Algeria Dec 2013: An Account of my Two Week Sojourn in the Company of Sofian Mihoub. Part II: Around Ain Oulmene and Sétif

Despite the determination of the taxi driver to get us to Sétif in no time at all once we were out of the main traffic around the capital I could breath a little easier and even enjoy some of the surrounding scenery. Particularly impressive were the snow-clad peaks of a range of mountains to the north which Sofian referred to as Berberland. I remember arriving in Sétif around nightfall. Sofian had mentioned something about a football match that we might try and watch on arrival. I had just nodded, quite happy for him to set the agenda. As it happened the city stadium was right opposite the coach station and main taxi rank. I was immediately aware of the dazzling floodlighting and the chanting of the local supporters. By the look of things the ground was filled to capacity and there was a crowd of hopefuls at the entrance across the road. We soon abandoned our plan to watch the game. I was later told by someone they didn’t always attract the best calibre of people and that it probably wasn’t a good idea to go to a rowdy home game as a foreigner (they were playing a team from Algiers). Sofian managed to raise his friend Rebe on the phone and after using the toilets at the rather run-down coach building we went out to meet him on the road that ran past the stadium.

Rebe was a large, slightly reserved character who nonetheless showed me nothing less than the warmest hospitality. I was offered the front passenger seat and we proceeded on the southbound road out of Sétif towards Sofian’s hometown of Ain Oulmene. Not long after whilst still on the outskirts of Sétif we picked up two young gentlemen on the approach to a prominent bridge. Like so many other places on the continent one seldom saw an empty passenger vehicle, and I have to commend Algerians on their economy as regards vehicle commuting. One of the two young men was able to greet me in English but his command was limited to a few words and phrases. They soon lapsed into conversation with Sofian and Rebe in their native Arabic. We dropped them off a few miles later and continued on our way.

I was expecting to go directly to Sofian’s apartment where his mother resided. However, the hour was late and we had been unable to confirm with her that we were coming through that day rather than the next. Instead we bought something to eat en route and then proceeded to Sofian’s brother’s house in Ain Oulmene. His brother, Rabie (pronounced Ra-bee-ah), was shorter than Sofian but shared his ready smile, eyes and V-shaped hairline.  He ushered us into a tidy living room painted bright pink with a display cabinet and TV set in a corner and two stylised wooden settees up against the adjacent walls. We sat ourselves down. After a few minutes Rabie reappeared with a silver tray laden with China cups and a gold-handled teapot with a floral design, an Italian style coffee pot, some glasses and an assortment of biscuits, nuts and yoghurt. Wow! Was I to expect this at every house I entered as a guest? The answer was yes, I could.

Almost all the Algerians I met along the way were to show me great warmth and hospitality. The only thing that might seem odd to a Westerner is that one did not usually interact with the women of the household in any manner, most especially whilst chatting and eating in the living room area. I respect that this is cultural, perhaps inspired by some aspect of Islamic teaching as well. I was well aware that it was in fact Rabie’s wife who had prepared the snacks and tea but who remained out of view. The exception to the rule was when greeted by the matriarch of the house upon entering Sofian’s apartment the next day and later again in the journey when having lunch with a friend in Magra. It is customary in most cultures to display some token of gratitude for a meal so my only regret was that was unable to convey this directly to those who had prepared it, although I was assured that they would be thanked on my behalf.

Sofian's brother Rabie (right) and his friend and fellow teacher, Rebe (left), me in the middle. Ain Oulmene.
Sofian’s brother Rabie (right), his friend and fellow teacher, Rebe (left), and me in the middle. Ain Oulmene.

After Rebe departed some time later I asked to use the toilet facilities and was directed outside to a small concrete-floored courtyard containing an assortment of bric-à-brac but otherwise fairly tidy and orderly. In the corner was a small cubicle containing a traditional Arabic latrine. I had been able to familiarise myself with the procedure of using one on my summer excursion to Turkey. Unfortunately whilst performing my ablutions the power went out and I was suddenly enveloped in darkness. A few moments later I heard the impressively large, multi-bolted metal door to the courtyard swing open and the light of a lamp or torch filtered through the gap in the door of the cubicle which I had set slightly ajar. Sofian called out to reassure me and then it went quiet so I assumed he had gone back inside. However, when I emerged some time later (let’s just say that it had been a long overdue ‘appointment’!) he was standing patiently with the torch near the metal door to the yard. “You’ve been there all along?” I asked somewhat incredulously, secretly hoping that I hadn’t been talking to myself audibly loud (I probably had), or worse making embarrassing noises. If I had Sofian didn’t give anything away. He’s such a gentleman.

When I re-entered the living room two mattresses were positioned on the floor and a number of blankets and plump pillows were close at hand. We settled down and it wasn’t long before I had drifted off. We slept soundly until I heard noises from the adjacent room the following morning and Sofian’s brother appeared to say goodbye. He was heading off to work at the local post office, one of several jobs he held down. Sofian explained that it was an informal position: he had simply found a space where he set up a desk and proceeded to help the illiterate to fill in forms and paperwork for a small fee. I washed my face and brushed my teeth with the aid of a plastic jug and mug filled from a 25L plastic canister on the edge of the bath whilst Sofian prayed in the living room. There was no running water but it was quite adequate for my needs. Thereafter, bags slung over our shoulders we headed out into a rainy street and started walking in the direction of his mum’s apartment. I have to say that it was a little colder than I expected and the rain was obviously a disappointment. All the same if I had taken the trouble to read up about the weather in northern Algerian at this time of year I would have discovered that it could be jolly chilly and rain was not unusual.

My immediate impression during daylight was of a fairly quiet and orderly street with single-storey, unpainted or pale-coloured buildings fronting straight onto the street. There was a very narrow pavement and like almost every street in Algeria a spider’s web of cables radiated outwards from concrete poles at the street corners as well as the corners of buildings. A little further on we approached a larger street where a few other pedestrians were trudging their way in either direction but the vehicular traffic was light. The street was not quite so litter-free as around Rabie’s home and when we crossed over a small footbridge at the end of the street I noticed a concrete drainage channel choked by plastic debris. We descended the other side to discover a muddy track running parallel to the drainage channel. We went to the left and Sofian pointed out the area occupied by the weekly market a short distance away. It was evidently a large area the size of two football pitches or more and on Thursday it was apparently transformed into a scene of commerce and trade with farmers converging from the adjacent countryside to sell their produce. It was one regret of mine that I did not remain long enough there to observe market day in Ain Oulmene. As for the muddy, occasionally pot-holed street we were negotiating Sofian was not particularly complementary. “This is another problem we have. The government grants building rights,” he explained gesturing to a multitude of multi-storied apartments in various stages of construction,”but without providing infrastructure, roads and so forth. When the citizens demand this of the town councillors they complain they have not been allocated the necessary funds by government.”

I noticed that many of the new buildings being constructed of hollow red bricks, larger than those typically used in England, workers hoisting batches of them to upper levels by means of pully-and-cable type hoists. I had witnessed similar operations on my travels in Turkey where they also employed the same style of construction brick. Some of the buildings looked a little ramshackle but others were evidently being built by wealthier owners. A design that was to prove particularly popular with the well-to-do of Algerian society was evident there in Ain Oulmene and elsewhere I visited. It was hard to say what cultural inspiration it drew on, not being a student of such things, but Sofian ventured to say that it might be oriental. The new, red-tiled roofs of these apartments angled upwards steeply, often stepped inwards towards the apices, and enclosing a single window, sometimes with a balcony beneath. At each apex was a vertical clay spindle, for want of a better word, much like a chair leg that has been turned on a lathe. I asked several other people what they thought inspired this particular style of design and the consensus seemed to be a Mediterranean one.

An architectural design proving very popular in new builds in Ain Oulmane.
An architectural design proving very popular in new builds in Ain Oulmane and elsewhere in northern Algeria.

We made our way towards a series of apartment blocks where children were playing in the areas between the buildings amongst the comings and goings of the various occupants. Sofian pointed out a small enclosed courtyard area with a few plants, rather unusual in the context of the area, which he said belonged jointly to his mother and one of her neighbours. They had agreed to fence it off for their mutual benefit. We proceeded through an entrance to the adjacent apartment block where two small children studied me with shy but serious intent. I smiled at them and followed Sofian to a door just within on the ground floor. He knocked briefly before the door was opened by an older woman who was most definitely Sofian’s mother. The resemblance was immediately apparent. She kissed her son fondly twice on each cheek and then turned to me and greeted me in the same manner. Sofian turned to me with a smile and explained that she didn’t speak English nor French so we wouldn’t be able to communicate verbally. Really, the onus was on me to learn a bit of local Arabic. She was obviously pleased to see her youngest son – he was one of four brothers – and we were ushered through to the living room where he updated her on our travel plans and probably relayed some of general news. Sofian then insisted that his mum and I have a photo taken seated together on the sofa. The old lady surprised me by asking for my floppy, khaki hat which was lying near my partially unpacked bag. Donning it in the fashion of a middle-aged European on safari we had several pictures taken side-by-side. It actually put me in mind of my late mother who also posed for a photo in this hat or one very similar many years earlier whilst brandishing a tennis racket. It’s one of my most memorable portraits of her.

Seated nest to Sofian's mother in her apartment.  Ain Oulmene.
Seated next to Sofian’s mother in her apartment. Ain Oulmene.

Sofian instructed me to pack for our journey to the desert and insisted that I borrow his black faux-leather jacket which he had bought in Turkey earlier that year, despite my protestations that I would be fine with my one woollen jersey and fleece. As it was I’m quite glad I took the jacket: besides been an extra layer it was rather stylish and helped me fit in with the leather jacket wearing male population. It also had a good number of large pockets ideal to accommodate my passport, wallet and other items securely. Sofian donned a thick, blue football sweater and with our respective mini backpacks filled to capacity we set off.

At some point we were joined by a friend of Sofian’s, confusingly also called Sofian. from the town of Magra where the two of them taught together at a middle-school. In fact Sofian (the original) was really El Kheyr, but he had introduced himself as Sofian on the summer camp in Turkey because he assumed it would be easier for non-Arabic speakers to remember. Actually El Kheyr is not so difficult to pronounce once one realises that the ‘Kh’ sound eminates from the back of the tongue. In order to avoid confusion, however, the other Sofian suggested that I just call him Gilmour after David Gilmour of Pink Floyd. He elaborated on the reason why a bit later. My immediate impression of young Gilmour (at 26, quite some years my junior) was that he was well turned out in a thick, black, button-up winter coat. He had spiky, short-cropped hair which I assume he gelled, observant widely-spaced eyes, a big, toothy smile and a well-groomed goatee.

The first thing we had to do was to announce my presence to the local police. This could save us a lot of fuss and bother further down the line as Sofian had discovered when he entertained his first foreign visitor several years earlier, a Russian by the name of Sergey. I had heard much about the big, burly Russian with his gold teeth. He sounded like quite a character. Sofian had stayed with him in Moscow for a few months when he had gone there to learn Russian and to see whether it might be possible to study there. He sounded like a big-hearted character who had suffered hardships as a child and offered refuge to people from many different backgrounds. Sofian had befriended him over Skype using a translation programme. In time he had learnt the language and they still corresponded. I had heard Sofian speaking fluent Russian in Turkey to the immense joy of the school’s headmaster, Ramazan, who seemed more proficient in and preferable to English.

Back in 2010 when Sergey had come to visit Algeria for a month they had found themselves in a regrettable situation when Sergey was detained for questioning by the local gendarmerie (military police) for several days because he was snapping photos with a digital camera, was obviously foreign and had arrived unannounced. In the end they had required the presence of the Russian consul from Annaba to come and resolve the matter. Apparently they had jumped around rather smartly when he turned up. Russia and Algeria have enjoyed good relations over the years I’m told so the detention of a Russian citizen, justified or otherwise, was not to be taken lightly. In due course Sofian pointed out the local restaurant-café where all parties had come together for a hearty meal and where matters were smoothed over.

The main (only?) police station in Ain Oulmene was painted a bright aquamarine blue and white, reminiscent of the police uniforms. I was ushered into an office typical of such establishments, folders and reports vying for space on the desks. A middle-aged policeman took my passport, indicated for me to sit down and proceeded to fill in a lengthy form. A while later he beckoned me to his desk and fired off some questions in French. Fortunatley I had filled in the same form at immigration so I knew the gist of it: prenom (first name), nom de famille (surname), nom de jeune fille de la mère (mother’s maiden name), le nom du père (father’s name), Le travail du père (father’s job), my profession and so forth. Sofian translated where I was unable to find the right word. On a wall to the left of the desk was one of those boards with slots for name-cards. There were half a dozen foreign-sounding names, mainly Polish I’m guessing by the spelling, and a number of other names in Arabic. Sofian indicated that there were foreign doctors present in Ain Oulmene’s hospital. My passport was returned to me and I the staff officer asked Sofian to convey that he wished me a happy trip around Algeria. So far so good.

The next thing we needed to do was find the money men. We ambled along the streets to the right part of town where men congregated in a collection of roadside cafés drinking tea and socialising or playing draughts. Parked conspicuously at the intersection of a side street and the main street was a car with darkened windows. There was another parked across from it. At least that’s how I remember them because I couldn’t see the occupants. I left it to Sofian to approach the respective drivers and negotiate the exchange of 150 USD. Satisfied with the rate offered by the person in the second vehicle – 110 DN: USD) I proceeded to get some local cash in hand at last. Sofian had graciously paid for all the accommodation, travel and food expenses up until that point. Agreeing that it was time for a bite the two Sofians told me that there was a treat in store for me.

