Wednesday, October 31, 2007

C'mon Fellas! Its all Ball-Bearings These Days!

I have been waiting for a sunny day to take some pictures around the Glycines, because there are a few nice little gardens with flowers and lime trees and vine-y canopies, but some system seems to have taken up residence over the city and it just rains everyday. Maybe the clouds are having a tough time getting their travel visas from the Algerian government.

At any rate, I do not really feel like commenting more about the karaoke experience other than to say that it was surprisingly fun, way better than French karaoke, where everyone is serious and a jerk about groups who can't really sing. Here the dudes (like any public space in Algeria, it was exclusively dudes outside of our group) were serious about their singing but had a great time plowing through hits with our group of no-talent yahoos. Now if only I could have snuck in a quart of Popov vodka and a SOBE iced tea of some kind we would have had a real party, Elvis?! stylie (embrace the interrobang).

There is an international book "salon" in Algiers starting tomorrow, and I'm pretty excited about going. Its a big deal here in the capital, tons of publishers and tons of books. Don't worry, the organizers have assured the population, through an interview in the newspaper Al-Watan, that they have barred "objectionable" books from the salon.

Whew! Would hate to read anything bad about the government or Islam. Although that isn't really fair, because there is a new vogue in Algerian history that examines the Berber resistance to the colonizing Arabs (and their religion) about a thousand years ago. It is a step in a pretty good direction, it seems. Not that Berber nationalism is any better than other nationalisms, but publishing books like this helps establish the legitimacy of plural identities.

Just one more note: I know everyone is curious about what it is like to be a foreign minister or cultural minister in the Algerian government. Well, good thing there have been various reports lately, and we have gathered that it mainly consists of taking long "working trips" to France to "establish ties" to various French bureucrats, all with an expense budget not available to the public.

And don't worry, if you somehow manage to go eight times in one year - as has the current finance minister - and fail to develop any cooperative projects with France, you will probably still be rewarded for your service to the country with a cushy seat on the Water Resources Oversight Board, from which you can give no-bid contracts to your buddies in the "private" sector. Its actually not dissimilar from being Vice President of the United States (or was that too easy?).

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Gotta have some faith in the sound

This is just to say: if there was any question about my ability to pull off a George Michael song at an Algerian karaoke cafe, dead sober, let it be put to rest. I totally owned "Freedom" last night. Let no one tell you otherwise. In'cha'allah I'll have video to prove it before too long.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Havlicek Stole the Ball!

Scored my first win against the Algerian administration today. Of course, this puts the series at about 4-1 in favor of the Bureaucrats, an unenviable position for any team to be in. Good thing this series is open-ended (maybe best out of 173?). I managed to get the right day, the right time, the right building, and the right official. What was my reward, you ask? A list. Yep, I got the official list of things I need for the residency card.

Among the necessaries are: 10 photos; photocopy of my housing contract; some kind of note from the ambassador; and three separate medical certificates. But at least I have the list. I was told by a few people that if one shows up with all this stuff one will be sent away to get more things; but if you show up and ask for the list first, then you can get the items on said list and it’ll be over. Hopefully that’s the case. Let’s hope my tuberculosis test comes back negative.

I also had a pretty good chwarma today, the best sandwich I’ve had thus far (and way better than that illegitimate “King” of chicken). With the chwarma I had Algeria’s (maybe France's or Spain's?) finest cola, a Selecto (or, translating the Arabic, a “seeleectoo”). It was probably the sweetest soda I’ve ever tasted, and that includes all those ginger beers I love to drink. I wish I could describe the flavor, but it escapes me…let’s say cola mixed with some kind of super-sweet red kool-aid.

And to add to the cultural firsts, what passed me on the street while I was enjoying my post-bureaucratic victory feast but an extended-cab pickup. The make (model?) was difficult to read as it went by, but it was something along the lines of “Wingles,” and the model (make?), proudly displayed on the back, was “Great Wall.” It looked like a Toyota (or, now that I think about it, a Tata) to me. That China, man, where can't it export?

It has also been raining here every night for the past four days or so, and has gotten quite cold. I’m told the best garment I can buy for the fast-approaching winter weather is this specifically Berber kind of hooded cape-thing. Everyone knows that I love capes and hooded jackets in various guises, but I still think that person was lying to me. The Berber Rai (a kind of popular music, think drunken men in bars, wearing jean jackets and dancing with their hands in the air) dudes wear these when they get famous and go to France to show how “authentic” they are. I guess a jean-jacket doesn’t say “Kabyle” to the world music crowd.

Tune in next time for a peak at where I live.

