The eleventh anniversary of the twelfth

age_11_on_birthday_cake_postcard-r6187335b299d4e8a936b6290a5b7644a_vgbaq_8byvr_324We emerged from the air conditioned terminal into stifling heat. It was barely mid-May and already the air was shimmering with it, the cars in the car park were scorching to the touch. The small crowd of people who had gathered to welcome us were blurry in the distance, smiling bravely under the glare of the sun, standing on tiptoes with expectation. My hand went up in that long-forgotten gesture that mirrored theirs; I pressed my open palm against my forehead to create a visor, squinted at them, recognised maybe half.

I should be able to recall what happened after. Our hurried steps across the car park, and theirs, the pounding of my own heart, like everybody else’s.  Who was there exactly and who I greeted first and what was said. What time was it? Where did we go?

What I remember clearly is the wail my mum let out when she fell into her own mother’s arms. I can’t imagine the state of mind and heart that must have produced it, and I didn’t think about that back then; I was nearly sixteen and I thought mostly of the embarrassment she was causing us all with this scene. I also remember that I rode in the back of my uncle Mustapha’s Hyundai Accent, his daughter was driving and her straightened hair was lashing her as we sped down the motorway. Could you pass me that bandana next to you please?  We passed a spot somewhere near the airport, by a bridge, where a  city official’s decorative flair had led to the English words ‘welcome to Algiers’ being fashioned out of shrubbery on a bed of grass and flowers. I don’t know if that made me smile or cry, I had already read enough books to perk up at this, looking for some metaphorical significance, but I was too young to find it.

As The Return took place at the end of the Algerian school year, the dilema regarding where and in what language we’d do our learning was held off. For now, we had four, piping hot months to get reacquainted with the country we had forgotten was our own. Four months to rediscover old family members and welcome the new ones, four months to readjust our tongues to the language, to force out sounds that were gathering dust in the back of our vocal cords, the back of our minds, to pick up on the hip new vocabulary that youngsters our age used, because our learning of the dialect had stopped seven years ago and we spoke like our nine-year-old selves, with a touch of quaintness passed on from our mother.

We had four months to walk again the streets that had shrunk, meet neighbours who had aged, blink politely at women who claimed to have been our second mothers, and of whom we had not the slightest recollection. We had four months to relish the taste of the fresh eggs, fresh meat, fresh fruit that may not have resembled the magazine cut-out fare we had grown accustomed to but tasted like real food. Four months to catch the local bugs, the stuff our bodies were still too European to handle. I remember four days spent in an agony of fever, vomiting and cramps. Salmonella. They say it comes from undercooked meats most likely. The idea is laughable; everything here is cooked until it is falling apart in the casserole, until you can’t poke it with your fork. Maybe it was the fruit, maybe it was just me. In any case I caught it at the time when the flow of guests had reached a peak, and I was forced out of bed, dizzy and shaking, to greet and pretend to recognise the nameless crowd of well-wishers. Don’t you remember me, dear? Says the grinning face that has startled me out of my sleep on the worst day of my illness. I’m your aunt Adra. I glower at her and turn over.  Let me feel sorry for myself in peace!

We had four months to learn that we couldn’t go to the beach by ourselves, exactly because we were grown girls now. Four months to learn to sleep through the persistent whine of mosquitoes, to splatter them against the wall without fully waking up.

We had four months to learn how to be proper ladies. This was a growing obsession of our mother’s, who had no control over the taps that ran dry every few days, over salmonella, over my brother’s sulkiness, over the gnawing fear that we would never adjust, that we would be failures at school, that the decision to return had ruined our future. The housework and cooking she could control, and she drove us with a pitilessness that was hard to recognise in someone who cried when she saw an old lady crossing the street with a limp. Tearful arguments became daily life as with mounting despair she tried to instil in us habits that would never be of any use, because she had picked them up when she was a young woman, before machines that have relieved women of their role of beasts of labour had become common things that everybody took for granted. This is how to wash clothes by hand, this is how to wash the wool stuffing of the mattress, this is how to mop the floor without a mop, crouching over, red-faced with the strain. Then came the truly vicious stuff. I remember my twin sister trying to pluck the feathers off a chicken with tweezers, a surgical mask over her face to keep out the smell, sobbing at the injustice of it all. This is how to clean and gut sardines. No, you can’t use gloves.

