Copyright
Gordon Casserly.

Algeria today online

. (page 12 of 18)
Online LibraryGordon CasserlyAlgeria today → online text (page 12 of 18)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


months it steals over the desert in the night hours to
escape man's enemy there, the sun.

A motley and interesting crowd of travellers it
carries. A stately, olive-faced Arab in flowing white
burnous, a hlafa or thin cloth covering the high felt cap
on his head bound round by many turns of a brown
string of camel-hair cord and falling to his waist, stalks
to a third-class carriage followed by what might be two
automatic upright white bolsters were it not for the fair
foreheads and the beautiful black eyes appearing above

170



the adjar, or veil which covers the rest of the face, and
the bare ankles and the little feet thrust into heel-less
slippers. They are his wives carefully shrouded against
profane male gaze. Behind them come a couple of
men who, but for their red checchias and semi-Arab
dress might be Scotsmen by their blue eyes, fair skins
and sandy moustaches. They are Kabyles, in whose
veins runs the mixed blood of aborigine, Roman and
Vandal. Two Tirailleurs Indigenes, smart, dark-
complexioned soldiers in their turquoise blue Zouave
jackets and baggy trousers, salute a handsome subaltern
officer of the French aviation service in dark blue tunic
and breeches and black gaiters. On his breast are the
Legion of Honour and the Croix de Guerre, the latter
with two metal palm branches across its ribbon to show
that it was won thrice. And over his left shoulder the
aiguillette cord of the fourragere tells that he has
belonged to a corps whose standard has been decorated
for bravery. A fair-skinned, black-bearded Mozabite
in Arab dress, one of the small but industrious race
from the towns and oases in the Sahara below Laghouat
scowled at as heretics by devout Moslems, climbs up
into a second-class compartment behind a stout French-
woman on her way to rejoin her stationmaster husband
half-way down the line.

Energetic hotel-guides conducting parties of Ameri-
can and European travellers push aside bewildered
groups of desert-dwelling women with unveiled faces,
mere bundles of odd garments. A horn squeaks, and
the train slides quietly out into the desert. First it
passes high, mud-walled houses, tall palm trees, a loop-
holed stone tower on a hillock facing out towards the



172 ALGERIA TO-DAY

wild and the aviation hangars from which the military
aeroplanes fly out to keep watch over the waste. Then
Biskra and its environs and its oases are left behind,
and the true Sahara appears.

But where are the glaring plains of drifting sand,
the golden dunes heaped up, the dread bareness of life-
less desert that the untravelled aye, and the man who
has seen Egypt and the dead shores of the Gulf of Suez
and the Red Sea expect? For here and almost every-
where along the way to Tougourt the ground is heaped
in tiny hummocks crowned with foot-high bright green
bushes, clumps of grass eighteen inches long or drier
stuff that resembles alfa. Although close to the train
one can see the sand between the bunches of vegetation,
yet gazing farther away towards the horizon the eyes
seem to be ranging over a dark stretch of gorse-bushes
and in the distance the tops of the trees in a pinewood.

Lifeless ? Dotted among the hummocks are camels
grazing, camels brown or black, in ones, in twos, in
dozens, sometimes in charge of a small Arab child,
oftener alone. The universal donkey, too, in groups,
and herds of lop-eared goats are busy ; and it is evident
that in this part of the desert at least there is good feed-
ing for hardy animals. Here and there dunes do crop
up, and farther along the railway are lines of bare sand-
hills. But as a rule the undulating ground is dotted
with little clumps of green plants, and the surface of the
sand is hard. Between the bushes it is strewn with loose
stones glistening like mica, which mineral is found plenti-
fully between Tougourt and Ghardaia. But the sand,
ridged as on a seashore, shows that when a strong wind
blows over the desert it ca,n rise in suffocating clouds.



FROM BISKRA TO TOUGOURT 173

So far from being absolutely dry little streams and
narrow pools and here and there bigger ponds are
visible from the train. But the ground is covered in
very many places with snow-white patches of magnesia
or mineral salts, which show that the earth is every-
where impregnated with them, so that the surface water
is brackish and undrinkable. The oases of date-palms
that dot the desert owe their existence to the artesian
wells sunk deep, sometimes many hundreds of feet
below the surface.

