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Save the Casbah

In Algiers, preservationists race to rescue the storied quarter. But is it too late?

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"You want to see what is happening to the Casbah?" the slender man asks in French, as I make my way down a steep stone staircase that leads to the Mediterranean Sea. Before venturing into this storied hillside quarter of Algiers, a labyrinth of shadowy alleys and cul-de-sacs filled with idle youths casting suspicious gazes upon outsiders, I'd been warned to keep my guard up, but this fellow's earnest manner persuades me he can be trusted. Introducing himself as Oualid Mohammed, he leads me down the Rue Mustapha Latreche, named after an Algerian guerrilla who fell fighting the French in the Casbah during the war of independence that lasted from 1954 to 1962 and concluded when France ended colonial rule. Then he stops before a crumbling two-story house. "That's where I live," he says. The entire front section is a ruin; the second floor has collapsed onto the first, and the hallway is filled with rubble.

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On May 21, 2003, Mohammed tells me, an earthquake measuring 6.8 on the Richter scale struck about 40 miles east of Algiers, killing hundreds of people in this part of North Africa and badly damaging the Casbah. A few weeks later, a government team designated the family's house, which had developed dangerous cracks in the walls and ceilings, a priority for renovation. Then, Mohammed says, in their rush to begin, workmen removed several wooden beams, and the house caved in. Today a dozen family members live jammed into the two remaining rear rooms, waiting for a promised reconstruction to begin. "Nobody from the government has talked to us in two years," he tells me.

Mohammed leads me past the debris-strewn remnants of the house's front, through the kitchen to a dim room in the back. An elderly woman in a hijab, his mother, sits on a tattered couch, eating from a plate of olives and bread. A young man is scrunched up on a windowsill, asleep. Mohammed's father, a slight 71-year-old, shuffles into the room. He is Oualid Meziane, who turns out to be a Casbah hero. As a teenage resistance fighter, Meziane says, he carried five-gallon jugs of bomb-making chemicals from safe house to safe house, sometimes under the noses of French paratroopers, and distributed copies of the banned, pro-independence newspaper, El-Moudjahid. "We all lived in fear for our lives," he says. "There would be a knock on somebody's door at midnight, and a friend would be taken off—and guillotined." These days Meziane gets by on a $70 monthly pension and a small disability payment for the gunshot wound he got in the crossfire of a battle between Islamic fundamentalist guerrillas and the Algerian Army in 1995. "The real fighters in the war of independence didn't get their due," Meziane says, glancing at his disintegrating abode. "Look at how we're living now."

Spilling down precipitous hills overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, this mazelike quarter of Algiers, the capital of Algeria, has long conjured up both Arab exoticism and political turbulence. Dating back to Phoenician times but rebuilt by the Ottomans in the late 1700s, the Casbah has served over the centuries as a refuge for pirates, freedom fighters, Islamic militants and petty thieves, all of whom found easy anonymity in its alleys and houses sequestered behind imposing stone walls.

But the often violent history of the Casbah has obscured an appreciation of the quarter's architectural and cultural riches. Preservationists consider it one of the most beautiful examples of late Ottoman style. Its once-whitewashed structures, facing onto narrow passages and constructed around enclosed courtyards, contain a wealth of hidden treasures—marble floors, fountains, carved lintels, intricate mosaics. For generations, writers and artists have celebrated the mystery, tragedy and rhythms of life in the Casbah in literature and painting. "Oh my Casbah," wrote Himoud Brahimi, the poet laureate of the quarter, in 1966, four years after the Algerian resistance defeated the French occupiers. "Cradle of my birth, where I came to know loyalty and love. How can I forget the battles in your alleys, that still bear the burdens of war?" Djamila Issiakhem, who grew up here in the 1960s as the niece of a famous Algerian artist, remembers the vibrant Casbah of her youth as a place where women and girls, escaping their traditional confinement, congregated in hammams, public baths, to gossip and discuss marital prospects. (The suggestive entreaty, "Come with me to the Casbah," is not from the 1938 movie Algiers, starring Charles Boyer, but from an impersonation of Boyer by the cartoon character Pepé Le Pew, in The Cat's Bah, an animated short.)

But the Casbah's glory days ended decades ago, and much of the old city has crumbled into ruin. During the war for independence, thousands of rural Algerians flocked to the Casbah, where life was marginally safer and rents were cheap. The population climbed from 30,000 in 1958 to more than 80,000 today; as many as ten families crammed into some dwellings, putting unbearable strains on many houses. Earthquakes, torrential rains and flooding eroded foundations and walls further, and when one house fell, it often took down two or three others with it. Today much of the Casbah is a dingy slum, its refuse-strewn lots and fissure-ridden houses reeking of sewage and uncollected garbage. Of 1,200 traditional Ottoman-era buildings, just 680 are considered in good condition. Within a generation, some preservationists say, it is possible that the entire quarter could be uninhabitable. "The Casbah has lost its soul," says Issiakhem, who leads tours of it for Western diplomats and a handful of foreign tourists. "The question is whether we can ever get it back."

