The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

AA Gill on Algeria


A suburb of Algiers by Flickr user Swiatoslaw Wojtkowiak

In this otherwise amusing if impressionistic piece from poor Algeria, always a favorite contender in the shortlist of most badly run Arab country, the Scottish columnist, restaurant critic, baboon hunter and Welsh-hater AA Gill has an odd passage claiming that think-tankers think Algeria is some bright, promising spot on the south Mediterranean shore:

It’s hard to credit that there are global security wonks and think-tank nerds who hold up Algeria as a model of a workable, acceptable, doable Arab republic, a possible poster boy for Iraq, now that the horrors of its civil war have dulled the edge of Islamic fundamentalism. There may even be somewhere in this place to interest the Middle East peace process. Seen from 20 storeys up and 10,000 miles away, in the air-conditioned and neon-lit offices, on a pie chart on a screen, Algeria’s mixture of a socialist, military, secular state with a Muslim population — a westernish Arab country that wears Nike and drinks beer and wants to sell stuff and buy things — looks like a good bet, a possible way forward. But down here on the street, without the benefit of the graph, the figures, the briefings and overviews, it seems astonishingly mad. The idea that Algeria could be anyone’s role model raises only a humourless snigger.

As a former think-tanker working precisely on this part of our benighted region, I ask Gill: pray tell, where are these Algeria experts who laud it as some kind of model? Enquiring minds want to know.

There are some other passages that will no doubt irk the notoriously short-tempered Algerians, such as this romantic idea of the French occupation:

The French didn’t just use Algeria for what they could get out of it; they did something far more damaging, far darker. The French fell in love, like an old man besotted by a young girl in a hot climate. The French imagined that with the power of their culture, their charm, their romance and a specially formed army of criminals they named the Foreign Legion, they could woo Algeria to become an exotic member of the family. It wasn’t simply a chattel, it was adopted and made part of France. Algerians voted in French elections, had deputies in Paris. More whites moved to Algeria than to any other African country. There were over a million French pieds noirs. They farmed a large percentage of the motherland’s fresh produce. They took the Bedouins as mistresses and occasionally wives. When the time came for the divorce, it was cruel and desperate. Fanned by great self-righteous self-pity, Algeria broke France’s heart and the French behaved like cuckolds. There was no sense of giving the nation back. This was the servants stealing the silver — a national humiliation, an act of betrayal.

Hmmm, by Bedouins does he mean les autochtones? Plenty of more faults there (the obligatory mention of the Corsairs and the US marines, the notion that French history starts with the French, etc.)

Another passage inflates Algeria's importance in the current clash of civilisations. If only -- Algeria is peripheral to the Arabs, peripheral to the world despite its importance as an energy supplier.

Algeria is the eye of a perfect storm of intolerance, the tsunami of postcolonial trauma coupled with the most nihilistic of 1960s -isms, Third World socialism, as well as authoritarian, reactive military juntas and Wahhabi sharia, all competing in a swamp of mass unemployment. It has a resentfully youthful population — almost a third are under 15. They hang out on corners, huddle and plot, race past on secret missions, mooch in gangs in the kasbah looking like greyhounds waiting for the white rabbit of no good to spin past. The boys are malevolently handsome, often strikingly beautiful, and they are the only people on earth who can make shopping-mall sports kit look chic and elegant. The names of the European football clubs on their backs mock the cul-de-sacs of their lives. On every spot of dusty land they kick balls, do press-ups, hang out with pit bulls on chains, tug at their own balls, smoke, have mock fights and wait for something to turn up.

I have to admit I do like Gill as a stylist, and that he does capture something of the Algerian pathos (albeit by no means a complete picture of it). Ultimately though this kind of writing may tell you more about the author and the snooty, insular country he hails from.