An Algerian in England

Regarde, Étranger, vers cette île
que la lumière bondissante révèle pour ton délice.

Look, stranger, on this island now
The leaping light for your delight discovers

-W.H. Auden


“So —  you don’t like mechanical engineering? It’s either that, or you go home. Your choice.”

T. drew his brows together in consternation. He was sitting in a room in the Sheffield University Students’ Union, across the desk from a representative from the British firm, CJB (Constructors John Brown). He glanced at the man sitting opposite him, then out of the window at the dreary day outside.

Rain was slanting across the slate-grey sky like glittering strands of Christmas tinsel, and the trees, lashed by the wind, were bending their sodden canopies almost to the ground. All the people scurrying along the pavements seemed to have black umbrellas. So different from Algiers, where the sun was like a shimmering yellow diamond, flooding the city with light.

If he went home now, he would lose a whole year, as he could not start a new course at Algiers University in December. He had already lost a lot of time, striking for over a year in 1958 on FLN orders, and then wasting a few months after independence preparing for a specialised mathematics course (Math. Spé),  cancelled later in an arbitrary decision by the fledging Algerian government.

He had then embarked on the first year of a university course in Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry. But the years were passing and here he was, at twenty-three years of age, with no qualifications as yet, except for a few certificates. His mind made up, he turned resolutely back to the CJB representative. “All right -— put me down for a mechanical engineering degree,” he said.

Two months earlier, back in Algeria, a friend had excitedly shown him an advertisement in the Alger Soir newspaper. It said that a newly-formed national oil and gas company called SONATRACH was looking for English-speaking undergraduates to train as engineers and accountants in Britain, which had been chosen because the first Algerian oil pipeline, from Hassi Messaoud to Arzew, was to be laid by CJB.

T disliked most of the engineering subjects — thermodynamics, strength of materials, industrial drawing and so on — he was a mathematician and liked his maths pure.  None of this applied maths rubbish. He had, however, thoroughly enjoyed the two weeks spent in London during which his level of English had been assessed. It had been considered good enough for him to  go straight up to Sheffield to begin attending lectures.

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T in Regents Park during his first week in Britain

T thought to himself that he could just about manage to overcome his distaste for mechanical engineering if it meant staying in Britain. He had been agreeably surprised by the total lack of racism shown towards him there, especially after so many years of being considered a second-class citizen in his own country. In fact, it was simply due to the fact that the British knew absolutely nothing about Algeria or Algerians (they still don’t). A few of the more enlightened had read articles in the newspapers about an Algerian revolution, but that was all.

The description “French-Algerian” had been used so often by the media reporting on the situation in the then French Algeria, that most people only retained the first part. The result was that the Algerian students were considered as French – slightly more exotic than your average Frenchman perhaps, but French nonetheless. It also helped that T already looked the part.

The second agreeable surprise was that English girls seemed very attracted to T’s combination of long-lashed dark eyes, broad shoulders and lazy, knowing smile — as I was to be a year later. His success with the girls went slightly to his head, and during his first year, he was never without some enraptured female student or other hanging on his arm. It was the swinging sixties, and life had never seemed more carefree and exciting. So much so, that he failed his first year exams. In fact, all the Algerian students failed.

For T., however, it was like a cold shower. How could he have let himself forget his main reason for going to Britain? He revised all summer, re-sat his exams in September, passing this time with flying colours, and was the only one amongst his friends to be admitted to the second year. Everyone else happily repeated their first year. The wiliest amongst them failed practically every year, thus doubling their time in Britain.

Of course, there were downsides to student life in Britain in the sixties. The series of dismal digs and unwelcoming landladies was a given for any student at the time, but it proved especially difficult for a group of young men coming from a warm and cosy family life in a Mediterranean country.

T. had to get used to his elderly landlady knocking peremptorily on his door at seven o’clock on Sunday mornings in order to empty the gas meter. He would sit there in bed, blankets drawn up to his chin, whilst she bent over with a groan to reach the meter cupboard and start emptying out the coins into a bowl. Once she had discovered a franc amongst the shillings and he received a telling-off for his pains. Difficult to maintain your dignity when you are crouching on your bed, unshaven and bleary-eyed.

And then there was the food. I have already mentioned T’s difficulties in finding anything remotely appealing in the English meals on offer at the time. Soon, however, he was to discover hot English puddings – especially delicious when drowned in custard.  They compensated for the rest of the meal. He enjoyed the jovial company of his fellow Algerian students, the outings to various Sheffield nightclubs,  dancing at the regular Union hops, his judo training sessions and weekly trips to the cinema.

