Saturday, 20 December 2014

My daughter's Thesis Defence for her Masters

My eldest child, Sarah, achieved her Master’s Degree in Islamic Theology on Wednesday, 3rd December in the College of Islamic Sciences, Kharouba, here in Algiers.  It’s been a long time coming, through no fault of her own.  She was supposed to defend her thesis last May but it was cancelled at the last minute.  To get to this stage she had to first finish her four year degree in Aqeedah, then pass the entrance exam for the Master’s for which there are only 10 places.  Then after a year of classes she chose a subject for her thesis and submitted a brief outline for acceptance. The title of her outline was ‘Islamic Fundamentalism in Orientalist Writings in the English Language Between 1990 and 2010’. Once her thesis proposal was accepted she began work on researching and writing the full thesis which had to be 150-200 pages long. Then she got it printed and bound and submitted 5 copies to the University. Three copies were given to the panel of professors who were nominated to sit on her thesis defence committee and who had to then read the thesis and submit a report to the University’s administration.  She was very fortunate to have an excellent Thesis Adviser (who was one of the three professors on the committee) who encouraged her and helped her along the way, may Allah bless him for all his efforts on her behalf. It’s difficult to keep the momentum going on a project as long term as a thesis, and there was a time when she just couldn’t work on it at all and even considered giving up on it altogether.  With a lot of dua and help from Allah, and encouragement and pointers from her Thesis Adviser and a Life Coach recommended to her by a friend she found the energy and enthusiasm to continue Alhamdulilah.
The Thesis Defence itself was a rather gruelling affair: she had to give a short presentation, dressed in a black graduation robe, on her thesis, which she did using a power point presentation, and then she was questioned on it by the panel. This was a difficult ordeal especially considering that it had been over a year since she originally wrote the thesis, and the fact that the whole thing was a public affair in the library of the University where anyone could drop by and sit in and listen.  When she first talked about this impending event a couple of years ago, we thought how wonderful it would be to have family and friends at such a special occasion.  However, by the time the day rolled around, Sarah only wanted immediate family members to come as she was so nervous and had waited so long she just wanted to get it over and done with and Alhamdulilah those of her friends who knew her well understood this.  But she still had quite a big audience with some of her own students dropping by to listen in.    The 3 professors on the panel were diligent and thorough in their questioning and critique.  Sarah seemed, to all outward appearances very calm and collected, even when she was told that it might not be possible to get the projector equipment for her presentation.  Alhamdulilah she did get it and I have to say that the assistants who work to make sure that everything runs smoothly – including getting her the equipment she needed and telling her and the family how everything normally goes –were really wonderful and helpful mashAllah, may Allah bless them also for all their efforts, because it meant a lot to all of us as a family at such a stressful time. 

As a mother, I could tell that she was nervous the whole time, even though she dealt with it really well Allahibarek.  It is such a nerve wracking experience and not everyone can deal with it so well – Sarah told me about one student who collapsed in tears just before her Thesis Defence and the assistants had to help to calm her down before she went on to defend her thesis and receive a very good mark Allahibarek.

Once the three professors stopped grilling Sarah on her thesis, they retired to a room to discuss her mark – a mark below 12 out of 20 would have meant that she would not be eligible to  continue to do a PhD if she so wished.  They were gone only a matter of minutes, much to all our surprise, and when they returned we all had to stand up while they announced her graduation and the mark that they awarded her, which was very good Alhamdulilah.  I felt like I was standing in a courtroom, especially with the professors and Sarah in their black robes, waiting for a guilty or not guilty verdict, but this was necessary as this legalised her Masters Degree.  Once she has made the necessary corrections to her Thesis she will get it reprinted, rebound and submit copies to the University after which a copy will be registered both in the University library and in the National Library.

I had plenty of time to think as I sat there not understanding very much of the proceedings, given that it was obviously all in Arabic, and I must admit to becoming rather teary eyed.  I remembered Sarah’s first 7 years of life with a non-Muslim Mum, and how Allah protected her and kept her on the Straight Path, and guided me to it also, almost despite myself, Allahibarek, Alhamdulilah.  I remembered my one big wish for all my children was that they would have a good grounding in their religion and in the Arabic language.  I especially didn’t want the girls to go through the same experience as me, being a wife and mother, with a child on the hip, stirring a saucepan and trying to learn ‘Alif, Ba, Ta’.  I wanted them to have the whole of the religion at their fingertips, where they could look up anything they wanted in the original beautiful language of Arabic, to be able to understand Allah’s Own Words exactly as He revealed them so that nobody could misguide them or lead them astray.  Also I feel that higher education for my daughters is a valuable asset for their futures as one can never tell what the future holds for them and this can provide a measure of security  As I sat there and watched my daughter, I thought of how He answered my dua…..and then some!

So many of us, when we move to Algeria worry about the education system here and whether it will be good enough for our children.  Her achievement has shown me the possibilities and opportunities both in this country and abroad.  To my immense surprise I have discovered that many Algerian university graduates end up continuing their studies or finding jobs abroad, contributing to what is called the Brain Drain in developing countries.

As I sat there last Wednesday afternoon I was reminded of John F Kennedy’s famous words ‘ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.’    Along with all the dua I regularly say for all of my children is one asking that they will have a positive influence in the development of this wonderful country.  This has started in a small way, with Sarah teaching Aqeedah in English to a group of my friends and me.  She started with about 6 students 3 years ago and now has 13 which are as much as she can cope with, considering our short concentration span and varying degrees of corpus mentis!  There are more who would love to join but she has neither the time at the moment to hold another class or the ability to travel the distance it would take to reach other women eager to learn.  Her classes have opened up my world, boosted my Iman, and brought me closer to my Creator, with a totally new comprehension and wonder at His awesome Mercy and Abilities.  She also teaches English both at home and at the University that educated her in her deen in the first place, Kharouba.

After four years studying in Kharouba for a degree, and then  the additional years of study for her Masters, when I ask her what is the most important thing that she has learned, she answers ‘I have learnt that I know absolutely nothing… comparison to all the knowledge that’s out there’. 

May her thesis be a benefit to others in this life and to her in the Akhirah.
View of Algiers from Kharouba

Friday, 14 November 2014

A seagull in the kitchen

But our guest of honour has to be the seagull that arrived in our back yard one blustery morning in late August.  My youngest sons couldn’t believe that it was still a young bird because it was so big, but it still had its brown feathers.  It was handicapped due to the fact that one foot was missing, but it had obviously been treated previously as it had a bandage around the bottom of the leg which was still intact, so it was able to hobble about.  It transpired that it had been rescued from some children who were treating it cruelly at the sea and brought home by some boys who were visiting for the summer, but they had obviously left and it must somehow have managed to fly from their balcony down to our backyard with the aid of the wind.  At first we were afraid that the cats would attack it at night so we used to bring it in through the kitchen to the middle courtyard and had to move Jack the tortoise into a box for the night, which he took very well until  morning when all you could hear was scratching and scraping and thumping – for such a small rock he can make a lot of noise. 

The seagull was named Moriarty after the villain in Sherlock Holmes, but my sister said he should be named Jonathan after Jonathan Livingston Seagull and my nephew considered Steven Seagal (which I considered an insult seeing as ‘our’ seagull was a far better actor which isn’t saying much – Jack the tortoise was a better actor).  We finally had a willing customer for my youngest son’s fishing sprees, and when he skedaddled off for a week, his friend came and supplied us with food for it and with my husband buying sardines it was the best fed seagull on this side of the Mediterranean coast.  It wasn’t long before we realised he could definitely hold his own with any of the cats that had the courage to stray into our backyard while he was there – all he had to do was flap his enormous wings and they all flew up the fig trees, so we left him in the backyard.  We brought in a vet (who was visiting the cat across the road!) who said there wasn’t much more we could do, and after looking up as much as we could on the good old internet, we learnt that he would eventually fly off himself when he was ready.  In the meantime he practised trying to fly which was always fine, but his landing was a bit awkward.  However I was comforted by the fact that seagulls seem to spend a lot of time standing on one leg anyway so he wouldn’t be too inconvenienced by his handicap.  Every now and again he came to the back door into the kitchen and walked right in so then I had to gently guide him back out again.  Then one morning about a month later he was gone, off to the seagull world up in the sky, and I still find myself looking up when one flies overhead and wonder if it’s him. 

