AN ALGERIAN CAVALCADE ASSIA DJEBAR

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AN ALGERIAN CAVALCADE
ASSIA DJEBAR
Tran.Jlated by Dorothy S. Blair
Heinemann
Portsmouth, NH
Heinemann
A division of Reed Elsevier Inc.
361 Hanover Street
Portsmouth, NH 03801-3912
Offices and agents throughout the world
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form
or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage
and retneval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher ,
except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review.
Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade
is the first volume of a quartet.
The second volume is
A Sister to Scheherazade
First U.S. Printing 1993
First Published in English by Qiartet Books Limited
A member of the Namara Group
27129 Goodge Street, London W1P 1FD
First published in France by Editions Jean-Claude Lattes 1985
as L’amour, Ia fantasia
Copyright © by Assia Djebar 1985
Translation and Introduction copyright© by Dorothy S. Blair
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Djebar, Assia, 1936-
[Amour, Ia fantasia. English]
Fantasia, an Algerian cavalcade I Assia Djebar: translated by
Dorothy S. Blair.
p. em.
Sequel: A sister to Scheherazade.
ISBN G-435-Q8621-9
1. Women-Algeria-History-Fiction.
P�989.2.D57A813 1993
843-dc20
I. Tide.
92-42700
CIP
Typeset by MC Typeset Limited, Gillingham, Kent
Printed in the United States of America on Acid-Free Paper
06 05 15 1413
CONTENTS
Glossary Vll
Chronology xi
Introduction XV
PART ONE THE CAPTURE OF THE CITY
or Love-letters 1
A Little Arab Girl’s First Day at School 3
I 6
Three Cloistered Girls 9
II 14
The French Policeman’s Daughter 20
III 28
My Father Writes to My Mother 35
IV 39
Deletion 46
PART TWO THE CRIES OF THE FANTASM 47
Captain Bosquet Leaves Oran to Take Part
in a Razzia 49
58
Women, Children, Oxen Dying in Caves 64
II 80
The Naked Bride of Mazuna 83
III 101
Sistrom 109
PART THREE VOICES FROM THE PAST Ill
First Movement: The Two Strangers 1 13
Voice 117
Clamour 122
Aphasia of Love 125
Voice 130
Embraces 141
Second Movement: The Trance 143
Voice 146
Murmurs 151
Plunder 153
Voice 158
Embraces 164
Third Movement: The Ballad of Abraham 169
Voice 173
ftVhispers 176
The Quranic School 179
A Widow’s Voice 186
Embraces 189
Fourth Movement: The Cry in the Dream 193
A Widow’s Voice 198
Dialogues 201
The Onlookers 203
A Widow’s Voice 206
Embraces 208
Fifth Movement: The Tunic ofNessus 213
Soliloql()’ 218
T;:,ar/-rit: (Finale) 221
Pauline … 222
The Fantasia 224
Air on a Na.J’ 226
a(aba
Aga (Agha)
a lim
a mall
Amir (Emir)
attatich
bach-kateb
bess ita
Bey
beylik
burnous
cadi (qad1)
Cai’d (Q_ai”d)
Caliph
chaouch
chikhat (cheikat)
chmgal
GLOSSARY
a diadem, tiara, jewelled fillet
(Turk.), Minister in charge of Sultan’s armed
forces; in Algeria, an officer superior to a cai’d
one who has knowledge
mercy (to plead for a. = to surrender, ask for
assurance of safe conduct)
title of Muslim sovereign ruler, here the Sultan
Abd al-Qadir
(Turk.) palanquin
secretary (term derived half from Turkish, half
Arabic)
multiple necklaces, covering the whole bust,
down to the waist
(Turk.) Governor of a beylik (q.v.) in Regency
of Algiers with three principal vassals:
governors of Oran, Constantine and Titteri
(Turk.) one of the provinces of Regency of
Algiers
long, loose, woollen cloak, woven in one piece
Muslim judge, interpreter oflaw of lslam
Arab administrator, chief or civil judge
appointed by government
successor of Mohamed, Muslim civil and
religious chief, Sultan (seeAmir)
(Turk.) usher
fern. of sheikh, here ‘lady-musicians’; term
used here to denote respect for their age and
the religious nature of their chants
pendant earrings
deira
Dey
Diran
t:Wuar
‘Etlag el Goum!’
fatiha
fe/lah,fellaheen (pl.)
fraction
‘France’
galam
gomn
goumier
guelta
guerba
hadri
hai”k
hammam
janizary (janissary)
jebel
jemmaa
jihad
kachabia
kanmm
retinue, lit. ‘circle’, i.e. roving capital of Abd
al-Qadir
(Turk.) ruler of Regency of Algiers before
French conquest in 1830
(Turk.) council of state in Regency of Algiers
hamlet or settlement, clan, extended family
battle-cry, ‘Forward gallop!’, lit. ‘Drop the
reins!’
introduction to recital of sura (q.v.)
peasant, derogatory term used by the French to
refer to the partisans
part of tribe or village
the French army, expression used by the
Algerian peasants during the War of
Independence
wooden stylus used in Quranic school for
writing verses from the Quran on wooden
tablets
Arab military unit, allied to the French
Arab soldier who has enlisted with the French
stream
goatskin for carrying water, holding about
twenty litrcs
citizen, town-dweller
all-enveloping, woollen square of cloth in
which Middle Eastern women cover
themselves out of doors, leaving only one eye
visible
Turkish bath
(Turk.) infantry constituting the Sultan’s guard
and main part of Turkish standing army
mountain
council of elders
holy war waged on behalf of Islam
cloak worn by peasants and maquisards in
winter to protect them from the cold; worn by a
girl in the maquis so that the enemy soldiers
will take her for a man
brazier
kasbah
Klzalifa
khalkhal (khelkha[)
Khasnaji
khatiba
khoja
Kulughli
(Kouloughb)
mara bout
Mechouar
meddah
medi11a
medresa
mej11oun
Moujahidine
na)’
na)’lette
serrmal (sarona[)
set/a
Sharif
Sheikh
smala
spa hi
Sultan
mra
taleb
terrace
citadel or fortress; in Algiers, fortified Turkish
scat of government
deputy to the Caliph
ankle bracelet (anklet)
(Turk.) Minister of Finance
a company of maquisards (approx. I 00)
(Turk.) clerk, secretary
(Turk.= son of the slave) i.e. son ofTurkish
father and native Algerian woman
Muslim holy man, saint
usually the Council Chamber, here the city
fortress which is the headquarters of the
military guard
a poet who chants his poetry, a bard
old part of an Arab city
Quranic school
mad, in the sense of possessed by demons
partisans, the most dedicated and fanatical of
the freedom-fighters
a very old type of flute
dancer and prostitute
loose, baggy trousers
goblet, elaborate drinking cup
tribal ruler who claims descent from the
Prophet
(i) chief of a tribal fractirm; (ii) chief of a
religious order; (iii) head of family
Arab chiefs retinue, cf. deira
member of native Algerian cavalry in French
service, recognized by their scarlet capes
ruling sovereign
a verse of the Quran, recited during the daily
prayers
disciple of marabollf, teacher in a Quranic
school
in N. Africa, the flat roof where the women
congregate for social gatherings or to sit in the
cool
a species of conifer
rvadi
mali
yatagan
::.aouia (::.arv�J•ah)
river or dry river bed
(i) a saint; (ii) the saint’s tomb, a sanctuary; (iii)
a representative or ‘prefect’
(Turk.) sword, without guard, often doubleedged
headquarters of an Islamic brotherhood
1510
29 Apri11 827
November 1 829
2 March 1 830
May 1 830
1 4June 1 830
5 July 1 830
30July 1 830
4January 1 83 1
CHRONOLOGY
Beginning of Turkish rule in Algeria
Hussein, the Dey of Algiers, strikes
the French consul, starting a crisis in
the relations between the two
countries, French begin naval
blockade of Algiers
France decides to send military
expedition to Algeria, with a view to
the conquest of Algiers
Charles X announces decision to
invade Algiers
Bourmont prepares to sail from
Toulon
French land at Sidi Ferruch
French troops capture Algiers and
Dey Hussein capitulates
Revolution in Paris forces Charles X
to abdicate. Louis-Philippe
proclaimed king. Bourmont, loyal to
Charles, withdraws his troops from
Bone and Oran, resigns his
command and goes into exile in
Spain. Clauzel takes over command
in Algiers from Bourmont and
pursues a policy of colonization
which continues for ten years into the
hinterland of Algiers and the Mitidja
plain
French occupy Oran
22 November 1832 Abd al-Qadir elected supreme
Commander of the Faithful;
establishes military base at Mascara;
emerges as leader of resistance
against French
March 1 833-Scptcmbcr 1 834 Colonization of Mitidja plain
progresses rapidly, with 6,000 troops
stationed at Blida
26 February 1834 Gen. Dcsmichcls, commander of
French forces in Oran, and Abd
al-Qadir sign treaty ending
hostilities, and recognizing the
Amir’s jurisdiction over territory in
neighbourhood ofOran
22 July 1 834 Position of Governor-General of
French Possessions in N. Africa
established
1 835
December 1 835
1 835-36
November 1 836
May 1 837
July 1 837
October 1 837
October 1 839
November 1 839
December 1 840
1 840-7
Abd al-Qadir continues attacks on
French posts
Field-Marshal Clauzcl attacks
Mascara, the Amir’s capital
Continued clashes between French
forces and those of the Amir
Attempt to take Constantine by force
fails, the French losing about 1 ,000
men
Gen. Bugeaud signs treaty with Abd
al-Qadir
Hostilities resumed
French capture Constantine
Field-Marshal Vall!e leads military
column towards Algiers
The Amir retaliates by invading
Mitidja plain
Governor-General Valcc replaced by
Gen. Bugeaud. Gen. Lamoriciere
appointed in Oran
Bugeaud pursues policy of total
occupation and war takes on cruel
November 1843
21 December 184 7
1848-52
1852
1883
1939
1940
1945
1954
1962
1968
character. Four recorded incidents
of French officers ordering burning
of defeated groups of Muslims in
caves
The Amir seeks asylum in Morocco
Abd al-Qadir surrenders to the
French
He is held in French prison, despite
promise of safe conduct to the East
Napoleon III orders Abd al-Qadir’s
release
Abd al-Qadir dies in Damascus
Outbreak of Second World War
German occupation of France
End of Second World War in Europe
Start of the Algerian War of
Independence
End of Algerian War. De Gaulle
grants Algeria independence
Abd al-Qadir’s remains transferred
from Damascus to Algiers for burial
INTRODUCTION
When Assia Djcbar published L ‘amour, Ia fantasia in 1 985, she had
already established her reputation as the major woman writer from the
Maghreb, with four novels in French to her name by the time she was
thirty. She then announced that she was abandoning fiction writing ­
in particular, writing in French – and from 1 962 devoted herself to
teaching history at the University of Algiers. However, during the
ensuing twelve years of ‘silence’, she tried to tackle the problem of the
passage from writing in French to writing in Arabic, to which she
found a partial solution in the cinema with her film La Nouba des
femmes du Mont Chenoua which was awarded the Critics’ Prize at the
Venice Biennalc 1 979. The film, in which musical sequences alternate
with testimonies in Arabic, is based on the experiences of Algerian
peasant women during the War of Independence – material which the
author introduces into the second part of L ‘amour, Ia fantasia, in the
chapters which she entitles ‘Voice’. When Assia Djebar returns to
fiction writing, the result of this long maturation period is to be seen in
the originality and complexity and also in the interwoven themes of her
works. After a volume of short stories, published in 1 980, specifically
dealing with the lives of contemporary urban Algerian women: Femmes
d’Aiger dans leur appartement, came the first two parts of a projected
Algerian £2!tartet, published in 1 985 and 1 987 respectively.
Assia Djebar’s work has, up till now, only been known to the English
reader through the translation of her first novel La Soif (1 957) under
the title of The Mischief L ‘amour, Ia fantasia, translated here as
Fantasia: an Algerian Cat•alcade, is in fact the first part of the Quartet,
the second volume, A Sister to Schehera;:;ade, having already appeared.
But the order is immaterial to the appreciation of the works, for
although both arc constructed on the same contrapuntal pattern, with
echoes of characterization and incident in each, and both refer to the
travels in Algeria of the French artist and novelist Eugene Fromentin,
each of the novels has an independent texture and anecdotal
autonomy.
The link between them is the narrator of Fantasia, with whom Isma
in the second work can be identified. In the former, the chapters in the
first person arc admittedly autobiographical, whereas Isma, who shares
the author’s headstrong, passionate nature, her background and many
of her experiences, is intended to typify the dilemma of the
emancipated Algerian woman in general, in contrast to the illiterate
cloistered Hajila. A Sister to Scheherazade begins and ends with Isma
leaving at dawn with her six-year-old daughter Meriem, in search of
her roots in her native city of Cherchel, where Assia Djebar was born
in 1936. The first chapter of Fantasia, which begins with the author’s
father taking her to school for the first time, ends with the phrase
which will be echoed in the second novel: ‘ … I cut myself adrift. I set
off at dawn with my little girl’s hand in mine.’ Fantasia: An Algerian
C{ll)a/cade is an historical pageant, a dialectic between written (French)
and oral (Arabic) personal accounts, an inquiry into the nature of the
Algerian identity, and a personal quest.
An historical pageant of the vicissitudes of her native country, it
covers the capture of Algiers in 1830 to the War of Independence of
1954-62: for the chapters devoted to the War of Colonization, Djebar,
the historian, draws on the archives, and disinters little-known
eye-witness accounts written at the time by artists, obscure officers,
publicists (whom we would now call war correspondents) and various
camp-followers. They write, sometimes for publication in the metropolis,
but just as often simply to share their experiences in letters to
their families at home, or jotting down impressions hot from the battle
for official records or private journals. These episodes include acts of
barbarism by the French, who exterminated whole tribes, and
individual experiences – particularly of women – highlighting their
pride and obdurate courage in the face of invaders and conquerors.
The hero of the Algerian resistance to the French conquests was the
legendary Sultan Abd ai-Qadir, but the episodes which stand out here
are those featuring the sufferings of women: victims of the ruthless
‘fumigations’ of rebel tribes in the Dahra caves, dancing girls caught
up in the fighting, anonymous women whose hands and feet are
amputated for their jewelled ornaments, and the dignified young
‘Bride of Mazuna’. To these Djebar adds the account of the humble
but no less proud Pauline Rolland, who was among the ten French
women transported to Algiers in 1852 for their part in the 1848
Revolution. Without inventing incident, the author calls on her rich
poetic imagination and exceptional descriptive powers to conjure up
the atmosphere, the colour, the tumult of these historical events, as
well as the presence and psychology of the authentic historical
characters.
Whereas the episodes from nineteenth-century history arc based on
research into contemporary writings in French, and are deliberately
written in a very colourful style, the second historical sequence,
devoted to the War of Independence, relies on the oral testimony of
the women who took part in the struggle. The author travelled into the
mountains that had been the scene of guerrilla warfare, recorded the
women’s stories, and reproduces them here in their own words, with
their sobriety of tone, staccato, laconic expression and popular turns of
phrase, which I have made no attempt to ‘polish’ in the English
version. So, for example, these peasant women say ‘France came up to
the village’, meaning ‘the French army’ … The transcription into
French (and now into English) of these unedited accounts explains the
distinct and deliberate difference in linguistic style of the chapters
devoted to the women’s stories from the author’s own virtuoso use of
the French language, and is an important element in the antiphonal
structure of the work: dialogue between recent and more distant past;
between personal and national experience; between writing and orality;
between the conflicting claims of the author’s ‘father and mother
tongues’.
If Algerian Woman in all her complexity and historical reality is the
protagonist of Assia Djebar’s most ambitious and original work of
fiction, this is also an attempt to wrest her own identity as an Algerian
woman from the warring strands of her Arabo-Berber origins and her
Franco-European education. The traditional reticence of an Arab
woman, discouraged from speaking of herself, is a barrier to the
composition of an autobiography, so she calls this work ‘a preparation
for an autobiography’. While the last part of the book is a dialogue
between the author and the peasant women whose voices she
reproduces, throughout the work she intervenes ‘with nomad memory
and intermittent voice’ to create a polyphony of the incidents from her
own girlhood and early womanhood interwoven into the fabric of the
historical sequences from 1830 to the present day.
While Arabic is Assia Djebar’s mother tongue, she calls French both
her ‘father tongue’, since it was her schoolteacher father who
introduced her to it and also her ‘step-mother tongue’, with which she
maintains a love-hate relationship. She resents the fact that her early
exposure to a French education made her a cultural, linguistic and, for
a time a literal exile from the land of her origins; at the same time she
appreciates that French has been the gateway to freedom, denied to
many of her countrywomen. She is clearly in love with the musicality of
French, which she exploits in those passages of prose poetry printed in
italics, and in which she makes the prose approximate to music, both
structurally and sonically. At other times, in a conscious effort to
escape from the shackles of writing in ‘the enemy’s language’, she
seems to be colonizing the language of the colonizers. She does
violence to it, forcing it to give up its riches and defying it to hand over
its hidden hoard, in compensation for the treasure looted from Algiers
in 1830, and also to compensate her personally for being dispossessed
of her Arabic heritage. She thus has at her command, and uses
effortlessly, an astonishing variety of vocabulary, drawing on archaisms,
rare esoteric words, medical, scientific and musical terms, in an
exuberance of metaphor which it is often difficult to accommodate in
English prose, with its normal economy of imagery. This may well
deter the English reader, unaccustomed to such verbal extravagance.
But the result is both an extraordinary attention to detail of
atmosphere, an appeal to all the senses, the evocation of emotion and
the perfection of a prose style in which the sentences fill their own
space and establish their own rhythm.
The Fantasia (derived from the Arabic fantaziya [meaning ostentation]),
is in North Africa a set of virtuoso movements on horseback
executed at a gallop, accompanied by loud cries and culminating in
rifle shots; the Fantasia, associated with ceremonial occasions and
military triumphs, forms the leitmotif of the novel as well as providing
its title. But a Fantasia (Italian for ‘fantasy’ or ‘fancy’) is also a musical
composition in which, according to the definition given in Kennedy’s
Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music, ‘form is of secondary importance …
in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries such compositions were
usually contrapuntal and in several sections, thus being an early form
of variations … compositions, in which the character of the music
suggested an improvisational character or the play of free fancy’. The
author uses Beethoven’s instruction to his Sonatas 1 and 2, ‘Quasi una
fantasia . . . ‘ as the epigraph to Part Three of her novel, so establishing
the title unambiguously as a serious word-play on the double character
of the work, and highlighting its strong musical associations of form
and style. Moreover the third part of the novel, in which the musical
references arc most insistent, is divided into five ‘movements’, to
which is added a coda in the form of a short chapter entitled ‘Air on a
Na/ (an ancient kind of flute), where the strands of sound, episode
and imagery arc drawn together.
Assia Djcbar is not only a musical and visual writer, but she is also
startlingly physical. The first clement of the original French title,
L ‘amour, Ia fantasia, is omitted from the English title for stylistic
reasons, but the love theme is both implicit and explicit in the text. In
the autobiographical chapters, the author discreetly analyses the
emotional torments of her first love affairs, but eschews the eroticism
with which she evokes the sensual ecstasies of her alter ego, Isma, in A
Sister to Scheherazade. While she avoids expression of the intimacy of
sexuality, she suggests the abandonment of consummated love by
association – again having recourse to a play on words: ‘L ‘amour, ses
m·s, (s ’em”t)’. Love that is written, like the cries uttered at the height of
orgasm, makes the writer vulnerable; in this she is compared to her
cloistered sisters who live their hidden lives behind their veils and their
illiteracy, but are mistresses of a body language which ‘seeks some
unknown shore as destination for its message of love’. The emancipated
woman, who has broken out of the harem, is still reticent in this
work about the physical union, whereas her preoccupation with the
phJ•sical act of writing forms one of the original aspects of her work and
becomes a metaphor for her dichotomy. She compares the cramped
posture she adopts when writing in French with the sensual act of
writing in Arabic, when the movements of her body seem to echo the
scrolls, the curlicues, the rhythms of the calligraphy. In the very first
pages of the novel, she ironically announces the theme of the
repercussions of writing: ‘ … there is more danger in love that is
committed to paper than love that languishes behind enclosing walls’,
since the written word, the surreptitious, forbidden correspondence, is
the key to the outside world for the cloistered Arab virgin. And the
remarkable fact of the author’s father having actually written to her
mother, during a short absence from home, establishes their mutual
love on a different plane from the relationship of feminine submission
to male dominance obtaining in the Arab society of her youth. For the
author herself, the love-letter is more of a trap than a talisman, because
it crystallizes the overt expression of emotions that the reticence of her
mother-tongue would half conceal.
There is ah analogy between love-letters and the correspondence
despatched from the encampments by forgotten captains participating
in the conquest of Algeria; both are the occasion for self-analysis and
result in insight into the ambiguity of emotions: ‘ … it is as if these
parading warriors, around whom cries rise up which the elegance of
their style cannot diminish, are mourning their unrequited love for my
Algeria’. The theme of the love-letter is thus another link between the
historical and the autobiographical dimensions of the novel as well as a
basic part of its structure. The antiphony between the written and the
oral elements, between ‘l’em’t’ and ‘les m’s’, is introduced by the
love-letters (L ‘amour s ‘ecrit in the original), but the final response is
given to the cries of the Fantasia.
Dorothy S. Blair, 1989
,\\ E [)ITER RAN l� AN
>ceo;
Map of Northern Algeria showing principal places and tribes mentioned

CONSTANT! I
/ ‘
A heart-rending cry arose – I can hear it still as I write to J’IJII- then the air
was rent with screams, then pandemonium broke loose …
Eugene Fromcntin
A Year in the Sahel
PART ONE
THE CAPTURE OF THE CITY
or
Love-letters
Our sentinels were gammg in experimce: the:J• were
learning to distinguish the fiJOtsteps and roim of the
Arabs from the sounds made �· the wild beasts that
prowled around the camp in the dark.
Barchou de Pcnhocn
Expedition to Africa, 1835
A Little Arab Girl’s
First Day at School
A little Arab girl going to school for the first time, one autumn
morning, walking hand in hand with her father. A tall erect figure in a
fez and a European suit, carrying a bag of school books. He is a teacher
at the French primary school. A little Arab girl in a village in the
Algerian Sahel.
Towns or villages of narrow white alleyways and windowless houses.
From the very first day that a little girl leaves her home to learn the
ABC, the neighbours adopt that knowing look of those who in
ten or fifteen years’ time will be able to say ‘I told you so!’ while
commiserating with the foolhardy father, the irresponsible brother.
For misfortune will inevitably befall them. Any girl who has had some
schooling will have learned to write and will without a doub£ write that
fatal letter. For her the time will come when there will be more danger
in love that is committed to paper than love that languishes behind
enclosing walls.
So wrap the nubile girl in veils. Make her invisible. Make her more
unseeing than the sightless, destroy in her every memory of the world
without. And what if she has learned to write? The jailer who guards a
body that has no words – and written words can travel – may sleep in
peace: it will suffice to brick up the windows, padlock the sole entrance
door, and erect a blank wall rising up to heaven.
And what if the maiden docs write? Her voice, albeit silenced, will
circulate. A scrap of paper. A crumpled cloth. A servant-girl’s hand in
the dark. A child, let into the secret. The jailer must keep watch day
and night. The written word will take flight from the patio, will be
tossed from a terrace. The blue of heaven is suddenly limitless. The
precautions have all been in vain.
At seventeen I am introduced to my first experience of lovc through
3
a letter written by a boy, a stranger. Whether acting thoughtlessly or
out of bravado, he writes quite openly. My father, in a fit of silent fury,
tears up the letter before my eyes and throws it into the waste-paper
basket without letting me read it.
As soon as term ends at my boarding school, I now spend the
summer holidays back in the village, shut up in the flat overlooking the
school playground. During the siesta hour, I piece together the letter
which has aroused my father’s fury. The mysterious correspondent
says he remembers seeing me go up on to the platform during the
prize-giving ceremony which took place two or three days previously,
in the neighbouring town. I recall staring at him rather defiantly as I
passed him in the corridors of the boys’ high school. He writes very
formally suggesting that we exchange friendly letters. lq my father’s
eyes, such a request is not merely completely indecent, but this
invitation is tantamount to setting the stage for rape.
Simply because my father wanted to destroy the letter, I interpreted
the conventional French wording used by this student on holiday as
the cryptic expression of some sudden, desperate passion.
During the months and years that followed, I became absorbed by
this business of love, or rather by the prohibition laid on love; my
father’s condemnation only served to encourage the intrigue. In these
early stages of my sentimental education, our secret correspondence is
carried on in French: thus the language that my father had been at
pains for me to learn, serves as a go-between, and from now a double,
contradictory sign reigns over my initiation …
As with the heroine of a Western romance, youthful defiance helped
me break out of the circle that whispering elders traced around me and
within me . . . Then love came to be transformed in the tunnel of
pleasure, soft clay to be moulded by matrimony.
Memory purges and purifies the sounds of childhood; we are
cocooned by childhood until the discovery of sensuality, which washes
over us and gradually bedazzles us … Voiceless, cut off from my
mother’s words by some trick of memory, I managed to pass through
the dark waters of the corridor, miraculously inviolate, not even
guessing at the enclosing walls. The shock of the first words blurted
out: the truth emerging from a break in my stammering voice. From
what nocturnal reef of pleasure did I manage to wrest this truth?
I blew the space within me to pieces, a space filled with desperate
voiceless cries, frozen long ago in a prehistory of love. Once I had
4
discovered the meaning of the words – those same words that arc
revealed to the unveiled body – I cut myself adrift.
I set off at dawn, with my little girl’s hand in mine.
5
I
Dawn on this thirteenth day of June 1830, at the exact moment when
the sun suddenly blazes forth above the fathomless bowl of the bay. It
is five in the morning. As the majestic fleet rends the horizon the
Impregnable City sheds her veils and emerges, a wraith-like apparition,
through the blue-grey haze. A distant triangle aslant, glinting in
the last shreds of nocturnal mist and then settling softly, like a figure
sprawling on a carpet of muted greens. The mountain shuts out the
background, dark against the blue wash of the sky.
The first confrontation. The city, a vista of crenelated roofs and
pastel hues, makes her first appearance in the role of ‘Oriental
Woman’, motionless, mysterious. At first light the French Armada
starts its slow glide past, continuing its stately ballet until noon spills its
spangled radiance over the scene. No sound accompanies this
transformation – this solemn moment of anticipation, breathless with
suspense, the moment before the overture strikes up. But who are to
be the performers? On which side shall we find the audience? Five in
the morning. A Sunday; and what is more, it is the Feast of Corpus
Christi in the Christian calendar. The first lookout, wearing the
uniform of a frigate captain, stands on the poop of one of the craft of
the reserve fleet which will sail past ahead of the battle squadron,
preceding a hundred or so men-o’ -war. The name of the lookout man
is Amable Matterer. He keeps watch and that same day will write, ‘I
was the first to catch sight of the city of Algiers, a tiny triangle on a
mountain slope.’
Half past five in the morning. The immense flotilla of frigates, brigs
and schooners, bedecked with multicoloured pennons, streams
endlessly, three by three, into the entrance to the bay, from which all
traces of night and threats of storm have vanished. It has been decided
6
that the decks of the Prm:mce, the admiral’s flagship, shall be cleared
for action.
Units of able-seamen and soldiers clatter up in their thousands on to
the decks and swarm on forecastle and poop. The scene is suddenly
blanketed in silence, as if the intense silken light, squandered so
lavishly in dazzling pools, were about to be rent with a strident screech.
Nothing stirs in the Barbary city. Not a quiver disturbs the milky
dazzle of the terraced houses that can gradually be distinguished on
the slopes of the mountain whose mass is now clearly silhouetted in a
series of gentle emerald-green undulations.
Officers and men arc drawn up in tight formation close to the rails
and stanchions, taking care that their swords do not rattle at their
sides; silence save for an occasional interjection, a muffled oath, a
throat being cleared, an expectoration. The host of men waiting to
invade, stand and watch amidst the jumble of hammocks, in between
pieces of artillery and big guns drawn up in their firing position, like
circus animals waiting under the spotlights, ready to perform. The city
faces them in the unchanging light which absorbs the sounds.
Amablc Matterer, first officer of the Ville de Marseille, docs not stir,
nor do his companions. The Impregnable City confronts them with its
many invisible eyes. Although they had been prepared for its skyline –
here a dome reflected in the water, there the silhouette of a fortress or
the tip of a minaret – nevertheless the dazzling white panorama freezes
before them in its disturbing proximity.
Thousands of watchful eyes there arc doubtless estimating the
number of vessels. Who will pass on the number? Who will write of it?
Which of all these silent spectators will live to tell the talc when the
encounter is over? Amable Mattcrer is at his post in the first squadron
which glides slowly westward; he gazes at the city which returns his
gaze. The same day he writes of the confrontation, dispassionately,
objectively.
I, in my tum, write, using his language, but more than one hundred
and fifty years later. I wonder, just as the general staff of the fleet must
have done, whether the Dey Hussein has gone up on to the terrace of
his kasbah, telescope in hand. Is he personally watching the foreign
armada approach? Does he consider this threat beneath contempt? So
many foes have sailed away after a token bombardment or two, just as
Charles V of Spain did in the sixteenth century! . . . Is the Dey at a
loss? Is he unmoved? Or is he giving vent to one of his dramatic rages,
7
such as he recently displayed when the King of France sent his envoy
with a . demand for unreasonable apologies: the Dey’s reply is
enshrined in legend: ‘The King of France may as well demand my
wife!’
I can imagine Hussein’s wife neglecting her dawn prayer to climb up
too on to the terrace. How many other women, who normally only
retreated to their terraces at the end of the day, must also have
gathered there to catch a glimpse of the dazzling French fleet.
When the squadron left Toulon, there were four painters, five
draughtsmen and about a dozen engravers on board … The battle is
not yet joined, they are not yet even in sight of their prey, but they are
already anxious to ensure a pictorial record of the campaign. As if the
imminent war were to be considered as some sort of festivity.
As this day dawns when the two sides will come face to face, what are
the women of the town saying to each other? What dreams of romance
are lit in their hearts or arc extinguished for ever, as they gaze on the
proud fleet tracing the figures of a mysterious ballet? … I muse on this
brief respite; I slip into the antechamber of this recent past, like an
importunate visitor, removing my sandals according to the accustomed
ritual, holding my breath in an attempt to overhear everything …
On this thirteenth day of]unc 1830, the confrontation continues for
two, three hours, well into the glare of the afternoon. As if the invaders
were coming as lovers! The vessels sail so slowly, so quietly westward,
that they might well have been planted there above the glassy surface
of the water, by the eyes of the Impregnable City, blinded by mutual
love at first sight.
And the silence of this majestic morning is but the prelude to the
cavalcade of screams and carnage which will fill the ensuing decades.
8
Three Cloistered Girls
Three girls live cloistered in an airy house in the middle of the tiny
Sahel village, surrounded by vast vineyards, where I come to spend my
spring and summer holidays. My stay there, shut up with these three
sisters, is my ‘visit to the country’. I am ten, then eleven, then
twelve …
All through the summer I play with the youngest of these girls who is
a year or two older than me. We spend hours together on the swing at
the bottom of the orchard near the farmyard. Now and then we break
off from our games to peep through the hedge at the village women
shouting from the neighbouring small-holdings. At dusk the farm gate
opens to let in a flock of goats. I learn to milk the most docile ones.
Then I drink from the skin bottle, whose tarry smell makes me rather
nauseous. Not being allowed to wander in the dusty lanes of the village
is no hardship to me.
The house is large. There are many cool shady rooms filled with
mattresses piled up on the floor, and hung with Saharan tapestries
woven in the past by the then mistress of the house – a relative by
marriage of my mother, who herself comes from the nearby town.
I never go into the end room: a senile old relative of the family
squats there in permanent darkness. Sometimes the youngest sister
and I venture as far as the doorway, petrified by the sound of her
cracked voice, now moaning, now uttering vague accusations, denouncing
imaginery plots. What hidden drama do we touch on,
resurrected, revived by the ravings of the old crone in her second
childhood, violently denouncing some past persecution in a voice that
paralyses us. We do not know the magical formulas, the passages from
the Quran, that the grown-ups recite aloud to exorcize these outbursts.
The presence of this ancient, with one foot already in the grave,
ensures that the other women of the household never miss one of their
9
daily prayers. They gather in the largest room, next to the kitchen or
pantry; one of them sews or embroiders, while another squats on the
floor, busily sorting chickpeas or lentils, spread out on white cloths.
Suddenly five or six slight figures, their veils covering their heads and
shoulders, silently straighten up, keeping their eyes lowered. Frail
phantoms, both strengthened and weakened by the propitiatory liturgy,
they prostrate themselves several times in unison … Sometimes my
mother forms part of this group of pious women, making their
obeisances, brushing the cold floor tiles with their lips.
We little girls take refuge beneath the medlar trees. To shut out the
old woman mumbling to herself, the others’ fervent whisperings. We
go to count the pigeons in the loft or savour the smell of carobs in the
shed, and of the hay trampled under the mare’s hooves when she was
let out into the fields. We compete to see who can swing highest. Oh!
the exhilaration of swinging rhythmically, now high, now low, up over
the house and the village! To soar with our legs higher than our
heads, till the sounds of the animals and women are all swallowed up
behind us.
In a gap in my memory, I suddenly recall one torrid, interminable
summer. The raving old crone must have died the previous winter.
There are fewer women of the family around: that same season there
have been a great number of circumcisions and marriages in the
nearby town – so many new brides to be comforted, congratulated,
consoled by the band of frustrated females accompanying them … I
find the girls of the hamlet practically alone.
In the little farmyard, in spite of the carobs and the pigeons in the
loft, I wish I were back at school; I miss the companionship of the other
boarders, I describe the basketball games to the three country girls. I
must be now about twelve or thirteen. I seem older; probably because
I’m too tall, too thin. The eldest of the sisters keeps on bringing up the
occasion when I first attended a gathering in the town and I was
wearing the veil, and one of the city ladies came buzzing round me like
a bee.
‘Her son must have fallen in love with your silhouette and your eyes!
You ’11 soon be hearing news of your first proposal!’
I stamp my feet in childish anger exacerbated by an ambiguous
unease. I sulk for days on end, refusing to speak to the eldest sister.
During that same summer, the youngest sister and I manage to open
the bookcase belonging to the absent brother, which up till then had
10
always been kept locked. He works as an interpreter in the Sahara,
which seems to us as far away as America. In one month we read all the
novels pushed away indiscriminately: Paul Bourget, Colette, Agatha
Christie. We discover an album of erotic photographs and an envelope
containing picture postcards of bare-breasted Ouled-Na”il girls, loaded
with jewels. This brother was extremely strict and before this we were
in daily terror of his unpredictable temper; and now we are suddenly
aware of his uncomfortable presence during those dim siesta hours.
We discreetly close the bookcase as the women rise for their afternoon
prayers. We feel we have trespassed into some forbidden territory; we
feel we have aged.
That summer the girls let me into their secret. A strange and weighty,
unexpected matter. I never spoke of it to any other woman in the
family, old or young. I had given my solemn promise and I kept it
scrupulously. These girls, though confined to their house, were
writing; were writing letters; letters to men; to men in the four corners
of the world; of the Arab world, naturally.
And letters came back from far and wide: letters from Iraq, Syria,
Lebanon, Lybia, Tunisia, from Arab students in Paris or London.
Letters sent by pen-pals chosen from adverts appearing in a women’s
magazine with a wide circulation at the time in the harems. With every
number the subscriber received a pattern for a dress or a houscgown
that even an illiterate woman could follow.
These sisters were the only Muslim girls in their little village to have
attended primary school. Their father, a robust, pious countryman,
who was the most expert market-gardener in the area – could neither
read nor write French. Every year he had to rely on one or other of his
daughters to sec that the invoices which he had to send to his
accountant were correct.
The postman, the son of a local artisan, must have wondered at all
these letters from such distant places landing up at his post-office,
which no-onc had ever heard of till then. Nevertheless, he never
breathed a word: ‘The three daughters of the Sheikh!’ He had never
set eyes on these girls who must have seemed like princesses to
him! … The backs of the envelopes bore fancy names borrowed from
Eastern film-stars, giving the impression that the senders were women.
He was not deceived. He must have mused over the girls’ sweethearts,
‘suitors’ he probably thought. He knew that the girls never left the
II
house, except when their father drove them himself in a barouche to
the smartest Turkish bath in the nearby town … The continual arrival
of these letters, from every corner of the world, must have weighed
upon his mind, feeding some secret frustration!
The only thing I can recall about these letters is their proliferation
and the number of different places they came from. When the
youngest sister and I spent our evenings together, we no longer
discussed the novels we had read during the long afternoons, but the
audacity needed to carry on this clandestine correspondence. We
conjured up the terrible dangers they were exposed to. There had
been numerous cases in our towns of fathers or brothers taking the law
into their own hands for less than this; the blood of an unmarried
daughter or sister shed for a letter slipped surreptitiously into a hand,
for a word whispered behind shuttered windows, for some slanderous
accusation … A secret spirit of subversion had now seeped into the
house, and we happy-go-lucky children were casually watching it
spread.
The eldest sister, who had a reputation for being very high-andmighty
and never finding any of her official suitors good enough for
her, had started this correspondence as a joke. One day, while the
women in the next room were starting their prayers again, she had read
the following advertisement from the magazine aloud to her sisters:
‘ “Tunisian, aged twenty-two, blue eyes, fond of Farid el-Attrash,
seeks girl pen-pal in Arab country, romantically inclined.” …
Suppose I replied to him?’
I never knew what she wrote to the first, the second or the third
correspondent: did she write of her uneventful everyday life, or of her
dreams, or of the books she read? Perhaps she invented adventures for
herself. I never asked her. I was simply dismayed to discover how
quickly she found herself saddled with a dozen distant pen-pals. The
youngest sister had almost as many. But the middle one – the one who
had been silently, meticulously preparing her wedding trousseau for
years – the second sister, the prettiest, the gentlest, the most docile –
continued to protest that she would never, ever write to a stranger. If
she did so, it would indicate that she was prepared to fall in love with
him. And she preferred to wait, to get on with her sewing and
embroidery, ready in due course to ‘love’ the eventual fiance.
And I, at thirteen – perhaps this time it was during the winter
holidays – I would listen, during these evenings we spent together, to
12
the youngest of these marriageable girls describing the arguments they
had had about what to write in their letters. The eldest sister sent her
many pen-pals the words of Egyptian or Lebanese songs, photographs
of Arab actresses or film-stars. The youngest maintained a sibyline
silence about the contents of her own letters …
Everything is a jumble in my memories of this last visit: the novels in
the brother’s forbidden bookcase and the mysterious letters that
arrived by the dozen. We amused ourselves imagining what the
postman must be thinking – his curiosity and bewilderment. Moreover
he must have felt vexed that he himself could never hope to win the
hand of any of these village princesses!
The youngest sister and I continued our whispered confidences. In
the periods when sleep crept over me I imagined written words
whirling furtively around, about to twine invisible snares around our
adolescent bodies, lying side by side across the antique family bed.
The same bed in whose hollow the ancient crone used to give vent in
her delirium to a corrosive litany of grievances, harping blasphemously
on long-forgotten wrongs.
I was afraid and I admitted it. I was certain a light would blaze down
from the ceiling and reveal our sin – for I included myself in this
terrible guilty secret!
The youngest sister went on whispering spasmodically. S!le was in
the grip of her own determined will, while the night thickened around
us and all living things had long fallen asleep.
‘I’ll never, never let them marry me off to a stranger who, in one
night, will have the right to touch me! That’s why I write all those
letters! One day, someone will come to this dead-and-alive hole to take
me away: my father and brother won’t know him, but he won’t be a
stranger to me!’
Every night the vehement voice would utter the same childish vow. I
had the premonition that in the sleepy, unsuspecting hamlet, an
unprecedented women’s’banle was brewing beneath the surface.
13
II
The battle of Staoueli is fought on Saturday 19 June. For five days
after the landings there have been ceaseless skirmishes. More than
mere skirmishes in fact: when the riflemen on both sides exchange
shots, this is war to the death. The opposing ranks size each other up,
judging the enemy’s tactics: Arab cavalry and infantry scatter in
random groups of various sizes while the French light infantry
reconnoitre and advance in tight formation. In the invaders’ camp
there is an average of eighty dead a day.
The first French victim fell on the deck of the Breslau the evening
before the landing when the fleet reached the Sidi-Ferruch straits
outside the bay, after sailing past the Impregnable City, beyond
Pointc-Pcscade. An attempt to land the first troops by barge proved
abortive; shells were fired from the dense undergrowth before any of
the invaders could set foot on the shore of Africa. The shells burst on
one of the vessels of the first line; an able-bodied seaman has his thigh
shattered by shrapnel and dies instantly.
The order is given to postpone the landing until the next day. The
reveille will sound to wake the men at three in the morning.
Throughout the night grunts and the muffled jangle of arms arc heard.
The vessels are now no better than floating prisons, jammed with forty
thousand soldiers and thirty thousand seamen; for days they have been
enveloped in the stench of pestilence. Close around them the unspoilt
nature waits silcmly, seeming to pose no threat, but rather offering a
sort of absolution.
The next day, barely an hour after the first ten thousand men have
landed on that silem, seemingly deserted shore, an Arab horseman
approaches the outposts, caracoling on a hill. The howitzers arc
trained on him; he tries to avoid the shells, but is hit and keels over
14
backwards. Horse and rider disappear behind a hillock; this first Arab
victim is gTcctcd with a hail of laughter and cheers.
Many more deaths follow in rapid succession. I re-read the
chronicles of these first encounters and note contrasting styles. The
Algerians fight like the Numidians of old, so oft described by Roman
historians: they wheel capriciously in swift approach, then check their
advance as if their adversary were beneath contempt, before launching
their decisive, vigorous attack. Tactics that arc derived from the
mocking flight of an insect, rather than the glossy feline prowling
through the bush, ready to pounce.
The warriors eye each other from afar, serving as mutual decoys in
an attempt to synchronize the tempo of every movement that
foretokens mutual slaughter. In a flash, they arc locked hand to hand,
then, after one brief spasm, they lie decapitated, sometimes their
corpses mutilated.
First kiss of death in the opposing camps: after the overture, a
change of tunc. Each victory by the aggressor’s fire is accompanied by
discordant laughter, as if the victim were taking part in some grotesque
slapstick; whereas those that face the invaders prefer to deal death by
silent stealth. Abruptly this silence is rent by the distant crackle of
musketry; the next moment the blade of a knife is poised above a throat
and severing the jugular artery. In this hand-to-hand struggle, Turks
in their flaming red and Bedouins shrouded in white fight off their
assailants with a display of ferocity, accompanied by jubilant cries of
defiance that culminate in a crescendo of blood-curdling shrieks.
This war will be long drawn-out, yet, from the first encounter, the
Arab, galloping full tilt on his small, frisky horse, seemingly seeks to
clasp his enemy to his bosom: mortal blows dealt or received at a gallop
seem to be transmuted into some frozen embrace.
The face of the invader presents a grotesque parody of death’s
grimace. As for the bellicose natives, soon to be overcome by disaster,
for the nonce they caracol exultantly, advancing to the forefront of the
stage, happy to slay and be slain full in the limelight. For the time
being, they are drenched in brilliant sunlight, before the final darkness
falls.
There are now two chroniclers of these preliminary clashes. Amable
Matterer, first officer of the Ville de Marseille, stands on the deck of his
vessel, watching the fighting gTadually penetrate further and further
15
inland; later he too will become an actor, when, on the eve of
surrender, the command is issued to bombard the city from the sea.
He writes time and time again, ‘I am writing with my sword at my
side’ … A second eye-witness will plunge us into the heart of the
battle: Uaron Barchou de Penhocn, ADC to General Bcrthczenc who
is in command of the first regiments to go into action. He leaves a
month after the capture of the City; in the quarantine station in
Marseille, still fresh from the scene, he sets down his impressions as a
combatant, as an observer and even, with unexpected insight, as one
who has fallen in love with a land of which he has glimpsed the fiery
fringes.
After this first encounter between the two nations, both sides watch
and wait, in doubt as to their next step. Throughout this summer of
1 830, both camps arc haunted: arc these the ghosts of the raped,
flitting over the piled-up corpses? Is it the spirit of an unacknowledged
love, felt only in an intuitive sense of guilt?
The fascination felt by these two writers is clear – and they both
write for Paris, which this same summer is in the throes of another
upheaval: the hydra-headed monster, Revolution, that must be
throttled at all costs. But what if this fascination also paralysed the
threatened camp?
Was it simply for the pleasure of watching the invaders closing in on
him that the Aga Ibrahim, the Dey’s son-in-law, with such overweening
confidence, took so little heed for his own defences? Was he so
sure of crushing them, as invaders offering similar threats had been
crushed in former centuries? (It is true that on each previous occasion
a tempest had fortuitously blown up and so contributed to the defeat of
the Spaniards, English, Dutch and so many others; this time a storm
blew up just two days too late to save them.) Might not Ibrahim have
been prompted rather by a desire to examine the foe close at hand, to
touch him, to join battle at close quarters and let their blood flow
together on the same soil?
The Bedouin tribes arrive as if to participate in yet another Fantasia,
when the less caution is shown, the more attractive the hazards. They,
too, do not believe that the City can be taken, but danger spurs them
on: they hope that the military might of Algiers will be shaken in the
trial of strength …
In fact, after the capture of the City, the contingents of allied troops,
16
who had volunteered to accompany the Beys in a well-nigh ecstatic
‘holy war’, will return to their own territories, their feeling of autonomy
intact. The debacle will first and foremost affect the janizarics, those
magnificent Turkish warriors who will always be found in the front line
of every battle, blazing in brilliant colours that stand out in sharp
contrast to the white burnouses of the illusive autochthons.
The day after the decisive encounter at Staoucli, the war artist
Major Langlois will pause to draw dead Turks, their faces still bearing
the imprint of their frenzied valour. Some of them arc grasping a
dagger in their right hands which they have plunged into their own
breasts. At ten of the clock on Sunday 20 June, in splendid weather,
Langlois executes several drawings of these proud vanquished
warriors, then he docs the preliminary sketches for a picture destined
for the Museum. ‘The public will be able to obtain lithographs,’
Mattcrcr notes on this same day.
Barchou describes the battle stage by stage. Ibrahim has made the
opening gambit and decided on the plan of campaign. This becomes
clear in the course of the first days’ action: the Algerian marksmen are
more accurate and tcrrif)·ing in their skill. The range of their muskets
is remarkable, due to the length of the barrel. They take their aim
unhurriedly, fire and vanish.
On 18 June the Aga Ibrahim inspects the terrain: rocks, clumps of
lcntisks, patches of undergrowth, thorny or sandy hills, a setting in
which the Arab cavalry will have no difficulty in performing their usual
ballet, and the infantry will be able to fling themselves flat on the
ground, like invisible reptiles. The numbers seem slightly to favour the
defenders. But the Aga neglects one detail which will weigh finally on
the outcome: the superiority of the Western artillery, and most of all,
the unity of the French command and tactics, in the face of the discord
reigning among the native chiefs.
At eight in the morning, after seven uninterrupted hours of bitter
fighting, the Algerian batteries arc surrounded and overpowered. And
then it is the final phase: Marshal Bourmont’s regiments, which till
then have been cut off, succeed in routing their assailants and arc able
to advance. As soon as they have captured the first high ground, they
come upon the camp of the Aga and the Beys; three hundred
sumptuous tents have been abandoned and stand intact, as though in
waiting for them.
17
On the road to Algiers there is no longer any doubt about the
outcome. The Beys of Tittcri, Oran and Constantine fall back on the
banks of the Wadi El-Harrach. The victorious troops feel as if they
were already occupying the City. They imagine themselves lying on
divans and being served with coffee.
The Staoucli plateau is strewn with corpses. Two thousand
prisoners arc taken. In defiance of their officers, the soldiers
themselves insist on shooting them all. ‘One battalion’s fire brought
down this rabble and two thousand of them will never sec the light of
day again,’ writes Mattcrer, who has remained aboard his ship during
the battle.
The next day he placidly wanders among the corpses and the booty.
I only recollect one brief electrifying episode from Baron Barchou’s
description of his experiences, recorded in the dark night of these
mcmoncs.
Barchou’s tone is icc-cold, but he seems to be transfixed with
revulsion by the terrible poetry of the scene before his eyes; he had
caught sight of the bodies of two Algerian women, lying a little apart
from one group of skirmishers.
In the case of certain tribes from the interior, whole families had
come along: women, children, old men. As if fighting were a matter of
sacrificing themselves as a unit, all together, without regard for sex or
possessions, rather than appearing on the brow of a rise, ready to
attack! The Zouaves in particular, Kabyles who were the allies of the
Bey ofTitteri, form a multicoloured host amid the general ebullience.
So, one month later, Barchou sets down what he recalls: ‘Arab tribes
are always accompanied by great numbers of women who had shown
the greatest zeal in mutilating their victims. One of these women lay
dead beside the corpse of a French soldier whose heart she had torn
out! Another had been fleeing with a child in her arms when a shot
wounded her; she seized a stone and crushed the infant’s head, to
prevent it falling alive into our hands; the soldiers finished her off with
their bayonets.’
Thus these two Algerian women – the one in whom rigor mortis was
already setting in, still holding in her bloody hands the heart of a dead
Frenchman; the second, in a fit of desperate courage, splitting open
the brain of her child, like a pomegranate in spring, before dying with
her mind at peace – these two heroines enter into recent history.
18
I scrupulously record the image: two warrior women glimpsed from
the back or from the side, in the midst of the tumult, by the keen eye of
the ADC. A forewarning of the �allucina!_� fever that will reign,
punctuated with folly . . . An image that prefigures many a future
Muslim ‘mater dolorosa’ who, carrion beetles of the harem, will give
birth to generations of faceless orphans during Algeria’s thraldom a
century later.
After this prelude the fires of a black sun arc fanned! … But why,
above the corpses that will rot on successive battlefields, docs this first
Algerian campaign reverberate with the sounds of an obscene
copulation?
19
The French Policeman’s Daughter
In the little village where I spent my childhood holidays, the French
policeman’s wife and two daughters,Janine and Marie-Louise, used to
visit the home of the three sisters. The wife, a fat white woman from
Burgundy, with a loud voice and jocular manner, was quite happy to
squat unceremoniously on the floor among all the Arab women,
relatives from the town, widows and divorcees who were occasionally
offered asylum. The slight figure of the mistress of the house trotted
tirelessly to and fro from kitchen to courtyard, from courtyard to
farmyard, ghing her orders. She would never sit down, never had a
minute to spare, except when the Frenchwoman came to visit. The
latter would join in the conversation: two or three words of French, a
word in Arabic with her pronunciation making one or other of the
guests gurgle with mischievous, suppressed laughter.
The mother of the cloistered girls and the policeman’s wife were
friends: they were always pleased to see each other, and expressed
their pleasure in imperceptible details of their behaviour: the serious
way they looked at each other, ignoring the other women’s curiosity,
the cookery recipes they exchanged, and the little attentions they
bestowed on each other when the Frenchwoman rose to make her
departure, pink-cheeked and looking years younger. They stood facing
each other, the ample form of the Burgundian confronting the spare
and wiry figure of the Arabo-Berber woman … Eventually the
Frenchwoman would clumsily hold out her hand; the other would
reach up on tiptoe in her loose saroual and, with a hop and a skip that
set the frills of her blouse a-flap and the fringes of her head-dress
a-dancing, ignoring the outstretched hand, would rapidly plant a kiss
on each of her friend’s shoulders. And every time the latter would
blush with surprise, then trumpet to the assembled women, ‘Au revoir,
sisters !’
20
As soon as the remaining visitors heard the outer door slam, they
started without fail to comment on the way the two friends took leave
of each other: the one with outstretched hand; the other who insisted
on embracing like two peasants exchanging kisses at the market!
This subject would provide food for discussion for hours on end,
while the object of their criticism went once more about her
housewifely duties. She might, at a pinch, pause to mutter coldly,
‘She’s my friend! She’s French but she’s my friend!’
One relative shrieked with laughter: ‘She’s been your friend for
years and you still can’t manage to shake her hand and say “Au revoir,
Madame!” like they do. Now, if it was a man, I couldn’t do it, but in
front of a woman, like myselfl What would be the harm? After all, we
can do things in the French way! Naturally not going out without a veil,
God help us! or wearing short skirts and showing ourselves naked to all
and sundry, but we can say “Bonjour” like them, and sit on a chair like
them, why not? God created us too, didn’t he? .. . ‘
We girls always looked forward to Janine’s afternoon visits;
Marie-Louise did not often come. Janine resembled her mother in
build, though she was not as tall or as energetic. She had been to
school with the eldest of the sisters. As soon as she arrived, the two of
them shut themselves up in one of the bedrooms; their two voices
could be heard in conversation, interspersed with endless bouts of
giggling, a silence, then renewed confabulations. Janine could speak
Arabic like a native without any accent. Before she left, she would drop
by the kitchen to ask the girls’ mother if there was anything she
needed. The latter entrusted her with many errands: to buy needles,
thread, haberdashery articles that the father wouldn’t have been able to
bring for her.
Throughout the week J anine was in and out of the Arab house; if it
weren’t for her Christian name she could have been taken for the
fourth daughter of the family … But there was this one extraordinary
diffe131c�: she was able to come and go as she liked – from bedrooms
to courtyard, from courtyard to street – just like a boy! When the
clatter of the knocker indicated that she had closed the heavy front
door behind her, the eldest sister, her friend, paused a moment, her
hand in the air. Then things resumed the normal ebb and flow of a day
frozen in time in these domestic interiors, always interiors, naturally.
The youngest sister and I were fascinated by Marie-Louise. We only
21
saw her occasionally; she must have had a job in the nearby town, or in
the capital even, probably as a postal clerk or secretary in an office …
\\’hen she spent Sundays in the village, she came to visit us with
Janine.
\\’e thought her as beautiful as a model. She was dark, slim, with
delicate features; she must have been quite small as I recall her
perched on extremely high heels. She wore her hair in a very
sophisticated arrangement of elaborate knots and twists, with a variety
of combs conspicuously displayed among her dark curls and ringlets.
\\’e marvelled at her make-up: pink blush on her cheeks and crimson
lipstick enhancing the cupid’s bow of her lips.
With her city-dweller’s style and coquettish air, we felt she had to be
treated like a tourist when she deigned to accompany her mother or
sister on their visits to us. She sat down on a chair; she crossed her legs
in spite of her short skirt. The circle of women began quite openly to
examine every last detail of her attire, and comment on everything in
an undertone.
Marie-Louise let them stare. Aware of the curiosity she provoked,
she waited, pretending not to understand.
‘I’ve forgotten all my Arabic!’ she would sigh casually. ‘And I haven’t
got a gift for languages like you, Janine!’
This last concession in an oflhand tone: to let it be understood that
of course she didn’t despise the Arabic language, but after all … And
we were left in doubt, behind the distance insidiously created, whether
Marie-Louise was the exception, or Janine. Moreover, when their
mother accompanied them, she threw such a protective sheath of awe
and pride around Marie-Louise that the women present fell silent …
So, on these visits, Marie-Louise enjoyed the pleasure of acting as a
foreigner.
Was it two or three years previously that Marie-Louise acquired a
fiance, an officer from the ‘metropolis’, as they said? It was about that
time; I couldn’t have been more than ten; the youngest sister, my
friend, was still at primary school. She had not yet been cloistered; that
summer, we walked through the village streets on various errands:
carrying the tray of pastries to be baked in the baker’s oven, taking
some message or other to the policeman’s wife …
I still have in the forefront of my mind these to-ings and fro-ings
through the narrow alleys lined with tall chestnut trees. Between the
22
village and the distant vine-clad hills lay a eucalyptus wood; sometimes
we ventured beyond the policeman’s house, scampering as far as the
first gum trees, and throwing ourselves down ·on the carpet of leaves,
savouring their acrid smell. Our daring made our hearts pound.
These escapades, in which we egged each other on, left a bitter
taste; then we slowly made our way back to the policeman’s house,
where we remained standing in the yard, outside the open kitchen
window.
‘My mother wants to know if she should keep you some of the goat’s
milk, to put to set?’ the little girl panted. ‘I’ve come for the milk-can.’
‘And I’ve got a message for Janine from my sister,’ she added a
moment later. ‘\Viii she buy her a pair of number I knitting needles?
My father brought some back but they’re too big. We girls can’t go to
the drapery shop as it’s right in front of the Moorish cafe!’
‘These men!’ the Burgundian woman cackled as she went on with
her washing, up to her elbows in soapsuds. ‘They’re all the same! …
Mine can’t manage to bring home a needle!’
‘My father’s very good at doing the marketing!’ the little girl
retorted. ‘He always buys the finest fruit, the best meat! My mother
won’t admit it openly, but we know this quite well.’
‘Tell your sister not to worry. l’ll letJanine know. And here’s the can
for the milk … ‘
While they talked I looked through the window at the passage fromwhich
other rooms opened out. In the dim light I could just make out
the polished wooden furniture; my eyes were glued to the hams and
sausages strung up at the back of the kitchen; the red-checked
dishcloths hung there seemed as if they were simply meant for show; I
stared at the picture of the Virgin above the door … The policeman
and his family suddenly seemed like transient ghosts in this locality,
whereas these images, these objects became the true inhabitants of the
place! For me, these French homes gave off a different smell, a
mysterio’:!_s light; for me, the French are still ‘The Others’, and I am
sti.IfllYPnotized by their shores.
Thro-�gh��t -�y-�hildh��d, just before the war which was to bring
us independence, I never crossed a single French threshold, I never
entered the home of a single French schoolfellow …
Suddenly, it’s the summer of 1 962: before you could say ‘Jack
Robinson’, all the furniture that had remained hidden in the dark
recesses of houses that were at once open and inaccessible –
23
old-fashioned bedroom suites, rococo mirrors, heterogeneous knickknacks
– all the odds and ends that furbish a home – everything spilled
out on to the pavements … Threadbare trophies, tainted spoils of
conquest, that I saw put up for auction, or piled up in the windows of
the second-hand dealers, who for their part wore the proud air of
Turkish pirates of yore, boasting of their booty … ‘These arc the
cast-offs of a nomad people,’ I thought to myself, ‘the entrails drying in
the sun of a society whose turn it is now to be dispossessed!’
But meanwhile I’m a little girl still standing there, leaning on the
window-sill of the policeman’s house. Their dining-room at the end of
the passage could only be glimp�
cd by the light from the kitchen. For
me, as for my little friend, ‘our’/housc was unquestionably the finest,
with its profusion of carpets, with its shot-silk cushions. The women of
our household came from the nearby town which was celebrated for its
embroidery; at a very early age they learned this art which was already
fashionable at the time of the Turks. And from what remote corner of
the French countryside did the Burgundian come? That was a constant
theme of the afternoon conversations in the little courtyard, to which
the visit of Janinc and her mother had added a new life.
‘French women don’t all come from Paris,’ asserted the busybodies.
‘Most of the ones who come here, thinking they’ll have such a good life
in the colon@�-;-@!fk.nowfiow to milk a cow when they arrive! If they
get more civilized later on, it’s because this country offers them power
and wealth. B��;u�� .the l�w�-;rc–��-ili-cir sid;;:� on -th�–�id�-of their — �– — ·—
menfolk!’
‘You’ve only got to look at janinc and the way she dresses, poor girl!
Just like her mother: a heart of gold, but she’s never learned how to
sew or embroider!’
‘And Marie-Louise?’
‘Marie-Louise is the exception! She possesses the innate good taste
of the Parisian, combined with the refinement, the temperament of our
brunettes! … You’ve noticed how jet-black her hair is, and her ivory
complexion! If she were dressed up like one of our local brides, a
sultan would take a fancy to her!’
One of the speakers shrieked with laughter: ‘Perhaps some
Arab chief, some Sheikh of the high plateaux, got the policeman’s
wife m the family way, when the policeman was posted
in the South! . . . Any man of noble birth would have made
a pass at a young, vigorous Frenchwoman, such as she must
24
have been then. Perhaps with them that’s not a sin, after all!’
The eldest sister protested; she accused the relative of scandalmongering,
or of ignorance at the least. She was very fond of Janine,
and she could assure them that the morals of the policeman’s family
were as pure as any Arabs’. ..: ‘�
-Theories went backwards and forwards, as the conversation
followed its tortuous paths, always coming back to the first hypothesis:
namely that, in spite of all appearances, our ‘clan’ though temporarily
down”Jn the world, wa�_rrlore ��t:fip_eQ_than”_th��ers with their
liberated women. For they were free, and even if we did not envy them,
at least we spoke of them as if they were a strange tribe, with exotic
customs, with whom we had rarely come in contact until then.
Back to the youngest sister and me – once more leaning on this same
window-sill of this French house – on another sunny day.
This time we are struck dumb by what we see. The mother is
standing at her tub finishing her washing; the father, a short stout man,
is sitting there in his shirt-sleeves (when he is out of doors his uniform
disguises his rustic origins), a local newspaper open in his hand; he
slowly puffs at his pipe with an eJ ..:pression of bland good nature.
Marie-Louise is standing right in front of us, in a passage leading off
the sunny kitchen, a little bit to the side; she is pressed close to a
ruddy-complexioned young man with a fair moustache. This is the
fiance, the officer that everyone is talking about!
We could scarcely believe our eyes. The sight of a couple to all
intents and purposes in each other’s arms: Marie-Louise half-leaning
on the young man who was standing stiffly upright … Their muffled
laughter, their whispered exchanges, indicated to us an indecent
intimacy. And all this time the mother carried on talking calmly to us,
glancing from time to time at the couple; the father, on the other hand,
had buried his nose in his newspaper.
I can remember Marie-Louise’s flirtatious behaviour, as well as two
of the el!:pressions she used: sometimes ‘my pet’, sometimes ‘darling’. I
must have stared open-mouthed with stupefaction. Then she began to
sway rhythmically backwards and forwards so that she brushed against
the young man’s chest, repeating this manoeuvre two or three
times … accompanied by little teasing cries of ‘darling’ over and over
again! Eventually she nearly overbalanced and put her arms round her
fiance, tightly encased in his uniform. He seemed to remain quite
25
calm; he whispered something to her almost inaudible; he must have
been asking her not to be so noisy in front of witnesses: the father who
didn’t raise his head, the two little girls standing flabbergasted at the
window ..
An hour later, we acted out the scene in our little courtyard, for the
women sipping coffee round the low table.
‘And the father didn’t even look up?’
‘No! Marie-Louise whispered sweet nothings to the officer, she put
her arms round him, then she even stood up on tiptoe.’
‘You saw them kissing?’ asked the second sister in amazement, not
pausing in her sewing.
‘Yes, indeed! … They both pursed their lips and kissed like birds!’
We couldn’t get over the fact that the policeman, who inspired such
awe in the alle}ways of the village, didn’t dare take his nose out of his
newspaper. He must have been blushing with embarrassment; so we
surmised; so went our remarks.
‘Well, really! These French people!’ sighed the second sister who
was finishing embroidering the sheets for her trousseau.
‘Marie-Louise goes a bit too far!’ remarked the eldest girl, who felt
it her duty to defend her friend’s sister.
Then Marie-Louise came to \isit us before leaving again. She had
promised to bring her fiance. This put the girls in a predicament; they
were afraid of their father’s reaction: for him, the presence of a man,
even a Frenchman, even Marie-Louise’s fiance, would have been
completely out of place …
Did they manage to el’,:plain to Marie-Louise, or to Janine at any
rate? I can’t remember the young officer actually coming to the house
in fact, even for a few minutes; they must have asked him to walk
slowly past the front door, so that the cloistered friends could catch a
glimpse of him through the cracks in the shutters and congratulate
Marie-Louise on her imposing fiance …
I have a clearer memory of one of the young lady’s last \isits. She
was standing near the margin of the well, under the ‘inc; her hair was
wound round her head to form a cone, with one soft black curl in the
nape of her neck. I cannot get the image out of my mind of her delicate
features, her eyes and checks made up, radiating happiness and her
beauty enhanced by her pride in being betrothed. She simpered and
tittered as she talked of her suitor, his family in France, their marriage
which was to take place in a few years’ time … Every time she
26
pronounced the words ‘darling Pilou’, one or other of the onlookers,
seated on the rush mat, would smile indulgently. ‘Darling Pilou’,
Marie-Louise repeated, every time she referred to her young officer.
We little girls could hardly contain our giggles and had to escape to the
orchard to make fun of her. ‘Pilou’ was her nickname for Paul and ,–
in
our minds the ‘darlinL.!_!:Jat she addc_d__was__a.._waiD….that should be
reserved for the bedchamber and secrets between married couples.
‘Darting- Pilou’;Ch·a-�conly to �-p�-;� thcsc-�o;d�(�–;cli·�–;;h�-wholc
scene: the conceited French girl with her audience of women squatting
on the ground, and we excited little girls who, the following yea�; ­
would be confined to the housc_�_n_9_jts orchard and who were already
so straitTac�
‘Darling Pilau’; words followed by bursts of sarcastic laughter; what
can I say of the damage done to me in the course of time by this
expression? I seemed to feel, as soon as I heard it – all too soon – that a
love affair, that love itself ought not to give rise to meretricious words,
ostentatious demonstrations of affection, so making a spectacle of
oneself and arousing envy in frustrated women … I decided that love
must necessarily reside elsewhere and not in public words and
gestures.
An innocuous scene from my childhood: but later, when I reach the
time for romance, I can find no words, I cannot express my emotions.
Despite the turmoil of my adolescent dreams, this ‘darling Pilau’ left
me with one deep-rooted complex: the French language could offer
me all its inexhaustible treasures, but not a single one of its terms of
endearment would be destined for my usc … One day, because all my
spontaneous impulses as a woman would be stifled by this autistic
s!��C:!��j�Y. the p!_es�rc would �l!_d�£_l!_lt_�_v_c and a reaction would
set in.
27
III
Fort Emperor explodes on 4 July 1 830, at ten in the morning. The
fearsome blast fills all the inhabitants of Algiers with terror; the French
army, disposed in echelon from Sidi-Ferruch as far as the citadels of
the capital, rejoices. Three chroniclers now recount the events leading
to the fall of the city: the third is neither a naval officer-nor an ADC on
duty in the heart of the battle; he is no more or less than a man of
letters, accompanying the expedition by way of secretary to the GOC.
For him it is tantamount to a visit to a theatrical performance: it is true
that in Paris he runs the Porte-Saint-Martin Theatre, of which his
wife is the star – the celebrated actress Marie Dorval, with whom the
poet Alfred de Vigny is in love.
His name is J.T. Merle; he too will publish an account of the
capture of Algiers, but as a witness located in the rear of the action. He
does not claim to be a ‘war correspondent’; he likes to be backstage,
where he feels at home. Every day he reports on his position and makes
a note of evel)thing he sees (the wounded in the field hospital, his first
palm tree, an agave in flower, for want of observations of the enemy
doing battle … )He is not tormented by any scruples that he might be
shirking his duties. He observes, he notes, he makes discoveries; if he
manifests impatience, it is not with the military news, but because he is
waiting for a printing press, which he had asked to be purchased
before leaving Toulon. When will the equipment be landed, when will
he be able to compose, publish, distribute the first French newspaper
on Algerian soil?
: So, ‘Fort Napoleon’ blows up: the French soldiers who only
recognize one Emperor – their own – give this name to ‘Fort
Emperor’, also known as ‘The Spanish Fort’, or more exactly, ‘Borj
Hassan ‘. This is one of the most important Turkish fortifications which
date from the sixteenth century, and the key to the defence of the
28
country to the rear of Algiers. From Sidi-Fcrruch, where he has been
stationed since landing, J.T. Merle notes:
‘At ten in the morning of the 4th, we heard a mighty explosion,
following upon ceaseless shelling since daybreak . . . At the same
instant, the horizon was covered in dense black smoke, which rose to a
prodigious height; the wind blowing from the East carried the smell of
gunpowder, dust and scorched wool, which left us in no doubt that
Fort Emperor had been blown up, either by a mine or from its powder
magazines catching fire.
‘There was general rejoicing, as, from this moment, we considered
the campaign to be over.’
Exactly twenty-four hours later, the French army enters the city.
The battle of Staoueli, on 19 June, marked the defeat of the Aga
Ibrahim and the failure of his strategy. It was the first time that the new
‘Congrcve’ rockets were used: the French had exploded them without
being really sure how accurate their aim was; their noise and unusual
nature had caused panic in the Algerian camp which was already in a
state of confusion …
The next day, however, De Bourmont maintains his position for
want of logistical support. He has neither the necessary siege artillery
nor pack-horses. Duperrc, the naval commander, had loaded these on
to the last vessel of the convoy which is still anchored off Palma. So the
French army docs not advance. Some of the troops grow impatient;
others accuse the general staff; De Bourmont is waiting for Dupcrre
who, for his part, has been waiting for a favourable wind ever since 22
or 23 June.
In the extended fortified camp on the Staoueli plateau, the rabble of
soldiery is a prey to post-victory euphoria and indulges in unrestrained
looting.
The Algerian troops have fallen back, some of them as far as the
banks of EI-Harrach. They challenge the leadership of the Dey
Hussein’s son-in-law, the generalissimo. On 24 June, fifteen thousand
combatants regroup and attack a French detachment which has
ventured a little too far from base; one of De Bourmont’s sons,
Amedee, is among those seriously wounded in this affray; he dies soon
afterwards.
During the following days the Algerians intensify their harassment
of the French, who realize that the enemy have a new leader: the Arab
29
anacks arc now shrewdly and systematically organized. This new
leader is ,\1 ustapha IJoumczrad, the Bey of Titteri; his ability assures
him the unanimous support of the janizaries as well as the auxiliary
forces.
According to Baron Barchou, the daily toll of French casualties from
24 to 28 June is two hundred and fifty or more. Some wonder whether
the ,·ictory at Staoucli was not an illusion. Finally, after these sudden
re\·ersals, De Bourmont has the powerful artillery at his disposal; he
gives the order to advance.
On 28 June, the action is nearly as fierce as at Staoucli. The
Algerian offensive proves more and more effectual: a battalion of the
4th Light Horse is well nigh wiped out in a series of murderous
encounters. The next day the fighting is renewed just as fiercely; the
French succeed in breaking through the barrage. On 30 June, despite
a mistake in direction and disagreement among his subordinate
officers, after a difficult march, De Bourmont takes up his position
facing Fort Emperor. Three days are needed to dig trenches and set
out the huge batteries, while constantly having to disperse the Algerian
attacks. Duperre twice bombards Algiers from the sea; with little
result, it must be admitted. Changarnier, at that time only a company
commander, notes, for his future Memoirs:
‘Noisy, ridiculous shelling from the fleet which is out of range, so
expending an enormous quantity of ammunition to inflict six francs’
worth of damage on the city’s fortifications.’
At three o’clock on the morning of 4 July, the last act begins. At Borj
Hassan, an elite garrison of two thousand men – eight hundred Turks
and one thousand two hundred Kuluglis – holds out for five hours
against the fire from the French batteries. De Bourrnont and his
general staff survey the pounding from their position to the right of the
trenches. The Dey Hussein and his dignitaries watch the deadly
contest from the roof of the Spanish Consulate on the heights of the
Kasbah. ‘The militia, the Arabs inside the city, those who find
themselves outside, all pay careful heed to the progress of the battle,’
notes Baron Barchou, who has taken up his position on the slopes of
Bouzareah.
In full view of ‘this enormous amphitheatre, filled with thousands of
spectators,’ two hours elapse, during which the Algerian guns are
silenced one by one. The survivors among the militia, no longer able to
resist, retreat towards the city.
30
A terrible explosion shakes Fort Emperor; soon afterwards it
collapses in a gigantic eruption of flames and smoke. The final hope of
defending the city disappears in this heap of rubble, shattered
half-buried cannons and dismembered corpses – those of the last
defenders. Algiers, known as the ‘well-protected city’, is reduced to
despair.
Three noisy, ineffectual bursts of gunfire, like a final death-rattle,
punctuated the Algerian retreat. They did not even touch the
anticipated mass of the attackers. At Staoucli, just before the Agas and
Beys evacuated their camp, a powder magazine blew up. On 25 June a
small mine exploded in Sidi Khalf, in front of a brigade which halted
just in time; the detonation was heard on the vessels anchored
offshore; however there were very few casualties. Finally, on 4 July,
this, the mightiest of forts collapses; although Fort Bah Azoun and the
‘Fort des Anglais’ continue to hold out, the ritual of their hopeless
action reaches its climax in these final convulsions.
Was it necessary for the Turks to prove the technical inferiority of
their strategy, which was so easy to discern – its navy in decline, its
artillery obsolescent? Be that as it may, the unpredictability of the first
commander-in-chief, the Bey’s negligence or his disastrous isolation,
all combined to dissipate the energy which should have been
concentrated.
The Bedouin chiefs, the quasi-autonomous Beys, arc stationed
outside the city with the turbulent auxiliary troops. Towards the end,
they await with growing concern the fall of the City – until then,
anchored in its century-old irredentism.
The word which could have united these scattered forces is not
heard. This word will be spoken two hundred years later, more to the
West, above the Plains of Eghris, by a young man of twenty-five, with
green eyes and a mystic’s brow: his name, Abd al-Qadir. For the
moment, the power is doubly under siege: from the invaders who
trample through the ruins of Fort Emperor, but also from the
over-proud vassals who watch the increasing irresolution of the Turk.
It is now ten of the clock on the morning of 4 July. Borj Hassan
explodes; its destruction docs not destroy the enemy. Two hours later,
an emissary of the Dey Hussein slips into the invaders’ camp to
present the preliminary plans for the surrender.
31
J.T. Merle, our theatre manager who is never in the theatre of
operations, conveys to us the amazement, the excitement and the pity
that he has felt from the day he landed (the only time he has been in
the front line) until the end of hostilities, on this 4 July.
Pity at the sight of the huddled masses of wounded who fill the field
hospital; excitement over the great variety of vegetation, sometimes so
exotic, sometimes so similar to French woodland. Merle’s amazement
is aroused by the enemy’s invisibility. Up till the battle of Staoucli in
fact, when the Arabs have already killed and mutilated so many
imprudent or luckless soldiers, not one of theirs has been captured,
dead or alive. He describes in detail, with unfeigned admiration, the
manner in which every Arab skilfully handles a wooden device, to
convey a wounded friend, or drag the bodies of every one of their dead
through the densest undergrowth. I!! this, these ‘decapitating savages’
show a secret superiority: they mutilate the bodies of the enemy, to be
sure, but they will never let one of their o;,-n-b� cacf� …
The land, into which the French arrriyis-graduaiiy. eating its way, is
seemingly not the only thing at stake.
For this reason Merle is inspired to heights of eloquence when he
portrays for us three wounded men picked up on the battlefield after
Staoucli: a Turk, a Moor and a young man who was probably a Kabylc.
Merle describes at length their faces, their bearing, their resignation or
their courage. He devotes his whole attention to them, visits them in
hospital, offers them pieces of sugar – like wounded animals at the zoo.
Then, a new anecdote: the youngest of the wounded men receives a
visit from an old man, his father. We arc now in the midst of a real
drama, like the ones that Merle is accustomed to producing on the
Paris stage: ‘Arab father and son, the object of French solicitude’;
‘father disturbed by French humanity’; ‘Arab father bitterly opposes
his son’s amputation which the French doctors advise’; ‘Muslim
fanaticism causes the son’s death, despite French medical science’.
This is the final tableau in the drama which Merle has thus
constructed before our eyes.
Before this scene in the hospital, J.T. Merle, like Mattcrcr and
Baron Barchou, describes the unexpected arrival of an elderly native.
The man has come to the French camp of his own initiative, if we arc
to believe him; some presume that he is a spy; others suggest that he is
there out of curiosity or as the isolated bearer of a flag of truce.
In any case, Merle reports for us the curiosity aroused by the first
32
Arab seen at close quarters. De Bourmont, who had set up his cot on
the site of Saint Sidi Fredj’s catafalque, wishes to receive this
unforeseen visitor, but not in this place where the Muslim sepulchre
might seem to be profaned. He takes coffee with the old man a little
distance away but gains no useful information. He decides to make
him carry a document drawn up in Arabic, declaring his peaceful
intentions.
As soon as he walks away from the French camp he is killed by his
own countrymen, precisely on account of these papers which cause
him to be taken for a spy working for the invaders. So, the first written
words, even while promising a fallacious peace, condemn their bearer
to death. Any document written by ‘The Other’ proves fatal, since it is
a sign of compromise. ‘These proclamations were not even read,’
statesMerle,who alleges that religious ‘fanaticism’ is the cause of an
unnecessary de�th. � -� � -� –�——- — – — __.- — – — —� —
Tlle-French�an relates the other significant event: at the hospital a
wounded man has not been amputated because his father withholds
his permission! But our author does not tell what we are given to
understand from other sources: namely that the host of military
interpreters, brought along by the French army from the Middle East,
prove incapable of translating these first exchanges – could the local
Arab dialect be so unintelligible?
Outside of the battlefield, speech is at a standstill and a wilderness
of ambiguity sets in.
J.T. Merle starts up his printing press, which he has triumphantly
landed on 25 June; he writes:
‘Gutenberg’s infernal machine, this formidable arm of civilization,
was set up on African soil in a few hours. Universal cries of”Long live
France! Long live the King!” greeted the accounts of our landing and
first victories, as soon as they were distributed.’
Whatever occasional writers may succeed him, J.T. Merle was the
first to print his stories in this way between one battle and the next,
fresh from the shock of this preliminary action. What he sets down in
black and white seems to anticipate the victory by a split second …
However, this publicist – nowadays he would be called ‘a front-line
reporter’ – is only interested in describing his own ridiculous role. He
lags permanently behind any decisive battle; he never witnesses any
actual events. He is like the marine artist Gudin who was arrested the
day after the battle of Staoucli by a zealous officer who mistook him for
33
a looter, because he had dressed up for a joke in clothing abandoned in
an Arab tent.
When the professional scribe ventures inopportunely into terrain
where death is lurking, he suddenly realizes the limitations of his fate:
he is not destined to be either a warrior launched into the turmoil of
battle, nor the vulture pouncing on the remaining booty … The war
correspondent or war artist wanders in a twilight zone, a prey to a
malaise which separates him from the greatest suffering, and which
does not prevent him trembling with abject fear …
And J.T. Merle trembles, all the way from the Sidi-Ferruch to
Algiers, although he travels this road two full days after the surrender
of the city! For him, death lurks in every smallest thicket; it might
spring out at him without the benefit of a stage setting, without the
threat of a sudden impalement.
34
My Father Writes to My Mother
Whenever my mother spoke of my father, she, in common with all the
women in her town, simply used the personal pronoun in Arabic
corresponding to ‘him’. Thus, every time she used a verb in the third
person singular which didn’t have a noun subject, she was naturally
referring to her husband. This form of speech was characteristic of
every married woman, from fifteen to sixty, with the proviso that in
later years, if the husband had undertaken the pilgrimage to Mecca, he
could be given the title of ‘Hajj’.
Everybody, children and adults, especially girls and women, since all
important conversations took place among the womenfolk, learnt very
9uickly to ad� tg,
this rule whcrcb_y a husband and wife must never be
referred to b_}’…flamc..
·
After she had been married for a few years, my mother gradually
learnt a little French. She was able to exchange a few halting words
with the wives of my father’s colleagues who had, for the most part,
come from France and, like us, lived with their families in the little
block of flats set aside for the village teachers.
I don’t know exactly when my mother began to say, ‘A1)’ husba11d has
come, ffiJ’ husba11d has gone out … I’ll ask II()’ husba11d,’ etc. Although
my mother did make rapid progress in the language, in spite of taking it
up fairly late in life, I can still hear the evident awkwardness in her
voice betrayed by her laboured phraseology, her slow and deliberate
enunciation at that time. Nevertheless, I can �
sense how much it cost
her modesty to refer to my father directly in this way.
It was as if a flood-gate had opened within her, perhaps in her
relationship with her husband. Y cars later, during the summers we
spent in her native town, when chatting in Arabic with her sisters or
cousins, my mother would refer to him quite naturally by his first
name, even with a touch of superiority. What a daring innovation! Y cs,
35
quite unhesitatingly – I was going to say, unequivocally – in any case,
without any of the usual euphemisms and verbal circumlocutions.
\\’hen her aunts and elderly female relations were present, she would
once more usc the traditional formalities, out of respect for them; such
freedom of language would have appeared insolent and incongruous to
the cars of the pious old ladies.
Years went by. As my mother’s ability to speak French improved,
while I was still a child of no more than twelve, I came to realize an
irrefutable fact: namely that, in the face of all these womenfolk, my
parents formed a couple. One thing was an even greater source of
pride in me: when my mother referred to any of the day-to-day
incidents of our village life – which in our city relatives’ eyes was very
backward – the tall figure of my father – my childhood hero, seemed to
pop up in the midst of all these women engaged in idle chit-chat on the
age-old patios to which they were confined.
My father, no-one except my father; none of the other women ever
saw fit to refer to their menfolk, their masters who spent the day
outside the house and returned home in the evening, taciturn, with
eyes on the ground. These nameless uncles, cousins, relatives by
marriage, were for us an unidentifiable collection of individuals to all
of whom their spouses alluded impartially in the masculine gender.
With the exception of my father … My mother, with lowered eyes,
would calmly pronounce his name ‘Tabar’ – which, I learned very
early, meant ‘The Pure’, and even when a suspicion of a smile
flickered across the other women’s faces or they looked half ill at ease,
half indulgent, I thought that a rare distinction lit up my mother’s face.
These harem conversations ran their imperceptible course: my ears
only caught those phrases which singled my mother out above the rest.
Because she always made a point of bringing my father’s name into
these exchanges, he became for me still purer than his given name
betokened.
One day something occurred which was a portent that their
relationship would never be the same again – a commonplace enough
event in any other society, but which was unusual to say the least with
us: in the course of an exceptionally long journey away from home (to a
neighbouring province, I think), my father wrote to my mother – yes, to
my mother!
He sent her a postcard, with a short greeting written diagonally
36
across it in his large, legible handwriting, something like ‘Best wishes
from this distant region’ or possibly, ‘I am having a good journey and
getting to know an unfamiliar region’ etc. and he signed it simply with
his first name. I am sure that, at the time, he himself would not have
dared add any more intimate formula above his signature, such as ‘I
am thinking of you’, or even less, ‘Yours affectionately’. But, on the
half of the card reserved for the address of the recipient, he had
written ‘Madame’ followed by his own surname, with the possible
addition – but here I’m not sure – of ‘and children’, that is to say we
three, of whom I, then about ten years old, was the eldest …
The radical change in customs was apparent for all to see: my father
had quite brazenly written his wife’s name, in his own handwriting, on
a postcard which was going to travel from one town to another, which
was going to be exposed to so many masculine eyes, including
eventually our village postman – a Muslim postman to boot – and, what
is more, he had dared to refer to her in the Western manner as
‘1\1adame So-and-So .. .’, whereas, no local man, poor or rich, ever
referred to his wife and children in any other way than by the vague
periphrasis: ‘the household’. ‘:\v :·· “” ” , . ,
So, my father had ‘written’ to my mother. When she visited her
family she mentioned this postcard, in the simplest possible words and
tone of voice, to be sure. She was about to describe her husband’s four
or five days’ absence from the village, explaining the practical problems
this had posed : my father having to order the provisions just before he
left, so that the shopkeepers could deliver them every morning; she
was going to explain how hard it was for a city woman to be isolated in
a \illage with very young children and cut off in this way … But the
other wome11 had interrupted, exclaiming, in the face of this new
reality, this almost incredible detail:
‘He wrote to you, to you?’
‘He wrote his wife’s name and the postman must have read it?
Shame! .. . ‘
‘He could at least have addressed the card to his son, for the
principle of the thing, even if his son is only seven or eight!’
My mother did not reply. She was probably pleased, flattered even,
but she said nothing. Perhaps she was suddenly ill at ease, or blushing
from embarrassment; yes, her husband had written to her, in
person! . . . The eldest child, the only one who might have been
able to read the card, was her daughter: so, daughter or wife,
37
where was the difference as far as the addressee was concerned?
‘I must remind you that I’ve learned to read French now!’
This postcard was, in fact, a most daring manifestation of affection.
Her modesty suffered at that very moment that she spoke of it. Yet, it
came second to her pride as a wife, which was secretly flattered.
The murmured exchanges of these segregated women struck a faint
chord with me, as a little girl with observing eyes. And so, for the first
time, I seem to have some intuition of the possible happiness, the
mystery in the union of a man and a woman.
My father had dared ‘to write’ to my mother. Both of them referred
to each other by name, which was tantamount to declaring openly their
love for each other, my father by writing to her, my mother by quoting
my father henceforward without false shame in all her conversations.
38
IV
The City, not so much ‘captured’ as declared an ‘Open City’. The
Capital is sold: the price – its legendary treasure. The gold of Algiers,
shipped by the crateful to France, where a new king inaugurates his
reign by accepting the Republican flag and acquiring the Barbary
ingots.
Algiers, stripped of its past and its pride, Algiers, named after the
foremost of its two islands – ‘EI-Djezalr’. Barbarossa had freed these
islands from the grip of Spain and made them a hideout for the
corsairs who had scoured the Mediterranean for three centuries or
more …
An Open City, its ramparts destroyed, its battlements and earthworks
demolished; its ignominy casts a shadow over the immediate
future.
A fourth man chronicles the defeat, adding his spadeful of words to
help fill the paupers’ grave of oblivion. I choose him from among the
natives of the city: Hajj Ahmed Effendi, the Hanefite Mufti of Algiers,
is the most eminent spiritual personality after the Dey. As the fall of
the city becomes imminent, many of the inhabitants of Algiers turn to
him. More than twenty years later, he reports the siege for us in the
Turkish language, writing his reminiscences of the events of 4 July
from his exile in foreign parts, after the Ottoman Sultan had appointed
him Governor of a city in Anatolia.
‘The explosion shook the city and filled all the inhabitants with
terror. Then Hussein Pasha summoned a council of the city elders.
There was an outcry from the entire population .. .’
Then he briefly mentions the mediators who conducted the first
parleys, and whom the French chroniclers, for their part, describe at
great length.
39
The French have installed their batteries in the ruins of Fort
Emperor, to bombard the Kasbah, the fortress, the seat of power, and
the discussions open to the sound of shelling from both sides. There is
a pause in this harassing fire when a Turk, ‘whose costume, combining
elegance and simplicity, announced a person of distinction’, arrives by
a secret path, carrying a white flag. He is in fact the Dey’s secretary.
He hopes to prevent the French from entering the city by proposing to
pay tribute-money on behalf of the army who are probably prepared to
disavow their Pasha. As he docs not offer capitulation, there is no point
in further talks.
The digging of trenches continues; the French and Algerian
batteries, the latter set up on Fort Bab Azoun, continue to exchange
fire, rending the air with their noisy duel. Two Moors, Hamdane and
Bouderba, now turn up, but still without any official status. After a
preamble, the discussions begin: Hamdane has travelled in Europe
and speaks French fluently. During a pause in the firing they leave,
with the realization that the foreign penetration can no longer be
avoided, except at the price of desperate resistance.
But in his council chamber on the Kasbah, Hussein is more
confident than the army chiefs – the three Beys outside the city are not
even consulted when the final decision is taken – and for one moment
seems determined to fight to the death … Eventually it is decided that
two official emissaries should be sent, together with the sole European
diplomat remaining in Algiers since the landing – the British Consul,
accompanied by his deputy.
This delegation is received by the complete French general staff, ‘in
a little shady meadow’; they take their scats on three or four tree trunks
that have been freshly felled. According to Barchou, who is present at
the negotiations, the Englishman, in his quality as mediator and friend
of the Dey, speaks ‘of Hussein’s haughty, fearless character, which can
drive him to extremes’.
So the interchange begins: De Bourmont dictates the precise terms
of the capitulation demanded by the French: their troops must have
access to the city ‘unconditionally’, including the Kasbah and all
strongholds; the Dey and the janizaries must leave the country, but
their personal possessions will be guaranteed; the inhabitants will be
permitted to practise their religion and all property and womenfolk will
be respected.
‘The terms of this agreement were dictated by the GOC to General
40
Desprez and Deumier, the senior administrative officer of the
Quartermaster General’s staff. It was decreed that the Dey should put
his seal to the accord as a sign of his approval and that the exchange of
documents should take place in the course of the evening,’ so another
ADC, E. d’Ault-Dumesnil, reports two years later.
It is approximately two o’clock on this Sunday afternoon in summer.
In the west of the city the first groups of refugees are already leaving
Algiers, making for Bab el-Oued.
So the dialogue is opened with the two Moors, Bouderba and
Hamdane: after some verbal exchanges, the text drafted during the
conference to arrange the abdication is now finalized. But the words
prove an obstacle, I mean the French words.
An hour later, Dey Hussein sends back the document: he does not
understand what underlies the expression ‘to surrender unconditionally’
used by the aristocratic De Bourmont and recorded in the draft
made by his ADC.
It is suggested that an interpreter go to explain the text to the Dey,
and thereby vouch for the integrity of the French. An old man by name
of Brasewitz is designated – the identical person whom Bonaparte had
sent to Murad Bey in Egypt. Thus Brasewitz was the first to enter the
city.
We have both his written account (a letter to the minister Polignac)
and a verbal report (as told to J.T. Merle a few days later) of his
experiences during this hazardous expedition. On the afternoon of this
fourth day of July, he follows the Turkish secretary through the New
Gate into the city: he is the object of threats all along his path from the
inhabitants of Algiers who wish to continue the fight. And now they see
the symbol of their forthcoming enslavement riding through the street
before their eyes.
Finally he comes face to face with the Dey who is seated on his
divan, surrounded by his dignitaries. Brasewitz turns his back on the
assembled janizaries. As he translates each of the clauses aloud, there
is mounting anger behind him. The young officers oppose any terms of
surrender, preferring certain death. ‘Death! Death!’ they shout …
More than once the interpreter believes himself in danger. Having
explained the details of the accord (which must be signed before ten
the following morning), he drinks the lemonade which the Dey
has first tasted, observant to the last of the rules of etiquette, even
41
on the eve of his humiliation. Brasewitz then departs, unharmed.
But j.T. Merle, who meets the interpreter on 7 or 8 July, adds that
he contracts a nervous illness from the risks he has run and because of
his advanced age, and dies a few days later. As if the explanation of this
arbitrary expression ‘surrender unconditionally’, which the French
general had used unthinkingly, was destined to claim at least one
victim: the bearer himself of the communication!
It seemed that Brasewitz had to pay with his own life for ensuring
that this expression is correctly translated into the enemy’s language (I
am not sure whether this was the Turkish of the unseated Ottoman
rule or the Arabic of the Moorish city).
For the moment, he is on his way back at nightfall to the French
stations, his mission accomplished. The Dey signs his letter of
abdication the next morning.
Algiers prepares to live through her last night as a free city.
Others will tell of these last moments: a bach-kateb, general secretary to
the Bey Ahmed of Constantine (who continues for another twenty
years or so to regroup the insurgents in the East) writes his account in
Arabic. A German prisoner, who is freed the next day, describes this
same night in his own language; two prisoners, who had escaped from
drowning when their ships were wrecked a few months before, give a
report of it in French. To these, we must add the British Consul who
makes a note in his diary of this turning-point in history . . . I, for my
part, am thinking of those who sleep through this night in the city …
Who will sing in days to come of the death throes of their liberty? What
poet, in whose breast hope springs eternal, will see the promised port
after drifting in stormy seas? …
Many decades later, the Mufti Hajj Ahmed Effendi describes his
fellow citizens’ revolt with great wealth of words:
‘For myself, not being able to bring myself to a final decision, I
assembled the pious Muslims … I made them pledge to follow me
against the enemy. And so, in point of fact, they did penance and after
having said their last farewells to one and all, they set off behind me,
chanting “Tckbir!” as they marched. At this same moment the women
rushed out in our path, hurling their children at our feet, and crying,
“It will be well if you arc victorious, but if you arc not, know that the
Infidels will come to dishonour us! Go then, but before you leave, put
us to the sword!” ‘
42
If the scene is overburdened with lofty language, it does at least
suggest the chaos of this transitional stage. Thousands of refugees clog
the road to Constantine in the exodus. Others rush down to the shore
by the light of the summer moon and fling themselves into the boats
which take them to Cape-Matifou. Whole families, loaded with their
bundles. I imagine there arc more humble folk leaving than the
well-to-do or merchants. Which worthies will remain, hoping to save
their fortunes and their homes? Which citizens will prefer to pack up
their last remaining effects, their few jewels, and lifting their children
and womenfolk on to mules, hasten to catch up with the Bey of
Constantine’s army or that of the Bey of Tittcri, returning to the
Mitidja plain?
The city loses in one night nearly two thirds of its population. Two
thousand five hundred of the soldiers who reject the abdication,
considering it dishonourable, regroup around the Bey Ahmed, who is
still bearing arms.
When the Mufti, Ahmed Effendi, receives an assurance from the
Dey that the French have promised not to enter any mosques and to
respect the lives of civilians, he is able to calm the people’s agitation.
‘The entire population,’ he writes, ‘men and women, thronged
around the threshold of my house, with the heart-rending cry: “Since
we must perish, it is better to perish before the door of an a/im!” ‘
The victorious army prepares the scene for the following day’s events:
De Bourmont orchestrates the triumphal entry for 5 July – the artillery
and the sappers will have the honour of heading the procession. He is
anxious for the Sixth Regiment to precede him into the city with its
drummers.
Certain appointments must be made to come into force simultaneously
with the occupation of the Capital: the Chief of Police, the
Head of the Navy, the men in charge of the finances … A place is
designated to be occupied by each of the divisions commanded
respectively by the three major-generals.
The French enter the city the next morning, two hours later than
scheduled, but to the sound of the drums of the Sixth Regiment as
arranged. Hussein waits in the Kasbah, concerned to preserve his
dignity to the last, and only two hours after their arrival docs he deign
to receive Colonel Bartillat who is in command of the first contingent.
Bartillat is also to publish his description of the scene. Through his
43
eyes we sec the first courtyard of the palace with its lemon tree, the
same lemonade offered as a sign of hospitality. Then the Dey and his
suite disappear, while a Turkish official stands stoically in the palace
entrance, awaiting the arrival of the French general.
This Turk is the l.:hasnaji – the J\linistcr of Finance. It is he who was
in charge of Fort Emperor’s resistance the day before. He carries out
the transfer of duties according to protocol, in the presence of De
Bourmont and his staff: he accompanies the French to the Algerian
State Treasury. This is the very heart of the spoils: an accumulation of
gold sufficient to repay all the expenses of the gigantic expedition, and
also help to enrich the French treasury and even line some individual
purses.
Thirty-seven witnesses, possibly more, will relate the events of this
month of July 1 830, some fresh from their experiences, some shortly
afterwards. Thirty-seven descriptions will be published, of which only
three arc from the viewpoint of the besieged: the account by the Mufti,
the future Governor of Anatolia; that by Bey Ahmed’s secretary who
will stay on under colonial rule; the third being that of the German
prisoner.
If we exclude the British Consul’s diary from all this mass of
literature (and he is the only one in a genuinely neutral position –
however his diplomatic status delays the publication of his testimony),
if we eliminate the account given by an Austrian prince who came as an
observer to De Bourmont, there still remain thirty-two chronicles in
French of this first act of the occupation drama.
The senior officers in particular arc infected by a veritable
scribblomania. They start to publish their memoirs the following year;
the chief of general staff is the first, followed shortly afterwards by
others. By 1 835 or thereabouts, nineteen army officers, with four or
five from the navy, have contributed to this literary output. After the
‘principals’, the ‘extras’ arc infected by this same haste to rush into
print: a priest serving as army chaplain, three doctors including one
senior surgeon and one assistant medical officer! Even down to the
artist Gudin (who composes his memoirs much later), not forgetting
our publicist j.T. Merle, Alfred de Vigny’s rival in love.
Such an itch to put pen to paper reminds me of the letter-writing
mania which afflicted the cloistered girls of my childhood: sending
those endless epistles out into the unknown brought them a breath of
44
fresh air and a temporary escape from their confinement …
But what is the significance behind the urge of so many fighting men
to relive in print this month of July 1 830? Did their writings allow them
to savour the seducer’s triumph, the rapist’s intoxication? These texts
arc distributed in the Paris of Louis-Philippe, far from Algerian soil,
where the capitulation has fairly quickly legitimized all manner of
cll:propriations: physical and symbolic usurpations! Their words
thrown up by such a cataclysm arc for me like a comet’s tail, flashing
across the sky and leaving it forever riven.
