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Jimmy's Algerian Journal

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Jimmy's Algerian Journal

Post by Kitkat on Fri 29 Mar 2013, 11:26

Dublin, May 1980

To Gilly

Term’s drama done
To all corners now from Babel’s kingdom they are flying
Left lying on the scene
The ashes of the evenings
When fires drew our consciousness
When days were danced in rhyme
When minds played catch with Innocence
When hearts played snap with Time

The summer wind blows age’s ash
Blows sun into our arms
And I remembering this
Extend some broken words of thanks
To you whose flowers were woven once within this city

Played out
All words will wither
Yet flowers trail and trellis time

The RDS, Ballsbridge.

Philosophy of Education, the last of the H Dip Ed papers, done. Released, we pile across the road to the Horse Show House to celebrate. No longer students: now officially Unemployed. We abandon ourselves to drink till Holy Hour closing brings us to our senses. The party breaks up. Where to now? Too early to go home. Someone says a group is going to the Burlington Hotel to extend the session. Why not? I tag along.

Surprise! They’re going to an interview? A representative of the Algerian Ministry of Education is recruiting
secondary school teachers for the coming academic year. I join them, for the hell of it. We sit in the Burlington bar, and take turns to go upstairs in pairs to the interview room, where Mr. Bencherif introduces himself. More than half pissed, I remember rolling a roll-up as I talk to the man, give my details, receive photocopied bumff, put it in my bag, before returning to the serious business of drinking.

Next morning, hungover, I find the application form in my bag. I fill it in, with the aid of my French-English school dictionary. Pop it in the post.

Six weeks later, I’m sitting in the kitchen in Newtown, when Gerald Nevin, the postman, hands me a flimsy airmail letter with exotic stamps.

J’ai la plaisir de vous… It’s a job offer, a high school in Adrar, in the South of Algeria.

I reach for my school atlas.


The Agency for Personal Service Overseas, semi-state body, has its office in Baggot Street, Dublin. Their mission, to contribute to developing countries - in Africa, Central America, South-East Asia – by preparing those going overseas for the first time with information about the host country and providing social, cultural, and language survival skills. Returnees, mostly aid workers, priests and members of religious orders who have worked on missions, share experience with the newbies.

At the APSO office in Baggot Street, I meet Redmond O’Hanlon, who’s going to work in El Oued, near the Libyan border, and Trasa Farelly. APSO has shelf-loads of files on every country. We take down the Algerian file and study it. APSO have arranged for us to meet two returning teachers, Deirdre Boyd and Colm the Beard. They answer our questions, outline the teaching duties and explain the difficulties of Algerian bureaucracy, its socialized economy, the details of finding accommodation, shopping for food, etc.

We’re signed up for a two-week Arabic course taught by a friendly Syrian, in the College of Marketing, Parnell Square. We three attend lessons and use the college language lab facilities to learn to read and write the alphabet, basic vocabulary, and polite conversation.

APSO send us on a Retreat weekend in Blackrock. The Algerian contingent are the only ones not being sponsored or funded by Irish religious orders; we are being employed by the Algerian government. Feeling out of place, I attend the lectures on development, the nature of personal service, discussions and question and answer sessions, spiritual self-enquiry, etc. The whiskey flows at the plenary session on the last night. Late in the evening, when the delegates have retired, I try to get off with a girl from County Offaly. She’s having none of that. Offaly sorry.

London, Late August, 1980

At a Heathrow Airport Bar, we finish a bottle of Johnny Walker.


We assemble in an empty secondary school in Algiers, thirty recruits: mostly British and Canadian. It’s our first meeting with the Ministry people. We stand for an hour. Time has dissolved. I’m last. They’ve lost my dossier: first ennuie of many.

The Irish recruits are the best prepared: we’ve been thoroughly briefed by Dierdre and Colum on weather, clothes, guitar, diarrhea, apartments, holidays, bank accounts, bureaucracy, you name it. In particular, we’ve been warned that the primary legal document that governs our work contracts is La Decree de Soixante Neuf. When the Ministry man gives us the Decree and leaves the room so that we can read it, I dash out into the street, find a photocopy shop, get photocopies made, and distribute them to all participants.
Sure enough, an hour later the Ministry Man takes back what they had thought to be the only copy of La Decree. We’re empowered. Thank you, APSO.

Yes, the dossiers... As well as passport and International Health Card, I’ve prepared several copies of birth certificate, degree, diplomas, reference letters certifying experience, a blood group card, 3 dozen identical photos, traveller’s cheques, insurance.

The Decree de ’69 documents the letters we’ll need, e.g. the Justification is a letter the school Econome
(accountant) is obliged to give you – if you know to ask for it. The Certificat de Fonction and Certificat de Contract must be got before you can open a bank account. We’ll need to register on arrival at the local police Commissariat, Bureau des Etrangers, and the Academie. And looking further ahead, before we can run the gauntlet of applying for the Exit Visa (two months before departure!), we’ll need to have prepared a dossier with multiple copies of:

1. General Medical Certificate

2. TB Certificate

3. Certificate de Fonction

4. 6-13 identical black & white ID photos

5. Passport

6. Baggage.

7. Legalized (i.e. Arabic Notary stamped) diploma

8. 40 Dinar Fiscal Stamp

We’re assigned bunks in the dormitory, strangers thrown together. To pass the time, we sample the city on a night-time café crawl. Some of us try out our Arabic in cafes. I ask a woman the time. We try to buy wine, and fail (no bottle). We’ve entered the vicious circle of Algerian bureaucracy. Table games are big: dominoes and cards. We sniff the smells of Algiers, check out the bakery, the prison, the gaping sidewalk manholes, the bread crusts left on windowsills. We take a late night walk up to the mosque on the hill, look down on the city. We wander through spectral yellow sodium streetlight, homewards.

On the second day, a very young Ministry man greets us and introduces the curriculum and textbooks. Ours is to be LG Alexander’s Practice and Progress. We’re given a detailed talk on methodology.

Over the next few days, our new companions leave the dormitory, one by one. Most of them are travelling by bus to Northern towns, Oran, Constantine, Tizi Ouzou. We four southbound remaining in the dormitory are to fly. The school term in the South begins later and ends earlier. We are left to ponder, surrounding ourselves with our closest possessions. Paul & Pauline, Bob Miles from Suffolk, and I. Paul & Pauline, husband and wife, are bound for Touggourt, Bob for Ourgla.

Our thoughts stray ahead of us, each to his separate destination. I had been reading something about scorpions...

Bob’s away. Paul and Pauline have moved to the dormitory next door. I’m the last one in the big dormitory.

On my last night, I wake from a troubled sleep sensing something on the pillow close to my face,
a spider the size of my hand on the top left corner of my pillow. Trying to stay calm, and still, I steady myself, tense muscles – and spring in one explosive leap to my right. Shaking, I find the light switch by the door. When I get back to my bed, I can’t see the spider. Was there a spider? Or was it that kif I’d shared with Paul and Pauline?
Then I measure the distance I had jumped; my guitar was laid on the bed beside me; I was shocked to realize I must have leapt clean over bed and guitar onto the second bed down. A fear assisted lifetime personal best long jump.

I’m the last to leave Algiers. I’m amused to find the Daily Mirror at the airport, but no coffee, and plastic seats, and. And my ticket time is wrong! Departure time is not 15 heures – it‘s 5 heures ! I queue 1½ hours to get the ticket changed. Time to reflect, a 17 hour wait.

Next morning

The plane’s a twin propeller, Fokker Friendship? I look at the other passengers. They’re wearing the sheish, the jellabia. There’s no-one like me on board. After 10 minutes taxiing, we take off, my eyes glued to my window. We’re soon smothered in cloud.

The curtain rises.

We’ve broken through the blanket of cloud dramatically into a world of dazzling colour – we’re over the Sahara Desert; we’ve crossed the Atlas Mountains, leaving a wall of cloud behind us. The space is unimaginable: below, a yellow expanse of wadis, ancient river valleys, plateaus, islands, cliffs, peninsulas. Giant ancient geological features mock the microscopic scrapings of humanity. The aeroplane flies slow and low, perfect for viewing our flight path.

Algiers – Adrar – First Impressions

Ghardaia airport, a hub and control tower. I get out at 9 am, find the shade of a palm. We change planes.

Ghardaia is a town in a hole, a cauldron. After half an hour, I go inside to enquire about my flight.
How far can we go? I’m asked “Are you sure you’re going to Adrar?”. Double check. Yeah. Adrar. I feel like a little schoolboy on the train to his aunty’s wishing he was safe home tucked up in bed. But here there’s no aunty waiting for me.

