Tuesday, 31 December 2013

What a small world we live in

Our 'spot' on La Plage Rouge
One of Ireland’s biggest exports has always been its people, and it has often been said that you could lift up a rock anywhere in the world and find an Irish person.  Nowadays you’re more than likely to find an Algerian with them.  Through forums and Facebook groups geared primarily for women with connections to Algeria, and also through meeting foreign women living in Algeria I am amazed at all the corners of the globe to which Algerians have travelled.   From Iceland to Brazil, Australia to USA, Canada to Malaysia, Scandinavia, Russia, Europe and other parts of Africa, Algerians have gone and brought back the best kind of memento of their travels…...a foreign wife.

The world shrinks even further when you actually live in Algeria, where everyone seems to know everyone else simply because… they do!  And you cannot get away from them, because no matter where you go…someone knows who you are.  If you stand out like a foreigner then you have no hope of anonymity and there’s no point in getting high blood pressure trying to acquire it. 

In 2009 we travelled to Jijel, to a small out of the way place named Ziama.  It is a journey of about 6 hours (although it took us 11… but we will NOT go into that fiasco of detours, getting lost and following someone who thought he was the next Shumaker), so you would think it safe to say that we were truly getting away from it all.. and from anyone who knew us.  We discovered this beautiful un-spoilt beach that could only be reached through a winding path down the side of a mountain (probably the reason why it was un-spoilt).  Going down was no problem but after a morning of swimming and drying off in the sun, and with that dozy, sleepy, after-a-day-at-the-beach feeling, facing in to that steep climb back up was no joke.  I always had to make a couple of stops on the way up to catch my breath, while the magnificent views promptly took it again, and I have quite a lot of photos of the view from those vantage points.
 
I did say...puff, puff, that it was...puff, puff a STEEP climb puff, puff puff!
One day while my daughter, Sarah and I were sitting in our fisherman’s tent watching the rest of the family in the sea, and more specifically my eldest son who was 17 at the time, building a sandcastle (not much else to do once you had swam to your heart’s content).  We watched as he lay on his stomach taking a picture of his masterpiece and saw in the distance a man and his family approaching to our quiet corner of the beach.  As he got closer and closer we fully expected him to circle around my son and his sandcastle but no…. he stopped and appeared to be saying that he was going to put his parasol up in the small area between my son and his work of art.  While my daughter and I discussed the fact that we thought we had seen everything there was to be seen in Algerian behavior, but this one really took the biscuit, I was flabbergasted and full of pride in equal measures when my son stood up and shook the man’s hand.  What a wonderful, patient, mannerly, respectful boy I had brought up (while I wondered inwardly was he actually my son at all)! Afterwards he told us the man was… his Maths teacher!  He was only joking with him and he moved on further down the beach with his family. Imagine going away for a summer holiday only to meet up with your Maths teacher on the beach!  After that we became totally blasé when we bumped into members of the family that ran our nearest grocer’s shop, some friends of my husband and my son among a group of boy scouts and various other people from our hometown. 


And don’t think for a minute that you can get away from them all when you travel abroad, because I can’t count the number of ‘brothers’ my husband has bumped into in airports and on ferries, and even my quiet hometown in Ireland.  You marry an Algerian… you end up connected in some way to the whole flaming lot of them.
My son's sandfort 'masterpiece'

Saturday, 28 December 2013

Algeria? Where is that?

El Aouna, Jijel, Algeria
Although Algeria is the largest country in Africa and is about 9.8 times the size of the UK mainland it rarely gets a mention in International news coverage.  To be honest I knew absolutely nothing about the country when I met my husband.  When he told me where he was from I thought to myself ‘he’s very light skinned for a Nigerian!’  I knew where Morocca and Tunisa was but Algeria?  Hadn’t a clue!  I knew nothing about the country or its inhabitants and even after we were married I could never find any books on Algeria other than the Berlitz guide which was quite interesting and useful but not from a personal point of view.  Of course there were books in French but these didn’t look too exciting and seemed to be either very dry political treatises on the country or books by or about the heroes who fought for the independence of the country and their stories.  I could never find anything modern, in English about what it was like to live, or even visit here, least of all anything from a foreign point of view.

Algeria doesn’t have a tourist industry as such and there are good and bad points attached to this.  It doesn’t have the hawkers and the vast amounts of commercialism that a tourist industry can bring to a country, but at the same time it doesn’t have the nice restaurants and hotels either.  You can’t just decide to fly to Algeria on a whim… you need a visa, and in order to acquire one you need to have an invitation from someone in Algeria.  Most of the foreigners here are French ex-pats, who are of Algerian parentage, foreign wives of Algerians, and workers and students from all over the world, but especially other parts of Africa.
 
La Plage Rouge, Ziama, Jijel, Algeria
When I first came here 10 years ago I was quite a novelty, and, although I still am in many respects, there are more and more Algerians who know someone from Europe living here.  When I first arrived and people asked me why I came and how I found life here I discovered that, if I answered with a positive and happy reply, I was looked at in much the same way as people look at someone who is not ‘quite right in the head.’  And the more I tried to explain why the stronger the look.  But just as the infrastructure is changing and there are more hotels and swanky restaurants cropping up, so too are people’s attitude’s changing and people seem pleased that Westerners especially are coming over here to live, and the mindset now seems more ‘and why wouldn’t you come here?’

Because Algeria is so vast - it takes the same length of time to fly from Tamarasset in the South of Algeria to Algiers as it does to fly from Algiers to London - there are large variations in landscape with the mountains rolling down to the Mediterranean sea and the beaches in the summer, the snow in the mountains in the winter, and the vast expanse of the Sahara dessert.  The people in Constantine have a very different culture to those in Oran or Algiers or the Sahara, and what can be rude in one place is considered ok in another and the traditions and even language of the Kabyle people is totally different to those of the people who live in the deepest South of the Sahara.


It is sad but true that we saw more of the country when we came here on holiday than we have seen since we moved here.  This has been due to spending every spare penny and any free time we have on going back to see my family in Ireland, via England, and on renovating the house.  But inshallah…. we intend to change that……watch this space.
Cascades de Kefrida, Jijel,Algeria

Thursday, 26 December 2013

When is a football stadium not a football stadium


I was invited to an aqeeka one day and was really looking forward to seeing the hostess and the other ladies gathered to celebrate her son’s birth.  It was just my daughter, Sarah and me and, as I had never been to my friend’s house before, I asked my husband to ring her husband for directions and he told me he already knew where he lived.  There are some street names in Algeria but either people don’t know them or the names are not anywhere useful such as in public view, so most directions are given using motorway exits, area names and landmarks with varying levels of success. I hate getting directions from a friend to give to my husband, as it’s a total recipe for disaster and usually ends up with my husband threatening to turn around and go home   Minutes before I go out the door I ask my husband for directions only to be told ‘I don’t know his address..... I know the area he lives in’ which inspires me with no end of confidence.   So he rings my friend’s husband and gives us the following garbled set of directions ‘up the hill, then down the hill and just past the football stadium.... or maybe just before it, I’m not sure, you turn right, and end up coming back on yourself towards the motorway and you go under a footbridge and you turn right and there’s the gendarmerie..... or maybe..... the gendarmerie is before you turn right... I’m not sure...... and then when you get to this point you ring your friend and she will guide you to the house’.  Lesson number one learnt – always get the directions from the sister first, especially if she drives! To be fair to my husband his directions are always excellent if he’s been to the place before because he always looks out for landmarks, or as he calls them ‘my repair’.  But a football stadium..... really?

