Happy Anniversary

Life is all about balance, and there are certain times of the year – birthdays, anniversaries….. that are meant to be enjoyed without guilt.

-Harley Pasternak


On ne fête pas les anniversaires en Algérie.” (We don’t celebrate birthdays in Algeria.)

T. looked at up from the papers strewn across the table in his room, his nostrils pinched in irritation and his lip curling in a sneer that reminded me of Elvis. His eyebrows drew together in a scowl at my frivolity.  What had I done now? Well, I had merely asked him what he would like for his upcoming twenty-fifth birthday. And had received the above terse answer.

It was perhaps not the best time to ask him a question — in fact, to talk to him at all. During the university exam period, he couldn’t abide anyone around him. He couldn’t abide the sound of me moving around, or even the sound of me breathing. Of me simply existing.

Sitting cross-legged on his bed, I squinted through the half-light of a rainy summer evening at my copy of  Beowulf.  To my tired eyes, the strange Anglo-Saxon characters seemed to dance across the page, but, as I carefully turned the pages of my book,  I was still aware of the black looks being directed at me and felt my ears turn pink under the scrutiny. 

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I could understand why exams were so important to him. Why he was so anxious. For him, this was the last-chance saloon. He could not — would not — go back to Algiers without an engineering degree in his pocket. His nerves were understandably in shreds, as he could not afford the events of the previous year to be repeated.

It had been a painful shock to him when he had been forced to re-sit his end-of-year exams the previous September. Too much time had been devoted in his first year to cutting a swathe through the female student population — at least, according to his tutor. I was just the latest in a series of his romantic conquests, but had lasted longer than most. Six months and counting.

Of course, all of the other Algerian students had also re-sat their exams, but T had never failed a test before in his life. It had seriously shaken his self-confidence, although he had passed with flying colours the second time around.

To counter his building anxiety around exam time, he would try to construct elaborate rationalisations as to why everything would turn out fine, but the nagging voice in the back of his mind was still issuing dire warnings about history repeating itself. I couldn’t understand why, as he was one of the most brilliant students in his year.

A couple of weeks earlier, he had emerged blinking from his self-imposed isolation to celebrate my birthday. Although he had been grumpier than usual that morning, glaring at me for crunching toast in his presence and barely wishing me a happy birthday before turning back to his books, he had, in fact, organised a surprise party for me after lunch, just as my temper reached boiling point and steam had started coming out of my ears. There were piles of presents, cards and even a birthday cake.  I had deflated like a punctured tyre.

But what to buy him for his birthday? I finally settled on a pair of onyx cufflinks which, when you think about it, is the most useless present ever. Who on earth wears shirts that need cufflinks? But they looked very elegant in their box and were received with due appreciation. As was my card.

I noticed, however, a look of dissatisfaction gradually creep across his face. What could be the matter? Ah, he had only received six birthday cards.  After telling everyone not to bother about his birthday, he was disappointed because they had taken him at his word.

In Britain, T had been obliged to follow, more or less, the niceties of British social traditions. Once in Algeria, however, things changed radically. Life there moved to a whole different rhythm.

I had expected there to be no celebration of Christmas, of course. Instead, we had the two Aïds and a host of other smaller religious festivals and political celebrations — Achoura, Muharrem, Independence Day and The Revolutionary Startled Jump, or whatever it was called.

The last name was seriously weird, but, according to my French/English dictionary, that’s what le Sursaut revolutionnaire means. It was the suitably pompous and meaningless name that had been thought up to make Boumediène’s 1965 coup d’état and subsequent seizure of power more palatable to the masses. Well, you couldn’t very well call it Illegitimate Military Takeover Day, now could you?

None of these holidays held any significance for me. I had found it very difficult to adjust to the sudden non-existence of the festive season, and the ritual slaughtering of a sheep and the making and exchanging of zillions of cakes did not quite make up for its loss.

But it was the absence of more personal celebrations that I missed the most.  Birthdays? Forget them. Wedding anniversaries? Don’t make me laugh. Mother’s Day? What’s that?

As far as T’s birthdays were concerned, things were a little complicated, because we did not know exactly when he had been born. The official date, appearing on his birth certificate, was the fifteenth of June. Unfortunately, his mother remembered that he had been born in the middle of a snowstorm and that she had been forced to wrap herself and her newborn baby up in a rug to keep warm.

