Algiers: Journal

Of course, many of my friends in the States expressed questions about the state of my sanity when I told them I was about to spend several days in Algeria.

“Is getting kidnapped by Islamic crazies your idea of a good time?” a New York chum asked, reminding me of that much-reported incident in January of this year when a radical al-Qaeda group took hostage several dozen gas workers in the extreme south of the country (where Algeria’s petroleum and natural gas wealth is situated), a drama that turned gruesome when the Algerian Army stormed the compound where they were being held and the militants killed over twenty-five hostages before they themselves were mowed down.

“That all took place way down in the Sahara” I said, “near the Malian border, next stop Timbuktu – and a noted al-Qaeda theatre of operations. Anyway I’m heading to the Salon du Livre in Algiers – around 2300k due north of all that.”

“It’s still the same country” he said.

To which the compulsive traveler in me – and one who is always suspicious of the external images and clichés so often imposed on a terrain – could only think:

We certainly like to categorize the unknown.

And for most people beyond the Maghreb, Algeria remains just that: the unknown.

“It’s still the same country.”

As the car ferrying me from Houari Boumediene Airport into the city centre pulled into a major traffic jam on a very modern motorway, the first thought that struck me was: This is anything but the same country I visited twenty-three years ago.

The year was 1990. I had been spending time in Casablanca, loitering with intent there while researching a chapter of book that became Combien. Being someone who likes to drop himself into interesting scenarios, when my work there was completed I decided to take the train from Casa to Tunis.

It was February. There was a decided dank chill in the air, the sky the color of dirty chalk. Algiers – in which I spent three uneasy days – was a forbidding place; visually and psychologically overcast. It was the years of rather hard-line state socialism. The city looked like Havana on the Mediterranean: a ravishing urban construct in an extraordinary amphitheatric setting, yet one which had been allowed (in a style comparable to many Eastern European capitals during the Warsaw Pact years) to decay and crumble, like a pair of gleaming teeth that had not been brushed or flossed in decades. There was an epic sadness to Algiers back then, a monochromatic, ascetic bleakness that was underscored by a discernible tension in the civic atmosphere (and one which was the harbinger of bad things to come). My French was poor at the time, but I was approached a great deal in cafés and on the streets, not by hawkers trying to sell me the usual Mahgrebian touristic tat, but by individuals who were curious why a foreigner was wandering the streets of a capital where foreigners were rare objects on the urban horizon. I came away after a few days fascinated, but relieved to be beyond its frontiers. Because the place struck me as a depressed tinderbox, about to explode – which it certainly did around two years or so after my visit.

But now, with the white-hot morning sun gaining full altitude, my head tingling with jet lag as we inched along the congealed, many-laned motorway, I did a double take when we passed a dealership for Porsche. And another one for Audi. And a third for BMW. And billboards for slick new cellphones and flat screen televisions from Samsung. And, just a kilometer or so from the centre (was I having a hallucination here?), a huge shopping centre, replete with neon signs and parking for far too many cars.

It’s still the same country?

That remained to be seen. But one thing was very clear from that drive into town: the free market had arrived in Algiers.

***

Mint tea on the terrace of The Hotel Djazair. It was once called The Saint-Georges. Back in the 1940s General Eisenhower and Field Marshall Montgomery plotted North African strategy here. In the bar there was a photographic who’s who of predominantly French personalities who once slept here. By the pool there were young Algerian women in bikinis alongside the sort of monied husbands and boyfriends for whom a gold Rolex and the iPhone (on which they were all obsessively fixated) are totemic symbols of new wealth. Two of the women were reading the French edition of Fifty Shades of Grey. And on the terrace, shaded by palms, augmented by encroaching birdsong, Bachira (not her real name) – who works as a journalist in Algiers – was talking about the position of being a single woman in her society today:

“Of course, even if I wanted children – which I don’t – being a single mother in Algeria is simply impossible. Having said that there is the fact that I can dress as I want here, that the burka is not obligatoire. And that is something for which I am grateful. Just as it is good that being a woman on her own with a career does not make you a pariah in Algeria. What I am sure you understand – because you travel – but what others from the outside don’t seem to comprehend is that we are Maghrebian, not ‘Arab’.”

“But unlike Morocco and Tunisia,” I noted, “you have never developed a tourist economy. On the contrary there has always been something more serious, more distant, about Algeria.”

“Oh we are very serious here. And the ‘distant’ part of the equation – is this your way of saying we seem closed off?”

“Well, you can’t come in without obtaining a visa in advance, a process that takes considerable work. And the impression from the outside is that the only reason to visit Algeria is if you have business or family here.”