For this conquest is no longer seen as the discovery of a strange new
world, not even as a new crusade by a West aspiring to relive its past as
if it were an opera. The invasion has become an enterprise of rapine:
after the army come the merchants and soon their employees arc hard
at work; their machinery for liquidation and execution is already in
place.
And words themselves become a decoration, flaunted by officers like
the carnations they wear in thctr buttonholes; words will become their
mtmCifcctivc wc.;po��H;dcs of intt;:p-;.ctcrs, geographers, ethnographers,
linguists, botanists, diverse scholars and professional scribblers
will swoop down on this new prey. The supcrcroga!Q.cyl protuberances of theif___Qubiications will form a pyramid to hide the
initial violence from view.
!he girls who were my friends and accomplices during my village
holidays wrote in the same futile, cryptic language because they were
confined, because they were prisoners; they mark their marasmus with
their own identity in an attempt to rise above their pathetic plight. The
accounts of this past invasion reveal a contrario an identical nature:
invaders who imagine they arc taking the Impregnable City, but wh_o_
wander aimlessly in the undergrowth of their own disquiet. )
45
Deletion
The conquest of the Unconquerable … Faint images flake off from the rock of
Time. The flickering flames of successive fires flmn letters of French words,
curiously elongated or expanded, against cave walls, tattooing vanished faces
with a lurid mottling …
And fl” a fluting moment I glimpse the mirror-image of the flmign
inscription, reflected in Arabic letters, writ from right to left in the mirror of
suffering; then the letters fade into pictures of the mountainous Hoggar in
prehistoric times …
To read this writing, I must lean over backwards, plunge my face into the
shadows, closely examine the vaulted roof of rock or chalk, lend an ear to the
whispers that rise up from time out of mind, study this geolo?J• stained red
with blood. Ulhat magma of sounds lies rotting there? Ulhat stench of
putrefaction seeps out? I grope about, my sense of smell aroused, my ears alert,
in this rising tide of ancient pain. Alone, stripped bare, unveiled, I face these
images of darkness …
How are the sounds of the past to be met as they emerge from the well of
bygone centuries? … Ulhat love must still be sought, what future be planned,
despite the call of the dead? And my body reverberates rvith sounds from the
endless landslide of generations of my lineage.
46
PART TWO
THE CRIES OF THE FANTASIA
I m)’self had to lead an expedition into the mountainous
region of Bejaia, where the Berber tribes had been
refusing to paJ• taxes ji1r some _)’ears . . . After I had
penetrated into their country and overcome their
resistance, I took hostages to elzsure their obedience …
Ibn Khaldun
Ta ‘rif- (A utobiographJ�
Captain Bosquet Leaves Oran
to Take Part in a Razzia
Oran, October 1 840: the war against the Amir was resumed the
previous year, since when the French garrison has remained on the
defensive.
The fortified position between the two camps of Misserghin and Le
Figuier is controlled for a distance of two to three leagues, covering an
area containing a few gardens for the canteen-keepers and a couple of
wretched taverns, just enough to support the outposts isolated in the
midst of a deserted countryside and offer some distraction for the
troops. To the east, near the seashore, stretches the farm belonging to
the sole French settler, one Dandrieu who arrived during the truce of
1 837. To the west, begins the territory of the Doua”ir and Smela tribes
who are allies of France – as they were of the previous Turkish rulers,
for whom they served as police and tax-collectors.
The rest of the country forms a vast plain, overrun by factions
recognizing the authority of Abd ai-Qadir, who has just made one
more appeal for a sacred union against the occupying army. The final
phase of the war is beginning: it will last a further eight years.
From time to time closely escorted French convoys pass along the
roads to Tlemcen, Mostaganem, Azru. No European would venture
off the roads into the footpaths in the vicinity.
In the spring of that year Franco-Algerian hostilities had flared up
again in the interior: the Atlas tribesmen had a firm grip on the region
from Cherchel to Blida and Midia, which Field-Marshal Valce,
accompanied by the royal princes, the Dukes of Orleans and Aumale,
was doing his best to contain. These tribesmen had brought thousands
of auxiliaries to supplement Abd ai-Qadir’s regular troops and those of
his lieutenants. Valee thought he was simply organizing a route march;
in fact he had to wage war again in the Chiffa gorges; then he returned
49
to Algiers, continuing to send off an endless stream of despatches and
pompously worded communiques on the situation. The Mitidja plain
was freed of insurgents but the unrest persisted.
On 20 August Lamoricicrc, a young general of only thirty-three,
formerly in command of the Zouaves, is appointed to command Oran
in the west. He chafes at the bit for two whole months: how is he to
pass as quickly as possible from the defensive to the offensive? Has not
Bou Hamcdi, the Amir’s lieutenant, just attacked the Doua”irs on their
own territory? By so doing is he not preventing the French from
replenishing their supplies?
Lamoricicrc, whom the Arabs call ‘The-man-with-the-fez’, makes
full usc of Daumas’s intelligence service and Martimprcy’s maps and
land surveys; for some weeks this information has been based on
reconnoitres carried out by the spies of Mustapha ben Ismacl, the
Chief of the Douairs.
There arc indications that the Gharabas and Bcni Ali tribes arc on
the move beyond Tlelat, a wadi that flows into the vast salt lake south
of Oran. Their chiefs arc known to be die-hard supporters of the
Amir. Twelve leagues – some forty miles – separates the limit of their
positions from the first French stations: the distance seems too great
for a possible attack …
Nevertheless, Lamoricicrc is tempted: if he could succeed in seizing
the wealthy enemies’ flocks and possibly even their silos, it would
improve the atmosphere in the garrison and lift the troops’ morale.
Moreover, such a victory would ensure a not inconsiderable benefit,
the replenishment of supplies for the winter.
The young general frets and fumes impatiently but Oran is riddled
with spies. The operation, the first foray to leave Oran since the
resumption of hostilities, must be prepared in the utmost secrecy, but
it seems difficult to deceive the enemy scouts. Nevertheless the attack
is fixed for 20 October.
Two men will chronicle this expedition: Captain Bosquct, whom
Lamoricicrc has sent for from Algiers to become his ADC, and
Captain Montagnac, whom the defeat at Sidi Brahim, five years later,
will transform into a martyr. The latter’s regiment had recently sailed
from Chcrchcl and landed at Oran on the 1 4th of this same month.
The two officers, unbeknown to each other, correspond with their
respective families, and thereby allow us to accompany them as
50
eye-witnesses and actors in this operation. We relive the military
advances of this autumn of 1 840 in the letters received by the future
Field-Marshal Bosquet’s mother (he is to be a hero of the Crimean
War twenty years later) and the epistles addressed to Montagnac’s
uncle or sister. The posthumous publication of these documents
ensures the continuing reputation of their authors as they describe the
ballet of the conquest of our territory.
What territory? That evoked by our seething memory? What ghosts
rise up behind these officers, as they resume their correspondence
every evening after they have removed their boots and tossed them into
the barrack-room?
At noon on 21 October, the order is given to the infantry, Yusufs
Spahis and the cavalry of Mustapha ben Ismael, the Kulugli, to
assemble at the Figuier camp, on the road leading south-east. At six in
the evening the general and his staff review the astonished officers and
men: two thousand five hundred infantrymen, seven hundred cavalry,
in addition to an equal number of native cavalrymen (three hundred
Spahis and as many Doualrs) as well as two companies of sappers and
six howitzers.
Despite Mustapha ben Ismael’s scepticism, Lamoriciere gives the
order to set off: these troops, who have only recently landed and so are
unfamiliar with the terrain, have to cover at least thirty miles by night
to be able to take the enemy by surprise at dawn.
The convoy of mules moves off, laden with baggage and litters for
bringing back the wounded. The infantry marches on either side of
them. Over the last few months they have been issued with lighter
equipment in preparation for the new tactics founded on rapid attack,
like those of the natives.
The company makes good speed from the Tlelat wadi to the vantage
point selected, a ravine just before the region of Makedra. The cavalry
covers the men on the left, without overtaking the van of the silent
column. Mustapha ben Ismael’s scouts regularly go ahead to verify that
beacons are not being lit on the neighbouring hills to warn the
Gharabas and Ouled Ali tribesmen. These scouts – bandits and, for
the most part, horse-thieves – arc known as Sahab ez-Zerda or
‘booty-sharers’ since they receive a large proportion of the booty in
return for their information which is worth its weight in gold.
On arrival at the Makedra ravine, three ‘booty-sharers’ go ahead. An
51
hour later they have not reappeared. Bosquct, who rides up and down
between the head and the rear of the column, to sec that there arc no
stragglers, guesses the general’s anxiety. Have their spies been
surprised and killed? A fourth Doualr scout, the Aga Mustapha’s
deputy, disappears into the night.
The march slow:> down; the cavalry falls back to the rear. Finally the
Doua·ir returns on his steaming horse, a white patch in the darkness
that is slowly growing lighter.
‘The Gharabas arc there,’ he reports. ‘The alarm has not been
given! They have not struck camp. They arc all asleep in their tents!’
Hurried whispers arc exchanged around the Aga and the general.
The latter gives his final orders. They arc only two hours’ march from
their destination and with dawn still to break, the effect of surprise is
assured. The razzia promises to be profitable: they have hopes of
abductions, pillage, and perhaps even a massacre – as the enemy will
be half-asleep they will be unable to fight. ‘The night is ours,’ muses
one or other of these captains … Bosquct notes the colours of the
sunnsc.
At a signal from Lamoricicrc the cavalry gallops ahead: the chasseurs
in their black tunics arc massed together in the middle; on their right
the Aga Mustapha leads the goum of Doualrs who ride with standards
flying. This sturdy, thick-set septuagenarian stands up in his gold
stirrups, his white beard streaming before him, bursting with eagerness
to do battle that belies his years.
‘Etlag ei-Goum! Forward!’ he shouts, in a voice that is almost boyish.
‘There were jeers and bloodthirsty yells, promising death to the
victims they were about to despoil,’ Bosquct relates, with admiration
for the momentum with which this Fantasia is launched. On the left,
the scarlet-uniformed Spahis, led by the ‘renegade’ Yusuf, reach the
summit of the crest. In the dawn light they arc silhouetted ‘like some
sinister, supernatural horde’ …
A couple of miles further on, a vast circle of tents comes into view;
the finest, of white embroidered wool, arc situated in the middle. Old
Mustapha gallops forward to lead the attack, quivering with impatience
to surprise his enemy Ben Yacoub, the Aga of the Gharabas: but in
vain. As dawn breaks over a scene of pandemonium in the camp, the
attackers find only women, half-naked warriors who leap on their
unsaddled horses and youngsters who, yataghan in hand, arc killed
defending their mothers and sisters. Ben Yacoub had left the previous
52
day with the bulk of his contingent to join the Amir in Mascara.
Bodies arc piled up in inextricable heaps; they lie crumpled in pools
of blood; they collapse among torn, bloodstained hangings. I hear the
echo of muffled groans, more poignant than lamentations, yells of
triumph or shrieks of terror. Tongues of flame lick at half-open chests,
spilling jewels and copper ornaments among the corpses of the first
victims. Women fall fainting. Yussufs Spahis join in the looting that
begins before the fighting has even ended.
The chasseurs, for their part, lay about unremittingly with their
swords, cutting a diagonal swathe through this immense horde which
scatters in confusion. The panic now reaches the flocks illumined by
the flickering light of torches planted in the ground and the luminous
cloud of smoke from the conflagration: the bleating of sheep rises up
from the fold like a rumble of thunder from the still dark horizon.
When the chasseurs reach the second encampment two leagues
further on, they find that all the Oulcd Ali warriors have disappeared,
together with the notables’ women-folk. The only living creatures arc
the flocks which they bring back in droves to the middle of the valley.
The Douai’rs and the Spahis now arrive and poke about under these
abandoned tents, finding only negligible booty.
Rumours circulate. Lamoricierc’s officers order the troops to fall in:
witnesses speak of one of the Douai’r scouts who is reported to have
ridden through the camp with the Aga’s wife on his horse. He is said to
have let her escape, probably in exchange for the jewels she was
wearing; he will certainly never be seen again.
Without a word, Lamoricicrc is led to the most magnificent of the
tents: a fifteen-year-old youth is lying on his back, his face turned
towards the ground with his eyes wide open; there is a gaping wound in
his chest and rigor mortis has already set in.
‘He defended his sister against five soldiers!’ a voice at the back
explains.
Yusuf rides up to the general, his triumphant shadow lengthening
before him. Women prisoners crouch on piles of velvet; they wait in
outward calm. The oldest one, with uncovered face, stares haughtily at
the watching Frenchmen. Bosquct guesses that at the slightest word
from them she is prepared to hurl insults. He examines the silent
women as he draws ncar to his commanding officer.
‘One is the Aga’s daughter, the others arc two daughters-in-law and
some of his relatives!’ explains Daumas, who must have questioned the
53
serving-women who arc standing round in the background.
‘The girl’s a real hcaut:y! She refused to weep for her brother, she’s
proud of him!’ an admiring voice whispers in Bosquct’s car.
Lamoricicrc curtly asks why some women have nevertheless been
slain a little distance away.
‘Seven in all were executed by our soldiers,’ someone explains.
‘They greeted us with insults!’
‘They shouted, ” Dogs! Sons of dogs!” the termagents!’ exclaims
one of the Spahis, at Yusufs side. The latter maintains a calm silence,
betraying a hint of irony in the face of Lamoriciere’s scruples. For they
are all aware that their general is a follower of Saint-Simon and his
strict ideals of social justice.
Holding his cane in his trembling hand, Lamoriciere turns his
mount and rides off tight-faced, followed by his impassive ADC.
Now the only sounds are the murmurs which accompany the
widespread looting. A few fires die down. As the last traces of the night
mists fade, a ragged ribbon of cries drifts upward from the plain. Dawn
claws at the sky, scarring it with pink and mauve striations; then
ephemeral hues and flickering flashes have suddenly vanished. The
soldiers moving about on the plain are silhouetted in the clear clean
light.
‘Our little army is celebrating with feasts,’ Bosquet writes on I
November 1 840. ‘Over the whole town there floats the delicious aroma
of roast lamb and fricasseed chickens … ‘
And he adds, in the same letter, ‘I’ll tell you all about it: there’s a bit
of everything in this razzia; a route march, wise planning, admirable
energy on the part of the infantrymen who marched non-stop in spite
of their fatigue, perfect co-ordination onne of our magnificent
cavalry, and then every possible touch of oetry i the setting which
formed the backcloth to the foray.’
Thirteen days later, back in Oran, Montagnac also writes to his
uncle, ‘This little fray offered a charmin�;
,
__ le. Clouds of
horsemen, light as birds, criss-crossiiig, flitting in every direction, and
from time to time the majestic voice of the cannon rising above the
shouts of triumph and the rifle-shots – all this combined to present a
delightful panorama and an exhilarating scene .. .’
Joseph Bosquet, who normally writes to his mother in Pau, this time
54
addresses his letter to a friend, his ‘dear Gagneur’. His description of
the attack is spiced with reflections, the admiration he feels in
retrospect for Lamoriciere, this inspired leader who has the knack of
infecting his men with his own enthusiasm, and so multiplying their
spirit tenfold and increasing the frenzy of Mustapha ben Ismael’s
‘brigands’.
Finally the wind of conquest rises for our Bearnese author and he
sees himself at the helm … The enemy? For the moment, he does not
mention any enemy – neither the Amir nor any of his celebrated red
horsemen, not one of his dare-devil lieutenants, not one of his
‘fanaticized’ allies. The setting that he sets forth for us emphasizes the
victims’ surprise and terror. The long march hour after weary hour
through changing landscapes, the riders wheeling their horses round
for the dawn raid, this is later fixed for all time in the telling. The
orchestrated attack gaining momentum: animando, accelerando; spurring
on the stampeding horses; trampling the dying under their
hooves; overturned tents bespattered with blood. And Bosquet lingers
musing over the violence of the colours, fascinated by the patterns
traced by the falling bullets; but the intoxication of a war thus seen in
retrospect has lost its quickened tempo.
Our captain indulges in the illusion of a manly sport: to be at one
with insurgent Africa, and how better than in the intoxication of rape
and the murderous razzia? …
Bosquet, like Montagnac, will never marry; no need of a spouse, no
dreams of settling down as long as the joy of battle remains alive,
galvanized by words. To relive, in memory, the quickened pulse in the
face of danger; a bitterness, unsuspected by the women-folk of his
family who dream and wait, clings to the well-turned phrases of his
epistles.
Among these febrile accounts, some passages stand out, a blot on
the rest: for example the description of a woman’s foot that had been
hacked off to appropriate the anklet of gold or silver. Bosquet
mentions this ‘detail’ almost casually. Another example: the description
of the corpses of the seven women (why did they choose to hurl
insults when caught by surprise?) who become, in spite of the author,
scrofulous excrescences on his elegant prose style.
As iflove of warfare and love in wartime gave off a persistent stench,
which our Beamese officer deplores! Might it not be that the barbarity
of the natural scene contaminates these noble attackers? …
55
With the impossibility of confronting the elusive enemy in the
battlefield, the only hold is on mutilated women, the tally of cattle and
sheep, or the glint of looted gold. The only confirmation that the
Other, the Invisible Enemy has got away, slipped through the net and
fled.
But the enemy slips back in the rear. His war is mute, undocumented,
leaving no leisure for writing. The women’s shrill
ululation improvises for the fighting men a threnody of war in some
alien idiom: our chroniclers are haunted by the distant sound of
half-human cries, cacophony of keening, ear-splitting hieroglyphs of a
wild, collective voice. Bosquet muses over the youth killed defending
his sister in the luxurious tent; he recalls the anonymous woman whose
foot had been hacked off, ‘cut off for the sake of the kha/khal … ‘
Suddenly as he inserts these words, they prevent the ink of the whole
letter from drying: because of the obscenity of the tom flesh that he
could not suppress in his description.
Does the writer of the war in Africa – like Caesar in former times,
the elegance of whose style anaesthetized one a posteriori to his
brutality as a general – does he aspire by this means to repopulate a
deserted theatre?
The woman prisoners can be neither audience nor actors in the
pseudo-triumph. \Vhat is more serious, they refuse even to look. The
Count of Castellane – who had taken part in similar cavalcades and
now writes for the Revue des Deux Mondes in Paris – notes
contemptuously: t�es�_
A_!gerian women smear their faces with mud
and excrement when they are paraded in front of the conqueror. 1bf_
elegant chronicler is not mistaken: this is not merely to protect
themselves from the enemy,but also from the Christian, who is not
just the conqueror, but also alien and taboo! They use the onl�k at
their disposal; they would use theirown oloo�eed arose …
1 Even when the native seems submissive, he is not vanquished. Does
not raise his eyes to gaze on his vanquisher. Does not ‘recognize’ him.
Does not name him. What is a victory if it is not named?
I’ A./’-‘��A A> Words protect. Words -erect a pedestal in readmesS’ tor the triumph
that lies in store for every Rome.
This correspondence, despatched from day to day from the encampments,
offers an analogy with love-letters: the recipient suddenly
becomes the excuse for taking a good clear look at oneself in the muted
56
light of one’s own emotions … War and love lcaYc similar impressions:
the hesitant courtship dance before the image of the one who
takes flight. And this flight gives rise to fear: and one writes to suppress
this fear.
The letters of these forgotten captains who write about worries over
problems of supplies and prospects of promotion and who sometimes
reveal their personal philosophies – between the lines these letters
spc�gcria as a woman whom it is impossible to tame. A tamed
Algeria is a pipe-dream; CVCI)’ battle drives further and further away
the time when the insurgency will burn itself out.
It is as if these parading warriors, around whom cries rise up which
the elegance of their style cannot diminish, arc mourning their
unrequited love for my Algeria. I should first and foremost be moved
byt�c or suffering of the anonymous victims, which their writings
resurrect; but I am strangely haunted by the agitation of the killers, by
their obsessional unease.
Their words, lodged in volumes now gathering dust on library
shelves, present the warp and woof of a ‘monstrous’ reality, that is
made manifest in all its unambiguous detail. This alien world, which
they penetrated as they would a woman, this world sent up a cry that
did not cease for two score years or more after the capture of the
Impregnable City … And these modern officers, these noble horsemen,
riding with their powerful arms at the head of their motley corps
of infantry, these new crusaders of the colonial era, overwhelmed by
such a clamour of voices, wallow in the depths of concentrated sound.
Penetrated and deflowered; Africa is taken, in spite of the protesting
cries that she cannot stifle.
Useless to go back to the death of Saint Louis outside Tunis, or to
Charles V’s defeat at Algiers, for which reparation is now made; no
need to invoke the ancestors united by Crusades and Jihads … When
the French women glance through the letters from their victorious
correspondents, they join their hands as if in prayer; and this devotion
from their families c�lo-round -the_scducers_in_the-.act-ofrlvishing
the op}’�site Mediterranean shore.
57
I
First love-letters, written in my teens. The journal of my cloistered
day-dreams. I thought these pages told of love, since their recipient
was a secret lover; but they spelled out danger.
I tell of time that passes, the summer heat in the closed apartment,
siestas which offer me an escape. The silence of my solitary
confinement feeds this monologue which is disguised as a forbidden
conversation. I write to get a grip on these beleaguered days … These
summer months spent as a prisoner do not prompt me to rebel. I feel
this time spent behind closed doors is simply a holiday interlude. Soon
the new school year will begin ami lessons will bring the promise of a
quasi-freedom.
Meanwhile my epistles written in French fly far away in an attempt
to widen the boundaries of my confinement. These so-called
‘love-letters’ – though this belies their nature – arc like the slats of
blinds through which the sun’s glare is filtered.
Ripple of words, sweet words that the hand sets down, that the voice
would whisper against the wrought-iron bars. What longings can be
admitted to this distant friend, with such apparent freedom, simply
because we arc so far apart? …
My words betray no inner turmoil. More than twenty years later I
realize that the letters do not so much express love as disguise it, and it
is as ifl were glad of the constraint: for the father’s shadow looms. The
half-emancipated girl imagines she is calling on his presence to bear
witness: ‘You sec, I’m writing, and there’s no harm in it, no
impropriety! It’s simply a way of saying I exist, pulsating with life! Is
not writing a way of telling what “I” am?’
I read the young man’s replies in an alcove or on a terrace; but
always with pounding heart and hands trembling with excitement. The
sensation of transgressing washes over me like vertigo. I feel my body
58
instinctively poised ready to run away, yielding to the slightest call. The
message from ‘The Other’ is sometimes pregnant with desire, but has
lost any power of contamination by the time it reaches me. Once
passion has been expressed in writing, it cannot touch me.
One day when I was about eighteen and had long since ceased
attending the Quranic school, I received a letter containing the text of
a long poem by Amr EI-Qais. The sender insisted that I learn the
verses off by heart. I deciphered the Arabic script; I made an effort to
memorize the first few lines of this ‘muallakat’ – what is known as
‘suspended poetry’. Neither the music nor the pre-Islamic poet’s
passion awoke any echo in me. At most the brilliance of the
masterpiece caused me to close my eyes for a second: an abstract
melancholy!
Since then, what intimate outpourings are to be encountered in this
ante-room of my youth? I did not write to lay bare my soul, not even for
any thrill, even less to express my ecstasies; but rather to turn my back
on them in a denial of my body – with an arrogance and · na”ive
sublimation of which I am only now aware.
The fever which assails me finds no outlet in these barren phrases.
My hesitating voice seeks for words to express a latent tenderness. And
I grope with outstretched hands and closed eyes for some possible way
of unveiling … My unseeing secret takes refuge deep in the dark
cavern; it lifts up its voice in song, which will force a way out through
the smallest needle’s eye.
Two or three years later, I receive an impassioned letter from my
lover, during a period of separation. We are quite newly married, I
think. He has written in an agony of suffering, like a sleep-walker; he
recalls, one by one, each aspect of my body.
I read this moonstruck letter once only. I feel a sudden chill come
over me. I can scarcely persuade myself that this document concerns
me; I put it away in my wallet, without re-reading it. Will this
intensified love find an echo in me? The letter bides its time, an
obscure talisman. Desire uttered in excoriating terms, from a distant
place, and without the caressing inflections of the voice.
Suddenly these pages begin to emit a strange power. They start to
act like a mediator: I tell myself that this cluster of strangled cries is
addressed – why not? – to all the other women whom no word has ever
reached. Those of past generations who bequeathed me the places of
59
their confinement, those women who never received a letter: no word
taut with desire, stretched like a bow, no message run through with
supplication. Their only path to freedom was by intoning their
obsessional chants.
The letter that I put away became a first for me: the first expression
of what those anonymous women who preceded me were waiting for
and of which I was the unwitting bearer.
The episode has other repercussions. The period of separation is
prolonged. I go to stay in the Normandy countryside with some
friends. I quarrel with a man whose attentions arc unwelcome; at first I
smile indulgently: he’ll get over his passing fancy, I am unmoved by his
passionate eloquence, I cut short his outpourings, suggesting we go
back to being friends, sharing our reading, exploring this new
countryside together. The only thing I need is friendship from a man
and the possibility of dialogue . . . But when I silence him, in his
impatience he steals into my room while I am out. He admits this soon
afterwards. In my anger I burst out, ‘Let’s put an end to this friendship
since there’s no future in it!’
The stranger sniggers, like a child getting his own back, ‘I went
through your handbag!’
‘So what?’
‘I read a letter, written by the man you’re throwing me over for!’
‘So what?’
My coldness is a pretence: I am upset by the man’s indiscretion. I
grow hard, I withdraw. He adds thoughtfully, ‘What words! I never
imagined he loved you so much!’
‘What business is it of yours?’
Did I really receive those written words? Arc they not now tainted
and debased? … I had kept that letter in my wallet, as if it were a relic
of some lost faith.
During the ensuing weeks I do not re-read it. The peeping-tom’s
eyes have upset me. This man’s fascination with the other man’s
unguarded words, which speak so frankly of my body, makes him a
thief in my eyes; worse, an enemy. Have I not behaved foolishly, been
grievously negligent? I am haunted by a feeling of guilt: could this be
the evil eye? The eye of the peeping-tom? …
A month later, I am in the market of a Moroccan city. A wide-eyed
bcggarwoman has followed me, carrying a sleeping baby whose head
60
lolls on her shoulder. She asks me for money and I give her a coin and
excuse myself. She goes off and soon afterwards I notice that she has
stolen my wallet out of my handbag that I had left open …
I realize immediately she’s taken the letter.
I don’t feel at all distressed; but I begin to wonder vaguely what this
might symbolize: were not these words perhaps intended for her –
words which she will be unable to read? She has become in fact the
very object of that desire expressed in syllables that she cannot
decipher!
A few days later I was caught up in one of those casual street
conversations with another beggarwoman who commented gaily to me,
‘0 sister, you at least know where you will be lunching presently! As
far as I’m concerned, every day’s a new experience!’
She laughed, but there was bitterness in her voice. I thought once
more of the letter which the first stranger had stolen, not without some
justice.
Words of love received, that a stranger’s eyes had sullied. I did not
deserve them, I thought, since I had not kept their secret. Those words
had found their true home. They had fallen into the hands of that
illiterate woman who disappeared. She will have crumpled up the letter
or torn it up and thrown it in the gutter …
So I recall the travels of that love-letter – and its shipwreck. The
memory of the beggarv.·oman is linked unexpectedly to the image of my
father tearing up that first note – oh, such a banal invitation – in front
of me, and my rescuing the fragments from the waste-paper basket and
obstinately piecing the message together in defiance. As if from then
on I would always have to set myself to make good everything that my
father’s hands might destroy …
Every expression of love that would ever be addressed to me would
have to meet my father’s approval. I could assume that he had had his
watchful eye on every letter, even the most innocent, before it reached
me. By keeping up a dialogue with this presence that haunted me, my
writing became an attempt – or a temptation – to set the limits on my
own silence … But the memory surfaces of the harem executioners; I
am reminded that every page written in the dim light will stir up a hue
and cry, leading to the usual cross-examination!
After the episode with the beggarwoman, the author of the letter and
I resumed our so-called ‘conjugal’ life tog.:ther. But with our
61
happiness in each other now made public, our story hastened to its
doom, its death-knell rung hy the intruder who first cast eyes on the
intimate wording of the letter and then hy the beggar who stole it while
her child slept on her shoulder.
To write confronting love. Shedding light on one’s body to help lift the
taboo, to lift the veil … To lift the veil and at the same time keep
secret that which must remain secret, until the lightning flash of
revelation.
The word is a torch; to he held up in front of the wall of separation
or withdrawal … To describe ‘The Other’ ‘s face, to ftx his image; to
continue to believe in his presence, in the miracle he performs. To
reject a photograph, or any other visual image. Armed solely with the
written word, our serious attention can never be distracted.
From now on, anything written becomes a litmus test for the logic of
the silence maintained in the loved one’s presence. When we stand
face to face and modesty prevents our bodies yielding, then the word
seeks all the more to strip us bare. Natural reserve slows down a
gesture or a look, exacerbates the touch of a hand; and if we proudly
insist on unadorned austerity of dress to affirm a deliberate neutrality ­
then our voices are simultaneously stripped of grace notes and utter
only plain, precise, pure words. Point-blank speech offers surrender, a
rash of lilies in a dark alleyway …
As a preliminary to seduction, love-letters do not demand any
outpourings of the heart or soul, but the precision of a look. When
writing, I have but one concern: that I should say enough, or rather
that I should express myself clearly enough. Rejecting all lyricism,
turning my back on high-flown language; every metaphor seems a
wretched ruse, an approximation and a weakness. In former times, my
ancestors, women like myself, spending their evenings sitting on the
terraces open to the sky, amused themselves with riddles or proverbs,
or adding line to line to complete a love quatrain …
And now I too seek out the rich vocabulary of love of my mother
tongue – milk of which I had been previously deprived. In contrast to
the segregation I inherited, words expressing love-in-the-present
become for me like one token swallow heralding summer.
When the adolescent girl addresses her father, her language is coated
with prudishness … Is that why she cannot express any passion on
62
paper? As if the foreign word became a cataract on the eye, avid for
discovery!
Love, if I managed to write it down, would approach a critical point:
there where lies the risk of exhuming buried cries, those of yesterday
and as well as those of a hundred years ago. But my sole ambition in
writing is CQI!Stantly to travel to fresh pastures and rcRienish my water
skins with an inexhaustible silence� – — — –
63
Women, Children, Oxen Dying In Caves
In the spring of 1 845 insurrection begins to flare up again among all
the Berber tribes in the western regions of the hinterland.
The Amir Abd al-Qadir regroups his forces on the Moroccan
frontier. After five years of hot pursuit, his enemies – Lamoricicrc and
Cavaignac to the west, Saint-Arnaud and Yusuf in the centre and
Bugeaud in Algiers – think he has been finally routed. They begin to
hope: could this be the end of the Algerian resistance? On the
contrary, the fuse is being laid for a new explosion.
A new young leader now makes his appearance: Bu Maza, ‘the
Man-with-the-goat’, to whom an aura of prophecy and miraculous
legends clings. Inspired by his preaching the tribes from the mountains
and the plains rise up in answer to his call. War resumes in the region
of the Dahra from Tenes to Mostaganem on the coast, from Miliana to
Orleansville in the interior.
In April, the Sharif Bu Maza scores victories over both the armies
that advanced from Mostaganem and Orleansville respectively. When
they try to surround him in the centre of the massif, he despatches one
of his lieutenants to attack Tenes. Saint-Arnaud no sooner hurries to
save Tenes, than Bu Maza suddenly appears and seems about to
capture Orleansville. Help is urgently summoned to protect this city.
The Sharif then threatens Mostaganem. The Amir himself has never
demonstrated such promptness in attack … Will this new prophet, Bu
Maza, turn out to be merely Abd al-Qadir’s lieutenant or,
surrounded as he is by a hierarchy of disciples, will he set himself
up as an independent leader, owing allegiance to no-onc?
Nothing is certain, except for his style of attack, swift as
lightning.
As he travels through the Dahra, with his banners waving, bands
playing before him, the people acclaim him as ‘the master of the hour’.
64
He takes every opportunity of wreaking ruthless retribution on those
Ca”ids and Agas appointed by the French.
In May, three French armies scour the countryside; they put down
every insurrection, burn the rebels’ villages and property, force tribe
after tribe to beg for mercy. Saint-Arnaud goes one better – as he
boasts in his correspondence: he compels the Bcni-Hindjcs tribesmen
to hand over their rifles. Never, in fifteen years, has anyone achieved
such a result.
Bosquct, promoted head of the Arab bureau in Mostagancm, has an
inventory drawn up. Saint-Arnaud’s seconds in command, Canrobcrt
and Richard, supervise operations; even very ancient weapons arc
recovered, dating from the Andalusian exodus in the sixteenth
century … More and more Irredentists arc taken hostage and stagnate
in the prison in Mostagancm, known as ‘The Storks’ Tower’, as well as
in the Roman reservoirs in Tcncs which have been transformed into
jails.
It is now the beginning of June. Field-Marshal Bugcaud (ennobled
with the title of Duke of I sly in honour of his victory the previous year)
inspects the results of the repression: leaving Miliana with more than
five thousand infantrymen, five hundred cavalry and a thousand
pack-mules, he criss-crosses the Dahra. On 12 June he sails from
Tcncs for Algiers. He leaves his chief of staff, Colonel Pelissier, to
complete the task: the tribes of the interior who have not yet
surrendered must be forced into submission.
Columns set out again from Mostagancm and Orlcansvillc in a
pincer movement; in spite of their co-ordinated efforts, they do not
succeed in surrounding the elusive Sharif. They leave only scorched
earth behind them, hoping to force the rebel leader to quit or dig
himself in.
On I I June, before embarking, Bugeaud sends a written order to
Pelissier, who is advancing towards the Oulcd Riah territory.
Cassaigne, the Colonel’s ADC, is later to remember the exact
wording:
‘If the scoundrels retreat into their caves,’ Bugcaud orders, ‘do what
Cavaignac did to the Sbeah, smoke them out mercilessly, like foxes!’
Pelissier’s army consists of half the Marshal’s strength: four
infantry battalions, including one of foot chasseurs, to which arc
added the cavalry, one artillery section and one Arab goum from
65
the Makhzcn tribe who have thrown in their lot with the French.
During the first four days Pelissier concentrates his action against
the Bcni-Zcroual and Oulcd Kelouf tribes, and rapidly forces them to
surrender. There remain the Oulcd Riah tribesmen from the
highlands, who retreat along the banks of the River Shaliff, so enabling
the French column, two thousand five hundred men strong, to
continue its advance.
On 16 June Pelissier pitches camp at the place known as Oulcd
ei-Amria, where one of the Sharifs lieutenants holds sway. Orchards
and homes arc totally destroyed, houses belonging to the militant
leaders arc razed to the ground and their flocks raided.
The next day the Oulcd Riah on the right bank of the river initiate
negotiations. They might be prepared to surrender. Pelissier makes
known the exact figure of the reparations exacted: the number of
horses and rifles to be handed over.
The Oulcd Riah waver; they deliberate all day, at the end of which
they arc still reluctant to hand m·cr their weapons. The other Oulcd
Riah tribesmen, who have only bound themselves to take part in a few
skirmishes, withdraw to the area in their rear where there arc caves
that arc reckoned to be impossible to storm. These arc situated on an
abutment on the Nacmaria Jebel, in a promontory between two valleys,
at an altitude of over l ,200 feet. Since the time of the Turkish rulers
tribes have taken refuge with their women and children, flocks and
munitions in these subterranean depths which run for more than 600
feet and open out on to almost inaccessible gorges. Their silos permit
them to hold out for long periods and so defy the enemy.
The night of 17 to 18 J unc is far from peaceful. Although Pelissier
has had the orchards cut down around the encampment, native
warriors crawl very close; there arc many nocturnal alarms. The
Orleans clzasseurs arc on the alert and beat off the intruders every time.
At daybreak on 18 J unc, Pelissier decides to make a move: he leaves
part of the camp under the command of Colonel Renaud and
despatches two battalions of infantry up the mountainside without
their knapsacks; they arc accompanied by the cavalry and the Makhzcn
gown, together with one piece of artillery and some mule-litters for
bringing back any wounded.
El-Hajj ci-Kaim’s Arab horsemen caracole in the forefront of this
final march: they cannot resist performing their Fantasia. Is this not
perhaps to disguise their anxiety in the face of these menacing heights
66
which they know to be inhabited? Some of the Arab troops have
deserted during the hours of darkness (may they not have had some
foreboding of the tragedy that is about to ensue?). Pelissier is
determined to act swiftly.
The leader of the Arab goUin remains impassive. These last few days
he has faithfully performed his role as guide, untiringly indicating
every location and property.
‘There are the EI-Frachich caves !’ he cries to Pelissier, who is
accompanied by young Cassaign and Goetz, the interpreter; he points
to an overhanging plateau in the foreground of the barren countryside.
‘If they’ve gone to earth in their caves, we’ll soon be walking over
their heads!’ he adds with a sudden burst of humour.
For Colonel Pelissier the approaching dawn makes a solemn
backdrop, befitting the overture to a drama. The curtain is about to go
up on the tragic action; Fate has decreed that he, as the leader, must
make the first entrance on the stage set out before them in this austere
chalk landscape.
‘Everything fled at my approach,’ he writes in his detailed report.
‘The direction taken by a part of the native population was sufficient
to indicate the site of the caves to which EI-Hajj el-Kaim was
guiding me.’
Pelissier is a master of strategy. After taking part in the Algiers landing
he had published a text-book of military theory based on the
observations he had made there. He then left Algeria, only returning in
1 841, when he is stationed first in Oran. His reputation has preceded
him; now he must live up to it.
As soon as he reaches the El-Kantara plateau overlooking the caves,
Pelissier sends a reconnoitring party of officers to try to find an
entrance opening on to the ravine: the main one is uphill. A howitzer is
set up in front of it. A smaller entrance is discovered lower down. Each
one is placed under the guard of a captain and a few carbineers; the
cavalry is disposed under cover to charge any possible fugitives, the 6th
Light Horse in the van, the Orleans chasseurs close to the colonel.
These manoeuvres are not carried out without difficulty: some of
the Ouled Riah arc posted in the trees and hidden among the rocks
to cover the entrance to the caves or take diversionary action.
Their shots cost the French six wounded, including three
non-commissioned officers; the seventh man to be hit dies
67
instantly: he is one of the Makhzcn horsemen who dismounted
to try to get nearer to the ravine ready to issue the challenge.
Pelissier replies with a few shells. The men on the lookout vanish.
The vice is closing on the refugees. The colonel orders faggots of dry
brushwood and bundles of grass to be rolled down from the
escarpment and set alight outside the upper entrance. But the cave
slopes away inside, so that the task at which the soldiers labour all day
turns out to be ineffectual. As soon as the heat of the burning mass
lessens, the defenders nearest to the entrance open fire, shooting at
random.
By nightfall the besiegers arc joined by those who had been left
behind in the camp … Pelissier’s position may well become critical:
the Oulcd Riah, with cattle and provisions, can hold out for a long
time; the French, on the other hand, have only enough supplies for
three or four days … If the neighbouring tribes, which have already
been subdued, get wind of Pelissier’s increasing impotence, may they
not suddenly resume hostilities? How will they manage to retreat in
this precipitous terrain? Already some of the Arab auxiliaries arc
smiling and whispering among themselves that they must be the
laughing-stock of the Oulcd Riah, who they imagine making
themselves quite at home in the vast interior chambers.
During the night – a bright moonlit night – ‘an Arab carrying a
guerba emerged from an exit which up till then had been hidden from
us by a clump of thuyas; he was wounded as he tried to reach the water
supply … ‘They conclude that the refugees arc short of water.
Pelissier takes heart: on the morning of 19 J unc he opens negotiations
in the hope of reaching a settlement. At the same time he makes it
quite clear that he is prepared to adopt strong measures if that is the
only solution.
Another exit has been discovered: it leads to the cave which opens
on to the lower entrance. So this can be used for another fire. Bigger
fires will be lit in both openings and this time the smoke will penetrate
into the caves.
Pelissier puts more and more men to cutting wood, felling the trees
around about and collecting brushwood and straw, but he still docs not
ignite the fires; he prefers to get the final phase of the negotiations
going.
The refugees seem disposed to surrender: at nine o’clock they send
a first emissary; after they have held a council of notables, a second
68
messenger arrives; a third finally asks for aman. They agree to pay the
reparations demanded and to leave the caves; their only fear is that
they will be taken hostage and kept in the infamous ‘Storks’ Prison’ in
Mostagancm. Pelissier is surprised (coming from the general command
in Algiers, he is unaware of the wretched reputation of these
jails); he promises to sec that this fate docs not befall them; in vain.
The Oulcd Riah arc resolved to pay up to 75,000 francs indemnity but
arc reluctant to trust him on this last score.
Goetz, the interpreter, is sent to translate Pelissier’s message. He
again assures them they will be allowed to go free. The deliberations
last another three hours. The besieged arc unwilling to surrender
unarmed; they insist on the French withdrawing some distance away
from the caves. Pelissier, concerned about his prestige, will not accede
to this condition.
Goetz now delivers the ultimatum: ‘You have just a quarter of an
hour to leave! No man, woman or child will be taken prisoner to
Mostagancm! … In a quarter of an hour, we shall resume the work
that was going on above your heads; then it will be too late!’
In his report, Pelissier stresses the fact that the period of respite was
extended; he emphasizes the shilly-shallying on the part of the
besieged; he writes, ‘I had reached the limit of my forcbcarancc.’
It is one o’clock. Throughout the morning, while the negotiations were
continuing, wood was still being collected. Pelissier also has the
foresight to have platforms erected at the top of the EI-Kantara spur,
so that the brushwood can be thrown down more easily. So the fire is
rekindled and the blaze fed throughout this day and the following
night. To begin with, the fire burns up slowly, as on the previous day;
the inflammable material had been thrown down in the wrong place.
An hour after the resumption of operations, the soldiers hurl the
faggots ‘correctly’. What is more, the wind rises and fans the flames;
almost all the smoke enters the caves.
The men arc happy, they have plenty to occupy themselves with.
They continue to stoke the fire until six o’clock on the morning of 20
June, that is for eighteen hours non-stop. To quote the words of a
French witness:
‘Words cannot describe the violence of the blaze. At the summit of EIKantara
the flames rose to a height of more than two hundred feet and
dense columns of smoke billowed up in front of the entrance to the cave.’
69
In the middle of the night, some explosions were heard coming from
inside the caves, quite distinct explosions. Then nothing. The silence
continued until morning. Then the fire died down.
On his return to Algiers, Dugcaud’s thoughts arc mainly dictated by
political considerations. The resumption of the insurgency is not a bad
thing after all; the ministers in Paris will need him, ‘the saviour’ – had
he not declared the previous year that Abd al-Qadir had definitely
been routed? But several Abd al-Qadirs arc springing up. From every
region they appear, a second one, a third, each one more ‘fanatical’
than the last, certainly more shabby and bedraggled, less and less like
leaders with whom the French authorities can envisage signing
treaties.
‘Smoke them out like foxes!’
That is what Bugcaud had written; Pelissier had obeyed, but when
the scandal breaks in Paris, he docs not divulge the order. He is a true
officer; a model of esprit du corps, with a sense of duty; he respects the
law of silence.
·-gut he gives his account of the incident. ‘I was forced to resume the
collection of brushwood,’ he writes when he methodically composes
his routine report three days later. He describes the operation in detail:
the many stages of the negotiations, the experienced nature of each of
his envoys, the resumption of parleys for the last time, outside the
lower entrance to the caves. He did not just grant them a quarter of an
hour’s respite, he states, but ‘five times a quarter of an hour’ … Those
wily, suspicious, hard-bargaining Muslims didn’t trust a Frenchman’s
word. They preferred to rely on the security of their subterranean
hideout.
The order had been carried out: ‘Every exit was blocked.’ As
Pelissier draws up his report, his words bring back that night of 19
June, lit up by flames two hundred feet high which devour the
cliff-face of Mount Nacmaria.
I, in tum, piece together a picture of that night: ‘a cannibalistic scene’,
writes a certain P. Christian, a doctor who had roved between the
French and Algerian camps during the 1 837 to 1 839 truce. But I
prefer to tum to two eye-witnesses: first, a Spanish officer, fighting
with the French army, and who formed part of the vanguard; he
publishes his account in the Spanish newspaper the Hera/do. The
70
second, an anonymous member of the company, describes the tragedy
in a letter to his family that Dr Christian publishes.
The Spaniard describes the flames – two hundred feet high –
enveloping the El-Kantara promontory. The soldiers, he states, shove
wood into the cave – ‘like into an oven’ – to keep the furnaces stoked
throughout the night. The nameless soldier shares his vision with us,
writing with even more violent emotion:
‘What pen could do justice to this scene? To see, in the middle of
the night, by moonlight, a body of French soldiers, busy keeping that
hellfire alight! To hear the muffled groans of men, women, children,
beasts, and the cracking of burnt rocks as they crumbled, and the
continual gunfire!’
The silence had in fact been broken from time to time by the sound
of shots; Pelissier and his entourage had interpreted these as signs of
internal dissension. But this inferno, which the French army gazes at
in admiration as if it were a living, necrophagous sculpture, cuts off
fifteen hundred people and their cattle. Is this Spanish witness the only
one to put his ear against the rock, and overhear the paroxysms of
death on the march? …
I imagine the details of this nocturnal tableau: 2,500 soldiers
keeping vigil, watching the progress of their victory over the
mountain-dwellers … Some of these spectators no doubt feel avenged
for so many other vigils! Oh, those African nights! The cold, the
landscape congealed by the darkness, the sudden shrill yelp of a jackal!
The invisible enemy never seems to sleep; horse-thieves daub their
bodies with oil and slip into the camp, unhobble the animals, sow
sudden panic, in the course of which sleepers and sentinels of the
same camp kill each other. The alarm is sounded so many times in the
night! In the local language, the alarm is called ‘the lion lashing its tail’
– and in this way the natives admit their fear of the royal beast, ‘The
Nameless One’.
The flames are still licking the side of the El-Kantara promontory.
The gunshots are followed by silence; a ripple of sound, then a distant
hammering that eats into the heart of the mountain. The soldiers gaze
upwards, waiting for the mountain to divulge the violent secret hidden
in the rocks.
Nacmaria, on the morning of 20 June, 1 845.
In the light of dawn, an unsteady figure – man or woman – emerges
71
from the last glowing embers of the fire. It totters forward, pauses after
a few steps, then collapses to die in the sun.
Over the next few hours, three or four survivors stagger out to gulp
down a mouthful of fresh air, before they too succumb … During the
whole morning it is impossible to get ncar the caves which arc
surrounded by smoke and a quasi-religious silence. Each man
wonders what drama was enacted behind these chalk cliff-faces which
have been barely blackened by the lingering smoke: ‘The problem,’ the
Spaniard adds in his account, ‘was solved.’
Pelissier orders an emissary to be despatched; according to his
report, ‘he returns with several breathless men who give us some
indication of the extent of the damage’.
These messengers inform Pelissier as to the situation: the
fumigation has wiped out the entire Ouled Riah tribe – I ,500 men,
some of them elderly, women, children, flocks by the hundred and all
their horses …
The day after the fatal outcome, before he enters the caves himself,
Pelissier sends in a detachment of about fifty sappers and an equal
number from the artillery with their equipment, accompanied by two
officers from the Engineers and two from the artillery. The Spanish
officer is one of them.
The carcasses of the animals, already in a state of putrefaction, lay
near the entrance, surrounded by woollen blankets; the refugees’
personal effects and clothing are still smouldering … From there the
men, lanterns in hand, followed a trail of ashes and dust to arrive at the
first cave. ‘An appalling sight,’ writes the Spaniard. ‘All the corpses are
naked, in attitudes which indicated the convulsions they must have
experienced before they expired. Blood was flowing from their
mouths; but the most horrifying sight was that of infants at the breast,
lying amid the remains of dead sheep, sacks of beans etc.’
These ‘spelaeologists’ go from cave to cave. An identical sight awaits
them everywhere. The refugees in these hidden depths have been
totally exterminated. ‘This is a terrible tragedy,’ the Spaniard
concludes, ‘and never at Sagonte or at Numance has more barbaric
courage been displayed!’
Now, in spite of the officers’ efforts, some of the soldiers start
looting there and then: stripping corpses, making off with jewellery,
burnouses, yataghans. Then the reconnaissance party returns to the
colonel who is unwilling to believe the extent of the catastrophe.
72
More soldiers arc despatched – it is now the afternoon of 21 June,
the first day of summer 1 845! Among them is the anonymous writer of
the letter published by P. Christian: ‘I visited the three caves,’ he
begins, ‘and this is what I saw.’ He, too, discovers the carcasses of
oxen, donkeys, sheep, lying in the entrance; their instinct had driven
them in search of the last breath of air that could penetrate from the
outside. Amidst the animals, sometimes even beneath them, lie the
bodies of women and children; some of them had been crushed by the
panic-stricken beasts … The nameless writer lingers particularly over
one detail:
‘I saw a dead man, with one knee on the ground, grasping the horn
of an ox in one hand. In front of him lay a woman with her child in her
arms. It was easy to sec that this man had been asphyxiated, together
with the woman, the child and the ox, while he was struggling to
protect his family from the enraged animal.’
This second witness arrives at the same estimate: more than a
thousand dead, not counting all those who arc heaped one on top of
the other, forming an indistinguishable mass; not counting the infants
at the breast, nearly all of them wrapped in their mothers’ tunics …
Some sixty moribund prisoners creep out of this subterranean tomb.
About two score of them will survive; some of them arc cared for in the
field hospital … Ten of them arc even set free!
Pelissier explains that ‘by a providential chance, the most obdurate
among the Sharifs party succumbed’. Among the survivors arc the
wife, the son and daughter of Ben Nakah, one ofBu Maza’s caliphs for
this region. These are the only prisoners that Pelissier boasts of1
By the afternoon of 21 June 1 845, the smoke over the promontory has
dispersed. I ponder over Pelissier’s next order:
‘Bring them out into the sun! Count them!’
Perhaps, carried away by his determination to sec the matter
through, he may have added roughly, ‘Bring the savages out! Let’s see
them all stark and stiff1 Bring out their rotting corpses! Then we shall
have won, we shall have made an end to it!’ … I can’t say for sure what
the military policy was; this is just a surmise; I am telling the story in
my own way and is it so purposeless to imagine what motives these
butchers had?
What fascinates me most – more even than the progress through the
dark caves, holding lanterns aloft to reveal the asphyxiated victims – is
73
the. moment when they bring out the carcasses and put them on
display:
‘Approximately six hundred arc brought out of the cave,’ the
Spanish officer notes, and he emphasizes the distress of the colonel
and his staff who all seem stunned, in a cold stupor.
Six hundred members of the Ouled Riah tribe, laid out in the fresh
air side by side, without distinction of sex or rank; notables with the
poorest, fatherless orphans, widows, repudiated wives, swaddled babes
at their mothers’ breasts or clinging to their shoulders … Corpses
with smoke-blackened faces sleep, stripped of their jewellery and
burnouses, but even more denuded by the silence which enfolds them.
They will be neither washed nor wrapped in winding-sheet; there will
be no wake held for one day or even for one hour …
The Arabs of El-Kaim’s goum – who three days before had
performed an incongruous Fantasia, all unaware of the tragedy to
which it will be an overture – move warily away: the corpses lined up in
wretched heaps seem to stare at them, to nail them to the
mountainside, and they cannot escape from this curse as long as the
corpses arc not buried.
The main body of the French company has remained at a distance.
Except for the stretcher-bearers and the reconnaissance unit, the
soldiers only glimpse this shambles from far off … The looted objects
circulate, sold among themselves. Then words arc exchanged: those
who have been into the caves describe the tangled mass of corpses
which could not be brought out. These Frenchmen begin to realize
what a scene of carnage, what a necropolis lies beneath their feet …
Did Pelissier himself enter the caves personally? some ask. The
third day of the tragedy is 22 J unc, the day when the colonel makes his
report. He is supposed to have said, as he emerged, ‘It’s horrible!’
Others report that he sighed, ‘It’s terrible!’
Be that as it may, he states, in the prescribed report:
‘These operations, Field-Marshal, arc such as one undertakes when
obliged to do so, but one prays to God that one will never again have to
carry them out!’
So, Pelissier suffers, probably turning to pray to God … The troops
comment on the outcome. On this twenty-second day of June, they
enjoy the tangible results of the operation: numerous neighbouring
tribes, including those members of the Oulcd Riah who had withdrawn
to the other bank of the Shaliff, the Bcni Zcltouns, the Tazgarts,
74
Madiounas and Achachs, all send their delegates. They hand over
their rifles and present the gada horse, the symbol of submission.
Some of the soldiers arc only too happy to forget the six hundred
corpses exposed on the hillside (which the Makhzen loyalists
eventually bury in a communal grave). They boast of their success in
taking these caves which in three hundred years of Turkish
domination had never been captured!
Victory had apparently been won on this hillside. But the next day,
23 June, Nature has her revenge: the stench of death is so strong
(ravens and vultures fly ceaselessly over the ravine, and the soldiers
even sec them carrying off the remains of human corpses!) that
Pelissier gives the order, that same day, to move the camp half a league
further away …
As if the sun, the summer bearing down its incalcsccnt burden, and
all nature join forces to expel the French army.
It is time to depart, the stench is too great. How can one get rid of the
memory? The corpses exposed in the hot sun have been transmuted
into words. Words can travel. The words, for example, of Pelissier’s
verbose report, which arrive in Paris, arc read at a parliamentary
session, unleash a uproar of controversy: insults from the opposition,
cmbarassmcnt on the part of the government, fury of the warmongers,
shame throughout Paris in which the seeds of the 1 848 Revolution arc
germinating …
Lieutenant-Colonel Canrobcrt, when posted to the garrison in this
same Dahra region, will later deliver his judgement:
‘Pelissier made only one mistake: as he had a talent for writing, and
was aware of this, he gave in his report an eloquent and realistic –
much too realistic – description of the Arabs’ suffering … ‘
Let us leave the controversy there: could the outcry in Paris over the
report be nothing more than a political reaction? Thanks to his ‘too
realistic’ description, Pelissier suddenly resurrects, before my eyes,
those Ouled Riah who died in their caves on the night of 19 to 20 J unc
1 845.
The dead woman found lying beneath the body of the man who was
protecting her from the bellowing ox. Because of his remorse, Pelissier
keeps this corpse from drying in the sun, and these Islamic dead,
deprived of the ritual ceremonies, arc preserved from oblivion by the
words of his routine report. A century of silence has frozen them.
75
The asphyxiated vtcttms of the Dahra, that words expose, that
memory disinters. Pelissier’s report, the Spanish officer’s denunciation,
the nameless soldier’s troubled letter, all this writing is engraved
in letters of iron and steel on the precipitous crags of Nacmaria.
Less than two months later, twenty leagues away, it is Colonel
Saint-Arnaud’s turn to smoke out the Sbcah tribe. He blocks up all the
exits and ‘when the job is done’ he makes no effort to bring out a single
one of the rebels. Enter not the caves! Let no man keep the tally! No
auditing. No conclusions.
A confidential report is sent to Bugcaud who this time takes care not
to forward it to Paris. The report will be destroyed in Algiers … In
1913, sixty-eight years later, a respectable academic named Gauthier
looks for it, finds no trace of it, wonders even if Saint-Arnaud had not
made up the whole story in order to have something to boast about.
Might he not have ‘imagined’ this new fumigation, to be Pelissier’s
equal and to score one over him! … No! the researcher finds the
record of this incident in accounts given by the descendants of the
tribe.
Less than two months after Pelissier, Saint-Arnaud well and truly
asphyxiated at least eight hundred Sbcahs. He simply kept silent about
this ruthless triumph. This is death indeed. To be interred in
Saint-Amaud’s caves and never exhumed!
But, even he, this fine man, this prudent man, this man who makes a
success of everything, this man who will be chosen from among all the
leaders of the African campaign to organize the future coup d’etat of 2
December 1 851, the man who in action keeps firm check on his own
words and thereby his fears, even he cannot help writing to his brother:
‘I have all the cxit ically scaled and create a vast cemetery.
The bodies of these will be buried in the earth for ever! …
No-one has been down mto the cave! … I sent a confidential report to
the Field-Marshal, stating everything simply, without any terrible
poetry, nor any imagery.’
Then he concludes emotionally on what is intended to be a poignant
note:
‘Brother, no-onc is more prone to goodness by nature and
disposition than I! … From 8 to 12 August I have been ill, but my
conscience docs not trouble me. I have done my duty as a leader and
tomorrow I shall do the same again, but I have developed a distaste for
Africa!’
76
One of Bu Maza’s lieutenants, EI-Gobbi, also wrote of these events ­
whether in Arabic or French I cannot say, as his account has not been
found. However, twenty years later the contents of this document were
noted by others, who in turn wrote of them.
When Saint-Arnaud has completed his macabre task, he withdraws
to a distance from Ain Mcrian, and stations his army there for some
ten days. The natives dare not make a final attempt to rescue their
entombed compatriots. However, one of Bu Maza’s disciples, who has
a reputation in this region for amorous as well as military exploits, one
‘Aissa bcn Jinn’ (a nickname that can be translated as ‘Jesus, Son of the
Devil’), this same Aissa arrives on the scene and addresses the other
Sbcah tribesmen as follows:
‘Down below, there is a woman much beloved of me! Let us try to
discover whether she is alive or dead!’
At his command the other fractions of the tribe clear the opening.
Some ten or more victims stagger out alive. They had been in the
upper galleries of the caves, ‘which’, Gauthier notes when he inspects
the scene, ‘make up a precipitous vertical maze’.
In the other galleries, where the poisonous gases from the
fumigation had lingered, they walked on corpses, so EI-Gobbi tells us,
‘as on straw litter’. These they left entombed.
On the site of the former Ain Mcrian encampment a settlers’ village
was created, known as ‘Rabclais’. In 1913 Gauthier found a survivor of
the fumigation there, an octogenarian who had been a boy of under ten
at the time, and who had been one of those who had survived because
Aissa the ‘Son of the Devil’ wanted to free ‘a woman he had much
loved’.
And the university professor, carrying out his researches in peaceful
colonial Algeria – where men sleep, work, get rich on the turf fertilized
with corpses – this academic can write when he has finished his
research:
‘There arc few things as distant from current experience as a
fumigation . . . I am aware of my impartiality – I may say my
dispassion – I don’t in fact sec how a spclacologist can be otherwise.’
Nearly one and a half centuries after Pelissier and SaintArnaud,
I am practising a very special kind of spclacology, since
in my descent into those dark caverns my only hand-holds arc
words in the French language – reports, accounts, evidence from
the past. Could my exploration – contrary to E.F. Gauthier’s
77
‘scientific’ activities, be obstructed by a belated ‘partiality’?
I am obsessed by the memories exhumed from this double
necropolis, which spur me on, even if I feel I am opening a register of
the dead, in the region of the forgotten caves, for those who will never
have eyes to read.
Yes, I am moved by an impulse that nags me like an earache: the
impulse to thank Pelissier for his report which unleashed a political
storm in Paris, but which allows me to reach out today to our own dead
and weave a pattern of French words around them. And SaintArnaud,
too, whose letter to his brother, while breaking an agreed
silence, lets me know the site of the cave-sepulchres. And even if it
seems too late to open them now, so long after the ‘Son of the Devil’
sought for the woman he loved, those cinnabar-red words still have the
power to cut like a plough-share into my flesh.
I venture to express my gratitude – however incongruous. Not to the
first fumigator, Cavaignac, who was forced by Republican opposition
to settle matters quietly; and not to Saint-Arnaud, the only real fanatic;
but to Pelissier. After the spectacular, brutal killing carried out in all
na·ivcte, he is overcome with remorse and describes the slaughter he
has organized. I venture to thank him for having faced the corpses, for
having indulged a whim to immortalize them in a description of their
rigid carcasses, their paralysed embraces, their final paroxysms. For
having looked on the enemy otherwise than as a horde of zealots or a
host of ubiquitous shadows.
Pelissier, the barbarian, the military leader subsequently discredited,
is for me the foremost chronicler of the first Algerian War! For
he approaches the victims when they have barely ceased their final
twitches – not of hatred – but of a frenzied death-wish … Pelissier,
butcher-and-recorder, brandishes the torch of death which illuminates
these martyrs. These men, these women, these children, for whom no
mourners could ever officiate (no lacerated faces, no measured
keening) for the mourning women too perished in the same
holocaust … An entire tribe! The survivors, groping their way towards
the shores of dawn, arc not even resurrected; they remain empty
shadows rather, for whom the sole light, even at high noon, is that of
the scalding-house.
Pelissier, composing his report on 22 June 1 845, must have had some
inkling that in writing of the war he is brushing the skirts of death with
78
its need of ceremonial, lighting on the footprints left by the dance of
death . . . The whole countryside, the Dahra mountains, the chalk
cliffs, the valleys with their charred orchartls find their inverted
mirror-image in the funeral caves. The petrified victims arc metamorphosed
into mountains and valleys. The women, lying among the
cattle in their lyrical embraces, reveal their aspirations to be the
sister-spouses of their men who do not surrender.
When Pelissier walks, a silent witness, through these caves which
will be forever inhabited, he must have been guided by a palaeographer’s
instinct: in which strata of the amorphous mass of corpses and
cries would he find victors and vanquished inextricably fused?
After Pelissier emerges from this promiscuous contact with the
fumigated victims clad in their ashy rags, he makes his report which he
intends to compose in official terms. But he is unable to do so; he has
become for all time the sinister, the moving surveyor of these
subterranean medinas, the quasi-fraternal embalmer of this tribe which
would never bend the knee …
Pelissier, speaking on behalf of this long drawn-out agony, on behalf
of fifteen hundred corpses buried beneath El-Kantara, with their
flocks un I bleating at death, hands me his report and I accept
th��st o which I now inscribe the charred passion of my
ancesw>fs-.—-
79
II
I could well have been my brother’s confidante when he first took to
the hills to join the maquis, but he was neither my friend nor ally when
I needed him. I was far away, isolated and absorbed in my own dreams
of romance – dreams that consumed me with an irrational fire – more
incongruous than those fires blazing in the mountains. My brother, not
yet a grown man and ever on the move … Ear cocked in the dark for
those on his trail, shunted from prison to prison – after the feverish
tempo of these odysseys, we met again one day and in a sudden burst
of confidence he let fall a single word, ‘hannoum’.
My brother, with his crooked boyish smile, reminds me –
half-jokingly, to disguise his affection – of the local dialect spoken in
the mountains where we spent our childhood. The expressions of
endearment, the diminutives peculiar to the speech of our tribe –
half-way between the Berber language of the highlands and the Arabic
of the nearby city (the former capital which had fallen into ruins and
then been repopulated by the Andalusian exodus):
‘If a friend uses one word to you, when she’s off her guard … ‘
I wait; he hesitates, then adds softly, ‘She only has to murmur the
word “hannouni”, then you know for sure: “So! she’s from my
region!” ‘
I interrupt him with a laugh, ‘That brings back fond memories! …
For instance, that sweet auntie! .. .’
Changing the subject, recalling the gushing aunts and cousins of the
tribe, the one who fondles the babies, saying over and over again, ‘My
little liver . . . hannouni!’, the old granny who only says it to little boys
because she doesn’t care for girls (they cause too many worries),
who …
How can you translate this hannouni by a word like ‘tender-hearted’
or ‘tendrelou’? Or by ‘my darling’ or ‘my precious heart’. Instead of
80
saying ‘precious heart’, we women prefer the expression ‘my little
liver’, or ‘the apple of my eye’ … This word ‘te11tlre/ou’ seems like the
hidden heart of a fresh lettuce, a sound embedded deep in our
childhood, which flourishes among us and which, so to speak, we
swallow …
W c were walking, I think, in a deserted street of the capital. W c had
run into each other unexpectedly one summer afternoon, and we had
laughed, like two strangers who meet like this and realize they arc both
equally at a loose end. With this only brother – slender, tall, some two
years younger than me – I often adopted a mischievous flirtatious
manner, introducing him as ‘my elder brother’, because his hair was
prematurely greying, despite his youthful figure … This was the only
insight he ever gave me into his private life: one word revealing his
loves. I felt a somewhat bitter-sweet embarrassment.
I turned away. I began to reminisce about the past and the old aunts,
elderly relatives, cousins. This one word could have filled my nights
when I was in love … To the brother who w�s never my ally, to the
friend who never joined me in rri�� This word – a
lotus-blossom opening out in the bright August sunlight, when languid
conversation drifts to a halt, this diminutive, making a gap through
which dammed-up speech can flow again … I could have …
Said that a succession of a thousand nights borne up on the crest of
pleasure, brcasting its nocturnal waters, a thousand times each time,
and on the snow-capped peaks of paroxysm the word of a phantomchildhood
appears – sometimes my lips form it silently, awakening it;
sometimes it is exhumed by a caress along one of my limbs and the
sculpted syllables rise to the surface, I am about to spell it out, just
once, whisper it to be free of it, but I refrain.
Because of the other – what other face faintly suggested or conjured
up will receive this unvoiced word of love?
I desist. Every night. Every tenebrous night through which my body
swims to scale the heights of ecstasy.
So, in a dusty avenue of our capital, my big brother has given me
back this tormented term, fretted with mystery or melancholy. Docs he
breach the dyke? A flash of lightning, in which I glimpse women’s
profiles leaning over his shoulder, lips murmuring, another voice or my
own voice calling. The shadow of a wing, this salt-lake-word.
My brother’s tall figure involuntarily erects the barrier of incest and
conjures up dark thickets of memory, from which only this sound of
81
lips emerges, only a breeze from the scorched hillsides of the past
where I bury myself. Where those who waited are asphyxiated and
their flesh left to rot, while they still waited for love – that might prove
cruel or tender, but love that cried aloud.
82
The Naked Bride of Mazuna
For fifteen years El-Djeza·ir had been in the hands of the infidel. Its
fall had been followed by that of Oran, betrayed by its own Bey. Blida,
too close to the foot of the Atlas, had not been able to hold out against
the enemy attacks and twice its Moorish inhabitants fled before the
French army; Midia, likewise, higher in the massif, where the Amir
had many a time been besieged with his lieutenants and had had to
summon the chiefs of the nearby mountain tribes to his aid. In the
distance, Constantine had twice been attacked and had defended itself
house by house until the Bey Ahmed was finally forced to withdraw to
the Auras mountains to continue his resistance, leaving the ‘City of
Passions’ to fall finally into the hands of frenzied plunderers.
Bone, on the Eastern coast, had long since capitulated; Bougie,
likewise, after many vicissitudes, although the independent Kabyle
chiefs continued to swoop down beneath its ramparts, fighting on, with
their women riding in their midst, deliberately defying death out of
bravado or in the exhilaration of a holy war. On the Western shore,
Mostaganem had surrendered, since the proud city of Tlemsen in the
interior had not been able to hold out, nor Mascara, Abd al-Qadir’s
unruly capital; moreover the Amir himself had just lost his whole
retinue; shortly before this. Cherchel – the ancient city of Caesarea –
had fallen, but when the French entered its ruins they found no-one in
the abandoned city except a madman and a paralytic woman.
There remained the cities and towns high in the massifs, where the
invaders made only a few rapid incursions to reach the plateaux
overlooking the desert and its many oases … They never penetrated
the mountain peaks to the North: Kabylia, long to remain impregnable,
together with the Bahors heights in the extreme East and the Atlas
range itself, whose jagged barrier formed a backcloth to the clashes
83
between the French columns and Ben Allal’s regulars and those of old
Bcrkani.
In the heart of the Dahra mountains, on a northern spur, a secret
city stood in isolation: the venerable city of Mazuna, huddled behind
its ramparts, twenty leagues from Mostagancm and Miliana, not far
from Tcncs, where for the past year settlers had been moving into
wooden hutmcnts, and ncar to Chcrchel, whose inhabitants had
drifted back into bondage. It had once been the headquarters of the
Turkish Bcylik for the West; for fifty years at least it had slumbered in
twilight dust. It had retained its autonomy, like the centres in the
extreme South, preserved from occupation …
Fifteen years had passed since the fall of EI-Djeza·ir.
In the year when Algiers fell, an only daughter was born to the Kulugli
Ca”id of Mazuna, Si Mohamed Ben Kadruma. She was called Badra,
meaning ‘full moon’. For the people of Mazuna, Badra’s beauty – her
green eyes, milky complexion, rounded bosom, her figure, slender as a
young palm tree, her jet-black hair that fell below her waist – all
attested to their city’s past splendour.
Badra’s mother was the daughter of the Khasnaji of the proud city of
Tlemcen from whence she had travelled to wed the Caid with a bridal
retinue whose splendour was inscribed in legend. She had died giving
birth to Badra and shortly afterwards, the Khasnaji had himself been
killed in battle when the Mechouar’s janizaries declared themselves in
opposition to the Amir, and the latter avenged himself by deporting all
Turkish families.
No-one had ever spoken in front of little Badra of her maternal
family’s misfortunes: however, is it not said that fortune will not favour
the child over whose cradle no maternal uncles smile! Nevertheless
Badra had kept her nurse, a half-caste from the West, a freed slave
who had fed the child’s imagination with obscure legends, tales of
magic … She was said to have come from the interior of Morocco; the
Cald’s two wives, both daughters of local chiefs – as good as saying,
peasants – both mistrusted and feared her.
Badra – a princess, isolated in the heart of a city fallen from its
ancient glory. For the last year, the town which still maintains its past
proud inflexible customs, has been seething with scheming and unrest.
The Caid Ben Kadruma, although barely sixty, is ageing. At twenty,
under the Turkish rule – the elders of the city still speak of it – he
84
distinguished himself in the troubles which marked the terrible
uprising against the Bey of Oran. That was well before 1 830! He gave
proof of courage as well as intelligence! … On his way back from
Mazuna to Oran, the Bey had been ambushed in a narrow gorge; he
managed to escape himself, but his entire corps of guards was
massacred by the redoubtable Sbeah and the Outed Jounes tribesmen.
The Bey returned the following spring with twice the number of troops
– of whom the majority, newly converted, spoke neither Turkish nor
Arabic – and carried out merciless reprisals. The young Ca”id, who had
only recently inherited his title, led the delegation which tried to
temper the Ottoman cruelty.
In April 1 845, the Ca”id Ben Kadruma found himself in a similar
situation, heading a delegation of Mazuni notables who greeted a
French column which rode up to the gate of the city – the same gate
that they had refused to open to Abd ai-Qadir two years before, in
spite of his red-uniformed horsemen and artillery. The French had
recently clashed in bitter fighting with the zealots of the Sharif Bu
Maza, the new hero of the mountains, whom the tribesmen were
greeting with joy that boded ill for their enemies. During the day news
had reached Mazuna of a battle that had been fought on the plain of
Ghris: the French had charged, but had lost twenty of their men! The
Sharif had vanished like the wind on his swift charger.
When the French arrived, in a state of exhaustion, the Ca”id
presented himself to their commander, made his speech, followed by
that of his hadri colleague and listened impassively to the threats made
by the Colonel, a certain Saint-Arnaud, who had come from
Miliana …
Without dismounting, red-faced, shrill with anger, Saint-Arnaud
declared that Mazuna would soon be reduced to a heap of ruins
because of the duplicity of its population; he shouted that France was
not deceived; he knew that theft and banditry were the city’s most
flourishing business, or at least the receipt and sale of stolen goods; far
too many flocks of sheep could be heard bleating in the gardens and
these must belong to refugees and rebellious tribes … Throughout
this diatribe, the official in charge of the Arab Bureau, a man named
Richard, whose skull was bandaged due to a wound received in the
recent battle, slowly translated for the dozen notables who stood with
bent heads, draped in their ample robes.
When he had finished, the Ca”id replied curtly, stony-faced, ‘God’s
85
will be done! 1\lazuna is a neutral city, a free city! … It is the only city
to resist the Amir and we did not open our gates to him; we shall hold
out alone against any masters, just as we resist all bandits !’
‘The Sharif was here less than forty-eight hours ago! He recruited
three hundred foot soldiers from among you, and two khojas! We know
this; we’ve got proofs!’ the Colonel angrily retorted, and Richard
impassively translated the vehement words.
‘I have never met him face to face!’ the Ca’id replied in French.
Wrapping his head in a fold of his brown burnous, he stepped back
out of sight among the massed delegation.
Saint-Arnaud’s information was correct, but the Ca’id has spoken
the truth. Bu Maza had simply taken up his position under the
ramparts a few days previously; there he had received his adepts and
his new disciples, but the Ca’id himself never made a move: he would
not even go to meet the Amir, and even less any local chief. ‘A ruse,’
his enemies said; ‘the pride of his Kulugli ancestors,’ his disciples
retorted.
Nevertheless, the Ca’id was feeling his age. The day that SaintArnaud
proffered his insults and threats, a gown encircled the city, led
by Si M’hamed, the Aga of Ouarsenis. As soon as the French left, he
came to pay his respects to Ben Kadruma. He stood on the threshold
and bowed.
The two men faced each other for a moment in silence: the ruler of
the city, in his morning finery, but grim-faced, despite the temporary
peace of mind gained from his attendance at public prayers at the
principal mosque; the Berber with his eagle profile, in his new russet
robe of office, the uniform of his enfeoffment by the French. With
what ulterior motive did this man – well-known to be redoubtable –
come, ostensibly to assure the Ca’id of his friendship?
‘I shall pursue the Sharif without respite,’ he now declared. ‘If he
had not tortured and killed my friend, the Aga Bel Kassem, I might
have believed in his divine mission! The sons of the city and the
neighbouring mountains rush recklessly to join him … Despite his
youth, and his apparent asceticism – of which I have my doubts – for
me he is a trickster and a charlatan!’
‘ How can we detect trickery nowadays?’ replied the Ca’id. ‘Our
liberty has vanished, the days of misery have barely begun!’
The Aga of Ouarsenis abruptly changed the subject; he spoke of his
eldest son.
86
‘After leaving the zaouia of Mazuna, where he was the best student,
he has studied in Tunis and Kairouan!’
He boasted of his knowledge and bravery; lie dreamt of the boy’s
succeeding him in his office. The Cald did not reply. ‘I will never give
him my daughter,’ he thought, sensing what was coming. They bade
each other farewell and the Aga took his leave. That same day his goum
left the ruined, despoiled city which closed its gates upon them.
It was then the middle of April; the spring was spent in skirmishes,
numerous brief clashes, interminable hot pursuits. On market days the
young Sharifs name was on everybody’s lips: they said how handsome
he was; they told of the sign on his brow, of how he was invulnerable to
bullets, they spoke of his fleet charger, of his prophetic words and his
lieutenants; one day, the most prestigious of all these, Aissa ben Djinn,
appeared in person in a market-place.
Badra’s nurse had gone out that day to fetch fresh herbs and phials
of rare perfumes and came back puzzled. She described him to Badra:
‘The “Son of the Devil”, as they call him, serves the beloved Sharifl
He has a scar on his chin, but his bony face, all angles, appears so
handsome: a veritable hero of liberty! In the early days of Islam, Sidi
Ali must have looked like that to Fatima, our beloved Prophet’s
daughter! .. . ‘
‘So what if Aissa ben Djinn was cruel!’ the nurse mused. ‘He was a
poet,’ she added. ‘They say that in every tribe, perhaps even in every
old house in Mazuna, all the beautiful women dream about him. For
he must rejoice the heart of every one in spite of all the dangers, since
he loves love, just as he loves Liberty! .. .’
Badra sat and listened to the nurse describe the hero.
‘If the Sharif,’ she replied, ‘came to ask my father for my hand, such
as I am now, I would reply that I am ready to marry him on the spot!!’
And it befell that very evening that the Cald’s two wives entered the
room with the blue ceramic tiles.
‘Your father bids us tell you .. .’ the first one began, ‘that the Aga of
Ouarsenis, Si M’hamed, has today asked for your hand for his eldest
son!’
‘Your father has given his consent. They will come next Friday for
the fatiha and to take you away the following day!’
Badra was stunned. ‘My poor darling!’ sighed the nurse, taking her
in her arms.
87
It was impossible to tell which of the two women was shedding more
tears on the silken couch perfumed with musk . . . The two
stepmothers left together, their coloured taffeta robes rustling in the
silence.
Thus, early in July, the Aga of Ouarsenis made his triumphant entry
into Mazuna at the head of an imposing escort, followed by carriages
bearing the most beautiful women of his tribe. As the porter opened
the heavy gates to him, he looked down on him from his mount and
offered him his copper cup, saying, ‘I give this to you, so that you will
always remember this day!’
The porter took the carved set/a. So, it was true: Bu Maza had been
put to flight and the Aga had killed many of his disciples and
dispersed the rest; he had even laid hands on his treasure and his
banners.
He dared not bring them here, to this city which he knew to be loud
with admiration for the exploits of the Sharif and his lieutenants. If he
had ventured to show a single one of the stolen banners, the porter
himself would doubtless have spat at him: ‘You are nothing but jackals
while he is a lion, hiding temporarily in his lair!’
‘He gives me the copper cup,’ the Mazuni thinks, ‘to emphasize that
he is henceforward doubly rich: with the spoils from our hero and now
to carry off tomorrow the most beautiful of our daughters in his
retinue!’
The Aga of Ouarsenis rode through the heart of the old city, under
hostile eyes – some of the notables nevertheless nodding their heads in
cautious greeting. The procession of more than one hundred
horsemen paraded along the green edges of the ravine that cut
diagonally through the city. The ride lasted two long hours, while in
the Cald’s home in the West, against a century-old olive grove, the
women’s shrill ululations rose in the air.
The Berber horsemen began their Fantasia in the market-place; it
went on far into the warm summer night. Badra was seated like an idol
in the midst of the guests and the women of the city; her face was
hidden, only her hands and feet were visible beneath her shot-silk
draperies. Prayers, interspersed with blessings, rose up in sheaves,
while the Mulattress, her face bathed in tears, tendered to her mistress
the henna paste, mixed in a cup from Medina.
The city shook with the sound of galloping hooves and volleys of
88
shots; the chorus of women called on the Prophet and local saints to
bless the wedding which was to take place the following day …
Mazuna was living through its last night as a free city and the virgin,
under the gaze of the guests in all their finery, finally let her tears flow.
The bridal procession left Mazuna at the first light of dawn with the
palanquin bearing the bride in the lead, preceded by five or six
horsemen, chosen from among the youngest first cousins of the absent
bridegroom.
Standing in front of her dwelling, the Ca”id Ben Kadruma was the
only one to glimpse Badra’s face. Some claimed later that he spoke to
her of her dead mother and then, in cryptic terms, abruptly asked her
forgiveness.
The hundred or so horsemen who had arrived the preceding day
again paraded with the same haughty air. The carriages bearing the
women-folk related to the Aga were now joined by others in which
were seated the bride’s stepmothers, her two paternal aunts and a
dozen ladies from the city. They were going on to Miliana where, it
was said, a seven-day feast was being prepared.
In the raised palanquin, facing the gilded and painted bride, the
Mulattress sat in a blue gown glittering with sequins, a scarlet silk
kerchief covering her frizzy’ hair. !’\ext to her sat the Aga’s daughter,
not much younger than Badra, scarcely less beautiful.
The Aga Si M’hamed rode at the head of the imposing procession,
never taking his eyes off the palanquin. The next festivities, he
thought, would be for the marriage of his own daughter, perhaps to the
son of his new colleague, the Aga of the Sbeah, Si Mohamed, who had
succeeded Bel Kasscm who had been killed by Bu Maza.
One of the young men in the vanguard suddenly broke rank and
galloped up to the Aga.
‘A group of horsemen in red robes has appeared in the West,
beyond the first valleys!’
‘The red robes of the Spahis!’ exclaimed the Aga.
He reined in his horse, stared in the direction indicated: he could
sec nothing but a distant speck, scarcely moving. He waved his arm,
signalling to the procession to halt. The four horses drawing the
palanquin reared suddenly, so that the attatich pitched over to the left
for a moment … A woman gave a faint scream, but the palanquin
righted itself.
89
‘It’s my friend the Aga Mohamed’s escort!’ Si M’hamed exclaimed
in his stentorian voice. ‘He promised me he would meet us with his
guards and horsemen. He has arrived for the Fantasia! Let us give him
a worthy welcome!’
The horsemen who had ridden ahead gradually returned; the
procession re-formed and awaited orders.
‘Form two rows!’ the Aga commanded.
While the men took up their new positions, with only the guards
around the palanquin retaining their original places, the Aga of
Ouarsenis rode around, smiling, proud of this encounter which
reminded him of the festivities of his youth, perhaps of his own
wedding.
‘They arc approaching!’ someone observed.
A cloud of dust growing ever thicker covered the horizon. As the
dust haze spread, tall figures could be clearly distinguished bending
low over their sturdy mounts, with flecks of scarlet, their unmistakeablc
Spahi capes, swirling behind them in the wind raised as they
raced. Suddenly the regular, staccato thud of galloping hooves was
upon them like the syncopated chugging of some invisible machine …
Only a few of those present, more observant than the rest, were
surprised at the number approaching: twenty, thirty horsemen or
more, a vanguard probably. Shortly afterwards they could identify the
crouching figures more distinctly, making out their bent legs, their
long-barrelled rifles slung across their chests.
‘I can’t descry my colleague!’ the Aga murmured, erect in the midst
of his companions who had come to a halt over a distance of some
hundred yards.
The invisible women watching in the barouches grew agitated.
Since there was talk of an imminent Fantasia, they gave voice in chorus
to one preliminary prolonged cry, an echoing ululation, by way of
prologue to the festivities. Almost simultaneously a rifle shot rang out
in the forest striated with shrieks. Someone shouted that a whole host
was approaching from the rear. The Aga M’hamed, still isolated,
instinctively drew nearer to the palanquin. He was still looking for the
Aga of the Sbeah; even if he could not be distinguished from his
Spahis, he was now within hailing distance of his colleague. Si
M’hamed was suddenly anxious, both for his daughter and his
daughter-in-law.
Shots; an impenetrable dust-screen; flashes of light piercing the
90
haze. A man groaned, then gave vent to a cry of rage: ‘Treachery!
Treachery! ‘
The wave of riders swept down with a dull roar which split tenfold
into piercing howls, then a tremor rippled through the horde like a
field of corn laid low by a storm:
‘Mohamed ben Abdallah!’
‘Mohamed ben Abdallah!’
Light finally dawned on the Aga Si M’hamed: now the carbines
were chattering uninterruptedly and already one man, then a second
man had fallen ncar him under the volley of shots.
‘Treachery! Treachery!’ panic-stricken voices repeated, amid the
hubbub and confusion.
It was, alas, the Sharif Bu Maza, with his men! As they approached,
some of them, laughing wildly, cast off in a dramatic gesture the
Spahis’ cloaks which they had donned as camouflage.
‘They’ve killed my friend, the Aga Mohamed and his guards!’ the
Aga thought. ‘Then they must have stripped off their uniforms to
disguise themselves so as to approach us with impunity. With Bel
Kassem and Mohamed now dead, I am the only one left of the three of
us, and I too shall soon be dead!’
He alone had kept his rifle loaded. All his men had their weapons
loaded with blanks. Around him all was turmoil; in the rear, his men
were in flight. More than a dozen fell at the first encounter; a few
others had time to use their daggers … The Aga himself engaged in a
hand-to-hand struggle with one of the Sharifs men – he recognized
him, by his physique, as a Sbeah from the nearby locality. At the same
time, his mind was filled with conflicting thoughts: to stay near the
palanquin and defend the two girls; to defend himself till the bitter
end, and kill as many as possible of the enemy; he felt no hatred, but he
seemed to be enveloped in a white veil of bewilderment. His first
assailant fell back wounded; then he found himself facing two, three
combined against him. Only their gleaming eyes were visible.
‘How could that devil of a Sharif have managed to return so quickly
and so secretly from fighting against the Flittas?’
These thoughts passed mechanically through his mind while he
defended himself with an agility which he knew in the long run to be
useless … His first wound, in the right side under his armpit, jerked
him upright in the saddle and, for the first time, he caught sight of his
rival clearly outlined on a hilltop, a new scarlet banner held high above
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him. Bu Maza was surveying the joust, like an eagle poised above his
prey.
At the second wound, the Aga knew he would not survive this melee.
Now he was beset by four assailants; one of them stood back to gaze at
the open wound. The Aga killed one, wounded the second who
recoiled but came back to the charge; the third one hesitated.
‘Allah is great!’ Si M’hamed shrieked towards the palanquin. The
black face of the nurse could be seen peeping at this terrible encounter
through a gap in the silken hangings.
The greater part of the goum, now leaderless, were drifting to the
rear. Some of the wounded fled, pursued by A”issa ben Djinn and his
soldiers. Bodies of men and horses were already piling up around the
bleeding Aga, reeling in the saddle.
It would still have been possible for him to leap to the ground and
attempt to escape. The thought did not even cross his mind. ‘My
daughter! My daughter-in-law!’ he kept repeating. As from a great
distance he could hear women’s hysterical screams, interspersed with
men’s shrieks from both sides. The Mulattress was leaning half out of
the gaping hangings of the palanquin moaning, ‘0 Allah! 0 Allah! 0
Sidi Yahia, Sidi Abd al-Qadir!’
As his adversaries closed in on him for the third time, planting a
dagger in his midriff, the Aga felt a chill penetrate him. ‘It is the end!’
he thought without regrets, as drowsiness overcame him and the sky
seemed to shroud him in a vast blue-grey canopy, stretching far into
the distance.
He had the impression that the motionless figure of the Sharif on
the hillside, although still some way off, was quite close by. Bu Maza
was laughing.
The Aga was finally unseated and fell headlong towards the
palanquin with the renewed cry, ‘Allah is great! ‘ The curtains opened
and the Aga’s daughter leapt down on to the victim’s body, screaming
‘My father! My father!’
The girl threw herself on the ground, draped in her green silk
finery, thinking to protect her father in his death-throes: four of the
Sharifs horsemen watched her with fascination. Apart from the rest,
Aissa ben Djinn raised his arm in a grandiloquent gesture.
‘The bride of Mazuna is free!’ he cried in a note of parody.
Having stood long overlooking the field of battle, Bu Maza now
approached, his face expressionless. Before even glancing at the
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women, he softly asked Aissa, ‘How many of these dogs arc dead?’
‘Twenty to thirty of their men arc left lying here. The women arc in
our hands; the rest of the soldiers have fled!’ someone close by replied.
‘That traitor of an Aga fought to the bitter end! He certainly showed
courage!’ declared AYssa, pointing with his foot towards the body.
He made as if to approach the daughter who was clinging to the
corpse, sobbing, her hair in disarray. The Sharif stopped him with a
sign.
‘This one will be for me!’ he was about to say.
Then he looked up: Badra, dazzling in her wedding attire, was
alighting majestically from the palanquin.
Mohamed ben Abdallah, known as Bu Maza, also called ‘Moul
cs-Saa’ or ‘The Master of the Hour’ by the Achaba, Mcdiuna, Bcni
Hadjcs, Sbcah and other equally bellicose tribes of the Dahra, Bu
Maza, the new idol of these mountains, but also the terror of the
citizens of Mazuna, sat erect on his chestnut mount which the Flittas
in the West had presented to him. This proud steed had belonged to
old Mustapha himself, the celebrated chief of the Doua·irs whom
they had ambushed in a narrow defile and killed, two years before.
Bu Maza gazed admiringly at Badra, without admitting that this prey
dazzled him.
She slowly alighted as the velvet hangings of the litter were raised by
the Mulattrcss who stood frozen behind her, her eyes nearly out of
their sockets. Only a little of the colour has drained from Badra’s face;
her diadem is poised on her head-dress of violet shot-silk; her hair in
two braided strands interlaced with silken cords hangs about her bare
neck and falls over the opening of her corsage which is adorned with
two rows of sequins … She calmly takes two, three steps forward,
bringing her close to the corpses : she barely lowers her eyes, the better
to let the Sharif gaze into her face.
Her embroidered mules, her gown of emerald velvet, the gold belt
encircling her high waist, the veil of silvery gauze floating about her
arms and falling down to her knees, every detail of her costume made
her an unreal apparition: the horsemen behind Bu Maza seemed to
hold their breath.
Aissa ben Djinn, on one side, ncar to the Aga’s daughter who still
clung to her father’s body, murmured ironically to himself, ‘After the
hyena, here now is the young lioness!’
His chief, silent, his white cleric’s hand poised on the damascened
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leather pommel, pretended not to hear. A moment passed; a horse
whinnied in the distance; another reared. The men seemed to grow
impatient, but they all remained silent and respectful. Ai’ssa ben Djinn
approached Bu ,\bza and this time said aloud, ‘We’ll bring the two
girls with their servant to your tent presently, my lord!’
The Sharif’s narrow gleaming eyes never left Badra’s silhouette. He
finally half turned his head to his lieutenant. He did not smile. He
simply gave a slight nod of acquiescence.
With one abrupt movement he wheeled his horse and rode ofT to
ascertain the result of the other ambush two leagues away: the soldiers
of the gown, who had fled through the gorges of the wadi, had been
waylaid by Sbeah foot soldiers … Volley after volley of shots had
greeted them. A messenger had just announced that the Aga’s men
had been decimated in this second ambush.
One hour later Bu Maza retired to his tent which had been pitched
for the night.
No-one knew, the next day, if the two virgins had scorned the Sharif
when he came to take his place before them, or if it was he who was
reluctant to use force when faced by his victims – were they repelled or
fascinated by him?
The dead Aga’s daughter, whether out of loathing or vengeance,
kept her father’s dagger in her hand the whole of the day and
throughout the following night. ‘I’ll kill myself, or I’ll kill you!’ she kept
on repeating in her frenzy and did not cease her wild cries even when
Bu Maza made as if to approach. The young leader seemed at a loss
for words: only a slight narrowing of his eyes betrayed what surprise he
might have felt in the face of these females who, despite or because of
his brilliant victory, would not yield.
The servant was ordered to take the daughter, still comulsed with
hate, out of the tent. They spent the rest of the night outside: it was the
beginning of July, a few days after the full moon. A fire of olive
branches warmed them with its bluish flames.
Thus Badra remained alone with the Sharif, on this night which
should have been her wedding night. From time to time a jackal
howled in the nearby valleys. Behind the thuyas a scout started. The
guard was then reinforced. But the torches all remained alight in the
chief’s tent. Clasping the Aga’s sleeping daughter in her arms, the
Mulattress listened. Not a voice, not a sound from nearby! ‘How can a
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man resist the dazzling beauty of my little Badra? .. .’ Mechanically,
she recited fragments from the Quran. ‘Is the Sharif a man?’
At dawn the flap of the white tent was raised. Bu Maza emerged into
the pale early-morning light, but inside the tent the flame of the candle
still cast its pool of light … The Sharif blinked. Before she was aware
of his approach, the Mulattress found him ncar her. He nodded and
withdrew. The servant entered.
Badra looked as if she had not stirred since the preceding evening.
She sat like a statue, her eyes closed, her eyelids still painted blue, fine
beads of perspiration on her brow, in the moist air … ‘The weight of
the diadem,’ thought the servant, falling to her knees.
And only then, overcome with tenderness and emotion, she began to
remove the bejewelled ornaments from the bride’s head, ears and
neck: the a(aba with its pendants, the triangular chengals for the ears,
the numerous bessita necklaces from Fez, the heavy brooches set with
emeralds, the rosy trembleuses of the head-dress. ‘All these jewels,’ she
thought, ‘protected her from the covetousness of all too human desire.
The Sharif- may Allah preserve him – did not deign to touch the gold
to touch the girl, and the girl … ‘
Badra, relieved of the weight on her head and shoulders, huddled in
her nurse’s arms.
‘I am dead!’ she sighed. ‘I am dead!’
After her attendant had laid Badra down to rest, she thought how
the mortified girl must have wept; she said to herself … ‘He disdained
the rarest pearl of Mazuna!’
In the course of the morning, a relative of the ‘Son of the Devil’
came to tell him that a delegation of Mazunis had arrived, led by the
Kulugli Cai’d himself, and been received by the Sharif.
‘How much did that dog, son of a dog and lackey of the Christians
give you as dowry for your daughter, you who have served more
glorious masters?’
The Cai’d Ben Kadruma, his head bowed humbly as befitted a
suppliant, was forced to divulge the amount.
‘You will pay twice that to get your daughter back and regain your
honour!’
Each of the leading citizens then discussed the ransom for each of
the women who were waiting a little way off. The Sharif had scornfully
left these parleys to his lieutenants.
95
‘These men arc perfidious and tomorrow, at our first setback, they
will return to attack us and throw themselves on the mercy of the
French colonel!’
• nut what can you expect of these Moors!’ someone remarked. ‘For
generations, from father to son, the sole reason for their actions has
always been fear! ‘
All the women prisoners, except Badra and the Aga’s daughter, were
clustered round the marabout Sidi Ben Daoud, where the Sharifs
scarlet bannet had been flying since the previous evening; now they
learned that the ransom would be paid within the hour and they would
soon be free …
Some of them bore bleeding scratches on their faces and necks
where they had lacerated themselves as signs of mourning for
husbands and sons who remained without sepulture on the field of
battle. Others, relatives of the bride, showed neither fear nor sorrow.
They waited patiently, impassive, at the most merely heaving languid
sighs. From time to time there was a whisper from one of them; they
were breathless with curiosity: how could they discover whether the
Sharif, or one of his redoubtable lieutenants, was going to keep the two
virgins, or at least Badra, the more beautiful?
Soon the amount of ransom demanded of the Ca”id circulated
among these city ladies. And, reinforced by the meal of couscous with
chicken prepared for them by the marabout’s wali, they were able to
forget their fatigue in smug pleasure at the sum, as if the value of a
virtuous and beautiful woman – more priceless than the jewels – could
be calculated in gold pieces!
The tents remained pitched for a second night. The Sharif decided
that they would leave the encampment the following dawn. His scouts
had returned just before dusk: they reported that the garrisons at
EI-Asnam, Miliana and Tenes had been filled with consternation at
the news of his victory … The colonel had already sent messengers to
General de Bourjolly and to the leader of the Tenes column. The
French would move the next day or in two days at the latest.
‘We shall cross the Beni Hindjes,’ declared Bu Maza; ‘from there
we shall return to the Flittas’ country.’
The gold from the citizens of Mazuna had arrived. The burghers
had been forced to spend the night cooling their heels before being
made to hand over their treasure.
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‘We arc neither looters nor highway robbers, and God’s justice can
wait!’
The Sharifs lieutenant Ben Hcnni, chief of the tribes around the
ancient city of Tcncs, came to confirm that its Moorish population,
like that of Mazuna, spoke of nothing but the Sharirs reappearance.
The two important mosques had resounded with heartfelt prayers! In
their defeat, these cities were moved partly by fear, partly by newfound
zeal for the faith.
‘Saint Sid Ahmad ben Yusuf was right to make them the butt of his
famous axioms!’ someone murmured ncar to the Sharif, who did not
smile.
A’issa ben Djinn whispered in his car, ‘Seigneur, it is time to hand
over the women. My men have counted the duros of the ransom. The
tally is correct! … You have enough to raise double the number of
troops from all the loyal tribes as far as Mostagancm; perhaps you
could even join forces with the Amir!’
The Sharif interrupted in an undertone: ‘I hear that his messenger
is in fact approaching, bearing a letter! … You sec to the women!’
Then, after a pause, ‘Let us keep the Aga’s daughter! She persists in
her insults: let the blood of the maid follow that of the father! … I give
her to you!’
Ai’ssa bowed his head as sole acknowledgement of the gift that had
just been made to him. Then he began, ‘I have a suggestion: send back
the Mazunis’ wives and daughters without their jewels! … They arc
worth as much again as all the ransom money!’
And he burst out laughing.
‘They rightly call you “Son of the Devil”,’ the Sharif retorted with a
smile. ‘Do as you like with them. This extra booty is yours!’
The women filed one by one out of the tent, some in coloured veils,
some in faded white. They stood before A’issa ben Djinn who was
surrounded by four of his men. An unarmed chaouch waited in
ceremonial attire.
‘You must each remove every item of jewellery and hand it to the
chaouch! If anyone hesitates or shows reluctance, then I’ll tear off her
jewels with my own hands and her clothes as well!’ Ai’ssa announced in
his sonorous voice.
A cacophony of chatter and squeals broke out among the women,
unable to control their agitation. Then one of Ai’ssa ben Djinn’s men
raised his rifle and fired several shots into the air and silence fell.
97
The chaouch sat down cross-legged and waited; his scarlet turban
slid down over his brow; his venerable mustachios framed a smile; his
pose seemed to caricature that of a cadi.
‘Brigands! Highway robbers!’ hissed one of the women.
And the others immediately protested: ‘Hold your tongue, wretch!
Do you want to get us all assassinated?’
