Exploring Algeria 1944

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Exploring Algeria 1944: A Soldier Attempts to Understand Islam

Exploring Algeria 1944: A Soldier Attempts to Understand Islam
by Sgt Len Scott RAPC

'By now you will have returned from your adventure into the comparatively unknown,' wrote my wife Minna on 25 April, 'and, being me, am naturally wondering whether it was the success it ought to have been. I do not expect to have my curiosity satisfied for at least ten days... but am I anxious.'

Success? If a transformation of all my previous ideas about North Africa could be termed a success, then success it was. For more than sixteen months I had lived in a city dominated by the French civil and military powers, French-speaking and mainly white. I had travelled hundreds of miles to the south, to the edge of the Sahara where the people were predominantly Arabic speaking and where French rule, though comprehensive, was less apparent. I met a new kind of Arab. My distaste for the venal, cringing, impoverished native population of Algiers dissolved when encountering the people of the South, when I passed beyond the physical barrier of the Atlas Mountains to each 'the other side of the moon.'

Boarding the train in Algiers with my three Army companions I found most of my fellow- travellers were French. When we travelled from Biskra to Touggourt we were the only Europeans.

I had sent Minna a day by day - almost hour by hour - account of my experiences but within a week of my return to Algiers the separate encounters, landscapes, street-scenes and sounds had merged into a total psychic experience which would remain as separate from my daily life as is a dream from wakefulness.

'I wonder if my account of this bizarre journey will convey the faintest impression of what I have seen,' I wrote to Minna, 'Never have I felt so far away from every familiar thing. There can be few points of contact with these people whose every thought is in a different key to ours. A musical simile: most westerners find Arab music alien and discordant. Yet the notes are the same as ours. There the resemblance ends. The fundamental principles of life in Temelhat are identical with those in Tooting - love and lust, fear and hope, anger and affection, meanness and generosity.

But there, too, the resemblance ends. The development and fruition of these fundamental impulses bear no relation to the sequence we expect from our own experience. This 'difference' I am convinced is due almost entirely to the spiritual outlook of the Muslim, to the fact that for the majority their faith is a living thing, the foundation upon which their whole manner of life is built. Destroy that faith and you would destroy the race.

'Here there is no sharp division between the sacerdotal and the secular. Law, faith, hygiene, morals are all bound together in the pages of the Koran and the Muslim hierarchy seems essentially a religious one. Lawsuits between Arabs are settled in an adjunct to the mosque by the Cadi who is an ecclesiastic, not a layman. The French have been in North Africa for more than a hundred years, and except for the slightest blending at the edges the simile of oil and water is apt. The ordinary French settler does not understand the Arab and does not wish to do so. He is contemptuous of him as an idler. What the Arab thinks of the Frenchman I dare not say.'

On my last day in Touggourt I had a heartening experience. There was a tiny shop - more properly a hole in a wall owned by one Merahat Sassi Ben Messaoud. There were leather bags, Arab knives, Ouled Nail jewellery, bracelets, anklets, slippers and a pair of ancient Arab flint-lock rifles with long, thin, chased barrels and elaborately inlaid stocks.

I rummaged around the knives and sorted out one of a type I had seen worn in Temelhat. 'You like ver' old books?' said the owner and I nodded. He dived into a cupboard and brought out a little volume no larger than an average English prayer-book. This was not bound, but wrapped about with a piece of leather.

'The Koran,' said Merahat Sassi, 'Ver' ancient. But cover gone and it has become damaged. Ver' fine work - many pictures.' I examined it. Damaged it certainly was - it seemed that it had fallen into water and the ink had run together on many of these handwritten pages. But much was intact and spaced throughout - dividing the sections I supposed - were exquisite little half-page and full-page designs reminiscent of illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages.

He wanted six hundred francs for this and my other purchases. After much bargaining I could not reduce the figure below five hundred. I shrugged and told him that this was the last day of my leave. I was returning to Algiers. Much as I should have liked to buy I had not enough money. He smiled and spread his hands: 'It signifies nothing. I have confidence. Send me the money by post when you get to Algiers.' Thus I became the owner of an Arab knife of wicked appearance, two near-silver bracelets for Minna and a handwritten Koran. I must have an honest face... or was it my British uniform?

