Algeria – A travelogue part I

A stranger’s a stranger only in a strange land (Karl Valentin)

Algeria it’s going to be, then. Shooting videos and photographs at a bottler for still mineral water. The initial enthusiasm gradually transmutes into worries. Images in my head. Reports in the media of kidnappings, civil unrest and conflicts out there and in the neighbouring countries.

That was two months ago. Today, I’m back home again. No, not quite. Part of me is missing. My soul hasn’t arrived properly yet. Part of it has stayed there – somewhere around Biskra. Where the mountains stop and the desert begins. Gazing out at the rapidly dwindling evening sunlight, the return of a smile, looking into friendly eyes, a feeling of safety in the familiar strangeness, and always this soporific, incessant, shimmering heat. 45 degrees on a really hot day. And now I’m sitting in my cool apartment, in rainy, rainy Regensburg, reminiscing, and listening to the music of Cheb Mami, an Algerian singer and a world-famous star. Before I go to sleep, another song, a duet with Sting: Desert Rose.

A rose in the desert. Something rather special. An oasis. A gift. Water in the desert. A place that permits life, and keeps it alive. A spring bubbling up in the midst of aridity – like in Guedila (pronounced “Geh-dilla”). The place and the spring share their name with the Algerian water producer whose friendliness and hospitality I found deeply moving, indeed it left me speechless … I would so much have liked to embrace and hug everyone at Guedila, in the European style, but unfortunately this does not accord with Arab ideas on decorum.


We set off for Algeria

We take off in August, the month of holidays, when the skyways are at their most crowded. Our first flight takes us from Munich to Paris, and from there we continue to Algiers. The first surprise: a broken suitcase. Luckily, the equipment hasn’t been damaged. Then the first security check – open your suitcases: “Why all theses lenses, are you journalists, what are you doing here…” and then we close our suitcases again and proceed. Five minutes of brisk walking takes us to the national airport: our destination is Batna, in the north-east of Algeria. Transfer with a free choice of seats on a small, propeller aircraft that quickly fills up with passengers. One hour later, we’ve landed safely in Batna.

And here we are, then. Waiting, looking at the boundless vista of sand and mountains. It’s seven o’clock in the evening, and the temperature is still 34 degrees, though luckily a breeze is blowing. And then, at last, we see a vehicle coming towards us. A large, dark pick-up truck. Someone gets out. An imposing figure. Clad in a billowing snow-white robe. It’s a young man, who comes up to us smiling. It’s Mouloud Hamdi. The Marketing Manager at Guedila.


 We approach our destination

150 kilometres of transfer lie before us. Darkness falls quickly, the night closes in on us. We pass through villages, dark houses, half-finished buildings, then lights again, men sitting together, at the roadside small illuminated grill eateries, with chickens roasting on spits, and here and there football on the television. This form of communication is timeless and ubiquitous, it would seem. We accelerate and decelerate to walking pyce. A night-time police check every ten minutes, or at least that’s what it feels like. The light in our vehicle comes on, we drive slowly past.

The final kilometres to Biskra are brightly lit. To our left, lampposts are lined up like pearls of light. We arrive. It’s already past ten o’clock in the evening, and the kitchen has closed for the night. But Mouloud organises our dinner. Room service.

It’s almost midnight, and outside it’s still over 30 degrees. My air-conditioner has been set to 20 degrees. And as we Europeans have been taught: not more than six degrees difference from the outdoor temperature. So I turn the air-conditioning up by four degrees. A cold is the last thing I need at the moment … I go to sleep, wake up again, it’s cold. I switch off the air-conditioning and fall into a deep slumber. Wake up again towards five in the morning: why is it so warm here? I switch the air-conditioner on again.