Why the name: Algiers?

Algiers at the beginning of the Ottoman rule, 16th century AD
Algiers at the beginning of the Ottoman rule, 16th century AD

I have often wondered what the name, Algiers, for the capital of Algeria meant.  I always thought it interesting for a capital, and a country to have the same name: Alger (in French) the capital and Algeria, the country.

Modern-day Algiers
Modern-day Algiers

For starters Alger (in French) or Algiers (in English) is a name deriving from the Catalan Alguère, which itself comes from Djezaïr, name given by Bologhine ibn Ziri, founder of the Berber Zirid dynasty who built the city in 944 on the ruins of the ancient Roman city Icosium (or the seagull island), Djezaïr Beni Mezghenna.  The name, as given by Bologhine ibn Ziri, referred to the four islands which laid off the city’s coast until becoming part of the mainland in 1525.  In Arabic, Al-Djaza’ir (الجزائر), “les Îlots” (the Islands), in French “les Iles de Mezghenna” or the islands of Mezghanna  (جزاير بني مزغنا Djezaïr Beni Mezghenna).  According to Middle Ages Muslim geographers, the term island could also refer to the fertile coast of Algeria stuck between the vast Sahara, and the Mediterranean Sea, appearing as an island of life, Al-Jaza’ir.

Basilique 'Notre Dame d'Afrique' in Algiers
Basilique ‘Notre Dame d’Afrique’ in Algiers

Algiers is often nicknamed El-Behdja (البهجة, the joyous), El Mahroussa (the well-kept) or alternatively Alger la Blanche (“Algiers the White”) for the glistening white of its buildings as seen rising up from the sea.  Algiers is located on the west side of a bay of the Mediterranean Sea, also known as the Algiers bay.  The modern part of the city is built on the level ground by the seashore; while the old part, the ancient city of the deys, the Ottoman rulers, climbs the steep hill behind the modern town and is crowned by the casbah or citadel, 122 metres (400 ft) above the sea.  The casbah, which is an ancient neighborhood of Algiers (and a UNESCO World Heritage site), was built on the side of one of the hills that points west of

Carte de l'Algerie (Map of Algeria)
Carte de l’Algerie (Map of Algeria)

the Algiers bay; the casbah and the two quays form a triangle.  Under Ottoman rule, from 1510 to early 1800s, new neighborhoods arose on the hills overseeing the bay.  Algiers and Algeria later fell into French rule in the 1830s, and Algeria became independent on 5 July 1962.

Today, ‘Algiers the White’ is an important vibrant city of almost 4 million inhabitants in North Africa.  It is in essence a joyous city with a glistening white essence on the Mediterranean sea.  Enjoy this video on Algiers.

Lalla Fadhma N’Soumer, the Embodiment of Algerian Resistance against French Colonization

Lalla Fadhma N'Soumer (19th century)
Lalla Fadhma N’Soumer (19th century)

Today’s post will be dedicated to a great resistant and leader of Africa, the great Lalla Fadhma N’Soumer (also known as Lalla Fatma N’Soumer), an important figure of resistance against French invasion in Algeria.  Lalla Fadhma N’Soumer has been seen as the embodiment of the Algerian struggle.  The war of colonization in Algeria was one of the most brutal and repressive in Africa; it is said that Algeria lost 1/3 of its population between 1830 and 1872.  The war was quite atrocious, and very often we are told of the courage and charisma of leaders such as the emir Abdel Kader, but often in history books, the names of heroines like Lalla Fadhma N’Soumer are forgotten or simply erased.

Fadhma N'Soumer
Fadhma N’Soumer

Lalla Fadhma N’Soumer was born in Werja, a village near Ain El Hammam in 1830, the year French occupation started in Algeria.  She was from KabylieLalla, the female equivalent of sidi, is an honorific reserved for women of high rank, or who are venerated as saints.  Her real name was Fadhma Nat Si Hmed.  The title, N’Soumer, was given to her because of her piety and strength and because she lived in the village of Soumer.  Fadhma was the daughter of cheikh Ali Ben Aissi, who headed a Qur’anic school, which was linked with the Zawyia Rahmaniya of Sidi Mohamed Ibn Abderrahmane Abu Qabrein.  Young Fadhma was extremely gifted, and memorized the Qur’an simply by listening to her father’s disciples when they chanted the various surats.  After her father’s death, Fadhma directed the Qur’anic school with her brother Si Mohand Tayeb.  She took special care of the children and the poor.  She was known for her great piety, notable wisdom, piercing intelligence, and had an excellent reputation throughout the Kabylie region.

