Here is another short story. (I don’t have the talent to compose characters so, most of my stories are autobiographical by default.)
I am on the same free-diving and spear fishing expedition I mentioned in another story. We are driving and living in a VW bus I equipped myself for the purpose. This time, my then future ex-wife (“TFEW”) and I are stopped in a small town in coastal western Algeria. We just arrived and it’s a sunny quiet morning. We are enjoying a rare cup of real coffee at the also rare terrace of a small café. I will never forget that insignificant non-event, because, suddenly, out of nowhere, a baby camel came ambling down the street. The charming animal walked straight up to me and began browsing my hair. (Go ahead, don’t believe me; I have a picture!)
So, we are just lingering when a handsome teenage boy stops by to make conversation (in French, of course): Where are you from? What are you doing here? What kind of fishing, again? How do you like Algeria?
We invite him to sit down and have coffee with us but he insists he is in a hurry. He wishes us a good vacation and walks away. Then, suddenly, he wheels around to tell us he would like to invite us to his house for couscous. He is too young to be married and to have his own house. I ask him how his mother would respond to sudden unannounced guests. He replies that she would love it, that she misses her old French bosses; that she likes to speak French with real French people. I am beginning to feel peckish. Against my better judgment, we follow him around the corner.
We drive through a metal gate he closes behind us. The young man stops at the door to the house and calls out with several sentences in Arabic. A woman’s voice responds and the door opens immediately. A woman in her early forties stands smiling at us. Her dark shiny hair is partially covered. She has beautiful apricot skin and dancing black eyes. Under other circumstances, in spite of a fifteen-year age difference, I might have fallen in love with her on the spot. I must have been fairly obvious because the TFEW secretly yanked hard on the back of my shirt.
We sit down on cushions in the living room. There is an opening into the kitchen so we can communicate with the mother while she works. Actually, I am pretty much the only one doing the communicating because the TFEW is not a native French speaker and she is a little hesitant on that account. The thought crosses my mind that the mother is flirting with me verbally a little from the kitchen where I cannot see her face. The charming son soon serves us tea and two quiet teenage girls dart in and out on what I think is a mission to keep us company although they do not say anything. I am not sure whether they were shy or if they did not know French. There is no man in sight and no mention of any adult male.
After quite a long time bantering back and forth without the help of an adult beverage precisely, the steaming couscous garni appears on the rug in front of our knees. (Tech note: “couscous” is the grits-like grain; it’s “garni” when it is accompanied by a vegetable stew including chickpeas, and meat, usually boiled mutton, sometimes chicken.) Everyone is starving by that time and the family sits around and next to us each holding a bowl into which the mother dishes out couscous topped with veggies and mutton. One of the girls has thoughtfully placed a spoon in front of us, the visitors, which we make a point of honor to ignore, of course because we want to appear cool.
The mother tells us gaily how she had worked for fifteen years for a French family, as a servant with broad responsibilities, including the care of small children and the kitchen. She says she loved the lady of the house and the lady of the house loved her “like a niece.” I guess that’s how she has learned her grammatically perfect and lively French. After the French left, suddenly, feeling threatened (and probably with good reason) there was no work for a woman with her skills. Nothing is said, again in this story, about a husband. There is no explanation about how the family sustains itself.
It’s often difficult to say how poor people are following a revolution. Those don’t look poor. They are all well though simply dressed. The house in which they live is consequential and Western-style. (I mean that I would have moved into it in a minute.) As far as I know, it is her beloved lady boss’s house they are all occupying. Perhaps, the lady boss has slipped her the title before fleeing. I am told there was a lot of that that went on. I am also told the new Algerian government, its hands full of pressing matters, was happy to let sleeping dogs lie on this issue. I can’t judge what the family’s everyday food is like but none of them look skinny and the couscous was well garnished and ample. (But then again, the latter is not a good indicator of anything in North Africa where a feast is a feast however meagre the fare on ordinary days.)
If you eat enough food and it’s tasty enough, at the end of the meal, you will feel a little like drunk. Those who talk after dinner, including the Mom, talk louder. The pleasant son tells me of his wish to go work in France and of his modest ambitions in general. Even the young girls smile more broadly. Perhaps seeing their mother happy makes them feel happy. I am asked to explain for the tenth time in Algeria what I am doing there. I explain my quest for big fish and spiny lobster (and also for slipper lobster, a grotesque looking but delicious creature). I describe how I go under water holding my breath to shoot them in the face with a rubber spear gun. The family seems a little incredulous but they are visibly charmed by the concept. They have already made themselves believe that the TFEW and I really sleep in the VW bus as we travel from place to place. (The bus was parked out of view in their courtyard while we ate.)
Then, out of nowhere, the mother says something astounding: I envy you – she says to spend so much time looking at the sea. I love the sea and I haven’t seen it for so long. Say this again, I request. Isn’t this house, your house, about four or five blocks from the sea cliff? It is, she said but I can’t go there (“Je ne peux pas y aller.”) French does not not distinguish between physical impossibility and moral interdiction. So, I am a little confused but not for long. I guess quickly what’s on her mind.
I have an idea, I say. I tell you what: Tomorrow morning at five when the sun is up but everyone is still asleep, you will put on your hijab and wear a shawl around your shoulders that you can raise to hide your face if necessary. Your son will open the gate to let my bus out and then, he will sit next to me in front where everyone can see him. You will be in the back next to my wife with the curtains drawn. Your son will direct me to a suitable point on the cliff where I will park. There, you will raise the curtain as much as you want to and look at the sea as long as you wish. She agrees and her face is filled with anticipation.
Early the next morning, the son wake us up with cups of hot coffee. There is a defeated look on his face. He tells us that his mother has changed her mind and that she will not take up my proposal after all; that she says thank you and good-bye. He adds she is too embarrassed to get up and wish us a good trip face-to-face. We shake hands and leave with much sadness in our hearts.
Is this a story about religion? All Algerians were Muslims, if nothing else, by default; so was our pleasant hostess, no doubt Yet Muslim intellectuals will point out that there is no part of the Islamic sacred scriptures that enjoins women to hide at home. There is certainly nothing in the same scriptures that says they can’t enjoy contemplating the sea, one of God’s first creations, in Islamic as well as in Jewish and Christian tradition.
Personally, I disagree. I think this is a story about religion although indirectly. If the woman had been a Lutheran, a Catholic, a Buddhist, a Zoroastrian, or a Mormon, she would have had her fill of the sea before I met her. I can even imagine a Hindu woman being somewhat self-cloistered but not one fluent in a foreign language, not one with a long history of happy interaction with Westerners.
Two main points. First, every follower of a religion is not a scriptural expert. What people think is their religion often differs a great deal from what theologians say is true religion. I addressed this issue in an article in Liberty Unbound. (“Religious Bric-a-Brac and Tolerance of Violent Jihad.”) Second, religions are vehicles for all kinds of cultural practices that are not religious or only in a distorted manner. Thus, Catholicism, besides its rich history of burning people alive for their opinions, is largely responsible for the consumption of fish among inland Catholics. It probably even had a lot to do with the establishment of the long lasting Newfoundland cod fishery. (Ask me.) It’s fair to judge religions for the cultural baggage they carry and that they could put down if they really wanted to. Passive assent is a form of complicity.