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.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Home is where the heart is

One of my favourite streets in Algiers
Soon after we arrived in Algeria my husband started a business with one of his nephews and his friend and the van we had brought over was appropriated in this new venture.  This business was our only source of income for the first few years and kept us going until we had found our feet and settled down in the country.  Every time I saw the van I thought of my Mum and her kindness and thoughtfulness to us, and wished I could have painted ‘Sally’s van’ across the side!

In April 2004, 6 months after moving over, my husband planned to go back to England, and, at the very last minute (literally 24 hours before) decided I should go back with him.  I felt awful telling his sister that we were going as it meant that she would have to take care of our 11, 8 and 5 year olds while we brought the 3 year old with us.  I told her that I had no plan to go and that, in actual fact, I had planned to give the flat a good spring clean while my husband was gone.  She laughed and commented on how that’s what she and most Algerian women would be planning if their husbands were going away for a time.  I promised the children that I would wake them up in the morning even though we were leaving very early, but when I went into them the next morning and saw them all sound asleep I just couldn’t find it in my heart to wake them.  I kissed them and then left the flat to find my sister-in-law standing outside her flat.  I asked her to tell them that I was sorry for not waking them but that I had kissed them and that I loved them, by which time both she and I were sobbing on each other’s shoulders.  Of course…. her tears may have been at the thought of having to take care of them for 10 days!  But I don’t think so… she’s very soft-hearted mashAllah!

 My daughter came over for a break during the Spring holidays, and, if I had planned it to be THE most disastrous holiday ever, I could not have planned it better.  It rained for most of her stay, the electricity kept going off, she and a couple of her brothers contracted a stomach bug that confined them to bed for a few days, her sister then contracted chicken pox and the back windows were stolen from our brand new Kangoo car.  As a treat, towards the end of her stay, we brought her and her siblings to Khemis Milanna, a good hour’s journey from where we were living, to see friends who owned a Pizza restaurant. I admired the beautiful scenery as we drove down while my car sick daughter sat in the back and muttered something very non- complimentary about me sounding like Heidi.  When we arrived and finally sat down to eat, the pizza had a drizzling of olive oil over it which my daughter hates, and we ended up laughing at the catastrophe her holiday had become.  It was either laugh or cry.

On the last weekend I urged my daughter to start packing early and not leave it to the last minute, as I knew the family would all be around to see her before she left.  She burst into tears and said that she didn’t really want to go back to England.  You could have blown me down with a feather.  I had resigned myself to her going back to England and never wanting to come back, and was flabbergasted at her outburst.  She then explained that, when we talked about moving here, and then, after we had done so, she could not see us having the same family life that we had when we lived in England.  She remembered her holidays here and had loved it but couldn’t translate that to actually living here.  But the one thing that this holiday had shown her was…. we were still a family and still lived as a family exactly as we had in England, complete with all the chaos that involved.  Home really IS where the heart is, and it’s people who make a home, not bricks and mortar.  I told her that she didn’t need to go back if she didn’t want to, and, after thinking about it, she decided to go back for the last term to finish her ‘A’ levels.  It was so hard to see her off at the airport, but it meant that when she finally did move to Algeria a few months later, she came happily looking forward to her new life, without any doubts in her heart.

Friday, 22 November 2013

The idiosyncrasies of life in Algeria

The grounds of the Maillot hospital, Bab El Oued
The children all settled down to life in Algeria in time, each according to his or her personality and age.  We had to leave my eldest daughter in England to finish her studies in the English curriculum, and so I had an 11 year old son, 8 year old daughter, 5 year old son and a 2 year old son.  The two youngest were outside with the rest of the hoi polloi within a very short time of our arrival, and I remember looking out the kitchen window one day to see my 5 year old standing watching something with the arm of a newly acquired friend draped across his shoulders very nonchalantly.   This was something that really struck me immediately in Algeria… how very touchy feely the children were with each other.  It’s very common to see women, young and old, or young men and boys walking along arm in arm, or even holding hands, in the most innocent manner.  But for my 8 year old and 5 year old, sometimes this got to be too much when it came to the older generation.  It was rather overwhelming for them, having come from a quiet, nuclear unit, to having aunts, uncles, cousins and neighbours constantly bombarding them with hugs, kisses and questions.  They often retreated to the safety of our apartment to try and find some quiet time to recoup their equilibrium.  I remember once having to coax my 5 year old to come out from the bedroom in my mother-in-law’s home to meet my husband’s cousin, his wife and his son who was around the same age.  He eventually only came out as long as I promised to hold his hand, and that he could go back into the bedroom as soon as he had kissed the cousin and his wife.  He sat beside me for a little while, and before too long he was sitting in the corner with the other little boy giggling and playing away quite happily. A few months after our arrival our 8 year old daughter contracted chicken pox and had to stay indoors for some time until she had recovered.  The first day that she ventured out after her illness, I heard a lot of screaming and when I rushed to the window it was to find all her friends gathered around her in excitement and happiness to have her out playing again.

