The Barricades

(La barricade) est également le symbole d’une fracture entre Français: d’un côté les Français de métropole las de cette guerre et qui soutiennent la proposition d’autodétermination du président de Gaulle, et d’autre part, les Français d’Algérie qui se sentent trahis et abandonnés.

(The barricade) is also the symbol of a split in French (public opinion): on the one hand, the people of mainland France who are sick of this war and support De Gaulle’s proposal for home rule, and on the other, the French of Algeria who feel betrayed and abandoned.

-Wiképedia


Allons, enfants de la patrie, le jour de gloire est arrivé…..”, whistling the French national anthem through trembling lips, clasping his hands above his head in a sign of victory, punching the air and waving to the militants perched on top of the piles of masonry, T kept on walking towards the barricade. He could see the bright afternoon sunlight glinting off the gun barrels trained on him.

He had gone out that morning to join the crowds straight after the ceasefire announcement on the 19th of March, 1962, as he was itching to shake the hands of FLN fighters— those heroes who had, against all odds, beaten the French fighting machine, who had defied the military might of France and won. A real David and Goliath struggle, from which David seemed to have emerged victorious once more.

T had been searching for an FLN barricade, to see his idols in the flesh and thank them personally, and above all, to see their flag flying proudly against the blue sky of Algiers. For once, the fidayine were out on the streets of Algiers, not hiding in the warren of the Casbah or up in the mountains of Kabylie. He suddenly spied what seem to be an FLN barricade in the distance and, waving his arms enthusiastically, started running towards it.

Suddenly, he came to a screeching halt. Through the oily black smoke from the burning tyres, he saw, to his horror, the red, white and blue French tricolour flapping in the breeze. Pure unadulterated terror surged through his veins, icy daggers straight to the heart. His chest tightened and his eyes widened in panic. If he turned and ran, he wouldn’t stand much of a chance. If he kept on walking, he could perhaps be taken for a pied noir and so bluff his way through.

His mind made up, he began walking towards the barricade on shaky legs, whistling La Marseillaise and waving at the extremists perched on top of the pile of masonry, who lowered their guns and responded in kind. Still waving, he kept on walking — past the barricade — until he reached the next street corner. Once out of sight, he began to sprint down the street to safety. How stupid would that have been? To die once the war was more or less over bar the shouting?

When the ceasefire had finally been declared, many pieds noirs had refused to accept it. The “enemy” was seen as threatening their homes, well-being and culture, and were  repeatedly dehumanized and debased, portrayed as barbarous and cruel. So the extremists defied the authorities by setting up a number of barricades on the streets of Algiers.

Barricades, usually constructed out of bricks, paving stones, old furniture, burning tyres and any other objects to hand, have never been seen in Britain, but are very much in the French tradition of rebellion. Although present in various incidents of the French Revolution of 1789, they had never played a central role. The nineteenth century, however, had been the classic era of the barricade, with the ramshackle constructions a highly visible element in many of the insurrections occurring in France during that turbulent century, including the June Rebellion of 1832, smaller in scale than others, but made famous by Victor Hugo’s account in Les Misérables.

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The problem was that, even after the ceasefire had been declared, Algiers was still a dangerous place to be. No longer were Algerians seen by the French as human, only as enemies and threats, so the OAS (Organisation de l’Armée Secrète) had been gunning down anyone who appeared to be Algerian, even following the ambulances transporting the wounded so as to finish them off when they were lying on their stretchers. The fidayine were also often jumpy and trigger-happy.

Even before the ceasefire, T and his friends had been forced to take every precaution on their way to school. Anxiety sat below their smiles, their actions, their silly jokes, as they walked past blocks of flats and other buildings, keeping a wary eye on the windows, conscious that behind every shutter, every drawn curtain, could be a sniper with his gun trained on them, their heads in his crosshairs. Other students had apparently been killed in this way, whether by accident or design it is hard to tell.

There were, however, many pieds noirs who did not agree with the way the war was being conducted. Fellow students with communist parents supported the Algerian fight for independence, even participating in pro-FLN demonstrations. T’s teachers had also never discriminated against “Arab”  students; they treated everyone equally and showed no favouritism towards their own kind. T managed to maintain his excellent grades, despite the tense political situation and the many dangers lurking outside.

