Welcome to Algiers
GEAR | September 2001
Going to Algiers is like hitting black ice at two in the morning. For a few terrifying moments you lose all control and sense that this is not the end. Then the car rights itself and you are facing in the right direction and all is good. The only difference is that all your senses are on full alert. The air smells fresher than it ever has, the cranky gas station attendant doesn't get on your nerves and the first bite of food is like biting into your first nibble of protein after a fast.
Arriving can be daunting. When the plane comes to a complete stop it is surrounded by heavily armed men in SWAT-type uniforms. Before disembarking I take a quick scan of the horizon. I can't see it, but I know the Sahara is just a couple hundred miles away. And then there is the history of killing foreigners, 120 in the last decade. The oil execs, the beheaded Christian monks, the reporters. I remember when it was a popular to say that the average life span for a foreigner was one week: from the time of arrival to the knife across the throat.
I take a taxi to the hotel, where a guard checks the car for bombs. He gives us the go-ahead and I reach for the door. Outside, I must pass through an X-ray machine and metal detector to get in the hotel. The clerks are professional and speak fluent English and seem wildly surprised that an American other than an oil executive is in Algiers. (I would be treated like a novelty for the trip's duration; often invited by locals to dinner, to tea, to visit the Sahara and to marry their daughters.) I get a room and turn on CNN, a window to the outside the world I left behind in Rome (no direct flights from America). After a few moments I open the curtains. Outside stand more Algerian anti-terrorist police, here to protect the cash-carrying foreigners. According to a U.S. State Department report I shouldn't go outside. The travel agent had wanted me to buy commando insurance — mercenaries supposedly would rescue me from danger. I declined.
My ticket is for one week, the average life span.
Algiers, the oil-rich capital of the former French colony of Algieria in North Africa, once the romantic city whose ancient Kasbah district inspired authors like Kipling and Camus, has been awash in blood for decades. Millions were killed or hurt winning their independence from France in the early '60s. And since 1991, terrorist attacks by militant Islamic fundamentalists, and alleged counterattacks by the government, have claimed some 80,000 lives, many of whom were bystanders.
The sun is setting over the Mediterranean, and I imagine that I could at least make it to the beach, although I then read that there had been massacres there as well. Just as I decide maybe to stay in my room the entire time, I notice something outside my window. One of the cops is smoking a cigarette and watching kids play soccer on a dirt field below him. The ball lands near him. He gently puts his machine gun down and does a few of his own moves before kicking the ball back. When he sits down he doesn't bother picking up the gun, just lets it lie there. Like me moments before, he sits there looking at the setting sun, not changing his position for 20 minutes. He looks bored.
With a tip from the hotel's receptionist, Nazil, who would become my guide and interpreter, I head for the nearest nightclub. He says it's a cabaret, where a man can pay a woman to sing his favorite songs. An Algerian Businessman had gained local fame after paying a singer $8,000 to sing for him the whole evening. There were also two men slapping dinar notes on the ground in a bidding war for a woman. The winner paid out $3,000 for an evening with the woman. I am intrigued by such debauchery, here in this dangerously Islamic fundamentalist place.
I'm not in the cabaret five minutes before the owner, Samir, puts his arm around me. He orders me a Jack Daniel's, no ice, and with two fingers points to his own eyes and then out to the dance floor, which is bustling with women in miniskirts and high heels. "Do you like?" he asks while sweeping his hand across my horizon as if I'm a contestant on The Price is Right, staring at my new refrigerator. "A woman for you in your room?" No thanks, I say and order another drink.
Just then a Frenchman walks up to the bar. The bartender and Samir turn to him, smiling and talking fluent French. I look around. Instead of the topless ladies offering lap dances, as one might encounter at a U.S. gents' club, there are prostitutes flagrantly offering a night in bed. Bathed in cheap disco lights, all blue and orange, the club smells like a Vegas Motel 6; the stripper's candy perfume, the stressed conventioneer's sweat and cigarette smoke, and mildew from a damp carpet. "The French," Samir says, turning back to me. "I do not like them."
"When Americans come they only want your money. When the Frenchman comes he wants your money and your soul."
I ask how dangerous Algiers in now. Samir leans over and talks loudly in my ear. "Do you see this bartender?" The server is thin, with olive skin and a narrow mustache. "His village is massacred. More than 100 people killed [by fundamentalists] and they stopped one house from his." The bartender serves the Frenchman a Johnnie Walker.
"There is nothing to fear." He takes a drink and adds, "But you must be careful. Algiers is never safe." He offers a toast, an Algerian proverb. "With us the wind may not touch you."
"And who should I be careful of?" I ask.
"Believe me. Mr. Bill, when I say this — I have no idea."
Although Algerians greet each other by kissing cheeks and saying salam allikoum — peace be with you — they seem able to kill at an alarming rate, and with messy vengeance. Besides guns, knives and saws are used to behead or disembowel. Women are often raped and kept as sex slaves before they are murdered. Although the killing has slowed since amnesty was declared in 1998, there are still car bombs and checkpoint massacres every month. The day I landed, 14 were killed by a car bomb in the city of Mascara, 200 miles west of Algiers.
