When Delacroix visited North Africa in the 1830s he did a thing which was extremely rare for a European in those days to do: he went inside an Algerian home and saw, unveiled, the women of the house in their living quarters. Later, back in Paris, he painted a picture called Women of Algiers which was based on that experience. The painting shows three beautiful young women seated idly on carpets on the floor of a room; a fourth woman, a black servant, turns back to look at her mistresses as she is about to walk out of the door. One of the women is holding a bubble pipe; one is touching her own bare ankle; the third is doing nothing with her hands at all. She gazes dreamily at the spectator. The other two might be talking desultorily to one another. The three seated women show no animation whatsoever; the servant, who is in motion, is the only moderately dynamic figure. The rest of the picture’s energy is in its shapes and colours—and in its message. There is an ideal grace and repose about the image; but there is also a subtly disturbing blankness. One might perhaps say that the painting describes a dream: a male dream of perfectly passive femininity and, by implication, of masculine power.
I attended the Non-Aligned Conference in Algiers in September 1973 as a member of the Secretariat. At the end of the conference I decided to stay on for a few more days. We were housed in a seaside holiday village (previously emptied of holiday-makers, and heavily guarded) and had no opportunity of seeing anything outside it and the conference building two miles away. I wanted to stay with an average Algerian family in the city. Fuzia came every morning to the villa where I stayed with four other European women. Her job, which she shared with another Algerian girl, was to supervise the work of our maid. (In fact there was very little that the maid had to do, as we ate at work and mostly did our own washing and ironing. But her twenty-year-old married daughter came along every day, unpaid, to help. I gained the impression that most jobs, and especially the menial ones, were spread round as many people as possible.)
My working hours were irregular and I was often at home during the mornings; so the two supervisors would stay on for coffee and cigarettes. The maid, a smiling, sluttish woman of my own age, wore a long green robe with a white apron over it and a kerchief over her hair. She spoke broken French and went barefoot. The two supervisors wore miniskirts, halter-neck tops and platform-heeled sandals, spoke perfect French, and liked to discuss perfumes, sun-tan lotions and the love-lives of certain public figures. Another favourite topic was the pill,
During one of these coffee chats I mentioned my plan and the next day the two supervisors brought another woman along who they said was a sub-supervisor. Indeed she seemed half-way between them and the maid: long robe, apron and kerchief, but educated French and a quietly self-respecting manner. ‘This’, said Fuzia, ‘will be your hostess. She lives in the casbah but do not be afraid, her house is very clean and she or someone of her family will accompany you everywhere’. ‘I have nine children,’ said the woman, ‘two older daughters are students, they’re on holiday now and they will take care of you while I am at work.’ I inquired after her husband. ‘My husband’, she said, ‘was killed during the war; I receive a pension from the government’. I liked this woman instinctively and thought she liked me. We arranged that she would call for me the next morning and we would go into Algiers together on the bus and see her house. I was delighted.
Next morning she did not show up and neither did the supervisors. I asked the maid if she knew what had happened. ‘Malade’, she said, ‘mal ` la gorge, mal au ventre, mal partout.’ The morning after that I asked again. ‘Toujours malade’, she replied and roared with laughter. In the afternoon, coming up the village (mixture of ghetto and Butlin’s holiday camp) during an hour’s break in my work, I ran into the sub-supervisor. She pulled the hem of her kerchief over her face and tried to hurry past. I stopped her and said: ‘Look, you’re perfectly entitled to change your mind and I’m not angry, but please tell me the reason.’ ‘It’s my mother-in-law’, she said, ‘she wouldn’t agree to have you in the house’. ‘Did you explain I wasn’t French? I asked. ‘That doesn’t make any difference’, she said, ‘you are not a Muslim and you don’t know our customs. She is an old woman, you must forgive us, Madame’. I said how sorry I was. ‘I’m sorry too’, she said, ‘we would have had much to say to each other.’