Poker Face

“See not the face..
but only the eyes,
of the poker face.”
― Toba Beta, Master of Stupidity 

I suppose everyone has their idea of the Byronic hero. Mad, bad and dangerous to know. He’s usually an older man — dark, mysterious, arrogant, with a murky past and a mad wife hidden away in the attic. On second thoughts, the last part is not absolutely essential.

7612611_f496.jpg

Mr. Rochester (Jane Eyre)

When I first met T, he ticked many of the boxes marked “Byronic hero.” He was six years older than me. He was dark, enigmatic, with a past about which he was reluctant to talk. Added to that was his exciting “otherness” — his accent, his rapid and incomprehensible French — incomprehensible to me, that is, although I understood French, or at least I thought I did.

And of course, me being me, I didn’t fall for your common-or-garden foreigner — a Greek, German, or even a Frenchman, of which there were many fine specimens hanging around the Students’ Union. Oh no —  the object of MY desire was a really “foreign” foreigner, from a country that was known only in Britain through lurid newspaper articles about torture, random bombings and a campaign of urban guerilla warfare.

T’s default setting seemed to be one of introspection, looking out on the world through eyes that were, at times, opaque and unreadable.  He would often close himself off, locked behind something I could not penetrate. Of course, all this was very attractive to an impressionable eighteen-year-old girl brought up on a diet of the Brontë sisters and Jane Austen.

I, of course, was exactly the opposite. My eyes were as transparent as glass, through which my very self was laid bare. I was incapable of hiding my emotions, which would flicker across my face like reflections on water. I would pretend to be distant and indifferent from time to time — to pay him back in his own coin, as it were — but could not maintain the illusion for very long.

T was known for keeping his cool in all circumstances. If there was an unexpectedly loud noise somewhere in our vicinity — a firework going off, or a clap of thunder, everybody else would jump out of their skin. Not T.  He wouldn’t even flinch, nor would his expression change in the slightest. I, on the contrary, would skitter like a scalded cat if a car so much as backfired in the next street, starting violently, and clutching my chest in the region of my heart with a trembling hand.

I would come down to earth again in time to catch T’s look of mild irritation, one  eyebrow quirked in polite disbelief at my histrionics and his lips curled in a wry smile. It would make me feel very silly — and even sillier one day, when he remarked offhandedly, “I could understand you reacting like that if there were REAL gunshots in the next street.”

Scanned Image 150180000.jpg

Introspective he most certainly was, except when he was amongst his friends.  I would watch him horsing around, flinging his arm around the neck of his closest friend, laughing and joking with him and feel strangely envious that he could feel so relaxed with others and not with me.

With hindsight, I think the problem with me was that he had no intention at all of becoming seriously involved with an English girl. Too complicated; too…..messy. Perhaps his sometimes distant attitude was his way of warning me not to dream about a future with him. Or as a warning to himself. But, as is the way of such things, it made him even more irresistible in my eyes and, as for him, well — he seems to have been overtaken by events.

I had come into his life and he had no idea what to do with me. I was obviously not just a one-night-stand — he wanted us to stay together, but a relationship leading to marriage was the furthest thing from his mind. His feelings for me were to creep up on him, catching him unawares. Before he knew it, a life without me was unthinkable. It had always been that way for me.

Luckily for me, he was neither mad, bad, nor dangerous to know. His poker face was simply a way of protecting himself. He had learnt not to show his feelings, living, as he had done, in a country at war.  If he had manifested overt fear, hostility or anger, he could easily have ended up being dragged off to an internment camp to be questioned — or worse.

So when did he change? From the cosseted smiley little boy that he seemed to have been, to this wary young man with guarded eyes? I think the metamorphosis began with his father’s death, or perhaps at some stage during the latter’s illness. When the unthinkable happened, he had to reassure his mother and siblings that everything would be all right and that he would take care of them. Even in the middle of a vicious colonial war. If he had shown them that he was as scared and rudderless as they were, the whole house of cards would have collapsed, with his uncles moving in to scavenge the ruins, like so many vultures.

He had to avoid the many traps laid for him both by both his uncles and by the colonial authorities. His studied air of nonchalance confused and angered his father’s brothers, who were expecting him to cave in to their authority and hand the reins of everything over to them — his father’s business and the fate of his mother and siblings.

As for the colonial authorities — when they called him up to do his national service at the age of eighteen, he wrote them an articulate and poignant letter, explaining that his father had just died and that he, as the eldest son, was the sole mainstay of his family. They agreed to defer his conscription, only requiring him to do a few weeks’ military training.

