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Jan. 24th, 2007

what's that tat?

emily asked about reactions to my tattoo.

here they are:Collapse )

the king

The director of the tiny language school where I go for arabic tutoring loves Elvis. Passionately.

"I have been listening to Elvis since 1955," he informs me. "Since I was ten years old."

Elvis pictures are on all the desktops of all the computers in the school's small computer lab: Elvis and Nixon; Elvis on a motorcycle; Elvis and Priscilla and baby Lisa Marie. Elvis CDs, ripped several times over, are stacked next to foreign language dictionaries on a shelf in the lab - a fraction, he assures me, of the collection he has at home. Piled on a table nearby are computer printouts of Elvis lyrics mined from the internet.

"I am collecting all the words to his songs, to add to my library at home," he tells me. I nod in appreciation, because I also like knowing the words to songs.

My arabic tutor, who is much older than the director, doesn't really understand the fuss. The director shows him an article printed from French Wikipedia, to help explain his greatness:

"Look, it says here: Since his death he's sold more than 2 billion albums - a record, an absolute record. And here, this is the photo of his meeting with Nixon."

The picture is scrutinized.

"Let me tell you," the director says, "it's not every musician that gets invited to visit with the president of the United States."

The arabic tutor asks: "What about the English group? The Beatles? They were invited to meet the Queen."

"The Queen of England, maybe," the director acknowledges solemnly. "But not the President of the United States."

Elvis's absolute primacy is thus established. King - and President - trumps Queen.

"Ah. So he was great."

"Great, yes," say the director. "He was great. He was the best."

Jan. 22nd, 2007

visa part 2 (or 3?) and an interesting person

the trip to the Wilaya (state administration) was extremely successful - we've submitted all the paperwork, and it looks like the visa extension will come through in the next couple of days. I'll be legal til the end of february :).

here I need to modify my remarks about Algerian bureaucracy: we didn't actually end up pulling any special strings - the man who had been telephoned the week before was a window agent (think DMV) who didn't remember being telephoned, and who had us fill out all the paperwork normally required. the process worked without intervention - a really good sign.

it's funny, because we were prepared to hit heavy. my uncle is known in Oran among the university set, and he has friends who are well-known in other circles. one of them - a distinguished television journalist in Oran - came with us to the Wilayat to lend us his prestige, introducing himself to the window agent, who didn't recognize him and so was not impressed. our "weight" didn't have any effect on the process, which is extremely encouraging.

this journalist, he's interesting: He grew up in El Bayadh, my family's home, and during the war with the French was imprisoned and tortured along with other young men in the city. After his release he left for Oran, working for the FLN (the National Liberation Front, the main group of Algerians fighting against the French) as a weapons runner.

after the war he worked as a journalist, teaching himself the ins and outs of documentary-making, and produced several documentaries related to the war itself - about a singer martyred in Tiaret (a city southeast of Oran), whose death was later avenged by an almost-botched reprisal mission; about the reunion, in 1988, of a group of men who'd been kept in a secret French prison in another small town during the war; about a man working for the FLN outside El Bayadh who was captured by the French, shot, and left for dead, but who didn't die from the bullet wounds - he found refuge with the maquisards in the surrounding hills and recovered under their protection. We watched each of these - along with another of his documentaries, produced in the 1970s, on Syria - yesterday afternoon and eveningat my uncle's house, after taking care of the visa, with dinner and lunch provided by my aunt.

they're really excellent stories, and they're everywhere. in February we'll be going back to El Bayadh, and the journalist might be coming wiht us - to introduce me to his friends there, and to hear more stories :)

yey! :)

Jan. 20th, 2007

visa update

ok, looks like things are going to work out. my uncle and I went to the police station Wednesday to ask about getting an extension and by chance met with an officer who was once a student of my uncle's at the university of oran. they chatted; she placed a call to an administrator friend in another branch of government who will be able - we think - to grant me an extension. we're going tomorrow to meet with the administrator, and with luck it'll be resolved in a couple of days. it's totally who you know.

that's how algeria works, in a lot of ways - in most ways. "Tier monde," third world, my cousin Ahmed says, by way of explanation, whenever we talk about administrative hassles or corruption or the quality of life here. (The "who-you-know" principle works around the world, but in places where bureauocracy is dysfunctional and corruption is the norm, it becomes a more necessary and vital mechanism for getting things done).

