Gibraltar And Algiers
( Originally Published 1936 )
Gibraltar is a sort of world emblem of security, but the waters thereabouts were far from safe on the morning of our arrival. It is a short night run down from Lisbon and we came through the straits at dawn. For once in my life I was the first passenger on deck, but instead of the expected view I found a heavy fog and a wind so hitter that I could scarcely endure it.
My grievance against the fog was that it had spoiled the approach to a famous landmark, but that was the least of the sins charged against it that morning. Only two or three miles away a grim tragedy was taking place. Many ships were nosing cautiously through the gloom and I could hear whistles sounding on every hand. One of the boats caught in this sea trap was a rotten old Spanish coaster, the San Jacinto, of Barcelona. On board were the captain, his wife and twenty-four seamen. Suddenly the lookout saw, right before him, the sharp nose of a black steel ship. There was a grinding crash. The little Spaniard was cut squarely in two and from the sea the life boats dragged six dazed and half drowned men. Of the other nineteen none was ever seen.
As we lay in the harbor that afternoon a long freighter came up and took a berth beside us. She was the Author, of the T. B. Harrison Line, of Liverpool, and on this day she had been the author of misfortune, for it was her prow that had cut the Spaniard in two. She showed not a single mark of the collision.
The fog lifted before the rising sun, and when we went ashore at nine o'clock the day was bright and warm. The dock swarmed with the parasites of many nations, for there are twenty-thousand people in Gibraltar, and those who are not in some way connected with the military or naval service live principally by preying on visitors. There were many carriages and motor cars from which to choose, but we made an unwise selection. " All over Gibraltar for two dollars," was the alluring proposal of the weasel-faced young Englishman. There were four of us—the medical student from Rome, the American girl going to join her husband at Kavalla, " M " and I. When we climbed into the small fiacre our legs were draped over the sides. The guide took his place with the driver and I began to wonder how the poor old horse could possibly pull so heavy a load to the heights above.
I might have spared myself all worry, for nothing was further from the driver's purpose than to take us to the summit. The phrase, " all over Gibraltar," really meant a drive down the main street, more properly called the Rosia Main Road. We passed the Moorish market, where everything found in Algiers or Tripoli is on sale, but under much better conditions than in the African towns because the British here have something to say about sanitation. The business houses along the winding street were devoted largely to curios and novelties, and Spaniard, Englishman and Moor kept shop side by side making common cause against their tourist prey. The police-men on traffic duty were typical bobbies who would have looked quite as much at home in Piccadilly Circus as in this far outpost.
The Alameda Gardens are accounted the principal attraction and here we wandered through orange and lemon trees and among flowers of almost tropical luxuriance and variety. Beyond, under the face of the cliff, is a little burying ground called Trafalgar Cemetery, because the men who there rest lost their lives in Nelson's famous sea fight. The road finally reaches the docks, naval stores and barracks and there were many charities and amusement places for the men of the garrison.
Here the driver turned back and when I said something to the guide about going on to the top he seemed quite distressed and said that nobody ever went up there. Instead he stopped again at the Alameda, thinking perhaps that we were botanists, and here we discharged him, begging to be allowed to see the remainder of Gibraltar in our own way.
We strolled through the shops, our steps constantly dogged by peddlers. One of them had three boxes of figs in a sort of basket or sling of esparto, and young Dr. Falace bought a good-sized box for twenty-five cents, though the man tried hard to sell him all three. We went into a store and had forgotten the incident when somebody suddenly snatched the figs from his hand. It was the same peddler. He thrust the box back into his basket and then put the whole thing in Falace's hand, demanding fifty cents more. It was only an example of salesmanship as practiced in the streets of Gibraltar.
A withered old woman of indeterminate race was selling lace doilies. " Lady, lady, see these beautiful laces. I have made them myself, and you can have twelve for twelve dollars." She followed us three blocks, finally reducing her price to five dollars. I saw one man buy a string of beads for seventy-five cents, though the price first asked for them was six dollars. I know foreign countries are not very receptive of American ideas, but there would be plenty of work in Gibraltar for a " better business bureau."
