Despite the determination of the taxi driver to get us to Sétif in no time at all once we were out of the main traffic around the capital I could breath a little easier and even enjoy some of the surrounding scenery. Particularly impressive were the snow-clad peaks of a range of mountains to the north which Sofian referred to as Berberland. I remember arriving in Sétif around nightfall. Sofian had mentioned something about a football match that we might try and watch on arrival. I had just nodded, quite happy for him to set the agenda. As it happened the city stadium was right opposite the coach station and main taxi rank. I was immediately aware of the dazzling floodlighting and the chanting of the local supporters. By the look of things the ground was filled to capacity and there was a crowd of hopefuls at the entrance across the road. We soon abandoned our plan to watch the game. I was later told by someone they didn’t always attract the best calibre of people and that it probably wasn’t a good idea to go to a rowdy home game as a foreigner (they were playing a team from Algiers). Sofian managed to raise his friend Rebe on the phone and after using the toilets at the rather run-down coach building we went out to meet him on the road that ran past the stadium.
Rebe was a large, slightly reserved character who nonetheless showed me nothing less than the warmest hospitality. I was offered the front passenger seat and we proceeded on the southbound road out of Sétif towards Sofian’s hometown of Ain Oulmene. Not long after whilst still on the outskirts of Sétif we picked up two young gentlemen on the approach to a prominent bridge. Like so many other places on the continent one seldom saw an empty passenger vehicle, and I have to commend Algerians on their economy as regards vehicle commuting. One of the two young men was able to greet me in English but his command was limited to a few words and phrases. They soon lapsed into conversation with Sofian and Rebe in their native Arabic. We dropped them off a few miles later and continued on our way.
I was expecting to go directly to Sofian’s apartment where his mother resided. However, the hour was late and we had been unable to confirm with her that we were coming through that day rather than the next. Instead we bought something to eat en route and then proceeded to Sofian’s brother’s house in Ain Oulmene. His brother, Rabie (pronounced Ra-bee-ah), was shorter than Sofian but shared his ready smile, eyes and V-shaped hairline. He ushered us into a tidy living room painted bright pink with a display cabinet and TV set in a corner and two stylised wooden settees up against the adjacent walls. We sat ourselves down. After a few minutes Rabie reappeared with a silver tray laden with China cups and a gold-handled teapot with a floral design, an Italian style coffee pot, some glasses and an assortment of biscuits, nuts and yoghurt. Wow! Was I to expect this at every house I entered as a guest? The answer was yes, I could.
Almost all the Algerians I met along the way were to show me great warmth and hospitality. The only thing that might seem odd to a Westerner is that one did not usually interact with the women of the household in any manner, most especially whilst chatting and eating in the living room area. I respect that this is cultural, perhaps inspired by some aspect of Islamic teaching as well. I was well aware that it was in fact Rabie’s wife who had prepared the snacks and tea but who remained out of view. The exception to the rule was when greeted by the matriarch of the house upon entering Sofian’s apartment the next day and later again in the journey when having lunch with a friend in Magra. It is customary in most cultures to display some token of gratitude for a meal so my only regret was that was unable to convey this directly to those who had prepared it, although I was assured that they would be thanked on my behalf.
After Rebe departed some time later I asked to use the toilet facilities and was directed outside to a small concrete-floored courtyard containing an assortment of bric-à-brac but otherwise fairly tidy and orderly. In the corner was a small cubicle containing a traditional Arabic latrine. I had been able to familiarise myself with the procedure of using one on my summer excursion to Turkey. Unfortunately whilst performing my ablutions the power went out and I was suddenly enveloped in darkness. A few moments later I heard the impressively large, multi-bolted metal door to the courtyard swing open and the light of a lamp or torch filtered through the gap in the door of the cubicle which I had set slightly ajar. Sofian called out to reassure me and then it went quiet so I assumed he had gone back inside. However, when I emerged some time later (let’s just say that it had been a long overdue ‘appointment’!) he was standing patiently with the torch near the metal door to the yard. “You’ve been there all along?” I asked somewhat incredulously, secretly hoping that I hadn’t been talking to myself audibly loud (I probably had), or worse making embarrassing noises. If I had Sofian didn’t give anything away. He’s such a gentleman.
