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Article: Strangers in a Small Town – Algeria Suite

October 2013

Heat ripens people like fruit. They are ripe before having lived. They know everything before having learned anything. [Albert Camus, Notebooks, vol 2, pg 79]

Independence did not come easily to Algeria. French occupation of 132 years ended in 1962 after a ferocious 8-year revolutionary war. Between 1962 and 1992 the demoralized, mostly rural and impoverished population endured a succession of coups, constitutions and charters, as a small cadre of wilaya-based clans—the leadership of the National Liberation Front (FLN) socialist party, heavily influenced by the military elite—tried to transform Algeria from a French colony into an Arabist, Islamist republic. After widespread uprisings in October 1988, the third and final attempt at a Constitution created a multi-party system, but by this time fundamentalist Islamic groups were gaining power. In 1992, when the FLN faltered badly in elections, the military once again took charge and stopped the elections. A brutal cycle of village massacres, fundamentalist terrorism and army counter-terrorism, known as the Red Decade, followed.

But the late 70s at the time seemed like a brief respite from chaos as Algeria, during the presidency of Colonel Hourai Boumoudienne, focused on economic reform and  nationalized most industries. The most important state corporation was Sonatrach, in charge of gas and hydrocarbon production expected to drive the country’s economic recovery. Foreign technical and managerial expertise was needed; the workforce at that time was largely inexperienced, often illiterate. Canadian consultants, a mixture of Francophones and Anglophones, were contracted bySonatrach in 1978, and came with their families to live in the provincial town of Blida. 

la Rue des Martyrs

Directly behind the shops opposite the bedroom window of our apartment in Blida stands one of several mosques. The window overlooks the Rue des Martyrs, the narrow main commercial street of Blida, and each winter morning, shortly after five o’clock, the muezzin begins the first call to prayer. His voice is husky with sleep and slightly distorted by loudspeakers. The free-flowing song filters through the shutters, tangles briefly with my dreams and subsides as an amplified breath.

We eat breakfast early, on the balcony even in winter. Thin, sharp yogurt and fragrant honey, baguettes from the bakery next door and pale butter often perilously, thrillingly, close to cheese. Sometimes the bread is hard and sour, made from poor quality flour. Sometimes it is light and white; sometimes the baker has no bread.

As the sun tips over the mountains behind the town, the street is beginning to fill with men. On their way to work or on their way to nowhere, walking in twos and threes, stopping for greetings and conversation. They shake hands and brush their hearts, smoke and talk seriously. The drowsy blood of the community is revived each morning in ritualized encounters between men.

From the balcony, my daughter and I stand to wave goodbye, goodbye, to our husband/father as he heads to work at Sonatrach. Below, metal shutters are rolled up, displays lifted with clanging poles, and dim recesses of the shops are lit and peopled as the street assumes its self-important commercial identity. The crumbling sidewalk becomes a bobbing mass of men. We see grizzled bare heads, heads wound with white or yellow turbans, shrouded heads. Indolent boys hang in doorways, trailing their cigarettes across pockmarked walls. Children shrill to one another in hollow, flat voices, squatting in the road to play with broken plastic bottles and decapitated dolls until bleating delivery vans disperse them. The rutted street becomes clotted with traffic. Horns blast. Doors bang. Irritated engines rev. The clamour is punctuated by an incessant cry, a refrain—vendu, vendu (sold out, sold out); the town's madman, we’re told. Once a wealthy landowner, he’ s now penniless, and wanders all day up and down the street brandishing a knotted cane, vilifying the commercial and political forces that destroyed him.

Smells mingle with the noise: the sweet cologne worn by the men, bread baking, a curious mixture of soapy water and urine that slips along the sidewalk. A mass of fresh carnations en route to market. Musty unpainted stoops and alcoves. Orange peels, still sharp-scented, in the littered garbage missed by the nightly collection. Sweat clinging to damp clothing, bubbling spiced sauces, breaths of pure air from the mountain slopes.

