Friday, 28 February 2014

Our Road Trip back to Ireland in a Pepsi Can Part 2

The town of Dover
My husband only stayed a night in Ireland and then made the journey back to England to retrieve our Pepsi Can and attempt to get it repaired, which he did, but not before one of the windows was broken and this had to be repaired also. This breakage occurred at a car boot sale when a friend locked his keys in the car and they could not break into the car to retrieve them even though they used every means possible.  It seems that the one redeemable feature of the Pepsi Can was that it was impossible to force the lock… that is if anyone actually wanted to do so in the first place. My husband told me that it was a real attraction to the Algerians in London due to its number plates rather than it’s unusual design.  Some went so far as to kiss the car! Never underestimate the love that Algerians have for their homeland… especially when it’s been a long time since they have been there.  My husband finally drove it back to Ireland professing all to be well… as long as he didn’t drive it past a certain speed… less than 100 kilometres an hour, not nearly fast enough for the long journeys on the motorway, which gave us the uneasy feeling of being in a child’s toy pedal car. As it barely had space inside the vehicle for the 7 of us, we had counted on buying a roof rack to put on top and carry all the shopping and gifts we had acquired during our trip, but…… you guessed it, the roof was too narrow to cope with any roof rack.
The one good thing about our Pepsi Can (yes there was one), as my sister bemusedly pointed out, was that whereas normally people stared at us in all our Muslim garb, whenever we got out of the wretched thing they were more interested in the car than in us.  We were going out one day with some members of the family travelling in two cars, and my Mum told me that her sister had warned her not to attempt to travel in our car due to the fact that, after travelling in it, the one and half hour’s journey from her home to my Mum, she had found it so uncomfortable.  But my Mum wasn’t to be put off and traveled in our car and professed afterwards that it was perfectly comfortable, which might be explained by the fact that she had sat in the front while my aunt had sat in the back.  The kids all complained of sore posteriors from sitting in it for long periods of time and said that, by the time we returned to Algeria their bums were all seat shaped.  Oh well.... better than going pear shaped I suppose.

My husband and I packed the car the day before we were due to leave Ireland, or rather, I gave my husband all our belongings and HE packed the car, as we were leaving in the early hours of the morning before sunrise to drive to catch the ferry back to England.  After he had finished, my Mum went out to inspect his handy work and came back into the house saying what a great job he had done, managing to fit everything in but…..’there’s just one teensy weensy little problem I can see with his packing,’ she said.  ‘What’s that Mum?’ I asked.  ‘Where are you going to put the children?’ she replied.  ‘Well, actually, Mum, I was thinking of leaving some of them behind as a little souvenir of our trip!’ ‘If you do… I’ll post them back to you in an envelope!’ she replied.  ‘Now, Mum, are you inferring something negative about my little angels????’  I retorted, to which we both fell about laughing which set off the course for the remainder of our last night in Ireland.
The port of Marseille
My Mum and I both hated saying goodbye, and I have many heart rending memories of watching her, (and my Dad before he passed away), standing in the doorway in tears as she watched us drive away, so she said we weren’t going to say ‘goodbye’ but just ‘goodnight’, we hugged and went to our beds.  In the early of the hours of the morning we crept out of the house (as quietly as a herd of stomping elephants), dropped the keys through the letterbox and set off on the three hour journey to the ferry. She said afterwards how surprised she was when she didn't wake until the sun was shining as she is normally a very light sleeper, and how it helped to dissipate some of her sadness to know that we had covered a good part of our journey by this time. As we drove along the empty road, with the children snoozing in the back and me deep in thought, feeling inestimably sad as I watched the first light of dawn creep across the sky, suddenly there was a van driving right up behind us, flashing its lights and beeping its horn, and before we had time to think it passed us out, but not before it’s passengers turned on the light inside the van and we saw my brother and his work mates waving and laughing at us as they sped by starting on their long journey to work in Dublin.  I must admit it made us all laugh and definitely lightened the mood for the rest of the journey Alhamdulilah.

