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Algeria’s lust for life despite COVID-19 and unfinished revolution

By Arezki Saïd
Posted on Monday, 24 August 2020 20:06

Virus Outbreak Algeria
People bath at the Beldj beach, 60 km (37 miles) west of Algiers, Thursday, Aug.6, 2020. Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune ordered the government to work out a reopening plan for mosques and beaches, according to a statement read on state television. (AP Photo/Fateh Guidoum)

Coronavirus pandemic, lack of cash, fires... To counter the gloom, many Algerians have chosen to live life to the fullest. Even if it means braving the forbidden.

In a small village in the Soummam valley, in the heart of Kabylie, a take-away alcoholic drink shop attracts a crowd every day, as busy as it is discreet.

With the metal curtain down, customers enter this nirvana for lovers of suds through a small back door.

The shop is “open” from the early morning hours but at nightfall, there is a hustle and bustle to get served.

Officially, liquor stores, as well as all pubs, have been closed by a wali (governor) order since March.

Their owners know that they risk very heavy fines, the cancellation of their licences and the permanent closure of their shops if they are caught breaking the law.

Parallel market

However, security guards posted outside keep an eye out and the surveillance cameras inside the store provide timely warnings of any raids by the constables.

Several stores in the region work clandestinely like this. A tacit agreement seems to have been reached between the authorities and the alcohol sellers: some work with the curtains down, while others look down and pretend not to see anything.

In cans or bottles, beers are grabbed by the crate. The store is pretty well stocked. There are sections for local and imported wines, an impressive range of spirits and dozens of little-known brands of beer.

We have a lot of customers who come from border areas where alcohol is not available, and they are used to stocking up for several weeks,” says the store manager.

Hide and seek with the cops

On Monday 10 August, hundreds of cars, most of them registered in Algiers, form a traffic jam of several kilometres at the motorway exit towards Bejaia and Jijel and their famous seaside resorts.

The announcement, a few hours earlier, by the government to lift the ban on travel between 29 wilayas, to reschedule the curfew hours from 11pm to 6am and to promise to reopen the beaches from 15 August restored some joy to the hearts of many citizens.

Photo taken on July 27, 2020 shows an empty beach in Algiers, Algeria. The Algerian government announced on July 26 to renew the partial lockdown measures for 15 days in 29 provinces to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (Xinhua)

The sea routes have returned to their usual summer congestion. However, even when closed, the 426 beaches authorised for swimming along the 1,600km of Algerian coastline continued to receive thousands of summer visitors who sometimes played hide and seek with the gendarmes.

“Six months of confinement, fear, anxiety and depression. I just want to take a dip in the water and forget everything,” says Toufik, a bank executive who is about to take up summer residence in Tigzirt, a small seaside resort 70km east of Algiers.

Still partying, even when it’s all going wrong

The disappointments of the Hirak public uprising that did not keep its promises, the coronavirus pandemic, the sudden drop in oil prices, the economic crisis looming on the horizon and the gloomy news of forest fires and a series of scandals and political and financial lawsuits have created a deep social malaise among many Algerian citizens.

READ MORE Algeria’s Hirak: Rachad movement at centre of major row among activists

But in spite of everything, their willingness to celebrate even when everything is bad and their unquenchable thirst for life – which never left them even in the height of the dark years of terrorism – is still there.

The wind of panic that had swept throughout the country at the very beginning of the epidemic – that had caused Algerians to shut themselves off at home after having built up large stocks of semolina, flour, oil and other staples – now seems to have passed.

READ MORE Coronavirus: North Africa must develop its own strategy to ease lockdown

Now, masks and social distancing have become commonplace. And in August, the statistics on infections seem to have stabilised at between 500 and 600 new daily cases.

Hopes on the horizon

Health experts are now talking about a plateau. This is enough to give some hope, even if many people admit they have no confidence in the figures announced by the authorities.

Salim and Zhor – both civil servants – arrived from Tindouf, from the depths of the desert, with their four children. It took four days for them to cover the 2,150km of road and several stops to recover from the fatigue and heat that melted the asphalt in the hottest hours.

They will spend a few days with the family before heading to the small seaside town of Ziama, in Jijel, where they have rented a waterfront apartment for 4,000 dinars ($31.2) a day.

A tweet of Tighremet beach, on the west coast of Bejaia between Beni Ksila and Saket.

“This year, the temperature was over 50ºC, including at night. The heat and the confinement almost drove the children crazy. And us too,” says Salim.

Vacations at any price

In recent decades, Jijel and Bejaia, coastal towns with almost 170km of coastline, have become preferred destinations for many tourists.

Rocky inlets, sandy beaches, lush green forests and rivers with cool, deep gorges attract tourists by the hundreds of thousands.

On the west coast of Bejaia, dozens of upmarket residences and luxury tourist villages have sprouted up like mushrooms.

It is the refuge of the wealthy classes. When it’s not mom and dad who come for the holidays, it’s the children who arrive for crazy evenings or weekends.

The marina of the brand new small fishing port of Tala Yilef welcomes more and more yachts and small boats. Those who cannot afford to buy one can still rent one for 10,000 dinars a day and a jet ski for 5,000 dinars an hour.

At 100 dinars, those with less to spend can get an omelette sandwich and chips. And for those with an extra 10,000 dinars a day, the wide open sea awaits.

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