Walking past the video stores, jewelry shops and fashion boutiques in Riad al-Fetr, the large, modern shopping mall in Algiers, an American could almost feel at home. Local radio, heard over the PA system, plays songs by Phil Collins and Van Morrison. Madonna, Elvis and James Dean posters festoon shop windows and add a touch of American chic. The stores in the mall are privately operated. There is even a thriving fast-food restaurant called Rauli Burger that on first glance could pass for a Burger King — french fry makers, color-coordinated costumes and all. The fresh-baked pastries, however, are definitely a local touch. This quintessentially Western-style establishment was built in a country proclaiming Islamic socialism by an ex-government minister who feels that the future of the country will be best served by adapting Algerian ways to those of the industrialized West.

In a city of close to 3 million it is not surprising that Riad al-Fetr is jammed on weekends, with lines of cars waiting to park in the mall’s underground garage. Milling from shop to shop are Algerians of all ages, but men outnumber women. The older men dress like working men all over Europe: conservative slacks, open-necked shirts and everyday jackets. The young men wear jeans and Adidas sport shoes. Some T-shirts advertise non-existent American sports teams like the California Rams.

There were rumors in the capital recently that the Thursday-Friday weekend might be changed to Friday-Saturday, a move strongly opposed by religious leaders, to open up one more day of commerce with Europe and other countries. (In neighboring Morocco and Tunisia, the weekend is Saturday-Sunday.)

If you’ve seen The Battle of Algiers, you would recognize the loose-sleeved, hooded cloak, the djalaba, that is the traditional male garb in the country. It is worn more by the old than the young, more by the rural than the urban dwellers. Older women, in light-colored veils and cloaks covering everything but the eyes and the feet and ankles, march purposefully from store to store or stall to stall in the open-air markets like Premier Mai.

Occasionally I see a tattoo-faced Berber woman wearing a brightly patterned dress. More frequently, women — young and old — wear light-colored, traditional dresses very similar to the Iranian chador. People here tell me this is a sign of adherence to a conservative Muslim sect. Most young women in stores or on the street wear modest Western-style dresses and are usually on their way to school or work or an errand. While the sight of groups of young Algerian men whiling away the day on the street is quite common, women seem to stand around in public only by necessity — at bus stops and in store lines. On occasion one comes across earnest young couples on park benches in the city, perhaps relieved to have some privacy away from a crowded apartment.

In the very same complex which holds Riad al-Fetr, that sleek tribute to Western-style commerce, two other structures symbolize another current in modern Algeria. One is the military history museum, which displays the artifacts of the country’s bloody, seven-year war against French colonial rule, during which nearly a million died or were listed as missing. In front of the building are engines from military aircraft that had been shot down, cylinders rusting, propellers wilted. An old French tank sits to one side, its barrel pointed harmlessly into the air.

The other structure is the Monument to the Martyrs, a tall, three-sided form of curving concrete looming on a steep hillside over the city. At each of the monument’s three massive feet is a darkened bronze statue of an Algerian independence fighter. In small towns and cities throughout the country, one sees monuments to the martyrs of the revolution.

To this day, the language, architecture, agriculture, bureaucracy, education system and culture of Algeria bear a lingering French impact. Arabic is the country’s official language, and those hoping to diminish the prevalence of French have had English declared as the second language. Yet French is quite widespread, even outside the major urban centers. It serves as a continuing link to European culture as well as a lingua franca for Arabic- and Berber-speakers. Those promoting native Algerian identity campaign for “Arabization” of the society, to the chagrin of Berber-speakers as well as those who see the advantages of the present francophone culture. Complaints occasionally appear in newspapers that there is not enough Algerian (or Arabic) music on the radio, and that Algerian films are much too rare compared to the number of American and French productions shown on domestic television.

The confusion appears in road signs. Throughout most of the country signs are in Arabic and French. Some communities, despite the paucity of English-speakers living, working or traveling in the country, have apparently taken the second-language decree to heart and have some signs only in Arabic and English.