No-one knew what might happen the following day; no-one knew when the hostilities would end. One day in February, 1962, just before the ceasefire announcement, T had refused to attend classes as another student strike was on the cards. He received a letter from the headmaster of his school the very next day, threatening him with expulsion if he did not desist from his intention “de poursuivre une grève illimitée jusqu’un gouvernement compétent, résolu et adéquat puisse assurer à tous la sécurité qu’ils sont en droit d’attendre.” (to continue an indefinite strike until a competent, resolute and adequate government can ensure that every citizen has the secure environment that is his right). Slightly surrealist thinking — to be punished when his demands were entirely commendable.

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Letter from T’s headmaster

When he had stumbled upon the French barricade, his European looks had saved his life, but a few days later, they were, on the contrary, to cause him almost to lose it. Again he was in search of an FLN barricade and had set off that morning from Maison Carrée determined this time to find one.

After a few hours of walking, he finally reached Parliament Square – la place du Cheval  or du Duc d’Orléans, as it was called by the French settlers. Then he saw him — a fidai — a freedom fighter, dressed in camouflaged glory and holding a MAT 49, the iconic French submachine gun, used at Dien Bien Phu and all over Algeria.

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As T began to walk towards him, admiration in his eyes, wanting to clasp his hand in gratitude, the fidai immediately slid a bullet into the the chamber and took aim. To the fighter, T looked like any other French settler, with his pale skin, straight brown hair and European features.

T’s first instinct had been to flee and put as much distance as possible between himself and the gun. It would, in fact, have been a fatal mistake, as he would immediately have been cut down by a bullet in the back. Luckily his muscles were paralysed by fear and his brain too fried to take action.

Instead he shouted desperately, “Wesh kayan?” (What’s wrong?), his voice quavering and his arms raised in the classic gesture of surrender.  The fidai (FLN urban fighter) looked firstly taken aback, then slightly disappointed. “Anta arbi? Rouht nahtilak haba fi rassek! ” (You’re Arab? I was going to put a bullet in your head!)

If T had not then instinctively shouted out in Arabic, causing the fidai to hesitate and put up his gun, he would soon have been lying cold and lifeless in the street. Just another anonymous corpse, lined up next to others like a row of fallen dominos, ready to be thrown into a mass grave. Dead at twenty-one years of age, without his family ever knowing what had happened to him.

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Makesh

If there’s one word in Algerian Arabic or darija that I absolutely loathe, it is makesh or makensh. This harsh-sounding, two-syllable word means, quite simply, “No, there isn’t any.” It was usually mumbled sotto voce, accompanied by an indifferent shrug, or snapped out with the kind of expression of gleeful sadism seen on the face of a person who has just pulled the wings off a fly.

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If all this seems a bit fanciful to you, it is because whenever you entered a grocer’s in Algeria during the late seventies and eighties, any query as to the availability of absolutely anything would be met with this response. So much so, that when the answer was, on very rare occasions, “Kayin,” (we have some), you almost felt like falling to your knees and kissing the shopkeeper’s feet. Almost.

How had it come to this?

When I had first gone out to Algeria in 1969, there was plenty of everything. Much more than was available in Britain at the time. Not only were there familiar brands — Omo and Persil washing powders, Nestlé chocolate and so on — but there was much more fresh fruit and vegetables, seafood, meat and delicious crusty bread. Pasteurised milk was sold in returnable glass litre bottles and wine bought freely over the counter at the grocer’s. The downside was that there was no frozen food available and very few canned goods. But hey! — who needed them when there was so much fresh produce around?

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Most small grocers’ shops were owned by Mozabites —  Ibadi Berbers from the M’zab valley in the northern Sahara.  The shops not owned by Mozabites belonged to Moroccans, who had often been in Algeria for generations. Both communities had commerce in their blood, and they would bring stock in from various sources so that the shelves in their little shops were always groaning under the weight of merchandise.

