A World of Statues (and Why You Should Help Tear Some Down)

Friday, June 26, 2020

Rome, Italy
Amid the wave of protests that have followed George Floyd's killing, the US has seen Christopher Columbus beheaded in Boston, Confederate generals toppled nationwide, Washington and Jefferson felled in Portland, and other public statues targeted by Americans protesting the country's longstanding racial injustices and inequities. Recognizing the writing on the wall, even some southern Republicans are dropping their opposition to the dismantling of these symbols. Also, statues aren't the only symbols under attack: pushback is growing against the Confederate flag, which was recently banned at Nascar rallies.

The trend has spurred action beyond the US, too. Across Belgium, statues of King Leopold, brutal oppressor of the Congo, have been defaced or torn down. In Bristol, England, protesters wrenched a statue of slave trader Edward Colston from its pedestal and flung it into the harbor. Oxford University suddenly relented to a longstanding campaign to remove a statue of imperialist Cecil Rhodes. And on the non-statue front, the Netherlands may finally be giving up its absurd and anachronistic justifications of its national blackface tradition.

Those who oppose dismantling these symbols claim that our shared history is being attacked—or even erased. Some of these arguments are simply misguided; others are disingenuous attempts to preserve emblems of oppressive hierarchies. All of them are flawed.

Plagued: Misreading Camus in the Age of Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Review of Camus's The Plague in the New York Times Book Review, August 1948
Right behind Covid-19, Camus fever has recently been sweeping the world, followed closely by new calls for social reform. I recently took a few hours off from writing my forthcoming book, The Algerian Dream, to pen this response to those trends. Update (June 9): A revised and expanded version of this article has just been published at Middle East Eye. Read it in full there. (Une traduction en français est également disponible. Cliquez ici pour lire.) Excerpt below:

Dark times call for great literature. At least that’s what the world’s newspaper editors and literati would have us believe.

Since the coronavirus pandemic emerged as a global menace earlier this spring, seemingly every publication on the planet has run an article comparing our times to that of Albert Camus’ 1947 novel The Plague—and recommending the book as a parable for our troubled times.

Last month, Steve Coll took his turn in the pages of the New Yorker. Alongside praise for Camus’ resistance to the Nazi occupation of France, Coll describes the author as a model of lucid rationality in crisis: “That Camus, writing in the mid-nineteen-forties, could conjure with such clarity, during an epidemic, a political morality that advocates for factual reporting, medical science, and public-health regimens seems astonishing.”

Rendering Algerians invisible

In an age when conspiracy theories run rampant online, and the US president peddles pseudo-science and snake oil from the Oval Office, Coll is right to champion a model anchored in reason. But is there no higher bar towards which we should strive today? A critical factor omitted by Camus and many of his modern admirers suggests an answer. ...

The Confusion Compounds the Contagion: 10 Lessons about our World from Covid-19

Sunday, May 3, 2020 | Kassel, Germany

We're all in Plato's cave these days. (Image from Olafur Eliasson's "Your Uncertain Shadow" installation)
Among the many shocks that the Covid-19 coronavirus has thrust upon our world in the past months, perhaps none is more disorienting than this: At the height of the information age, we are lost in the dark, fumbling desperately for certainty, any certainty at all.

Until quite recently at least, you could ask any reasonable person when our species' technological, economic, scientific, and philosophical prowess and sophistication were greatest and reliably expect them to answer, "Right now, of course." To be honest, we looked down with pity upon our ancestors of a century ago, then still in the dark about so much, bludgeoning each other through World Wars, and suffering blindly through the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. They were so disorganized, so undisciplined, so divided, so... primitive that they couldn't even properly count the dead from that catastrophe. (Estimates range from 17 to 100 million, the numerical equivalent of "who the hell knows.")

Plus ça change. Today, of course, we have a global internet, well established global health institutions, brilliant scientists worldwide, e-mail and translation software that allow them to communicate seamlessly. Surely we should be faring much better than our forebears. Yet months after the coronavirus's arrival, humanity wastes energy on nationalistic squabbling, suffers needless delays and deaths thanks to incompetent leaders, drowns truth in disinformation and conspiracy theories, and still knows shockingly little about the virus. How does it kill? Who does it kill? At what rate? How does it spread? Is it seasonal? How many has it infected? How many has it killed? Without answers to these most basic questions, measures to contain the virus's spread are just guesswork.

Maybe our predecessors back in 1918 weren't so ignorant after all. Maybe they were thinking what so many of us are today: It is the confusion—the astoundingly simple questions that remain unanswered, day after day, gnawing at us all and leaving our worst imaginations to run wild—that may be hardest to explain to future generations.

Bourexit in the Time of Coronavirus

Friday, March 20, 2020 | Algiers, Algeria

Leaving Algeria after seven challenging, exhilarating, edifying, and unforgettable years was never going to be easy, but it sure wasn't supposed to go like this.

As I hinted previously, after extensive discussion last year Nina and I decided that we—along with our canine companions Bourek and Chorba, of course—would depart Algeria this spring. Our "Bourexit" was finally happening.

To decompress from all that life has thrown at us these last few years, we then planned to spend some months traveling before choosing where to resettle. We had held off on a honeymoon after our wedding in hopes of taking just such a trip, and now our chance had come. A few months of backpacking in Asia would be our last hurrah before a new chapter of oh-so-serious adulthood.

