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.

 

Poker Face

“See not the face..
but only the eyes,
of the poker face.”
― Toba Beta, Master of Stupidity 

I suppose everyone has their idea of the Byronic hero. Mad, bad and dangerous to know. He’s usually an older man — dark, mysterious, arrogant, with a murky past and a mad wife hidden away in the attic. On second thoughts, the last part is not absolutely essential.

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Mr. Rochester (Jane Eyre)

When I first met T, he ticked many of the boxes marked “Byronic hero.” He was six years older than me. He was dark, enigmatic, with a past about which he was reluctant to talk. Added to that was his exciting “otherness” — his accent, his rapid and incomprehensible French — incomprehensible to me, that is, although I understood French, or at least I thought I did.

And of course, me being me, I didn’t fall for your common-or-garden foreigner — a Greek, German, or even a Frenchman, of which there were many fine specimens hanging around the Students’ Union. Oh no —  the object of MY desire was a really “foreign” foreigner, from a country that was known only in Britain through lurid newspaper articles about torture, random bombings and a campaign of urban guerilla warfare.

T’s default setting seemed to be one of introspection, looking out on the world through eyes that were, at times, opaque and unreadable.  He would often close himself off, locked behind something I could not penetrate. Of course, all this was very attractive to an impressionable eighteen-year-old girl brought up on a diet of the Brontë sisters and Jane Austen.

I, of course, was exactly the opposite. My eyes were as transparent as glass, through which my very self was laid bare. I was incapable of hiding my emotions, which would flicker across my face like reflections on water. I would pretend to be distant and indifferent from time to time — to pay him back in his own coin, as it were — but could not maintain the illusion for very long.

T was known for keeping his cool in all circumstances. If there was an unexpectedly loud noise somewhere in our vicinity — a firework going off, or a clap of thunder, everybody else would jump out of their skin. Not T.  He wouldn’t even flinch, nor would his expression change in the slightest. I, on the contrary, would skitter like a scalded cat if a car so much as backfired in the next street, starting violently, and clutching my chest in the region of my heart with a trembling hand.

I would come down to earth again in time to catch T’s look of mild irritation, one  eyebrow quirked in polite disbelief at my histrionics and his lips curled in a wry smile. It would make me feel very silly — and even sillier one day, when he remarked offhandedly, “I could understand you reacting like that if there were REAL gunshots in the next street.”

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Introspective he most certainly was, except when he was amongst his friends.  I would watch him horsing around, flinging his arm around the neck of his closest friend, laughing and joking with him and feel strangely envious that he could feel so relaxed with others and not with me.

With hindsight, I think the problem with me was that he had no intention at all of becoming seriously involved with an English girl. Too complicated; too…..messy. Perhaps his sometimes distant attitude was his way of warning me not to dream about a future with him. Or as a warning to himself. But, as is the way of such things, it made him even more irresistible in my eyes and, as for him, well — he seems to have been overtaken by events.

I had come into his life and he had no idea what to do with me. I was obviously not just a one-night-stand — he wanted us to stay together, but a relationship leading to marriage was the furthest thing from his mind. His feelings for me were to creep up on him, catching him unawares. Before he knew it, a life without me was unthinkable. It had always been that way for me.

Luckily for me, he was neither mad, bad, nor dangerous to know. His poker face was simply a way of protecting himself. He had learnt not to show his feelings, living, as he had done, in a country at war.  If he had manifested overt fear, hostility or anger, he could easily have ended up being dragged off to an internment camp to be questioned — or worse.

So when did he change? From the cosseted smiley little boy that he seemed to have been, to this wary young man with guarded eyes? I think the metamorphosis began with his father’s death, or perhaps at some stage during the latter’s illness. When the unthinkable happened, he had to reassure his mother and siblings that everything would be all right and that he would take care of them. Even in the middle of a vicious colonial war. If he had shown them that he was as scared and rudderless as they were, the whole house of cards would have collapsed, with his uncles moving in to scavenge the ruins, like so many vultures.

He had to avoid the many traps laid for him both by both his uncles and by the colonial authorities. His studied air of nonchalance confused and angered his father’s brothers, who were expecting him to cave in to their authority and hand the reins of everything over to them — his father’s business and the fate of his mother and siblings.

As for the colonial authorities — when they called him up to do his national service at the age of eighteen, he wrote them an articulate and poignant letter, explaining that his father had just died and that he, as the eldest son, was the sole mainstay of his family. They agreed to defer his conscription, only requiring him to do a few weeks’ military training.

Unfortunately, things didn’t change when we returned to Algeria — in fact they grew worse. Now he had not only his mother and siblings to reassure, but me as well. Instead of his uncles, he had to confront the trade unions. Instead of the menacing presence of the colonial authorities, he now had that of their Algerian successors, who had learned their trade well from their erstwhile occupiers, even adding a few sadistic twists of their own.

Every day he had to face representatives from the government, military security, the intelligence services, the gendarmerie, the local authorities, union representatives, his own hierarchy and finally the members of the workforce – maintaining a calm and untroubled exterior all the while, when inside he was as apprehensive as anybody else.

His years in Britain must have seemed like a lost paradise – a time when he could enjoy himself without thinking about his past. He hadn’t suffered from the normal student worries about exams, though. He desperately needed that engineering diploma to guarantee him a future, as he had nobody on whom to fall back. The one and only time I ever saw his mask slip was when he had had a mental block during a thermodynamics final, after revising until the early hours of the morning.

Family worries also intruded. He had left the brother nearest to him in age in charge, but this hadn’t stopped the constant stream of letters from Algiers asking advice about family matters. The buck still stopped with him. All of this — the deliberate suppression of normal panic responses, the burden of responsibility at an early age — has taken an inevitable toll on his health.

Being an enigmatic Byronic hero isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Even Heathcliff and Mr. Rochester probably suffered from high blood pressure and ulcers.

Germaine

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.

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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.

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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.