Tuesday, 28 June 2016

An Interview with the Anonymous Author of ‘Through Algeria’

Thanks to Arab Lit in English for having run my "interview" with an anonymous 19th century authoress.

In 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”.”

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