Remember Djamila : Algeria- 1971 to 1973
Arriving at the Dar El Beida airport of Algiers one afternoon in September of 1971, I found the custom’s officer a bit paranoid about the things foreigners brought in to the country .He wanted to charge me hefty duty on my slide projector and the camera but Stephanie who was the country director of the IVS said that I should say ” pour déménagement”.
This was not working well but I slipped out quietly when the fellow was distracted by something or someone. Stephanie was a model of efficiency, spoke French and Arabic and knew Maghreb well. I was the first agronomist to arrive so she was excited and chattered endlessly on about what the IVS could do in Algeria given the possibilities. I listened on but did not pay much attention. I was curious to find out what happened in the next few days and most especially where I was supposed to be stationed.
In Washington, D.C. I was told that I will be posted in Setif which is an extensive wheat growing area in the eastern part of Algeria but my experience told me that on the ground things were often done differently.
So the next day we went to see the personnel officer at the Ministry of Agriculture in Algiers who turned out to be a mean fellow.. He ranted that the country will soon have its own agronomists and will not need any foreigners etc. It did not bode well for a person of my experience and education but the mood in the country seemed to be nasty and he was simply mouthing the unofficial line .
I began to wonder if I had not made a mistake to come to Algeria after all. They did not seem to be very friendly .But the deputy director of the ministry was more polished and probably a well traveled person. He received us warmly and said that it would be better for me to go to Tizi Ouzou in the Kabyle mountains not too far from Algiers. He felt that the isolation in Setif would be too hard on a bachelor like me .
So I went to Tizi Ouzou . It is about 100 km east of Algiers and very mountainous. It is a small town surrounded by hills and higher mountains that were always covered with snow in the winter .This is a part of the Atlas mountain chain that sort of goes east to west. The southern side of the DjurDjura as the Algerians called it is the start of the massive desert of Sahara but the narrow land between the mountains and the coast was very fertile and green.
This is where winter wheat, barley, oats, corn and a variety of other crops were grown often with irrigation. In fact the agricultural land was in millions of hectares and certainly adequate for a small population of Algeria. I began to wonder at the wisdom of sending me to Tizi Ouzou where they mostly grew olives .I was to soon find out.
In Tizi Ouzou lived a couple called Stan and Cathy Winters who taught English at the girl’s school .They were helpful in settling me in but in Tizi Ouzou it meant a dreary hotel room because there was a shortage of housing. They were staying at the French Foyer culturelle but I was put up elsewhere.
My office was just down the block where I was coolly received by my Algerian counterpart and very warmly by a French fellow called Jean Claude . Soon I met a Tunisian fellow who invited me to share his studio.
Stan and Cathy were in the meantime given a nice apartment but they forgot about me so I stayed on with Mohamed hoping that one day I too will have my own place. But this was not to be. The housing problem will dog me for a long long time in Algeria.
Mohamed was very fond of TV which he played until the station signed off so I had to pretend to sleep. I disliked the shrill Arabic music but I was just a guest .Had it not been for this kind fellow ,I would still be in that flea infested hotel room with peeling paint so I put up with his TV and Arabic music .We did not talk much although my French had improved substantially .I was forced to speak French all the time because no one spoke English which made my progress more rapid.
There were a few shops with not much to sell and a few restaurants where the menu remained the same but it did not matter. I had lived in far worse places in Vietnam. Here at least I had a nice corner of a room to myself and the office was just a walking distance away. There were a few French cooperants who were doing their alternate service and a few other nationalities like Canadians, British, one Spanish, One Belgian and now one Indian. Algerians liked Indian or rather they liked Indian movies but there were no Indians in Algeria except perhaps at the embassy.
I liked the cold crisp mountain air of Tizi Ouzou and used to get up at 6 am, put on my shorts, tennis shoes and gloves because it was so cold in the morning, run down 4 flight of stairs and down the valley where I practiced some calisthenics and other morning exercise. The Algerians watched but soon got used to this routine . Then I would buy a liter of milk, run upstairs and shower, eat a hearty breakfast and go to my office .It felt good and my hollow cheeks started to fill out.
I started going out with my counterpart in his tiny Renault 4 and got to know the province well in a short time but all I saw was mostly olives . Why did they send me here? I was a field agronomist in a mountain province. It did not make sense. The Algerians did whatever their ministry asked them to do. This turned out mostly to be collecting data by phone on how many barley fields planted that week.
The province was divided into districts and each district had so many state run farms run by managers who depended on their supervisors who in turn depended on their laborers for ploughing, planting, harvesting etc. So when the agriculture office called the districts, they called the farm managers who then called the supervisors who told them that approximately so many hectares of wheat or barley were planted. The fact was that no one really knew so it was just a guess work.
At the office this data would be meticulously compiled to be sent to the Ministry every week .All the provinces in Algeria were required to do this every week tying up thousands of people in useless unproductive work .No one knew what the ministry did with this massive amount of data. The sheer stupidity of it all appalled me. But woe to you if your data were not ready when the Ministry called. Everyone was scared of Algiers including the director whom they called patron.
There were many Bulgarians, Yugoslavs and few other east Europeans I never knew from where but these people were often seen with the patron rubbing their palms together and drooling. They tried to create the impression that they were working hard but when I went out with some of them due to car pooling, I found them collecting anything they could get for free from the state farms . A crate of oranges, or roses that some farms grew were put in their cars.
They also told everyone that my travel stories were mostly made up and perhaps I had just passed through an airport to claim that I had visited a country. I never understood their meanness as they never spoke to me and try to get to know me. I never reported their scavenging either. In my spare time I practiced my French with Jean Claude or read my lessons but one day someone stole my French lesson book that Nicole had given me.
The loss was great as I could not buy that book anywhere but my French improved dramatically with Jean Claude as my de facto teacher. I could now read, write and speak French perhaps not like a Frenchman but better than an Indian. But more and more I was getting disenchanted. Sure I made a lot of friends among the foreigners and a few Algerians and sure the climate was nice and grapes cheap but I was an agronomist in this mountain province where they grew olives and little bit of wheat and barley.
People did not care if we did nothing so most people did nothing and read news paper when the Patron was not around. He would often ask why the so called experts did not know the answer to this problem or that while the government was paying them a good salary. The East Europeans would grin and try to hide their embarrassment .I began to form a low opinion of them.
One day the Tizi Ouzou sports council organized a cross country run of several kilometers .There were many professional athletes who came to run so when I showed up to join, they thought I was great runner from India.
I warmed up with a lot of calisthenics and started to run along with a crowd of runners. Soon they all left me behind but I continued on determined to finish the race no matter what. I followed the flags and ran through the mud and water because it really was a cross country run.
The whole town had lined up on both sides of the only street to watch the show and they applauded heartily when I returned last panting and nearly exhausted. The next morning some of my French friends who had watched the tail end of the show congratulated me being the first to get in. Why would the Algerians applaud if I was not? Apparently they did not understand the Arab sense of humour.
