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!)