10 January 2012

Algérie Mon Amour | Algeria My Love

Today the strangest thing in the world happened. Due to an unfortunate - and technically illegal - oversight, I left Algeria without completing my documents and today I was forced to make the long trek to the Algerian embassy in Pretoria to try and sort it out. I went there braced for the worst, used as I was to the Algerian system of bureaucracy, and yet lo and behold not only did the diplomat who I talked to turn out to be completely helpful, frank and friendly we actually even chatted for a few minutes.

This led me to think that for once in my life I would dedicate an entire blog to listing my top five positives about Algeria that I encountered during my stay there. My friends who still live there will have a mouthful to say about this I predict but I assure you, once you put 8000km’s between yourself and Zinedine Zidane’s country, you cannot but help put on the rose tinted glasses as you gaze at it perched snugly on the crown of the African continent. So here goes:

5. Their ridiculous prices
Get this, tuition at any of Algeria’s universities is…wait for it…two United States dollars; yes you read that right US$2.00. (I am using the exchange rate I last encountered). The University of Johannesburg is averaging around US$4000 and the University of Cape Town I am told sits comfortably above the five grand mark. Their fuel costs a measly 20 cents a litre and a public bus in the capital will set you back a measly 15 cents but if you are university student you can hop onto the universities shuttle bus service which will cost you…fifty cents per YEAR. Hold on, what about the state of the art tram system they just installed? 20 cents.  How about in the realm of telecoms? A dollar will give you almost thirteen minutes of talk-time and heck, if you charge up your phone with ten dollars at a go, they’ll throw in eight hours talk-time free. I remember I once started a phone conversation as I was cutting up the onions for my dinner and only finished it as I sat down to a plate of steaming rice and chicken which had all been cooked whilst I talked. Where else in the world do you get that?

4. Speaking of food…
The Mediterrenean palate for me was like a trip to paradise and back, except for olives which I somehow never acquired a taste for. But if you are content to suffer those little balls of concentrated posion that even Jesus used to eat then you will be well rewarded. Where do I start? There is the ‘poulet rotti’, which is a spiced and herbed chicken put on a flaming rottiserie and left to grill on the streetside. Or the ‘shwarma’, a French loaf as long as your forearm stuffed with grilled turkey, French fries, tomatoes, onions, lettuce and generously drizzled with mayonnaise. Or couscous served with spiced chicken drowning in soup. What about a glass of Orangina to quench your thirst? What is Orangina you ask? It is the perfect balance between a fruit juice and a soft drink, hell it even has its own Wikipedia page. Or their curious habit of dressing French fries with mayonnaise and salads with vinegar (the exact opposite of how it’s done in Zimbabwe). Who was I to complain? I grew up hating sadza so an entire region where it didn’t exist was bound to leave me as pleased as punch!

3. The architecture
For the most part I will admit that Algeria is left behind when compared to South Africa in contemporary architecture but there is a certain je ne sais quoi about the way they approach the art of building anything. Let us sweep aside for a moment the architectural exceptions of my native land and that of my adopted land. Let us take an ordinary building, sitting by the corner of a busy street and housing a small boutique owned by a small family. You see it? Well back in Zimbabwe that building would almost be invariably be square or rectangular and completely functional with the government approved minimum of windows, a door and a display. Now let us imagine that family is Algerian. That building is transformed almost immediately into a testament of Franco-Islamic architecture, filigreed metal adorns the balcony that serves no other function but to exist. The eaves of the building are held up by two stone male figures that seem to come up out of the building at waist level, their naked chests daring the street with their feat of strength. Corners are softened by sculptures of leaves that seem to want to drop leaf-like into the forest of cars below. Even the Algiers Post Office has a Wikipedia column to itself, it’s a building that awed me the first time I stepped into it and trust me, Post Offices rarely do that to me (or anyone else for that matter).

2. Français
There is nothing sexier than speaking in French. Seriously the language does things to the meanings of words, it wraps them up in a cloak of culture, peppers their noses with oh just a touch of expensive eau de toilette and then sends them out to the world to give French kisses to the ears of passing listeners. The ordinary gains a level of sophistication, and the sophisticated just seduces you and leaves you on your knees screaming for more. I used to love Céline Dion (don’t pretend you don’t) even before I went to the Maghreb but when I heard her singing in French, I almost cursed the bastard who taught her English. It’s a beautiful language with a thousand and one cute idiosyncrasies, for example the eau de toilette all those perfume companies proudly stamp on their bottles simply means toilet water. Or the French for ‘I miss you’ in English literally translates to, ‘I have a lack of you’. Or their method of slapping bon which means ‘good’ to everything so that they come up with bonjour (good day), bonsoir (good evening), bon appetite (enjoy your meal), bon fête (happy holiday), bon café (enjoy your coffee), bon douche (enjoy your bath; I kid you not, people actually wish each other well even for that).

1. My friends
It is never an easy thing to uproot yourself from everything you know; your family, your language, your culture and religion and plant yourself smack in the middle of someone else’s world. But when you do pray that you have friends like the ones I encountered there. Friends who came in all different shapes, sizes and with nationalities ranging from Algerian through to Ugandan and Rwandan all the way to trusty old Zimbabwean. In a country which enjoys all the benefits I have just described and which a famous poet once described as a ‘dream of sand’, you can imagine all great moments we shared. Roasted chicken shared over a brick somehow rewired to serve as a heater, racing each other  through the university residence at 3am the night before an end of year of exam (the nerves had gotten the best of us), breaking the Ramadan fast with my friends family or almost drowning at the beach when I got caught by a rip tide. Falling asleep on one of our cross country bus tours, fighting about the colour of the wallpaper in our room, walking five kilometres in the snow because the highway was closed, making out furtively in hidden corners…my friends and my enemies, my loves and my haters made Algeria the experience that it was.


  1. Nice piece, interesting read. 1 & 2 particurlaly resonate. Twas fun and challenging living in topsy turvia. Indelible mark is wat that experience. Luv

  2. Thnx Harmony, I just thought that we really used to higlight the negatives so much but there were so so many positives. Hope Paris is treating you well? Ciao.

  3. What a retrospective piece. Reading it made me miss Algeria already. We tend to overlook a lot of things and sometimes we dont even enjoy such a lifetime experience just because of negativity,its like looking for the devil in heaven.

  4. quite candidly, i have to say as i was reading your article, i got consumed in a cocktail of nostalgia and pride.....being the guy you are dude, i can't help but keep on thinking of the moments we were with you here,going out to the swimming pool, atelier ccf (although you literally fed us with air-pies)...dude i sincerely miss you...
    & i'm so much in love with your articles...
    phil kwendesa

    1. ah thank you Big Phil!! Miss you too hey, you and your crazy room mate expecially the short one lol. Trust me, enjoy your years with the moojies, when you done and you leave you'll realise that those were the best years of your life. That much I promise.

      Thnx about the articles, will keep them coming! Share and enjoy with your friends :)

  5. walking five kilometres in the snow because the highway was closed
    rien ne te feras oublier ce fait :)