him is that he was deeply committed to Black liberation in a very radical way. At the same time, this is an individual who raped women, who went to prison for assault. So I think it’s important for people to be able to see both of these sides of Cleaver and, because that’s the truth.
ARCHIVE: 2:58 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mfRxv_Nz4MY or 9:05 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zVDvh4KDH_A
DEENA SABRY: When the police caught up with him, he was convicted and sent to prison.
During his time there, he wrote a collection of essays called Soul on Ice.
And it was a hit, selling 200,000 copies in just a couple of years. He quickly became an influential symbol of Black resistance during the 1960s.
Cleaver had also started reading up on the teachings of the civil rights leader Malcolm X, and he was inspired to begin making plans to launch his own political movement.
JUSTIN GIFFORD: Malcolm X was actually dead already at this point when he got out of prison in the late 60s. And Cleaver decided that he was going to organise his own political group, radical political group, that would eventually try to overthrow the United States government. Before he was able to do this, he met with the Black Panthers for the first time and they enlisted him to be their Minister of Information.
ARCHIVE – Black Panthers
DEENA SABRY: The Black Panther Party was set up to fight for Black liberation, against American imperialism and institutional racism.
ARCHIVE: J. Edgar Hoover “greatest threat to our country”
DEENA SABRY: Their message was potent … and they began to rally support from across the US.
ARCHIVE – Panther rally
DEENA SABRY: Their slogans – like “power to the people” became every day expressions.
And their image was just as iconic: dark sunglasses and black leather jackets.
They began running community action schemes – breakfast for children, health care, after-school programmes – and organising marches.
JUSTIN GIFFORD: And then…
ARCHIVE: MLK death
JUSTIN GIFFORD: After Martin Luther King was killed in April of 1968, Cleaver decided that he was going to use that moment to try to start the revolution.
DEENA SABRY: In Cleaver’s worldview, Martin Luther King’s peaceful politics had gotten the Black liberation movement nowhere. They needed to be more direct, more violent.
ARCHIVE – Bobby Hutton gun battle
JUSTIN GIFFORD: And so he and a number of other Black Panthers tracked down various white police officers and attacked them in a gun battle that left one Panther, Bobby Hutton, dead and Cleaver in prison.
ARCHIVE – They shot and killed Hutton and wounded Cleaver
DEENA SABRY: Cleaver was let out on bail, and he decided that he would rather flee the country than go back to prison again.
So in 1968, he travelled to Cuba on a cargo ship. He saw the Cuban president, Fidel Castro, as a potential ally in his fight against American imperialism. And he thought he might be able to garner his support … to help with things like training for Black Panthers.
But his plan didn’t get very far. Shortly after arriving, a Reuters correspondent recognised Cleaver on the street and blew his cover.
On top of that, his hopes of getting any support from Fidel Castro were drying up.
JUSTIN GIFFORD: As it turns out, Cuba didn’t want to have anything to do with this kind of activity. Relations between Cuba and the United States were already fraught as it was and so they quickly shuttled him off to Algeria in the summer of 1969.
DEENA SABRY: At the time, Algerians had just overthrown French colonial rule, and the newly instated government was keen to support other anti-colonial movements however they could.
NATALYA BENKHALED-VINCE: So there’s this idea that Algeria sort of threw off the yoke of colonial rule against the odds. And they don’t see this struggle as sort of ending sort of once national independence has been achieved. Sort of a global struggle against forces of imperialism and oppression. What that means in practice is that Algeria becomes something a hub of revolutionaries and anti colonialists from around the world. It’s really sort of cultivating this image, if you like, the Mecca of revolution.
DEENA SABRY: The Algerian government helped out resistance and leftist groups in two ways: military support through weapons and training. And political support by lobbying on the world stage?
They also adopted an open-door policy, inviting opposition leaders from around the world to Algiers. Like the National Liberation front of South Vietnam, various Palestinian liberation groups and exiled politicians from Brazil, Argentina, Tunisia and Morocco.
So Eldrige Cleaver, when he arrived in the late 60s, was looking for the same thing he’d gone to Cuba for: An opportunity for the Panthers to earn more recognition, financing and training to revolt against the US government.
