The Day The Earth Stood Still

Il est doux d’essuyer, d’une main secourable,

Des larmes d’un ami que le malheur accable.

It is bittersweet to wipe, with a helping hand,

The tears of a friend weighed down by misfortune.

Étienne Vigée: Les aveux difficiles (1783)


Tiens, tu as du courrier.” (Here, there’s a letter for you.) The pion was holding an envelope out to T., who lifted his head in surprise. Drawing his brows together, and holding it gingerly between his thumb and forefinger as if it were an unexploded bomb, he looked at it uncomprehendingly. A letter? For him?

After bringing the serving plates to the canteen table around which T and his friends were sitting, the pion had returned with the letter.  For those who don’t know the French educational system, a pion is usually a university student earning some extra cash by working as a school monitor or quasi-prefect. Prefects are not chosen from amongst sixth form pupils, as in Britain.

He ran his finger under the flap of the envelope, took out the letter, unfolded it  and started reading it under the curious gaze of his friends. They seemed to sense that it contained bad news, which it did — very bad news. T. lifted his head and stared at his friends, his eyes blank and unseeing, as the world around him seemed to fall away.  His heart was still beating — it hadn’t stopped — but his chest felt hollow. He carefully refolded the letter and put it back into its envelope, his hands moving as if some inexperienced puppeteer were controlling them remotely.

The letter, from the French military command,  informed him, in no uncertain terms, that his request for a deferment of his national service had been refused, as it had missed the deadline by a whisker.  He would have to report to barracks the following October, barely a few months away. T’s throat seemed to close up, but he managed to croak, “My request for a deferment has been refused; I’ve been called up!”

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His friends did not seem overly saddened by this news, with only Kamel remaining silent. They made a few tasteless jokes at T’s expense, and Salah, clasping his hands to his chest, had declaimed, in the best melodramatic tradition,”Alas, what a shame! To see such a promising career cut short — a future in ruins! Such a loss for humanity! SO tragic!” before turning back to his meal without further ado. T. pushed his plate towards Kamel — he had suddenly lost his appetite.

The pieds noirs had just set up the rebel Comités de Salut Publique (Committees for Public Safety) in most of Algeria’s big cities. Their more extremist members were calling for the return of an elderly retired general, called Charles de Gaulle, to manage the worsening situation in Algeria, and wanted those fighting for Algerian independence to be eliminated once and for all — and by any means necessary.

Their term for this was pacification (peacekeeping), a euphemism for military intervention. It was easier to make the general public swallow this escalation of violence when it was used in terms of guaranteeing security rather than those of increasing violent repression. But they had learnt the thrill of the kill, the sick joy that comes with indiscriminate  violence and destruction, and their tactic of pacification would begin its inexorable slide into genocide. Genocide — eight letters to describe more murder and pain than the human mind can comprehend.

T’s mind careered around like a runaway horse, headed in new and terrible directions, and, try as he might, he could not rein it in. Without a deferment, he could no longer stay on at school. The only thing left for him was to choose how he wanted to die. He could go ahead and be conscripted into the French army, but by doing this he would bring not only shame on his family by joining the enemy’s ranks, but risked being killed in the very next ambush of a French army patrol by FLN forces.

Or he could desert, go underground and join the maquis with others from his village. With hindsight, he probably wouldn’t have lasted a month. As a result of la bleuïte, the campaign of whispers and rumours fomented by capitaine Léger, all students joining the maquis were considered as potential traitors and coldly executed as such by the very fighters they had gone to join.

For T, it was as if the world had suddenly ground to a halt. What was even worse — he had nobody to help or advise him. He did not tell anyone when he went back to the bakery that evening – not his mother or brothers and especially not his uncles. He knew full well that they would push him to join the maquis, seeing it as a heaven-sent opportunity to get rid of him for good.

He started desperately searching  for a solution.  How could he go directly to the French military to plead his case when the FLN had a reputation for slitting the throat of anyone they suspected of being a traitor? Strangely enough, it was one of his pied noir classmates who helped him out by telling him about a little-known school office whose officials apparently were there to assist any student with problems relating to their conscription.

So, after classes the very next day, T found himself knocking hesitantly on the door of an office hidden in the bowels of the school building. It opened to reveal the smiling face of a pied noir, who ushered T in with further ceremony. After listening to his story, monsieur Mundweiler, for that was his name, swiftly reassured the frightened teenager. No, it wasn’t too late; yes, he could help him; yes, he knew the people to contact to have T’s case reviewed before his call-up date.

T began to see a glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel that had seemed, a few minutes before, like a black hole waiting to swallow him up.

Monsieur Mundweiler helped T compose letters requesting a new deferment of his call-up on the grounds that he had lost his father and was the sole mainstay of his family. The official also found out the names of the organisations to which they were to be sent, and even aided him in the drafting of his responses. He suggested that T sign up for a military training course — a PME or Préparation Militaire Elémentaire,  giving him a maximum number of points which might sway the members of the Conseil de Révision (Military Service Tribunal) in his favour when making their final decision.

So it was in a Army camp located somewhere between Belfort and Bellevue that T found himself every Thursday, sweating with fear, balancing on a narrow wooden beam placed six metres from the ground. He would crawl on his stomach under camouflage nets fixed close to the ground, clasping a rifle against his chest, and haul himself bodily up ropes dangling from the ceiling. As he was only seventeen and a half years of age, he was in peak physical condition, and had no difficulties in completing the daunting obstacle courses. He also found out that he was an extraordinarily gifted sharpshooter.  If nothing else, a career as a sniper lay ahead of him.

This military training had certain lasting effects, some of which I noted when I came to know him better. He hated heights. He always won the cuddly toy when we went into shooting galleries along the Promenade on visits to my parents in Blackpool. He could pull himself to the top of a climbing rope using only his arms. All this under the admiring gaze of someone who couldn’t even climb up a metre of a climbing rope in school gym lessons, even when using her feet, and would end up twisting and turning forlornly on the end of the rope like a fob on a watchchain.

T earned in this way the maximum three hundred and forty-one points. He finally obtained a response from the French military authorities in November 1960, after a wait of eighteen months, saying that the decision concerning his conscription had been postponed until 1962. By that time, of course, Algeria was independent.

Whatever the circumstances, generalisation is, at best, an inefficient method of judging people and, although most pieds noirs were inherently racist, there is no doubt in my mind at all that T is here today thanks to a sympathetic classmate and a minor school official called Mundweiler.

 

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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

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.