Unfortunately, things didn’t change when we returned to Algeria — in fact they grew worse. Now he had not only his mother and siblings to reassure, but me as well. Instead of his uncles, he had to confront the trade unions. Instead of the menacing presence of the colonial authorities, he now had that of their Algerian successors, who had learned their trade well from their erstwhile occupiers, even adding a few sadistic twists of their own.

Every day he had to face representatives from the government, military security, the intelligence services, the gendarmerie, the local authorities, union representatives, his own hierarchy and finally the members of the workforce – maintaining a calm and untroubled exterior all the while, when inside he was as apprehensive as anybody else.

His years in Britain must have seemed like a lost paradise – a time when he could enjoy himself without thinking about his past. He hadn’t suffered from the normal student worries about exams, though. He desperately needed that engineering diploma to guarantee him a future, as he had nobody on whom to fall back. The one and only time I ever saw his mask slip was when he had had a mental block during a thermodynamics final, after revising until the early hours of the morning.

Family worries also intruded. He had left the brother nearest to him in age in charge, but this hadn’t stopped the constant stream of letters from Algiers asking advice about family matters. The buck still stopped with him. All of this — the deliberate suppression of normal panic responses, the burden of responsibility at an early age — has taken an inevitable toll on his health.

Being an enigmatic Byronic hero isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Even Heathcliff and Mr. Rochester probably suffered from high blood pressure and ulcers.

The Martyr

The fourteenth-century historian Ibn-Khaldoun said that, in the villages of Kabylie “flourish virtues that honour the whole of humanity; nobility of soul, hatred of oppression, bravery, the keeping of promises, kindness shown towards the unfortunate, charity and constancy in adversity.”


Everyone needs a hero. A role model. Someone to admire and emulate. Someone to look up to, especially when they are young and impressionable. For most people, it is their father – perhaps an older brother. I learned very early on who had been my husband’s hero. As he was the oldest sibling in his family and his father was often preoccupied and distant, inspiring fear and respect in equal measure, it was one of his cousins who filled the hero-shaped hole in his life.

When I began to learn a little more about Algeria’s independence war, T. told me that two of his close family members had been killed during the seven long years of bloodshed. Most families in Kabylie had been left to mourn the death of at least one of their own, and T’s family was no exception.

Especially painful had been the death of his maternal grandmother, Zayna, shot in the head by a French sniper firing from a neighbouring village, Ath Saada, as she was filling her water container at the well. Ath Saada is perched on the neighbouring peak, overlooking T’s village, Ath Hamsi. It proved a perfect vantage point for snipers as Ath Hamsi was spread out in full view below. It must have been like shooting fish in a barrel.

This had been in 1957. The other loss sustained by his family around the same time had been a young first cousin, who, barely in his twenties, had gone to join the maquis and had subsequently disappeared. He had been the second son of T’s oldest paternal uncle, Larbi, who had died a particularly painful death from tuberculosis of the bones a few years earlier.

The cousin’s given name had been Ahmed, but, given the Kabyle predilection for nicknames, was known to everyone as H’mimi. T. always referred to him, however, as DaH’mimi, adding the respectful prefix Da-, always used when addressing an older man, even a cousin a mere five or six years his senior.

12745675_959273557441490_3380444942904148352_n.jpg

H’mimi seems to have inherited the family’s entrepreneurial spirit and had opened a tiny shop – a hole in the wall really, measuring roughly two metres square – the only one in the village. There he sold groceries that he had brought over from Michelet, now Ain El Hammam, situated on the other side of the mountain.

Michelet was a bustling village and administrative centre at the time, built by the French at the end of the nineteenth century on the very spot where the villagers belonging to T’s tribe, the Ath Menguellet, had always held their weekly market. It had been called Thalatha Aït Menguellet  (Ath Menguellet Tuesday) after the day of the week when the market had been held, before being renamed Michelet in honour of the French historian,  Jules Michelet.

To add to his growing business “empire,” H’mimi became the proud owner of  a second-hand car, a pale-green Hotchkiss, a make that, like so many others, has since disappeared.  Needing to earn more money as he was newly-married, he provided a taxi service from the outlying villages to Tizi-Ouzou, the capital of Greater Kabylie, and back. Thanks to this and his little shop, he managed to scratch a meagre living.

artois 1.jpg

Around the same time – 1953 – my father-in-law had been made bankrupt by a catastrophic fall in potato prices. He left the farm that he had owned in Fouka to his creditors and retreated to Kabylie, where, mortally sick with diabetes, he spent his time clearing the undergrowth from his land, planting fruit trees and digging for uranium.

