Scarface

Scars are not signs of weakness, they are signs of survival and endurance.
― Rodney A. Winters


Andela a mmi?” (Where’s my son?) my father-in-law shouted as he strode through the door of his family home in Kabylie.  Married for just three years, T was his first-born son and, as such, doubly precious. Not only was he the first child, but he was a boy, the heir and, as such, the repository of all the family’s hopes.

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Yetus.” (He’s asleep), T’s mother responded nervously, backing away from her husband and pulling the blanket covering her son a little further up his sleeping face. T’s father, shrugging his shoulders, turned his attention to his evening couscous, without giving a second thought to the strangeness of his son being fast asleep at that hour. If he had taken a few minutes to have given more than a cursory glance at the child lying on the bed, he would have seen a large gaping wound on the bridge of his nose, a mess of raw and weeping flesh.

I first noticed T’s scar when we had been together a few months. It was a barely visible pale and shiny groove at the top of his high-arched nose, but it was clear that it had never been stitched or treated. His hand would go there automatically when he was deep in thought, his finger tracing its ridges and jagged edges. It detracted in no way from his good looks, however — at least to my eyes. When, one day,  I asked him what had caused it, he had just laughed and said, “I fell out of a window on to a dustbin.”

T’s mother had been barely eighteen when he had been born. She had been married at sixteen to an older man from a family with a mixed reputation, counting both schoolteachers and highwaymen amongst its members. Going straight from her parents’ care to that of her husband, she had never really matured or taken on any kind of responsibility.

She would spend hours playing with her baby as she would a doll, but would more often than not have her head in the clouds, singing and humming to herself as she went about her daily chores or sat dreamily combing her hair. She would give herself over to daydreams, which blossomed like spring flowers, unfurling a delicate petal at a time. She created for herself a fantasy world, a life within a life, without leaving the confines of her own home.

Her mother, Zayna, had taken over the day-to-day care of her grandson, even breastfeeding him along with her own two-year-old son. But that fateful day, she hadn’t been there and so T, toddling over to the open window, had crawled through it, falling on to the galvanised steel drum just below, the sharp metallic edge slicing through his flesh like a knife through butter.

Alerted to her child’s shrieks, my mother-in-law had leapt to her feet and rushed outside to find him lying on the ground, blood streaming down his face from the deep wound on his nose. His screams were high pitched and raw, the sound of a child in fear and pain. Scooping him up, she tried desperately to stem the blood with her dress. Pressing his face against her shoulder, she ran indoors, and, sitting on the floor, rocked him to and fro until his sobs quietened.

Looking down at his bloodstained face, she saw that his eyes were closed, great mauve shadows like bruises beneath them, the silky lashes lying on his pale cheeks like butterfly wings. He had suddenly gone quiet and strangely floppy, his head lolling as she held him.

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Fearing her husband’s reaction, she lay her drowsy son down on the bed and tucked the blanket around him. Of course, it was the worst thing she could have done, as T was probably suffering from concussion, but she didn’t know any better.

She had not been able to hide what had happened from her husband for very long, and I can’t even begin to imagine how he had reacted when he finally found out. If he was anything like his son, his anger would have been like ice, coating him like permafrost, and more difficult to deal with than red-hot rage.

It had not been the only accident to happen to T as a baby. When he had been a few months old, his mother had swaddled him tightly, as was the custom, and put him in a floppy woven basket called a couffin that she hung on a nail hammered into the wall at about head height. Of course, even though he was swaddled, T didn’t stay still, and, worked free by his movements, the nail gave way and he tumbled to the floor. The fact that he had been tightly bound probably saved his life, and he sustained no lasting injury from that mishap at least.

T survived both accidents, thank goodness, and wore his scar like a badge of honour, even earning the nickname Le Balafré (Scarface) from his schoolfriends. It sounded good to his ears, a little like one of the heroes in  the romans noirs he read so avidly, and he would puff out his chest and act accordingly.

During the first few months of our relationship, besotted as I was, I was enthralled with everything he did or said. He was so different from English boys. He would look at me with a cool, impenetrable stare and I had no idea what was going on in his head. I would gaze at my fingers entwined with his, tanned and foreign and unmistakably male, and suddenly noticed one day that there was a thin white tracing on the top of one hand, between his thumb and index finger – a mere snail’s trail of a scar.

Again the explanation was simple. He and his donkey had fallen down a ravine. Of course. Why hadn’t I thought of that?

After his father’s bankruptcy and their return to Kabylie, T, aged eleven, and his brother, two years younger, had been collecting dried grass for fodder one day. As befitted his status as the elder brother, T sat astride the donkey while his younger brother toiled away, gathering up the grass. Suddenly, the beast lost its footing on the steep, stony slope and slid, head over hooves, down into the ravine, dragging T along in its wake.

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The world whirled around him like a slow-motion kaleidoscope, the heavy body of the donkey rolling over and over next to him. One glancing blow from its hoof could easily have split his face open or caved his skull in. Finally, his body hit a rock and he came to a halt, all the breath knocked out of him. He lay stunned for a few minutes – anything to delay the moment when the pain would kick in.

The donkey had come to no harm at all and was soon cropping the juicy grass down by the river. The skin on T’s hand, however, had been practically torn to shreds by the sharp stones encountered on his way down. Sobbing, covered in blood, he scrambled up the slope, leaving the donkey to find its own way home. His father’s rough and ready treatment had been to plunge his son’s hand into a bowl filled with hydrogen peroxide and to tell him sternly to stop snivelling.