We had four months to puzzle over our education, and to go from one English language school to another and be told no, sorry, we teach English, we don’t teach in English. This was not the impression we had received in England, when friends had assured my parents that Algiers was full of English schools.

But hey, you ladies speak perfectly, you are welcome to come and teach here when you’re old enough! Thank you, my mum would say, hoarse with hope and emotion, God bless you!

And in the meantime mum, in the meantime?

In the meantime, it took four months for the child’s veil to fall away from this city that was once again ours, this country, this people we had never got the chance to know. Four months to realise that England was now but a memory, growing blurry, a thing of the past. But there we stood again on the threshold of uncertainty, scared and confused, in the same way that we had clumped together seven years earlier in London with no knowledge of the language, the culture, the future, strange deaf-mutes about to take their first ride on the tube.

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Sabrina

 

mohamed_temmamThis time too, her mother’s friend Karima arranged things. She had seen Sabrina easily take charge of serving the guests at the latest baby shower and had once again confirmed: “I’m not going to rest until I see that girl married.”

Sabrina had the kind of beauty that was admired by the ageing matrons in her family; her hair fell over her shoulders in thick, glossy clusters. When straightened, it grazed her lower back and fluttered with the slow, practiced movement of her hips when she moved. Her eyes may not have been the sought-after green or blue but they were expressive, arched with bold, dark brows like the wings of a crow in flight. She had no inharmonious features, no crooked nose, no thick nostrils, and no protruding teeth. Her features were delicate, set against porcelain skin, contrasting strikingly with the eyebrows that she hated, that the old ladies loved.

They were aware of her age, thirty-three, and wept inwardly for such a waste of fine girl. All around them it seemed, flirty little minxes barely out of their teens were flaunting engagement rings, wedding rings, rounded bellies and babies. Here was this quiet, composed, domestic girl growing crow’s feet and grey hairs. Growing portly. Growing heavy, her clock ticking. At this point even if a man did turn up he probably wouldn’t be quality. That was the worst of it. Girls past thirty had to think twice before refusing a divorcee or someone uneducated, one who’s balding, paunchy, past his prime. Their romantic ideals would have to take the back seat and give way to ugly practicality; a man with a car, a steady job, a clean record, a clean bill of health, no kids. The matrons knew this, and knew that Sabrina knew this, and so they wept.

Being an unmarried woman, Sabrina lived at home. She had four older brothers. Her mother had wished for a girl, and her daughter’s name had been inspired by the expression ‘sabr y’nel’: patience pays. All the same, Tata Houria had over the years only accumulated experience raising males, and had brought her up in the same firm but playful, off-hand manner. Financial circumstances had also forced her to put the girl in her brothers’ hand-me-downs. Being a naturally gangling, gawky, unfeminine child, Sabrina had embraced this, and had buried her insecurities beneath page-boy haircuts, unpierced ears and sports jackets. Her brothers’ friends had treated her like a mascot, carrying her on the shoulders to football matches, teaching her to swim and play sports. Her introduction to romance, nonetheless, had come at the hands of these unpolished Romeos; they used to send her with notes and cheap little gifts for the girls they liked, and she had found it exhilarating.

Gradually, adolescence crept in and softened the sharp angles of her frame and face. The neighbourhood boys couldn’t treat her like a toy anymore, and this forced her into the company of girls. Hesitantly at first, she began to experiment with dresses and hairstyles and boy bands. The clincher was being told she was pretty, once, twice, enough times to acquire a new self-consciousness, rooted in pride, not embarrassment.

Her brothers were married now, and they worried about her life of looming spinsterhood. The selfish side of them though, found relief in her presence at home, diligently caring for their ageing parents, spending half her wages on them. They also used Sabrina as a free babysitter at weekends and whenever she was off work – that was another thing matrons loved about her; she was very maternal. Still, her brothers were willing to sacrifice these comforts to see her settled, and they teased her mercilessly about the ever-lengthening list of men she had turned down.