When I re-entered the living room two mattresses were positioned on the floor and a number of blankets and plump pillows were close at hand. We settled down and it wasn’t long before I had drifted off. We slept soundly until I heard noises from the adjacent room the following morning and Sofian’s brother appeared to say goodbye. He was heading off to work at the local post office, one of several jobs he held down. Sofian explained that it was an informal position: he had simply found a space where he set up a desk and proceeded to help the illiterate to fill in forms and paperwork for a small fee. I washed my face and brushed my teeth with the aid of a plastic jug and mug filled from a 25L plastic canister on the edge of the bath whilst Sofian prayed in the living room. There was no running water but it was quite adequate for my needs. Thereafter, bags slung over our shoulders we headed out into a rainy street and started walking in the direction of his mum’s apartment. I have to say that it was a little colder than I expected and the rain was obviously a disappointment. All the same if I had taken the trouble to read up about the weather in northern Algerian at this time of year I would have discovered that it could be jolly chilly and rain was not unusual.
My immediate impression during daylight was of a fairly quiet and orderly street with single-storey, unpainted or pale-coloured buildings fronting straight onto the street. There was a very narrow pavement and like almost every street in Algeria a spider’s web of cables radiated outwards from concrete poles at the street corners as well as the corners of buildings. A little further on we approached a larger street where a few other pedestrians were trudging their way in either direction but the vehicular traffic was light. The street was not quite so litter-free as around Rabie’s home and when we crossed over a small footbridge at the end of the street I noticed a concrete drainage channel choked by plastic debris. We descended the other side to discover a muddy track running parallel to the drainage channel. We went to the left and Sofian pointed out the area occupied by the weekly market a short distance away. It was evidently a large area the size of two football pitches or more and on Thursday it was apparently transformed into a scene of commerce and trade with farmers converging from the adjacent countryside to sell their produce. It was one regret of mine that I did not remain long enough there to observe market day in Ain Oulmene. As for the muddy, occasionally pot-holed street we were negotiating Sofian was not particularly complementary. “This is another problem we have. The government grants building rights,” he explained gesturing to a multitude of multi-storied apartments in various stages of construction,”but without providing infrastructure, roads and so forth. When the citizens demand this of the town councillors they complain they have not been allocated the necessary funds by government.”
I noticed that many of the new buildings being constructed of hollow red bricks, larger than those typically used in England, workers hoisting batches of them to upper levels by means of pully-and-cable type hoists. I had witnessed similar operations on my travels in Turkey where they also employed the same style of construction brick. Some of the buildings looked a little ramshackle but others were evidently being built by wealthier owners. A design that was to prove particularly popular with the well-to-do of Algerian society was evident there in Ain Oulmene and elsewhere I visited. It was hard to say what cultural inspiration it drew on, not being a student of such things, but Sofian ventured to say that it might be oriental. The new, red-tiled roofs of these apartments angled upwards steeply, often stepped inwards towards the apices, and enclosing a single window, sometimes with a balcony beneath. At each apex was a vertical clay spindle, for want of a better word, much like a chair leg that has been turned on a lathe. I asked several other people what they thought inspired this particular style of design and the consensus seemed to be a Mediterranean one.
We made our way towards a series of apartment blocks where children were playing in the areas between the buildings amongst the comings and goings of the various occupants. Sofian pointed out a small enclosed courtyard area with a few plants, rather unusual in the context of the area, which he said belonged jointly to his mother and one of her neighbours. They had agreed to fence it off for their mutual benefit. We proceeded through an entrance to the adjacent apartment block where two small children studied me with shy but serious intent. I smiled at them and followed Sofian to a door just within on the ground floor. He knocked briefly before the door was opened by an older woman who was most definitely Sofian’s mother. The resemblance was immediately apparent. She kissed her son fondly twice on each cheek and then turned to me and greeted me in the same manner. Sofian turned to me with a smile and explained that she didn’t speak English nor French so we wouldn’t be able to communicate verbally. Really, the onus was on me to learn a bit of local Arabic. She was obviously pleased to see her youngest son – he was one of four brothers – and we were ushered through to the living room where he updated her on our travel plans and probably relayed some of general news. Sofian then insisted that his mum and I have a photo taken seated together on the sofa. The old lady surprised me by asking for my floppy, khaki hat which was lying near my partially unpacked bag. Donning it in the fashion of a middle-aged European on safari we had several pictures taken side-by-side. It actually put me in mind of my late mother who also posed for a photo in this hat or one very similar many years earlier whilst brandishing a tennis racket. It’s one of my most memorable portraits of her.