So we take the correct exit and then come to a fork on the road and, after taking a wrong turn, we finally end up on the right road looking for the what seems to be an invisible football stadium.  We see what looks like it might be one, or at least one by Algerian standards, so we turn right just after it and end up in Centre Ville which is not where we want to go so we turn back and end up on the motorway going towards home, which is not exactly where we want to go just at that moment either.  We’ve just turned back in the right direction and I ask Sarah if she can hear a funny noise and she says she thinks it’s just the road, but it continues so I decide to pull up at the side of a very busy road, where Alhamdulilah there’s space off road to stop without disturbing the traffic.  It’s in the middle of nowhere, under some trees with an orange grove, with lovely oranges, just beyond.  Sarah gets out of the car and I see by one look of her face that we are in t.r.o.u.b.l.e.  I get out and the front tyre on the right is as flat as a pancake and smoking.....literally!  Out of nowhere two boys appeared and asked if we had a spare tyre.  Do you think we could get the thing out of the car..... that was the hardest part of the whole operation.  Who knew you just unscrewed one thing in the car boot and that would loosen it from underneath the car.  One of them lay down on just cardboard on the mud and recovered it from underneath the car, and then they jacked up the car, loosened and removed the bolts, replaced the wheel and tightened the bolts back in place and really made sure they were tight.  May Allah bless these two boys because otherwise we would have had to get my husband out of work and wait until he borrowed a car and came to us.  I think he was very relieved when we decided to just return home.

As we drove home Sarah casually mentioned ‘Did you see the knife one of the boys had his in pocket?’  WHAT knife????  ‘Oh it was just a long, serrated edged one, like a breadknife!’  Oh that’s alright then!!!  To be honest they were both so respectful and well mannered that we both felt very comfortable with them, and Sarah said that, as we pulled up, she had seen them coming out of the fields where they had obviously been working and they probably used the knife in their work. Probably. We drove home at a very sedate pace altogether.... in fact we drove so slowly I became totally disorientated and found myself saying things like ‘I’ve never noticed THAT before’, probably because normally I flew past it, or ‘I thought we already passed the airport’ when in fact it was still some way ahead.  I was driving 50kmh and I felt like I was in one of those pedal cars we used to have as children.  So Alhamdulilah we arrived home safe and sound 2 ½ hours after leaving home.... much to the total disgust of some of the kids!  We were very disappointed at not being able to go to the aqeeka, but on the way home we passed an accident that had just happened, and we were reminded of how well Allah looked after us that day Alhamdulilah.

I did go back to that friend’s house another day with a couple of friends, and again, managed to get totally lost and ended up driving down the motorway again, in the wrong direction.  There’s nothing more dispiriting than driving in the totally wrong direction, further away from where you actually want to go, and knowing you can’t do anything about it until you can find an exit that will let you off your merry-go-round.  We took the back roads in the direction we wanted to go and every now and again we would stop and one of my passengers would call out our destination to a local and point ahead, and we would continue in the hope that we were actually getting nearer and not driving further into the wilderness.  We finally found our way to my friend’s house, through some of the most beautiful countryside, and found that elusive football stadium, which to be honest looked more like an opera house, so I didn’t even know it was one until I had reached my destination and my friend told me what it was.




Tuesday, 24 December 2013

'Nor-mal'


You cannot take anything for granted when driving in Algeria.  The fact that the person driving in front is indicating a right turn doesn’t mean that he or she is actually going to turn right… it could mean that they have just forgotten to turn off the right indicator.  Anyone can just move out in front of you at a moment’s notice so you better pay careful attention to the parked cars around you.  Buses that pull up to a stop are a clear warning that someone is going to cross the road in front of you. When I was young I had it burned into my brain that you should never, ever cross the road in front of a bus because you just can’t see the traffic coming on your side of the road, but in Algeria walking around to the end of the bus just seems like far too much trouble. And many is the time I’ve seen people driving in reverse up the hard shoulder of the motorway when they’ve missed an exit… oh heck I even saw a few people driving completely the wrong way up an exit off a motorway.  The great thing about this is… that if I make a mistake it’s not the end of the world.  People tend to just shrug their shoulders and say ‘nor-mal’.  Once I was driving on a road and decided I was going in the wrong direction so I did a ‘u’ turn and drove back the way I came.  As I drove the first car coming in the opposite direction flashed me and I realized I was driving on a one way system… the wrong way.  Did I turn back?  Are you kidding?  I didn’t want to get more lost than I already was ( and with a back seat of ex-pats urging me to ‘keep going, keep going’) so I put on my hazard lights, drove slowly, moved in when a car came in the opposite direction and wasn’t flashed once for the rest of the drive. Nor-mal.

There is no official breakdown service in Algeria, but that’s not really a problem, especially if you are a woman.  No man is going to drive past and leave you stranded at the side of the road.  Once I was so busy concentrating on trying to get off a quiet side road onto a busy motorway that I never noticed a big hole at the side in which the front tire got stuck.  Out of what seemed to be nowhere a man appeared and said that, if the passengers got out he would push the car out of the hole for me.  As soon as the passengers disembarked a few more men appeared and very soon the car was back on track Alhamdulilah.  When the passengers got back in I looked back and saw several cars and realized that these men had been passing by and had just stopped to help.


Then there are the police security check points, some of which cause really bad traffic jams especially during rush hours.  I find it so amusing that sometimes, after inching along the motorway for 10 minutes or more, when I finally reach the policeman he is frantically gesturing everyone to move faster through the checkpoint, and I think to myself ‘if you weren’t standing in the middle of the sodding road I could drive much faster!’  Occasionally I have been stopped and had my papers checked but it’s very rare and usually the policeman has been polite and respectful.


But then there was the day when I came across one who had obviously got up on the wrong side of the bed.  I was driving on a busy stretch of road when I realized I had missed my turning so I decided to turn around and, I was so busy watching for a gap in the busy road that I didn’t notice the little Police cabin on the other side of the road until I had crossed over right in front of it.  I knew immediately I was in trouble as the police are very tetchy about stopping or parking anywhere near their stations, barracks or road-side cabins for security reasons.  I could see the police man in his knee high black leather boots marching down the steps of the cabin was already in a temper as I drew up in front, and he started ranting and raving in the car window about how we cannot do a ‘u’ turn, like the one I had just made without asking their permission first.  My daughter politely apologized but tried to explain about me, the driver, being a foreigner (no point in being one if you can’t use it to your full advantage!), at which he looked at me and then continued to rant and rave.  Another policeman urged him to just let us be on our way, but he wasn’t having it, and my daughter continued to remonstrate with him, at which point, I could see us being hauled away and put in a dungeon never to be heard from again.  So I said to my daughter to stop arguing with him and while she and I were talking the policeman finally stopped mid-rant, listened and then beckoned us to continue on our way without another word.  We realized afterwards that he probably didn’t really believe that I, dressed in full hijab and niqab (face veil) was really a foreigner (after all how many foreigners dressed like that in Algeria?), and that he thought I was being arrogant, especially as I was the driver and I was the one who had made the mistake, at not wanting to address him directly, .  As soon as he heard us speak English he must have realized that I WAS indeed a foreigner…. strange and all as that must have seemed to him.  

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Driving up the wall


I think that, to live successfully as a foreigner in Algeria, its necessary to have a sense of adventure, and none more so than when driving here which is an experience all on its own.   I was here a year and a half and just couldn’t see myself ever driving a car in this country.  So many times, as we drove down a narrow street with cars parked on both sides and another car coming in the opposite direction, or we were stuck in a junction crammed full of cars at all angles, I thought to myself, ‘If it was me driving the car I’d stop right now, get out, and walk away and just abandon the car’.  People talk about how scary it is driving on the motorway but I never found it as scary as driving in an area full of pedestrians – they act as if they own the road and they are only letting you drive on it out of the goodness of their hearts, so you are the one who has to watch out for them, and woe betide anyone who hits a pedestrian with any vehicle of any kind!

My husband was going abroad for 3 months and I just couldn’t stand the thought of our car sitting in the front courtyard, with me struggling to do the shopping and paying the bills on foot.  So I took my courage in both hands and went with my husband to an open space and got into the driver’s seat.  After whacking my left hand against the driver’s door a few times it finally sunk into my brain that I now was driving a left hand drive and needed to use my right hand to change the gears.  I started to wear a different type of hijab soon after I moved to Algeria, and this one consisted of something like a cloak with voluminous amounts of material which I somehow managed to get wrapped around the steering wheel and lock it into place, or else I lost my hands in it so I couldn’t get at the gear stick.  I finally learnt to just tuck all the extra material behind me as soon as I got into the car.