We stayed for a couple of more weeks in England, meeting up with friends and some family before we started the insurmountable task of fitting everything we had into a space that was half the size necessary to fit it all. It didn’t help that I had accepted a homemade gift of dried flowers in a pot and swathed around a stick which became the bane of our lives, or rather the lives of the children who had to move it every time they got in and out of the car after climbing over bags of books and clothes and other treasures.  I had to hide a couple of packets of cat food donated to me by a cat-mad friend of mine, in one of the pockets of the storage bags strapped to the back of the seats, in case my husband saw it and they would be the straw that broke the camel’s back.  The fact that we didn’t have any cats was neither here nor there.  This particular friend had visited us in Algeria and had attracted all the stray cats in the neighbourhood to our door, and, it was for these cats the packets were intended.
The port of Algiers
Eventually we started off down the road to Dover, to take the ferry back to Calais, with all of us dealing with this particular crossing with military precision, taking travel sickness medication and staying out on deck for most of the hour’s crossing.  We had left plenty of time to make the journey across France to Marseille taking into account the snail’s pace at which we were forced to drive, and without any hitches we arrived in Marseille in plenty of time for the ferry.  Although admittedly by this time, the children all had the imprints of their knees embedded under their chins.  Once we drove into the port to await the ferry we were unable to leave the port again and it had absolutely nothing to recommend itself in the way of restaurants, shops or anything at all to distract us from the sheer boredom of having to wait around for hours. By the time we boarded the ferry for Algiers the books had nearly all been read by the children.
The port of Algiers
After a pleasant journey back to Algiers overnight, during which we met up with friends, we finally arrived in the port of Algiers safe and sound Alhamdulilah.  Disembarking is always quite stressful due to the risk of being asked to unpack your vehicle by the customs, and with ours packed to the gills, it was even more nerve-wracking.  My husband made dua (supplication) on board the ferry to ask Allah to make it easy for us at the port, and then, he backed it up with his own efforts:  He asked me to drive the car in the line-up of cars as we slowly inched our way through the port while he guided me…. in English.  Sure enough one customs official amazed at the fact that I was ‘English’ and, obviously due to the Algerian registered car, living in Algeria, after a brief chat with my husband merely had a good look inside the car and just waved us through without asking to unpack it.  As we all breathed a sigh of relief whilst driving away from the port we all proclaimed ‘Never Again!’  But…… never is such a long time… and…. in our case…..just two years because we DID do it all again…… although this time….. not in the Pepsi Can which got the heave-ho soon after our arrival in Algiers.  But I will leave that trip for another time inshallah.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Our Road Trip back to Ireland in a Pepsi Can Part 1

Tariq Ibn Zyad Ferry
In the late spring, early summer of 2005 my husband and I (lost our minds and) decided to take the children and drive back to visit my family in Ireland, taking a road trip through France and England and half way across the South of Ireland in the process.

Our first hurdle, apart from saving up the money of course, was obtaining a 7 seater car.  In Algeria, as long as the two people driving in the front of the car are wearing seat-belts, they don’t pay much attention as to how many are piled in the back…. unless of course people are hanging on to the car doors for dear life, when then they may possibly be stopped by the police….. possibly.  I have seen people sitting in the front passenger seat with a child on their laps but the police, to give them their due, are fairly strict on this issue and I have known people be stopped for this infringement of the law.  But I have also seen, with horror, drivers with children on their laps.  They are usually only driving locally and not very far, and have obviously reasoned to themselves that this is perfectly harmless.  Idiots.
But driving on the Continent necessitates a car seat and seat belt for each of the 7 of us, so off shopping we went for a 7-seater car to replace our 5-seater Kango.  With all the expense of travelling abroad, shopping and feeding us all for several weeks, we needed to find the most inexpensive vehicle we could find, which turned out to be…..a car made in China.  My husband and I went car shopping together, so I can’t really put all the blame on him, but, I have to admit that when I saw the inside of this particular vehicle in the showroom, a tin can came to mind, and my eldest daughter promptly nicknamed it the Pepsi Can.  But my husband was full of enthusiasm and…. what do I know about cars anyhow
View of Algiers from ferry

We drove it for a few weeks before our trip just to make sure that it was in good working order, and were satisfied that it would take us all the way to Ireland and back, and off we went.   We had a big delay in the port of Algiers and, at one stage, had to empty the contents of the car which was no easy feat considering how crammed tight everything was packed into the Pepsi Can.  Finally we took off from the Port of Algiers on an uneventful and quite pleasant journey overnight to Marseilles….. at least pleasant for me, not so much for some of the children who just lay prostrate with travel sickness for part of the journey.  As we stood on deck to watch the Port of Marseilles come closer, we saw a lot of speedboats come right up to the ferry and their drivers and passengers shouted at us ‘Marhaban Bikum!’, Welcome!  We had our very own Algerian welcoming committee!!!!  (Don’t know how they knew WE were on board!!!).

Leaving Algiers
We disembarked in the early afternoon and shortly after leaving the ferry, I heard a noise, and, fearing that there was something amiss with the car my husband drew up in a lay-by, only to discover that the noise continued.  As it turns out, the noise wasn’t from the car at all; it was the noise of hundreds and hundreds of CRICKETS!  As we drove on the motorway, every now and again a car would come up behind us, flashing their lights and beeping their horns and then they would pass us waving and smiling at us.  Obviously Algerian Registered Cars were a rarity and appreciated by the emigrant Algerians.  At one service station, an Algerian came up and told my husband how happy (and emotional) he was to see the car as he hadn’t seen an Algerian registered car since he had left Algeria quite a few years previously. 

