Poker Face

“See not the face..
but only the eyes,
of the poker face.”
― Toba Beta, Master of Stupidity 

I suppose everyone has their idea of the Byronic hero. Mad, bad and dangerous to know. He’s usually an older man — dark, mysterious, arrogant, with a murky past and a mad wife hidden away in the attic. On second thoughts, the last part is not absolutely essential.

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Mr. Rochester (Jane Eyre)

When I first met T, he ticked many of the boxes marked “Byronic hero.” He was six years older than me. He was dark, enigmatic, with a past about which he was reluctant to talk. Added to that was his exciting “otherness” — his accent, his rapid and incomprehensible French — incomprehensible to me, that is, although I understood French, or at least I thought I did.

And of course, me being me, I didn’t fall for your common-or-garden foreigner — a Greek, German, or even a Frenchman, of which there were many fine specimens hanging around the Students’ Union. Oh no —  the object of MY desire was a really “foreign” foreigner, from a country that was known only in Britain through lurid newspaper articles about torture, random bombings and a campaign of urban guerilla warfare.

T’s default setting seemed to be one of introspection, looking out on the world through eyes that were, at times, opaque and unreadable.  He would often close himself off, locked behind something I could not penetrate. Of course, all this was very attractive to an impressionable eighteen-year-old girl brought up on a diet of the Brontë sisters and Jane Austen.

I, of course, was exactly the opposite. My eyes were as transparent as glass, through which my very self was laid bare. I was incapable of hiding my emotions, which would flicker across my face like reflections on water. I would pretend to be distant and indifferent from time to time — to pay him back in his own coin, as it were — but could not maintain the illusion for very long.

T was known for keeping his cool in all circumstances. If there was an unexpectedly loud noise somewhere in our vicinity — a firework going off, or a clap of thunder, everybody else would jump out of their skin. Not T.  He wouldn’t even flinch, nor would his expression change in the slightest. I, on the contrary, would skitter like a scalded cat if a car so much as backfired in the next street, starting violently, and clutching my chest in the region of my heart with a trembling hand.

I would come down to earth again in time to catch T’s look of mild irritation, one  eyebrow quirked in polite disbelief at my histrionics and his lips curled in a wry smile. It would make me feel very silly — and even sillier one day, when he remarked offhandedly, “I could understand you reacting like that if there were REAL gunshots in the next street.”

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Introspective he most certainly was, except when he was amongst his friends.  I would watch him horsing around, flinging his arm around the neck of his closest friend, laughing and joking with him and feel strangely envious that he could feel so relaxed with others and not with me.

With hindsight, I think the problem with me was that he had no intention at all of becoming seriously involved with an English girl. Too complicated; too…..messy. Perhaps his sometimes distant attitude was his way of warning me not to dream about a future with him. Or as a warning to himself. But, as is the way of such things, it made him even more irresistible in my eyes and, as for him, well — he seems to have been overtaken by events.

I had come into his life and he had no idea what to do with me. I was obviously not just a one-night-stand — he wanted us to stay together, but a relationship leading to marriage was the furthest thing from his mind. His feelings for me were to creep up on him, catching him unawares. Before he knew it, a life without me was unthinkable. It had always been that way for me.

Luckily for me, he was neither mad, bad, nor dangerous to know. His poker face was simply a way of protecting himself. He had learnt not to show his feelings, living, as he had done, in a country at war.  If he had manifested overt fear, hostility or anger, he could easily have ended up being dragged off to an internment camp to be questioned — or worse.

So when did he change? From the cosseted smiley little boy that he seemed to have been, to this wary young man with guarded eyes? I think the metamorphosis began with his father’s death, or perhaps at some stage during the latter’s illness. When the unthinkable happened, he had to reassure his mother and siblings that everything would be all right and that he would take care of them. Even in the middle of a vicious colonial war. If he had shown them that he was as scared and rudderless as they were, the whole house of cards would have collapsed, with his uncles moving in to scavenge the ruins, like so many vultures.

He had to avoid the many traps laid for him both by both his uncles and by the colonial authorities. His studied air of nonchalance confused and angered his father’s brothers, who were expecting him to cave in to their authority and hand the reins of everything over to them — his father’s business and the fate of his mother and siblings.

As for the colonial authorities — when they called him up to do his national service at the age of eighteen, he wrote them an articulate and poignant letter, explaining that his father had just died and that he, as the eldest son, was the sole mainstay of his family. They agreed to defer his conscription, only requiring him to do a few weeks’ military training.