One by one the ladies came forward, slowly, solemnly, with faces
and bodies completely shrouded. One by one hands emerged from
folds in the coloured veil, dropped a jewelled fillet, brooches, a pair of
khalkhals, three, four or five rings … The inventory was taken by a
khoja who inscribed on a tablet the number of items and their
description.
It took over an hour for the women to hand over all their precious
ornaments. Meanwhile the Sharif rode to and fro on his chestnut, a
little way off …
Suddenly there was an unexpected pause, a moment of suspense:
from the chiefs tent the bride emerged, her face uncovered; she
walked stiffly under the weight of her adornment, bearing her rich
diadem before her in both hands. She was the last. She seemed to be
wearing all the jewels of the entire city. ‘She’s the cause of all our
misfortunes!’ exclaimed one of her stepmothers.
Badra approached with lowered eyes, as if she knew the way
instinctively. Her nurse followed her, weeping: would there never be a
wedding for the girl? The Sharif, who was riding away, halted, looking
down on the colourful scene, while behind the cactus hedge the sky
was growing lighter.
Badra paused in front of Aissa ben Djinn, who ventured no
comment: he too looked calmly on with admiring eyes.
With an ample gesture, as if she were in her bridal chamber, she laid
down her tiara, then her heavy earrings, then the four, five, six pearl
necklaces, then the brooches – ten at least – then … ‘Allah! Allah!’
sighed the chaouch and asked for another casket. The scribe, his eyes
dazzled as much by the splendour of the precious stones as by the
beauty of the bride herself, forgot to write down the inventory.
The girl now wore nothing but her light gown with its loose folds
and her waistcoat with full gauze sleeves. With one rapid movement
she took off her conical cap embroidered with gold, and placed it with
the other jewels – and her thick black tresses streamed down her back.
Then, stooping quickly, she removed her green velvet mules, also
98
embroidered with gold. With a dancer’s lithe twist of her hips, she
wriggled out of her heavy sequined girdle. Then she stooped down
once more, removed her ankle bracelets and presented them, almost
stealthily, to the stupified chaouch. Then the sound of horses’ hooves
was heard. Bu Maza was galloping away.
‘Enough!’ screamed a woman’s voice from the midst of the group of
prisoners.
‘Will she strip herself naked?’ added another, from the front. Then a
collective babble of hostile voices arose.
In two strides the nurse was at her side. She wrapped her arms
around the frail adolescent, clothed only in her emerald gown, her hair
streaming in the wind, her face raised to the sky, and repeating softly,
‘I am naked! Praise be to God, I am naked! Praise .. . ‘
The Mulattress gently fondled her exhausted child, cradling her like
a mother and gradually persuaded her to join the murmuring group of
prisoners.
No-one asked what had become of the other maiden, the dead Aga’s
daughter. The Sharifs tent had been struck. His column was the first
to leave, his banner flying in the lead, the band of flutes and drums
playing a shrill melody. A”issa ben Djinn’s men brought up the rear,
their mules laden with jewels and the gold from the ransom.
Two weeks later, after smoking out the Sbeah fraction not far from
the Nacmaria caves, Colonel Saint-Amaud finally caught up with Bu
Maza who had been trying to avoid doing battle for a time.
Treasure and smala were seized and Canrobert, Saint-Amaud’s
adjutant, dispersed the partisans … The Aga’s daughter, the Sharifs
prisoner, disappeared in the confusion of the encounter (did she share
his tent and persist in mocking him with her insults? – no-one knew).
Two days later, as her brother, who was acting as guide to Canrobert’s
Spahis, rode under an oak tree, he heard a frightened voice whisper,
‘Brother! Ali, my brother!’
The Aga’s son halted under a branch of the tree. A slender figure
jumped down and landed right in the astonished young man’s saddle.
‘I’ve been hiding there for two days!’ the girl murmured, after they
had embraced.
On their return to Tenes the French column reported how the
brother and sister had been miraculously united . . . But in the
Mazuna market-place the meddahs recounted to the people how the
Sultan, whose coming had been prophesied, had stripped the wives
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and daughters of the traitors and their allies, handing them over
‘naked’. t\1ohamcd hen Kadruma sold everything he owned, and after
repudiating his two wives decided to undertake the pilgrimage to
Mecca, accompanied by his daughter.
‘On my return,’ he announced to some of his family, ‘I shall not
come hack to live in this city which will no longer he free! I shall go into
exile, like so many others, to Tunis, to Damascus or even to Istambul.’
The year before these events took place, a farmer, who had been a
lieutenant in Napoleon’s army, and had been ruined about 1 840 when
the Rhone twice overflowed its banks, emigrated to Algeria. Berard –
that was his name – chose to settle in Tenes, the new town which
Bugeaud’s army built with wooden houses, later replaced by stones
from the imposing Roman ruins.
Berard soon abandons farming. He sets himself up as a stationer,
selling paper, pencils, exercise-hooks; he even opens a reading-room.
The insurrection breaks out in the Dahra, with all changing fortunes,
including the Mazuna wedding which Bu Maza transformed into an
ambush.
The bookseller Berard, thanks to his experience as a veteran of the
Emperor’s army, but also thanks to his education and his greying hair,
has become one of the leading citizens of European Tenes, alarmed by
the nearby disturbances. He is in command of one of the newlyestablished
militia … Twenty years later, he writes his account of the
uprising: but he never went to Mazuna. No European was yet to
venture there; the neutrality of the ancient city was frozen in eternal
slumber.
One of Bu Maza’s lieutenants, EI-Gobbi, also wrote his account of
the events. Did he take part in the attack on the wedding procession?
\Vas he one of those who, standing beside his leader, admired Badra’s
‘naked’ figure? It is reasonable to imagine that he did.
When Berard composes his memoirs, he declares that he had
knowledge of EI-Gobbi’s account. Could he perhaps have read a
translation of the Arabic text, or might he have had a copy of the
original in his hands? For the moment, this is lost.
Finally eveJ}thing lies dormant: the bodies of the women, crushed
beneath the weight of their jewels; cities weighed down by the burden
of their past; and so too the epigraphs left by long-forgotten witnesses.
1 00
III
The couple moved into a little flat in Paris, in which a bookseller
carried on his business, and where they were to celebrate their
wedding.
Preparations for the ceremony progressed in an atmosphere of
unreality as if catastrophe were waiting round the corner: might there
not be some hitch at the last minute preventing the guests and even the
bridal couple themselves from attending? …
The bride-to-be prowled around the dark rooms with their many
bookcases. Her mother, a slender woman of under forty, with a heavy
braid of black hair down her back, arrived on the night flight,
accompanied by her youngest daughter, barely more than a child. The
three of them spring-cleaned the flat, then the mother and fiancee
went to buy a makeshift trousseau at the Grands Magasins:
underclothes, a silk suit in sky-blue checks, a pair of shoes.
The wedding date had been fixed a month ago by the fiance who
was on the run and constantly had to move from one lodging to
another; the girl was staying in a students’ hostel and kept in touch
with each new address. They had been living in this precarious way for
the past year but were safe for the time being.
One of the previous hide-outs had been opposite an institution for
deaf-mutes. It had had to be abandoned in a hurry. The caretaker was
a dumpy, dishevelled little woman; every evening, in her frustration
over her husband’s daily drunken bouts, she would let fly a stream of
obscenities in the courtyard. One day, she saw off two policemen who
came to enquire about the young student. ‘Oh, that bird’s flown ages
ago!’ she snorted.
As soon as the police had gone, she hurried upstairs to warn the
couple, declaring, ‘I just can’t abide cops! It’s in my blood!’
The police had originally begun their enquiry about the young man
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for a fairly innocuous reason: as a student his military service had
previously been deferred hut he was now due for call-up. His old
parents, in their mountain village, alarmed by frequent guerrilla attacks
and the subsequent round-ups of all suspects, warned their son that
they had been forced to give his address in Paris, which they hoped
was no longer valid.
‘He doesn’t write to me any more !’ his father told the investigators.
‘He must be working in France to pay for his studies. We arc poor. I
can’t send him any money!’
Then he had dictated a letter to his twelve-year-old daughter,
‘Write: “They’ll find you! You must move house!” ‘
The son didn’t wait to be told twice. Hence the panic before the
wedding. That summer, a rival Nationalist faction was increasingly
threatening a vendetta. They objected to former militants (workers
who used to meet before the war in North African cafes) joining the
unified organization. The first clash between rival underground
networks had resulted in five or six deaths in a restaurant in the centre
of Paris. The main dailies had reported this incident as a matter of
gangsters taking the law into their own hands to settle old scores.
The couple continued to roam the streets, chatting together,
momentarily free of the others and the ‘Revolution’; nevertheless, even
if their embraces in a doorway could not claim that they were making
history, still their happiness was part of the collective fever; and they
were always on the look-out to see if they were being shadowed and to
throw the police off their trail. But the police were not seen to be the
greatest danger.
Sometimes they noticed one persistent figure following them or one
who, on the contrary, vanished too conspicuously, then they had to give
their pursuer the slip, spot the person on the watch and outwit him: the
couple knew that the secret fratricidal struggle was all around them.
The rival networks posted threatening letters to each other, couched in
hysterical terms, announcing imminent retribution in the name of
some imaginary rights, such as a woman scorned in love might write in
desperation to her rival.
As they strolled through the Paris streets together, at every
crossroads the girl’s eyes instinctively avoided the tricolour flag whose
red reminded her of the blood of her compatriots recently guillotined
in a Lyons prison; and she dreamed of them both suddenly
becoming invisible in the early spring sunshine that streamed
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down over them, and disappearing to sail the high seas together.
They ought to leave: they talked of nothing else. To leave together!
To return to their own country and join the maquisards in the
mountains, people careless of danger like themselves. However, the
young man raised objections: ‘We’re not being realistic; you’re living in
a dream world! You’re only imagining there’ll be other women
students! We shan’t be able to fight side by side … The only women
in the resistance arc peasants, used to the forests and brambles!
Perhaps, at the best, a few nurses!’ She couldn’t understand why he
refused her access to this dream-garden of adventure where they
would share the hazards cheerfully together like twins . . . The
previous evening hadn’t they easily given two policemen the slip in the
corridors of the Metro, as if it had been a game, after which they had
collapsed with helpless laughter? …
They continued to be at loggerheads (she thought they were really
only in disagreement over tactics) until they finally arrived at a
compromise: as it was impossible to leave for home immediately they
might as well slip over the border as soon as possible, separately if
necessary (only the young man figured on a list of suspects). They
would meet in Tunisia, joining other refugees; from there there must
be crowds of volunteers leaving to join the underground. She persisted
in believing that girls were being accepted as volunteers; were not the
Nationalist leaders anxious to make it known that all were equal in the
struggle?
They argued endlessly as they walked, filling in the detail of their
plans; and as they outlined their future, the young man decided they
must get married as soon as possible, and then leave …
The previous spring, the representatives of the two families had met
back home, without the couple, to celebrate their official betrothal.
They learned afterwards that this ceremony had provided the occasion
for drawing up the marriage certificate ‘in advance’. The groom’s
uncle had signed by proxy; as for the bride, even if she had been
present, her father would have had to act for her, as her guardian. The
marriage was legalized, in spite of their absence far away: they had
laughed at this formality, which seemed like something out of a
comedy.
‘Write to your family,’ the fiance suddenly demanded, overcome by
desire or subconscious anxiety. ‘Tell them we’re getting married here a
month today! After all, by law we are already married!’
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The flat – belonging to a bookseller, a Frenchman who had been
detained for the past month for having helped a Nationalist network –
had been empty since the owner’s arrest, and for that reason the police
were no longer watching it. A friend let them know about it on his
discharge from prison.
They decided to move in temporarily. The bride-to-be spent the
days before the wedding buried in the rare books with their luxurious
bindings, after doing her best to light the ancient coke stove: these
winter mornings the rooms were filled with smoke which gave off no
warmth.
When the bride’s mother and young sister arrived, they were not
completely out of their element. The brother, still an adolescent, had
been arrested in Lorraine as an ‘agitator’, and began his term of
detention by being constantly shunted from prison to prison; the
mother had learned to travel by train, by plane, by boat, just like any
Western tourist, and every three months she visited her only son in
whatever city in France or Navarre he had been dumped.
The women set about putting the Parisian flat in order: waxing the
floor, cleaning up the kitchen, ordering new bed-linen which was
delivered at the last minute for the newly-weds, finally giving some
thought to the traditional meal for the day after the wedding – the
mother considered this an essential institution and invited their dozen
or so friends and cousins, immigrant students and workers in Paris …
Watching her youthful mother bustling cheerfully about, the bride
felt like a minor character in some arcane play. She mused aloud about
the conventions that would have had to be observed back home, but to
these exiles their homeland seemed no more real than a sunken city or
a desolate ruin. As the fiance spent more and more time running ofT to
political meetings, and disaster waited to pounce, so their doubts grew
about the ceremony due to take place forthwith. What sort of
ceremony would that be?
The girl realized that she was upset by her father’s absence –
though, to be sure, if the wedding had been celebrated in the
customary manner, it would have been an exclusively feminine affair.
But tradition demanded that when the women in the bridal retinue
are ready to escort the bride, the father wraps his burnous around her
and leads her over the threshold in his arms. At this moment of
separation, the mother weeps copiously, sometimes noisily – you’d
think it was a wake without the liturgy. By adding her lamentations to
1 04
the din made by singers and neighbours, every mother expresses her
distress at the loss of the daughter who should be her support when the
fatigues of age befall her. But she is also overcome with sad memories
of her own dreams as a woman …
My mother, for her part, found herself in a wintry Paris and had no
cause to weep. Even if the wedding had taken place back home, in the
dead grandmother’s house with its many terraces, even if the
Andalusian tenor had sung his sentimental songs accompanied by the
sound of the rebec one whole night through, the night of the
deflowering and its mounting exhilaration – my father would not have
borrowed any burnous of pure wool, woven by the women of the tribe,
to wrap around me and lead me over the threshold. He would not have
made any concessions to protocol: he claimed to be a ‘modernist’,
scorning recent fashions as the stranglehold of city customs. However
much the old women may have insisted that he ought to be concerned
about divine protection, he would have . . . But what’s the usc of
imagining . . . would he even have faced my fiance, who he felt,
throughout our long secret engagement which eventually became
official, was robbing him of his eldest daughter?
It was true: the marriage took place far from my father’s protection,
not that he withheld this in the form wished for by the elders of the
family. It was true: these two men could not have faced each other in
this ambiguous situation, neither of them prepared to give way to the
other, probably subconsciously hating each other.
As we prepared to celebrate the wedding in our temporary Paris abode,
which the Nationalist uprising brushed with its fringes, thoughts of my
father filled my mind: I decided to send him a telegram, assuring him
formally of my love. I’ve forgotten the exact wording of the message,
possibly: ‘Thinking of you on this auspicious day. I love you .. . ‘
Perhaps I needed to make this public gratuitous declaration:
‘1-love-you-in-French’, before making bold to voice it in the dark (in
what language?) during the hours prior to the nuptial rites of passage?
One by one, the ritual accompaniments of wedding ceremonial were
discarded: the shrill female voices, the clamouring crowd of veiled
women, the smell of over-abundant victuals – the din kept up so that
the bride could be left alone and naked in the midst of the throng to
grieve on the threshold of a new life …
Marriage for me meant first and foremost departures: hasty crossing
105
of frontiers, new conspirators to be met on new soil. The arrival of my
mother and young sister were links with my gradual memories of the
past. They brought with them the inherent, underlying gravity of our
lives: in the hollow of each shared silence each one of the three of us
was constantly thinking of the adolescent transferred from prison to
prison, my brother.
And I tiptoe up to the cry uttered on deflowering, the purlieus of
childhood recalled as I make my way through these symbols. More
than twenty years later, I seem to hear this cry as if it rang out
yesterday: expression of neither pain nor wonder … Voice of infinite
range in aerial flight, presence of solemn eyes opening on to a
vertiginous void and only gradually growing aware.
A cry which might ring out at every wedding, without the Fantasia,
even in the absence of caparisoned horses and riders in flaming
crimson. The sharp cry of relief and sudden liberation then abruptly
checked. Long, infinite, first cry of the live body.
The young man had always known it: when he crossed the threshold of
the room – the shell enclosing transcendental love – he would feel
himself in the grip of silent solemnity and before approaching the girl
lying there motionless, he should give time to his devotions.
Before a man approaches the couch which will be stained with
blood, man, every man, should turn his thoughts submissively to God;
he should fall on his knees, prostrate himself, lie prone, fill his heart
with Allah, the Prophet and the most familiar saint of his region or his
tribe, appeasing his hunger first with the sacred words.
The maiden’s calm eyes smile. How can this blood be transformed
into a ray of hope, without the two bodies being soiled? A well nigh
mystical approach. In this Parisian wedding permeated with nostalgia
for the native soil, no sooner has the bridegroom set foot in the room
with its brand-new bed, and pink-shaded lamp placed on the floor,
than he hurries to the waiting woman, he gazes down at her and forgets
all else.
Hours later, lying beside her trembling form, he remembers the
neglected ceremonial. He who had never prayed, he had decided to do
so just this once, prior to consummating his marriage. He is tormented
by a sense of foreboding:
‘Our union will not be preserved,’ he murmurs.
The bride, amused by this superstitious melancholy, reassures him.
1 06
She confidently paints the future of their love: he had promised that
the initiation would take as many nights as need be. And yet, at the
beginning of their first hurried night, she had already been penetrated.
The cry, pure pain, secretes an inner core of wonderment. It soars
in a swelling curve. Wake of thrusting dart, it rises in the air; falling, at
its nadir, in multi-layered sediment, lurks an unspoken ‘No!’
Did I manage one day to ride the surging tide to reach this crest?
Did I feel this refusal tremble on my lips? On these banks, the body
stiffens in denial, pouring its passion into the current of the nearby
river. What matter then if the soul’s cry pour forth without restraint?
And I must tell also of my victory, its taste of lost sweetness as the
wave swept over me. Victory over modesty, over reserve. Blushing, but
insistent, I managed to say to my young mother and sister who gave me
so much affectionate support, ‘Please leave me alone in the house
tonight! … “He” will find you a room for the night at the hotel!’
I expressed this wish in a formal tone of voice … Since I was not
destined to enjoy a noisy crowded wedding with food in abundance, let
me be offered a deserted place in which the night could stretch out
immense enough, empty enough for me to face ‘Him’ – I suddenly
found myself thinking of the man in the traditional way.
That cry, in the house of our clandestine existence. I enjoyed my
victory, since the house did not fill with women, peeping curiously, and
in the brief absence of a woman and a little girl, that cry unfurled its
spiral of refusal and reached up to the timbers of the ceiling.
The lamp is still alight … The bridegroom, wanted by the police, is
trapped in the mire of broken promises: he had vowed to say his
prayers before.
‘Before what?’ I wonder as I lurch along the passage, avoiding the
mirrors, a wounded gazelle.
Before that cry, of course. ‘No!’ I think, ‘neither God nor any magic
formula will protect this love which the man hopes will last “till death
do us part”.’ Travelling in the Metro during the next few days, I stare
closely at all the women I sec around me. I am devoured with curiosity
as if I were some primitive creature: ‘Why do they not say, why will not
one of them say, why docs each one hide this fact: love is the cry, the
persistent pain which feeds upon itself, while only a glimpse is
vouchsafed of the horizon of happiness? Once the blood has flowed,
silence sets in and objects arc drained of colour.’
1 07
There were no peeping women, dreaming of repeated ravishment.
There was no matchmaker draped in the bloodstained sheet,
performing her lewd dance with grunts and shrieks of laughter,
gesticulating like a fairground Karagoz – the indications of death
frozen in the act of love, a body left lying there on stacks of
mattresses … Normally the bride neither cries out nor weeps: she lies
an open-eyed victim on the couch, after the male has departed, fleeing
from the smell of sperm and the idol’s perfume; and the closed thighs
prevent any cry from escaping.
There was no bloodstained sheet on display the following days.
1 08
Sistrum
[Sistmm, n. (pl. -tra). Jingling instrument
or rattle used by auciem
Egyptians esp. in rites of Isis. OED]
Long silence, night rides, coils Cllr!ing in the throat. Rhonchial rules, streams
of abyssal sounds, springs from which issue interlacing echoes, cataracts of
munnurs, susumiS in braided bmshwood, tendrils soughing under the tongue,
hushed hisses, and the jlexured voice hauls up mllied sighs of past satiel)• fmm
memOT)’ ‘s subterranean store-house.
CacophanJ’ of recalcitrant cymbal, thistle or scissors reuding this tessitura,
shards of shipwrecked sighs, water lapping against the ralanced bed, scattered
laughter striating claustra/ darkness, plaints pacified then diffused behind
closed eyelids whose dream strays thmugh some C)’press gmve, and the ship of
desire drops astern, before the raren of sexual ecstasy cmaks its contentment.
Molten words, splintered firestones, diorites expelled fmm gaping lips,
fire-brand caresses when the harsh leaden silmce cmmbles, and the bod]’ seeks
for its t•oice, like a fish swimming upstream.
Renewed rules, wateT)’ stainvaJ1S to the larynx, lplashes, lustral sprinkling,
tire plaintive moan escapes then tire pmlonged song, the drawn-out song of the
rich female voice closes round the copulation, fiJ!Iows its tempo and its figures,
is exhaled as ox;•gen, in the bedchamber and the darkness, a tumescent twisted
coil of forte notes hanging in the air.
Suffering or solemn gasps of act of/ore, sulphur-mine of anticipation./ ever
of staccato notes.
Silence, pleasure’s defensive rampart, protecting the final reckoning – in
what language written, Arabic or Freuch?
Creation et’eT)• night. Bmcaded gold of silence.
109
PART THREE
VOICES FROM THE PAST
And I come to the fields and spreading courts of memory,
rvhere are treaures of unnumbered impressions of things
of every kind, stored by the senses.
Saint Augustin
Confessions, X.B
f!!wsi una fantasia …
Ludwig van Beethoven
opus 27
Sonatas I and 2
First Movement:
The Two Strangers
Two men, two strangers intruded so intimately into my life as to seem
for a few brief moments to be of my own flesh and blood: we engaged
in neither philosophical discourse nor in polite or friendly conversation.
Two complete strangers crossed my path, each close encounter
accompanied by a cry, a scream – it is of littlc significance from whom
it came, from one or other of those strangers or indeed from myself.
I am seventeen. The morning sun shines on the murmurous city. I
come suddenly upon a street that tumbles downhill as far as the eye
can sec; at the end of every thoroughfare, at the end of every little
alle}way, the sea watches, waiting patiently. On I hurry.
We have had a trivial lovers’ tiff, which I make into an issue; I hurl a
defiant ultimatum at him; an invisible breach occurs and spreads – it is
the first . .. I scan the distant horizon; I am spurred on by some
strange impulse, a conviction that I must abandon everything; I race
along, wishing I had wings. The sun is shining on the murmurous city,
other people’s city …
Frenzy, impetuosity, exhilaration of the all-or-nothing; I rush
headlong down the street. Even though I have put nothing into words,
probably planned nothing, except to let myself be borne along by this
pure spontaneous impulse, my body hurls itself under a tram as it turns
a sharp comer of the avenue.
Am I in the vicinity of the port? One final image emerges as I sink
into oblivion, seeking annihilation in this flight towards the sea: the
glimpse of a ship’s masts, piercing the blue sky, like some vast
water-colour. Just before all goes dark, I feel the double ridge of the
tramlines under me.
1 1 3
When, a few minutes later, they lifted me up and I slowly emerged
out of the shadow of the tragedy, I caught one isolated voice raised
above the commotion made by the crowd of idle onlookers; that of the
tram-driver who had just managed to brake in time. In the pallid void
of my return to life, I was struck by one detail which assumed a curious
importance: the ‘Poor White’ accent of the man who was so upset that
he cried over and over again, ‘My hand’s still trembling. Look!’
And he repeated the words, almost protesting, and his voice struck
me again. I opened my eyes wide. As I lay in the middle of the road, I
became aware of the man’s burly figure, then his face as he bent over
me: the crowd must have made way for him so that he could be
reassured. He probably stared hard at the girl who lay still as death, but
who was nevertheless alive.
Since then, I’ve forgotten everything about this stranger; but I can
still recall the timbre of his voice, above the swell of sounds that surged
around me. Betraying the agitation that would not leave him, making
him cry over and over again: ‘My hand’s still trembling. Look!’
He must have held up his hand to show the crowd of witnesses what
had saved me by controlling the speed of the tram.
They lifted her up from underneath the vehicle; an ambulance took
her to the nearest hospital; she had only sustained minor bruises. But
what she really felt was wonder, to find that, as in a trance, she had
gone (so she thought self-importantly) ‘to the end’ – to the end of
what? At the most to the end of the zigzag path of adolescence. So she
woke up to the sound of the tram-driver’s voice, then sank back to
stagnate again in uncertain days and finally let the love story run its
course. Never spoke to anyone of her fall – a romantic gesture or
expression of rebellion without a cause. Did she even discover the real
nature of despair?
The only thing that clung so closely to her was that accent from the
poor European districts of the city, that way of speaking which had
made her most aware of the tram-driver’s voice: Death briefly trails a
wing along the ground leaving this jewel behind.
A long history of convulsive love; too long. Fifteen years pass, what
happened is of little account. A rapid succession of surfeited years, a
happy life is compact, uneventful. Satiety lasts long; too long.
Two, three years elapsed; an unhappy life is compact, uneventful;
brief breathing spells in the tedium of time, days streaked with silence.
1 14
A woman walks alone one night in Paris. Walking for walking’s
to try to understand … Searching for words and so dream no r
wait no longer.
Rue Richclicu, ten, eleven o’clock at night; the autumn air is damp.
To understand … Where will this tunnel of interior silence lead? Just
the act of walking, just to put one foot energetically in front of the
other, feeling my hips swinging, sensing my body lightly moving,
makes my life seem brighter and the walls, all the walls vanish …
Someone, a stranger, has been walking behind me for a while. I can
hear his footsteps. What matter? I am alone, I feel quite alone, I sec
myself as whole, intact, how can I express it? ‘At the beginning’, but of
what? At least of this new journey. The space is blank, the long empty
road is mine alone, I walk at case, letting my footsteps beat out my own
rhythmic accompaniment while the surrounding stones look on.
While the solitude of these recent months dissolves in the fresh cool
tints of the nocturnal landscape, suddenly the voice bursts forth. It
drains off all the scoriae of the past. What voice? Is it my own voice,
scarcely recognizable?
At first this residue, these dregs, this coal-slack cakes and clogs my
palate, then the mixture of impurities is flushed from my mouth in a
harsh deep-throated cry which seems to go before me.
One single, prolonged, interminable, amorphous tear-drop, a
precipitate congealed in the very body of my former voice, in my frozen
larynx; this nameless coagulate is washed away in a trail of
unidentifiable rubble … This nauseating network of sound seems
scarcely to concern me; viscous syrup of rasping gasps, guano of old
hiccups and choking sobs, smelling of some strangled corpse rotting
within me. The voice, my voice (or rather the voice that issues from my
open mouth, gaping as if to vomit, or chant some dirge) cannot be
suppressed. Perhaps I ought to raise my hand in front of my face to
staunch this invisible blood?
At least lessen the intensity of the flow! Behind their walls strangers
gather their thoughts, while I am only a wandering exile, in flight from
other shores where women are white walking wraiths, shrouded
figures buried upright, precisely to prevent what I am doing now, to
prevent them uttering such a constant howl: such a wild, barbaric cry,
macabre residue of a former century! … Lower a little the volume of
this death-gasp, turn it into some ill-timed measured chant. Incantation
in an interminable exile.
1 15
Rue Riche lieu stretches out long and narrow in front of me; not a
soul in sight. Stop when I reach the end; simultaneously switch off this
outlandish voice, this lamento which I involuntarily sing.
I’ve forgotten the unknown person behind me who’s still following
me; he slows down when I do, and just when I’m about to lower my
anguished voice or silence it completely, he protests, ‘Please, Madame,
please don’t cry out like that!’
The wailing stops short. In the pool of light shed by a street-lamp, I
turn round, expressionless: what is this intruder thinking? That I’m in
pain?
‘Please go away!’
I speak almost gently, astonished that this stranger should be so
upset. I cannot recall his face, I scarcely remember his build, but I can
still hear his voice, warm and vibrant, quavering slightly from the
urgency of his request. He is upset because ‘I cry out’, he says. Is this
where my attempted revolt will lead, after rumbling underground? …
This unknown man’s reaction is a sudden revelation, I can usc it to
protect me. No eavesdropper can hurt me any more.
‘Please!’ I repeat more softly.
Instinctively I draw back. The lamp-light falls on the tall figure,
reflected in the glint of the man’s eyes as he stares at me. I lower my
gaze. He goes away. Two bodies in momentary proximity, scarcely
meeting, sharing a brief instant of distress. A fantasy embrace.
Hearing the man implore me, like a friend, like a lover, I regained
soon afterwards my zest for life. I threw off the shackles of love,
ridding myself of the canker that consumed me. Spending every day
laughing, dancing, walking. The only thing I long for is the sun.
So two messengers stand at the entrance and the exit of an obscure
love story. No stranger will have come so close to me.
1 1 6
Voice
My elder brother Abdclkadcr had taken to the hills to join the maquis,
some time ago. ‘France’ came right up to our doorsteps; we were living
at the Sidi M’hamed Aberkanc zaouia … ‘France’ came and burnt us
out. We went on living there, just the same, among the blackened
stones …
Then it was the turn of my second brother, Ahmed, to leave. I was
thirteen. The soldiers came again; again they burnt our house down.
The other people helped us rebuild it. Time went by; a year perhaps.
Then the soldiers had a skirmish with the partisans on the road
through the nearby forest. They raided us the same day. They were
looking for ‘proof and they found it: we were in fact looking after some
of the Brothers’ clothes, and even storing some ammunition. They
took my mother and my brother’s wife away. They burnt our house
down for the third time.
Then the Brothers came that same evening. They took us higher up
into the hills, towards Sidi bou Amrane. We reached the douar before
dawn. The partisans tried to find a place where we could all stay: the
women, my old father, my little brothers; we all followed them.
At first the people there wouldn’t let us stay: ‘The soldicrs’ll come
and burn down our houses too! These people can’t stay here! The
zaouia has been burnt and our tkmar will be burnt down too!’
They kept up their protests for a long time. But Si Slimane and Si
Hamid (Si Boualem had been arrested) wouldn’t give in.
‘These people are going to live here!’ they insisted. ‘You’ll just have
to make the best of it! … Arc some of you afraid of the consequences?
Let them go and give themselves up to the enemy, if they prefer …
These people arc staying here!’
So we made ourselves at home there. We kept in contact with the
1 1 7
Brothers. \Ve all worked. Once again ‘France’ arrived and burnt the
whole place down. And that was when Hamoud’s son gave himself up.
‘France’ decided to move the whole population down into the plain.
But our family stayed where we were, with my mother, who’d been set
free. My brother Ahmed, may the Lord have mercy on his soul, left by
night to try to find us another shelter.
He didn’t have time to return and show us the way. Shortly before
dawn the enemy surrounded us. They shouted, ‘We’ll force you down,
like the others!’
When some men tried to force me to my feet, I shouted, ‘I won’t go!’
A soldier grabbed my one arm, a second one seized the other; I kept
on shouting. They pulled me like this out of the house.
So they took us away. On the way they had to cross a wadi. However,
it had rained the previous day. The water rushed down in a torrent.
One man picked up my young sister to carry her across. She struggled
with all her might, shouting, ‘Put me down!’
The man was a goumier.
‘We’re only trying to help you!’ he exclaimed.
I intervened: ‘She told you not to touch her! So don’t touch her!’
So then we stayed in the village at Marceau. They put us in a sort of
shed: all concrete, grey walls, grey floor … We had to spend the night
there, in the cold and the children’s urine.
In the morning an old woman who seemed to be living nearby came
up to the door and whispered, ‘I’m going to work in the fields! Ask
them to let you go outside, don’t stay here!’
We went out. They divided us into new groups, women and children
on one side, the few old men on the other. They took us to the
outskirts of the village where they put us in tents. They thought they’d
be able to keep a closer eye on us there.
A few days passed. We watched the guards’ movements and kept a
check on the intervals between their rounds. We had to slip in and out
to find bits of work to do, so that we had something to live on. Some of
the women went gleaning, but only on the edges of the fields. The
babies cried all the time. The few cattle and hens were soon
slaughtered.
The men in the mountains got a message to me: ‘Come back here
with one of your sisters; we need you up here!’ I nearly danced for joy;
I clenched my teeth to hold back my ululations.
1 1 8
For I’d also heard that my younger brother was hiding nearby. I
managed to slip out; for a whole day I looked for some landmarks but I
couldn’t find which way we’d come. In the evening I was forced to
return, exhausted, but determined to try another time … Two days
later I left again, but it was still no use. When I got back my mother was
crying: she quietly dried her tear-stained face and didn’t ask any
questions.
The third time, I finally made contact. My sister, who was one year
younger than me, started out with me. But I had second thoughts and
told her, ‘You must go back!’
It suddenly occurred to me that my mother would be all alone with
the little ones. \Vho would help her? I only realized that when I was
actually on my way. My sister did what I asked, but rather grudgingly.
Perhaps she held it against me subsequently.
After walking for several hours with the guide I reached the
partisans’ hiding-place. My brother Ahmed was with them. He
embraced me and these arc the exact words he said: ‘Oh, sister, since I
see you, my sister, here, it’s as if I were seeing my mother! ‘
I burst into tears, I don’t know why. I touched him, happy to find
him in good spirits, but I cried …
From that time, Ahmed and I stayed together. There were a few other
girls in this group of partisans, a bit older than me; two from Chcrchcl,
Naccra and Malika, and others from the surrounding region.
Some time after this one of the maquisards gave himself up. He led
the enemy to us. Not on the first night, but the second. The soldiers
surrounded us at dawn.
Alas! the men who were supposed to be keeping watch had fallen
asleep, I don’t know how. That same night my brother Ahmed and
another man had gone out to fetch food. On their way back they
realized the enemy were approaching. They ran back as fast as they
could, shouting, ‘Get out! Get out quickly!’
We were just outside the shelter when they started firing. That
morning I felt very tired; I couldn’t start running straight away; it was
as if my legs were paralysed, perhaps because this was the first time I’d
been in an anack …
‘Run, for God’s sake, run!’ my brother urged me from behind,
almost pushing me.
‘I can’t! You run on in front! You go first!’
1 1 9
‘Run, sister!’ he implored me as he went, and I can still hear his
voice ringing in my cars. ‘If they catch you, they’ll torture you!’
He was running in front of me when he fell: a bullet hit him behind
the car. He fell right in front of me … He fell forward on his face and
as he fell he even knocked down a boy who cut himself on a rock. But
the boy picked himself up.
The boy and I went on running: I followed the youngster, I was
unfamiliar with the region. Bullets were flying around us, our flight
lasted a long time, I saw nothing but the child in front of me … Then I
found myself alone; I continued along a wadi, as far as a wood, beyond
the hills. Then I realized that everything was quiet all around: I
stopped.
I tried to find my bearings. From where I was standing I could see a
few huts. I thought, ‘That must be Trekech.’ I knew the men in that
douar were in with ‘France’. I went the other way, across a field. I
sheltered in a clump of trees. I could hear an aeroplane in the distance.
I crouched down and didn’t move out of my hiding-place.
A little way off two roads met. I spotted some uniforms for a
moment; they disappeared. I suddenly had an urge to cough. I was
afraid they’d catch me. I picked some oak leaves (they are said to be
good for a cough) and chewed them silently. I still didn’t move, I must
even have dozed off.
Night fell. I was wide awake and when I heard a jackal howl my
heart was in my mouth … I came out from under the trees and made
my way very stealthily towards one of the two roads. In the distance I
caught a glimpse of burning, then I noticed two or three cows that had
been left in an empty field. I leaned up against them for a moment to
get warm, then I was frightened someone would come for the animals
and denounce me. I thought I’d better go on along the road … Other
animals, further on, seemed to have fled from another fire … I was so
cold! It was a winter night: it wasn’t raining, but there were still odd
patches of snow in the ditches, on the stones.
What was I to do? Sleep on the ground, in spite of the cold? But I
would be at the mercy of wild boars and jackals. Climb a tree? I was
afraid I’d drop asleep and fall out … Finally I found a sturdy oak with
a huge trunk. I climbed up and made myself as comfortable as I could,
holding on to a branch. I managed to spend the night there, drowsing
off a little. I put my trust in God’s protection!
The next day I stayed in hiding till it was dark. The fighting was
1 20
going on not far away. I felt like a ghost, I could hear people moving
about as if they were in another world!
I was afraid the helicopters would fly over and catch sight of me.
Then everything gradually went quiet; the war vanished, like a dream.
I must have suddenly fallen asleep from exhaustion. Before the night
was over, a little before dawn, I saw a herd of goats filing past, with a
shepherd walking pcaccf ully behind them as if nothing were amiss, as
if I’d dreamed of running away and being followed. ‘My brother, my
brother Ahmed!’ I thought in distress.
I jumped down from my tree. The shepherd stopped, beckoned to
someone behind him. Four men who looked like partisans appeared in
the distance; a fifth one, behind them, was waving to me. ‘I’ve wasted
enough time!’ I thought. ‘I’m going to sec where my brother fell!’
‘It’s your brother, your brother Abdclkadcr! ‘ someone shouted
to me.
I realized it was my other brother, but I wanted to find my younger
brother, the one who’d been killed … I made a dash, running as fast
as I could. With God’s help I found my way immediately and was the
first to reach the spot.
Ahmed was lying there: the enemy had emptied his pockets of all his
papers, all the photographs he’d had on him. They’d taken his best
clothes. The only thing left of his partisan’s uniform was the trousers.
His old woollen shirt was all tom and bloodstained.
I saw the wadi nearby. I tried to carry him; I managed to drag him,
his bare feet scraped along the ground behind me … I wanted to wash
him, at least to moisten his face. I took water in the palms of my hands;
I started to sprinkle it over him, as one docs for one’s ablutions,
without realizing that I was crying, sobbing all the time …
My elder brother Abdelkader came up behind me and suddenly said
angrily to the others, ‘Why did you show her the body? Can’t you sec
she’s only a child?’
‘I saw him fall!’ I said, turning round suddenly. ‘Right in front of
me!’ And my voice gave way.
121
Clamour
The girl’s long yellowish hair must at one time hat•e sudden!;• turned flaming
red. The suspicious-minded old busy-bodies had said her green e_yes were like
those of a ‘prowling cat ‘. Wide green ej•es whose irises were flecked with
gold … How proud the mother had been of the daughter born after three
boJ•s!
She ‘s the one, the thirteen-year-old shepherd-girl, the Amrounes’ eldest
daughter, the one the cousins, neighbours, relations b]• marriage, paternal
uncles, all accuse of beharing as if she were the fourth son in the family,
running away like that from the douar and the French soldiers, instead of
staying put with the other females! So she wandered about, so she hid in trees
dun”ng that intenninable pursuit.
And now she grieves for her dead brother, in this dawn of a still summer
day; a new Antigone, mourning for the adolescent lying on the grass, stroking
the half-naked corpse with henna-stained hands.
The wadi is not quite dry; the rustle of11Jater can be heard flowingfar down
between steep banks cuvered with brambles and sweet-scented moss. A few feet
away four men stand watching in an irregular circle; tht’)’ turn towards a
fourth man, stockier, seeming awkward in his unifonn: the second Amroune
brother. He’s out of breath from running; he points vaguely in the girl’s
direction.
The dead man sleeps, face down … The girl – little more than a child ­
has dragged the corpse herself, shortly before the men arrh•e. She tried to drag
it down to the stream but could not get jim her than the first rough ground …
She splashes water on the faces, but he does not wake: she rests it sideways
again a rock.
Then she turns round, to protest, or to make sure …
‘But I saw him fall! Right in front of me!’
She repeated her plaintire protest, more shrill;• than the first time, in a
heart-rending t•oice, that seems to trail a shroud behind her.
1 22
Slow/)’ she stroked the dead man ‘s face; she rested it on a more against the
rock kJ’ the stream. A 11d she drew herself np.
Then all is stilled: nature, trees, birds (a blackbird fl.J’ing past silmces its
son[!). The faint soughing r!f the bree:::e dies ti/Pa.J’ as it smeeps the ground; the
five men look on helpless6•, waiti11g, motionless. She alone …
A little shepherd-girl, emergi�tgfrom the dust-/w:::,e r!f a dream-world, feels
a keen solemnity inhabit her, sharp as a scythe suspended for one brief waiting
moment.
One prolonged, preliminaTJ’ CIJ’ has escaped her. The child rises, Iter body
an n·en brighter patch i11 the trampamrt air; Iter voice shrills out, stumbling
m:er the first notes, like the shudder r!f a sail before it is hoisted on tire
ji1remast. Then the wice cautirms(J’ takes wing, the wice soars, gaining in
strength, what voice? That r!f the mother who bore the soldiers ‘ torture with
nn·er a whimper? That r!f the little moped-up sisters, too J•mmg to
understand, but bearing tire message r!fmild-eyed anguish? Tire t•oice r!f the
old women of the douar who face the horror r!f the approaching death-knell,
open-mouthed, with palms r!f flesltless hands turned upwards? What
irrepressible keening, what full-throated clamour, strident tremolo? … Is it
the voice of the child whose hands are red with henna and a brother’s blood?
The partisans behind her fall back as one mmz with the spurting blood.
The:J• know what tht:j• must live with from now on: the rhythmic wailing of
the spirits of unburied dead, the roar r!f invisible lionesses shot by no
hunter … The discordant dirge r!f inarticulate rroolt launches its arabesques
into the blue.
The lament swells in an upsurge r!f sound: glissandos passing into vibrato;
a stream of emptiness hollows out the air. Barbed wires taut abrroe invisible
tonnents … Then the thirteen-J•ear-old suddenly starts to her feet, impelled
to swa;• to and fro, keeping time to the rh)’thm of her grief; the shepherd-girl is
initiated to the ritual circle. The first circle around the first one to die …
The men stare down at her from the edge of the ravine: standing there
throughout that C7J’ that lurches like a pall dripping with blood and flapping
in the sun. The dead man swathes himself in it, using it to retriroe his
memory: noxious emanations, foetid gases, borborygmic rumblings. Suffusing
him in the rroerberating, stifling heat. The plangent chirring, the rhythm of
the cadences swaddle his flesh to protect it from decay. Voice armouring the
dead man on the ground, giving him back his eyes on the edge of the
grave …
The spent cry dies away, sloughed off/ike shrivelled skin. It leaves the child
1 23
standing with a questioning look. She does not seem exhausted; perhaps she
bas been strengthened.
Awkward in his uniform, the partisan draws near; embraces his sister,
strokes her hair.
Her name is Cherifa. When she tells her story, twenty years later, she
mentions no interment nor any other form of burial for the brother lying in the
river bed.
1 24
Aphasia of Love
[Aphasia, Path. Loss of the faculty
of speech, as a result of cerebral
affection. OED]
When I was a child I spent every summer in the old coastal city, filled
with Roman ruins, that are such a tourist attraction. Girls and women
of the family, of neighbouring houses and those related by marriage,
regularly visit some sanctuary or other … Then gaggles of squealing
females scatter over the surrounding countryside.
One or two small boys keep watch, while the little girls stay with the
veiled women. Suddenly, the alarm is given: ‘There’s a man coming!’
The women sitting under a fig or olive tree, or in the shade of a
clump of lentisks, with their veils slipping on to their shoulders,
hurriedly pull them back over their hair. One, who’s uncovered her
chest to display her jewellery, muffles herself up again; another stands
up and tries to see without being seen, a third stifles her giggles in
agitation at each male’s approach.
Sometimes it turns out to be a false alarm. ‘Oh!’ says one, ‘it’s only a
Frenchman!’
Normal modesty i s n o longer necessary. If the passer-by does look,
since he’s a Frenchman, a European, a Christian, can he really see
anything? When the stranger is faced with all these women, whose
life’s mission, whose duty, whose most sacred inheritance is to
preserve their image – when he’s faced with all these women, my
aunts, cousins, my equals, does he really sec them, when he pauses,
stares at them, thinking he’s taken them by surprise? No, he imagines
he sees them …
‘Poor man’, one of them comments, when the stranger
passes close by and glimpses the lustre of long jet-black tresses, the
1 25
glint of mocking, kohl-rimmed eyes. ‘Poor man, he’s quite upset!’
For he does not know. His gaze, from the other side of the hedge,
beyond the taboo, cannot touch them. There is no possible danger of
being lured into any little flirtations; thus, they can enjoy their secret
walks without any need to hide.
So it was for me with the French language. Ever since I was a child
the foreign language was a casement opening on the spectacle of the
world and all its riches. In certain circumstances it became a dagger
threatening me. Should a man venture to describe my eyes, my
laughter or my hands, should I hear him speak of me in this way, I
risked losing my composure; then I immediately felt I had to shut him
out. Make him feel by the way I started, suddenly bracing myself,
shutting off my gaze, that he had made a false move, worse, he was
intruding. The game of banal, flirtatious compliments couldn’t take
place, because it takes two to play.
Afterwards I suffered from the misunderstanding: when I protected
myself from flattery or made it clear that it was ineffectual, this was not
because of either virtue or prudish reserve. I discovered that I too was
veiled, not so much disguised as anonymous. Although I had a body
just like that of a Western girl, I had thought it to be invisible, in spite
of evidence to the contrary; I suffered because this illusion did not turn
out to be shared.
The compliments – harmless or respectful – expressed in the
foreign language, traversed a no-man’s-land of silence … How could
I admit to the foreigner, who had sometimes become a friend or a
relative by marriage, that such loaded words defused themselves as
soon as uttered, that by their very nature they lost their power to touch
me, and that in this case it was nothing to do with either of us? The
word had simply drowned before reaching its destination …
I became again, in my own way, a Vestal virgin who had wandered
into an outside world stripped of its magic. I was invisible, and the only
thing I caught of the flattering speech was the tone of voice, sometimes
the wish to please. My reply was softened by indulgence towards what I
judged at that time, in my limited and naive experience, to be an
inherent fault of the European education: verbosity, an indiscreet
compulsive longiloquence in these preambles to seduction. For my
part, based on my own experience, I was convinced that the surfeit of
sweet nothings is the crown, the fireworks after the feast which seals
the satisfaction of mutual pleasuring.
1 26
I did not realize that by this assumption I was putting on a symbolic
veil. I had passed the age of puberty without being buried in the harem
like my girl cousins; I had spent my dreaming adolescence on its
fringes, neither totally outside, nor in its heart; so I spoke and studied
French, and my body, during this formative period, became Westernized
in its way.
At all the regular family gatherings, I had lost the knack of sitting
cross-legged: this posture no longer indicated that I was one of all the
women and shared their warmth – at the most it simply meant
squatting uncomfortably.
Evening parties on the terraces, from where, cooped up and
invisible, the women looked down on the Andalusian musicians with
their time-honoured tenor. He occupied the place of honour among
the men dressed in their finery, who knew that they were being
watched by the women sitting in the dark. The latter accompanied the
meeting with their shrill clamour which rose up and fanned out on the
air. My throat lent itself uneasily, discordantly, to this ancestral
plangent cry – which is emitted by spasmodic vibrations of the glottis.
Instead of arising spontaneously, it tore me apart. I preferred to listen
to my mother giving voice, half cooing, half ululation, blending first
with the full-throated chorus then finishing with a triumphant
vocalism, a prolonged soprano solo.
My adolescent body imperceptibly breaks away from this bunch of
female forms. It still participates in the collective, spasmodic dances,
but the next day it knows the purer joy of dashing out into the middle
of a sunny sports ground to take part in athletic contests or games of
basketball. However, this body is not yet armed to face the words of
others.
In this communication with the doubly opposite sex (not only male, but
men of the opposing tribe), sometimes a suitor from foreign parts
succeeded in touching me by his reserve. The only possible eloquence,
the only weapon that could reach me was silence, not so much out of
respect or shyness on the part of the man who might venture at any
moment to declare his feelings; silence, because that’s the only way he
can make his declaration. Between the man and me, refusal of speech
became both the starting point and the end point of our relationship.
When the Chevalier d’Aranda was captured in Algiers in the
seventeenth century, and kept in slavery for two years, he said of the
1 27
Algerian women of that time, ‘These women have no scruples in the
presence of Christian slaves, because they say that they arc blind.’ I
must admit that the effect of an identical illusion could have been the
exact opposite; that confronted with the gaze or the words of the
taboo-man, the unveiled woman possibly experiences a sharper
pleasure in stripping herself naked, making herself vulnerable,
conquered … Exactly, ‘conquered’. The women whom d’Aranda
knew accepted the love of a foreigner, maybe ‘blind’, but in any case a
slave.
For my part, I lived at a time when, for more than a century, the
vilest of men from the dominant society had imagined himself a master
over us. So there was never any chance of him assuming the cloak of
seducer in women’s eyes. After all, Lucifer himself shares an identical
kingdom with Eve.
Never did the harem, that is to say, the taboo, whether it be a place
of habitation or a symbol, never did the harem act as a better barrier,
preventing as it did the cross-breeding of two opposing worlds; as if my
people, as if my brothers and thus, by definition, my jailers, had first
been decimated, then uprooted, and finally risked the loss of their
identity: curious dereliction which caused even their sexual image to
become blurred …
The impossibility of this love was reinforced by memory of the
conquest. When, as a child, I went to school, the French words
scarcely made any impact on this stronghold. I had inherited this
imperviousness; from the time of my adolescence I experienced a kind
of aphasia in matters of love: the written words, the words I had
learned, retreated before me as soon as the slightest heart-felt emotion
sought for expression.
‘Vhenever a man whose mother tongue was the same as mine ventured
to make advances, speaking in French, his words formed a mask which
the interlocutor had willy-nilly to adopt in the opening moves of the
game. It was he, in the last resort, who put on a veil, to venture to
approach.
If the whim took me to react to the man’s advances, I did not need to
put on some show of graciousness. All I had to do was to revert to the
mother tongue: by returning to the sounds of childhood to express
some detail, I was ensuring that we would agree to a spirit of good
fellowship, that we might become friends and perhaps – why not? – by
1 28
some miracle, we might take the mutual risk of our acquaintanceship
developing into love.
With friend or lover from my own birthplace, emerging from an
identical childhood, swaddled in the same indigenous sounds,
anointed with the same ancestral warmth, grazed by the same sharp
ridges of frustration as my cousins, neighbours, intimate enemies, still
steeped in the same garden of taboos, in the same thickets of lethargy,
yes, with my brothers or my lover-friends, I finally recover my power of
speech, use the same understatements, interlace the allusiveness of
tone and accent, letting inflexions, whispers, sounds and pronunciation
be a promise of embraces … At last, voice answers to voice and body
can approach body.
1 29
Voice
Abdclkader and the partisans began to upbraid me: ‘Your brother
Ahmed died a martyr! We shall be happy to enjoy a similar end!’
They led me away. I joined the other girls. They suggested I stay
with them there.
‘No!’ I replied. ‘I go wherever my brother goes!’
We left that place. In Bou Harb we met Nourredine, the leader, who
pointed to me and said, ‘She must put on a kachabia! Don’t let her go
among the soldiers like that!’
We met Abdelkrim, one of the political organizers. We stayed with
him for about three months. Then we went to Bou Athmane where I
joined two other girls; the group of Brothers came and went; we three
girls started looking after the cooking. Finally they sent me, the
youngest, to the field hospital for the maquis, to make myself useful.
There I met Ferhat, the doctor.
‘You’re going to learn to give first aid to the wounded,’ he told me.
I stayed with him and his patients; I learned to give injections {but I
can’t do that any more, because of my health; my hands tremble).
I spent the first night in the general ward. In the morning one of the
wounded, who was feverish, woke up and caught sight of me; at that
time I had very long hair, which I let down over my shoulders to comb.
Then, the man, who was delirious, shouted, ‘Look! there’s an ogress!’
And the others all laughed … So I stayed with them. Afterwards
several men came and helped with the nursing. It was my job to wash
the patients and their clothes and bed-linen; I began to give injections.
I spent a whole year there.
Eventually, I suddenly didn’t feel like staying any more. My elder
brother only came to see me once. The others started to say, ‘\Vhy are
you going? Nobody looks after the wounded as well as you do!’
‘I’m not staying any longer!’ I said. ‘I’ve been here a year and I’ve
1 30
not seen a single woman, or even a child! No-one except our wounded!
And my brother’s only been to sec me once!’
‘Is that the reason?’ they asked me.
‘The only reason,’ I retorted, ‘is God! I feel as if he’d suddenly cast a
shadow over this place !’
And yet I loved the patients. I even thought, ‘If my mother could sec
me, how proud she’d be! Just look, I’ve learnt how to wash wounded
men!’ A part of the hospital was built underground: the badly wounded
patients were put there; beds for the others were set up under the
trees, in the forest.
The leaders came to inspect us, Slimanc, Si Djclloul from
Chcrchcl, Si Mahmoud (all of them died as martyrs). They said, ‘Stay!
You work well, you’re all right here!’
But I kept saying no; I was bent on leaving.
‘Did someone say anything to you?’ they asked. By that they meant,
‘Was anyone disrespectful to you?’
‘Nobody said anything to me!’ I replied. ‘But I’m not staying! My
heart isn’t in this place any more.’
‘\Vhcre do you want to go?’
‘Anywhere you want to send me, as long as I don’t stay here! I can’t
stand this place any more!’
So they sent me to another post. The day I left, we all wept – the
patients as well as me!
They took me to the Mimoun hospital where Si Omar was in
chargc. lt took me some time to get used to the change. Then suddenly
they said to me, ‘You’ll have to get married!’
‘No, I won’t,’ I replied. ‘You can kill me if you like, but I won’t get
married!’
No matter what they said, they couldn’t persuade me. The doctor
who had taught me everything sided with me and Omar.
‘They’re really only children! Leave them alone!’
Eventually, it seems, this doctor left the maquis because of this
incident. He didn’t do anything, he didn’t tum traitor, but he preferred
to give himself up! …
In this marriage business, they thought of giving me to a ‘chief! A
chief from Mouza’ia. I stuck to my guns. Then they said, ‘If you don’t
want to marry this one, marry someone else, anyone you like! Choose!’
I replied, ‘Did I join you just to get married? No, I won’t marry
anyone! These men are all my brothers!’
131
Eventually they left me in peace. I stayed at this second hospital. A
woman came who’d worked in the city ‘in the underground’. She
arrived with her husband. So that she could remain with him she’d
said she knew how to make uniforms, when she really didn’t know how
to … But we stayed together. I spent the night with her. Soon
afterwards another woman arrived; she was married too.
A few months later, Si Djelloul arrived from Cherchel with some
others, his seconds in command. They said, referring to me, ‘This girl
is from our region! We’re not leaving her here! We’re taking her back
to our sector!’
They’d heard about my opposition to the marriage plan; they didn’t
say anything to me but they took me to Bou Hillal, to join the
maquisards from my region. We stayed at the post. At night, the men
slept on one side and the women, even the partisans’ wives who
weren’t in uniform, slept on the other side … I remember one of the
women, the oldest, who grew very fond of me. I called her ‘Jedda’.
A few months later, one of the partisans gave us away. At dawn the
French surrounded us. Jedda and I were the first up to perform our
ablutions before the morning prayer. I could hear French spoken, not
far away. I asked in surprise, ‘Who’s speaking French?’
The old woman said, ‘One of our men, probably!’
‘No,’ I replied. ‘You know perfectly well we’re forbidden to speak
French now.’
I turned round to look and spied French soldiers. I gave the alarm,
shouting, ‘Soldiers! Soldiers!’
I’d barely started running and shouting when the firing began. A
child (some of the married women had children) had just got up and
came tottering out first: a bullet hit him in the middle of the forehead
and he fell down dead on the ground in front of me. Poor kid: one
single step from sleep straight into death! Jedda and I started running.
The other women, who weren’t dressed in soldiers’ uniforms, gave up
the attempt at flight.
The enemy pursued us. I managed to hide. I remained hidden the
whole night. But this time the enemy didn’t budge; not even at night.
We continued to be surrounded. And eventually they found me,
huddled up among the prickly-pear bushes!
They pulled me out and when they took me to the village, a clerk
from Mcnaccr (I didn’t know him but the others told me later that he
1 32
played music at weddings) said, ‘That girl’s the sister of the Amrounes!
One of her brothers died in the fighting, the other’s still in the
maquis!’
They asked m e i f i t was true. I said it was.
‘\Vhere’s your brother – the one who’s alive?’
‘I haven’t seen him!’
As I was dressed as a partisan, an officer ordered the soldiers to
search me: ‘She could be hiding a weapon!’
The Frenchman said that, but the goumier who was guarding me
replied, ‘No! If she’s hiding anything, it’s too bad! … Let her kill
someone if she wants to!’
Another goumier came up and accused me: ‘I know you! I was there
when you and your brother and Arbouz killed twenty-eight people!
You kill your own kind! That’s why I left you people and gave
myself up!’
‘Traitor among traitors!’ I retorted. ‘You dare talk like that! You’re
the one who kills and assassinates your own people and then goes and
betrays them! We aren’t the ones who kill each other! You’re the one
who sells your own people and enlists for the sake of a bowl of
soup!’
He was furious, he aimed his rifle a t m e and threatened me, ‘I’ll
kill you!’
‘Kill me,’ I said, ‘if you’re a man! But you aren’t a man, you’re a
goumier! I’m not yet a grown woman, but that makes no difference! Kill
me, since you love killing!’
They kept me there for the night. The soldiers had previously decided
they were going to tie me up.
‘Never!’ I shouted. ‘Nobody’s going to touch me! Several of you can
guard me, if you like! Nobody’s going to tie me up!’
Several of them stayed to guard me. In the morning they brought me
some coffee.
‘I don’t drink before I’ve washed my face!’
They brought me some water. I performed my ablutions. They
brought the coffee back.
‘I’m not drinking anything!’
They offered me some biscuits.
‘I’m not eating anything!’
I took the biscuits and put them on the ground.
133
‘You\·e put them there for your brothers?’ one of them said
ironically.
‘;\ly brothers aren’t like you,’ I replied, ‘doing anything because
you’re hungry!’
‘Who brought you your food?’
‘\Ve got it ourselves!’
‘Who brought you your clothes?’
‘We made them ourselves!’
Then they brought some human bones: remains of certain people
who’d ‘worked’ with France.
‘Who killed them?’
‘I never saw anything!’
‘Show us where you went when you left here!’
‘I don’t know, I always stayed here!’
‘Tell us what they’re like! Describe them to us!’
‘Soldiers, like you! I never look at faces!’
‘\Vhat’s a young girl like you doing here, away from your parents?’
‘The maquisards are my brothers and they’re like parents to me
too!’
Then, without waiting for them to ask me any more questions, I
added, ‘I don’t recognize France! I’ve been brought up according to
the Arab word! The “Brothers” are my brothers!’
They took me away. When we were near a wadi, one of the goumiers
slipped me an ammunition pouch. But an officer suddenly appeared
and he immediately took the cartridges back … A bit further on, the
one who’d accused me and insulted me approached and began to
threaten me again: ‘I’m going to kill her!’ I defied him again and
repeated what I thought of him, ‘a man who’d sold himself for a bowl
of soup!’
Another goumier, whose name was Cherif, intervened and said to the
other one, ‘Just leave her alone! Look at the Frenchmen; they hardly
dare speak to her, young as she is, and you, her compatriot, you’re
trying to provoke her!’
A third one turned to me and said: ‘ Here, take my rifle and shoot
him!’
Of course I knew he was making fun of me. But I retorted, ‘D’you
think I can’t shoot? Give it to me and you’ll soon sec!’
The argument continued, but they loaded us into trucks and drove
off. At Chcrchel, they stopped at some barracks. They put me in a cell
1 34
with a stone floor. I lay down and went to sleep. A guard came later
and asked, ‘You want to wash?’
They took me to a tap and gave me some soap and a towel. I washed
and went back to my cell. Then they came to fetch me for questioning.
It began in the early afternoon. It lasted for hours … I simply replied
to all their questions, ‘I don’t recognize you! I don’t recognize France!’
They tried to make me tell them where the khatibas were marching
to and the names of their leaders. I invariably replied, ‘I don’t know!’
They took me from one interrogation room to another. Then they
asked, ‘The “Hamdaniya” khatiba [so called after the name of its
leader, Hamdane] has broken up, hasn’t it?’
I knew that this was so, but I replied with a sneer, ‘No! It’s still
intact! You’ve only got to usc your eyes: the other day, when you got
into that skirmish with us that left the hospital full of your wounded,
that was Hamdanc’s khatiba! It covers the country from the Chcnoua
hills to Bou Hilal!’
One of the officers lost his temper and hit me twice across the face.
Then they brought a tommy-gun.
‘Confess! Tell us what we want to know or we’ll shoot!’
‘Shoot!’ I said. ‘It makes no difference to me! I’m a girl, I’m not a
grown woman, but I’ll leave men behind me! … Each one of them will
kill a hundred of yours! Kill me!’
They brought a whip. They beat me. They switched on the
electricity for their machines. They tortured me.
‘I don’t recognize you!’
I didn’t feel any fear: God made these Frenchmen seem like
shadows in front of my eyes! And it was true, I would have preferred
to die!
Suddenly one of them asked me, ‘Arc you a virgin? … We heard
that X . . . [and he gave the name of the leader of the Mouzai”a) asked
to marry you!’
I realized that the man who’d left the maquis and become a goumier
had told them about the marriage business.
‘I’m not married!’ I replied.
Finally they took me back to the cell. They gave me a bed, a blanket.
They brought me a plate of food, even some meat, some bread and a
spoon. But once I was alone I suddenly started to weep: my tears
wouldn’t stop! ‘How can God have allowed me to fall into the hands of
the French?’ I asked myself in despair.
1 35
A wmmier came and opened the door.
‘Come now! Don’t cry!’ he said. ‘You’re not the first girl they’ve
caught. At first, when they question you, it’s hard, but in the end they
let you go.’
I wouldn’t answer him. He shut the door again. I went over to the
food. I picked at the meat: one or two mouthfuls only, as I was so
hungry, but I didn’t trust them. I didn’t touch the rest. In the morning
they brought me some coffee. I asked to wash first: they took me out
into a courtyard where there was a tap. I washed while they looked on;
I splashed water on my face, washed my arms up to my elbows, my feet
and legs up to my knees: just like for my ablutions. I loosened my hair
which wasn’t so long any more, combed it and arranged it. And they all
stood there, watching me!
‘Have you finished?’
‘I’ve finished!’
In my cell I sipped a mouthful of coffee, no more! Even though I was
famished I wanted to show them, show the whole of France, that that
was all I wanted!
‘You’ve drunk your coffee? You’ve finished?’
‘I’ve finished, I thank God!’
They took me to a car. The pot-bellied officer who’d slapped my
face the day before came up. He asked me in Arabic, ‘Do you know
where you’re going now?’
‘How should I know?’
‘Do you know Gouraya?’
‘I’ve never heard of it!’
‘You Arabs! All you can say is, “I don’t know! I’ve never heard
of it!” ‘
‘\Vhen you’re walking in a forest,’ I said, ‘why d’you have to know
the name of the forest?’
Another Frenchman, also an officer, interposed: ‘She’s young. It’s
natural that she wouldn’t know anything!’
This officer got in the car, as well as the driver and a goumier. A jeep
followed. Every time we passed through a village, the officer who really
believed that I didn’t know the area told me the Arabic names of the
villages. \Vhen we got to Gouraya, Berardi, the chief of the SAS, who
was well known in the locality, came out and greeted the officer who
whispered to me, ‘That’s Berardi!’
After Gouraya, we got to the place called the ‘The Sacred Wood’. I
136
knew that was where the biggest prison in the district was. An officer, a
lieutenant called Coste, received us; he didn’t speak to me, just looked
me over then nodded.
‘Put her in a cell!’ he said. ‘A cell right in the sun!’
\Vhcn he’d gone, the officer in the car asked for another cell for me.
A prisoner, a partisan who was probably there for questioning,
managed to get ncar me shortly afterwards and whisper, ‘Oh, sister,
where did they capture you?’
I stared at him without replying. He hurriedly added, ‘You know
X . . . and Y … ?’ I said yes, as my distrust vanished. They took me for
questioning. I answered in the same way as at Chcrchcl. They used
electricity again. Once it went on from dawn until two in the afternoon.
It was particularly hard.
They confronted me with the goumier who had recognized me when
I was arrested and who’d threatened me. I didn’t let them intimidate
me: ‘You can keep me in prison for twenty years if you like. I’m not
giving in! What war has ever lasted twenty years? Ours won’t last that
long! … Do what you like with me!’
Finally, they left me in my cell. I was locked in day and night. One
day Lieutenant Coste arrived and asked me, ‘You all right?’
‘No! I’m not all right! It’s like an oven in here! … When we take
your men prisoner, we don’t lock them up night and day! … We don’t
act unjustly like you do!’
Then they allowed me to keep the door on to the courtyard open. Ifl
wanted to go out for a moment, I could. At night the door was locked
again. I remained there for seven months or more!
Eventually I was allowed to walk about the camp. When new prisoners
arrived and their interrogation began, I went to comfort them and took
them something to drink. That situation didn’t last, because of a
goumier, who came from Constantine. One night, he somehow
managed to unlock the door of my cell, then he called me twice, very
softly, in the dark. I went out and yelled for the guard. He disappeared.
In the morning he came and asked me to forgive him. ‘I don’t
forgive!’ I said and I went and lodged a complaint. He was sentenced
to a week in the punishment cell for unlocking my door like that.
When he was let out, he came to see me again, but this time to blame
me. He stood in front of me in the courtyard with a dog. I didn’t say
anything, I was going to open the doors of the brothers who were
1 37
imprisoned there as I always did when I took them water and food.
The Kfllllllier threatened me: ‘\Vhy did you go and complain to
I .ieutcnant Coste? Who d’you think you arc? … And the fellaheen,
your brothers, they’re no better than rats hiding in holes!’
In the face of this insult, I couldn’t contain myself.
‘Come closer, if you dare! You call us rats, so let’s sec if we’re rats or
lions!’
The quarrel got more and more bitter. Lieutenant Coste arrived
with his second in command, the man who did the electric shocks
during the questioning and who spoke Arabic. He translated for the
lieutenant. I told him how the goumier had insulted me. The lieutenant
forbade him to speak to me.
Two or three months later, this same goumier reappeared on the
scene. It was one morning; I was taking coffee to the prisoners who
were there for questioning. I saw him approaching me; I pointed this
out to another guard. The latter, to avoid any incident, asked me to go
back to my cell. It wasn’t my place to give way!
‘I’m not going back!’ I decided. ‘I don’t care what happens! Today,
I’m going to have it out with him!’
‘You’ve just got to stay in your hole,’ the goumier sniggered, ‘out of
sight of God’s mercy!’
‘I’m not going back!’ I repeated.
I ran into another courtyard. He began to shout insults after me, for
everyone to hear.
‘Youfellaheen, you live in the forests like wild beasts and you want to
behave like savages here!’
‘And where do you goumiers come from?’ I retorted. ‘You have sold
your loyalties! The flag that I believe in doesn’t fly above this place! It’s
over there, in the forests and on the mountains!’
The quarrel grew in front of everybody. It lasted for some time.
Finally I grabbed a big coffee-pot and when he came too close to me I
hit him as hard as I could on the shoulder.
‘Damn her!’ he yelled. ‘She’s fractured my collar-bone!’
As it happened I had a knife in my pocket: a prisoner had slipped it
to me at the beginning of the quarrel. And I’d just picked up an iron
bar which was lying near a railing. I’d said to myself, ‘If he comes near
me again, I’ll hit him with the iron bar and finish him off with the
knife!’ And I was quite determined to do it, too! … It’s true that at that
time, I was in prime condition! When the French arrested me in the
138
mountains, they were astonished! They just had to look at my wrists to
sec how strong I was … Alas! if any of the brothers from those days
met me today, they’d swear I wasn’t the same person!
A staff-sergeant and another soldier arrived. They blamed me for
striking the goumier. I told them the truth about what happened. They
tried to force me to return to my cell.
‘I’m not going back!’
‘You must!’
Three of them took hold of me; I resisted with all my strength:
kicking, punching, butting them with my head. They let me go and left
me lying on the ground, screaming hysterically … Lieutenant Coste’s
second in command arrived. He spoke to me quite gently and begged
me, ‘Come now, go back to your cell! Lieutenant Costc’ll be along and
you’ll sec what he’ll do!’
I went back to my cell. Then they sentenced me to three days and
three nights in the punishment cell, without food or drink. When the
three days were up and they brought me food, I decided I wouldn’t
touch it, and I stayed on hunger strike for twenty days! As if I
depended on them! … Some of the brothers who were imprisoned
there managed to get a bit of bread to me, sometimes an apple (that I
made last for three days); they passed a wire through a skylight with
bits of food on the end … A soldier from Oran whom they’d won over
sometimes unlocked my door and slipped the bread in for me. The
main thing for me, as far as the French were concerned, was to show
them I didn’t need them!
Eventually, they left me in peace and I didn’t sec that goumier again.
A long time later a group of Red Cross officials came to the camp.Ten
or more men in civilian clothes came to my cell and greeted me
respectfully. But Lieutentant Coste intervened. ‘She doesn’t understand
French!’ he told them.
They went away. Months passed. Once an important officer came.
When he entered my cell he said, ‘De Gaulle has sent me to visit these
prisons!’
Two goumim who were accompanying him translated.
‘Seeing that you’re here, where were you arrested?’
I told them I’d been arrested ‘in the mountains’.
‘What were you doing in the mountains?’
‘I was fighting!’
139
‘Why were you fighting?’
‘For what I believe in, for my ideas!’
‘And now, seeing you’re a prisoner?’
‘I’m a prisoner, so what!’
‘What have you gained?’
‘I’ve gained the respect of my compatriots and my own self-respect!
Did you arrest me for stealing or for murder? I never stole! My
conscience is clear!’
They went away. I remained in the camp, but thanks to this man,
probably, I was able to sec my parents. They came all the way from
their village to visit me. When my father saw me he wept.
Six months before the cease-fire, they managed to get me
transferred to a prison ncar them. They had just lost Abdelkadcr, my
eldest brother …
1 40
Embraces
Chcrifa’s voice embraces the bygone days. Tracing the fear, the
defiance, the intoxication in that forgotten place. Outbursts of a
recalcitrant prisoner in the sun-scared camp.
The voice recounts? Scarcely that. It digs out the old revolt. It
portrays the rolling hills, so often set on fire, the ride across the russe-t
slopes of these bare mountains that I travel through today.
Strange little sister, whom henceforth I leave vdlcd or whose story I
now transcribe in a foreign tongue. Her body and her face arc once
more engulfed in shadow as she whispers her story – a butterfly
displayed on a pin with the dust from its crushed wing staining one’s
finger.
She sits in the middle of a darkened room, crowded with
bright-eyed children squatting around: we arc in the heart of an
orange plantation in the Tell district … The thin, weak voice scales
the heights of so many past years, then tells of peace suddenly
descending like a lead weight. She pauses, picks up the talc, a stream
that disappears beneath the cactus hedges.
The words fade away . . . Chcrifa is married now to a taciturn
widower, a workman whom I saw leave shortly before on his tractor; he
is in charge of the equipment in this agricultural co-operative. She
brings up the man’s five children.
She speaks slowly. Her voice lifts the burden of memory; it now
wings its way towards that summer of 1 956, when she was just a girl,
the summer of the devastation … Do her words bring it to light? She
braves the suspicious mother-in-law who prowls around us,
hoping to discover what the hesitating narrative reveals: what
exigency in the story, what secret, what sin, or simply what is
missing …
Chcrifa ageing, in poor health, is housebound. As she sets her voice
141
free for me, she sets herself free again; what nostalgia will cause her
mice to fail presently? …
I do not claim here to be either a story-teller or a scribe. On the
territol)’ of dispossession, I would that I could sing.
I would cast off my childhood memories and advance naked, bearing
offerings, hands outstretched to whom? – to the Lords of yesterday’s
war, or to the young girls who lay in hiding and who now inhabit the
silence that succeeds the battles … And what arc my offerings? Only
handfuls of husks, culled from my memory, what do I seck? Maybe the
brook where wounding words arc drowned …
Chcrifa! I wanted to re-create your flight: there, in the isolated field,
the tree appears before you when you are scared of the jackals. Next
you arc driven through the villages, surrounded by guards, taken to the
prison camp where every year more prisoners arrive . . . I have
captured your voice; disguised it with my French without clothing it. I
barely brush the shadow of your footsteps!
The words that I thought to put in your mouth arc shrouded in the
same mourning garb as those of Bosquct or Saint-Arnaud. Actually, it
is they who are writing to each other, using my hand, since I condone
this bastardy, the only cross-breeding that the ancestral beliefs do not
condemn: that of language, not that of the blood.
Torch-words which light up my women-companions, my accomplices;
these words divide me from them once and for all. And weigh
me down as I leave my native land.
1 42
Second Movement:
The Trance
The memory of my maternal grandmother appears darkly before me: a
lioness grown weak, impotent, gasping for breath.
At regular intervals, about every two or three months, the matriarch
would summon musicians from the city: three or four women of
venerable age, one of whom was almost blind. They arrived muffled up
in grimy haih over their shabby lace-trimmed gowns, carrying their
drums wrapped in scarves.
Kamnms filled with hot coals were hurriedly brought. Memories of
the women’s crimson faces as smoke began to rise … The servants
and girls of the family placed the braziers in my grandmother’s
darkened room; she always remained hidden from sight from dawn.
The smell of incense gradually filled the room; the musicians let the
parchment of the drums warm up, while the blind woman, seated on
one corner of the high bed, droned out a funeral invocation.
This noctural quavering chant brought my cousin and me running,
half uneasy, but at the same time, fascinated … I must have been
quite young; the boy, who was a little older, had a certain prestige in
my eyes; unruly, impudent, he drove his mother to distraction; she
would grow hysterical and I can still sec her chasing him frantically
over the roof-terraces to give him a good hiding . . . the boy was
nicknamed the me}11111111, as if he were possessed …
These strange days began with the musicians’ ceremonial chants;
then the relationship between my cousin and me was reversed. He was
frightened, he grew tense; he huddled up against me, the younger one,
while waiting for the show which scared him. I, on the contrary, greatly
enjoyed my role as spectator. We sat side by side ncar a window and
waited.
1 43
The rluHwts, lady-musicians, began to strike the drums with their
ringed fingers; the ins idious invocation rose up in the smoke-filled
room, where more and more women and children gathered.
Finally my grandmoth er made her dramatic entrance, as always the
consummate actress. Upright, clad only in a tight-fitting tunic, her
head turbaned in multi-coloured scarves, she began a slow dance. All
of us onlookers could sense that, in spite of appearances, this was not
the beginning of a festivity.
For one hour, two hours, the matriarch swayed her bony body from
side to side; her hair came undone, and every now and then she gave
out a hoarse grunt. The blind woman’s chant helped to goad her on,
while the chorus broke off to cry, ‘Flush out the ill fortune! May the
teeth of envy and covetousness not harm you, 0 my lady! … Bring out
your strength and all your armoury into the light of day, 0 my queen!’
The others resumed their monotonous hypnotic sing-song as torpor
descended on the over-heated room. The women bustled to and fro
between the room and the kitchens, stoking up the fires in the kanouns
in preparation for the climax. My cousin and I, tense with anticipation,
mesmerized by the increasing frenzy of the music, felt we were
witnessing the solemn prologue to a ritual act.
Finally came the crisis: my grandmother, oblivious to everything,
jerked spasmodically to and fro till she went into a trance. The drums
had worked up to a frenzy. The blind woman went on chanting her
solo; she alone orchestrated the collective hysteria. The women of the
household abandoned their cooking to hurry in: a couple of the aunts
or cousins helped the weakened matriarch, supporting her on each
side. The blind woman’s threnody grew softer, reduced to a murmur,
an imperceptible guttural groan; she finally drew ncar to the prancing
woman and whispered scraps of the Quran in her car.
A drum beat out the tempo for the crisis; the cries began: drawn up
from the depths of her belly, perhaps even from her legs, rending her
hollow chest, emerging at last in rasping squawks from the old lady’s
throat. Now she could hardly stand, her loosened hair, her gaudy
head-scarves were tossed about her shoulders, only her head swayed
from side to side as she grunted rhythmically.
At first the choking cries came thick and fast, jostling each other,
then they swelled and swirled in spreading spirals, intersecting arches,
tapering to needle-points. The old lady gave up the struggle,
surrendering herself completely to the insistent beat of the blind
144
woman’s drum: all the voices of the past, imprisoned in her present
existence, were now set free and leapt far away from her.
Half an hour or one hour later she lay bunched up in her bed, an
almost invisible heap, while the musicians ate and gossiped amid the
smell of incense. Their magic as pagan priestesses had vanished, and
now in the tardy noonday light they were simply ugly old women with
faces extravagantly painted.
During the crisis, the mejnoun cousin sat clinging tightly to my
shoulders, seeking a fragile protection, while I kept my eyes glued on
my grandmother in her trance – she of whom we children were
normally so much in awe. I felt I was following the dancer into some
realm of frenzy.
I was conscious of the mystery: the matriarch was normally the only
one of the women who never complained; she condescended to mouth
the formulas of submission disdainfully; but this extravagant or
derisory ceremonial which she regularly organized was her own way of
protesting … Against whom? Against the others or against fate? I
wondered. But when she danced, she became indubitably queen of the
city. Cocooned in that primitive music, she drew her daily strength
before our very eyes.
The haughty matron’s voice and body gave me a glimpse of the
source of all our sorrows: like half-obliterated signs which we spend
the rest of our lives trying to decipher.
1 45
Voice
The ‘revolution’ began and ended in my home, as every douar in these
mountains can bear witness.
In the beginning the partisans ate up everything I had. I even took
them a little pension I got. And then the corn – before the French
burnt us out, we gave it to the mill, then we kneaded the flour. I owned
two ovens for baking bread. They’re still there, as they’d been built of
concrete. After my farm had been gutted several times, it stayed
without a roof; you can still sec the walls … I had plenty of cattle then,
when I lived there!
As I was saying, at first they only came to get something to cat. Then
Sid Ali arrived and said, ‘We’re going to let the men hide here, aunt!’
(He’s my mother’s nephew.)
‘No!’ I replied. ‘Go and sec what happened to the Kabylc, Mohand
Oumous, on the main road; it’s scarcely a week since you started using
his place, and they’ve burnt down everything he had!’
But he went on, ‘Aunt, don’t reason like that! Don’t say, “I have … ”
or “This is mine … “, say rather, “I don’t own! … This isn’t
mine! … ” Put yourself in the hands of God and if needs must, let the
fire spread and devour everything.’
So that’s how they came to usc my farm …
From then on, I didn’t have to find food for them myself any more.
Other people started giving. Perhaps they were afraid, at least some of
them were; soon they gave so much that we all had enough to cat and
there was food left over! Sometimes we even had to throw it away …
Towards the end, everything got scarce again. Once more we were
hungry and wretched! …
As for the number of Moujahidine, could you even count them?
Impossible! Eve:• when two of them walked into a house together, they
seemed to fill the patio! . . . And could you ever say a word?
1 46
Impossible! All you could do was roll up your sleeves, knead the
dough, prepare the stcwpot, sec to the cooking, and so on, the whole
day; there were always little groups of them coming and going …
They arranged for somebody to keep guard. I was just kept busy with
the pots and pans all the time, I put the food down in front of them,
then I went and sat outside and waited, ready for death … Y cs, at the
gate of the orchard! I was so frightened! I kept watch, while they ate.
Suppose someone came up the hill to our place and found them there,
we’d all have been wiped out, on the spot!
They used my farm for five years to hide in. Y cs, five years, until the
end of the ‘revolution’! …
Once I was betrayed; it was because of a lad who happened to belong
to the same tribe as me, through his father.
He was too young to understand! He must have been fifteen. His
mother, a neighbour, had gone to 1\lount Chcnoua, to sec her married
daughter. She asked me, ‘Keep an eye on him! The lad’s so young, so
na’ivc. If he starts wandering ofT he’ll get picked up!’
So he stayed hidden with me while his mother was away. One day he
went out to irrigate the orchard. His mother had told him over and
over again, ‘Sec that you water the garden every night!’ But that night
he hadn’t woken up; so he went out in the morning when he got up,
but the sun was already high …
The French soldiers arrested him. They brought him back to me: I
didn’t recognize him at first. He was wearing a pair of European
trousers instead of his father’s baggy breeches. They’d smeared his
face with some sort of powder. And he was wearing a hat! . .. I never
thought it could be him. But when he began to speak I recognized his
voice. He told them, ‘That’s the place .. . ‘
So that’s when they first burnt my house down.
When his mother came back, I gave her a piece of my mind: I let her
know what her son had done to me. She answered, as cool as you like,
‘So what? Once the French caught him, what d’you suppose he could
do? Did you want them to kill him? .. . ‘
When my farm was in flames a man whose house wasn’t far, just on the
main road, shouted, ‘Well! That’s God’s doing! When the partisans
wanted to hide in this woman’s house, I advised her not to get
involved. And she replied, “I am involved, until I die!” Since she
1 47
claims she’s in it till she dies, let’s just sec what happens now!’
This same peasant, when any people passed his house, he badgered
them with questions, ‘Aren’t they still feeding the maquisards?’
What’s more, his son came to sec what damage had been done:
they’d even smashed my cooking pots! … But I wouldn’t give up. The
following days I decided to go and make my fire between some stones
and I managed to feed the partisans, just the same! ‘To the bitter end,’
I said to myself, ‘I’ll go on to the bitter end! The rest is in God’s
hands!’
So this neighbour spent his time spying on me. He started going to
inform: ‘Such and such a company has arrived at Sahraoui
Zohra’s! … Such and such khatiba’ …
Alas! We can’t read or write. We don’t leave any accounts of what
we lived through and all we suffered! … You’ll sec other people who
spent their time crouching in holes and who, afterwards, told what
they’ve told!
They didn’t leave us a thing: they took the cattle, everything put by in
the silos, everything. They didn’t even leave us a goat! Not a thing …
People rented me little plots of land, then the soldiers came and
asked, ‘Arc those Sahraoui Zohra’s cows? … Ah, is that her crop?’
And they burnt everything, until we were absolutely destitute! Then
I decided, ‘I’ll go down to the village!’ The Brothers said, ‘Don’t give
yourself up!’
‘I’m not going to give myself up,’ I said, ‘I’m only going down to the
village because I’ve nothing left here!’
‘No, stay here!’ they said.
I went to the village. The maquisards came down from the hills to
get in touch with me. A forest guard gave me away – he saw them once
passing through the forest, and wondered where they could be going.
Then he realized they were coming to my place.
One morning, at daybreak, the local police came and tied me up.
‘You’re the one who’s betraying France! Who d’you think you
arc? … Up on the mountain, you gave us enough trouble, and you’re
starting the same thing again here!’
They threatened me, thinking they’d frighten me. That day, I
thought, ‘This time, they’re going to kill me!’ And I felt quite calm.
But, thanks to God’s mercy, there was a man named Ali among them, a
relative by marriage of my mother’s. He exclaimed, ‘What! You think
1 48
this old woman could have burnt everything all over the mountains? A
little old woman like this? … You either let her go, or I’ll join the
maquis myself!’
Yes, those were his exact words! You see, that man had been a
maquisard, then he’d given himself up. To tell you the truth, since
he’d been working with France, I was afraid of him. Seeing me living
in the village, he came to see me from time to time: I agreed to do his
washing and cook him a meal … After all, he was a relative of my
mother’s, wasn’t he?
That time, when they arrested me, I didn’t stay in prison long!
My house was almost on the edge of the forest … The Brothers
had had this hut evacuated, deciding, ‘This woman must come and live
here!’ The owner of the place is still alive: we didn’t pay him any rent.
That was his way of participating.
I lived in so many different places in those times, so many! …
Finally, when I was let out of prison, I preferred to return to my farm.
How was I to know that the next time I went down to the village I
would find myself living in a tent, like a nomad!
At first, I owned thirty-one head of cattle … In the end, I didn’t have a
single one left! The soldiers took them all!
My farm was burnt down three times. Whenever they came back
and found it in good repair again, they knew the Brothers had rebuilt
the house for us! They brought roofing tiles they’d taken from the
settlers’ houses. Once again, the French soldiers destroyed everything.
And again, the Brothers brought us tiles from the French settlers’
houses and put a roof over our heads again … ‘France’ came again.
So then we decided to do the cooking in the open air, between the
walls without a roof or even in the forest.
The third time, they took us down to the village. The wadi was in
spate. They didn’t give us a thing, no blankets, no food, nothing. They
just left us as we were. They thought we’d die. But we didn’t die. We
just split up, finding shelter wherever we could, some with a brother,
some with a cousin. I went to Hajout, to J ennet’s· place. When I fled to
her place, I warned her: ‘Just be careful, Jennet! If anyone tells you
your aunt is hiding in your place, don’t admit anything! Say she’s not
there!’
Whenever I heard a noise, or when anyone came to the door to
speak to her, I hid, I slipped under a mattress, like a snake! …
1 49
Afterwards, when they’d gone, I asked, ‘Have they gone?’
‘Yes !’
Because I was frightened! I knew that these people came ‘in the
name of God and his Prophet’, in all good faith, but all the same, if
they saw me when they left, they’d talk! They’d say, ‘Lia Zohra from
Bou Semmam is there! She’s come here so that Hajout can also be
burnt down!’ I had to hide!
Everything that has happened to me! Oh, Lord, everything that has
happened!
I SO
Murmurs
Jennet is s111mg in the doorwt�)’, 011 the bare tiles, or 011 a Sllorv-lvhite
sheepskin.
A slauting sunbeam lights up her ample fonll, illdistillguishable uuder her
loose gorvn of multi-coloured cotton. A hem.:)’ braid of black hair is coiled
around her fine-featured face. She sits rvoiti11g: her husband rvos picked up
during a military control rvhich stopped the bus on the main road; he
disappeared a year ago; rvhere is he norv, in rvhat prison, mlwr camp or at the
bottom of rvhat precipice? Jennet mmes rn·er the sons, the da11ghters that she
baSil ‘t had during trventy years of sterile married life …
At the back of the room, her old cmnt Aidw, rvho has come donm from the
mmmtai11s, is huddled in a comer. But she rambles 011 in an endless lament:
‘PraJ• they don ‘t cmue, 0 Ill)’ sister’s daughter! Don ‘t let the chatteri11g
neighbours suspect this time, mrses 011 their cold hearts, these offspring of
f/aJ•ed hye11as!’
The roice, 1/IJTV hoarse, uorv sing-song, rises iu regular stm1::.as mlminatiug
iu rhJ•med mrses. After a pame, she mutters her ritual prt()’er … Jmuet sits
there bill does not pray, ez:en though she catches the last Jaiut rvhiue of the
111111:::.::.iu ‘s arabesques.
She keeps rvatch out of habit: a child might come knocking at the outer
door, she must stop him in the restibule. The prying IJII.�)•bodies on the
11eighbouring terraces fiud al()’ exmse to send to ask ji1r au egg they’re short of,
a pinch of papn’ka, a mpful of chickpeas or caster sugar. Jm11et knorvs that
th�y knorv, these spies, these jealom 1vomen, these scaudalmrmgers. Thej•
probabo• say that the old rvomau has come /Pith some ue1JJ scheme, proposing
to arrange a marriage or orga11i::.e some magic mre … Tlwy imagi11e that the
sterile rvoman without brood, the silent rvoman from the cities, is tormmted by
her remlf rvidorvhood, plagued kl’ the solitmle of the empo• bed …
Up in the hills, ‘France ‘ daio• fims the fire, dispersing IVomen and childreu
along the muddy roads. There are more and more raid� ou the markets of the
lSI
little /o/1’11. ]t’llllel tlriul.:s of lrer lrusha11d rollin,; in some jail or other: will a
messm[!.er come, a rdatire by marria,;l’ or oue of God’.,. be!!J!,ars bearing a sign
of f!,OIId 11/111’11? .••
]e1111el si/S iu tire doonPIIJ’, maititlfi, mlrile in the semi-darkness old Ai’cha ‘s
moaning f!.rllll’S louder.
]mnet .w’::.es the brrm:.:;e pes!le 6•in,; in front of her bare feet near her
abandoned mules: ‘Keep ua• hands busy, 0 genlle-eyed Prophet, 0 Lla
Khadija, his belm·ed! Keep my hands busy to unclench the teeth of
anguis!t!’ …
The regular pounding of the pestle begins, mtshing dm’eS of garlic, then
fresh herbs. Despite its heavy beat Jennet can still hear the voice of the
fnghtened fugitive: ‘For three daJ•s, ‘ she says to herself, ‘the poor creature has
never stopped trembling; she’s trying to keep 1if! the ill winds that beset her’;
and Jennet pounds with all her might, making the metal moTtar ring . ..
She gets up slow6•, walks to and fro, her hands sudden6• too active; she sits
down again. She rests the pestle again betweeen her bare feet whose toes are
stained with cn’mson henna. The evening draws on, the voice of the old
woman lying in the back room, on the horsehair mattress, under a white sheet
(‘white as a shroud!’ she moaned), the fugitive �· t’Oice takes up its incoherent
antiphon, or sorceress’s soliloquJ•, casting spells.
The last gleams of dusk die out above the terrace with its frail Jasmin.
Jennet resumes her pounding: the garlic is crushed, the coriander reduced to a
powder, the cumin to dust, but as the herbs and spices scent the twilit room,
Jennet decides to go on pounding till the voice in the half-darkness ceases its
rat•mgs …
The neighbours might hear, the bu�)•bodies nn the terraces might
understand, the child they send knocking on the door might have time to cross
the vestibule, to reach the threshold of the room and take them b:J• surprise; she
must keep watch, she must keep guard, hour after hour, day after daJ•.
Until the fugitive’s fears are allayed, till she regains her strength and can
depart, veiled, protected, to face the terrors of the adventure …
152
Plunder
In the family gatherings of former times, the matrons take their place
in a circle, according to an accepted protocol. In the first place, age
takes precedence over fortunes or repute. The most senior is always
the first to enter the L-shaped vestibule leading out on to the patio
with its bluish ceramic tiles; she is followed by her daughter-in-law,
whom she calls ‘her bride’ even ten years after the wedding (as if her
son had simply been married by proxy); next come her other
daughters, widowed, divorced or still unmarried …
Then everyone takes a seat: the divans in the centre are reserved for
the ladies who lead each procession: they are the only ones to speak
aloud, to ask questions, to extend their congratulations, to distribute
their blessings while they take off their veils of spotless wool and their
‘brides’ remove their taffeta haiks, and every guest settles down amid a
rustle of silken skirts.
The bride in each family must spend two or three hours exhibiting
her face, her antique jewels, her embroidered silks; the mother-in-law,
while taking part in the exchanges, keeps an eye on her daughter-inlaw
to make sure she inspires compliments and envy.
I watch this ritual from the corridor or from a corner of the patio; we
little girls can move around, listening out for sudden bursts of
conversation or momentary pauses in the collective buzz of talk.
The younger women, married or widowed, are mostly seated
uncomfortably on hard, upright chairs; they sit still, ill at ease. I can
imagine what they must be suffering.
‘Why don’t they ever speak?’ I sometimes ask.
At most they murmur thanks, compliments to the hostess on the
coffee or cakes, or exchange inaudible greetings with their neighbours.
Questions follow a time-honoured formula with thanks to God and to
the Prophet. Sometimes the order of the courtesies is so unchanged
1 53
that a guest at one end of the room will simply move her lips to address
another at the other end: ‘I low is the master of the house? How arc all
the children’ And the Sheikh, may God grant him the pilgrimage!’
And similarly greetings and blessings arc mouthed from the other
end of the room, and they criss-cross in an exchange little more than
mime.
The loud miccs of the oldest women – a merry laugh, a chuckle, the
suggestion of an obscene joke – ring out suddenly on the heady
perfumed air, above the whimpering of the children who wait
impatiently in the doorway or on the rug. Once coffee, tea and cakes
have been handed round, the matrons can unbend; under the guise of
allusions, axioms, parables, they indulge in tittle-tattle about such and
such an absent family.
Then the conversation comes back to themselves or at least to their
husbands, referred to by the omnipresent ‘he’; rather than complain of
some domestic worry, some all too familiar trouble (a repudiation, a
temporary separation, a dispute over a legacy), the woman who is
recounting her own experiences will end by expressing her resignation
to Allah and the local saints. Sometimes the daughters take up their
mother’s story, elaborating it with their long-winded, whispered
exegesis. Adding a vivid detail, a caustic comment, they fill in the
picture of the calamity: the man coming home drunk and striking her,
or, on the contrary, ‘himself overtaken by ruin, sickness, involving
endless tears, debts, inexorable misery … So these city ladies sit there
and bear witness, as best they can, to the unfolding drama of their own
lives.
In these gatherings it matters little what the ladies look like in their
antiquated outfits: their ribbons and serouals date from the beginning
of the century: the golden roses quivering on their foreheads, the
hennaed designs between the painted eyelids of the daughters-in-law
who sit like statues – nothing of this has changed for two or three
generations …
At every one of these gatherings, they are trapped in the web of
impossible revolt; each woman who tells her talc – loud exclamations
of the one, rapid whispers of another – gets something off her chest.
The ‘I’ of the first person is never used; the time-honoured
phraseology discharges the burden of rancour and ralcs that rasp the
throat. In speaking to the listening group every woman finds relief
from her deep inner hurt.
1 54
Similarly they arc made to guess at causes for merriment or
happiness; by means of understatement, proverbs, even riddles or
traditional fables, handed down from generation to generation, the
women dramatize their fate, or exorcize it, but never expose it directly.
The Second World War had not encroached on my country’s soil, but
she had sacrificed a significant contingent of her sons at the front.
When it ended, the Nationalist movement flared up. A series of violent
incidents even marked Armistice Day.
In my native city there was talk of a plot that was only just discovered
in time: weapons stolen from the arsenal, a bomb exploding at the
military hospital. The authors of these incidents were soon found and
arrested.
During the following summer holidays I took part in an unusual
ceremony which was just like a funeral service. My grandmother’s
nephew was one of the plotters arrested and sentenced to forced
labour, like a brigand.
The guests arrived in their white veils; the mourning liturgy lent
solemnity to the modest house where my grandmother’s younger sister
lived. Was this a death without a corpse? We children stood around in
the vestibule, not knowing what to make of it: the matrons entered,
took their scats on the mattresses, wagging their heads in sympathy
and keeping time to the mother’s tragic aria; she sat with a white scarf
wrapped tightly round her head and gave way to her grief in spasmodic
outbursts of shrill wails.
We looked on, fascinated by the curious absence of any corpse
which impaired the nature of the ceremony. All that remained of the
habitual ritual were the words, the women’s solidarity and the
resignation they affirmed over and over during the mother’s monotonous
lamentations … On the way back home we caught scraps of
conversation about ‘forced labour’ (an unexpected sentence for this
son whom they were mourning but not burying), a bomb, stolen
weapons: the ladies’ hushed voices, their tones of commiseration or
submission, conjured up a whole romantic story.
I was struck by the verdict expressed by my grandmother: not on her
nephew whom she refrained from either judging a hero or a highway
robber, nor on the misfortune which had befallen her family, of which
she deemed herself the mouth-piece. But she condemned her sister
for exhibiting her grief too ostentatiously in front of the assembled
ISS
women. Resignation was the important thing according to the
matriarch: to take the rough with the smooth and always be equal to
the part assigned to you by fate.
The nephew was reprieved the following year: I can’t remember
whether my grandmother went back on her judgement with regard to
her younger sister, who had exposed her sorrow too dramatically.
In the family home, which is so little changed today, it is this
memory of my late grandmother sitting in judgement which conjures
up her ghost for me.
How could a woman speak aloud, even in Arabic, unless on the
threshold of extreme age? How could she say ‘1’, since that would be to
scorn the blanket-formulae which ensure that each individual journeys
through life in a collective resignation? … How can she undertake to
analyse her childhood, even if it turns out different? The difference, if
not spoken of, disappears. Only speak of what conforms, my
grandmother would reprove me: to deviate is dangerous, inviting
disaster in its multiple disguises. Only speak of everyday mishaps, out
of prudence rather than prudery, and so stave off misfortune … As for
happiness, always too short-lived, but compact, succulent, close your
eyes and concentrate all your strength on enjoying it but do not speak
of it aloud …
My oral tradition has gradually been overlaid and is in danger of
vanishing: at the age of eleven or twelve I was abruptly ejected from
this theatre of feminine confidences – was I thereby spared from
having to silence my humbled pride? In writing of my childhood
memories I am taken back to those bodies bereft of voices. To attempt
an autobiography using French words alone is to lend oneself to the
vivisector’s scalpel, revealing what lies beneath the skin. The flesh
flakes off and with it, seemingly, the last shreds of the unwritten
language of my childhood. Wounds arc reopened, veins weep, one’s
own blood flows and that of others, which has never dried.
