An Interview with the Anonymous Author of ‘Through Algeria’

In the tradition of Assia Djebar’s Fantasia, Algerian author-scholar Nadia Ghanem has a discussion with the anonymous unaccompanied Englishwoman who wrote Through Algeria:

By Nadia Ghanem

unnamedIn the autumn of 1859, an unaccompanied English lady left the UK to travel through Africa for the winter. Leaving Paris for Marseilles toward the end of October, she set sail heading for Algeria on a steamer with hundreds of other passengers. She arrived in Algiers after night-fall two days later and from the capital, her exploration of Algeria began, one that lasted several months.

Post-travel, this tourist-explorer turned her observations of Algeria into a travel book that was published in 1863. Through Algeria, the travel tales and observations of this traveller, has come down to us today via Darf Publishers who reprinted it in 1984.

Although the author is no longer alive, her first person account very much is. Vivacious, sharp and witty, her judgemental and conflicted text makes for a mine of information on the state of both Algeria and Europe barely 30 years after France’s colonisation of Algeria began.

Through the space that literature creates and within which timelessness defies death we can, and should, engage with this anonymous voice posthumously, over a hundred and fifty years removed. It is in this spirit that I have ‘interviewed’ the anonymous author of Through Algeria, for whoever will be interested in opening her book to listen to her tale.

Nadia Ghanem: Your travel book ‘Through Algeria’ has come to us in 2016, and I must say that it makes both for an informative read and a very disturbing one (I will come to the disturbing part towards the end of our conversation).

Before you begin the detailed description of the places through which you journeyed in Algeria, and before giving your impressions of the people you met, you open your travel book by stating why as a woman, you decided to travel alone. And it was no small decision in your time. Could you tell readers who have not yet picked up your book why you decided to travel to Africa unaccompanied by a man?

A: “In bygone days, the rule that no lady should travel without a gentlemen by her side was doubtless rational; but in a period of easy locomotion, and with abundant evidence to prove that ladies can travel by themselves in foreign countries with perfect safety, the maintenance of that rule certainly savours of injustice. For unquestionable as it is that a woman’s sphere, as wife and mother, lies at home, it is surely unreasonable to doom many hundred English ladies, of independent means and without domestic ties, to crush every natural aspiration to see nature in its grandest forms, art in its finest works, and human life in its most interesting phases”.

NG: By your account, your journey’s aim is to spend the winter in Africa. Why did you stop in Algeria?

A: “In general acceptation, a winter in Africa signifies a voyage up the Nile, and an interview with the Sphinxes, but in my case, and in that of a lady who accompanied me, the phrase implied a visit to Algiers, with the supplement of a journey through Algeria.”

NG: As you arrive in Algiers, you begin to differentiate between Europeans and “Algerines” – your term. You further describe people as “Moors”, could you comment on this term?

A: “The term Moor is unrecognised by the many thousand natives of Algiers whom Europeans indicate by that word. According to their own phraseology they are simply… children of El Djezaïr, or, in English, Algerines, a term certainly more appropriate…”

NG: You were privy to several parties, dances, weddings and festivals during your stay, both when you were personally invited into the homes of Algerian families, or simply as a result of chance encounters when travelling through the cities and villages you visited. Which party or festival will you remember most once your return to the UK?

A: It was “An Aïssaoua dance…The Aïssaoua have no mosque belonging to their order in Algiers, and they assemble for worship in a dwelling house in a native street, called by the French, the rue Klebèr. On entering this house, under the guidance of a member of the fraternity, I found myself in a flagged court, at whose further end a number of natives were seated on the ground, beneath, and before one side of a colonnade which flanked the inner walls…I joined the veiled occupants of the gallery. For some considerable time, the proceedings below were of a very monotonous character…before long, up sprang a young man from beneath the colonnade, and, bounding into the court, he flung his head and body about in a frantic manner, jumping up and down with scarcely a change of place…

Five minutes had not elapsed, when, with a bound and yell such as I had previously seen and heard, another man joined in the demoniac dance. Another, and still another, was soon added to the group… a new performer, who, seizing the iron spike, deliberately inserted it into his right eye, so as to force out the ball beyond the socket; and though I turned away from the revolting sight, I knew by the loud delighted cries of the women by my side that the exhibition lasted for at least three minutes; when I next looked round, the eye-ball was in its place, and the late performer was rubbing it with his fingers…To the lovers of horrors, Algiers supplies an ample feast.”

NG: Out of all the people you meet, the French seem to have annoyed you particularly, is there something that especially bugged you about them?

A: Yes, French forms of speech! “a familiar acquaintance with French forms of speech had taught me to accept a French superlative of any kind at never more than one-half its apparent value… To judge by words, the whole French nation knows no medium between the highest bliss and the deepest misery”.

NG: You note that Algerians, perhaps to your surprise, feel quite kindly towards the English, why do you think that is?

