Bernard-Henri Lévy, the French-Jewish philosopher and intellectual, was in Karachi for not more than an hour — riding in a taxi from the airport to his hotel — when his driver turned to him and said: “And your religion? What is your religion?”
For a moment Lévy was baffled.
Lévy was in Pakistan to write about the kidnapping and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Pearl’s last words were captured on film: “My father’s Jewish,” Pearl said. “My mother’s Jewish. I’m Jewish.” Pearl was then beheaded.
With that in mind, Lévy decided it wouldn’t be prudent to announce his Judaism to the cab driver.
“Atheist,” Lévy finally said. “My religion is atheism.”
Lévy recounts this conversation a few pages into his new book, “Who Killed Daniel Pearl?” (Melville House). It gets right to the heart of the current existential and religious dilemmas that color the conflict between East and West; as soon as he set foot on the battlefield he was asked, “Which side are you on?”
Lévy was in the office of Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai in Kabul in February 2002 — interviewing Karzai about French involvement in post-Taliban Afghanistan — when the news came that Pearl had been killed. Pearl’s murder “seemed to me to be a very, very important event,” Lévy said. “It was sort of a black [introduction] to the 21st century.”
Lévy soon began retracing the steps of Pearl and his murderer, British-born Islamist Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh. The resulting book — a huge bestseller in France, where it was originally published earlier this year as “Qui a Tué Daniel Pearl?” — is a detailed recreation of the murder, part Truman Capote, part Norman Mailer and part “Citizen Kane.”
The Pearl that Lévy creates is a humanist, an intellectual, a world traveler, and Lévy identifies with the dark-haired, intelligent, sharp-looking reporter, whom he calls a “posthumous friend.” In the book, Lévy travels to Los Angeles and speaks to Pearl’s parents — both immigrants from Israel — and shares in their grief. But Lévy also examines Sheikh, and although Sheikh is a kidnapper, a religious fundamentalist and a murderer, Lévy’s portrait often seems sympathetic. Lévy travels to Sheikh’s London home, interviews his friends and gets a sense of an intelligent boy who becomes seriously lost in the wilderness of fanaticism and terrorism.
The book, in the end, is almost as much about Lévy’s obsession with Pearl’s murder as it is about the murder itself. “I would not say I wrote a book about myself,” Lévy told the Forward in a phone interview from his house in Marrakech. “I am in the story, this is true. I did it because it seemed to me more honest. I thought the making of the investigation is part of the investigation.”
With a great mane of black hair and deep brown eyes, Lévy, 54, is the equivalent of the French intellectual rock star. Although his eldest daughter from his first marriage, Justine, is already a novelist in her own right, Lévy — who also has a son from that marriage, now a student in America — remains fresh and youthful. He is married to actress and singer Arielle Dombasle and pals around with Yves Saint Laurent and Salman Rushdie.
Lévy’s father, André Lévy, was a businessman. Both his parents were originally from Algeria, and Lévy was born in his grandparents’ house — the same house in which his mother was born — although his parents were firmly rooted in Paris by the time he was born. He went to the Ecole Normale Superieure where he studied under Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser and became a Maoist and follower of André Malraux. He was still in his 20s when he first went to Pakistan to join a brigade of fighters to fight for Bangladeshi independence, in the mold of the foreign brigades who traveled to Spain in the 1930s and fought in the Spanish Civil War.
The brigade never really got off the ground, but Lévy stayed in South Asia for a year and came back with his first book, “Red India.”
Lévy long ago abandoned his Maoist political past. “I [was] never a Maoist militant,” Lévy said. “It may appear strange… [but at the time] to be a Maoist was to break — from the inside — the Stalinist, dogmatic leftist consensus.” When Lévy was 28, he became the leader of the “New Philosophers” who rejected Marx.
When he was 31, his ideas were already being critiqued in The New York Review of Books, and in addition to his novels and journalistic books (“Who Killed Daniel Pearl?” is Lévy’s 30th book) Lévy directed films like “Bosna!” a documentary about the war in Bosnia, and “Le Jour et la Nuit.”
In the past three years — since September 11 and the outbreak of the intifada — Lévy has been outspoken in his condemnation of French antisemitism and has not indulged in the anti-Americanism of his fellow lefties despite his reservations about the American war in Iraq. (He calls Saddam Hussein “a phantom of 20th-century history,” whereas Pakistan is “the devil’s own home.”)
Recently, Lévy wrote a series of three articles in the French journal Le Point about the anti-globalization movement. He said, “There are some things — a number of things — where you are right. On the misery of the third world, you are right. That the debt of the poorest countries should be forgiven, you are right; you are generous, but be careful of [the entire] ideological package… it is leading you on a very bad path.”
Despite the dark undercurrents at the heart of “Who Killed Daniel Pearl?” Lévy remains in many ways an optimist. It is perhaps here that he most strongly identifies with Pearl, who — Lévy insists — was a reasonable, enlightened thinker about Islam. “There is this gentle Islam,” Lévy writes, “which, in spite of everything, until the last minute, Daniel Pearl wanted to believe, as I want to believe.”