I was from then on eagerly sought whenever there was a cross country race organized anywhere .I enjoyed this sort of physical activity that I had never done before .People were amazed to know that I had never run before I took up cross country racing but I often did things like that and enjoyed doing it.
One day I received a summon from the police in Algiers to report to them although I did not know why. Stephanie and I went to find out. It turned out that they did not like the Vietnamese stamps on my passport and wanted to know what I was doing there. I said that I was a volunteer agronomist there so they said ” Thank you . you may go” . It was silly. I had traveled 200 kilometers just for a one minute interview but they did not care.
Policemen in Algeria were arrogant and were rough with the locals. Even with the foreigners, at times they were rude and often stopped me on the road in a discourteous manner simply to ask where I was from but people were not bad .Some of them were actually very nice to me.
I at this time started to plan on how to get out of Tizi Ouzou so I wrote a letter to the Ministry to ask for a transfer to an area where rice was grown. I had a lot of experience in rice research and could be useful to them. To my surprise they agreed and after six months in Tizi Ouzou, I was transferred to Mostaganem province in the west where a great deal of rice was grown. Stephanie was happy because usually the Ministry did not listen to anyone.
Suzanne wrote more and more infrequently now although I counted the days for her letters. I invited her to Algeria and would have wired her a ticket but she wrote that she was busy with the mobile unit of the anti war protest team visiting many places. She could not come but promised to write more often. The letters became rare and one day stopped all together. I knew then that the chapter of Suzanne was closed forever.
I was soon to leave Tizi Ouzou but I had liked the snow capped mountains of Fort National and Azazga. I even went to a Berber marriage in the mountains where smart Berber girls who wore no veils but short skirts invited me to dance with them . Berbers are not Arabs and have their distinct culture and language apart from the rest. They are a very handsome people and wear long white djellabas of finest camel wool .It looked very elegant on them and quite warm.
But the poverty was also apparent. They lived in a mountainous country where there was little hope for jobs because agriculture was limited. Sure it was very scenic where you could look at the Roman ruins and the blue ocean beyond but such scenery was not enough for people who looked at them all the time and did not have the same fascination as the foreigners. They had other pressing needs like schools, housing, electricity, potable water, roads, dispensaries and clinics and mostly jobs.
Thousands had immigrated to France to work in their sweatshops to send home money and more were going. The exodus was great from these beautiful hills where young were few and old many.
One could see the wrecks of planes and tanks wedged in the ravines to remind you that only 9 years ago they had fought a devastating war that had claimed a million lives of Algerian men, women and even children. The film ” Bataille d’Alger” is worth seeing .
When I said that I knew the story of Djamila Boupacha ,they were surprised but Djamila was greatly admired in India for her bravery and articles on her appeared in popular magazines in vernacular. She was an 18 year old lass who had fought against the French occupation and was tortured by the French secret police. Algerians had fought the French tooth and nail and paid a heavy price for it. Now I began to understand their reluctance to talk about the past.
To understand Algeria better , one has to know its bloody history. The war lasted from 1954 to 1962 and was as brutal as any war can be. The French had just been booted out by the Vietnamese after their defeat at Dien Bien Phu so they were adamant that they as a nation will not be humiliated again, not by some fellahins whom they disdained. Algeria was not a colony. It was a part of France or a department as they called it. It was French soil so they were not about to turn around and leave. It could have a domino effect and people in Martinique or Polynesia or elsewhere could start getting the idea. They could not handle that .
So they killed the Algerians at will and tortured them. They blew up their homes in Casbah and all over Algeria. There were many Djamilas whom they raped and tortured but the brave Algerians fought on tooth and nails and paid a very high price . The guerilla leaders like Boumedienne, Ben Bella, Bouteflika and others led the fight and millions joined. It was the first time in their history that the women threw away their veils and grabbed the guns to fight along with their men.
But it must have been very rough for many and I wondered if that lame man was born like that or was he tortured ? There were many telltale signs all around you. It made them edgy and somewhat secretive. The scars were raw and not properly healed yet but all over Algeria one could see the past or what remained of the past. The abandoned villas of the French colons or pieds noirs were everywhere often used as warehouses.One could still see the blown up houses in Casbah in Algiers .
But they did not hate the French now. Cooperants like Jean Claude came to Algeria to do their alternate service. They were the nicest French people I would meet anywhere .
When de Gaulle started the talk of Algerian Independence, the disgruntled army officers plotted to kill him and nearly succeeded. The Day of the Jackal written by Forsythe is worth reading . France had fought bitterly during the world war and was occupied by the Nazis. They fought long and hard to keep Vietnam as their colony and source of rubber and minerals but were defeated. Now there was this problem in Algeria but de Gaulle was wise and he correctly read the mood in France .
When people read the account of Djamilla Boupacha and how the French police has beaten and tortured her for days, the public opinion went against the occupation and the pressure mounted on de Gaulle to do something .The rest is history.
I had arrived barely 9 years after the war ended and they gained their freedom but I could see that the wound was still raw and people edgy.
We too had fought a long and bitter war against the British since 1857 but the Algerians did not know anything about India except that the movie actresses were always pretty with white skin. They liked Indian movies that had kings and queens, romance, fights and clowns ,lots of songs and dances and wondered aloud why I never went to see any. They also called all Indians Hindou which I explained was incorrect. Not all Indians were Hindus but they had learned it from the French .
At about this time just before I was about to leave for Mostaganem, Stan and Cathy invited me to their all girls’ school where the girls were presenting an evening of songs and dances. I shaved clean and put on my suit with a matching tie and showed up at the school.
This was my first experience to meet with the Algerian girls in close quarters because in town you could see only their veils and not the faces. I had arrived a bit late. The show had already started and the auditorium dark but the usherettes noticed me just the same ,took my hand and guided me through the narrow passage to the very front row where some girls were pinched and pushed aside to make room for me.
Now the girls noticed that there was a stranger dressed in a dark suit and started whispering .Soon there was a scuffle among them to decide who would get to sit next to me. I was nervous and waited to see what happened next. I did not have to wait long. Soon a pretty girl appeared and with a triumphant smile secured the next seat and whispered into my ears that she was going to be my official interpreter . The skits were in Arabic.
She also said that she knew where I lived and worked and perhaps I was an Ingenieur . I realized how small Tizi Ouzou really was.
Other girls pinched her to get away but she held her seat while I watched from the corner of my eyes ,this sideshow. I do not remember the name of my self appointed interpreter but she spoke beautiful French and explained what was going on . Stan and Cathy were nowhere to be found.
Then the intermission lights came on and 800 teenagers noticed that indeed there was a Hindou among them whom some of them had seen elsewhere. This news was catastrophic for me . Literally I was mobbed and many surrounded me chattering and pushing or shoving each other.