A: “Two causes may be assigned for the popularity of the English… One arises from a belief, often confided to my ears, that the English would conquer the French, and then give Algeria back to its rightful owners. The second cause originates in an idea that the English may, some day or other, become good Mussulmen; for they say that the envoys sent by the blessed prophet to ask the Christian nations to become believers in the true faith, met with a downright refusal in every case save that of England, which returned for answer “We will consider about it”.”

NG: You won’t know that one of the questions no woman or man can escape in Algeria to this day in 2016, whether Algerian or foreign, is to do with marital status. During your visits to Algerians’ homes, did anyone ask you if you were married?

A: “Was I married? – a standard question, and put by every native I came across… I have no husband,” but, “it was evidently a relief to them to find that I had a father and once a mother”.

NG: The meals you ate are perhaps the one element on which you are most silent – you were much more enthusiastic about recording geographical locations and place names. You only succinctly note that you did not enjoy eating “couscousou” very much, but you do describe in a fuller manner what meats you were offered to eat by settlers. Do you remember the list?

A: Yes! On our way back from “the snow-crowded mountains” of Blida, “Sitting by the driver on our return, I was enlightened by him on the subject of the culinary merits of the various wild beasts of Algeria. ‘A slice of lion’, he said, ‘was extremely good… the wild boar was excellent. The panther tasted like chicken. The jackal was not bad, but a man must be very hungry to relish a bit of a hyena.’ Knowing that the hyena was addicted to feasting on the tenants of graveyards, I gave full credit to the last assertion. On the succeeding day, if I had been experimentally inclined, I could have easily ascertained if panther and chicken were allied in taste; for on being conducted to see a panther which had just been killed in a forest a few miles distant from the town, a Blidah gentleman (to whom I mentioned our driver’s simile) most politely offered to forward a joint of panther to the hotel for our especial benefit. Having refused the offer, the chicken and panther relationship still remains a question to be elucidated by enquiring minds.”

NG: You journeyed through a number of cities and military villages. First you left Algiers to explore the Western part of the country until you reached Wahran. Then, you came back eastwards to go to Kabylie via Dellys. Later, you made your way to Constantine before leaving for Annaba, your final Algerian destination before departing for Tunis. You were taken with many a place, that much is clear from your account, but which city did you like the least?

A: “Having expected to find Oran with Spanish features, I was much dissatisfied at the sight of its almost thoroughly French face… The almost utter extinction of Spanish Oran is due to a fearful earthquake, which, in the year 1790, reduced the town to a mass of ruins. The formidable Spanish forts, that were, with the ramparts, almost the only survivors of this catastrophe, repaired and improved by the means of modern science, have, with a change of masters, lost the names which indicated their origin. Santa Cruz has become Sainte Croix, whilst San Gregorio and his numerous fellow saints which guard the town from every quarter, have undergone a similar transformation…The very scanty amount of the native element in Oran, both as regards architecture and population, tended also to make me view it with disfavour.”

NG: Throughout your report, you pay particular attention to Algerian women, the way they dress, and the way they live and what you call ‘their condition’ – something, with the greatest respect if you’ll allow, you judged armed only with your language. Out of all these encounters, is there a woman in particular that you’ll remember?

A: When “we returned to La Colonne to catch the afternoon coach, and whilst waiting for the appearance, an Arab woman, twirling a distaff approached me. Having ascertained that I was unmarried, she proceeded to give me her views on married life. She considered that I was a highly blessed woman in not having a husband, for all husbands were terrible and cruel tyrants to their wives. They beat and they scolded, and when they had done scolding they commenced to beat again. (*I heard on excellent authority, that it is no rare thing for an Arab wife to revenge herself upon her tyrant by poisoning him) No wife would have any joy in this world if it were not for her children, and yet they were also a heavy grief, it is happened, as it had done to her, to lose them all by fever. Such were poor Fatima’s experiences…”

NG: In your last chapter, you comment on colonisation, approaching the matter from the point of view of a European tax payer, something strikingly different for us readers today – the norm now is practically only to focus on ideology. You note how the financial difficulties drove the poorer populations of Europe to come to Algeria because their countries offered them a way out of poverty, with governments giving willing individuals a concession of land in Algeria for free, to work and from which to profit as they pleased, provided they kept settled. How did this situation, one whose core was a business enterprise, affect your generation?

A: “In 1848 the National Assembly voted fifty millions of francs in furtherance of the colonisation of Algeria. The depression of trade at that period made the idea of emigration thoroughly popular with the needy working classes of Paris. Bankrupt shopkeepers, tailors, shoemakers, jewellers, watchmakers, musicians and artists, and trades people of various kinds, composed the band of 13,500 emigrants who, consequent on the Assembly’s vote, were sent in successive detachments to Algiers. Revelling in the idea of having a house, land, cattle, agricultural implements free of cost, and a daily ration of food for the period of three years, the colonists landed on the Algerian shores amidst dances, songs, and shouts. But once drafted to the interior, to live in wooden huts amidst a waste of brushwood, in an atmosphere laden with miasma, and utterly unfitted for hard out-door work, despair entered into their souls.”

