In this blogposting…
* The World: A Truckshunter Geography
Gird up your loins….
As I write, the hour of remembrance has just struck - the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
Here are two poems about war.
The second is by the greatest English poet of the First World War - Wilfred Owen - and is arguably his best work. It is his bitter rejection of the use made by warmongers of the infamous phrase dulce et decorum est pro patria mori - ‘it is sweet and right to die for your country’ - which he rightly calls ‘The Old Lie’.
The first was written by a 15-year-old girl called Rebekah Coomber, who visited Auschwitz last year. Rebekah is Jewish. It’s called…
Sent to a better life, they told us.
Packed to go, our lives in a suitcase.
Forced on a train, sardines in a tin.
We'll be there soon, they told us.
Half of us dead, most of us dying.
We arrived, our lives thrust into Nazi fists.
Families separated, people alone.
You'll see them again, they told us.
They picked us out, worthy from useless.
Was this just a sick game?
Who were they to say? Who were they to judge?
It'll be over in a while, they told us.
Fear for our lives.
People left and never came back.
Our backs broken, our bodies broken, our hearts broken.
'Heil Hitler, he will save the world,' they told us.
No bravery in our eyes anymore.
Only tears. Sore from weeping, sore from sleeping.
'Work will set you free, work harder,' they told us.
The innocent forsaken.
The faithful destroyed.
How so uncompassionate? How so empty? How so cold?
You are all bad Jews, they told us.
I am God's child, I told them.
I am a light in the darkness, I told them.
It's just a shower, they told me.
DULCE ET DECORUM EST
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
THE WORLD - A TRUCKSHUNTER GEOGRAPHY
Algeria is a force to be reckoned with, as the French know to their cost (of which more later).
For a start - and this came as real news to me - it’s the 10th biggest country in the world, coming behind, but not far behind, such giants as Russia (which is at Number One), Canada, the USA, Australia and Brazil. You could fit almost 20 Englands into it.
It is also the biggest country in both the Arab world and in Africa. See what I mean about being a force to be reckoned with?
It is, however, also almost empty. Most of it consists entirely of ergs (sand dunes); the Sahara Desert occupies almost all of it. This means that 80% of its population live along the Mediterranean coast - where they grow huge amounts of olives, tobacco, wheat, barley, oats and citrus fruits - or live in its capital city, Algiers. Or both.
One of my correspondents, who has actually been to Algiers, describes it as ‘mostly quite dull’ except for its casbah, which is a World Heritage Site (WHS) and to which she wants me to go with her. (If you’re not sure what a casbah is, or don’t get the joke, I will leave you to look it up.)
The country’s other most notable WHS is the M’zab valley, which contains many examples of astonishing mediaeval architecture, as you can see.
Even more astonishing is the Algerian enthusiasm - bordering on mania - for anything sporty. They’re keen on camel-racing, athletics and handball (although how anyone can raise even the faintest cheer for handball is beyond me; it’s duller even than cricket).
Camel-racing in southern Algeria; the man in the yellow turban seems to have camel satnav fitted
Their loudest and most fanatical support, though, is for The Desert Foxes, the national soccer team which, as well as many other players, produced the wonderful Zinedine Zidane (one of the most beautiful names I’ve ever heard).
At last year’s World Cup, the team’s coach - a man called Saadane - motivated his squad really effectively by saying that ‘the principal objective is to not be ridiculous.’ A man after my own heart.
Algeria’s tragic and bloodthirsty modern history can perhaps best be summed up by listening to its National Anthem - perhaps at a football match or on its National Day, November 1.
Here are some of the words….
We swear by the lightning that destroys,
By the virtuous and fragrant blood,
By the shining, fluttering banners,
In the steep and majestic mountains,
That we have risen to revolution in life or death
and we have resolved that Algeria shall live -
So bear witness, bear witness, bear witness!