Auntie Karima, her mother’s old neighbour and confidant, had long since taken matters into her own hands. They were capable, busy hands. She knew women at the mosque who were scouring the city for ‘good, family girls’ to marry their ‘good, family boys.’ Her neighbours, in-laws and distant relatives often asked her if she knew anyone suitable for so-and-so. If they sought a girl of thirty years and upwards, she would propose Sabrina, and she would be full of praise. “You should see her, sister,” she would whisper between prayers, “you’d go crazy! Such a face, such manners! Educated, mind you. She studied business. She works for Italians and she speaks their language ki l‘adjeb… and she’s a proper woman… helpful, so amiable, always there when you need her at weddings and things, not saying a word. There aren’t many like her, sister… a little picky, that’s why. That’s why she isn’t taken yet.”

Good, family boys had begun to appear in steady procession since the day Auntie Karima had taken matters into her own hands. Their mothers phoned Sabrina’s mother, their sisters called Sabrina, sometimes the men called themselves. The next step was determined by how conservative the family was; ideally, the boy was open to meeting her at a restaurant or café where they could determine in peace and anonymity whether or not they were right for each other. Often, their mothers pushed for the tiresome alternative, a visit at home, and so the house would have to be scrubbed and scoured for their arrival. She would make cakes to showcase her skills, and she would spend hours parading in outfits for her mother and grandmother to determine what would make her look young and thin. On the day, though she would grumble that it was unnecessary, she would go to have her hair styled and she was meticulous with her make-up.

Then the thrilling, last-minute rush. Sofas would be rearranged and the house would be doused in flowery deodoriser, and everybody stepped into the posh house slippers.

The doors were opened with a flourish, and Sabrina was stowed away in a bedroom to be revealed later, like a present. First, the suitor would have to blush and mumble under the gaze and mild interrogation of her father and brothers. Then she made a brief appearance, where the men’s mothers, being old matrons themselves, gasped at this vision with cascading hair and glowing face and rejoiced. Then the potential couple would be allowed a little privacy in one of the rooms to discover each other. Then Sabrina refused.

As a rule, the mothers and sisters had been too generous with their praise; the men were never that handsome, nor very tall, nor particularly interesting. What infuriated her most was how vague these well-meaning women’s definition of ‘educated’ was. Once, the man was declared to have ‘studied abroad’, and that had amounted to a six-week baking course in Hackney where he had balked at bread and never returned. Then came the self-made men; those who had left the country young, made a mint and then returned to settle down in their homeland. Others had abandoned their studies, daunted by the prospect of years at the university, and gone into business. Here her attention was drawn to the man’s sh’tara, his spunk, his drive, his comfortable home, his shiny car. No he doesn’t have a moustache like your uncle Ahmed’s! Ya Rebbi, you’re so particular about these details! He can shave it off, he can fix his teeth. No, you don’t need to have things in common. What did couples know about each other in your grandmother’s time? Still got married, didn’t they? Still had kids!

So it went. After each disappointment, Sabrina stamped her feet, declared that she would accept no more introductions, that she was fine in her father’s house, that she didn’t need a man. But she had read many books and had seen many films so the glimmer of hope inside her resisted extinguishment, and it swelled with every new opportunity. She humoured the nagging mothers and insipid sisters and the bland, bland gentlemen who wanted nothing but ‘their parents’ good wishes’ and she endured hours of awkward dialogue and awkward silence. She sacrificed weekend after weekend to play hostess. She grew frustrated but not cynical; her foot, when it wasn’t being stamped, remained poised, ready to receive the glass slipper, one day.

This time, auntie Karima had learned from her past failures and actually asked about the man before introducing him. Yes he did get a proper education, he did have a respectable job. No he didn’t have a strange name! Well yes, he did live at home, but he didn’t have any sisters and his mother was an angel.

Sabrina’s phone number had been duly transmitted, and she had been waiting three days for the call. For dignity’s sake, she had to resist the urge to jump up every time she heard her ringtone.

There it was again. Heaving a shaky sigh, she picked up her phone. She didn’t recognise the number, so she knew it would be her next mystery man. She gathered her strength and wits for the conversation that might, after all, seal her fate. Maybe this one would be the one.