One of these outings traumatised him so badly, however,  that he still talks about it fifty years later. He had gone with some friends to see a horror film called Black Sabbath on one of their regular visits to the cinema. As coincidence would have it, I had seen the same film around the same time at our local Odeon in Blackpool. I was still in the sixth form and, with two classmates, had formed a trio of giggling schoolgirls, eating our vanilla ice-cream out of small cardboard tubs and shrieking happily at the scariest moments.

T, however, did not have quite as much fun. Around midnight, he and his group of friends had left the cinema and were making their way home, laughing and joking, along the dark streets of Sheffield. One by one they peeled off as they reached their individual digs. T had suddenly found himself alone.

He looked around him apprehensively.  Leaves scurried along the path and the breeze became keener, raising goose pimples  on his arms.The bushes and trees on each side of the street were silhouettes — the blackest of greens. The pavement stretched ahead, lit only by pools of light from the street-lamps. The wind suddenly died down, the leaves ceased to rustle, even the rumble of traffic was absent. The usual friendly scattering of stars was completely obscured by dense clouds swirling like spilled black ink in water. The occasional hoot of a hidden owl was the only sound to permeate the silence.

He sprinted the last few yards to the front door of his digs. It didn’t help that the stone-built house was dark and Victorian, with Gothic arched windows, steep gables and carved corbels. It was like entering Dracula’s castle. Fumbling slightly, he managed to put the key in the lock and turn it. Rushing into his ground-floor room, he double-locked his door, quickly undressed in the freezing cold, and dived under the bedcovers — scant protection, you would think, against a bloodthirsty vampire.

His gaze fixed fearfully on the dark rectangle of the window. No shutters — no curtains to shut out the night. At any moment, he was expecting to see the waxy face of Boris Karloff, blood dripping from his fangs, pressed against the glass.

An overactive imagination can sometimes be a bad thing.

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Dracula

Réveille-toi! Réveille-toi!” (Wake up! Wake up!) I shook my husband’s shoulder until he snorted a couple of times and then looked at me through sleepy, half-closed eyes.  “Skiya?” he mumbled – in other words, “Qu’est-ce qu’il y a?” (What’s the matter?) Continue reading

Joan of Arc Estate

The Cité Jeanne d’Arc (the Joan of Arc Estate) was a block of flats that had built by the French on what were then the eastern outskirts of Oran. Apparently,  there had once been a statue of the saint on a plinth on the steps leading up to the entrances, but it had long since gone, removed or smashed after independence, by the time T. was assigned accommodation there following his return to Algeria in November, 1968.

His flat was on the eighth floor of Bâtiment B3, the block taken over by Sonatrach to house its engineers working in the ammonia plant in Arzew. The whole complex was divided vertically into bâtiments, each bâtiment being a single block of flats with its own stairwell and lift.

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It was only after our wedding and T had returned to work, did I have time to look closely at my new home.  I examined with curiosity, and a little apprehension, the strange taps and two-pin electrical outlets. I looked around at the tiled floors, the tiled concrete worktops in the kitchen and the way in which electric wires were encased in steel tubing running across the ceilings and walls instead of being concealed behind the plasterboard.

There was no plasterboard, anyway, as the flats were earthquake-proof, with factory-like walls of reinforced concrete painted in an all-purpose magnolia gloss paint. The windows were curtainless, obscured at night and shaded from the sun during the day by wooden venetian blinds unrolling on the outside.

The flat was neither cosy nor welcoming – no soft furnishings; no wallpaper; no carpet to muffle sounds; no decorations, except for our university textbooks aligned along some wonky shelves and the few ornaments I had brought from Britain to brighten up the place. My patchwork aprons, sewn so lovingly for me by my godmother in preparation for my new life as a married woman, hung sadly on the back of the kitchen door, striking an incongruous note of colour in the sheer utilitarian starkness of my surroundings.

The layout of the flat was peculiar, as well. The main living space was an L-shape, with the original dining-room taking up the lion’s share of the room and a tiny space leading off it constituting the seating area. By the time we had installed our precious radiogram and two mattresses on the floor, there was hardly any room to swing  the proverbial cat.

