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.

The steering wheel in the wrong place, for one thing. The fact that the car seemed too – well, low-slung – for another. It had been designed for smoothly-surfaced British roads and didn’t cope too well with the bumps and potholes of your average Algerian carriageway.  I somehow had the feeling that there was only about about four centimetres’ clearance between my rear end and the road. The car was also fitted with an efficient heater that had served us well in the harsh Sheffield winters, but was too stifling in the relatively balmy Algerian winter temperatures.  There appeared to be no middle ground between “boiling hot” and “off” on the temperature controls.

Then the engine began to overheat on a regular basis. One nightmare journey to Algiers in the first months of our marriage took place in summer and with the needle on the engine temperature gauge hovering around the “Ready to Explode” mark, T. thought the only way to counter this, and to arrive in Algiers in one piece, was to put the heating on full blast and roll the windows down.  When we finally staggered from the car in Algiers, our faces were scarlet from the heat and our hair, full of dust, looked as though we had spent the day in a wind tunnel.

Another time, I had baked a lemon sponge cake, slathered in lemon butter cream, for my mother-in-law, having already discovered that she had a sweet tooth. For once, my attempt at baking something had succeeded beyond my wildest dreams. It rose perfectly, its fluffy deliciousness just begging to be bitten into. We put it carefully in a box and then in a corner of the boot of the car, so that it would not be crushed on its journey to Algiers.

On arriving at the family villa, we carried it in triumph into the kitchen under my mother-in-law’s greedy gaze. Her mouth was already beginning to water. Not waiting a moment, she plunged a knife into the thick butter cream and carved off a large slice of cake for herself. Her expression of bliss turned first into surprise, then disgust as she spat out her mouthful. We weren’t to know that the car had sprung a petrol leak and the fumes had permeated the boot, impregnating the beautiful cake with the smell (and taste) of fuel. I will never forget the look of regret on T’s mother’s face as she binned the rest.

After T. had lent the car to his brother and the latter had enjoyed it so much he returned it to us with one of the doors bashed in, all the inside ashtrays broken off, and the oil gauge flickering on red, we regretfully sold it to a British coopérant going back to Britain for practically the same price T. had bought it four years before.

We sold it because T. had his eye on a new R16 TS, still rolling off the assembly line at the Renault plant near Oran. I remember us becoming increasingly impatient because it took a whole MONTH to be delivered, and we could have any colour we wanted as long as it was mustard – and a particularly bilious mustard at that. T’s lip curled in distaste at the thought of driving a car of that colour. He was obviously still in British mode, and couldn’t understand why he didn’t have a choice in the matter. He was flatly told that it was that colour – or no car at all.

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Apart from the paint job, though, the Renault 16TS was perfect for Algerian roads. Compared to the Austin, its rear end was raised so high that it had a marked slope from boot to bonnet. The suspension was markedly better, though, than that of the Austin, and I sailed happily through my second pregnancy, carefully cushioned from the uneven Algerian road surfaces.

Unfortunately, this was the car in which T. had his almost fatal road accident just after our son’s birth, and, although its sturdy frame had probably saved his life, I couldn’t look at it without thinking how close my husband had come to death whilst driving it. It was time to find a new car, because, although the TS had been repaired after the accident, I didn’t trust it anymore.

By then, however, the Renault assembly plant had closed down – one of the many unfortunate consequences of the quarrel between Algeria and France over the nationalisation of the Algerian oil industry, and so anyone wanting to buy a car had to look to the secondhand market. No new cars were imported  — except of course, by a chosen few.

So, every Friday, every male between the ages of ten and seventy would go down to the secondhand vehicle market in Oran, on a piece of waste ground near the football stadium — serious buyers hauling a sack full of dinars and window shoppers alike. Every car would have a group of “specialists” clustered around it, nodding their heads sagely and scratching their chins as they debated the pros and cons of that particular model.

T. was lucky in that, as one of Sonatrach’s top managers, he was allowed to buy a used company car. We were soon the proud owners of a white Peugeot 504, sold off by Sonatrach when they imported a new fleet of vehicles. Peugeot had a reputation of being more reliable than Renault — the Volvo of the French car industry — but I am afraid that our vehicle had been mistreated badly by careless Sonatrach drivers and mechanics. I am practically sure that it had also been involved at some time in an accident. A bit of welding, slap on some paint to cover the joins — et voilà!

