13 MAY 1943, Page 9


By W. M. COUSINS THE tall, wandering Arab was an image of death. Thin as a vine-pole was his lanky form, and his voluminous white robes served only to emphasise the emaciation of his - countenance and brown, scrawny hands. Up and down he trapesed through Bizerta streets, vending thread-lace, women's work, which he carried under his arm. He must sell before he could eat ; and surely no European devouring a good dejeuner before the smart French restaurant could refuse to buy from this mask of hunger. I did not want lace, and I said so ; down he fell on his knees and—centre of a clamorous crowd of two rival salesmen and a boy—I fell a victim to the vendor of wares.

Down by the sea, the roll of laces over my arm, I was seeking the town pleasure-beach outside.ahe main harbour, flanked by a line of palms. Bare running feet came pad-padding after me ; it was the lace-vendor's boy, his soft voice insinuating: "Madame, you buy lace? Cone, I will show you where the women live who made that cloth and you shall buy from them? We turned ;side under the old city-wall, following a dark tongue of water that runs into the Ville Arab; and entered the most miserable quarter of Bizerta, an unutterable slum, down a narrow pot-holed lane of mud-walled hovels, where plaster dropped in flakes into the gutter and slats from boxes propped the tattered door. No such poverty is to be seen in the by-ways of Tunis or Sfax, where even the most tortuous alley has an air of secret wealth ; to match this indigence one must turn to the crumbling hovels of the south, but the dilapidation of this northern town seemed more degraded, presenting the desperation of under-employment.

The boy knocked at. a rickety portal and spoke quickly in Arabic ; the women welcomed us with cries of joy. This was the home of the, women—a courtyard, twelve feet by five, with three small, box-like rooms opening upon it, incredibly small, fakir-poor, hold- ing nothing beyond a string-bed, some pans and a pile of rugs. A swarm of children were tumbling on the hard-earth floor, which was well-swept and clean. The ladies welcomed me with regal grace ; they set a chair, the only one in their dwelling, and presented me with their only flower, a withered rose, cherished in a mug. Sell lace? Yes, readily, they assured me in Arabic—die only tongue they spoke. Four women were these, wives of one man, and their family-history was plain to read: an out-of-work docker had taken his legal limit of four wives, lace-makers all, in the hope that, Moslem-fashion, he might make money by the handicrafts of his womenfolk. All markets had failed, and he found he had taken on more family than his hand could support. The veil is fertile of destitution ; these ladies, with gracious manners and skilful hands, might never move outside their beggarly yard.

Beyond the medina lay French Bizerta, smarter than Brighton, neat as a Kensington square. Here was neither destitution nor want. Wide streets and gardens, green with ornamental shrubs, were ringed by commercial buildings four storeys high ; no edifice among them was ancient or broken or mean. Few residential houses were small, for the greater part of the working population lived on the smart modern housing estate in the dormitory-suburb of Ferryville, on the far side of the lake. Prosperity was stamped upon the town ; every man had his place in society, his own business, his job, great or small, depending, though indirectly, upon the, port.

The glory of Bizerta is the canal, a natural channel 26o yards wide and nearly forty feet deep, made clean by art and the dredger. Bordered throughout its length by docks and quays, and in places by green lawns and flower-beds, it may be traversed by a ferry, large enough for lorries and cars, that conveys southern traffic to the main town on the north bank of the canal. Bizerta could not (as often stated) receive the largest ships in the world ; the Queen Mary' could not even enter the avant-port, and the quaff vertical, set aside for mail-steamers, has but 29 feet depth. Large warships (their bulk limited by the dimensions of the Panama Canal) can, however, pass through. the channel into the Bay of Sibra—still lined with quays—and thence into the Lake of Bizerta, a lagoon covering 28,00o acres, upwards of 3o feet deep. On the southern shore stands the arsenal of Sidi Abdullah, with great underground stores ; beyond lie the sea-plane base and the aerodrome of Sidi Ahmed, with its railway station ; at the farther end lies Ferryville, the garden-suburb, with the naval station, now in ruins. Every man in Ferryville was dependent, directly or otherwise, upon the navy. The defences of this place were reputed to be tremendous, yet it fell to United States forces in a few hours. Beyond the lake lie hills of olives and corn, Arab villages and vineyards of the colonial French ; but not from local agriculture did Bizerta draw its limited, but indefeasible, wealth. It has been built up of naval appropriations and the taxes of regions far away. Hence the com- mercial uses of Bizerta were 'neglected or sacrificed to defence ; and the old medina, for two thousand years a great trading-centre, remained in want while the naval settlement flourished.

Bizerta is the only good port on the Tunisian coast ; it is the best natural harbour between Bardia and Bone. Tunis, as -a haven for ships, is not only bad, but ludicrous ; this settlement older than Carthage, this persistently vital trading-site, is built on the wrong side of a lagoon two feet deep, which cuts it off from the sea more effectively than five miles of dry ground. Over these shallows French enterprise has built a canal which gives entry to ships up to 5,000 tons ; but larger vessels must lie off La Goulette, the seaward port, which offers but poor shelteY against the north-cast winds that blow with tornado force into the gulf. None the less, Tunis, the inconvenient port, controls the commerce ; and, perhaps by intent, the bulk of Tunisian imports avoid Bizerta.

Though the network of road and rail had strategic design, the trade of Bizerta was ill-served by the railway. Southward from Tunis runs a narrow-gauge line, linked with the phosphate railroad to Sfax ; but Bizerta and the North use the broad Algerian gauge. In consequence, all goods coming from the South to the north-west must break bulk in Tunis, an arrangement fatal to the use of Bizerta as a point of export. The Tunis-Bizerta railway makes a detour inland towards Matear, so that the journey is too kilometres by rail, though only 65 by a well-contoured road. There are no through-trains from Algeria to Bizerta (change at Djedeida) ; nor had the French company troubled to complete the railway on the northern coast, in order to link Bizerta through Tabarka to Bone. This splendid harbour must be kept clear for the uses of the naval base, not cumbered with commercial traffic.

Bizerta today, we read, is a heap of ruins. Through the debris rumbled the United States ranks, when the last machine-gun had ceased to fire and commanders could gaze around on that victory that is desolation. Did my lace-makers, I. wonder, flee in time to escape the holocaust?