Algiers: (Re)navigating the Invisible City

Friday, January 29, 2016 | Algiers, Algeria (map)

The Martyrs' Monument, Algiers' most visible landmark, viewed from the Balcon St. Raphael in El Biar.
A travel magazine that I enjoy held a writing contest just before the holidays. Short on time and inspiration, I refined and combined several of my favorite pieces from this blog about discovering Algiers, based on my experiences exploring the Algerian capital since moving here three years ago. My submission didn't pass muster with the judges, but I find it to be a good overview of the city's unique geography, and so worth sharing here. Enjoy:

Back in my mom's basement in Baltimore, somewhere in a crate full of foreign coins, postcards, and other odd trinkets accumulated from Middle Eastern souqs and African in my travels, sits a magazine article, its left edge ragged where I tore it from an issue of Smithsonian back in 2007. Titled “Save the Casbah”, the article is an ode to the famed Casbah of Algiers, and to the community activists, historians, preservationists, and local residents trying to keep the iconic hillside settlement from crumbling into the sea below.

Out of fascination with this part of the world, I saved the article years ago, long before I ever visited the Algerian capital. Then, in 2012, I made my first visit on an extended work trip, and quickly fell in love. Within a year, I had successfully pushed for reassignment, leaving behind a comfortable life in the US to come explore Algiers' many twists and turns—both physical and unseen.

Timonium to Timimoun: A Very Algerian Christmas Vacation

Tuesday, January 12, 2016 | Timimoun, Algeria (map)

Maggie, tour guide Bachir, and Mom atop a sand dune, watching the sunset outside Timimoun.
My mother could be living a tranquil, delightfully simple life in suburban America if it wasn't for the disturbances that her dear beloved son sometimes foists upon her.

Mom lives in Timonium, a suburb several miles north of the rather rougher Baltimore City neighborhood where she raised me and my sister Maggie. She works at a nearby Catholic girls' school. She goes to book club every week, the gym every day. Her street is quaint and suburban, the lawns all perfectly manicured. The only pedestrians are joggers, dog-walkers, and hop-scotching, jump-roping, bike-riding, unsupervised kids. Every second car that drives by is either an ice cream truck or a fire engine going to extract a kitty cat from a tree.

At Christmas, every window in Timonium is trimmed in festive lights. But rather than enjoy the holiday peacefully at home like her neighbors, Mom accepted my invitation to visit me in Algeria. Maggie joined from Boston. And so several days before Christmas we found ourselves squished into the back seat of a 4x4, careening across rough desert roads and jolting over sand dunes deep in the Sahara.

My Favorite Global Reads of 2015

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Another great 2015 find: French photographer Julien Mauve's "Greetings from Mars" series, an alternately lighthearted and melancholy imagining of what space tourism may one day resemble.
There's never enough time to read them all. But every week, I try to gobble up an enormous quantity and variety of articles, analyses, reflections, memoirs, op-eds, and thought pieces from a range of online and offline sources. In recent years, I have been cataloging my favorite bits each week on sfarjal.com. (If you don't follow it, believe me: you are missing out.)

From among those, here are some of my most favorite pieces from 2015. Some might qualify as "travel writing", while others hew more broadly to this blog's global perspective and mission to inspire greater curiosity about the wider world. Some even go beyond this world. Enjoy:

Ibn Ibn Battuta's 2015 in Review

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Mallorca double exposure, June 2015
Both in life and on the blog, 2015 was a big year for me. I took up rock climbing, and started driving in Algiers traffic. I witnessed two dear friends marry, and a dear cousin leave us too early. I took on a new job here in Algiers, and gained enough free time to adopt exciting side projects—not to mention a dog. Bourek's arrival has certainly marked the year, and transformed how I spend my waking hours.

On the blog, I managed to publish only about half as many entries as I had hoped to, and only a fraction of those that I began drafting. Yet this year I also published my most widely read post ever, "16 Essential Algiers Experiences", along with other reflections on daily life in Algeria.

With Nina and other friends, I traveled to Berlin, Mallorca, Marseille, and several new destinations in the Algerian Sahara, including TaghitBou Saada, and Timimoun (a writeup on the last one is on the way). And I looked back a decade later on my first forays into the Middle East, with retrospectives on my time in Syria and Jordan. I continued cataloging my travels with the Rolleicord, sharing images on Instagram.

I also sold my soul and released my first commercial product, the "Algeria 2016" holiday calendar that sold out several times over, far outstripping my expectations. This year also marked the first time a perfect stranger walked up to me (in the Algiers airport) and asked, "Are you Ibn Ibn Battuta?"

Best of all, I received great feedback and had engaging exchanges with readers and friends around the world. Thank you all for reading, reflecting, and sharing. I look forward to more travels and more exchanges with you all in the year to come. Safe travels and best wishes to all in 2016!

