On a chilly morning I put my small 20 inch trolley bag in the boot of my car, and after placing my laptop bag in the rear passenger seat, seated myself on the front passenger seat, next to the driver’s. Mohammed asked me if I had found time to have my morning coffee, and I nodded my head in the negative. It took him by surprise, since most Algerians would start their morning with a hot Café au lait (Coffee with Milk). I do that too, but that particular day, due to my early morning travel plans, I had not been able to manage things in the most organised manner. I told Mohammed that maybe, if I had some time after checking in, I would have a coffee before boarding the flight.
We drove along the highway to the airport, which was about 18 kms away and was expected to take about half an hour, if the traffic was not too bad. It was still early morning and the traffic was relatively light, compared to what it can be during the day. This was to be my first domestic travel since I had settled down in this mediterranean city of Algiers, or Alger as it was called in French.
I had planned to fly down to Oran, the second largest city of Algeria, after the capital Algiers. The business in Algiers had just kicked off, as I had sorted out the issues of office, staff and warehousing, and managed to get the first few orders out to the priority clients. I had also managed to get a foothold in the city of Setif, which acted as the most important trade center for goods from Algiers to reach the rest of the country, through a strong and often difficult, wholesale network. Now was the time to create a distribution network in the second largest city, Oran. I had identified and shortlisted a distributor, a smart and experienced businessman named Amine, and I was scheduled to finalise the contract, and make sure his setup and infrastructure was prepared to receive the first delivery of our food products.
I had heard a lot about Oran, a city that had been under the control of a series of foreign conquerors, from the Romans, to the Arabs, to the Spanish Castilians, to the Ottomans, and eventually to the French, before it found it’s independence and stood up on its own feet. Prior to the Algerian war, Oran had the highest proportion of Europeans anywhere in North Africa.
A coastal city to the North-west of Algeria, Oran holds significance, both in terms of commerce and culture. Oran was named after ‘lion’, as it is said that lions roamed the area till a thousand years back, when the last two lions were hunted down. Today, lions are the symbol of the city of Oran, and the statues of the two lions of Atlas stand in pride at the entrance to Oran’s City Hall.
HOUARI BOUMEDIENE AIRPORT
The airport was named after the Military Commander Houari Boumédiène, who became the second President of Algeria. Mohammed parked the car in the open parking lot, and accompanied me to the gates of the airport. We were on time and I had invited Mohammed to join me for a cup of coffee, once my check in process was completed. It was only a day’s trip, so I was supposed to return that night itself. Mohammed seemed to be in a jovial mood, as he contemplated the prospect of spending the day with his family.
At the entrance to the airport, I noticed a queue leading to the door where a fully armed military official was checking everyone’s papers, before letting them in. I had brought along my ticket, carefully tucked inside an envelope the travel agent had provided, and I fished it out of my pocket and kept it ready in my hand for verification.
“And the Passport?”
Mohammed asked me while glancing at the ticket I was holding.
“What passport?” I calmly answered.
“Mon ami, your passport”
“This is a domestic flight, why do I need my passport?”
Mohammed gave me a look of disbelief and explained to me, that without a passport, no one would be allowed to board a flight. I thought for a moment, and realised how utterly naive and stupid I had been, in making some assumptions which were completely unreasonable.
That morning, I had thought about bringing my passport along, but then, I convinced myself it was only a domestic flight, and thus a passport would not be required. This idea comes from the standard process I was used to, in my home country India, where in case of a domestic flight, an air ticket was the only necessary document to show. I had make the grave mistake of assuming, that the world runs by the same rulebook as my country. At that point, as I thought about it logically, I realised that the process followed in India was lacking the basic protocols of security. But loopholes in processes was a part of the Indian system, to presume it was similar in a foreign country, was totally unintelligent of me.
I was indeed embarrassed, made worse by Mohammed whispering something to himself in Arabic (I guessed it would be similar to “Kya Chu**** hai!” in Hindi). I looked at my watch and then at Mohammed, and he immediately got what I was thinking, and vocally protested.
