Sand Roses, Guest Post by Hamza Koudri

Tourists know it as the City of Joy. For Ouled Nail dancers, Bousaada is a city of horrors.

It is 1931 when two sisters arrive in Bousaada bursting with dreams of becoming successful dancers. But the city, occupied by the ruthless French colonial army, changes their lives forever.
When they kill a soldier in self-defense, Fahima and Salima must outsmart the French Colonel who will stop at nothing to uncover the truth. The sisters are driven further into a cycle of violence with every attempt to hide their crime. Risking their lives and the lives of their loved ones, the dancers find themselves at the heart of a civilizational clash.

SAND ROSES is a tale of resistance, sisterhood and the shameful past of two colliding nations. This extraordinarily immersive narrative thrusts its reader into the Algerian city of Bousaada during the 1930s and the story of the Nailiya dancers.

Sand Roses has been published in the UK, Algeria, South Africa and Nigeria, and is available from Amazon and other online retailers. It has been favourably received and has featured in interviews on TV, radio, magazines, and podcasts. It featured on the Brittle Paper’s list of 100 notable African books of 2023, and an excerpt was published in the Johannesburg Review of Books’s December 2023 issue. RUNNER-UP FOR THE 2022 ISLAND PRIZE FOR DEBUT AFRICAN NOVELS

Inspiration Behind Sand Roses: The Quest for a Fading Memory

I first learned about the Ouled Nail culture in 2016 when I accidentally stumbled on a podcast with the French historian, Aurélie Perrier, discussing prostitution in Algeria during the Ottoman and French epochs. When the speaker, in passing, likened the Ouled Nail customs to those of the Japanese Geishas, I was immediately fascinated but at the same time outraged that I had never heard of this unique side of my country’s history. People often praised the beauty of the Ouled Nail women and the magic of Bou Saada, gateway to the Sahara, yet the generations-old tradition that had once enchanted tourists worldwide has been conveniently buried under heaps of denial and national shame.

Ouled Naïl girl, Algeria, circa 1905 – Wikipedia

Fuelled with curiosity, and admittedly thrilled by the prospect of finding the untold story of a past long forgotten, I set out to comb the Internet in search of thin traces of Ouled Nail dancers. I was fascinated by the tales of resilience in the face of violence and discrimination. I learned that the Ouled Nail dancers had roamed the world, carrying their tunes to cafes in Algiers, captivating circusgoers in Europe and performing across the Atlantic at the Chicago Fair of 1893.

I also came to understand why this culture had all but disappeared from modern memory. Following Algeria’s independence in 1962, the dancers had little space to exercise their profession now that France had departed with their core clientele: French soldiers and European tourists. Most of them were integrated into the government’s agrarian reforms, and the few ones that survived on a trickle of tourists had no choice but to quit in the 1980s as the country fell to religious fanatism and a devastating civil war.

Today, every mention of the dancers online attracts a tsunami of angry comments. People deny the existence of the Ouled Nail culture, relegating it to the orientalists’ fetishist tendencies and accusing the French of fabricating content with the sole objective of tarnishing the reputation of the pure Algerian people. Some university students venture to explore this exotic past through Masters and PhD theses, but the narratives unfailingly rush to justify their practices, blaming the French-imposed poverty and hunger that left these women with no other means of income. But the memory still lives true in the minds and hearts of Bousaadis who remember these beautiful creatures walking and dancing amongst them, emanating joy and freedom.

I quickly established that the history of Ouled Nail is rather documented in visual forms than written narratives or academic studies. Rudolf Franz Lehnert’s photographs allow us a glimpse of these women’s stunning beauty and strength, and the National Geographic magazine depicts life in Bou Saada (albeit with the occasional supremacist side comment) through Frank Edward Johnson’s chronicles “Here and There in Northern Africa” (January 1914). Artists like Etienne Dinet and Juanita Guccione spent years in this town, fully assimilated into the local culture, and their paintings immortalise stories that would have otherwise been lost. Videos dating back to the early to mid-1900s have carried the fading memory of Ouled Nail through their dance and the melody of a thousand flutes, and Émile Gaudissard’s gigantic sculptures in the Hamma botanical garden of Algiers capture their glory in eternal poses of stone, like victims of Medusa.

The lack of documentation around the Ouled Nail culture made me realise the importance of a project like this to preserve a unique part of my country’s immaterial heritage.

The story of these women is far from being about a glamourous party life filled with blinging jewellery and lazy afternoon teas as pictured in the orientalist harem paintings. The Ouled Nail tale offers universal lessons drawn from these women’s struggles to maintain control over their bodies, secure financial independence and navigate a role for themselves in the midst of what Christelle Taraud calls “la double violence sexuelle” from the colonial and patriarchal society.

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Meet Hamza Koudri

Hamza Koudri has an MA in English Literature and Civilization and has been working in education and international development since 2008. Currently serving as the Country Director with the British Council in Algeria, he oversees a portfolio of English, STEM, higher education and cultural programmes, working closely with public sector teachers and institutions. Over the years, he has created and led courses and projects for youth and educators across the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region and beyond.

Research for his novel took the better part of a decade, seeking traces of a muted past between the folds of visual documentation and oral histories. In 2022, Sand Roses was shortlisted for the Island Prize for unpublished African authors.

Hamza co-authored an article on “Social Responsibility Discretion in Algeria” highlighting unique management practices in the country. The article was published in “Responsible Management in Africa” with Emerald Publishing.

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