Directly outside the prospective restaurant was a smoky, charcoal-fired grill on which a man was roasting numerous skewers of assorted meat cut into small chunks. For instance one might consist of small pieces of beef alternating with chunks of fat or red or green pepper. This mini-kebab on a stick was a very popular Algerian dish called meshwi. Chicken and escalope (turkey) meshwi was also on offer. It was traditional to place the meshwi skewer in a hunk of bread, grabbing the latter firmly, before extracting the stick. It’s a tasty dish and we washed it down at a back table in the packed restaurant with a bottle of soda of some sort. All around me sat men, young and old, eating ravenously and vociferously. No one batted an eyelid so I assumed that I either fitted in perfectly or that they weren’t particularly concerned by my presence. Only a fellow who shared our table with us (like taxis it is acceptable to share a table with strangers in an eating establishment, something which didn’t bother me) realised that he was sitting opposite an Englishman. He smiled politely and studied me intently for a few moments before resuming his meal. I discovered that if one wanted more to eat one simply gained the attention of one of the waiters who came across and banged another handful of meshwi or chunky baguette pieces on the plate or bowl in the middle of the table. At the end of the meal you simply counted the number of skewers and paid for what you had consumed, along with drinks of course. The bread wasn’t charged for although I expect they factored it into the price somehow.

Eating meshwi at one of the many roadside eating houses in Setif and Ain Oulmene.
Eating meshwi at one of the many roadside eating houses in Setif and Ain Oulmene.

From the restaurant Sofian took us across to a business friend of us whom I would see a lot more of on my return to Ain Oulmene. Sofian had mentioned Ahmed in previous conversations. He had accompanied him to China where the latter purchased goods for importation to Algeria: household wares, beds, sofas, armchairs, clothes etc. Sofian was invited as an interpreter (presumably because of his background in language) and had learnt a little Chinese although he confessed that it was incredibly difficult. Ahmed had a multi-storey department store in Ain Oulmene. At the bottom level was a children’s clothing store called Kid’s House in large, coloured lettering. Above it were three levels hosting the household goods and wares. Next to Kid’s House was an adult clothing store called Carrefour Plus. It was here that we went in order that I might buy a few items to replace those in the missing carrier bag, namely some underwear and a couple of pairs of socks. I was already re-wearing a pair from the previous day and was dreading having to take them off later. I also got myself a pair of denim jeans to supplement the blue corduroys I had worn since day one. Gilmour also took the opportunity to buy a couple of pairs of socks.

Ahmed ambled into the store whilst we were there and I got to meet him face to face. He smiled broadly and introduced me to his young son, Mohammed, who was 12 years old. Ahmed spoke decent English and surprisingly, so did young Mo. He seemed like a happy youngster and was keen to display his acquired English language by asking me about football: Who did I support? Who was my favourite player? Did I play? As I was to discover Algerian men are crazy about football and the English Premier League is incredibly popular over there. All in all my purchases came to a thousand dinars or so which was pretty good really. Ahmed insisted that Gilmour forgo paying for the two pairs of socks he was purchasing. I was to discover that he was a very generous individual indeed and a real character about town.

Ahmed's home and department stores: Kid's House and Carrefour Plus.
Ahmed’s home and department store above his clothing store, Kid’s House. Ain Oulmene.

Thereafter we made our way back to Sétif via taxi. Gilmour and I had time to get to chat and get to know each other a bit better. We picked up where we had left off earlier, talking about movies and popular culture. I asked him about the Pink Floyd connection. “I’m a big fan” he announced. Later he would tell me that he had wept when he first heard a recording of them playing a live gig.

“I’m also a big fan of TV series, especially American ones. I like everything American actually – movies, culture, food…” I pointed out that Pink Floyd were English but that didn’t seem to bother him.

“I love the TV show Friends,” he told me, referring to the popular American sitcom. I’ve watched all ten seasons, all the episodes, twice.” He went on to give an appraisal of each of the main characters and finished off by singing a funny rendition of Phoebe’s smelly cat song. How did he get all this content anyway? I asked him. I hadn’t noticed a Blockbuster store anywhere we had been so far (I later saw a defunct video club in Béchar), although pirated DVDs were sold at a number of shops.

“Downloads man. You can download anything you want here.” I remembered the same sense of impunity people felt back in Zimbabwe. We were beyond the jurisdiction of the digital copyright enforcers. “And once I’ve downloaded it I store it here,” he continued, producing a sleek Samsung Galaxy S2 from a jacket pocket. His phone was obviously a treasured possession judging by the loving look on his face.

We disembarked in Sétif near the El Atik Mosque with its impressive minarets and a rather famous fountain and statue called Ain El Fouara. The marble statue was of a naked woman with long flowing hair seated on some carved rocks set on a broad concrete base from which spouted two jets of water. They in turn drained into two respective semi-circular basins and then a larger pool at the base of the fountain. I was surprised at the nakedness of the woman considering the conservative nature of the society, but she seemed to have gained a special place in the hearts of the local populace. Fundamentalists had tried to blow her up during the civil war of the 90s and the resulting damage had apparently been met with some outrage. She was repaired by students from the local university art faculty and today you wouldn’t know any better except for a missing nose and perhaps a few cracks and minor fillings. She was the creation of French sculptor Francis de St. Vidal in the 19th century and was brought across by the French in 1898 whilst they were still in power. It was said that if you drank from the fountain you would be compelled to return one day. I drank heartily. Sétif’s claim to being an ancient settlement was borne out by some stone Roman-era artefacts in a nearby public Jardin and an old Roman spa, no longer in use by the looks of it.

Standing nest to the fountain of Ain El Fouara in Setif and the naked nymph who adorns it.
Standing next to the fountain of Ain El Fouara in Setif and the naked nymph who adorns it.

We proceeded to take a much-needed wash at a local la douche or public baths. Basically one paid a fairly nominal fee, 50 DN or so, for the use of a cubicle with a warm shower. One could pay for extras like a bar of soap and a sachet of shampoo in my case. Rubber sandals were communal assets which one donned before showering. The facilities were clean and I could see the convenience of having public facilities when so few of the houses seemed to have running water. I was delighted to be able to put on a fresh pair of socks and my new denim jeans after bathing. Sofian also chose to shower and take his afternoon prayers in one of several prayer rooms at the back of the showers whilst Gilmour waited for us in the entrance area.

A douche or public baths.
La douche or public baths. Setif/Ain Oulmene.

From there we made our way across to a nearby café where we met Rebe. I was rather impressed by the cosmopolitan feel of the interior: peppermint green walls, white pressed-ceiling, marble counter and tiled floor. Gilmour explained to me that this was the go-to place for a younger generation of Algerians. He had been at university in Sétif, as had Sofian, and Gilmour professed to have some very fond memories of the place. We hadn’t been sitting for very long when a forth member joined our little afternoon gathering. He was also a language graduate who had studied with Sofian and introduced to me as Reyad. Up till now all of Sofian’s friends had been taller than me so it was a relief to meet someone who was shorter. Though he may have been a few inches shorter he had a stocky build and a certain confidence. He possessed blue eyes set in an angular face and blonde hair, slightly receding. He could easily pass himself off as a European and he had been mistaken for one in a situation he was to elaborate on a little while later. I noticed that he elicited a lot of laughs from the others and Sofian later declared how funny he was. I have to confess that he was likeable from the outset. Whilst still in Algiers a few days before Sofian had been on a call to him when he had passed the handset over to me saying that his friend Reyad wanted to talk to me. “Welcome to Algeria Leo,” he had declared. “How are you finding things? I am really looking forward to meeting you and finding about your life in the UK. I will tell you about my life as well,” he continued. Now here we were in a little café in a town almost 200 miles to the east of Algiers, face to face.

He settled himself down next to me and asked again how I was and if things were to my liking. I answered affirmatively. The conversation carried on a jovial, general way whilst various patrons came and went from the establishment. A couple of young girls, perhaps in their early twenties, ambled past our table and sat behind us. I saw Gilmour casting his eye appraisingly in their direction. He gave me a knowing smile. Reyad turned to me and brought me back into the conversation. He asked me what I did and I tried my best to explain the assortment of jobs I had engaged in over the last couple of years, culminating in my current employment with yet another agency, this time specialising in industrial jobs. I had been working in the catering industry for ages. “Now I work with machines rather than people. I prefer it that way,” I joked (although there’s a certain element of truth there).

“Very interesting,” Reyad said. “Did Sofian tell you what I do?” he asked. Actually he had I replied. “You work for BP, yes?”

“I do. I’m a translator. I speak English, German, French and Arabic.” I asked him which he thought was the hardest to learn and he told me that most definitely it was German. Perhaps it was because it was the last language he had learnt I enquired?

“No, it is a difficult language to master.” All the same he had obviously gained some kudos by acquiring this foreign language that so few others spoke in Algeria. Apparently he had been given the nickname ‘German’ by his mates. His Skype pseudonym (under his actual name) is deutsche.  He suddenly became more serious. “Did you know that I was working at In Amenas during the terrorist attack last year?” Once again, Sofian had mentioned something to me. In Amenas is a natural gas extraction plant in the desert near the Libyan border some 800 miles to the south of Algiers. Without having to prompt him he elaborated further.

“I was there when they (the terrorists) came and took us hostage. They thought I was a European because of my looks so I was placed with the foreigners.” He indicated that the Algerian workers at the plant were kept separately. “I kept my mouth shut because I didn’t know what they were going to do with us. After two days I decided to let the terrorists know that I was Algerian. They were very surprised when they heard me speaking in Arabic. They asked me if I also spoke English but I said ‘no’. Then they placed me with the other Algerian captives.”

He mentioned a couple of names of Europeans he had worked alongside including a Norwegian guy he said was a ‘very good’ friend of his. “We would even change our shifts if necessary to ensure that we would be working together,” he told me. He went on to explain how the terrorists had taken control of the core gas facility area and had taken his friend as one of several hostages. By this stage Reyad had escaped the confines of the plant and had made it to safety with many of his Algerian colleagues. The terrorists had strapped explosives to their captives at the plant and apparently chained them to some pipework. When the Algerian special forces had attempted to liberate the captives four days into the siege the explosives that were attached to his friend and the others were detonated. Reyad brought out his hand and showed me an ornate silver ring on one of his fingers. I only had a brief glance but I recall it having an intricate, stylised eagle set in the design.

“It belonged to my friend,” he explained matter-of-factly. “I found it when I went back to the facility. I recognised it and took it to a specialist person to have it cleaned.” I found myself wondering whether or not he had asked the permission of the deceased’s family to keep the ring. But what of it? The gesture of wearing the ring in memory of his friend who had died in awful circumstances was touching and heartfelt. He went on:

“Leo, you must understand that the people who did this, they were not human. They were animals,” he declared forcibly. He talked a bit more about the incident and the experience of other foreign nationals he worked with including Stephen McFaul, an Irishman who managed to escape with a colleague after the truck in which they were being transported flipped over.

Having given me a fairly comprehensive account of his ordeal he looked at his watch and stated that he had to depart. The invitation was extended to Reyad to join us for our vacation in the desert but he declined, having just returned from a long shift back at In Amenas.

“I want to move somewhere else,” he said somewhat understandably. “I am looking for other opportunities.”Standing up he proffered me a hand.”I hope I will see you when you return. Then we will have much fun. I will introduce you to the ladies of Sétif,” he said to much laughter from the others around the table. He said goodbye before paying for all of us at the counter. Sofian followed and tried to remonstrate with him but he insisted on paying, in keeping with the Algerian generosity I had witnessed previously. We were in the process of departing when one of the two young women who had sat behind us approached Gilmour and exchanged a few words out of earshot before returning to her seat. He smiled and explained that she had heard us speaking English and asked him if he might perhaps give her some language lessons. He went across to her table to exchange contact details whilst Sofian and Rebe waited outside. A couple of minutes later Gilmour emerged from the restaurant with a triumphant grin.

Together we wandered first one way and then the other taking in the surrounding buildings both modern and colonial in style. We passed an old building with fluted neoclassical columns at the entranceway and on a balcony above a set of iron, robe-clad, female statues smiling and brandishing lamps above their heads. Above them in turn were three signs in neat hand-painted, black capitals written on the wall and framed by decorative tiles. They read COMEDIE, MUSIC, DRAME. Near the very top of the building was written THEATRE beneath a crest and a small, Algerian flag on a pole.

An old theatre in Setif.
An old theatre in Setif.

The weather was still a bit dismal as we made our way towards a prominent intersection on which a rather large sculpture of a large, gold-leafed plant had been installed. It looked like a tobacco plant to me. Isn’t gold leaf tobacco a popular variety amongst smokers? Apparently the town council had bought it from China for over a hundred thousand USD. None of my compatriots seemed particularly impressed by the purchase but we had a photograph taken in front of the glossy attraction nevertheless.

Standing with Rebe and Gilmour in front of the new golden idol of Setif.
Standing with Rebe and Gilmour in front of the new golden idol of Setif.

It was late afternoon by now and time for us to make our way back to the coach station. Rebe kindly gave us a life there and after a few enquiries by Sofian we had booked ourselves seats on the overnight bus to the town of Béchar. I had no idea which direction we were heading or how far we were going to venture into the great Sahara. Sofian had mentioned Timimoun as his preferred destination, but since neither he nor Gilmour had been there, we were just going to have to play it by ear. I have taken many different coaches in many different countries and this was by no means the worst of them, except that it was a little cramped for me never mind the spindly-legged Sofian and Gilmour. Anyway, the main thing was that we were pressing ahead with our journey to the desert and I have to admit I felt a sense of growing anticipation as the bus heaved out of the terminus and started the long journey to the south-west.

My receipt for the trip to Bechar which cost 2000 Dinar (about 20 USD).
My receipt for the trip to Bechar which cost 2000 Dinar (about 20 USD).

Algeria Dec 2013: An Account of my Two Week Sojourn in the Company of Sofian Mihoub. Part I: Algiers

I must confess it was something of a relief to be leaving England on Boxing Day, 2013. Much of the countryside had been inundated by the incessant rain of the week leading up to Christmas. Although the temperatures had been mild for the most part, the rain literally put a dampener on most activities. It was living up to its colloquial name marvellously well: mud island. I jetted out of Gatwick Airport at a modest 0930 hrs (we had been delayed an hour by the shear amount of baggage the Algerian-dominated passenger contingent was trying to take aboard) and I took this shot with my phone – in flight mode of course – looking west along the southern coast of the UK just to the east of the port city of Southampton.

