Today is my fourth day in Algiers, and I am loving it here. As the plane landed at the airport I felt pretty anxious. Family and friends were quietly worried about me making such a journey on my own. They’d read all the negative things about Algeria during the dark years of the 90s, or assumed that it is a very dangerous place.
So what’s it like here? My first impressions are these. First it is a very busy place. There are cars and motorways everywhere. It’s not a poor country and with petrol costing around 25 pence a litre, why bother taking the bus if you can afford a car? The result is that it feels pretty polluted, though the driving is not as manic as I was expecting; more like the M25 on a bad day!
Walking around the city can be scary. Zebra crossings are everywhere. However, they function more as street art than as safe places to cross. You basically step out confidently in print of the speeding cars and hope they stop, which they seem to most of the time.
People here seem pretty calm and courteous in general to foreigners. It really helps speaking French as English is little used. By no means everyone speaks Arabic, as about a third of the population speak Tamazight (Berber), and often they prefer to speak in French. The other really positive thing is that you don’t get pushed and hassled on the streets; people respect each other’s personal space. I was surprised that it’s possible to sit on a park bench looking at a map or book without getting pestered all the time.
It’s a very French city, rather like the Marseille that I remember from my childhood in the 1970s. Many of the population of the city before Independence were European, so the architecture is very Parisian for the most part. It felt like I was meeting the ghosts of a lost French community everywhere I walked on the first day. However, when you get to know the place better, you are aware that there are still strong links with France.
I’m staying with the Jesuit community in the city before moving on to my next destination. They maintain a quiet but active presence here and enjoy excellent relations of trust and mutual respect with the local Muslim community. But more on that later.