All this was nothing to actually driving on the road with pedestrians routinely stepping off the footpath and crossing the road in front of you, usually at a leisurely pace.  However, I found I had an advantage over most other drivers in this instance – I wear a face veil called a niqaab with only my eyes uncovered, and so many times I have seen pedestrians put their foot down to cross in front of me, take a quick glance at me, do a double-take and put their foot back on the footpath. The expression on their faces say it all “Can she REALLY see where she is going wearing that???”  Of course I sometimes have those who walk across the road in front of me walking so slowly because they are too busy staring at me and trying to figure out on which side the steering wheel is.


And then there is the motorway which, can sometimes be like driving in a speed rally, with cars coming out of nowhere and darting in and out of lanes wherever they can find a space. I, personally, prefer to drive in the fast lane. The slow lane has drivers who take the term “slow” to a whole new level. The middle lane, for me, can be heart stopping with cars coming at you from right and left to overtake. So I drive in the fast lane with my eye on the rear view mirror and when I see someone coming up behind me I move over – unless there is a lot of traffic ahead of me when then, sometimes, you get the flashing light because you won’t move. That is when my son does his arm flapping, imitating a flying bird to signify “What do you want us to do – fly?”  I refuse point blank to flash or beep at anyone unless in an emergency as I feel this is just beneath my dignity, so if I’m stuck behind someone in the fast lane, who really should be in the slow one, I just move over to the middle lane and wait for the inevitable irritable driver to come up behind them and beep and flash them out of the fast lane.. and then I quietly move back into the fast lane.  Passive aggression at its best.


Sometimes it feels as if the whole of Algiers is just one big building site with roads being dug up here and there for new water pipes, the tramway, new roads and motorways and God knows what else.  To be honest, although it can be so frustrating to be stuck in a traffic jam caused by these road works, it is good to see things moving in Algiers, to see improvements being made, to see them finally making up for lost time and investing in the infrastructure of this wonderful city.  But driving on these kinds of roads is not easy and, a lot of the time, you find yourself totally in reverse to the rest of the world - driving in the potholes and trying to avoid the road.


Friday, 20 December 2013

Preparation and change


Looking back on our preparations for coming to Algeria the one thing I regret not doing is giving the eldest children French lessons.  When my eldest daughter joined us after finishing her ‘A’ levels in England she was able to get an equivalence and enroll in University studying science subjects, she struggled as everything was taught in French.  Not every University teaches through French, some teach through Arabic and often it depends on what subjects you take, with the Science subjects usually in French and the Islamic Sciences in Arabic.  My eldest son also struggled at the beginning with his lack of French education, as they have a co-efficient system whereby some subjects like Arabic, Maths and French are worth a lot more in marks than others like History, Geography, Civics etc.

Something I am happy about is that they had a good grounding in Arabic.  Needless to say, I wasn’t able to do this, but this was my husband’s domain and I am so grateful to him as it was a good preparation for their school life here. One of the things my second daughter said that she didn’t do well in when she first came here (as an 8 year old) was Arabic dictation – a lot of time in school is spent taking notes and you need to be very fast in your writing skills! 

Maths is not my thing and this was something else I left to my husband when I was home educating my children in England.  I remember my 8 year old asking me why I did long division the way that I did… and I just couldn’t explain it to her, because I didn’t know.  I had always done it that way, but didn’t really understand the methodology behind it.  So I got her father to explain, and he did it in an entirely different way altogether, and it’s the way that they do it here in Algeria.  My eldest daughter who also loves the subject says that, although it seems to be more convoluted, it actually shows the methodology behind it much better and gives the child a better grounding in the subject.  They also were acquainted with the Maths terminology in Arabic, again thanks to my husband.

Staying back a year is something perfectly normal here and commonly done and does not have the same stigma at all that it has in England.  If the children’s average throughout the year comes below 10 (out of 20) then they are automatically kept back to repeat the year again, which is why you will have some older children in the same year as younger ones. Having said all of this, girls do a lot better here than boys and it is more common for boys to stay back a year than girls.

Their transition here was made a lot easier as they had a smattering of derja before we moved.  My husband used to speak mainly Arabic Fous-ha to our children, but he also spoke in derja especially when he and they were with other Algerians, and the older two had spent a few holidays here and so had a good foundation. This is the spoken language here in the schools (outside of lessons and sometimes even in the lessons also, although the lessons are given primarily in Fous-ha), in the streets and amongst the family.  It made such a difference in helping them to adapt, and they weren’t even very fluent, but with a basis they picked it up in no time.  Within a short time of moving here they were all very fluent alhamdulilah. 

We were here almost 6 months before our second and third child started school, and I think that those months of settling in, adapting to their new environment, making friends, improving their use of the derja language all helped them to find their feet and acclimatize to the country and their new home.

I would never go so far as to say that my children like school but they never dread it either.  At the end of the school holidays and the beginning of the new week they all, without exception, go off to school quite happily and it never fails to surprise me that they ARE so happy.   So it can’t all be that bad.  I think having friends and having a good laugh with them is what encourages them and eases the day for them.  Or else….. it’s that school, bad and all as it is, is still preferable to staying at home with ME!

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

“There is plenty to be learned even from a bad teacher: what not to do, how not to be.” J.K. Rowling

Koroba University, Algiers
The education system here consists of primary school (‘primaire’) which starts at age 6 and lasts until age 10 when they graduate, through the ‘sixieme’ exam to middle school (‘su-em’) lasts 4 years until they sit for the BEM.  If they pass this then they continue on to high school (‘lycee’) for another 3 years until they sit for their Baccalaureate exam which is their entry to University.  Education is compulsory until the age of 16 and is free here from primary to University with some economic help given to those whose parents are out of work.  There are even special buses provided to bring students from all corners of Algiers to the various universities with segregated campuses for students whose homes are too far for them to commute daily.

As for the subjects that they study for the BAC – it all depends on which subjects they do well in, during secondary school, and especially in their overall average for the year, more so than the BEM exam itself.  The first year of the BAC is separated into 2 streams – Literature and Science.  Each of these is then divided up again:

LITERATURE:

1.         All three main languages – Arabic, English and French plus Spanish
2.         All three main languages – Arabic, English and French plus German
3.         Philosophy, Arabic, Islamic studies

SCIENCE:

1.         Accounting
2.         Technology
3.         Maths
4.         Science

They study other subjects as well but concentrate on these specialties. After the first year’s exams, and depending on their results, they are then streamlined into whatever specialty they have done well in, and will sit the BAC exam for this particular one. 


Science is considered to be the most prestigious choice and many young people are pushed into this category whether they have a flair for it or not.  In the same way many people are urged into a profession for all the wrong reasons.  When I was growing up in Ireland there were three career paths that were considered vocations – the priesthood or becoming a nun, nursing and teaching, because these were thought to be the careers especially blessed by God, and the best qualities for which were bestowed to only some special people.  So many young women in Algeria are encouraged to be teachers whether they have a talent for it or not, because it means that they can continue to work after marriage as the hours suit a wife and mother.  In addition many young people who have left university with a degree go into teaching without any formal training and it shows.  There are courses that train teachers and do a very good job of it, but many times it’s not necessary to have this training to find a job in teaching if you already have a degree.    I found that this was the biggest problem – unprofessional teachers, as all of my children found it very difficult to do any work for teachers whose methods of teaching and controlling the class were ridiculous e.g. talking incessantly about nothing relating to the subject they are supposed to be teaching, putting down the school and oftentimes the country itself, trying too hard to be young and hip one minute and then be authoritarian the next, etc. And they have all often complained about the same teachers as each one progresses through the system.  On the other hand they have also had teachers whom they really liked and respected and for whom they tried harder.  And again, usually these are the same ones that they have all liked.