“Yes, it is not exactly a holiday destination” she noted with a tight smile. “And it is true that when the nightmare began in the early 1990s the country did become a virtually closed one. And even though we have a degree of stability now the image, alas, persists.”

This was the first of many times over the next few days that the exceptionally literate and informed and unabashedly opinionated people I was meeting constantly used the term “the nightmare” to describe a period of terror that started in 1991 when the Islamic Salvation Party (FIS) gained traction amongst the electorate and the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) party (which began life as the revolutionary organization that spearheaded the war for independence against France back in the mid-1950s) cancelled the elections and the Algerian military essentially took control of the state. Not only did the Islamists call foul, but when the Army’s man, General Liamine Zéroual, became President in 1992, the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) – and their rural counterparts, the Islamic Armed Movement (the MIA) – began a campaign of terror that was as brutal as it was grand guignol. In one particularly vile incident (among manifold vile incidents – as the civil war lasted until 2002, claiming over 100,000 lives) two hundred villagers were massacred in September 1997 in the village of Bentalha, just fifteen kilometers from Algiers. It was a mass communal butchery in which pregnant women were disemboweled, babies smashed against walls, throats of men, women and children cut, limbs severed. And this sort of barbarism was repeated elsewhere repeatedly through this period of terror.

“It was a time,” Bachira said, “when fear was everywhere. Here in Algiers, journalists and intellectuals were frequently targeted and murdered (in fact, seventy journalists were among the dead, as well as the film director, Ali Tenkhi, who was shot near his home in the west of Algiers). It all got so desperate, so grim, that Morocco closed the frontier between them and us in 1994.” (The overland route between the two countries remains sealed even all these years later).

“And now…?” I asked.

“Now there is the occasional incident, but largely there is…”
She paused for a moment, searching for the right word.
“… life.”

“And is it a good life?”

“I don’t want to live in France, I don’t want to live anywhere else. But what I would like is to be able to travel without so many visa requirements, without so many suspicions. To travel now with an Algerian passport… it is not like you, with an American or European passport, where crossing a frontier without a visa is not a problem. For us… the horizons are limited.”

***

A long walk through central Algiers. Six boys – around twelve years old each – are playing a running game of football down a long boulevard that has a decidedly Hausmannian architectural style to it. I reached a square with a small, beautiful public park, the upper levels of the city rising cliff-like behind it. I walked to the quays and found myself facing one of the great harbours of the world, behind which is a cliff of Italianate buildings, very much renovated and intact. I took a taxi up to the Basilique Notre Dame d’Afrique – the Sacre Coeur of Algiers – and could not help but marvel at the epic grandeur, the heroic sweep of this city, and the way all its grandiose and domestic architecture was pointed north toward France. I returned to the centre and happened upon La Grande Poste – a wondrous mélange of art deco and the néo-mauresque, the interior of which is a dazzling 1910 riot of gold and glitter, reminiscent of one of those overly extravagant picture palaces from the silent era, splendidly restored and maintained.

Some streets later – passing rows of boutiques (Timberland, Nike) – I came upon La Cinémathèque Algérienne (they have cinephiles here!) opposite a truly beautiful refit of an old department store (Les Galeries de France) in which is housed MAMA: le Musée de l’Art Moderne d’Alger. Wandering inside and paying for a ticket I was immediately taken by the way certain Maghrebian flourishes (elaborate white carved arches) have been integrated into its high modernist interior design. Just as the current exhibition – black and white photographs of the war of independence against France, featuring work by French, Italian, Swedish and Algerian photographers – focused on, with Robert Capa-like graininess and actualité, the camaraderie and communal sense of purpose of that struggle. And yet if my first early exploration of the city pointed up anything it was the fact that, even now, fifty years after all that, everywhere you turn in Algiers you discover that its colonial heritage, its profound French roots, remain omnipresent.

Half an hour later I was in a quartier in the hills above the city centre – a place called Hydra. It’s the most BCBG of Algier’s quartiers – their version of the 16ème (16th). There’s an outdoor showcase of the latest Citroën models. There’s a trendy optician selling Ray Bans and designer spectacles. There are splendid white cubist homes. And an art deco mosque. I spied a young Algerian girl – she couldn’t be more than eight – dressed in a style that could be best described as Zara Kids, leaving a boulangerie. But she wasn’t taking with her several loaves of flat Arab bread. She was carrying home proper baguettes.