T was to garner more scars later in life —not least the long, jagged scar along his thigh when a stainless steel rod was inserted into his femur, fractured in his car accident, twelve days after the birth of our son. The final stitching up of the operation wound had been left to an inexpert junior doctor and the cicatrix on his thigh is broad and rough, like a washed-out fish bone reaching from his hip to his knee. Sometimes it aches like a ghostly echo of the scalpel that cut it so long ago.

I suppose his scars are the proof of his survival – each one the memory of when he nearly lost his life. Some scars are invisible, however, and loving him doesn’t give me the right to rummage though his head — to know every pain and doubt. It is enough that I know he carries his share.

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The White Lady

 “The bay is there, majestic, bathed in a dazzling light. The white City clings to the mountain slope that seems to float on a vast carpet of blue marble….

Akram Belkaid – Return to Algeria


 

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Algiers. Photo by Karen Rose.

Trembling, I stood there at the top of the plane stairs, shading my eyes and squinting in the bright sunshine. When the aircraft door had been opened a few moments before, the warm air had hit me like a blast from a hairdryer, blowing dust into my eyes and whipping my long hair into tangles across my face. My mouth felt dry and my stomach tight with apprehension as I followed the other passengers across the tarmac to the airport building.

I heaved a sigh of relief on seeing T waiting impatiently for me on the other side of immigration control and, after a perfunctory and unsatisfactory kiss, more reserved than usual because people were eyeing us with curiosity, he grabbed my suitcase and threw it into the boot of the company car that had been assigned to him. As we drove out of the car park on to a road that looked unfinished in comparison with British roads, I could see, planted in the middle of an otherwise empty bit of waste ground, a large plywood hoarding. On it was written in giant letters: ICI LA TERRE DU SOCIALISME.

Good start. It looked like something out of Orwell.

Because his permanent accommodation had still not been sorted out, T was living in the centre of Oran, at the Hôtel Martinez, an old fashioned hotel with creaky lifts straight out of an Agatha Christie novel. He was also recovering from double pneumonia, brought on by standing in the pouring rain one day waiting for the company bus driver to open the doors of his bus.

Alone in his hotel room, he had been hallucinating as his temperature spiked. He had finally gone to see a doctor, who confirmed that he had a shadow on both lungs. Convinced that this was the end, he was already making plans in his head to return to Britain to die. On telling the doctor his intentions, the latter had just laughed, patted him on the shoulder and given him the medication he needed, together with strict instructions not to fast, as it was Ramadan.

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He told me, with a wry smile, that the hotel waitress had practically thrown his breakfast at him every morning because he was not fasting. My first introduction to social and religious pressure à l’algérienne. It also meant that, as he was on sick leave, we could set off immediately for Algiers to meet his family – the next morning in fact.

The next day, on drawing back the dusty curtains of my hotel room, my mouth dropped open in surprise. The sunlight poured in through the window like molten lava and a brilliantly blue sky arched above me. Looking down, I saw real palm trees lining the street below, something I’d only ever seen on television or at the cinema. What a contrast to Liverpool, where, three days before, it had been snowing and was still dark outside at nine in the morning as I was calling my class register through lips that were sore and chapped from the cold.

Driving in the direction of Algiers along the old colonial roads bordered with plane trees, we went through a great number of villages and small towns all built, it seemed, along the same lines.  Two or three beautiful stucco villas would be situated at each end of the village. A main street would run through it, on each side of which rows of townhouses stood, shutters closed, festooned with curly wrought iron grilles and crumbling stone balconies.

The town hall would be proudly displaying the Algerian flag – although the words Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité or République Française could often still be faintly seen on its frontage – and there would be a small park with yellowing grass and a ramshackle bandstand. Although the sunlight was blinding and the colours seemed to be in Technicolour – the blue of the sky, the whitewashed buildings and the deep green of the orange groves where the fruit hung like great, golden globes from the branches – everything looked slightly frayed around the edges.

When we finally arrived in Algiers late that afternoon, T stopped the car at the top of one wide boulevard, which, fringed with palm trees and white-stuccoed buildings, swept down to the sea. The harbour sparkled in the winter sunshine, boats rocking at anchor, and a large white ferry churned its way slowly  towards the ruler line of the horizon where the two blues met. The air was clamorous with the sound of gulls, the sky patterned with their great gliding wings.

It was breathtaking. My first unforgettable view of Alger la Blanche – Algiers, The White Lady.

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Algiers is indeed a lady — one of the grand old ladies of the Mediterranean. A legendary seaport on a par with Naples or Marseilles, Alexandria or Tangiers, it is shaped like a natural amphitheatre, with its white-colonnaded buildings sloping down to the sea. Further up on one side, the jumbled panorama of the Casbah, the old part of the city, with its terraces, faded tiles and whitewashed walls tumbles, without pattern or order, down the hill. Here a blue door, there a yellow window, here a windowsill bright with geraniums, there a line of washing as colourful as flags.

On a rocky outcrop of its own stands the neo-Byzantine pile of the cathedral of Notre Dame d’Afrique, keeping watch over the city. Its curves are echoed far below in the snow-white domes of the seventeenth-century Djama’a Al-Djedid, also known as la Mosquée de la Pêcherie,  or the Fishery Mosque, because of its location on the waterfront.

