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.
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.
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.
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.