Algeria: Cheers and Fears

Time was when police barricades sealing off the streets around my hotel would have been cause for concern. A shade too militaristic, these metal gates hinting at dark dangers lying in wait beyond the pale of the streetlights. Such protective measures plant in each witness a fear of the unknown, provoking alarm while simultaneously assuring that an authority exists, and it knows best. If I learned one thing in Iraq, it was that these authorities could not be trusted.

That was time was. Time now, I have no reason to fear the unknown. Experience has brought light to dark corners, illuminating much I would have rather not seen, but I am better off for knowing. Fears become known, are now possibilities with dynamics and associated risks that can be interrogated. They are hazards to be weighed and mitigated, but never eliminated. It would hardly be fun to do away with them altogether.

Fear One: kidnapping. Looking at trends, most of the dozen or so westerners kidnapped in Algeria over the past year undertook overland expeditions in the northeast or south, towards lawless Libya or into the ungovernable Sahara. Roving bedouins and tuareg tribes have never had much in the way of allegiances, and in tumultuous Azawad (née Mali) to the south hardcore Salafists have declared a state of their own, their black flags an ominous sign of extremist things to come. Fear One is not the biggest risk outside of Algiers; staying in the city center should keep this one at bay, though being blond doesn’t help my chances. Avoid establishing a pattern, try to blend in, stick close to authority and avoid unknown areas after dark- the ABCs of semi-permissive environments.

Fear two: arrest on the suspicion of being suspicious. Waiting for my meal in the restaurant of my Hotel Suisse, I had plenty of time to examine my surroundings, get a feel for the normal, and try to be just that. Behind me, two men sat in the corner and whispered to another over tea. Against the far wall, a spider the size of a golf ball scurried along the cracked paint. It was quiet, save for a set of speakers humming some new wave jazz: “I’m yours… You’re mine…” I couldn’t make out much beyond that refrain, and apparently neither could the stereo. “I’m your-“. “You’re my-.” Two or three skips later, it was changed out for Jacques Brel. “Ne- me- quitte- pas…” Brel’s plaintive trepidation was a better fit for the place. There were more waiters than customers in the restaurant, so the waitstaff waited and waited, occasionally slipping outside for a smoke break or to chat with the police at the station next door.

With my appetizer, a simple salad doused in dressing, the waiter bent to ask in hushed tones: “Vous etes journaliste?” I smiled, “No,” shaking my head to sell the point. He grimaced, and walked outside. It’s always better to appear to be exactly who you are, lest someone think you are what you’re not. Trouble is, who I was didn’t make much sense. Why would an American tourist go to Algiers, put up with a two-month-long visa application process and steep fees for a chance to see a country teetering on the edge of renewed violence? I didn’t have an answer to that question except ‘exactly,’ which made little sense to me and would make probably less sense to whoever was asking. Through the window I could see my waiter exchanging a few perplexed words with a police officer in plainclothes. It occurred to me then that I should have just been a journalist; this close to the elections it was a much more plausible.

My entree brought with it a more detailed examination: “Your town?” “New York.” He nodded, then went back outside, picking up where he had left off with the police officer. Though unsettled, it was relieving that they were being so obvious; it couldn’t be anything too sinister. In a country this hardened, coming off of a decade of civil war and continuing instability, the security services have to have their job down to an art. If not, they end limp on the street, a fate that has befallen thousands since the conflict started in 1992. I can’t fault them for being suspicious. In their shoes, I would be too. Why the hell would an American want to travel to Algeria? Just two Algerians who were curious about something that made little sense. An acceptable tira misu arrived to complete the prix fixe, ending the questioning for now.

That first day in Algiers, I didn’t much feel like going far. Walking around the city that afternoon, I felt a general sense of hostility in the air. Last week’s elections left the Islamists deeply disappointed, and unhappy Islamists does not a stable country make. Nobody wants a return to the violence of 1990s, when the nullification of an Islamist victory at the polls mired the country in a decade-long civil war that left hundreds of thousands dead across the country. Bodies were dumped on the street, car-bombs detonated throughout Algiers, and lawlessness ran rampant. Yet even today some of the Islamist leaders were hinting at violence, that a Tunisia solution was the only recourse left. Of course, Tunisia is a polite country, lacking the deep scars of internecine conflict. A Tunisian revolt in Algeria would be an ugly, ugly affair. Which leads me to-

Fear Three: wrong place, wrong time. The civil war ended a decade ago. Today, the car bombs only detonate outside the city and kidnappings are mainly in the south, but that doesn’t mean a new precedent won’t be set. During my four days in Algiers I walked around, getting intentionally lost, discovering lovely little used book stores where the proprietors set to practicing their long-forgotten English. Yet in every sidewalk cafe there were eager eyes scanning for something amiss, police throwing up hasty checkpoints to inspect vehicles and keep Al Qaeda in the Maghreb at bay. Some of the police even carried the ineffectual bomb-scanning wands that Iraqi Police were swindled into buying, swearing by the efficacy of the device despite all evidence to the contrary. Always nice to not have a sunny afternoon blown asunder by two thousand pounds of homemade explosives.

Still, that possibility exists and the people know it. Algeria is widely viewed as the only country to have missed the Arab Spring. Its neighbors had protests and reforms to varying degrees, but the only demonstrations in Algiers were cut off before they could get much traction. No one cared enough to open that pandora’s box; peace is preferable even when better worlds can be imagined. Despite the ban on open protests, caravans of honking cars would express their winding dissatisfaction late at night, angry slogans shouted from windows. Occasionally, a police van would pull up to the station with the sloganeers, belligerent and unwilling to yield. Algiers is a steady reminder that anger always finds an outlet.

A shame too. Algiers is a beautiful city, that colonial rarity in which the colonizers really never wanted to leave. It makes sense why the French put up such a fight. With wide avenues, plentiful parks, romantic staircases and wedding-cake facades, Algiers is Paris with white-and-blue trim. Strewn with trash and heavily-armed soldiers, it is still possible to peel back the layers of hate and death that have settled over this city in the past three decades. Possible, but not an easy thing to do, and not necessarily worth it. Algiers will again have its time in the sun, but that day is a long way off.

Today, overlooking a canal in Amsterdam, a polite elderly man sits beside me taking in the pleasure boats and bicyclists on the Prinsengracht. From such a lovely perch it is difficult to reconcile the two worlds. They are mere hours apart by air but living in different centuries.

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