The Good-Time Girl

It seems that the people of Oran are like that friend of Flaubert who, on the point of death, casting a last glance at the irreplaceable earth, exclaimed: “Close the window, it’s too beautiful.”
Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays


One of Algeria’s paradoxes is that it is both a relatively new nation and an ancient land, with a history stretching back to pre-biblical times. When we were living there, I must confess that we were so caught up in the difficulties of day-to-day living, we were blind to the wealth of history just under our feet and around every corner. We had Roman ruins just down the street – a few hundred yards from our front door. I don’t think we ever visited them during all the time we were there.

T’s eyes were fixed firmly on the future. He is an engineer and wanted, above all, Algeria to be one of the industrial leaders of the third world, for it to be self-sufficient and to ensure, once and all, that, as an emerging country, it would be second to none. I, on the other hand, was overwhelmed with trying to find my bearings in a foreign country. It didn’t help, either, that there was barely any information available about Algeria’s history, apart from endless re-playings of footage of the independence war and television programmes droning on about Islamic dynasties.

Oran, the second largest city in Algeria, is also one of the youngest, being a mere 1,200 years old. It was founded by traders from Moorish Spain or al-Andalus in the ninth century and it is no coincidence that one of the most beautiful beaches in the vicinity is called Les Andalouses, being supposedly the place where the son of the Vizir of Cordoba came ashore after being shipwrecked when fleeing parental disapproval.

Phoenician traders had preferred the Madagh creek, to the west of Oran, to establish their trading post and the Romans had chosen to expand the site of Portus Magnus, dominating the beautiful Bay of Arzew.  Portus Magnus was later to become Bethioua and so, strangely enough, our own small village had a longer past and was more important at one time than the brash newcomer forty kilometres down the coast.

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Oran’s name is a contraction of the Berber words meaning River of the Lions — Ouad-aharan, and indeed, the city seems to have an almost mystical connection to lions. One legend recounts that a lion was seen on the tomb of the city’s patron saint, Sidi Houari. Two bronze lions guard the entrance to the magnificent city hall on the Place d’Armes, the main square. Lion-hunting in the vicinity was reported by the Spanish in the sixteenth century as well as by the French up until 1840. The last surviving lions were hunted to extinction around 1939 on the mountain rising from the plain to the east of Oran. This mountain was called la Montagne des Lions (Lion Mountain) by the French and is also known as Djebel Ghar or Rocky Mountain.

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Our Lady of Santa Cruz on top of the Aidour Mountain, with Oran at its feet and Lion Mountain in the distance

For centuries, Oran was passed back and forth between Spain, the Ottoman Empire, and Portugal, even after the Arab invasion. The Spanish had built an imposing 16th-century fort, Santa Cruz, to house their governors, on top of the Murdjadjo mountain looming over the western end of the city.

Looming over the inhabitants  in the same way was the aggressive Catholicism of the Spanish, one of whose invading forces was even preceded by a monk mounted on a horse and waving a large cross. Ironically, at least to me, at the end of the eighteenth century,  Charles III of Spain had suggested to Britain that it might be interested in exchanging Gibraltar for Oran.

Just below the fort, there is a beautiful white-washed basilica called Notre Dame de Santa Cruz, raised by the French in the nineteenth century to give thanks for the ending of a cholera outbreak in the city. Oran had the largest pied noir population in Algeria, and there were also large Jewish and Spanish communities, each group contributing to the city’s unique character. Jewish immigration had come in waves from as far back as the first century, even before the Roman occupation. In the sixth and seventh centuries, Jews had fled to North Africa from Visigoth persecution in Spain and then again following a series of massacres during the Spanish reconquista  in 1391.

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Santa Cruz fort with the basilica below

Oran is a port city like Algiers, but there the similarities end. Algiers feels very French, with its ornate fin de siècle apartment buildings, its wide boulevards and its arcaded seafront. Wahran el Bahia, (Oran, the Radiant City),  seems more Spanish, with some of its older inhabitants still preferring to speak Spanish rather than French. The local cuisine, typically Mediterranean, also owes more to southern Spain than to France.

The city boasts a main railway station looking like a mosque, a cathedral (now a public library) that resembles a Byzantine church, and a theatre that looks like the backdrop to an Italian operetta. One of the jewels in its crown is the beautiful seafront, the Boulevard Front de Mer, constructed in the forties and fifties under French rule, and inspired by Nice’s Promenade des Anglais.

