[ places - november 02 ]
The headlines in an assortment of French dailies which screamed "Five tourists killed by terrorists in Seraidi" probably held little significance for most of their readership. The victims represented just a handful out of the hundreds of thousands who have lost their lives at the hands of the now-banned Islamic Salvation Front since 1992.
For me, the news was disturbing. Not only because it smacked of yet more suffering, doom and gloom; it also signalled the end of a special place of beauty and peace which had been locked safely in my mind's eye more than a quarter of a century ago.
My story begins in 1975 with a newspaper ad seeking a French/English translator for a consultant engineers in Algeria. I had brushed up on my French after a sojourn in Paris, but I was no translator and held out little hope of being appointed. A week later, I found myself on an Air Algérie flight nervously winging my way to the ancient, eastern Algerian city of Annaba, previously known as Bone and, before that, Hippone.
Home for the next 18 months was Seraidi, a mountain-top pleasure station where well-to-do Algerians built chalets to escape the scorching heat. My first glimpse of the picturesque whitewashed village was at the end of a 45-minute journey from Annaba in a ramshackle taxi which rattled its way up narrow, winding mountain roads at a breakneck speed. It was night and, worse, a mountain mist cut visibility down to just a few yards. White-knuckled, I began to believe that my stay in Algeria could well be over before it had begun.
Like a scene from Brigadoon, the mists cleared, and there was the hotel El Mountazah, built like a miniature Moorish fortress and perched precariously on the edge of a cliff.
My enormous room was pristine white with a huge bed, big enough to sleep at least four, but the wonderful surprise came the next morning when I opened the French windows onto a verandah giving out onto one of the most spectacular panoramas I had ever seen:
dense forest interspersed with brightly coloured spring flowers and itinerant goats culminated in the glistening azure Mediterranean. I filled my lungs with gulps of crisp mountain air before breakfasting on a soup bowl of café crème, hot croissants and toast thickly spread with home-made fig jam. I had a choice between permanent residence in the hotel or a company villa downtown, which would avoid the tortuous daily commute. I made my decision there and then.
My colleagues turned out to be an eclectic bunch from all over Europe, the then Soviet Union, the Mid-East and Africa. I soon befriended a British translator called Liz who would yell for me to pour more Pernod as she held court in her antique, free-standing iron bath. There was a dour Dutchman, with whom I had the misfortune of sharing an office, an aristocratic Italian part-time bookbinder, a Bulgarian lothario - and then there was Aisha.
Aisha was one of the Algerian secretaries at El Hadjar, the steelworks we were helping to construct at the edges of Annaba. The young, fashionably-attired Arab girl had attitude and enjoyed displaying that the Algerians were the bosses and we, the hired help. Amazingly, she took a liking to me and began bringing me a flask of coffee and sweet cakes each day, much to the annoyance of Williamsteyn, the Dutch engineer who believed in keeping clear of the locals.
As our friendship progressed, she insisted on teaching me Arabic or what passed for Arabic in Algeria at that time. It was a bastardised French interspersed with classical Arabic and Berber. She showed me off to her giggling friends and decided that I should no longer eat lunch in the dusty, corrugated iron foreigners' canteen.
Instead, she slipped her arm through mine, ignoring my feeble protests, and carted me off to the spanking new, multi-storied restaurant designated for Algerians only. As I entered, everyone in the hall put down their cutlery and stared. This was the first time that a Welsh girl with blue eyes and flowing blonde locks had entered their exclusive territory.
The months passed and our friendship grew. As Aisha learned about life outside the borders of her own country, I began to understand what it must be like to be born a girl in a conservative Algerian family. Her mother had never left the house except to travel from her family home to her husband's, and her two aunts had never married and had never gone outside. Their confinement had meant that by the time they had reached their 40s, they were crippled.
She recounted how angry her parents had been when she had announced that she was taking a job; her brothers had beaten her before locking her in her room. She later escaped and took refuge with a more liberal relative in another village.
I already knew a little about the lot of some of my Algerian sisters. A waiter in the hotel asked me to drive him and his sick wife to the hospital. A figure swathed entirely in black, she sat in the back seat moaning from pain all the way. When we arrived, there was no female doctor on duty, so I had the heart-wrenching task of driving the pair back home.
It took almost a year before Aisha finally told me her secret. She was in love with a young cousin called Rashid who was working in France. He had promised to marry her during his next vacation and take her away to what she called freedom. She fished from her worn plastic handbag a tiny black-and-white passport photograph of a handsome, serious youth. "Regard comme il est beau," she purred. But this was not Aisha's only secret.Her large blue-black eyes glistening, she hung her head and whispered that she could never marry Rashid or anyone else. Aisha was not a virgin. As a very young girl she had befriended a tall, fair-haired Swedish electrician, who had seduced her with French perfumes, roses and promises of a new life across the ocean before flying off, never to be seen or heard of again.
Her only hope, she said, was an operation - common in Morocco and the Lebanon - which could miraculously repair the hymen. But how could she get the passport to travel without her parents' consent, let alone the surgeon's fees?
I tentatively suggested that she should confess all to her would-be bridegroom, who, since he lived in the West, could well be open-minded about such matters.
"Tu es folle," came the response. "Even if Rashid could forgive me for no longer being a girl, my family would still demand to see a bloodstained sheet after the marriage ceremony. If there is no blood, my brothers would kill me."