"We are nervous people," says Nazil from the roof of his family's home, pointing to the building next door, where his neighbor shot his sister because she questioned his terrorist links. "The terrorist's use Islam money and feel important, I think most of them are bored."
Algiers, with its checkpoints and large but casual police presence, feels like a controlled military town, but it retains a faint French-colonial ambiance. The white buildings are a bit decrepit but have splendor, nevertheless. Balconies are decorated with flowery balustrades, and lines of motionless laundry, strung from the wrought-iron lyres of one balcony to the neighbor's verandah, hung to dry. Satellite dishes beaming in French television and CNN are cradled in most windows. Below, the streets buzz with brand new Fiats, Peugeots and Renaults. There is the opera house, the theater, museums, galleries and expensive restaurants. At night the streets become strictly a man's world. Women out at night are presumed prostitutes, and no one mentions the gay hookers along the main boulevards with their thumbs out, looking for tricks.
"Billy, Billy, don't you know? Algiers is like everywhere else. It is about sex, sex, sex." Says the man at the Boom Boom disco in the Hilton (most discos are located at international hotels). Unlike the cabarets, the discos are exclusively for the young. The Boom Boom has a large square room with flashing lights. The women wear Guess jeans and halter tops or cropped T-shirts. They look like Arabian versions of Britney Spears, with jet black hair and chocolate eyes. The men are in Nike shoes and baggy shorts. The pace is almost rave-like as the DJs play Arabic Rai, techno and Western tunes. Everyone dances, and partners switch often.
I ask a man where everyone has sex, considering most single Algerians live with their parents. "Come on, we are not who you see on TV. Boo!" he says, laughing at himself. "Does this feel dangerous?" I told him no. "Where did you have sex when you were younger?" At your friend's house, the beach, the park, a car. Look!"he yells above the music and points to a corner where a girl with her hair down her back is being felt up by a young man in a beach hat and Tommy Hilfiger jeans.
I leave and catch a cab. Finding bars and discos and cabarets in Algiers is simple enough. Locals are eager to show me the way.
Another cabaret. More music, more prostitutes. The bouncers, Mimi and Bobo, are big and dressed in Italian suits with wide collars. They say I need better clothes, but when I mention I'm American they open the door and buy me a Jack Daniel's. "We love America. You are very welcome."
I end up at Three Angels, Algiers' most popular disco. The door fee is $10, a fortune in local currency. Again, the doors open as soon as my mouth does. Multiple dance floors are crowded with smoke and dancing bodies. The drink of choice is, again, Jack Daniel's or Johnnie Walker. There's little space to dance but anyone is welcome, partner or not.
Nearby a tall woman in a slinky black outfit sways to Carlos Santana's "Maria, Maria." The man next to me leans in and points to her. "What do you think of her body?"I nod approvingly. He insists on buying me a drink. "Would you like to rendezvous with her?" I say something to fill space. He goes on: "Be careful, eh? Always use protection." I recall my first day in town and all the warnings — the insurance.
The woman sits next to me and asks for a cigarette in French. I answer in English. "You are American?" she says.
Her name is Jasmina and she speaks fluent English. She has dark hair, too much makeup and full red lips. We talk and dance, and the crowd gets thicker and more lively. It's 5:30 in the morning.
"Do you want to negotiate?"
"For me to come to your room." I say no thanks and she says not to think of it as paying her. She says she needs her phone repaired. I ask how much. "Seventy-five dollars."
We take a cab along Avenue de Tripoli as the sun begins to bleach out the night. At the hotel the receptionist insists I buy Jasmina a room. It is the rule. Then the elevator boy knowingly escorts me to her room. Then Jasmina is lying on the bed, smoking a Marlboro and watching European MTV. I ask about the tough restrictions of being a woman in Algiers.
"I am no ones bitch."
"I didn't think you were."
"Okay, you pay me and we make love."
"Have there always been so many working girls?"
"Only since 1992 when the terrorists began. Too strict. And women have to support their lazy brothers."
"What do you think of Americans?"
"Sweet but they ask too many questions." she says with a smile. "What if I give you 50 and we call it a night." I say.
"You don't want me?"
"You can have me tomorrow."
"I leave for Casablanca tomorrow."
"Careful. Morrocans can be dangerous."
I put $50 on the table and we watch Mariah Carey and Ricky Martin on the snow-static television in the 100-year-old French room with chandeliers and a balcony facing the Mediterranean. Now the morning chants from the mosque drift into the room like a breeze.
The killing continues; the newest craze is the murder of young children, to harvest their organs for the booming international market. That black ice feeling comes and goes, but there is respite. You can find some English-speaking locals and have the best time doing simple things. Going to Zamouri Beach, drinking local wine from Tizi Ouzou district, playing dominoes with the old geezers in the cafes, dancing till dawn, ordering Jack Danielâ€™s and watching the cabaret show, walking the streets of the most dangerous city in North Africa and the Middle East without a tourist in sight, sit at any of the best hotel bars and listen to oil execs working for Middle Eastern sheiks talk about their wives while courting whores. Or sit at the window watching bored soldiers and thinking how that could be a very good thing.