“You can go and see the doctor on Friday, then….”
It was the summer of 1976 and I was on holiday in Britain with our two small children. Sitting in my parents’ living-room, I had clamped the phone against my ear to try to muffle the sound of canned laughter coming from the television in the corner of the room. The children were sitting on the carpet in front of it, eating bowls of cornflakes, entranced by the novelty of daytime programming. Shouting to make myself heard over the noise of the television and the static on the line, I asked T to go and pick up a prescription the following Friday at our doctor’s surgery in Bethioua.
“Mmm – d’accord – je vais voir,” (All right, I’ll see), he murmured. If I noticed a distinct lack of enthusiasm in his voice, I didn’t really pay any attention, because work had always come first for T and I simply thought that he was reluctant to leave the ammonia plant, even for an hour, so convinced was he that everything would grind to a halt during his absence. He started to say something and then abruptly changed the subject.
That particular summer had been very hot and dry in Britain. There had been no rainfall for several months, and sometimes, as I looked out of the bus window at the yellowing grass verges flashing past, I had the feeling I was still in Algeria. The previous week, flying over the English countryside just before landing in Manchester, I had been deprived of one of the best things about any return to Britain — the sight of the great patchwork quilt of of golden, brown and green squares held together by the thick green stitching of the hedgerows, unrolling like a welcome mat a thousand feet below. The countryside, dotted with fat, beige sheep, rose and fell like giant waves on a gentle ocean. Occasionally there would be a wood that separated the fields, or a farmhouse or barn. The sunlight, glinting off the wing of the plane and suddenly reflected in a river or pond, would make the countryside look as if it were dotted with pools of quicksilver.
But not that year. A long drought had meant that water rationing had been enforced in some areas, the green fields had become parched and cracked and the rivers and ponds had dried up. As for Blackpool, summer had descended fully on the town, easing it gently into its sweltering embrace by a last few degrees. Its streets, full of red-faced holidaymakers, sweated and baked under the blistering sun. Given that the heat and lack of rainfall was almost an everyday occurrence in Algeria, it wasn’t as much of a shock to the system to me as it was to most of the British population.
Sitting in the back seat of the taxi taking us back to Manchester a few days later, I had the sudden feeling that I had become a stranger in my own country. It had moved on without me, I reflected sadly. Change came so quickly in Europe — new fashions, new reference points, new slang — and I was being left behind. Or at least Algeria was being left behind. Nothing seemed to change there.
On returning to Algeria, however, I found that something had indeed changed — something fundamental. With the state coffers full to overflowing with petrodollars, and convinced, as usual, that they knew better than anyone else, the Algerian government had decided to change the weekend to Thursday and Friday, instead of Saturday and Sunday as in most other countries — Christian or not.
I had always loved Saturdays. Especially as a teenager. That indescribable Saturday feeling of waking up late, safe in the knowledge that I didn’t have to go to school. The whole day lay before me, full of exciting possibilities. Perhaps I would go down town shopping with Mum in the morning, meet up with friends for a coffee and gaze at Blackpool’s jeunesse doreé at The Roaring Twenties coffee bar in the afternoon and then go out in the evening? In Algeria, to put it mildly, Saturdays weren’t quite the same. No shopping, no friends, no going out. But then, again, I had other things to occupy my mind.
It didn’t help, of course, that T had to work until midday. Straight after work, he would go to the Oran rowing club down by the docks and try to work off some of the stress of the working week with physical exercise. It had always been his way. He would take his small rowing boat out to where the flat sea stretched in all directions, with the afternoon sun scattering diamonds across its surface. Seagulls would wheel overhead, carried by the rising warm air currents. Suspended between the sea and the sky, he could empty his mind and relax in preparation for the coming week.
He was perhaps able to relax— but what about me? Stuck at home, either pregnant or with a small baby, I did not have the luxury of thinking only about myself. When T returned home in the early evening each Saturday, half of the weekend had already gone.
Things improved slightly when Saturday morning was no longer considered part of the working week, and we had two whole days for the weekend. We tried to establish some sort of routine to make them different from other days — buying pastries and cakes from the Blanche Neige patisserie in Arzew for a special Saturday afternoon tea or goûter, or driving down to Oran to eat chicken and rice at the self-service cafeteria located in the basement of the Hôtel Royal—– the only establishment of its kind in town — or in any town in Algeria for that matter. But it was never the same. That Saturday feeling seemed to have disappeared from our lives forever.
With the change to Thursday and Friday, it had no chance of ever coming back. Religious ideology had, of course, played its part in this decision. Friday had always been the Muslim day of prayer, but, until then, everybody had managed to incorporate their religious duty into the working week. There was also the sneaking feeling, however, that Algeria, with its usual arrogance, had decided to plough its own furrow and let the rest of the world go hang. It was setting its own agenda, and other countries had to adapt to it, not the other way round.
The changeover created a feeling akin to extreme jet lag. Nobody seemed to know which day of the week it was. Monday, instead of being at the beginning, was now in the middle of the working week. Monday morning apathy had been transferred to Saturday. I can remember preparing to go home from work one day and, turning to my colleagues, saying, with just a trace of bitterness in my voice, “It’s Saturday evening, and what are my plans? To go home and make dinner. What are my sixty-five-year-old mother’s plans? To dress up and go out dancing.” I felt old before my time.
The decision also had unforeseen economic repercussions. One factor that the Algerian government hadn’t taken into account was that oil prices go down as well as up. What seemed like a win-win situation in the seventies, later revealed itself to be a monumental misjudgement. I became aware of its inconveniences on more than a personal level when I began working for El Paso, a Texan company purchasing LNG from Algeria. We were only able to contact the head office in Houston from around five pm on a Monday afternoon until five pm on Tuesday. Wednesday afternoon at the same time was too late -—the Arzew office had already packed up and gone home.
According to the World Bank, Algeria was losing the equivalent of over seven hundred million euros a year with its insistence on a weekend consisting of Thursday and Friday. In 2009, the decision was (partially) reversed and, following Saudi Arabia’s example, the weekend was switched again to Friday and Saturday. The problem was — many institutions still insisted on not working on Thursdays.
So perhaps Algeria is the only country in the world to enjoy a three-day weekend — just when it can least afford it.