Why Go to Algeria?

by Sarah Prescott (United States of America)

The last thing I expected Algeria


The growing crowd makes our plain-clothes police escort nervous. He nods as the guide deftly leads us through 21 centuries of history but I watch his eyes dart everywhere as heads pop out of beat-up doorways and figures materialize from shady corners. I’m uneasy too. After being evacuated from Libya, I know how quickly a peaceful meeting can combust into a mindless mob. And yet, here I stand in a place with 80,000+ people packed into its crumbling walls and a long history of rebellion, thievery, and violence. Why had I agreed to come to the heart of Algeria: the Casbah? We walk deeper into the labyrinth, the silent horde following close behind. I touch a Roman column jutting out of a plaster wall and several kids leap forward to do it too. I clutch my purse as our policeman shoos them away. The Sûreté have discouraged this visit. We are in the country to open a highly publicized int'l school, and they are worried about a possible incident tarnishing Algeria’s new image as a safe, friendly place. However, the Casbah, of Pepé Le Pew and The Clash fame as well as a UNESCO site, is firmly on my Director’s bucket list, so here we are. Up side alleys float whiffs of rotting fruit, baking bread, sewage, and the sea. The lane narrows, dimmed by eroding cantilevered overhangs above our heads, and we pass only inches from carved doors. One creaks open and we jump back. The man coming out freezes in open-mouthed surprise. I risk a half-smile with a nod and so does he. A woman in blue hijab catches my elbow. “Come see my school,” she invites in careful English. I hesitate but our policeman nods yes. The group, some of them her students, waits at the gate until we resume our journey. There are almost no shops; only a woman who sells hand-painted pottery and an old man who solders brass lanterns. Neither hustles us. We stop for syrupy, mint tea. Show over, the gathering fades away with a few waves. The owner ushers us up sagging steps to his rooftop. He apologizes for its emptiness; he hopes to soon have tables. But my attention is on Algiers, the white city, fanned out before us. “Look!” our guide says. I glance down through the patchwork of roofs and flapping laundry, to the worn alleys that crisscross to the souk. What fabled Algerian detail is he so excited to share that his voice wavers with emotion? He points to a tiny group of people, wending their way in. “Our first group of Japanese tourists!” Why come to Algeria? Because they want you, too.