As we made our way up the motorway, my husband noticed a warning light on the dashboard and decided to pull in at a service stop and let the car cool down.  Little did we know but this became the pattern of our slow but steady progress on the motorway to Calais.  My husband and I spent so much of that journey with our eyes peeled to the gauge watching for that warning light and trying to figure out what caused it, and what we could do to prevent it.  Sometimes he would drive to the petrol pumps and turn off the engine, and once he had filled the car, he would push the car over to a parking space in order to let it cool down.  Not once, in all the time he had to do this, did anyone offer to help him push the car or ask him what was the matter.  Sometimes people would just stand and watch, and I can’t begin to tell you how lonely I felt, how isolated, and….. how homesick for Algeria it made me.  My husband’s one fear was that we would break down and need mechanical help as he knew it was astronomically expensive to find parts and labour in France, especially without knowing where to go to get the best kind of help
When we didn’t need petrol my husband would park the car as far away from the service station as possible and would try to grab forty winks while the children and I freshened up, browsed the small shops in the service station and sat in the grass in the warm sunshine. I was quite surprised at the lack of choice of vegetarian food available in the service stations in France.   But there were times when the curiosity of a European would get the better of them and they would come up to the car, walk around it and discuss it with great wonder, and, if my husband showed any sign of life at all, they would ask him what kind of car was it, where was the engine etc. etc.  My husband was always polite while inwardly screaming ‘leave me alone and let me get some sleep!’

We passed many articulated lorries from different parts of Europe, and there was a Lithuanian one in particular with which we developed a ritual.  We passed him out the first time, then we had to stop and let the car cool down, and then, when we drove up the motorway again, we would pass him out again, and he would beep at us, then we would stop again, and pass him out again, doing this over and over again all the way up the motorway to Paris!  I often wonder if he thought he was hallucinating and just beeped to make sure he wasn’t losing his mind, watching this Pepsi Can overtake him over, and over, and over again.

Just outside Paris we pulled into a service station late at night and had the dubious delight of being questioned by a couple of customs agents who came up to the car and asked us where we had traveled from, to which my husband, being the seasoned traveler and native Algerian that he is, gave them just the minimum information and told them we had traveled from Marseilles.   They then looked in the car and asked us if we were carrying any alcohol or cigarettes (hang on a second while I look under this Qur’an….. or maybe they’re packed in with the children’s clothes!).  They poked around the car and were considering asking us to unpack the back of the car, where the children were sleeping, wrapped up against the night time cold, but relented and let us pull over to a quiet corner so my husband could get some shut-eye.

We resigned ourselves to missing our booking for the ferry from Calais to Dover, but happily there were ferries every half hour and we didn’t have to pay any extra.  I wish I could say the crossing was as happy, but Hovercraft does not make for an easy crossing of the English Channel, and we were all so sick during the hour’s crossing.  I spent most of the time on deck along with our eldest son, my husband found a seat and fell asleep and the others all spent the time in the toilets either throwing up or trying their best to prevent themselves from doing so.

We finally made it to England and dry land Alhamdulilah, and drove up to London where we stayed in a friend’s house for a couple of weeks before we travelled on to see my family in Ireland.  My husband’s first task was to take the Pepsi Can to a mechanic in the hope of finding out why it kept overheating.  This took up most of his efforts especially as one mechanic suggested he get a specific part for it, and, as there are no Chinese car dealerships in England (probably the whole of Europe) he would have to somehow import it from Algeria, which, with the most efficient Algerian grapevine he did manage to acquire, but not before our booked ferry to Ireland.  We borrowed a 7 seater from a friend and drove across the South of England from London to Swansea from where we were booked for a ferry to Rosslare.  Even that journey was disturbed by an occasional flashing warning on the dash board every now and again which worried us, but which we discovered after we had arrived, was not anything serious.  After a three hour night journey over the Irish Sea we drove across the South of Ireland to my native Cork.
White Cliffs of Dover

Friday, 21 February 2014

‘And every soul shall taste death’ Qur'an 3:185 Part 3

Another time the husband of a friend of mine, another ex-pat like myself, was killed in a freak accident.  As I drove to the hospital to where she was waiting for his body to be released, I felt such a conflict of emotions.  I didn’t know her that well, and felt that I would only upset her if I saw her by blubbering away on her shoulder.  As I walked around to the end of the hospital building to the garden behind where she was sitting under some trees with a few friends, and I found, to my surprise that, once I had greeted her and kissed her and cried a little, I calmed down in her presence and found an immense feeling of peace.  The next day another friend, also an ex-pat, rang me and said she wanted to visit the widow, but was afraid that she might upset her.  I encouraged her to go and told her that it would help her more than the widow.  This bereaved woman received immense support from her neighbours and people who came to know of her plight, as well as her friends….. and friends of her friends!

However, there are some things I don’t like in relation to the funeral traditions here in Algeria, and these are the un-Islamic traditions that have crept in, such as having a “do” on the 40th day, ornate gravestones for the grave, visiting the graves on the Eid day of celebration and other bidah (innovation)  etc. etc.  In Islam the people should support the bereaved family with food etc. but here in Algeria, like some other Muslim countries, it is the bereaved family that has to feed the visitors for at least 3 days, and this can put a tremendous strain on the family at a time when they can least cope with it, even if it is usually the extended family that do the cooking and serving.  Sometimes the women of the deceased do all the cooking, which in one way seems rather hard, but in another, maybe it is a way of coping with the first moments of grief, and normally family members rally around and help anyway.

