How do you go from being a young man who dreams of being an actor to a cold-blooded fundamentalist terrorist who thinks nothing of killing women and children? To our minds it seems unconscionable, but in the world created by Yasmina Khadra, and in the head of Nafa Walid, his protagonist in Wolf Dreams, it's simply the path of least resistance.
Since winning independence from France in 1962, Algeria has been a secular state, but in the mid- to late eighties, fundamentalists are beginning to take over mosques in areas where they know they will be able to recruit. Initially keeping a low profile in the community at large, they gradually began to expand out from their power base in the mosque.
In the Casbah of Algiers, where Nafa Walid lives, the changes are only gradually noticeable. When he loses a job yet again, this time after refusing to be party to covering up the murder of a young woman by his employer, he turns to the mosque for comfort of the familiar and to try to deal with his shame over what he believes is his complicity in the girl's death.
In his disillusioned and despondent state he is ripe for the picking by the fundamentalists. Like any cult, they find those who have been alienated and then move in to fill the void. They offer a ready-made purpose, a sense of belonging, and best of all they've reduced everything to a black and white equation. Something is either right or wrong and there is no room for debate.
Algeria was short of everything. Demonstrations turned to riots so bad that the army was sent in. Not trained in crowd control, somebody panicked and they began firing at a crowd and nearly 500 people eventually were killed, with thousands more arrested. It's not until after the food riots of 1988 that the fundamentalists hit their stride in Algeria. Contending that they were the supporters of the poor and downtrodden, they said, “Follow us and we will change the way things are run.”
In their brave new world it would be the righteous being taken care of, while those who had been sucking the country dry would be gotten rid of. They offered a banner that people could flock behind and feel like they were on the right side. Those who would openly speak against them became fewer and fewer as it became less and less healthy to do so.
It wasn't until the election of 1991 when the fundamentalist party was leading after the first round of voting, looking set to form the next government and the army declared the elections null and void and took power for themselves that the terror campaign began. Car bombs, ambushes, and any other means at their disposal, and always the same targets; the police, the army, the intellectuals, the scientists, women who wouldn't wear the wear the hijah (veil), and the artists. If you were not one of them, you were the enemy and didn't deserve to live.
Nafa stays on the fringes, telling himself that he doesn't want to kill anyone. Instead he works for them. He takes on the job of ferrying packages through roadblocks. He drives a taxi and doesn't look identifiably like a terrorist so, even though his cab might have its secret panels filled with weapons or money, he's not given much trouble at the roadblocks. He learns the trick of not letting himself be provoked by the police and lets them do as they will, even to the point of taking a beating on occasion.
All around him is terror and mayhem, but he continues on thinking that he is staying out of it; he has become used to the sight of corpses, just like the children of the Casbah who have gotten used to the rows of heads left each morning on the spikes of railings. Informants, police officers, anyone who is considered a non-believer or has been fingered for saying anything that sounds heretical are all equally guilty in the eyes of the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS – Islamic Salvation Front).
Nafa is happy for the first time in his life. He tells himself he is doing something useful for the community. The taxi he drives was once the property of an arrested freedom fighter, and the money he earns goes towards feeding the family of the jailed person. The salary he draws is sufficient to bring food into the house for his family, and finally prove to his father that he is not the wastrel he always took him for.
Of course it can't last forever and the police come for him one night when he's out. He comes home to find his family's apartment surrounded and only a hastily whispered warning tells him to leave. He is taken into hiding until it can be figured out what to do with him. On the second day he receives a visit from a comrade who tells him that the police killed his father when they came looking for him.
From then on he becomes a killer because he believes he must avenge the death of his father in any way that he can. The first time is hard, it's true, but it's not his fault. Why did the magistrate have to be the way he was so that he, Nafa, had to kill him? Why did the revolver keep shooting the man long after he was dead? There was no reason for it to do that.
The leader of his group says not to worry — after the third one it gets easier — and Nafa is relieved to find out that is true. Why, he can even be present at the murder of someone he knows and watch him have his throat slit in front of his family calling out Nafa's name. Of course he did have a little problem sleeping that night, but it passed.
He is living the life he always wanted with his group. They are to pretend they are the children of upper class families and they live according to that lifestyle, with dispensation to frequent dens of iniquity in order to ferret out targets. Nafa even has his own room with a large screen television.
Even in among the most paranoid of organizations betrayal can happen, and in one fell swoop the police manage to arrest the whole national leadership. After the dust has settled and all the infighting is done, Nafa finds he has been transferred out of the city and into the countryside. Someone who he had pissed off at some point in time is now in charge.
He has an hour to go and say goodbye to his mother and she barely lets him in the house. She accuses him of abandoning her and his sisters. He won't stand for that and gets indignant and exclaims, “I've been avenging the death of my father at the hands of the police.”
She laughs in his face. "You killed your father. When he demanded of the police what they wanted of his good son who provided for his family they showed him proof you were one of the terrorists. He was so upset he dropped dead of a heart attack on the spot…"
In the countryside they are the kings. They are like armies of feudal lords who collect tithes from the surrounding villages through threats and intimidation instead of having to work. They hide out in their mountain redoubts kidnapping, murdering, and looting, keeping the people in the surrounding villages "loyal" to the cause and safe from any retaliatory strike the local militias can mount.
Nafa works hard to prove himself, although his pride is injured that they won't let him kill people and only be a goat herder. It's not fair, he says quietly to himself, knowing that any word of disquiet can have you killed as non-believer. Hadn't he proven that he knew how to kill? He begins to sulk and feel hard done by again.
The inevitable happens, and even though Nafa gets to prove himself time and time again when the army uses artillery and helicopter gun ships, they haven't a chance. Hoping for something, he and a couple other survivors head back to Algiers, hoping to hide out in the Casbah; surely somebody will want to shelter heroes of the revolution? The answer is no and they are destroyed.
Terrorists aren't fanatical believers to start with. They are empty shells of people lying scattered on the ground waiting for something to come along and fill them with hope. If not hope, then purpose will do, and if that fails, anger. Nafa, with his head full of unrealistic dreams which are constantly dashed, with no real hope of doing anything beyond menial work for people who despise him and don't even recognise him as being of the same species, is the perfect terrorist.
Like In The Name Of God before, what is so chilling about Wolf Dreams is how the author shows how easy it is to become something that has no sense of right or wrong anymore. No matter how much they bleat about God or the good of the people, for the average terrorist, none of that really means anything.
If on the same day that they had taken the first steps towards becoming a terrorist somebody had been able to convince them of the virtues of male prostitution, they would have done that instead. A terrorist is a person who takes the path of least resistance when it comes to living – whatever looks easiest and with the highest reward is for them.
Maybe that's why they call them resistance fighters.