Sofian instructed me to pack for our journey to the desert and insisted that I borrow his black faux-leather jacket which he had bought in Turkey earlier that year, despite my protestations that I would be fine with my one woollen jersey and fleece. As it was I’m quite glad I took the jacket: besides been an extra layer it was rather stylish and helped me fit in with the leather jacket wearing male population. It also had a good number of large pockets ideal to accommodate my passport, wallet and other items securely. Sofian donned a thick, blue football sweater and with our respective mini backpacks filled to capacity we set off.
At some point we were joined by a friend of Sofian’s, confusingly also called Sofian. from the town of Magra where the two of them taught together at a middle-school. In fact Sofian (the original) was really El Kheyr, but he had introduced himself as Sofian on the summer camp in Turkey because he assumed it would be easier for non-Arabic speakers to remember. Actually El Kheyr is not so difficult to pronounce once one realises that the ‘Kh’ sound eminates from the back of the tongue. In order to avoid confusion, however, the other Sofian suggested that I just call him Gilmour after David Gilmour of Pink Floyd. He elaborated on the reason why a bit later. My immediate impression of young Gilmour (at 26, quite some years my junior) was that he was well turned out in a thick, black, button-up winter coat. He had spiky, short-cropped hair which I assume he gelled, observant widely-spaced eyes, a big, toothy smile and a well-groomed goatee.
The first thing we had to do was to announce my presence to the local police. This could save us a lot of fuss and bother further down the line as Sofian had discovered when he entertained his first foreign visitor several years earlier, a Russian by the name of Sergey. I had heard much about the big, burly Russian with his gold teeth. He sounded like quite a character. Sofian had stayed with him in Moscow for a few months when he had gone there to learn Russian and to see whether it might be possible to study there. He sounded like a big-hearted character who had suffered hardships as a child and offered refuge to people from many different backgrounds. Sofian had befriended him over Skype using a translation programme. In time he had learnt the language and they still corresponded. I had heard Sofian speaking fluent Russian in Turkey to the immense joy of the school’s headmaster, Ramazan, who seemed more proficient in and preferable to English.
Back in 2010 when Sergey had come to visit Algeria for a month they had found themselves in a regrettable situation when Sergey was detained for questioning by the local gendarmerie (military police) for several days because he was snapping photos with a digital camera, was obviously foreign and had arrived unannounced. In the end they had required the presence of the Russian consul from Annaba to come and resolve the matter. Apparently they had jumped around rather smartly when he turned up. Russia and Algeria have enjoyed good relations over the years I’m told so the detention of a Russian citizen, justified or otherwise, was not to be taken lightly. In due course Sofian pointed out the local restaurant-café where all parties had come together for a hearty meal and where matters were smoothed over.
The main (only?) police station in Ain Oulmene was painted a bright aquamarine blue and white, reminiscent of the police uniforms. I was ushered into an office typical of such establishments, folders and reports vying for space on the desks. A middle-aged policeman took my passport, indicated for me to sit down and proceeded to fill in a lengthy form. A while later he beckoned me to his desk and fired off some questions in French. Fortunatley I had filled in the same form at immigration so I knew the gist of it: prenom (first name), nom de famille (surname), nom de jeune fille de la mère (mother’s maiden name), le nom du père (father’s name), Le travail du père (father’s job), my profession and so forth. Sofian translated where I was unable to find the right word. On a wall to the left of the desk was one of those boards with slots for name-cards. There were half a dozen foreign-sounding names, mainly Polish I’m guessing by the spelling, and a number of other names in Arabic. Sofian indicated that there were foreign doctors present in Ain Oulmene’s hospital. My passport was returned to me and I the staff officer asked Sofian to convey that he wished me a happy trip around Algeria. So far so good.
The next thing we needed to do was find the money men. We ambled along the streets to the right part of town where men congregated in a collection of roadside cafés drinking tea and socialising or playing draughts. Parked conspicuously at the intersection of a side street and the main street was a car with darkened windows. There was another parked across from it. At least that’s how I remember them because I couldn’t see the occupants. I left it to Sofian to approach the respective drivers and negotiate the exchange of 150 USD. Satisfied with the rate offered by the person in the second vehicle – 110 DN: USD) I proceeded to get some local cash in hand at last. Sofian had graciously paid for all the accommodation, travel and food expenses up until that point. Agreeing that it was time for a bite the two Sofians told me that there was a treat in store for me.