As the words pour out, inexhaustible, maybe distorting, our
ancestral night lengthens. Conceal the body and its ephemeral grace.
Prohibit gestures – they arc too specific. Only let sounds remain.
Speaking of oneself in a language other than that of the elders is
indeed to unveil oneself, not only to emerge from childhood but to
leave it, never to return. Such incidcntial unveiling is tantamount to
1 56
stripping oneself naked, as the demotic Arabic dialect emphasizes.
But this stripping naked, when expressed in the language of the
former conquerer (who for more than a century could lay his hands on
everything save women’s bodies), this stripping naked takes us back
oddly enough to the plundering of the preceding century.
When the body is not embalmed by ritual lamentations, it is like a
scarecrow decked in rags and tatters. The battle-cries of our ancestors,
unhorsed in long-forgotten combats, re-echo across the years;
accompanied by the dirges of the mourning-women who watched
them die.
1 57
Voice
All four of my sons took to the hills to join the maquis. The day they
arrested seven of the partisans in one swoop, two of my sons were
among them. They chained them together. Someone from here, one of
the leaders of the goumiers, said, ‘All this plotting, it’s your mother
who’s behind it, 0 Ahmed!’
That son didn’t admit anything. His other brothers got a message to
him, from up in the hills: ‘If we get to know that you’ve let one word
slip, we’ll come and kill you ourselves!’
They left me this last one eventually; he stayed with me … I had to
travel to get to sec the others! For a long time I didn’t get any news of
one of them, Malek. I thought, ‘He must be dead!’ A relative came to
sec me from the city. ‘Have you any news of your sons?’ he asked me.
‘I’ve heard from all of them, except Malek,’ I sighed. ‘He’s probably
dead!’
He gave a sort of faint smile, but he didn’t say anything.
‘I sec you smile,’ I said. ‘Perhaps you’ve got news?’
He stooped down then to kiss me on the head. ‘He’s in the city,’ he
whispered as he left. ‘He’s at Kaddour’s, but don’t say a word.’
Malek spent a long time with the maquis. He was a tailor by
profession. He took my Singer sewing machine and worked for the
Brothers … At first I made the uniforms myself. But as I had to sec to
the cooking, I couldn’t do everything! Then Malek took the sewing
machine into the hills … At that time the farm still brought me in a
bit. I could buy another one. But the soldiers of France smashed it up
eventually.
I was very proud of the uniforms I made! Without boasting, mine
had the best cut! If you unfolded one of mine and hung it up, you’d
think it’d been bought in a shop!
!58
People still talk about the plane that the maquisards shot down. A
piece of the plane was found at my place and they knew that ‘the man
from Kolea’ was responsible for the job. That’s what the local people
called my eldest son.
Long before the war, he loved music, he loved gunpowder and
haYing a good time. When Sidi Mhamcd Ben Yuscf, the marabout,
arranged a celebration, the people said to him, ‘Come with us to
welcome the prefect and sub-prefect with gunpowder and music!’
‘I don’t like that sort of celebration!’ he’d reply. ‘I’ll go and haYc a
good time in Kolca, where no-onc knows me. There I’ll be able to
haYe a different sort of fun!’
That’s why they called him ‘the friend of Kolca’, when his real
name’s Sahraoui, the same as mine! He liYcs in Hajout at present. His
stomach is all deformed and I can’t get oYer it!
He was imolYcd in a hand-to-hand fight with the soldiers, with
kniYes! His stomach was ripped open and his intestines all fell out! A
peasant gaYc him the cloth from his head-dress to tic his stomach up
and hold e\ crything in, more or less. T,,.o days later, a doctor in the
maquis examined him and sewed his abdomen up. It’s true he didn’t
die but he’s a cripple now!
He’s still as Yain as he was before the war. And as obstinate!
Besides, he’s still got the same bad habit he’s had eYer since he was a
child: he’s ne\·er afraid, he doesn’t know what fear is! Here he is, with
his belly all deformed, and he was always such a fine figure of a man!
EYcn when he wears a fine jacket, and I know how much trouble he
takes about the way he dresses, people must wonder what’s he’s got on
his hip! …
The second time the soldiers burnt my house down, the fire spread
and the roof collapsed … I went back into the fire, thinking, ‘Even if I
only sa,·c one mattress, I’ll ha\·c that to sleep on!’
So I got one mattress out; the fire had caught one corner. I plunged
it into the wadi and put the fire out. The soldiers laughed at me, saying
‘Arc you keeping that one for the fellaheen?’
They came back and set fire to the place again. They cYcn took the
clothes off our backs … My sister, may her soul rest in peace! she was
older than me, she died, she ncYcr got oYer the shock! They took our
clothes, and left us like that, naked as the day we were born! … I got a
message to a rclatiYc in the Yillagc. She sent us some clothes. They
came back once more and left us destitute again … What trials shall I
1 59
tell you about, and which shall I leave to be forgotten? …
To the little girl I ‘d adopted, I kept on saying, ‘If they question you,
begin to cry! If they ask, “Who comes to visit your mother? What does
she do? ” you must begin to cry immediately … If you say a word,
they’ll ask more questions! Just cry! That’s all you must do!’
And that’s whar she did. She burst into tears, she rolled about in the
sand, she ran away in a Oood of tears. When she got home I was
anxious.
‘Did they hit you?’
‘No,’ she said. ‘They asked me questions; I cried, they wanted to
give me money. I refused and I ran away!’
They thought she knew what money was. But paper money – she’d
never seen any: true she was very little, but it was especially because
she lived in the mountains. In the mountains, who ever sees a
banknotc?
When I came down to the village, I sent her to school; but that didn’t
last long …
In the village a boy ratted on us. He went to tell them, ‘The mother
of the Moujahidine has gone to lzzar! Aunt Zohra has left Ben
Scmmam and has gone there!’
I was asleep when they came knocking at my door and I called out,
‘What’s the matter?’
‘The officer’s asking for you: he wants to have a word with you!’
I decided to go. My little girl and my sister (it was before she died}
started to follow me; they were crying.
‘Don’t cry,’ I told them. ‘Don’t cry for me! I won’t have anyone
crying for me!’
The boy had told them everything: that I had met up with the
Brothers, what they had had to cat, how many there were. The
Brothers had asked me, ‘Have you any news about the future
movements of the French?’ I told them, ‘I don’t know just now, but
send someone to me tomorrow morning, early. I’ll have the
information for you!’ Word for word, the boy had gone and reported to
them everything we’d said! …
When I got back from my meeting with the Brothers, I found out in
the village that the French were going to make a raid into the
mountains. I had passed on the information … And that’s how I found
myself facing the French officer!
1 60
That’s where I met a woman named Khadija. She was very rich:
long before the war she already owned a good deal of property, then
she started buying and buying! She ran a – may God preserve us! – a
‘house’, the wicked woman! – a bawdy house … in spite of that she’d
been on the pilgrimage to Mecca. Then she said, ‘I’ll give some money
to the Moujahidine. Perhaps God will forgive me!’ She gave them
three hundred gold pieces! … After that someone ratted on her: a
man, apparently, who delivered medicines to the Brothers.
So I met this woman in this ante-chamber.
‘What brought you here, Khadija?’ I asked her.
‘The same as you!’ she replied. ‘You’ve been betrayed, so have I! …
God has willed that we meet in this place, and under these
circumstances!’
This time they questioned me with electricity until . . . until I
thought I’d die! I’d said, ‘I don’t want anyone crying over me!’ If I
thought they were going to question me with electricity, I wouldn’t
have gone, not at any price! I’d rather have died there and then.
I came back again into the mountains with my daughter. We used to go
and take semolina to the Brothers. We’d look for a place in the forest
where we could leave it. We also had to find a place to knead it, where
we could cook it. Once, on the way back I caught sight of the soldiers
in the distance.
We fled towards the wadi. We climbed down into a guelta that was
quite deep. The house was on fire. Huge embers, as well as pieces of
burning beams were hurled into the air … We hid, but these burning
missiles fell on us. Some of them fell on my head.
The child, who was very small, was completely covered by the �ater
of the guelta. I was half exposed. My hair caught fire. And the child,
who was crying with fright, shouted, ‘Mother, the fire’s eating you up!
The fire’s eating you up!’
That’s how I lost all my hair. I hurled myself into the water. But
more burning embers fell on me. We couldn’t leave the spot … I’ve
still got these scars on my forehead and neck …
We hid the whole day in the pool. The child and I, all by ourselves!
The Brothers had fled into the forest. The soldiers started to leave. I
could hear the stamp of their feet. They went back to the Roman road
and got into their lorries; it was nearly dusk … It was quite quiet for
a bit.
161
‘Fatiha,’ I said, ‘you’re quite small. From a distance, you could be
mistaken for a chicken or a little goat … Climb up the hill and look!’
She did as I said; she came back and told me, ‘They’ve got back into
their lorries and they’re driving away. You can come out!’
I came out. We were free. We started walking. Where could we go
now, it was night! We walked and walked … We found a wa/i. We
spent the night there, ncar the Saint’s grave. We were ashamed to go
and knock on people’s doors. We stayed there until it was light. Only
then did we knock at the lady’s door, Sid Ahmed Tabar’s daughter.
‘\\’here have you been, little mother?’ she asked me.
‘We’ve just arrived,’ I replied.
I didn’t want to tell her we’d spent the night in the open. I was afraid
she’d laugh at us … Because they do laugh! They laugh and laugh,
those people that nothing happens to!
I didn’t want to mention the fire. Perhaps they’d even be glad about
it, those people who don’t know what misfortune is! I told her again,
‘We’ve been walking in the forest … We’ve just arrived at your door!’
I must admit that she looked after us well. She made us some bread.
We had as much to cat and drink as we needed. Then we left. We
didn’t stay the night with her. She didn’t say anything and we just
didn’t stay. People don’t like sheltering those, like ourselves, who bring
‘France’ behind them!
We left. We wandered about …
After all these misfortunes, I’ve got to the point where people treat me
as if I’m mad. People started telling me I was mad. As a matter of fact,
they were afraid.
‘Here comes the mad woman, shut the door!’
It’s true that after my hair all got burnt I must have been ill for
several months … My sons took care of me. They found people to
look after me. I got a bit better. I must have had a blow on my head;
even now there are times when I can’t remember anything …
The Brothers also took care of me. Thanks to them, I got better. But
people still went on shutting their doors in the ‘mad woman’ ‘s face.
They were afraid: that’s the truth; especially the people of the village.
They said, ‘What arc those folk doing here? They bring bad luck!’
I went to Jennet’s again, in Hajout; I hadn’t got a stitch to my back. I
tried to find a pair of loose trousers that I could tic round my waist and
1 62
cover my head with, like a veil; I couldn’t find any. Who would have
given me a veil?
So I decided to go to Jennet’s. I had to go by bus. I took a basket of
vegetables with me and … When God wants to help you … A man
just happened to be wanting to buy onions. I met him and I’d got what
he wanted, so I was able to pay for the bus! I arrived at Jennet’s with no
veil and no burnous! …
1 63
Embraces
Lla Zohra, from Bou Scmmam, is more than eighty. I cross the
threshold of the house she lives in nowadays, just on the edge of the
village of Mcnaccr. I walk up the path through her vegetable patch that
she looks after herself, and under a walnut and an apricot tree that
later she points out to me proudly.
I tap softly with the knocker on the second door and the hum of the
sewing machine is suspended. The white-washed rooms open on to a
modest patio; from there the slopes of the mountain arc visible, Pic
Marceau with its observation posts that arc no longer in usc.
A young woman, the one who was doing the sewing, comes out first.
Then the old lady, my hostess. We embrace, we touch, we tell each
other how well we look. I sit down. I talk of my grandmother’s death,
which occurred just after independence. I hadn’t seen Lla Zohra since.
‘\Vc were cousins, your grandmother and I,’ she says. ‘It’s true I’m
closer to you through your mother’s father; we belong to the same
fraction of the same tribe. She was related to me through another
marriage, through the female line !’
I listen as she unravels the genealogical skein; the threads pass from
such and such a mountain to such and such a hill, winding through
::.armia and hamlet, and then round the heart of the city. I drink my
coffee. Finally I say, ‘I’m spending the night here! … We’ve plenty of
. I time . . . . ‘
l lcr voice stirs the glowing embers of days past. The afternoon
draws on, the mountainsides change colour, the sewing machine
resumes its monotonous humming-song at the far end of the patio.
The old woman’s adopted daughter has gone back to her sewing; she
doesn’t want to listen or be involved. Later, she asks me how she can
get a job in the nearby town, in the post-office, or in a nursery
school …
1 64
I agree to take you up to your farm, little mother, high in the
mountains. After two hours’ walk on thorny paths, we found the
sanctuary, which you call ‘the refuge’, using the French word, only
slightly distorted: the walls arc still standing among the rubble. Their
base is blackened with traces of extinct fires, lit by present-day
vagrants.
There, your voice took up your talc. The sun was still high. You let
your veil fall around your waist and sat down among the gorse bushes
and spring flowers. Your face, a network of fine wr’inklcs, was austere;
you were lost for a moment in your own memories – I took a
photograph of you among the poppies … The sun gradually sank low
in the sky. We returned in the evening silence.
It is now my turn to tell a talc. To hand on words that were spoken,
then written down. Words from more than a century ago, like those
that we, two women from the same tribe, exchange today.
Shards of sounds which re-echo in the calm after the storm …
The oasis of Laghouat in the summer of 1 853: the artist Eugene
Fromcntin has spent the preceding autumn and spring in the Sahel
where peace has been restored, just as it has today, little mother.
Summer sets in. Giving way to a sudden impulse, he rushes
southwards. Six months before, Laghouat had suffered a terrible siege.
The oasis had been captured by the French, house by house. Traces of
mass graves can still be seen under the palm trees, where Fromcntin
walks with a friend. And just as I listen to you unfold your tale during
these few days, he hears his friend the lieutenant say, as he stops in
front of a most wretched house, ‘Look! Here’s a miserable hut that I’d
like to sec razed to the ground!’
Fromcntin continues: ‘And as we went along, he told me the
following story in a few brief words, stamped with his sad reflections
on the cruel hazards of war:
‘ “In this house, which has changed hands since the capture of the
city, lived two very pretty Naylettes . . . ” ‘*
Fatma and Mcricm, the Naylettes, earn their living in the oasis as
dancers and prostitutes. They arc twenty at the most. Fifteen years
previously, the Amir Abd al-Qadir had attacked El-Mahdi, ncar
.. Eugene Fromentin, VII ere till Sahara (A Summer in the Sahara)
1 65
Laghouat, to try 10 subdue the lords of the south and unify resistance
to the Christian … Had these women lost their father in this civil war,
and some of their brothers? Let us suppose so; when we meet them in
this digression into the past, they make a living out of their beauty
which is in its prime …
If they were to live till they were forty, little mother, perhaps they
would become like that woman, Khadija, with whom you kept
company in the corridor of torture; wealthy sinners trying to make the
pilgrimage ‘to win their pardon and give money to the Partisans!’
A few months or a few weeks before the siege of Laghouat, Fatma
and Meriem secretly received two officers from a French column
which patrol the district: not for betrayal, but simply for a night of love,
‘may God preserve us from sin!’
‘After the street fighting of 4 and 5 December, the corpses were so
numerous that they filled the well of the oasis!’ I explained. ‘And
Fatma? And Meriem?’ Lla Zohra interrupted, catching herself
following the story as if it were a legend recounted by a bard. ‘\Vhere
did you hear this story?’ she went on, impatiently.
‘I read it!’ I replied. ‘An eye-witness told it to a friend who wrote it
down.’
The lieutenant, one of the officers who’d been received by the
Naylettes, is a member of the first company which leads the attack. He
fights throughout the day. ‘We fought our way right into the heart of
the city,’ he explains. Suddenly he recognizes the district and goes with
his sergeant to the dancers’ house.
A soldier is just coming out, his bayonet dripping with blood. Two
accomplices run out after him, their arms laden with women’s
jewellery.
‘Too late!’ the lieutenant thinks, as he enters the house which had
previously welcomed him so warmly.
And night falls.
The lieutenant tells what he had seen and the artist writes it down:
‘Fatma was dead, Meriem was dying. The one lay on the paving-stones
in the courtyard, the other had rolled down the stairs, head first, and
lay at the bottom.’
Two bodies of two young dancers lying half naked up to the waist,
their thighs visible through the tom fabric of their clothes, without
head-dress or diadem, without earrings or anklets, without necklaces
1 66
of coral or gold coins, without glass-beaded clasps … In the courtyard
the stove is still burning; a dish of couscous has just been served. The
spindle from the loom has been put down, still wound full of wool,
never to be used; only the olive-wood chest lies overturned, rifled, its
hinges wrenched off.
‘As Meriem died in my arms, she dropped a button she had torn off
the uniform of her murderer,’ sighed the lieutenant who had arrived
too late.
Six months later, the officer gave his trophy to Fromentin, who kept
it. Fromentin was never to paint the picture of the death of those
dancers. Is it the feel of this object in his hand which transforms him
from a painter of Algerian hunting scenes into the writer depicting
death in words? … As if Fromentin ‘s pen had taken precedence over
his paint-brush, as if the story passed on to him could only find its final
form in words …
Meriem’s dying hand still holds out the button from the uniform: to
the lover, to the friend of the lover who cannot now help but write. And
time is abolished. I, your cousin, translate this story into our mother
tongue, and tell it now to you, sitting beside you, little mother, in front
of your vegetable patch. So I try my hand as temporary story-teller.
The nights I spent in Mcnacer, I slept in your bed, just as long ago I
slept as a child curled up against my father’s mother.
1 67
Third Movement:
The Ballad of Abraham
Every gathering, for a funeral, for a wedding, is subject to rigid rules:
the separation of the sexes must be rigorously respected, care must be
taken that no male relative sees you, no cousin among the men
crowding outside the house must run the risk of recognizing you when
you go out or in, veiled amid the host of other veiled women, lost in the
mob of guests concealed behind their masks.
A young girl’s introduction to religious observance itself can only be
through sound, never through sight: no office in which the disposition
of people, the code prescribed for costume and posture, the ritual
hierarchy would strike the sensibility of the female child. Any emotion
that might be expressed will be inspired by music, by the worn voices
of the female worshippers calling on the divine presence. At the
mosque, in the corner reserved for women, only the matriarchs squat,
the very old whose voices have already died.
In the transmission of Islam, an acid erosion has been at work:
Tradition would seem to decree that entry through its strait gate is by
submission, not by love. Love, which the most simple of settings might
inflame, appears dangerous.
There remains music. I hear again the pious women chanting when,
every Friday during our holidays, we children accompanied female
relatives to the tomb of the city’s patron saint.
Inside the primitive mud-walled hovel dozens of anonymous women
from the surrounding hamlets and neighbouring farms squat on the
straw mats covering the floor, and intone their plaintive chants. The
noxious effluvia of mingled sweat and damp pervading the place
reminds me of the ante-room of a hammam, with the distant trickle of
fountains replaced by the murmur of rasping voices.
1 69
But as the women launch into their shrill vociferations I do not feel
any mystical exaltation; the recriminations of these veiled worshippers
(who barely leave a gap in the cloth covering their swollen faces), the
bitterness of their lamentations, make the singers appear to me as
victims … I pity them or find them strange, or frightening. The city
ladies sitting around me, and who have bedecked and beautified
themselves for this outing, arc not so easily put off. My mother and her
cousins draw near; they hastily mumble some Quranic formulae over
the saint’s catafalque, blow a kiss and leave: our group remains
untouched by the popular exaggerated religiosity.
We take a footpath that leads down to a sheltered creek where the
women can bathe protected from onlookers.
‘Going to visit the marabout’ means visiting the saint whose dead
presence offers solace. The dead man seems helpful to my female
relatives – even seems to do them a favour – since he had the courtesy,
two or three centuries ago, to come to die quite ncar the seashore.
However, this pretext that they were going on a pilgrimage did not
deceive my uncle, who during the summer became the head of the
whole extended family. He was prepared to tum a blind eye to the fact
that we indulged in such profane pleasures as sea-bathing rather than
the religious devotions that we had announced.
My first stirrings of religious feeling go back much further: in the
village, for three or four years running, the day of the ‘feast of the
sheep’ was heralded by ‘The Ballad of Abraham’.
Chilly winter mornings, when my mother, up earlier than usual,
switched on the radio. The programme in Arabic invariably involved
the same record in honour of the holiday: a performance by a
celebrated tenor which included a dozen or so verses telling the story
of Abraham and his son.
It was listening to this ballad every year throughout my childhood
that formed, I think, my feeling for Islam.
In the dawn twilight I wake to the caressing voice of the singer, a
tenor whom Saint-Sacns, while spending his last years in Algiers, had
encouraged when he was just starting his career as a muezzin. In the
course of his performance, verse after verse, he acted out all the
characters: Abraham, in a dream that troubled his nights, beholding
the Angel Gabriel come in the name of God, to demand that he
sacrifice his son; Abraham’s wife, not knowing that her son, decked
out in his ceremonial jellaba, was to be sacrificed; Isaac himself,
1 70
climbing up the mountain in all innocence, astonished that the raven
on the branch speaks to him of death …
I hung on the opening words of the Biblical drama but I do not know
why the song evoked such a passionate response in me: the progress of
the story to its miraculous ending, each character whose words
brought them so vividly to life, the burden and the horror of
Abraham’s fate which weighed so heavily on him as he was constrained
to conceal his anguish … It was as much the texture itself of the song
– the variegated pattern of the phraseology – as the melancholy of the
singer’s voice (making me curl up more tightly under the sheets) which
cast such a spell over me: the unfamiliar terms, the reticence of the
Arabic dialect, veiling the direct reference with a wealth of imagery.
This language which the tenor’s art made so simple, was vibrant with a
primitive solemnity.
Abraham’s wife, Sarah, had her say in the verses, just like my
mother describing to us her joys, fears or forebodings. Abraham could
have been my father who never expressed his own feelings aloud, but
who, it seemed to me, might have … I was deeply moved also by the
son’s submission: his respect for his father, the reticence with which he
bore the burden of his grief, and this very perfection carried me back
to a past era, both nobler and more innocent:
‘Since thou hadst perforce to kill me, 0 In)’ father,
Wherefore didst thou not advise me of it?
I could then have bestowed upon In)’ mother embraces mow! …
Take care, when thou stoopest to sacrifice me,
lest my blood stain thy gown!
My mother, on thy return to her, might guess my fate too hastily!’
I loved the simplicity of Isaac’s song, in whose unhurried stanzas the
dramatic quality of the tale swelled to its climax. The insistent beat of
this music …
At this same period, an aunt used to recount the life of the Prophet,
with many variations: one incident inspired the same emotion in
me …
When the Prophet first started having visions, he returned one day
from the cave so upset that, in her words, ‘they made him weep’; and as
she spoke she almost burst into tears herself. ‘To comfort him, Lalla
Khadija, his wife, sat him on her lap,’ my aunt explained, as if she had
171
herself been present. ‘So,’ she always concluded, ‘the very fir.it
1\ tuslim, perhaps even before the Prophet himself, may Allah preserve
him! \vas a woman. A woman was historically the first to adhere to the
Islamic faith, out of conjugal love,’ according to my relative.
In a triumphant voice she revived this scene time and time again; I
was ten, or perhaps eleven: listening, I was struck with sudden
embarrassment as I had only seen this demonstration of conjugal love
in a European society: ‘Is that the way for a Prophet to behave?’ I
asked, offended and shocked. ‘Can a man who sits on his wife’s lap be
a Prophet?’
My aunt smiled discreetly, her heart melted … Years later, my
heart too was melted by another detail in her talc. ‘Long after
Khadija’s death,’ so she related, ‘one particular circumstance would
cause Mohamed uncontrollable distress: whenever his late wife’s sister
approached his tent, the Prophet would be most upset, because he said
the sound of the sister’s footsteps was identical to that of his dead wife.
At this sound, which seemed to restore Khadija to life, the Prophet
could scarce hold back his tears … ‘
This story of the sound of sandalled feet would bring on a sudden
yearning for Islam. A longing to embark as on a love affair, a ru.’itling
catching at my heart: with fervour and taking all the risks of blasphemy.
1 72
Voice
We were just finishing our evening meal. I handed my young son a
jam-dish with a linlc silver spoon. I got this spoon from my father.
I’d only been married a few days – I wasn’t quite fifteen – I’d gone to
sec my father and I was having coffee with him. Suddenly I asked him,
‘Father, I’d like to take this little spoon!’
‘Take it,’ he replied. ‘Take the cups, look around and take anything
you like from here, daughter!’
‘Father,’ I said, ‘I only want this spoon, because it’s the one you
always usc for your coffee! It’s so dear to my heart!’
I’d kept it ever since, and that was thirty years ago at least, maybe
forty … But on the night I was talking about the partisans were at our
place. They’d had something to cat and drink. Others were keeping a
look-out. When I’d given them their coffee I passed the jam-dish to my
son so that he could serve them and for some reason I put the silver
spoon in it. He’d scarcely gone out of the room than ‘France’ sent her
troops up into the hills and bullets started raining down all round!
And so my boy went off with them: he dropped the jam-dish but he
held on to the spoon … As if he was taking my father’s blessing with
him – may God rest his soul!
And so my last-born went off with the maquisards. He was so
young: barely fourteen! It’s true that he was very quick and bright.
Later one of my older sons who was already married came to sec me
and said, ‘You ought to ask the maquisards to let you have him back,
he’s too young!’
‘Listen!’ I replied. ‘If he comes back and the enemy questions him,
suppose he couldn’t hold out and he told them everything he
knew? … We’d be dishonoured! Leave him: if he must die, he’ll die a
hero, and if he’s destined to live, he’ll live with a clear conscience!’
So Kaddour stayed in the maquis. It’s true he was young, but he’d
1 73
had some schooling. Of all his brothers he was the one who had the
most drive …
Once J\lustapha, another of my sons, came from Marceau.
‘:\lother,’ he said, ‘father’s just been taken away; the French
officer’s going to question him about Kaddour. They’ve spotted that
he isn’t here any more.’
When God wants to ensure somconc’s salvation, he docs so! Before
he joined the maquis Kaddour never did any manual work about the
place: he wouldn’t even go and fill a can of water! … But then the
schoolchildren went on strike: little ones and big ones. He had to stay
on the farm with nothing to do. They were looking for seasonal
workers to help with the grape-picking down on the plain. A
Frenchwoman, the Moulios girl, was giving out work permits for the
picking. Kaddour went to see her.
‘Give me a permit,’ he asked her, ‘so that I can go and get seasonal
work down on the plain! With this strike I can’t bear sitting around
doing nothing … ‘
The real reason he wanted a permit was so that he could move about
freely. He’d no intention of going and working for other people: he was
too proud for that, and as I said, as far as manual work was concerned,
he was too lazy!
The Moulios girl gave him the permit. He showed it to me. ‘Very
well! Go and work then!’ I said.
I was so afraid, when he moved around at that time, that the goumiers
would pick him up and beat him or provoke him … And then there
was this alarm at our house that night and he left with the
Moujahidine. A few weeks later the French questioned his father:
‘\\’here’s the youngster?’
‘He asked for a permit to go and work down on the plain!’ his father
replied and he quoted the Frenchwoman. They questioned her and
she admitted that she’d given him this permit. It seems that the officer
telephoned all the farms in the surrounding country, even as far as
Marengo. No-one knew anything about him. So in the end they
decided that he must have died somewhere.
A long time before these events I heard someone knocking repeatedly
at the door in the middle of the night. I was alone at the farm, with my
daughters-in-law and the children. I didn’t open up.
1 74
Well, no sooner had I put my head on the pillow than I fell into a
deep sleep. I had a dream which woke me up: two apparitions, like
ghosts, but all lit up, stood before me and spoke to me:
‘0, Lla Hajja!’ (that’s how they addressed me although I hadn’t
been to Mecca then). ‘Truly you were afraid and we understand your
fears;
You thought us a company of goumiers
But we arc indeed the Prophet’s heirs! .. . ‘
They spoke just like that, in rhymed prose, and they repeated the last
bit which was what woke me up and gave me such a feeling of remorse;
it’s true that that night I’d not opened the door to the partisans!
They were in the habit of arriving, of eating, keeping watch and
leaving again in the night. I always showed them in to the same room.
In the daytime I kept this room empty. I sometimes stood in the
doorway and thought, ‘This room where the sons of the Revolution
enter, will become green, green, green, like an unopened water-melon,
and one day its walls with fresh dew shall stream!’ So I was starting to
express myself in rhymed prose, like the apparitions in my dream!
One night when the Moujahidinc arrived, they’d brought in the mud
from the roads on their boots, right into this room.
‘No, no! Don’t worry!’ I cried. ‘We’ll clean it up tomorrow!’
I felt light-hearted; I wanted them to sit down and make themselves
at home. I brought them all my cushions. I asked for jugs of water and
soap to be brought, then the silver ewers! The next day we had to usc
picks to chop away the dried mud from the entrance! Yet God has
always kept us safe!
1 75
Whispers
In April 1842, the Berkanis ‘ ::,aouia is bumt dow11; WOIItelt and children
wander mYr the .mow-clad 11wuutainsides – that J•ear the mi11ter was vel)•
severe. Their corpses will feed the jackals.
The French leare; their comtllllllder, General de Saint-A maud, who has
succeeded the gloomy Cavaignac, retllrns to his base in Orleamville, via
Miliana. From his encampment on the site of the gutted :::aouia, he continues
his correspondence with his brother.
The fiJI/owing year the same soldiers retum. Since death and destmction
have not brought about final mbmission, since old Berka11i, the Caliph ‘s
depul)•, acting on orders from the Amir, continues to stir up resistance further
to the west, Saint-Amaud decides on more drastic measures: he will take
hostages from the Depul)• ‘s own famif;•: ‘Eight of the chiefs of the three
principal fractions of the Beni-Menacer tribe, ‘ he explains to his brother.
The matriarchs whisper to the children in the dark, to the children ‘s children
crouching on the straw mat, to the girls who will become matriarchs in tum,
their time fi�r child-bearing soon past (a mere parenthesis, from the age of
fifteen to thirty-five or fiJT1]�. Of their bodies there remains neither bell;• that
begets, nor clutching arms, flung wide in travail. OJ their bodies, they retain
on!;• the ears and eyes of childhood which hang on the lips of the wrinkled
story-teller – this matriarch who intones in the corridor, handing on the
heroic saga of the fathers, the grandfathers, the patemal great-uncles. The low
roice steers the words through waters awash with the dead, prisoners never to
be freed …
Women whispering: in their beds, once the candle has been snuffed out,
during the nights when the a/ann has been given, once the embers of the
bra:::iers hare grow11 cold … From the age of fifteen to thit1]•-five or fot1J•, the
body sags, the body swells, the body bursts open in childbirth, finally the
leaden years are over: the body triumphs over the twilight when mouths are
1 76
gagged, features masked, qes inrariah6• lomeml … During this period of
enfi�rced silence, the stilled voice hides its time, groans are stifled, grievances
sublimated.
Period rvheu women are choked mith desire, the burial pit – dark tunnel ­
of youth, rvhen the dwms of womm gaze on death and fiji up shrill,
convulsive voices to the blackened SAJ’ … Retaining their nile ofstoty-teller,
figurehead at the prow of 11/e/IWIJ’. The legaq rvill othenvise be lost – night
after night, wave upon tPave, the whispers tal·e up the tale, ez.·en beji1re the
child can understand, ez.•ot beji1re she finds her words of light, befim she
speaks in her tllm and so that she n>ill not speak alone …
‘Eight of the chiefs of the three principal fractions, ‘ the French geueral rvrites,
referring to the hostages. ‘Forty-eight prisoners bound for the lslaiUI of
Sainte-Marguerite: men, rvomeu and children, including one pregnant
rvoman ‘: so go the whispers, setting the record straight today, on the site rifthe
gutted zaouia, rvhere the orchards are nom more sparse. Fig trees are more
numerous than orange or mandarin grm.’es: as if the water has first gone to
keep memories green, and mt its irrigation channels faster m.’er rocks!
The spoon from the jam-dish which ‘the saint’ – that’s what they call her
because, in her fen•elll piety, she fasts all the )’ear round-passed to her J’OUng
son when the a/am1 rvas given. The old father’s lmJing gesture for his daughter
fearing to get married long ago, is reversed thirl)• ]•ears on, in the gift that the
daughter makes to her )’oungest son who disappears one night in wartime. He
will return safe and sound, a few )’ears later! . . . That spoon from the
jam-dish, a luXUIJ’ object in those impuverished mountains, is for me an
heraldic object to be chosen for some crest …
The fires in the orchards gutted b)’ Saint-Arnaud are fina/6• extinguished,
because the old lad)• talks today and I am preparing to transcribe her tale. To
drarv up the inventOI)’ of the till)’ objects passed on thus, from febrile hand to
fugitive hand!
When ‘the saint ‘ rvas a child, she listened to the tales told b)• her grandmother,
who was the daughter-in-law of old Berkani. The historians lost sight of him,
just before the Amir was forced to surrender. Aissa ei-Berkani left with his
‘deira’ for Morocco. Be:J•ond Oudja, there is no more trace of him in the
archh·es – as if ‘archives’ guaranteed the imprint of rea/it)’!
Long after this exodus, one of his daughters-in-law found herself a
childless widorv. She asked the Caliph – so the story goes -for pennission to
1 77
return to her fami(J’ among the Beni-Menacer tribe who were now subdued.
So sht• returned and mam”ed a cousin who took part in the second uprising in
1871 …
Long after this second revolt, now in her old age, she transmits her
whispered stoT)’ rn her tum to a new circle ofbright-e:)’ed children. Then one of
these little girls rvi/1 in tum travel the same path and find herself clad in satin
and shot-silk; nicknamed ‘the saint’, she too rvi/1 carry on the whispering …
Chains of memories: is it not indeed a ‘chain ‘,jiJr do not memories fetter us
as well as fonning our roots? For every passer-b)•, the stoT)I-feller stands
hidden in the doonva)’. It is not seem/)’ to raise the curtain and stand exposed
in the sunlight.
Words that are too explicit become such boastings as the braggard uses; and
elected silence implies resistance still intact …
1 78
The Quranic School
At the age when I should be veiled already, I can still move about freely
thanks to the French school: every Monday the village bus takes me to
the boarding school in the nearby town, and brings me back on
Saturday to my parents’ home.
I have a friend who is half I tal ian and who goes home every weekend
to a fishing port on the coast; we go together to catch our respective
buses and arc tempted by all sorts of escapades … With beating hearts
we make our way into the centre of the town; to enter a smart
cake-shop, wander along the edge of the park, stroll along the
boulevard, which only runs alongside common barracks, seems the
acme of freedom, after a week of boarding school! Excited by the
proximity of forbidden pleasures, we eventually each catch our bus; the
thrill lay in the risk of missing it!
As a young teenager I enjoy the exhilarating hours spent every
Thursday in training on the sports field. I only have one worry: fear
that my father might come to visit me! How can I tell him that it’s
compulsory for me to wear shorts, in other words, I have to show my
legs? I keep this fear a secret, unable to confide in any of my
schoolfricnds; unlike me, they haven’t got cousins who do not show
their ankles or their arms, who do not even expose their faces. My
panic is also compounded by an Arab woman’s ‘shame’. The French
girls whirl around me; they do not suspect that my body is caught in
invisible snares.
‘Doesn’t your daughter wear a veil yet?’ asks one or other of the
matrons, gazing questioningly at my mother with suspicious kohlrimmed
eyes, on the occasion of one of the summer weddings. I must
be thirteen, or possibly fourteen.
‘She reads!’ my mother replies stiffly.
Everyone is swallowed up in the embarrassed silence that ensues.
And in my own silence.
1 79
‘She reads’, that is to say in Arabic, ‘she studies’. I think now that this
command ‘to read’ was not just casually included in the Quranic
revelation made by the Angel Gabriel in the cave … ‘She reads’ is
tantamount to saying that writing to be read, including that of the
unbelievers, is always a source of revelation: in my case of the mobility
of my body, and so of my future freedom.
When I am growing up – shortly before my native land throws off the
colonial yoke – while the man still has the right to four legitimate
wives, we girls, big and little, have at our command four languages to
express desire before all that is left for us is sighs and moans: French
for secret missives; Arabic for our stifled aspirations towards
God-the-Father, the God of the religions of the Book; Lybico-Berber
which takes us back to the pagan idols – mother-gods – of pre-Islamic
Mecca. The fourth language, for all females, young or old, cloistered
or half-emancipated, remains that of the body: the body which male
neighbours’ and cousins’ eyes require to be deaf and blind, since they
cannot completely incarcerate it; the body which, in trances, dances or
vociferations, in fits of hope or despair, rebels, and unable to read or
write, seeks some unknown shore as destination for its message oflove.
In our towns, the first woman-reality is the voice, a dart which flies off
into space, an arrow which slowly falls to earth; next comes writing
with the scratching pointed quill forming amorous snares with its Iiana
letters. By way of compensation, the need is felt to blot out women’s
bodies and they must be muffled up, tightly swathed, swaddled like
infants or shrouded like corpses. Exposed, a woman’s body would
offend every eye, be an assault on the dimmest of desires, emphasize
every separation. The voice, on the other hand, acts like a perfume, a
draft of fresh water for the dry throat; and when it is savoured, it can be
enjoyed by several simultaneously; a secret, polygamous pleasure …
When the hand writes, slow positionin� of the arm, carefully
bending forward or leaning to one side, crouching, swaying to and fro,
as in an act of love. When reading, the eyes take their time, delight in
caressing the curves, while the calligraphy suggests the rhythm of the
scansion: as if the writing marked the beginning and the end of
possession.
Writing: everywhere, a wealth of burnished gold and in its vicinity
there is no place for other imagery from either animal or vegetable
1 80
kingdom; it looks in the mirror of its scrolls and curlicues and sees
itself as woman, not the reflection of a voice. It emphasizes by its
presence alone where to begin and where to retreat; it suggests, by the
song that smoulders in its heart, the dance floor for rejoicing and
hair-shirt for the ascetic; I speak of the Arabic script; to be separated
from it is to be separated from a great love. This script, which I
mastered only to write the sacred words, I sec now spread out before
me cloaked in innocence and whispering arabesques – and ever since,
all other scripts (French, English, Greek) seem only to babble, are
never cathartic; they may contain truth, indeed, but a blemished truth.
Just as the pentathlon runner of old needed the starter, so, as soon
as I learned the foreign script, my body began to move as if by instinct.
As if the French language suddenly had eyes, and lent them me to
sec into liberty; as if the French language blinded the peeping-toms of
my clan and, at this price, I could move freely, run headlong down
every street, annex the outdoors for my cloistered companions, for the
matriarchs of my family who endured a living death. As if … Derision!
I know that every language is a dark depository for piled-up corpses,
refuse, sewage, but faced with the language of the former conqucrcr,
which offers me its ornaments, its jewels, its flowers, I find they arc the
flowers of death – chrysanthemums on tombs!
Its script is a public unveiling in front of sniggering onlookers … A
queen walks down the street, white, anonymous, draped, but when the
shroud of rough wool is torn away and drops suddenly at her feet,
which a moment ago were hidden, she becomes a beggar again,
squatting in the dust, to be spat at, the target of cruel comments.
In my earliest childhood – from the age of five to ten – I attended the
French school in the village, and every day after lessons there I went
on to the Quranic school.
Classes were held in a back room lent by a grocer, one of the village
notables. I can recall the place, and its dim light: was it because the
time for the lessons was just before dark, or because the lighting of the
room was so parsimonious? …
The master’s image has remained singularly clear: delicate features,
pale complexion, a scholar’s sunken checks; about forty families
supported him. I was struck by the elegance of his bearing and his
traditional attire: a spotless light muslin was wrapped around his
181
head-dress and floated behind his neck; his serge tunic was dazzling
white. I never saw this man except sitting.
In comparison, the horde of misbehaving little urchins squatting on
straw mats – sons of fellaheen for the most part – seemed crude riffraff,
from whom I kept my distance.
We were only four or five little girls. I suppose that our sex kept us
apart, rather than my supercilious amazement at their beha\iour. In
spite of his aristocratic bearing, the taleb did not hesitate to lift his cane
and bring it down on the fingers of a recalcitrant or slow-witted lad. (I
can still hear it whistle through the air.) We girls were spared this
regular punishment.
I can remember the little impromptu parties my mother de,ised in
our flat when I brought home (as later my brother was to do) the
walnut tablet decorated with arabesques. This was the master’s reward
when we had learnt a long sura by heart. My mother and our \illage
nanny, who was a second mother to us, then let out that semi-barbaric
‘you-you’. That prolonged, irregular, spasmodic cooing, which in our
building reserved for teachers’ families – all European except for ours
– must have appeared incongruous, a truly primitive cry. My mother
considered the circumstances (the study of the Quran undertaken by
her children) sufficiently important for her to let out this ancestral cry
of jubilation in the middle of the \illage where she nevertheless felt
herself an exile.
At every prize-gi,ing ceremony at the French school, every prize I
obtained strengthened my solidarity with my own family; but I felt
there was more glory in this ostentatious clamour. The Quranic
school, that dim cavern in which the haughty figure of the Sheikh was
enthroned above the poor \illage children, this school became, thanks
to the joy my mother demonstrated in this way, an island of bliss –
Paradise regained.
Back in my native city, I learned that another Arab school was being
opened, also funded by private contributions. One of my cousins
attended it; she took me there. I was disappointed. The buildings, the
timetable, the modern appearance of the masters, made it no different
from a common-or-garden French school …
I understood later that in the \illage I had participated in the last of
popular, secular teaching. In the city, thanks to the Nationalist
movement of ‘Modernist Muslims’, a new generation of Arab culture
was being forged.
1 82
Since then these medrasas have sprung up everywhere. If I had
attended one of them (if I’d grown up in the town where I was born) I
would have found it quite natural to swathe my head in a turban, to
hide my hair, to cover my arms and calves, in a word to move about out
of doors like a Muslim nun!
After the age of ten or eleven, shortly before puberty, I was no longer
allowed to attend the Quranic school. At this age, boys arc suddenly
excluded from the women’s Turkish bath – that emollient world of
naked bodies stifling in a whirl of scalding steam … The same thing
happened to my companions, the little village girls, one of whom I
would like to describe here.
The daughter of the Kabylc baker must, like me, have attended the
French school simultaneously with the Quranic school. But I can only
recall her presence squatting at my side in front of the Sheikh: side by
side, half smiling to each other, both already finding it uncomfortable
to sit cross-legged! … My legs must have been too long, because of
my height: it wasn’t easy for me to hide them under my skirt.
For this reason alone I think that I would in any case have been
weaned from Quranic instruction at this age: there is no doubt that it’s
easier to sit cross-legged when wearing a seroual; a young girl’s body
that is beginning to develop more easily conceals its form under the
ample folds of the traditional costume. But my skirts, justified by my
attendance at the French school, were ill adapted to such a posture.
When I was eleven I started secondary school and became a
boarder. What happened to the baker’s daughter? Certainly veiled,
withdrawn overnight from school: betrayed by her figure. Her swelling
breasts, her slender legs, in a word, the emergence of her woman’s
personality transformed her into an incarcerated body!
I remember how much this Quranic learning, as it is progressively
acquired, is linked to the body.
The portion of the sacred verse, inscribed on both sides of the
walnut tablet, had to be wiped off at least once a week, after we had
shown that we could recite it off by heart. We scrubbed the piece of
wood thoroughly, just like other people wash their clothes: the time it
took to dry seemed to ensure the interval that the memory needed to
digest what it had swallowed …
The learning was absorbed by the fingers, the arms, through the
1 83
physical effort. The act of cleaning the tablet seemed like ingesting a
portion of the Quranic text. The writing – itself a copy of writing which
is considered immutable – could only continue to unfold before us if it
relied, clause by clause, on this osmosis …
As the hand traces the liana-script, the mouth opens to repeat the
words, obedient to their rhythm, partly to memorize, partly to relieve
the muscular tension … The shrill voices of the drowsy children rise
up in a monotonous, sing-song chorus.
Stumbling on, swaying from side to side, care taken to observe the
tonic accents, to differentiate between long and short vowels, attentive
to the rhythm of the chant; muscles of the larynx as well as the torso
moving in harmony. Controlling the breath to allow the correct
emission of the voice, and letting the understanding advance
precariously along its tight-rope. Respecting the grammar by speaking
it aloud, making it part of the chant.
This language which I learn demands the correct posture for the
body, on which the memory rests for its support. The childish hand,
spurred on – as in training for some sport – by willpower worthy of an
adult, begins to write. ‘Read!’ The fingers labouring on the tablet send
back the signs to the body, which is simultaneously reader and servant.
The lips having finished their muttering, the hand will once more do
the washing, proceeding to wipe out what is written on the tablc.t: this
is the moment of absolution, like touching the hem of death’s garment.
Again, it is the turn of writing, and the circle is completed.
And when I sit curled up like this to study my native language it is as
though my body reproduces the architecture of my native city: the
medinas with their tortuous alleyways closed off to the outside world,
living their secret life. When I write and read the foreign language, my
body travels far in subversive space, in spite of the neighbours and
suspicious matrons; it would not need much for it to take wing and fly
away!
As I approach a marriageable age, these two different apprenticeships,
undertaken simultaneously, land me in a dichotomy of location. My
father’s preference will decide for me: light rather than darkness. I do
not realize that an irrevocable choice is being made: the outdoors and
the risk, instead of the prison of my peers. This stroke of luck brings
me to the verge of breakdown.
1 84
write and speak French outside: the words I usc convey no
flesh-and-blood reality. I learn the names of birds I’ve nc\ cr seen,
trees I shall take ten years or more to identify, lists of flowers and
plants that I shall never smell until I travel north of the � lcditcrrancan.
In this respect, all vocabulary expresses what is missing in my life,
exoticism without mystery, causing a kind of visual humiliation that it is
not seemly to admit to … Settings and episodes in children’s books
arc nothing but theoretical concepts; in the French family the mother
comes to fetch her daughter or son from school; in the French street,
the parents walk quite naturally side by side … So, the world of the
school is expunged from the daily life of my native city, as it is from the
life of my family. The latter is refused any referential role.
My conscious mind is here, huddled against my mother’s knees, in
the darkest corners of the flat which she never leaves. The ambit of the
school is elsewhere: my search, my eyes arc fixed on other regions. I do
not realize, no-onc around me realizes, that, in the conflict between
these two worlds, lies an incipient vertigo.
1 85
A Widow’s Voice
�1y husband was in the habit of going to Cherchcl every Sunday. Once
he brought a guest back with him. The next day there was a meeting of
about fifteen people: they’d all come to our farm from the nearby
mountains.
The guest stayed the following night and the next day he left to go
back to the city. It was during Ramadan. Alas! somebod}’ betrayed us
and went to Gouraya to report the meeting.
The morning after the guest left, the gendarmes arrived. The men ­
my husband and his brothers – were out hunting. We had two guns
and a case of ammunition, but they were buried a little further away.
The cai”d who came with the gendarmes asked my mother-in-law,
‘Why does your son go every week to the market in Cherchcl?’
‘To buy things and to see his pa<ents!’ she replied.
‘That’s not true! I know you: you’ve got family in Novi, not in
Cherchel!’
He asked where the missing hunting rifles were. She replied that
her son had sold them a long time ago, at the religious festival of Si
M’hamed ben Yusef. They left without finding anything.
Soon afterwards our men were back. A few days went by; but the
gendarmes returned: this time they took all the men to prison in
Cherchel.
After nine months in prison my husband and one of his brothers
were sentenced to death: they were accused of having a list of names of
people who were working with France and who the Revolution had
condemned.
There were a lot of partisans in that prison. They decided, ‘We’re
going to take things into our own hands!’
One morning three of them managed to overcome a guard; they
killed him. At another gate, they did the same thing. One of the
1 86
prisoners was wounded in the leg; he told them, ‘You must all get out!
I’m staying! I’m going to die! You’ve still got a chance. Go! I shall kill
and be killed!’
They g-ot away; fifteen to twenty prisoners escaped together. That
was at nine o’clock in the morning. There was even a French woman
who was killed, but we never heard how it happened.
Two hours later, the soldiers turned up at our farm. One of them
said to the old lady, ‘Your sons have broken out of prison and killed
some guards! If the other guards decided to come here, you’d all be
dead, young and old, big and small, even including your cats!’
They searched everywhere; they asked again where the guns were
and eventually they left. The next morning one of our relatives came to
sec us from another mountain. He told us that the fugitives had spent
the night ncar the Mcssclmoun wadi. A nephew accompanied him; we
decided that we women would in future cook extra quantities of food,
in case it was needed …
A boy came to ask us for clothes. We agreed we’d bury the food
every time. Finally I managed to sec my husband; he arrived with
another man, named Abdoun …
‘France’ kept on increasing the number of guards. Every time one of
the men who’d escaped was sent to us, God preserved them, and us
too!
One night, they all regrouped and someone took them further away,
as far as Zaccar. From the next night we could get a bit more rest!
A few months later our men came to visit us; this time they were
wearing the maquisards’ uniform and they were armed. We embraced
them joyfully, we were proud of them!
‘Praise be to God! Finally you’ve escaped death!’
Life was never the same again. ‘France’ began to come up the
mountain to our place nearly every morning and evening. Eventually
they burned the houses, and then the people! Taking the animals away,
killing human beings! … Can you imagine what would happen when
they arrived at a house and found women alone? …
I decided to run away: I went to my parents who lived ncar another
mountain. I stayed there. Later apparently one of the soldiers asked my
mother-in-law, ‘And the lieutenant’s wife (they knew my husband was
now a lieutenant with the maquisards], wherc’s she got to?’
‘Since you’ve taken her husband to prison, she didn’t want to stay
here! She’s gone back to her own family!’
1 87
They never managed to find me during the whole of the war …
From there, I began to go into the hills to help other people; we took
food, we washed their uniforms, we kneaded bread … Until the day
when, as God had willed, my husband was killed fighting!
I only learned of his death through strangers. Someone told me, a
week after the ceasefire, ‘Your husband fell ncar Miliana, in a
skirmish!’
After independence the Brothers sent me a letter to tell me he’d
been buried in Algiers, at Sidi M’hamed de Belcourt. I took the letter.
I went to sec my sister-in-law, who lived in Algiers. Her husband
asked me, ‘Who told you that?’
I mentioned the letter.
‘Show me! Give it to me!’
Alas! You’ll laugh at me perhaps, but I never saw that letter again.
How could I have the courage to ask him for it back? … I knew my
husband had been buried in Algiers, because a nurse had looked after
him when he was wounded. They called her ‘The-Woman-fromCherchcl’;
in fact it was her husband who came from Chcrchcl. She
went back to live in Miliana.
A year or two later I tried to find her, simply so that she could tell me
about it. I decided to go to the religious festival of Sidi M’hamed, the
patron saint of Miliana. I got as far as her house and decided to talk to
her. I only stayed there a minute and left again.
She couldn’t tell me anything as I caught her right in the middle of
her housework. She was just able to confirm the facts for me: that she
had looked after my husband when she was a nurse with the maquis.
She was a middle-aged woman.
H ill
Embraces
It is early in summer 1 843 : the prisoners, Saint-Arnaud’s hostages,
segregated by family and sex, arc herded into the holds of a steamship
which leaves Bone bound for France.
I imagine you, the unknown woman, whose talc has been handed
down by story-tellers over the ten decades which lead to my childhood
years. For now I too take my place in the fixed circle of listeners, ncar
the Mcnaccr Mountains . . . I re-create you, the invisible woman,
sailing with the others to the Island of Sainte Marguerite, to the
prisons made celebrated by ‘The Man in the Iron Mask’. Your own
mask, 0 ancestress of ancestress! the first expatriate, is heavier by far
than that of romance! I resurrect you during that crossing that no letter
from any French soldier was to describe …
At Bone you walk up the gangway, mingling with the dusty crowd;
the men arc roped together; the women follow, shrouded in their white
or blue-grey veils which envelop whimpering infants, or to which cling
crying children. When the exodus begins you know you arc heavy with
child. Will you give birth to a fatherless babe, since the father has not
been taken? You sec yourself alone, without father, brother, husband
to accompany you to the shores of the Infidels. You must go with the
band of cousins, kin and relatives by marriage!
All the exiles sleep like you on the bare boards of the bunkers; they
have never seen the sea. They thought it would be empty and flat, not
this shifting abyss … The first night of the crossing you begin to
vomit; the pains begin the following day.
The second night you feel death in your belly swallowing all hope.
You curl up amidst the cousins, old, young, or not so young. These
women enfold you in their damp veils, as if to bind you with their
prayers, their whispers … Without a cry, you give birth to the foetus:
1 89
the night of full moon opens up, the sea is calm again, an indifferent
rival.
The ship sails on, laden with the forty-eight hostages. While your
companions doze, you lie still, your face turned towards the stern. You
arc rent with anguish: ‘How can I bury the foetus, 0 my Prophet, my
sweet Saviour!’
An old woman at your side has taken hold of it like a bundle of rags.
‘My dead bird! My eyes cannot close although it is the night!’
You sob, you prepare to lacerate your checks, while the old woman
mutters her blessings.
‘Our land is theirs! This sea is theirs! Where can I shelter my dead
son? Will there never be a corner of Islam again for us wretched folk?’
The sleeping women arc woken by your weeping; their anger is
aroused; they begin to intone a sura: a continuous rustle of sound, an
endless monotonous chant. Eventually you fall asleep, still holding the
foetus wrapped in a linen cloth. You doze, obsessed by the thought that
it is your youth you are carrying thus in your arms … The chorus of
prisoners grows louder.
Later, someone shakes you in the dark. A voice is calling you:
‘Daughter of my mother’s tribe, get up! You cannot keep the lamb of
God any longer in your arms!’
You look without understanding at the wrinkled face of an aunt who
is addressing you. Behind her, a mottled pink and grey light in the sky
indicates a new dawn; it surrounds the old woman like a halo.
‘What am I to do? Where shall I find a land of the believers in which
to bury him?’
Once more you arc overcome with despair.
‘Let us go up on deck! The men are sleeping! You and I will cast the
child into the sea!’
‘The Christians’ ocean!’ you protest timidly.
‘God’s ocean!’ the old woman retorts. ‘Everywhere is God’s pasture
and that of his Prophet! … And your son lives, I am sure, like a cherub
in our own Paradise!’
Two veiled figures step over the collection of sleeping women. A
moment later, you cast the bundle in your arms over the ship’s rail.
‘At least let it be facing our own land!’ you moan.
‘May God guide and assist us wherever we arc cast!’ adds your
companion, who leads you back to your place …
1 90
You weep no more, you will never weep again! Will you be one of
the prisoners who are released ten years later and who repeat the
crossing in the opposite direction to rejoin their tribe, now completely
quelled?
191
Fourth Movement:
The Cry in the Dream
I have a recurring dream from time to time, after a day which has been
fretted momentarily by some quite ordinary or possibly unusual event.
I dream of my paternal grandmother; I relive the day of her death. I am
at once the six-year-old child who experienced this loss and the
woman who dreams and suffers, every time, from this dream.
I can sec neither my grandmother’s corpse nor the funeral
ceremony. I have rushed out of this house where death has come
knocking, and go tearing down the narrow alley. On I run, dashing
headlong down the street hemmed in by hostile walls, empty houses. I
race past the church and the smart residential district where my
mother lives. During all the time I am running, my mouth gapes wider
and wider … The sound in my dream however is switched off.
I am driven relentlessly onward. A scream is implanted within me; it
shoots up through my limbs, swelling in my chest, rasping my larynx,
fills my mouth and is exhaled in a dense silence; my legs move
automatically. My whole being is inhabited by these words: ‘Mamma is
dead, is dead!’; I carry my grief with me, I even run ahead of it, I don’t
know whether I’m calling out or fleeing, but I’m screaming and this
scream no longer means anything except that a child is being driven on
and on …
I am crying out now, and my dream spills over me like a fog and
seems never-ending. A cry deep as the ocean. I bear my grandmother
like a burden on my shoulders, yet I can see her face displayed on the
fa�ades of the buildings that file past. And the ghost arises of the dead
woman, so deep-rooted in my early childhood. \Vhen my brother was
born I could no longer sleep in my parents’ room; I was eighteen
months old, and from then on I shared my grandmother’s bed. The
1 93
memory grows more vivid: to help me go off to sleep, the old lady
would take hold of one of my feet in one of her hands and warm them
till I fell asleep.
She died a few years later. I have no memory of this gentle woman’s
voice, the one who had come to rely on her youngest son. I used to call
her ‘my silent mother’, compared with the others – mother, maternal
grandmother and aunts – those proud aristocrats who always seemed
to me to live in a world of music, incense and noise.
She alone, the silent one, by this action of clasping my feet, remains
linked to me … That is why I scream; that is why, in this dream that
recurs over the years, she returns persistently, though absent, and the
little girl that is me runs desperately trying to find her voice.
Lower down in the town, in the opulent house with its terraces and
its din, my mother’s mother holds court. There, there is singing, a
chorus of loud voices. If they suddenly start whispering and
murmuring, seeming on the defensive, it is out of decorum or
convention because the men have finally returned home to eat and
sleep.
Sometimes my dream continues in these sunlit places, ncar the
cherry tree growing next to the steps, under the jasmins on the lowest
terrace. There are copper pots filled with geraniums against the
banisters … I am sitting crushed up in the middle of a crowd of veiled
visitors. I watch.
Once more I sec myself running wildly, zigzagging down a narrow
alley in the old hilly district. I am forced to go on screaming, though
no-onc hears me. I scream, not a stifled cry, but rather as if I were
breathing very hard, very fast.
Bolting once more out of the house of mourning, I hurtle down
towards the house of many terraces. I tell myself that, my silent
grandmother should be there, in this place of so many festivities, still
holding my feet in her worn hands.
On the ground floor of the big house, in the dim light of the wake,
my grandmother smiles at me, a tiny figure, her features softened with
kindness, her face emanating goodness. She seems to be saying to me:
‘They think they arc burying me, they think they are coming to my
death! You alone .. . ‘
I alone know she will be resurrected. I do not weep for her; once
more I run screaming through the streets, between the white houses,
and I scatter my love with my breath on the air streaming past me. The
194
narrow street runs downhill; the little boys on their skate-boards give
way bcforc.mc; right at the bottom, the smell of baking betrays the only
activity at the end of the day: baskets of aniseed bread arc ready to be
distributed for the funeral celebration.
Docs this dream allow me to find the silent mother again? I seck
rather to avenge her former silence, which was made more bearable by
the caresses lavished on the child who shared her bed …
It was some time before I realized how poor my father’s family was. My
father started attending the French school fairly late, did brilliantly in
all his classes, rapidly caught up with what he had missed and soon
passed the entrance examination to the normal school: by becoming a
teacher he was able to offer his mother and sisters some security, and
to secure the latter’s marriage before he married himself.
I was struck particularly by one scene from this past which was
described to me: my father, a schoolboy of nine or ten, had to do his
homework squatting at a low table, by the light of a candle … I knew
the old house, its dark rooms, its little courtyard. The picture of my
father as a studious child was cngrained in my mind, in this humble
setting.
One of my paternal aunts was living for a long time in an isolated
room at the back. I can still see her, a pale shadow, standing in the
doorway; the curtain over the door is half-raised. From the far comer
of the dim room a dying man’s voice calls to her, interrupted by a bout
of coughing … For many years this aunt looked after a tuberculous
husband; when he died it was not long before she followed him into
the grave, infected in her tum.
My father’s second sister, the youngest, occupied a more important
place in my childhood.
Her house was not far from my mother’s. In the summer I
sometimes quarrelled with one of my cousins or a young aunt; I did not
have my playmates’ knack of reeling off a picturesque string of taunts
in our local dialect.
Among the squawking city kids, I easily took offence because of my
shyness or my pride. I had only one recourse: to stalk out of the noisy
house, scorn the peacemaking efforts of my mother and her friends,
busy for the most part with their embroidery. I took refuge with my
paternal aunt: tall and dried up, with green eyes glinting in her thin
1 95
Ucrber face; although her courtyard was swarming with her own
brood, she would welcome me with open arms. She made a fuss of me;
took me into her best room where I was fascinated by a high
four-poster bed … She kept the best preserves and sweets for me,
sprinkled perfume on my hair and down my neck. ‘Daughter of my
brother’, she called me, laughing proudly, and her affection warmed
my heart.
Her fondness for me was probably due to my physical resemblance
to my father. In our society, a marriage only perpetuates a latent,
lasting rivalry between the two lines of descent … My parents were a
modern couple and that prevented the usual tensions.
Later, when this aunt, with the same exuberance, continued to call
me ‘daughter of my brother’, the memory of those summers came back
to me, when I was comforted by her banter and her confident
presence.
Did any significant hierarchy divide the society of this mountainrimmed
city, impoverished by erosion? If so, it was of minor account,
compared to the discrimination made between the city-dwellers and
the peasants of the surrounding area; or, more important still, the
segregation introduced by the colonial settlers. Few in number, but
influential, the group of Europeans of Maltese, Spanish or Proven�al
origin not only possessed all the power, but controlled the only
lucrative activity – fishing and the use of the trawlers in the old port.
The Arab women moved around the town, white wraiths, which the
visitors to the Roman ruins imagined all identical. Among the families
of the notables, a subtle distinction was maintained: due partly to the
importance of the man’s present social position, partly dependent on
one’s paternal and maternal ancestors, who arc constantly being
invoked.
For me, the distinction between my maternal and paternal ancestry
lay in one single but essential point: my mother’s mother spoke to me
at length of the dead, that is to say, my maternal grandfather and
great-grandfather. Of my paternal grandmother I knew only this: she
had been widowed very young with two children and had to marry a
very old man, who died leaving her a house and two more children, one
of whom was my father.
My maternal grandmother impressed me by the way she danced
when she went into one of her regular trances: besides which, at every
1 96
family gathering, I found myself hemmed in by her imperious, ringing
voice.
The memory of my father’s mother remains as green, perhaps more
so, thanks to her caressing hands. Only her former silence continues to
hurt me today …
1 97
A Widow’s Voice
I lost four of my men in this war. My husband and my three sons. Tht:y
took up arms at almost the same time. One of my youngsters had just
three months left for the end of the fighting; he’s dead. Another
disappeared at the very beginning: I never heard what happened
to him.
My brother was the fifth … I brought him back from the river. I
looked for his body everywhere; I found it. He’s buried in the
cemetery.
When he was alive he was talking to me one day, just as we arc
doing, here. He suddenly said to me, ‘Listen, I carried out the attack
on the Ezzar Wadi. And on the Sidi M’hamcd Wali. At Bclazmi, that
was me too … ‘He paused and then he went on, ‘0 daughter of my
mother, sec that you don’t leave me for the jackals, when I die! …
Don’t let the wild beasts cat my corpse! … ‘
May his soul rest in peace! He never asked the least thing of me,
except that! . . . That’s what he said, and that’s what happened
eventually … In the end they caught him. One morning, the plane
flew over and dropped bombs on us. In the afternoon they killed my
brother. We ran away when it got dark.
My brother had a marc. He used to go backwards and forwards to
organize the support networks among the people. Wherever he went,
he took this marc. When he slept out of doors he tied her to his foot.
When we ran away, we got to a wadi. Someone told me that my
brother’s marc had been seen not far away: she was lying down and
wouldn’t budge. It was night.
When it got light I went to look for the animal. I’d lost hope of
finding my brother. I saw the marc; she got to her feet. She must have
smelt the body . . . Someone (a peasant who was killed soon
1 98
afterwards) told me, ‘Listen, I think your brother’s lying not far away,
near the stream!’
A plane came back to bomb us again. I ran and hid in the water.
When the plane went away I came out; I walked slowly, slowly up the
wadi until I found my brother’s body. Then I ran to call the people. He
was buried in the cemetery, in the same grave as my mother … My
sons were still alive then!
Out of all the men in the family, the only ones they were able to bury
were my brother and one of my nephews. That was all.
I often went up into the hills to see my sons. The youngest one in
particular used to send for me. I went straight away, from one douar to
another … ‘I’m at this or that douar,’ he let me know. ‘Come! … ‘ Or,
‘I’m waiting for you at this douar or the other! … I’ve got nothing to
wear … I haven’t a penny! … I’m this … I’m that!’
Once, out of all our animals, I had just one lamb left! I slaughtered it
(there were more and more fires and I’d have lost it anyway). I sent the
whole lamb up to him so that he and his companions could eat! .. .
That’s the one who died, just six months before the fighting ended! … .
Have we any more tears left? No, our eyes are dry …
And the son I never saw again, after he went into the hills … One of
his companions sent me the following message about him: ‘Mother, be
careful, if someone comes saying you must send some soap or clothes
or a little money to your son! … You must only think about your other
sons now, the ones who are still alive! … Don’t think about this one
any more!’
He was still so young and yet he could always make up his mind so
easily: ‘That’s what must be done! … That’s how it is!’ … I can still
hear him.
At independence, the people in the city didn’t give me anything.
There was one man in charge, named Allal: the day he ran away to join
the maquis I hid him for a time at my place!
He was the man who allotted the empty houses after the war. As our
douar had been destroyed I went down into the town with other people.
But I couldn’t face wandering around. An old man, Si cl Hajj, urged
me to go to this man to remind him of my case. He even came with me
and knocked at Allal’s door. Allal let us in: people I didn’t know were
in the courtyard.
I went in.
199
‘0 Allal, where arc my rights?’ I exclaimed. ‘My sons fought from
here to the Tunisian border, while you remained hidden in caves and
holes!’
And it was true. And then, in front of all those townsfolk, he stancd
talking to me in Berber! Just to emphasize that I was a country-woman!
I repeated in Arabic, with the correct accent: ‘Give me my rights!’
They didn’t give me a thing … You can sec where I’m living now, I
had to pay to occupy this hut. ‘You pay or you don’t put a foot inside!’
they told me.
All the men I used to depend on, all those men have gone!
200
Dialogues
Trees hare been replanted 011 tlte foot/tills; the hamlets iu these raii()•S !tare
bee11 rebuilt; o11ce more mnd walls and reed fences rise up between ltnts
IJt’erruu with whining childre11. I stop to aillft:r here a11d tltere at ra11dom. I
pnslt gates open, I sit dow11 ou tlte strarv mat; b()•oud tlte lillie yard II�)’ ga;:;e
enconlllers the same mo1111tai11, witlt its aba11do11ed lool.:-ont posts.
Scallered mnrersatiom i11 wlticlt II�J’ mot Iter’s lineage prm·ides the li11!.:: one
or other oftlte speal.:ers tells me tltat tlte peasaut momen – repudiated mires, or
those who are sterile, bereft of a/�)’ future – hare remmed tlteir pilgrimages to
the grare of the two sai11ts amo11g Ill)’ a11cestors (tlte ‘old one ‘ a11d tlte )•mmg
one ‘, tlte one ‘witlt tlte blacl.: tougue ‘ a/1(/ tlte otlter, tlte silent Iiiii’, probab(J• Itis
son); th()• mme once more. wit It tlteir confessions, tlteir sessiow of trances to
ensure tlte blessings and intercession of tlte father and sou … Tlte rvomen
Prepare to tall.: to me iu tlte same ltesitaut rva)’; am / not, througlt II!J’ motlter
and II�)’ 11wilter’s father, a desceuda111 of these trvo dead saints IPI/11 listen a11d
wltose petrified slumber bri11gs tltem solace? … Yes, tlte roim in the slwdorvs
speak to me, a11d I remain silent; as I drink i11 their words and t”l’I’IJ’ injlectio11
of their roices I mnld feel II�J•self to be, if not sai11t or si1111er, at a/�)’ rate
mum 111 ifi e d.
W1uu do I as!.: tlte straiglttjimvard questions:
‘Hom old were you? … ‘ ‘W11ere mere yon /iring? … ”Were .J’IIII married
or single? … ‘ etc.
W1zen does tlte one rita/ question stick in n�J’ tltroat, 111wble to escape? . . . I
!told it back, I cannot formulate it, except bJ• some coded mort!, smue soji,
neutral, wltisperiug word …
Faced witlt these four, fire liste11iug peasalll 11)()/111’1/, all /iring out tlteir
fires as rvar rvidorvs … Must f 1vait for a cmifideutial tete-a-tete? One of
them has an monuom goitre ou Iter long, flexible uecl.:: per/taps I cm1 pass Iter
a hint to sltl.J’ beltiud, giriiiK tlte otlters to 1111dersta11d tltat l ltare some adrice
fi�r Iter about mrgeo11s or ltospiw/s … eaclt Iiiii’ I speak to is II!J’ alter ego:
201
/il·e me mudemued tl’itlumt hope of sa/ration a/Iii yet neither gui/1]• nor
rirtim. I mttSt approach their uureli£’7.’ed sadness, lmvr:r the voice, expressing
neither resit;nation nor lamentation.
�1�)’ ‘ question quirers persistent()• on II�J’ tougue. /11 order to put it into
n•ord1 / ought to prtpare the tmtmard appearance of liD’ bod)’.’ I sit cmss-!t:gged
on mshio11s or oil the hare tiles, palms upward in pose of humilif)•, II()’
shoulders hunched to jiJrestall rvea/..:11ess, II�J’ lap ready to recei-ve the flood of
emotion, legs mrled up under II�J’ skirt, to prez.•el/t me rmmiug off screaming
through the trees.
To s�J’ the private, Arabic rvord ‘damage’, or at the most, ‘hurt’:
‘Sister, did you ez.•er, at ai�J’ time, suffer “damage”? ‘
The rvord suggesting rape – the euphemism: after the soldiers passed close to
the river, the soldiers rvhom the J’OIIIIg rvoman (J•ing hidden for hours could
not avoid. The soldiers rvhom she met. And ‘submitted to ‘, ‘/ submitted to
“France “, ‘ the thirteen-year-old shepherd-girl might have said. Cherifa, who
in fact did not submit to anJ•thiug, unless it be todaJ•, the present emptiness.
Once the soldiers have gone, once she has washed, tidied herself up, plaited
her hair and tied the scarlet ribbon, all these aaions reflected in the brackish
water of the wadi, the woman, every woman, returns, one hour or two hours
later, advances to face the world to pm•eut the chancre being opened in the
tribal circle: the blind old man, the watchful matrons, the silent children with
flies about their qes, young lads already distmstful:
iWy daughter, has there been “damage”? ‘
One or other of the matriarchs will ask the question, to seize on the silence
and build a barrier against misfortune. The ymmg woman, her hair no longer
in disarray, looks into the old woman ‘s lacklustre qes, spn’nkles scorching
sand over et’eT)’ word: rape will not be mentioned, will be respeaed.
Swallowed. Until the next a/ann.
Can I, twenf)• years later, claim to revive these stifled voices? And speak for
them? Shall / not at best find dn’ed-up streams? lt’hat ghosts will be conjured
up rvhen in this absence of expressions of love (love receh·ed, ‘love ‘ imposed), I
see the rejleaion of IIIJ’ own barrenness, my own aphasia.
202
The Onlookers
Yes, there is a difference between the veiled women, a difference that
the eye of the foreigner can’t discern; he thinks them all identical –
phantoms roaming the streets, staring, examining, surveying all about
them; but they possess an inherent streak of inequality: between the
one who shouts, sending her voice soaring over the confined area of
the patio, and the one on the other hand who never speaks, who
contents herself with sighing or lets herself be interrupted until her
voice is permanently stifled.
I recall one familiar expression used to condemn a woman
irrevocably: worse than the poor (wealth and luxury were relative in
this restricted society), worse than the widow or the repudiated wife (a
fate that depends on God alone) the only really guilty woman, the only
one you could despise with impunity, the one you treated with manifest
contempt, was ‘the woman who raises her voice’.
One or other of the neighbours, or of the women related by
marriage, might wear out her patience in caring for her ever-increasing
family; one or other of the city ladies might show off flashy jewellery,
treat her stepchildren or daughters-in-law harshly; they could be
excused as it was rare for a woman to be lucky enough to have a ‘true
Muslim’, a hard-working, docile man for a husband. The only one who
put herself straight away beyond the pale was the ‘loud-mouthed
woman’: the one who nagged at her brood, whose voice could be heard
beyond her own vestibule and out in the street, the one who railed
aloud against fate instead of keeping her protests within four walls,
instead of sublimating her grievances in prayer or in the whispered
confidences of the story-tellers.
In short, veiled forms had the right to circulate in the city. But what
were these women doing with their cries of rebellion piercing the very
heavens? The only thing they were doing was to run the gravest risk.
203
To refuse to veil one’s voice and to start ‘shouting’, that was really
indecent, real dissidence. For the silence of all the others suddenly lost
its charm and revealed itself for what it was: a prison without reprieve.
\\’riting in a foreign language, not in either of the tongues of my native
country – the Berber of the Dahra mountains or the Arabic of the town
where I was born – writing has brought me to the cries of the women
silently rebelling in my youth, to my own true origins.
Writing docs not silence the voice, but awakens it, above all to
resurrect so many vanished sisters.
During the family celebrations of my childhood, the city ladies sit
crushed beneath the weight of their jewellery, clad in embroidered
velvet, their faces adorned with spangles or tattooing. Female
musicians perform, pastries are handed round, children get under the
feet of the visitors in their finery. The dancers heave their buxom
figures sedately from their seats . . . I have eyes only for my mother,
thinking probably of my dream of growing up and dancing too in this
heat. The city streets are far away; men do not exist. Paradise will last
for ever; slowly dancing, melancholy faces are lulled by the music …
One detail of the scene however introduces a harsh note: at one
moment in the ceremony when coffee and cakes have circulated, the
mistress of the house gives the order for the doors to be opened wide.
Then the horde of ‘voyeuses’ swarms in; that’s what the women arc
called who will remain veiled even in this exclusively feminine
gathering; they have not been invited, but they have the right to stand
in the vestibule looking on. Because they are excluded they keep on
their veils; what is more, in this city where the ladies go about veiled
but leave their eyes uncovered above a bit of embroidered veiling,
these ‘voyeuses’ hide their faces completely except for one eye, so that
they remain anonymous in the festivities; with their fingers they hold a
curious little triangle open under the veil.
These uninvited guests are allowed into the party as spies! The tiny
free eye, shrouded in white, darts from right to left, inspects the ladies’
jewels, studies the way another dances, takes a good look at the bride
decked out in all her finery, examining the louis d’or and pearls given
as wedding gifts … Here are these shrouded women, right in the
heart of the parade, their silent presence tolerated, the ones who enjoy
the sad privilege of remaining veiled in the very heart of the harem! At
204
last I understand both why they arc condemned and why they arc
fortunate: these women who ‘shout’ in their daily lives, the ones whom
the matrons thrust aside contemptuously, probably typify their need to
be seen, to have an audience!
The hostess has let them in in order to show off, as if saying, ‘Look!
examine everything! I’m not afraid of gossip! My wedding celebration
respects all the traditions! Let even the women I’ve not deigned to
invite sec for themselves and let everybody know!’ … The crux of the
ceremony is there, in this uneasy knot. As if the guests could no longer
endure their exclusion from the outside world … As if they were
finding a way of forgetting their imprisonment, getting their own back
on the men who kept them in the background: the males – father, sons,
husband – were shut out once and for all by the women themselves
who, in their own domain, began to impose the veil in turn on others.
205
A Widow’s Voice
We lived at the place called ‘Milestone 40’; those douars were not very
far from the main road. There’d been a clash with the French soldiers
just there. They’d had a lot of losses. We could sec the fires, the
smoke, from a distance … Since then they came back time and time
again.
One another occasion, the road was damaged not far from the
French post, to stop ‘France’ changing the guards. The barbed wires
round the post were taken down during the night. Our men had done
what the partisans had come and told them to do.
One morning, the soldiers came from the post and said, ‘You’re the
fellaheen! You’re the ones who removed the barbed wire and damaged
the road!’
Our men had to work right through the day putting back the barbed
wire and repairing the road. The following night, the same thing
happened with the maquisards. This time our men ran away: they
didn’t want to wait for the enemy’s reprisals. We women were left to
bear the brunt!
When the French came they only found women.
‘Take everything you can carry out of your houses !’ they told us.
The goumiers set fire to the houses. We drifted around. If you have a
brother, go to your brother’s place; if you have a first cousin, go to your
cousin’s! … We set off, we left our homes in ruins … A little way off
we built sitcltcrs out of branches. The maquisards came back; they
always followed us wherever we went. Our men hid food for them and
worked for them at night. The French also put in their appearance
again!
As soon as we young women saw the French coming we never
stayed inside. The old women stayed in the houses with the children:
206
we went to hide in the undergrowth or ncar the wadi. If the enemy
caught us we never said a word …
One night, the maquisards arrived. They had some coffee and then
left. No sooner were they out of the house than ‘France’ descended on
us: the soldiers had seen our lights from the road.
‘The fellaheen have been here!’ (They called ‘fellaheen’ those we
called ‘Brothers’).
They wanted to take my husband away. We knew that once a man’s
taken away in the middle of the night he never came back. I started to
cry and loosen my hair and lacerate my checks. All the women in the
house did the same thing, howling louder and louder: enough to
deafen them all!
Outside, their officer heard us crying. He came into the house and
said, ‘Let that man go!’
They just took his papers and told him he’d got to call at the post the
next day.
We were living then near the Ouled Larbi field. We didn’t own
anything. My husband was a day labourer. Just the same, they did kill
him eventually.
They came to get him in the field. It was a Friday. He never came
back. I heard later that a man named Mcnaia had given him away.
The French tortured him from Friday to Sunday. On the last day,
someone came and told me my husband had been stood up against a
pillar, right in the middle of the village square. They killed him just
like that, publicly, in front of everybody.
He left me with young children. The last-born was still in my belly: I
was only one and a half months gone. That son’s now twenty! I’ll be
bringing his bride to him next week, God willing! Because my health’s
not very good. I thought, ‘I’ll die knowing he’s got his own home! I’ll
depart with my mind at rest! ‘ … When I wanted to choose him a
bride, he told me, ‘Go and make enquiries in that place!’
Now he’ll only have her to work for. I don’t need him any more! All
my daughters have their own homes; once my last-born is married, my
war-widow’s pension will be enough for me!
207
Embraces
When one day in 1 956 the French paratroopers and the Foreign
Legion arrive at midday at the mountain village of El-Aroub, all its
thousand inhabitants have disappeared. One madman wanders alone
near a row of olive trees; a senile old woman remains squatting ncar
the water-tap.
The day before, forty-five maquisards had been living there quite
openly for the last month: the green and white independence flag was
flying on the newly-painted mosque. The old people of the village
were sorry not to see the ‘Brothers’ saying their prayers regularly there.
But before dawn there’s an indication that the French arc arriving in
strength: all males aged between fourteen and sixty decide to leave
with the maquisards. Women, children and old men flee into the
bushes and rocks of the surrounding country, in the hope that the
enemy will just be passing through.
But the soldiers settle in. The infantry and the field companies
remain stationed down on the plain. After three long days of waiting,
the civilian population eventually come out of hiding, driven out by
hunger; they drift back, waving white flags, a pitiful procession of
women with empty breasts and wailing infants.
Disappointment and boredom have driven the soldiery to systematic
looting. The inhabitants find their village ransacked from top to
bottom, ‘turned over like a ploughed field’: the dried provisions have
disappeared or been trodden underfoot, the linen chests have been
broken open, the roofs of the houses demolished in the search for
hidden arms and silver coins … Doors have been ripped off their
hinges, wedding dresses draped derisively on the trees, hauled through
the mud, hung over the empty door-frames, in a grotesque parody of a
carnival.
� lothcrs search through this scene of plunder for something to give
208
their starving children. Some of them, in despair, sit weeping silently
in their doorways.
In the middle of this melancholy return, two men in maquisards’
uniform arc captured : the army give the first cheers for victory.
The officer in command of the paratroopers, an aristocratic
lieutenant, asks a private, an Alsacian, to try to find out from the
prisoners the whereabouts of the arms cache. The interrogation takes
place in the open, under an olive tree. The Alsacian is keen to show
that he knows his job as torturer. The officer, who docs not soil his
hands, puts on an air of indifference, not devoid of contempt.
The prisoners arc soon unrecognizable. Silence, boredom, takes
hold of the soldiers who had at first been attracted by the spectacle.
The garments hanging on the branches suddenly seem like the sole
spectators of the endless agony in the sun …
Finally one of the tortured men gives in. He indicates the site of the
cache. Everyone rushes there. But the lieutenant remains behind, lifts
a hand and the two prisoners fall under a hail of bullets.
One of the legionnaires writes of these days in EI-Aroub, reliving his
experiences. Sometimes he even weeps, ‘but dry-eyed, having long
since had no more tears to shed’.*
I come at length upon what he wrote, turn the pages at random, read
as if I were shrouded in the ancestral veil; with my one free eye
perusing the page, where is written more than the eye-witness sees,
more than can be heard.
The day after this interrogation a peasant woman recognizes her
husband as one of the two men whose bodies lie unburied.
‘She rushes boldly into the middle of our encampment, weeping,
heaping insults on us in a terrifying voice. She kept on shaking her
bony fist at us and shouting threats.’**
The soldiers, once more at a loose end, sit looking at the sea in the
distance. The beach is tempting in thi� scorching heat, but a dense
forest runs along the shore for miles. The lynx-eyed maquisards arc
probably lurking there, ready to take the opportunity of attacking …
The orders to retreat arc long in coming. The agitation and panic
“Pierre Leulliette, Sai111 Midul c·t h· Drago11 (Saint Michael and the Dragon)
Ed. de Minuit, 1 961
“”Ibid
209
around the village subside, the women dry their tears. Then the order
comes to move out the next day. The soldiers will have a full day’s
march to reach the sea. Lorries, preceded by armoured cars and
followed by tanks, will take them to Constantine. They sleep first on
the beach, ‘unwashed, looking like stray dogs’; at dawn they wake up in
the rain …
Is it in the course of this drive down to the sea, or the next day in one
of the lorries of the convoy, in the rain, that a certain Bernard confides
in the man who will tell the story of EI-Aroub, recalling events he will
never be able to forget? …
Yet again, one man speaks, another listens, then writes. I stumble
against their words which circulate; then I speak, I speak to you, the
widows of that other mountain village, so distant or so near to
EI-Aroub!
In the middle of the night before they leave, Bernard crawls on
hands and knees, unarmed, between two sentinels, gropes his way in
the dark into the village, until he finds a farm whose roof has nearly
collapsed, whose door has been half dragged off its hinges.
‘There,’ he tells his friend, ‘a preny Fatma smiled at me during
the day!’
He slips in without knocking. It must be half past one in the
morning. He hesitates in the darkness, then strikes a match: facing
him, a group of women squat in a circle, staring at him; they arc nearly
all old, or look it. They huddle close to one another; their eyes gleam
with terror or surprise …
The Frenchman takes food out of his pockets and hurriedly
distributes it. He walks around, he strikes another match; finally his
eyes light on ‘the preny Fauna’ who had smiled at him. He seizes her
hand, pulls her to her feet.
The match has gone out. The couple find their way to the back of
the vast room, where it is pitch-black. The old women squatting in a
circle have not moved; companions and sisters of silence, they crouch,
staring with dim pupils which preserve the present moment: could the
lake of happiness exist? …
The Frenchman has undressed. ‘I could have been in my own
home,’ he will admit. He presses the girl close to him; she shudders,
she holds him tight, she begins to caress him.
‘What if one of the old women were to get up and come and stick a
knife in my back?’ he thinks.
210
Suddenly two frail arms arc round his neck, a gasping voice begins
to whisper: strange, fond, warm words come tumbling out. The
unknown hot-blooded girl pours these words in Arabic or Berber into
his car.
‘She kissed me full on the mouth, like a young girl. Just imagine! I’d
never seen anything like it! … She was kissing me! Do you realize? …
Kissing me! It was that little meaningless action that I shall never be
able to forget!’
Bernard returns to the camp about three in the morning. No sooner
has he fallen asleep than he wakes with a start: he must leave the village
for ever.
Twenty years later I report the scene to you, you widows, so that you
can sec it in your turn, so that you in turn can keep silent. And the old
women sit motionless, listening to the unknown village girl giving
herself.
Silence spanning nights of passion and words grown cold, the
silence of the watching women, that accompanies the quivering kisses
in the heart of the ruined hamlet.
211
Fifth Movement:
The Tunic of Nessus
My father, a tall erect figure in a fez, walks down the village street; he
pulls me by the hand and I, who for so long was so proud of myselfthe
first girl in the family to have French dolls bought for her, the one
who had permanently escaped cloistering and never had to stamp and
protest at being forced to wear the shroud-veil, or else yield meekly
like any of my cousins, I who did deliberately drape myself in a veil for
a summer wedding as if it were a fancy dress, thinking it most
becoming – I walk down the street, holding my father’s hand.
Suddenly, I begin to have qualms: isn’t it my ‘duty’ to stay behind with
my peers in the gynaeceum? Later, as an adolescent, well nigh
intoxicated with the sensation of sunlight on my skin, on my mobile
body, a doubt arises in my mind: ‘Why me? Why do I alone, of all my
tribe, have this opportunity?’
I cohabit with the French language: I may quarrel with it, I may have
bursts of affection, I may subside into sudden or angry silences – these
are the normal occurrences in the life of any couple. If I deliberately
provoke an outburst, it is less to break the unbearable monotony, than
because I am vaguely aware of having been forced into a ‘marriage’ too
young, rather like the little girls of my town who are ‘bespoke’ in their
earliest childhood.
Thus, my father, the schoolteacher, for whom a French education
provided a means of escape from his family’s poverty, had probably
‘given’ me before I was nubile – did not certain fathers abandon their
daughters to an unknown suitor, or, as in my case, deliver them into
the enemy camp? The failure to realize the implications of this
213
traditional bcha\iour took on for me a different significance: when I
was ten or clc\cn, it was understood among my female cousins that I
was privileged to be my father’s ‘favourite’ since he had unhesitatingly
preserved me from cloistering.
But marriageable royal princesses also cross the border, often
against their will, in terms of treaties which end wars.
French is my ‘stepmother’ tongue. Which is my long-lost mothertongue,
that left me standing and disappeared? … Mother-tongue,
either idealized or unloved, neglected and left to fairground barkers
and jailers! … Burdened by my inherited taboos, I discover I have no
memory of Arabic love-songs. Is it because I was cut off from this
impassioned speech that I find the French I usc so flat and
unprofitable?
The Arab poet describes the body of his beloved; the Andalusian
exquisite composes treatise after treatise, listing a multiplicity of erotic
postures; the Muslim mystic, dressed in woollen rags and satisfied with
a handful of dates, expresses his thirst for God and his longing for the
hereafter with a surfeit of extravagant epithets … The prodigality of
this language seems to me somewhat suspect, consoling with empty
words … Wealth squandered while they arc being dispossessed of
their Arab heritage.
Words of love heard in a wilderness. After several centuries of
cloistering, the bodies of my sisters have begun to come out of hiding
here and there over the last fifty years; they grope around, blinded by
the light, before they dare advance. Silence surrounds the first written
words, and a few scattered laughs arc heard above the groans.
‘L ‘amour, ses cris 6 ‘icrit) ‘: my hand as I write in French makes the
pun on love affairs that arc aired; all my body docs is to move forward,
stripped naked, and when it discovers the ululations of my ancestresses
on the battlefields of old, it finds that it is itself at stake: it is no longer a
question of writing only to survive.
Long before the French landed in 1 830, the Spanish established their
presidios (garrison posts) at strategic points along the Maghribin coast ­
Oran, Bougie, Tangiers, Ccuta; the indigenous rulers in the interior
continued to resist and the occupying forces frequently found their
food supplies cut off; thus they adopted the tactics of the rebato: an
isolated spot would be chosen from which to launch an attack, and to
214
which they could retreat and usc in the intervals between hostilities for
farming or for replenishing supplies.
This type of warfare, rapid offensives alternating with as swift
retreats, allowed each side to continue the fight indefinitely.
After more than a century of French occupation – which ended not
long ago in such butchery – a similar no-man’s-Iand still exists
between the French and the indigenous languages, between two
national memories: the French tongue, with its body and voice, has
established a proud presidio within me, while the mother-tongue, all
oral tradition, all rags and tatters, resists and attacks between two
breathing spaces. In time to the rhythm of the rebato, I am alternately
the besieged foreigner and the native swaggering off to die, so there is
seemingly endless strife between the spoken and written word.
Writing the enemy’s language is more than just a matter of scribbling
down a muttered monologue under your very nose; to usc this alphabet
involves placing your elbow some distance in front of you to form a
bulwark – however, in this twisted position, the writing is washed back
to you.
This language was imported in the murky, obscure past, spoils taken
from the enemy with whom no fond word was ever exchanged …
French – formerly the language of the law courts, used alike by judges
and convicted. Words of accusation, legal procedure, violence – that is
the oral source of the colonized people’s French.
As I come to the inevitable ccascfirc at the end of every war, my
writing is washed up on the deserted seashores of the present day and
looks for a place where a linguistic armistice can be arranged, a patio
with fountains playing where people come and go.
This language was formerly used to entomb my people; when I write
it today I feel like the messenger of old, who bore a scaled missive
which might sentence him to death or to the dungeon.
By laying myself bare in this language I start a fire which may
consume me. For attempting an autobiography in the former enemy’s
language …
After five centuries of Roman occupation, an Algerian named
Augustine undertakes to write his own biography in Latin. Speaks of
his childhood, declares his love for his mother and his concubine,
regrets his youthful wild oats and tells how he was eventually
215
consumeJ with passion for a Christian God. And his writing presses
into ser.·ice, in all innocence, the same language as Caesar or Sulla –
writers and generals of the successful ‘African Campaign’.
The same language has passed from the conquerors to the
assimilated people; has grown more flexible after the corpses of the
past have been enshrouded in words … Saint Augustine’s style is
borne along by his ecstatic search for God. Without this passion, he
would be destitute again: ‘I have become to myself the country of
destitution.’ If this love did not maintain him in a blissful transport, his
writing would be a self-laceration!
After the Bishop of Hippo Rcgius, a thousand years elapse. The
J\laghrib sees a procession of new invasions, new occupations …
Repeated raids by the Banu Hila! tribesmen finally bleed the country
white. Soon after this fatal turning point, the historian Ibn Khaldun,
the innovatory author of The History of the Berbers, as great a figure as
Augustine, rounds off a life of adventure and meditation by composing
his autobiography in Arabic. He calls it Ta ‘arif, that is to say, ‘Identity’.
As with Augustine, it matters little to him that he writes in a
language introduced into the land of his fathers by conquest and
accompanied by bloodshed! A language imposed by rape as much as by
love …
Ibn Khaldun is now nearly seventy years of age: after an encounter
with Tamerlane – his last exploit – he prepares to die in exile in Egypt.
He suddenly obeys a yearning to turn back on himself: and he becomes
the subject and object of a dispassionate autopsy.
For my part, even where I am composing the most commonplace of
sentences, my writing is immediately caught in the snare of the old war
between nvo peoples. So I swing like a pendulum from images of war
(war of conquest or of liberation, but always in the past) to the
expression of a contradictory, ambiguous love.
My memory hides in a black mound of decomposing debris; the
sound which carries it swirls upward out of reach of my pen. ‘I write,’
declares Michaux, ‘to undertake a journey through myself.’ I journey
through myself at the whim of the former enemy, the enemy whose
language I have stolen …
Autobiography practised in the enemy’s language has the texture of
fiction, at least as long as you arc desensitized by forgetting the dead
that writing resurrects. While I thought I was undertaking a ‘journey
216
through myself, I find I am simply choosing another veil. While I
intended every step forward to make me more clearly identifiable, I
find myself progressively sucked down into the anonymity of those
women of old – my ancestors!
I am forced to acknowledge a curious fact: the date of my birth is
eighteen luau/red and foriJ•-tmo, the year when General Saint-Arnaud
arrives to burn down the ::.aouia of the Beni l\1enacer, the tribe from
which I am descended, and he goes into raptures over the orchards,
the olive groves, ‘the finest in the whole of Algeria’, as he writes in a
letter to his brother – orchards which have now disappeared.
It is Saint-Arnaud’s fire that lights my way out of the harem one
hundred years later: because its glow still surrounds me I find the
strength to speak. Before I catch the sound of my own mice I can hear
the death-rattles, the moans of those immured in the Dahra mountains
and the prisoners on the Island of Sainte Marguerite; they provide my
orchestral accompaniment. They summon me, encouraging my
faltering steps, so that at the given signal my solitary song takes off.
The language of the Others, in which I was em eloped from childhood,
the gift my father lovingly bestowed on me, that language has adhered
to me ever since like the tunic of Ness us: that gift from my father who,
every morning, took me by the hand to accompany me to school. A
little Arab girl, in a village of the Algerian Sahel …
217
Soliloquy
I hm·e hem mm:ing free(J• outside the harem since II()’ adolescmce, but ez:eiJ’
place I traul through is nothing hut a IVildernes.�. In cafts, in Paris or
elsewhere, I am .Htrrounded by munnuring stranger:;: I spend hours
earesdropping on faceless roices, catclring mate/res of dialogue, fragments of
stories, an impenetrable mumble of sounds detached from the magma of faces,
presen·ed from pmbiug t:J’eS.
The sharp plouglr.�hare of my memOIJ’ digs its furrows through the darkness
behind me, while I tremble in broad daylight to find ll�)•self among women
who mix with men, with impunity … Tlrt:j• call me an exile. It is more than
that: 1 /rm·e bet’ll banished from IIIJ’ homeland to listt’ll and bri11g back some
traces of liberfJ• to the women of my fami(J• … I imagine I constitute the link,
but I am on(J• floundering in a murlJ’ bog.
My night stirs up French words, in spite of the resurrected dead . . . I
thought when I grasped these words tht:)’ would be drn:es of peace, in spite of
the rcn.:ens lun:ering rn:er the charnel lwuses, in spite of the snarling jackals
tean”ng flesh to pieces. Coning turtle-dm:e-words, clrimtping robin-redbreasts
like those that wait in opium-smokers ‘ cages … Tire first strains of a
dirge well up, penetrating the barriers ofoblit•ion, at once a plaintive song and
song of luve in the first light of dawn. And eveiJ’ dawn is brighter because I
write.
My fiction is this attempt at autobiography, weighed down under the
oppressive burden of my heritage. Shall ! sink beneath the weight? … But
the tribal legend criss-crosses the empl)• spaces, and the imagination crouches
in the silence when luving words of the unwritten mother-tongue remain
unspoken – language com•eyed like the inaudible babbling of a nameless,
haggard mummer – crouches in this dark night like a woman begging in the
streets …
218
I shelter again in the green shade of II!J’ cloistered mmpa11io11s ‘ mhispers.
How shall I find the strength to tear off “U’ r·eil, u11/ess I hare to use it to
bandage the rum1ing sore nearby from which words exude?
219
Tzarl-rit:
(Finale)
t:::arl-rit:
– to utter cries o!JtD’ while smacking the lips with the
hands (of roomm)
Eng. trans. of entry in Beaussier, Arabic-French
Dictionary
– shout, rociferate (of roomen rohen some misjiJrtune
befalls them)
Eng. trans. of entry in Kazimirski, ArabicFrench
Dictionary
Pauline …
Paris, the beginning of June, 1 852. Ten women, including one whose
Christian name is Pauline, arc woken abruptly a little before dawn in
the prison of Saint-Lazare.
‘Get up! We’re leaving for Algeria!’
The nuns hustle them to get ready. It is not yet daylight; soldiers
tramp through the high grey corridors which resound with the clash of
steel.
‘We’re leaving for Algeria,’ a timid voice repeats.
So the name of my country rings like a death-knell for these
prisoners. Quickly their bundles must be tied, the prison register must
be signed, and then they must be on their way, on foot … Permission
is grudgingly given for one of the women to be carried as she is too ill
to walk.
