Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Conversations with the absurd - Fiction in Algeria

My phone rings. It's Kahina. She's supposed to be out with her boyfriend at this hour. It's their second outing together in two-years. Relationships here are often mostly distance relationships, conducted over the phone between lovers who practically live next door.  Kahina is turning out to be like Amine, a once very close friend who used to call me from toilet cubicles in hotels, restaurants, coffee-shops, to give me the details of the girls to whom he'd just been introduced. He'd decided to get married and had embarked on a bride search with his dad as mediator. He'd initially set his heart on his cousin but eventually had a change of heart. He couldn't tell his dad about what he called 'a detail'. "I really like her her uncle abused her when she was 12 and her mum's been hiding it from family members who all seem to know though".

- Hi Kahina, are you in the loo?
- what? no, am in bed, am soooooooo.....
She lets out a cry. One of those long expiration that comes from the very center of her belly, from the little tender spot that connects up the heart and the ego. She sobs:
- he ....cancelled ... our meet-up, he ....doesn't love .....me, he doesn't .....care about.... me, i've been so... looking forward.... to this for...for... weeks, she cries.
- we all keep telling you he's an ass, take time to get over him, go out with friends, do stuff, we'll go out for ice-cream...
- from now on, am dating a European, she sniffs.
- to go and live abroad?
- because they're romantic, they take their girlfriends out all the time and offer them flowers.
- they do?
- I've seen it in movies...
- it's fiction Kahina, there's no...
- fiction happens in real life!
- ....you've got a point...

Monday, 3 August 2015

Conversations with the absurd - Plumbers and Myths

Last month, a pipe burst in the plumbing of the neighbour's bathroom, in the upstairs flat. If it hadn't been for my kitchen's plaster ceiling suddenly falling off, and for the water bursting forth out of the brick work, and out of defunct electricity plug holes, we'd never have known.

The downpour initially appeared as an incomprehensible morning apparition, a hazy sequence of events that makes no sense before coffee. It made no sense after coffee either. So I called up my landlady. She had just pocketed my upfront three-months rent. Bad timing for a catastrophy.

-what's up, tifla ! how are you? how's your family? you need anything? you know if you need anything, you just call me right!
- good, great, the ceiling's fallen off...
- oh...! Hmm, I'm just about to go away actually, family obligations, Eid and all that, not easy being a widow, she starts sobbing, life here is so difficult for a woman alone with three young girls, one 23, one 26, one 30 years-old and married... Listen, I'll deal with it as soon as I'm back...
- Hibba, don't...! it's...!
The line goes dead... I dial again, she's turned off her phone.

I call on the upstairs neighbour:
- hello, you're the sister of Hibba's daughter's husband right!
- nope... but I do live downstairs from you, in Hibba's flat.
- well lovely to meet you all the same. Neighbours don't know each other any more, all strangers. I don't know anyone apart from the woman on the ground floor, the third floor and the sixth floor... the fourth floor are degenerates... if you need anything, just let me know, a young girl all alone, we're all alone, we have to help each other right?
- great, about that, there's a flood in my kitchen, it probably comes from a burst pipe in your bathroom.
- what? but my husband, God bless his soul, did the plumbing himself before he died.
- he was a plumber?
- no, but he worked like one in this building once, replaced the main pipe himself and at his own cost before he died, her eyes start watering. He died of a heart attack years later. Such an honest man, a tear starts rolling down her cheeks, a teardrop of sweat.
- well no disrespect to your husband, but a pipe did burst, maybe it wasn't one he worked on...?

She comes downstairs with me to watch the freak occurrence attacking the foundation wall of our building in the middle of the city, in the middle of my home. As soon as she enters the kitchen, she grabs her cheeks and with her two hands squeezes her mouth into a Yemma! which translates as Oh!
- Oh! That's so dangerous, it's going to fall off!
- that's why I came to you, before it falls off, you should call a plumber?
- but I've nothing to do with this, my husband did the plumbing, he'd never do that! she says pointing at the ceiling. God....!
… I never heard the rest, she'd ran.

I call in on my landlady's sister aka my third-floor neighbour. She offers me coffee, lets me curse her sister and comforts me with stories of when her ceiling fell off, while she chain-smokes.

