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. I don’t know who I’m more afraid to provoke. 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 stained-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 forth to preach, 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 remains.
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’ answer to 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, around 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 Benbouali 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 2 Mai 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-we’ll-take-care-of-you-please-come-in. You have to squeeze through 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 or mild). They are too small to eat in so crowds jostle at the door, shout their orders at the vendor and eat their food on the street. They are 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 after, as long as peckish people continued to walk 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-step 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, given ill-wishes for his health, told unsavoury things about his mother, he continued 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 beggar 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 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.