Joan of Arc Estate

The Cité Jeanne d’Arc (the Joan of Arc Estate) was a block of flats that had built by the French on what were then the eastern outskirts of Oran. Apparently,  there had once been a statue of the saint on a plinth on the steps leading up to the entrances, but it had long since gone, removed or smashed after independence, by the time T. was assigned accommodation there following his return to Algeria in November, 1968.

His flat was on the eighth floor of Bâtiment B3, the block taken over by Sonatrach to house its engineers working in the ammonia plant in Arzew. The whole complex was divided vertically into bâtiments, each bâtiment being a single block of flats with its own stairwell and lift.

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It was only after our wedding and T had returned to work, did I have time to look closely at my new home.  I examined with curiosity, and a little apprehension, the strange taps and two-pin electrical outlets. I looked around at the tiled floors, the tiled concrete worktops in the kitchen and the way in which electric wires were encased in steel tubing running across the ceilings and walls instead of being concealed behind the plasterboard.

There was no plasterboard, anyway, as the flats were earthquake-proof, with factory-like walls of reinforced concrete painted in an all-purpose magnolia gloss paint. The windows were curtainless, obscured at night and shaded from the sun during the day by wooden venetian blinds unrolling on the outside.

The flat was neither cosy nor welcoming – no soft furnishings; no wallpaper; no carpet to muffle sounds; no decorations, except for our university textbooks aligned along some wonky shelves and the few ornaments I had brought from Britain to brighten up the place. My patchwork aprons, sewn so lovingly for me by my godmother in preparation for my new life as a married woman, hung sadly on the back of the kitchen door, striking an incongruous note of colour in the sheer utilitarian starkness of my surroundings.

The layout of the flat was peculiar, as well. The main living space was an L-shape, with the original dining-room taking up the lion’s share of the room and a tiny space leading off it constituting the seating area. By the time we had installed our precious radiogram and two mattresses on the floor, there was hardly any room to swing  the proverbial cat.

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T (with beard) pretending to throw himself out of the flat window. I felt like that at times, too

By contrast, the dining-room furniture given to us by Sonatrach made its ponderous and self-important presence felt in the larger half of the living area – to the detriment of everything else. I had to skirt around it on my way to the kitchen or the bedrooms, taking care not to bang against its sharp corners or the high backs of the eight dining chairs, upholstered in sticky green leatherette and aligned around its veneered length like the Apostles at the Last Supper.

There were no less than five doors leading off from the dining room, one to a tiny kitchen with just enough room for a gas cooker, cupboards and sink down one side and a fridge and a small formica kitchen table on the other. A glazed door led out onto a narrow balcony. Balconies were not used in Algeria as a place where to sip an apéritif à deux of an evening, watching the sun go down and the lights of Oran twinkling in the distance. They were used as glorified storage space, full of plastic bowls, stepladders, giant galvanized couscous platters and wet washing hanging from clothes lines.

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Coming out of the kitchen of the flat with apron around the waist

The balcony had, however,  a rubbish chute on one side, connected to all the floors. I brightened up. Here were two things I had never had in Britain – a fridge and a rubbish chute. Only the wealthiest families at home could boast of a fridge. Of course, by contrast, it was absolutely vital in Algeria. The rubbish chute – well, it seemed to be an ingenious solution to the eternal problem of household waste. Of course, a few years later, residents were tipping all kinds of things down the chute. The less said about that, the better.

A small vestibule giving on to the two bedrooms – one large, one small – the bathroom and the toilet, was through one of the other doors. The bathtub was square instead of the more usual rectangular shape. It was neither a proper bathtub in which you could stretch out and relax, or a normal shower tray, as you had to clamber over the edge.  Everything was so unfamiliar – so alien.

Our neighbours in bâtiment B3 were a diverse crowd made up mostly of young engineers, some of them, like T, having studied abroad and brought foreign wives back with them. On the second or third floor lived an engineer with his Hawaiian wife and small son. His wife had difficulty in adjusting to life in Algeria and fled after about twelve months. I think she realised that she and her son were just too different to integrate into ordinary Algerian society. Her husband followed a few weeks later.

On the third or fourth floor lived a Mozabite. The Mozabites, or Aït M’Zab, are Berber, living in the M’Zab valley of the northern Sahara, and belonging to the strict Ibadite sect. I later heard that when his wife was in labour, he would not allow a midwife or doctor anywhere near her, sitting praying by her bedside and peeking under the covers from time to time to see if the baby had been born.

Directly beneath us lived another Kabyle engineer, his wife and their two children. The wife had very pale strawberry blond hair and paper-white skin. Her blue eyes were watery and red-rimmed and her eyelashes so pale they were almost invisible. I looked questioningly at T when he introduced us, thinking that here was yet another foreign wife, brought back perhaps from Russia or the Ukraine.

My assumption was wrong as she was, in fact, pure Kabyle, and her husband had been brought up by her family, in return for which he had married their illiterate daughter. I came to admire her though, as she insisted on wearing modern European clothes, learned to speak French and to drive a car.

Immediately above us lived another young engineer and his new wife. The only thing I can remember was the wife’s habit of wearing high-heeled mules at home.  T. and I would lie in bed, unable to sleep, listening to her tap-tapping her way around the tiled floors of the flat above. That, and her annoying way of saying vacuously, “Ooh la-la!” in time-honoured “French” fashion, in response to any remark made, whether it be on the current international political situation or the weather.

On the top floors lived two other young couples. One couple came from different cities, Tlemcen and Constantine, and their respective families had been vehemently opposed to their marriage. The others were yet another of T’s colleagues and his gum-snapping American wife. She had already been in Algeria a year before I arrived and seemed to know everything and everyone. I looked at her with envy.

We only stayed in the Cité Jeanne d’Arc for about two years, by which time our daughter had been born and I was pregnant with my second child. The rickety lift would often be out of order, either breaking down or being used as a public convenience by vagrants. On one such day, I struggled up the eight flights of stairs, heavily pregnant, with my daughter on one arm and a heavy shopping basket on the other. I felt fat, frazzled and frumpy.

Who should I meet standing in front of our door, impatiently tapping her smartly-shod foot, and drawing testily on the cigarette held in one perfectly-manicured hand? Yes, it was A. – one of our university friends. Her glance swept from my red perspiring face and hair ruffled by my daughter’s sticky fingers down to my dusty feet thrust into flip-flops.

“Where the hell have you been?” was her only greeting. Time and the move to Algeria had not softened her – far from that.  It was later I realised that she was, in fact, struggling to adjust to life in a foreign country as well.

Rue Monseigneur Leynaud

Surely, there couldn’t be so many people living in one house?

It seemed an impossibility. That had been one of the thoughts running through my mind during my very first visit to the family villa on the rue Monseigneur Leynaud in Bellevue, an eastern suburb of Algiers. The occasion had been, of course, the first time I had set foot in Algeria to be formally presented to T’s family,  to see whether we were brave enough to take the plunge – and whether the family would accept me.

The visit was nerve-wracking, to say the least, and I didn’t really take any notice of the house itself, or its fittings and furnishings, surrounded as I was by a sea of smiling faces and curious stares. Various cousins, siblings, aunts and uncles appeared seemingly from nowhere.  I knew that T’s family shared the house with his uncle, but try as I might, I couldn’t work out in my head how approximately fifteen people could live in a two-bedroomed house. Of course – silly me – I was applying European standards, that is, one bed, or even one bedroom per person, to the Algerian reality.

It was not even a complete house, as the bottom storey had been left unfinished by the original owner, the French army captain from whom T. had rented it. There was one large room downstairs, but the rest of the ground floor was used as storage space, with reinforced concrete pillars holding up the concrete slab constituting the floor of the upper storey. The villa looked as though it had been built on stilts.

Upstairs the rooms had been divided between the two families. There were two recognisable bedrooms, one belonging to T’s uncle and aunt (later to be known as the Witch Downstairs), and one where my mother-in-law slept.  There were two other rooms, one belonging to T’s family, and dominated by a large dining-table and chairs. A marble fireplace built diagonally across one corner showed that, at one time, the room must have been cosy and well-appointed.

The other room, a tiny space belonging to the uncle’s family, was filled almost to bursting with a shiny veneered dining table, on which a crocheted mat and a vase filled with artificial flowers had been carefully placed, six plushly-upholstered dining chairs and a glass-doored display cabinet containing gilded tea and coffee services that were never, to my knowledge, used. Nobody outside the uncle’s family could enter this room or even breathe its air.  It was the inner sanctum, the holy of holies.

Even at the time, it seemed strange to me that, in such an overcrowded house,  one whole room was used simply for display.  This was keeping up appearances with a vengeance. In many ways, this room  resembled  the formal parlours of my grandparents’ generation and served, more or less, the same purpose.

This is where honoured guests were served tea and coffee, perched uncomfortably on the overstuffed dining chairs. This is where T. and I were served lunch in the early days of our marriage, when we were still in the good books of The Witch Downstairs, and she still lived in hope that T. would suddenly decide to take his whole family to Arzew and leave the house to her husband – or rather, to her.

The kitchen was a nightmare. Originally a pleasant, sunlit room with a balcony accessed through a glazed door, it had now been divided into two separate cooking areas, with plywood and cardboard sheets blocking the window and the door. My mother-in-law’s domain was the original kitchen, the aunt’s outside on the balcony. Any natural sunlight would struggle to penetrate the ramshackle dividing wall and so the kitchen was always bathed in a dank, murky half-light, lit by one flickering low-wattage bulb dangling from the ceiling.

The sink had one single tap, which would make a clanging noise when turned on and, after a couple of death rattles, cold water would gush out – or not, depending on whether the supply had been cut off. There was no hot water at all, and pans of water had to be heated on the stove for washing the dishes or indeed washing anything.

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T sitting at the desk in his mother’s room

The claustrophobic atmosphere was not helped by the dark, bulky items of furniture looming up from out of the shadows. They crouched like prehistoric monsters against every wall, waiting to pounce and catch your shins a glancing blow, all the while exuding an odour of must and wormy wood.

This furniture had been bought by my father-in-law during the forties and was still in use, even though it was extremely impractical, offering little storage room for the amount of floor space it occupied. My mother-in-law refused to get rid of it, however, as it was a reminder, in a way, of a time when her husband was the driving force behind the whole family – respected and feared in equal measure. The wardrobes, double bed and marble-topped sideboards were a symbol of her status as a married woman and proof that her husband had been a person of consequence.

The bathroom had all the original fittings – a stately art deco washbasin, taps and bathtub, but it was impossible to take a real bath. The most you could hope for would be to stand up in the bathtub and pour warm water from out of a saucepan over yourself. The toilet had no seat, no flushing mechanism and the lock was infuriatingly contrary –  refusing either to lock properly or to open when required. I soon learned to do whatever was necessary with one foot jammed firmly against the door.

All of the trappings of a once-beautiful house were present, but it was difficult to maintain it as such, with so many people living there. My mother-in-law’s bedroom was used as a living-room, with everyone lounging on the bed, as there was no other seating in the room, unless you counted a desk and straight chair shoved up in one corner. The colour of the walls added to the generally depressing atmosphere as my mother-in-law had chosen a paint of a particularly opaque, muddy blue that T. had spent one whole university vacation slapping everywhere.

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Me, our daughter of five months, T’s brother and mother in her room

The only splashes of colour were in the garden and along the window sills, where all kinds of flowering plants grew in a riotous display. Like their blooms, the dresses worn by T’s female relatives were also a medley of bright mismatching colours, often embellished by a rose or some other flower, even a sprig of mint, tucked under their scarves.

My puzzlement as to where everyone slept was resolved the very first night I spent there. T’s mother had a single bed made up for me with crisp new sheets in the sacrosanct dining-room. At my side, on the floor, the three young girls, T’s younger sister and his two teenage cousins, slept in a row on sheepskins thrown directly on to the tiles. No sheets for them – they covered themselves directly with striped woollen blankets.

All of the young males of the household slept downstairs in the large room – the four brothers still living at home and their three cousins.  The atmosphere was like that found in any teenage son’s bedroom, but multiplied many times. I only ventured down there a few times, to be knocked sideways by the odour, ripe with testosterone, sweaty socks and unwashed male bodies.

All the males – except for T, of course. As head of the family and eldest son, he slept in solitary splendour in his mother’s bed. She, poor thing, slept on a mat on the kitchen floor, the only space left available.

Agoraphobia

The title of this post is somewhat of a misnomer. I did not develop full-blown agoraphobia in Algeria, but something approaching it. Looking back, I think it was probably linked to the panic attacks I had experienced before going out to Algeria for good. All the anxiety I had tried to suppress about moving out there had led to a spate of dizzy spells. I never actually fainted, but constantly felt on the verge of doing so.

Things improved to a certain extent once I actually set foot back in Algeria. Of course, it helped my state of mind being with T. again, but I would often tremble with apprehension when I had to go outside. The first few months had been fine, with all the bustle and excitement of our wedding and the lazy days spent afterwards on the beach in lieu of a honeymoon, but once left on my own, with T. at work and my mother and sister back in Britain, I found it more and more difficult to leave the safety of the flat.

Perhaps the fact that I had just fallen pregnant had had something to do with it. I only know that I had to force myself to take the rickety lift down to the ground floor and cross the street to the grocer’s. People, of course, would turn around to look at me in curiosity and men would mutter to each other as I passed by, drawing on their cigarettes as they eyed me up.

