New Town

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.

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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.

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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.

 

Joan of Arc Estate

The Cité Jeanne d’Arc (the Joan of Arc Estate) was a block of flats that had built by the French on what were then the eastern outskirts of Oran. Apparently,  there had once been a statue of the saint on a plinth on the steps leading up to the entrances, but it had long since gone, removed or smashed after independence, by the time T. was assigned accommodation there following his return to Algeria in November, 1968.

His flat was on the eighth floor of Bâtiment B3, the block taken over by Sonatrach to house its engineers working in the ammonia plant in Arzew. The whole complex was divided vertically into bâtiments, each bâtiment being a single block of flats with its own stairwell and lift.

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It was only after our wedding and T had returned to work, did I have time to look closely at my new home.  I examined with curiosity, and a little apprehension, the strange taps and two-pin electrical outlets. I looked around at the tiled floors, the tiled concrete worktops in the kitchen and the way in which electric wires were encased in steel tubing running across the ceilings and walls instead of being concealed behind the plasterboard.

There was no plasterboard, anyway, as the flats were earthquake-proof, with factory-like walls of reinforced concrete painted in an all-purpose magnolia gloss paint. The windows were curtainless, obscured at night and shaded from the sun during the day by wooden venetian blinds unrolling on the outside.

The flat was neither cosy nor welcoming – no soft furnishings; no wallpaper; no carpet to muffle sounds; no decorations, except for our university textbooks aligned along some wonky shelves and the few ornaments I had brought from Britain to brighten up the place. My patchwork aprons, sewn so lovingly for me by my godmother in preparation for my new life as a married woman, hung sadly on the back of the kitchen door, striking an incongruous note of colour in the sheer utilitarian starkness of my surroundings.

The layout of the flat was peculiar, as well. The main living space was an L-shape, with the original dining-room taking up the lion’s share of the room and a tiny space leading off it constituting the seating area. By the time we had installed our precious radiogram and two mattresses on the floor, there was hardly any room to swing  the proverbial cat.

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T (with beard) pretending to throw himself out of the flat window. I felt like that at times, too

By contrast, the dining-room furniture given to us by Sonatrach made its ponderous and self-important presence felt in the larger half of the living area – to the detriment of everything else. I had to skirt around it on my way to the kitchen or the bedrooms, taking care not to bang against its sharp corners or the high backs of the eight dining chairs, upholstered in sticky green leatherette and aligned around its veneered length like the Apostles at the Last Supper.

There were no less than five doors leading off from the dining room, one to a tiny kitchen with just enough room for a gas cooker, cupboards and sink down one side and a fridge and a small formica kitchen table on the other. A glazed door led out onto a narrow balcony. Balconies were not used in Algeria as a place where to sip an apéritif à deux of an evening, watching the sun go down and the lights of Oran twinkling in the distance. They were used as glorified storage space, full of plastic bowls, stepladders, giant galvanized couscous platters and wet washing hanging from clothes lines.

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Coming out of the kitchen of the flat with apron around the waist

The balcony had, however,  a rubbish chute on one side, connected to all the floors. I brightened up. Here were two things I had never had in Britain – a fridge and a rubbish chute. Only the wealthiest families at home could boast of a fridge. Of course, by contrast, it was absolutely vital in Algeria. The rubbish chute – well, it seemed to be an ingenious solution to the eternal problem of household waste. Of course, a few years later, residents were tipping all kinds of things down the chute. The less said about that, the better.

A small vestibule giving on to the two bedrooms – one large, one small – the bathroom and the toilet, was through one of the other doors. The bathtub was square instead of the more usual rectangular shape. It was neither a proper bathtub in which you could stretch out and relax, or a normal shower tray, as you had to clamber over the edge.  Everything was so unfamiliar – so alien.

Our neighbours in bâtiment B3 were a diverse crowd made up mostly of young engineers, some of them, like T, having studied abroad and brought foreign wives back with them. On the second or third floor lived an engineer with his Hawaiian wife and small son. His wife had difficulty in adjusting to life in Algeria and fled after about twelve months. I think she realised that she and her son were just too different to integrate into ordinary Algerian society. Her husband followed a few weeks later.