“With the experience that we have of the hardships and perils that the needy classes of our population will voluntarily undergo for the sake of improving their fortunes, it was only natural to suppose that the same classes in France would joyfully rush across a narrow inland sea, bridged over by steamers, to occupy and populate the favoured land which conquest had placed at their disposal.”

“No self-supporting emigration has taken place, but in despite of lavish expenditure, and the most energetic efforts of a powerful government to colonise Algeria, a paltry population of 60,000 rural settlers represented in 1857 the whole amount of colonising success, purchased at a cost of some £90,000,000, during an occupation of nearly thirty years. Nor at this present time do the French compose half of the European population of Algeria. What progress there is made, entails an annual drain of £3,000,000 on the mother country and at the rate of increase which has prevails during the last ten years, very many years must elapse before the colonial population numbers 1,000,000. A result to incommensurate with the efforts used, and money expended, would apparently argue either a high degree of government incapacity, or an utter inaptitude of the French for colonisation. (The European population of Algeria amounted, in 1857, to 180,000. Of this number, only 92,000 were French. The remaining portion consisted of Spaniards, Italians, Maltese, and Germans. The population of Algeria in 1861, as stated in the French Chambers, was 210,000 of which only 100,000 were French… at this present day the great bulk of the European-Algerian population are the followers of a large army, which, if withdrawn, would leave the French towns of Algeria with scarcely an inhabitant… The native population of Algeria [is] reckoned at about 2,370,000)…”

NG: You do say some beastly things about Algerians in your last chapter, when you appraise the value of colonisation and its possible future benefit. While you could not escape the influence of your time, I found it very upsetting. I expect you do not regret what you penned?

A: “Opinions become, in the course of years, quite as ridiculous as clothes whose fashion is obsolete…In very progressing nation, manners and opinions must necessarily, in the course of years, undergo considerable change. But no matter how reasonable that change may be, society, in the first instance, denounces it vehemently. History presents a record of follies and errors fondly cherished, and reluctantly abandoned. Still, in any country where mental activity prevails, reason is sure at length to overcome this vis inertiae of custom.”

NG: Your travel book has come to us with no name claiming authorship. Perhaps it was deliberate on your part and you wished to remain anonymous, but can I ask anyway: who are you?

A: “The bold, audacious Amazon, dressed in hat and coat, denounced with vehemence in the pages of the ‘Spectator’, is now the applauded lady equestrian. The ridiculed blue-stocking of the last century is the respected authoress of this.”

NG: Finally, will you come back home to England with any make-up tips?

A: “Koheul and henna are quite indispensable to the completion of a Moorish lady’s toilet. With koheul, a black powder she edges her eyelids and often joins her eyebrows across her nose…eyebrows joined artificially across the nose by a broad streak of black, and eyelids edged with the same colour [are in fashion]… and extracts from the leaves of the henna plant she stains her nails bright orange…If the Mohammedan masculine heart can be won and kept by such a process, why should not the Christian heart yield to the same influence?”

From 1859 to 2016

The narration, at times perceptive, often humourous, thoroughly racialist in attitude, is a precious historical record. The geography and the toponyms of the military villages and the cities in which she stopped, the hotels and guest houses in which she stayed, the officials both European and Algerian she visited, the letters of introduction given, are all valuable elements to anyone interested in piecing together history.

Through her account we learn that Algiers is covered in snow in January, that the entire northern part of the country from Blida to Wahran has been deeply affected by earthquakes, that Wahran was travelled to by land in a coupé, that malaria-fever was decimating settlers. Her particular interest in Algerian religious fraternities is especially worthy of attention.

Certainly one of the most informative facets of this travel book is the evidence it gives us of Europe’s view of the world in the mid 19th century, how it projected itself onto that world, and how this block of countries and the travellers they produced went about meeting the people in it. One of the essential questions that travel books such as this one poses is: have the concepts with which Europe then grasped the other altered?

Although firmly set in 1859, certain remarks and the notions that underpin them resonate with formidable and frightening contemporariness. A static and dogmatic sense of beauty and aesthetics, a racialist use of anthropology, a guttural revulsion for the other, appropriation, hospitality begrudged, superficial considerations for the language barrier, make me wonder: except for charter planes and antibiotics, have things changed much at all?

Through Algeria, by an anonymous author (pp. 362) is available from Darf Publishers, London.

Many thanks to Darf Publishers for the review copy of this book.

 nadiaNadia is ArabLit’s Algeria Editor and a doctoral student at the School of Oriental and African Studies, where she specializes in the ancient languages of Iraq and Syria. Based between Algeria and the UK, she blogs  at about living in Algeria, and Algerian literature.