Directly outside the prospective restaurant was a smoky, charcoal-fired grill on which a man was roasting numerous skewers of assorted meat cut into small chunks. For instance one might consist of small pieces of beef alternating with chunks of fat or red or green pepper. This mini-kebab on a stick was a very popular Algerian dish called meshwi. Chicken and escalope (turkey) meshwi was also on offer. It was traditional to place the meshwi skewer in a hunk of bread, grabbing the latter firmly, before extracting the stick. It’s a tasty dish and we washed it down at a back table in the packed restaurant with a bottle of soda of some sort. All around me sat men, young and old, eating ravenously and vociferously. No one batted an eyelid so I assumed that I either fitted in perfectly or that they weren’t particularly concerned by my presence. Only a fellow who shared our table with us (like taxis it is acceptable to share a table with strangers in an eating establishment, something which didn’t bother me) realised that he was sitting opposite an Englishman. He smiled politely and studied me intently for a few moments before resuming his meal. I discovered that if one wanted more to eat one simply gained the attention of one of the waiters who came across and banged another handful of meshwi or chunky baguette pieces on the plate or bowl in the middle of the table. At the end of the meal you simply counted the number of skewers and paid for what you had consumed, along with drinks of course. The bread wasn’t charged for although I expect they factored it into the price somehow.
From the restaurant Sofian took us across to a business friend of us whom I would see a lot more of on my return to Ain Oulmene. Sofian had mentioned Ahmed in previous conversations. He had accompanied him to China where the latter purchased goods for importation to Algeria: household wares, beds, sofas, armchairs, clothes etc. Sofian was invited as an interpreter (presumably because of his background in language) and had learnt a little Chinese although he confessed that it was incredibly difficult. Ahmed had a multi-storey department store in Ain Oulmene. At the bottom level was a children’s clothing store called Kid’s House in large, coloured lettering. Above it were three levels hosting the household goods and wares. Next to Kid’s House was an adult clothing store called Carrefour Plus. It was here that we went in order that I might buy a few items to replace those in the missing carrier bag, namely some underwear and a couple of pairs of socks. I was already re-wearing a pair from the previous day and was dreading having to take them off later. I also got myself a pair of denim jeans to supplement the blue corduroys I had worn since day one. Gilmour also took the opportunity to buy a couple of pairs of socks.
Ahmed ambled into the store whilst we were there and I got to meet him face to face. He smiled broadly and introduced me to his young son, Mohammed, who was 12 years old. Ahmed spoke decent English and surprisingly, so did young Mo. He seemed like a happy youngster and was keen to display his acquired English language by asking me about football: Who did I support? Who was my favourite player? Did I play? As I was to discover Algerian men are crazy about football and the English Premier League is incredibly popular over there. All in all my purchases came to a thousand dinars or so which was pretty good really. Ahmed insisted that Gilmour forgo paying for the two pairs of socks he was purchasing. I was to discover that he was a very generous individual indeed and a real character about town.
Thereafter we made our way back to Sétif via taxi. Gilmour and I had time to get to chat and get to know each other a bit better. We picked up where we had left off earlier, talking about movies and popular culture. I asked him about the Pink Floyd connection. “I’m a big fan” he announced. Later he would tell me that he had wept when he first heard a recording of them playing a live gig.
“I’m also a big fan of TV series, especially American ones. I like everything American actually – movies, culture, food…” I pointed out that Pink Floyd were English but that didn’t seem to bother him.
“I love the TV show Friends,” he told me, referring to the popular American sitcom. I’ve watched all ten seasons, all the episodes, twice.” He went on to give an appraisal of each of the main characters and finished off by singing a funny rendition of Phoebe’s smelly cat song. How did he get all this content anyway? I asked him. I hadn’t noticed a Blockbuster store anywhere we had been so far (I later saw a defunct video club in Béchar), although pirated DVDs were sold at a number of shops.
“Downloads man. You can download anything you want here.” I remembered the same sense of impunity people felt back in Zimbabwe. We were beyond the jurisdiction of the digital copyright enforcers. “And once I’ve downloaded it I store it here,” he continued, producing a sleek Samsung Galaxy S2 from a jacket pocket. His phone was obviously a treasured possession judging by the loving look on his face.