The children picked up the language very quickly especially as my husband had spoken to them  in derja from when they were born, and they had mixed with a lot of his friends who had also had spoken it with them.  One of my most amusing memories was from the days before my children had started school, lying in bed and listening to the neighbourhood children passing by the window on their way to school, singing ‘eenie, meanie, minee, mo,….’ with the ‘catch a tiger by the toe’ totally lost in their own made up mumbo jumbo!  So nice, I thought smugly to myself, to see my children having an influence on the local children instead of the other way round!

It took a while to become accustomed to the seasonal fruit and vegetables in the market, to the fact that the butcher sold only meat and not chicken (you had to go to a separate shop to buy chicken and eggs, and often couscous and richta also), and that the local shops sold some items, normally found in packets in the UK, individually e.g. you could buy a tray of 30 eggs or just one, or one sweet or 10, one roll of toilet paper or a pack of two or more, not to mention all the foods you couldn’t buy, important foods like Cadbury’s Chocolate for instance (!) and of course...... the money.  For me the local currency was, and in many ways still is, a total minefield.  My son and I went to buy a jar of instant coffee and I had to tell him to tell the shopkeeper that I just didn’t have enough money when he said that it cost 1,500 dinars, while silently screaming at the high price.  The shopkeeper then took out a 100 dinars note and 50 dinar coin and said this was the price.  Why couldn’t he have said that in the first place?  The French may well have left Algeria 40 years previously but they had left their legacy of the centimes in place so when a person quoted one price, he or she actually meant another….. for me it epitomized the Algerian society as a whole! 

I also discovered that my husband’s family didn’t always know where I could find some of the foods to which I was accustomed.  I was told that you couldn’t buy cheddar cheese, and, when I found it in a small supermarket not too far from my mother-in-law’s I realized that it was up to myself to look around and see what I could find.  To be honest, if someone in England asked me where they could find the proper couscous (not the pathetic imitation boil-in-a-bag that no self respecting Algerian woman would allow to cross the threshold of her home), I would not have been able to help them as I only cooked it rarely and when I did it was whatever I had brought back from Algeria with me.  So if they didn’t cook with or use it they would not necessarily know where to find it.  But you had to love these people who thought nothing of days and days of torrential rain, but just rolled up their trouser legs and walked in the pools of water in their flip-flops, and how could you not love them when you saw children walking to the shops in the morning in their pyjamas, and young men who thought nothing of popping out to the shops in their sister’s neon pink flip-flops. 
A street in Bab El Oued, Algiers

Wednesday, 20 November 2013


Les Falaises, Jijel
What I remember most about those first few months is feeling cold all the time and the rain.  We had no heating at all in our flat until my mother-in-law took pity on us and gave us a heater, which was the type commonly used throughout the country – a gas fired heater with a large flue to the outside and a small window where you could see the flame.  There was already a niche in the wall in the hall for one so it was just a case of getting it installed.  The Algerians have this notion that a heater is not something suitable for a living room and so they plonk them in the one place where they are not needed and are the most inefficient – in the hallway just inside the front door.  This is the one area that is the warmest and yet is the furthest away from the living and sleeping areas, and if you have unexpected guests they may well be greeted with a few lines of damp washing drying in front of it, as soon as they enter your home.  We had no furniture other than our bed, chair-beds for the children, a few chairs and a computer desk, and we didn’t want to buy anything until we had our own home. 

We had arrived just before Ramadan and my long suffering sister-in-law and her daughter cooked for us for the whole month, after which we went out shopping for a fridge, cooker and washing machine.  We went to an area named Hamis, notorious for the sale of all kinds of electrical goods, which my husband told me had sprung up without any authorization and which had become so successful that the authorities could do nothing but leave it evolve.  However it extended its control by refusing to do anything useful like putting in pavements so it was a fun place to visit in the winter, if you liked looking like a mud-pie.  My first impression of the town was that it reminded me of a town in the Wild West straight out of a cowboy film.  There was a straight road and on either side a line of buildings of varying heights with shop signs advertising their wares.  My other sister-in-law came with us and I was fascinated by the fact that, while I was caked in mud from the hem right up to my eye-balls, she, without any apparent effort on her part, had hardly a spec on her, even her shoes looked clean!   She insisted on buying us the items we wanted and so, at last, I could start to take care of my own family again.

The thing about change is that it brings out qualities in you that you never knew you had, and some you could quite happily have lived to the end of your days without knowing.  I am an introvert, and, although I almost always enjoy myself on most social occasions, I don’t actually care if I don’t see or talk to people from one end of the month to the next.  Yes… I know… I’m odd.  And yet, I found myself wanting to get out and about and go visiting, and really looking forward to any excuse to get out of the flat, something that was totally alien to me.  Looking back I’m sure it was psychological – I still wasn’t driving in Algeria at this stage, and even if I could I didn’t know how to get anywhere, and I had nowhere to go because I hadn’t made any friends of my own. Our home was temporary so it didn’t really feel like home to me, and I think I felt confined.
Having my sister-in-law nearby meant that, whenever she had guests, they invariably popped in to see me too.  Both of our kitchen windows looked out over the building’s front steps and car park so we could see people coming and going, and whenever I saw someone coming to visit her I went into panic mode and raced around trying to make the flat semi-presentable.  I am not, by any means, a slob, but I never quite learned the knack of cleaning the whole flat every day just in case of such an eventuality… mainly because I just couldn’t be bothered.  I remember one day when I saw someone coming and did my usual headless chicken routine only to see them go off again without coming anywhere near my door.  I stood at my kitchen window, not with the relief you would expect, but instead, with hands on hips I wondered indignantly why they hadn’t come over to see me!  The human mind is an amazing, and, in my case, a contrary marvel.