For Sale: Algeria 2016 Wall Calendars

Monday, December 7, 2015 | Algiers, Algeria (map)

Need a touch of color in your home or office? Looking for the perfect year-end gift? Just can't get enough Algeria in your life?

Then you're in luck! Ibn Ibn Battuta has just sold out to the man and produced his first merchandise: a 2016 Algeria wall calendar.

The calendar follows my own design, consistent with this site's, and features 12 lush, large-format images from across Algeria (including some that have already appeared on the blog and quite a few that have not). Like the other photos published on this blog in recent years, all images in the calendar were captured on Kodak film using my 1951 Rolleicord camera—a combination that produces uniquely vibrant images.

I have printed 75 copies, and will number and sign each one by hand. They are available for sale here in Algiers only. Order here: http://tiny.cc/algeria2016.

Bou Saada: A Begrudging Appreciation

Wednesday, November 18, 2015 | Bou Saada, Algeria (map)

Under sunny skies, the swimming pool at Bou Saada's Hotel Kerdada looks far more inviting.
That's it?

After six hours dodging reckless truckers along the rain-soaked two-lane highway from Algiers, past mile after mile of dreary fields and depressingly rundown one-horse towns, that was my reaction when we finally pulled the car to a stop in our destination: Bou Saada.

With Nina's parents visiting from Germany, we had been seeking a new destination for a weekend outing, and chose to visit this little oasis town so many friends in Algiers had raved about. But instead of a desert paradise, we found a drab cement-block town that—at least at first view—closely resembled the colorless truck stops we had passed along the way.

In Arabic, Bou Saada translates roughly to "Pleasantville." One of several Algerian towns billed as "the gateway to the desert", it sits inland from the Mediterranean, where the fringes of Algeria's northern highlands yield to the vast Sahara. But the drive had provided yet another hard reminder of Algeria's most constant

In the Latest Belaredj Outing, Remixing Traditions with a Twist on Gender

Tuesday, September 29, 2015 | Algiers, Algeria (map)

Belaredj founder Souad Douibi models the shanghai, an outfit traditionally worn only by men.
Belaredj, meaning "stork" in Arabic, is a fitting name for an artistic movement whose principal medium is the haïk, the elegant white traditional dress of Algeria's women. But this month the Belaredj collective, led by local artist Souad Douibi, pushed beyond the bounds of its previous performances with an outing centered on the shanghai—the sailor's outfit long favored by the men of Algiers.

Explanations differ as to how men in this North African capital came to wear a blue sailor's outfit named for a city in China. One of the more plausible accounts describes Chinese sailors in the port of Algiers early in the 20th century swapping uniforms with the Algerian dockers, thereby launching a trend that persists until today. (French speakers can read that entire account here, though it is by no means definitive.)

Not that the shanghai is ubiquitous these days on the streets of Algiers. Like the haïk, it is now sported by only a few, usually of a certain advanced age, and more often in the Casbah and other working class neighborhoods.

One thing is certain: the shanghai is definitely not worn by women. And therein lay

My Own Look Back: Jordan, A Decade On

Thursday, September 10, 2015 | Amman, Jordan (map)

Andrew pondering life's mysteries at Dana Nature Reserve in Jordan. (Original photo by J. Ehresman)
This post is a more personal follow-up to my previous entry, "Jordan 2005: Looking Back, A Decade Later".

"Ten years already?!?!" That's what I said to myself earlier this year when I realized that it would soon be a decade since I left my family and college friends back in the US for unknown adventures in Syria and Jordan.

I quietly recognized the first of those anniversaries—that of my arrival in Syria—with one post mourning the country's recent disintegration ("In Syria, Humanity and Heritage Suffer War's Irreparable Devastation") and another reflecting on the difficulties of contributing to solutions from afar ("In Taking Action for Syria, No Easy Answers").

The second anniversary I reached this summer—that of my joyless arrival in Jordan, after spending the summer of my life discovering neighboring Syria—excited me far less. As my friends and longtime readers of this blog know well, I was no fan of Jordan nor of my experience there. Frankly, I was miserable. (Don't believe me? Go back and read my entries from Jordan.) Sure, today it's clear that I was surrounded by a fascinatingly diverse crowd of people, and living with a warm and generous host family that wanted nothing more than to ensure I enjoyed Jordan. But with its Starbucks and strip malls and abundant English speakers, in my eyes Jordan didn't hold a candle to Syria's isolated exoticism, and I spent my time there lamenting my decision not to stay back in Damascus. With that lousy outlook—which was compounded by simultaneous family troubles back home—I set myself up for a bad experience.

Yet my Syria-to-Jordan transition, while painful for me at the time (and probably much more so for those around me), left me with an invaluable life lesson. It will forever serve as my quintessential, hard-earned example of how travel—and life more broadly—gives you back what you put in. My widely divergent experiences in Syria and Jordan were different precisely because of my differences in attitude.