Algeria, with great respect to all other nations, of course
October 20, 2010 8 Comments
Tuesday, Oct. 12
Flew in to Algiers sick as a dog. Never should have had that Egyptian KFC. After many bathroom visits & sleeping 10 hours, I feel human again. They’ve put me up in the beautiful and history-steeped El-Djazair, whose former guests include Dwight Eisenhower, Simone de Beauvoir, Edith Piaf. Not too shabby.
My first official activity is a presentation of my work at a local “access school,” an English language school for underprivileged youth sponsored in some part by U.S. funds. Goes well.
My compatriot, comics writer Brandon Jerwa, and I are taken to the central newspaper “district” for a fairly extensive and thoughtful interview with the largest Algerian daily, El Watan. (My interview ran here. Warning! French language.) After that, a short nap and missed connections ultimately proves unable to derail a nice dinner with several of the other visiting artists, including Pakistan’s Nigar Nazar and three young women from Lebanon, Joumana Medlej, Amal Kawaash, and Lena Merhej.
I just learned from the TV that Global Handwashing Day is coming up next week.The two English-language TV stations here show 1.) 20th Century Fox movies, and 2.) 80s/90s music videos. Oh, and BBC News. (P.S. The music video station is actually a German station, but they predominantly show English and American pop.)
Wednesday, Oct. 13
F!BDA, the Festival International de la Bande Dessinées Algérie, opens tonight. That one year of college French is serving me well here! The only downside to this trip is having to shave and wear pants every day.
Today, a day of storms and rain, I am doing a bullpen-style drawing marathon with five other cartoonists for Algérie News, a daily paper which will be entirely illustrated by us! I draw four finished illos in about seven hours, sort of like Illustrator Boot Camp. The job runs so long we miss the wet F!BDA opening ceremonies. Too tired to eat. G’nite from the Meghreb.
Thursday, Oct. 14
F!BDA proper begins today. My first look at the festival, which is set up on the European/Angouleme model. Almost like a little village, the festival consists of tents housing a bookstore, exhibition spaces, an event space, and smaller “booths” for exhibitors. This is the anti-San Diego Comic-Con: no video games, no movies or TV shows, no cosplay to speak of… The emphasis is on the art of comics, and the experience of reading.
I’m on a morning panel charmingly titled “Can the Comics be Therapeutic?” After the panel, Brandon I are taken to L’Ecole des Beaux Arts to teach a class together. It goes very well, despite our mid-exercise fear that the whole experiment is going to derail. The students are eager and the teacher tells us later that we achieved results in 90 minutes that would have taken him a week. We share tea with the director and the head teacher, and exchange books.
We are shuttled about in a specialized Embassy SUV, which looks normal on the outside but is heavily armored on the inside. The doors seem to weigh a ton, requiring real strength to slam shut, and the insides are all built up with plating, so much so that squeezing into one’s seat is actually quite difficult. The windows are all bullet-proof glass, of course. John B., our Embassy host, brags that the vehicle is so well protected that we could “drive over a land mine and not even feel it.” I have no desire to test that assertion.
Then we tour the stunning the Bastion 23. Whenever the guide mentions anything to do with Islam he says, “With great respect to all other religions, of course.” It is very charming — and quite odd.
After another interminable wait in the lobby, we drive to a restaurant far on Algeria’s outskirts for a group dinner with the FIBDA organizers and invited artists. The roasted headless sheep they deposit on our table is undeniably tender, yet I think I have been forever cured of a taste for mutton.
Other than the lamb misadventure, I am finding Algeria to be a fascinating country — with really uninspired cuisine. How can a culture with French and Middle Eastern origins have such drab food? It’s like the cooks conspire to drain the taste out of what should be delicious, culturally specific foods. For instance, the couscous has been bland and mealy, and the crepes tough and tasteless.
Friday, Oct. 15
Our first full day at the Festival. Brandon has a morning panel, then after lunch we head over to the book-selling tent and signing area. It is really fun to soak up the atmosphere, check out all the great BDs, and meet festival attendees. We even sell a few books, and I sign and sketch for folks, just like back home. Then we have dinner back at our hotel with John B. and our new British friends Paul Grist and Nana Li. I hear the tale of the Cuban cartoonist, first time off the island, refuses to shake John’s hand because she is afraid that her Cuban handlers will think she is planning to defect!
In the evening we are guests at a party at the U.S. Marines’ quarters in the U.S. Embassy. There are six Marines stationed there — six of the sweetest, fresh-faced kids (of all races) you could ask for to represent the U.S.A. Most of the guests are young Algerians, typically well-off and “connected” somehow…
Saturday, Oct. 16
Today we get a break from the festival to do a little exploring: tours of Blida and Chrea are on the agenda. This is an internal U.S. Embassy function that we are lucky to be included in on. The dozen of us pile into two vans, and, as required by Algerian law, are given a police escort all the way on the hour-long trip. Not exactly a subtle travel method, though it’s a cool way to speed through traffic, what with the guns and sirens and everything.
Back from the tour of the former “Triangle of Death.” We had monkeys! Brandon & I are hitting the streets of Algiers while we can. As per Embassy safety regulations, we are forbidden from using public transportation or private taxis, though we’re allowed to walk anywhere we want. Unfortunately, the El-Djazair isn’t in the most happening area of town, though there are some awesome views of the harbor.
Back in the room after a street excursion and subsequent hotel-room-patio steak dinner with Brandon. Our British friends are free to hang out, but the front desk says the wait for the only cab we’re allowed to use is at least 45 minutes. Calling it a night and hitting the whirlpool tub.
Sunday, Oct. 17
Last night I was awakened by the loudest explosion I’ve ever heard. Was sure it was a bomb. Turned out it was thunder. Then it began to rain.
Today is the Last day of F!BDA: Jerwa panel on comic book adaptations, then to the U.S. Embassy for a video conference with some Algerian and Iraqi political cartoonists. Fascinating to be a fly on the wall as they discuss the ins-and-outs of lives, careers, press freedom, and the like. Supposedly it was covered by CNN. Anyone see it? (The Embassy posted a photo and short blurb about the event on their site.)
Then back to F!BDA for the closing ceremonies: prizes awarded, many sad goodbyes, commemorative sketches, Facebook friendships initiated.
Monday, Oct. 18
Rainy morning. After I pack, check out, and have a final breakfast with Brandon and Nigar, it’s Airport Time.
[Check out a full album of photos from F!BDA Algeria here…]