memoirs, art and fragments by Thomas Milner

Posts tagged ‘Algeria’

The Flooded Plain

Annaba, Eastern Algeria.   January 1972

algeria

I stayed at the Paradise Hotel for about a month before the Company managed to arrange a furnished flat for me.

It was my very first flat – two bedrooms, a living room and a kitchen and I was not yet 21 years old.

I bought a Telefunken sound-system – tuner/amplifier, turntable and two speakers, which I artfully placed at the requisite height and distance apart, angled for maximum effect for the sofa at the centre of the living room. I was fussy, I was finicky, I fiddled with them and adjusted them until they were just so.

(It was all new to us in those days – creating sound-stages, woofers and tweeters and so on).

The living room window had a tiny balcony which overlooked the dusty parched football stadium which proved useful in January as an emergency landing pad for helicopters from the American 6th Fleet during the extreme weather conditions which caused the flash floods from the mountains which inundated much of the coastal plain.

THE FLOODED PLAIN

THE FLOODED PLAIN

The previous evening the road between the site and the town was under about two feet of water in some places and it had been quite a little drama for us to get home.

The Company’s small fleet of cars consisted mostly of identical little Renault R8s, which were unequal to driving through the water and were stranded on the small islands along the road.

I however, not having yet been allocated a Company car, hitched a lift with two others in a VW Beetle driven by a visiting fireman from Head Office in Sheffield called Earnest, a field accountant (the first I’d met of the breed). He was a slow-talking, patient, pedantic and dogged Yorkshire man. He wore a rumpled dark suit and a white drip-dry shirt with a dark tie; a pork-pie hat and a pipe clamped between his teeth completed the effect.

While we expressed our doubts about the viability of the expedition he remained firm. What-yer-have-to-do-is-to-keep-the-vehicle-in-low-gear-and-keep-yer-foot-on-the-gas-pedal-so-as-avoid-stalling, he explained sternly, pointing the stem of his pipe at my chest.

So we set off though the darkness and driving rain and soon got to where the road disappeared in a large lake of dark grey water. Earnest crouched forward slightly at the wheel, pipe clenched between his teeth and drove the little car into the water. The level of water rose until it was an inch above the door-sills and started to leak into the cabin, but the gallant engine continued to turn over and the car didn’t stop its progress (although the exhaust-pipe was under water).

Thus we glugged and gurgled our way across the flooded plain, phutting and farting sedately past the stranded R8s until we reached terra firma once again. There was the smell of tobacco smoke in the little cabin – it was Earnest puffing away triumphantly at his pipe.

Méchoui

ANNABA (formerly French Bône and Latin Hippo) is a town and Mediterranean port in north-eastern Algeria, close to the Tunisian border.

Its location on a natural harbour (Gulf of Annaba)  between Capes Garde and Rosa early attracted the Phoenicians, probably in the 12th century BC. It passed to the Romans as Hippo Regius, was the residence of the Numidian kings, and achieved independence after the Punic Wars (264–146 BC).

Hippo Regius later became a centre of Christian thought, housing the Council of Hippo (AD 393) and forming the bishopric of St. Augustine (396–430).

Destroyed by the Vandals in 431, Hippo Regius passed to the Byzantine emperor Justinian in 533, and about two centuries later (697) it was overcome by Arabs. An early centre of piracy, it remained one of the small cities of northern Africa under a succession of rulers until the French captured it in 1832. In 1848 it was created a commune administered from Paris.

Annaba rises from the shore up the cork-oak-covered slopes of the Edough foothills. The old town with its narrow streets dominates the centre of the city and is grouped around the Place du 19-Août and its early French houses and the Mosque of Salah Bey (1787). The 11th-century Mosque of Sīdī Bou Merouan was built with columns taken from Roman ruins.

The new town, built since 1870 along both sides of the thoroughfare Cours de la Révolution, contains the cathedral (1850) and basilica (1881) of Saint-Augustine.

Annaba also has the international airport at which I landed on 1st November 1971 for a two-year stint of work.

Here is a scrap from my memoirs:

On one memorable occasion the Company itself invited everyone, in honour of the visit of the Chairman of the Group, to a barbecue on our beach – when I say barbecue don’t go thinking of burgers, sausages and steaks; this was a Méchoui – a whole lamb cooked on a spit over a big fire – the aristocrat of barbecues.

So a convoy of Renaults and Fiats made its way up the winding road up the pine forest and down the other side at about 5.00 in the afternoon. Rashid, the barman of the Paradise Hotel, supplied the previously slaughtered and skinned lamb and set up a makeshift wooden bar under the trees. He and his assistant had arrived about two hours earlier in an old van full of boxes of booze and supplies and proceeded to gather all the bleached wood flotsam from the beach plus dried sticks and logs from the forest to make an enormous fire.

Various wives vied with each to bring large vacuum-Tupperware boxes of tasty snacks, cold salads, fruit, cakes and puddings of various sorts. All that afternoon the gleaming golden meat grilled slowly over the incandescent glowing coals of the great fire. One person was designated to feed it continuously with dried wood while another’s task was to rotate and baste the meat periodically.

Later we all gathered round the fire in the dusk to feast.

The hunters had worked well that year

And we all gorged on the kill.

Dates (1)

 

OIL FIELDS – HASSI-MESSOUD

Algeria – Oil fields in Eastern Sahara, 1980

I’m driving along in the Sahara Desert (you know, as one does) in the company of young Abdel Kader. It is an early afternoon in December with the sky a pale washed blue and still warm at midday. He has just shown me a deserted French Foreign-Legion fort – a desolate place which is gradually being reclaimed by the desert sands.

