Algeria - Snippets of Information

  • The word Algeria comes from the Arabic name for Algiers, which means island- El Djazeira.
  • With a population of approximately 40 million, Algeria is geographically North Africa's largest country by area. Before 2011, when South Sudan became independent, Sudan was the largest.
  • The official languages of Algeria are literary Arabic and Tamazight (Berber). French is a semi-official language and the currency is the Algerian dinar.
  • The renowned Algerian novelist, Albert Camus, played as goalkeeper in the football team for the University of Algiers, which may therefore be the world’s only university to have had a Nobel Prize-winning goalkeeper in its team.

Is Algeria All Desert?

The Sahara Desert covers 80 per cent of Algeria.

Who Colonised Algeria?

Algeria has a long history of invasion. It has been subject to rule by the Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, Ottomans and French over many years. Over a million Algerians were killed in the fight for independence from France in 1962 following colonisation in the nineteenth century.

Is Algeria a Poor Country?

Algeria has the third most important economy in the Middle East and North Africa, but many of its people are poor. The national rate of poverty in Algeria is reported as 23 percent.

Is It Safe to Go to Algeria?

The latest FCO bulletin on Algeria:
‘Terrorists are very likely to try to carry out attacks in Algeria, including kidnappings. Terrorist attacks have focussed on the Algerian state, but attacks could be indiscriminate and include foreigners. There’s also a risk that lone actors could target foreigners. You should be vigilant at all times and take additional security precautions, especially in: towns and cities; the southern, Libyan and Tunisian border areas; rural and mountainous areas in the north; and the Sahara.
The Algerian authorities devote considerable resources to the safety of foreign visitors. In cities there’s a clear security presence, which can feel intrusive. Authorities will want to know your travel plans when travelling outside major cities and may assign police or gendarmes to protect you.’

This is all entirely accurate. We have an armed guard most of the time in the desert. but no hint of trouble anywhere. The Algerians so far (except in airport queues) have been very gentle, polite and respectful. There is no hassle or belligerent selling. But there are very few tourists and not many souvenir stalls to promote anyway.

What to Do in Algeria?

I'm visiting:

The Algerian Sahara

Today, my tour group is flying from Algiers, on to Timimoun in the middle of the Algerian Sahara. The plane of the moment is a 72 seater ATR and we’re delayed for 45 minutes in the bus, waiting for two more passengers. It turns out the missing pair are Alec and Alison, the Australians who couldn't come on the tour. Fortunately, the weather is good and it’s a fairly smooth flight, once ground control take the off the manifest, so not too much Rescue Remedy is called for. The clouds begin to part and reddish brown rocky sand with patches of rippling dunes is increasingly visible. I’m sitting next to Riva, an extremely entertaining 78 year old, who still practices equalities psychotherapy. As Martin points out, ‘There’s only one more Riva to cross.’ The flight takes two hours and we’re only half way into the largest country in Africa.

Security in the Sahara

The latest FCO bulletin on Algeria:
‘Terrorists are very likely to try to carry out attacks in Algeria, including kidnappings. Terrorist attacks have focussed on the Algerian state, but attacks could be indiscriminate and include foreigners. There’s also a risk that lone actors could target foreigners. You should be vigilant at all times and take additional security precautions, especially in: towns and cities; the southern, Libyan and Tunisian border areas; rural and mountainous areas in the north; and the Sahara.
The Algerian authorities devote considerable resources to the safety of foreign visitors. In cities there’s a clear security presence, which can feel intrusive. Authorities will want to know your travel plans when travelling outside major cities and may assign police or gendarmes to protect you.’

So far, we’ve avoided any security convoys. There’s been a heavy police presence in the cities, but apparently this is because the gendarmerie are  busy with important football matches. Robbie deems this a good thing. He says they slow everything up and the bus is often required to wait for ages at changeover points. However, they are ready for us at the airport and escort us the five minutes’ drive into town. Disappointingly, they are aboard a Nissan 4WD. I was hoping for an open top truck and muscly men with AK47s perched on the back. They have demanded to know all our plans and will be with us tomorrow when we go into the desert. Though we are allowed to go on, into Timimoun on our own.

Timimoun

Today's walking tour of Timimoun is more than a little chaotic. We trail after Robbie who keeps losing his way, exclaiming that things have moved since his last visit and blaming his confusion on the heat. And it's only Spring. The temperature gets up to 45 Celsius, on average, in July. It’s a typical oasis town in that there are gates, fortresses and stockades with pointy crenellations and plenty of date palms. But it’s very different from those in the UAE. For example, the walls (except for the newest constructions) are made of red mud. This area was once part of the Sudan.