An aunt had added the useful detail that the cherry trees had been in bloom at the time of his birth. A romantic image, yes, but it didn’t help us. Flowering cherry trees in June seemed be an impossibility, and although it snowed regularly in Kabylie in spring, it was stretching it a bit to imagine a blizzard in June.

So we came to the more prosaic conclusion that his father had not registered his birth for a few months, perhaps because T’s name was unapologetically nationalistic, and the French authorities would have refused to register it unless my father-in-law had slipped them a substantial bribe.  Or perhaps it was just because his father was busy and had not had the time to go to Michelet.

The result was that T had never really felt any particular attachment to his supposed birthdate. It was a day like any other. Perhaps he didn’t like the idea of marking the passing years  either — his birthdays looming on the horizon like personal tsunamis. Perhaps he felt that one day one of his tsunamis would drag him bodily up the beach and throw him into the raging water, leaving only the body of a decrepit old man behind.

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Most families in Algeria did not acknowledge birthdays, as they were still regarded with suspicion as an “idea imported from the West.” But by the seventies and eighties, birthday celebrations were making their tentative entrance into Algerian social mores, even though they were usually reserved for children.

Wedding anniversaries were, on the other hand, a completely no-go area. Perhaps some Algerian couples thought that their marriage was not something to celebrate. We never celebrated them either, as I think T had subconsciously taken his mother’s dire warnings about the “evil eye” to heart. You don’t flaunt your happiness in case it is taken away from you. Hubris followed by nemesis.

So – no birthday or wedding anniversary celebrations. Later on, we did celebrate the children’s birthdays and would go out for a meal together on ours. Sometimes a cake was even made or bought. But T thought, and continues to think, that actions count more than words, and his way of showing his feelings was to take care of us. With hindsight, I agree with him. It’s very easy to buy a card or cake, less easy to ensure your family’s wellbeing on a daily basis, especially in a country as unpredictable as Algeria.

Since we left Algeria, I have often thought about my mother’s feelings during the twenty-four years we were there. She must have felt as though I had disappeared into a black hole. No birthday, Christmas or Mother’s Day cards dropping through the letter box. We had our reasons, of course. Cards — any kind of cards — were just not available and the Algerian postal service was unreliable at best. Telephone communications were practically impossible. She knew all this, and accepted it, but it must have been no less hurtful. I’m so sorry, Mum.

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Henna

Le henné, c’est la terre du paradis.

Henna is the soil of paradise.

-Mohammed Ben Cheneb – Proverbs from Algeria and the Maghreb


I looked down at the small mound of greenish-brown sludge on the palm of my hand. An elderly man wearing a skullcap and a grey burnous was using his forefinger to spread it carefully into a perfect circle. My uncertain gaze flickered from his bowed head to the man sitting by my side, holding out his own hands, palm upwards, and waiting, with a slight smile, for the paste to be smeared on them as well.

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Looking around the room from under my lowered eyelids, I saw two young boys standing to one side, beaming widely and holding tall candles wrapped in ribbon, their foreheads gleaming with perspiration from the combined heat of a sweltering Algerian July evening and the proximity of the candle flames. On the table in front of us were bowls containing eggs, the brown paste, and pastel-coloured sugared almonds.

Taking deep breaths to keep the panic at bay and slow the pounding of my heart, I saw two familiar faces amongst the crowd of women at the door, all straining to catch a glimpse of the proceedings. My mother and my sister — my mother with tears in her eyes at the sight of me in my silver and black wedding kaftan.

My mother-in-law was standing at the front, resplendent in her new multi-coloured dress with bands of bright rickrack braid sewn around the sleeves, the hem and across her chest, which was puffed up with importance at her new status as mother of the bridegroom. Her lips were pursed in a mixture of pride and emotion, and she kept heaving little sighs that made the the fringe of her headscarf  flutter.

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My heart rate slowed as I looked at T again, handsome in his dark suit, white shirt and tie. It was the first time I had seen him in three days. He had always had this calming effect on me and I would be irritable and anxious during his absences, impatient for his return. He had handed me over to the women a few days earlier, without a second thought, and I had felt pushed and pulled in all directions ever since — dressed and undressed like a doll and made to parade in front of all the (female) guests. His calm presence now helped settle my frazzled nerves. 