Their shops would stay open from very early in the morning until late at night, weekends and bank holidays included. I found this refreshingly different from the British trading hours of my childhood, with the half-day closing once a week and shop doors locked and bolted at 5pm. It was quite thrilling for me to be able to do our grocery shopping at seven o’clock in the evening, when T returned from work. In a way, the Mozabite grocers’ shops foreshadowed the Indian corner shops of Britain of the seventies and eighties -— open all hours.

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Of course, given there was no trading standards agency, the quality of produce bought in their small shops was not always the best, and you would sometimes find maggots wriggling out of your wedge of brie or a suspicious white bloom on your bar of Nestlé chocolate. There were no “best before” dates. In general, though, they did a good job, importing their stock or buying it from the many small privately-owned Algerian companies that had been manufacturing food products for years, including coffee, dried foods, bottled locally-produced olive oil and fizzy drinks.

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Then three decisions taken at government level were to change the Algerian shopping experience for ever. Firstly, the then president, Boumediene, decided to stop practically all imports, forcing people to buy locally-produced goods instead. Mozabites and Moroccans were no longer allowed import licences. All well and good, you might say, but often the quality of local goods wasn’t the same and there was sometimes no choice at all. For example, instead of imported Omo, Persil and Bonux detergents, we now had only one, made in Algeria.

Secondly, Boumediene thought that, as Algeria was, in theory at least, a socialist country,  privately-owned companies or factories should not exist. Algerian production was to be handed over to huge state-owned conglomerates, cutting out the small family-owned businesses. Suddenly, a plethora of state-owned companies sprang up, of which the names all began with SON- or EN- (SOciété Nationale or ENtreprise Nationale) – i.e. the National Company of Whatever. These companies were the only ones licensed to import raw materials. So, of course, with no competition, either from abroad or from the private sector, the Algerian consumer became their unwilling hostage.

Thirdly, when the quasi-war with Morocco began in around 1975, due to a dispute over the former Spanish Sahara, many Moroccans living in Algeria were deported to Morocco, transported to the border by bus and dumped there by the Algerian authorities. Some of them had never been to Morocco in their lives and had no family left there. Many of them had been born and bred in Algeria, but had always been refused Algerian nationality. Their grocer’s shops were “requisitioned.”

And so the shortages began. It happened gradually at first. You might be out shopping one day and suddenly think, “I’m sure there used to be blue tins of condensed milk for sale as well as the red ones of evaporated… or perhaps I imagined it?” Yes, condensed milk, a favourite of Algerians for its sweet, creamy taste, was nowhere to be found.

Olive oil became as elusive as liquid gold— and almost as expensive. Butter? Nowhere to be found for at least a year. On the rare occasions we managed to obtain some, it was always rancid, even the little pats of butter that came with airline meals. The sole Algerian detergent went missing from grocery shelves for months. Clothes had to be washed in the bathtub using blocks of household soap – the famous savon de marseille – until that disappeared as well.

If by chance, you managed to locate a supply of butter, oil or whatever, you usually had to buy something else along with it — the famous ventes concommitantes (concurrent or simultaneous sale). For example, the hapless customer wishing to buy a kilo of butter would be forced to buy some iron panel-beaters as well.  This was usually surplus stock imported by the State for no discernible reason, with some faceless official probably pocketing a fat commission. So the customer would find  himself constrained to buy a couple of useless iron objects when all he had wanted to do was to purchase something to spread on his breakfast tartines.

Of course, after sometimes months during which a certain essential ingredient was unavailable, it would suddenly reappear -— at twice or three times its original price. People would be so happy to see it again, they were willing to pay the artificially-inflated price. On this basis, colossal fortunes were made by food traffickers — les millionaires du légume.

Wine and other alcoholic drinks disappeared from grocers’ shelves, to be dispensed with parsimony by state-owned caves or wine cellars. Of course, religion had something, if not everything, to do with this decision. Anybody working for the ONCV, l’Office national de commercialisation des produits vitivinicoles, or the Algerian national wine company, was often treated worse than a pariah, somebody unclean — a kafir (infidel), simply because they were handling something haram, or proscribed by Islam.

