2019: The Year in Review

Tuesday, December 31, 2019 | Algiers, Algeria

2019 Best Nine: My most popular shots from the year on Instagram (@ibnibnbattuta)
Viewed from above, we exit the 2010s while spinning out of control, the old established order now a shambles. Viewed from below, we close the decade with reclaimed agency, every "me" an island speaking "my truth".

In the struggle between institutions and individuals, institutions lost this round badly. New technologies overwhelmed human societies' traditional guardrails in the 2010s, giving individuals the means to run amok, the freedom to write their own rules, but few scaffolds on which to build common projects. From Occupy Wall Street to the Arab Spring, Brexit to Hong Kong, the results have leaned heavily toward destruction. (Of course, whether one sees such destruction as positive or negative depends on which institution is in the crosshairs.)

Nina and I began 2019 by watching, bemused, as news of our wedding unexpectedly went viral in the Algerian media. But these days, there are no more untouched backwaters, not even Algeria, so wider trends arrived at last. In February, Algerians rose up in a popular movement, or hirak, calling for sweeping leadership change. Breaking points long predicted had finally arrived.

I followed events intently, but have tried to keep a respectful distance. We spent our year learning, striving, and exploring as always, including here in Algeria and through trips to Austria, Germany, Morocco, Tunisia, the UK, and the US. Unlike in years past, I traveled relatively little within Algeria, but took time to film an Algerian reality TV show (forthcoming in 2020).

Before we embark on a new year and new decade, here are a few highlights from 2019:

Just for Fun: A Weekend in Bou Saada

Saturday, December 28, 2019 | Bou Saada, Algeria

At the Kerdada, the trip organizer got to park his antique Mercedes front and center.
As if they weren't already the best hosts in town, back in May our friends Daniel and Dzeneta, a dynamic duo of Dutch diplomats, organized a weekend to remember with an eclectic international guestlist of 50+ hailing from nearly 20 countries, including Algerians, foreign residents, and many who traveled from abroad to attend. (Daniel prepared a 14-page programme and briefing document to anticipate first-time visitors' questions.)

The weekend's destination was Bou Saada, one of several towns in Algeria's arid midlands often called the "gateway to the desert."

After a lengthy (and exhilarating, thanks to the leadfooted gendarme escorts that guided our caravan southward) four-hour drive, we decamped at the Hotel Kerdada—the same address where Nina and I stayed with her parents during our first visit to Bou Saada back in 2015. (See "Bou Saada: A Begrudging Appreciation".) Formerly the Hotel Transatlantic in colonial times, the Kerdada remains the nicest spot in the otherwise disheveled town, and we spent a good portion of the weekend sunning by the pool.

The surrounding countryside offers more to see than Bou Saada itself. Nina and I skipped group visits to the local museum dedicated to orientalist painter Etienne Dinet, instead joining a desert outing and also taking our rental car for a lengthy swing through the rocky scrublands outside town.

San Francisco: Analog Observations from the Center of our Digital World

Friday, December 27, 2019 | San Francisco, CA, USA

California Street, San Francisco: Gilded city in the Golden State
Rare is the activity that the world's wealthiest humans still conduct in the physical world.

For many, it's now optional to cook, drive, bank, date, shop, read, and more the old way; these are mere trifling pastimes done for nostalgia's sake. True, all of us still eat, sleep, bathe, and exercise in the physical realm, but technology is chomping voraciously at the edges of even these essential functions, after having already swallowed so many others whole in the last several years. More than a few of us now live as much in the digital world as we do in the physical one.

But the last year or two saw important bubbles burst, yet more layers of our collective innocence lost. The creepiness of social media combined with its increasingly undeniable destructive influence on public debate across the world finally crested into a pushback of sorts that put Facebook, Twitter, and others on their heels. Awareness grew of just how exploitative "gig economy" giants like Uber and TaskRabbit are, and just how corrosive an effect Amazon's far-reaching tentacles are having on local and national markets. This critical eye, once finally focused upon Big Tech, revealed unsavory truths elsewhere too, from Google to Apple to Tesla and beyond.

As America and the world soured on Big Tech, so too did we sour on the industry's shining city on a hill, San Francisco and nearby Silicon Valley. It has become easier and easier to find critical reports on the city's booming inequality and horrid excesses.

In April, I was invited to an international education conference in San Francisco, giving me the chance both to finally visit California and to see the center of our digital world with my own eyes.

A Return to Morocco, with New Perspective

Tuesday, December 24, 2019 | Casablanca, Morocco

Young Moroccans walk past the Balima Hotel in downtown Rabat.
A decade had passed since I last lived in Morocco, and nearly as many years since I last visited. So I was curious to return on a pair of business trips from Algiers this year and discover what had changed.

