The forgotten history of Algiers

 

When researching the history of Algiers, and how it became the largely colonial-style city that it is, I was intrigued to find out more about how it came about.  What was in the minds of the French colonial settlers when they demolished large swathes of the Ottoman city?  What were they trying to achieve?  What were their plans and aspirations?

So far I have not been able to find a book or even a decent article on the subject.  It’s as if the memory of the destruction and rebuilding of much of the city is forgotten.  One of the great mysteries of Algeria is how so many Algerians seem to have forgotten their history.

I met a director of one of the big national museums who told me sadly that so few local people came to look at the wonderful treasures in the museums of Algiers.  Indeed, when I visited, I had the place to myself.

Why is this, and how can it be?  It’s as if a nation is suffering from historical amnesia.  Actually, it is not as strange or as unusual as you might imagine, and seems to be have been common in colonised countries. Think of how the history of the Native Peoples of America and Australia was forgotten until recently.

What happened in Algeria is that after the French conquest of 1830, so much of the historical memory of what happened before was systematically destroyed as Algeria was forcibly integrated into France.   It’s not going too far to say that the process of colonisation was a catastrophe for the Algerian people.

Dr James McDougall in his recently published and excellent ‘History of Algeria’ (Cambridge University Press 2017) estimates that up to 825,000 Algerians were killed or died of wounds in the conquest and subsequent rebellions 1830-75, with at least as many dying of famine and disease.  Vast tracts of the best land were taken and given to European settlers.  It’s entirely possible that the shock of conquest and the unhappy colonial period erased memories of the past from popular memory.

Algiers was at the epicentre of this wholesale dispossession.  Was there a plan or settled purpose in the settlers’ minds?   The argument from silence is that such a plan as existed was to seize what they could.

Despite the motives of greed and lack of respect for private property that the French colonists showed, it is amazing how graceful and fine the buildings are that they left behind.  Huge amounts of money and effort were expended in making Algiers a beautiful white city, gleaming in the Mediterranean sun.  It really is a jewel of Africa.  It’s such a pity that so much of the history of this work seems to have been forgotten.

However, when you have finished reading this blog, you might like to follow the link to some great photos of the colonial style buildings in Algiers.

 

 

https://www.flickr.com/photos/varlamov/with/6898410430/

 

Back from Algeria – some thoughts

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I have just returned from an amazing three weeks in Algeria.  For the first ten days I stayed with friends in Algiers, but for the rest of my time, I travelled around on my own.

So what’s the country like?  Well, its big, friendly, and full of amazing things to see.

Algeria is now officially the largest country in Africa since Sudan split in two as a result of the civil war there.  You could fit France into Algeria four times, and the UK ten times.  So it’s not really somewhere you can get to know in just three weeks.  That’s why I concentrated on the north of the country, where over 80% of the people live.

It’s also one of the friendliest and politest places on earth that I have visited.  Most people  I told of my plans to visit (if they knew where it was on the map) said, “Isn’t that a rather dodgy and dangerous place to visit?”  It’s true that in 1992-2002 Algeria went through an extraordinarily destructive and murderous period of violence.  This was triggered when the government annulled elections that would have given power to an Islamist government.  It’s thought that over 200,000 died.  But that is all in the past.  Over the last two years well north of 250 people have died in terrorist incidents in Western Europe.  In Algeria is less than 10.

I found everyone I met, from village police to restaurant staff unbelievably helpful and solicitous.  “What do you think of Algerians?  Are we giving you a nice time here?” I was often asked.

Finally, it is stuffed full of wonderful things to say.  Apart from the world class Roman ruins at Timgad and Djemila, there are great museums to see. The best thing of all is that you will meet few other tourists.  During my three weeks there, I spoke English to any extent just once.

Over the next few weeks, I will be completing the draft of my travel guide to the country.  Currently, there is no guide available in English that is in print.  So please watch this space!

