Wednesday, January 25, 2017.
It was a gorgeous and sunny day when I landed at Boumediene airport in Algiers. While putting my first foot on the tarmac, a chilled wintry wind graciously brought me my first breath of Algerian oxygen; and the sun, at its zenith, covered my skin with it’s warm light after more than 20 hours of travel locked in planes and airports. The custom officer was particularly rude… A Frenchman who lives abroad and works for an American company seems to be an ideal profile for a face to face in an office with a cocky and bossy manager. The first impression is is important, they say… I’ll make an exception this time.
Nassima had repeatedly offered me to stay at her mother’s with her during my trip. While I understood why she invited me, I wasn’t at all comfortable with the idea to be together all the time. I needed to have my privacy and a “decompression chamber” because I was anticipating to have highly emotional moments. And I like to have my own bubble. Therefor, I booked a hotel room for the length of my stay.
In the car that took me to the hotel, I sent a message to Nassima to tell her that I was on my way. We agreed to meet at 6pm at the hotel lobby; that gave me enough time to rest a bit and recover from the jet lag. I tried, but I couldn’t sleep. I could not believe it … I am in Algiers! I had some time ahead of me, so I went for a walk, and went uphill to the Martyrs’ Memorial, this beautiful concrete architectural work in tryptic, proudly overlooking the city. Something powerful emerges from this very symbolic place. What a magnificent view! A 360-degrees panorama of the city, and a breathtaking view of the Mediterranean sea. I loved these few minutes of contemplation … “Hello Algiers”, I wanted to shout. The clock was ticking, and it was time for me to return to the hotel for my appointment with Nassima.
What a surprise! I was sitting at the hotel bar near the lobby while waiting for Nassima. I recognized her silhouette from afar … accompanied by her children, Hana and Wahib! I was very happy to see them, and I thought it was a great idea that they came. Slightly set back, an elegant and smiling man observed this scene of reunion with benevolence. I immediately understood he was Yacine. Having patiently waited for his turn to greet me – Nassima couldn’t let go of me – he approached me almost solemnly and his first words were: “Hello son. Be welcome in your country “. Nassima had been there for almost a week, and her children had decided to come at the last minute and arrived 3 days ago. We chatted and caught up, talking about the happiness to be here in Algeria. I was excited to listen to the program Nassima had prepared for the next day: a visit of Algiers and the neighborhood in which she grew up, then meeting with her mother and her sister in the afternoon. One of her brothers was not there and the other was uncertain to meet us. Yacine was sitting in front of me in his chair and was listening to the conversation, without saying a word. Then, lighting a cigarette, he said to Nassima: “Now it’s time to talk to our son.” Suddenly, the jovial atmosphere evaporated. He looked at me straight in the eyes, took a puff and said in his hoarse voice: “We found Mohammed”. I was shocked by this news … Indeed, finding Mohammed seemed so improbable that I had totally accepted the fact that I wouldn’t meet him. But in a few seconds, he was back in the center of my concerns.
I asked Yacine how did he locate him so quickly. Without answering me, he turned to the lobby and waved at someone. A discreet gentleman with grey hair and a mustache walked towards us. Yacine tells me, “It’s thanks to him, my friend Daha. He had a career in some special services and he’s good at finding someone “. I was puzzled … Yacine seemed to have taken things very seriously and really invested himself in finding Mohammed by mobilizing one of his friends.
I had very rarely asked about Mohammed to Nassima. The only things I knew about him came mainly from the story she told me on the first day of our meeting. She had of course spoken to me about him since, but sporadically. And she hasn’t been in touch with him for a long time. So I had an image of Mohammed being a prominent businessman in today’s Algeria, a city dweller, who likes beautiful cars and who’s always elegantly dressed. This is the portrait that Nassima had made of him.
So I asked Yacine what they had discovered. He started a long report: “Your father has totally changed. He left the city to settle in 20 kilometers from the center of Algiers in Cheraga, near the forest of Bouchaoui. He’s living there with his brothers, his children and his wives (!). He had a religious shift since the death of his parents; as the eldest son he is now the head of the family. He still has his businesses and manages everything from Cheraga. All his brothers and his sons work for him. It’s a real clan. It is a very conservative environment that has nothing to do with what you will see here in Algiers.”
I was expecting everything, but that … I had the strange feeling of being immersed in some kind of fiction. And that was just the beginning.
Yacine continued his story: “We saw Mohammed yesterday. With Hana and Wahib we went there, thanks to the details provided by Daha. He has a large compound in the center of Cheraga where he lives with all his family. One of his sons runs a grocery store on the ground floor. With Hana we went to the shop. We first saw the son, your brother. He has this typical style, with a large beard. He was wearing a large djellaba and a chechia. We just pretended we were passing by to buy a few items. At the back of the shop I saw Mohammed. He was wearing a big traditional coat … You look so much like him. Mohammed is you with 25 years more. While paying, Hana pulled out a bank note and handed it to your brother behind the counter. With a dark look on his face, he refused to take money from a woman’s hand. I paid for it myself and we left. That’s the context, Thomas. It will be very difficult for you to meet him. This type of place… it’s complicated to go there for someone like you, son. “
I was stunned. Not for a single second have I imagined such a scenario. I tried to keep my cool, but the tone of Yacine and the serious faces of all the others intrigued me. In his way of talking to me, Yacine made me feel that the situation was very worrying. I couldn’t fully fathom what was really going on here.
But, the next day was dedicated to different matters. We went to dinner, and didn’t speak at all about Mohammed. But he was clearly in everyone’s mind.
Back in my hotel room, I was caught between two feelings: the wise wish to not think about Mohammed and to just enjoy this short stay with Nassima and her children, and the desire to know more about Mohammed’s environment and eventually meet him. Should I be reasonable and rational? I was trying to convince myself that yes. But in my heart, I already felt that my devouring curiosity would prevail.
After all, it’s because of it that I’m here.