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After a few years of breakdowns and astronomical repair bills, T. gave in to his longing for a really super-duper car and we bought a second-hand white Citroën DS 21. This was the car used by most French and Algerian ministers and was the quintessence of  French automotive luxury — supercilious sneer, complete with flaring nostrils, (the headlights) on its front grill and all.

Unfortunately, its spare parts were at luxury prices too, as we were to find when an English coopérant, with the same kind of car, borrowed our carjack and forgot to re-fasten the bonnet when returning it. It flew back and smashed the windscreen when T. was driving along at over 100 km an hour. With no spare parts being imported at the time, a new bonnet cost us 5,000 dinars – the equivalent of £500 at the time.

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Then there was the saga of the windscreen. Even more difficult to obtain than the bonnet, we finally had to send a driver to Constantine to get a new one. The journey was a mere five hundred miles (nearly eight hundred kilometres) each way. On returning, he had left it on our front veranda, and Titan, our German Shepherd, discovered, to his delight, that it made a very comfortable bed.

Shooing Titan off the plastic-wrapt windscreen, I raised one corner and it gave an ominous tinkle.The windscreen had been smashed beyond repair under his considerable weight. So distraught was I that I fled into our garden and hid amongst the rosebushes. This may seem to have been an overreaction to you, and it does to me now, but it was such a struggle to find anything in Algeria, that material things took on much more importance than they should have done. Once something was broken or stolen, there was no hope of replacing it.

Once the DS sold, we then bought a brand new Honda Accord, about which I have already spoken, and then finally, when Algerians were allowed to import cars, a Peugeot 505. The latter had a peanut for an engine, forcing us to turn off the air-conditioning every time we wanted to overtake. We sold the Peugeot and imported a Nissan Sunny that we left behind when we went to Qatar. T. tells me it is still trundling around the roads near Arzew – a bit battered but still going strong.

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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.

I splashed down the steps of the house, with our German Shepherd, Titan, pushing against my legs and nearly tripping me up in the process. I couldn’t see who was at the door, as the front wall was over two metres high, built purposely so to discourage passers-by from looking into our garden. If this seems a bit drastic to you, you must understand that Algerian passers-by are not like British ones. The British will politely avert their eyes, even if the curtains of a house are not drawn and the living-room is lit up like the stage of a theatre. Algerians develop a permanent crick in their necks from craning them to try to see what is going on in everyone else’s houses.

Grabbing hold of Titan’s collar, I cautiously opened the solid-metal gate. He had a tendency to jump out at visitors — more in welcome than anything else — but they weren’t to know that.  One of the side-effects of restraining his enthusiasm in this way was that he would then bare his teeth and snarl at anybody on the doorstep, causing them to take an involuntary step, or two, back.

It was I who took a step back when I saw who was standing outside on the pavement. Titan gave a low rumble in his throat. After staring at the woman for a couple of seconds, and just as she opened her mouth to speak, I slammed the gate shut in her face, whirled and ran up the steps to the front door, closing and locking it behind me. I leaned against it, my heart pounding fit to choke me.

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It was November, 1988, and T. had gone to a colleague’s house that afternoon to try to glean some information about what was happening at the refinery. Only a few days before, the entrance to the plant had been barred to him and to some of his heads of department. The security guards at the gate had looked at him sheepishly as they had walked over to his car to explain the situation and mumble an awkward apology. The barrier had been kept firmly down, however, on the orders of the Islamist group that had taken over the refinery.

Since then, we had been in limbo. His CEO had not been very forthcoming, just telling T. to stay at home whilst things settled down. Everything was rumour and counter-rumour. T. was not the only manager to whom access to his workplace had been barred. This had been happening all over Algeria since the October 1988 street riots, in what seemed at the time to be a spontaneous popular uprising against the status quo that had lasted more than twenty-five years.

Like all uprisings, however, it had been taken over by, on the one hand, vandals itching to smash, or burn down, anything which was a symbol of state authority— and on the other, by the Islamist movement. Putting themselves forward  as an alternative to the sclerotic FLN, in power since independence, they had quickly gained in popularity and influence.

