Copyright
Gordon Casserly.

Algeria today online

. (page 13 of 18)
Online LibraryGordon CasserlyAlgeria today → online text (page 13 of 18)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


and sheltered the venerable greybeard when night found
him stranded in the desert ; and she and her young men
showed him so much kindness that he blessed his
hostess, and prayed, "Allah! protect El Bahadja!
May her humble cabin become a palace and the
inhospitable houses of Tougourt fall in ruins ! '

And the marabout's prayer was heard. Civil war
set the inhabitants of the town at each other's throat and
eventually destroyed the Tougourt of that day. But
La Joyeuse's cot had been replaced by a fine building;
and other houses sprang up around it and developed
into the Tougourt of our time.

The afternoon wanes. From the high tower of the
fort one can gaze out over the desert, beyond the bare,
brown village outside Tougourt, across the jagged tops
of the palms in the oases around and watch the sinking
sun fill the heavens with glowing reds and pinks and
yellows.

Night comes swiftly, and the air is chill ; so that I
wear an overcoat as I walk to the little restaurant with
the French aviation officer who was my fellow traveller
and is to be my guest. But the dark sky is pierced with
a million points of brightness, the stars that shine oyer
the desert with a brilliancy that Europe never knows.
And the Saharan day is done.



CHAPTER XI

SHEIKHS, SAINTS AND SECRET SOCIETIES

BISKRA railway station is gaily beflagged and
decorated; and on the platform civilians raise their
hats and officers salute as the special train glides
out on the Tougourt line and it is all in honour of
the kindly-faced, handsome old gentleman with the
flowing white beard, who, seated in the centre
carriage, is bowing in reply. For he is a Personage.
No less than the Governor-General of Algeria;* as
important an individual as the Viceroy of India, but
much more approachable.

He is going to meet the Arab chieftains of the
wide Saharan district of the Zab at the little desert
town of Tolga about sixty miles from Biskra.
Around him in the carriage sit the members of his
Cabinets Civil et Militaire, together with the prin-
cipal officials of the Province of Constantine, in which
Biskra lies. That exceedingly smart officer with the
gold oak-leaves embroidered on the scarlet band of
his ke-pi is the General of the Batna Division; for
this part of the military zone is under his command.
Those two good-looking men in dark-blue uniform
with silver oak-leaves round their caps are the Prefet,

*The late M. Abel.
186



SAINTS AND SECRET SOCIETIES 187

or Governor, of the Constantine Province and the
Sous-Prefet of Batna.

In the next carriage are some officers of the Biskra
garrison; while in a third are a few guests fortunate
enough to be invited to witness the great gathering of
the desert chiefs and their tribesmen. There is a
handsome French countess with her son. There with
his family is a British Major-General, who is also a
peer, who knows North Africa east and west, from
the Suez Canal to the Atlantic, better than most
people. He saw the ending of the Mahdi's power
when the dervish hordes were blasted off the face of
the desert by the rifles of Gatacre's white soldiers
and Macdonald's blacks. He played cricket with
Sultan Abdul Aziz in the Imperial Palace at Fez
long before the coming of the French to Morocco.
The white-haired man to whom I am talking was a
retired colonel of the Canadian Army when the Great
War broke out. They said that he was too old for
re-employment in August 1914 so he went to Eng-
land, enlisted as a private soldier, fought through the
campaign, won the Distinguished Conduct Medal,
refused a commission; and when the war was over
Sergeant-Major Bliss went back to the Retired List
as Colonel Bliss.

Beyond the rocky knoll on which the square
watch-tower outside Biskra stands up lonely and
untenanted the train passes the aviation hangars
by Beni Mora, from which an aeroplane sweeps up
into the blue sky to show why the tower is empty.
For nowadays the Watchers in the Air keep guard
over the peace of the desert; and these winged



188 ALGERIA TO-DAY

wardens of the Sahara fly over sand dune and water-
less stony waste where the camel-soldier scarce can
go. The Governor-General's train would be well
guarded now were there any need for it. But France's
sway is undisputed and this zone is peaceful, so His
Excellency requires no escort.

Outside the oasis with its sea of palms the
unpromising-looking soil is green, bright green with
wide, unfenced fields of growing barley that mock
the legend of an unfertile Sahara. Fresher than
ever it appears; for unusual rain has actually fallen
in the Biskra district during the three days of the
Governor-General's visit; an unwonted phenomenon
that makes the Arabs nod their heads solemnly and
opine that Allah must regard the Great White Sheikh
with special favour since He sent this blessed water
to welcome his coming.

