Black Habiliments

Panoramic view over the city of Constantine, Algeria

Constantine, 1958

A young French officer went inside a bar in the old city, chose a stool to sit down on, ordered a drink and lapsed into a pensive mood. He had had a long day.

The city is perched on a cliff and its historic flair echoes that of goddesses like Ishtar. It is virtually impossible not to feel a little dizzy when standing on any of its seven mighty bridges and looking down the narrow gorge stretching below.

He had felt apprehensive about being in Constantine from the moment he had set foot in it. The problem he had with the city wasn’t the city in and by itself, which he found to be breathtaking, but the moment he had picked to discover it. He wasn’t proud of who he had become in his bid to move up the promotion ladder, but, the way he saw it, respect for human life and sympathy for people’s feelings becomes an unaffordable luxury in times of war.

A pretty girl wearing a nice dress suddenly went towards him and asked him in a mellifluous voice while pointing at the stool next to him, “That seat taken?”

The officer, who, despite having grown up in Paris, was not used to girls being so forward, was pleasantly surprised by the fact of being approached in such a way by such a lovely lady.

“Please, sit down. I could certainly use the company.”

She sat down and said, “I am Isabelle, by the way. I am French, but of Spanish descent.”

“I guess that explains your beauty, which—I must say—is much appreciated, especially given the fact that women here go around swathed in black clothing that doesn’t even allow for their faces to be seen.”

She didn’t even smile at what he had intended as a light-hearted conversation opener. Instead, she put on a serious expression and replied, “Do you know why they dress like that?”

“Well, I surmise they believe they are required to cover themselves up. Am I wrong?”

“Let me tell you the real reason behind their choice of attire. Two centuries ago, there was a young man in Turkey called Saleh who was dragged into a plot to kill one of his relatives. He fled to Constantine to escape retaliation and wound up becoming the city’s sovereign after some time. He was held in high esteem by his people, because he made the city flourish. When the Algerian monarch of the time got word of how much his own subjects admired him, he felt threatened by him, and thus, captured and executed him. Since his death in 1792 to this day, Constantine’s women have only worn black, so as to express their grief for him.”

“I have to say your explanation doesn’t seem all that plausible. Why would all women in one city mourn one single man for over a century and a half?”

She didn’t reply to his question. Instead, she glanced at the clock hanging on the wall. It was almost nine. After a brief pause, she continued, “You don’t remember me, but we have met before, you and I.”

“That’s just not possible. I would never forget a beauty such as yourself.”

“Do you remember the day the famous Algerian insurgent called Ahmed Assary, who was later on tortured and killed, was arrested?”

“Of course. But what does that have to do with anything?”

“His wife came to you and begged you to let her see him one last time. Remember how dismissively you treated her?”

His expression froze.

“I am his widow. You didn’t recognize me before, because, last we met, I was all covered in black and only my eyes were visible.”

A very strained silence ensued, after which she concluded, “So now you know why we all dress in black.”

The bomb she had been carrying in her purse exploded just a few seconds later, at the exact time it had been set to detonate. Nobody inside the bar that night survived. At the end of the day, most of them were French soldiers and officers anyhow, and they were all inebriated to boot.


The Author, Noor Al-Aruba:

Algerian writer, poet, novelist and journalist with a degree in Town Planning. He was born and still lives in Constantine. He has published numerous articles and poetic compilations. He has also won several literary awards.