One of their tactics had been to set up sleeper cells in various state-owned institutions and when the word was given, have those cells take over the running of the institutions, throwing out the legitimate managers in the process. This is what had happened to my husband.

Usually these cells were made up of ordinary members of the workforce – ordinary, yes, but heavily islamised. This must have seemed like a heaven-sent opportunity for them to take over the reins of power, a distorted version of the famous “autogestion,” i.e. the spontaneous self-management of important institutions by Algerian workers once their European managers had joined the general exodus after independence.

Unfortunately, in this case, power had gone to their heads, as, according to a former colleague, “Sous chaque burnous bat le coeur d’un patron” (Under every burnous,  beats the heart of a boss). Stories filtered through to us of how the “commission,” as they had styled themselves, were interrogating other employees to try and find some proof of misappropriation of company funds, use of state-owned facilities or other evidence of wrong-doing by T.  Unfortunately for them, however  — and fortunately for us — he had always been scrupulous about keeping records of any supplies purchased from the refinery, making  sure that he paid for them by cheque and that a copy was kept on file.

The problem was that they didn’t understand that my husband was a goverment employee just like everyone else. He was not a manager in the traditional sense – that is, a factory owner into whose pockets all the profits were poured. He was subject to the same rules and regulations as everyone else, with a salary not vastly superior to theirs. Every decision he took had to be approved, signed and countersigned by his superiors before being brought into effect.

So when they could find no evidence of wrong-doing, they resorted to other methods. Firstly,  they threatened to march on our house and burn it down to the ground. Then, rumours about a planned attempt on T’s life did the rounds. He was at the receiving end of a stream of anonymous death threats. Luckily for me, I knew nothing about all this, or I would not have been able to sleep at night.

I had known for some time, however, about a female employee at the refinery who had developed an unhealthy obsession with my husband. T. had told me that he had not felt able to continue eating his lunch in the works canteen, as this woman would sit opposite him and stare…and stare.. and stare. Finally, feeling increasingly uncomfortable, he had opted to eat lunch at his desk.

The “commission” felt that it would be a good idea to give this woman, who obviously had severe mental issues, our home address. She would loiter on the pavement in front of our house, hoping to catch a glimpse of us, or rather, of my husband. Her impromptu visit to our house that rainy afternoon had scared me witless, because I had no idea what was going on in her mind. Her obsession with T could have led her to think of me as a rival for his affections. It would be easy enough to get rid of me by stabbing me on my own doorstep. Who knows? Anything was possible in those chaotic times.

I prefer to think, however, that she was sent to stalk us simply for her nuisance value. Her activities were soon brought to an end, however, when we opened the double gates to drive out one day, and saw her standing on the pavement in front of us, effectively  barring our way. I can remember just sitting there in the passenger seat, stunned, not knowing what to do. T froze as well, his hands on the steering wheel.

Titan, however, had no such hesitation. He bounded out through the opening as usual, and galloped towards the woman. The last time I was to see our stalker, she was running, screeching, down the street, with Titan, tongue lolling out, in hot pursuit. A stressful episode in our lives brought to a somewhat comic conclusion.

 

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.

I have already described my battle with a strange type of agoraphobia during the first few years in Algeria, but a new phenomenon was to later rear its head. This time it was a pressing need to bring about some — any — sense of order to my daily life. It was the only way I could get through the days without wanting to bang my head in frustration against the walls.

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I am sure that I am not alone in thinking that routine brings reassurance with it. For children, the same nightly ritual — bath, story, bed — has a calming and comforting effect. For adults, sitting on the same seat on the Tube, buying their newspaper from the same newspaper kiosk, eating the same sandwich for lunch — act almost like a tranquilliser in the whirling sound and fury of the modern city.

The sheer unpredictability of life in Algeria could fray my nerves at the best of times. By contrast, many Algerians thrived on the lack of routine and almost seemed to seek it out. A joke doing the rounds was that it was lucky that the weather in Algeria depended on climatic conditions and not on its citizens, otherwise we wouldn’t have enjoyed so many sunny days. We would have woken up every morning wondering what meteorological event would occur that day.  An electrical storm? Perhaps hailstones? Why not a hurricane to liven things up?

