Stalker

Stalking is an extension of harassment elevated to a level where it is causing disruption or physical threats to the person being harassed.

— Mark Childress


The strident sound of the doorbell cut through the messy tangle of my thoughts.  I  was trying to keep myself busy with mundane tasks, but my mind kept returning to the events of the previous few days. It was like worrying a loose tooth with my tongue  —it just made things worse. A glance out of  the front window showed me a blanket of grey rainclouds pressing down on the house, reducing my world to a thin slice between it and the sodden ground. The row of dripping, leafless geranium bushes in front of the house looked as miserable as I felt.

I splashed down the steps of the house, with our German Shepherd, Titan, pushing against my legs and nearly tripping me up in the process. I couldn’t see who was at the door, as the front wall was over two metres high, built purposely so to discourage passers-by from looking into our garden. If this seems a bit drastic to you, you must understand that Algerian passers-by are not like British ones. The British will politely avert their eyes, even if the curtains of a house are not drawn and the living-room is lit up like the stage of a theatre. Algerians develop a permanent crick in their necks from craning them to try to see what is going on in everyone else’s houses.

Grabbing hold of Titan’s collar, I cautiously opened the solid-metal gate. He had a tendency to jump out at visitors — more in welcome than anything else — but they weren’t to know that.  One of the side-effects of restraining his enthusiasm in this way was that he would then bare his teeth and snarl at anybody on the doorstep, causing them to take an involuntary step, or two, back.

It was I who took a step back when I saw who was standing outside on the pavement. Titan gave a low rumble in his throat. After staring at the woman for a couple of seconds, and just as she opened her mouth to speak, I slammed the gate shut in her face, whirled and ran up the steps to the front door, closing and locking it behind me. I leaned against it, my heart pounding fit to choke me.

images-8.jpeg

It was November, 1988, and T. had gone to a colleague’s house that afternoon to try to glean some information about what was happening at the refinery. Only a few days before, the entrance to the plant had been barred to him and to some of his heads of department. The security guards at the gate had looked at him sheepishly as they had walked over to his car to explain the situation and mumble an awkward apology. The barrier had been kept firmly down, however, on the orders of the Islamist group that had taken over the refinery.

Since then, we had been in limbo. His CEO had not been very forthcoming, just telling T. to stay at home whilst things settled down. Everything was rumour and counter-rumour. T. was not the only manager to whom access to his workplace had been barred. This had been happening all over Algeria since the October 1988 street riots, in what seemed at the time to be a spontaneous popular uprising against the status quo that had lasted more than twenty-five years.

Like all uprisings, however, it had been taken over by, on the one hand, vandals itching to smash, or burn down, anything which was a symbol of state authority— and on the other, by the Islamist movement. Putting themselves forward  as an alternative to the sclerotic FLN, in power since independence, they had quickly gained in popularity and influence.

One of their tactics had been to set up sleeper cells in various state-owned institutions and when the word was given, have those cells take over the running of the institutions, throwing out the legitimate managers in the process. This is what had happened to my husband.

Usually these cells were made up of ordinary members of the workforce – ordinary, yes, but heavily islamised. This must have seemed like a heaven-sent opportunity for them to take over the reins of power, a distorted version of the famous “autogestion,” i.e. the spontaneous self-management of important institutions by Algerian workers once their European managers had joined the general exodus after independence.

Unfortunately, in this case, power had gone to their heads, as, according to a former colleague, “Sous chaque burnous bat le coeur d’un patron” (Under every burnous,  beats the heart of a boss). Stories filtered through to us of how the “commission,” as they had styled themselves, were interrogating other employees to try and find some proof of misappropriation of company funds, use of state-owned facilities or other evidence of wrong-doing by T.  Unfortunately for them, however  — and fortunately for us — he had always been scrupulous about keeping records of any supplies purchased from the refinery, making  sure that he paid for them by cheque and that a copy was kept on file.

The problem was that they didn’t understand that my husband was a goverment employee just like everyone else. He was not a manager in the traditional sense – that is, a factory owner into whose pockets all the profits were poured. He was subject to the same rules and regulations as everyone else, with a salary not vastly superior to theirs. Every decision he took had to be approved, signed and countersigned by his superiors before being brought into effect.

So when they could find no evidence of wrong-doing, they resorted to other methods. Firstly,  they threatened to march on our house and burn it down to the ground. Then, rumours about a planned attempt on T’s life did the rounds. He was at the receiving end of a stream of anonymous death threats. Luckily for me, I knew nothing about all this, or I would not have been able to sleep at night.

I had known for some time, however, about a female employee at the refinery who had developed an unhealthy obsession with my husband. T. had told me that he had not felt able to continue eating his lunch in the works canteen, as this woman would sit opposite him and stare…and stare.. and stare. Finally, feeling increasingly uncomfortable, he had opted to eat lunch at his desk.

The “commission” felt that it would be a good idea to give this woman, who obviously had severe mental issues, our home address. She would loiter on the pavement in front of our house, hoping to catch a glimpse of us, or rather, of my husband. Her impromptu visit to our house that rainy afternoon had scared me witless, because I had no idea what was going on in her mind. Her obsession with T could have led her to think of me as a rival for his affections. It would be easy enough to get rid of me by stabbing me on my own doorstep. Who knows? Anything was possible in those chaotic times.