The month is March and the sun shines brilliantly
in the clear blue sky, yet the heat is not great. In fact,
with the windows of the carriages open even the Euro-
pean travellers in the train wear furs and overcoats up
to noon. The nomad Arabs who wander far south in
the winter months to return northward when the scorch-
ing sun of summer drives them back, are still absent,
though occasionally low tents of striped cloth guarded
by fierce dogs dot the desert here and there; beside
tethered camels lazy, white-burnoused men lie on the
ground and gaze indifferently at the passing train. But
the women of the douar are too busy to raise their eyes
towards it, for they are doing all the hard work of the
encampment.

The Aures Mountains are not yet lost to sight.
They thrust forward on either flank and seem to hem
the railway in. At their feet are frequent great palm-
groves, oases nourished by the water flowing down from
the hills, and though lost to sight underground only
waiting to be tapped by wells. But at last the moun-
tains sink beneath the horizon and sandy hillocks blot
them from sight.



174 ALGERIA TO-DAY

The train runs past a well-built European house
beside the line, the dwelling of some French platelayer,
and his wife stands on the verandah to watch us go by.
Near the door is a pump, and by it is tethered a great
horned sheep. Farther on a well-peopled oasis lies
close to the railway. Above the flat roofs of the blank,
mud-walled huts the tall palms rustle their fronds in the
light breeze. From the village an Arab on a thin brown
mare, closely followed by a foal, ambles down the sunk
road white with magnesia that leads between earthen
banks to the line.

And then the train slides in alongside a building
that, owing to its whitewashed walls and its dome sur-
mounted by a gilt crescent, looks like a mosque or a
holy marabout's tomb, but it is only the first station out
from Biskra, Oumache. The blue-uniformed railway
officials in it look sadly out of keeping with its Oriental
appearance. One feels that they should garb them-
selves in burnous and hlafa like the expectant travellers
on the platform. But then, to look the part also, the
train would have to disguise itself as a camel. It
certainly behaves like one in the station; for it stops
with as much noise and grumbling and shows as little
indecent haste to move on again as the long-necked,
bad-tempered animal that it is replacing in the
desert.

And when at last it departs from Oumache and sees
before it a river, like the camel it swerves out of the
straight line to seek the narrowest place to cross. An
iron three-span bridge stretches over the wide, almost
empty river-bed which, however, often fills so suddenly
by a spate from the hills that it drowns unwary travellers



FROM BISKRA TO TOUGOURT 175

and women washing clothes in it. And this is the
Sahara that one pictures as a waterless waste !

Now comes Chegga station, another cement build-
ing with dome and golden crescent, where on one side
of the line a garden of flowers and vegetables, of tama-
rinds and young palms, blooms to show what water can
make of the desert soil. The European passengers
crowd to stare over its wall into a mud-brick house shel-
tering a Sahara gazelle, a pretty, slim-legged creature
with short, curved horns.

Beyond Chegga there are more streams, pools and
ponds ; but the water in them must be brackish, for
everywhere between the tiny bushes the ground is white
with magnesia or mineral salts. The desert is still the
same, undulating, covered with low vegetation, or at
intervals dotted with the clustering palms of oases.

Traditional pictures are not wanting. A herd of
camels stalk by, shepherded by a couple of Arabs on
horseback and a third man afoot with gun slung on his
back. They pass a string of the same supercilious,
long-legged beasts heavily laden, a caravan on its way
south with flour from Biskra ; for though the railway runs
to-day the Arabs use the transport that their forefathers
did centuries ago. And the desert takes its toll of man
and animals as of yore. Not a hundred yards from
the iron road lies the complete skeleton of a camel with
the big white skull still adhering in some way to the
cervical vertebrae. And half a mile farther on is another,
fallen to pieces this one. And though the troopers of
France patrol the Sahara raiders still swoop down on
caravans in the south and men's life-blood stains the
hot sand.



176 ALGERIA TO-DAY

More oases, more stations. Some of the latter vary
in architecture from the first ones, though still presenting
the Eastern touch.

And now far away to the left of the railway lies a
large lake, a truly magnificent sheet of water bordered
by sandy cliffs, dotted with islets ; cliffs and islets
reflected clearly in the shining water. Farther on the
far shore runs out of sight and horizon and water blend.
Here and there are large fishing-boats. The tourists
crowd the windows of the train corridor to gaze in
wonder and admiration at the beautiful expanse of
water. It stretches for miles parallel to the railway;
and our surprise is gi^at that so vast a lake lies so far
inside the Sahara, Guide-book maps are consulted.
Yes, here it is in all of them, marked by a wash of blue,
one of a chain of similar coloured patches extending
to the Gulf of Gabes in Tunisia. The guide-books
term them Chotts and call them salt-lakes. Small
inland seas they must be. This one is the Chott El
Melghir, 170 miles long.