In Ireland when there has been a bereavement in my family people usually bring dishes and plates of sandwiches, scones etc for the first day or so, and the body is normally buried quite quickly, within a couple of days of death.  On the day of the funeral the family do generally provide food in the form of sandwiches and soup especially for those who may have traveled from afar, and often this food is provided by a local pub, served in a side room and paid by the family of the deceased.  So I suppose it’s not so different in many ways…..except for the pub of course!

My husband and his brother were winding up his mother one day and told her that they would not feed anyone at her funeral – that they would spend the money on something else…..maybe they would buy a new car with the money instead.  She nearly had an apoplexy at the thought of all those people coming from far and wide to her funeral and not getting fed!

They also can do the whole wailing and screaming thing, which is upsetting to watch and also against Islamic tradition.  The Prophet, Muhammad (SAWS) said “Whoever beats the cheeks (i.e slaps himself), cleaves the (outer) garment and cries out in the manner of Jahiliyyah (i.e Pre Islamic Period) is not one of us.”  (Al-Bukhari (1298), and Muslim (103).  When my brother-in-law died (Rahimullah) soon after we arrived in Algeria, a woman started crying loudly at his funeral.  She wasn’t even related to him, but they often consider it a sign of respect and love to do so.  Eventually my mother-in-law asked her to stop.   That doesn’t mean to say that we are not supposed to weep and be upset – “Whatever the eye or the heart may produce is from Allah and out of mercy, but whatever the hand or the tongue may produce is from the Devil.” (Musnad Ahmad (1/237, 238, 335).  “The hand or the tongue” referring, in this instance to pulling and tearing of the clothes and slapping the face and screaming.

I can hear the clock ticking, but instead of going into top gear to get ready for my “wake up call” I feel almost paralysed with the enormity of it all.  How much I want to do, how little I am doing, how much I KNOW I should be doing.  I love writing lists, and my eldest daughter and I had an interesting discussion one day about this love of mine.  We have visions of the Angel of Death coming to take my soul and me saying “Oh no!  I haven’t finished writing my lists yet – never mind do anything on them!!!”  Funny…… but also too realistic and feasible for my liking!

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

And then I heard them lift a box and creak across my soul…..’ Emily Dickinson. Part 2

As in many other ways death in Algeria reminds me of the Ireland in which I grew up, and of the time when my grandmother died in our house.  She had had several strokes, so when this one came the Doctor told my mother that there really wasn’t anything they could do for her in hospital.  So she spent the next 6 days in our home, in a coma.  All extended family gathered and we all went our separate ways during the day – school and work, and then in the evening gathered at her bedside. In the end she died in the daytime with just her 3 daughters at her side.  It made death seem such a natural and not a frightening thing for me.  Of course it was sad as I loved my granny so much, but, even when she died and her body stayed in the house for one night until the funeral the next day, I wasn’t frightened at all.  The local nurse came and cleaned her and prepared her for burial. I was always so grateful for that experience.  The smell of Johnson’s baby powder brings me back to that time instantly whenever I smell it (although for the same reason I tried to avoid using it on my babies, whenever possible).  Incidentally, that nurse became my brother’s mother-in-law!

I think that is what I like about life here in Algeria – death is part of life.  You are not shielded from the reality of life, and neither are children and it may sound cruel, but in reality it is no bad thing.  It brings up some interesting discussions amongst the children, it also teaches children, from a young age, Who is really in control, and trains them to turn to Him in times of stress and need, with the sure knowledge that He is the One Constant in their lives, and the conviction that He will never let them down, even as He is testing them.

It’s true, at times here in Algeria I find myself jumping up and down in sheer frustration at this country and its people!  But, then there are other times when I am so overcome by awe at their strength and yaqin (certainty), and the Iman (faith) that seems to come to the fore whenever there is a crisis here.  And there have been so many. I had the privilege of coming to know a young Algerian, only 20 years old, and as I got to know her I learnt that her grandparents on her mother’s side, her mother and all her siblings died in the big earthquake in May 2003.  To look at her you would never know the tragedy that this young woman has endured, and it was obvious that she accepted the loss with calmness and a serenity that only Allah could have granted her.  May Allah always guide her and keep her on the Siratul Mustaqeem.

The people here know how to deal with bereavement and there is no hesitation about going to visit the bereaved, or wondering what to say or how to approach them mashallah.  And even with this young girl there was no embarrassment or feeling as if I was imposing on her grief, or being insensitive.  The Algerians have no fear about talking to people who have been recently bereaved, and maybe that is because they have the right words to say and the best comfort to give – that of knowing that Allah will reward the patient.  My sister and I once discussed this and we both agreed that we wouldn’t know how to comfort someone for whom this life was all there was.  What comfort could you give?

