The Blog

Two Algerias

When the heat dies down over the siege in In Amenas, it will be back to business for the West, propping up the Algerian authorities in defence of Western interests.

My daughter hands me the house-phone while I am vacuuming.

"Someone for you," she says, "and I don't understand a word they're saying."

"Hello!" I say, switching off the Hoover.

"Tu viens manger chez moi ce soir?" a voice from thirty years ago said.

When I had stopped howling with laughter at the request that I travel 2,000 miles to join my friend Zouaoui, a devout Muslim, for dinner that night, I promised to come visit him soon in Algeria with my wife. He settled for that.

Three years ago, we finally flew to see him. Lots of things had changed in the 30 years since I had last been in Algeria - his three children had increased to six and were now all adults; he was no longer a poor, illiterate decorator living in one room with his wife and three kids and sharing a toilet with five other families, but a rich, (illiterate) decorator with a house and three apartments. And he had survived the civil war of the 1990s. Meanwhile, in what is one of the world's most mineral-rich countries in the world, my other great Algerian friend, Brahim, a university lecturer and a liberal in the Western tradition, and his wife, had struggled to put their three children through university on a state salary.

That night, we pored over Zouaoui's photos of my visit 30 years earlier and looked in astonishment as he pointed out the ornaments in his sitting-room that I had given them as gifts from Ireland back then. His eldest son cast a rueful eye at his delighted father and gave me a word of warning. "Be careful!" he said, "People eat the things that they love", and we laughed heartily. Over the next five days his daughters busied themselves cooking for us and his sons returned from work each day with souvenirs for us to bring back home to our children in Ireland. Gradually, I began to notice some changes.

When I'd get out of bed in the mornings, the women in his family would hastily don headscarves, which hadn't happened 30 years earlier. His sons said prayers on the floor in front of us after work while their sisters served up dinner and spoke to us about the wonder of Allah that had brought us all together again. His daughter bought me a copy of the Koran and begged me to read it. When they took us sightseeing in their car, they blasted hauntingly beautiful Islamic texts from their CD player. And my wife was refused entry into a coffee-shop full of men.

We slipped away - my wife and I - to see the other Algeria.

Brahim and his wife welcomed us in their meagre apartment in a relatively poor part of the city. Times had been hard for them as they tried to put their children through university on two small salaries. Yet, Brahim was happy that the dark days of the civil war were behind them, however much he had reservations about the political regime. There was peace on the streets and the country had avoided the potential nightmare of Islamist rule in the 1990s.

And therein lies the rub for Westerners: the price of peace in Algeria is an Algerian government that will do whatever it takes to quell Islamists, normally with the blessing of the West. No price is too high in what is essentially a divided society. And when the heat dies down over the siege in In Amenas, it will be back to business for the West, propping up the Algerian authorities in defence of Western interests.

On our last morning, which came all too soon, Zouaoui trailed me around several boutiques to find me a suit as a farewell gift. All I have is yours, everything about him said: my home, my family, all that I own and possess. I settled on a jumper, though I quite liked his Mercedes which his son had offered me on condition that I stay. I can't wait to go back - whatever the risks.