He was just the opposite to me, taking everything in his stride. Although he might have given in to the women on a few points of traditional protocol, his word was law as far as everything else was concerned. How could someone feel so confident, so sure of themselves? Couldn’t he feel how the house’s pulse rate had gone up since our arrival in Algiers a few days before?

With his mother, his sisters, his cousins and aunts around him, he was like a fine young male animal surrounded by a pride of admiring females. His brothers hovered at a respectful distance. He was the cherished  first-born son, the one on whom all the family’s hopes were pinned. His boundless confidence more than made up for my own sad lack.

El-Hani, or the henna ceremony, should normally have been performed separately — each in our own homes. In a way, it was almost like a hen or stag do  — a last night as a single person spent in the company of friends and family, and a prelude to the next day, when the bride would be taken to her husband’s family home. The ceremony was not supposed to take place in mixed company and with both families present, but as I had no family home in Algeria, we had to improvise. 

So it was the oldest male member of T’s family, his great-uncle, who applied the henna paste to my hands as well as to T’s, and not the oldest female member of my own. From that moment on, we were officially married in the eyes of tradition — and of the family.

Henna has been used to decorate young women’s bodies, as part of the celebration of social events and feast days, since the late Bronze Age.  It is thought that ancient links between young, fertile women and henna are behind this custom, which seems to have originated with the Berbers, later spreading as far as the eastern Mediterranean, Asia and India, and, in Egypt, replacing the red ochre dye that had been used previously. Many statuettes of young women with raised hands stained with what looks like henna, and dating from between 1500 and 500 BC, have been found all along the Mediterranean coast. 

The earliest writings about its particular role in marriage and fertility celebrations were found in the port city of Ugarit in pre-Islamic Syria, and referred to women decorating their bodies with henna in preparation for their wedding night.  It was thought to bring the bride good luck and keep her from harm.

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Henna powder is made from the leaves of the henna tree, lawsonia inermis, also called the hina, the mignonette and the Egyptian privet. Traditionally, the dried leaves are ground to a fine powder with a pestle and mortar, before being mixed with rosewater and sometimes lemon juice to make a thick paste. The amount and the quality of the henna used can make the colour obtained vary from bright red to black.

In Algeria at the time of our wedding, henna was not applied to the skin with the aid of a syringe or special applicator in order to make the beautiful, swirling, lace-like patterns seen in India, but was just smeared over the tips of the fingers, the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet. Sometimes the whole foot, or hand, would be plunged into a basin full of henna.

Not being used to henna, and thinking that this method left the hands and feet looking as though they had been daubed in blood, I had asked that only the palms of my hands be decorated with just a small amount of henna. I did not want to be like the seductress described by the French writer and painter, Eugène Fromentin:

“…. elle avait …. les mains enluminées de henné, les pieds aussi; ses talons rougis par la peinture ressemblaient à deux oranges….” (Her hands were  highlighted with henna, her feet also; her heels, reddened by the dye, looked like two oranges…)

If you see a young woman with faded henna tattoos on her hands and feet, it usually means she has recently married, but the application of henna is not reserved just for weddings. It symbolises joy, or thanksgiving, and women and children are often seen with henna-reddened hands at births, circumcision ceremonies and during Aid.

My own henna stains lasted a few weeks, as my hands had been carefully wrapped in bandages immediately afterwards so the paste would not wear off. No such elaborate ritual for T, who washed his hands immediately, leaving  just a faint orange mark on his palms. He was willing to indulge his mother and go along with tradition, but only up to a certain point.

Henna is not just used for body art. It can be used for various types of skin complaints. It acts as a sun block. It is good for dry or flaking skin and helps speed up the healing of skin cuts. Fatiha, my home help, would use it on her dry and cracked heels. It is also supposed to strengthen nails. A true miracle of nature.

And finally, it is used as a natural and organic hair colour. Not only does it colour the hair, but it strengthens the hair from the root to the tip. I used it a little when I discovered my first silver hairs, and it gave a pleasing chestnut sheen to my dark hair. The only downside is that it dries to a stiff and brittle shell, which can be slightly disconcerting.

It is not advisable to use it on hair which has turned completely white or grey, as it can end up an alarming shade of bright orange. Many is the time I have seen elderly Algerian women with a tuft of ginger fluff peeking out from under their headscarves. But they prefer that to silver hair. There is no accounting for tastes.

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. Continue reading