Shopping malls provide rare escape for Algerian youth

Friday 11/09/2015
An Algerian woman enters a beauty salon at the Bab Ezzouar commercial centre in the capital Algiers.

Algiers - Young people don’t have many places to socialise in conservative Algeria but the North African country’s youth are dis­covering something their counter­parts in the West embraced a gen­eration ago: the shopping centre.

And away from family pressures, against this new backdrop of mas­sive carparks, shiny floors, benches and fountains, they are letting their hair down.

The enormous Bab Ezzouar mall, opened in 2010 near the Algiers air­port, was Algeria’s first major shop­ping centre. Its cinemas, bowling alley and coffee shops provide a venue for those seeking to escape the prying eyes of relatives and neighbours.

With its dimmed lights and thumping music, the bowling alley feels like a nightclub. Young men and women — many of them with­out the traditional Islamic veil — play billiards.

“I come to flirt,” declares Rym, a young woman from the south-east­ern city of Constantine.

Meriem, 18, says she goes to the mall for the privacy afforded by a crowd.

“The great thing is there are lots of people, so it’s unlikely that you’ll bump into someone you know,” she said. “Sometimes, I take my veil off and only put it back on when I leave. I’m not the only one.”

In a country where three-quar­ters of the population is under 35, malls are sprouting up giving Rym, Meriem and other youths who don’t have many other places to hang out a certain freedom.

Attracted by Algeria’s economic growth and rising income levels, in­vestors have recently opened shop­ping centres in the capital, Oran and the north-eastern city of Setif, with others planned or under construc­tion.

“They’re not just somewhere to shop but also somewhere to social­ise,” explains Tahar Drici, a sociolo­gist at the University of Algiers.

At the end of the 1990s, Algerians started to emerge from a devastat­ing decade of civil war between the army and Islamists.

“The end of terrorism has made people want to enjoy life and go out and these centres have made it pos­sible, as young men and women can meet there to flirt far from the dis­approving gaze of relatives,” Drici said.

The manager of a provincial shop­ping centre agreed, saying: “It’s not uncommon to see youth of all ages flirting in our centres. It’s the per­fect place for it.

“Young women can tell their par­ents that they’re going shopping without it sounding suspicious.”

Despite signs of opening up, Alge­rian society remains “conservative, traditional and hierarchical”, Drici said.

Couples embracing or holding hands in Algiers’ streets or on pub­lic transport are a rare sight even if it was fairly common before Islamism swept over Algeria in the late 1980s.

In the malls, “the signs are mostly Western and sell a lifestyle and fash­ion different from Algerian society’s traditional values,” Drici said.

Youths are not the only visitors of these new temples of consumption. Clients of all ages flock to the malls, where families can share a pizza while children enjoy a play area.

Up to 7.6 million people have visited Bab Ezzouar centre since it opened, equivalent to an average of 21,000 customers per day, says Alain Rolland, the Swiss director of the Company of Algerian Shopping Centres that owns it.

Barely 6 kilometres away, near Al­giers Bay, people gather on the ter­race of the Ardis commercial centre to admire the sunset over the water. The mall overlooks the Sablettes, a beach celebrated by Algerian-born French writer Albert Camus and which was recently cleaned up after years of neglect.

As in many other emerging econ­omies, enthusiasm for shopping centres does not seem set to dwin­dle any time soon. Investors are planning to open a new mall — com­plete with skating rink, cinemas and theme park — in Baraki, a southern neighbourhood of Algiers that just two decades ago was overrun by Is­lamist armed groups.