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