On board the flight for Adrar. 2½ hours of nothing (to the untrained eye). We veer left, circle, bank. I fix my eye on a tiny green speck far off to the right. For ten minutes we follow a green dotted line of oases, a strung out archipelago of desert islands. Just in case. We’re near Adrar. I’ll see it soon. Eyes peeled.
A pattern of walls, the dots are trees. Marks left by children scraping in the sand of some huge, smooth beach, abandoned when they’d been called home. Walls, a lot of trees, red/brown houses like Lego blocks. Toytown.

You’d better like this place, because if you don’t, it’s a long way to somewhere else.

We land on a dirt airstrip. The engine whines down, propellers stop. It’s a short walk to a hut with a tree. Most of the ten passengers collect their baggage and disappear. There’s a brief bustle. Now there’s just me, the airport official, and two women, French, I think. They’ve lost their baggage.

I look outside. Where’s the town? Is it walkable? How hot is it out there? Taxi? I decide on inaction. Duck back inside. Watch the hassle. They’ve left their baggage in Ghardaia. No sweat, one of them says; it happens all the time. Me? I’m the new English teacher. Where am I going? Oh... (feigning nonchalance) to the Lycee.
There’s no-one at the Lycee? Uh… OK. Lift? Thanks. Bags. September. Fierce sun climbing towards noon. Which lycee? Oh, Belkine?

At their house, massive colonial walls, inside, stone slab floors. Two women come out to kiss and hug the home-comers. Bring your stuff in. Anis and iced water. Shady, cool back window, vegetables in the garden pushing through barren sand.

Shower? Yeah. My brain dully working hard to comprehend machine gun bursts of French ratatatat! All the news of the summer. Oui. C’est la premiere fois que je vienne en Algerie. Tres fatigue. Pas de sommeil depuis hier. On a trompe avec le billet: cinq heures, je pensais…

You must stay here tonight. Nobody at the Lycee, I think. Have a sleep. Now? Mais oui. Ha! Ha! Sieste. Everyone here… middle of the day… She makes the accompanying gestures, leads me to a room, cool, bare. A bed, two freshly starched sheets from a cupboard, half opened shutters black against the electric midday glare.

I’ve been rescued by Les Souers de Saint Joseph, a small community of French nuns. I accept my place in the storybook, and without much thought, place my possessions close to me, lay on the sheets to perspire to sleep.

I’ve arrived
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Algerian Journal - Part 2

Post by Kitkat on Sun 31 Mar 2013, 23:11

Algerian Journal, Part 2

Lycee Belkine

Lycee Belkine II, Lycee de la Ministere d’Enseignment Secondaire et Technique, a grim building, surrounded by a fence. A few palms grace the forecourt inside the gate where the long, two storied line of windows gaze like skeletal eye sockets down a wide expanse of sand onto the town.

Every morning hereafter (mornings more often than afternoons) I will have to run the gauntlet of those staring sockets mutely accusing any troublesome Roumi, foreigners (Romans) who might enter its gates. You feel you’re entering an institution, part sanitarium part prison; once inside, the atmosphere closes around you like the mist in some horror film, insulating you from the real world where your cries for help are muted, absorbed. I name it the Bastille.

That look on the faces around me, the look of centuries of indifference, passivity, resignation, all that is anathema to my culture. It says malaish; it says insh’allah; it says makesh.

After registering with Police Commisariat in the morning, I attend the meeting scheduled for 2 o’clock, with Shah, the Pakistani, and Belkacem and Majed, the two Algerians I had been lodged with. It’s upstairs, a long room with its door giving onto the ballustraded corridor which patrols three sides of a sand square. At the other end of the meeting room is a long window, one of the sockets which stare out over the vista towards town. In between, a 15-metre long table with chairs enough for the teachers, about 25 in all. I take my place with my three companions. We settle down to wait for the arrival of whoever is to chair this meeting.

At three o’clock, a little, thin-moustached man in a suit arrives and sits down. He moves with a timing of his own, unrelated to what’s happening about him, the unmoved mover. His pouting mouth smiles to reveal two gold teeth in the upper left jaw. He’s accompanied on his right, by a well built, Boumedien-featured man who already looks bored with the impending business, and on his left by a small, officious man whose eyes seemed to bend around him like wide angled jellies.

A kind of semi-order is established. The conversation lulls to a half-expectant babble.
And Babel it is to my ears. I’m unable to distinguish between the types and races of Arabs, black skinned Algerians from the south, Sudanese, Egyptians - The fair skinned one I guess is a Northerner, a Kabyl - There are two Algerian girls: one slender, tempting, with long eyelashes, tomboy hair half tied in a bun; the other broad and unhandsome. A distinguished looking, pretty Indian woman of about 30 years sits silently amongst the men. I mark her down as worth getting to know. A wiry, moustachioed man I later discover to be a Frenchman is the only other European in the room.

Heads turn.
There’s a shuffling; the talk pauses.

The three dignitaries have reached a state of readiness: the Moudir (Director) in the centre wears an expression of inviolability; the Censeur to his right, hands joined, eyes down as if about to begin penance. On the Moudir’s left, the Surveillant General, pen in hand, tome in front of him, sweeps the table with eyes which seem stretched on elastic bands from the centre of the Moudir.

He begins what seems an opening discourse. Silence all round now. I hold my pen over the back of a form, ready to take any notes that might seem useful. The preamble takes a long time to end. It’s all in Arabic. I understand a word every two minutes, then soon give up the effort.

I look around at the faces, some attentive. The Egyptian in the skull cap opposite me, eyes fixed left, nods in time with the cadences and pauses in the Moudir’s speech, seems repeatedly on the point of saying that’s exactly my mind on the matter. Others, as the speech lengthens, disguise their boredom less and less. People light cigarettes, blow large clouds of smoke over the table. I grin inwardly, ascribing spontaneous nonsense meanings in time to the measured stream of syllables, while the sky darkens.

Gusts of wind unsettle papers. The flimsy door bangs against the wall. I’m grateful for nature’s intervention. I’m writing a poem, a dialogue between a camel and a clown visualizing the months ahead:

Tea Break at the Sand Statue Factory

There must be some way out of here

Said the camel to the clown

The clown he laughed and sat him down

In the shade of a Grand Tomorrow Palm said

It’s like this friend

You take it with a ton of sand

Or else leave town

He laughed again and left

The camel sat him down

In the shade of that Grand Tomorrow Palm

He sat him down that camel did

Began to count the grains of sand

The days gone by

The suns to come

The wind that pressed the future flat

The miles between

He sat him down that camel did

Began to count and wept

Windows rattle as the wind grows steadily stronger. Violent now, it blows the door open; sand sweeps in stinging clouds. A fine dust fills the air, forming a film on the long table. Handkerchiefs are out. I take to doodling designs in the dust.

Chairs scuffle.
Mercifully, detention has ended. The Moudir stands, arranges his papers, leaves, followed by his Numbers One and Two.

For the umpteenth time, I ask, what did he say? Get the same response: Nothing. Makensh. We’ve been sitting at the table for almost three hours, and he’s been saying nothing? That takes stamina, staying power. My new colleagues assure me he does this every year.

Oh, and I’ve been elected unanimously Head of the English Department. My new title: Co-ordinateur: co-ordinator of Shah Taseer Hussein, the garrulous Pakistani, the silent Hindi woman (later to be replaced by Raju, a silent Hindi man), and Mahmoud, the puffing, brow-dabbing, umbrella and briefcase carrying Egyptian.

On my way home through the sand to my infirmary room, I ponder, what am I, an Irishman, doing here?

The staff room on the first day of classes, La Rentree, feelslike a dentist’s waiting room. I’m given all levels - 1st, 2nd, and Baccalaureat classes - to teach. The classrooms are airy, with large unglazed windows. At first, I’m shocked to have some who nod off to sleep. But I’m counseled to be patient. My students are mostly village kids, some barefoot, some undernourished, some sick, heads resting on arms. In the South, few students manage to pass the Baccalaureat. Expectations are low. Our mission is to raise them. I adjust the pace. If I push too hard, they smile, gesture to their heads and say apologetically:

Waloo Makensh! Allah Ghalb, Makensh!

By God, there is nothing! God is the Conquerer!

There are also a few more sophisticated northerners, city boarders, sent by their families to this Islamic boarding school to steer them out of harm’s way. And then there’s the girl in the front desk. She studies in the Lycee Mixte, but she comes to Belkine to take Science classes and to sit in the English Native Speaker’s
class, in the front row and smile up at me on my raised dais.

News of the El-Asnam earthquake reaches us: 2000 dead, tens of thousands homeless. The Moudir passes
on a directive from the Academie that every teacher in all Algerian schools must teach a lesson on natural disasters, in solidarity with the people of El-Asnam. After much hesitation, I agree to give a lesson on volcanoes. In French!