As is the way of all elegant old ladies, The White Lady exudes a faded grandeur. You can see traces of her past beauty, but, in spite of the makeup and the perfume, there is no disguising the odour of ageing flesh. She is a capital frozen in time — the Miss Havisham of the Mediterranean world.

Yet, for me, everything was new and exciting.  Delicious smells floated on the warm breeze— coffee, roast spices, grilled lamb, garlic and mimosa. Through the cacophony of car horns, the air was sweet with the song of goldfinches, fluttering their wings against the bars of the wooden or basketwork cages hung outside every shop and on every tiny, cluttered balcony.

T’s family home was situated in the residential area of Bellevue on the eastern outskirts of Algiers, in a suburb called, at the time, Maison Carrée. A maison carrée” in French means a prison or fortress and sure enough, there was a large prison in the vicinity. After independence, its name was changed to El Harrach, after the the small river that ran through it and notorious for its ripe, noxious stink caused by the waste pumped into its waters by the paper mill built by the French on its banks. It had transformed the pure, clear stream, in which T had swum and fished when he was younger, into a toxic sludge.

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After his father’s death in 1957, T and his family had stayed on in Reghaia, but, walking around Maison Carrée one day in 1962,  he had met up with a French army captain, who was looking to rent out his house before joining the general exodus of pieds noirs, frightened by the OAS campaign, back to France. T hesitated because the FLN had given orders that anyone renting a house from a pied noir would be killed immediately. Obviously, they looked on these properties as war booty, to be shared amongst them once the war was over.

His father’s younger brother who had been “taking care of” the family’s affairs since T’s father’s death, as T was still a minor in the eyes of the law, told his nephew to go ahead and sign the rental agreement.  He assured T that, should he have the misfortune to have his throat slit, his mother and siblings would be “looked after.”

We now had, however, to get down to the business ahead.  It was time to meet the family.

Fade To Grey

Another reworked chapter of the first book


Saying goodbye is a little like dying.
― Marjane Satrapi


All I can remember of 1968 is greyness. The greyness of the dawn light when I would get up early every Friday to take the early train to Manchester and then on to Liverpool. The grimy greyness of Liverpool itself. The lonely greyness of the small Sheffield flat in which I was spending the rest of my time. The overwhelming greyness of the two clouds hanging over my head.

One was the thought of my Second Part Finals at the end of the year, signalling the end of my university studies. I’d already ordered, with a sinking heart, my graduation cap and gown compete with its hood trimmed with fur and the raspberry pink ribbon of the Faculty of Arts. I can remember looking at them and thinking, “And what if I don’t pass?” My greatest fear was disappointing my parents.

The second cloud was the fear of what lay ahead once T had finished his Master’s. We had not really talked about the future beyond that, as he was pinning his hopes on Sonatrach allowing him to continue his studies. All I knew was that something would have to be decided at the end of that year.

Perhaps he would pack up his stuff and go back home, thinking of me with nostalgia in later years — “Ah yes, I remember an English girl I once knew in Sheffield…”, or rather “Ah oui, je me souviens d’une Anglaise que j’ai connue à Sheffield...” Either that, or we would have enough courage to embark together upon what would surely be a rocky road ahead.

One grey cloud lifted when it turned out that I’d been worrying about my exams for nothing. I managed to obtain a respectable Honours degree and wore my cap and gown with pride on my graduation day. Mum and Dad, down from Blackpool for the day,  were thrilled beyond measure.

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On our return to Liverpool, we fell into a domestic routine — a foretaste of married life in some ways. I was supply teaching French at Speke Comprehensive on the outskirts of Liverpool, and T was spending his days in the University turbine laboratory, putting the finishing touches to his Master’s thesis, which went by the catchy title of — concentrate now — The Response of a Wedge-Type Pitot Static Yawmeter to the Fluctuating Pressures Caused by a Rotating Blade Row. Yes, it’s gibberish to me, too.

It was a bitter-sweet time for me, because I had no idea what was going to happen at the end of the year, and yet we were together again after a year’s forced separation. I couldn’t rid myself of the feeling, though, that after three years as a couple, we were spending our last days together — that this was to be our swan song.

My mood was in tune with the season — the leaves turning brown and being blown, soot-speckled, into sodden heaps on the dirty pavements; a thin, spiteful rain falling from the dark grey clouds lying so low over the city it seemed as though the heavens themselves were pressing down on me.

We were still waiting for Sonatrach’s reply to his request to stay on to do a Ph.D. He had been head-hunted by Rolls-Royce in the meantime, but his reply had been firm. Once he had finished his studies, he was going home. Alone or with me? That was the question. Having received no answer by the beginning of November, and with his thesis finished and submitted, we decided to drive down to Sonatrach’s offices in London.

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T in his turbine lab

Arriving there, we were ushered into a room and listened, in stunned silence, to a  Sonatrach official saying, “But don’t you see?  Your country needs you. You have to go back immediately. Your office is waiting for you in Arzew.” When T asked whether he could stay on until his Master’s graduation ceremony in February, he was told absolutely not. He had to return to Algeria straightaway.

Frozen with shock and disbelief, we started off on the long journey back to Liverpool. T drove with one hand, the other clasping mine. We kept stopping at motorway service stations to sit there in silence, in front of cold cups of untasted coffee, our heads bowed as we desperately clutched each other’s hands across the sticky Formica tables. He seemed to come to some kind of decision, saying that he wanted me to go to Algeria during the upcoming Christmas holidays and that we would take it from there. Something to hold on to.

