The Barricades

(La barricade) est également le symbole d’une fracture entre Français: d’un côté les Français de métropole las de cette guerre et qui soutiennent la proposition d’autodétermination du président de Gaulle, et d’autre part, les Français d’Algérie qui se sentent trahis et abandonnés.

(The barricade) is also the symbol of a split in French (public opinion): on the one hand, the people of mainland France who are sick of this war and support De Gaulle’s proposal for home rule, and on the other, the French of Algeria who feel betrayed and abandoned.


Allons, enfants de la patrie, le jour de gloire est arrivé…..”, whistling the French national anthem through trembling lips, clasping his hands above his head in a sign of victory, punching the air and waving to the militants perched on top of the piles of masonry, T kept on walking towards the barricade. He could see the bright afternoon sunlight glinting off the gun barrels trained on him.

He had gone out that morning to join the crowds straight after the ceasefire announcement on the 19th of March, 1962, as he was itching to shake the hands of FLN fighters— those heroes who had, against all odds, beaten the French fighting machine, who had defied the military might of France and won. A real David and Goliath struggle, from which David seemed to have emerged victorious once more.

T had been searching for an FLN barricade, to see his idols in the flesh and thank them personally, and above all, to see their flag flying proudly against the blue sky of Algiers. For once, the fidayine were out on the streets of Algiers, not hiding in the warren of the Casbah or up in the mountains of Kabylie. He suddenly spied what seem to be an FLN barricade in the distance and, waving his arms enthusiastically, started running towards it.

Suddenly, he came to a screeching halt. Through the oily black smoke from the burning tyres, he saw, to his horror, the red, white and blue French tricolour flapping in the breeze. Pure unadulterated terror surged through his veins, icy daggers straight to the heart. His chest tightened and his eyes widened in panic. If he turned and ran, he wouldn’t stand much of a chance. If he kept on walking, he could perhaps be taken for a pied noir and so bluff his way through.

His mind made up, he began walking towards the barricade on shaky legs, whistling La Marseillaise and waving at the extremists perched on top of the pile of masonry, who lowered their guns and responded in kind. Still waving, he kept on walking — past the barricade — until he reached the next street corner. Once out of sight, he began to sprint down the street to safety. How stupid would that have been? To die once the war was more or less over bar the shouting?

When the ceasefire had finally been declared, many pieds noirs had refused to accept it. The “enemy” was seen as threatening their homes, well-being and culture, and were  repeatedly dehumanized and debased, portrayed as barbarous and cruel. So the extremists defied the authorities by setting up a number of barricades on the streets of Algiers.

Barricades, usually constructed out of bricks, paving stones, old furniture, burning tyres and any other objects to hand, have never been seen in Britain, but are very much in the French tradition of rebellion. Although present in various incidents of the French Revolution of 1789, they had never played a central role. The nineteenth century, however, had been the classic era of the barricade, with the ramshackle constructions a highly visible element in many of the insurrections occurring in France during that turbulent century, including the June Rebellion of 1832, smaller in scale than others, but made famous by Victor Hugo’s account in Les Misérables.


The problem was that, even after the ceasefire had been declared, Algiers was still a dangerous place to be. No longer were Algerians seen by the French as human, only as enemies and threats, so the OAS (Organisation de l’Armée Secrète) had been gunning down anyone who appeared to be Algerian, even following the ambulances transporting the wounded so as to finish them off when they were lying on their stretchers. The fidayine were also often jumpy and trigger-happy.

Even before the ceasefire, T and his friends had been forced to take every precaution on their way to school. Anxiety sat below their smiles, their actions, their silly jokes, as they walked past blocks of flats and other buildings, keeping a wary eye on the windows, conscious that behind every shutter, every drawn curtain, could be a sniper with his gun trained on them, their heads in his crosshairs. Other students had apparently been killed in this way, whether by accident or design it is hard to tell.

There were, however, many pieds noirs who did not agree with the way the war was being conducted. Fellow students with communist parents supported the Algerian fight for independence, even participating in pro-FLN demonstrations. T’s teachers had also never discriminated against “Arab”  students; they treated everyone equally and showed no favouritism towards their own kind. T managed to maintain his excellent grades, despite the tense political situation and the many dangers lurking outside.

No-one knew what might happen the following day; no-one knew when the hostilities would end. One day in February, 1962, just before the ceasefire announcement, T had refused to attend classes as another student strike was on the cards. He received a letter from the headmaster of his school the very next day, threatening him with expulsion if he did not desist from his intention “de poursuivre une grève illimitée jusqu’un gouvernement compétent, résolu et adéquat puisse assurer à tous la sécurité qu’ils sont en droit d’attendre.” (to continue an indefinite strike until a competent, resolute and adequate government can ensure that every citizen has the secure environment that is his right). Slightly surrealist thinking — to be punished when his demands were entirely commendable.