Unfortunately, things didn’t change when we returned to Algeria — in fact they grew worse. Now he had not only his mother and siblings to reassure, but me as well. Instead of his uncles, he had to confront the trade unions. Instead of the menacing presence of the colonial authorities, he now had that of their Algerian successors, who had learned their trade well from their erstwhile occupiers, even adding a few sadistic twists of their own.

Every day he had to face representatives from the government, military security, the intelligence services, the gendarmerie, the local authorities, union representatives, his own hierarchy and finally the members of the workforce – maintaining a calm and untroubled exterior all the while, when inside he was as apprehensive as anybody else.

His years in Britain must have seemed like a lost paradise – a time when he could enjoy himself without thinking about his past. He hadn’t suffered from the normal student worries about exams, though. He desperately needed that engineering diploma to guarantee him a future, as he had nobody on whom to fall back. The one and only time I ever saw his mask slip was when he had had a mental block during a thermodynamics final, after revising until the early hours of the morning.

Family worries also intruded. He had left the brother nearest to him in age in charge, but this hadn’t stopped the constant stream of letters from Algiers asking advice about family matters. The buck still stopped with him. All of this — the deliberate suppression of normal panic responses, the burden of responsibility at an early age — has taken an inevitable toll on his health.

Being an enigmatic Byronic hero isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Even Heathcliff and Mr. Rochester probably suffered from high blood pressure and ulcers.

The Magic Key

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“Music acts like a magic key, to which the most tightly closed heart opens.”

― Maria Augusta von Trapp

I stole a glance at T., sitting next to me in the smoke-filled room. The pub was the venue for the Sheffield University Folk Club, of which I had become a member during my first few days there. 1965 was at the height of the Great Folk Revival and I had developed a passion for folk music whilst still at school. The evenings spent singing my heart out with the other folk enthusiasts above the Talbot pub in Blackpool had been the highlight of my week in the sixth form, and a welcome respite from revision for my A-Levels.

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Another passion, however, had supplanted folk music in my heart in the few weeks since my arrival in Sheffield, and it was sitting right next to me in the shape of T. My quick glance had shown me his arms folded across his chest and a bored look on his face.  There was obviously no question of him joining in the rousing chorus of “Wild Mountain Thyme” anytime soon.

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“Well -— what do you think? Did you enjoy it?” I asked anxiously as we pushed our way through the crowd of noisy students leaving the pub a couple of hours later. Trying to be diplomatic so as not to hurt my feelings, he hesitated, choosing his words carefully before replying, “Tu sais, ce n’est pas vraiment mon genre.” (You know, it’s not really my thing.) My shoulders slumped and I heaved an imperceptible sigh. A choice now lay before me — T or folk clubs. There was really no contest.

T’s taste in music ran more to the French pop songs of the day, or even of the previous decade. Studying in his room meant trying to work to the sound of French radio stations France Inter or Europe No. 1 on his transistor radio. I was introduced to Jacques Brel, Charles Aznavour and Georges Brassens. I listened to Gilbert Bécaud, Claude Nougaro and Adamo.  I discovered that love songs sounded so much better in French, even though I understood only about twenty per cent of the lyrics. Miss Walmsley’s French lessons had never prepared me for this.

I don’t know about anything else, but it did wonders for my French pronunciation. I would try to sing along to Et Pourtant (And Yet), twisting my tongue around the impossible French consonant/vowel combinations (cruelle froideur, anyone?), taking great pains to roll my r’s in the prescribed manner and pouting like Brigitte Bardot as I sang the words mon amour.

One of the singers particularly popular amongst the Algerian students was, in fact, not French, but a pied noir called Enrico Macias. His family of Algerian Jews had been wedding singers in Constantine for generations, and his songs, mostly about his regret at leaving Algeria, were in French, although they included a lot of vocal acrobatics more suited to what was thought of as “Arab” music. His nostalgia affected the Algerian students as well —  I can remember a friend of ours, built like a brick outhouse, sobbing on his girlfriend’s shoulder at a party, as Enrico sang tremulously about the sun and the blue skies of the country he had left behind.

