The Algerian Spanish Lady: from Emir Abd al-Qadir to Max Aub

Saliha Zerrouki

Lecturer of Spanish Literature, University of Algiers

The historical and literary links between Spain and Algeria have always been there, though are frequently overlooked. They manifestly come to the fore in the works of Max Aub, who wrote the staggering book of poems Diario de Djelfa (“The Diary of Djelfa”) while incarcerated in Algiers. In this book, the author captures his impressions of the pervading climate in Algeria in poetry that is highly personal and intuitive. This poetry has helped to shed light on some fascinating events and figures from Algerian history of which we have been unaware until now. 

Sometimes, a series of circumstances come together to propel fragments of the past back into the realm of modern-day relevance. This article sets out to demonstrate how the works written by the exiled Spanish poet Max Aub during his time in Algeria have enabled just such a revival to occur. In his book of poetry entitled Diario de Djelfa (“The Diary of Djelfa”), Aub charts his own experiences of imprisonment in Algeria, as well as those of his fellow inmates, and by reading between the lines of what might simply have been a poetic creation, we begin to glimpse Algeria’s historical events and sites. As such, this Spanish writer’s contribution proves invaluable as we endeavour to breathe new life into passionate tales that Father Time had erased from the memory.

Our doctoral research into the literature of exile in general – and into Max Aub in particular – unveiled to us a historical past that had previously become blurred in our collective consciousness. Indeed, true and ennobling stories were beginning to emerge, all inextricably linked to 19th-century Algerian history and, once again, connecting Algeria with Spain. This has all been possible thanks to an unmistakable technique Aub employed of weaving into his poetry faint hints of surprising outcomes. It was a technique that put Aub ahead of his time and also marked him out as a pioneer of the avant la lettre literariness1 on the one hand, and an exponent of cross-genre permeability on the other, following literary theory that would go on to be championed by French authors in the 1970s, an approach that really came to the fore, for example, as he blended literary genres2 in his poem “Toda una historia”3 (“A whole story”).

This article will focus on a series of narratives and descriptions – more accurate than even their author suspected – which gave rise to a number of very interesting and, critically, genuine discoveries. By studying Aub’s intertextuality4 in Diario de Djelfa, we have been able to experience a period of Algerian history dating back to the beginning of the French conquest (1830). Hence, a description of a sheikh on horseback or a marabout near the camp ultimately leads us to a Spanish girl abducted in Algeria in the 19th century. This link between events and authors conjures up this sense of Algeria having its very own “Algerian Spanish lady”, redolent of a Miguel de Cervantes “exemplary” title: La española inglesa [The English Spanish Lady]. Both stories involve a kidnapping and, as we shall see, there are further similarities between the two authors – in spite of the centuries that separate them – since both Max Aub and Miguel de Cervantes were imprisoned in Algiers.5 Moreover, both men were equally modest about their gift for poetry; indeed, both harboured major doubts about their talent.6 In setting out our views on this subject, we have opted for a three-part approach to this article.

Max Aub’s Captain and his Arab-Spanish Origins

First and foremost, we ought to point out what led us to discover this fascinating aspect of Algerian history and its link to the “Algerian Spanish lady”: a character described by Max Aub in his epic poem “Toda una historia”.7In this poem, Max Aub tells us the story of a young Spanish refugee, Manuel Vázquez González, who fought in the Spanish Civil War, was wounded and was then evacuated to France. When he left hospital, he attempted to enlist in the French army in order to help stave off the threat of Fascism in Europe. The French authorities, however, did not want him in their ranks and – to thank him for his good intentions – incarcerated him in the Djelfa concentration camp in northern Africa.

The section of the poem that is of interest to us recounts one particular day when the inmates, returning from their stint of forced labour, come across a captain astride a Spanish mare. Max Aub draws a striking contrast as he describes this captain, setting his great elegance and wealth against the starving, ragged prisoners whom the captain simply ignores as they pass by:

Arráez, señor en silla…

de cordobán los jaeces

de manzanillas doradas

de plata las estriberas

a la jineta montado

serio en su barba negra

Viendo sin ver, mirando.

[Captain, gentleman in the saddle…

harness made of cordovan

with golden camomile

stirrups made of silver

up there on horseback

a serious look with his black beard

seeing without seeing, looking.]

