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Back in time to 70s Algeria

Time travel in Africa

Back in time to 70s Algeria

We are pleased to introduce a new slot, Time-travel in Africa – in which contributors look back to a period in the past and attempt to paint a portrait of the era and how their younger selves reacted to experiences. We begin with British author Stephen Gregory’s reminiscences about his time as a teacher in Algeria in 1975. Gregory is an award-winning best-selling author – his novel The Cormorant won the Somerset Maugham Award and was made into a film starring Ralph Fiennes.

‘Jeunesse! Jeunesse!’ …

October 1975 … it’s a dark rainy night in Algiers, and I’m sitting in a bar on the corner of Rue Horace Vernet. We’re sharing a bottle of red wine, me and my friends Mahfoud and Belkacem and Said. The bar is busy and noisy, with an exhilarating atmosphere, despite the fluorescent lights and the splattering of the rain outside.

It’s the old blind man who comes in every evening, selling hard-boiled eggs. He feels his way among the tables, poking here and there with his stick, and he calls out his familiar ‘Jeunesse! Jeunesse!’ to catch the attention of the young people sitting there. Mahfoud buys four eggs, we peel off the shells and scatter them onto the floor. The eggs are delicious, dipped into a saucer of salt.

I’m writing this 45 years later. As soon as I recall the repeated, strident cry of the blind man and the tang of salt on his hard-boiled eggs, it all starts to come back to me.

Youth? I was 23 years old back in 1975. I’d been a schoolteacher in a prep-school in England, and dumbfounded my colleagues and family by leaving for a job in Algeria.

I flew out in August 1975, arrived at midnight. A car dropped me and my single suitcase on a very dark street corner. I banged on a big iron door and a concierge led me up a staircase and into my rooms. I was tired and bewildered, so I fell onto the bed and asleep.

And then suddenly it was bright daylight. I awoke to such a cacophony that I jumped to my feet and stepped onto my balcony, overlooking a narrow street. It was jammed with traffic, and every driver was hooting his horn. At last the jam cleared and the noise stopped.

I remember my address, from all those years ago. It would be my home for the next 18 months, a couple of rooms on the second floor of no. 38, Rue Horace Vernet, in an old quarter near the centre of Algiers.

In those days, there weren’t many foreigners living and working in Algeria. When I’d applied for the job, I spun a globe to find where it was … formidably huge, a country of coastal towns and cities and then a range of mountains and a vast desert.

Algiers was a swarming, noisy city, a contrast of Mediterranean sunlight and shadowy streets … where you could stroll in sunlit squares and then plunge into the dark alleyways of the casbah.

My rooms were bright all day, while the street was cast into shadow by the colonial-style apartment blocks on either side. I could stroll to the boulangerie for my breakfast croissants, and there was a market with a boucherie chevaline … the head and hooves of a horse and a whirling of flies, the bleating of goats, and stalls of peppers and chillies and oranges and grapefruit.

I had time for my breakfast on the balcony, before school started. Then I would walk up to Boulevard Mohamed V, to the Centre Anglo-Africain de Langues. There, alongside four or five other English teachers, we gave classes from midday until three o‘clock in the afternoon, and then in the evening from six until nine.

Instead of the little boys I’d taught in England, my students were adults who’d paid good money to learn English. In the afternoon sessions, they were housewives and diplomats; in the evenings they were students about the same age as me, in their early twenties.

I drilled them through their simple repetitive exercises, following the pages of a dog-eared text book, and sometimes we would all burst into rowdy laughter at their mistakes and my fumbling attempts to correct them. And then the director, a fearsome-looking fellow called Mohammed, would come to the classroom door and peer inside, to see what on earth we were doing.

Inseparable friends

It was after the evening classes that I fell in with my friends Mahfoud and Belkacem and Said. One night they commandeered me as we were tumbling down the stairs together. Ten minutes later, after a walk away from the bright lights of Boulevard Mohamed V and into the dark streets of my quartier, we were in our corner bar and Mahfoud was ordering a bottle of wine … and our hard-boiled eggs from the blind old man.

We became inseparable. Belkacem had a Citroën ‘deux chevaux’, and at the weekends we’d run out of the city, past the port and along the seashore to the beach at Zeralda. We’d drink beer and share couscous and chicken, and I would get too much sun on my face and shoulders, until Belkacem’s little car would return us to the city, for an evening in the bar on my street corner.

My three friends wanted nothing more in all the world than to go to England. They wanted to hear all about my life in England, especially my years as a student in London, a city they dreamed of visiting … they conjured an increasingly clear and realistic vision of how they would get there and what they would do once they’d arrived.

We spoke in French all the time. And over the following year of bantering with the ebullient Mahfoud, the unassuming Belkacem and serious Said, my French became fluent … full of the Algerian colloquialisms my friends loved to teach me … while their English remained oddly stilted.

Out in the desert

The months slipped by. One of the other teachers, an older and more experienced fellow called Ian, had brought a car with him: a VW, rather shabby, with faded paintwork and the hubcaps and wipers and wing-mirrors stripped away by the boys in the quartier, but it was robust and reliable.

