Why is Albert Camus Still a Stranger in His Native Algeria?- page 2 | Innovation | Smithsonian
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Albert Camus was born on November 7, 1913, in Mondovi, now Drean, a town near Algeria's northeast coast. (Hulton-Deutsch Collection / Corbis)

Why is Albert Camus Still a Stranger in His Native Algeria?

On the 100th anniversary of the birth of the famed novelist, our reporter searches the north African nation for signs of his legacy

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“It is true that Camus positioned himself with his own little family of colonists,” says Mahieddine, who fought the resistance of superiors to make a documentary for state television about Camus’ life in Algeria. “But that should not deny his talent, his greatness as a writer, his Nobel Prize and his contribution to presenting the image of Algeria to the world.”

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Albert Camus was born on November 7, 1913, in Mondovi, now Dréan, a town near Algeria’s northeast coast, 30 miles from the Tunisian border. His father, Lucien Auguste Camus, the grandson of poor immigrants from the Bordeaux region, worked in a wine cellar at a vineyard. In the opening weeks of World War I, at the Battle of the Marne, he was struck in the head by shrapnel, and died in a field hospital a few weeks later. Albert and his older brother, Lucien, were raised by their mother, Catherine Hélène Sintès-Camus, a deaf illiterate of Spanish origin. “Although she was able to read lips, some people thought her mute, or mentally retarded,” writes Olivier Todd in his authoritative biography Albert Camus: A Life. According to Camus, her vocabulary consisted of only 400 words.

When Albert was a boy, the family moved to an apartment at 93 rue de Lyon, in Algiers’ Belcourt neighborhood, a working-class district. Here Arabs and pieds-noirs lived side by side, but seldom intermingled. Albert shared three rooms with Lucien, their uncle Étienne, their maternal grandmother, and Catherine Hélène, who toiled as a cleaning woman. Camus admired her gentle stoicism, and she shaped his empathy for the poor and oppressed. “Camus always wanted to speak for those who had no voice,” says Catherine Camus. In addition, says Todd, “He was extraordinarily devoted to her.”

Camus’ boyhood home still stands: a two-story building with a wedding-dress shop on the ground floor. Out front, I meet the owner, Hamid Hadj Amar, a wary octogenarian who eventually leads my translator and me up a drab spiral staircase. The Camus place, in the rear, seems impossibly small: a tiny kitchen and three cramped bedrooms off a dark corridor. The room shared by Lucien and Albert is a 10- by 10-foot chamber with French windows opening onto a filigreed balcony. I stand on the tiny terrace and take in Camus’ view: a busy street, shade trees obscuring a block of three- and four-story buildings with deteriorating white facades, orange-tile roofs and balconies draped in drying laundry.

My translator-guide, Said, and I walk to the other landmarks of Camus’ Belcourt years, passing cafés filled with elderly Arab men playing dominoes and sipping mint tea. The streets present a microcosm of Algeria’s mixed society: fashionably dressed, Westernized women carrying baguettes home from French bakeries; a couple from the Salafist Islamic movement, the man with a long beard and white robe, the woman’s face concealed behind a black niqab.

A few blocks north, I can just make out Les Sablettes, the popular beach where Camus spent many a summer day. “I lived in destitution but also in a kind of sensual delight,” Camus once wrote, conjuring up a childhood of swimming, sunshine and soccer.

Down the block from 93 rue de Lyon, I come across the École Communale, Camus’ primary school. I push open the heavy metal gate and approach the late 19th-century Beaux-Arts relic, with curving, filigreed outdoor staircases. The stucco facade is peeling away. It was here that Camus met a compassionate teacher, Louis Germain, who “saw a bright young boy,” says Todd, tutored him after-hours, helped him obtain a high-school scholarship and introduced him to a “world of words.”

Two days after my visit to Belcourt, I’m hiking along the coast 40 miles west of Algiers. An intermittent drizzle washes over acres of Roman ruins that extend to the edges of the cliffs.

Tipasa, originally a Phoenician settlement, was captured by the Romans and developed into an important port nearly 2,000 years ago. It was one of Camus’ most beloved destinations. In his teens and 20s he and his friends would travel here by bus from Algiers and picnic among first-century temples and villas, and a fourth-century Christian basilica. “For me there is not a single one of those sixty-nine kilometers that is not filled with memories and sensations,” he wrote of his regular trip to Tipasa from Algiers in “Return to Tipasa,” a 1952 essay. “Turbulent childhood, adolescent daydreams in the drone of the bus’s motor, mornings, unspoiled girls, beaches, young muscles always at the peak of their effort, evening’s slight anxiety in a sixteen-year-old heart.”

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About Joshua Hammer
Joshua Hammer

Joshua Hammer is a foreign freelance correspondent and frequent contributor to Smithsonian magazine.

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