By early February, I had wrapped up my work with World Learning (while continuing to support the weekly broadcasts of "Andi Hulm", the reality TV show I host here) and turned to new projects, while Nina counted down her own last weeks at work. We aimed to leave Algiers around May 1, lugging our belongings and dogs to Germany, where we would stash them with Nina's family or friends before setting out for our highly anticipated sabbatical. We were already poring over guidebooks and debating which Laotian temples, Vietnamese noodle shops, Nepalese hiking routes, and Indonesian surf spots we would visit.

Needless to say, the coronavirus did not figure into our grand plan.

Tadrart: The Mystique of No Man's Land

Friday, February 28, 2020 | Tadrart Rouge, Tassili N'Ajjer, Algeria

The Tadrart's vast expanses leave one plenty of space to ponder life's big questions.
What would your hometown look like without humans, without animals, without plants? What would remain if the land were stripped of life and abandoned to the vagaries of the elements? Wracked by winds, erosion, scorching heat and bitter cold, what would that once vibrant ground become as the centuries ticked by?

Among the peculiar pleasures of an extended desert excursion, several days' drive from the nearest cell phone tower, are plenty of silence and raw, open space to contemplate such questions—and to glimpse the likely answers firsthand.

In early January, Nina and I brought a dozen family and friends to one of the planet's most extreme environments: the remote Tadrart plateau.

Tucked deep in the Algerian Sahara, within the Tassili N'Ajjer National Park, the area is called the "Tadrart Rouge" because of its unique brick-red sand. No place on Earth more closely resembles Mars. But the extreme terrain isn't the only draw: scattered across this rugged landscape is one of the world's most splendid collections of prehistoric rock art.

Want to contemplate humanity's place in the universe, and perhaps even your own? You've come to the right spot.

Andi Hulm - I Have A Dream

Saturday, February 8, 2020 | Algiers, Algeria

Click here to watch the promo clip for "Andi Hulm" / "I Have A Dream"
At last, the big day has finally arrived!

Tonight is the official premier of "Andi Hulm" ("عندي حلم" or "I Have A Dream"), Algeria's first entrepreneurship reality television show. I serve as the show's host, and thus have the surreal privilege of appearing in many of the show's promotional materials, sometimes sprinkled in fairy dust (see above). Who ever said all those years spent struggling through Arabic class wouldn't lead anywhere?

Across 10 episodes, the show tracks the progress of 60 young Algerian aspiring entrepreneurs as they complete a series of increasingly difficult, high-energy challenges. Along the way, jury members whittle down the group until just a few standout finalists—then one final grand prize winner—remain. As the stakes rise you will see numerous surprises, moments of ecstatic joy and profound disappointment, and much more.

With any luck, the show will earn a wide following here in Algeria and spark greater discussion about the prospects young Algerians face as they work to realize their dreams in life. That's the hope, at least, of the show's creators at the

Give Me a Home Where the Buffalo Roam, and the Deer and the Antelope Play

Friday, February 7, 2020 | Granby, Colorado, USA

With every passing year I spend away from the US, I feel the psychological distance grow, stretching to match the physical distance a bit more. Sometimes it's nice to return home and soak up a little Americana.

So for our longest vacation of 2019, Nina and I decided to spend ten days in August in Colorado catching up with my uncle Chris, aunt Kari, and cousin Mitch.

Back when I lived in DC in my 20s, my uncle, an avid outdoorsman, had invited me several times to spend July 4th weekend with their friends and family at a campground on the shore of Turquoise Lake, deep in the Rocky Mountains. I have fond memories of campfire stories with my cousins, and of hikes up to pristine high-mountain lakes in search of cutthroat trout. (See "Turqoise to Timberline: Chasing Trout in the Rockies")

More recently, Chris and Kari bought a small property near the town of Granby, just over two hours' drive from their home in suburban Denver. Ever since, my uncle had been pressing me to come back for another visit. As he well knew, I could only open my phone so many times to find an unsolicited snapshot of snow-capped mountains or sparkling streams before I caved.

Much To Love in MTL

Tuesday, February 4, 2020 | Montreal, Canada

Dépanneur: Even for French speakers, visiting Montreal can expand one's vocabulary and horizons alike.
Spend enough time in the francophone world and you hear lots of hype about Montreal.

Nina had never visited Canada, and both my previous visits had come amid blistering December weather, so while en route from Algiers to a week in the mountains of Colorado last summer, we slipped in a 36-hour layover in Canada's second city.

Visiting in August sure beats the winter. Back in 2013 I had spent a few days in Montreal shuttling an Algerian study mission between meetings—and did my best not to leave the network of tunnels underlying the city's downtown. On this trip, by contrast, we wore shorts and t-shirts and spent all day crisscrossing the city, strolling from trendy brunch spots in the Vieux Port to street markets in Chinatown to an outdoor art expo in the Gay Village. We scarfed a massive platter of poutine (the local delicacy, if you can call it that) from La Banquise, on the Plateau, and tried maple-syrup-flavored coffee, ice cream, and more.

Montreal was covered with exquisite street art and filled with gourmet boutiques. But more than anything else there were restaurants—seemingly more per square mile than anywhere I've ever been. "Does anyone eat at home in this city?" Nina wondered aloud as we walked past yet another block of nothing but fusion cafés,