The Zerda or the Maghreb in the 1930s
One century earlier, around 1830, a genius painter, Delacroix, travelled across a free Morocco and a still unspoiled Algeria... The images brought back are indeed a “feast”. A truly dazzling view of the North African reality of the time...
Is it the same feast? Is it the same view?
Without any comment, however, shortly before and during the credits, three known paintings by Delacroix unfold in long shots and in slow pan shots that focus on details of characters, horses or costume elements, each of the paintings linked to an atmosphere of music and fantasia from the pre-colonial Maghreb:
1. Comedians or Arabic Buffoons (Museum of Tours)
2. Jewish Wedding in Morocco (Louvre)
3. Fantasia or Moroccans Conducting Military Exercises (Museum of Montpellier)
Finally, as a conclusion:
4. 1 or 2 studies: sketches from the Louvre for Women of Algiers:
- a seated woman (named Bayah) by Delacroix;
- a simple babouche on an all-white screen.
Once the credits are over, the title of the film appears, with an epigraph sentence that will only reveal – excluding any off-camera commentary that will never be used:
“The world today is turned upside down, like in a wine press!”
Saint Augustine of Hippo 5th century
1st Theme: The Cinema begins: how an ISLAM at the turn of the century is presented to us
Algiers the White from the first Lumière reels
A street in Tlemcen in 1896
Views of Biskra, Tunis, etc. (selection from the different titles – 40 – in the Lumière Catalogue)
After 1900, and especially in 1911:
- Sultan Mulai Hafid and his mehalla [district]: a slow exit,
with pomp and ceremony, from the mosque of Fez.
- In Cairo, same year: the khedive welcoming the Sacred Tapistry.
- In 1912: in Tunis, the bey goes to the mosque.
- In 1913: in Cairo, once again, a “battle of flowers”.
The khedive’s daughter gets married...
In Constantinople, the sultan attends the regattas.
All in all, an Islamic world one would like to show only with pomp and ostentation.
The link to the next title is made by:
- the departure of troops for Morocco (1911).
- Algeria: the departure of forced labourers.
- the title “drawing lots among Arabs” allows us to recall how the conscription in Algeria, from 1911 on, brings us testimonies of refusal (hence the exodus) and especially of distress (search for folk songs and poetry which, as the only commentary available, make us experience some deeper emotions, contrary to the 1st theme).
2nd Theme: Travellers in North Africa
From Mr. Morel’s trip to Algeria in 1913 to Millerand’s in 1939, including the president’s trip to the centenary, to a whole series of official travellers (each of which we will show only once, indicating only the names and dates), an almost identical presentation is shown:
- the sites (the bay of Algiers – panoramic view of Oran – Gardaia square, etc.);
- the horsemen thrown into fantasias... (repetitive succession in the montage);
- the folklore groups: musicians and dancers;
- dancers in groups (South Moroccan)
- Ouled-Nails dancers in groups of 3 or 4, or one by one (South Algerian).
So, this is the first act of the “folk festival”. Re-recording with, despite the image repetitions, various authentic pieces of music.
At these shows, the attending pieds-noirs are applauding, while the “Arab chiefs” are presented.
Without transition, once again in silence, a part on “yesterday’s war”:
- images from 14-18, those that seemed moving to us:
- Algerian fighters on a northern front;
- their manoeuvres in snowy landscapes...
- their “domestic” pastimes in the camps;
- images from the Rif War: military operation plans and views of Tetouan, Tangier. Dates in subtitles.
- subsequently, images of a succession of postcards on the “Marguerite Revolt”.
This pause shows that memories of war – whatever they are – are nearby: cf. for the soundtrack, search for popular songs about insubordination.
3rd Theme: 1930, Settling in Colonial Peace: The Southern Festival
This atmosphere of a “southern festival” is presented by an abundance of titles:
- Algiers: the flower festival of 1911, then the flower festival of 1924.
- “Origins of the Charleston” – a deliberately burlesque montage that goes back to the moving feet of an Arab woman washing clothes in a wadi!
- At the centenary: parade of troops in costumes from 1830. – Algiers Regatta: several years filmed.
- parade in “French province” style.
Applause from families, children, inaugurations, etc.
In these crowds, the Arab population is almost absent.
The montage is restricted to the sphere of the pieds-noirs, not so much their daily lives as the spectacle they offer themselves and applaud to. No doubt, in the colonial world, the world of the dominant party “is partying”, but also because it feels watched by those in the shadows. The latter, at the same time, hide from the gaze (their wives, more specifically, but also their houses, their interiors).
The other “side of the film”: it is a “circulation” of the streets and roads of the Maghreb, particularly well conveyed by the entire photographic collection of Arlaud (Caisse Nationale des Monuments Historiques): 1500 snapshots of North Africa – 1927 to 1929.
- mainly crowds of peasants in town markets;
- in the streets, craftsmen, strollers, Arab women at the cemetery.
To be alternated with autochromes: especially close-up portraits of women in Fez, of beggars, of nomad encampments in Biskra, etc.
Sound research, especially of sound effects, or even continue the noise of the European festivals.
4th Theme: The South of the Maghreb
To the gaze that wants to hide the real problems, everything happens as if the idea of a colonized society were avoided to the maximum, banished from any general vision, to the benefit of a “quest for the South” imagery, the call of the desert, etc.
Thus, we return to the folklore of the Moroccan South and the Algerian South by proposing a 2nd pseudo-festival act, as they still do in cabarets:
- successive shots of horsemen;
- successive shots of dancing women;
- shots of fire-eaters, of snake charmers and of Aissaouia;
- further south, Tuareg folklore with warrior dancing, camel races, etc.
