The various jihads of Mariam Abou Zahab


Mariam Abou Zahab on one of her missions in southern Afghanistan for French humanitarian NGO, Afrane, during the mid-1980s PHOTO/Laurent Gayer

In 2008, French scholar Mariam Abou Zahab met Abdullah Anas, a known Algerian Islamist and veteran of the Afghan Jihad, over dinner on the sidelines of a conference in London. At some point, the conversation turned to Afghanistan. Mariam Abou Zahab, who was conversing in Arabic, mentioned how dear the country was to her heart. Anas’ interest was piqued and he asked her if she had travelled to the war-torn country during the 1980s. She replied that she had indeed spent a considerable amount of time there. “But what were you doing in Afghanistan? Were you a journalist?” asked Anas, only to see his interlocutor shake her head in denial. A few more questions followed as he tried to further probe this enigmatic French woman. Was she an aid worker there, or a scholar? he asked. She was visibly amused and kept on answering in the negative. “So what were you doing in Afghanistan?” he asked in desperation. “Jihad,” replied the middle-aged woman with a smile.

According to a witness of this exchange, her laconic answer petrified Anas who was still struggling with the stigma of his militant past. “He was so shocked that he did not dare ask for precise details. He just clung to his chair and waited for the conversation to move on,” the witness recalled. All those present were left to wonder what she could have meant by her ambiguous statement.

This was not the first time that Mariam Jan, as her Afghan friends affectionately called her, had left her audience high and dry after arousing its curiosity. Not that she was secretive — she just had a gift for dissuading others from enquiring further about her past lives. Because, like a cat, she lived several lives until cancer took her away on November 1, 2017, in Paris.

Longing for new horizons

Mariam Abou Zahab was born Marie-Pierre Walquemanne in 1952 in Hon-Hergies, a village in northern France. She came from a family of small industrialists and grew up in a Catholic environment. Feeling somewhat suppressed in her original milieu, she manifested a desire for new horizons early on. Moving to Paris was a first step in this direction. At the age of 17, she passed the entrance examination for the prestigious Institute of Political Studies (better known as Sciences Po) and graduated in three years.

At 20, she showed an inclination for travelling on the cheap. In 1972, she bought an inter-Europe train ticket and accompanied her elder brother on a tour of European capitals. As she later confided to one of her closest friends, Marie-France Mourrégot, the two siblings were briefly detained by the Italian police after they were found sleeping in a park. After their release, they went back home but the train ticket was still valid, so she decided to hit the road again, returning to Warsaw on her own.

Herald for more

Comments are closed.