Astonishment, unbelief, are evinced by the tourists
when fellow travellers who reside in Tougourt or else-
where along the line declare that there is practically no
water, fresh or salt, in this beautiful lake, that its shining
expanse with its faithful reflections of islets, cliffs and
boats is all delusion. It is a mirage. What we see
is the bed of a dried-up lake covered white with mag-
nesia. We cannot believe it until the railway line
passes over a portion of it here, they say, sixteen
metres below sea level. It is over these Chotts that the
Mediterranean Sea is to be brought into the heart of the
Sahara when the scheme is ripe some day, perhaps.



FROM BISKRA TO TOUGOURT 177

This mirage is beyond belief. I have seen many
in India, but I stared long at this Chott before I could
realise the truth.

Water, real, fresh water, comes, and strange to say
comes unwelcome to the desert. Only the day before
a storm had swept over the district, torrents of rain fell,
river beds filled to the brim, and for several kilometres
the railway had been undermined or even swept away.
But it had been promptly repaired it is no difficult
task to bank up sand and lay sleepers on it but over
those doubtful kilometres the train crawled slowly, while
gangs of Arabs and Kabyle navvies stood aside to let it
go by.

Storms in the desert ! Last July the motor diligence
from Ghardaia to Tougourt, both places over a hundred
and fifty miles inside the Sahara, ran into one. The
lightning and thunder were tropical, and hailstones fell,
not such as dwellers in temperate climes know, but
sharp-edged bars of clear ice two or three inches long,
each enclosing a round, clouded hailstone such as is
ordinarily seen. They pierced the tarpaulin cover of
the diligence as though they had been bullets, they
battered and bruised the driver's arms, hands and body
until he was forced to pull up and wait for a couple of
hours. And even when the storm had passed he was
unable to proceed at once, for the ground for miles was
slippery with the ice particles. Ice in the Sahara in
July!

Near each railway station on the line to Tougourt
there is at least one large oasis, if not more for the
oasis is the raison d'etre of the station's existence. In
many of them the villages are large and boast quite

M



178 ALGERIA TO-DAY

imposing mosques, the white minarets rising among the
tall dark palms. The extent of the high walls of sun-
dried bricks surrounding the crowded dwellings is sur-
prising ; as are the other evidences of prosperity in the
vast number of palm-trees close on two hundred thou-
sand in some cases the ground cultivation of veget-
ables under them, the herds of goats, sheep and donkeys,
as well as the crowds that gather for the weekly markets.

Astonishing too, is the number of oases visible from
the train all the way between Biskra and Tougourt.
The popular idea that the whole Sahara is a vast, deso-
late, sandy desert inhabited only by wandering tribes-
men is erroneous ; for in other parts beside this which
is served by the railway there are large oases with many
villages containing a numerous settled population.

An oasis, as I have said, is simply a spot where
water is found on the surface or more usually by sinking
wells ; for then irrigation will allow palms to grow, and
where they are life can be supported. So villages of
mud bricks spring up as if by magic. For the palm-
tree means everything to the desert-dweller. It gives
him almost his only food, the date and the edible pith.
From the date is distilled a liquor something like
anisette. Trees that do not bear fruit well are tapped
near the leafy crown, and every morning the exuding
sap is collected in earthen vessels tied under the
incisions. When fresh it forms a harmless drink, but
when fermented it is a strong intoxicant. " Lakmi,"
the Arabs call it ; in India it is termed " toddy," and to
produce it palms are extensively cultivated along the
coast near Bombay. This tapping of a tree has a good
effect on it, causing it to subsequently bear better fruit.



FROM BISKRA TO TOUGOURT 179

A date palm, although it does not produce a crop for
the first fifteen or twenty years of its existence, is never-
theless a good investment; for it lives more than a
hundred years, and even when dead its roots, trunk and
leaves are useful for a variety of purposes. It is not
usually grown from date-stones, but from slips. Palms
are either male or female, and trees of the latter gender
must be fertilised from the former.

They only fructify in the Sahara zone. The prin-
cipal regions which produce dates in Southern Algeria
are the Oued Rhir, the Ziban, the Souf, Ouargla, the
Tidikelt, the Zousfana and the Saoura. There are
very many varieties of this fruit. The finest quality,
and the one usually exported for foreign consumption
in cases, wooden and cardboard boxes, is the transparent
Deglet-Nour.