The group of prisoners and soldiers crosses Paris in the faint dawn
light, to be greeted by bawdy remarks from belated revellers, who take
the women for prostitutes. They reach the embarkation point on the
Seine. A few hours later they leave for Lc Havre; from there the
voyage continues to the savage land. For that is where the Parisian
tribunals send the diehards of the ’48 Revolution, after the coup d’etat
of 2 December . . . Hundreds of men and women arc deported
thus …
Among this ‘people’ – as the story-tellers of my homeland would say
– is Pauline Rolland. A forty-eight-year-old schoolteacher who ‘fights
for her faith and her principles’, to take up the words of the
shepherd-girl from my mountains. Poor like her; like her, humble and
too proud …
On 23 June 1 852 Pauline Rolland lands ncar Oran. Four months
later, on 25 October, she embarks at Bone on her way back to France;
she is ill and has not long to live. All that summer she had been
222
shunted from west to cast, from town to town, ncn:r let out of sight,
always spied on …
Moved from Mcrs ei-Kcbir to Oran, from Oran to Algiers, from
Algiers to Bougie – in these cities Pauline sees nothing except soldiers
and her jailers; from Bougie Pauline tra\’els by mule along the roads
that border unsubjugatcd Kabylia to Sctif, where she ekes out a li\’ing
as a seamstress. Two months later, she is sent to a f(>rtrcss in
Constantine; finally she is brought back to Bi’mc, where she rccci\’cs
permission to return to France – out of compassion, so it is claimed ­
has she not three children? – although she is, at the same time,
considered a ‘dangerous agitator’.
She is very ill when she embarks. On the boat, she remains lying on
the deck, often swept by the wa\’cs of a stormy sea. When she lands :�t
Marseille, Pauline cannot get to her feet. In Lyons, where friends take
her in, she is already dying and when her eldest son, a young man
covered in academic honours, hurries to sec her, she is in a coma. In
fact, she was delirious when she left Algeria … Our country became
her grave: her true heirs – Chcrifa hiding in her tree, Lla Zohra
wandering among the fires that ravaged the countryside, the chorus of
anonymous women of today – could pay homage to her with that
ancestral cry of triumph, the ululation of convulsive sisterhood!
Throughout the four months of her Algerian travels, Pauline wrote
letter after letter to her friends in the struggle, to her family, her
relatives …
I met this woman on the terrain of her writings: she and I arc now
clasped in each other’s arms, our roots entwined in the rich soil of the
French vocabulary. I re-read these letters sent from Algeria: one
sentence catches my eye, lovingly inscribed, covering Pauline’s life:
‘In Kabylia,’ Pauline writes in July 1 852, ‘I have seen women treated
as beasts of burden, and others odalisqucs in a rich man’s harem. I
have slept at the side of the former on the bare ground, and beside the
latter amid gold and silk .. .’
Affectionate words from a woman, pregnant with the future: they give
off light before my eyes and finally set me free.
223
The Fantasia
In this same month of October 1 85 2, while Pauline Rolland is leaving
Bone to die, Eugene Fromcntin begins his travels in this country that
has been crushed beneath the weight of twenty-two years of
unremitting war. This elegant tourist, this peaceful aristocrat, with a
known fondness for the hunt and autumnal landscapes, arrives in
Algeria.
A generation of bloody confrontations, cries of ‘Havoc!’, dogs of war
unleashed in hot pursuit – these twenty years arc drawing to a close.
Kabylia and the South are still inviolate: Fromentin only travels along
the borders of these regions. In the North, the scenes that form the
subjects for his canvases, the places where he walks with eyes and cars
alert, might be one vast game-park that has been over-hunted. He is
met by gentle, fragile creatures, ghosts of some lost ceremonial …
They arc trying to re-create a life, in spite of the defeat, and these
ncar-moribund inhabitants of a conquered country, where rebellion is
limited to circumscribed regions, remember the fighting but pretend to
sleep, to day-dream in the sun, to smoke hashish.
A calm sets in: the settlers have not yet taken possession of the
country that later their seasonal workers will trample in the dust.
Despite the past shocks, the aspect of the countryside is a revelation to
the artist: the North with its illusive tints, the South with its brash
vibrant contrasts.
Above all, Fromcntin falls in. love with the light; he is enamoured of
the muted, pearly greys; all this he tries to convey to us in his canvases.
This consummate draughtsman, who excels in hunting scenes,
portrays our ancestors surrounded by this soft glow and makes them
seem the sad accomplices of his melancholy.
Eugene Fromcntin keeps a journal of his stay in Algeria; he entitles
one of these fragments Clmmique de I’Ah.w:lll (‘Chronicle of the
Missing’). For he finds the Sahel of my childhood a garden where
everything in fact speaks of absence.
224
‘Oh, my friend, you have killed me!’
Such arc the dying words of Haoua, a young woman who has come
one autumn day with her friend, a dancer from Blida, to watch the
Fantasia of the Hajouts; one of the riders, a lover she’d rejected,
wheels round and bears down on her. The charger kicks her in the
face and she falls mortally wounded; while she lies dying the murderer
disappears over the horizon, beyond the mountains of Muzai’a.
Fromcntin portrays this festivity that has turned to tragedy.
Can no love-story ever be evoked in these regions except by its
tragic consequences? The fury of this Hajout warrior’s love when,
jilted by Haoua, he strikes her down. Then, too, the French artist’s
secret love for the mysterious Moorish woman which he expresses in
the colours of his costumes, in the faint whisper of his birdlike
voice … The first Algerian heroine to make a brief appearance in a
story written in French, the first to murmur a word in the margin,
pretending not to realize she is trespassing …
Haoua must have been born just before or just after the capture of
the City. Her childhood, her adolescence fed on the sound of fighting,
were spent among ambushes, laid for the French by the Hajouts – this
redoubtable tribe which, five years after the subjugation of Abd
al-Qadir, is decimated and slowly dies. And this is the real tragedy of
the Fantasia which Fromentin resurrects: a gesture in honour of the
vanished victory, recognition of the bodies left lying in the sun as the
horse’s hooves pound into the distance …
The preceding spring Haoua openly received a Frenchman – a fact
which is public knowledge in the nearby town. This man, wandering
about in the dust and silence of the roads, is a lover of twilight· scenes.
The countryside all around, with its livid skies, its birdlifc on the brink
of extinction, the last of its camels, is bled dry … The Hajouts, allies
of the Amir, the ‘brigands’ who have kept up their raids on the invaders
from the City, sec their tribe disappear, just as twenty years later, the
magnificent Halloula Lake with its countless birdlifc is to disappear.
‘Oh, my friend, you have killed me!’ sighs the young woman dying in
the tent.
And such is the burden of the sighs heaved by the whole plain, men
and beasts, throughout the length of the Sahel, once the fighting is
over.
225
Air on a Nay
And then I intervene, with nomad memory and intermittent voice.
Undaunted, I have travelled to the four corners of my native land –
between the captured City and the ruins of Caesaria, it stretches from
Mount Chenoua, in the shadow of the Muza’ia Peak, a languid plain
whose wounds have not yet healed. I intervene to greet the painter who
has accompanied me throughout my wanderings like a second father
figure. Eugene Fromentin offers me an unexpected hand – the hand of
an unknown woman he was never able to draw.
In june 1 853, when he leaves the Sahel to travel down to the edge of
the desert, he visits Laghouat which has been occupied after a terrible
siege. He describes one sinister detail: as he is leaving the oasis which
six months after the massacre is still filled with its stench, Fromentin
picks up out of the dust the severed hand of an anonymous Algerian
woman. He throws it down again in his path.
Later, I seize on this living hand, hand of mutilation and of memory,
and I attempt to bring it the qalam.
Twenty years have elapsed since a recent uprooting. I travel back and
forth across my native land, in the customary silence which follows the
funeral lamentations; I enter the village homes where the muffled
women retell their stories of the cavalcades of a more recent past,
before they seem to lapse once more into sleep: to give birth behind
the shutters, closed against the midday sun.
What shore awaits me as I continue my travels and my day-dreams,
discovering the mutilated hand which the painter threw away? …
What feast is being prepared, to be haunted by the chants of vanished
tribes? What hennaed hands arc busying themselves amid the acrid
smell of roasting and the drums warming up on the smoking
braziers …
226
I wait amid the scattered sheaf of sounds, I wait, foreseeing the
inevitable moment when the marc’s hoof will strike down any woman
who dares to stand up freely, will trample all life that comes out into
the sunlight to dance! Yes, in spite of the tumult of my people all
around, I already hear, even before it arises and pierces the harsh sky, I
hear the death cry in the Fantasia.
227
Paris/Venice/ Algiers
(July ’82-0ctober ’84)

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AN ALGERIAN CAVALCADE ASSIA DJEBAR

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AN ALGERIAN CAVALCADE
ASSIA DJEBAR
Tran.Jlated by Dorothy S. Blair
Heinemann
Portsmouth, NH
Heinemann
A division of Reed Elsevier Inc.
361 Hanover Street
Portsmouth, NH 03801-3912
Offices and agents throughout the world
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form
or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage
and retneval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher ,
except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review.
Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade
is the first volume of a quartet.
The second volume is
A Sister to Scheherazade
First U.S. Printing 1993
First Published in English by Qiartet Books Limited
A member of the Namara Group
27129 Goodge Street, London W1P 1FD
First published in France by Editions Jean-Claude Lattes 1985
as L’amour, Ia fantasia
Copyright © by Assia Djebar 1985
Translation and Introduction copyright© by Dorothy S. Blair
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Djebar, Assia, 1936-
[Amour, Ia fantasia. English]
Fantasia, an Algerian cavalcade I Assia Djebar: translated by
Dorothy S. Blair.
p. em.
Sequel: A sister to Scheherazade.
ISBN G-435-Q8621-9
1. Women-Algeria-History-Fiction.
P�989.2.D57A813 1993
843-dc20
I. Tide.
92-42700
CIP
Typeset by MC Typeset Limited, Gillingham, Kent
Printed in the United States of America on Acid-Free Paper
06 05 15 1413
CONTENTS
Glossary Vll
Chronology xi
Introduction XV
PART ONE THE CAPTURE OF THE CITY
or Love-letters 1
A Little Arab Girl’s First Day at School 3
I 6
Three Cloistered Girls 9
II 14
The French Policeman’s Daughter 20
III 28
My Father Writes to My Mother 35
IV 39
Deletion 46
PART TWO THE CRIES OF THE FANTASM 47
Captain Bosquet Leaves Oran to Take Part
in a Razzia 49
58
Women, Children, Oxen Dying in Caves 64
II 80
The Naked Bride of Mazuna 83
III 101
Sistrom 109
PART THREE VOICES FROM THE PAST Ill
First Movement: The Two Strangers 1 13
Voice 117
Clamour 122
Aphasia of Love 125
Voice 130
Embraces 141
Second Movement: The Trance 143
Voice 146
Murmurs 151
Plunder 153
Voice 158
Embraces 164
Third Movement: The Ballad of Abraham 169
Voice 173
ftVhispers 176
The Quranic School 179
A Widow’s Voice 186
Embraces 189
Fourth Movement: The Cry in the Dream 193
A Widow’s Voice 198
Dialogues 201
The Onlookers 203
A Widow’s Voice 206
Embraces 208
Fifth Movement: The Tunic ofNessus 213
Soliloql()’ 218
T;:,ar/-rit: (Finale) 221
Pauline … 222
The Fantasia 224
Air on a Na.J’ 226
a(aba
Aga (Agha)
a lim
a mall
Amir (Emir)
attatich
bach-kateb
bess ita
Bey
beylik
burnous
cadi (qad1)
Cai’d (Q_ai”d)
Caliph
chaouch
chikhat (cheikat)
chmgal
GLOSSARY
a diadem, tiara, jewelled fillet
(Turk.), Minister in charge of Sultan’s armed
forces; in Algeria, an officer superior to a cai’d
one who has knowledge
mercy (to plead for a. = to surrender, ask for
assurance of safe conduct)
title of Muslim sovereign ruler, here the Sultan
Abd al-Qadir
(Turk.) palanquin
secretary (term derived half from Turkish, half
Arabic)
multiple necklaces, covering the whole bust,
down to the waist
(Turk.) Governor of a beylik (q.v.) in Regency
of Algiers with three principal vassals:
governors of Oran, Constantine and Titteri
(Turk.) one of the provinces of Regency of
Algiers
long, loose, woollen cloak, woven in one piece
Muslim judge, interpreter oflaw of lslam
Arab administrator, chief or civil judge
appointed by government
successor of Mohamed, Muslim civil and
religious chief, Sultan (seeAmir)
(Turk.) usher
fern. of sheikh, here ‘lady-musicians’; term
used here to denote respect for their age and
the religious nature of their chants
pendant earrings
deira
Dey
Diran
t:Wuar
‘Etlag el Goum!’
fatiha
fe/lah,fellaheen (pl.)
fraction
‘France’
galam
gomn
goumier
guelta
guerba
hadri
hai”k
hammam
janizary (janissary)
jebel
jemmaa
jihad
kachabia
kanmm
retinue, lit. ‘circle’, i.e. roving capital of Abd
al-Qadir
(Turk.) ruler of Regency of Algiers before
French conquest in 1830
(Turk.) council of state in Regency of Algiers
hamlet or settlement, clan, extended family
battle-cry, ‘Forward gallop!’, lit. ‘Drop the
reins!’
introduction to recital of sura (q.v.)
peasant, derogatory term used by the French to
refer to the partisans
part of tribe or village
the French army, expression used by the
Algerian peasants during the War of
Independence
wooden stylus used in Quranic school for
writing verses from the Quran on wooden
tablets
Arab military unit, allied to the French
Arab soldier who has enlisted with the French
stream
goatskin for carrying water, holding about
twenty litrcs
citizen, town-dweller
all-enveloping, woollen square of cloth in
which Middle Eastern women cover
themselves out of doors, leaving only one eye
visible
Turkish bath
(Turk.) infantry constituting the Sultan’s guard
and main part of Turkish standing army
mountain
council of elders
holy war waged on behalf of Islam
cloak worn by peasants and maquisards in
winter to protect them from the cold; worn by a
girl in the maquis so that the enemy soldiers
will take her for a man
brazier
kasbah
Klzalifa
khalkhal (khelkha[)
Khasnaji
khatiba
khoja
Kulughli
(Kouloughb)
mara bout
Mechouar
meddah
medi11a
medresa
mej11oun
Moujahidine
na)’
na)’lette
serrmal (sarona[)
set/a
Sharif
Sheikh
smala
spa hi
Sultan
mra
taleb
terrace
citadel or fortress; in Algiers, fortified Turkish
scat of government
deputy to the Caliph
ankle bracelet (anklet)
(Turk.) Minister of Finance
a company of maquisards (approx. I 00)
(Turk.) clerk, secretary
(Turk.= son of the slave) i.e. son ofTurkish
father and native Algerian woman
Muslim holy man, saint
usually the Council Chamber, here the city
fortress which is the headquarters of the
military guard
a poet who chants his poetry, a bard
old part of an Arab city
Quranic school
mad, in the sense of possessed by demons
partisans, the most dedicated and fanatical of
the freedom-fighters
a very old type of flute
dancer and prostitute
loose, baggy trousers
goblet, elaborate drinking cup
tribal ruler who claims descent from the
Prophet
(i) chief of a tribal fractirm; (ii) chief of a
religious order; (iii) head of family
Arab chiefs retinue, cf. deira
member of native Algerian cavalry in French
service, recognized by their scarlet capes
ruling sovereign
a verse of the Quran, recited during the daily
prayers
disciple of marabollf, teacher in a Quranic
school
in N. Africa, the flat roof where the women
congregate for social gatherings or to sit in the
cool
a species of conifer
rvadi
mali
yatagan
::.aouia (::.arv�J•ah)
river or dry river bed
(i) a saint; (ii) the saint’s tomb, a sanctuary; (iii)
a representative or ‘prefect’
(Turk.) sword, without guard, often doubleedged
headquarters of an Islamic brotherhood
1510
29 Apri11 827
November 1 829
2 March 1 830
May 1 830
1 4June 1 830
5 July 1 830
30July 1 830
4January 1 83 1
CHRONOLOGY
Beginning of Turkish rule in Algeria
Hussein, the Dey of Algiers, strikes
the French consul, starting a crisis in
the relations between the two
countries, French begin naval
blockade of Algiers
France decides to send military
expedition to Algeria, with a view to
the conquest of Algiers
Charles X announces decision to
invade Algiers
Bourmont prepares to sail from
Toulon
French land at Sidi Ferruch
French troops capture Algiers and
Dey Hussein capitulates
Revolution in Paris forces Charles X
to abdicate. Louis-Philippe
proclaimed king. Bourmont, loyal to
Charles, withdraws his troops from
Bone and Oran, resigns his
command and goes into exile in
Spain. Clauzel takes over command
in Algiers from Bourmont and
pursues a policy of colonization
which continues for ten years into the
hinterland of Algiers and the Mitidja
plain
French occupy Oran
22 November 1832 Abd al-Qadir elected supreme
Commander of the Faithful;
establishes military base at Mascara;
emerges as leader of resistance
against French
March 1 833-Scptcmbcr 1 834 Colonization of Mitidja plain
progresses rapidly, with 6,000 troops
stationed at Blida
26 February 1834 Gen. Dcsmichcls, commander of
French forces in Oran, and Abd
al-Qadir sign treaty ending
hostilities, and recognizing the
Amir’s jurisdiction over territory in
neighbourhood ofOran
22 July 1 834 Position of Governor-General of
French Possessions in N. Africa
established
1 835
December 1 835
1 835-36
November 1 836
May 1 837
July 1 837
October 1 837
October 1 839
November 1 839
December 1 840
1 840-7
Abd al-Qadir continues attacks on
French posts
Field-Marshal Clauzcl attacks
Mascara, the Amir’s capital
Continued clashes between French
forces and those of the Amir
Attempt to take Constantine by force
fails, the French losing about 1 ,000
men
Gen. Bugeaud signs treaty with Abd
al-Qadir
Hostilities resumed
French capture Constantine
Field-Marshal Vall!e leads military
column towards Algiers
The Amir retaliates by invading
Mitidja plain
Governor-General Valcc replaced by
Gen. Bugeaud. Gen. Lamoriciere
appointed in Oran
Bugeaud pursues policy of total
occupation and war takes on cruel
November 1843
21 December 184 7
1848-52
1852
1883
1939
1940
1945
1954
1962
1968
character. Four recorded incidents
of French officers ordering burning
of defeated groups of Muslims in
caves
The Amir seeks asylum in Morocco
Abd al-Qadir surrenders to the
French
He is held in French prison, despite
promise of safe conduct to the East
Napoleon III orders Abd al-Qadir’s
release
Abd al-Qadir dies in Damascus
Outbreak of Second World War
German occupation of France
End of Second World War in Europe
Start of the Algerian War of
Independence
End of Algerian War. De Gaulle
grants Algeria independence
Abd al-Qadir’s remains transferred
from Damascus to Algiers for burial
INTRODUCTION
When Assia Djcbar published L ‘amour, Ia fantasia in 1 985, she had
already established her reputation as the major woman writer from the
Maghreb, with four novels in French to her name by the time she was
thirty. She then announced that she was abandoning fiction writing ­
in particular, writing in French – and from 1 962 devoted herself to
teaching history at the University of Algiers. However, during the
ensuing twelve years of ‘silence’, she tried to tackle the problem of the
passage from writing in French to writing in Arabic, to which she
found a partial solution in the cinema with her film La Nouba des
femmes du Mont Chenoua which was awarded the Critics’ Prize at the
Venice Biennalc 1 979. The film, in which musical sequences alternate
with testimonies in Arabic, is based on the experiences of Algerian
peasant women during the War of Independence – material which the
author introduces into the second part of L ‘amour, Ia fantasia, in the
chapters which she entitles ‘Voice’. When Assia Djebar returns to
fiction writing, the result of this long maturation period is to be seen in
the originality and complexity and also in the interwoven themes of her
works. After a volume of short stories, published in 1 980, specifically
dealing with the lives of contemporary urban Algerian women: Femmes
d’Aiger dans leur appartement, came the first two parts of a projected
Algerian £2!tartet, published in 1 985 and 1 987 respectively.
Assia Djebar’s work has, up till now, only been known to the English
reader through the translation of her first novel La Soif (1 957) under
the title of The Mischief L ‘amour, Ia fantasia, translated here as
Fantasia: an Algerian Cat•alcade, is in fact the first part of the Quartet,
the second volume, A Sister to Schehera;:;ade, having already appeared.
But the order is immaterial to the appreciation of the works, for
although both arc constructed on the same contrapuntal pattern, with
echoes of characterization and incident in each, and both refer to the
travels in Algeria of the French artist and novelist Eugene Fromentin,
each of the novels has an independent texture and anecdotal
autonomy.
The link between them is the narrator of Fantasia, with whom Isma
in the second work can be identified. In the former, the chapters in the
first person arc admittedly autobiographical, whereas Isma, who shares
the author’s headstrong, passionate nature, her background and many
of her experiences, is intended to typify the dilemma of the
emancipated Algerian woman in general, in contrast to the illiterate
cloistered Hajila. A Sister to Scheherazade begins and ends with Isma
leaving at dawn with her six-year-old daughter Meriem, in search of
her roots in her native city of Cherchel, where Assia Djebar was born
in 1936. The first chapter of Fantasia, which begins with the author’s
father taking her to school for the first time, ends with the phrase
which will be echoed in the second novel: ‘ … I cut myself adrift. I set
off at dawn with my little girl’s hand in mine.’ Fantasia: An Algerian
C{ll)a/cade is an historical pageant, a dialectic between written (French)
and oral (Arabic) personal accounts, an inquiry into the nature of the
Algerian identity, and a personal quest.
An historical pageant of the vicissitudes of her native country, it
covers the capture of Algiers in 1830 to the War of Independence of
1954-62: for the chapters devoted to the War of Colonization, Djebar,
the historian, draws on the archives, and disinters little-known
eye-witness accounts written at the time by artists, obscure officers,
publicists (whom we would now call war correspondents) and various
camp-followers. They write, sometimes for publication in the metropolis,
but just as often simply to share their experiences in letters to
their families at home, or jotting down impressions hot from the battle
for official records or private journals. These episodes include acts of
barbarism by the French, who exterminated whole tribes, and
individual experiences – particularly of women – highlighting their
pride and obdurate courage in the face of invaders and conquerors.
The hero of the Algerian resistance to the French conquests was the
legendary Sultan Abd ai-Qadir, but the episodes which stand out here
are those featuring the sufferings of women: victims of the ruthless
‘fumigations’ of rebel tribes in the Dahra caves, dancing girls caught
up in the fighting, anonymous women whose hands and feet are
amputated for their jewelled ornaments, and the dignified young
‘Bride of Mazuna’. To these Djebar adds the account of the humble
but no less proud Pauline Rolland, who was among the ten French
women transported to Algiers in 1852 for their part in the 1848
Revolution. Without inventing incident, the author calls on her rich
poetic imagination and exceptional descriptive powers to conjure up
the atmosphere, the colour, the tumult of these historical events, as
well as the presence and psychology of the authentic historical
characters.
Whereas the episodes from nineteenth-century history arc based on
research into contemporary writings in French, and are deliberately
written in a very colourful style, the second historical sequence,
devoted to the War of Independence, relies on the oral testimony of
the women who took part in the struggle. The author travelled into the
mountains that had been the scene of guerrilla warfare, recorded the
women’s stories, and reproduces them here in their own words, with
their sobriety of tone, staccato, laconic expression and popular turns of
phrase, which I have made no attempt to ‘polish’ in the English
version. So, for example, these peasant women say ‘France came up to
the village’, meaning ‘the French army’ … The transcription into
French (and now into English) of these unedited accounts explains the
distinct and deliberate difference in linguistic style of the chapters
devoted to the women’s stories from the author’s own virtuoso use of
the French language, and is an important element in the antiphonal
structure of the work: dialogue between recent and more distant past;
between personal and national experience; between writing and orality;
between the conflicting claims of the author’s ‘father and mother
tongues’.
If Algerian Woman in all her complexity and historical reality is the
protagonist of Assia Djebar’s most ambitious and original work of
fiction, this is also an attempt to wrest her own identity as an Algerian
woman from the warring strands of her Arabo-Berber origins and her
Franco-European education. The traditional reticence of an Arab
woman, discouraged from speaking of herself, is a barrier to the
composition of an autobiography, so she calls this work ‘a preparation
for an autobiography’. While the last part of the book is a dialogue
between the author and the peasant women whose voices she
reproduces, throughout the work she intervenes ‘with nomad memory
and intermittent voice’ to create a polyphony of the incidents from her
own girlhood and early womanhood interwoven into the fabric of the
historical sequences from 1830 to the present day.
While Arabic is Assia Djebar’s mother tongue, she calls French both
her ‘father tongue’, since it was her schoolteacher father who
introduced her to it and also her ‘step-mother tongue’, with which she
maintains a love-hate relationship. She resents the fact that her early
exposure to a French education made her a cultural, linguistic and, for
a time a literal exile from the land of her origins; at the same time she
appreciates that French has been the gateway to freedom, denied to
many of her countrywomen. She is clearly in love with the musicality of
French, which she exploits in those passages of prose poetry printed in
italics, and in which she makes the prose approximate to music, both
structurally and sonically. At other times, in a conscious effort to
escape from the shackles of writing in ‘the enemy’s language’, she
seems to be colonizing the language of the colonizers. She does
violence to it, forcing it to give up its riches and defying it to hand over
its hidden hoard, in compensation for the treasure looted from Algiers
in 1830, and also to compensate her personally for being dispossessed
of her Arabic heritage. She thus has at her command, and uses
effortlessly, an astonishing variety of vocabulary, drawing on archaisms,
rare esoteric words, medical, scientific and musical terms, in an
exuberance of metaphor which it is often difficult to accommodate in
English prose, with its normal economy of imagery. This may well
deter the English reader, unaccustomed to such verbal extravagance.
But the result is both an extraordinary attention to detail of
atmosphere, an appeal to all the senses, the evocation of emotion and
the perfection of a prose style in which the sentences fill their own
space and establish their own rhythm.
The Fantasia (derived from the Arabic fantaziya [meaning ostentation]),
is in North Africa a set of virtuoso movements on horseback
executed at a gallop, accompanied by loud cries and culminating in
rifle shots; the Fantasia, associated with ceremonial occasions and
military triumphs, forms the leitmotif of the novel as well as providing
its title. But a Fantasia (Italian for ‘fantasy’ or ‘fancy’) is also a musical
composition in which, according to the definition given in Kennedy’s
Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music, ‘form is of secondary importance …
in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries such compositions were
usually contrapuntal and in several sections, thus being an early form
of variations … compositions, in which the character of the music
suggested an improvisational character or the play of free fancy’. The
author uses Beethoven’s instruction to his Sonatas 1 and 2, ‘Quasi una
fantasia . . . ‘ as the epigraph to Part Three of her novel, so establishing
the title unambiguously as a serious word-play on the double character
of the work, and highlighting its strong musical associations of form
and style. Moreover the third part of the novel, in which the musical
references arc most insistent, is divided into five ‘movements’, to
which is added a coda in the form of a short chapter entitled ‘Air on a
Na/ (an ancient kind of flute), where the strands of sound, episode
and imagery arc drawn together.
Assia Djcbar is not only a musical and visual writer, but she is also
startlingly physical. The first clement of the original French title,
L ‘amour, Ia fantasia, is omitted from the English title for stylistic
reasons, but the love theme is both implicit and explicit in the text. In
the autobiographical chapters, the author discreetly analyses the
emotional torments of her first love affairs, but eschews the eroticism
with which she evokes the sensual ecstasies of her alter ego, Isma, in A
Sister to Scheherazade. While she avoids expression of the intimacy of
sexuality, she suggests the abandonment of consummated love by
association – again having recourse to a play on words: ‘L ‘amour, ses
m·s, (s ’em”t)’. Love that is written, like the cries uttered at the height of
orgasm, makes the writer vulnerable; in this she is compared to her
cloistered sisters who live their hidden lives behind their veils and their
illiteracy, but are mistresses of a body language which ‘seeks some
unknown shore as destination for its message of love’. The emancipated
woman, who has broken out of the harem, is still reticent in this
work about the physical union, whereas her preoccupation with the
phJ•sical act of writing forms one of the original aspects of her work and
becomes a metaphor for her dichotomy. She compares the cramped
posture she adopts when writing in French with the sensual act of
writing in Arabic, when the movements of her body seem to echo the
scrolls, the curlicues, the rhythms of the calligraphy. In the very first
pages of the novel, she ironically announces the theme of the
repercussions of writing: ‘ … there is more danger in love that is
committed to paper than love that languishes behind enclosing walls’,
since the written word, the surreptitious, forbidden correspondence, is
the key to the outside world for the cloistered Arab virgin. And the
remarkable fact of the author’s father having actually written to her
mother, during a short absence from home, establishes their mutual
love on a different plane from the relationship of feminine submission
to male dominance obtaining in the Arab society of her youth. For the
author herself, the love-letter is more of a trap than a talisman, because
it crystallizes the overt expression of emotions that the reticence of her
mother-tongue would half conceal.
There is ah analogy between love-letters and the correspondence
despatched from the encampments by forgotten captains participating
in the conquest of Algeria; both are the occasion for self-analysis and
result in insight into the ambiguity of emotions: ‘ … it is as if these
parading warriors, around whom cries rise up which the elegance of
their style cannot diminish, are mourning their unrequited love for my
Algeria’. The theme of the love-letter is thus another link between the
historical and the autobiographical dimensions of the novel as well as a
basic part of its structure. The antiphony between the written and the
oral elements, between ‘l’em’t’ and ‘les m’s’, is introduced by the
love-letters (L ‘amour s ‘ecrit in the original), but the final response is
given to the cries of the Fantasia.
Dorothy S. Blair, 1989
,\\ E [)ITER RAN l� AN
>ceo;
Map of Northern Algeria showing principal places and tribes mentioned

CONSTANT! I
/ ‘
A heart-rending cry arose – I can hear it still as I write to J’IJII- then the air
was rent with screams, then pandemonium broke loose …
Eugene Fromcntin
A Year in the Sahel
PART ONE
THE CAPTURE OF THE CITY
or
Love-letters
Our sentinels were gammg in experimce: the:J• were
learning to distinguish the fiJOtsteps and roim of the
Arabs from the sounds made �· the wild beasts that
prowled around the camp in the dark.
Barchou de Pcnhocn
Expedition to Africa, 1835
A Little Arab Girl’s
First Day at School
A little Arab girl going to school for the first time, one autumn
morning, walking hand in hand with her father. A tall erect figure in a
fez and a European suit, carrying a bag of school books. He is a teacher
at the French primary school. A little Arab girl in a village in the
Algerian Sahel.
Towns or villages of narrow white alleyways and windowless houses.
From the very first day that a little girl leaves her home to learn the
ABC, the neighbours adopt that knowing look of those who in
ten or fifteen years’ time will be able to say ‘I told you so!’ while
commiserating with the foolhardy father, the irresponsible brother.
For misfortune will inevitably befall them. Any girl who has had some
schooling will have learned to write and will without a doub£ write that
fatal letter. For her the time will come when there will be more danger
in love that is committed to paper than love that languishes behind
enclosing walls.
So wrap the nubile girl in veils. Make her invisible. Make her more
unseeing than the sightless, destroy in her every memory of the world
without. And what if she has learned to write? The jailer who guards a
body that has no words – and written words can travel – may sleep in
peace: it will suffice to brick up the windows, padlock the sole entrance
door, and erect a blank wall rising up to heaven.
And what if the maiden docs write? Her voice, albeit silenced, will
circulate. A scrap of paper. A crumpled cloth. A servant-girl’s hand in
the dark. A child, let into the secret. The jailer must keep watch day
and night. The written word will take flight from the patio, will be
tossed from a terrace. The blue of heaven is suddenly limitless. The
precautions have all been in vain.
At seventeen I am introduced to my first experience of lovc through
3
a letter written by a boy, a stranger. Whether acting thoughtlessly or
out of bravado, he writes quite openly. My father, in a fit of silent fury,
tears up the letter before my eyes and throws it into the waste-paper
basket without letting me read it.
As soon as term ends at my boarding school, I now spend the
summer holidays back in the village, shut up in the flat overlooking the
school playground. During the siesta hour, I piece together the letter
which has aroused my father’s fury. The mysterious correspondent
says he remembers seeing me go up on to the platform during the
prize-giving ceremony which took place two or three days previously,
in the neighbouring town. I recall staring at him rather defiantly as I
passed him in the corridors of the boys’ high school. He writes very
formally suggesting that we exchange friendly letters. lq my father’s
eyes, such a request is not merely completely indecent, but this
invitation is tantamount to setting the stage for rape.
Simply because my father wanted to destroy the letter, I interpreted
the conventional French wording used by this student on holiday as
the cryptic expression of some sudden, desperate passion.
During the months and years that followed, I became absorbed by
this business of love, or rather by the prohibition laid on love; my
father’s condemnation only served to encourage the intrigue. In these
early stages of my sentimental education, our secret correspondence is
carried on in French: thus the language that my father had been at
pains for me to learn, serves as a go-between, and from now a double,
contradictory sign reigns over my initiation …
As with the heroine of a Western romance, youthful defiance helped
me break out of the circle that whispering elders traced around me and
within me . . . Then love came to be transformed in the tunnel of
pleasure, soft clay to be moulded by matrimony.
Memory purges and purifies the sounds of childhood; we are
cocooned by childhood until the discovery of sensuality, which washes
over us and gradually bedazzles us … Voiceless, cut off from my
mother’s words by some trick of memory, I managed to pass through
the dark waters of the corridor, miraculously inviolate, not even
guessing at the enclosing walls. The shock of the first words blurted
out: the truth emerging from a break in my stammering voice. From
what nocturnal reef of pleasure did I manage to wrest this truth?
I blew the space within me to pieces, a space filled with desperate
voiceless cries, frozen long ago in a prehistory of love. Once I had
4
discovered the meaning of the words – those same words that arc
revealed to the unveiled body – I cut myself adrift.
I set off at dawn, with my little girl’s hand in mine.
5
I
Dawn on this thirteenth day of June 1830, at the exact moment when
the sun suddenly blazes forth above the fathomless bowl of the bay. It
is five in the morning. As the majestic fleet rends the horizon the
Impregnable City sheds her veils and emerges, a wraith-like apparition,
through the blue-grey haze. A distant triangle aslant, glinting in
the last shreds of nocturnal mist and then settling softly, like a figure
sprawling on a carpet of muted greens. The mountain shuts out the
background, dark against the blue wash of the sky.
The first confrontation. The city, a vista of crenelated roofs and
pastel hues, makes her first appearance in the role of ‘Oriental
Woman’, motionless, mysterious. At first light the French Armada
starts its slow glide past, continuing its stately ballet until noon spills its
spangled radiance over the scene. No sound accompanies this
transformation – this solemn moment of anticipation, breathless with
suspense, the moment before the overture strikes up. But who are to
be the performers? On which side shall we find the audience? Five in
the morning. A Sunday; and what is more, it is the Feast of Corpus
Christi in the Christian calendar. The first lookout, wearing the
uniform of a frigate captain, stands on the poop of one of the craft of
the reserve fleet which will sail past ahead of the battle squadron,
preceding a hundred or so men-o’ -war. The name of the lookout man
is Amable Matterer. He keeps watch and that same day will write, ‘I
was the first to catch sight of the city of Algiers, a tiny triangle on a
mountain slope.’
Half past five in the morning. The immense flotilla of frigates, brigs
and schooners, bedecked with multicoloured pennons, streams
endlessly, three by three, into the entrance to the bay, from which all
traces of night and threats of storm have vanished. It has been decided
6
that the decks of the Prm:mce, the admiral’s flagship, shall be cleared
for action.
Units of able-seamen and soldiers clatter up in their thousands on to
the decks and swarm on forecastle and poop. The scene is suddenly
blanketed in silence, as if the intense silken light, squandered so
lavishly in dazzling pools, were about to be rent with a strident screech.
Nothing stirs in the Barbary city. Not a quiver disturbs the milky
dazzle of the terraced houses that can gradually be distinguished on
the slopes of the mountain whose mass is now clearly silhouetted in a
series of gentle emerald-green undulations.
Officers and men arc drawn up in tight formation close to the rails
and stanchions, taking care that their swords do not rattle at their
sides; silence save for an occasional interjection, a muffled oath, a
throat being cleared, an expectoration. The host of men waiting to
invade, stand and watch amidst the jumble of hammocks, in between
pieces of artillery and big guns drawn up in their firing position, like
circus animals waiting under the spotlights, ready to perform. The city
faces them in the unchanging light which absorbs the sounds.
Amablc Matterer, first officer of the Ville de Marseille, docs not stir,
nor do his companions. The Impregnable City confronts them with its
many invisible eyes. Although they had been prepared for its skyline –
here a dome reflected in the water, there the silhouette of a fortress or
the tip of a minaret – nevertheless the dazzling white panorama freezes
before them in its disturbing proximity.
Thousands of watchful eyes there arc doubtless estimating the
number of vessels. Who will pass on the number? Who will write of it?
Which of all these silent spectators will live to tell the talc when the
encounter is over? Amable Mattcrer is at his post in the first squadron
which glides slowly westward; he gazes at the city which returns his
gaze. The same day he writes of the confrontation, dispassionately,
objectively.
I, in my tum, write, using his language, but more than one hundred
and fifty years later. I wonder, just as the general staff of the fleet must
have done, whether the Dey Hussein has gone up on to the terrace of
his kasbah, telescope in hand. Is he personally watching the foreign
armada approach? Does he consider this threat beneath contempt? So
many foes have sailed away after a token bombardment or two, just as
Charles V of Spain did in the sixteenth century! . . . Is the Dey at a
loss? Is he unmoved? Or is he giving vent to one of his dramatic rages,
7
such as he recently displayed when the King of France sent his envoy
with a . demand for unreasonable apologies: the Dey’s reply is
enshrined in legend: ‘The King of France may as well demand my
wife!’
I can imagine Hussein’s wife neglecting her dawn prayer to climb up
too on to the terrace. How many other women, who normally only
retreated to their terraces at the end of the day, must also have
gathered there to catch a glimpse of the dazzling French fleet.
When the squadron left Toulon, there were four painters, five
draughtsmen and about a dozen engravers on board … The battle is
not yet joined, they are not yet even in sight of their prey, but they are
already anxious to ensure a pictorial record of the campaign. As if the
imminent war were to be considered as some sort of festivity.
As this day dawns when the two sides will come face to face, what are
the women of the town saying to each other? What dreams of romance
are lit in their hearts or arc extinguished for ever, as they gaze on the
proud fleet tracing the figures of a mysterious ballet? … I muse on this
brief respite; I slip into the antechamber of this recent past, like an
importunate visitor, removing my sandals according to the accustomed
ritual, holding my breath in an attempt to overhear everything …
On this thirteenth day of]unc 1830, the confrontation continues for
two, three hours, well into the glare of the afternoon. As if the invaders
were coming as lovers! The vessels sail so slowly, so quietly westward,
that they might well have been planted there above the glassy surface
of the water, by the eyes of the Impregnable City, blinded by mutual
love at first sight.
And the silence of this majestic morning is but the prelude to the
cavalcade of screams and carnage which will fill the ensuing decades.
8
Three Cloistered Girls
Three girls live cloistered in an airy house in the middle of the tiny
Sahel village, surrounded by vast vineyards, where I come to spend my
spring and summer holidays. My stay there, shut up with these three
sisters, is my ‘visit to the country’. I am ten, then eleven, then
twelve …
All through the summer I play with the youngest of these girls who is
a year or two older than me. We spend hours together on the swing at
the bottom of the orchard near the farmyard. Now and then we break
off from our games to peep through the hedge at the village women
shouting from the neighbouring small-holdings. At dusk the farm gate
opens to let in a flock of goats. I learn to milk the most docile ones.
Then I drink from the skin bottle, whose tarry smell makes me rather
nauseous. Not being allowed to wander in the dusty lanes of the village
is no hardship to me.
The house is large. There are many cool shady rooms filled with
mattresses piled up on the floor, and hung with Saharan tapestries
woven in the past by the then mistress of the house – a relative by
marriage of my mother, who herself comes from the nearby town.
I never go into the end room: a senile old relative of the family
squats there in permanent darkness. Sometimes the youngest sister
and I venture as far as the doorway, petrified by the sound of her
cracked voice, now moaning, now uttering vague accusations, denouncing
imaginery plots. What hidden drama do we touch on,
resurrected, revived by the ravings of the old crone in her second
childhood, violently denouncing some past persecution in a voice that
paralyses us. We do not know the magical formulas, the passages from
the Quran, that the grown-ups recite aloud to exorcize these outbursts.
The presence of this ancient, with one foot already in the grave,
ensures that the other women of the household never miss one of their
9
daily prayers. They gather in the largest room, next to the kitchen or
pantry; one of them sews or embroiders, while another squats on the
floor, busily sorting chickpeas or lentils, spread out on white cloths.
Suddenly five or six slight figures, their veils covering their heads and
shoulders, silently straighten up, keeping their eyes lowered. Frail
phantoms, both strengthened and weakened by the propitiatory liturgy,
they prostrate themselves several times in unison … Sometimes my
mother forms part of this group of pious women, making their
obeisances, brushing the cold floor tiles with their lips.
We little girls take refuge beneath the medlar trees. To shut out the
old woman mumbling to herself, the others’ fervent whisperings. We
go to count the pigeons in the loft or savour the smell of carobs in the
shed, and of the hay trampled under the mare’s hooves when she was
let out into the fields. We compete to see who can swing highest. Oh!
the exhilaration of swinging rhythmically, now high, now low, up over
the house and the village! To soar with our legs higher than our
heads, till the sounds of the animals and women are all swallowed up
behind us.
In a gap in my memory, I suddenly recall one torrid, interminable
summer. The raving old crone must have died the previous winter.
There are fewer women of the family around: that same season there
have been a great number of circumcisions and marriages in the
nearby town – so many new brides to be comforted, congratulated,
consoled by the band of frustrated females accompanying them … I
find the girls of the hamlet practically alone.
In the little farmyard, in spite of the carobs and the pigeons in the
loft, I wish I were back at school; I miss the companionship of the other
boarders, I describe the basketball games to the three country girls. I
must be now about twelve or thirteen. I seem older; probably because
I’m too tall, too thin. The eldest of the sisters keeps on bringing up the
occasion when I first attended a gathering in the town and I was
wearing the veil, and one of the city ladies came buzzing round me like
a bee.
‘Her son must have fallen in love with your silhouette and your eyes!
You ’11 soon be hearing news of your first proposal!’
I stamp my feet in childish anger exacerbated by an ambiguous
unease. I sulk for days on end, refusing to speak to the eldest sister.
During that same summer, the youngest sister and I manage to open
the bookcase belonging to the absent brother, which up till then had
10
always been kept locked. He works as an interpreter in the Sahara,
which seems to us as far away as America. In one month we read all the
novels pushed away indiscriminately: Paul Bourget, Colette, Agatha
Christie. We discover an album of erotic photographs and an envelope
containing picture postcards of bare-breasted Ouled-Na”il girls, loaded
with jewels. This brother was extremely strict and before this we were
in daily terror of his unpredictable temper; and now we are suddenly
aware of his uncomfortable presence during those dim siesta hours.
We discreetly close the bookcase as the women rise for their afternoon
prayers. We feel we have trespassed into some forbidden territory; we
feel we have aged.
That summer the girls let me into their secret. A strange and weighty,
unexpected matter. I never spoke of it to any other woman in the
family, old or young. I had given my solemn promise and I kept it
scrupulously. These girls, though confined to their house, were
writing; were writing letters; letters to men; to men in the four corners
of the world; of the Arab world, naturally.
And letters came back from far and wide: letters from Iraq, Syria,
Lebanon, Lybia, Tunisia, from Arab students in Paris or London.
Letters sent by pen-pals chosen from adverts appearing in a women’s
magazine with a wide circulation at the time in the harems. With every
number the subscriber received a pattern for a dress or a houscgown
that even an illiterate woman could follow.
These sisters were the only Muslim girls in their little village to have
attended primary school. Their father, a robust, pious countryman,
who was the most expert market-gardener in the area – could neither
read nor write French. Every year he had to rely on one or other of his
daughters to sec that the invoices which he had to send to his
accountant were correct.
The postman, the son of a local artisan, must have wondered at all
these letters from such distant places landing up at his post-office,
which no-onc had ever heard of till then. Nevertheless, he never
breathed a word: ‘The three daughters of the Sheikh!’ He had never
set eyes on these girls who must have seemed like princesses to
him! … The backs of the envelopes bore fancy names borrowed from
Eastern film-stars, giving the impression that the senders were women.
He was not deceived. He must have mused over the girls’ sweethearts,
‘suitors’ he probably thought. He knew that the girls never left the
II
house, except when their father drove them himself in a barouche to
the smartest Turkish bath in the nearby town … The continual arrival
of these letters, from every corner of the world, must have weighed
upon his mind, feeding some secret frustration!
The only thing I can recall about these letters is their proliferation
and the number of different places they came from. When the
youngest sister and I spent our evenings together, we no longer
discussed the novels we had read during the long afternoons, but the
audacity needed to carry on this clandestine correspondence. We
conjured up the terrible dangers they were exposed to. There had
been numerous cases in our towns of fathers or brothers taking the law
into their own hands for less than this; the blood of an unmarried
daughter or sister shed for a letter slipped surreptitiously into a hand,
for a word whispered behind shuttered windows, for some slanderous
accusation … A secret spirit of subversion had now seeped into the
house, and we happy-go-lucky children were casually watching it
spread.
The eldest sister, who had a reputation for being very high-andmighty
and never finding any of her official suitors good enough for
her, had started this correspondence as a joke. One day, while the
women in the next room were starting their prayers again, she had read
the following advertisement from the magazine aloud to her sisters:
‘ “Tunisian, aged twenty-two, blue eyes, fond of Farid el-Attrash,
seeks girl pen-pal in Arab country, romantically inclined.” …
Suppose I replied to him?’
I never knew what she wrote to the first, the second or the third
correspondent: did she write of her uneventful everyday life, or of her
dreams, or of the books she read? Perhaps she invented adventures for
herself. I never asked her. I was simply dismayed to discover how
quickly she found herself saddled with a dozen distant pen-pals. The
youngest sister had almost as many. But the middle one – the one who
had been silently, meticulously preparing her wedding trousseau for
years – the second sister, the prettiest, the gentlest, the most docile –
continued to protest that she would never, ever write to a stranger. If
she did so, it would indicate that she was prepared to fall in love with
him. And she preferred to wait, to get on with her sewing and
embroidery, ready in due course to ‘love’ the eventual fiance.
And I, at thirteen – perhaps this time it was during the winter
holidays – I would listen, during these evenings we spent together, to
12
the youngest of these marriageable girls describing the arguments they
had had about what to write in their letters. The eldest sister sent her
many pen-pals the words of Egyptian or Lebanese songs, photographs
of Arab actresses or film-stars. The youngest maintained a sibyline
silence about the contents of her own letters …
Everything is a jumble in my memories of this last visit: the novels in
the brother’s forbidden bookcase and the mysterious letters that
arrived by the dozen. We amused ourselves imagining what the
postman must be thinking – his curiosity and bewilderment. Moreover
he must have felt vexed that he himself could never hope to win the
hand of any of these village princesses!
The youngest sister and I continued our whispered confidences. In
the periods when sleep crept over me I imagined written words
whirling furtively around, about to twine invisible snares around our
adolescent bodies, lying side by side across the antique family bed.
The same bed in whose hollow the ancient crone used to give vent in
her delirium to a corrosive litany of grievances, harping blasphemously
on long-forgotten wrongs.
I was afraid and I admitted it. I was certain a light would blaze down
from the ceiling and reveal our sin – for I included myself in this
terrible guilty secret!
The youngest sister went on whispering spasmodically. S!le was in
the grip of her own determined will, while the night thickened around
us and all living things had long fallen asleep.
‘I’ll never, never let them marry me off to a stranger who, in one
night, will have the right to touch me! That’s why I write all those
letters! One day, someone will come to this dead-and-alive hole to take
me away: my father and brother won’t know him, but he won’t be a
stranger to me!’
Every night the vehement voice would utter the same childish vow. I
had the premonition that in the sleepy, unsuspecting hamlet, an
unprecedented women’s’banle was brewing beneath the surface.
13
II
The battle of Staoueli is fought on Saturday 19 June. For five days
after the landings there have been ceaseless skirmishes. More than
mere skirmishes in fact: when the riflemen on both sides exchange
shots, this is war to the death. The opposing ranks size each other up,
judging the enemy’s tactics: Arab cavalry and infantry scatter in
random groups of various sizes while the French light infantry
reconnoitre and advance in tight formation. In the invaders’ camp
there is an average of eighty dead a day.
The first French victim fell on the deck of the Breslau the evening
before the landing when the fleet reached the Sidi-Ferruch straits
outside the bay, after sailing past the Impregnable City, beyond
Pointc-Pcscade. An attempt to land the first troops by barge proved
abortive; shells were fired from the dense undergrowth before any of
the invaders could set foot on the shore of Africa. The shells burst on
one of the vessels of the first line; an able-bodied seaman has his thigh
shattered by shrapnel and dies instantly.
The order is given to postpone the landing until the next day. The
reveille will sound to wake the men at three in the morning.
Throughout the night grunts and the muffled jangle of arms arc heard.
The vessels are now no better than floating prisons, jammed with forty
thousand soldiers and thirty thousand seamen; for days they have been
enveloped in the stench of pestilence. Close around them the unspoilt
nature waits silcmly, seeming to pose no threat, but rather offering a
sort of absolution.
The next day, barely an hour after the first ten thousand men have
landed on that silem, seemingly deserted shore, an Arab horseman
approaches the outposts, caracoling on a hill. The howitzers arc
trained on him; he tries to avoid the shells, but is hit and keels over
14
backwards. Horse and rider disappear behind a hillock; this first Arab
victim is gTcctcd with a hail of laughter and cheers.
Many more deaths follow in rapid succession. I re-read the
chronicles of these first encounters and note contrasting styles. The
Algerians fight like the Numidians of old, so oft described by Roman
historians: they wheel capriciously in swift approach, then check their
advance as if their adversary were beneath contempt, before launching
their decisive, vigorous attack. Tactics that arc derived from the
mocking flight of an insect, rather than the glossy feline prowling
through the bush, ready to pounce.
The warriors eye each other from afar, serving as mutual decoys in
an attempt to synchronize the tempo of every movement that
foretokens mutual slaughter. In a flash, they arc locked hand to hand,
then, after one brief spasm, they lie decapitated, sometimes their
corpses mutilated.
First kiss of death in the opposing camps: after the overture, a
change of tunc. Each victory by the aggressor’s fire is accompanied by
discordant laughter, as if the victim were taking part in some grotesque
slapstick; whereas those that face the invaders prefer to deal death by
silent stealth. Abruptly this silence is rent by the distant crackle of
musketry; the next moment the blade of a knife is poised above a throat
and severing the jugular artery. In this hand-to-hand struggle, Turks
in their flaming red and Bedouins shrouded in white fight off their
assailants with a display of ferocity, accompanied by jubilant cries of
defiance that culminate in a crescendo of blood-curdling shrieks.
This war will be long drawn-out, yet, from the first encounter, the
Arab, galloping full tilt on his small, frisky horse, seemingly seeks to
clasp his enemy to his bosom: mortal blows dealt or received at a gallop
seem to be transmuted into some frozen embrace.
The face of the invader presents a grotesque parody of death’s
grimace. As for the bellicose natives, soon to be overcome by disaster,
for the nonce they caracol exultantly, advancing to the forefront of the
stage, happy to slay and be slain full in the limelight. For the time
being, they are drenched in brilliant sunlight, before the final darkness
falls.
There are now two chroniclers of these preliminary clashes. Amable
Matterer, first officer of the Ville de Marseille, stands on the deck of his
vessel, watching the fighting gTadually penetrate further and further
15
inland; later he too will become an actor, when, on the eve of
surrender, the command is issued to bombard the city from the sea.
He writes time and time again, ‘I am writing with my sword at my
side’ … A second eye-witness will plunge us into the heart of the
battle: Uaron Barchou de Penhocn, ADC to General Bcrthczenc who
is in command of the first regiments to go into action. He leaves a
month after the capture of the City; in the quarantine station in
Marseille, still fresh from the scene, he sets down his impressions as a
combatant, as an observer and even, with unexpected insight, as one
who has fallen in love with a land of which he has glimpsed the fiery
fringes.
After this first encounter between the two nations, both sides watch
and wait, in doubt as to their next step. Throughout this summer of
1 830, both camps arc haunted: arc these the ghosts of the raped,
flitting over the piled-up corpses? Is it the spirit of an unacknowledged
love, felt only in an intuitive sense of guilt?
The fascination felt by these two writers is clear – and they both
write for Paris, which this same summer is in the throes of another
upheaval: the hydra-headed monster, Revolution, that must be
throttled at all costs. But what if this fascination also paralysed the
threatened camp?
Was it simply for the pleasure of watching the invaders closing in on
him that the Aga Ibrahim, the Dey’s son-in-law, with such overweening
confidence, took so little heed for his own defences? Was he so
sure of crushing them, as invaders offering similar threats had been
crushed in former centuries? (It is true that on each previous occasion
a tempest had fortuitously blown up and so contributed to the defeat of
the Spaniards, English, Dutch and so many others; this time a storm
blew up just two days too late to save them.) Might not Ibrahim have
been prompted rather by a desire to examine the foe close at hand, to
touch him, to join battle at close quarters and let their blood flow
together on the same soil?
The Bedouin tribes arrive as if to participate in yet another Fantasia,
when the less caution is shown, the more attractive the hazards. They,
too, do not believe that the City can be taken, but danger spurs them
on: they hope that the military might of Algiers will be shaken in the
trial of strength …
In fact, after the capture of the City, the contingents of allied troops,
16
who had volunteered to accompany the Beys in a well-nigh ecstatic
‘holy war’, will return to their own territories, their feeling of autonomy
intact. The debacle will first and foremost affect the janizarics, those
magnificent Turkish warriors who will always be found in the front line
of every battle, blazing in brilliant colours that stand out in sharp
contrast to the white burnouses of the illusive autochthons.
The day after the decisive encounter at Staoucli, the war artist
Major Langlois will pause to draw dead Turks, their faces still bearing
the imprint of their frenzied valour. Some of them arc grasping a
dagger in their right hands which they have plunged into their own
breasts. At ten of the clock on Sunday 20 June, in splendid weather,
Langlois executes several drawings of these proud vanquished
warriors, then he docs the preliminary sketches for a picture destined
for the Museum. ‘The public will be able to obtain lithographs,’
Mattcrcr notes on this same day.
Barchou describes the battle stage by stage. Ibrahim has made the
opening gambit and decided on the plan of campaign. This becomes
clear in the course of the first days’ action: the Algerian marksmen are
more accurate and tcrrif)·ing in their skill. The range of their muskets
is remarkable, due to the length of the barrel. They take their aim
unhurriedly, fire and vanish.
On 18 June the Aga Ibrahim inspects the terrain: rocks, clumps of
lcntisks, patches of undergrowth, thorny or sandy hills, a setting in
which the Arab cavalry will have no difficulty in performing their usual
ballet, and the infantry will be able to fling themselves flat on the
ground, like invisible reptiles. The numbers seem slightly to favour the
defenders. But the Aga neglects one detail which will weigh finally on
the outcome: the superiority of the Western artillery, and most of all,
the unity of the French command and tactics, in the face of the discord
reigning among the native chiefs.
At eight in the morning, after seven uninterrupted hours of bitter
fighting, the Algerian batteries arc surrounded and overpowered. And
then it is the final phase: Marshal Bourmont’s regiments, which till
then have been cut off, succeed in routing their assailants and arc able
to advance. As soon as they have captured the first high ground, they
come upon the camp of the Aga and the Beys; three hundred
sumptuous tents have been abandoned and stand intact, as though in
waiting for them.
17
On the road to Algiers there is no longer any doubt about the
outcome. The Beys of Tittcri, Oran and Constantine fall back on the
banks of the Wadi El-Harrach. The victorious troops feel as if they
were already occupying the City. They imagine themselves lying on
divans and being served with coffee.
The Staoucli plateau is strewn with corpses. Two thousand
prisoners arc taken. In defiance of their officers, the soldiers
themselves insist on shooting them all. ‘One battalion’s fire brought
down this rabble and two thousand of them will never sec the light of
day again,’ writes Mattcrer, who has remained aboard his ship during
the battle.
The next day he placidly wanders among the corpses and the booty.
I only recollect one brief electrifying episode from Baron Barchou’s
description of his experiences, recorded in the dark night of these
mcmoncs.
Barchou’s tone is icc-cold, but he seems to be transfixed with
revulsion by the terrible poetry of the scene before his eyes; he had
caught sight of the bodies of two Algerian women, lying a little apart
from one group of skirmishers.
In the case of certain tribes from the interior, whole families had
come along: women, children, old men. As if fighting were a matter of
sacrificing themselves as a unit, all together, without regard for sex or
possessions, rather than appearing on the brow of a rise, ready to
attack! The Zouaves in particular, Kabyles who were the allies of the
Bey ofTitteri, form a multicoloured host amid the general ebullience.
So, one month later, Barchou sets down what he recalls: ‘Arab tribes
are always accompanied by great numbers of women who had shown
the greatest zeal in mutilating their victims. One of these women lay
dead beside the corpse of a French soldier whose heart she had torn
out! Another had been fleeing with a child in her arms when a shot
wounded her; she seized a stone and crushed the infant’s head, to
prevent it falling alive into our hands; the soldiers finished her off with
their bayonets.’
Thus these two Algerian women – the one in whom rigor mortis was
already setting in, still holding in her bloody hands the heart of a dead
Frenchman; the second, in a fit of desperate courage, splitting open
the brain of her child, like a pomegranate in spring, before dying with
her mind at peace – these two heroines enter into recent history.
18
I scrupulously record the image: two warrior women glimpsed from
the back or from the side, in the midst of the tumult, by the keen eye of
the ADC. A forewarning of the �allucina!_� fever that will reign,
punctuated with folly . . . An image that prefigures many a future
Muslim ‘mater dolorosa’ who, carrion beetles of the harem, will give
birth to generations of faceless orphans during Algeria’s thraldom a
century later.
After this prelude the fires of a black sun arc fanned! … But why,
above the corpses that will rot on successive battlefields, docs this first
Algerian campaign reverberate with the sounds of an obscene
copulation?
19
The French Policeman’s Daughter
In the little village where I spent my childhood holidays, the French
policeman’s wife and two daughters,Janine and Marie-Louise, used to
visit the home of the three sisters. The wife, a fat white woman from
Burgundy, with a loud voice and jocular manner, was quite happy to
squat unceremoniously on the floor among all the Arab women,
relatives from the town, widows and divorcees who were occasionally
offered asylum. The slight figure of the mistress of the house trotted
tirelessly to and fro from kitchen to courtyard, from courtyard to
farmyard, ghing her orders. She would never sit down, never had a
minute to spare, except when the Frenchwoman came to visit. The
latter would join in the conversation: two or three words of French, a
word in Arabic with her pronunciation making one or other of the
guests gurgle with mischievous, suppressed laughter.
The mother of the cloistered girls and the policeman’s wife were
friends: they were always pleased to see each other, and expressed
their pleasure in imperceptible details of their behaviour: the serious
way they looked at each other, ignoring the other women’s curiosity,
the cookery recipes they exchanged, and the little attentions they
bestowed on each other when the Frenchwoman rose to make her
departure, pink-cheeked and looking years younger. They stood facing
each other, the ample form of the Burgundian confronting the spare
and wiry figure of the Arabo-Berber woman … Eventually the
Frenchwoman would clumsily hold out her hand; the other would
reach up on tiptoe in her loose saroual and, with a hop and a skip that
set the frills of her blouse a-flap and the fringes of her head-dress
a-dancing, ignoring the outstretched hand, would rapidly plant a kiss
on each of her friend’s shoulders. And every time the latter would
blush with surprise, then trumpet to the assembled women, ‘Au revoir,
sisters !’
20
As soon as the remaining visitors heard the outer door slam, they
started without fail to comment on the way the two friends took leave
of each other: the one with outstretched hand; the other who insisted
on embracing like two peasants exchanging kisses at the market!
This subject would provide food for discussion for hours on end,
while the object of their criticism went once more about her
housewifely duties. She might, at a pinch, pause to mutter coldly,
‘She’s my friend! She’s French but she’s my friend!’
One relative shrieked with laughter: ‘She’s been your friend for
years and you still can’t manage to shake her hand and say “Au revoir,
Madame!” like they do. Now, if it was a man, I couldn’t do it, but in
front of a woman, like myselfl What would be the harm? After all, we
can do things in the French way! Naturally not going out without a veil,
God help us! or wearing short skirts and showing ourselves naked to all
and sundry, but we can say “Bonjour” like them, and sit on a chair like
them, why not? God created us too, didn’t he? .. . ‘
We girls always looked forward to Janine’s afternoon visits;
Marie-Louise did not often come. Janine resembled her mother in
build, though she was not as tall or as energetic. She had been to
school with the eldest of the sisters. As soon as she arrived, the two of
them shut themselves up in one of the bedrooms; their two voices
could be heard in conversation, interspersed with endless bouts of
giggling, a silence, then renewed confabulations. Janine could speak
Arabic like a native without any accent. Before she left, she would drop
by the kitchen to ask the girls’ mother if there was anything she
needed. The latter entrusted her with many errands: to buy needles,
thread, haberdashery articles that the father wouldn’t have been able to
bring for her.
Throughout the week J anine was in and out of the Arab house; if it
weren’t for her Christian name she could have been taken for the
fourth daughter of the family … But there was this one extraordinary
diffe131c�: she was able to come and go as she liked – from bedrooms
to courtyard, from courtyard to street – just like a boy! When the
clatter of the knocker indicated that she had closed the heavy front
door behind her, the eldest sister, her friend, paused a moment, her
hand in the air. Then things resumed the normal ebb and flow of a day
frozen in time in these domestic interiors, always interiors, naturally.
The youngest sister and I were fascinated by Marie-Louise. We only
21
saw her occasionally; she must have had a job in the nearby town, or in
the capital even, probably as a postal clerk or secretary in an office …
\\’hen she spent Sundays in the village, she came to visit us with
Janine.
\\’e thought her as beautiful as a model. She was dark, slim, with
delicate features; she must have been quite small as I recall her
perched on extremely high heels. She wore her hair in a very
sophisticated arrangement of elaborate knots and twists, with a variety
of combs conspicuously displayed among her dark curls and ringlets.
\\’e marvelled at her make-up: pink blush on her cheeks and crimson
lipstick enhancing the cupid’s bow of her lips.
With her city-dweller’s style and coquettish air, we felt she had to be
treated like a tourist when she deigned to accompany her mother or
sister on their visits to us. She sat down on a chair; she crossed her legs
in spite of her short skirt. The circle of women began quite openly to
examine every last detail of her attire, and comment on everything in
an undertone.
Marie-Louise let them stare. Aware of the curiosity she provoked,
she waited, pretending not to understand.
‘I’ve forgotten all my Arabic!’ she would sigh casually. ‘And I haven’t
got a gift for languages like you, Janine!’
This last concession in an oflhand tone: to let it be understood that
of course she didn’t despise the Arabic language, but after all … And
we were left in doubt, behind the distance insidiously created, whether
Marie-Louise was the exception, or Janine. Moreover, when their
mother accompanied them, she threw such a protective sheath of awe
and pride around Marie-Louise that the women present fell silent …
So, on these visits, Marie-Louise enjoyed the pleasure of acting as a
foreigner.
Was it two or three years previously that Marie-Louise acquired a
fiance, an officer from the ‘metropolis’, as they said? It was about that
time; I couldn’t have been more than ten; the youngest sister, my
friend, was still at primary school. She had not yet been cloistered; that
summer, we walked through the village streets on various errands:
carrying the tray of pastries to be baked in the baker’s oven, taking
some message or other to the policeman’s wife …
I still have in the forefront of my mind these to-ings and fro-ings
through the narrow alleys lined with tall chestnut trees. Between the
22
village and the distant vine-clad hills lay a eucalyptus wood; sometimes
we ventured beyond the policeman’s house, scampering as far as the
first gum trees, and throwing ourselves down ·on the carpet of leaves,
savouring their acrid smell. Our daring made our hearts pound.
These escapades, in which we egged each other on, left a bitter
taste; then we slowly made our way back to the policeman’s house,
where we remained standing in the yard, outside the open kitchen
window.
‘My mother wants to know if she should keep you some of the goat’s
milk, to put to set?’ the little girl panted. ‘I’ve come for the milk-can.’
‘And I’ve got a message for Janine from my sister,’ she added a
moment later. ‘\Viii she buy her a pair of number I knitting needles?
My father brought some back but they’re too big. We girls can’t go to
the drapery shop as it’s right in front of the Moorish cafe!’
‘These men!’ the Burgundian woman cackled as she went on with
her washing, up to her elbows in soapsuds. ‘They’re all the same! …
Mine can’t manage to bring home a needle!’
‘My father’s very good at doing the marketing!’ the little girl
retorted. ‘He always buys the finest fruit, the best meat! My mother
won’t admit it openly, but we know this quite well.’
‘Tell your sister not to worry. l’ll letJanine know. And here’s the can
for the milk … ‘
While they talked I looked through the window at the passage fromwhich
other rooms opened out. In the dim light I could just make out
the polished wooden furniture; my eyes were glued to the hams and
sausages strung up at the back of the kitchen; the red-checked
dishcloths hung there seemed as if they were simply meant for show; I
stared at the picture of the Virgin above the door … The policeman
and his family suddenly seemed like transient ghosts in this locality,
whereas these images, these objects became the true inhabitants of the
place! For me, these French homes gave off a different smell, a
mysterio’:!_s light; for me, the French are still ‘The Others’, and I am
sti.IfllYPnotized by their shores.
Thro-�gh��t -�y-�hildh��d, just before the war which was to bring
us independence, I never crossed a single French threshold, I never
entered the home of a single French schoolfellow …
Suddenly, it’s the summer of 1 962: before you could say ‘Jack
Robinson’, all the furniture that had remained hidden in the dark
recesses of houses that were at once open and inaccessible –
23
old-fashioned bedroom suites, rococo mirrors, heterogeneous knickknacks
– all the odds and ends that furbish a home – everything spilled
out on to the pavements … Threadbare trophies, tainted spoils of
conquest, that I saw put up for auction, or piled up in the windows of
the second-hand dealers, who for their part wore the proud air of
Turkish pirates of yore, boasting of their booty … ‘These arc the
cast-offs of a nomad people,’ I thought to myself, ‘the entrails drying in
the sun of a society whose turn it is now to be dispossessed!’
But meanwhile I’m a little girl still standing there, leaning on the
window-sill of the policeman’s house. Their dining-room at the end of
the passage could only be glimp�
cd by the light from the kitchen. For
me, as for my little friend, ‘our’/housc was unquestionably the finest,
with its profusion of carpets, with its shot-silk cushions. The women of
our household came from the nearby town which was celebrated for its
embroidery; at a very early age they learned this art which was already
fashionable at the time of the Turks. And from what remote corner of
the French countryside did the Burgundian come? That was a constant
theme of the afternoon conversations in the little courtyard, to which
the visit of Janinc and her mother had added a new life.
‘French women don’t all come from Paris,’ asserted the busybodies.
‘Most of the ones who come here, thinking they’ll have such a good life
in the colon@�-;-@!fk.nowfiow to milk a cow when they arrive! If they
get more civilized later on, it’s because this country offers them power
and wealth. B��;u�� .the l�w�-;rc–��-ili-cir sid;;:� on -th�–�id�-of their — �– — ·—
menfolk!’
‘You’ve only got to look at janinc and the way she dresses, poor girl!
Just like her mother: a heart of gold, but she’s never learned how to
sew or embroider!’
‘And Marie-Louise?’
‘Marie-Louise is the exception! She possesses the innate good taste
of the Parisian, combined with the refinement, the temperament of our
brunettes! … You’ve noticed how jet-black her hair is, and her ivory
complexion! If she were dressed up like one of our local brides, a
sultan would take a fancy to her!’
One of the speakers shrieked with laughter: ‘Perhaps some
Arab chief, some Sheikh of the high plateaux, got the policeman’s
wife m the family way, when the policeman was posted
in the South! . . . Any man of noble birth would have made
a pass at a young, vigorous Frenchwoman, such as she must
24
have been then. Perhaps with them that’s not a sin, after all!’
The eldest sister protested; she accused the relative of scandalmongering,
or of ignorance at the least. She was very fond of Janine,
and she could assure them that the morals of the policeman’s family
were as pure as any Arabs’. ..: ‘�
-Theories went backwards and forwards, as the conversation
followed its tortuous paths, always coming back to the first hypothesis:
namely that, in spite of all appearances, our ‘clan’ though temporarily
down”Jn the world, wa�_rrlore ��t:fip_eQ_than”_th��ers with their
liberated women. For they were free, and even if we did not envy them,
at least we spoke of them as if they were a strange tribe, with exotic
customs, with whom we had rarely come in contact until then.
Back to the youngest sister and me – once more leaning on this same
window-sill of this French house – on another sunny day.
This time we are struck dumb by what we see. The mother is
standing at her tub finishing her washing; the father, a short stout man,
is sitting there in his shirt-sleeves (when he is out of doors his uniform
disguises his rustic origins), a local newspaper open in his hand; he
slowly puffs at his pipe with an eJ ..:pression of bland good nature.
Marie-Louise is standing right in front of us, in a passage leading off
the sunny kitchen, a little bit to the side; she is pressed close to a
ruddy-complexioned young man with a fair moustache. This is the
fiance, the officer that everyone is talking about!
We could scarcely believe our eyes. The sight of a couple to all
intents and purposes in each other’s arms: Marie-Louise half-leaning
on the young man who was standing stiffly upright … Their muffled
laughter, their whispered exchanges, indicated to us an indecent
intimacy. And all this time the mother carried on talking calmly to us,
glancing from time to time at the couple; the father, on the other hand,
had buried his nose in his newspaper.
I can remember Marie-Louise’s flirtatious behaviour, as well as two
of the el!:pressions she used: sometimes ‘my pet’, sometimes ‘darling’. I
must have stared open-mouthed with stupefaction. Then she began to
sway rhythmically backwards and forwards so that she brushed against
the young man’s chest, repeating this manoeuvre two or three
times … accompanied by little teasing cries of ‘darling’ over and over
again! Eventually she nearly overbalanced and put her arms round her
fiance, tightly encased in his uniform. He seemed to remain quite
25
calm; he whispered something to her almost inaudible; he must have
been asking her not to be so noisy in front of witnesses: the father who
didn’t raise his head, the two little girls standing flabbergasted at the
window ..
An hour later, we acted out the scene in our little courtyard, for the
women sipping coffee round the low table.
‘And the father didn’t even look up?’
‘No! Marie-Louise whispered sweet nothings to the officer, she put
her arms round him, then she even stood up on tiptoe.’
‘You saw them kissing?’ asked the second sister in amazement, not
pausing in her sewing.
‘Yes, indeed! … They both pursed their lips and kissed like birds!’
We couldn’t get over the fact that the policeman, who inspired such
awe in the alle}ways of the village, didn’t dare take his nose out of his
newspaper. He must have been blushing with embarrassment; so we
surmised; so went our remarks.
‘Well, really! These French people!’ sighed the second sister who
was finishing embroidering the sheets for her trousseau.
‘Marie-Louise goes a bit too far!’ remarked the eldest girl, who felt
it her duty to defend her friend’s sister.
Then Marie-Louise came to \isit us before leaving again. She had
promised to bring her fiance. This put the girls in a predicament; they
were afraid of their father’s reaction: for him, the presence of a man,
even a Frenchman, even Marie-Louise’s fiance, would have been
completely out of place …
Did they manage to el’,:plain to Marie-Louise, or to Janine at any
rate? I can’t remember the young officer actually coming to the house
in fact, even for a few minutes; they must have asked him to walk
slowly past the front door, so that the cloistered friends could catch a
glimpse of him through the cracks in the shutters and congratulate
Marie-Louise on her imposing fiance …
I have a clearer memory of one of the young lady’s last \isits. She
was standing near the margin of the well, under the ‘inc; her hair was
wound round her head to form a cone, with one soft black curl in the
nape of her neck. I cannot get the image out of my mind of her delicate
features, her eyes and checks made up, radiating happiness and her
beauty enhanced by her pride in being betrothed. She simpered and
tittered as she talked of her suitor, his family in France, their marriage
which was to take place in a few years’ time … Every time she
26
pronounced the words ‘darling Pilou’, one or other of the onlookers,
seated on the rush mat, would smile indulgently. ‘Darling Pilou’,
Marie-Louise repeated, every time she referred to her young officer.
We little girls could hardly contain our giggles and had to escape to the
orchard to make fun of her. ‘Pilou’ was her nickname for Paul and ,–
in
our minds the ‘darlinL.!_!:Jat she addc_d__was__a.._waiD….that should be
reserved for the bedchamber and secrets between married couples.
‘Darting- Pilou’;Ch·a-�conly to �-p�-;� thcsc-�o;d�(�–;cli·�–;;h�-wholc
scene: the conceited French girl with her audience of women squatting
on the ground, and we excited little girls who, the following yea�; ­
would be confined to the housc_�_n_9_jts orchard and who were already
so straitTac�
‘Darling Pilau’; words followed by bursts of sarcastic laughter; what
can I say of the damage done to me in the course of time by this
expression? I seemed to feel, as soon as I heard it – all too soon – that a
love affair, that love itself ought not to give rise to meretricious words,
ostentatious demonstrations of affection, so making a spectacle of
oneself and arousing envy in frustrated women … I decided that love
must necessarily reside elsewhere and not in public words and
gestures.
An innocuous scene from my childhood: but later, when I reach the
time for romance, I can find no words, I cannot express my emotions.
Despite the turmoil of my adolescent dreams, this ‘darling Pilau’ left
me with one deep-rooted complex: the French language could offer
me all its inexhaustible treasures, but not a single one of its terms of
endearment would be destined for my usc … One day, because all my
spontaneous impulses as a woman would be stifled by this autistic
s!��C:!��j�Y. the p!_es�rc would �l!_d�£_l!_lt_�_v_c and a reaction would
set in.
27
III
Fort Emperor explodes on 4 July 1 830, at ten in the morning. The
fearsome blast fills all the inhabitants of Algiers with terror; the French
army, disposed in echelon from Sidi-Ferruch as far as the citadels of
the capital, rejoices. Three chroniclers now recount the events leading
to the fall of the city: the third is neither a naval officer-nor an ADC on
duty in the heart of the battle; he is no more or less than a man of
letters, accompanying the expedition by way of secretary to the GOC.
For him it is tantamount to a visit to a theatrical performance: it is true
that in Paris he runs the Porte-Saint-Martin Theatre, of which his
wife is the star – the celebrated actress Marie Dorval, with whom the
poet Alfred de Vigny is in love.
His name is J.T. Merle; he too will publish an account of the
capture of Algiers, but as a witness located in the rear of the action. He
does not claim to be a ‘war correspondent’; he likes to be backstage,
where he feels at home. Every day he reports on his position and makes
a note of evel)thing he sees (the wounded in the field hospital, his first
palm tree, an agave in flower, for want of observations of the enemy
doing battle … )He is not tormented by any scruples that he might be
shirking his duties. He observes, he notes, he makes discoveries; if he
manifests impatience, it is not with the military news, but because he is
waiting for a printing press, which he had asked to be purchased
before leaving Toulon. When will the equipment be landed, when will
he be able to compose, publish, distribute the first French newspaper
on Algerian soil?
: So, ‘Fort Napoleon’ blows up: the French soldiers who only
recognize one Emperor – their own – give this name to ‘Fort
Emperor’, also known as ‘The Spanish Fort’, or more exactly, ‘Borj
Hassan ‘. This is one of the most important Turkish fortifications which
date from the sixteenth century, and the key to the defence of the
28
country to the rear of Algiers. From Sidi-Fcrruch, where he has been
stationed since landing, J.T. Merle notes:
‘At ten in the morning of the 4th, we heard a mighty explosion,
following upon ceaseless shelling since daybreak . . . At the same
instant, the horizon was covered in dense black smoke, which rose to a
prodigious height; the wind blowing from the East carried the smell of
gunpowder, dust and scorched wool, which left us in no doubt that
Fort Emperor had been blown up, either by a mine or from its powder
magazines catching fire.
‘There was general rejoicing, as, from this moment, we considered
the campaign to be over.’
Exactly twenty-four hours later, the French army enters the city.
The battle of Staoueli, on 19 June, marked the defeat of the Aga
Ibrahim and the failure of his strategy. It was the first time that the new
‘Congrcve’ rockets were used: the French had exploded them without
being really sure how accurate their aim was; their noise and unusual
nature had caused panic in the Algerian camp which was already in a
state of confusion …
The next day, however, De Bourmont maintains his position for
want of logistical support. He has neither the necessary siege artillery
nor pack-horses. Duperrc, the naval commander, had loaded these on
to the last vessel of the convoy which is still anchored off Palma. So the
French army docs not advance. Some of the troops grow impatient;
others accuse the general staff; De Bourmont is waiting for Dupcrre
who, for his part, has been waiting for a favourable wind ever since 22
or 23 June.
In the extended fortified camp on the Staoueli plateau, the rabble of
soldiery is a prey to post-victory euphoria and indulges in unrestrained
looting.
The Algerian troops have fallen back, some of them as far as the
banks of EI-Harrach. They challenge the leadership of the Dey
Hussein’s son-in-law, the generalissimo. On 24 June, fifteen thousand
combatants regroup and attack a French detachment which has
ventured a little too far from base; one of De Bourmont’s sons,
Amedee, is among those seriously wounded in this affray; he dies soon
afterwards.
During the following days the Algerians intensify their harassment
of the French, who realize that the enemy have a new leader: the Arab
29
anacks arc now shrewdly and systematically organized. This new
leader is ,\1 ustapha IJoumczrad, the Bey of Titteri; his ability assures
him the unanimous support of the janizaries as well as the auxiliary
forces.
According to Baron Barchou, the daily toll of French casualties from
24 to 28 June is two hundred and fifty or more. Some wonder whether
the ,·ictory at Staoucli was not an illusion. Finally, after these sudden
re\·ersals, De Bourmont has the powerful artillery at his disposal; he
gives the order to advance.
On 28 June, the action is nearly as fierce as at Staoucli. The
Algerian offensive proves more and more effectual: a battalion of the
4th Light Horse is well nigh wiped out in a series of murderous
encounters. The next day the fighting is renewed just as fiercely; the
French succeed in breaking through the barrage. On 30 June, despite
a mistake in direction and disagreement among his subordinate
officers, after a difficult march, De Bourmont takes up his position
facing Fort Emperor. Three days are needed to dig trenches and set
out the huge batteries, while constantly having to disperse the Algerian
attacks. Duperre twice bombards Algiers from the sea; with little
result, it must be admitted. Changarnier, at that time only a company
commander, notes, for his future Memoirs:
‘Noisy, ridiculous shelling from the fleet which is out of range, so
expending an enormous quantity of ammunition to inflict six francs’
worth of damage on the city’s fortifications.’
At three o’clock on the morning of 4 July, the last act begins. At Borj
Hassan, an elite garrison of two thousand men – eight hundred Turks
and one thousand two hundred Kuluglis – holds out for five hours
against the fire from the French batteries. De Bourrnont and his
general staff survey the pounding from their position to the right of the
trenches. The Dey Hussein and his dignitaries watch the deadly
contest from the roof of the Spanish Consulate on the heights of the
Kasbah. ‘The militia, the Arabs inside the city, those who find
themselves outside, all pay careful heed to the progress of the battle,’
notes Baron Barchou, who has taken up his position on the slopes of
Bouzareah.
In full view of ‘this enormous amphitheatre, filled with thousands of
spectators,’ two hours elapse, during which the Algerian guns are
silenced one by one. The survivors among the militia, no longer able to
resist, retreat towards the city.
30
A terrible explosion shakes Fort Emperor; soon afterwards it
collapses in a gigantic eruption of flames and smoke. The final hope of
defending the city disappears in this heap of rubble, shattered
half-buried cannons and dismembered corpses – those of the last
defenders. Algiers, known as the ‘well-protected city’, is reduced to
despair.
Three noisy, ineffectual bursts of gunfire, like a final death-rattle,
punctuated the Algerian retreat. They did not even touch the
anticipated mass of the attackers. At Staoucli, just before the Agas and
Beys evacuated their camp, a powder magazine blew up. On 25 June a
small mine exploded in Sidi Khalf, in front of a brigade which halted
just in time; the detonation was heard on the vessels anchored
offshore; however there were very few casualties. Finally, on 4 July,
this, the mightiest of forts collapses; although Fort Bah Azoun and the
‘Fort des Anglais’ continue to hold out, the ritual of their hopeless
action reaches its climax in these final convulsions.
Was it necessary for the Turks to prove the technical inferiority of
their strategy, which was so easy to discern – its navy in decline, its
artillery obsolescent? Be that as it may, the unpredictability of the first
commander-in-chief, the Bey’s negligence or his disastrous isolation,
all combined to dissipate the energy which should have been
concentrated.
The Bedouin chiefs, the quasi-autonomous Beys, arc stationed
outside the city with the turbulent auxiliary troops. Towards the end,
they await with growing concern the fall of the City – until then,
anchored in its century-old irredentism.
The word which could have united these scattered forces is not
heard. This word will be spoken two hundred years later, more to the
West, above the Plains of Eghris, by a young man of twenty-five, with
green eyes and a mystic’s brow: his name, Abd al-Qadir. For the
moment, the power is doubly under siege: from the invaders who
trample through the ruins of Fort Emperor, but also from the
over-proud vassals who watch the increasing irresolution of the Turk.
It is now ten of the clock on the morning of 4 July. Borj Hassan
explodes; its destruction docs not destroy the enemy. Two hours later,
an emissary of the Dey Hussein slips into the invaders’ camp to
present the preliminary plans for the surrender.
31
J.T. Merle, our theatre manager who is never in the theatre of
operations, conveys to us the amazement, the excitement and the pity
that he has felt from the day he landed (the only time he has been in
the front line) until the end of hostilities, on this 4 July.
Pity at the sight of the huddled masses of wounded who fill the field
hospital; excitement over the great variety of vegetation, sometimes so
exotic, sometimes so similar to French woodland. Merle’s amazement
is aroused by the enemy’s invisibility. Up till the battle of Staoucli in
fact, when the Arabs have already killed and mutilated so many
imprudent or luckless soldiers, not one of theirs has been captured,
dead or alive. He describes in detail, with unfeigned admiration, the
manner in which every Arab skilfully handles a wooden device, to
convey a wounded friend, or drag the bodies of every one of their dead
through the densest undergrowth. I!! this, these ‘decapitating savages’
show a secret superiority: they mutilate the bodies of the enemy, to be
sure, but they will never let one of their o;,-n-b� cacf� …
The land, into which the French arrriyis-graduaiiy. eating its way, is
seemingly not the only thing at stake.
For this reason Merle is inspired to heights of eloquence when he
portrays for us three wounded men picked up on the battlefield after
Staoucli: a Turk, a Moor and a young man who was probably a Kabylc.
Merle describes at length their faces, their bearing, their resignation or
their courage. He devotes his whole attention to them, visits them in
hospital, offers them pieces of sugar – like wounded animals at the zoo.
Then, a new anecdote: the youngest of the wounded men receives a
visit from an old man, his father. We arc now in the midst of a real
drama, like the ones that Merle is accustomed to producing on the
Paris stage: ‘Arab father and son, the object of French solicitude’;
‘father disturbed by French humanity’; ‘Arab father bitterly opposes
his son’s amputation which the French doctors advise’; ‘Muslim
fanaticism causes the son’s death, despite French medical science’.
This is the final tableau in the drama which Merle has thus
constructed before our eyes.
Before this scene in the hospital, J.T. Merle, like Mattcrcr and
Baron Barchou, describes the unexpected arrival of an elderly native.
The man has come to the French camp of his own initiative, if we arc
to believe him; some presume that he is a spy; others suggest that he is
there out of curiosity or as the isolated bearer of a flag of truce.
In any case, Merle reports for us the curiosity aroused by the first
32
Arab seen at close quarters. De Bourmont, who had set up his cot on
the site of Saint Sidi Fredj’s catafalque, wishes to receive this
unforeseen visitor, but not in this place where the Muslim sepulchre
might seem to be profaned. He takes coffee with the old man a little
distance away but gains no useful information. He decides to make
him carry a document drawn up in Arabic, declaring his peaceful
intentions.
As soon as he walks away from the French camp he is killed by his
own countrymen, precisely on account of these papers which cause
him to be taken for a spy working for the invaders. So, the first written
words, even while promising a fallacious peace, condemn their bearer
to death. Any document written by ‘The Other’ proves fatal, since it is
a sign of compromise. ‘These proclamations were not even read,’
statesMerle,who alleges that religious ‘fanaticism’ is the cause of an
unnecessary de�th. � -� � -� –�——- — – — __.- — – — —� —
Tlle-French�an relates the other significant event: at the hospital a
wounded man has not been amputated because his father withholds
his permission! But our author does not tell what we are given to
understand from other sources: namely that the host of military
interpreters, brought along by the French army from the Middle East,
prove incapable of translating these first exchanges – could the local
Arab dialect be so unintelligible?
Outside of the battlefield, speech is at a standstill and a wilderness
of ambiguity sets in.
J.T. Merle starts up his printing press, which he has triumphantly
landed on 25 June; he writes:
‘Gutenberg’s infernal machine, this formidable arm of civilization,
was set up on African soil in a few hours. Universal cries of”Long live
France! Long live the King!” greeted the accounts of our landing and
first victories, as soon as they were distributed.’
Whatever occasional writers may succeed him, J.T. Merle was the
first to print his stories in this way between one battle and the next,
fresh from the shock of this preliminary action. What he sets down in
black and white seems to anticipate the victory by a split second …
However, this publicist – nowadays he would be called ‘a front-line
reporter’ – is only interested in describing his own ridiculous role. He
lags permanently behind any decisive battle; he never witnesses any
actual events. He is like the marine artist Gudin who was arrested the
day after the battle of Staoucli by a zealous officer who mistook him for
33
a looter, because he had dressed up for a joke in clothing abandoned in
an Arab tent.
When the professional scribe ventures inopportunely into terrain
where death is lurking, he suddenly realizes the limitations of his fate:
he is not destined to be either a warrior launched into the turmoil of
battle, nor the vulture pouncing on the remaining booty … The war
correspondent or war artist wanders in a twilight zone, a prey to a
malaise which separates him from the greatest suffering, and which
does not prevent him trembling with abject fear …
And J.T. Merle trembles, all the way from the Sidi-Ferruch to
Algiers, although he travels this road two full days after the surrender
of the city! For him, death lurks in every smallest thicket; it might
spring out at him without the benefit of a stage setting, without the
threat of a sudden impalement.
34
My Father Writes to My Mother
Whenever my mother spoke of my father, she, in common with all the
women in her town, simply used the personal pronoun in Arabic
corresponding to ‘him’. Thus, every time she used a verb in the third
person singular which didn’t have a noun subject, she was naturally
referring to her husband. This form of speech was characteristic of
every married woman, from fifteen to sixty, with the proviso that in
later years, if the husband had undertaken the pilgrimage to Mecca, he
could be given the title of ‘Hajj’.
Everybody, children and adults, especially girls and women, since all
important conversations took place among the womenfolk, learnt very
9uickly to ad� tg,
this rule whcrcb_y a husband and wife must never be
referred to b_}’…flamc..
·
After she had been married for a few years, my mother gradually
learnt a little French. She was able to exchange a few halting words
with the wives of my father’s colleagues who had, for the most part,
come from France and, like us, lived with their families in the little
block of flats set aside for the village teachers.
I don’t know exactly when my mother began to say, ‘A1)’ husba11d has
come, ffiJ’ husba11d has gone out … I’ll ask II()’ husba11d,’ etc. Although
my mother did make rapid progress in the language, in spite of taking it
up fairly late in life, I can still hear the evident awkwardness in her
voice betrayed by her laboured phraseology, her slow and deliberate
enunciation at that time. Nevertheless, I can �
sense how much it cost
her modesty to refer to my father directly in this way.
It was as if a flood-gate had opened within her, perhaps in her
relationship with her husband. Y cars later, during the summers we
spent in her native town, when chatting in Arabic with her sisters or
cousins, my mother would refer to him quite naturally by his first
name, even with a touch of superiority. What a daring innovation! Y cs,
35
quite unhesitatingly – I was going to say, unequivocally – in any case,
without any of the usual euphemisms and verbal circumlocutions.
\\’hen her aunts and elderly female relations were present, she would
once more usc the traditional formalities, out of respect for them; such
freedom of language would have appeared insolent and incongruous to
the cars of the pious old ladies.
Years went by. As my mother’s ability to speak French improved,
while I was still a child of no more than twelve, I came to realize an
irrefutable fact: namely that, in the face of all these womenfolk, my
parents formed a couple. One thing was an even greater source of
pride in me: when my mother referred to any of the day-to-day
incidents of our village life – which in our city relatives’ eyes was very
backward – the tall figure of my father – my childhood hero, seemed to
pop up in the midst of all these women engaged in idle chit-chat on the
age-old patios to which they were confined.
My father, no-one except my father; none of the other women ever
saw fit to refer to their menfolk, their masters who spent the day
outside the house and returned home in the evening, taciturn, with
eyes on the ground. These nameless uncles, cousins, relatives by
marriage, were for us an unidentifiable collection of individuals to all
of whom their spouses alluded impartially in the masculine gender.
With the exception of my father … My mother, with lowered eyes,
would calmly pronounce his name ‘Tabar’ – which, I learned very
early, meant ‘The Pure’, and even when a suspicion of a smile
flickered across the other women’s faces or they looked half ill at ease,
half indulgent, I thought that a rare distinction lit up my mother’s face.
These harem conversations ran their imperceptible course: my ears
only caught those phrases which singled my mother out above the rest.
Because she always made a point of bringing my father’s name into
these exchanges, he became for me still purer than his given name
betokened.
One day something occurred which was a portent that their
relationship would never be the same again – a commonplace enough
event in any other society, but which was unusual to say the least with
us: in the course of an exceptionally long journey away from home (to a
neighbouring province, I think), my father wrote to my mother – yes, to
my mother!
He sent her a postcard, with a short greeting written diagonally
36
across it in his large, legible handwriting, something like ‘Best wishes
from this distant region’ or possibly, ‘I am having a good journey and
getting to know an unfamiliar region’ etc. and he signed it simply with
his first name. I am sure that, at the time, he himself would not have
dared add any more intimate formula above his signature, such as ‘I
am thinking of you’, or even less, ‘Yours affectionately’. But, on the
half of the card reserved for the address of the recipient, he had
written ‘Madame’ followed by his own surname, with the possible
addition – but here I’m not sure – of ‘and children’, that is to say we
three, of whom I, then about ten years old, was the eldest …
The radical change in customs was apparent for all to see: my father
had quite brazenly written his wife’s name, in his own handwriting, on
a postcard which was going to travel from one town to another, which
was going to be exposed to so many masculine eyes, including
eventually our village postman – a Muslim postman to boot – and, what
is more, he had dared to refer to her in the Western manner as
‘1\1adame So-and-So .. .’, whereas, no local man, poor or rich, ever
referred to his wife and children in any other way than by the vague
periphrasis: ‘the household’. ‘:\v :·· “” ” , . ,
So, my father had ‘written’ to my mother. When she visited her
family she mentioned this postcard, in the simplest possible words and
tone of voice, to be sure. She was about to describe her husband’s four
or five days’ absence from the village, explaining the practical problems
this had posed : my father having to order the provisions just before he
left, so that the shopkeepers could deliver them every morning; she
was going to explain how hard it was for a city woman to be isolated in
a \illage with very young children and cut off in this way … But the
other wome11 had interrupted, exclaiming, in the face of this new
reality, this almost incredible detail:
‘He wrote to you, to you?’
‘He wrote his wife’s name and the postman must have read it?
Shame! .. . ‘
‘He could at least have addressed the card to his son, for the
principle of the thing, even if his son is only seven or eight!’
My mother did not reply. She was probably pleased, flattered even,
but she said nothing. Perhaps she was suddenly ill at ease, or blushing
from embarrassment; yes, her husband had written to her, in
person! . . . The eldest child, the only one who might have been
able to read the card, was her daughter: so, daughter or wife,
37
where was the difference as far as the addressee was concerned?
‘I must remind you that I’ve learned to read French now!’
This postcard was, in fact, a most daring manifestation of affection.
Her modesty suffered at that very moment that she spoke of it. Yet, it
came second to her pride as a wife, which was secretly flattered.
The murmured exchanges of these segregated women struck a faint
chord with me, as a little girl with observing eyes. And so, for the first
time, I seem to have some intuition of the possible happiness, the
mystery in the union of a man and a woman.
My father had dared ‘to write’ to my mother. Both of them referred
to each other by name, which was tantamount to declaring openly their
love for each other, my father by writing to her, my mother by quoting
my father henceforward without false shame in all her conversations.
38
IV
The City, not so much ‘captured’ as declared an ‘Open City’. The
Capital is sold: the price – its legendary treasure. The gold of Algiers,
shipped by the crateful to France, where a new king inaugurates his
reign by accepting the Republican flag and acquiring the Barbary
ingots.
Algiers, stripped of its past and its pride, Algiers, named after the
foremost of its two islands – ‘EI-Djezalr’. Barbarossa had freed these
islands from the grip of Spain and made them a hideout for the
corsairs who had scoured the Mediterranean for three centuries or
more …
An Open City, its ramparts destroyed, its battlements and earthworks
demolished; its ignominy casts a shadow over the immediate
future.
A fourth man chronicles the defeat, adding his spadeful of words to
help fill the paupers’ grave of oblivion. I choose him from among the
natives of the city: Hajj Ahmed Effendi, the Hanefite Mufti of Algiers,
is the most eminent spiritual personality after the Dey. As the fall of
the city becomes imminent, many of the inhabitants of Algiers turn to
him. More than twenty years later, he reports the siege for us in the
Turkish language, writing his reminiscences of the events of 4 July
from his exile in foreign parts, after the Ottoman Sultan had appointed
him Governor of a city in Anatolia.
‘The explosion shook the city and filled all the inhabitants with
terror. Then Hussein Pasha summoned a council of the city elders.
There was an outcry from the entire population .. .’
Then he briefly mentions the mediators who conducted the first
parleys, and whom the French chroniclers, for their part, describe at
great length.
39
The French have installed their batteries in the ruins of Fort
Emperor, to bombard the Kasbah, the fortress, the seat of power, and
the discussions open to the sound of shelling from both sides. There is
a pause in this harassing fire when a Turk, ‘whose costume, combining
elegance and simplicity, announced a person of distinction’, arrives by
a secret path, carrying a white flag. He is in fact the Dey’s secretary.
He hopes to prevent the French from entering the city by proposing to
pay tribute-money on behalf of the army who are probably prepared to
disavow their Pasha. As he docs not offer capitulation, there is no point
in further talks.
The digging of trenches continues; the French and Algerian
batteries, the latter set up on Fort Bab Azoun, continue to exchange
fire, rending the air with their noisy duel. Two Moors, Hamdane and
Bouderba, now turn up, but still without any official status. After a
preamble, the discussions begin: Hamdane has travelled in Europe
and speaks French fluently. During a pause in the firing they leave,
with the realization that the foreign penetration can no longer be
avoided, except at the price of desperate resistance.
But in his council chamber on the Kasbah, Hussein is more
confident than the army chiefs – the three Beys outside the city are not
even consulted when the final decision is taken – and for one moment
seems determined to fight to the death … Eventually it is decided that
two official emissaries should be sent, together with the sole European
diplomat remaining in Algiers since the landing – the British Consul,
accompanied by his deputy.
This delegation is received by the complete French general staff, ‘in
a little shady meadow’; they take their scats on three or four tree trunks
that have been freshly felled. According to Barchou, who is present at
the negotiations, the Englishman, in his quality as mediator and friend
of the Dey, speaks ‘of Hussein’s haughty, fearless character, which can
drive him to extremes’.
So the interchange begins: De Bourmont dictates the precise terms
of the capitulation demanded by the French: their troops must have
access to the city ‘unconditionally’, including the Kasbah and all
strongholds; the Dey and the janizaries must leave the country, but
their personal possessions will be guaranteed; the inhabitants will be
permitted to practise their religion and all property and womenfolk will
be respected.
‘The terms of this agreement were dictated by the GOC to General
40
Desprez and Deumier, the senior administrative officer of the
Quartermaster General’s staff. It was decreed that the Dey should put
his seal to the accord as a sign of his approval and that the exchange of
documents should take place in the course of the evening,’ so another
ADC, E. d’Ault-Dumesnil, reports two years later.
It is approximately two o’clock on this Sunday afternoon in summer.
In the west of the city the first groups of refugees are already leaving
Algiers, making for Bab el-Oued.
So the dialogue is opened with the two Moors, Bouderba and
Hamdane: after some verbal exchanges, the text drafted during the
conference to arrange the abdication is now finalized. But the words
prove an obstacle, I mean the French words.
