For Algerian Youths, Looking West Is a Risky Adventure

"The newspaper headlines always give the wrong impression about Algeria," complains Rizi over the pounding music rocking a local dance hall.

"They talk about killing and bombs like the whole country is at war," the young man says. "But here we are living, too."

Seen from the boisterous beaches and noisy discos, Algeria's brutal conflict couldn't seem further away.

It is at these semi-private spots, largely hidden from the disapproving eyes of Algeria's conservative Islamists, where the widening chasm that divides this society is most evident.

A study in contrasts

Islamic extremists insist that women in some areas completely cover themselves - some have been known to throw battery acid on those who do not wear the hejab, or Islamic headscarf, not traditionally worn in Algeria but adopted from more hard-line states. Yet here young women in tight miniskirts and scanty tops cavort with their boyfriends.

Even as militants massacre villagers to impose Islamic law on nonbelievers - and target hairdressers with murder because they make women more appealing to men - here young Algerians sweat and gyrate and drink together in clouds of cigarette smoke, to the pounding beat of Western dance music.

When the Algerian rock music starts, things get even further out of hand - in a country where unmarried lovers have in the past been singled out for attack.

"If they could find these people, the terrorists would kill every single one," says a young man on the prowl at the popular Rais Hamidou, a packed dance club 25 miles west of Algiers. "The risk is part of the adventure."

Such clubs have been targets of bomb attacks, believed to be part of a terror campaign to end such flagrant displays of Western secularism.

Two nights after a recent visit, a bomb intended for a former minister went off near the club. The minister's brother-in-law died in the blast.

The 'other 10 percent'

Still, these are Algerians largely unaffected by the gruesome death toll, who create the illusion of safety by diving into the bacchanalian pursuits of the West.

"It's not how the other half lives," explains a Western diplomat. "It's how the other 10 percent lives."

The gap is wide in a country where couscous and fresh baguettes - like Arab and French colonial influence - are both found in large measure on the streets of the capital.

Women with veils share the same sidewalks with women wearing clothes that leave little to the imagination. Abassi Medani, an Islamic Salvation front leader arrested in 1991, called such French-influenced women "spies of neocolonialism."

Easy as it is to disappear on the Western side of this divide, few find long-term solutions in hiding from the political and religious storm. Even on a beach west of the capital that is teeming with youths, the grisly troubles nearby can be haunting.

A changed society

"It's been very difficult, because Algerians were once so kind, warm, welcoming and trusting of each other," says Ahmed, who was shocked at the change when he returned to do business after five years in Europe. "Today that is gone, people are suspicious and afraid of each other," he says. "It has changed the whole fabric of society."

A secular politician has recently declared that Algerian cities in no way should resemble Tehran, Khartoum, or Kabul, and that Islamic strictures should never be imposed.

Certainly the few Algerians on the beach who wear long Islamic dress or keep quietly to themselves under beach umbrellas seem out of place. They gingerly lift their robes as surf sweeps over their feet, and are lost among the carefree crowds of half-naked beachgoers throwing Frisbees and playing paddleball.

But there are few other reminders that this world of sand and sea masks deep divisions, and the other reality of bloodshed and danger.

One young woman, who wore a form-fitting white dress at the night club, went directly to the beach at 6 a.m. Fourteen hours later, still wearing the same party dress, she saw the sun set over the water. For her, this dream of games, sunburn, and Mediterranean laughter with friends is all she wants to know.

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