Now mind you ,in an all girl’s school like that they only saw their male teachers .They were not allowed to be seen with boys on the street or even their brothers lest someone misunderstand . But here they were in their elements , in their own domain or world where they did whatever pleased them. These girls were really wild and I began to be afraid of them.
They asked if I was married . When I replied “No I was single” they misunderstood me and shrieked in unison ” Oh monsieur you are a singer? Please sing for us” and started dragging me to the stage.
I was in big trouble and looked for help but luckily at this time the lights went out and the show resumed. But the girls seemed to be more interested in me than the show and waited for the show to end . I dreaded the show to end because I did not know what was in store for me or how I could escape now. Finally the evening was over and I got up in a hurry to take the wrong corridor to the squeals of laughter but they were not through with me yet.
A girl and a very pretty one at that introduced herself as Oultache and wanted my address in Mostaganem so I wrote it down and quickly left the premises .Outside I found Stan and Cathy waiting and smiling. They had seen what had happened .
One day I arrived in Algiers to meet Stephanie who would drive me to Mostaganem . It was some 400 km west of Algiers but the road was excellent. It was a bigger town and on the coast .The nearest big city was Oran further west and some 80 kms away. Mostaganem was flat unlike Tizi Ouzou and the beaches were lovely. But first I had to find a place to stay.
There was an American English teacher who let me stay with him but he turned out to be on drugs. The Algerian authorities did not like this and tended to come down hard on drug users . I was very uncomfortable and started to look for an alternative desperately . The help came from a Yugoslav fellow in my office who said that a room was for rent in the house where he lived. He lived in an Algerian home where I thought women were secluded and foreigners not allowed but I was wrong.
In the house the women wore short skirts showing a good deal of their legs and other parts as well but that did not bother me. What nauseated me was the squealing kids or crying kids I could never tell which doing their toilet on the floor anywhere they liked. Their mothers cleaned up only once a day.
I had to always look down because I never knew what I was going to step on and millions of flies attracted to the feast made life very difficult indeed for me. I could not go to the roof because a fat neighbor thought that I was looking at his ugly wife although why would anyone look at ugly women perhaps never occurred to him . Again I started to look for a place of my own. But I was in for more miserable months ahead.
This time a place was found for me in the dressing room of the local stadium where the janitor let me stay but his son broke in and stole most of my money and ransacked the suitcase. But it was not an airtight case so the son got off scot free while I started again my search . In desperation I went to the housing office and said that it was not fair that I did not have an apartment while others lived comfortably.
The officer showed sympathy but said that nothing was available that would suit me. I wish I could show him my dressing room or the other room full of flies and said that I must have my own place. Finally he gave me the keys to an apartment saying that it was substandard but I could go and take a look if I wished. The apartment turned out to be a studio with a long room, one nice bedroom, kitchen and a small bathroom fitted with hot and cold shower. One whole wall was made of glass and overlooked the green vineyards and the ocean beyond. This was paradise .
Now that my housing problem was solved ,I turned my attention to another problem no less vexing. It was the problem of transportation. The office did not have enough vehicles for all the ingenieurs so often I could not go out to work in distant locations .Car pooling helped somewhat but not much.
So I asked the IVS to buy me a motorbike . It was a big black and red and chrome beautiful MZ bike made in East Germany . I loved it. I also got black leather jacket, helmet, leather gloves and goggles to go with it and would zoom past amused Algerians . Algerians did not like motorbikes and told me that I will fall down, catch pneumonia, it was not fashionable, it was not suitable for an ingenieur etc. etc. but it really did not matter. The kids loved my bike and always clapped their hands whenever I passed through their villages. Only the gendarmes rode motorbikes in Algeria.
I started to work earnestly and covered vast distances on my bike . My work at this time included rice research in the Oued Rhiou area, soybean, forage crops like trudan and fertilizer trials in Mascara and other districts.
The deputy director appreciated my efforts and asked me if I could oversee the aerial fertilization program in the Mascara district. The vast state owned farms of wheat and barley had to be fertilized from air using Antonov planes so I used to go very early before sunrise during the winter and supervise loading the hoppers with Urea . Then the pilot flew in between two flags on the ground .
To prevent catching pneumonia I covered my breast with thick newspaper before putting on the jacket but still could feel the cold. The winter is very rough there . Once I fell off my bike in a village on the road to Mascara because my fingers had become numb . I could have fallen into the deep lake off those sheer mountain roads to Mascara but I guess I was lucky . The deputy director sent me gas coupons for my bike but some of my colleagues pocketed some of it . Still the work was good and satisfying. I obtained excellent result sowing pre germinated rice seeds using a seed drill. The fertilizer trials were also doing well.
Soon the time came for me to go on a vacation. I opted for a ship to take me to Marseille and from there to Paris. I had heard that one could get cheaper airfares from there to many places . My French cooperant friend Yves brought me to Oran one day where my misadventure was to begin shortly. This was my first sea journey but little did I know what was in store for me.
The ship looked very old and rusty like a slave ship. It did not look very seaworthy but they were loading cars and people so finally I got on and found an easy chair on the deck. It soon left the port of Oran with sea gulls following us quite a ways . I watched the blue water and the receding shore line while one Algerian fellow started lambasting the government that kept everyone amused for a while .
Late at night the ship started rolling and pitching in a such a way that made me very sick . We all went down and tried to get into a comfortable position but it was useless . The rolling continued and I soon became very sick vomiting . There was no water to clean myself so you can imagine the misery. I knew I had made a big mistake but I could not get off now so tried to endure it with gritting teeth until we came to Alicante in Spain.
I jumped out to get fresh air and some water but dreaded the rest of the journey that was to last whole night .It was a nightmare . The next day when we arrived in the port of Marseille, I had no energy to stand up. The custom’s officer rubbed salt on the wound by saying that my luggage looked like the airline luggage . He also asked a nurse to give me a white powder that she poured into my mouth and gave me a glass of water. I felt better after some time and vowed never to board a ship again.
The French trains are fast and comfortable although a bit expensive but then everything in Europe is expensive compared to India. I did not mind. The night train zipped past Dizon and other cities and arrived in Paris the next day. I had been to Paris a few times before and knew the city reasonably well. The Metro was old but reliable and had a route map near the entrance that lit up when you pressed the button of your destination and showed where to change the train. It was very ingenious.
The travel agent at the Place de le Danfert Rochreau told me that I could fly to Delhi and back for half the regular fare .The catch was that you could not choose the date and time or the airline .I did not mind . I had also to be a member of a flying club for at least six months but the kids who ran the outfit were very street smart. They produced a certificate for me back dated six months and voila I was a standing member of a dubious club. It was hilarious . Soon they called me and said that I was to report to the Le Bourget airport in the evening for a flight to Delhi.
