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 Hôtel Transatlantique 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

Andrew Here, Announcing "Andi Hulm"

Sunday, August 4, 2019 | Algiers, Algeria

"Hey, Andrew here. Do you have a dream you want to make reality?"

That's my opening line in the promo for "Andi Hulm", the new entrepreneurship reality TV show premiering this fall on Algeria's Echourouk+ ... with me as host!

This being my personal blog, I don't often write much about my day job with World Learning Algeria, where I'm lucky to meet and work with talented, ambitious young Algerians every day. This new project links that work together with the fun I've had with online video and TV appearances—albeit this time on a much bigger platform.

"Andi Hulm" (عندي حلم, which means "I Have A Dream" in Arabic) is sponsored by the US Embassy in Algiers and the American Chamber of Commerce in Algeria. On the show, young entrepreneurs will complete challenges hosted and judged by leading American and Algerian business owners, competing to win startup cash and other exciting prizes.

It's scheduled to air for 10 weeks this autumn, but first: For a few more days, we're still recruiting participants!

If you're Algerian, between 18-35 years old, and have a great business idea that you're hoping to turn into a reality, this is the chance of a lifetime. Apply here by August 10 to be part of the "Andi Hulm" adventure! If you're selected, you'll join me and the rest of the team for filming later this month in Algiers (all expenses paid), giving a huge boost to your new business right from the start!

Follow "Andi Hulm" on Facebook for news and updates in the coming weeks.

Update: For more details, don't miss this article from World Learning: "New Reality TV Show Will Support Up-and-Coming Entrepreneurs in Algeria".

Panaf: For a Dozen Days in 1969, Algiers was African

Wednesday, July 31, 2019 | Algiers, Algeria

Backstage: One of a series of atmospheric images captured by American photographer Robert Wade at the 1969 Panaf festival in Algiers, Algeria. (See full album at robertwadephoto.com.)
"Muslims go to pilgrimage in Mecca, Christians go to the Vatican, and national liberation movements go to Algiers."

So said the hero of Guinea-Bissau's anti-colonial struggle, Amilcar Cabral, at a conference in the Algerian capital in 1968, when Algiers served as a haven and staging ground for rebels across Africa and beyond, from Nelson Mandela's ANC to freedom fighters from Angola, Mozambique, Palestine, Western Sahara, Zimbabwe, and more. Coming just six short years after Algeria's own hard-earned independence—which inspired anti-colonial dreams across the world—Cabral's pronouncement crystallized the city's reputation and lent Algiers a new moniker: "Mecca of the Revolutionaries." (For more on this era, watch Mohamed Ben Slama's insightful 2017 documentary of the same name.)

The next year, Algiers hosted an event that would further solidify that reputation: the Festival Panafricain d'Alger.

The Panaf took place 50 years ago this week, from July 21 to August 1, 1969, organized by the Algerian government under the aegis of the Organization of African Unity (predecessor to today's African Union). It was one of several high-profile, continent-wide cultural summits held during this period, each with its own flavor. And whatever the OAU's intentions might have been in selecting Algiers as

A Second Chance for Egypt, A Third Way for the Arab World

Sunday, July 28, 2019 | Cairo, Egypt

In downtown Cairo, a minaret casts a shadow on an apartment building housing an El-Ghad Party office.
This is the last in a six-part series on my 2017 trips to Egypt. Read previous entries here: "To Egypt, At Long Last", "Daily Life in Giza, Straight from the Horse's Mouth", "Cairo, Conqueror of Skeptics", "Ancient Egypt in the Modern World: Touring the Pyramids, Luxor, and Beyond", "The Nile: Egypt's Endangered Lifeblood".

Our trips to Egypt also gave me the chance to finally see firsthand the country about which I have spent so much time reading, discussing, and writing since the "Arab Spring" kicked off.

Back in early 2011, media across the world were filled with images of jubilant protesters in Tahrir Square. In Cairo six years later, I got to meet a few ordinary citizens who had been among those crowds. We shared a meal with Fadi and Huda (not their real names), middle-aged professionals whose children were young teenagers at the time of the revolution.

"Did you keep the kids at home?" I asked, when the conversation drifted toward the protest movement that had pushed out longtime president Hosni Mubarak.

"Not at all!" Huda exclaimed, "We were out in Tahrir Square, and we made sure to take them with us."

