Ryma Tchier takes a trip down memory lane and reflects on a holiday that taught her thirteen-year-old self a little something about belonging…
I hung onto the whooping sensation that comes with the sound of aeroplanes taking off overhead as we drove nearer to Sydney Airport, suitcases piled around us in Dad’s spanking brand new Toyota Tarago rental. I drank it all in; I just knew this trip was going to be epic.
One long queue and a series of goodbyes to Dad later – he’d be joining us in a month once the Christmas holidays arrived – the counter staff at the airport had weighed our suitcases and slapped on the SYD-ALG tag. It was official; I was finally heading back to my homeland.
Algeria is found well off the beaten track. You really can’t get any more obscure than a blank plot of land between Fez, Casablanca and the Tunisian set of the original Star Wars. It’s so ironically well hidden that many people I’ve met barely knew it existed – so much so that their eyebrows ran through their hairlines when I routinely showed them the largest Arabic speaking country in the world.
But as our plane slowly descended, revealing an aerial view of the web of roads, high walled buildings and green pastures that make up Algeria, I really wondered; how could they have missed it? Mum and I sat there grinning like fools, and my sister’s cackle blurted out amongst the hum of the turbines. After a day and a half’s trek, we’d finally made it.
The airport was a shocker. It looked… modern. Shiny marbled walls lined the domestic terminal as we lined up for customs. The signs were sleek, written in both Arabic and French, and when my sister Sarah and I went to use the bathroom we almost leapt for joy to find regular toilets complete with toilet paper and soap dispensers – the works. It beat the run-down box filled with rows upon rows of uncomfortable plastic chairs I saw during my last trip!
Houari Boumediene Aéroport Internationale had a three year face lift, it seemed, and I was impressed.
The toilet surprise made me wonder about Algeria’s funny position when it comes to ‘modernity’. Like any country, the entire economic spectrum could be found in Algeria populace, from absolute poverty to the old money families and business tycoons. The French have influenced architecture in the country, but the village in the middle of nowhere still has its place.
Sure, McDonalds, Starbucks and Louis Vuitton don’t have any flagship stores, but there’s enough money to go around to make a national highway, airports in major cities and fund medical research.
Algeria has a weird relationship with the world; it likes to keep to itself, but it wants to let people in all the same.
When I heard the officer speak in Algerian slang as he showed us to the conveyor belts, my cheeks hurt from grinning too hard. As we set off for the grueling six hour drive ahead, I felt that I had come home. But that feeling later jumped and plummeted to its rocky death as the car crawled through traffic in the middle of a canyon. A steep, crumbling, narrow canyon with two lanes no bigger than an alleyway, and a rusty wired fence so flimsy it would just fall off the edge. The wild bushes that grew out of the caramel clay were almost obnoxious in pushing vehicles into the abyss below. I eyed the worn out tarmac carefully, and practically sat on my brother when the road vanished from my periphery. We weren’t even halfway yet.
One hour of idle pacing, mild panicking and heated arguments with other drivers later, we were out on the freeway. I was headed to Setif, some 300 km east outside Algiers. It’s situated next to the Aurès mountain range, 1000 m above sea level with no hind nor hair of any Saharan sand dunes to be seen. In fact, our suitcases struggled to hold all the coats, jackets, gloves, beanies and waterproof winter boots that my mother insisted I stuff in last minute. “You never understand,” she huffed at me in Arabic. “Dhok ysobb ethelj (it’s going to snow) and you’ll all get sick. What kind of holiday is that?”
Snow? In the desert? But that’s one of the country’s beauties: her natural character was different anywhere you went. Algeria’s warm Mediterranean summer days and nights and beaches that mimic their cousins in Cordoba and Nice were reminders of a time when she was the crowning glory of French treasures. Before the ‘Paris of Arabia’ title was gifted to Beirut, Algeria was the large pearl that nestled at the base of La Liberté’s neck. Green pastures, deep and rich, gently sloped and dipped to cascade over the rough jagged soil of mountain ranges. The mountains hunched over the valleys and forests, keeping the desert away as we drove through the sleeping city.
I felt part of an old tapestry that was weaving my thread so intricately that I could never tear myself apart. This only deepened when, upon arrival, I was hugged and kissed senseless by everyone who shared my blood, which left me enveloped with a love so powerful that it made me a romantic for a few weeks.
We never opted for a hotel because when you had a family as large as mine, any door was unlocked with arms wide open. Saleh down at the corner shop laughed when he I swung by asking for half a dozen baguettes and a chocolate filled croissant – for the walk back, of course. “Ya binti, why do you have to remind me that I’ve gotten old? If I find a grey hair, it’s on you!” he said, as he scratched his rounded belly and yelled at the old lady behind me who was after a few bags of milk.
But walking down Rue de Constantine with Sarah, my aunt and cousins made me realize that some parts of my woven tapestry were torn – some chunks were ripped out, with only a hasty patchwork job concealing the damage. Bloodstains never did wash out, and instead left behind a browning fade where there previously were gashes.
I had to put aside my rose-tinted glasses and accept what I saw. Ornate street lamps lined the highway, four-story buildings wrapped around with wrought-iron balconies towered over the bustling crowd. Renaults and Peugeots zoomed past the mosques, minaret towers pointed with a crescent star and moon. Dresses lined with golden thread emblazoned proudly with patterns once thought lost, fluttered proudly behind its display, while the neighbouring patisserie had two men carefully place a croquembouche tower in its glass cabinet. Every sign was in Arabic and French, the two still clashing and fighting for dominance.