I was happy and finally going home but at the airport there was a surprise. The flight had been cancelled and would leave the next day. I did not know if it was a con job so I went again the next day and found a gleaming Iraqi jet getting ready to take off. I was to pass through Baghdad but that did not matter. In the air I asked for the real reason for the cancellation of the flight the previous day and was told that the Israelis were bombing over Syria so the pilot did not like to take any chances .
The Baghdad airport lounge was full of black burka clad women reminding you that you were passing through an Islamic country. I lived in Algeria but there the women wore white shiny silky veil that looked quite nice. Here it was all black and like a tent with two peepholes. Anyway I got back to the plane in a hurry and the rest of the journey was not very remarkable.
When I flew back to Paris , I went to the shipping company office and said that it was a shame they operated the rust buckets like the one I took the last time and there was no way I was going back to Algeria in that slave ship. They said that I was in luck and could take the most modern ship called El Djejair back to Algiers . The ship was to leave the next day so I rushed to the Gare de Lyon with only a few minutes to spare and got on a train to Marseille in the nick of time. But the train was a sleeper train where a reservation was required .
Soon a young chap showed up and said that I had got on the wrong train. Well wrong or not I was not about to get off. The Istanbul train ride had taught me a few lessons so I said that he should look for a sleeping berth for me . In France it helps a lot if you speak French.Sure enough he came back a bit later and said that a berth for monsieur has been found and would cost me an extra 18 francs. No problem.
The French girl in the lower berth and I talked for long hours until the sleep came . She started shaking me early in the morning and saying Monsieur Monsieur Get up please. Your station is coming soon .
The taximen in Marseille are not so nice as the ones you find in Paris because they are mostly Corsicans and look like they on parole and probably are. Their meter never works when they spot a foreigner and charge whatever takes their fancy . You could not ask the policemen to intervene so I paid the fare and got to the port. Marseille is a tough town. You have to look like a Corsican to live there or an Arab. They don’t mess with the Arabs because many carry knives .
This time I was not disappointed .The ship was huge and gleaming white. They gave me a nice bed with clean sheets and blankets so I was very happy. The ocean crossing this time was quite uneventful so to speak. I was not really ready for any “events”.
I had worked in the Mascara region very hard during the winter and gained the confidence of the deputy director but my real interest was rice so I moved to a village called Oued Rhiou 100 km east of Mostaganem where I found a storage room for fertilizer on a farm as my temporary shelter. But the farm manager called Mohamed said that it was not right for an ingenieur to live in a storage depot and insisted that I move in with him.
It was very kind of him and he really was a very nice person. It was also very rare for a foreigner to be invited to live with a family but he called me his brother and welcomed me. His young wife was very pleased when I took some photos of her with the baby with my zoom lens and gave her some copies. The photos were very good thanks to my good camera . The work on rice progressed well and I spent a very productive time there
The pre germinated rice seeds planted with a seed drill came up nicely and a mechanical weeder could be used in between rows instead of herbicide. The work on soybean, forage grass and corn also progressed well. The French professors of the Institut Technologique Agricole or ITA of Mostaganem came out one day to photograph the plants in my research plots to use them as teaching materials . I felt professionally satisfied but an Angolan fellow in Tlemcen was not . He had a lot of trouble with his counterparts so one day I decided to see him. My big bike could take me anywhere in Algeria.
The gendarmes often stopped me on the road because it was very rare for them to see an Algerian in a djellaba riding a big red and black motorbike so they stopped me to check my papers. Imagine their surprise when the djellaba clad rider turned out to be a Hindou speaking French. They would laugh and send me on my way and often would salute me zipping past.
Tlemcen is near the Moroccan border and a small town where my Angolan friend was having such a hard time . So I gave him a few ideas that he took seriously and stayed on to complete his tour of duty.
The work I enjoyed most was working with private farmers .In Algeria the private farmers were doomed. The state acquired the best land everywhere leaving the fellahins the unwanted poor land where they planted wheat, barley or other crops. But my heart went out for them because they so appreciated any help I could give them in their agriculture.
The government mostly ignored them but I started working with an FAO expert who was working with the private farmers in Mascara and helping with the fertilizer trials. I often worked very late in the field with the farmers who realizing that I had not eaten the whole day brought bread and olives or invited me to share their couscous .Often they would put some eggs in the hood of my camel hair djellaba that I always wore.
I loved these simple folks .They were proud people who did not accept favors easily . They lived in mud houses and wore tattered clothes and plastic shoes full of patches but they were the nicest people I ever met.
The land reform program of the government was heavily against these poor people because their policy was to continue to expand the state owned farms due to their socialistic policies. Many such displaced farmers ended up working as laborers in the state owned farms but there was a fierce opposition building up that resulted in one attempt at bombing the ministry in Algiers. The bomb did not cause much damage and its coverage by the state controlled TV and radio was minimal but people knew through the grapevine. While on the subject let me write about the state of Algerian agriculture at that time.
The state owned farms were huge meaning one farm could be of a few thousand hectares .Many millions of hectares of vineyards were being uprooted to plant wheat because Algerians did not drink wine so there was no market for it. Most of the wine was exported to France where they mixed the stronger Algerian wine to blend theirs and I often saw the Russian ships in Mostaganem that loaded up wine and oranges .In exchange they gave tractors or other farm machinery so the barter worked well.
But the Algerians discarded expensive farm machinery that broke down for the want of a simple part. Often they ordered wrong tire size for their tractors or wrong parts . So the result was that their machines were in sorry shape often held together with bailing wires or ropes. One could see huge piles of discarded farm equipment in massive junkyards outside the towns. Clearly this was a tremendous waste of resources but no one cared. Earlier I had written how the ministry tied up thousands of people collecting useless data on how many hectares of wheat was planted each week.
The grains harvested were often stored in conditions where they spoiled or rats infested the warehouses . In this country of a small population and so much agricultural land ,they wasted tremendous resources . The agricultural offices employed thousands of technicians who rarely went out to solve problems because they were ill trained to do so. The few Russian made Fiats cars the office provided were inadequate and often had problems of overheating .
But there was also tremendous progress towards public housing, rural electrification and roads. I was told that they were building a school room every five minutes nationwide. One could see this progress everywhere. The roads were excellent and the bus and train service very good.
People wore plastic or rubber boots but everyone had shoes of some sort. Fruits and vegetables were plentiful in the market and prices low. Obviously some government departments were doing a good job but the agriculture ministry was not one of them.
The ITA in Mostaganem trained the future agronomists but my French friends teaching there complained that the students were not very much into learning and some very cocky and boastful because their jobs were assured. The personnel officer at the Ministry in Algiers had made it very clear that soon they will get their own people to run the agriculture and will not need the foreigners any more.
The small town of Mostaganem was I suppose like any other where everything shut down after 6 pm and where the favorite pastime for men was to go to small cafes and drink very sweet mint tea . The overwhelming body odor and stinky cigarettes smoke was enough to deter anyone to enter those cafes .It certainly deterred me. Besides I did not like sweet mint tea .
