Algeria – Day 3

Friday 27 January 2017

That’s it, it’s the day of my meeting with Mohamed. I know it and I feel it. I am always optimistic.

Yacine organized my transport to Cheraga. Two of his employees – Imad and Kader – handymen, came to pick me up as he and Fateh went directly to Cheraga near the mosque. When I saw my bodyguards in the lobby of my hotel, I had the same feeling as when I met Fateh the day before. Imad is this big man, strong and chubby, with a thick beard and always wearing sunglasses. Kader is small, sharp, with an angular face and full of scars that tell of an sgitated past.

We boarded a big black minivan; I feel good, confident that everything will go as planned. Imad drives and Kader, sitting next to him, chain smokes. These two lads are not very talkative. I try to ask questions about where we go … “wait, wait, you’ll see”.

I look out the window as we leave the heart of Algiers. The landscape is less urban and gives way to large fields or empty lots without souls. The vegetation is poor. As we approach Chéraga, the houses are certainly more scattered but poorer, less recent and less well maintained.

As we arrive near Cheraga after half an hour’s drive, Kader turns to me and says, “Now you have to be discreet with your French style. People will see that you are not a local. ” I admit that with my tweed coat and my colorful scarf I really look like a typical French guy lost in the middle of nowhere …. I had not thought about this details at all.

We are slowly returning to Cheraga. It is a sad little town, in this gray and windy wintry weather. The streets are fairly deserted and most shops are closed on this Friday of prayer. The few people I see are wearing big traditional hooded coats, and the women are totally covered. The atmosphere is very different from the center of Algiers. Suddenly, Kader turns to me and orders me to hide … I refuse and ask him why. “We will go past your father’s residence and downstairs there is a shop run by your brothers”. I realized it was the shop where Yacine and Hanna were a few days ago. But too curious and especially intrigued, I did not hide. “It’s here,” says Imad. I saw a big man standing in front of the shop, in a white djellaba, staring up the street. He had a huge beard that prevented me from clearly distinguishing his face. I just had time to see his dark eyes and his fierce look. “It’s your brother,”  said Imad mechanically. At that moment I felt more spectator than actor of what was happening. Is it me who lives this moment? There was something unreal that made me really doubt the reality of this scene. I was looking through the back windshield at this strong, strange figure moving away as we advanced in Cheraga. This man and I are connected, brothers of blood. What would he think of me if he saw me? He will probably never know that I exist and yet we were a few meters apart for a few stealthy seconds.

We arrive in a small street, Yacine’s car was parked there. “Hello son. It’s a big day for you. How are you feeling? “He said to me. “I can’t wait,” I said with a broad, relaxed smile. Fateh shredded my hand again, and told me he would have to find a moment in the day to talk about my future home in Algeria. We’ll see…

On these words, Fateh left in the direction of the mosque a few blocks from the street to wait for the end of the prayer and go talk to the Imam.

Yacine and I sit in the back of the minivan because the icy wind was freezing me.

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Yacine is a real discovery for me. That unexpected encounter as it often happens when you travel. From our first meeting there is a strong bond that has been created, because this trip is not like the others. And his arrival in the life of Nassima and mine is like a novel: a few months earlier Nassima rejected the idea that a man could be what he missed in his life when we met in Paris. And then a few months later she met Yacine, who as soon as he knew my story felt invested with a mission. Helping me in my quest had become his obsession. We talked about his encounter with Nassima, his desire to marry her. I ask him why he wants to help me so much; his answer was very simple: “you are our son, that’s all”. He told me about his life spent between France and Algeria, his three sons he is so proud of. He was very interested in me, my work, my expat life, my love life. I spoke to him as if he was a very close uncle. I felt intimate with him and was happy about this beautiful meeting. I admit that he was for me like a guardian angel because without him I do not know how I could have found the trace of Mohamed.

Fateh was taking such a long time. Was it a good sign or a bad sign? I decided to get out of the car to smoke a cigarette and kill some time. Kader and Imad did not want to let me out, but I just did it. I stood behind the minivan and lit my cigarette. As I look in the air, I heard a loud “bang!” Right next to me on the minivan. I did not have time to turn around as I felt a violent blow on my right shoulder. Then I saw two kids, maybe 11 or 12 years old, throwing rocks at me. In the same second, Imad and Kader came out of the car and started chasing the two kids, shouting in Arabic. I think I pretty much understood what they said to them …

They disappeared a few minutes and came back to me completely breathless. Meanwhile Yacine was out of the car to see if everything was fine; The two men did not say a word but Kader’s terrifying dark look made me understand that I had to get into the car. Yacine was totally phlegmatic and  almost amused.

Then, as if nothing had happened, Yacine told me more precisely about his plans for the future with Nassima; He had first asked Nassima’s hand to her mother who accepted without hesitation – I found it so old school and touching. Then he officially proposed to Nassima; she wants to wait until the end of this trip before giving her answer. This man of more than 60 years old was put to the test by Nassima, who probably had a number of fears due her painful past with men. He had totally accepted this and was doing everything to seduce her, was gallant with her and showed her that he wanted only good. Such a prince Yacine.