 One of the very first things that my husband did was to get the phone line that was already installed, re-opened and then to get me an internet connection.  This was very rare in households, and cyber-cafes were very popular where you could go and sit at a terminal and pay for an hour’s internet access.  So it was a real luxury to have it in my home and we paid by the minute. But it was wonderful for me, and helped me to feel more connected with the rest of the world, and especially my family and friends. (This was long before Facebook I hasten to add)  I remember the first time I rang my Mum, she was so happy to hear from me and was so amazed at the fact that the line was so clear. 'I can't believe you're in Africa... you sound like you're in the next room!'  Before we had our own phone-line the only connection was through my sister-in-law, which made for some awkward phone calls between my husband's family and my own.  My sister told me of one ‘conversation’, using the word in its broadest sense, she had with my husband’s nephew where they both thought they could have a coherent conversation if she talked as loud as she could and he replied with ‘okay’ to everything she said.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Settling down to a new life and all the problems that go with it.

Adapting to life in Algeria was difficult for all of us in different ways.  We lived in a seaside town about 35kms from Algiers in a nice but rather conservative area. Six of us lived in a two-bedroomed flat with no furniture or furnishings and most of our things still in boxes. The water was turned off every few days without much of a routine so it was difficult to plan.  My sister-in-law and I agreed that we often felt it all depended on whether the man who was responsible for turning on and off the water for our area had a row with his wife or not!  The electricity supply was also fairly precarious with it going at the first drop of rain or clap of thunder.  Sometimes it didn’t come back for days.  Trying to figure out what to feed my family was another huge problem.  All the produce in the market seemed to consist of green vegetables and unless I started treating my family like cows I had to find what else there was available.  And that did not come to much where I lived so it meant going further a-field.  Also, after several times when the vegetables went off, I realised the reason why Algerian women go shopping every day, as opposed to once a week like I used to do in UK.  Produce free from pesticides and additives go off quicker than those that contain them!  And then there was the irritation I felt when my husband would come back from shopping saying that he could not find some vegetable because it wasn’t “in season”!  When, oh when do onions go out of season!!!!

I remember two different days in particular that epitomised the difficulties of my life during those first months in Algeria.  One was a Friday, both the water and the electricity had gone all morning, and I was exhausted from trying to prepare a dinner from scratch.  My husband came back from Jumuah prayer full of Iman having heard a lovely khutbah, feeling at peace and refreshed.  Just as I was about to collapse, the water and electricity came back, and because I did not know for how long the water was back, I had to wash the huge pile of clothes and clean the flat.  I remember crying and my husband asked me “Do you want to go back?”  I said, without any hesitation no, I just wanted it better than this.  The other time was one of the last nights of my daughter’s holiday from England.  It had been a disastrous holiday with everything that could possibly go wrong, doing so spectacularly.  I wanted to prepare her favourite chicken dish and we had no water or electricity.  I also had a whole chicken that I had to cut up with not a clue as to which end to start with!  I got out my trusty Delia Smith cook book for beginners (good old Delia Smith!) and looked at her diagrams, sitting on the floor of my kitchen (I had no counters to prepare it on), by candle light, and absolutely butchered this poor unsuspecting chicken, all the time thinking “what am I doing here?”

By far the most difficult thing, besides the fact that we had to leave Sarah, our daughter,  behind, was that I lost total control over my children.  From having them 24/7 and being solely responsible for their education and general well-being, I was relegated a back seat by virtue of the fact that I didn’t speak Arabic and hadn’t a clue what was going on unless someone kindly took pity on me and translated for me.  The day the children started school I cried.  And then when I saw what a fuss was made over whether their books were covered in a particular colour of plastic or not, or whether they had the copybooks with the right number of pages I cried again.  They played a lot outside and often went over to their aunts to eat and I never knew where they were, whom they were with, whether or what they had eaten.  It was very hot in the summer and all the children lost weight and I was really worried for their health.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

The Craft Fair in Algiers

Algiers hosts a craft fair in the Exhibition Centre in La Foire, Le Pin Maritime  Bordj El Khifan), every year showcasing crafts from all over Algeria as well as from other countries around the world. 

My daughters and a friend and I went this week and had a lovely afternoon perusing beautiful goods from places as far flung as Taiwan, Indonesia, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mali, Tonga, India, Pakistan and India, as well as from all corners of Algeria.

The goods ranged from mostly silver and beaded jewellery, to pictures in mosaic and in sand, to copper goods of all descriptions including one artist who specialises in creating copper trees, furniture including wood and rattan, woven clothes and carpets, and beautiful ceramic ornaments and lamps.

