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  • In Oran (Algeria), I often went mushrooming with Domi, my colleague and friend in the Maths department. He was a bit of a loner, only really feeling at home when surrounded by Nature. The Forêt de Msila was about 30 kilometres from Oran, and we often went there because it teemed with comestible fungi, mainly Ceps, Lacterius Deliciosus or Sanguifluus. But sometimes we would stop on Route des Crêtes, a rocky area halfway between Oran and the Forêt with hillocks and caves. There was a huge expanse of arid land with occasional wild dwarf palms growing amidst the pebbles, and very rare bushes, mainly uninhabited, and we would sometimes stop there and walk there randomly in the hope of finding a rare orchid. Once we had heard a stream, but we had never seen it. Sometimes we’d see a flock of sheep, which led us to believe that there might be some small isolated douar with one or two families, but we had never seen a shepherd.

    One Saturday morning, Domi parked his car near a ditch on the Route des Crêtes and we walked away from the main road in search of botanical serendipity. We must have walked for a couple of hours without seeing a single soul or even a single sheep. We heard the stream and thought of trying to find it this time, but shorty after we thought we heard some indistinct voices; then suddenly we heard thumping sounds. We stopped and listened and the sounds struck us as weird. Suddenly it hit us; some people were butchering a sheep or even a cow. Who? we wondered.

    Domi had been in Algeria much longer than I, and he shook his head. In a whisper he said that we were probably courting danger and should turn back. Why? I protested. He explained that he had heard rumours to the effect that there were pockets of deserters from Boumedienne’s army, conscripts who could not endure the harsh regime, hiding in the bush, in caves, perhaps waiting before they could arrange to cross into Morocco or Tunisia. These men were obviously dangerous, as, if caught, they would face certain execution.

    We were about to turn back when a young man in his twenties sprang upon us from behind a spare bush brandishing a wooden staff; he was dressed normally, but he was wearing army boots. He spoke to us in French, in a calm educated tone; he could so easily have been one of our students. Who were we and what was our business in this part; were we spies? I let Domi do the talking. No, we were just exploring the area for wild plants and flowers, we certainly were not spies, who would we be spying for anyway? We heard some rustling noise behind the bush and I became quite alarmed.
    ‘We were just about to turn back,’ I chipped in.
    ‘No, you’re not,’ said the young man, ‘we can’t let you.’ He then instructed us - ordered us - to stay put.
    ‘Behind this bush I have two men with their guns aimed at you, and if you do anything funny they will have no choice, you understand.’ We indicated that we did and he disappeared behind the scenery to consult with his colleagues. Almost immediately he returned with another young man who took one look at us.
    ‘You’re Mr X.,’ he told Domi, ‘and you are at La Senia.’ (that was the popular name of the uni). Domi nodded. ‘I even know where you live.’ He looked at me but decided that I was not interesting. He asked what we were doing in this god-forsaken region and Domi explained.
    The two men then conferred in Arabic, after which one of them said, if we let you go, I suppose the first thing you’ll do is to inform the authorities, right? The pair again discussed in their language. Were they in disagreement about what to do with us? No, of course not, Domi said, why would we inform anybody about meeting some young people also hunting for rare fauna. Is that what you think we’re doing here? asked one with a smile, but the other was more hostile. Don’t try to kid us, he said, you know exactly who we are and why we’re here, so cut the crap. The first one wiped the smile off his face.
    ‘Now listen,’ he said, ‘anything happens to us, you’re going to pay for it, we even know you live in this university apartment block in La Senia Village, you understand.’ We swore that we did, and that we had every intention of keeping quiet about our encounter. Unlike well-behaved children the stream will have been heard but never seen.

    (Pic: Oran)
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