Algeria trip update 2

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Constantine

It’s been a while since my last post as internet connections were a bit flakey outside Algiers!

But what a trip I have had over the last week.  I’ve seen the stunning view from the Chapelle de la Cruz in Oran of the Med, the vast sprawl of the city by the turquoise blue of the sea.  I’ve been to the ethereal and Islamic city of Tlemcen.  For the last two days I have been staying in Constantine.

To get the negatives of travelling round Algeria out of the way first, because there are negatives.  The tourist infrastructure, though slowly improving, is poor.  In Constantine, a city of 800,000, there are hardly any restaurants in the European sense of the word in the city centre.  Sure, there are a multitude of coffee bars and cheap pizza stalls.  But restaurants do not seem to be part of the culture here.  I finally found one brilliant restaurant tucked away down a side street. I will be doing a write-up of this wonderful place when I publish my book, so sorry, it’s a trade secret for now!  The hotels, even the French chain ones, are not of the standard we expect back home.  For example, the AC has not been working for three days, nor has my TV either (it’s Ibis, by the way!). It’s also infuriating to find that museums and tourist offices – such as exist- are shut when they should be open.

But having said all that, Constantine is another example of the wonderful treasures that await the foreign visitor if you are prepared to disbelieve the nonsense written about Algeria being ‘riddled with terrorists’.  The old city is built on a rocky promontory, and was last major stronghold to fall to the French in 1837.  To get into it, you have a choice of bridges.  But my favourite one is in the picture that goes straight into the cliff face.

The Palace of the Beys in the city is one of the most beautiful Islamic buildings I have seen and gives the Alhambra in Spain a run for its money.  There was courtyard after courtyard of gardens with fountains and precious sixteenth century frescoes.  Not only did it cost me 30 pence to get into, but I had the place to myself.  It’s one of the tragedies in this strange but beautiful land that relatively few Algerians show an interest in the museums and treasures that are part of their culture.  The charming Director of the local museum, who insisted on sitting me down in her office, lamented this was her experience too.  Do go to her Museum, the Museé de Cirta.  Apart from the great mosaics, on the top floor is a Fifteenth Century Astrolabe that looked to me far in advance of anything we were using in England at the time.

Constantine itself is interesting culturally too.  The French were never the dominant part of the population here as they were in some of the other big cities during the colonial era.  French is written everywhere on shop fronts and most street signs, but is I suspect less widely or well spoken than it was.  Quite often I would speak in French, and people preferred to reply to me in English.  The relationship with their former colonial masters and their language is an ambivalent one at best, and it’s not unusual to come across younger Algerians who would like to ditch French and use English.

Modern Constantine is of interest too.  In 2015-16 it was the Arab City of Culture.  Huge sums of money were invested in a swanky new airport, roads and a facelift for some of the colonial buildings in the city centre.  There is also an impressive new suspension bridge and huge universities.  It’s got a buzz about it, and is somewhere that could get on the tourist trail.  But please can have something other than fast food to eat next time!

 

 

First impressions of Algiers

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.

Off to Algeria!

Later this month I am off for my first visit to Algeria for three weeks.  I am really excited as I have been planning this trip for months!

I want to use this visit to get a good overview of Algeria, its landscape history and people. So these are the places I will be visiting (hopefully) during my stay.

The first place I will visit will of course be Algiers (Alger in French) the capital city.  Its original Arabic name is الجزائر (Al-Jazā’ir), and it was from this name that the country became known by the French as Algeria.  It was founded in the 4th Century BC by the Phoenicians (yes, the same people that came to buy tin in Cornwall!) as a trading base. When the Ottomans ruled the country, it became a big base for piracy, before it was taken over by the French.  Algiers has a great Casbah (old Arab quarter with winding streets and shops) that apparently it well worth visiting, though I will  need to be careful not to get lost so will be taking a local gualgeria trip 2017ide with me!  The French spent a great deal of money turning the city into a European-style city, so I will see some of what they built too.