Bottled pasteurised milk, although its taste was always somewhat sour for a British palate, also disappeared, to be replaced by plastic bags full of a nauseating liquid, reconstituted from imported powdered milk. Of course, it was much easier to whip up a batch of milk from powder than to feed, tend and breed herds of dairy cattle. Later on, tons of powdered milk were imported, so the State could cut out the middle man and leave the consumer to mix up his milk himself.

The price of fish and seafood became prohibitive, as Algerian fishermen would meet up with foreign fishing vessels in the middle of the Mediterranean and sell them their catch for much-coveted foreign currency. So, in a country with a thousand kilometre-coastline, fish became too expensive for an ordinary citizen to buy on a regular basis.

In the end, we were reduced to eating a diet worthy of a Stalinist gulag or some backward, land-bound Soviet satellite nation. But there is always a flip-side to every coin. My children never had access to junk food because it simply didn’t exist in Algeria. They ate fresh food every day, No tinned or preserved goods. Sugary treats were rare, except the weekly indulgence of a pastry from the local patisserie. No pizza, except homemade. No crisps, no fizzy drinks. No sweets. Dessert was usually fresh, seasonal fruit.

Perhaps it wasn’t so bad after all.

The Day The Earth Stood Still

Il est doux d’essuyer, d’une main secourable,

Des larmes d’un ami que le malheur accable.

It is bittersweet to wipe, with a helping hand,

The tears of a friend weighed down by misfortune.

Étienne Vigée: Les aveux difficiles (1783)


Tiens, tu as du courrier.” (Here, there’s a letter for you.) The pion was holding an envelope out to T., who lifted his head in surprise. Drawing his brows together, and holding it gingerly between his thumb and forefinger as if it were an unexploded bomb, he looked at it uncomprehendingly. A letter? For him?

After bringing the serving plates to the canteen table around which T and his friends were sitting, the pion had returned with the letter.  For those who don’t know the French educational system, a pion is usually a university student earning some extra cash by working as a school monitor or quasi-prefect. Prefects are not chosen from amongst sixth form pupils, as in Britain.

He ran his finger under the flap of the envelope, took out the letter, unfolded it  and started reading it under the curious gaze of his friends. They seemed to sense that it contained bad news, which it did — very bad news. T. lifted his head and stared at his friends, his eyes blank and unseeing, as the world around him seemed to fall away.  His heart was still beating — it hadn’t stopped — but his chest felt hollow. He carefully refolded the letter and put it back into its envelope, his hands moving as if some inexperienced puppeteer were controlling them remotely.

The letter, from the French military command,  informed him, in no uncertain terms, that his request for a deferment of his national service had been refused, as it had missed the deadline by a whisker.  He would have to report to barracks the following October, barely a few months away. T’s throat seemed to close up, but he managed to croak, “My request for a deferment has been refused; I’ve been called up!”

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His friends did not seem overly saddened by this news, with only Kamel remaining silent. They made a few tasteless jokes at T’s expense, and Salah, clasping his hands to his chest, had declaimed, in the best melodramatic tradition,”Alas, what a shame! To see such a promising career cut short — a future in ruins! Such a loss for humanity! SO tragic!” before turning back to his meal without further ado. T. pushed his plate towards Kamel — he had suddenly lost his appetite.

The pieds noirs had just set up the rebel Comités de Salut Publique (Committees for Public Safety) in most of Algeria’s big cities. Their more extremist members were calling for the return of an elderly retired general, called Charles de Gaulle, to manage the worsening situation in Algeria, and wanted those fighting for Algerian independence to be eliminated once and for all — and by any means necessary.

Their term for this was pacification (peacekeeping), a euphemism for military intervention. It was easier to make the general public swallow this escalation of violence when it was used in terms of guaranteeing security rather than those of increasing violent repression. But they had learnt the thrill of the kill, the sick joy that comes with indiscriminate  violence and destruction, and their tactic of pacification would begin its inexorable slide into genocide. Genocide — eight letters to describe more murder and pain than the human mind can comprehend.

T’s mind careered around like a runaway horse, headed in new and terrible directions, and, try as he might, he could not rein it in. Without a deferment, he could no longer stay on at school. The only thing left for him was to choose how he wanted to die. He could go ahead and be conscripted into the French army, but by doing this he would bring not only shame on his family by joining the enemy’s ranks, but risked being killed in the very next ambush of a French army patrol by FLN forces.

