That was the message I received on May 29 that started it all. It came from Tarik, one of three young co-founders from the Algerian production company Allaqta (the name means "the shot", as in a TV shot, in Arabic). Three friends who grew up together in Algiers, Tarik, Mohamed, and Ibrahim, had launched Allaqta in 2015 in their spare time, alongside their day jobs in the TV business. By concentrating on producing high-quality, positive content about Algeria's natural beauty, historical sites, and popular culture, in just a year they had managed to quickly build up a massive following—half a million young followers on Facebook (the only measure that counts here in Algeria in 2016).
And now they wanted to make a short video about this curious American living in Algiers. Or as Tarik put it in his next message, when I inquired about their motivations: "... We would like to produce a short or a mini documentary about you, as your case is really interesting for us, you are an American and you live in Algiers and you love it and you show that by posting great pictures and capturing unique moments through your camera."
I met the Allaqta crew at a café downtown a few days later for coffee and a chat. The meeting gave me a chance to voice my doubts: Are you guys for real? Do you really think Algerians will be interested in a video about me? This isn't just some pro-Algeria, everything-is-roses propaganda piece, right? Are you really for real?
They reassured me: Yes, Algerians will definitely be interested in a video about an American who likes their country. And while it would emphasize the aspects I liked about Algeria, the video wouldn't just ignore the faults or focus naively on the positives. And yes, they were for real.
We met a few weeks later—in the height of Ramadan and the June heat—to shoot an interview with my apartments' walls of photos, and then film a meandering walk through central Algiers, from Place Audin to the Casbah to Bab El Oued. Although they were fasting for the holy month, Ibrahim and Mohamed trudged stoically through the humid summer air.
Several weeks passed. Then several more. Finally they declared the video ready. We briefly debated their proposed title: "An American in Love with Algeria". (I was in favor of something more nuanced, but deferred to their judgment on both that question and the content. While I had serious reservations, ultimately it seems to have been the right call; these guys know their audience.) A few hours later, on Tuesday afternoon, the brief teaser video dropped:
(Or watch on YouTube here; for English subtitles, click "CC" button below video.)
An American in love with Algeria - Teaser
ترقبوا قصة #أمريكي عاشق ل #الجزائر.. يجيد #الدارجة، معجب ب #محرز ويحب #الشخشوخة
أندرو فيراند أو أبو #بوراك إبن إبن #بطوطة البالتيموري
Posted by Allaqta on Tuesday, August 23, 2016
Suddenly it became very hard to concentrate on anything else, since my phone wouldn't stop pinging with notifications. Over the next 48 hours, the teaser racked up nearly 250,000 views and 9,000 shares on Facebook. And then the Allaqta crew released the full video:
(Or watch on YouTube here; for English subtitles, click "CC" button below video.)
An American in love with Algeria
#أمريكي عاشق لـ #الجزائر، يجيد #الدارجة، معجب بـ #محرز ويحب #الشخشوخةPosted by Allaqta on Thursday, August 25, 2016
#Allaqta #اللّقطة #Algeria
The torrent of reactions grew exponentially, and has hardly subsided in the four days since. As the number of views grew—it is now nearing 600,000 on Facebook alone—friend requests from complete strangers (over 900!) poured in, along with hundreds of emails and direct messages on every available platform from Algerians inviting me to dine in their homes, visit their regions of origin, or even marry them! My blog's following on Facebook doubled then tripled, and my Instagram audience is keeping pace.
The Algerian media also took a strong interest. While one TV station aired a story on the video (El Khabar clip), another one that's known for its less-than-robust journalistic standards—more than a few of my Algerian friends call it "the Fox News of Algeria"—simply broadcast the full video without Allaqta's permission. Reporters from the state-run national TV and radio stations reached out for interviews, and local online outlets helped to spread the video further (Algérie Focus story, Chouf-Chouf story, Kabylie News story, Djazaïr Mag story.).
After pledging that I wouldn't look at the video's comments on Facebook at all (expecting to find pure internet vitriol) I peeked, and found them civil enough to warrant a further look. Soon I couldn't pull myself away. Unsurprisingly, the comments offer a fascinating window into Algerians' mindsets, in all their unfettered diversity. You simply can't make this stuff up!
Writing in Arabic, French, English, or various combinations thereof, many shared effusive praise, embracing the video's spirit of intercultural respect and mutual admiration and showing the best side of Algerians and their generous hospitality. While many were shared publicly, some of the best of these came in private messages:
"Je suis très touché par ton histoire, et dire qu'un jour un étranger s'intéresserait mieux que nous à notre culture !!! Ton récit a dépoussiéré ma propre vision de mon Algerie, merci beaucoup Andrew et bonne continuation ☺️"
(My translation: "I'm very touched by your story, and to imagine that one day a foreigner would be more interested than us in our culture!!! Your story dusted off my own vision of my Algeria, thank you very much Andrew and best of luck ☺️")
"I was just amazed and proud to see how much you love my native country. I have felt something stronge ... I was in tears , do believe me."Others inhabited a gray zone between the bizarre and the hilarious:
"J'ai trop aimé votre vidéo, au point ou je vous ai vu dans mes rêves ce matin loool"
(My translation: "I loved your video so much, to the point that I saw you in my dreams last night loool")
Many more expressed genuine curiosity, posing questions to me like "Why did you choose to come live in Algeria?", "How did you end up here?", "What kind of camera do you use?", "Do you like living here?", and the most common: "How did you learn to speak like an Algerian?"