Mad Marc Cottarel, from Bordeaux, delivering a French lesson, refers to Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, The Ascent of Man. A zealous student takes issue with this attack on religion. Marc responds in debate. Offended student reports Marc. A hearing is scheduled. The Gallery is divided: Marc accusers or Marc supporters. The Egyptians and student backers sit on the side of the accuser. Belkacem and one or two of the Algerian teachers sit on the side of the accused. The Tribunal enters, Moudir, Surveillant General, and Censeur, sits. The charge is read. The accused sits in the dock. The charge: he offended Islam. His defence: he was citing a text on the syllabus. The tribunal deliberate. The Moudir reads the acquittal.

Mad Marc lives in a village to the south, has a dog, named Mektoub, drives around with Mektoub in the passenger seat, head wrapped in a scarf – the dog, that is. It’s a bitch. Marc recounts his tale of sorrow. His Irish girlfriend’s broken up with him. When school breaks up, he wants to follow her to Dublin, make a fresh start. I meet him crossing O’Connell Bridge, head down, headed for the quays. Mad Marc.


Adrar is a Wilaya town, or administrative centre of the province or wilaya of the same name. 1500 km. south of Algiers by plane from Algiers to a dirt airstrip on the road to Tililan. The population of the province is 20,000; the number living in Adrar is just a fraction of this, most people live in the 40 or so villages scattered in a ragged arc within a radius of 30 miles to the south.

230 km. to the north is Timimoun, a tourist town with a busy market with famous palmeries and a Sonatur hotel and swimming pool. I visited it with Veronique, discovered Kerrygold butter in a small shop, bought half a kilo got it into the Rayeroux fridge before it melted. They stored it for me; I took a small pat home we me every time I visited their house. It lasted over a month.

160 km. south of Adrar is Reggane, a much smaller town, also built around a square, the last Algerian settlement on the road to Gao, Timbuktu and West Africa. On a visit to the house of a student, Reggani, I saw The Baroud Dance, shotguns discharged into the sand, and incredibly, watched an Algerian television broadcast of O’Casey’s Strumpet City with a large crowd in his parent’s house.

Adrar is built around a square the size of nine football fields. On its western side, the French Foreign Legion fortress. Its crenellated walls enclose a compound which once housed political prisoners during the war of independence. It’s now the Education Academy. On the south side of the square is the Police Commisariat, the Post Office, Mayor’s office, souk (market), and the hotel which was built two years ago, but is as yet unopened.

On the southeast corner is the social centre of town, the hub of all of the town’s activity, the café, where many a long morning or afternoon is passed musing on the fate of the exile, or in idle chat, or simply basking timelessly in the sun, watching the town pass by, drinking coffee and smoking Hoggar cigarettes from a soft pack from the kiosk.

Passers through, stopping for refreshment on the last stopping point before Gau and Timbuktu, find our corner café, which is not far from the Reggane road, where the long distance lorry drivers sleep under their lorries, their sheishes wrapped around their heads.

I meet Peter Davies, from Willesden, headed for Nigeria in search of reggae demo tapes to bring back to London. Short of cash, he borrows ten quid, on April 1st. Promises to pay me back. Sure enough, he does, in Willesden.

At the Post Office one afternoon, waiting for stamps, I meet an Englishman who asks me where I am heading. I tell him I live here. He's gobsmacked.

The road leading off the square by the café, Sand Street, leads heavily to the Bastille (Lycee Belkine), as the long vista leads from Versailles to its Royal Palace. The newest buildings in town are in the south and east. The two lycees are Belkine and Mixte. The location of Lycee Mixte on the edge of town symbolizes its peripheral position in the lives of the people of Adrar.

The CEM is the Middle, or Junior High School. This is where I am lodged temporarily for a two weeks, before being moved to a dormitory with a couple of other teachers. They gave me a bed in the room where the medicines were stored, the infirmary. I eat hearty lunches at the common table, tuna, lentils, olives and bread. At sunset, I watch fascinated as the big cockroaches race each other in my infirmary door to find a warm nest for the night. Unintentionally, I cause hilarity in French company by getting my syllables reversed:

On m’a donne l’infirmiere.

I was given the nurse to sleep in.

There are two hospitals, the old and the new. The fire station (I never saw or heard of a fire here), the Gas Company, where you buy your cooking gas.

To the west of the square, three magic roads slope gently downhill into the Palmeries. Behind the Academie, facing the setting sun, it’s the Old Town. In all these oasis towns, the earliest settlement is on the lowest land where the water table is most accessible, either through wells or as in Adrar, through surface water channels, the fouggara. The palmeries and gardens run for a good three miles before ending in a wall, beyond which is desert. After that there’s only one green stain on the horizon - a long abandoned village, then nothing as far as the eye can see and farther. Hundreds of miles of nothing to Mauritania.

Though the highway to north and south is well tarred, most roads in town are sand. Through these you labour to Les Galleries, the state supermarket. Apart from the modern public buildings and the more recently built apartments, the logements de function for state employed workers in Adrar, are of two types:

Town houses are large, high walled, windowless, with small doors. Embedded in a dark passageway is an inner door which opens into motel like rooms around an inner courtyard. Stairs to the roof for summer sleeping or extra accommodation for wedding feasts, etc.

Ksahs, are traditional communal fortified piled-on-top-of-each-other buildings, built of mud blocks and no mortar (camel shit??). Very narrow streets touch the walls on both sides, minimizing exposure to sun, while facilitating channels of air for circulation. This is the beautiful part of town.

Most shops are unidentified by sign. There is no advertising outside. One’s initial impression is confusion. You have to remember where a shop by its position, its open door. Shopping in Adrar is an acquired skill.

You enter the Souk, La marchee, through a gateway where one or two beggars sit. Small stalls are laid out in a grid, rich with smells, shade and shafts of sunlight. Vegetables, fruit, potatoes, oranges, eggs once (I tracked them to their source). Women sit selling knick-knacks, weird seeds, tooth plants, henna. The Sonatrac lorries park at the back entrance. A camel head and hooves are placed in front of the butcher’s stall.

Shopping in Adrar is not an occasional activity; it’s a full time occupation; it requires a constant state of alertness, a hunter’s instinct. No place for the timid.

You prowl Les Galleries Nationales, the state supermarket, with a shopping bag in the off-chance they may have just got a consignment of jam, or coffee, or… anything. It doesn’t take long to scan the empty shelves; anything new, you’d spot it quickly.

One day, Les Galleries received a shipment of cameras. There hadn’t been jam for a week, but now there were cameras! Anwar and Nabil, our fellow house-hunters from the early days, who dreamt of a UN job, had found an upstairs flat close to the Lycee. An Algerians old hand, alert to the half chance, and good-hearted, Nabil, ran into the street as I was coming home from a morning’s work. Gallery! Now! Cameras! I ran to the Gallerie. They were selling Praktika cameras, with Zeiss lenses. I queued and bought one, at a subsidized price. By next day, they were gone.

We queue before dawn for the breakfast baguettes at the guichet outside Mr. Moustaches’ boulangerie on the Champs Elysee. It’s cold and boring, but it’s the only place, and time, to get bread. Antoine and I eat this bread, delicious with strawberry jam from the Galleries tins, for breakfast with black coffee. With a wine bottle from the roof as our pestle, in an aluminium saucepan as our mortar, we grind the coffee beans daily. If the bread isn’t consumed in one sitting, by next morning the baguettes have dried and hardened into batons.

The CCP (Post Office), your lifeline to the outside world. Once or twice a week, you pass by after work. If there’s not too big a crowd, you queue to ask if they have stamps. They sell out fast. You always expect the resigned shrug of the shoulders: Makensh. Three times out of four, you go away disappointed. You come back tomorrow.

Shopping in Adrar requires patience, neck, and cunning.

At first we usually ate out. There were three eating places. We’d walk out evenings, vary the venue. Le Restaurant des Trois Garcons between 11th and 12th Street, pleasant and cool behind the string curtain, did a great chorba. Three small boys served. Then there was Le Restaurant des Mouches, where we got cool gazooz, but hard meat, a broken knife and spoon. But our favourite was Djelloul’s. He did a succulent, savoury kous-kous. We ate Djelloul’s kous-kous at tables in the street, through the good times and the bad. When the vent de sable was blowing, we crunched fine windblown sand grains along with our kous-kous. We grinned and bore it, grist to the mill. Djelloul invited us to a Baroud feast, when the birth of Mohammed is celebrated. For the Baroud dance, the dancers dance in a circle waving loaded shotguns, shooting volleys into the sand to the rhythm of the drums. We declined. Later we heard one of the dancers had his hand blown off.