A week later it was pouring rain and my youngest son told me about a little kitten that was outside the front of our house and who seemed to be an orphan.  I’ve become really good at becoming deaf to these kind of stories over the years – there are so many kittens around the neighbourhood that there’s no way we could see to all of them.  The next day I was out and when I returned home this teensy weensy little kitten was sitting by our door, but my daughter persuaded me to leave it.  However later my second youngest son asked my husband and me to let it in so we did, and that is how Kitty (I know…..SO inventive) came to stay.  She settled down into a box in the garage and was quite sickly at first but then seemed to pick up.  But to be honest, despite all the cooked chicken livers and other innards, cheese and even dried cat food donated by our neighbour, a visit to the vet,  baths and cuddles she received she never really thrived.  Five weeks later she died in her sleep, and yes, I bawled my eyes out as did my youngest.  Funny how such a small defenceless little thing can make such a big impact.


In addition to various animal guests we have also had the odd insect guest with the emphasis on ‘odd’.   There was the wasp who decided to start work on a nest just above the living room window, and who had to be removed.

 We’ve had geckos which, to my eyes, are quite cute…..until they leave their tails behind.  Then there was the night when everyone was asleep and I was in my living room minding my own business when I saw what seemed to be a big moth flying around.  It flew at me and so totally overcome by my beauty was it that it promptly fell down in a heap on the sofa.  At closer inspection it proved not to be a moth at all but a praying mantis.  It recovered from its ordeal and I sent it on its way into the night.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

A mouse in the house

One morning we heard squealing from the back garden and found a lovely black and white bunny rabbit, who was so nervous and twitchy.  We think she may have been caught by a big cat, and we brought her inside, put her in a cardboard box with some lettuce and carrots and she thanked us by keeling over and dying overnight.

Another time we chased a cat out of the house who had obviously entered through the terrace door, and about a day later we heard a squealing sound from the shoe and coat cupboard under the stairs and found a little kitten.  I guessed immediately that this was why the cat had been in the house in the first place so we placed the kitten on the terrace and moved away to a distance and watched as the mother cat came and claimed her young.  She had two other kittens and we fed her and them on the terrace for a while although she would not let us anywhere near her or them, and then one day they disappeared.

Not all our guests were the feline variety – we also have had the occasional mouse that has decided to move in.  I don’t mind mice generally but really don’t like to have them in the kitchen or anywhere in the vicinity of food, and, although there are various poisons on the market not all of them are humane – one of them is a kind of glue that literally glues the mouse to the spot which I think is very cruel.  Another is a bag of tiny grains which you put on food around the kitchen and this has worked with varying success.  I have had the odd mouse that, I suspect, has peered out at me from behind or underneath a kitchen appliance and laughed at my naivety in expecting him to fall for that trick, because the food stays around….and so does the mouse.  We had one that was locked in a cupboard and we left it for days and days without food and it just would not die – I hated the thought that it was dying a slow death, and my husband decided to put it out of its misery and kill it with a broom.  Far from killing the wretched thing, the mouse escaped and my husband broke a hole in the tile at the back of the cupboard.  So much for putting it out of its misery!

There have been times when my husband and children (bearing in mind they are almost all adults now) have decided to deal with the mouse problem with military precision and everyone takes up position beside a potential bolt-hole armed to the teeth with a broom or other cleaning utensil.  The furniture is moved carefully to coax the mouse out of its hiding place and then…..all hell breaks loose.  There’s a lot of shouting and accusations flying through the air while all the furniture is hurled around, the mouse flees for its life and vanishes into thin air and lives to terrorise us another day, while my living room and kitchen look like a tornado has hit them.

And then there’s Jack….the tortoise who is just one step up from a rock.  We acquired him from a friend whose dog had attacked it.  We had to move him out of his home in the front courtyard  when the builders came and he has been reigning supreme in the middle courtyard ever since.  He belongs to my eldest daughter and many is the time she has exclaimed at how happy or sad he is, but in all honesty to me he has the same gormless expression on his face no matter what befalls him.  We finally saw something of his personality when my nephew came on holiday and spent a lot of time in Jack’s courtyard, whereupon Jack decided to claim his dominance and rammed any foot that entered said courtyard – fine if you remembered he was there but a bit of a shock when you forgot and suddenly found your foot being gnawed off.
Jack - picture courtesy of my nephew, hence the superior photography!

Monday, 10 November 2014

Uninvited guests

When I say ‘uninvited guests’ I am not talking about those Algerians who feel it’s their God-given right to just pop in any time of the day or night unannounced.  This time I am talking about the four legged or the winged two legged variety.  I am not particularly into pets mostly because when I had children, potty training, feeding them and taking them everywhere with me, was as much as I could handle as I know my limitations…and they are many.  When I was growing up in the countryside in Ireland we always had cats, usually kittens that appeared in our garden and became pets, but they were never allowed in the house.  My dad always made a lovely cosy bed from sacking in the garage and even put a cat flap in the door to keep them safe from any snooping dogs….long before cat-flaps became a la mode. I remember once my mum feeding some little kittens in the back porch using a dropper.   But they always went and broke our hearts by getting killed in the busy road in front of our house.  Once I was hitching a lift and I passed one of our pets plastered all over the road, and had to explain to the poor misfortunate person who stopped to give me a lift, why I was sobbing my heart out – I was 18 at the time.

We weren’t ensconced in our new home here in Algeria very long when a very good school friend of mine came to visit.  Being totally cat-mad she spent a lot of her time out in the back garden enticing all the stray cats in the neighbourhood into our garden, although they didn’t need much enticing.  One of them was very heavily pregnant and I threatened my friend that if this cat had kittens in my garden I was going to post them back to her.  Our next-door neighbour very kindly made a cosy home for her so that she would have somewhere safe to have her kittens, but she decided, for some reason best known to herself, to have her 3 kittens in our back garden.  I didn’t know what to do as I was afraid for her with night coming and the other bigger cats roaming around, but I was afraid to touch her kittens in case she would reject them, so I texted my friend in England who advised me to bring them into the garage – mother and all.  This we did and she settled down well with her little ones, not leaving them at all for the first week or two and then only to wander around outside before coming back to sleep with them.  She was a Burmese cat with a haughty nature who made it quite clear from the onset that, although she had condescended to give birth in our yard, that was as far as her favour to us went – we treated her and her kittens very well and she, on her part, put up with the occasional rub from us as she walked by.  It was an amazing thing to see what a great Mum she was, how well she took care of her kittens to the point of toilet training them, and, needless to say they became dear to our hearts.  We worried about what would happen to them when we went to Ireland that year and decided that, as they got bigger, they had to acclimatise to the other cats out the back so that they could become independent.  We went on holiday to Ireland leaving them in the good care of our neighbour who promised to feed and keep an eye on them.  When we returned after several weeks they were wary of us and obviously learnt that not all humans are….. humane, which was just as well if they were to survive.  In Ramadan of that year our neighbour informed us the devastating news that they and a lot of the cats in the neighbourhood had been poisoned, and I remembered my Mum saying that this was why she didn’t like us having cats – because of the heartbreak caused when they inevitably died.  

One day I got a message from my cat-mad friend in England to tell me that she had sent me something in the post, but before I could get all excited over this unusual and exciting (in Algeria anyway) prospect she informed me that it was cat-food for the neighbourhood cats! The cats probably all thought they had died and gone to heaven. She said she didn’t want to send us chocolate because she was afraid it would melt, to which I told her we wouldn’t care – we’d eat it off the packet.  I told her that, in return, I would send back a smelly gift from the local cats, a threat I never really carried through.  

