It is with a heavy heart that I read about the havoc that the new coronavirus is wrecking in Italy, especially in the north of the country. Having traveled through northern Italy only between 4 and 5 months ago I feel the temporal proximity of the unfolding drama.
Most likely I didn’t meet anyone who has been made critically ill but I can imagine how severe it could be for some of them if they were to contract the deadly pathogen. I think especially of several elderly members of the free-living community Avalon-Elfi in the province of Toscana (Tuscany) who I wrote about on my sister blog.
” I think especially of several elderly members of the free-living community Avalon-Elfi in Tuscany “
My thoughts too lie with Pius Leutenegger and his team of staff at the Centro d’Ompio on Lago d’Orta in the foothlls of the Alps in the province of Novara in the Lombardy region, the worst affected by the Covid19 outbreak.
I’d love to include a few photos of our trip to this region to remind people what a beautiful region it is. Please also check out my two posts from the Avalon community above. Consider a visit there when this is all over. They need your support!
Memorial to those fallen in the Great War. Honours Roll. Milan Central Station.
Raphael in the shadow of the monument
Raphael and one of our fellow visitors to the Centro
A statue of Garibaldi in the station square, Navarro.
One of the beautiful wooden meditation buildings at the Centro
Mirjam and baby Uriel en route to Genova from Milan
The infamous Fiat Panda police car
The cross above the Centro
Looking back towards the Alps from one of the stations near Milan.
A view of Lago d’Orta from above Centro d’Ompio
The resident peacocks
Mirjam and the boys pose with a friend, Priska
Looking north-west towards the early snows
A group of film-makers staying concurrently at the Centro
Actually, this bit of coastline has other significance to me. As a family we had holidayed in Durban and on the South Coast from as far back as my memory stretched. Besides the obvious attraction of having had my aunt Liz, her family and my grandparents in Durban, we had visited and stayed in various places up and down the coastline: Scottburgh and Uvongo spring first to mind. These were happy memories filled with endless sunshine, beaches, family and friends, including many co-vacationers from back home in Zimbabwe.
In later years we tended to stick to the environs of Durban and visited the north coast instead, aligning our holidays with those of our Harare cousins and shared family in Richard’s Bay and nearby Empangeni. These trips in my late teens and early twenties were of a different sort, bittersweet and nostalgic. In effect the South Coast mapped out many of the memories of my younger, more spontaneous and less complicated self. However, there is a caveat to this retrospection. Almost bang between the holiday towns of Scottburgh and Uvongo is another sleepy little coastal town called Hibberdene.
In 2003, whilst I was studying towards an Honours degree in geology at the University of Pretoria, otherwise known as Tukkies, we had visited Kwazulu-Natal and its environs during our mid-year field excursion with the second and third year undergraduates. Being well inland of the coast, just north of its larger and better known twin, Johannesburg, many of the students who hailed from Pretoria had never ventured to this part of the South African coast. To me it was terra familiare rather than terra incognito. We had entered the province to the north and journeyed south down through Richard’s Bay where we visited the RBM heavy-sands and dune mining operations. We had by-passed metropolitan Durban and arrived in Hibberdene via the N2 coastal motorway on a windy, grey afternoon sometime in June of that year. Arriving quite late in the day we were granted leave to venture out along the beach and do as we please.
I have included this recollection almost as an afterthought. I find it difficult to objectively recall the series of events that follow, let alone that year as a whole. I was one of six or seven Honours students that year, greatly outnumbered by the second and third year classes. As such we the de facto senior students on the trip. Broadly speaking the Honours group fell into two groups: the Afrikaans lads who had studied at Tukkies since first year and were bound not only by the bonds of friendship but to some degree by their language and origin. Me and Kelly, the only female member of the class at that point, had come from other universities and were not native Afrikaans speakers, although Kelly seemed to understand the language well enough.
I recall Kelly as a shy girl who kept to herself much of the time, but shared in the laughter of the others whilst I, for the most part, didn’t understand. I didn’t begrudge the other lads speaking their native language and on the other occasions there had been open discussion and presentations in English during class-time I had been able to participate. These moments were often supplemented by Guan Greyling, a highly intelligent and amusing young man, slight of build with thin sandy-blonde hair and sparkling grey-blue eyes.
My introduction to Guan had been memorable: whilst I had been nervously reaching for a canned beer at the departmental introductory party on the campus I had been splashed with icy water as someone had deliberately lobbed another can of beer into the tub. I had recoiled in shock, but when I looked up it wasn’t obvious who the perpetrator was. Guan and some mates were laughing about something amongst themselves but I couldn’t be sure who it was. I cautiously stepped forwards again and in the moment I took me eyes off the bystanders and reached for another can, ‘plop’ went another with the same result. This time round Guan laughed loudly and unashamedly.
“Man, how did you fall for the same trick twice?” he asked rhetorically with a broad grin and a twinkle in his eye. Thereafter Guan had proven to be the unabashed clown of the class. Not only did he elicit all the answers with apparent ease but he exhibited a great sense of humour. During one Powerpoint video projector presentation, for which he had evidently not prepared, he inserted some unconventional slides after the title page. “So what can I say about this topic?” he began suggestively, giving us, his audience, a meaningful pause. With our respective attentions captive he flicked to the subsequent slide of some flowers or some cuddly kids; then to one shaded blue; and finally a blank, white page, announcing each with a singular word so that together they spelt out: “sweet-blue-nothing”. Needless to say his audacity was met by hoots of laughter from our end and a stony silence by our German lecturer, Dr. Wolf Maier.
The truth of the matter was that Guan was a sensitive soul who was experiencing some deep insecurities. His girlfriend, a pretty Spanish girl called Jennifer, had recently broken up with him and it was common knowledge that he was struggling to come to terms with it. Sometime, not long before our mid-year fieldtrip, I had managed to talk with Guan one-on-one. We found a surprising amount of common ground – estranged fathers, shared interests and a yearning desire to find fulfilment in what we were doing. Was he as lonely as I’d found myself being? I can’t say, nor can I say how much the break-up with Jennifer had affected him.
We had tentatively arranged to meet up for a drink sometime in the near future. Going forward to the mid-year excursion, Guan had maintained his position as the clown, most likely enjoying the attention as he sought to plug the hole opened up by the break-up. One evening in camp he had discreetly climbed a tree to some ungodly height before making monkey noises and startling those of us below. “Come down Guan before you break your neck” someone had shouted up to him. Eventually he had and I recall a little later he, myself and a couple of English-speaking second year girls had crouched in the eve of a dome tent and laughed about it as we sipped wine from plastic cups. He was very gregarious, moving between the various groups, talking with one and all. In contrast the other lads in my year, Pieter, Chris and Johan, stuck mostly to themselves.
What happened on the beach that fateful day was this: we had all gone walking up the beach, spread out in little pockets of friends, ostensibly to find a safe place to swim. Pieter and the others took up the front whilst the rest of us followed. Guan had walked alongside me for a while, chatting about nothing in particular. I remember him wavering for a second before sprinting off to catch up with the other three lads up ahead. I had with me a green towel with my name embroidered on it and a picture of a tiger. It had been a Christmas present from my father, although I had never thanked him for it. We were barely on speaking terms back then, and writing now I can feel the dull ache of that fracture return. I also had a black Frisbee disc which I lent to two second years.
I lost both items that day, although their loss is immaterial in the face of a greater tragedy. A few of the second years, growing tired of walking had stripped down to their shorts and leapt into an opening between the rocks where the sea encroached upon the shoreline. It was choppy and it’s greyness mirrored that of the unsettled sky above. I remember Anton de Beer swimming out effortlessly for perhaps twenty metres or more, then treading water and looking back to the beach. Emboldened, others pulled off their shirts and waded into the waters. I remember feeling uneasy and glancing up the beach to where the others from my class had disappeared around a bend.
Maybe I said something, maybe I didn’t, but unwilling to be shown up I too entered the water alongside Conrad, a friendly second year student. I remember the strength of the backwash, relentlessly pulling on one’s legs as we both struggled to keep our heads above water. After a few minutes we struggled ashore, a quick glance from Conrad acknowledging what had been left unsaid: this was a dangerous sea. Only a strong, experienced swimmer like Anton could negotiate the riptide and swim as far as he had. On my last trip out to South Africa in 2010 I’d stayed with a friend in Johannesburg. One day whilst walking through Rosebank Mall I passed Conrad walking in the opposite direction. We made eye contact and I saw a flicker of recognition. It was only a little while later that I realised that it had been him by which time he had disappeared amongst the crowds of shoppers.
Harking back to that time at the beach in Hibberdene seven years before, I recall that after re-dressing I started walking further up the beach, meeting my four classmates as they returned from whence they had been. “What’s it like PW?” I had asked Pieter, whose full name was Pieter-Willem, abbreviated to PW.
“It’s all the same,” he had replied, or words to that effect. I’m not sure if I explicitly asked if there was a swimming beach round the bend, but I assumed that if there was he would have mentioned it. Nonetheless I can hardly take the moral high-ground when I myself chose to swim in an unregulated area. I’m not sure if all of them entered the water where Anton, myself and the others had done so because I moved off to explore the adjacent rocks where my friend Izak was sitting, staring out to sea in quiet contemplation. It was at some moment whilst I was on those rocks that Guan’s life had slipped away from him, drowning in the treacherous waters.
As I arrived back on the beach, Anton, Pieter and one or two others were struggling to get him to shore. When they finally did his body was limp and lifeless, his body white and pale and his face a blueish-grey. Pieter had dashed off up the beach, returning a few precious minutes later with a young, white lifeguard. He had given him CPR for what seemed like an age and I remember the copious amounts of foamy water that he elicited from Guan’s flooded lungs. I remember too the moment he looked up into my eyes whilst I stood a short distance away and shook his head.
I asked PW about the occasion many years later, after having moved over to the UK. “It was all a blur,” he wrote. “I guess I must have known there was a bathing beach around the corner but it’s all a blur in my memory.” The anger I felt dissipated as I realised that the tragedy was unforeseen and the responsibility of swimming where we had ultimately rested with each of us as individuals. If Pieter had seen the bathing beach then so had Guan.
My pain lay in feeling inadequate and unneeded. Pieter had later given a eulogy to Guan back at the university. It was entirely in Afrikaans so I had understood very little. Afterwards Pieter showed slides from the rest of the fieldtrip and a daytrip we had made a few weeks earlier to a local site of interest. Although I had submitted a few photographs of my own which had been scanned to CD these weren’t included.
There was a picture of me talking to a chap called Francois, brother to a second year student in the department. He was a bit of an awkward chap who battled to express himself. He had approached me with some short lines of childish verse, written in English. I recognised in him the desire to write poetically, but an inability to translate that into meaningful prose. After chatting with him for a short while I discovered that, like me, he possessed a love of nature and concern for the well-being of the landscapes, animals and people that we felt so deeply about. It wasn’t difficult to connect.
I noticed that he was shunned by many of the others and his sister, Lizelle, would look slightly embarrassed when his eccentric behaviour came up in conversation. When the picture of us appeared unexpectedly in the slide show Pieter looked across at me and commented with regards to Francois: “Leo se nuwe vriend [Leo’s new friend]”. I squirmed as some of the audience chuckled at my expense.
I am tempted to write about how much I despised PW and his haughtiness, but the simple truth is that I don’t. I may have my failings and eccentricities but I do possess a fairly keen awareness of other people’s moods and states of mind. From what little he subsequently said via correspondence and what I observed directly back then, a picture of a young man wrestling with his conscience emerges. That he was proud of his people and his language was obvious, but beneath this I dare to venture were doubts, serious doubts.
He was a natural leader, and had assumed that position amongst the undergraduates in the department. Under different circumstances I think we could have cemented a friendship once we had come to respect each other’s differences. What he later told me was that it was a terrible year for him and I can only take his word for it. For me it ebbed and flowed, but mostly I remember the loneliness. It was there before but in foreign surroundings it was acute.
So much I didn’t and still don’t really understand. In my mind those memories still have the power to bring me down, a source of negative energy. The trick for me is to remember that they are just memories of a transient situation. Despite the pain they can elicit, they are part of my story, and as valid and instructive as any other chapter of my life.
It is doubtful that the Pretoria I remember then is the same city that it is now. It was a time in which the changes initiated by independence barely a decade before (1994) were only beginning to take hold. Relict overtones of racism still lingered, evident in the student council elections that year: “Why vote for a dark one when you really want a milky one” was the slogan from one banner I recall being translated to me from Afrikaans, a questionable attempt to link the colour of chocolate to racial affiliation.
I like to think that these remnants of the old order have been dispelled and dispersed. To some degree they probably have. There’s no going back to the previous system of apartheid in the world as we know it today and despite what I may have felt about some people and some things, I remember most of my compatriots well. Both Chris and JC were kind and intelligent, and Izak is a remarkably perceptive and thoughtful individual with whom I still correspond. They all still reside in South Africa to the best of my knowledge.
Pieter did a further year’s MSc before emigrating with his new wife to Australia. He tells me that his parents emigrated to the UK not long afterwards and that, from time to time, he still visits his hometown Pretoria, and on those trips back he visits Guan’s grave to sit and talk to him and recall their friendship. And so it was with me this time around, on the trip to Ifafa with my uncle Derek. Although I didn’t think about it right then and there, the sea around Ifafa beach on that day was as full of life as Guan was whilst he was alive. Whales breaching, dolphins riding the shore break chasing the shad: Guan would have been smiling on a day such as that.
So this last week I’ve been back down in Durban, Kwazulu Natal, home to mum’s eldest sister, my gran and an assortment of cousins and their offspring. It was very nice to be able to see the ‘old lady’, erstwhile known as Mutty (moo-tee), born in 1921, and still plodding along.
Allegedly once a rather formidable lady she has been tamed by the passage of time and the limitations of an aging body. She is entirely dependent on her daughter now, her aging bones unable to lift her from her bed without assistance, her sight marred by advanced macular degeneration (MD) but, as I quipped to my cousin, at least it wasn’t a case of moral degradation… Quite the opposite in fact. The woman still insists on weekly communion, delivered courtesy of a parish minister who visits the various invalids on a Thursday.
I am ambivalent about the influence of Catholicism on my family, particularly with regards to my mother, but I have a choice as to how I want to live my life and I certainly don’t have to embrace the more puritanical aspects of the religion if I don’t want to. I felt that my mum lived a fairly good life – she was certainly quite selfless when it came to ministry and active service – but one lived with certain insecurities that her religion could not address.