The author’s deliberate focus on describing this gentleman prefaces the arrival of another character, far more honourable than the wealthy horseman. It is a simple beggar sitting in the square at Djelfa, who is shown to embody the very essence of magnanimity through one noble gesture that does not pass unnoticed by our poet:

Contra un gran montón de adobes

está un mendigo sentado.

Hijo de pared en ruinas,

sentado en la vida, vago,

espera el tiempo que pasa

en la palma de la mano.

[Up against a pile of adobe

sits a beggar.

The son of a wall in ruins,

sitting there amidst life, vague,

waiting for time to pass by

in the palm of his hand.]

The beggar’s gaze had turned to a refugee, Manuel Vázquez González, who was gathering up discarded orange peel to eat. The beggar quickly hands the prisoner a crust of bread and discreetly, so as not to attract the guard’s attention, mutters: “Know, know, big hungry.” The beggar is aware that his own freedom offsets his abject poverty and thus shows solidarity with the prisoner.

Of course, in depicting the gentleman and the beggar, Max Aub is highlighting the wealth of the beggar’s soul on the one hand, as against the wealthy man’s indifference on the other. In so doing, the author manages to demonstrate a key aspect of Islam. The Qur’an (the sacred book of Islam) in its sura entitled “Man”, depicts just such a scenario and describes honest and upright men in the following terms: “ … and they give food, in spite of their own need, to the poor, the orphan and the captive” (verse 8); “ … let us give them food purely to please God, let us hope neither for Your rewards, nor for Your gratitude” (verse 9).

The captain described with such splendour in Max Aub’s poem was, in 1942, the Sheikh of Djelfa and indeed descended from a line of bachaghas from the city

Hence, with his gesture in the midst of his own need, the beggar had secured his place in Paradise. The striking description of the characters in the poem “Toda una historia” sparked our interest in establishing which historical figure the sheikh might be and, specifically, any clues as to a possible date for the poem. As a result, when we had the opportunity to travel to Djelfa,8 we immediately began to investigate who had been the leader of the region in 1942. Our friend Fatiha Benlahrèche Borsla, a pharmacist in Djelfa, took us to a computing office managed by a young cousin of hers. He had built up a significant collection of photographs of his ancestors and of Djelfa during the colonial period – a superb find for us. Having established the reason for our visit, the office manager, Redouane Bencherif, showed us a number of old images, pointed to the captain from 1942 and said: “It’s him. His name is Ahmed Benlahrèche and he’s my father’s grandfather.” He said it very matter-of-factly, as if making a completely anodyne statement. There was no hint of pride in his words. For our part, we were delighted to have encountered one of the real figures depicted by Max Aub, since our quest was now beginning to bear fruit. Redouane began to talk about his ancestors. He looked at me, asking: “You’re a Spanish teacher, aren’t you?” I said yes and he replied: “Well, my ancestor, the grandmother of the captain that interests you so much, was a bona fide Spaniard.” He fell silent waiting to see the impact his words would have on me. Then he added: “What’s more, you’re very lucky because just a month ago, I managed to track down a photo of my great-grandmother from that period.” So much information all at once left us speechless. We had set out to enhance our understanding of Max Aub’s experiences in the region and had stumbled upon this snippet of genuine Algerian history, linked both to the poet and to Spain.

The Abducted Spanish Girl and the Arab Sheikh

Thus it transpired that the captain described with such splendour in Max Aub’s poem was, in 1942, the Sheikh of Djelfa and indeed descended from a line of bachaghas9 from the city. His father was Algerian and, by a curious twist of fate, his mother was a Spaniard called Madalena Aoles. The peculiar story of Madalena – better known as María Dolores on account of a curious distortion of her name – is linked to the history of the French occupation of Algeria.

In order to place the period, we first need to outline briefly the climate in which the events occurred and place them in their historical context. We will therefore recount the story of the first bachagha of Djelfa and, in so doing, illustrate the conflicting feelings Max Aub brought to light when he took an interest in this descendant who hailed from ancient noble stock. According to historical records,10 at the time of Algerian resistance against the French occupation in the 19th century, Emir Abd al-Qadir’s11 men, having conquered the city of Nemours,12 took as hostages the men and women who had just arrived on a boat. The emir laid claim to two young girls who were among the prisoners of war, adopted them and brought them up as if they were his own daughters. The two girls ultimately converted to Islam. A few years later, when Emir Abd al-Qadir called for Jihad,13a man by the name of Si Chérif Ben Lahrèche stepped forward to serve the Algerian resistance. The emir appointed him caliph14 and supreme commander of the Uled Nail tribes, whom he led for 15 years in the struggle against the French occupation.