I prefer to think, however, that she was sent to stalk us simply for her nuisance value. Her activities were soon brought to an end, however, when we opened the double gates to drive out one day, and saw her standing on the pavement in front of us, effectively  barring our way. I can remember just sitting there in the passenger seat, stunned, not knowing what to do. T froze as well, his hands on the steering wheel.

Titan, however, had no such hesitation. He bounded out through the opening as usual, and galloped towards the woman. The last time I was to see our stalker, she was running, screeching, down the street, with Titan, tongue lolling out, in hot pursuit. A stressful episode in our lives brought to a somewhat comic conclusion.

 

Advertisements

Steam Heat

Who enters the Turkish bath will sweat.

– (Turkish proverb)


The British blame it on the Turks and the French, naturally, on the Arabs. For all I know, other nationalities are having an accusing finger pointed at them as well. I am talking, of course about the origins of the Turkish bath, or, as our Gallic cousins would have it, le bain maure.

In Algeria, it is called either the latter or simply le hammam, the Arabic for “hot water bath.” It is a fusion of the Roman thermes, earlier Greek traditions and Arab and Ottoman influences, and has become an integral part of North African culture. The number of hammams to be found in a neighbourhood was often an indication of its wealth. Every town, every neighbourhood had its hammam at one time, but the habit of going there at least once a week has fallen somewhat out of favour and many public baths have closed their doors.

P1030442.jpg

One of the reasons for this is that people nowadays prefer to bathe behind closed doors. In addition, the reputation of some less salubrious hammams has gone downhill, with rumours of men dressing up as women in order to take photos of the half-naked bathers, or a lack of maintenance and hygiene leading to the spread of infection.

The primary function of the hammam is the same as that of Victorian or Edwardian public baths — to enable those who do not enjoy the luxury of a bathroom or running water at home to keep themselves clean. In Algeria, there are many rural villages that have no water, much less hot water, on tap, so a weekly trip to the nearest hammam becomes a necessity. For some aficionados, nothing beats a weekly steam clean, even though they have bathrooms at home.

A hammam usually has two or three rooms — firstly, a kind of vestibule with daybeds pushed against the walls, in case someone is overcome by the heat, or simply wants a nap; then a warm-ish chamber and finally the hot room, (bit eskhouna),where the temperature varies between 40 and 60 degrees celsius, with one hundred percent humidity. A  low marble or tiled platform runs around the room, in which small washbasins are set at regular intervals, above which are hot and cold taps.

The hammam is usually open to women during the day, but turned over to men in the evening. I know this because our house, the Villa Robineau, was next door to a hammam and the male clients would line up in the evenings, waiting for the doors to open and whiling away the time sitting on the windowsills of the houses opposite, gazing avidly at our windows in the hope of catching a glimpse of us. I don’t know what they expected to see, but I suppose we were rather like exotic animals in a zoo — a Kabyle refinery manager and his European wife.

But the hammam is primarily a female domaine — a place of endless discussion, an intimate space where confidences are exchanged and where the perfumed billows of steam echo with the splashing of water, sudden bursts of laughter and murmured conversations. ” Ici l’oreille s’ouvre pour entendre glisser dans une caresse délicieuse, le chant du cuivre, de l’argent des coupes et des calices ciselés qui servent à puiser l’eau des vasques.  (Here the ear can perceive, sliding in a delicious caress, the ringing sound of the engraved copper or silver cups and chalices, used to scoop the water from the basins.)

images-1.jpeg

images.jpeg

There are a certain number of utensils necessary for a good hammam session — a small pail, a bowl, a wash mitt made of coarse flannel and a supply of savon noir (black soap), henna and ghassoul. The pail and bowl can often be objects of beauty; wrought in silver or copper, with delicate engravings on the sides. All of the beauty products are made from natural ingredients; savon noir from olive pits, which give it its dark amber colour; henna from the leaves of the henna plant, and ghassoul, a natural clay used for washing the body and conditioning the hair.

Unknown-1.jpegGhassoul-rhassoul-clay-hard-300x189.jpg

Epilation of excess body hair is achieved using “sugaring” — a little like waxing. All of these traditional beauty treatments are now readily available in expensive beauty salons everywhere in the world — at hugely inflated prices.

Henna application is usually done the night before. The difficulty with this is that henna paste dries rock-hard and I became used to seeing Fatiha sporting what looked like a helmet of reddish-brown clay on hammam days. You could actually knock on it with your knuckles and cracks would appear like those in soil after a long drought.

The best part of going to a hammam, however, is the massage or exfoliation of the skin. Once the steam has gone to work, the pores open and it is now time to start scrubbing. If you are lucky, there is a woman employed to do just that, or a friend can “do” the less accessible parts of the body. Dead skin and dirt just roll off the body, which is then rinsed before applying soap.

