DaOuali

One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.

-Virginia Woolf


On my return to Algeria, after five lonely months spent in Britain, we celebrated our reunion by dining out that same evening at one of Oran’s many restaurants. I was in a state of euphoric relief, almost dizzy with it. Although only a few hours had passed since I had set foot back in Algeria, I felt as though a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders.

There was no trace of the panic attacks from which I had been suffering during our separation. They had come upon me suddenly, almost as if I had willed them into existence. My breathing would become rapid and shallow, my heart hammering inside my chest, and I would feel as though I were about to black out. But they seemed to have disappeared as suddenly as they had appeared.

It was as if I had just awakened from a long coma. My eyes and ears had finally opened to let in the explosion of colour and noise that was Algeria. Every sense was heightened. I had noticed for the first time that afternoon when I had arrived back in T’s flat on the eighth floor of the Cité Jeanne d’Arc, how the brilliant sunlight, flickering through the slats of the blinds on the curtain-less windows, painted a tiger pattern of alternate dark and light stripes on the tiled floor. I could hear every sound, from the cries of the children playing outside, to the plaintive call to prayer stealing into the room through the open window like a secret lover.

My skin could feel the warm caress of the evening sun as we strolled along the pavement a few hours later, my step light and carefree — I could smell the delicious aroma of grilled seafood as soon as we walked through the swinging door of the small restaurant hidden somewhere down a side street in the city centre.

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The restaurant was full.  Looking around with curiosity at the busy tables, I noticed an old couple bent over their meals, eating side by side without exchanging a single word. A group of young women in their twenties collapsed into helpless giggles as a stern man, dining alone nearby, gave them furtive sideway glances as he noisily slurped down his soupe de poissons. The noise level was high. The smoke level, too. But it didn’t bother me.

T waved to a group sitting around a rough deal table covered with oilcloth and littered with prawn shells, discarded chunks of bread and ashtrays filled to the brim with cigarette butts. It turned out that they were our neighbours, two of his fellow engineers at the ammonia plant, with their wives — one American and the other from Constantine.

The American wife, blond hair cut short and cigarette waving from her fingers as she chattered loudly in American-accented French, stood out in sharp contrast to the other, whose dark hair was pulled back from her jolie-laide face in an elegant chignon and whose quiet demeanour belied a sharp sense of humour.

The waiter, a large white apron tied around his waist, and forehead shining with sweat from the heat of the kitchens, appeared out of nowhere, bearing a large platter of grilled prawns and langoustines, decorated with pale rings of fried calamari, and accompanied by bowls of crispy golden chips and green salad, glistening with olive oil. Licking the garlicky juice from my fingers, I can remember thinking to myself that it couldn’t get any better than this.

In later years, we would drive down to Oran to have dinner at another small restaurant called Chez Mémé (At Grandma’s House). Chez Mémé didn’t go in for such newfangled nonsense as a menu — you had the choice between two main dishes, along with the same number of desserts and entrées. The restaurant – basically just an upstairs room over a shop, was filled with two tables, each one large enough to seat a dozen customers. No such thing as an intimate table for two there, but the food was sublime.

At other times we would have dinner at the Passerelle restaurant in Arzew. La Passerelle, Arzew’s best and most expensive restaurant at the time, was situated in an idyllic spot called la Fontaine des Gazelles on the coast road. It was owned by a Kabyle chef rejoicing in the exotic name of Désiré — not, I hasten to add, his real name. He was actually called Mohand, or something similar.

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The dining room of the Passerelle extended out over the beach, supported by piles driven into the rock. It had wide plate-glass windows on three sides, though which the sunlight poured, reflecting off the snow-white table linen and making the glasses and the silverware sparkle. Whenever we decided to treat ourselves to a meal there, I would look forward to it for days, my mouth watering in anticipation.

I could already taste the hors-d’œuvre variés and the steak au poivre cooked in cream and crushed peppercorns, then ceremoniously flambé-ed with brandy in front of me on a portable copper burner. To round it all off, there would be a meltingly delicious omelette norvégienne. Désiré was a world-class chef.

Other restaurants opened in Arzew – Les Palmiers, located just opposite the seafront, where I would sometimes go with my colleagues from work for a rowdy, wine-soaked lunch, and later on Les Gazelles, a few hundred yards from La Passerelle.

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Lunch with my colleagues at Les Palmiers. I am third from the left.

Sometimes, if we felt in need of a more elaborate dining experience, we would treat ourselves to a meal at Les Ambassadeurs, the restaurant in Oran’s Royal Hotel. Food shortages were already beginning to make themselves felt, but the food in the hotel restaurant was as delicious as ever.