It’s rather strange, now I come to think about it, that we never really listened to traditional Algerian music, although one of the Algerian students, less Europeanised than the others, had a collection of records in Arabic that he would slap on the turntable at parties.  I loved it when some of our friends would start dancing, shimmying and shaking their rear ends with abandon. T. never joined in — he would just stand there, laughing and clapping his hands. He is a lot of things, but a dancer was never one of them.

The zenith, or rather the nadir, of my musical experiences at university was when three of us girls were asked to sing two songs in Kabyle at a cultural event to celebrate the 1st of November, the beginning of the Independence War.  We were only singing the refrain, two of the other students singing the verses, but still… We learnt the lyrics parrot-fashion, with no idea of what they actually meant.

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In fact, they were songs about the plight of Kabyle women left behind when their men emigrated to France in search of work: Aya Zerzour (The Exile) or Ma Thevghidh Adh Amengal (Do You Want Me to Tell You The Truth) with the line “ergezim thil Paris illaho turowmi-in” (your husband is in Paris, going out with European women). Ironic, to say the least.

A couple of years later, during the first summer after our wedding, T. bought a record of Algerian revolutionary songs to which I would sometimes listen, sitting alone in the small flat in Oran when he was at work. The song that I found most moving was a very simple solo  —  completely different from the other songs, which usually featured a chorus of masculine voices thundering out all kinds of dire retribution against the enemy, set to a background of tramping boots.

This particular song was in Kabyle and was called A Yemma Azizen (Oh Dearest Mother). What was it doing on a record of revolutionary songs? Simple. It was the plaintive farewell of a young man going off to join the maquis and pleading with his mother not to cry for him. Strangely enough, there were many similarities between this lament — for that is what it was — and Irish folk music, right down to the long introductory flute solo. And like my own traditional music, it spoke directly to my heart.

It was only in the mid-seventies, when Kabyle music was dragged into the twentieth century by singers such as Idir, Djamel Allem and Nourredine, that I began to appreciate it. Their songs often dealt with the same traditional themes as the older songs — the struggle against the French; the forced marriage of a young girl to an old man; the mother waiting for her son to return from the war, still putting two bowls out for breakfast, and the unbreakable link between brothers. In other words, exactly the same themes as in English folk songs.

The new singers, however, added a freshness to the old themes by adding a modern accompaniment and getting rid of all the traditional twiddly bits. Some of these singers, like Idir, have attained international stardom. It didn’t matter that nobody, apart from Kabyles, knew what he was singing about; the lovely tunes and his warm baritone voice were enough to gain him a legion of foreign fans.

But there are other stars — masters of raï from Oran like Khaled, Mami and the regretted Hasni, murdered by extremists. Khaled’s hit, Didi, has been translated into many other languages. His song, Aïcha, sung in French and darija (Algerian Arabic) was number one in France. Mami, described by Sting as one of the best singers in the world, sang a duet with the latter on his track Desert Rose.

Souad Massi sings about love and loss in darija, even though she is of Kabyle origin. She achieved success after fleeing to France following threats to her life. The protest songs of the Kabyle Bob Dylan, Aït Menguellet, give voice to the suppressed anger felt by Kabyles at the attempted eradication of their language and identity.

All in all, the Algerian music scene is incredibly vibrant, with new songs being recorded and new singers emerging every day, eager to break the boundaries that used to be set in stone. It is, in truth, a reflection of the Algerian spirit.

Different Strokes

I stared at T’s hands in fascination. It’s true that they were beautiful – strong and capable-looking with a sprinkling of dark hair on the back and long, elegant fingers, but it was not his hands themselves that mesmerised me. It was what he was doing with them.

We were sitting in one of the university refectories during our first month together and I was watching T. peel an apple. I am not a peeler — I just crunch my way through apples, pears — you name it. I also make a great deal of noise while doing it.

But there was T, carefully peeling away every last sliver of skin, then — oh my goodness — cutting the apple into perfect crescent-shaped segments, divesting them of any remaining core, and finally scoring them across the back with his knife before popping them one by one into his mouth and chewing silently.

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MY mouth must have dropped open. I can perhaps be excused because I was in the first flush of love and viewed everything T. did through rose-tinted glasses. Having only been to a single-sex school, men seemed like a completely different species to me. Especially one as different as T.

I was constantly amazed by the natural grace with which he did everything; the easy physicality that probably stemmed from his judo training.  As far from the awkward, tongue-tied youths in my year as you could get. And in direct contrast to me.  With my legendary clumsiness, I was perfectly capable of tripping over a line chalked on the pavement.