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Letter from T’s headmaster

When he had stumbled upon the French barricade, his European looks had saved his life, but a few days later, they were, on the contrary, to cause him almost to lose it. Again he was in search of an FLN barricade and had set off that morning from Maison Carrée determined this time to find one.

After a few hours of walking, he finally reached Parliament Square – la place du Cheval  or du Duc d’Orléans, as it was called by the French settlers. Then he saw him — a fidai — a freedom fighter, dressed in camouflaged glory and holding a MAT 49, the iconic French submachine gun, used at Dien Bien Phu and all over Algeria.


As T began to walk towards him, admiration in his eyes, wanting to clasp his hand in gratitude, the fidai immediately slid a bullet into the the chamber and took aim. To the fighter, T looked like any other French settler, with his pale skin, straight brown hair and European features.

T’s first instinct had been to flee and put as much distance as possible between himself and the gun. It would, in fact, have been a fatal mistake, as he would immediately have been cut down by a bullet in the back. Luckily his muscles were paralysed by fear and his brain too fried to take action.

Instead he shouted desperately, “Wesh kayan?” (What’s wrong?), his voice quavering and his arms raised in the classic gesture of surrender.  The fidai (FLN urban fighter) looked firstly taken aback, then slightly disappointed. “Anta arbi? Rouht nahtilak haba fi rassek! ” (You’re Arab? I was going to put a bullet in your head!)

If T had not then instinctively shouted out in Arabic, causing the fidai to hesitate and put up his gun, he would soon have been lying cold and lifeless in the street. Just another anonymous corpse, lined up next to others like a row of fallen dominos, ready to be thrown into a mass grave. Dead at twenty-one years of age, without his family ever knowing what had happened to him.


Back To School

Les amis : une famille dont on a choisi les membres.

Friends: a family whose members you have chosen.

-Alphonse Karr

“T’as quel âge, dis? Combien de fois t’as redoublé?” (How old are YOU then? How often have you repeated your year?)

T. glanced down at the small fourteen-year-old boy squinting up at him. On his new classmate’s face was an expression of barely repressed glee, his slanting black eyes triumphant and his mouth twitching upwards on the left, dimpling his cheek. He was smartly dressed in tight trousers, shoes polished to within an inch of their life, and a carefully-ironed shirt and tie. His wiry black curls had been plastered down with brilliantine and carefully combed to one side.

There could not have been more of a contrast with T.  One of the unfair things in life is that when a boy reaches a certain height, he is expected to be a man, regardless of his age, and T had simply reached it ahead of his peers. He had that shy look about him teenagers often get when they’ve grown too fast, like they aren’t really sure about being a man just yet. But his recent loss and new responsibilities had made his childhood a thing of the past.

Two years older than his classmates, his shoulders had broadened from working outdoors on the farm, and his face had already begun to lose the rounded contours of childhood, replaced by the defined bone structure of an adult. The beginnings of a downy moustache were visible on his upper lip and his shock of hair had been cropped short. His clothes, although relatively new, were already too small for him, barely reaching his bony wrists and ankles. Towering over his pint-sized interrogator, he didn’t bother answering, but contented himself with a noncommittal shrug.

His calm demeanour, however, belied the grit underneath. By the end of the first term, he had shot to the top of the class, but still felt compelled to revise every evening on his return home. Passing his exams and going on to university was his ticket out of his present situation — counting every penny and depending on his uncle for a tiny monthly pittance, barely enough to feed and clothe his family.

His classmates quickly revised their opinion of him.  Soon they were debating on whether they would keep him in their group of friends after all, as he was a little TOO conscientious for them. He brought down the tone of the whole gang, showing the rest of them up. Finally they opted to keep him – after all, he was useful when they wanted to copy their homework from someone.


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Class photo  – Back row, T third from the left, Ali second from the right. Front row, Salah second from the left and Mus second from the right. Henri is on T’s left.

Every school day from then on followed the same pattern. Every morning, T gulped down his bowl of café au lait downstairs in the bakery, breathing in the delicious scents of fresh bread, croissants and pastries. Breaking off the crusty end of a baguette and cramming it into his mouth on his way out, he would then sprint along the street to the Café de la Place, where his friend Kamel was waiting for him, nonchalantly leaning against a pillar and smoking a forbidden cigarette, the lighted end cupped against his palm so that nobody could see.

They would climb up the steep rue Arago together, stopping every now and then to catch their breath. The long winding street was lined with shops, Spanish bodegas and bars, of which the facades, still damp with morning dew, would glisten in the warmth of the sun. Some of the townhouses, festooned with curly wrought-iron balconies and stucco decorations, were covered with purple wisteria or creamy-white jasmine, the blooms adding their scent to the already heady smells of hot coffee and fresh bread seeping out from the numerous pavement cafés along their route.

Laughing and joking together like teenagers everywhere, they would suddenly fall silent when they saw an armed patrol coming towards them, machine guns at the ready. T’s heart would  be hammering in his ears, but he would manage to keep his gait casual with no hint of hesitation. Once the soldiers had passed them, it would take a while for the two boys to feel relaxed enough to start fooling around again.

