Sunday, March 16, 2008


Yesterday was truly an amazing day here in Algiers. Not because the bus I took was so packed that the doors couldn’t close and I ended up getting a free ride; not because at the commissariat de la police the Bureau des Etrangers guy looked up at me once, then went back to his work and grunted negations to all my questions about my carte de résidence (no, I can’t get it before I leave on Wednesday, sadly); not because it was about 85 degrees and muggy, with no wind, and there was a strange smell throughout the whole city; no, it was amazing because when I got up in the morning and went out on the balcony to look over the city, I couldn’t see the port for all the smog.

On the street in town it was possible to see the smog in the air above you. If there was an air-quality index here it would have read: unsafe for all. Or like in some Lord of the Rings movie, “The very air you breathe is like a poison to your lungs…” I’ve seen some bad smog in my day, from Los Angeles on a pretty daily basis to when I used to go up to Red Rocks to hike around and look down on Denver, the pressure zone against the mountain holding the pollution over the city like a dirty wool blanket, but I have never experienced anything like this. Breathing anywhere was difficult, even inside.

Not to worry, though, because the government has recently announced that it will stop giving new taxi licenses in the next year, to try to ease congestion. If you can figure out how that makes any sense I would love to know. Maybe the impending end of the oil age and civilization as we know it won't be such a bad thing...

In other news, I found out this weekend that sardines can be delicious. Call me ignorant, but I didn’t know that sardine was the name of the fish; I thought it was just the name of the tin filled with pickled fish of some kind. In Algiers they don’t do fish very well, that distinction is for Oran; however, they do do sardines, which in the traditional Algiers style are gutted, dipped in a spicy batter and then fried, and you eat them whole. This is a fisherman’s bar lunch here, and they are the perfect food to eat with beer. They also serve them with a peck of pickled peppers and tomatoes with onions and olive oil. It took a while, but I finally found the elusive delicious Algeroise cuisine…beer and sardines.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Oran Chrestomathy III

There isn't a single vending machine in all of Algeria.*

Here's some photos from my trip with Miguel to Oran. If I haven't said so already, Miguel is from San Antonio and teaches English here in Algiers. He has also taught English in Mexico and Yemen, and did a Peace Corps stint for two years in Mauritania. As you might imagine, he is often stopped by customs on his way back to the US.

This is snow on the ground outside of Algiers. Not much, I know, but still: freaking snow.

These are the famed snow-capped mountains of the Kabylie, to the east of Algiers (yes, you go east on your way to the western city of Oran - its Algeria, dudes).
And more snowy mountains...its almost like Switzerland, no?
You can just open the door and hang out of the moving train if you pleaseThen sometimes you just have to go out and dance the night away in Oran
This is sheeshy club time -- a place where not only prostitutes but non "working" women are welcome as well, a nice break, really, even if the music was horrible.The "Téléferique" to get up the hill on the western edge of Oran, up to the old Spanish fortWe call 'em "hill thugs"Beautiful Oran The old French nuclear sub port on the other side of the hill from Oran. The French stayed here until 1969, seven years after they were thrown out of the country. Military secrets are tough to let go ofThe fabled Lady Justice, denying it to everyone nowThe old Cathedral is now a pigeon and cat infested public library, but you can't say it isn't prettyNow I understand the whole Oran-as-Paradise-City thing (look hard)That about sums it up, there was another night of the awesomest bar in Africa, the Meloman (which I learned is Algerian for someone who loves all different kinds of music, like "Melody Man"), but no pictures, as people would definitely object to you snapping photos while they have scantily-clad prostitutes on their laps. But the singers did do "Another Brick in the Wall" again, as well as a Willie Nelson medley, which was pretty fun. Oh, and they make a dynamite paella, surprising as it may be.

*To the best of my knowledge.

Saturday, March 8, 2008


I managed to get myself up in the darkness of the a.m. this weekend and get on the train to Oran, which was fun as always. It is really the port town of your dreams. And the best part is that it snowed on the train ride there. Snow. The mountains outside of Alger often get snow, but this was on the plains and down in the foothills.