“No, No, my friend.. it’s not possible. The traffic is already getting heavy and there is no way we can go back and return before the flight takes off”
I made some quick calculations in my mind, and had to agree with his assessment. He gestured me to follow him, and started walking back towards the parking lot. I stood my ground. Mohammed walked a few steps and then, seeing I wasn’t moving, came back to me and said;
“What’s done is done. Let’s go back to the agent and change the booking to tomorrow. If we are lucky, the cost might not be very high. But let’s go before it becomes a no show.”
I wasn’t ready to give up, not after making the effort to wake up so early and come to the airport at 7 am. I told Mohammed to return to the car and get it started, while I go and have a quick chat with the security guys at the door. He dismissed my effort, warned me that it would just be a waste of time, and reluctantly walked back towards the parking by himself.
I held my ticket firmly and walked up to the door. The security officer asked for my paper and I passed him my air ticket. He looked at it and asked for my ‘pièce d’identité’ (Identity Card), which for a foreigner, would be the passport.
I politely told him, in the best French I could muster, that I had assumed that a passport was not mandatory for domestic air travel, and had left it back home.
He studied my face for a moment, to make sure I was not joking, and then laughed aloud and handed me back my ticket.
“You cannot travel if you don’t have your document, the passport”
“I know, I am really sorry. I messed up!” I admitted my mistake.
“Where are you from Habibi?”
“Too bad my friend. See if you can go back and get it, or try to change your flight date”
I looked miserable and I knew there was not much more I could do, so I thanked him and turned back. The second security officer took a few steps towards the first one and they spoke for a while in Arabic, when I was starting to walk away. And then I heard their voice;
“Hindi… Hey Hindi… viens viens” (Come Come)
I walked back, unsure what they had in mind.
The two guys instructed a third guy to continue checking the other passengers, as they escorted me inside into a small security room. I felt uncomfortable being escorted by two armed men in military gear, and could see all the eyes that were following us, as I stepped inside this room. They closed the door from the inside.
Then the first guy, perhaps the senior among the two agents, spoke to me in French.
“So you are Hindi, Indian?”
I nodded with affirmation.
“Do you know Bombay?”
“Yes, of course I know Bombay, although it is not my home town”
“Do you know Jaani Tu?” he gave a wry smile.
I found it a bit funny that they mentioned ‘Jaani Tu’ at a situation like this, but I nodded my head again.
“Yughanni… Chantes!” (Sing!)
“What?” I was confused
“Jaani tu.. habibi… you sing Jaani Tu”
It took me a while to get it, but they were really asking me to sing the song ‘Jaane Tu’. It almost felt like the days of being ragged, during the first year of my engineering college days. I had to sing in front of two Algerian Military personnel, armed with AK-47s, in a security room, at the Algiers airport.
I gathered up my courage and started singing the lines:
“Tera Mujhse Hai Pehle Ka Naata Koi..”
I was well invested into the Bollywood songs of 60s, 70s and 80s, and had been active in Antakshari competitions, both as a contestant and as a host, and this song was so familiar to me that I could even sing it backwards, if needed (okay, that’s an exaggeration).
The two guys looked at me with impressed eyes, and after the first two lines, my shakiness was gone, and I did my best to deliver a strong performance, as if I was hosting a show on the stage, at a college cultural fest. By the time I reached “Jaane Tu… Yaa Jaane Na…” they were already clapping to the beat and joined their own voices to the flagship line. Suddenly all three of us were singing in chorus … “Jaane Tu… Yaa Jaane Na..”
Once I was done, they clapped for a good ten seconds and the older guy came and hugged me, while the other patted my back. At this point, I received a call from Mohammed, but keeping my priorities clear, I declined the call.
Then the younger guy snatched away my ticket, which was still in my hand, picked up a rubber stamp lying on the desk, and stamped on it.
“There Habibi, you are ready to fly to Oran. Have a safe flight!”
I stared for a while with disbelief, then looked at my ticket, and thanked them with all sincerity. The older guy then escorted me to the check-in lane, spoke to the gorgeous lady at the counter, and explained something in Arabic. The lady smiled and processed my ticket, and handed me over a Boarding pass. I was all set!
