Belcourt

Occupation means that every day you die, and the world watches in silence. As if your death was nothing, as if you were a stone falling in the earth, water falling over water.

-Suheir Hammad


“We can’t stay here any longer,” T’s father said in desperation,”We have to find somewhere less dangerous to live than the rue de Lyon.”

It was 1955 and he had jumped out of the frying pan into the fire. Having fled Kabylie because of the bloodshed there, he had rented a small bakery in Belcourt, a working-class neighbourhood in the centre of Algiers, thinking his family would be safer in the capital than in the village.

Back home, there had been an increase in French military operations since the outbreak of open hostilities the year before. T was safe in his boarding school in Tizi-Ouzou, but deep in the heartland of Kabylie, villages were being burnt down and their inhabitants chased out of their homes. Those who resisted were executed in cold blood.

The villages that had once been full of life stood empty. Gone were the women in their bright dresses standing gossiping around the spring. Gone were the children and the sound of their laughter.  Now, even at midday, the only sounds you could hear were the moaning of a thin bleak wind scurrying through  the deserted streets and the clatter of unfastened shutters. Almost every family in Kabylie had lost at least one of its members. They were all widows, widowers and orphans.

Those who were hungry, cold, homeless, those who had no choice, worked, often for a pittance, for the SAS, (Special Administrative Sections) set up by Jacques Soustelle, the Governor General of Algeria, to “pacify” — again that terrible euphemism — parts of Kabylie and to promote the idea of “French” Algeria by offering scholastic, social and medical assistance to those in need. These poor unfortunates were immediately condemned by the FLN as harkis —traitors to the cause of independence, and, as such, given no quarter.

In Belcourt, Europeans and Algerians had always lived cheek by jowl. Although the pieds noirs living there were predominantly of Italian origin, the voices heard in the streets were French, Arab and Spanish, as well as Italian. The air even smelt different there – a delicious blend of cinnamon, aniseed, saffron, bleach and grilled peppers.

A string of pavement cafes, small shops and cheap lodgings lined the rue de Lyon itself.  The numerous bars d’amis would set out their zinc tables and chairs on the pavements, ready for their predominantly male customers, who would sit outside, sipping their glasses of anisette, casting appreciative glances at the pretty girls passing by and watching the trams clatter past on their way to Ruisseau or la Place du Gouvernement —Government Square.  The trams were to be replaced a year later by buses and an urban funicular built between the heights of Clos Salembier and Belcourt.

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Rue de Lyon

My father-in-law soon realised he had made a mistake. His little bakery, just opposite the main football ground, would often resonate to the sound of sirens blaring, gunshots and exploding bombs on the street outside. The rue de Lyon, snaking its way through Belcourt to Ruisseau, and lying in close proximity to the Casbah, was, in fact, one of the capital’s centres of violent fidaï (urban freedom fighter) activity.

Belcourt had been built on the swampland just below the Casbah, the historic Ottoman quarter, and the tight surveillance of the latter, instigated by General Massu, known as the Butcher of Algiers, extended to Belcourt itself. As so often in Algeria, there was a stark contrast between the country’s natural beauty and the bloodthirsty acts being carried out there. Looking down from the busy, sweltering streets of Belcourt, swarming with sweaty humanity, its inhabitants had a breathtaking view of the beautiful sweep of the Bay of Algiers, with the surface of the sea folded into silky blue pleats by the lacy wakes of passing boats.

Caught in a trap between contradictory orders issued by the French authorities and by the FLN, my father-in-law’s daily life was like walking a tightrope. Of course, in his mind, there was no question whom he would obey. But sometimes punishment could be brutal. Only the week before, a militant had cut the nose off one of their neighbours just because he had been found smoking – against the express wishes of the FLN.

Such minor misdemeanours were harshly punished in this way to instil a sense of discipline, obedience and — yes, fear amongst Algerians.  Pity the poor chain smokers, of whom my father-in-law was one, with his two packets of Bastos cigarettes a day that he was forced to smoke in secret, like a rebellious schoolboy.


The FLN had the habit of giving instructions, without prior warning, to all Algerian shopkeepers not to open their establishments the following day. If they obeyed, they were sure to be woken before dawn the next morning by the roar of a half-track, a French military vehicle with wheels at the front and tank treads at the back, ripping the shop shutters off their hinges with a mechanical hoist.

T’s father, of course, always obeyed the FLN’s instructions. He would be arrested, taken to military HQ and questioned for hours – sometimes only being released late at night. My father-in-law suspected one of his neighbours, the owner of a bar, of denouncing him to the French military. The bar owner could always be seen loitering outside the bakery, and, as soon as he saw the shutters firmly closed, he’d inform the authorities.

Early one morning, there had been a pounding on the bakery door and a group of French paratroopers had strutted into the shop. In their flashy uniforms designed by Pierre Cardin and their blond good looks, they had the arrogance and overbearing attitude of their kind. In the half-light of the breaking day they stood around, at ease, but still armed. Each face was impassive, not a trace on it revealing what they were about to do.

My father-in-law answered their questions in his perfect French, his face as expressionless as theirs.  His educated manner and lack of obsequiousness came as a surprise to them.  The fact that he’d served in the French military, as proved by his discharge papers, also worked in his favour.

That didn’t stop them from ransacking the bakery and the one small room above it, where all the family were huddled together. My mother-in-law was heavily pregnant with what was to be her last child, although she didn’t know it at the time. Furniture was tipped over, drawers pulled out and their contents dumped on the floor, machine-guns were pointed at the children and at T’s mother’s swelling stomach. No need for words; the threat was implicit in their gestures.

When they had left, my father-in-law surveyed the damage, his eyes glittering in anger. Taciturn by nature, he never spoke of it again, but started searching Algiers and the surrounding countryside for a safe haven for his wife and children. Happily, an old friend of his, Ridouci, the owner of a twenty-four hectare farm near Reghaïa, needed a new farm manager. My father-in-law was assured that there had been no attacks there, as the farm was nestled in between two large military bases and the roads around it were under close surveillance, as they led directly to the mountains of Kabylie.

Less than a week later, they were on the road again with all their worldly goods packed in the car. Reghaïa seemed a ideal refuge, with its large farmhouse, the centuries-old oak tree next to the steps leading to the front door, and its acres of fruit trees and vineyards. The house had been weathered for countless years by the harsh elements and its white-painted walls had been baked a deep, rich ivory by the hot summer sun. It spoke volumes about hardships and hope, strength and vulnerability.

Out of an upstairs window, my mother-in-law would watch her husband and eldest son, absent from school on a year-long student strike decreed by the FLN, tilling the dark, velvety earth of the Mitidja plain with an old tractor they had bought. A sense of peace flooded her. They would  survive this war. They would all get out alive.

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Contrasts

Don’t compare your life to others; you have no idea what they have been though.

– Sam Cawthorne


You may be surprised to learn that my husband enjoyed a far better standard of living than I did as a child. Although he lived in a country colonised by the French, one where Algerians were considered as second-class citizens, his life, in many ways, was far more privileged than mine. Continue reading

The Ant and the Grasshopper

Au milieu de l’hiver, j’apprenais enfin qu’il y avait en moi un été invincible.

In the midst of winter, I finally learnt that I carried within me an invincible summer.
― Albert Camus, Noces / L’été


Aya, a thametouth, arfed imanime! (Come on, woman, start packing!)” my father-in-law had shouted at the top of his voice after finally arriving back in the village like a whirlwind after nearly one year’s absence, surprising his young wife who, during the previous months, had resigned herself to being under the orders of her family-in-law. Continue reading