Departing a sodden England. The river in the near foregound is probably the River Arun. My home in Ringwood is somewhere on the horizon at right.
Departing a sodden England. The river in the near foreground is probably the River Arun. My home in Ringwood is somewhere on the horizon at right.

During the flight we made up for lost time with a strong tailwind blowing us across France, up and over the Pyrenees and Spain, then Barcelona and a blue and beautiful Mediterranean and finally Algiers. On the approach I could see it was a blustery day, the waves cresting and foaming energetically. The sun shone on the city and I got a good shot of our shadow cast upon a field as the aircraft dipped in towards Algiers International. I disembarked from the aircraft into a cooler-than-expected Algiers. As expected there was a fairly strong breeze gusting along the airport tarmac. I took my position in the bus that would ferry us to the terminal and soon found myself in the queue at the immigration desk. I was admitted without a hitch and continues on towards the baggage collection area.

At the carousel my fellow passengers gradually collected their bags and departed whilst I remained standing forlornly as the last of them was tossed out of the hatch. I caught the eye of one of the airport staff and explained my predicament to him as the remaining few continued doing an endless circuit, evidently in the absence of their owners. He did his best to try to assuage my anxiety. After hearing me describe it as a black bag with wheels and straps (for doubling as a backpack) he proceeded to grab the several remaining bags on the carousel (mainly black with wheels as it happened), each time asking optimistically if this might just be my lost bag? I tried my best to put on a stoic face but I had that feeling in the pit of my stomach that I wasn’t going to see my bag again that day, nor for a while yet. I thanked my friendly assistant with what grace I could muster and made my across to the Swissport desk who dealt with lost baggage enquiries. The first thing the assistant there asked me for was my boarding pass which I had printed off at home before I departed.

“Mr Schiller?” he enquired of me. Looking puzzled he showed me the baggage tag which the British Airways attendant at the baggage drop at Gatwick had stuck to my paper boarding pass. It read Schiller, R57LWZ, Cancun. “That’s just great” I though to myself. In all probability my bag was en route to Mexico in my name. There was nothing for it though, so leaving my name and my friend’s Algerian mobile number I proceeded through to the arrivals hall. Fortunately I had all essential items in my hand luggage: passport and money chief amongst them. I also had a couple of shirts, my camera, a spare mobile phone (which proved better able to roam than my smart phone) and some other trinkets. I would be ok. In some ways it would prove a blessing actually. We would be moving around a lot and one bag was ideal.

Sofian met me with a big smile and no recriminations even though he had been there since the morning. We strolled outside into a breezy Algiers and a car park populated by a surprisingly cosmopolitan array of vehicles, mostly modern Peugeots, VWs and Citreons. Whilst in Algeria I saw representatives of almost all popular Western brands, luxury models aside. I would also see many, many relic Peugeots which put me in mind of Zimbabwe where I spent my childhood. A particularly popular and resilient model is the one pictured below taken in another part of the country.

An old  Peugeot drives past a new mosque, in the final stages of construction. Apparently its benefactor is a rich lady with French money.
An ancient Peugeot drives past a new mosque, in the final stages of construction. Magra, M’Sila Province.

I knew Sofian from Turkey where we had taught together during the summer. We had taught English to children at a language school in a provincial town in the north of the country and had a thoroughly good time of it. We had shared a large living room in the apartment of one of the resident male teachers and we had become friends. I had never had a close Muslim friend before and observing the young man in the practise of his faith and the daily ritual of prayer was an eye opener for me. We managed to co-habit without issue and I found him good-humoured and as curious about me and my culture as I was of his. He had extended the invitation for me to visit Algeria several times before I had taken him up seriously a few weeks before Christmas. We had to act speedily to get the visa application in, Algerian visas being allegedly quite tricky to obtain. I had no trouble though and was granted 90 days with his letter of invitation.

Our first stop was the Hotel Khadidja in central Algiers. We took a taxi to the vicinity of the Grande Poste d’Alger where we disembarked. We proceeded to walk down the Rue Larbi Ben M’hidi, a road I would tread many times whilst in Algiers both then and later. I was immediately struck by the wealth of colonial architecture in the city. I imagine that Algiers had been an amazingly beautiful place in its heyday, and I say that at the risk of sounding like a colonial apologist. However I am not. Having talked to a number of Algerians, young and old, I am left in no doubt that the French, like so many imperial powers, suppressed the native Algerians in an effort to keep hold of the reins of power for as long as possible. All the same, from a purely aesthetic perspective one can hardly fail to admire the magnificent buildings adorned by balconies with stylised ironwork, louvred windows, plaster figurines and ornate sculptured reliefs. When I ventured to discuss the legacy with Sofian he just smiled and said, “the French built such magnificent buildings because they thought that they were never going to leave Algeria.”

The promenade fronting the row of fine colonial-era buildings and looking out over Port Said and the broad Mediterranean beyond. Port Said, Algiers.

Sofian had stayed at the Hotel Lala Khadidja once before and assured me it was habitable. We obtained a room on an upper floor for the very reasonable overnight fare of 900 Dinar each (approximately $9 pp). The room was clean with the advantage of having both a basin and our own shower. The ceiling was improbably high and a tall French-style door opened onto a narrow balcony with wrought-iron railings. It was obviously largely unchanged since it was built many decades before in another era.

Our room at Hotel Lala Khadidja
Our room at Hotel Lala Khadidja, Algiers.

The ascent to our floor was by a fantastic old, spiral staircase made of marble, pictured here:

The spiral marble staircase of the Hotel Lala Khadidja, Algiers.

The main drawback was that the room was pervaded by a smell of unknown origin (Sofian thought it was from the shower, I imagined it emanated from some pipework near the basin). Another was that the communal toilet was enclosed in a minute closet. It was notionally of European design but there was no paper, replaced instead by a hose attached to the wall for the necessary procedure. This was not in itself a problem except that there was no where for the water to drain other than the bowl and the tiny space within was usually drenched.

The view from the balcony was charming. To my left I could see back towards Rue Larbi Ben M’hidi but the view was mostly obscured by the building opposite, also of colonial design, but like most of them in Algiers in need of a lick of paint. Directly below was a street heading in a southerly direction and between the building I just described and a newer, ramshackle block of flats was a smaller side-street heading in the direction of the Ibn Badis Mosque. I could just make out the tops of the minarets over the assortment of satellite dishes, aerials and apartment blocks. The newer buildings were of suspect build but possessed a fascinating assortment of detritus, potted plants and ones that had germinated in situ, cables, household wares, rugs and clothes lines. Sofian had lamented on the lack of conformity to any sort of standard but there was a certain charm nonetheless. He did say that an earthquake in a town near the capital ten years before had caused much damage to the newer buildings. I’m not sure of the risk posed by seismicity to the Algiers laid out before me?

A typical assortment of apartments in Algiers, new and old cheek by jowl.
A typical assortment of apartments in Algiers, new and old cheek by jowl. Hotel Lala Khadidja, Algiers.

That evening we walked along the Rue d’Angkor which runs parallel to Port Said. This is an absolute must for any visitor to Algiers. The view and ambience are simply magnificent, especially in the evening light. A few cargo ships sat in dock loaded high with containers near some large hoists ready to load and unload the goods. Between the road and the port was a busy dual carriageway and a railway. As one walks in a northerly direction past the various terminals one approaches a Naval base which is off-limits but the view to the south and east is well worth taking in. From there we followed the road round to the north-west watching a group of young boys playing football on a fabulously smooth, paved boulevard probably unchanged since colonial French times and still in remarkably good condition. From there we approached another square and a fountain set against a backdrop of buildings and a mosque in one direction and seaward, a number of palm trees framed against the clear, late evening sky which was fading to hues of purple and indigo.

Sitting by a fountain in a square (place) near the naval base end of Port Said.
Sitting by a fountain in a square (place) near the naval base end of Port Said, Alger.

We decided to spend a further day and Algiers in order to visit some of the notable landmarks, starting with the statue of the Emir Abdelkader which we had passed the day before en route to the hotel. He is a historic liberation figure brandishing a sabre astride his horse, standing impressively upon a large base on which is written an Arabic inscription and alongside a bass relief of the Emir and a companion presumably heading into battle. The road encircled the Emir and the view down the Rue on either side was an impressive avenue of evergreen trees. A number of buildings flanked the Place d’Emir Abdelkader: a bank, a police station, a café called the Milk Bar where we had breakfasted and a library, intriguingly called Librairie du Tiers Monde or the Library of the Third World! We investigated at a later date and found it full of modern texts mostly in French, some in Arabic but almost nothing in English, a fact Sofian commented on disparagingly.

From there we had a closer look at the magnificent Grande Post or central post office with its huge, commanding entrance archways and beautiful decorative relief within. Sofian pointed out that inscribed beneath the upper floor around the perimeter of the building are the names of all 48 wilayas or provinces of Algeria. Sofian had an account with the post office and went in to draw some money. He suggested we wait until going to his home town before changing any of my US dollars on the black market. He distrusted the money changers in the capital reckoning they wouldn’t give us a fair rate. As it was the official rate of the dinar to the dollar was about 80:1 whilst on the black market one could realise 110:1. I was familiar with such disparities from living in Zimbabwe for so many years where foreign currency shortages were acute and the exchange differential before we officially adopted the US dollar in place of our own hyperinflated one had become stupendously large.

The Grande Post d'Alger.
La Grande Post d’Alger.

Shortly before 12 we had returned to the hotel from where Sofian had proceeded to the nearby Ibn Badis mosque for midday prayers. I took the opportunity to return to the area around the Grande Poste whilst the majority of the populace was either within the mosques or indoors. It always astounds me how quiet the streets in a Muslim city or town go at this hour. I walked up a street flanking the public gardens above the Grande Poste adorned by trees and shrubs, road-side stalls, a fountain and a stairway ascending to a summit. At the summit was a monument that I can only describe as anomalously ugly in relation to its surrounds. It is an angular white-washed object with a pair of hands breaking free from a pair of manacles on the one side and the just-discernible face of soldier on the other. Sofian and I passed it later and he referred to it as a Socialist creation. It was obviously commemorating the liberation of Algeria from the French in 1962.

A piece commemorating the liberation of Algeria above the Grande Poste d'Alger.
A piece commemorating the liberation of Algeria above the Grande Poste d’Alger.

Once we had eaten we proceeded to catch a taxi to the Jardin d’Essai which we had passed on our way in fro the airport. This is a relic of the colonial era, Algier’s most significant botanical gardens. The name translates literally as the ‘garden of trials’ or ‘experimentation.’ Intriguing, I’m not sure what exactly the French engaged in here! The gardens are a surprising find and well patronised by the local populace. Sofian lamented that there wasn’t a culture of gardening or of creating gardens, public nor private, in the culture of modern Algeria, a sentiment echoed by a friend of his I spoke to later on the trip. Nevertheless that the government has maintained the public gardens here and elsewhere in the city is something to commend them on. The Jardin d’Essai are literally an oasis of green in the metropolis. They possess some imposing specimens, particularly some species of figs with huge buttresses and immense branches sprouting roots which hung down like tresses. There were also some charming statues of native Algerian figures set amongst the trees, a series of ponds with mallard ducks and geese, several buildings and greenhouses and a number of straight paths flanked by avenues of unusual trees and palms.

An amazing Ficus with roots trailing down like tendrils from the branches. The Jardin d'Essai.
An amazing Ficus with roots trailing down like tendrils from the branches. Le Jardin d’Essai, Algiers.

After enjoying the gardens we proceeded to a smaller Jardin Zoologique i.e. a Zoo, near the eastern entrance. We had to kill a bit of time waiting for the gates to open at 11 o’clock and by the time we returned there was a large, somewhat disorderly queue of people waiting admission. It seemed to split in two so I joined one half whilst Sofian waited in the other. His queue seemed to bloat the closer it got to the admission desk whilst mine seemed a bit more orderly so he came across and we were eventually admitted after about thirty minutes or so. It was one of the many occasions where we shared a laugh over our common experience of what he called ‘Mama Africa’. He would say this with a broad grin.

The Zoo within the grounds of the Jardin d'Essai.
The Zoo within the grounds of the Jardin d’Essai, Algiers.

Sofian had been to the gardens before with other friends from abroad, including an American friend, Robyn, who he had befriended in Turkey on a winter camp earlier in the year. She had expressed no interest in going to the zoo but I was curious to see what state the animals were being kept in. I was not entirely surprised to find it a fairly bland establishment but I’m not sure how critical I should be considering that most Algerians that visited had probably not seen much in the way of wildlife. The north of the country was far more developed and populated after all. I’m not sure that zoos anywhere can hope to emulate the natural environment of an animal in its entirety but the patrons of the Jardin Zoologique could have done better in so far as providing some more greenery for its animals. The cages housing the big cats: several lions, a pair of leopards and a pair of tigers, were almost devoid of vegetation. The latter beast paced up and down impatiently behind the bars of his enclosure. I had seen many of these animals before in other zoos in far-flung places, but I was secretly pleased to be able to observe at first hand a den of small, furry desert foxes curled up in the cool winter sunshine. Their ears were anomalously large which would help them to thermoregulate in their desert environment in the scorching summer months. There was also an enclosure with several gazelle species which inhabited the interior of the country. I wasn’t lucky enough to see any in the wild so this was also fortuitous in hindsight. I was to see numerous camels but the first I set eyes on was here at the zoo. The animal was chewing on a bar to his enclosure and a white, milky latex covered his gums and that part of the bar on which he was so intently working his discoloured teeth. I was not particularly taken with the animal I must say!

Sofian does a pretty fearsome tiger impression!
Sofian does a pretty fearsome tiger impression! Le Jardin Zoologique, Algiers.