 

 

Memory Lane is a Dead End

I am often puzzled when I read autobiographies, and authors describe in abundant and minute detail the scenes of their childhood, the names of playmates, the neighbours’ dog, the kind of trees lining their street, the colour of their favourite dress… I marvel momentarily, then I am sceptical. What, do they keep neat little drawers in their minds with defining moments and adorable anecdotes specially kept, all ready for them to rifle through when the time comes produce tasty non-fiction? I think it’s fiction.

I don’t remember much about my childhood. I am impressed and incredulous when a family member or friend whips out a school picture and names every second-year primary school classmate grinning toothlessly at the camera. I don’t remember anyone! There was a girl from our neighbourhood that my sister and I played with for a few years. It was only when my older sister pointed her out in a picture that I realised that she had been in my class at school for three years too. And a blurry memory springs to mind, of walking to school with my twin Soum, closely pursued the girl’s father, who was taunting and bullying us, trying to exact punishment for something Soum had done. I was afraid that day, and that memory ties in with the one of the girl’s mother crying in our living room, begging forgiveness for her husband’s behaviour. That’s how my memory works, producing short, incoherent snippets, images, sounds and smells that I struggle to tie together. They are bound by thin, wispy strands of emotion that are their only source of meaning.

A picture of me sitting on our balcony, using the handles of two brooms to squash a bee that had fallen to the floor. I am now terrified of bees, and I don’t know how mini-me managed such a feat of bravery and cruelty.

A picture of me playing on the stairs of our block of flats with the next-door neighbour. The picture is tinged with discomfort, but I don’t recall why.

A picture of me sharing a table with intimidating classmates on a school trip, aged ten, tinged with embarrassment. I think they were laughing at the way I ate my banana, but I can’t be sure…

I remember well the neighbourhood I spent my first nine years in. I have been to visit it a few times; we still have old neighbours we’re in touch with. The first time I returned, the area looked as if someone had taken a rubber band to the place I knew in my mind and squeezed it into one compact package. Apparently there was more room for it in my mind than there was in Algiers. The flats were cubicles, led to by stifling staircases, surrounded by streets the width of a belt, and I crossed in a hundred strides a space that took up nearly my whole nine-year-old world. The staircase that led down from the car-park was especially laughable. I remember lunging down what seemed like giant steps, taking a last leap off the last and highest step to land with a thud on the ground. I think it was a game we played with the other girls on the block, trying to see who would land the furthest away. The game brought us together for a momentary truce with the ‘garage girls’. As the name indicates, their homes were in fact converted garages. They were scrawny and dirty and fierce, and they liked to pick on us because we were comparatively clean and well-fed, and we never swore and we brushed our hair. Another picture-memory comes to mind, tinged with a mix of smugness and revulsion; one of the garage girls leaping off the last step, and a gust of wind blowing her flimsy dress nearly clear off, and a discovery. The garage girls couldn’t afford underwear!

My whole experience with those fearsome females that must have been the bane of my childhood is summed up in three, measly picture-memories. The one with the stair-leap, another one of crying over my hair band, which one of them had ripped off my head, played with, then thrown on the mucky street, and a third one of my older sister marching up to a group of them, tailed by a teary-eyed me, to teach them a lesson. I don’t remember what lesson, how it was taught, or for what reason. I don’t remember their names, their faces, their voices. One of them could have later been my classmate at university, my student at a school, and I would never have known. The same goes for every anonymous smiling face in my school photos. How Bizarre.

I hardly remember the names of my teachers at school, even the ones who taught me during my early teens. I think guiltily of the series of faces in mind, John and Jane Does alike, who must have spent hours teaching me about the world, feeding my mind. Thankfully though , the picture-memories morph into moving ones as a step into my teens, I remember a voice, a perfume, snippets of conversation. I clearly recall one Ms. Smith and one Ms. John because they were mean, or because I was a sneaky, fibbing little tween and they didn’t like my attitude. I want to forget, but I remember pretending I had had kidney surgery to get out of P.E! Ms John saw right through that.

The trouble with memory is, that it provides you with a smorgasbord colours and faces, jagged impressions, and it is up to present-day you to give them significance. Perfectly possible then, that half of our childhood, that fragile, all-defining part of our selves, could just be one elaborate fib.

I think I will stick with the neutral picture-images, ones unhampered by strands of emotion, not tinged with trauma.