Makesh, or Makensh is Maghrebi Arabic for there is none, or there is nothing. Makensh is one of the words most often heard. It is spoken with a tone of unanswerable finality, fatality. It means: there is nothing; I have nothing. My first experience of Makesh was at Algiers airport, but in Adrar you plumb the depths of Makesh. It was to be our torment, our war cry, our taunt, our encouragement, our mantra. So powerful was the spirit of Makesh, it even inspired my first blues song:

Adrar Blues

Well I came down in the aeroplane

Don’t wanna ever come back again

Oh, oh, I got the Adrar blues

There was sand at the airport

I got sand on my brain

Oh, oh, I got the Adrar blues

Well they makeshed me at the lycee

At the CCP too

Makeshed me so bad

I don’t know what I’m gonna do

I eat makesh for my breakfast

Makesh sandwiches for tea

I got enough makesh

To last me till 1993

Oh, come back here aeroplane

Please take me back again

I got to leave

I got the Adrar

I got to go

I got the Adrar

Allah have mercy

I got the Adrar Bluuuuueeees

Many’s the time we would trudge the sand streets trying at three or four of the little house-shops, before coming back empty handed. Sometimes you could feel it before you walked in the door. Makesh.

The climax of Makesh was the Eid Al Adha, the Muslim feast of sacrifice. We spent that day walking around town searching for a scrap of food, too proud to “call on” friends, only to return to a cold house, a small piece of bread and a tin of sardines.

Our House

We had been three weeks in the C.E.M. I, two weeks in my infirmary, private and alone with my imported thoughts and radio, and one week in the dormitory, eating our evening meals of fel-fel, basal, bread and water, and café au lait all day till my head buzzed. We were happy.

But we had been given notice to get out tomorrow. In the usual way, both the CEM and the Lycee had passed on the responsibility for housing us to the Academie, whose business it was.

Every day we’d spend an hour or two at the Academie, hoping that one day our waits would coincide with:

(a) The presence of the responsible beaurocrat

(b) A decision to give us a logement

One hot morning about eleven we arrived on one of our regular visits to the Academie, walked across the large, sweeping courtyard of sand within, to search the haphazard office buildings for remnant responsibles. At the broken water dispenser we asked for a drink from a friendly office adjoining.

The chaos of the previous week had calmed a little. But still, Egyptians, French and Algerian hopefuls hung around doorways and blocked the narrow corridors outside offices empty of their officials. Equally vacant were the responses of their co-officials: shrug, half-hearted gesture, angry self-justification, before returning to whatever 10 minutes’ worth of work he would spend the rest of the morning at.

Make it last: that seemed to be the principle; look at it from the corner of your eye from every possible angle, let it acquire some dust; let the needs season, accrue urgency, until your function is enhanced. Meanwhile, answer telephones, greet comers and goers in rounds of insignificant comings and goings, disappear for several hours (mysterious, this), return, gaze bemused at the task to be done. Late in the afternoon, assure punters it will be ready tomorrow, Insh’allah. But above all, stay calm. Maintain slow eye and head movement. Have something in front of you. Discuss. Have a chain of colleagues to pass on the annoyance to. Smile. Spend fortunes in words. Handshake handsomely. Actions are under lock and key. The key will be here tomorrow. Insh’allah.

Our House contd.

Antoine and I have both been demanding rooms of our own. No luxury wanted, just a separate room and shower. They have been saying no, impossible. We’ve been saying impossible to work with other people in one room. Impossible to have a separate room; impossible not to. Stalemate. Today, already working, no apartment. We go along to the Academie to find what crumbs might fall from the table. A man holding a key leads me, Antoine the Guinean, in his 30s, two middle-aged Egyptians, and a raw young Palestinian, half a mile to the north end of town near the electricity generators. The buzz is that there are three bedrooms in these apartments; we are five. We go along. I’m holding a hard line. Antoine’s cool. The Egyptians confer worriedly with the Palestinian. We reach door number 5. An eight foot wall with a door enclosed a tiny front yard, to keep the sand out. Obviously, it hasn’t done its job. Our key man has to force the door inwards. We squeeze in, cautiously. A fine, two foot deep sand-drift carpets the yard. Two barred windows give onto this scene, and a door a little sturdier than the outer one.

The front door bangs open. We step inside. A thin film of sand covers the floors of a bare apartment. Feet crunch sand, steps echo round the small building. To the right of the front door, a corridor leads to a back door, along the way, a tiny windowless bathroom, and a kitchen. Two doors on the right, the second one
locked, are both bedrooms. To the left of the front door, a large, doorless room leads to a back door which opens into a small yard. The third bedroom looks into the front yard.

Our three friends seem to have chosen their respective rooms, one having locked himself into the room of his choice. That leaves two. I steal a look at Antoine. The key man asks us if we like the place. I tell him it’s fine, but remind him that all I’ve asked for is a room to myself. Meanwhile, the Egyptians are making mental furnishings for the big, doorless room, installing me and Antoine in domestic bliss: there will be a curtain door. We thank our key man, and take our leave politely. Looks flash across us, whispers behind us, like daggers. Are we not happy with the apartment? Once in the sun again, our clammed thoughts released, we make our way back through the sand towards the dormitory.

Two days later, we arrive back with the key. The Egyptians have found a small, upstairs flat to let. The Palestinian has found a room in a house. This time we make a close inspection of our prospective home. We’ve had an eviction order from the school, no cards left to play. We check out the rooms, imagining how it will be. The front bedroom has an electrical socket, a window, daylight, but no lock, and is open to sandstorms. The back bedroom is quieter, can be locked. Both have one cupboard. The front bedroom gets the early morning sun; the back bedroom gets the late evening sun. We toss for choice. I win, choose the front.

We spend the whole evening cleaning. We have no tools. A car wheel hub is our bucket and three foot plank of wood our shovel to remove a ton of sand from the front yard. I’m extra cautious watching for scorpions, as we try to roll the two large rocks, which together we can barely move. We keep one to hold the front gate in sandstorms. We find a water tap buried in the sand a foot from the ground. This is to become our sole supply of water. We lop the top off a yellow plastic cooking oil container to hold our water for cleaning.


The bathroom has a mirror, no water in the shower, no water from the sink. The kitchen has no water from the sink.

The sum total of our furniture is one rusting air conditioner under a blocked up hole in the wall which used to house it.

On the roof, one sturdy boot lain long in the sun, six wine bottles with faded labels, a quantity of rusted wire we use to make a light shade, a length of steel rod, the kind used for concrete reinforcement.

We return to the Academie, take it under objection, tell them our views – it was either take it or make a final gesture, i.e. leave (bluff?).

I go to the Galleries to buy a brush head, a bristle scrubbing brush, disinfectant, a plastic basin. We sweep and wash the floors, then scrub them on hands and knees.

The long fight against the Sahara has begun.

At 7:30 we down tools, and shuffle across town for a manger, a plate of kous-kous at Djelloul’s place, Le restaurant de Bonheur. We are hungry tonight.
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Re: Jimmy's Algerian Journal

Post by Whiskers on Wed 03 Apr 2013, 15:55

More rivetting stuff. I hope there's more where this came from? Doesn't say to be continued, but I hope it is. Very Happy

Thanks KK.
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Re: Jimmy's Algerian Journal

Post by Kitkat on Fri 05 Apr 2013, 17:08

Whiskers wrote:More rivetting stuff. I hope there's more where this came from? Doesn't say to be continued, but I hope it is.

Uh-huh cat

There follows the next episode ...
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Algerian Journal - Part Three

Post by Kitkat on Fri 05 Apr 2013, 17:13

Algerian Journal Part Three

The school day is long:
the morning session 8-12:00, 10 minute breaks between lessons, then out for lunch, or a quick siesta, before returning for the afternoon session, 2–4:30.

Antoine, who shares my apartment, teaches maths and science. In his late thirties, has been in Algeria before, knows what’s what. A quiet guy, a wise old head. A Francophone from Guinea Konakree, speaks German from his student days in East Germany, will not speak English, except when pressed. His favourite: “Don’t give me proB-lemm!” Antoine tells stories of Bokassa, mimics his speech on being crowned Emperor – “Moi, Bo-KaSSa PREmee-AY!”. Antoine speaks no Arabic, prefers to listen, understanding far more than he pretends. That way, the authorities at the Lycee or the Academie are put off their guard; he can learn more. Antoine mistrusts the Arabs, counsels caution.

On a reconnaissance trudge, Antoine and I find a tailor in one of the small, unmarked town house shops. I buy a 3½-metre length of fine, black cotton for a sheish. I’m shown how to wrap it repeatedly round the head, to build a layered buffer against the sun, leaving half a metre as a tail which can be wrapped around the nose and mouth, the material fine enough to breathe through, while filtering dust. On hot days, you soak your sheish in water to cool your head.

We buy a pressure cooker at the Gallery. I buy camel meat in the souk, since no other meat is available. Mistake. After failing with our knife, we use razor blades to saw the meat into small cubes. Even after three hours of pressure cooking, chewing the meat tires our jaws. Later, I’m told only young camel meat should be chosen. In future, it’ll be goat, beef or vegetables.