Monday, 16 December 2013

A slap in the face

I don’t know if you can really prepare your children for the rough and tumble of school life here in Algeria.  The Algerians can, in general, be quite rough in their dealings with each other, whether this is verbal or physical and sometimes what we would consider extremely rude, is thought of as absolutely normal here.  This may explain why, although slapping children in school is now against the law, it is still so widespread in the schools here.  The society in general doesn’t really see anything much wrong with it, and parents rarely complain when their child has been slapped. Although this is changing, again, slowly but surely.

The one thing I cannot abide is having any of my children slapped in the face… that kind of a slap has nothing to do with discipline, but is degrading, and worst of all, not permitted in Islam (haram). When my second youngest son was about 8 years old he was slapped in the face by his teacher much to his resentment and the fury of his older sister.  She stood with her hands on her hips and reminded me that I had said this was one thing I never allowed.. at home or at school.  So…. What was I going to do about it?  As my husband was not in the country at the time, and my eldest daughter was busy with University, it was up to me to go up to the school myself and talk to the teacher.  Now, you have to know one thing about me – I am….a wimp, I’m totally non-confrontational, I absolutely hate any conflict of any kind, and I was a total nervous wreck at the thought of trying to get my point across to someone who was born Muslim, in a language I couldn’t speak, and who was in authority over my child and therefore had the power to make his life a misery.  But worse than all that was the idea of going back on my word in front of my children, when I wanted them to grow up with integrity.  So up I walked to the school (albeit very slowly), armed with my trusty Sahih Bukhari, a well-recognized book of authentic sayings of the Prophet Muhammed (May Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him), my copy of which was in both Arabic and English, and took a deep breath and entered the school gates.  After the initial umpteen cheek kisses and ‘how are you’s, with my son and daughter standing expectantly on either side of me, I broached the subject of her slapping my son on the face.  But she hadn’t slapped him in the face!!! That was just a caress!  She loved my son and wouldn’t do anything to hurt him!  If that was a caress then I would hate to see what she considered a slap!  I opened my Sahih Bukhari and showed her the hadith (saying), and she asked if she could keep the book for a little while to which I happily agreed.  She told me that she prayed and that she watched Islamic programmes on the television and I knew that she was defending herself Islamically, so I told her that I envied her the fact that she spoke and understood Arabic, because I did not want her to think, for one moment, that I thought of myself better than her in any way.  Because… I didn’t.  This whole conversation took place in my schoolgirl French, fledgling derja and with the help of my two children.  I could see, from the way my son was behaving with her, that, when she put her arm around him to hug him in order to show me how much she loved him, that it was not an act as he was quite comfortable with her, and this reassured me immensely.  He never ever was slapped in the face again Alhamdulilah, and he had her until he finished primary school and always liked and respected her.


My youngest started school while his dad was out of the country, and he was smacked within a short time.  My next door neighbour said that her father-in-law and husband were absolutely incensed when they heard, and would go straight up to the school and have a word (or two or three!) with the teacher if I gave them the go-ahead.  I decided to try and deal with it myself and went to the teacher along with my eldest to help translate.  I have to admit she was a nice woman, and she asked me what I did to reprimand him so I told her that I put him in a corner for a while, so she agreed to do this.  A few weeks later I was talking to him about this and asked him wasn’t this a much better option than getting slapped.  He looked at me and said “actually…. I’d prefer to be slapped.”  When I finally picked my jaw up from the floor he explained “when I have to stand in the corner it takes ages, but a slap is over and done with quickly.”  And that was the end of that!   I think there is a big difference between a slap given as a punishment in a calm way and one given in temper, although I do not, in any way, condone either one….. I know a slap is a slap, but the kids only ever seem to get upset when it was unjustified or given in temper.  We have been very fortunate in both the place where we first lived when we moved to Algeria, and now where we live, that, in general the teachers were approachable alhamdulilah.  But I do believe that society is changing also, albeit rather slowly.  I have noticed a big change in the attitude of some of the parents of my children’s friends, who are not prepared to accept any longer the bad behaviour of teachers, and who will club together to go up to the school and complain.  This gives me hope as I know that the education system will only change when the society no longer accepts the status quo and is prepared to do something about it.  Every journey starts with just one step.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Thrown in at the deep end


Both my 11 year old son and 8 year old daughter were thrown in the deep end when they started school in Algeria in 2004.  It was the end of the second term of school, they had never learnt any French, Algerian history or geography or civics, although their Islamic studies, Science and Maths was passable. My son had the added pressure of being in the last year of primary school and had to prepare to sit the ‘sixieme’ exam, which is a national exam which he needed to pass in order to graduate to Secondary school, or more accurately, middle school. This exam, the mock one previous to it and the 3 term exams for the previous year are all taken into account when assessing a student for graduation.  When my son was doing this exam he was tested in all subjects and, Alhamdulilah he passed as he made up for his lack of French, with other subjects.  My husband found out, only about 2 days before the exam, that if he had applied in time, my son could have opted for an English exam instead of a French exam.  I believe that you can opt for the Berber language also instead of French.  Now, the sixième exam only consists of the three subjects of Maths, Arabic and French.

My 8 year old sat the exams for the end of the second term of the third year of school and passed, and continued the year and passed on to the next one Alhamdulilah.  It helped that they weren’t learning French yet at that stage, although nowadays they start to learn French in that year.

I can’t say that I’m ecstatically happy with the school system in Algeria, but then, having home educated I wasn’t too impressed with the English one or any other for that matter, either. The system here treats children like computers – input the information in the form of memorization before exams, print out the information in the way of an exam and then hit the delete button, which is what the children do as soon as the exam is over and forget everything they’ve learnt mostly because they were never encouraged to actually understand it.  I did cry when they started school and came home worrying about covering their copy and text books with the right colour and whether their copy books had the exact correct number of pages required for each subject.  One year my daughter came home from school saying that her Maths teacher had told the class that if they hadn’t covered their books by the next day they needn’t bother coming to school.  I told her to bring the cover to school, leaving the book behind and see how much Maths she would learn from it.  Needless to say she did go to school with her book dutifully covered, but I wanted her to know that these rules, although they had to be obeyed had nothing to do with education and learning.  I found myself constantly dancing on that fine line between encouraging my children to think outside the box, and, at the same time always having respect for those in authority over them, their teachers, no matter how ridiculously they behaved at times.


One of the positives of sending my children to the state school here in Algeria is that they have learnt the etiquette's of the society they live in, the ‘do’s and don’ts’, in the most natural way possible, and, as a result, so have I! Another plus is that the children’s level of Arabic, Maths and French especially has increased enormously to the stage we could not have reached in England on our own.  When it comes to languages the Algerians are second to none in grammar – they could easily teach native English speakers English grammar, but until fairly recently it was difficult or near nigh impossible for them to go abroad and become more proficient in their chosen foreign language, so their level of speaking is not wonderful.  Slowly but surely this and other aspects of the Algerian education system are improving and I hope that my children will be instruments of change in this new evolving society inshallah. I am happy to say that it has already begun………

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Education is not preparation for life... Education is life itself John Dewey

When my daughter was about 9 years old we took her out of school in order to home educate her.  Allah had kindly guided me to Islam, and my husband and I felt that it was unfair on our daughter to expect her to live two completely different lives.. one at school and one at home.  The school which she attended was wonderful – she was not at the age where she had to wear a headscarf but had chosen to do so, and, on her first day the headmistress brought her up in front of the relatively small assembly of students, and introduced her and told them she wore the scarf because she was a Muslim.  This totally nipped any bullying in the bud, and in so many other ways they were very accommodating, so I cannot complain about the school at all.  But mixing with people who were being brought up with such different values as the ones we wanted to instil in her at such an impressionable age meant that at times she would have to be the one that was totally different to all the rest, or at others that she may have to hide things from us as she knew we wouldn’t approve.

I didn’t know it was possible to home educate until I met an English Muslim who lived nearby who was home educating and who encouraged me to research it.   Her children had never been to school, and there was no legal requirement for her to inform the authorities so she was free of any government involvement in her children’s education.  As my daughter  was being withdrawn from school the Local Education Authority had to be informed and I was sent a form to complete asking for details and reasons why I wanted to home educate.  This was followed up by a visit from one of their representatives who was a lovely woman whom I got to know quite well over the ensuing years on her annual visits.

