Sunday, 25 May 2014

Mum 14 June 1925 - 25 May 2011

It came as a huge shock when my Mum passed away after a mercifully quick and painless illness on 25 May 2011.....just a few weeks before we were due to go and visit.  I wasn't able to go to her funeral but instead I wrote the following and my brother very kindly read it out for me in the church.

Mum never fitted into any label, she was so full of contradictions – she was a typical traditional Irish Catholic mother…. except that she had no qualms about challenging the status quo within the hierarchy of the church, asking a priest once what did he know about marriage problems when he had never been married.  She was always at home when we came in from school, always had a cooked meal and the house was always clean and our clothes washed and ironed… and yet she was often not there emotionally, but off in a world of her own where the Holy Spirit reigned supreme. 

She loved reading, mostly religious articles, but also she had an interest in the world beyond Ireland.  She would often write down, on the backs of used envelopes, quotes she had read or heard on the radio, and while some captured her imagination with their spiritually uplifting views on life, others fascinated her for the beautiful way that the words were put together.  This for the woman who, at 14, begged her mother not to send her to the new girl’s secondary school because she didn’t think she would be good enough for it.  She had a wonderful grasp of the English language and often used it to good effect in her talking…. And oh how she loved talking!  She was extremely reluctant to get the phone in, but once it was installed you couldn’t get away from her, so much so that Dad always talked first because he knew he wouldn’t get a word in edge ways if he left it.  But she would so often spend so much of the time on the phone feeling guilty for…. talking so much!  Which was strange considering how reclusive she could be, at one stage not having stepped outside the house for 15 years.

She always said that she would never die in a boating or airplane accident because she never wanted to travel.  Instead the world came to her.  All through my childhood we had people from all corners of the earth and different religions come through our home through connections with my aunt first, and then in more recent years through my brothers and sisters.  And all were served piping hot cups of tea in her matching set of china cups and saucers, along with a plate of freshly baked scones and buns.

She loved us all in her own way and worried about us all the time, in equal measures. Whenever I rang her she would say “You won’t believe it, but I was just thinking about you”. Which was nice to be told, except I knew that there was a one in five chance she was thinking about any one of us. Whenever I had to leave to return back to England or Algeria after a trip home, I would ring her when I arrived only to find her exhausted and miserable because she had, in her head, traveled every step of the way with us, and inevitably always had a much worse journey than we did. She loved all of her grandchildren equally as had my Dad, and always had time for them, and was interested in what they were doing, even if she didn’t always understand it.

Her happiest moments were sitting in the armchair in the corner watching us all laugh and joke together and getting on – she hated any arguments that lead to a falling out between us, and was always so happy when people made up.  She had a wonderful sense of humour and it was always great to see her laughing, like the time she tried to blow out the candles on her birthday cake only for them to relight over and over again.  She laughed so much that her teeth fell out, and laughed again so much on the phone while relaying it all back to me. 

When her hearing deteriorated in her later years, she told me once on the phone that she had borrowed her sister Peggy’s hearing aid and exclaimed ‘it was so weird to hear the sound of my own voice again’ to which I told her now she could hear what we had to listen to.

One of my fondest childhood memories is that of my mum and her two sisters, Peggy and Nancy sitting around after dinner, when everyone had left the table, and they would drink endless cups of tea and discuss every thing under the sun, from the neighbours, the new improvements to Adare, her hometown, politics and the latest government’s blunders, the previous week’s ‘Late Late Show’ to world affairs and cooking or gardening tips.  They never finished until the whole world was put to rights.  I never realized until much later in life that, children come and go along with their spouses and their children, but siblings are always there for you.

A few months ago I was looking up her number on my mobile to ring her and stared at the number to figure out why it looked wrong – I had looked up ‘home’ instead of ‘Mum’.  When one of my daughters asked me why I still called it home, especially as it wasn’t the home I had grown up in, now that Mum lived on Dad’s vegetable patch… in a beautiful house I hasten to add, I had to think for a minute.  Then I told her that wherever Mum was, was home to me, and always would be.

My eldest daughter, Sarah, (carrying on Mum’s name) once exclaimed, ‘Oh My God, Granny!’  I looked at her in puzzlement and asked ‘where?’ to which she replied, ‘YOU’.  I had that same look of concentration that she had, with the tip of her tongue out to the side.  At other times I know that I purse my lips in the same way as she did, and often, when feeling overwhelmed I have been known to stand in the middle of the kitchen floor with my head in my hands…. Just the same way she did.  I told her once that it was scary how much I was turning into her.  To which she replied ‘you should be honoured’.  And I am.

