On the Road With Bernard-Henri Lévy, the Planet’s Last Superstar French Intellectual
From Paris to Benghazi to Dhaka to Kiev, France’s most prominent, and tireless, public philosopher is also its de facto statesman
The afternoon was dominated by a panel discussion at the Alliance Française of the newly published Bengali translation of the Indes Rouges book. Before delivering a lecture or a talk, BHL will size up a crowd and retreat into a small room for around 10 minutes. There he will sketch out some notes on a piece of paper the size of a Post-it note. Upon returning he will speak extemporaneously for an hour while glancing down at it only a few times. He is particularly good at building toward a crescendo of meaning through looping digressions. One wonders if his ornate oratory perhaps comes too easily, whether his speeches and talks would be better if he had to spend more time preparing them.
Dinner that evening at the residence of the French ambassador was an intimate affair, with about a dozen men, and no women, arranged over a long table. Our small entourage was joined by some French embassy staff and a handful of Bangladeshis split evenly between intellectuals and businessmen. The French ambassador was a stern man with an oval face and round architect spectacles over a trim walrus mustache who oozed contempt for the Bangladeshis. A strident conversation about the fractional duopoly dominating Bangladeshi politics ensued; all the Bengalis agreed that a third political party would have to be formed. Throughout, the ambassador made caustic remarks about Bengalis’ capacity for democratic self-governance, what he perceived as a lack of differences between the parties, and the relative merits of army rule in a country with a history of army coups.
BHL sat grim-faced without uttering a word throughout the conversation. He also ate nothing: The food was flaked with large amounts of garlic, to which he is allergic. The embassy staff and BHL’s French friends likewise said nothing. The Bengalis listened glumly to this unspooling litany of their nation’s political sins and their incapacity to govern themselves. Being the American free radical in the room, it fell to me to inquire about the obvious: “Would you really prefer that the army step in and take power again?” I asked the ambassador. “Yes, I would,” came the contemptuous reply. Immediately after coffee was served the troubled BHL politely excused us, citing the exhaustion of travel.
In the car on the way back to the hotel, BHL fumed to his friends. To me he explained that this sort of French ambassador was a very particular type, a “cynical hater of the country he was supposed to look after. A Marquis de Norpois-type character from Proust” that he had met over and over again for 40 years “as if he was a reincarnation of Vishnu, from Cambodia to Ethiopia to Sudan.”
The next morning we had all assembled in the hotel lobby at the ungodly hour of half past six. It was the one-year anniversary of the collapse of the eight-story garment factory at Rana Plaza that had buried more than a thousand garment workers under mountains of concrete. At 15 million souls, Dhaka is one of the world’s most densely inhabited and haphazardly planned cities. After driving for an hour through the rickshaw-clogged roads of the city center, we arrived at a vast, desolate pile of cement studded with metal rods and flecked with pieces of cloth. Dozens of scavengers were crouching over the rubble, still digging through the debris in search of family mementos or iron fillings to sell to scrap dealers. BHL wandered around the rubble contemplatively while Roussel took pictures of him.
After tripping over a metal spoke protruding from the concrete, I spoke with Alliance Française Director Olivier Litvine, who had first come to Dhaka to do his mandatory army service in his twenties. BHL’s books had been formative for him, and he had read the Bangladesh book as young man; he had organized the trip and conferences for months. He could not bear to read the Daniel Pearl book, having become acquainted with Pearl in Pakistan a week before his kidnapping. BHL’s work, he said, was “Jewish in the sense of universal, of being convinced that a shared humanity is profoundly dented whenever human rights are trampled underfoot.” His friend’s confidence in taking such positions, he added, came from his “having satisfied very young all the ritualistic requirements of French society.” Getting back into the car, we received news that one of the major credit agencies was lowering the credit rating of Russian government bonds to a status one level above junk. BHL was thrilled: “Moody’s is a more efficient weapon than NATO! Fitch and Moody’s might now be the greatest guarantors of Europe’s honor.”
Our next stop was the campus of Dhaka University, where we would be joining the French ambassador at the inauguration of a newly opened Malraux Garden—the sort of assignment that is usually entrusted to a traveling cultural or foreign minister. Standing in front of a plaque along with the university rector and a sleepy looking minister of the liberation war affairs, BHL delivered some extemporaneous exhortations to the youth of Bangladesh. This time the tone was closer to peppy than grandiloquent. He concluded by calling for an “enlightened Islam, an Islam that will advocate law and measure, an Islam tolerant, moderate, and respectful of others—of minorities in particular.” It would be the same message that he would deliver in the more complex form of a policy initiative at his next meeting, with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the daughter of the martyred Mujibur Rahman. He pronounced her to be “a very great lady.”
On this occasion, BHL had two big ideas. First, the Bangladeshis, with their mild and ecumenical temperament and history of tolerance, should stand up and declare themselves leaders of a progressive and moderate Islam. Second, they ought to begin filling the gap of historical memory and salving the wounds of the genocide that had never been properly dealt with after the end of the war. They should, he suggested, open a Bengali version of Yad Vashem. (The Bangladeshi national museum already relates the story of the civil war genocide using the tropes of the Holocaust and compares the Bengalis to the Jews, something that is difficult to imagine in almost any other Muslim country.)
Just then, I realized that alongside his being an impeccable Frenchman, an unapologetic Jew, and an unabashed bon vivant, BHL also holds on to a deep core of Arab cultural structures. The majority of his life’s political commitments, certainly the most passionate ones, from Afghanistan to Libya and Pakistan to Bangladesh, have been in Muslim countries. He was possibly the greatest champion of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s Muslims and their President Alija Izetbegović inside the European Union, while his peers defended the Albanians or the Croats. He speaks about bringing together the sons of Abraham, and during the Libyan invasion he went around making sure the rebels knew he was Jewish. He is comfortable in the Muslim world, and in the east generally, in a way that most European intellectuals who talk about it, or plot to intervene in it, or make excuses for it, are not.
How an academic field—marked by petty fighting, misguided ideological debates, and personal proximity to tragedy—doomed itself