“In Algiers one loves the commonplace: the sea at the end of the street, a certain volume of sunlight, the beauty of the race. [...]
“Probably one has to live in Algiers for some time in order to realize how paralysing an excess of nature’s bounty can be. There is nothing here for whoever would learn, educate himself, or better himself. This country has no lessons to teach. It neither promises nor affords glimpses. It is satisfied to give, but in abundance. It is completely accessible to the eyes, and you know it the moment you enjoy it. Its pleasures are without remedy and its joys without hope.”
This sounds rather attractive compared with the struggle of life in London, or Cairo, but people have not associated the city with ease, or that happiness without hope which Camus identifies in his essay, for a long time. The struggle of the late ’50s and early ’60s – depicted in a film of genius (and what a powerful personality the city had in that film) – was followed by a grim socialism, which led to economic collapse. Then came a free election in 1991, won by the Islamic Salvation Front. Then, for ten very dark years, the country was hacked to pieces by Islamists and an anti-Islamist military. The Islamists were defeated, or so the official story goes.
Isn’t loving the “commonplace” one of the symptoms of happiness?
In 2007 Algiers is the City of Culture in the Arab world. Here is an article about the profoundly uneasy Algeria of summer 2007 at signandsight.com, translated from the Süddeutsche Zeitung of June 12.
The article is called Alger la Blanche. That name for the city comes from the glistening white of its buildings as seen rising up from the sea: Algiers is a white city, like San Francisco. (Afrique blanche is a term for north Africa. It refers to skin colour compared with sub-Saharan Africa, but not the colour of colonial settlers’ skins compared with Arab or Berber skins. It isn’t racist.)
The photograph above is by Thomas J Abercrombie, from National Geographic, August 1973. The first below is by Cyril Preiss. The second, from a source I can no longer find, shows the way the city looked in The Battle of Algiers, though the picture is older. The last two are stills from the film.