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.

images.jpeg

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?

fb2d6cfb0b2a62b6dfd99c1e8e1c4423--grilled-shrimp-recipes-spicy-recipes.jpg

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.

Unknown-1.jpeg

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.

Huile-Tizi-Reniff.JPG

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.

Advertisements

Cars

“We really have to think about buying a new car,” T. said thoughtfully, eyeing my burgeoning stomach. It was the spring of 1971, and I was already pregnant with our second child. Two years of marriage, two pregnancies. My bump was still quite neat, but T. was thinking ahead, as always. We were still riding around in the Austin 1100 bought at university and were experiencing all the problems of driving a British car abroad. Continue reading

Stalker

Stalking is an extension of harassment elevated to a level where it is causing disruption or physical threats to the person being harassed.

— Mark Childress


The strident sound of the doorbell cut through the messy tangle of my thoughts.  I  was trying to keep myself busy with mundane tasks, but my mind kept returning to the events of the previous few days. It was like worrying a loose tooth with my tongue  —it just made things worse. A glance out of  the front window showed me a blanket of grey rainclouds pressing down on the house, reducing my world to a thin slice between it and the sodden ground. The row of dripping, leafless geranium bushes in front of the house looked as miserable as I felt. Continue reading

Neat Freak

I do not have a Mediterranean temperament. Not for me the mañana mentality or the happily chaotic lifestyle of those who live on the shores of mare nostrum. No, I am a product of my upbringing and my no-nonsense Northern roots. So when I went out to Algeria, something had to give. It was me. Continue reading

Baby, You Can Drive My Car

Driving is not easy in Algeria. That must be the understatement of the year.

Although an Algerian Highway Code exists, it has little effect on the way Algerians drive. I have talked before about the need for a new code, based on Algerian reality. One that gives priority to the biggest car, especially if it is black. One that stipulates that you must screech away from traffic lights with a smell of burning rubber as soon as the red traffic light flickers, before it even has a chance to turn green. One that allows you to sail serenely through red lights as soon as night falls. Continue reading

Come Fly With Me

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.

air-algerie.jpg.png

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.

The Fridge Raiders

Bon! QUI a mangé mon Boursin? “(All right! WHO has eaten my Boursin cheese?) I stood in front of the open door of the fridge, hands on hips and  eyes narrowed, turning around to look at the guilty trio of my daughter, son and nephew, who stood there  hanging their heads, a  guilty smirk on their faces. T. had a LOOK, but then so did I – inherited from my mother. It used to have the children quaking in their boots when they were small, but not any more. Continue reading