From the water to the Sahara

Last week, I walked in Prague. In the Malá Strana, deserted of tourists by the storm, I watched the rising water behind the metal walls and sandbags.
Large whirlpools, turmoils of foam, the dull vibration of the brown mass. I walked down along the bank. In the northern part of the city, a scale indicates the height of water: 4.20 m on Saturday, June 8, 2013 – nothing terrible, after all.
In one street away from the crowds, where the forgotten houses slowly collapse, a small plate – 1890 – indicates the height of a historic flood.

Small plates like these accompanied my childhood: the neighborhood of Paris where I live (and where I still live, by the way) was immersed by the water during the flood of January 1910.

At the corner of rue de Prague and rue Charles Baudelaire

On the wall of the church of Saint-Antoine des Quinze-Vingt, rue Traversière

A plaque at the corner, a plaque on the wall of my school, another on the wall of the church – growing up, I found myself slowly growing out of the water, centimeter by centimeter. The photos taken in my neighborhood, one of the most affected by the flood of 1910, are among those that the Parisians have never stoppe watching. The street where I lived, so familiar on the images and unchanged even sixty years later, seems to be entirely occupied by the Seine, and I often dreamed about the return of the waters which one night turned my home into an island.

One day in a bus, long time ago, in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, I heard two old men talking about those days, the brightest moment of my dreams. One of them, eight years old at the time of the flood, son of a cabinet-maker, “borrowed” a boat that someone had tied in their courtyard. He went on an adventure, from yard to yard, in the labyrinth of the Faubourg. All the ground floor had disappeared under the water, and quickly there was nothing known. Lost, he rowed for hours, led here and there by the currents. At nightfall, a neighbor recognized him and took him home, where his parents believed him to have been drowned. The old man was still surprised that they did not beat him.

To measure the flood of the Seine, one can stop in front of the wall near the lock of the Arsenal, where the Canal Saint-Martin joins the Seine, south of the Place de la Bastille. There was once a staff gauge on the bridge of Austerlitz, too (I do not know if it is still visible).

One can also observe the rising waters on the Zouave of the Bridge of Alma: in 1910, not only the Zouave, but even his fez was under water.

A zouave? Under the Bridge of Alma?
The zouaves were the soldiers of the African army from 1830 to 1962, French colonial troops supporting the indigenous troops, for example the Moroccan riflemen.
Until the First World War, the uniform of the zouaves was particularly elaborate and colorful. It included an Arabic headdress called chéchia – a red felt fez, adorned with a fringe of tassels, often with a white cotton turban. The bedaïa, a dark blue Arabic bolero jacket with a red hem was worn above the sédria, the dark blue sleeveless Arabic vest. The red Arabic pants or sarouel was very large. The indigo blue belt was allegedly intended to keep the intestines warm against dysentery – a singular medicine. This belt was 40 centimeters large and four meters long: to put it on, the zouaves had to help each other. The ensemble was completed by high gaiters. Red, indigo blue and midnight blue – these were the colors that attracted the eyes of the painters.

The zouave, Vincent Van Gogh, 1888, Metropolitan Museum of Arts, New York.

The zouave, Vincent Van Gogh, 1888, private collection

A zouave wounded in the Crimea. Photo by Roger Fenton

Zouave in the Crimea. Photo by Roger Fenton

And not only of the painters. In the national imagination, the zouaves, dressed so oriental and romantic, were also the most exemplary and eccentric warriors. It is still said “playing the zouave” for someone who makes a spectacle and behaves like an idiot. The last one of these autochromes by Jean-Baptiste Tournassoux realized between 1914 and 1916, shortly before they abandoned their strange costume, offers a good idea of the impression given by the zouaves.

During the Second Empire, the zouaves were also used outside of the colonies, especially during the Crimean War. There, in the Battle of Alma in 1854, the 3rd Regiment of Zouaves attacked the Russians by surprise, by climbing the rocky cliffs to grab their artillery and turn it against them. Two years later, Emperor Napoleon III inaugurated the Bridge of Alma, whose piers were decorated with four monumental statues: a zouave and a grenadier sculpted by Georges Diebolt on the upstream side, and a hunter on foot and a gunner sculpted by Auguste Arnaud on the downstream side. When the bridge was reconstructed between 1970 and 1974, the statues were scattered, and only the zouave remained there.

The hunter on foot, Redoubt of Gravelles

A german postcard from before 1914, showing the defenses of Paris. The Redoubt of Gravelles appears as a red line southeast of the city

The hunter was installed on the Redoubt of Gravelles in the Forest of Vincennes, between the fortresses of Charenton and Nogent, a remnant of the fortifications of Thiers built around Paris in 1841 – not on the fortifications themselves, today disappeared, but on an intermediate link between to of the sixteen fortresses. The hunter thus appears a bit like the last protector of Paris against the Prussians, and in fact, he watches over the eastern highway, looking to Germany (well, moved there in 1970, one hundred years after the Franco-Prussian war, it cannot be a coincidence).

