Article submitted and then revoked *I wrote this 3 days before the algerian hostage situation in Jan 2013.
Salafists dampened my night out in Algeria
Algeria has a bit of an image problem. A million killed in its campaign of resistance against the French, a bloody civil war and an on-going battle against Islamic fundamentalism hasn’t helped. Tourism in GDP terms accounts for less in Algeria, than it does in Iran, Libya, Chad or Pakistan.
This made me curious to visit and rather superficially, Nightlife in Sunni Muslim majority countries has never let me down. Fuck London, Berlin or New York, Algeria would be a perfect way to spend my new year’s break.
Researching the trip, I had read about a jihadist organisation called al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, who is active in Algeria. This group’s aim is to “cleanse” North Africa of western influence and establish a sharia law state. Kidnapping tourists is definitely on their ‘to do’ list.
On the morning of my flight I decided to dress as Algerian as possible -in my mind, the less western I looked, the safer I would be. Reflecting on my holiday snaps, the look was definitely more ‘mossad’ and less ‘khaled’ (an algerian rai singer. Rai is a form of protest music symbolic of this country). Not ideal.
The plane landed in Houari Boumediene Airport - Algiers and we were greeted by gendarmerie with machine guns and escorted quickly to the building. Lining up at the customs hall, a flash of my British passport and a suddenly I heard a “monsieur, this way” and was encouraged to the front of the cue. Algerians are well aware of the perception their country has. The fact that you have chosen to visit their country out of choice rather than on a corporate visit with an oil company makes them very happy. The hospitality and warmth of everyone I met, makes it easy to forget that this is a country nursing some pretty deep psychological scars; 150,000 estimated to have been killed during the ‘dark decade’ just 20 years ago.
The hotel was based in the ‘didouche mourad’ quarter which seemed disappointingly European and rather timid. The infamous casbah however was a massive juxtaposition, and felt like the Algeria I was looking for. This is still a no go area for the police and one of the few unesco heritage sites that was out of bounds by order of the government. It was alleged to once be the most sought after postcode for Islamic terrorists and even today, most Algerians do not venture within its boundaries.
Walking around, I observed two distinct looks. ‘The beards’ with their traditional Islamic Kashrabia dress code or tough looking dark skinned youths in knock off adidas track suits and shaved heads standing around aimlessly. I was prepared to least to get robbed, and when I didn’t-it almost came as a bit of a let-down although the nervousness of my guide suggested the reputation of the place, is still justified.
Algeria is in a fragile state of stability. Guide books and other people I bumped into consistently advised ”not to rock the boat.” Women drinking in cafes are a big no no, open displays of affection are not encouraged and being drunk in public was a massive faux pus that could potentially cause things to kick off.
Mindful of that advice, I put on my leather jacket and turtle neck and ventured outside looking like a low paid porn star to track down my first beer. The first place’ koutamoa’ described by my guide book as a rowdy seedy bar looked closed, burnt out even. The next place on the list was near the riad el feth complex, which also appeared to be closed. Walking around, I saw plenty of restaurants (historically, a place for alcohol) but they were shut or bordered up and the hope of replicating the decadence in Damascus, Uzbekistan or Beirut was fast fading. It was getting dark but going back to the hotel defeated just wasn’t on the agenda, the only chance was to get into the side streets, against my natural instinct.
One road had a few 60’s style cinemas whose entrances were guarded by female attendants without the hijab. Dinar was paid and I ventured in. The place was thick heavy with smoke, and there were groups of single men and couples huddled up closely next to each other, whilst a very bad Bollywood film played in the background. The scenes seemed uncharacteristically raunchy and I guess it was probably where people went to hook up and get off.
As interesting as this was, it wasn’t what I had in mind and shortly after leaving the cinema, a guy stumbled out of a disused house just next door, and bumped into me-he looked and sounded Nigerian. The door he came from was temporarily left ajar and I could hear a flurry of voices. Deciding to go for it, I knocked at the door and a shady gentleman answered. I did the universal hand to mouth sign ‘I need a beer’
The gentleman guided me into a room full of people pissed drunk. I have learnt over the years that in these places, whiskey is the drink of choice and a measure is about quarter of a pint. The connoisseur must go for J&B and drink at least 2 measures. Chain smoking whilst spitting on the floor is etiquette. The atmosphere was so refreshing compared to the set up I observe in London, no pretentiousness and a genuine feel of prohibition right on the coast of North Africa-this is living!
There was another room that people would go on to enter but having been clocked as the random foreigner and as obliging at the bartender was, it was made sure that the fruits that lay behind the door, would remain a secret to me. The whisky high wore off and the place got more rowdy and out of control. I was drunk and panicked about finding me way back in the dark whilst also maintaining the perception of sobriety.
When I finally got back, the receptionist was impressed by my conviction as apparently hundreds of pubs and other alcoholic drink outlets have been closed in the Algiers recently due to increasing Salafist influence (Salafis adhere to an ultraconservative interpretation of Islam).
I have since learnt that an application to form a salafist party called the “Free Awakening Front” was lodged in early 2013. A spokesman for the group “Zeraoui” said that rejecting the application could have serious consequences. To put this in context, Zeraoui was a former activist with the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), a political party banned in Algeria which led to the civil war in 1992.