From the town the heights of the great rock, towering nearly fourteen hundred feet above, are exceedingly impressive. A funicular for the use of the garrison runs to the summit and a Moorish wall creeps up the precipitous slope. Of the tunnels and gun emplacements nothing is to be seen, and visitors who go to the top are not permitted to enter the modern fortifications. No other fortress occupies a strategic situation comparable to that of this mighty rock and so long as Great Britain holds Gibraltar and the Suez Canal the Mediterranean must remain an English lake. The straits are only eight miles across and the big guns of the fortress so dominate these waters that no surface ship can ever hope to pass. It is true that German undersea boats passed it repeatedly, but the cruisers caught inside never again saw home waters.
The aspect of the rock varies with the view-point, but the bold and more familiar outline is never seen from the sea. The heights descend toward the water and finally degenerate into a plain. Thackeray likened the profile to the crouching British lion, set there to guard the sea. To see the sheer precipice that is the Gibraltar of the movies and the insurance advertisements one must go to the land side, and the best views are from the neutral ground, or from Spain.
Algeciras Bay, of which Gibraltar forms the eastern shore, is a beautiful water and the town of that name is clearly seen seven or eight miles away. It is a popular winter resort for the British and was the scene of an international conference that kept the World War from breaking a decade or more before it finally occurred. In fact we could get so many tempting glimpses of old Spain that we decided to go there, and no sooner had the thought crossed our minds than who should appear but our discharged guide. His sixth sense had told him that we were not yet exhausted as business possibilities.
Surely he could take us over to Spain. An auto-mobile would cost only eight dollars and it made no difference that we had no Spanish vises, for were not all the Spanish frontier authorities his personal friends?
In a few minutes he returned with an ancient German car that made up for its occasional reluctance to start by the great capacity of its tonneau.
There is a fine, wide road across to Linea de Concepcion. To the end of the British jurisdiction it is bordered by a pretty garden, but the neutral zone of sixteen hundred feet is merely a deserted sand flat. Beyond it there is a Spanish barracks, well built and modern. I was astonished that the Dons housed their troops so well, for their pay is so small that by comparison the British Tommies are plutocrats.
The gray face of the fortress was now so imposing that I traveled across to Spain gazing backward at the rock, and before I realized it we were at the Linea customs. The Spanish officers were in military uniform and they proved models of courtesy. At a word of explanation from the guide they bowed profoundly and signaled for us to proceed.
Such guide books as I have read are distinctly unjust to the town of Linea, which they say is without interest. Of course it isn't Burgos or Seville, but it seemed to me a typical Spanish community of sixty or seventy thousand people, and as good a place as any to have a peep at the Spaniard on his native heath.
It was market day and the streets were alive with donkeys carrying jars or panniers filled with vegetables. One street was given over to stalls and the barefoot peasants had plenty of produce to sell. The sun was intense and the houses of white stucco and tile made a trying glare. Our visit greatly interested the children and we soon had a following that grew like a rolling snowball as we passed from street to street.
Finally we came to a fishermen's taverna. It was a humble place, and the loungers looked rough and poor, but the wine was good and the landlord polite. Our car was now surrounded by a mass of children all crying at the top of their voices—" penny belong, penny belong." I decided to make a picture and when I began to adjust the camera the housewives of the street all wanted to be in the snapshot. A fish peddler saw what was going on and came running as fast as his large baskets would permit so that he would not be left out. As we drew away we scattered a handful of small coins among the crowd and in the ensuing scramble shook off our retinue.'
" Perhaps you would like to see the Military Club? " our guide suggested, evidently a little proud of his standing among the Spaniards. " I have the privilege of entertaining my guests there, and you will be made welcome."
I do not wonder that the people of Linea are fond of the Military Club. The new three-story club house is snowy white and is the most pretentious building in the town. The facilities were all that one might expect, but the furnishing of the various rooms seemed scant according to our standards. The steward took us through-all the floors and finally to the roof, but there the light was so blinding that I could not enjoy the vista of yellow tile roofs.