Friday, 31 October 2014

Eid in Algeria – what’s there to celebrate? Part Three

What a glorious way to spend the second day of Eid

We have settled into a routine that suits us as a family now on Eid day. On the Eid after Ramadan we always go and have lunch at my mother-in-law’s home, and it's wonderful to see so many people, old and young, male and female out and about in their best clothes, visiting family.  This is the Eid where it is traditional to give the children money and I have learnt from my sister-in-law to collect change for a couple of weeks beforehand so we have enough to give to my husband's grandnephews and grandnieces (yes....we're THAT old now!) on Eid day.  A lot of the extended family gathers in my mother-in-law's apartment, and, although there are a lot of us crowded into a tiny apartment, everything runs like clockwork, and we all usually enjoy our meal and time with the family…..even me!  Then we return home in the early afternoon to avoid the worst of the traffic and we may lie down for a while, or watch some TV… or as has been the case in more recent years, go on the internet!  Then in the evening we will have something light to eat followed by a film with all the usual goodies. I have always baked the things that my children like for this Eid and have found over time that my in-laws love the variation when I’ve gifted them with boxes of them. The next day we have been to visit sisters, gone for picnics and this past Eid al Fitr we went to the beach with a picnic and it was glorious Alhamdulilah.
A picnic in the forest on the second day of Eid with friends

We have not always had a sheep on the second Eid, and when that was the case we have gone to my in-laws for lunch and it becomes similar to Eid Al Fitr.  However the boys often do the rounds of the neighbours and watched them, or as in most cases, helped out, while the girls and I have sat at home, boxed up some cakes as gifts and relaxed.  On these particular Eids we have always been gifted with meat to the point that we have more in our freezer than on the Eids when we slaughtered ourselves! 
When we have had a sheep it is a very busy day, even though it’s normally only my mother-in-law and sister-in-law who come to stay and help out.  I know some friends who love to get all ‘stuck in’ and do everything, but It has never appealed to me personally.  Leading up to the second Eid al Adha when we had a sheep, I worried about the stomach, intestines, head and feet none of which I knew what to do with and had absolutely no interest whatsoever in cooking as none of us like these dishes.  But I soon discovered that these are delicacies for a lot of Algerians who will quite happily take them and also the sheepskin off your hands, as they are, without being cleaned. I love the fact that in Algeria nothing goes to waste – absolutely every part of the animal is used, and the meat itself is very much appreciated as most Algerians cannot afford to eat it very often so having meat- based meals is a big novelty in itself.   I have found my own role on these days to be one who cleans up after the sheep and bag up all it’s bedding for the rubbish, then I cook a roast chicken and all the trimmings as well as preparing a salad and chips to go with the cooked liver, heart, kidney.  I feel as if my role on the Eid Al Adha is to enable everyone else to do their roles, and it all works out really well Alhamdulilah.  My sister-in-law gave me one of the highest compliments I could ask for on a couple of these Eids.  She and my mother-in-law get up to pray Fajir on Eid morning but then they go back to bed because they don’t attend the Eid prayer in the mosque.  On both occasions they slept until we came back and she said that she never sleeps like that at home……so that usually makes my day, knowing they feel so comfortable in my home Alhamdulilah. 

Gifts of meat given to us on Eid

The most difficult Eid al Adha since my first one here was the one several months after my lovely Mum passed away in 2011.  I know it sounds stupid now but, at the time, I didn’t realise that I was still in a state of grief and shock at her death.  I just knew that I couldn’t stop thinking of her and, couldn’t stop writing to her in my head as I always used to do before I actually sat down and wrote it all out for her, and realising that she just wasn’t there anymore.  It was especially difficult as it was such a happy occasion for my family and my in-laws and I really didn’t want to put a damper (yes I know….another pun!) on things by bawling my eyes out in front of them… I did it in the garage while cleaning out the sheep’s bedding (I have never been able to look at chocolate cereal balls in the same light since), and found that doing some physical work is very therapeutic for grief.  Once I’d finished and had a shower I was able to sit down with all the family and have a really nice lunch Alhamdulilah. 

I think there is another aspect to the difficulty a lot of us ex-pats have with Eid here, and that is the point that it reinforces the obvious fact that our husbands have their families and we don’t…..not in the same way.  Apart from the physical distance there is also the fact that they don’t share our beliefs and, as a result, can’t truly identify with us on these special occasions.  It can feel very lonely at times.  I have spent some Eids in the very early years wondering what kind of  ‘celebration’ this was for me, far away from my family and my English speaking friends, surrounded by Algerian derja for the most part of the day, and working so hard, and to be honest I have felt very tearful.  As the years have progressed I have slowly but surely stopped grieving for the Eids we had in England and come to enjoy the ones we have here in Algeria, and to understand why Algerians abroad always hanker after their Eids here.  To quote a very good friend of mine, Eid in Algeria is more about the ‘sacrifice’ than the 'slaughter', and, as a result it definitely is more of a ‘commemoration’ than a ‘festival’ and, therefore has a lot more depth and meaning….at least for me anyway.   I think, also, I have found my own niche within my husband’s family, one with which I am happy, and I am also happy to have a close bond with my own family across the Med, all of which makes me more contented Alhamdulilah.  In the end these occasions are primarily reminders to us of patience and devotion to our Creator, and also that this life is just a ‘passing through’ and not the end goal in itself.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Eid in Algeria - what's there to celebrate? Part Two

The one that got away!
I had to keep reminding myself why we had a sheep in our house in the first place, and no, it was not primarily for the wonderful roast meat dinners ahead.   I had heard the story over and over growing up, listening to it at mass on Sunday,  where God wanted to test His Prophet Abraham (May Allah’s peace be upon him)’s loyalty to and love for Him, and asked him to sacrifice his only son.  Islam gives far more details about the story than the Catholic Church did and, as with a lot of the stories the religions have in common there are fundamental differences.  Christians believe that he was asked to sacrifice his son Isaac, his wife’s Sarah’s son, while Islam says that it was his son Ismail with his wife Haajar as Sarah still didn’t have her son as yet at this time.  He told his son about the dream he had where he had been requested to do this act, and his son told him, more or less, that he had to do what Allah had ordered.  So, as they both made their way to the place where the sacrifice was to be performed, shaitaan (satan) came to Abraham, three times and tried his very level best to dissuade him from doing it, whereby Abraham picked up some stones and threw them at him.  This is remembered every year during the pilgrimage of Hajj when people stone the Jamaraat .  Just at the point that Abraham was about to slaughter his son Allah told him to slaughter a sheep instead, and this is why, if we can afford one, we slaughter a sheep on Eid day in memory and in awe of Abraham’s amazing obedience to his Creator, and as an inspiration to us to try to reach that level of deep faith and serenity.  So as I looked into the eyes of that first sheep in the days leading up to the day of Eid I thought of how Abraham must have felt having to sacrifice his SON, and I honestly felt a close affinity to this amazing man and, inspired by his faith, I could feel my own becoming stronger.  But that didn’t stop me from sitting on my bed at the actual time of the slaughter, sobbing along with one of my sons until the dreaded deed was done!

You can never get too much of a good thing
Leading up to that moment were weeks of dread – I dreaded having my in laws to stay over as that had never happened before, and I was anxious about how I was going to communicate with them  over such a long period of time.   I dreaded having to feed them all the day before Eid, Arafat, which is a day of fasting in case they didn’t like the food having not eaten all day.  I picked up on my husband’s nervousness about the actual slaughter itself and I was nervous for him!  I was worried about each of the children and how they would feel on the actual day of the slaughter.  I dreaded Eid day because I really didn’t know what to expect and I felt that, while everyone else would know exactly what to do, I would be totally useless.

