Algeria: A Lucky Break and Honest People, Tebessa, 1975
Descending the Cairo Side – a novel of the traveling life
Available as an e-book on Amazon.com
Mostly truckers picked me up in eastern Algeria during the hundred and fifty mile trip to Tebessa, an old fortress town southeast of Constantine. Their faces were unmemorable. At one juncture a car with three men stopped, and I spent thirty miles listening to their violence-tinged assessment of socialism in Algeria. They didn’t mention picking up guns and fighting the government, but plainly they were entertaining rough thoughts. They wanted only a taste of personal freedom and to be left alone by the government. In spirit they acted like the Muslim fundamentalists one heard about from time to time, but their politics were decidedly unIslamic. Of course, their posturing could have been bluff for the sake of the foreign hitchhiker.
“You see,” the driver lectured, “The government has no business getting involved in the economy of the country. You cannot even open a business without a big problem. There are so many agencies you must get permission from. They are fools! Incompetents! If only there were more people like us.”
The guy in the back seat interrupted, “We would crush them! They are dogs!”
“Yes,” the third one carried on, “The government thinks nothing of simple businessmen. They want taxes, too much, and only wish to prevent us from making money.”
“And what do you do?” I asked politely. I was beginning to wonder if they had a firm grip on sanity, these three “businessmen,” and if their brains hadn’t managed the elevator all the way to the top floor. They either didn’t hear my question or were too self-involved to answer.
“We fought the French! And for what? To be dominated from Algiers by a group of women! We must change the government soon!”
The driver exhibited a fearless disregard for road hazards and thirty miles passed in a matter of twenty minutes or so. They let me off in a small town called Meskiana. Here I decided to have lunch and recover from their reckless driving and madcap political views. A group of young people, hanging out in the town center, observed my passing and invited me to share some simple food with them. They had a basket of cold fried eggs, baguettes, and lemonade to wash it down with.
I presumed they were a family unit, cousins and brothers.
“Life is good here in Meskiana,” the oldest one said. “True, there is no work, but food is cheap. Our families live off the land, and all the people trade with each other for what they need.”
“But what about the products you can’t grow? Surely you need money for them?”
“In our family, we have an uncle who sends us money from Oran. We make do.”
“What do you see for the future here?”
“Maybe you help us. We want to go to Canada.” The opinion was unanimous. Fantasies of immigration were as seductive in Meskiana as elsewhere. But the scene here was cool, and the name of the town name sounded vaguely Mexican. I thought of home, and how similar the inhabitants here were to Canadians. How different today turned out to be from yesterday, I mused. Change was the constant. My new friends had shining eyes to match the bright polyester of their clothes. They spoke of new worlds to come. If not for them, then for me, and for all those who travel.
I crossed an invisible border as I neared Tebessa. Drifts of sand swirled into the road, a hint of the region’s closer proximity to the Sahara Desert. The wind blew softly through the scrub; sand covered the flatlands like a soft sheet.
Tebessa loomed ahead on the road. It was dazzling and medieval. Mottled walls of black stone and mud described a barrier around the town, which dated, they said, from the time of ancient Rome. The car that brought me here stopped at the western gate. I wandered outside the walls for a time, admiring the view. Tebessa was well south of the main road to Tunisia, and had a forgotten quality to it. The inhabitants were polite and discrete – no one stared at or hustled foreign visitors. It was clear there weren’t any other backpackers in the vicinity.
I found a hotel. An old grizzled man manning the front desk treated me like a lost brother and was very kind, and tried to accommodate whatever strange farangi needs I might have. I asked him about a shower, but the water wasn’t working.
“Ma leish,” he told me, in a mixture of Arabic and French, “Il y a une bain publique pas loin d’ici”
“Oh. Is it open at this time of day?”
“Yes, certainly. Most people prefer to use it rather than trouble with bathing in their homes.”
