Letter from a Zimbabwean in Algiers

From afar, Algiers is spectacular. A magnificent city set on the shores of the Mediterranean, its white buildings seem to rise out the sea, climbing up the mountain that runs down to the coast.

The gleaming architecture brings to mind the country’s colonial past. But like so many things in this country, there are stories within stories: what once seemed insignificant gains new meaning, while what was wonderful falls away.

Algiers is a city caught between the old and the new. The chic boutiques that line the centre of town are in stark contrast to the flea markets that look as if they have been trading for centuries. The street signposts are written in Arabic and French and the food is a blend of Arabic and French cuisine. Women covered from tip to toe in black niqabs walk alongside girls dressed in the latest fashions from Europe. It is a world unto itself. 


Gone are the neat jacaranda-lined avenues of my Harare; they are replaced by meandering roads that wind around the white tenements that make up the centre of Algiers. Gone are the churches whose spires reached for the heavens. There are mosques on every block. 


Religion is a subject I try to avoid, for in Algeria courtesy does not prevent people from enquiring about your religion, then looking in shocked horror when you reply that you are a Christian. What follows is a long lecture about how misguided and lost I am. I have learned to smile and nod. Arguing gets me nowhere. 


Patriotism on display


Gone indeed is the sense of being in Africa. The Algerians are wont to call me ’African’, a fact that used to surprise me until I came to understand that living north of the Sahara and being Arab might as well mean living on a different continent. In general, Algerians are nice but racism is a real thing here. Stones are sometimes thrown, words are whispered in buses and service sometimes assumes a different tone based on the colour of your skin. Most of it is rooted in ignorance, the prejudice that being African means being poor, unintelligent and somehow inferior. Imagine my shock when I was asked if my country had cars or roads. My response was that we manufactured them, thank you very much.


Algiers is also a place of spontaneity. Shops give amazing discounts depending on the mood of the shop owner. My Algerian friends are generous and the slightest occasion can call for a gift or a compliment. Pedestrians are able to stop cars with nothing more than an upheld hand and almost everything here is free for university students like me: transport, food, tuition and board. 


As a Zimbabwean, one cannot help but be impressed by the oneness of Algerians and their fierce patriotism. Flags adorn the streets and on days when the national team is playing an important match, shops, balconies and vehicles have flags draped over their sides. I cannot forget the distant memories of my country, where a sad sense of desperation to leave seemed to hang in the air, dreams of greener pastures somewhere out there, far away from what Zimbabwe had become in 2007. Leaving this city one day, I know I will miss it. All I can hope is that I will also have learnt to look on my country of birth with the same fierce pride that the Algerians have as they regard this city of theirs, 
’Alger, la blanche’.

This article was first published in the August-September 2010 edition of The Africa Report.