The postal service, the power and water supplies, telecommunications, flight arrivals and departures, administrative procedures and decisions  — even some people —  were totally unreliable. After a while, I began to realise that this was often deliberate.  Inefficiency, incompetence and sheer laziness — a multitude of sins — could be covered up more easily when there was no clear set of rules for anything. I came to loathe a phrase in darija that was trotted out all the time, whatever the circumstances, accompanied usually by a confident smile; “Makesh meshkeela!” (No problem!) It usually meant there was going to be one.

Sometimes the lack of transparency constituted a means of coercion for some unscrupulous people. A case in point was the the Algerian colleague in charge of obtaining residency and work permits for foreign instructors when I was working for an American university contracted to the IAP (Institut algérien du Pétrole). I was the one responsible for requesting personal details and documents from the instructors as she didn’t speak English — a necessary requirement for someone working for an American company, I would have thought, but then what do I know?

Every week the list of documents required changed and, however closely I followed it, there was always a paper missing. I pleaded with her in vain to give me a complete list, but was always met with a refusal. Every week I would receive an irate phone call: “You’ve forgotten to send me a copy of the birth certificate/marriage lines/photocopy of passport/spouse’s passport!”  It was only later I realised that therein resided her power. Not only did she get to lord it over me and impress our American employers, who knew no better, but she appeared to be the competent one, whilst I was the inefficient idiot always forgetting what was required.

So what could I do to create a haven of peace and stability for my family and myself in the midst of all this chaos? I could ensure that my own little corner of the world was in perfect order. I could ensure that the children’s clothes were always laundered and ready for school,  their rooms clean and tidy, and their bedtime and mealtimes as regular as possible. I could ensure that there was a place for everything and that everything was in its place. In other words, I became a neat freak.

Of course, this might seem slightly controlling to you, and it does to me in hindsight. My insistence on a set bedtime for my children, even when it was still light outside, was incomprehensible to most Algerians, including members of my own family. They would let their own children run around until all hours until they collapsed, exhausted, on the floor or sofa, to be then scooped up by their parents and put to bed in the same clothes they had worn all day.

T was in two minds about this. He had been brought up by a loving, but chronically disorganised mother, in a home with no set routine at all. His laundry was never done; he slept in beds with no sheets; the only thing of which he could be sure, given my mother-in-law’s passion for food, was that he would have three meals a day, plus a snack in the afternoon.  Even though the evening meal was always couscous, it was hot and there was plenty of it.

So a smoothly-run household was a revelation to him, although he himself had always been reasonably well-organised and could be bitingly critical when something was not entirely to his liking. A well-ordered home environment brought reassurance to him as well, in a way, and he could relax in the knowledge that there would be no domestic crisis over the sudden realisation that the coffee had run out.

On the other hand, the whole messy, noisy,  endearing Algerian spontaneity that made life so colourful was sacrificed. I am sure my husband would have preferred it if I had loosened up from time to time and not fretted so much about whether we had enough beds, bed linen and food whenever we had unexpected guests, instead of just enjoying their company. But I felt that if I lost control for one second, everything would fall apart. A little like the air passenger who daren’t fall asleep, convinced that his constant vigilance is the only thing keeping the plane in the air.

Sometimes, I had the impression that I was like King Canute trying to hold back the tide of chaos that would, inevitably, start to lap around my feet. At other times, I felt like T’s mother who once, when overwhelmed by events during a catastrophic family wedding, had started carefully cleaning a corner of the table. The rest of the table was overflowing with leftover food, dirty dishes and watermelon rinds. Stunned, we watched as she wiped the same square foot of table surface over and over again, seemingly oblivious to the chaos around her.

On reflection, I now realise that, apart from a certain genetic disposition towards tidiness and order, I was suffering from a mild anxiety disorder, and that my obsession with organisation was classic reassurance-seeking behaviour. I was trying to explain this to my adult daughter a few years ago and told her that it had helped me survive. “But, Maman,” she said, “Don’t you realise? It helped us too.”

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.