Above all, the hammam is a place where women can socialise without any male surveillance or class distinction. The Algerian equivalent of a hen party is usually held there, with the future bride, accompanied by the female members of her family, entering the hammam to the sound of chanting, youyous, and the derbouka drum. Afterwards, cakes and cold drinks will be served to everyone there, family members and strangers alike. Her next trip to the baths will probably be with her new mother-in-law.

The hammam can also act as an impromptu marriage agency, where mothers with sons of marriageable age can thoroughly inspect for physical flaws any prospective candidate for her son’s hand. This prospect actually makes my skin crawl, bringing to mind a nightmare vision of a livestock market, and my outraged Britishness comes to the fore.

I only went to the hammam three times during my years in Algeria and each time I was practically press-ganged into it. The first time was with a neighbour in Oran and we came home, both clad in haïks, because they were easier to slip on — the first and last time I have ever worn one, I might add. The interesting thing was that, wrapped up in my white sheet, I attracted far more glances from men than I did bareheaded and wearing European clothes.

The second time was in Algiers with a group of my sisters-in-law before a wedding. The memories of that outing are rather hazy, but I do remember giggling a lot.  The third time was with Fatiha when we first moved into the Villa Robineau and there was no hot water. Longing for a bath, I finally gave in to Fatiha’s cajoling and went next door with her to our neighbourhood hammam. I remember clinging to the last vestiges of my dignity by refusing to take off my knickers, turning my back on the curious stares of the other women and  crouching, in desperation, over one of the washbasins in order to splash cold water over my burning cheeks, red from a mixture of heat and embarrassment.

Although the hammam is not a Kabyle custom — Kabyle women preferring to meet and gossip around the village well —  T. quite enjoyed his rare visits there. He considered that the “European” habit of a quick shower was the worst of unhygienic practices. “You can’t really be clean unless you rub off the accumulated dirt,” he would say loftily, “Rinsing or soaping it off is not enough.”

I was obviously NOT dirty, as exfoliation didn’t work on me. No amount of vigorous rubbing would dislodge a single flake of dry skin. Quite frankly, I prefer to be “unhygienic” rather than wash myself under the prying eyes of a dozen other women, all wondering if European women were made the same way as them, and not in possession of a third breast, or six fingers on each hand, as rumour would have it. No, don’t worry — I’m joking.

The Lion King

Maman! Maman! It’s Garcia!! Garcia is in the garage!” My son had set off for school a few moments before, but had come rushing back, his face drained of all colour. Garcia? How could that be?

Garcia was one of the abandoned kittens we had taken in the year before. A few months later, we had found him motionless on the front veranda, seemingly close to death. We concluded that he must have been poisoned by a lump of meat covered in rat poison thrown over our wall. The idea had probably been to poison our dog, and thus gain access to the house when we were absent.

So we had given poor Garcia’s limp body to the gardener, with instructions to bury him in a field somewhere. And, yet, almost a year later, here he was — back from the dead. Resurrected. I rushed out to the garage and it was indeed Garcia,  sitting on the roof of the car, seemingly in robust health, miaowing loudly and indignantly as soon as he caught sight of us.

He had become used to life as a free agent, though, and never settled with us again. He would come back to visit us from time to time, deigning to be stroked and spraying the staircase. One day, however, he left and never came back.

We have always had cats in my family. We had been cat owners since the day my mother had gone into our kitchen when I was eighteen months old and found a mouse sitting nonchalantly twitching its whiskers on the draining board. Our first cat, Mickey, had lived until I was fifteen. Going into the kitchen for a drink of water, I found her stretched out dead on the floor. Mickey? Her?  Yes, Mickey was a she-cat. Dad had made a mistake when examining her as a kitten, but later swore she had changed sex just to make him a liar.

We had a couple of cats after that, including one donated by my sixth-form English teacher. He — and it was definitely a tomcat this time — rejoiced in the imposing name of Jonathan. Well, you surely don’t expect an English teacher to call a cat Fluffy or Tiddles, do you?

By this time I had left for university and didn’t give cats a second thought until my third year. T. had to move to Liverpool to study for his Master’s degree and I was left behind in Sheffield, in a small flat, heated only by a two-bar electric heater, to prepare for my Second Part Finals. My heart had quailed at the prospect.

As there were not very many lectures or tutorials during the Third Year, most of my time was spent in revising. So there I was — stuck in the flat — with no television, just a record-player on which I played a pile of mournful French love songs, full of longing and despair. Nothing like a bit of Brel or Aznavour to make you feel worse.

Who, or what, could keep me company during the cold, lonely nights when T wasn’t there? The answer came when we went over to Blackpool to see my parents just before he left. Their cat (I’ve forgotten which one) had produced a litter of adorable kittens. T. looked at me and then back at the kittens as if he’d just discovered the Holy Grail. “Why don’t we take one back to Sheffield to keep you company?” he said.

We had an eventful drive back to Sheffield. The kitten, scared out of its wits, careered around the inside of the car — at one time clinging upside-down, hissing, to the roof upholstery by its claws, its fur standing on end, its tail like a bottle brush  — and crawling all over a friend we had taken along for the ride, even sitting on his head at one point.

