Neat Freak

I do not have a Mediterranean temperament. Not for me the mañana mentality or the happily chaotic lifestyle of those who live on the shores of mare nostrum. No, I am a product of my upbringing and my no-nonsense Northern roots. So when I went out to Algeria, something had to give. It was me.

I have already described my battle with a strange type of agoraphobia during the first few years in Algeria, but a new phenomenon was to later rear its head. This time it was a pressing need to bring about some — any — sense of order to my daily life. It was the only way I could get through the days without wanting to bang my head in frustration against the walls.

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I am sure that I am not alone in thinking that routine brings reassurance with it. For children, the same nightly ritual — bath, story, bed — has a calming and comforting effect. For adults, sitting on the same seat on the Tube, buying their newspaper from the same newspaper kiosk, eating the same sandwich for lunch — act almost like a tranquilliser in the whirling sound and fury of the modern city.

The sheer unpredictability of life in Algeria could fray my nerves at the best of times. By contrast, many Algerians thrived on the lack of routine and almost seemed to seek it out. A joke doing the rounds was that it was lucky that the weather in Algeria depended on climatic conditions and not on its citizens, otherwise we wouldn’t have enjoyed so many sunny days. We would have woken up every morning wondering what meteorological event would occur that day.  An electrical storm? Perhaps hailstones? Why not a hurricane to liven things up?

The postal service, the power and water supplies, telecommunications, flight arrivals and departures, administrative procedures and decisions  — even some people —  were totally unreliable. After a while, I began to realise that this was often deliberate.  Inefficiency, incompetence and sheer laziness — a multitude of sins — could be covered up more easily when there was no clear set of rules for anything. I came to loathe a phrase in darija that was trotted out all the time, whatever the circumstances, accompanied usually by a confident smile; “Makesh meshkeela!” (No problem!) It usually meant there was going to be one.

Sometimes the lack of transparency constituted a means of coercion for some unscrupulous people. A case in point was the the Algerian colleague in charge of obtaining residency and work permits for foreign instructors when I was working for an American university contracted to the IAP (Institut algérien du Pétrole). I was the one responsible for requesting personal details and documents from the instructors as she didn’t speak English — a necessary requirement for someone working for an American company, I would have thought, but then what do I know?

Every week the list of documents required changed and, however closely I followed it, there was always a paper missing. I pleaded with her in vain to give me a complete list, but was always met with a refusal. Every week I would receive an irate phone call: “You’ve forgotten to send me a copy of the birth certificate/marriage lines/photocopy of passport/spouse’s passport!”  It was only later I realised that therein resided her power. Not only did she get to lord it over me and impress our American employers, who knew no better, but she appeared to be the competent one, whilst I was the inefficient idiot always forgetting what was required.

So what could I do to create a haven of peace and stability for my family and myself in the midst of all this chaos? I could ensure that my own little corner of the world was in perfect order. I could ensure that the children’s clothes were always laundered and ready for school,  their rooms clean and tidy, and their bedtime and mealtimes as regular as possible. I could ensure that there was a place for everything and that everything was in its place. In other words, I became a neat freak.

Of course, this might seem slightly controlling to you, and it does to me in hindsight. My insistence on a set bedtime for my children, even when it was still light outside, was incomprehensible to most Algerians, including members of my own family. They would let their own children run around until all hours until they collapsed, exhausted, on the floor or sofa, to be then scooped up by their parents and put to bed in the same clothes they had worn all day.

T was in two minds about this. He had been brought up by a loving, but chronically disorganised mother, in a home with no set routine at all. His laundry was never done; he slept in beds with no sheets; the only thing of which he could be sure, given my mother-in-law’s passion for food, was that he would have three meals a day, plus a snack in the afternoon.  Even though the evening meal was always couscous, it was hot and there was plenty of it.

So a smoothly-run household was a revelation to him, although he himself had always been reasonably well-organised and could be bitingly critical when something was not entirely to his liking. A well-ordered home environment brought reassurance to him as well, in a way, and he could relax in the knowledge that there would be no domestic crisis over the sudden realisation that the coffee had run out.

On the other hand, the whole messy, noisy,  endearing Algerian spontaneity that made life so colourful was sacrificed. I am sure my husband would have preferred it if I had loosened up from time to time and not fretted so much about whether we had enough beds, bed linen and food whenever we had unexpected guests, instead of just enjoying their company. But I felt that if I lost control for one second, everything would fall apart. A little like the air passenger who daren’t fall asleep, convinced that his constant vigilance is the only thing keeping the plane in the air.

Sometimes, I had the impression that I was like King Canute trying to hold back the tide of chaos that would, inevitably, start to lap around my feet. At other times, I felt like T’s mother who once, when overwhelmed by events during a catastrophic family wedding, had started carefully cleaning a corner of the table. The rest of the table was overflowing with leftover food, dirty dishes and watermelon rinds. Stunned, we watched as she wiped the same square foot of table surface over and over again, seemingly oblivious to the chaos around her.

On reflection, I now realise that, apart from a certain genetic disposition towards tidiness and order, I was suffering from a mild anxiety disorder, and that my obsession with organisation was classic reassurance-seeking behaviour. I was trying to explain this to my adult daughter a few years ago and told her that it had helped me survive. “But, Maman,” she said, “Don’t you realise? It helped us too.”

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.

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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.