Algeria: The Poetry of Loss

The following poems, transmitted orally and later written down by a French anthropologist, were composed by a young Algerian Qur´an-school student who bore witness to the French invasion of Algeria in 1830.

The days, my brothers, place diversity into the hours,

The century turns around and brusquely swerves

(Algiers), The Splendid, has had its flag, its wujak*

Nations have trembled before her on the continent and on two seas

But when Cod wanted it to be, the appointed time came upon her.

She was delivered by Allah's men, by the Saints.

The Frenchman marched against her and took her.

It was not one hundred ships that he had, nor two hundred;

He proudly had his flotilla defile before her.

Surging forth from the high seas, with powerful armies,

We were unaware of how many they were, their numbers becoming

embroiled, lost to our eyes.

Fiercely the Rumis* came against the Splendid city.

Regarding al-Jazair,* Gentlemen, my heart is mourning!...

Conquering her without fighting, he took her, the dog.

They carried away her treasures, those brothers of demons.

After having gone to Stawali and having seized it.

With their drums, their soldiers and their flags,

They secured the cafe of al-Biar and its villas

And they climbed toward Buzareah in a moment.

They brought down their forces in front of the “Pines”

And they took the Fort of My Lord Maulay Hussain.

In the night, the Rumis advanced: they made their drums resound:

And the Believers shed tears, O Muslims!

Some left the city; others waited resolutely.

They held the enemy in the gardens for about two days.

They left for adventures abandoning their homeland.

And they dispersed into diverse countries, poor exiles.

Be patient people of Muhammad, endure the days the foreigners bring you!

It is the test the Master of the Universe has decreed for you.

Who would have said of al-Jazair, of its fortifications,

Of its wujak, that even the evil eye would have come to it?

Alas! Where is the place of its sultan and of its people?

They have gone and other faces have taken their places.

Alas! Where are their beys and their qaids?

Who knows what has become of those famous qasbajis*

And the Bailiff's guards of the station house?

And those militia men?

Alas! Where is the palace of the council and its dignitaries?

And the places of justice full of majesty?

Alas! Where are those shawush-es and their arrogance?

Alas! Where are those haughty Turks?...

May your servants regain peace, may all their grief be ended

And may this oppression which crushes the Muslims cease!

Let us cry over the muftis, over the qadis,

Over the ulama of the city, those guides of the religion.

Let us cry over the mosques and their sermons

And over their pulpits of elevated marble.

Let us weep over their minarets* and the calls of the muezzins*;

and over the classes of their teachers and over their cantors of the Qur´an.

Let us lament the private chapels whose doors have been locked

And which have sunk today, yes Sir, into oblivion.

Alas where are the precious trinkets of the city, where are its houses?

Where are their low apartments and the elevated rooms for the eunuchs?

They are no longer but a parade ground and their traces have disappeared.

So much does that cursed one breathe to plague us!

The Christians have installed themselves in the city;

Its appearance has changed;

It no longer has seen anything but impure people.

The janissaries' houses! They have razed their walls;

They have torn down its marble and its sculptured balustrades,

The iron grills which protected the windows

Have been put to pieces by those impious ones, enemies of the Religion.

Likewise, they have named that Qaisariya “the Square”,

Where the Books and their binders were formerly found.

The Magnificent Mosque which was next to it

Has been destroyed by them simply in order to spite the Muslims....

Alf Andrew Heggoy, The French Conquest of Algiers, 1830: An Algerian Oral Tradition (Athens, Ohi Ohio University Center for International Studies/Africa Studies Program, 1986), pp. 32-36.

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