After our excursion to the zoo we walked back across the Jardin d’Essai and over the road to where a cable car ferried passengers up to the Monument du Martyre, an imposing concrete structure composed of three limbs, for want of a better word, converging on each other higher up before twisting and flaring near the top. It is the chief monument commemorating the sacrifice made by native Algerian citizens in the war of independence against France, literally translated as the Monument of the Martyr(ed). It’s shear size and pivotal location overlooking the surrounding city was obviously intended to convey the importance and solemnity of the achievement. A number of policeman positioned intermittently around the base of the monument prevented people from crossing the polished floor, whether to observe the inscription at the centre or to access the port-side perimeter of the monument. Later however, after dusk, when the crowds had dissipated we were able to gain access to the floor area but was prevented from taking too close a look at what looked like the bowl of a fountain at the very centre. On the earlier occasion we walked around the perimeter as Sofian explained to me who the statues represented and what part they had played in the struggle before being martyred.

A soldier, perhaps just a representation rather than an individual,holding aloft a flaming torch, mimicking the French statues of liberty, no doubt a deliberate embodiment.
A soldier, perhaps just a representation rather than an specific individual, holding aloft a flaming torch mimicking the Statue of Liberty, a French creation. There it represents progress and enlightenment. I presume this aspect of the statue of the soldier was a deliberate embodiment on the part of the sculptor. The Monument du Martyre, Algiers.
Me standing before the imposing Monument du Martyr, Algiers.

As evening approached we had wandered across to a nearby multi-tiered shopping centre where people were enjoying entertainment of sorts including a jumping castle for kids and music. Whilst standing on one of the levels looking down upon the central square and its shrubs and fountains Sofian suddenly paused as he glimpsed someone standing nearby. It was his friend Krimo from university. A bizarre coincidence what might say but then again I discovered that Algerians were liable to travel large distances regularly. After all, at 2.3 million km2 it is now Africa’s largest country (after the separation of Sudan). I disovered that Sofian was often in touch with fellow travellers which would prove useful in the acquisition of lifts to and from various towns. Krimo was in Algiers with a group of young Cub Scouts whom we had seen amongst the throng at the monument half an hour or so earlier. They were visiting some sights outside of Algiers the following day and we were invited to join them. Sadly our schedule prevented us from doing so but not for the first time I was impressed by the friendliness of a young, educated, Algerian who spoke commendable English and who professed to look to the Anglophone world rather than the Francophone as a source of inspiration. There was a notable exception to this observation, but I will come to Ahmed later!

My introduction to Algerian cuisine was a favourable one. In the morning we had dined at the Milk Café near the statue of the Emir, drinking crème (basically a small latte) and eating French pastries: mille-feuille and croissant chief amongst them. The mille-feuille was a sort of composite creation of layered puff pastry alternating with pastry cream and topped with striped, glazed icing. It was delicious. Sofian showed me how it was traditionally eaten: one inserted a knife beneath a central layer of pastry and inverted the top half so that the glazed surface was now in the middle of the slice instead. Allegedly this prevented the icing from sticking to the roof of one’s mouth. The breakfast was the most obvious relic of French influence on the Algerian cuisine, but one that I didn’t mind one little bit! But perhaps the most significant endowment of the former colonists was the language. Everyone in Algiers seemed conversant in French and although spoken less in the smaller towns and villages we would visit later, the road and shop signs throughout displayed in French and Arabic and only rarely in English. Arabic is still the mother tongue, although numerous local dialects are spoken, and it is noteworthy that Algerian Arabic seems to have adopted a fair smattering of French words. For instance, listening to them converse in Arabic I noticed that many native Algerians often denoted numbers in French; dix, vingt, trente, cent, mille etc. My command of French was limited to GCSE Level done many years ago but I understood more than I could talk. It was nice to feel the Romance language on my tongue again but I lacked confidence and I got the feeling that not all Algerians, Sofian included, were particularly fond of the language for reasons I elaborate on elsewhere.

That evening we ate at one of the many roadside cafés in the vicinity of the hotel. I tried one of the local soups or shorba, and followed that up with a large plate of couscous. I knew that couscous was a regional staple and I expected to eat it frequently but was amused to hear from some of the young Algerians I met that they grew tired of eating it too often, besides which there proved quite a diversity of alternative main dishes. The ‘stew’ for the couscous was served in a separate bowl and one ladled it on as one saw fit. Meat was an integral part of any main meal I discovered, whether chicken, goat, mutton or beef. Often hunks of meat were served up alongside a stew to supplement the main dish.

We slept again at our hotel, having decided that there wasn’t much point moving and that the pros outweighed the cons. All the same the unpleasant odour we had noticed the day before seemed stronger that night. I read somewhere that one can expect smelly rooms in most budget accommodation in Algiers, probably a consequence of the old and decrepit plumbing. We opened the louvred doors to the balcony and let the sweet night air fill the interior. The smell receded and we got a decent night’s sleep even if we did have to throw an extra blanket on our respective beds.

Sofian looks thoughtful. Observe the ever-so-Parisian café where we regularly took espresso and croissant.
Sofian looks thoughtful. Observe the ever-so-Parisian café near the Grande Poste d’Alger where we regularly took espresso and croissants.

The following morning we took breakfast at a pavement café near the Grande Poste and the juncture of one of the major pedestrian thoroughfares in the district. We would frequent the place several times before I returned to the UK . It was a great place to observe the ebb and flow of human traffic. Most young people in the capital dressed in Western-style clothing. The majority of the young women wore coats, close-fitting trousers and boots as I imagine girls of a similar age were wearing throughout Europe at that time of year. Many wore the muslim headscarf or hijab but a significant minority chose not to. The guys also wore coats and denims and many sported fashionable sports labels like Adidas as well as shirts and tracksuit tops belonging to big name football clubs like Barcelona and Manchester United. Some of the older generation dressed in a European style as well, particularly middle-aged women, but many older women wore shawls and hijab and occasionally a full burkha wearer would come past. The burkah is a very conservative one-piece shawl which covers a woman from head to feet with only a small slit for the eyes. It has a strict religious significance to the wearer. Beggars were present but not a persistent problem. Sofian pointed out a dark-skinned woman with young children seated against a wall with a begging bowl placed before her crossed legs. Besides her darker complexion she wore a brighter shawl and headscarf. “She’s from Mali” he explained. “You will see many of them begging. They have come here because of the conflict.” Indeed I would see them in all the other major towns we visited.

The cosmopolitan area near the Grande Poste where one could observe the citizens of Algiers from one of the roadside cafes.
The cosmopolitan area near the Grande Poste d’Alger where one could leisurely observe the citizens of Algiers from one of the roadside cafés just out of view to the left of the picture.

From the café we headed off to visit the Notre Dame d’Afrique, an allusion to its grander counterpart in Paris. All the same I was very surprised to see such a large European-style basilica sitting prominently on a hilltop to the north of Port Said vested with an unimpeded view out to sea and back along the coastline to the east. I picked up a brochure in the foyer of the church which describes it as being built in the Byzantine style pointing north-east towards Rome and the Vatican. The first foundation stone was laid in 1855 and it was finally completed 17 years later in 1872. Within is a bronze statue of the Virgin Mary which originated in France and which was venerated at two different locations before finally coming to reside at the Notre Dame d’Afrique. The brochure also alludes to the large number of marble tablets I witnessed adorning the interior walls which tell of the gratitude of many priests, monks and nuns for the founding of their orders throughout the continent. Whilst there a group of tourists entered with a guide who proceeded to relate, in French, the history of the church. Although I couldn’t follow him very well I was happy to lose myself in the inscriptions and abundant iconography within. To my left was the Nativity scene set out with statuettes and so forth, a ritual that would be observed throughout the Christian world at that time of year, and at least some more unusual locations as this Basilica testified to. There were various frescos adorning the apses of the church, one commemorating the life of St Augusine of Hippone (now Annaba), another the Passion of Christ and, above the Nativity, a fresco of the Last Supper.

Looking towards the left apse of the Notre Dame d'Afrique, Algiers.
Looking towards the left apse of the Notre Dame d’Afrique, Algiers. Visible are a series of frescos on the life of St Augustine of Hippone, now Annaba in present day Algeria. He lived between 354 – 430 AD.

I found the church interior a strange melange of styles, making it a bit gaudy and inconsistent in one sense, but nevertheless fascinating in its own way. The influence of Arabic art and design is quite evident in the photograph above which I took of the left apse, as manifest in the repeating patterns around the statue at centre, whether of Christ or St Augustine I’m unsure.  On our way out we encountered the amicable guide who introduced himself as an Algerian of Italian residence. He spoke several languages and communicated a warm greeting in English to me. Thereafter he spoke largely in French to Sofian about one aspect or another of the Church that interested my friend. It was then that I noticed a model sailing ship, one with multiple masts and rigging, hung against the left wall. Its significance was lost on me until I read that the Basilica, particularly in its function as host to the bronze statue of St Mary, had brought multitudes of sailors to venerate her and to ‘pray to her for deliverance from the dangers of the sea.’

Outside the Basilica we strolled in the mid-morning sunshine taking photographs and admiring the seaward view. Whilst doing so we were approached by a young girl in a hijab who started communicating with Sofian. He called me over and explained that she had heard us speaking English and was curious to know who I was. He told her that I was English and she had seemed impressed. She asked me in halting English how I was and if I was enjoying my stay in Algeria. I was quite taken aback to learn that I was the first native English speaker that she had ever met. It was to prove thus on a number of subsequent occasions. She then took out a mobile phone and she and I posed for a photo against the railings with the blue Mediterranean beyond. Smiling shyly she scuttled back to where a younger sibbling was grouped together with two older women in traditional garb. They smiled and nodded in my direction. Considering that I had avoided meeting their gaze a few minutes earlier on the assumption that their conservative dress precluded any sort of acknowledgement, I felt glad that my notion had been a false one. I wish I had managed to get a picture of my own but my camera had been on the wrong setting – my fault – and Sofian had not managed to get a shot. I did, however, get a decent picture of the Basilica which I have inserted below.

The Western side of the Notre Dame d’Afrique, Algiers, illustrating its impressive design and basilica.

After completing our tour we descended from the lofty height of the church along winding streets to the bottom where we were able to catch a taxi back to the hotel. Catching a yellow taxi in Algiers is an interesting proposition for a Westerner because you must be prepared to share your cab with other people. I’m fairly laid back so I didn’t mind but other people might find it frustrating. The reality was that transport was extremely cheap (fuel is heavily subsidised by the government) and a journey of a few miles would only cost somewhere in the region of 40 DN per person. From the hotel we walked with our belongings down to the Gare d’Alger, Algier’s main train station. The station building was interesting in the manner of such stations in major cities around the world, both within and without. The roof was adorned by an old mechanical clock – functioning – on either side of which in large block lettering was written the name of the station in both English and Arabic. We had to cross several busy lanes of traffic before descending to the station entrance. Sofian made enquiries and we were directed to a line of carriages waiting to disembark from the opposite platform. It was a bit of a squeeze getting on and before long it was impossible to move in either direction; a bit like any London train at rush hour really. I mentioned this to Sofian who  raised his eyebrows. “Public transport is not quite as civilised in England as you might imagine,” I informed him with a smile.

Whilst we stood in one of the carriages the train proceeded eastwards for five or six stops before we disembarked. We headed back in the direction from which we had come in order to find the bus and taxi terminus for our journey out of Algiers to the town Sétif, not far from where Sofian lived with his mother and sister. Although I didn’t realise it at the time Sétifian taxi drivers were not allowed access to the terminus because of some disagreement with the local Algiers taxi drivers. Sofian pointed this out later but the upshot was that one had to find a taxi on the busy roadside for the journey east. We found ourselves a suitable intercity commuter and squeezed inside with five other passengers. There were two rows of passenger seats behind the driver and another seat in front. All the bags were squeezed into the small gap behind the back row of seats. Sofian had warned me about the driving in Algeria and I now had the fortune of being able to participate in the motorway slalom. Our driver accelerated quickly to a cruising speed of about 130 kph, keeping to the left of our dual-lane, east-bound carriageway i.e. the fast lane. If there was a slower vehicle impinging on this lane he simply kept on, tonking his horn if necessary, until it moved at the last moment into the right lane for us to pass. At other times he would pass on the right and accelerate into improbably small gaps between successive vehicles. It was a white-knuckle ride but Sofian was sympathetic. “This is a problem with Algeria today. People do what they like. There is no regulation from above.” When I mentioned that this style of driving would very soon land you with several points on your driving license back in the UK he nodded seriously. “That is how it should be” he said. Then, brightening up he grinned and uttered that great phrase that could explain away all this and more: “Mama Africa!”

The Climate Change Paradigm

When I was child growing up in the late 80s in Zimbabwe, Africa, there was a nascent environmental movement establishing itself. This encompassed locally significant projects like community wildlife management (see the CAMPFIRE project), rhino conservation and other game conservation projects, and a wide range of ecological conservation endeavours. My imagination was fired by the conservation movement and I was eager to learn more and be involved. The prevailing mood was optimistic both regionally (a relatively peaceful  and integrated society and prosperous economy and independence for neighbouring South Africa being two that come to mind) and internationally (end of the cold war). Environmental issues did not feature prominently in the school curriculum but neither were they absent. Extra-curricular clubs like the Bundu-Bashers and Cub Scouts were a healthy outlet for urban kids like me who wanted to engage more with these issues. I also remember most households subscribing to Reader’s Digest and National Geographic Magazine (with a Junior ‘World’ edition for youngsters) which were a good source of articles. The local newspapers weren’t great but Time and Newsweek were also readily available.