We eat in, cook African style, all ingredients in one pot: first meat, oil and seasoning, then onions, tomatoes and green veg on top, then top up the pot with boiling water seasoned with tomato puree, then whole, small red chillies; the rice goes in the pot last; as the rice cooks, it rises, reddens, and absorbs the flavours; when the liquid level falls, we lower the heat so the pot bubbles slowly; when you
can pinch a test grain of rice and squash it flat, dinner’s done. I adopt Antoine’s habit of chewing raw chillies as we wait for dinner to cook.

Majed, a northerner, Arab Algerian, arrives to occupy the other front room. Majed’s obsessed with collecting hard cash. We never see him busy at his lessons. He’s constantly offering to buy devise,
claims to be ambitious to leave Algeria. The Dinar is worthless outside the country. We foreigners, however, can send 20% of our pay abroad, at the government rate of exchange. Of course, the black market here for dollars, francs, and pounds offers a much higher rate than the official one. Enter Majed. He’s rarely here, often out. But exchanging currency like this is illegal. Antoine suspects Majed’s a government spy – planted to gather information on foreigners.

In a town without entertainment, we create our own. We visit, meet, exchange stories.

Belkacem is the blond Berber from the Kabyl mountains, as displaced as we are in this southern town. It’s his first time away from home. He pines for his mountains, his girlfriend. We visit the two northern girls, Rahma and Houria, in their hot upstairs town house flat. Parceled and proper at work, they can be more relaxed indoors, though Houria’s kid brother has been assigned by her family to chaperone her, the condition she must accept to be allowed leave home.

Belkacem and I often visit Shah, fellow English teacher, Pakistani, waxed moustache, plump, safari suited, hearty-humoured. Shah teases Belkacem with lewd jokes. Ha! Ha! What are you doing? This is the REAL game! Shah has a brother teaching in a Lycee in Bechar.

Koko Coulibaly from Bamako, Mali, is a raving Bob Marley fan. He visits, plays guitar, sings along with the Adrar Blues, boasts about the proud history of the Kingdom of Mali, curses the Arab conquests and slavery, wishes for home.

On an official visit to the Lycee Mixte as English Language Teaching Co-ordinateur, I meet Les Rayeroux, Jeanne-Pierre et Jaqueline, both English teachers there. Jaqueline is Co-ordinateur. We talk shop, but not for long. I visit them at their house, and they at mine. They’re amused at our living arrangements, invite us to dinner.
Their house is comfortable, tastefully furnished, with carpets, Reggani sculpture, Tuareg wall hangings. They’ve even got a fridge! They are on the much coveted Algeria-France Co-operation contracts, which means they are paid by both the Algerian and French governments! On a Co-ordination visit to Timimoun, I accompany Jaqueline to an observation at the Lycee. Mooching around, I find Kerrygold butter in a little shop! I buy a slab of it, shepherd it home to Adrar in an insulated package, and stow it in the Rayeroux fridge. They’re both into music, introduce me to Jaques Brel and George Moustaki; I show Jeanne Pierre some Beatles songs. Jeanne Pierre plays guitar, smokes a joint in the evenings for his nerves. They are good company and generous hosts.

Marc, the would-be anarchist – who survived the tribunal, teaches French at Belkine. I visit him at his house in El Guerrara village. He scolds me for my lack of progress in French, speaks constantly about his Irish ex-girlfriend. Marc anticipates revolution driven by the power of the computer.

We occasionally eat at Djelloul’s at the same table with Marc’s two French mates. They discuss animatedly: Giscard d’Estaing, the new Mitterand government, the Muslim Brotherhood, quoi. My limited French prevents me from contributing to most of the discussions. But no matter – the entertainment value of observing their dismissive pouts and shrugs, the flailing arms, the appealing outstretched palms, the rude bilabial plosives, more than compensates for my handicap.

One of Marc’s mates, Bernard Fasse, lives in Tamentit, the ancient Berber capital of this region, 20 km south of Adrar. A broad belt of trees to the left of the main road is our landmark. It’s a village of almost 2,000 people. Traditions have changed little. We stroll through the ksah with Bernard who lives in a modern house by the road. The pathway is narrow between high walls. Dark, cool, palm-covered tunnels conduct air currents. Around the big stone tank washing place, unveiled women and girls sway and laugh, carry baskets on their heads.

We’re invited into an old house to drink shai. We sit cross-legged, watch our host perform the ritual of making tea in a tall, metal teapot. The long fingers crush a handful of freshly picked mint leaves into the inside of the hinged lid of the teapot. When the tea has drawn, he pours the pale green liquid from teapot to cup, then from cup to cup, raising his pouring arm to lengthen the column of tea, bubbling as it fills. He pours and re-pours, before serving us the soft bubbly aerated mint tea in small glasses. After five glasses, thirst quenched, I emerge into the sunlight, head buzzing.

Ahmed, the Palestinian, drives a beat-up Japanese car with no windscreen. He invites me to his house for dinner; we sit in the guest room drinking tea, talking of Israel and England. He raises his voice to communicate with his wife who’s in the back, the kitchen, I presume. I shudder when a hand appears round the door lintel to slide the dinner tray into the sitting room. Nice meeting you, Mrs. Ahmed. Over dinner, he pops the question, asks if I can get a replacement windscreen sent from my country. Embarrassed, I say I’ll make enquiries. In my next letter to Christy in Dublin, who drives a Japanese car, I ask how much it would cost. In his reply, Christy tells me to cop myself on.

After much lobbying, the Moudir signs off for my little chair and table from the Lycee. After classes, Zekri from the Lycee kindly puts them on the back of his little pick-up truck and delivers them to my apartment. My room is complete now. I can prepare lessons, and write letters. I’ve a list of twenty correspondents. I do my best to keep le courier, (the postman) and myself busy.

Nonetheless, my nightstand table is still the cardboard box from the Gallery, where my battery alarm clock sits. There are three tone settings: 1) a rapid, high-pitched beep, and 2) a high-low ding dong. But my chosen setting is the third: 3) Blue, Blue, My World is Blue. I wake each morning to its gentle tones.

One evening, the same Zekri comes rushing over to my apartment to announce excitedly the arrival of a group of French campers near his village, and that I must come. So as not to disappoint him, I grab the guitar, and jump into the pick-up. Sure enough, half a dozen campers are seated around a fire. They have two guitars. I’m offered hash cookies! The session is good, lasts till daybreak. I get home in time to wash my face before going to the Lycee, grubby, crumpled, and hoarse, to teach my morning lessons.

The campfire session was a brief, extraordinary excitement. While travelers move north or south, we remain at our outpost. Most days we entertain ourselves at home. I sit on the bed, play guitar, rocking in time to the rattle of the bedsprings. Or I play my four C-90 cassette tapes, compilations of blues, soul, and Irish music on my SW radio/cassette player. I tune in on short wave to BBC World Service broadcasts:
World News, From Our Own Correspondent, Peter Clayton’s Jazz for the Asking, re-runs of The Goon Show. Late at night, Radio Moroc beams me The Police, The Marshall Tucker Band, Dire Straits. Sometimes I record from radio onto poor quality BASF blank cassettes. Late at night, news from the outside world reaches me: Mark Thatcher, driving in the Paris-Dakar race, gets lost in Algeria. John Lennon is shot dead in New York. Distraught, I try to share the news next day with my colleagues and students, my dismay is compounded by the responses: John who?

With remarkable restraint, I have preserved my bottle of Blackbush in the bottom of the wall cupboard for Christmas.

23rd December, 1980

Wednesday evening, off on a twin engine plane from Adrar Airport, carrying with me a jumble of
class ends, undigested English grammar, and a devoir of devoirs to be corrected before the rentree.

Incredibly, they blare an Abba tape at the passengers, who don’t bat an eyelid, and when it’s finished, they play it again! Departure is two hours late. The Toytown pattern of Adrar is still imprinted on my mind as we touch town in Ghardaia. No moon, and the coming night seems made of stone. It’s 180 km. to Ouargla. It’s already two hours later than I’d planned, and the bus driver seems to have the torture techniques honed to a fine edge. He keeps the engine running for an hour and twenty minutes. All of this time I’m hoping he’ll pull out any minute, though knowing it’s Algeriquely not on.

“I press with foot and mind to gather speed.”

Then, at 9:30, 3½ hours behind schedule, we hurtle into an impossible night to a now-you-can-have-it, strangled town. Godot comes when you no longer want him to, when the pips have gone. I look at the strangled corpse of Ghardaia, the light I was paying for squeezed and wrung out, kick the dead body, and move on.