We disembarked in Sétif near the El Atik Mosque with its impressive minarets and a rather famous fountain and statue called Ain El Fouara. The marble statue was of a naked woman with long flowing hair seated on some carved rocks set on a broad concrete base from which spouted two jets of water. They in turn drained into two respective semi-circular basins and then a larger pool at the base of the fountain. I was surprised at the nakedness of the woman considering the conservative nature of the society, but she seemed to have gained a special place in the hearts of the local populace. Fundamentalists had tried to blow her up during the civil war of the 90s and the resulting damage had apparently been met with some outrage. She was repaired by students from the local university art faculty and today you wouldn’t know any better except for a missing nose and perhaps a few cracks and minor fillings. She was the creation of French sculptor Francis de St. Vidal in the 19th century and was brought across by the French in 1898 whilst they were still in power. It was said that if you drank from the fountain you would be compelled to return one day. I drank heartily. Sétif’s claim to being an ancient settlement was borne out by some stone Roman-era artefacts in a nearby public Jardin and an old Roman spa, no longer in use by the looks of it.
We proceeded to take a much-needed wash at a local la douche or public baths. Basically one paid a fairly nominal fee, 50 DN or so, for the use of a cubicle with a warm shower. One could pay for extras like a bar of soap and a sachet of shampoo in my case. Rubber sandals were communal assets which one donned before showering. The facilities were clean and I could see the convenience of having public facilities when so few of the houses seemed to have running water. I was delighted to be able to put on a fresh pair of socks and my new denim jeans after bathing. Sofian also chose to shower and take his afternoon prayers in one of several prayer rooms at the back of the showers whilst Gilmour waited for us in the entrance area.
From there we made our way across to a nearby café where we met Rebe. I was rather impressed by the cosmopolitan feel of the interior: peppermint green walls, white pressed-ceiling, marble counter and tiled floor. Gilmour explained to me that this was the go-to place for a younger generation of Algerians. He had been at university in Sétif, as had Sofian, and Gilmour professed to have some very fond memories of the place. We hadn’t been sitting for very long when a forth member joined our little afternoon gathering. He was also a language graduate who had studied with Sofian and introduced to me as Reyad. Up till now all of Sofian’s friends had been taller than me so it was a relief to meet someone who was shorter. Though he may have been a few inches shorter he had a stocky build and a certain confidence. He possessed blue eyes set in an angular face and blonde hair, slightly receding. He could easily pass himself off as a European and he had been mistaken for one in a situation he was to elaborate on a little while later. I noticed that he elicited a lot of laughs from the others and Sofian later declared how funny he was. I have to confess that he was likeable from the outset. Whilst still in Algiers a few days before Sofian had been on a call to him when he had passed the handset over to me saying that his friend Reyad wanted to talk to me. “Welcome to Algeria Leo,” he had declared. “How are you finding things? I am really looking forward to meeting you and finding about your life in the UK. I will tell you about my life as well,” he continued. Now here we were in a little café in a town almost 200 miles to the east of Algiers, face to face.
He settled himself down next to me and asked again how I was and if things were to my liking. I answered affirmatively. The conversation carried on a jovial, general way whilst various patrons came and went from the establishment. A couple of young girls, perhaps in their early twenties, ambled past our table and sat behind us. I saw Gilmour casting his eye appraisingly in their direction. He gave me a knowing smile. Reyad turned to me and brought me back into the conversation. He asked me what I did and I tried my best to explain the assortment of jobs I had engaged in over the last couple of years, culminating in my current employment with yet another agency, this time specialising in industrial jobs. I had been working in the catering industry for ages. “Now I work with machines rather than people. I prefer it that way,” I joked (although there’s a certain element of truth there).
“Very interesting,” Reyad said. “Did Sofian tell you what I do?” he asked. Actually he had I replied. “You work for BP, yes?”
“I do. I’m a translator. I speak English, German, French and Arabic.” I asked him which he thought was the hardest to learn and he told me that most definitely it was German. Perhaps it was because it was the last language he had learnt I enquired?
“No, it is a difficult language to master.” All the same he had obviously gained some kudos by acquiring this foreign language that so few others spoke in Algeria. Apparently he had been given the nickname ‘German’ by his mates. His Skype pseudonym (under his actual name) is deutsche. He suddenly became more serious. “Did you know that I was working at In Amenas during the terrorist attack last year?” Once again, Sofian had mentioned something to me. In Amenas is a natural gas extraction plant in the desert near the Libyan border some 800 miles to the south of Algiers. Without having to prompt him he elaborated further.
