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 With time, however, the privilege was rescinded (rumour had it the necessary back-hander was no longer being paid to the notoriously corrupt border officials) and one could languish for hours in the muggy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 and observant. 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.