Or he could desert, go underground and join the maquis with others from his village. With hindsight, he probably wouldn’t have lasted a month. As a result of la bleuïte, the campaign of whispers and rumours fomented by capitaine Léger, all students joining the maquis were considered as potential traitors and coldly executed as such by the very fighters they had gone to join.

For T, it was as if the world had suddenly ground to a halt. What was even worse — he had nobody to help or advise him. He did not tell anyone when he went back to the bakery that evening – not his mother or brothers and especially not his uncles. He knew full well that they would push him to join the maquis, seeing it as a heaven-sent opportunity to get rid of him for good.

He started desperately searching  for a solution.  How could he go directly to the French military to plead his case when the FLN had a reputation for slitting the throat of anyone they suspected of being a traitor? Strangely enough, it was one of his pied noir classmates who helped him out by telling him about a little-known school office whose officials apparently were there to assist any student with problems relating to their conscription.

So, after classes the very next day, T found himself knocking hesitantly on the door of an office hidden in the bowels of the school building. It opened to reveal the smiling face of a pied noir, who ushered T in with further ceremony. After listening to his story, monsieur Mundweiler, for that was his name, swiftly reassured the frightened teenager. No, it wasn’t too late; yes, he could help him; yes, he knew the people to contact to have T’s case reviewed before his call-up date.

T began to see a glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel that had seemed, a few minutes before, like a black hole waiting to swallow him up.

Monsieur Mundweiler helped T compose letters requesting a new deferment of his call-up on the grounds that he had lost his father and was the sole mainstay of his family. The official also found out the names of the organisations to which they were to be sent, and even aided him in the drafting of his responses. He suggested that T sign up for a military training course — a PME or Préparation Militaire Elémentaire,  giving him a maximum number of points which might sway the members of the Conseil de Révision (Military Service Tribunal) in his favour when making their final decision.

So it was in a Army camp located somewhere between Belfort and Bellevue that T found himself every Thursday, sweating with fear, balancing on a narrow wooden beam placed six metres from the ground. He would crawl on his stomach under camouflage nets fixed close to the ground, clasping a rifle against his chest, and haul himself bodily up ropes dangling from the ceiling. As he was only seventeen and a half years of age, he was in peak physical condition, and had no difficulties in completing the daunting obstacle courses. He also found out that he was an extraordinarily gifted sharpshooter.  If nothing else, a career as a sniper lay ahead of him.

This military training had certain lasting effects, some of which I noted when I came to know him better. He hated heights. He always won the cuddly toy when we went into shooting galleries along the Promenade on visits to my parents in Blackpool. He could pull himself to the top of a climbing rope using only his arms. All this under the admiring gaze of someone who couldn’t even climb up a metre of a climbing rope in school gym lessons, even when using her feet, and would end up twisting and turning forlornly on the end of the rope like a fob on a watchchain.

T earned in this way the maximum three hundred and forty-one points. He finally obtained a response from the French military authorities in November 1960, after a wait of eighteen months, saying that the decision concerning his conscription had been postponed until 1962. By that time, of course, Algeria was independent.

Whatever the circumstances, generalisation is, at best, an inefficient method of judging people and, although most pieds noirs were inherently racist, there is no doubt in my mind at all that T is here today thanks to a sympathetic classmate and a minor school official called Mundweiler.

 

Surprise, Surprise!

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I have always hated surprises. No, really. I like my life to be planned out, and for me to know exactly what I’m doing, for days, if not for weeks ahead. Call me obsessive, a control freak, what you will – to me, it is the only way I feel safe. I always had a slight tendency to be like that, anyway, but Algeria just magnified this failing, blowing it up to monstrous proportions.

Unfortunately, I have a husband who just loves springing surprises on me. Usually involving his arrivals. Either he arrives early or late, but never when I expect him. He has even refined his torture technique to the point that he will, when the mood takes him, pretend to be stuck somewhere miles away, when he is just about to put his key in the lock of the front door.

