Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Irish Soda Bread in Algiers!

There are times when memories from the past can be evoked so strongly by just one whiff of a smell, a lyric in a song, or a taste on the tongue, so much so that they are immediately transported back to that time and that place and the people with whom they associate it.

I had one of those moments during Ramadan last year when I got a figary (an Irish word for a notion, a whim or a sudden impulse) and decided to make Irish Soda Bread.  My siblings and I grew up on this bread made with brown flour and sour milk and my Mum baked it every second day of our lives.  Even when we all left home she still baked it for us when we visited and made enough for us to bring back to our own homes.  Funny thing about her bread though – I could have some for breakfast in her house in the morning, and have some more in my own home in England that very same evening…..and it just didn’t taste the same.  I thought it was my imagination, but then my eldest daughter also remarked on it. 

We ate it with butter, and soft boiled eggs for breakfast and Galtee cheese (an Irish processed cheese) or Irish cheddar cheese and mustard or tomatoes for tea (the evening meal in our house), but my favourite topping was stewed rhubarb.  One year my husband met me at the airport on my return from Ireland and was complaining about the weight of my bag ‘what on earth do you have in here?’  I waited until I got home to tell him that I had brought back Irish Soda bread and fresh rhubarb from the garden.  Many years later I tried not to laugh when his niece who lives in London asked her mother to bring her some vegetables from Algeria that they have in England, but that obviously just didn’t taste the same to her.

I had never attempted to make it here in Algeria because all I could find was white plain flour.  There wasn’t even self raising flour until recent years.  One friend did give me a grain which she said you could use as a flour but I wasn’t sure how to use it or in what quantities, and while I was procrastinating the moths got busy and suddenly a lot of my foot stuffs were full of worms and moths, so I had to do a complete clear out and went totally off the whole idea of using any flour that didn’t come in a sealed packet.

An Irish friend had given me the recipe for the bread that she had made here so I decided to try it one Ramadan night as a surprise for my children, and the memories came back with the smell emanating from the oven.  Memories of my Mum baking it, of long country walks on a cold Sunday afternoon followed by endless cups of tea and Irish Soda Bread, of my Mum after she moved to her new home and found the counter a little too high for her liking and improvising by standing on a block of polystyrene that had come as packaging in a box, whenever she baked it.  

The reaction from the eldest three children who would have been old enough to remember my Mum’s bread was all that I could have wished it to be – it was like being back in Ireland with ‘Granny’, and immediately they had to have a slice with cheddar cheese top.  One night later in Ramadan I made it again and served it for iftaar by popular request along with lham lahlouh, translated as ‘sweet meat’ and a traditional Ramadan dish in Algeria. It’s called sweet meat but more often than not it’s served without any meat, and often can be simply prunes, cooked with cinnamon, sugar and rosewater the way my children like it or as packed with dried fruit and nuts according to taste.   I remember the first time I saw this dish, it was three weeks after I had given birth to my second child, my son, and my sisters-in-law who were staying with us, had cooked a meal for some Algerian guests.  I came downstairs and peered into a saucepan on my cooker and saw what looked like a lump of chocolate in a sweet sauce.  What a shock I got when the chocolate turned out to be a lump of meat…in a sweet sauce.  It took a while for my poor confused taste buds to return to normal.  Serves me right for pilfering food in my own kitchen.

When we saw the Irish Soda Bread on the table along with the Algerian lham lahlou my youngest daughter remarked, ‘now that’s what I call a true merging of culures!’

And, in case you’re wondering how my Algerian husband feels about it, a few weeks after he returned from England (he was there all through Ramadan), I made it for him and served it up to him as a surprise, and he was impressed and very happy as he likes it with cheddar cheese on top.

The flour I bought is made from oats of which there are two types in the natural health food shops.  One is more whole grain and the second is milled more finely to make a flour, and it’s this latter type that I use.  My recipe is as follows:


3 cups of brown flour
1 cup of white flour
2 teaspoons of baking powder
1teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
1 teaspoon of salt
50gm or less of butter/margarine
2 eggs
1 cup and a little of buttermilk


The method is as Irish as Irish can be – mix the dry ingredients together, rub the butter in with your fingers until it resembles breadcrumbs and then add the wet ingredients until you get a very soft wet dough.  Shape it into a round, cut a line across the top in a plus sign that will make it easier to break apart in quarters once baked,  and plonk it on a greased baking tin in a preheated oven 180 C for half an hour.  Sláinte!

Monday, 27 February 2017

Shaikh Charfaoui (RA), Rouiba

It is an amazing fact of life that sometimes, there are people whom you’ve never met, and probably will never meet who, nevertheless, by virtue of something that they did or said, have a big impact on your life by making you stop and think deeply about a certain aspect of life.  Such was the case for me one day in July 2012 when my husband returned from a funeral.  Although I had never heard of Sheikh Charfaoui by name I was aware of his story.