He even slept tidily — never snoring, never dribbling — again unlike me.  He would lie there perfectly still, his eyes and mouth closed, not making a sound and looking a bit like those marble effigies on medieval tombs. I, on the other hand,  would thrash around in bed, changing position a hundred times a night and often waking in the morning with my mouth hanging open, my hair in tangles and my face stuck to the pillow.

But I couldn’t deny the fact that some of his other habits were rather strange. All right, the careful apple-peeling might be considered as personal fastidiousness, but what about him rubbing his eye and then dropping a kiss on his finger afterwards? I asked him why he did that and he gave me a puzzled look. Not only did he not realise he was doing it, but he had no idea why. Perhaps because an eye is such a precious thing and that anything that comes in contact with it must be acknowledged in some way? He still does it and I still don’t know the reason behind it.

Another habit that I didn’t understand was the way he would always tread down the backs of espadrilles or slippers as soon as he bought them. He would then proceed to  shuffle about in them instead of walking properly. I hasten to add that he didn’t do it with any shoes that he intended to wear outside. Only later did I realise that slip-on backless shoes (babouches) had been traditional footwear in Algeria and he had probably worn them as a child. But it still annoyed me. Most Algerians do this to their shoes, almost without thinking.

Other habits were less endearing. I was woken one morning by a loud snorting noise coming from the bathroom. We had only been together a couple of months at this stage, and this was the first night I had spent in his flat. In spite of the stringent university rules in place and my mother’s probing questions, we had managed to fit in a clandestine weekend between my returning to Sheffield after the Christmas vacation and the beginning of the spring term.

I lay there in bed, thinking fuzzily that perhaps a baby warthog on the loose had shattered the peace of a Sheffield Sunday morning. Then I heard the splashing. Going into the bathroom afterwards, I found the floor awash. Not only that, but there was water dripping from the walls and bathroom mirror and a few spots of SOMETHING clinging to the sides of the washbasin.

It was only later I found out that part of his morning toilette included clearing out his nose. Not much wrong with that, you might say. He would start by filling up the washbasin with water and throwing it all over his face and head. Then he would cup some water in his hand, snort it up, and blow his nose vigorously — into the washbasin.  I found out later that this was the preferred method of most Algerians, not just a personal idiosyncrasy of T’s. I think it probably has its origins in the ritual washing before prayers. T. didn’t pray, but  had obviously been taught this method by his mother.

For my pains, I had been subjected to a LOOK when he found out that I had used a dirty towel to mop up the puddles. Shrugging his shoulders, he turned to his flatmate and muttered something about the differences in culture. So it was all right to leave snot in the washbasin, but not all right to use a stained towel to wipe the floor?

Once in Algeria, I soon discovered that everyone washed themselves using this method.  When we had guests, I would clutch my hair in despair on entering the bathroom. I could just about manage to rinse out the washbasin after my husband, but drew the line at scraping off the crusty contents of anybody else’s nose. When I protested, T. would look at me askance and tell me that that was the only effective way to wash yourself — nose and ears and all. I was the one with slovenly habits, only using tissues and cotton buds.

Of course, this inevitably leads on to a more delicate subject – hygiene of the nether regions. Toilet paper is rarely found in Algeria. Most people use water instead, hence the omnipresent bucket of water in most Algerian toilets, sometimes accompanied by a small bowl to use as a ladle.

This posed a problem for me. Especially when the toilet in question was what is known in Algeria as a toilette turque— a squat toilet — one of those miniature torture chambers where there is no pedestal, just a hole in the middle of what looks like a shower tray, on either side of which are two small raised platforms on which to place your feet.  My innate clumsiness often had indescribable consequences. I leave the rest to your imagination.

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These habits resulted in even more water being slopped all over the floor in the bathroom and the toilet. I became used to wading my way through the puddles and mopping the floor at least three or four times a day.

It was even worse when my mother-in-law came to stay as, of course, she had to go through the ritual ablutions  before each prayer. This sometimes resulted in her carefully lifting each leg in turn and depositing her foot in the washbasin to be washed. The bidet we acquired later when we moved to the Villa Robineau was quickly put to another use.

The fact that I continued to use toilet paper instead of water earned me the disapproval of my husband. I would cast a sideways glance at his curled lip whenever I bought the offending article at the grocer’s. He never said anything, but his involuntary look of distaste spoke volumes. He would stare at me until my ears turned pink under the scrutiny, but I would still buy the toilet paper.