My in-laws arrived on the day of Arafat….with their own food as they felt I had enough on my plate (pun my word!) without cooking, and we had a lovely evening together.  The slaughter, itself on Eid day, was quite quick and my husband was happy he had done it as humanely as possible.  Everyone, and I mean everyone, seemed to get in on the act of removing the skin and insides… in-laws and various neighbours all were on hand to give plenty of advice (Algerians LOVE giving advice!) and also practical help  and with our boys and men going back and forth also to the neighbours, we all felt it was very much a community event.

My sisters-in-law and my husband’s niece set to cleaning out the insides and burning the hair off the head and feet, and my children watched and helped whenever they could.  As for me I found I excelled in the role as ‘gofer’  - I spent a lot of time up and down, back and forth looking for basins, sharp knives, scissors etc. etc.  I had also decided to roast a chicken because there isn’t much from which to make a meal on the day of the actual slaughter – the liver, heart and kidneys wouldn’t make much of a meal for 11 people and it’s very hungry work.  I served the chicken with mashed potato, carrots, peas and, of course, gravy, and my husband’s nephew exclaimed, when he sat down, ‘what exactly did we just slaughter – a sheep or a chicken?’  In addition I also cooked the innards with onion and garlic and everyone was very happy with the meal….which made me happy and feeling useful Alhamduliah!

By the time we had sat down to dinner everything had been done that could be done with the carcass, and it was hanging up in our courtyard with all the floor washed and scrubbed and all the rubbish bagged, so much so that only for the hanging carcass you would never know we had a live sheep in our courtyard just that morning.  I really am in awe at how efficient Algerians can be at times like this mashaAllah.

Everyone lay down for a siesta after lunch and prayer, and then we had coffee and cakes, after which my in-laws left.  Then my children, husband and I settled down to watch a film and munch away on all sorts of goodies, drink gazous (a hyped-up version of Cola or Pepsi!) and juice, and we all went to bed feeling very happy and, as if we had had a really lovely day.  And I wondered why, and not for the first time, I always got myself worked up over things and ALWAYS came up with the worst possible scenarios.
Chocolate all the way!

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Eid in Algeria – what’s there to celebrate? Part One

Home-made Eid cakes

I have had to revise all my previous conceptions of ‘celebration’ since I came to Algeria.  The word, ‘celebration’ itself can mean either ‘festivity’ and/or ‘commemoration’ and that really explains the huge differences between Eid in England and Eid in Algeria.  We have two days of celebration in the Islamic Calendar (there are others but they are more cultural and traditional than actually Islamic), and these are Eid al Fitr when Ramadan ends and Eid al Adha (known as Eid Kabeer or the Big Eid here in Algeria), which is about 2 months after the first one.  Obviously before becoming Muslim, I was brought up with all the Catholic days of celebration which, for my family always had a very spiritual emphasis.  Leaving these days behind were not as difficult for me as for others, probably because, being honest, they weren’t filled with the happy memories that a lot of my friends have of these occasions.

In England, as a Muslim, we usually celebrated these days by getting all dressed up in new clothes going to a mosque in London followed by a party either at a mosque or hall, where the emphasis was on the children enjoying their day with little games and presents laid on by the organisers, the mothers enjoying a well-earned break from cooking and housework by catching up with friends or making new ones and the husbands sat and chilled with their friends.  Invariably we all returned home from these occasions exhausted but very happy.

I cannot even remember our first Eid al Fitr here in Algeria it was so memorable…..not!  It would have only been about 6 weeks after we arrived and most likely we spent it visiting my husband’s mother and sister, along with the rest of the extended family, and also his brother and his wife.  It was quite boring and exhausting for both me and for the children and in sharp contrast to the Eids we had spent in England.  About two months later we celebrated our first Eid Al Adha and, although we didn’t have a sheep to slaughter ourselves, we didn’t really feel that we missed out on anything as all the neighbours and family slaughtered theirs outside the apartment building.  My eldest son was 11 at the time and he went around that day with a face as white as his camis – he had helped his friend to take care of his sheep leading up to Eid and found the whole slaughtering thing very hard to bear.  I found myself very emotional that day because, for some reason, I kept thinking of my Dad who had passed away 6 years previously and how much I would have loved to tell him about the day.  I think I felt that he would probably understand having been brought up on a farm.  The one thing that really stood out for me that day was the fact that both men and women equally worked very hard – after the sheep was slaughtered the men had to remove the skin, not an easy job, cut the breastbone, another difficult job, remove the innards some of which they cleaned themselves, and the women then had their jobs of cleaning out and then cooking the edible organs for the family.  Usually the carcass is left to drain until the next day and I remember, as we drove off to visit my mother-in-law, seeing all the carcasses hanging from the trees outside the apartment block,and thinking how I would love to have been able to take a picture and send it home to my family in Ireland with the caption ‘This is what grows on the trees in Algeria!’  Yes, there was a life before Facebook!

The second Eid Al Adha was our first one buying a sheep.  My husband had never slaughtered on his own before and was very nervous about it, not wanting the animal to suffer because of his inexperience, so he invited his nephew to come and help along with his two sisters and his niece.  I, for my part, was very nervous about absolutely everything and dreading the whole day for weeks beforehand.  I used to be vegetarian when I was in my teens and the farm next door was rented out to a butcher who reared cows for slaughter.  One night he herded them all into the barn next door to be transported the next day and they were so obviously in distress all night that I promised I would never eat his meat or any other.  So the idea of having an actual sheep in our courtyard intended for slaughter made me sick to my stomach, but the reality was, in some ways, even worse.  The agricultural smell is overpowering and hits you as soon as you wake up, but it was the inestimable sadness I felt every time I looked at it as it stared woefully back at me that was by far the worst thing about it.
Just a 'little' selection of home-made Eid cakes - there were more in the Freezer!

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Irlandaise, Anglaise, Hollandaise.........

Otherwise known affectionately as 'Aer Fungus'

One would have had to be under the age of 5, non-corpus mentis, dead or totally uninterested in the
world around you not to know that there was a Referendum in Scotland asking the question ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’  It seems that everyone, and I mean everyone, from the President of the United States, through to sports and the Big Screen stars, politicians from all parties, right down to the neighbour’s dog next door had an opinion as to how the Scottish people should vote.

Speaking purely from a total ignoramus’ point of view of the whole economical and political ramifications of a vote ‘yes’ I felt that this was an emotional driven vote rather than a practical one.  An independent Scotland with its own very distinct culture standing alone and out from under the auspices of England sounds lovely really doesn’t it – kind of warms the cockles of the heart and makes you feel all fuzzy and warm inside.  But practically I couldn’t see what they were going to do about a currency – England seemed to be totally against sharing the sterling with a newly independent country that had the gall to get away from them, and the European Union didn’t seem to be falling over themselves to invite them into the Euro currency.  And what would happen to Scottish people abroad – where would they now go if they needed help or paperwork or to renew their passports etc.  And would Scotland really be able to hold on those big companies and banks who threatened to move abroad if the positive vote was a successful one…….

What was most disturbing though was the prevailing attitude that a vote no meant being anti-Scottish, almost as if there is no room for independent thinking in an independent Scotland.  There were quite a few (a majority it seems according to the results of the referendum) who were more than concerned about the above questions and a myriad of others I couldn’t even begin to contemplate, and who felt that these questions had not been answered to their satisfaction.  So they voted no not because they don’t love Scotland but because they adore the place and all its facets and were thinking about the economic future and security of their children.

The whole subject had me thinking about my own nationality and love of the country in which I was born and grew up.  I love Ireland and I love being Irish and I’m so happy it’s an independent country, but this independence did not come about without a lot of bloodshed and hardship.  One can look at Ireland today and think why can’t Scotland have the same independence, but I remember the poor Ireland in which I grew up, the one where it’s biggest export was its people, where we were encouraged to buy Irish to bolster the economy, and where without help from what was then called the EEC, we would still be a struggling country economically.  Well…..actually….Ireland IS struggling financially due to terrible mis-management.  Life is not that easy in Ireland – there is no free health insurance, and everything is so much more expensive than in the UK.