And yet, in the west I do believe that death makes people think, like at no other time and people look for answers but unfortunately don’t find them.  Once a few years ago, certainly before 9/11, my husband was waiting for me outside the supermarket in the very small shopping centre near where I lived in England.  An elderly man came up to him and asked him if he was a Muslim.  When my husband replied that he was, he said “So you believe in God then?”  When my husband replied in the affirmative, he asked, “Why did God take my wife?  We had been together for such a long time, many years, and He must have known that I needed her more than He did?”  My husband replied by asking him “if someone came to you and lent you something of value, and then after a period of time, asked for it back, would you resent giving it back?”  The man replied, “of course not”, “Well, then” said my husband, “Your wife was only on loan to you for a period, and her time was up and she had to return”.  Some time later that man came up to me in the library and said, “You cannot believe how much your husband helped me, I am so grateful to him”.  The fact that he also came up to a friend of mine saying the same thing because he thought she was me (couldn’t possibly be more than one Muslim living in the neighbourhood now could there!) was rather amusing and yet so touching at the same time.  But it only goes to show that some people in the west are so out of touch with death – it has become so sanitised that people don’t know how to be around it, or around those who have been affected by it.  Which makes for a lot of lonely people out there, I think, who are left alone in their grief – can you imagine anything worse?  It’s true that at times you need to be alone to grieve, but then there are the times when you want to talk about the loved one you lost, to reminisce, to cry….. and laugh too, in effect…. to grieve.

Friday, 14 February 2014

‘I felt a funeral in my brain…..’ Emily Dickinson. Part 1

One day, not long after I first moved to Algeria, I looked out our apartment window and saw a group of men sitting around in front of the apartment block behind our one.  It was around the beginning of the year and although the sun was warm it was still rather cold for sitting around outside.  They were being served with drinks and I wondered if this was the Algerian version of a “coffee morning”.  Then my husband told me that it was a funeral. Here, in Algeria, when someone dies you really get the feeling of living in a village, a sense of being part of a community.  Everyone is affected in one way or another, and people rally round to give support and help.  Once when I was here on holiday, long before we moved here, we were out at the beach for the day and arrived home to…..groups of men sitting everywhere: on chairs outside the apartment block, but also in chairs in the apartment itself and I remember feeling very self-conscious as I had to pass them to get to the room where I was staying.  A neighbor had died and my mother-in-law’s home was being used to host the men who had come to pay their respects.  The apartments are so small and can never hope to cope with the huge crowds that come to visit, so more often than not, neighbours automatically give up their living rooms to help out.
When my friend’s  mother-in-law passed away, I went to visit her, but through a misunderstanding, my husband dropped me off at my friend’s home, instead of at the family home of her husband’s family, where all the women were. As there was nobody home, and they were burying her near there, I sat in the car outside the mosque and wondered if I would get a glimpse of the funeral when, suddenly, the brothers came out a side road near where I was sitting, carrying the body of this wonderful old lady. Women can attend the funeral prayer although, in general, they don’t, preferring to stay at home, and they don’t accompany the body to the graveyard.  I used to think that this was, in a way, kind of cruel, but as time has passed and I’ve lost some who were very dear to me, I can see that this is a great kindness, because it isn’t easy to watch a loved one being placed in the ground.

In Algeria, the body is not buried in a coffin but is placed in the grave in the white sheet in which it is wrapped.  It is carried to the grave in a wooden stretcher with four sides, the two end sides open up so that the body can be put directly into the grave.   A simple white sheet is draped over the stretcher as it is being carried from the mosque to the grave.  The same stretcher is then brought back to the mosque and used for all funerals.  More often than not a white van with the back doors left open is used to transport the body to the graveyard.

I don’t know what I was expecting, but I was so taken aback by the sight of all of these brothers carrying this woman to her final destination at a brisk walk (I’ve NEVER seen an Algerian man walk briskly!) – walking quickly while carrying the body to the grave is sunnah: ‘Narrated Abu Sa’id Al-Khudri (Radia Allahu Anhu): Allah’s Apostle (Sallallahu Allahi Wa Sallam) said,” When the body is put in the coffin (when the funeral is ready) and the men carry it on their shoulders, if the deceased was righteous it will say, ‘Present me (hurriedly), ‘ and if he was not righteous, it will say, ‘Woe to it (me)!  Where are they taking it (me)?’  Its voice is heard by everything except man and if he heard it he would fall unconscious.”  Sahih Al-Bukhari Chapter, 49, Hadith No. 400.

In Islam the body is buried as soon as possible within the same day and the funeral prayer is always prayed after one of the daylight fard (compulsory) prayers so those who die here always have a mosque full of people to pray for forgiveness for them.  The rewards for attending the funeral prayer and the funeral procession afterwards are great according to the following hadith found in Sahih Al-Bukhari, Chapter 57, Hadith No 410: Narrrated Abu Huraira (Radia Allahu Anhu) that Allah’s Apostle (Sallallahu Allahi Wa Sallam) said, ‘Whoever attends the funeral procession till he offers the funeral prayer for it will get a reward equal to one Qirat, and whoever accompanies it till burial, will get a reward equal to two Qirats.”  It was asked, “What are two Qirats?”  He replied, “Like two huge mountains.”  I think that that is one of the beautiful things about living in this country – the natural cycle of life is always in evidence – you see the newborn, the weddings and then death – all to remind us that this life is not all there is – it’s just a passing through.

