Book Review: Les Algériennes du château d’Amboise


Tomorrow we will celebrate the 61st anniversary of the Algerian Revolution. I used to dedicate a post to this occasion with a link to a song or a poem. This time will be different as I am taking this opportunity to finish this book review draft and post it.

The Algerian Revolution was the final step taken by the Algerian people towards their independence. All the armed and peaceful resistance actions taken since the French invasion in 1830 paved the way for the glorious War of Independence. The resistance movement led by Emir Abdekader was a major episode even though it ended with the prince surrendering to the French who imprisoned him and his followers in France instead of sending him to today’s Turkey, Syria, Egypt or KSA as was agreed between the Emir and the Duke of Aumale. And this is where Amel Chaouati’s book comes in.

Many books have been and are written on Emir Abdelkader but only a few speak of his 97 followers (including 21 women and 15 children and babies) and I don’t remember reading any which relate the story of the women amongst them during his detention period in France (three months in Toulon, four in Pau and four long years in Amboise). Chaouati tried to tackle this aspect.

I admit I was more sceptical when I bought the 1500 DZD worth book than when I started reading this one. I wondered what the author would have to say knowing the scarcity of historical sources. And I was right, there was little material to fill the 204 pages of the book except that the author chose a different perspective.

In her book, Chaouati not only gives the facts she could compile – and this wasn’t an easy task, but she relates her quest which started after a visit she made at the Royal Château of Amboise and its Jardin d’Orient (created in 2005 by Algerian artist Rachid Koraichi) and ended with her writing the book. The reader will therefore read about the people she met during her journey, her interests and her admiration for Assia Djebar. Chaouati is by the way the founder and president of “Le Cercle des Amis d’Assia Djebar” and signed today copies of her book “Lire Assia Djebar!” at the SILA). The reader will also find chapters written in the voices of some of the women as imagined by Chaouati.

At the end the book is the text of a communication given by the author at the NYU Paris. You only have to read this part if all you are interested in are the historical facts but reading the rest is really not a waste of time.

Exactly like with men, History seems to care only about the central figures (here the Emir Abdelkader). Reading the book I learnt of how his companions suffered in an enemy, foreign, non-Muslim and non-Arab land. I learnt of the insalubrious conditions they were put in. I learnt of the women’s illnesses, depressions and deaths. How they suffered more than men because they were confined and they had no translator to interact with the world. How one woman’s corpse was put in a box because she wanted to be buried in Algeria and yet she is still in France. I learnt of the newborns’ poor health and their premature passing.

On 16 October 1852, when the French finally decided to honour their agreement with the Emir, 25 of his followers had died. They were buried in a pauper’s grave. Rachid Koraichi’s Jardin d’Orient is a way to pay them the respect they deserve. Koraichi reproduced a verse from the Quran on each of the 25 steles. It says:

يَا أَيَّتُهَا النَّفْسُ الْمُطْمَئِنَّةُ ارْجِعِي إِلَى رَبِّكِ رَاضِيَةً مَرْضِيَّةً فَادْخُلِي فِي عِبَادِي وَادْخُلِي جَنَّتِي

(To the righteous soul will be said:) “O (thou) soul, in (complete) rest and satisfaction! Come back thou to thy Lord,- well pleased (thyself), and well-pleasing unto Him!
Enter thou, then, among My devotees!
Yea, enter thou My Heaven!”

Below are a video showing the Jardin d’Orient and the names of the Algerian victims of France’s betrayal, a second video with Amel Chaouti speaking of her book and a third one of a documentary about the Emir while in Amboise.

I forgot to say that the book is post-faced by Algerian writer Maissa Bey. You should read this to see why I am disappointed at her.

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