I was at a friend’s house once where 3 of us were Irish, one was Scottish and one was English (I feel an English man, a Scotsman and an Irishman joke coming on), and the English lady, in the course of conversation casually said ‘us English’ including all of us in the room, at which point the rest of us coughed politely to point out her mistake.  She then recovered herself by saying ‘oh you know what I mean – us British!’   This, to me, has been the most surprising thing about being an Irish person abroad – how many English people think we’re still British.

But I still love being Irish, and when people ask me where I’m from I do try to say that I’m Irish, but it all depends on whom it is I am addressing.  When I was on Hajj and having one of those conversations using gestures and a smidgeon  of Arabic I gave up quite quickly trying to say I’m Irish - Me:  ‘Irlandia’ ‘ them ‘ah Hollandia’, Me: ‘no IRlandia’, them: puzzled look so I try ‘Ingleezia’, still a puzzled look, and after going through ‘England’, ‘Britain’ and ‘UK’ thinking if they don’t know where 'Old Blighty' is how do I expect them to know it’s much smaller and less important little neighbour, and finally, in desperation,  I say ‘London‘ and it’s as if I’ve turned on a switch – ‘Ah, LONDON!!!!!’

The number of times I’ve been introduced in Algeria as ‘Anglaise’ are so numerous now that I don’t actually bat an eyelid any more.  I have tried, honest I have, to put people right, but it can be difficult, and, at times, downright impossible.  The first time it happened was when my husband’s sister-in-law introduced me as ‘Anglaise’ and I politely told her no, I was ‘Irlandaise’.  She looked at  me  then said, ‘but you are Muslim, we are all Muslims,  we are all one family, so what’s the problem?’  Nothing really….except I’m an IRISH Muslim not an English one!!!!!  And then, to her horror, I asked her how she would feel about being called French!  But what she said is true in many respects….or at least in Islamic terms anyway.  Being a Muslim means I’m part of a huge world-wide family that totally ignores all state boundaries.

And when I actually think deeply about the whole subject of being Irish, I honestly don’t know how I can be proud of something I had absolutely no say in at all.  I can be proud of my achievements,  small as they may be, I can be proud, to a certain extent of my children, my husband,  I can be proud to be called ‘Muslim’, but I had nothing to do with being born Irish.  There but for the grace of Allah I could have been born English, Welsh, Scottish…..or even…..shudder the thought…..ALGERIAN!
So I tread that fine line between being happy to be Irish and broadcasting it to the world, and not insisting on the point if I think it may cause some kind of discomfort between me and a friend or an acquaintance.  But still I can’t help feel annoyed when, as has happened in the past, I’ve been mistaken as ‘Hollandaise’ – I mean really….do I look like a creamy sauce to you?????

Friday, 26 September 2014

The Blessed month of Ramadan

It has never ceased to amaze me how each of my children has started to fast Ramadan, on their own initiative, around the age of 7.  Of course when they say they want to fast I have always encouraged them to do so, but before the age of 7 it usually consists of fasting between meals!  But then around the age of 7 something happens and they want to try it for real, and I leave it entirely up to them – if they get cramps and find it too much I tell them how happy Allah will be with their efforts and that they will be rewarded for their intention as if they actually did fast a day, and I remind them that their bodies are still growing so need nutrients more than us grown-ups – after all Allah has not made it compulsory for them to fast until they have reached the age of puberty, and, in many respects it’s harder for them to fast than us, and Allah is Just so then we should also be with those in our care.  I will encourage them to eat or drink something if they so wish but more often than not they decide to ride it out.  I remember my eldest son, in England, acting very strangely and I finally dragged it out of him that he was suffering from cramps but that he didn’t want to tell me in case I made him eat!  In fact, when my children were younger, I have often found myself saying to them when they were misbehaving during Ramadan ‘if you don’t stop arguing/fighting/shouting I’m going to make you eat!’  And then I think……what on earth would the neighbours think if they heard me?????

It also amazes me how Algerians (I can’t speak for other nationalities as I don’t know as many of them to judge) abroad, who may never pray, who may smoke and who are far away from a Muslim community and family will fast the whole month of Ramadan without question – there may be so many things they don’t do in their religion but Ramadan is a must, and they will obey the rules of fasting completely no matter what kind of work they do or hours they keep.

Time during Ramadan has a completely different rhythm – there is no rush to prepare a meal for lunch time, or a snack to go with afternoon coffee/tea so the day is a lot more leisurely, and apart from the mad rush to put hot food on the table all at the same time, there isn’t much pressure.  In Algeria during the summer it becomes inevitable that you sleep more during the day and stay up during the 7 hours of night, if you are able, as by the time you’ve eaten, cleared away the food, prayed the extra Taraweeh prayers, read some Qur’an, snacked again, there’s only a little time left before getting up for the pre-dawn meal.

What makes Ramadan a truly special month is not what we eat or when we eat, but rather it is the idea of making time to turn away from worldly concerns, while still living in the world and getting on with our daily duties, and turning to Allah and His Book in order to retreat a while and put life into its right perspective.  As a child brought up in the Catholic church I knew all about retreats – they were often organised by the church for a week or two and also by the schools, where you were encouraged to put down your daily toil for a while and think of more ethereal matters, and in many ways Ramadan reminds me of these times.  We are encouraged to take stock of our spiritual lives, to develop new devotional habits and to exit Ramadan a better person with new ingrained spiritual habits, so that with each Ramadan we become a better person inshallah.  That’s the principle – the reality is another matter.  It often starts out like a New Year’s list of things you want to do and improve in your life and ends up feeling as if you’ve failed in some way.  This is because we so often set such high standards for ourselves and life and family get in the way of our objectives, and then we have to try and maintain calm and peace and not get angry because keeping our temper in check is one of the big requisites of performing Ramadan correctly.  But Allah only asks of us what we can achieve, nothing more or nothing less, and there is a hadith that says something on the lines of small deeds done continuously are more beloved to Allah than bigger ones done now and again. So, if there is just one good deed, whether it be a new dua  (supplication) we’ve learnt, or one extra prayer we make, and we incorporate it in our life after the month of Ramadan is over, then it is an improvement on our older self and we, inshallah, will become better people because of it.  Roll on next Ramadan!

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Ramadan in Algeria

Many cultures have different traditions attached to Ramadan and these include certain dishes that are always served during this month, and Algeria is no exception.  Chorba (soup), bourek (a kind of samosa) and salad are the basic requirements, along with a ‘jew-ez’ which is a stew type of dish, and ‘laham lahalou’ which translates into ‘sweet meat’ and consists of prunes, sultanas, apricots cooked in a syrup along with meat, although a lot of people nowadays dispense with the meat altogether.  Then there is the ‘kalb el louz’ (heart of the almond) which is an almond based sponge like cake steeped in syrup, and  ‘zalabia’ (Jalebi) which is flour based batter deep fried in rings and dripping in syrup. 

We used to eat these Algerian dishes in England for our first Ramadan months together, but as time went on and the children grew, and most especially since we moved to Algeria and the lunar based month has fallen in the summer, our meals have become very different.  We start off the month with the traditional dishes, but after a few days of chorba nobody wants to see the stuff again, the bourek usually lasts a bit longer before it, too, falls by the wayside to reappear again at the end of the month, and the ‘jew-ez’ is only occasionally served.  I serve the ‘laham lahalou’ with prunes only as it helps with the digestion and only 4 of us like it anyway.  We do buy in ‘kalb el louse’ and zalabia but only in small quantities throughout the  month.

