In Syria, Humanity and Heritage Suffer War's Irreparable Devastation

Monday, June 29, 2015 | Syria (map)

This church in Quneitra, the largest Syrian city in the Golan Heights, was damaged during the 1967 war with Israel. When I visited in 2005, the devastation visible in the Golan was the exception in Syria.
Ten years ago this month, I quit my summer construction job early and, buoyed by the single year of Arabic studies I then had under my belt, left my friends back at Georgetown and my family back in Baltimore to fly off to Damascus, Syria.

Looking back a decade later, the two brief months I spent in Syria—which I wrote about extensively on this blog—stand out in my mind as some of the happiest of my life, and among the most formative. I spent my weekdays absorbed in Arabic study, advancing swiftly thanks to the patient Syrians all around me. Each weekend, I explored a different part of the country, clambering over ancient ruins, wandering unknown souks, and revelling in Syrians' warm hospitality.

The place wasn't without its frustrations, to be sure—and the political tensions were palpable—but I came away from that summer with a deep reverence and respect for the country, its people, and its heritage.

Today, those fond memories make it that much harder to watch the destruction that is being heaped upon that same country, those same people, and that same heritage. The Syria I fell in love with no longer exists, and will never again exist as such.

Onward

Friday, June 26, 2015 | Algiers, Algeria (map)

Today was a big day.

On three continents, we saw a series of yet more brutal terror attacks—this time leaving dozens dead and wounded in France, in Kuwait, and at a beach just next door in Tunisia.

Back home in the US today, a nation still in mourning after last week's similar killing of nine black worshipers in a South Carolina church finally got some good news. The Supreme Court announced a narrow 5-4 decision extending the right to marry to gay couples.

These seemingly unrelated events coincided today amid the broader era of transition in which we live. The attacks serve as a reminder that we inhabit a world where reactionary forces seek to manipulate violence, fear, or hatred to impose their own views and lifestyles on others at the expense of individual freedoms. The judicial ruling, however, serves as a reminder that it is those of us working to advance personal liberties and freedom of choice who gain the most ground, year after year.

16 Essential Algiers Experiences

Monday, June 8, 2015 | Algiers, Algeria (map)

Why 16? Each of Algeria's 48 wilayas, or regions, has an assigned number for its license plates. Because plates on every car registered in Algiers end in 16, the number has become synonymous with the city.
After over two years of living and working in Algiers, I have spent considerable time exploring the city and its surroundings, as well as entertaining a handful of adventurous visitors. In the process, I've gotten to know this city well—even if I'm still discovering more each day.

One thing I've learned: there is lots to do here! (Not a surprise in a Mediterranean port of 4 million people that is also the capital of Africa's largest country, and yet its reputation sadly suggests otherwise.)

Distilling all the Algerian capital's unique sights, culture, and activities into one brief not-to-be-missed list isn't easy, but summer tourism season is upon us, and I have to try something to get more of you to visit! (Plus, the country's tourism officials don't seem likely to try it anytime soon.) So without further ado, here is my selection of 16 essential activities that every visitor to Algiers should experience:

The Haïk's Enduring Allure

Wednesday, May 20, 2015 | Algiers, Algeria (map)

Many Algerians consider the haïk to be just as much a symbol of the nation as its physical monuments.
How much power can a few square meters of white silk wield? A lot more than you might think.

That was my conclusion after the latest outing, one sunny Saturday in late March, by the "Belaredj" collective, the cultural group behind the haïk events I tagged along for twice last year. (To learn more, see "Celebrating the Haïk, and Debating an Algerian Icon" and "The Haïk: A Symbol of Algeria's Revolution".)

The unique allure of the haik—the traditional women's dress of Algeria, now rare on the streets of Algiers—was in full evidence at this spring's outing, organized as always by Belaredj's founder, local performance artist Souad Douibi. Souad's other recent events (which she bills as "performances" rather than mere cultural festivals) had garnered increasing attention, as photographers—myself included—inundated Algerian social media with modern images of this classic symbol. In a country so fixated on its history, such images hold particular power, and motivated more than a few photographers to attend this spring's event.

Algiers Photos Featured in L'Eclectique

Monday, April 27, 2015 | Algiers, Algeria (map)

Une touche de couleur à Alger centre
L'Eclectique Magazine, an online magazine of culture and arts "from Tangier to Baku", has just published a series of my Rolleicord photos of Algiers accompanied by a brief French text on how I came to live here and what the experience is like. It is my honor and pleasure to share the text and photos here, accompanied by a rough English translation. Enjoy:

Taghit: Photos from the Algerian Sahara

Sunday, April 12, 2015 | Taghit, Algeria (map)

A Portuguese Touareg: Jorge disguised in a chèche, the blue scarves favored in the Sahara.
Last month's trip to Taghit, a striking Saharan oasis in western Algeria, was a highlight of my experience here so far. (If you haven't yet, read my write-up of the weekend: "Two Days in the Dunes: The Oasis of Taghit".)

I passed a good portion of the trip snapping shots on my Rolleicord, assuring my travel companions that one day they would indeed get to see the resulting photos. After several weeks of waiting impatiently—and nobody more impatiently than me—that day has arrived. This weekend I was finally able to escape to a city with full-service photo labs to develop these and many other photos.

Enjoy this selection of shots from Taghit and its captivating surroundings:

Where Are You From?

Monday, March 30, 2015

"Where are you from?" It's the first question asked of anyone, anywhere, who seems foreign there. Having often been the random white guy in an east African village or the random anglophone in a Middle Eastern souq, I have fielded the question thousands of times in my own travels, and asked it just as often. As central as it is to the pastime that I love—travel—it is a question with which I have a complicated relationship.

"Where are you from?" An innocent enough question, right? Sort of. I once read that, in a survey, New York City cab drivers listed it as far and away their least favorite thing to be asked by clients. It can grate on expats, like it can grate on ethnic minorities back in America. On some days, however innocent its intention, the question can serve as a reminder that you just don't fit in here. I have definitely felt that sting before, when someone popped the question on me, thousands of miles from home and all that is familiar.

The Casbah of Algiers: an Imperiled Heritage

Tuesday, March 24, 2015 | Casbah of Algiers, Algeria (map)

The Casbah's homes, shops, and other structures, built over centuries with traditional methods and materials, require constant maintenance. Above, braces support a wall in the lower Casbah.
Almost every first-time visitor to the Casbah, the walled historic quarter of Algiers, has the same reaction upon entering: "Wow, this place is amazing." And in almost every case, a second reaction follows right after: "But it sure is in bad shape."

Those were my own reactions on my first visit, during one of my early trips to Algiers. Since moving here two years ago, I've found many more opportunities to explore the Casbah, including some in just the last few weeks. Even today, every time I enter the place, those same two thoughts keep dueling in my head.

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For centuries, the Casbah was Algiers. As I have written before (See "Come With Me To The Casbah"), the old city was the epicenter of Algerian culture and history, and the heart of the resistance against the French colonizers. Even today, the