One of the big topics of the day was global warming. Whilst it is still in use today, mostly by an older generation of which I guess I am one, it has largely been ursurped by that broader umbrella term, climate change. This has got me thinking, is the term global warming still applicable? I’m pretty sure it’s still bandied around in the literature but it doesn’t seem to command the same level of attention, perhaps even acceptance, than it did before. To use an oft-quoted expression there has been a paradigm shift (of sorts). The overly simplistic model of a world becoming steadily and incrementally warmer has been thrown into doubt by the most recent long-term studies which show that whilst there has been an overall temperature increase since measurements began it has been far from consistent. Apparently the latest IPCC report acknowledges this much. The term climate change was in large part a result of a growing awareness of the fact that temperature changes were only one facet of a dynamic earth. In order to better understand the impact of human-induced activity on our external environment we have mainly modelled and monitored our gaseous emissions (H2O, CO2, NOx, CH4 etc) and particulates (smoke, ash and dust). It has been assumed that the key to surviving and perpetuating our existence on this planet is to better understand the interplay between hydrosphere-atmosphere-biosphere-lithosphere i.e. water-air-life-rock. We have intervened, manipulated and exploited all four spheres to some degree but until now our principal concerns have been changes in the atmosphere and to a lesser extent the biosphere. Global warming is one aspect of atmospheric change attributed to greenhouse gas accumulation, whilst climate change encompasses other phenomena like desertification, flooding, tropical storm frequency and severity and even the possibility of negative deviations in temperatures locally or seasonally. 

The paradigm shift has been important because climate change alludes to a greater range of dynamics at play, although it still falls short of the mark. The link to conservation issues like deforestation and loss of ecological diversity is not apparent. This is possibly because of the misconception that changes in the climate affect the biosphere and not vice-versa. Also not apparent are the effects of changes to the hydrosphere. For instance, higher polar temperatures have reduced seasonal ice cover and led to changes in major ocean current circulation. This has implications for heat distribution and feedbacks into atmospheric conditions. Another aspect of the hydrosphere of major concern is the distribution and health of the world’s freshwater. Water pollution is an issue that has been in the public eye for a long while but remains an issue in many parts of the world. Groundwater exploitation is not sustainable in many places and should be a cause for major concern vis-a-vis water security and the potential for human calamity and conflict. So although the term climate change will probably remain in vogue for some time yet it’s lack of specificity will probably limit its use in a future where we are better able to quantify local changes and better understand the dynamic interplay between all aspects of our environment.

In tandem with this thought is the continued relevance of the term sustainability in all its numerous forms and appendages: sustainable development, sustainable utillization, sustainable harvesting etc). In many ways sustainability has come to usurp the word conservation in the last 20 years probably because of the increased realisation that human interference in most instances is unavoidable and that some sort of balance needs to be attained whereby the environment or ecosystem can remain functional whilst we continue to exploit it. Conservation in its most literal form is a hands off approach to maintaining or restoring a natural ecosystem, species or groups of species. At least that’s what the word suggests to me. Sustainability will probably continue to maintain traction for some time yet because of the human consideration. Nevertheless I think the word is also a consequence of our collective sense of conflict when it comes to deciding our place in the world. Only when we can move to a socio-economic situation where we our resources are not limiting will we be able to shift the paradigm. Furthermore we need to see ourselves as being integral to the perpetuation, remediation and creation of present and future environments and ecosystems. If we empower ourselves to act in a way that not only ensures our survival but the continued health and diversity of our planet we can shift the paradigm from sustainability to creativity. We are, after all, great modifiers and not ones for maintaining the status quo.

Who’s Exceptional?

Who’s the Boss?

Much talk of American exceptionalism which, incidentally, my spell-checker is obviously oblivious to (It would prefer me to use exceptionalness.) Cue Obama’s speech at the UN recently. And much talk of American actually being rather unexceptional (cue Vlad Putin’s exceptional – as in unusual – op-ed in the New York Times recently, the last line of which rather emotively reads: We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.) Which side to take? Well that all depends on your point of view, like everything in life. If that’s not very helpful then please read on and I might just venture an opinion.

A quick look at the facts or apparent facts: the US is the biggest economy on the planet; it is the world’s biggest consumer; it has the world’s biggest military; the world’s biggest military budget; it arguably has the greatest cultural infuence (for better or worse); it contributes the most in global aid although I have no idea of the split between humanitarian and strategic. Uncle Sam is the big dog on the block (yes, that’s me too, or at least the wiser incarnation of my ego, Misha). Does this make the US exceptional? By one definition ( exceptionalism is ‘a theory that a nation, region, or political system is exceptional and does not conform to the norm.’ One contraction of the word exceptionalism is exceptional. A few synonyms from the online dictionaries:  superior, uncommon, singular, strange, unnatural, aberrant, anomalous. A further contraction is the word exception which is defined by the same reference resource as ‘an instance or case not conforming to the general rule’ or ‘an adverse criticism, especially on a particular point; opposition of opinion; objection.’

Is there any wonder the uncontracted word evokes so many different responses! To be honest I don’t like the word because of the ambiguity. Whilst no political leader should be foolish enough to declare themselves or their citizens to actually be innately superior to the rest of us in any shape or form the notion that a nation can evade the rules or institutions set up to ‘balance the scales of power’ by virtue of some attribute or other makes most of us baulk. Then again the US is bigger and more capable in so many senses that it is an exception to the general rule, hence the ambiguity. They have greater power to intervene in conflict situations, more influence than most to bring to bear at the negotiating table, more external strategic interests to protect. What Obama and other proponents of US exceptionalism would like us to believe is that the US, by virtue of its size, influence and power, actually has a moral duty to exercise this power for the good of all. Whilst I don’t believe there can ever be a situation that is for the good of all where there are both proponents and opponents in principal there will always be good choices and bad choices, or more likely the best of any number of less-than-perfect resolutions to a situation. US exceptionalism is a double-edged sword: because we are bigger than you we have the means (and hence the ‘right’) to influence your decisions in a manner that we deem to be in our general interests either directly or indirectly, whilst at the same time creating a self-fulfilling expectation that the US will remain in the ascendency for as long as it exists.

As I said I don’t like the word exceptionalism. I would much prefer that the US couched its rhetoric in terms of ‘acting responsibly’ or ‘taking responsibility’. Pure and simple. There would still be arguments and conflicts but at least we wouldn’t have to deal with the notion of superiority.


In Remembrance of Paul

A few months back I received a call from a contact in Zimbabwe. In itself this was not unusual. I have spent the greater part of my life there (until the age of 30). The lady who was contacting me, Adele, was the mother of an old high school mate, although I hadn’t seen him for many years and we had only corresponded sporadically via Facebook. As it happened I had had more contact with his mum through a society I was a member of in Harare. Adele was an active member of the Prehistory Society. As a graduate geologist she had asked me to speak on one occasion regarding gold mineralisation in tandem with another speaker who was engaged in artisanal mining, much like the ‘ancients’ had been doing for many hundreds of years before written records. Maybe I had first gone along to a society meeting because of Rob, my old geography teacher and close friend of my mum’s who now worked as a consultant archaeologist and historian. I can’t really recall the exact reason, besides which this is all peripheral to my story.

I corresponded with Adele every so often via email when she was keen to pick my brain on one matter or another. I gathered that she had enrolled in a Masters or PhD by correspondence, quite an undertaking for anyone in troubled Zimbabwe. If I were to describe her I would recall her as an unassuming, middle-aged, plainly dressed lady who spoke slowly and deliberately, who exuded an aura of patience and whose smile was genuine and reassuring but she had never had reason to phone outright so I was attentive from the outset.

“Have you heard anything from Paul? I haven’t heard anything from him since he left for Thailand in October (2012).” I hadn’t.

Subsequent to that phone call a community Facebook page, Help Find Paul, was set-up. I kept in contact with Adele and tried to do my part in the search by alerting mutual friends from Zimbabwe. I soon realised how much time had elapsed since those distant high school days. What I knew of Paul’s life since then was mostly second-hand or through the medium of social networking. He had lived in several countries, notably the UK, Spain, Uraguay and Switzerland and apparently spoke four languages: English, German, French and Spanish. He liked snowboarding it seemed and he had worked between Barcelona and Zürich before making an abrupt change and joining the French Foreign Legion earlier last year or the year before. I probably wouldn’t have been alone in thinking this an odd thing to do at this stage of his life, but a few FB friends expressed their admiration and support.

It now seems almost certain that Paul is no longer with us. A mutual friend forwarded me a link to a short article a couple of days ago published in the Bangkok Post which referred to the discovery of human remains on the island of Koh Chang off southern Thailand nearby a nylon rope with a noose slung from the branch of a tree and Paul’s passport in an abandoned bag. Indications were that the body had been there for at least seven months. So what are we to make of this? The obvious conclusion is that Paul took his own life. We cannot be entirely sure of this without any witnesses to his death but I will tell you why I strongly believe that he did. Firstly, Paul’s pattern of behaviour is one with which I can identify: a certain restlessness and inability to stay anywhere for any length of time; drifting between different groups of friends and acquaintances; and most notably a marked discrepancy between what he posted on the internet regarding his experiences in the notoriously harsh conditions in the Legion and what he related to his mother (she was kind enough to share with me the last email he sent her after he abandoned the Legion). The sort of things he posted on FB conveyed a kind of ‘guts-and-glory’ embrace of the training and soldierly camaraderie, whilst in the email to his mum he spoke of his true reasons for deserting:

It was prison, basically – a bunch of guys who don’t want to be there, squabbling, bullying and complaining, in lockdown conditions with an opaque system of rights and rules, and an arbitrary system of punishments. Which isn’t to say that it wasn’t fun, but in the end the cons far outweighed the pros…

Taken on its own it doesn’t mean that his was a suicide related to bullying and psychological abuse. In fact it seemed as though he made a fairly clear and definite decision to ‘desert’ as he put it at the beginning but it suggests to me that he was looking desperately for something there, a sense of belonging perhaps, that remained unrequited. It is more telling that he set up an email account with an automated response to the effect that he would get in contact again at the end of his Thailand trip in a year’s time (November this year). I don’t want to speculate endlessly. I don’t know what particular unhappiness Paul was suffering from. I suspect that there are infinite number of possibilities.

I dreamt of Paul a few weeks ago much as I remember him from school: oversized horn-rimmed glasses on his angular-set face; intelligent, sparkling blue-eyes; and most memorably his broad grin which revealed a prominent set of neat white teeth. Like all dreams there was something other-worldly about it and there may have been another long-lost friend present as well. I asked this dream-apparition of Paul where he was and that his mother was concerned as to his whereabouts and well-being. Perhaps he spoke it, perhaps he just conveyed it to me in thought form but he most definitely said that he couldn’t tell me that. I woke up confused. I only ever told two friends of that dream and then with the news of his probable death on the weekend it took on a new significance to me.

First and foremost I am sad that Paul is quite apparently no longer with us, but reflecting on my dream I am also reassured that he is not suffering any physical pain in whatever place he chose to contact me from in my dream. I said that I didn’t wish to speculate and I’m pretty certain that dream revelations have never been taken as prima facie evidence in a modern court of law, but the issue of suicide comes to the fore and is something that I wish to elaborate on. Maybe I could do so ‘in defence of Paul’ or any of the several other friends and family members who have succumbed to this course of action, but that would be presumptuous. What I really do believe is that there are many forms of unhappiness and that some will lead to the ultimate form of self-harm can only be seen as tragic in the context of our human lives. None of us were born wanting to die and the vast majority of us have, whether now or in the past, rejoiced in some of what this life has to offer. What I can only really speak of with any certainty is my own existence and how very unhappy I have been at times as well. I can empathise with Paul but honestly never understand why he may have wanted to discontinue living.

With other cases it’s easier I think: my friend Konrad was a Polish immigrant in South Africa who lost his domineering father, his only family member in the vicinity. After I left the Rhodes University residence and campus we shared reports started to filter back about erratic behaviour, a heavy drinking problem, lewd behaviour and sexual advances towards various women and a spell of internment after an apparent suicide attempt in his car. This was all out of character with the mild-mannered, shy student I had known during my tenure there. But even before I left I could see the cracks opening:  the feeling of being beholden to his deceased father who it seemed demanded that he study only mathematics (he was a professor at another university further east) regardless of his feelings on the subject; and feelings of isolation from his Polish homeland and family. Poor Konrad failed more than one course whilst there and I could tell that he was caught between wanting to appease the memory of his father and abandoning mathematics for another subject. He talked of his love for history. Shortly after his release from a sanatorium he hanged himself by his belt on the campus grounds. I was gutted. I had tried to email him and reassure him but I was ensconced further north at the University of Pretoria under uncannily similar conditions. By the time I emailed after God-knows how long it seems as though he had done the deed.

I think we all feel beholden to those we love and care about. When they die we are left with those expectations and if we fail to achieve them – or more likely, fail in our perception of achievement – then we can feel very down indeed. If that is compounded by estrangement, in my case from my father, feelings of inadequacy, loneliness, frustration and insecurity can batter the psyche. It may even culminate in a threshold being reached from which it feels as if a return to any form of happiness is impossible. These are the demons that I have dealt with, still deal with and which I imagine poor Konrad and countless others have had to cope with as well. Therefore I will not condemn him in my own subjective way because I have an insight into how difficult life probably was for him. He isn’t languishing in a pit of fire unless our creator is a complete sadist (I don’t think he/she/it is).

I know far less about Paul’s state of mind and why he may have done what he did but I don’t see reason for condemnation either. We were good friends once even if we later drifted apart at school and after. He wrote well, had a good appetite for books and reading and was sensitive to what others thought of him and in his actions towards others. He smiled and laughed often. How can such a spirit be condemned in the afterlife? It is impossible I tell you. Furthermore, it seems to me that if he did take his life in that remote forest off the Thai mainland, he did it to avoid causing immediate grief to those he cared about. Perhaps a little part of him wanted to be discovered, otherwise why leave his passport in the bag at the scene? What measure of will power it took to plan and execute such a plan I can only imagine. Others may fall into addiction and self-pity or go out on a bottle of pills or a drug-fuelled binge but he chose another path for which only he would be accountable. Many speak of the guilt that remains after a suicide, in feeling as though they should have done more. I think Paul wanted to minimise such ‘collateral damage’.

