Germaine

Que deviendra l’Algérie, si les gens comme vous partent?” (What will become of Algeria, if people like you leave?)  The person speaking was a small, elderly Frenchwoman, her white apron wrapped around her waist, her hands on her hips and her head thrust forward belligerently, adding the ubiquitous “hein?” (eh?) for emphasis. We could only shrug our shoulders in response.

It was autumn, 1992, just before we left Algeria to work in Qatar, and we were eating a farewell lunch with a friend in one of Arzew’s iconic restaurants, La Germainerie. Its somewhat shabby frontage was painted in white, decorated with blue shutters, awnings and wrought iron security bars on its windows. Inside, red and blue checked tablecloths covered the handful of tables, giving the restaurant a cheerful, homely air.

La Germainerie was to be found on one side of Arzew’s main square. This square had been originally called la Place d’Isly, before becoming la place des Palmiers and then la place du 1er november, 1954 after independence.  To my mind, the second name had been the most appropriate, given that groups of palm trees stood sentinel all around, rustling their fronds and affording shade to those sitting at the tables set out there by the restaurants originally ringing the square.

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Arzew’s main square, with la Germainerie on the right

The change in place names after independence was something about which I was slightly ambivalent. On the one hand, I approved of the fact that some ostentatiously nationalistic French names originally given to streets and towns had been replaced.  On the other, I regretted the disappearance of other, hauntingly evocative names –  l’avenue des Glycines (Wisteria Avenue), la place des Palmiers (Palm Tree Square) and my two favourite place names of all time  –  Retour de la Chasse (Return from the Hunt) and Ravin de la Femme sauvage (Wild Woman Ravine) –  both neighbourhoods in Algiers.  The history or physical description of these seemingly magical places had been effaced for ever when their names had been changed. I still yearn to know the identity of the eponymous Wild Woman.

Traces of past European occupation could still be found in Algeria when I arrived there in 1969. Besides the ravishing colonial architecture in Algiers and Oran – the equal of anything to be seen in Paris or Nice – there were churches, cathedrals, clinics, hotels, restaurants, farms, elegant apartments and houses. In short, everything needed for a permanent occupation.

During one of my mother’s later visits, we had driven up to the Basilica of Notre Dame de Santa Cruz, built in the nineteenth century by the settlers after a cholera epidemic and perched high on the Murdjadjo or Aïdour mountain dominating Oran. The Algerian caretaker took down an ancient, rusty key from its hook and, through the creaking door, swollen by the heat and the rain, let us into the Basilica itself. It had not been damaged in any way, but the atmosphere was heavy with sadness. In one corner lay the processional cross, pyx, chalices and censers, piled up in a dusty heap.

Arzew itself had had its own tiny church – Sainte Marie or Notre Dame du Réfuge (Our Lady of the Refuge) – a fitting name for a church belonging to a population made up essentially of fishermen. It had been built in the middle of the main square, opposite the nursery school that my children had attended.  It was demolished in 1981 – its stones carted away to build the then sous-préfet’s new house in Oran.

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Anyway, to return to the Germainerie. The restaurant was owned and run by a pied noir called Germaine, and her son. This was the lady who had given us such a fierce dressing-down. She was a fourth-generation settler in Algeria, her family originally from Catalonia. Strangely enough, many pieds noirs were of Spanish or Italian extract, not French.

The origin of the name pied noir has been much debated, with many hypotheses being put forward, some more improbable than others.  One was that it came from the polished boots of the French troops on their original mission of conquest in 1832; another that it described the feet of wine-growing settlers from the Languedoc region,  stained black by the juice when they trod their grapes. Another theory was that the name of an American Indian tribe – the Blackfoot – had been adopted by a group of young Europeans in the fifties, addicted to the Westerns of the time.

Whatever the origin of their nickname, the official name for the European settlers in Algeria was “les Français d’Algérie” (literally, Algeria’s French), while the original inhabitants of Algeria, like my husband, were called “Français musulmans,” (Muslim French). Second-class citizens, with neither the rights nor the privileges of the European settlers. The usual  name for them was “les Arabes,” ignoring their ethnic origins.

