Augustine in Algeria

Conference ----  Site Visits  ---- Travelers' Tales  ---- Security Situation

Security Situation:  I saw no sign of any current tourist business anywhere in Algeria.  Granted we were in a cocoon of security and secured hotels, but these were the chief hotels in two major cities; my flights to and from Paris had few non-Algerians and all those had the clear appearance of businessmen.  The domestic flights from Algiers to Annaba and return seemed entirely without other visitors from outside.

Moreover, we spent a day in Annaba touring archaeological sites eminently accessible in the heart of a city served by a substantial airport, and there were not only no tourists on view, there were none of the appurtenances of tourism:  cafes, souvenir stands, soft-drink vendors, consumer trash -- not even trash receptacles on the sites or at the museum.  The same was more dramatically true at Madauros, 100 miles up-country, with a fabulous spread of ruins and essentially no "tourist infrastructure".

But all the people we met and dealt with were warm and welcoming in the extreme.  the hospitality you encounter in the Islamic Mediterranean is proverbial and well worthy of praise.  The welcome you receive (I've had the experience in other middle eastern countries) is not an American friendliness -- fewer big smiles, no Disney-based training of hotel staff assuring you that they want to be your friend, no faux heartiness; but a genuine attentiveness and courtesy that are the more persuasive for being undemonstrative.  No illusions are created or meant:  the relationship of host and guest is precisely that, host and guest, now and for this moment all-absorbing, without any pretense or silliness.  In Mdaourouch and Souk Ahras, we were the objects of very substantial local curiosity -- crowds of onlookers gathered simply to watch the busloads of conference-goers come and go, but it felt like genuine curiosity.  At Mdaourouch I twice saw a man on crutches with one foot injured beyond use:  he had walked on those crutches perhaps two miles from the town to our site, stayed for several hours, and was last seen walking home.  He could have had no motivation save irresistible curiosity.

It was eerie to be the object of such a gaze.  But it was also intelligible.  Wherever we went, we were wrapped in a cocoon of security of a dramatic and professional sort.  Let me recount my own experiences in order.  At the airport in Algiers, a sign-bearer at the foot of the stairs brandished a version of the conference poster highlighting the words 'Saint Augustin'.  When I gestured to him, he signaled me to go to a separate, smaller bus, apart from those collecting the rest of the 767's passengers.  When it was clear I was the only conferee on the plane, the bus, with six people besides myself (airport employees, conference guides, security personnel) whisked across the tarmac to the large permanently-installed white tent that welcomes VIP's to Algiers.  The tent was empty at that hour save for a few staff.  I was ushered to a very comfortable seating area where one other man, an Algerian in a well-cut suit, was sitting and taking no regard of me.  The several televisions mounted on posts in the lounge to facilitate vision from all the seating areas were in unison showing western style cartoons ("Bowser Busters" -- with canines) with Arabic-dubbed dialogue.

After a few minutes I was served a glass of peppermint tea from the African Unity Cafeteria that served the lounge area, and then my greeter returned with my passport and began to usher me from the tent.  The other gentleman who had been in the seating area came along with us.  Outside in the gated parking area, a single black Renault sedan with tinted windows awaited.  As the three of us piled in, it became clear that the man in the good suit (whose English was very good) was the security officer for this ride.  This set the tone:  everywhere any of us went, we did so with protection.

Our ride to the city took about 15 minutes in fairly heavy morning traffic.  At one point, a police checkpoint slowed all cars and waved them gradually on.  Ours, the black sedan with the tinted windows, attracted attention and was pulled over -- both greeter (from the conference) and security man immediately jumped out to remonstrate and on whatever few words they said, we were immediately waved on.  We reached the hotel without event.

Later that day, four Americans (I had arrived too late to join that group) were taken to the local archaeological museum:  it took three cars and a total of six security agents to make the trip, and the security personnel stayed with the guests throughout the tour of the museum, which seemed otherwise essentially empty.

Once in the hotel, it was made clear to us that we were not to go outside unattended for any reason.  The only fresh air we had in the 48 hours I was there came from going out on the terraces of the hotel rooms -- the El Aurassi hotel overlooks the harbor from a high prominence, so the views and the fresh air were no small pleasure, even if we felt at times in gilded cage.

When three days later we journeyed as a group from Annaba to Mdaourouch and Tagaste for a day's visit to archaeological sites, the conferencers traveled in four standard tour busses.  Those busses were accompanied by eleven other motor vehicles the whole length of the route.  As we traveled, we were accompanied at all times by a white helicopter patrolling fore and aft and to the sides of our route; during the time we were at the site in Mdaourouch, there were generally two helicopters in the air.  (My interpretation was that one had the morning shift, the other the afternoon, and they overlapped at mid-day, while each was available for the other if one was unable to stay on post.)  Every crossroads we passed had a police vehicle stationed with its officer out and alert, and every population center we passed through also had visible police presence; all highway traffic stopped while we passed.  None of this was threatening, and the personnel involved were clearly police rather than military (though a few military personnel of higher rank were seen at Mdaourouch, presumably in a supervisory capacity), but it was still an impressively large operation.

On my last night in Algeria, our dinner at the hotel was followed by a "soirée musicale" to be held a few blocks away down the "Cours de la Revolution" (the very Mediterranean "corso") of Annaba.  About 40 of us were willing to stay up an extra couple of hours for the event, and so we were walked the 200-300 yards down to the theater.  When the concert ended about 11:15, another American and I, ever the impatient ones, bolted immediately while the more genteel remnant exchanged pleasantries and moved more slowly for the exits.  We came through an almost empty lobby and emerged into the night.  Across the small plaza in front of the theater a half dozen security vehicles were pulled up in the street, but no busses.  My companion said, "I hope they'll let us just walk back to the hotel", and I nodded as we set out at a quick pace.  Within an eyeblink, we had picked up a minder:  tall, broad-shouldered, military in bearing, in civilian clothes.  His approach was strikingly professional:  he hung about ten paces behind us as we crossed the Cours and headed up the deserted street, keeping us and the street scene in front of him at all times.  As we reached the one cross street where a few people loitered around small portable stands selling American cigarettes, he pulled up next to us, closer to us than any of the street folk were, but still keeping us and all the others in front of him at all times.  As we passed that intersection, he dropped off again, walking in the street as we kept to the sidewalk and keeping his station exactly until we reached the driveway of the hotel.  There two hotel security personnel looked up in some surprise as we approached and made as if to challenge us until they looked at our minder:  whatever eye-flick was exchanged, they immediately stood aside as we kept going.  Our minder stayed with us to the door of the hotel.  There were others in the lobby at all times.  (None of the plainclothes security displayed any armament that we could see, though one of the more senior organizers of the conference showed signs, in the words of a waggish American, of what might be an unusual chest deformity or what might be otherwise explained.)

At no time did any of this feel threatening and nothing gave any sign of reason for concern.  To be sure, it would not be unheard of for devout Muslims to find the intrusion of partisans of a Christian saint offensive and to react in some way, and presumably the security presence was meant to discourage anything of the sort.  We talked about the security presence among ourselves and thought that whatever its direct effect for our protection might have been, it was also a clear statement of governmental will and ability to organize and protect a group of this nature and size wherever it went.

Conference ----  Site Visits  ---- Travelers' Tales  ---- Security Situation