The idea of a quick trip to Oran had sounded like a good idea at the time, but somehow I had found myself in the uncomfortable spotlight at an Algerian bachelor party.
I’m pacing around my friend Reda’s house in Algiers, trying to clear my thoughts after three months living in the confinement of various hotel rooms. The Algerian music and cooking project I’m working on is in a rut, and I’m well and truly in need of a break.
Calmly strumming his guitar in a corner of the room, Reda suggests a change of scenery, and within a matter of hours we’re cruising along the East-West Highway towards the coastal city of Oran. Rain dampens the stunning scenery of the four-hour drive; perhaps it’s a sign of what was to come.
It’s two o’clock in the morning when we arrive at our destination, and our hostess, Yassia, who is also Reda’s sister-in-law, answers our early morning arrival with sleepy eyes and a big smile.
This isn’t my first time in Oran. I had previously visited the pretty town during the Oran International Arabic Film Festival last summer, where I was invited as a guest artist. I ended up staying an extra week to tap dance with a DJ and meet the locals, including some musicians.
After a relaxing day spent exploring the coastline and celebrating one of Yassia’s children’s birthdays, I decide to continue my night with some live music, making the most of the town’s festive atmosphere (live concerts exist in the capital but are unfortunately rare).
I get in touch with my musician friends who are booked to play at a ‘wedding’. They invite us along and ask me to bring my tap shoes.
It isn’t until I reach the top of the restaurant’s staircase that I find out Algerian weddings are not a mixed affair – it turns out that this is just the men’s side of the celebration and more like a bachelor party than the weddings I’m accustomed to. The room is full of men, and just as we sit down a band of horns and drums marches up the stairs hooting festively and bringing the crowd to a wild stand. I learn this is a tradition that is said to bring luck to the groom.
When my friends take to the stage, they pull me up with them. I’m expecting an original song, but instead, Daft Punk’s Get Lucky starts blaring from the instruments. It feels kind of cheesy but I tap dance to the tune and the men cheer me on.
Invigorated and slightly breathless from the dance, I rejoin Reda and his friend. Their faces have turned a slight shade of red. “We need to leave,” Reda tells me. I try to get him to stay for another song so I can say goodbye to my friends, but it’s glaringly obvious that something has upset him.
Moments later, we’re screeching down the road in the car with Reda behind the wheel yelling about the inappropriateness of what has just happened. I’m confused by his reaction – this performance was not dissimilar to others I’ve tapped to before. When probed, however, it all becomes a little clearer.
Reda announces that the men in the room didn’t know the difference between an artist and a prostitute, and he is in shock at the seductive ambience of the event, and even more so when he noticed men taking videos on their phones. In his opinion, he has just witnessed a respectable friend become the equivalent of a clothed ecdysiast and, by association, he’s the pimp. My nonchalant attitude to it all appears to only infuriate him more.
The tension is almost unbearable and I have a strange urge to leap from the moving vehicle. It’s an eye-opening, first-hand experience of the delicate male-female relations in Algeria. There is a code between families and friends, and the strong, protective nature of it can be as suffocating as it is comforting.
A few hours of strumming his guitar in solitude and Reda is calm once more. The next day we continue our musical encounters in a neighbouring town where we interview and jam with one of the country’s music legends, electric guitarist Lotfi Attar. Thankfully, it’s a very different experience to the previous night. A fascinating in-depth conversation about his involvement in the origins of Raï music ensues, followed by a long, exhilarating jam session.
But all’s well that ends with couscous, and that’s exactly what’s waiting for us at Yassia’s house for our final dinner in Oran. The wedding is well and truly behind us and we spend the rest of the night dancing, twirling and laughing deliriously to the hit songs of Lotfi’s group Raïna Raï.