Seeming to regret her confession, perhaps because she was unsure whether she could trust her foreign confidante, Aisha slowly withdrew and I was no longer invited for lunch and spoilt with tidbits, although she still smiled when we passed in the corridor.
I thought little of Aisha's problems that following summer. I was too busy squandering my expenses, which arrived in brown envelopes stuffed with oversized wads of Dinar.
Non-exchangeable for foreign devise, I found myself in the enviable position of having too much to spend, and so splashed out on seafood dinners, silk kaftans, garish gold jewellery, and weekends enjoying the comparative sophistication of the capital with its open-air discos, French bistros and swish al fresco coffee shops.
During the rare times that Liz was reasonably sober, we braved the local buses, which we shared with black abbaya-wrapped women, burnoose-clad men with knitted hats and an assortment of livestock. On one occasion, I felt someone poking my back. It happened again and again, until I turned to face a scruffy young man who was poised to begin prodding again. He grinned from ear to ear, displaying yellowing teeth, eyes flashing suggestively.My instantaneous reaction was to hit him over the head with my guidebook and yell an expletive in my best guttural Arabic. The result was unexpected. My assailant jumped out of his seat as though he had seen the devil incarnate, ran to the driver and demanded that he stop the bus. As he alighted in the middle of nowhere, the rest of the passengers, oddly, behaved with British-style reserve and looked away.
We spent our vacation driving in my company car - a hardy Citroen Deux Chevaux - through the Sahara, accompanied by an elderly Algerian driver who waxed lyrical: the dunes were in his blood. We brought along a record player which the driver used more than we did, playing the latest Egyptian hits - the perfect musical background to the desertscape.
We searched for Rose de Sables (quartz rocks), participated in a khayma (a Bedu festival) in Biskra, sighed at the endless expanses of white salt lakes, and gazed at myriads of brilliant constellations from the roof of a villa outside the walled town of Ghardia.
Foreigners were forbidden from staying in Ghardia, one of the twin towns of the Mzab, after 6pm. This was the home of the Mzabites who still lived in the Middle Ages. Their only transport was the donkey, their income derived from extensive date plantations, while their womenfolk lived on the rooftops, interconnected so that they could meet with friends and family.
The men sported long beards and wore Turkish-type baggy black pleated trousers. We only saw old men; the young worked in the cities so they could send back enough money to support the palmary. At the call of the muezzin, the entire town would lay down their tools and congregate in the town square in front of the mosque for prayers.
We drove past the mysterious black tents of the Ouled Nail tribe huddled together on the side of a verdant hill. Mustapha, our driver, explained that the tribe made its living out of its daughters, who from the age of 13 danced (a polite euphemism) their way from town to town collecting gold coins which they would string around their necks. When they reached their 20s, and were considered to have lost some of their nubile charm, they returned to their tribal homeland where their fiancés awaited to turn them into respectable tent-wives.
A group of women from the Shawia tribe (Berbers from the Aures Mountains), dressed in gaudy, brightly coloured dresses, waved and smiled as we drove by. The original inhabitants of Algeria, the Berbers kept alive their own language and enjoyed their own customs and traditions. At that time, Arabs and Berbers got along and occasionally inter-married, but, unfortunately, this is no longer so. Today, Algeria's Berber peoples complain that they are treated as second-class citizens and believe that their lifestyle and language is under threat.
Our heads still buzzing with excitement and strange tales, we returned to our Seraidi haven, where Liz hit the bottle while I strolled through the village drinking in the peaceful ambience and friendly faces everywhere calling out "Bonsoir Mademoiselle". I felt as though all was right in the best of all possible worlds.
But like all good things, even this had to come to an end. The next day, I entered the office still glowing from my holiday only to face a funereal atmosphere. Williamsteyn scowled even more than usual, my Algerian colleagues appeared furtive, and Aisha was nowhere to be found.
I began to wish I had joined up with the Ouled Nail when the Dutch man beckoned and told me in a particularly callous tone: "Your friend Aisha will not be coming back. We need to advertise for a replacement." More than that he refused to say.
Aisha's friends clammed up too and professed ignorance when I asked them why she had left and where she was. Later, the rumours began trickling through.
Some went that she had been found stabbed in a field; another, that she had been arrested for prostitution while in the company of a Russian. I even heard that she had eloped with an Algerian and gone to live overseas. I preferred to believe the latter version and hoped that my friend had found happiness with Rashid in her version of the Promised Land.
The office became drabber than before, Liz flew back to Britain for emergency surgery and the familiarity of England began to beckon, but before I had reached the decision to quit, my mind was made up for me. My company's contract had come to an end and wouldn't be renewed.
A month later found me gloomily at home with my parents, who lived in a suburb of London. The calm of Seraidi, the kindness of the Algerian people and the haunting, spectacular night sky of the Sahara was now in my blood. I longed to go back. As I stood in London's Waterloo Station and watched the commuters grimly rushing past one another, I knew that I would never again be the same.
I never did return to Algeria, but during the years since my exile, Seraidi had metamorphosed into my personal mini Utopia, more perfect than anywhere could be in reality. It was the private place to which I withdrew in my mind when the rat race got too much to bear, but no longer. The newspaper with its ugly truths has broken the spell of my own making. In reality there is no perfect place and any semblance of perfection is transient.
Perhaps one day I will gather the courage to return. Perhaps my love affair with a tiny mountain village where the air is pure, the vista stunning and the silence is audible, will be rekindled. Perhaps I will even bump into Aisha, now a rotund matron who will invite me for a "bon cous-cous". Then again, maybe not.