Algiers by Night: Ramadan Edition

Monday, July 22, 2013 | Algiers, Algeria

Collage de soirées Ramadanesques
There can't be many capital cities in the Arab world with less visible nightlife than Algiers. Their culture shaped by a decade of nighttime curfews during the 1990s civil war, Algerians just don't like to frequent restaurants, bars, cafés, or shops at night. At least, so goes the popular wisdom. While an underground party scene does exist behind closed doors, as I am starting to learn, Algeria still faces accusations of being downright "boring" on the face of it.

Luckily, with some concerted (if not a little desperate) efforts by the government, the Muslim holy month of Ramadan sees the capital's streets much more animated at night. Museums are opened, public fairs and sports competitions organized, and concerts put on, with performances by artists in the most popular local genres—rai, chaabi, and of course hip-hop. Bus, light rail, and metro services are extended well into the night. Additionally, on the eve of Ramadan the Prime Minister publicly pleaded with shop owners to stay open "past 9:00pm" (as if most stay open anywhere near that late normally).

These efforts, like the massive month-long increases that the government rolls out each year on already substantial food subsidies, are a fairly transparent effort to buy some peace during what could otherwise be a very tense month. Even on a normal day, Algeria's rulers seem sufficiently overwhelmed by a population simmering with social and economic grievances and fully cognizant of the Arab Spring still unfolding all around. Add to that the extra threats posed by Ramadan fasting—and its accompanying national epidemic of crankiness—and you can understand why they are scrambling to keep the public well fed and entertained.

The expense and exertion put into these "soirées Ramadanèsques" does seem to be working. Within an hour after the ritual breaking of the fast at sundown, the cafés fill up, shops reopen, and families and young people jam the sidewalks. In other words, the city's public spaces become everything they normally are not at night.

Taking advantage of the lively atmosphere, in just the first two weeks of Ramadan I've already joined Algerian friends and colleagues at several concerts (Hasna El Becharia and Djamel Laarousi), a midnight jazz recital at the modern art museum, a beach volleyball tournament played right in the middle of a major city square, and plenty of evenings just strolling around eating, shopping, and people-watching.

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With an adjusted Ramadan work schedule, I've had some extra afternoon hours to explore Algiers, including the many pedestrian passageways that link the city's main boulevards. I've discovered that the moments just before foutour—the breaking of the fast—are perhaps the calmest you will ever see in Algiers, as all the city's residents are at home waiting anxiously to chow down. (Even with this summer's unseasonably mild temperatures, the fast still lasts more than 16 brutal hours here, from 3:30am until 8:00pm.)

Unfortunately, with the arrival of Ramadan, the crew putting the finishing touches on my new apartment slowed to a crawl. Some days I stop by to check on progress, only to find no discernable difference from the scene the day before. But sometime before the end of Ramadan, the workers assure me, I will have a fully finished apartment with a view over the Mediterranean and within easy walking distance of downtown Algiers. Just in time for the nightlife to return to normal...

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