Looking high and looking up at her ceiling, she asks:
- did you tell Soraya?
- yes, she said her husband did the plumbing...
- when? he died 10 years ago...
- has anyone done any plumbing around here recently?
- yes, Abdu, he lives in the building next door. He overhauled Soraya's bathroom last spring. Why don't you call him?
- I either pay rent or I call plumbers, I've explained that to your sister...
So she calls Abdu the plumber. This particular race in the life of a building and its inhabitants is called "who will call the plumber first". The one who first calls is the one who will pay the bill, and every successive other bills after the plumber's worked and essentially wrecked the building further. Hence everyone's refusal to call. Good plumbers only exist in myths. City myths. Most Algerian myths used to be set in villages, and most Algerian myths are inhabited by skilled-worker families. When Algerians (those who inhabit reality) started moving to cities, and when villages started metamorphosing into towns, myths adapted and their main characters, craftsmen of all trades, together with their stories moved to cities too. Thus city myths were reshaped, they were not born in cities. Like every Algerian, a mythical creature can retrace his or her grand-parents' lineage to a village. Era to era, villages to cities, we've moved from crafts to crafty.
- no answer?
- no, it's 2pm, his nap time.

One month and a half passed by. Six weeks' worth of naps the plumber never interrupted. Every time Soraya or her guests opened her taps, the water gushed forth. From the ceiling, down the plugs, over the lighting, down the floor, over the level and degree of our collective folly.

One month and a half and an evening later, someone knocked on my door at half past ten. Another freak occurrence.

- who's that!?!
- the plumber...
I open the door. My anti-hero has come with a propane short-handle torch.
- why are you opening the door, tifla !
- what?
- people lie, I could be... not a plumber!
- that could explain the hole in my kitchen ceiling...
- well, I've just finished working on it, it's all repaired. A pipe was left unsealed a few months ago - he coughs - but it's all good now.
- you're the one who worked on it before...
- let the past be in the past, I'm going! Now don't open the door again at this hour to people who say they're plumbers or electricians, or whatever.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Conversations with the absurd - Teaching them skills

The sun is setting and I'm sitting in the orchard, under the shade of my relative's olive trees. I'm sulking my father's trees, we've just argued. Again. As I turn to watch our lot to give me some sense of filial responsibility, I see my cousin's wife and her 4 year-old daughter awkwardly hiding behind tree trunks and picking the olives that have fallen on the ground after the harvest. My olives. My harvest. Next to me, my relative is working hard on her garden. We chat while I munch on 'tassememt'. "Have you seen what they're doing..." she tells me while she digs the ground to make space for her future onions. "Yup". "She told me she's teaching her daughter how to earn and save money. So at every sunset she comes down with her, and picks the olives that are left on the ground. Then they go by the roadside where vegetable merchants set up shop to sell on the highway, and she sells the olives there. She doesn't take the olives from under her trees, she takes it from under all of ours. She's stealing basically" "You're going to tell her off?" "No, I can't, we already argued years ago and didn't speak for one year. We can't do that again. When she's done stealing yours she's going to run off home, so am going to clear the ground under my trees then. She'll be a lot more upset to find nothing than to be told off."

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Conversations with the absurd - Bedroom Tactics

I've just come back home from visiting a troublesome relative. My other relatives are eagerly awaiting my return for news. The news they are after though are not those I expected. No one is interested in whether or not she still gets beaten up, if there's food in the house or if the children are now completely ready to commit parricide:

- Come and give me a kiss ! How was the visit ?
- was ok... the kids seem ok, they told me that...
- So... are they sleeping together again?
- what? bloody hell, I don't know, that's none of my business.
- you don't know? what did you go there for then! you could have asked, I mean she should let him, what's a wife for otherwise?
- oh my god, we're in 2015 not 1890! What the hell are you saying... I don't even want to imagine where their children came from...
- where they come from and where they go indeed... she told me she lets her three year-old sleep in bed with her. Then the little girl pees during the night and the sheets smell. That's a disgraceful tactic to keep a man away.
- you're a hopeless case... I'm going to make coffee, think of your own affairs while I pour.
- let me tell you about my business. When my man was alive, I showered from hair to toe every dawn, that's what.
- red line, stop! And what about the beatings hey?
-  better a man who beats you than a man who divorces you!
- ...am leaving...
- Maybe he asks her to do weird stuff? Hey, come back, hey... !

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Conversations with the absurd - Reviewing numbers

"can I come in? I really need a smoke..." My landlady

The flat I rent used to be my landlady's "office", a private space that operated under the guise of a public one. She kept her office to escape the non-smoker act she carries on outside, to smoke to her heart's content inside.  Now it's occupied, but she still comes from time to time for the odd fag and to pour out her frustrations when she returns from food shopping trips at the nearby market. 

My landlady "Why don't they review the number of fasting days we have to follow like they review the amount of zakat we have to pay every year? A whole month seems so excessive! 20 would be more than enough, we're in the 21st century and I've got things to do, God damn!"