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Exploring Algeria 1944: The Tunnels of Touggourt

Exploring Algeria 1944: The Tunnels of Touggourt
by Sgt Len Scott RAPC

Sgt Len Scott, 'George', Cpl Hornsey Metcalfe and Sgt Charlie Hildretch in the tunnels of Touggourt, 1944

The train for Touggourt stood baking beneath a near-vertical sun. It was full of sand. Sand grated under our feet, there was sand on the tattered and bleached upholstery... where there was upholstery. There were no compartments. Four sat facing four all the way through a long wooden box with a narrow gap at one side for pedestrian traffic.

Soon the palm trees thinned out, the mountains faded into haze. It was like leaving a harbour and entering an unknown and limitless sea. Sand dunes covered with a kind of green scrub extended on either side. Ahead the single rail-track ran due south, a slender metal arrow aimed at the Equator. We were in the centre of a perfect circle neatly bisected by a railway line.

From the little platform at the back of our coach the scene was almost ferocious in its featurelessness. The rails, flanked by crude telegraph poles, rushed away to the horizon without the suspicion of a curve. The optical illusion of parallel lines meeting at infinity was proven. We were not in the desert. This was to the Sahara as a doorstep is to a house of a hundred rooms.

From this point the world changed for me. At a tiny station all passengers left the train - to spread cloths upon the platform, kick off their sandals, face Mecca, meditate and prostrate themselves. A richly-dressed Arab used his spotless burnoose as a prayer-mat and shared it with the shabby little train-guard. No Sunday-morning-at-eleven religion this, no distinction of class. I wondered if the train timetable was geared to reach a station at prayer-time. I tried to imagine British timetables similarly geared. Imagination failed. Later the train halted, hooted and whistled to scare away a camel-herd encamped upon the line.

In the midst of nowhere, a few Arabs descended and trudged away towards an empty horizon with no more concern than a clerk descending from the 6.15 at Surbiton. Flies colonised us. We cursed and beat the air. Our neighbours remained relaxed and let the flies crawl.

The waterless desert? We passed small oases where artesian wells spouted water into the air while handsome children shrieked and danced amid the spray. As at Biskra the water fed a thousand irrigation channels. The greatest lack for desert-dwellers is fuel and metal. The sparse green scrub is forage for beasts while the spiny stems, dried, can be burned. Where there was water there were women scrubbing clothes, their own garments of colours so brilliant that my eyes dazzled. Scarlets, yellows and greens burned with brightness beneath a sun which cast little shadow. After many hours we reached our first curve near an array of sand-hills. With a scream from the engine, our train drew into Touggourt.

Thrusting his way through the crowd came a little figure in a snowy turban and burnoose. He was about sixty with a little pointed, grizzled beard. He had humorous eyes in a wrinkled face and a voice which added softness to the French - his only language apart from Arabic. He was Mustapha who would pilot us during our stay. ‘Hotel Transatlantique?' he enquired, and began heaving our valises through the window to some waiting myrmidons.

Touggourt was not the collection of mud huts we had feared. The streets were wide and clean - though sandy - and a few French officers were taking an evening promenade with their wives - the men wearing baggy Moroccan ankle-length trousers embroidered with gold.

Difficult to condense the happenings of the next days. Mustapha and a certain M. Barbot opened a new world for us. To compare the Kasbah of Algiers with the native quarter of Touggourt was to discover that comparison was impossible. Here houses as such did not exist - there were long, cool tunnels pierced at intervals by doors and with a low ramp upon each side. Behind the doors a couple of rooms - beautifully clean, as we saw when a door opened. Seated upon the ramp, here and there, were a few men playing dominoes or chatting in friendly fashion.

I was surprised by the lack of smells as goats came wandering - even the occasional camel. The tunnel roof was pierced at intervals and sunlight streamed in together with a million flies. But the flies remained in the sunlight. I could pass through them as if passing through a bead-curtain. Everywhere we received a courteous greeting from the people, but the children scattered towards their homes.

As we emerged from the tunnels of Touggourt the desert met us. In the distance stood a lonely domed structure. Within, Mustapha told a tale of long-ago cruelties and power-hungry rulers. I translated for my companions as best I could but this is only the shadow of the tale he told me, his small bright eyes looking up at me out of his crinkled brown face, eager to see if I had understood. The tale was bloody.

