DaOuali

One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.

-Virginia Woolf


On my return to Algeria, after five lonely months spent in Britain, we celebrated our reunion by dining out that same evening at one of Oran’s many restaurants. I was in a state of euphoric relief, almost dizzy with it. Although only a few hours had passed since I had set foot back in Algeria, I felt as though a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders.

There was no trace of the panic attacks from which I had been suffering during our separation. They had come upon me suddenly, almost as if I had willed them into existence. My breathing would become rapid and shallow, my heart hammering inside my chest, and I would feel as though I were about to black out. But they seemed to have disappeared as suddenly as they had appeared.

It was as if I had just awakened from a long coma. My eyes and ears had finally opened to let in the explosion of colour and noise that was Algeria. Every sense was heightened. I had noticed for the first time that afternoon when I had arrived back in T’s flat on the eighth floor of the Cité Jeanne d’Arc, how the brilliant sunlight, flickering through the slats of the blinds on the curtain-less windows, painted a tiger pattern of alternate dark and light stripes on the tiled floor. I could hear every sound, from the cries of the children playing outside, to the plaintive call to prayer stealing into the room through the open window like a secret lover.

My skin could feel the warm caress of the evening sun as we strolled along the pavement a few hours later, my step light and carefree — I could smell the delicious aroma of grilled seafood as soon as we walked through the swinging door of the small restaurant hidden somewhere down a side street in the city centre.

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The restaurant was full.  Looking around with curiosity at the busy tables, I noticed an old couple bent over their meals, eating side by side without exchanging a single word. A group of young women in their twenties collapsed into helpless giggles as a stern man, dining alone nearby, gave them furtive sideway glances as he noisily slurped down his soupe de poissons. The noise level was high. The smoke level, too. But it didn’t bother me.

T waved to a group sitting around a rough deal table covered with oilcloth and littered with prawn shells, discarded chunks of bread and ashtrays filled to the brim with cigarette butts. It turned out that they were our neighbours, two of his fellow engineers at the ammonia plant, with their wives — one American and the other from Constantine.

The American wife, blond hair cut short and cigarette waving from her fingers as she chattered loudly in American-accented French, stood out in sharp contrast to the other, whose dark hair was pulled back from her jolie-laide face in an elegant chignon and whose quiet demeanour belied a sharp sense of humour.

The waiter, a large white apron tied around his waist, and forehead shining with sweat from the heat of the kitchens, appeared out of nowhere, bearing a large platter of grilled prawns and langoustines, decorated with pale rings of fried calamari, and accompanied by bowls of crispy golden chips and green salad, glistening with olive oil. Licking the garlicky juice from my fingers, I can remember thinking to myself that it couldn’t get any better than this.

In later years, we would drive down to Oran to have dinner at another small restaurant called Chez Mémé (At Grandma’s House). Chez Mémé didn’t go in for such newfangled nonsense as a menu — you had the choice between two main dishes, along with the same number of desserts and entrées. The restaurant – basically just an upstairs room over a shop, was filled with two tables, each one large enough to seat a dozen customers. No such thing as an intimate table for two there, but the food was sublime.

At other times we would have dinner at the Passerelle restaurant in Arzew. La Passerelle, Arzew’s best and most expensive restaurant at the time, was situated in an idyllic spot called la Fontaine des Gazelles on the coast road. It was owned by a Kabyle chef rejoicing in the exotic name of Désiré — not, I hasten to add, his real name. He was actually called Mohand, or something similar.

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The dining room of the Passerelle extended out over the beach, supported by piles driven into the rock. It had wide plate-glass windows on three sides, though which the sunlight poured, reflecting off the snow-white table linen and making the glasses and the silverware sparkle. Whenever we decided to treat ourselves to a meal there, I would look forward to it for days, my mouth watering in anticipation.

I could already taste the hors-d’œuvre variés and the steak au poivre cooked in cream and crushed peppercorns, then ceremoniously flambé-ed with brandy in front of me on a portable copper burner. To round it all off, there would be a meltingly delicious omelette norvégienne. Désiré was a world-class chef.

Other restaurants opened in Arzew – Les Palmiers, located just opposite the seafront, where I would sometimes go with my colleagues from work for a rowdy, wine-soaked lunch, and later on Les Gazelles, a few hundred yards from La Passerelle.