It may be too late. Valuable time was lost during the past two decades, when the country was engulfed in a brutal civil war, known here as the periode noire, or "black time." The war broke out in January 1991, after the country's military regime canceled elections that almost certainly would have brought an Islamist party to power. For nine years, Islamic terrorists and Algerian security forces battled in cities and the countryside, and perhaps 150,000 people, most of them civilians, died in terrorist bombings, reprisals and other attacks. "The Casbah was a no-go territory," I was told by Belkacem Babaci, a historian and radio-show host who was born in the quarter in 1941. "Even for somebody like me, who lived there most of his life, it was unsafe." The war wound down in 2000, under President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, a former liberation fighter who continued to send the army to pursue Islamic guerrillas while offering amnesty to those who gave up their weapons. (Perhaps 1,000 armed Islamic radicals, some of whom recently declared allegiance to Osama bin Laden, still carry out attacks against police posts and isolated farms from sanctuaries in Algeria's deserts and mountains. Recently, Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for an April 11 bombing in central Algiers.) When Babaci returned to the old quarter in 1998, after nearly a decade, he was shocked to see how it had degraded.

The coming of peace to Algeria hasn't made the government any more enthusiastic about preserving the old city. Unlike the ancient quarter of Bukhara in Uzbekistan, for example, which has benefited from state support, the Casbah has seen almost no public funding. It isn't for lack of resources: the Algerian government earns $4 billion a month in oil and natural gas revenues, and is believed to have $80 billion in cash reserves. Tourism, in a country still focused on maintaining stability, does not rank high as a government priority—Algiers has only a handful of decent hotels, and the country's hundreds of miles of beaches remain virtually undeveloped. Then there is the Casbah's long-standing reputation as a breeding ground for rebellion. "For the government, the Casbah is a treacherous place," says Abdelkader Ammour, secretary-general of the Casbah Foundation, a preservation group that got the Casbah named a Unesco World Heritage site in 1991. Since then, the foundation has painstakingly mapped the area, house by house, assessing the condition of each structure and outlining restoration strategies. But it has struggled for more than a decade to raise funds and awareness.

Before arriving in Algiers, I had been warned that even venturing into the old quarter would not be smart. Colleagues who had covered the civil war in the 1990s described the place then as a haunt for Islamic militants with a violently anti-Western agenda. Even U.S. diplomats who want to visit the Casbah must first get permission from the government, which provides them with armed security guards. But my local contacts assured me the reports of danger were exaggerated, so, with my guide and driver, Mohammed Ali Chitour, an unemployed civil servant, I head there on a bright morning without escorts. As a gentle salt breeze wafts from the harbor, Chitour leads the way down an ancient stone staircase, hemmed in by teetering mud- and concrete-brick buildings with stucco facades long since disintegrated.

We enter a gloomy world of shadows and dust, of braying donkeys and veiled women, of shafts of sunlight filtering through narrow corridors, and the smells of the sea, fresh baguettes and rotting fruit. The staircase turns into an alley, or ruelle, about 12 feet wide. We walk past elaborately carved Ottoman portals that shine through the gloom; one has a black iron door knocker in the shape of a fist, another is flanked by a pair of spiraling, slender columns. The cantilevered overhangs of several houses, supported by pole-like wooden beams, extend so far into the passage they almost touch. We pass beneath an archway formed by a second-floor chamber that vaults between two houses. (An aperture in the vault, dating to the Ottoman era but still of use today, allows the Casbah's female denizens to see out, without being spotted themselves.) Tiny passages, known as impasses, spill off the longer alley, ending abruptly in a wall of crumbled brick or masonry. On the lintel of one three-story house, I spy an old Star of David engraved in the stone, evidence of a Jewish presence once upon a time. Just beyond the house, Abdullah Shanfa, a near-toothless man of 54, welcomes Ali and me to his home. We enter a spartan central courtyard, ringed by a three-story loggia, or wraparound arched gallery—a classic Ottoman-era structure built about 300 years ago. The sun has given way to a drizzle; rain trickles through the open skylight onto a slightly sloped floor and drains into gullies.

About Joshua Hammer
Joshua Hammer

Joshua Hammer is a foreign freelance correspondent and frequent contributor to Smithsonian magazine.

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