I left Oran late, after meeting new friends and really new friends in town. One random Christian Berber student taught me the phrase “asabi3 alyad mokhtalifa” – “each finger of the hand is different.” Allah loves wondrous variety!
“You sure you want to leave today? It’s five pm already….” Yes, I have to leave – my psyche is already out there pedalling.
“Aren’t you worried that you don’t know anyone down the road?” No. That is comletely normal. Adventure!
Saadi and Nadir would meet me in Algiers and show me around Kabylie, so the goodbye wasn’t so sad. I shoved off with brotherly hugs, one side cheek to cheek, then the other, repeat. On the way out of town, three teenagers on bikes surround me with questions in Arabic and try to get in my way; we actually chat while riding amidst the hectic inner city traffic, until they realize I’m going for the long haul, and if they follow me down that hill they would have to come back up… “Bye bye!” Everyone knows a little English.
There were supposedly roman ruins worth seeing in Arzew, so I pushed it to make it there by dark, past a dusty rut of a truckers’ outpost and a huge industrial zone. The town thrives off the petrol industry, pipeline from the Sahara to the coast and dozens of oil tankers waiting out in the bay. If there were roman ruins, they were surrounded by dirty sprawling industry, complete with gas towers spouting flame and black smoke. I pedalled into town and started asking for a youth hostel… once again, they were all closed down. Not many tourists around here, or anywhere in Algeria. Finally under full darkness, I ignore the advice thrust upon me by an eager young fella who looks like he dresses from American rap videos, and approach a police officer. No youth hostel, it’s true, but prehaps the permanence can be of assistance. “Permanence… c’est quoi?” Police station, police infrastructure, police detective, police captain. “Your problem is very easy to solve, just give me five minutes to pray.” Ten minutes later, with face and arms up to the elbow still dripping from the “small wash” Muslims do for prayer(or just to touch the Noble Qur’an), I am set up with a free hotel room and a pleasant dinner at the local restaurant. As usual I am a bit of a celebrity – a short little Algerian mother, smiling impeccable English from under her colorful hijab, tells me their vacation to Disneyland was wonderful in 1992. My police benefactor translates most things, but I interject my Arabic phrases here and there, to the near-shocked laughter and bonheur of the locals. And yes, I would love to eat another plate of food! Sahit merci!
Several long days on the road follow, passing villages full of stares and shouts, passing coastal farm roads lined with bright green river cane and healthy trees with trunks painted white, passing sleepy fruit vendors lounging in their wheelbarrows and boutiques exploding with pink and yellow blow-up beach toys; several long days passing police and military checkpoints.
Algeria is completely militarized. One does not see a single highway patrol motorcycle cop; one sees a caravan of three motorcycle cops with rifles on their backs followed by an SUV full of soldiers. They don’t keep the big guns in the car, like in the US – they’re ready, right there, resting on their old kevlar vests under the hot afternoon sun. At every village, every roundabout, and every intersection, there they are, checkpoints in force. At each end there is a chain across the road, laid in a tiny cut in the concrete so the car tires don’t destroy it, manned by a bored officer in a tiny little bulletproof chimney-looking bunker, ready to pull the caltrop-strip across the road if anyone fails to stop. I have nothing to hide, everything is legit, so I’ve managed to stay calm and smile, but it’s really hard to stay free of fear when there are guys with guns everywhere. So of course I have to ask: why is it like this?
I spent countless hours in military buildings. Out on the street, I could pass unhindered if I said nothing; but as soon as I ask for directions or stop pedalling for a minute within view of the gendarmes, suddenly it’s time for investigation. “Come inside.” I answered the same questions thousands of times, at first simply in my pidgin Arabic with the low-ranking guy on the street, then in French with the mid-level officers, and after a certain level of authority, in English. I spoke with cops in blue, I spoke with city cops in well-cut navy-and-sky uniforms, and gendarme grunts in hand-me-down army green. I balanced complacency with self-respect in the pseudo-interrogations of cops in ill-fitting one-piece jumpsuits, in black or white or green or blue. I started paying attention to the epaulettes – Ah this guy has two stars on his chest; that’s why he’s treating me like a criminal. Ah finally, four stars; maybe now that we’ve reached the top rank in town, the bureaucracy is nearing an end….
I tried to remain calm, visualizing only my eventual release, and not the other myriad nightmare possibilities. Sor3a taktul, speed kills, take it as it comes. It was quite frustrating to be delayed so much, so often, and so reptitively, but when I mentioned these “problems” to my Algerian friends, they said it’s normal, of course – you’re an American, traveling alone. “And the beard doesn’t help things….”
The war of independence against the French colonialists is sort of old news – what really lingers in Algeria is the memory of ten years of terrorism in the nineties. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed by bombs in buses and markets, and everyone remembers – it was only ten years ago. I have met people who have been shot at by terrorists, robbed by terrorists, shot at by military who thought they were terrorists; I even met someone who was kidnapped by terrorists and ransomed after a week of captivity. This was not some far-off war where your cousin is sent to fight with a highly-trained army unit – this was in your neighborhood, saying “I hope you come back” every time your kids leave the house. And it was perpetrated by men who interpret the Qur’an’s “Do not change how God made you” by letting their beards grow….
Nowadays, everyone says the times have changed and it isn’t a problem. And now I know why there is so much police control, which actually makes the control and bueaucracy easier to handle. And hey – I am an American traveling alone, and they are all pretty nice to me. So I hope you don’t take this update as complaining; week two in Algeria has been even more amazing than week one, and I look forward, without fear, to week three and four!