Huda recounted the story of how their son was spotted by the police while filming on his mobile phone. A cop snatched him, but Huda grabbed her son's leg and

The Nile: Egypt's Endangered Lifeblood

Tuesday, July 16, 2019 | Aswan, Egypt

The triangle-sailed felluca is an icon of the Egyptian Nile.
This is the fifth in a six-part series on my 2017 trips to Egypt. Read previous entries here: "To Egypt, At Long Last", "Daily Life in Giza, Straight from the Horse's Mouth", "Cairo, Conqueror of Skeptics", "Ancient Egypt in the Modern World: Touring the Pyramids, Luxor, and Beyond".

On the map, Egypt looks like a hefty yellow block, roughly as wide as it is long. But so central is the Nile River to life there that nearly all 99 million Egyptians live in just four percent of the country's land, within the two narrow ribbons of habitable green space that flank the Nile along its final 1,600 km course from the Sudanese border to the Mediterranean. (Because the river flows from south to north, geographic references are reversed, with "Upper Egypt" below "Lower Egypt" on the map.) Habitable points in the surrounding desert are few and far between.

The Nile has been the epicenter of Egypt's unusually one-dimensional, inverted geography for millennia. Traditionally, summer floods brought an influx of nutrient-rich waters from the Nile's source in central Africa each year, enabling the ancient Egyptians to plant the crops that sustained some of humanity's greatest empires. To set taxes each year, the pharaohs used specially designed "Nilometers" to measure the high-water mark of the annual floods; higher flood levels meant higher crop yields, and thus higher taxes. In Cairo, I visited the Nilometer at the southern tip of Rawda Island, descending narrow stairs down into a dark well past rings of discolored stone that marked long-ago flood waters.

The Nile doesn't flood anymore. Since 1970, with the completion of the Aswan

Ancient Egypt in the Modern World: Touring the Pyramids, Luxor, and Beyond

Saturday, July 13, 2019 | Luxor, Egypt

Visit the ruins of ancient Egypt and you might just come away with a new appreciation for what humans are capable of. I found the Karnak Temple's hall of mighty pillars, in Luxor, particularly mesmerizing.
This is the fourth in a six-part series on my 2017 trips to Egypt. Read previous entries here: "To Egypt, At Long Last", "Daily Life in Giza, Straight from the Horse's Mouth", "Cairo, Conqueror of Skeptics".

The Ancient

Of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, only one—the Great Pyramid at Giza—still stands today, and it is a sight to behold.

At nearly 150 meters (500 feet) high, it dwarfs the adjacent pyramids of Khafre and Menkaure, though both are themselves staggeringly large, especially considering the modest tools available to their builders several millennia ago. The Great Pyramid was commissioned to memorialize the Pharaoh Khufu (Cheops), who ruled in the 26th century BC. Cleopatra lived closer to us today than to the Great Pyramid's construction.

If you haven't seen it, it is hard to fathom the Great Pyramid's size until you get close enough to lay your hands directly upon its massive sun-baked granite and limestone blocks. (Many of the blocks were quarried hundreds of miles up the Nile River with nothing more than simple tools, then transported to Giza on barges.) The Great Pyramid alone contains enough stone to build a wall two feet high the entire way around Earth. Oh, and except for a few scattered stones tumbled in long-ago earthquakes, even today you can't mistake the impeccable quality of construction and precision of the design. Egypt's pyramids serve more as

Cairo, Conqueror of Skeptics

Thursday, February 28, 2019 | Cairo, Egypt

From a footbridge connecting Roda Island to the Nile's east bank, it's almost hard to see that you're at the very heart of Cairo, a singular, cacophonous metropolis of 20 million people.
This is the third in a six-part series on my 2017 trips to Egypt. Read the first here: "To Egypt, At Long Last", and second here: "Daily Life in Giza, Straight from the Horse's Mouth".

Cairo's name comes from its founding by early Islamic warriors (القاهرة, al-Qahirah, is Arabic for "the conqueror"), but these days it's the Egyptian capital's staggering size that vanquishes and overwhelms the visitor.

Cairo, the city, holds more people than 46 of the US's 50 states, and more than over two thirds of the countries on Earth. Its population of 20 million exceeds that of the world's bottom 75 countries combined.

