|The procession winds downtown in traditional haik and 'ajjar. (A digital photo I snapped; Rolleicord pics forthcoming.)|
Yesterday I had the good fortune to be among a small army of official photographers for a unique cultural event here in Algiers: the second annual celebration of the haik, the traditional garment of Algerian women that today is only seen rarely on the capital's streets.
Women as young as teenagers and some old enough to remember when the haik (pronounced "hay-yek") was practically a uniform in Algiers participated, donning the brocaded white shrouds as well as the 'ajjar, a triangle of lace used to partly conceal the face. (This ensemble is unique to Algeria, and is particularly iconic of the capital and its famed casbah.)
A few weeks ago, during my sister’s visit, I had met several talented photographers who were exhibiting at the Algiers modern art museum. It was they who invited me to yesterday's event and arranged for me to join them in photographing the opening: a scene of 12 Algerian women in haiks recreating DaVinci's "Last Supper" in the courtyard of the city's fine arts college.
At noon, the performers and several dozen others processed down Rue Didouche Mourad, Algiers' main commercial thoroughfare, to the central downtown square. Along the way, they drew plenty of stares but mostly words of encouragement from their fellow citizens, who seemed overwhelmingly thrilled to see a truly homegrown cultural symbol so celebrated. One man also accompanied in a sailor's outfit—inexplicably called shanghai here—which was a traditional outfit for men in Algiers.
But this event was as much artistic performance as cultural celebration, and as all good art does, it provoked plenty of questions. There were discussions in the streets as the women processed through the busy lunchtime crowds. There were questions on social media, like the angry commenter who complained on the organizers' Facebook page that the "Last Supper" scene was insulting to Christianity.
Mostly though, the event seems to have provoked reflection and important intergenerational conversations about this once pervasive tradition, why it has faded, what it used to represent, and what it means today. Some friends among the participants recounted interesting discussions with their grandmothers the previous evening as they dug haiks out from closets and learned to wrap them properly.
Along the walk, several participants were also more than happy to explain the garment's significance to a curious foreigner. One surmised that in recent decades it has been largely supplanted by the simpler hijab because the haik requires the wearer to clutch the fabric closed, leaving at most a single hand free. To this, a passerby added that the hijab's influx was due at least as much to the influence of the Iranian Revolution 35 years ago. Whatever their answers, these seem to be important questions about their heritage that Algerians want to explore.
It was an honor to take part, and I thank the organizers and participants for the invitation and warm welcome.
When I wasn't engrossed in discussion, I was snapping pictures of the event with my Rolleicord. Four full rolls of film now await development.