'Long ago, very long ago, hundreds of years ago, three kings there were who kept their state in this land. They were cold, proud and haughty, feared by all men. Very rich they were too, in gold, silver and precious stones, in brocades of marvellous and intricate design, sewn with thread of precious metal by hundreds of skilled slaves. They were as greedy as they were rich, and more cruel than you could believe. Hundreds of caravans brought them gifts from many lands. They took and took - and were not satisfied. Men seeking justice or craving audience spent great sums on gifts, yet trembled as they offered them.

'Did these rulers consider a gift offered to be unworthy or consider the donor could have brought more, the unhappy one was led with his gift to the gates of the city. There his head was struck off and his body divided into quarters which were hung up by the gate, together with his gift. Many they were who died thus and sometimes the kings would take their wives and children, putting them to the sword also. All those so slain are buried in one place and its name is known to us as 'The Tomb of the Victims of the Kings.'

Reaching the square building we walked through the single gate and entered a courtyard which was half-buried in fine, loose sand. Mustapha swept his hand about: 'Everywhere they are buried,' he said, 'but most of all - here.' He indicated a low doorway and we passed within to find a long vaulted chamber, the roof upheld by squat pillars of great solidity. Many slabs of stone lay there, ranged in rows, most of them bearing three protuberances, one at the head, one in the middle and one at the foot. Men were buried here. Those with two protuberances were women's graves. It was chill and oppressive in this sepulchre.

Was the tale true? Or was it a tale for tourists? Mustapha was a convincing storyteller. Looking back on the remainder of my journey it seems to dissolve into an Arabian fantasy. Splendid impressions are heaped one upon another like costly fabrics flung pell-mell into a chest. One thing was certain. I had a lot to learn and little time to absorb it.

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Exploring Algeria 1944: an Arabian Night in Biskra

Exploring Algeria 1944: an Arabian Night in Biskra
by Sgt Len Scott RAPC

George, Len, Charlie and 'Met' - in the Garden of Allah.

We were four. George (I never discovered his surname) was forty-sevenish, greying. ‘Met' concealed Corporal Hornsey Metcalfe who shunned his Christian name, was thirty-seven, well spoken. Sergeant Charlie Hildretch, also thirty-seven and almost bald, rarely spoke and rarely moved a muscle of his face.

All were Yorkshiremen, all employed before the war in the Engineer Office of the London, Midland and Scottish Railway, all acquaintances of ten years' standing or more. Now they were Royal Engineers. Then there was me.

We had emerged from Biskra's railway station. It was midnight. We were here because a sad little man in Algiers had become less sad when the war in North Africa ended. Before 1939 he had been Thomas Cook's representative, shepherding hundreds of tourists across Algeria and Tunisia. Now he was back in business and we four, on seven days' leave, were among his first customers. We had each paid £15 to go to the edge of the Sahara via Biskra and Touggourt.

An atmosphere of unreality began with clouds of locusts descending on the fields between Algiers and Constantine. It continued in Biskra. So strange to enter an unknown town by night, to traverse unfamiliar streets, the buildings seen dimly by starlight amid a scented warmth and the sound, far away, of someone playing a pipe - high, plaintive and clear. A woman was singing in shrill alien cadences.

Then the hotel... which welcomed my companions but disclaimed all knowledge of me. The French manageress was vague and dreamy-eyed. Never before nor since have I met a 'vague' French manageress. I suspected hashish. She drifted to a telephone, drifted back again and silently ushered me into what seemed the throne-room of Abdul the Damned.

Rich Persian carpets covered the tiled floor and were draped down the walls. A huge divan loaded with cushions in native-made covers occupied the centre of the room. A curiously ornamented bronze lamp of Arab design hung from the ceiling while low brass-topped tables were scattered around. There were rosewood cabinets, a full-length cheval glass, leather pouffes... nothing lacking save a troop of dewy-eyed maidens in yashmaks. After fifteen hours of travel I slept well. In the morning I discovered that I had been given the hotel owner's bedroom.

Biskra, that oasis of a million palm-trees, was explored with Said, a town-wise Arab employee of Cook's. Many buildings were constructed of sun-dried mud. More unreality - Biskra owed its existence to a stream which flowed through it... such a little stream, rarely more than two feet wide and less than a foot deep which fed the myriad, tiny, irrigation channels crisscrossing the plantations of male and female palm trees. We watched an Arab cut the pollen-bearing pistils from the one and plunge them into the 'ovaries' of the other.

