PRINT May 1993


In 1960, a young French photographer, Marc Garanger, was completing his military service in French-occupied Algeria. In these late days of colonial rule, the army had decided that the native Algerians should carry identity cards. In the High Plateaus region, the task of taking the photographs for these cards fell to Garanger.

THEY’VE TOLD THE WOMEN, almost shouting in the language of Algeria’s High Plateaus—Everyone outside, young and old, and come to the village square. The French officer is waiting.

The women who have ventured outside their homes—they’ve given the tribe many sons; they’re barely women now—have told their daughters and their friends how handsome the officer is on his horse. They’ve done this in the privacy of their rooms, in hushed voices, for it is forbidden speech to praise the enemy who has suddenly appeared by a stone wall, the foreigner in uniform, younger than their eldest son, as if he weren’t there to control, question, arrest, the villages’ men.

It’s an order, the women have no choice. They go out into the little square and stand near the whitewashed wall. They’ve been told that someone will be taking photographs, those images they see on the wide pages of the magazines that they cut up jaggedly as shelf paper. They haven’t listened to the old women swearing that anyone who sits for that machine from France, that devil’s device, will be cursed.

The women of the High Plateaus recognize the French officer, erect on the neighborhood’s most well-known Arab stallion. Everyone knows the caïd sold the soldier his favorite horse.

They watch the white man, the stranger. He smiles at the women, who are dressed up in their best, as if they were getting married.

The photographer has put a stool in front of the white-limed wall.

The officer speaks to the interpreter, a village teenager who goes to the French école. He translates the officer’s orders. But the women huddled together under the eucalyptus tree don’t move; they haven’t understood. The officer talks of the State, of the need for identity cards. The girls and women of the tribe live without the Frenchmen’s papers—they don’t want them.

The officer smiles, he is handsome, but he wishes them ill. And the young soldier, not yet 20, what will he do to them? His eyes are soft, and when he speaks to the officer his voice is calm.

They don’t know that as this French photographer looks at the desert plateaus he superimposes on them the apple trees and fir-covered hills of his own village of Ezy-sur-Eure, in Normandy. The meticulous eye of the son of a dynasty of clockmakers checks his Satanic apparatus one last time.

Everything is ready.

The first woman, the boldest, sits facing the machine. She is told to take off the thin veil—her holiday best—that covers her face and falls to her shoulders. The embroidered muslin slips down over the scarves wrapped round her head. She is told to take off her scarves. She loosens the first, then the second; two heavy braids uncoil over the flowers of her dress. She is told to undo these braids. Slowly, waves of long black hair cover the white muslin on her shoulders. She is wearing a silver amulet on a chain—the hand of Fatima—and the tattoos are blue on the forehead she has bared this morning for the Frenchmen who are stealing her image and her soul. The hand of Fatima and the signs an old woman has traced on her face protect her against the evil mechanical eye that stares at her, and against the curiosity of the soldiers from the other world.

Her eyes are black, very black. They injure anyone who looks at them—still, after all these years. She will be old now, but her eyes are young and violent forever.

Leïla Sebbar was born in Algeria of Algerian and French parents. She is now a writer living in Paris, where she has published a number of books of fiction and nonfiction, including the Shérazade trilogy of novels.

These and a larger selection of Garanger's photographs are reproduced in his book Femmes Algériennes 1960, Paris: Cahier d'images/Contrejour, 1989.