***

Security was tight everywhere. Before appearing on Algerian television, the car in which I was being driven was stopped at the barricaded entrance to the broadcasting centre, the bonnet and trunk opened and inspected by guards. The same routine happened every time I entered the hotel I was staying. And the police presence was constant on the streets, on the roads (all the motorcycle cops riding BMWs), outside every important ministry or embassy, usually with officers carrying submachine guns. I frequently saw armed officers simply standing on a traffic island in a residential area, holding a somewhat futuristic object: a long rigid filament attached to a plastic handle, which they pointed towards every passing vehicle.

“What are they trying to detect?” I asked my driver.

“Explosives” he said quietly.

On the Culture Club programme on Canal Algerie, I was sharing the platform with Moussa Haddad, one of the country’s most esteemed film directors. He is seventy-seven years old, intellectually alert, engaged, so clearly curious about life. He told me he began his career as Gillo Pontocorvo’s second assistant on one of the great classic films of the 1960s, The Battle of Algiers. He’s on the programme today to promote his new film – Harraga Blues – which is about youth dissatisfaction “in a country where seventy-five percent of our young people would emigrate… if they could.”

Opposite him is Ahmed Bedjaoui, who presented the CineClub programme on Algerian television and turns out to have read all my novels. When he asks me if what he describes as my ‘highly visual prose style’ has been influenced by the cinema, I note that all writers from the 1920s onwards have had their imagination infiltrated by the movies. And I mention how Graham Greene (one of my great influences) was a film critic in London at the start of his literary career. To which Ahmed adds:

“And you know he was sued by Shirley Temple for giving her a bad review.”

I looked at him, bemused, delighted. A fellow film junkie. And with that we were off chatting animatedly about Hitchcock, and the use of Greek myth in John Ford’s “The Searchers”, and the underrated oeuvre of that master of the psychological western, Anthony Mann. As we talked I found myself thinking: and I once categorized this place as a closed society.

Just before the programme began recording, Moussa Haddad leaned over and asked:

“American, yes?”

“A New York boy” I replied.

He smiled at that.

“And here you are, talking literature and cinema in Algiers”.

Then he reached over and squeezed my arm and said:

“Thank you.”

***

I discovered that I have a significant readership here. Over one hundred people attended my public interview at the Salon du Livre. The conversation lasted an hour, after which there were many questions about writing, about how a narration is fashioned, and most especially about the theme of self-entrapment, which runs through my oeuvre.

During the signing afterwards, one reader – a man in his forties – told me:

“When I read your books I think: how does this man know my dilemmas?”

Another reader asked me which Philip Roth novel is my favorite (American Pastoral). And a third had a copy of Jean Echenoz’s Ravel in a pile of books under his arm.

Just about every reader wanted a photograph with me. Of course I was happy to oblige. Of course I was overwhelmed by the interest. And amazed to be introduced to a blind man who told me his neighbor reads to him my books. And who, gripping my hand, said:

“It is very good to have you among us.”

All the other foreign writers I spoke to at the Salon – French, Canadian, Peruvian – reported the same thing when it came to meeting their Algerian readers: an interest and an engagement and a need to ask probing serious questions. Something I encountered myself again as I was leaving the salon for dinner. Four young men stopped me, asking for a photograph together. One of them told me they were students of francophone and anglophone literature at one of the universities in Algiers – and, as such, were very pleased to meet me. And then another of the students asked me a hugely direct question:

“Do you think there is actual democracy in the United States?”

I thought about this for several moments

“Yes America is democratic, and no it is isn’t. It has its strengths and its failings like most countries. But it does try hard to maintain the democratic ideal in a world where that word is one with many disparate interpretations. And how would you define your own country on the democratic spectrum?”

Without a nanosecond of reflection he said:

“Democracy may not be the answer here. But what concerns me is justice and tolerance. If we can have justice, if we can have tolerance… well, we may have a chance.”

***

Justice. Tolerance. The words stayed with me. Especially as I had read up on the FLN – which remains, with its sister party, the National Democratic Rally, the majority force in the parliament. I knew much about the cadres who ran everything, the way power and money were concentrated in the hands of a small elite, the way the military was behind most major governmental decisions, the huge cash reserves thanks to Algeria’s immense oil and gas reserves, the quiet talk of censorship and surveillance, the sense that, indeed, there were civil liberty issues that most of us in the West would find, at best, difficult to defend.

That night, over dinner with a group of people from the Salon at a restaurant which would not have been out of place in some hilly corner of the Cote d’Azur (and where most of the Algerians were drinking wine with the foreign writers), I had a fantastic conversation with forty-something gentleman named Karim, whose sartorial style was BoBo, who taught French literature, and had a wit and literary sensibility that I immediately found engaging. He too spoke about “the nightmare” of the 1990s and how the situation, though in no way ideal, had considerably improved since then.

