|A street corner in the famed casbah of Algiers.|
The streets of Rabat, Casablanca, and Marrakech were and still are filled with ominous rumors about Algerians. If you believe the stories, they are a greedy people, an uptight people, a cold people, a violent people, and certainly not a people one would ever want to visit. (Not that Moroccans can do so easily; their border with Algeria has been closed since 1994 over numerous grievances between the two countries, particularly the Western Sahara conflict.)
At the same time, I only knew one or two people who had ever visited Algeria, so getting a second opinion was difficult. And so, with no shortage of ominous rumors in mind, I arrived in Algiers for a work trip back in March prepared for two months among utter barbarians.
With my expectations at rock bottom, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that most Algerians—once you get through their sometimes gruff exteriors—can be incredibly welcoming. I had many warm exchanges, great laughs, and home-cooked meals to prove it.
That said, a brutal independence struggle and years of civil war have left a noticeable mark on Algerian society. People here are certainly guarded, and more likely to distrust strangers at first glance than to embrace them.
In my first days in Algiers, I sat and chatted with a driver as we idled in the unending traffic jam that is the capital, Algiers. "It's not like Morocco, here people look you in the eyes," he said. "They search your face to try to figure out your intentions. Look at this guy"—he pointed to a man in a leather jacket who walked past our car, unblinking, staring us down the whole way.
After spending two months in Algeria back in the spring, plus the last two weeks in Algiers as well, I'm still not sure if each lingering glare is suspicious, or if it's just some bogus taxi-driver wisdom stuck in my head. What's clear to me, however, is that after decades of overt violence as well as deeper struggles against poverty and exploitation, Algeria is a very complicated place, and Algerians a very sophisticated people. This onion has many, many layers.
Much more to come as I continue to digest my experiences here...