It’s complicated and there’ve been times I’ve become quite worked up about it but on this occasion I chose to avoid these negative emotions and spent an hour two of the day chatting to Mutty on various topics: my unrealised ambitions; who in the family was doing what and where; and old memories. She was remarkably conversational, more so than the last time I saw her a year back. My aunt Liz put it down to the blood transfusion she’d recently received.
An iron cross I bought in Antakya, southern Turkey, (formerly Antioch) which I bought her the previous year. We took it out of her draw and hung it on the wall by a thread.
My granny awaits the weekly visit of a communion-dispensing representative of the local parish
A selfie with gran in her living room, where she spends most of each morning unless the weather is good and she is wheeled out onto the verandah.
The rest of the family was busy as always. I arrived late on the Monday after Easter, ostensibly a holiday, to find my aunt working on some quotations. My uncle Derek’s asphalting business was always prone to fluctuations in cash flow so I wasn’t particularly surprised to learn how it been borderline viable over the Christmas period only recovering recently by dint of an influx of insurance jobs. Some late storms ensured that properties across the city experienced largely superficial damage to driveways, paving and exterior walls – bread and butter for my uncle’s business. I’d worked for him back in 2007 so I knew the deal.
The garden was looking great. My cousin Ellysa lived on the property with her husband Steve, a commercial diver who was currently working offshore somewhere in the Persian Gulf. They are hoping to put down a deposit on an old house somewhere in the vicinity, perhaps in the hope of starting a family of their own. I’d always admired Steve, an Englishman by upbringing, for his energetic lifestyle. He’d made a number of improvements to the property between jobs which included installing several large, green, plastic JoJo tanks for rainwater storage. They had quite obviously made all the difference over the dry summer. The photos below speak for themselves:
A Japanese cycad with a crown of new leaves
A fllowering orchid, one of my late grandpa’s collection.
The pretty Strelitzia or crane flower, indigenous to South Africa.
Shadow and Chloe rest on the top steps, probably waiting for me to take a dip in the pool.
Steve and Ellysa also do a great job of participating in a non-profit wildlife organisation called Monkey Helpline (you’ll find them on this page). I haven’t seen them in action but I’ve heard enough to know that they’re doing an invaluable job in the field of conservation, with particular emphasis on assisting injured and orphaned vervet monkeys. Whilst there the local troop of vervets visited the house on two occasions. My cousin and her mum feed the animals bread, oats and fruit to supplement their diets.
With the colonisation of that part of the coast by city-dwellers the natural vegetation has been cleared, altered and replaced by gardens, roads, houses, shopping malls, schools, fields and factories. Feeding them is just a means of being considerate for these free-ranging primates who are really quite entertaining. They are not aggressive although they can bite if cornered and I am surprised to read on the MH website that there has never recorded case of a rapid monkey in the city. See for example my video below and another taken by a Durban resident which shows several taking a dip in a swimming pool.
Here is a gallery of the furry creatures dining out on my aunt’s roof:
Quite remarkably I never made it down to the beach. During the week everyone was busy with their respective jobs – the family mostly works from home: my aunt on commission for a cupboard and cabinet outfit; my uncle for himself, Ellysa doing the office work – so I didn’t have the use of a car or anyone to take me down.
To be honest it didn’t bother me too much. On two occasions I walked across to the local shopping centre for odds and ends and for exercise I jogged up and down the hills a few times, an exhausting task I assure you. The rest of the time I was chatting with Mutty, Liz or Ellysa, watering the garden, swimming with the dogs in the late afternoon, discussing composting toilets and permaculture with my uncle and the like.
I should point out that I did not come directly to Durban but rather indirectly via Vryheid and Richard’s Bay. In the former resides a cousin of mine, Amy, who works as an occupational therapist at a local government hospital. She’d recently been on a workshop in Pretoria so we’d got to catch up over a drink and she’s extended the invitation for me to visit over the long Easter weekend. I went down on the Wednesday and she picked me up after work, gave me a tour of the little hospital before we headed back to her house in the suburbs.
She appeared to live a happy, independent life with 3 rescue dogs and a rescued kitten in a two bedroom cottage on a subdivided property. The owner lived in a house on the other side of a partition. In-between was a simple, two-roomed outbuilding in which the son resided. It was quickly apparent that the young man, Eugene, was besotted with my cousin. Amy possesses an air of self-assurance and a ready smile that seems to put people at ease. All of 26 she has a full head of blonde hair dyed with purple streaks in it. On her fridge was a hand-drawn picture of Queen Elsa from the Disney animation Frozen. It was a gift from Eugene who thought Amy looked just like the aloof snow-queen.
We had gone out on two successive evenings to a local bar called Ella The Greek. No surprise to learn that the proprietor was a Greek himself. In summary I can say that every male between 20-50 in the town seemed acquainted with my cousin, notwithstanding most of the women too and those who weren’t probably wanted to be. To be fair it was a typical small-town situation which put me in mind of Harare which, although substantially bigger than Vryheid, in a social context was not much different.
The local barman Shaun served us all evening and threw in a few extra shots for the sake of it. Amy told me he was one of the good ones who looked out for her. There was another young guy, JP, a bit of a hard luck story, who gravitated towards Amy partly out of affection but also as a ready source of ciggies. Now I have been informed that her parents are under no circumstances to learn about her habit, so if you do so happen to Mike and Jan your discretion in this matter is appreciated! Heck I am no-one to judge, puffing on a fair few myself. All the same I was a bit taken aback by the sheer number of smokers I encountered. There was barely anyone who didn’t smoke in the establishment.
On the Friday we dove down to Richard’s Bay to Amy’s folks. Her granny lived with them in the main house and I was able to move into the granny flat. Her dad Mike had built the place himself, being something of a jack of all trades. Like Steve he’s installed half-a-dozen plastic storage tanks for rainwater runoff as well as grey water from the washing machine. He claimed that his coverage was so effective (via the roofs and driveway) that it only required 5 mm of rainfall to refill all the JoJo tanks. In addition he had a swimming pool which was, he pointed out, a further 20 000 l emergency storage.
Richard’s Bay, or just R-Bay, had featured periodically in my upbringing. This was the first time I had visited in almost 14 years and the first time I’d visited without my cousins or one or other of my brothers. I’d gone down there with Ivan and my mum the year before she died and we’d gone back the following Christmas just before Ivan was to start university and I was to complete a final year at UP. The social and family dynamics had been different on that occasion.
I hadn’t really felt present if you know what I mean? It was no fault of Mike and Jan’s but it was still very reassuring to feel so welcome at the house all these years later. The addition of the granny flat aside nothing much had changed. Mike still drank cider, appeared slightly eccentric (well he is) and held forth on various issues with a strong opinion. I like him. Jan had recently retired after several decades of teaching English but was nonetheless cheerful and obliging.
I won’t write too much more except to say that I did get down to the beach. Hooray! After all those years away I was quite shocked to see how much the main bathing beach, Alkanstrand, had been eroded. The sea had cut into the previously broad expanse of sand and was in danger of undercutting the lifeguard’s hut. On the Easter Sunday I’d walked for some way along the beachfront heading north. I was impressed by the beach cliffs and the streaky black sands that are so characteristic of the area. This is not in fact oil or other pollution as one might expect at first glance but rather a concentration of heavy minerals like ilmenite and rutile, both titaniferous and commercially exploitable. I’d had a tour of the dune-mining operation of Richard’s Bay Minerals when I was an undergraduate at UP.
There’s no denying mankind’s rapacious appetite for natural commodities whether they be heavy minerals sands or the ocean’s bounty. There was an Easter fishing competition at the nearby Ski-boat club and the fishermen had hauled out quantities of rock-cod and various game-fish. Amy told me how she deplored the sight of the dead fish and I have to say that I agree after seeing the poor creatures laid out on concrete slabs by the boat ramp, their engorged swim bladders protruding from their mouths, macabre, like the tongues of drought-stricken cattle who have succumbed to thirst.
On an adjacent dredging platform some young teenagers leapt into the shallows with squeals of delight. I watched two guys snorkeling along the periphery. I’d done the same thing with Dale, a friend of Amy’s, the day before. On that occasion he’d pointed out an octopus hiding amongst the cracks in the concrete foundations. We’d let him be. Dale told me that he only took live specimens of tropical fish for his aquarium. He evidently had a big set of lungs.
Today one of the two snorkelers came out of the water gripping an octopus, whether the same one I’d seen the day before I can’t be sure. Laughing and moving the frantic creature from hand to hand he gave it to a fisherman friend on the shore. His two kids looked on in fascination as he proceeded to bash the poor creature senseless on a rock. He was doing nothing more than using it for bait. I turned away disgusted.
I love the ocean and the myriad creatures that live within but sometimes I wonder if most of us don’t just see her as another resource ripe for exploitation so that we can feed another hungry mouth or satisfy the whims of a middle-class ever keen to gorge on tasty, low-fat seafood. Such is the world we have made. It is not without hope though. I can see that there are many, like Dale, who care and understand the finite nature of the sea and her coastal resources.
An information board entitled Our Coast for Life near the car park elaborated on their importance for recreation, rural livelihoods and biodiversity. For me the photo I took of the Indian mother and daughter standing ankle-deep in the surf, a younger member of the family frolicking at right, with a large cargo-ship entering the harbour in the background, is somewhat symbolic of the choice we have to make between exploitation and utilisation on the one hand and recreation and conservation on the other. Only time will tell where the balance lies.
When I questioned Barbara on her source of funding for the renovations she revealed that she was solely dependent on income derived from visitors to her guesthouses. She had originally come to Antakya in the mid-1970s to establish a Catholic church, now presided over by Fth Domenico, a Carmelite priest.
The church backed onto the Taizé guesthouse which she had established subsequently. She’d rented the various rooms and courtyards for several decades. She was by no means assured of keeping them indefinitely. In recent years wealthier individuals and families had begun to buy the older houses for restoration. She worried that her landlord/s might be enticed to sell one or other of the accommodation she rented were an attractive offer made by a prospective re-developer.
She worried that her landlord/s might be enticed to sell one or other of the accommodation she rented were an attractive offer made by a prospective re-developer.
I can’t recall how exactly we located our new lodgings in Taghit. As I mentioned before, I was happy to entrust the logistics to the others. Apparently Mustaffa, the restaurant owner, had arranged things. We were to stay in the house of a local man a few kilometres north of the town. Like a typical desert inhabitant he had a dark complexion. He was slight of stature and it was hard to gauge from his neutral expression how pleased he was having us inhabit his home. I was unsure how much we were paying but Sofian assured me that the price was negotiated beforehand. The house was a modern structure, one of half a dozen or so on either side of a dusty street beyond which was a large expanse of dusty flat-land and the main road from town. He ushered us into a medium-sized living room where we would be sleeping. It had a small box TV set, several sofas accommodating a pile of cushions and blankets and a couple of mattresses on the floor in between. Against one wall was a picture of a young Muslim girl in earnest supplication before a picture of a mosque and minarets, a field of flowers and a night sky with stars and a crescent moon above. I saw this picture in a number of different homes and buildings on our travels. It obviously struck a chord with Algerians.
I was under the impression that we would be sharing the house with its occupant but apparently he was staying elsewhere and we would have the place to ourselves. Besides the living room there was a kitchen with a fridge and gas oven, a bathroom, toilet and a master bedroom. Not surprisingly there was no running water but a large plastic basin was filled in the bathroom and several plastic jugs and mugs were at hand. The furnishings were mostly cheap and more than likely Chinese but the place was tidy and clean and more than adequate for our needs.
I don’t know where the day went but by the time we had made it back to town it was late afternoon. Incidentally, it was the last day of the calendar year and that would explain the multitude of cars and pedestrians that had converged on the little town. There was only one main road bisecting the town and it was badly congested at this time. Numerous cars with northern number plates joined the queues mingling with buses and taxis at the main terminus. A couple of gendarmes stood on a street corner keeping an eye on proceedings but no-one seemed to be paying them much attention. This was the real hub of the town and where everything and everyone would converge: traders selling coloured bolts of cloth for shesh; fruit sellers; curio vendors; taxi-drivers and their cabs; buses and their touts; and street-side hawkers like a man selling bottles of camels’ milk sitting on a street corner pavement. Sofian told me that he wanted to buy one for his mother to help alleviate a health issue she was suffering from.
We made our way to a take-away to one side of the terminus, a place we would revisit on several occasions, advertising pizza and ‘fasfood.’ In reality it was nothing like a McDonald’s. There was a large pot of seasoned mincemeat on a hot-plate, from which a man in T-shirt with ‘Algeria’ written on it in bold letters was ladling dollops into hunks of open baguette. Jamel and Oussama each opted for one of these whilst Gilmour recommended to me that we buy an Algerian speciality called m’hajip. The best I can liken it to is a pancake with spicy filling. With our food securely wrapped in foil we headed back across the road towards the dunes on the other side. Much like Béni Abbès the dunes impinge right upon the edge of the town with only a relatively short stretch of flat ground separating the buildings from the mass of sand. Whether or not the dunes ever inundated the roads or buildings I never thought to ask, but I suspect they must do. On the flat ground there were various individuals and groups heading this way and that. Several pick-up trucks were parked randomly, its occupants somewhere above us on the sand dunes. Another arrived over-laden with youngsters, driving at full tilt before pulling up sharply at the base of a dune whilst they all leapt off laughing and shouting. From somewhere a quad bike appeared and scaled a steep-sided dune with apparent ease.
We stopped halfway up to consume our food while it was still hot and because we were all famished. The m’hajip wasn’t bad but Gilmour insisted the dish wasn’t as good as it was in his town.
“My mum’s is the best. More spicy, more flavour,” he insisted. It’s good to see that some things don’t change between cultures! Incidentally it was the last day of 2013. Watching the final sunset of the year from the top of a sand dune was obviously foremost on everyone’s mind. I was surprised by how much activity the end of the Western calendar year had generated. Sofian suggested that this was a relatively recent development and mostly only celebrated in the major cities or where the city dwellers had chosen to go at that time e.g. the desert. “Will anything be happening in Ain Oulmane?” I asked him.
“No, it won’t be a big deal,” he replied.
Still, I reckon a fair few of the local kids were enjoying the excitement. I remember Sofian talking to a couple of them near the summit. Many of them were throwing themselves down the steep slopes doing cartwheels or sliding on their backsides much like the scenes we had witnessed the evening before in Béni Abbès. There was a good reason why many people chose to walk up the edges of dunes (where they met) rather than the facing slopes; it was a lot easier going. The sand on the slopes was looser and one expended more energy on the climb up. Regardless of the conditions the climb up was a good test of fitness. Sofian and I pressed on ahead regardless of shouts from further back for us to slow down. Ahmed in particular, a fairly regular smoker, stopped frequently for breath, placing his hands on his thighs. He was the only one who regularly wore a shesh, beige in colour. He was also a bit on the portly side and by the time he reached the crest of a good few minutes behind he was well out of breath.