I might post some pictures later, but for now I'm putting up a link to my friend's website with pictures and stories from his trip to Tamanrasset and surrounding areas. This is 2000 some odd kilometers south of Alger, out in the middle of the Sahara, and it looks like I imagine the moon to look, although we'll never know (those moon landings were faked!). But it looks like fun, so take a look by clicking here. And stay tuned for a few glimpses of Oran, from a gondola no less!

Tuesday, March 4, 2008


I was out on the balcony late tonight, the city was quiet, and I was watching small fishing boats move out through the harbor. Small red lights slowly moving across the black water. They looked like stars, forming temporary constellations in a mirrored sky; some were still, others shifted and swayed. From a different perspective, I imagine the stationary and moving boats switch places, new constellations coming into view, constellations I will never know.

Polaris is the north star. If you trace a line through the far edge of the Big Dipper you will find it, far enough away to stay nearly true north, yet bright enough to guide a traveler at night. There is no polestar in the southern sky, but one can approximate south by finding the Southern Cross, a constellation hovering out over the glacial horizon of Antarctica. The stars, the constellations they form, are motionless to us; they form constants against which we can measure our movement through space, through time.

The constellations are not static, however; they are not constant in our sky. Polaris is only humanity’s most recent guidepost to the north, the Southern Cross a new addition to the pole’s pursuit. Every few millennia or so the movement of the earth, the shifting of our planet through the solar system, necessitates a new star be designated our guide, a new constellation formed through which we divine that northern truth. Four thousand years ago the Egyptians and Greeks knew the Southern Cross, and Polaris was but one nameless pinhole in the ceiling’s fabric.

Four thousand years. Thirteen thousand years. One hundred thousand years. Humanity has named more polestars than years have passed since television. Yet hundreds of generations live and die under the light of that one star, that one constellation, that one escort. Some might note a feeling of insignificance in this, the grand process of life, the cosmic temporality through which everyone lives and dies. Instead I am amazed at the scope of humanity, at the universe-al timescale humans inhabit. But it only exists in history. It only exists in our creation of history. In this vast universal space-time, only that history gives meaning to our transit.

Friday, February 22, 2008

And since I have the pictures...

...and am not in the mood to describe what my Wednesday (its Friday here) night was like, here are some more photos, the first real pictures that I have of Algiers, taken from a friend's balcony:
And then a better approximation of what it looked like to my eyes at 4am:
Hungover is hard:
And some others:
It looks kind of shoddy, which it is, but pretty in its own right. And so steep!

Who doesn't love couscous dinner?

Last night I ate some delicious couscous at a restaurant appropriately named Maison de Couscous. It is an interesting place, for the both the layout and the fact that you can really only get couscous there. Other things are listed on the menu, but don't expect that they will be available. Wait, "don't expect?" Its not as if you all are reading this as a restaurant review guide for the next time you're planning on going out for a night on the town in Algiers. Anyway, I had what I thought was the most interesting plate available, which was a half/half mix of regular couscous and couscous noir. Normal, yellow or white, couscous is made from semolina (a not-quite so refined wheat flour), and noir is made from barley, or so it said on the menu. Not, once again, that the menu is to be trusted. All in all it was delicious, and it is hard to get delicious couscous outside of a private home where some woman slaves over the dinner for four hours.
That's what all my taxi drivers tell me, anyway. And the decor really made the night, as you can see in the pictures:

And I should clarify that: you serve yourself from the couscous there, and there is also a stew-type vegetable dish that you spoon all over your bowl of couscous.

And the decor again:

Looks like fun, no? Like a cowboy place, but where the cowboys ride camels instead of horses.

Monday, February 18, 2008

just a little addendum

About the negotiating with taxis over the price. Today I was walking home from the Bibliotheque Nationale when I happened to turn around and see a taxi. I hailed it, the guy pulled over, I said where I was going, and he gave me the little head nod-thing. I got in and he repeated my destination to confirm it. I said yes, that's the place. He said "two-hundred fifty" for a ride that wouldn't cost over 100. I said, "oh, yeah, right...that's not possible." So he pulled over and told me to get out, and I did. I've never been kicked out of a taxi before, I thought I should share.

And while you're here, go here instead.
And here.
And here.