(My translation: "Me too, I love America and I'm crazy for hot dogs and I love LeBron James. Hey, let's do a swap, brother.")
But sadly, a solid majority of the comments expressed something that I genuinely hadn't expected: disbelief. Here is just one example from among the thousands:
"FAKE!!! S'il y a bien une chose pour laquelle les amércains sont lazy c'est bien apprendre une nouvelle langue! Je veux bien qu'il sorte un 'lala' 'inshallah' mais de la à parler algerois/francais pendant tt le reportage.... maghletch même pas khatra avec un 'you know' 'well' ou autre mot faisant partie de la ponctuation americaine. Je confirme gros fake."Besides this single example, I was "confirmed" to be a blond Arab from Tlemcen, a Kabyle from Tizi Ouzou, a pure impostor working for the CIA, or at most a half-Algerian. (As one colleague said, "Soon you'll have an Algerian Trump chasing after you for your birth certificate!")
(Sadly this one was deleted earlier today from the oh-so-edifying Chouf-Chouf feed, but not before I copied it down. My translation: "FAKE!!! If there's one thing that Americans are lazy about it's certainly learning languages! It would be one thing to pull out a 'la-la' or an 'inshallah' but to go from there to speaking French like someone from Algiers during the whole clip... he didn't slip up, not even a single time with a 'you know', 'well', or other word that's part of American punctuation. I confirm: huge fake.")
Where does all that that come from? Am I just that good at speaking the very particular Algerian mix of Arabic and French (known as derija) that I spoke in the movie? No, clearly not. My accent was obvious to me the first time I heard the video. Algerian friends who watched it teased me for mispronouncing "chekhchoukha" among other words, for my grammatical mistakes, and for other quirks of my speech. In short, I was a foreigner speaking their language, but very clearly still a foreigner. So why couldn't so many other Algerian viewers accept that for what it obviously was?
There's no sure answer to that question. But my own working theory is that those who said I couldn't possibly be a real American weren't even hearing and analyzing my words, my vocabulary, or my accent. Why? Because they were so hung up on the fact that someone could even want to make the effort to come from the US to live in their country and learn their language, that they couldn't even process it. Again, why? Sure, we Americans may be known worldwide for sub-par language skills and for sticking close to home, but Americans still travel. "Yes, you do, but not to a place as lousy as Algeria!": so goes the thinking of these Algerians who are so frustrated with the place that they can't seem to imagine anyone liking their country.
Even if after almost four years here I can understand such frustration to a considerable degree, I hope I'm wrong about that theory, because it's hardly an uplifting one. But I didn't need to wade into the debate myself, since Algerians themselves—some of them my close friends, many of them complete strangers—had plenty to say to the doubters, the haters, and the spy-spotters:
(My translation: "Bursting with laughter. Instead of looking at the good side of this report and at the really beautiful production, people like this just sit and ask 'Why didn't he speak in English and how did he figure out how to talk like us?'")
(My translation: "An Algerian is so suspicious that even if you tell him that he's nice and handsome, he'll start wondering 'Why did he just say that?'")
A fellow American friend in Algiers also responded, sharing how some Algerians reproach us foreigners for not making an effort to speak their language, and now are disbelieving or accusatory when someone has done just that. A good Algerian friend pointed out how many Chinese workers here have managed to learn decent Algerian Arabic, and how everyone is simply pleased by that. And many other friends shared links to my blog as proof of my many years spent living abroad and learning languages.
(My translation: "Ah yes, you show them the moon and they look at your finger.")
But hey, it's the internet, what are you gonna do?
For someone who has been toiling away for over a decade on blog posts that at most a few dozen people read, the last week has been quite surreal. Neighbors and others have stopped me on the street to congratule me on the video. But now that Bourek and I have had our 15 minutes of fame, it's back to normal. What else is an internet-famous dog to do?
But before I turn the page, a project of this magnitude warrants a pause of gratitude. A huge thank you to the Allaqta team—Tarik, Mohamed, and Ibrahim—for your vision in seeing this possibility and your talent in realizing it so beautifully. In addition, I am deeply humbled by the kindness and praise that so many Algerians have expressed upon seeing this video, and thankful for the generous offers of assistance, hospitality, and of course chekhchoukha! I'm hugely grateful also to all those language teachers (including my chief derija coach and good friend Karima) who have helped me over the years to hone my ear and my tongue to be able to speak this way. And I am deeply indebted to Karima, to Nina, to Francis, to Souad and the ladies of Belaredj, and to all my other friends—Algerian and foreign—with whom I have had the pleasure of exploring, photographing, and sharing the good and the bad sides of this country these past years.
Luckily, it's huge, so there's plenty left to explore! (Not to mention, I now have standing invitations to visit Annaba, Bejaia, Biskra, Blida, Bou Saada, Constantine, Ghardia, Medea, Oran, Sidi Bel Abbas, Tenes, Tizi Ouzou, Tlemcen, and half the villages in Kabylie!)
Equally exciting, I'm looking forward to some possible follow-up projects that are already in discussion with the Allaqta team. Stay tuned...