On their return to their village, T. had been enrolled in the junior school in Ath Laaziz, another neighbouring village – the only school for miles around. In the evenings or at the weekend, when not assiduously bent over his books, as he was due to sit his examen de rentrée en sixième (the equivalent of the 11-plus exam in Britain) at the end of the school year, T. could be found in his cousin’s shop, curled up unnoticed in a corner and listening to H’mimi and the other young men of the village talk about their plans for the future.

Sometimes, T. would tag along with his cousin when the latter climbed down to the river to go fishing. H’mimi, however, had a rather unorthodox fishing technique. He would light the fuse on a stick of dynamite, throw it in the shallows, and then stand back, his hands on his hips, laughing, as the dynamite blew and the fish killed instantly by the blast floated to the surface, where they could easily be picked up.

T. was thrilled to the core. To him, H’mimi was like one of the swashbuckling heroes in the comic books that he read so avidly – a kind of Flash Gordon or Tom Mix. It helped that H’mimi also looked like a comic-book hero – muscular, with broad shoulders, a cloud of crinkly light brown hair and a wide, engaging smile.

Under the seemingly calm surface of life in Kabylie, however, bubbled resentment and a yearning for independence that had never really gone away. Young men like H’mimi have always been idealistic and so when, in the early morning hours of November 1, 1954, FLN maquisards (guerrillas) attacked military and civilian targets throughout Algeria in what became known as the Toussaint rouge, he decided to be one of the first to join them.

He became a moussebil, a name given to those carrying out acts of sabotage, or acting as a go-between for the groups of fighters hiding in the mountains. Moussebiline often remained in their own villages, but, at the same time, working clandestinely for the FLN. The term moussebiline means “those who give themselves to the cause,”  because being found out meant certain death.

They had always existed in Kabylie since the time of the French conquest and were a well-established tradition. Generally single,  they had to obtain their fathers’ consent, or that of the nearest male relative if they were orphans before becoming moussebiline. The decision then had to be approved by the thajmarth, or village council.

Due to French manipulation of the Kabyle population in the years that followed, however, it became harder and harder to carry out clandestine operations.  So H’mimi took the only decision possible – he went underground and joined the active ranks of the FLN. By this time, T. was in boarding school in Tizi-Ouzou and his father had moved the rest of the family back to Algiers and then to a farm in Reghaïa, as life in Kabylie was becoming far too dangerous.

He remembers H’mimi coming to visit them at the farm under cover of darkness, for what was to be the last time. T. had shot up in height and broadened out in the meantime  and was as tall, at the age of fifteen, as his much-admired cousin. T has a clear memory of the family pleading with H’mimi not to go back, as he was sure to be killed. With a nonchalant shrug of the shoulders, T’s cousin said that he had to go back, or he wouldn’t be able to look at himself in the mirror ever again. Flashing one last defiant grin over his shoulder, H’mimi slipped away into the night. He was never seen again.

We never found out what happened to him. Killed by the French military or in one of the internal purges of the FLN, during which hundreds of innocent lives were lost – we have no idea. His young widow, barely out of her teens, never remarried. He carries the proud title of chahid – a martyr for a just cause – and is venerated as such. But it is scant compensation for the loss of so much potential and youthful idealism – and the cause of so much grief for his family, who still mourn the loss of one of their brightest and best hopes.

12183951_911704438865069_1687478121816008176_o.jpg

Group of freedom fighters in Kabylie, with a young admirer (second from the right)

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.

47838917.jpg

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.

$(KGrHqUOKooE4tmopr7oBO(4P2sifQ~~60_1.jpg

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.

Past Tense

“What? You’ve forgotten the coffee?” T. exclaimed, astonishment and irritation in his voice. I stole a glance at him. His lips were pressed tightly together and he was looking at me from beneath ominously lowered brows. “Well, yes,” I answered. “I’ll just slip down and get some.” For the life of me, I couldn’t understand his overreaction to what was, to me, a slight oversight on my part.

It was 1968 and he had moved to Liverpool the previous October to do his M.Eng, forcing us apart. Much to our dismay, no suitable project had been found in Sheffield.  It was a difficult time for us as we were both studying hard – I had my Second Part Finals in a few months’ time and he was preparing to submit his Master’s thesis later in the year.  He had asked his company, Sonatrach, whether he could stay on in Britain to do a Ph.D., but no answer had been forthcoming. Anxiety about the future often made us irritable, but this was something else.

He was living at the time in a one-bedroomed flat in a house of which the bottom storey facing Edge Lane was taken up by a parade of shops. The one directly below was a launderette and next to it was a small grocer’s shop. It would only take a few minutes at the most to pick up the forgotten article, especially as the shop stayed open until late at night. Why make such a  fuss about it?