The only downside was one of the waiters. He was Kabyle and when he learnt that T was one of his own, he would greet us with a broad grin, slapping T on the back, or what was worse, embracing him, and calling him “DaOuali”, which is the height of respectful deference in Kabyle society.

The thing was, that, in spite of all his overwhelming goodwill, he was terrible at his job. He would take our order with all the efficiency of a toddler tying its shoelaces while still wearing its mittens. He seemed to forget what we had told him before the words had even left our lips, so that we had to repeat everything so many times it became absurd. He had the air of a person in shock, of someone whose brain was engaged somewhere else, wrestling with some unseen issue.

Whenever we’d ask him to describe a new dish on the menu, he would take on the look of a startled rabbit, and then start gabbling away so fast, one word would run into the next. When he’d finish speaking, we’d be none the wiser, but would nod politely and order something else. Then, looking relieved that the ordeal of taking our order was over, he’d rush back to the safety of the kitchen, almost tripping over another patron’s foot in the process. He was like an Algerian Frank Spencer.

I must admit we began to avoid Les Ambassadeurs so we didn’t have to suffer him constantly hovering around our table. It was not without a pang of guilty conscience, however, as his good nature and eagerness to please were like those of an over-enthusiastic puppy.

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So it was that, a few months later, we decided to try out a new restaurant that was offering traditional Algerian cooking — something of an innovation. Walking into the restaurant, we gazed around with approval at the round brass tables, the hanging copper lanterns and the colourful woven blankets displayed on the walls.

Suddenly, from the shadows at the back of the restaurant came a familiar cry, “DAOUALI!” At my side, I could feel T stiffen in disbelief, for there, bearing down on us, a beam of pure delight on his face and his arms outstretched in welcome, was our waiter.

There is a famous quote from the fables of Lafontaine: “On rencontre sa destinée souvent par les chemins qu’on prend pour l’éviter.” (One often meets one’s destiny by the roads one takes to avoid it). Lafontaine never said a truer word.

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The Good-Time Girl

It seems that the people of Oran are like that friend of Flaubert who, on the point of death, casting a last glance at the irreplaceable earth, exclaimed: “Close the window, it’s too beautiful.”
Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays


One of Algeria’s paradoxes is that it is both a relatively new nation and an ancient land, with a history stretching back to pre-biblical times. When we were living there, I must confess that we were so caught up in the difficulties of day-to-day living, we were blind to the wealth of history just under our feet and around every corner. We had Roman ruins just down the street – a few hundred yards from our front door. I don’t think we ever visited them during all the time we were there.

T’s eyes were fixed firmly on the future. He is an engineer and wanted, above all, Algeria to be one of the industrial leaders of the third world, for it to be self-sufficient and to ensure, once and all, that, as an emerging country, it would be second to none. I, on the other hand, was overwhelmed with trying to find my bearings in a foreign country. It didn’t help, either, that there was barely any information available about Algeria’s history, apart from endless re-playings of footage of the independence war and television programmes droning on about Islamic dynasties.

Oran, the second largest city in Algeria, is also one of the youngest, being a mere 1,200 years old. It was founded by traders from Moorish Spain or al-Andalus in the ninth century and it is no coincidence that one of the most beautiful beaches in the vicinity is called Les Andalouses, being supposedly the place where the son of the Vizir of Cordoba came ashore after being shipwrecked when fleeing parental disapproval.

Phoenician traders had preferred the Madagh creek, to the west of Oran, to establish their trading post and the Romans had chosen to expand the site of Portus Magnus, dominating the beautiful Bay of Arzew.  Portus Magnus was later to become Bethioua and so, strangely enough, our own small village had a longer past and was more important at one time than the brash newcomer forty kilometres down the coast.

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Oran’s name is a contraction of the Berber words meaning River of the Lions — Ouad-aharan, and indeed, the city seems to have an almost mystical connection to lions. One legend recounts that a lion was seen on the tomb of the city’s patron saint, Sidi Houari. Two bronze lions guard the entrance to the magnificent city hall on the Place d’Armes, the main square. Lion-hunting in the vicinity was reported by the Spanish in the sixteenth century as well as by the French up until 1840. The last surviving lions were hunted to extinction around 1939 on the mountain rising from the plain to the east of Oran. This mountain was called la Montagne des Lions (Lion Mountain) by the French and is also known as Djebel Ghar or Rocky Mountain.

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Our Lady of Santa Cruz on top of the Aidour Mountain, with Oran at its feet and Lion Mountain in the distance

For centuries, Oran was passed back and forth between Spain, the Ottoman Empire, and Portugal, even after the Arab invasion. The Spanish had built an imposing 16th-century fort, Santa Cruz, to house their governors, on top of the Murdjadjo mountain looming over the western end of the city.