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Lunch with my colleagues at Les Palmiers. I am third from the left.

Sometimes, if we felt in need of a more elaborate dining experience, we would treat ourselves to a meal at Les Ambassadeurs, the restaurant in Oran’s Royal Hotel. Food shortages were already beginning to make themselves felt, but the food in the hotel restaurant was as delicious as ever.

The only downside was one of the waiters. He was Kabyle and when he learnt that T was one of his own, he would greet us with a broad grin, slapping T on the back, or what was worse, embracing him, and calling him “DaOuali”, which is the height of respectful deference in Kabyle society.

The thing was, that, in spite of all his overwhelming goodwill, he was terrible at his job. He would take our order with all the efficiency of a toddler tying its shoelaces while still wearing its mittens. He seemed to forget what we had told him before the words had even left our lips, so that we had to repeat everything so many times it became absurd. He had the air of a person in shock, of someone whose brain was engaged somewhere else, wrestling with some unseen issue.

Whenever we’d ask him to describe a new dish on the menu, he would take on the look of a startled rabbit, and then start gabbling away so fast, one word would run into the next. When he’d finish speaking, we’d be none the wiser, but would nod politely and order something else. Then, looking relieved that the ordeal of taking our order was over, he’d rush back to the safety of the kitchen, almost tripping over another patron’s foot in the process. He was like an Algerian Frank Spencer.

I must admit we began to avoid Les Ambassadeurs so we didn’t have to suffer him constantly hovering around our table. It was not without a pang of guilty conscience, however, as his good nature and eagerness to please were like those of an over-enthusiastic puppy.

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So it was that, a few months later, we decided to try out a new restaurant that was offering traditional Algerian cooking — something of an innovation. Walking into the restaurant, we gazed around with approval at the round brass tables, the hanging copper lanterns and the colourful woven blankets displayed on the walls.

Suddenly, from the shadows at the back of the restaurant came a familiar cry, “DAOUALI!” At my side, I could feel T stiffen in disbelief, for there, bearing down on us, a beam of pure delight on his face and his arms outstretched in welcome, was our waiter.

There is a famous quote from the fables of Lafontaine: “On rencontre sa destinée souvent par les chemins qu’on prend pour l’éviter.” (One often meets one’s destiny by the roads one takes to avoid it). Lafontaine never said a truer word.

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A New Heaven

No pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted land, or opened a new heaven to the human spirit.

-Helen Keller


I leant against the door of our flat on the eighth floor of the Cité Jeanne d’Arc and listened to my husband’s footsteps clattering down the flight of polished granite stairs to the lift on the landing below. The tiny, two-person lift, when it was working, only stopped on floors with odd numbers. It was still dark and the air was still chilly with night, but, on peering earlier through the bedroom window, I had seen a pinkish-yellow glow to the east.

I turned back into the flat with a despondent sigh and looked around. Try as I might, I had not been able to make it homely. It had proved impossible to hammer nails into the earthquake-proof concrete walls, painted a greasy utilitarian cream, reminiscent of Blackpool Corporation bus shelters.  As a result, there were no pictures on the walls, no curtains at the windows, and no rugs on the floor to soften the starkness of my surroundings. Nothing whispered that magic word “home” to me.

The remains of our breakfast lay scattered on the shiny veneered table. Two bowls containing small pools of rapidly-cooling café au lait, a pile of pastry flakes from our croissants and a small chunk of pain blanc smeared with apricot jam. It was seven o’clock on a cold February morning and eleven long empty hours lay in front of me.

Since our wedding in July, I had been battling with mild homesickness, culture shock, surprise family visits and, since September, the unrelenting nausea of early pregnancy. The homesickness had not been too bad and family visits were bearable, at least as far as my brothers-in-law were concerned, as I was able to hold a reasonable conversation with them.

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My mother-in-law was another prospect entirely. Not speaking a word of each other’s languages, we would try to make our intentions clear with smiles, hand gestures and nods. In spite of all this manifest good will, there were still interminable hours during which we would sit staring glumly at each other, waiting for the whine and rattle of the lift and the welcome sound of T’s key turning in the lock. When it came, we would both rush to the door, almost elbowing each other out of the way, relieved that our interpreter had returned home.

