You may wonder what a dental office in Oran, Algeria looks like. Well, I went to perhaps the best, most expensive dentist in Oran. Usually there is a 4 month wait for an appt, but I have a friend so...I got seen my first week in Algeria without an appointment. After holidays in Spain, I am here again for my root canal.
Where I went doesn't speak to the general experience of a typical Algerian but, whatever. To be a journalist is not my goal here.
Beautiful. Filled with light. Compeletely brand-new, state of the art équipement.
The chairs, the teenie tiny drills, the cup of water that fills automatically for my rinsing pleasure: all as good as if not better than my dentist in NYC. Clean, clean, clean.
After the root canal I had in NYC, done by a fancy gentleman whose only love in life is to perform root canals, I was assured, who came highly recommended, I had pain so bad the 4th day following it that I called the dental office in earnest tears, desperate for the strongest pain killers short of heroin.
And in Algeria? (Where my dentist warned me I would 'get what I paid for,' which was another way of saying, WTF are you thinking?) In Algeria, believe you me, the only pain I felt was from the needle injecting the novicaine. And the soreness that comes from holding one's mouth open like a snake ready to swallow a chicken for 2 hours. Not the day after or after or ever. NO PAIN. They are that good there.
After the younger, handsome dentist (Zoom Whitened teeth and close-cropped curly hai) was finished, the head dentist (grey hair and jovial 'Marhaban Bik' laugh and a million and one questions about me and my ability to speak arabic with him) X-rayed my tooth with his digital X-ray machine and I could see white death filed clean away down to the pretty nerve tips.
The waiting room? Women in new, French street fashion, or slimming, glossimar hijab sat leafing through Elle Magazine circa 2009 and watching National Geographic from Dubai or checking Facebook on their iPhones: These women have none of the squat, giving up their looks after 4 kids look about them that so many Algerian women get. Those wear their hair cropped and bad bleach jobs from the strong hydrogen peroxide they buy from the pharmacy, with a fullah not around her neck neat and crisp; but tied at the nape of her neck sloppy as a do-rag does.
These women I sit pretty openly staring at, have money. They travel to Spain, France. They live facing the water Front De La Mer or else in the old neighborhood with the best old villas from the time of the French. Here it's breeziest and quietest and not far from the water, old, old gardens grow up against their terra cotta walls, hanging over pomegrante and lemon trees, vines that flower and cool a flushed face.
These homes go for a million dollars and private yachts wait to moter them to Alicante, Spain to shop and back in the same day.
I fit in here at the dentist by virtue of the fact that I am not from this place and that somehow puts me at the top rung of society here, I have not let myself go completely, and my clothes cost more than 20 bucks.
It is easy and I am quick to want to smile, to relax and feel myself become another woman who understands leisure, whose money and passport can fix any problems that might arise. I want to be this woman and maybe I become her here.
Who do I become when I travel here? For I am not really myself if I shy away from leaving the apt on my own, if I refuse to look men in the face though they try to slip my love letter words in hushed whispers as I pass by. Who am I that I am suddenly brought up above the lower rungs of where I am just by my blue eyes and Irish skin?
I become someone that I wrestle with. Alternately, I am happy staying home writing in my small orange notebook and re-reading The Poisonwood Bible, The Life of a Cell, or whatever else I have brought and left here, then I am despondent and crushed by how lonely I am here. I just cannot gossip and joke with my husband the way I can with a friend over so -and-so's up tos. I have only my two kids, my husband and his less than chatty brother to see, day in and day out.
When I go out, walk the boulevard take the kids to the park across from our apt, there are going to be situations I just don't know how to handle.
What to do when little boys of 10 and 12 crowd the bench I sit on, watching my kids dig in the filthy sand box while night carries on and my husband finishes his prayers in the mosque? I can't exactly parse out how the words they are using don't match the expressions of dirty talk on their faces.
There's a hidden code in the way men talk here and I sense these boys are copying what they've seen their older brothers in slicked back hair and saggy pants call out to girls they pass on the street. But what am I to do with this?
Who I become here is a spectacle. Less so now that my hair is dark but still, without sunglasses on, when I sit still I am the only one not from here, I am maybe the only American they've ever seen and they are not willing to pass it up.
All this doesn't sound bad, but it flusters me.
Who I am by what I see them see.
And I can't ignore it because another two teenage boys are joining us on the bench now and how to ignore it when, after they don't get a response from me, they stand just before me and wave their hands infront of my face to get my attension.
I give them the finger but this only seems to say to them, BRING IT.
And they do.
So, I ask you, do I sit and home or go out and face this?
In the dental office I struggle with a different level of discomfort with who I am here, but I do not like it any less. But I am grateful that what it allows me: a painless root canal in an office of comfort and light.