My next trip will be to the monastery at Tibhirine.  This became famous recently as the setting of the award-winning film Of Gods and Men.  The film told the story of the kidnapping and murder of most of the Trappist monks during the terrible civil war in the 1990s.  I want to visit to monastery to pray for peace and reconciliation between the great world religions of Islam and Christianity.

Then it will be off to the East of the country near the Moroccan border to visit Oran and Tlemcen.  Both of these places have great museums and places of worship to visit.  There is a high speed train being built to Tlemcen, but I don’t think it is up and running yet!

After this, I will be flying from Oran to Constantine.  This is a wonderful city that appears to float in the sky as it perched on top of a vertiginous rocky promontory reached by suspension bridges.  It will be the base for further forays I plan to make to the great Roman cities of Timgad (below) and Djemila.

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Finally I will be spending a few days resting in Algiers with my friend there before returning to the UK.

So this, in theory, is my plan.  But Algeria apparently is full of surprises, so I will need to be flexible, watchful and think quickly on my feet!

Hopefully I can carry on with my blogs while I am out there.  However, my plan is to finish off my simple guide that will give a some of the background and essential information on how to visit this fascinating country.  I expect to finish and publish this in the Autumn.

 

 

 

Is integrity essential to be a successful leader?

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I have just been reading Patrice Gélinet’s excellent recently published book on the Algerian War (La Guerre d’Algérie (published by Acropole, April 2016).  It’s a pity that it has not been translated into English.

Apart from being full of testimonies of this appalling conflict, it raises some very interesting questions about the nature of President de Gaulle’s leadership and integrity.

A great deal is said today about the importance of ‘integrity’ and ‘transparency’  in leaders, especially when introducing change.  Indeed I have written training courses that touch on this during my time at Acas!  However, perhaps there are times when we expect too much of these qualities from our leaders.  Maybe there are times when poorly timed displays of transparency could be deadly?

The Algerian War (1954-62) gives an interesting case study on managing change and the role, or not, of integrity in leadership.  Brexit is, to be frank, a walk in the park compared to what successive French leaders had to deal with in Algeria.  The war saw France bogged down in a war that not only cost over a million lives but dominated French politics, cost up to 18% of French GDP while it was being fought, and eventually killed off the Fourth Republic.  It led to the return of de Gaulle to power and the foundation of the Fifth Republic and gave him greater powers than nearly any other elected Head of State in the world.

The nature of his leadership divided France at the time, with many of the French settlers in Algeria feeling lied to and betrayed by him.  Many others in France, however, supported de Gaulle and believed his policies of withdrawing from Algeria were the only way that France could get out of that viper’s nest and recover its position on the world stage, where colonies were seen as being a thing of the past.

The Fourth Republic is often portrayed as a hopeless muddle of constantly changing governments rather like Italy.  However, considerable efforts were made by successive French leaders after the war started to come to a rapid settlement with the Algerian nationalist movement, especially under the presidency of Guy Mollet.

The French colonists were deeply suspicious of Paris and the metropolitan authorities, and elements of the army in Algeria were openly disloyal.  Mollet’s government negotiated secretly with the Algerian nationalists and actually came to an agreement with them that would have ended the war, spared all those lives, and even guaranteed a  place for the French settlers in the future Algeria.

In 1956, the French army was smarting from successive defeats in Indochina and the Suez crisis.  In fact, they had not had a military victory for over thirty years.  Elements of the army got wind of a flight the Algerian nationalists were to take from Morocco to Tunisia and managed to get the French airforce to force the plane to land in Algeria, imprisoning them.  This killed any hopes of an end to the war and sealed the end of French settlement in Algeria.

By 1958, France was winning the war militarily, but the French public was sick of the casualties and bad press France was receiving for its atrocities and torturing of Muslim prisoners.  As it became increasingly clear to the settlers in Algeria that Paris wanted out, serious riots broke out in Algiers.  Protesters occupied the seat of government in Algiers, ransacking the offices and throwing typewriters out of the windows. Yet another government fell.  This was de Gaulle’s chance to return to power.

