The Algerians I Never Met by Nukila Amal

by

The first Algerians I met were two bearded men wearing sandals. They were on their way to do the Friday Prayer at midday. One of them smiled and nod at me, and the other one who was walking behind him smiled and cupped both hands in front of his chest and said ‘Assalamualaikum’ to me. I smiled back to the two of them and answered, ‘Waalaikumsalam’, Peace be upon you, too.
This was in the front yard of the Algerian Embassy in Jakarta, as I was sitting down on a chair waiting for the security guard to make a call inside before I could come into the embassy building. As they passed by and went out to the busy main street, I thought to myself: firstly, even though I didn’t wear a headscarf and was wearing a t-shirt and jeans, he knew intuitively that I was a muslim. Hence the salaam. But I might as well be a Catholic, for instance (Q: but why would a Catholic Indonesian apply for Algerian visa, anyway? A: Well, there are those inter-faith dialogues and seminars mushrooming all over the world today). And Indonesians don’t greet someone you meet on the street with Assalamualaikum, we only do the salaam when entering somebody’s house or answering a phone.
Secondly, I came to realize that, despite of the laws that place diplomats under the obligation to enact them (even the Indonesian staff talked to me in a solemn, formal tone on the phone), the two Algerians were just being themselves. The one in particular who greeted me, he was just being in accord with the most ancient heritage of his nation or religion, and was bringing his private life that he asserts in public in that sincere gesture, as if secretly betraying the laws which he as a diplomat must operate in, with all the authorities and principles that come with the system (as if apologetically he was saying, I’m sorry you cannot come to my country, due to the laws). But these laws did not apply when he stood as simply an Algerian, a human being. This is the second time that I came to be fully aware of the difference between the nation and the country. The formal and the informal, the restricted and the free, the form and the formless. The diplomat and the human being. The first time was my 3 months residency with the IWP in the United States.
My third thought: Algerians are nice people. And we can only like a city, a country, if we like its inhabitants; places where people are not mere background figures, but what defines how we relate to the landscape is our relations with people. Does not everything depend on our interpretation of the presence/absence around us? And from that one simple gesture, it’s not difficult to imagine and construct the rest. Not Algeria the nation, of course, but Algeria the country. And the Algerians that I never met.

Landscape tones: steep skylines. Low clouds. Grey sky, or magnetic blue when clear. Flat-roofed Arabic buildings. Minarets piercing the sky. The smell of crushed herbs, scents and human sweat. A stretch of landscape dominated by the human wish, scribbled with signatures of men and epochs. Surrounded by history on all sides, never free from reference. Fading traces of French…
People: They smile a lot. Long names you can’t wholly pronounce. Women walking briskly in long robes, or in faded jeans and high heels. Children playing football in the fields dreaming of the World Cup. The young diplomat’s grandmother invites me in for a cup of mint tea, her name is Fatma, and she showed me old photographs of the family, including the young diplomat as a toddler. Soon the diplomat will climb the ladder of his diplomatic career and he will become the decision maker that decides the foreign policies (or perhaps a radical minister of tourism). And when that time comes: visas for everyone…

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