An hour later, Dey Hussein sends back the document: he does not
understand what underlies the expression ‘to surrender unconditionally’
used by the aristocratic De Bourmont and recorded in the draft
made by his ADC.
It is suggested that an interpreter go to explain the text to the Dey,
and thereby vouch for the integrity of the French. An old man by name
of Brasewitz is designated – the identical person whom Bonaparte had
sent to Murad Bey in Egypt. Thus Brasewitz was the first to enter the
city.
We have both his written account (a letter to the minister Polignac)
and a verbal report (as told to J.T. Merle a few days later) of his
experiences during this hazardous expedition. On the afternoon of this
fourth day of July, he follows the Turkish secretary through the New
Gate into the city: he is the object of threats all along his path from the
inhabitants of Algiers who wish to continue the fight. And now they see
the symbol of their forthcoming enslavement riding through the street
before their eyes.
Finally he comes face to face with the Dey who is seated on his
divan, surrounded by his dignitaries. Brasewitz turns his back on the
assembled janizaries. As he translates each of the clauses aloud, there
is mounting anger behind him. The young officers oppose any terms of
surrender, preferring certain death. ‘Death! Death!’ they shout …
More than once the interpreter believes himself in danger. Having
explained the details of the accord (which must be signed before ten
the following morning), he drinks the lemonade which the Dey
has first tasted, observant to the last of the rules of etiquette, even
41
on the eve of his humiliation. Brasewitz then departs, unharmed.
But j.T. Merle, who meets the interpreter on 7 or 8 July, adds that
he contracts a nervous illness from the risks he has run and because of
his advanced age, and dies a few days later. As if the explanation of this
arbitrary expression ‘surrender unconditionally’, which the French
general had used unthinkingly, was destined to claim at least one
victim: the bearer himself of the communication!
It seemed that Brasewitz had to pay with his own life for ensuring
that this expression is correctly translated into the enemy’s language (I
am not sure whether this was the Turkish of the unseated Ottoman
rule or the Arabic of the Moorish city).
For the moment, he is on his way back at nightfall to the French
stations, his mission accomplished. The Dey signs his letter of
abdication the next morning.
Algiers prepares to live through her last night as a free city.
Others will tell of these last moments: a bach-kateb, general secretary to
the Bey Ahmed of Constantine (who continues for another twenty
years or so to regroup the insurgents in the East) writes his account in
Arabic. A German prisoner, who is freed the next day, describes this
same night in his own language; two prisoners, who had escaped from
drowning when their ships were wrecked a few months before, give a
report of it in French. To these, we must add the British Consul who
makes a note in his diary of this turning-point in history . . . I, for my
part, am thinking of those who sleep through this night in the city …
Who will sing in days to come of the death throes of their liberty? What
poet, in whose breast hope springs eternal, will see the promised port
after drifting in stormy seas? …
Many decades later, the Mufti Hajj Ahmed Effendi describes his
fellow citizens’ revolt with great wealth of words:
‘For myself, not being able to bring myself to a final decision, I
assembled the pious Muslims … I made them pledge to follow me
against the enemy. And so, in point of fact, they did penance and after
having said their last farewells to one and all, they set off behind me,
chanting “Tckbir!” as they marched. At this same moment the women
rushed out in our path, hurling their children at our feet, and crying,
“It will be well if you arc victorious, but if you arc not, know that the
Infidels will come to dishonour us! Go then, but before you leave, put
us to the sword!” ‘
42
If the scene is overburdened with lofty language, it does at least
suggest the chaos of this transitional stage. Thousands of refugees clog
the road to Constantine in the exodus. Others rush down to the shore
by the light of the summer moon and fling themselves into the boats
which take them to Cape-Matifou. Whole families, loaded with their
bundles. I imagine there arc more humble folk leaving than the
well-to-do or merchants. Which worthies will remain, hoping to save
their fortunes and their homes? Which citizens will prefer to pack up
their last remaining effects, their few jewels, and lifting their children
and womenfolk on to mules, hasten to catch up with the Bey of
Constantine’s army or that of the Bey of Tittcri, returning to the
Mitidja plain?
The city loses in one night nearly two thirds of its population. Two
thousand five hundred of the soldiers who reject the abdication,
considering it dishonourable, regroup around the Bey Ahmed, who is
still bearing arms.
When the Mufti, Ahmed Effendi, receives an assurance from the
Dey that the French have promised not to enter any mosques and to
respect the lives of civilians, he is able to calm the people’s agitation.
‘The entire population,’ he writes, ‘men and women, thronged
around the threshold of my house, with the heart-rending cry: “Since
we must perish, it is better to perish before the door of an a/im!” ‘
The victorious army prepares the scene for the following day’s events:
De Bourmont orchestrates the triumphal entry for 5 July – the artillery
and the sappers will have the honour of heading the procession. He is
anxious for the Sixth Regiment to precede him into the city with its
drummers.
Certain appointments must be made to come into force simultaneously
with the occupation of the Capital: the Chief of Police, the
Head of the Navy, the men in charge of the finances … A place is
designated to be occupied by each of the divisions commanded
respectively by the three major-generals.
The French enter the city the next morning, two hours later than
scheduled, but to the sound of the drums of the Sixth Regiment as
arranged. Hussein waits in the Kasbah, concerned to preserve his
dignity to the last, and only two hours after their arrival docs he deign
to receive Colonel Bartillat who is in command of the first contingent.
Bartillat is also to publish his description of the scene. Through his
43
eyes we sec the first courtyard of the palace with its lemon tree, the
same lemonade offered as a sign of hospitality. Then the Dey and his
suite disappear, while a Turkish official stands stoically in the palace
entrance, awaiting the arrival of the French general.
This Turk is the l.:hasnaji – the J\linistcr of Finance. It is he who was
in charge of Fort Emperor’s resistance the day before. He carries out
the transfer of duties according to protocol, in the presence of De
Bourmont and his staff: he accompanies the French to the Algerian
State Treasury. This is the very heart of the spoils: an accumulation of
gold sufficient to repay all the expenses of the gigantic expedition, and
also help to enrich the French treasury and even line some individual
purses.
Thirty-seven witnesses, possibly more, will relate the events of this
month of July 1 830, some fresh from their experiences, some shortly
afterwards. Thirty-seven descriptions will be published, of which only
three arc from the viewpoint of the besieged: the account by the Mufti,
the future Governor of Anatolia; that by Bey Ahmed’s secretary who
will stay on under colonial rule; the third being that of the German
prisoner.
If we exclude the British Consul’s diary from all this mass of
literature (and he is the only one in a genuinely neutral position –
however his diplomatic status delays the publication of his testimony),
if we eliminate the account given by an Austrian prince who came as an
observer to De Bourmont, there still remain thirty-two chronicles in
French of this first act of the occupation drama.
The senior officers in particular arc infected by a veritable
scribblomania. They start to publish their memoirs the following year;
the chief of general staff is the first, followed shortly afterwards by
others. By 1 835 or thereabouts, nineteen army officers, with four or
five from the navy, have contributed to this literary output. After the
‘principals’, the ‘extras’ arc infected by this same haste to rush into
print: a priest serving as army chaplain, three doctors including one
senior surgeon and one assistant medical officer! Even down to the
artist Gudin (who composes his memoirs much later), not forgetting
our publicist j.T. Merle, Alfred de Vigny’s rival in love.
Such an itch to put pen to paper reminds me of the letter-writing
mania which afflicted the cloistered girls of my childhood: sending
those endless epistles out into the unknown brought them a breath of
44
fresh air and a temporary escape from their confinement …
But what is the significance behind the urge of so many fighting men
to relive in print this month of July 1 830? Did their writings allow them
to savour the seducer’s triumph, the rapist’s intoxication? These texts
arc distributed in the Paris of Louis-Philippe, far from Algerian soil,
where the capitulation has fairly quickly legitimized all manner of
cll:propriations: physical and symbolic usurpations! Their words
thrown up by such a cataclysm arc for me like a comet’s tail, flashing
across the sky and leaving it forever riven.
For this conquest is no longer seen as the discovery of a strange new
world, not even as a new crusade by a West aspiring to relive its past as
if it were an opera. The invasion has become an enterprise of rapine:
after the army come the merchants and soon their employees arc hard
at work; their machinery for liquidation and execution is already in
place.
And words themselves become a decoration, flaunted by officers like
the carnations they wear in thctr buttonholes; words will become their
mtmCifcctivc wc.;po��H;dcs of intt;:p-;.ctcrs, geographers, ethnographers,
linguists, botanists, diverse scholars and professional scribblers
will swoop down on this new prey. The supcrcroga!Q.cyl protuberances of theif___Qubiications will form a pyramid to hide the
initial violence from view.
!he girls who were my friends and accomplices during my village
holidays wrote in the same futile, cryptic language because they were
confined, because they were prisoners; they mark their marasmus with
their own identity in an attempt to rise above their pathetic plight. The
accounts of this past invasion reveal a contrario an identical nature:
invaders who imagine they arc taking the Impregnable City, but wh_o_
wander aimlessly in the undergrowth of their own disquiet. )
45
Deletion
The conquest of the Unconquerable … Faint images flake off from the rock of
Time. The flickering flames of successive fires flmn letters of French words,
curiously elongated or expanded, against cave walls, tattooing vanished faces
with a lurid mottling …
And fl” a fluting moment I glimpse the mirror-image of the flmign
inscription, reflected in Arabic letters, writ from right to left in the mirror of
suffering; then the letters fade into pictures of the mountainous Hoggar in
prehistoric times …
To read this writing, I must lean over backwards, plunge my face into the
shadows, closely examine the vaulted roof of rock or chalk, lend an ear to the
whispers that rise up from time out of mind, study this geolo?J• stained red
with blood. Ulhat magma of sounds lies rotting there? Ulhat stench of
putrefaction seeps out? I grope about, my sense of smell aroused, my ears alert,
in this rising tide of ancient pain. Alone, stripped bare, unveiled, I face these
images of darkness …
How are the sounds of the past to be met as they emerge from the well of
bygone centuries? … Ulhat love must still be sought, what future be planned,
despite the call of the dead? And my body reverberates rvith sounds from the
endless landslide of generations of my lineage.
46
PART TWO
THE CRIES OF THE FANTASIA
I m)’self had to lead an expedition into the mountainous
region of Bejaia, where the Berber tribes had been
refusing to paJ• taxes ji1r some _)’ears . . . After I had
penetrated into their country and overcome their
resistance, I took hostages to elzsure their obedience …
Ibn Khaldun
Ta ‘rif- (A utobiographJ�
Captain Bosquet Leaves Oran
to Take Part in a Razzia
Oran, October 1 840: the war against the Amir was resumed the
previous year, since when the French garrison has remained on the
defensive.
The fortified position between the two camps of Misserghin and Le
Figuier is controlled for a distance of two to three leagues, covering an
area containing a few gardens for the canteen-keepers and a couple of
wretched taverns, just enough to support the outposts isolated in the
midst of a deserted countryside and offer some distraction for the
troops. To the east, near the seashore, stretches the farm belonging to
the sole French settler, one Dandrieu who arrived during the truce of
1 837. To the west, begins the territory of the Doua”ir and Smela tribes
who are allies of France – as they were of the previous Turkish rulers,
for whom they served as police and tax-collectors.
The rest of the country forms a vast plain, overrun by factions
recognizing the authority of Abd ai-Qadir, who has just made one
more appeal for a sacred union against the occupying army. The final
phase of the war is beginning: it will last a further eight years.
From time to time closely escorted French convoys pass along the
roads to Tlemcen, Mostaganem, Azru. No European would venture
off the roads into the footpaths in the vicinity.
In the spring of that year Franco-Algerian hostilities had flared up
again in the interior: the Atlas tribesmen had a firm grip on the region
from Cherchel to Blida and Midia, which Field-Marshal Valce,
accompanied by the royal princes, the Dukes of Orleans and Aumale,
was doing his best to contain. These tribesmen had brought thousands
of auxiliaries to supplement Abd ai-Qadir’s regular troops and those of
his lieutenants. Valee thought he was simply organizing a route march;
in fact he had to wage war again in the Chiffa gorges; then he returned
49
to Algiers, continuing to send off an endless stream of despatches and
pompously worded communiques on the situation. The Mitidja plain
was freed of insurgents but the unrest persisted.
On 20 August Lamoricicrc, a young general of only thirty-three,
formerly in command of the Zouaves, is appointed to command Oran
in the west. He chafes at the bit for two whole months: how is he to
pass as quickly as possible from the defensive to the offensive? Has not
Bou Hamcdi, the Amir’s lieutenant, just attacked the Doua”irs on their
own territory? By so doing is he not preventing the French from
replenishing their supplies?
Lamoricicrc, whom the Arabs call ‘The-man-with-the-fez’, makes
full usc of Daumas’s intelligence service and Martimprcy’s maps and
land surveys; for some weeks this information has been based on
reconnoitres carried out by the spies of Mustapha ben Ismacl, the
Chief of the Douairs.
There arc indications that the Gharabas and Bcni Ali tribes arc on
the move beyond Tlelat, a wadi that flows into the vast salt lake south
of Oran. Their chiefs arc known to be die-hard supporters of the
Amir. Twelve leagues – some forty miles – separates the limit of their
positions from the first French stations: the distance seems too great
for a possible attack …
Nevertheless, Lamoricicrc is tempted: if he could succeed in seizing
the wealthy enemies’ flocks and possibly even their silos, it would
improve the atmosphere in the garrison and lift the troops’ morale.
Moreover, such a victory would ensure a not inconsiderable benefit,
the replenishment of supplies for the winter.
The young general frets and fumes impatiently but Oran is riddled
with spies. The operation, the first foray to leave Oran since the
resumption of hostilities, must be prepared in the utmost secrecy, but
it seems difficult to deceive the enemy scouts. Nevertheless the attack
is fixed for 20 October.
Two men will chronicle this expedition: Captain Bosquct, whom
Lamoricicrc has sent for from Algiers to become his ADC, and
Captain Montagnac, whom the defeat at Sidi Brahim, five years later,
will transform into a martyr. The latter’s regiment had recently sailed
from Chcrchcl and landed at Oran on the 1 4th of this same month.
The two officers, unbeknown to each other, correspond with their
respective families, and thereby allow us to accompany them as
50
eye-witnesses and actors in this operation. We relive the military
advances of this autumn of 1 840 in the letters received by the future
Field-Marshal Bosquet’s mother (he is to be a hero of the Crimean
War twenty years later) and the epistles addressed to Montagnac’s
uncle or sister. The posthumous publication of these documents
ensures the continuing reputation of their authors as they describe the
ballet of the conquest of our territory.
What territory? That evoked by our seething memory? What ghosts
rise up behind these officers, as they resume their correspondence
every evening after they have removed their boots and tossed them into
the barrack-room?
At noon on 21 October, the order is given to the infantry, Yusufs
Spahis and the cavalry of Mustapha ben Ismael, the Kulugli, to
assemble at the Figuier camp, on the road leading south-east. At six in
the evening the general and his staff review the astonished officers and
men: two thousand five hundred infantrymen, seven hundred cavalry,
in addition to an equal number of native cavalrymen (three hundred
Spahis and as many Doualrs) as well as two companies of sappers and
six howitzers.
Despite Mustapha ben Ismael’s scepticism, Lamoriciere gives the
order to set off: these troops, who have only recently landed and so are
unfamiliar with the terrain, have to cover at least thirty miles by night
to be able to take the enemy by surprise at dawn.
The convoy of mules moves off, laden with baggage and litters for
bringing back the wounded. The infantry marches on either side of
them. Over the last few months they have been issued with lighter
equipment in preparation for the new tactics founded on rapid attack,
like those of the natives.
The company makes good speed from the Tlelat wadi to the vantage
point selected, a ravine just before the region of Makedra. The cavalry
covers the men on the left, without overtaking the van of the silent
column. Mustapha ben Ismael’s scouts regularly go ahead to verify that
beacons are not being lit on the neighbouring hills to warn the
Gharabas and Ouled Ali tribesmen. These scouts – bandits and, for
the most part, horse-thieves – arc known as Sahab ez-Zerda or
‘booty-sharers’ since they receive a large proportion of the booty in
return for their information which is worth its weight in gold.
On arrival at the Makedra ravine, three ‘booty-sharers’ go ahead. An
51
hour later they have not reappeared. Bosquct, who rides up and down
between the head and the rear of the column, to sec that there arc no
stragglers, guesses the general’s anxiety. Have their spies been
surprised and killed? A fourth Doualr scout, the Aga Mustapha’s
deputy, disappears into the night.
The march slow:> down; the cavalry falls back to the rear. Finally the
Doua·ir returns on his steaming horse, a white patch in the darkness
that is slowly growing lighter.
‘The Gharabas arc there,’ he reports. ‘The alarm has not been
given! They have not struck camp. They arc all asleep in their tents!’
Hurried whispers arc exchanged around the Aga and the general.
The latter gives his final orders. They arc only two hours’ march from
their destination and with dawn still to break, the effect of surprise is
assured. The razzia promises to be profitable: they have hopes of
abductions, pillage, and perhaps even a massacre – as the enemy will
be half-asleep they will be unable to fight. ‘The night is ours,’ muses
one or other of these captains … Bosquct notes the colours of the
sunnsc.
At a signal from Lamoricicrc the cavalry gallops ahead: the chasseurs
in their black tunics arc massed together in the middle; on their right
the Aga Mustapha leads the goum of Doualrs who ride with standards
flying. This sturdy, thick-set septuagenarian stands up in his gold
stirrups, his white beard streaming before him, bursting with eagerness
to do battle that belies his years.
‘Etlag ei-Goum! Forward!’ he shouts, in a voice that is almost boyish.
‘There were jeers and bloodthirsty yells, promising death to the
victims they were about to despoil,’ Bosquct relates, with admiration
for the momentum with which this Fantasia is launched. On the left,
the scarlet-uniformed Spahis, led by the ‘renegade’ Yusuf, reach the
summit of the crest. In the dawn light they arc silhouetted ‘like some
sinister, supernatural horde’ …
A couple of miles further on, a vast circle of tents comes into view;
the finest, of white embroidered wool, arc situated in the middle. Old
Mustapha gallops forward to lead the attack, quivering with impatience
to surprise his enemy Ben Yacoub, the Aga of the Gharabas: but in
vain. As dawn breaks over a scene of pandemonium in the camp, the
attackers find only women, half-naked warriors who leap on their
unsaddled horses and youngsters who, yataghan in hand, arc killed
defending their mothers and sisters. Ben Yacoub had left the previous
52
day with the bulk of his contingent to join the Amir in Mascara.
Bodies arc piled up in inextricable heaps; they lie crumpled in pools
of blood; they collapse among torn, bloodstained hangings. I hear the
echo of muffled groans, more poignant than lamentations, yells of
triumph or shrieks of terror. Tongues of flame lick at half-open chests,
spilling jewels and copper ornaments among the corpses of the first
victims. Women fall fainting. Yussufs Spahis join in the looting that
begins before the fighting has even ended.
The chasseurs, for their part, lay about unremittingly with their
swords, cutting a diagonal swathe through this immense horde which
scatters in confusion. The panic now reaches the flocks illumined by
the flickering light of torches planted in the ground and the luminous
cloud of smoke from the conflagration: the bleating of sheep rises up
from the fold like a rumble of thunder from the still dark horizon.
When the chasseurs reach the second encampment two leagues
further on, they find that all the Oulcd Ali warriors have disappeared,
together with the notables’ women-folk. The only living creatures arc
the flocks which they bring back in droves to the middle of the valley.
The Douai’rs and the Spahis now arrive and poke about under these
abandoned tents, finding only negligible booty.
Rumours circulate. Lamoricierc’s officers order the troops to fall in:
witnesses speak of one of the Douai’r scouts who is reported to have
ridden through the camp with the Aga’s wife on his horse. He is said to
have let her escape, probably in exchange for the jewels she was
wearing; he will certainly never be seen again.
Without a word, Lamoricicrc is led to the most magnificent of the
tents: a fifteen-year-old youth is lying on his back, his face turned
towards the ground with his eyes wide open; there is a gaping wound in
his chest and rigor mortis has already set in.
‘He defended his sister against five soldiers!’ a voice at the back
explains.
Yusuf rides up to the general, his triumphant shadow lengthening
before him. Women prisoners crouch on piles of velvet; they wait in
outward calm. The oldest one, with uncovered face, stares haughtily at
the watching Frenchmen. Bosquct guesses that at the slightest word
from them she is prepared to hurl insults. He examines the silent
women as he draws ncar to his commanding officer.
‘One is the Aga’s daughter, the others arc two daughters-in-law and
some of his relatives!’ explains Daumas, who must have questioned the
53
serving-women who arc standing round in the background.
‘The girl’s a real hcaut:y! She refused to weep for her brother, she’s
proud of him!’ an admiring voice whispers in Bosquct’s car.
Lamoricicrc curtly asks why some women have nevertheless been
slain a little distance away.
‘Seven in all were executed by our soldiers,’ someone explains.
‘They greeted us with insults!’
‘They shouted, ” Dogs! Sons of dogs!” the termagents!’ exclaims
one of the Spahis, at Yusufs side. The latter maintains a calm silence,
betraying a hint of irony in the face of Lamoriciere’s scruples. For they
are all aware that their general is a follower of Saint-Simon and his
strict ideals of social justice.
Holding his cane in his trembling hand, Lamoriciere turns his
mount and rides off tight-faced, followed by his impassive ADC.
Now the only sounds are the murmurs which accompany the
widespread looting. A few fires die down. As the last traces of the night
mists fade, a ragged ribbon of cries drifts upward from the plain. Dawn
claws at the sky, scarring it with pink and mauve striations; then
ephemeral hues and flickering flashes have suddenly vanished. The
soldiers moving about on the plain are silhouetted in the clear clean
light.
‘Our little army is celebrating with feasts,’ Bosquet writes on I
November 1 840. ‘Over the whole town there floats the delicious aroma
of roast lamb and fricasseed chickens … ‘
And he adds, in the same letter, ‘I’ll tell you all about it: there’s a bit
of everything in this razzia; a route march, wise planning, admirable
energy on the part of the infantrymen who marched non-stop in spite
of their fatigue, perfect co-ordination onne of our magnificent
cavalry, and then every possible touch of oetry i the setting which
formed the backcloth to the foray.’
Thirteen days later, back in Oran, Montagnac also writes to his
uncle, ‘This little fray offered a charmin�;
,
__ le. Clouds of
horsemen, light as birds, criss-crossiiig, flitting in every direction, and
from time to time the majestic voice of the cannon rising above the
shouts of triumph and the rifle-shots – all this combined to present a
delightful panorama and an exhilarating scene .. .’
Joseph Bosquet, who normally writes to his mother in Pau, this time
54
addresses his letter to a friend, his ‘dear Gagneur’. His description of
the attack is spiced with reflections, the admiration he feels in
retrospect for Lamoriciere, this inspired leader who has the knack of
infecting his men with his own enthusiasm, and so multiplying their
spirit tenfold and increasing the frenzy of Mustapha ben Ismael’s
‘brigands’.
Finally the wind of conquest rises for our Bearnese author and he
sees himself at the helm … The enemy? For the moment, he does not
mention any enemy – neither the Amir nor any of his celebrated red
horsemen, not one of his dare-devil lieutenants, not one of his
‘fanaticized’ allies. The setting that he sets forth for us emphasizes the
victims’ surprise and terror. The long march hour after weary hour
through changing landscapes, the riders wheeling their horses round
for the dawn raid, this is later fixed for all time in the telling. The
orchestrated attack gaining momentum: animando, accelerando; spurring
on the stampeding horses; trampling the dying under their
hooves; overturned tents bespattered with blood. And Bosquet lingers
musing over the violence of the colours, fascinated by the patterns
traced by the falling bullets; but the intoxication of a war thus seen in
retrospect has lost its quickened tempo.
Our captain indulges in the illusion of a manly sport: to be at one
with insurgent Africa, and how better than in the intoxication of rape
and the murderous razzia? …
Bosquet, like Montagnac, will never marry; no need of a spouse, no
dreams of settling down as long as the joy of battle remains alive,
galvanized by words. To relive, in memory, the quickened pulse in the
face of danger; a bitterness, unsuspected by the women-folk of his
family who dream and wait, clings to the well-turned phrases of his
epistles.
Among these febrile accounts, some passages stand out, a blot on
the rest: for example the description of a woman’s foot that had been
hacked off to appropriate the anklet of gold or silver. Bosquet
mentions this ‘detail’ almost casually. Another example: the description
of the corpses of the seven women (why did they choose to hurl
insults when caught by surprise?) who become, in spite of the author,
scrofulous excrescences on his elegant prose style.
As iflove of warfare and love in wartime gave off a persistent stench,
which our Beamese officer deplores! Might it not be that the barbarity
of the natural scene contaminates these noble attackers? …
55
With the impossibility of confronting the elusive enemy in the
battlefield, the only hold is on mutilated women, the tally of cattle and
sheep, or the glint of looted gold. The only confirmation that the
Other, the Invisible Enemy has got away, slipped through the net and
fled.
But the enemy slips back in the rear. His war is mute, undocumented,
leaving no leisure for writing. The women’s shrill
ululation improvises for the fighting men a threnody of war in some
alien idiom: our chroniclers are haunted by the distant sound of
half-human cries, cacophony of keening, ear-splitting hieroglyphs of a
wild, collective voice. Bosquet muses over the youth killed defending
his sister in the luxurious tent; he recalls the anonymous woman whose
foot had been hacked off, ‘cut off for the sake of the kha/khal … ‘
Suddenly as he inserts these words, they prevent the ink of the whole
letter from drying: because of the obscenity of the tom flesh that he
could not suppress in his description.
Does the writer of the war in Africa – like Caesar in former times,
the elegance of whose style anaesthetized one a posteriori to his
brutality as a general – does he aspire by this means to repopulate a
deserted theatre?
The woman prisoners can be neither audience nor actors in the
pseudo-triumph. \Vhat is more serious, they refuse even to look. The
Count of Castellane – who had taken part in similar cavalcades and
now writes for the Revue des Deux Mondes in Paris – notes
contemptuously: t�es�_
A_!gerian women smear their faces with mud
and excrement when they are paraded in front of the conqueror. 1bf_
elegant chronicler is not mistaken: this is not merely to protect
themselves from the enemy,but also from the Christian, who is not
just the conqueror, but also alien and taboo! They use the onl�k at
their disposal; they would use theirown oloo�eed arose …
1 Even when the native seems submissive, he is not vanquished. Does
not raise his eyes to gaze on his vanquisher. Does not ‘recognize’ him.
Does not name him. What is a victory if it is not named?
I’ A./’-‘��A A> Words protect. Words -erect a pedestal in readmesS’ tor the triumph
that lies in store for every Rome.
This correspondence, despatched from day to day from the encampments,
offers an analogy with love-letters: the recipient suddenly
becomes the excuse for taking a good clear look at oneself in the muted
56
light of one’s own emotions … War and love lcaYc similar impressions:
the hesitant courtship dance before the image of the one who
takes flight. And this flight gives rise to fear: and one writes to suppress
this fear.
The letters of these forgotten captains who write about worries over
problems of supplies and prospects of promotion and who sometimes
reveal their personal philosophies – between the lines these letters
spc�gcria as a woman whom it is impossible to tame. A tamed
Algeria is a pipe-dream; CVCI)’ battle drives further and further away
the time when the insurgency will burn itself out.
It is as if these parading warriors, around whom cries rise up which
the elegance of their style cannot diminish, arc mourning their
unrequited love for my Algeria. I should first and foremost be moved
byt�c or suffering of the anonymous victims, which their writings
resurrect; but I am strangely haunted by the agitation of the killers, by
their obsessional unease.
Their words, lodged in volumes now gathering dust on library
shelves, present the warp and woof of a ‘monstrous’ reality, that is
made manifest in all its unambiguous detail. This alien world, which
they penetrated as they would a woman, this world sent up a cry that
did not cease for two score years or more after the capture of the
Impregnable City … And these modern officers, these noble horsemen,
riding with their powerful arms at the head of their motley corps
of infantry, these new crusaders of the colonial era, overwhelmed by
such a clamour of voices, wallow in the depths of concentrated sound.
Penetrated and deflowered; Africa is taken, in spite of the protesting
cries that she cannot stifle.
Useless to go back to the death of Saint Louis outside Tunis, or to
Charles V’s defeat at Algiers, for which reparation is now made; no
need to invoke the ancestors united by Crusades and Jihads … When
the French women glance through the letters from their victorious
correspondents, they join their hands as if in prayer; and this devotion
from their families c�lo-round -the_scducers_in_the-.act-ofrlvishing
the op}’�site Mediterranean shore.
57
I
First love-letters, written in my teens. The journal of my cloistered
day-dreams. I thought these pages told of love, since their recipient
was a secret lover; but they spelled out danger.
I tell of time that passes, the summer heat in the closed apartment,
siestas which offer me an escape. The silence of my solitary
confinement feeds this monologue which is disguised as a forbidden
conversation. I write to get a grip on these beleaguered days … These
summer months spent as a prisoner do not prompt me to rebel. I feel
this time spent behind closed doors is simply a holiday interlude. Soon
the new school year will begin ami lessons will bring the promise of a
quasi-freedom.
Meanwhile my epistles written in French fly far away in an attempt
to widen the boundaries of my confinement. These so-called
‘love-letters’ – though this belies their nature – arc like the slats of
blinds through which the sun’s glare is filtered.
Ripple of words, sweet words that the hand sets down, that the voice
would whisper against the wrought-iron bars. What longings can be
admitted to this distant friend, with such apparent freedom, simply
because we arc so far apart? …
My words betray no inner turmoil. More than twenty years later I
realize that the letters do not so much express love as disguise it, and it
is as ifl were glad of the constraint: for the father’s shadow looms. The
half-emancipated girl imagines she is calling on his presence to bear
witness: ‘You sec, I’m writing, and there’s no harm in it, no
impropriety! It’s simply a way of saying I exist, pulsating with life! Is
not writing a way of telling what “I” am?’
I read the young man’s replies in an alcove or on a terrace; but
always with pounding heart and hands trembling with excitement. The
sensation of transgressing washes over me like vertigo. I feel my body
58
instinctively poised ready to run away, yielding to the slightest call. The
message from ‘The Other’ is sometimes pregnant with desire, but has
lost any power of contamination by the time it reaches me. Once
passion has been expressed in writing, it cannot touch me.
One day when I was about eighteen and had long since ceased
attending the Quranic school, I received a letter containing the text of
a long poem by Amr EI-Qais. The sender insisted that I learn the
verses off by heart. I deciphered the Arabic script; I made an effort to
memorize the first few lines of this ‘muallakat’ – what is known as
‘suspended poetry’. Neither the music nor the pre-Islamic poet’s
passion awoke any echo in me. At most the brilliance of the
masterpiece caused me to close my eyes for a second: an abstract
melancholy!
Since then, what intimate outpourings are to be encountered in this
ante-room of my youth? I did not write to lay bare my soul, not even for
any thrill, even less to express my ecstasies; but rather to turn my back
on them in a denial of my body – with an arrogance and · na”ive
sublimation of which I am only now aware.
The fever which assails me finds no outlet in these barren phrases.
My hesitating voice seeks for words to express a latent tenderness. And
I grope with outstretched hands and closed eyes for some possible way
of unveiling … My unseeing secret takes refuge deep in the dark
cavern; it lifts up its voice in song, which will force a way out through
the smallest needle’s eye.
Two or three years later, I receive an impassioned letter from my
lover, during a period of separation. We are quite newly married, I
think. He has written in an agony of suffering, like a sleep-walker; he
recalls, one by one, each aspect of my body.
I read this moonstruck letter once only. I feel a sudden chill come
over me. I can scarcely persuade myself that this document concerns
me; I put it away in my wallet, without re-reading it. Will this
intensified love find an echo in me? The letter bides its time, an
obscure talisman. Desire uttered in excoriating terms, from a distant
place, and without the caressing inflections of the voice.
Suddenly these pages begin to emit a strange power. They start to
act like a mediator: I tell myself that this cluster of strangled cries is
addressed – why not? – to all the other women whom no word has ever
reached. Those of past generations who bequeathed me the places of
59
their confinement, those women who never received a letter: no word
taut with desire, stretched like a bow, no message run through with
supplication. Their only path to freedom was by intoning their
obsessional chants.
The letter that I put away became a first for me: the first expression
of what those anonymous women who preceded me were waiting for
and of which I was the unwitting bearer.
The episode has other repercussions. The period of separation is
prolonged. I go to stay in the Normandy countryside with some
friends. I quarrel with a man whose attentions arc unwelcome; at first I
smile indulgently: he’ll get over his passing fancy, I am unmoved by his
passionate eloquence, I cut short his outpourings, suggesting we go
back to being friends, sharing our reading, exploring this new
countryside together. The only thing I need is friendship from a man
and the possibility of dialogue . . . But when I silence him, in his
impatience he steals into my room while I am out. He admits this soon
afterwards. In my anger I burst out, ‘Let’s put an end to this friendship
since there’s no future in it!’
The stranger sniggers, like a child getting his own back, ‘I went
through your handbag!’
‘So what?’
‘I read a letter, written by the man you’re throwing me over for!’
‘So what?’
My coldness is a pretence: I am upset by the man’s indiscretion. I
grow hard, I withdraw. He adds thoughtfully, ‘What words! I never
imagined he loved you so much!’
‘What business is it of yours?’
Did I really receive those written words? Arc they not now tainted
and debased? … I had kept that letter in my wallet, as if it were a relic
of some lost faith.
During the ensuing weeks I do not re-read it. The peeping-tom’s
eyes have upset me. This man’s fascination with the other man’s
unguarded words, which speak so frankly of my body, makes him a
thief in my eyes; worse, an enemy. Have I not behaved foolishly, been
grievously negligent? I am haunted by a feeling of guilt: could this be
the evil eye? The eye of the peeping-tom? …
A month later, I am in the market of a Moroccan city. A wide-eyed
bcggarwoman has followed me, carrying a sleeping baby whose head
60
lolls on her shoulder. She asks me for money and I give her a coin and
excuse myself. She goes off and soon afterwards I notice that she has
stolen my wallet out of my handbag that I had left open …
I realize immediately she’s taken the letter.
I don’t feel at all distressed; but I begin to wonder vaguely what this
might symbolize: were not these words perhaps intended for her –
words which she will be unable to read? She has become in fact the
very object of that desire expressed in syllables that she cannot
decipher!
A few days later I was caught up in one of those casual street
conversations with another beggarwoman who commented gaily to me,
‘0 sister, you at least know where you will be lunching presently! As
far as I’m concerned, every day’s a new experience!’
She laughed, but there was bitterness in her voice. I thought once
more of the letter which the first stranger had stolen, not without some
justice.
Words of love received, that a stranger’s eyes had sullied. I did not
deserve them, I thought, since I had not kept their secret. Those words
had found their true home. They had fallen into the hands of that
illiterate woman who disappeared. She will have crumpled up the letter
or torn it up and thrown it in the gutter …
So I recall the travels of that love-letter – and its shipwreck. The
memory of the beggarv.·oman is linked unexpectedly to the image of my
father tearing up that first note – oh, such a banal invitation – in front
of me, and my rescuing the fragments from the waste-paper basket and
obstinately piecing the message together in defiance. As if from then
on I would always have to set myself to make good everything that my
father’s hands might destroy …
Every expression of love that would ever be addressed to me would
have to meet my father’s approval. I could assume that he had had his
watchful eye on every letter, even the most innocent, before it reached
me. By keeping up a dialogue with this presence that haunted me, my
writing became an attempt – or a temptation – to set the limits on my
own silence … But the memory surfaces of the harem executioners; I
am reminded that every page written in the dim light will stir up a hue
and cry, leading to the usual cross-examination!
After the episode with the beggarwoman, the author of the letter and
I resumed our so-called ‘conjugal’ life tog.:ther. But with our
61
happiness in each other now made public, our story hastened to its
doom, its death-knell rung hy the intruder who first cast eyes on the
intimate wording of the letter and then hy the beggar who stole it while
her child slept on her shoulder.
To write confronting love. Shedding light on one’s body to help lift the
taboo, to lift the veil … To lift the veil and at the same time keep
secret that which must remain secret, until the lightning flash of
revelation.
The word is a torch; to he held up in front of the wall of separation
or withdrawal … To describe ‘The Other’ ‘s face, to ftx his image; to
continue to believe in his presence, in the miracle he performs. To
reject a photograph, or any other visual image. Armed solely with the
written word, our serious attention can never be distracted.
From now on, anything written becomes a litmus test for the logic of
the silence maintained in the loved one’s presence. When we stand
face to face and modesty prevents our bodies yielding, then the word
seeks all the more to strip us bare. Natural reserve slows down a
gesture or a look, exacerbates the touch of a hand; and if we proudly
insist on unadorned austerity of dress to affirm a deliberate neutrality ­
then our voices are simultaneously stripped of grace notes and utter
only plain, precise, pure words. Point-blank speech offers surrender, a
rash of lilies in a dark alleyway …
As a preliminary to seduction, love-letters do not demand any
outpourings of the heart or soul, but the precision of a look. When
writing, I have but one concern: that I should say enough, or rather
that I should express myself clearly enough. Rejecting all lyricism,
turning my back on high-flown language; every metaphor seems a
wretched ruse, an approximation and a weakness. In former times, my
ancestors, women like myself, spending their evenings sitting on the
terraces open to the sky, amused themselves with riddles or proverbs,
or adding line to line to complete a love quatrain …
And now I too seek out the rich vocabulary of love of my mother
tongue – milk of which I had been previously deprived. In contrast to
the segregation I inherited, words expressing love-in-the-present
become for me like one token swallow heralding summer.
When the adolescent girl addresses her father, her language is coated
with prudishness … Is that why she cannot express any passion on
62
paper? As if the foreign word became a cataract on the eye, avid for
discovery!
Love, if I managed to write it down, would approach a critical point:
there where lies the risk of exhuming buried cries, those of yesterday
and as well as those of a hundred years ago. But my sole ambition in
writing is CQI!Stantly to travel to fresh pastures and rcRienish my water
skins with an inexhaustible silence� – — — –
63
Women, Children, Oxen Dying In Caves
In the spring of 1 845 insurrection begins to flare up again among all
the Berber tribes in the western regions of the hinterland.
The Amir Abd al-Qadir regroups his forces on the Moroccan
frontier. After five years of hot pursuit, his enemies – Lamoricicrc and
Cavaignac to the west, Saint-Arnaud and Yusuf in the centre and
Bugeaud in Algiers – think he has been finally routed. They begin to
hope: could this be the end of the Algerian resistance? On the
contrary, the fuse is being laid for a new explosion.
A new young leader now makes his appearance: Bu Maza, ‘the
Man-with-the-goat’, to whom an aura of prophecy and miraculous
legends clings. Inspired by his preaching the tribes from the mountains
and the plains rise up in answer to his call. War resumes in the region
of the Dahra from Tenes to Mostaganem on the coast, from Miliana to
Orleansville in the interior.
In April, the Sharif Bu Maza scores victories over both the armies
that advanced from Mostaganem and Orleansville respectively. When
they try to surround him in the centre of the massif, he despatches one
of his lieutenants to attack Tenes. Saint-Arnaud no sooner hurries to
save Tenes, than Bu Maza suddenly appears and seems about to
capture Orleansville. Help is urgently summoned to protect this city.
The Sharif then threatens Mostaganem. The Amir himself has never
demonstrated such promptness in attack … Will this new prophet, Bu
Maza, turn out to be merely Abd al-Qadir’s lieutenant or,
surrounded as he is by a hierarchy of disciples, will he set himself
up as an independent leader, owing allegiance to no-onc?
Nothing is certain, except for his style of attack, swift as
lightning.
As he travels through the Dahra, with his banners waving, bands
playing before him, the people acclaim him as ‘the master of the hour’.
64
He takes every opportunity of wreaking ruthless retribution on those
Ca”ids and Agas appointed by the French.
In May, three French armies scour the countryside; they put down
every insurrection, burn the rebels’ villages and property, force tribe
after tribe to beg for mercy. Saint-Arnaud goes one better – as he
boasts in his correspondence: he compels the Bcni-Hindjcs tribesmen
to hand over their rifles. Never, in fifteen years, has anyone achieved
such a result.
Bosquct, promoted head of the Arab bureau in Mostagancm, has an
inventory drawn up. Saint-Arnaud’s seconds in command, Canrobcrt
and Richard, supervise operations; even very ancient weapons arc
recovered, dating from the Andalusian exodus in the sixteenth
century … More and more Irredentists arc taken hostage and stagnate
in the prison in Mostagancm, known as ‘The Storks’ Tower’, as well as
in the Roman reservoirs in Tcncs which have been transformed into
jails.
It is now the beginning of June. Field-Marshal Bugcaud (ennobled
with the title of Duke of I sly in honour of his victory the previous year)
inspects the results of the repression: leaving Miliana with more than
five thousand infantrymen, five hundred cavalry and a thousand
pack-mules, he criss-crosses the Dahra. On 12 June he sails from
Tcncs for Algiers. He leaves his chief of staff, Colonel Pelissier, to
complete the task: the tribes of the interior who have not yet
surrendered must be forced into submission.
Columns set out again from Mostagancm and Orlcansvillc in a
pincer movement; in spite of their co-ordinated efforts, they do not
succeed in surrounding the elusive Sharif. They leave only scorched
earth behind them, hoping to force the rebel leader to quit or dig
himself in.
On I I June, before embarking, Bugeaud sends a written order to
Pelissier, who is advancing towards the Oulcd Riah territory.
Cassaigne, the Colonel’s ADC, is later to remember the exact
wording:
‘If the scoundrels retreat into their caves,’ Bugcaud orders, ‘do what
Cavaignac did to the Sbeah, smoke them out mercilessly, like foxes!’
Pelissier’s army consists of half the Marshal’s strength: four
infantry battalions, including one of foot chasseurs, to which arc
added the cavalry, one artillery section and one Arab goum from
65
the Makhzcn tribe who have thrown in their lot with the French.
During the first four days Pelissier concentrates his action against
the Bcni-Zcroual and Oulcd Kelouf tribes, and rapidly forces them to
surrender. There remain the Oulcd Riah tribesmen from the
highlands, who retreat along the banks of the River Shaliff, so enabling
the French column, two thousand five hundred men strong, to
continue its advance.
On 16 June Pelissier pitches camp at the place known as Oulcd
ei-Amria, where one of the Sharifs lieutenants holds sway. Orchards
and homes arc totally destroyed, houses belonging to the militant
leaders arc razed to the ground and their flocks raided.
The next day the Oulcd Riah on the right bank of the river initiate
negotiations. They might be prepared to surrender. Pelissier makes
known the exact figure of the reparations exacted: the number of
horses and rifles to be handed over.
The Oulcd Riah waver; they deliberate all day, at the end of which
they arc still reluctant to hand m·cr their weapons. The other Oulcd
Riah tribesmen, who have only bound themselves to take part in a few
skirmishes, withdraw to the area in their rear where there arc caves
that arc reckoned to be impossible to storm. These arc situated on an
abutment on the Nacmaria Jebel, in a promontory between two valleys,
at an altitude of over l ,200 feet. Since the time of the Turkish rulers
tribes have taken refuge with their women and children, flocks and
munitions in these subterranean depths which run for more than 600
feet and open out on to almost inaccessible gorges. Their silos permit
them to hold out for long periods and so defy the enemy.
The night of 17 to 18 J unc is far from peaceful. Although Pelissier
has had the orchards cut down around the encampment, native
warriors crawl very close; there arc many nocturnal alarms. The
Orleans clzasseurs arc on the alert and beat off the intruders every time.
At daybreak on 18 J unc, Pelissier decides to make a move: he leaves
part of the camp under the command of Colonel Renaud and
despatches two battalions of infantry up the mountainside without
their knapsacks; they arc accompanied by the cavalry and the Makhzcn
gown, together with one piece of artillery and some mule-litters for
bringing back any wounded.
El-Hajj ci-Kaim’s Arab horsemen caracole in the forefront of this
final march: they cannot resist performing their Fantasia. Is this not
perhaps to disguise their anxiety in the face of these menacing heights
66
which they know to be inhabited? Some of the Arab troops have
deserted during the hours of darkness (may they not have had some
foreboding of the tragedy that is about to ensue?). Pelissier is
determined to act swiftly.
The leader of the Arab goUin remains impassive. These last few days
he has faithfully performed his role as guide, untiringly indicating
every location and property.
‘There are the EI-Frachich caves !’ he cries to Pelissier, who is
accompanied by young Cassaign and Goetz, the interpreter; he points
to an overhanging plateau in the foreground of the barren countryside.
‘If they’ve gone to earth in their caves, we’ll soon be walking over
their heads!’ he adds with a sudden burst of humour.
For Colonel Pelissier the approaching dawn makes a solemn
backdrop, befitting the overture to a drama. The curtain is about to go
up on the tragic action; Fate has decreed that he, as the leader, must
make the first entrance on the stage set out before them in this austere
chalk landscape.
‘Everything fled at my approach,’ he writes in his detailed report.
‘The direction taken by a part of the native population was sufficient
to indicate the site of the caves to which EI-Hajj el-Kaim was
guiding me.’
Pelissier is a master of strategy. After taking part in the Algiers landing
he had published a text-book of military theory based on the
observations he had made there. He then left Algeria, only returning in
1 841, when he is stationed first in Oran. His reputation has preceded
him; now he must live up to it.
As soon as he reaches the El-Kantara plateau overlooking the caves,
Pelissier sends a reconnoitring party of officers to try to find an
entrance opening on to the ravine: the main one is uphill. A howitzer is
set up in front of it. A smaller entrance is discovered lower down. Each
one is placed under the guard of a captain and a few carbineers; the
cavalry is disposed under cover to charge any possible fugitives, the 6th
Light Horse in the van, the Orleans chasseurs close to the colonel.
These manoeuvres are not carried out without difficulty: some of
the Ouled Riah arc posted in the trees and hidden among the rocks
to cover the entrance to the caves or take diversionary action.
Their shots cost the French six wounded, including three
non-commissioned officers; the seventh man to be hit dies
67
instantly: he is one of the Makhzcn horsemen who dismounted
to try to get nearer to the ravine ready to issue the challenge.
Pelissier replies with a few shells. The men on the lookout vanish.
The vice is closing on the refugees. The colonel orders faggots of dry
brushwood and bundles of grass to be rolled down from the
escarpment and set alight outside the upper entrance. But the cave
slopes away inside, so that the task at which the soldiers labour all day
turns out to be ineffectual. As soon as the heat of the burning mass
lessens, the defenders nearest to the entrance open fire, shooting at
random.
By nightfall the besiegers arc joined by those who had been left
behind in the camp … Pelissier’s position may well become critical:
the Oulcd Riah, with cattle and provisions, can hold out for a long
time; the French, on the other hand, have only enough supplies for
three or four days … If the neighbouring tribes, which have already
been subdued, get wind of Pelissier’s increasing impotence, may they
not suddenly resume hostilities? How will they manage to retreat in
this precipitous terrain? Already some of the Arab auxiliaries arc
smiling and whispering among themselves that they must be the
laughing-stock of the Oulcd Riah, who they imagine making
themselves quite at home in the vast interior chambers.
During the night – a bright moonlit night – ‘an Arab carrying a
guerba emerged from an exit which up till then had been hidden from
us by a clump of thuyas; he was wounded as he tried to reach the water
supply … ‘They conclude that the refugees arc short of water.
Pelissier takes heart: on the morning of 19 J unc he opens negotiations
in the hope of reaching a settlement. At the same time he makes it
quite clear that he is prepared to adopt strong measures if that is the
only solution.
Another exit has been discovered: it leads to the cave which opens
on to the lower entrance. So this can be used for another fire. Bigger
fires will be lit in both openings and this time the smoke will penetrate
into the caves.
Pelissier puts more and more men to cutting wood, felling the trees
around about and collecting brushwood and straw, but he still docs not
ignite the fires; he prefers to get the final phase of the negotiations
going.
The refugees seem disposed to surrender: at nine o’clock they send
a first emissary; after they have held a council of notables, a second
68
messenger arrives; a third finally asks for aman. They agree to pay the
reparations demanded and to leave the caves; their only fear is that
they will be taken hostage and kept in the infamous ‘Storks’ Prison’ in
Mostagancm. Pelissier is surprised (coming from the general command
in Algiers, he is unaware of the wretched reputation of these
jails); he promises to sec that this fate docs not befall them; in vain.
The Oulcd Riah arc resolved to pay up to 75,000 francs indemnity but
arc reluctant to trust him on this last score.
Goetz, the interpreter, is sent to translate Pelissier’s message. He
again assures them they will be allowed to go free. The deliberations
last another three hours. The besieged arc unwilling to surrender
unarmed; they insist on the French withdrawing some distance away
from the caves. Pelissier, concerned about his prestige, will not accede
to this condition.
Goetz now delivers the ultimatum: ‘You have just a quarter of an
hour to leave! No man, woman or child will be taken prisoner to
Mostagancm! … In a quarter of an hour, we shall resume the work
that was going on above your heads; then it will be too late!’
In his report, Pelissier stresses the fact that the period of respite was
extended; he emphasizes the shilly-shallying on the part of the
besieged; he writes, ‘I had reached the limit of my forcbcarancc.’
It is one o’clock. Throughout the morning, while the negotiations were
continuing, wood was still being collected. Pelissier also has the
foresight to have platforms erected at the top of the EI-Kantara spur,
so that the brushwood can be thrown down more easily. So the fire is
rekindled and the blaze fed throughout this day and the following
night. To begin with, the fire burns up slowly, as on the previous day;
the inflammable material had been thrown down in the wrong place.
An hour after the resumption of operations, the soldiers hurl the
faggots ‘correctly’. What is more, the wind rises and fans the flames;
almost all the smoke enters the caves.
The men arc happy, they have plenty to occupy themselves with.
They continue to stoke the fire until six o’clock on the morning of 20
June, that is for eighteen hours non-stop. To quote the words of a
French witness:
‘Words cannot describe the violence of the blaze. At the summit of EIKantara
the flames rose to a height of more than two hundred feet and
dense columns of smoke billowed up in front of the entrance to the cave.’
69
In the middle of the night, some explosions were heard coming from
inside the caves, quite distinct explosions. Then nothing. The silence
continued until morning. Then the fire died down.
On his return to Algiers, Dugcaud’s thoughts arc mainly dictated by
political considerations. The resumption of the insurgency is not a bad
thing after all; the ministers in Paris will need him, ‘the saviour’ – had
he not declared the previous year that Abd al-Qadir had definitely
been routed? But several Abd al-Qadirs arc springing up. From every
region they appear, a second one, a third, each one more ‘fanatical’
than the last, certainly more shabby and bedraggled, less and less like
leaders with whom the French authorities can envisage signing
treaties.
‘Smoke them out like foxes!’
That is what Bugcaud had written; Pelissier had obeyed, but when
the scandal breaks in Paris, he docs not divulge the order. He is a true
officer; a model of esprit du corps, with a sense of duty; he respects the
law of silence.
·-gut he gives his account of the incident. ‘I was forced to resume the
collection of brushwood,’ he writes when he methodically composes
his routine report three days later. He describes the operation in detail:
the many stages of the negotiations, the experienced nature of each of
his envoys, the resumption of parleys for the last time, outside the
lower entrance to the caves. He did not just grant them a quarter of an
hour’s respite, he states, but ‘five times a quarter of an hour’ … Those
wily, suspicious, hard-bargaining Muslims didn’t trust a Frenchman’s
word. They preferred to rely on the security of their subterranean
hideout.
The order had been carried out: ‘Every exit was blocked.’ As
Pelissier draws up his report, his words bring back that night of 19
June, lit up by flames two hundred feet high which devour the
cliff-face of Mount Nacmaria.
I, in tum, piece together a picture of that night: ‘a cannibalistic scene’,
writes a certain P. Christian, a doctor who had roved between the
French and Algerian camps during the 1 837 to 1 839 truce. But I
prefer to tum to two eye-witnesses: first, a Spanish officer, fighting
with the French army, and who formed part of the vanguard; he
publishes his account in the Spanish newspaper the Hera/do. The
70
second, an anonymous member of the company, describes the tragedy
in a letter to his family that Dr Christian publishes.
The Spaniard describes the flames – two hundred feet high –
enveloping the El-Kantara promontory. The soldiers, he states, shove
wood into the cave – ‘like into an oven’ – to keep the furnaces stoked
throughout the night. The nameless soldier shares his vision with us,
writing with even more violent emotion:
‘What pen could do justice to this scene? To see, in the middle of
the night, by moonlight, a body of French soldiers, busy keeping that
hellfire alight! To hear the muffled groans of men, women, children,
beasts, and the cracking of burnt rocks as they crumbled, and the
continual gunfire!’
The silence had in fact been broken from time to time by the sound
of shots; Pelissier and his entourage had interpreted these as signs of
internal dissension. But this inferno, which the French army gazes at
in admiration as if it were a living, necrophagous sculpture, cuts off
fifteen hundred people and their cattle. Is this Spanish witness the only
one to put his ear against the rock, and overhear the paroxysms of
death on the march? …
I imagine the details of this nocturnal tableau: 2,500 soldiers
keeping vigil, watching the progress of their victory over the
mountain-dwellers … Some of these spectators no doubt feel avenged
for so many other vigils! Oh, those African nights! The cold, the
landscape congealed by the darkness, the sudden shrill yelp of a jackal!
The invisible enemy never seems to sleep; horse-thieves daub their
bodies with oil and slip into the camp, unhobble the animals, sow
sudden panic, in the course of which sleepers and sentinels of the
same camp kill each other. The alarm is sounded so many times in the
night! In the local language, the alarm is called ‘the lion lashing its tail’
– and in this way the natives admit their fear of the royal beast, ‘The
Nameless One’.
The flames are still licking the side of the El-Kantara promontory.
The gunshots are followed by silence; a ripple of sound, then a distant
hammering that eats into the heart of the mountain. The soldiers gaze
upwards, waiting for the mountain to divulge the violent secret hidden
in the rocks.
Nacmaria, on the morning of 20 June, 1 845.
In the light of dawn, an unsteady figure – man or woman – emerges
71
from the last glowing embers of the fire. It totters forward, pauses after
a few steps, then collapses to die in the sun.
Over the next few hours, three or four survivors stagger out to gulp
down a mouthful of fresh air, before they too succumb … During the
whole morning it is impossible to get ncar the caves which arc
surrounded by smoke and a quasi-religious silence. Each man
wonders what drama was enacted behind these chalk cliff-faces which
have been barely blackened by the lingering smoke: ‘The problem,’ the
Spaniard adds in his account, ‘was solved.’
Pelissier orders an emissary to be despatched; according to his
report, ‘he returns with several breathless men who give us some
indication of the extent of the damage’.
These messengers inform Pelissier as to the situation: the
fumigation has wiped out the entire Ouled Riah tribe – I ,500 men,
some of them elderly, women, children, flocks by the hundred and all
their horses …
The day after the fatal outcome, before he enters the caves himself,
Pelissier sends in a detachment of about fifty sappers and an equal
number from the artillery with their equipment, accompanied by two
officers from the Engineers and two from the artillery. The Spanish
officer is one of them.
The carcasses of the animals, already in a state of putrefaction, lay
near the entrance, surrounded by woollen blankets; the refugees’
personal effects and clothing are still smouldering … From there the
men, lanterns in hand, followed a trail of ashes and dust to arrive at the
first cave. ‘An appalling sight,’ writes the Spaniard. ‘All the corpses are
naked, in attitudes which indicated the convulsions they must have
experienced before they expired. Blood was flowing from their
mouths; but the most horrifying sight was that of infants at the breast,
lying amid the remains of dead sheep, sacks of beans etc.’
These ‘spelaeologists’ go from cave to cave. An identical sight awaits
them everywhere. The refugees in these hidden depths have been
totally exterminated. ‘This is a terrible tragedy,’ the Spaniard
concludes, ‘and never at Sagonte or at Numance has more barbaric
courage been displayed!’
Now, in spite of the officers’ efforts, some of the soldiers start
looting there and then: stripping corpses, making off with jewellery,
burnouses, yataghans. Then the reconnaissance party returns to the
colonel who is unwilling to believe the extent of the catastrophe.
72
More soldiers arc despatched – it is now the afternoon of 21 June,
the first day of summer 1 845! Among them is the anonymous writer of
the letter published by P. Christian: ‘I visited the three caves,’ he
begins, ‘and this is what I saw.’ He, too, discovers the carcasses of
oxen, donkeys, sheep, lying in the entrance; their instinct had driven
them in search of the last breath of air that could penetrate from the
outside. Amidst the animals, sometimes even beneath them, lie the
bodies of women and children; some of them had been crushed by the
panic-stricken beasts … The nameless writer lingers particularly over
one detail:
‘I saw a dead man, with one knee on the ground, grasping the horn
of an ox in one hand. In front of him lay a woman with her child in her
arms. It was easy to sec that this man had been asphyxiated, together
with the woman, the child and the ox, while he was struggling to
protect his family from the enraged animal.’
This second witness arrives at the same estimate: more than a
thousand dead, not counting all those who arc heaped one on top of
the other, forming an indistinguishable mass; not counting the infants
at the breast, nearly all of them wrapped in their mothers’ tunics …
Some sixty moribund prisoners creep out of this subterranean tomb.
About two score of them will survive; some of them arc cared for in the
field hospital … Ten of them arc even set free!
Pelissier explains that ‘by a providential chance, the most obdurate
among the Sharifs party succumbed’. Among the survivors arc the
wife, the son and daughter of Ben Nakah, one ofBu Maza’s caliphs for
this region. These are the only prisoners that Pelissier boasts of1
By the afternoon of 21 June 1 845, the smoke over the promontory has
dispersed. I ponder over Pelissier’s next order:
‘Bring them out into the sun! Count them!’
Perhaps, carried away by his determination to sec the matter
through, he may have added roughly, ‘Bring the savages out! Let’s see
them all stark and stiff1 Bring out their rotting corpses! Then we shall
have won, we shall have made an end to it!’ … I can’t say for sure what
the military policy was; this is just a surmise; I am telling the story in
my own way and is it so purposeless to imagine what motives these
butchers had?
What fascinates me most – more even than the progress through the
dark caves, holding lanterns aloft to reveal the asphyxiated victims – is
73
the. moment when they bring out the carcasses and put them on
display:
‘Approximately six hundred arc brought out of the cave,’ the
Spanish officer notes, and he emphasizes the distress of the colonel
and his staff who all seem stunned, in a cold stupor.
Six hundred members of the Ouled Riah tribe, laid out in the fresh
air side by side, without distinction of sex or rank; notables with the
poorest, fatherless orphans, widows, repudiated wives, swaddled babes
at their mothers’ breasts or clinging to their shoulders … Corpses
with smoke-blackened faces sleep, stripped of their jewellery and
burnouses, but even more denuded by the silence which enfolds them.
They will be neither washed nor wrapped in winding-sheet; there will
be no wake held for one day or even for one hour …
The Arabs of El-Kaim’s goum – who three days before had
performed an incongruous Fantasia, all unaware of the tragedy to
which it will be an overture – move warily away: the corpses lined up in
wretched heaps seem to stare at them, to nail them to the
mountainside, and they cannot escape from this curse as long as the
corpses arc not buried.
The main body of the French company has remained at a distance.
Except for the stretcher-bearers and the reconnaissance unit, the
soldiers only glimpse this shambles from far off … The looted objects
circulate, sold among themselves. Then words arc exchanged: those
who have been into the caves describe the tangled mass of corpses
which could not be brought out. These Frenchmen begin to realize
what a scene of carnage, what a necropolis lies beneath their feet …
Did Pelissier himself enter the caves personally? some ask. The
third day of the tragedy is 22 J unc, the day when the colonel makes his
report. He is supposed to have said, as he emerged, ‘It’s horrible!’
Others report that he sighed, ‘It’s terrible!’
Be that as it may, he states, in the prescribed report:
‘These operations, Field-Marshal, arc such as one undertakes when
obliged to do so, but one prays to God that one will never again have to
carry them out!’
So, Pelissier suffers, probably turning to pray to God … The troops
comment on the outcome. On this twenty-second day of June, they
enjoy the tangible results of the operation: numerous neighbouring
tribes, including those members of the Oulcd Riah who had withdrawn
to the other bank of the Shaliff, the Bcni Zcltouns, the Tazgarts,
74
Madiounas and Achachs, all send their delegates. They hand over
their rifles and present the gada horse, the symbol of submission.
Some of the soldiers arc only too happy to forget the six hundred
corpses exposed on the hillside (which the Makhzen loyalists
eventually bury in a communal grave). They boast of their success in
taking these caves which in three hundred years of Turkish
domination had never been captured!
Victory had apparently been won on this hillside. But the next day,
23 June, Nature has her revenge: the stench of death is so strong
(ravens and vultures fly ceaselessly over the ravine, and the soldiers
even sec them carrying off the remains of human corpses!) that
Pelissier gives the order, that same day, to move the camp half a league
further away …
As if the sun, the summer bearing down its incalcsccnt burden, and
all nature join forces to expel the French army.
It is time to depart, the stench is too great. How can one get rid of the
memory? The corpses exposed in the hot sun have been transmuted
into words. Words can travel. The words, for example, of Pelissier’s
verbose report, which arrive in Paris, arc read at a parliamentary
session, unleash a uproar of controversy: insults from the opposition,
cmbarassmcnt on the part of the government, fury of the warmongers,
shame throughout Paris in which the seeds of the 1 848 Revolution arc
germinating …
Lieutenant-Colonel Canrobcrt, when posted to the garrison in this
same Dahra region, will later deliver his judgement:
‘Pelissier made only one mistake: as he had a talent for writing, and
was aware of this, he gave in his report an eloquent and realistic –
much too realistic – description of the Arabs’ suffering … ‘
Let us leave the controversy there: could the outcry in Paris over the
report be nothing more than a political reaction? Thanks to his ‘too
realistic’ description, Pelissier suddenly resurrects, before my eyes,
those Ouled Riah who died in their caves on the night of 19 to 20 J unc
1 845.
The dead woman found lying beneath the body of the man who was
protecting her from the bellowing ox. Because of his remorse, Pelissier
keeps this corpse from drying in the sun, and these Islamic dead,
deprived of the ritual ceremonies, arc preserved from oblivion by the
words of his routine report. A century of silence has frozen them.
75
The asphyxiated vtcttms of the Dahra, that words expose, that
memory disinters. Pelissier’s report, the Spanish officer’s denunciation,
the nameless soldier’s troubled letter, all this writing is engraved
in letters of iron and steel on the precipitous crags of Nacmaria.
Less than two months later, twenty leagues away, it is Colonel
Saint-Arnaud’s turn to smoke out the Sbcah tribe. He blocks up all the
exits and ‘when the job is done’ he makes no effort to bring out a single
one of the rebels. Enter not the caves! Let no man keep the tally! No
auditing. No conclusions.
A confidential report is sent to Bugcaud who this time takes care not
to forward it to Paris. The report will be destroyed in Algiers … In
1913, sixty-eight years later, a respectable academic named Gauthier
looks for it, finds no trace of it, wonders even if Saint-Arnaud had not
made up the whole story in order to have something to boast about.
Might he not have ‘imagined’ this new fumigation, to be Pelissier’s
equal and to score one over him! … No! the researcher finds the
record of this incident in accounts given by the descendants of the
tribe.
Less than two months after Pelissier, Saint-Arnaud well and truly
asphyxiated at least eight hundred Sbcahs. He simply kept silent about
this ruthless triumph. This is death indeed. To be interred in
Saint-Amaud’s caves and never exhumed!
But, even he, this fine man, this prudent man, this man who makes a
success of everything, this man who will be chosen from among all the
leaders of the African campaign to organize the future coup d’etat of 2
December 1 851, the man who in action keeps firm check on his own
words and thereby his fears, even he cannot help writing to his brother:
‘I have all the cxit ically scaled and create a vast cemetery.
The bodies of these will be buried in the earth for ever! …
No-one has been down mto the cave! … I sent a confidential report to
the Field-Marshal, stating everything simply, without any terrible
poetry, nor any imagery.’
Then he concludes emotionally on what is intended to be a poignant
note:
‘Brother, no-onc is more prone to goodness by nature and
disposition than I! … From 8 to 12 August I have been ill, but my
conscience docs not trouble me. I have done my duty as a leader and
tomorrow I shall do the same again, but I have developed a distaste for
Africa!’
76
One of Bu Maza’s lieutenants, EI-Gobbi, also wrote of these events ­
whether in Arabic or French I cannot say, as his account has not been
found. However, twenty years later the contents of this document were
noted by others, who in turn wrote of them.
When Saint-Arnaud has completed his macabre task, he withdraws
to a distance from Ain Mcrian, and stations his army there for some
ten days. The natives dare not make a final attempt to rescue their
entombed compatriots. However, one of Bu Maza’s disciples, who has
a reputation in this region for amorous as well as military exploits, one
‘Aissa bcn Jinn’ (a nickname that can be translated as ‘Jesus, Son of the
Devil’), this same Aissa arrives on the scene and addresses the other
Sbcah tribesmen as follows:
‘Down below, there is a woman much beloved of me! Let us try to
discover whether she is alive or dead!’
At his command the other fractions of the tribe clear the opening.
Some ten or more victims stagger out alive. They had been in the
upper galleries of the caves, ‘which’, Gauthier notes when he inspects
the scene, ‘make up a precipitous vertical maze’.
In the other galleries, where the poisonous gases from the
fumigation had lingered, they walked on corpses, so EI-Gobbi tells us,
‘as on straw litter’. These they left entombed.
On the site of the former Ain Mcrian encampment a settlers’ village
was created, known as ‘Rabclais’. In 1913 Gauthier found a survivor of
the fumigation there, an octogenarian who had been a boy of under ten
at the time, and who had been one of those who had survived because
Aissa the ‘Son of the Devil’ wanted to free ‘a woman he had much
loved’.
And the university professor, carrying out his researches in peaceful
colonial Algeria – where men sleep, work, get rich on the turf fertilized
with corpses – this academic can write when he has finished his
research:
‘There arc few things as distant from current experience as a
fumigation . . . I am aware of my impartiality – I may say my
dispassion – I don’t in fact sec how a spclacologist can be otherwise.’
Nearly one and a half centuries after Pelissier and SaintArnaud,
I am practising a very special kind of spclacology, since
in my descent into those dark caverns my only hand-holds arc
words in the French language – reports, accounts, evidence from
the past. Could my exploration – contrary to E.F. Gauthier’s
77
‘scientific’ activities, be obstructed by a belated ‘partiality’?
I am obsessed by the memories exhumed from this double
necropolis, which spur me on, even if I feel I am opening a register of
the dead, in the region of the forgotten caves, for those who will never
have eyes to read.
Yes, I am moved by an impulse that nags me like an earache: the
impulse to thank Pelissier for his report which unleashed a political
storm in Paris, but which allows me to reach out today to our own dead
and weave a pattern of French words around them. And SaintArnaud,
too, whose letter to his brother, while breaking an agreed
silence, lets me know the site of the cave-sepulchres. And even if it
seems too late to open them now, so long after the ‘Son of the Devil’
sought for the woman he loved, those cinnabar-red words still have the
power to cut like a plough-share into my flesh.
I venture to express my gratitude – however incongruous. Not to the
first fumigator, Cavaignac, who was forced by Republican opposition
to settle matters quietly; and not to Saint-Arnaud, the only real fanatic;
but to Pelissier. After the spectacular, brutal killing carried out in all
na·ivcte, he is overcome with remorse and describes the slaughter he
has organized. I venture to thank him for having faced the corpses, for
having indulged a whim to immortalize them in a description of their
rigid carcasses, their paralysed embraces, their final paroxysms. For
having looked on the enemy otherwise than as a horde of zealots or a
host of ubiquitous shadows.
Pelissier, the barbarian, the military leader subsequently discredited,
is for me the foremost chronicler of the first Algerian War! For
he approaches the victims when they have barely ceased their final
twitches – not of hatred – but of a frenzied death-wish … Pelissier,
butcher-and-recorder, brandishes the torch of death which illuminates
these martyrs. These men, these women, these children, for whom no
mourners could ever officiate (no lacerated faces, no measured
keening) for the mourning women too perished in the same
holocaust … An entire tribe! The survivors, groping their way towards
the shores of dawn, arc not even resurrected; they remain empty
shadows rather, for whom the sole light, even at high noon, is that of
the scalding-house.
Pelissier, composing his report on 22 June 1 845, must have had some
inkling that in writing of the war he is brushing the skirts of death with
78
its need of ceremonial, lighting on the footprints left by the dance of
death . . . The whole countryside, the Dahra mountains, the chalk
cliffs, the valleys with their charred orchartls find their inverted
mirror-image in the funeral caves. The petrified victims arc metamorphosed
into mountains and valleys. The women, lying among the
cattle in their lyrical embraces, reveal their aspirations to be the
sister-spouses of their men who do not surrender.
When Pelissier walks, a silent witness, through these caves which
will be forever inhabited, he must have been guided by a palaeographer’s
instinct: in which strata of the amorphous mass of corpses and
cries would he find victors and vanquished inextricably fused?
After Pelissier emerges from this promiscuous contact with the
fumigated victims clad in their ashy rags, he makes his report which he
intends to compose in official terms. But he is unable to do so; he has
become for all time the sinister, the moving surveyor of these
subterranean medinas, the quasi-fraternal embalmer of this tribe which
would never bend the knee …
Pelissier, speaking on behalf of this long drawn-out agony, on behalf
of fifteen hundred corpses buried beneath El-Kantara, with their
flocks un I bleating at death, hands me his report and I accept
th��st o which I now inscribe the charred passion of my
ancesw>fs-.—-
79
II
I could well have been my brother’s confidante when he first took to
the hills to join the maquis, but he was neither my friend nor ally when
I needed him. I was far away, isolated and absorbed in my own dreams
of romance – dreams that consumed me with an irrational fire – more
incongruous than those fires blazing in the mountains. My brother, not
yet a grown man and ever on the move … Ear cocked in the dark for
those on his trail, shunted from prison to prison – after the feverish
tempo of these odysseys, we met again one day and in a sudden burst
of confidence he let fall a single word, ‘hannoum’.
My brother, with his crooked boyish smile, reminds me –
half-jokingly, to disguise his affection – of the local dialect spoken in
the mountains where we spent our childhood. The expressions of
endearment, the diminutives peculiar to the speech of our tribe –
half-way between the Berber language of the highlands and the Arabic
of the nearby city (the former capital which had fallen into ruins and
then been repopulated by the Andalusian exodus):
‘If a friend uses one word to you, when she’s off her guard … ‘
I wait; he hesitates, then adds softly, ‘She only has to murmur the
word “hannouni”, then you know for sure: “So! she’s from my
region!” ‘
I interrupt him with a laugh, ‘That brings back fond memories! …
For instance, that sweet auntie! .. .’
Changing the subject, recalling the gushing aunts and cousins of the
tribe, the one who fondles the babies, saying over and over again, ‘My
little liver . . . hannouni!’, the old granny who only says it to little boys
because she doesn’t care for girls (they cause too many worries),
who …
How can you translate this hannouni by a word like ‘tender-hearted’
or ‘tendrelou’? Or by ‘my darling’ or ‘my precious heart’. Instead of
80
saying ‘precious heart’, we women prefer the expression ‘my little
liver’, or ‘the apple of my eye’ … This word ‘te11tlre/ou’ seems like the
hidden heart of a fresh lettuce, a sound embedded deep in our
childhood, which flourishes among us and which, so to speak, we
swallow …
W c were walking, I think, in a deserted street of the capital. W c had
run into each other unexpectedly one summer afternoon, and we had
laughed, like two strangers who meet like this and realize they arc both
equally at a loose end. With this only brother – slender, tall, some two
years younger than me – I often adopted a mischievous flirtatious
manner, introducing him as ‘my elder brother’, because his hair was
prematurely greying, despite his youthful figure … This was the only
insight he ever gave me into his private life: one word revealing his
loves. I felt a somewhat bitter-sweet embarrassment.
I turned away. I began to reminisce about the past and the old aunts,
elderly relatives, cousins. This one word could have filled my nights
when I was in love … To the brother who w�s never my ally, to the
friend who never joined me in rri�� This word – a
lotus-blossom opening out in the bright August sunlight, when languid
conversation drifts to a halt, this diminutive, making a gap through
which dammed-up speech can flow again … I could have …
Said that a succession of a thousand nights borne up on the crest of
pleasure, brcasting its nocturnal waters, a thousand times each time,
and on the snow-capped peaks of paroxysm the word of a phantomchildhood
appears – sometimes my lips form it silently, awakening it;
sometimes it is exhumed by a caress along one of my limbs and the
sculpted syllables rise to the surface, I am about to spell it out, just
once, whisper it to be free of it, but I refrain.
Because of the other – what other face faintly suggested or conjured
up will receive this unvoiced word of love?
I desist. Every night. Every tenebrous night through which my body
swims to scale the heights of ecstasy.
So, in a dusty avenue of our capital, my big brother has given me
back this tormented term, fretted with mystery or melancholy. Docs he
breach the dyke? A flash of lightning, in which I glimpse women’s
profiles leaning over his shoulder, lips murmuring, another voice or my
own voice calling. The shadow of a wing, this salt-lake-word.
My brother’s tall figure involuntarily erects the barrier of incest and
conjures up dark thickets of memory, from which only this sound of
81
lips emerges, only a breeze from the scorched hillsides of the past
where I bury myself. Where those who waited are asphyxiated and
their flesh left to rot, while they still waited for love – that might prove
cruel or tender, but love that cried aloud.
82
The Naked Bride of Mazuna
For fifteen years El-Djeza·ir had been in the hands of the infidel. Its
fall had been followed by that of Oran, betrayed by its own Bey. Blida,
too close to the foot of the Atlas, had not been able to hold out against
the enemy attacks and twice its Moorish inhabitants fled before the
French army; Midia, likewise, higher in the massif, where the Amir
had many a time been besieged with his lieutenants and had had to
summon the chiefs of the nearby mountain tribes to his aid. In the
distance, Constantine had twice been attacked and had defended itself
house by house until the Bey Ahmed was finally forced to withdraw to
the Auras mountains to continue his resistance, leaving the ‘City of
Passions’ to fall finally into the hands of frenzied plunderers.
Bone, on the Eastern coast, had long since capitulated; Bougie,
likewise, after many vicissitudes, although the independent Kabyle
chiefs continued to swoop down beneath its ramparts, fighting on, with
their women riding in their midst, deliberately defying death out of
bravado or in the exhilaration of a holy war. On the Western shore,
Mostaganem had surrendered, since the proud city of Tlemsen in the
interior had not been able to hold out, nor Mascara, Abd al-Qadir’s
unruly capital; moreover the Amir himself had just lost his whole
retinue; shortly before this. Cherchel – the ancient city of Caesarea –
had fallen, but when the French entered its ruins they found no-one in
the abandoned city except a madman and a paralytic woman.
There remained the cities and towns high in the massifs, where the
invaders made only a few rapid incursions to reach the plateaux
overlooking the desert and its many oases … They never penetrated
the mountain peaks to the North: Kabylia, long to remain impregnable,
together with the Bahors heights in the extreme East and the Atlas
range itself, whose jagged barrier formed a backcloth to the clashes
83
between the French columns and Ben Allal’s regulars and those of old
Bcrkani.
In the heart of the Dahra mountains, on a northern spur, a secret
city stood in isolation: the venerable city of Mazuna, huddled behind
its ramparts, twenty leagues from Mostagancm and Miliana, not far
from Tcncs, where for the past year settlers had been moving into
wooden hutmcnts, and ncar to Chcrchel, whose inhabitants had
drifted back into bondage. It had once been the headquarters of the
Turkish Bcylik for the West; for fifty years at least it had slumbered in
twilight dust. It had retained its autonomy, like the centres in the
extreme South, preserved from occupation …
Fifteen years had passed since the fall of EI-Djeza·ir.
In the year when Algiers fell, an only daughter was born to the Kulugli
Ca”id of Mazuna, Si Mohamed Ben Kadruma. She was called Badra,
meaning ‘full moon’. For the people of Mazuna, Badra’s beauty – her
green eyes, milky complexion, rounded bosom, her figure, slender as a
young palm tree, her jet-black hair that fell below her waist – all
attested to their city’s past splendour.
Badra’s mother was the daughter of the Khasnaji of the proud city of
Tlemcen from whence she had travelled to wed the Caid with a bridal
retinue whose splendour was inscribed in legend. She had died giving
birth to Badra and shortly afterwards, the Khasnaji had himself been
killed in battle when the Mechouar’s janizaries declared themselves in
opposition to the Amir, and the latter avenged himself by deporting all
Turkish families.
No-one had ever spoken in front of little Badra of her maternal
family’s misfortunes: however, is it not said that fortune will not favour
the child over whose cradle no maternal uncles smile! Nevertheless
Badra had kept her nurse, a half-caste from the West, a freed slave
who had fed the child’s imagination with obscure legends, tales of
magic … She was said to have come from the interior of Morocco; the
Cald’s two wives, both daughters of local chiefs – as good as saying,
peasants – both mistrusted and feared her.
Badra – a princess, isolated in the heart of a city fallen from its
ancient glory. For the last year, the town which still maintains its past
proud inflexible customs, has been seething with scheming and unrest.
The Caid Ben Kadruma, although barely sixty, is ageing. At twenty,
under the Turkish rule – the elders of the city still speak of it – he
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distinguished himself in the troubles which marked the terrible
uprising against the Bey of Oran. That was well before 1 830! He gave
proof of courage as well as intelligence! … On his way back from
Mazuna to Oran, the Bey had been ambushed in a narrow gorge; he
managed to escape himself, but his entire corps of guards was
massacred by the redoubtable Sbeah and the Outed Jounes tribesmen.
The Bey returned the following spring with twice the number of troops
– of whom the majority, newly converted, spoke neither Turkish nor
Arabic – and carried out merciless reprisals. The young Ca”id, who had
only recently inherited his title, led the delegation which tried to
temper the Ottoman cruelty.
In April 1 845, the Ca”id Ben Kadruma found himself in a similar
situation, heading a delegation of Mazuni notables who greeted a
French column which rode up to the gate of the city – the same gate
that they had refused to open to Abd ai-Qadir two years before, in
spite of his red-uniformed horsemen and artillery. The French had
recently clashed in bitter fighting with the zealots of the Sharif Bu
Maza, the new hero of the mountains, whom the tribesmen were
greeting with joy that boded ill for their enemies. During the day news
had reached Mazuna of a battle that had been fought on the plain of
Ghris: the French had charged, but had lost twenty of their men! The
Sharif had vanished like the wind on his swift charger.
When the French arrived, in a state of exhaustion, the Ca”id
presented himself to their commander, made his speech, followed by
that of his hadri colleague and listened impassively to the threats made
by the Colonel, a certain Saint-Arnaud, who had come from
Miliana …
Without dismounting, red-faced, shrill with anger, Saint-Arnaud
declared that Mazuna would soon be reduced to a heap of ruins
because of the duplicity of its population; he shouted that France was
not deceived; he knew that theft and banditry were the city’s most
flourishing business, or at least the receipt and sale of stolen goods; far
too many flocks of sheep could be heard bleating in the gardens and
these must belong to refugees and rebellious tribes … Throughout
this diatribe, the official in charge of the Arab Bureau, a man named
Richard, whose skull was bandaged due to a wound received in the
recent battle, slowly translated for the dozen notables who stood with
bent heads, draped in their ample robes.
When he had finished, the Ca”id replied curtly, stony-faced, ‘God’s
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will be done! 1\lazuna is a neutral city, a free city! … It is the only city
to resist the Amir and we did not open our gates to him; we shall hold
out alone against any masters, just as we resist all bandits !’
‘The Sharif was here less than forty-eight hours ago! He recruited
three hundred foot soldiers from among you, and two khojas! We know
this; we’ve got proofs!’ the Colonel angrily retorted, and Richard
impassively translated the vehement words.
‘I have never met him face to face!’ the Ca’id replied in French.
Wrapping his head in a fold of his brown burnous, he stepped back
out of sight among the massed delegation.
Saint-Arnaud’s information was correct, but the Ca’id has spoken
the truth. Bu Maza had simply taken up his position under the
ramparts a few days previously; there he had received his adepts and
his new disciples, but the Ca’id himself never made a move: he would
not even go to meet the Amir, and even less any local chief. ‘A ruse,’
his enemies said; ‘the pride of his Kulugli ancestors,’ his disciples
retorted.
Nevertheless, the Ca’id was feeling his age. The day that SaintArnaud
proffered his insults and threats, a gown encircled the city, led
by Si M’hamed, the Aga of Ouarsenis. As soon as the French left, he
came to pay his respects to Ben Kadruma. He stood on the threshold
and bowed.
The two men faced each other for a moment in silence: the ruler of
the city, in his morning finery, but grim-faced, despite the temporary
peace of mind gained from his attendance at public prayers at the
principal mosque; the Berber with his eagle profile, in his new russet
robe of office, the uniform of his enfeoffment by the French. With
what ulterior motive did this man – well-known to be redoubtable –
come, ostensibly to assure the Ca’id of his friendship?
‘I shall pursue the Sharif without respite,’ he now declared. ‘If he
had not tortured and killed my friend, the Aga Bel Kassem, I might
have believed in his divine mission! The sons of the city and the
neighbouring mountains rush recklessly to join him … Despite his
youth, and his apparent asceticism – of which I have my doubts – for
me he is a trickster and a charlatan!’
‘ How can we detect trickery nowadays?’ replied the Ca’id. ‘Our
liberty has vanished, the days of misery have barely begun!’
The Aga of Ouarsenis abruptly changed the subject; he spoke of his
eldest son.
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‘After leaving the zaouia of Mazuna, where he was the best student,
he has studied in Tunis and Kairouan!’
He boasted of his knowledge and bravery; lie dreamt of the boy’s
succeeding him in his office. The Cald did not reply. ‘I will never give
him my daughter,’ he thought, sensing what was coming. They bade
each other farewell and the Aga took his leave. That same day his goum
left the ruined, despoiled city which closed its gates upon them.
It was then the middle of April; the spring was spent in skirmishes,
numerous brief clashes, interminable hot pursuits. On market days the
young Sharifs name was on everybody’s lips: they said how handsome
he was; they told of the sign on his brow, of how he was invulnerable to
bullets, they spoke of his fleet charger, of his prophetic words and his
lieutenants; one day, the most prestigious of all these, Aissa ben Djinn,
appeared in person in a market-place.
Badra’s nurse had gone out that day to fetch fresh herbs and phials
of rare perfumes and came back puzzled. She described him to Badra:
‘The “Son of the Devil”, as they call him, serves the beloved Sharifl
He has a scar on his chin, but his bony face, all angles, appears so
handsome: a veritable hero of liberty! In the early days of Islam, Sidi
Ali must have looked like that to Fatima, our beloved Prophet’s
daughter! .. . ‘
‘So what if Aissa ben Djinn was cruel!’ the nurse mused. ‘He was a
poet,’ she added. ‘They say that in every tribe, perhaps even in every
old house in Mazuna, all the beautiful women dream about him. For
he must rejoice the heart of every one in spite of all the dangers, since
he loves love, just as he loves Liberty! .. .’
Badra sat and listened to the nurse describe the hero.
‘If the Sharif,’ she replied, ‘came to ask my father for my hand, such
as I am now, I would reply that I am ready to marry him on the spot!!’
And it befell that very evening that the Cald’s two wives entered the
room with the blue ceramic tiles.
‘Your father bids us tell you .. .’ the first one began, ‘that the Aga of
Ouarsenis, Si M’hamed, has today asked for your hand for his eldest
son!’
‘Your father has given his consent. They will come next Friday for
the fatiha and to take you away the following day!’
Badra was stunned. ‘My poor darling!’ sighed the nurse, taking her
in her arms.
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It was impossible to tell which of the two women was shedding more
tears on the silken couch perfumed with musk . . . The two
stepmothers left together, their coloured taffeta robes rustling in the
silence.
Thus, early in July, the Aga of Ouarsenis made his triumphant entry
into Mazuna at the head of an imposing escort, followed by carriages
bearing the most beautiful women of his tribe. As the porter opened
the heavy gates to him, he looked down on him from his mount and
offered him his copper cup, saying, ‘I give this to you, so that you will
always remember this day!’
The porter took the carved set/a. So, it was true: Bu Maza had been
put to flight and the Aga had killed many of his disciples and
dispersed the rest; he had even laid hands on his treasure and his
banners.
He dared not bring them here, to this city which he knew to be loud
with admiration for the exploits of the Sharif and his lieutenants. If he
had ventured to show a single one of the stolen banners, the porter
himself would doubtless have spat at him: ‘You are nothing but jackals
while he is a lion, hiding temporarily in his lair!’
‘He gives me the copper cup,’ the Mazuni thinks, ‘to emphasize that
he is henceforward doubly rich: with the spoils from our hero and now
to carry off tomorrow the most beautiful of our daughters in his
retinue!’
The Aga of Ouarsenis rode through the heart of the old city, under
hostile eyes – some of the notables nevertheless nodding their heads in
cautious greeting. The procession of more than one hundred
horsemen paraded along the green edges of the ravine that cut
diagonally through the city. The ride lasted two long hours, while in
the Cald’s home in the West, against a century-old olive grove, the
women’s shrill ululations rose in the air.
The Berber horsemen began their Fantasia in the market-place; it
went on far into the warm summer night. Badra was seated like an idol
in the midst of the guests and the women of the city; her face was
hidden, only her hands and feet were visible beneath her shot-silk
draperies. Prayers, interspersed with blessings, rose up in sheaves,
while the Mulattress, her face bathed in tears, tendered to her mistress
the henna paste, mixed in a cup from Medina.
The city shook with the sound of galloping hooves and volleys of
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shots; the chorus of women called on the Prophet and local saints to
bless the wedding which was to take place the following day …
Mazuna was living through its last night as a free city and the virgin,
under the gaze of the guests in all their finery, finally let her tears flow.
The bridal procession left Mazuna at the first light of dawn with the
palanquin bearing the bride in the lead, preceded by five or six
horsemen, chosen from among the youngest first cousins of the absent
bridegroom.
Standing in front of her dwelling, the Ca”id Ben Kadruma was the
only one to glimpse Badra’s face. Some claimed later that he spoke to
her of her dead mother and then, in cryptic terms, abruptly asked her
forgiveness.
The hundred or so horsemen who had arrived the preceding day
again paraded with the same haughty air. The carriages bearing the
women-folk related to the Aga were now joined by others in which
were seated the bride’s stepmothers, her two paternal aunts and a
dozen ladies from the city. They were going on to Miliana where, it
was said, a seven-day feast was being prepared.
In the raised palanquin, facing the gilded and painted bride, the
Mulattress sat in a blue gown glittering with sequins, a scarlet silk
kerchief covering her frizzy’ hair. !’\ext to her sat the Aga’s daughter,
not much younger than Badra, scarcely less beautiful.
The Aga Si M’hamed rode at the head of the imposing procession,
never taking his eyes off the palanquin. The next festivities, he
thought, would be for the marriage of his own daughter, perhaps to the
son of his new colleague, the Aga of the Sbeah, Si Mohamed, who had
succeeded Bel Kasscm who had been killed by Bu Maza.
One of the young men in the vanguard suddenly broke rank and
galloped up to the Aga.
‘A group of horsemen in red robes has appeared in the West,
beyond the first valleys!’
‘The red robes of the Spahis!’ exclaimed the Aga.
He reined in his horse, stared in the direction indicated: he could
sec nothing but a distant speck, scarcely moving. He waved his arm,
signalling to the procession to halt. The four horses drawing the
palanquin reared suddenly, so that the attatich pitched over to the left
for a moment … A woman gave a faint scream, but the palanquin
righted itself.
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‘It’s my friend the Aga Mohamed’s escort!’ Si M’hamed exclaimed
in his stentorian voice. ‘He promised me he would meet us with his
guards and horsemen. He has arrived for the Fantasia! Let us give him
a worthy welcome!’
The horsemen who had ridden ahead gradually returned; the
procession re-formed and awaited orders.
‘Form two rows!’ the Aga commanded.
While the men took up their new positions, with only the guards
around the palanquin retaining their original places, the Aga of
Ouarsenis rode around, smiling, proud of this encounter which
reminded him of the festivities of his youth, perhaps of his own
wedding.
‘They arc approaching!’ someone observed.
A cloud of dust growing ever thicker covered the horizon. As the
dust haze spread, tall figures could be clearly distinguished bending
low over their sturdy mounts, with flecks of scarlet, their unmistakeablc
Spahi capes, swirling behind them in the wind raised as they
raced. Suddenly the regular, staccato thud of galloping hooves was
upon them like the syncopated chugging of some invisible machine …
Only a few of those present, more observant than the rest, were
surprised at the number approaching: twenty, thirty horsemen or
more, a vanguard probably. Shortly afterwards they could identify the
crouching figures more distinctly, making out their bent legs, their
long-barrelled rifles slung across their chests.
‘I can’t descry my colleague!’ the Aga murmured, erect in the midst
of his companions who had come to a halt over a distance of some
hundred yards.
The invisible women watching in the barouches grew agitated.
Since there was talk of an imminent Fantasia, they gave voice in chorus
to one preliminary prolonged cry, an echoing ululation, by way of
prologue to the festivities. Almost simultaneously a rifle shot rang out
in the forest striated with shrieks. Someone shouted that a whole host
was approaching from the rear. The Aga M’hamed, still isolated,
instinctively drew nearer to the palanquin. He was still looking for the
Aga of the Sbeah; even if he could not be distinguished from his
Spahis, he was now within hailing distance of his colleague. Si
M’hamed was suddenly anxious, both for his daughter and his
daughter-in-law.
Shots; an impenetrable dust-screen; flashes of light piercing the
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haze. A man groaned, then gave vent to a cry of rage: ‘Treachery!
Treachery! ‘
The wave of riders swept down with a dull roar which split tenfold
into piercing howls, then a tremor rippled through the horde like a
field of corn laid low by a storm:
‘Mohamed ben Abdallah!’
‘Mohamed ben Abdallah!’
Light finally dawned on the Aga Si M’hamed: now the carbines
were chattering uninterruptedly and already one man, then a second
man had fallen ncar him under the volley of shots.
‘Treachery! Treachery!’ panic-stricken voices repeated, amid the
hubbub and confusion.
It was, alas, the Sharif Bu Maza, with his men! As they approached,
some of them, laughing wildly, cast off in a dramatic gesture the
Spahis’ cloaks which they had donned as camouflage.
‘They’ve killed my friend, the Aga Mohamed and his guards!’ the
Aga thought. ‘Then they must have stripped off their uniforms to
disguise themselves so as to approach us with impunity. With Bel
Kassem and Mohamed now dead, I am the only one left of the three of
us, and I too shall soon be dead!’
He alone had kept his rifle loaded. All his men had their weapons
loaded with blanks. Around him all was turmoil; in the rear, his men
were in flight. More than a dozen fell at the first encounter; a few
others had time to use their daggers … The Aga himself engaged in a
hand-to-hand struggle with one of the Sharifs men – he recognized
him, by his physique, as a Sbeah from the nearby locality. At the same
time, his mind was filled with conflicting thoughts: to stay near the
palanquin and defend the two girls; to defend himself till the bitter
end, and kill as many as possible of the enemy; he felt no hatred, but he
seemed to be enveloped in a white veil of bewilderment. His first
assailant fell back wounded; then he found himself facing two, three
combined against him. Only their gleaming eyes were visible.
‘How could that devil of a Sharif have managed to return so quickly
and so secretly from fighting against the Flittas?’
These thoughts passed mechanically through his mind while he
defended himself with an agility which he knew in the long run to be
useless … His first wound, in the right side under his armpit, jerked
him upright in the saddle and, for the first time, he caught sight of his
rival clearly outlined on a hilltop, a new scarlet banner held high above
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him. Bu Maza was surveying the joust, like an eagle poised above his
prey.
At the second wound, the Aga knew he would not survive this melee.
Now he was beset by four assailants; one of them stood back to gaze at
the open wound. The Aga killed one, wounded the second who
recoiled but came back to the charge; the third one hesitated.
‘Allah is great!’ Si M’hamed shrieked towards the palanquin. The
black face of the nurse could be seen peeping at this terrible encounter
through a gap in the silken hangings.
The greater part of the goum, now leaderless, were drifting to the
rear. Some of the wounded fled, pursued by A”issa ben Djinn and his
soldiers. Bodies of men and horses were already piling up around the
bleeding Aga, reeling in the saddle.
It would still have been possible for him to leap to the ground and
attempt to escape. The thought did not even cross his mind. ‘My
daughter! My daughter-in-law!’ he kept repeating. As from a great
distance he could hear women’s hysterical screams, interspersed with
men’s shrieks from both sides. The Mulattress was leaning half out of
the gaping hangings of the palanquin moaning, ‘0 Allah! 0 Allah! 0
Sidi Yahia, Sidi Abd al-Qadir!’
As his adversaries closed in on him for the third time, planting a
dagger in his midriff, the Aga felt a chill penetrate him. ‘It is the end!’
he thought without regrets, as drowsiness overcame him and the sky
seemed to shroud him in a vast blue-grey canopy, stretching far into
the distance.
He had the impression that the motionless figure of the Sharif on
the hillside, although still some way off, was quite close by. Bu Maza
was laughing.
The Aga was finally unseated and fell headlong towards the
palanquin with the renewed cry, ‘Allah is great! ‘ The curtains opened
and the Aga’s daughter leapt down on to the victim’s body, screaming
‘My father! My father!’
The girl threw herself on the ground, draped in her green silk
finery, thinking to protect her father in his death-throes: four of the
Sharifs horsemen watched her with fascination. Apart from the rest,
Aissa ben Djinn raised his arm in a grandiloquent gesture.
‘The bride of Mazuna is free!’ he cried in a note of parody.
Having stood long overlooking the field of battle, Bu Maza now
approached, his face expressionless. Before even glancing at the
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women, he softly asked Aissa, ‘How many of these dogs arc dead?’
‘Twenty to thirty of their men arc left lying here. The women arc in
our hands; the rest of the soldiers have fled!’ someone close by replied.
‘That traitor of an Aga fought to the bitter end! He certainly showed
courage!’ declared AYssa, pointing with his foot towards the body.
He made as if to approach the daughter who was clinging to the
corpse, sobbing, her hair in disarray. The Sharif stopped him with a
sign.
‘This one will be for me!’ he was about to say.
Then he looked up: Badra, dazzling in her wedding attire, was
alighting majestically from the palanquin.
Mohamed ben Abdallah, known as Bu Maza, also called ‘Moul
cs-Saa’ or ‘The Master of the Hour’ by the Achaba, Mcdiuna, Bcni
Hadjcs, Sbcah and other equally bellicose tribes of the Dahra, Bu
Maza, the new idol of these mountains, but also the terror of the
citizens of Mazuna, sat erect on his chestnut mount which the Flittas
in the West had presented to him. This proud steed had belonged to
old Mustapha himself, the celebrated chief of the Doua·irs whom
they had ambushed in a narrow defile and killed, two years before.
Bu Maza gazed admiringly at Badra, without admitting that this prey
dazzled him.
She slowly alighted as the velvet hangings of the litter were raised by
the Mulattrcss who stood frozen behind her, her eyes nearly out of
their sockets. Only a little of the colour has drained from Badra’s face;
her diadem is poised on her head-dress of violet shot-silk; her hair in
two braided strands interlaced with silken cords hangs about her bare
neck and falls over the opening of her corsage which is adorned with
two rows of sequins … She calmly takes two, three steps forward,
bringing her close to the corpses : she barely lowers her eyes, the better
to let the Sharif gaze into her face.
Her embroidered mules, her gown of emerald velvet, the gold belt
encircling her high waist, the veil of silvery gauze floating about her
arms and falling down to her knees, every detail of her costume made
her an unreal apparition: the horsemen behind Bu Maza seemed to
hold their breath.
Aissa ben Djinn, on one side, ncar to the Aga’s daughter who still
clung to her father’s body, murmured ironically to himself, ‘After the
hyena, here now is the young lioness!’
His chief, silent, his white cleric’s hand poised on the damascened
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leather pommel, pretended not to hear. A moment passed; a horse
whinnied in the distance; another reared. The men seemed to grow
impatient, but they all remained silent and respectful. Ai’ssa ben Djinn
approached Bu ,\bza and this time said aloud, ‘We’ll bring the two
girls with their servant to your tent presently, my lord!’
The Sharif’s narrow gleaming eyes never left Badra’s silhouette. He
finally half turned his head to his lieutenant. He did not smile. He
simply gave a slight nod of acquiescence.
