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

Friday, January 25, 2008

99 Problems

I haven't posted in quite a while - again - and I'm starting to think that something is going on here. I was initially putting it down to the fact that I've actually been working much more and wandering around less. You know, staring at bad nineteenth century handwriting or the blinking cursor of Microsoft Word doesn't really lend itself to snappy stories.

But I think it might be something a little different. I think my blogging career is condensing the historical trajectory of the field of anthropology. Now, I'm not saying I know anything about anthropology, other than I think Indiana Jones was one of its greatest minds, but I have read a Taussig article or two, which I think gives me adequate intellectual firepower to continue.

Like anthropology, when my blog first started out it was deeply connected with the circulating powers of empire and colonialism - really, what am I doing if not presenting "Algeria" in all its otherly strangeness safely to you readers back home in the metropole. Hell, some policy wonk might even get his hands on my brilliant treatment of Algerian karaoke and stage a new invasion.

These initial stages were, I think, similar to the vulgar anthropology of "look how weird it is here!" Or, "man, people in XXXXXX (Algeria) sure do some wacky things!" But I think it got better - I was able to cut through the focus on otherness to think about the city or country and how it relates to larger concerns in the world (or at least I assume that is what you all read when I wrote, "Canadians = Jerks. According to an article in the Nov. 5, 2007 New Yorker, Canadians still club baby seals, skin them, and sell the pelts," and other such gems of analysis).

But things just keep getting more and more "normal" here. I go out, I do my work, I meet people, etc. All the same stuff that I did before, in about the same proportions, but now it all seems so normal and regular that I'm having trouble coming up with some way to write about it all and make it more interesting than, "I read a couple of documents in the archives today." Pretty soon I - like anthropology before me - will, in the search for a way to keep my blog (discipline) alive, turn to theorizing my self in relation to my subject instead of saying anything about the subject (Algeria) at all (note, for instance, this post itself). Before you know it I'll be able to continue writing the Corsair from the comfort of my home in Irvine. What a relief! A way to squeeze some more blood from the cold stone that is my blog!

Either that or I'll find the only American-style supermarket in all of Algeria (stay tuned), see how many chwarma I can eat in one sitting, finally make it out to Notre Dame d'Afrique, take a trip to Oran, and/or challenge the Kabylis who run the liquor store to a Tango*-drinking contest, before Heineken takes it over. So there's hope for the blog after all, I guess. Thanks for that session, I'm sure my medical insurance covers this couch-time.

And to all you anthropologist apologists out there: as I said before, I know nothing about the discipline, so if you would like to enjoy this entry a little more, use your find/replace tool to change "anthropology" to "phrenology," "ethnography," "dentistry" or some other old-fashioned hilarity.

*Tango is (was) the only completely independent Algerian beer. Heineken just bought it out and will take over operations soon.**
**That means I'm not sure when they take over operations.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Keep on Chooglin'

Back to the grind here in Algiers, which of course means back to sleeping in and shirking my research duties...but just for a few days, of course.

The lovely break with Jess in Paris - where I was able to eat pork and drink alcohol to my heart, stomach, and liver's delight - had to end at some time, I guess, as it seems that humans have managed, in all our brilliance, to create a world where my continued pleasure and leisure is not seen as the pinacle of human achievement that it most surely is. For some reason there are people out there not working toward this lofty goal. I am making it your mission (yes, you) to find these people and do whatever it takes to get them on the right track. Your friend/relative/sibling/ random-guy-who's-site-you-stumbled-upon needs you. Don't let him down.

But the bastards are out there, and so accordingly I caught a flight back at some unholy hour of the morning, going through Madrid. Now, you might know this already, but in Spanish "Algiers" is "Argel," (and in French it is "Alger"). Finding the name "Argel" on the flight board, I had to pause to check the flight number. Because of the notorious Spanish tendency to spell everything wrong ("piso" is how they spell "floor," and "mojado" is how they spell "wet." Now how dangerous is that?! Get it right, Spanish!), and because of the French "Alger," I thought that some sleepy jerk in the Madrid airport had merely typed the name into the computer wrongly. I even took a picture, I thought this little Spanish anagrammal mix-up was so funny.

So I spent the two hours of my layover in Madrid giggling to myself about this wacky mix-up. Then I got on the plane. Oops, they actually say "Argel," in Spanish. Well, isn't that just a kick in the pants.

At the end of the day (wha what Pierre!), I guess it isn't so bad to be back. You know, I was getting too much of spending time with my girlfriend, eating delicious food, drinking wine and walking around one of the most beautiful cities on earth. It's nice to get back to crushing poverty and deep structural corruption, not to mention very poor air quality, poor nutrition, and generalized anger. Starting to go soft, I was. Smiling too much. I can't wait to get my scowl back.