Some stalls were artists selling their wares and they were the most interesting.  One was a Tunisian woman selling very individual jewellery pieces which she makes herself, with each piece being a one-off.  Hers is the picture below.

I don’t think of myself as being artistic at all but I do admire the talent in other people and really enjoyed walking around and admiring all the goods.  It helped that it was a relatively small fair in comparison to the Book Fair held the previous week, and that it was quiet with not too many people in attendance so it was easy to see the goods on offer.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

The first days of a new life in Algeria

Port of Algiers
Meanwhile Allah had not finished testing my husband and his determination to make Hijirah.  He stayed in Paris overnight with a friend and drove almost all the way down through France, and had almost reached Marseilles, when he looked for his briefcase with all his documents, passports, money, everything!  And he could not find it anywhere.  So he drove the van back up the motorway, like a maniac, bombarding Allah with dua and retracing his steps.  He rang his friend in Paris to check a service station just outside Paris where he had stopped.  They had found his bag with everything intact alhamdulilah!  So then he had to drive back down the motorway, again like a maniac to make the boat on time.  It was really important to make the boat as he had to have the paperwork for the van stamped and sent back to the dealer in Paris before a certain period expired – and the date was only days away.

He made the boat on time alhamdulilah, and when he arrived in Algeria, he did not arrive at his sisters until the evening.  So his nephew brought the van up to the flat that his sister had found for us and got all his friends to unload it for him.  The next morning my husband had a good look at the flat and decided it wasn’t good enough as it had damp patches and leaking pipes.  He asked his sister was there anywhere else for us, and she told him about the flat next door to her which was available, but said that it was only 2-bedroomed and not the 3-bedroomed one we had requested.  He looked at it and it was immaculate having been freshly painted and he took it.  So along came his nephew and his friends, loaded up the van again and then unloaded it.  Some of the friends swore that with all the boxes of books that they had had to carry, they were put off studying for life and never wanted to see another book as long as they lived!

If I had been told in England that I was going to be living right next door to my sister-in-law I would have been spitting fire!  But, subhanallah, it was the best thing that ever happened.  My sister-in-law is someone who very much keeps herself to herself and she was there if I needed her, but otherwise I was left up to my own devices.  She kept an eye on the children when they played outside and told them whom they should avoid mixing with, corrected any bad language they picked up and trained them and my husband into the pitfalls of living and socialising in Algeria.  She also was family and it was so good for my children to get to know her and her family.  There was also the advantage that when the family came to visit us, they came to her home and we went over there, so I did not have to “entertain” anyone.  It can’t have been very easy for her but she did it all with such good grace mashallah.  We always think of how our in-laws are going to impact on our lives but we don’t always give as much thought as to how our arrival impacts on them.  They do have lives of their own which they have happily lived before we come and then suddenly our arrival puts them in the spotlight, as everyone knows we are foreigners and that we “belong” to them!  May Allah reward her for her patience and support to us during those first difficult months.

We had paid the rent for the flat for a year so we had no problems about that alhamdulilah.  But we heard from England that the man who had put in an offer for the house had to back out as he had problems with insurance.  Meanwhile my husband was worried that the paperwork for the van did not arrive back to the seller in Paris, and that was all the money in the world that we had to live on!  The woman in the office in Paris was extremely helpful and went out of her way to help us, and alhamdulilah the paperwork went through successfully.
The Chamber of Commerce, Algiers

Monday, 11 November 2013

Finally on the move

The plan was that my husband would drive to Algeria a week ahead of me and the children, who would then fly there to join up with him.  Meanwhile another man put in an offer for the house, with a view to adding it to his list of properties to rent out.  So it looked like we had sold it after all alhamdulilah.  The night before my husband left, Sarah, my daughter, and I were packing the last few things and we could hear all the voices and accents from the living room next door where the brothers who lived locally had come to say goodbye to my husband.  There were, of course, Algerian accents, but also, Nigerian, Pakistani, Chechen, English (an “Essex boy” and a Cockney mashallah!!!!) and Kenyan.  They were all so sad to see my husband go as they looked on him as a real brother and there were tears.  My husband felt like he was deserting them and was really sad.  To this day he left a little piece of his heart with these brothers.

You would be amazed at how much you still have to go through, when you think you have done everything.  We had to sort out the utility companies and let them know that we were no longer going to be living in the house, I still had so much to throw out and sort through, and sisters were coming everyday to say goodbye.  I stayed up most nights and lived on dua and coffee and Cadbury’s chocolate (Oh those were the days!!!).  The last night came and, when everyone had gone out of the house I had one last look around.  This had been our home for most of our married life, and where 4 of our 5 children had been born, where we had home educated, and laughed and cried and known so many days of happiness and sorrow and worry and ease.  I thought about it all in those moments, but knew that as long as we were a family together, all of these memories would be coming with us, not locked up in a house that, after all was only brick and cement.  So I locked the house up and left with just one backward glance and felt only relief that we were, at last, following our dream Alhamdulilah.