With one abrupt movement he wheeled his horse and rode ofT to
ascertain the result of the other ambush two leagues away: the soldiers
of the gown, who had fled through the gorges of the wadi, had been
waylaid by Sbeah foot soldiers … Volley after volley of shots had
greeted them. A messenger had just announced that the Aga’s men
had been decimated in this second ambush.
One hour later Bu Maza retired to his tent which had been pitched
for the night.
No-one knew, the next day, if the two virgins had scorned the Sharif
when he came to take his place before them, or if it was he who was
reluctant to use force when faced by his victims – were they repelled or
fascinated by him?
The dead Aga’s daughter, whether out of loathing or vengeance,
kept her father’s dagger in her hand the whole of the day and
throughout the following night. ‘I’ll kill myself, or I’ll kill you!’ she kept
on repeating in her frenzy and did not cease her wild cries even when
Bu Maza made as if to approach. The young leader seemed at a loss
for words: only a slight narrowing of his eyes betrayed what surprise he
might have felt in the face of these females who, despite or because of
his brilliant victory, would not yield.
The servant was ordered to take the daughter, still comulsed with
hate, out of the tent. They spent the rest of the night outside: it was the
beginning of July, a few days after the full moon. A fire of olive
branches warmed them with its bluish flames.
Thus Badra remained alone with the Sharif, on this night which
should have been her wedding night. From time to time a jackal
howled in the nearby valleys. Behind the thuyas a scout started. The
guard was then reinforced. But the torches all remained alight in the
chief’s tent. Clasping the Aga’s sleeping daughter in her arms, the
Mulattress listened. Not a voice, not a sound from nearby! ‘How can a
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man resist the dazzling beauty of my little Badra? .. .’ Mechanically,
she recited fragments from the Quran. ‘Is the Sharif a man?’
At dawn the flap of the white tent was raised. Bu Maza emerged into
the pale early-morning light, but inside the tent the flame of the candle
still cast its pool of light … The Sharif blinked. Before she was aware
of his approach, the Mulattress found him ncar her. He nodded and
withdrew. The servant entered.
Badra looked as if she had not stirred since the preceding evening.
She sat like a statue, her eyes closed, her eyelids still painted blue, fine
beads of perspiration on her brow, in the moist air … ‘The weight of
the diadem,’ thought the servant, falling to her knees.
And only then, overcome with tenderness and emotion, she began to
remove the bejewelled ornaments from the bride’s head, ears and
neck: the a(aba with its pendants, the triangular chengals for the ears,
the numerous bessita necklaces from Fez, the heavy brooches set with
emeralds, the rosy trembleuses of the head-dress. ‘All these jewels,’ she
thought, ‘protected her from the covetousness of all too human desire.
The Sharif- may Allah preserve him – did not deign to touch the gold
to touch the girl, and the girl … ‘
Badra, relieved of the weight on her head and shoulders, huddled in
her nurse’s arms.
‘I am dead!’ she sighed. ‘I am dead!’
After her attendant had laid Badra down to rest, she thought how
the mortified girl must have wept; she said to herself … ‘He disdained
the rarest pearl of Mazuna!’
In the course of the morning, a relative of the ‘Son of the Devil’
came to tell him that a delegation of Mazunis had arrived, led by the
Kulugli Cai’d himself, and been received by the Sharif.
‘How much did that dog, son of a dog and lackey of the Christians
give you as dowry for your daughter, you who have served more
glorious masters?’
The Cai’d Ben Kadruma, his head bowed humbly as befitted a
suppliant, was forced to divulge the amount.
‘You will pay twice that to get your daughter back and regain your
honour!’
Each of the leading citizens then discussed the ransom for each of
the women who were waiting a little way off. The Sharif had scornfully
left these parleys to his lieutenants.
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‘These men arc perfidious and tomorrow, at our first setback, they
will return to attack us and throw themselves on the mercy of the
French colonel!’
• nut what can you expect of these Moors!’ someone remarked. ‘For
generations, from father to son, the sole reason for their actions has
always been fear! ‘
All the women prisoners, except Badra and the Aga’s daughter, were
clustered round the marabout Sidi Ben Daoud, where the Sharifs
scarlet bannet had been flying since the previous evening; now they
learned that the ransom would be paid within the hour and they would
soon be free …
Some of them bore bleeding scratches on their faces and necks
where they had lacerated themselves as signs of mourning for
husbands and sons who remained without sepulture on the field of
battle. Others, relatives of the bride, showed neither fear nor sorrow.
They waited patiently, impassive, at the most merely heaving languid
sighs. From time to time there was a whisper from one of them; they
were breathless with curiosity: how could they discover whether the
Sharif, or one of his redoubtable lieutenants, was going to keep the two
virgins, or at least Badra, the more beautiful?
Soon the amount of ransom demanded of the Ca”id circulated
among these city ladies. And, reinforced by the meal of couscous with
chicken prepared for them by the marabout’s wali, they were able to
forget their fatigue in smug pleasure at the sum, as if the value of a
virtuous and beautiful woman – more priceless than the jewels – could
be calculated in gold pieces!
The tents remained pitched for a second night. The Sharif decided
that they would leave the encampment the following dawn. His scouts
had returned just before dusk: they reported that the garrisons at
EI-Asnam, Miliana and Tenes had been filled with consternation at
the news of his victory … The colonel had already sent messengers to
General de Bourjolly and to the leader of the Tenes column. The
French would move the next day or in two days at the latest.
‘We shall cross the Beni Hindjes,’ declared Bu Maza; ‘from there
we shall return to the Flittas’ country.’
The gold from the citizens of Mazuna had arrived. The burghers
had been forced to spend the night cooling their heels before being
made to hand over their treasure.
96
‘We arc neither looters nor highway robbers, and God’s justice can
wait!’
The Sharifs lieutenant Ben Hcnni, chief of the tribes around the
ancient city of Tcncs, came to confirm that its Moorish population,
like that of Mazuna, spoke of nothing but the Sharirs reappearance.
The two important mosques had resounded with heartfelt prayers! In
their defeat, these cities were moved partly by fear, partly by newfound
zeal for the faith.
‘Saint Sid Ahmad ben Yusuf was right to make them the butt of his
famous axioms!’ someone murmured ncar to the Sharif, who did not
smile.
A’issa ben Djinn whispered in his car, ‘Seigneur, it is time to hand
over the women. My men have counted the duros of the ransom. The
tally is correct! … You have enough to raise double the number of
troops from all the loyal tribes as far as Mostagancm; perhaps you
could even join forces with the Amir!’
The Sharif interrupted in an undertone: ‘I hear that his messenger
is in fact approaching, bearing a letter! … You sec to the women!’
Then, after a pause, ‘Let us keep the Aga’s daughter! She persists in
her insults: let the blood of the maid follow that of the father! … I give
her to you!’
Ai’ssa bowed his head as sole acknowledgement of the gift that had
just been made to him. Then he began, ‘I have a suggestion: send back
the Mazunis’ wives and daughters without their jewels! … They arc
worth as much again as all the ransom money!’
And he burst out laughing.
‘They rightly call you “Son of the Devil”,’ the Sharif retorted with a
smile. ‘Do as you like with them. This extra booty is yours!’
The women filed one by one out of the tent, some in coloured veils,
some in faded white. They stood before A’issa ben Djinn who was
surrounded by four of his men. An unarmed chaouch waited in
ceremonial attire.
‘You must each remove every item of jewellery and hand it to the
chaouch! If anyone hesitates or shows reluctance, then I’ll tear off her
jewels with my own hands and her clothes as well!’ Ai’ssa announced in
his sonorous voice.
A cacophony of chatter and squeals broke out among the women,
unable to control their agitation. Then one of Ai’ssa ben Djinn’s men
raised his rifle and fired several shots into the air and silence fell.
97
The chaouch sat down cross-legged and waited; his scarlet turban
slid down over his brow; his venerable mustachios framed a smile; his
pose seemed to caricature that of a cadi.
‘Brigands! Highway robbers!’ hissed one of the women.
And the others immediately protested: ‘Hold your tongue, wretch!
Do you want to get us all assassinated?’
One by one the ladies came forward, slowly, solemnly, with faces
and bodies completely shrouded. One by one hands emerged from
folds in the coloured veil, dropped a jewelled fillet, brooches, a pair of
khalkhals, three, four or five rings … The inventory was taken by a
khoja who inscribed on a tablet the number of items and their
description.
It took over an hour for the women to hand over all their precious
ornaments. Meanwhile the Sharif rode to and fro on his chestnut, a
little way off …
Suddenly there was an unexpected pause, a moment of suspense:
from the chiefs tent the bride emerged, her face uncovered; she
walked stiffly under the weight of her adornment, bearing her rich
diadem before her in both hands. She was the last. She seemed to be
wearing all the jewels of the entire city. ‘She’s the cause of all our
misfortunes!’ exclaimed one of her stepmothers.
Badra approached with lowered eyes, as if she knew the way
instinctively. Her nurse followed her, weeping: would there never be a
wedding for the girl? The Sharif, who was riding away, halted, looking
down on the colourful scene, while behind the cactus hedge the sky
was growing lighter.
Badra paused in front of Aissa ben Djinn, who ventured no
comment: he too looked calmly on with admiring eyes.
With an ample gesture, as if she were in her bridal chamber, she laid
down her tiara, then her heavy earrings, then the four, five, six pearl
necklaces, then the brooches – ten at least – then … ‘Allah! Allah!’
sighed the chaouch and asked for another casket. The scribe, his eyes
dazzled as much by the splendour of the precious stones as by the
beauty of the bride herself, forgot to write down the inventory.
The girl now wore nothing but her light gown with its loose folds
and her waistcoat with full gauze sleeves. With one rapid movement
she took off her conical cap embroidered with gold, and placed it with
the other jewels – and her thick black tresses streamed down her back.
Then, stooping quickly, she removed her green velvet mules, also
98
embroidered with gold. With a dancer’s lithe twist of her hips, she
wriggled out of her heavy sequined girdle. Then she stooped down
once more, removed her ankle bracelets and presented them, almost
stealthily, to the stupified chaouch. Then the sound of horses’ hooves
was heard. Bu Maza was galloping away.
‘Enough!’ screamed a woman’s voice from the midst of the group of
prisoners.
‘Will she strip herself naked?’ added another, from the front. Then a
collective babble of hostile voices arose.
In two strides the nurse was at her side. She wrapped her arms
around the frail adolescent, clothed only in her emerald gown, her hair
streaming in the wind, her face raised to the sky, and repeating softly,
‘I am naked! Praise be to God, I am naked! Praise .. . ‘
The Mulattress gently fondled her exhausted child, cradling her like
a mother and gradually persuaded her to join the murmuring group of
prisoners.
No-one asked what had become of the other maiden, the dead Aga’s
daughter. The Sharifs tent had been struck. His column was the first
to leave, his banner flying in the lead, the band of flutes and drums
playing a shrill melody. A”issa ben Djinn’s men brought up the rear,
their mules laden with jewels and the gold from the ransom.
Two weeks later, after smoking out the Sbeah fraction not far from
the Nacmaria caves, Colonel Saint-Amaud finally caught up with Bu
Maza who had been trying to avoid doing battle for a time.
Treasure and smala were seized and Canrobert, Saint-Amaud’s
adjutant, dispersed the partisans … The Aga’s daughter, the Sharifs
prisoner, disappeared in the confusion of the encounter (did she share
his tent and persist in mocking him with her insults? – no-one knew).
Two days later, as her brother, who was acting as guide to Canrobert’s
Spahis, rode under an oak tree, he heard a frightened voice whisper,
‘Brother! Ali, my brother!’
The Aga’s son halted under a branch of the tree. A slender figure
jumped down and landed right in the astonished young man’s saddle.
‘I’ve been hiding there for two days!’ the girl murmured, after they
had embraced.
On their return to Tenes the French column reported how the
brother and sister had been miraculously united . . . But in the
Mazuna market-place the meddahs recounted to the people how the
Sultan, whose coming had been prophesied, had stripped the wives
99
and daughters of the traitors and their allies, handing them over
‘naked’. t\1ohamcd hen Kadruma sold everything he owned, and after
repudiating his two wives decided to undertake the pilgrimage to
Mecca, accompanied by his daughter.
‘On my return,’ he announced to some of his family, ‘I shall not
come hack to live in this city which will no longer he free! I shall go into
exile, like so many others, to Tunis, to Damascus or even to Istambul.’
The year before these events took place, a farmer, who had been a
lieutenant in Napoleon’s army, and had been ruined about 1 840 when
the Rhone twice overflowed its banks, emigrated to Algeria. Berard –
that was his name – chose to settle in Tenes, the new town which
Bugeaud’s army built with wooden houses, later replaced by stones
from the imposing Roman ruins.
Berard soon abandons farming. He sets himself up as a stationer,
selling paper, pencils, exercise-hooks; he even opens a reading-room.
The insurrection breaks out in the Dahra, with all changing fortunes,
including the Mazuna wedding which Bu Maza transformed into an
ambush.
The bookseller Berard, thanks to his experience as a veteran of the
Emperor’s army, but also thanks to his education and his greying hair,
has become one of the leading citizens of European Tenes, alarmed by
the nearby disturbances. He is in command of one of the newlyestablished
militia … Twenty years later, he writes his account of the
uprising: but he never went to Mazuna. No European was yet to
venture there; the neutrality of the ancient city was frozen in eternal
slumber.
One of Bu Maza’s lieutenants, EI-Gobbi, also wrote his account of
the events. Did he take part in the attack on the wedding procession?
\Vas he one of those who, standing beside his leader, admired Badra’s
‘naked’ figure? It is reasonable to imagine that he did.
When Berard composes his memoirs, he declares that he had
knowledge of EI-Gobbi’s account. Could he perhaps have read a
translation of the Arabic text, or might he have had a copy of the
original in his hands? For the moment, this is lost.
Finally eveJ}thing lies dormant: the bodies of the women, crushed
beneath the weight of their jewels; cities weighed down by the burden
of their past; and so too the epigraphs left by long-forgotten witnesses.
1 00
III
The couple moved into a little flat in Paris, in which a bookseller
carried on his business, and where they were to celebrate their
wedding.
Preparations for the ceremony progressed in an atmosphere of
unreality as if catastrophe were waiting round the corner: might there
not be some hitch at the last minute preventing the guests and even the
bridal couple themselves from attending? …
The bride-to-be prowled around the dark rooms with their many
bookcases. Her mother, a slender woman of under forty, with a heavy
braid of black hair down her back, arrived on the night flight,
accompanied by her youngest daughter, barely more than a child. The
three of them spring-cleaned the flat, then the mother and fiancee
went to buy a makeshift trousseau at the Grands Magasins:
underclothes, a silk suit in sky-blue checks, a pair of shoes.
The wedding date had been fixed a month ago by the fiance who
was on the run and constantly had to move from one lodging to
another; the girl was staying in a students’ hostel and kept in touch
with each new address. They had been living in this precarious way for
the past year but were safe for the time being.
One of the previous hide-outs had been opposite an institution for
deaf-mutes. It had had to be abandoned in a hurry. The caretaker was
a dumpy, dishevelled little woman; every evening, in her frustration
over her husband’s daily drunken bouts, she would let fly a stream of
obscenities in the courtyard. One day, she saw off two policemen who
came to enquire about the young student. ‘Oh, that bird’s flown ages
ago!’ she snorted.
As soon as the police had gone, she hurried upstairs to warn the
couple, declaring, ‘I just can’t abide cops! It’s in my blood!’
The police had originally begun their enquiry about the young man
101
for a fairly innocuous reason: as a student his military service had
previously been deferred hut he was now due for call-up. His old
parents, in their mountain village, alarmed by frequent guerrilla attacks
and the subsequent round-ups of all suspects, warned their son that
they had been forced to give his address in Paris, which they hoped
was no longer valid.
‘He doesn’t write to me any more !’ his father told the investigators.
‘He must be working in France to pay for his studies. We arc poor. I
can’t send him any money!’
Then he had dictated a letter to his twelve-year-old daughter,
‘Write: “They’ll find you! You must move house!” ‘
The son didn’t wait to be told twice. Hence the panic before the
wedding. That summer, a rival Nationalist faction was increasingly
threatening a vendetta. They objected to former militants (workers
who used to meet before the war in North African cafes) joining the
unified organization. The first clash between rival underground
networks had resulted in five or six deaths in a restaurant in the centre
of Paris. The main dailies had reported this incident as a matter of
gangsters taking the law into their own hands to settle old scores.
The couple continued to roam the streets, chatting together,
momentarily free of the others and the ‘Revolution’; nevertheless, even
if their embraces in a doorway could not claim that they were making
history, still their happiness was part of the collective fever; and they
were always on the look-out to see if they were being shadowed and to
throw the police off their trail. But the police were not seen to be the
greatest danger.
Sometimes they noticed one persistent figure following them or one
who, on the contrary, vanished too conspicuously, then they had to give
their pursuer the slip, spot the person on the watch and outwit him: the
couple knew that the secret fratricidal struggle was all around them.
The rival networks posted threatening letters to each other, couched in
hysterical terms, announcing imminent retribution in the name of
some imaginary rights, such as a woman scorned in love might write in
desperation to her rival.
As they strolled through the Paris streets together, at every
crossroads the girl’s eyes instinctively avoided the tricolour flag whose
red reminded her of the blood of her compatriots recently guillotined
in a Lyons prison; and she dreamed of them both suddenly
becoming invisible in the early spring sunshine that streamed
102
down over them, and disappearing to sail the high seas together.
They ought to leave: they talked of nothing else. To leave together!
To return to their own country and join the maquisards in the
mountains, people careless of danger like themselves. However, the
young man raised objections: ‘We’re not being realistic; you’re living in
a dream world! You’re only imagining there’ll be other women
students! We shan’t be able to fight side by side … The only women
in the resistance arc peasants, used to the forests and brambles!
Perhaps, at the best, a few nurses!’ She couldn’t understand why he
refused her access to this dream-garden of adventure where they
would share the hazards cheerfully together like twins . . . The
previous evening hadn’t they easily given two policemen the slip in the
corridors of the Metro, as if it had been a game, after which they had
collapsed with helpless laughter? …
They continued to be at loggerheads (she thought they were really
only in disagreement over tactics) until they finally arrived at a
compromise: as it was impossible to leave for home immediately they
might as well slip over the border as soon as possible, separately if
necessary (only the young man figured on a list of suspects). They
would meet in Tunisia, joining other refugees; from there there must
be crowds of volunteers leaving to join the underground. She persisted
in believing that girls were being accepted as volunteers; were not the
Nationalist leaders anxious to make it known that all were equal in the
struggle?
They argued endlessly as they walked, filling in the detail of their
plans; and as they outlined their future, the young man decided they
must get married as soon as possible, and then leave …
The previous spring, the representatives of the two families had met
back home, without the couple, to celebrate their official betrothal.
They learned afterwards that this ceremony had provided the occasion
for drawing up the marriage certificate ‘in advance’. The groom’s
uncle had signed by proxy; as for the bride, even if she had been
present, her father would have had to act for her, as her guardian. The
marriage was legalized, in spite of their absence far away: they had
laughed at this formality, which seemed like something out of a
comedy.
‘Write to your family,’ the fiance suddenly demanded, overcome by
desire or subconscious anxiety. ‘Tell them we’re getting married here a
month today! After all, by law we are already married!’
103
The flat – belonging to a bookseller, a Frenchman who had been
detained for the past month for having helped a Nationalist network –
had been empty since the owner’s arrest, and for that reason the police
were no longer watching it. A friend let them know about it on his
discharge from prison.
They decided to move in temporarily. The bride-to-be spent the
days before the wedding buried in the rare books with their luxurious
bindings, after doing her best to light the ancient coke stove: these
winter mornings the rooms were filled with smoke which gave off no
warmth.
When the bride’s mother and young sister arrived, they were not
completely out of their element. The brother, still an adolescent, had
been arrested in Lorraine as an ‘agitator’, and began his term of
detention by being constantly shunted from prison to prison; the
mother had learned to travel by train, by plane, by boat, just like any
Western tourist, and every three months she visited her only son in
whatever city in France or Navarre he had been dumped.
The women set about putting the Parisian flat in order: waxing the
floor, cleaning up the kitchen, ordering new bed-linen which was
delivered at the last minute for the newly-weds, finally giving some
thought to the traditional meal for the day after the wedding – the
mother considered this an essential institution and invited their dozen
or so friends and cousins, immigrant students and workers in Paris …
Watching her youthful mother bustling cheerfully about, the bride
felt like a minor character in some arcane play. She mused aloud about
the conventions that would have had to be observed back home, but to
these exiles their homeland seemed no more real than a sunken city or
a desolate ruin. As the fiance spent more and more time running ofT to
political meetings, and disaster waited to pounce, so their doubts grew
about the ceremony due to take place forthwith. What sort of
ceremony would that be?
The girl realized that she was upset by her father’s absence –
though, to be sure, if the wedding had been celebrated in the
customary manner, it would have been an exclusively feminine affair.
But tradition demanded that when the women in the bridal retinue
are ready to escort the bride, the father wraps his burnous around her
and leads her over the threshold in his arms. At this moment of
separation, the mother weeps copiously, sometimes noisily – you’d
think it was a wake without the liturgy. By adding her lamentations to
1 04
the din made by singers and neighbours, every mother expresses her
distress at the loss of the daughter who should be her support when the
fatigues of age befall her. But she is also overcome with sad memories
of her own dreams as a woman …
My mother, for her part, found herself in a wintry Paris and had no
cause to weep. Even if the wedding had taken place back home, in the
dead grandmother’s house with its many terraces, even if the
Andalusian tenor had sung his sentimental songs accompanied by the
sound of the rebec one whole night through, the night of the
deflowering and its mounting exhilaration – my father would not have
borrowed any burnous of pure wool, woven by the women of the tribe,
to wrap around me and lead me over the threshold. He would not have
made any concessions to protocol: he claimed to be a ‘modernist’,
scorning recent fashions as the stranglehold of city customs. However
much the old women may have insisted that he ought to be concerned
about divine protection, he would have . . . But what’s the usc of
imagining . . . would he even have faced my fiance, who he felt,
throughout our long secret engagement which eventually became
official, was robbing him of his eldest daughter?
It was true: the marriage took place far from my father’s protection,
not that he withheld this in the form wished for by the elders of the
family. It was true: these two men could not have faced each other in
this ambiguous situation, neither of them prepared to give way to the
other, probably subconsciously hating each other.
As we prepared to celebrate the wedding in our temporary Paris abode,
which the Nationalist uprising brushed with its fringes, thoughts of my
father filled my mind: I decided to send him a telegram, assuring him
formally of my love. I’ve forgotten the exact wording of the message,
possibly: ‘Thinking of you on this auspicious day. I love you .. . ‘
Perhaps I needed to make this public gratuitous declaration:
‘1-love-you-in-French’, before making bold to voice it in the dark (in
what language?) during the hours prior to the nuptial rites of passage?
One by one, the ritual accompaniments of wedding ceremonial were
discarded: the shrill female voices, the clamouring crowd of veiled
women, the smell of over-abundant victuals – the din kept up so that
the bride could be left alone and naked in the midst of the throng to
grieve on the threshold of a new life …
Marriage for me meant first and foremost departures: hasty crossing
105
of frontiers, new conspirators to be met on new soil. The arrival of my
mother and young sister were links with my gradual memories of the
past. They brought with them the inherent, underlying gravity of our
lives: in the hollow of each shared silence each one of the three of us
was constantly thinking of the adolescent transferred from prison to
prison, my brother.
And I tiptoe up to the cry uttered on deflowering, the purlieus of
childhood recalled as I make my way through these symbols. More
than twenty years later, I seem to hear this cry as if it rang out
yesterday: expression of neither pain nor wonder … Voice of infinite
range in aerial flight, presence of solemn eyes opening on to a
vertiginous void and only gradually growing aware.
A cry which might ring out at every wedding, without the Fantasia,
even in the absence of caparisoned horses and riders in flaming
crimson. The sharp cry of relief and sudden liberation then abruptly
checked. Long, infinite, first cry of the live body.
The young man had always known it: when he crossed the threshold of
the room – the shell enclosing transcendental love – he would feel
himself in the grip of silent solemnity and before approaching the girl
lying there motionless, he should give time to his devotions.
Before a man approaches the couch which will be stained with
blood, man, every man, should turn his thoughts submissively to God;
he should fall on his knees, prostrate himself, lie prone, fill his heart
with Allah, the Prophet and the most familiar saint of his region or his
tribe, appeasing his hunger first with the sacred words.
The maiden’s calm eyes smile. How can this blood be transformed
into a ray of hope, without the two bodies being soiled? A well nigh
mystical approach. In this Parisian wedding permeated with nostalgia
for the native soil, no sooner has the bridegroom set foot in the room
with its brand-new bed, and pink-shaded lamp placed on the floor,
than he hurries to the waiting woman, he gazes down at her and forgets
all else.
Hours later, lying beside her trembling form, he remembers the
neglected ceremonial. He who had never prayed, he had decided to do
so just this once, prior to consummating his marriage. He is tormented
by a sense of foreboding:
‘Our union will not be preserved,’ he murmurs.
The bride, amused by this superstitious melancholy, reassures him.
1 06
She confidently paints the future of their love: he had promised that
the initiation would take as many nights as need be. And yet, at the
beginning of their first hurried night, she had already been penetrated.
The cry, pure pain, secretes an inner core of wonderment. It soars
in a swelling curve. Wake of thrusting dart, it rises in the air; falling, at
its nadir, in multi-layered sediment, lurks an unspoken ‘No!’
Did I manage one day to ride the surging tide to reach this crest?
Did I feel this refusal tremble on my lips? On these banks, the body
stiffens in denial, pouring its passion into the current of the nearby
river. What matter then if the soul’s cry pour forth without restraint?
And I must tell also of my victory, its taste of lost sweetness as the
wave swept over me. Victory over modesty, over reserve. Blushing, but
insistent, I managed to say to my young mother and sister who gave me
so much affectionate support, ‘Please leave me alone in the house
tonight! … “He” will find you a room for the night at the hotel!’
I expressed this wish in a formal tone of voice … Since I was not
destined to enjoy a noisy crowded wedding with food in abundance, let
me be offered a deserted place in which the night could stretch out
immense enough, empty enough for me to face ‘Him’ – I suddenly
found myself thinking of the man in the traditional way.
That cry, in the house of our clandestine existence. I enjoyed my
victory, since the house did not fill with women, peeping curiously, and
in the brief absence of a woman and a little girl, that cry unfurled its
spiral of refusal and reached up to the timbers of the ceiling.
The lamp is still alight … The bridegroom, wanted by the police, is
trapped in the mire of broken promises: he had vowed to say his
prayers before.
‘Before what?’ I wonder as I lurch along the passage, avoiding the
mirrors, a wounded gazelle.
Before that cry, of course. ‘No!’ I think, ‘neither God nor any magic
formula will protect this love which the man hopes will last “till death
do us part”.’ Travelling in the Metro during the next few days, I stare
closely at all the women I sec around me. I am devoured with curiosity
as if I were some primitive creature: ‘Why do they not say, why will not
one of them say, why docs each one hide this fact: love is the cry, the
persistent pain which feeds upon itself, while only a glimpse is
vouchsafed of the horizon of happiness? Once the blood has flowed,
silence sets in and objects arc drained of colour.’
1 07
There were no peeping women, dreaming of repeated ravishment.
There was no matchmaker draped in the bloodstained sheet,
performing her lewd dance with grunts and shrieks of laughter,
gesticulating like a fairground Karagoz – the indications of death
frozen in the act of love, a body left lying there on stacks of
mattresses … Normally the bride neither cries out nor weeps: she lies
an open-eyed victim on the couch, after the male has departed, fleeing
from the smell of sperm and the idol’s perfume; and the closed thighs
prevent any cry from escaping.
There was no bloodstained sheet on display the following days.
1 08
Sistrum
[Sistmm, n. (pl. -tra). Jingling instrument
or rattle used by auciem
Egyptians esp. in rites of Isis. OED]
Long silence, night rides, coils Cllr!ing in the throat. Rhonchial rules, streams
of abyssal sounds, springs from which issue interlacing echoes, cataracts of
munnurs, susumiS in braided bmshwood, tendrils soughing under the tongue,
hushed hisses, and the jlexured voice hauls up mllied sighs of past satiel)• fmm
memOT)’ ‘s subterranean store-house.
CacophanJ’ of recalcitrant cymbal, thistle or scissors reuding this tessitura,
shards of shipwrecked sighs, water lapping against the ralanced bed, scattered
laughter striating claustra/ darkness, plaints pacified then diffused behind
closed eyelids whose dream strays thmugh some C)’press gmve, and the ship of
desire drops astern, before the raren of sexual ecstasy cmaks its contentment.
Molten words, splintered firestones, diorites expelled fmm gaping lips,
fire-brand caresses when the harsh leaden silmce cmmbles, and the bod]’ seeks
for its t•oice, like a fish swimming upstream.
Renewed rules, wateT)’ stainvaJ1S to the larynx, lplashes, lustral sprinkling,
tire plaintive moan escapes then tire pmlonged song, the drawn-out song of the
rich female voice closes round the copulation, fiJ!Iows its tempo and its figures,
is exhaled as ox;•gen, in the bedchamber and the darkness, a tumescent twisted
coil of forte notes hanging in the air.
Suffering or solemn gasps of act of/ore, sulphur-mine of anticipation./ ever
of staccato notes.
Silence, pleasure’s defensive rampart, protecting the final reckoning – in
what language written, Arabic or Freuch?
Creation et’eT)• night. Bmcaded gold of silence.
109
PART THREE
VOICES FROM THE PAST
And I come to the fields and spreading courts of memory,
rvhere are treaures of unnumbered impressions of things
of every kind, stored by the senses.
Saint Augustin
Confessions, X.B
f!!wsi una fantasia …
Ludwig van Beethoven
opus 27
Sonatas I and 2
First Movement:
The Two Strangers
Two men, two strangers intruded so intimately into my life as to seem
for a few brief moments to be of my own flesh and blood: we engaged
in neither philosophical discourse nor in polite or friendly conversation.
Two complete strangers crossed my path, each close encounter
accompanied by a cry, a scream – it is of littlc significance from whom
it came, from one or other of those strangers or indeed from myself.
I am seventeen. The morning sun shines on the murmurous city. I
come suddenly upon a street that tumbles downhill as far as the eye
can sec; at the end of every thoroughfare, at the end of every little
alle}way, the sea watches, waiting patiently. On I hurry.
We have had a trivial lovers’ tiff, which I make into an issue; I hurl a
defiant ultimatum at him; an invisible breach occurs and spreads – it is
the first . .. I scan the distant horizon; I am spurred on by some
strange impulse, a conviction that I must abandon everything; I race
along, wishing I had wings. The sun is shining on the murmurous city,
other people’s city …
Frenzy, impetuosity, exhilaration of the all-or-nothing; I rush
headlong down the street. Even though I have put nothing into words,
probably planned nothing, except to let myself be borne along by this
pure spontaneous impulse, my body hurls itself under a tram as it turns
a sharp comer of the avenue.
Am I in the vicinity of the port? One final image emerges as I sink
into oblivion, seeking annihilation in this flight towards the sea: the
glimpse of a ship’s masts, piercing the blue sky, like some vast
water-colour. Just before all goes dark, I feel the double ridge of the
tramlines under me.
1 1 3
When, a few minutes later, they lifted me up and I slowly emerged
out of the shadow of the tragedy, I caught one isolated voice raised
above the commotion made by the crowd of idle onlookers; that of the
tram-driver who had just managed to brake in time. In the pallid void
of my return to life, I was struck by one detail which assumed a curious
importance: the ‘Poor White’ accent of the man who was so upset that
he cried over and over again, ‘My hand’s still trembling. Look!’
And he repeated the words, almost protesting, and his voice struck
me again. I opened my eyes wide. As I lay in the middle of the road, I
became aware of the man’s burly figure, then his face as he bent over
me: the crowd must have made way for him so that he could be
reassured. He probably stared hard at the girl who lay still as death, but
who was nevertheless alive.
Since then, I’ve forgotten everything about this stranger; but I can
still recall the timbre of his voice, above the swell of sounds that surged
around me. Betraying the agitation that would not leave him, making
him cry over and over again: ‘My hand’s still trembling. Look!’
He must have held up his hand to show the crowd of witnesses what
had saved me by controlling the speed of the tram.
They lifted her up from underneath the vehicle; an ambulance took
her to the nearest hospital; she had only sustained minor bruises. But
what she really felt was wonder, to find that, as in a trance, she had
gone (so she thought self-importantly) ‘to the end’ – to the end of
what? At the most to the end of the zigzag path of adolescence. So she
woke up to the sound of the tram-driver’s voice, then sank back to
stagnate again in uncertain days and finally let the love story run its
course. Never spoke to anyone of her fall – a romantic gesture or
expression of rebellion without a cause. Did she even discover the real
nature of despair?
The only thing that clung so closely to her was that accent from the
poor European districts of the city, that way of speaking which had
made her most aware of the tram-driver’s voice: Death briefly trails a
wing along the ground leaving this jewel behind.
A long history of convulsive love; too long. Fifteen years pass, what
happened is of little account. A rapid succession of surfeited years, a
happy life is compact, uneventful. Satiety lasts long; too long.
Two, three years elapsed; an unhappy life is compact, uneventful;
brief breathing spells in the tedium of time, days streaked with silence.
1 14
A woman walks alone one night in Paris. Walking for walking’s
to try to understand … Searching for words and so dream no r
wait no longer.
Rue Richclicu, ten, eleven o’clock at night; the autumn air is damp.
To understand … Where will this tunnel of interior silence lead? Just
the act of walking, just to put one foot energetically in front of the
other, feeling my hips swinging, sensing my body lightly moving,
makes my life seem brighter and the walls, all the walls vanish …
Someone, a stranger, has been walking behind me for a while. I can
hear his footsteps. What matter? I am alone, I feel quite alone, I sec
myself as whole, intact, how can I express it? ‘At the beginning’, but of
what? At least of this new journey. The space is blank, the long empty
road is mine alone, I walk at case, letting my footsteps beat out my own
rhythmic accompaniment while the surrounding stones look on.
While the solitude of these recent months dissolves in the fresh cool
tints of the nocturnal landscape, suddenly the voice bursts forth. It
drains off all the scoriae of the past. What voice? Is it my own voice,
scarcely recognizable?
At first this residue, these dregs, this coal-slack cakes and clogs my
palate, then the mixture of impurities is flushed from my mouth in a
harsh deep-throated cry which seems to go before me.
One single, prolonged, interminable, amorphous tear-drop, a
precipitate congealed in the very body of my former voice, in my frozen
larynx; this nameless coagulate is washed away in a trail of
unidentifiable rubble … This nauseating network of sound seems
scarcely to concern me; viscous syrup of rasping gasps, guano of old
hiccups and choking sobs, smelling of some strangled corpse rotting
within me. The voice, my voice (or rather the voice that issues from my
open mouth, gaping as if to vomit, or chant some dirge) cannot be
suppressed. Perhaps I ought to raise my hand in front of my face to
staunch this invisible blood?
At least lessen the intensity of the flow! Behind their walls strangers
gather their thoughts, while I am only a wandering exile, in flight from
other shores where women are white walking wraiths, shrouded
figures buried upright, precisely to prevent what I am doing now, to
prevent them uttering such a constant howl: such a wild, barbaric cry,
macabre residue of a former century! … Lower a little the volume of
this death-gasp, turn it into some ill-timed measured chant. Incantation
in an interminable exile.
1 15
Rue Riche lieu stretches out long and narrow in front of me; not a
soul in sight. Stop when I reach the end; simultaneously switch off this
outlandish voice, this lamento which I involuntarily sing.
I’ve forgotten the unknown person behind me who’s still following
me; he slows down when I do, and just when I’m about to lower my
anguished voice or silence it completely, he protests, ‘Please, Madame,
please don’t cry out like that!’
The wailing stops short. In the pool of light shed by a street-lamp, I
turn round, expressionless: what is this intruder thinking? That I’m in
pain?
‘Please go away!’
I speak almost gently, astonished that this stranger should be so
upset. I cannot recall his face, I scarcely remember his build, but I can
still hear his voice, warm and vibrant, quavering slightly from the
urgency of his request. He is upset because ‘I cry out’, he says. Is this
where my attempted revolt will lead, after rumbling underground? …
This unknown man’s reaction is a sudden revelation, I can usc it to
protect me. No eavesdropper can hurt me any more.
‘Please!’ I repeat more softly.
Instinctively I draw back. The lamp-light falls on the tall figure,
reflected in the glint of the man’s eyes as he stares at me. I lower my
gaze. He goes away. Two bodies in momentary proximity, scarcely
meeting, sharing a brief instant of distress. A fantasy embrace.
Hearing the man implore me, like a friend, like a lover, I regained
soon afterwards my zest for life. I threw off the shackles of love,
ridding myself of the canker that consumed me. Spending every day
laughing, dancing, walking. The only thing I long for is the sun.
So two messengers stand at the entrance and the exit of an obscure
love story. No stranger will have come so close to me.
1 1 6
Voice
My elder brother Abdclkadcr had taken to the hills to join the maquis,
some time ago. ‘France’ came right up to our doorsteps; we were living
at the Sidi M’hamed Aberkanc zaouia … ‘France’ came and burnt us
out. We went on living there, just the same, among the blackened
stones …
Then it was the turn of my second brother, Ahmed, to leave. I was
thirteen. The soldiers came again; again they burnt our house down.
The other people helped us rebuild it. Time went by; a year perhaps.
Then the soldiers had a skirmish with the partisans on the road
through the nearby forest. They raided us the same day. They were
looking for ‘proof and they found it: we were in fact looking after some
of the Brothers’ clothes, and even storing some ammunition. They
took my mother and my brother’s wife away. They burnt our house
down for the third time.
Then the Brothers came that same evening. They took us higher up
into the hills, towards Sidi bou Amrane. We reached the douar before
dawn. The partisans tried to find a place where we could all stay: the
women, my old father, my little brothers; we all followed them.
At first the people there wouldn’t let us stay: ‘The soldicrs’ll come
and burn down our houses too! These people can’t stay here! The
zaouia has been burnt and our tkmar will be burnt down too!’
They kept up their protests for a long time. But Si Slimane and Si
Hamid (Si Boualem had been arrested) wouldn’t give in.
‘These people are going to live here!’ they insisted. ‘You’ll just have
to make the best of it! … Arc some of you afraid of the consequences?
Let them go and give themselves up to the enemy, if they prefer …
These people arc staying here!’
So we made ourselves at home there. We kept in contact with the
1 1 7
Brothers. \Ve all worked. Once again ‘France’ arrived and burnt the
whole place down. And that was when Hamoud’s son gave himself up.
‘France’ decided to move the whole population down into the plain.
But our family stayed where we were, with my mother, who’d been set
free. My brother Ahmed, may the Lord have mercy on his soul, left by
night to try to find us another shelter.
He didn’t have time to return and show us the way. Shortly before
dawn the enemy surrounded us. They shouted, ‘We’ll force you down,
like the others!’
When some men tried to force me to my feet, I shouted, ‘I won’t go!’
A soldier grabbed my one arm, a second one seized the other; I kept
on shouting. They pulled me like this out of the house.
So they took us away. On the way they had to cross a wadi. However,
it had rained the previous day. The water rushed down in a torrent.
One man picked up my young sister to carry her across. She struggled
with all her might, shouting, ‘Put me down!’
The man was a goumier.
‘We’re only trying to help you!’ he exclaimed.
I intervened: ‘She told you not to touch her! So don’t touch her!’
So then we stayed in the village at Marceau. They put us in a sort of
shed: all concrete, grey walls, grey floor … We had to spend the night
there, in the cold and the children’s urine.
In the morning an old woman who seemed to be living nearby came
up to the door and whispered, ‘I’m going to work in the fields! Ask
them to let you go outside, don’t stay here!’
We went out. They divided us into new groups, women and children
on one side, the few old men on the other. They took us to the
outskirts of the village where they put us in tents. They thought they’d
be able to keep a closer eye on us there.
A few days passed. We watched the guards’ movements and kept a
check on the intervals between their rounds. We had to slip in and out
to find bits of work to do, so that we had something to live on. Some of
the women went gleaning, but only on the edges of the fields. The
babies cried all the time. The few cattle and hens were soon
slaughtered.
The men in the mountains got a message to me: ‘Come back here
with one of your sisters; we need you up here!’ I nearly danced for joy;
I clenched my teeth to hold back my ululations.
1 1 8
For I’d also heard that my younger brother was hiding nearby. I
managed to slip out; for a whole day I looked for some landmarks but I
couldn’t find which way we’d come. In the evening I was forced to
return, exhausted, but determined to try another time … Two days
later I left again, but it was still no use. When I got back my mother was
crying: she quietly dried her tear-stained face and didn’t ask any
questions.
The third time, I finally made contact. My sister, who was one year
younger than me, started out with me. But I had second thoughts and
told her, ‘You must go back!’
It suddenly occurred to me that my mother would be all alone with
the little ones. \Vho would help her? I only realized that when I was
actually on my way. My sister did what I asked, but rather grudgingly.
Perhaps she held it against me subsequently.
After walking for several hours with the guide I reached the
partisans’ hiding-place. My brother Ahmed was with them. He
embraced me and these arc the exact words he said: ‘Oh, sister, since I
see you, my sister, here, it’s as if I were seeing my mother! ‘
I burst into tears, I don’t know why. I touched him, happy to find
him in good spirits, but I cried …
From that time, Ahmed and I stayed together. There were a few other
girls in this group of partisans, a bit older than me; two from Chcrchcl,
Naccra and Malika, and others from the surrounding region.
Some time after this one of the maquisards gave himself up. He led
the enemy to us. Not on the first night, but the second. The soldiers
surrounded us at dawn.
Alas! the men who were supposed to be keeping watch had fallen
asleep, I don’t know how. That same night my brother Ahmed and
another man had gone out to fetch food. On their way back they
realized the enemy were approaching. They ran back as fast as they
could, shouting, ‘Get out! Get out quickly!’
We were just outside the shelter when they started firing. That
morning I felt very tired; I couldn’t start running straight away; it was
as if my legs were paralysed, perhaps because this was the first time I’d
been in an anack …
‘Run, for God’s sake, run!’ my brother urged me from behind,
almost pushing me.
‘I can’t! You run on in front! You go first!’
1 1 9
‘Run, sister!’ he implored me as he went, and I can still hear his
voice ringing in my cars. ‘If they catch you, they’ll torture you!’
He was running in front of me when he fell: a bullet hit him behind
the car. He fell right in front of me … He fell forward on his face and
as he fell he even knocked down a boy who cut himself on a rock. But
the boy picked himself up.
The boy and I went on running: I followed the youngster, I was
unfamiliar with the region. Bullets were flying around us, our flight
lasted a long time, I saw nothing but the child in front of me … Then I
found myself alone; I continued along a wadi, as far as a wood, beyond
the hills. Then I realized that everything was quiet all around: I
stopped.
I tried to find my bearings. From where I was standing I could see a
few huts. I thought, ‘That must be Trekech.’ I knew the men in that
douar were in with ‘France’. I went the other way, across a field. I
sheltered in a clump of trees. I could hear an aeroplane in the distance.
I crouched down and didn’t move out of my hiding-place.
A little way off two roads met. I spotted some uniforms for a
moment; they disappeared. I suddenly had an urge to cough. I was
afraid they’d catch me. I picked some oak leaves (they are said to be
good for a cough) and chewed them silently. I still didn’t move, I must
even have dozed off.
Night fell. I was wide awake and when I heard a jackal howl my
heart was in my mouth … I came out from under the trees and made
my way very stealthily towards one of the two roads. In the distance I
caught a glimpse of burning, then I noticed two or three cows that had
been left in an empty field. I leaned up against them for a moment to
get warm, then I was frightened someone would come for the animals
and denounce me. I thought I’d better go on along the road … Other
animals, further on, seemed to have fled from another fire … I was so
cold! It was a winter night: it wasn’t raining, but there were still odd
patches of snow in the ditches, on the stones.
What was I to do? Sleep on the ground, in spite of the cold? But I
would be at the mercy of wild boars and jackals. Climb a tree? I was
afraid I’d drop asleep and fall out … Finally I found a sturdy oak with
a huge trunk. I climbed up and made myself as comfortable as I could,
holding on to a branch. I managed to spend the night there, drowsing
off a little. I put my trust in God’s protection!
The next day I stayed in hiding till it was dark. The fighting was
1 20
going on not far away. I felt like a ghost, I could hear people moving
about as if they were in another world!
I was afraid the helicopters would fly over and catch sight of me.
Then everything gradually went quiet; the war vanished, like a dream.
I must have suddenly fallen asleep from exhaustion. Before the night
was over, a little before dawn, I saw a herd of goats filing past, with a
shepherd walking pcaccf ully behind them as if nothing were amiss, as
if I’d dreamed of running away and being followed. ‘My brother, my
brother Ahmed!’ I thought in distress.
I jumped down from my tree. The shepherd stopped, beckoned to
someone behind him. Four men who looked like partisans appeared in
the distance; a fifth one, behind them, was waving to me. ‘I’ve wasted
enough time!’ I thought. ‘I’m going to sec where my brother fell!’
‘It’s your brother, your brother Abdclkadcr! ‘ someone shouted
to me.
I realized it was my other brother, but I wanted to find my younger
brother, the one who’d been killed … I made a dash, running as fast
as I could. With God’s help I found my way immediately and was the
first to reach the spot.
Ahmed was lying there: the enemy had emptied his pockets of all his
papers, all the photographs he’d had on him. They’d taken his best
clothes. The only thing left of his partisan’s uniform was the trousers.
His old woollen shirt was all tom and bloodstained.
I saw the wadi nearby. I tried to carry him; I managed to drag him,
his bare feet scraped along the ground behind me … I wanted to wash
him, at least to moisten his face. I took water in the palms of my hands;
I started to sprinkle it over him, as one docs for one’s ablutions,
without realizing that I was crying, sobbing all the time …
My elder brother Abdelkader came up behind me and suddenly said
angrily to the others, ‘Why did you show her the body? Can’t you sec
she’s only a child?’
‘I saw him fall!’ I said, turning round suddenly. ‘Right in front of
me!’ And my voice gave way.
121
Clamour
The girl’s long yellowish hair must at one time hat•e sudden!;• turned flaming
red. The suspicious-minded old busy-bodies had said her green e_yes were like
those of a ‘prowling cat ‘. Wide green ej•es whose irises were flecked with
gold … How proud the mother had been of the daughter born after three
boJ•s!
She ‘s the one, the thirteen-year-old shepherd-girl, the Amrounes’ eldest
daughter, the one the cousins, neighbours, relations b]• marriage, paternal
uncles, all accuse of beharing as if she were the fourth son in the family,
running away like that from the douar and the French soldiers, instead of
staying put with the other females! So she wandered about, so she hid in trees
dun”ng that intenninable pursuit.
And now she grieves for her dead brother, in this dawn of a still summer
day; a new Antigone, mourning for the adolescent lying on the grass, stroking
the half-naked corpse with henna-stained hands.
The wadi is not quite dry; the rustle of11Jater can be heard flowingfar down
between steep banks cuvered with brambles and sweet-scented moss. A few feet
away four men stand watching in an irregular circle; tht’)’ turn towards a
fourth man, stockier, seeming awkward in his unifonn: the second Amroune
brother. He’s out of breath from running; he points vaguely in the girl’s
direction.
The dead man sleeps, face down … The girl – little more than a child ­
has dragged the corpse herself, shortly before the men arrh•e. She tried to drag
it down to the stream but could not get jim her than the first rough ground …
She splashes water on the faces, but he does not wake: she rests it sideways
again a rock.
Then she turns round, to protest, or to make sure …
‘But I saw him fall! Right in front of me!’
She repeated her plaintire protest, more shrill;• than the first time, in a
heart-rending t•oice, that seems to trail a shroud behind her.
1 22
Slow/)’ she stroked the dead man ‘s face; she rested it on a more against the
rock kJ’ the stream. A 11d she drew herself np.
Then all is stilled: nature, trees, birds (a blackbird fl.J’ing past silmces its
son[!). The faint soughing r!f the bree:::e dies ti/Pa.J’ as it smeeps the ground; the
five men look on helpless6•, waiti11g, motionless. She alone …
A little shepherd-girl, emergi�tgfrom the dust-/w:::,e r!f a dream-world, feels
a keen solemnity inhabit her, sharp as a scythe suspended for one brief waiting
moment.
One prolonged, preliminaTJ’ CIJ’ has escaped her. The child rises, Iter body
an n·en brighter patch i11 the trampamrt air; Iter voice shrills out, stumbling
m:er the first notes, like the shudder r!f a sail before it is hoisted on tire
ji1remast. Then the wice cautirms(J’ takes wing, the wice soars, gaining in
strength, what voice? That r!f the mother who bore the soldiers ‘ torture with
nn·er a whimper? That r!f the little moped-up sisters, too J•mmg to
understand, but bearing tire message r!fmild-eyed anguish? Tire t•oice r!f the
old women of the douar who face the horror r!f the approaching death-knell,
open-mouthed, with palms r!f flesltless hands turned upwards? What
irrepressible keening, what full-throated clamour, strident tremolo? … Is it
the voice of the child whose hands are red with henna and a brother’s blood?
The partisans behind her fall back as one mmz with the spurting blood.
The:J• know what tht:j• must live with from now on: the rhythmic wailing of
the spirits of unburied dead, the roar r!f invisible lionesses shot by no
hunter … The discordant dirge r!f inarticulate rroolt launches its arabesques
into the blue.
The lament swells in an upsurge r!f sound: glissandos passing into vibrato;
a stream of emptiness hollows out the air. Barbed wires taut abrroe invisible
tonnents … Then the thirteen-J•ear-old suddenly starts to her feet, impelled
to swa;• to and fro, keeping time to the rh)’thm of her grief; the shepherd-girl is
initiated to the ritual circle. The first circle around the first one to die …
The men stare down at her from the edge of the ravine: standing there
throughout that C7J’ that lurches like a pall dripping with blood and flapping
in the sun. The dead man swathes himself in it, using it to retriroe his
memory: noxious emanations, foetid gases, borborygmic rumblings. Suffusing
him in the rroerberating, stifling heat. The plangent chirring, the rhythm of
the cadences swaddle his flesh to protect it from decay. Voice armouring the
dead man on the ground, giving him back his eyes on the edge of the
grave …
The spent cry dies away, sloughed off/ike shrivelled skin. It leaves the child
1 23
standing with a questioning look. She does not seem exhausted; perhaps she
bas been strengthened.
Awkward in his uniform, the partisan draws near; embraces his sister,
strokes her hair.
Her name is Cherifa. When she tells her story, twenty years later, she
mentions no interment nor any other form of burial for the brother lying in the
river bed.
1 24
Aphasia of Love
[Aphasia, Path. Loss of the faculty
of speech, as a result of cerebral
affection. OED]
When I was a child I spent every summer in the old coastal city, filled
with Roman ruins, that are such a tourist attraction. Girls and women
of the family, of neighbouring houses and those related by marriage,
regularly visit some sanctuary or other … Then gaggles of squealing
females scatter over the surrounding countryside.
One or two small boys keep watch, while the little girls stay with the
veiled women. Suddenly, the alarm is given: ‘There’s a man coming!’
The women sitting under a fig or olive tree, or in the shade of a
clump of lentisks, with their veils slipping on to their shoulders,
hurriedly pull them back over their hair. One, who’s uncovered her
chest to display her jewellery, muffles herself up again; another stands
up and tries to see without being seen, a third stifles her giggles in
agitation at each male’s approach.
Sometimes it turns out to be a false alarm. ‘Oh!’ says one, ‘it’s only a
Frenchman!’
Normal modesty i s n o longer necessary. If the passer-by does look,
since he’s a Frenchman, a European, a Christian, can he really see
anything? When the stranger is faced with all these women, whose
life’s mission, whose duty, whose most sacred inheritance is to
preserve their image – when he’s faced with all these women, my
aunts, cousins, my equals, does he really sec them, when he pauses,
stares at them, thinking he’s taken them by surprise? No, he imagines
he sees them …
‘Poor man’, one of them comments, when the stranger
passes close by and glimpses the lustre of long jet-black tresses, the
1 25
glint of mocking, kohl-rimmed eyes. ‘Poor man, he’s quite upset!’
For he does not know. His gaze, from the other side of the hedge,
beyond the taboo, cannot touch them. There is no possible danger of
being lured into any little flirtations; thus, they can enjoy their secret
walks without any need to hide.
So it was for me with the French language. Ever since I was a child
the foreign language was a casement opening on the spectacle of the
world and all its riches. In certain circumstances it became a dagger
threatening me. Should a man venture to describe my eyes, my
laughter or my hands, should I hear him speak of me in this way, I
risked losing my composure; then I immediately felt I had to shut him
out. Make him feel by the way I started, suddenly bracing myself,
shutting off my gaze, that he had made a false move, worse, he was
intruding. The game of banal, flirtatious compliments couldn’t take
place, because it takes two to play.
Afterwards I suffered from the misunderstanding: when I protected
myself from flattery or made it clear that it was ineffectual, this was not
because of either virtue or prudish reserve. I discovered that I too was
veiled, not so much disguised as anonymous. Although I had a body
just like that of a Western girl, I had thought it to be invisible, in spite
of evidence to the contrary; I suffered because this illusion did not turn
out to be shared.
The compliments – harmless or respectful – expressed in the
foreign language, traversed a no-man’s-land of silence … How could
I admit to the foreigner, who had sometimes become a friend or a
relative by marriage, that such loaded words defused themselves as
soon as uttered, that by their very nature they lost their power to touch
me, and that in this case it was nothing to do with either of us? The
word had simply drowned before reaching its destination …
I became again, in my own way, a Vestal virgin who had wandered
into an outside world stripped of its magic. I was invisible, and the only
thing I caught of the flattering speech was the tone of voice, sometimes
the wish to please. My reply was softened by indulgence towards what I
judged at that time, in my limited and naive experience, to be an
inherent fault of the European education: verbosity, an indiscreet
compulsive longiloquence in these preambles to seduction. For my
part, based on my own experience, I was convinced that the surfeit of
sweet nothings is the crown, the fireworks after the feast which seals
the satisfaction of mutual pleasuring.
1 26
I did not realize that by this assumption I was putting on a symbolic
veil. I had passed the age of puberty without being buried in the harem
like my girl cousins; I had spent my dreaming adolescence on its
fringes, neither totally outside, nor in its heart; so I spoke and studied
French, and my body, during this formative period, became Westernized
in its way.
At all the regular family gatherings, I had lost the knack of sitting
cross-legged: this posture no longer indicated that I was one of all the
women and shared their warmth – at the most it simply meant
squatting uncomfortably.
Evening parties on the terraces, from where, cooped up and
invisible, the women looked down on the Andalusian musicians with
their time-honoured tenor. He occupied the place of honour among
the men dressed in their finery, who knew that they were being
watched by the women sitting in the dark. The latter accompanied the
meeting with their shrill clamour which rose up and fanned out on the
air. My throat lent itself uneasily, discordantly, to this ancestral
plangent cry – which is emitted by spasmodic vibrations of the glottis.
Instead of arising spontaneously, it tore me apart. I preferred to listen
to my mother giving voice, half cooing, half ululation, blending first
with the full-throated chorus then finishing with a triumphant
vocalism, a prolonged soprano solo.
My adolescent body imperceptibly breaks away from this bunch of
female forms. It still participates in the collective, spasmodic dances,
but the next day it knows the purer joy of dashing out into the middle
of a sunny sports ground to take part in athletic contests or games of
basketball. However, this body is not yet armed to face the words of
others.
In this communication with the doubly opposite sex (not only male, but
men of the opposing tribe), sometimes a suitor from foreign parts
succeeded in touching me by his reserve. The only possible eloquence,
the only weapon that could reach me was silence, not so much out of
respect or shyness on the part of the man who might venture at any
moment to declare his feelings; silence, because that’s the only way he
can make his declaration. Between the man and me, refusal of speech
became both the starting point and the end point of our relationship.
When the Chevalier d’Aranda was captured in Algiers in the
seventeenth century, and kept in slavery for two years, he said of the
1 27
Algerian women of that time, ‘These women have no scruples in the
presence of Christian slaves, because they say that they arc blind.’ I
must admit that the effect of an identical illusion could have been the
exact opposite; that confronted with the gaze or the words of the
taboo-man, the unveiled woman possibly experiences a sharper
pleasure in stripping herself naked, making herself vulnerable,
conquered … Exactly, ‘conquered’. The women whom d’Aranda
knew accepted the love of a foreigner, maybe ‘blind’, but in any case a
slave.
For my part, I lived at a time when, for more than a century, the
vilest of men from the dominant society had imagined himself a master
over us. So there was never any chance of him assuming the cloak of
seducer in women’s eyes. After all, Lucifer himself shares an identical
kingdom with Eve.
Never did the harem, that is to say, the taboo, whether it be a place
of habitation or a symbol, never did the harem act as a better barrier,
preventing as it did the cross-breeding of two opposing worlds; as if my
people, as if my brothers and thus, by definition, my jailers, had first
been decimated, then uprooted, and finally risked the loss of their
identity: curious dereliction which caused even their sexual image to
become blurred …
The impossibility of this love was reinforced by memory of the
conquest. When, as a child, I went to school, the French words
scarcely made any impact on this stronghold. I had inherited this
imperviousness; from the time of my adolescence I experienced a kind
of aphasia in matters of love: the written words, the words I had
learned, retreated before me as soon as the slightest heart-felt emotion
sought for expression.
‘Vhenever a man whose mother tongue was the same as mine ventured
to make advances, speaking in French, his words formed a mask which
the interlocutor had willy-nilly to adopt in the opening moves of the
game. It was he, in the last resort, who put on a veil, to venture to
approach.
If the whim took me to react to the man’s advances, I did not need to
put on some show of graciousness. All I had to do was to revert to the
mother tongue: by returning to the sounds of childhood to express
some detail, I was ensuring that we would agree to a spirit of good
fellowship, that we might become friends and perhaps – why not? – by
1 28
some miracle, we might take the mutual risk of our acquaintanceship
developing into love.
With friend or lover from my own birthplace, emerging from an
identical childhood, swaddled in the same indigenous sounds,
anointed with the same ancestral warmth, grazed by the same sharp
ridges of frustration as my cousins, neighbours, intimate enemies, still
steeped in the same garden of taboos, in the same thickets of lethargy,
yes, with my brothers or my lover-friends, I finally recover my power of
speech, use the same understatements, interlace the allusiveness of
tone and accent, letting inflexions, whispers, sounds and pronunciation
be a promise of embraces … At last, voice answers to voice and body
can approach body.
1 29
Voice
Abdclkader and the partisans began to upbraid me: ‘Your brother
Ahmed died a martyr! We shall be happy to enjoy a similar end!’
They led me away. I joined the other girls. They suggested I stay
with them there.
‘No!’ I replied. ‘I go wherever my brother goes!’
We left that place. In Bou Harb we met Nourredine, the leader, who
pointed to me and said, ‘She must put on a kachabia! Don’t let her go
among the soldiers like that!’
We met Abdelkrim, one of the political organizers. We stayed with
him for about three months. Then we went to Bou Athmane where I
joined two other girls; the group of Brothers came and went; we three
girls started looking after the cooking. Finally they sent me, the
youngest, to the field hospital for the maquis, to make myself useful.
There I met Ferhat, the doctor.
‘You’re going to learn to give first aid to the wounded,’ he told me.
I stayed with him and his patients; I learned to give injections {but I
can’t do that any more, because of my health; my hands tremble).
I spent the first night in the general ward. In the morning one of the
wounded, who was feverish, woke up and caught sight of me; at that
time I had very long hair, which I let down over my shoulders to comb.
Then, the man, who was delirious, shouted, ‘Look! there’s an ogress!’
And the others all laughed … So I stayed with them. Afterwards
several men came and helped with the nursing. It was my job to wash
the patients and their clothes and bed-linen; I began to give injections.
I spent a whole year there.
Eventually, I suddenly didn’t feel like staying any more. My elder
brother only came to see me once. The others started to say, ‘\Vhy are
you going? Nobody looks after the wounded as well as you do!’
‘I’m not staying any longer!’ I said. ‘I’ve been here a year and I’ve
1 30
not seen a single woman, or even a child! No-one except our wounded!
And my brother’s only been to sec me once!’
‘Is that the reason?’ they asked me.
‘The only reason,’ I retorted, ‘is God! I feel as if he’d suddenly cast a
shadow over this place !’
And yet I loved the patients. I even thought, ‘If my mother could sec
me, how proud she’d be! Just look, I’ve learnt how to wash wounded
men!’ A part of the hospital was built underground: the badly wounded
patients were put there; beds for the others were set up under the
trees, in the forest.
The leaders came to inspect us, Slimanc, Si Djclloul from
Chcrchcl, Si Mahmoud (all of them died as martyrs). They said, ‘Stay!
You work well, you’re all right here!’
But I kept saying no; I was bent on leaving.
‘Did someone say anything to you?’ they asked. By that they meant,
‘Was anyone disrespectful to you?’
‘Nobody said anything to me!’ I replied. ‘But I’m not staying! My
heart isn’t in this place any more.’
‘\Vhcre do you want to go?’
‘Anywhere you want to send me, as long as I don’t stay here! I can’t
stand this place any more!’
So they sent me to another post. The day I left, we all wept – the
patients as well as me!
They took me to the Mimoun hospital where Si Omar was in
chargc. lt took me some time to get used to the change. Then suddenly
they said to me, ‘You’ll have to get married!’
‘No, I won’t,’ I replied. ‘You can kill me if you like, but I won’t get
married!’
No matter what they said, they couldn’t persuade me. The doctor
who had taught me everything sided with me and Omar.
‘They’re really only children! Leave them alone!’
Eventually, it seems, this doctor left the maquis because of this
incident. He didn’t do anything, he didn’t tum traitor, but he preferred
to give himself up! …
In this marriage business, they thought of giving me to a ‘chief! A
chief from Mouza’ia. I stuck to my guns. Then they said, ‘If you don’t
want to marry this one, marry someone else, anyone you like! Choose!’
I replied, ‘Did I join you just to get married? No, I won’t marry
anyone! These men are all my brothers!’
131
Eventually they left me in peace. I stayed at this second hospital. A
woman came who’d worked in the city ‘in the underground’. She
arrived with her husband. So that she could remain with him she’d
said she knew how to make uniforms, when she really didn’t know how
to … But we stayed together. I spent the night with her. Soon
afterwards another woman arrived; she was married too.
A few months later, Si Djelloul arrived from Cherchel with some
others, his seconds in command. They said, referring to me, ‘This girl
is from our region! We’re not leaving her here! We’re taking her back
to our sector!’
They’d heard about my opposition to the marriage plan; they didn’t
say anything to me but they took me to Bou Hillal, to join the
maquisards from my region. We stayed at the post. At night, the men
slept on one side and the women, even the partisans’ wives who
weren’t in uniform, slept on the other side … I remember one of the
women, the oldest, who grew very fond of me. I called her ‘Jedda’.
A few months later, one of the partisans gave us away. At dawn the
French surrounded us. Jedda and I were the first up to perform our
ablutions before the morning prayer. I could hear French spoken, not
far away. I asked in surprise, ‘Who’s speaking French?’
The old woman said, ‘One of our men, probably!’
‘No,’ I replied. ‘You know perfectly well we’re forbidden to speak
French now.’
I turned round to look and spied French soldiers. I gave the alarm,
shouting, ‘Soldiers! Soldiers!’
I’d barely started running and shouting when the firing began. A
child (some of the married women had children) had just got up and
came tottering out first: a bullet hit him in the middle of the forehead
and he fell down dead on the ground in front of me. Poor kid: one
single step from sleep straight into death! Jedda and I started running.
The other women, who weren’t dressed in soldiers’ uniforms, gave up
the attempt at flight.
The enemy pursued us. I managed to hide. I remained hidden the
whole night. But this time the enemy didn’t budge; not even at night.
We continued to be surrounded. And eventually they found me,
huddled up among the prickly-pear bushes!
They pulled me out and when they took me to the village, a clerk
from Mcnaccr (I didn’t know him but the others told me later that he
1 32
played music at weddings) said, ‘That girl’s the sister of the Amrounes!
One of her brothers died in the fighting, the other’s still in the
maquis!’
They asked m e i f i t was true. I said it was.
‘\Vhere’s your brother – the one who’s alive?’
‘I haven’t seen him!’
As I was dressed as a partisan, an officer ordered the soldiers to
search me: ‘She could be hiding a weapon!’
The Frenchman said that, but the goumier who was guarding me
replied, ‘No! If she’s hiding anything, it’s too bad! … Let her kill
someone if she wants to!’
Another goumier came up and accused me: ‘I know you! I was there
when you and your brother and Arbouz killed twenty-eight people!
You kill your own kind! That’s why I left you people and gave
myself up!’
‘Traitor among traitors!’ I retorted. ‘You dare talk like that! You’re
the one who kills and assassinates your own people and then goes and
betrays them! We aren’t the ones who kill each other! You’re the one
who sells your own people and enlists for the sake of a bowl of
soup!’
He was furious, he aimed his rifle a t m e and threatened me, ‘I’ll
kill you!’
‘Kill me,’ I said, ‘if you’re a man! But you aren’t a man, you’re a
goumier! I’m not yet a grown woman, but that makes no difference! Kill
me, since you love killing!’
They kept me there for the night. The soldiers had previously decided
they were going to tie me up.
‘Never!’ I shouted. ‘Nobody’s going to touch me! Several of you can
guard me, if you like! Nobody’s going to tie me up!’
Several of them stayed to guard me. In the morning they brought me
some coffee.
‘I don’t drink before I’ve washed my face!’
They brought me some water. I performed my ablutions. They
brought the coffee back.
‘I’m not drinking anything!’
They offered me some biscuits.
‘I’m not eating anything!’
I took the biscuits and put them on the ground.
133
‘You\·e put them there for your brothers?’ one of them said
ironically.
‘;\ly brothers aren’t like you,’ I replied, ‘doing anything because
you’re hungry!’
‘Who brought you your food?’
‘\Ve got it ourselves!’
‘Who brought you your clothes?’
‘We made them ourselves!’
Then they brought some human bones: remains of certain people
who’d ‘worked’ with France.
‘Who killed them?’
‘I never saw anything!’
‘Show us where you went when you left here!’
‘I don’t know, I always stayed here!’
‘Tell us what they’re like! Describe them to us!’
‘Soldiers, like you! I never look at faces!’
‘\Vhat’s a young girl like you doing here, away from your parents?’
‘The maquisards are my brothers and they’re like parents to me
too!’
Then, without waiting for them to ask me any more questions, I
added, ‘I don’t recognize France! I’ve been brought up according to
the Arab word! The “Brothers” are my brothers!’
They took me away. When we were near a wadi, one of the goumiers
slipped me an ammunition pouch. But an officer suddenly appeared
and he immediately took the cartridges back … A bit further on, the
one who’d accused me and insulted me approached and began to
threaten me again: ‘I’m going to kill her!’ I defied him again and
repeated what I thought of him, ‘a man who’d sold himself for a bowl
of soup!’
Another goumier, whose name was Cherif, intervened and said to the
other one, ‘Just leave her alone! Look at the Frenchmen; they hardly
dare speak to her, young as she is, and you, her compatriot, you’re
trying to provoke her!’
A third one turned to me and said: ‘ Here, take my rifle and shoot
him!’
Of course I knew he was making fun of me. But I retorted, ‘D’you
think I can’t shoot? Give it to me and you’ll soon sec!’
The argument continued, but they loaded us into trucks and drove
off. At Chcrchel, they stopped at some barracks. They put me in a cell
1 34
with a stone floor. I lay down and went to sleep. A guard came later
and asked, ‘You want to wash?’
They took me to a tap and gave me some soap and a towel. I washed
and went back to my cell. Then they came to fetch me for questioning.
It began in the early afternoon. It lasted for hours … I simply replied
to all their questions, ‘I don’t recognize you! I don’t recognize France!’
They tried to make me tell them where the khatibas were marching
to and the names of their leaders. I invariably replied, ‘I don’t know!’
They took me from one interrogation room to another. Then they
asked, ‘The “Hamdaniya” khatiba [so called after the name of its
leader, Hamdane] has broken up, hasn’t it?’
I knew that this was so, but I replied with a sneer, ‘No! It’s still
intact! You’ve only got to usc your eyes: the other day, when you got
into that skirmish with us that left the hospital full of your wounded,
that was Hamdanc’s khatiba! It covers the country from the Chcnoua
hills to Bou Hilal!’
One of the officers lost his temper and hit me twice across the face.
Then they brought a tommy-gun.
‘Confess! Tell us what we want to know or we’ll shoot!’
‘Shoot!’ I said. ‘It makes no difference to me! I’m a girl, I’m not a
grown woman, but I’ll leave men behind me! … Each one of them will
kill a hundred of yours! Kill me!’
They brought a whip. They beat me. They switched on the
electricity for their machines. They tortured me.
‘I don’t recognize you!’
I didn’t feel any fear: God made these Frenchmen seem like
shadows in front of my eyes! And it was true, I would have preferred
to die!
Suddenly one of them asked me, ‘Arc you a virgin? … We heard
that X . . . [and he gave the name of the leader of the Mouzai”a) asked
to marry you!’
I realized that the man who’d left the maquis and become a goumier
had told them about the marriage business.
‘I’m not married!’ I replied.
Finally they took me back to the cell. They gave me a bed, a blanket.
They brought me a plate of food, even some meat, some bread and a
spoon. But once I was alone I suddenly started to weep: my tears
wouldn’t stop! ‘How can God have allowed me to fall into the hands of
the French?’ I asked myself in despair.
1 35
A wmmier came and opened the door.
‘Come now! Don’t cry!’ he said. ‘You’re not the first girl they’ve
caught. At first, when they question you, it’s hard, but in the end they
let you go.’
I wouldn’t answer him. He shut the door again. I went over to the
food. I picked at the meat: one or two mouthfuls only, as I was so
hungry, but I didn’t trust them. I didn’t touch the rest. In the morning
they brought me some coffee. I asked to wash first: they took me out
into a courtyard where there was a tap. I washed while they looked on;
I splashed water on my face, washed my arms up to my elbows, my feet
and legs up to my knees: just like for my ablutions. I loosened my hair
which wasn’t so long any more, combed it and arranged it. And they all
stood there, watching me!
‘Have you finished?’
‘I’ve finished!’
In my cell I sipped a mouthful of coffee, no more! Even though I was
famished I wanted to show them, show the whole of France, that that
was all I wanted!
‘You’ve drunk your coffee? You’ve finished?’
‘I’ve finished, I thank God!’
They took me to a car. The pot-bellied officer who’d slapped my
face the day before came up. He asked me in Arabic, ‘Do you know
where you’re going now?’
‘How should I know?’
‘Do you know Gouraya?’
‘I’ve never heard of it!’
‘You Arabs! All you can say is, “I don’t know! I’ve never heard
of it!” ‘
‘\Vhen you’re walking in a forest,’ I said, ‘why d’you have to know
the name of the forest?’
Another Frenchman, also an officer, interposed: ‘She’s young. It’s
natural that she wouldn’t know anything!’
This officer got in the car, as well as the driver and a goumier. A jeep
followed. Every time we passed through a village, the officer who really
believed that I didn’t know the area told me the Arabic names of the
villages. \Vhen we got to Gouraya, Berardi, the chief of the SAS, who
was well known in the locality, came out and greeted the officer who
whispered to me, ‘That’s Berardi!’
After Gouraya, we got to the place called the ‘The Sacred Wood’. I
136
knew that was where the biggest prison in the district was. An officer, a
lieutenant called Coste, received us; he didn’t speak to me, just looked
me over then nodded.
‘Put her in a cell!’ he said. ‘A cell right in the sun!’
\Vhcn he’d gone, the officer in the car asked for another cell for me.
A prisoner, a partisan who was probably there for questioning,
managed to get ncar me shortly afterwards and whisper, ‘Oh, sister,
where did they capture you?’
I stared at him without replying. He hurriedly added, ‘You know
X . . . and Y … ?’ I said yes, as my distrust vanished. They took me for
questioning. I answered in the same way as at Chcrchcl. They used
electricity again. Once it went on from dawn until two in the afternoon.
It was particularly hard.
They confronted me with the goumier who had recognized me when
I was arrested and who’d threatened me. I didn’t let them intimidate
me: ‘You can keep me in prison for twenty years if you like. I’m not
giving in! What war has ever lasted twenty years? Ours won’t last that
long! … Do what you like with me!’
Finally, they left me in my cell. I was locked in day and night. One
day Lieutenant Coste arrived and asked me, ‘You all right?’
‘No! I’m not all right! It’s like an oven in here! … When we take
your men prisoner, we don’t lock them up night and day! … We don’t
act unjustly like you do!’
Then they allowed me to keep the door on to the courtyard open. Ifl
wanted to go out for a moment, I could. At night the door was locked
again. I remained there for seven months or more!
Eventually I was allowed to walk about the camp. When new prisoners
arrived and their interrogation began, I went to comfort them and took
them something to drink. That situation didn’t last, because of a
goumier, who came from Constantine. One night, he somehow
managed to unlock the door of my cell, then he called me twice, very
softly, in the dark. I went out and yelled for the guard. He disappeared.
In the morning he came and asked me to forgive him. ‘I don’t
forgive!’ I said and I went and lodged a complaint. He was sentenced
to a week in the punishment cell for unlocking my door like that.
When he was let out, he came to see me again, but this time to blame
me. He stood in front of me in the courtyard with a dog. I didn’t say
anything, I was going to open the doors of the brothers who were
1 37
imprisoned there as I always did when I took them water and food.
The Kfllllllier threatened me: ‘\Vhy did you go and complain to
I .ieutcnant Coste? Who d’you think you arc? … And the fellaheen,
your brothers, they’re no better than rats hiding in holes!’
In the face of this insult, I couldn’t contain myself.
‘Come closer, if you dare! You call us rats, so let’s sec if we’re rats or
lions!’
The quarrel got more and more bitter. Lieutenant Coste arrived
with his second in command, the man who did the electric shocks
during the questioning and who spoke Arabic. He translated for the
lieutenant. I told him how the goumier had insulted me. The lieutenant
forbade him to speak to me.
Two or three months later, this same goumier reappeared on the
scene. It was one morning; I was taking coffee to the prisoners who
were there for questioning. I saw him approaching me; I pointed this
out to another guard. The latter, to avoid any incident, asked me to go
back to my cell. It wasn’t my place to give way!
‘I’m not going back!’ I decided. ‘I don’t care what happens! Today,
I’m going to have it out with him!’
‘You’ve just got to stay in your hole,’ the goumier sniggered, ‘out of
sight of God’s mercy!’
‘I’m not going back!’ I repeated.
I ran into another courtyard. He began to shout insults after me, for
everyone to hear.
‘Youfellaheen, you live in the forests like wild beasts and you want to
behave like savages here!’
‘And where do you goumiers come from?’ I retorted. ‘You have sold
your loyalties! The flag that I believe in doesn’t fly above this place! It’s
over there, in the forests and on the mountains!’
The quarrel grew in front of everybody. It lasted for some time.
Finally I grabbed a big coffee-pot and when he came too close to me I
hit him as hard as I could on the shoulder.
‘Damn her!’ he yelled. ‘She’s fractured my collar-bone!’
As it happened I had a knife in my pocket: a prisoner had slipped it
to me at the beginning of the quarrel. And I’d just picked up an iron
bar which was lying near a railing. I’d said to myself, ‘If he comes near
me again, I’ll hit him with the iron bar and finish him off with the
knife!’ And I was quite determined to do it, too! … It’s true that at that
time, I was in prime condition! When the French arrested me in the
138
mountains, they were astonished! They just had to look at my wrists to
sec how strong I was … Alas! if any of the brothers from those days
met me today, they’d swear I wasn’t the same person!
A staff-sergeant and another soldier arrived. They blamed me for
striking the goumier. I told them the truth about what happened. They
tried to force me to return to my cell.
‘I’m not going back!’
‘You must!’
Three of them took hold of me; I resisted with all my strength:
kicking, punching, butting them with my head. They let me go and left
me lying on the ground, screaming hysterically … Lieutenant Coste’s
second in command arrived. He spoke to me quite gently and begged
me, ‘Come now, go back to your cell! Lieutenant Costc’ll be along and
you’ll sec what he’ll do!’
I went back to my cell. Then they sentenced me to three days and
three nights in the punishment cell, without food or drink. When the
three days were up and they brought me food, I decided I wouldn’t
touch it, and I stayed on hunger strike for twenty days! As if I
depended on them! … Some of the brothers who were imprisoned
there managed to get a bit of bread to me, sometimes an apple (that I
made last for three days); they passed a wire through a skylight with
bits of food on the end … A soldier from Oran whom they’d won over
sometimes unlocked my door and slipped the bread in for me. The
main thing for me, as far as the French were concerned, was to show
them I didn’t need them!
Eventually, they left me in peace and I didn’t sec that goumier again.
A long time later a group of Red Cross officials came to the camp.Ten
or more men in civilian clothes came to my cell and greeted me
respectfully. But Lieutentant Coste intervened. ‘She doesn’t understand
French!’ he told them.
They went away. Months passed. Once an important officer came.
When he entered my cell he said, ‘De Gaulle has sent me to visit these
prisons!’
Two goumim who were accompanying him translated.
‘Seeing that you’re here, where were you arrested?’
I told them I’d been arrested ‘in the mountains’.
‘What were you doing in the mountains?’
‘I was fighting!’
139
‘Why were you fighting?’
‘For what I believe in, for my ideas!’
‘And now, seeing you’re a prisoner?’
‘I’m a prisoner, so what!’
‘What have you gained?’
‘I’ve gained the respect of my compatriots and my own self-respect!
Did you arrest me for stealing or for murder? I never stole! My
conscience is clear!’
They went away. I remained in the camp, but thanks to this man,
probably, I was able to sec my parents. They came all the way from
their village to visit me. When my father saw me he wept.
Six months before the cease-fire, they managed to get me
transferred to a prison ncar them. They had just lost Abdelkadcr, my
eldest brother …
1 40
Embraces
Chcrifa’s voice embraces the bygone days. Tracing the fear, the
defiance, the intoxication in that forgotten place. Outbursts of a
recalcitrant prisoner in the sun-scared camp.
The voice recounts? Scarcely that. It digs out the old revolt. It
portrays the rolling hills, so often set on fire, the ride across the russe-t
slopes of these bare mountains that I travel through today.
Strange little sister, whom henceforth I leave vdlcd or whose story I
now transcribe in a foreign tongue. Her body and her face arc once
more engulfed in shadow as she whispers her story – a butterfly
displayed on a pin with the dust from its crushed wing staining one’s
finger.
She sits in the middle of a darkened room, crowded with
bright-eyed children squatting around: we arc in the heart of an
orange plantation in the Tell district … The thin, weak voice scales
the heights of so many past years, then tells of peace suddenly
descending like a lead weight. She pauses, picks up the talc, a stream
that disappears beneath the cactus hedges.
The words fade away . . . Chcrifa is married now to a taciturn
widower, a workman whom I saw leave shortly before on his tractor; he
is in charge of the equipment in this agricultural co-operative. She
brings up the man’s five children.
She speaks slowly. Her voice lifts the burden of memory; it now
wings its way towards that summer of 1 956, when she was just a girl,
the summer of the devastation … Do her words bring it to light? She
braves the suspicious mother-in-law who prowls around us,
hoping to discover what the hesitating narrative reveals: what
exigency in the story, what secret, what sin, or simply what is
missing …
Chcrifa ageing, in poor health, is housebound. As she sets her voice
141
free for me, she sets herself free again; what nostalgia will cause her
mice to fail presently? …
I do not claim here to be either a story-teller or a scribe. On the
territol)’ of dispossession, I would that I could sing.
I would cast off my childhood memories and advance naked, bearing
offerings, hands outstretched to whom? – to the Lords of yesterday’s
war, or to the young girls who lay in hiding and who now inhabit the
silence that succeeds the battles … And what arc my offerings? Only
handfuls of husks, culled from my memory, what do I seck? Maybe the
brook where wounding words arc drowned …
Chcrifa! I wanted to re-create your flight: there, in the isolated field,
the tree appears before you when you are scared of the jackals. Next
you arc driven through the villages, surrounded by guards, taken to the
prison camp where every year more prisoners arrive . . . I have
captured your voice; disguised it with my French without clothing it. I
barely brush the shadow of your footsteps!
The words that I thought to put in your mouth arc shrouded in the
same mourning garb as those of Bosquct or Saint-Arnaud. Actually, it
is they who are writing to each other, using my hand, since I condone
this bastardy, the only cross-breeding that the ancestral beliefs do not
condemn: that of language, not that of the blood.
Torch-words which light up my women-companions, my accomplices;
these words divide me from them once and for all. And weigh
me down as I leave my native land.
1 42
Second Movement:
The Trance
The memory of my maternal grandmother appears darkly before me: a
lioness grown weak, impotent, gasping for breath.
At regular intervals, about every two or three months, the matriarch
would summon musicians from the city: three or four women of
venerable age, one of whom was almost blind. They arrived muffled up
in grimy haih over their shabby lace-trimmed gowns, carrying their
drums wrapped in scarves.
Kamnms filled with hot coals were hurriedly brought. Memories of
the women’s crimson faces as smoke began to rise … The servants
and girls of the family placed the braziers in my grandmother’s
darkened room; she always remained hidden from sight from dawn.
The smell of incense gradually filled the room; the musicians let the
parchment of the drums warm up, while the blind woman, seated on
one corner of the high bed, droned out a funeral invocation.
This noctural quavering chant brought my cousin and me running,
half uneasy, but at the same time, fascinated … I must have been
quite young; the boy, who was a little older, had a certain prestige in
my eyes; unruly, impudent, he drove his mother to distraction; she
would grow hysterical and I can still sec her chasing him frantically
over the roof-terraces to give him a good hiding . . . the boy was
nicknamed the me}11111111, as if he were possessed …
These strange days began with the musicians’ ceremonial chants;
then the relationship between my cousin and me was reversed. He was
frightened, he grew tense; he huddled up against me, the younger one,
while waiting for the show which scared him. I, on the contrary, greatly
enjoyed my role as spectator. We sat side by side ncar a window and
waited.
1 43
The rluHwts, lady-musicians, began to strike the drums with their
ringed fingers; the ins idious invocation rose up in the smoke-filled
room, where more and more women and children gathered.
Finally my grandmoth er made her dramatic entrance, as always the
consummate actress. Upright, clad only in a tight-fitting tunic, her
head turbaned in multi-coloured scarves, she began a slow dance. All
of us onlookers could sense that, in spite of appearances, this was not
the beginning of a festivity.
For one hour, two hours, the matriarch swayed her bony body from
side to side; her hair came undone, and every now and then she gave
out a hoarse grunt. The blind woman’s chant helped to goad her on,
while the chorus broke off to cry, ‘Flush out the ill fortune! May the
teeth of envy and covetousness not harm you, 0 my lady! … Bring out
your strength and all your armoury into the light of day, 0 my queen!’
The others resumed their monotonous hypnotic sing-song as torpor
descended on the over-heated room. The women bustled to and fro
between the room and the kitchens, stoking up the fires in the kanouns
in preparation for the climax. My cousin and I, tense with anticipation,
mesmerized by the increasing frenzy of the music, felt we were
witnessing the solemn prologue to a ritual act.
Finally came the crisis: my grandmother, oblivious to everything,
jerked spasmodically to and fro till she went into a trance. The drums
had worked up to a frenzy. The blind woman went on chanting her
solo; she alone orchestrated the collective hysteria. The women of the
household abandoned their cooking to hurry in: a couple of the aunts
or cousins helped the weakened matriarch, supporting her on each
side. The blind woman’s threnody grew softer, reduced to a murmur,
an imperceptible guttural groan; she finally drew ncar to the prancing
woman and whispered scraps of the Quran in her car.
A drum beat out the tempo for the crisis; the cries began: drawn up
from the depths of her belly, perhaps even from her legs, rending her
hollow chest, emerging at last in rasping squawks from the old lady’s
throat. Now she could hardly stand, her loosened hair, her gaudy
head-scarves were tossed about her shoulders, only her head swayed
from side to side as she grunted rhythmically.
At first the choking cries came thick and fast, jostling each other,
then they swelled and swirled in spreading spirals, intersecting arches,
tapering to needle-points. The old lady gave up the struggle,
surrendering herself completely to the insistent beat of the blind
144
woman’s drum: all the voices of the past, imprisoned in her present
existence, were now set free and leapt far away from her.
Half an hour or one hour later she lay bunched up in her bed, an
almost invisible heap, while the musicians ate and gossiped amid the
smell of incense. Their magic as pagan priestesses had vanished, and
now in the tardy noonday light they were simply ugly old women with
faces extravagantly painted.
During the crisis, the mejnoun cousin sat clinging tightly to my
shoulders, seeking a fragile protection, while I kept my eyes glued on
my grandmother in her trance – she of whom we children were
normally so much in awe. I felt I was following the dancer into some
realm of frenzy.
I was conscious of the mystery: the matriarch was normally the only
one of the women who never complained; she condescended to mouth
the formulas of submission disdainfully; but this extravagant or
derisory ceremonial which she regularly organized was her own way of
protesting … Against whom? Against the others or against fate? I
wondered. But when she danced, she became indubitably queen of the
city. Cocooned in that primitive music, she drew her daily strength
before our very eyes.
The haughty matron’s voice and body gave me a glimpse of the
source of all our sorrows: like half-obliterated signs which we spend
the rest of our lives trying to decipher.
1 45
Voice
The ‘revolution’ began and ended in my home, as every douar in these
mountains can bear witness.
In the beginning the partisans ate up everything I had. I even took
them a little pension I got. And then the corn – before the French
burnt us out, we gave it to the mill, then we kneaded the flour. I owned
two ovens for baking bread. They’re still there, as they’d been built of
concrete. After my farm had been gutted several times, it stayed
without a roof; you can still sec the walls … I had plenty of cattle then,
when I lived there!
As I was saying, at first they only came to get something to cat. Then
Sid Ali arrived and said, ‘We’re going to let the men hide here, aunt!’
(He’s my mother’s nephew.)
‘No!’ I replied. ‘Go and sec what happened to the Kabylc, Mohand
Oumous, on the main road; it’s scarcely a week since you started using
his place, and they’ve burnt down everything he had!’
But he went on, ‘Aunt, don’t reason like that! Don’t say, “I have … ”
or “This is mine … “, say rather, “I don’t own! … This isn’t
mine! … ” Put yourself in the hands of God and if needs must, let the
fire spread and devour everything.’
So that’s how they came to usc my farm …
From then on, I didn’t have to find food for them myself any more.
Other people started giving. Perhaps they were afraid, at least some of
them were; soon they gave so much that we all had enough to cat and
there was food left over! Sometimes we even had to throw it away …
Towards the end, everything got scarce again. Once more we were
hungry and wretched! …
As for the number of Moujahidine, could you even count them?
Impossible! Eve:• when two of them walked into a house together, they
seemed to fill the patio! . . . And could you ever say a word?
1 46
Impossible! All you could do was roll up your sleeves, knead the
dough, prepare the stcwpot, sec to the cooking, and so on, the whole
day; there were always little groups of them coming and going …
They arranged for somebody to keep guard. I was just kept busy with
the pots and pans all the time, I put the food down in front of them,
then I went and sat outside and waited, ready for death … Y cs, at the
gate of the orchard! I was so frightened! I kept watch, while they ate.
Suppose someone came up the hill to our place and found them there,
we’d all have been wiped out, on the spot!
They used my farm for five years to hide in. Y cs, five years, until the
end of the ‘revolution’! …
Once I was betrayed; it was because of a lad who happened to belong
to the same tribe as me, through his father.
He was too young to understand! He must have been fifteen. His
mother, a neighbour, had gone to 1\lount Chcnoua, to sec her married
daughter. She asked me, ‘Keep an eye on him! The lad’s so young, so
na’ivc. If he starts wandering ofT he’ll get picked up!’
So he stayed hidden with me while his mother was away. One day he
went out to irrigate the orchard. His mother had told him over and
over again, ‘Sec that you water the garden every night!’ But that night
he hadn’t woken up; so he went out in the morning when he got up,
but the sun was already high …
The French soldiers arrested him. They brought him back to me: I
didn’t recognize him at first. He was wearing a pair of European
trousers instead of his father’s baggy breeches. They’d smeared his
face with some sort of powder. And he was wearing a hat! . .. I never
thought it could be him. But when he began to speak I recognized his
voice. He told them, ‘That’s the place .. . ‘
So that’s when they first burnt my house down.
When his mother came back, I gave her a piece of my mind: I let her
know what her son had done to me. She answered, as cool as you like,
‘So what? Once the French caught him, what d’you suppose he could
do? Did you want them to kill him? .. . ‘
When my farm was in flames a man whose house wasn’t far, just on the
main road, shouted, ‘Well! That’s God’s doing! When the partisans
wanted to hide in this woman’s house, I advised her not to get
involved. And she replied, “I am involved, until I die!” Since she
1 47
claims she’s in it till she dies, let’s just sec what happens now!’
This same peasant, when any people passed his house, he badgered
them with questions, ‘Aren’t they still feeding the maquisards?’
What’s more, his son came to sec what damage had been done:
they’d even smashed my cooking pots! … But I wouldn’t give up. The
following days I decided to go and make my fire between some stones
and I managed to feed the partisans, just the same! ‘To the bitter end,’
I said to myself, ‘I’ll go on to the bitter end! The rest is in God’s
hands!’
So this neighbour spent his time spying on me. He started going to
inform: ‘Such and such a company has arrived at Sahraoui
Zohra’s! … Such and such khatiba’ …
Alas! We can’t read or write. We don’t leave any accounts of what
we lived through and all we suffered! … You’ll sec other people who
spent their time crouching in holes and who, afterwards, told what
they’ve told!
They didn’t leave us a thing: they took the cattle, everything put by in
the silos, everything. They didn’t even leave us a goat! Not a thing …
People rented me little plots of land, then the soldiers came and
asked, ‘Arc those Sahraoui Zohra’s cows? … Ah, is that her crop?’
And they burnt everything, until we were absolutely destitute! Then
I decided, ‘I’ll go down to the village!’ The Brothers said, ‘Don’t give
yourself up!’
‘I’m not going to give myself up,’ I said, ‘I’m only going down to the
village because I’ve nothing left here!’
‘No, stay here!’ they said.
I went to the village. The maquisards came down from the hills to
get in touch with me. A forest guard gave me away – he saw them once
passing through the forest, and wondered where they could be going.
Then he realized they were coming to my place.
One morning, at daybreak, the local police came and tied me up.
‘You’re the one who’s betraying France! Who d’you think you
arc? … Up on the mountain, you gave us enough trouble, and you’re
starting the same thing again here!’
They threatened me, thinking they’d frighten me. That day, I
thought, ‘This time, they’re going to kill me!’ And I felt quite calm.
But, thanks to God’s mercy, there was a man named Ali among them, a
relative by marriage of my mother’s. He exclaimed, ‘What! You think
1 48
this old woman could have burnt everything all over the mountains? A
little old woman like this? … You either let her go, or I’ll join the
maquis myself!’
Yes, those were his exact words! You see, that man had been a
maquisard, then he’d given himself up. To tell you the truth, since
he’d been working with France, I was afraid of him. Seeing me living
in the village, he came to see me from time to time: I agreed to do his
washing and cook him a meal … After all, he was a relative of my
mother’s, wasn’t he?
That time, when they arrested me, I didn’t stay in prison long!
My house was almost on the edge of the forest … The Brothers
had had this hut evacuated, deciding, ‘This woman must come and live
here!’ The owner of the place is still alive: we didn’t pay him any rent.
That was his way of participating.
I lived in so many different places in those times, so many! …
Finally, when I was let out of prison, I preferred to return to my farm.
How was I to know that the next time I went down to the village I
would find myself living in a tent, like a nomad!
At first, I owned thirty-one head of cattle … In the end, I didn’t have a
single one left! The soldiers took them all!
My farm was burnt down three times. Whenever they came back
and found it in good repair again, they knew the Brothers had rebuilt
the house for us! They brought roofing tiles they’d taken from the
settlers’ houses. Once again, the French soldiers destroyed everything.
And again, the Brothers brought us tiles from the French settlers’
houses and put a roof over our heads again … ‘France’ came again.
So then we decided to do the cooking in the open air, between the
walls without a roof or even in the forest.
The third time, they took us down to the village. The wadi was in
spate. They didn’t give us a thing, no blankets, no food, nothing. They
just left us as we were. They thought we’d die. But we didn’t die. We
just split up, finding shelter wherever we could, some with a brother,
some with a cousin. I went to Hajout, to J ennet’s· place. When I fled to
her place, I warned her: ‘Just be careful, Jennet! If anyone tells you
your aunt is hiding in your place, don’t admit anything! Say she’s not
there!’
Whenever I heard a noise, or when anyone came to the door to
speak to her, I hid, I slipped under a mattress, like a snake! …
1 49
Afterwards, when they’d gone, I asked, ‘Have they gone?’
‘Yes !’
Because I was frightened! I knew that these people came ‘in the
name of God and his Prophet’, in all good faith, but all the same, if
they saw me when they left, they’d talk! They’d say, ‘Lia Zohra from
Bou Semmam is there! She’s come here so that Hajout can also be
burnt down!’ I had to hide!
Everything that has happened to me! Oh, Lord, everything that has
happened!
I SO
Murmurs
Jennet is s111mg in the doorwt�)’, 011 the bare tiles, or 011 a Sllorv-lvhite
sheepskin.
A slauting sunbeam lights up her ample fonll, illdistillguishable uuder her
loose gorvn of multi-coloured cotton. A hem.:)’ braid of black hair is coiled
around her fine-featured face. She sits rvoiti11g: her husband rvos picked up
during a military control rvhich stopped the bus on the main road; he
disappeared a year ago; rvhere is he norv, in rvhat prison, mlwr camp or at the
bottom of rvhat precipice? Jennet mmes rn·er the sons, the da11ghters that she
baSil ‘t had during trventy years of sterile married life …
At the back of the room, her old cmnt Aidw, rvho has come donm from the
mmmtai11s, is huddled in a comer. But she rambles 011 in an endless lament:
‘PraJ• they don ‘t cmue, 0 Ill)’ sister’s daughter! Don ‘t let the chatteri11g
neighbours suspect this time, mrses 011 their cold hearts, these offspring of
f/aJ•ed hye11as!’
The roice, 1/IJTV hoarse, uorv sing-song, rises iu regular stm1::.as mlminatiug
iu rhJ•med mrses. After a pame, she mutters her ritual prt()’er … Jmuet sits
there bill does not pray, ez:en though she catches the last Jaiut rvhiue of the
111111:::.::.iu ‘s arabesques.
She keeps rvatch out of habit: a child might come knocking at the outer
door, she must stop him in the restibule. The prying IJII.�)•bodies on the
11eighbouring terraces fiud al()’ exmse to send to ask ji1r au egg they’re short of,
a pinch of papn’ka, a mpful of chickpeas or caster sugar. Jm11et knorvs that
th�y knorv, these spies, these jealom 1vomen, these scaudalmrmgers. Thej•
probabo• say that the old rvomau has come /Pith some ue1JJ scheme, proposing
to arrange a marriage or orga11i::.e some magic mre … Tlwy imagi11e that the
sterile rvoman without brood, the silent rvoman from the cities, is tormmted by
her remlf rvidorvhood, plagued kl’ the solitmle of the empo• bed …
Up in the hills, ‘France ‘ daio• fims the fire, dispersing IVomen and childreu
along the muddy roads. There are more and more raid� ou the markets of the
lSI
little /o/1’11. ]t’llllel tlriul.:s of lrer lrusha11d rollin,; in some jail or other: will a
messm[!.er come, a rdatire by marria,;l’ or oue of God’.,. be!!J!,ars bearing a sign
of f!,OIId 11/111’11? .••
]e1111el si/S iu tire doonPIIJ’, maititlfi, mlrile in the semi-darkness old Ai’cha ‘s
moaning f!.rllll’S louder.
]mnet .w’::.es the brrm:.:;e pes!le 6•in,; in front of her bare feet near her
abandoned mules: ‘Keep ua• hands busy, 0 genlle-eyed Prophet, 0 Lla
Khadija, his belm·ed! Keep my hands busy to unclench the teeth of
anguis!t!’ …
The regular pounding of the pestle begins, mtshing dm’eS of garlic, then
fresh herbs. Despite its heavy beat Jennet can still hear the voice of the
fnghtened fugitive: ‘For three daJ•s, ‘ she says to herself, ‘the poor creature has
never stopped trembling; she’s trying to keep 1if! the ill winds that beset her’;
and Jennet pounds with all her might, making the metal moTtar ring . ..