Monday, October 22, 2007

You Can't get There from Here

It has been a frustrating few days around here. My Arabic class welcomed a whole cohort of Algerians who need to bone up on their FusHa, so now about half the class actually speaks Arabic and demands we spend time debating obscure grammatical rules. Meanwhile I don’t understand a single word, let alone the different ways to structure Idaafaa…but I guess I’ll just keep plugging away and continue to be the idiot American, and maybe I’ll pick something up in the next month or so. To be positive: I get to witness a new culture’s (terrible) pedagogy. At least I have Al-Kitab and Maha to help me through.

I also spent about an entire day walking around trying to find the correct offices for the carte de residence. I don’t want to overplay the Kafka “Castle” angle here, but c’mon. One office tells me to go the Bureau des Etrangers. The Bureau is often closed. I get there the other day and it is finally open. I wait in a line to talk to reception. The nice woman tells me that, well, duh, this is only the place to prolong visas, not to apply for a residence card. For the card I have to go to my local police commissariat, wherever that may be.

I then asked around the Glycines, got directions to the commissariat, and started out. There are police on every corner of this city, so as I’m walking I ask the way. I get new directions. I get directions conflicting those I just received a block ago. I start an argument among a group of cops about how to get to the commissariat. I finally find some guys who figure it out among themselves and give me working directions.

This is the afternoon now, and I’ve been walking for hours. I find my way to the commissariat, wait while the reception ladies have a lengthy personal chat with their buddy who has come in to say hi, and then ask to be directed to the bureau that handles residence cards. “Oh my” they say “that office is only open for a few hours in the morning.” Of course it is.

There is something about the ineffectual administration of this country that has to do with colonialism and oil, I think. The French colonial regime (and most importantly the settlers who had political power by the 20th century) never allowed an indigenous educated elite to develop, frightened as they were by any pretenders to their power.

So when a conglomerate of violent factions managed to kick the French out, there was no “organic intellectuals,” no middle class, no civil society to speak of. After independence the FLN turned itself into a new military elite, stifling any new competition and consolidating its power. National myths built around a few popular warlords helped legitimize the military dictatorship masquerading itself as a socialist state. Its tough to have a socialist state with no society.

This state was not beholden to the population, however, because nearly the entire income of Algeria came from oil, and it still does. The state doesn’t have to tax the population, and therefore has little incentive to provide anything for the population (like, say, an operable administrative apparatus). 97% of Algeria’s revenue currently comes from oil, while the sector only employs 2% of the population. The state continues to be run by a virtual oligarchy of families the patriarch of which were top FLN officials 40 years ago, and “private industry” (which might otherwise put pressure on the state to better administer the country) is the province of the sons of those men.

So we have a situation where a military/political elite has maintained itself through oil revenues while at the same time abstracting itself further and further from the administration of the country and the concerns of the population. Throw in the threat of “terrorism” to help the state maintain its military stranglehold on the country in lieu of providing the population with any other services (“we would build you better schools, but, you know, we have to spend all our money on security”) and you have the makings of one terribly run country. But hey, at least the DVDs are cheap.

If anyone wants to read further about the travails of dealing with an ineffectual bureaucratic hierarchy as it pertains to the administration of a country, just wait a few years and I'll send you a copy of my dissertation.

P.S. As far as I can tell Irvine isn't burning to the ground right now. Everybody get a bucket and let's keep it that way, huh? I can't believe I don't want Irvine razed...its YOUR fault, you know.

Friday, October 19, 2007

I'll have coleslaw with that

The trip to the depths of state regulatory power didn’t work quite as I wanted it to, since the Bureau des Etrangers is closed Thursdays and Fridays, as I found out after I walked all the way down there. To quote Tenacious D: “All you people up there, in City Hall/Are fuckin it up for the people that’s in the streets.” I did manage to get more of the stuff that I will eventually need, however, like something called a timbre fiscale (a stamp of some kind) and a whole grip of identity photos, or, I guess, passport photos (do I really need 10? Well, yes. Really).

I also had a nice long talk with the two people who work at the photo shop. I asked for identity photos, they said sure. While the lady was getting the camera set up she asked if it was for a passport or visa, to which I replied it was for a residence card. She looked surprised and said, “oh, you’re Spanish, I see,” to which I replied that no, I am (was? What’s the correct grammar here?) American. She was stunned and the news quickly spread to the guy working with her.

The fun started there as I had to explain why the hell I was in Algeria, tell them about how I even knew anything about their country (“because we have lots of oil and you have none, right?”), and fend off marriage proposals (the lady stormed off in mock disappointment when I said I wasn’t on the market for a wife, which was fun for all. Also: “its ok, in Algeria everyone has to have more than one wife,” “oh yeah?” “Yes, have you seen what happens to the women after they get married?”). It was fun, they told me all about the country and all the different people here. I also found out that I look “more Kabyle than American” (the Kabylie being a region in the east that produces a bunch of redheads with freckles and even more brunets with blue eyes...and Zinedine Zidane).