“C’est parce que les cigarettes,” he said with a shake of his head and a wave of his hand, his forefinger and index finger extended as if holding one of the incriminating objects. For once he wasn’t smiling. Still, it would be a glum person indeed who couldn’t see the beauty in the landscape from up there. Looking back west towards the town we had a good view in both directions of the road going both north and south and behind it the fat-topped ridge running parallel to it for miles on end. The sun was dipping low over the top of the ridge and the mix of light and shadow on the dunes was very photogenic. It was the view in the other direction that was most impressive though: a seemingly endless expanse of sand, or as Ahmed referred to it, une mer de sable (a sea of sand). I later gleaned from a tourist map in a hotel that referred to it as le Grand Erg Occidental (in English the Great Eastern Erg, an erg being a sand desert). Sofian and I contemplated climbing a neighbouring dune that was taller still and on which a sizeable crowd was gathering but the others weren’t so keen. We didn’t have the time anyway and the following photos are just a few of the many taken from our vantage point.
Once the sun had set and the temperature began to cool it was time to head back. Sofian challenged me to another race to the bottom and Jamel, aggrieved at having been left out the day before, joined in. Sofian got off to a flying start and never really looked back. Jamel was a few metres back and I brought up the tail by some distance. We walked back towards the centre of town in good spirits. The conversation turned to African politicians and we each impersonated one of our choice. I respectfully imitated the nasal voice of the very recently deceased Nelson Mandela which had my friends chuckling and Sofian did his favourite impersonation, that of the late Libyan leader Muammar Ghaddafi. Spreading his arms wide and grinning he intoned, “my beeble love me!” He explained to me that the letter ‘p’ was not part of Arabic alphabet and many Arabs pronounced it ‘b’ instead.
Conversation then turned towards the evening. Word had it that there was going to be a big party nearby but the price of tickets was quite dear, 4000 DN apparently. In real terms though this wasn’t much more than £20 at the street rate. I shrugged and said that I was up for it if the others were. Sofian, Gilmour and Ahmed were all keen but the other two remained quiet on the issue. When I pressed Sofian as to why they hadn’t committed he stated in diplomatic terms that they had felt it was inappropriate so far as their Islamic faith went. I wasn’t sure exactly what they anticipated but I would work it out in due course. We struggled to find a minibus heading in the direction of our accommodation but eventually we managed to jump into a chronically overcrowded bus in which I was fortunate to have a front passenger seat offered to me by the young boy touting for customers and who took the fare from them.
Back at the house Sofian took another call regarding the party. After a lengthy discussion he ended the call and shook his head looking dissatisfied. “I’m informed that the price is 6000 DN, not 4000.” It was bit annoying to be told one price and then another. As it stood I was getting short on dinars and didn’t have much in the way of hard currency on me, the remainder stashed away at Sofian’s place in Ain Oulmène. After a further phone call a compromise was reached: we could pay 4000 DN but we wouldn’t be able to eat. I shrugged and said it wouldn’t be a problem having eaten only an hour or so before. The other’s agreed. We cleaned and smartened up, ready to be collected a few minutes later. Sofian was wielding some eau de cologne and Gilmour was spraying himself with copious amounts of deodorant. “I’m gonna charm the ladies tonight,” he announced with a flourish and a grin.
Our lift arrived at the allotted time and the driver invited me to ride up front alongside him and his friend. As it turned out the driver was also the DJ and organiser of the event. He was a relatively fair, blue-eyed Algerian from a town on the Western coast. He introduced himself as DJ double-H in English. He seemed pleased to have me aboard and we chatted about London and football, crossing the tarred road and heading off into the darkness beyond. A few minutes and a couple of bumpy turns later we arrived at our destination. I don’t know if I had impressed him with my knowledge of the UK or professing to support Liverpool rather than Manchester United, but when we arrived he declared that we would be entitled to dinner after all, even though we weren’t paying the full face value of the ticket. The main attraction was a traditional musician, Hasna El Becharai, and her group. She is pictured on the front of the ticket. Without meaning any disrespect I mistook her for Mahatma Gandhi when I initially handled the ticket!
Set up before us was a large tent off to one side and a fire blazingly brightly off to the right of it. There was much activity outside the tent where men and women in traditional garb were apparently catering for the event. Various individuals, mostly young men, stood near the fire, some chatting amongst each other, some smoking, others silently watching the ongoing preparations.
I didn’t realise it initially but the fire had a specific purpose other than providing warmth on that chilly new year’s eve. The coals from the fire were periodically scooped up with a shovel and scattered on a row of mounds in the sand nearby. Our foil-wrapped food was being slow-cooked beneath the sand.
Inside the cavernous tent it was relatively quiet. As with the tent at the hostel the interior was a multitude of colours and decorative motifs. The roof material was composed of white and blue stripes (or it could have been dark green, it was hard to tell in the light). Behind the DJ’s end the backdrop was a floral-patterned rug or cloth. We chose to sit towards the back of the tent opposite the entrance side. In the opposing corner there was a small enclosure to house Hasna and her musical companions. They spent the better part of an hour there before emerging and making their way to the front and to the right of DJ HH and his sound paraphernalia. If I have to be honest I was quite impressed by the set-up: the lighting rig looked well adorned with kettle lamps; the DJ’s sound desk was attached to a cherry-red Macbook; and the speakers looked as though they could pump out a few decibels.
I had gone there without the expectation of eating, yet as the clock moved steadily through to 9 o’clock and then 10 o’clock with no sign of any food for the rest of the guests, I too found my thoughts wandering in that direction. A bottle of cola and some cutlery had been placed on a small table in front of us but had remained that way for what seemed like an age. I had gone out at some point to take a tinkle under a desert palm before ambling across to what remained of the bonfire. I saw Sofian standing nearby. There had been a bit of commotion outside the tent a few moments before. He informed me that an old women was single-handedly carrying a large pot of soup from the back when she and had slipped and spilt much of it, some on herself. Sofian was quite critical of the men supposedly involved in the event organising and catering for making an old woman do such heavy lifting. I noticed a few of these gentlemen making their presence known earlier in the tent, ushering people in. One of them was conspicuous by his rather gawky features and wonky teeth.
When the food eventually arrived sometime around 1030 we weren’t disappointed. Despite the earlier incident there seemed enough of the tasty soup to go round. This was followed by the most tender whole-chicken I think I’ve ever beheld. After two hours of charcoal-roasting the foil-wrapped chicken beneath the mounds of desert sand, it fell off the bone with little effort. To my left Gilmour fell upon it ravenously whilst I prodded the bowl of salad politely. Remembering that there were no social niceties to observe I followed suit. Within minutes there wasn’t much left beyond a dismembered carcass. We hardly needed to pick the bones so thoroughly had it been cooked. As the last of the bowls was whisked away by the attendant staff the band of six women began to play. Hasna El Becharia sat in the middle in a yellow and black headscarf and a pink and white shawl or robe. She looked the eldest by some years. The other women also wore head-scarves and garments, mostly in shades of brown, green and white. The exception was the women on the far left who wore a one-piece pink shawl.
The music was in the same style as the day before, an up-tempo beat put out by handheld rattles, shakers and a drum. Hasna played on both a traditional guitar and an electric variety whilst taking the lead vocals. The other women sang along in chorus. Hasna’s voice was rich and deep and could be quite easily mistaken for a man’s. For a while I hung back with Sofian watching from the back. Ahmed was on his feet before long, his shesh-clad head moving from side to side. I could see he was getting into the groove of things. Soon Gilmour was dancing next to him and singing enthusiastically. Unfortunately a large audience had now gathered in front of the band and I regretted that we hadn’t sat closer forward. However, after an intermission when everyone dispersed I managed to secure a position right in front of the artists next to an elderly woman in a wheelchair. Her husband proceeded to record the entire performance on a handheld camcorder. There were numerous mobile phones being used for the same purpose. I took a minute or two of footage but resisted the urge to take more because a) it was a serious drain on the battery and b) it could understandably pee off people behind who were trying to watch the performance.
The woman to Hasna’s right was much younger and had a brilliant set of white teeth in her round, attractive, dark-skinned face. She flashed me a smile when she saw me clapping along and I fancy I may have blushed. It didn’t matter because the kettle lamps with the red filters were illuminating everything at that moment. Her clear, sparkling eyes also stood out against the colour of her skin. I had been warned by Sofian and Gilmour of the allure of the eyes of the desert women, about how they could transfix and bewitch you, but I didn’t mind being bewitched tonight. Hasna would look to her to take up the rhythm of each new song with her percussion, be it a tambourine or traditional clapper. It was a bit annoying when, on several occasions, young gentlemen, usually under the influence of alcohol (yes, I saw it being consumed), would decide to ‘perform’ for the rest us right in front of the seated musicians. It never ceased to amaze me how drunk people seem to come to the conclusion that they are both more attractive and more talented whilst under the influence. Well, I suppose I can’t point fingers, but I really I hope I never tried to steal the limelight like these guys thought they could!
When the hour arrived the band made way for DJ HH who had been keeping a rather low profile until now. Cranking up the volume his speakers churned out the latest dance numbers from the world charts, not exactly complementing the sublime music of the desert ladies, but evidently to the enjoyment of most present. I went with it and the four of us did pretty well to let our hair down so to speak. Hasna and her band decided to call it a night at that stage. I had heard that Hasna was known throughout Algeria but I was still quite taken aback by the eagerness of the mob who wanted to be photographed with her and the other women in the band. Eventually they were compelled to depart as one from the tent to escape the melée. Gilmour pounced and managed to nab the nearest of the ladies who obliged us with a token photograph although sadly it wasn’t my desert beauty.
What was apparent to me was that the guys in the tent far outnumbered the girls and those girls who were there were either with family or boyfriends. I remember thinking that Gilmour would have to be the best damn lady charmer south of Algiers if he was going to get a lucky start to the new year. It didn’t happen either for him or any of the other hopefuls there I don’t think because before long it was only a bunch of guys jumping around to the beat. I remember going outside hoping to warm up by the fire. My battery was running low on battery as I tried a few artful photographs on night mode, most of which turned out blurry. Nevertheless, the sky was an inky black canvas on which myriad silvery-white pinpricks of light were liberally sprayed, and beneath it all the darkness of the desert punctuated only by a few fires and lanterns. Those images will live on in my mind beyond the bits and bytes of digital information encoded in the imperfect snap shots.
As I strolled back towards the tent mindful of how damn cold it had become at this early hour I noticed activity at the door of the tent. They were being selective about who could enter (or re-enter) the tent. I was trying to fathom who would be so determined to trek all this way to crash the party when Sofian was suddenly ejected through the entrance flap. Right behind him was the gawky guy with the bad teeth shouting at my good friend and trying to grab him by the arm. Sofian shrugged him off whilst the event employee wagged his finger at him and garbled insults before grabbing a rope to steady his wobbly knees. He was most definitely very drunk. Fortunately for us another one of the event people emerged and gave his inebriated colleague a curt clip round the ear and told him off. He was then the picture of humility, holding up his hands in apology as Sofian and I made our way back under the tent.
Inside Gilmour and Ahmed were still grooving. Sofian, obviously tired, lay down on one of the matresses. The next thing I knew DJ HH was blurting my name out over the loudpeaker: “Welcome to a very special guest tonight, Mr Leo, all the way from England! And to his friend, El Kheyr!” I looked over to Sofian, lying with his eyes closed, oblivious to the fact that his name had just been announced. Gilmour sauntered back from the sound desk grinning. “Did you hear that?”
“Only just” I said. “Not easy to hear anything over this lot,” I said, indicating the dancing groups of guys who seemed to be letting off a lot of pent-up energy. “But I think it was wasted on him,” I said with a smile and glance in Sofian’s direction.
When we got back to the house thirty minutes or so later, courtesy of DJ HH, the door to the front courtyard was locked. Someone raised Jamel on his mobile and he appeared a little while later looking drowsy. He opened up without a word and went straight back to bed. I spied the house owner sleeping in the main bedroom across the hallway when I made my way to the bathroom. I fell gladly onto my sofa bed and plunged into my first slumber of 2014.
I was awake at 8:30 on the first day of the new year; everyone else was fast asleep. Since I knew I couldn’t get back to sleep I got up, donned my shoes, and stepped outside. The street outside was relatively quiet but there were a few people here and there going about their daily routines. A little boy peeped out from a doorway across the road. I smiled at him and he ducked out of view. I decided to be bold and headed for the wadi that lay behind the town and below the prominent ridge I talked of. There was a wide open piece of land I had to cross before I reached the edge of town and the wadi. If you are entertaining visions of a bone-dry valley you would be very wrong indeed. Before my eyes was a surprising vista: to my right, a furrowed field with green shoots emerging from the light-brown soil; behind it, several smaller fields, some barren, some with new growth; to the left another field enclosed by mud walls and with a small homestead abutting it; and further back on either side a proliferation of palm trees. I heard voices from the small house on the edge of the field. Outside there was a fairly new-looking hatchback, a VW Golf or something similar, a notch or two above my VW Polo back in England anyway.
Not being content with only seeing the valley from this angle I decided to cross over to the other side and climb the ridge. This wasn’t as difficult as it may seem from the picture which magnifies the perspective somewhat. The real difficulty was in ascending beyond the stratum of harder rock about two-thirds the way up the ridge. Below it there was a lot of loose rock which could be climbed carefully, but the ridge itself was abrupt, steep and fissured. I decided that I had done enough for my morning amble, took some footage of the landscape, before descending. Interestingly, on my way down I noticed what looked like some fossil corals in some of the sedimentary rock. I’m almost certain that is what they were (my geology degree coming in use here, at long last). Quite a thought to imagine that the arid landscape around me was once inundated by sea.
Back at the ranch an hour later my colleagues were still asleep. Gradually they emerged from their slumber each in turn. After dressing and grooming we collectively made our way back to the main road on foot and crossed to a public tourism centre opposite. A set of imposing wrought iron gates opened onto a paved path which led to large, single-story building. There was a small desk against the wall to the right of the main door on which there were a number of ethnic curios: bangles, rings, charms and so forth. I followed Gilmour and Jamel along an extension of the paved pathway around the building to the left. We arrived at the door to a cafeteria and went inside. We sat at one of several round, stainless steel tables with matching chairs and ordered the usual fare: espresso and crème. A few minutes later the others joined us and in addition to more coffee ordered a batch of pre-wrapped croissants. They were nothing like the fresh variety but we just had to make do.
