Short Stories by Andrew McIntyre. Did you enjoy ‘Monument’? Today, you can read its sequel and feel again the music of the Algiers waterfront by Andrew McIntyre.
Bab El Oued.
I recognized the area. We had crossed half the city on foot. The boulevard ended at the main square with fountains, and a statue of a French general that the revolutionaries had neglected to pull down. Beyond, I saw the dark recesses of Bab El Oued leading to the Casbah. Rush hour traffic crawled past the palm trees. The park filled with couples strolling, old tired men smoking their cigarettes at the end of another day. We walked along the narrowing streets, down long flights of stone steps further into the quarter. The flickering yellow light of the electric lamps emphasizing the darkness. In the shadows, beggars squatted with urchins, watching us approach, murmuring weakly as we passed.
A middle aged man wearing an expensive dark suit lurched drunkenly against the wall laughing. He raised a bottle to his lips, spilling red wine over his shirt. Between swigs he shouted, “La loi du milieu, la loi du milieu,” like a ritual chant. He stared blindly through glazed bloodshot eyes.
Mohammed pulled me away, whispering, “He is dangerous, this one, he is le mafia. That is why he can drink like that. No-one drinks because it makes them slow. But he can drink because no-one will touch him.”
“You never drink?” I asked.
“Never,” replied Mohammed. “It is nothing to do with Islam. Wine makes you slow. That is why I only drink coffee and water.”
“How about kif?”
“Only in Oran. Or in the village of my grandparents. There I am safe. I can relax. You drink?”
“Beer only,” I replied. “Very seldom. For the same reasons.”
“I used to smoke a lot.”
Mohammed laughed, “Les paradis artificiels, ou les enfers.”
“Thus it is,” I agreed. “Within the senses.”
He grinned, “And now la longue nuit?”
He put his arm round my shoulder, and ruffled my hair, “My friend.”
The smell of drains wafted on the breeze. Weak yellow light filtering from a restaurant carved into the walls of the ancient fortress. Malik stopped, refusing to go any further.
Mohammed glared angrily, “What’s the matter? You don’t want to eat?”
“Non. Là il y a du danger.”
They argued in Arabic. Mohammed cuffed Malik’s ear a couple of times.
Malik shrugged his shoulders, “I’m off. I’ve got stuff to do. I’ve no reason to go down there. Bonne chance.”
Mohammed patted him on the back, “We’ll see you. Maybe tomorrow, if you’re at the market.”
“Yes. Watch out OK.” Touching my shoulder, Malik said to me, “Ils te font froid dans le Bab El Oued. Là il y a du danger.” We shook hands.
I pointed at Mohammed, “No problems with him around. We’ll be careful.”
Mohammed agreed, “Oui, no problems. Tomorrow. And then we go to the border.”
Malik nodded, “Yes. We’ll work it out tomorrow.” With a nervous smile and a salute of the hand, he marched off towards the center.
Mohammed muttered, “He is not strong, that one. It is a pity.”
“He is young,” I said.
Mohammed shook his head, “It makes no difference.”
We shared a cigarette contemplating the long street leading into the darkness.
Mohammed indicated, “There we can eat. I know a place. Let’s go. Then we will decide what to do.”
We descended a flight of broken stone steps, bordered by a rusting, ornately carved iron railing. The smell of roast chicken on the breeze. Down the cobbled alley, I could see the yellow light of a restaurant. We looked inside. A fat unshaven cook with huge tattooed arms was frying chips. He knew Mohammed and he motioned for us to enter. Mohammed talked to him, sharing a cigarette. We ordered coffee, sitting at the greasy plastic table waiting for some food, the meal of the day. I was not even hungry. I lit a cigarette, inhaling the smoke, sipping the coffee. Finally, I ate some stale bread and chicken soup. Mohammed wolfed down eggs with bread, smoking a cigarette between mouthfuls. We sat around finishing the cigarettes staring into the darkness. Then we paid the patron and left.
The hotel was only a block away, though I could never have found it in the labyrinthine streets. The area in front of the building lit by pale light from the foyer. In the entrance, a stocky unshaven man in a shabby rumpled suit was talking in low tones with the owner. They became silent as we went past them into the lobby. The man watched me closely. I had seen him earlier.
Jemel motioned me over, “This man was interested to meet you.”
“How do you do?” I said. We shook hands.
“He is from a group staying here in Algiers. There is a conference.”
“Where are you from?” He asked.
I could see him better now. He was short, broad shouldered, very muscular, wearing reading spectacles. He wore an open necked shirt under the creased suit jacket, with a T-shirt underneath for the cold. He stared, trying to gauge as much as possible from my appearance. Mohammed wandered off with Jemel.
“Belgium,” I replied.