He was a wealthy man who lived here in Algiers and who bought a plot of land on the outskirts of the town of Rouiba. On this land he built a mosque named Omar ibn Khattab, or nicknamed Khandahar Mosque because it was situated right in the middle of wasteland that reminded one of Afghanistan. He also built a Quranic school with a boarding house attached to the mosque. Many students from all over Algeria came to stay here throughout the years, to live and study, food and board completely free, provided by this man. He used to go to the kitchens daily to check that they were being properly fed mashallah. Many times we drove by and saw all the white camis’ flapping on the washing lines on the terrace over the boarding school, This man was not a scholar and didn’t claim to be extremely knowledgeable in the deen and yet, his funeral prayer was led by Shaikh Ferkous and attended by Shaikh Lazar and other shuyouk as well as students. In fact his funeral totally closed the town of Rouiba – it was virtually impossible to get in or out with all the traffic.

When I think of the impact this man had on so many, and the sadaqa jariya (continuous charity that benefits the deceased long after they have died) that he has provided, I am reminded of the hadith:

The Prophet (sal Allahu alaihi wa sallam) said, “Envy is permitted only in two cases: Of a man whom Allah gives wealth, and he disposes of it rightfully, and of a man whom Allah gives knowledge, and he applies and teaches it.” [Bukhari]

And yes, I felt envy for this man who had made the best of use of his wealth. People place so much importance on creating a legacy to leave behind, something by which people will remember them.  Yet, in the space of just a couple of generations people will not only have forgotten them but not know that they ever existed, and whatever legacy they left behind will have become useless, broken, or so familiar that nobody will notice it or even know of its original importance.  Such is life.  I loved my grandparents and have so many fond memories of them but none of my children or my nieces and nephews knew them, and once my generation has gone nobody will ever remember them.  So why oh why do we place so much more importantance on what we leave behind, when what is truly important is what we bring to the grave with us – our deeds and sadaqa jariya.  Every time someone prays in this mosque, or learns a hadith or an aya of the Qur’an, or any Islamic knowledge this man will receive a blessing for it inshallah.   Now…that’s what I call a legacy. 

But then we all have this opportunity to do the same with whatever little we have, as it’s not the size of the amount that we gift that is important but the intention behind it to please Allah.

I was not the only one inspired by his story – so too was my son who was 10 at the time and would have sold his mother if he thought he’d get anything for me!  When I told him the story he immediately took some money from his savings and contributed it to a mosque that was being built in our area.  Afterwards he was a little bit worried: ‘Mum, what if the money I gave goes to building the toilet or wudu areas, will I still get the reward for everyone who prays in that mosque?’, and I reassured him that it didn’t matter which part of the mosque his money went towards building, he would receive blessings every time people prayed in that mosque, and he was so happy.  One evening some time later he came home and told me that there was someone begging outside the mosque and he gave him all that was in his pocket which was only a few dinars, and he wanted to know if Allah would be pleased with him.  I told him that Allah would be pleased with him more than most, because he gave all he had.

Oh Allah have mercy on Shaikh Charfaoui, forgive him all his sins, make his grave wide and spacious and grant him Firdous. Oh and Allah…. Help me to stop wasting my time and make the most of the little time I have left on this earth by studying my deen, and doing good deeds for your pleasure, and preparing for my own time in the grave and my meeting with You.

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Out and about in Algiers

University of Algiers 3

Whenever people talk about the University of Algiers in the photo above invariably they ask 'is that the one that's shaped like a boat?'  My son doesn't attend this universtiy but instead a building behind it which belongs to another university - like so many things in Algeria, things are not always
what they seem!

An early morning start to University in Algiers

In November 2016 a huge sinkhole appeared on one of the busiest motorways in Algiers, where 3 cars fell in injuring 11 people.  More information can be found here . The above photo was taken by my son on his way to university on the same motorway a few days later – this road would normally be jam-packed with motorists but not on this day!  But credit where credit is due, the hole was filled in and the road repaired within a very short time!

A lovely park behind the above university

An evening view across the bay - the tall spire in the distance is the minaret of the new mosque
It's always lovely to find a little bit of home when you're out shopping

A lone fisherman in the twilight of the day

Meanwhile on a road around the corner from home:

Well...... I suppose....... that's one way of parking it.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

A Mad Hatter's Tea Party in Algiers

As I have mentioned previously the English speaking ex-pat women in Algiers hold a monthly meeting on the first Saturday of every month.  I am reminded of an article I read some time ago that implied how inaccurately and discriminatory the word ‘ex-pat’, short for ‘Expatriate’ is used.  It refers to someone who lives outside their homeland, so that can mean anyone from anywhere living in a country that is foreign to them. Therefore it’s perfectly fine to say that those of us who are not Algerian and who live here are ex-pats.  But….how come then……in UK and Ireland we refer to some people from other countries (usually poorer than our own) as immigrants and not ex-pats.  Even in my own mind the word ‘ex-pats’ denoted to me, well off Europeans or Americans who go and live in another country, and not those people who come to Ireland and UK for a better standard of living, and yet we are all expatriates.  So I have had to readjust my way of thinking on the whole subject of expatriates.  Whew!  Not a bit like me to go off on a tangent is it????