“Parting is such sweet sorrow” – what a load of rubbish!  It is so painful that you can hardly breathe and the lump in your throat threatens to suffocate you.  You can’t eat or drink because your stomach is churning, your head hurts from all the emotion, your eyes feel sore from all the crying, your face is burning with all the tears, and all the words you want to say just won’t come out because your brain has turned to mush.  It was so HARD to leave my family and also

the sisters whom Allah had blessed me with and whom I had grown to love so much.  It was especially difficult to leave the ones who had no plans to make Hijirah at all yet, or who were not married to Algerians, as I knew they would not be coming to Algeria on holiday.  I felt like I had deserted them, but also that my life would never be complete again without them in it.  And I had to say goodbye to my daughter, Sarah, who had chosen to stay behind for 8 months to finish her studies.  I don’t even want to “go there”.  Suffice to say it was one of the most difficult things either one of us ever had to do.

On a Sunday at the end of October, 2003 my friend’s husband drove us to the airport.  Although I didn’t normally wear niqaab (the face veil) I wore it in the car because I knew it would make it easier for the brother.  I know it’s not exactly the proper Islamic reason for wearing one… but then that’s how I started out wearing the khimar (the head-scarf) in the first place.  It took time before I wore it to please Allah.   I fully intended to take it off as soon as I got to the airport.  I wanted to wear it in Algeria (ironic really when I remember back to my first trip and my fear that they would be handing out abayas at the airport!)  but felt that it might give me problems travelling.  I was standing in line for the check out when I realised that I had forgotten all about it and was still wearing it. I couldn’t take it off now! There was a man at the check out and I was panicking, thinking I shall have to make a big song and dance and ask for a woman to see my face.  Then my friend nudged me and said “look!”  And there was a woman at the checkout!  I had no problems whatsoever travelling with it and wore it in Algeria from that day on alhamdulilah.

I didn’t feel that sad leaving England, only my friends and the family I had there. But then I had left Ireland 20 years previously and had always looked on England as a stepping stone, although this wasn’t quite the one I had envisaged. Also, I was not going to Algeria unwillingly or just to please my husband.  This was a positive step I was taking and I just knew that this is what Allah wanted of me, and so I was happy that I was pleasing Him.   I also knew that after all we had been through, He would not let us down – even at the times when it “looked” to our human eyes, like He was astaghfirallah.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

A Book Fair in Algiers

Ever since I have learned to read I’ve always loved reading and feel totally empty handed if I don’t bring a book with me wherever I go, so the fact that I rarely saw Algerians reading a book in public, or even a book shelf in an Algerian home, is something that was really sad to me.  I got the impression that Algerians just weren’t interested in reading as a pastime.  The libraries here are few and far between and, according to those who have been in one, contain only old tomes or academic works.  When we lived in England I tried to find good Arabic books for my children to get their teeth into in order to improve their Arabic, but found the only ones available too much like school books – they rarely had a good, gripping story, and had such flowery language, long beloved of Arabic authors, that the children very soon lost interest. This was in such sharp contrast to our love of the local library where we always borrowed the maximum number of books on our cards... 14 each!   I had high expectations of finding better ones once we moved here, but apart from the few children’s stories translated from the English into Arabic, there was nothing else, with the vast majority of books for children being in French.

Every year they have a Book Fair, here in Algiers that goes on for 10 days, where they have representatives of publishing houses from Algeria, Europe and the Arab world selling books on almost every subject imaginable.  And every year it’s absolutely packed from morning to evening.  There are books for everyone: Islamic books including reference books, French books on every subject under the sun and some English books, mostly for those learning English as a second language.  There are books for old and young, men and women, and most of the units are thronged with people.

This year there were French books on cookery, baking, sewing, crafting, clothes design, health issues to name just a few.  There were English books from a Lebanese publisher on architecture and interior design.  There were whole units devoted to all aspects of IT, again in French.  A lot of publishers from the Arab world were selling Arabic books on poetry, Islamic debates, Arab personalities and of course Islamic reference works and more modern Islamic works.

I have been going to the fair ever since we moved here and notice that there are far more English study aids for sale.  Oxford and Pearson were two of the English Publishers  represented and apart from Teacher and Student books and dictionaries,  they also had condensed versions of  the Classic’s, Shakespeare’s plays and, much to my amusement, more modern works like The Pelican  Brief and The Firm.  Some of these were sold with a CD attached with the book in oral form so that the reader could listen as they read, and I believe they also had full versions of some of the books.  It was interesting to see how popular these publishers were amongst young people especially.

The traffic caused by the fair was so bad, triggered by the number queuing to get into the car-park, that we finally parked our car on the road and walked the last part of the way.  We drove home through the old streets of Le Pin Maritime.

In the past 10 years, I have seen more and more homes with a book shelf or shelves, more books being bought for children and more people reading in public. Every time I go to the fair I am so full of hope for Algeria, because a country whose inhabitants are this interested in improving, educating and informing themselves, is one that will thrive inshallah.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Algeria, Nigeria... what's in a name....