During the journey home, I mused aloud about a name for my new pet, trying out a few for size. “Izem,” said T. firmly, trying to concentrate on the road ahead. “Izem?” “It means lion in Kabyle.” “Oh,” I answered feebly, glancing at our friend, also Kabyle, who was nodding vigorously. And so Izem the First was crowned, the first of a dynasty of three.  I only kept him a short while, though, giving him to a neighbour when I moved to Liverpool permanently a few months later.

Just as an aside, I had been taught in my linguistic studies that if a language has a word for an object, animal or utensil, they must have existed in the immediate environment when the language was first evolving. “Izem” is a Kabyle word, not a loan word from Arabic, Spanish or French. So lions must have existed in Kabylie at one time. T. confirmed this later by telling me that his father had once been chased by a lion near their village.

Izem the Second came into our life a few months after our wedding. T. must have realised that I was struggling to adapt to life in Algeria, although we had never discussed it. I think he felt that if he commiserated with me over my difficulties, patting me on the back and murmuring,”There, there,” he would open the floodgates.

So one evening he came home carrying a large cardboard box. On opening the flaps, I found a small kitten curled up inside. Black like his predecessor, Izem the Second soon had the run of the flat, although T balked a little at his litter tray. For him, animals had only one place and that was outside. A bit difficult, though, on the eighth floor of a tower block of flats.

My mother-in-law quite liked cats, but, like her son, thought they should know their place. Outside. Once, looking at me stroking Izem, who was purring on my lap, she said something acerbic to T. in Kabyle. When I gave him an enquiring look, he muttered  sheepishly, “My mother thinks you should be dandling a baby on your knee, not a cat!”

Her wish was granted, and nine months later, Izem the Second went the same way as his predecessor, the day we brought our daughter home from the maternity clinic. I don’t know whether the stories about cats sitting on babies’ faces are just urban legends, but I wasn’t taking any chances.

sc001bbb381.jpg

Izem the Third was one of the many cats we collected when we moved to the Villa Robineau. The neighbours had found a useful way of getting rid of their unwanted kittens by throwing them over, or shoving them under our double gates. Our German Shepherd dog, Titan, would soon dispatch them the same way as he did rats, that is, throwing them up into the air and breaking their necks. If we managed to get to them first, however, he would then consider them as part of the family, never touching them thereafter, only indulging in a little “play chase” when he got bored.

Izem the Third should really have been named Thasseda or Lioness because, yes, it was another female. We added innumerable other cats to our menagerie, including the three brothers — Grisou, who, suffering from gender identity problems, tried to suckle some other abandoned kittens, Picsou and Garcia, (the Resurrected) named after the sergeant in the Zorro television series because he was vastly greedy, verging on feline obesity.

Scan.jpeg

The three brothers – Garcia in front

I’m glad that we had a series of pets when the children were small, because their attitude to animals was the complete opposite to that of most Algerians, whose reaction veered from disgust to outright fear, with most Algerian children fleeing in terror or bursting into tears at the mere sight of a dog or cat.

Socialist Paradise

“Thank God I’m home! It’s like the United States here in comparison!” This was T’s comment when he returned from Cuba with two posters of Che Guevara and a bottle of coffee liqueur. He had also brought with him, as an albeit temporary reminder of the unrelentingly grim Cuban diet of rice, beans and stringy chicken, a bad case of flatulence and acute indigestion.

It was 1972 and, during Fidel Castro’s visit to Algeria a few months earlier — a belated response to Ben Bella’s visit to Cuba in 1962 -— he had invited T and two of his colleagues to visit the ammonia plant in Cienfuegos. T. clearly remembers El Jefe putting his arm around his shoulders and saying, “We need people like you in the fight against imperialism.”

T had duly gone to Cuba and, although initially excited at the prospect, had soon tired of being under the constant surveillance of the Cuban secret services. He and his colleagues had given them the slip one day in order to spend the afternoon at the beach.  They had arrived back at their hotel to find the whole place in an uproar at their disappearance. That feeling of being continually watched, and the lack of fresh local food— most of it being kept back for export — soon put a damper on his enthusiasm.

The reason for Fidel’s interest had been that Algeria itself had recently been placed under embargo by the French. Algeria’s oil fields, until then under joint Algerian/French ownership, had just been nationalised by Boumediène. In retaliation, the prices of spare parts from France for Algeria’s petrochemical plants had been multiplied by ten, and Sonatrach had no choice other than manufacture its own. Given Algeria’s experience, Sonatrach managers like T had sufficient know-how to be able to advise the Cubans.

Spare parts were not the only import to fall foul of the French embargo. French goods disappeared from the shops, to be replaced by those manufactured locally.  Shortages of many items became a way of life. Sometimes the quality of Algerian produce was questionable and there was very little choice. The shelves in private shops and state-owned stores alike were depressingly empty.

To explain all this, I think  these events must be viewed in the context of the time. In the first few years after independence, Algeria enjoyed a matchless reputation as the first “Arab” country to have won its independence through what was perceived as a David and Goliath struggle. Liberal-minded activists, for the most part,  had not been duped by the French spin on the troubles, that is, that what was happening was merely an internal affair, an “uprising,” and that they were “pacifying” what was, to them, part of France.