On the third or fourth floor lived a Mozabite. The Mozabites, or Aït M’Zab, are Berber, living in the M’Zab valley of the northern Sahara, and belonging to the strict Ibadite sect. I later heard that when his wife was in labour, he would not allow a midwife or doctor anywhere near her, sitting praying by her bedside and peeking under the covers from time to time to see if the baby had been born.

Directly beneath us lived another Kabyle engineer, his wife and their two children. The wife had very pale strawberry blond hair and paper-white skin. Her blue eyes were watery and red-rimmed and her eyelashes so pale they were almost invisible. I looked questioningly at T when he introduced us, thinking that here was yet another foreign wife, brought back perhaps from Russia or the Ukraine.

My assumption was wrong as she was, in fact, pure Kabyle, and her husband had been brought up by her family, in return for which he had married their illiterate daughter. I came to admire her though, as she insisted on wearing modern European clothes, learned to speak French and to drive a car.

Immediately above us lived another young engineer and his new wife. The only thing I can remember was the wife’s habit of wearing high-heeled mules at home.  T. and I would lie in bed, unable to sleep, listening to her tap-tapping her way around the tiled floors of the flat above. That, and her annoying way of saying vacuously, “Ooh la-la!” in time-honoured “French” fashion, in response to any remark made, whether it be on the current international political situation or the weather.

On the top floors lived two other young couples. One couple came from different cities, Tlemcen and Constantine, and their respective families had been vehemently opposed to their marriage. The others were yet another of T’s colleagues and his gum-snapping American wife. She had already been in Algeria a year before I arrived and seemed to know everything and everyone. I looked at her with envy.

We only stayed in the Cité Jeanne d’Arc for about two years, by which time our daughter had been born and I was pregnant with my second child. The rickety lift would often be out of order, either breaking down or being used as a public convenience by vagrants. On one such day, I struggled up the eight flights of stairs, heavily pregnant, with my daughter on one arm and a heavy shopping basket on the other. I felt fat, frazzled and frumpy.

Who should I meet standing in front of our door, impatiently tapping her smartly-shod foot, and drawing testily on the cigarette held in one perfectly-manicured hand? Yes, it was A. – one of our university friends. Her glance swept from my red perspiring face and hair ruffled by my daughter’s sticky fingers down to my dusty feet thrust into flip-flops.

“Where the hell have you been?” was her only greeting. Time and the move to Algeria had not softened her – far from that.  It was later I realised that she was, in fact, struggling to adjust to life in a foreign country as well.

Agoraphobia

The title of this post is somewhat of a misnomer. I did not develop full-blown agoraphobia in Algeria, but something approaching it. Looking back, I think it was probably linked to the panic attacks I had experienced before going out to Algeria for good. All the anxiety I had tried to suppress about moving out there had led to a spate of dizzy spells. I never actually fainted, but constantly felt on the verge of doing so.

Things improved to a certain extent once I actually set foot back in Algeria. Of course, it helped my state of mind being with T. again, but I would often tremble with apprehension when I had to go outside. The first few months had been fine, with all the bustle and excitement of our wedding and the lazy days spent afterwards on the beach in lieu of a honeymoon, but once left on my own, with T. at work and my mother and sister back in Britain, I found it more and more difficult to leave the safety of the flat.

Perhaps the fact that I had just fallen pregnant had had something to do with it. I only know that I had to force myself to take the rickety lift down to the ground floor and cross the street to the grocer’s. People, of course, would turn around to look at me in curiosity and men would mutter to each other as I passed by, drawing on their cigarettes as they eyed me up.

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Even when T. was with me, he couldn’t put a reassuring arm around my waist or hold my hand. Public demonstrations of affection between couples were just not accepted in polite Algerian society. I don’t think Algerian wives expected them anyway, as most marriages were arranged and not love matches. They probably would have been embarrassed, thinking their husbands were shaming them in front of others. A woman being touched in public was considered no better than a prostitute.