Finally, Fateh walks in our direction. It was almost two hours that we were waiting …

“There is a problem,” he said in a serious tone. “The Imam thinks it’s a very good idea, but he can not do it; He is afraid that this exposes Mohamed’s past in the community and he does not want to upset Mohamed. “I did not fully understand what the problem was. This imam feared Mohamed? I asked the question to Fateh … “He told me that Mohamed is someone important here. He contributes to many things in the community. In my opinion he is afraid of him “. I found the word a bit strong, but after all I could not talk to the imam directly. Here I am again at the starting point, without possibility to meet Mohamed. The return was very long with all these traffic jams … I thought: who is this man so that an imam refuses to realize something that normally falls to him? Why was he so inaccessible? Something was totally beyond me. I did not want to be frustrated, but these events made my curiosity even greater.

When we arrived at Nassima’s house where everyone was waiting for us, the atmosphere was heavy while I was rather jovial and relaxed. As if this quest was more important to them all than to me. I did not understand. I suggested to the group to take them to dinner thinking that it would relax everyone. This is how we arrive at this very pretty traditional restaurant, and sit on comfortable cushions around a large table; very soon after our arrival a tall, athletic and confident young woman approached us. Fateh saluted her warmly and turned to me: “this is Khadidja, she is a police detective. I trained her before retiring.” She squeezed my hand firmly and I felt she was really forcing herself to smile. She sat near Fateh while I was at the other end of the table laughing with the children of Nassima; Fortunately they were there because the general atmosphere was really morose. The day was lived as a defeat. Grouped together in a council, Fateh, Yacine Khadidja and the two fellows were talking to each other; Of course I felt that it was about me … so I call Yacine to take part in the discussion … with a wave he made me understand that I was not invited to their small meeting. It’s crazy! It concerns me and he treats me as if I were a stooge, a kid not big enough to understand. After a while, Khadidja isolated herself to make a call. When she returned to the table with a satisfied look, she slipped a word to her acolytes and Yacine beckoned me to join them. “It’s good, we have a solution for tomorrow”. He explained to me: “Khadidja can help us. She is very close with the head of the Cheraga Police Station, who owes her a favor. She just called him and he agreed to help us. The idea is that tomorrow we will return to Cheraga, this time near the police station. The head of the station agreed to write a false convocation which will be delivered by hand to Mohamed in the morning. Nothing important, just papers to sign. Normally Mohamed will come to the station. It is at this point that you will be entering the station from a back door and put  in a room where Mohamed will be guided. That’s how you’ll meet him.” I was speechless. Have they gone mad? I willingly accept help but from to use the police resources and write a false document, it was going too far for me.

This is how I say to the group “I can’t accept, we are going too far to use the resources and the premises of the police”. “Do not worry, the local police chief agrees,” Fateh told me … I insisted on my refusal to do so. It was then that Khadidja stood up and leaned over me, with a dark look. She tells me, “Do you know who are the people like your father? These so-called religious who respect the “tradition”? When I was 5 years old, during the civil war, I was woken up in the middle of the night with the other children of my village. We were taken away … My parents died that night, killed by terrorists ! That’s why I joined the police; so it never happens again. “

I understood. Finally what troubled me appeared very clearly. They live my quest by proxy and by importing their own resentment of what Mohamed represents in their eyes: the reminiscence of these dark pages in the history of Algeria, when Islamic groups massacred civilian populations. I remember the conversation with Fateh and Yacine the day before; all have lost loved ones. My new friends belong to the Algeria that I saw in the streets of the capital: open to the world, modern, optimistic with the desire for progressivism. Without renouncing or separating from Islam, lived soberly and peacefully. While on the other side, Mohamed and his clique embodied the resurgence of conservatism and Islamic traditionalism that led to Islamist terrorism in the past. Two Algeria, still today. I did not see it unfold before my eyes but now I realize it. It’s bigger than me. Through me, everyone wishes to take a form of revenge and to give a lesson to the traditionalist and so called virtuous Mohamed, but who abandoned his wife and child 36 years earlier. That’s what was happening to them. That’s why they were so serious, dedicated and interested in helping me. How could I stop them and refuse? I did not have the strength.

Here I am in a crazy adventure, which is beyond my control … where will it take me? After all, I try to relax and tell myself that the use of police premises is acceptable.

But Khadidja’s words reason in me. She is barely younger than me and seems drained because of what she lived at 5 years old. This has marked and conditioned her life forever.

What about Yacine? Does he do this for me? For Nassima? For him?

For the first time since my arrival, I doubt. Do I really have to meet Mohamed? Is it so important? Do I have to see him, whatever is the cost? I was just hoping that he would really show up at the police station and finish this up, finally.

You are a man surrounded by mysteries and you arouse many interests Mohamed. Who are you really? This powerful and important “clan” leader, so influential that even an imam fears you? Or are you simply a wealthy guy, who choose a life rooted in traditions but in the end does no harm anyone?

And me, what part of Mohamed lives in me? That night, for a moment, I did not want to be here anymore.

How stupid i was to make this trip. I want it to be done.

 

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