We returned to the lounge and were served with refreshments, good in quality and modest in price. By this time the members were dropping in for luncheon, and I could not help reflecting how much alike civilized people are in every land. The elderly business men had the same serious, settled look of plodders the world over, and even the youths were quite like so many young Americans except that now and then one was a little bizarre in his dress. It was apparent that they were all pleased with their nice new quarters, and I suspect the Military Club fills quite, a place in the social life of the town. Life in Linea seemed to me quite pleasant and I envied the people their sea food. Nowhere else are finer shrimp and lobster to be found, and market fishing is one of the chief industries of the people.
Gibraltar has, of course, the same advantages, but there is one feature of life there that robs it of comfort. The whole rock is waterless. On the east face are huge concrete cisterns for the military supply. From a distance they look like vast patches on the side of the cliff. There are private cisterns in all the homes; but the water gets stale and unpleasant and it is the universal practice to boil all that is used for drinking.
The monkeys of Gibraltar have attained a fame quite disproportioned to their number. They are now reduced to a single family, consisting of the father and mother and five " pickaninnies." But they are still famous thieves and from their home in the monkey cave they still conduct foraging expeditions and carry away anything that they get their hands upon. Their cavern is a place of mystery, and many believe that it is still connected with the African shore by a passage under the strait. This legend was probably invented to account for the presence of monkeys on the rock, but the fact remains that no explorer has ever solved the puzzle of this under-ground fastness.
The last attempt was made early in 1927 and nothing was ever seen or heard of the unfortunate adventurer. It is probable that he was lost in the winding tunnels of the cavern, but his fate has dampened the enthusiasm of other investigators.
The town of San Roque lies on a hill eight or nine miles away, and it is reputed to be the sunniest spot in all Spain. A Gibraltar resident told me that he had more than once seen a three-day rain, during every daylight hour of which he could look across to San Roque and see the sun shining.
The mountain called Elizabeth's Seat is the most notable landmark on the Spanish side and I doubt if many have heard the story of its unusual name.
In the year 1704, when the War of the Spanish Succession was at its height Admiral Sir George Rooke seized Gibraltar. Naturally Spain tried hard to recover it and there were in consequence several resolute sieges. Elizabeth of Parma, second wife of Philip the Fifth, was one of the rulers who set herself to remove this thorn from the side of her country. Setting her army to the attack she took her post on the mountain and made a vow that she would never leave it until she saw the flag of Spain float again from the summit of Gibraltar. Her soldiers were never able to put it there, and the British commander, having been informed of the headstrong woman's pledge, gallantly hoisted the Spanish flag for the Queen to see. Thus, technically released from her vow, she retired from the mountain which has ever since borne her name.
I met in Gibraltar an English friend who now holds a civil post with the Admiralty. " I find life here monotonous," he said. "We have a couple of picture theaters and many amateur plays. There are tennis courts, a bathing beach and good fishing. Some of the officers keep a pack of hounds in Spain and do some boar hunting in the mountains. But the society is limited and we get tired of one another in time. Personally I do not like the climate. It is mild, to be sure, but not so warm as it is sometimes represented. Last winter I saw both snow and frost. The worst Ching is the ` Levanter,' that accursed wind that blows and blows and blows from the east until it makes you sick. Two or three days of it will give anyone a headache, nausea and a bad temper. It is not so bad here as over in Tangier. There it picks up the desert dust and makes life a veritable burden for the people. I know the English climate is not much, but all the same I shall be glad when I get back home."
Across from Gibraltar on the African side stands the Mountain of the Apes, the second of the Pillars of Hercules. In fact during the whole of the 410 miles that separate Gibraltar from Algiers the mountains along the deserted coast of Africa are in view. We had sailed during the night and at noon the next day we saw some scattering settlements, a train and then on a spur of the Bu Berea hills the Byzantine dome of the church of Notre Dame d'Afique. It is not only a notable landmark, but is further distinguished as the only church in the world in which the Virgin is depicted as a black woman. By this time we were opposite the suburb of Bab-el-Oued and in a few minutes Algiers came into view.