Beyond the barley the desert at first is bare and
white with magnesia but soon is dotted with little
clumps of Saharan vegetation on which camels,
donkeys and goats are grazing. We see the mosque-
like dome of the first station out, Oumache; and
the train pulls up beside the platform crowded with
a bizarre throng. Rows of gaily-clad Arab women
with unveiled faces greet our arrival with their soft,
shrill " yu-yu-ing " cry of salutation. Behind them
a rank of white-garbed desert warriors raise their guns
and fire welcoming volleys, while banner-men hold
bright coloured flags aloft. And up and down the
platform dances an unkempt old woman with
straggling grey hair, waving a naked sword above her
head, while a man, also brandishing a curyed sabre,



SAINTS AND SECRET SOCIETIES 189

hops after her in weird steps to the shrill strains of
Arab musicians.

And lifted high in air behind them all is a closed
palanquin covered with a silver cloth; and I learn
that to-day the son of the Sheikh of Oumache has
been married and has brought his bride hidden from
gaze in the palanquin and the wedding guests to
greet the Governor- General in his passage.

On again, and the line branches off from the main
railway to Tougourt. We go over waste stretches of
desert, by grazing herds, by fruitful oases with mud-
walled villages, by date-palm nurseries where the
young slips are planted in lines to grow in time into
tall trees and form more oases. A few more stations
and then gardens, mud walls and scattered huts tell
us that we are nearing our destination. Then we
reach Tolga. A small group of Europeans awaits
the Governor-General on the platform; and a little
French girl presents him with a bouquet of flowers.
Flowers in the desert !

We follow His Excellency out through the station
and a wonderful scene bursts on our view.

The mile or so of sand lying between the railway
and the town is packed with a mass of humanity,
men, women, children, in fluttering white or coloured
garments.

In the centre a broad space is filled with massed
bodies of armed horsemen and foot-soldiers in all
the colours of the rainbow. There is a troup of
cavaliers in scarlet burnouses embroidered in gold
or silver sheikhs or tribal leaders. Their slim, sinewy
horses, mostly greys or whites, are gaily adorned with



190 ALGERIA TO-DAY

saddle-cloths red, blue, purple, crimson; their stir-
rups, spurs and bits are of solid silver, their reins of
scented leather are thickly encrusted with gold or
silver, their saddles and saddle-cloths of velvet heavy
with gold bullion, and the empty scabbards dangling
against their chargers' flanks are of precious metal.
With the long lines of horsemen behind these
black or grey-bearded riders are their sons, nephews,
grandsons, in gold-embroidered velvet or fine
cloth garments, green, blue, mauve, purple. Their
trappings too, are of silver or gold. Many of them
command sections and sub-divisions.

The compact bodies of footmen are variously
clothed and equipped and carry many gaily-coloured
flags. They and the horsemen are the followers of
the various caids and sheikhs and constitute the
goums or native irregular contingents which are ready
to fight for the Republic in war and in peace time
help to police the district ruled by their leaders. For
the conquest of Algeria was aided by many chiefs
who sided with the French; and in regions assigned
throughout the country for the occupation of certain
tribes their leaders are entrusted with the control and
are responsible for the maintenance of law and order.
They are formally invested with authority by the
Algerian Government and dignified with the titles of
Sheikh, Caid, Agha, Bach-Agha or Khalifa.

They are allowed to maintain a military house-
hold, like the retainers of a baron in feudal times,
to act, as I said, as police or if need be as soldiers.
The chiefs have not judicial powers; and it is often
a source of great dissatisfaction to them that law-




Photo, by the Author.



TRIBAL CHIEFS IN TOLGA.




IN TOLGA.



Photo, by the Author.



SAINTS AND SECRET SOCIETIES 191

breakers of their tribe arrested by them and tried by
French judges profit by the many loopholes of legal
intricacies and the perhaps unwise leniency of the
European tribunals, are acquitted and return to the
tribe free men to jeer at their discomfited caid, whose
authority is thus diminished and his prestige shaken.

In war tribal leaders command their goums under
the control of French officers. And now this
assemblage of desert warriors before us takes its
orders from the white man in gay uniform draped
with a scarlet burnous who gives the word to salute
when the Governor-General advances towards them
from the station.