Those last few weeks were sheer torture. I wept constantly. We went back to Sheffield to give the news to all our friends. Every time he opened his mouth to say, “Il faut que je rentre…..” (I have to go back), my chin would start wobbling, my face would crumple like a child’s and I would dissolve again into floods of tears. Friends would look at me with pity in their eyes, not knowing what to say.

On our return, we had been invited to a party by one of my teaching colleagues, and spent the whole evening mindlessly pressed together, barely moving, in the middle of the dance floor. Wrapped in each other’s arms, we were totally oblivious to the other couples dancing around us.

I was in denial, stubbornly refusing to help him pack his things and bursting into tears whenever he asked me, irrationally convinced that by not doing so I could prevent him leaving and keep him there with me. At night, I would cling ever more desperately to the solid warmth of his body, painfully aware of each passing hour.

He made a few last-minute purchases — presents for his family and a long-coveted radiogram, a typical Sixties piece of cabinet furniture containing a combined radio and record player. This bought me a few days’ grace, as we had to wait for it to be delivered before he could set off on the long journey to Algeria, driving though France, Spain and Morocco.

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I went reluctantly to a parent-teachers’ meeting one evening, resenting every precious minute spent apart from T. He came to pick me up in the car. When we entered the flat, he didn’t switch on the light straightaway. He went into the living room, fumbled around with something, then came towards me, took me in his arms and started dancing slowly with me to music coming from some hidden source. Suddenly, from the corner of my eye, I saw a red light winking in the gloom of the living room.

The radiogram had finally been delivered and I knew he had to go.

When everything had been packed into his car and into a little trailer, we set off to London. From there, I had to take the train back to Liverpool, because I still had to teach until the end of term. The only thing I had to cling to was the decision we had taken that I visit Algeria that Christmas.

As the train pulled out of Euston, I thought my heart would break. I can remember the other passengers glancing curiously at my tearstained face and swollen eyes, as I stared unseeingly out of the train window. I leaned my forehead against the smeared glass, watching the countryside stream by me into the past, together with everything that had happened during the previous three years. As though some spell had been cast, the world became grey, entirely grey — drained of all colour. I seemed to be living in an old black and white film. The air itself seemed grey, as though shrouded in a mist of misery so fine it could not be seen, only felt.

Even though it was many years ago, I can still remember the devastation I felt and the conviction that nothing would ever be the same again.

When I arrived back in our flat in Liverpool that rainy evening, I wanted nothing more than to crawl into bed, pull the pillow over my head and seek oblivion for a few hours. I turned back the covers and there on the bottom sheet was a hastily scrawled note. It just said “Ne pleure pas” — don’t cry.

Bookworm

I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.
― Jorge Luis Borges


Reading has always been my passion. When I was a child, there was always a pile of books on the floor of my bedroom until, when it was in danger of toppling over, my father built a special bookshelf above my bed. My sister and I would borrow books on a regular basis from our local library— our trips there a weekly treat.

It’s not surprising, then, that I chose to study English Language and Literature at university. In a way, it was pure self-indulgence, because I had no clear idea about what I wanted to do when I graduated — I chose that degree course simply for the love of the written word.

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Of course, during my years of study, books were in plentiful supply, but once in Algeria, I could get a little twitchy at the lack of reading material. No newspapers except for the official party mouthpiece, El Moudjahid; no magazines, unless we were lucky enough to get our hands on a copy of Jeune Afriquethe serious-minded political publication; no women’s magazines or frothy columns about celebrities or the latest fashion. Frivolity, it seemed, was not the order of the day in the new Algeria.

I had taken my university books with me, of course, but there are only so many times you can reread Ode to A Grecian Urn. They languished there on the makeshift shelving unit in the Oran flat, next to the miniature copper teapot and the lustreware vase with handles in the form of two rearing horses and a small clock set in the base, which, to my knowledge, had never worked. These monstrosities had been given to us as wedding presents by well-meaning friends and relatives.

I had quickly presented my delighted mother-in-law with them. I could never quite get to grips with Algerian taste. I was all brushed steel coffee pots, Japanese paper lanterns and primary colours — the sleek Sixties style; Algerians went more for the ornate and frilly style left over from the fussy Fifties, with shiny veneered furniture and crocheted doilies scattered everywhere — even on top of the television set.

T, perhaps feeling slightly guilty that I had nothing to do all day once the housework was done, would make regular trips to the second-hand booksellers’ stalls under the arches of la Place des Victoires in Oran and stagger home, his arms filled with books.

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I don’t know where these books came from; perhaps the contents of a pied noir house, or  left behind by some French coopérant when he returned to Europe? Who knew? There were tatty paperbacks with curled up corners, hardbacks with their once glossy dust jackets missing, leather-bound volumes with peeling gold lettering, romantic novels by the dozen, thrillers, science fiction….

The sole objection I had was that they were invariably in French. Only to be expected, of course.  Although I had an A-Level in French under my belt and had chosen it as one of my subsidiary subjects at university, reading books in French still seemed more of a chore than a pleasure. Nevertheless, having nothing else to read, I gamely ploughed my way through Balzac, Victor Hugo, San Antonio and all the Rougon-Macquart novels by Emile Zola. It was to become easier as I went on, until reading a book in French became second nature.

What I didn’t realise at the time was that, in devouring all these books, my French vocabulary was being enriched on a daily basis. I seem to have squirrelled away all these words in some corner of my brain, only to bring them out at odd times, dust them off, and insert them into my conversation. Many is the time I have surprised an Algerian friend  or colleague by using a word that I had gleaned from some book or another. On seeing their mouths drop open, I would often be afraid that I not used le mot juste, only to be reassured by them asking where on earth had I learnt such an elegant turn of phrase.