To reach the Ouargla–El Gholea road, I need to walk up the hill, out of town, my first hill in three months. A town on hills seems dangerous when you haven’t seen them for a while.

I breast the top of the hill. I’m on the plateau, the Hamada. The roadside wall is sprayed with graffiti. Here is not an island. Home is on the end of roads from here.

Lights in the desert. You can see for miles. This gives you preparation time. You can cross the road, piss, sit down, peel an orange… The car stops. Four Moroccans, from Tangiers. No thanks. Four to one. They could stab me, take my money, throw me over the wall. When is it right to be careful, carefree, careless?

I’ve a bellyfull of supper, ions to burn. Let’s measure some Algerian miles.

Note: for the desert night in winter, carry two jumpers and a hat. Phew, this is no out of town interchange. Too cold to kip, too tired to walk, when you start stumbling, you’ve had enough.

It’s times like this a pack of cigarettes is a friend, a story, a poem. A rest and a chomp in themselves don’t seem to tie up the moment in the same way as a roll-up does, don’t end the chapter, don’t frame the picture. What Poe says of art is true: one sitting is enough. More is a strain, and a fifteen kilometer walk is downright exhausting, more Milton than Poe.

I console myself. The stars are magnificent. I follow the bright one to the east. The three wise men came this way. Distant gas flares tint the horizon orange.

Yes! There is a bed! The flash flood pipe under the road: a pocket of warm air, an accident of knsulation! It’s also full of debris, but if hunger’s the best sauce, then exhaustion’s a velvet mattress. I haul myself in; within three minutes, my world has shrunk to a cylinder with overhead noises. Now it’s all inside, and it’s alright…

24th December, 1980

Wake. In a pipe. Come on, sun. It’s cold.

A lift to a crossroads, and I’ve a straight road to my destination. I like that, like an open invitation. Ten to six, like a January morning in the Wicklow mountains. A magnificent sunrise puts it all right. Mornings like this remind you of going to school when you’d rather not be; the ten minutes before nine o’clock become special, go fast. And you see and smell more, and more’s the pity.

But I’ve got all day!

I went down to the crossroads…

Ouargla 160 km

There’s something breathtaking about a crossroads in the middle of nowhere, the sense of purpose and achievement in those last few steps. And once you’re on the road it’s a new chapter.


It’s getting warm, and I’m sitting up front feeling ridiculously polite, cause he speaks French, and I can’t make out much of the meaning (can he?). Stripped to my tee-shirt now, we’re cookin’!

Sign: me: [ must be some kind of image inserted here, but it hasn't come out ]

Now we’re laughing.


Sign: [i]me: [ another image that we can't see ? ] [/i]

Sand! That’s the best yet. Imagine an Irish road sign warning of GRASS! The fact that the Algerians burn so little energy makes it even more entertaining to see with want gusto they attack these important issues.

Halfway house: 90 km from Ghardaia; 90 km. to Ouargla. We stop for coffee at the “Motel”, the only building. They’ve got boiled eggs.

Ouargla is abuzz, to my eyes, a feverish consumerville after little Toytown Adrar. Only now in hindsight I realize Adrar’s not connected to the outside world by power lines, as Ouargla is. Adrar really is a village.

I find the Lycee, where Bob lives. He’s not in. I promenade downtown, feeling travelworthy. I break into my supply of oranges, biscuits & chocolate. After my bon repas, I call again. This time he’s in. After some indecision, we save the Blackbush from premature guzzling. It was just one d’accord away from
destruction. We drink coffees in cafes in a dark town, exchange news.

Bob packs a bag and we’re off to the bus station to get tickets for El Oued.

Makensh! We’re makeshed.
The guichet (ticket window) is closed, only to open at unannounced times for ticket sales. We ask when; nobody can say. We join the waiting crowd. Asmar! Shove! There are no queues, only crowds. Out for more coffee; back to more makensh. Shove! Elbow! The sleepyhead behind the grille will not answer our pleas. Disgust escalates to anger. I’m losing it. Christmas Day makeshed! I walk outside, carefully assemble my tiny hoard of French and Arabic curse words, re-enter, discharging both barrels in a roaring “fuck youse – a child could run a bus station better than youse - tickets up your arse”, etc.

We go to a shop to souse our anger in drink. Unlike in Adrar, a dry wilaya, beer can be bought in Ouargla. When my paranoia has subsided, we decide to try to hitch a ride to El Oued. We’re sinking into despondency on the side of the road when through the heat/dust/alcohol haze we see a minibus approaching; it’s two Germans bound for El Oued!

In El Oued, I approach a likely source: he’s reading Le Monde. He’s Jaques, and he directs us to Redmond’s house.

El Oued

Christmas, 1980

Redmond’s front room is heaving with guests. Some we know from the Algiers meeting: Jonathan Gatenby from Kettering, who teaches in Tizi Ouzu in the heart of the Kabyl Mountains; Deirdre Boyd the Irish girl, has travelled from Sidi-Aich, another Kabyl town, with her Canadian colleague, Kathryn Eldridge. I remember both from Algiers. Redmond introduces Bob and me to others: some are neighbours; most are fellow teachers who have come from the north. Sylvie Guelle from France, has
driven here from Sidi-Aich, with her mischievous 3-year-old boy, Samatar. There are others, Penny from Brighton, Nick (Taffy) Ginn from Wales, and a Frenchman with a guitar and some kif. We light up out in the hall, do a blues jam.

Redmond kindly heats up Christmas dinner for Bob and me: carrots and greasy chips and hot chocolate.

El Oued, “City of a Thousand Domes”, borders Tunisia; there is also an unofficial road which runs into Libya, a smugglers’ road, according to Redmond, who also reports that the Muslim brotherhood is particularly active in this town. Though wine is available, one must be discreet.

Some of the dunes around El Oued are higher than the town itself. The roads into town wind through the dunes, which are constantly moving to cover it. We wonder how they keep the roads open?

December 31st, 1980

Bob, Redmond and I walked across the road to visit Redmond’s French neighbour. I brought the bottle of Blackbush. Long before midnight the four of us made short work of it. The precious liquour I’d harboured for four months was spent in a matter of minutes. And well spent! The New Year’s party had moved to a neighbour’s house; was it the same house, or another? I forget. My thoughts were elsewhere.

I left early, back to the quiet of Redmond’s place, where Sylvie was babysitting Samatar, fast asleep on the cushions. Sylvie, twice displaced, French born to a French father and Vietnamese mother, is separated from Samatar’s father, who is from Djibouti.

Happy New Year! While parties diverted the world outside, I had Sylvie to myself.

Next morning, I extricate myself from a pile of bodies to join Sylvie in the kitchen to make a start on clearing up the confusion of dirty plates and glasses. Never was washing up more pleasurable.

On the last day, Jonathan, Kate, Sylvie, Samatar and I say goodbye to Redmond, leave him a green pyramid of wine bottles in his back yard, and pile into Sylvie’s little Renault Deux Chevaux for what will be a two days drive to Algiers.

Redmond, Champion Host!

El-Oued – Algiers

The desert road to Biskra runs alongside the deep El Kantara Gorge. A river runs through the gorge, palm trees and rich foliage line its banks. Occasionally, we can see to the bottom. The riot of colour along the floor of the gorge contrasts with the arid rock landscape we’re driving through.

On the road from Biskra to Bou Saada, we get a puncture. There’s no spare tire. We look around us at a whole lot of nothing. Check the map. It’s a long way to the nearest town. We take off the flat wheel. I volunteer to take it to the nearest garage to get it fixed. I hitch a ride on the road ahead, west towards Bou Saada. I don’t need much Arabic; my wheel is my visual aid. After what seems a long time, we reach a small town. I check the dashboard: we’ve come 80 kilometres. The kindly driver drops me at a workshop, refuses to take my money. I wait as my wheel is repaired and pumped up to pressure. Much relieved now, shouldering my wheel, I set off to find a taxi. Got one! This time giving directions is more challenging, to state my destination, agree a price, and give directions to find a small car in a big desert: “Biskra Road, 80 kilometres, white Renault Deux Chevaux - Wait! Slow down, maybe here? No. Keep going…” “Is that it?” he asks again, and again. “No. A little bit further.” “I worry my driver will lose patience, worry we’ve passed them,… At last, there it is! Mission accomplished.
My reward, a French kiss in the front seat.

It’s dark by the time we reach the next town, too tired to remember which town. We search the streets for hotel signs, Samatar remarkably well behaved, patient. Find one. Check into two rooms, relieved: IDs not a problem. Mr and Mrs Smith & Jones, and Sammy Smith haul their gear upstairs, triumphant.

