“C’est complet.” (It’s full).
The statement sounded like a death knell in my ears. I was in the Air Algérie agency in Oran, sitting on a torn and tattered leatherette seat that was sticking to my thighs in the summer heat, enquiring about a seat on a flight to Paris. When I asked about a seat on another flight, I was informed, with a certain relish, “Oh, all flights are fully booked for the next six months.” If she said had six years, or six decades, it wouldn’t have surprised me.
“L’ordinateur est en panne” (The computer’s not working) was another pronouncement that would send my stomach into spasms and my blood pressure soaring. The Air Algérie computer system had a habit of breaking down. I heard afterwards that it would be sabotaged deliberately on a regular basis by employees who felt in need of a bit of a rest from those pesky customers who were always asking questions and demanding seats on flights.
Much of the stress linked to air travel in Algeria had to do with the national airline’s chaotic organisation, or rather lack of it.We should have realised that trouble lay ahead when Air Algérie decided to go it alone in the mid-seventies and sever all reservation links with the few foreign carriers flying in and out of Algeria. This was part of the mindset of that time – that Algeria had no need of advice, input or co-operation from anybody else. Algerians knew better than anyone else. They did everything better. Smug is the only way of describing the general attitude of Algerian officials, whatever their ilk.
This was, of course, government propaganda. The problem was, people soon began to believe it. Air Algérie officials were convinced that they knew how to run an airline far better than those amateurs at Air France or British Airways. Not that British Airways flew into Algeria – it was off the radar for them in all senses of the term – but British Caledonian did for a short while. Ah, the joy of climbing the aircraft stairs to be greeted by smiling faces and tartan uniforms. At that moment we felt as though we were already back in Britain, although we were still physically on the tarmac of Oran Essenia airport.
Kafka could have learnt a lot from the surreal and labyrinthine methods of the national flag carrier. Air France had always had an agency in Oran until it closed its doors sometime in the eighties, but from the mid-seventies on there had been no computer link between it and Air Algérie, just down the road. We were reduced to going in person to each agency, queuing up behind other irate customers, and booking each leg of the journey separately. Air Algérie was in a world of its own – exactly like the country it represented.
The mention of computers brings back other painful memories. I once rang the Air Algérie agency in Arzew and was told that yes, there were seats available on the flight I was hoping to take. When I asked whether I could reserve my seat by telephone, my remark was greeted by a stunned silence, followed by a patronising chuckle. Reserving a seat by telephone? Whatever next? No, I would have to go down to the agency in person. When I suggested that perhaps it might be a good idea to start taking bookings by phone, there was a spluttering noise and I was told peremptorily that it would mean putting one of their employees on permanent telephone duty – which would never do.
Once I had my ticket though, my troubles weren’t over. After arriving at the airport and standing in line at the check-in desk for what seemed like hours, I would finally find myself at the front of the queue. There were no computers at the desk, just a few grubby sheets of paper with the lists of passengers typed on them.I would stand there while the Air Algérie employee ran his pencil slowly down the list, all kinds of possibilities, each more horrific than the last, running through my mind. Was my OK a real OK? Had I made a mistake and the squiggle that I had taken for an OK is really a LA (liste d’attente i.e. waiting list)? Had I been bumped off the flight and my seat given to somebody’s close friend?
Then, of course, I had to pass through immigration and customs control. At immigration, I would often be the subject of scrutiny as I handed over my British passport, with its exit visa taking up one whole page, and my children’s Algerian passports. The immigration official’s eyes would flick from me to the children and back again, one even asking my daughter in Arabic, “Is she really your mother?”
“Customs control?” I hear you cry. “You were flying OUT of Algeria, weren’t you?” Well, yes – Algeria must be the only country in the world where customs search your luggage both on entering and on leaving the country. Exit visa? Well, yes – as a resident, I needed permission from the Algerian authorities to leave the country. I couldn’t just decide to throw a few things in a bag and fly to Paris on a whim.
Once in the departure lounge, there was usually no information about departure times. The Air Algérie counter shut up shop at 9pm sharp. It didn’t matter whether the aircraft for which I was waiting had not arrived – there was no status update on the board and no employee around to help me, unless, of course, you counted the cleaner slowly smearing her mop across the dirty floor, scattered with cigarette ends and glistening with gobs of spittle.
But the worst air travel experience I had was a year before we left Algeria. T. and our daughter were already in Paris, and our son and I were due to join them. He was due to sit a university exam the following day so I had booked our seats at least two months earlier – just to be sure. When we arrived at Essenia around three in the afternoon, we joined the long queue of passengers snaking its way to the check-in desk. Suddenly the queue stopped inching forward. What was happening? No – a false alarm – they had just run out of boarding passes. A new pile of boarding passes was dumped on the desk.
Clutching our white boarding passes in our hand, we then took a deep breath before we ran the gauntlet of immigration and customs. Emerging somewhat traumatised, we entered the departure lounge with a sigh of relief. Oh joy! The plane was already on the tarmac. No delays today. We should have known, however, never to take things for granted in Algeria.
Finally the glass door of the departure lounge was opened. Just one door, mind you. Two hundred people stampeded towards the narrow aperture, elbowing and shoving each other out of the way. When we managed to fight our way on to the tarmac, we handed our boarding passes to the airline official standing there. He glanced at them and told us to stand on one side while he let others through. Finally a small group of us stood there forlornly, watching other passengers climb the aircraft stairs, the cabin doors closing and the plane taking off – without us.
I won’t go into detail about what transpired. We were told that we were to take a later plane and that if we were lucky, we would overtake the earlier one. The plane that was to take us to Paris arrived at nine o’clock that night, and after fighting our way out again through the door, and running towards it, we were blocked again by policeman standing at the bottom of the aircraft stairs. They started leisurely picking out passengers one by one. I saw my son’s hand curl involuntarily into a fist, but finally, after remonstrating with one of the policemen, he managed to haul me up the stairs.
The steward, a blond, blue-eyed Kabyle, tried to make a few feeble jokes but they fell flat when he saw the passengers’ grim faces. We arrived in Paris at around two o’clock in the morning. It was to be the last time my son returned to Algeria. Not much of a fond farewell.