Emir Abd al-Qadir wished to shore up this oath of loyalty by creating a blood bond with the Uled Nail tribes and so offered the hand of his Spanish protégées in marriage. Madalena Aoles was to marry his caliph, Si Chérif Ben Lahrèche, whilst her younger sister was pledged to his cousin, Si Mohamed Ben Abdesslam. So flattered was Si Chérif Ben Lahrèche by the news that he assembled a caravan fit for a queen and sent for his two “chosen brides”, who overnight found themselves protagonists in Thousand and One Nights.

A noble man educated in both the classicist (French) school and the orientalist school (of Ascetism and Islamic Sufism), the caliph fulfilled his civic duty in attempting to integrate the two brides into Islamic culture. First of all, he gave each of them Algerian names. His wife Madalena was named15 Fatma El Euldja, though was quickly given the sobriquet echahba moulat essalf etouil16(the white woman with long blonde hair). Her sister was given the name Azzouza.

The wedding was celebrated with all the pomp befitting of a sheikh. Records do not give us an exact date, but suggest that the wedding most probably took place between June 1845 and January 1846. Si Chérif Ben Lahrèche and Fatma El Euldja’s marriage produced a son in 1856 – a boy called Ahmed, a name shared by Max Aub’s captain.17

A noble man educated in both the classicist school and the orientalist school, the caliph fulfilled his civic duty in attempting to integrate the two brides into Islamic culture

After Emir Abd al-Qadir’s surrender, Si Chérif Ben Lahrèche, acting in accordance with his commander-in-chief’s orders, handed himself in to the French authorities in 1847. Along with his family, he was interned in Medea and then later in Boghar. In order to spare his tribe reprisals from General Yusuf, he was forced to serve as bachagha on behalf of the colonial power. Indeed, he fought hard on behalf of the French to bring dissidents under control and to restore order in the region, his efforts rewarded when, in 1851, France appointed him bachagha of all the Uled Nail tribes in the province of Algiers and conferred on him the same title of caliph that he had previously held under Emir Abd al-Qadir. As a token of their appreciation, in 1852 the French built him a barracks, which doubled as his living quarters for some time – this was the Cafarelli fort, the notorious place of torture revealed by Max Aub in his poems.18 Though there are no specific references to this in his work, Max Aub does allude to the heroism of the times:

Aduar hecho fortaleza,

bravura caída en hiato.

[Little town turned into a fort,

bravery fallen into a crack.]

Si Chérif Ben Lahrèche ultimately died in combat on 14 October 186419 as a result of a fatal misunderstanding that had major ramifications. The historians Marthe and Edmond Gouvion recount the incident as follows:20 “As fervent as ever, Si Chérif died a glorious death as he fought the Chikkia rebels who were attempting to take the city of Djelfa. Noticing that a large number of attackers had amassed, Lieutenant Philebert gave the order to close Djelfa’s city gates and commanded Si Chérif to defend the city with his men. These orders, however, infuriated the caliph, who cried: “No Chérif waits for the enemy to attack!”. He immediately ran towards his fort and sounded the warning bell. He mounted his trusty white steed, his loyal battle companion, and headed for the fort’s gates. Yet the horse started and reared up on the threshold, refusing to cross it and move forward. Si Chérif strove to get the horse to move, but his efforts were in vain. He pressed it, spurred it on, but to no avail. Si Chérif had sensed what was happening and, thoughtfully, he dismounted and headed determinedly towards his house. According to Sheikh Adam, an eye witness and Si Chérif’s son-in-law, Si Chérif hurriedly gathered together his wives and shared out all his money amongst them. He issued vital instructions to his sons and, solemnly, turned to them and said: “This is the last time you will see me. It is my destiny.” After saying a prayer and embracing all those around him, he mounted his cousin Abd al-Qadir Ben Abdeslam’s bay mare and galloped off, followed by his loyal soldiers, to take the fight to the attackers. As the enemy’s ranks parted, a man (purportedly Brahim Ben Bouzeiez) recognised his mortal enemy’s mare, took aim and fired. The horseman reeled and fell. Victorious, Brahim hurled himself on top of the horseman to kill him. He was dumbstruck to recognise his leader, Si Chérif, fatally wounded on the ground, and cried out in horror: “Damned am I for I have killed my master and my sheikh!”. He then collapsed prostrate and never recovered. Si Chérif’s funeral was a great occasion, with Colonel Martineau des Chenay laying the officer’s cross of the Legion of Honour on his grave.”