Jan 6th, 1981

Algiers Airport

The white Renault and the footsteps in the sand and the Guinness top dunes creamy as Guinness and the first star and the precious sunset coloured as a cloth and the fulling star and the last day and the jolly five and the tank filled with songs and the devil wheel and the insh’allah

The straight road and the long wait and the mission through the night and the joy of returning and the silent kiss and the speeding cars and the last devil’s trick and the dirty hotel welcome as a palace and the blocked toilet and the peeling ceiling and the drip

And he, amazing, happy coquette, accepting, dressed in red, and the damp air and the patient mother and the red sheetan in his toytown sleep in the warm glove of night

And you, Alhamdulillah

The last chapter and the setting sun and the joyless journey with no happy ending

The sleeping villages and the closed shops and the descending sky and the blind mountains and the runaway light

The impossible night

The tomb terminal and the death row queues and the fatal ticket to the cold sands and the return to nowhere

And the motor running and the five of us buried in what we’d done and said in that bulging week and the empty bottles and the empty kiss and the gloomy terminal new as a mausoleum and the large unsmiling faces

The chill wait and the long term stretched out far into the empty south to the silent sands and

Oh God, I’ll miss you.
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Algerian Journal, Part 4 (LAST)

Post by Kitkat on Thu 11 Apr 2013, 22:11

Algerian Journal Part 4

18th March, 1981

Give me a ticket for an aeroplane

Ain’t got time to catch no fast train

All the lonely days are gone

I’m comin’ home

My baby she wrote me a letter


Singing at the airport. With Meurlay. Beautiful sunshine, and why does Adrar always look so attractive at these times of going away? As if it belongs a little bit to me, and I should be proud of it? As the French say, I’m smoking like a fireman, and if there was drink I’d be drinking like a hole. It’s nervous energy. Road fever.


Left my sleeping bag at the airport - first makensh of this round.


Early morning is cold. The shock at seeing so many people, so many buildings, cars, the speed, the slovenly disarray of the North.

I take a taxi with a student, Mimi, who has invited me to his parents’ house. Before long I’m feeling awkward at Mimi’s parents’ cloying hospitality, engaging in nothing talk. Thankfully, there’s a football match on the TV.

Out into the inferno of downtown Algiers. Jesus, is it just me? We buy coffee at the train station. Asmar! queues. Wait. Baton charge – shock! Platforms – shock! Wait. Matchstick games on the floor…

Incredible vibes of a moving train through unknown country. I’ve got to change somewhere. Algiers recedes. Mountains loom to the east and south, now loom close. I get off at Theneia, a small town, utterly foreign. It’s as if I’ve just crossed an international frontier. Algeria’s many countries; here’s another.

Makenshed: my train might be complet, he says. It is. Heads, bags, legs, arms, seats full, aisles full, doors spilling people who would not be spilled, defying laws of transport, mathematics, physiology. Would-be passengers charge, head down with short term rage, race for suspected weak points. Desperate Asmar! - Ooalu!
Dialogue. One guy with the strength of desperation bungs his luggage in the window and bungs himself in after it, while I withdraw to polite observer status. Insanity. But he gets on, and three more after him!

The train labours out of the station. Is he going to swing out of the side like that? No, he makes his decision, jumps before the train picks up speed to leave the station, with the last passenger sitting on the tailboard, looking as if he does it every evening, enjoying the scenery, face stonily inexpressive.

The next train is in three hours. Time to take a look around.

Theneia. Obviously not a tourist town. I can see why. It’s got the surroundings, though. Those mountains are beautiful. The town seems to be clinging to them. I’ve had two coffees and my head’s fuzzy after too many smokes. I’m a bag of nerves, anticipation, pent up makensh. Don’t meet the eyes; just take it in, retreat into observer status again. I follow the familiar sounds of a football match, join the big crowd on the terrace. The home defence give away two goals with flashy tactics, and the keeper walks off in disgust. The crowd are animated, the kids very lively here, devilish. Panic behind me! HIYA!! Rush in all directions! I jump up – a fucking snake! And he picks it up and flings it up in the air. Vibrant.

Back down Main Street: Liverpool v West Ham is being broadcast in a shop window. It’s the English League Cup Final. Here there’s a European atmosphere; here things don’t clash like down south. It’s not a world away; it’s only across the water. Back at the station, a crowd is gathering, poised for the next train. I pace, bracing myself, prepared this time.

5:15. Whistle. Here she comes, down the line.

Wowowoh! Arms and legs scene again… rush, RUSH… take that door. No. that one! It’s LOCKED! This one? Stick to it, Jimmy… hitching will take you all day… no sleeping bag… handrail… hang in there… heave guitar… Monsieur… watch the kid… no place for manners… it’s moving – shit! Get IN THERE on the board. Jesus… the TUNNEL! We’re moving. What if I can’t… can’t hang on…yeah… Yeah… Wow! Almost on… Smell that smell. Trees, grass, mountains, soft wind whooshing through my head. Keep your head in - tunnel… OK. I’m in. Well, half in. The slopes, the valleys… we’re on a magical mystery train ride, heading east. into the big mountain evening – into Kabylie country. I think of Paul Theroux, excitedly bewildered by the world unrolling like Christmas wrapping. And he found time to avert his eyes to take notes. I wish I could.

To crystallize the flying vapour of the world.

As it is, my eyes are mostly on my footholds and handholds, each tunnel we roar through, my head is within one foot of getting bashed off the wall. If my fellow passengers crammed on the steps with me make a concerted push, I’ll be down there, smattered pieces of me rattling around the rails and wheels and tunnel walls. We share a mutual travellers’ trust; I turn and smile. WOOOO-ooooooo! What a feeling. The mountains are growing dark, slopes sloping steeper. This is for keeps.

Night-time now. We chuggle onwards.

Four stations later, my body’s wholly on the train. Now I can look around. At five minute intervals, a kid staggers through my carriage, calling in a voice too big for him:


confident, swaggering, carrying big bags of bottles, sandwiches. Does he live on the train? Dirty old clothes, too big for him, tied with a belt. Occasionally, when passing each other, the Gazooz Kids compare notes, count Dinars, check out the grown-ups, stake their patches, slam doors, claim the next carriage. A ticket inspector cuffs one of the kids, half-heartedly tells him to move on. The kid bides his chastisement, patient, bored. It’s only a pause in business; you don’t stop a livelihood like that.

Oud music competes with fuzzy Abba tapes on 3rd rate magnetophones. Fifteen stations to go. I doze off gazing out the window at silhouettes of great, black mountains.

9 pm. The train stops at Sidi-Aich, a splash of lights spilling up the valley slopes. Getting off is much easier than getting on; the crowds have been whittled down.

Sylvie’s right.
It’s a quaint, old-fashioned station.

The café’s still open. Café au lait from a smiling cafetier. Good vibes here.

I walk out along the tree lined avenue, there’s the river, and the hulk of a mountain looming over the town, past the Lycee Guardien, to Katy and Deirdre’s place, Katy surprised, just had a bath.

19th March

Du bonne heure, Katy off riding, Deirdre sleeping. No gas. No water. Down to the café for a café au lait and gateau, sur la terasse, under a drooping tree, en face de la gare, sunshine sparkling, shadows freckling the ground. This is fine.

Deirdre and Katy tell me of life in Sidi-Aich. Just being western women attracts unwelcome attention, but they’ve learned how to live with it. Katy likes sunbatheing on the roof; the guys on the apartment block building site across the way like it too. And one morning Katy opened the apartment door to find a couple of teenagers who’d been peeping through the keyhole pleasuring themselves. When the door opened they’d got a bigger shock then she had!

Deirdre shows me to Sylvie’s apartment, which is not far from her own. Sylvie’s at home, welcomes me.

Most of the remainder of the mid-term holidays is a blur. I meet up with my old buddy, Samatar. I meet Sylvie’s giant cat that eats kidneys – she keeps the kidneys in the fridge (Poo, what a stink – but you daren’t say anything against the cat).
Sylvie, Deirdre and I team up with Jonathan in Boghni, in the Wilaya of Tizi Ouzu. Jonathan and I tag along to an illegal beer drinking session with one of his students in Thiniri Commune. We pile in with Adreyene Chabane and his mates, carrying crates of cold beer in the boots of cars to a secluded olive grove up the hills from the village, drink cool beers and discute in the shade of the olive trees, Kabyls at home in Kabylie. No wonder Belkacem pined. We five tour the Kabyl Mountains in the white Renault, visit a seaside town and a mineral water hot springs at the top of a spectacular valley. Back at Sylvie’s apartment in Sidi-Aich, we make love to the music of Count Basie.

1st April, 1981

Return of Colum the Beard

Colum, who had briefed us in Dublin last summer, visits me in Adrar, as part of his return tour of Algeria. This time, he’s a visitor.