So when T. and most of my neighbours were at work, I spent most of my time looking out of the living-room window of our eighth-floor flat on to the street scenes below. A bit like Rapunzel, really. There was always a lot of hustle and bustle in the street, although it was situated on the eastern outskirts of the city, quite a way from the centre.  There were several small shops just across the street and facing the main road – two bakeries, a butcher’s, a chemist’s and two grocer’s shops. Everything within a stone’s throw. And yet I still found it difficult to go outside.

I watched with curiosity the wraith-like figures of women wrapped in their white haïks flitting to and fro, heavy baskets full of groceries dangling from one hand. Just one eye would be showing through the folds of cloth pulled across their faces and held tight in the other hand.  Young men in jeans and t-shirts lounged around, smoking and talking. Small children played on the dusty playground in front of the block of flats on playground equipment that was shabby and broken, the swings lacking seats and the see-saw snapped in two.

The cries of street vendors drifted up to me in my ivory tower.They would be dressed, almost to a man,  in the traditional male seroual (baggy trousers with the crotch at knee-level) and a length of orange or yellow brocaded cloth wound around their heads. Trundling along the cracked pavements,  they would pull behind them handcarts filled with fresh green vegetables, on which the water drops glittered like crystals in the morning sunlight.

Not only were the cries of street vendors to be heard, but the incessant barking of dogs and surprisingly, cocks crowing, not just at daybreak, but at all times of the day. From time to time throughout the day, the call to prayer from a nearby mosque would float in through the window on the hot still air, marking out the passing hours. It all seemed so alien.

The people on the street seemed to have no volume control, and I could easily make out their conversations without understanding a word. Conversations were usually accompanied by expressive hand gestures and much waving of arms. I had become used to the noise generated by a group of Algerians at full throttle back in Sheffield, but this was overwhelming.

Sometimes, in the evening, sitting at the window waiting for T to come home, his arrival heralded by the white beam of the Austin’s headlights piercing the gathering shadows, I would marvel at the beautiful colours – magenta,  topaz and pale pink, rimmed with gold – splashed by the dying rays of the sun on the sky behind the darker bulk of the Aïdour mountain dominating the west of the city. The only light I could make out on the mountain would be a solitary spotlight, twinkling like a star, close to the Basilica of Santa Cruz.

T. had bought me a kaftan, not the silver and black wedding one, but one to wear outside and cover my burgeoning stomach. It was easy to throw on, even over pyjamas or a nightdress.  Sometimes, in the deep recesses of my baby brain, there dawned a foggy realisation that I was letting myself go, both physically and mentally. Not as much as some, however.

One morning, feeling particularly brave, I hazarded a trip to the grocer’s. The shopkeepers were always friendly and welcoming, explaining things and helping me with the strange currency. Coming out of the shop, I noticed a group of women walking up the incline towards the second block of flats. They were shepherding along another woman in their midst, forming a protective wall around her.

They looked exactly like a platoon of soldiers carrying out a military operation or sheepdogs chivvying along a particularly recalcitrant sheep. She was looking neither right nor left – just staring in front of her like a zombie. I  suddenly recognised the blond hair and spectacles of one of our university friends and, with a cry of joy, rushed towards her.

On hearing me call her name, she turned her head and looked at me blankly, barely acknowledging my presence. Her head then snapped back so she was facing forward again. Her sisters-in-law, as they turned out to be, clustered around her as if to shield her from my unwelcome advances, turning a hostile glare on me. Surprised and shaken, I took a step back, and let the procession move on without another word. I suddenly realised how lucky I had been. Not only had T. not imposed a new code of conduct on me, but neither had my family-in-law. Any prison of mine was of my own making.

The situation improved dramatically once our daughter was born and we moved to our new house in the Clos. Here were surrounding to which I could relate – a low, flat-roofed white bungalow with huge French windows looking out onto a tree-lined gated compound. I felt less like a fish out of water, and gradually my strange agoraphobia wore off to some extent. I began work a few years later and to drive a car around Oran and Arzew with absolutely no problems at all. I also realised it wasn’t true agoraphobia, because, during holidays taken back in Britain, my mother was hard pressed to keep me indoors.