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.)