Looming over the inhabitants  in the same way was the aggressive Catholicism of the Spanish, one of whose invading forces was even preceded by a monk mounted on a horse and waving a large cross. Ironically, at least to me, at the end of the eighteenth century,  Charles III of Spain had suggested to Britain that it might be interested in exchanging Gibraltar for Oran.

Just below the fort, there is a beautiful white-washed basilica called Notre Dame de Santa Cruz, raised by the French in the nineteenth century to give thanks for the ending of a cholera outbreak in the city. Oran had the largest pied noir population in Algeria, and there were also large Jewish and Spanish communities, each group contributing to the city’s unique character. Jewish immigration had come in waves from as far back as the first century, even before the Roman occupation. In the sixth and seventh centuries, Jews had fled to North Africa from Visigoth persecution in Spain and then again following a series of massacres during the Spanish reconquista  in 1391.

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Santa Cruz fort with the basilica below

Oran is a port city like Algiers, but there the similarities end. Algiers feels very French, with its ornate fin de siècle apartment buildings, its wide boulevards and its arcaded seafront. Wahran el Bahia, (Oran, the Radiant City),  seems more Spanish, with some of its older inhabitants still preferring to speak Spanish rather than French. The local cuisine, typically Mediterranean, also owes more to southern Spain than to France.

The city boasts a main railway station looking like a mosque, a cathedral (now a public library) that resembles a Byzantine church, and a theatre that looks like the backdrop to an Italian operetta. One of the jewels in its crown is the beautiful seafront, the Boulevard Front de Mer, constructed in the forties and fifties under French rule, and inspired by Nice’s Promenade des Anglais.

It consists of an amazing two-tier promenade, its graceful arc echoed in the sinuous curves of the Art Deco and Haussmann-style apartment buildings facing the sea. Lined with palm trees, cafés, restaurants, and ice cream parlours, it offers a splendid view of the sea, the port, Santa Cruz to the left and the cliffs, les Falaises, to the right.  It was given a suitably revolutionary name, the Boulevard de l’ALN, by the government after independence, but its original French name is still used by the locals.

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The boulevard Front de Mer is the place where most of the inhabitants of Oran go for a stroll at the weekend, during the long, stifling summer evenings and especially during Ramadan, when the city is open for business all night long. Gazing out over its railings, they can often see a shimmering heat haze on the horizon, and, where, to the west, the rocky outcrops of the Murdjajo and Cap Falcon, battered by the waves, look like the torn, jagged edge of a sheet of paper. Eyes closed, they can feel the cool breeze stealing the heat from the day, bringing them the taste and smell of the sea.

Below, they can see the Ravin Blanc coal-fired power plant where T had once worked for two months as part of the conditions for a student loan he had taken out when at Algiers University in 1963. The dark smoke belching out of its chimney had been the scourge of housewives living in the flats along the seafront, their washing hanging out on the balconies always covered in black smuts.

T. had the time of his life during his two months in Oran, as the independence war had barely affected it. Its only claim to revolutionary fame had been that one of its citizens had been the first militant for independence to be guillotined. It was also where pieds noirs and Algerians engaged in a street battle a few hours before independence was declared, leaving many dead and wounded. Most of the other regions of Algeria reproached, and continue to reproach, the citizens of Oran for their lack of participation in the struggle for independence, the newspapers of the time calling the city “an island of peace” and “a little Paris.”

Oran also enjoys a certain reputation, deserved or not, for hedonism.  It is, famously, the birthplace of rai, that raunchy, edgy, culturally and sexually risqué type of music that started off as a protest against working conditions and the colonial yoke in the 1930s and ended up in the 1980s as one against Islamic constrictions and state-approved musical expression. If Algiers is a grand old lady, Constantine a venerable great-aunt, Oran is a good-time girl.

As for me, unaware of Oran’s past, I would look around me at all the trappings of a beautiful, functional city — its clinics, schools, city hall, theatre — and wonder why, in spite of all this, nothing ever WORKED as it should.

The White Lady

 “The bay is there, majestic, bathed in a dazzling light. The white City clings to the mountain slope that seems to float on a vast carpet of blue marble….

Akram Belkaid – Return to Algeria


 

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Algiers. Photo by Karen Rose.

Trembling, I stood there at the top of the plane stairs, shading my eyes and squinting in the bright sunshine. When the aircraft door had been opened a few moments before, the warm air had hit me like a blast from a hairdryer, blowing dust into my eyes and whipping my long hair into tangles across my face. My mouth felt dry and my stomach tight with apprehension as I followed the other passengers across the tarmac to the airport building. Continue reading