Me and my swarm of siblings in the back of our car, headed to the beach in summer. I must have been around five, and Soumi was sat by the window with her head sticking out, her hair fluttering, and she was repeating the word ‘qahwa’, Arabic for coffee. Mum later told me that Soumi had struggled with the ‘k’ sound, and its Arabic equivalent ‘q’ for a long time. I think that day in the car was probably the first time she managed to say ‘qahwa’ right.

Then again, maybe the whole scene is something I fabricated after learning of Soumi’s phonetic struggles and that then wormed its way into my memory drawer, camouflaged among the real stuff like an insect among leaves. Who can say for sure? All I know is, if my own memory is anything to judge by, autobiographies should be moved off the non-fiction shelves in libraries and bookshops, pronto.

dead end
Going somewhere?

 

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/false/

 

 

Walk it off: a pedestrian’s guide to Algiers centre

The British Institute where I work is a dignified building with history. It was once the home of Pierre Chaulet, a French doctor who supported the Algerian independence. It still has the architectural peculiarity of rooms leading into rooms, like many French homes, which can make teaching a nuisance.  Still, it remains unchanged in structure, though it is now a part of New Algiers; a building once owned by a Frenchman, now used by Algerians to teach English.

Opposite it, Al-Rahma mosque, which was once a cathedral, from which now blares the midday adhan right in the middle of classes that begin at 1 p.m. I am forced to shout the present perfect over Hasten to prayer, Hasten to success. It makes the students uncomfortable, having to ignore it, not being able to give it the usual respectful silence it deserves, but there are always the few that stare in contempt if I stop the lesson until the call to prayer is finished. The mosque is still a church on the outside. It is built from stone and shaped like a cross. It is all arches and high windows, slanting roofs and gothic splendour. Only the statues and crosses have been removed. Inside, the decor is more subdued and mosque-y; no multicoloured lights filtering in from stain-glass windows, no stone saints adorning the alter and pews, no pews in fact, only a simple beige carpet for prayer and walls lined with bookcases. Islam is the religion of Oneness; God does not compete with prophets and saints for adoration, for supplication. He sent them to us, and now that they have fulfilled their purpose, they lie peacefully under the ground like everything and everyone else. Only He is eternal, only He is worthy of worship.

The Institute lies in the heart of Algiers centre. It is near a metro station, it stands conveniently in one of the alleyways that lead off Didouche Mourad, Algiers’ Oxford Street. It is painted a solemn powder blue and the words British Institute for English are engraved on a small gold plaque by the entry. You can also reach it by walking through the side-street branching out from Clausel market, past the post office, past the Cervantes Spanish Institute, past the shoe repairman who sits perched on a stool filing away at women’s high heels, past the giant bins that feed off the remains of the  fruit market stalls, round the pile of unused plaster and cement and broken beams left behind after a renovation project, past the living pile of cardboard, covers and sleeping homeless man lying between the cafe and the bakery. You have to step off the pavement in the summer to avoid the drip, drip, drip of air conditioners, and you have to be thin and flexible to pass between the parked cars, wedged so close together as to resemble train compartments, an ensemble. You can’t dawdle if you step off onto the street, because a car will come up behind you and the driver will point emphatically at the pavement and call you a donkey.

To get to the bus station after work, I walk towards Hassiba Ben Bouali street. The street lies parallel to Didouche but is lower, so there are several old staircases, and one steep road for the brave that link the two main avenues. The stairs I descend have been under repair for three weeks, though the randomness and futility of the endeavour reminds me of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, where the boom of explosives rings in Marlow’s ears as holes are blown into the ground, for no reason. In the book some scrawny natives sometimes step away from the destruction sites to die quietly among the trees, trying to hold their bodies together. There is nothing so dramatic here, but the emptiness, the lack of purpose, pervades, prevails over everything. The stairs lie broken, the layer of cement having been drilled away leaving the ground underneath uneven and exposed. In the mid-morning or early afternoon, the workers are hard at it with power drills and shovels, their faces masked against the dust, their clothes sticking to them with sweat, their hair unnaturally grey. And somehow, the stairs look exactly the same, broken, ruffled, but strangely unaltered. They are flanked on the right by a block of flats, but at the bottom to the right is a fast food shop, and the window of the basement kitchen opens onto the stairs. When you get to the last steps you are hit by a whoosh of warm air and the thick smell of frying