I read voraciously. Engrossed, absorbed, almost in a trance. Transported to another reality. Other people could come into the room, switch on the television, hold a loud conversation, set themselves on fire in front of me and I would not lift my head from my book. My mother-in-law was at a loss to understand my obsession with reading. Illiterate herself, she would cudgel her brains to find something to do – anything – that would drag me back from the world into which she could not follow me.

“Let’s make a cake!” she would say brightly. “Acu?” (What?) I would answer distractedly. Nothing was further from my mind than going into the kitchen and digging out the mixing bowls. Another suggestion of hers would be to spend a thrilling afternoon sorting my husband’s socks out into matching pairs. Of course, here was a classic culture clash, or perhaps a clash between the literate and the illiterate. For her, the only ways to fill the endless hours would be to busy herself in the kitchen or to find some household task to do.

Sometimes she would be so bored she would start preparing the evening couscous at one o’clock in the afternoon. All her movements were slow and measured, calculated to take up the maximum time. Peeling carrots would take a few millennia, chopping up the meat an eon or two. And of course the age-old ritual of steaming the couscous. She would caress it, smooth it down, run her fingers through it, let its grains fall like a stream of tiny beads from her fingertips. It soothed her and comforted her. And it passed the time.

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As far as English-language reading matter was concerned, it was nowhere to be found in Algeria. Nothing quite filled the gap it left. I could soon read as easily in French as I could in English, but it did not satisfy some inner craving in me. I felt cut off from my roots. My mother tried her best to fill the gap by sending me a couple of women’s magazines a week.

During our two years living in the Cité Jeanne d’Arc, the mailboxes in the entrance hall of the block of flats  had been regularly vandalised, and so the postal authorities decided to divert all mail to the local sorting office. In spite of my reluctance to leave the flat, I would venture out, cross the main road and climb down a steep earthen bank to recuperate my precious magazines. My agoraphobia would curl up inside me and cling to my ribs, settling uncomfortably in my chest, reminding me of its existence every time I opened my mouth to breathe. But the prize was worth it. Reading those magazines felt as if I were being reconnected with the outside world.

A few years later, and following the birth of two children, I started work for what was to be a series of American firms – first Chemico, then Pullman Kellogg and finally El Paso. It became much easier to get hold of books in English – all the expats had brought  supplies of books with them, as most did not possess even a rudimentary knowledge of French, never mind Arabic. The culmination was the setting-up of a small library in one of the American compounds. I reverted to my childhood habit of going there once a week to change my books.

But the best was yet to come. Once the Americans had left, their library stayed behind. It became the property of the refinery, together with the trailer park which had served as expat housing. Nobody quite knew what to do with all those English books, so T was authorised to take them for his own use. I opened the door one day to find my husband, his grin as wide as that of any Cheshire cat, carting in box after box of books. It was like a hundred Christmases rolled into one.

As for my Mum’s magazines — well, she continued to send them to me every week throughout my time in Algeria -— all twenty-three years of it.

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The City Of The Air

One of the chapters from my first book.


Constantine, the city where man lives higher than the eagle.

—Constantine the Great


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If Algiers is a grand old lady, Oran a good-time girl, Mostaganem a bluestocking with a chequered past, then Constantine is an eccentric great-aunt. I imagine her dressed in flowing draperies, with perhaps an exotic silken turban perched on top of her henna’ed hair, and her veiny hands covered with age-spots and heavy gold rings.

Her long, eventful past, stretching back nearly three thousand years, is reflected in her knowing black eyes. She is the doyenne of Algerian cities and the fabled Queen of the East. There are traces of past beauty, though, in her worn features, and you can see that she must have been dazzling in her younger days. And like many great aunts, you love her in spite of, or even because of, her eccentricities, paying her the homage that she is due.

As Malek Haddad, an Algerian poet, son of a Kabyle schoolteacher and native of Constantine, wrote: “On ne présente pas Constantine. Elle se présente et on la salue. Elle se découvre et nous nous découvrons”  (You do not introduce Constantine. She introduces herself, and you salute her. She reveals herself and we discover each other.)

One of the oldest cities on earth, Constantine was originally founded by the Phoenicians, who, appreciating the defensive qualities of a city built on a rock, called it Sewa (Royal City). Later it was renamed Cirta by the Berber king Syphax, who turned it into his capital. It was subsequently razed to the ground during an internecine civil war between Roman leaders, to be rebuilt by Constantine the Great in the 4th century and named after him. The name stuck, rendered as Qasantina in Arabic, as the city became Arab, and then part of the Ottoman Empire, hundreds of years later.

T and I had decided to visit Constantine during our short stay in the east of Algeria. It was an opportunity not to be missed, as I had heard so many stories about its unique site. My husband was having trouble with his CEO, as technical decisions had been taken concerning the project in Skikda with which he did not agree. Of course, he was thinking as an engineer and did not want to know the reasons behind such seemingly illogical choices, or to be involved in the murky currents swirling around a project of that type. Inevitably, there was a clash looming on the horizon, but for the moment, we were taking one day at a time.