When Vincent was small he used to kiss her every night and tell her ‘you’re the best mother I’ve ever had’ to which she would always answer, ‘and how many mothers have you had then?’  We only had the one, but she was ….the best one….. we’ve ever had.

Monday, 12 May 2014

Algeria - a Third World Country?

A tram in Algiers

I have heard it said many a time in reference to Algeria that it is a ‘third world country’, and I finally decided to look up the term and found to my surprise that this is an outdated description.  During the Cold War era the First World consisted of those countries that aligned with NATO such as those in Europe, United States etc, The Second World countries were those that sided with the Communist Bloc like the Soviet Union, China, Cuba etc and The Third World were the rest of the world!  A lot of these countries had a colonial past such as those in Africa, Asia and Latin America.  Nowadays the term Third World has been replaced with the more politically correct ‘Developing Country’ or ‘Less Developed Country’.

It may surprise some to note that Algeria is considered to be a ‘High Human Development’ country under the Human Development Index (HDI) which according to Wikipedia ‘is a comparative measure of life expectancy, literacy, education, standards of living, and quality of life for countries worldwide. It is a standard means of measuring well-being, especially child welfare. It is used to distinguish whether the country is a developed, a developing or an underdeveloped country, and also to measure the impact of economic policies on quality of life.’  According to the World Bank ‘Algeria is classified as an upper middle income country’ (Wikipedia).

I don’t blame people (which is very nice of me I think!) who come from highly developed countries such as Europe, Canada, United States, Australia etc. for thinking that Algeria is a poor country.  To all outward appearances it may seem so.  For me whenever I return to England and Ireland I am immediately struck by the apparent affluence that I see everywhere.  The one thing that always hits me is the way so many of the streets are so nicely organised with rows upon rows of nice neat houses, all exactly the same height, same architecture, same distance from the street, same front and back gardens, with pavements that are smooth and unobstructed.  In contrast to Algeria where it looks as if some lunatic got a position in town planning and just went berserk.  Someone will start to build a house beside a road, then someone else buys a plot on the same road and builds a completely different kind of house.  As time goes by more and more people buy plots, build a structure according to their financial ability, so that in time you have a street with some houses one story, others have moved up a few floors, some are finished, others not, some have a nice façade and others still have cement and brickwork showing.  While all this building has been going on, the road has deteriorated immensely what with the vast quantities of lorries rumbling up and down with loads of cement and bricks and metalwork, and the digging up of the road to insert pipes for water etc. not once, but several times. The pavement, if there was one to begin with, has all but disappeared under mounds of sand and cement, or piles of bricks.  I have often thought that Algiers is just one immense building site, because in addition to new building blocks and houses, and other amenities there are new roads being built and the construction of the tramway.  There is dust and dirt everywhere and nowhere looks neat and clean.  Even in old established parts of the city such as Bab El Oued, Haraach, etc. the buildings have been so overcrowded that buildings have been added on to the top, the sides, or wherever there is a space to plonk a room, so the once neat white buildings with their light blue shutters and balconies look like they are sprouting in all directions.

When I first came to Algeria in 1987 there was a lot of frustration among the younger generation who lived in cramped accommodation with their parents and several siblings, and who often had to wait for the older ones to get married before they themselves could consider it.  And, even then, often there was no hope for them to do so as there was nowhere for them live with a new wife or husband.  Families converted balconies into rooms and built rooms on the terraces, but it just wasn’t enough.  Since then houses and streets have erupted from land where there once were orange and lemon orchards, and there seems to have been an explosion of building works everywhere, so much so that nowadays many couples opt to rent an apartment at the beginning of their married life.  It’s still very common for the new wife to live with her husband and his family, but more and more are choosing to live apart from their families. 

Over 10 years ago it was quite easy to buy a plot of land and build a home exactly the way you wanted to for a reasonable price, but since we arrived the prices have sky rocketed and the cost of building has also increased.  At the same time more couples are choosing to continue working even after parenthood in order to get on the property ladder, or are living in apartments adjacent to their inlaws. The time of the terrorism in the 90s, the  big flood in Bab El Oued in 2001and the earthquake in 2003 meant that a lot of people had to be put into temporary housing, euphemistically called ‘chalets’ and you would think that these people crammed into a tiny space would be ecstatic at being rehoused, but usually the military has had to oversee rehousing of these estates because so many people refuse to move, or protest against it as they are unhappy with the area where they are being rehoused or the type of accommodation.  10 years ago across from the car park in front of the apartment block where we lived, there was a ramshackle shanty town comprised of brickwork and corrugated iron, which had grown up without any official permission, and when these people were being rehoused a lot of them refused to move because they didn’t want to live in a high rise apartment after being accustomed to a small outdoor space where they could raise livestock or grow vegetables.