In March, I spent a few days bouncing between meetings in Casablanca and Rabat, while also reconnecting with friends or just wandering the streets, camera in hand, in my free time. In October I did the same but Nina joined me (her first time in Morocco) for a few days of touristing in Marrakech. Here's what stuck out:

Already pleasantly verdant in my time there, Rabat now resembles one giant park of studiously manicured shrubs and lawns. Uniformed teams of gardeners trim the grass and tend to the palm trees that now fill every road median. Streets are wider, freshly repaved, and the traffic mostly orderly. (Or did it just seem so in contrast to Algeria's? As much as I tried to assess Morocco on its own terms, comparing only to its earlier self, I couldn't help but contrast it with its neighbor at every minute of every day.)

In Tunis, New Hopes Built on Old Stones

Wednesday, October 30, 2019 | Tunis, Tunisia

Nina in Sidi Bou Said
After nearly a decade of living in Algeria and Morocco and traveling across the Arab world, last year I finally made it to little Tunisia, Algeria's small but plucky neighbor. Since an initial weekend trip to Tunis with Nina and friends, I've returned to the city twice more for work. Meetings kept me from ranging farther than Tunis and its posh seaside suburbs, so I have yet to see the rest of the country, but I'm already becoming a fan.

Tunis rings a series of bays and inland estuaries along the Mediterranean coast. Spacious and verdant, it feels far less congested than Algiers, where the buildings cram in around a single bay. From the ancienne medina and the colonial-era downtown it's just a short drive through the suburbs to the ruins of Carthage, the ancient Punic city that rivaled Rome in its heyday (and then was sacked by it in 146 BC, ending said heyday). Last spring Nina and I joined our friends Ryan and Alex in exploring all that's left of the once-great city, now just a massive collection of topsy-turvy pavers, tumbled columns, and eroded baths scattered among the coastal pine forests.

Matrimony and Patrimony in Tlemcen

Friday, October 18, 2019 | Tlemcen, Algeria

The Medersa of Tlemcen, a colonial-era school built in the mauresque style, is getting a new paint job.
"Are you from Tlemcen? No wait, maybe Kabylie? No wait, Khenchela…?"

Ever since I settled in Algeria over six years ago and set about converting my Moroccan Arabic to a purely Algerian one, strangers who meet me invariably ask me if I'm from Tlemcen or one of these other regions. It's a reasonable guess, since these are the parts of Algeria known for having the most blonds—a category into which I fall unambiguously.

But perhaps the stereotype needs review. In 48 hours in Tlemcen late last year, I only saw two natural blonds! (We remain a rare species—though not nearly as rare here as you might guess, if you haven't visited Algeria, a country more diverse than most outsiders realize.)

I was in Tlemcen (تلمسان; pronounced t-lem-SAN) for my colleague Mehdi's wedding, which took place in his home village of Ain Youcef, a short drive north of Tlemcen city itself.

Tamanrasset, Capital of the South

Monday, September 23, 2019 | Tamanrasset, Algeria

Statue with Touareg motifs in central Tamanrasset
You might assume that Algiers, Algeria's capital, located right on the shores of the Mediterranean, is the country's most cosmopolitan city. After living there for five years and visiting much of the rest of the country, I know I did.

Then last year I finally visited Tamanrasset, and I began to wonder.

In Algiers, many like to imagine themselves as worldly since they watch French TV and go on vacations to Paris. But that haughty image is often more about putting on airs than anything else. And besides, truly cosmopolitan cities are diverse, not filled with people all posing in the same way and chasing the same fantasy.

In Tamanrasset, by contrast, I discovered a city truly open to the world beyond.

Illizi to Djanet Overland: The Lost World of Algeria's Tassili N'Ajjer

Sunday, September 1, 2019 | Tassili-N'Ajjer National Park, Algeria

Sunrise over Issendilene Canyon, in the heart of Algeria's Tassili N'Ajjer National Park
If you’ve never been to the Sahara, chances are you’ve never met anyone as cool as the Touareg. Is charisma in their genes, or is it just in the water down here? Meet them and you’ll be convinced that it is—that a whole population can walk with a regal air, poised and captivating, draped in elegant swathes of brilliant cloth, people of few words with a splash of white smile always at the ready.

Or maybe it’s just that, when you’re on a desert excursion in their world—the deepest reaches of the Sahara Desert—you romanticize those who hold your lives in their hands. And make no mistake, they really do. If, one morning, you would awake to find them nowhere in sight, exposure to the scorching heat would do you in by nightfall, if not earlier. Even today, in the 21st century, the Touaregs who guide visitors in these parts still know how to navigate the brutal landscape from watering hole to watering hole, hidden oasis to hidden oasis, without so much as a glance at a GPS.

Last spring, Nina and I joined three close friends—Belgian-Bulgarian couple Laurent and Dessi, plus our ever-entertaining Spanish buddy Pedro—for a long weekend excursion in the Tassili N’Ajjer National Park, in Algeria’s remote southeast. A UNESCO World Heritage Site slightly larger than Ireland, the region holds over 15,000 prehistoric rock paintings and carvings dating as far back as 10,000 BC, alongside many natural wonders.

Guiding us through this far-flung heart of the Sahara was Ahmed Benhaoued and his team from Admer Voyages. Through no fault of our guides, on the logistical front nearly everything that could go wrong with our trip did go wrong. We had