Then a few weeks later, two of my children who were in Secondary school, came home early as one of the men who worked in the school had a bereavement in the family, and most of the school was attending the funeral in one way or another.  The previous day, the man’s mother had died in the morning, so they had buried her that day.  Then, that evening, his 8 year old son was knocked down by a car and killed.  Subhanallah!  I could not get that family out of my head.  The boy’s mother had taught my daughter for the first term of that year, but then had left to have a baby.  How happy they must have been at that time, little knowing how much their lives would be turned completely upside down a short time later.  Allah gives a great reward to those who are patient at times of crisis such as this; because He knows us better than we know ourselves, and He knows how hard it is to be patient when hit with such a catastrophe. “…but give glad tidings to those who patiently persevere – who say, when afflicted with calamity: ‘To Allah we belong, and to Him is our return – they are those on whom (descend) blessings from their Lord, and Mercy and they are the ones that receive guidance” (Surah al-Baqarah 2: 155-157).  But we cannot be patient without His Help, so we really should ask Him for it constantly and try to work on it every day.  And when you are patient, you don’t waste precious energy and time wondering “why?” or “why me?”

I had to pass the house of the bereaved a couple of times on the day of the boy’s funeral and I just wanted to burst into tears each time.  It is always obvious when someone loses someone here, as you see all the men congregating outside, while the women are inside, and absolutely everyone comes to give their condolences – all the neighbours, extended family, children’s teachers, shopkeepers, etc. etc. 

The same thing happened when my son’s physics teacher’s mother died.  My son rushed home to have something to eat, changed into his camis and then rushed off to the house to pay his condolences along with his friends.  Then they prayed the funeral prayer in the mosque after the Dhuhr prayer.  After which they brought the deceased to the graveyard, which was at least 20 mins drive away.  All the men pile into any vehicle they can find.  I remember one of the first times I saw this I thought they were going to work in the fields as I saw all these young men and boys piled into the back of a pick-up truck!  After the burial they went back to the house and then dispersed.

One day, my 9-year-old son came home from school early and told me that, as he was passing the mosque he heard the adhaan for the dhuhr prayer and went in to pray.  When I asked him how come it had taken him so long, he told me that after the prayer, there was the funeral prayer and he had stayed for that!  Subhanallah!  So natural!

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Me.... for Algerian President?

An indoor courtyard in the Casbah, Algiers
Someone once asked me on a forum to which I belonged what are the laws I would change/enforce if the world went mad and I became President of Algeria tomorrow.

My first action would most definitely be an overhaul of the education system with a greater emphasis on Islamic teachings, and also a much more self development approach rather than the computer input/output system that is in place at the moment (i.e. people are treated like a computer – input the information, memorise it and then “print it out” in the form of regular exams) which bears no resemblance whatsoever to education!  My aim would be to educate people so that each person could live up to their God-given ability and intellect and have the career for which Allah created them.  I would make it a rule that all students be treated with respect irrespective of their abilities.

I would definitely bring in some legal framework where women had the right to get a divorce without too much hassle, and, if unable to support themselves then be helped to become independent by education, training or some kind of financial support to start their own businesses, with free, high-quality child care provided.  Most women here are very hard working and I have often said that if it weren’t for them and their hard work, Algeria would have slipped into the sea and eternal oblivion a long time ago!

I would have to do something to help those who are physically and mentally impaired and the orphans and the elderly.  It is true that the elderly are usually taken care of by the whole family with a lot of respect and love given to them, but I am certain that there are those who somehow end up being neglected.  In a country like Algeria, which is still struggling to employ a burgeoning, young and often well-educated population it is easy to let those that are weak and disadvantaged slip through the cracks, so I would like to see more day centers, residential centers, where these people can learn skills according to their abilities, are given the correct treatment for their conditions and are given the same Allah given right that the rest of us able bodied and mentally healthy people have been given – the belief that we were born to worship Allah and have something special to contribute to humanity. To be fair there are centers here already who are doing great work but I just want more.  My daughter has a fellow student who is totally blind and who attended a blind school and then came into mainstream education.  He is brought to the bus by a member of his family every morning and then helped off and into school by his school friends.  When it comes to exam time he is taken into a room of his own where a teacher reads out the exam questions and he answers on his braille machine. He usually comes top of the class.  You will often see young children or old people standing at the side of the road waiting to cross and usually someone will come up and stop the traffic for them and help them across.  So there is a will to help the weak in this society…. I would just ensure the funding necessary reached them where they need it most.

I would ban bureaucracy and paperwork – no actually I would ban PAPER except for tissues, serviettes, kitchen paper etc. (Normally I would like to ban them too but don’t think I could cope with the Algerian women in revolt – revolting Algerian women is a sight nobody wants). Did you know that in Algeria, people’s birth certificates expire before they do – it expires after a year and has to be renewed annually.  Heck, people’s DEATH certificates have to be renewed annually!   And when you are asked for documentation, it is not the original that is required, but a photocopy that has been stamped at the council offices.  Maybe I should ban stamps and ink!

