Wednesday, December 22, 2010

December 21 - Algiers

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

68 degrees (farenheit) and the air is light and moist on December 21.  The sun has just faded over the western Mediterranean. The coast is about 100 yards in front of me, with palms and a coastal highway alongside and above the electrified rail system that spans the length of the country from East to West. Downtown Algiers looks so much like Marseilles that its startling. The blue and white buildings of Colonial-era France, each four or five stories tall with the classic wooden shutters that in the set-to-broil of a North African summer let in the breeze from the sea but keep out the sun. The full-length blue exterior curtains, especially on the balconies, that perform the same function but, in extending beyond the portal, also allow a sense of openness to the interior.

And, in Algiers, laundry.

Everywhere. In every window of every apartment more than a story off the ground level. Its like a Christmas tree where the trimmers went a little nuts and trimmed it with so many instruments you’re not exactly sure where the baubles stop and the tree begins. There are air conditioning units carved into the walls on many apartments, but what there clearly are not are dryers. And that’s not a bad thing.

The hanging laundry isn’t ugly – its just there. And there’s something charming and intimate in a way that everything is just “hanging out to dry.” In a country with so little a dryer, and its income drain, not to mention the insane electrical draw, is a luxury. Especially when the temperature most of the year is about the same as the interior of a dryer. I suspect you get things drier and fluffier faster letting nature do it than letting GE do it – at least here. And, of course, the first thing I think of is the power NOT consumed, and the coal and oil NOT burned in place of what the earth – and the sun – do better than anything we could possibly invent.  Dryers are the single most intense source of power consumption in the home – many, many times more than anything else. The Fridge comes next. Here, when the summers are 110 degrees, I suspect the AC takes that primacy. But the point is that dryers have become a strange requirement in the West. In the States entire communities have it written into policy, into code – no laundry can be hung out – it’s ugly.

Except it’s not (well, at least to me. I suspect there’s room for a boatload of debate about this). It’s been hanging in back yards and front windows as long as people have worn clothes and lived in shelters. Strange that sense of “tidiness and propriety” that emerges.

Old Algiers is startling on so many levels. The first of those being how green it is. From a satellite image of North Africa it’s very easy to forget that there’s a fairly deep band of green land surrounding the Med, particularly at its Western side. The desert doesn’t just make sea-fall the way it does when you go further east to Egypt, Gaza, and southern Israel.  Here it’s a lush green – a healthy green if you will. The foliage is different than in the West – in the States. Palms you expect, but not necessarily pine trees. And a whole assortment of other bushes, shrubs, trees and ground-cover.  At the hotel, at the beach, the sand and the flora mix as you’d expect, except that the tree cover runs right up to the shore, sprouting out of the dunes in ways it doesn’t in the US Coast. There’s no apparent soil, but the plants grow there – and grow tall – anyway. It’s really very beautiful and surprising, something akin to the way the buttes of Wadi Rum shoot straight up into the sky out of sand.

The second surprise is the mountains. Ignorantly I had imagined it to be flat here. But it’s anything but that. Not as extreme as Jerusalem and Amman (and definitely not as hilly as Ramallah, which is the roller coaster geography of all time for me --  insane), but very hilly, and Algiers itself is carved into the hills. You wind around them and down them as you approach the coast-line, and the buildings are hard-by and so the slopes feel even more extreme. Stairs – ancient stairs – dot the hills.

Its clear, as you come into downtown, that people have been living here a very long time. In fact, along the Algerian coast archaeologists have found evidence of human habitation dating back 200,000 years. That’s the dawn of modern humans according to the anthropological record; from the very beginning. That’s hard to imagine, really.  Habitation of that age goes back to an Africa climatologically utterly different than the one we know.

The cave painting of 10,000 years ago are of a verdant landscape with elephants and hippos and the famous paintings that run through so many caves of swimmers. The last rains fell in the Sahara somewhere between 8,500 and 7,000 years ago. Or, put another way, 95% of the way from the first habitation by modern humans to the one in place now. Imagine the changes they have seen in the earth.  Standing at the shore, looking at the soft coastline of a quiet Med, its not difficult to imagine 10,000 generations looking at the seas and understanding them to be the end of the world.  You went as far into the water as you could swim.  I wonder at the first boat to make its way into someone’s mind, that first time an nascent sailor slipped over the curve of the earth to lose all sight of land. What must that have been like?

The sheer idea that a wobble in the earth, and the height of the Himalayas, caused an entire fertile landscape stretching unimaginably far to vanish into sand is hard to comprehend. Now the Algerians have some of the great natural beauty of the world in the deep deserts of their country – the second largest geographically on the continent as I have learned while here.

I think of myself as at least modestly aware of the world. Yet coming here I am reminded that I know nothing, really, of it.  A week ago I could have found Algeria on the map easily, and could have told you it was a former French colony with a challenged history. I could have told you it was a country dominated by Islam. It had oil. Beyond that, there’s nothing.

Here, they call the last 10 years “the Black Decade.”

(more to follow)

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