According to the account given by the French priest François de Villaret, Si Chérif, having had a premonition of his own death, asked his old friend Si Chérif Ben Khobeizi to look after his wife Madalena and his son Ahmed, since he suspected that his other wives would exact revenge. The first thing his “loyal” friend did, however, was to marry Madalena and move with her into Si Chérif Ben Lahrèche’s house in Ain Chenouf. The couple soon began to encounter difficulties, with Madalena fiercely defending her son’s rights. The problems ended when, at the behest of the Bureau Arabe,21 Si Chérif Khobeizi divorced his dead friend’s wife and left the house in Ain Chenouf.

In her efforts to bring up her son, Madalena requested help from the Empress of France, her compatriot Eugenia de Montijo. Emperor Napoleon III, being so fond of her, dispatched a special emissary to her bearing a box containing a thousand gold coins.22 Nonetheless, in spite of receiving such attentive care, Madalena did not long survive her husband, dying five years later aged 3823 and leaving her 12-year-old son an orphan. And that is where the story of this great man and his beautiful wife ends, a story propelled back into the present by Max Aub’s keen eye.

The Marabout and its Secret

Max Aub’s determination to delve deeper into the past does not end here since, by a mysterious twist of fate, the marabout he often describes in his poems is connected to Madalena Benlahrèche and to the place where she was laid to rest. Whilst Si Chérif was buried in the grounds of his zauia (Islamic school and house) in Ain Chenouf, his wife’s burial took a different course. She had always been envied by her rivals both on account of her beauty and because of the fact that she was clearly her husband’s favourite. As such, Si Chérif relatives feared that the other wives would dig up her corpse, dismember it and desecrate her remains, so – in an attempt to protect Madalena – they kept the site where she was buried secret. Only over the course of time did it become known that they had chosen a particular marabout attached to a Muslim cemetery, which people had dubbed “the marabout of the Machhouda”, that is, “the marabout of the Mysterious”, forgetting the original name of its saint. This famous marabout – originally called Si Ali Bendnaidina – appears in two of Max Aub’s poems, “Djelfa” and “Domingo de Pascua”. The first one is a prose poem:24 “¡Desierto! Espejo del cielo. El morabo de yeso, cráneo mondo semiescondido tras la colina, frente por frente de la auténtica media luna del cielo: tarjeta postal de Constantinopla.” [“Desert! Mirror of the sky. The marabout made of plaster, bare skull half hidden behind the hill, directly opposite the real crescent in the sky: postcard from Constantinople.”]

The second is a type of zejel:25

Lejos, mondo y lirondo,

redondo y cuadrado,

un morabo blanco.

[Far away, bare and shorn,

round and square,

a white marabout.]

This marabout is visible from the Ain S’rar concentration camp, since it is perched on top of a hill from where you can look down on the city’s surroundings over a rather significant range. Indeed, this “round and square” marabout also harboured its secrets and, once again thanks to Max Aub, other stories have come to light. We should remember that what aroused our curiosity was the somewhat peculiar ritual in a ceremony that Max Aub described from far away in his prison in his poem “Domingo de Pascua”. There was a certain ambiguity in this particular ceremony – Easter (Pascua) is a Christian religious festival and, perhaps because of a time association (the poem was written on 15 May), the author’s mind focused specifically on this festival, which is otherwise unrelated to Islam. At any rate, the ritual being described entails a series of prostrations in the middle of a cemetery, as described in the following verses:

Por el desierto gris

una hilera de moros

van a su cementerio

a celebrar la Pascua

dando cien tumbos en las tumbas mil.

[In the grey desert

a line of Moors

go to their cemetery

to celebrate Easter

lurching a hundred times over the thousand tombs.]