Dysfunctional. Algeria's suffered so many setbacks - it looks, physically, like a wounded country: Roads damaged or unpaved; buildings half-rotted, or half-built (everywhere in cement block or red briquets - and without insulation, so that houses are iceboxes in winter and ovens in sumer); garbage in the streets. "Regard, ce pays de gaz," my cousin the taxi driver says ironically, easing his beat-up Renault over craters of broken pavement. Meaning: here is a country, so rich in resources, that cannot pave its streets.

The impossible administration is something the Algerians in my French class talk about a lot: paperwork that goes unprocessed for months (or years); clerks and superiors who must be coaxed or bribed or threatened in order to move things through. It's a beaurocratic tradition inherited from the French, but it operates without a sense of its own benefit or potential for achievement. It operates listlessly. It is a pessimistic system.

So people get things done their own way - through contacts, through deals, through black-market entrepreneurship. They obey the rules that have to be obeyed, or that help to be obeyed, but they don't trust the government to help or to serve or to protect them - because it doesn't. In a backwards and absurd way, the government and the police and the justice system concern themselves with obeying the rules of bureaucracy - prosecuting crimes of paperwork and certification, obsessing over details while missing the big societal picture. "Il n'y a pas de justice," says my taxi driver cousin. "Il n'y a que la loi."

Jan. 17th, 2007

(no subject)

I might be getting deported soon. not really, but my visa expires Jan 29, and my flight home isn't til Feb 14th - and brilliant me didn't think to do anything about it til now.
I'm kinda worried, because normally to extend a tourist visa here you have to leave the country, send your paperwork back to the embassy that first granted it, and wait for them to issue you a new visa and mail it back to you. then you can re-enter the country.
my uncle and I are going to stop by the police today to ask if there's another way to do it. if it's possible to get my citizenship here (I didn't bring my birth certificate, so I don't know...), I might do that instead.
also, it turns out I can't change my return-home date to anything later than February 23. otherwise I have to buy a whole new ticket.

so it looks like I'll be coming home on time (or the 23rd at the latest). if the police don't catch me first ;).

Jan. 13th, 2007

weekend update


thursday I sat in on a book club that meets at the Bibliothèque Biomedicale, a private library/study hall for medical students that's run by the "Pères blancs," French Catholic priests who've been here since Algeria was a French colony. The Pères still run a number of libraries and educational facilities in Algeria, and although their presence isn't nearly what it was before independence, they still provide important resources for students and young people.

the book clubCollapse )

thursday evening I had dinner with the director of the future Centre d'Etudes Maghrebines en Algerie, a soon-to-be-operational branch of the US-based American Institute of Maghrib Studies (AIMS and CEMA are both private research groups run by academics who study North Africa). The CEMA director is very cool, a PhD student from the University of Texas at Austin who's been here since March trying to get the center off the ground.

CEMA and friendsCollapse )

saturday evening, French class was interrupted by two tiny "tremblements de terre" - echoes of an earthquake that hasn't happened yet. that was exciting - I've never lived on a fault line, and there's a fairly significant one not far from Oran.

and finally: Friday evening, Khalil, my cousin's 14-month old son, took his first steps. thursday his mom and I had been at the hammam, where we met another young toddler running after her mother. "How old is she?" my cousin asked the mother. "Thirteen months." "Thirteen months? And running? Mine doesn't even walk yet!" - and my cousin gave Khalil (who accompanied us at the hammam) a dirty look and a light swat on the bottom. So he's gotten the message, it seems.

