Book Review: The Algerians of Bilad al-Sham

BouchamaSeveral Syrians came to Algeria these past years fleeing the war in their country. The few Syrians I used to meet were either teachers who came after Algeria’s independence and stayed or traders selling Syrian textile products. It was therefore unusual to see these men, women and children refugees begging at mosques’ gates. War has very sad and ugly consequences.

I wondered what happened to the Algerian community in Syria. Tourists and businessmen stopped going there but what about those living there, or even those Syrians of Algerian descent? How involved are they in the conflict? Did they take sides?
These are some questions I have and to which I found no answers. The press has reported about Khaldoun Mekki Elhassani, one of the Emir Abdelkader’s great sons, jailed by the Assad regime. And unlike what happened in Iraq, Bosnia or Chechnya, we didn’t hear of many Algerians who would be gone to fight in Syria.

Kamel Bouchama’s book attempts to answer other questions as to who these Syrians of Algerian descent were.

I, as many Algerians, knew about the Emir Abdelkader, his exile in Syria and the many Algerians who followed him there; but I didn’t know much more. I hadn’t read anything about any other period. So I was surprised to see that the book was 340 pages long. I thought perhaps the author, who was an Algerian minister and also Algeria’s ambassador in Damascus, had come across other sources while in Syria.

I had never read any of the numerous books written by Bouchama. This book was written in French but with what seemed to me like an Arabic style. And that made reading it quite exhausting. The author used too many words to say things and too many adjectives as well. I think that Arabic texts withstand and are even improved by some writing styles which are destructive to French texts.

Bouchama’s text also reminded me of how Algerian (FLN) politicians speak. The “we Algerians are great, smart, brave, etc.” may have seduced me on page 1 but it became a pain after page 20. The author acknowledges this and explains that one of his goals is to revive the Algerian youth pride by showing them how great their ancestors were. Does he know that a majority of the Algerian youth doesn’t read books?

Also, the author says from the beginning that sources are scarce despite his biggest efforts. I very quickly understood that he could have saved at least a 100 pages and report the same information. He repeated some phrases several times. At some point, as if he just noticed it, he writes that he’s repeating himself to stress on the information importance rather than just fill the page.

If you are able to ignore the above then the book is a fair read.

The first “massive” Algerian (Maghrebi if you wish) move to Bilad Ash-Sham was during the Crusades. Sidi Boumediene decided to join Salah Eddine‘s soldiers, and with him went many Algerians. Sidi Boumediene lived in Bejaia (read my home town) so most of the people who accompanied him were Kabyles from the Soummam Valley (there were also soldiers from the Aures, the Dahra, the Ziban, etc.) Bouchama argues that Algerian Amazighs have always fought for the causes they considered as just and that they were (are) always ready to help their brethren (Muslim brethren here). I don’t think he’d agree if some young Algerians decide to go now to Syria and join either sides.
And brave as they were (as we are), the Algerians’ participation against the crusaders was noticed and acknowledged everywhere. Evidence you ask? He shares an old text where Kurds, Turks, etc. are mentioned but not the Maghrebi or Amazigh. Then he says the Amazigh could (and should) have been mentioned here too… Another (and a better) proof is the lands given to them by Salah Eddine. We have all heard of Hay Al Maghariba, etc.

Sidi Boumediene left back home but many of his companions stayed. Bouchama gives four reasons to their decision: some still wanted to fight the crusaders, some others thought it was a great place to acquire and share knowledge, others liked the weather and nature which allowed them to make an easier living as farmers or craftsmen, and the rest stayed “simply” because of the Syrian women.

Les femmes de Syrie ont la beauté qui les différencie de toutes les autres femmes. De peau souvent claire qu’enluminent des yeux bleus, les Chamiyates ont ce teint particulier qui les fait plus douces, plus coquettes et plus attirantes. C’est cela qui a fait vibrer ces nombreux Berbères, eux aussi, exhibant de belles statures et des teints aussi radieux que nobles.

Note how he had to flatter the Berbers at the end of this excerpt 🙂

As expected, most of the book is about Emir Abdelkader and his descendants. More sources are available and the author could therefore be more accurate and specific. This is the core of the book and its most interesting part. Bouchama mentioned many noteworthy personalities. Here is a list of some of them:

  • Cheikh Badreddine El Hassani El Djazairi: A scholar, managed “Dar El Hadith” which was founded by El Emir Abdelkader.
  • Mahmoud El Hamzaoui: Damascus Mufti in 1888.
  • Mohamed El Moubarek: Founded “Errihaniya” school.
  • His son, Mohamed: Founded the “Lycée de la Renaissance” where sciences, Arabic, French and Turk were taught.
  • Princess Amel: A descendent of the Emir Abdelkader. She directed the school founded by her mother. She died in 2003 after she gave (back) to Algeria many of the Emir Abdelkader’s belongings.
  • Her mother, Adyla Beyhem El Djazairi: She founded a school “Dawhat el Adab” for Syrian girls.
  • Emir Djaafar El Djazairi: Archaeologist and was general director or museums and historical heritage in Syria.
  • Cheikh Tahar El Djazairi: Was behind the opening of modern schools in Syria.
  • Asaad Larbi Derquaoui: Former Syrian minister of culture.
  • Abdeslam Bouazza El Djazairi: Founder of Lebanese “Gezairi Transport”.

When we speak of Algerian emigration we usually think of those who went to the West; we seldom think of those in the Arab and Muslim countries, those in Africa or Asia. This book was refreshing in this regard. And even though I said above it was FLN’s expressions, it wasn’t that bad after all that the book kept reminding the Algerian reader of their ancestors’ achievements. Many say that civilisation jumped over Algeria when it moved from Tunisia to Morocco. This book somehow proves otherwise.

I would like to share this video of Emir Abdelkader’s palace in Damascus. I hope it won’t be destroyed in the current war.


6 thoughts on “Book Review: The Algerians of Bilad al-Sham

  1. Nice post. Important part of the history of the Algerian diaspora. I read somewhere that Syria had presidents and prime ministers of Algerian descent, all from Al Jazairi family. This is not to mention that some of the Emir’s children/grand-children moved to Turkey and occupied important positions in the army.

    • I don’t know about presidents. I knew of PM Abderrahmane Khelifaoui mentioned in the book; and the author also mentioned Emir Salim ElJazairi who was a colonel in the Ottoman army and executed by a Turkish general in 1936.

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