Outsider

I like the idea of being caught between things, always being a bit of an outsider, having an outside eye on things.

-Riz Ahmed


I looked at my husband-to-be as he sat on the chair in his mother’s bedroom, laughing and joking with his siblings. It was December, 1968, and ever since we had arrived in Algiers that afternoon, more and more Kabyle words had been slipping into his French, until now he was talking practically all the time in his mother tongue.

All the members of his family sat in a half-circle around him, perched on the bed, the arm of his chair, the floor — anywhere they could get close to him and hang on his every word. Leaning back in his chair, relaxed, with one foot resting on the other knee, T was the centre of attention — which is where he always liked to be.

But then, his family had ample reason to hero-worship him. At the age of sixteen, following their father’s death, he had saved them from a miserable life eked out in the mountains of a country at war, where death would have stalked them every day; only a rifle-shot or a burst of machine-gun fire away.

He had also lived the impossible dream — in that period of post-independence euphoria, he had left Algeria to go to Europe to study and returned, four years later, his Master’s degree safely in his pocket, to a top-ranking job in Sonatrach, the most prestigious of all Algerian national companies. Not only that, but he was now introducing me, his English girlfriend, to them and announcing his intention of marrying me the following summer.

“He is home,” I thought, looking at his animated face, absorbed again into his family on the soil that had nourished him and made him what he was.  I was on the outside, looking in — a stranger.

Although I could understand most of what was being said in French, the conversation would suddenly veer into Kabyle, leaving me stranded. I would blink and, with a strained smile, pretend I could understand what was being said, following everybody’s lead by nodding and laughing in the right places, exchanging glances of complicity with T’s brothers, and trying to paste an interested look on my face. Sometimes, one of them, taking pity on me, would lean over to translate into French the general gist of the discussion.

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Later, at dinner, I felt slightly reassured when I felt T’s knee pressing against mine underneath the table — a substitute for holding hands, which he said we should not do in public. Especially in front of his family. It all seemed rather strange to me, as his mother had prepared her room for us, spreading crisp new sheets on the bed and plumping up the pillows. Strange because we were not yet married and could not hold hands and yet his mother had seen no impropriety in us sharing a bed.

T. had shaken his head when his mother had taken him aside to inform him, in a whisper, about her preparations. In the same way as he would refuse even to kiss me chastely on the cheek in the presence of my parents, he told her in no uncertain terms that he would not share a room – and a bed – with me under the family roof until we were married. It may seem hypocritical to you, as we had been together for four years, but, looking back, I prefer to think of it as respect for his family.

The language problem became less of one as the years passed. Although I never reached the stage where I could understand every nuance of Kabyle, I soon became able to follow what people were saying, and could join in from time to time, even though my contributions to the discussion usually consisted of verbal prompts with which I could ensure the smooth flow of the conversation, and nudge forward the other person along it, a little like a tug manoeuvring an ocean liner into position.

It worked wonderfully well with my mother-in-law and, in this way, we could enjoy discussions in Kabyle lasting an hour or more on subjects ranging from her father’s fatal heart attack to World War Two. Sometimes she would glance at me to gauge my reaction, her head cocked to one side like a plump little wren, and on receiving my murmured approval, she would give a satisfied nod and sail blithly on.

It wasn’t just the language, though. During that same dinner, my first in T’s family home, I had looked around me at everyone yelling at the top of their voices. “Why are they shouting so?” I whispered to T above the noise.  “They’re not,” he answered, turning to look at me and frowning, his eyebrows drawn together, “They’re just talking.” It was all so different, but the difference was not what I feared the most. It was the opprobrium  that might be heaped on my head for not following the rules of Algerian social conduct. To me, that was worse that not understanding the language.

It seemed to me that his was a world in which either you grew up or where you remained for ever an outsider. And perhaps, if that was what it would have taken to keep me in his life, T might have given up that world for me, although I doubt it. But when the first intensity of passion had passed, he would have regretted it, and blamed me. I was the one who had to enter his life and adapt, not the other way round.

The years passed, and yet I still stuck out like a sore thumb. Physically, although my hair was dark – much darker than T’s — I still had that indefinable something that marked me out as European. I was a couple of inches taller than most Algerian women, but that and my un-waif-like proportions should not have been enough to make me stand out in a crowd. Perhaps it was the look of mild panic in my eyes at the  prospect of shopping in the local market, dancing at a family wedding or catering for a dozen unexpected guests.

It seemed to me that our early years were a series of negotiations, which T usually won. One of these was our differing perceptions of home. To T, it was a social space, and he was never happier than when it was bursting at the seams — to me it was a private retreat, where I could regain my sanity and lick my wounds.

After a while, however, I realised that I was finally at home with the idea of “foreign-ness.” I gave up trying to fit in and adopted T’s philosophy, which was, “Here I am. This is what I am. Take it or leave it.” I was lucky in that my family-in-law opted to take it, not without heaving an exasperated sigh at my lack of social nous.

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At a wedding. I look so calm and collected – on the outside.

Being an outsider, however, gave me a more clear-sighted view of Algeria’s political situation. I had not been through the horror of the independence war and so was not taken in by some of the more questionable decisions taken by its political leaders immediately after independence and in the decades that followed. I wasn’t emotionally involved in the same way as T., and so could be more objective.

I would look at various initiatives with a jaundiced eye, as for example, the constant emphasis on “socialism” being an irreversible choice,  the whipped-up hysteria surrounding the Moroccan annexation of the Western Sahara, or the (obligatory) voluntary tasks carried out at weekends by the Sonatrach workforce. I kept my opinions to myself, however, as I had no wish to burst T’s bubble. Luckily, he was to reach the same conclusions as me, but much later.

To me, those first few months and years were a swirling, chaotic kaleidoscope of sound, noise and colour. All I could do was to cling on to T like a lifeline, close my eyes and ears to the bedlam and focus on his calm presence. Whenever I was faced with a challenge that seemed impossible, I would grit my teeth, thinking,  “I can do this and I will.  This is a test and I will pass it.” There were many such tests to come.

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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?

Tired Of Waiting

It’s hard being left behind. It’s hard to be the one who stays.
― Audrey Niffenegger, The Time Traveler’s Wife


I seem to have spent half my life waiting. Not the kind of waiting that brings a sense of calm, of nature taking its course, of things expected — the kind that is soothing to the mind and balm for the soul. No, for me, it was the kind of waiting during which a rising tide of panic would make me feel as though my insides were being twisted in a vice. Continue reading