Then you turn right and walk down Hassiba, or you can cross the road, depending on which side the shade lies. You have to cross in the end anyway because the footbridge that leads to the bus station is on the left. You have to walk past the clothes and shoe shops, past the friendly-desperate restaurant staff who stand at the door and politely ask if you want to come in for a bite, remind you that it is air-conditioned and family friendly. You have to squeeze past the crowds, breeze past the perfume guys who hold little bottles out for you to sniff, try to rub some on your hands. You have to skirt the trees that line the avenue, and swat at the clouds of tiny flies that hover in slow, mystical circles around them, almost as if they were in orbit. A swarm of them has broken away from the rest and now twirls leisurely in the room where I teach my Saturday class at the Institute. They float in the exact centre of the room, high enough to be out of your immediate line of vision when you walk in, quiet enough to go unnoticed altogether after the initial surprise. They have made that room a home; I have tried to open both windows, close the door and gently shoo them out, but they are no longer interested in the tree. Or maybe they won’t be accepted if they go back, maybe the others have multiplies and there’s no more room for repentant exiles. Maybe they want to learn English.

About two-thirds of the way down Hassiba, there is a little road leading to the bridge to the main bus station. The street is lined with bakeries and fast food shops selling tomato-filled pastries, square pizza slices, carantica, m’hadjeb (spicy and mild). They are too small to eat in so crowds jostle at the door, shout their orders at the vender and eat their food on the street, like the food vans in England that sell greasy burgers to drunken football fans, except ours can’t afford to sell meat. They are precarious but strangely resistant; even if the whole dodgy lot were to close after an inspection, their exact lookalike would spring up soon, as long as poor peckish people walked down that street to get the bus.

To get to the bridge you have to walk past the food shops and past the hawkers, their tables overflowing with chocolates, biscuits and cake bars from Turkey, cheeses from unknown lands. Occasionally there is a celebrity appearance from Milka, Kinder, Mars and Snickers, their time in the limelight finished, their expiry date approaching, their fate, like many washed-up stars, is to appeal to a public that was once beneath them, to die without dignity.

 Bargain prices, come on ladies, you won’t want to miss this! 70-dinar chocolate here, three for only a 100!

The bridge is heavy with human traffic, though the flow is usually organised into two rows of people climbing up, and two climbing down. The top of the stairs can’t be seen, and there is always the peculiar awkwardness of not knowing when the last step will come, where the crowd will diverge, when they might stall mid-climb while an old lady gathered the folds of her hidjab, or a mother stooped to pick up her child. Once, things were particularly sluggish, as a peddler with his loot of imitation sports shirts stood near the top steps, surrounded by haggling women. He was completely unruffled by the torrent of abuse he received from almost every person who passed by; banished to hell, receiving ill-wishes for his health, told unsavoury things about his mother and continuing to argue prices with the punters, full of good cheer and saucy comebacks.

To get across the bridge to the bus stop you have to push past the hagglers and the line of peddlers who sell sunglasses, scarves, sickly sweet perfumes and undershirts. Sometimes, a lean, hungry-looking young man will accost you, holding a single silver necklace, a pair of earrings for you to try, and then you might be tempted but he won’t let you take it off and insist you pay for it, however much you want. You have to give him a wide berth. You have to keep the same distance from the good-humoured, obese homeless man who spends his day bantering away with the peddlers, occasionally taking the time to peel the bandages off his ankles to air out the raw, oozing sores beneath.

At the bottom of the footbridge by the public toilets stands a stern policeman on permanent duty, making sure that everyone washes their hands. He is good friends with the peddlers and but doesn’t like thieves because he has to chase them or he won’t look professional. You have to walk cautiously through the station because the buses come riding into it with triumphant speed at the end of their journey and will gladly mow down any stragglers. You have to hold your breath against the exhaust fumes rising from fifty shuddering, mistreated vehicles and keep out of the sun. You have to pick a seat on the shady side of the bus and sometimes this means sitting on the sunny side while the bus is at the station because when it pulls out onto the motorway the sun will end up on the other side. Then you can enjoy a moment of quiet smugness as all the people who thought they got the shady seats are forced to draw their curtains while you enjoy the breeze from your open window.

