Publié le mar 4 Déc 2012

Algeria’s Belle Époque (1) Postcards and Nostalgia: images of Algiers in the 1970s


Ed McAllister est doctorant. Il travaille sur la mémoire de la construction de la nation algérienne et passe actuellement une année de terrain à Alger, où il travaille plus précisément à Bab el-Oued. Il évoquera régulièrement sa recherche dans Textures du Temps, dans une série intitulée “Algeria’s Belle Époque”.
يُتابع إد ماكاليستر بحثه في إطار رسالة دكتوراه حيث يُحاول تفحّص ذاكرة تشكّل الدولة و الوطن الجزائري في سناوات السبعينات. لذلك فهو يُمضي سنة كاملة في حقل بحثه في الجزائر العاصمة، في باب الواد تحديدا. جلال هذه الفترة، سيقدّم بعض الأوراق من بعثه لحبكة الزمن و ستكون هذه الأوراق تحت عونوان: “جزائر الزمن الجميل”. ه

“Wallah ça fait des larmes dans les yeux ki nchuf kifach wellat Alger, vraiment khsara!”
“J’envie mes parents qui ont eu la chance de vivre leur jeunesse à la belle époque.”
“On est nostalgique par rapport à une époque qu’on n’a même pas vécue…”

Reactions of Algiers residents to images of the city during the 1970s.

Many Algiers residents talk fondly of the 1970s as a time of stability, relative wealth and warm relations between citizens. My on-going fieldwork in Algiers focuses on the ways in which the perceptions of the past narrate the present, particularly through nostalgia.2 Of particular interest has been how the post-independence period is manifested within the urban landscape of today’s city, and the ways in which present-day residents relate to the their lived urban environment through socially held memories of the past. I was therefore keen to collect images of Algiers during the 1970s, but immediately came up against a problem: there are virtually none. In contrast, the passion for images of the city during the colonial period seems to be on the rise, visible in the increasing numbers of stalls selling reprints, maps, coins and other memorabilia around the Grande Poste and Larbi Ben M’hidi street. If so many of the people I talk to in Algiers refer to the 1970s as a kind of golden age, then why is there such a lack of publically available images of the period?

One answer to this question is related to the dynamics of state socialism in Algeria and was provided by a long-time vendor of memorabilia in central Algiers. The large colonial era photographic studios, such as Jomone or Jonsol, that produced many of the images of street scenes that are reprinted today, were taken over by their Algerian employees after independence. Under this new management, the studios continued to play a similar role in the production of images of the city until the late-1960s, when they were absorbed by the newly-formed Société Nationale d’Édition et de Diffusion (SNED). Henceforth, image production was state controlled and reoriented away from documenting the urban fabric and daily life toward industrial development, the agrarian revolution and the incessant political activity of Houari Boumediene. This goes some way to explaining the lack of officially-sponsored images of Algiers in the 1970s. As for private image production, cameras were neither widely available nor affordable at the time, and security forces were even more sensitive about people taking photographs in the streets than they are today, an attitude which would obviously make one think twice about what to photograph, or whether one should even bother getting a camera out at all. Some people in their fifties have even told me that photographing any public building, even from a distance, was likely to result in arrest. As a result, many of the images of Algeria in the 1970s are postcards publish by the SNED, and were intended for a mass tourist industry that never got off the ground.

These postcards show the—then brand new—tourist complexes of Moretti and Zeralda, street scenes of Algiers city centre, picturesque small town squares, modern-looking hotels, bus stations and housing blocks, as well as rural and desert scenes. Since they were never sold in large numbers, the SNED sold off its large stock of postcards during the 1990s, presumably to ease the pressures of economic restructuring, and these are now sold by a handful of second hand bookshops and other retailers.

La Grande Poste. SNED Postcard, early-1970s.

“Ya hasra! Win kunna u win rana!”

Many of these images have been collected from a series of blogs and social networking sites on the history of Algiers, as well as purchased in city from traders who have also provided valuable insights into the way images of the past are consumed. The fact that many seventies postcards have ended up on the Internet has created a dynamic that has encouraged people to upload their own photographs of Algiers after independence and—significantly—to discuss the images with others. As an ensemble, these images show a well-maintained city with bright white buildings and old Peugeots and Renaults trundling down spotlessly clean streets with yellow zebra crossings, men with moustaches and oversized shirt collars and women in gleaming white haiks, neatly-trimmed trees and manicured green spaces, lots of free parking spaces and almost empty, litter-free beach resorts that are the preserve of the chic, sun-kissed denizens of a cosmopolitan metropolis. The images literally seem to ooze spaciousness, order, calm and a carefree innocence.

