Blue Skies, Blue Veils

By Jheri St. James

 Throughout the 19th century, American movies often portrayed pseudo-Algerian themes—“take me to the Casbah, dahling”, says the heroine on the black and white screen; disenchanted American men ride camels in the Sahara for the French Foreign Legion; pirates plunder the Barbary Coast; and Black men row the horrible ships to slavery destinations. But the history of Algeria has been no celluloid illusion.

 Algeria’s past includes real memories of warring Phoenicians, Romans, Moors, Vandals, Byzantines, Arabs and French. Traces of Roman rulership are still evident. The ancient Roman settlement of Licosium is now called Algiers--capital, major port, and largest city--first founded by Berbers in A.D. 935. Higher up the slope is an old Moorish city dominated by the Casbah, a citadel built by the Turks. The triumphal arch of the Roman Emperor Trajan (53-117 A.D.) is one of the best-preserved examples of Roman architecture in the world.

 Mohammed Benyoucef was born in El-Attenf-Ghardaia, in the M’zab region of Algeria. On September 21, 2003, he collected some of the “very clean sand” from his birthplace and sent it to Common Ground 191 for Gary Simpson’s peace project. This was sand from the coastal region of a country divided by the Atlas Mountains into coast (Tell), steppe, and desert. Some 75% of Algerian people grow their own citrus, grapes, grain and vegetables in the narrow, fertile coastal area. Away from the coast, in the Sahara desert, live the Berber Tuareg tribe, fair-skinned, often blue-eyed noble people with large numbers of vassal tribes and black slaves. Adult Tuareg men, but not women, wear distinguishing blue veils.

     The romantic imagery of Algeria cannot be denied. A pastiche of all its ruling cultures, a diverse and beautiful place of architectural and historical importance, coastal and desert sands, mountains and blue Mediterranean sky. Algeria’s history and diversity do make good screenplay material—“Blue Skies, Blue Veils of Algeria”, perhaps—and the sets are already in place.


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