This new Highway Code should incorporate, above all, a rule whereby women drivers must be shunted out of the way, overtaken on dangerous bends, tailgated and pursued, insulted and harassed by male drivers. So you can understand T’s lack of enthusiasm when I told him that I wanted to learn to drive.

In sixties Britain, very few women drove. In fact, there were not very many drivers at all. Owning a car was beyond the reach of most ordinary people. So when T. bought his first car when we were still at university in 1966, it was a dream come true for both of us. So proud was he of the car that there was never any question of who was driving. Any other possibility was almost an affront to his masculinity.

He had already obtained his Algerian driving licence, although his driving experience until then had been confined to driving his father’s tractor around the fields of the farm back in Reghaïa. He had told me, with a wry smile,  about his one attempt at driving a car in Algiers. The car had belonged to the father of his friend, Mus, and the two friends were enjoying a drive around Algiers, sunglasses perched on their noses, eyeing up all the pretty girls in their summer dresses.

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T. on the left, with friends in Algiers just after independence

Mus, however, was a martyr to dental problems and on that particular day, his toothache  had rendered him incapable of driving, as his eyes, half-closed with the pain, could not focus on the road ahead. He handed the steering wheel over to T with great reluctance, giving him strict instructions on how he should just tap the accelerator lightly, not stamp on it, and how he should be careful of the sticky clutch and the elusive third gear.

After five minutes of T crashing the gears and driving in a stop-start fashion around the steep, winding Algiers streets, Mus grabbed the steering wheel back, muttering between gritted teeth, “No, no, no!! Give it here! Your driving is worse than my toothache! ”

Luckily, T’s driving had improved by the time he bought the car in Sheffield.  He passed his British driving test successfully, keeping the date of the test secret from me. I knew he had been having driving lessons, but the first thing I knew about him passing was when I went to a friend’s house to meet him after the lesson and found him there, proudly brandishing the little red booklet. We had only a few unfortunate incidents after that, including scraping the hubcaps on the edge of the pavement and tackling curves in the road with more brio than caution.

In Algeria, the idea of me learning to drive became an ever more distant dream. Quite honestly, I never really gave much thought to it, occupied as I was with two small children and adapting to life there. Our driving excursions made me even more reticent, as other drivers seemed to do what they wanted – overtaking on bends, undertaking, cutting in front, braking without warning, running red lights and so on.

Once, coming home late at night from a family wedding, our headlights had lit up a line of prone bodies on the road ahead.  It turned out that local villagers had found it too hot to sleep within the confines of their homes, and so had decided to sleep out in the fresh air under the stars. In the middle of the main road.

Gradually, though, I began to feel like a prisoner in my own home. I started to dread T’s frequent absences even more, as, although drivers were available, I just couldn’t decide to go and visit a friend or family member on a whim. It all needed prior planning – ringing up T’s office, talking to his secretary, pacing up and down waiting for the driver to appear, and the ever-present guilty feeling that this was taking advantage of the system. Before you say anything, there was no functional public transport system, and so this was really the only option.

I had finally had enough and announced to T. my wish to learn to drive. I know that they say that your husband (or wife) should never teach you to drive, but T. became my first driving instructor – with all the pitfalls that entails. Every weekend, we were to be found on the back roads around Arzew, with the two children, too young to be left at home alone, on the back seats, fidgeting and complaining.

T. was the most patient of teachers, only shouting at me once when I got confused in the middle of a roundabout, mistaking the brake for the accelerator, with a lorry bearing down on us all the while. I complained tearfully that it was difficult to distinguish between “all those pedals.” T. threw me an exasperated look, pointing out that there were, in fact, only three.

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I passed my driving test, anyway, after a few official driving lessons, the test consisting of driving round a piece of waste ground in Arzew a couple of times. I was now authorised to be let loose on Algeria’s roads. It must be said that I would offer up a little prayer before setting off anywhere, never sure whether I would arrive home in one piece.

My little mustard-yellow, four-gear Fiat 128 was forever breaking down. Once, I gave a lift to T and he, thinking that I was still in third gear at one hundred kilometres an hour, such was the grinding and straining of the little car, yelled at me, above the roar of the engine, to move up into fourth gear. Frustrated, I screeched back that I WAS in fourth gear.