With those facts in mind, you can guess what a head-spinning experience it can be to visit Cairo.

And while it was indeed massive and unruly, in truth I didn't find Cairo nearly as chaotic, overwhelming, or generally miserable as I had been led to imagine by decades of exaggeration from friends.

Perhaps it helped that I started slow. Guided by my then girlfriend (now wife) Nina, who lived in the city as a young girl, I got my first taste of Cairo in the care of her close family friends, average Egyptians making ends meet in the down-and-out suburb of Nazlet El-Semman.

Or perhaps it was the Nile, around which the city clustered, as if every structure

Daily Life in Giza, Straight from the Horse's Mouth

Sunday, February 17, 2019 | Nazlet El-Semman, Giza, Egypt

Amr with Sukkar, a hard-charging stallion
This is the second in a six-part series on my 2017 trips to Egypt. Read the first here: "To Egypt, At Long Last".

If Nina had told me, when I first met Amr Ghoneim, that he was Omar Sharif's little brother, I probably would have believed her. Not just because he was Egyptian, or sported a similarly dashing mustache, but because like the famed actor, Amr exuded an unspoken charisma. He used his words sparingly, preferring to let his demeanor do the work of inspiring servers, porters, neighbors, and friends alike to scramble about in anticipation of his bidding.

Amr is the doyen of a vast lower-middle-class family in Nazlet El-Semman, the neighborhood just adjacent to the pyramids of Giza. The area was an outlying village during Amr's childhood in the 1960s, and he and his neighbors still call it "the village", though in reality Nazlet El-Semman has long since been subsumed by Cairo's rapacious spread.

It was here that my Egypt experience began. Wisely, Nina had suggested that we spend three days in Amr's care before heading into central Cairo, where she would attend a conference while I explored. Those days in "the village" gave me a chance to get my cultural bearings before the onslaught of downtown.

It was here too that Nina's own Egypt experience had begun, several decades earlier. Back in the late 1980s, her family had settled here, just down the street

To Egypt, At Long Last

Saturday, January 26, 2019 | Cairo, Egypt

Andrew and Nina at Abu Simbel, December 2017 (photo: M. Farrand)
For years, I resisted all attempts to drag me to Egypt.

Of late, the place just sounded like a mess, wracked by the throes of its post-Arab Spring upheavals, its economy in shambles. But even before the revolution, friends—including the most hardened of travelers—returned from Egypt with horror stories of the street harassment, the aggressive touts at every tourist site, the filthy streets and smog-filled air, the overcrowding and poverty. And even before I knew about all that, I was just another young over-achiever in Arabic class at Georgetown, looking to spend a semester or two in the Arab world honing my language skills and experiencing the culture firsthand. What destination could be more obvious than Cairo—epicenter of the Arab world, the city where nearly every aspiring Arabist had cut their teeth? But, ever the contrarian, I opted—precisely because the choice was so clear—to leave Cairo to my classmates, and instead head off alone to Damascus and Amman.

After the Levant, life led me back to DC, then to North Africa. And that's where I met Nina.

Though German by birth, Nina spent her whole childhood in Cairo, attending

A Year of Arts and Letters: 2018 in Review

Saturday, January 12, 2019

@IbnIbnBattuta's Best Nine of 2018 on Instagram
2018 was an exciting year here at Ibn Ibn Battuta, starting with two more viral Arabic-language videos—the first by my friends at Allaqta ("Americans in Algeria Speaking Arabic") and the second on El Djazairia One television ("People and Stories: 'Foreigners Who Love Algeria' Edition"). I also shared reflections on a weighty trip to the Sahrawi refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria, while delaying many other travel updates until the new year. (Coming soon!) I had great fun compiling a treatise on photography in the modern era, lists of my favorite photography inspirations on Instagram, a rundown of the best Algerian gifts, and (for the fourth consecutive year!) a new Algeria wall calendar.

Far more importantly, I announced the real-world milestone that defined my year: my wedding to the bold and brilliant Nina!

Then there was also the addition of Chorba to our happy little family. And I published photos in a new hotel in Algiers, a photo in a major museum exposition in Vienna, and a translation of a speech by leading Algerian author Kamel Daoud.

But if you read the blog regularly, you already knew all that! Perhaps more interesting is what's happening behind the scenes...