This was an interesting tidbit. I knew about Arab public bathhouses, but had never found the nerve to visit one. After receiving a series of complicated directions, I made my way into the warren of streets that crisscrossed old Tebessa and eventually found the bath house.
Inside another elderly man held court, constantly running back and forth to assist the customers. There was a primary steam room, another chamber with pools of cold and warm water, and finally, an area laid out with cots for resting. The towels and sheets looked surprisingly clean, and they shone with the promise of a leisurely siesta. Water dripped off the stone walls, which held a faint but pleasant smell of age.
I stripped and began to wash the dust of the Algerian hinterlands from my body. It felt good. No, it felt magnificent. After an hour of bathing and resting, I paid the gentleman a pittance and returned to the hotel.
“Please, if you don’t mind, could you pay for the night?” the kind manager now asked. It was almost as if he felt embarrassed.
“Sure,” I replied, digging for my money belt. I patted myself, looking for it, then realized with a start it wasn’t there. Suddenly the walls began to press in. A flood of images coursed through my head. My passport, money, plane tickets, where were they? I gasped and searched again. No luck. The outside world suddenly took on the aspect of a bad Cubist painting. Angles swirled and intersected at random, a great whooshing sound passed through my ears. I began to hyperventilate.
“Is there a problem?”
“My… my passport and money. I can’t find it.” I was far from any kind of consular help, stranded alone in the wilds of eastern Algeria. A quick vision of traveling desperately back to Algiers formed. Would I be able to make it all the way without being asked for identification? Then it came to me — the bath house. I had taken the belt off there, in preparation for entering the steam room. Of course! The money belt had to be in the bath house! But, would it still be hanging on the hook where I left it, in the cubicle where I’d stripped? With hurried apologies, I told the manager I would be back and dashed from the hotel.
I fairly ran back to the bath house, ignoring passersby and traffic, huffing and puffing like an over-the-hill racehorse when I threw open the doors. I stood before the other old man, panting. With just the trace of a smile he carefully took a small brass key out of a drawer and opened a small safe. Gingerly he produced the leather money belt, looking me straight in the eye.
“Here, I believe you forgot this here. I found it when I was cleaning up after your visit.”
“Thank you, thank you so much,” I stammered. “I am so grateful.”
“Please, open it up and make sure everything is there.”
I thought fast. Why would he give it back to me so readily if he had stolen something from it?
“No, I am sure it is in order. Thank you again.”
“But I insist. I want to reassure you that your papers were safe here with me.”
“It is really not necessary.”
“Please, sir. It will only take a moment.”
“Well, okay.” I opened the leather pouch and rifled through its contents. My valuables appeared intact. The Canadian passport was there, the travelers checks, the cash – all was accounted for.
“Thank you again. Please, will you accept a small gift from me?” I was utterly in this man’s debt. His honesty and integrity were astounding, especially for someone who came from a country where cheating and stealing were normal business procedures.
“I do not need a gift, or bakshish. I am honored to be able to render service.” The man’s simple phrase was striking and he regarded me with searing eyes. He had given me something which I could not repay with a few dollars, his look seemed to say. He had performed a duty, an obligation, and nothing more.
Back at the hotel the manager had another explanation for the bath house owner’s moral values. “If he had stolen your money, and you had gone to the police and told them, he would have been in a great deal of trouble.”
“Perhaps, but there was no way I could have proved it was him who took the money belt. Anyone in the bath house could have stolen it.”
The manager considered this briefly. “It would not have mattered to the police. He would have been severely punished.”
“But still, in my country, if this had happened, I never would have seen the money belt again. People are not honest in Canada.”
“You cannot trust your countrymen with such a simple task as looking after a lost wallet?”
“Hardly. There are a lot of criminals. You can barely trust people you know, never mind strangers.”
“That is not good. Why, here, if you leave money on the street, and return the next day, it will still be there. If it is not, it is only because someone has picked it up to protect it and await your return.”
“We live in different worlds, I guess.”
NOTE: This essay is excerpted from Descending the Cairo Side.