“Belgium? You are not American?”
“No, no. Belgian. Not American.”
“Why are you come to Algiers?”
“I was on a ship.”
“Strange place to come for a holiday. This is not a city to which tourists often come.”
“I am not on holiday. I had to leave the ship. I had no choice.”
The man remained silent, obviously unconvinced. Shaking his head, he shouted something in Arabic gesturing towards me, “You say you are not an American?”
“I’m not American. You want to see my passport? The owner’s already seen my passport.”
“I am not an official, sir. I was just wondering.” The man tried to laugh. “You are staying here?”
“For how long?”
“A couple of days.”
“A couple of days?”
“Yes. It depends.”
“I hadn’t thought.”
“And Algiers. How long in Algiers?”
“I don’t know. Are you police?”
“No, not police. I was just wondering. Algiers is a dangerous place, you know. You will have to be careful. There are many enemies of your country here. These days Algiers is not a place to come on holiday.”
“I’m not on holiday.”
“Who is your friend?”
“Mohammed. I met him here. He is not American.”
The man became irritated, “I realize that. I think that is plain to see.”
“I thought you might want to know.”
“Quite.” He looked at me malevolently. “Well, it was a pleasure to meet you, Monsieur?”
“André. Will you excuse me? I have work to prepare for tomorrow.”
“Of course. What’s your name, by the way?”
“Tariq. Excuse me. I have to go now. Good night. Enjoy your stay in Algiers. Please be careful. Nothing foolish.”
He tried to smile, but his eyes betrayed hatred. He sauntered off shrugging his shoulders, scrutinizing me once more, waving clumsily before lighting a cigarette as he walked into the hotel. I searched for Mohammed. He was in the office discussing something with Jemel.
“Jemel has some clothes. We sell more tomorrow.”
I gestured with my thumb, “Who is that man?”
“He is a commissar. They are in Algiers for a conference,” said Jemel. “They are interested in people staying in the hotel, of course. There is going to be a war.”
“Naturally, they thought you might be American. Or an Israeli. Here for a reason.”
“I’m not American. You know that. You saw my passport.”
Jemel smiled, “I told them. They wanted to meet you. They were interested.”
“They have to be careful you know.”
“I suppose so. Like anyone.”
“Exactly. Well, I’d better be going. I have to do the accounts.”
Jemel waved, passing through the bead curtain into the room behind the counter.
We began the climb to the room.
“Avoid that man,” Mohammed whispered, pointing with his finger back at the lobby. “I was going to get rid of him if he bothered you any more. I had to talk to Jemel. We have to be careful.”
“Dangerous type. Bad Arab. He didn’t believe your story. He thinks you’re American.”
“People either think I’m French or American. I don’t sympathize with anyone.”
“Anyway, better watch out. They can do anything. Too much danger in their lives, in Algiers, makes them crazy. Too much tension. Fou.” He pushed at his head grinning.
“Je m’en fous.”
“What kind of group do you think?”
“Commissars. Who knows which group? There are so many groups now. Many have trouble with the government, with each other. Everyone is trying to take over. There is much repression. The war is coming, very soon. Eventually we will have to pick sides.”
“What can they do? I’ll never see them again.”
“We should get out of this place, leave the hotel. Go to Maroc.”
“You think so?”
The hotel seemed to be completely empty. No sound at all throughout the cavernous building, except for our steps resounding along the hollow stone corridor. We reached the room. I sat on the hard straw mattress bed, and lit a cigarette. In the building opposite an argument was raging. The strident hysterical ranting of a woman shouting at the top of her voice, followed by the lower grumbling tones of a man uselessly trying to placate the situation. The woman who had been putting out the laundry, beating the carpets earlier.
I chuckled, “Hear that?”
“Yes. Crazy. That’s marriage for you, and some people want to marry more than one woman because they have money.” Mohammed stood in the center of the room, restless, shifting his feet, full of unspent energy. “Let’s go now,” he said stubbing out his cigarette. “It’s still early. Let’s get out of here.”
“Where shall we go?”
“Blida. Let’s go and see la petite fille, we’ll take her out to dinner, we’ll go to a discotheque. We’ll get a taxi. Tomorrow we’ll come back and sell more clothes. Then we’ll go to the border. Maroc.”
I picked up my bag. “Let’s go then. La petite fille. What about the fog?”
“We’ll try the taxi, and if there’s fog we’ll take the train. We can sleep on the train. We’ll see if Ahmed is there. Ahmed will drive us to Blida.”
“Yes. If there’s fog we can always take the train.”
We went back down the stairs, through the entrance into the street.
“Tout s’arrange,” said Mohammed. “It is better we go. There is nothing for us here.”
“Nothing for us,” I agreed. “Tout s’arrange.”