Sunday, February 17, 2008


This morning on my way to the Bibliotheque Nationale (the Franz Fanon annex, if anyone is interested in specifics) as I first waited for the bus, then decided to just walk, and finally scored a taxi for the remainder of my trip, I figured I could write a few things about conveyance in this city. I have been all over by all means of transport, and since I don’t think any of you have yet been to Algeria I figure I have enough experiential expertise to at least lie in a convincing way. Not that I am making things up, but, you know, eye of the beholder and all that.

Walking: This is the best way to get around the city, as the roadways are congested with too many cars and not enough buses. The sidewalks, when they exist, are also crowded, giving the pedestrian a sense of just how overcrowded the whole city is. They say there is a housing crisis and that there are on average 6 people per household, a household that is usually a three-room (total) apartment. That means that the spillover – mostly young men with no jobs – spends their days roaming the streets or just leaning against the buildings. There is even a special word for the young men who lean up against the buildings, but I can’t remember it at the moment. It’s Arabic for “wall-brace” or something.

So as you can imagine trying to get somewhere in the middle of the day can be something of a chore, but, as most walking in the city, not without its benefits: pretty much just getting to see the layout of the city; I would say health, but I’m not sure it is actually doing me much good to walk around inhaling fumes all day. If there wasn’t so much tough-guy pride in Algeria I would expect to see painter’s masks on pedestrians in the near future.

Crossing the street is its own fun here, as well, as there are no operational crosswalks or traffic lights in the whole city. They both exist, but there is not a single working stop light in the city (although I saw lights working and heeded in Oran) and a crosswalk is more decoration than any meaningful measure of where to cross the street. Instead, you just walk out amongst traffic, either waiting for a slight lull or hoping that the person in the car is looking at you. There you rest in the middle of the street while you choose an opportune moment to cross the other half of the road, buses zooming past, cars honking, exhaust enveloping you…I actually think it is a better system than what exists in, say, Irvine, where I stand at an empty intersection for two minutes waiting for an electronic abstraction of a human to tell me it is safe to cross. Call it personal responsibility. This is only a good policy for the sighted, however.

Bus: If you have a long ways to go, you can always take the bus. There are a number of lines in Algiers, most having to do with going up and over the hill from downtown to the swanky districts in the valley beyond. This is my least favorite option, however, as not too long ago most of the buses in the city were privatized, meaning that today there are only the bare minimum required to convey a mass of humanity up a hill. It is actually quite an incredible sight to see a double-long bus, with one of those accordion-type things in the middle, packed standing-room only along its whole length, with the doors open because people are standing on the bottom steps hanging onto the poles inside.

I should say it is incredible the first time you see it, then you see the next bus come along, and the next, and pretty soon you are habituated. All this is if you are lucky enough to be in a spot where the bus passes. Going to the Bibliotheque, for instance, is technically possible by taking the #15 bus along rue Tilimli. I have, in a week now, seen exactly one #15 bus, and it was going the other way. I walk for a half-hour to get to the BN, every day, and never see a bus going my way. It is supposed to be a regular route. It was quite regular just a few years ago, the Glycine gardien tells me. Maybe there are some things a cash-rich, plodding bureaucracy can do better.

Taxi: Of course taxis are my favorite means of transportation in the city. Not only do you get a comfortable seat, but you also get to hear all the rumors and conspiracy theories about the day’s events from your taxi driver. This holds true for almost all drivers, with the notable exception of the barbus who I’ve ridden with. Maybe it is something about driving an infidel around that makes them clam up.

But taxis here work like this: you stand on the street for ten minutes; you wave at a passing taxi (which is any car with a taxi top: there are no regular cars, you run a taxi by paying for a license and getting surveilled by the police, so you use your own piece of junk (like the ’74 Mercedes I rode in the other day)), he (yes, he, although I have seen one lady taxi driver in Algiers and heard tell of another in Oran) either waves you off or pulls to the side of the road, sometimes blocking the now-honking traffic behind him; you run up to the slightly-ajar window on the passenger side and yell through it where you are going; at this point, the driver either says “no” and waves his finger while driving away, or kind of does a little nod thing that indicates you can get into the car. That’s right, you don’t tell the taxi where to go, you just hope that he is already going the same direction you want. It's probably closer to hitchhiking than hailing a cab, really.