This name became increasingly derogatory, lumping them together into one amorphous mass and differentiating them from the Europeans. Even in Camus’s novel, L’Étranger, the man killed by Meursault is never given a name. He is just called “l’Arabe” (the Arab), thereby dehumanising him and depriving him of any identity.

One of the most chilling things I have ever read was a comment made by a pied noir describing his life in Algeria. He said that he never really noticed les Arabes.  They were just part of the scenery – in the same way as the palm trees in the square, and equally unimportant. My blood boils whenever I think about it.

Germaine still kept to the vocabulary of her youth, calling Algerians “les Arabes.” She had refused to leave Algeria in the wake of independence and could not understand why other settlers had left, fully convinced that some sort of arrangement could have been made, whereby a “blended” population would have lived peacefully together. This is why she could not understand our decision to leave in 1992, seeing it as a second betrayal – a second abandonment of Algeria.

She had always lived in a small house near Fontaine des Gazelles on the Arzew coast road, and would swim in the little creek there every morning. Neighbours, the “Arabes,” so despised by her fellow pieds noirs, treated her with great respect, calling her Madame Germaine and describing her as une grande dame (a great lady).

Germaine was one of around 140,000 pieds noirs remaining in Algeria after independence. Many of them had stayed put because they had been loathe to leave their property and assets behind. Their number diminished, inevitably, with the passage of time, but, from time to time, we would catch glimpses of other hunched figures, dressed all in black, leaning on walking-sticks and scurrying into the Marché Michelet – Oran’s covered market.

The official reason given for the hurried exodus of the 800,000 pieds noirs after independence was that they were terrified of reprisals. The campaign of terror waged by the OAS (l’Organisation de l’Armée secrète) to keep Algeria in French hands was also cited as a motive for their departure. In reality, many of them could not tolerate the idea of a country where both the indigenous population and the settlers had equal status. Believing themselves to be superior in every way, the possibility of working under the orders of an Algerian – un Arabe – was anathema to them.

It Never Rains, But It Pours

When we first moved into the Villa Robineau in 1978, we spent most of our time at first trying to drag it into the modern era. It had been built in the twenties and had remained firmly stuck in that decade. This, of course, was not at all to my taste, as its old-fashioned elegance was completely at odds with the fashionable indoor decor of the brash seventies. So we tried to jazz it up as best we could.

We were able to make purely cosmetic changes, like papering the walls in eye-popping geometric designs and consigning to the outhouses all of the solid wood wardrobes and bedside tables left behind by the original owners, replacing them by white-laquered cubes that had been cobbled together by a local carpenter in the best tradition of IKEA (or Habitat.)

I must admit, though, that I succumbed to the art deco charms of two of the original pieces of furniture – a curved cupboard in shiny dark wood and a glazed display cabinet with a marble inset where we kept our few bottles of alcohol and our wine glasses. My eye was also caught by a beautiful bow-fronted chest of drawers that later found pride of place in our bedroom.

The one part of the house we couldn’t renovate, however, was the roof. It wasn’t through lack of trying, but the original French settler owners had imported slates from the north of France to cover the roof’s steep pitches and gables. It had been a statement roof, meant to underscore the owners’ status and demonstrate their superiority, financial or otherwise, to the other inhabitants of Bethioua – or Saint-Leu, as it was known at the time.

Unfortunately, when it came to repairing the roof, as slates had never been a traditional building material in Algeria, there were none to be found. Terracotta tiles had always been used there as roofing material, but even these became harder to come by in the seventies and eighties.

Most householders simply demolished their tile or slate roofs, replacing them by the dreaded concrete slab. New houses were built with flat roofs. I hated these, thinking they removed all character from the houses. They looked as through they had been subjected to a particularly close buzz-cut by a crazed army barber. The average Algerian family, however, loved a flat roof, as it provided more storage space, somewhere to dry clothes and temporary sleeping quarters during the sweltering summer nights.