It consists of an amazing two-tier promenade, its graceful arc echoed in the sinuous curves of the Art Deco and Haussmann-style apartment buildings facing the sea. Lined with palm trees, cafés, restaurants, and ice cream parlours, it offers a splendid view of the sea, the port, Santa Cruz to the left and the cliffs, les Falaises, to the right.  It was given a suitably revolutionary name, the Boulevard de l’ALN, by the government after independence, but its original French name is still used by the locals.

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The boulevard Front de Mer is the place where most of the inhabitants of Oran go for a stroll at the weekend, during the long, stifling summer evenings and especially during Ramadan, when the city is open for business all night long. Gazing out over its railings, they can often see a shimmering heat haze on the horizon, and, where, to the west, the rocky outcrops of the Murdjajo and Cap Falcon, battered by the waves, look like the torn, jagged edge of a sheet of paper. Eyes closed, they can feel the cool breeze stealing the heat from the day, bringing them the taste and smell of the sea.

Below, they can see the Ravin Blanc coal-fired power plant where T had once worked for two months as part of the conditions for a student loan he had taken out when at Algiers University in 1963. The dark smoke belching out of its chimney had been the scourge of housewives living in the flats along the seafront, their washing hanging out on the balconies always covered in black smuts.

T. had the time of his life during his two months in Oran, as the independence war had barely affected it. Its only claim to revolutionary fame had been that one of its citizens had been the first militant for independence to be guillotined. It was also where pieds noirs and Algerians engaged in a street battle a few hours before independence was declared, leaving many dead and wounded. Most of the other regions of Algeria reproached, and continue to reproach, the citizens of Oran for their lack of participation in the struggle for independence, the newspapers of the time calling the city “an island of peace” and “a little Paris.”

Oran also enjoys a certain reputation, deserved or not, for hedonism.  It is, famously, the birthplace of rai, that raunchy, edgy, culturally and sexually risqué type of music that started off as a protest against working conditions and the colonial yoke in the 1930s and ended up in the 1980s as one against Islamic constrictions and state-approved musical expression. If Algiers is a grand old lady, Constantine a venerable great-aunt, Oran is a good-time girl.

As for me, unaware of Oran’s past, I would look around me at all the trappings of a beautiful, functional city — its clinics, schools, city hall, theatre — and wonder why, in spite of all this, nothing ever WORKED as it should.

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Outsider

I like the idea of being caught between things, always being a bit of an outsider, having an outside eye on things.

-Riz Ahmed


I looked at my husband-to-be as he sat on the chair in his mother’s bedroom, laughing and joking with his siblings. It was December, 1968, and ever since we had arrived in Algiers that afternoon, more and more Kabyle words had been slipping into his French, until now he was talking practically all the time in his mother tongue.

All the members of his family sat in a half-circle around him, perched on the bed, the arm of his chair, the floor — anywhere they could get close to him and hang on his every word. Leaning back in his chair, relaxed, with one foot resting on the other knee, T was the centre of attention — which is where he always liked to be.

But then, his family had ample reason to hero-worship him. At the age of sixteen, following their father’s death, he had saved them from a miserable life eked out in the mountains of a country at war, where death would have stalked them every day; only a rifle-shot or a burst of machine-gun fire away.

He had also lived the impossible dream — in that period of post-independence euphoria, he had left Algeria to go to Europe to study and returned, four years later, his Master’s degree safely in his pocket, to a top-ranking job in Sonatrach, the most prestigious of all Algerian national companies. Not only that, but he was now introducing me, his English girlfriend, to them and announcing his intention of marrying me the following summer.

“He is home,” I thought, looking at his animated face, absorbed again into his family on the soil that had nourished him and made him what he was.  I was on the outside, looking in — a stranger.

Although I could understand most of what was being said in French, the conversation would suddenly veer into Kabyle, leaving me stranded. I would blink and, with a strained smile, pretend I could understand what was being said, following everybody’s lead by nodding and laughing in the right places, exchanging glances of complicity with T’s brothers, and trying to paste an interested look on my face. Sometimes, one of them, taking pity on me, would lean over to translate into French the general gist of the discussion.

