I live in Dzair, the city known as Algiers, capital of Algeria. My city is a mosaic of districts and streets dating back to medieval as well as to french colonization era; exposing different architecture styles. Through its straight, narrow or winding streets, and through its closed or opened old facades, the city keeps telling the tormented story of its inhabitants – past and present.
Downtown Algiers belongs to what used to be called the European city. The colonial city built during French colonisation of Algeria ; built by the french colons, for the, now-gone, “pieds noirs”. Back then, streets were named after renowned Frenchmen. I never paid attention to the original names of those streets before, since, after independence, they have been replaced by Algerian names. But sometimes, the old names reappear on old maps or in unforgotten memories of old pied-noir. Horace Vernet is one of those streets.
Horace Vernet is a French orientalist painter who lived during the 19th century. He is known for painting the “infamous” battles of colonization war of Algeria. His paintings were meant to portray and celebrate France’s famous butchers and criminals officers. I the Algerian, when I look at those pictures I see neither glory nor victory. I only see the bravery of my people, those anonymous Arabs, resisting french terror, fighting for their land, for their honour, for their survival.
The paintings on the conquest of Constantine is heart-breaking. I can almost hear my people calling for Jihad “Allah Akbar”. I can feel their distress and courage. I can imagine women fleeing the besieged city. In Constantine, young women had no other choice but to escape down the city’s dangerous high cliffs, hanging down a rope. Many escaped, but others simply fell… and died.
The painting of “Coudiat Ati, 1837” is particularly horrifying … the ignominious detail of the profaned graveyard is simply outraging. This painting does indeed portray the French army as our ancestors described it: swarm of coward, lawless and ruthless locusts ; looting, destroying, everything on their passage, harvest, cattles, people…and even tombs.
A century later, the offspring of Vernet’s paintings anonymous Algerian fighters have finally won the war and regained their ancestor’s land. France has gone, its army of criminals too and so did all the colons and les pieds-noir. And the name of Horace Vernet has been erased from the street to be replaced by Mennani, one of the many martyrs of Algeria’s liberation war.
Now, when I walk in Algiers, in the street that used to bear the name of Horace Vernet, I remember his paintings, I feel sad for a while, but then I smile… at the revenge of History.