The picture was a pleasing one. Those who think of North Africa as a vast desert waste might well have wondered whether this fair city, with its back-ground of verdant, wooded hills was really African; for there was nothing to suggest the savage mystery of the Dark Continent. I do not know if Algiers so impresses all her visitors, but to me she seemed one of the most enchanting of cities. The great Boulevard Republique along the water front stood high above the quay, supported by stone arches sixty feet in height. Looking over it to the sea were a mile or more of modern buildings, five or six floors high and so harmonious in form and architectural treatment that they give the effect of a single vast undertaking. The Avenue changes its name to Carnot and France, but its character does not change. An arcade more interesting than that of the Rue de Rivoli extends the whole length of the street. Indeed I do not recall a single street in Paris that is its equal and of course none in that inland capital has a comparable setting.
The charm of Algiers is too complex to be readily explained, but the most obvious of its attractions, apart from its beauty, is the combination it alone affords of a modern French city and a community of Mediaeval Moors. It is cosmopolitan, and its streets are filled with the hodge-podge of North Africa, South Europe and many other parts of the world. On the steep hillside I saw from the ship what looked like a great white splash on the landscape. Through a glass it resembled the ruins of a city that had died under a bombardment. It was the Kasbah, the famed Arab quarter of Algiers, the most picturesque rabbit warren inhabited by men that can be found this side of Damascus or Baghdad.
Two long moles form the commercial harbor and the gate is so narrow that we had to wait for the British freighter Tysla that was coming out. This was but the first vexation of our landing. We had been told that here we would walk ashore, instead of landing in boats, but there was some miscarriage of the arrangements and when we anchored a few rods from the quay the lighters had not yet been brought up. Immediately the ladder was surrounded by boatmen, who soon wedged their boats into an immovable mass. There was no semblance of super-vision, and the boatmen were entirely out of hand, ignoring completely the orders and entreaties of the ship's officers. In reprisal the Captain declined to permit any passenger to patronize the boatmen and stationed guards on the ladder.
The impasse continued more than an hour and resulted in several scenes. Some of the passengers were deeply annoyed by the delay. One woman of strong voice and positive nature, was unsparing in her criticism, and demanded to be allowed to use the boats. " I paid my good money to see Algiers," she shouted, " and I don't propose to let you keep me here all afternoon." But the Italian skipper was in-flexible. Eventually a tug brought the lighters around, and the boatmen, having no alternative except to leave or be sunk, unscrambled their tangle and disappeared.
On the quay we found awaiting us a large reception committee composed of most of the touts, cabmen and sore-eyed beggars who infest Algiers. The Arab children were the most pitiable objects and the direst pests. Every misery to which flesh is heir had pre-maturely overtaken these little waifs. They were a company of the maimed, the halt and the blind. Several had lost their hands, but the general condition of their eyes was their most saddening affliction. I believe that many were suffering from trachoma and are doomed to join the army of the blind which is forever groping through the steep mazes of the Kasbah.
The tour companies had arranged a drive, but we preferred to go about in our own way so we hired a motor car from a youth who stood apart from the crowd and at least had the merit of not having tried to capture us by force.
There is an elevator to the Boulevard, but the vehicle road climbs a ramp that affords interesting views of several small mosques and of the old harbor from which, in the days of the Pirate Empire, the freebooters left the Barbary coast to plunder and blackmail every nation that had commerce in the Mediterranean. It was Saturday afternoon and the smart shops in the Boulevard were all closed. We continued out the winding Rue Michellet, ascending to the beautiful suburb called Mustapha Superieur. The gardens were rich in palms and oleanders, and on every hand there was evidence of growth and prosperity. There were many tall apartment houses of snow-white stucco and they frequently occupied most commanding sites. The view from their windows included a broad panorama of city and sea and I envied those who dwelt therein, for their lot was cast in pleasant places.
