Ghardaia, Algeria, February 2007. Une architecture pittoresque (dédale de ruelles), des tapis plus beaux les uns que les autres (symbolique autour du mariage), des femmes cyclopes (ne voyant que par un trou dans un drap de lit), en résumé, une très intéressante vallée Mozabite.
We stayed two days more than planned and were sad to leave. There were the rugs of course, which lent a warm kaleidoscope of colors to the main square which we found only on the second day, well, the medina was such a maze of narrow alleys going up a hill. The local carpets had intricate symbols specific to the Mozabite culture of the valley, mostly about the most sacred of customs, the marriage.
The biggest discovery were the Cyclops. These days you hear all about the distinction between Shiites and Sunnis, there is more to it, there are the Kharijites, the democrats among Muslims who oppose the political aims of both Mohammed’s family and the Arabs (they are Berbers, like the Tuaregs and the Kabyls) and maintain that anybody having religious and moral qualities can become a caliphe, even a Black slave. Well, there are lots of Blacks in the Algerian south. So, as you can imagine, Mozabites are puritanical, and their women are… well, wrapped up.In Ghardaia, more than 9 out of ten women are covered, the simplest form is a laced white handkerchief folded in two over the nose. Pointing forward, it gives them the profile of a long-billed bird. The fullest is a form completely wrapped in a white sheet, like in Libya, except here they have only one little opening, in the folds, so they look through a mini-tunnel. We wondered how they could evaluate the distances with one eye (from the outside you saw absolutely nothing but a black hole, hence our nickname Cyclops), and not trip either on their own sheet or on the sidewalk curbs. I don’t know if they are more fanatical than others, but Mozabites are smarter, they know that “the eyes are an open door on the soul” of the woman, and vice-versa, even if a woman is wholly covered, as long as her eyes are in the open the beholder can have a “lengthy contemplation” of her counterpart. By cyclopeanizing them, they defuse a bomb, the man doesn’t see at all the woman’s eyes, and how could the woman really contemplate through a mini-tunnel?!
Arakokan, Immidir, Algeria, February 2007. Rien que cela — les peintures rupestres — valait tout le voyage.
Amdiak took off his jacket and up we went, at first the path was steep and very rocky, we continued for forty-five minutes through rocky hills surrounded by patches of sand, a bit like a labyrinth, needless to say without a guide we would have never found out this place. He picked up a couple of flints and pottery shards, they were supposedly old, then he pointed to a wide opening under the rocks, and said “This is Arakokan”, we crawled under, and looked up.
You know when the English Patient movie starts with the painting of dark red, elongated human figures, it was just like that, awesome, people running, holding bows, a spear, aiming with a bow, ready to dart, on one piece I counted almost one hundred men, they were imbricated like a puzzle, mostly armed, some holding a bunch of arrows, naively painted one next to each other. We stayed for hours on our back filling ourselves with the delicate figures. They were on the underside of the rock, protected from the sun, rain, wind, sand, yet there were parts where the limestone could be torn away, a whole piece with paintings. I told Omar to be very careful when showing that to people, I mean, this art was not at all protected, neither from nature nor from man, it was so easy prey to robbers, I wished Algerian custom officials at the exit were as strict as they said.
Idarsen, Ahnet, Algeria, February 2007. Les nomades Touaregs de l’Algérie sont plus réservés et moins intéressés que leurs congénères nigériens. Dû l’absence de tourisme ou au système?
Several nomadic families were dwelling in this savanna-ish valley. We stopped by a flock of camels, each had a baby and the whole place resonated from the warnings of the mothers. We sat by some ragged tents belonging to our guide’s relatives. He started playing with his 17-month old niece, while we sat in silence by her father Ichia, a tall and thin young man, the women wore bright colored sari-types, not unlike Rajhastanis, and they were dark too. Not only were the Algerian Tuaregs poorer than those from Niger, but they were also shy, and they didn’t sell anything, I guess it had to do with the fact that so few foreigners came by, maybe also the system.
