Sunday, August 7, 2016

Rio and Beyond: Algeria

Algeria, like Afghanistan, is on my list of Top Ten Places to Go When Things Are Stable. Maybe that's not entirely accurate in the case of Algeria. Maybe "stable" is the wrong word. "Safer for Americans" might be more accurate. Algeria is a dictatorship and is full of terrorist groups, so my visit won't happen any time soon. But it is also on my list of Mediterranean Countries Still to Visit, which makes it pretty important to get there.

Oh, you warmongering bastards of the world, always ruining a good thing.

I first learned something about Algeria from the classic film The Battle of Algiers in French class in college. The Middle East was still an exotic world for me then, far away from the cornfields and suburb sprawl of Ohio, and I knew virtually nothing more about it than its place on a map. But The Battle of Algiers introduced me to the legacy of colonialism in the Middle East and beyond, the real side of it, more than dates and textbook descriptions, and it was horrible.

My next encounter with Algeria came during a trip to the famous Amoeba Records in San Francisco, when I bought records by Cheb Mami and Khaled. We had been looking for music in Arabic to compliment our Arabic courses at Defense Language Institute, and these were recommended. (Also, Cheb Mami had sung on Sting's song "Desert Rose," so he was somewhat familiar.) This led to me choosing raï music as a topic for a class presentation, which was a good angle to talk about the political nightmare Algeria had experienced in the aftermath of colonialism.

Raï is a kind of folk music that arose out of the city of Oran in the nineteen thirties, decades before Algeria gained its independence. It originated from Bedouins and mixed with Spanish, French, Arab, and African music forms to bring something unique. The lyrics deal with social and political issues (raï means "opinion" in Arabic), and the music has been highly controversial in Algeria with the government and Islamic fundamentalists, with several raï singers (called Cheb, from shabab, meaning "youth") fleeing the country for their lives. Some were assassinated.

Oran - how could you not want to go here?

Oran had once been dubbed "Little Paris" for its nightlife of cabarets, so it was appropriate that such a music form arose from the city. I've been drawn to the idea of that city since I first learned about it.

The country is full of Roman ruins, too. Timgad and Tipaza are UNESCO World Heritage sites. Khemissa, Lambaesis, Tiddis, and Djemila are other Roman sites to visit. day...

Capital: Algiers
Major cities: Oran, Tebessa, Constantine
Population: 39.21 million
Athletes in the Olympics: 64
Medals in history: 15 medals (5 gold, 2 silver, 8 bronze in Athletics, Boxing, and Judo)
Languages spoken: Arabic, French
Heroes: Hosine Ait Ahmed (independence leader), Zinedine Zidane (football player), Albert Camus (writer)
Bad guys: Al-Qaeda in the Lands of Islamic Maghreb, Abdelaziz Boutiflika (dictator), Islamic Salvation Front (sharia political party), Abdul Nacer Benbrika, terrorist asshole, Armed Islamic Group
Persecuted groups: Christians, ex-Muslims, LGBT, atheists

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