If we had removed the slate roof from the Villa Robineau, it would simply have become a featureless, grim block of a building, pierced by long, lugubrious windows and a strange, curly pergola sticking out into the void. So we clung stubbornly to our Hitchcock-style roof, even though it caused many problems. The wind whistling in from the sea on particularly stormy days caused slates to come crashing to the ground, especially as they had simply been hung on nails that had become increasingly corroded by the sea air.

Finally, the uppermost ridge broke off and next time it rained, water came pouring into the loft through the gaps. Rain in Algeria is not a gentle English drizzle, pattering softly on to a canopy of leaves – it is storm-lashed and furious, suiting the Algerian temperament, drumming on roofs and windows and turning dry river beds and streets into swiftly-flowing streams.

Luckily, the original owners of the house had provided for any eventual roof leak by covering the loft floor with a sheet of soft zinc to protect the ceilings below. T. tried his best to plug any leaks, applying some kind of red epoxy resin to the slates from the inside to bond them together and replacing any missing ones by rectangles of rigid linoleum cut to size. But it was an uphill and thankless task.

Algerian cloudbursts also caused problems elsewhere. The  new blocks of flats built in Arzew during the eighties had been designed with no thought given to the natural water courses that flowed from the hills behind the town down to the sea. So Arzew would flood on a regular basis, muddy water flowing through streets and houses alike.

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One day, when the rain was coming down in buckets, we were informed that the streets in Arzew had once again become impassable. Our children were trapped there in school and instead of waiting for T. to send a search party, I set off on my own rescue mission in my unreliable Fiat 128. Clinging to the steering wheel and holding my breath, I could barely see the road through the grey curtain of rain and finally came to a wheezing, stuttering halt in the town centre, the water reaching the top of my wheels and drowning my engine.

Flagging down the nearest car, which was carefully navigating its way through the floodwaters, I was relieved to find that the driver was one of T’s Sonatrach colleagues, who drove me home. On arriving, I found that my son was already there, having cadged a lift from a lorry driver. Of course, like parents everywhere, I subjected him to an irate ear bashing on the importance of  staying put. Our daughter, usually less level-headed than her brother, had done the sensible thing for once and waited for the school bus.

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Heavy rainfall was even worse when it followed a sandstorm in the Sahara, many thousands of miles to the south.  There would be no wind to speak of, but the sky would turn an ominous orange, casting a strange, unreal light on the landscape, as if heralding the end of the world. If it rained afterwards, we would wake up to a scene of devastation. Everything would be coated in red mud – cars, outdoor furniture, garden plants – everything. The rain would have brought down all the sand high up in the atmosphere and dumped it everywhere.

The new ring roads built in the eighties to circumnavigate the villages on the road to Oran had also been built without any provision for drainage, so when it rained heavily, the streams of water from Lion Mountain would flow across the ring road, turning it into a churning, raging torrent.

On one such day, when the rain was pelting down and lightning was strobing the ominous black thunderclouds, T. was due to take a flight to Algiers. Of course, instead of cancelling the trip like any sensible person, he insisted on maintaining his schedule. His driver was busy with some other important task, so we drove to the airport together, inching forward along the flooded ring road, leaving a white, foamy wake behind us like a motorboat.

My husband safely dropped off at the airport, I faced the journey back on my own. Not wanting to brave the ring road again, I decided to take the old colonial road, lined with trees, which wound its way back to Bethioua by a circuitous route.

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Except for one hair-raising moment when I overtook a tanker lorry and the car started aquaplaning, my journey home was remarkably incident-free. The surface of the old road was barely wet, as the pied noir builders had made sure that there was a drainage ditch on each side of the road, ready to catch any surface water running off.

On my arrival home, the phone rang. It was my husband, freshly landed in Algiers, “just checking.” He had obviously been worried, but had given no outward sign of it – as usual.