I noticed, not for the first time, that Gilmour would only take a few sips of his crème before pushing it to one side saying that it didn’t agree with him. He was more of an espresso drinker at this time of day and quite happy to pilfer a cigarette from Oussama or one of the others, although, like me, he professed to only being an ‘occasional’ smoker. Over breakfast Jamel and Oussama asked the rest of us a little bit more about our new year’s party.
“Were people getting drunk?” one of them asked. I looked across to Sofian and let him elaborate on his treatment at the hands of Mr Dodgy Teeth. He didn’t make much of it though. I admitted that some people were consuming alcohol in plain view but I had managed to enjoy myself without indulging (which, surprisingly enough, was true).
“Why do you take issue with drinking anyway when you choose to smoke?” I asked of Jamel and Oussama.
Oussama replied that alcohol was strictly forbidden in Islam and conceded that, strictly speaking, smoking was also haram because of its negative health effects. When I pressed him to elaborate he insisted that alcohol was the worse of the two though. I asked him if it wasn’t possible to drink in moderation and he gave me a sceptical smile.
“In my experience people behave very badly with alcohol,” he replied. I couldn’t really dispute this fact but I did try to make my point that some people were able to drink moderately and could actually control themselves.
“In addition, some alcohol beverages like red wine, actually have some positive side-effects,” I added citing something I had read about red wine reducing heart disease. Oussama raised his eyebrows and said he would have to look into it. All the same I was left with the impression that their views on alcohol were firmly held.
Back outside I took a stroll through the building and out the back with Sofian. There were paving slabs and a couple of smooth cement courts for basketball or football I’m guessing. Evidently there was also on site accommodation. A door to one of the rooms stood open showing a sparsely furnished interior.
“We need more private investment,” Sofian said gesturing towards the accommodation block. “This would not do for foreign tourists.” He had a point if the aim was to attract international visitors to remote destinations like Taghit. Perhaps it’s best to leave these decisions to the local communities? A multi-storied hotel would definitely be an eyesore here, but there was room for tastefully designed bungalows or traditional housing like the hostel in Béni Abbès.
Abutting the northern perimeter was a traditional tent propped up by wooden poles next to which were a couple of more modern, blue canvas-type tents. Sofian suggested they housed curio vendors who would have taken advantage of the influx of tourists over the new year. The display tent was unoccupied. A few rough carpets were spread out on the sand in front of the tent and further forward still was an ornamental fountain (no water) flanked by two stuffed animals that were most certainly wild goats. A bit of online research strongly suggests to me that they are aoudad or Atlas Barbary sheep, a species apparently threatened by poaching and habitat loss. I hope at least one of these two animals had a chance to reproduce before falling prey to the hunter’s rifle. To Sofian’s left and obscured slightly by a thick guy rope is the pelt of a fox with a beautiful thick tail. I never did get to ask the curio seller where he acquired these specimens or what price they commanded.
We returned to the main building to find the others sitting on some plastic chairs against one of the walls. There was a fair bit of activity by this time and there were a number of buses and cars parked either outside the gates or just within. Gilmour strolled over to the young boy selling curios and picked up a local drum or debourka. An authentic debourka is covered by a tensioned animal skin just like the traditional drums I knew from Zimbabwe, although I later saw ones with a plastic skin in a northern town which Gilmour claimed had superior acoustic properties. Returning to the present occasion, Gilmour slung the drum over his left shoulder and began rapping the fingers of both hands on the skin in quick succession. It looked effortless but an impressive rhythmic beat emanated from the instrument and reverberated off the nearby walls. I looked over to Ahmed who was smiling and moving to the rhythm. Soon he ambled across and picked up a second debourka and joined Gilmour in a two-part rhythm. And there we had it: music!
After providing us with ten minutes or so of free entertainment it was time to depart. The minibus taxi we had been waiting for had arrived. Besides the six of us there was also the house owner and four others we had met a short while before: a middle-aged woman and her pretty teenage daughter; and her niece and husband, recently married and on honeymoon. We departed and a few minutes later passed through the town centre, busy but not quite as congested as the day before. Once beyond the southern edge of town Gilmour resumed his musical exploits and soon had everyone at the back of the bus singing and clapping to a song they all seemed to know.
Our journey took us along the same route as the day before but in reverse. We passed the old settlement hemmed in against the road and then the series of dunes that had so impressed me the day before. When we reached the gate we had managed to negotiate the day before there was a protracted negotiation between the driver and a man who was evidently the taker of tolls. Sofian muttered something about extortion but eventually they agreed on a fee per head – 200 DN I think – and we were allowed to pass. We pulled off the road to where a few other vehicles were parked besides a motley collection of curio sellers selling a sample of what was on offer in the marketplace in Taghit: mounted specimens of desert rose; bottles of coloured sand arranged into patterns and desert silhouettes; bangles and bracelets; strips of coloured cloth; some colourful fabric bags (I bought one for 500 DN); and bottles of date syrup and foodstuffs.
The sound of an engine revving alerted me to the arrival of a quad bike manned by some uniformed individuals in sunglasses. They looked like they worked in the tourist trade. I followed the others over to admire the robust contraption. I can’t remember the price for a ride but I do remember Gilmour and Jamel jumping atop the idling machine and posing in turn for Oussama’s camera. I was happy to buy a small paper cup of traditionally-brewed tea from a man in a blue shesh who was kneeling in the sand before a tray and the ashes of a fire.
After having fallen prey to most of the distractions obviously intended for new arrivals we proceeded towards a rocky ridge a hundred yards or so beyond. There were already various groups of tourists wandering amongst the boulders at various levels. The first thing I noticed was the graffiti on the more prominent rocks facing us. Human beings are the same wherever you go in the world; a certain egotistic percentage will always try and leave an indelible sign of their presence at such places. I let my eyes wander over the adjacent rocks not knowing what to look for but hoping that perhaps there might be some paintings akin to the ones made by the bushmen in Zimbabwe, some allegedly thousands of years old. There weren’t any paintings but there were etchings, and some quite impressive ones as well. I posed next to a marvellously stylised image of a lion, my namesake, and a little higher up clambered onto a flat surface to find myself looking down at a very interesting picture.
The etching on this horizontal slab of rock clearly showed a wild goat or sheep (an aoudad?) standing proudly in profile. Around him were various other squiggles and lines etched into the solid, dark-brown sandstone, some forming recognisable images, some not. I could make out an etching of what looked like the sun to one side of the creature. Sofian and the household owner, inconspicuous until now, appeared over the lip of the rock. The latter, reading my mind, elaborated in Arabic the meaning behind the etching and Sofian translated. He explained how the hunters who carved the images had caught the animal and explained the significance of the rising sun to one side of it and the setting sun on the other. He would evidently appear on this rock or perhaps a nearby rock at first light, as if to survey his domain, and again at sunset. This was how the hunters had known when and where to lay in wait for him. Whether or not this was the truth I’m not in a position to say but it sounded plausible. My heart went out to the doomed animal struck down in a moment of solemnity, but it was tinged by admiration for the hunters who seemed to possess an aesthetic appreciation of the fine beast in his desert environment.
From the rock etchings we had turned back towards Taghit, stopping shortly beyond the old settlement of mud houses. I had missed it from the road but the ridge here was strewn with numerous building stones, the ruins most extensive where the slope flattened off. Dropping off to the west there were several large pits and caverns carved into the friable sandstone. Picking our way carefully between the stones Sofian, Ahmed and I climbed to the highest part of the ridge where we had a fabulous view towards the great, sandy erg to the east of us. The edge of the ridge dropped steeply to a moist, palm-covered strip flanking the road into Taghit. Unlike the wadi next to the ridge a little further north, where I had ventured earlier, surface water was visible here, although it probably flowed continuously after a decent rainfall.
It was mid-afternoon by the time we made our way back down to the minibus. The others were waiting impatiently for us. Gilmour informed us that we had ‘missed out’ on some Cuban beauties who they had met after we wandered off to see what lay higher up. He later showed us several snaps he had taken with the ladies in question, grinning happily all the while. He resumed his conversation with the middle-aged Algerian woman, leaning across at one point to tell me that she had extended an invitation to me to visit her in Tipaza before I headed back to England, yet another example of the warmth and friendliness of the Algerian people. Back in town we disembarked and paid our driver his dues and set about looking for something to eat. Gilmour remained with the ladies at what passed for an upmarket café in Taghit, whilst Sofian and I sought out something cheaper at our ever-dependable Pizzeria-cum-‘Fasfood’ establishment. Ahmed and the other two teachers joined us at some point deciding that the burgers were a bit expensive at the other place.
When Gilmour caught up with us he informed us that we had all been invited to a party with our friends that evening. Oussama and Jamel expressed an interest so I assume they did not anticipate any drunkenness. Sofian was non-committal so when the opportunity presented itself I asked him in private what his thoughts on the matter were.
“Those guys are just interested in the girls,” he replied. Well yes, I’m pretty sure that was the case I thought to myself, but what of it? “Anyway, I don’t feel like going out tonight. I think I will just relax back at the house.”
To be honest it was quite a relief to hear him echo my own sentiments. After the late night and early rise I wasn’t sure I was up for another party. The other thing was my rapidly dwindling supply of dinar. Sofian had assured me that he could draw money from his post office account and settle any shortfalls but I didn’t want to put pressure on him if I could help it.
We ambled across towards the dunes stopping at a curio shop where Ahmed showed me a set of woven couscous pots.
When I suggested that we climb the dunes again for one last sunset in the desert it wasn’t met with the most enthusiastic response from the others, with the exception of Sofian. There was no way I was going to miss out on my final evening in the desert so Sofian and I made for the same dune that we had climbed the day before on the understanding that the others could follow, wait for us or go back to the house; the choice was theirs. I looked back after Sofian and I had climbed for a few minutes and saw Jamel, Oussama, Ahmed and Gilmour trudging slowly up the ridge between the dunes. We had probably been up top for ten minutes by the time Ahmed finally made it, panting and gasping for air. We had a bit more time before sundown than the previous evening and there weren’t quite so many people to contend with. I was sporting a red shesh I had bought from a stall near the taxi terminus. Despite earlier reservations spirits soon lifted and before long Oussama was shooting away with his precious Nikon while the rest of us adopted various poses: smiling; serious; looking towards the horizon; leaping in the air in unison. It was a good way to end our desert adventure and probably three days together which none of us would ever forget.
Whilst I can by no means call myself a seasoned traveller I think I can honestly refer to myself as a seasoned commuter. It is somewhat ironic because for quite some time I hated travelling away from home. I suppose there are reasons for that but life today necessitates travel and there wasn’t any escaping it. The first time I travelled on a commercial airliner I was absolutely petrified. That was only a regional flight between Harare and Johannesburg en route to Port Elizabeth and university. A year later I was on a trans-continental flight to visit my aunt and uncle in Singapore and I vowed it would be the last time, but a considerable number of flights later I could finally breathe easier at altitude without feeling that strange and panicky detachment from the world below. I had even come to enjoy peering out at the unfolding view below: snow-capped mountains, oceans, rainforests, deserts, cities illuminated at night, patchwork farmlands by day…
For every flight I had been on I had probably taken several more coach rides. These varied in standard from the cool, air-conditioned cabins of the UK National Express with fairly adequate leg room to hellishly hot interiors in which the smell of fried-chicken mingled with human sweat on the cheaper trans-border coaches between Johannesburg and Harare. The stop at the Beit Bridge border post was usually the most testing part of the journey. In the early days of university the Greyhound enjoyed a certain status amongst the long-haulage passenger buses and one could expect to be at the front of the queue upon arrival at dawn. With time, however, the privilege was rescinded (rumour had it the necessary back-hander was no longer being paid to the notoriously corrupt border officials) and one could languish for hours in the muggy heat of the tropical border town which sat barely above sea level but well inland. I have a vivid recollection of desperately poor beggars, devious touts and the general filth outside the immigration and customs offices. All the while we were compelled to loiter outside the bus as one official or another made a leisurely inspection of our bags which had been unceremoniously disgorged from the baggage hold as numerous cockroaches scuttled between the items seeking reprieve from the heat.
I suppose my point is this: it had to be a pretty dire state of affairs for anything to compare to what had gone before. On the occasion of our overnight coach from Sétif to Béchar the seating was comfortable enough, even if a little cramped. Nevertheless I managed to wedge myself against the near side window and catch a little sleep. Sitting next to me was Gilmour who declared that he wouldn’t be able to sleep sitting as he was with his knees pressed up against the seat in front of him. We chatted for a while before his phone started buzzing. It was a girl admonishing him for not paying her more attention. Apparently he wasn’t interested in getting that serious. He said he had made it clear from the outset, shrugging his shoulders and sighing. I know he’ll be reading this so I won’t mention any more except to say that I don’t judge him. I strongly believe one’s private life should remain private and I commented only on what he chose to share with me. Anyhow, he kept himself busy chatting to various people as I fell into an uneasy sleep. When I awoke I found him sitting quietly, staring up the centre aisle of the bus and lost in his own thoughts.
At some stage we had stopped at a roadside eating house and wolfed down a meal of soup and bread before continuing on our way. Outside it was freezing and since Sofian was obviously feeling it more acutely than me (he complained of an air vent directly over his seat) I gave him the jacket he had lent me earlier. The situation then changed drastically as the driver felt compelled to crank up the heating to maximum. A blast of hot air reminiscent of an open oven vented forth and I found myself removing my jersey and fumbling around under my seat for a bottle of water. Gilmour remained unmoved as he did throughout our desert expedition, his scarf and winter coat firmly in place. Amazingly, I remember that when we stopped to pick up some passengers in Djelfa there was a dusting of snow on the ground outside. According to Sofian this was the highest and coldest point on our journey. The other thing the province was noted for was the beauty of its women. Unfortunately we didn’t stick around long enough to test the veracity of that claim.
I had offered Gilmour my old and not-quite-so-trusty iPod earlier and after listening to a few tunes myself he lent across and asked if he could use it. Half an hour or so later as we approached our next stop he handed the iPod back to me and complemented me on my choice of playlists. Truth be told I really needed to refresh them as I had been listening to the same songs for longer than I could care to remember! That Algerian diplomacy evident once again…
We arrived in Béchar at sunrise and disembarked at a coach station that was already bustling with traffic. We made enquiries and were told that we would have to make our way to a secondary station for our onward journey. I still wasn’t sure where we were heading but I trusted that Sofian had things in hand. He had been to the desert on the eastern side of the country but never to this part. We were actually within 100 km of the Moroccan border here. I wasn’t immediately taken with Béchar but I discovered that it had its charms nonetheless. The station itself was proclaimed as the Gare Routiere Hammadi on a big green signboard above the pillared entrance. The style of the building was what Sofian referred to as ‘Maghreb’, a word with geographical connotations. Wikipedia informs me that ‘the Maghreb is usually defined as much or most of the region of western North Africa or Northwest Africa, west of Egypt.’ It was an architectural style I would see repeatedly in Algeria from mosques to post-colonial public buildings like la gare. As the photograph below shows it’s characterised by straight edges: narrow, vertical pillars; a repeating chevron pattern closing off the gaps above the windows; and a flat roof. The only exceptions were the arch above the entrance and above the narrow windows on either side.