Sometimes this process can take a while, especially when you are trying to get someplace remote, like the Archives. The best part is guessing, while you ride, if the guy is going to charge you the meter rate (if indeed he has a meter in the car) or just make up some number. The made-up numbers are open to haggling, as is nearly everything in this city. There is no agency to call to get a cab to come to the door, either: when you ride with a cabbie that you like, you get his cell number and then call when you need a ride. It is important to get multiple cab numbers, because invariable a few will be “too far away” or “you know, down in the city” when you want a ride. At fancy hotels there are taxis who just sit around, but they charge, on principal, two or three times the normal rate to go somewhere, in order to cover the fact that they sit waiting for fares all day. There are also plenty of illegitimate taxis around town, pretty much any dude with a car will offer you a ride in the evening: they aren’t trying to kidnap you, they are just trying to earn a few extra dollars. Except at the airport, those guys are a bunch of crooks.

I guess conveyance here is like anything else: you feel alternately in danger, neglected, or screwed over, depending largely on the amount of money you are willing to pay to get where you are going.

PS: I should also mention that there is a metro in the works here in Algiers. Yup, in the works, just like its been for the last 17 years...

Monday, February 11, 2008

Stop reading this blog

If you like to eat food in Southern California, if you like farmer's markets, if you like delicious booze recipes, or if you need to live vicariously through someone who has access to the most beautiful and delicious produce in the world, you should go look at the Farmer's Market Mash-Up. And then either run out and buy food at the market or salivate in front of your computer because you live in a faux-monastery and eat flavorless creamy vegetable soup and luke-warm potato-meat things every night. Mmmm, vitamins...

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Oran Chrestomathy II

Oran has long been known as "Haraam City" in Algeria (Haraam meaning "forbidden" in this context). This is largely because of the ready availability of alcohol, other intoxicants, and, well, prostitutes - available at least in comparison with other cities in Algeria and across the Maghreb generally. It also means that for those who are of the drinking persuasion it has been a destination spot. Thus the oil-truck drivers who picked me up in the desert told me that visiting the south was for suckers, but Oran was really the place to be. One of my normal cab drivers also got a big smile on his face and said, "Oran...hehehe, its a great city!" and then kept chuckling to himself after I told him I was going.

It has also been labeled (by some sociologist whose name I don't remember) as one of the last remaining "true" Mediterranean port cities, along with Naples. What this means is that it is dirty and there are plenty of places for a lonely sailor to spend his hard cash during an all-too-short shore leave. If you put on "Rain Dogs" by Tom Waits you could probably get an idea.

Of course, as an alcohol-imbibing foreign visitor to the city I took in the sights. In particular I should tell you all about The Meloman, the most rockin' bar on the continent (maybe an exaggeration, maybe not). The Meloman is located, as is everything else in Oran, on a dark and dirty street, free from any overhead lighting save the moon. About a block out you start to hear the music, and the shapes staggering past in the night begin to materialize in the red glow of the neon sign outside. Push through the door and you are met by a giant, grizzled bouncer who actually could (and would) kick your ass if you got out of line, past whom is a little wall blocking your view to what by now sounds like a Stooges concert circa 1972, with a little more keyboard.

Turn the corner around the wall and you are transported through space and time (and reality) to a scene straight out of everyone's favorite Patrick Swayze vehicle, "Roadhouse." Dark wood tables and booths, a long bar, people smashed into every square inch, a small dancefloor with people sweatily shaking it, and a live karaoke band with a man singing, when you first get in, Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall (pt.2), and the whole bar screaming along with the chorus: "we don't need no education! we don't need no thought control!" in English and everything. Squeezing through the crowd is the team of prostitutes who work the bar, some eating dinner with patrons, others dancing on the tables, and most just looking surly (which is the appropriate look, considering). There is little room to stand, and you have to watch like a hawk to get a table when people leave, but in the Meloman everyone is your best friend (as long as you don't act like a gringo). People will buy you beers, women can come into the bar and remain entirely unmolested (as compared to, say, walking down the street in Algiers), can drink and smoke with the men, and leave by themselves. They serve beer, whiskey, tequila if you wish, wine, and all of it costs 250DA a glass. The music really makes the place, however, as the live karaoke band plays everything from old honkeytonk (special for the Americans) to Europop to '90s rock to Algerian Andalousian to Rai, and the owner comes out and tops it off by serenading the bar with Sinatra.