In some areas just outside Algiers you will still see children sitting at the side of the road selling homemade produce such as the Algerian bread or vegetables or fruit, or walking along the beaches selling homemade doughnuts or mint tea.  This is more common during the summer when the school is on holidays, but child labour like this is not something you see in developed countries in the West, not nowadays anyway.  At the same time, from what I have seen, Algerians are very ambitious for their children and education is very highly valued…..and free right up to and including University level.

There are areas where people live in homes with no running water, gas connection or phone lines, but often these homes were built in isolated parts of the country where these amenities had not reached as yet.  At the vast rate of building expanse these homes are not isolated for very long and before you know it there is a whole town of housing which has sprung up without any kind of planning and all lacking these important amenities.  But that doesn’t mean that they have no water or gas or phone……A very common sight here is a small lorry with a small tank on the back with a long hose attached which will fill up a water cistern or other containers for a small fee.  Gas is very cheaply bought in gas bottles and attached to cookers and even heating systems.  And even some children here now have mobile phones, they have become so common.  And somehow…..everyone has electricity, although in some areas this can come and go at an alarming regularity.  But then when you see how many people have hooked their electricity supply illegally to one source it’s not surprising that the demand often exceeds supply and the system goes into overload.

When you think of a third world country you don’t associate it with a tramway, trains, or even a metro, all of which Algeria has now.  Admittedly the distance that the metro reaches is very short at the moment and the tramway is still in the process of spreading its tentacles’, although the progress so far has made a huge difference to the quality of travel in and around the city of Algiers, and for an affordable fee.  When we arrived in the country 10 years ago, both the metro and the tramway seemed a pipe dream, and people would not even consider using the train lines between the capital and it’s second and third cities on either end along the coastline, Oran and Constantine, because during the 90s and for a long time after there was a danger of the train being hijacked.  Nowadays people travel by train without a second thought.

There is a free health care system here too, with a local free clinic within walking distance of most people.  It’s true that this free clinic is basic, but it can be useful as a first port of call for minor injuries and illnesses.

Stock in most shops here are very limited in variety in comparison to the West, and a lot of foreign foods sold in the few supermarkets here are expensive.  I found myself staring at a pre-packaged meal in one of the supermarkets here and wondering to myself, who on earth would buy that kind of thing here in Algeria …..a meal like that wouldn’t go very far in the average home here, and most people would look down their noses at something not cooked from scratch at home anyway.  But they are sold here, so someone must be buying them….someone with money.

I suppose what I’m trying to say, in the most long winded fashion ever, that Algeria, for all its faults and idiosyncrasies is not the backward country that the title ‘Third World Country’ brings to mind for me at any rate.  I think it’s true to say that if you compare the worst of Algeria with the best of a Western country, then Algeria doesn’t fare too well.  But then, I tend more to compare Algeria to how it was when I first came in 1987, and, even more recently to how it was 10 years ago when we first moved here, and I can see how it has progressed in leaps and bounds.  It has a long way to go still, but then it only has had its independence for 50 years and is only now, finally, making up for lost time.

I don’t think that there are many Third World, Underdeveloped or Developing countries where I could have good enough internet access to maintain a blog!  But then… some minds….that might be considered a blessing!

Finally, forget everything else, my definition of a fully developed country is one that sells Cadbury’s chocolate.  Guess what I found the other day in a tiny local supermarket???

Saturday, 10 May 2014

When a shopping list becomes an embarrassment

A small local shop
I thought I was being quite revolutionary carrying a shopping list with me whenever I did my weekly shopping here in Algeria, but little did I realise that this would, one day, jump up and bite me on my derriere.   My husband has become accustomed to me and my infernal lists, but it’s only in recent months that my eldest son, at 21, has been introduced to their wonders.  After a couple of shopping trips after which we’ve had the following type of conversation ‘What on earth is ‘Tam?’ (Jam)  and ‘That IS NOT an ‘S!!!!!’, he started to become familiar with my own inimitable style of writing (the results of a hen walking across a piece of paper after scratching in the dirt kind of describes it fairly accurately), and so I could confidently send him off into the wide world of….local shops and markets in the certain confidence that he would return with everything I requested. 

