On December 12, 1957, two days after he had been conferred the Nobel Prize, Albert Camus was addressing an audience at Stockholm University. After responding to questions about cinema, ideology and racial discrimination, he suddenly declared that he hadn’t yet given his opinion “about Algeria”. The country was still a French colony and a blistering civil war was raging there. It was also the country where he was born and grew up, and where his mother still insisted on living despite the spiralling violence.
After being accused by an Algerian in the audience of signing “lots of petitions for Eastern European countries but not having done anything for Algeria for the past three years”, Camus, the member of a French settler family in Algeria, spoke. He talked about the need to give justice to the Algerian people and granting them a fully democratic regime. The French daily, Le Monde, quoted him: “I feel a certain repugnance about explaining myself in public, but I have always condemned terrorism, and I must condemn a terrorism that works blindly in the streets of Algiers and one day might strike at my mother and my family. I believe in justice, but I will defend my mother before justice.”
Camus had been accused before of ‘remaining quiet’ about Algeria. His friend Raymond Sigaudés had told Camus, “You’re afraid you won’t get the Nobel Prize if you take sides!” After his statement in Stockholm, Camus was accused of putting himself before human values. To put it bluntly, Camus was accused of being selfish.
Nearly 50 years after a pied noir — literally ‘black foot’, referring to the black boots supposedly worn by early French settlers in Algeria — another Frenchman with Algerian connections is being howled at for putting himself before a greater cause. One is yet to know what exactly infuriated Zinédine Yazid Zidane, a non-practising Muslim of Kabylie descent, enough to unleash a head-butt that led to his being sent off in the World Cup final. But like Camus (who once played goalkeeper and central forward for the Montpensier Sports Club and the junior team of the Algiers Racing University), Zidane found himself forced to ‘break his silence’ by going against traditional notions of justice.
If reports of the media are to be believed, a professional lip-reader deciphered what Marco Materazzi, the ‘victim’ of Zidane’s rush of blood to the head, had told the French captain. He made a racist comment that also involved Zidane’s mother. How would a practical man, a ‘professional’ man, have reacted? By bringing Materazzi’s disgusting antics to the notice of the referee? By clenching his jaws and taking sweet revenge by winning the game? By head-butting the Italian after the match? All such reactions to a slur would have stopped Zidane’s humiliating departure from international football. He chose none of them.
There have been voices bemoaning Zidane’s act of selfishness against his own team. But like Camus again, Zidane was forced to reject ‘salvation’ — the crowning glory of walking into the sunset without a red card to his name. Instead, Zidane, however brief the period it took for the synapses in his brain to get short-circuited, chose the Rebel’s option.
Camus in his essay, ‘The Rebel’, writes: “What is a rebel? A man who says no: but whose refusal does not imply a renunciation. He is also a man who says yes as soon as he begins to think for himself. A slave who has taken orders all his life, suddenly decides that he cannot obey some new command. What does he mean by saying ‘no’? He means, for instance, that ‘this has been going on too long’, ‘so far but no farther’, ‘you are going too far’, or again ‘There are certain limits beyond which you shall not go’. In other words, his ‘no’ affirms the existence of a borderline.”
In every act of rebellion, the rebel feels heartbreak at the infringement of his rights. Zidane knew what would happen once his head crashed into Materazzi’s sternum. But he also felt the complete and spontaneous loyalty to certain aspects of himself. And this is what has given the ‘disgraced’ 34-year-old from Marseilles the sheen of the anti-hero.
The banal comments from certain sections about Zidane’s ‘ugly act’ spawning a million head-butts in thousands of school fields misses two points: he hadn’t planned it this way, and that he doesn’t really care. Television commentators, never mind Fifa prefects, can’t comprehend why a grown man, a celebrated genius, has to ‘throw it all away’. By reacting in an ‘unprofessional’ manner — both in terms of description as well as judgment — Zidane chose one set of values to be more important than the other. In other words, he became a ‘stupid’ footballer and a heroic man in the eyes of one — himself — at the same 109th minute.
Zidane’s ‘stupidity’ is only matched by that of another mortal, the tragic hero of Homer’s Iliad, Achilles. Instead of playing it by the rules of war and the norms of decency, Achilles avenges the death of his closest friend Patroclus by tying the slain body of his killer, Hector, to his chariot and dragging it around. He knows that this ‘foolish’ act is bound to earn the wrath of the Gods, whose favourite he had been till that moment, and which will quickly lead to his own death. “Achilles... cares not a jot for public opinion, to which most people bend the knee for better or for worse... He had better beware of our wrath, great man though he is. What is he doing in his fury but insulting senseless clay?” Homer makes Apollo the Sun God say.
The sense of how to act (or not act) against wrongs varies from person to person. It is the social man, living according to the ‘rules of the game’, who knows how to act and how to practise restrain, no matter what the provocation. But as with Zidane on Sunday night and Achilles on a different field, Camus’s rebel stubbornly insists that there are certain things in him that are ‘worthwhile’, even if it ends in personal shame.