Every death of a friend is a tragedy to those who knew them because to be a friend we knew and cared for those things that made them human. In death we lost that which we cared for, however lost that soul may have seemed in life. If only because we are loved must we continue to live as long and lovingly as we possibly can. If in the end some fail in this ambition then we must see it as a failing somewhere, somehow, but that life continues. The world is imperfect; there is much work to be done.

What is this thing called Belief? A Humanist’s perspective.

It is the end of the Easter weekend and the beginning of the northern hemisphere summer (although the temperatures belie it). It is difficult to determine which event is more important to the people of Britain: the notion of summer or Easter, the most essential event of the Christian calendar?

A few days ago I would have unashamedly sat squarely in the summer camp but right now I’m not so sure. In years to come will I recall this winter as being particularly glum and seemingly unending as it does now? I fancy it will blend with the other three consecutive northern winters I have experienced before it. When was the deepest snowfall, the coldest day, the most persistent frost? I won’t be able to say whether it was 2009 or 2013. What I will remember is that during the Easter of 2013 something took hold in my head with regards to the meaning of faith, perhaps even of God (and yes I deign to use a big ‘G’).

Like many others in the modern world I am an occasional Christian: when the occasion suits I declare myself one for the sake of the peace, or more likely because I lack the courage to take the atheist corner. After having not set foot in a church on Easter Sunday for a few years I felt it was time to join the faithful. I chose an old Anglican establishment in the centre of Luton, the English town where I live. I freely admit that it was as much the allure of the old stone church, some 830 years old, with its stained-glass windows and cavernous interior,  as the thought of a charismatic celebration of Christ’s resurrection that drew me there. This was in spite of the fact that I was raised a Catholic and if pressed would label myself one rather than a Christian. Still, the last time I had set foot in a Catholic Mass I found it a little wearisome and disconcerting – the tried and tested hymns sung fairly tunelessly to an organ accompaniment, the responses to the liturgy uttered routinely by some and a forced emphasis by others, perhaps keen to impress upon the congregation the strength of their religious zest.

Amongst the Anglican congregation of St Mary’s I felt a spirit of unity and passion that had been lacking at the other service. It wasn’t the first charismatic service I had been to; I use to go along to an evening Presbyterian service with a friend back in Zimbabwe where there had been much singing and waving of arms and flags, but something crystallized in my mind during this service. Perhaps the environs of the old building appealing to my sentimental self played a part; or perhaps it was the presence of Bishop Richard, the bishop of Bedfordshire, who presided over the service; or the happy faces of the children waving coloured flags to the side of the altar; or the assorted instruments on the other side of the altar – trumpets, guitars and a cello amongst them – giving a joyful harmony to the songs of praise and celebration. I think that word celebration is the one that best sums up the nature of that Easter service. People celebrating a new beginning, and not just the fact that this Easter coincided with the beginning of summer and the psychological notion that warmer weather was imminent. Here were people rejoicing because they could, because the prime intercessor of their faith, Jesus Christ, had died for their sins and risen again to give them a second chance. It was a reaffirmation of their own desire to be good people: good fathers, mothers, sons and daughters. Sitting here I’m thinking that perhaps it is easier for those of northern temperate climes to feel this renewal at the end of winter and all that it represents – the coldness, the leafless trees, the feeling of austerity and sombreness.

Reading these words you are probably assuming that I am indeed a Christian, never mind what I may have said about my seasonal worshipping habits. The truth is that I am not, have not been for some time. Perhaps I never was. What bothers me? Besides the usual doubts of someone with a scientific and evolutionary disposition, the Bible itself, principally the Resurrection and Jesus Christ revealed as the Son of God i.e. the essence of Easter and the religious service I was attending. If you see an inherent contradiction it’s not lost on me either! I imagine that like many experiencing the first bitter pangs that come through ‘losing their religion’, and by that I mean those inherited beliefs, written and oral traditions, back then I had to cast aside everything I had been told and ingested, step back and reassess my beliefs. I still didn’t label myself an atheist, an Unbeliever, but by the most literal of definitions I was. Not that I was necessarily uncomfortable with my position; I just felt no need to adjust it from the position of closet doubter. At that time I was living in a fairly conservative society at university in South Africa or at home in Zimbabwe, many of best friends being professed Christians, and I felt it best not to rock the boat.

My best friend Ben was the earliest professed atheist I can remember. His argument against  God was simple but powerful: there are x number of religions in the world, each professing to be the true path to enlightenment – if there really was a God of one faith why would he tolerate such a situation? This is the argument of a rational person and it sat uneasily with me for many years but to the religious zealot his or her belief is paramount, fundamental and all conquering. Given the fullness of time the world will become either an Islamic caliphate, a unified global community of Christian worshippers or something else, depending on their particular brand of religion. Ridiculous as that may seem to many progressive, worldly individuals living in Western nations today, most other Believers (and I use a big ‘B’ here to signify anyone of formal religious affiliation) don’t seem unduly bothered by this, the religious paradox. No, in recent years the pendulum has swung, in the West at least, towards what has been dubbed in some circles as militant atheism. The Unbelievers have stood up and asked the question of the Believers: Why do you believe in God in the face of empirical and scientific evidence, amassed year-on-year? 

I for one stand with the scientific camp. Scientific endeavour underpins all our material advances and much of our understanding of the world around us. Our inherent curiosity compels us to continue to question and to discover. Where the so-called militant atheist camp has overstepped the mark in my mind is in their desire to remove the moral underpinnings of religion and decry them as misguided, naive, or even dangerous. There is a ‘God-shaped space’ in our brains or so I read in a New Scientist magazine edition last year (the God Issue, 17 March 2012). We are predisposed towards belief in supernatural entities. This is backed up by studies, especially with babies and young children; all very interesting stuff. I suppose this is where I want to tie-in my own experience of Easter this year: people believing in something bigger and better than themselves. Jesus of the Gospels was an amazing man even if he wasn’t the definitive, one and only Son of God. His sermon on the mount has been referred to as the first recorded declaration of  Human Rights I read somewhere. Because of who he claimed to be and the nature of his proclaimed mission on Earth he is a controversial figure, but nonetheless enduring. I don’t think we have had a truly inspired discussion on the nature of this man and his legacy between the two camps – the Believers and the Unbelievers. I think it’s time.

A memoir of 3 years in the UK

So I’ve written a memoir and not, I hasten to add, an autobiography! As a friend of mine remarked, “isn’t it a bit early for that sort of thing?” Well quite. All the same it has been quite an interesting couple of years, primarily in England, but punctuated by two trips back to Africa. This is the main narrative time-frame, although I talk of events further back where they tie into present experience.

What inspired me to write this memoir? Several different strands of thought really. Firstly, I am predisposed towards writing anecdotes and commentary, but that hardly makes me stand out now does it?! Still, it wasn’t a huge extrapolation to start joining the blogs, commentary and photographic record into a coherent whole. I would like to call myself a travel writer. Perhaps not in the conventional understanding of the title, but all the same someone who qualifies by virtue of having traveled beyond their sphere of familiarity. But the essence of it is that I have had a great desire to seek an understanding of the world at large, more for my peace of mind than any other reason.

Like many first time writers I imagine, I suffered from a premature dose of enthusiasm and imagined that to get published was just a matter of finding the right publisher and selling my story to them. With any luck they would take charge of the nitty-gritty bits: proof-reading and editorial stuff, typesetting, marketing etc. I ran the usual gamut of publishers recommended by the Artists and Writers Yearbook, emailing sample chapters, synopses and cover-letters in the main but also printing off a few copies and physically mailing them to literary agents of a more traditional inclination. As the weeks and months dragged out I was to come to realise two things. Firstly, traditional publishing pf the sort I have just outlined is difficult. Secondly, memoirs are not half as enticing to the majority of publishers as other forms of literature, fiction being the biggest seller and crime fiction in particular. Actually, a perusal of the shelves of one of the established bookstores – Waterstones or WH Smith – will suggest that life-stories do sell. The only prerequisite is that one has to be famous in some regard: a man or woman of considerable sporting prowess or a pop-star being two obvious ones. I am neither. Thus I did not find myself a publisher but I did discover the world of self-publishing.

The accessibility of the platforms for self-publishing online through the likes of and Amazon’s KDP have transformed the market by making publishing accessible to everyone. Although this might result in a lowering of editorial standards at least it gives people like me a channel to print and distribute our tales. The print-on-demand facility offered by online publishers like Lulu is a boon, but digital publishing is probably the biggest innovation. Still, one can’t do everything from writing to publishing completely independently and without outside review. I was lucky to have had the editorial input of Judy Brown, a competent proof-reader, who accepted my ridiculously low project tender through the site I wasn’t in a position to offer any more than I offered but she did a thorough job all the same. To any aspiring author out there I say this: make it your first and foremost objective to find a good and honest proof-reader to assess your manuscript once you have finished writing it. He or she will do it the world of good not just through correcting grammar and punctuation, but by suggesting where you could say things more concisely, explore a particular idea further or simply to suggest what might be a bias on your part that needs to be reappraised.

That said I will return to the matter of the memoir itself. Once complete, or nearly so, there was the need to decide on a title. After some consideration I decided on one – A Fairly Honest Account of a White African’s Life Abroad. When I first published in July 2012 this was the title of my book. In part I was inspired by the fairly recent TV documentary on the plight of a white Zimbabwean farmer and his family, Mugabe and the White African. Something about the stoic struggles of the White African appealed to my vanity. All the same I was dogged by a sense of doubt. Did something really mark me out as a White African? Did I have a particular identity by virtue of having been brought up in Africa of ethnically European parents? I was after all born in the UK and actually of mixed Western and Mediterranean European ethnicity. I decided that the term was too divisive and ambiguous, with echoes of the past, and I therefore decided to change it several months later. The revised title I decided upon was Between Two Worlds: The Account of a Jet-Setting Vagrant. I won’t elaborate any further without pasting in my synopsis, as I wrote it for my book in the Amazon bookstore. As follows:

This is a personal, insightful and sometimes entertaining recollection of the author’s adventures and nomadic life in the UK as well as two periods in that other world of his upbringing, Southern Africa. 

Born in Britain to Rhodesian parents at the end of that country’s tumultuous civil war he was raised in a fairly peaceful and prosperous Zimbabwe. The narrative journey encompasses not only the present but the past. He does his best to make an objective assessment of modern Britain whilst elaborating on just what Zimbabwe (and South Africa) means to him, and the conflicting senses of identity and purpose in the homeland of his heart of which he is no longer a citizen.

In his quest for answers on his travels through the UK he surveys the cultural and political landscape of England today, revisits his birthplace in Ealing, and traverses the southwest of England in search of work. Circumstance draws him to his estranged uncle’s abode in the coastal city of Plymouth where the past and present collide unexpectedly.

I will endeavour to publish my introduction and a sample chapter or two on this blog to give the potential reader a taste of the book. I hasten to add that the book is most likely to appeal to those of a similar background to me: raised in Zimbabwe, although not necessarily white, and living or having lived in the UK and/or South Africa for a period of time. Furthermore, if I have to be honest I would say that the overall tone of the book is reflective rather than jocular or entertaining. I wouldn’t recommend you reading it if you don’t have an interest in history or delving into the human predicament. If this sounds too deep and introspective, fear not. Most of the book is about anecdotal experience and there is some humour too… I think!

A paperback version is also available though Lulu self-publishing (I am currently reviewing  a hard copy in order to approve it for affiliate distribution i.e. Apple bookstore, B&N) and another ebook (in EPUB format). See my author spotlight for links to the book:

Here is preview of the revised cover, as designed by Kamil Pawlik, an independent Polish designer I crowd-sourced:

Between Two Worlds: The Account of a Jet-Setting Vagrant
Between Two Worlds: The Account of a Jet-Setting Vagrant


TCM and the demise of the Rhinoceros

Not for the first time in the last millennium or more do the five or so species of rhinoceros find themselves under the cosh. I am receiving a spate of petitions informing me of the sobering statistics in South Africa in particular, home to the Southern White Rhino. Year-on-year more are getting poached and the trend suggests that at least as many rhinos will be poached this year as last (c450 animals). The number could even be over 500, depending on demand and the effectiveness of conservation efforts (see graphic below, white rhinos poached between 2007-2011 in RSA)

There are still many more than there were at the turn of the last century when numbers plummeted to several dozen animals in South Africa, which is evidence of their robust nature. The market was then, as it is now, in foreign lands, whose markets for horn have proved equally tenacious, although there have been some changes in attitude over the last century in certain places.

To many of us this seems like an unpleasant sense of déjà vu does it not? Those of us who grew up in Zimbabwe will remember the various rhino conservation programs and the notable activities of individuals like the Rhino Girls who cycled across the continent to raise awareness for the cause. Why is this problem failing to diminish despite all these efforts and why is there so much misinformation, even amongst apparently modern, rational Westerners?

This is not meant to be a research paper and I haven’t backed up every assertion and statement with a reference, but most I have gleaned from the web through relevant organisational websites:;;;

Other sources have been referenced too and cited where necessary. Having perused these pages I feel I am a little better informed. Like many Westerners I was under the impression that rhino horn was used almost exclusively as an aphrodisiac. Apparently this is not the case according to more one of these sites. Neither is the use of horn in the manufacture of Yemenese dagger handles a significant threat to rhino populations any longer. The major use is in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), allegedly as an anti-pyretic (fever reducer), analgesic (pain killer), anti-cancer medication, and in the prevention of strokes. TCM is not just practised in China but also in neighbouring countries like Vietnam. Vietnamese nationals have been regularly implicated in the illegal trade in horn originating from South Africa.

It is also necessary to acknowledge that TCM has been practised for the better part of three millennia and, as such, many of its practises are strongly entrenched in the cultural and medicinal practises of much of South East Asia. Furthermore, like many traditional medicinal practises there may be grains of truth amongst the myths. One scientific study claims to have shown powdered rhino horn to have some very mild anti-pyretic properties in lab rats when administered at suitably high concentrations (however, the results are disputed by other researchers).