Instead we eat a bit of this and a bit of that – roast chicken, potato salad, roast potatoes, escalope fried in breadcrumbs with chips and salad, chicken pie in white sauce in pastry, or chicken in a curry sauce, cocas, fajita, pitta bread, lasagne (single layer), pasta, trifle, tiramisu, etc. etc. and whatever takes our fancy.  There are some dishes that are too heavy after a long day of fasting and most especially when it’s very hot as it was this Ramadan and those of the last few years. 
One would think that you could eat mountains after a long day of fasting but in reality it’s not possible, unless you like feeling bloated and sick.  We have always broken the fast with milk or water and dates, and, for me, once I’ve broken my fast with milk and dates I lose what’s left of my appetite.
For a month of not eating there can often be a huge emphasis on cooking and food, which, of course, is not what Ramadan is all about.  There is also a lot of tradition surrounding the month with some people having to eat certain dishes wherever they are.  As an outsider not brought up in these traditions it can be easy to be dismissive about them, but living away from the country in which I was brought up I can understand why some people, especially those living abroad, insist on these dishes – it’s a taste of home and a reminder of happy childhood memories not that much different to  those of us who grew up with Christmas and roast turkey dinners.

There is also the fact that, as mothers, we have the responsibility to enable our family of varying ages and needs to fast each day by providing them with the sustenance they need to keep going throughout the month, and so swopping recipes is a great way to do this.  The hardest Ramadans for me were, by far, those when I had small children and I couldn’t just go and have a rest or nap when I needed one, because funnily enough, it’s not the hunger that defeats you but the sheer exhaustion.  I am so fortunate now that I have older children and especially two daughters who have started their own tradition of sitting down just before Ramadan and writing out a rough menu for a couple of weeks, and then we divide up the jobs so that not one person is in the kitchen all day.  Also, I think that my children will grow up with a very versatile approach to eating in Ramadan as we don’t stick to one or two dishes and there are no ‘have-to-have’s in our menu.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Ramadan - not has hard as it looks

Fasting during the whole Islamic month of Ramadan appeared to me, in my days before Allah mercifully guided me to Islam, such a difficult thing to do that I just had to see if I could do it….after all my husband did it every year, and anything he could do…..I might not be able to do better but at least I should be able to do as well.  It seemed, to me, to be a frightening thing to do – fast from food and water from dawn to dusk.  I felt as if it was impossible and that I would just keel over and die if I tried it.  But I started fasting with the idea of seeing how far I could go with it, and discovered, to my amazement and satisfaction that I was able to fast the whole month, and still survived to tell the tale.  Admittedly we lived in England and it was March/April time so the days weren’t too long and the weather wasn’t too hot or cold.  But I was a working mother and had to commute into London every day, 5 days a week, so I didn’t get off too easily.  I didn’t tell anyone, other than my husband and daughter that I was fasting and nobody really noticed so I was able to concentrate on dealing with the fast without having to give any explanations. 

Having been brought up with the belief that 3 main meals a day were essential to our wellbeing it came as quite a surprise to find out that I managed on less food and liquids and was still able to get on with my life.  When I had finished the month I felt as if I had achieved something, that I had somehow managed to overcome a hurdle I hadn’t even known existed.

So I tried it again, and I remember putting my coffee cup in my drawer at work knowing I wouldn’t be using it for a month.  This time one of my colleagues at work asked me, during one of the very last days, if I was on some kind of a diet as she had noticed that she hadn’t seen me eating anything for ages.  When I told her what I was doing she was quite surprised and impressed that I had managed it at all in the first place and without telling anyone.

Of course being a Muslim gave a lot more meaning and incentive to the fasting of the month of Ramadan, especially once I had read up on the blessings to be gained during the month itself and also the benefits to my advancement in my religion and my eagerness to grow closer to Allah.  As with all things we are required to do as Muslims, Allah needs nothing from us, but we are the ones who gain when we do things for Him, and fasting is one of those things that is purely for him.  Nobody is with you 24 hours every day for 29/30 days who can see if you are really fasting, or whether you are cheating; only you and your Creator know for sure.

Still, I don’t like the idea of fasting.  I don’t know if this is because I don’t like being told I can’t do something so basic to human nature, or if it’s about losing control over when I can eat or drink, or the fact that my routine has to change to cope with different eating times, or the emphasis put on doing things at night – breaking the fast, praying taraweeh, etc. when I’m normally a morning person. But I do know it’s a psychological dislike, because spiritually there are too many incentives not to positively look forward to this special month and physically it is not a problem for me.  And, once the month starts I’m fine, I settle into the new routine easily and quickly and I don’t suffer the headaches that others often suffer, despite the fact that I am an avid coffee drinker.  There was a time when I missed the company of a cup of coffee, that is I missed the habit of having one first thing in the morning to ease me into the work of the day, or when I sat at the laptop, or sat down after a busy morning or afternoon, but in recent years I haven’t even missed this habit, and I drink only a few cups of coffee during the whole month itself.

In fact Ramadan acts as a time of healthy eating and living for me because I eat less and drink more water.  I learnt some time ago that no matter how much I ate during the night I am still going to be hungry during the day, so now I don’t bother trying to ‘stock up’.  I am not a great water drinker and have to force myself to drink some during the winter months, although, it’s easier to drink it cold from the fridge after a busy and thirsty day during the summer.  But in Ramadan I know that, if I don’t drink enough water during the night, I am liable to suffer from headaches the next day, and I can cope easily with hunger, thirst and fatigue, as being the Mum of 5 children I have often had to ignore the rumblings of an empty stomach and sheer exhaustion,  but I cannot cope with headaches.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Mohammed 'The Policeman'

After we had been living in Algeria for a couple of years, I had to renew my Residency and so my husband gathered all the necessary papers together and handed them in to the appropriate police station.  He was abroad when my card was due to be picked up so I had to go to the police station myself along with my eldest daughter, Sarah and my youngest son who was only about 5 at the time.  My husband had made friends with the policeman who was responsible for the foreigner’s Residency applications, Mohammed, so although I felt a bit nervous having to get it myself, I knew he would know that I didn’t speak the language. 

He was so nice and so kind, and chatted away with my son who asked him if he had a gun, and could he see it.  So, Mohammed went to his locker, took out his service gun and, without leaving go of it, let my son touch it.  All my son’s Eids came together at this moment – for hours afterwards he was so amazed that he had touched a real gun and kept playing the moment over and over again.

As we left the police station with my Residency Card in my grubby fist, I said to my daughter ‘that’s something else I can do on my own…..if anything happened to your father, and I had to live here on my own without him’.  To which she replied ‘you do know you sound like you’re planning to kill him….if anyone overheard you, and he keeled over dead tomorrow, you’d be the only suspect in his death!’  But Mohammed 'The Policeman', whom we had to deal with several times afterwards until he was moved from this position, was always calm and helpful and without fail, cheerful.  He became a good family friend, and to me he, unwittingly, gave me a sense of security as a foreigner and a stranger without any family of my own, in this country I had adopted as my home.

So it came as a huge shock when my husband received a call last Tuesday morning to say that he had died suddenly the night before.  He was only in his 30s and he had gone to his bedroom after Isha prayer having eaten dinner with his mother, and fallen flat on his face on the floor.  When they turned him over he was saying his shahadah with his forefinger up, and complained of pains in his left arm and chest.  He died in the hospital soon after.  He left behind a young wife, 2 sons, 5 and 8 years old, and he also supported his mother, 2 sisters and his brother.  Incidentally he had lost his own father when he was 5 years old.  My husband said it was a moving sight to see so many policemen crying at his funeral.

There are some people in this world who touch your life in a meaningful way and who leave an indelible mark on your heart, and Mohammed was such a man.  May Allah forgive him all his sins, make his grave wide and spacious and grant him Firdous, and may his two sons grow up on the Straight Path always and be the righteous sons of whom he would be proud. 

