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.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Octopus and other fishy stories

I have a freezer full of food that I am too scared to cook….namely octopus….or rather octopuses (I always thought that the plural of octopus was octopi but it seems I was wrong even though Microsoft recognises both!).    Yes, I know that freezing them tenderises them, and yes I know that you should dip them a few times into boiling water before cooking them, but still and all I manage to cook them in such a way that we all end up sitting around the table looking like a herd of cattle in a field chewing the cud.  I try really hard to compose my face when my youngest proudly presents me with yet another one after one of his numerous fishing sprees, but I’m not sure I always pull it off…. I have a feeling the dismay shows in my face no matter how hard I try to hide it.  But I have decided to take the bull by the horns…..or in this case, the octopus by the tentacles and experiment with the specimens I have tried hard to ignore in my freezer and surely I will find a way of cooking at least one so we can actually consume it instead of merely giving our jaw muscles a good workout.  Watch this space.

Octopus is not the only fish my youngest has come home with…..I have had all sorts of small fish to cook many of which had more bones than flesh.  His friend’s father has sent over several different species of fish and his friend’s mother has sent over several cooked fish dishes, probably in the hope that they will inspire me to cook something edible with their gifts.  

Then there was the night that there was a knock on the door and my son came to me asking me if I’d like a big fish because his friend was offering it to us.  Never being one to look a gift horse in the mouth I said yes please and was presented with a red basin with the ugliest and…….most evil looking fish I had ever seen in my life.  It was black and turned out to be a stingray. I thought what on earth am I going to do with this????  I put it in the fridge and went to bed in the faint hope it would be gone by morning, but no, there it sat staring up at me malevolently from the shelf in the fridge.  My son brought it down to the sea with his friend to clean it, and when he brought it back it looked marginally less frightening and slightly more edible.  So I roasted it as it wouldn’t fit in my frying pan anyway.  It was definitely one of the weirdest fish I’ve ever tasted – salty but not very fishy, it sort of tasted like meat! And bony…….so many bones.  So many in fact, especially along its wings, that the stray cats in our back garden had a gourmet meal that afternoon.  I learnt a very valuable lesson from that incident – NEVER say yes until you know exactly what you’re getting as a gift because sometimes it really IS too good to be true!

Well......what would you do if presented with this????? (picture courtesy of Wikipedia) 

Thursday, 12 June 2014

My blinking internet

EXTREMELY fact.....non-existent would be more accurate
One of the most difficult things to get used to here in Algeria is customer service…..or rather the lack of it.  As a perfect example Algerie Telecom is a case in point and one of the reasons why the blarney has not been flowing as freely in recent times.  We pay for our internet six months in advance through Algerie Telecom and it was due to expire on May 4th so we planned to renew it the previous day.  But suddenly without any warning our internet went at midnight on April 30th, and with the 1st May being a bank holiday and the 2nd being the weekend we were not able to go to them until the 3rd, only to be told that there was a new policy to cut off the internet 2 days before it was due to expire, and this had something to do with the fact that they were upping the speed. Our internet has service has not been really great of late and we’ve always had much reduced internet service at the weekend (Friday and Saturday here), so slightly mollified and feeling hopeful we settled down to enjoy our faster internet to find it was exactly the same as before – very good at times and at others I lost the will to live while waiting for a page to load.  Then to add insult to injury a week after we had paid we lost the internet completely.  My husband went to Algerie Telecom and complained, and, to be fair, someone did come to the house and had a look at the modem and the wiring etc.  He said he thought it was the telephone line, so he rang his company to ask for that to be checked.  A day or two later someone rang on the line and told us that it had been checked and, surprise, surprise there was nothing wrong with it, it was a problem with our ADSL – I could have told them that, but hey, what do I know? Someone then rang and asked us about the lights on the modem – which ones lit up, which ones were blinking etc. etc.  Then they rang again and asked a few more (blinking) questions, after which they rang and said that it had been fixed, and sure enough it was!!!!! For all of an hour.  Then days went by during which I came to a deep philosophical opinion – life is just too short to spend it watching two blinking lights on a modem.  So I went away and got a life….of sorts….if you consider de-cluttering and cleaning living life to its fullest.  Actually I found it very therapeutic in many ways – ticking things of a ‘to do’ list can be very liberating, and de-cluttering and cleaning can be very calming and satisfying…..and stopped me from having homicidal thoughts.....for a while at least.

Then, out of the blue on a Friday afternoon the internet came back…..for a while, then went and came back and there really was no rhyme nor reason as to the pattern of it’s coming and going.

I am acutely aware that there are many Algerians who have far worse problems than an intermittent internet connect…..who may even dream of that being their biggest problem.  But, please understand I am alone in this country without any family of my own other than my husband and my children.  They have my husband’s family who have been wonderful to me, as are my good friends here, but it’s not for nothing that the Prophet (SAWS) hammered home time and time again the importance of the ‘ties of the womb’, with the warning not to break these ties included in the introduction to every halaqa, sermon or Islamic talk ever given.  I may have left Ireland, my family, their way of life, their religion, but in so many ways I am bound to them always and will always be interested in their lives, and they will always be a part of mine.  The phone, either landline or mobile, is very expensive and the internet is the only other alternative, and when I don’t have it I feel totally cut off from my family and from the outside world.  I recognise that when this happens, it’s very probably Allah’s gentle way of calling me to Himself, to force me to ignore the rest of the world and turn back to Him, and when He allows me access again I have a responsibility to keep everything in perspective. 
We did have a fairly good internet connection for a few days and it was at the same time as it rained cats and dogs here in Algeria Alhamdulilah.  This has been in answer to the country’s prayers for rain which is badly needed, but, as a consequence I found it very difficult to get on with any cleaning or de-cluttering because all I want to do on a grey overcast day is to hibernate….or write.

I have since heard that Algerie Telecom apologised in the newspaper for the unreliable internet service, and I have also heard that it has something to do with the company updating to fiber optics, but I do wish that The Powers That Be in the company would realise how important their customers are and perhaps give a little to sweeten the relationship by compensating them in some way…..extra time of free internet or a reduction in fee the next time we renew our subscription perhaps?????  As always, living in Algeria……I live in hope.  Meanwhile the blarney may be curtailed while our modem continues to be a blinking nuisance.
Where is that blinking internet light????