Every country involved in any kind of war of national liberation had taken heart from the outcome.  A more egalitarian Algerian society, with opportunities for all, was the goal — the shining city on the hill — and socialism seemed to be the only way to achieve it. President Kennedy had been one of those well disposed towards the new country and had actually spoken out in favour of Algeria’s independence whilst still a senator.

He had promised to turn Algeria into “a new California,” and America had been actively considering an initial $60 million aid programme to help reconstruct the war-torn country. Its attitude changed, however, following Ben Bella’s visit to Havana. This came during the period of intense sabre-rattling over the installation of Soviet missiles in Cuba, when the world seemed to be teetering on the edge of Armageddon.

Ben Bella violently denounced America’s “aggression” towards Cuba, its intervention in the Congo, its support of Israel and its “crimes’ against the people of Vietnam. He was, in fact, echoing the sentiments of many Algerians, who tended to equate any conflict opposing the West and an emerging country with their own fight for independence.

It seemed that the only way forward for a country with impeccable revolutionary credentials like Algeria was to follow Castro’s example. Having just thrown off the shackles of occupation, they were not about to commit themselves to a capitalist system, one in which the United States or France would hold the whip hand. They were going it alone.

T says bitterly that when he saw televised footage of Ben Bella returning from Cuba wearing a Mao tunic, he knew that the die had been cast.

Ben_Bella_a_la_Havane_-_Cuba.jpg

Fidel Castro, Che and Ben Bella

The war of national liberation and its aftermath had severely disrupted Algeria’s society and economy. In addition to the physical destruction, the exodus of the pieds noirs had deprived the country of most of its managers, civil servants, engineers, teachers, doctors and skilled workers — all occupations which colonial policy had prevented or discouraged the Muslim population from pursuing.  In a scorched earth policy, departing pieds noirs destroyed, or took with them public records and utility plans, leaving public services in shambles.

The departure of European owners and managers from factories and agricultural estates gave rise to a spontaneous, grass-roots phenomenon, later termed autogestion, which saw workers take control of the enterprises to keep them operating. Seeking to capitalise on the popularity of the self-management movement, autogestion was formalised by the government. The system proved to be a failure, however.

Agrarian reforms, similar to those carried out in China and Russia, included the compulsory purchase of large estates, and the creation of state-owned farms and production co-operatives. As a result, the crucial farming sector was to descend into chaos, partly as a result of bureaucratic incompetence, corruption, and theft. This was a country that had once been a major exporter of agricultural products, but which later had to rely on imports.

It was not the only sector to suffer that fate. The government called its policy of widespread state involvement in the economy “Algerian socialism.” The choice of “socialism” was deemed irréversible and every government press organ churned out this tired old catchphrase in every issue of the official El Moudjahid newspaper and on every nightly news bulletin.

It was “socialism” only for the masses, however, the then leaders depriving themselves of nothing. They, and the ANP (the Algerian army) had their own special stores, where the shelves groaned under the weight of imported delicacies. In theory, socialism seems to be the fairest system of all, but, in practice, the sad truth is that people rarely want to share. There will always be those who have more than others.

The increasingly dictatorial tendencies of the regime, reducing the functions of the legislature to rubber-stamping presidential directives, caused many of the original war leaders either to flee the country in protest, or to be assassinated. Several of these were Kabyle, who, amongst other grievances, had condemned the government for its failure to carry out reconstruction projects in war-ravaged Kabylie. They left behind them a ruling clique that had had almost nothing to do with the war effort.

For us, Algerian “socialism” meant being deprived of any kind of personal freedom or choice. Given T’s position, however, we had, from time to time, access to goods and services unavailable to the general public. My husband, perhaps feeling slightly guilty that I had given up my life in Britain to follow him, did his best to ensure that our children and I did not miss out on anything. As a result, we probably enjoyed a better material lifestyle than many in Europe.

All this makes me reflect on the lyrics of one of Charles Aznavour’s songs, Emmenez-moi, which is all about his longing to travel.

Emmenez-moi au bout de la terre; 

Emmenez-moi au pays des merveilles; 

Il me semble que la misère serait moins pénible au soleil.

(Take me to the ends of the earth, take me to Wonderland; it seems to me that misery is easier to bear when the sun is shining.)

He could not have been more wrong. The sun, sea and beautiful landscapes of Algeria did not make up for the harshness of life there. After a while, you didn’t even notice them anymore.

It Never Rains, But It Pours

When we first moved into the Villa Robineau in 1978, we spent most of our time at first trying to drag it into the modern era. It had been built in the twenties and had remained firmly stuck in that decade. This, of course, was not at all to my taste, as its old-fashioned elegance was completely at odds with the fashionable indoor decor of the brash seventies. So we tried to jazz it up as best we could.

We were able to make purely cosmetic changes, like papering the walls in eye-popping geometric designs and consigning to the outhouses all of the solid wood wardrobes and bedside tables left behind by the original owners, replacing them by white-laquered cubes that had been cobbled together by a local carpenter in the best tradition of IKEA (or Habitat.)

