Page last updated at 10:48 GMT, Saturday, 21 May 2011 11:48 UK

Tarzan and football lighten the mood in Algiers

By Kevin Connolly
BBC News, Algiers

Signs of an obsession with English football are everywhere in Algiers - but does this indicate that other Western influences such as democracy and the free market might be on their way?

Actor Johnny Weissmuller (centre) in a scene from a Tarzan film
Locals boast that scenes from the 1930s Tarzan film were shot in Algiers

I do not think I have given a thought to Tarzan of the Apes since the long-distant day when my voice broke and I realised I would never be able to impersonate his yodelling, ululating war cry.

It was very much the fashion to try when I was growing up.

In fact, his call was synthesized from the voices of an operatic soprano, a contralto and an Alabama hog-caller, so it is probably just as well that I gave up.

Tarzan is the scion of a noble British family who ends up being raised by West African jungle apes as one of their own.

He develops the muscular prowess of a gorilla and the manners of a British aristocrat - although I always thought he would be a more interesting character if it had been the other way around.

He had not crossed my mind for nearly 40 years, but I had not been in Algiers for more than an hour before he cropped up twice in conversation.

Tarzan is not of the cloth from which good diversity officers are cut, being wearingly given to racial generalisation

Apparently, Hollywood producers of the 1930s used the city's botanical gardens in place of the real West African rainforest to shoot at least one of his adventures.

You can see the attraction. The gardens do look a bit like a jungle and in the colonial 1930s the luxurious hotels of the old French city were near at hand with their snowy napkins and sunny balconies.

An improbable relationship was born.

In one of the later novels, of which I now have a copy, Tarzan visits Algeria, and I found myself in the long, humid sleepless nights following his voyage of discovery in parallel with our own.

The book has not dated well, it would be fair to say.

Tarzan is not of the cloth from which good diversity officers are cut, being wearingly given to racial generalisation.

The French are impulsive, Arabs do not like foreigners, and so on.

He is also better in the small handful of situations which can be solved by hitting other people, rather than in the greater number which call for more subtle analytical skills.

Brooding intensity

Nearly 80 years on from Tarzan's trip, we had come to explore the idea that the bracing winds of the Arab spring might be about to blow through the countries of the Maghreb.

But in a place where the shadow of tough, authoritarian government hangs over every conversation, it is easy to see why people prefer to talk about the many less obviously political ways in which foreign influences are absorbed here.

The Casbah (old city) in Algiers
In the streets of the old city the mood is lightened by talk of English football

The Casbah of Algiers, for example, remains a place of brooding intensity - a warren of twisting, narrow, steep alleyways and tall buildings that spill down a precipitous hillside to the old port.

It can seem impossibly exotic.

On market stalls, great fat purple heads of garlic are piled high alongside lemons which are waxed and buffed like supermodels.

Ornately tiled doorways lead down to public shower-rooms in pungent cellars.

The houses crowd in on you - heavily cantilevered so the upper floors lean towards each other more closely than the lower ones.

Here and there you find walls shored up with wooden scaffolding - a rickety-looking insurance against the dangers of another earthquake like the one which shook the city in 1856.

And yet everywhere there are signs of an obsession with English football.

Dozens of young men wear soccer shirts complete with the logo of the building society which sponsored the national team.

Stickers proclaim support for various different premiership clubs and an entire shop is devoted to Manchester United memorabilia.

Harmless breeze?

To escape the crowded streets we step into the cool recesses of the Sufi shrine where the remains of the 15th Century saint lie in repose under a mantle of shimmering emerald-green.

A sufi shrine in the old city
Chatter about English football even makes its way into a sacred Sufi shrine

The room is small but perhaps a dozen heavy crystal chandeliers hang down to head height.

The brilliant blues and reds of the comfortable stacks of rugs that carpet the floor are dazzlingly refracted through the glass beads.

Below them, recumbent women pray together, pausing every so often to spray one another with heavily-scented rose water.

An imam who has been shushing the women to preserve the sanctity of this place where the breath of the divine stirs among the treasures of antiquity, approaches us with a question.

Now that Manchester City has beaten Stoke in the league so convincingly, do we think it inevitable that they will edge Arsenal out of the automatic qualification places for next season's Champions League?

Perhaps people prefer the simplicities of sport because it provides easier questions and less challenging answers

It is all a reminder that in the world of the internet and the television satellite, even the most repressive governments struggle to keep out foreign influence.

The question is whether you can permit the gentle breezes of popular culture to blow across your borders without inviting the more bracing winds which might bring the seeds of democracy and the economics of the free market along with them.

It is a particularly interesting question in Algeria, which was once so bruised by its experience of colonialism that it banned the job of shoe-shine boy lest it remind people of the servility that went with French rule.

It is hard to say how the Arab Spring will ultimately affect this vast and complex place. Perhaps people prefer the simplicities of sport precisely because it provides easier questions and less challenging answers.

We will see.

In the meantime, as Tarzan would be the first to tell you, these foreign countries can be the very devil to understand.

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