By midmorning, the balconies are hung with dust-filled carpets and bedcovers bright in the sunlight. Women, their bare feet stained with henna, are visible in the dark interiors, washing floors, scouring walls, hanging clothes on sagging lines. A few move silently through the streets in twos and threes, shuffling on ill-fitting shoes over hard uneven surfaces. They clutch white veils beneath their chins, heir mouths and noses are hidden by tiny lace-edged masks; their flickering brown eyes betray shyness or curiosity. They huddle baskets and small children to their breasts and speak quietly to one another. They neither linger or sit, but weave a light fluttering band through the dense masculine fabric on their way to the markets.

My daughter and I walk slowly to the marché arab. It’ s 1978, she’s not yet three. Dark hands lightly caress her fair hair in passing. I lower my eyes to deflect the intense interest I arouse. Even discreetly dressed with my head covered, I sometimes turn around to find three or four young men following several paces behind. But we are, after all, strangers in a small town. In the market we’re greeted with cautious warmth by stall-keepers to whom we’re becoming regular customers. Hands slip small gifts into my daughter's basket—an orange, a few dates, a red carnation. As we return home, our baskets stuffed with fresh shiny produce, we’re buffeted by small boys bearing ten, twelve loaves of warm bread for their families.

At midday, the shop shutters descend and all the men vacate the streets for lunch. Foreign men too are obliged to come home. We eat pasta with crushed fresh tomatoes, and blood oranges bursting with colour and juice. The 1:30 call to prayer from the mosque seems scarcely to disturb the dozing town, but in the cool turn of the afternoon, the town unfolds itself once more. Young men shout; children ring doorbells and run. Battered Renault 4s and Peugeots jostle low slung horses and sauntering pedestrians.

We can’t tell who obeys the barely audible summons of the mosque in the late afternoon; the flow of bodies up and down the street and around the square doesn’t seem to subside. The March sun descends, tinting the fragile minarets coral and the mountains purple. The tide of people becomes uniformly blue. For the knotted, spasmodic six-o'clock traffic, white-gloved policemen mount pedestals in the road and blow whistles and wave sternly.

Across the roofscape shortly after seven, we hear the first evening call to prayer. Its disembodied authority causes the hubbub of commerce and conversation to diminish.

For dinner we cook lamb and drink harsh, expensive Algerian wine; no wines are imported. The short white candles sputter and burn quickly. For us they’re a pleasure, but for many families they’re the only source of light after sunset. The town responds like a human body to the fluctuations in light and temperature. Time isn’t clockbound but a succession of prayer times, mealtimes, periods of activity and repose which correspond to solar rhythms. Our North American habits of existence seem stopwatched, vacuum-packed.

By 8:30 the street is deserted except for thin cats sniffing the garbage. Gas lamps illuminate young policemen standing in couples outside the bank on the corner. When the sky is "the colour of the throat of the dove," the last call to prayer arises from the minaret. A veil of tranqu ity falls on the silent, shuttered town.

two solitudes

The Québécois live easily here; French is spoken more or less by all Algerians and the French school, while weak in math and science all the mothers say, gives a better education in the French language than schools at home. The women adapt quickly to the continental ways of marketing and cooking. The men are hardworking, temperamental, enthusiastic then impatient, given to hotheaded arguments and impetuous resignations, grasping and rejecting simultaneously the impossibility of imposing North American disciplines here. The Québécois, to an Anglophone observer, appear to live in a state of high excitement, roaring with rage and laughter, very happy or very angry but always resilient.

The English Canadians are phlegmatic. For the first time ever we’re a minority. Some of us respond ungraciously to this change in status. Many of the women speak no French. They’re isolated, ignorant, unsure of themselves. They horde tinned delicacies (custard, caviar, peanut butter and Tang) brought from Canada. They have uncomfortable relationships with their Algerian femmes de ménage, or "refuse to have one of those dirty things in the house." The men speak French doggedly and observe bemusedly the flamboyancy of their francophone colleagues. They absorb the myriad irritations of work, becoming inordinately concerned with minutiae: memos, timesheets, water samples. Some are buoyant, cheerfully stoic.

