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Day 76: In Aménas

Michael Palin - SaharaIt's ironic that, given the mighty size of Algeria, the first trace of the oil that transformed the country was found within strolling distance of Libya, near the village of In Aménas. Since then, natural gas has been discovered too, and there are four big fields running along the border, being jointly developed by Sonatrach and BP-Amoco. In Aménas now has an airport, maintenance depots, storage yards and a lot of Brits.

I'm driven out to a drill site at the base of one of the steep, flat-topped, sandstone escarpments south of the town, accompanied by an Algerian from the BP/Sonatrach partnership. His name is Tobba, a geologist by profession, who came out here in 1983. He's a genial man, small and wearing a BP cap.

He's the first Algerian I've met, apart from Said, who's been to England and I ask him for his impressions. He was struck, he said, by the contrast between the beauty of the countryside and the ugliness of public behaviour. He was with his wife and children and found the sight of embracing and kissing in the street very hard to deal with. The same with drinking. He didn't mind bars but was embarrassed by people drunk on streets where he was walking with his children. As Tobba is clearly an educated, decent man, neither severe nor prudish, these criticisms hurt. Arabs generally behave with dignity in public, and in a society which takes no alcohol, there is a marked lack of that unreasoned, aggressive posturing that flares up so easily back home.

The drill site is a square patch of ground, fortified by an 8-foot-high sand wall, known as a berm, and heavy security paraphernalia, including a wall of lights outside, a chicane at the entrance, guard towers and a protection force of gendarmes. I later learn there are fifty of them. This is how important the gas is to Algeria.

A board at the entrance lists the personnel on site, along with their job titles. It reads like a cast list in a theatre programme. There's Tool Pusher, Company Man, Chief Mechanic, Driller, Assistant Driller, Derrick Man and (very Shakespearian this) Roughnecks and Roustabouts.

We seem to have arrived at a bad time. The site is being dismantled and the 180-foot-high derrick lies on its side awaiting collection. A small group of British workers is supervising an Algerian workforce of loaders and drivers in blue boiler suits and turbans. Willy Wallace, a roly-poly Scot with a Viva Zapata moustache, fingers the stiff creases of a tight and suspiciously pristine outfit.

'They made us wear these. Must have known you were coming.'
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  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 76
  • Country/sea: Algeria
  • Place: In Aménas
  • Book page no: 207

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