From a scenic point of view the spectacle is a
brilliant and impressive one. The serried ranks of
these armed Arabs whose forefathers had fought
alternately against the French and their own country-
men, their picturesque garb, the restless lines of
long-maned, long-tailed desert horses, neighing,
plunging, straining at their bits, seeking to savage
their neighbours, the countless gaudy banners flutter-
ing in the breeze, the masses of white-robed men, of
:< yu-yu-ing " women, of half-naked children, with
the background of brown earthen walls under the
rustling plumes of the tall palms, and the desert
stretching away behind us to the distant hills, all
make a fascinating picture, every detail of which
stands out clearly in the vivid light of the Saharan
sun.

But interesting as it all is as a spectacle, it is
equally impressive as a testimony to France's sway
over the Sahara and its tribes. The Arab chieftain



192 ALGERIA TO-DAY

in scarlet burnous coyered with glittering decorations
who sits on his beautiful horse at the head of the
army, the Bach-Agha of the Zibans, the leader of this
host, is the lineal descendant and successor of the
Ben Gana who fought beside the fallen ruler of
Constantine against the Franks, and later made his sub-
mission and consented to hold his pobition as Sheikh-el-
Arab of the Zab from them. Another Ben Gana faltered
in his allegiance in the fateful year of 1871 when through
Tell, tablelands and desert swift ran the word that
France lay in the dust so low that none need do her
reverence. But the Ben Gana to-day and all who bear
his name and follow his banner have served her faith-
fully in more direful straits ; and those who have lived
through the storm have seen their faith and loyalty
justified.

And east, west and south of them in this far-
stretching Sahara the tens of thousands of similar swift
desert riders of clean-limbed horses and fleet camels,
burnoused Arab and veiled Touareg, know that the
lawless days have gone for ever and that their master
is this white-bearded benevolent old gentleman in
civilian garb because he stands for France.

The salutes given and returned, the inspection over,
the Governor-General and his staff entered two-horsed
victorias and drove towards the town, the flat roofs of
which were white with cheering women. The masses
of cavaliers swept after them in clouds of dust, the foot-
men followed at a run and the swarming crowds of
Arabs hurried behind, scrambling, jostling, shuffling
through the deep sand in flapping babouches or with
bare feet. The two or three carriages provided for His



SAINTS AND SECRET SOCIETIES 193

Excellency had exhausted the transport resources of
Tolga; and the remainder of the Europeans had to
walk. In the open plain this was no hardship ; but when
we got into the narrow lanes of deep, loose sand between
the mud walls of the houses of the town and tried to hold
our own and make our way through the scuffling swarms
of humanity all hurrying in the same direction it was
unpleasant. For the heat was terrific, the buildings
shut off all breeze, but gave no shade, the dust rose
under the eager feet in blinding, suffocating clouds, as
buffeted and jostled we slipped and struggled through
the yielding sand, going we knew not whither.

At last we reached a small open square in front of
a small, semi-European building standing in a dusty
garden behind a wall, and learned that it was the one
hotel of Tolga, and in it the municipality of the town
was to entertain the Governor-General to lunch after
his official inspection and his visits to the mosque and
the Grand Marabout, the chief religious personage of
the place. As we saw that the troops of sheikhs and
their cavaliers had halted and dismounted in the square
and as we had been hopelessly left behind by the
carriages bearing the staff, most of the French officers
and guests stopped here and waited on events. His
Excellency being long in coming, most of us, as we were
not included in the invitation to lunch, wandered about
Tolga, which I found differed from other Saharan towns
that I had seen by attempts at little gardens, by great
vines climbing the whitewashed houses or trained across
the tiny courtyards and narrow alleys. The mosques
were small and unimposing. In the box-like small
shops was displayed a certain amount of European
goods, guch as kerosene oil Iamps 1 sewing thread,

N



194 ALGERIA TO-DAY

English cotton goods, cheap mirrors and imitation
jewellery. Outside a small eating house a huge caul-
dron of what looked like thick tomato soup was being
boiled.

As I wandered, camera in hand, about the town I
encountered an Arab friend. He was mounted on a
white horse and was accompanying a burly, spectacled
compatriot wrapped, despite the heat of the day, in a
thick woollen burnous and perched on a high saddle on
a still bigger mule. Greeting my friend I was informed
by him that his companion was His Holiness the Grand
Marabout. The latter consented to pose for me to
photograph him. That a man of his sanctity and
religious position should permit this is an instance of
the Algerian Moslem being superior to the prejudice
that many Mahommedans elsewhere, particularly in
Morocco, have against being photographed, holding
that it is contrary to the law of the Koran which
forbids the making of pictures or images of living
beings.