FRENCH FOREIGN-LEGION FORT

I explore the place, climbing up to the ramparts and indulging in the usual clichés, Beau Geste desperately repulsing the Berber hordes etc. Actually what I found most evocative were the prison cells with the graffiti presumably scratched on the walls by the miscreant legionnaires.

CELLS IN THE FORT

Back on the sandy track with me again at the wheel, Abdel Kader mentions diffidently that his village isn’t far away and asks my permission for him to visit his wife for a while. I say yes of course, but ask where his village is because, as usual, all I can see is sand. Abdel guides us along the winding tracks until we find the village with its characteristic white windowless dwellings nestling in a whaddi. At the end of the village is a small date grove which, it appears, belongs to Abdel’s family. He asks me if I wouldn’t mind waiting there while he pays a visit to his wife and baby and again I agree.

DATE GARDEN

I enter the garden and look round for a place to settle among the tall stately palms, sitting down eventually with my back to the trunk of a towering date-palm.

Perfect peace – all I can I hear is the gentle murmur of the irrigation streams which are watering each individual palm tree.

The harmonious beauty of the setting argues the existence of a divine plan.

I fall into a contemplative trance and allow my beating heart to slow right down and fall asleep.

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough                                                        

 A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread – and Thou

Beside me singing in the Wilderness.

I awake to find Abdel and his father Mohamed eyeing me expressionlessly. I look at my watch – it’s time to get back to the camp. Before we leave I am offered a small hempen sack of dates.

Some of the dates have been harvested from the very tree under which I have been reposing and are therefore a special gift from God, Mohamed assures me and opines that I will have a lucky life.

He shows me how to assess a good date: first it should be dry and light brown in colour and when held up to the light it should be translucent; the ripe fruit should be firm and sweet.

I like dates and keep the bag in a drawer of my desk partaking of several each day.

(To be continued)

Something wrong with our bloody ships today

Algeria 1971

After driving south from Annaba for about an hour we reached Tebessa, at the foot of the Tellian Atlas Mountains. From there we started to climb. The road wound steeply up through the shady forest, round and up, round and up we went until we eventually came out on to a high plateau which we then traversed.

To the west the rocky mountain ridges bore down on us menacingly,

In a brutish way,

On a Jutish day,

Like a squadron of grey battleships steaming in line during the battle of Jutland in 1916, where the British Grand Fleet under admiral Sir John Jellicoe met the German High Seas Fleet under the command of admiral Scheer.

These two enormous fleets straddled practically the whole of the North Sea although only the forward squadrons of each side actually met – Beatty’s heavy battle-cruisers made contact with the German heavy cruisers under admiral Hipper.

The German gunnery was extremely accurate – something wrong with our bloody ships today Beatty remarked on the deck of his famous flagship H.M.S. Lion with superb panache, as three of his battle-ships, the Indefatigable, the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth blew up and sank in quick succession.

 

SINKING of H.M.S QUEEN MARY at JUTLAND

The Flooded Plain

Annaba, Eastern Algeria.   January 1972

I stayed at the Paradise Hotel for about a month before the Company managed to arrange a furnished flat for me.

It was my very first flat – two bedrooms, a living room and a kitchen and I was not yet 21 years old. I bought a Telefunken sound-system – tuner/amplifier, turntable and two speakers, which I artfully placed at the requisite height and distance apart, angled for maximum effect for the sofa at the centre of the living room. I was fussy, I was finicky, I fiddled with them and adjusted them until they were just so. (It was all new to us in those days – creating sound-stages, woofers and tweeters and so on).

The living room window had a tiny balcony which overlooked the dusty parched football stadium which proved useful in January as an emergency landing pad for helicopters from the American 6th Fleet during the crisis caused the flash floods from the mountains which inundated much of the coastal plain. The previous evening the road between the site and the town was under about two feet of water in some places and it had been quite a little drama for us to get home.

The Company’s small fleet of cars consisted mostly of identical little Renault R8s, which were unequal to driving through the water and were stranded on the small islands along the road. I however, not having yet been allocated a Company car, hitched a lift with two others in a VW Beetle driven by a visiting fireman from Head Office in Sheffield called Earnest, a field accountant (the first I’d met of the breed). He was a slow-talking, patient, pedantic and dogged Yorkshire man. He wore a rumpled dark suit and a white drip-dry shirt with a dark tie; a pork-pie hat and a pipe clamped between his teeth completed the effect.

While we expressed our doubts about the viability of the expedition he remained firm. What-yer-have-to-do-is-to-keep-the-vehicle-in-low-gear-and-keep-yer-foot-on-the-gas-pedal-so-as-avoid-stalling, he explained sternly, pointing the stem of his pipe at my chest.

So we set off though the darkness and driving rain and soon got to where the road disappeared in a large lake of dark grey water. Earnest crouched forward slightly at the wheel, pipe clenched between his teeth and drove the little car into the water. The level of water rose until it was an inch above the door-sills and started to leak into the cabin, but the gallant engine continued to turn over and the car didn’t stop its progress (although the exhaust-pipe was under water).

Thus we glugged and gurgled our way across the flooded plain, phutting and farting sedately past the stranded R8s until we reached terra firma once again. There was the smell of tobacco smoke in the little cabin – it was Earnest puffing away triumphantly at his pipe.

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