ELAINE MOKHTEFI: He arrived in Algeria and the Algerian authorities had not been warned that he was arriving, and so no one was at the airport to meet him except a representative of the Cuban Embassy.
DEENA SABRY: Later that night, the telephone in Elaine’s apartment rang. On the line was the leader of another visiting liberation movement – he’d been trying to reach her for hours. He told her Eldridge Cleaver was in town, and since she was one of only a handful of French-speaking Americans in Algiers – asked if she’d go and meet him.
ELAINE MOKHTEFI: So I did go, he was in a hotel, a hotel that was at the time called the Victoria. And I went there the next day and I met him and his wife was with him.
And Eldridge told me his story and said that he would like to remain in Algeria. And I happened to know the head of the liberation movement section of the National Liberation Front.
I called him and told him about Eldrige having arrived in Algeria and he said he was more than welcome. Eldridge then organised a press conference.
ARCHIVE [Cleaver at the press conference]: We came over here to do what we can to communicate to you what’s happening in our struggle in the United States.
DEENA SABRY: At the press conference, Cleaver announced his arrival to an auditorium filled with journalists, students and diplomats.
ARCHIVE [Cleaver at the press conference]: And to learn what’s happening over here, what have been the successes, what have been the failures, and what are the dangers we need to be afraid of.
DEENA SABRY: Soon, more and more Black Panthers began to arrive in Algeria. The Algerian government gave them travel documents, a monthly stipend and a villa to work from – a huge house with arched doorways and manicured hedges.
ELAINE MOKHTEFI: It was a private house. I mean, it was a government house, but it was a home.
DEENA SABRY: It looked like a boutique hotel, except by the entrance was a shiny silver plaque with the Black Panther logo and the words: Black Panther Party. International Section. It was the group’s first overseas outpost, with Cleaver and his wife Kathleen living in Algeria full time, leading its operation.
ELAINE MOKHTEFI: Yes, I think the Algerian authorities were very sensitive to the problem of black Americans, and they gave them their support.
DEENA SABRY: They set about creating alliances with other liberation groups from places like China, North Vietnam and the Congo.
ELAINE MOKHTEFI: We were often invited to other embassies or liberation organisation headquarters. And we were very close to the Vie Con representative. He was one of the first people that Eldridge visited when he arrived in Algeria, was the representative of Viet Cong.
ARCHIVE [Eldridge Cleaver meeting with Vietnamese representatives]: We join hands with the Vietnamese people. Because the Vietnamese people are fighting the pigs of the power structure. And we’re fighting the pigs of the power structure, and we’re both oppressed. We’re both dying. And we both know that we must put an end to this. We need each other, and we love each other.
JUSTIN GIFFORD: So Cleaver was really trying to establish these connections in order to get not only like training and advice, but also to try to build a coalition, a global coalition between and among various peoples of colour. The thinking here was that someone like Martin Luther King’s assimilationist philosophies were not going to get the Black population anywhere in the United States, precisely because they were an oppressed community under a police state. And so the only solution to this problem was to overthrow what they saw was a colonial authority.
ARCHIVE [African resistance leader in Algeria]: We are facing a common enemy. And it is this common enemy which we must all crush. If our American brothers score success in the United States, that success is not only theirs, it is ours too.
ELAINE MOKHTEFI: I was very glad that I was in a position to help them. It was one of the causes I was most sensitive to – the cause of racism in the United States. I was extremely sensitive to that cause. It was one of the causes that was closest to my heart.
DEENA SABRY: When Cleaver first joined the Black Panthers, the FBI saw them as the biggest internal threat to the security of the United States. So with him out of the country, they saw an opportunity to drive a wedge between the Panthers in California, run by Huey Newton, and the faction working under Cleaver in Algeria.
JUSTIN GIFFORD: For Newton and the Panthers in the United States, they were really interested in shifting the party toward community programmes. So free breakfast for children, free tests for sickle cell disease. They had an ambulance that they ran in through Oakland to help sick people. So the Panthers in the United States were shifting more toward kind of a reformist mainstream political model. And at the same time, Cleaver was in Algeria really hyping up his approach, which is all about Black insurrection and overthrowing the government, so he was deeply militant. So there was already an internal split, but the FBI really exploited that by sending false letters both to Cleaver and to Newton, essentially accusing the other one of trying to take over the party.