As a result, the Algiers of the 1970s portrayed in these images is almost unrecognisable to many contemporary residents of a crowded, congested city that has expanded in a rapid and uncontrolled fashion since the late-1980s. Thus, responses to the images almost always revolve around comparisons between Algiers in the 1970s and Algiers today, with the present invariably cast in a negative light. Comments focus on the lack of traffic jams and availability of parking, as well as general cleanliness and well-maintained infrastructure. Equally, the lack of crowds and relatively empty streets seem to be a major topic of interest, and frequent comparisons are drawn with today’s overcrowded city. “Ma kach el-ghachi” [there are no crowds] is an often repeated response. Discussion of the images often includes condemnation of the city’s degraded infrastructure in the present, especially the state of pavements and roads, as well as the amount of uncollected rubbish in the streets. The single most frequent reaction to the images is one of loss and regret – a feeling that is articulated by Algerian Arabic’s nostalgic phrase par excellence, “ya hasra!”, which is used exclusively to refer to something that is perceived as having been better in the past than it is in the present. As is often the case with people in capital cities, this sense of loss and regret is often extended to cover the whole country, with one middle-class woman even saying, “je me sens perdue dans cette Algérie que je reconnais plus” [I feel lost in this Algeria that I no longer recognise.]

Behind the Place des Martyrs. SNED postcard, mid- to late-1970s.

Few seem to notice that, as postcards, many of these images were intended to show an idealised image of the city and were probably photographed in relative calm of the early morning or the weekend. Some reactions to the images bemoan the state’s disregard for its responsibility to provide a decent lived environment and even disregard for the lives of its citizens. In response to a question about why the shade giving trees around the Grande Poste were cut down since the 1970s, one person retorted, “Ils ont abattu des hommes, pourquoi pas des arbres ?” [they killed people, so why not trees?]. This suggests that the 1970s are not only read through the present, but also through intervening periods, particularly the 1990s. However, even in a country where le pouvoir is routinely blamed for a whole list of wrongs, the state’s responsibility is a secondary theme in explaining past-present disjuncture.

Past-present disjuncture is also read through social changes in gender relations, public morality and rural-urban migration. Indeed, the most frequently employed strategy used to explain overcrowding and the degradation of infrastructure is to point the finger at rural-urban migrants. The impression given is clearly that those derisively labelled as chbarek or kwava [mannerless, tasteless incomers] have invaded a paradise previously inhabited by ‘more refined’ urbanites that possess a certain savoir vivre. Criticism of chbarek is extremely common, including in comments by residents of working class neighbourhoods such as Bab el Oued: “fakertni f yamat el ‘ez, kanet Bab el Oued mafihach el kavi. Mnin jaw, tahou m ssma ?” [this reminds me of the days of pride, when there were no ‘outsiders’ in Bab el Oued. Where did they come from—did they fall out of the sky?], or “duka rahu uled bled-ha u jaw nass djdad fi-ha, tebeddalu koulech” [now the neighbourhood’s original inhabitants are gone and new people have come, they’ve changed everything]. Such criticism serves to identify those that can remember the heyday of the 1970s before the large scale rural-urban migration of the 1990s as ‘pure’ Algérois, as opposed to rural riff-raff. Here, nostalgia is a litmus test of authenticity and legitimacy and articulates debates about who belongs to the city and who the city belongs to. Rural migrants are also often blamed for increased incivility and crime; I have even been told that muggings in Bab el-Oued are never carried out by ‘true’ wled el houma [those born and bred in the neighbourhood]. Though some people do admit the existence of crime and even gangs in the 1970s, others add that – unlike today – in those days even criminals displayed  ‘masculine honour’ [“ta‘ ennif ou rredjla”].

Another major topic of debate is the cultural authenticity of personal appearances of the time. The haik is mobilised as truly authentic attire for women in contrast to more recent forms of hijab that are frequently labelled as foreign due to their Middle Eastern origin. The 1970s is portrayed as a tolerant age of unproblematic coexistence between haiks and miniskirts. This is a widespread view among secularised Francophone Algerians, whereas those with more Islamist leanings seem more likely to see recent changes in hijab as an improvement on the past. Though women’s bodies are usually held as the billboards of either cultural authenticity or modernity, the debate also spills over onto men’s attire, particularly facial hair. Moustaches are often perceived as socialist era facial hair and are counterposed to beards that are frequently associated with post-1970s Islamism. One young man lamented that he had not lived through “l’époque où l’Algérie kanet b chlaghemha” [when Algeria wore a moustache].3

Moustapha Ferroukhi and Hassiba Ben Bouali Streets. SNED postcard, early-1970s.

What is nostalgia for?

