The Four Faces of Algeria
Published by Destinations, glossy periodic magazine of Talk Communications,
Algiers will always be married to its past. For her streets and her harbour walls have witnessed some of the most decisive engagements of recent world history. It was outside Algiers that the Emperor Charles V waded through the surf as he led the Last Crusade - aided by all the military genius’s of his age - including Cortez just back from the conquest of Mexico. It was from the artillery ramparts of Algiers that Barbarossa would first repel the fleets of Europe and then as Lord of Lords extend Ottoman rule over half the Mediterranean shore. Most famously it was here – as so vividly portrayed in Pontecorvo’s masterpiece, The Battle of Algiers - where European Imperialism suffered its most decisive and surprising defeat. So that the battle for the independence of Algeria (1954-1962) now stands beside Vietnam as one of the critical events of the late 20th century. Most recently the Algerian emergency (1990-1998) tested in civil conflict two contrary visions of a modern Muslim state some years before 9-11 would make this a worldwide issue.
This past, this swirling cloud of smoking battlefields, power and dominion should however never be allowed to obscure the broader vision of Algeria. There are deeper, more enduring currents at play linked with the elemental landscape, that fourfold division of Algeria between the four faces of shore, mountain, plain and desert.
The first of the four faces of Algeria is most surely that of the Mediterranean. It was here, almost accidentally that the sophisticated city based civilization of the ancient Middle East was brought to the North African shore. The enterprising Phoenician merchants of the coast of Syria first came to Algeria not as conquerors or missionaries or even for that matter as traders. They came as simple travellers, looking for fresh water, safe anchorages, firewood and fresh meat. For they were on a long two year journey, buying Cornish Tin, Spanish silver and Saharan gold dust in the markets of the West that only they knew. The sheltered beaches of Algeria, the coastal springs, the identities of friendly Berber tribes and the dangerous cliff-girt headlands were passed down as the secret craft by which generations of skilled navigators kept this lucrative trade in the hand of the six cities of the Phoenicians. Sometime around 1,000 BC the first permanent settlements were established, strung along the shore like a long string of muddy pearls that were placed at roughly a days rowing distance – of 20 miles or so – apart. There is hardly a fishing port or a yacht anchorage, let alone a coastal city that does not share in this common heritage of quiet self-contained traders who brought skilled weaving, skilled leather work, use of the alphabet, as well as the sophisticated arts of the potter, smith, dyer and jeweller to the people of this land. The walled citadels of Phoenician power lay elsewhere, so the violent fate which awaited holy Tyre, at the hands of Alexander, and Carthage, destroyed by Scipio’s legions did not besmirch this shore. Instead at Caeserea there stands the enchanted ruins of the palace-city established by the classically trained Juba II (brought up as a prince-orphan in the household of Augustus) and his wife Cleopatra Silene, daughter of Mark Anthony and Cleopatra of the Nile. Caesarea stands as a monument to assimilation, the capital of an independent Berber kingdom of North Africa, where Phoenician, Greek, Roman and Egyptian influences found an equal home. Later ages would pile on Arab teachers, Catalan traders, Moorish exiles, Turkish soldiers and the merchant-venturers of Marseilles to further enrich the cocktail of nations.
One of the mysteries of Algiers is the proximity of the great spreading urban mass of the capital city to the absolute contrast presented by the Kabyle mountain range that stretch hundreds of kilometres to the east. These mountains are famous as one of the great bastions of the indigenous language and culture of the Berbers. And this polarity is repeated across the country, so that each of the famous provincial cities of Algeria is also ‘reflected’ by their own, mountain based rural culture nearby, be it the massifs of the Aures, Medjerda, Ouarsensis or Tlemcen. These mountains are most assuredly another of the distinctive four faces of Algeria. They are full of contrasting qualities, a Homeric level of contentment and self sufficiency co-exists with gruelling poverty, where the pride of a generous host mixes seamlessly with the petty jealousy of a neighbour, and where simple, dignified, mountain communities have existed since time eternal but have yet required that generation after generation are required to emigrate out from their hard but magnificent homeland to survive. The mountains stand as defiant outposts of tradition yet have also always been the homeland of rebellion, dissidence and resistance. On one hand they are the heroic national fortresses, the command centres of the FLN independence struggle against the French, but in other periods have proved seminaries for wild revolution. For instance it was from the Kabyle mountains that an armed Islamist movement shot into eminence to become the vast Fatamid Empire of the 10th century. It is the mountain regions that have also served as the base-camps of the armed Islamist movements in the recent emergency. As the homeland of patriarchal, male-centred authority it is yet typical of Algeria’s essential duality that these mountains are also best known to the outside world through their women. Whether swept along by Ferdinand Duchene’s doomladen novel about the mountain girl Thamilla, or listening to Taos Amrouche’s epic recordings of the millennial purity of Berber music or her mother, Fadhma’s extraordinary memoir of survival as a bastard outcast, it is the defiant stance of the Berber women of the mountains that prevails.
