The Golden Prison by Claudia Belleau
I leaned on the book-laden luggage wheeled through Paris’ Orly Airport, scrutinizing the lines of veiled women patiently sitting with children, the brown-skinned couples, the aged grandparents and teenagers in blue jeans. After my dreamless sleep under Air France’s First Class watchfulness, my eyes had begun to feel rested. Many long hours painstakingly translating the Algerian oil industry’s mandates and precautions from French into required international maritime English had left me nearsighted from the task. My scurrying to prepare with only one week’s notice to teach and interpret in Algeria had brought into view a world of demands peripheral to life in America. The laborious, bookish task had transformed into a mighty adventure.
I stood with a team of Anglophone troubleshooters expert in global safety.
Our assignment was to attune the Algerian maritime industry to meet stipulations of the ISPS Code dictating port security. I was the trainer’s trainer, sharing tips on managing toward the July 2004 full implementation deadline. I had met the four experts flown in from Washington minutes ago in an airport caf? where the waiter charged me six Euros for three whipped creams he had mistakenly added to my request for coffee with cream. My first cultural difference pulled at my assumptions that my fluent French would protect me. The older, nervously energetic port specialist now laughed at my mistake. The younger man flinched under his Land’s End look. He was never amused by wasteful spending. This journey was his deal, the culmination of a ‘yes’ he had been given by the industry’s government giants. Training, a possible school, his registry’s hold over many Algerian vessels—a deal worth millions
The two men I had flown with here from Boston were cohorts, the deal-makers experienced at the game of Anglophone maritime dominance with scores of frequent flyer miles under their shoes. They had calmly watched televised Liberian atrocities over free coffee in the Delta club lounge in Boston. I had flipped through French and American news magazine photos after boarding, confronting an insurrectionist staring gleefully, as if in a mirror, at his enemy’s severed head which he held up by the hair. They slept the six hours to Paris, untouched. I cocooned in the blanket the steward lay out for me, obliterating all, waking as they announced our landing.
I expected the uniform appearance of the four new guys under cover of varied khaki outfitters. I was dressed for the East: Moroccan-striped linen made in China. The teacher walked near us, removed from the Coast Guard types, chain-smoking. Land’s End whispered as the three walked ahead toward Algerian air, “Don’t get too close to them…they’re a bit right wing cowboys”. I nodded, wondering about his motive secreted under the casual look. After all, he had hired us.
It was the Algerian liaison who insisted that I go…and go now. I had my visa in four days. My real purpose on this trip was to unfold, yet as I watched the women around me I could only think “Westernize”. That must be what they wanted and needed. After 9/11, one of their vessels had been held up for months in the Port of Boston, terrorism suspected. Normalize the look, the talk, and the connections to U.S. expectation. I mentally divested a robed couple and dressed them in polos and chinos. If we could groom criminals for court dates, we could change these innocent daughters traveling back from France for their summer family reunions in Oran.
The waiting area cleared when the airline announced first boarding of families with children. The friendly woman in the moss djelebba, that intriguing unisex hooded gown, who had invited me to sit near her filed out with five polite kids in tow. I moved into next place and quickly down the ramp into the airplane.
The hostess escorted me to my seat. Two men circled the many seats in the first class cabin, ensuring that everyone was in the correct spot. I waited ten minutes for my companions. When I inquired, I was told they would be along momentarily. When I rose and walked toward the door, a burly attendant gruffly demanded that I find my seat. I said that I wanted to peer down the corridor to see if they were coming. Perhaps they needed me to interpret. The attendant blocked the exit with his body; his back-up moved closer to me. Their bodies were barriers; their eyes sharply reprimanded me to obey without question. This incident propelled me into interpretation of a reality laced with non-verbal tensions.
The guys came through ten minutes later. There were only two first class spots and seven people. No one had understood we all required first class. The baby-faced kid of the group, who held his occasional cigarettes at his finger tips, delicate as a debutante afraid to ruin her polish, balked. I hoped no one could understand his insulted “you people…we paid for it” take on the situation. Only the boss and I stayed upfront. Between us sat a curvaceous, exhausted woman and her chubby, spoiled child. He perpetually picked at her authority in a high, whining voice. The flight attendants, humored now that we were Algeria- bound, served us juice, casserole, and fruit. One of the men periodically stood in front of the toddler and teased him about locking him up if he didn’t let up on his mom. They kept the exchange going, and I pictured those fat knees bending for a swift kick to the groin.
This was my first visit to Africa; today was my fiftieth birthday. The pilot announced that we were over the Spanish Pyrenees within an hour of landing and over 3,000 miles from home.
I was a novice at first-class and had scanned the sequestered area on the Boston-Paris leg, wondering how terrorists could enter. They had plenty of room in the ample area seating the fortunate few. On this leg of the journey, fifty percent of the passengers looked like terrorist profiles presented by the media. The cowboy-stanced guy had spoken for the team when he announced “We left our knives at home”. When my apprehension wiggled to the surface, I scanned the clouds for a glimpse of a higher power or closed my eyes when we were too cottoned in them to see anything.
We glided over an arid lunar landscape and soon touched down. The attendant flirted one more time with the woman. The guys came from coach grumbling about headrests that wouldn’t work, lack of a meal. We made way down the ramp into a surprisingly dark, crowded airport.