The produce of the oases of the Souf and the Djerid
is considered the best ; and the crop is purchased entire
by merchants even before the dates ripen.

The soft dates called Rhar, which the natives con-
sume largely, are sold compressed in goatskins. The
Horra and Degla-Beida are eaten by the bulk of the
inhabitants of the Sahara and the Hauts Plateaux.
Other varieties are the Mouchi-Degla, Koutichi, M'hen-
tich, M'tima, Alaoua and a host of others. The harvest
season is in November.

The staple, if not the only diet of the nomads is
couscous, dates and camel's milk. Only on rare occa-
sions, such as feasts, are sheep slaughtered for food
and then they are roasted whole. But dates from their
portability they are packed tight in goatskins sewn up
form the principal nourishment of a wandering Arab ;



180 ALGERIA TO-DAY

and without the palms the desert would be uninhabit-
able to him. But these trees require much water.
Here the French come to the aid of the Arabs and sink
artesian wells by machinery for them, naturally boring
to depths that the old method of digging by hand could
never reach. Indeed, all this land, and not only the
Sahara, owes much to its rulers, who have developed
its resources astonishingly. The man who thinks that
the French cannot colonise should visit Algeria. He
should see the farms, the cultivation, the vineyards of
the northern provinces and the oases that are springing
up in the desert thanks to French companies and the
money they spend in developing them. It comes as
a surprise to the tourist to see at a little wayside station
in the Sahara the motor-car or the pony cart of one of
their employees with his wife and children sitting in it.
These vehicles look as out of place among the tethered
camels, mules and donkeys as do their occupants in
their European dress among the drapery and flowing
robes of the Arab men and the picturesque though
tatterdemalion figures of the female desert-dwellers with
unveiled faces.

After El-Berd, where a solitary loopholed picquet
tower rises above the desert and a few well-shaped Arab
horses with gaily decorated high-peaked saddles were
made fast to hitching-posts near the little station, there
were several other stops before the train at last reached
Tougourt. A real desert town this. Here one saw
the bare, uncovered, unmistakable sand. Though
around and about are many shady oases in which to hide
among the palms, Tougourt stands up naked and
unashamed against the sky, perched on a low hillock of




Photo. Service, Government of Algeria.
TOUGOUKT FROM THE AIR.




Photo. Service, Government of Algeria .
THE PALMS OF TOUGOURT.



FROM BISKRA TO TOUGOURT 181

loose sand, which drifts up against the deeply crenelated
wall on one side of the arched gateways and on the
other the barer, uglier one over which peep the flat roofs
of the houses and the minarets of a score of mosques.
It looks to-day much as it has for centuries, this
Tougourt, brought in touch with civilisation at last ; as
the railway attests, as do the little Catholic church out-
side the town and the miserable horse dragging a small
tram along narrow rails below the sand dune and up
the one broad, deep-arcaded street that holds a hotel
and a few offices. But nothing detracts from the
Eastern look of the town. Certainly not the white-
washed arches and walls of this main street, at the head
of which, backed by a hundred palm-trees rising behind
white, open balustrades and bordered by arcaded, one-
storied buildings with an occasional domed roof, is the
market place.

Here the sellers, when not engaged in animated
disputes with bargaining buyers, squat or lie full length
on the ground, comfortably awaiting custom beside their
wares. Piles of dried bush-stumps for fuel and bundles
of coarse desert grass for fodder are for sale. On cloths
are spread for stalls there are none dates, grain,
native bread and flat cakes and cooked food. Patient
donkeys stand with drooping heads. Camels bunched
up on the sand survey the passers-by with supercilious,
evil stare and fill the air with burbling complaints when
urged to uncurl their long legs and rise. On Fridays
the market is filled with them ; for the desert carpet-
weavers have come in with their weird, gaudy wares
for sale, strips and squares of fascinating colours, blues,
greens, reds, yellows, purples, magentas, in clashing,



182 ALGERIA TO-DAY

impossible contrasts, yet subtly harmonising in some
strange way.

Unromantic though a market be, ordinary the
actions of all in it, yet this market place of Tougourt is
picturesque, and its tones of subdued green from the
background of palms, of yellow from the sand that fills
it, of white from the buildings and the dress of the
chaffering groups, with over all the vivid blue of the
Saharan sky, would delight a painter. Lazy, dishonest,
immoral though the Arab may be and I have never
met anyone to defend him the flowing lines of his
robes give him a stateliness and a dignity to the eye at
least.