Fortunately, though, we managed to achieve a happy medium, as in most things. I use water as well as toilet paper, and he is careful to rinse out the washbasin after use. We compromise, as most couples do. I still can’t bring myself to clean out my nose using water, though.

 

Food, Glorious Food

T. was sitting across the table from me, his dark eyes trained on my face, a slight crease between his eyebrows betraying his uncertainty.  I could detect a certain guarded wariness there. How was I going to react?  “Eh bien,” he said finally with a resigned shrug of the shoulders, “Voilà du couscous.”

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T at table

It was January, 1966 and we had only been together for a couple of months when we were invited to Sunday lunch by another of the Algerian students. D. had promised to prepare couscous, the Algerian national dish, for us. I had heard of couscous before, but had no idea what to expect.

D. was older than the other students, a former boxer already in his thirties and divorced, with two children back in Algeria. So much older, in fact, that T and his friends later became convinced that D. was, in reality, a secret service agent sent to Britain by the Algerian government to spy on the other students.  It sounded completely paranoid to me at the time – all rather cloak-and-dagger – although, with hindsight, they were probably right.

So, on that freezing winter Sunday, we had turned up at D’s digs, two dingy rooms shared with another student, to be ceremoniously seated around a small table covered with newspaper and then served couscous out of a biscuit tin. I looked at the mess in front of me. With a kind of gloopy vegetable stew and lumps of unidentifiable meat ladled on top, it looked like something that had been pre-digested.

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Couscous

I hesitantly picked up my spoon – was that how you ate couscous? There was no fork in sight – dug around a bit, then transferred the contents of the spoon to my mouth. It was like eating lukewarm wallpaper paste. T. was watching me anxiously. “Mmm..” I mumbled, trying to swallow, “It’s delicious.” T’s face cleared and there was suddenly a palpable air of relief in the room. I had passed the test – the first of many.

It was lucky that I didn’t let that first taste of couscous put me off it for life. Later on, of course, I enjoyed real couscous, prepared for us by my mother-in-law.  I also found out that couscous is called taam, literally meaning ‘food’ in Algerian Arabic, or seksu, meaning ‘well-rolled,’ in Kabyle. It is essentially a Berber dish and can be found all over North Africa and even in Sicily. Berbers were preparing couscous as early as 238 to 149 BC, as primitive couscous pots have been found in tombs dating back to the reign of the Berber King Massinissa.

One of the scenes burned on my memory is of my mother-in-law trying to teach me how to roll couscous. Couscous is basically semolina rolled by hand in a large, shallow bowl, with water and salt gradually added  and the result passed through a series of sieves. It ends up looking like tiny balls, about the size of quinoa grains. Unfortunately, rolling couscous involves sitting on the floor, with one leg folded in front of you and the other stretched out at the side of the enormous tharbuth, or couscous bowl. My legs were much too long to fold and I ended up with one leg on each side of the tharbuth, my unorthodox approach reducing my mother-in-law to tears of laughter.

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Even better than couscous with sauce, was themakfoult – Kabyle couscous prepared with steamed seasonal vegetables and a drizzle of olive oil. Later on, when I became aware of the dietary values of certain foods, I realised that themakfoult was, in fact, one of the most perfectly-balanced meals you could ever hope to eat.

Another dish to which I was introduced at university was douara, or tripe. TRIPE? I hear you cry. Yes, tripe. I was no stranger to tripe, having been brought up in the north of England, where we ate cold pre-boiled tripe with vinegar. It was easy to eat tripe when you knew how. You just opened your mouth and let the stuff slither down your throat without actually tasting it. I didn’t even know you could cook tripe.

One of the other Algerian students, B., had prepared douara for us one evening. Married to a Belgian girl, B. was from Laghouat, a city situated on the northern edge of the Sahara, about four hundred kilometres south of Algiers. You must be thinking that we were extremely lucky to have all these friends cook meals for us.  T. wanted to introduce me to Algerian food, but, as he couldn’t cook and didn’t want to learn, could only do so through the culinary efforts of his friends. When homesickness hit hard and they had had their fill of the tasteless English food on offer, they would cook up a nostalgic feast at home.