Whilst this may be a point to argue by the medicinal horn-advocates, it should be remembered that there are many existing, sustainable, over the counter equivalents like aspirin which essentially do the same thing, at no harm to the environment. Considering the current black market price of processed rhino horn (between US$20, 000 and $55, 000/kg) I can’t imagine that this use is what is driving the demand. More likely it is as a purported use for more serious life threatening ailments like cancer.

If, like me, you have lived with someone suffering with terminal cancer, you will know firsthand the desperation those persons felt at one time or another in finding an effective palliative medicine (to reduce suffering and pain), notwithstanding the hope of a miracle cure. It is very difficult to be completely objective in such situations, but even here we have to draw a line. My father was afflicted by a malignant brain tumour from 2003 until his death from complications arising from treatment in early 2006. Whilst he suffered acutely, mainly from the side-effects of powerful corticosteroids prescribed him, in his last year of life he conceived of a notion (whose provenance remains a mystery) that an infusion of cobra venom into the tumour itself would cure him of the cancer. We searched online and could find no pharmaceutical medication derived from the said snake venom and, with difficulty, I had to emphasize this several times. Perhaps it was something said once upon a time or a speculation made by one doctor or another, but the point is that the promise of a cure was very real for him. Had there been a complementary medicine derived from snake venom it probably wasn’t the sort of thing you would find online and quite likely very dangerous, unless it had been denatured. However, had it been offered to my father he most likely would have taken it out of desperation and I have little doubt that he would have paid for it, regardless of the cost.

I imagine it is the same for people suffering terminal cancer or other serious malady in traditional Chinese society. When one’s very life is at stake what financial price is too much to pay? But we have to draw a line and adhere to the rational approach to medicine that has advanced the life expectancy and quality of life for people everywhere it is practised effectively. And this includes traditional medicine (TM) too. There are many examples of how TM has been employed effectively, often in a palliative way and in some cases as a cure. (St John’s wort springs to mind, used extensively in European TM apparently?). Where proven to be effective many TMs have been incorporated into pharmaceuticals, BUT only after having proven to be safe and effective through rigorous and controlled clinical trial testing.

Returning to the subject of rhino horn and its use as an anti-cancer treatment, the denials come from both within and from without the TCM practitioners. Two authoritative quotes I found on the site

“There is no evidence that rhino horn is an effective cure for cancer and this is not documented in TCM nor is it approved by the clinical research in traditional Chinese medicine.” – Lixin Huang, Statement opposing the use of rhino horn in medicines by the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Council of Colleges of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine

“To all this, I say that something that works for everything usually works for nothing. I also say that something that has been used for hundreds or thousands of years does not make it right.” – Dr. Albert Lim Kok Hooi, oncologist based in Kuala Lumpur, A horny story

Considering that rhino populations are in such a perilous position, the question has to be asked “how much can the use of rhino horn in TCM be accommodated considering the threat to the survival of the species?” The rational answer is that it cannot. But is the world quite as rational as we would hope? Consider that the UK market for herbal, homeopathic and aromatherapy products stood at a not inconsiderable £188 million in 2010.

Worldwide the alternative or complementary medicines must be over a billion sterling, by conjecture? Ok, so I concede that many of these products are regulated and authorised by government agencies before being allowed to go to market. However, my understanding is that they only have to prove safe for human consumption, the substance being administered at the discretion of the TM or CM practitioner and its effectiveness not clinically proven. The efficacy of many of these medicines is assumed by consumers because of the perceived integrity of the TM cultures, their tradition and longevity.

The fact of the matter is that within cultures we place a great deal of emphasis on human life (contrary to the practises of wars of ideology or conquest). If it were scientifically validated that rhino horn was indeed the elixir of life the hapless rhinoceros would probably be eliminated tomorrow. If we were somehow able to preserve the species, against the odds, at the very least there would be some sort of highly regulated dispensation of the stuff, probably at mind boggling costs. Certainly there would be great financial incentive to start farming the pachyderms to meet the enormous demand. But I ask you to pause for a second… rhino horn is selling for mind boggling amounts which strongly suggests that it is being peddled as this very elixir of life. Interestingly it is not just criminal syndicates looking to cash in on illegal poaching and rhino horn smuggling operations but legitimate businesses too, as a recent expose by Time magazine revealed.

Chinese nationals have allegedly invested, beginning some five or so years ago, in a multi-million dollar project to start a rhino-harvesting project on China’s Hainan Island in the South China Sea, in contravention of CITES. Despite a cover that it is to be a tourist-oriented safari park called  Africa View, there was no evidence of this objective when visited by a local journalist in 2006. The sixty rhinos penned there were being kept in concrete pens with not a tourist in sight. A business portfolio published by Longhui, the company investing in the project, and a subsidiary of an arms manufacturing group, states the real objectives: to produce various rhino horn products, including detoxification tablets, for retail in the TCM market. Sales revenues are projected to be of the order of US $60 million per annum if all goes to plan.,9171,2075283-4,00.html

One might applaud this approach as being better than the poaching and slaughter that is occurring elsewhere. I have found myself enticed by this approach, initially anyway. Is it feasible? Well, certainly none of the web sites referenced above advocate it in any way, most citing the strict CITES regulations on the trade in rhino horn which clearly rule out commercial trade in, or refining of, rhino horn in any way whatsoever. I can only assume that the commercial aspects have been debated at length by those involved in formulating CITES agreements. I can only assume that their collective wisdom has been brought to bear in the arguments for and against farming the animals for sustainable harvesting of horn. Personally I can’t imagine it would bode well for the rhinoceros anyhow, considering the size of the market and the apparent demand, coupled with the obvious difficulties in scaling up the farming of the beasts to a level necessary to satisfy this market.

The unfortunate truth is that the construction of the farm on Hainan may well have contributed to the surge in demand for rhino horn in the last five years or so. There is a corollary in the story of elephant conservation and the efforts of CITES legislation. I read of the effects of the brief lifting of the CITES ban on the trade in ivory in the 1990s which permitted several African governments to sell off considerable ivory stockpiled from animals who died natural deaths or from regulated hunting/culling operations. It prompted the swift emergence of a number of ivory carving operations in South-East Asia (mainly China I think) to process this ivory, but which also boosted demand and led to an upswing in poaching operations shortly thereafter, a trend which perpetuated for several years I recall reading. Given the robust status of the elephant in some regions, like the Hwange National Park in my home country of Zimbabwe, it is possible that some sort of long-term regulated trade might just be entertained. The problem is that an increase in the demand for ivory, like rhino horn, affects elephants everywhere and there are marginal and fragile populations which are very sensitive to interference.

It seems as if a “hands off” conservation approach coupled with strong condemnation of anyone involved in the illegal trade of horn, indeed criminalising it, is the best approach for those countries hosting existent rhino populations. But this is not enough I’m sure you will agree and we need to appeal to the market itself; those practising TCM and more especially those who consume rhino horn derivatives for whatever ailment. It is perhaps heartening to read that the issuing of a Fatwa (a strict Islamic edict) by the Grand Mufti in Yemen, at the time they became a CITES signatory in 1997, saying it was against the will of Islam to kill rhinos for dagger handles, that the practise was largely abandoned and alternatives used (water buffalo horn for instance).

This shows the effect that someone in power, someone respected by the people, can have in effecting a major shift in an a formerly entrenched cultural practise or belief. We have to appeal to the leaders of China, Vietnam, Laos and others in the region that may be involved in the consumption of horn products as advocated by TCM. To this end there is a petition penned by Africa Geographic appealing to the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, H E Mr Nguyen Manh Hung, of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, to help implement a nation-wide education campaign in his country, and to produce “a legally binding Memorandum of Understanding between South Africa and Vietnam aimed at combating the trade, sale and use of rhino horn (which) must be signed and implemented without delay.”

Petition post-script: In South Africa a rhino is brutally killed every 22 hours. There is no time to waste!

Certainly a similar appeal must be made to those in authority in China, and ratcheted up until they feel obliged to act.

I would like to live in a world where sustainable utilisation and an appreciation for biodiversity becomes universal. If this were the case right now the market for rhino horn would dissipate for the simple reason that it is threatening the very existence of discrete groups of animals. I think it’s probably fanciful to believe that there could be such an abundance of animals that we could entertain the harvesting of horn from wild animals for whatever reason, but as an ideal we should consider it. Would it be any different to wearing leather if utilising the animal horn or hide? Or different to many of the CMs presently out there, harmless but without proven curative or palliative effects, if consumed?

The waters have been muddied by the findings that there may be a mild, but discernible anti-pyretic effect induced by a sufficiently concentrated infusion of horn extract. Never mind that the studies were conducted using lab rats and the levels required to have an equivalent effect in humans were not determined by the researchers. Most probably they are impractically high. Never mind that the effects are mild and short-lived. It is important to ensure that these findings are understood by the public in this context so that they cannot be used for the purposes of propaganda by profit-seeking healers or criminal entities involved in the illegal trade. The future of these irreplaceable and awe-inspiring beasts depends on it.

UPDATE 26-01-2013:

I am very sad to report that the figure for total rhinos poached in South Africa in 2012 is reported at 668 animals, substantially higher than the projection on my graph at top (c500) (as reported at Already 32 animals have been poached in the country since the beginning of the year (including 18 in the Kruger NP alone) (

Reflections on Population and Fertility in the UK

I am a self-professed science geek (not to be confused with the “techno” variety) but with a curiosity that extends into various other categories. I enjoy scientific magazines most of all, but one can never get too far from the human interest perspective, otherwise it becomes dull. As it was, it was a National Geographic magazine special entitled “Population 7 Billion” which caught my attention one particular morning at my local library ( I expected it to reinforce my perceptions of population distribution and growth i.e. there are too many people just about everywhere and these populations are inevitably expanding too fast, whether through migration or natural reproduction.

I was fascinated to read that the world’s population growth rate actually appears to be slowing faster than expected. We have been rapidly approaching the birth of the planet’s 7 billionth inhabitant (he or she may already have arrived), yet the brakes are slowly being applied: “the UN projects that the world will reach replacement fertility by 2030” it is stated. It is speculated that world population growth would probably continue for another quarter of a century at least due to the huge swell of adolescents moving up the population pyramid.

However, the present decline in birth rates is considered “mind boggling” by the director of the UN Population Division, Hania Zlotnik although I doubt that the comments of demographers like Hania Zlotnik really filter through to the subjective mindset of the average non-policy-making citizen of planet Earth. Ask the average man (or woman) in the street whether or not he (or she) thinks there are too few or too many people on the planet and it’s a sure bet what the answer’s going to be. Yet, to observe the situation at the scale of a nation or region portrays a very different scenario. Take England and Wales for instance, the stats for which can be gleaned from the website of the Office for National Statistics,

If the figures are to be believed  the fertility rate of women in Europe (the number of children borne per woman over her lifespan) languishes well below the replacement rate (the number of children required to replace her and her partner and maintain a stable gross population): 1.4 versus 2.1. According to figures on the ONS site, the last female cohort in the UK population haveing a FR > 2.1 was from 1948 i.e. the generation of women born that year. They reached the end of their reproductive lives in 1993 (age 45); the trend for successive cohorts thereafter has been downward (see fig 1.). Note that the upper trend terminates at the 1964 cohort. This is last cohort to have completed their childbearing for which there is available data (up to 2009). The data trends are similar throughout most of Europe.

Average number of live children born, England & Wales, at ages 30 & 45 (credit ONS)

So it’s obvious that if Europe remained a closed system without migration to and from its borders, its population would, with time, diminish. Following naturally is the question of whether this would be a good situation, or a bad situation?

This must surely be viewed in light of what criteria we attach to the word “good”. Quality of life, access to education, healthcare and social welfare are all part of the equation we are familiar with and would want to perpetuate in some form or another. Usually this is tarried to economics and the state of government finances. The situation today is weighted favourably towards countries like Britain which have a strong currency, can afford to out-source primary industry and manufacturing to a large degree, import the finished goods and sell them back to us with a considerable mark-up. Hence the economy of countries like the UK become service oriented, which means we can indulge in consumerism, the arts, science, knowledge and technological advancement. The notion is that such things feed back into the equation and perpetuate, if not reinforce, the primary position. This is all good and well provided that the “things”, the services and institutions, maintain their productivity on the one hand, and the export economies don’t reduce supply or become too expensive in their provision of manufactured goods on the other.

It is my guess that the latter is unlikely to happen for a good while yet. The factories are there and the resources have not yet been plundered entirely (are we not only now entering entering peak oil?). In fact, as I write, it occurs to me that the question of global population is unhelpful. It doesn’t really say much at all about what it means to be a person at a particular location in time; their quality of life, their aspirations, their opportunities. After all, of the state of Texas were as densely populated as New York, the author of the NG special states, it could encompass the population of the entire globe. Not that we would want that of course, but the quality of life of the average New Yorker is not all that bad, from a New Yorker’s perspective. But we don’t all want to be New Yorkers, nor can the world support a global population of such inhabitants. However, it serves to illustrate a point, if only by alluding to an extreme.

There seems to be a contradiction, however, between the data and reality. I speak somewhat subjectively, through my experience of living and working in the UK, and my speculation pertains to the situation here. The baby-boomers are moving into the age of retirement, the population is fairly static, yet unemployment is rising and specifically, youth unemployment is at an all-time high. As I am to understand it, over a million young men and women between the ages of 16 and 24 are unemployed in the UK. This could be put down to a lack of initiative shown by these people, so say those of a cynical disposition. Perhaps there is some truth to this, but it is a minor truth.

