There are reminders of colonisation in our town, the main one being the castle up on the hill. It used to be the French barracks and fort, where they tortured those who opposed their rule. After Algerian independence it became the asylum for those who had been tortured there before. For the residents of Bou Saada I am another reminder, though often they don’t notice me when I am sitting around in the main square, usually next to the cafe.
Foreigners didn’t stop over in our town often, so I listened to a few conversations people had with the stranger as he sat in the cafe. I was a bit annoyed at the young man who described Bou Saada as ‘un vrai bled’. The stranger eventually translated this into English for himself as ‘a pit’, but was just one example of language which confused the stranger with its mix of French grammar and Arabic argot. It’s also unfair because ours used to be a traditional Saharan town, whitewashed mud houses on top of and next to each other, and with peaceful covered streets protecting walkers and shoppers from the baking sun. Then the French cut roads through all this and erected concrete buildings. This allows the dust to blow, exposes people to the sun and removed the social heart from the town.
I laughed at the school girls who sang Frere Jacques to him. One man, proud of his knowledge, told the stranger that Bou Saada is famous for the art of Etienne Dinet, a Frenchman who painted nude Algerian women here until he converted to Islam. An old man, occasionally sipping his tea, told him about the collaborators (the Algerians who supported the French) who had lived here. He knew where most of them were now living in Paris. He also talked about the Breton farmers who were kicked off their lands here after independence in the 1960s, and have since come back because life is better in Algeria than in France.
My role in the colonial history of Bou Saada consists of losing my sight, and everything I owned, during the war of independence. Occasionally I am asked to repair TVs – by touch – but mostly I now sit in the square near the café. While I beg, I also listen.