Battle of Somah in 1836 (by Horace Vernet)
Battle of Somah in 1836 (by Horace Vernet)

Fadhma was only 16 when the French occupied Kabylie.  In 1847, she joined the resistance leaders of the region: Si Mohamed El-Hachemi and Mohamed El Amdjed Ibn Abdelmalek (nicknamed Bou-Baghla).  Bou-Baghla was probably an ex-lieutenant in the army of Emir Abdelkader, defeated for the last time by the French in 1847.  Refusing to surrender, Bou Baghla retreated to Kabylie.  From there, he began a war against the French armies and their allies, often employing guerilla tactics.  He was a relentless fighter, very eloquent, and very religious.  Fadhma and Bou-Baghla were kindred spirits fighting for the freedom of their people.  After Bou-Baghla’s death in 1854, Fadhma was given command of combat by the great council of combatants and important figures of the Kabylie’s tribes.

She led a strong resistance against Marshal Jacques Louis Randon’s 13,000-strong French army.  She gave them a lesson of courage, and determination.  Armed with an unshakable faith, Fadhma threw herself in bloody battles to push back the enemy.  During the battle of Tachekkirt, led by Bou-Baghla at the time, Randon was captured, but managed to escape later.  During the famous battle of Oued Sebaou, Fadhma was only 24 years old, and headed an army of men and women; she took control, and led her people to victory, a victory heralded throughouth Kabylie. The mosques, zawiyas, and Qur’anic schools sang praises in honor of the heroine of the Djurdjura.

Lalla Fadhma N'Soumer during battle
Lalla Fadhma N’Soumer during battle (in reality, it is said that she never used weapons)

Not willing to accept defeat, Randon asked for reinforcements, with his forces reaching 35,000 men.  He asked the people of Azazga to help him reach Fadhma N’Soumer’s quarters, to end “her legend, and misdeeds.”  The response to his emissary was “Go to the one who sent you, and tell him our ears cannot hear the language of him who asks us to betray.”  Such was the loyalty and respect of the people for Fadhma.  In response, Randon promised the people of Azazga constant exposure to his cannons.  One can only imagine the brutality of the French against the Azazga people, which were later defeated.  Fadhma did not give up, and mobilized her people to “fight for Islam, the land, and liberty. They are our constant, and they are sacred. They can neither be the object of concessions nor haggling.”  Her strong personality and inspirational speeches had a strong influence in all of Kabylie, as shown by the sacrifice and determination of the people during all the battles, especially those of Icherridene and Tachkrit,where the enemy troops were greatly defeated.  The latter took place on July 18 – 19, 1854, and resulted in a heavy death toll (over 800 dead) for the French troops.

Monument celebrating Lalla Fadhma N'Soumer, in Algiers
Monument celebrating Lalla Fadhma N’Soumer, in Algiers

Defeated, Randon finally asked for a ceasefire, which Fadhma N’Soumer agreed to.  She was planning to use the ceasefire period to improve her organization and reinforce her troops.  Fields were plowed and sowed, and arms factories were installed in all corners of the region.  However, just like with Samori Toure, or Behanzin, the French did not respect the ceasefire.  In 1857, after only three years, they broke their word (as always) and launched offensives in all large cities which had been hard to overtake until then.  History will record that the French were always people of no word during the colonization (and even today); they used every sneaky technique they could find to eliminate others… and even with all their ‘superior’ gunpower, and manpower, they could not have won against our great African leaders without using treachery, and treason.

Poem dedicated to Lalla Fadhma N'Soumer (from Poésies populaires de la Kabylie du Jurjura, Paris 1867)
Poem dedicated to Lalla Fadhma N’Soumer (from Poésies populaires de la Kabylie du Jurjura, Paris 1867)

Fadhma N’Soumer, whose influence motivated the freedom fighters, appealed to the people for a last and supreme effort. Surrounded by women of the region, Lalla Fadhma directed the fight and encouraged remaining volunteers.  However, they lost the battle, and Fadhma was arrested on 27 July 1857, in the village of Takhlijt Ath Atsou, near Tirourda.  The French soldiers destroyed her rich library, which contained a rich source of scientific and religious works from the region.  They also spent her fortune, which had been used toward caring for the disciples of her father’s zawiya.  Lalla Fadhma N’Soumer died in 1863, from the hardship of incarceration in Béni Slimane, from the news of her brother’s passing, and the frustration from her inability to act against French aggression on her people.  She was only 33 years old.  The enemy (the French) nicknamed her, the Joan of Ark of the Djurdjura, a comparison that the religious Fadhma never accepted.