When we were at university, he would go back to Algeria during the long summer vacation to spend time with his family. University vacations are seemingly endless – three months in summer – so he’d spend a good four weeks in Algiers. I’d usually fill in the time alone by working at a temporary summer job, usually for pressing financial reasons. Even though I had the maximum grant, it still didn’t stretch through the summer.

The first year, I decided to go down to London to stay with my sister in her Pimlico bedsitter. That juxtaposition of the words “Pimlico” and “bedsitter” seems to be a contradiction in terms, doesn’t it? But it was still possible, in the sixties, to live in one of the most sought-after central London locations for just a few pounds a week. I soon found a job with Reader’s Digest in their offices near the Old Bailey and would trek back to Pimlico every evening, sometimes stopping off at a mini-supermarket to buy a few things for supper.

T had been gone for a few weeks and although I was receiving letters on a regular basis, I had no idea when he was due back. I had been moping around with a long face for weeks and was becoming seriously tiresome. Thankfully, however, my sister had the patience of a saint.

One evening, clutching my few purchases in a brown paper bag, I trailed up the three flights of stairs to my sister’s bedsitter and heard the sound of the radio on the other side of the closed door. My first thought was that she had been taken ill and had decided to come home to sleep it off. Even when I pushed the door open, finding it unlocked, and saw a large suitcase standing there, I didn’t catch on.  It was only when T leapt out from under the bedcovers where he had been hiding in anticipation of my arrival, did I react, and only then after a few seconds of goggling like a landed fish at the expanse of tanned skin and the wide grin on display.

He did exactly the same thing the following year. I had decided to stay in Sheffield during the summer and had found a job at the Yorkshire Electricity Board offices to pay the rent on my shared flat. One evening, one of the other Algerian students, a Kabyle called Chérif, he of the impossibly beautiful face and the long, curled eyelashes, and his girlfriend, took pity on me, inviting me over to their place for supper. I can still remember the menu. It was garlic veal and potatoes, cooked in the same pot.

All evening, Chérif had been teasing me, pointing at some indeterminate spot behind me when we went for a drink afterwards at the Union, a look of surprise on his face. Of course, I’d think T was standing there behind me and would whip round in my seat. In the street on the way home, he’d suddenly exclaim. “Isn’t that him over there?”

I was at the end of my tether by the time we arrived back at my flat to watch a bit of television and hardly reacted when Chérif said, “I can hear someone at the door! Perhaps it’s him!” Just to prove him wrong, I angrily strode over to the door and, wrenching it open, was confronted with a surprised-looking T, who hadn’t even had time to knock. I was so shocked I didn’t recognize him for a nanosecond, wondering what this handsome stranger wearing a suit and carrying a suitcase was doing on my doorstep. Perhaps a seriously good-looking vacuum tool salesman?

He’d do the same thing when my birthday rolled around, pretending to forget to wish me a happy birthday on the pretext that exams were only a few days away, ignoring me all morning whilst revising, then, after lunch, when I had worked myself into a state of righteous indignation, have all our friends jump out with presents, birthday cards and a cake.

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What began as a joke in Sheffield quickly turned sour once we moved to Algeria. The unpredictability of life over there only added fuel to the bonfire of my anxiety. Besides, in Britain, I hadn’t yet been traumatized by my husband’s serious car accident so soon after the birth of our son. I can fully appreciate the fact that communications were bad, as well as the punctuality of Air Algérie flights, but surely a timetable of “around the twenty-seventh, give or take a few days” would not satisfy the most laid-back of spouses, never mind a worrier like me?

So it was that I’d fret for days, starting at every sound or rattle of the gate, especially when the twenty-seventh had been and gone. Obviously, the “give” was more accurate than the “take.” To be fair, he has since explained that giving me an exact date would have been more worrying for me, so he preferred to give himself a wide margin, as sometimes unforeseen circumstances could crop up. Hmm. There IS a kind of skewed logic in this, as our telephone was often cut off for months on end.

So when my small son would lean excitedly out of the window at nine o’clock at night, shouting, “C’est Papa! C’est Papa!” (It’s Daddy! It’s Daddy!) a few days before his father’s expected arrival, I wouldn’t believe it until I had actually seen – and touched – my husband in the flesh.