But there was very little else to do unless one counted the endless Brigitte Bardot or Louis de Funes movies or the awful Italian cow boy movies . This changed when there was an Indian movie. Then the crowd fought with the police to get in such was their ardor for the Indian movies. I stayed home. Our pick up van passed each morning by the posters and one could hear all the oohs and aahs whenever Brigitte Bardot or BB movies were shown. I found BB boring but the Algerians did not agree. She was the sex symbol.
I also observed a curious phenomenon . Sometimes there would be these people going around a particular block in town wailing at the top of their voices. I was told that they were the professional wailers that one could hire if wailers were in short supply . These people worked extra hard to prove their worth . I pitied the people who lived in that block.
Many Algerians went to sauna once a week so every town worth its name had a sauna or two. Curious as I was , once I ventured into one and found a steam room full of people some of whom were getting a massage and others simply sitting around. Now a sauna in Asia is usually associated with massage girls who often did more than massage but here in Algeria it was not so. Here people went to sauna to get a good cleaning . So I roasted myself in one corner in the steam room and came out but a masseur wrapped me in huge towels head to foot and asked me to lie down.
One could get very sick indeed coming out in the open without first bringing down the body temperature so the Algerian knew what he was doing. The sauna was reserved for Women always on Fridays.
The French cooperants in Mostaganem were a delightful lot and many became my good friends . Yves used to pick me up at my office often .He lived on a hill and the winding stairs brought you down to the most exquisite small beach one can imagine where I could swim in the azure blue ocean.
There were many such beaches but never very crowded .The Algerian life guards patrolled in motor boats and stopped anyone going out too far .
We often caught baby octopi that squirted ink when scared and spear fishing was also fun but simply lazing in the sun on the white sand with warm water lapping at you was like being in the paradise . Yves and his friends also made meshui which is slowly roasting a lamb on charcoal fire. I did not mind the smoke and the hard work to turn the lamb and sprinkle salt water on it because it was so much fun. Later we would dance to some cassette music and drink the red Algerian wine until the wee hours on the terrace overlooking the blue and later dark Mediterranean . French women were never too far whenever there were French men to liven up the party.
Yves was fond of me and I genuinely liked him. We kept up correspondence for over thirty years . He lives now in Limoges with his wife and kids . He once invited me to go with him to Constantine and at another time to look for prehistoric sites in Fronda . He loved adventure and once went in his 2 CV to a very remote part of Sahara and got stuck . I was not so daring so took a bus to Ghardaiia which is a desert town . I will tell you the Ghardaiia story a bit later .
In El Asnam lived a Quebecois called Louis who was very fond of riding my motorbike . Once we went to Oran where we ran into some Algerian girls .The invited us to a couscous party but we did not go I do not know why. We really did not want to have anything to do with Algerian girls because they did not invite you to their homes and those who did were not the right people . Oultache would prove to be different so perhaps she was an exception. Correction. Oultache was an exception.
She kept writing to me and our night watchman would always smell the envelope before handing it to me with a wink . She said that she was now studying in Algiers and would like to see me again. Once I sent her a telegram saying that I will meet her in front of the Grande Poste in Algiers so she came and was about to leave when she looked at me again. I was in my djellaba with a hood over my head so looked like any Algerian. Then her eyes lit up with recognition .
She had grown taller and more alluring than I remembered and had in tow the same small girl I had met in Tizi Ouzou except that she was not so small now. Oultache did not wear veil and looked like any French girl out on a date. She again invited me to meet her parents who were very educated people but I never found the time or the opportunity to do so. Oultache was a very sweet girl but I regretted that we lived so far from each other .How often I could go to Algiers? Her last letter to me was in India when she wrote that she may go to France. I have very fond memories of Oultache .
I often visited Louis in El Asnam and got to know many French Canadians and French cooperants there. A French girl I will call Christine was one of them. She always managed to sit near me or look at me when she thought no one was looking. Louis said the she did nothing else one evening and perhaps wanted to be my friend. It was a strange way to develop friendship. All she had to do was to ask my name and shake hands which she later did.
I once told her that I found it to be boring to repeat my life story to every Tom ,Dick or Jane and should perhaps carry a tape recorder and just play the tape. We never became good friends.
However, closer at home I had many friends among the French residents of Mostaganem. Near my apartment lived Pierre and Monique who always looked for me if I did not see them for a few days. Once Monique came over to find me with fever and nursed me back to health . No one else would have cared. Certainly not the Algerian neighbors. Living alone had its disadvantages .
Another couple who lived nearby were also very good to me and always invited me to their place. We would sit with some scotch and listen to Jean Ferrat or discuss the problems of the whole world including that of Algeria of course. Christian worked in our office and was always ready to help anyway he could like the time a friend broke down outside the town and had to be towed to a garage. The Bulgarian chap in our office refused but Christian came right away and brought my friend and his car to town.
I never could understand the East Europeans . They were shameless and would ask me for dollars but never helped in any way.
Near Oran lived an American fellow called John in a magnificent villa named Clos Veronique. He was a funny fellow who would often wrap his arm around a gendarme and talk him out of giving him a ticket. John liked to invite young people to his villa for elaborate parties complete with square dance and good food. His English wife told us while we were sipping tea at breakfast one day that John was quite a prankster during his bachelor days in England where he once made a cardboard fin , stuck it into the river and took a photo saying that he had spotted a dinosaur.
This hoax spread far and wide in England until it reached the Royal Society of this or that so some experts started to take the fin rather seriously and set up a vigil in case the dinosaur decided to show up again. The monster didn’t but its giant footprints were seen on the riverbanks confirming John’s story until some reporters got a bit suspicious and followed the trace to John’s dormitory where they found the cardboard and plastic contraption.
The funny part was that even after the hoax was revealed, some village folks were seeing the monster or hearing it breathing down their necks for weeks.
John, Yves and I had one thing in common .We often talked about the mess in Algeria where often in the name of development, huge sums of money were squandered by the ministry of agriculture. The harvests were poor in spite of massive mechanization, fertilizer and many new wheat varieties Dr.Norman Borlaug had brought from Mexico because the soil was poorly prepared by ill trained tractor operators ,seeds planted at wrong depth or the fertilizer applied at the wrong time .
I had earlier written about the colossal waste of manpower in collecting useless data but there were many such examples. The system did not permit any meaningful change and initiatives were ignored. The agricultural director of the province had the most boring and thankless job of holding office when the state of agriculture was in such a dire shape and he unable to move people to do something about it . They were stickler for the forms and one could not go anywhere without the “ordre de mission” that had to be signed, stamped and entered in a log book .
I also found out that the Ministry was substantially underpaying me although I had a Master’s degree so I started writing to them and demand a remedy. After almost 18 months they agreed and said that all my back pay will be paid to me .This was only partially true because Tizi Ouzou ignored this directive. Still partial justice was better than no justice so I waited.