While our hosts prepared tea, Omar broke his customary silence, “Even if they have stuff, they give it away instead of selling it. Even if they need something, they won’t ask you for a cadeau. And here in Algeria there are no NGOs. Those in Mali have nice cars”.They had a similarity though, the famous togula, which they prepared at night. You make flour and water into a thick pitta which you put in the sand, covered by a layer of cinders of wood, the longer it takes to cook the tastier it gets. The funny thing, after the togula is done, you undo it, shred it in small pieces in whatever you are going to eat it with, in this case a very tasty goat ragout, I can tell you we licked our fingers to the last drop.
Filedrar, Immidir, Algeria, February 2007. Des langues de pierres s’enfoncent dans le désert, un labyrinthe de blocs gravit vers le ciel, et la vue s’étend de l’océan Atlantique à l’erg oriental tunisien.
So far the Algerian landscape was nothing extraordinary, the Teffedest was just a nondescript mountain surrounded by sand, arriving in Filedrar was awesome, it was like two gigantic tongues made of stone, gently landing in the flat desert. As we moved the next morning up on the smooth surface, we bumped into big boulders. There was a mysterious air reminiscent of Picnic at Hanging Rock, it was like a labyrinth, going by these multi-ton blocks, finding ourselves in dead-ends, turning back to look for a way around the enormous obstacles, and going up and up. From the very top, the view was… indescribable, and infinite. To the west were the mountains around Tesnou, straight was an opening reaching till the Tanezrouft, the beginning of the ocean of sand that reaches Mauritania and another ocean, the Atlantic, 2-3,000 kilometers away. To the east, the piste leading to Bordj Omar Driss, 600 km away, right in the oil fields, on the edge of the Grand Erg Oriental which gets into Tunisia and brushes Libya. We were probably a good hundred meters above the desert, the jeep and our crew looked tiny in the little bay where we camped, we saw an old well but I could not find it back down, the whole stone thing was sooo big.
Algiers, Algeria, February 2007. La formidable hospitalité orientale, pauvres Occidentaux si égocentriques, calculateurs, mesquins. Ici, un hôte est totalement pris en charge.
At home, in a middle-class family. Mohammed, my university mate had always told me his brother would secure the invitation letter needed to get an Algerian visa, but he had not prepared us for his regal welcoming. Abdelwouahab fully took us in charge, that went way beyond shelter — he picked us up at the bus terminal in his suit-and-tie, with his executive car, we vagabond-looking types, with our burlap bags, djellabah and snickers, but he did not seem to notice — and food, which was incredible, elaborately cooked three times a day by his nice wife in spite of her working as a lawyer at a bank, and so plentiful (like forty kebabs and eight big lamb chops for four people) I got again my stomach problems due to overload! He got the bus tickets to our next destination, and of course took us to the terminal, he paid for the extra films I needed (not the cheapest), he wanted to take us around the city, or send some of his employees to accompany, he took us to the nearby sights, he even gave us money to spend while on a few days trip along northern Algeria!
Algiers, Algeria, February 2007. Les Algériens ne sont pas amis des photographes.
In a photo lab. Algerians are incredibly photo-shy. In Kabylia, they even forbid us from taking houses. Later, I read an article by Chawki Amari in El-Watan, an outspoken, independent Algiers newspaper on his “society which still very much hates to see itself and maintains a schizophrenic rapport with its own image”, and he quotes an official: “Put a camera in the hands of Algerians, and they will do but silly things” – well, Saudi Arabia recently forbade on its entire territory camera cell phones…The only downside to the hospitality was the sugary and colorful lemonade and tangerine sodas – Algeria is a strict Muslim country. All this and Ghardaia… I surely did not expect such a conservative atmosphere in Algeria. Maybe they rebelled more bloodily against the infidel French because of that religious streak, not for being more politically conscious.
Mohammed Harbi, a Paris-exiled Algerian intellectual who participated with a high rank in the war of independence says the Front de Libération Nationale was for the creation of an “Arabo-Muslim” state. There were a few Algerian Jews and French settlers who supported the F.L.N, “arguably the most genuine nationalists, because their understanding of Algeria wasn’t colored by religion.”