I, the butcher of Algiers
Nejma Rondeleux - 20/11/2016
Bent Meziane (the daughter of Meziane), as she wants to be called, is a butcher since 1987. In her neat shop at the outskirts of Algiers, she recounts her story and her vision as a woman butcher, while attending two customers.
From the outside the "Butcher par excellence", situated in Bordj el Bahri district east of Algiers, looks like any other butcher: printed photos of cattle on billboards with “fresh meat”, “local meat” written in large lettering adorn the shop front. But after climbing the 4 steps and pushing the white plastic curtain, the customers discover a totally feminine universe.
Colored veils covering their heads and red apron around the waist, Bent Meziane, the owner, and “her sister” as she calls her, work behind the counter. After a systematic greeting of “As salam aleykoum wa rahmatoulah” (peace and mercy be upon you), Bent Meziane takes the order, executes it, wraps it, packs it, thanks the customers before saluting them with a warm “beslama” (goodbye). Handing the package to the habitués she never fails to ask about their “wife”, “children” or “mom”.
“At first people are surprised when they see me”, admits the owner with a deep voice. “They think that I am just a shop assistant and do not work with the meat”, she continues with an Algerian, and at the same time simple and colorful, dialect. “For example: yesterday a new client shyly presented himself and told me that people had sent him here, to the women butchers. I welcomed him and he asked me for a piece of chicken adding: ‘Excuse me, could you cut it?’. I replied: ‘Cut it? Of course, if not what am I doing here!”
A young boy present at the store in this late afternoon confirms the first impression of astonishment of many customers. “It is true that the first time I came here I was surprised to see women behind the counter, it’s rather unusual in Algeria”, confesses the boy. “But you get used to it quickly.” Next to him, an older customer confirms by counting other qualities of this butcher’s shop run by women. “I appreciate the healthiness, cleanliness and rigor in working, the best quality, the best prices, they are skilled and always serve you well.”
Besides these assets shared by every respectable butcher, Bent Meziane, in business since 1987, often and willingly puts her three decades of experience at the service of her customers, particularly of the young ones. “When a young husband enters the shop, he feels uncomfortable because he does not know what to buy”, says the owner of the “Butcher par excellence” dressed in a mauve gown.
“Given my extensive experience, when he says ‘Give me a piece of meat’, I automatically ask ‘What do you want to do with it?’'", says the proclaimed “first female butcher of Algeria”. “Many are embarassed at the beginning, they think I want to ‘to get into their pot’, as it is said in derja, to meddle in their affairs. Then I tell him that I’m asking so as to know what meat to give him. Then he describes me the dish and I give him various tips on preparing, cooking, etc..”
It was Bent Meziane’s destiny to become a butcher. “As a child I used to help my father, Allah yerhemo (May God have mercy on him), at the butcher’s shop”, she remembers. “Then he got sick and I replaced him. That's how I made my glorious entry”, says the proprietress, with emotions still alive despite the years past.
She embraced with determination a career as a butcher due to a familial obligation. The craft, an obligation in the beginnig, became a real passion for her. “Ask a butcher how many pieces there are in a veal”, she says defiantly, “They will not know the answer, or just a few will know it. But I can tell you that there are 77 pieces, and I know them from first to last: steak, ground, flank etc.”, details proudly Bent Meziane.
She learnt the craft on the field. First observing his father and then other butchers. The butcher of Bordj el Bahri has also found valuable information on the internet. “I can not work in the dark, haphazardly”, she says, as if to justify having made use of the internet. “If someone comes and asks me what piece it is and I can not answer them, for me it is '3ib' (bad)”.
One of the few, and probably the only woman to wander in the cattle market of El Harrach and then in Abattoirs de Ruisseau Algiers (the slaughterhouse of the city) - after the sale of the slaughtered meat has replaced the sale of livestock in the ‘90s - Bent Meziane admits to have been helped and accepted by her peers, thanks also to her filiation: “As they knew my father, who has always been honest with them, they have been a big help for me.” They welcomed her in El Harrach and Ruisseau, they taught her the tricks of the trade – like how to recognize a pregnant sheep - and protected her malicious sellers. “They used to say ‘Careful, you're ripping her off!’. Then over time, they started adding ‘Careful, you're ripping her off, and she can get it, she is of the craft’”, tells the proprietress of the “Butcher par excellence”.
Who will carry on the craft? Bent Meziane smiles a little uncomfortably. Not having children, the owner of the "Butcher par excellence" does not see a future for her shop when she retires. “It's a shame, it's a shame but Allah khaleb (I can’t do anything)”, comments Bent. She knows and repeats often that “being a butcher is hard”. The requirements of the profession, the competition caused by industrialization, associated with the price of meat, make the working conditions difficult. Despite everything, and after a 30-year career, her love for butchery is intact. What she says about the figure of the “artisan butcher” proves it: "In my father’s time, may his soul rest in peace, they used to call us ‘artisan butchers’. But in Algeria they took this title away from us. Its a shame, because ‘artisan butcher’ means a lot. It stands for the technical nature of the work. This craft is a fine profession, and not everyone can do it.”
Translated from Italian by Övgü Pınar