This is a post that should have gone up six months ago. Better late than never. I spent two weeks in Algeria last May-June, my first trip there in twenty-five years. I had originally intended to write a lengthy commentary on my impressions of the country after such a long absence; in lieu of that, I will simply link to two albums of photos I took (N.B. the above pic is not mine). The first album here is of Algiers and environs, where I spent most of the two weeks. The second here is of a three-day road trip I took with my friend Hacene, who lives in the Paris area but happened to be in Algeria when I was there—he’s an Algiers native and has an entrepreneurial activity there—and informed me that he was going to take me out east, to show me a part of Algeria I didn’t know. So we went to Constantine (not my first time there), then to Batna, in the Aurès, where we spent the night, and then the next day to nearby Timgad, which has to be the least visited large Roman ruin on the African continent (and to which Carthage does not hold a candle). From there we headed to Biskra via the secondary route, past the Balcons de Ghoufi—the Ghoufi canyon—which, again, has to be one of the more spectacular natural sites that practically no one has seen, as Algeria has never encouraged tourism and has no tourist infrastructure to speak of. Even Hacene, who did part of his military service in Batna in the 1970s, had never been to the Ghoufi canyon. To go there one needs a car but also for it to be a destination.
From Biskra, where we spent the night, we headed back to Algiers along the edge of the Sahara, stopping in Tolga—which is one of the larger palm groves in the country—and then via the High Plateau, briefly stopping in Bou Saâda. I’ve added legends to the photos, which may be seen in small print on the bottom or in clicking on the info icon on the top right.
I have much to say about Algeria, of course, but will limit myself here to five short comments. First, the country is safe. And it feels so. The security forces are everywhere. Their presence in no way feels sinister or oppressive (as was, e.g., the case in Syria on my visits there in years past). They’re there to protect the population. And the state, of course.
Second—and in this vein—Algeria is politically stable (and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise). There is little to no prospect, in the foreseeable future at least, that the country will witness state collapse or descend once again into the civil strife and violence such as it experienced in the 1990s. Algerians are traumatized by that decade—which they call “the years of terrorism,” during which 40 to 60,000 persons suffered violent death—and are not about to repeat the experience. The society is conservative and religiously pious but there is no threat from jihadist or other extremist groups, which—apart from armed bands in the desert and other remote areas—have been smashed or brought to heel. In this respect, the situations in Tunisia and Morocco—with the sizable numbers of jihadists returning from the Middle East—are more preoccupying. When Algeria’s current president finally passes away, an orderly succession will be organized. And life will go on.
Third, the status of women has evolved significantly since my time in the country in the late 1980s-early 1990s and for the better. Women are present in public space in a way they weren’t in the past, and not just in the capital but in the interior of the country as well (e.g. even in Batna one sees groups of women in outdoor cafés, which was inconceivable two decades ago). And while the great majority cover their hair and wear some kind of hijab (in gay colors)—but with a visible minority in Algiers not veiling—the haïk (face veil) has all but disappeared and the somber black salafist jilbab is a rarity. And old codes of honor in regard to the virginity of women at marriage are a thing of the past for much of urban society.
Fourth, the country remains totally dependent on rentier income from hydrocarbon (oil and natural gas) exports. There is no economic dynamic otherwise, despite significant liberalization and dismantling of public enterprises. But while there’s the usual corruption a sizable portion of the rent finds its way to the population at large. There is no grinding poverty in Algeria such as one sees in Morocco. And the entire country appears to be a construction site. There are chantiers everywhere, even in hamlets in the middle of nowhere. Also, the country’s catastrophic water shortages are a distant memory. The water flows in fountains in Algiers, something one did not see way back when.
Fifth, there has been a marked decline in the French language. When I lived in Algiers in 1989-90, practically everyone spoke French at some level, and with many speaking it fluently. Algeria was the most Francophone country in the world where French was not the native language of the population. One did not need to speak Arabic at all to communicate with people, in Algiers, Oran, and other large cities at least (and in the Kabylie of course). Such is no longer the case. The younger generation—which, for me, means those under age 45—no longer speaks French with any degree of proficiency, and particularly in the interior of country. But somewhat paradoxically, French is much more visible than in the past. From the 1970s through the ’90s—when the language issue was highly politicized, of Arabophones vs. Francophones—French was largely proscribed in signage and advertising (such as this existed in the era of “specific socialism”). But that ended when Abdelaziz Bouteflika—an unrepentant Francophone—acceded to the presidency in 1999. So all stores now have bilingual signs, even in places like Biskra, where hardly anyone actually speaks French.
There is much more to say about all of this. I’ll come back to the subject at a future date.