You don’t need to be on the same wavelength to succeed in marriage. You just need to be able to ride each other’s waves.
~ Toni Sciarra Poynter
It is difficult to describe my feelings in the weeks running up to our wedding. A mixture of joy and apprehension, relief and anxiety. Joy and relief because we were finally getting married. Apprehension and anxiety about what lay in store for us.
I have an annoying tendency to stick my head in the sand, so decided to ignore the persistent voice in my head warning me that marriages like ours had a bad track record. There were many reasons for this. Sometimes social, family or even religious pressure was too strong; sometimes it was too difficult for the woman to adapt to the different way of life in Algeria.
It was not only internal voices either. The German nurse giving me a jab at the doctor’s surgery in Oran had almost patted me on the shoulder in commiseration when she learned that I was soon to be married to an Algerian. I had turned my head away so as not to see the pity in her eyes.
Inwardly, though, I was raging. How dare people jump to conclusions when they didn’t even know us? How dare they presume that our relationship was doomed to failure like so many others? Could we beat the odds, or was I just whistling in the wind?
Even at university, the official party newspaper, El Moudjahid, distributed as a matter of course to all Algerian students to keep them on the straight and narrow, had railed against marriages between Algerians and European women, or so-called mariages mixtes. There was, however, no mention of marriages between Algerian women and koufar (unbelievers or infidels, that is, anyone from another religious background) as they are proscribed by Islam. Why, you might ask?
Normally Jews and Christians are considered by Muslims as Ahl al-Kitāb (People of the Book) — religious groups who had been entrusted with a holy book and whose prophets stretched in a long line from Adam to Mohamed. So, in theory, we are all members of the same exclusive monotheistic club. Why, then, this difference between men and women?
I digress. Algerian men, especially Kabyles, had often been forced by circumstances to emigrate to France in order to earn a living. Life in the mountains was hard and famine and disease were always waiting to pounce on the weakest and poorest amongst them. The only road open to most men was that of exile. As the great majority were illiterate, the only jobs available to them in France involved backbreaking manual work, in the coal-mines or elsewhere, often in atrocious and demeaning conditions.
These men would send money home on a regular basis to their families. Many of the Kabyle folk songs of the era speak of loss and yearning. Women’s songs also speak of the particular fear of a European woman stealing their man, like the famous Ma Thevghidh Adh Amengal, (Do You Want Me To Tell You The Truth), the poignant lyrics of which I had learnt off by heart at university. It is a sad fact that their fears were often justified.
Do you want me to tell you the truth?/I swear by Sidi Hlel/ Your man is in Paris/ And is going around with a woman in trousers/ The Kabyle woman is resigned to her fate/ Working in the fields/ Make your mind up now.
A form of apartheid separated Algerians and the French, although there was barely any physical difference between them, with most Algerians resembling Italians, Spaniards or any other southern Europeans. It didn’t prevent most French looking down on women who frequented these immigrants. When colonial guilt is suppressed, it resurfaces as racism. The stronger the guilt, the stronger the abuse and prejudice that follow. Should there be a greed or power motivation to maintain the racism, then it becomes culturally reinforced and defended.
This apartheid in all but name was a double-edged sword. French women marrying Algerians usually received a tepid welcome in their husbands’ home country, as there was (and still is in some places) a mostly undeserved perception of European women as “free and easy.” They were subjected to prejudice from both their own side and that of their husbands. Some French women, however, became fully integrated, taking their husbands’ culture to heart, even participating in the fight for independence.
My mother-in-law would sometimes express a sneaking admiration for the independence and strength shown by European women. She would recount with relish the true story of a German woman who had married a man from their village. The couple had separated and the husband returned to Kabylie with their two children, presumably without his wife’s knowledge or consent.
The wife had travelled to Algeria, taken a taxi up to the village -—”A TAXI!” my mother-in-law would repeat, her eyes round in wonder and her voice dropping to a dramatic whisper at this display of female daring— snatched back her surviving child, the other having died from some unnamed disease, and escaped back to her native Germany.
I was determined that we were not going to be part of those sad statistics. The fact that I was British and not French was to our advantage, as there was no painful history between our two countries to muddy the waters and resurface later in arguments. My family and friends, as most of the British of the time, had no clear idea about Algeria and its people and so, taking T. at face value, were quickly won over by his intelligence and charm.
I was apprehensive, yes, yet strangely unafraid. I knew that few good things in this life came without a cost, and, although that cost for me was to be the immediate loss of my family, my country, my language and my way of life, I was willing to pay it. Of course we were planning on returning regularly to Britain, but still, my day-to-day life would change beyond recognition.
During the few precious weeks alone in Oran, after I had returned to Algeria and before we set off to Algiers for our wedding, we would sometimes stroll along the boulevard Front de Mer in the evening and gaze at the sky in the afterglow of sunset, streaked in long scarves of coral. Clouds, threaded with shafts of gold and pink light, would gather in the west, behind the dark bulk of Santa Cruz, and, towards the east, a slender new moon, like an eyelash, would float up into view.
My panic attacks eased, just being back together again. We bought a wedding ring and I had brought an outfit from Britain, as we thought that our wedding would be a quiet affair. Looking back, it seemed natural to us at the time to want to marry in Algeria. I think there were many reasons for this, the most important of which was the wish not to deprive T’s mother of the excitement and pride she would feel in preparing for her first-born son’s wedding.
With hindsight, it was one of the best decisions we could have taken, because it ensured my smooth and relatively painless insertion into the family. I earned their respect because I was willing to follow their traditions.
My mother arrived in Oran a few days before we were due to travel to Algiers. We set off with her in the back of the car, not knowing what was waiting for us, and arrived in Bellevue to find the house bursting at the seams. All I can remember of that time is a flurry of activity, huge meals, the arrival of friends, and of seemingly hundreds of family members. There were joyous reunions, with smacking kisses lavishly and noisily distributed.
My sister, then studying in London, had decided to take a student charter flight to Marseilles and then the ferry to Algiers. As we drove down to the ferry terminal to pick her up, I looked out at the blue, silken expanse of the beautiful bay. The sea was clothed in a million dazzling sun pennies that shimmered with the movement of each wave.
Turning around to my husband-to-be, I smiled. Everything was going be all right. Whatever the future held for us, we would face it together.