I must admit, though, that I succumbed to the art deco charms of two of the original pieces of furniture – a curved cupboard in shiny dark wood and a glazed display cabinet with a marble inset where we kept our few bottles of alcohol and our wine glasses. My eye was also caught by a beautiful bow-fronted chest of drawers that later found pride of place in our bedroom.

The one part of the house we couldn’t renovate, however, was the roof. It wasn’t through lack of trying, but the original French settler owners had imported slates from the north of France to cover the roof’s steep pitches and gables. It had been a statement roof, meant to underscore the owners’ status and demonstrate their superiority, financial or otherwise, to the other inhabitants of Bethioua – or Saint-Leu, as it was known at the time.

Unfortunately, when it came to repairing the roof, as slates had never been a traditional building material in Algeria, there were none to be found. Terracotta tiles had always been used there as roofing material, but even these became harder to come by in the seventies and eighties.

Most householders simply demolished their tile or slate roofs, replacing them by the dreaded concrete slab. New houses were built with flat roofs. I hated these, thinking they removed all character from the houses. They looked as through they had been subjected to a particularly close buzz-cut by a crazed army barber. The average Algerian family, however, loved a flat roof, as it provided more storage space, somewhere to dry clothes and temporary sleeping quarters during the sweltering summer nights.

If we had removed the slate roof from the Villa Robineau, it would simply have become a featureless, grim block of a building, pierced by long, lugubrious windows and a strange, curly pergola sticking out into the void. So we clung stubbornly to our Hitchcock-style roof, even though it caused many problems. The wind whistling in from the sea on particularly stormy days caused slates to come crashing to the ground, especially as they had simply been hung on nails that had become increasingly corroded by the sea air.

Finally, the uppermost ridge broke off and next time it rained, water came pouring into the loft through the gaps. Rain in Algeria is not a gentle English drizzle, pattering softly on to a canopy of leaves – it is storm-lashed and furious, suiting the Algerian temperament, drumming on roofs and windows and turning dry river beds and streets into swiftly-flowing streams.

Luckily, the original owners of the house had provided for any eventual roof leak by covering the loft floor with a sheet of soft zinc to protect the ceilings below. T. tried his best to plug any leaks, applying some kind of red epoxy resin to the slates from the inside to bond them together and replacing any missing ones by rectangles of rigid linoleum cut to size. But it was an uphill and thankless task.

Algerian cloudbursts also caused problems elsewhere. The  new blocks of flats built in Arzew during the eighties had been designed with no thought given to the natural water courses that flowed from the hills behind the town down to the sea. So Arzew would flood on a regular basis, muddy water flowing through streets and houses alike.

Inondation-rue-denfert-arzew-1.jpg

One day, when the rain was coming down in buckets, we were informed that the streets in Arzew had once again become impassable. Our children were trapped there in school and instead of waiting for T. to send a search party, I set off on my own rescue mission in my unreliable Fiat 128. Clinging to the steering wheel and holding my breath, I could barely see the road through the grey curtain of rain and finally came to a wheezing, stuttering halt in the town centre, the water reaching the top of my wheels and drowning my engine.

Flagging down the nearest car, which was carefully navigating its way through the floodwaters, I was relieved to find that the driver was one of T’s Sonatrach colleagues, who drove me home. On arriving, I found that my son was already there, having cadged a lift from a lorry driver. Of course, like parents everywhere, I subjected him to an irate ear bashing on the importance of  staying put. Our daughter, usually less level-headed than her brother, had done the sensible thing for once and waited for the school bus.

sandstorm-algeria-blood-red-sky-1.jpg

Heavy rainfall was even worse when it followed a sandstorm in the Sahara, many thousands of miles to the south.  There would be no wind to speak of, but the sky would turn an ominous orange, casting a strange, unreal light on the landscape, as if heralding the end of the world. If it rained afterwards, we would wake up to a scene of devastation. Everything would be coated in red mud – cars, outdoor furniture, garden plants – everything. The rain would have brought down all the sand high up in the atmosphere and dumped it everywhere.

The new ring roads built in the eighties to circumnavigate the villages on the road to Oran had also been built without any provision for drainage, so when it rained heavily, the streams of water from Lion Mountain would flow across the ring road, turning it into a churning, raging torrent.

On one such day, when the rain was pelting down and lightning was strobing the ominous black thunderclouds, T. was due to take a flight to Algiers. Of course, instead of cancelling the trip like any sensible person, he insisted on maintaining his schedule. His driver was busy with some other important task, so we drove to the airport together, inching forward along the flooded ring road, leaving a white, foamy wake behind us like a motorboat.

My husband safely dropped off at the airport, I faced the journey back on my own. Not wanting to brave the ring road again, I decided to take the old colonial road, lined with trees, which wound its way back to Bethioua by a circuitous route.

RN11_Route_d_Alger.thumb.jpg

Except for one hair-raising moment when I overtook a tanker lorry and the car started aquaplaning, my journey home was remarkably incident-free. The surface of the old road was barely wet, as the pied noir builders had made sure that there was a drainage ditch on each side of the road, ready to catch any surface water running off.

