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.