The Museum was our first stop. The collections are respectable, both in volume and variety, but so far as I could ascertain there is nothing here of supreme interest. The antiquities represent the Greek, Roman, Carthaginian and Berber periods, and the collection of arms, rugs and fabrics is possibly the best feature.
At length we came into the open country and drove for some time past a great Mohammedan cemetery. The brown dirt road was empty save for an old Arab carrying a pail of water. Suddenly he put down his bucket and prostrated himself by the roadside. " Lock, look, the man make prayer," said the guide, glad -to have something to show us.
I do not know whether we were being imposed upon or whether we had merely lost our bearings; but the drive in the vacant countryside seemed interminably long. We had directed the driver to take us to the Arab quarter and the guide insisted that we were going there by the shortest route. At length a choleric gentleman in our party lost his temper. Turning on the startled guide he said: "Do you think we are going to pay you for driving us around the country all afternoon? You blank, blank liar, if you don't get us to the Arab town in five minutes you won't get a blank, blank cent. Do you understand that? "
I think he did understand for before five minutes elapsed he put us down at the top of the queerest rookery in all Africa, through which we made our way afoot. No vehicle can enter this strange city. The streets are narrow stone stairways, connected here and there by dark alleys and mysterious tunnels. Before we reached the French quarter we had descended well over five hundred steps.
The House of the Spanish Dance stands at the top of the Kasbah district and we left our car at its doors. The location is strategic, for it is at the spot where all tourists must enter the Arab town. It was only mid-afternoon, but a fat siren was already on duty in the vestibule and if we did not see the lewd entertainment that is so famous in Algiers it was not for the lack of a pressing invitation to come in. The street by which we descended was the Rue de Kasbah, which is the true arterial highway of the whole district. Yet it was never more than eight feet wide and filthy beyond either my power or inclination to describe. More than once during our walk the women of our party turned aside in the face of some unusually shocking example of Arab immodesty. The stone houses are almost windowless and their musty gray walls looked mysterious and forbidding. The doors were little more than the entrances to an animal's den, and I could well imagine the comfort-less squalor that was within. Of the ordinary decencies of life, to say nothing of its comforts, there was not the slightest semblance.
Yet here, in this abode of misery I saw a pretty incident. On one of the landings sat an old blind beggar. We passed unheeding, but a tiny Aral) girl carrying home a loaf of bread, had a more generous heart. The baker had given her a crust for herself, and all her own portion she gave to the beggar. It was bread cast upon the waters, for ashamed that she had so outdone us in generosity, we pressed ten francs into her startled hand.
We came, at length, to the great stone fortress that gives the district its name. The Kasbah was the castle of the Deys of Algiers until the French, in 1830, broke up the pirate regime. It is now a barrack in which are quartered black soldiers from Senegal.
The street passes through the courtyard and below it we encountered a group of three hundred Arabs sitting around a story-teller. The bard carried a tarobucco on which he drummed weirdly during his narrative. The scene was so unusual that I wished to photograph it. Immediately the Arabs nearest me sprang to their feet. A general outcry arose. The black soldiers heard it and came running down. Except for their quick intervention I should not have escaped with the camera, much less the picture, which I had already snapped.
On inquiry I learned that the entertainment I had disturbed was one of many with which the Arabs while away the days of the sacred month of Ramadan. They are forbidden to eat until sunset so they pass the hours listening to their story-tellers and musicians. I did not previously know how greatly they objected to being photographed.
The Senegalese soldiers who came to our rescue were powerful savages and the ferocity of their expression was heightened by the tribal custom of marking the forehead and cheeks with lines of cicatrices. The late Battling Siki was a member of their tribe and he came from a fighting stock.
The Place of the Republic and Government Square are the two chief centers and the streets connecting them are the most interesting in Algiers. Under the arcades swirls a current of life as strange and varied as the panorama that so amuses those who dine on the terrace of Shepheard's Hotel in Cairo. Our experience at the Kasbah had for the moment satisfied our curiosity as to native types, so we found a vacant table at the Cafe d'Alger.
