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Dateline Algiers: The Desert and the Sea

What mysteries, beauties and cultural wonders is the city of Algiers home to?

December 12, 2007

What mysteries, beauties and cultural wonders is the city of Algiers home to?

The city is large, sunny, spread out broadly, amphitheatrically, around the bay. One must constantly climb uphill or down. There are stylish French streets and bustling Arab ones. All about is a Mediterranean mixture of architectural styles, clothing and customs. Everything sparkles, smells, intoxicates, exhausts. Everything arouses curiosity, draws one in, fascinates — but also makes one anxious.

If you are tired, you can sit down in one of the hundreds of Arab or French cafés. You can eat in one of the hundreds of bars or restaurants. Because the sea is close by, there are plenty of fish on the menus and untold delicacies of frutti di mare — crustaceans, clams, cephalopods, octopi, oysters.

But Algiers is first and foremost a place where two cultures meet and coexist — the Christian and the Arab. The history of this coexistence is the history of this city (although, of course, it also has other, much older historical chapters — Phoenician, Greek, Roman).

Moving inevitably in the shadow of either a church or a mosque, the Algiers resident is continually made aware of the winding borderline between the two realms.

Take downtown. Its Arab section is called the Casbah. You enter it walking uphill, along wide stone steps — dozens of them. But the stairs are not the problem: The difficulty is the sense of intrusion we feel as we venture deeper into the Casbah’s recesses. But do we really look into and try to penetrate those hidden corners?

Or do we instead hurry along, intent on extricating ourselves from an uncomfortable, somewhat awkward situation — for we have noticed dozens of pairs of motionless eyes, importunately attentive, watching us as we walk? Are we perhaps only imagining it? Could it be that we are oversensitive?

Why are we indifferent when someone stares at us on a French street? Why does it not bother us then, or cause us discomfort, whereas here in the Casbah it does? The eyes are similar, after all, likewise the act of observing — and yet we react to the two situations in such dissimilar ways.

When we finally emerge from the Casbah and find ourselves once more in a French neighborhood, we may not breathe an audible sigh of relief, but we certainly feel lighter, more at ease, more natural. Why can we not control these latent, even subconscious, attitudes and emotions? For thousands of years, all over the world — nothing?

A foreigner who might have arrived in Algiers on the same day as I did would not have realized that something as important as a coup d’etat had taken place the previous night and that the internationally popular Ben Bella had been ousted by an unknown who, as would soon become apparent, was the introverted, taciturn commander of the army, Houari Boumedienne.

The entire business was carried out at night, far from the center of town, in an exclusive villa neighborhood called Hydra — and in that part of it, moreover, that is occupied by the government and the generals and thus inaccessible to ordinary pedestrians.

One could not hear the shots or explosions in the city itself. There were no tanks in the streets, no marching troops. In the morning, people drove or walked to work as usual, shopkeepers opened their shops, vendors set up their stalls and bartenders invited one in for morning coffee.

Superintendents doused the sidewalks to give the city a bit of moist freshness in advance of the noontime heat. Buses roared terrifyingly as they struggled to scale steep streets.

It was only then that I began to see Algiers as one of the most fascinating and dramatic places on earth. In the small space of this beautiful but congested city intersected two great conflicts of the contemporary world. The first was the one between Christianity and Islam (expressed here in the clash between colonizing France and colonized Algeria).

The second, which acquired a sharpness of focus immediately after the independence and departure of the French, was a conflict at the very heart of Islam, between its open, dialectical — I would even venture to say “Mediterranean” — current and its other, inward-looking one, born of a sense of uncertainty and confusion vis-a-vis the contemporary world, guided by fundamentalists who take advantage of modern technology and organizational principles yet at the same time deem the defense of faith and custom against modernity as the condition of their own existence, their sole identity.

Algiers, which at its beginnings was a fishing village, and later a port for Phoenician and Greek ships, faces the sea. But right behind the city, on its other side, lies a vast desert province that is called “the bled” here, a territory claimed by peoples professing allegiance to the laws of an old, rigidly introverted Islam.

In Algiers one speaks simply of the existence of two varieties of Islam — one, which is called the Islam of the desert and a second, which is defined as the Islam of the river (or of the sea).

The first is the religion practiced by warlike nomadic tribes struggling to survive in one of the world’s most hostile environments, the Sahara. The second Islam is the faith of merchants, itinerant peddlers, people of the road and of the bazaar — for whom openness, compromise and exchange are not only beneficial to trade, but necessary to life itself.

Under colonialism, both these strains of Islam were united by a common enemy, but later they collided.

Ben Bella was a Mediterranean man, educated in French culture, open-minded and conciliatory by nature. Local Frenchmen referred to him in conversation as a Muslim of the river and of the sea.

Boumedienne, on the contrary, was the commander of an army which for years had fought in the desert, had its bases and camps there, drew its recruits from there, and took advantage of the support and help proffered by the nomads, people of the oases and of desert mountains.

The two men differed even in their appearance. Ben Bella was always well-groomed, elegant, refined, courteous, smiling amiably. When Boumedienne appeared for the first time in public after the coup, he looked like a tank commander who had just stepped out of his conveyance, covered in the sands of the Sahara. He did try to smile, but without much success. It was simply not his style.

In Algiers I saw the Mediterranean Sea for the first time. I saw it up close. I could dip my hand into it, feel its touch. I didn’t have to ask for directions. I knew that just by walking downward, then down some more, I would eventually reach it. It was everywhere, visible from afar, glimmering from behind various buildings, appearing at the bottoms of steep streets.

At the very bottom was the port district, with simple wooden bars all in a row, smelling of fish, wine and coffee. But it was the tart scent of the sea that was most noticeable — a gentle, calming refreshment carried on each gust of the wind.

I had never been in a city where nature is so kind to man. For it offered everything all at once — the sun, a cooling breeze, the brightness of the air, the silver of the sea.

The sea seemed familiar to me, perhaps because I had read so much about it. Its smooth waves signified fine weather, peace, something like an invitation to travel and experience. One had the urge to join those two fishermen over there, who were just setting sail.

Editor’s Note: Copyright 2007 Knopf Publishers. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher.