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The City and the Writer: In Annaba, Algeria, with Janette Ayachi

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Can you describe the mood of Annaba as you feel/see it?

Annaba is steadfast under palpitations, she is definitely a woman; a seaport city leaning in each night to a wardrobe of embroidered gowns. The French called her Bône, the Romans reigned over her before that, but her Arabic name is the one for jujube trees, the very trees that artery toward the promenade, changing dresses through the seasons. The beaches have white tropical sands and the streets carry Sahara heat, old men sell cigarettes one at a time. Annaba moves slow, like a breath trying to go unnoticed.


What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

I remember that my heart broke every time I left. I would stay there a month every summer, from birth up until my parents’ divorce, and then thereafter, ironically, just for funerals and weddings; breaking and mending the time in between. It was a parallel space for me, potent with spices, cousins, and adventures, extended families that flowed like any great Maghreb river—offering, even in drought, and congregating like kasbah stars to lay down feasts upon your arrival. In Annaba I was at home but on holiday, my days were free of institution, and freedom was camping on the beach and burying watermelons to cool in the grave of the sea’s swell so the sun couldn't reach them. It was a country where kids slept together in one room, giggling long after last prayer—with six uncles and aunties, we all had plenty of places to sleep. So it was the pull and tug always, running away and running toward, the car pulling away from my grandparents’ back door; three generations came together to wave us away. The wilder boys chasing to outrace each other, our departure, themselves, the last long brown limbs becoming thunderbolt clouds of dust in the rearview mirror-cracks of my heart, splitting then patching itself into the precision of a whole in the fondant melt of a memory mirage.


What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

The sea; and her waves that carry the names of people too far from Annaba (who can resist a city that straddles the end of a map, the seduction of land meeting the Mediterranean waters). Straight across the horizon you see the south of Spain; daydreams of trade smugglers and border crossings where lovers land, ready to propel themselves into the tragedy of long-distance romance divided by oceans, intoxicating like a drug of Sufi dervishes. This ancient port that neighbors Tunisia is a jasmine-doused place. What we inhale of a city sculpts our anatomy of selfhood; we find where we belong is a rich, mixed brew of all the places we have loved, and with that love we have built beautiful cities inside our conscious selves.


What writers from here should we read?

Slightly inland, you can find the home of the great Albert Camus, from birth until his prime, where he spent all day sun-bombed and burning, teaching himself, too, to fight the tide. Every day, he swam a little farther away, until one day he left to go to university in France.


Is there a place here you return to often?

I haven’t been since I stopped speaking to my father. My last visit was for his second marriage; the time before that, my grandmother’s funeral. Since the start of the silence, it’s been thirteen years. Often, I believe it is too late and impossible to ever return now. Annaba is my childhood sanctuary, a city that helped me grow and evolve, an unapproachable dream upon waking.


Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Hippo Regius, the remote port on the coastline where St. Augustine of Hippo (354–430 CE), an Algerian-Roman philosopher and theologian of the late Roman period, came to spend most of his life; and the hermitage he created at the head of the city, where he demanded that no one visit him so he could have uninterrupted time to pray. St. Augustine died on August 28, 430, in Annaba, by the sea, and now there is a church dedicated to him there, surrounded by Roman ruins and scuttling scorpions, the taste of smoke in the air. A city within a city, far from the capital, a harbor eroded by time and the elements, instead of demolished by any war hero or man.


Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

Unlike Edinburgh, which has a subterranean world, Annaba stretches out long over a flat boulevard, elastic sunsets, hills and palm trees that bend to the vastness of the scorched ocean; it is hard to hide anything in this city, even a slipped coin is sudden, found treasure. The intriguing part of Annaba is more interior than exterior, what lies behind those beaded curtains that lap in the breeze freely, shanty foundations that mean stronger bonds between blood, interiors of hammams, the one small room hosting a street café, the town hall, the prison, the place my grandfather bought bread every morning, making sure we would wake up while it was still hot. In places like this, the city gets inside, slips in like stray street cats and the unfamiliar children playing outside, the shopkeeper, the sisters-brothers-husbands-mother, the call for prayer an audio beacon across the district, signaling to the unsteady to steady themselves in silence, in a whisper, for a while, as the city is absorbed into homes and the homes seep into the people and the people populate the land, a grateful and contented community, careful and considerate.


Where does passion live here?

In the kitchen, and before that, in the market, bargaining for the best grain; with a drooling choice between twenty types of olives, lugging baskets, separating pulses, eating samples, and serving love.


What is the title of one of your works about Annaba and what inspired it exactly?

The poem “Ramadan in Annaba” from my book Hand Over Mouth Music (Liverpool University Press), about the horror when the streets of the city become obituaries; sheep are sold, kept as pets, and then slaughtered for feast and celebration. I learned about things like sacrifice and ritual, immorality and staring into the face of death, from a very young age.


Inspired by Levi, “Outside Annaba does an outside exist?”

For me, there is no Algeria, only Annaba, where the Barbary coast yawns out; Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, the Western Sahara, and dearest Annaba. Where the smell of verbena and rosemary in healing ointment nests under the restorative light that lifts from sunrise, and the cockerel cries until the cicadas take over at sunset. The presence of common ritual allows all words to shift into song. No one ever buys anything. Shopkeepers sit outside all day. In the background, a fertile farmland; forests, mines, mosques with Ionic pillars, fishing ports all rostering heightened activity in the city, where natives don’t just work the land, but tend to it too. If we could just pull heaven up from the back of the ruins, ruins, rail lines on dusty roads, hamlets and nomads of the desert fringes, the coastal haar tonguing windows where wind meets buildings with columns from those Roman ruins (now by chance my daughter’s father is Roman—a beautiful cross-pollination of ancient worlds), decades of jujube trees snore too as a bonfire of sheep's heads, sisterhood, and steamy hammams take precedent after twilight, where women come together to scrub each other clean of the city’s sinful secret: her open arms, her welcome to heal the stranded or lost at sea.


Janette Ayachi is a London-born, Edinburgh-based Scottish-Algerian poet who has been published in over eighty literary journals and anthologies from presses such as Polygon, Seren, and Salt's ​The Best British Poetry of 2015​. She collaborates with artists and engages in numerous projects, performances, exhibitions, and events. In 2016, ​after performing her poetry live on BBC Radio Scotland, she was invited to return as an arts and culture critic for ​The Afternoon Show​. The following year, she was commissioned to write a poem for a documentary “Conversations on a Bench” for BBC Radio 4, and in 2019 she appeared on the BBC television art series Loop​. Her essays and poetry have been published internationally, and some translated into Marathi, Greek, French, and soon Spanish. She is also the author of the poetry pamphlets Pauses at Zebra Crossings and ​A Choir of Ghosts​, the children's chapter book ​The Mermaid, The Girl and The Gondola, illustrated by Fabio Perla in Italy, and her first full poetry collection, ​Hand Over Mouth Music, which won the Saltire Poetry Book of the Year Literary Award in 2019. She is currently working on ​Lonerlust: A Poet’s Memoir, ​a nonfiction narrative about desire and traveling alone, searching for connections with landscapes, culture, and human experience.

Published May 4, 2020   Copyright 2020 Nathalie Handal

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