ANYWAY……as I was saying before I rudely interrupted myself, the monthly meetings have been going strong for over 11 years now Alhamdullilah  I, myself, have only ever hosted one, 10 years ago (took me that long to get over it!!!), and it attracted quite a crowd despite the wailing and gnashing of teeth over the fact that we lived so far from everyone.  That meeting had men and women and children, because quite a few of the husbands who drove their wives to the house just hung around and my husband invited them in (despite his dire warnings to me that he was not available that day) and he and the other husbands had such a whale of a time they thought maybe they should set up their own meetings!  The following day neighbours came up to both him and my eldest daughter and congratulated her on her engagement.  After all….there couldn’t possibly be any other reason for a large group of women to congregate on an afternoon over coffee and cakes.

I had thought of holding it several times since then, when it seemed as if nobody else was able to host it, but always at the last minute someone would step up to the plate and I could breathe a huge sigh of relief.  But this time it didn’t look as if anyone was going to volunteer so I went ahead and, in a moment of temporary insanity, I invited everyone to my house.  It being January with the days so short, and knowing it was quite a distance for most people to travel, I wasn’t expecting much of a turnout – actually I had visions of it being just me and my two daughters sitting staring at each other and twiddling our thumbs.  However my friends who live in this area all rallied around and said they were coming anyway.  But then the number of women on the Facebook group interested in coming, started to grow at the same rate as my blood pressure, and then I started panicking about where I was going to put everyone. 

There is nothing like hosting an event in your home to get all those long overdue jobs and tasks done – I highly recommend it!  I had 6 days in which to prepare, so I sat with my list and organised and prioritised and worked my butt off and nagged my head off, so that when the day came I was so looking forward to seeing everyone.  I prayed to Allah that He would bless the meeting and the sisters with a safe journey…..next time I will be more specific in my dua and ask Him to bless them with a short journey also!

It does make things so much easier when you don’t have to provide the food (although of course I did bake for the event), only the hot and cold drinks.  I have hosted events in our home for Algerians and I found them far more stressful due to the fact that I always feel a little out of my depth and am never sure of all the etiquettes, the unspoken do’s and don’ts.  But when it comes to a monthly meeting anything goes as nobody cares very much about what’s served with what and in what cup or plate, as the women’s first priority is to meet up with each other and catch up, get new ideas and maybe get some things off their chest and, in the process, perhaps find ways and means of coping with the problems of living here in Algeria.

I moved the kitchen chairs into the living room, pushed the kitchen table into a corner, brought some extra chairs into the courtyard to make an outdoor extra seating space (Alhamdulliah the day was dry and not too cold), and prepared flasks of hot water, milk and coffee. My friends who lived locally also were very supportive providing me with extra mugs, flasks and even a coffee table barakallahu fihunna.  At one stage the living room was practically empty and the kitchen was standing room only with a whole group standing around chatting – I should have known that would be the most popular area with it being near the food and drinks!

Over 30 women and young girls turned up covering 11 different nationalities, and, although I had little time or opportunity to sit down and chat with anyone, I was able to catch up with some.  It was wonderful for me to see groups of women and girls sitting around chatting and laughing, and I felt truly grateful to Allah for the wonderful community of sisters here in Algeria, and for the opportunity to facilitate this get-together.  One of them had brought a talk by Muhammad Mukhtar Ash-Shinqitee  entitled The Goodly Life and you can find it here.   The Islamic talk has brought many benefits to the meetings – the first and foremost is the blessings as promised in the following hadith:

Abu Hurairah and Abu Sa`id Al-Khudri (May Allah be pleased with them) reported: The Messenger of Allah (sallallaahu ’alayhi wa sallam) said, “When a group of people assemble for the remembrance of Allah, the angels surround them (with their wings), (Allah’s) mercy envelops them, Sakinah, or tranquillity descends upon them and Allah makes a mention of them before those who are near Him.”

They have been good reminders to us all, Islamic tips on how to cope with life here as a foreigner in Algeria, and usually they bring everyone at the meeting together in a unified group for a brief discussion which adds a feeling of community to the meeting.

Among the guests, three of them had been to the original meeting in my home 10 years ago, and one of them, who had been a young girl then and was now a married woman with her own child, gave a wonderful feeling of continuity.  It does help a lot that only children under the age of two and girls over the age of 10 are allowed, and we had 3 toddlers and a baby who were as good as gold Allahibarek. 

We had asked the sisters to please park their cars on the road perpendicular to our road in order not to inconvenience our neighbours so when my husband returned from work and saw no cars parked outside our house he assumed everyone had gone home, until my youngest told him ‘go and have a look at the hall at the bottom of the stairs’ – wall to wall footwear!  And that was after two thirds of the guests had gone! The neighbours never blinked an eye at the comings and goings on that day, proof that after 10 years they have become accustomed to our odd gatherings (‘odd’ referring to both the gatherings and the guests).

And that temporary insanity I mentioned at the beginning of this post?  I think it may be more permanent than I thought because I’d be happy to host another meeting again……soon…….especially during the summer months when the days are longer.

And the day after the meeting we had one of the side benefits of hosting a monthly meeting, a Queen Antoinette Day – anyone hungry?  Let them eat cake!