Now that the power has gone totally to my head I would ban any obstruction on pavements – I wouldn’t make the culprits pay a fine, instead I would make them clean outside their home or shop or spend a certain period of time cleaning somewhere.  And I would enforce this law particularly outside coffee shops.  So often, if you are not looking ahead to where you are going, you can find yourself suddenly bang in the middle of a coffee shop with all the tables and chairs out on the pavement.  And this may not seem very embarrassing living in the West, but when you realize that the coffee shop is the men’s domain here in Algeria and woe betide any woman who would dare to enter and sit down for a cup of coffee, you can understand why it doesn’t look too good to find yourself, all hijabed up and standing like a lemon in the middle of one!  You know what – I would just ban coffee shops!  During Ramadan it is so wonderful to be able to just walk unobstructed and not be gawped at.  But then I think that particular ban might be too much of a strain on society and might even be the cause of marriage breakdown and family discord, as the women enjoy the freedom in the home while their husbands are out in the coffee shops! So maybe I should have a rethink on that one!

I would ban PLASTIC BAGS – any size, any colour.  When I first came to Algeria 27 years ago, there were few plastic bags – so much so that my sister-in-law used to wash any she got so that she could reuse them.  Now the whole landscape is littered with them – fluttering in trees or electricity wires.  I would have paper bags in shops and charge for them – this is something that has been done in Ireland to great effect.   This, hopefully would encourage people to bring their own bags, which to be fair, a lot of the little old ladies do anyway. 

I would regulate the size of speed bumps – they can vary from slight mounds on the road to small hills with some so difficult to drive over that it’s like driving up onto a pavement. And I would get a sledgehammer to the unofficial ones made by residents (there have been times when I’ve driven over one that made the whole car shudder and shake, and I’ve been sorely tempted to get a sledgehammer to the resident himself), which I’m convinced are not put there as a speed deterrent but more to slow motorists down so that those who have nothing better to do can have a good gawk at the car while it passes by.  Think I’m paranoid?  Next time you’re out and about just look at the groups of men sitting around near these cement monsters.

I would like to knock down all walls and get rid of the “heytists” once and for all.  One of the Arabic words for ‘wall’ (there are a couple, at least) is ‘heyt’ and the Algerian male national pastime is hanging around leaning up against the walls watching the world go by and gossiping, hence the term ‘heytist’.  But again this probably would cause too much stress to family life here, and I have a feeling that even if they had no walls to lean against they would just lean up against each other!

I would reallocate all the buildings that presently are used by the army and government and give them to the hospitals and schools instead.

I would give anyone who married an Algerian and who came to live here in Algeria automatic citizenship and do away with the Residency Cards.  As far as I am concerned anyone who has done this deserves a highly prestigious medal of valor for showing enormous courage and bravery under extremely difficult circumstances, and therefore they have more than proved their eligibility for Algerian citizenship!!!  I would also provide them with free psychiatric care…. for obvious reasons.

I could just go on and on, but there’s only so much a gal can do in one day.  Do you think that Algeria is ready for me as a first lady – even for a day????? Now.... what will I do tomorrow?

Friday, 7 February 2014

Algerian husbands homeward bound Part 2

A street in the Casbah, Algiers
I have met sisters who, once here, decided to make a go of it, but their husbands found it all too much and decided to return back to the countries they emigrated to in the first place as they just couldn’t help but compare the chaos here with the order there.  Sometime it took for them to go back to realise that chaos and order were not always the most important issues when it comes to the upbringing of children, especially ones in their teens and some have returned back to Algeria a second time.  Often, second time round, these men adjusted must better, and I think that this is because the dithering has stopped and they are now looking forward and not with an eye looking back at what they left behind.  Mentally they were better prepared second time round.

Most Algerians abroad think in terms of saving up enough money to return and buy their own homes, start up a business and then sit back and relax and enjoy the good life.  There was a time when that was an option, but like with everything else, the reality of life here is very different nowadays.  Property prices have gone up a lot and many Algerians find themselves struggling in the economic crunch in countries in the west without any extra money to buy property or to build a home here.  Very few of them take advantage of the educational opportunities available in their country of exile, and this can be mainly because they are totally unaware of how much Algeria has changed and in need of people who are qualified in modern techniques in all areas of life…. be it IT, languages, teaching, plumbing, mechanics, engineering etc. etc. 

Qualifications are more important than money here – they are the keys to doors of opportunity and success, and once a husband has a good job here, the financial security it provides to a family and the good example of a work ethic it provides to children who may otherwise become very disenchanted with the educational system ensures an easier and better transition. How can you encourage a child to keep his/her head down and keep going through the tough times of the educational system here if they see their father sitting back and doing nothing, or else he’s still working abroad and coming back when he can.  What kind of message does this give to a child?  A lot of Algerians, having worked abroad for other people, want to come back and work for themselves, so set up businesses. But often this entails very long hours, and means more isolation and loneliness for their wives sitting at home, in a society where they are so very much dependant on him for various reasons.  Having a job with a regular wage in a good company not only provides financial security and more time to devote to a family, but also there are perks such as a paid pension and medical insurance, and sometimes, discounts off large purchases such as household appliances or cars,  or hobbies such as swimming pools, gyms, horse riding stables etc.