There was once a popular novelist - Robert Hichens - whose best-seller was 'The Garden of Allah' set in Biskra (later made into a film with Marlene Dietrich and Charles Boyer). Now to the Garden of Allah we came, reaching a summer-house of Moorish design. Within dwelt a celebrated soothsayer, or sand-diviner. He had a little monkey-like face beneath his red fez. He spoke a curious English, asked me to place my left hand in his little tray of sand. He examined the impression with some care, brushed the sand clean, then began to make row upon row of impressions with his forefinger. These he studied attentively and without moving his eyes from them, spoke: 'You were born - when?' I replied. He began to speak again:

'You are under the sign of Venus and you love beauty very much, above all things. You are very clever. In a foreign country, far away, I see people who worry about you very much - you are worrying about them too.' So far, all too obvious. But then...

'You have worked, and you will work where there is much machinery, all the time I see machinery - machinery above, machinery below. You will be over many men there. You will become wealthy and one day live in a house overlooking the sea. You have a woman whom you love very dearly and when you return home you will be closer to her than you have ever been. From her you will have either one, three, or five children - never, two, four or six. You have been a great traveller and you will travel - Europe, Asia, Africa will know your feet. Whether the war is finished or not you will return to your home in either seven or nine months from now. You will live to a good age - your illnesses will be minor ones. I see no more.'

He was right about one thing - The Sporting Life's printing presses were in the basement and our linotype machines on the top floor. The sub-editors' room lay between. As for the rest... time would tell. 'Met' submitted to the soothsayer but Charlie and George had no time for such folly. Hibiscus bloomed beside the summer-house. I plucked a bloom, almost stupefied by its scent. This, I thought, I will press and send to Minna. Weeks later Met told me something which I passed on to Minna: 'On the subject of the Biskra seer, here is something which will amuse you. Met was told that after the war he would have a great friendship with a wealthy woman on purely Platonic lines. I saw him yesterday and he told me that when he arrived back, a bulky letter was awaiting him. It was from a girl he had known years back. She was very wealthy and was serving in the W.A.A.F. The letter ran to sixteen pages! He had had no news of her since the outbreak of war!'

We reached a street with precarious wooden balconies... our Arab guide grinned, stretched a few curves in the air with his hands. This was the Rue des Ouled Nail - the name of a desert tribe where girls are trained from childhood for dancing and prostitution. Alone among Arab women they go unveiled. At eighteen or earlier they retire from the profession with enough jewels and gold coins for a dowry on marriage. The ladies who stood in doorways seemed well past that age.

Biskra was a kind of halfway house between France and the real South. In Biskra I sensed the shades of thousands of vanished tourists. I was little nearer understanding the Arab. Two days in Biskra. Now we would travel to Touggourt - by train.

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Exploring Algeria 1944; The Edge of the Desert

Exploring Algeria 1944; The Edge of the Desert
by Sgt Len Scott RAPC

The Cairn - A Desert Lighthouse (Algeria 1944)

M. Barbot called on us for the last time. With him George, Charlie, Met and I headed east to reach a land of sand dunes - pure sand without a trace of scrub. We crossed these dunes like a ship at sea but at last they grew too steep and powdery. We had to weave between them. I thought, 'We shan't go far in this sort of country. There's nothing to show the way' Then Barbot pulled up. We had halted in a kind of sand-plain. Before us rose dunes higher than any we had yet seen and on the summit of one there was a sharp spire of stone. Barbot lit a cigar and waved it towards the spire.

'I can take the car no further, but if you care to climb to that cairn you will find the view worth seeing. These dunes are, as it were, the outposts of the Grand Erg Oriental. If we could go to El Oued you would see the great dunes - eight, nine hundred feet high. But that is an expedition.'

We started to climb, clumsily, boots slithering in the sand. It took us twenty minutes to reach that huge conical pile of cemented stone.

What we saw was not so much a landscape as an impression upon the mind. We were looking eastwards, over some twenty miles of undulating sand dunes to the horizon. That is all there was and that is all any photograph would show. Silence, apart from an occasional creeping wind which sent the loose sand swirling along the crests. This was the desert as I had always imagined it - something entirely empty and vast, dwarfing human life to the level of bacteria.

