The plane touched down, the heat shimmering above the runway. The icy cold morning I had left behind just two hours ago in London, felt like a world away. This was my first trip to Algeria, here to visit the family of my long-term partner. I have spent some of the best times of my life in North Africa and so I was excited about what lay ahead. I had no idea how special it would turn out to be.
Seventy five minutes of Algerian bureaucracy and I was on my way. After only a week apart, I felt strangely emotional to be reunited with the chef and to see him in his own environment. We set off on the long, hot journey to his home. We climbed high up into the mountains, winding our way through tiny villages with children playing in the dusty streets and chickens trotting nonchalantly in front of the car. No-one seemed to flinch apart from me. The women, huddled in groups chatting on the side of the road, were resplendent in their traditional dress, the wonderfully vibrant colours contrasting beautifully with the awe-inspiring landscape around them.
The land of the Berbers
We were in Kabylia, home to the Berbers , or Amazigh (‘free men’) to give them their proper name, for millennia. They are the indigenous population of North Africa, there long before the Arabs and Islam came along. Records indicate that they have been in the region since around 5 000 BCE. They were originally Nomadic; some such as the Touregs in and around the Sahara still are. It is a rich culture with its own language and script, very different to the Arabic which many associate with this part of the world. They are skilled craftsmen, perhaps most well-known for their beautiful carpets and rugs, but they also make colourful ceramics, textiles and jewellery. Like many minorities, the Berbers have faced persecution. Their Arabic neighbours have consistently tried to suppress their identity. The struggle to retain their language and traditions is ongoing.
The house sits high up on a hill where the views over the valley below are staggering. The jagged edges of the Atlas mountains tower overhead, reinforcing nature’s dominance. We walked through the kasbah, a maze of narrow streets, to a welcome chorus from various neighbours en route. I was likely the first English person to visit the village for years. It was hot gossip.
As we entered the house, I was met by the warmest welcome imaginable. Embraced by three generations of family – four kisses each – that’s a lot of love! I was showered with gifts, plied with food and the sweetest mint tea. It was a sign of things to come. Never have I come across people so hospitable. It was a humbling experience.
We spent the next few days exploring. We drove up a hair-raising 1600 feet to Tikjde, the highest point in the area to find green pastures with cows, goats and donkeys…and a running track..?! The air was so fresh and the temperature at least ten degrees lower than the stifling heat of the villages below. It felt like we were on top of the world.
I loved being immersed in everyday life. We went to the market and found huge strawberries deep red and full of flavour, and vegetables picked the same morning, with a taste that I have long-since enjoyed in the UK. I played with the children who were bright and eager to learn. All of them were under ten and already speaking a mixture of Berber, Algerian, and French with a few words of English thrown in too. Impressive.
Life is tough in the mountains. Jobs are hard to come by. For some, living conditions can be cramped and the climate is harsh. Temperatures reach 50 degrees in the summer and there’s snow in the winter. Yet for the most part, we found people happy with their lot. This lady was sitting on the roadside as she did every day, her severely disabled son at her side. She had cared for him for 30 years. We stopped to give her some money and to exchange a few words. You would never know from this picture what she had to endure.
On to Algiers…
Algiers was our next stop. Perched majestically on a hill, looking out over the Mediterranean, it couldn’t have been more different. A big bustling city full of contrasts. The wonderfully atmospheric streets of the kasbah with its dilapidated houses and tiny alleyways, sit alongside the majestic architecture of Haussmann and the colonial era. The traffic is crazy busy and you take your life in your hands as you wind your way through to cross the road. Zebra crossings are largely ignored. It’s far more fun to launch yourself into a line of oncoming cars with just a flick of the wrist to indicate you would quite like them to slow down!
The capital it may be, but the people are just as friendly. They love to talk and will happily stop you on the street for a chat. Without exception, everyone wanted to know what I thought of Algeria. They were acutely aware of how mis-represented it can be in the press. It really mattered to them that foreigners saw it as it is. I have travelled extensively and have never previously experienced such concern.
The weight of history is ever present. People are understandably still raw about the atrocities committed by the French both in Algeria itself, and also to Algerians in France, during the colonial era. A hard-fought independence was eventually secured in 1962. It came up, unprovoked, in many conversations. They are a nation who are fiercely proud of their country. The impressive Martyrs Memorial towers over the city, a constant reminder of what has been achieved. We went to the museum underneath. It was an emotional visit but necessary to really understand the history and its impact on life today.
Yet through it all, the humour has remained. Apart from the generosity and kindness, it is the one thing that has stood out on every trip I have made to the region. This time was no exception. I saw a goat wandering as cool as you like down the street mingling in with the crowd. To this day I have no idea where it was heading. At the top of the mountain, a car coming in the opposite direction waved us down, leaving the traffic stacked up behind him. A dialogue ensued to the sounds of beeping horns and shouting. The next thing I know two jars of honey appeared. Never miss an opportunity to sell your wares!! Then there were the two rollerbladers holding on to the back of a motorbike and whizzing down a three lane highway, all without helmets of course.
And so as I boarded the plane, I did so with a heavy heart. It had been a trip like no other, made so very special by the people I met. I was welcomed, literally, with open arms into the family, my every need taken care of. My greatest wish is that many more people will travel to this wonderful country to see it for what it really is and experience everything it has to offer. From me, a huge ‘tanmirt’ to everyone who made it such an unforgettable experience and ‘tikkelt ay d-itteddun ad k-ẓreɣ’ – see you next time!