The road that we drove along in the direction of Constantine resembled in many ways the roads in Kabylie, hugging the mountainside as it snaked upwards. It wound its way through craggy passes and tunnels blasted through the rock, before rounding a steep hairpin bend to reveal the city, with her skyline of minarets, cupolas and golden domes, appearing as if out of one of Coleridge’s opium dreams.  Constantine had sneaked up on us. “Elle éclate comme un regard à l’aurore et court sur l’horizon qu’elle étonne et soulève,” wrote Haddad. (She bursts forth like the breaking of the dawn, and runs along a horizon that she astonishes and raises up.) 

The city seemed to have been draped, not built, across her peaks and plateaux. The first thing I saw was a Trajan arch, surmounted with a winged victory and perched on a rocky outcrop far above the road. I later found out that this was a war memorial built by the French, but for one moment, it had seemed as though we had gone back in time and were entering a Roman imperial city.

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Photo: algerie-monde.com

 

On the other side of the road was a sheer drop, and we could hear the sound of the Rhumel River hundreds of metres below. It was rushing and deep; pouring over rocks in a foaming waterfall, but so far down that its sound came to us only as a muffled splashing.

Picturesque bridges began to appear, linking one mountain top to another, looking like ribs holding the spine of the city together, or sutures stitching together the wound made by the deep rocky gorge, which plunged, clumps of cactus clinging to its sides, a dizzying three hundred metres. Not for nothing is Constantine called The City of Bridges, or, as the Arabs called her, far more poetically, Blad el-Hawa— The City of the Air.

Elegant residential buildings, similar to those in Algiers, from where strings of washing hung out over the gorge, had obviously been built during the French colonial period, although this was not a city of cool blues and whites like the capital. Located about one hundred kilometres inland, Constantine’s colours were warmer — faded oranges, yellows and pinks, reminding me of Italy, and echoing the colours of the crags and rocks surrounding the city. The buildings seemed to have grown almost organically out of the cliffs on which they had been built, their colours blending seamlessly together.

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We spent the next couple of hours like tourists everywhere, wandering around; our mouths open in astonishment, taking in the sights.  Although we had known about it before, it was strange to see that the traditional covering for women was different from that worn in Algiers or Oran. Although the voilette, a lacy face veil, was the same as in Algiers, the Constantine-style haïk, called the m’laya,was black instead of white, had a hood trimmed in red, and seemed much heavier and more voluminous.

I was to discover that the colour had been changed from white to black as a sign of mourning for Salah Bey, who had governed the province, or beylik, as it had been called under the Ottomans, for twenty years in the eighteenth century.  He had quarreled with Hussein, the Dey of Algiers, who had sent another official to replace him. Strangling his rival, he was then strangled in turn by his successor. An eventful past, indeed.

I never returned to Constantine, although its memory will stay with me forever. The inevitable clash with the CEO came as no surprise. T had refused to implement some decisions, which he felt were completely unworkable. He was taken off the project, and told by the CEO that he didn’t need a McEnroe on the project, always questioning the reasons behind decisions; he needed someone who would just pat the ball back and forth. In other words, a yes man.

We returned to Bethioua, where T was again given an office job. We were relieved in some ways to be home, but in others it was extremely difficult, with my husband again starting to pace around the house through sheer boredom. It didn’t help that the situation around the country was not improving. If anything, things were getting worse.

 

For the photos, no copyright infringement is intended.

Belcourt

Occupation means that every day you die, and the world watches in silence. As if your death was nothing, as if you were a stone falling in the earth, water falling over water.

-Suheir Hammad


“We can’t stay here any longer,” T’s father said in desperation,”We have to find somewhere less dangerous to live than the rue de Lyon.”

It was 1955 and he had jumped out of the frying pan into the fire. Having fled Kabylie because of the bloodshed there, he had rented a small bakery in Belcourt, a working-class neighbourhood in the centre of Algiers, thinking his family would be safer in the capital than in the village.

Back home, there had been an increase in French military operations since the outbreak of open hostilities the year before. T was safe in his boarding school in Tizi-Ouzou, but deep in the heartland of Kabylie, villages were being burnt down and their inhabitants chased out of their homes. Those who resisted were executed in cold blood.

The villages that had once been full of life stood empty. Gone were the women in their bright dresses standing gossiping around the spring. Gone were the children and the sound of their laughter.  Now, even at midday, the only sounds you could hear were the moaning of a thin bleak wind scurrying through  the deserted streets and the clatter of unfastened shutters. Almost every family in Kabylie had lost at least one of its members. They were all widows, widowers and orphans.

Those who were hungry, cold, homeless, those who had no choice, worked, often for a pittance, for the SAS, (Special Administrative Sections) set up by Jacques Soustelle, the Governor General of Algeria, to “pacify” — again that terrible euphemism — parts of Kabylie and to promote the idea of “French” Algeria by offering scholastic, social and medical assistance to those in need. These poor unfortunates were immediately condemned by the FLN as harkis —traitors to the cause of independence, and, as such, given no quarter.

In Belcourt, Europeans and Algerians had always lived cheek by jowl. Although the pieds noirs living there were predominantly of Italian origin, the voices heard in the streets were French, Arab and Spanish, as well as Italian. The air even smelt different there – a delicious blend of cinnamon, aniseed, saffron, bleach and grilled peppers.

A string of pavement cafes, small shops and cheap lodgings lined the rue de Lyon itself.  The numerous bars d’amis would set out their zinc tables and chairs on the pavements, ready for their predominantly male customers, who would sit outside, sipping their glasses of anisette, casting appreciative glances at the pretty girls passing by and watching the trams clatter past on their way to Ruisseau or la Place du Gouvernement —Government Square.  The trams were to be replaced a year later by buses and an urban funicular built between the heights of Clos Salembier and Belcourt.

