“For its ordinariness is what strikes one first about the town or Oran, which is merely a large French port on the Algerian coast, headquarters of the prefect of a French department.
The town itself, let us admit, is ugly. It has a smug, placid air and you need time to discover what it is that makes it different from so many business centers in other parts of the world. How to conjure up a picture, for instance, of a town without pigeons, without any trees or gardens, where you never hear the beat of wings or the rustle of leaves—a thoroughly negative place, in short?”1
Albert Camus’s The Plague is set entirely in the coastal town of Oran in Algiers, where a plague leads to the entire population being quarantined within the city’s walls. Camus presents his absurdist view of existence by placing his characters in a seemingly futile situation of living in the shadow of death while working toward goals that seem impossible to achieve. The book is a more positive exploration of similar ideas that appear in The Stranger, but the work’s relationship to its setting is intriguing. When I first read it, I was surprised that Camus had attributed the events of the book to a real “ugly” city, and wonder how the citizens of Oran have viewed the book.
Oran was founded in 903 as a Moorish trading post. The value of Oran’s location on the Mediterranean has led to its control changing frequently over the centuries. For its first 600 years, Oran came under the control of various Islamic dynasties before falling under Spanish and then Ottoman control. In the 1830s the French took control of the city, which they maintained until 1962. In 1940 the Gulf of Oran was the site of a British naval attack on part of the French fleet in effort to prevent a complete German takeover of the the French ships.
Camus was born in French Algiers, and would have been familiar with Oran, the second largest city in Algeria after Algiers.
A Mapping Puzzle
Part of the fun of mapping books, comes from the challenge of locating certain described locations in the real world. For example, Camus clearly describes the municipal stadium that becomes a more strict quarantine area within the city for citizens who may have been directly exposed to the plague:
“The stadium lies on the outskirts of town, between a street along which runs a car line and a stretch of waste land extending to the extreme edge of the plateau on which Oran is built. It was already surrounded by high concrete walls and all that was needed to make escape practically impossible was to post sentries at the four entrance gates.”2
He does not give a specific name to the stadium though, so for someone unfamiliar with the city, especially more than 60 years after the book’s publication, finding the specific location he had in mind takes some work.
Here are my preliminary thoughts: The Stade Alenda, now Stade Habib Bouakeul, was built in the thirties, and Camus likely played there during his time on the Racing Universitaire Algerios (RUA) junior team, and he may have had this stadium in mind when he was writing The Plague. The map below shows a stadium identified as Stade Habib Bouakeul on Open Street Maps, but I have been unable to even confirm its name (or the location of Stade Habib Bouakeul) through a second source. Its location near the edge of the city could fit the description.
Any ideas? Is the stadium in the map the Stade Habib Bouakeul? Is the Stade Habib Bouakeul, formerly the Stade Alenda, the most likely model for Camus’s “municipal stadium”? If you have been to Oran, know someone who has, or can solve this puzzle, let us know in the comments.
1Camus, Albert. The Plague. Trans. Stuart Gilbert. New York: A. A. Knopf, 1948. 3. Print.
2Camus, Albert. The Plague. Trans. Stuart Gilbert. New York: A. A. Knopf, 1948. 221. Print.
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