At a New Year's Eve party, everyone is anglophone except for one of us who, inevitably, is challenged on separatism but is too much of a gentleman to argue. The party can’t be rowdy because the president of Algeria, Houari Boumédiène, has died four days earlier and there are officially forty days of mourning.

At first, all the men gathered around a table laden with bottles of liquor and a chessboard. Very strong drinks are concocted "especially for the ladies," who sit in groups, ankles crossed, moaning about their domestic lot—daily laundry in funny little washing machines and no dryers, making lunch for husbands, the total isolation of language and sheer terror at the idea of walking around Blida.

Then we sit in a circle, husband-wife, husband-wife, and tell stories. About boxes of belongings ripped open at the airport and strange things missing like skewers and Scotch. About the butcher; oh, you think he’s reliable but just wait it won't last it never does here. And the flies! Shirley is very drunk and she likes my husband John a lot and tells him so. He reminds her of her brother who’s also a bigot. Silence—what does Shirley mean by bigot? Oh, she says, laughing, weaving a vague pattern through the air with her cigarette, he speaks his mind, he tells it how it is, you know. My face aches with a frozen smile .

Midnight comes; we stand up, shake hands, smack each others' cheeks, sing offkey, sit down again on our uncomfortable chairs. You’ve so much to learn, they tell us; go here for this, never there for that, oh isn't it dreadful, isn't it impossible, you'll see, you'll find out. We leave at 1:30, exhausted and depressed.

On New Year's Day we go with two Québécois families in caravan in our matching Renaults to a beautiful deserted beach about two hours from Blida. It’s a sunny, windy, cool day; we find shelter beside a cliff where the children climb and find caves and shout to us excitedly— come look, come look! The sea is bright blue and white; there’s a peach-coloured farmhouse at one end and a tower of rock formed by the sea at the other and we’re the only people there.

We shout and laugh. They speak very quickly in a French that I can’t yet understand, translating as they go. We swim, drink, barbecue sausages and chops and potatoes. We have a long, loud conversation about the word bigot, and then about the dark Québécois sense of humour. They tease John a lot about being a bigot and the word loses its sting.

In the evening we drive back in the shimmering Mediterranean light, the sky purple and orange behind the mosques and crumbling Roman ruins, roadside trees faintly white with early blossom, the sea tranquil, the mountains soft and blue.

La cité résidentiale

During April and May, 40 Canadian families are moved out of Blida into a cité résidentiale built by Sonatrach of Algeria to house foreign consultants and management staff. The Canadians are spread through five barely completed buildings in a complex that, we’re told, will eventually house two thousand; it stands in the shadow of the Atlas Mountains overlooking the fertile Mitijda Plains, beyond which, in the hazy distance, we imagine that we see the Mediterranean.

The rockstrewn road to the cité passes through the small village of Ouled Yaich, the material wealth of which consists of a magnificent stand of sycamore trees and a natural spring that provides drinking water for the inhabitants while making the road a thick mud soup. Forty Renault 5s bounce imperiously through the village four times a day, past the low once- whitewashed huts with doors painted blue to discourage flies. Geese and tattered children play in the road. Goats climb the olive trees to eat and a wandering herd of thinheaded sheep mows through a vineyard.

The cité buildings are concrete and anonymous, incongruous in a dreamy rural setting where white cattle wander at will, where pink laurel and sweet yellow acacia spill out of dry ravines and eucalyptus and cypress groves spread scented shade. The buildings are reasonably well designed but indifferently constructed. They’re not connected to municipal supplies of gas and water. We carry heavy canisters to gas stations to be filled and a behemoth container truck labours twice a day over the gutted road to fill two tanks with undrinkable water. The pump frequently breaks down and there’s no water, except that which wells up in the basement of one of the buildings built over a natural spring. Sometimes we sit amidst unwashed dishes and clothes, unwashed ourselves, while another truck comes to water the recently set shrubs. Rosemary, succulents and daisies struggle to grow in rubble flattened to make gardens.