My vacation was not going to France in that slave ship I had written earlier about but to Italy. I was taking some time off and travel light which meant just my backpack and a camera. At the airport the officers smiled and said that I was indeed a light traveler but I did not want to carry heavy luggage to spoil the vacation.
In Rome I found my way to the international youth hostel near the Tiber river but the hostel was overflowing. Summertime was the time for travel in Europe so thousands of young people hitchhiked or traveled by train across Europe and many stayed at the youth hostels. But at the hostel they could not keep a close watch so I sneaked in ,took a bath and ate in the cafeteria and
went out to spread my sleeping bag on the hill near the hostel. Only the shower part was illegal but I did not feel too bad about it.
It so happened that I was not the only one who did not find a place in the hostel that night. There were four girls I do not remember from where in the same predicament so they too spread their sleeping bags near me hoping that I will be their protector from bad Italians. The poor girls sat up very late when I went off for a walk and said I should not leave them there but I was really not their chaperon .They could take care of themselves.
But Rome is full of crazy people .All you have to do is to go to Piazza Espania where you could see the amalgam of derelicts some on drugs, some peddling contrabands and others busy kissing Rodin style totally oblivious to others . No one really cared a great deal. The Carabinieri or the local police chased them off but they were like sparrows that could not be kept away from the wheat field. Usually they posted a look out for the police and whistled if trouble was on its way. You never saw people pack their wares so fast and disappear . A few wares that fell off were collected minutes later because there was a camaraderie among these people that the police could not break.
Then there were the ubiquitous Japanese with their cameras ,giggling and snapping photos of overflowing gutters or the casanovas. They always traveled in groups with flags and a guide who often read from the travel book aloud while the group gawked and photographed furiously. Be a Roman in Rome but that meant crossing the streets anywhere en masse while the Italian drivers in their miniscule Fiats honked and screeched their tires shouting insults to the crazy foreigners but the Japanese just smiled.
I went around holding my camera tightly because there were many thieves in Rome . You had to be particularly wary of the gypsy women near Termini who would often bare their breasts to distract you while their urchins picked your pockets . They had many such tricks up their sleeves .One was the ketchup trick when a woman would “accidentally” spill some ketchup on you and try to clean it up while the kids worked your pockets.
One day I found the strap of my camera cut with a sharp razor blade but not all the way through. I was lucky .They did that sort of thing in the buses, catch the camera and get off while you looked and could do nothing.
The youth hostel was cheap and clean. I was given a membership card for five dollars which allowed me to stay at any youth hostel in Italy. There were many nationalities but it became a joke that the Dutch girls were always from Utrecht and every German was called Heidi or Wolfgang .Two of them noticed me and said hello so I said hello and nothing more.
I had miles of museums to see and catacombs to explore so I started on my own . The Vatican museum, the Vorghese garden and museum, Colliseum, Caracalla baths and Roman forum were all visited .I saw a place full of skulls and bones that were artfully arranged by the monks but grotesque just the same. The catacombs near via Appia outside Rome were not something to rave about either but I saw them all. Often photography was not allowed in some places but I suspected commercial reasons behind it.
The funny part was the youth hostel itself where one could sit all day on the wide steps and exchange information with the Heidis or Wolfgangs. Often such exchange paid off and you learned of a cheap but good restaurant or a place to stay in Florence. Girls sat brushing their hair or scribbled the new information in their little book and the boys sat around trying to figure out which girl could be the companion for the day. In Italy it was important to have a female companion on the road otherwise one never got a free ride.
The trick was to post the girl at a strategic location and hang back. As soon as a car stopped ,you showed up. A girl could stop a car lot faster than a boy specially if she was dressed for the part. This meant tight skirts and blouse that the girls learned to unbutton a bit .
I used to just sit and watch the show because I did not need a female companion. I had purchased a 3000 km train ticket at a discount and could travel anywhere in Italy. They gave you a booklet and the conductor deducted the kilometers from the 3000 km credit until it ran out. It was a very good system that freed you from buying ticket each time.
Now at the youth hostel you could always see the Italians with unbuttoned shirts showing their huge gold cross and an unlit cigarette dangling from their lips. They never carried matches and went up to the girls and said “you have fire ” ? If the girl was smoking, she would hand over her lighter but it really did not matter whether she had “fire” or not. It was the ruse the Italian casanovas used to start a conversation .
It often worked like this. These Italians always worked hard at girls. They were not interested in boys. So they used the “you have fire” trick a lot but there were other tricks as well. They tried to make out with girls by asking them if they were interested in seeing Rome that only they could show.
They had motorbikes and could show all the interesting places. Usually the girls said “No thank you ” but once in a while there was one who went with them. But a firm no did not often dissuade these pests.
If nothing worked and the girl started brushing her hair again then they would pull out folded plastic sheets full of cheap slides or post cards that they offered at a very special price. Fake Rayban, watches small souvenirs etc. were numerous items they could produce at the drop of a hat.
They did not quit easily but eventually wandered off to try the same game all over again . I enjoyed these shows and said to the Dutch girl that the fellow approaching her will ask for ” fire” . She said that she had been approached already but to the Italians these north Europeans maybe looked alike .
My first stop was Sienna which was an old town full of interest and worth visiting. I came from a country where old meant several thousand years old but this was Europe where two hundred years was very old. Nevertheless, Sienna did not disappoint me . It was a medieval town built in a haphazard way but had a church with zebra stripes that I had never seen before and a very good museum.
The center of the town had a plaza and a fountain where in ancient times , boys fooled around and got killed in sword fights over girls
but now the square was empty save for a few Palestinians who found me a trottoria to stay in . The trottorias in Italy are cheap boarding houses where the mamasans are a bit strict about the hours but otherwise ok.
I stayed in Sienna and looked at the art galleries or just sat around in the open air cafes sipping beer and soaking up the sun. From Sienna I went up to Verona where a crowd in front of a drab looking house told me that it was the house of Juliet whom Romeo found so attractive. There were I suppose the Romeos and Juliets in all ages except that perhaps the style has changed a bit . Now the Romeos ask for “fire” .
I then went up to Bolzano near the Swiss Alps where most people spoke German and where Dolomites are famous . It is a pretty place full of mountains, vineyards and ruins of what looked like fortifications and towers from ancient times . Then the next stop was Florence or Firenze . The youth hostel in Florence is very nice sitting in the middle of acres of garden outside the town and had electric doors like in banks. The two Dutch girls I had met in Rome were here as well and said hello again.
Together we saw a lot of museums, Boticelli’s venus and Michael Angelo’s sculptures like David that stood naked in one of the plazas. The girls giggled at his nakedness but the birds were indifferent and pooped all over his head and shoulders that no one bothered to clean.
Tired from looking at endless art galleries, we often sat in parks watching the tourist buses pull in with loads of old people. Judging from their Kodak instamatic and dangling chains ,they were probably Americans but there were many nationalities .This was the tourists season after all.