Re-recording. Indication only of geographical locations and shooting dates.
Break the rhythm. If possible, find the same places again, but in other images, everyday images, in a journalistic style:
- shots of children in Biskra, but poor children...
- women washing clothes, working, watching us, etc.
To animate, make equal use of photographs and shots of the UN. From the start of this pause, anonymous voices start talking about their lives and their nostalgia.
5th Theme: Islam
In these years of apparent respite and of a lack of confrontation between the two societies, the natives are deliberately shown in their religious identity. Cf. collective prayer in Southern Algeria (Gaumont)
- shot of a “praying Arab” (ostentatiously placed on top of a rock by the cameraman).
- inauguration of the Paris mosque and visit by the sultan, the bey and others: at each instance, the same pan shot up and down the minaret and the patio of the entrance courtyard.
- Eid al-Saghir or Festival of Breaking the Fast in Tunis, in Rabat, in Algiers (shots of the crowd for the breaking of the fast) Eid al-Kebir or Festival of the Sacrifice (festivities among the fighters of 14-18...)
- Mawlid, including the allegiance of the vassals filmed at the sultan’s palace (cf. 1939).
- Departures of pilgrims for Mecca – Port of Algiers filmed every year since 1936
- Return, the joy of the arrival (report from a train station in Oran)
- A circumcision in Tunisia
- circumcision horse parade
- the guests
- veiled women looking over a wall, trying to hide.
Starting from these women who are looking out over the wall, produce a montage – once again in silence – about the many silhouettes of veiled, often elusive women: symbols of the interior of a society trying to escape the gaze.
Alternate shots of dancers (most of them professional and in the south), this time without sound, with the multitude of veiled women. This is, therefore, a feminine pause. Possibly hummed singing by women, without any need to translate the words ... (cf. the singing of the women of Tlemcen).
6th Theme: The Machine Adventure
Another temptation of the colonial vision: the colony is above all a space, a deliberately virgin space, in which new machines are propelled. Therefore, the emphasis is on adventure. The southern landscapes and the high plateaus are filmed, albeit crossed by new cars, by the triumphant railroad, and overflown by the first air links.
- report on the Gradis and Citroën missions of 1924-25
- locomotives in the South: celebrations in Touggourt for “the arrow of the South” 1st train to Colomb-Béchar
Planes over the Sahara dunes
- and finally, in spite of and along with the machines: legionnaires, camel riders, etc.
In fact, war is coming. The problem of transport and connections becomes essential.
- parades of troops and images of Arab women, peasant women watching them on a country road;
- a legionnaire filmed in full regalia: at his feet, a shoe
- shine boy shining his boots, etc.
Thus, to look for the revealing details in the reports of a nation of witnesses that has stayed in its traditional world and looks at “the machine” or “the army” as strangers...
7th Theme: Work, or the “Colonial Effort”
As the World War approaches, and during Vichy France, North Africa is displayed in its “colonial effort”, providing wheat, wine, and livestock, exhibiting its crafts, etc. On the occasion of these deliberately propagandistic images, men and women are displayed while working:
- peasants (wine-harvesting; cf. in the Tunisian South, sulfation of vines by agricultural workers supervised by foremen on horseback.
Single-file departure for the fields, workers)
- dockers in Oran;
- craftswomen working for hours on end before our eyes.
In fact, while the purpose of such news reports is to insist on the “colonial wealth”, a different montage brings out the image of men and women struggling through their daily lives.
A colony is first and foremost a provider of men and cannon fodder:
Shots (from the INA film archive) of the enlistment of Atlas warriors: in their mountain villages, their departure, the farewells to the women.
OFIC shots: Moroccan goumiers in combat in Corsica, in the South of France, in Italy: “To sketch out the departure and the trajectory of a forced emigration, that of the war.” If need be, take up the first Algerian images from 1911 of the enlistment by drawing lots.
Montage of some of the parties (more or less caricatural dancing) organized by the colonial fighters in their barracks...
For this montage, choose only one popular song about departure and exile.
“The party curtain is torn.”
The period 39-45 is marked by the events of World War II and by the strategic place of each Maghreb country in the Mediterranean battle.
We sketch out a few reference points, from the anecdotal to the well-known: e.g. Mers-el-Kébir – then, an inauguration of a “Maréchal Pétain” village – then, De Gaulle in Algiers, and some similar images in Morocco, the sultan with the Americans, and Tunisia as a battlefield...
More than anything, the conclusion of the whole film could be an unfolding – in rapid succession – of some repeated shots from 1920 to 1940, among images of triumphalism and fantasia. But we interrupt this summary on the one hand by images of North African troops on the fronts of Corsica, Italy, Germany, etc., then the rapid succession resumes, and we add superimposed images of the front pages of newspapers after 1950 announcing “the events” in Tunisia, the deposition of the sultan, the outbreak of the Algerian war... These announcements are then covered by the same fantasia shots, but now accompanied by either blurred music or silence.
This film on “celebration” should be felt as an unfolding that can only end in the years of “colonial fever” after 1950.
May 1979, Paris
Originally published as ‘La Zerda ou Magreb, les années 30 (Continuité)’ in Mireille Calle-Gruber, Assia Djebar ou la Résistance de l’écriture: regards d’un écrivain d’Algérie (Paris: Maisonneuve et Larose, 2001).
Images (1) and 2 are (2) autochromes taken in Biskra and Tlemcen (1922).