My father was around thirty years old when he was called back from the United States to serve his mandatory two-year military service in Algeria. He dreaded the fact that he was required to do this, and wasn’t even planning to go back. The only thing that convinced him not to completely break the law of his home country was my mother, a white American who had absolutely no idea about Middle Eastern or Islamic traditions and customs. She didn’t even know most Middle Eastern countries existed.
At the time, my parents had been dating for a few years in their university in Connecticut. My father had received a scholarship from a company in Algeria to send him to school in the United States for an engineering program, promising that after he finished he would work for them. This plan didn’t work out, as the company went bankrupt about a year after he started school in the United States. With a limited knowledge on the English language, he broke free of his binds and paid his way through college himself, and exploited the cultural freedom that he had never been surrounded by, in a much more religiously conservative country.
Algeria is located in the very North of Africa, inhabited by very diverse groups of people. The country has some of the most extreme climate and terrain switches as anywhere in the world, going from the beautiful Mediterranean Sea in the North, to high plains in the center, to the blazing and unforgiving Sahara desert in the South. The French invaded the country when my father was born, mixing the local language of Arabic with French, creating an interesting dialect that most people speak. There are also Berber people, the indigenous nomads who speak their own language, written in an almost hieroglyphic fashion. They are a mysterious group, who my family has descendents from.
My mother, before she was married and was a mother of course, convinced him to do his two year service in Algeria, promising that she would take her two week vacation from work to visit him. He was convinced, and left to serve his country operating tanks for the military.
My mother, being white and raised in places like West Virginia, Texas, Connecticut, etc., had no clue about my father’s culture. She was oblivious to Islam and its very and nearly opposite teachings of Christianity, although the religions have many similarities.
In order for my mom to make a good impression on my grandfather, my dad wrote out a very long phrase in Arabic (with phonetic English translations) for my mother to practice very intently. She practiced for weeks, hoping to please her potential future father-in-law.
My mother left the U.S., carrying huge luggage with her to the airport, for a flight to France. She spoke only English, and had no clue what to do. Back in those days, she had the life on the airplane. She had a whole row to herself, and could smoke cigarettes on the airplane, being served the best French cuisine on her flight. When she got to France, how she made the connecting flight to Algeria is beyond me.
Once in Algeria, she was stricken with culture shock. The airports in Algeria are not like in the U.S. People there do not wait in line, they fight in line. People were climbing all over the gates in front of the terminal, shouting and yelling. She had no clue that she had to pay to get through customs. She was lost.
It was lucky that my father somehow, eventually managed to get one of his relatives to get her through customs and bring her to their home.
My mom arrived, in a completely foreign land. “Why wouldn’t his family love me?” she thought. Once at their house, she recited the long Arabic verse my father had taught her, to my grandfather, and stuck her hand out to shake his and meet him for the first time.
He looked at her and laughed.
He laughed, and laughed at her, as though she were crazy.
He called the rest of the family in and spoke to them in Arabic, my mother not understanding anything. (My father is one of 12 children, them all having extended family as well, you can imagine how embarrassing and confusing this was).
She didn’t understand, but eventually found out what was so funny.
My father had taught her a children’s nursery rhyme to recite to my grandfather, the first time he was meeting her. He had never met an American, and found this to be hysterical.
My mother ended up rubbing my grandfather’s feet to ease his pain when he was dying. She was an angel. They didn’t understand why she would do this at first, as it wasn’t custom in their country. But my grandfather ended up coming back and asking her to rub his feet every night.