Some mornings, when the Fiat would refuse to start, I would climb, with great trepidation, into the Honda Accord that we had just acquired. These Hondas, originally destined for Belgium but rejected by the latter as not responding to European norms, had been sold to Algeria in 1981 instead of shipping them back to Japan. Of course, government officials made sure that all their friends and family were supplied with new cars before a few filtered down to top executives in national companies – like T.

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A typically Algerian piece of doggerel did the rounds. “Les Hondas Accord – pour l’Etat major: Les Hondas Quintet – pour les grosses têtes: Les Hondas Civic – maatchi alik.” In other words: “Honda Accords – for the Chiefs of Staff; Honda Quintets – for the fat cats; Honda Civics – not for you.” The extreme resentment felt by the public at large was summed up in those few terse lines. Our new car had subsequently been keyed and the wing mirrors smashed when we had once parked outside by mistake.

As time went by, I drove the Honda more and more, revelling in the quiet whisper of its engine compared to the deafening roar of the Fiat. One day, coming home from Arzew, I overtook a battered Renault 4, gliding soundlessly by like a stealth bomber. Glancing into my rearview mirror a few seconds later, I saw the R4, belching out black exhaust fumes and straining every rivet, trying to catch up with me.

Looking more closely, I saw it was packed to the roof with men, moustaches bristling, eyes popping out of their heads and lips peeled back from their teeth in a rictus of hatred and injured male pride. Obviously, being overtaken by a mere woman and, what was even worse, a woman in a Honda, was more than they could bear.

This attitude was confirmed a few weeks later, when, stepping out of the car in Arzew, I overheard a muttered conversation between two men standing outside a shop. “Eh ben,” said one, “Même les femmes conduisent les Honda maintenant!” (Well, well, well … even women are driving Hondas now!)

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.

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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.

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The cheese in question was regularly brought back, amongst other treats, by T. when he went on business trips. He would always transit by Paris on the way back to Algeria, picking up a few goodies on the way – cheese, chocolate and so on. They were all the more precious because the only cheese available in Algeria at that time was goats’ cheese (when the wind was blowing in the right direction) and the chocolate was, well – let’s just say its only resemblance to real chocolate was that it came in blocks and was brown. I didn’t mind sharing out the bars of chocolate, but I have always loved cheese and really missed it. So the cheese was mine, and mine alone.

Unfortunately, my children didn’t understand the relationship between cheese and me. So they would stealthily unwrap the Boursin cheese, shave a couple of millimetres off the top or the sides, pat it back into shape, then carefully re-fold the foil wrapper around it. I couldn’t understand why my block of cheese seemed to get smaller each day, without me touching it. Then I had finally twigged.

I know that most parents with teenagers in the house have the same problem – food disappearing from the fridge, but for us, it was even more annoying because we could not just go down to the supermarket to replace the food items. We would have to wait until the next trip abroad.

It was the same with the bottles of fizzy drink. There was no such thing as Coca Cola or Orangina or 7Up, just the Algerian versions of them. Not very fizzy to start with, even if the apocryphal story of caustic soda crystals being added to create the required bubbles had been true, they seemed to lose even more of their fizz after a day or so. I didn’t realise that my children were taking surreptitious swigs of them and adding tap water to fill the bottle up to the previous level.

I should have realised that fridge-raiding was carried out by my family to a professional level. But the one who surpassed them all  was my mother-in-law. She had a Ph.D in the subject. My first intimation of her skills had been during our first year of marriage when she was staying with us in our flat in Oran. We were expecting guests for dinner, and hoping to make a gratin, I had bought some fromage rouge (Edam cheese)  – cheese being still available at that time. Opening the fridge later to take out the cheese in order to prepare the gratin, I discovered that it had vanished, leaving behind only a few dried-up pieces of red rind languishing sadly on the shelf.

The year after, when I had just given birth to our daughter, and was the slightly unwilling host for a posse of family members, brought back from Algiers by T. to “help” me, I had bought some of the famous Algerian apricot jam, La Coupe,  to liven up a substantial afternoon tea (or rather café au lait),  that I intended to prepare for T.’s maternal uncle, Khali B., and his wife, who were coming to congratulate us on our new baby.