Jan. 9th, 2007


I'm enrolled in a French class for adults. It's two hours in the evenings, four evenings a week, and it's very small: in the beginning, it was me and a girl about my age who works as a computer specialist at Sonatrach, the big national energy company; recently we were joined by a young man, either in his last year of high school or his first year of college (I can't really tell, and I missed the class where he introduced himself in detail, but he's young and he's a student of some kind).

The professor is French, the son of Algerian immigrés. He moved to Algeria in 2000 in what he describes as part of his own identity quest - and also to escape the increasingly Arab-hostile French climate. We have kind of an understanding between us, which is neat: two second-generation "first-worlders" looking for our roots back in the motherland. Neither one of us really speaks Arabic, although his parents spoke the dialect from time to time at home, and he understands it pretty well.

The two other students are arabisant, meaning both their basic and higher education took place in Arabic. There are also Algerians who are francisant, whose university education took place entirely in French and who received a strong French background in primary school. Nowadays, almost every student is arabisant but conversant in French - although it tends to be, like mine, a sloppy French. Those who don't finish school or don't continue on to university tend to be sloppy in both French and formal Arabic, unless, like some of my cousins, they attended Quranic school as children. The common language between both arabisant and francisant is the darija, the dialect, a rough outgrown Arabic that's related to formal Arabic the way Ebonics is to English, with modified grammar and word usage, and with a little French thrown in. But even the darija changes, from region to region and city to city, such that someone from Tlemcen will use a very different vocabulary from someone in Algiers. And then there's the Imazighen, the Berber, who are likewise educated in Arabic but who speak Amazight dialects all their own.

It's a bizarre, chaotic language situation that manifests itself in different ways in different places. I sat in on a conference in December at my uncle's university in Oran - the subject of which was the preservation of culture and history in a city in southwest Algeria - where participants presented in French or Arabic depending upon educational background, with a moderator who switched frequently between the two. In question-and-answer session arguments broke out more than once between panelists and between panelists and audience members, and professors forgot themselves and darija trampled over the formal language fences - darija and French and Arabic all together, all angry and confused.

My dad, when he was here, spoke French to an Algerian security officer who stopped us while we were looking for rock art - this was down south, where French is rarely spoken (in northern cities like Oran, you hear French all over the place) - as a prestige marker, to signal his level of education and to emphasize that our expedition had a legitimate research purpose. At the end of the conversation he switched to darija, to put the officer at ease, as a gesture of friendliness, familiarity, an "I'm-really-one-of-you" signal. It was interesting - and it worked; when we'd finished, the officer ended up offering us a ride to the bus depot the next town over.

Privately, and outside the country, people know that formal Arabic in Algeria is artificially propped up both by religious pride - it's the language of the Quran - and an educational system that looks down on darija as something less than a language. French education, meanwhile, has become more and more relaxed - even abandonded - as a result of post-revolution efforts to "cleanse" the country of its colonial corruptions, even though it's still necessary for business with Europe, for research, for communication. And darija, the everyman's language, is left in the lurch, despite the fact that day-to-day it's the most uesful of all.

"I wonder what that does to the national psyche," my mom says. As far as I can tell, it induces total schizophrenia.

I hear, a lot, things like: "Don't bother learning darija, it's not worth it"; "You don't need to learn fusha [formal Arabic], nobody speaks it"; "Our language [Arabic, formal Arabic] is being corrupted - we're still in the age of colonisation!" (this from one student who'd heard that another student had to write her university thesis in French); "Everybody speaks French, that's all you need"; "Everybody speaks darija, that's all you need."


So I'm in a French class with Algerians who already know a lot of French but speak it sloppily, and who feel a need - because of work, because of school, because of future prospects - to get better. This week I start formal Arabic lessons with a tutor downtown. And along the way I'm trying to pick up snippets of darija to use in the street, so as not to have to use too much of the French or Arabic I'm learning, because French marks you as a foreigner (or worse, a snob - an Algerian in contempt of her Algerianness) and because nobody actually speaks the formal Arabic. Chaos.

