Chorba Meets Bourek: The Family Grows

Wednesday, August 15, 2018 | Algiers, Algeria

Ever since the fateful night, three long years ago, when Nina and I adopted and eventually named Bourek (see "Bourek Meets World"), we've half-joked about getting him a little sister and naming her "Chorba." Doing so—as anyone who's visited Algeria can tell you—would complete the traditional Algerian Ramadan meal of bourek (local spring rolls) and chorba, the tomato-based soup that accompanies them. In Algeria, the pair are as inseparable as spaghetti and meatballs, burgers and fries, or sushi and soy sauce.

Nina, who developed a penchant for rescuing lost animals during her enchanted childhood in Egypt and India, claimed (dubiously) that acquiring a second dog couldn't possibly double the amount of work it takes us to care for a single one.

Unswayed by that math, for several years I resisted her steady pressure campaign, which was fed by a steady stream of images of forlorn street dogs shared online by a local humane society called "El Rifk" (Arabic for "kindness"). Then two weeks ago, Nina's birthday arrived, and my resistance waned.

The family was about to get a little bigger.

* * *

Chorba, mud princess
El Rifk, it turned out, was not an organization but a single woman with a huge heart—Dr. Haifa Rezagui, a veterinarian and savior of street dogs from across the Algerian capital. "I had to stop giving out my address," she told us. "Otherwise people would just keep bringing the unwanted ones and dropping them in boxes outside the front gate."

When I contacted her, however, Dr. Rezagui gave me her address, in the western suburb of Staoueli, and welcomed Nina and I at the improvised barnyard where she hosts an endlessly rotating gaggle of local street dogs (mostly puppies), whom she films at play, posting the shaky handheld videos (all joyfully narrated in her lilting Algerian darija) on El Rifk's Facebook page, beseeching fans to adopt them.

Few Algerians look highly on dogs in general, and the modest street dogs that roam the fringes of human society here, feeding on scraps and just trying to avoid the dog catchers, are respected even less. "Bâtard!" many Algerians spit out automatically whenever they see one.

And yet, as I know from experience, these dogs are hardy, sporty companions full of character. We wouldn't settle for anything less.

* * *

When we pulled up at Dr. Rezagui's, she ushered us to a ramshackle shelter where two adult mutts and a throng of perhaps two dozen wriggling, yipping puppies swarmed around our ankles. While the vet looked on, chuckling, Nina and I picked through the swirling mass, trying to find a healthy, relatively calm, female puppy.

I rummaged through the furry herd, commenting on this or that feature, but Nina just knelt and pet them gently, slowly turning her attention away from the wilder ones who leapt onto her arms. "Dogs pick you, not the other way around," she repeated several times.

After twenty minutes, I returned to the car to fetch Bourek, who ought to at least have half a vote, we figured. Once ushered into the puppy pen, however, he found himself overwhelmed by a tempest of yapping little ones, and quickly decided he wanted nothing to do with any of them.

With Bourek abstaining, Nina and I soon settled definitively on a small, mild-mannered, dun-and-gray girl with white splotches on her neck, tail, and paws. This would be our Chorba.

We gave Dr. Rezagui a donation for the care of future puppies, snapped a first family picture, loaded up the dogs (plural!) and hit the road back home.

* * *

In the two week since she joined our family, Chorba (pronounced shore-ba) has transformed from meek orphan into feisty princess.

I woke on Day Two to find that, after spending her first day getting to know the place, in the night Chorba had shredded her makeshift bed and evicted Bourek from his own:
Nina and I know Bourek's temperament well after three years of cohabitation, and were optimistic about this abrupt change in his life, but even we have been surprised to see how well he has taken to his new role as big brother.

Though five times Chorba's size, he looked on, seemingly defenseless, as she conquered first his bed, then his food and water, then his toys and bones—all without (nearly) a growl of protest. He and the puppy have also settled into a routine of sparring in the living room for several hours each morning and evening. At age three, Bourek is in prime physical shape, but Chorba is undeterred by his superior size and strength. Time and again, she flings herself headlong, teeth bared at his neck while he gleefully fends off her attacks, visibly overjoyed to have a playmate at last.

Chorba's abrupt arrival within our family has cast new perspective on Bourek's presence, and made me reconsider what an indelible member of our little pack he has become since appearing in our lives back in 2015. Bourek and I have forged a sort of mutual transformation, with both of us obstinately focused on bending the other to his will, and both, in many ways, succeeding. When I issue one of the dozens of commands that Bourek now knows, he responds relatively quickly (if still reluctantly, making sure to remind me that he's obeying purely by choice, and not out of any particular loyalty). Chorba, by contrast, will need months to figure out all these strange words.

Yet in many ways, she has proven herself to be the sweet, cuddly yin to Bourek's aloof yang. When called, she comes. When disciplined, she obeys. When petted, she leans in, not out.

Which is not to say that all is uniformly rosy. She is still a puppy, after all.

Until they learn to do their business outside, any puppy will pee or poop on your floor. But Chorba seems to have a particular affinity for defecating in the vertical dimension. Before I could stop her, last week outside my office she clambered atop a cardboard box to relieve herself as my colleagues looked on, much amused. Back home the next day, she somehow shit on the wall—proof of a special kind of skill. (Nina: "She's an artist.")

During Chorba's first week with us, the birthday girl upheld her promise to manage the puppy's early mishaps. But then Nina jetted off for a week-long work conference, leaving yours truly to clean up our little modern artist's daily œuvres. She's lucky she's cute.

* * *

Nina and I both grew up in families of four. I myself am an older brother, two-and-a-half years older than my sister, while Nina is a younger sister, the same number of years younger than her older brother. So in some sense, by bringing Chorba into our home we have also recreated—in a doggy version—a family dynamic deeply familiar to both of us.

And as predicted, we have added quite a bit more responsibility to our plates (all of it not even six weeks before our wedding). More precisely, we have doubled the dog hair, doubled the dog food bill, and at least quadrupled the amount of tangled leashes, noise, and general chaos in the household. But no bourek is complete without its chorba, and no big brother without his little sister.


Unknown said...

quelle belle histoire merci monsieur et madame de les avoir sauves ils ont l air tellement heureux j espere que d autre personne feront de meme

Unknown said...

What a unique story! I don't know why I felt satisfaction when I read it 😀

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