The irony is that the more switched-on of the settlers realised that de Gaulle was no supporter of their cause, as Gélinet describes.  But what they didn’t realise was how clever a politician he was.  He gave his famous speech in June 1958 in Algiers to thousands of settlers, using highly ambiguous words that a democratically elected Head of State would be unlikely to get away with today,

I understand you.  I know what has happened here.

…and the crowd went wild, thinking that French Algeria had been saved.  But understanding someone is not, of course, the same as agreeing with them, and that was their fatal mistake.

De Gaulle explained later what was going on in his mind when he said these consciously ambiguous words,  “I uttered some words (to the crowd) that seemed spontaneous, but were really calculated to enthuse them without saying more than I intended to say”

To be fair to de Gaulle he probably didn’t have much choice.  He probably would have got assassinated if he had said what he really thought.  Also, as he himself says in his memoirs, he had been on record since 1955 saying that French domination in North Africa had to be replaced by ‘association’.

De Gaulle went on to fight in Algeria for another four years, determined to leave the country in a position of strength.  Huge sums of money were spent in his famous ‘Constantine Plan’ on building roads, schools, hospitals and housing to improve the lot of Muslim Algerians.  But in the end, a peace agreement was reached that was remarkably similar to the one agreed in 1956, and nearly all 1.5 million settlers fled the country.

My own view is that de Gaulle was never going to able to preserve a French presence in Algeria, and to his credit, he knew that.  Yes, he was economic at best with his words when he came to power.  But the real blame for the disastrous end of the French presence in Algeria and the chaotic collapse and loss of life in the war was not his.  By keeping his cards close to his chest in 1958, there was at least a chance that things could have turned out much better both for France and Algeria.  Sometimes perhaps we not only need leaders who show integrity and transparency, we also need them to be both lucky and wise.

A messy divorce – parallels between Algerian and Scotland’s quest for independence

I’ve been mulling on the tragic story of Algeria’s struggle for independence from France and the current storm over Nicola Sturgeon’s campaign to break away from the UK.

At first sight, the comparison seems a bit far-fetched.  However, parallels are of course two lines that don’t actually meet, so please humour me for a while.

First off, the obvious differences.  There is no suggestion of a violent struggle for independence.  Scotland has a democratic route to achieve this, even though there is a tussle over the timing of a possible referendum.  Secondly, Scotland was not forced into the union with the UK in the first place.  Though democracy did not exist in 1707 when the union was created, the great and the good in Scotland at the time voluntarily signed up to union with the UK because it gave them access to the lucrative markets of the British Empire.  Interestingly enough, the Scots were much keener on joining the union than the English, who rejected the proposal more than once.

Now for the similarities.  Both countries are oil rich and have the potential for diversified and prosperous economies that are less dependent on oil in the future. Another similarity is that Algeria is a member of the very small club of countries that successfully left the EU, along with Greenland.  In 1962, Algeria was part of France and therefore part of the EEC.  That membership lapsed on independence.

However, the biggest similarity of all is that both face difficult decisions about the future nature of the relationship with the countries of which they were a part.  The attitude of many Algerians to France is ambivalent, to say the least.  The same is true of how many Scots feel about the UK, and about England in particular.  It is also the case that many Scots who have no wish to see the UK ripped apart, feel that they have already had a chance to vote in a referendum, and are tired of what they see as the nasty and independence-obsessed policies of the Scottish National Party.

The greatest risk for England and Scotland is that, far from independence leading to a continual improvement in the relations between the two former partners, there could be decades of friction and hurt.  What the UK has and Algeria has never had to contend with is the real possibility of a ‘hard border’.  This is something the EU may insist on rather than either the Scots or the English, and could be divisive and destructive in the extreme.