So then you stumble out into the cool night, check to make sure you're not being followed (hey, it still is Algeria: a bit o' the paranoia is always in order), wander home, and fall asleep dreaming of a man with a bad haircut, giant mustache, three-piece suit, and a thick accent belting out "Like a Virgin" with all his heart.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Oran Chrestomathy I

I'll have a few posts about Oran pretty soon, but to tide you all over, a little info about the City of Two Lions (Wahraan, the Berber name):

Oranis are nostalgic about the good ol' colonial days, or at least they were until the block of "Euros" (people from mostly Spanish and French families, but born in Oran) finally left at the beginning of the "Black Years" of the 1990s. To service this nostalgia, the Oranis left most of the old colonial architecture and especially the colonial monuments, but changed them just a bit to reflect the new reality of a politically independent Algeria. To this effect the statue of Justice that the French put up is still there, but changed like this: The statue was of Lady Justice standing between two children, one of them "European" and the other "Arab." One of her hands rested on the head of the Euro child, while the other hand hovered over the head of the Arab child, indicating that Justice favored the Euros.

After independence the Oranis wanted to change this, so they attempted to raise the hand over the head of the Euro child to create an equal situation. Of course, the hand broke off. They saved the statue, though, so what you have now is Lady Justice with one broken arm and one hand not touching the head of the Arab child, seemingly indicating that there is still no justice for the Arabs and really no hope of justice for any remaining Europeans. Which seems about right.

Monday, January 28, 2008

"You may tell yourself, 'this is not my beautiful house!'"

I had an interesting encounter while having coffee at the cafe today. My friend Jacob and I were down at our "local" (of course, not in the British sense. Beer.) and were speaking English together, as is our habit. There were a few young guys sitting not too far away, and at some lull in the conversation I happened to look over and one of them made eye contact and smiled (you know, the raising of the eyebrows smile, the "I want to say something" smile that one seems to get when people want to talk to the crazy foreigners...maybe you don't know, its immaterial).

I smiled back and he then asked "how are you?" in English, which was the start of a small conversation about how we liked Algeria and what we were doing and how they are students and want to at some point come to the US to study (biology). When I told them (this is in French now, their English was more for show) that I studied colonial history, they both just assumed that I worked on the War of Independence (1954-62), since "colonial" history in Algeria is the War. There's no place for remembering those other nasty 124 years.

I told them that I was researching at the Archives Nationales, at which point they took turns telling me how there "is nothing to find there" and that "to get the real history, you have to talk to people" and that "the only true history is what you can learn from people who actually lived it." I agreed that talking to people was important but thought that there might be some use in archival material. They both scoffed at the notion and once again agreed that nothing the government was involved in could be true, "there is no government here, just lies."

I find their position both remarkable and normal for Algeria. Rumor and hearsay are so prevalent in here that there is no room for anything "official" to have any claim on truth or validity, no matter how marginally connected to "le Pouvoir" ("the power," which is like "the Man") that source may be. Thus, for these guys (university educated) the fact that the government controls the Archives automatically disqualifies archival sources from the regime of truth. To them the only way to get at anything "true" about Algeria is to heed the claims of the various oral networks, unsubstantiated by anything other than the fact that they get repeated.

I guess its a cheesy conclusion, but in the end, which is more important to the social life of the country, the "truth" that I "discover" in the archives, or the "truth" that my taxi driver constructs for me in on the ride there? What good is something "true" if it can't convince anyone, can't promote action of any kind?

That, and I have an ant infestation. I blame the cookies, so I threw them out. Hopefully by the time I get back from Oran (leave tomorrow, stay 5 days) the ants will have deemed my room desert and moved on to more fecund fields.

Same as it ever was...and this