|Belaredj founder Souad Douibi models the shanghai, an outfit traditionally worn only by men.|
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.|