If you know anything at all about Algerian men then it’s that they do very little on their own…..they always have to have someone with them whether it’s to fix something, go somewhere, or perform any kind of task at all.  So it didn’t surprise me when my son roped in his friend to go shopping with him.  Then the other day he casually mentioned that his friend asked him what ‘ris’ was, and he told him it was ‘rice’.  When I asked him why his friend asked this peculiar question, he casually said ‘oh because he was reading your shopping list when we did the shopping’.  And then he added ‘he was at one end of the shop and I was at the other and he had to shout it to me’.  Then he went on to explain their shopping strategy:  His friend looks at the list and says ‘what’s sweetcorn?  ah, ok, ‘Maizena!‘ Next he sees ‘tuna’ no problem, ‘thon’ but when he gets to ‘chicken pate’ he’s wondering what’s this new kind of pastry (it isn’t, it should read ‘pâté’….it’s chicken type salami). ‘Toilet paper?  Ah, of course, Papier de Toilette’ but then he was flummoxed by ‘ Kitchen Paper’.  My son explained with his hands….toilet paper is this size and then Kitchen paper is twice the size.  All this in full view and earshot of the shopkeeper and other customers.  In the market it’s no problem as so many vegetables such as potatoes, onions, carrots are all similar to the French, until they get towards the end.  ‘What is this?’ and my son replies ‘Peppers’.  ‘That’s not a ‘P!’  Great.  So now, the whole world and his mother knows that my writing is appalling… addition to his friend actually reading it.  When my face had faded slightly from puce to pink, I asked him why his friend was reading the shopping list in the first place, he told me that he wanted to, that he actually enjoyed reading it and it made shopping fun!   This is what happens when you let two Algerian 21 year old young men loose with a shopping list.

Now my disclaimer…..I did learn to write…..properly…..honest.  But years of typing away on a keyboard has made my writing deteriorate to a woeful level.  And that’s my excuse….and I’m sticking to it.  I would type out the shopping list except I know I would then take all the fun out of shopping for my son and his friend, and when that happens….I’d end up having to do the shopping myself.  So I’m off to do something I thought I had left behind a long time ago in primary school…..practise my writing.
A small local shop

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Being an oddball has its merits

The beach at the end of our road

When people, Algerians and ex-pats alike, ask me if I’m happy here in Algeria, sometimes I almost feel as if I have to apologise and explain why I am, indeed, very happy and content in my life here in Algeria.  With some women, especially those whom I meet for the first time, and who may have only just moved here and are still in the shell shocked state, I do try to make an effort to be gentle and considerate of their fragile mental state.  I don’t want anyone going away from an encounter with me thinking ‘why can’t I be like her? (Not something anyone in their right mind would usually assume in relation to me) What’s wrong with me that I can’t be happy here?’ or any other negative comparisons.  So I usually begin with the fact that, I’ve always been a bit strange or odd, not that you have to be so to be happy here, but it sure helps.

Just as in marriage, nobody moves to Algeria without a lot of baggage, and I’m not talking about the kind that fits in boxes and suitcases, but the stuff that makes up our psyche, a lot of which we are totally unaware of until something out of the norm brings it to the fore.  And, in Algeria, there are a LOT of things that are unusual to put it politely, bizarre to put it truthfully and, during those happy times when it’s easier to be positive about the country, you might even consider things to be quirky and amusing.

Your reasons for moving to Algeria are very important, dare I say it, even crucial to the success and happiness of your move.  Before you make the move to live here it’s good to remember the hadith (authentic saying of the Prophet Muhammed, may Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him) in Imam Nawai’s book on 40 hadith: From the Amir al-Muminin Abu Hafs 'Umar ibn al-Khattab, radiya'llahu 'anhu, that he said, "I heard the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, saying, 'Actions are only by intentions, and every man has only that which he intended. Whoever's emigration is for Allah and His Messenger then his emigration is for Allah and His Messenger. Whoever's emigration is for some worldly gain which he can acquire or a woman he will marry then his emigration is for that for which he emigrated'."  Similarly if you move here to please your husband or for the sake of  your children, then your reward will be in having pleased your husband or enabled your children to learn Arabic and live in a Muslim society.  But is that enough and…what about you?

Ok, let’s face it, very few, if any, of us grew up with a childhood dream of living in Algeria.  A lot of us probably would have been hard pushed to say where exactly the country is situated, if asked, before we totally lost our sanity and fell in love with an Algerian man. Similarly I don’t know if I would have shown such an deep interest in Islam if I wasn’t married to a Muslim.  But although I may have been influenced by him to read into Islam so as to understand him better, I didn’t convert to the religion to please him.  In the same way I didn’t move to Algeria purely for him or our children, I moved here also for me.  Which is a strange thing to say I suppose because then you might wonder….what is there in Algeria for an Irish lunatic like me.