Anyway, les tripes à l’algérienne (it sounded so much better in French) were a resounding success. Spiced with caraway, paprika, cinnamon and a hint of chilli, with chick peas and garlic added and coriander and flat-leaved parsley scattered on top, they were mouth-watering. It was lucky that I only learnt afterwards that not only was there tripe in there, but bits of sheep’s heart, liver and lungs.

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Douara

I’m joking because, although most people shun offal nowadays, I had actually been brought up on it. My mother would buy slices of cooked cow’s heart in Blackpool’s Abingdon Street Market as a Saturday teatime treat and liver was often on the school dinner menu. Mum would even eat boiled pig’s trotters, but that was a step too far for me.

Once in Algeria, I became familiar with other Algerian dishes. In fact, one of my wedding presents had been an Algerian cook book, full of recipes to be attempted. Although some of them were fairly easy, being tagines, or stews, with ingredients ranging from prunes to preserved lemons, others required hours of preparation and cooking.

Dishes like bourek, mostly eaten during Ramadan, similar to spring rolls, with a meat, cheese, or egg filling wrapped in sheets of filo pastry (diouls in Algeria), seemed easy enough, but filo pastry was not available commercially – in fact, most ingredients weren’t. They had to be prepared at home. The ingredients had to be mixed together and the tissue-thin sheets of pastry cooked painstakingly one by one, a bit like pancakes. Home-made really meant home-made.

I had neither the time nor the energy, nor indeed the skill, to make more complicated Algerian dishes. Luckily, the major part of Algerian cuisine is very similar to that of many Mediterranean countries, based on fresh seasonal vegetables, fruit, seafood and olive oil. The quintessential Mediterranean diet. Were it not for their incorrigible habit of adding sugar to everything and eating enough sugary, syrupy pastries to send them all  into a diabetic coma, Algerians would have one of the healthiest diets in the world.

One thing I found rather strange about restaurants in Algeria was that they never served Algerian food. All the French classics were there; steak and chips, coq au vin, seafood dishes, steak au poivre and so on, but not a tagine to be seen. During the eighties, one hardy soul opened a restaurant in Oran serving authentic Algerian dishes. The tables were traditional round ones, and the meals were served in painted earthenware pottery, accompanied by flatbread and khobz eddar, literally “home-made bread” – a kind of fluffy semolina bread with a soft, dark golden crust.

Unfortunately, as the tourist industry was, and still is, almost non-existent in Algeria, the restaurant closed its doors after a couple of years. The reason, I found out later, was that Algerians do not go out to restaurants to eat their own traditional dishes. They eat them at home.

 

 

 

Past Tense

“What? You’ve forgotten the coffee?” T. exclaimed, astonishment and irritation in his voice. I stole a glance at him. His lips were pressed tightly together and he was looking at me from beneath ominously lowered brows. “Well, yes,” I answered. “I’ll just slip down and get some.” For the life of me, I couldn’t understand his overreaction to what was, to me, a slight oversight on my part.

It was 1968 and he had moved to Liverpool the previous October to do his M.Eng, forcing us apart. Much to our dismay, no suitable project had been found in Sheffield.  It was a difficult time for us as we were both studying hard – I had my Second Part Finals in a few months’ time and he was preparing to submit his Master’s thesis later in the year.  He had asked his company, Sonatrach, whether he could stay on in Britain to do a Ph.D., but no answer had been forthcoming. Anxiety about the future often made us irritable, but this was something else.

He was living at the time in a one-bedroomed flat in a house of which the bottom storey facing Edge Lane was taken up by a parade of shops. The one directly below was a launderette and next to it was a small grocer’s shop. It would only take a few minutes at the most to pick up the forgotten article, especially as the shop stayed open until late at night. Why make such a  fuss about it?

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T. in the flat in Liverpool

These occasional outbursts was just part of living with T. Usually calm and even-tempered, well-known for his sangfroid, he would suddenly become inexplicably annoyed by small, unimportant things. Try as I might, I could not get to the reasons behind his reactions. I thought it was perhaps just the difference in cultures. Perhaps I was doing something wrong without realising it? Gradually, I became used to these mood swings, trying to shrug them off, although sometimes it seemed as though I was always treading on eggshells, never knowing what would set him off.

On another occasion, a couple of years previously in Sheffield, we had been studying in his room one evening. I was deep in my book and T. was at the table working on a particularly complicated maths problem, covering page after page with mysterious calculations in his spidery writing. The curtains were closed against the cold and rainy night, the electric radiator was on full blast, and the only sound in the cosy room was the ticking of the clock and the soft murmur of the French radio programme.