It is thus a zouave of the African army, a colonial soldier of the dry lands of Algeria, who still measures the rising waters of Paris. One of these soldiers who represented France from the Atlas to the Aurès, and from the Mitidja to the Sahara, in all these parts of the world which – obviously wrongly – do not evoke but heat and dust. One of those parts of the world where the rivers the wadis, are but a thin thread of water for several kilometers before disappearing in the sand.

Isabelle Eberhardt was drowned in the Sahara in 1904.

Illegitimate daughter of a Russian aristocratic woman and the tutor of her first children, a philosopher and a polyglot, Armenian and anarchist, Isabelle Eberhardt grew up in Switzerland in this unconventional family, before coming to settle in Algeria at the age of 20 in 1897. She spoke French, German, Russian, Italian, Arabic, Latin – and a little English and Greek.

Fascinated by Islam, she described her revelation like an explosion: “I felt a nameless exaltation taking my soul to unknown regions of ecstasy.” Dressed as a man, she went to live among the Kabyles of the Aurès before converting to Islam. For a while she lived as a nomad, with shaved head, and ran through the vast expanses of the Sahara to the south of Constantine like the Bedouin soldiers. Becoming Si Mahmoud Saadi, a young Taleb traveling in search of learning (but carrying a Russian passport issued for the name of Isabelle de Moerder), she published her travel diaries and stories, and worked as a journalist.

She joined the Qadiriyya Sufi brotherhood, which was engaged both in supporting the poor, and in fighting the injustices of colonization. Her marriage with Slimane Ehnni, a non-commissioned officer of the spahis (the native cavalry), a Muslim and French by nationality, was a scandal, since it was a marriage only according to the Muslim ritual, with the Fatiha. The French army first refused their civil marriage and ordered Isabelle to leave Algeria, considering that her lifestyle was a factor of troubles. The marriage, which was finally authorized in 1901, enabled her to obtain French citizenship.

She returned to Algeria and lived in the South, despised, touted and vilified by the colonizers, as “the stranger” and “the scandalous”. In Behima a man who accused her of espionage attacked her with a sword and severely injured her.

She wrote at that time: “the fever of wandering overcame me again, and I will go; yes, I know I’m still far from wisdom […] It would be the desirable end to me, when. after years, fatigue and disenchantment finally overcome me, to finish my life in the peace and quiet of some zaouïa in the South, to finish it by reciting ecstatic prayers, without desires or regrets, facing the splendid horizons.”

She worked for the Arabophile newspaper El Akhbar. This was the newspaper which finally sent her in 1904 as a war reporter to the city of Aïn Sefra along the Moroccan border. There, on October 21, 1904 the wadi turned into a furious torrent, which partly submerged the lower town. Having arrived into the village the previous night, Isabelle Eberhardt died at the age of 27, in the collapse of her house.

The waters of wadi Sefra always require their death toll. In Aïn-Sefra, on the night from 22 to 23 October 2000, the flooding of the river running through the city engulfed in a few moments the lower town at the foot of the ksar, covering it with sand, water and devastating and deadly copper mud.

In Aïn Sefra, as it is shown in the image of the Petit journal illustré of 6 November 1904 illustrating the article on the events, the Legion intervenes – in red pants –, but no zouave wets his feet.

“The terrible storm that has recently burst out in the Aïn Sefra region, had the most terrible consequences.
A waterspout was unleashed on the city and the surrounding area, and the rain fell in such abundance that the wadi Sefra, which ordinarily is but a modest stream, suddenly swelled and overflew its banks, rushing on the city and sweeping away a large number of houses.
The flooding occurred so suddenly that people were not able to predict it, and most of them had no time to escape. Fourteen natives and twelve Europeans were victims of the disaster.

Among the missing is also a woman, a really talented writer, Isabelle Eberhardt. Seduced by the charms of free life, Mrs. Eberhardt has chosen for many years Algeria for her country. Wearing burnous and turban, speaking very well the Arabic language, she mingled with the tribes, wrote essays about their morals and short stories on their life, always with a very good observation and in a very picturesque style.

If the victims of this terrible flood were not many more, it is thanks to the dedication of the soldiers of the garrison of Aïn Sefra, who, under the leadership of their officers, fought the scourge with a courage and an effort worthy of the highest praise. One of them died rescuing the residents.”

1 comentario:

MOCKBA dijo...

Nice meanderings of a tale! One translation note, a French military term Chasseur, just like an equivalent German Jäger, is usually left untranslated in English (sometimes they just write Chasseur in English texts, or sometimes the more familiar Jäger). Same in Russian, Шассер or Егерь.