He was once away when my parents arrived for a visit. It was only a matter of a few days between their arrival and his, but I was feeling resentful. My parents didn’t mind in the slightest, but I did. He had been due back one evening (give or take a few days) and we had been listening anxiously as various planes droned overhead. We had already been doing this for a couple of nights and the waiting was getting to me. Midnight came and went and still no T.

I finally gave up and took myself off to bed. Lying there, I could feel my stomach churn and hot tears well up in my eyes. Suddenly, I heard my Dad talking to someone, his voice surprised and happy. Then I heard another male voice reply. It was my husband. Leaping out of bed and running down the corridor, I saw him standing there, loaded down with suitcases and duty-free bags, in animated conversation with my father. The children soon woke up when they heard their father’s voice and started excitedly opening the many bags.

I can remember standing there, looking at him, with a feeling of overwhelming relief swelling my heart — yet mixed with anger at the emotional wringer through which he was constantly putting me. To be perfectly fair, I really think he had no idea of the effect it had on me.

I really, REALLY don’t like surprises – even happy ones.

Back To School

Les amis : une famille dont on a choisi les membres.

Friends: a family whose members you have chosen.

-Alphonse Karr


“T’as quel âge, dis? Combien de fois t’as redoublé?” (How old are YOU then? How often have you repeated your year?)

T. glanced down at the small fourteen-year-old boy squinting up at him. On his new classmate’s face was an expression of barely repressed glee, his slanting black eyes triumphant and his mouth twitching upwards on the left, dimpling his cheek. He was smartly dressed in tight trousers, shoes polished to within an inch of their life, and a carefully-ironed shirt and tie. His wiry black curls had been plastered down with brilliantine and carefully combed to one side.

There could not have been more of a contrast with T.  One of the unfair things in life is that when a boy reaches a certain height, he is expected to be a man, regardless of his age, and T had simply reached it ahead of his peers. He had that shy look about him teenagers often get when they’ve grown too fast, like they aren’t really sure about being a man just yet. But his recent loss and new responsibilities had made his childhood a thing of the past.

Two years older than his classmates, his shoulders had broadened from working outdoors on the farm, and his face had already begun to lose the rounded contours of childhood, replaced by the defined bone structure of an adult. The beginnings of a downy moustache were visible on his upper lip and his shock of hair had been cropped short. His clothes, although relatively new, were already too small for him, barely reaching his bony wrists and ankles. Towering over his pint-sized interrogator, he didn’t bother answering, but contented himself with a noncommittal shrug.

His calm demeanour, however, belied the grit underneath. By the end of the first term, he had shot to the top of the class, but still felt compelled to revise every evening on his return home. Passing his exams and going on to university was his ticket out of his present situation — counting every penny and depending on his uncle for a tiny monthly pittance, barely enough to feed and clothe his family.

His classmates quickly revised their opinion of him.  Soon they were debating on whether they would keep him in their group of friends after all, as he was a little TOO conscientious for them. He brought down the tone of the whole gang, showing the rest of them up. Finally they opted to keep him – after all, he was useful when they wanted to copy their homework from someone.

 

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Class photo  – Back row, T third from the left, Ali second from the right. Front row, Salah second from the left and Mus second from the right. Henri is on T’s left.

Every school day from then on followed the same pattern. Every morning, T gulped down his bowl of café au lait downstairs in the bakery, breathing in the delicious scents of fresh bread, croissants and pastries. Breaking off the crusty end of a baguette and cramming it into his mouth on his way out, he would then sprint along the street to the Café de la Place, where his friend Kamel was waiting for him, nonchalantly leaning against a pillar and smoking a forbidden cigarette, the lighted end cupped against his palm so that nobody could see.

They would climb up the steep rue Arago together, stopping every now and then to catch their breath. The long winding street was lined with shops, Spanish bodegas and bars, of which the facades, still damp with morning dew, would glisten in the warmth of the sun. Some of the townhouses, festooned with curly wrought-iron balconies and stucco decorations, were covered with purple wisteria or creamy-white jasmine, the blooms adding their scent to the already heady smells of hot coffee and fresh bread seeping out from the numerous pavement cafés along their route.