The sidewalk restaurant of this old and famous establishment is as pleasant and interesting a place as the town affords. Though we had dismissed our chauffeur the guide had continued with us. When I asked him a question about a passing native a man sitting at the next table volunteered an answer. He overawed our guide and presently monopolized the conversation. "That is an Egyptian. This black fellow is from Morocco. These wild-looking men have come in from the desert. This girl wears the veil to show that she is married." Feeling that he had by this time established his standing with us the stranger threw back his coat and displayed a guide's badge. Then turning to our own man he opened a furious tirade:
"What right have you to be taking these people around.? You are no guide. You are a swindler. Show me your license. You have none. If I catch you doing this again I will turn you over to the police."
The charges must have been true for there was no defense:. Having thus relieved his feelings and being satisfied that no business was to be done with us the outraged professional went his way, leaving us with a chastened courier, whom we soon after paid and sent about his business.
I had just begun to write a letter when an Arab bootblack interrupted the thread of my thought. I sent him away, but a few minutes later I felt a tug at my foot and looking down found that the boy had crawled under the table and lifted my foot on his box. My admiration of his persistence outweighed my annoyance and I permitted him to go on. He did me a poor and hasty job and when I gave him three Algerian francs I knew that I had overpaid him. But instead of gratitude I received an insolent demand for more, nor would the gamin leave until I called a waiter, who chased the boy into the road, where he turned and menaced garcon with his blacking box, heaping curses upon his head. I thought the incident closed and resumed my writing, but no sooner was the waiter out of sight than the boy reappeared and renewed his importunities. This time two waiters pursued him far down the street and he disappeared, still shouting imprecations and' swinging his kit. Such are the Arab children of Algiers.
In the evening I walked alone through the Arab markets and penetrated the native city. The hours of the fast had now ended and the quarter teemed with life. The shops were open, the market stalls and coffee houses crowded and the narrow streets filled with a milling throng. The Algerian Arab is always nocturnal and during the Ramadan he literally turns night into day. The coffee houses and shops are open until 2 A. M., or later. In one small store there were no customers, but the proprietor and two friends sat on the floor brewing coffee over a spirit lamp.
Perhaps the Kasbah district is a safe place at night, but as I picked my way through the Arab throng the glances of the people were far from friendly. The thought came to me that they were very poor and that in this squalid labyrinth it would be easy to disappear forever—sunk without a trace. So I turned back and sought again the friendly lights of the Cafe d'Alger. Night had wrought a transformation. A great glass pavilion had been set up, extending far into the wide road. Every table was filled and a large orchestra was playing good music, for there was no dance floor here.
The Perroquet is a middle-class cabaret and is hung thick with cages of the little birds from which it takes its name. The entertainment was sufficiently risque to make the wandering Parisian feel at home, and the effects were continually heightened by keeping the house in darkness.
The Alhambra is distinctly more fashionable, and its American Bar is the chief center of night life. The ceiling and walls were thatched with esparto grass and on the bass drum in the jazz orchestra was the brilliant rubric—" Nobody's Band." The patrons were of many nations, but the French officers out-numbered any other group. At midnight the room was very crowded, but the entertainment had not yet begun, though there was a great deal of general dancing.
I was about to leave when my waiter said that if I would wait but a few more minutes the attraction would begin. The principal professional feature was Russian dancing by a couple from the Paris music halls. I was not much impressed, but the waiter regarded these entertainers as supreme artists and told me with the air of one imparting a diplomatic secret that their services cost one thousand francs per night. Inasmuch as this is the equivalent of forty dollars I do not believe the patrons of the Alhambra are going to see Ann Pennington or Al Jolson there.
As I wandered through the empty streets the porters were piling the chairs in front of the cafes and Saturday night in Algiers was nearing its end. It was dark and lonely on the quay. Under the black arches I once saw men moving. But I was in Africa, not in New York or Chicago, and nothing untoward happened.
Street venders and beggar children still lingered about the ship, and from a hawker I bought for one dollar a knife that had sold two hours before for five.
There is an Arab saying that Algiers is a diamond set in emeralds. I am neither Arab nor poet. I can say no more and I think no less.