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Later, at dinner, I felt slightly reassured when I felt T’s knee pressing against mine underneath the table — a substitute for holding hands, which he said we should not do in public. Especially in front of his family. It all seemed rather strange to me, as his mother had prepared her room for us, spreading crisp new sheets on the bed and plumping up the pillows. Strange because we were not yet married and could not hold hands and yet his mother had seen no impropriety in us sharing a bed.

T. had shaken his head when his mother had taken him aside to inform him, in a whisper, about her preparations. In the same way as he would refuse even to kiss me chastely on the cheek in the presence of my parents, he told her in no uncertain terms that he would not share a room – and a bed – with me under the family roof until we were married. It may seem hypocritical to you, as we had been together for four years, but, looking back, I prefer to think of it as respect for his family.

The language problem became less of one as the years passed. Although I never reached the stage where I could understand every nuance of Kabyle, I soon became able to follow what people were saying, and could join in from time to time, even though my contributions to the discussion usually consisted of verbal prompts with which I could ensure the smooth flow of the conversation, and nudge forward the other person along it, a little like a tug manoeuvring an ocean liner into position.

It worked wonderfully well with my mother-in-law and, in this way, we could enjoy discussions in Kabyle lasting an hour or more on subjects ranging from her father’s fatal heart attack to World War Two. Sometimes she would glance at me to gauge my reaction, her head cocked to one side like a plump little wren, and on receiving my murmured approval, she would give a satisfied nod and sail blithly on.

It wasn’t just the language, though. During that same dinner, my first in T’s family home, I had looked around me at everyone yelling at the top of their voices. “Why are they shouting so?” I whispered to T above the noise.  “They’re not,” he answered, turning to look at me and frowning, his eyebrows drawn together, “They’re just talking.” It was all so different, but the difference was not what I feared the most. It was the opprobrium  that might be heaped on my head for not following the rules of Algerian social conduct. To me, that was worse that not understanding the language.

It seemed to me that his was a world in which either you grew up or where you remained for ever an outsider. And perhaps, if that was what it would have taken to keep me in his life, T might have given up that world for me, although I doubt it. But when the first intensity of passion had passed, he would have regretted it, and blamed me. I was the one who had to enter his life and adapt, not the other way round.

The years passed, and yet I still stuck out like a sore thumb. Physically, although my hair was dark – much darker than T’s — I still had that indefinable something that marked me out as European. I was a couple of inches taller than most Algerian women, but that and my un-waif-like proportions should not have been enough to make me stand out in a crowd. Perhaps it was the look of mild panic in my eyes at the  prospect of shopping in the local market, dancing at a family wedding or catering for a dozen unexpected guests.

It seemed to me that our early years were a series of negotiations, which T usually won. One of these was our differing perceptions of home. To T, it was a social space, and he was never happier than when it was bursting at the seams — to me it was a private retreat, where I could regain my sanity and lick my wounds.

After a while, however, I realised that I was finally at home with the idea of “foreign-ness.” I gave up trying to fit in and adopted T’s philosophy, which was, “Here I am. This is what I am. Take it or leave it.” I was lucky in that my family-in-law opted to take it, not without heaving an exasperated sigh at my lack of social nous.

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At a wedding. I look so calm and collected – on the outside.

Being an outsider, however, gave me a more clear-sighted view of Algeria’s political situation. I had not been through the horror of the independence war and so was not taken in by some of the more questionable decisions taken by its political leaders immediately after independence and in the decades that followed. I wasn’t emotionally involved in the same way as T., and so could be more objective.

I would look at various initiatives with a jaundiced eye, as for example, the constant emphasis on “socialism” being an irreversible choice,  the whipped-up hysteria surrounding the Moroccan annexation of the Western Sahara, or the (obligatory) voluntary tasks carried out at weekends by the Sonatrach workforce. I kept my opinions to myself, however, as I had no wish to burst T’s bubble. Luckily, he was to reach the same conclusions as me, but much later.

To me, those first few months and years were a swirling, chaotic kaleidoscope of sound, noise and colour. All I could do was to cling on to T like a lifeline, close my eyes and ears to the bedlam and focus on his calm presence. Whenever I was faced with a challenge that seemed impossible, I would grit my teeth, thinking,  “I can do this and I will.  This is a test and I will pass it.” There were many such tests to come.