The Haïk's Enduring Allure

Wednesday, May 20, 2015 | Algiers, Algeria

Many Algerians consider the haïk to be just as much a symbol of the nation as its physical monuments.
How much power can a few square meters of white silk wield? A lot more than you might think.

That was my conclusion after the latest outing, one sunny Saturday in late March, by the "Belaredj" collective, the cultural group behind the haïk events I tagged along for twice last year. (To learn more, see "Celebrating the Haïk, and Debating an Algerian Icon" and "The Haïk: A Symbol of Algeria's Revolution".)

The unique allure of the haik—the traditional women's dress of Algeria, now rare on the streets of Algiers—was in full evidence at this spring's outing, organized as always by Belaredj's founder, local performance artist Souad Douibi. Souad's other recent events (which she bills as "performances" rather than mere cultural festivals) had garnered increasing attention, as photographers—myself included—inundated Algerian social media with modern images of this classic symbol. In a country so fixated on its history, such images hold particular power, and motivated more than a few photographers to attend this spring's event.

The morning's rendez-vous point was the Grande Poste, the brilliant white central post office of Algiers. My Rolleicord and I were ready, but we sure weren't alone. Upon arriving, I immediately noticed that camera-toting amateur photographers appeared even more numerous than the haïk-clad subjects they hoped to photograph, a peculiar reversal of the ratio at previous events and the first of many signs that day that the Belaredj collective risked becoming the victim of its own success.

Souad Douibi, at right, and her friend Ghazia head the tight circle that leads the Belaredj collective.
Souad's plan, carefully choreographed among her tight circle of Belaredj leaders, was to head from the Grande Poste to the nearby metro station. Opened just three short years ago, the Algiers metro remains striking less for its crisp, modern look than for just how much that look clashes with the colonial-era streetscape above.

At 10 o'clock sharp, a tight cluster of white-clad women streamed out of the Grande Poste and toward the subway. A few men in the traditional local sailor outfit, known as shanghaï, marched with them. Bystanders stopped and grinned, giddily cheering, and photographers jogged alongside the group, snapping away. Leading the pack was Souad, who shouted back to her charges, "Don't stop! Remember, this is a performance, not a photo shoot!"

The Belaredj group in haïks on the Algiers metro.
The fleet-footed group, draped all in white, scurried downward from the streets where they looked so at home to the subway, where the haïk's presence seemed to signal the advent of some brave new retro-inspired world. Surrounded by a few dozen schooling photographers and jubilant bystanders, they quickly threw the station into chaos. The police stationed in the metro flailed desperately for answers, bewildered that a group of citizens had managed to do something in an organized fashion without their prior knowledge. Before Souad could finish explaining to them, the chaotic herd was boarding the train.

On board, a few veterans chuckled as the younger women in haïks, unaccustomed to wearing the garments, consulted their reflections in the darkened train windows to adjust their wraps. A few stops down the line, Souad's order to disembark filtered quickly along the clusters of women in white, scattered throughout the train cars.

Belaredj devotees include several men, like this one in an adapted shanghaï, a traditional sailor's outfit.
They were soon back above ground, charging down the busy main drag of Belcourt, a blue-collar neighborhood of Algiers dominated by the hilltop Martyr's Monument. As the group passed, young children stopped in their tracks and stared, puzzled by these unfamiliar apparitions. Women smiled silently, as if the sight of the haïk were summoning some deep-seated joyful pride.

But the local men's reactions were the best—so good, in fact, that I soon started focusing my attention and my camera more on them than on the women in haïks. For a second, many men simply gaped, slack-jawed, incapable of comprehending the sight before their eyes on this random Saturday morning. Then they snapped out of it, and brightened like I've never seen. Whole cafés full of men emptied onto the sidewalk to watch the women stream past, whistling, clapping, and whooping.

Sexual attraction didn't seem to be part of the equation; from the surprise on their faces I could tell the men had forgotten themselves, and were carried by a raw up-swell of nostalgia. It happened too fast to be anything but genuine. Unable to contain himself, one man stumbled from a café stoop, nearly in tears, shouting, "Ya Allah! Hada lmoment weyn nheb edjezair, ki nchouf hadou lbenat en haïks!" ("My God! This is the moment when I love Algeria, when I see these women in haïks!")

The older men in particular—who remember Algiers when every woman wore a haïk—provided me with the most magical moments of my day. One old sheikh who had been tapping his way down the sidewalk with his cane, for example, stopped mid-stream as the women in haïks sped past. After a second, his wizened old lips cracked into the slightest of smiles that communicated the most profound of joys.

Dumbfounded: I soon started to focus on the men's reaction to the passing women in haïks.
Ever vigilant, and increasingly frustrated by her charges' willingness to stop and pan for the cameras, Souad urged them onward until the group reached the Jardin d'Essai, Algiers's central park.

Inside, they paused for a group shot, but as dozens of local punks from around the park began streaming toward them for photos, Souad called it off, and told the group to remove their haïks. The day wasn't over, but they would wait a few hours for the situation to cool down before donning them again.

The pause, coincidentally, gave others—including a Chinese tourist and a trio of good-humored park gardeners—a chance to try on the haïk, making for some very unique images.

The haïks' allure proved so strong that these three local men couldn't help trying them on! But all joking aside, the image of a man in haïk has its place in Algeria's history too; liberation fighters in the Casbah and elsewhere sometimes donned them to evade French troops during the war for independence.
It was only noon when the group broke for lunch in the park, but the day's lesson was already clear: in Algeria, the haïk's allure burns as strong as ever. The joys and the tensions of the day both attested in their own way to its iconic, enduring power in this country. That power means that Belaredj founder Souad has chosen well in deciding what symbol to place at the center of her art, though it can also make wielding it a challenging endeavor.

Full photo album:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Je voulais juste vous remercier pour tous vos articles et photos ils sont magnifiques
Je suis algérienne de tlemcen et j'habite Paris
Bonne continuation

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