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 but uncle abused her when she was 12 and her mum's been hiding it from family members who all seem to know anyhow".

- 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


Some months ago, a pipe burst in the plumbing of my upstairs neighbour's bathroom. If it hadn't been for my kitchen's plaster ceiling suddenly falling off, and for the water bursting forth out of electricity plug holes, we'd never have known. My landlady had just pocketed my upfront three-months rent. Bad timing for a catastrophe.

Hibba, my landlady, has been suffering from severe mood swings - that’s how she calls dodging out of any spending to repair the flat I’m renting from her. Her husband passed away last year from brain cancer. She picks up:  
- tifla ! how are you? how's your family? you need anything? you know if you need anything, you just call me right! 
- Hibba, the ceiling's falling off. 
- I'm practically in the car, you hear the engine? I have to leave Algiers. It’s the stress, the four months’ mourning, the traffic jams, the white & blue paint replaced by black & white on Didouche, she starts sobbing, I'll deal with it as soon as I'm back. 
The line goes dead. She's turned off her phone.

Malika, my tiny upstairs neighbour, opens her door wide. She tips her head and looks at me as if I wore pig tails and a pink school blouse. 
- You're the sister of Hibba's daughter's husband right! 
- Nope, but I do live downstairs from you. There's a flood in my kitchen, it probably comes from a burst pipe in your bathroom. 
- But my husband, Allah yer7emu, did the plumbing himself before he died. 
- He was a plumber? 
- No, but he replaced the main pipe himself at his own cost - her eyes water - he died of a heart attack years later.
Malika is also widowed, as is Azziza on the ground floor and Lilia on the third.
- Attirhem rebbi, maybe the pipe that burst wasn't one he worked on? She comes downstairs with me.

She enters my kitchen, and looks up then grabs her cheeks and with her two hands squeezes her mouth into a Yemma! which translates as Oh.
- Oh! It's going to fall off! she says pointing upwards. 
- Malika, before it falls off, you should call a plumber...
I never heard her replying no, she'd ran.

I call in on Lilia, Hibba’s sister, who lives on the third floor. She lets me in, offers me coffee, lets me curse her sibling while she chain-smokes. Lilia doesn’t want to call the plumber either, but she knows she’s cornered.
- What did Malika tell you? 
- She said her husband did the plumbing and the dead aren’t guilty. Has anyone done any plumbing around here recently?  
- Yes, Abdu. He lives in the building next door. He changed Malika's bath last spring. 
She picks up her phone and dials.

"Who will not call the plumber first" is a demented race that requires a heart of steel and serious inflexibility. Its aim is obvious: counter-insurgency against the bill. The one who first calls is the one who will pay for that job, and every successive other because the plumber will be wrecking the building.  Good plumbers only exist in myths, and quite considering Algerian myths, it is no surprise, most myths and legends are inhabited by skilled-worker families, a little on the monstrous side.

Good plumbers only exist in myths, it's well known, in 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.

I ask Lilia:
- 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.