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.  

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