After the market-place comes a square. On one
side is a long, white, two-storied building of many-
arched verandahs surmounted by a dome, the Bureau
Arabe. Similar arcaded houses fill up two other sides ;
while the fourth is bounded by the grim, loopholed,
bastioned wall of the fort and barracks in which the
French Algerian troops are quartered. Above it a tall
tower pierced for rifles and machine guns rises high in
the air dominating town and desert, a sign for all, nomad
or street-dweller, a warning symbol of the Dominant
Power" Lest They Forget."

In the square is a large, covered well with a stand-
pipe from which gushes warm, almost hot water, spring-
ing up from a depth of over seven hundred and fifty
feet where the French boring-tools had found it and
discharging an amazing quantity of water every hour-
water so strongly impregnated with magnesia as to have
unpleasant effects on the Europeans in Tougourt about
fifty or sixty all told who are obliged to drink it.



FROM BISKRA TO TOUGOURT 183

Opposite the fortified wall of the barracks is the
Great Mosque there are nearly a score of these edifices
in the small town.

And now all picturesqueness ends ; for the rest of
Tougourt is just narrow, gloomy streets, mere lanes of
loose sand, running between high, brown, sun-dried
brick walls, blank, but for one small door for each house.
If open this door allows a glimpse of a deep courtyard
in which a camel is tethered or perhaps a palm-tree
towers, hemmed in by mud-coloured buildings where
external stairs lead up to the dwelling rooms over the
stables on the ground floor. The streets, like all
Eastern streets of private residences, are dull, for the
town Arab will have no windows through which the
outer world may pry into his home life. " He does not
live in the street " as he says the European does.

Even the houses of the two great men of Tougourt,
the Marabout or Holy Man and the Caid the secular
chief present the same depressing external aspect.
But when I visited the latter a door in the wall led me
into a bright little courtyard where a shapely white horse
was tethered and a group of Arab and negro servants
lay or squatted against the house. And the room in
which, reposing on a white mattress and propped up by
pillows, the caid, suffering from a sprained knee,
received me, was light and cheerful. And in it we
drank coffee and discussed Pierre Benoit's " L'Atlan-
tide " ; for the author had spent three months in
Tougourt when writing the book, and the caid, a
charming and educated man, decore, and speaking
French fluently, had known him well.

Tougourt has played its part in the history of the



184 ALGERIA TO-DAY

Sahara and could boast its Sultans, whose tombs stand
lonely and ruinous in the sand outside the town. One
dynasty ruled it from the fourteenth century to the
nineteenth when Sultan Ben-Djellab-bou-Lifa acknow-
ledged the French suzerainty. His young grandson,
Abd-el-Kader-ben-Djellab, a mere boy, was the ruler
in 1854 and was murdered by an ambitious relative,
Ben-Sliman-ben-Djellab, who seized the power and
joined forces with Mohammed-ben-Abd' Allah whom
the French had driven out of Ouargla, another desert
town and small state a hundred and seventy kilometres
south-west of Tougourt. Against them the Algerian
Government sent four very mobile columns under
Golonel Desvaux, Commandant of the Sub-division of
Batna, reinforced by the goums (native irregular contin-
gents) of Biskra, Bou-Saada, Laghouat and Geryville
under Commandant Marnier. The confederate Arab
force was defeated at Megarine on November 29th,
1854, losing a thousand men; and the French entered
and took possession of Tougourt on 2nd December.

I think of this as I leave the caid's house and try to
picture this small town and the waste of sand around it
as an independent kingdom. A Saharan Sultan must
have been but a very small potentate.

Legend tells that the Tougourt of to-day occupies
a different site to the Tougourt of the past. North of
it was the village of Tala, now in ruins, in which lived
a beautiful courtesan named El Bahadja (La Joyeuse),
for whose favour all the young men of Tala contended.
Driven out of the village as an evil-doer she sought to
enter Tougourt. Refused admission she was obliged
to shelter in a hut of palm-branches hurriedly con-



structed by her lovers, who followed her in a band and
pitched their tents around her dwelling. Shortly after-
wards a very holy man, the Grand Marabout of M'Sila,
came to Tougourt to beg for his religious school ; but
as the ruler and people of the town belonged to a
different sect of Mahommedanism they refused him
admission, too. But the Gay Lady was more charitable


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 12 14 15 16 17 18

Online LibraryGordon CasserlyAlgeria today → online text (page 12 of 18)