The worst battle of all was with my persistent nausea. I felt like strangling the person who had invented the phrase “morning sickness.” Mine lasted all day. How could anything so natural feel so bad? It was worse than a bad bout of food poisoning, as at least with that you knew it would be over in a few days.

I gazed down at my gently swelling stomach. I wanted the baby out of me, into my arms. I hated this state of silent lethargy, this waiting. I felt trapped. I wanted to jump into a time machine and zoom forward to summer and the birth of our child. But before that I would have to go through a world of unimaginable pain. I turned my thoughts hurriedly away from that prospect and decided to take a shower to relax and help pass the time. Perhaps I could even stretch the time spent in the bathroom to a full hour.

Standing in the square bathtub, I felt the water trickling over my shoulders, dripping  from the ends of my long, black hair on to my stomach, which was expanding every day, proof that another being resided within me. Two heartbeats inside one single body. I looked down at my pale skin, glistening with water and marred with the red lines of the stretch marks radiating out around my hips. My back ached and I automatically adopted the classic stance of the pregnant woman – hands pushed into the small of my back and shoulders straightened to counterbalance the extra weight in front.

I climbed out of the shower, towelled myself dry and was just coming out of the steamy bathroom when I thought I heard someone at the door. My heart started thumping so hard I could hear it and the next thing I knew I was lying on the cold floor, opening my eyes to the sight of our cat nosing around my prone body in curiosity. The heat of the bathroom, added to the sudden fright I had experienced, had caused me to drop down in a dead faint.

At that very same moment, T. was happily bowling along the road that led to Arzew and the ammonia plant, as he did every day. The company car he was driving, a Renault 4 with its strange push-and-pull gear lever, its boxy shape and jaunty rear end, had always seemed so quirkily foreign to me. Humming to himself, he was looking forward to the day ahead, brimming with the confidence of youth and sure of the future as only the young can be.

The countryside lay before him like a divine fingerprint, curving and changing, no two parts the same. The dip and sway of the road – the ever-changing sky and wind. Every day was a new snapshot in time, for even this one road could never be exactly the same two days in a row. It was winter now, and the vines in the vineyards on either side of the road had been pruned back, but the branches of the orange trees were hung with fruit, glowing like lanterns amid the dark green foliage. Come spring the gardens would be overflowing with colour and saturated with fragrance; hibiscus and oleander spilling over high white walls, giant bougainvillea bushes curving against the brilliant blue sky in a riot of foaming pink and purple blossom.

Although it had been nearly eight years since independence, some of the villages through which he drove still retained their French names: Arcole, Sainte-Léonie, Saint-Cloud and Renan, and still looked typically French, with their wine depots at one end of the village and their rusting bandstands on the main square. One of the villages even had a pair of mating storks nesting on top of the steeple of the abandoned church.

With the Montagne des Lions still wreathed in mist to his left, he started on the last downhill stretch towards Arzew. In front of him, the coastline lay softly under the early morning light, with the natural harbour, bounded by the headland of Cap Carbon, looking as if hungry gods from aeons ago had taken a bite from the land. This small fishing port was typically mediterranean, with its fishing boats scattered over the shallow, utterly clear water like autumn leaves on the surface of a pond, bobbing on the waves in the cold inshore breeze, turning a little in their chaotic dance.

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T didn’t drive straight on into the centre of Arzew, however, along the palm tree-lined boulevard, past the war memorial, the French school and the police station, but turned right along the coast road, to where the metallic towers of the ammonia plant, steam escaping from its many vents, gleamed in the first pink rays of the sun. He swung into the car park and leaped out of the car, slamming the car door shut behind him and jogged towards the entrance, ready to take on the problems of the day. Life was good.

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Yes, life was good for us then. As the years passed, however, it was very difficult for us to recapture that initial energy, hope and certainty that things could only get better. We became ever more cynical, blasé and disillusioned. What wouldn’t I give just to live one more day filled with such high hopes of a rosy future in a modern, dynamic country and of true independence finally recovered?

Couscous With Butter And Sugar

Sometimes we survive by forgetting.

-Anon


“Where on earth is he?” I muttered to myself, pacing up and down the house, from the bedroom — where our new-born son was sleeping peacefully in his cot — to the living-room and back again, as if I wanted to wear a path along the tiled corridor. Continue reading