Late last summer I had an opportunity to make a second visit to Algiers in northern Africa. The first time I’d been there was early in 2014. Several things seemed to have changed there during the 16 months between my visits. One change was that on Fridays – the holiest day in the Islamic week – more places were open and more things were happening. Back in 2014, Algiers on a Friday had been a quiet city indeed.
One Friday morning, for instance, I wandered into the city-centre end of Rue Didouche and found it bustling with people, especially kids. It had been closed off to traffic and a series of activity-areas had been set up along it. From what I could see, these were designed to get children interested and involved in different sports and pastimes. There was a giant chess-set in the middle of the road, with tables arranged on either side where folk were playing chess on normal-sized sets. There was also a makeshift open-air gym, mini-basketball and badminton courts, a small go-karting track, a small archery range and even a little arena where two masked youngsters were fencing. And for the more sedentary, there was a place where kids could just stand and throw darts at a dartboard.
Just as I’d taken all this in… Behind me, I heard several brass instruments tooting and parping and I turned around assuming that a brass band was approaching along Rue Didouche. But it turned out that the music came from some trumpet and trombone-players who were accompanying a parade of clowns.
Yes, clowns. With baggy shirts and dungarees, patchwork-patterned jackets, stripy socks, super-long shoes, bulging-toed boots, giant bowties, joke flowers, bowler hats, tapering bobble-hats, polka-dotted top hats, white face-paint and bulbous red noses. Now I hadn’t expected to see this in Algiers, not on Friday nor any other day.
I suppose I should interpret this clownish spectacle as a welcome sign that Algeria – which, during its civil war in the 1990s and early 2000s saw about 150,000 people killed by Islamist groups and government forces – is returning to normal. Slowly, the country is recovering from that trauma. No longer are its citizens haunted by so many nightmares from that decade of conflict, turmoil and slaughter.
Instead, they can have nightmares the same as the rest of humanity. About clowns.