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Rue de Lyon

My father-in-law soon realised he had made a mistake. His little bakery, just opposite the main football ground, would often resonate to the sound of sirens blaring, gunshots and exploding bombs on the street outside. The rue de Lyon, snaking its way through Belcourt to Ruisseau, and lying in close proximity to the Casbah, was, in fact, one of the capital’s centres of violent fidaï (urban freedom fighter) activity.

Belcourt had been built on the swampland just below the Casbah, the historic Ottoman quarter, and the tight surveillance of the latter, instigated by General Massu, known as the Butcher of Algiers, extended to Belcourt itself. As so often in Algeria, there was a stark contrast between the country’s natural beauty and the bloodthirsty acts being carried out there. Looking down from the busy, sweltering streets of Belcourt, swarming with sweaty humanity, its inhabitants had a breathtaking view of the beautiful sweep of the Bay of Algiers, with the surface of the sea folded into silky blue pleats by the lacy wakes of passing boats.

Caught in a trap between contradictory orders issued by the French authorities and by the FLN, my father-in-law’s daily life was like walking a tightrope. Of course, in his mind, there was no question whom he would obey. But sometimes punishment could be brutal. Only the week before, a militant had cut the nose off one of their neighbours just because he had been found smoking – against the express wishes of the FLN.

Such minor misdemeanours were harshly punished in this way to instil a sense of discipline, obedience and — yes, fear amongst Algerians.  Pity the poor chain smokers, of whom my father-in-law was one, with his two packets of Bastos cigarettes a day that he was forced to smoke in secret, like a rebellious schoolboy.


The FLN had the habit of giving instructions, without prior warning, to all Algerian shopkeepers not to open their establishments the following day. If they obeyed, they were sure to be woken before dawn the next morning by the roar of a half-track, a French military vehicle with wheels at the front and tank treads at the back, ripping the shop shutters off their hinges with a mechanical hoist.

T’s father, of course, always obeyed the FLN’s instructions. He would be arrested, taken to military HQ and questioned for hours – sometimes only being released late at night. My father-in-law suspected one of his neighbours, the owner of a bar, of denouncing him to the French military. The bar owner could always be seen loitering outside the bakery, and, as soon as he saw the shutters firmly closed, he’d inform the authorities.

Early one morning, there had been a pounding on the bakery door and a group of French paratroopers had strutted into the shop. In their flashy uniforms designed by Pierre Cardin and their blond good looks, they had the arrogance and overbearing attitude of their kind. In the half-light of the breaking day they stood around, at ease, but still armed. Each face was impassive, not a trace on it revealing what they were about to do.

My father-in-law answered their questions in his perfect French, his face as expressionless as theirs.  His educated manner and lack of obsequiousness came as a surprise to them.  The fact that he’d served in the French military, as proved by his discharge papers, also worked in his favour.

That didn’t stop them from ransacking the bakery and the one small room above it, where all the family were huddled together. My mother-in-law was heavily pregnant with what was to be her last child, although she didn’t know it at the time. Furniture was tipped over, drawers pulled out and their contents dumped on the floor, machine-guns were pointed at the children and at T’s mother’s swelling stomach. No need for words; the threat was implicit in their gestures.

When they had left, my father-in-law surveyed the damage, his eyes glittering in anger. Taciturn by nature, he never spoke of it again, but started searching Algiers and the surrounding countryside for a safe haven for his wife and children. Happily, an old friend of his, Ridouci, the owner of a twenty-four hectare farm near Reghaïa, needed a new farm manager. My father-in-law was assured that there had been no attacks there, as the farm was nestled in between two large military bases and the roads around it were under close surveillance, as they led directly to the mountains of Kabylie.

Less than a week later, they were on the road again with all their worldly goods packed in the car. Reghaïa seemed a ideal refuge, with its large farmhouse, the centuries-old oak tree next to the steps leading to the front door, and its acres of fruit trees and vineyards. The house had been weathered for countless years by the harsh elements and its white-painted walls had been baked a deep, rich ivory by the hot summer sun. It spoke volumes about hardships and hope, strength and vulnerability.

Out of an upstairs window, my mother-in-law would watch her husband and eldest son, absent from school on a year-long student strike decreed by the FLN, tilling the dark, velvety earth of the Mitidja plain with an old tractor they had bought. A sense of peace flooded her. They would  survive this war. They would all get out alive.

The Taj Mahal

For those who haven’t read my book, an extract.


Bliss it was at that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven.

Wordworth— The Prelude


A week or so after the party, T and I were still warily circling each other, unsure of whether to take our fledgling relationship to the next level. That is, I was the one who was unsure. I found him fascinating and unsettling in equal measure. Amongst other things, he had the kind of looks that could, at the best of times, knock me slightly off-balance.

I had spent most of my time since the party more or less avoiding him. I must admit his intensity frightened me a little and I had taken to hiding whenever I saw him. Once he realized that I knew his real name and nationality, he would try to reassure me with statements like, “I’m not Arab; I’m a barbarian.” Of course, this kind of assertion was guaranteed to have the opposite effect, making me want to flee in the opposite direction, visions of Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun going through my head. Luckily, I then realised, with relief, that he meant Berber and not barbarian.  It all added to the odd mixture of fear and attraction that I felt.

