“Que deviendra l’Algérie, si les gens comme vous partent?” (What will become of Algeria, if people like you leave?) The person speaking was a small, elderly Frenchwoman, her white apron wrapped around her waist, her hands on her hips and her head thrust forward belligerently, adding the ubiquitous “hein?” (eh?) for emphasis. We could only shrug our shoulders in response.
It was autumn, 1992, just before we left Algeria to work in Qatar, and we were eating a farewell lunch with a friend in one of Arzew’s iconic restaurants, La Germainerie. Its somewhat shabby frontage was painted in white, decorated with blue shutters, awnings and wrought iron security bars on its windows. Inside, red and blue checked tablecloths covered the handful of tables, giving the restaurant a cheerful, homely air.
La Germainerie was to be found on one side of Arzew’s main square. This square had been originally called la Place d’Isly, before becoming la place des Palmiers and then la place du 1er november, 1954 after independence. To my mind, the second name had been the most appropriate, given that groups of palm trees stood sentinel all around, rustling their fronds and affording shade to those sitting at the tables set out there by the restaurants originally ringing the square.
The change in place names after independence was something about which I was slightly ambivalent. On the one hand, I approved of the fact that some ostentatiously nationalistic French names originally given to streets and towns had been replaced. On the other, I regretted the disappearance of other, hauntingly evocative names – l’avenue des Glycines (Wisteria Avenue), la place des Palmiers (Palm Tree Square) and my two favourite place names of all time – Retour de la Chasse (Return from the Hunt) and Ravin de la Femme sauvage (Wild Woman Ravine) – both neighbourhoods in Algiers. The history or physical description of these seemingly magical places had been effaced for ever when their names had been changed. I still yearn to know the identity of the eponymous Wild Woman.
Traces of past European occupation could still be found in Algeria when I arrived there in 1969. Besides the ravishing colonial architecture in Algiers and Oran – the equal of anything to be seen in Paris or Nice – there were churches, cathedrals, clinics, hotels, restaurants, farms, elegant apartments and houses. In short, everything needed for a permanent occupation.
During one of my mother’s later visits, we had driven up to the Basilica of Notre Dame de Santa Cruz, built in the nineteenth century by the settlers after a cholera epidemic and perched high on the Murdjadjo or Aïdour mountain dominating Oran. The Algerian caretaker took down an ancient, rusty key from its hook and, through the creaking door, swollen by the heat and the rain, let us into the Basilica itself. It had not been damaged in any way, but the atmosphere was heavy with sadness. In one corner lay the processional cross, pyx, chalices and censers, piled up in a dusty heap.
Arzew itself had had its own tiny church – Sainte Marie or Notre Dame du Réfuge (Our Lady of the Refuge) – a fitting name for a church belonging to a population made up essentially of fishermen. It had been built in the middle of the main square, opposite the nursery school that my children had attended. It was demolished in 1981 – its stones carted away to build the then sous-préfet’s new house in Oran.
Anyway, to return to the Germainerie. The restaurant was owned and run by a pied noir called Germaine, and her son. This was the lady who had given us such a fierce dressing-down. She was a fourth-generation settler in Algeria, her family originally from Catalonia. Strangely enough, many pieds noirs were of Spanish or Italian extract, not French.
The origin of the name pied noir has been much debated, with many hypotheses being put forward, some more improbable than others. One was that it came from the polished boots of the French troops on their original mission of conquest in 1832; another that it described the feet of wine-growing settlers from the Languedoc region, stained black by the juice when they trod their grapes. Another theory was that the name of an American Indian tribe – the Blackfoot – had been adopted by a group of young Europeans in the fifties, addicted to the Westerns of the time.
Whatever the origin of their nickname, the official name for the European settlers in Algeria was “les Français d’Algérie” (literally, Algeria’s French), while the original inhabitants of Algeria, like my husband, were called “Français musulmans,” (Muslim French). Second-class citizens, with neither the rights nor the privileges of the European settlers. The usual name for them was “les Arabes,” ignoring their ethnic origins.
This name became increasingly derogatory, lumping them together into one amorphous mass and differentiating them from the Europeans. Even in Camus’s novel, L’Étranger, the man killed by Meursault is never given a name. He is just called “l’Arabe” (the Arab), thereby dehumanising him and depriving him of any identity.
One of the most chilling things I have ever read was a comment made by a pied noir describing his life in Algeria. He said that he never really noticed les Arabes. They were just part of the scenery – in the same way as the palm trees in the square, and equally unimportant. My blood boils whenever I think about it.
Germaine still kept to the vocabulary of her youth, calling Algerians “les Arabes.” She had refused to leave Algeria in the wake of independence and could not understand why other settlers had left, fully convinced that some sort of arrangement could have been made, whereby a “blended” population would have lived peacefully together. This is why she could not understand our decision to leave in 1992, seeing it as a second betrayal – a second abandonment of Algeria.
She had always lived in a small house near Fontaine des Gazelles on the Arzew coast road, and would swim in the little creek there every morning. Neighbours, the “Arabes,” so despised by her fellow pieds noirs, treated her with great respect, calling her Madame Germaine and describing her as une grande dame (a great lady).
Germaine was one of around 140,000 pieds noirs remaining in Algeria after independence. Many of them had stayed put because they had been loathe to leave their property and assets behind. Their number diminished, inevitably, with the passage of time, but, from time to time, we would catch glimpses of other hunched figures, dressed all in black, leaning on walking-sticks and scurrying into the Marché Michelet – Oran’s covered market.
The official reason given for the hurried exodus of the 800,000 pieds noirs after independence was that they were terrified of reprisals. The campaign of terror waged by the OAS (l’Organisation de l’Armée secrète) to keep Algeria in French hands was also cited as a motive for their departure. In reality, many of them could not tolerate the idea of a country where both the indigenous population and the settlers had equal status. Believing themselves to be superior in every way, the possibility of working under the orders of an Algerian – un Arabe – was anathema to them.