As it was understood that the Arab cavaliers were
to display their skill before the Governor-General in a
fantasia or " powder play," we all later made our way
to the stretch of desert between the town and the
station. We found several of the troops of the goumiers
assembled there. Most of them had dismounted and
stood about chattering and smoking cigarettes.

A slight, handsome young horseman dressed in dark
green velvet heavily embroidered with gold waved his
hand, swung himself out of the saddle and came forward
to shake hands with me. He was a friend whom I had
made in Biskra, a Ben Gana, the nephew of the Bach-
Agha. Like all educated Arabs and indeed most




Photo, by the Author.
THE GRAND MARABOUT OF TOLGA.




HAMMA-BEN-GANA.



Photo, by the Author.



SAINTS AND SECRET SOCIETIES 195

Arabs of no matter what condition he spoke French
fluently. In his rich dress with silver-scabbarded
sword, the fine linen hlafa shading his face, his long
boots of soft and scented leather adorned with massive
silver spurs, he was a picturesque and chivalrous figure.

Soon more mounted men and footmen came up
until all the goums of the Zibans were again assembled ;
and to pass the time until His Excellency's arrival many
of them began the fantasia.

A horseman, standing erect in his stirrups, would
gallop venire a terre over the desert, armed with a
double-barrelled gun loaded with blank cartridges.
As his straining steed bore him past his watching com-
rades he would fire his gun at the ground, as though
hunting jackals, and with a wild yell twirl it round his
head before bringing it down, dropping back into the
saddle and reining up. Then another and another
followed, doing much the same thing. One man had
two guns, fired them in turn, caught both in his left hand,
drew his curved sabre with his right and brandished it
aloft.

One cavalier was riding a mare accompanied on
parade by its foal. The little animal constantly tried
to force its way into the ranks to get beside its mother,
but had to be contented with standing behind her.
When it came to the rider's turn to perform the foal
followed the mare ; and when the latter stretched to a
mad gallop her offspring bounded after her with all the
speed of which its slim legs were capable, whinnying in
deep distress because it could not keep up. The dis-
play was not impressive and needed no great skill in
the riders. Unfortunately the fantasia as arranged did
not take place, owing to the other claims on the



196 ALGERIA TO-DAY

Governor-General's time ; and I cannot say if it would
have afforded finer exhibitions of horsemanship.

Riders now dashed wildly up with the news that
His Excellency was coming. Cavaliers and footmen
formed along either side of a track across the sand in
a chequered mass of humanity with waving banners and
flying drapery, while the " yu-yu-ing " of the women
sounded quaintly on every side. An Oriental crowd
of men does not cheer ; so no harsher sounds broke in
on the soft, not unpleasing voices of the ladies.

The Governor-General passed on ; and we learned
that we had an hour or two to wait before he would return
and the train depart for Biskra. So we tramped across
the sand to the railway station ; and those who had taken
the precaution to bring food lunched in picnic fashion.
Then we sat in our carriage until the arrival of the vic-
torias escorted by the Arab chiefs on their beautiful
horses, accompanied by swarms of cavaliers. The
caids and sheikhs followed His Excellency into the
station, lined up along the platform and took their fare-
well of him as he passed down their ranks shaking hands
and saying a few words to each.

Then the train departed, bearing us all back to
Biskra. But at Oumache it halted again; for the
wedding party was still there, waiting to greet the
Governor-General on his return journey. They were
all present, dancers, cheering women, standard-bearers,
musketeers. Even the palanquin; and I pitied the
young bride if she had been shut up in its stuffy interior
for all those hot hours. His Excellency was unusually
favoured ; for when he got out again to thank the festive
reception party the young husband led him to the cage
that held the captive bird and, opening the curtains, let



SAINTS AND SECRET SOCIETIES 197

him peep in and address a few words to the fluttered
occupant.

This was the last ceremony of an interesting day;
and half an hour later we reached Biskra. I was glad
to have beheld Arab chieftains, whom hitherto I had
only seen at official receptions, in their houses, sitting
around tables in cafes or staking their money on the
gambling tables of the Casino, now in situations and
surroundings in which they appeared to greater advan-
tage in the saddle at the head of the warriors whom
they would lead, had led, in war. The grave, reposeful
Arab aristocrat in white woollen burnous and lazy
babouches slipping off his stockinged feet, sipping
coffee and smoking cigarettes at marble-topped tables
around the Place de la Republique in Algiers was a
transformed being on the back of a pawing, prancing
stallion with a troop of lean, lithe desert-riders behind
him on the sands of the Sahara.

