I was 21 years old and had just finished my degree, I was at a period in my life to see the world, have new experiences. So, what would I do?
I’m from a small town in Mid Wales, in an area known as Radnorshire, who’s population is about 2000 people, with mainly “Shire folk”, as if they are little hobbits from The Lord of the Rings, with this I mean they are people who have long roots to the area. The area I am from was pretty un-diverse, where everyone knew your name, your business and probably what you had for your dinner the night before. So, I had set my sights on going somewhere as diverse as I could imagine, where I could soak up culture. I had seen a job for teaching English in Algeria, North Africa. This is where I had decided to go.
A quick history of Algiers and Algeria
Algeria is country you don’t hear much about, however it should be ICONIC. Everyone I told tried to talk me out of it, there are terrorists or they will sell you for Camels. My Grandmother was terrified and convinced I was going to be shot as I slept. But, despite all this I decided to go anyway. I was completely naïve to the situation; I knew Algeria was a Muslim country but I hardly knew anything about Islam or the culture. It was only when I set off did I start think would I get kidnapped? Would I be spat on for being British? Would it even be safe to walk in the streets?
It’s not Atlantis or a lost world, it has been there the whole time but still most people have not heard of Algeria. Even though Algeria is the largest country in Africa, (and the tenth largest country in the world) and has a beautiful setting on the Mediterranean ocean. Over 90% of the country is covered by the Sahara Desert. Algeria’s national languages are Arabic and French.
Algeria was colonised by France in 1830 until 1962. Algeria’s political history is full of conflict and is really interesting. Even the country’s flag that was adopted on independence is very specific, the colours are green, red and white. The green, believed to be the Prophet Muhammad’s (P.B.U.H) favourite colour, which represents Islam and paradise. The red symbolises the deaths and sacrifice of all those who fought for Algeria’s independence, and for liberty. The white symbolises purity and peace. To be acceptable for the flag, the exact wavelength that each colour must absorb is specified officially, which is highly unusual for an African country’s flag.
In 1992, was the start of the Algerian Civil War that lasted for 10 long dark years. In 1991, a theology-driven political party called the Islamic Salvation Front (ISF) was poised to win the national election and come into power. Fearing the rise of an Islamic government, the authorities then decided to step in and cancel the election, however, this did not go down well.
The armed wing of the ISF began a bloody civil insurgency against the government, with the beautiful humans of Algeria caught up in it. The war dragged on and developed into an international crisis, with massacres of civilians with an estimated 100,000 Algerians being killed during this conflict. Eventually, the ISF began to weaken and presidential elections resumed in 1999, resulting in the ISF disbanding in 2000.
There is a very powerful narrative of forgiveness and national identity, which is often misreported. The President Bouteflika’s enacted a program of radical national reconciliation, providing an avenue for ISF soldiers to re-integrate into Algerian society. So, members of the ISF who were responsible for those killings of those innocent Algerians live in the society, they work alongside the families of the people they have killed. They were able to walk into police stations hand their weapons in, walk out, and be a reformed character.
Arrival in Algiers
I sat on the plane next this guy who must have been 6ft 5, who was so friendly and talked all the way until we arrived at the destination.
On landing I had to go through customs, this man at the custom desks kept talking at me, I didn’t have a Scooby doo what he was saying, but a lady told me behind me he was asking for the address where I was staying, so I supplied the information that I had been given. The next was going through security, my bags were unpacked, packed again, and unpacked they took my jewellery off me, I’m not sure why, but the man working in security said in broken English ‘fashion no’, which still tickles me.
I had arranged to meet with a member of the family I was staying with in London, then on another occasion I had met with the father of the family in Paris, so it wasn’t completely daunting going to stay with people I didn’t know. They had arranged to pick me up from the airport, it was only then when there was so many people talking at me in a language I didn’t understand.
I was staying in an area of Algiers called Ouled Fayet, which was on the outskirts of the capital with a view of the coastline.
Evidence of the colonisation was still very obvious, it was apparent the French influence over the capital with the architecture and economic infrastructure.
What alarmed me was the traffic, there were cars everywhere, and people drove like maniacs. They didn’t seem to have traffic lights or roundabouts, just a go for it attitude.