T would surreptitiously lift the lapel of his jacket, to look at the badge with the FLN emblem — green and white with a red crescent and star in the middle — that he had pinned underneath. This emblem would become Algeria’s national flag after independence. Of course, it goes without saying that, if he had been caught with this badge, his fate would have been sealed.

Every morning, T. hoped to catch sight of one particular young lady, who, walking along the opposite pavement, and under T’s insistent gaze, would wave shyly at him. Of course, Kamel did not hesitate to make fun of him; laughing uproariously at his friend’s blushes and gleefully mocking his timidity. It never went any further than an exchange of glances — T never even knew her name, never spoke to her, but it was the first time since his father’s death that he felt that his life was beginning to return to something approaching normal.

Once they had arrived at the school gates, they would meet up with the rest of their friends. Salah, the jovial onewas the small boy who had impertinently asked T’s age at the beginning of the school year, and would eventually accompany T to Britain seven years later; Ali, the handsome one — as suave and elegant as any Italian, with the knife-edge crease to his trousers and the wavy black hair; and Mustapha – Mus — the fiery one, the cherished only son of a gendarme. Kamel, with his Elvis-style quiff, was the laid-back one of the group, and T. the serious one. They formed a tightly-knit group of friends, always looking out for each other.

They had to, because they were, in fact, the only four arabes in a class of thirty-four pupils. All their other classmates were pied noir, with names like Robert, Henri, Pierre and Noel. Sometimes, in the early years, there were tense discussions between the two sides about the political and social situation in Algeria. They would gather together in the schoolyard and put forward their opposing points of view.

The pied noir students tried to explain that their fathers or grandfathers had arrived in Algeria with barely a sou to their name, and that they had worked hard to clear the land and drain the salt flats to make them suitable for farming. They had then planted orange groves and  vineyards, not forgetting the buildings, blocks of flats and villas that they had constructed— all linked by an extensive road network, every road with its plane or eucalyptus trees standing sentinel on each side.

On the other side, T and his friends protested that their ancestors had been there centuries before the French, only to be relegated now to the status of second-class citizens, treated worse than animals, subjected to abuse, dispossession and deprived of even the most basic of human rights. The war that was being fought in the mountains and the cities of Algeria was being reproduced there in the schoolyard, although the weapons of choice were barbed remarks and not rifles or bombs.

But the situation was gradually deteriorating and the relations between “Arab” and pied noir students became less and less convivial, until the two groups were barely speaking to each other. There was an invisible barrier between them. It had always existed, but had become almost tangible, with the pied noir students even being forced to undergo military training at weekends to learn how to use firearms.

One of T’s classmates, Henri, a good friend until then, had slapped T good-naturedly on the back one Monday morning before class, and, puffing out his chest and with a visible swagger, exclaimed. “It’s a shame I didn’t come across you in the street yesterday, vieux! I would have put a bullet through your brain without a second thought!”


Vous croyez sans doute, comme tout le monde, que la Casbah est un quartier? Eh ben non, la Casbah n’est pas un quartier, c’est un état d’esprit. C’est la conscience endormie  de la civilisation.

Like everyone else, you probably think that the Casbah is a neighbourhood? Well, no, the Casbah isn’t a neighbourhood, it’s a state of mind. It is the sleeping conscience of civilisation.

Carnets d’orient : le cimetière des princesses – Jacques Ferrandez

The word casbah conjures up hundreds of exotic images in the mind, doesn’t it?

Old black and white films with a moustache-twirling villain, probably wearing a fez, carrying off a swooning maiden, trailing diaphanous veils and screaming prettily.  She will, of course, be rescued by the dashing young sheikh in the final reel. Or perhaps Humphrey Bogart wearing a fedora and smoking a cigarette, sitting in a shabby bar waiting for the Germans to come? Continue reading

Broomflower Pass

Uqbel at-tger assurif at-tezzwerm  nnif ma ulac Tamazight ulac ulac ulac ulac.

We cannot build our future without honour and there is no honour without our language. None, none, none, none. (Loose translation)

– Matoub Lounès

From the moment a Kabyle arrives in Tizi-Ouzou, he is already home. This holds true even if he still has many miles to drive along the twisting mountain roads to reach his ancestral village. The air of Tizi-Ouzou smells sweeter to him than that of Algiers, and he fills his lungs with it as he takes a deep breath. His shoulders straighten as though ridding themselves of an unseen burden, and his step becomes lighter. Continue reading

Socialist Paradise

“Thank God I’m home! It’s like the United States here in comparison!” This was T’s comment when he returned from Cuba with two posters of Che Guevara and a bottle of coffee liqueur. He had also brought with him, as an albeit temporary reminder of the unrelentingly grim Cuban diet of rice, beans and stringy chicken, a bad case of flatulence and acute indigestion. Continue reading


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.


Arzew’s main square, with la Germainerie on the right

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.