The Moslem is by religion a democrat. " All True
Believers are equal before Allah," said the Prophet.
And the desert preserved liberty and saved its nomad
tribes from tyranny. Yet these same tribes had their
aristocracy, their ancient families held in honour and
respect, powerful often, though not always, from their
wealth in camels and herds and family alliances. From
them the chiefs leaders, but not rulers were chosen
to guide the people in council and in war. The French
found them in Algeria, haughty allies or deadly enemies
of the Pirate Lords of Algiers, and dealt with them
sometimes wisely, sometimes not.

The chieftain of the tribe has, as I have mentioned,
his retainers, usually the hardiest, best-trained fighting
men, who wait on him in peace and guard him in war,



198 ALGERIA TO-DAY

whose wives are the foster-mothers, whose sons are the
devoted foster-brothers, of his children, who hand on
their service to their offspring and know no other career,
no other obligation, than their duty to him and his.
They compose what is termed the zmala, an individual
being called a zmali, in plural zmoul.

The Arab aristocracy was formed from three
classes : those noble by reason of their descent from
Fathma, the daughter of the Prophet, or from his uncle,
Ali-ben-Ali-Thaleb. Sheurfa, in the singular Shereef,
they are termed; and, no matter how low in worldly
fortune their descendants may have fallen, anyone in
whose veins runs this sanctified blood is honoured by
all Moslems and dignified with the title of Sidi.

The present ruling dynasty of Morocco are Sheurfa,
and the country is spoken of as the Shereefian Empire.

There is a military nobility derived mostly by
descent from the Prophet's tribe or from the Beni-
Mehal, the victorious warriors who followed him and
his companions. And a third aristocratic class, a verit-
able religious nobility, is formed from men renowned
for their piety and holy way of living, saints in fact
and their descendants. For they pass on to their
children's children the reputation for sanctity and the
title of marabout that they have acquired by their virtue.

Members of all these classes of aristocracy, saintly
or military, may be found to-day among the poorest
Arabs.

The native chieftains, especially those invested with

authority by the Algerian Government, are no longer

lawless, fierce and ignorant desert warriors. On the

contrary they are usually well-educated and often

^cultured men. I have mentioned my discussing with




Photo. Service, Government of Algeria.
A GOUMIER.



SAINTS AND SECRET SOCIETIES 199

the Caid of Tougourt the literary merits of Pierre
Benoit's " L'Atlantide," which was then all the rage in
France. And when a day or two after the Governor-
General's visit to Tolga, I was dining with Caid Ali-
ben-Gana, brother of the Bach-Agha of the Zibans, at
his comfortable house in Biskra I found it almost hard
to reconcile the courteous, pleasant-mannered gentle-
man who talked with knowledge of European politics
and countries or his light-hearted nephew, Hamma,
who related humorously his ill-luck at petits-chevaux
in the Casino, with my remembrance of them galloping
swiftly over the desert sand at the head of their fierce
tribal warriors, like figures out of some old-time
chronicle of desert chivalry.

There was nothing Eastern about the well-laid
dinner table with its dainty napery, porcelain and silver,
or the wines of France filling our glasses. But the
cooking was both exquisite and Oriental, though served
in European fashion. Fish, couscous, mechoui or
sheep roasted whole but this dish was not to my taste
honey cakes and other confections that recalled the
Arabian Nights. Our hosts were good Moslems and
avoided the wine. Would that all their co-religionists
in Algeria followed their example! I remember the
surprise and disgust I felt at beholding the first drunken
Mahommedan that I had ever seen. He was reeling
about the streets of Blida a painful sight to me who
had respected the Mussulmans in many Eastern lands
for their adherence to the Prophet's law that forbids
them wine.

Caid Ali's brother, the Bach-Agha, also lives in
Biskra, where he inhabits a fine residence set in lovely
gardens among the palms of the great oasis.



200 ALGERIA TO-DAY

The Arab chieftains are not confined to the Sahara.
They are found in the Hauts Plateaux and the Tell,
even close to Algiers. I number among my pleasantest


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 13 15 16 17 18

Online LibraryGordon CasserlyAlgeria today → online text (page 13 of 18)