One other element worth noting in this picture is the wrought-iron lamppost at right. Oddly enough I hadn’t noticed any of this design in Algiers but almost as soon as I had stepped off the coach in Sétif I noticed one of the same design, slightly crooked, illuminating front of the station. I assumed it was a legacy of the French period of occupation. It may have been I suppose except that when I considered this avenue of lampposts here in Béchar I was struck by the relative modernity of the pavement. A closer examination confirmed that they had been forged in Oran, a coastal Algerian city to the west.
Lampposts and la gare aside there were a few other interesting buildings in the medium sized town. Several mosques with very sturdy, square-sectioned minarets towered above the neighbouring buildings. We passed one of these as we strolled down the main street trying to get our bearings. Although the sun was now up it was still uncomfortably cold in the shadows. Next to a local post office with its distinctive blue and yellow insignia we encountered the strangest looking mosque I have probably ever laid eyes on. The minaret rose stepwise and looked as though it might have once have doubled as a clock tower with an odd-looking pinnacle on top. The mosque itself had an unusual double-domed shape and flat sides, best illustrated in the photo below. Gilmour later told me that he had heard that it was once a synagogue which could explain the odd design.
We eventually found our way to the ‘other’ bus station which was nothing more than an dusty area at the junction of two roads. There were a few smaller taxis and minibuses there and a couple of the drivers shouted to us eagerly in the hope that we might be needing a ride. They soon lost interest when Sofian mentioned that wanted to go to Timimoun which was some 500 kms away. That would be another day’s journey and I assume none of them were plying that route. Sofian contemplated our situation and came to the conclusion that it would make more sense to head to the town of Béni Abbès which was less than half the distance from Béchar. The earliest bus departed there at midday so we had a few hours to kill. No problem, we were of one mind in heading for the nearest café for a spot of breakfast. We found a fairly contemporary establishment on the main road that passed la gare. Furthermore there was a ‘cyber’ (internet café) opposite it. So between the two we managed to while away a couple of hours before taking a leisurely stroll back across to where we needed to embark from.
This next bus was a little more modern than the one we had journeyed on overnight. This time I sat next to Sofian and Gilmour took a seat in the row in front of us next to a clean-shaven, well-dressed young man. I noticed some time later that the two of them had fallen into conversation. The journey south showed the landscape to have become considerably more arid. There wasn’t much in the way of vegetation except for the occasional clump of scrub or lone thorn tree. Mostly it was flat, denuded and boulder-strewn. I was heartened to get a first glimpse of that animal most immediately associated with the desert – a camel – several of them actually, casually browsing amongst the scrub. I asked Sofian if they were wild camels and he just smiled and assured me that they weren’t. He pointed out that one of them was tethered to a tree or pole, I can’t remember which. That was a breeding animal he said and too valuable to be allowed to roam freely. At some point I squinted at the eastern horizon which had tellingly changed a pinkish colour, smudged with textured light and shadow. It soon took form as a distant sea of sand and the promise of the classical Saharan desert landscape was near at hand. I felt a mounting sense of excitement. We really were going to the fabled desert of loosely robed nomads, rolling dunes and perhaps even the occasional oasis.
That reality wasn’t to be realised without a little further travelling however. After proceeding some 100 kms or so parallel to the distant sand dunes we came to a junction and turned to the left in a south-easterly direction. We drove for another hour or so as the dunes became perceptibly closer. Suddenly the bus slowed as we approached another junction and a roadblock manned by green-uniformed gendarmes. Most of them had automatic rifles slung over their shoulders. We came to a stop and two of them stepped aboard and walked the length of the aisle peering at us, the occupants, in-between the seats and the hand-luggage bays above our heads. I kept my mouth shut as did everyone else. Whatever their intentions the presence of men armed with lethal weapons had the immediate effect of making the passengers at the very least respectfully attentive, and more than likely not just a little wary. A little boy in one of the front seats chortled and reached out a little arm to the second gendarme as he walked back towards the door of the bus. I don’t know why but I felt myself tense up as if the child had unwittingly committed some taboo but the young gendarme cracked a smile and ruffled the little boy’s hair. I could feel the atmosphere relax and suddenly people were talking again as the bus spluttered back to life and we continued on our way.
We weren’t out of the woods yet though and shortly before our destination we encountered another roadblock manned by gendarmes. This time the two officers who boarded us were more thorough. Without saying a word bags were removed from the overhead spaces and the owners, myself included, required to step outside the bus for a more thorough inspection of the contents. Somehow I managed to comply and get back on the bus without having uttered a word of English or any other language for that matter. I was later assured by the others that the thoroughness of the gendarmes was simply a consequence of orders coming from the very top. I suppose that in the wake of all the disturbances of recent years, cross-border smuggling and terrorism and warring neighbours it shouldn’t have come as a surprise. I hadn’t realised it but relations between Morocco and Algeria were not good and the border had officially been closed for many years. Obviously they couldn’t patrol the entire length of it simultaneously and that, Sofian explained, was a large part of the problem. Drugs washed over from Morocco as well as other contraband I imagine.
Finally, once this second checkpoint had been negotiated we descended towards a long bridge and a landscape of lasting impression in my mind’s eye. The town of Béni Abbès lay nestled amidst the edge of the desert sands as they rose in a series of graceful dunes highlighted beautifully in the angled afternoon sunlight. In the valley on either side of the bridge were a proliferation of palm trees extending southwards into a broad floodplain to the south of the town. The approach to Béni Abbès was from the south-west and we didn’t have far to drive having crossed the bridge before we disembarked.
The disembarkation was a memorable, if not confusing occasion, because I was immediately greeted by two young gentlemen who shook my hand vigorously and seemed delighted to meet me. For the first time since we set off from Béchar I got to meet the clean-shaven guy who had been sitting next to Gilmour. He briefly introduced himself as Ahmed, smiling affably as he did so. The other two introduced themselves as Oussama and Jamel, both colleagues of Ahmed’s from the town of Messad. Like my two friends they were also teachers; Ahmed taught French and the other two were teachers of English. It was a very fortuitous coincidence because we were all to become firm friends. It almost seemed to me as though it had all been planned ahead of time. In a sense it had been. Ahmed had phoned his friends from the bus en route after talking with Gilmour and told them that he was in the company of three gentlemen who he thought they would really enjoy meeting. Jamel relayed this to me as we walked side by side in the direction from which we had just arrived.
“Now I know what Ahmed meant,” he said with a big smile. “Mr Leo, a real native English speaker.” Well, yes, quite so; at your service. In fact he spoke such decent English, probably at the level of an upper intermediate speaker, that I couldn’t really fathom why he would be so excited to meet me, other than the fact that I was a foreigner. Yet he assured me that this was a very rare occasion, to actually be able to converse with a native speaker of English. I was quite taken aback.
“You mean to say you have never actually met anyone before who speaks English as a first language?” I asked incredulously. Both Jamel and Oussama assured me that was the case. Of course they had made online friends in America and elsewhere through social networking but none of them had actually come to Algeria and neither of them had had an opportunity to travel to the West. Jamel was slightly shorter than Oussama with a wiry, athletic-looking build. He had a certain intensity to him that suggested that he was both engaging and probably someone who would defend his point of view with conviction. Oussama had a stockier build, an easy smile and more relaxed countenance. He never seemed to be in a particular rush to be anywhere, which to be honest we weren’t. He smoked Marlborough cigarettes languidly and usually sported a pair of silver aviator sunglasses. His great love was a Nikon digital SLR camera he had bought recently for a handsome sum. Like I had been with my first SLR (film not digital) he was forever experimenting with the settings and looking for a memorable shot in any given situation. Now I travelled with a relatively simple point and shoot for ease of use and in an effort to try and remain inconspicuous.
Jamel and Oussama had already made enquiries as regards accommodation. There were a limited number of hotels in the town and most of what there was was taken. However, they discovered a shared dormitory room in a hostel not far from the southern edge of town. So, leading us back down the hill in the direction of the bridge we made our way via a sandy side-alley to the establishment. It wasn’t your run-of-the-mill backpackers I’ll confess. The owners were part of an initiative which strove to promote eco-friendly and culturally authentic tourism, or so I’ve read on their website (Association Ouarourout). The building was of traditional mud bricks and plaster. The entrance led onto a broad courtyard with a tent on one side and a sheltered area with a few wooden stumps set about a sand-filled zinc-tub fireplace on the other. On the floor of the tent were laid out a number of brightly-coloured blankets. The walls were of similar material and around the perimeter, beneath the blankets, were underlying mattresses. The overall effect was inviting. We continued past a row of basins on the other side of a short, dividing wall before ascending a few steps, through a door and into a reception room. Our room was a short way further on at one end of a rectangular courtyard. There were two bunk-beds and two singles so that all six of us could be accommodated.
After dropping our bags we headed back out to the alley. Once again I wasn’t really sure where we were going but was happy to let the others take the lead. The two guys we dealt with at reception were dark-skinned African men who spoke no English and limited French. They must have instructed the others on where to go. I followed them at a leisurely pace along an extension of the alleyway, now constrained only by shoulder-high mud walls on either side. Beneath our feet we trod on fine sand and all around us there were stout, green-fronded palm trees. Many of them had clusters of dates at the juncture of the fronds but I was told they were only good as animal fodder. A little way further on the walls diminished in height and I could see freshly moulded mud bricks, perhaps for use in continuing the wall, perhaps not, spread out beneath the palms. Another passageway beckoned to our right and a few meters on we came to a courtyard inhabited by a local man clad in white robes and shesh, sitting cross-legged near an open fire enclosed by a cement border. Before him were an assortment of small tea glasses set on a silver tray, a china teapot and several metal pots. On the fire a metal teapot balanced precariously, evidently containing a brew of sorts. What ensued was one of the true charms of the desert folk: preparing tea, or as they pronounced it, shai (sh-ay).
It seemed quite an elaborate process and I wished I had paid more attention. What I can remember is that the brew, once ready, was removed from the fire and transferred to the china teapot in a particular fashion. The tea was always served sweetened and poured into the small glasses on the tray. This was the most impressive part of the ritual because it involved no small amount of skill. As he poured from the china teapot the man lifted the pot with a flourish until his arm was above his head, all the while tilting it so that a constant stream of liquid poured forth. He was obviously an old hand because not once did he misdirect a drop of the hot, amber-coloured tea as he performed this extravagant rite. The glasses were usually shaped with a slight curve, a bit like a jug but without the handle, and were sometimes crenelated along the lip. One held them between thumb and forefinger whilst carefully sipping the contents.
I smile when I think back to that afternoon because we had a lot of fun with our new found friends. Oussama’s SLR was passed around as we posed next to the fire and the master tea-pourer. Oussama insisted on taking quite a number of shots of me seated cross-legged besides the man who seemed quite disinterested in all the fuss. Then it was my turn to take a few pictures and in order not to be outdone Gilmour whipped out his Galaxy SII and took a couple of selfies (I think he made a point of taking a selfie at every stop en route!) and a few more posing with either myself or Sofian. Looking back in hindsight it’s quite amazing to think that the two respective groups of friends had scarcely known each other several hours yet here we were acting like the best of mates on holiday.
The other thing I hadn’t really appreciated until then was that most of the tourism in those parts was domestic. We were to see loads of people from the north – Algiers, Sétif, Oran etc – who had come to see in the new year in the desert. Besides the number plates of the vehicles which indicated which province the occupants originated from, Sofian told me that he could pick up on the accents. Our photographic revelry ended when a couple of ‘northerners’ appeared at the entrance to the courtyard. We let them shuffle in and in turn we moved back to the passageway and towards the sound of ethnic music which, until now, had been in the background. I had hoped there would be a group of local musicians but was disappointed to find that the sounds were simply emanating from a CD player concealed behind some curios. No big deal, there was still plenty to see. A white-robed fellow appeared beside me and posed for a mobile camera shot whilst another tourist strummed a badly-tuned 3-string, guitar-like instrument. We all took turns brandishing the various ethnic curiosities including an old single-barrelled rifle as the walled area, considerably smaller than the other courtyard, rapidly became congested by the animated hoard.
Once we had decided that we had seen it all and posed unashamedly for goodness-knows how many photographs we strolled back towards the hostel. Sunset wasn’t that far off so we ambled back up the road towards the main street of Béni Abbès. We bore left and continued ascending until the road levelled off and terminated before a flat stretch of land on which a multitude of people were coming and going. It was immediately obvious what the attraction was: an enormous sand dune, one of the ones visible from the bridge on the approach to Béni Abbès earlier in the day. We didn’t have much time but Jamel, Gilmour and I couldn’t help gawking at a camel and his owner who were standing a little way off framed against the setting sun. Oussama got a perfect silhouette shot of the camel before slinging the camera back over his shoulder and continuing in the direction of the dune. Jamel just couldn’t resist the opportunity to ride on the camel for a small fee of 200 DN I think it was, but as a consequence we almost missed the sunset when we eventually crested the dune a couple of minutes later. There was quite a crowd and we had to jostle to get a good view of the orange orb as it very quickly dipped below the horizon.
One thing I was to notice there in the desert was how quickly the mercury plummeted as the sun sank towards the horizon and disappeared from view. I had taken off my shoes and already the sand was uncomfortably cold. I challenged Sofian to a race down the edge of the dune back towards the town and we covered the same ground that had taken us several minutes to ascend in probably around half a minute or less! On this occasion I beat Sofian but only because he pulled up before the end, probably out of pity. The next time we were to race he would show me just how fast those lanky Algerian legs could carry him…
If Béni Abbès has road names I don’t know them (they aren’t even indicated on Google Maps), suffice to say that we strolled back towards the main street a few hundred yards away before turning right and following the flow of pedestrians back towards the centre of town. Getting something to eat was foremost in all our minds but as I was to discover now and on subsequent occasions, this usually involved some intense deliberation amongst the other members of the group. Not only that but once a decision was made on where to eat and what to eat, a further round of negotiations could be initiated with the owner of the establishment. On this occasion the decision was to purchase our dinner from a roadside restaurant, except that it didn’t have any food, or at least enough to service our needs. But there was a solution: the food would be cooked elsewhere. I assumed it would be delivered to the restaurant but after three quarters of an hour or so in which we went for another stroll our friendly proprietor reappeared with a friend driving an open-backed truck. Three of us bundled into the rear passenger seats and were whisked away to a home apartment five or so minutes from there in another part of town. The truck then returned to the restaurant and brought the others along.