The clatter of people thronging with all array of luggage and parcels awaited us. Our liaison, unable to whisk us through the hyper-tight security, put our papers in the appropriate hands. He was a tall, slender forty-year old with an Arab name, a hybrid of the French colonization here. My passport disappeared into a small booth where an inspector held onto it for half an hour. Ali retrieved it and we met Suedish, a very black man in shirt-sleeves and tie who would also drive us to the hotel. His nickname, a slurred version of “Swedish”, parodied his black skin. I wondered if racism existed here, yet felet immediately comfortable because he looked like numerous people back in New England. We walked with him to the car baking in the thunderous Algerian sun.
The row of palm trees fronting the airport were still in this unrelenting heat. We drove past military guard waving us through to our hotel minutes away. Young shrubs plopped into a courtyard welcomed us to the huge ochre block of a building gleaming gold in the sun, its mid-section rising higher in Islamic curve toward heaven. The staff spoke French, but the vast lobby felt Eastern, decorated with enormous ornate vases, each of which could smuggle a small person. The marble stairs distracted us from the flag at the front desk, totem of this “democratic socialist republic”.
Bienvenue, the concierge greeted us, smiling, lifting her midnight hair from the form-fitting shift that defined her Mediterranean beauty. We are separated by land, sea and mere hours from Rome and Madrid. Her ancestors may have drifted here from Europe, but her Muslim name and demeanor recall us to the Maghreb, this sector of North African nations united—and sequestered from Europe--by religion, oil, and blood.
We take the elevator to find our rooms and rest before dinner. Mine is a huge accommodation with a view of the parking lot beneath. I request a balcony pool view and move to the floor beneath the rest of the team. I have an enormous bed, a writing desk, and a television that pulls in bouncy French weathergirls, Italian hostesses, and portly Algerian men, surrounded by sexy dancers, singing the popular Ra? music. The exotic, atonal, singsong suggests labyrinthine passages, seductive sinuous movement. Just when you believe the decrescendo ends, the tempo insinuates East again. The bathroom is huge, with a bidet. The shower/tub has no curtain. I use my only large towel sopping up spillage. The toiletries are marked with Arabic script. I smell light and airy for dinner, held downstairs in one of three dining areas at nine o’clock.
I don’t recall what we ate or how; we are exhausted and know we all meet the CEO’s in the morning. My balcony is shuttered with louvered doors; beyond them there is unexpected sound. I open them to view the night and am amazed by the wedding feast below me. The pool area has been transformed into a reception area, lounge chairs replaced with rows and clusters of long tables. Huge speakers beat loud, exotic cadences while women with fans sit watching. Three white, wicker chairs on a dais at the far pool end await the participants.
A man in black seated upon a white stallion rides in slowly past the fence separating pool area from lot. He is dressed like a groom, allows a kiss from a family member who reaches up to him. His procession takes some time, enough for me to find my camera and shoot in the dividing darkness. I debate propriety and yet am compelled to wend my way out of my room downstairs, out the front and around the back side past solitary, smoking men toward the new husband. By the time I get there, he has disappeared but the dais is filled with women.
After I study the tables of women dressed in velour, satin, and traditional robes. I request permission to photograph a woman who then fends me off , “crossing” at me with her index fingers. The women chatter in Arabic, appear to speak little French. I withdraw to the sidelines, but minutes later an elder swathed in white presents me with a suitable subject. She tells me her name is Naida. If not the bride, she surely is a key member of the wedding party. Her chest, robed in mauve-pink matching her smiling cheeks, is bejewelled with strands of gold coins linked in horizontal chains; a gold ancestral relic, pointed like a bishop’s mitre, crowns her head. All of the gold has been passed on through generations. It is as valued and necessary here as a virgin bride. I attempt to include the elder in the photo but she’ll have none of it. Grateful, I grab the shot and thank Naida. Her smile radiates the room.
I later reach my spouse over the phone. He says that he can hear the music this time. I open the louvers and describe the live ensemble of white-robed men chanting achingly as young girls chase each other past the tables, pick each other up airborne. It is 3 a.m. in Oran and they will celebrate until dawn.
When the bleary-eyed team meets in the morning, we will have had the sleepless night of the uninvited wedding guest. We are here to ensure compliance with international standards. Our witness of the ritual indicates the specific character of the insular nation with a beleaguered past and a present of neighboring unrest, revolution, kidnapping, and murder. Amidst thought of Moroccan insurgents and Al Quaida spys, we meet the attractive women in their mid-twenties who will translate in the field. Their difficult Arabic names are whispered into their meanings for our Western ears: flower, good, smile, and star. Over black demitasse steam, liquid eyes reflect little experience save that of moon over desert sky. They are obedient, live with their parents, are driven into this compound. They relish the chance to use English which they haven’t tested since graduation.
The baby-faced guy enters our office, set-up earlier that morning, teases them about being spys, too beautiful, too inexperienced to be interpreters of anything beyond this fantasy. The boss asks them where he can get a massage. Although this is a French word, they pretend that they don’t understand. When we are alone, cutting up our lunch of quail, I inquire about the country where a man may say “I divorce you” three times and it is done. They exclaim together “Here!’” They tell me about the Code of the Family: a woman must have seven proofs against her husband for divorce; He doesn’t need any and, in any case, will get the house. She keeps the kids regardless. When Ali comes in to draw me to the meeting, they fall abruptly silent, subserviently casting eyes to the floor.
We troop into a hot board room to meet the company executives, the employees who will be our students. I am here to teach the trainers, but the C.E.O. thinks I am the boss’ wife, calls me by her name. When it is my turn to speak, I clarify things, bilingually. A few of the men laugh, tell me to stick with either French or English. I am the only woman in the conference room. I wonder if they will take me seriously. The security teacher, who should know, whispers to me as the men file out for their break of black espresso and burned croissant, “Welcome to the golden prison.”