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15 October 2014
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Exploring Algeria 1944: Barbaric Beauty by Starlight

by Sgt Len Scott RAPC

Contributed by 
Sgt Len Scott RAPC
People in story: 
Sgt Len Scott RAPC, 'George', Cpl Hornsey Metcalfe, Sgt Charlie Hildretch
Location of story: 
Touggourt, Algeria
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
14 February 2005

Two girls of the Ouled Nail

Mustapha knocked at my bedroom door in Touggourt. His eyes were twinkling with delight under his snowy turban: 'Tonight the Marabout of Temelhat is the honoured guest at a villa in the town. There will be officers of the French Army, 'fonctionnaires' and their wives, many, many people. All the afternoon I have watched those of the Ouled Nail coming into town with their dresses, their jewels... tons! tons! It is to be a great affair, you see, and when the dinner is over you shall see the Ouled Nail dance before the Marabout... very splendid dancing but very correct, you understand, tout à fait propre!'

'Yes,' said I, 'but what can we do about it? We haven't been invited.' The old man held up an admonitory hand: 'If you wish it... you shall see. I, Mustapha, will take you to see the dancing and you shall pay nothing.'

At half-past eight Met, Charlie and I stepped out of the hotel into the warm night air. George had frowned at our news, said he had no wish to see such an exhibition and was going to bed. This was the longest speech he had made since our leave began. We arrived at a long white wall and a tall gateway. We saw a broad courtyard shaded by palms, its walls draped with bougainvillea. On the right a low arch gave upon a garden. Immediately opposite us, on the far side was a terrace set out with tables, where some two dozen people were dining. In the background rose the long white villa, half-covered with climbing blossoms, glowing palely beneath the stars.

The party was as 'distingué' as Mustapha had told us - uniforms predominating and the ladies wore evening gowns. Almost in the centre I recognised the black-bearded prototype of the oil-painting I had seen in Temelhat thlaat afternoon - the Marabout. I could see nothing of the Ouled Nail until Mustapha, with calm effrontery, led the way right across the courtyard and brought us just beside the terrace, the wall of which was the right height for me to lean upon. I glanced down... and there, within arms-distance, were about fourteen of the Ouled Nail taking their ease among rugs and cushions. The dresses were all I had expected - splendid silks and brocades in glowing colours, encrusted with embroidery. Bracelets of silver - some of great size - were clasped about their bare arms - one girl 's armlet reached from wrist to elbow. It was adorned with intricate designs in semi-precious stones and hedgehog-like spikes an inch or more in length. Their fingers were loaded with rings and some wore necklaces of a design that was old in the eighteenth dynasty of Egypt. Others were smoking cigarettes ( I thought tobacco was anathema to Muslims) and as they moved their heads the dozens of gold coins which formed part of their coiffure jingled softly. The costumes were much alike - each girl wore silken trousers terminating just below the knee and a long coat-like dress, roomy and loose, except where drawn to the waist by a broad belt embroidered with threads of silver and gold. The ensemble should have been garish - but was not. Two of the 'girls' were women of about forty-five and of no physical attractiveness. I discovered that they were considered infinitely more skilful dancers than their younger companions.

Mustapha began bantering the Ouled Nail girls. They seemed delighted and gave as good as they got. I longed for a knowledge of Arabic.

The orchestra arrived and seated itself, cross-legged, opposite the dancers. They brought a cylindrical drum, a round drum, a kind of bagpipes and a curious device resembling a tiny xylophone with wires instead of keys. A large square Persian carpet had been laid down between the girls and the musicians - immediately in front of the Marabout. A tall Arab in the uniform of a corporal of the Sahara Corps stalked across and took up his position with his back to the terrace, midway between the two groups. Mustapha whispered that this was the aide-de-camp of the Marabout. He was a splendid figure, wore khaki drill of a type somewhat like our own - but his fitted him! He wore a turban of that type where the material is draped down each side of the face and caught up about the neck to form a frame for the face.

He folded his arms across his chest and flashed a glance at the musicians. The drummers fell upon their instruments and began to evolve a complicated and twisting rhythm, the pipe soon joining. Now the dancers, still reclining, placed each her forefinger to her left nostril and produced a high, keening ululation. The corporal shot out an arm and stabbed his forefinger at two of the girls. They rose and stepped out upon the carpet.

The performance was unlike anything I had expected - remote from the average Westerner's idea of 'Oriental dancing'.

This appeared to be the basic principle: the feet should move at a tremendous rate in tiny steps, the whole body being held in a state of balance with an absolute minimum of forward movement. It sounds unexciting, but in this setting... There was the music and a sky sprinkled with such stars as are seen only on frosty nights in England. Add the blossom-scent, the dimly-lit terrace with most of the light falling upon the dancers, glinting and flickering upon jewels and embroidery. All this amid the constant thudding of the drums and the wail of the pipes: an unforgettable picture which held us enthralled by its very strangeness. Here was a whole world entirely unfamiliar to us.

The dance continued for some five or six minutes and then, suddenly, the girls resumed their seats. Almost at once the commanding arm of the aide-de-camp shot out again and another pair took their places. This dance was rather more complicated. Each girl held a red silk kerchief above her head, stretched between her hands. Balanced thus and still maintaining the tiny steps they approached, retreated and swayed in unison, their faces grave and abstracted. Now there arose a splendid-looking young woman. She must have been close upon six feet in height but perfectly proportioned. As she stepped out upon the carpet the rhythm changed.

After a few preliminary steps in the manner of those who had gone before, she pushed her belt low upon her abdomen and began the notorious 'danse du ventre'. This, too, bore no resemblance to Western imitations. The sinuous movement of hips, buttocks and thighs which we have come to expect were not seen. 'Belly-dance' it is called and it is just that. She clasped her hands behind her head and, whilst at the same time maintaining the tiny pirouetting steps, she engendered a formidable leaping life into her abdomen, without moving her hips - and, strangest of all, it heaved in perfect time with the beat of the drum. Beautiful it was not; it might be called attractively grotesque. Her face was serene with the faintest trace of a smile - but from head to breasts she might have been a carven bust.

After an interval the two older women showed much grace and agility in dances of a more formal character. Then the tall girl returned, this time with a companion. From the start it was obvious that little love was lost between them. Soon after they began the newcomer broke off abruptly and returned to her seat. The aide-de-camp shot her a dagger-glance and rapped out an order which she ignored. He seized her arm and sent her spinning back upon the carpet where the tall girl was executing a 'pas seul' with a look of cynical enjoyment. There was no further display of temperament. It was unfortunate that this pair should have had to dance together - the tall girl was so remarkable that she was bound to create friction.

The dancing grew faster and the music too. Pair followed pair and, eventually, without ceasing to play, the musicians left their places and came close to the dancers as though to encourage further efforts by beating the drums in their very ears. It was a wild, barbaric scene and always dominated by the erect figure of the aide-de-camp. The impression was of whirling drapery, the clink of bracelets and head-dresses, the gleaming white teeth of the grinning musicians whose hands beat out an incessant rhythm. At length the last pair sank back upon the carpet and the music ceased. The show was over.

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