Scan 8.jpeg

T. in the flat in Liverpool

These occasional outbursts was just part of living with T. Usually calm and even-tempered, well-known for his sangfroid, he would suddenly become inexplicably annoyed by small, unimportant things. Try as I might, I could not get to the reasons behind his reactions. I thought it was perhaps just the difference in cultures. Perhaps I was doing something wrong without realising it? Gradually, I became used to these mood swings, trying to shrug them off, although sometimes it seemed as though I was always treading on eggshells, never knowing what would set him off.

On another occasion, a couple of years previously in Sheffield, we had been studying in his room one evening. I was deep in my book and T. was at the table working on a particularly complicated maths problem, covering page after page with mysterious calculations in his spidery writing. The curtains were closed against the cold and rainy night, the electric radiator was on full blast, and the only sound in the cosy room was the ticking of the clock and the soft murmur of the French radio programme.

Suddenly there was a series of loud raps on the window, just next to T’s head. He leapt to his feet, overturning his books. The sheets of paper on which he had been working floated unheeded to the carpet. Turning my head, I saw that his face had drained of all colour. He didn’t say a word, just stood there.  Then came a knock on the bedroom door and a group of our friends burst in, laughing and joking.

I looked curiously at T. and realised that things were still not right.  He remained motionless and silent, not joining in the general merriment. Then he moved. He swung abruptly round to S., one of his closest friends and the ringleader on this particular occasion, and spat out the words, “Ne refais plus jamais ça!” (Don’t ever do that again!) I looked at him, astonished and taken aback. After all, they were just having a bit of fun – weren’t they?

As T. was not one for talking about his feelings, I only found out much later, after we were married,  that his unexpected reactions had their roots in events in his past. I suppose everyone is the same, but T. had gone through far more traumatic experiences in his twenty-odd years on earth than most people would in a lifetime. Although  young and resilient, he still carried invisible emotional scars. The past had a way of impinging on the present and try as he might, he could not escape it.

The rapping on the window had reminded him of the way French paratroopers would announce their arrival during Algeria’s independence war. They would then break down the door if nobody answered and proceed to search the house, toting their machine guns and ready to put a bullet in the head of anyone putting up any kind of opposition.

He had once actually been woken from a deep sleep by the cold kiss of the barrel of a paratrooper’s gun against his forehead. On hearing that noise at the window, it was as if he had suddenly gone back in time. So he had vented his anger on the person who had made that particular memory resurface.

Another of T’s quirks is that he has always refused to wear any kind of jewellery, especially rings.  The particular memory behind it had been the traumatic period just after his father’s death, when he, aged just sixteen, his mother and siblings were living on a farm near Reghaïa, about thirty kilometres east of Algiers.

One evening, a group of gendarmes had banged on the door, demanding to search the farmhouse for any moudjahid (Algerian freedom fighter) or secret arms cache. At the end of the search, one of them had shaken T’s hand and squeezed it so hard, the ring he was wearing had cut into the flesh of his fingers, making the blood pour from his hand. T. had learnt the hard way not to let his feelings show, and so had reacted to the gendarme‘s deliberate provocation with a tight smile and narrowed eyes.

The episode with the forgotten coffee dates from the same period and had less terrifying origins, but obviously still had the power to trigger an angry knee-jerk reaction. The nearest shops to the farm were in the village of Reghaïa, about six kilometres away. There being no means of transport between the farm and the village, any food shopping had to be done by walking six kilometres to the shops, buying what was needed, then walking back the same distance carrying heavy baskets. Either T. or one of his brothers did this on a regular basis. The tractor that his father had owned and used for transport had been sold by T. to pay off any debts remaining after his death.

Unfortunately, as his mother was not the best-organised person in the world, and was often forgetful, she would, more often than not,  find that some essential ingredient was missing once her son had returned home, sweaty and exhausted, after his twelve-kilometre hike under the blazing summer sun. “Oh drat!” she would say (or the equivalent in Kabyle), “I’ve forgotten the sugar… or the flour…. or the coffee. Go back and get it.”

T. would never have dreamed of telling his mother off. He would probably have given her a LOOK, but his mother was impervious to any looks, no matter how angry they were. She was always blind to any subtle social signals, anyway, and besides, her sons were there to do her bidding, weren’t they?

So the realisation that I had forgotten the coffee on our return from a shopping trip had reminded him of this and made him react the same way as he would have done with his mother. The problem was – his mother forgot things all the time. I didn’t. But I was the one paying the price.