In the Latest Belaredj Outing, Remixing Traditions with a Twist on Gender

Tuesday, September 29, 2015 | Algiers, Algeria (map)

Belaredj founder Souad Douibi models the shanghai, an outfit traditionally worn only by men.
Belaredj, meaning "stork" in Arabic, is a fitting name for an artistic movement whose principal medium is the haïk, the elegant white traditional dress of Algeria's women. But this month the Belaredj collective, led by local artist Souad Douibi, pushed beyond the bounds of its previous performances with an outing centered on the shanghai—the sailor's outfit long favored by the men of Algiers.

Explanations differ as to how men in this North African capital came to wear a blue sailor's outfit named for a city in China. One of the more plausible accounts describes Chinese sailors in the port of Algiers early in the 20th century swapping uniforms with the Algerian dockers, thereby launching a trend that persists until today. (French speakers can read that entire account here, though it is by no means definitive.)

Not that the shanghai is ubiquitous these days on the streets of Algiers. Like the haïk, it is now sported by only a few, usually of a certain advanced age, and more often in the Casbah and other working class neighborhoods.

One thing is certain: the shanghai is definitely not worn by women. And therein lay
the real twist that Souad devised for this performance: she and her mostly female band of followers would parade through the streets of Algiers in an outfit intimately familiar to every one of the city's residents, yet never seen on a woman.

The walk began on a sun-drenched Saturday morning early this month, at a nearby park in the hillside neighborhood of Telemly. Souad's frown betrayed her disappointment at the initial turnout, which included just herself and one or two other women in shanghai, plus a few men in the uniform. Oh yes, and our small gaggle of photographers.

Souad's march led us through verdant Telemly then Sacré Cœur, down Rue Didouche Mourad—the city's main shopping thoroughfare—past Place Audin's grand colonial façades to the Grande Poste, then Rue d'Isly and the Square Port Saïd, where a group of ladies in haïk awaited at the historic Café Tantonville. A few other women in shanghai had trickled in, partly assuaging Souad's fears, by the time she rallied the troops to move toward the fishing port. En route, in one of my favorite moments of the day, we set a sidewalk vendor whooping with joy, as our group passed his small collection of striped sailor shirts, blue denim pants and jackets, and hemp-lined espadrilles that define the shanghai.

At the seaside, the group lounged on piles of fishing nets as dock hands and fishermen looked on, the curious among them sidling up to chat with Souad and others. Perhaps from the effects of the scorching midday sun, idleness, or a whole morning of pent-up desires, some members of the group began swapping outfits. Soon, I saw that perfect combination that I had waited patiently for all day—the ultimate Algerian gender-bending, traditional garb remix. The stars aligned, and a woman in shanghai posed beside a bearded young man in haïk. I focused my Rolleicord and clicked the shutter.

Mic drop. Our work here was done.

At least, I had witnessed the scene I had hoped I might. Gender is at the center of so many aspects of daily life in Algeria, as in the wider Arab and Muslim worlds. Yet that obsession so often manifests as strict gender differentiation, rather than explorations of gender boundaries, roles, and mores. It was refreshing to see an artist create the conditions for a long overdue moment of such exploration, and even more so to then watch that moment unfold before me.

Belaredj ringleader Souad seems to have left the event satisfied, too. Earlier this week, she posted a note on the Belaredj Facebook page:
"Three years ago, I spoke of the haïk as fashion, not of its return, and today they talk of a modernized haïk. Several months ago, I spoke of the shangai as a woman's fashion, and tomorrow we will hear of this blue as a new look for women. We are changing minds, so we have succeeded in our mission. Big Up to all!"
Enjoy a selection of my Rolleicord photos from the event:
The fateful photo. One-of-a-kind gender bending, à l'Algéroise: women in shanghai, men in haïk.
Belaredj leader Souad Douibi.
See the full album here.

11 comments:

Tisso Magazine said...

Wonderful <3

Tisso Magazine said...

Can i Share it on My Page on Facebook !

Andrew Farrand said...

@ Tisso Magazine
Yes, of course! Please do :)

Tisso Magazine said...

Oh Thank you :D

Anonymous said...

Souhil.B: Thank you for all what you've done personally, i appreciate that and i wish you the succeed that you deserve. Thanks again.. These pics are really stunning. Absolutely stunning. Go on with none stop

Andrew Farrand said...

@ Souhil B
Thank you so much. So glad you enjoyed. Hope to see you again at one of the future Belaredj events!

Unknown said...

Where did you find out that the Algerian sailor's outfit was dubbed a "shanghai"? I was interested so I went looking myself but i couldn't find anything but your blog.

Andrew Farrand said...

Hi Anonymous, thanks for the question. "Shanghai" is definitely the name that is used universally here in Algiers for the outfit, but of course its source is a bit mysterious. There is relatively little written about these sorts of questions (or about Algeria in general, for that matter) in English as compared to French. The article I paraphrased and linked to above is one such theory written in French, but I believe there are some others out there. Whatever the true explanation, it is certainly an interesting historical coincidence.

Hadjer Belhamidi said...

I was told that it's because people in China wear that outfit and even saw it being worn by men, especially in Shanghai but worn by the elderly and only in the occasion when they go fishing...I guess they call it that because in Algeria Shanghai is more well-known than Beijing...

Anonymous said...

hey Andrew, My mom told me about me earlier today on my way to work. I live in the US and I am from Algeria. The pictures are simply stunning. Thank you for the work you do in promoting the untold beauty of Algeria.....I have to admit after watching your video, I am dying to know, where did you learn to speak Algerian Arabic???

Andrew Farrand said...

Thanks Anonymous for your comment. Hope all is well back in the US!
I learned through thousands of hours of difficult studying of fus7a, then hundreds of hours of difficult studying of Moroccan darija when I lived there, and then countless hours here in Algeria working to pull it all together over these last years :)

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