A few days later, he caught me trying to slip out of the Upper Refectory. A quizzical look on his face, and with one dark eyebrow raised, he listened  patiently, as, staring at my shoes, I tried frantically to fill in the heavy silence between us with a long, rambling monologue about my unwelcoming digs and my dragon landlady. Anything to avoid looking at him. For some strange reason, I found it difficult to hold his gaze.

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Standing unnervingly close to me, he waited until my incoherent mumbling had trailed off into silence, and then casually suggested that I “pop up” to the flat that he shared with two other Algerian students to join him and his friends if I became too bored on Sundays.  I told him that I’d think about it.

It’s true that Sundays then were the most boring days of the week. Twelve seemingly endless hours, the silence broken only by the ticking of the clock and the rustle of the Sunday newspapers. Nothing to do, nowhere to go. Even in Sheffield, it was the same. The shops were shut, the streets stone-cold dead and the Union practically deserted, its refectories and coffee lounges shuttered and silent.

In desperation, I decided to take T up on his offer and so, the following Sunday, a cold, frosty day in the second week in November, I set off to take the two buses up to his flat. I had just consumed a gargantuan Sunday lunch, as it was included in my rental contract and I was determined to get my money’s worth, even though my landlady’s stodgy and unpalatable cooking lay like a leaden weight on my stomach.

Arriving in front of the flat, stamping my feet in the cold, I hesitantly rang the doorbell. The door was thrown open by one of his Algerian flatmates, who, with a knowing grin, ushered me inside. The living-room was a warm fug of Gitane cigarette smoke and lively chatter, with about ten students — Algerian, French and English — lounging around, laughing and joking and listening to a Marie LaForêt record. She was singing Un amour qui s’est éteint and her plaintive lament for a fading love affair was at odds with the bursts of laughter coming from every corner of the room.

A, the beautiful postgraduate student whom we had met at the party was there,  jabbing her cigarette for emphasis as she rammed home her views on the war in Vietnam, American imperialism and the imminent rising-up of the workers of the world against the evils of capitalism.

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a double mattress taking up a large part of the floor space in the living room. I later found out that A and her Algerian boyfriend were temporarily homeless and had set up camp in the living room of the flat. Their clothes were folded in neat piles by the side of the bed. It was all so thrillingly bohemian. Blackpool seemed so far away — a different world.

Scan.jpegAs I stood timidly in the doorway, unsure of what to do next, I spotted T sitting at the table in front of the window, chatting to a friend.  He glanced up, saw me standing by the door and came over to me, a gleam in his eye, looking  like the cat that got the cream. I had risen to the bait. Now all he had to do was to reel me in.

Draping a possessive arm around my shoulders, he drew me into the room. I sat there on the sofa, his arm still around me, mesmerised by the web of languages being spun around my head. Everyone seemed to pass from one to the other with such ease. Sentences beginning in English would veer into French and back again, with a sprinkling of Arabic for good measure.

With French pop songs playing softly in the background, we could have been a group of Left Bank intellectuals discussing the finer points of the Absurde in Camus’s writing or Sartre’s existentialist thinking. The sweet, pungent smoke curling from the glowing tips of French cigarettes reinforced the impression. We were even wearing the statutory dark jerseys. Dark clothes, dark hair and eyes and pale winter faces.

After about an hour, suddenly the cry went up. “Allez, les enfants! On va au Taj? (Come on, kids! Shall we go to the Taj?) The Taj? What was that? After a couple of seconds, I realised they were talking about an Indian restaurant called the Taj Mahal on Ecclesall Road, one of the first in Sheffield. Although there were quite a few Indian restaurants in Britain at that time, I had never eaten an authentic curry.

So a group of us set off downhill towards Ecclesall Road, drawn by the siren song of curry. I found out later that the Algerian students liked curry so much because it was the nearest thing they could get to their own cuisine. Indian food, at least, boasted some kind of flavour in comparison with the bland and overcooked English meals of the time.

Even in the Union refectories, most meals on offer were watery grey stews in which lumps of gristle, potatoes and carrots were doing a slow breaststroke. “A very nice mutton stew, dear,” would say the lady behind the serving counter, trying her best to convince us of the merits of what was pretentiously called a “navarin of lamb.”

Outside, the sky was a clear cobalt blue and the watery winter sun was peeking through the bare branches of the trees lining the roads, its pale rays making the icy pavements glitter as if they had been dusted with crystallised sugar. We made our way downhill, strung out across the road in groups of two or three, still talking and bickering amicably. Bundled up in our coats and faculty scarves, our warm breath hung in the still cold air like smoke.

Suddenly, T set off at a run, pulling me behind him as if I were on water-skis, instead of in my thin-soled shoes. Taken by surprise, slipping and sliding over the ice, I shrieked in fear and excitement. I slammed into his body at the bottom of the hill as he skidded to a halt, catching me in his arms to stop me falling over in an ignominious heap.

I didn’t object as, laughing at my poppy-red cheeks, he dropped a quick kiss on my upturned mouth, still open in mid-scream. For the rest of the way, he kept me close to his side, pulling me against him with one arm wrapped tightly around my waist. Looking back, I realise, with a pang of sadness, just how very young we were.

I would soon became used to being manhandled in this way; sometimes being thrown over his shoulder as he practiced judo manoeuvres in the middle of the street, to the astonishment of passers-by. He would always make sure that my landing was soft, however — never failing to catch me before I hit the ground. I didn’t know it then, but that would be a metaphor for our future life together.

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