It is worth pointing out that Muslim prayers include a combination of prostrations that our author had observed among Algerian prisoners. This may have prompted Aub to think that the men he could see from far away in his prison were saying the salat or the Muslim prayers. However, as Muslims well know, prostrations are forbidden in cemeteries: prostration is only for Allah the Great and prayers for the dead are said while standing. We can therefore deduce that this is not a Muslim prayer, but rather it must be some pre-Islamic pagan form of worship dedicated to the local saint, the type of ceremony where there is some form of ritual dance as the worshippers bow their heads forwards and backwards until they enter a trance, hence the reference to “lurching a hundred times over the thousand tombs” (“cien tumbos en las tumbas mil”). The renowned Algerian reformer Abdelhamid Ibn Badis had fought against this kind of ritual ever since the French colonial power, in its bid to impose its systematic policy of “acculturation” and “depersonalisation”, on the one hand promoted obscurantism in an attempt to deal a blow to Islam26 by associating it with paganism and, on the other hand, fuelled regionalism with its famous “divide and rule” axiom, thus strengthening the notion that each tribe should defend their own saint.

Thus, based on the hints provided by a few delightful pictures and one researcher’s intuition, we have unearthed a substantial chapter in Djelfa’s past. Thanks to the poetry Aub wrote in Algeria, we have been able to pay homage to illustrious figures from our history and to give renewed shine to their family honour. In so doing, we have been able to depict, for the benefit of future generations, some significant events in their national history. However, what truly makes Max Aub’s writing so immensely rich is that every given detail conceals mysteries of which, occasionally, even the author himself was unaware. This paves the way for the researcher to make discoveries that are both unprecedented and inexhaustible, in keeping with Max Aub’s talent itself.


[1] S. Zerrouki, Max Aub y Argelia: Diario de Djelfa.Entre literaridad, realidad y simbólica, doctoral thesis, University of Oran, December 2005, pp.130-216.

[2] S. Zerrouki, Estructura y temática en la obra de Max Aub: Diario de Djelfa, dissertation, February 2001, University of Algiers, pp. 135-147.

[3] M. Aub, Diario de Djelfa, Valencia, Denes Comercial, 1998, pp. 44-57.

[4] S. Zerrouki, Max Aub y Argelia: Diario de Djelfa.Entre literaridad, realidad y simbólica, doctoral thesis, University of Oran, December 2005, pp. 132-142.

[5] Cervantes was imprisioned in the capital. Max Aub was as well, though only briefly before being taken to the concentration camp at Djelfa.

[6] M. Aub, Obra poética completa, vol. 1, Chief Editor, Joan Oleza Simó; Editor of the literary criticism, introductory study and notes, Arcadio López-Casanova, Valencia, Biblioteca Valenciana, 2001, p. 8.

[7] M. Aub, Diario de Djelfa, Valencia, Denes Comercial, 1998, pp. 47-48.

[8] For over 10 years, the region was unsafe and any journeys there carried risks.

[9] M. and E. Gouvion, Kitab el Aâyane el Marharibia, Algiers, Imprimerie Orientale, 1920, pp. 93-101.

[10] Revue Africaine, No. 100, 1873, pp. 380-381.

[11] A historical leader renowned for his armed struggle against the French invasion in 1830.

[12] Now called Ghazaouet, this is an Algerian port in the far west of the country on the border with Morocco.

[13] Holy war declared by Emir Abd al-Qadir against the French occupation of Algeria on 28 September 1832.

[14] Revue Africaine, No. 100, 1873, p. 311.

[15] According to oral sources, name deeds were drawn up by the bachagha Maâoui in the town council, which is now called Hassi Bahbah (Djelfa). 

[16] A. Khireddine, Rocher de sel. Vie de l’écrivain Mohamed Bencherif, Paris, L’Harmattan, 2006, p. 16.

[17] M. y E. Gouvion, Kitab el Aâyane el Marharibia, Algiers, Imprimerie Orientale, 1920,
p. 106.

[18] Built in 55 days between November and December 1852 by General Yusuf, under General’s Randon’s government (Revue Africaine, No. 121, 1877).

[19] M. and E. Gouvion, Kitab el Aâyane el Marharibia, Algiers, Imprimerie Orientale, 1920, pp. 100-101.

[20] Ibid.

[21] The Bureaux Arabes Départementaux were established to manage Algerians’ civic affairs.

[22] A. Khireddine, Rocher de sel. Vie de l’écrivain Mohamed Bencherif, Paris, L’Harmattan, 2006, p. 18.

[23] Death certificate of Madalena Benlahrèche, widow, born in Cadiz, time of death established as 8 o’clock on 8 January 1869.

[24] M. Aub, Diario de Djelfa, Valencia, Denes Comercial, 1998, p. 36.

[25] Ibid., pp. 97-98.

[26] According to Muslim orthodoxy, it is forbidden to worship saints.