It’s true that, at first, I was not exactly enamoured with the idea of moving here, but after a lot of thought, introspection and prayer, I made up my mind to make this move, to please Allah first and foremost, and, somehow, I just knew and believed that this move, as a result of this intention would also be of benefit to me.  It went without saying that it would benefit my husband to be near his family again and back in his own country where he was, to all intents and purposes accepted for who he was without any stereotyping or discrimination.  And it would certainly benefit our children to have a life where Islam was at the core, to learn and become fluent in the language of the Qur’an, to learn how to live in an extended family (not mine unfortunately but some family is better than none), with all the difficulties and blessings that can bring. It is also a life where the basics are not taken for granted and where children have a lot of the freedoms with which I grew up and which are lost for various reasons in a Western society nowadays.

The thing you have to remember about me is that I left home many, many years ago, not for a husband, or children, but….just to leave home.  I didn’t get very far, but London for me was just a stepping stone to an adventure that was just waiting around the corner for me.  The fact that it took me 20 years to get off the bloomin’ stepping stone is neither here nor there.  That sense of adventure and longing for something completely different to that with which I had grown up, is one of the reasons why I love it so much in Algeria.  Where other women are genuinely bewildered and lost by the contrast that Algeria provides to anything they’ve known before, for me it’s all an adventure.  But for so many women here, they left behind their families, their close friends, their security, to live an isolated life, made even more lonely by virtue of the fact that it’s in stark contrast to their husband’s life back in the bosom of his loving family.

Once Allah guided me to Islam Alhamdulilah, I met many different women from many different parts of the world, with very different cultures and traditions, and I had become accustomed to eating food from one dish on the floors (yes…… we did have dishes and a table cloth!) of friend’s bedrooms or various different mosques, trying to eat rice with my fingers (not very successfully….I could never get enough into my mouth so that I usually felt more like I was nibbling than actually eating.), and eating foods I, myself, would never have put together on the same plate, never mind the fact that I was sometimes surrounded by women with whom I could not communicate with anything other than a smile and a gesture.  In a way this was all preparation for the contrast of life in Algeria which so many women find difficult and which only adds to their feelings of being alone, isolated and strange.

Most of the ex-pat women I meet here in Algeria say that the first few years here were really difficult for them, that they felt very isolated and lonely, and some have even said that they grieved for their old life back in the country in which they grew up. I found the first 10 months here very difficult, but this was because I wasn’t in my own home, I was cooped up in a flat with no outside space in which to sit in the sunshine, the water and the electricity went off regularly, and I was so cold…..well for the first 7 months anyway.  I remember one Friday when the water had been gone for a couple of days and the washing was piling up, and the house was a tip.  My husband came swanning in from Friday prayer, lovely and clean (he’d been to the bath house for a wash) in his pristine white camis, full of high Iman having been to the mosque and listened to the khutbah, and full of the joys of life.  The contrast was just too much and I was so tired and low that I was in tears.  My husband said to me ‘well….do you want to go back then?’ and without hesitation I said ‘no, I just want better than this.’

One of the first things my husband did when we moved into the flat was to get the internet in….at a time when it was unheard of in the home, and we had to pay per minute.  But it meant that I could email my family and friends and this was wonderful for me.  When I remember back to when I moved to England I used to write to my family and friends in Ireland regularly, and I realise that this was my way of coping with being away from all I loved and missed.  It was a time before digital cameras, Facebook, and it was my way of sharing my life with those I had left behind.  It was therapy for me. 

So, I never grieved for the life I’d left behind at either time period in my life, nor did I feel lonely or isolated.   But then that’s probably because….I’m an oddball!  Once I feel at home IN my home, I’m quite happy to stay there….alone if needs be, although with a husband and 5 children all of whom are either nearing adulthood or already adults and still living at home, this alone time doesn’t come very often and is always appreciated when it does.  I’m an introvert and so quite content and happy in my own company (well the way I look at it…someone has to be!) and don’t experience the stir-crazy emotions that other women may experience here due to long periods of enforced isolation. 

However there were times when being away from home was very difficult and two occasions in particular when I experienced real grief and loneliness that were so strong they are embedded in my memory, and I will write about these another time inshallah.  I bet you can’t wait…….!!!!!
The view from the beach at the end of our road....who couldn't be happy here?