“I was there when they (the terrorists) came and took us hostage. They thought I was a European because of my looks so I was placed with the foreigners.” He indicated that the Algerian workers at the plant were kept separately. “I kept my mouth shut because I didn’t know what they were going to do with us. After two days I decided to let the terrorists know that I was Algerian. They were very surprised when they heard me speaking in Arabic. They asked me if I also spoke English but I said ‘no’. Then they placed me with the other Algerian captives.”
He mentioned a couple of names of Europeans he had worked alongside including a Norwegian guy he said was a ‘very good’ friend of his. “We would even change our shifts if necessary to ensure that we would be working together,” he told me. He went on to explain how the terrorists had taken control of the core gas facility area and had taken his friend as one of several hostages. By this stage Reyad had escaped the confines of the plant and had made it to safety with many of his Algerian colleagues. The terrorists had strapped explosives to their captives at the plant and apparently chained them to some pipework. When the Algerian special forces had attempted to liberate the captives four days into the siege the explosives that were attached to his friend and the others were detonated. Reyad brought out his hand and showed me an ornate silver ring on one of his fingers. I only had a brief glance but I recall it having an intricate, stylised eagle set in the design.
“It belonged to my friend,” he explained matter-of-factly. “I found it when I went back to the facility. I recognised it and took it to a specialist person to have it cleaned.” I found myself wondering whether or not he had asked the permission of the deceased’s family to keep the ring. But what of it? The gesture of wearing the ring in memory of his friend who had died in awful circumstances was touching and heartfelt. He went on:
“Leo, you must understand that the people who did this, they were not human. They were animals,” he declared forcibly. He talked a bit more about the incident and the experience of other foreign nationals he worked with including Stephen McFaul, an Irishman who managed to escape with a colleague after the truck in which they were being transported flipped over.
Having given me a fairly comprehensive account of his ordeal he looked at his watch and stated that he had to depart. The invitation was extended to Reyad to join us for our vacation in the desert but he declined, having just returned from a long shift back at In Amenas.
“I want to move somewhere else,” he said somewhat understandably. “I am looking for other opportunities.”Standing up he proffered me a hand.”I hope I will see you when you return. Then we will have much fun. I will introduce you to the ladies of Sétif,” he said to much laughter from the others around the table. He said goodbye before paying for all of us at the counter. Sofian followed and tried to remonstrate with him but he insisted on paying, in keeping with the Algerian generosity I had witnessed previously. We were in the process of departing when one of the two young women who had sat behind us approached Gilmour and exchanged a few words out of earshot before returning to her seat. He smiled and explained that she had heard us speaking English and asked him if he might perhaps give her some language lessons. He went across to her table to exchange contact details whilst Sofian and Rebe waited outside. A couple of minutes later Gilmour emerged from the restaurant with a triumphant grin.
Together we wandered first one way and then the other taking in the surrounding buildings both modern and colonial in style. We passed an old building with fluted neoclassical columns at the entranceway and on a balcony above a set of iron, robe-clad, female statues smiling and brandishing lamps above their heads. Above them in turn were three signs in neat hand-painted, black capitals written on the wall and framed by decorative tiles. They read COMEDIE, MUSIC, DRAME. Near the very top of the building was written THEATRE beneath a crest and a small, Algerian flag on a pole.
The weather was still a bit dismal as we made our way towards a prominent intersection on which a rather large sculpture of a large, gold-leafed plant had been installed. It looked like a tobacco plant to me. Isn’t gold leaf tobacco a popular variety amongst smokers? Apparently the town council had bought it from China for over a hundred thousand USD. None of my compatriots seemed particularly impressed by the purchase but we had a photograph taken in front of the glossy attraction nevertheless.
It was late afternoon by now and time for us to make our way back to the coach station. Rebe kindly gave us a life there and after a few enquiries by Sofian we had booked ourselves seats on the overnight bus to the town of Béchar. I had no idea which direction we were heading or how far we were going to venture into the great Sahara. Sofian had mentioned Timimoun as his preferred destination, but since neither he nor Gilmour had been there, we were just going to have to play it by ear. I have taken many different coaches in many different countries and this was by no means the worst of them, except that it was a little cramped for me never mind the spindly-legged Sofian and Gilmour. Anyway, the main thing was that we were pressing ahead with our journey to the desert and I have to admit I felt a sense of growing anticipation as the bus heaved out of the terminus and started the long journey to the south-west.