I take him on a walking tour of Adrar. Inevitably, we gravitate towards the palmeries, inspect the fouggara, the man-made, underground water channels, like sewers, but for fresh water. The fouggara are punctuated by a series of shafts, like wells, built of rock, mud and straw. Looking down these shafts, sometimes we catch the glint of water. We come across a team doing maintenance work on a
stretch of fouggara just out of town. They’re dredging the channels, filling palm –leaf baskets with sand, hauling the sand to the surface and dumping it in heaps. We stop to watch. The Adrar people are fiercely proud of the fouggara. They claim they have been in use continuously for hundreds of years, and longer.

They are built along the paths of underground wadis, buried river beds which channel fresh water from where it fell as rain on distant mountains.

I recall my first view of the Sahara from the little bi-plane, making out the shapes of ancient river valleys and tributaries. Well, the water is still there, only it runs underground.

We stroll the high walled paths, examine the intricate network of surface irrigation channels that
feed the vegetable gardens. I capture Colum on my Praktika, besheished in the palmery.

My conversations with Colum force me to focus on home as it will be: a pubful of puppets sitting as they were. Not unchanged, of course, but in the same positions - relative to each other – as when I left.

Stunned into thought, I reflect on the experiences of the past year. What do I feel? Smothered murmurings emerge into speech. Rusted steel convictions don’t ring now, mute.

I remember Paddy Kavanagh’s theme: the innocence of going away and the innocence of coming back. Innocence for what? Excitement. But excitement for what? The sensual splash of familiarity revisited, you sneak up on it, catch it unawares, see it from another angle, grasp the structure in one, all-encompassing exposure. But for what - for its own sake? Doesn’t it still lack a motive? A goal? Is this religion tapping me on the shoulder?

I try to piece together pieces of other peoples’ experiences, never skin-felt. Not only Colum.
Joe Roe? Sylvie? Was it their own fault that they didn’t click? Or the fault of their countries that they felt alien in their birthplaces?

Is the negation of stasis itself positive? A recurrant shaking off of rigor mortis, is this the human condition, or merely lack of compatibility? Is there a place, a state of mind, a companion, an occupation which would put it at ease, or is it a state I carry around in my head? Running away from my head, how absurd and frightening.

To what purpose to emerge from stagnancy into other stagnancy, only to return to stagnancy with a
clean body from the whistling wind of the road? Just to be able to distinguish? For what?

Social, cultural structures juxtaposed, do they spawn new and delightful structures, like crystals? Why
this obsession with growth? An illusion? If so, a desirable illusion? A necessary illusion? And this conviction of transition from one stage of development to another, is it a self-convincing façade?

Is it flux I want, or stasis? No, stasis is repugnant. But then why the aching sadness at the yawning void?

Back to the garden…

What constitutes a waste of time, and what not? Is it a culturally defined phenomenon, or are there universal values by which we can judge this?Tea, kou-kous, discuter, statues in the sand, corner boys, wall holders up, market place sleepers, matchstick games: absurd? Is this only an apparent absurdity because I’m caught between two extremes as regards attitude to time?

How do we view American and German producto-masochistic dynamism?
In Ireland we bemoan our “checkin in my rear view mirror” backward-looking view of time.

Here in the Sahara is not backward looking; rather it is out of time. I feel that if the world were to end now, for some reason we would not be included in the count; we’d be overlooked; we would carry on our existence neither affected by nor affecting anyone. Yes, God would be lenient on us here, if only because he would be likely to forget that we existed.

And what do Germans really think, what would cross their minds if you popped the question? What do they say on the boat back from Rosslare? Yeah, why don’t you stay there if you like it so much? Ach, no. I’ve got to get back to – to what? Wife and kids? And…? Job? And…?And what? What else is it we’ve got to get back to? Ah! That’s the stuff of country graveyards and the smell of pubs and the last bus home and the west wind and the smell of wafted gorse blossom and flagstones after summer showers and Tayto crisps and the Liffey’s treacly multicolour texture at night and Dun Laoghaire pier that pulls your guts like elastic until they come smacking back and it’s over, senseless in the throbbing Hades of the Sealink ferry bar.

It’s a matter of energy. Here the batteries run low, or energy is untapped, to overflow and be absorbed by the dunes. There are no echoes; your screams are absorbed. No conductors. In the USA, they’re prone to short circuiting, electrocution, over-consumption. Here, lights are dimmed. Self re-charging is crucial. Do you have supplementary sources of energy? Debrouille toi (do it yourself). i.e. the nearest native English speaker is 500 km from here.

Got to keep those lines intact.

El Guerrara

8th May, 1981

Sabah Al Khair. What a buzz, man. I awake on Marc's roof.

The flies get me up effectively, as they say in French. I say hello to my fellow sandmen, and stumble off through the sand to shake them off (the flies). The women have begun the procession to the well. Bang on six. Someone has just let a donkey out of a house. The first thing he does is to roll delightfully over and over in the sand. He wiggles his ears and wags his tail like a kitten. Does he do this every morning at six?

The village is awake.

The women in coloured dresses come with buckets in a graceful file to the well and file gracefully away buckets on heads to disappear into the ksah.

Sheaves of conversation are pitched up onto the morning. A car whirrs by.

The donkey stands frisky and familiar by his master, waiting for the day’s instructions. Master squats in the sand, duels words with another at twenty metres. Mazel (it is not yet time).

A woman comes a second time for water, now moving at speed. Four doves skid by, sideways. Colours fill out. The day’s up.

Green, Irish green of the palmery. Red-brown of houses. Sky blueing by the minute. It’s the transition half-hour. Goats merp. Old men are coming out of doorways to take up position for the day against the front wall, within reach of the door. A child joins the water line, struggles up the hill in his own child time. Donkey and men have not moved.

6:50 am

A second donkey, man bestraddled, feet trailing, shoots out into the morning, and in a mad decision of movement, all five move firmly and decidedly towards the palmery.

May, 1981

School done, I invigilate the Bacalaureat exams in the Lycee Mixte. Some of the candidates who are trying to cheat give themselves away with their sibilant whispers:Asmar! (Listen!), which inevitably prefaces every attempt to communicate. I let it pass, can’t help but grin at their innocence.

I complete my dossiers with the Academie and the Commisariat, say my goodbyes to my colleagues. Shah, I promise to visit in Pakistan, Marc I expect to meet in Dublin.

28th May, 1981

Once more off on that conveyor belt road southwards magically towards a new night choked with stars, kiffed to the scalp, poised for sharing the absurdity of things as they are, passing them rapidly to suck and savour like chicken bones.

The wind pressing solid not hot on my arm outwaving in the speeding night. Everything’s alright. Tumbling off-road over the piste to the right. Stop, stumble barefoot through pure, cooling sands.

Slow lights approach across the waste. Two, three, four, now we are twenty: French, Greek, Algerian, Basque, Irish, quoi, seated in a circle, around the child on his belly on the mat. All regard, knowing not
what, wonder at a child, a future Frenchman, to be baptized in the water of the cigaya in the Sahara. He is at the centre, ringed with candles, with faces thinking of what. Knowing not what – wonder.

The procession.

Guitar strings caress the night, the Pere Blanc, Rigolobasque become quasiserieux in ceremony. His second baptism, my first. This is more than a celebration of Christian initiation. This ritual also celebrates something that seldom floats to the surface of our consciousness, the mystery of life in the desert. The water of life.

After the Christian ritual comes the French style devotion at the altar of the dinner table: lamb shish kebab, kous-kous, the filling of the pipe.

The full moon energizes, prompts me to run and run and run across the flat sands, arms outstretched, one eye on the moon, the other sweeping the magic sands, not wanting to stop. When I’ve run 500 metres, I stop and sit. I walk back to camp slowly, only now alert to danger, scanning shadows for abandoned fouggara shafts.


I get a lift to the North with the Rayeroux. At Ghardaia, we book into a downtown hotel. Only when we’ve entered the low-lit lounge upstairs, and begin to focus on the girls coming and going does it dawn on us that we’ve booked into the brothel. In hindsight, the curtains on the outsides of the bedroom windows onto the corridor should have appeared strange. No matter. I sleep well.

I have a recollection (and a photo) of jumping waist deep into snow when we crossed a pass in the Atlas Mountains, though with whom, or when, or where this happened (Deirdre in the Kabyl?) I can’t remember for sure.

I sit long at cafes in Algiers to pass the hours until my morning flight. After a friendly tip-off that pickpockets are tracking me, I stow my gear with the proprietor and take a walk up the hill to lose myself in the Casbah.

After flying for an hour we’ve crossed the Meditereanean and now the first land of Europe, the city
sprawl of what must be Marseilles.

In London, I buy a Yamaha tenor saxophone from Lewingtons of Charing Cross Road for 400 pounds, my impulse buy after my year of austerity.

The innocence of returning.

What was it like?

Where do I begin?


    Current date/time is Fri 18 Jan 2019, 22:28