The Dutch girl was from Utrecht and told me that she was going to Switzerland to be a nurse. In India girls from good families did not become nurses as Indians looked down upon this profession but in Europe it was just like any other profession. She was surprised but then the Indians had many hang ups ingrained in their culture that she did not know about.
Florence is also known for its gold jewelries, leather goods and many other things to lighten the wallet but the rule is to always bargain. Drop the price by half and just walk away. They will soon catch up with you.
In Venice I met the same Dutch girls and asked if they were following me all over Italy. They just laughed and said that in fact they were leaving that day and forgot to pick up a bag full of clothes at the hostel . Could I please please pick them up and leave a note ? The receptionist asked me what was in the bag and handed it to me with a knowing smile .It was some bikinis and bras that the Dutch girls had left behind and could not go to the beach without . They were not that liberated.
Venice in summer overflows with tourists . They ride in gondolas, sip beer in the open air cafes and swarm through the souvenir shops that sell cheap glass works and other tourist paraphernalia. The Piazza San Marcos is where they all gather and revel at the filthy canals and Italians singing bawdy songs pushing their gondolas . The cafes hire American girls to sing to attract American tourists . The vagabonds abound as well who spread their open guitar cases to get a few coins and the artists sit by the canals to draw charcoal pictures for a fee .
But on the whole Venice is quite nice where there is no traffic and one can walk around the narrow alleys or just sit and sip beer in numerous cafes. Just don’t mind the smell of sewage that the Italians dump into the canals. It is part of the charm of Venice.
My next stop was Naples where the youth hostel was near the famous bay and you could see the hydrofoils plying to Capri all day long . The Vesuvius in the distance reminded you that it was an active volcano that had buried the town of Pompeii nearby so one day a whole bunch of us trooped to Pompeii. Luckily Pompeii was closed that day so a look out was planted while we helped each other up the wall to jump inside. We had the whole town to ourselves which was great fun.
The plaster cast of bodies found under the ashes and a chained dog that tried in vain to get away were a few of the ghastly exhibits we saw but the mosaic works in some of the houses were interesting . The Hercularium next door had a huge amphitheater .
Near Naples is Paestum full of ruins so this time I had to have a companion to find a free ride. An Irish girl obliged and together we explored the endless broken pillars of buildings without roof . Now that I had seen enough ruins to last a lifetime, I headed off towards Sicily .
At the Reggio the ship takes the entire train to the port of Messina where the train slides back on track effortlessly . But my destination was Mt.Etna so I went first to Catania from where a bus took me to Etna. It is the most active volcano in Europe and erupts from time to time devastating the villages but the Italians did not care. They put up hamburger stands right up the slope.
The cable car takes you way up the moonscape but not quite up to the crater. Only hardy folks go up there with great risks. I was never hardy so decided to come down. This was now easier said than done because all the Italians had the same idea and shoved and pushed to get into the few cable cars leaving me stranded. I saw with dismay the last bus leaving the parking lot but could not fight the Italians.
Finally I came down and saw the same German couple and their small child I had met in the cable car going in their VW beetle. They gave me a ride and tried hard to get me a hotel room in Catania .This was not possible being the tourist season so I ended up staying at a camp ground .They sat with me until the wee hours of the morning just talking .Can you believe this?
They also kept writing to me for twenty years or more from Hamburg where they lived. Such are the nice people I got to meet everywhere .
In Messina I got to a camp ground that was meant only for the Italians but I did not know that. I found the camp full of children who surrounded me and started asking all sorts of questions. I could only say ” non parlare Italiano” in response but in the end I started playing with them to their great delight .I taught them a few new games that they learned quickly and from then on would not leave me alone. They had never been given so much attention by a foreigner so they showed great love. Some would stuff cheese into my mouth and others brought melons and other things to feed me.
Their mothers were also amused. One of them took my shirt off and very patiently fixed the broken buttons while I took a nap under a tree. I had never known such hospitality except in Japan that I wrote earlier about. One rarely got to see this side of the Italians but I guess I was lucky.
The kids were in tears when I got up to leave. They begged me to stay but I had to go on .They kissed my cheek one by one . It was sad to leave. I wish the Algerian children were so lovable. I had promised to write about them so here it is.
The Algerian children up to a certain age had a very tough time growing up because they were unloved. Their mothers would boot them out of the house to have some peace and time for their washing or cooking routine so these unloved kids went out looking for trouble. They broke car antennas, scratched paint, tried to slash tires and make all kinds of mischief to occupy their time. But what bothered me most was their favorite pastime of torturing tethered animals.
No one told them that it was wrong to torture animals or do other bad things so they grew up wild . Near my apartment lived many such children who looked like angels but were real devils . I found this out the hard way because at first I thought they were lovely children I could play with .
But soon I was overwhelmed because more and more kids started to appear from nowhere and they all wanted me to play with them. When I could not do this, they turned against me and became angry.
It was the first time in their life someone had shown some interest in them so they were not about to let it go because they craved attention. They poured sand on my motorbike engine and scratched the paint in frustration. But the Italians loved their children and showered them with attention so they were so sweet .
My vacation was ending but not before making a last stop at a place called Sapri . This was a beach camp where some Italian students came over and asked me to join their group. They said they were from Milano . They passed the hat to collect some liras for a party that evening .We bought spaghetti and wine and needed to make a camp fire so some fence posts went missing . We sat around the fire strumming guitar and singing while one fellow showed me a few yoga postures .He had the same high forehead of Kamal and wore thick glasses .I kept looking at him.
I stayed there only for a day or two but it was great fun. One big girl was afraid of the water so we carried her to the water like a swinging sack of potato and dunked while she squealed . They all wanted me to stay but I had to return to Mostaganem so they made sad faces and signed my bag with pentel pen one by one.
Soon I was back in Mostaganem and tried to put aside the nostalgic memory. Behind my house lived a few Cubans who worked in the local hospital . They always played baseball but they did not look friendly and did not speak anything but Spanish so I watched them from a distance. The Algerians tolerated these Cubans but said that they were not very good doctors because often they forgot spoons and forks in the stomach before sewing the patients up. Perhaps this was an exaggeration and the Algerian way of saying that they were not up to the standard. Besides I do not know of any doctor who uses spoon and forks during surgery.
But standard or not they were there because of Cuban Algerian friendship treaty and made a great show to the extent of inviting Fidel Castro to inaugurate a new wing of the hospital. The town was scrubbed clean and the sidewalks whitewashed for days. Finally Castro came with the Algerian president in a long motorcade of black Citroen DS . The security people had arrived and blocked off most of the streets halting all traffic.
I decided to take some photos with my long lens and approached the presidential car . In Algeria the policemen will obey you if you speak with authority . My friends were watching this charade from behind the fence and wondering if I will be arrested soon. But the policemen did not bother me. The tough looking Cubans were a different matter. They asked for my pass so I said I was a reporter from ABC and did not speak French or Spanish. Nothing doing . Anyway I got some great photos .