She gets up slow6•, walks to and fro, her hands sudden6• too active; she sits
down again. She rests the pestle again betweeen her bare feet whose toes are
stained with cn’mson henna. The evening draws on, the voice of the old
woman lying in the back room, on the horsehair mattress, under a white sheet
(‘white as a shroud!’ she moaned), the fugitive �· t’Oice takes up its incoherent
antiphon, or sorceress’s soliloquJ•, casting spells.
The last gleams of dusk die out above the terrace with its frail Jasmin.
Jennet resumes her pounding: the garlic is crushed, the coriander reduced to a
powder, the cumin to dust, but as the herbs and spices scent the twilit room,
Jennet decides to go on pounding till the voice in the half-darkness ceases its
rat•mgs …
The neighbours might hear, the bu�)•bodies nn the terraces might
understand, the child they send knocking on the door might have time to cross
the vestibule, to reach the threshold of the room and take them b:J• surprise; she
must keep watch, she must keep guard, hour after hour, day after daJ•.
Until the fugitive’s fears are allayed, till she regains her strength and can
depart, veiled, protected, to face the terrors of the adventure …
152
Plunder
In the family gatherings of former times, the matrons take their place
in a circle, according to an accepted protocol. In the first place, age
takes precedence over fortunes or repute. The most senior is always
the first to enter the L-shaped vestibule leading out on to the patio
with its bluish ceramic tiles; she is followed by her daughter-in-law,
whom she calls ‘her bride’ even ten years after the wedding (as if her
son had simply been married by proxy); next come her other
daughters, widowed, divorced or still unmarried …
Then everyone takes a seat: the divans in the centre are reserved for
the ladies who lead each procession: they are the only ones to speak
aloud, to ask questions, to extend their congratulations, to distribute
their blessings while they take off their veils of spotless wool and their
‘brides’ remove their taffeta haiks, and every guest settles down amid a
rustle of silken skirts.
The bride in each family must spend two or three hours exhibiting
her face, her antique jewels, her embroidered silks; the mother-in-law,
while taking part in the exchanges, keeps an eye on her daughter-inlaw
to make sure she inspires compliments and envy.
I watch this ritual from the corridor or from a corner of the patio; we
little girls can move around, listening out for sudden bursts of
conversation or momentary pauses in the collective buzz of talk.
The younger women, married or widowed, are mostly seated
uncomfortably on hard, upright chairs; they sit still, ill at ease. I can
imagine what they must be suffering.
‘Why don’t they ever speak?’ I sometimes ask.
At most they murmur thanks, compliments to the hostess on the
coffee or cakes, or exchange inaudible greetings with their neighbours.
Questions follow a time-honoured formula with thanks to God and to
the Prophet. Sometimes the order of the courtesies is so unchanged
1 53
that a guest at one end of the room will simply move her lips to address
another at the other end: ‘I low is the master of the house? How arc all
the children’ And the Sheikh, may God grant him the pilgrimage!’
And similarly greetings and blessings arc mouthed from the other
end of the room, and they criss-cross in an exchange little more than
mime.
The loud miccs of the oldest women – a merry laugh, a chuckle, the
suggestion of an obscene joke – ring out suddenly on the heady
perfumed air, above the whimpering of the children who wait
impatiently in the doorway or on the rug. Once coffee, tea and cakes
have been handed round, the matrons can unbend; under the guise of
allusions, axioms, parables, they indulge in tittle-tattle about such and
such an absent family.
Then the conversation comes back to themselves or at least to their
husbands, referred to by the omnipresent ‘he’; rather than complain of
some domestic worry, some all too familiar trouble (a repudiation, a
temporary separation, a dispute over a legacy), the woman who is
recounting her own experiences will end by expressing her resignation
to Allah and the local saints. Sometimes the daughters take up their
mother’s story, elaborating it with their long-winded, whispered
exegesis. Adding a vivid detail, a caustic comment, they fill in the
picture of the calamity: the man coming home drunk and striking her,
or, on the contrary, ‘himself overtaken by ruin, sickness, involving
endless tears, debts, inexorable misery … So these city ladies sit there
and bear witness, as best they can, to the unfolding drama of their own
lives.
In these gatherings it matters little what the ladies look like in their
antiquated outfits: their ribbons and serouals date from the beginning
of the century: the golden roses quivering on their foreheads, the
hennaed designs between the painted eyelids of the daughters-in-law
who sit like statues – nothing of this has changed for two or three
generations …
At every one of these gatherings, they are trapped in the web of
impossible revolt; each woman who tells her talc – loud exclamations
of the one, rapid whispers of another – gets something off her chest.
The ‘I’ of the first person is never used; the time-honoured
phraseology discharges the burden of rancour and ralcs that rasp the
throat. In speaking to the listening group every woman finds relief
from her deep inner hurt.
1 54
Similarly they arc made to guess at causes for merriment or
happiness; by means of understatement, proverbs, even riddles or
traditional fables, handed down from generation to generation, the
women dramatize their fate, or exorcize it, but never expose it directly.
The Second World War had not encroached on my country’s soil, but
she had sacrificed a significant contingent of her sons at the front.
When it ended, the Nationalist movement flared up. A series of violent
incidents even marked Armistice Day.
In my native city there was talk of a plot that was only just discovered
in time: weapons stolen from the arsenal, a bomb exploding at the
military hospital. The authors of these incidents were soon found and
arrested.
During the following summer holidays I took part in an unusual
ceremony which was just like a funeral service. My grandmother’s
nephew was one of the plotters arrested and sentenced to forced
labour, like a brigand.
The guests arrived in their white veils; the mourning liturgy lent
solemnity to the modest house where my grandmother’s younger sister
lived. Was this a death without a corpse? We children stood around in
the vestibule, not knowing what to make of it: the matrons entered,
took their scats on the mattresses, wagging their heads in sympathy
and keeping time to the mother’s tragic aria; she sat with a white scarf
wrapped tightly round her head and gave way to her grief in spasmodic
outbursts of shrill wails.
We looked on, fascinated by the curious absence of any corpse
which impaired the nature of the ceremony. All that remained of the
habitual ritual were the words, the women’s solidarity and the
resignation they affirmed over and over during the mother’s monotonous
lamentations … On the way back home we caught scraps of
conversation about ‘forced labour’ (an unexpected sentence for this
son whom they were mourning but not burying), a bomb, stolen
weapons: the ladies’ hushed voices, their tones of commiseration or
submission, conjured up a whole romantic story.
I was struck by the verdict expressed by my grandmother: not on her
nephew whom she refrained from either judging a hero or a highway
robber, nor on the misfortune which had befallen her family, of which
she deemed herself the mouth-piece. But she condemned her sister
for exhibiting her grief too ostentatiously in front of the assembled
ISS
women. Resignation was the important thing according to the
matriarch: to take the rough with the smooth and always be equal to
the part assigned to you by fate.
The nephew was reprieved the following year: I can’t remember
whether my grandmother went back on her judgement with regard to
her younger sister, who had exposed her sorrow too dramatically.
In the family home, which is so little changed today, it is this
memory of my late grandmother sitting in judgement which conjures
up her ghost for me.
How could a woman speak aloud, even in Arabic, unless on the
threshold of extreme age? How could she say ‘1’, since that would be to
scorn the blanket-formulae which ensure that each individual journeys
through life in a collective resignation? … How can she undertake to
analyse her childhood, even if it turns out different? The difference, if
not spoken of, disappears. Only speak of what conforms, my
grandmother would reprove me: to deviate is dangerous, inviting
disaster in its multiple disguises. Only speak of everyday mishaps, out
of prudence rather than prudery, and so stave off misfortune … As for
happiness, always too short-lived, but compact, succulent, close your
eyes and concentrate all your strength on enjoying it but do not speak
of it aloud …
My oral tradition has gradually been overlaid and is in danger of
vanishing: at the age of eleven or twelve I was abruptly ejected from
this theatre of feminine confidences – was I thereby spared from
having to silence my humbled pride? In writing of my childhood
memories I am taken back to those bodies bereft of voices. To attempt
an autobiography using French words alone is to lend oneself to the
vivisector’s scalpel, revealing what lies beneath the skin. The flesh
flakes off and with it, seemingly, the last shreds of the unwritten
language of my childhood. Wounds arc reopened, veins weep, one’s
own blood flows and that of others, which has never dried.
As the words pour out, inexhaustible, maybe distorting, our
ancestral night lengthens. Conceal the body and its ephemeral grace.
Prohibit gestures – they arc too specific. Only let sounds remain.
Speaking of oneself in a language other than that of the elders is
indeed to unveil oneself, not only to emerge from childhood but to
leave it, never to return. Such incidcntial unveiling is tantamount to
1 56
stripping oneself naked, as the demotic Arabic dialect emphasizes.
But this stripping naked, when expressed in the language of the
former conquerer (who for more than a century could lay his hands on
everything save women’s bodies), this stripping naked takes us back
oddly enough to the plundering of the preceding century.
When the body is not embalmed by ritual lamentations, it is like a
scarecrow decked in rags and tatters. The battle-cries of our ancestors,
unhorsed in long-forgotten combats, re-echo across the years;
accompanied by the dirges of the mourning-women who watched
them die.
1 57
Voice
All four of my sons took to the hills to join the maquis. The day they
arrested seven of the partisans in one swoop, two of my sons were
among them. They chained them together. Someone from here, one of
the leaders of the goumiers, said, ‘All this plotting, it’s your mother
who’s behind it, 0 Ahmed!’
That son didn’t admit anything. His other brothers got a message to
him, from up in the hills: ‘If we get to know that you’ve let one word
slip, we’ll come and kill you ourselves!’
They left me this last one eventually; he stayed with me … I had to
travel to get to sec the others! For a long time I didn’t get any news of
one of them, Malek. I thought, ‘He must be dead!’ A relative came to
sec me from the city. ‘Have you any news of your sons?’ he asked me.
‘I’ve heard from all of them, except Malek,’ I sighed. ‘He’s probably
dead!’
He gave a sort of faint smile, but he didn’t say anything.
‘I sec you smile,’ I said. ‘Perhaps you’ve got news?’
He stooped down then to kiss me on the head. ‘He’s in the city,’ he
whispered as he left. ‘He’s at Kaddour’s, but don’t say a word.’
Malek spent a long time with the maquis. He was a tailor by
profession. He took my Singer sewing machine and worked for the
Brothers … At first I made the uniforms myself. But as I had to sec to
the cooking, I couldn’t do everything! Then Malek took the sewing
machine into the hills … At that time the farm still brought me in a
bit. I could buy another one. But the soldiers of France smashed it up
eventually.
I was very proud of the uniforms I made! Without boasting, mine
had the best cut! If you unfolded one of mine and hung it up, you’d
think it’d been bought in a shop!
!58
People still talk about the plane that the maquisards shot down. A
piece of the plane was found at my place and they knew that ‘the man
from Kolea’ was responsible for the job. That’s what the local people
called my eldest son.
Long before the war, he loved music, he loved gunpowder and
haYing a good time. When Sidi Mhamcd Ben Yuscf, the marabout,
arranged a celebration, the people said to him, ‘Come with us to
welcome the prefect and sub-prefect with gunpowder and music!’
‘I don’t like that sort of celebration!’ he’d reply. ‘I’ll go and haYc a
good time in Kolca, where no-onc knows me. There I’ll be able to
haYe a different sort of fun!’
That’s why they called him ‘the friend of Kolca’, when his real
name’s Sahraoui, the same as mine! He liYcs in Hajout at present. His
stomach is all deformed and I can’t get oYer it!
He was imolYcd in a hand-to-hand fight with the soldiers, with
kniYes! His stomach was ripped open and his intestines all fell out! A
peasant gaYc him the cloth from his head-dress to tic his stomach up
and hold e\ crything in, more or less. T,,.o days later, a doctor in the
maquis examined him and sewed his abdomen up. It’s true he didn’t
die but he’s a cripple now!
He’s still as Yain as he was before the war. And as obstinate!
Besides, he’s still got the same bad habit he’s had eYer since he was a
child: he’s ne\·er afraid, he doesn’t know what fear is! Here he is, with
his belly all deformed, and he was always such a fine figure of a man!
EYcn when he wears a fine jacket, and I know how much trouble he
takes about the way he dresses, people must wonder what’s he’s got on
his hip! …
The second time the soldiers burnt my house down, the fire spread
and the roof collapsed … I went back into the fire, thinking, ‘Even if I
only sa,·c one mattress, I’ll ha\·c that to sleep on!’
So I got one mattress out; the fire had caught one corner. I plunged
it into the wadi and put the fire out. The soldiers laughed at me, saying
‘Arc you keeping that one for the fellaheen?’
They came back and set fire to the place again. They cYcn took the
clothes off our backs … My sister, may her soul rest in peace! she was
older than me, she died, she ncYcr got oYer the shock! They took our
clothes, and left us like that, naked as the day we were born! … I got a
message to a rclatiYc in the Yillagc. She sent us some clothes. They
came back once more and left us destitute again … What trials shall I
1 59
tell you about, and which shall I leave to be forgotten? …
To the little girl I ‘d adopted, I kept on saying, ‘If they question you,
begin to cry! If they ask, “Who comes to visit your mother? What does
she do? ” you must begin to cry immediately … If you say a word,
they’ll ask more questions! Just cry! That’s all you must do!’
And that’s whar she did. She burst into tears, she rolled about in the
sand, she ran away in a Oood of tears. When she got home I was
anxious.
‘Did they hit you?’
‘No,’ she said. ‘They asked me questions; I cried, they wanted to
give me money. I refused and I ran away!’
They thought she knew what money was. But paper money – she’d
never seen any: true she was very little, but it was especially because
she lived in the mountains. In the mountains, who ever sees a
banknotc?
When I came down to the village, I sent her to school; but that didn’t
last long …
In the village a boy ratted on us. He went to tell them, ‘The mother
of the Moujahidine has gone to lzzar! Aunt Zohra has left Ben
Scmmam and has gone there!’
I was asleep when they came knocking at my door and I called out,
‘What’s the matter?’
‘The officer’s asking for you: he wants to have a word with you!’
I decided to go. My little girl and my sister (it was before she died}
started to follow me; they were crying.
‘Don’t cry,’ I told them. ‘Don’t cry for me! I won’t have anyone
crying for me!’
The boy had told them everything: that I had met up with the
Brothers, what they had had to cat, how many there were. The
Brothers had asked me, ‘Have you any news about the future
movements of the French?’ I told them, ‘I don’t know just now, but
send someone to me tomorrow morning, early. I’ll have the
information for you!’ Word for word, the boy had gone and reported to
them everything we’d said! …
When I got back from my meeting with the Brothers, I found out in
the village that the French were going to make a raid into the
mountains. I had passed on the information … And that’s how I found
myself facing the French officer!
1 60
That’s where I met a woman named Khadija. She was very rich:
long before the war she already owned a good deal of property, then
she started buying and buying! She ran a – may God preserve us! – a
‘house’, the wicked woman! – a bawdy house … in spite of that she’d
been on the pilgrimage to Mecca. Then she said, ‘I’ll give some money
to the Moujahidine. Perhaps God will forgive me!’ She gave them
three hundred gold pieces! … After that someone ratted on her: a
man, apparently, who delivered medicines to the Brothers.
So I met this woman in this ante-chamber.
‘What brought you here, Khadija?’ I asked her.
‘The same as you!’ she replied. ‘You’ve been betrayed, so have I! …
God has willed that we meet in this place, and under these
circumstances!’
This time they questioned me with electricity until . . . until I
thought I’d die! I’d said, ‘I don’t want anyone crying over me!’ If I
thought they were going to question me with electricity, I wouldn’t
have gone, not at any price! I’d rather have died there and then.
I came back again into the mountains with my daughter. We used to go
and take semolina to the Brothers. We’d look for a place in the forest
where we could leave it. We also had to find a place to knead it, where
we could cook it. Once, on the way back I caught sight of the soldiers
in the distance.
We fled towards the wadi. We climbed down into a guelta that was
quite deep. The house was on fire. Huge embers, as well as pieces of
burning beams were hurled into the air … We hid, but these burning
missiles fell on us. Some of them fell on my head.
The child, who was very small, was completely covered by the �ater
of the guelta. I was half exposed. My hair caught fire. And the child,
who was crying with fright, shouted, ‘Mother, the fire’s eating you up!
The fire’s eating you up!’
That’s how I lost all my hair. I hurled myself into the water. But
more burning embers fell on me. We couldn’t leave the spot … I’ve
still got these scars on my forehead and neck …
We hid the whole day in the pool. The child and I, all by ourselves!
The Brothers had fled into the forest. The soldiers started to leave. I
could hear the stamp of their feet. They went back to the Roman road
and got into their lorries; it was nearly dusk … It was quite quiet for
a bit.
161
‘Fatiha,’ I said, ‘you’re quite small. From a distance, you could be
mistaken for a chicken or a little goat … Climb up the hill and look!’
She did as I said; she came back and told me, ‘They’ve got back into
their lorries and they’re driving away. You can come out!’
I came out. We were free. We started walking. Where could we go
now, it was night! We walked and walked … We found a wa/i. We
spent the night there, ncar the Saint’s grave. We were ashamed to go
and knock on people’s doors. We stayed there until it was light. Only
then did we knock at the lady’s door, Sid Ahmed Tabar’s daughter.
‘\\’here have you been, little mother?’ she asked me.
‘We’ve just arrived,’ I replied.
I didn’t want to tell her we’d spent the night in the open. I was afraid
she’d laugh at us … Because they do laugh! They laugh and laugh,
those people that nothing happens to!
I didn’t want to mention the fire. Perhaps they’d even be glad about
it, those people who don’t know what misfortune is! I told her again,
‘We’ve been walking in the forest … We’ve just arrived at your door!’
I must admit that she looked after us well. She made us some bread.
We had as much to cat and drink as we needed. Then we left. We
didn’t stay the night with her. She didn’t say anything and we just
didn’t stay. People don’t like sheltering those, like ourselves, who bring
‘France’ behind them!
We left. We wandered about …
After all these misfortunes, I’ve got to the point where people treat me
as if I’m mad. People started telling me I was mad. As a matter of fact,
they were afraid.
‘Here comes the mad woman, shut the door!’
It’s true that after my hair all got burnt I must have been ill for
several months … My sons took care of me. They found people to
look after me. I got a bit better. I must have had a blow on my head;
even now there are times when I can’t remember anything …
The Brothers also took care of me. Thanks to them, I got better. But
people still went on shutting their doors in the ‘mad woman’ ‘s face.
They were afraid: that’s the truth; especially the people of the village.
They said, ‘What arc those folk doing here? They bring bad luck!’
I went to Jennet’s again, in Hajout; I hadn’t got a stitch to my back. I
tried to find a pair of loose trousers that I could tic round my waist and
1 62
cover my head with, like a veil; I couldn’t find any. Who would have
given me a veil?
So I decided to go to Jennet’s. I had to go by bus. I took a basket of
vegetables with me and … When God wants to help you … A man
just happened to be wanting to buy onions. I met him and I’d got what
he wanted, so I was able to pay for the bus! I arrived at Jennet’s with no
veil and no burnous! …
1 63
Embraces
Lla Zohra, from Bou Scmmam, is more than eighty. I cross the
threshold of the house she lives in nowadays, just on the edge of the
village of Mcnaccr. I walk up the path through her vegetable patch that
she looks after herself, and under a walnut and an apricot tree that
later she points out to me proudly.
I tap softly with the knocker on the second door and the hum of the
sewing machine is suspended. The white-washed rooms open on to a
modest patio; from there the slopes of the mountain arc visible, Pic
Marceau with its observation posts that arc no longer in usc.
A young woman, the one who was doing the sewing, comes out first.
Then the old lady, my hostess. We embrace, we touch, we tell each
other how well we look. I sit down. I talk of my grandmother’s death,
which occurred just after independence. I hadn’t seen Lla Zohra since.
‘\Vc were cousins, your grandmother and I,’ she says. ‘It’s true I’m
closer to you through your mother’s father; we belong to the same
fraction of the same tribe. She was related to me through another
marriage, through the female line !’
I listen as she unravels the genealogical skein; the threads pass from
such and such a mountain to such and such a hill, winding through
::.armia and hamlet, and then round the heart of the city. I drink my
coffee. Finally I say, ‘I’m spending the night here! … We’ve plenty of
. I time . . . . ‘
l lcr voice stirs the glowing embers of days past. The afternoon
draws on, the mountainsides change colour, the sewing machine
resumes its monotonous humming-song at the far end of the patio.
The old woman’s adopted daughter has gone back to her sewing; she
doesn’t want to listen or be involved. Later, she asks me how she can
get a job in the nearby town, in the post-office, or in a nursery
school …
1 64
I agree to take you up to your farm, little mother, high in the
mountains. After two hours’ walk on thorny paths, we found the
sanctuary, which you call ‘the refuge’, using the French word, only
slightly distorted: the walls arc still standing among the rubble. Their
base is blackened with traces of extinct fires, lit by present-day
vagrants.
There, your voice took up your talc. The sun was still high. You let
your veil fall around your waist and sat down among the gorse bushes
and spring flowers. Your face, a network of fine wr’inklcs, was austere;
you were lost for a moment in your own memories – I took a
photograph of you among the poppies … The sun gradually sank low
in the sky. We returned in the evening silence.
It is now my turn to tell a talc. To hand on words that were spoken,
then written down. Words from more than a century ago, like those
that we, two women from the same tribe, exchange today.
Shards of sounds which re-echo in the calm after the storm …
The oasis of Laghouat in the summer of 1 853: the artist Eugene
Fromcntin has spent the preceding autumn and spring in the Sahel
where peace has been restored, just as it has today, little mother.
Summer sets in. Giving way to a sudden impulse, he rushes
southwards. Six months before, Laghouat had suffered a terrible siege.
The oasis had been captured by the French, house by house. Traces of
mass graves can still be seen under the palm trees, where Fromcntin
walks with a friend. And just as I listen to you unfold your tale during
these few days, he hears his friend the lieutenant say, as he stops in
front of a most wretched house, ‘Look! Here’s a miserable hut that I’d
like to sec razed to the ground!’
Fromcntin continues: ‘And as we went along, he told me the
following story in a few brief words, stamped with his sad reflections
on the cruel hazards of war:
‘ “In this house, which has changed hands since the capture of the
city, lived two very pretty Naylettes . . . ” ‘*
Fatma and Mcricm, the Naylettes, earn their living in the oasis as
dancers and prostitutes. They arc twenty at the most. Fifteen years
previously, the Amir Abd al-Qadir had attacked El-Mahdi, ncar
.. Eugene Fromentin, VII ere till Sahara (A Summer in the Sahara)
1 65
Laghouat, to try 10 subdue the lords of the south and unify resistance
to the Christian … Had these women lost their father in this civil war,
and some of their brothers? Let us suppose so; when we meet them in
this digression into the past, they make a living out of their beauty
which is in its prime …
If they were to live till they were forty, little mother, perhaps they
would become like that woman, Khadija, with whom you kept
company in the corridor of torture; wealthy sinners trying to make the
pilgrimage ‘to win their pardon and give money to the Partisans!’
A few months or a few weeks before the siege of Laghouat, Fatma
and Meriem secretly received two officers from a French column
which patrol the district: not for betrayal, but simply for a night of love,
‘may God preserve us from sin!’
‘After the street fighting of 4 and 5 December, the corpses were so
numerous that they filled the well of the oasis!’ I explained. ‘And
Fatma? And Meriem?’ Lla Zohra interrupted, catching herself
following the story as if it were a legend recounted by a bard. ‘\Vhere
did you hear this story?’ she went on, impatiently.
‘I read it!’ I replied. ‘An eye-witness told it to a friend who wrote it
down.’
The lieutenant, one of the officers who’d been received by the
Naylettes, is a member of the first company which leads the attack. He
fights throughout the day. ‘We fought our way right into the heart of
the city,’ he explains. Suddenly he recognizes the district and goes with
his sergeant to the dancers’ house.
A soldier is just coming out, his bayonet dripping with blood. Two
accomplices run out after him, their arms laden with women’s
jewellery.
‘Too late!’ the lieutenant thinks, as he enters the house which had
previously welcomed him so warmly.
And night falls.
The lieutenant tells what he had seen and the artist writes it down:
‘Fatma was dead, Meriem was dying. The one lay on the paving-stones
in the courtyard, the other had rolled down the stairs, head first, and
lay at the bottom.’
Two bodies of two young dancers lying half naked up to the waist,
their thighs visible through the tom fabric of their clothes, without
head-dress or diadem, without earrings or anklets, without necklaces
1 66
of coral or gold coins, without glass-beaded clasps … In the courtyard
the stove is still burning; a dish of couscous has just been served. The
spindle from the loom has been put down, still wound full of wool,
never to be used; only the olive-wood chest lies overturned, rifled, its
hinges wrenched off.
‘As Meriem died in my arms, she dropped a button she had torn off
the uniform of her murderer,’ sighed the lieutenant who had arrived
too late.
Six months later, the officer gave his trophy to Fromentin, who kept
it. Fromentin was never to paint the picture of the death of those
dancers. Is it the feel of this object in his hand which transforms him
from a painter of Algerian hunting scenes into the writer depicting
death in words? … As if Fromentin ‘s pen had taken precedence over
his paint-brush, as if the story passed on to him could only find its final
form in words …
Meriem’s dying hand still holds out the button from the uniform: to
the lover, to the friend of the lover who cannot now help but write. And
time is abolished. I, your cousin, translate this story into our mother
tongue, and tell it now to you, sitting beside you, little mother, in front
of your vegetable patch. So I try my hand as temporary story-teller.
The nights I spent in Mcnacer, I slept in your bed, just as long ago I
slept as a child curled up against my father’s mother.
1 67
Third Movement:
The Ballad of Abraham
Every gathering, for a funeral, for a wedding, is subject to rigid rules:
the separation of the sexes must be rigorously respected, care must be
taken that no male relative sees you, no cousin among the men
crowding outside the house must run the risk of recognizing you when
you go out or in, veiled amid the host of other veiled women, lost in the
mob of guests concealed behind their masks.
A young girl’s introduction to religious observance itself can only be
through sound, never through sight: no office in which the disposition
of people, the code prescribed for costume and posture, the ritual
hierarchy would strike the sensibility of the female child. Any emotion
that might be expressed will be inspired by music, by the worn voices
of the female worshippers calling on the divine presence. At the
mosque, in the corner reserved for women, only the matriarchs squat,
the very old whose voices have already died.
In the transmission of Islam, an acid erosion has been at work:
Tradition would seem to decree that entry through its strait gate is by
submission, not by love. Love, which the most simple of settings might
inflame, appears dangerous.
There remains music. I hear again the pious women chanting when,
every Friday during our holidays, we children accompanied female
relatives to the tomb of the city’s patron saint.
Inside the primitive mud-walled hovel dozens of anonymous women
from the surrounding hamlets and neighbouring farms squat on the
straw mats covering the floor, and intone their plaintive chants. The
noxious effluvia of mingled sweat and damp pervading the place
reminds me of the ante-room of a hammam, with the distant trickle of
fountains replaced by the murmur of rasping voices.
1 69
But as the women launch into their shrill vociferations I do not feel
any mystical exaltation; the recriminations of these veiled worshippers
(who barely leave a gap in the cloth covering their swollen faces), the
bitterness of their lamentations, make the singers appear to me as
victims … I pity them or find them strange, or frightening. The city
ladies sitting around me, and who have bedecked and beautified
themselves for this outing, arc not so easily put off. My mother and her
cousins draw near; they hastily mumble some Quranic formulae over
the saint’s catafalque, blow a kiss and leave: our group remains
untouched by the popular exaggerated religiosity.
We take a footpath that leads down to a sheltered creek where the
women can bathe protected from onlookers.
‘Going to visit the marabout’ means visiting the saint whose dead
presence offers solace. The dead man seems helpful to my female
relatives – even seems to do them a favour – since he had the courtesy,
two or three centuries ago, to come to die quite ncar the seashore.
However, this pretext that they were going on a pilgrimage did not
deceive my uncle, who during the summer became the head of the
whole extended family. He was prepared to tum a blind eye to the fact
that we indulged in such profane pleasures as sea-bathing rather than
the religious devotions that we had announced.
My first stirrings of religious feeling go back much further: in the
village, for three or four years running, the day of the ‘feast of the
sheep’ was heralded by ‘The Ballad of Abraham’.
Chilly winter mornings, when my mother, up earlier than usual,
switched on the radio. The programme in Arabic invariably involved
the same record in honour of the holiday: a performance by a
celebrated tenor which included a dozen or so verses telling the story
of Abraham and his son.
It was listening to this ballad every year throughout my childhood
that formed, I think, my feeling for Islam.
In the dawn twilight I wake to the caressing voice of the singer, a
tenor whom Saint-Sacns, while spending his last years in Algiers, had
encouraged when he was just starting his career as a muezzin. In the
course of his performance, verse after verse, he acted out all the
characters: Abraham, in a dream that troubled his nights, beholding
the Angel Gabriel come in the name of God, to demand that he
sacrifice his son; Abraham’s wife, not knowing that her son, decked
out in his ceremonial jellaba, was to be sacrificed; Isaac himself,
1 70
climbing up the mountain in all innocence, astonished that the raven
on the branch speaks to him of death …
I hung on the opening words of the Biblical drama but I do not know
why the song evoked such a passionate response in me: the progress of
the story to its miraculous ending, each character whose words
brought them so vividly to life, the burden and the horror of
Abraham’s fate which weighed so heavily on him as he was constrained
to conceal his anguish … It was as much the texture itself of the song
– the variegated pattern of the phraseology – as the melancholy of the
singer’s voice (making me curl up more tightly under the sheets) which
cast such a spell over me: the unfamiliar terms, the reticence of the
Arabic dialect, veiling the direct reference with a wealth of imagery.
This language which the tenor’s art made so simple, was vibrant with a
primitive solemnity.
Abraham’s wife, Sarah, had her say in the verses, just like my
mother describing to us her joys, fears or forebodings. Abraham could
have been my father who never expressed his own feelings aloud, but
who, it seemed to me, might have … I was deeply moved also by the
son’s submission: his respect for his father, the reticence with which he
bore the burden of his grief, and this very perfection carried me back
to a past era, both nobler and more innocent:
‘Since thou hadst perforce to kill me, 0 In)’ father,
Wherefore didst thou not advise me of it?
I could then have bestowed upon In)’ mother embraces mow! …
Take care, when thou stoopest to sacrifice me,
lest my blood stain thy gown!
My mother, on thy return to her, might guess my fate too hastily!’
I loved the simplicity of Isaac’s song, in whose unhurried stanzas the
dramatic quality of the tale swelled to its climax. The insistent beat of
this music …
At this same period, an aunt used to recount the life of the Prophet,
with many variations: one incident inspired the same emotion in
me …
When the Prophet first started having visions, he returned one day
from the cave so upset that, in her words, ‘they made him weep’; and as
she spoke she almost burst into tears herself. ‘To comfort him, Lalla
Khadija, his wife, sat him on her lap,’ my aunt explained, as if she had
171
herself been present. ‘So,’ she always concluded, ‘the very fir.it
1\ tuslim, perhaps even before the Prophet himself, may Allah preserve
him! \vas a woman. A woman was historically the first to adhere to the
Islamic faith, out of conjugal love,’ according to my relative.
In a triumphant voice she revived this scene time and time again; I
was ten, or perhaps eleven: listening, I was struck with sudden
embarrassment as I had only seen this demonstration of conjugal love
in a European society: ‘Is that the way for a Prophet to behave?’ I
asked, offended and shocked. ‘Can a man who sits on his wife’s lap be
a Prophet?’
My aunt smiled discreetly, her heart melted … Years later, my
heart too was melted by another detail in her talc. ‘Long after
Khadija’s death,’ so she related, ‘one particular circumstance would
cause Mohamed uncontrollable distress: whenever his late wife’s sister
approached his tent, the Prophet would be most upset, because he said
the sound of the sister’s footsteps was identical to that of his dead wife.
At this sound, which seemed to restore Khadija to life, the Prophet
could scarce hold back his tears … ‘
This story of the sound of sandalled feet would bring on a sudden
yearning for Islam. A longing to embark as on a love affair, a ru.’itling
catching at my heart: with fervour and taking all the risks of blasphemy.
1 72
Voice
We were just finishing our evening meal. I handed my young son a
jam-dish with a linlc silver spoon. I got this spoon from my father.
I’d only been married a few days – I wasn’t quite fifteen – I’d gone to
sec my father and I was having coffee with him. Suddenly I asked him,
‘Father, I’d like to take this little spoon!’
‘Take it,’ he replied. ‘Take the cups, look around and take anything
you like from here, daughter!’
‘Father,’ I said, ‘I only want this spoon, because it’s the one you
always usc for your coffee! It’s so dear to my heart!’
I’d kept it ever since, and that was thirty years ago at least, maybe
forty … But on the night I was talking about the partisans were at our
place. They’d had something to cat and drink. Others were keeping a
look-out. When I’d given them their coffee I passed the jam-dish to my
son so that he could serve them and for some reason I put the silver
spoon in it. He’d scarcely gone out of the room than ‘France’ sent her
troops up into the hills and bullets started raining down all round!
And so my boy went off with them: he dropped the jam-dish but he
held on to the spoon … As if he was taking my father’s blessing with
him – may God rest his soul!
And so my last-born went off with the maquisards. He was so
young: barely fourteen! It’s true that he was very quick and bright.
Later one of my older sons who was already married came to sec me
and said, ‘You ought to ask the maquisards to let you have him back,
he’s too young!’
‘Listen!’ I replied. ‘If he comes back and the enemy questions him,
suppose he couldn’t hold out and he told them everything he
knew? … We’d be dishonoured! Leave him: if he must die, he’ll die a
hero, and if he’s destined to live, he’ll live with a clear conscience!’
So Kaddour stayed in the maquis. It’s true he was young, but he’d
1 73
had some schooling. Of all his brothers he was the one who had the
most drive …
Once J\lustapha, another of my sons, came from Marceau.
‘:\lother,’ he said, ‘father’s just been taken away; the French
officer’s going to question him about Kaddour. They’ve spotted that
he isn’t here any more.’
When God wants to ensure somconc’s salvation, he docs so! Before
he joined the maquis Kaddour never did any manual work about the
place: he wouldn’t even go and fill a can of water! … But then the
schoolchildren went on strike: little ones and big ones. He had to stay
on the farm with nothing to do. They were looking for seasonal
workers to help with the grape-picking down on the plain. A
Frenchwoman, the Moulios girl, was giving out work permits for the
picking. Kaddour went to see her.
‘Give me a permit,’ he asked her, ‘so that I can go and get seasonal
work down on the plain! With this strike I can’t bear sitting around
doing nothing … ‘
The real reason he wanted a permit was so that he could move about
freely. He’d no intention of going and working for other people: he was
too proud for that, and as I said, as far as manual work was concerned,
he was too lazy!
The Moulios girl gave him the permit. He showed it to me. ‘Very
well! Go and work then!’ I said.
I was so afraid, when he moved around at that time, that the goumiers
would pick him up and beat him or provoke him … And then there
was this alarm at our house that night and he left with the
Moujahidine. A few weeks later the French questioned his father:
‘\\’here’s the youngster?’
‘He asked for a permit to go and work down on the plain!’ his father
replied and he quoted the Frenchwoman. They questioned her and
she admitted that she’d given him this permit. It seems that the officer
telephoned all the farms in the surrounding country, even as far as
Marengo. No-one knew anything about him. So in the end they
decided that he must have died somewhere.
A long time before these events I heard someone knocking repeatedly
at the door in the middle of the night. I was alone at the farm, with my
daughters-in-law and the children. I didn’t open up.
1 74
Well, no sooner had I put my head on the pillow than I fell into a
deep sleep. I had a dream which woke me up: two apparitions, like
ghosts, but all lit up, stood before me and spoke to me:
‘0, Lla Hajja!’ (that’s how they addressed me although I hadn’t
been to Mecca then). ‘Truly you were afraid and we understand your
fears;
You thought us a company of goumiers
But we arc indeed the Prophet’s heirs! .. . ‘
They spoke just like that, in rhymed prose, and they repeated the last
bit which was what woke me up and gave me such a feeling of remorse;
it’s true that that night I’d not opened the door to the partisans!
They were in the habit of arriving, of eating, keeping watch and
leaving again in the night. I always showed them in to the same room.
In the daytime I kept this room empty. I sometimes stood in the
doorway and thought, ‘This room where the sons of the Revolution
enter, will become green, green, green, like an unopened water-melon,
and one day its walls with fresh dew shall stream!’ So I was starting to
express myself in rhymed prose, like the apparitions in my dream!
One night when the Moujahidinc arrived, they’d brought in the mud
from the roads on their boots, right into this room.
‘No, no! Don’t worry!’ I cried. ‘We’ll clean it up tomorrow!’
I felt light-hearted; I wanted them to sit down and make themselves
at home. I brought them all my cushions. I asked for jugs of water and
soap to be brought, then the silver ewers! The next day we had to usc
picks to chop away the dried mud from the entrance! Yet God has
always kept us safe!
1 75
Whispers
In April 1842, the Berkanis ‘ ::,aouia is bumt dow11; WOIItelt and children
wander mYr the .mow-clad 11wuutainsides – that J•ear the mi11ter was vel)•
severe. Their corpses will feed the jackals.
The French leare; their comtllllllder, General de Saint-A maud, who has
succeeded the gloomy Cavaignac, retllrns to his base in Orleamville, via
Miliana. From his encampment on the site of the gutted :::aouia, he continues
his correspondence with his brother.
The fiJI/owing year the same soldiers retum. Since death and destmction
have not brought about final mbmission, since old Berka11i, the Caliph ‘s
depul)•, acting on orders from the Amir, continues to stir up resistance further
to the west, Saint-Amaud decides on more drastic measures: he will take
hostages from the Depul)• ‘s own famif;•: ‘Eight of the chiefs of the three
principal fractions of the Beni-Menacer tribe, ‘ he explains to his brother.
The matriarchs whisper to the children in the dark, to the children ‘s children
crouching on the straw mat, to the girls who will become matriarchs in tum,
their time fi�r child-bearing soon past (a mere parenthesis, from the age of
fifteen to thirty-five or fiJT1]�. Of their bodies there remains neither bell;• that
begets, nor clutching arms, flung wide in travail. OJ their bodies, they retain
on!;• the ears and eyes of childhood which hang on the lips of the wrinkled
story-teller – this matriarch who intones in the corridor, handing on the
heroic saga of the fathers, the grandfathers, the patemal great-uncles. The low
roice steers the words through waters awash with the dead, prisoners never to
be freed …
Women whispering: in their beds, once the candle has been snuffed out,
during the nights when the a/ann has been given, once the embers of the
bra:::iers hare grow11 cold … From the age of fifteen to thit1]•-five or fot1J•, the
body sags, the body swells, the body bursts open in childbirth, finally the
leaden years are over: the body triumphs over the twilight when mouths are
1 76
gagged, features masked, qes inrariah6• lomeml … During this period of
enfi�rced silence, the stilled voice hides its time, groans are stifled, grievances
sublimated.
Period rvheu women are choked mith desire, the burial pit – dark tunnel ­
of youth, rvhen the dwms of womm gaze on death and fiji up shrill,
convulsive voices to the blackened SAJ’ … Retaining their nile ofstoty-teller,
figurehead at the prow of 11/e/IWIJ’. The legaq rvill othenvise be lost – night
after night, wave upon tPave, the whispers tal·e up the tale, ez.·en beji1re the
child can understand, ez.•ot beji1re she finds her words of light, befim she
speaks in her tllm and so that she n>ill not speak alone …
‘Eight of the chiefs of the three principal fractions, ‘ the French geueral rvrites,
referring to the hostages. ‘Forty-eight prisoners bound for the lslaiUI of
Sainte-Marguerite: men, rvomeu and children, including one pregnant
rvoman ‘: so go the whispers, setting the record straight today, on the site rifthe
gutted zaouia, rvhere the orchards are nom more sparse. Fig trees are more
numerous than orange or mandarin grm.’es: as if the water has first gone to
keep memories green, and mt its irrigation channels faster m.’er rocks!
The spoon from the jam-dish which ‘the saint’ – that’s what they call her
because, in her fen•elll piety, she fasts all the )’ear round-passed to her J’OUng
son when the a/am1 rvas given. The old father’s lmJing gesture for his daughter
fearing to get married long ago, is reversed thirl)• ]•ears on, in the gift that the
daughter makes to her )’oungest son who disappears one night in wartime. He
will return safe and sound, a few )’ears later! . . . That spoon from the
jam-dish, a luXUIJ’ object in those impuverished mountains, is for me an
heraldic object to be chosen for some crest …
The fires in the orchards gutted b)’ Saint-Arnaud are fina/6• extinguished,
because the old lad)• talks today and I am preparing to transcribe her tale. To
drarv up the inventOI)’ of the till)’ objects passed on thus, from febrile hand to
fugitive hand!
When ‘the saint ‘ rvas a child, she listened to the tales told b)• her grandmother,
who was the daughter-in-law of old Berkani. The historians lost sight of him,
just before the Amir was forced to surrender. Aissa ei-Berkani left with his
‘deira’ for Morocco. Be:J•ond Oudja, there is no more trace of him in the
archh·es – as if ‘archives’ guaranteed the imprint of rea/it)’!
Long after this exodus, one of his daughters-in-law found herself a
childless widorv. She asked the Caliph – so the story goes -for pennission to
1 77
return to her fami(J’ among the Beni-Menacer tribe who were now subdued.
So sht• returned and mam”ed a cousin who took part in the second uprising in
1871 …
Long after this second revolt, now in her old age, she transmits her
whispered stoT)’ rn her tum to a new circle ofbright-e:)’ed children. Then one of
these little girls rvi/1 in tum travel the same path and find herself clad in satin
and shot-silk; nicknamed ‘the saint’, she too rvi/1 carry on the whispering …
Chains of memories: is it not indeed a ‘chain ‘,jiJr do not memories fetter us
as well as fonning our roots? For every passer-b)•, the stoT)I-feller stands
hidden in the doonva)’. It is not seem/)’ to raise the curtain and stand exposed
in the sunlight.
Words that are too explicit become such boastings as the braggard uses; and
elected silence implies resistance still intact …
1 78
The Quranic School
At the age when I should be veiled already, I can still move about freely
thanks to the French school: every Monday the village bus takes me to
the boarding school in the nearby town, and brings me back on
Saturday to my parents’ home.
I have a friend who is half I tal ian and who goes home every weekend
to a fishing port on the coast; we go together to catch our respective
buses and arc tempted by all sorts of escapades … With beating hearts
we make our way into the centre of the town; to enter a smart
cake-shop, wander along the edge of the park, stroll along the
boulevard, which only runs alongside common barracks, seems the
acme of freedom, after a week of boarding school! Excited by the
proximity of forbidden pleasures, we eventually each catch our bus; the
thrill lay in the risk of missing it!
As a young teenager I enjoy the exhilarating hours spent every
Thursday in training on the sports field. I only have one worry: fear
that my father might come to visit me! How can I tell him that it’s
compulsory for me to wear shorts, in other words, I have to show my
legs? I keep this fear a secret, unable to confide in any of my
schoolfricnds; unlike me, they haven’t got cousins who do not show
their ankles or their arms, who do not even expose their faces. My
panic is also compounded by an Arab woman’s ‘shame’. The French
girls whirl around me; they do not suspect that my body is caught in
invisible snares.
‘Doesn’t your daughter wear a veil yet?’ asks one or other of the
matrons, gazing questioningly at my mother with suspicious kohlrimmed
eyes, on the occasion of one of the summer weddings. I must
be thirteen, or possibly fourteen.
‘She reads!’ my mother replies stiffly.
Everyone is swallowed up in the embarrassed silence that ensues.
And in my own silence.
1 79
‘She reads’, that is to say in Arabic, ‘she studies’. I think now that this
command ‘to read’ was not just casually included in the Quranic
revelation made by the Angel Gabriel in the cave … ‘She reads’ is
tantamount to saying that writing to be read, including that of the
unbelievers, is always a source of revelation: in my case of the mobility
of my body, and so of my future freedom.
When I am growing up – shortly before my native land throws off the
colonial yoke – while the man still has the right to four legitimate
wives, we girls, big and little, have at our command four languages to
express desire before all that is left for us is sighs and moans: French
for secret missives; Arabic for our stifled aspirations towards
God-the-Father, the God of the religions of the Book; Lybico-Berber
which takes us back to the pagan idols – mother-gods – of pre-Islamic
Mecca. The fourth language, for all females, young or old, cloistered
or half-emancipated, remains that of the body: the body which male
neighbours’ and cousins’ eyes require to be deaf and blind, since they
cannot completely incarcerate it; the body which, in trances, dances or
vociferations, in fits of hope or despair, rebels, and unable to read or
write, seeks some unknown shore as destination for its message oflove.
In our towns, the first woman-reality is the voice, a dart which flies off
into space, an arrow which slowly falls to earth; next comes writing
with the scratching pointed quill forming amorous snares with its Iiana
letters. By way of compensation, the need is felt to blot out women’s
bodies and they must be muffled up, tightly swathed, swaddled like
infants or shrouded like corpses. Exposed, a woman’s body would
offend every eye, be an assault on the dimmest of desires, emphasize
every separation. The voice, on the other hand, acts like a perfume, a
draft of fresh water for the dry throat; and when it is savoured, it can be
enjoyed by several simultaneously; a secret, polygamous pleasure …
When the hand writes, slow positionin� of the arm, carefully
bending forward or leaning to one side, crouching, swaying to and fro,
as in an act of love. When reading, the eyes take their time, delight in
caressing the curves, while the calligraphy suggests the rhythm of the
scansion: as if the writing marked the beginning and the end of
possession.
Writing: everywhere, a wealth of burnished gold and in its vicinity
there is no place for other imagery from either animal or vegetable
1 80
kingdom; it looks in the mirror of its scrolls and curlicues and sees
itself as woman, not the reflection of a voice. It emphasizes by its
presence alone where to begin and where to retreat; it suggests, by the
song that smoulders in its heart, the dance floor for rejoicing and
hair-shirt for the ascetic; I speak of the Arabic script; to be separated
from it is to be separated from a great love. This script, which I
mastered only to write the sacred words, I sec now spread out before
me cloaked in innocence and whispering arabesques – and ever since,
all other scripts (French, English, Greek) seem only to babble, are
never cathartic; they may contain truth, indeed, but a blemished truth.
Just as the pentathlon runner of old needed the starter, so, as soon
as I learned the foreign script, my body began to move as if by instinct.
As if the French language suddenly had eyes, and lent them me to
sec into liberty; as if the French language blinded the peeping-toms of
my clan and, at this price, I could move freely, run headlong down
every street, annex the outdoors for my cloistered companions, for the
matriarchs of my family who endured a living death. As if … Derision!
I know that every language is a dark depository for piled-up corpses,
refuse, sewage, but faced with the language of the former conqucrcr,
which offers me its ornaments, its jewels, its flowers, I find they arc the
flowers of death – chrysanthemums on tombs!
Its script is a public unveiling in front of sniggering onlookers … A
queen walks down the street, white, anonymous, draped, but when the
shroud of rough wool is torn away and drops suddenly at her feet,
which a moment ago were hidden, she becomes a beggar again,
squatting in the dust, to be spat at, the target of cruel comments.
In my earliest childhood – from the age of five to ten – I attended the
French school in the village, and every day after lessons there I went
on to the Quranic school.
Classes were held in a back room lent by a grocer, one of the village
notables. I can recall the place, and its dim light: was it because the
time for the lessons was just before dark, or because the lighting of the
room was so parsimonious? …
The master’s image has remained singularly clear: delicate features,
pale complexion, a scholar’s sunken checks; about forty families
supported him. I was struck by the elegance of his bearing and his
traditional attire: a spotless light muslin was wrapped around his
181
head-dress and floated behind his neck; his serge tunic was dazzling
white. I never saw this man except sitting.
In comparison, the horde of misbehaving little urchins squatting on
straw mats – sons of fellaheen for the most part – seemed crude riffraff,
from whom I kept my distance.
We were only four or five little girls. I suppose that our sex kept us
apart, rather than my supercilious amazement at their beha\iour. In
spite of his aristocratic bearing, the taleb did not hesitate to lift his cane
and bring it down on the fingers of a recalcitrant or slow-witted lad. (I
can still hear it whistle through the air.) We girls were spared this
regular punishment.
I can remember the little impromptu parties my mother de,ised in
our flat when I brought home (as later my brother was to do) the
walnut tablet decorated with arabesques. This was the master’s reward
when we had learnt a long sura by heart. My mother and our \illage
nanny, who was a second mother to us, then let out that semi-barbaric
‘you-you’. That prolonged, irregular, spasmodic cooing, which in our
building reserved for teachers’ families – all European except for ours
– must have appeared incongruous, a truly primitive cry. My mother
considered the circumstances (the study of the Quran undertaken by
her children) sufficiently important for her to let out this ancestral cry
of jubilation in the middle of the \illage where she nevertheless felt
herself an exile.
At every prize-gi,ing ceremony at the French school, every prize I
obtained strengthened my solidarity with my own family; but I felt
there was more glory in this ostentatious clamour. The Quranic
school, that dim cavern in which the haughty figure of the Sheikh was
enthroned above the poor \illage children, this school became, thanks
to the joy my mother demonstrated in this way, an island of bliss –
Paradise regained.
Back in my native city, I learned that another Arab school was being
opened, also funded by private contributions. One of my cousins
attended it; she took me there. I was disappointed. The buildings, the
timetable, the modern appearance of the masters, made it no different
from a common-or-garden French school …
I understood later that in the \illage I had participated in the last of
popular, secular teaching. In the city, thanks to the Nationalist
movement of ‘Modernist Muslims’, a new generation of Arab culture
was being forged.
1 82
Since then these medrasas have sprung up everywhere. If I had
attended one of them (if I’d grown up in the town where I was born) I
would have found it quite natural to swathe my head in a turban, to
hide my hair, to cover my arms and calves, in a word to move about out
of doors like a Muslim nun!
After the age of ten or eleven, shortly before puberty, I was no longer
allowed to attend the Quranic school. At this age, boys arc suddenly
excluded from the women’s Turkish bath – that emollient world of
naked bodies stifling in a whirl of scalding steam … The same thing
happened to my companions, the little village girls, one of whom I
would like to describe here.
The daughter of the Kabylc baker must, like me, have attended the
French school simultaneously with the Quranic school. But I can only
recall her presence squatting at my side in front of the Sheikh: side by
side, half smiling to each other, both already finding it uncomfortable
to sit cross-legged! … My legs must have been too long, because of
my height: it wasn’t easy for me to hide them under my skirt.
For this reason alone I think that I would in any case have been
weaned from Quranic instruction at this age: there is no doubt that it’s
easier to sit cross-legged when wearing a seroual; a young girl’s body
that is beginning to develop more easily conceals its form under the
ample folds of the traditional costume. But my skirts, justified by my
attendance at the French school, were ill adapted to such a posture.
When I was eleven I started secondary school and became a
boarder. What happened to the baker’s daughter? Certainly veiled,
withdrawn overnight from school: betrayed by her figure. Her swelling
breasts, her slender legs, in a word, the emergence of her woman’s
personality transformed her into an incarcerated body!
I remember how much this Quranic learning, as it is progressively
acquired, is linked to the body.
The portion of the sacred verse, inscribed on both sides of the
walnut tablet, had to be wiped off at least once a week, after we had
shown that we could recite it off by heart. We scrubbed the piece of
wood thoroughly, just like other people wash their clothes: the time it
took to dry seemed to ensure the interval that the memory needed to
digest what it had swallowed …
The learning was absorbed by the fingers, the arms, through the
1 83
physical effort. The act of cleaning the tablet seemed like ingesting a
portion of the Quranic text. The writing – itself a copy of writing which
is considered immutable – could only continue to unfold before us if it
relied, clause by clause, on this osmosis …
As the hand traces the liana-script, the mouth opens to repeat the
words, obedient to their rhythm, partly to memorize, partly to relieve
the muscular tension … The shrill voices of the drowsy children rise
up in a monotonous, sing-song chorus.
Stumbling on, swaying from side to side, care taken to observe the
tonic accents, to differentiate between long and short vowels, attentive
to the rhythm of the chant; muscles of the larynx as well as the torso
moving in harmony. Controlling the breath to allow the correct
emission of the voice, and letting the understanding advance
precariously along its tight-rope. Respecting the grammar by speaking
it aloud, making it part of the chant.
This language which I learn demands the correct posture for the
body, on which the memory rests for its support. The childish hand,
spurred on – as in training for some sport – by willpower worthy of an
adult, begins to write. ‘Read!’ The fingers labouring on the tablet send
back the signs to the body, which is simultaneously reader and servant.
The lips having finished their muttering, the hand will once more do
the washing, proceeding to wipe out what is written on the tablc.t: this
is the moment of absolution, like touching the hem of death’s garment.
Again, it is the turn of writing, and the circle is completed.
And when I sit curled up like this to study my native language it is as
though my body reproduces the architecture of my native city: the
medinas with their tortuous alleyways closed off to the outside world,
living their secret life. When I write and read the foreign language, my
body travels far in subversive space, in spite of the neighbours and
suspicious matrons; it would not need much for it to take wing and fly
away!
As I approach a marriageable age, these two different apprenticeships,
undertaken simultaneously, land me in a dichotomy of location. My
father’s preference will decide for me: light rather than darkness. I do
not realize that an irrevocable choice is being made: the outdoors and
the risk, instead of the prison of my peers. This stroke of luck brings
me to the verge of breakdown.
1 84
write and speak French outside: the words I usc convey no
flesh-and-blood reality. I learn the names of birds I’ve nc\ cr seen,
trees I shall take ten years or more to identify, lists of flowers and
plants that I shall never smell until I travel north of the � lcditcrrancan.
In this respect, all vocabulary expresses what is missing in my life,
exoticism without mystery, causing a kind of visual humiliation that it is
not seemly to admit to … Settings and episodes in children’s books
arc nothing but theoretical concepts; in the French family the mother
comes to fetch her daughter or son from school; in the French street,
the parents walk quite naturally side by side … So, the world of the
school is expunged from the daily life of my native city, as it is from the
life of my family. The latter is refused any referential role.
My conscious mind is here, huddled against my mother’s knees, in
the darkest corners of the flat which she never leaves. The ambit of the
school is elsewhere: my search, my eyes arc fixed on other regions. I do
not realize, no-onc around me realizes, that, in the conflict between
these two worlds, lies an incipient vertigo.
1 85
A Widow’s Voice
�1y husband was in the habit of going to Cherchcl every Sunday. Once
he brought a guest back with him. The next day there was a meeting of
about fifteen people: they’d all come to our farm from the nearby
mountains.
The guest stayed the following night and the next day he left to go
back to the city. It was during Ramadan. Alas! somebod}’ betrayed us
and went to Gouraya to report the meeting.
The morning after the guest left, the gendarmes arrived. The men ­
my husband and his brothers – were out hunting. We had two guns
and a case of ammunition, but they were buried a little further away.
The cai”d who came with the gendarmes asked my mother-in-law,
‘Why does your son go every week to the market in Cherchcl?’
‘To buy things and to see his pa<ents!’ she replied.
‘That’s not true! I know you: you’ve got family in Novi, not in
Cherchel!’
He asked where the missing hunting rifles were. She replied that
her son had sold them a long time ago, at the religious festival of Si
M’hamed ben Yusef. They left without finding anything.
Soon afterwards our men were back. A few days went by; but the
gendarmes returned: this time they took all the men to prison in
Cherchel.
After nine months in prison my husband and one of his brothers
were sentenced to death: they were accused of having a list of names of
people who were working with France and who the Revolution had
condemned.
There were a lot of partisans in that prison. They decided, ‘We’re
going to take things into our own hands!’
One morning three of them managed to overcome a guard; they
killed him. At another gate, they did the same thing. One of the
1 86
prisoners was wounded in the leg; he told them, ‘You must all get out!
I’m staying! I’m going to die! You’ve still got a chance. Go! I shall kill
and be killed!’
They g-ot away; fifteen to twenty prisoners escaped together. That
was at nine o’clock in the morning. There was even a French woman
who was killed, but we never heard how it happened.
Two hours later, the soldiers turned up at our farm. One of them
said to the old lady, ‘Your sons have broken out of prison and killed
some guards! If the other guards decided to come here, you’d all be
dead, young and old, big and small, even including your cats!’
They searched everywhere; they asked again where the guns were
and eventually they left. The next morning one of our relatives came to
sec us from another mountain. He told us that the fugitives had spent
the night ncar the Mcssclmoun wadi. A nephew accompanied him; we
decided that we women would in future cook extra quantities of food,
in case it was needed …
A boy came to ask us for clothes. We agreed we’d bury the food
every time. Finally I managed to sec my husband; he arrived with
another man, named Abdoun …
‘France’ kept on increasing the number of guards. Every time one of
the men who’d escaped was sent to us, God preserved them, and us
too!
One night, they all regrouped and someone took them further away,
as far as Zaccar. From the next night we could get a bit more rest!
A few months later our men came to visit us; this time they were
wearing the maquisards’ uniform and they were armed. We embraced
them joyfully, we were proud of them!
‘Praise be to God! Finally you’ve escaped death!’
Life was never the same again. ‘France’ began to come up the
mountain to our place nearly every morning and evening. Eventually
they burned the houses, and then the people! Taking the animals away,
killing human beings! … Can you imagine what would happen when
they arrived at a house and found women alone? …
I decided to run away: I went to my parents who lived ncar another
mountain. I stayed there. Later apparently one of the soldiers asked my
mother-in-law, ‘And the lieutenant’s wife (they knew my husband was
now a lieutenant with the maquisards], wherc’s she got to?’
‘Since you’ve taken her husband to prison, she didn’t want to stay
here! She’s gone back to her own family!’
1 87
They never managed to find me during the whole of the war …
From there, I began to go into the hills to help other people; we took
food, we washed their uniforms, we kneaded bread … Until the day
when, as God had willed, my husband was killed fighting!
I only learned of his death through strangers. Someone told me, a
week after the ceasefire, ‘Your husband fell ncar Miliana, in a
skirmish!’
After independence the Brothers sent me a letter to tell me he’d
been buried in Algiers, at Sidi M’hamed de Belcourt. I took the letter.
I went to sec my sister-in-law, who lived in Algiers. Her husband
asked me, ‘Who told you that?’
I mentioned the letter.
‘Show me! Give it to me!’
Alas! You’ll laugh at me perhaps, but I never saw that letter again.
How could I have the courage to ask him for it back? … I knew my
husband had been buried in Algiers, because a nurse had looked after
him when he was wounded. They called her ‘The-Woman-fromCherchcl’;
in fact it was her husband who came from Chcrchcl. She
went back to live in Miliana.
A year or two later I tried to find her, simply so that she could tell me
about it. I decided to go to the religious festival of Sidi M’hamed, the
patron saint of Miliana. I got as far as her house and decided to talk to
her. I only stayed there a minute and left again.
She couldn’t tell me anything as I caught her right in the middle of
her housework. She was just able to confirm the facts for me: that she
had looked after my husband when she was a nurse with the maquis.
She was a middle-aged woman.
H ill
Embraces
It is early in summer 1 843 : the prisoners, Saint-Arnaud’s hostages,
segregated by family and sex, arc herded into the holds of a steamship
which leaves Bone bound for France.
I imagine you, the unknown woman, whose talc has been handed
down by story-tellers over the ten decades which lead to my childhood
years. For now I too take my place in the fixed circle of listeners, ncar
the Mcnaccr Mountains . . . I re-create you, the invisible woman,
sailing with the others to the Island of Sainte Marguerite, to the
prisons made celebrated by ‘The Man in the Iron Mask’. Your own
mask, 0 ancestress of ancestress! the first expatriate, is heavier by far
than that of romance! I resurrect you during that crossing that no letter
from any French soldier was to describe …
At Bone you walk up the gangway, mingling with the dusty crowd;
the men arc roped together; the women follow, shrouded in their white
or blue-grey veils which envelop whimpering infants, or to which cling
crying children. When the exodus begins you know you arc heavy with
child. Will you give birth to a fatherless babe, since the father has not
been taken? You sec yourself alone, without father, brother, husband
to accompany you to the shores of the Infidels. You must go with the
band of cousins, kin and relatives by marriage!
All the exiles sleep like you on the bare boards of the bunkers; they
have never seen the sea. They thought it would be empty and flat, not
this shifting abyss … The first night of the crossing you begin to
vomit; the pains begin the following day.
The second night you feel death in your belly swallowing all hope.
You curl up amidst the cousins, old, young, or not so young. These
women enfold you in their damp veils, as if to bind you with their
prayers, their whispers … Without a cry, you give birth to the foetus:
1 89
the night of full moon opens up, the sea is calm again, an indifferent
rival.
The ship sails on, laden with the forty-eight hostages. While your
companions doze, you lie still, your face turned towards the stern. You
arc rent with anguish: ‘How can I bury the foetus, 0 my Prophet, my
sweet Saviour!’
An old woman at your side has taken hold of it like a bundle of rags.
‘My dead bird! My eyes cannot close although it is the night!’
You sob, you prepare to lacerate your checks, while the old woman
mutters her blessings.
‘Our land is theirs! This sea is theirs! Where can I shelter my dead
son? Will there never be a corner of Islam again for us wretched folk?’
The sleeping women arc woken by your weeping; their anger is
aroused; they begin to intone a sura: a continuous rustle of sound, an
endless monotonous chant. Eventually you fall asleep, still holding the
foetus wrapped in a linen cloth. You doze, obsessed by the thought that
it is your youth you are carrying thus in your arms … The chorus of
prisoners grows louder.
Later, someone shakes you in the dark. A voice is calling you:
‘Daughter of my mother’s tribe, get up! You cannot keep the lamb of
God any longer in your arms!’
You look without understanding at the wrinkled face of an aunt who
is addressing you. Behind her, a mottled pink and grey light in the sky
indicates a new dawn; it surrounds the old woman like a halo.
‘What am I to do? Where shall I find a land of the believers in which
to bury him?’
Once more you arc overcome with despair.
‘Let us go up on deck! The men are sleeping! You and I will cast the
child into the sea!’
‘The Christians’ ocean!’ you protest timidly.
‘God’s ocean!’ the old woman retorts. ‘Everywhere is God’s pasture
and that of his Prophet! … And your son lives, I am sure, like a cherub
in our own Paradise!’
Two veiled figures step over the collection of sleeping women. A
moment later, you cast the bundle in your arms over the ship’s rail.
‘At least let it be facing our own land!’ you moan.
‘May God guide and assist us wherever we arc cast!’ adds your
companion, who leads you back to your place …
1 90
You weep no more, you will never weep again! Will you be one of
the prisoners who are released ten years later and who repeat the
crossing in the opposite direction to rejoin their tribe, now completely
quelled?
191
Fourth Movement:
The Cry in the Dream
I have a recurring dream from time to time, after a day which has been
fretted momentarily by some quite ordinary or possibly unusual event.
I dream of my paternal grandmother; I relive the day of her death. I am
at once the six-year-old child who experienced this loss and the
woman who dreams and suffers, every time, from this dream.
I can sec neither my grandmother’s corpse nor the funeral
ceremony. I have rushed out of this house where death has come
knocking, and go tearing down the narrow alley. On I run, dashing
headlong down the street hemmed in by hostile walls, empty houses. I
race past the church and the smart residential district where my
mother lives. During all the time I am running, my mouth gapes wider
and wider … The sound in my dream however is switched off.
I am driven relentlessly onward. A scream is implanted within me; it
shoots up through my limbs, swelling in my chest, rasping my larynx,
fills my mouth and is exhaled in a dense silence; my legs move
automatically. My whole being is inhabited by these words: ‘Mamma is
dead, is dead!’; I carry my grief with me, I even run ahead of it, I don’t
know whether I’m calling out or fleeing, but I’m screaming and this
scream no longer means anything except that a child is being driven on
and on …
I am crying out now, and my dream spills over me like a fog and
seems never-ending. A cry deep as the ocean. I bear my grandmother
like a burden on my shoulders, yet I can see her face displayed on the
fa�ades of the buildings that file past. And the ghost arises of the dead
woman, so deep-rooted in my early childhood. \Vhen my brother was
born I could no longer sleep in my parents’ room; I was eighteen
months old, and from then on I shared my grandmother’s bed. The
1 93
memory grows more vivid: to help me go off to sleep, the old lady
would take hold of one of my feet in one of her hands and warm them
till I fell asleep.
She died a few years later. I have no memory of this gentle woman’s
voice, the one who had come to rely on her youngest son. I used to call
her ‘my silent mother’, compared with the others – mother, maternal
grandmother and aunts – those proud aristocrats who always seemed
to me to live in a world of music, incense and noise.
She alone, the silent one, by this action of clasping my feet, remains
linked to me … That is why I scream; that is why, in this dream that
recurs over the years, she returns persistently, though absent, and the
little girl that is me runs desperately trying to find her voice.
Lower down in the town, in the opulent house with its terraces and
its din, my mother’s mother holds court. There, there is singing, a
chorus of loud voices. If they suddenly start whispering and
murmuring, seeming on the defensive, it is out of decorum or
convention because the men have finally returned home to eat and
sleep.
Sometimes my dream continues in these sunlit places, ncar the
cherry tree growing next to the steps, under the jasmins on the lowest
terrace. There are copper pots filled with geraniums against the
banisters … I am sitting crushed up in the middle of a crowd of veiled
visitors. I watch.
Once more I sec myself running wildly, zigzagging down a narrow
alley in the old hilly district. I am forced to go on screaming, though
no-onc hears me. I scream, not a stifled cry, but rather as if I were
breathing very hard, very fast.
Bolting once more out of the house of mourning, I hurtle down
towards the house of many terraces. I tell myself that, my silent
grandmother should be there, in this place of so many festivities, still
holding my feet in her worn hands.
On the ground floor of the big house, in the dim light of the wake,
my grandmother smiles at me, a tiny figure, her features softened with
kindness, her face emanating goodness. She seems to be saying to me:
‘They think they arc burying me, they think they are coming to my
death! You alone .. . ‘
I alone know she will be resurrected. I do not weep for her; once
more I run screaming through the streets, between the white houses,
and I scatter my love with my breath on the air streaming past me. The
194
narrow street runs downhill; the little boys on their skate-boards give
way bcforc.mc; right at the bottom, the smell of baking betrays the only
activity at the end of the day: baskets of aniseed bread arc ready to be
distributed for the funeral celebration.
Docs this dream allow me to find the silent mother again? I seck
rather to avenge her former silence, which was made more bearable by
the caresses lavished on the child who shared her bed …
It was some time before I realized how poor my father’s family was. My
father started attending the French school fairly late, did brilliantly in
all his classes, rapidly caught up with what he had missed and soon
passed the entrance examination to the normal school: by becoming a
teacher he was able to offer his mother and sisters some security, and
to secure the latter’s marriage before he married himself.
I was struck particularly by one scene from this past which was
described to me: my father, a schoolboy of nine or ten, had to do his
homework squatting at a low table, by the light of a candle … I knew
the old house, its dark rooms, its little courtyard. The picture of my
father as a studious child was cngrained in my mind, in this humble
setting.
One of my paternal aunts was living for a long time in an isolated
room at the back. I can still see her, a pale shadow, standing in the
doorway; the curtain over the door is half-raised. From the far comer
of the dim room a dying man’s voice calls to her, interrupted by a bout
of coughing … For many years this aunt looked after a tuberculous
husband; when he died it was not long before she followed him into
the grave, infected in her tum.
My father’s second sister, the youngest, occupied a more important
place in my childhood.
Her house was not far from my mother’s. In the summer I
sometimes quarrelled with one of my cousins or a young aunt; I did not
have my playmates’ knack of reeling off a picturesque string of taunts
in our local dialect.
Among the squawking city kids, I easily took offence because of my
shyness or my pride. I had only one recourse: to stalk out of the noisy
house, scorn the peacemaking efforts of my mother and her friends,
busy for the most part with their embroidery. I took refuge with my
paternal aunt: tall and dried up, with green eyes glinting in her thin
1 95
Ucrber face; although her courtyard was swarming with her own
brood, she would welcome me with open arms. She made a fuss of me;
took me into her best room where I was fascinated by a high
four-poster bed … She kept the best preserves and sweets for me,
sprinkled perfume on my hair and down my neck. ‘Daughter of my
brother’, she called me, laughing proudly, and her affection warmed
my heart.
Her fondness for me was probably due to my physical resemblance
to my father. In our society, a marriage only perpetuates a latent,
lasting rivalry between the two lines of descent … My parents were a
modern couple and that prevented the usual tensions.
Later, when this aunt, with the same exuberance, continued to call
me ‘daughter of my brother’, the memory of those summers came back
to me, when I was comforted by her banter and her confident
presence.
Did any significant hierarchy divide the society of this mountainrimmed
city, impoverished by erosion? If so, it was of minor account,
compared to the discrimination made between the city-dwellers and
the peasants of the surrounding area; or, more important still, the
segregation introduced by the colonial settlers. Few in number, but
influential, the group of Europeans of Maltese, Spanish or Proven�al
origin not only possessed all the power, but controlled the only
lucrative activity – fishing and the use of the trawlers in the old port.
The Arab women moved around the town, white wraiths, which the
visitors to the Roman ruins imagined all identical. Among the families
of the notables, a subtle distinction was maintained: due partly to the
importance of the man’s present social position, partly dependent on
one’s paternal and maternal ancestors, who arc constantly being
invoked.
For me, the distinction between my maternal and paternal ancestry
lay in one single but essential point: my mother’s mother spoke to me
at length of the dead, that is to say, my maternal grandfather and
great-grandfather. Of my paternal grandmother I knew only this: she
had been widowed very young with two children and had to marry a
very old man, who died leaving her a house and two more children, one
of whom was my father.
My maternal grandmother impressed me by the way she danced
when she went into one of her regular trances: besides which, at every
1 96
family gathering, I found myself hemmed in by her imperious, ringing
voice.
The memory of my father’s mother remains as green, perhaps more
so, thanks to her caressing hands. Only her former silence continues to
hurt me today …
1 97
A Widow’s Voice
I lost four of my men in this war. My husband and my three sons. Tht:y
took up arms at almost the same time. One of my youngsters had just
three months left for the end of the fighting; he’s dead. Another
disappeared at the very beginning: I never heard what happened
to him.
My brother was the fifth … I brought him back from the river. I
looked for his body everywhere; I found it. He’s buried in the
cemetery.
When he was alive he was talking to me one day, just as we arc
doing, here. He suddenly said to me, ‘Listen, I carried out the attack
on the Ezzar Wadi. And on the Sidi M’hamcd Wali. At Bclazmi, that
was me too … ‘He paused and then he went on, ‘0 daughter of my
mother, sec that you don’t leave me for the jackals, when I die! …
Don’t let the wild beasts cat my corpse! … ‘
May his soul rest in peace! He never asked the least thing of me,
except that! . . . That’s what he said, and that’s what happened
eventually … In the end they caught him. One morning, the plane
flew over and dropped bombs on us. In the afternoon they killed my
brother. We ran away when it got dark.
My brother had a marc. He used to go backwards and forwards to
organize the support networks among the people. Wherever he went,
he took this marc. When he slept out of doors he tied her to his foot.
When we ran away, we got to a wadi. Someone told me that my
brother’s marc had been seen not far away: she was lying down and
wouldn’t budge. It was night.
When it got light I went to look for the animal. I’d lost hope of
finding my brother. I saw the marc; she got to her feet. She must have
smelt the body . . . Someone (a peasant who was killed soon
1 98
afterwards) told me, ‘Listen, I think your brother’s lying not far away,
near the stream!’
A plane came back to bomb us again. I ran and hid in the water.
When the plane went away I came out; I walked slowly, slowly up the
wadi until I found my brother’s body. Then I ran to call the people. He
was buried in the cemetery, in the same grave as my mother … My
sons were still alive then!
Out of all the men in the family, the only ones they were able to bury
were my brother and one of my nephews. That was all.
I often went up into the hills to see my sons. The youngest one in
particular used to send for me. I went straight away, from one douar to
another … ‘I’m at this or that douar,’ he let me know. ‘Come! … ‘ Or,
‘I’m waiting for you at this douar or the other! … I’ve got nothing to
wear … I haven’t a penny! … I’m this … I’m that!’
Once, out of all our animals, I had just one lamb left! I slaughtered it
(there were more and more fires and I’d have lost it anyway). I sent the
whole lamb up to him so that he and his companions could eat! .. .
That’s the one who died, just six months before the fighting ended! … .
Have we any more tears left? No, our eyes are dry …
And the son I never saw again, after he went into the hills … One of
his companions sent me the following message about him: ‘Mother, be
careful, if someone comes saying you must send some soap or clothes
or a little money to your son! … You must only think about your other
sons now, the ones who are still alive! … Don’t think about this one
any more!’
He was still so young and yet he could always make up his mind so
easily: ‘That’s what must be done! … That’s how it is!’ … I can still
hear him.
At independence, the people in the city didn’t give me anything.
There was one man in charge, named Allal: the day he ran away to join
the maquis I hid him for a time at my place!
He was the man who allotted the empty houses after the war. As our
douar had been destroyed I went down into the town with other people.
But I couldn’t face wandering around. An old man, Si cl Hajj, urged
me to go to this man to remind him of my case. He even came with me
and knocked at Allal’s door. Allal let us in: people I didn’t know were
in the courtyard.
I went in.
199
‘0 Allal, where arc my rights?’ I exclaimed. ‘My sons fought from
here to the Tunisian border, while you remained hidden in caves and
holes!’
And it was true. And then, in front of all those townsfolk, he stancd
talking to me in Berber! Just to emphasize that I was a country-woman!
I repeated in Arabic, with the correct accent: ‘Give me my rights!’
They didn’t give me a thing … You can sec where I’m living now, I
had to pay to occupy this hut. ‘You pay or you don’t put a foot inside!’
they told me.
All the men I used to depend on, all those men have gone!
200
Dialogues
Trees hare been replanted 011 tlte foot/tills; the hamlets iu these raii()•S !tare
bee11 rebuilt; o11ce more mnd walls and reed fences rise up between ltnts
IJt’erruu with whining childre11. I stop to aillft:r here a11d tltere at ra11dom. I
pnslt gates open, I sit dow11 ou tlte strarv mat; b()•oud tlte lillie yard II�)’ ga;:;e
enconlllers the same mo1111tai11, witlt its aba11do11ed lool.:-ont posts.
Scallered mnrersatiom i11 wlticlt II�J’ mot Iter’s lineage prm·ides the li11!.:: one
or other oftlte speal.:ers tells me tltat tlte peasaut momen – repudiated mires, or
those who are sterile, bereft of a/�)’ future – hare remmed tlteir pilgrimages to
the grare of the two sai11ts amo11g Ill)’ a11cestors (tlte ‘old one ‘ a11d tlte )•mmg
one ‘, tlte one ‘witlt tlte blacl.: tougue ‘ a/1(/ tlte otlter, tlte silent Iiiii’, probab(J• Itis
son); th()• mme once more. wit It tlteir confessions, tlteir sessiow of trances to
ensure tlte blessings and intercession of tlte father and sou … Tlte rvomen
Prepare to tall.: to me iu tlte same ltesitaut rva)’; am / not, througlt II!J’ motlter
and II�)’ 11wilter’s father, a desceuda111 of these trvo dead saints IPI/11 listen a11d
wltose petrified slumber bri11gs tltem solace? … Yes, tlte roim in the slwdorvs
speak to me, a11d I remain silent; as I drink i11 their words and t”l’I’IJ’ injlectio11
of their roices I mnld feel II�J•self to be, if not sai11t or si1111er, at a/�)’ rate
mum 111 ifi e d.
W1uu do I as!.: tlte straiglttjimvard questions:
‘Hom old were you? … ‘ ‘W11ere mere yon /iring? … ”Were .J’IIII married
or single? … ‘ etc.
W1zen does tlte one rita/ question stick in n�J’ tltroat, 111wble to escape? . . . I
!told it back, I cannot formulate it, except bJ• some coded mort!, smue soji,
neutral, wltisperiug word …
Faced witlt these four, fire liste11iug peasalll 11)()/111’1/, all /iring out tlteir
fires as rvar rvidorvs … Must f 1vait for a cmifideutial tete-a-tete? One of
them has an monuom goitre ou Iter long, flexible uecl.:: per/taps I cm1 pass Iter
a hint to sltl.J’ beltiud, giriiiK tlte otlters to 1111dersta11d tltat l ltare some adrice
fi�r Iter about mrgeo11s or ltospiw/s … eaclt Iiiii’ I speak to is II!J’ alter ego:
201
/il·e me mudemued tl’itlumt hope of sa/ration a/Iii yet neither gui/1]• nor
rirtim. I mttSt approach their uureli£’7.’ed sadness, lmvr:r the voice, expressing
neither resit;nation nor lamentation.
�1�)’ ‘ question quirers persistent()• on II�J’ tougue. /11 order to put it into
n•ord1 / ought to prtpare the tmtmard appearance of liD’ bod)’.’ I sit cmss-!t:gged
on mshio11s or oil the hare tiles, palms upward in pose of humilif)•, II()’
shoulders hunched to jiJrestall rvea/..:11ess, II�J’ lap ready to recei-ve the flood of
emotion, legs mrled up under II�J’ skirt, to prez.•el/t me rmmiug off screaming
through the trees.
To s�J’ the private, Arabic rvord ‘damage’, or at the most, ‘hurt’:
‘Sister, did you ez.•er, at ai�J’ time, suffer “damage”? ‘
The rvord suggesting rape – the euphemism: after the soldiers passed close to
the river, the soldiers rvhom the J’OIIIIg rvoman (J•ing hidden for hours could
not avoid. The soldiers rvhom she met. And ‘submitted to ‘, ‘/ submitted to
“France “, ‘ the thirteen-year-old shepherd-girl might have said. Cherifa, who
in fact did not submit to anJ•thiug, unless it be todaJ•, the present emptiness.
Once the soldiers have gone, once she has washed, tidied herself up, plaited
her hair and tied the scarlet ribbon, all these aaions reflected in the brackish
water of the wadi, the woman, every woman, returns, one hour or two hours
later, advances to face the world to pm•eut the chancre being opened in the
tribal circle: the blind old man, the watchful matrons, the silent children with
flies about their qes, young lads already distmstful:
iWy daughter, has there been “damage”? ‘
One or other of the matriarchs will ask the question, to seize on the silence
and build a barrier against misfortune. The ymmg woman, her hair no longer
in disarray, looks into the old woman ‘s lacklustre qes, spn’nkles scorching
sand over et’eT)’ word: rape will not be mentioned, will be respeaed.
Swallowed. Until the next a/ann.
Can I, twenf)• years later, claim to revive these stifled voices? And speak for
them? Shall / not at best find dn’ed-up streams? lt’hat ghosts will be conjured
up rvhen in this absence of expressions of love (love receh·ed, ‘love ‘ imposed), I
see the rejleaion of IIIJ’ own barrenness, my own aphasia.
202
The Onlookers
Yes, there is a difference between the veiled women, a difference that
the eye of the foreigner can’t discern; he thinks them all identical –
phantoms roaming the streets, staring, examining, surveying all about
them; but they possess an inherent streak of inequality: between the
one who shouts, sending her voice soaring over the confined area of
the patio, and the one on the other hand who never speaks, who
contents herself with sighing or lets herself be interrupted until her
voice is permanently stifled.
I recall one familiar expression used to condemn a woman
irrevocably: worse than the poor (wealth and luxury were relative in
this restricted society), worse than the widow or the repudiated wife (a
fate that depends on God alone) the only really guilty woman, the only
one you could despise with impunity, the one you treated with manifest
contempt, was ‘the woman who raises her voice’.
One or other of the neighbours, or of the women related by
marriage, might wear out her patience in caring for her ever-increasing
family; one or other of the city ladies might show off flashy jewellery,
treat her stepchildren or daughters-in-law harshly; they could be
excused as it was rare for a woman to be lucky enough to have a ‘true
Muslim’, a hard-working, docile man for a husband. The only one who
put herself straight away beyond the pale was the ‘loud-mouthed
woman’: the one who nagged at her brood, whose voice could be heard
beyond her own vestibule and out in the street, the one who railed
aloud against fate instead of keeping her protests within four walls,
instead of sublimating her grievances in prayer or in the whispered
confidences of the story-tellers.
In short, veiled forms had the right to circulate in the city. But what
were these women doing with their cries of rebellion piercing the very
heavens? The only thing they were doing was to run the gravest risk.
203
To refuse to veil one’s voice and to start ‘shouting’, that was really
indecent, real dissidence. For the silence of all the others suddenly lost
its charm and revealed itself for what it was: a prison without reprieve.
\\’riting in a foreign language, not in either of the tongues of my native
country – the Berber of the Dahra mountains or the Arabic of the town
where I was born – writing has brought me to the cries of the women
silently rebelling in my youth, to my own true origins.
Writing docs not silence the voice, but awakens it, above all to
resurrect so many vanished sisters.
During the family celebrations of my childhood, the city ladies sit
crushed beneath the weight of their jewellery, clad in embroidered
velvet, their faces adorned with spangles or tattooing. Female
musicians perform, pastries are handed round, children get under the
feet of the visitors in their finery. The dancers heave their buxom
figures sedately from their seats . . . I have eyes only for my mother,
thinking probably of my dream of growing up and dancing too in this
heat. The city streets are far away; men do not exist. Paradise will last
for ever; slowly dancing, melancholy faces are lulled by the music …
One detail of the scene however introduces a harsh note: at one
moment in the ceremony when coffee and cakes have circulated, the
mistress of the house gives the order for the doors to be opened wide.
Then the horde of ‘voyeuses’ swarms in; that’s what the women arc
called who will remain veiled even in this exclusively feminine
gathering; they have not been invited, but they have the right to stand
in the vestibule looking on. Because they are excluded they keep on
their veils; what is more, in this city where the ladies go about veiled
but leave their eyes uncovered above a bit of embroidered veiling,
these ‘voyeuses’ hide their faces completely except for one eye, so that
they remain anonymous in the festivities; with their fingers they hold a
curious little triangle open under the veil.
These uninvited guests are allowed into the party as spies! The tiny
free eye, shrouded in white, darts from right to left, inspects the ladies’
jewels, studies the way another dances, takes a good look at the bride
decked out in all her finery, examining the louis d’or and pearls given
as wedding gifts … Here are these shrouded women, right in the
heart of the parade, their silent presence tolerated, the ones who enjoy
the sad privilege of remaining veiled in the very heart of the harem! At
204
last I understand both why they arc condemned and why they arc
fortunate: these women who ‘shout’ in their daily lives, the ones whom
the matrons thrust aside contemptuously, probably typify their need to
be seen, to have an audience!
The hostess has let them in in order to show off, as if saying, ‘Look!
examine everything! I’m not afraid of gossip! My wedding celebration
respects all the traditions! Let even the women I’ve not deigned to
invite sec for themselves and let everybody know!’ … The crux of the
ceremony is there, in this uneasy knot. As if the guests could no longer
endure their exclusion from the outside world … As if they were
finding a way of forgetting their imprisonment, getting their own back
on the men who kept them in the background: the males – father, sons,
husband – were shut out once and for all by the women themselves
who, in their own domain, began to impose the veil in turn on others.
205
A Widow’s Voice
We lived at the place called ‘Milestone 40’; those douars were not very
far from the main road. There’d been a clash with the French soldiers
just there. They’d had a lot of losses. We could sec the fires, the
smoke, from a distance … Since then they came back time and time
again.
One another occasion, the road was damaged not far from the
French post, to stop ‘France’ changing the guards. The barbed wires
round the post were taken down during the night. Our men had done
what the partisans had come and told them to do.
One morning, the soldiers came from the post and said, ‘You’re the
fellaheen! You’re the ones who removed the barbed wire and damaged
the road!’
Our men had to work right through the day putting back the barbed
wire and repairing the road. The following night, the same thing
happened with the maquisards. This time our men ran away: they
didn’t want to wait for the enemy’s reprisals. We women were left to
bear the brunt!
When the French came they only found women.
‘Take everything you can carry out of your houses !’ they told us.
The goumiers set fire to the houses. We drifted around. If you have a
brother, go to your brother’s place; if you have a first cousin, go to your
cousin’s! … We set off, we left our homes in ruins … A little way off
we built sitcltcrs out of branches. The maquisards came back; they
always followed us wherever we went. Our men hid food for them and
worked for them at night. The French also put in their appearance
again!
As soon as we young women saw the French coming we never
stayed inside. The old women stayed in the houses with the children:
206
we went to hide in the undergrowth or ncar the wadi. If the enemy
caught us we never said a word …
One night, the maquisards arrived. They had some coffee and then
left. No sooner were they out of the house than ‘France’ descended on
us: the soldiers had seen our lights from the road.
‘The fellaheen have been here!’ (They called ‘fellaheen’ those we
called ‘Brothers’).
They wanted to take my husband away. We knew that once a man’s
taken away in the middle of the night he never came back. I started to
cry and loosen my hair and lacerate my checks. All the women in the
house did the same thing, howling louder and louder: enough to
deafen them all!
Outside, their officer heard us crying. He came into the house and
said, ‘Let that man go!’
They just took his papers and told him he’d got to call at the post the
next day.
We were living then near the Ouled Larbi field. We didn’t own
anything. My husband was a day labourer. Just the same, they did kill
him eventually.
They came to get him in the field. It was a Friday. He never came
back. I heard later that a man named Mcnaia had given him away.
The French tortured him from Friday to Sunday. On the last day,
someone came and told me my husband had been stood up against a
pillar, right in the middle of the village square. They killed him just
like that, publicly, in front of everybody.
He left me with young children. The last-born was still in my belly: I
was only one and a half months gone. That son’s now twenty! I’ll be
bringing his bride to him next week, God willing! Because my health’s
not very good. I thought, ‘I’ll die knowing he’s got his own home! I’ll
depart with my mind at rest! ‘ … When I wanted to choose him a
bride, he told me, ‘Go and make enquiries in that place!’
Now he’ll only have her to work for. I don’t need him any more! All
my daughters have their own homes; once my last-born is married, my
war-widow’s pension will be enough for me!
207
Embraces
When one day in 1 956 the French paratroopers and the Foreign
Legion arrive at midday at the mountain village of El-Aroub, all its
thousand inhabitants have disappeared. One madman wanders alone
near a row of olive trees; a senile old woman remains squatting ncar
the water-tap.
The day before, forty-five maquisards had been living there quite
openly for the last month: the green and white independence flag was
flying on the newly-painted mosque. The old people of the village
were sorry not to see the ‘Brothers’ saying their prayers regularly there.
But before dawn there’s an indication that the French arc arriving in
strength: all males aged between fourteen and sixty decide to leave
with the maquisards. Women, children and old men flee into the
bushes and rocks of the surrounding country, in the hope that the
enemy will just be passing through.
But the soldiers settle in. The infantry and the field companies
remain stationed down on the plain. After three long days of waiting,
the civilian population eventually come out of hiding, driven out by
hunger; they drift back, waving white flags, a pitiful procession of
women with empty breasts and wailing infants.
Disappointment and boredom have driven the soldiery to systematic
looting. The inhabitants find their village ransacked from top to
bottom, ‘turned over like a ploughed field’: the dried provisions have
disappeared or been trodden underfoot, the linen chests have been
broken open, the roofs of the houses demolished in the search for
hidden arms and silver coins … Doors have been ripped off their
hinges, wedding dresses draped derisively on the trees, hauled through
the mud, hung over the empty door-frames, in a grotesque parody of a
carnival.
� lothcrs search through this scene of plunder for something to give
208
their starving children. Some of them, in despair, sit weeping silently
in their doorways.
In the middle of this melancholy return, two men in maquisards’
uniform arc captured : the army give the first cheers for victory.
The officer in command of the paratroopers, an aristocratic
lieutenant, asks a private, an Alsacian, to try to find out from the
prisoners the whereabouts of the arms cache. The interrogation takes
place in the open, under an olive tree. The Alsacian is keen to show
that he knows his job as torturer. The officer, who docs not soil his
hands, puts on an air of indifference, not devoid of contempt.
The prisoners arc soon unrecognizable. Silence, boredom, takes
hold of the soldiers who had at first been attracted by the spectacle.
The garments hanging on the branches suddenly seem like the sole
spectators of the endless agony in the sun …
Finally one of the tortured men gives in. He indicates the site of the
cache. Everyone rushes there. But the lieutenant remains behind, lifts
a hand and the two prisoners fall under a hail of bullets.
One of the legionnaires writes of these days in EI-Aroub, reliving his
experiences. Sometimes he even weeps, ‘but dry-eyed, having long
since had no more tears to shed’.*
I come at length upon what he wrote, turn the pages at random, read
as if I were shrouded in the ancestral veil; with my one free eye
perusing the page, where is written more than the eye-witness sees,
more than can be heard.
The day after this interrogation a peasant woman recognizes her
husband as one of the two men whose bodies lie unburied.
‘She rushes boldly into the middle of our encampment, weeping,
heaping insults on us in a terrifying voice. She kept on shaking her
bony fist at us and shouting threats.’**
The soldiers, once more at a loose end, sit looking at the sea in the
distance. The beach is tempting in thi� scorching heat, but a dense
forest runs along the shore for miles. The lynx-eyed maquisards arc
probably lurking there, ready to take the opportunity of attacking …
The orders to retreat arc long in coming. The agitation and panic
“Pierre Leulliette, Sai111 Midul c·t h· Drago11 (Saint Michael and the Dragon)
Ed. de Minuit, 1 961
“”Ibid
209
around the village subside, the women dry their tears. Then the order
comes to move out the next day. The soldiers will have a full day’s
march to reach the sea. Lorries, preceded by armoured cars and
followed by tanks, will take them to Constantine. They sleep first on
the beach, ‘unwashed, looking like stray dogs’; at dawn they wake up in
the rain …
Is it in the course of this drive down to the sea, or the next day in one
of the lorries of the convoy, in the rain, that a certain Bernard confides
in the man who will tell the story of EI-Aroub, recalling events he will
never be able to forget? …
Yet again, one man speaks, another listens, then writes. I stumble
against their words which circulate; then I speak, I speak to you, the
widows of that other mountain village, so distant or so near to
EI-Aroub!
In the middle of the night before they leave, Bernard crawls on
hands and knees, unarmed, between two sentinels, gropes his way in
the dark into the village, until he finds a farm whose roof has nearly
collapsed, whose door has been half dragged off its hinges.
‘There,’ he tells his friend, ‘a preny Fatma smiled at me during
the day!’
He slips in without knocking. It must be half past one in the
morning. He hesitates in the darkness, then strikes a match: facing
him, a group of women squat in a circle, staring at him; they arc nearly
all old, or look it. They huddle close to one another; their eyes gleam
with terror or surprise …
The Frenchman takes food out of his pockets and hurriedly
distributes it. He walks around, he strikes another match; finally his
eyes light on ‘the preny Fauna’ who had smiled at him. He seizes her
hand, pulls her to her feet.
The match has gone out. The couple find their way to the back of
the vast room, where it is pitch-black. The old women squatting in a
circle have not moved; companions and sisters of silence, they crouch,
staring with dim pupils which preserve the present moment: could the
lake of happiness exist? …
The Frenchman has undressed. ‘I could have been in my own
home,’ he will admit. He presses the girl close to him; she shudders,
she holds him tight, she begins to caress him.
‘What if one of the old women were to get up and come and stick a
knife in my back?’ he thinks.
210
Suddenly two frail arms arc round his neck, a gasping voice begins
to whisper: strange, fond, warm words come tumbling out. The
unknown hot-blooded girl pours these words in Arabic or Berber into
his car.
‘She kissed me full on the mouth, like a young girl. Just imagine! I’d
never seen anything like it! … She was kissing me! Do you realize? …
Kissing me! It was that little meaningless action that I shall never be
able to forget!’
Bernard returns to the camp about three in the morning. No sooner
has he fallen asleep than he wakes with a start: he must leave the village
for ever.
Twenty years later I report the scene to you, you widows, so that you
can sec it in your turn, so that you in turn can keep silent. And the old
women sit motionless, listening to the unknown village girl giving
herself.
Silence spanning nights of passion and words grown cold, the
silence of the watching women, that accompanies the quivering kisses
in the heart of the ruined hamlet.
211
Fifth Movement:
The Tunic of Nessus
My father, a tall erect figure in a fez, walks down the village street; he
pulls me by the hand and I, who for so long was so proud of myselfthe
first girl in the family to have French dolls bought for her, the one
who had permanently escaped cloistering and never had to stamp and
protest at being forced to wear the shroud-veil, or else yield meekly
like any of my cousins, I who did deliberately drape myself in a veil for
a summer wedding as if it were a fancy dress, thinking it most
becoming – I walk down the street, holding my father’s hand.
Suddenly, I begin to have qualms: isn’t it my ‘duty’ to stay behind with
my peers in the gynaeceum? Later, as an adolescent, well nigh
intoxicated with the sensation of sunlight on my skin, on my mobile
body, a doubt arises in my mind: ‘Why me? Why do I alone, of all my
tribe, have this opportunity?’
I cohabit with the French language: I may quarrel with it, I may have
bursts of affection, I may subside into sudden or angry silences – these
are the normal occurrences in the life of any couple. If I deliberately
provoke an outburst, it is less to break the unbearable monotony, than
because I am vaguely aware of having been forced into a ‘marriage’ too
young, rather like the little girls of my town who are ‘bespoke’ in their
earliest childhood.
Thus, my father, the schoolteacher, for whom a French education
provided a means of escape from his family’s poverty, had probably
‘given’ me before I was nubile – did not certain fathers abandon their
daughters to an unknown suitor, or, as in my case, deliver them into
the enemy camp? The failure to realize the implications of this
213
traditional bcha\iour took on for me a different significance: when I
was ten or clc\cn, it was understood among my female cousins that I
was privileged to be my father’s ‘favourite’ since he had unhesitatingly
preserved me from cloistering.
But marriageable royal princesses also cross the border, often
against their will, in terms of treaties which end wars.
French is my ‘stepmother’ tongue. Which is my long-lost mothertongue,
that left me standing and disappeared? … Mother-tongue,
either idealized or unloved, neglected and left to fairground barkers
and jailers! … Burdened by my inherited taboos, I discover I have no
memory of Arabic love-songs. Is it because I was cut off from this
impassioned speech that I find the French I usc so flat and
unprofitable?
The Arab poet describes the body of his beloved; the Andalusian
exquisite composes treatise after treatise, listing a multiplicity of erotic
postures; the Muslim mystic, dressed in woollen rags and satisfied with
a handful of dates, expresses his thirst for God and his longing for the
hereafter with a surfeit of extravagant epithets … The prodigality of
this language seems to me somewhat suspect, consoling with empty
words … Wealth squandered while they arc being dispossessed of
their Arab heritage.
Words of love heard in a wilderness. After several centuries of
cloistering, the bodies of my sisters have begun to come out of hiding
here and there over the last fifty years; they grope around, blinded by
the light, before they dare advance. Silence surrounds the first written
words, and a few scattered laughs arc heard above the groans.
‘L ‘amour, ses cris 6 ‘icrit) ‘: my hand as I write in French makes the
pun on love affairs that arc aired; all my body docs is to move forward,
stripped naked, and when it discovers the ululations of my ancestresses
on the battlefields of old, it finds that it is itself at stake: it is no longer a
question of writing only to survive.
Long before the French landed in 1 830, the Spanish established their
presidios (garrison posts) at strategic points along the Maghribin coast ­
Oran, Bougie, Tangiers, Ccuta; the indigenous rulers in the interior
continued to resist and the occupying forces frequently found their
food supplies cut off; thus they adopted the tactics of the rebato: an
isolated spot would be chosen from which to launch an attack, and to
214
which they could retreat and usc in the intervals between hostilities for
farming or for replenishing supplies.
This type of warfare, rapid offensives alternating with as swift
retreats, allowed each side to continue the fight indefinitely.
After more than a century of French occupation – which ended not
long ago in such butchery – a similar no-man’s-Iand still exists
between the French and the indigenous languages, between two
national memories: the French tongue, with its body and voice, has
established a proud presidio within me, while the mother-tongue, all
oral tradition, all rags and tatters, resists and attacks between two
breathing spaces. In time to the rhythm of the rebato, I am alternately
the besieged foreigner and the native swaggering off to die, so there is
seemingly endless strife between the spoken and written word.
Writing the enemy’s language is more than just a matter of scribbling
down a muttered monologue under your very nose; to usc this alphabet
involves placing your elbow some distance in front of you to form a
bulwark – however, in this twisted position, the writing is washed back
to you.
This language was imported in the murky, obscure past, spoils taken
from the enemy with whom no fond word was ever exchanged …
French – formerly the language