The Emerald Isle
So it looked like all systems go.  I just had the ‘small’ detail of telling my family that we were going to live in Algeria.  When all they had ever heard in the media about Algeria was terrorism, earthquakes, and devastating floods, and I had a hard time trying to convince some Muslims, and especially some Algerians that we had not lost our minds (one lovely sister tried to persuade me not to sell our house, but to rent it out so that we would have somewhere to come back to “if” things did not work out.  I knew she meant “when”!), how was I going to convince my family?  A few years previously when I had mentioned to my younger sister that one day we would probably live in a Muslim country she burst into tears and said “So we will see even less of you and the children than we do already!”  I decided to write a letter to my mum and to each of my brothers and sisters explaining to them all the thinking and planning that had led us to this decision.  I remember the day I posted the letter to my mum – I felt so sick for the next few days thinking of her opening it and reading it.  I had deliberately posted hers before the others as I wanted her to hear from me first. As it happened she did not receive hers for some time and my sister, who had received hers first had already told her my news.  My Mum told me afterwards that she was a lot happier in finding out this way because, by the time she got the letter she was ready for it.  Subhanallah, man (and woman) plans but Allah is always the best of planners!!!!

Then we backed up the letter with a visit home so that they could all see that my husband wasn’t dragging me off to Algeria by my hair and that the children were happy about the move.  It amazes me sometimes how some non-Muslims can see things so much clearer than Muslims!  My mother told me that in many ways she was happy that we were going as she could never envisage a future for our children in England, living life the way we did.  My older sister said that she and her husband wondered why we hadn’t done it years ago! 

My younger sister had a family get-together in her home and it was such a happy and funny time for us all.  My mother, her sister and my niece were sitting chatting.  My aunt, my mum and their other sister were all in their 80s and often had highly entertaining (to the rest of us at least!) misunderstandings due to their difficulties of hearing.  “So why are you moving to Nigeria of all places?” asked my aunt.  I told her that I wasn’t, that we were moving to Algeria.  “But what made you decide to move there?”  I explained that as my husband came from there it seemed the most logical Muslimcountry to move to.  “But I thought he was from Algeria!”   Yes he is I told her.  “So why are you moving to Nigeria?”  At this stage my niece and I were avoiding each other’s eyes because it was all we could do not to laugh.  I told her again that we were not moving to Nigeria but to Algeria.  “So who told me you were moving to Nigeria?” she said, turning accusingly to my mum.   “Well, it certainly wasn’t me – why would I tell you she was moving to Nigeria when she is moving to Algeria!” retorted my mum. At this stage my niece and I had to get up and walk away with our shoulders shaking!

My mother kept saying, “When you move to Africa”.  It reminded me so much of that Meryl Streep film “Out of Africa” when she starts off saying “I had a farm in Africa”!  One of my mum’s sisters had married, given birth to 4 children and lived very happily in Kenya in the late 50s and early 60s, and the only contact then was via airmail post (which would have been more accurately named “snailmail”!) or telegraphs.  And then in the 70s my sister had gone to live there and married out there also, but although she could telephone it was so extremely expensive she never did.  And the flights to Kenya were so long because, of course, it was so much further away from Ireland than Algeria was.  So I found a map and showed my mum that Algeria was only on the other side of the Mediterranean Sea.  I tried to convince her that, in contrast to Kenya, Algeria was just a hop, skip and a jump from Ireland! She was comforted by that, by the fact that we were all so happy to be going and also by the promise we made to come back and visit once we had settled.  It really put her mind at ease.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

All it takes is just one small step.....

So from then on it was me who got the ball rolling and I threw myself enthusiastically into all the preparations for our Hijirah.  We had to sell our house as otherwise we had no money with which to buy our own one in Algeria or with which to set up a business.  We had no property ready in Algeria to buy, we didn’t know what kind of business we were going to go into, we didn’t even know where, in the country, we were going to live, or on what we were going to survive once we arrived.  Everything was up in the air and we had no answers.  But we did have an experience a few years previously of where our one small step towards Allah resulted in His innumerable Blessings on us, and we just knew that if we made a step towards Him, He would do the rest – and far better than we could.  So our first step was to call the estate agent and ask for someone to come around and give us an estimate for our house and to see if it would sell at all.  He came around on a Thursday in May and by Saturday he had already some people lined up to view it.

The first people in the door that Saturday morning were a young woman and her parents.  They loved it and came back again the same day, but the girl’s partner wasn’t interested in coming to view it.  When you live in your own home for so long (for us it had been 15 years) you don’t know how outsiders will see it, or whether they will be interested in it.  Therefore we were so happy that it had such a favourable reaction.  The following week we had an offer in from someone who hadn’t even viewed it but had seen other similar houses in the area and wanted it.  She saw it, loved it, and confirmed her offer.  We had sold it alhamdulilah, within 10 days of calling the estate agent!  She had to sort out her chain of buyers, but we had nothing to do now but sort, throw out, give away and pack.