We were greeted inside by an older man and who I assumed to be his two sons. He was dressed in a white robe and smiled broadly as he shook hands with each of us in turn. By this time I had learnt the basics of Arabic greeting so I could at least respond when he said “Salam Alekum. Wesh rak?” Literally translated, “God’s peace be upon you, how do you do?” to which one replied “la baas” or “I am good,” laying an open palm over your heart to show your sincerity. The room into which we were ushered was typically spacious and sparsely furnished. Against the far wall there were a number of cushions to sit on arranged around a carpet and rug on which stood a small, square table. After a brief wait the largest bowl of couscous that I had ever set my eyes on was laid before us, garnished with vegetables and hunks of tender goat’s meat. The gentlemen of the house retreated to another room and left us alone. As was traditional a bowl of hot, spicy gravy was places alongside so that we could flavour the couscous to our liking. There was also a large salad and a few other side dishes. As was custom we didn’t eat with individual bowls but each person had a fork and the food was consumed communally. It had the effect of making you more considerate on the one hand but more likely to eat considerably faster so as not to miss out on the best bits of meat on the other! It was a very memorable meal indeed. I wish I had a photograph to show you but the one taken on my mobile doesn’t do it justice.
After the meal we thanked the old man and one of his sons ran us back to town where we convened with our friendly facilitator, Mustafa. Jamel and Oussama insisted they would take care of payment. A passionate discussion with Mustafa ensued as I stood back with the others. What was going on? Was trying to dupe us, charge us more than he initially quoted? Eventually they agreed on something and some money changed hands but Mustafa still didn’t look happy.
“What was all that about?” I enquired of Jamel as he shook his head in exasperation.
“He didn’t want to accept any money but we insisted that he must,” Jamel replied. I had to smile inwardly at my misinterpretation of things. It was simply a case of selfless hospitality and a desire to make us feel our presence there was most welcome. Apparently Mustafa had promised that he could help us the following day with transportation. On our way back to the hostel I fell in step with Jamel and we continued our discussion from earlier. I asked him about his education and he explained to me the courses he had undertaken. They followed the French system of education gaining a baccalaureate rather than a GCSE qualification at high school or lycée. At university he had majored in English and now he was completing his Magister (postgraduate degree). In order to demonstrate his acquired knowledge he proceeded to give me a discourse on neuro-linguistic programming which tied in with something or other we were discussing. It sounded more like psychology to me but nonetheless impressive.
That evening we drank hot tea and listened to some local musicians in a small building roadside of the hostel. I had the opportunity to hear how that strange-looking guitar should really sound in the hands of a skilled musician. The band, if you could call it that, sat against a wall whilst the onlookers sat or stood around the outer perimeter and others, less inhibited, danced with abandon in the middle of the room. The guitar was amplified via a pick-up but otherwise the musicians played without the assistance of sound equipment. Another aspect of the music was the use of metallic hand-held ‘clappers’ reminiscent of Spanish castanets. They used them to control the rhythm and tempo of the music. Sofian translated some of the lyrics: they sang of the glory of Allah and His Prophet as well as more earthly things like a woman and the hardships of life.
The following day I awoke early with a nagging headache that had carried over from the previous evening, probably a consequence of not taking in enough fluids during the day. Ahmed had kindly given me a few Paracetemol tablets before bed but I didn’t want to disturb him from his slumber so I wandered through to the reception area where someone was sleeping on a cushion against the wall. I didn’t want to wake him either so continued on through instead. It seemed as though no one was awake. The day before I had wondered what the view from the roof was like so I ventured up two short stairways to the flat rooftop. There were a number of discarded items out of view of the clientèle, an unfinished room or two and some loose bricks but it otherwise looked secure. I found a vantage point overlooking our courtyard and waited as sunrise blossomed on the far horizon. It wasn’t as commanding as the view from the hotel at the summit of the town set behind a commanding wall but it wasn’t bad.
When I made my way back down the first of the guests had awoken and the sleeping man was no longer there in the reception room. I went back to the dormitory room where the others were still soundly asleep and gathered together a change of clothes and Sofian’s towel, which we were sharing. Gilmour and I had repeatedly reminded ourselves to buy towels en route but we kept forgetting and in fact we never did. His solution was simply not to shower, mine was to borrow Sofian’s. He didn’t seem to mind, that long-suffering comrade of mine. On my return I had to wait for two others to shower (there was only one) before I was able to get inside, surreptitiously slipping a bar of soap from one of the outside basins beneath my change of clothes. The ambient air was still chilly and the shower only lukewarm but it was still great to remove the grit and sweat of the last two days. Unfortunately I was now having to recycle used underwear and socks but needs must.
Back in the room the lads were gradually coming back to life. Jamel was sitting on a stump outside the room carefully grooming himself with the aid of a hand mirror. I noticed that young Algerian men generally take a good deal of pride in their appearance and Jamel was going to some lengths to ensure that his eyebrows were just right. I did an impersonation of his antics later to general amusement and laughter.
Leaving our bags at the hostel we made our way back to the road and continued until we met one of our local acquaintances from the night before at the next junction. Whilst they had a discussion in Arabic I admired the minaret of a mosque peeking out from between the palm trees on the one side and a long row of arches fronting a wall on the other. Every so often a door or window indicated a dwelling or shop therein. Seeing me contemplating the buildings Ahmed, ever knowledgeable on such matters, informed me that this was once the Jewish quarter of the town. The Jews had long since departed but their architecture remained. In fact Ahmed was to prove a very interesting and engaging travel companion. Unlike his two friends he had chosen to study and teach French rather than English and was the exception in being an unadulterated Francophile. His English was on a par with my French i.e. not very good, but speaking in our respective languages we were generally able to make ourselves understood. Still, I required the help of the others to interpret the mix of Arabic and French when the discussions became more involved. I only once saw him at odds with his friends since he was the picture of diplomacy and that had been the previous evening when we had sat around the fire in the entrance courtyard for a few minutes before bed.
I had been asking him about the history and impact of the French conquest of Algeria and he had elaborated briefly on the period of occupation (1830 – 1962) prior to the Algerian people gaining independence. “Qu’est-ce qu’ils nous ont laissé?” (What have they left us?) he repeated of the question I put to him. “Beaucoup de choses” (many things) he said with a smile and a shrug as he searched his mind for examples. However, before he could elaborate Jamel interjected forcibly. “I disagree. I disagree strongly,” he uttered. Oussama nodded and explained:
“The French chose to subjugate us during the occupation. They tried to impose their culture on us. Teaching Arabic was forbidden in the schools yet French was compulsory.” Sofian, sitting next to me, also nodded all the while.
“We would have prefered the English method of colonisation rather than the French. At least the English let the inhabitants of the countries they occupied speak their own language, practise their own traditions.” At this Ahmed smiled and wagged his index finger emphatically.
“Très intelligent, les Anglais.” And then cutting the air with a straight hand he added, “diviser pour régner” (divide and rule). Not for the first time I found myself in a position where I was naturally expected to affirm the pro-English notions of my companions (with the exception of Ahmed of course!) yet I felt uncomfortable doing so. Yes I was born in the UK but I was only nominally English. Most English people meeting me for the first time would inevitably ask me if I was from either South Africa or Australia. Yet here I was, the first native speaker many of them had met, and they waited expectantly for my reply.
“Well the British imperialism wasn’t perfect either. Just look at the mess that has become of my former country, Zimbabwe.” I don’t think I did anything to diminish their impression of England and the English but the discussion was disrupted anyway by the arrival of a gendarme. He had obviously got wind of my presence and after a cursory greeting he asked if he could see my passport. I had given it to the patron of the hostel earlier but fortunately he materialised and passed the document to the man whilst everyone around the fire looked on. He surveyed my visa and photograph before handing it back to me and wishing me an enjoyable holiday. I don’t know why but I felt for a moment as if he was annoyed that he hadn’t been notified of my presence before, but who knows what sort of responsibilities had been placed upon him by his superiors.
Returning to the present day we had gone back to the main street and sat down at a café across from Mustafa’s restaurant. We had already breakfasted at the hostel so we drank coffee and waited for further news from our friendly contact who was elsewhere at that moment in time. The street was busy and there were a variety of interesting characters sitting at the café smoking and chatting and watching the world go by. I got the feeling that time moved at a different pace in the desert. After a while I took a leisurely walk with Sofian down the street. A few shops away from Mustafa’s was a general store stocked with everything from boxed helva (a Mediterranean desert) and imported chocolate to the staples like couscous and sacks of beans. Over the entrance to the shop on either side of a name scrawled in Arabic script was the black-and-white badge of a football club to the left, as yet unfamiliar, and a picture of the Ain El Fouara fountain on the right. Sofian informed me that the shop was run by a Sétifian businessman. He obviously felt passionately about both his home football team and the notorious fountain and statue.
I was also amused to see that Sofian kept an eye on the number plates of passing vehicles. The last two digits of the number (there were no letters) indicated where the vehicle was registered and hence where the owner was likely to reside. A car registered in Sétif for instance ended in the number 19, whilst a plate from Algiers ended in 16 and so-on and so-forth. The previous day when he spied a Sétif-registered vehicle he had jokingly cried out “Steve-ah” in a nasal, high-pitched voice, apparently in imitating the Sétifian manner of talking. Gilmour and him took great pleasure in playing this little game.
One other connection to Sofian’s neck of the woods was when we met up with a chap called Lahcen from Ain Oulmane, on the road not far from the café. To be fair it wasn’t a complete coincidence because Sofian had been in phone contact with him since the day before. He was there purely on business. It did make Algeria seem a little smaller all the same. Lahcen sported a moustache and bore a passing resemblance to controversial Syrian leader Bashar Assad. He was accompanied by one of his young boys, much the same age as Ahmed’s son Mo. Sofian chatted with Lahcen for a few minutes before he left us to resume his business.
After waiting the better part of the morning a call came through to one of the boys to say that our lift was close by. As I said, things took time in the desert, but we weren’t to be disappointed. A burgundy Nissan Patrol, slightly dented but nevertheless in reasonable condition, pulled over to the pavement opposite the café and out stepped a short, stocky, bronze-skinned man also sporting a moustache. On his head he wore a checkered shesh and his blue-grey eyes looked cautious andobservant. I was later informed by Sofian that he had once been a cross-border smuggler but was reformed and now ran people and tourists between towns rather than contraband.
He drove us back to the hostel to collect our bags and then we headed off, albeit with a quick stop to see the local swimming pool which was alleged to use only natural desert ground water and no chemicals. We wouldn’t have time to swim but we still wanted to take a look anyway. It wasn’t much farther beyond the curio place we had been at the previous day. At the entrance was a hand-painted sign which lent itself to misinterpretation on my part. You can decide for yourself how ignorant I was by looking at the photograph below. I can tell you that my Anglo-centric brain read the last line as Soyez Lesbien Venus and hence interpreted it as the Pool of the Lesbian Venus. When I asked Sofian to translate he explained that the spelling was misleading but it meant to read les bienvenus (welcome). I explained my mistake and it became the source of much laughter then and for many days after.
The pool was indeed filled with fresh, crystal-clear blue water and if we had the time it would definitely have made a pleasant stop en route. Still, time being of the essence, our near-silent desert companion turned his vehicle around and we headed off in the direction of the bridge. As it turned out he had no intention of following the conventional tarred route and instead took us off-road along the edge of the river plain to the north of the bridge and into the desert proper. This drive was one of the highlights of our desert excursion together. Our driver, obviously an old hand, put his foot to the pedal as we sped over the harder, flatter ground and banked and turned expertly when we encountered low-lying sand dunes. We all whooped and hollered and took blurry photographs and video recordings of each other to capture our reaction and excitement whilst he motored onwards without displaying any outward sign of emotion whatsoever. I would love to have known what he thought of our antics.
We hadn’t been driving for long before a small clump of trees, both palms and a few exotics, hove into view. As we got closer we saw a group of tourists trekking out of town in the direction of the vegetation. Closer yet we could see a collection of camels, some seated, others standing or grazing on the scrubby vegetation. Most of them had someone in close attendance; dark-skinned men in robes and sheshs and some young boys in tracksuits. It wasn’t immediately apparent what their purpose was until the truck stopped and we disembarked. Jamel turned to me and announced that today I too would get to ride a camel. I have to say this was most definitely a box to be ticked on my holiday agenda. My only regret is that I didn’t actually look the part. With my collared shirt, sweater, corduroy trousers and running shoes I was most certainly something of an anomaly in those parts. Still, the experience of actually mounting one of the beasts and being led in a large circle over the surrounding plain was oddly serene. Sofian and I later agreed that we would have to do an expedition by camel at a later date.
After twenty minutes or so we were back in the Patrol and speeding off in a northerly direction away from Béni Abbès. We were making good time as the ground here was flat and sparsely vegetated. It wasn’t all plain sailing though. A further half and hour or so into our desert rally we encountered some dunes and became firmly lodged in some thick sand. After revving the engine hard and trying to reverse the truck our driver rightly concluded that we were stuck and instructed Jamel and Oussama who were sitting alongside me in the passenger seats to collect some branches from the spindly desert shrubs nearby to help the tyres gain traction. Meanwhile he dug out the wheels as best he could. Another rev of the engine and we were moving again as the branches were spat out unceremoniously by the spinning rear wheels. Sofian and Gilmour were all the while stuck in the back of the truck with a spare tyre. I wondered what other adventures our driver had experienced driving in the desert beyond the reach of civilization and mechanics. I noticed a spare fan-belt coiled around the gear lever and I had little doubt that he knew the workings of that vehicle intimately.
A little while later we were back on a tarred road and driving past some magnificent dunes which looked well trammelled. I would like to have stopped for some photos but I decided that we had lost enough time already and just sat back and enjoyed the view from the rear seat. We proceeded to pass through a road gate of some sorts manned by a bare-headed man who had placed a knotted string of coloured cloth across the narrow, tarred lane, encouraging us to stop. The driver exchanged a few words with him and he let us pass, not that the barrier would have posed any sort of problem had he chosen not to stop. We would discover the particular function of that unassuming road block the following day. Thereafter the road meandered through a village of mud-brick houses, some built right up against the road, before following the edge of a valley of indeterminate length towards the town of Taghit. We arrived there perhaps ten minutes later, disembarking in a busy market place cum bus stop. We thanked our driver, paid the agreed fee which was reasonable, before he disappeared as mysteriously as he had appeared suddenly earlier in the day.