For a moment I questioned whether to just agree with the pronouncement of my Spanish-ness or tell the woman that I’m from the States. I do think, however, that things are never going to turn around in the world if two things don’t happen: 1) the US stops getting up in everyone’s business, politically, economically, and militarily (i.e. we stop beating around the Bush (ugh) and finally elect Kucinich (holy crap Word recognizes Kucinich!), whom everyone knows has all the best ideas for change, which is why he’s constantly marginalized by the media (along with the other candidate with serious thoughts about policy: Ron Paul); and 2) Americans who aren’t dickheads start actually telling people they are from the US. I’m sick of Canada getting all the recognition for having nice people.

I would like to put the interaction with the photo people in contrast to the interactions on the streets of the Casbah; “interactions,” that is, in the sense that men muttered and swore at me. Gainfully employed people are happier, more forgiving, and more curious in the world (I would argue) than the economically depressed. I guess I think that – adding to what I said above – redistribution of wealth (however one wants to accomplish that: through a massive state or a completely unfettered market (and I mean completely) or something else entirely) around the world wouldn’t be a bad thing.

Just a note: I had a chicken sandwich from the “King of Chicken” today, and it wasn’t very good. It seems that monarchies are tired systems. For my next sandwich I’m looking for “The Duly Elected Representative of Chicken.” Or hey, why not think big and hold that sandwich ‘til I find “The People’s Committee of Chicken” or “The Enlightened Dictator of Chicken.” Yeah, that’s good chicken…


Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Village to Castle

I get a pretty good view of the port from the terrace of the Glycines, and I can’t help but think about the sailors aboard those container ships that come in. How many are there per boat? A whole crew? And what’s it like coming into port these days? I think it is leagues from “comin’ into port” in my imagination, one fed by Pynchon novels and Tom Waits.

Shore leave probably has completely different connotations than it used to (or at least different from the way that Waits presents it in various songs on Rain Dogs/Bone Machine/etc. and Pynchon tells it in V and Mason & Dixon). I bet the degree is further removed when the port is Algiers instead of Singapore or Malta. I don’t know for sure, but I’ve been down by the port and not seen any bars or brothels or tattooed sailors or dwarfs or talking dogs. Maybe I’m just not looking hard enough.

I also got a chance to go to the Embassy of the United States of America, just up the road a bit on Embassy Lane. That is one secure compound, my friends. There are “gardens” with marble 4 foot high marble walls around the whole compound, the security section is at least 20 yards from the road, the whole thing is raised off the road, there are no direct driveways into the compound, and there is an army of guards with nothing to do but watch you walk on the winding (marble-walled) path to the security gate.

Then you get to security, where they take five minutes to inspect your passport, take another ID in exchange for an entrance badge, and send you over to the entrance. As with every door in the whole compound, you pull on it and it doesn’t move, then someone behind the tinted glass determines you are ok and unlocks the door. Once inside there is not only a metal detector and x-ray, but a pat-down and search of all your bags. They keep all cell-phones while you are in the compound.

After security there is a single path, once again littered with marble blocks and with what I am sure the communications department would call a “railing” but is more accurately described as a fence. Did I mention there are guards everywhere? Once again you go through the door dance, and upon being let into the consular section you sit in a highly air-conditioned room and wait upon your bureaucratic masters.

Again obscure, but for the record all the police/guards (not the military guys in camouflage but the other guys/ladies in blue) are shod in Adidas GSG9 Tactical Boots. For what its worth.

What this all really means is that tomorrow I get to start slogging through the Weberian nightmare that is the Algerian bureaucracy, as I have my lettres d’attestation and can now apply for a residency card. We’ll see if they actually make me get an x-ray to prove that I don’t have consumption. Let’s just hope I don’t develop a cough before then.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

At the end of the mRNA molecule is a region containing a self-complementary sequence

Last night I went out to dinner with a group of people, and realized what an odd situation I am in. I was eating in Algiers with a Cuban, two Frenchies, two Danes, a Polish woman, a German and an American, all speaking French, and the proprietor of the restaurant was a Ukranian guy who’s father was Algerian. Oh, and there were hamburgers on the menu.

I can’t decide if I feel good about it or bad, like I should really be out meeting more “real” Algerians, since as of now I know two (three if you count my Arabic instructor, although she was born in Lebanon). But again, I’ve only been here a week.

There are no working ATMs in this country. None. I have passed many in my wanderings, and not a single one is operational. I actually went into a bank yesterday and bought money with my credit card from an actual person! It was quite the experience. I had to go through those double-locking security doors where you get in between them and have to wait for the second door to open: you wait for a guy to look you over and, deciding you are legit, push a little button allowing the second door to open.

