Oran is dotted with architectural reminders of a multi-colonial past. Over the centuries, many passed through the port city. Unlike most of Algeria, it does not have Berber roots and was never conquered by the Romans. A comparatively young city for North Africa, it was established by Moorish Andalusian traders in 903 AD. Over time, Oran evolved into the centre of trade between Algeria and Spain and in 1509 fell under the latter’s domination. The city continues to be characterised by a distinctively Spanish ambiance. Over the next several centuries, Oran was fought over by the Ottomans and the Spanish, eventually falling under French control in the 19th century.
A walk through the narrow streets of the Medina Jedida (new city) proves that life in Oran is not as static as the well-preserved architectural relics that pepper the cityscape. ‘I first visited Oran when I was 16 or so,’ explains Abbès Bahous, a lecturer in the University of Mostaganem. ‘That was in 1969 or 1970. It was love at first sight… The city is more Mediterranean than any other Algerian city.’ Permeating the area is the strong smell of fresh mint and coriander, key ingredients of the much-loved harira soup, which is particularly popular as an iftar meal through which to break daily fast during Ramadan. The beating heart of Oran, the new city is lined with historical cafés that preserve collective national memory, reminding contemporary patrons of gatherings once held by politicians, artists and public figures in the same spaces they now casually occupy.
Eateries abound in the new city, where visitors can taste the culinary remnants of the Spanish, Turkish and French. A popular breakfast dish is the Ottoman shakshuka, scrambled eggs accompanied by bell peppers and onions. Spanish-influenced coca frita (puff pastry with sautéed vegetables) and coca (a pizza-like baked dish with olives, peppers and tomatoes) are common lunch offerings. Dinner is also rooted in Spain, with arroz con pollo dominating menus. Like all Arab cities baklava, a fine pastry with nuts and syrup, is an essential dessert.
Vendors selling street food are ubiquitous, punctuating the air with the scents and sounds of frying sfeni donuts, kebabs on the grill and merguez sausages being stuffed into French fry sandwiches. Street food bazaars colonise the night, with vendors impressively preparing complex dishes like bastila (a pie of chicken, eggs and almonds tucked between layers of phyllo-like dough) within the tight space of a sidewalk stall.
Rai music, a genre of folk native to Oran, can be heard in many venues throughout the new city. Rai, which literally translates to ‘opinion’, developed in the cabarets of Oran during the 1970s. As a musical practice, it involves the composition of catchy, provocative lyrics sung in the local dialect and backed by Western instrumentals. Rhythmically Rai draws on Arabic and African musical patterns, Spanish flamenco, American disco, hip-hop and reggae. Since the 1990s, it has been the most popular musical style in North Africa. Oran native Khaled Hadj Brahim, dubbed the King of Rai, is one amongst several prominent singers of the genre. Sun House in Oran’s Ain El Turk area is one of the best-known Rai clubs in Algeria. Additionally, a Rai Festival, inaugurated in 1985, takes place in open-air Theatre de Verdure every August. The theatre plays host to many other festivals throughout the year.
No exploration of the history of Oran’s varied cityscape would be complete without a climb up to the church of Santa Cruz, established during the 19th century. A fortress of the same name is located above the church. Visitors not content with piecing together the history of Oran using these architectural clues may scroll through a more organised narrative in Demaeght Museum, which offers a thousand years of history in the form of its various exhibitions. Similarly, Museum Zabana houses a collection of natural history and fine art.
There is no shortage of historical heritage and contemporary cultural production to discover in Oran. A day begun contemplating archaeological findings from across North Africa can transition into the avant-garde walls of Eclosion Gallery, where the work of local conceptual artists like Sadek Rahim can be enjoyed. For the more leisure-oriented, Ain El Turk and Les Andalouses are two small suburban resorts worth lazing in.
‘Oran used to be one of the most important cultural and social centres in the country,’ explains Amar Henni, a PhD student who grew up in the city but is now based in Brazil. ‘It used to be the city of Albert Camus, Malek Alloula and Rai music, but unfortunately over the last few decades the city’s buildings have deteriorated and its huge cultural and human potential has been neglected.’ Despite such somber observations, a lively music scene, developing artscape and local attention to historical detail hint at a culturally vibrant Oran in the making.
This article appears in the issue40Buy Now