I was alarmed with the amount of military and road blocks, who check the papers of cars and to check the identity of Algerian citizens, as they have to carry identity cards with them. This was also my first time I had seen a gun, they were huge, and these searches I was assured were put into place for the safety of the civilians.
I was absolutely mesmerised by the country.
I was a vegetarian which was unheard of, I soon had to adapt to carb heavy meals, such as couscous. But, it was the best I have ever eaten, it can even be served as a dessert with cinnamon on top. It is traditionally eaten with the thumb, forefinger and middle finger of the right hand. One should never use more than three fingers or you are displaying greed. Never eat with the left hand, which is considered unclean. Leaving a little on your plate is considered a sign that your host is able to amply provide for your needs.
Algeria produces its own citrus fruits, and almost every Algerian person I met reminded me their oranges would be the best I would ever taste, and they were right. And the mint tea, is out of this world, just remind them to go easy on the sugar.
With all this going on, it was so easy to forget all the things I had heard about Algeria before I came. In fact, they disappeared with exponential speed- every minute I was in Algeria.
Getting around Algiers
From the waterfront there are big green mountains for as far as you can see,
I would take daily walks in between amazing buildings from the 1800’s, past cafes which always seemed to be overflowing with men laughing and sipping on their espresso. Algiers was literally built into a mountain, which towers overs the Mediterranean Sea, there are steep inclines everywhere, and it’s pretty normal for cross streets to have zig zag staircases.
Everyone is really friendly, and you can’t go 10 minutes walking without someone stopping you to have a conversation with and give a continental kiss. In the beginning, the Brit in me was really nervous about this, with my inner dialogue screaming you’re invading my personal boundaries, however, I soon became familiar with this and actually became fond of it.
The Casbah in Algiers, is incredible. Walking through this ancient neighbourhood was surreal. There were so many twists and turns and tunnels. Old crumbling buildings were propped up with boards to keep them from falling down. Doors were tiny and hand-crafted from wood with bronze hinges and knockers. Kids played ball on the few flat surfaces that existed–the lots where buildings had crumbled and been cleared away. Every corner seemed like a never ending labyrinth. The Casbah was inhabited from the 6th century BC when a Phoenician trading post was established there, but mostly built between the 16th and 18th centuries during a period of allegiance to the Ottoman sultan. The city’s wealth came from piracy and from its position at the trailhead of the trans-Saharan caravans.
Today nearly 50,000 people reside in The Casbah. The ancient structures still standing include traditional houses, palaces, hammams, mosques and various souks, all built on very hilly and uneven site.
Other crazy facts about Algiers, is the original black and white Tarzan movie was filmed there. The stunning Notre Dame d’Afrique (Our Lady of Africa) is also a must to go visit, a beautiful Roman Catholic basilica perched upon a cliff, overlooking the sea. You often can find tourists milling about and seagulls patrolling the air.
More about the culture- Traditionally, women were discouraged to attend school to stay home and help in the household. However, this is changing fast, with women making up 60% of the student population and statistically women make a larger contribution to household incomes than their male counterparts.
Despite this there are still clearly defined sex roles, men take on the traditional roles of handling the family finances and women take care of the home and children. Women enjoyed activities like going to the Hamman, which is a Turkish sauna.
The family I was living with, made me feel extremely welcome and it quickly became like home. Even if I couldn’t understand much of the language we found our own ways to communicate. There were about 4 families living in the same house, and they enjoyed all sleeping together in the same room. I soon adapted to this and enjoyed spending my time with the women of the house, I would sit for hours watching the women roll the bread, listening to them tell each other stories and roar around in laughter.
Day to day western clothing is generally worn, but if you get a chance to go to a wedding you won’t be disappointed. The dresses are full of bright colours and bum shaking dancing.
I can honestly say out of all the countries and cities I have visited in the world, Algeria was absolutely the most beautiful, each corner has a new surprise with endless beauty and the history competes with more tourist destinations like Rome, Paris and London.
My friends now talk about their times travelling and say how their souls belong in Bali and other such majestic islands. However, I can say Algeria is where my soul belongs. I have the most beautiful memories and I met the most incredible humans. The simplicity of life is calming, the people may not have much in a materialistic sense but they have love, and in the end isn’t that all that matters?