Sunday, 20 October 2013

It all started with a question…….

The bay of Algiers, 1987

“How do you fancy going to live in Algeria?” my husband asked me.  “As much as I fancy being buried alive,” I answered.  He was hurt I could tell, but it was the way I felt, at the time.  I could not lie, and it was our future we were talking about here, not the next day’s dinner.

Don’t get me wrong.  I loved Algeria from the first night I stepped off the plane in the summer of 1987 and felt the heat in my face, smelt the rosewater (to this day I’m surprised it wasn’t bleach with the way the women here have such a love affair with the stuff!) and saw the palm trees.  I fell totally and instantly in love with the place.  It wasn’t an easy place to live in then.  People complain today about how much of a developing country it is, but I always compare it to the way it was then.
The Port of Algiers, 1987
I arrived alone on a flight from Zagreb.  As my husband had not been back to his home country since we were married we thought it would be a good idea for him to go ahead for a week with our young 2year old daughter.  I thought I was being so clever and found a cheaper flight, from London via Zagreb, which meant waiting around in Zagreb airport for several hours, with the military walking around looking very much armed… and dangerous.  I was very grateful for them though when it was my turn to travel, and as evening came and my night flight to Algiers came closer, I was surrounded by Yugoslavian (as they were then) drunk men, who were also travelling to Algiers and who obviously could only make the journey once they were well tanked on alcohol.  One sat beside me and started making unwanted overtures to which a soldier came up and ushered him away from me with his rifle.

No matter how much my husband tried to describe Algeria to me, and, even after having his sister over to visit, I still could not get Iran, with its black clad women pulling at their clothes and the bearded, angry men, all screaming ‘down with America’ out of my head, nor the story of ‘Not without my daughter’ which had made the headlines in recent months.  Despite all his best efforts I was almost certain that I would be handed an abaya at the airport as I went through!  Instead I was met with a certain amount of bemusement and sympathy when I tried to explain to the Immigration Officer, in the best school girl French that the Irish education system had to offer (or at least I liked to think so anyway), why I was in his country and where, exactly I was going to be staying.  Only God alone knows what I told him because I have a nasty habit of putting the worst word possible in the wrong place, both in French and my fledgling derja.
Bab El Oued, Algiers, 1987
I arrived at my husband’s home at 2.00am in the morning and everyone except his mother and sister were asleep.  This was the first time his mother and I met, and while I sat at their Formica covered table and drank tea, I felt so much at home Alhamdulilah. It was a tiny one-bed-roomed flat with only two other rooms and a bathroom and small kitchen, and they insisted on giving us the ‘salon’.  Even when various other members of his family came to visit us and stay overnight, they all crammed into the other rooms and our ‘salon’ remained sacrosanct.  His family seemed to go on forever, so many faces and so many names, some of whom were difficult for me to remember, but I think it was only because it was all at once, as, by Algerian standards my husband’s family is quite small.  The neighbouring women and the families of my husband’s closest friends probably added to my confusion.  But it was ok, because I discovered that it wasn’t from the wind that my husband got his ability to laugh at himself, and not take himself too seriously, and they were all so warm and inviting that it was impossible not to like them.

Anything we brought over – kitchen gadgets, clothes, sweets, you name it, was pounced on immediately as being luxury goods.  The only clothes you could find to buy were cheap “jibbas” and all you could find for sale in the shops were plastic containers – the cheap kind.  To sum it up, the first word I ever learnt in Arabic was one I learnt on that holiday “Ma-kesh” (“there isn’t”), because I heard it over and over again!
Bab El Oued, Algiers, 1987
But there was something about the country and its people that really grabbed my heart.  Maybe it was their sense of humour and their willingness to laugh at themselves, or their warmth and hospitality.  I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I loved it, as I loved the heat of the sun, and the beautiful beaches with the magnificent Mediterranean Sea.

I was dreading leaving as I had never seen my husband really upset before and was anxious as to how I would be able to comfort him leaving his family again at the end of the holiday.  The dreaded day came and my body went into major biological dysfunction – I had butterflies in my stomach and my heart was in my mouth.  All of his family were in his mother’s tiny flat to say goodbye and when I saw him saying goodbye to his sisters and brothers, I thought to myself “it’s not so bad, nobody seems really emotional”.  And then it came to him saying goodbye to his mum and I just dissolved into a quivering blob.  Yes! Me!  Afterwards, he said he too had thought he had got away without the emotional goodbyes, and when he looked behind him, there I was, in the middle of them all, bawling my eyes, out, with all his sisters and nieces doing the same around me!  He said it was entirely my fault! I had started them off!  I cried all the way to the airport, with my husband patting my hand and saying, “It’s ok, we’ll come back soon”!  So much for MY comforting my husband!
Bab El Oued, Algiers, 1987

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