When the school closed for a holiday, we drove into the foothills behind the city, through the affluent suburbs with their villas and gardens of bougainvillea, until we reached the pine forests of the Atlas mountains. We stopped in a village called Lakdharia, where a lady and her family of many sons and daughters fed us couscous with ribs of goat, and then we slept in the back of the car.

The next day we crested the ridge of the mountains. We paused up there, for a view of two different worlds … to the north, the farmland and vineyards and the coastal strip, the distant city of Algiers … to the south, the vast expanse of the Sahara. 

We drove into the desert. A rusted sign warned us that we were entering the deep south, and we should inform the officials in the customs post … our lives would depend on this. But there was nobody in the customs post, so we pointed the VW into the emptiness and by nightfall, after a day of driving though nothing but dust and dunes, we arrived at Ouargla … campfires and camels, and a kind of rest-house, a hamaam, where I stripped off and lay on my stomach while a large man walked barefoot up and down my back.

We lay outside on rope beds, beneath the stars, listening to the barking of restless dogs, until we slept.

Onwards to Touggourt, some 700km from the Mediterranean coast. Nowadays it’s an oil town. In 1975 it was an outpost of isolated humanity. An oasis? It was dusty and dry, pungent with the smoke of camel-dung.

And so, back to Algiers. The end of our contracts coincided with Id al-Fitr. All over the city, people were preparing for the festivities. In our own quartier, the air was loud with the bleating of goats and sheep from every balcony, high above every street.

On his last afternoon, Ian and I had a final drive around the city; he had already booked himself onto the ferry to Marseilles. As dusk fell and became a twinkling twilight, we turned back into Rue Horace Vernet and parked in the shadows of the overhanging buildings.     

We sat for a few moments. The only sound was the mournful hooting of a ship as it approached the port, maybe the one which would take Ian away from Algiers and home tomorrow. I was thinking of all the journeys we’d made together, and I was just about to thank him for our brief companionship, when there was a sudden deafening crash …

BANG! It sounded like a clap of thunder, directly overhead. Instinctively, we ducked deeper into our seats. And when we got out of the car, we saw that there was a goat on its roof. It shuddered and died. A few hours before its intended slaughter, it had jumped from a balcony … three storeys above us, a man was crying and beating his chest in anger and frustration.

The next day I accompanied Ian to the port and waved him away, him and his trusty car with a goat-shaped dent in the roof.

Me, I stayed on for another month. I spent a few more evenings with Mahfoud and Belkacem and Said, savouring their friendship to the end. I had always tried hard to moderate their ambitions, without dashing them; there was little I could do to facilitate their leaving Algeria and getting to England.

It was a question of money and bureaucracy. The best I could do was to wish them well and proffer addresses and contact numbers back home, in case they might somehow help.

Solo adventure

I said my goodbyes to them and I booked my flight. Before I packed up my rooms I’d planned a final adventure, as utterly on my own as possible, without the moral support of Ian or my Algerian friends. With nothing except a rucksack and a bit of cash, I set off to hitch-hike away from the city and west along the coast, towards the border with Morocco.

Three weeks of gloriously solo adventure, just me, a young and feckless foreigner in Algeria, in 1975. With no idea of where I might be going, I stuck out my thumb and took whatever lifts I might get.

Trucks, piled high with watermelons or grapefruit, and me sitting grandly on top, grinning from ear to ear as we rumbled through olive groves and orchards, along clifftops fragrant with pine trees and frangipani …The turquoise Mediterranean to my right, swelling and foaming on white beaches … Occasionally, a comfortable saloon car and a chance to show off my French with an affable driver …  Once, a young woman in tee-shirt and denim jeans, who skidded to a halt on her motorcycle, and for a giddy, blissful hour I was riding behind her, with my hands on her hips and her hair blowing in my face.

I spent nights in rest-houses, in Sidi bel Abbès and Mascara, sharing my starry evenings with people I’d met on the road. To Oran, to Mostaganem … and retracing my journey, toward the gleaming white city of Algiers.

Goodbye to the school where I’d tried my clumsy best and helped a few of my students to improve their English … if not to achieve a dream of travelling to the golden pavements of London.

Goodbye to my rooms in Rue Horace Vernet, the local market and the bar on the corner … rich red wine and the tang of salt on a hard-boiled egg.

‘Jeunesse … jeunesse …’ – goodbye to those days of my distant youth.

*PS A few months later, when I was just beginning a new job as a French teacher in Cheshire, I had a telephone call from my mother to inform me she had a visitor at her front door … a young man called Belkacem was telling her, very politely but quite insistently, ‘Stephen says I live here …’

I hurriedly drove back to pick him up. Belkacem, who’d managed to secure a visitor’s visa, spent a month with me, enjoying our evenings and weekends together in country pubs, in the shops and museums and galleries of Chester and Liverpool, before he had to return to Algeria.

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