I reached the end of the long highway and faced Ain Fouara. ‘Ains’ were wells of water, literal taps where you could go and fill up a couple of buckets in a drought or drink from if you felt a little parched, though they’re a little more stylised than the typical waterway. Ain Fouara is the infamous statue in Setif of the nude woman reclining on her altar with her hand outstretched. Well-water gushes from her feet as traffic spins and whooshes past. Rumour has it that this statue is actually a replica, but no one knows what happened to the original. Ah, the irony of a naked statue serving as a roundabout in a Muslim country – er, that is, ‘Democratic Republic’.
As I gazed at the reclining woman, I silently begged for an answer. Why could I only see and not feel the pain and loss that my countrymen and women did? Why didn’t I bear the scars that they bore, that they might never heal from? Her elegant poise never wavered, however, and all I got was stony silence.
Meanwhile, my mother seamlessly weaved herself into the fray. It was like she never left. She caught up with three years’ worth of hekayaat (stories) about everyone she was related to within a month, and was bartering with a salesman for gold bracelets like she’d been doing it for years. I, on the other hand, felt like a mere carbon copy, my Arabic stilted and disjointed as what I really meant to say never made it past my lips. Sarah and I would sit and smile like decorated wallflowers amongst our cousins, who regaled us with hilarious memories of weddings and sleepovers we never attended, moments for which we were never there.
Six weeks into my arrival in Algeria, I felt myself starting to unravel. I started buying Nutella and Nesquick cereal from Saleh’s, ignoring that weird look on his face whenever someone buys ‘foreign’ food. The days dragged on, with Sarah draped on the sofa channel surfing Arabic satellite TV, her eyes dull and half-lidded as yet another episode of YuGiOh played with Arabic dubbing.
On one occasion, the smell of orange blossom water wafted from the kitchen and I blindly followed the scent, the nutty aroma of almonds spiced with cinnamon making my mouth water. Someone had bought baklava over for afternoon tea. I had never appreciated how completely normal it was to indulge in a little sweet treat on the sofa with a steaming cup of freshly ground coffee in hand. This would have been a waste of time to me three years ago.
As Sarah and I sat on the cold staircase, splitting a Mars bar to wash down the bitter aftertaste of that coffee, we watched the group of visiting women sitting around an enormous silver platter on a table that was way too small to hold an encyclopedia. I found myself wishing that I could absorb myself into the walls around us, that my weave would seamlessly embroider itself in this place. But then I scrapped the idea and wondered if Sir Richard Branson could lend one of his private islands to people like me, so that we could make a home for misfits that couldn’t blend into two different worlds.
We were on our way to Tandja, a derelict place if I ever saw one, with potholes, roadsides filled with sludge and paint peeling off the run-down harras (old communal houses). It was hard to believe Dad grew up here. “We were poor but happy. I had a good childhood,”he always said.
A giggle bubbled its way through Sarah’s lips, her brown ringlets shaking as she ignored the stoic look our taxi driver was giving her. Mum arched her eyebrow while juggling my brothers, getting them to sit still. Until we saw him, standing outside his mother’s door; a wall of tanned muscle with a frown on his brow. Arms crossed, the scar of a spider stitch peeking through his sleeve. Thick curly fluff crowned his head, smattered with a sprinkling of white hairs. His face broke out in a toothy grin. “Hey! Zorna bil ma,” he called. “Look at my waterlogged flutes!” He swaggered towards us, a sidestep in his left foot, and crunched the ground with a sound ‘thunk’ of his heel. All four of us bolted out of the car and were enveloped in a bear hug so tight that all my worries ebbed from my strained knuckles and into his fleece jacket.
But soon enough, he was swallowed by his brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, mother and in laws. He wasn’t just our dad here; we had to share him with everyone else – with his former home. But Sarah and I saw the dullness his eyes took as his brothers carted him around the city, showing him how much they had grown. We knew that, in his eyes, nothing had changed. “This country is backward Ryma, but when I’m here I just accept it,”he told me.
We barely got to see my father while we were there, which ruined the purpose of a family holiday. I asked him to show me his Algeria, his favourite place to eat raas (sheep’s head), his school, and where he hid when his mother realised he had walked barefoot in the snow again. I wanted to see where he had spent his two years of military service and where he swore allegiance to the country he left behind 15 years ago.
When our time came to leave, relief washed over my sister’s face but the pang was there. The pain of leaving something behind haunted us all. As Houari Boumediene’s runway disappeared, wariness had cemented. I came here looking for answers and left with more questions. I came here to find myself, but I left more lost than ever.
But a weird kind of contentment settled in. I at least knew that my family, Setif and Algeria were a part of who I was. And for thirteen year old me, that was good enough.
By Ryma Tchier
Ryma is a Bachelor of Arts (Media)/B of Laws student at Maquarie University and hopes that her degree will enable her to do some good in the world. She’s a major bookworm with a self-proclaimed “kiss of death”, whereby every book she reads ultimately becomes too popular for its own good and finds itself turned into a motion picture. Oh the horror.