DEENA SABRY: This all came to a head on live TV.
ARCHIVE: [AM San Francisco broadcast, host] Eldridge we’re out of time, do you have anything you want to say to your followers here in the Bay Area?
DEENA SABRY: Newton was a guest on a show called AM San Francisco, and Cleaver phoned in from Algeria to air his grievances.
ARCHIVE: [AM San Francisco broadcast, Cleaver] I just wanted to comment on…
DEENA SABRY: The whole thing descended into chaos.
ARCHIVE: [AM San Francisco broadcast, Newton] The international section is expelled!
[Eldridge] That’s not the best way to deal with that.
[Newton] Well that’s the way I want to deal with it.
DEENA SABRY: And Newton expelled Cleaver and the entire international section of the party right then and there.
ARCHIVE: [Newton on AM San Francisco] You’re a coward and a punk!
[Eldridge] I think you’ve lost your ability to reason, brother.
[Newton] Hey brother, thats the way I feel about you now! You’re a punk!
DEENA SABRY: Without the support of Panthers HQ back in the US, Cleaver was in desperate need of cash to keep his branch of the party operating.
At first he tried writing another book, but he couldn’t come up with anything to match the success of his last one, Soul on Ice.
People had moved on, and his radical ideas about an all out war on the American government weren’t as appealing as they used to be.
JUSTIN GIFFORD: People weren’t really interested in his ideas so much anymore. It scared people that he was still preaching this insurrectionist ethos.
DEENA SABRY: That’s when the hijackings began.
NEWSREEL [Archival audio]: After picking up a $1m dollar ransom, the hijackers ordered the plane to Algeria. The Delta jet was allowed to land at the Algiers airport…
DEENA SABRY: We’ll be back after a quick break.
DEENA SABRY: When we left off, Eldridge Cleaver had been cut off from the Black Panthers in the US and needed money to finance his branch of the party in Algeria.
JUSTIN GIFFORD: In 1973, a couple of Panthers actually hijacked airliners with between half a million and a million dollars.
NEWSREEL [Archival audio]: There was another aeroplane hijacking today, a Delta airlines jet taken over by a gang of hijackers after landing in Miami…
JUSTIN GIFFORD: And came to Algeria to give the money to Cleaver.
UNIDENTIFIED VOICE [Archival audio]: Did the hijackers say where they wanted to go? Or did you talk with them at all?
UNIDENTIFIED VOICE [Archival audio]: No. The stewardess said they wanted to Algiers.
JUSTIN GIFFORD: The Algerian government seized the money.
UNIDENTIFIED VOICE [Archival audio]: The US demanded that the ransom be returned and officials said they expect Algeria to comply.
JUSTIN GIFFORD: And gave it back to the airlines because they were in the middle of brokering a deal with the United States over oil rights and they didn’t want to disrupt any sort of relationship with the U.S.
So at that point, Cleaver and the group of Panthers that remained had a press conference and wrote this press release in which they basically demanded the money from the Algerian president.
And the president reacted by sending secret service to try to assassinate Cleaver, and he and Kathleen were just barely able to get out of there alive.
DEENA SABRY: Natalya spoke to one of the people in the Algerian civil aviation authority who was responsible for dealing with these hijackings.
ARCHIVAL AUDIO: [Civil aviation figure speaking French]
DEENA SABRY: Although Algeria had been a-so called Mecca for revolutionaries at the time, he said that these hijackings were a step too far.
NATALYA BENKHALED-VINCE: So from independence, the Algerian government has to walk a fine line between sustaining this reputation of being the Mecca of revolution – of being sort of this pilot revolutionary state, this inspiration for liberation movements around the world – and its need and desire to be seen as a normal country playing by the rules of international relations.