The third of the faces of Algeria is that whose spirit for ever dwells in the vast pastures that stand in the high plateau to the south of the mountains. A steppe land fully the equal in its sense of immensity with that of Central Asia and the old prairies of the Mid-West. This is a region dotted with Chotts, lakes and salt marshes that expand and subtract with the seasons, attracting vast flights of birds as well as the drifting herds. Of all the outsiders, it is Fromentin who in both his travel books and his magnificent canvasses, who best caught the majesty of this land, whether he was focusing on the hospitality of the black tents of the proud nomad tribes, the abundance of the spring pastures, the élan of the young mounted warriors or the cruel winter winds. In the past century the romance has been diminished, as the land was over-ploughed by exploitative colonial farmers and the tribes subjected to sedenterization campaigns and new-build villages. This however was once the heartland, a reservoir of cornlands and cavalry armies that allowed a King of Numidia like Jugurtha to either bribe the entire Senate of Rome or survive three separate invasions. It is here that the monumental ancient remains of Algeria, either the Mausolea of lost dynasties of Numidian Kings or the camp-cities of the Roman Empire look at their most august and sublime. It is also the doorway of Islam, for it was through these camel and horse friendly steppelands that the first Arab armies and missionaries penetrated into Algeria. It was the route taken by the heroic Oqba ibn Nafi on his epic ride across the whole breadth of North Africa that took him to the shores of the Atlantic in his quest to find new lands for Islam. On his return he would be martyred outside Biskra, so planting one of the Companions of the Prophet (the nephew of Amr ibn al-As) within the soil of Algeria and sacralising the landscape. Oqba’s route across the steppe would be followed for a thousand years by the annual movement of pilgrims as the pious headed east into the dawn light on their way to Mecca.
The fourth face of Algeria is that which is best known by the outside world. The vast expanse of the Sahara, those endlessly satisfying crescents of windblown sand, the allure of the blue-veiled Tuareg mounted on the high backs of their camels, have exercised an almost hypnotic fascination with Western Europe since the region was first reported upon in the late 19th century. To add to the mystique there have been a trail of quixotic European adventurers that allow the modern tourist, in their air-conditioned 4-wheel drive vehicle, to feel an added connection. Whether it is the Danish millionairess Tinne (boring of the expatriate scene in that turn-of-the century watering hole – Algiers) murdered in the sands, the cross-dressing Swiss-Russian travel writer, Isabelle Eberhardt or the composer-writer Paul Bowles dreaming up kiff-scented misadventures, all must however stand in the shade of Foucauld. This outrageously debauched cavalry officer spent his way through an inherited fortune before becoming the scholar-hermit-monk of the Sahara. Friend and translator to many of the Tuareg chiefs though he was, he also continued to work as an advance post of the French army, which led to his assassination in 1916 during one of the Tuareg revolts. Foucauld’s mountaintop hermitage continues attracts a stream of visitors. The old reality of the Tuareg controlled desert, who guarded, guided and taxed the old trans-Saharan caravan routes (with their lucrative cargoes of gold dust, ivory and slaves) was swept away with the arrival of the internal combustion engine. However they seem to stand as mute witnesses to the passage of time. Their Tifinagh alphabet is directly derived from the Phoenician script, their customs and traditional weapons could seemingly have come from Camelot while their ancestors, the charioteers depicted in the last age of prehistoric rock art of the Sahara link them with a gallery 10,000 years old.
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by Barnaby Rogerson