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Even when T. was with me, he couldn’t put a reassuring arm around my waist or hold my hand. Public demonstrations of affection between couples were just not accepted in polite Algerian society. I don’t think Algerian wives expected them anyway, as most marriages were arranged and not love matches. They probably would have been embarrassed, thinking their husbands were shaming them in front of others. A woman being touched in public was considered no better than a prostitute.

So when T. and most of my neighbours were at work, I spent most of my time looking out of the living-room window of our eighth-floor flat on to the street scenes below. A bit like Rapunzel, really. There was always a lot of hustle and bustle in the street, although it was situated on the eastern outskirts of the city, quite a way from the centre.  There were several small shops just across the street and facing the main road – two bakeries, a butcher’s, a chemist’s and two grocer’s shops. Everything within a stone’s throw. And yet I still found it difficult to go outside.

I watched with curiosity the wraith-like figures of women wrapped in their white haïks flitting to and fro, heavy baskets full of groceries dangling from one hand. Just one eye would be showing through the folds of cloth pulled across their faces and held tight in the other hand.  Young men in jeans and t-shirts lounged around, smoking and talking. Small children played on the dusty playground in front of the block of flats on playground equipment that was shabby and broken, the swings lacking seats and the see-saw snapped in two.

The cries of street vendors drifted up to me in my ivory tower.They would be dressed, almost to a man,  in the traditional male seroual (baggy trousers with the crotch at knee-level) and a length of orange or yellow brocaded cloth wound around their heads. Trundling along the cracked pavements,  they would pull behind them handcarts filled with fresh green vegetables, on which the water drops glittered like crystals in the morning sunlight.

Not only were the cries of street vendors to be heard, but the incessant barking of dogs and surprisingly, cocks crowing, not just at daybreak, but at all times of the day. From time to time throughout the day, the call to prayer from a nearby mosque would float in through the window on the hot still air, marking out the passing hours. It all seemed so alien.

The people on the street seemed to have no volume control, and I could easily make out their conversations without understanding a word. Conversations were usually accompanied by expressive hand gestures and much waving of arms. I had become used to the noise generated by a group of Algerians at full throttle back in Sheffield, but this was overwhelming.

Sometimes, in the evening, sitting at the window waiting for T to come home, his arrival heralded by the white beam of the Austin’s headlights piercing the gathering shadows, I would marvel at the beautiful colours – magenta,  topaz and pale pink, rimmed with gold – splashed by the dying rays of the sun on the sky behind the darker bulk of the Aïdour mountain dominating the west of the city. The only light I could make out on the mountain would be a solitary spotlight, twinkling like a star, close to the Basilica of Santa Cruz.

T. had bought me a kaftan, not the silver and black wedding one, but one to wear outside and cover my burgeoning stomach. It was easy to throw on, even over pyjamas or a nightdress.  Sometimes, in the deep recesses of my baby brain, there dawned a foggy realisation that I was letting myself go, both physically and mentally. Not as much as some, however.

One morning, feeling particularly brave, I hazarded a trip to the grocer’s. The shopkeepers were always friendly and welcoming, explaining things and helping me with the strange currency. Coming out of the shop, I noticed a group of women walking up the incline towards the second block of flats. They were shepherding along another woman in their midst, forming a protective wall around her.

They looked exactly like a platoon of soldiers carrying out a military operation or sheepdogs chivvying along a particularly recalcitrant sheep. She was looking neither right nor left – just staring in front of her like a zombie. I  suddenly recognised the blond hair and spectacles of one of our university friends and, with a cry of joy, rushed towards her.

On hearing me call her name, she turned her head and looked at me blankly, barely acknowledging my presence. Her head then snapped back so she was facing forward again. Her sisters-in-law, as they turned out to be, clustered around her as if to shield her from my unwelcome advances, turning a hostile glare on me. Surprised and shaken, I took a step back, and let the procession move on without another word. I suddenly realised how lucky I had been. Not only had T. not imposed a new code of conduct on me, but neither had my family-in-law. Any prison of mine was of my own making.

The situation improved dramatically once our daughter was born and we moved to our new house in the Clos. Here were surrounding to which I could relate – a low, flat-roofed white bungalow with huge French windows looking out onto a tree-lined gated compound. I felt less like a fish out of water, and gradually my strange agoraphobia wore off to some extent. I began work a few years later and to drive a car around Oran and Arzew with absolutely no problems at all. I also realised it wasn’t true agoraphobia, because, during holidays taken back in Britain, my mother was hard pressed to keep me indoors.