That cautiousness also becomes entangled with the idea of international respectability. You know, so they actually want to be seen as a normal state playing by the normal rules of international diplomacy. And when your country becomes really well known for welcoming plane hijackers, that actually is a challenge to that image. You want to be an international broker, not a rogue state. So in that sense, the plane jackings become a political problem.
DEENA SABRY: For the Algerian government, the Panthers had crossed a line with these attacks. It wasn’t a good look for them to be seen supporting a group that had resorted to hijacking planes to fund their cause. So they started to withdraw their support.
ELAINE MOKHTEFI: And that was when the Panthers had to take stock of what their position was internationally. They had lost a lot of their influence because of the split and because of the FBI intervention. It caused the breakup of the Panthers in Algiers and many, as many of them moved along to other countries to settle and live.
DEENA SABRY: Cleaver left Algeria for Europe in 1973. He snuck into France and later got a visa to live there. He flew back to the U.S. two years later and was arrested as soon as he landed in New York.
NEWSREEL [ARCHIVAL AUDIO]: With his hands cuffed behind him, Cleaver was processed by the FBI and then taken by car to a federal court in Brooklyn.
DEENA SABRY: He died in California in 1998. Elaine was deported in 1976. She says it was because she refused to become a spy for the Algerian government.
ELAINE MOKHTEFI: Yes, they contacted me and I refused. And the final result took some time, but the final result was that they deported me. Because I wouldn’t work for them.
DEENA SABRY: She went to Paris for a few years before moving back to New York.
DEENA SABRY: The Panthers had moved to Algeria at a time when the future was still up for grabs. Between 1950 and 1962, more than 30 African countries gained their independence. For a moment in time, it seemed like the colonial capitalist template that dominated the world for centuries was being dismantled.
ELAINE MOKHTEFI: It was an unbelievable period of time. We believed that the third world had gained its place in the world forever.
DEENA SABRY: But that quickly changed when the Cold War ended in 1991. In Algeria, support for liberation movements started to dwindle after the Panthers left. In 1971, the government revived relations with the US, and the two countries signed a 25-year-long gas agreement. Algeria’s heyday as a haven for revolutionary groups was over.
ELAINE MOKHTEFI: And little did we know that the whole world would become capitalist in a short period of time, that the east would disappear and the west would be a long time winner.
There were so many, so many favourite memories. I can’t number them all, they flash across my mind from time to time. I met my husband to be in Algiers in 1972. That’s an unforgettable experience. I worked at the Algerian press office and was there the day that we were asked to be part of the film the Battle of Algiers.
ARCHIVAL AUDIO: [French clip from Battle of Algiers]
ELAINE MOKHTEFI: And I actually spent a day with the filming with the group that filmed Pontecorvo’s fantastic film. And I was even present in that film for about 20 seconds.
ARCHIVAL AUDIO: [French clip from Battle of Algiers]
ELAINE MOKHTEFI: There were so many, I mean, meeting the Viet Cong and becoming friends with the leaders of so many progressive organisations.
ARCHIVAL AUDIO [African resistance leader]: The masses that have been exploited for centuries must fight together in Africa, in Asia, in Latin America, and in the United States itself.
ELAINE MOKHTEFI: It brings back many memories. Makes me want to cry.
DANA BALLOUT: This episode was produced by Deena Sabry and Alex Atack. It was edited by me, Dana Ballout, and fact checking by Eman Alsharif. Sound design by Mohamad Khreizat and Alex Atack. Our team also includes Nadeen Shaker, Finbar Anderson and Zeina Dowidar.
DEENA SABRY: A special thanks to everybody who spoke to us for this story: Elaine Mokhtefi, Justin Gifford and Natalya Benkhaled-Vince. Elaine’s book is called Algiers, Third World Capital.
DANA BALLOUT: This is it for our season. We’ll be taking some time out over the next few months to work on another season of Kerning Cultures… and, a very special series that we’ll be ready to tell you more about in a couple of months.
And stay tuned for an update on our mini series, Aizen, in the next couple of weeks.
We’ve got a lot going on this year, and we’re excited to share it with you.
Thanks for listening.
ELAINE MOKHTEFI: Okay good luck to you, its been nice talking. Good luck to you. Bye. [Off mic] Wow! That was something…