Chapter 6 – The Land of a Thousand Horrors
Al was leading in the Land Cruiser and I was following in the Jeep, when a blue Citroen passed me doing at least 80 miles an hour on the narrow road, swaying all over the place, cutting in ahead of me just in time to avoid smashing a car coming from the other direction. At the outskirts of a little village he started to pass Al, then turned to cut perpendicularly in front of him, heading for a certain collision. Al yanked the wheel violently and smashed the brakes to bring the car and camper to a miraculous, slithering stop half an inch from the crazy Citroen. I never thought he’d make it; the Citroen seemed bent on suicide.
Al and the girls tore out of the Land Cruiser, raging at the Citroen.
The Citroen responded in French with a string of curses. Al yelled, “Where the hell did you get your license-in a box of Crackerjacks?”
The girls let loose with some New Zealand broadsides. And even normally complacent Manu came up with a barrage that culminated with “Me cago en la cocina de tu madre!” The Citroen retorted, “May a pig die on the grave of your grandmother!”
Everyone in the village was on the road, a crowd of about 40 Arabs to whom it had to be obvious from the position of the cars that the Citroen was recklessly at fault, yet all of them took his side, as if they were afraid not to-even those who had actually seen him run Al off the road. A woman came running out of the house into whose courtyard the Citroen had been turning. She was waving a broomstick, screaming in French, “Go away! Go away, foreigners. Always foreigners. Always making trouble. Leave my husband alone!”
But Al wasn’t having it. “Let me see your license,” he demanded. The Citroen’s mouth fell open in shock, but he didn’t budge.
“I said show me your license,” Al shouted, moving in on him.
“There, that is my license,” the Citroen shot back in French, pulling a card out of his pocket.
“This isn’t a driver’s license, and you know it,” Al barked, as I caught a flash of a card that said “Ministry of Public Works” on the top. “All this probably says is you dig sewers or haul shit away. It’s a very fitting card for you, I’m sure, but I want to see your driver’s license. I’ll see to it you never drive again.”
The Citroen spat on the ground.
“OK, Frenchie, if that’s the way you want it, that’s the way you’ll get it.” Al walked behind his car and took down the license number.
That did it. The Citroen flew into a speechless rage. He ran at Al. Al pulled back to hit him. Willy kicked him in the leg. The crowd started to move in. I jumped in to break up the fight. I couldn’t understand why the Citroen hadn’t just made a polite apology in the first place to get rid of us; but he was in no mood to apologize now, and we couldn’t take on the whole village, so I pushed Al and Willy into the Land Cruiser. As we pulled away, Al yelled at the driver, “Just wait, buddy, I got your number and I’ll see that the authorities in Algiers hear about this!” The girls in the back seat merrily stuck out their tongues.
That had happened in Picard, and two hours later we were 40 miles east of there looking for a spot to camp for the night, the winding cliff road with its rickety bridges and washed out sections having proved too dangerous for anything but daylight driving. As we were looking, a blue Citroen came thundering over the hill behind us, hooting the horn, careening and swaying all over the road. But not until the car cut in front of us did I realize it was the same motorized menace we’d clashed with in Picard, this time with two uniformed policemen in the rear seat.
For ten minutes the words flew hot and heavy. Al and the Citroen took swings at each other, bur their words did more damage. The police, slightly embarrassed, but obviously on the Citroen’s side, stood off a bit, holsters unbuttoned. Little by little, the truth began to emerge: the Citroen was a very important chap, Bendauche Muhamed, the Police Commissioner for the entire district. 1 be card he’d shown Al from the Ministry of Public Works didn’t authorize him to dig sewers, but to arrest people, a job he’d won by being a guerrilla leader in the war against the French.
From a quiet conversation with the policemen, I filled in the rest of the situation: The Commissioner was an extremely bad driver whose speeding and recklessness were notorious through the district, though they were politely ignored in deference to his position. But we had called attention to them. We had demanded to see his license, taken his plate number, called him a Frenchman and a lot of things less printable, and threatened to report him to Algiers. The only way the Commissioner could regain his village’s respect was to bring us back to admit that we were wrong.
But we had no intention of backtracking to Picard; we’d had enough Algerian delays already, as I told the Commissioner. “As you wish,” he said, “but let us have some wine and discuss this, I know a cafe not far from here. Come, Mr. Stephens, come with me, and your friends can follow.” I suspected a trick, but had little choice when the policemen seconded the motion.
Not without misgivings, I got into the Citroen. The Commissioner roared off in a cloud of dust, racing back the way we’d come, wobbling on the wrong side of the road, careening along the twisting, potholed asphalt, honking madly, scaring bicyclists and pedestrians, forcing oncoming cars onto the side. More than once I thought for sure we’d had it, but the blue Citroen was known and feared by all, and neither man nor beast stood in its way; even the trees seemed to lean away when they saw us coming.
“You see, Mr. Stephens, your friend was wrong,” the commissioner boasted. “I drive very well, don’t I?” My mouth was too dry to answer. In forty minutes we were back in Picard. The Land Cruiser and Jeep took another hour to make it.
The village was dark and no one was about; the commissioner’s plan was foiled, so he drove us down to the beach and told us to camp for the night, posting the two policemen to stand guard “to protect you from robbers.” The police built a roaring bonfire over which the girls boiled coup and heated tins of meat; the Commissioner contributed a five-gallon jug of wine. We were all friends now, and the commissioner was happy. He showed us a postcard of New York which a nephew had sent, and asked if we had ever been there. H told us how he had blown a train up with plastique during the revolution, and how he had killed fifteen French himself He pulled out his gun and fired three shots into the night for effect. He drank until the wine ran down his cheeks. He chased Barbara around the campfire, trying in vain to drag her into the bushes, as we wondered how to limit our hospitality without giving offense. He sang bawdy French songs and roared with laughter when we played him back the cape recording. He left well after 3: 00 A.M., instructing the police to bring us to his home for a banquet at noon. He got into his Citroen and blasted off in a shower of sand, knocking down a small tree as he beat a path back to the road.
At noon, the policemen escorted us to the Commissioner’s courtyard, adjacent to the scene of the near-tragic collision the day before. The Commissioner was at the gate to greet us, the forgiving father extending a gracious welcome to his erring children. He had arranged things well: half the villagers of Picard were gathered outside to see their hero accepting the apologies of the repentant foreigners for their reckless words and driving of the day before. The Commissioner was beaming so happily that we went along with the ruse to keep the peace. The meal was magnificent. Although the Commissioner spent most of it joking with his brother about what had happened the day before -” … and that one there, the mean- looking one, Podell, he thought I was French. Can you imagine, French! He said people who drove like me only got their licenses in Paris, and … “-we never wanted for attention from the brother’s four veiled wives who clucked over us, keeping our plates and glasses full.