Oil and natural gas have provided the wherewithal for Algeria’s “economic development.” Sonatrach is the state petrochemical enterprise and its influence is ubiquitous. Its managers and engineers form a well-paid elite who can afford large homes and luxury cars. Sonatrach is literally present in nearly every Algerian household. Most people use natural gas for heating and cooking. Those not connected to piped gas must go to the nearest Naftal gas station to pick up cans the size of small kegs and haul them home — in a car, on a dolly or on the back of a donkey.

In the late 1970s the US was Algeria’s largest foreign trade partner, in large part because of large natural gas contracts. Projects started during the last spurt of development fueled by the high-priced oil of the late 1970s and early 1980s can be seen all around Algiers. Colorful Dutch-built apartment blocks rise from the rolling hills outside the city; new multi-laned highways ring Algiers and lack only landscaping to prevent soil erosion; a bright, newly-completed cultural center with offices, galleries and theaters sits on a hill overlooking the city and its harbor. Persons who have seen the sometimes opulent projects in other Arab oil-producing countries, notably Saudi Arabia, told me that Algeria seemed to have put its fortunes to more sensible use.

Agriculture is getting increased attention and funding in the 1980s. Along the fertile coastal region, garden vegetables are being raised in the winter under miles and miles of frame structures covered with clear plastic. But inadequate agricultural performance combined with the sudden fall in oil prices to create an uncomfortable summer in Algeria in 1986. There were shortages of eggs, meat and some types of fresh vegetables. Red meat, when available, costs $30 per kilo (at the official exchange rate, which overvalues the Algerian dinar). The same products are sometimes available just outside the cities, but distribution problems and lack of financial incentive due to government-set prices have compounded the effects of shortages.

Coffee continues to be in short supply, and Algerians working in France can be seen checking bags stuffed with coffee and sweets on flights to Algeria. They also bring consumer goods like clothes, radios and appliances that are either not available in Algeria or are of inferior quality.

One joke making the rounds in Algiers has a Moroccan going to a doctor complaining about aches and pains. The doctor performs some tests and tells the man that he must give up coffee, tea, sugar, fresh meat, chocolate and tomatoes. “Doctor,” says the Moroccan, “why didn’t you just tell me to move to Algeria?”

Since 1978, debates within the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN), the country’s ruling party, have enlarged the scope for “economic reforms” to loosen import restrictions and allow increased private-sector activity. Although a wide variety of viewpoints and ideologies are represented among the FLN leadership, debates within that body do not adequately address the issues of some segments of the population. Demonstrations and rioting erupted last November in the eastern city of Constantine. From November 7 to 9, college students were joined by secondary school pupils in the streets, ostensibly protesting various proposed school policies and the quality of meals at the university. Rioters smashed shop windows and set cars and buses afire. It became apparent that there were political bases for the disturbance, since the local FLN and Algerian Press Agency offices were vandalized. Police used tear gas, water cannons and dogs against the students. At least 136 were arrested and sentenced to terms of two to seven years. Press coverage of the event was scanty in Algeria, with brief articles on the inside pages characterizing the riots as “vandalism” and “gratuitous violence.”

Constantine is a seat of Islamic learning in Algeria and has a history that would tend to support the suspicion of some observers that the recent unrest in that city was in part fanned by Muslim activists opposed to the current regime. President Chadli Benjadid stated that “there are some wicked elements and behind them some elements hostile to the Algerian revolution.” The president said the students’ stated demands regarding poor food and curriculum changes were a mere “pretext” and that their “objective was political, no more, no less.”

The FLN continues to be the main avenue for political expression and participation in Algeria. Citizens must be circumspect about their public political pronouncements, and foreigners must be careful about how they report on Algeria. A French journalist was expelled from the country for writing about an Algerian human rights group.

The atmosphere on the whole is far from oppressive. In Algiers itself there is the bustle of a busy Mediterranean port: noisy jams along the corniche; colorful fresh fish vendors; noisy market streets packed with pedestrians; bright rugs and linens hung out to air on fancy iron balconies; boisterous and frenetic soccer games on nearly every stretch of open pavement. The Western tourist may be disappointed to see the lack of things to buy, but the Algerians have decided that developing a foreign tourism industry is not one of their priorities. They have won the country back from the French and now run it in their own way.

How to cite this article:

Anthony B. Toth "Letter from Algiers," Middle East Report 145 (March/April 1987).

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