A major truth is that the basic service jobs (the one’s that must by necessity employ a good proportion of your labour force: 30%? 50%?) are not exactly abundant. (anyone who has perused the Gumtree, Reed, Monster Jobs, Jobsite and the many other job pages can testify from the stats feedback i.e. commonly dozens, sometimes a hundred + applicants to compete with). London stands out as a possible exception as it does on so many indicators due to its size and the positive feedback mechanisms generating further growth in its economy and job provision. But my anecdotal experience in the south-west – Plymouth, Bristol and Swindon – was a bit more grim. In my experience it also far easier to find work as a casual employee than a permanent. The flexibility suits many people e.g. those with more than one job, mothers with children etc, but probably gives a false picture of the overall employment situation. Against this backdrop are businesses becoming more streamlined, more efficient, less people-intensive? I can’t answer that, but I suspect that is a factor.

It could be tentatively suggested that we are entering a period, perhaps a sustained one, in the UK and most other Western nations of low real growth, as indicated by GDP and per capita income, married with moderate to high unemployment. Couple this with problems in public sector finances and oft-toted “efficiency savings” by respective governments, increased costs of living and attendant loss of savings, what impact could this have on demographics? Most likely family size will be increasingly constrained by family income and what assistance the state is prepared to give. Inflation, higher VAT and other expenses have hit family incomes, this is no secret. Likewise, welfare payments are unlikely to bridge the gap and for middle-income families, increasingly less attainable. If economic indicators are a major factor in fertility and conception rates then the current downturn mitigates against any change in their gross downward trajectory over the last half century.

But the picture is more complicated than at first glance. A trend that has emerged in the last twenty years can be seen in the graph below (fig. 2):

Figure 2: Relative changes in age-specific conception rates, England and Wales, 1990-2009 (credit ONS)

It is obvious that women are choosing to have children at an increasingly older age, with the greatest increase in the 40 + age group. However, these changes are relative, not absolute. They don’t tell the observer if the actual increase in fertility of woman over 30 compensates for the slight decline in the lower groups. A similar but more informative graph is shown in fig. 3,  comparing the fertility rates in terms of conceptions per 1000 women in each  reproductive year (consecutive years between 15 and 45 years of age) at four different times: 1970, 1980, 1990 and 2009 (most recent data).

Figure 3. Age Specific Fertility Rates for select intervals (Data from ONS)

By integrating the areas under the respective curves one should get a cumulative fertility rate for the year in question. It is obvious that the curves have flattened and skewed towards the right with time i.e. towards older women. The flattening reveals that peak age-specific fertility rates (shown here as live births/1000 women at age x) have fallen drastically between 1970 and 2009 (by 1/3 from ~180 to 120). The peak reproductive age group has also shifted from 24 yrs to 30 yrs.

One other point to consider when talking of fertility rates are terminations as a proportion of total conceptions. I am quite staggered by the data: 21% of all conceptions in 2009 (~900, 000) were terminated by legal abortion. That’s almost 190, 000 pregnancies terminated, of which about 40, 000 are in the under 20 age-group. Half of them occur in the 20 – 29 year age-group. This is the data which jumps out at me although there is plenty more to be found on the sheets which can be downloaded from the ONS website.

On the question of migration I have read (once again anecdotal) that migrant fertility rates soon fall in line with those of the host country (another contradiction of popular perception?). There is more data on the ONS site that I haven’t had the chance to peruse.

An article of anecdotal interest is one I read in an Economist earlier this year (which one I can’t remember off the top of my head). The topic under discussion was one of “assortive mating”, a phenomenon which is increased substantially over the last half-century i.e. the percentage of degree-educated men procreating with degree-educated women. This probably has as much to do with the fact that the percentage of women with Bachelor degrees today (in the West? Or just the UK?)  is on a par with men, whilst 40 years ago, the percentage of women with Bachelors was a paltry 9%. So educated men and women should have a fair chance of meeting and mating. However, the fertility rate of such women is below the replacement rate: only 1.6. For high school drop-outs, by comparison, the rate is 2.4.

Ok, so it’s obvious that education equals lower fertility in Western women, and degree-holders are not a self-sustaining subset of the female population. Once again, lets consider what were to happen if this was a closed system. Essentially, given sufficient time the system (read “population”) could sustain itself, perhaps even grow, but it would be increasingly dependent on the progeny of the drop-outs to grow up, get a degree, and fill those job vacancies requiring degrees, because the degreed subset is unsustainable (FR = 1.6). One might be tempted to say that the gene-pool becomes diluted by less-desirable individuals, if intellectual achievement is considered a proxy for the possession of “intelligent genes”. There is probably some truth in this, and it must be some cause for concern. Of course, the intelligentsia are a class which draw on individuals from all backgrounds, so this picture is a simplification.

Food for thought I hope. Comments and discussion most welcome.

Bob Dylan in Concert, 11 October, MEN Arena, Manchester

About a month ago I splashed out on a ticket for a concert in Manchester. The face value of the ticket was £60, but I paid a further £10 in “card handling fees.” Tack on the costs of transport and accommodation, not an inconsiderable sum, but considering the headline act would be none other than Bob Dylan, supported by the distinguished Mark Knopfler and his band as an opening act, it was an outlay I was happy to make.

September had been a good month from a financial perspective, probably my best since arriving in the UK in ’09. I felt enabled; besides which, I had missed out on so much of the mainstream summer entertainment – the outdoor festivals and concerts – that I almost felt obliged to attend a big name event. Did I have any reservations? I did. A couple of months earlier I had worked with a blues/folk musician on a landscaping job in north London. I’ve checked out his band on YouTube and they’re okay, good enough anyway for me to take Francis’ opinion seriously. “Has Dylan been an influence?” I asked him.

“Of course, but it’s a pity he still insists on playing his old stuff. His voice isn’t what it was and he’s just spoiling them” he replied, somewhat to my consternation. He was playing at Finsbury Park in the capital that weekend and I half-hoped that I could scrape together the funds to attend. I couldn’t and I didn’t. Another member of the team, Bodie, had attended and I eagerly anticipated his verdict the following Monday. Alas, the young man had been in a state of insobriety and couldn’t enlighten me on the calibre of the great troubadour’s performance.

Fast forward four months or so and it seemed as though my prayers had been answered. Dylan was returning to Europe on a whistle-stop tour starting in Dublin, thence to Glasgow, before sweeping down southward to Bournemouth. The last UK venue before the show headed to the continent appealed to me because I have family there. However, seeing that the tour was stopping off in Manchester, at the MEN Arena no less, I was inclined to change my mind. It was at the Manchester Free Trade Hall, now the Radisson Hotel, that Dylan had famously gone electric after opening with an acoustic set. He had been riled and booed, but nonetheless persisted with characteristic obduracy; the performance came to be seen as a watershed moment in contemporary music. One can read about it on numerous sites and commentary pages on the web with particular emphasis on the anguished cry of  “Judas” from a young Keith Butler, to which Dylan retorted, “I don’t believe you. You’re a liar.”

With the momentous events of yesteryear in mind I booked a ticket for the MEN Arena performance on Monday, October 10th, 2011. At the last minute I secured a coach ticket to and from the city. Despite being unable to print my ticket and almost failing to make my connection in Birmingham as a result, I arrived in a murky Manchester around midday on the 10th. Undecided on when to make the return journey (later in the evening or the following day) I wandered into the city centre, intrigued by the wonderful architecture, and stumbled upon a tourist information bureau. “What is there to see in the way of cultural attractions?” I asked a young lady behind a desk. She referred me to an older woman who punched a URL into a desktop monitor with painful deliberation. What she retrieved I forget, but the city map she gave me proved far more useful, and the suggestion that I might like to visit the Lowry Gallery near the Salford Quays.

At first mention the name Lowry meant nothing to me. When it was pointed out that he had made his name painting the early 20th century industrial landscape of Manchester I large gong sounded in my head. My mother had had a Lowry print in her study when I was growing up. As it was, the exhibition at the Lowry gallery was fascinating. I tagged onto a small group following an animated guide who conveyed her love of the artist through an enthralling zigzag march across the gallery halls. There was the original of my mother’s print – a busy street imposed upon a bland background of factories, but the contrast being the key. I hadn’t realised the breadth of his work, nor the controversy and ambiguity that much of it aroused, especially his drawings; drawings of androgynous individuals, girls and boys in each other’s attire, oddly anthropomorphic cats and dogs set amongst his human subjects, and always a sense of contradiction or conflict tacitly implied.

By all accounts he was a loner who had made his name by being unconventional; a man who turned the judgemental gaze of society back upon itself. Some drew back in disgust, yet most took another look and realised that the mirror-view was not quite so deplorable. Indeed, his work was by turns humorous (take his painting of the cripples and amputees mingling with ordinary folk in the park), testimonial (his pictures of the crowds of men leaning forward in anticipation as they congregate upon the football stadiums), and always insightful, even when the subject matter was the factory-urban landscape laid bare.

Perhaps it was fitting that I was in the city to listen to another man who courted controversy and shook the existing establishment so profoundly through his musical endeavours. In many ways Dylan and Lowry aren’t so different. Both men grew up, at least initially, in urban settlements profoundly influenced by human activity: Dylan in the mining town of Hibbing, Minnesota, and Lowry in sprawling Manchester. These early impressions of blighted landscapes may have set the stage for one or either artist, striving to find a poetic or artistic dimension to the drabness of industry sprawl and gaping holes from which ore was extracted. Will Lowry be remembered as a protest artist, like Dylan, who was acclaimed as a leading, albeit reluctant, voice in the civil rights movement in America? Probably not, although he may have been, but in a different sort of way.

Intriguingly, at the time I was in Manchester to hear Dylan, he had kicked up a storm of controversy back home in the US, through the subject matter of his latest exhibition of artwork, The Asia Series. Many, if not all, of his pieces have turned out to be copies of photographs, some dating back a century or so. He has not, apparently, violated any copyright of the images in question. Assuming that this has been done deliberately, and such a “trick” would appeal very much to the sensibilities of the artist, why did he not accredit the photographers in his reproductions? Perhaps that was the point. It’s quite likely that the curators of the gallery were unaware of this imitation artwork when they inaugurated the exhibition. It raises all sorts of questions about the nature of authenticity, the “aesthetic ideal” and whether it even matters whether one is original.

But this is Bob Dylan we’re talking about, the musician who led the countercultural revolution and spoke up most defiantly against conformity. But then again, if everyone embraces non-conformity, does that not become conformity in itself? Perhaps it is an indictment of Western perceptions of the East. Could one honestly expect to find that silk-gowned woman in the painting “Opium”, clearly modelled on a photograph by early 20th century photographer Léon Busy, in latter-day Japan or China? I don’t know, but I imagine it unlikely. Whatever the verdict, he had courted controversy once again, and I dare say Lowry himself would have given a wry smile and a nod of acknowledgement.

As for the performance itself, it was a disappointment. I found a review on the website by Neal Keeling, who writes: “Bob Dylan arrived and shook the place up. Dressed all in black and snarling from the start he looked and sounded like a survivor from the Alamo.” Yes, and no. It was far punchier than Knopfler’s lyrical Celtic-inspired compositions, but it was too loud (more than one comment on the aforementioned review to this effect). From where I sat in the upper tier of block 213 his voice was lost in the clashing instrumentals. Was this intended to be an affirmation of his ’66 gig, where he went defiantly electric? His opening number, “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat”, was disharmonious, the words indiscernible until it came to the punch-line of the chorus. Three tracks later “Tangled up in Blue” was similarly far removed from the original and, quite frankly, awful. Sure he has the right to sing them his way, but the question remains, why? Perhaps I should have done my homework and listened to the critics like Francis or perhaps gazed at a few You-tube videos of recent performances. Many of us walked out of the show (I after Highway 61 revisited), whilst others whistled and applauded and obviously enjoyed themselves.

For me to walk out is unusual. I’m one of those who try to put myself in the artist’s shoes and empathise with him or her. To walk out is insensitive and offensive. However, here was a man who so evidently delights in doing things his way, via his interpretation, regardless of the opinion of his audience that I did away with such self-imposed notions. The only song that had any merit to my mind had been one I hadn’t heard before, “Things Have Changed”. A perusal of his discography reveals it to be a more recent release (’07) which would explain why it sounded fresher and less contrived than his older stuff.

So, for what it’s worth, I’ll give you my opinion. To be a musician or artist is to create something; perhaps for its own sake, perhaps only for the satisfaction of the creator, but when displayed or performed in a public space it asks to be evaluated, to be judged. In taking a beautiful ballad like “Tangled up in Blue”, “spat out” as Mr. Keeling puts it, he defiled the original recording; the recreation was ugly. Perhaps that is even more pertinent for “Simple Twist of Fate”, the recorded version of which is wistful and nostalgic, whilst the Arena performance is too jaunty and completely indifferent to the original sentiments.

On my walk back to the Aurora Hotel, incidentally managed by a high school friend from Harare, my hometown in Africa, I passed under the alluring bright lights of uptown Manchester and reflected that there was far more to this city than could possibly be taken in on a trip like this. I had failed to find the spirit of musical revolution that Dylan had evoked 45 years ago (yes, 45 years!), but to label him “Judas” would be unjust. Not far away in the shadow of St Peter’s Square, I had earlier set eyes upon a small, tented encampment of those protesting against the global financial system and advocating reform in banking and corporations. Whilst I stood there a man called Mike had approached me and asked if he could help. “What are you standing for?” I had asked him.

“I’m just fed up,” he had replied without being specific, and in his eyes I sensed his frustration, perhaps a hint of resignation? He looked like a man who needed to hear the words of a prophet. A generation ago many would have pointed to Dylan as that prophet, but when I mentioned to Mike why I was there he only raised his eyebrows ever so slightly before turning away and muttering something about returning to the camp. “Find us on Facebook and support the cause” was his parting declaration. I didn’t, but the “Occupy” movement swiftly gained momentum, grabbing the headlines in the process. But who is their voice? Perhaps we need a latter-day Dylan or Lowry, to inspire and deride the status quo, to set us stomping off fervently in a definite direction. I’ve no doubt he (or she) is out there somewhere; they always will be I fancy. They just weren’t in Manchester that evening of the 8th of October, 2011.

certiores petere, appetere edoceri (seek to inform; seek to be informed)


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