Jan. 6th, 2007

eid, part I

hey again everybody :)

here's a rundown of how we passed the holidays in El Bayadh:

Thursday, December 28...Collapse )

Friday, December 29...Collapse )

Saturday, December 30...(not for the faint of heart)Collapse )
- and I have to go! - but I'll post this as it is, and continue later.

Dec. 27th, 2006


happy holidays, everybody! christmas passed here largely unnoticed - unless you were a guest at the Sheraton Hotel (possibly the most modern-looking building in all Oran), whose lobby boasts a Christmas tree, a santa claus and snowflake window decor. right now everybody is getting ready for Eid al-Adha, the muslim holiday that celebrates Abraham's almost-sacrifice of Ismail (in the Bible it's Isaac; in the Quran, Ismail. potato, potahto. sort of). we're heading down to El Bayadh tomorrow to celebrate with the rest of the family. this year, Eid falls on December 30, so it'll be a combination Eid-New Year's feast.

in Oran, you can tell it's Eid because the city's been invaded by sheep: sheep on the roadsides, sheep in the road, sheep being trucked from the countryside to makeshift suburban sheep-markets to be sold for Eid supper. Sheep, hay, and bags of charcoal - for the roasting of the sheep.

it's tradition for families that can afford it to buy a sheep or two to be sacrificed on the day of Eid. half the sacrifice eaten by the family; the other half is distributed to the poor. this year, my college-aged cousin Nibras has decided he's going to perform the sacrifice himself - sort of an unofficial rite of passage into "real manhood." (I have been invited to videotape the procedure, but I'm pretty sure I'll be sitting it out.) I'm going to try to follow suit and take my place alongside the "real women" who then do the preparing of the meal. I'll letcha know how it goes ;).

Dec. 23rd, 2006


I joined a gym the other week, and had my first aerobics class thursday. I joined for a couple of reasons. First, it seemed like a good way to meet other women - and I think it will be: there were about twenty women in the class, young and middle-aged, and the instructor is friendly and energetic. I haven't really talked to anyone other than the instructor, but I think in another couple classes the ice'll break and I'll have made some new algerienne friends. It's not easy to meet people outside the family (not that there aren't enough family members to meet, in my case -just that here in Oran most of the family are male, and I'd like to mix it up a bit), and classes like this are a way for women out of school to meet up and spend some time together.

Second, I'd like to get my energy back up. In the month that I've been here, I haven't been lazy, exactly, but I've been tired - turns out it takes a lot of energy to keep the brain in translation mode (or, more frequently, frustration mode ;), and I find myself getting fatigued more easily than I used to.

Third - and related also, I think, to the second - I've been getting... softer. Not bigger, but definitely fattier, thanks mostly to a daily breakfast of miloui and m'bessess, two of the fattiest foods on this earth. M'bessess is like shortbread: butter with a little flour added. Miloui is dough and oil. Lots of oil: You flatten out a big square of dough, cover it with oil, fold it over, flatten again, add oil, fold that over, and keep folding and adding oil til you've got a flat, pan-sized square of soft grease, which you then fry and serve warm. My aunt prepares miloui almost every morning, and every morning I swear it'll be the last I eat it. No dice. M'bessess and miloui will be the death of me.

So I joined a gym nearby, which is full of old rusty excercise equipment and wrinkled, outdated posters of bodybuilders (Schwarzenegger is still king), and which twice a week holds aerobics classes for women.

I didn't expect a whole lot out of the class itself, but I was surprised - the instructor, young, warm, very sweet - worked us hard and seriously and for a very long time. She led us in French -- "Un, deux, trois, quatre - et soufflez!" -- which gave the class a sort of balletic feel, and the moves were all classic aerobic dance steps sprinkled with shoulder-shimmies. the aerobics were followed up with about a million crunches and leg-lifts; I'm sore pretty much all over, but it's a good sore, and I'm looking forward to the next class on Monday. Meantime, I'm gonna have another piece of m'besssess...

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