I had sent T’s youngest brother to the shops to buy it the same morning, but when I came to setting the table for the goûter, the jam tin that I took from the fridge was empty. How many slices of bread would it have required to use up one kilo of jam? No, I later found that T’s younger sister, his brother and their cousin had scoffed it all  in the space of one morning, ladling it out of the tin and into their mouths with large spoons.

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During  the years that followed, I became used to things vanishing from the fridge. My own daughter, as soon as she could walk, would open the fridge door on her own, make a beeline for the large halves of watermelon cooling there and stick her little hands in the middle of each half to scoop out the succulent heart – the best bit. We would find the grooves made by her tiny fingers in the red, juicy fruit. My  father, on one of his visits to Algeria, had the simple, but brilliant, idea of fitting a wooden frame over the fridge door and thus blocking it. The ensuing roars of frustration issuing from the kitchen had to be heard to be believed.

None of them, however,  could hold a candle to my mother-in-law.  She was the Usain Bolt of fridge-raiding. Everyone else was an amateur in comparison. Even when she contracted diabetes in later life, she would snaffle any fruit or sweet treat in the fridge – her particular weakness being grapes, even though they are rich in fructose.

I had once subjected my children and nephew to the third degree at the dinner table over the disappearance of a honeydew melon from the fridge. They all protested their innocence with vehemence, even when I produced the ultimate evidence – the rinds tossed carelessly into the kitchen bin. All of their eyes converged on their grandmother, who was looking innocently around, pretending she didn’t know what on earth we were talking about.

I once caught her in the act, however. It was Christmas and I had prepared two bowls of trifle. One had alcohol in it – I would throw in any alcohol we had to hand, rum, brandy, coffee liqueur  – anything. The other was alcohol-free for my mother-in-law, the children and any other visitor who adhered strictly to the Muslim ban on alcohol. We had enjoyed our trifles on Christmas Day and the left-overs had been put in the fridge.

Walking into the kitchen the next morning, I found my mother-in-law in front of the open fridge with a large serving spoon in her hand, cream around her mouth and a guilty expression on her face. Hoping to distract me, she gave me an ingratiating smile, saying in a wheedling tone of voice, “ELHA wagui! Elha atas, atas!”  (This is GOOD! Really, really good!)

What she hadn’t realised was that, as our son was particularly partial to trifle for breakfast, he had polished off the remaining teetotallers’ trifle, leaving  only the alcohol-soaked version -the one she was finding particularly delicious. I stared at her in shock, not because she had been raiding the fridge and I had caught her red-handed, but that she had just consumed goodness knows how many millilitres of alcohol.

I didn’t know what to do, so didn’t say a word, just giving her a sickly smile in response. That night in bed, I told T., thinking he would be shocked to the core and demand that his mother be told so that she could pray for forgiveness for straying off the path of righteousness. Instead, he just chuckled and said that it didn’t matter anyway. The fact that she had not known that she was consuming alcohol meant that she had not committed any sin.

I was relieved to have not been the instrument by which my poor mother-in-law began her descent of the slippery slope towards dipsomania. It was, however, slightly worrying that she had much preferred the alcoholic version. Elha atas, atas, indeed.

Radio Silence

“There has been a serious earthquake near Mexico City. The number of casualties is, as yet, unknown.”

The newscaster’s voice cut into my reverie and my stomach suddenly turned to ice. I had just returned home from dinner at a colleague’s house and was feeling quite relaxed for once. A night out had done me good, as T. was away on business and I had  spent the evening enjoying the easy conversation and banter of my American and French colleagues.

Lying in bed, I had decided to switch on the radio alarm by the side of the bed and lull myself to sleep listening to some soothing music. Then a news flash cut into the music programme, banishing my relaxed mood in an instant. Yes – you’ve guessed it. T. was attending meetings – in Mexico City.

He had been due to spend about a week there, before returning home via Britain. We had planned to meet up in Blackpool to spend a few days together before going back to Algeria. What should I do? In 1979, there were  no such things as mobile phones and telephone communications inside or outside Algeria were unreliable, to say the least, so a telephone call from him was highly unlikely.  There were no twenty-four hour news channels – not even any daytime television in Algeria. No newspapers worthy of the name, just the trusty FLN mouthpiece, El Moudjahid, regurgitating the same old party line. No foreign newspapers at all.

