On the street, most women wear hijabs. But at late-night cabarets like the one we went to, young people dance, drink and, as Camus wrote in 1939, “meet, eye and size up one another, happy to be alive and to cut a figure.”
At midnight, when we arrived, the crowd seemed tentative, but when Cheba Dalila, a raï singer with a voice as deep as Nina Simone’s, came on at 2 a.m., the dance floor filled up. She strode with her microphone from table to table, collecting bills from people who paid to have their names mentioned in her songs. The bass was so loud I felt it in my belly. A woman in tight jeans wore a T-shirt that said “Detroit 1983”; pairs of men danced with women when their interest was plainly in each other. I took a photograph, but Mekahli’s son, Hadi, told me not to: “This place is run by the mafia.” The “mafia” makes its money on bootleg liquor and prostitutes. Some of the women at the nightclub were apparently for hire. “For me,” Mekahli said, “clubs like this are a reappropriation of Algerian identity. France doesn’t exist here. The people here are totally decolonized.”
I've not been to Oran but Shatz's description rings true with everything I've read about nightclubs and rai in Oran. The patrons of the nightclubs are typically the well-off of Oran (or other Algerian towns); prices are too steep for the young people who so love rai and constitute its core audience. They might expect to see rai live in performance at the occasional wedding or the big summer festivals sponsored by the state. The practice of collecting money from people who want their names mentioned in songs is described by Marc Schade-Poulsen in his 1999 book, Men and Popular Music in Algeria: The Social Significance of Raï. And yes, there are gays in Algeria, and in fact one of the most popular rai artists, Cheb Abdou, is openly effeminate, in a kind of Boy George, without being 'out.' And yes, the rai clubs have been mafia run for some time, and it is also likely that many of the patrons of the club that Shatz visited had made their money in the black market economy, in what is known as trabendo.
I had not heard of Cheba Dalila, but was glad to learn of her. Here's a clip of her in concert. Heavily autotuned, as has been the practice ever since the release of Chaba Djenet's hit "Kwit Galbi Wahdi" in 2000.
As an aside, I posted in 2011 about Kamel Daoud, columnist for Le Quotidien d'Oran, whose column is called "Raina Raikoum," in reference to a piece he did about harragas, as Algerian migrants who escape by boat are known. I learned from Shatz's piece that Daoud's younger brother is also a harraga.