The apartments of the Canadians are a hodgepodge of precious bits from home, luxuries purchased on visa trips (a bottle of Armagnac, light bulbs, jeans) and homey, brightly coloured local artifacts. We have identical brown vinyl and plywood furniture issued by Sonatrach. We put straw mats over the raw concrete floors, nail woven bedcovers to the paint-dribbled walls and drape yards of white chiffon over the windows. We pile the paraphernalia of Western prosperity on small kitchen balconies—hibachis, bicycles, the occasional washing machine. Inside, heavy transformers activate stereos, blenders, and TVs and high-powered radios with their antennas pointed wistfully towards Spain.

The Canadians are also a hodgepodge, attracted to Algeria for reasons ranging from youthful idealism to a frankly admitted need for the untaxed income. Some are bored with smug, staid Ontario, some suffer the discomfort of conflicting loyalties in Quebec. Some left good jobs in Canada with a sense of adventure; others were laid off; some are running from family troubles or unhappy marriages or drinking problems. The men (no foreign women are employed by Sonatrach) are on twelve or eighteen-month contracts as foremen, draughtsmen, quality control experts, management consultants. They share a guarded dissatisfaction with their Canadian employers and their work ethic is impotent in the face of a sluggish Algerian bureaucracy; their passion for efficiency and results sputters and subsides. They envy the perfectly equipped German consultants. They long for contracts with American firms elsewhere in the Middle East and Africa where everything, everything, is provided. They console themselves with short holidays in Europe, weekends on the beautiful local beaches, fast trips to the desert and the mountains. They consume large quantities of the fuzzy local beer and raw wines.

Anglophone and francophone Canadians unite in desultory racist shadow-play against the few Algerians who live at the cité. The Canadians are horrified by the sheer size of Algerian families. By the undisciplined exuberance of the children. By the bony black dogs who carry their heads close to the ground and bark mindlessly at dawn and sometimes relieve themselves in the corridors. The Algerians are indifferent to garbage outside their immaculate private spaces; the Canadians don’t like to see cardboard boxes drift past their windows.

We’re also offensive. At night, the Canadians entertain one another, eating and drinking, dancing and shouting on the rooftop terraces of the cité. Windows and doors are open on hot summer evenings and sounds ricochet around the concrete corridors. The Algerians don’t like this blatant defiance of Islamic prohibition. When the Algerian dogs howl in protest the Canadian men howl back. A large outdoor party is vetoed by the Algerian chef because "all the Canadians will get drunk."

Often a small caravan of Renaults rattles up and down the road to the cité, spewing dust on walking femmes de ménage and workers; "I wouldn't have one of them in my car."

The children are happiest here. Quickly functional in both languages, they form only fleeting alliances in play against the Algerian children and dogs. Arabic words filter into their conversations. They play all day on the mountain, climbing through purple thistle and wild mint to fig orchards high on the slopes, where yet another natural spring tumbles unchecked.

Mohammed the plumber

Mohammed is bolder than most men in his life-consuming obsession with women. He has the delicious advantage of daily exposure to the bodies of overheated Western women in sundresses and shorts; he revels in the proximity. He swaggers around the scarcely finished apartments at the cité (which do indeed require his services) as if he were the owner of a large harem. He undertakes endless minor mechanical tasks with exuberance and a garrulous chivalry. He’s short and broad, loud-voiced and hearty, with wide, thick glasses apparently endowed with a lascivious x-ray vision.

He has at least six children and refers to his wife as  “l’usine—the factory." He alludes to romantic attachments with blonde Canadiènnes, but in fact enjoys more earthy engagements with several femmes de ménage who work at the cité. He has a large packet of well-handled photographs of himself with tall Western women, which he displays with pride.

