• This is surely a mistake, I thought, stooping to kiss the hand of Algeria’s minister of culture. Madame la Ministre Toumi Khalida is throwing a party to mark the start of Algeria’s annual book fair, the Salon International du Livre. This year’s line-up includes a contingent of South Africans led by Breyten Breytenbach, the dashing poet and former revolutionary, now resident mostly in Paris. My inclusion is a complete mystery, given the event’s broadly anti-imperialist tenor. Clearly, Algerians do not read The Spectator. But one doesn’t turn down a busman’s, so here I am, helping myself to a drink off a passing tray. The drink is green, sickly sweet and dismayingly bereft of crusader intoxicants, but there are compensations — nearly everyone here is smoking. Indoors. In the heart of one of President Bouteflika’s palatial residences. This one is an ice-white concrete structure, with lifts sliding up and down the walls of its cavernous inner atrium. We could be in Whiteleys, the West London shopping centre, if not for the band armed with doumbeks and flutes of the snake-charming variety.
• I am in the posh Hotel El-Djazair, boning up on Algerian history. It is a story of ceaseless conquest, starting with the Romans and culminating with the French in 1830. After that came the liberation war (1954-62), and then the dirty war (1992-1997), which pitted authoritarian socialists of the FLN against an uprising of the Islamic masses. The struggle ended badly for the insurrectionists, who eventually turned against ‘anyone who spoke French and wore a suit’. (One crazed jihadi sect went so far as to issue a fatwa against the entire Algerian population on account of its reluctance to martyr itself.) Such own goals enabled the FLN’s generals to reassert control, but Algeria remains the subject of alarming travel warnings, a place where Islamic bombs go off from time to time and al-Qa’eda lurks on the fringes. None of this is visible from the El-Djazair (formerly the Saint George), a lovely relic of the French colonial era, surrounded by perfumed gardens featuring a blue piscine in which desert maidens cavort in entirely un-Islamic bikinis. On the breakfast terrace, I find a Russian who speaks some English. ‘What’s going on here?’ I venture. ‘Oh,’ he says, ‘it’s a soft dictatorship. They make big money from oil and use it to hire policemen.’
• Breytenbach opens proceedings with a speech about similarities between Israel and apartheid South Africa, possibly the only theme likely to appeal to the leftish government and its Islamic adversaries. Outside, crowds move through the warm evening air, their social cleavages painfully evident. Cosmopoles throng the stands of progressive publishers who specialise in memoirs of the liberation war and reissues of Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. Ordinary folk prefer the far end of the fest, where bearded Mohammedans sell religious tracts in Arabic. Wandering among the faithful, I am accosted by a fellah who keeps poking me in the ribs and saying, ‘American! American!’ Informed that I am South African, he throws his arms around me, crying, ‘Nelson Mandela!’ For such small mercies I am truly grateful.
• Nobody in Algiers understands a word I say, given that I speak neither French nor Arabic. How to make a speech, then? I avoid the issue by taking my ukulele to the podium and doing a sing-song about the most famous melody ever to emerge from Africa. Dreadlocked poet Vonani Bila joins me on backing vocals, novelist Zukiswa Wanner sings the high parts, and we pull off passable renditions of ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ and its Zulu predecessors. I suspect this isn’t what the Ministry of Culture had in mind, but the tiny audience seems amused.
• At last, a gathering of Algerians with whom I can communicate. Our host is a professor of English at the local university. As a child, she saw French soldiers bayoneting sacks of semolina in her grandmother’s cellar, looking for hidden weapons. ‘They smashed our olive oil jars too,’ she says. Such experiences turned her into a left-wing feminist, which in turn made her a target for jihadis in the 1990s. Several friends were murdered, she says. Now there is peace, but it’s edgy. The Islamicist ideal remains attractive to Algeria’s poor; the percentage of covered heads in her classes is growing. Algeria’s Francophone elite sees Islamic fundamentalism as a ‘manipulation’ by evil Americans bent on replacing progressive regimes with supine monarchies of the Saudi variety. And Libya is of course a manipulation too. Our source on these bewildering plots is Breytenbach, who has friends in high places. He dropped an interesting snippet about Fanon’s widow, who stayed on in Algeria after the departure of the French, only to grow disillusioned. In the 1980s, she commended her son into Breytenbach’s care. He didn’t express it exactly this way, but one gathers that Mrs Fanon had tired of life among the earth’s wretched and wanted her son to be European. Shortly thereafter, she committed suicide.
• Algeria is growing on me. The weather is magnificent and the coast free of those awful tourist hotels that have ruined Greece and Spain. In fact, there’s hardly any tourism at all; I met a French yachtsman who claimed he’d come across not a single marina in a month-long cruise of the Algerian littoral. Apparently you Europeans are afraid to come here. On the basis of my brief experience, there’s nothing to worry about. Yet. I rather liked our hosts too, ideological differences notwithstanding. To demonstrate their progressive nature, they laid on a performance of classical music for their ‘distinguished foreign guests’. It was so sad — the music of dead white men performed by ancient relics of the French occupation in an Arab capital whose indifference was immeasurable. Hardly anyone came, except us.
Rian Malan is a South African journalist and author of My Traitor’s Heart.