There is no doubt about it, Algeria is an interesting country which I am happy to visit again and again but, I am always fearful for my life while there. Don’t get me wrong; Algerians are not always brandishing knives or training guns on me, far from it.
On one of my frequent visits I had an assignment to assess a number of service stations on the highways and byways of Algeria with a view to purchasing a chain of over 200 of them. Four visitors and two locals made up the inspection party, which was led by a tall and physically intimidating psychopath of an ex-governor of an Algerian province the size of Italy or something similar. Before setting off, he and I struck a good rapport (note to myself: see a psychiatrist soon). As a result, he said I should ride in his 4×4 Land Rover and the others in the other car driven by the other Algerian.
Naturally, being an ex-governor gets you a long way in Algeria at check points and gated places where you have a chance to say you are an ex-governor and drop a name or two. However, this is not a valid currency while on the move, where you are as big and influential as the size of the vehicle you are driving and your readiness to show a higher degree of suicidal tendency than your protagonists on the road.
My new best friend, let’s call him Ali, had a few passions in life. The first passion was his love of Algerian Berber music, which is really quite obscure and Ali insisted on playing it loud with repeated interjections to explain to me the subtlety of each passage. I nodded enthusiastically insisting it was growing on me and I would love to hear more; in actual fact, it was shrinking on me and I wished to hear less.
Ali’s second passion was driving fast and furious, even by Algerian standards. Ali thought little of his life and even less of others. He took it as a personal insult to drive behind any other vehicle within 500 meters of him. As soon as he saw a vehicle in front of him he would accelerate towards it and overtake it immediately. This was fine on the highway with straight and wide stretches but, on minor winding roads, this gave me ample opportunity to exercise my buttocks muscles and try out a few new facial expressions of fear and loathing.
The third passion of Ali was his pathological hatred of bearded men. Every time we passed another car driven by a bearded man, he went off like a rocket screaming obscenities and gesticulating violently for no good reason, thus startling the other driver who wondered what he might have done to attract such belligerent treatment. Ali explained to me that these people were the ruin of Algeria with their wrong-headed fundamental principles and they only deserved to be ripped to pieces by rabid dogs. Foolishly, I gave an opinion to the effect: “not all bearded men are fundamentalists”, thus risking both my new friendship and quite possibly my life. Being a highly principled person, when I saw how horrified he was hearing such nonsense being uttered in his own car, I thought for a second or two and flipped my view by just 180 degrees. Both my friendship and potential lifespan were restored.
After listening to a few CDs of Berber music, Ali was so well disposed towards me; he placed two precious CDs in their cases and pressed them to my bosom saying they were a gift. I protested of course but, seeing I was distracting him from concentrating on his driving, I accepted his generous gift graciously and resolved to forget them in his car, if I ever got back to safety again.
By the fourth CD I felt I was now ready to go on Algeria’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and answer any question about Berber Music. But Ali had lots more CDs to share with me and, with interjection of dangerous overtaking, violent remonstration with the occasional bearded driver, the heat and dust of the dessert, life was getting less and less precious.
As the day wore off and after inspecting more than 8 petrol service stations, we were all ready to get back to relative civilisation for a shower and a decent meal. Ali suggested we make our way back through a different route, which entailed climbing up a mountain and turning right along the coast road. The other Algerian preferred we went back the way we came but, being half the size of Ali, he knew he was on a loser and soon agreed to do what he was told. I suggested we swapped cars but Ali reminded me we had more Berber music to go through and I said: “Oh yes, silly me, what was I thinking?”
We climbed the mountain along a single track road, Ali saw a lorry ahead doing maybe 40 km up the hill, he put his foot down to catch up and overtake him. Out of nowhere, a pickup truck came from a minor road on the left and merged with our traffic between us and the lorry ahead. No doubt it was a dangerous manoeuvre but that wasn’t bad enough to get Ali angry, the other driver had a beard long enough to get him a gig as Father Christmas if he wanted it. This sent Ali into a rage like someone had spat in his face and claimed Berber music was only fit for pigs. Naturally, Ali put his foot down and chased the pickup truck.
As luck would have it, our bearded co-racer was a graduate of the same school of driving etiquette and he was not going to be overtaken. He in fact was gesticulating at Ali from his rear window which we could both see clearly was not a gesture of apology. This got Ali to discover new heights of anger and abusive language, which he deployed with gusto.
The pickup truck approached the lorry, and we approached the pickup truck, the road began to bend to the left, thus giving the convoy of three vehicles a restricted view of the way ahead on this single track road. The pickup truck swerved to the left and began to overtake the lorry. Ali saw his opportunity and moved his vehicle even further to the left and began to overtake the pickup truck, which was busy overtaking the lorry.
As we lined up three abreast and our Land Rover was now leftmost in this formation, I knew my life was coming to an end with a head-on collision any second as we negotiated the corner at neck braking speed. All the while, Ali was half paying attention to the road ahead because the other half was busy fist shaking and threatening the bearded pickup truck driver who was giving as good as he was getting. I clenched every clenchable muscle group in my body and prayed hard for my death to be quick.
With so much adrenaline coursing through my veins, the rest of the journey back went by without me being consciously aware of it. I was numb with fear and exhausted with muscle fatigue. When Ali dropped me at the Sheraton Hotel, we said goodbye and I walked in through security, Ali ran after me and thrust the two Berber CDs in my hand and said: “You nearly forgot your present, if you want more, I can prepare a few for you”.