Most of the sand strewn streets are eerily quiet. We’re unsure why, until we come across all the women gathered under one awning, dressed in their most gorgeous finery. There’s a wedding taking place. Unsurprisingly, the villagers are not keen for us to participate. The darker skinned peoples of this isolated desert outpost are far more reserved than their coastal cousins and very few are keen to be photographed. One little boy runs away, terrified, at the sight of a camera.

So we decamp to the main street, where there are some photogenic beehive shaped structures and a little market. The large hive shapes, known as marabouts, are saints’ tombs, liberally sprinkled across the desert. There are a lot of holy men. Some of the tombs in town, like the walls, are fake, built purely for aesthetic reasons. Our hotel is wonderfully located with views across the palmerie to the sandstone formations and dunes of the Grand Erg Occidental (Western Sand Sea). It’s an excellent place to watch the sun go down.

Our Leaders in Algeria

Today, we are once more way down the police priority list. We have been instructed to venture out on our own and take one of the hotel employees with us. Robbie is ecstatic, but I’m less sure. I don’t think, ‘We haven’t needed them so far’, quite cuts it. Briham, the designated escort, looks the part in his flowing white djellaba, (clothing here is much more traditional than that worn up north) but he isn’t armed. At least it’s an opportunity for too many Life of Briham jokes, with Middle Eastern type scenery as props.

And we aren’t going to be able to rely on the dynamic duo who are our leaders either. George has a nose bleed and looks fetching with cotton wool stuffed up his nostrils. Jamie has turned his finger septic by picking at a splinter. Martin’s theory is that this all a ploy to enable them to plunder the pristine first aid kit. (At this point I should say that they are actually both very good at their jobs and they take all the ribbing in good part). In addition, Robbie has produced a very battered straw hat from his bag and proceeded to try and unflatten it, restoring it to some of its (very ancient) former glory. I’m wondering if we should have left it in the tiny museum. But it suits him.

The Sebkha Circuit

The Sebkha circuit is the sightseeing trip in Algeria. Our drive takes us, precariously (it’s not really bus country) along some very narrow tracks past abandoned villages and mud fortresses (ksars). One old Ksar has a network of caves underneath - still used by villagers to escape the extreme heat in the summer months. The route continues along the edge of the cliff with stunning views of the Sahara - arid land, flat-top hills, oases and of course the sand dunes

There are also more stretches of social housing. The accommodation is free, but unsurprisingly the Algerians are  not very keen to take up residence. Most of the people in work in Algeria are hired by the government and there isn’t much employment available round the Algerian Sahara. There are also an irrigation system, a handicraft shop and an imagined view of the sebkha (salt lake), after which the circuit is named. The access track is 4WD country only. Thankfully, we can see it from the hotel instead.

Some of the village roads are closed, as the wedding is still going on when we wander out for dinner. The bridegroom is processing around on a panoplied horse, his expression changing in succession from sheepish to proud and back again. His friends also take turns riding his steed and bearing the ceremonial gun and sword that accompany him. We're having our own simultaneous celebration. It’s fellow traveller Wendy’s birthday today and Mohammed has obtained a fancy cake. Though he has to be really strongly persuaded before he will remove the numerals he has added, to celebrate her exact age. The bridegroom is posing on an island in the pond behind our outdoor table as we sing Happy Birthday. He lets off a gunshot to add to the air of excitement (and confusion).

The Road to Taghit

It’s a stunning drive northwest to Taghit, through desert that turns all shades of yellow and gilt. There are perfect flat topped mesas, amazing huge dunes and more red ochre ksars. Today, we are travelling in convoy, police front and back. And I can now see why Robbie thinks our escort is a nuisance. Not only do we have to hang around at district boundaries while they change over, we also have to make our coffee stop at ‘my cousin’s café’ instead of the planned stop in the one town we traverse. This is despite Robbie’s vociferous remonstrations. The word ‘dickheads’ echoes down the bus. But at least AK47s have been flourished.

Beni El Abbas, our oasis lunch stop, is described in the itinerary as ‘The White City’. But its arched colonnades and casbah are perplexingly, yellow ochre, with cinnamon shading. ‘Well’, frowns Robbie. ‘I think it was white when I came ten days ago. They’ve redecorated’. It brings a whole new meaning to go out and paint the town, but not quite red in this case. We tour a tiny hospital hermitage (four monks, five nuns) founded by Charles de Foucault and a ramshackle museum stuffed with all manner of paraphernalia, documenting local history through the ages. From here, we skirt the Grand Erg Occidental with tantalising glimpses of dunes, until we reach the western most tip at Taghit.

Taghit

I follow a camel track (hoof prints in the sand) up a steep and stony hillside past a lone marabout (they are cuboid with domes aloft in this region). On top of the mountain I’m king of the world for a short time, gazing out over the sand sea. The golden barchan crescents overlap into the rock of the hamada. There are whoops echoing from far down below, where more intrepid folk are teetering over the dunes in quad bikes - wadi bashing.

Other hardy souls are climbing the track to the top of the granddaddy dune. It towers 120 metres behind the village. Martin has pointed out that it’s a shame there isn’t a Terry in the group. Then we would have 'Terry and Dune'. Doh! The dune with the village, fortress and casbah spilling down the hill in front, would be impossibly picturesque, if it weren’t for the satellite mast placed strategically in the backdrop.

South to the coast again to Oran and Tipaza

Abu Dhabi

The Emirate of Abu Dhabi is by far the largest of seven emirates that constitute the United Arab Emirates (UAE). It accounts for approximately 87 percent of the total land area of the federation. However, the much smaller Dubai has the larger population. After the Emirates gained independence in 1971, the flow of oil wealth to the area accelerated, and development was rapid. Traditional mud-brick huts were rapidly replaced with banks, boutiques and modern high-rises. And Abu Dhabi quickly diversified, mainly into finance. Abu Dhabi has over a trillion US dollars worth of assets under management in a combination of various sovereign wealth funds headquartered here.

The Capital Of Abu Dhabi

The emirate is named after the city of Abu Dhabi which, is both the capital of the emirate and The UAE federation. So, Abu Dhabi is the home of the local and federal government offices, the President and the United Arab Emirates Government and the Supreme Petroleum Council. The current sovereign is Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan who is titled Emir of Abu Dhabi and also President of the United Arab Emirates.

The city of Abu Dhabi began on an island in the Persian Gulf, but soon spilled over onto the, connected by bridges. mainland. Most of the city and the Emirate reside on the mainland connected to the rest of the country. Roughly half of Abu Dhabi's population of three million live here., in this increasingly glitzy metropolis.

Abu Dhabi City

This time I’m not a tourist, I’m working in the Abu Dhabi city area. I have to be up at the crack of dawn on Sunday for training as of course the weekend is Friday and Saturday. We have taxis every day to take us to work. We leave at seven and I’m still up at 10 at night report writing – it’s pretty exhausting and not much time to sightsee. As we are rushed to offices in taxis it’s hard to describe my impressions so far.

The city seems very modern. There are little corner shops and small, modern bazaars, but most of the city is high rise. There are malls and plate glass. One of the most notable is the Capital Gate building, which is Guinness World Record-recognised as the "world's farthest leaning man-made tower." It has 728 individually made glass panels, which are custom-designed to fit the building's unusual shape. A team of 12 window cleaners called cliffhangers work on it constantly.

Somehow though, Abu Dhabi feels more different from home than the Arab script on the buildings warrants. And it’s not just that on the streets, for the most part, the Emiratis wear veils and long sleeved robes – it’s already more than comfortably warm in early April.

The men tend to favour the cooler white dishdosh and a headscarf with a black rope. However, the females are more often attired in the more uncomfortable black abaya, with shayla (head covering) a burqa, or a gishwa (black veil). It has been suggested that we should wear abayas, but the company has settled for ‘conservative’ dress. I have to make sure that my arms and ankles don’t show. No see through material. And at times I’m asked to cover my hair.

Downtime

The hotel is relatively splendid and has a reasonable restaurant. I don’t get time for the free breakfast, except at the weekend. Even the possibility of losing weight has gone out of the window. All the schools I visit present us with huge beribboned baskets of chocolates and ply us with food all day. We have to buy our own dinners, but as I’m sated I’m more likely to frequent the hotel bar, where there are snacks – and cocktails. There’s officially no alcohol other than in the tourist hotels. Though we've already discovered that there are bottle shops if you know where to look and no-one challenges you if you enter (with trepidation).

No report today, so I rush down to the pool which I have been viewing fondly from my desk. But a sandstorm blows up so I still haven't done any sunbathing. The weather has been lovely up to now. I have still seen very little of the city other than a mosey round the corner to the supermarket. One of the nice drivers gave me a sightseeing tour of town on my way back from a school. It isn’t wildly exciting. It’s very modern, there are numerous skyscrapers and a marina and lots of malls.

