Saturday, 28 November 2015

The Women of Algeria's Folktales

Interested in Algerian myths and legends ? Here is a discussion around Zoubeida Mameria’s three-volume collection of Algerian myths, Tales from the Land of Algeria (Contes du Terroir Algerien, 2013) on Arabic Literature in English.

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I am sitting on the steps outside my flat with Zoubeida Mameria’s weighty three-volume collection of Algerian myths, Tales from the Land of Algeria (Contes du Terroir Algerien, 2013) on my lap. I am browsing through her collection, looking for a story involving plumbers.

Mameria is from the central Algerian city of Souk Ahras and so, she says, are her stories. She warns in her introduction that she has chosen to recount “in an impressionistic manner” the tales her granddad and great aunts used to tell her. She qualifies her storytelling as impressionistic because she has not recorded the stories she was told. Instead, she is recrafting stories that she considers Algerian but that also “may be known in other versions under different skies.”

I wonder if the plumber will work on my kitchen in an impressionistic manner.

Myths and their skilled-workers 

A pipe burst in my upstairs neighbor’s bathroom. If it hadn’t been for the plaster ceiling suddenly falling off, and for water bursting forth out of electricity plug holes, we’d never have known. My landlady had just pocketed my upfront three-months rent. Bad timing for a catastrophe.
Hibba, my landlady, has been suffering from “severe mood swings”; that’s how she calls dodging the expenditure of any money to repair the flat I’m renting from her. Her husband passed away a few months ago. I dial her mobile number, she picks up:
Tifla! How are you? How’s your family? You know if you need anything, you just call me, right!
– Hibba, the ceiling’s falling off…
– I’m practically in the car, I have to leave Algiers. It’s the stress, the four months’ mourning now turned into seven, the traffic jams, the white and blue paint replaced by black and white on Didouche Mourad Street… (She starts sobbing.) I’ll deal with this as soon as I’m back.
The line goes dead. She’s turned off her phone.

Malika, my tiny upstairs neighbour, opens her door wide. She tips her head and looks at me as if I were wearing a pink school blouse.
– You’re the sister of Hibba’s husband, right?
– Nope, but I do live downstairs from you in Hibba’s flat. There’s a flood in my kitchen. It probably comes from a burst pipe in your bathroom?
– That’s impossible. My husband, Allah yerhemu, did the plumbing himself before he died.
– He was a plumber?
– No, but he replaced the main pipe himself at his own cost. (Her eyes start watering.) He died of a heart attack years later.

Malika is also widowed, as is Azziza on the ground floor and Lilia on the third.
Attirhem rebbi, maybe the pipe that burst wasn’t one he worked on?

She reluctantly accompanies me downstairs.

She comes in, looks up, presses her cheeks with her two hands and squeezes her mouth into a Yemma! which translates as Oh.
– Oh! It’s going to fall off! she says, pointing upwards.
– Malika, before it falls off, you should call a plumber…

I never heard her replying no. She’d run off.

I call in on Lilia, my landlady’s sister who lives on the third floor. She lets me in, pours me coffee, and lets me curse her sibling while she chain smokes. Lilia doesn’t want to call the plumber either, but she knows she’s cornered.
-What did Malika tell you?
She said her husband did the plumbing and the dead aren’t guilty… Has anyone done any plumbing in her flat recently?
-Yes, Abdu. He lives in the building next door. He changed Malika’s bath last spring.

Lilia picks up her phone and dials Abdu, the neighbour who’s really just a kind and cheerful guy with a propane torch.

Who will not call the plumber first is a demented race that requires inflexibility and resolve. Its aim is obvious: a form of counter-insurgency against the bill. The one who calls first is the one who will pay for that job, and for every successive one after that, because a plumber’s work is never finished, as we all know.

Good plumbers exist only in myths. And, when you consider Algerian myths, it is no surprise. Most of our stories are inhabited by skilled-worker families.

Continue reading here.

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