Suddenly there was a series of loud raps on the window, just next to T’s head. He leapt to his feet, overturning his books. The sheets of paper on which he had been working floated unheeded to the carpet. Turning my head, I saw that his face had drained of all colour. He didn’t say a word, just stood there.  Then came a knock on the bedroom door and a group of our friends burst in, laughing and joking.

I looked curiously at T. and realised that things were still not right.  He remained motionless and silent, not joining in the general merriment. Then he moved. He swung abruptly round to S., one of his closest friends and the ringleader on this particular occasion, and spat out the words, “Ne refais plus jamais ça!” (Don’t ever do that again!) I looked at him, astonished and taken aback. After all, they were just having a bit of fun – weren’t they?

As T. was not one for talking about his feelings, I only found out much later, after we were married,  that his unexpected reactions had their roots in events in his past. I suppose everyone is the same, but T. had gone through far more traumatic experiences in his twenty-odd years on earth than most people would in a lifetime. Although  young and resilient, he still carried invisible emotional scars. The past had a way of impinging on the present and try as he might, he could not escape it.

The rapping on the window had reminded him of the way French paratroopers would announce their arrival during Algeria’s independence war. They would then break down the door if nobody answered and proceed to search the house, toting their machine guns and ready to put a bullet in the head of anyone putting up any kind of opposition.

He had once actually been woken from a deep sleep by the cold kiss of the barrel of a paratrooper’s gun against his forehead. On hearing that noise at the window, it was as if he had suddenly gone back in time. So he had vented his anger on the person who had made that particular memory resurface.

Another of T’s quirks is that he has always refused to wear any kind of jewellery, especially rings.  The particular memory behind it had been the traumatic period just after his father’s death, when he, aged just sixteen, his mother and siblings were living on a farm near Reghaïa, about thirty kilometres east of Algiers.

One evening, a group of gendarmes had banged on the door, demanding to search the farmhouse for any moudjahid (Algerian freedom fighter) or secret arms cache. At the end of the search, one of them had shaken T’s hand and squeezed it so hard, the ring he was wearing had cut into the flesh of his fingers, making the blood pour from his hand. T. had learnt the hard way not to let his feelings show, and so had reacted to the gendarme‘s deliberate provocation with a tight smile and narrowed eyes.

The episode with the forgotten coffee dates from the same period and had less terrifying origins, but obviously still had the power to trigger an angry knee-jerk reaction. The nearest shops to the farm were in the village of Reghaïa, about six kilometres away. There being no means of transport between the farm and the village, any food shopping had to be done by walking six kilometres to the shops, buying what was needed, then walking back the same distance carrying heavy baskets. Either T. or one of his brothers did this on a regular basis. The tractor that his father had owned and used for transport had been sold by T. to pay off any debts remaining after his death.

Unfortunately, as his mother was not the best-organised person in the world, and was often forgetful, she would, more often than not,  find that some essential ingredient was missing once her son had returned home, sweaty and exhausted, after his twelve-kilometre hike under the blazing summer sun. “Oh drat!” she would say (or the equivalent in Kabyle), “I’ve forgotten the sugar… or the flour…. or the coffee. Go back and get it.”

T. would never have dreamed of telling his mother off. He would probably have given her a LOOK, but his mother was impervious to any looks, no matter how angry they were. She was always blind to any subtle social signals, anyway, and besides, her sons were there to do her bidding, weren’t they?

So the realisation that I had forgotten the coffee on our return from a shopping trip had reminded him of this and made him react the same way as he would have done with his mother. The problem was – his mother forgot things all the time. I didn’t. But I was the one paying the price.

 

Bread

Algerians love bread. No, I’ll rephrase that. They are obsessed with it. You might think I am exaggerating, but it is in fact a bit of an understatement. I never fully realised the extent of this passion until I actually set foot in Algeria.

During  our university days, T. used to embarrass me on a regular basis  by requesting bread with every meal we ate in restaurants (except curry, of course) and, it being sixties Britain,  would be rewarded for his pains by a disbelieving look from the waiter and a plate on which two wafer-thin pieces of  sliced white bread reposed. Sometimes, to add insult to injury, at least from T’s point of view, the kitchen staff  would add a scraping of butter or, more usually, of margarine.