It wasn’t easy home educating with 5 children, all of different ages, abilities and varying levels of enthusiasm, but it was one of the most satisfying experiences I’ve had in my life.  Whenever I hear people saying that they could never do it… that they don’t have the patience, the qualifications, the time etc. etc., I remember that is exactly how I felt when I only had the one to educate!  I had to let go of a lot of my misconceptions e.g. that they would have to study for the same hours as school, that a fully qualified teacher would know what’s best for my child’s education better than me, that I would somehow fail my children and ruin their lives by not sending them to school etc. etc.  I joined an organization named Education Otherwise who sent out a newsletter every month which became my monthly boost of reassurance and encouragement, and then afterwards the Islamic group, IHSAN, the Islamic Home Schooling Advisory Network.  Our local librarians were also wonderful and helpful and, to be honest, I did receive some curricular support from the lovely woman from the LEA also.  My aim was to educate my children so that they could continue to educate themselves for the rest of their lives.

When we moved to Algeria my eldest was 18, had sat her GCSEs at a few schools where the helpful administrators allowed her to sit as an external candidate, and she was attending a College to continue her studies for her ‘A’ Levels as she was interested in the Science subjects and needed access to a well-equipped lab.  She had just started her final year and chose to stay behind with relatives while we moved to Algeria.  My 11 year old son had finished his primary education with me, and my 8 year old daughter was bang in the middle of hers.  The youngest two boys at 5 and 2 were still too young and not affected in the slightest. 

To be honest our plans for our children’s education once we moved to Algeria were very vague, mainly because we thought, if all fails, we can just continue to home educate.  Our first few months after we moved were busy with Ramadan, setting up a business and looking for a home while trying to sell our home in England, not to mention the huge amount of paperwork, least of all my Residency, so it wasn’t until April 2004 that we looked seriously into getting the children enrolled in a school.

We first tried to enroll them in the Saudi private school here but its admission date had long passed, and, to be honest, I don’t think my husband’s heart was in it.  His attitude was that the state school was good enough for him and his siblings’ families, and that he wanted his children fully integrated into the society to learn the etiquettes of living in a mixed Muslim society.  He went to the Ministry of Education who demanded the children’s report cards from their previous year of education, and all my husband could produce was the glowing annual report from the LEA, which wasn’t good enough for the man behind the desk.  He started talking about how our children had no Arabic or French in their reports, how they might have to start at the beginning and work their way up, to which my husband, replied that he would just home educate them in that case.  The man from the Ministry was aghast exclaiming that my husband would be breaking the law as home education was illegal in Algeria.  ‘In that case then, you and I will both go to prison’, my husband very calmly replied.  ‘I’ll go for home educating my children, and you’ll go for not allowing my children to attend school.’  This was not a response the man had expected and he relented and allowed my 11 year old son and 8 year old daughter to join the classes for their ages Alhamdulilah

Monday, 9 December 2013

Sofa so good

Well, I didn’t want the canopies and I sure as hell didn’t want the ‘bibliothèque’….my two cups and saucers acquired as gifts with a couple of packets of coffee would look very lonely on their own in there. So our home was quite bare and we were reduced to sitting on chair-beds on the floor with our voices ricocheting from every wall so nobody could hear what anyone else was saying.  I gave in and agreed to have some canopies made, for our guests if nobody else, and slowly but surely our furniture grew and our home began to look less like a warehouse and more like a home.  I wanted a comfortable sofa and just couldn’t find one I liked.  There were the old style made-in-Algeria wannabe sofas – straight backed, covered in rich brocade with gold decoration which, if you made the mistake of leaning your head on the back, you were at risk of brain damage caused by the block of wood lurking across the back underneath the glossy covering.  There were also more modern type sofas which you might find comfortable if you didn’t mind having no support whatsoever from the middle of your back upwards.  I used to watch television programmes, and it didn’t matter which genre it was…news interview, chat show interview, documentary, film, etc. I found myself looking at the sofas and thinking to myself ‘that looks SO comfortable!’  The canopies are fine for sitting on but you just can’t lounge on them – a concept that seemed totally alien to Algerians, which is ironic for a nation whose number one pastime for so many of their men folk is lounging against walls in every street and on every corner.  Their nickname is ‘heytist’ as the Arabic for wall is ‘hait’.  I have often wondered if they all stopped lounging around would all the walls suddenly fall down. 

But I digress… not like me at all I know.  I finally got my sofa and was so happy… for all of five minutes until I thought of the next thing I wanted…. and couldn’t find.  The thing about Algeria is that it withholds what you want,  until you’ve lost all hope and then mysteriously produces it right under your nose and you’re so happy, as if you‘ve found gold at the end of the rainbow.  If you had a problem with patience before you came to Algeira….. you will learn it by force… or die of sheer frustration.  The trick is… to go with the flow, and be grateful for the small victories Alhamduliah.

Every year we tried to do some renovations on the house as we could afford it, and so we changed the second kitchen (yes I said the second one…. you can never have too many you know when you live in Algeria) into my daughter’s bedroom, we pulled down one wall and made my pokey, kitchen into a decent sized one, changed one of the arab-style toilets (a nice way of saying a hole in the floor) into an English style one, removed some of the 70s-chic big pink flowery tiles, etc. etc.  In many ways it is still a work in progress because it’s taken us so long to … grow into our home.  It was a lot bigger in some ways than what we wanted but I can honestly say now that we use every single room every day without fail. I have often wished that we had at least one room that’s kept clean and tidy all the time for unexpected guests, but have resigned myself to the fact that, with my husband and offspring that’s never going to happen.  I’m never going to have the ‘sitting room’ that my Mum had during  my childhood  in Ireland, the threshold of which we dare not enter under pain of death,  where we were never allowed to actually sit and where the three piece suite lasted for over 40 years.   It’s not a show house… it’s our home Alhamdulilah.  

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Shweya, Shweya, Blaucal, Blaucal


We had our home and we had the heating, but not much else, and Algeria in 2004 was rather limited in its choice of furniture.  We decided to start with beds for the children (we had brought our own Ikea one) and found a wonderful carpenter who lived on our road and who actually listened to my husband and made everything according to our explicit instructions.  I had this bright idea that it would be nice to have guest beds that slid under the beds and could be pulled out whenever necessary and he made them with a clip to stay attached to the bed underneath when not in use and with castors for easy use.  These became the bane of my life as the head of each of the beds was  in an alcove, and then as the guest bed became very dusty, I had to pull the bed out of the alcove, then pull the guest bed out, clean it, clean the floor underneath the bed and then push the guest bed back in, and push the bed back in place.  What a palava!  To add insult to injury, when we had guests they usually preferred to sleep on mattresses directly on the floor - so much cooler in the hot summer months. We now use the guest beds as low divans (we gave two away) in our living room which have become very popular with the family and guests alike.  I have had many a guest come and lie down and promptly fall asleep… can’t think why!

Most homes have much the same furniture with much the same arrangement, although 9 years on this has changed a little.  Every living room (called a ‘salon’ here, the French may have left but their influence lives on), has at least 2 ‘canopies’.  Now, where I come from ‘canopy’ means cover or shelter, but here it means something that resembles a divan, sometimes with two drawers underneath for storage.  The mattress is covered in the same material as the three big cushions that form support for the back, and sometimes they put a big round armrest on either side also covered so that it looks like a pseudo sofa.  It’s fine until you sit down and decide to lean on one of the arm rests which then slides off the end of the canopy and leaves you unbalanced (in more ways than one) and if you’re holding a cup of coffee then you’re really stuffed. 