Then you can go home, weary but used to the heat, the smells, the jostling and ducking and darting. You can put it into perspective by embellishing it with colourful exaggerations, adorning it with far-fetched significance and pretend you are a lofty and detached observer, not just someone who can’t afford a car.

Algiers centre
Algiers Centre.

Food Glorious Food!

 

 

Every morning, my mother draws her little red stool up to the open fridge, and with a look of resigned determination, clears its heaving contents out onto the kitchen floor, and is soon to be seen wading her way through a grotesque still-life tableau of murky leftovers and wilted vegetables, mouldy cheeses, and a carousal of teacups filled with dregs of milk gone sour.

Every morning, my mother sorts the dead leaves of coriander, parsley, mint and spinach from the live, then wraps the increasingly limp survivors up in damp newspaper (as suggested in the newspaper) and plastic bags, then lays them back down for another day of hibernation.

Every morning, my mother cuts, peels and boils overripe tomatoes with ageing onions, blends them into a sauce which she freezes for later use. She cuts up peppers, makes tchektchouka. Sometimes she grills the peppers over an open flame and preserves them in olive oil. Sometimes they are stuffed with mince, other times they are worked into a rice dish. The peppers keep coming. There is a relentless army of them, grinding its way past her limited weaponry and her predictable tactics with steely purpose until they finally come to their final resting place. In the bin with all the rest. The rotten potatoes, which have made it past the Final Solution; chips. The three-day-old lentil soup, three times reheated. The beetroot salad, angry and reeking with vinaigrette, having left a lasting pink stain of revenge on the fridge shelf.

Every morning, my father goes to the market and buys more.

Every morning, my mother asks him not to…

Every week we decide to gather around the leftovers and eliminate them en masse; reheat the lot and tackle it with arm-length loaves of bread, tall glasses of juice and a rewarding dessert. Our well-exercised jaws chomp and chew through the petrified chicken breast, the dehydrated spaghetti bolo-was, and the ubiquitous Mediterranean medley; peppers, aubergines, tomatoes, courgettes and peppers.

Every week we make a carrot-potato-onion soup. We freeze uneaten baguettes and make garlic bread, we put others in the oven to harden and make breadcrumbs. We find ways to empty the fridge, the cupboard, the kitchen draws into our bloated bellies. We don’t eat, we clean up. We are the bin before the bin.

We are not alone.

I know every single person who reads this can relate and this is both sad and alarming.

There are days when we stumble about the house, struggling to digest, fat, bloated, hiccoughing, and grouchy. And I remember the days when meals used to be special, and everyone was thin.

When I was little, good food was such a rare commodity that I developed a habit (which I still have) of eating it in steps to savour it. Put down a plate of stew in front of me, and I will work my way towards the meat by eating all the surrounding vegetables first, then mopping up the sauce with my piece of beef or lamb. As children, we were given tantalising shreds of protein, swimming in a sea of fibre and carbs. Precious stuff. We left it till last; we gave it the respect it deserved.

Give me a Snickers bar, and I may disgust you by eating the chocolate coating first, then nibbling the caramel and nougat filling separately. Other times I cut it up into slices before dismantling it, for convenience and appearance’s sake. If I eat it whole the overwhelming richness makes me queasy. When I was little, chocolate was an occasional treat, and everyone ate it like Charlie Bucket, though being real children we didn’t share it with our grubby extended family, we ate it in the dark stairwell of our block of flats and wiped away the evidence.

When I was little my dad would come back from business trips every few months and present us with apples the size of our bony heads and bananas the length of our bony arms. We all got a quarter of each, and my generous mother, to our dismay, would then share the rest with the neighbours, who were ‘proper poor’. The first time next-door’s Mohamed was given a chunk of peeled banana, he flew into a rage; his sister got a whole piece of apple and all he got was a piece of turnip!

These days the apples sometimes land in the bin with the other rejects. They have grown common enough for us to realise that we don’t really like them. We can afford to be picky with fruit.

