Saturday, 1 June 2019

algiers | words and visuals

roman ruins at tipasa, algeria
a saturday in early march found us at the algerian consulate in london. finding it took some effort since it is located near a business park and there is little by way of markings for direction. it was a metaphor for the application process itself because the links on the visa section do not direct one to the required information and often refused to work. when i called the consulate, i was informed that the volume of application traffic could be the reason for this.  a combination of advice from our friends l and a and some persistence led to completed applications. our passports were returned to us in ten days with a tourist visa for single entry in april.

in the last few years, the travel that omair and i have enjoyed the most has been to old familiar places (like summer holidays with the blezat family in the south of france) or cities and towns that are not on the tourist map (like carovigno in puglia, a small town that lies on the periphery of popular ones like monopoli and ostuni).there was a sense of newness which neither of us had felt in a long time. take for instance the afternoon that omair parked up outside an unassuming little restaurant near torre santa sabina. we had to order by gesticulating and using google translate. i still remember the red and white checked table cloth with a clear plastic cover on which we had the juiciest steak garnished with large shavings of parmesan and a sparse scatter of arugula. i doubt we would have chosen to visit algiers on our own had it not been for l whose work has taken her to this city by the sea. and that was how our april sojourn came about.  

the most striking feature of our landing was the long curve of the mediterranean sea. the shadowy outline of the atlas mountains ran as a grey-purple smudge to one side. driving into the city, we were struck by the similarities in landscape and architecture with countries on the continent (france and greece) and eurasia (turkey and pakistan). the buildings of flats on the outskirts of algiers reminded the three of us of government housing in pakistan, particularly in the g-sectors of islamabad. the djamaa el djazair (the great mosque of algiers) situated right next to the main road running into algiers stands out in both scale and design. we are told that it is a recent addition built by the chinese and is the largest mosque in africa and the third largest in the world. algeria (like other parts of africa) is part of china’s belt and road initiative. there is a sense of disquiet about it. it is said that the people of algiers would have preferred facilities such as schools and hospitals. and as we discovered over the next few days, there is no dearth of mosques in the city, mostly in residential and commercial neighbourhoods which makes sense from the point of view of easy accessibility. the heart of the city is markedly french – a mixture of paris and marseille. we walked along one of the streets towards emir abdelkader square where a statue of him seated on a horse raises itself to the sky. two elderly men are in intent conversation whilst a lady in a wheelchair flanked by two young girls sit and watch people pass by. in the 90’s, khaled’s song titled ‘abdelkader’ appeared on every party playlist in islamabad it was on this trip that i learnt that the rai music of which the song is an example comes from the city of oran in algeria and that the song itself celebrates the life of emir abdelkader who was a key figure in the algerian resistance against the french.
the statue of emir abdul kader

one morning we find ourselves on the road to tipasa. because we are travelling with our friend who is a diplomat, we were accompanied by gendarmerie (an armed police escort). omair who has a deep love for security personnel was particularly taken by this. i was struck by how friendly they were. tipasa was a roman colonia for the conquest of the kingdom of mauretania. it sits along the coast and is remarkably well maintained. the ruins we see include a main thoroughfare for carriages, a sophisticated system of drainage, baths, basilicas and an amphitheatre. the olive trees along here have deeply curved trunks facing away from the sea, shaped as they are by the wind. we are befriended by a guide in training with l as the interlocutor since he spoke french and we speak english. our explorations were followed by lunch where we shared plates of grilled swordfish, merguez sausages, fried sardines, fish soup and bread to mop with harissa and olive oil. afterwards, we bought handmade berber rugs in bright and lively patterns. most of them are large as they are meant to line the insides of tents but we found a handful of smaller ones that would work in a london flat. the wool was soft to touch and the symbols echo native american ones. we also visited selene ii’s tomb who was the only daughter of cleopatra and anthony.  

on our last day we walked the narrow streets of the casbah and visited notre-dame d'afrique the neo-byzantine church sits on a cliff that overlooks the bay of algiers and offers an uninterrupted panorama of the city and the sea. the church bears an unmistakable affinity with notre-dame de la garde in marseille but has a strong islamic aesthetic too that shows up as geometric patterns and calligraphic script. the keeper of the church was from burundi and he allowed us to take pictures surreptitiously. the caution against pictures was because some muslims take pictures and post them to facebook with a view to stirring up trouble. we were less fortunate with our visit to ketchaoua mosque. built by the ottomans and later altered by the french, it has been both mosque and cathedral. we had timed our visit carefully but were unable to gain access.  the doors were firmly shut and the gatekeeper was an ill-tempered man who refused to help us.
lunch at a worker's cafe in algiers
there was not much choice when eating out in algiers. there were lots of pizza places but little by way of restaurants. there were plenty of patisseries but very few with seats and service. the day that we roamed the casbah, we had lunch at what would be the equivalent of a dhaba or workers cafe. each table had a plastic crate topped with hunks of baguette. service was swift and efficient. a combination of a’s arabic language skills and pointing to other people's food brought shallow plates of peas and chickpeas with little nuggets of meat in gravy, rice and some brochettes to the table. it was gentle and hearty food.  harissa was the only condiment. at home, we had fidela’s couscous with chorba and bourek. we also split greedy sized ice-cream sundaes at noor el hani where the well-heeled class turn up for savouries, sweets and coffee.
notre-dame d'afrique
at the time of our visit, it had been a few weeks since president bouteflika had resigned. elections had been postponed and the protests that had been largely responsible for the shift in power were ongoing. even so, it felt remarkably calm. protests took place on friday after prayers and at this time the police presence was palpable. few people visit algeria mostly because of its bloody history. but this seems to cut both ways as the algerians themselves do not appear to have a desire to open themselves up. neither omair nor i knew what to expect but the city felt so familiar. this of course has to do with the history of the maghreb. the culture is distinctly mediterranean where the pace of life is slow and people sit around and watch.

it is difficult to say how politics will play out. some of the issues reminded us of pakistani politics; a very controlling military and elite class and of course concerns about debt for diplomacy. add to this a legacy of violence that implicates citizens much like in south africa and rwanda. it remains to be seen whether the amnesty that bouteflika implemented as national reconciliation will withstand his departure. conflict works in a similar fashion to history. it is circular and its touch points are of generational memory, retaliation, reprisal and in some cases forgiveness. on my way into algiers i was listening to rukmini callimachi's incisive investigative series into the islamic state and the fall of mosul called ‘the caliphate’. at some point in the series she talks about the difficulty of interventions into terrorism and conflict. intervening in conflict or not doing so cause different sets of problems. post-conflict reconciliation and justice originate from a place of terror and turmoil. i could not stop thinking about this throughout our trip given the history of algieria and how recent its memory of conflict is.

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