On my arrival home, the phone rang. It was my husband, freshly landed in Algiers, “just checking.” He had obviously been worried, but had given no outward sign of it – as usual.

Keeping Mum

T. turned to me, putting his arm along the back of the carseat and looked at me steadily, never taking his eyes from my face. “It IS leukaemia,” he said.

On that particular day in 1977, we had just drawn up in front of the house on our return from the beach. I had been talking at length about my fears, but T. had not responded to my ramblings, busy putting the car in neutral, turning off the engine and pulling up the handbrake with a decisive tug. When he had finally answered me, I had stared at him in shock. “How do you know?” was all I could stammer out.

He explained that he had received a telegramme at work the day before from Mum, telling him the bad news about my father. He had immediately replied by the same method, assuring my mother of our love and support. All this without saying a word to me until I had brought up the subject myself. His first instinctive reaction had been to shield me from the bad news, but he had soon realised that he would have to inform me. I suppose he had been waiting for the right moment.

I had just returned from a holiday to Blackpool with the children, aged seven and six at the time, where I had found Dad in hospital with a supposedly minor complaint. He was making sure that he was in tip-top condition, as he and Mum were due to fly out to Algeria a fortnight later. I can remember going into his ward in Victoria Hospital and my daughter, gregarious as usual, clambering on to his bed without any bidding, to give him a hug. My son, intimidated by all the hospital paraphernalia, hung back. No amount of coaxing could bring him out from behind my skirts.

On my return to Algeria, I had confided in T. about my worries, convinced that the anaemia the consultant had mentioned in passing was, in fact, something far worse. I had then dared give voice to my deepest, darkest fear – that it was leukaemia. I wasn’t sure as hospital policy at that time was to keep the facts about a patient’s terminal illness from friends and family. As I spoke, tears were already beginning to form in my eyes. So when T confirmed my fears, it was a shock, but not an unexpected one.

My mother and father had been out to Algeria together twice before. Mum had, of course, been present at our wedding, but she and Dad had visited together a couple of times afterwards. Dad enjoyed his holidays with us, pottering around the house in the Clos, even making traditional Lancashire stools for the children from off-cuts of wood. He had done the same  for my sister and me when we were children, and our childish imagination had transformed the stools into boats, cars, cradles for our dolls and magical Cinderella coaches.

Scanned Image 150660001.jpg

Dad was wonderful at things like that. He was already middle-aged when my sister and I were born and didn’t have the energy to play tag with us. But he would craft the most wonderful toys – a dolls’ house with working lights and a toy theatre with lights and velvet stage curtains that you could open and close with a satisfying swish by pulling a drawstring at the side.

But now, still reeling from the shock, I hardly had time to gather my thoughts when T. had to leave for the States on a business trip. The morning of his departure, a couple of hours after he had set off for the airport, the telephone rang in my office down at the LNG plant. Picking it up with nerveless fingers, I recognised the voice of T’s secretary, announcing that she had received a telegramme  from Britain. My heart pounding, I asked her to read it out for me. It was the news that I had been dreading.

As I had residency status in Algeria, I required an exit visa to leave the country. One of the many documents needed to obtain it from the local authorities was an attestation signed by T. confirming that I lived under his roof – une attestation d’hébergement. It is very difficult to find the equivalent of this in English – I don’t think such a paper exists, or has ever existed in Britain.

It implied so many things – most of them negative. The fact that, even though my name was on the deeds, the house belonged to my husband – I was living under HIS roof. The fact that he had to vouch for me –  a mere woman, a second-class citizen. The fact that I couldn’t leave Algeria without his permission. It also meant that, as he wasn’t there to sign the paper, I couldn’t leave Algeria to attend my own father’s funeral.

A year after my father’s death, Mum had recovered enough to make the trip out to Algeria on her own. She loved being surrounded by family again, enjoying being the centre of attention, and all of T’s brothers and sisters, his mother and uncle made sure that she was, treating her like a queen. They had become, in fact, not only members of my family, but members of hers as well. On her return to Britain, she would wax lyrical about the scenery, the house, the beach, the sun and her wonderful son-in-law and precocious grandchildren.

Fatiha would bend over backwards to cater to Mum’s every whim, tending her lovingly when she felt a little off-colour, putting her to bed like a child and bringing her hot tisane and cakes. My mother-in-law, during her visits, would greet my mother every morning in English, laboriously learning the unfamiliar words at our prompting. She would be so worried about my mother not being fed properly, she would start preparing lunch at around ten o’clock in the morning.

sc00218da6.jpg

Mum would be in fits of giggles when I returned home from work, saying that she had just eaten a plateful of stone-cold omelette and chips, my mother-in-law hovering anxiously in the background. Mum would never fail,  however, to end her comic description by adding fondly, “Ah – bless her!” and sending an affectionate glance in my mother-in-law’s direction, which was always reciprocated in full measure.

Radio Silence

“There has been a serious earthquake near Mexico City. The number of casualties is, as yet, unknown.”