And yet... on the very limit of the horizon, on the highest point was a tiny black cone of rock. There was the next cairn. These were the lighthouses of the desert, set up to guide men across a waste inimical to our race. Travel to that second cone and a third would come into view, far off, like a reassuring finger pointing at the sky. You would not be alone and a prey to strange imaginings; others had come this way before you and others would follow.

As I looked out upon this terrible wasteland I felt the urge strong upon me to return one day and look upon the secrets it concealed... the ancient towns, far more ancient than those I had seen, strange peoples with a strange way of life, the ever-present lure of the unknown. Once long ago I got out of a train at St. Anton-am-Arlberg and looked upon mountains for the first time. There was something of the same quality in this experience, but whereas at St. Anton I had gone forward, explored my passes, climbed my peaks, here I must turn back at the very threshold. Dared I hope that one day I might return?

We returned to the car, but just before we reached it, I stopped and pointed. From Touggourt a camel-caravan, slow and patient, was toiling between the dunes. We watched in silence. Barbot said: 'They return to El Oued from the market. All night they will travel and all tomorrow too. In the evening they will be home again.' I would have loved to join them.

Mustapha awaited us at the hotel to bid us goodbye. He received our generous gratuity with delight. I told him of my delight at our afternoon journey and he smiled: 'Before this war I would often take a few people on caravan. First we would travel to Ouargla and then across the desert to the city of Rhadames - how you would love Rhadames with its old walls, its mosques, its bazaars. By night we slept in tents under the stars and in the early morning, if you were so inclined, there would be hunting. From Rhadames the caravan would make its way to Tripoli and there I would leave it.'

I sighed. 'Mustapha,' I said, 'When this war is over I will return to Touggourt with my wife and you shall take us on caravan to Tripoli.' The old man smiled and whispered, 'Inshallah... inshallah..' He saw my puzzled face. 'If Allah wills it... and if I am still living.'

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Exploring Algeria 1944: The Scorpion Charmer

Exploring Algeria 1944: The Scorpion Charmer
by Sgt Len Scott RAPC

The scorpion charmer in action: The onlookers seemed as horrified as we were.

After leaving Temelhat (see Within A Holy City of Islam) we reached a lake or 'Chott' about a mile long - beautifully clear water. On the far side were herons gravely paddling near the shore. These birds are plentiful, as are storks. I was reminded of the Danish towns I had visited with my wife, Minna, where storks built flat, untidy nests on rooftops. The lake was holy: the Marabout of Temelhat had solemnly blessed the water. It was the custom for wives of a year's standing and yet childless to bathe here to remove the curse of barrenness.

A puzzle. All the 'Chotts' we had seen were salt-water lakes. If there were herons and storks there must be fish. So...?

When we returned to Monsieur Barbot's car a huge old white-haired negro with an immense grin awaited us. He had been a slave of the Marabout and among his talents was the charming of scorpions. He carried a small earthenware pot with a lid of clay and, squatting, removed this lid, tipping the contents upon the sand. I saw a little pile of moist earth and then...something green scuttled crab-fashion out of it, followed by another and yet another. His white teeth gleaming with delight, the ancient seized one with thumb and finger and threw it on top of the other two - this to infuriate them. He repeated this until two grappled with each other, their wicked little tails cocked ferociously.

He greeted this success with an even broader smile and a crow of 'Hai! Hai! Hai!'. Suddenly he picked one up and planted it firmly upon his nose to which it clung with its lobster-like claws. Then, oh horrors! he grabbed another, opened his mouth, popped it in and allowed the thing to roam freely across his tongue! Met and I were focussing our cameras hastily, thinking that this episode would be very brief. No. The negro was prepared to let the little wretches roam his glottis indefinitely. George and Charlie had prudently withdrawn to the interior of the car. I was sitting on the car's step.

Now the old fellow removed his pets from his features and brought them across to me, holding his lethal playmates within an inch of my face. I saw the upraised tails each with its little red sting like a tiny rose-thorn, then looked down at my bare knees and offered up a prayer that the negro's hand would remain steady. It did. My nerves did not. After rewarding the scorpion-charmer Barbot started his car and we headed for Touggourt. Said Met: 'I've never spent an afternoon like that and I don't suppose I ever will.'

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