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Earthquake in Algiers, 1st August 2014

I was sitting on the sofa at 5.10am yesterday morning (01 August), minding my own business, reading Surah Khaf, when suddenly the ground beneath my feet and the walls around me started shaking gently but then very violently and a huge roar filled my ears.  Did I say my shahada and rush to the nearest door lentil, or even outside?  No….that would be the most sensible thing to do.  No, I just sat transfixed, rooted to the spot, saying ‘SubhanAllah’ over and over again, because I was so overcome by the might of Allah, and absolutely scared witless, wondering was it ever going to end.  I heard somewhere it lasted around 17 seconds and I just cannot understand how come those 17 seconds could go on and on and on, and any other time 17 seconds is no time at all.

As soon as it stopped I rushed up the stairs (the weakest part of any house, but all the family were upstairs), to see if everyone was ok.  Our youngest had been woken up by it but I think he would have gone back to sleep if everyone else wasn’t up.  My eldest son was fast asleep in bed and none too happy to be woken up after the event – not even an earthquake was a good enough reason to rouse him from his sleep. 

The last big earthquake here in Algeria was in May 2003 which killed many and injured more and was absolutely devastating. We arrived in the country in October of that year and experienced many aftershocks and tremors for several months afterwards.  But these were over before you realised it and often were nothing more than a gentle swaying back and forth, so didn’t really scare me in the least.  But the one yesterday was 5.6 and quite close and I found myself shaking.  My eldest daughter gave me a hug and I told her that either there was another tremor or she was shaking too!    There were several after tremors which were very frightening simply because you didn’t know if they were going to continue to increase to a much stronger force or if they were simply after-tremors.

We could hear all the neighbours outside, but there wasn’t any screaming or any other hysteria which I heard occurred in other neighbourhoods. Both of my husband’s sisters rang to know if we were ok and when I went on Facebook I realised everyone else around the Algiers region had felt it too.  Some people had things flung out of cupboards and off shelves, but Alhamdulilah the death toll was small with reports of 6 people killed, some of whom died after jumping from apartments and others from heart attacks and 420 people injured. 

It really is an amazing and frightening thing to have the ground under your feet move and in such a violent way, and yes, while I know all about how earthquakes come about with earth plates moving against each other etc. etc. it still takes an Almighty Power to create it all in sync so that it all comes together, at that minute, and in that place to scare the living daylights of us and wake us up out of our complacency to question our lives and our priorities and see all the trivia in our lives for what it is – a mere distraction from our purpose in life, to worship this Almighty Power, Allah, and to grow in our knowledge of our deen (religion) and to move purposefully through our lives towards Him.

Within minutes yesterday after the earthquake I also thought of those people around the world who live in this kind of fear 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for months and years, and, of course, especially at the moment those people in Gaza who are being totally annihilated.  We had several small aftershocks in the hours after the earthquake yesterday and since then,  every time I hear a lorry rumbling down a road outside or a neighbour bangs a door very violently I stop and look at the light fixtures to check if they are moving.  I had just 17 seconds of terror which has made me jittery…..what must it be like for them?  I just cannot imagine it!  And I feel so awful and so guilty that they are going through something so horrendous and I’m not doing anything about it all just living in my own safe life getting upset and worried over absolutely nothing.  Dua (supplication) is the weapon of the believer, so…..may Allah watch over all my brothers and sisters living under oppression and fear throughout the world, bless them with victory over their oppressors, strengthen their iman, bless them with patience and strength to cope with their huge test, and give them freedom from fear and hunger and shower them with all the blessings He has bestowed on me and mine.  Ameen.

Amazing what can come from just  17 seconds  isn’t it?????

Friday, 4 July 2014

Feeling homesick

First view of Cork City we always see as soon as we leave the airport
As I have mentioned previously I am quite happy and content with my life here in Algeria, mainly because I’m a boring so-and-so.  But there have been times when I have felt really homesick for my family back home in Ireland and just felt as if I was on the outside looking in. 

I was six months pregnant with my fourth child in England, when my wonderful Dad was taken into hospital with a brain aneurism from which he died after 5 weeks.  I don’t remember much about that time except that I spent most of it sitting staring into space.  I just wasn’t present for all of that time, and I can still remember, as clearly as if it was yesterday, the moment that my brother rang me at 3.15 on a Sunday afternoon to tell me that he had gone.  My family were amazing, so understanding, so kind and comforting, and so determined to keep in contact with me during all that time so that I didn’t feel left out, but I did feel as if I grieved alone.  When someone as important as your parent dies you really need those who knew them as you did, who loved them as you did, to talk to and to share all the memories and experiences, and also the grief that their loss leaves in its wake.  No matter how kind your friends are and how gentle and understanding your husband and your children are, sometimes, at these times, only the members of the family you were born into will do.

The first Eid al Adha (one of the two main Islamic feast days of celebration) was only a few months after we arrived in Algeria and, while my husband and children were busy with my husband’s family I found myself going around in a daze….and feeling very tearful.  I just couldn’t understand why I felt so emotional…..and why I couldn’t get my Dad out of my mind, even though it had been 6 years since he had passed away.  But I found myself writing to him in my head, knowing that he would never read it, and out of the blue, like a kick in the stomach, the pain of his loss hit me.  I still don’t know why on that particular day I missed him so much.

When my brother remarried the whole family came together to celebrate with him and his lovely wife.  It was one of those occasions where everyone was having such a wonderful time that nobody wanted it to end… it didn’t… least for a few days at any rate.  I kept in contact through mobile texts and Facebook pictures and I was sincerely happy for everyone who was able to be there and who had such a good time.  But I missed them…..even though I could not have attended even if I lived in Ireland, or if my one of my daughters didn’t have a very important exam and whom I didn’t want to leave at that particularly stressful time.  Islam is my choice, one I’ve embraced wholeheartedly and with deep gratitude to Allah for His Guidance, and this has meant some sacrifice, and, in this case, a wonderful family occasion due to the alcohol and music and dancing that is always a big part of any celebration in Ireland, with the latter two especially so in my family.  My nephew took a family photo of all my siblings together…..and……with the wacky sense of humour that permeates all of my family, he included me in the picture by putting a stand-in to represent me… brother’s black and white collie sheepdog.  I wish I could say that this was the first time a dog stood in for someone absent in a family photo, but alas and alack I can’t, as it seems to be a family tradition.  I was quite chuffed as it’s the only photo of me that doesn’t make me cringe.  Now….what does that say about me? (That’s a rhetorical question so no answer necessary……please)

The view from our kitchen window at home in Ireland
I wasn’t there when my Mum celebrated  her 80th birthday and my sister brought her a cake with trick candles – every time she blew them out they lit up again, and she laughed so much her false teeth flew out of her mouth (mercifully not on the cake!).  I thought she would lose them again when, afterwards, she was on the phone telling me about it and laughing so much she could hardly get the words out.

The day my sister told me that Mum wasn’t going to be coming out of hospital this time and the phone call I received a few days later from my other sister telling me that she had gone, were days on which it was extremely difficult to be so far away from home, as were the days that followed. Again, I am indebted to the kindness, consideration and understanding of my family during that time and the constant texts and telephone calls I received from them. The Eid al Adha that followed her passing was extremely difficult for me with me writing to her in my head and missing her dreadfully, especially as my husband’s lovely Mum and sister were staying.  This is the day when we Muslims celebrate Abraham (may Allah’s peace be upon him)’s willingness to sacrifice his only son (as it was then) because it was something Allah had asked him to do.  Allah was testing him and his loyalty and his obedience and stopped him from slaughtering his son, and asked him to slaughter a sheep instead, and down the centuries, Muslims have sacrificed a sheep in memory of this wonderful obedience to Allah.  And I discovered on this day the best remedy for grief – physical work.  I didn’t want the others to see me so emotional and ruin their happy day, so I volunteered to clean out the bedding of the sheep, which I did, and promising myself while I did so, to never to eat the breakfast chocolate cereal in the shape of little balls ever again (anyone who has seen a sheep’s ‘droppings’ will totally understand!).  By the time I had thoroughly cleaned the garage and wept a thousand tears, I was able to pull myself together and sit down with the rest of the family and have a lovely, happy, Eid meal together Alhamdulilah.

