‘The beguiling one-eyed women of Ghardaïa’ had achieved top-billing on our tour schedule and we were, naturally, curious. In fact we had braced ourselves for an intimate dance with ladies who had undergone some terrible ocular accident; rather like those blind masseuses who are meant to manipulate the contours of the body all the better for missing a sense.
Perhaps the truth was even stranger. For you see in this part of Algeria, married Muslim women wear a white haik, or long cloth, over their body and face and expose only one eye at all times. This is achieved by holding the opening of the material vertically over the face leaving just enough of a hole to frame a single ocular entity.
Furthermore, every time they pass an individual who is unknown to them, they turn to face the wall. Photographing the women is expressly forbidden; a rule which reminded me of those people who believe that a fragment of their soul is stolen with every click of a camera’s shutter. It seemed to me these women visually resembled the literal ghosts of a child’s imagination, haunting the narrow streets and then disappearing or pressing themselves into a doorway just as you approach but also adhered to the notion that the modern world was a threatening place ready to steal your identity away.
Ghardaïa itself is a traditional fortified town embedded within the Sahara and constructed very much in the manner of a typical medieval European conurbation with a mosque, rather than a church or cathedral, located at the very centre surrounded with thread-like streets rippling out from the religious heart and enveloped by city walls that, until recently, were closed to strangers every night.
The day we visited delight was in the air; rain had come to the desert. Just as when children rush outside and throw snowballs when the first flakes start to tumble, here they were holding their hands to the sky, letting the water cascade down their arms and faces and splashing about in the fast-pooling puddles. Even though I reside on a rain-lashed rock in the North Sea and often feel as though I am a giant absorbent pad continually soaking up the contents of an incontinent sky, I couldn’t help but feel a frisson of happiness for them.
We had flown south from Algiers. The first day has been spent touring the Kasbah, Ottoman palaces, and admiring the Mediterranean twin of Paris’ Notre-Dame cathedral, the aptly named Notre-Dame d’Afrique as it happens. The city was rather stunning with expansive sea views, Moorish and colonial French architecture scattered across the undulating streets and glorious green spaces framed by swaying palms.
We had also managed to see the Roman ruins of Tipasa, a short trip from the capital. If there’s one thing that the Romans excelled at – bar the engineering that was centuries ahead of its time, advanced social structures, art and cultural legacies and so on – then it had to be their eye for a sea view. The crumbling remains of this city is perched on a clifftop studded with wildflowers and overlooking the azure-stained Mediterranean stretching away to…well their own lands again.
A pleasant breeze whipped about the loose strands of our hair as we enjoyed an alfresco lunch nearby. My travel companion is an avid foodie and is especially knowledgeable when it comes to olive oil, yet here was a variety that had not been tasted before. We drenched our salads in the amber liquid which was most pleasant, even with the slight metallic aftertaste. “Can you tell me about the origins of this oil?” my companion asked the guide. “It has such a complex flavour”. Without missing a beat, the guide replied: “They add kerosene to the oil at tourist restaurants. Makes it last longer”.