Recently, my husband and I returned from a two-week trip, spent primarily in Marseille, France and several days in Algiers, Algeria. Like many others, the pandemic kept us both close to home for the last several years, so it felt good to stretch our travel muscles and get back out.
Left: Marseille, France. March 2023 Credit: Laurie Galbraith Right: Algiers, Algeria. March 2023 Credit: Rob Guglielmetti
My husband has spent significant time in Western Europe for work and pleasure; I had never been. My travel has been primarily in the Middle East, Turkey and India—for work, play, and education. I wanted my first foray to Europe to be somewhere less popular and off the beaten path. Having worked in refugee resettlement in the past, I’d always wanted to see Marseille and experience France’s second city with its rich history of refugee and immigrant communities. After a week in Marseille (which I’ll talk more about later), we hopped on a flight to Algiers.
Houari Boumediene International is a no-frills airport. A handful of gift and sweet shops, the same for coffee, and a loudspeaker that rivals noise levels at a hockey game.
After enduring customs, we went out to meet our hotel shuttle which never came. Not to worry, we were descended upon by no less than eight men, offering their taxi services.
I knew my Levantine Arabic wasn’t going to be as helpful as I’d like while we were there and I was right. After realizing the shuttle would not be coming, I brokenly told the fella I would take him up on his offer to drive us to the hotel. After all the other persistent, it was Bilqasim's meek manner that sold me.
We settled on a price and were off.
Algiers has a few large hotels and the rest, well, you try your luck. Our room was indeed non-smoking (which means there was no one presently in the room, smoking) but the enormous window opened and we had a glorious view of the city lights against the North African sky. We went to sleep that night anticipating the next day.
My friend Sarah had agreed to drive us to Draa Essamar, a village in the Medea province, about 90 minutes southwest of Algiers. Aware of the precautions we needed to take while traveling in Algeria, I felt being accompanied by a native Algerian would be prudent. Before Rob and I arrived in Algiers, Sarah confirmed we would need to provide copies of our passports to the local police department, which lined up with the State Department warnings about Americans traveling in Algiers.
Sarah and I met eight years ago in Turkey, when we shared a flat while in the same teaching program in Istanbul. As we sip coffee and await her arrival, I see her head poke around the corner of the hotel restaurant and the long, tight hug she gives floods me with memories of our month spent living together on the European side of the Bosphorus.
We pile into her non-descript, French-made sedan—banged up and missing some trim as well as paint—like all the other cars on the road in Algiers. As she reverses out of the parking space, she hits the curb hard and laughs nervously. “Well, that’s a great way to start the day, isn’t it?” That was just the beginning.
Speeding west out of Algiers, the diesel-choked city gives way to the Atlas foothills and then mountains as we cruise along the motorway through towns like Blida, Chiffa, and then Medea—our final destination and home to the Monastery of Tibhirine. Years ago, my father recommended the film Of Gods and Men; the story of French Cistercian monks who lived and worked in Medea, serving the primarily Muslim community in the early 1990s. The monks integrated deeply and participated significantly in the community; caring for the sick, keeping bees for honey, celebrating births and marriages, and solving day-to-day problems with villagers as they navigated the Algerian Civil War. The film is based off the book, written by John Kiser, and accurately captures the vibe and geographic feel of the monastery. I was so taken with their story and subsequent deaths—reportedly at the hands of a jihadist group—that when our trip to Algeria came up, I knew visiting the monastery was a must.
Arriving in Medea, we stop in town to get copies of our passport, which I absent-mindedly left in our hotel room. The gracious shopkeeper takes pity on us and makes the copies for free. I’m guessing he has a fairly narrow profit margin, what with selling gum, soda, cigarettes, and the random photocopy from time to time. His generosity made a potentially enormous inconvenience much easier. A few minutes later and after asking a handful of strangers for directions, we arrive at the local precinct.
The two officers on duty seem more like a 1980s buddy-cop duo comedy routine than policemen. They are so pleased to see visitors—foreigners and Americans at that. Lots of jokes and questions about Amreeka. After we write nice things in their “guestbook,” they radio ahead and are told to escort us to the monastery. Another 20 minutes passes as we wait in our car for a police van to show up. Up winding streets and in and out of potholes while choking on the diesel of both my friend’s car and that of the police paddy wagon ahead of us. We arrive in one piece, thank the officers, and head into the monastery.
The grounds reflect the work of the monks. Apiaries, gardens, extensive irrigation, and a well—complete with a drinking mug on a string. We join a jovial group of Italian tourists who have arrived before us and take part in the tour provided by the staff. The story of Dom Christian de Cherge and his conversion from military to religious service—sparked by his close friendship with a Muslim man early on, is moving and reminiscent of the life of St. Francis of Assisi. It’s easy to imagine a contemplative life in this beautiful and well-cultivated acreage. Everything is simple. Even the gift shop sells just honey, which is meant to supplement the monastery’s income. Refreshingly, there is no branding or “merch” to speak of.
As we wrap up our visit, we walk back out to the parking spot, only to find a new police officer—a motorcycle cop—waiting for us. He explains he’s been asked to escort us back to the police station. Now, our understanding has been that we provide the passport copies and that's that. This has now changed and over the next hour, we will find out (much to Sarah’s embarrassment and consternation) that the police are requiring that we be escorted all the way back to Algiers—90 minutes away.
This wasn’t my first trip to the Middle East. I know nothing ever goes as planned and everything takes three times as long. I wasn’t upset about the change of plans, but I started to feel a rise internally—not anger at the police or my friend, but just the absurdity of it all; the lengths the police were going to in order to protect us Americans. This kind of effort wouldn’t have been made for anyone else, or even an Algerian for that matter. But because of what happened to the monks and because no one wants an incident involving Americans, this is the special treatment we received. I found this embarrassing. It's frustrating that a passport I’ve done nothing to earn keeps me in a protected and elevated place. Am I grateful? Yes. But why can’t everyone expect the same amount of respect and care? Americans are exceptional alright, but for none of the right reasons, and we sure as hell don’t need to be inviting problems by visiting off-limits places like the southern, eastern, and western borders—known to be rampant with kidnappings. This is why I chose one place outside the capital to visit and asked my friend to be our guide; it felt prudent. And in the spirit of prudence, I’m not posting photos of the police, their vehicles or official buildings as I don’t want to make things difficult for Sarah, who still remains in Algeria.
Two hours later, a police-escorted bathroom break to a public restroom for my husband, and three stops in-between to radio ahead to the next gendarme prefect and change out escorts, we are told while waiting at an underpass that we are finally free to go on ahead to Algiers alone.
Exhausted and thirsty, we breathe a collective sigh of relief and decide how to salvage the rest of our day. At that point, I’m sort of hoping the vote will lean toward a meal in the hotel and then a nap. In typical Middle Eastern fashion, meaning the activities still have hours to go, Sarah suggests eating at a Turkish place we’d discussed earlier in the day which is another hour’s drive north, in the coastal city of Tipaza.
Monk's robes at Monastere de Tibhirine. Medea, Algeria. March 2023 Credit: Laurie Galbraith