Mohammed's brashness is uncommon but his preoccupation with sex is not. The women of Algeria are white-veiled spectres who haunt the anxious imaginations of men. They’re displayed briefly as tightbudded teenagers ready for marriage, at which moment they don le voile and disappear from the streets. On the wedding night, Algerian men throw blood-spattered sheets to a cheering crowd of waiting womenfolk as proof of defloration. Newly married men bring to work with them the explicit details of their nightly exploits. They pore over illegal Playboys, fingering the airbrushed flesh of centrespread offerings with a fervour long lost by their North American counterparts.

On the beaches of Algeria, foreign women sit in protective huddles with their children, but hot-eyed youths still sit too close in hankering clumps, smoking, staring. They watch the women intensely, every gesture, wriggling foot, strap adjustment, change of position, turning page. Eavesdropping on our flesh.

Mohammed's self-confidence is bred through daily contact with Canadian housewives. His countrymen release their feelings in occasional furtive gropes in the crowded market, or in hisses behind our backs. Their sidelong glances bear a mixture of contempt, curiosity and lust; they rarely just smile. But Mohammed lays bare his concupiscence, in half-serious propositions and laughing self-mockery. His audacity illuminates the covert hungering of his peers which manifests itself as broods of small children clinging to the veils of women with bad backs.


Mina is almost beautiful. She has fine features and a proud carriage, shining hair wound around a well-shaped head, warm brown eyes. But her wide smile reveals only a half dozen broken, discoloured teeth, evidence of extreme poverty and indifferent dentistry. Mina thinks she’s about forty-five; she’s borne seven children to a slothful man whose wage as a hospital orderly is insufficient.

Early each morning, Mina takes the bus from Blida to Ouled Yaiche and then walks almost a mile in red plastic sandals to the cité residentiale, where she’s femme de ménage for at least six families. She charges more than others; for about five dollars an hour she washes floors, walls, dishes, and the laundry, all by hand. A white cotton shirt acquires an unexpected lustre in the hands of Mina.

Mina's diplomacy is remarkable. To each Canadian woman she describes the kindness and generosity of the others, which we feel obliged to emulate. She betrays no emotion confronting our overstuffed closets and laundry baskets, the meat platters and wine glasses and greasy stacked plates of a dinner party. She conducts her tour of our closets and pockets with an impersonal briskness and makes a pile of the centimes she finds in our clothes, on the floor. She sometimes takes laundry home in the evening. Her home is a spotless two-room apartment in the centre of Blida, dominated by her husband’s large television set.

Mina still has three daughters to see married. She accepts too many clients and asks an ever-increasing wage. She cultivates her clients so that when they go out on visa trips or holiday, they’ll bring back specific items. Hand towels for the trousseau of the beauteous 20-year-old. Clothes for the younger girls. Shoes for one son; foreign currency for another.

Mina's daughters are vibrant, delicate creatures. Their well-groomed charm derives from the supple strength of Mina, who spends most of every day barefoot in a shapeless shift, wringing out chlorine-soaked cloths. In the eldest daughter’s violet-suited, high-heeled, perfumed persona are no visible vestiges of the granitelike dignity of the mother.

Les Glaciales at Bou Ismail

We don’t know why the villa is called Les Glaciales; is it the pure white marble of the exterior, classical lines, graceful arches everywhere, a formal severity? Is it because the interior is chilled, even in summer and in winter, with the wind coming straight off the sea, so the house is unbearably cold in its Mediterranean setting?

It’s a legacy of the French occupation, bought cheaply by a rich Algerian (of whom there are few). For years it’s been neglected—shutters broken and rusted, front door hanging open, toilets brown and dry, courtyard overgrown, glass shards everywhere, the rooms gloomy and damp. On the long front porch there’s an old upright piano, strings rusted by the sea air.