Then you have to put in a request to a man in a glass box, who will let you into the space with the credit card reader after you show him your passport; you then get a receipt for the money you bought, take it over to another guy in a different glass box, and he grabs you a big stack of cash. It took much longer than the ATM, but I actually interacted with people, which is something that one does increasingly little, it seems.

I started an Arabic class yesterday, one that is a bit above my level and taught, when not in Arabic, in French. I’m in there with a couple of nuns, who are pretty forgiving of my stumbling and smile a lot, and the wife of one of the Japanese consular officials.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Lots of Things

I defy anyone to walk around this town and not find traffic. Ok, I walked up the hill during Iftar one night and there was no one on the roads, but on the way back they were packed. Even yesterday, Eid al-Fitr (end of Ramadan), there was no one walking on the streets but cars (and NAFTAL stations, seemingly the only petrol company in Algeria, though I’m pretty sure that’s not true) everywhere.

I walked around the hill on which I live a little bit today, and every tiny street, whether going up or down, was packed with cars. Cars, mind you. It seems that the United States and Algeria have at least one thing in common that separates them from the rest of the world: no one drives scooters in either one. Really, I haven’t been anywhere outside of Aberdeen, South Dakota, that has fewer scooters on the road. And even Aberdeen has its legions of kids on crotch-rockets. I have seen, if I recall correctly, three motorcycles since arriving, and one of them was disassembled at a mechanic.

Yesterday, lounging on the terrace, I saw the largest flock of birds I have ever seen. It was more of a school of birds, or a caravan. They were tiny and a ways off, but the spectacle was not unlike tracing a line of ants from a pile of spilled lunch to their hill, which might be 100 yards off. I mean, these things just kept coming. They moved sporadically and were small, so let’s call them finches. At the end of the train there was this ball, this swirling mass of birds; anyone who has seen the “deep ocean” segment of Blue Planet can think of this mass as similar to the mass ball of fish that gets devoured by dolphins and diving birds and tuna, it was that dense.

Speaking of many of the same thing (cars, birds), there were tons of dead people in the movie I regretfully watched last night, Smokin' Aces. I do not recommend that anyone spend time on this bouillabaisse of poorly-drawn characters and violence, but if you can track it down I do recommend the one scene featuring everyone’s favorite, Jason Bateman.

It is about a 3 minute monologue and easily the best three minutes of the film, if not of Bateman’s career (that’s not to disparage his high-quality work on Arrested Development; in fact, the scene in this unfortunate movie is probably only so good in light of his work on that show). Here is a teaser, although it does not cover the best part of the scene:
I guess the lesson of the movie for you screen writers out there is that graphic violence, a handful of “colorful” characters, and a convoluted plot involving the FBI and the Mafia do not a good movie make. I can’t believe it took me this long to realize that. Ben Affleck’s “character” gets killed quite early, however, which must be a plus.

Friday, October 12, 2007

L'Amour fou

Took a walk down to the Casbah (a medina in Morocco, where a Casbah is a castle) today, which was an interesting experience. The structure of the casbah is not unlike the old medinas in Morocco; with the hills and stairs and constant up and down it seemed like Chefchaouan to me. The difference that I can tell is this: in Morocco it seems like you are just a walking dollar (or euro) sign. In the Algiers Casbah you are a walking symbol of ongoing injustice, however perceived.

There is no touristic structure that allows one to comfortably exploit people’s ways of life for entertainment; in the A.Cas. you really do not belong, and people let you know: at least twice I was called a fascist (in French) and any number of other angrily spoken names in Arabic. I have never felt more out of bounds. I think it really speaks to a couple hundred odd years of exploitation and direct, violent colonialism, followed by an international economic and cultural situation that marginalizes whole populations to a degree it is difficult for me to understand.

All of that and yet a very nice man, Sidi Mahmoud Azziz, invited us up to see the Casbah and the city from the top of his building, which we did. He was very friendly and said when he was on vacation in Marseille some people invited him to their homes and so he likes to do the same. The view was spectacular (see photos):

Needless to say that was a great kindness that was quite opportune, and served as a reminder to stop for a second when you find your mind categorizing people without knowing them or anything about them. Like the woman who gave us directions said, in a different context: “on doit faire attention.”

There was also a massive thunderstorm, abating about now, that fell just after we arrived back at the Glycines. Thunder, lightening, strike! Ok Go! Alright, perhaps that reference didn’t work out so well, but it was (and continues to be) pretty awesome, with tons of lightening and it actually hailed for about 20 minutes. I got two pictures after the rain: