Algeria is a surreal place. As the largest country in Africa, its extraordinary beauty stretches from the crystal blue Mediterranean, over the vast Atlas mountains and across the al-Ṣaḥrāʾ al-Kubrā (the Great Desert) – known to us as just, ‘the Sahara’. A vast desert the size of China and the US, and said to be home to humans since the last ice age.
This expansive country is also a land faced by a multitude of social and political problems. The so called Arab Springs of Libya and Tunisia, two bordering countries, have heralded a troubling Arab winter; a season plagued by the threat of terrorism. Capitulated by conflict to the south of the country on its border with Mali.
"Algeria is a country all too familiar with the tragic realities of terrorism"
Sadly, Algeria is a country all too familiar with the tragic realities of terrorism. In 1992 the Algerian government’s intervention of the legislative elections to prevent an Islamist party from winning was followed by a bloody civil war that claimed the lives of more than 100,000 people and the childhoods of a generation.
With the civil war still a fresh in the nation’s memory, coupled by a MENA region facing unprecedented instability, it should come as no surprise that Algeria remains Africa's top defence market. It sees a strong army as important in protecting itself from the plight of Libya, Egypt and Syria.
Given this backdrop, a recent visit to Algeria left me rather confused. You see, Algeria is a remarkably vibrant place, full of diversity and an incredibly strong sense of community. Its people are intelligent, confident and articulate. It puzzled me how this could be when Algeria has endured more than a century of brutal French occupation and cultural hegemony, only to be replaced by a decade of deadly terrorism. A country where the current unemployment levels, average wages and devalued higher qualifications leave its youth with little cause for optimism.
There is, I believe, a reason, and she is called ‘A'isha. Rather odd sounding, I know – but allow me to explain.
'A'isha is an Arab lady in her late 70s, originally from the edge of the Sahara desert. Like many of her generation, she was the first of her forefathers to settle and leave behind the traditional Bedouin life, where she lived from place to place in tents. The moon and the stars were her ceiling, the golden desert her courtyard. She stands at a modest 5ft tall, strong in build, her arms and forehead marked by traditional tattoos, and her face imprinted with an impregnable smile.
'A'isha is a fascinating person. She is illiterate. Yet, she has the ability to recite, verbatim, volumes of classical Arabic poetry at will, or to instantly construct impromptu poems around any item or person you identify to her. She commands a retentive memory Oxford specialists in Arabic poetry could only dream of, coupled with a free-thinking engagement with vocabulary that would not seem out of place in the corridors of Princeton.
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The best time to seek out A'isha, I found, is in the early morning, shortly after the dawn prayers (fajr), in her kitchen, cross-legged, needing dough to make khobz (bread) for her children and grandchildren. Her pride and joy – family.
I asked her about her experiences. Hoping that she would gift me even the narrowest of windows into the emotion and human impact attached to living through the occupation of her country by a foreign army, being lined up in the streets like common criminals by the French army, or an insight into the overwhelming fear ignited by the subsequent civil war – where a knock at the door left families wondering if the ‘bad men’ had come for them. As with so many others, 'A'isha's plight was made all the more compelling by the fact that during the French occupation she had to live without her husband for two years; a lone mother, navigating through the tragedy and uncertainty of occupation.
Algeria's raw beauty.
My desire for insight and understanding was, however, dashed. There were no tears or long pauses. She simply looked at me, smiled - as though oblivious to the horrors of her experiences - and said: ''Son, all praise belongs to God, you had better eat the bread while its still hot!''
At first, I thought the experiences were too painful to share. Perhaps she was even teasing me. I quickly came to realise that the truth was quite the opposite. Her pleasant and calm reply, filled with a wisdom I clearly lacked and still do, was her subtle way of explaining things to me. It was a window into her resilience and strength.
"She commands a retentive memory Oxford specialists in Arabic poetry could only dream of"
She, like hundreds of thousands of other 'A'ishas across Algeria, didn’t defeat the might of the French and the terror of extremism with the speed of a bullet or the aggression of a fighter, though there were plenty of both, but through an unyielding will and self-determination. For her, the horrors of the past are tempered by the comfort of family and community, and by hope of opportunity.
And so as I pondered over the wonderful Algerian people, it was clear to me that despite all of the odds being against them, they remain a proud people and live in a stable country because of the sacrifices of their grandparents. Don’t misunderstand where I am coming from. There are enormous socio-economic problems that plague important aspects of the country. However, the resilience and powerful will of 'A'isha, a trait of an Algeria of old, strikes me as an important part of the solution.
The desert Arabs, in Algeria and as far across the Arab world as Qatar, pride themselves on the Sidra tree. Explaining the significance of the Sidra tree, Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser of Qatar said:
"The Sidra tree, growing strong and proud in the harshest of environments, has been a symbol of perseverance and nourishment across the borders of the Arab world. What is the significance of this glorious tree? With its roots bound in the soil of this world and its branches reaching upwards toward perfection, it is a symbol of solidarity and determination; it reminds us that goals of this world are not incompatible with the goals of the spirit."
It is the spirit of 'A'isha and of the Sidra tree, or the Olive tree in the case of the proud Algerian Berber 'A'ishas, that is key to allowing young Algerians realise their dreams and aspirations.