Sarah, our eldest, who was 18 said afterwards that, like all the schemes her father and I had thought up in the past, and all the plans that came to nothing, she didn’t really believe that we were going to make Hijirah until the day she came in from College and the dining area was full of boxes – packed!  By the end of the summer we were getting close to making the big move.  We were just waiting for the woman to come back to us.  Then her solicitor contacted our solicitor to say that she was ready but….. that we had to vacate the premises within a week!!!!  Or the sale was off!!!!! There was no way that we would be ready – we weren’t just moving house, we were moving abroad.  We planned for my husband to go to France, buy a van, come back, load it up and drive it to Algeria.  If, on the departure from France, you sent back some paperwork to the seller you received tax back on the van, but it had to be within a certain period from when you bought it.  So she called the deal off!  I can remember my husband sitting on the end of the bed looking so dejected and saying “what are we going to do now?”  I said to him that, as he had already stopped work, we had almost everything packed, and we already had our sights on Algeria, his sister had found us a flat to rent, and that we should just go ahead.  What did we have to lose?  We would put the house back on the market, the solicitors and estate agents would sort out the sale and Allah just would not let us down now after all He had done for us to get us this far.

There was only one snag – we didn’t have the money to buy the van in France as we had relied on the sale of the house to acquire it.  I considered asking my mum, but I hated the thought of it as she had always said that I was the only one who had never asked her for money.  Some time previously she had promised me some money and I knew it was due to come, but still I could not bring myself to ask her for it.  Then one day, out of the blue, the phone rang and it was her.  She asked me if I remembered that money she had promised me (Oh yeah, I think I did vaguely remember it!!!!!) well, would I mind if she only gave me half of it, and gave the other half to my sister who needed to buy a new car.  Did I mind????  I told her that I had never held her to that promise, and that it made me feel a lot less guilty for taking the money if my sister was taking a share as well.  The amount she gave me was exactly the amount we needed to buy a van in France SubhanAllah!

Sunday, 3 November 2013

And so it came to pass.......

Rue D'Isley, Algiers
I still loved the country, but now we wondered if it was Islamic enough for us to grow in Islam and whether it was a place where our children could blossom Islamically.  Ideally we wanted our children to learn Arabic, the Qur’an and live in an environment where they could learn their religion easily, and it wasn’t so much that Algeria wasn’t good enough but more that we thought other countries would be better.

So we started looking at other alternatives.  First it was Saudi Arabia and I remember a Saudi friend of my husband said to him that he was worried that I would come to Saudi and expect it to be like it was in the days of the Prophet Mohammed (Sallalahu Allahi Wa Sallam) with all the people acting like his Companions.  Having been in Algeria I was under no illusions!  And we looked at Syria.  My husband went there for 10 days to look around and loved it.  He said the people were very warm and hospitable and also very calm.  That really attracted me.  Being half Irish, half Algerian can be a lethal mix and I hoped that maybe by mixing in a society where the people were calmer it might tone down my children’s tempers!  Also my husband said that the Arabic there is beautiful. But then it was very expensive to live in Syria unless you had an income from abroad. I now look at what is happening in that beautiful country with it’s wonderful, hospitable people and feel so sad and horrified.

So we looked at UAE and the possibility of teaching English there.  After a while my husband, in desperation, suggested that maybe I could get a job teaching English in that country.  I was not very happy at the prospect of me working full time or being the one on whom our status there depended.  Also I dreaded the thought of being away from my children every day.  I knew sisters who had done it, and  who had done it very successfully but I just felt I couldn’t do it.  We prayed and my husband searched and we hoped.  Looking back on our whole journey into Hijirah, I think this was the most exhausting time for us.  Dithering can be so time consuming and emotionally draining!

I think that by this time and having spoken to a lot of brothers about their experiences abroad, my husband was coming to the conclusion that the only place in the world where he and our children would be totally accepted and not looked down upon was Algeria.  He was getting desperate as we weren’t getting any younger and we both had spent 20 years in England, when we had intended on living there only a short while.  Life just seemed to grab on to you and hold you down, and, at the same time, you were so busy running as fast as you could to keep up with the pace, you didn’t realise that life was passing you by.  And, of course, the children were getting older, needed a life of their own, and what future was there in a society that seemed would never accept them for who they were – Muslims. Don’t get me wrong…. we had a good and happy life in England and the people where we lived were so helpful and accommodating that I have no complaints about that time.  But the society was structured on non-Muslim principles, some of which were compatible with our beliefs and others that were not.

One day, my husband and I brought the children to a little park around the corner from our home, to the swings etc.  It was quiet as all the children were in school – one of the many advantages in home education.  I sat there and watched them play and thought to myself what kind of a life are we giving them.  They had to be brought out and supervised to play, they had to be brought from one Muslim house to another to visit their friends, like one little oasis of Islam to another.  It was all so artificial.  Surely Algeria had to be better than this for them, with all its faults.  Time was passing and every time I read that aya in the Qur’an I felt a shiver up and down my spine: ‘When angels take the souls of those who die in sin against their souls, they say: “In what (plight) were ye?”  They reply: “Weak and oppressed were we in the earth”.  They say: “Was not the earth of Allah spacious enough for you to move yourselves away (from evil)?”  Such men will find their abode in Hell. – what an evil refuge!’ 

