As real estate pros know, location can be everything. The just-completed conference in Oran, Algeria of the American Institute for Maghrib Studies – AIMS – focused on the multitudinous aspects of location in "Viewing the Scene: Global and Local in North Africa."
The happy organizers and hosts, the directors of the Oran-based CEMA (the AIMS research center in Algeria, the Centre d'Etudes Maghrébines en Algérie) and CRASC, the Centre National de Recherche en Anthropologie Sociale et Culturelle, posed for my camera:Left to right: Karim Ouaras (Assoc. Dir. CEMA), Nouria Benghabrit Remaoun (Director, CRASC), and Robert P. Parks (Director, CEMA)
Interdisciplinary would be the best way to describe the participants and speakers. Geographers, architects, historians, sociologists… CEMA and CRASC in Algeria, aided by Dr. James McDougall of Oxford University, gathered a very impressive list of talent to analyze the ways that local, regional, national, and global intersect and interact.
One speaker summarized a practical way to look at the issue: don't lose any sleep over deciding whether something is local or national; it's a chicken and egg story. The important thing is to consider questions in their context, at all levels. If I had one suggestion, it would be that a few practitioners from the non-academic world (elected officials, whether local or national, NGOs, civil society, etc.) might have been invited to provide a little leavening.
As it was, however, the academics provided their fair share of real-world illustrations. One American researcher, a longtime student of Algeria, provided a fascinating glimpse of how a village theater troupe fought a rear-guard action against the demolition of their building – bulldozing in the name of local progress and beautification. Her presentation, powerfully illustrated with photos of bulldozers and sit-ins, was a high point of the conference. So much so that Algerian French-language daily El Watan covered it, though with a slightly misleading angle for dramatic, journalistic purposes.
The academic jargon and tone of some of the interventions caused a few glazed eyes, especially Algerian scholars' tendency to dwell on the minutiae of the heroic liberation struggle. Their proclivity to over-historiographize made one remember the days of the primacy of the FLN's venerable El Moudjahid, respectively the once "parti unique" and its (formerly) sole newspaper of the land. Time has moved on, and thankfully the other disciplines gave livelier, sometimes illustrated, presentations to their peers.
For your correspondent, en route to Tangier to take up his new job, this was time well spent. It was also a trip down memory lane: I was the "last Consul" in Oran, before the US Government decided to abandon its consulates in places like Algeria and Egypt for new embassies in the emerging "Former Soviet Union" in the early '90s. A low point for me was the sight of the pigeon-infested shell of what was once my Consulate on the Front de Mer (click on photo to enlarge).
In those days before the US again remembered the importance of this region, the money was on a "New World Order" with people like James Baker and Boris Yeltsin at its helm. Then-Secretary of State Baker cared little, it appears, for an American presence in North Africa's "second cities," where some of the most vibrant commercial – and, from our little congress here in Oran, intellectual – life persists.
A case of the global sacrificing the local, to the detriment of national interests in the region? Damn, I should have used it as a case study in our AIMS conference…