The City Of The Air

One of the chapters from my first book.


Constantine, the city where man lives higher than the eagle.

—Constantine the Great


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If Algiers is a grand old lady, Oran a good-time girl, Mostaganem a bluestocking with a chequered past, then Constantine is an eccentric great-aunt. I imagine her dressed in flowing draperies, with perhaps an exotic silken turban perched on top of her henna’ed hair, and her veiny hands covered with age-spots and heavy gold rings.

Her long, eventful past, stretching back nearly three thousand years, is reflected in her knowing black eyes. She is the doyenne of Algerian cities and the fabled Queen of the East. There are traces of past beauty, though, in her worn features, and you can see that she must have been dazzling in her younger days. And like many great aunts, you love her in spite of, or even because of, her eccentricities, paying her the homage that she is due.

As Malek Haddad, an Algerian poet, son of a Kabyle schoolteacher and native of Constantine, wrote: “On ne présente pas Constantine. Elle se présente et on la salue. Elle se découvre et nous nous découvrons”  (You do not introduce Constantine. She introduces herself, and you salute her. She reveals herself and we discover each other.)

One of the oldest cities on earth, Constantine was originally founded by the Phoenicians, who, appreciating the defensive qualities of a city built on a rock, called it Sewa (Royal City). Later it was renamed Cirta by the Berber king Syphax, who turned it into his capital. It was subsequently razed to the ground during an internecine civil war between Roman leaders, to be rebuilt by Constantine the Great in the 4th century and named after him. The name stuck, rendered as Qasantina in Arabic, as the city became Arab, and then part of the Ottoman Empire, hundreds of years later.

T and I had decided to visit Constantine during our short stay in the east of Algeria. It was an opportunity not to be missed, as I had heard so many stories about its unique site. My husband was having trouble with his CEO, as technical decisions had been taken concerning the project in Skikda with which he did not agree. Of course, he was thinking as an engineer and did not want to know the reasons behind such seemingly illogical choices, or to be involved in the murky currents swirling around a project of that type. Inevitably, there was a clash looming on the horizon, but for the moment, we were taking one day at a time.

The road that we drove along in the direction of Constantine resembled in many ways the roads in Kabylie, hugging the mountainside as it snaked upwards. It wound its way through craggy passes and tunnels blasted through the rock, before rounding a steep hairpin bend to reveal the city, with her skyline of minarets, cupolas and golden domes, appearing as if out of one of Coleridge’s opium dreams.  Constantine had sneaked up on us. “Elle éclate comme un regard à l’aurore et court sur l’horizon qu’elle étonne et soulève,” wrote Haddad. (She bursts forth like the breaking of the dawn, and runs along a horizon that she astonishes and raises up.) 

The city seemed to have been draped, not built, across her peaks and plateaux. The first thing I saw was a Trajan arch, surmounted with a winged victory and perched on a rocky outcrop far above the road. I later found out that this was a war memorial built by the French, but for one moment, it had seemed as though we had gone back in time and were entering a Roman imperial city.

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Photo: algerie-monde.com

 

On the other side of the road was a sheer drop, and we could hear the sound of the Rhumel River hundreds of metres below. It was rushing and deep; pouring over rocks in a foaming waterfall, but so far down that its sound came to us only as a muffled splashing.

Picturesque bridges began to appear, linking one mountain top to another, looking like ribs holding the spine of the city together, or sutures stitching together the wound made by the deep rocky gorge, which plunged, clumps of cactus clinging to its sides, a dizzying three hundred metres. Not for nothing is Constantine called The City of Bridges, or, as the Arabs called her, far more poetically, Blad el-Hawa— The City of the Air.

Elegant residential buildings, similar to those in Algiers, from where strings of washing hung out over the gorge, had obviously been built during the French colonial period, although this was not a city of cool blues and whites like the capital. Located about one hundred kilometres inland, Constantine’s colours were warmer — faded oranges, yellows and pinks, reminding me of Italy, and echoing the colours of the crags and rocks surrounding the city. The buildings seemed to have grown almost organically out of the cliffs on which they had been built, their colours blending seamlessly together.

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We spent the next couple of hours like tourists everywhere, wandering around; our mouths open in astonishment, taking in the sights.  Although we had known about it before, it was strange to see that the traditional covering for women was different from that worn in Algiers or Oran. Although the voilette, a lacy face veil, was the same as in Algiers, the Constantine-style haïk, called the m’laya,was black instead of white, had a hood trimmed in red, and seemed much heavier and more voluminous.

I was to discover that the colour had been changed from white to black as a sign of mourning for Salah Bey, who had governed the province, or beylik, as it had been called under the Ottomans, for twenty years in the eighteenth century.  He had quarreled with Hussein, the Dey of Algiers, who had sent another official to replace him. Strangling his rival, he was then strangled in turn by his successor. An eventful past, indeed.

I never returned to Constantine, although its memory will stay with me forever. The inevitable clash with the CEO came as no surprise. T had refused to implement some decisions, which he felt were completely unworkable. He was taken off the project, and told by the CEO that he didn’t need a McEnroe on the project, always questioning the reasons behind decisions; he needed someone who would just pat the ball back and forth. In other words, a yes man.

We returned to Bethioua, where T was again given an office job. We were relieved in some ways to be home, but in others it was extremely difficult, with my husband again starting to pace around the house through sheer boredom. It didn’t help that the situation around the country was not improving. If anything, things were getting worse.

 

For the photos, no copyright infringement is intended.

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We dream, we wake on a cold hillside, we pursue the dream again. In the beginning was the dream, and the work of disenchantment never ends.
― Kim Stanley Robinson


I suddenly heard the clang of the double gates being thrown open and the tyres of a car screeching down the slight incline to the garage. The only person it could be was T, but it seemed highly unlikely at that time in the morning. He had left for the refinery only a few hours before, as he always liked to be at his desk before the work buses arrived, to set a good example — unlike other managers, who had a tendency to begin the working day nearer lunchtime. Continue reading