I told one sister who is a mathematician, about my fears that once I went to live in Algeria I would live a very lonely life with none of the wonderful friendships I had forged in England.  This is what I had meant, in my very first post, in answer to my husband’s question about moving to Algeria, when I said I felt as if I would be buried alive in Algeria.  She said something that reverberated in my brain until this day:  “Here in a non-Muslim country, where the ratio of non-Muslims to Muslims is so big, you have managed to make good friends.  Don’t you think that in a country where the ratio of Muslims to non-Muslims is big, and where almost everyone is Muslim, you will find it easier to make good friends?”  It made a lot of sense to me, may Allah reward her for her wise words that encouraged me so much in that time of doubt.  

So I said to my husband that I would move to Algeria but with certain conditions.  Top of the list was that I would not live with any of my in-laws (nice and all as they were I knew that our relationship would suffer if we lived together), that I had my name on any property that we owned and that I could come back and visit my family in Ireland if we could afford it.  My husband accepted all of these conditions very happily and  he has kept his word to this day Alhamdulilah.

Friday, 1 November 2013

Postcards from Algeria Part 5

A house in the Casbah, Algiers
We didn’t travel back again for some years due to the atrocities and fear that epitomized the ‘terrorist years’ in the remainder of the 90s when there was civil unrest and people lived in fear of being killed.  We knew it was bad because my mother-in-law wouldn’t hear of us coming to visit.  I can’t profess to know much about the whys and wherefores, but suffice to say that, to this day, people still talk about that era in hushed tones, and very few families remain unaffected by it.

Things had quieted down by 1999 and my husband and I and our 4 children spent the turning of the century in Algeria.  It was my first time in Algeria in the winter and I found it so cold, which was very weird for me, always used to it being so hot.  The weather itself was much milder than what we had left behind in England, but the houses inside were freezing.  Many homes don’t have central heating, but instead one gas fired heater that is fixed in place and is expected to heat the whole home.  As these heaters are usually installed in the hallway just inside the door… this is usually the warmest place in the home!  The houses are built with brick and decorated inside with cool tiles on the floor, and, in some places, on the wall also, which have the purpose of keeping the house cool in the summer, something they do with great effect, but unfortunately they also do a good job of it in the cooler winter months.

On the last days and nights of our stay, the women of the family were busy preparing all sorts of goodies for us to bring back with us.. misamen, mahajab, kalb el louz, and other Algerian delicacies.  On the very last night the whole family descended on my mother-in-law’s flat and didn’t want to leave, so we had my husband’s brother, his wife and 6 children, my husband’s sister, her husband, and their 4 children and my husband’s other brother, his wife and their daughter, plus my mother-in-law and my sister-in-law…..all in a tiny three roomed flat.  Actually they didn’t have all three rooms because they insisted that my husband and I have the one bedroom and would only let us share it with our youngest two children, so the rest of the family crammed into 2 rooms.  The older girls went upstairs to a neighbor to borrow some bedding and she very kindly offered to house them for the night, so that was a mercy.  In England and Ireland we have wall-to-wall carpeting; in Algeria they have wall-to-wall bodies.

We had celebrated Eid in Algeria, and when we arrived back to our local community of Muslims we discovered that they hadn’t had a very good Eid due to controversy and confusion as to when Eid actually was.  So we invited them all to our home a day or two after our return and shared with them all the goodies we had brought back, far too many for us to consume on our own anyway, and all our friends said that it felt like an Eid celebration.

On November 10, 2001, heavy rains flooded many parts of Algeria, causing hundreds of deaths and damaging thousands of houses and businesses, mostly in the neighborhoods of Bab el-Oued, Frais Vallon and Beaux Fraisier in western Algiers, capital of the country. The torrential downpour, which ironically followed a national prayer for rain, buried buildings and their occupants under tons of mud sliding with great force from the hills of the city toward the raging sea. The entire staff of several businesses, hundreds of schoolchildren and many commuters were drowned or entombed in mud. As of December 9, 776 people were reported dead and 115 unaccounted for, and 1,500 were made homeless. Hundreds of affected families are observing the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in precarious makeshift housing.’  Azzedine Layachi – Middle East Research and Information Project,

My husband arrived in Algiers the day after this flood and watched them dig bodies out of the buildings.  There is one building that was a hammam (Public Baths) which  was filled to the roof with mud, and which they decided to leave intact, bodies and all.  The market where my in-laws used to buy their groceries was washed away as were so many buildings and the landscape of Bab El Oued was changed forever, as were the lives of so many.

As if the country hadn’t been battered and bruised enough, it was hit by a massive earthquake on May 21st, 2003.  People talked about walking down streets to see one house totally demolished while it’s neighbor was left standing… almost as if some were just handpicked. Temporary settlements of chalets were built to house all those who were homeless and this was in addition to those made homeless by the flood 2 years previous.  To this day I meet people for the first time, who have lost loved ones during this calamity, and what amazes me and also humbles me is their unswerving faith and acceptance in the Divine Will of Allah, and the obvious peace that this brings to them.