The day I heard that my nephew had been in a terrible car accident, not being able to be there for my brother, to give him a hug, the day his son passed away, and having to satisfy myself with just phone calls were hard, not as hard as they were for him and his two daughters, of course, but hard and lonely all the same.  Again, I could not have coped with being so far away at such a difficult time without my family’s support.

If you are going to move so far away from home you have to prepare yourself for the day when you receive ‘that’ phone call and face the possibility that you may not be in a position to be with your loved ones on such an occasion and that you may have to grieve alone.  I have to say at this point though, that the kindness and understanding I received from my husband’s family, English speaking friends and Algerians who visited me during these times of pain and loss were very much appreciated and did help to alleviate my sense of loneliness Alhamdulilah.

My family have a history of get-togethers for all occasions, birthdays, Christmas, Easter,  etc. etc when aunts, cousins, brothers, sisters, their children and in later years, their children’s families have come together to eat and to laugh together, and I’ve missed out on all of them.  I do not say this with any self-pity as it’s my choice to live so far away and also my being a Muslim has precluded me from being with my family on these occasions, but what gives me great peace of mind is that my loved ones back home in Ireland understand and never make me feel guilty, and from that I gain immense comfort and peace Alhamdulilah. Of course…… it could just be that they are glad to see the back of me…….

Although I miss the scenery of the place in which I grew up which is very beautiful, I miss Cadbury’s chocolate,  I miss being able to walk along a street in Cork and understand everything I overhear, and more importantly, BE understood, I miss Cadbury’s chocolate, I miss  being around people whom I instinctively understand, I miss Cadbury’s chocolate,  I miss chatting with my brothers and sisters and the ‘great craic’ (‘fun’ is the nearest translation!) we have together, and….. did I mention how much I miss Cadbury’s chocolate?????? I don’t miss it all enough to make me feel down and lonely and heart-sick. But what these times of loneliness and grief helped me to understand, is that some people suffer these emotions much more acutely and more often and not necessarily as a result of a climatic event, but on a much more mundane and daily level, and I hope this understanding helps me to be more gentle and kind and compassionate to those who suffer dreadfully from homesickness.

Monday, 23 June 2014

The Dreaded Baccalaureate Exam

My youngest daughter sat her Baccalaureate exam here in Algeria a couple of weeks ago finishing three years of hard graft, sacrifice, bullying teachers and friends on the edge of hysteria.  Most Algerians are extremely ambitious for their children, boys and girls, to do well in school and pass their Baccalaureate exam whether they want to go on to University or not.  They will pay for extra tuition for their children in the most important subjects, watch their progress at each end of term exam closely and remove privileges such as internet access, play-station time, extra sport activities if they don’t do well enough……a bare pass won’t do……they have to pass WELL and come high in the class.  Whenever Algerians meet up socially, their children’s progress in school is always discussed and after each end of term exam grandparents, aunts and uncles are all informed as to how well or badly they performed.

In schools some teachers will spend part of their lesson time telling their students how important this exam is, as if they don’t know already, and how they have no hope of passing if they don’t spend every waking minute studying for it.  There are those teachers who know that if they teach their students well and give them the time to revise in class and ask questions, they have given them the best preparation for the exams, and these teachers stand out a mile from all the rest.

Of course it doesn’t help that there was a Presidential election here in April, after which there was a new Minister for Education appointed and decisions regarding the education system were made, such as the cut-off point at which lessons stopped.  This was important this year as there had been several teacher strikes where the students had no teachers at all and missed a lot of school time with very little hope of catching up, despite the best efforts of some teachers to make up for lost time by giving lessons at the weekend.  Almost all teachers agreed that there was little hope of completing the course in a lot of subjects and so it was anticipated that the cut-off point of lessons would reflect this and the students could concentrate on revising what they had already learnt.  The decision on the cut-off was made three weeks before the Baccalaureate exam started and, to the dismay of students and teachers alike was much later in the course than expected, resulting in students having to learn new information in addition to revising, and totally upsetting revision plans, without any thought given to what this did to the already fragile state of the students psyche.
Then there are the television and radio programmes devoted to discussions on the subject with all and sundry giving their two cent’s worth….or in this case two dinars worth.

So it is little wonder that, despite the best efforts of a school psychiatrist’s general lectures and a badly stretched school counsellor, so many of the students are on the point of hysteria as it comes up to the exams.  One of my daughter’s friends said that her father had told her ‘what’s the worst that can happen – so you fail, so what, you can always repeat, it’s not the end of the world’, in an effort to calm her fears, but the pressure comes from so many sources that it’s difficult to listen to just one lone voice even if it is that of your parents.  It doesn’t help that, in this country, there are very little future prospects without this exam, and so it does feel like the end of the world if you don’t pass.

My husband and I tried our best to counteract all this negativity by trying our very level best to put this exam into its proper perspective, by telling our daughter that this exam is just one of many different ones in life, that all she has to do is her best and then put her trust in Allah.  In other words to use this exam as an example of how to deal with all tests and exams in life, to learn how to tackle them head on as each one arrives.

It was easy to be like this with our daughter as she had worked hard for all the previous three years and was very self-motivated.  When it was our eldest son who was sitting this very same exam three years previously it was a very different story.  All through his school years, despite being very bright and capable he barely scraped his way through every set of exams, mainly due to the fact that he just hated the system of education here so much and rebelled against it as much as he could.  Having said that, he never got into any trouble and rarely were we ever called to the school, unless it was because he had gone home before a tardy teacher had finally turned up and marked him absent.  He has always loved reading and has an interest in scientific and mathematical fields.  When it came to his Baccalaureate year he stopped attending school in January (his exam being in early June).  It is not uncommon for students to stop school lessons in April, but my daughter stayed until the bitter end – a couple of weeks before the exam date.  My son did have access to any hand-outs from the school and also sat the mock exam at which he proudly scored a miserable 4 out of 20, but instead of attending school he spent most days sleeping and doing very little and nights revising with his friends.  My husband and my attitude was ‘it’s your life, you know you can’t do much in this country without this exam, you need to do this for yourself, not for us’ (although of course secretly we would have been very happy if had wanted to do it for us, if for nothing else!).  We may have seemed blasé about the whole thing, but inwardly we were gnawing on our fingernails!

I was due to travel home to Ireland in June and I deliberately left it until after his exam, a decision which he told me was not what he wanted – he didn’t want me around during his exams, and when prompted he told me that it was because he didn’t want a post-mortem on each exam, to be asked how it went.  I understood this perfectly and told him that I wouldn’t and I kept to my promise, but was so happy to be there to take care of him during this stressful time, and I know he was happy too Alhamdulilah.  We were in England when his results came through and I first heard them from his cousin who lives there, so he was a bit disappointed when he finally got through to me to know that I had found out already.  I was so proud, happy, and relieved that he had passed and with a good mark.  When one of his aunts heard about his exam score from his mock exam she had shook her head knowingly and said ‘he’s never going to pass’, and when he rang her to tell her his results she burst into tears she was so happy!

Two very different children and two very different attitudes to studying (although both hate the system of education here) and two totally different ways of dealing with the Dreaded Baccalaureate Exam, and I’m so proud of both.  Even if my daughter doesn’t pass her exam (I feel this is unlikely but you never know how or with what Allah will test you), I know she worked really hard and so I’m already as happy and proud of her, Allahibarek, as if she has passed the exam, and I’m so proud of my son, Allahibarek, for bucking the system and still winning.  I’m happy because, despite all of society’s pressure to conform my two have been able to ‘think outside the box’, to think for themselves and to question the social norms. 

Our role as parents is to instil in them a firm faith in Allah, first and foremost, to know that He is always there to turn to when their backs are up against the wall when nobody else, including us, is there for them.  But there is also another role we have as parents and that is to teach our children how to live without us, because one day we won’t be there watching over their shoulders, advising them what to do.  For me, the Baccalaureate Exam is merely one lesson in this very important course of education.