Looking at the plate with suspicion, T. would raise his eyebrows, shrug his shoulders, mutter something under his breath along the lines of “You English don’t know how to eat,” before resignedly rolling up the thin slices and swallowing them in one gulp. Luckily for us, we had found a Polish grocery on Whitham Road, a stone’s throw from T’s flat,  that sold what were called “Vienna” loaves. They, at least,  had a discernible crust and the inside could be chewed.

T, although he loved Britain, had serious problems with the whole panoply of English food — except for the puddings. Every lunchtime in the Upper Refectory, he would help himself to whatever steamed pudding was available that day, smothered in lashings of custard. I would sit opposite him, primly eating my lemon yoghurt and casting covetous glances at all that marmalade, jam, chocolate or currant-filled lusciousness being shovelled into his mouth. Sometimes he would take pity on me and offer me a spoonful – just one, mind you.

Anyway, to get back to the subject of bread. My introduction to Algerian bread had been during my first meal eaten there, after I had just arrived in Oran for my first visit to the family in December, 1968. T. was living temporarily in the Hôtel Martinez in the city centre while more permanent housing was being sorted out for him.

That first evening we decided to eat dinner in the hotel restaurant. The meal was absolutely mouthwatering and  accompanied by a basket filled to the brim with chunks of the most delicious bread. It resembled the French baguette, but its texture was  more consistent and the crust crunchier than its French counterpart. T. waved his hand airily in the direction of the basket, saying to me, with a hint of smugness in his voice, “Voici le pain algérien!” (THIS is Algerian bread!) In other words, “THIS is REAL bread!”

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Of course, it wasn’t traditional Algerian bread. It was the Algerian version of French bread.  I learned later that the bread  I had eaten with my meal that evening was called pain ordinaire. It was usually eaten at lunch or at dinner and was ideal for dipping in sauces. No table etiquette here demanding that you tilt the soup bowl away from you in order to scoop up the final spoonful of soup, or frowning on the use of a piece of bread to wipe up the last delicious smears of chorba or ragoût. 

My daughter, for years, would eat her lunch or dinner with a chunk of bread in one hand and her fork or spoon in the other. One bite of bread, one of soup or chicken. No Algerian meal, except couscous, is complete without its basket of bread. Couscous with bread, anathema to purists, is more a European habit than an Algerian one. As is eating it with a fork.

For breakfast, or for the sacrosanct goûter, a different kind of bread, pain blanc – white bread – with its softer, glazed crust and fluffy white crumb would be served. My mother-in-law would call the goûter la “casse-crotte” (croûte) meaning  literally the breaking of the crust. The equivalent of the British teatime, it was originally intended as a snack children would eat on their return from school, but  was enjoyed every day around four o’clock in the afternoon by Algerian children and adults alike  to prevent them dying of inanition before the evening couscous.

Although I had seen T. dunk a chunk of bread or a croissant in his coffee, I had never before seen him slap butter on his piece of baguette, slather it with jam and THEN dunk it in his café au lait.  My mouth must have dropped open in shock as my gaze travelled from T. eating his soggy bread with evident enjoyment to the glistening pools of melted butter and the lumps of apricot jam floating around on the surface of his coffee. Obviously, he had reverted to old habits once back on home turf.

So, given the visceral attachment Algerians have to their bread, you can imagine the shock and dismay when, during the years of shortages, bread became harder and harder to find. Bakeries would bake batches only at certain times of the day and long queues would form outside the shops. I became used to seeing men hauling great sacks of thirty or forty baguettes home.

There must have been a lot of wastage, but bread is never thrown away in Algeria. I don’t know whether it is a religious constraint  or a social one, but you could always find rock-hard pieces of baguette placed with great care on every outside windowsill. Better to leave it to the birds rather than throw it away with the rubbish. Such is the Algerian reverence for bread, that if a piece falls to the floor, it is picked up and kissed before being put back on the table.

Traditional Algerian bread deserves a post of its own. Usually made from semolina, not flour, it ranges from aghroum, Kabyle flatbread, to matloue, a kind of soft, spongy bread often called tajine bread, ideal for soaking up tajine juices. Khobz eddar,  literally “home” bread, is soft and delicious with its glazed brown crust, often sprinkled with nigella seeds. Aghroum is sometimes stuffed with onions and peppers, to make a complete snack.

My mouth is watering as I am sitting here typing.  Against all the odds, it seems that I have become as much a fan of bread as the next Algerian.

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