To read more about French invasion of Algeria, check out Mediapart.  Watch the video below to learn more about Lalla Fadhma N’Soumer (It has 5 parts, and is very instructive).  Whenever you think of resistance in Africa, please do remember Lalla Fadhma N’Soumer who by her courage, piety, strength, and charisma was able to defeat the mighty French army, and capture a French marshal/general.  Remember that there was a woman who held a rich library of scientific and religious works which was destroyed by the French army (it must have been full of treasures for them to destroy).  Remember that this woman served the people, and love them dearly to sacrifice her life for their freedom.  Remember, yes, that a woman led men and women to battles, and actually won!

French-Algerian wars / Les guerres France – Algérie

As I see so many wars in Africa today: the war in Libya against an entire people for oil and money (let’s be frank on this), and the genocide perpetrated against Ivorian people… I read last week, that they were already numbering 28,00030,000 deaths in the city of Abidjan only. I don’t even dare thinking about how many died in the whole country, for Ouattara to be president! Now I understand why President Gbagbo always said that “Ouattara was the candidate of foreign powers”… and that is true: his entire security is done by French forces, French policemen are regulating traffic in Abidjan, sources say that there will be 1,000 French and Americans brought in to control Ivorian government officers and affairs… Am I dreaming or what? It’s like back in colonization time! As I cry for my friends in Libya on whom bombs are being dropped everyday in the name of ‘the protection of civilians’… I had to take you down memory lane, to talk about a neighboring country of Libya: Algeria, and the wars waged by France on Algeria which is exactly what we are seeing today in Cote d’Ivoire, and Libya. Such a brutal force shown by France and its allies on African soil is staggering… but it is not new! It was done earlier in Algeria, Madagascar, Cameroon and many other countries in Africa… except it was perpetrated over 50 years ago, and we thought that … well… we thought that that time was long gone. It is said that at least 150,000 people died in Algeria in 1954, and over 400,000 were killed in Cameroon in the 1960s… I warn those with frail hearts. Today, the page of imperialism has been re-opened, and it ain’t pretty!

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Aujourd’hui  je vois tant de guerres en Afrique: la guerre en Libye contre tout un peuple pour le pétrole et l’argent (soyons franc à ce sujet), et le génocide perpétré contre le peuple de Côte d’Ivoire pour son pétrole, cacao, café, diamants… Juste la semaine derniere on denombrait déjà 28.00030.000 morts dans la ville d’Abidjan seulement! Je n’ose meme pas pensé au nombre de morts qu’il y a eu dans tout le pays afin que Ouattara soit président! A présent je comprends pourquoi le President Gbagbo disait toujours que “Ouattara est le candidat de l’étranger.” Et c’est vrai: sa sécurité est assurée par les forces françaises, des gendarmes français réglementent la circulation à Abidjan; selon certaines sources d’ici peu, il y aura 1000 français et Américains pour s’assurer du contrôle des fonctionnaires ivoiriens et des affaires … Je rêve ou quoi? On se croirait au  temps de la colonisation! Je pleure pour mes amis libyens sur qui on largue des bombes au nom de la “protection des civils“.  Aujourd’hui, je vais faire un rappel de mémoire, et je vais parler d’un pays limitrophe à la Libye: l’Algérie et les guerres menées par la France en Algérie qui sont exactement ce qui se passe aujourd’hui en Côte d’Ivoire et en Libye. Une force d’une telle brutalité montrée par la France et ses alliés en Afrique est horrible… mais pas nouvelle! Cela a eu lieu plus tôt en Algérie, Madagascar, Cameroun et d’autres nations africaines…. mais c’était il y a plus de 50 ans, et nous avions cru que cette époque-la était révolue! Il est dit qu’au moins 150.000 personnes sont mortes en Algérie en 1954, et plus de 400.000 ont été tuées au Cameroun dans les années 1960… Je mets en garde les âmes sensibles. Aujourd’hui, la page de l’impérialisme a été ré-ouverte, et ce n’est pas joli!