“Strange, isn’t it, how fundamentalism has become such a global phenomenon” he said, and he asked me considerable amount of questions about the Christian fundamentalists (among whom I’d traveled in Au Pays de Dieu), and whether their political power was, in the post George W. Bush era, waning.

When I spoke about how the changing demographic was beginning to work against them, but that the US still was entrenched in a culture war between the secularists and the Manichean religious right, he grew animated and said:

“Secular Islam! Secular Islam! That was the Islam practiced by my parents and grandparents. And we co-existed well with it. Life before the fanatics. I remember it well. Still what we have here now… well, the nightmare has receded. For the moment”.

Later that night, thinking through the day over a drink in the hotel bar, I couldn’t help but cross-reference Karim’s comment about ‘life before the fanatics’ with that student’s statement, “Democracy may not be the answer here”, and the fact that the Arab Spring had passed Algeria by. And this, in turn, led me to ponder:
Does democracy work everywhere? Or, to spin it in a different direction, do we in the West often engage in massive oversimplification by thinking that our systems will bring about the necessary transformations in societies that have been so battered and maimed by internecine violence? Or is that, in turn, genuflecting towards the cadres and the military men who keep at bay the ecclesiastical baddies we in the West don’t like?
I’m a novelist, not a political scientist – and what interests me when it comes to socio-economic-religious pressures within a culture are the impact they have on the communal and individual psyche. And I am also one who eschews a Manichean approach to larger moral and ethical questions, especially when it comes to a society not my own. But the subtext of so much I was hearing from the hugely informed and intelligent community I was encountering in Algiers could be best summed up as:

No, the governing elite are not (to borrow a line from Candide) the best of all possible worlds. But they are much better than the alternative on offer.

Which, in turn, led me to wonder: if I was an Algerian writer, and one who had seen friends murdered or disappeared during the years of communal fratricide, might I not think as well: “ am drinking a glass of very good Algerian wine at this very civilized restaurant with women friends who have careers and whose faces are not veiled from view. In short… yes we’ve made a Faustian Pact with the governing elite. But it’s one that can be lived with.”

And another part of me thought: we in the West forget how pampered we are when it comes to not having to grapple with such a question on a quotidian basis.

***

A trip west along the coast to Tipaza. I was here to do an event for the Salon, but also to be interviewed at the local outpost of Algerian radio. The interviewer was a young woman in a hijab (a headscarf that covers the head and neck, but leaves the face clear) who spoke Berber Arabic – which is the predominant local dialect around here. While on the air another journalist from the station translated her questions for me into French. I answered back in French and then my answers were simultaneously re-spoken by the presenter in Berber Arabic, The presenter was certainly very knowledgeable about my books – and when the interview was finished I remarked to her:

“Imagine – an American novelist being interviewed in French in Tipaza and being translated into Berber Arabic. That’s something of a first for me.”

“And for us too!” she said with a laugh.

Tipaza was a city with great seaside charm. And a coastline that was a revelation. Rocky epic grandeur, an Edward Hopper-ish lighthouse perched on a jagged cliff top, a sweep of shoreline whose cragginess recalled the corner of Maine I call home. It is naturally a great fishing port, but also the place where residents of metropolitan Algiers come to breathe salt-scented air and find space and a sense of natural wonder. There was a beach where families were swimming and building sand castles and soaking up the summer sun. And walking along a somewhat vertiginous cliff top, I was brought to a small monument, upon which was the following citation:

“Je comprends ici ce on’appelle gloire: le droit d’aimer sans mesure.”

The author of this quote was, of course, Albert Camus – who, though born in Dréan (then known to Mondovi) to a pied-noir family, is very much considered here to be an Algerian writer. My guide told me that this was one of Camus’ favoured spots during his years in Algiers and that he wrote Noces à Tipaza – his great personal meditation on his relationship with the natural world – from the time he spent walking along this same coastal promontory on which I now stood.

Another thought struck me: we turn to the natural world to escape from the dense complexities, the arguments, the rivalries, the mutually ruinous fighting that can so characterize temporal life. No wonder, in this early work (1936) from his oeuvre, Camus spoke with such passion about the larger existential implications of this ravishing corner of the Algerian coast:

“Yet people have often told me: there is nothing to be proud of. Yes, there is: this sun, this sea, my heart leaping with youth, the salt taste of my body and this vast landscape in which tenderness and glory merge in blue and yellow.”