The villa is in Bou Ismail, the only town with a traffic light on the coast road. It’s right on the seafront, surrounded by thick, high walls extending to the beach; there’s a seaside door and steps down to the beach strewn with garbage and rusting cans and half shoes and the occasional dead animal or fish. Outside the villa gates on the street side, three old men often sit, one of them half blind and crippled, holding a transistor radio.

When our friends Brunnhilde and Marcel move here in early spring, the place is boarded up and filthy, last inhabited by a poor Belgian woman with many children. They unearth the beauty of the villa; it is cleaned, painted white throughout, the plumbing made more or less functional, the shutters opened, windows repaired, terrace cleared of debris, a small formal garden cleaned up, a few modest plants added.

With two families we decide to "make a marriage" for the summer, sharing the cost of the villa: six adults, six children. Every day the men take the curving road over the red dirt hills to the Sonatrach offices at BeniMered. The women and children bask in the sun on the terrace, leaning against the white walls, bare-breasted, dozing, reading. Mid-morning we walk up to the small market to pick up fish, still panting it seems, gleaming with salty water, slippery pink crevettes heaped high on old marble tables.

The children play in the shaded little courtyard, under the umbrella on the terrace or on the dirty beach. In the heat of the day they wrangle over crayons on the porch and plunk aimlessly at the chipped keys of the old piano in the corner.

In the evening, the adults change into long white caftans, naked underneath. We drink too much wine, eat languid meals by candlelight on the terrace, play 500, shout and laugh and dance barefoot on the cool, coloured tiles of the villa.

We’re insouciant, a little reckless, briefly in a space where we’ll never be again, with people we’d never otherwise have spent time with. The intricacies of our separate domestic lives are revealed or set aside during this interval of communal intimacy and revelry. The constraints of upbringing, language and decorum slacken , like the strings on an opened parcel from home.

Mohammed the gardener

In the last light of day, rose and gray, he comes to the sea door of the villa as we sit on the terrace after dinner. He’s a small man with a friendly wrinkled face and short gray-black hair curling around his white crocheted cap. He wears the ubiquitous bright blue jacket neatly with loose black trousers. He carries a straw pannier, ostensibly full of fresh mint from his garden, but also holding four empty wine bottles. He sits with dignity and accepts a small glass of thick red wine.

Mohammed has been working since he was seven; he can’t read or write and speaks French haltingly. For many years he was a fisherman—he knows this coastline metre by metre—but he tired of that life. Now he’s a storekeeper in a large factory 50 kilometres from his home in Bou Ismail. When he doesn't feel like working he closes the shop door, stays home to weed his flowers and vegetables, or he takes odd gardening jobs, as he’d done at Les Glaciales during the winter.

He has ten children. Three still live at home, a two-bedroom apartment in a commune where he pays about $25 rent per year. He’s proud of the education he’s given his children and they now look after him. If they buy a roast beef, there’s always a slice for him.

Mohammed brings mint from his garden to exchange for a bottle of red wine. (He asks only for an empty wine bottle.) He comes at least once a week for the wine, which his family doesn’t allow him to buy. He drinks it alone, on the small beach at the other end of the village. Perhaps with a few orsin, the black, prickly sea urchins that live near the shore and hide a delicious coral flesh beneath their porcupine-like exteriors.

We all sip wine as the light ebbs from the sky and sea. A short breeze from the sea briefly stirs the air. Soft candles weep into their clay holders.

In the days of the French he could drink a great deal of the wine, but no more. This wine is no good, he says. Does he hate the French? No. There was misery for us when the French were here, but it wasn’t the black misery we have now. We can achieve nothing now.

Nothing, he says. There’re a few greedy powerful ones who take everything for themselves, and we have nothing.

Will the situation change in time? No. Things will not get better. He sets his empty glass carefully down on the table and reaches behind his chair for his pannier.

It would take a revolution to change things, he says.

He speaks without rancour, in a tranquil, almost musical fashion. He accepts a bottle of wine graciously and goes away to drink it.

He returns the next morning for more.

[an edited version of this piece was published in Maisonneuve magazine, September, 2013]