George Alagiah interviews us on the BBC
Tuesday 19 June 2007
She told me about the Blue People
Alex Horne – 18th June 2007
OK. I’ve got a bit of a confession to make: I’m not sure if this is ironic, typical, foolish or simply awkward, but there’s no doubt about it: I’ve moved out of London.
After five and a half years living in the capital, occupying various addresses in New Cross, Farringdon, Marble Arch, Hammersmith, Chiswick and Kensal Green, Rachel and I have bitten the grown-up bullet and moved to the country. Well, to Chesham – outside of the M25. It’s actually still on the tube, clinging on to the end of the Metropolitan line like a spider on a windy washing line, the furthest station from the centre (Zone 6D – yes, there’s a Zone 6D!), but it’s definitely outside of London. And with house prices high and rising in the capital, we’ll probably never be able to move back in.
So, as if finding a hundred more people from a hundred more countries who live and work in London but not as students or in embassies within the next four months and six days wasn’t hard enough, I now live twenty miles outside of our target area. And thirty miles from Owen. Like I’ve already said, we’re really not going about this in the most strategic of ways.
But the project is supposed to be about real London life and all I’ve done is what most people in London will at some point do – move on. London’s population is incredibly transitory. At least a third of the population were born overseas, another third have come from other areas of Britain, meaning only about one in three Londoners were actually born in London. Most people have ended up there. And most of those people will end up somewhere else.
Like Maryam, our Algerian representative (who was directed to us by Nastya, our Russian friend from the beginning of February). We met by her office in Ealing Broadway, my first commute into town, and she was quick to let me know she’d just celebrated her 19th year on London on Saturday. ‘Actually celebrated?’ I asked. ‘Yes, well, my mum and I went out for lunch’, she told me. ‘That counts’, I said. We were getting on well.
The two of them had actually come from Iran in 1988 when Maryam was fourteen years old. ‘It was just before the end of the Iran-Iraq war. Things were still pretty shitty’, she said matter-of-factly. ‘We’d moved from Algeria to Iran just before the revolution in 1978 – that was quite bad timing.’
So, as you’ll have worked out, she only spent a few very early years of her life living in Algeria. I asked her if she felt Algerian. ‘I’m a Londoner’, she told me. ‘This is where I’ve done my important growing up. This is where I’ve studied and this is where I’ve always worked’.
She does, however, have a huge interest in and knowledge about all things Algerian. I definitely don’t have the latter but after what soon turned into a comprehensive North African geography and history seminar, I do now have something of the former.
Maryam told me about the Blue People who live in the Sahara to the south of the country: they carry swords and wear cloaks with eye-slits cut out to protect them from the sand. She told me about the Carthaginians, Berbers, Vandals and Ottomans who all either used Algeria as a trade route or settled there for some time, swapping language and culture and enriching the land. She told me that the Romans used to call it their ‘vineyard’, because of the fertile soil that would produce the highest quality grapes, but how, thanks to global warming and socialism, the earth has since dried up. She told me a lot of things. I did a degree in Classics but can’t remember any of it being nearly as interesting as this.
I told her that she knew a lot. ‘It’s a lot of retrospective learning’, she said. ‘I’m from Britain and Iran and Algeria – so it’s one of my homes’. Are there many Algerians living here, I asked her. ‘There’s not a huge community in London’, she replied, ‘but I guess most Algerians live in Finsbury Park. Unfortunately there is that association with Abu Hamza’ – the Muslim cleric famous for making speeches advocating violence and having a hook for a hand.
History and geography then morphed into politics as she explained how the leader of the 1992 Algerian elections was annulled by the army, resulting in a ten year civil war during which many Islamists fled to the UK. Ironically, some of these people then became part of Al Qaeda over here. Three of the four 7/7 bombers had attended Abu Hamza’s lectures. At least one of them was born in Algeria.
But that’s enough serious stuff.
Apart from chatting (well, she chatted, I listened, scribbled and desperately tried to learn) about Algeria’s past and present we also talked about her current life which, to be honest, I had a bit more in common with. Particularly relevant to me, for example, was the fact that she’d met her husband at university over here and that they too plan to leave the city soon. As I say, it’s what most people do at some point.
He’s from Marburg in Germany (yes, another cosmo-couple). ‘It’s near Frankfurt – I think there’s a virus called the Marburg Virus because it was discovered there’, she told me. I told her that she knew a lot. Apparently her husband does too. He’s currently finishing his PHD after which they plan to move over to German to start afresh.
‘We’re moving for the slower pace of life’, she smiled. ‘Your quality of life instantly improves outside the city’.
And then I had to say goodbye, rush down the road, run up to the carpark, pay the congestion charge, get stuck in traffic and find another parking spot before getting the tube to Owen in Lancaster Gate…
Maybe the pace and quality of my life will slow down and improve more at the weekends. Or at least when I've found these ninety nine other countries.