Politicians divide, Musicians unite I had dinner with and stayed at the house one evening of Karima Sami, who is one half of a local tour operator called L’ile de L’Occident, to whom I was most fortuitously introduced. Over dinner of typical Algerian dishes; chorba frik, a soup with meat or chicken infused with herbs, and cracked wheat, salad with tomatoes, olives, cucumber (Algerian food is typically Mediterranean with Berber influence), and a harissa-infused chicken stew (harissa is a hot pepper sauce) we talked about the war, Algeria today, the opportunities for the future… and listened to music. One of the guests was the aforementioned Noureddine who it turns out is a singer and enthusiastic promoter of Arabo-Andalusian music. Algiers has a strong Andalusian link and until the early 60s had a large Jewish community, many of whose ancestors arrived in 1492, along with the Muslims, from Granada. For the most part the Jews and Muslims lived and worked together in North Africa, and their shared and intermingled culture still survives in the arts and music. We may be passing through a moment in history when politics and religion have contrived to make it seem as if such a thing can never happen again, but music is a great unifier and Noureddine and others have taken their music to festivals and events outside of Algeria and played with other musicians from around the world. Aside from the traditional Arabo-Andalusian music, Algeria is the source of ‘rai’, which began in Oran in Western Algeria the 1920s. While the themes of love, loss, betrayal and solitude remain the same, rai has absorbed jazz, rock and hip hop influences and from the early great singers such as Khaled and Ahmed Wahby, current singers include Cheb Mami and Rashid Taha who are known worldwide. I saw Rashid Taha in concert in San Francisco a few years back. The venue was packed and at the end of his performance he said the concert was for everyone regardless of race, religion or color. He may have been thinking of his homeland which at that time was still under siege. Algeria’s struggle for independence from France was long and hard and left it in an economic and social vacuum – a country searching for an identity. Socialism did not bring the country prosperity and by the mid 1980s Algeria faced an economic recession and a social crisis. Into this morass stepped the Islamists; preaching “Islamic values” and using the ailing state as a reason for embracing the idea of an Islamic republic, many people believed it could only be a better alternative, and in December 1991 the Islamic party won the first round of national elections. The state promptly suspended the second round of elections and by mid 1992 over the next 10 years, the country descended into savage brutality with insurgency killings followed by military reprisals; journalists, artists, musicians, politicians, monks, and foreigners were all victims, but it was ordinary Algerians who suffered most. During the financial crisis years, some young Algerians had gone off to fight in Afghanistan - many of them came back with guerilla training and extremist views. Algerians say they had a decade of our 9/11, that they had to deal with ‘al-Qaeda’ long before we did. They also say they were abandoned by the world until 9/11 when the West was forced to confront what had hitherto been obvious to them – that a group of hardened extremists were bereft of conscience and capable of unimaginable atrocity. In 2005 an amnesty was declared, not all Algerians are in agreement with this but the war was murky - people do not know for certain who did what to whom and the country is tired of war and needs to move forward. On this point people are unanimous. Stability is resuming and there have been no major incidents, but traveling throughout the country it is impossible to miss the signs of the recent past violence; thousands of checkpoints manned by heavily-armed army, military police, and gendarmerie police are dotted at major intersections on roads and on highways everywhere.