As we started walking away, the lady called from behind. She was not calling me, but the security guy, who was just bidding me goodbye. The two of them spoke in Arabic for a while, and I had no clue what was being discussed, but they seemed to be serious.
Then, the lady took out a piece of paper and scribbled something on it in Arabic, almost three lines and I saw my name was written there in Latin script, while the rest was in Arabic scripture. She handed over this paper to the security guy, who read it quickly and then, taking a pen from the lady, signed at the bottom and added his name and his badge number.
Then he handed me the paper and instructed me;
“When you take the return flight from Oran, they will also ask you for your passport. Show this letter to them. My telephone number is also given at the bottom, if they want to verify.”
I tucked the letter carefully in my pocket, thanked him profusely again, and finally we parted ways. I still couldn’t believe what happened and it was nothing short of a miracle. There was not much time left, and I decided to ditch the idea of the coffee I had promised myself. I proceeded to the boarding area and within minutes, I had passed through the boarding gate, secured my baggage in the overhead bin, and had seated myself on an aisle seat in the cabin. After fastening my seat belt, I called Mohammed, who seemed very anxious.
“Mon-ami, where are you? It is now too late to reach the agent before the flight takes off. I think it will be a no-show, so your ticket for tomorrow will be more expensive. We could have avoided this…”
I interrupted him and said;
“Mohammed, go back home and enjoy the day with your family. Please remember to come back around 9 pm, to pick me up from the airport”
“What? What do you mean? You can’t stay here, they will not let you fly..”
“Don’t worry Habibi, I have already boarded the flight, now it’s about to take off. See you later in the evening… 9 pm!”
There was a silence at the other end, and I could literally sense his surprise and disbelief. Before he could find the right words, I had already said goodbye and hung up.
Oran was an exceptional city with a stunning view of the sea, and our distribution partner M. Amine was a well educated, sophisticated gentleman, who was also the distributor for a well known global MNC. We had a productive day, with some incredible Arabic lunch, before I wrapped up the day and he dropped me at the airport, just as the sky became darker.
I had not shared with Amine the implausible story of my manoeuvring through Algerian Airport security, but at the airport, I told him that I might be contacting him if I face any problems at the airport and he dismissively ruled out any such probability. “If only he knew”, I told myself.
I approached the security at the airport entrance, handed over my air ticket and then passed him the handwritten letter, which he accepted with some suspicion. After reading it, he looked straight at me and smiled;
“Hindi, you know Abdelazziz? Good friend of mine.”
Then he signalled the other security guy to let me in, and I walked in with my trolley bag and the laptop bag belted to it. A few minutes later, I had completed my check-in process, and with my boarding pass in hand, seated myself next to a young lady at the departure lounge waiting area. There were about forty other passengers in the waiting area, which included only three women, the other two were both with their individual families. The lady next to me was doing something on her computer, and she looked up and smiled to acknowledge my greetings. Nothing too encouraging, but civil enough.
I leaned backwards on the reclining seat and let out a sigh of relief. The day had been very interesting, and I had really pulled off a seemingly impossible stunt, thanks to a Bollywood song. Now it was time to go back home and hit the bed.
The PA system announced something in Arabic and the lady next to me slammed her laptop screen down swearing “Merde!” (Sh**!)
I looked quizzically at her, and she explained that the flight was delayed in Algiers, and it might be a while before it arrived in Oran.
I excused myself to walk around a bit within the airport, and found myself a coffee, that really lifted my spirit and energy level. When I came back, I sat next to the young lady again, and decided to call Mohammed.
“Mohammed, how are you?”
“Are you flying already? I was about to leave for the airport”
“No no, relax. I am at Oran airport, but the flight is delayed. It hasn’t taken off yet from Algiers, so no rush. You stay home my friend. When I board the aircraft, I’ll call you, so you can come an hour after that. It might be late”
Mohammed assured me that it was no problem and before I hung up the phone I heard him ask;
“So they also gave you a boarding pass in Oran? C’est incroayble!” (It’s incredible!)