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T (with beard) pretending to throw himself out of the flat window. I felt like that at times, too

By contrast, the dining-room furniture given to us by Sonatrach made its ponderous and self-important presence felt in the larger half of the living area – to the detriment of everything else. I had to skirt around it on my way to the kitchen or the bedrooms, taking care not to bang against its sharp corners or the high backs of the eight dining chairs, upholstered in sticky green leatherette and aligned around its veneered length like the Apostles at the Last Supper.

There were no less than five doors leading off from the dining room, one to a tiny kitchen with just enough room for a gas cooker, cupboards and sink down one side and a fridge and a small formica kitchen table on the other. A glazed door led out onto a narrow balcony. Balconies were not used in Algeria as a place where to sip an apéritif à deux of an evening, watching the sun go down and the lights of Oran twinkling in the distance. They were used as glorified storage space, full of plastic bowls, stepladders, giant galvanized couscous platters and wet washing hanging from clothes lines.

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Coming out of the kitchen of the flat with apron around the waist

The balcony had, however,  a rubbish chute on one side, connected to all the floors. I brightened up. Here were two things I had never had in Britain – a fridge and a rubbish chute. Only the wealthiest families at home could boast of a fridge. Of course, by contrast, it was absolutely vital in Algeria. The rubbish chute – well, it seemed to be an ingenious solution to the eternal problem of household waste. Of course, a few years later, residents were tipping all kinds of things down the chute. The less said about that, the better.

A small vestibule giving on to the two bedrooms – one large, one small – the bathroom and the toilet, was through one of the other doors. The bathtub was square instead of the more usual rectangular shape. It was neither a proper bathtub in which you could stretch out and relax, or a normal shower tray, as you had to clamber over the edge.  Everything was so unfamiliar – so alien.

Our neighbours in bâtiment B3 were a diverse crowd made up mostly of young engineers, some of them, like T, having studied abroad and brought foreign wives back with them. On the second or third floor lived an engineer with his Hawaiian wife and small son. His wife had difficulty in adjusting to life in Algeria and fled after about twelve months. I think she realised that she and her son were just too different to integrate into ordinary Algerian society. Her husband followed a few weeks later.

On the third or fourth floor lived a Mozabite. The Mozabites, or Aït M’Zab, are Berber, living in the M’Zab valley of the northern Sahara, and belonging to the strict Ibadite sect. I later heard that when his wife was in labour, he would not allow a midwife or doctor anywhere near her, sitting praying by her bedside and peeking under the covers from time to time to see if the baby had been born.

Directly beneath us lived another Kabyle engineer, his wife and their two children. The wife had very pale strawberry blond hair and paper-white skin. Her blue eyes were watery and red-rimmed and her eyelashes so pale they were almost invisible. I looked questioningly at T when he introduced us, thinking that here was yet another foreign wife, brought back perhaps from Russia or the Ukraine.

My assumption was wrong as she was, in fact, pure Kabyle, and her husband had been brought up by her family, in return for which he had married their illiterate daughter. I came to admire her though, as she insisted on wearing modern European clothes, learned to speak French and to drive a car.

Immediately above us lived another young engineer and his new wife. The only thing I can remember was the wife’s habit of wearing high-heeled mules at home.  T. and I would lie in bed, unable to sleep, listening to her tap-tapping her way around the tiled floors of the flat above. That, and her annoying way of saying vacuously, “Ooh la-la!” in time-honoured “French” fashion, in response to any remark made, whether it be on the current international political situation or the weather.

On the top floors lived two other young couples. One couple came from different cities, Tlemcen and Constantine, and their respective families had been vehemently opposed to their marriage. The others were yet another of T’s colleagues and his gum-snapping American wife. She had already been in Algeria a year before I arrived and seemed to know everything and everyone. I looked at her with envy.

We only stayed in the Cité Jeanne d’Arc for about two years, by which time our daughter had been born and I was pregnant with my second child. The rickety lift would often be out of order, either breaking down or being used as a public convenience by vagrants. On one such day, I struggled up the eight flights of stairs, heavily pregnant, with my daughter on one arm and a heavy shopping basket on the other. I felt fat, frazzled and frumpy.

Who should I meet standing in front of our door, impatiently tapping her smartly-shod foot, and drawing testily on the cigarette held in one perfectly-manicured hand? Yes, it was A. – one of our university friends. Her glance swept from my red perspiring face and hair ruffled by my daughter’s sticky fingers down to my dusty feet thrust into flip-flops.

“Where the hell have you been?” was her only greeting. Time and the move to Algeria had not softened her – far from that.  It was later I realised that she was, in fact, struggling to adjust to life in a foreign country as well.