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My changing career

24 January 2014

ruby boukabou in guelma

Ruby Boukabou (above) is an Australian living and working in Paris. She has Algerian relatives and for the past year has been working to get a TV series on Algiers as a travel destination up and running. Ruby is a professional tap dancer, entertainer, and TV presenter. We asked her to give us an update on what’s been happening in her always interesting life.

"When asked to update on the top three things that happened in 2013, I flick through the year in my mind: the film festivals I’ve attended to interview directors, producers, actors; the concerts I’ve done; the clips I’ve made for Ruby TV… nothing specific leaps to mind. So I decide to flip the coin and consider the three best things I didn’t do in the last six months of 2013...

1. I didn’t disappear into the vortex.

The jury is out on what it was: an infection from a wasp sting; heat shock; culture shock; poisoning; a bout of black magic or detoxing from Parisian pollution… but after three magnificent days in Algiers, Algeria’s capital city, my arrival in Annaba in the country’s north eastern corner was less than celebratory.

Firstly, the producer I was meeting with for my travel show had returned to Paris the day before I arrived, despite the fact my whole trip was planned around meeting him for pre-production. Then, the open air film festival I was invited to on my first night in Annaba launched with a film about a girl being burnt to death by her brother when she took off her head scarf.

I skipped the film but the image remained. Luckily, I was rescued by a local dancer who walked me back to my hotel and planned a beach trip to swim the next morning before I set of on my journey inland to Guelma to visit my relatives.

The trip inland the next day with the taxi driver, also a local pharmacist, was delightful. I was learning Arabic, local plant remedies, buying watermelons, ordering olive oil from the guy’s cousin in a little village on the way and picking a symbolic olive branch for my uncle and some eucalyptus to freshen the air and remind me of Australia.

My first day was fine and happy and high with visits to the family and a celebration ritual in which my cousins dressed like Greek goddesses and I danced into trance, local men drumming rhythms in the garden, curtained off by sheets. 

Then somewhere between day two and three, the infection, or shock, or poison, or allergic reaction hit. It was 45 degrees. There was little water (they have two hours a day). An electrical storm was approaching. Everyone was talking about me in Arabic, which was usually funny, but suddenly not. I was losing weight rapidly and bruising. I was suffocating, hallucinating and my spine felt blocked. Fear flared and the smell of it wound the situation as tight as a spring.

Somehow or other, with help from friends and family in Algiers and Paris and Australia - worried about the ‘radio silence’ - I got out and got back to Paris to then literally dance it out of my system at a tap dance intensive and festival in Barcelona, Spain.

2. I didn’t throw self or phone out a window in Algiers.

Three months pass. It’s my birthday and I’m back in Algiers with a new producer, uncovered at Mipcom TV festival in Cannes.

It’s mid-afternoon, hot and I’m in the central Algiers apartment of my friend who’s out of town. I’m alone and suddenly feel empty. It is the third day of my trip and I’ve met the team of the new producer. They’re enthusiastic and welcoming. The trouble is there’s not been a peep out of the actual producer. Was this normal? What am I actually doing? Why am I making this program? And why am I by myself in Algeria trying to prove what to whom?

I’d expected to arrive, go into meetings, sign a contract, celebrate and get to work writing and planning the location and details. Instead, I’m alone, watching gigantic, carnivorous seagulls and feeling a dullness creeping through me. Then an anger. I take my phone and the urge to throw it, perhaps with myself, out the window is overwhelming… when it rings.

On the other end is the biggest film producer in the country. I’d sent him my co-written film synopsis, earlier in the month and mentioned I would be in Algiers around now. He wants to book an appointment for tomorrow in his office.

It’s something! I leap up, do a little dance, and the phone rings again. My arts journalist/writer friend, Nesrine is on her way to take me for coffee.

An hour later, we’re installed in the downstairs café working up the short film synopsis set in Algiers. Nesrine also decides she wants to make a little tap film on the streets of Algiers, and has gathered a group of friends to join us. The local café des arts gives us permission to film there.

I need to be patient when it comes to the TV travel project and get on with these new projects in the meantime. I am glad my phone and body remain in one piece.

3. I didn’t explode on a bus to Algiers.

I don’t mean a bomb, but by something I ate.

I’m back again in Guelma seeing family. I treat this carefully, not wanting to revisit the vortex, and I meet the local musicians. I jam and record a song with enthusiastic and talented locals, including a group called Bled Fusion.

I’ve got an appointment in Algiers to meet my new producer and then need to return to Paris but flights are booked up. I get as far as Annaba and luckily, see a bus marked ‘Alger’.

It begins well - as a lovely road trip. We pass hilly landscapes, men in burnouses buying apples and bananas from the back of trucks, a dude on a donkey and ruins of Berber houses.

My stomach begins to grumble and hurt. We’re an hour into the seven hour voyage and I’m slightly worried. Twenty minutes more and I ask the bus driver when we’re going to stop for a break. He says in half an hour.

It’s one of the longest half hours of my life. We’re on an expressway and I can’t see where on earth we are going to pull up. I start pacing the back of the bus. Maybe it was the pizza I ate yesterday, or emotions, or perhaps the cactus jam I’d bought in Guelma to ward off evil (it’s marked on the jar). We finally pull into the rest stop in Setif, me praying: Pleeeease, can I survive until we make it to the stop.

In Setif, the bus nearly leaves without me and the driver yells at me in Arabic. I reply in French, I can’t help being sick. Settling into the next leg of the journey, whatever it is strikes again. I’m doubled over and groaning to myself. The driver’s assistant passes and I ask if we’re stopping again. He says yes… in half an hour. It’s longer than the last half hour. Finally a speck on the horizon, and putting mind over matter, rocking and humming myself into a trance like state, I survive until we pull up.

The rest of the trip is smoother. I feel weak but relieved and arrive in warm, sunny Algiers. I find a taxi to get me to the meeting with my new producer, which goes well.

Phone calls from friends to organise goodbyes follow.

The next day I taxi to the airport and return to Paris.

And just now, a Skype call’s come in: We’re shooting the pilot for the travel show in a couple of weeks in a seaside town close to Algiers. Inshalla."