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“Come With Me To The Casbah” − On To Algiers

Rajen Bali

TRUE! The famous pick-up lines, “Come to see the Casbah” were never spoken by Charles Boyer to Heddy Lamarr in the 1938 movie, ‘ALGIERS’. Yet, this cheesy line has become one of the movie immortals.  It is also true that my first aim in a four-month long trip was to reach Algiers.

It had been a very interesting and exciting trip so far, real high adventure. I had taken British India Steam Navigation Company’s good ship S.S. Dumra from Bombay. It carried 20 First Class, 30 Second Class and 1537 deck passengers. I was one of these 1537.

One sunny afternoon, I had watched the Gateway of India slowly diminishing in size and then disappearing in the far horizon. Through the help of an efficient lascar at Bombay, I had managed a decent spot to spread my mattress and sleeping bag, next to an Attar-seller from Kanauj and a wrestler from Ludhiana. Dumra was a ship which was assigned to the India-Gulf run. Our destination was Khorram Shahr in Iran. En route, we had touched Karachi, Muscat, Sharjah, Kuwait and Bahrain. Khorram Shahr was a quaint, peaceful place, dominated by chimneys in the oilfields continuously belching smoke and fire. As a start to the overland trip from West Asia to Europe, in Khorram Shahr, I stayed in an Arabian Nights kind of ‘hotel’ – more like a caravanserai - where I had a room and also a bed in the courtyard in which fountains played. Breakfast of ‘Noon-Panir’ (big portion of a Naan, a generous helping of Panir) and tea without milk, was included in the room tariff of 7 Toman (around Rs. 7 then). The interesting part of the healthy and filling breakfast was the ‘sugar’.  One took a lump between one’s lips and sipped the tea through this lump.

The next few weeks were a rollercoaster ride. An unending drama of exciting sights and scents unfolded as I traveled by road and rail through  Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Italy and France and reached Marseille.  On the way, I had sampled the delights of many places -including, among others − Tehran, Mashhad, Tabriz, Erzurum, Ankara, Istanbul, Sofia, Belgrade, Zagreb, Ljubljana, Trieste, San Remo, Miramar, Rimni, Ancona, Rome and Paris. Worth a mention is my first encounter with the Shawarma at Erzurum, of such super-excellence that most offerings of this kebab – also known as Doner Kebab and Gyro.

‘MARSELS!’

‘We have reached Marsels!’

‘Hip Hip Hurrah!’ The sepoys were shouting from the deck.

 As the troops turned left, and marched up the hill along the Canbiere, the throngs multiplied on the broad pavements outside the dainty fronts of the shops, and of the beautiful high buildings decked with flowers. They were mostly women, and children, and lo and behold, as is the custom in India, they flew flowers at the sepoys while they cried ‘Vievongleshindoos! Vivangeleterre! Vivelesallies!  Vive…’

                                                             from Mulk Raj Anand’s ‘Across The Black Waters’

I too had reached ‘MARSELS’ – ‘Marseille’, by its correct name. Sadly, there were no throngs of women and children to greet me, throw flowers at me while shouting ‘Vive les hindoos’. But Mulk Raj Anand’s book had been about the First World War and I had arrived many decades later. But Canbiere was very much there, the ‘dainty fronts of the shops, and the beautiful high buildings’ were also there – though not decked with flowers. But Marseille did have many unique charms. There were the historic buildings, there were the bustling markets filled with much exotica, there was the Canbiere Boulevard leading to the wonders of the Old Port and a very cosmopolitan populace.

I spent a few days in Marseille enjoying the city, especially its dock area and the markets, its bouillabaisse, and many other kinds of fish/seafood for which the city is justifiably famous. One also cannot forget the many kinds of Pastis – an anise-flavored aperitif and liqueur - manufactured in Marseille, of which Pernod is the most famous. But Pastis deserves a story by itself. You will find it elsewhere in this issue.

After enjoying Marseille for some days, I was at the quay to take the boat to Algiers. The customs people were quite thorough, going to the extent of making people open their wallets to show how much money they were carrying.  Others in front of me appeared to have their wallets crammed with high denomination French currency notes. Looking at the very meager contents of my wallet, I got a thwack on my bottom and an “Okay, you go too” from the customs agent.

Almost all my fellow passengers were Algerians retuning home. It appeared that many had done well in whatever they were doing in France and there was a grand display all around of the ‘badges’ of their success.  Baggage from Louis Vuitton, shiny, expensive-looking suits, ties from Dior/Yves Saint Laurent, shoes from Bally, Omega/Rolex watches, Rayban glasses and Diamond Rings – all were on prominent display in an atmosphere reeking with expensive perfumes worn by the proud and preening flock, dominated by youngish males. I sort of stood out in the gathering with my very ordinary well-worn jeans and a khaki shirt.

Since the weather was rater cloudy with threats of rain, the seas were rather choppy and it was not very comfortable when we cast off from Marseilles. Soon, things became much worse and the ferry boat appeared to be tossed around like a cork, churning up one’s insides in a most dreadful way. Being an aviator and having experienced  a number of sea voyages over the years – including a weeks-long sailing from Bombay to around the Cape of Good Hope and on to the West African Coast – I was rather proud of the fact that I did not get airsick or seasick. But even I had to muster all the inner resources not to be sick. Matters got much worse when the young man opposite burst forth with a fountain of all he had eaten/drunk. His ‘effort’ appeared to have been a signal of some sort. Almost immediately, many others followed his example and there were foul sights, smells and sounds from all corners of the room. All that I could do was tuck my feet under me on the chair and cover my face with a towel and try – unsuccessfully – that all that was not happening. But it was hell and lasted for around two hours, even though it felt more like two lifetimes. Then, the seas relented and the passengers and the crew started Operation Cleanup. It transpired that only two people had not succumbed to the violent seasickness – one steward and yours truly.

When I finally managed to go to the deck, there was the calm Mediterranean with its silver-flecked blue waves, a few puffy white clouds and a cool breeze. The sea was pretending as if it had never been violent and stormy. But the sea was a crook and a liar. It had me undergo absolute, unforgettable hell!

I did reach Algiers and then went to the Casbah.