I hardly slept a wink that night, listening to the hourly news bulletins on the radio, but there was still no fresh news on the extent of the disaster or the number of casualties. I went into work next day with bloodshot eyes and an audible tremor in my voice as I informed my colleagues about what had happened. I was working for the American company, El Paso, at the time, and somebody suggested sending a telex message to the hotel where T. and other participants in the meetings were supposed to be staying.

By some minor miracle, I actually had the name of the hotel in question, as my husband was not in the habit of divulging details about work. Looking back, it’s hard for me to say why. I was often kept in the dark about matters regarding T’s job. It was true that he had always wanted to shield me from the often risky and  unpleasant side of working as a Sonatrach manager.

Another less charitable way of looking at it was that, although he was usually quite forward-looking in his thinking, the environment in which he worked, the general Algerian attitude towards wives sometimes unconsciously influenced his behaviour. He obviously didn’t want his colleagues to think he was under his wife’s thumb. Informing your wife as to your comings and goings was to show weakness. Besides, European wives had a reputation for wearing the trousers in any mixed marriage and T. was perhaps demonstrating to the world that it wasn’t the case with us.

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Travellin’ man

So I asked permission from my boss to send a message via our new state-of-the-art telex machine. To me, this kind of technology was amazing. I know it seems banal now, in the age of instant messaging and communication, but at the time, to be able to converse in real time with people on the other side of the world by means of a glorified typewriter was a revelation. With the help of my friend, S., who was in charge of the telex room, I contacted the reception desk of the hotel where my husband was supposed to be staying.

The telex machine  spluttered a few times then spat out the following message: “Nobody of that name is a guest at this hotel.” My heart sank. I knew exactly what had happened. T. had moved to a cheaper hotel so as to save money on his expenses. Sonatrach was in the habit of handing out the bare minimum in travel expenses, hardly enough to cover hotel and food bills. In order to keep a little money back to buy presents and such, T. and his colleagues had the habit of checking into less expensive accommodation. But, my only link to him had now been severed. I had no idea if he had been injured, or even where he was.

There was complete radio silence from my husband in the days that followed. All my immediate plans were thrown into doubt. Should I just go to Blackpool as if nothing had happened and spend days there fretting about what might, or might not, have happened to him? Should I remain at home in the hope of a phone call – some news, ANY news about him?

In the end, the decision was taken out of my hands as both children came down with chickenpox. There was no way I could travel with them in that state, as they were both highly contagious and I doubt whether I would have even been allowed on the plane with two whingeing, spotty-faced children running a high temperature

A few days later, the phone rang. I answered it and could make out a very faint voice in the midst of crackling static. It sounded as though someone was shouting from the top of a mountain miles away, with an electric storm raging all around them. It was impossible to recognise who was calling and then I suddenly made out the words, “C’est Madame Ouali?” (Is that Mrs. Ouali?). I yelled “OUI!” down the phone and an irate voice came back, “Alors, ici c’est MONSIEUR Ouali!” (Well, this is MR. Ouali!) We obviously could not continue our conversation in those conditions, but it was enough to know that he was safe.

Later, I learned from my mother that he had turned up as planned at her house, and had bounded from the taxi, expecting to see both children rushing towards him in welcome. She had explained the situation to him and impressed on him the urgency of contacting me IMMEDIATELY. His excuse for not contacting me earlier had been that he had not realised that I had heard anything about the earthquake. Hmmm.

He also told me, once safely back in Algeria, that he had been woken by the violent shaking of his hotel room in Mexico and his wardrobe falling over with a loud bang. He had been sleeping without any pyjamas because of the heat, the hotel being so cheap it hadn’t run to air conditioning.

So, after carefully dressing to preserve his modestly, almost overbalancing  as he had tried to haul his trousers up, he had opened the door to find that the staircase had detached itself from the landing and that he had had to navigate a gap of over a metre wide before being able to reach the stairs and descend to safety, two floors below.

It was obviously more important to be a well-dressed casualty than a naked survivor. At least that time he got his priorities right.