It takes time, also, for the husbands to realise that actually their own families can’t help them as much as they expected, because they’ve never experienced having a foreigner in the family before and all the extra work this can entail.  This is where other men who have already moved here and have adjusted can be a great source of support and information.  I remember my husband was very comforted and encouraged by some of the men he met when he returned, and I know that he is very willing to do the same for others.  It can certainly combat the one thing that a returning Algerian does not expect on his return to Algeria – loneliness.  He has lived abroad, seen how other people live, had his mind broadened, and it can be very lonely coming back to people who may think he’s mad to come back in the first place as they have no appreciation for what they have here in Algeria, who assume he is very naive for doing so and are very happy to disillusion him, and who won’t listen when he tries to explain the realities of living as a foreigner abroad.

It makes an enormous difference if he comes for the sake of Allah FIRST before any other reason.  He then has the firm handhold of One Who will never let go and Who will get him through the first couple of years of transition.  It really helps so much, to remember, during the hard times, why you’ve come – for Whose Pleasure, and then the exhausting dithering and doubts fade away leaving you with more energy to cope with problems as they come. And you know that you are exactly where Allah wants you to be, and if you’re patient and keep asking Him He will get you out of any difficulty, if you’re open to His Will.  This is important for us sisters too – so many times I would have loved to have shouted at my husband ‘I’m only here in this..........(insert your own descriptive word here!) country because of you’ but I couldn’t, because I came to please Allah.  It totally avoids the utterly demoralising ‘blame game’.
View of the Bay of Algiers from the Casbah

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Algerian husbands homeward bound Part 1

Le Jardin D'Essai, Algiers

One thing that often comes as a shock both to foreign wives and their husbands is that the husband can find adjusting to life here in Algeria, after living abroad for some time, difficult also.  And, I think like everything else, if you haven’t mentally prepared for it then it can make life more difficult.  Very few, if any, of the men returning to live in Algeria have ever lived here with a wife and children, and so their memories are of a single life. They often assume that their families will just help out, but don’t always realise that their families have not lived in a vacuum while they were abroad and have very busy lives of their own.

I remember one sister who remarked to me after she and her husband first came here with a view to moving over permanently, “I can’t understand why my husband has this lost look on his face all the time – as if he doesn’t know which way to turn, or what to do next”, and I told her I had seen that exact same expression on my husband’s face. It’s because many Algerians have been away a long time and everything has changed – new companies have sprung up, the systems have changed, the paperwork is dismaying to say the least and even the landscape has been transformed beyond recognition. I can’t count the times when, driving through an area, my husband has remarked on how different it used to be before he left to live abroad, with orange groves, forests, farmland and scrubland being replaced by whole towns.  There are no structures here as there are in other countries to help people find work – no job centers or employment agencies, no phone books, no directories to go through, although this is changing and there are some online now, albeit rather limited in their scope. A lot of brothers depend on family and friends, all of whom give conflicting and often negative advice.

They certainly are not prepared for the humongous amount of paperwork a foreign wife, and children born abroad, entails, and how they will often have to go to a different ministry altogether for this paperwork, as a result. The best advice to any husband in this situation is not to take any nonsense, nor to take ‘no’ for an answer.  

Another important piece of advice - check every document thoroughly once you have received it – we’ve had so many problems with children’s names and birth places being incorrectly spelt on birth certificates etc. etc. And when some bureaucrat or clerk makes a mistake, it’s up to you to jump through the hoops to correct it.  It can be so depressing for any husband to come back to Algeria and expect to relax and have an easier life, and then find himself like a dog chasing its tail.... on an almost daily basis with no end in sight.

One sister said that her husband was perfectly happy for her to go out and about when they lived abroad, but suddenly, living here in his native country, and, in his native town, he refused her permission to go out at all, even for the smallest thing, and she became so frustrated and depressed as a result, until one day he told her how shocked he was that the country in general, and his hometown in particular had changed so much and he didn’t recognise any of the people in the streets and he became afraid for her and their children.  This is something that is rather strange but not unique to Algerians – I’ve seen it with other nationalities also who, when they go abroad, they are far more trusting of the natives of another country than they would be of their own.  The Algerians ‘know’ their own kind inside out and this can be frightening for them when they have a wife and children in tow.  It takes time for them to find their confidence, and also their own place in the society here.

They also find that the people in Algeria have changed and none more so than his own family. At first the novelty of being back home again is wonderful, but gradually he comes to realise that he’s not the only one who has been ‘growing up and away’, and some of the etiquettes that he was used to are no longer important, and others have taken their place.  Life within the family seems more complicated, and, if he has a father, then it can be difficult to be told what to do again after all the independence to which he’s been accustomed.  And, don’t forget he now finds himself often embroiled in the quarrels that arise within the families, and, if he tries to be a peacemaker this task can be exhausting... and time consuming.  Sometimes he may also feel pulled between the family he was born into and his new family, and a wise woman is one who never puts him in a position where he feels he has to choose.  Not to mention the extra chauffeuring he will be expected to do, especially on special occasions like weddings – expect to become a ‘wedding widow’ at these times!

Le Jardin D'Essai