oran s’agite pleure et ruisselle oran is restless weeps and flows
d’orangeraies au bleu du ciel from the orange groves to the blue of the sky
la lune monte lentement the moon slowly rises
les ocres du soir étincellent the ochre of the evening sky glows
de feu et de sang with streaks of fire and blood
— Anne Chévariat: Le Chemin des Sept Îles
If there was one place in Oran that I hated visiting, it was M’dina Djida. It was where you could buy anything and everything — well, at least those products that were imported at the time. There was everything ranging from gold bangles to spices, cheap tin kitchenware to huge rolls of flowery dress material. Exactly like the souks in the historic quarters of most large cities in North Africa — Fès and Marrakesh, and the most famous of all — the Casbah in Algiers.
But there was one main difference. Its name is a giveaway, because m’dina djida is Arabic for new town. It is not some ancient relic— the remains of the original town before the settlers had built their grand mansions and elegant apartment blocks. No, it was built after the French invasion and designed specifically to house the indigenous population — out of sight and out of mind of the Europeans.
The French conquest of Oran in 1831 had led to a large majority of its inhabitants fleeing the city, except for the Jewish community, the descendants of former African slaves and the Kouloughli. The latter were the result of liaisons between the Turks (usually the janissaries of the Ottoman Empire) and local women. They were to be easily assimilated into the Algerian population after independence, unlike the Jews and the pied noirs. On reflection, it was probably because the two communities were Muslim, even though there had been Jews in Algeria since the first century CE — before even the Romans.
To stop people returning to their homes, the French military pretended that the buildings impeded the defence of the city and, using this as an excuse, razed them to the ground in 1832. The city was therefore practically emptied of its original inhabitants, but, in 1844, when hostilities had finally ceased, they began to filter back. To prevent this new migration, the colonial authorities then ordered the douars, originally to be found inside the city walls, to be rebuilt outside, on the Oran plain. Historically, a douar is a nomad camp of tents set in a circle, but has now come to mean a small, rural community.
In the words of General Lamoricière, Division Commander for the province of Oran, “this population is to be contained within a space, of which the borders are sharply defined, where it can be administered more effectively and monitored more easily.” In other words, a refugee camp. This new settlement was to be called M’dina Djida or, in common parlance, le village indigène (native village). A forerunner of the infamous Soweto.
The settlement was further divided into tiny enclaves; one for the hadar, or erstwhile notables of the city, sometimes called the Moorish Quarter, and the Medinat El Abid or Black Quarter, where the families of former slaves lived.
The policy of building a new settlement for the the indigenous population was in complete contrast to what was happening in other Algerian cities, where new neighbourhoods were being constructed for the sole use of Europeans. You could, however, find the same arrangement elsewhere in Algeria. In our tiny village of Bethioua, Fatiha lived in what was called le quartier arabe, built by the French, with its breeze-block walls and tiny, mean windows — stifling in summer and freezing in winter. About as far from our beautiful home, the Villa Robineau, built by a rich settler family, as you could get.
M’dina Djida was firstly a suburb in the true sense of the word, that is “outside the town,” but was soon incorporated inside the new city limits in 1866 as an integral part of Oran, thus enjoying its new status as a “neighbourhood.” It is also different from traditional souks in that it does not have the organic twisting alleyways of the latter, with their haphazard jumble of buildings added on as an afterthought.
It is, instead, shaped like a polygon, with straight streets drawn up by colonial city planners, and encircled by busy main roads. It does, however, incorporate the mausoleums of two local holy men or marabouts; Sidi Bilal and Sidi Kada Ben Mokhtar. Processions to honour these two marabouts are held on a regular basis, accompanied by the clacking of krakeb — a kind of castanets— played by itinerant groups of gnaouas, the descendants of the original black slaves.
The central square, called la Place Tahtaha, with a war memorial at its centre, divides M’dina Djida in half. The south-western part is for women. There you can find dresses, cosmetics, household goods and the Sidi Okba covered food market. In the north-east corner of the market can be found men’s clothing and shoes. Each narrow side street is devoted to the sale of a particular article, with streets devoted entirely to the buying and selling of gold, streets full of spice merchants and others lined with tiny shops selling diaphanous lengths of multicoloured dress material, sewn with sequins and edged with pearl beading.
When we had gone there for the first time, to buy some pots and pans for our first marital home, I had found the experience quite overwhelming. Rickety tables were set up on each side of the main thoroughfares, laden with plastic sandals, fruit and vegetables and electronic goods that had most certainly fallen off the back of a lorry. The edges of the pavement were lined with large, dirty, plastic bowls filled with different varieties of olives, further impeding our progress. Women wearing the traditional haïk clasped to their faces with one henna’ed hand, were bending from the waist, examining the goods on display on the cracked paving stones and haggling over the price in their shrill voices. The noise was indescribable.
We were jostled from all sides as people pushed their way through the crowd with scant regard for others, and the air was thick with cigarette smoke and the smell of unwashed bodies. Clouds of black flies crawled over the sticky pots of honey and syrupy pastries. The sun beating down on our uncovered heads, we had to pick our way carefully along the uneven pavements, slick with discarded fruit, blood from the sheep carcasses hanging from hooks in the open-fronted butchers’ shops and the soapy water thrown by the stallholders to clean the stretch of street in front of their displays.
My agoraphobia, always crouching at the back of my head like a beast, waiting to attack at the slightest provocation, gave a silent snarl and unsheathed its claws. I felt as though I couldn’t breathe, but was afraid to tell T., as I wanted, above all else, to prove to him that I could survive in Algeria. He was disgruntled anyway, because as soon as the shopkeepers saw me by his side — so obviously European in spite of my dark hair — they would double, or sometimes triple the price.
So we came to an arrangement. He would leave me in the car, with the window rolled down to let in a cool breeze and the never-boring spectacle of the citizens of Oran to watch, while he would venture into the seething heart of M’dina Djida, sometimes accompanied by his brother, and haggle to his heart’s content, without the encumbrance of a European wife. That way both of us were happy.