We can afford to wrinkle our noses at cheap cuts of meat, at boring local biscuits, at our least favourite flavour of yoghurt, at peppers. We can afford to leave half-drunk 500-dinar bottles of orange juice behind on the tables of overpriced restaurants, where we eat our fill, and pay the bill without flinching. That wasn’t bad for 5000 dinars!

These days are different. But are they better?

me and soum
My twin sister and I on our third birthday. Candles were also used sparingly back then.

 

 

Cool Britannia

Earlier on during class, my student, who had read my first blog entry, asked why I had described my previous life in England as ‘a seven-year stint for crimes I never committed’.

Yasmine, I actually don’t know why I alluded (yes, double ‘l’, thank you google) that seven meaningful and defining years of my life were similar to prison. But I don’t remember England as being much fun, and this is was mostly my fault. Here are the reasons I never fit in over there, and probably will never fit anywhere, ever:

  1. I have a funny walk, due to one of my legs being very slightly shorter than the other. As a child, I learned to compensate for this by hop-skip-jumping everywhere as opposed to walking. When I got excited, I became a road hazard; people had to step out of my way. This did not recommend me to teenagers of any variety. I have a distinct memory of bouncing down a school corridor one day, then turning to the sound of hysterical laughter behind me. One of my ‘friends’ was imitating me matching my strides, doing semi-lunges down the passage with a look of gleeful disdain. This made me self-conscious enough to learn to tread more carefully, so I would like to thank those giggly cows for at least teaching me a lesson.
  2. I was a swot. I tried to remedy this by doing badly in math’s (easily done) and being mouthy with the teachers, but this just made them think I had character and wit, and they liked me more. This brings me to my next point:
  3. I was a teacher’s pet. Still am. Can’t help it. I have always been more comfortable around people older than me than those my age. It makes sense; I was desperate to fit in, but had nothing with which to charm my female peers, and less still to catch the eyes of teenage boys (See point 4), so I turned to grown-ups instead.
  4. I didn’t look right. In school, just like in any other wild environment, survival is directly proportional to physique. The lions get to sleep a steady 20 hours out of 24, proper beauty sleep, reassured by their sexy feline grace and the lethal strength of their paws. Most of the less able-bodied creatures have the sense to at least remain obscure, or to seek safety in numbers. I, on the other hand,  was a featherless peacock; ostentatious by nature, but sadly lacking the bright plumage that would validate my vanity (ooh, alliteration). I was called: four-eyes, pizza-face, ninja (I wore a scarf), bushy-hair, flat-chest and a great many other things I couldn’t help. I hung around the pretty girls, hoping beauty was contagious. It wasn’t.
  5. I liked to read, so I used all the wrong kind of language. In a middle school peopled with the seed of England’s working class heroes and immigrants, the rules of communication are distinct: one must limit one’s vocabulary to mono or bisyllabic words. The popular girls set the trend for slang, but you are only to copy them among your own circle of friends, speak like them to their face and they will either piss themselves laughing or happy-slap you. The same rule applies for swearing. Ju get me, blood?
  6. I tried to fit it. This was a brave but hazardous approach to surviving school. The reward was tempting; strutting down the halls with the gaggle of pretty/funny/tough girls, breaking rules, growing stronger by sucking out the spirit of the weak, a bully and proud. It was doomed from the beginning as I could never strut (see point 1). I was a laughing-stock, but this didn’t stop me from skipping P.E to hang out with fellow rebels in the girls’ toilets, doing the alpha girl’s homework as she sat next to me and made fun of my nose.

I have since grown into my nose. I now get to use and teach big words for a living. But I’m still a round peg in a square hole wherever I go, except here, where there’s a special made, geometrics-defying hole made just for me.

I know the blogging universe is made up of lone planets, licking the wounds of unhappy childhoods, traumatic teen years, and the deeper cuts inflicted by adulthood, because they have now become fully aware of the extent of their strangeness. But we are not moving away from each other like the bodies in space, we are brought together by our common experience of loneliness, drifting towards the pull of virtual comfort. We are finally part of a crowd, a place where all the misfits fit.

You know what the perk of having one leg shorter than the other is? If I try to keep both feet on the ground, I’ll look funny. So I’ll just live life in the clouds.