Laughing and joking together like teenagers everywhere, they would suddenly fall silent when they saw an armed patrol coming towards them, machine guns at the ready. T’s heart would  be hammering in his ears, but he would manage to keep his gait casual with no hint of hesitation. Once the soldiers had passed them, it would take a while for the two boys to feel relaxed enough to start fooling around again.

T would surreptitiously lift the lapel of his jacket, to look at the badge with the FLN emblem — green and white with a red crescent and star in the middle — that he had pinned underneath. This emblem would become Algeria’s national flag after independence. Of course, it goes without saying that, if he had been caught with this badge, his fate would have been sealed.

Every morning, T. hoped to catch sight of one particular young lady, who, walking along the opposite pavement, and under T’s insistent gaze, would wave shyly at him. Of course, Kamel did not hesitate to make fun of him; laughing uproariously at his friend’s blushes and gleefully mocking his timidity. It never went any further than an exchange of glances — T never even knew her name, never spoke to her, but it was the first time since his father’s death that he felt that his life was beginning to return to something approaching normal.

Once they had arrived at the school gates, they would meet up with the rest of their friends. Salah, the jovial onewas the small boy who had impertinently asked T’s age at the beginning of the school year, and would eventually accompany T to Britain seven years later; Ali, the handsome one — as suave and elegant as any Italian, with the knife-edge crease to his trousers and the wavy black hair; and Mustapha – Mus — the fiery one, the cherished only son of a gendarme. Kamel, with his Elvis-style quiff, was the laid-back one of the group, and T. the serious one. They formed a tightly-knit group of friends, always looking out for each other.

They had to, because they were, in fact, the only four arabes in a class of thirty-four pupils. All their other classmates were pied noir, with names like Robert, Henri, Pierre and Noel. Sometimes, in the early years, there were tense discussions between the two sides about the political and social situation in Algeria. They would gather together in the schoolyard and put forward their opposing points of view.

The pied noir students tried to explain that their fathers or grandfathers had arrived in Algeria with barely a sou to their name, and that they had worked hard to clear the land and drain the salt flats to make them suitable for farming. They had then planted orange groves and  vineyards, not forgetting the buildings, blocks of flats and villas that they had constructed— all linked by an extensive road network, every road with its plane or eucalyptus trees standing sentinel on each side.

On the other side, T and his friends protested that their ancestors had been there centuries before the French, only to be relegated now to the status of second-class citizens, treated worse than animals, subjected to abuse, dispossession and deprived of even the most basic of human rights. The war that was being fought in the mountains and the cities of Algeria was being reproduced there in the schoolyard, although the weapons of choice were barbed remarks and not rifles or bombs.

But the situation was gradually deteriorating and the relations between “Arab” and pied noir students became less and less convivial, until the two groups were barely speaking to each other. There was an invisible barrier between them. It had always existed, but had become almost tangible, with the pied noir students even being forced to undergo military training at weekends to learn how to use firearms.

One of T’s classmates, Henri, a good friend until then, had slapped T good-naturedly on the back one Monday morning before class, and, puffing out his chest and with a visible swagger, exclaimed. “It’s a shame I didn’t come across you in the street yesterday, vieux! I would have put a bullet through your brain without a second thought!”

Comic Book Hero

La bande dessinée c’est l’évasion.
Comics are a form of escape.
– Grzegorz Rizinski

Jeddi! Jeddi! (Grandad! Grandad!) Did you bring my comics?”

T’s father had just finished parking his Citroën in front of the boulangerie on the main square of Maison Carrée, when T, aged eight, hurtled towards it and started pulling frantically at the car door handle. Continue reading

Harvest Home

In my belief, a harvest is also a legacy, for very often what you reap is, in the way of small miracles, more than you consciously know you have sown.

-Faith Baldwin


“Please, sir,” T. pleaded, “My brother isn’t fourteen yet. It’s only October, and his birthday isn’t until November. Just let him stay until then, and if he doesn’t work hard, he’ll leave.”  He was sitting in the headmaster’s study, holding his younger brother’s hand tightly in his, and trying to look grown-up and responsible. Trying to stay strong for K’s sake. Continue reading