Socially held memories of the 1970s seem clearly to be refracted through diverse experiences during the intervening periods of 1980s and 1990s, particularly increased Islamic public morality, generational splits, urban degradation and rural migration. However, what matters most about these portrayals of past-present disjuncture is perhaps not the object or period that triggers or embodies feelings of nostalgia, but the reference to an individual’s memory of past desire for a version of the future or alternative present, along with the awareness that this desire cannot be relived. As such, nostalgia has less to do with the past itself, than with the fantasies that structured the past; with people’s past emotional investments about present and future—a kind of imagined future located in the past. The 1970s is often remembered as a time of rapid improvements in living standards, pride in Algeria’s place in the world, a perception of unity and a palpable optimism for the future. Nostalgia for the seventies is then perhaps little more than mourning for once felt optimism and pride. As such, nostalgia carries politically subversive potential. Paradoxically though, nostalgic practices may serve to create continuity with the present. Indeed, the tacit social contract under Boumediène—a separation between private and public life in which people retreated from politics into private affairs and material concerns in return for security and freedom from political harassment—bears a striking resemblance to that existing under Bouteflika. Depictions by present-day politicians of continuity with the Boumediène period provide much-needed legitimacy, but also simultaneously side-line political involvement as unnecessary.

However, much nostalgia for the 1970s is simply predicated on memories of youth, and may have little political content. When telling Algerians about my research, saying I am working on the 1970s causes very different reactions than saying I am working on the Boumediene era. The former statement almost invariably brings a flood of warm memories and negative evaluations of the present, while the latter incites divided reactions over the legacy of the policies of Boumediene himself (with Kabyles and Islamists often displaying the most negative reactions). Thus, rather than being subversive, seventies nostalgia can belie a wish not to engage with politics. For those experiencing disjuncture between past and present lifeworlds, nostalgia allows the integration of “personal memories into a narrative without politically endorsing or condemning an era not yet perceived to have fully resolved into history”.4 Presenting nostalgia as a sort of universal longing for youth or childhood allows political implications to be evaded. Framing nostalgia as apolitical seems to point to the fact that the authoritarian practices of the time require some justification. However, politics are of course at work in what nostalgic practices accomplish and in who does the labelling and naming of practices as nostalgic.

For more confirmed Boumedienists though, politics is very much present and authoritarianism is not called into question at all. For some, despite its political authoritarianism, the Boumediene era is viewed as preferable to the democratic veneer of present-day multiparty politics because of the perceived welfare, stability and warm relations between citizens of the period. One Bab el-Oued resident in his forties pointed out that in the 1970s, people had “khobz u khedma” (bread and jobs), which he characterised as the basics of a decent life. If present-day ‘democracy’ can’t provide these basic things, he said, there is no point in it. Other informants have drawn even clearer distinctions, couching present democracy as a political game of periodic power redistribution among the elite (therefore authoritarian) and 1970s authoritarianism as providing for citizens’ basic social needs (therefore more ‘truly democratic’). This reversal goes to the heart of a debate about what democracy means to Algerians.

If older Algerians are those most able to establish past-present comparisons, lamenting the passing of “un beau monde discipliné” [a fine disciplined world] and decrying the replacement of “voitures ta‘ essah” [proper cars] by Chinese imports, many younger people display a bemused surprise that Algiers could ever have been a nice place to live at all. One youth reacted to a picture of a neatly-clipped garden behind the Place des Martyrs that has since been replaced by a multi-storey car park, saying, “wallah, on dirait Alger en 2099!” [I swear this looks like Algiers in 2099!]. There is a sense of dislocation and confusion among young people that things appear to have been better in a past they never experienced, giving a feeling that time is moving in the wrong direction: “On retrograde grave” [We’re seriously going backwards]. One young man could simply could not go on seeing images of what must have seemed like a parallel universe: “Putain, je n’ai plus le moral…” [Shit, this is too depressing to go on…].

For the vast majority of Algerians I have spoken to, especially young people (80% of Algerians that were born after 1979), the everyday certainties of 1970s-Algeria seem to form a safe narrative for talking about the past, one of the few that exists between different generations in a country where ‘true’ history is routinely perceived to be held under lock and key – one of few forms of consensus about the past in an otherwise thorny and divisive history.

  1. “It really brings tears to my eyes when I see what has become of Algiers, such a shame!”, “I envy my parents who were lucky enough to be young during the belle epoque”, “We feel nostalgia for a period we haven’t even lived through…”
  2. The fieldwork is part of a PhD in History that uses an ethnographic approach to explore social memories of the 1970s in a particular neighbourhood of Algiers, Bab el-Oued.
  3. The fact the majority of today’s young Algerian males are clean shaven, or sport fashionable stubble easily distinguishable from the fluffy beard of Islamists, perhaps indicates—as well as the urge to follow and reappropriate global trends—a wish to sidestep an ideological debate on public morality that has been posed in terms of diametrically opposed, mutually-reinforcing discourses on religion and secularism that mirror those found in France.
  4. Shevchenko, O. (2004) “The Politics of Nostalgia. A Case for Comparative Analysis of Post-Socialist Practices”, in Ab Imperio, vol. 2, p. 550.

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