“Yes, of course.. it’s a long story my friend… I will…”
I was interrupted by the young lady next to me; she pointed upwards and for a moment, I was unable to figure out what she was trying to say. Then I noticed that all eyes were fixed on me, and suddenly heard my name being called out on the Public announcement system. I hung up my call to Mohammed and listened again. Indeed, the announcement went “M Amitabha Das, please proceed to the baggage screening area immediately”.
The baggage screening was nearby, leading into this waiting area and I slowly walked towards it, as a security officer approached me and escorted me inside.
There were seven people inside, four in military uniforms, including the guy who had let me in. He was speaking to someone on the phone and waved at me, as he saw me. Then, disconnecting his call he spoke to me;
“Habibi, I was talking to Abdeazziz. He said you sing very well”
“Oh come on!” I couldn’t believe this.
Everyone was smiling at me. The friend of Abdelazziz, introduced himself as Riad and took my hand and shook it with a lot of warmth.
“The flight has already left Algiers. But it’s already late and the passengers are getting bored and irritated. Some entertainment can be good for the morale. Why don’t you sing ‘Jaane Tu’ for us?”
I tried my best to explain that my singing was really below par, and I was too tired myself to sing a song at 10 pm. But almost all seven in that room pleaded with me and even started banging the desks with a ‘Jaani Tu! Jaani Tu!” chant…
Eventually, I nodded in the affirmative, and they walked me to the waiting lounge, where Riad made an announcement in Arabic, which was later translated to me by the young lady, who also disclosed her name later, It was Najwa. The announcement went something like this;
“Dear passengers, we apologise for the delay in the arrival of the flight to Algiers. It is now on its way and will be ready for boarding soon. We understand that many of you are tired and uncomfortable, so we have a little surprise for you. We have with us M. Das, a singer from Bollywood. He will sing us a song which all of us love to hear. Jaani Tu! Please welcome him!”
And to my great surprise, the whole room, full with over forty passengers, started clapping in unison, as if it was Shashi Kapoor himself who had made an entry. The older people found their seats, and made the kids stop running around, and get seated. The younger people looked impressively at me with a lot of hope. Even the lady I had made acquaintances with, had tucked her laptop away, and had leaned forward, buzzing with expectation. Riad handed me over the microphone, for the PA system. It was meant to be placed on a desk and not really designed to be held in one’s hand, but no one cared much about that.
It was probably one of the most embarrassing moments of my life! Singing was not really my talent, and I had accepted it long back. But to do this in front of a foreign audience, was simply unreal and perhaps even ridiculous.
I said ‘Salaam Alequm’ with a trembling voice, and almost everyone greeted me back.
For the next few minutes, I really sang the iconic song in front of this audience. They were so much in love with this song, that they really didn’t care if I was singing it well. At least half of the crowd joined me whenever I sang “Jaane Tu… Yaa Jaane Naa” and after the first minute, I grew in confidence and did a decent job for the rest of the song. As ‘decent’ a job as my untrained and poor vocal cords would allow, that is. There was a standing ovation once I had finished, and I realised, with some discomfort, that I was rather enjoying my few minutes of fame.
For the remaining hour or so, I was treated like Royalty. People would walk up to me and greet me, kids would come and shake my hand, and Najwa even handed me her business card.
Another hour later, I landed in Algiers where Abdelazziz and his crew greeted me again, and I found out that he had already been informed about my show in Oran. He escorted me straight to the parking, where Mohammed was eagerly awaiting. Then he spoke to Mohammed in Arabic, and gave me a hug before retreating back to his position.
Mohammed was pretty quiet on the way, but when we reached home, he finally said;
“My friend, today is a day I never thought could happen. A person flying to Oran and back, without a passport, and a foreigner, on top of that! This has never happened in the history of Algerian aviation! I don’t think it will happen again, ever!”
I smiled back and acknowledged that it was beyond my imagination as well. I had really come to understand the power of ‘Jaane Tu’, and how deeply it connects with the people of Algeria. The reception I had received all day long was impossible to imagine, and it had made me deeply allegiant to Algeria and its people. A bond I have cherished forever, long after I had left the country!