Algeria Jan 2014: An Account of my Two Week Sojourn in the Company of Sofian Mihoub. Part III: Into the Desert

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 With time, however, the privilege was rescinded (rumour had it the necessary back-hander was no longer being paid to the notoriously corrupt border officials) and one could languish for hours in the muggy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

The Gare Routierre Hammadi, Béchar.
The Gare Routierre Hammadi, Béchar.

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.

The two Sofian's pose in front of this unusual mosque. Béchar.
The two Sofian’s pose in front of this unusual mosque. Béchar.

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.

Inside the hostel which had an authentic feel to it.
Inside the hostel which had an authentic feel to it. Béni Abbès.

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.

In the courtyard of the local tea-maker. From left to right: Ahmed, Sofian, Gilmour, me and Oussama. Beni Abbes.
In the courtyard of the local tea-maker. From left to right: Ahmed, Sofian, Gilmour, me and Oussama. Béni Abbès.

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.

Me posing with a rifle as another tourist displays his guitar skills to admiring friends.  Beni Abbes.
Me posing with a rifle as another tourist displays his guitar skills to admiring friends. Béni Abbès.

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.

Our first sunset as viewed from the top of a desert sand dune. From left: Oussama, Sofian, Jemal, Gilour and Ahmed. Béni Abbès.
Our first sunset as viewed from the top of a desert sand dune. From left: Oussama, Sofian, Jamel, Gilmour and Ahmed. Béni Abbès.

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…

Youngsters sliding and tumbling their way down the steep side of the dune. Béni Abbes.
Youngsters sliding and tumbling their way down the steep side of the dune. Béni Abbes.

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.

Sofian, Gilmour and Jemal  listening at a safe distance...
Sofian, Gilmour and Jamel listening at a safe distance. Near the hostel, Béni Abbès.
Oussama shows us his musical prowess.
Oussama shows us his musical prowess. Béni Abbès.

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.

Looking eastwards from the roof of the hostel at daybreak. Béni Abbès.
Looking eastwards from the roof of the hostel at daybreak to ramshackle mud walls palm trees and distant hills. Béni Abbès.

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.

Sofian outside the general store of a Sétifian businessman.
Sofian outside the general store of a Sétifian businessman.

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 sign for the local swimming pool in Beni Abbes whose name I mistook: a rather embarrassing faux pas. My take  - the pool of the Lesbian Venus!
The misleading sign for the local swimming pool. Béni Abbès.

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.

I surprised myself by managing to stay balanced whilst seated atop this camel.
I surprised myself by managing to stay balanced whilst seated atop this camel. Near Béni Abbès.
Sofian Gilmour and Oussama with camel owner in close attendance. near Béni Abbès.
Gilmour and Jamel with camel owner in close attendance. near Béni Abbès.

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.

Stuck temporarily in the desert sands en route between Beni Abbes and Taghit.
Stuck temporarily in the desert sands en route from Béni Abbès to Taghit.

Algeria Dec 2013: An Account of my Two Week Sojourn in the Company of Sofian Mihoub. Part I: Algiers

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.

Departing a sodden England. The river in the near foregound is probably the River Arun. My home in Ringwood is somewhere on the horizon at right.
Departing a sodden England. The river in the near foreground is probably the River Arun. My home in Ringwood is somewhere on the horizon at right.

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.

An old  Peugeot drives past a new mosque, in the final stages of construction. Apparently its benefactor is a rich lady with French money.
An ancient Peugeot drives past a new mosque, in the final stages of construction. Magra, M’Sila Province.

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.”

The promenade fronting the row of fine colonial-era buildings and looking out over Port Said and the broad Mediterranean beyond. Port Said, Algiers.

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.

Our room at Hotel Lala Khadidja
Our room at Hotel Lala Khadidja, Algiers.

The ascent to our floor was by a fantastic old, spiral staircase made of marble, pictured here:

The spiral marble staircase of the Hotel Lala Khadidja, Algiers.

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?

A typical assortment of apartments in Algiers, new and old cheek by jowl.
A typical assortment of apartments in Algiers, new and old cheek by jowl. Hotel Lala Khadidja, Algiers.

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.

Sitting by a fountain in a square (place) near the naval base end of Port Said.
Sitting by a fountain in a square (place) near the naval base end of Port Said, Alger.

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.

The Grande Post d'Alger.
La Grande Post d’Alger.

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.

A piece commemorating the liberation of Algeria above the Grande Poste d'Alger.
A piece commemorating the liberation of Algeria above the Grande Poste d’Alger.

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.

An amazing Ficus with roots trailing down like tendrils from the branches. The Jardin d'Essai.
An amazing Ficus with roots trailing down like tendrils from the branches. Le Jardin d’Essai, Algiers.

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.

The Zoo within the grounds of the Jardin d'Essai.
The Zoo within the grounds of the Jardin d’Essai, Algiers.

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!

Sofian does a pretty fearsome tiger impression!
Sofian does a pretty fearsome tiger impression! Le Jardin Zoologique, Algiers.

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.

A soldier, perhaps just a representation rather than an individual,holding aloft a flaming torch, mimicking the French statues of liberty, no doubt a deliberate embodiment.
A soldier, perhaps just a representation rather than an specific individual, holding aloft a flaming torch mimicking the Statue of Liberty, a French creation. There it represents progress and enlightenment. I presume this aspect of the statue of the soldier was a deliberate embodiment on the part of the sculptor. The Monument du Martyre, Algiers.
Me standing before the imposing Monument du Martyr, Algiers.

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.

Sofian looks thoughtful. Observe the ever-so-Parisian café where we regularly took espresso and croissant.
Sofian looks thoughtful. Observe the ever-so-Parisian café near the Grande Poste d’Alger where we regularly took espresso and croissants.

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.

The cosmopolitan area near the Grande Poste where one could observe the citizens of Algiers from one of the roadside cafes.
The cosmopolitan area near the Grande Poste d’Alger where one could leisurely observe the citizens of Algiers from one of the roadside cafés just out of view to the left of the picture.

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.

Looking towards the left apse of the Notre Dame d'Afrique, Algiers.
Looking towards the left apse of the Notre Dame d’Afrique, Algiers. Visible are a series of frescos on the life of St Augustine of Hippone, now Annaba in present day Algeria. He lived between 354 – 430 AD.

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.

The Western side of the Notre Dame d’Afrique, Algiers, illustrating its impressive design and basilica.

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!”