***

Of course I knew, during my days in Algiers, that I was breathing rarefied air. A splendid old-school hotel, literate, engaged intellectuals for company, a driver to ferry me around, interviews on television and the radio with hugely smart people, a trip down the coast, food in splendid restaurants

And yet another world existed just moments away from this upscale veneer. Turn most corners in Algiers and you would find yourself facing an HLM, replete with hundreds of satellite dishes (to ensure reception of French television) and an air of social dishevelment, or an elderly apartment block beginning to crumble, festooned with hanging laundry and a sense of communal overcrowding. Unlike the West where we ghettoize the underclass in quartiers far from our more upscale lives, here wealth and mendicancy were always in close proximity.

And then, deep within the city centre, was the casbah. I was told that I should be taken in there by a guide – not because of any threat of grievous bodily harm, but because it was so mazy, so dense in its layout, that I could easily get lost in its web.

My guide was named Habib. A man in his late sixties – tall, elegant, at ease in the world. He himself grew up in the casbah and – as such – knew it intimately. We liked each other immediately. And he was so exceptionally knowledgeable about this corner of the city and finding a way through its tangle.

Forget the touristic gaudiness of the Marrakesh or Cairene souks. Forget the omnipresent merchants shoving rugs and hookahs in your face on Tunisian beaches. The Algier casbah was a working quarter; a place where so many lives were being played out under the most difficult of circumstances, but where an immense sense of the aesthetic (especially when it came to hidden elegant riads, the occasional, magnificently renovated hidden house, the carved Berber doorways, the exquisitely tiled fountains) was contrasted with the impoverishment I encountered in so many corners of this labyrinth.

And a labyrinth it was – and one which Habib knew with the assurance of an expert cartographer. Deeper and deeper we plunged into its extremities, negotiating an obstacle course of vegetable stalls and the hanging carcasses of meat in a butcher’s stall, shooting down a tiny laneway that led to a hidden mosque, Habib bringing me past a street of hammams, then running into one of his friends, a middle-aged Imam who greeted Habib with a hug, and was then introduced to me, saying:

“Our prophet says we must always welcome our Christian neighbours- so my welcome to you.”

We began to chat “dans la langue de Molière.” And halfway through the conversation the Imam said:

“Good French for an American!”

The casbah was overwhelming not just because of the web-like complexity, but because all life spilled out here on to the street, the laneway, the back alleyway. Habib brought me to a small café where I had excellent, hyper-strong Café Arabica and a splendid croissant (the French influence still runs deep in the casbah as well). While there Habib opened his shoulder bag and showed me a series of photos taken of him while on the haj to Mecca; photos that included some French friends who (though not allowed in Mecca) did tour around those parts of Saudi Arabia in which non-Muslims were permitted to visit. Just as we showed each other pictures of our respective children and spoke about how travel was, among other things, about peering beyond the distrust we engender in each other from afar.

***

Just beyond the café was a low-lying compound, framed by high walls.

“This was the prison where several French communists were guillotined during the 1950s for supplying weapons to Algerian rebels”, Habib said with no hint of emotion. But then in the softest of voices, he recited each of their names, paused between each surname, as if cadencing his recitation with a drumbeat (all I could think of was that astonishing final scene in Poulenc’s Dialogue des Carmelites when the nuns sing the “Ave Maria”, their angelic harmony interrupted by the dull thud of the guillotine as each of them are led to the scaffold).

“The past is, of course, the past,” he said. “Yet the casbah was the centre of the insurgency back in the fifties and sixties. It was the safe haven which no one could properly infiltrate.”

We entered a tall narrow building, with a carpenter’s shop on the ground floor. Habib knew all the men who worked here. Introductions were made, handshakes rendered. Then we climbed a tiny, most vertiginous set of stairs, and emerged on a rooftop. Below us the entire wide screen panorama that was Algiers stretched out like a grand, hyper-ambitious fresque: the interplay of water and land, its banked quartiers, the intermingling of minarets with great colonial architectural showpieces; the absolute narrow density of the casbah’s streets, the wide expansive boulevards, the seemingly infinite sweep of the Mediterranean, the sense that I was bearing witness to an urbis mirabilis; a testament to our great human capacity for beauty and vision and enterprise, and yet a city whose history also seems to encapsulate our equal capacity for brutality and fury and destruction.

“Thank you for these extraordinary few hours” I said to Habib. “I would never have found my way here otherwise.”

“You can get lost in a labyrinth and find it intoxicating” he said. “But to actually find your way out of a labyrinth… well, yes you can do it yourself. But isn’t it always more interesting in the company of someone who knows the way out?”

“But, on a certain level, we all have to figure the way out,” I noted.

To which Habib, surveying Algiers below, replied:

“But how many of us actually ever do that?”