In Algeria the policemen kept a watch on everyone and collected registration cards from all the hotels to know the movement of foreigners. One always needed an “ordre de mission ” to go anywhere to work that the gendarmes frequently checked at road blocks . The No Photography signs were posted in many places even if there was only an ugly wall behind a fence. They frequently interrogated Algerians who mixed with foreigners to know what they talked about and they scrutinized passports to check if it carried some undesirable visas . They intercepted mails to see who was writing to whom.
This sort of situation made Algerians aloof although some people like Mohamed in Oued Rhiou were really very good and caring people. Once I was asked in by a couple who saw me getting wet in the rain on my bike and fed me couscous and some of my office mates invited me to their home in another town during the Id ul fitr celebration after the Ramadan .
But Algeria in general was a tough country . The separation of sexes did not permit a free mixing which reminded me of the Bengali society back home.
This gave rise to a lot of perversion among men . Prostitution was prevalent among women to some extent .The Algerians could not bring women to hotels because the police kept a close watch so they looked for private apartments . Once a fellow whom I did not know well showed up at my place with a woman .I was shocked at such blatant liberty and forbade him to come again. But they were living in frustrations and took advantage of every opportunity they could get.
But the women were no less aggressive. They somehow found your telephone number and called at odd hours to chat .I was lucky I did not have a phone but Monique used to get calls like that and put down the phone quickly. Their favorite trick was to find out who you were they had called by mistake so you learned never to identify yourself .
The hassle with the Banque National d’Algerie or BNA was a never ending problem every month but they openly suggested that your problems with them would disappear if only you could… You just fill in the blanc. One therefore learned to be wary of them quickly and treaded carefully. I was lucky to get to know Oultache the way I did but I would have never met her on the street.
I was particularly bothered by their habit of never telling what they were thinking. If they promised to do something on Monday, they did not mean it at all which was I learned an Arab trait . I once asked a technician to fix my slide projector that he promised to do within a week but kept me dangling for over six months . Every week he told me that it will be done next Monday and I was stupid enough to believe him.
At about this time I decided to go to Ghardaia in the Sahara desert just to see what an oasis town looked like. The long bus ride can be very uncomfortable because they never stop for people to get down to pee.
Ghardaia turned out to be beehive of a town built on a mound with narrow lanes and overhangs to keep out the relentless sun. At the top of the mound is the mosque. I found the architecture interesting because it was my first time to see a desert town . Otherwise it was a dirty, dusty and very dry place where most people kept indoors because of the heat.
There were some groves of date palms to break the monotony and lots of goat and sheep and nothing else. But the French Canadian girl from El Asnam was also visiting Ghardaia and we were like long lost friends again. She had in tow a French girl from Paris who introduced herself as Catherine.
This Catherine was quite a girl who giggled all the time and made a scene at the open air movie that we went to watch. They were the only two females in the crowd so everyone started looking at them. Besides Catherine could not keep her mouth shut so we left and went back to the hotel to do more giggling . Soon the manager arrived and said that he ran a clean establishment and did not wish any hanky panky by weird foreigners.
All we wanted was to sit around , sip coke and talk but this was Algeria and a desert town to boot. They also did not like the dark skinned Touaregs from deep south and often refused me a hotel room thinking that I was a Touareg.
I found it to be difficult to get to know the Algerians specially the office mates .It was not easy to break the ice although some of them did invite me to their home one time during the Id festival. But near my apartment there was the family of the janitor. The youngest daughter was fond of me and asked me to visit them. The mother was an ample woman who spoke some French so I learned from them a little more about the Algerian culture.
The eldest daughter who had problem with her husband lived with them and wanted me to take her photo so one day she came out with all the gold jewelry she had to pose. She would not smile as photography was a serious matter to them . The janitor was a smooth operator .He said that he wanted to buy my things but could not pay much because he was so poor. He got everything for a throw away price and immediately sold them to a merchant for a high price. He told his sob story to all foreigners this way and made a killing each time.
I had to often go to the Hotel de Ville or the mayor’s office to get some permit or some papers. There was another Mohamed who worked there. One day he invited me to his wedding but would not say where he lived. Later on I did get invited to a wedding in Mascara so it is worth writing about it here. The Algerians did not know that I was a part of their motorcade so they honked their horns to get me off the road .They had never known a djellaba clad Algerian riding a big bike.
They liked to honk their horns a lot reminding me of the American custom of tying beer cans to the bumper to make a racket. The idea was the same. But the Algerians did not quit there. They brought a band to play inside a small restaurant where they made so much noise that you could become deaf. Then they went around and around the town honking horns for quite some time. Even the poor had to have many cars in the motorcade.
Soon I found myself in the company of djellaba clad and turbaned Algerians who paid scant attention to me until they started asking me questions. I do not speak Arabic so they now realized that there was a foreigner among them and became very curious. It was rare for them to have a Hindou attending a traditional wedding. Some of them pressed me hard to eat some oily food that I kept on refusing but finally accepted. This was a mistake.
Soon I felt my stomach heaving and came out to get some fresh air. Outside a completely wrapped body was being lowered into a car so I thought someone must have fallen ill because people were so serious. I was stunned and felt sorry for this disaster to happen on this festive occasion .
But a companion said that no one was ill. It was the custom of the father to carry the bride to the car. She had to be completely veiled as the tradition demanded. Now it was my turn to feel awkward. I was so ignorant about their culture although I had now lived in Algeria for quite some time. It was time to leave quietly.
The oily cookies took time to get used to. Once I was traveling by bus from Algiers during the month of Ramadan when at 5 pm the mullahs announced on the radio that the fast was over. All the passengers then took out their food to eat. Some noticed that I did not have any food so they thought I was a very pious Moslem still bent of fasting so they pressed me to eat.
Looking at my djellaba, they could not tell that I was not an Algerian. Again eating those oily cookies made me very miserable indeed.
Thus my stay in Algeria came to an end. I had gained some experience and learned a great deal about this beautiful country and its agriculture. I had also spent nearly 18 months in Mostaganem and can say that my time was well spent. But the time had come for me to move on.
A delightful surprise was waiting for me one day when I received a letter from IRRI in the Philippines in which they renewed their offer of a scholarship they had previously made. So my future looked bright and I decided to leave Algeria. The deputy director who had found me to be a very serious agronomist urged me to stay on but I said that I had to leave.
Just one week before my departure, the government paid me the back pay of 18 months which was considerable so I went on a spending spree. The Dinars could not be taken out of the country but it could be used to pay for the airfare and so on. I used the left over dinars to buy a stereo and other things. I must say that the Ministry of Agriculture had treated me very well and fairly and I in return had done my best to serve.
The flight to Paris this time was first class which was a bit of indulgence on my part but who was complaining?
Note : My blogs are also available in French, Spanish, German and Japanese languages at the following links as well as my biography: