Friday, April 13, 2012

Algeria 2012: The Residence

The Residence in Bordj bou Arreridj is new and opulent, while the surrounding town is Algerian middle-class (traffic, crumbling plaster, peeling paint, random debris, a satellite dish at every window). I have a grand room, very clean and bright. The spacious bathroom includes a bidet (do people really use them?) and a tub for two. But it's strange. 
I could fit a month of clothing in the armoire, but there's only one hanger. The flat-screen TV turns on, but doesn't get any stations. The door is not straight in its jamb, preventing the deadbolt from bolting. And the great gobs of putty around all the baseboard tile have just been left there.

I wish they would call me for lunch. I'm starving enough to have a second slice of the mealy apple in the room, and it's tempting to start on the orange.
 Built on two floors around a paved courtyard, downstairs there are lounges and offices and a kitchen, surely a dining room I will discover soon. Nobody is about. My host is seated on a couch talking to his phone. From the kitchen come sounds of women's voices, the rattling of pans, some frying. Soon! The long side of the court has a series of arches that look out to a field or very young orchard or a garden they mean to get to later. A man is painting the wall yellow. Sparrows jump and twitter everywhere.
I forgot my sunglasses in rainy France.
Wandering back inside, I find two colleagues have arrived from Algiers, and are sitting in one of the vast lounges lined with couches and low tables. The center of the large room is empty, like a waiting ballroom. The tables have been furnished with plates of almonds and pistachios and peanuts, bottles of water and soda. The men are radiologists, going over their slides. 
Very slowly, people arrive. Around 2 we sit for a formal lunch with the early-arriving VIPs of the First International Oncology Congress. The meal is delicious. A wonderful local specialty soup starts us off, lightly spicy with chicken and granules of wheat with a minty background to the broth. This is followed by mountains of couscous with lamb, then fruit and coffee & tea.

According to the schedule we should be at the university already for the opening of the Congress. After milling around for quite a while longer, we're loaded up into cars headed for the new hospital, where a subgroup of VIPs will inaugurate the oncology department. The rest of us are taken directly to the University Bordj Bou Arreridj, where we naturally have nothing to do but hang around until the others make it over from the hospital. We're herded into a vast room lined with couches and low tables (they have a thing for these vast, nearly-empty rooms here), where an eager team tries vainly to serve us tea and cookies. We are far too stuffed for cookies, but politely take tea.
After feeble attempts at small-talk, I concentrate on my tea and on smiling interestedly at people who all know that I am The American, without my knowing any of them. Soon they lapse into arabic.
At long last the others arrive in a swarm of politicians and photographers. Everybody is photographed with everybody.  The regional Director of Health is on hand, a striking blond woman impeccably dressed in the latest Paris fashion. In the crowd I find people whom I recognise from my other trips to Algeria in 2004 and 2007, but I only remember three of their names. Absolutely everyone knows mine, however. That's a skill I wish I had - remembering names.
Now we are herded into the ampitheather, which is packed for the evening's session of lengthy introductions, tributes, and two featured presentations. Comfy armchairs are installed for us VIPs in a row facing the podium. You can't see the screen for the slide presentations from here, but we are much more comfortable than in the classroom rows above.
The featured presentations are odd. The first is on near-death experiences, and other than relate what people describe about their experiences, there's no substance to this. The speaker is quite excited, however, to have a new graduate student working on the subject. He explains that the previous grad student on the subject died, and we cannot help but wonder - how? doing experimental work? The last I read about near-death experiences was a couple of years ago, in an article showing how the white light at the end of a tunnel might be a physiological effect of shutting down the brain in stages. Our speaker doesn't mention this, nor does he make any religious or spiritual claims, and we're left wondering what his hypothesis is.
The second speaker is meant to talk about pediatric cancer care, but what he actually presents is a talk on basic hospital hygiene. He has lots of photos of modern hospitals with clean rooms and assorted waste receptacles, and staff wearing appropriate clothing. I wonder if these measures, taken for granted by people in France and the US, are making much headway in Algeria. The tour of the hospital in Algiers 8 years ago made me swear never, ever, to get sick or injured in the country. Not that I'm planning on getting sick or injured anywhere. But especially not here.
In the confusion of the stampede to leave for dinner, I manage to find my friend Amina, who tells me to wait where I am for just 5 minutes while she goes to get her stuff. While she's gone, my driver finds me. He already has his other charges in tow, and insists we go right away. I convince him to wait, but after 10 minutes the hall is nearly deserted and he practically takes me by the arm to the car. Such a hurry! Then we wait in the car, for no discernable reason, for 25 minutes before leaving. Hurry up and wait. My favorite game!
At the restaurant, I'm ushered into the special "traditional" room, where we eat at low tables, seated on thick cushions on the floor. There are rugs on every surface, animal skins on the walls, and a stuffed antelope with its forelegs badly reattached.
Our special VIP menu tonight: local specialty soup, couscous with lamb, fruit, and tea. Exactly what we had for lunch and not quite as good. Happily, we are allowed to serve ourselves from the platters.

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