If there’s one word in Algerian Arabic or darija that I absolutely loathe, it is makesh or makensh. This harsh-sounding, two-syllable word means, quite simply, “No, there isn’t any.” It was usually mumbled sotto voce, accompanied by an indifferent shrug, or snapped out with the kind of expression of gleeful sadism seen on the face of a person who has just pulled the wings off a fly.
If all this seems a bit fanciful to you, it is because whenever you entered a grocer’s in Algeria during the late seventies and eighties, any query as to the availability of absolutely anything would be met with this response. So much so, that when the answer was, on very rare occasions, “Kayin,” (we have some), you almost felt like falling to your knees and kissing the shopkeeper’s feet. Almost.
How had it come to this?
When I had first gone out to Algeria in 1969, there was plenty of everything. Much more than was available in Britain at the time. Not only were there familiar brands — Omo and Persil washing powders, Nestlé chocolate and so on — but there was much more fresh fruit and vegetables, seafood, meat and delicious crusty bread. Pasteurised milk was sold in returnable glass litre bottles and wine bought freely over the counter at the grocer’s. The downside was that there was no frozen food available and very few canned goods. But hey! — who needed them when there was so much fresh produce around?
Most small grocers’ shops were owned by Mozabites — Ibadi Berbers from the M’zab valley in the northern Sahara. The shops not owned by Mozabites belonged to Moroccans, who had often been in Algeria for generations. Both communities had commerce in their blood, and they would bring stock in from various sources so that the shelves in their little shops were always groaning under the weight of merchandise.
Their shops would stay open from very early in the morning until late at night, weekends and bank holidays included. I found this refreshingly different from the British trading hours of my childhood, with the half-day closing once a week and shop doors locked and bolted at 5pm. It was quite thrilling for me to be able to do our grocery shopping at seven o’clock in the evening, when T returned from work. In a way, the Mozabite grocers’ shops foreshadowed the Indian corner shops of Britain of the seventies and eighties -— open all hours.
Of course, given there was no trading standards agency, the quality of produce bought in their small shops was not always the best, and you would sometimes find maggots wriggling out of your wedge of brie or a suspicious white bloom on your bar of Nestlé chocolate. There were no “best before” dates. In general, though, they did a good job, importing their stock or buying it from the many small privately-owned Algerian companies that had been manufacturing food products for years, including coffee, dried foods, bottled locally-produced olive oil and fizzy drinks.
Then three decisions taken at government level were to change the Algerian shopping experience for ever. Firstly, the then president, Boumediene, decided to stop practically all imports, forcing people to buy locally-produced goods instead. Mozabites and Moroccans were no longer allowed import licences. All well and good, you might say, but often the quality of local goods wasn’t the same and there was sometimes no choice at all. For example, instead of imported Omo, Persil and Bonux detergents, we now had only one, made in Algeria.
Secondly, Boumediene thought that, as Algeria was, in theory at least, a socialist country, privately-owned companies or factories should not exist. Algerian production was to be handed over to huge state-owned conglomerates, cutting out the small family-owned businesses. Suddenly, a plethora of state-owned companies sprang up, of which the names all began with SON- or EN- (SOciété Nationale or ENtreprise Nationale) – i.e. the National Company of Whatever. These companies were the only ones licensed to import raw materials. So, of course, with no competition, either from abroad or from the private sector, the Algerian consumer became their unwilling hostage.
Thirdly, when the quasi-war with Morocco began in around 1975, due to a dispute over the former Spanish Sahara, many Moroccans living in Algeria were deported to Morocco, transported to the border by bus and dumped there by the Algerian authorities. Some of them had never been to Morocco in their lives and had no family left there. Many of them had been born and bred in Algeria, but had always been refused Algerian nationality. Their grocer’s shops were “requisitioned.”
And so the shortages began. It happened gradually at first. You might be out shopping one day and suddenly think, “I’m sure there used to be blue tins of condensed milk for sale as well as the red ones of evaporated… or perhaps I imagined it?” Yes, condensed milk, a favourite of Algerians for its sweet, creamy taste, was nowhere to be found.
Olive oil became as elusive as liquid gold— and almost as expensive. Butter? Nowhere to be found for at least a year. On the rare occasions we managed to obtain some, it was always rancid, even the little pats of butter that came with airline meals. The sole Algerian detergent went missing from grocery shelves for months. Clothes had to be washed in the bathtub using blocks of household soap – the famous savon de marseille – until that disappeared as well.
If by chance, you managed to locate a supply of butter, oil or whatever, you usually had to buy something else along with it — the famous ventes concommitantes (concurrent or simultaneous sale). For example, the hapless customer wishing to buy a kilo of butter would be forced to buy some iron panel-beaters as well. This was usually surplus stock imported by the State for no discernible reason, with some faceless official probably pocketing a fat commission. So the customer would find himself constrained to buy a couple of useless iron objects when all he had wanted to do was to purchase something to spread on his breakfast tartines.
Of course, after sometimes months during which a certain essential ingredient was unavailable, it would suddenly reappear -— at twice or three times its original price. People would be so happy to see it again, they were willing to pay the artificially-inflated price. On this basis, colossal fortunes were made by food traffickers — les millionaires du légume.
Wine and other alcoholic drinks disappeared from grocers’ shelves, to be dispensed with parsimony by state-owned caves or wine cellars. Of course, religion had something, if not everything, to do with this decision. Anybody working for the ONCV, l’Office national de commercialisation des produits vitivinicoles, or the Algerian national wine company, was often treated worse than a pariah, somebody unclean — a kafir (infidel), simply because they were handling something haram, or proscribed by Islam.
Bottled pasteurised milk, although its taste was always somewhat sour for a British palate, also disappeared, to be replaced by plastic bags full of a nauseating liquid, reconstituted from imported powdered milk. Of course, it was much easier to whip up a batch of milk from powder than to feed, tend and breed herds of dairy cattle. Later on, tons of powdered milk were imported, so the State could cut out the middle man and leave the consumer to mix up his milk himself.
The price of fish and seafood became prohibitive, as Algerian fishermen would meet up with foreign fishing vessels in the middle of the Mediterranean and sell them their catch for much-coveted foreign currency. So, in a country with a thousand kilometre-coastline, fish became too expensive for an ordinary citizen to buy on a regular basis.
In the end, we were reduced to eating a diet worthy of a Stalinist gulag or some backward, land-bound Soviet satellite nation. But there is always a flip-side to every coin. My children never had access to junk food because it simply didn’t exist in Algeria. They ate fresh food every day, No tinned or preserved goods. Sugary treats were rare, except the weekly indulgence of a pastry from the local patisserie. No pizza, except homemade. No crisps, no fizzy drinks. No sweets. Dessert was usually fresh, seasonal fruit.
Perhaps it wasn’t so bad after all.