All salons have a ‘bibliothèque’ which I learnt in my French classes in school as the word for library, but here in Algeria it means display case with not a book in sight, but instead coffee and glass sets and other various ornaments.  Of course you have to have the coffee table, and maybe a television in the corner and often you may also have a wardrobe with some large alien shapes on top (usually large saucepans for the huge amounts of food to be cooked during weddings, funerals etc.) draped in embroidered material, maybe a vase or two of dried flowers and…. a suitcase, also draped in embroidered material.  If you ever got a glimpse inside one of these wardrobes you could be forgiven for  thinking that your host had OCD, because you will ALWAYS find each shelf (and you will find only shelves, never any bars from which to hang clothes) with all the contents immaculately folded in order of size, with the shelf trimmed in frilly lace.  I have tried in the past to keep clothes on shelves very neatly folded, but all it takes is one frantic rush to pull something out from underneath all the rest of the clothes, for my efforts to resemble the bargain bin in a department store.  And the suitcase?  That’s usually something the bride brings with her when she moves in.  An Irish friend visited us in 2004 and, after visiting some of my in laws in their homes, she laughed at how every home was exactly as I had said it would be, and all almost identical.

Our next venture was to have fitted wardrobes in the bedrooms made.  My husband insisted on having the carpenters come from the town near where we first moved to Algeria… an hour and a half’s journey each way from our home.  ‘They are known for their carpentry in this area and they are experts at what they do’ he explained.  When I asked him what will happen if they can’t get a lift to our home, he told me that it would be their problem.  As I expected… it became our problem with my husband driving there to collect them and then bring them home in the evening.  They measured up for the wardrobes and then brought the framework first and then afterwards, the doors.  Builders in Algeria seem to have the attitude of why use a spirit level when you can just as easily use a thread and some nails.  As a result many houses have a little quirkiness to them, which doesn’t endanger the safety of the house, but can be a challenge when decorating, and, in this case building cupboards.  Of course the frames didn’t fit properly because the walls and floors were not all the same level all the way across, so the gaps had to be filled in and disguised.  Finally we had our doors and our wardrobes looked great… until we opened the doors.  ‘Mum, these wardrobes are really nice’, said my 9 year old son, ‘but where are we supposed to hang up our clothes?’  Good question… considering there was absolutely nothing at all inside the doors… no side partitions, no shelves, no… nothing!  ‘Oh but they are extra’ said our carpenter-experts-in-their-field (I kind of wished I could just shove them out in a field and leave them there).  So we had to pay them extra, more trips up and down before we finally could use our wardrobes.  The mind boggles as to what exactly they thought we could do with an empty frame of a wardrobe.  But  soon after the exact same thing happened to a friend of mine using completely different carpenters from another area.

Whenever you complain about how long something takes here in Algeria you are usually given the stock reply ‘Shweya, shweya’ which means little by little, or ‘blaucal, blaucal’ which means slowly, slowly.. and they’re not kidding!  If Muslims were allowed to have a headstone on their grave with an epitaph, mine would read – ‘she died as she lived… shweya, shweya, blaucal, blaucal’.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

A house built for pianos


I remember when my Mum and Dad got the heating installed in our home in Ireland many years ago when I was knee-high to a grasshopper.  It was a big, oil fuelled monstrosity that took pride of place in the dining room and the general idea was that it would heat up the whole house, a task at which it failed miserably, especially due to the draughty windows and doors, in those days long before double glazing.  My bedroom was immediately above it and was probably the warmest room in the house apart from the dining room, and even then I managed to acquire chill-blains on my fingers in the winter and had to have an electric heater in there sometimes.  The one good thing for us children was the excitement of the huge oil tanker that pulled up outside our home every few months and the massive big pipe that wiggled its way up through the driveway and the garden to the storage tank behind the house.

A few years ago my brothers built my Mum a lovely, warm, cosy new home on what used to be my Dad’s vegetable patch, and one of them then renovated and moved his family into the family home.  My Mum, at first, thought there would be no room in her new home for her beloved piano, so my brother stored it in his workshop.  But she fretted and worried that it would be damaged by being in such a cold environment, so my sister did some research on the care of pianos and found, to her surprise and my Mum’s immense relief, that pianos thrive in cold environments.  ‘That explains a lot’, said my sister, ‘ the home we grew up in was built for pianos and not for people’.

As a consequence I’ve always hated the cold.  When my first born arrived, the nurse who visited our home after the birth advised me that two heaters on in the tiny bedroom was just a little excessive… I think I was trying to recreate the heat of the womb . When we bought our first, and only, home in England, it had underfloor heating… downstairs, which was wonderful… downstairs.  But it was freezing upstairs.  We installed a radiator upstairs but as it was right under a skylight and at the top of the stairs which lead directly to the front door it was useless. The heating came on at night when the electricity was cheapest, and it did keep downstairs nice and warm all the following day.  I used to make sure that the carpet in the living room was always clean at night before we went to bed, because then I would lay all the wet washing across the floor, and the next morning it would all be dry and ready to put away. Of course it would set me into an absolute panic if the doorbell went and there was any threat of early morning visitors, and  I remember someone who caught sight of  my unorthodox laundry drying system, once asking if we had wardrobes in our home. We finally installed proper central heating and enjoyed a wonderful warm winter… and then promptly sold up and moved to Algeria.

So when we finally found and moved into our home in Algeria, having already spent one winter here, I was so determined that, if we had nothing else in the home, we would have central heating.  We knew nobody who had any as everyone had a smaller, gas version of the one we had years ago in Ireland.  As I found out since then some of the older apartments built by the French do have central heating with the old style radiators that work really well even now.  But most people have the one gas fired heater that is usually installed in the hall, right inside the front door, which, as a consequence, is the warmest place in the home.  When my husband started his search for a boiler that included a timer, he was actually laughed at by some plumbing suppliers.  ‘What do you need a timer for? Can’t you just turn it on yourself?’  He started to wonder if there was such a thing to be had in Algeria, and I told him that, if he didn’t find one, he was designated to be the one to get up in the early hours, long before the Fajir early morning prayer, and turn on the heating to warm the house before everyone else got up.  Eventually, Alhamdulilah, he did find one, and then had the fun of trying to find a plumber to install it. Finally he did find one that was willing to install it despite never having done so before, and who told him afterwards, that working for him was an education. (He should try living with him.... it's more like a blooming university degree!)

It was particularly cold that first winter in our new home, with hailstones and snow (one of the strangest sights I saw that winter was a picture my daughter took of a palm tree near the university in Bab Ezzouar covered in snow), and I told my husband’s family that I should sue him for breach of promise as he had always marketed Algeria as being lovely and warm.  They responded that they never had such a cold winter until I had come so they were blaming me for bringing the cold with me.  So we had our own home, empty as it was (our voices echoed so much that if you tried to talk to someone in one room from an adjacent one, you couldn’t understand what they were saying), but it was warm Alhamdulilah.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Home at last


And then one day on the 9th of August, 2004, Allah guided us to an estate agent who took us to see the outside of a house that really got my heart racing.  The road on which this house was built was a cul-de-sac with the sea at the end, and I could see that there was a space between the house itself and the outside wall so I knew it had some kind of outdoor space!  The agent did not have the keys so we were to come back the next day, which we did, but the agent wasn’t there and his partner was really embarrassed as he had no record (these agents actually kept records of appointments!!!!) of our visit the previous day and didn’t have a clue as to which house we had looked at the previous day.  Instead, to try and make up for it, he brought us to another house, again with the sea at the end of the road.  He didn’t have the keys but could we come back the next day?  Where had I heard that story before?  We agreed, but my heart was still on the first house we had seen and I asked my husband if we could still see it.  He said lets wait and see this one first.  So back we traipsed to the agents (we are talking about an hour and a half’s journey each way here) and he brought us back to the second house.  We went in and around, and then upstairs, and I went out on one balcony and saw the sea at the end of the road and felt myself holding my breath.  We went upstairs to the terrace and I took one look at the sea and across the bay to the El Aurassi Hotel, and thought “I could die happily in this house.”  We got into the car without looking at each other and then my husband said, “That’s it – that’s the house!” There was something about the house that reminded me of our home in England.  My husband said the same, and when Sarah, our daughter,  saw the house she said she knew what I meant but could not put a finger on it. It was so different and so much bigger and yet it had this familiar feel to it.