...So we have taken the drum of gunpowder as our rhythm
And the sound of machine guns as our melody…
...O France, the time of reproach has passed
And we have closed like a book;
O France, the day of reckoning is at hand
So prepare to receive from us our answer!
It will not have escaped your notice that there’s a good deal of anti-French feeling in Algeria. As well there might be. France invaded Algeria in 1830 and - in one of the most brutally cruel conquests of European ‘imperial’ history - set about killing the natives and requisitioning their land. By 1870, it’s estimated that 30% of native Algerians had been killed.
All this came back to haunt the French, though - as these things almost always do. After the Second World War, Algeria was a very painful thorn in France’s side until it gained independence in 1962. French citizens returning home were called pieds noirs - ‘black feet’ - and France is still uneasy about its experiences in Algeria.
The National Language of Algeria is Standard Arabic, although Berber (spoken by the same people who make all those lovely rugs) is also recognised.
Here are the (extraordinarily mellifluous) numbers from one to ten in Berber.
itjane sanne tlata rabaa khamsaa satta sabaa tmaniya tasaa aashra
Aren’t they splendid?
And speaking of numbers, its worth bearing in mind that Algeria’s unarguably greatest gift to the world is the miracle of our numbering system, from 0 to 9, and the way we use it - addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. It began in ancient India, was borrowed and developed by Arab traders and finally entered Europe through the port of Algiers.
Of slightly less import culturally and technically - as well as in almost every other way - is Algeria’s other notable donation to human activity: the Algerian Hedgehog, widely kept as a pet - and not just in its native land.
There’s more to Algeria than meets the eye…
Just to keep Vivienne’s records up to date, here is a list of the worst earthquakes Algeria has suffered since the War.
1954 Orléansville earthquake (1,000 dead)
1980 El Asnam earthquake (5,000 dead)
1989 Boumerdès earthquake (30 dead)
2003 Boumerdès earthquake (2,300 dead)
The unit of currency is the dinar and - another real shocker, this one - Algeria is the most highly-taxed nation on the planet. An unbelievable 65.8% of all income, profits and capital gains are taxed; the equivalent figure in England is 37.7%.
High taxation like this is rare in oil-rich countries. And Algeria is certainly oil-rich; there are 7,611km of oil pipeline, compared to just 288km of electrified railway line. Although I personally would forgive Algeria anything because it has just opened one of Africa’s few tramways, as you can see.
If this has whetted your appetite for an adventure holiday in Algeria - and why not? - you may like to look at this list of some of its favourite food...
Buseluf (cooked lambs head)
Dowara (stew of lamb stomach and intestines with courgette & chick peas)
Mediterranean juices (grenadine, orange); very sweet green tea, and strong coffee.
Qalb El Louz (dessert containing almonds)
Baklawa (almond cakes drenched in honey)
Ktayef (a kind of baked vermicelli, filled with almonds and drenched in sugar, syrup, and honey)
I reckon I could manage all but the first two.
Absorb the following advice and information and you won’t offend your fellow-diners, either.
Algerians usually dine sitting at low couches around a big table or on mats on the floor around a low table.
Try and wash your hands before and after the meal.
Food is usually eaten by hand.
Couscous is eaten with a tablespoon while stew is eaten with a fork.
If in doubt follow people sitting near you.
Only use the right hand for eating and for passing dishes.
You will be urged to take more food. Try and start off with small portions so you can take more from the main dish and appear to have eaten a greater quantity.
Leave food on your plate or it will be filled up again.
The dialling code for Algeria is 213.
One final, indirect, personal link I have to Algeria….
My favourite composer - Saint-Saens - wrote a stirring Suite Alegerienne at the height of French power in Algeria, including the striking Marche Militaire Francaise.
So much for Algeria - and a very big thankyou to the dozen or so truckshunters and others who supplied me with information about it.
For our next port of call, we travel from one of the world’s biggest countries to one of its smallest: Andorra.
Go to it!
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