A Star Is Born

Sunday, June 20, 2021 | Kassel, Germany

Stella in her Father's Day outfit
"Les pères de famille sont les derniers aventuriers des temps modernes."

The words come from Charles Péguy, a French poet (and father of four) writing over a century ago: Fathers are the last adventurers of modern times. 

A friend sent me the quote back in the spring, shortly after my wife, Nina, gave birth to our first child, a wonderful daughter we named Stella. But so far at least, the words seem very much exaggerated. Motherhood, which overcame Nina more instantly and totally, is incontestably arduous. Fatherhood, by contrast, feels like a slow build, one that inches day-by-day from the realm of the surreal to the real as the little one grows more into a person, with her own preferences, expressions, and quirks of personality.

Since joining the family, Stella has prompted many adjustments but generally not pushed us to our limits the way most newborns do. For a while, progress in finalizing my book slowed and my attention to my grad school classes waned, but overall the transition has been manageable. In large part that's because Nina and I have both been lucky to be able to take time away from work and enjoy the support of generous family in these first weeks and months. (Nina's parents and brother live nearby us, out here in the tranquil German countryside, and my mother is visiting this month from the US. All have helped us tremendously.) 

Bourek and Chorba have also adjusted to Stella's presence; once they realized she was too small to take them on walks or offer them treats, they quickly lost interest (for now, at least). 

A very curious Bourek and Chorba greeted the new arrival in her first hours.
Stella means "star" in Latin. Several of her aunties and uncles back in Algeria have already taken to calling her Nedjma, the local equivalent.

Selecting her name was a long process, driven by strong opinions on both sides. One major requirement was that her name be pronounceable both by my English-speaking family and Nina's German-speaking one, as well as in the French-speaking world, where we have long lived and will likely live again.

For me, the choice of a celestial name was also important. I have spent most of my life deliberately cultivating a sense of wonder for the world and following that curiosity around the globe. There remains much to discover here on Earth, but the promise of so much more in the universe beyond. While technological limitations likely mean I'll spend out my days exploring this planet, a wider range of adventures may be open to future generations. Who knows, our little girl may be the first in the family to see the stars up close. 

Whatever path she chooses, Nina and I hope that spirit of adventure and discovery will guide Stella and take her far. Our job, for now, is to prepare her for that journey.


Parliamentary Elections Won’t Rescue Algeria from its Legitimacy Problem

Saturday, June 12, 2021

A crowd listens to citizen proposals at an early Hirak march in Algiers (2019).
Today is election day in Algeria, albeit under tense circumstances. Arrests of activists and journalists have expanded in recent days; the latest tally counts over 220 detainees. While putting many Algerians on edge, this campaign will do nothing to inspire participation in today's vote. For more on the stakes of today's polls and their context, read my latest analysis, published earlier this week at the Atlantic Council's MENA Source blog:
Arriving on the heels of two years of overt popular contestation, Algeria’s June 12 parliamentary elections will not suffice to resolve the country’s deep political impasse.

The upcoming polls are the latest attempt by President Abdelmadjid Tebboune’s administration to claim a mantle of legitimacy it sorely lacks. Both Tebboune’s election i December 2019 and a constitutional referendum last November appeared to deliver the results he and his sponsors in the country’s powerful security forces sought. High levels of abstention and protest, however, highlighted a wide gulf separating Algerians from their leaders (in the country of forty-three million, fewer than one in seven eligible voters voted for the constitution, which passed nonetheless).

Algeria’s rulers have long dismissed this gulf but it became undeniable in 2019 when the Hirak protest movement erupted, bringing an end to the twenty-year reign of Tebboune’s predecessor, Abdelaziz Bouteflika. The mass demonstrations, which were triggered by Bouteflika’s choice to run for a fifth presidential term but were fed by years of accumulated frustration and indignity, also plunged the country into a political deadlock. For two years, gray-haired authorities have faced off against protesters drawn from a population that is much younger, hungry for opportunity, and less accepting of Algeria’s longstanding isolation. ...
I invite you to read the full article here: "Parliamentary elections won’t rescue Algeria from its legitimacy problem." And if you enjoyed this analysis and want to learn more about current dynamics in Algeria, consider pre-ordering The Algerian Dream, my forthcoming book on Algeria's young generations. Full details here.

Two Years On, Algeria’s Hirak Is Poised for a Rebirth

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Exactly two years ago, residents of Kherrata, a nondescript town several hours' drive east of the Algerian capital, marched in protest against plans to prolong the rule of Algeria's president—and with it the era of corruption, waste, and repression he embodied. Days later, on February 22, 2019, their anger inspired millions of Algerians across the country to take to the streets, launching months of mass demonstrations for fundamental political change.

The frustration and indignities that inspired that movement, which became known as the hirak, are the subject of my forthcoming book, The Algerian Dream, to be published later this spring.

Last year, protesters paused the hirak due to the pandemic, but as Algeria marks the movement's second anniversary, its root causes are as pervasive as ever, making its resurgence all but certain. This morning, protestors began marching in Kherrata once more, presaging a new phase for the movement, as I argue in a retrospective on Algeria's hirak published today at the Atlantic Council's MENASource blog.

I invite you to read the full article here: "Two years on, Algeria’s Hirak is poised for a rebirth."

The Lesson of 2020: To Build Back Better, First Get the Structure Right

Thursday, January 28, 2021

This image is not an accident: Car near port of Beirut, 2017.

In my 2020 retrospective, I promised a reflection on last year's greatest lessons for humanity. Turns out, if you boil it down far enough, there's just one big one:

Two years ago Nina and I visited my aunt and uncle in Colorado, spending a week at their cabin outside Granby, near Rocky Mountain National Park. In 2020, Colorado recorded the three largest wildfires in state history. One of them, the East Troublesome Fire, finally halted just a stone's throw from the cabin's front door. The season's fires collectively burned 840,000 acres, an area larger than Rhode Island—but not because of drought or beetle-infested dead timber. Not really.

Two years earlier we were strolling with friends along the Beirut corniche, surrounded by joggers, fishermen, skateboarders, and kids on tricycles. In 2020, their world was turned upside down, their businesses and schools and homes ruined, and over 200 killed—but not by an abandoned pile of fertilizer igniting in the port. Not really.

And a few decades before that, I was born into a world with problems that had worsened until they threatened our species' very existence: nuclear war, epidemic disease, climate change. In 2020, we all saw our world turned upside down—but not by a virus from a wet market in Wuhan. Not really.

The real problem? We can't get the structure right.