A few days later my husband brought the structural engineer to look at it and he was really impressed with it alhamdulilah.  Within two weeks of seeing it, we had bought it and two weeks later, just in time to enroll the children in school (as the previous owner hadn't found an apartment, he had nowhere to put all his furniture so we agreed to store it for him in one of our rooms),  we were able to move in – what a record for bureaucratic, paper laden, everything-has-to-be-the-most-difficult-way-possible, Algeria – the biggest importer of red tape in the world!  And that is when our life in Algeria truly started alhamdulilah.

Wisdom often comes with hindsight, and this was certainly the case with our search for a home of our own in Algeria.  The person from whom we had bought our house was an émigré who lived in France, but had bought it as a holiday home for him and his family when they visited Algeria.  He loved the house, but as his wife’s family were all on the other side of Algiers, she found it very difficult staying so far away from them when they only stayed here once a year, so he had decided to sell up.  The amazing thing is that he had only come to the country and put it up for sale just before we came to the estate agents, so this house wasn’t even for sale all the time that we were busy pinning our hopes on the other one in Bou Ismail.  It was as if Allah had planned this house for us and kept us busy with that one and all the other ones that we knew in our hearts weren’t what we wanted, until this one became available.  When people come and visit and admire our home, I always tell them that this was a gift from Allah because I always like to give credit, where credit is due. My husband’s nephew visited and, as he stood on the terrace and looked out at the sea, and then looked to the side across the rooftops to the minaret of the nearby mosque, he marveled as he said to my husband, ‘ you both got what you wanted – she got the sea and you got the mosque’.

One day I stood at the kitchen door and looked out on to our small back courtyard and looked at the honeysuckle that was creeping into our garden from a neighbour’s garden and the rubber plant in the corner.  And I remembered standing at my kitchen door in England looking out at our tiny back garden, and the honeysuckle creeping into our garden from another neighbour’s garden and wondering if I would ever have as nice a small outdoor space as this one.  Subhanallah Allah never takes one thing without replacing it with something greater.  I had had to give away all my cherished house plants including my rubber plant when we left England, and there was one growing in the corner of my little space in Algeria, along with the fig trees.

Saturday, 30 November 2013

A house with a view


There were several “near misses” where we saw somewhere and it wasn’t anything that I wanted but my husband would say something like “maybe we could just take it for the moment until we sort ourselves out and then sell it again when we find what we are looking for”.  Usually my heart would sink but I would say nothing, we would think about it and then it would fade away to be replaced by another possibility.  The very first house we saw that helped me to at last visualize a home of our own in Algeria was one right on the sea.  It was old and hadn’t been lived in for a while, and it had a swimming pool that could be filled with water from the sea.  On the first floor there was a veranda that went around the front of the house and looked out over a small beach, and, of course, the sea!  It was so close that the veranda was wet with a mist of water from the huge waves as it was still winter.  The house itself wasn’t really big enough and needed extensive renovation, and there was a little road that went along the house down to the sea and we couldn’t help but notice the beer bottles thrown here and there.  We knew then, that in the summer this haven could easily turn into a hell.

We did find one home after a few months that got me really excited and had me planning how to furnish it.  We brought the children to see it and they loved it.  So that was settled then.  It was even further away from Algiers but that didn’t bother me. The view of the sea was in the distance, but by this stage I had resigned myself to the fact that you could either live right by the sea and not have any  sea view because of  the other buildings around you, or live at a distance on higher ground where you could see the sea above all the buildings.  We just had to wait while the seller sorted out some paperwork.  At last we had an end in sight and we waited, and we waited.  Sarah, our daughter, joined us at last having finished her exams in England,  and we were still waiting.  One day my husband brought a structural engineer to have a look at the house, and he took one look and told my husband to forget it – the builder had obviously skimped on the cement and he said that he thought it was extremely unsafe, especially in an earthquake zone.  We had been in Algeria 8 months and were back to square one.  That was such a horrible time, but alhamdulilah we had found out before we bought the house. We then found another possibility in the same area but when my husband described it to the engineer he said he wouldn’t even bother going to see it.  It had only 4 metal bars sticking out at the top on the terrace, which meant that the concrete was only reinforced with 4 metal bars, and that was 2 bars too little in an earthquake zone. This engineer was the son of our landlord and I am ashamed to admit, that in my desperation, I started to suspect that he just didn’t want us to move out!  I started thinking maybe I was asking for too much and very briefly I reduced my requests in my prayers.  And then I thought that Allah has told us to ask Him for anything we want and He will hear our prayers, and I thought, “I am limiting him astaghfirallah!  I shall ask for everything I want – if I don’t ask Him, who can I ask?”  I used to get up before Fajir to say the night prayer knowing that He was there asking if there was anyone who needed something from Him, and when I lay down at night to put my little one to sleep, I used to ask him to ask Allah for the perfect home for us.

Then I said to my husband “OK we have done it your way, now lets do it mine!”  He had said that it was doubtful if we could find a home by the sea.  I looked at him incredulously and showed him the map of Algeria,  “Are you trying to tell me that with all this coast line” I said as I gestured at the sea all the way from Constantine to Oran, with Algiers plonked right in the middle, “that there is NOWHERE for us to find a home by the sea?!!!!”  “Well I don’t want to live in Constantine or Oran” he said.  “OK, but how about the other side of Algiers?”  We had only been looking on the western side where we lived.  “I don’t know anything about that side of Algiers” he said.  “You mean to say that you went all the way to England, and you are afraid to go to the other side of Algiers, even just to look?”  I asked incredulously again.  So, leaving the older ones very happily at home with Sarah we got into the car and drove around the coast of the Bay of Algiers to the “Other Side!!!!!” stopping at every estate agent on the road.  Admittedly some of them were disasters and I had to learn to keep my mouth shut (a very difficult thing for me to do, but all in a good cause! – come to think of it, I think the reason my husband enjoyed the house hunt so much were those moments of bliss for him!) as otherwise the price skyrocketed.  “Well, I thought there was a house here” said the estate agent as we looked at a cement platform with four pillars.  “But the view is nice” he said.  Yes it is, I thought if you like a view of a motorway with cars careering up and down.  Another one wanted to sell us his home, which was not finished, and he and his family were living in the garage. But we also saw some really lovely homes, but they usually were on the big side with several floors each complete with bathrooms and kitchens and I had visions of my husband’s family all moving in with us!

Thursday, 28 November 2013

A home to call our own

Moving to a different country can be difficult at the best of times, but when that country is so totally different in every aspect from what you are accustomed, even with the best will in the world, it can be very difficult making all the adjustments necessary. Yet, I can honestly say that I never once thought of going back – it just wasn’t an option. I just knew that somehow there was a better life to be had here…. if we could just find a home of our own.  Soon after buying our first car, my husband visited his Mum and she told him that a car was all well and good, but that ‘Evelyn won’t feel at home here until she has her own home’. Finding one seemed easier said than done.  We had decided, even before we left England, that we wanted to buy a house that was already built and finished as we didn’t have the patience to buy a plot of land and build our own house.

At first we depended on "word of mouth"- a most inefficient way of finding a property, if ever there was one. I remember one day my husband brought me some sweets wrapped in a twist of newspaper, and as I happily chewed away I idly read the snippet of newspaper and saw that it contained advertisements for estate agents and houses for sale.  I asked my husband to ask his family about this newly acquired information and he was told that they knew all about them but that estate agents were an expensive way of acquiring a house as they often took such a high price for finding a home. Sitting at home and waiting for people to come and recommend homes to us wasn’t getting us anywhere and so, against all advice, we started trawling the estate agents some of whom were rip off merchants its true, but some were really good and helpful. You wouldn't BELIEVE some of the places we saw - from huge monstrosities of homes with 3/4 kitchens and the same number of bathrooms to holes in the ground (literally). Some homes looked as if the rooms were added on as and when they could afford to build them - without any planning whatsoever! And as for the requested view of the sea: So many of the places we went to see did indeed have a sea view - if you hung off the balcony by the tips of your fingers, twisted your neck to an un-natural angle and screwed up your eyes you could just about make out a patch of blue in the far distance between an apartment block and a clump of trees!!

I wanted to live by the sea (if you’ve read any other posts on my blog and seen my pictures, I think you might come to realize what a penchant I have for water of any kind…. sea, river, stream, pond, waterfall, you name it), I wanted to live in a good Muslim area, I wanted privacy and walls around the house and space within those walls for my children to play, but most of all I wanted a home for us all to grow together as a family and to grow closer to Allah.   My husband wanted a Mosque within walking distance.  Was that so much?  After several months I got the distinct impression that people thought it was and that I was too particular. My husband’s nephew told us of the man who came to him to suggest a home for us, and when the nephew asked him if there was a garden, the man told him that there wasn’t one, at which the nephew told him that it wasn’t what we were looking for as we wanted a garden.  ‘But what about the children?’ asked the man incredulously. This puzzled me as I thought to myself ‘but the garden is for the children!’  Then my husband explained that the man’s outlook was based on having a house as spacious as possible so that when the sons grew up they could marry and have the space to bring their wives to live with them. This is one of the many times when I saw the gaping hole that appeared every so often between me and Algerians based on our different upbringing and life experiences.  Holes are good though….honest!

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Tea or coffee anyone?

When I was growing up in rural Ireland in the 60s and 70s (yep…. I’ve totally give the game away now!), we only ever drank tea in our home… which was the case in most, if not all, the homes around us.  We had an orange tea-leaf dispenser on the wall and with a push of a button the leaves went into the pre-heated tea-pot and was brought back to the boil and then put on a place mat in the middle of the kitchen table under a tea-cosy to keep it nice and hot.  And so began the endless cups of tea and the constant ‘hot drops’ that seemed to make a seamless connection between dinner and tea time.  We drank it out of mugs (except my Mum who said that tea always tasted better out of a china cup) according to our taste – my Mum liked to give it to us children, fresh from the pot while it was still a little ‘weak’ and then when it had become a lot stronger she served my Dad.  So much of my childhood memories are caught up in those never-ending tea drinking sessions, including all the times my Mum and her two sisters would sit after dinner, when all the family had been fed and left the table, drinking tea and putting all the world to rights.  I can still remember that wonderful thrill of anticipation when, in my bedroom upstairs, studying, I would hear my Mum plug in the kettle downstairs and I would know that tea was on its way!

When we had special guests or special occasions like Christmas and Easter, my Mum would bring out the best china that was kept in the sideboard in the dining room.  She had 4 sets, 3 of which were wedding presents, and she would pull out the extensions in the dining room table, lay the tablecloth  with matching cups, saucers, silver cutlery,  along with side plates, a cake plate and milk jug and sugar bowl. And then she would bring in the home-made scones and buns, biscuits and maybe some left over Christmas cake (which lasted for months).  I love my mugs but I still remember watching and listening to the sound of hot freshly brewed tea being poured into a china cup and can honestly say there is nothing like it in all the world.

It was my sister who first brought coffee into our house and I can remember hating the smell of it.  As time went on, my parents would sometimes have a milky coffee to keep them going if dinner was going to be a bit on the late side, and gradually I noticed that guests were as much offered coffee as tea.  I can’t remember when, in my child-rearing years I started to drink coffee in preference to tea, but a lot of my memories, and that of my children, are connected to coffee.  The times I sat on the kitchen floor on the other side of the counter in the hope of some privacy, while one of the children tip-toed up to me and asked tentatively ‘have you had your coffee now Mum?’, in the hopes that I had materialized into a semi-human being.  I drank endless mugs, often lukewarm or cold, until the wonderful purchase of a microwave.  Then I would look fruitlessly for my half-drunk mug of coffee, give up, make another mug, drink a little, get distracted, find it cold and put it in the microwave to heat it up… only to find the missing mug of coffee.  My eldest daughter still remembers the day I ran out of coffee, with me frantically searching the cupboards for the coffee I was so sure was there… but wasn’t.  It may sound like an addiction, but strangely enough I am not addicted to coffee as I don’t suffer the effects of withdrawal when I don’t have it.  When I fast the whole month of Ramadan, I may drink a handful of mugs of coffee throughout the whole month, if that, and not suffer from headaches or any other physical symptoms of withdrawal.  But I miss the company of coffee – to me it’s like a little treat to myself throughout the day, and I love sharing a mug with friends (such an odd saying that – ‘sharing a mug with friends’ because there’s nobody I love enough to actually share one single mug of coffee with….well ok, maybe my husband if he actually drank coffee and my Mum or Dad if they were still around, and, at a pinch, my children.).  There have been times when my husband has offered me a cup of tea or coffee, gone off and made it, brought it back to me and then sat down…..without one for himself.  And I have tried to explain that it’s nice to SHARE one with someone… meaning that they have one too.  But he just can’t understand why I can’t enjoy my cup on my own, when he doesn’t particularly want one himself.  When he then said that he would compromise and bring in a cup of….. water and drink it with me, I knew that this was one of those cultural battles that should never be waged as there just was no winning side.

For me afternoon coffee in Algeria brought back memories of my childhood and…. the Japanese tea ceremony…. only with coffee instead of tea!  The Algerians don’t have ‘elevenses’ or ‘pick-me-ups’, or in fact any kind of snacks in between meals, which is probably much healthier, I suppose.  If I don’t sound convinced it’s because I love the whole idea of stopping work, whatever the pastime, and having a mini-break with a cuppa regardless of the beverage of choice.  They drink coffee in the morning and again in the afternoon and that’s it.  If there aren’t any guests then it’s a less formal affair, but if there are guests then it’s more like ‘high tea’. For me to serve coffee or tea to ex-pat guests means asking what way they like it, making it in the kitchen and then plonking the mug in front of them.  But in Algeria you have to have: a large tray preferably ornamental, on which you put a set of matching coffee cups and saucers which are usually slightly smaller than the English/Irish tea cups, these are for milky coffee, and then another set of even smaller ones (to my mind not much bigger than a thimble) for black coffee.  With that you also have a matching sugar bowl and another bowl for the teaspoons, some people put water in this and others don’t, along with a serviette holder.  In addition, of course, you need two flasks, again as ornamental as you can find, a large one for the hot milk and a small one for the coffee. Then of course there’s the plates of cakes (usually around 3 different varieties is sufficient) and the individual plates for each person. And… you need all this in duplicate because most of the time you serve the men separately from the women. 

I had a lot of help with my first time hosting a coffee afternoon as my long suffering sister-in-law gave me all the accoutrements for the occasion and I roped in her daughter to be ‘Mum’ and serve the guests.  The second time, I again borrowed all the accessories, but this time I had to do all the serving myself and found myself getting very nervous when the room went quiet and all eyes were on me.  When you’ve sussed out what each person likes, usually ‘nus-nus’, half milk, half coffee, and the right amount of sugar, again, usually 2 teaspoons (I thought at one time that this was almost compulsory in Algeria as I never saw anyone having any less or more than this amount), you then put the teaspoon in the cup and give it to the guest.  On this particular day, however, I took the teaspoon out of the cup and handed it to the guest and was told that I should serve it IN the cup, which goes totally against my sense of propriety as I think it looks a lot better placed on the saucer and then given to the guest.  I then had to admit that I didn’t have enough teaspoons to go round.  The next week my husband’s sister-in-law turned up with… two packs of teaspoons, one from her and one from my husband’s other sister-in-law, and she admitted that she didn’t want to give me the other set as she wanted me to think it was only her that was being thoughtful!  When I thanked her for them, I told her that if I had known that was the effect my not having teaspoons had on them I wished I had mentioned that I didn’t have enough jewelry either!

I have been here long enough now for my husband’s family to all be ‘trained’ to ask me if I want a coffee at odd times of the day, and, if we’re out visiting together they will often ask for a ‘boule’ for me, conjuring up images in my head of a massive bowl, but instead, I am given a mug, usually retrieved from the display cabinet and dusted off and washed first.