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.
I must confess it was something of a relief to be leaving England on Boxing Day, 2013. Much of the countryside had been inundated by the incessant rain of the week leading up to Christmas. Although the temperatures had been mild for the most part, the rain literally put a dampener on most activities. It was living up to its colloquial name marvellously well: mud island. I jetted out of Gatwick Airport at a modest 0930 hrs (we had been delayed an hour by the shear amount of baggage the Algerian-dominated passenger contingent was trying to take aboard) and I took this shot with my phone – in flight mode of course – looking west along the southern coast of the UK just to the east of the port city of Southampton.
During the flight we made up for lost time with a strong tailwind blowing us across France, up and over the Pyrenees and Spain, then Barcelona and a blue and beautiful Mediterranean and finally Algiers. On the approach I could see it was a blustery day, the waves cresting and foaming energetically. The sun shone on the city and I got a good shot of our shadow cast upon a field as the aircraft dipped in towards Algiers International. I disembarked from the aircraft into a cooler-than-expected Algiers. As expected there was a fairly strong breeze gusting along the airport tarmac. I took my position in the bus that would ferry us to the terminal and soon found myself in the queue at the immigration desk. I was admitted without a hitch and continues on towards the baggage collection area.
At the carousel my fellow passengers gradually collected their bags and departed whilst I remained standing forlornly as the last of them was tossed out of the hatch. I caught the eye of one of the airport staff and explained my predicament to him as the remaining few continued doing an endless circuit, evidently in the absence of their owners. He did his best to try to assuage my anxiety. After hearing me describe it as a black bag with wheels and straps (for doubling as a backpack) he proceeded to grab the several remaining bags on the carousel (mainly black with wheels as it happened), each time asking optimistically if this might just be my lost bag? I tried my best to put on a stoic face but I had that feeling in the pit of my stomach that I wasn’t going to see my bag again that day, nor for a while yet. I thanked my friendly assistant with what grace I could muster and made my across to the Swissport desk who dealt with lost baggage enquiries. The first thing the assistant there asked me for was my boarding pass which I had printed off at home before I departed.
“Mr Schiller?” he enquired of me. Looking puzzled he showed me the baggage tag which the British Airways attendant at the baggage drop at Gatwick had stuck to my paper boarding pass. It read Schiller, R57LWZ, Cancun. “That’s just great” I though to myself. In all probability my bag was en route to Mexico in my name. There was nothing for it though, so leaving my name and my friend’s Algerian mobile number I proceeded through to the arrivals hall. Fortunately I had all essential items in my hand luggage: passport and money chief amongst them. I also had a couple of shirts, my camera, a spare mobile phone (which proved better able to roam than my smart phone) and some other trinkets. I would be ok. In some ways it would prove a blessing actually. We would be moving around a lot and one bag was ideal.
Sofian met me with a big smile and no recriminations even though he had been there since the morning. We strolled outside into a breezy Algiers and a car park populated by a surprisingly cosmopolitan array of vehicles, mostly modern Peugeots, VWs and Citreons. Whilst in Algeria I saw representatives of almost all popular Western brands, luxury models aside. I would also see many, many relic Peugeots which put me in mind of Zimbabwe where I spent my childhood. A particularly popular and resilient model is the one pictured below taken in another part of the country.
I knew Sofian from Turkey where we had taught together during the summer. We had taught English to children at a language school in a provincial town in the north of the country and had a thoroughly good time of it. We had shared a large living room in the apartment of one of the resident male teachers and we had become friends. I had never had a close Muslim friend before and observing the young man in the practise of his faith and the daily ritual of prayer was an eye opener for me. We managed to co-habit without issue and I found him good-humoured and as curious about me and my culture as I was of his. He had extended the invitation for me to visit Algeria several times before I had taken him up seriously a few weeks before Christmas. We had to act speedily to get the visa application in, Algerian visas being allegedly quite tricky to obtain. I had no trouble though and was granted 90 days with his letter of invitation.
Our first stop was the Hotel Khadidja in central Algiers. We took a taxi to the vicinity of the Grande Poste d’Alger where we disembarked. We proceeded to walk down the Rue Larbi Ben M’hidi, a road I would tread many times whilst in Algiers both then and later. I was immediately struck by the wealth of colonial architecture in the city. I imagine that Algiers had been an amazingly beautiful place in its heyday, and I say that at the risk of sounding like a colonial apologist. However I am not. Having talked to a number of Algerians, young and old, I am left in no doubt that the French, like so many imperial powers, suppressed the native Algerians in an effort to keep hold of the reins of power for as long as possible. All the same, from a purely aesthetic perspective one can hardly fail to admire the magnificent buildings adorned by balconies with stylised ironwork, louvred windows, plaster figurines and ornate sculptured reliefs. When I ventured to discuss the legacy with Sofian he just smiled and said, “the French built such magnificent buildings because they thought that they were never going to leave Algeria.”
Sofian had stayed at the Hotel Lala Khadidja once before and assured me it was habitable. We obtained a room on an upper floor for the very reasonable overnight fare of 900 Dinar each (approximately $9 pp). The room was clean with the advantage of having both a basin and our own shower. The ceiling was improbably high and a tall French-style door opened onto a narrow balcony with wrought-iron railings. It was obviously largely unchanged since it was built many decades before in another era.
The ascent to our floor was by a fantastic old, spiral staircase made of marble, pictured here:
The main drawback was that the room was pervaded by a smell of unknown origin (Sofian thought it was from the shower, I imagined it emanated from some pipework near the basin). Another was that the communal toilet was enclosed in a minute closet. It was notionally of European design but there was no paper, replaced instead by a hose attached to the wall for the necessary procedure. This was not in itself a problem except that there was no where for the water to drain other than the bowl and the tiny space within was usually drenched.
The view from the balcony was charming. To my left I could see back towards Rue Larbi Ben M’hidi but the view was mostly obscured by the building opposite, also of colonial design, but like most of them in Algiers in need of a lick of paint. Directly below was a street heading in a southerly direction and between the building I just described and a newer, ramshackle block of flats was a smaller side-street heading in the direction of the Ibn Badis Mosque. I could just make out the tops of the minarets over the assortment of satellite dishes, aerials and apartment blocks. The newer buildings were of suspect build but possessed a fascinating assortment of detritus, potted plants and ones that had germinated in situ, cables, household wares, rugs and clothes lines. Sofian had lamented on the lack of conformity to any sort of standard but there was a certain charm nonetheless. He did say that an earthquake in a town near the capital ten years before had caused much damage to the newer buildings. I’m not sure of the risk posed by seismicity to the Algiers laid out before me?
That evening we walked along the Rue d’Angkor which runs parallel to Port Said. This is an absolute must for any visitor to Algiers. The view and ambience are simply magnificent, especially in the evening light. A few cargo ships sat in dock loaded high with containers near some large hoists ready to load and unload the goods. Between the road and the port was a busy dual carriageway and a railway. As one walks in a northerly direction past the various terminals one approaches a Naval base which is off-limits but the view to the south and east is well worth taking in. From there we followed the road round to the north-west watching a group of young boys playing football on a fabulously smooth, paved boulevard probably unchanged since colonial French times and still in remarkably good condition. From there we approached another square and a fountain set against a backdrop of buildings and a mosque in one direction and seaward, a number of palm trees framed against the clear, late evening sky which was fading to hues of purple and indigo.
We decided to spend a further day and Algiers in order to visit some of the notable landmarks, starting with the statue of the Emir Abdelkader which we had passed the day before en route to the hotel. He is a historic liberation figure brandishing a sabre astride his horse, standing impressively upon a large base on which is written an Arabic inscription and alongside a bass relief of the Emir and a companion presumably heading into battle. The road encircled the Emir and the view down the Rue on either side was an impressive avenue of evergreen trees. A number of buildings flanked the Place d’Emir Abdelkader: a bank, a police station, a café called the Milk Bar where we had breakfasted and a library, intriguingly called Librairie du Tiers Monde or the Library of the Third World! We investigated at a later date and found it full of modern texts mostly in French, some in Arabic but almost nothing in English, a fact Sofian commented on disparagingly.
From there we had a closer look at the magnificent Grande Post or central post office with its huge, commanding entrance archways and beautiful decorative relief within. Sofian pointed out that inscribed beneath the upper floor around the perimeter of the building are the names of all 48 wilayas or provinces of Algeria. Sofian had an account with the post office and went in to draw some money. He suggested we wait until going to his home town before changing any of my US dollars on the black market. He distrusted the money changers in the capital reckoning they wouldn’t give us a fair rate. As it was the official rate of the dinar to the dollar was about 80:1 whilst on the black market one could realise 110:1. I was familiar with such disparities from living in Zimbabwe for so many years where foreign currency shortages were acute and the exchange differential before we officially adopted the US dollar in place of our own hyperinflated one had become stupendously large.
Shortly before 12 we had returned to the hotel from where Sofian had proceeded to the nearby Ibn Badis mosque for midday prayers. I took the opportunity to return to the area around the Grande Poste whilst the majority of the populace was either within the mosques or indoors. It always astounds me how quiet the streets in a Muslim city or town go at this hour. I walked up a street flanking the public gardens above the Grande Poste adorned by trees and shrubs, road-side stalls, a fountain and a stairway ascending to a summit. At the summit was a monument that I can only describe as anomalously ugly in relation to its surrounds. It is an angular white-washed object with a pair of hands breaking free from a pair of manacles on the one side and the just-discernible face of soldier on the other. Sofian and I passed it later and he referred to it as a Socialist creation. It was obviously commemorating the liberation of Algeria from the French in 1962.
Once we had eaten we proceeded to catch a taxi to the Jardin d’Essai which we had passed on our way in fro the airport. This is a relic of the colonial era, Algier’s most significant botanical gardens. The name translates literally as the ‘garden of trials’ or ‘experimentation.’ Intriguing, I’m not sure what exactly the French engaged in here! The gardens are a surprising find and well patronised by the local populace. Sofian lamented that there wasn’t a culture of gardening or of creating gardens, public nor private, in the culture of modern Algeria, a sentiment echoed by a friend of his I spoke to later on the trip. Nevertheless that the government has maintained the public gardens here and elsewhere in the city is something to commend them on. The Jardin d’Essai are literally an oasis of green in the metropolis. They possess some imposing specimens, particularly some species of figs with huge buttresses and immense branches sprouting roots which hung down like tresses. There were also some charming statues of native Algerian figures set amongst the trees, a series of ponds with mallard ducks and geese, several buildings and greenhouses and a number of straight paths flanked by avenues of unusual trees and palms.
After enjoying the gardens we proceeded to a smaller Jardin Zoologique i.e. a Zoo, near the eastern entrance. We had to kill a bit of time waiting for the gates to open at 11 o’clock and by the time we returned there was a large, somewhat disorderly queue of people waiting admission. It seemed to split in two so I joined one half whilst Sofian waited in the other. His queue seemed to bloat the closer it got to the admission desk whilst mine seemed a bit more orderly so he came across and we were eventually admitted after about thirty minutes or so. It was one of the many occasions where we shared a laugh over our common experience of what he called ‘Mama Africa’. He would say this with a broad grin.
Sofian had been to the gardens before with other friends from abroad, including an American friend, Robyn, who he had befriended in Turkey on a winter camp earlier in the year. She had expressed no interest in going to the zoo but I was curious to see what state the animals were being kept in. I was not entirely surprised to find it a fairly bland establishment but I’m not sure how critical I should be considering that most Algerians that visited had probably not seen much in the way of wildlife. The north of the country was far more developed and populated after all. I’m not sure that zoos anywhere can hope to emulate the natural environment of an animal in its entirety but the patrons of the Jardin Zoologique could have done better in so far as providing some more greenery for its animals. The cages housing the big cats: several lions, a pair of leopards and a pair of tigers, were almost devoid of vegetation. The latter beast paced up and down impatiently behind the bars of his enclosure. I had seen many of these animals before in other zoos in far-flung places, but I was secretly pleased to be able to observe at first hand a den of small, furry desert foxes curled up in the cool winter sunshine. Their ears were anomalously large which would help them to thermoregulate in their desert environment in the scorching summer months. There was also an enclosure with several gazelle species which inhabited the interior of the country. I wasn’t lucky enough to see any in the wild so this was also fortuitous in hindsight. I was to see numerous camels but the first I set eyes on was here at the zoo. The animal was chewing on a bar to his enclosure and a white, milky latex covered his gums and that part of the bar on which he was so intently working his discoloured teeth. I was not particularly taken with the animal I must say!
After our excursion to the zoo we walked back across the Jardin d’Essai and over the road to where a cable car ferried passengers up to the Monument du Martyre, an imposing concrete structure composed of three limbs, for want of a better word, converging on each other higher up before twisting and flaring near the top. It is the chief monument commemorating the sacrifice made by native Algerian citizens in the war of independence against France, literally translated as the Monument of the Martyr(ed). It’s shear size and pivotal location overlooking the surrounding city was obviously intended to convey the importance and solemnity of the achievement. A number of policeman positioned intermittently around the base of the monument prevented people from crossing the polished floor, whether to observe the inscription at the centre or to access the port-side perimeter of the monument. Later however, after dusk, when the crowds had dissipated we were able to gain access to the floor area but was prevented from taking too close a look at what looked like the bowl of a fountain at the very centre. On the earlier occasion we walked around the perimeter as Sofian explained to me who the statues represented and what part they had played in the struggle before being martyred.
As evening approached we had wandered across to a nearby multi-tiered shopping centre where people were enjoying entertainment of sorts including a jumping castle for kids and music. Whilst standing on one of the levels looking down upon the central square and its shrubs and fountains Sofian suddenly paused as he glimpsed someone standing nearby. It was his friend Krimo from university. A bizarre coincidence what might say but then again I discovered that Algerians were liable to travel large distances regularly. After all, at 2.3 million km2 it is now Africa’s largest country (after the separation of Sudan). I disovered that Sofian was often in touch with fellow travellers which would prove useful in the acquisition of lifts to and from various towns. Krimo was in Algiers with a group of young Cub Scouts whom we had seen amongst the throng at the monument half an hour or so earlier. They were visiting some sights outside of Algiers the following day and we were invited to join them. Sadly our schedule prevented us from doing so but not for the first time I was impressed by the friendliness of a young, educated, Algerian who spoke commendable English and who professed to look to the Anglophone world rather than the Francophone as a source of inspiration. There was a notable exception to this observation, but I will come to Ahmed later!
