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Day 73: Hassi-Messaoud

Michael Palin - SaharaI feel thoroughly disorientated. I saw with my own eyes last night that we were in the middle of the desert, but this morning I step out of our hut to find it surrounded by tall swaying trees. Green lawns and flower beds border the road to the communal dining block. Hassi-Messaoud means 'the well of the man called Messaoud', and I can't imagine he would recognise his watering hole since the oil men got here. A network of electric pumps works round the clock to bring water up from hundreds of feet below the surface, enough to support 15,000 trees and 40,000 people. This tiny postage stamp of greenery, this blip in the wastes of the Sahara, has flocks of ducks and herds of goats, palm trees producing the very finest deglet noir dates, cows producing four barrels of milk a day, tennis courts, schools, swimming pools, fountains and a cinema.

This eerie similarity to a piece of provincial France is not accidental.

When oil was first discovered in the desert in the 1950s, Algeria was an integral part of France, not a colony, but a series of départements, as much a part of the mother country as Aveyron or Vaucluse. The French purred with pleasure at the news of this first-ever discovery of oil on its territory and immediately put in the investment needed to retrieve it, creating, amongst other things, the man-made oasis of Hassi-Messaoud.

At almost the same time, however, the Algerian uprising began and by 1962 France was forced to grant full independence to its most obstinately defended African possession. The French dream of a Saharan equivalent of North Sea oil finally died in 1971, when the Algerian oil industry was nationalised, without a cent of compensation to the French government.
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  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 73
  • Country/sea: Algeria
  • Place: Hassi-Messaoud
  • Book page no: 203

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