The newscaster’s voice cut into my reverie and my stomach suddenly turned to ice. I had just returned home from dinner at a colleague’s house and was feeling quite relaxed for once. A night out had done me good, as T. was away on business and I had  spent the evening enjoying the easy conversation and banter of my American and French colleagues.

Lying in bed, I had decided to switch on the radio alarm by the side of the bed and lull myself to sleep listening to some soothing music. Then a news flash cut into the music programme, banishing my relaxed mood in an instant. Yes – you’ve guessed it. T. was attending meetings – in Mexico City.

He had been due to spend about a week there, before returning home via Britain. We had planned to meet up in Blackpool to spend a few days together before going back to Algeria. What should I do? In 1979, there were  no such things as mobile phones and telephone communications inside or outside Algeria were unreliable, to say the least, so a telephone call from him was highly unlikely.  There were no twenty-four hour news channels – not even any daytime television in Algeria. No newspapers worthy of the name, just the trusty FLN mouthpiece, El Moudjahid, regurgitating the same old party line. No foreign newspapers at all.

I hardly slept a wink that night, listening to the hourly news bulletins on the radio, but there was still no fresh news on the extent of the disaster or the number of casualties. I went into work next day with bloodshot eyes and an audible tremor in my voice as I informed my colleagues about what had happened. I was working for the American company, El Paso, at the time, and somebody suggested sending a telex message to the hotel where T. and other participants in the meetings were supposed to be staying.

By some minor miracle, I actually had the name of the hotel in question, as my husband was not in the habit of divulging details about work. Looking back, it’s hard for me to say why. I was often kept in the dark about matters regarding T’s job. It was true that he had always wanted to shield me from the often risky and  unpleasant side of working as a Sonatrach manager.

Another less charitable way of looking at it was that, although he was usually quite forward-looking in his thinking, the environment in which he worked, the general Algerian attitude towards wives sometimes unconsciously influenced his behaviour. He obviously didn’t want his colleagues to think he was under his wife’s thumb. Informing your wife as to your comings and goings was to show weakness. Besides, European wives had a reputation for wearing the trousers in any mixed marriage and T. was perhaps demonstrating to the world that it wasn’t the case with us.

Scan 2.jpeg

Travellin’ man

So I asked permission from my boss to send a message via our new state-of-the-art telex machine. To me, this kind of technology was amazing. I know it seems banal now, in the age of instant messaging and communication, but at the time, to be able to converse in real time with people on the other side of the world by means of a glorified typewriter was a revelation. With the help of my friend, S., who was in charge of the telex room, I contacted the reception desk of the hotel where my husband was supposed to be staying.

The telex machine  spluttered a few times then spat out the following message: “Nobody of that name is a guest at this hotel.” My heart sank. I knew exactly what had happened. T. had moved to a cheaper hotel so as to save money on his expenses. Sonatrach was in the habit of handing out the bare minimum in travel expenses, hardly enough to cover hotel and food bills. In order to keep a little money back to buy presents and such, T. and his colleagues had the habit of checking into less expensive accommodation. But, my only link to him had now been severed. I had no idea if he had been injured, or even where he was.

There was complete radio silence from my husband in the days that followed. All my immediate plans were thrown into doubt. Should I just go to Blackpool as if nothing had happened and spend days there fretting about what might, or might not, have happened to him? Should I remain at home in the hope of a phone call – some news, ANY news about him?

In the end, the decision was taken out of my hands as both children came down with chickenpox. There was no way I could travel with them in that state, as they were both highly contagious and I doubt whether I would have even been allowed on the plane with two whingeing, spotty-faced children running a high temperature

A few days later, the phone rang. I answered it and could make out a very faint voice in the midst of crackling static. It sounded as though someone was shouting from the top of a mountain miles away, with an electric storm raging all around them. It was impossible to recognise who was calling and then I suddenly made out the words, “C’est Madame Ouali?” (Is that Mrs. Ouali?). I yelled “OUI!” down the phone and an irate voice came back, “Alors, ici c’est MONSIEUR Ouali!” (Well, this is MR. Ouali!) We obviously could not continue our conversation in those conditions, but it was enough to know that he was safe.

Later, I learned from my mother that he had turned up as planned at her house, and had bounded from the taxi, expecting to see both children rushing towards him in welcome. She had explained the situation to him and impressed on him the urgency of contacting me IMMEDIATELY. His excuse for not contacting me earlier had been that he had not realised that I had heard anything about the earthquake. Hmmm.

He also told me, once safely back in Algeria, that he had been woken by the violent shaking of his hotel room in Mexico and his wardrobe falling over with a loud bang. He had been sleeping without any pyjamas because of the heat, the hotel being so cheap it hadn’t run to air conditioning.

So, after carefully dressing to preserve his modestly, almost overbalancing  as he had tried to haul his trousers up, he had opened the door to find that the staircase had detached itself from the landing and that he had had to navigate a gap of over a metre wide before being able to reach the stairs and descend to safety, two floors below.

It was obviously more important to be a well-dressed casualty than a naked survivor. At least that time he got his priorities right.