My introduction to Algerian cuisine was a favourable one. In the morning we had dined at the Milk Café near the statue of the Emir, drinking crème (basically a small latte) and eating French pastries: mille-feuille and croissant chief amongst them. The mille-feuille was a sort of composite creation of layered puff pastry alternating with pastry cream and topped with striped, glazed icing. It was delicious. Sofian showed me how it was traditionally eaten: one inserted a knife beneath a central layer of pastry and inverted the top half so that the glazed surface was now in the middle of the slice instead. Allegedly this prevented the icing from sticking to the roof of one’s mouth. The breakfast was the most obvious relic of French influence on the Algerian cuisine, but one that I didn’t mind one little bit! But perhaps the most significant endowment of the former colonists was the language. Everyone in Algiers seemed conversant in French and although spoken less in the smaller towns and villages we would visit later, the road and shop signs throughout displayed in French and Arabic and only rarely in English. Arabic is still the mother tongue, although numerous local dialects are spoken, and it is noteworthy that Algerian Arabic seems to have adopted a fair smattering of French words. For instance, listening to them converse in Arabic I noticed that many native Algerians often denoted numbers in French; dix, vingt, trente, cent, mille etc. My command of French was limited to GCSE Level done many years ago but I understood more than I could talk. It was nice to feel the Romance language on my tongue again but I lacked confidence and I got the feeling that not all Algerians, Sofian included, were particularly fond of the language for reasons I elaborate on elsewhere.
That evening we ate at one of the many roadside cafés in the vicinity of the hotel. I tried one of the local soups or shorba, and followed that up with a large plate of couscous. I knew that couscous was a regional staple and I expected to eat it frequently but was amused to hear from some of the young Algerians I met that they grew tired of eating it too often, besides which there proved quite a diversity of alternative main dishes. The ‘stew’ for the couscous was served in a separate bowl and one ladled it on as one saw fit. Meat was an integral part of any main meal I discovered, whether chicken, goat, mutton or beef. Often hunks of meat were served up alongside a stew to supplement the main dish.
We slept again at our hotel, having decided that there wasn’t much point moving and that the pros outweighed the cons. All the same the unpleasant odour we had noticed the day before seemed stronger that night. I read somewhere that one can expect smelly rooms in most budget accommodation in Algiers, probably a consequence of the old and decrepit plumbing. We opened the louvred doors to the balcony and let the sweet night air fill the interior. The smell receded and we got a decent night’s sleep even if we did have to throw an extra blanket on our respective beds.
The following morning we took breakfast at a pavement café near the Grande Poste and the juncture of one of the major pedestrian thoroughfares in the district. We would frequent the place several times before I returned to the UK . It was a great place to observe the ebb and flow of human traffic. Most young people in the capital dressed in Western-style clothing. The majority of the young women wore coats, close-fitting trousers and boots as I imagine girls of a similar age were wearing throughout Europe at that time of year. Many wore the muslim headscarf or hijab but a significant minority chose not to. The guys also wore coats and denims and many sported fashionable sports labels like Adidas as well as shirts and tracksuit tops belonging to big name football clubs like Barcelona and Manchester United. Some of the older generation dressed in a European style as well, particularly middle-aged women, but many older women wore shawls and hijab and occasionally a full burkha wearer would come past. The burkah is a very conservative one-piece shawl which covers a woman from head to feet with only a small slit for the eyes. It has a strict religious significance to the wearer. Beggars were present but not a persistent problem. Sofian pointed out a dark-skinned woman with young children seated against a wall with a begging bowl placed before her crossed legs. Besides her darker complexion she wore a brighter shawl and headscarf. “She’s from Mali” he explained. “You will see many of them begging. They have come here because of the conflict.” Indeed I would see them in all the other major towns we visited.
From the café we headed off to visit the Notre Dame d’Afrique, an allusion to its grander counterpart in Paris. All the same I was very surprised to see such a large European-style basilica sitting prominently on a hilltop to the north of Port Said vested with an unimpeded view out to sea and back along the coastline to the east. I picked up a brochure in the foyer of the church which describes it as being built in the Byzantine style pointing north-east towards Rome and the Vatican. The first foundation stone was laid in 1855 and it was finally completed 17 years later in 1872. Within is a bronze statue of the Virgin Mary which originated in France and which was venerated at two different locations before finally coming to reside at the Notre Dame d’Afrique. The brochure also alludes to the large number of marble tablets I witnessed adorning the interior walls which tell of the gratitude of many priests, monks and nuns for the founding of their orders throughout the continent. Whilst there a group of tourists entered with a guide who proceeded to relate, in French, the history of the church. Although I couldn’t follow him very well I was happy to lose myself in the inscriptions and abundant iconography within. To my left was the Nativity scene set out with statuettes and so forth, a ritual that would be observed throughout the Christian world at that time of year, and at least some more unusual locations as this Basilica testified to. There were various frescos adorning the apses of the church, one commemorating the life of St Augusine of Hippone (now Annaba), another the Passion of Christ and, above the Nativity, a fresco of the Last Supper.
I found the church interior a strange melange of styles, making it a bit gaudy and inconsistent in one sense, but nevertheless fascinating in its own way. The influence of Arabic art and design is quite evident in the photograph above which I took of the left apse, as manifest in the repeating patterns around the statue at centre, whether of Christ or St Augustine I’m unsure. On our way out we encountered the amicable guide who introduced himself as an Algerian of Italian residence. He spoke several languages and communicated a warm greeting in English to me. Thereafter he spoke largely in French to Sofian about one aspect or another of the Church that interested my friend. It was then that I noticed a model sailing ship, one with multiple masts and rigging, hung against the left wall. Its significance was lost on me until I read that the Basilica, particularly in its function as host to the bronze statue of St Mary, had brought multitudes of sailors to venerate her and to ‘pray to her for deliverance from the dangers of the sea.’
Outside the Basilica we strolled in the mid-morning sunshine taking photographs and admiring the seaward view. Whilst doing so we were approached by a young girl in a hijab who started communicating with Sofian. He called me over and explained that she had heard us speaking English and was curious to know who I was. He told her that I was English and she had seemed impressed. She asked me in halting English how I was and if I was enjoying my stay in Algeria. I was quite taken aback to learn that I was the first native English speaker that she had ever met. It was to prove thus on a number of subsequent occasions. She then took out a mobile phone and she and I posed for a photo against the railings with the blue Mediterranean beyond. Smiling shyly she scuttled back to where a younger sibbling was grouped together with two older women in traditional garb. They smiled and nodded in my direction. Considering that I had avoided meeting their gaze a few minutes earlier on the assumption that their conservative dress precluded any sort of acknowledgement, I felt glad that my notion had been a false one. I wish I had managed to get a picture of my own but my camera had been on the wrong setting – my fault – and Sofian had not managed to get a shot. I did, however, get a decent picture of the Basilica which I have inserted below.
After completing our tour we descended from the lofty height of the church along winding streets to the bottom where we were able to catch a taxi back to the hotel. Catching a yellow taxi in Algiers is an interesting proposition for a Westerner because you must be prepared to share your cab with other people. I’m fairly laid back so I didn’t mind but other people might find it frustrating. The reality was that transport was extremely cheap (fuel is heavily subsidised by the government) and a journey of a few miles would only cost somewhere in the region of 40 DN per person. From the hotel we walked with our belongings down to the Gare d’Alger, Algier’s main train station. The station building was interesting in the manner of such stations in major cities around the world, both within and without. The roof was adorned by an old mechanical clock – functioning – on either side of which in large block lettering was written the name of the station in both English and Arabic. We had to cross several busy lanes of traffic before descending to the station entrance. Sofian made enquiries and we were directed to a line of carriages waiting to disembark from the opposite platform. It was a bit of a squeeze getting on and before long it was impossible to move in either direction; a bit like any London train at rush hour really. I mentioned this to Sofian who raised his eyebrows. “Public transport is not quite as civilised in England as you might imagine,” I informed him with a smile.
Whilst we stood in one of the carriages the train proceeded eastwards for five or six stops before we disembarked. We headed back in the direction from which we had come in order to find the bus and taxi terminus for our journey out of Algiers to the town Sétif, not far from where Sofian lived with his mother and sister. Although I didn’t realise it at the time Sétifian taxi drivers were not allowed access to the terminus because of some disagreement with the local Algiers taxi drivers. Sofian pointed this out later but the upshot was that one had to find a taxi on the busy roadside for the journey east. We found ourselves a suitable intercity commuter and squeezed inside with five other passengers. There were two rows of passenger seats behind the driver and another seat in front. All the bags were squeezed into the small gap behind the back row of seats. Sofian had warned me about the driving in Algeria and I now had the fortune of being able to participate in the motorway slalom. Our driver accelerated quickly to a cruising speed of about 130 kph, keeping to the left of our dual-lane, east-bound carriageway i.e. the fast lane. If there was a slower vehicle impinging on this lane he simply kept on, tonking his horn if necessary, until it moved at the last moment into the right lane for us to pass. At other times he would pass on the right and accelerate into improbably small gaps between successive vehicles. It was a white-knuckle ride but Sofian was sympathetic. “This is a problem with Algeria today. People do what they like. There is no regulation from above.” When I mentioned that this style of driving would very soon land you with several points on your driving license back in the UK he nodded seriously. “That is how it should be” he said. Then, brightening up he grinned and uttered that great phrase that could explain away all this and more: “Mama Africa!”
So I’ve written a memoir and not, I hasten to add, an autobiography! As a friend of mine remarked, “isn’t it a bit early for that sort of thing?” Well quite. All the same it has been quite an interesting couple of years, primarily in England, but punctuated by two trips back to Africa. This is the main narrative time-frame, although I talk of events further back where they tie into present experience.
What inspired me to write this memoir? Several different strands of thought really. Firstly, I am predisposed towards writing anecdotes and commentary, but that hardly makes me stand out now does it?! Still, it wasn’t a huge extrapolation to start joining the blogs, commentary and photographic record into a coherent whole. I would like to call myself a travel writer. Perhaps not in the conventional understanding of the title, but all the same someone who qualifies by virtue of having traveled beyond their sphere of familiarity. But the essence of it is that I have had a great desire to seek an understanding of the world at large, more for my peace of mind than any other reason.
Like many first time writers I imagine, I suffered from a premature dose of enthusiasm and imagined that to get published was just a matter of finding the right publisher and selling my story to them. With any luck they would take charge of the nitty-gritty bits: proof-reading and editorial stuff, typesetting, marketing etc. I ran the usual gamut of publishers recommended by the Artists and Writers Yearbook, emailing sample chapters, synopses and cover-letters in the main but also printing off a few copies and physically mailing them to literary agents of a more traditional inclination. As the weeks and months dragged out I was to come to realise two things. Firstly, traditional publishing pf the sort I have just outlined is difficult. Secondly, memoirs are not half as enticing to the majority of publishers as other forms of literature, fiction being the biggest seller and crime fiction in particular. Actually, a perusal of the shelves of one of the established bookstores – Waterstones or WH Smith – will suggest that life-stories do sell. The only prerequisite is that one has to be famous in some regard: a man or woman of considerable sporting prowess or a pop-star being two obvious ones. I am neither. Thus I did not find myself a publisher but I did discover the world of self-publishing.
The accessibility of the platforms for self-publishing online through the likes of Lulu.com and Amazon’s KDP have transformed the market by making publishing accessible to everyone. Although this might result in a lowering of editorial standards at least it gives people like me a channel to print and distribute our tales. The print-on-demand facility offered by online publishers like Lulu is a boon, but digital publishing is probably the biggest innovation. Still, one can’t do everything from writing to publishing completely independently and without outside review. I was lucky to have had the editorial input of Judy Brown, a competent proof-reader, who accepted my ridiculously low project tender through the site Freelancer.co.uk. I wasn’t in a position to offer any more than I offered but she did a thorough job all the same. To any aspiring author out there I say this: make it your first and foremost objective to find a good and honest proof-reader to assess your manuscript once you have finished writing it. He or she will do it the world of good not just through correcting grammar and punctuation, but by suggesting where you could say things more concisely, explore a particular idea further or simply to suggest what might be a bias on your part that needs to be reappraised.
That said I will return to the matter of the memoir itself. Once complete, or nearly so, there was the need to decide on a title. After some consideration I decided on one – A Fairly Honest Account of a White African’s Life Abroad. When I first published in July 2012 this was the title of my book. In part I was inspired by the fairly recent TV documentary on the plight of a white Zimbabwean farmer and his family, Mugabe and the White African. Something about the stoic struggles of the White African appealed to my vanity. All the same I was dogged by a sense of doubt. Did something really mark me out as a White African? Did I have a particular identity by virtue of having been brought up in Africa of ethnically European parents? I was after all born in the UK and actually of mixed Western and Mediterranean European ethnicity. I decided that the term was too divisive and ambiguous, with echoes of the past, and I therefore decided to change it several months later. The revised title I decided upon was Between Two Worlds: The Account of a Jet-Setting Vagrant. I won’t elaborate any further without pasting in my synopsis, as I wrote it for my book in the Amazon bookstore. As follows:
This is a personal, insightful and sometimes entertaining recollection of the author’s adventures and nomadic life in the UK as well as two periods in that other world of his upbringing, Southern Africa.
Born in Britain to Rhodesian parents at the end of that country’s tumultuous civil war he was raised in a fairly peaceful and prosperous Zimbabwe. The narrative journey encompasses not only the present but the past. He does his best to make an objective assessment of modern Britain whilst elaborating on just what Zimbabwe (and South Africa) means to him, and the conflicting senses of identity and purpose in the homeland of his heart of which he is no longer a citizen.
In his quest for answers on his travels through the UK he surveys the cultural and political landscape of England today, revisits his birthplace in Ealing, and traverses the southwest of England in search of work. Circumstance draws him to his estranged uncle’s abode in the coastal city of Plymouth where the past and present collide unexpectedly.
I will endeavour to publish my introduction and a sample chapter or two on this blog to give the potential reader a taste of the book. I hasten to add that the book is most likely to appeal to those of a similar background to me: raised in Zimbabwe, although not necessarily white, and living or having lived in the UK and/or South Africa for a period of time. Furthermore, if I have to be honest I would say that the overall tone of the book is reflective rather than jocular or entertaining. I wouldn’t recommend you reading it if you don’t have an interest in history or delving into the human predicament. If this sounds too deep and introspective, fear not. Most of the book is about anecdotal experience and there is some humour too… I think!
A paperback version is also available though Lulu self-publishing (I am currently reviewing a hard copy in order to approve it for affiliate distribution i.e. Apple bookstore, B&N) and another ebook (in EPUB format). See my author spotlight for links to the book: http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/leopassi
Here is preview of the revised cover, as designed by Kamil Pawlik, an independent Polish designer I crowd-sourced: