Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Postcards from Algeria Part 4

Our visit in 1993 was my first time in Algeria as a Muslim.  We had arranged for our 8 year old daughter to make her first trip to Algeria alone, with the help of Air Algerie who gave her a special bag to wear around her neck with her passport and important documents in it, and who chaperoned her on and off the plane and through customs on the other side.  While we were at the airport I felt so homesick for Algeria that my husband urged me to buy a ticket for myself and our baby son to follow my daughter, which I did, but only when he promised to come and join us for a couple of weeks at the end of our holiday.  When I went home to ring my daughter and tell her the good news, she was anything but enthusiastic!  She was having a whale of a time being totally spoilt and didn’t want me there putting a spanner in the works!

My husband’s family treated me exactly the same, which was very nice, but I found that whereas before their little customs seemed quaint and out-dated, now they weren’t nearly strict enough for my liking!  I found so many contradictions like women wearing their hijaabs outside, but if somebody called them from the window they would put their heads out, without covering up, for all the world to see them.  There were so many things that the society accepted that were incorrect Islamically that I was constantly asking my husband about things, and whether they were Islamically permitted or not. There are things within the culture that are against Islam and these I had to ignore or resist, but there were other things that, while not anti- Islamic, were considered very important within the norms of the society. At times I felt that his family would probably have a lot in common with my own family in Ireland as they both thought we were so strict! As a new Muslim I found it difficult at times to know where Islam began and Algerian culture ended, mainly because they often were so intertwined. 

We are commanded, in Islam, to enjoin the good and forbid the evil, and I try to do so.  But we also have a responsibility to make it as easy as possible for the people we are trying to correct to take our advice.  I knew it would be hard for people to take any correction from someone whom they once knew prayed to Jesus (astaghfirallah).  So I left the corrections to my husband and my 8 year-old daughter, because I knew they would listen to them and accept it more easily from them.  Alhamdulilah Allah blessed me with a husband who feared Him more than upsetting his family and who wasn’t afraid to tell them the truth.  And they found it easier to take things from him, not that they took much to heart! I discovered that most families in Algeria have one or two members who are very much into their practice of the religion, and others who are content enough with just the essential basics.  They often live together in very crowded conditions and have a wonderful ‘live and let live’ attitude to each other, where family comes first and the ties of kinship are inviolable.

Having been stuck inside for a few days during this holiday, one day after coffee I put on my hijab and got ready to go out.  When the family discovered I was just going out to stretch my legs they offered to come with me.  I knew they were only being protective and didn’t really want to go so I told them that this was something I had to do myself, so I put my little son into the pushchair and made my first foray outside alone.  I need not have worried… nobody took a blind bit of notice of me… they were all too busy throwing boussas (kisses) at, and pinching the cheeks of, my blond haired, blue-eyed little son.  I enjoyed those trips out and about breathing in the atmosphere of Algiers, although I can’t say I really enjoyed the 179 steps I had to climb to get back up to the area in which my mother-in-law’s home was situated, or the fact that I had to carry the pushchair and my son the whole way up.  By the time I got indoors the family would fall about laughing at my red face and the fact that I could hardly breathe and would run to get me some cool water to drink.

The women clean the whole home every morning and cook twice a day so they work hard.  The first couple of holidays they wouldn’t even let me in to the bathroom when they were washing MY clothes…. It was too much for me… I was used to better washing powder, a washing machine etc. etc.  This holiday I was determined to try and pull my weight somehow so I jealously guarded my washing and insisted on doing it myself.  I remember my Italian friend rang me one day when I was in the bathroom washing the clothes, and I brought them all with me to the phone because I knew that, as soon as I left them, my sister-in-law would have washed them for me! I also tried my hand at cleaning the floor in the same fashion as they do….bent over from the waist and wiping a cloth along the floor.  This again had my husband’s family in stitches because as soon as I stood up they could see my red face.  I have since found out that you can also use a large squeegee to wipe the cloth across the floor, but I had to learn the hard way.

I would like to make a point of saying that, when I say that the women in my husband's were laughing... they were laughing with me and not at me.  I have always found their self deprecating sense of humour very similar to the Irish one, where we, ourselves tell 'The English man, the Scots man and the Irish man jokes with the Irish man always being the one who's an idiot... or as we say in Ireland... an eejit (far more descriptive I think).  
We took a trip out to visit my husband’s brother who lived in Douera with his family, a journey that took us 3 buses and a walk at the end, ‘we’ being my mother-in-law, sister-in-law, my daughter and my little son.  On all the buses my baby captivated all those around him and had everyone cooing at him.  I had never been to visit this family so it was all new to me and I loved it.  Their home was in the countryside and very basic with no running water, but had wonderful views of the nearby hillsides.  As my son would wake up at 7.00am I would get up and take him outside so that the others could sleep and would meet up with my husband’s sister-in-law sitting on a log outside enjoying the relative cool of the morning.  We would chat and she told me that I was nothing like she expected, being a westerner she assumed I’d be made-up to the gills and walking around on stilettos all the time.  Isn’t it funny how we all have stereotypes in our heads, and how so few people in reality fit those stereotypes.
 In addition to visiting Douera we also visited family in El Biar, in Douaouda, near the sea, and in Bouharoun where I spent one very memorable night sitting under the fragrant branches of the jasmine tree and sipping mint tea, and chatting with my husband’s sister-in-law and her neighbor until midnight while the men and the children slept.

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