I feel better after a weekend's  rest. I managed to get some time on the beach - very pleasant. It’s Mediterranean powdery white beaches (ironically the sand is imported from France), the sea is very blue and the (private) beach facilities excellent. Most of the big hotels have their own beaches with stripy sunbeds and the usual paraphernalia.

Worktime

Most of the company in Abu Dhabi is fellow employees who are staying in the same hotel. One woman keeps following me around trying to revisit the work we have already done. Even when I do sneak off to the pool she follows me out there, parks herself next to me and keeps prattling on. So I ban talk about work. Not to be out manoeuvred she moves onto whether she should she leave her husband or not. Yesterday, I closed my eyes when I saw her coming but she still wandered over and poked me. 'Are you asleep, Sue?'

So I sit in my room, do my preparation and report writing and consume KFC.

They upgraded my lodging today as everything kept going wrong in the last one. Most of the electricals and the plumbing gave up the ghost. Now I have a palatial suite with a separate sitting room and an endless supply of free drink coupons that the nice man in the bar obligingly swaps for margaritas, though he’s not supposed to.

The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

Crumbs, time has flown this week and things are looking very different. Last weekend I did a double decker bus tour of the city and walked down the corniche to the seven star Emirates Palace Hotel. The hotel was originally built as a palace for the sheik who then decided that he didn’t like it. Its’s very swish, coffee with real gold flakes on top.

I have to wear an abaya to enter the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque - all 82 snow white domes of it - and am shouted at as one of my trouser legs is showing. Like most Grand Mosques it has some mind boggling statistics. The mosque is huge, it can accommodate over 40,000 worshippers. The floral design in the courtyard is thought to be the largest example of marble mosaic in the world. The carpet in the hall is considered to be the world's largest carpet (it's wool, weighs 35 tons and has 2,268,000,000 knots). There are seven chandeliers (amongst the world's largest) that incorporate millions of Swarovski crystals. There is more - it's all on Wikipedia.

Sightseeing in Abu Dhabi

Saadiyat Island is also interesting. It’s to the east of the corniche, at the proper fishing harbour end of town. There’s a row of dhows and then a strip of road bridge to the reclaimed island itself. The biggest and best of everything is being built out there. The Guggenheim, the Louvre. They just haven’t started most of it yet. The Norman Foster designed, sand dune shaped UAE Pavilion has been finished for some time, but they can't find anyone who wants to use it.

Yas Marina is very flashy, as you would expect from the home of Ferrari World and the Grand Prix circuit. The corniche is a relaxing evening promenade ground. Towards the port end there’s a domed theatre and an open air tourist heritage museum, complete with humpbacked cow and tents and camel.

The Really Mad Lady follows me round all weekend. She says she has written to her husband telling him she wants a divorce for her birthday. She says it was only a joke and she can’t understand why he hasn’t replied.

An Unexpected Transfer

I am woken up at 6a.m by a phone call. I’m being moved to Al Ain, the other side of Abu Dhabi today. One hour to pack and get a cab into the mountains. I’m getting to see more of the UAE and it’s very brown. I don’t think I’ve seen a speck of green outside the city, (which is mostly artificial grass). Rocky desert stretches each side of the highway for most of the journey, but there are also some mini sand dunes. Much more Lawrence of Arabia.

Al Ain, Abu Dhabi

Al Ain is a desert oasis town, scenically facing a small but impressive mountain range. And the town rewards exploration. There is a small fortress with a museum inside and last evening we went and ate Moroccan in the town square, after watching the nightly mini Bellagio style fountain display.

Camel Racing

Driving out of the centre, to work, we often encounter camels being trained. Arabs prize camels hugely and camel racing is an ancient tradition. The animals can run at up to 40 kilometres per hour, but camels moving at speed and adult humans is a dangerous combination. The jockeys were originally small boys, from the Indian subcontinent, but there were still too many casualties. The Arabs bowed to pressure from human rights groups. put an end to this practice. Since 2005 small robots, complete with whips and racing silks, have been used instead. They're controlled from SUVs running alongside them. Two simultaneous races...

Jabal Hafeet

Jabal Hafeet - literally "empty mountain"- emerging from the desert to the south of Al Ain, is the only mountain in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. Nevertheless, its one of the highest mountains in the UAE. It has given its name to a period in UAE history, the Hafit Bronze Age (3200 to 2600 BC), because of the discovery of a cluster of important Bronze Age beehive tombs in its foothills. The escarpment offers a whole switchback of hairpin bends and views of the desert over to Oman.

Al Ain Rotana Hotel

This hotel is lovely too. A central atrium, glass lifts, a swim up bar and a weekly fish buffet. In the hairdresser I gossip with the local women who happily remove their burqas and shaylas to reveal glorious heads of over ornamented black hair - much gold and jewels. As regular readers of my column will know I’m always amused by hotel quirks. This time there is the guy who thinks it is a good idea to bring my laundry back at 11 o’ clock in the evening, when I am asleep. The laundry list has wedding dresses as the last item. And I’ve finally worked out why so many of the hotel rooms have little arrows on the ceiling. I thought it was to show where the smoke alarm was, but light has dawned. It’s the direction of Mecca.

The weather is very warm now, forty degrees, but very dry and not unbearable and the evenings are beautifully balmy. Tomorrow, I’m back to the city and my last job next week is with the mad woman again. I might go out with a bang.

Saddam Interferes

This is a trip I’ve been wanting to make for a long time; we learned so much about the Holy Land at school - I’m expecting a very spiritual experience. But my trip has become much too scary before I’ve even left home. Saddam Hussein, with immaculate timing, has invaded Kuwait and the Middle East is in uproar. We’re wondering if the trip will be cancelled but the FCO haven’t declared Jordan a no-go zone, even though Israel is polishing up its rockets, and the tour goes ahead.

Naturally, by the time my plane lands, the FCO has changed its mind, but we’re here now. David, our tour leader tells us to keep our head down, in all senses of the word. The British are not very popular here currently and sightseeing in Amman is off. We’re not too oppressed, though there are some surly faces and a few internationally recognised gestures in our direction. It’s ironic that Amman was the original Philadelphia - City of Brotherly Love.

Jordan is home to many biblical sites including, among others, the Jordan River, where Jesus was baptised by John, as well as the sinful cities of Sodom and Gomorrah Ancient Jerash, located in the Gilead Hills is still a sightseeing possibility. The itinerary says that ‘this beautiful Roman city is considered to be the best preserved of the Decapolis, a confederation of ten Middle Eastern cities established by Pompey’ but I believe it’s the only one to have survived at all, in any meaningful way. There’s plenty of colonnaded streets, theatres, temples, baths and an oval forum to be admired.

There’s also a crusader castle or two, one of which, Qasr Al Abd, is actually older than it first appears - it dates from Hellenistic times. At the time I’m more concerned with a distinct lack of toilets – gut rot has already set in. Perhaps the national dish, mansaf - lamb cooked in a sauce of dried yogurt hasn’t agreed with me. Then over the Allenby Bridge...

See Israel and Palestine for the next few days of this trip.

Petra, Jordan

Back into Jordan and down the King's Highway, roller-coastering over huge 'wadis' (valleys). We stop at Madaba, the city of the mosaics, and finally reach Nabataean Petra (sixth century BC), billed as one of the world's most outstanding ancient cities –‘the rose-red city, half as old as time'. It’s deliberately located in the midst of mountains, most of the buildings carved out of the rock face, making it virtually unapproachable. This was to protect the riches collected in levies on caravans. We venture in on horseback (walking is discouraged), through the Siq, an exceedingly  narrow chasm and the first thing we see is the huge basilica of the (Khazneh) Treasury, made famous in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Petra is  even more eerie than Jerusalem. All the other tourists have gone home. I expect it’s usually heaving, so it’s lovely to have it all to ourselves.

We are guided high and low - streets, tombs, cave houses, a wonderful theatre and shards of pottery lying in heaps on all the mountainsides. It is a unique and unforgettable place, enhanced by the play of light and shadow.

Wadi Rum

Onwards on the ‘fast’ Desert Highway, which is increasingly full of vans and trucks, as Egyptians leaving Iraq retreat to their homeland, in anticipation of an invasion. Wadi Rum is how one imagines deserts to be, instead of the rocky desolate places they often turn out to be. It has dunes and dramatic sandstone mountains rising from the sandy desert floor. This is where Lawrence of Arabia operated and where part of the film was actually shot.

Aqaba

The road to Aqaba is now lined with vehicles, as the fleeing occupants wait patiently (some have been here for several days already) for a ferry back to Egypt. Jordan has just 16 miles of coastline along the Red Sea. This is my first opportunity to snorkel - and this area, of course, is famous for its coral reefs. But Aqaba is struggling with its influx of refugees and we are patently unwelcome. After my underwater adventure it’s time to go home.

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