Come With Me To The Casbah

Monday, November 10, 2014 | Algiers, Algeria (map)

"Typiquement algérois": The Casbah is the heart and soul of the Algerian capital's traditional culture.
Back in my mom's basement in Baltimore, somewhere in a crate full of foreign coins, postcards, and other odd trinkets that I have accumulated in my travels, there is also a magazine article, its left edge ragged where I tore it from an issue of Smithsonian back in 2007. Called "Save the Casbah", the article is an ode to the famed Casbah of Algiers—and to the community activists, historians, preservationists, and local residents who were then, and are still today, trying to keep the iconic hillside settlement from crumbling into the sea below.

Out of fascination with this part of the world, I saved the article years ago, long before I ever visited Algiers. But living here has given me many chances to explore the Casbah firsthand and get to know its many twists and turns, both physical and imagined.

Though many have left, several local artisans still practice the Casbah's traditional handicrafts.
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Some back home may be aware of the Casbah's central role in Algeria's war for independence from the French—memorialized in the 1965 film The Battle of Algiers—but the area's history goes back far earlier.

Since its founding as a seaside port several hundred years before Christ, Algiers changed hands many times, being at one point or another part of successive Punic, Phoenician, Carthaginian, Roman, Vandal, Berber, Byzantine, Arab, Ottoman, and French empires. It was home to Mediterranean pirates (against whom the United States fought its first war, from 1801-05) and an important refuge for waves of Jews and Muslims expelled from Arab Andalusia during the Spanish Reconquista. The Ottoman Turks also laid deep roots.

Throughout that time, the Casbah was Algiers; nothing but the walled village existed, overlooking the bay below. And even though the French built a modern city around it—now a metropolis that counts 4 million residents—the Casbah remains its beating heart even today.

Most residents of the Casbah (and Algerian families that come from the famed quartier) bear a mix of its many heritages, and it is this melting pot that has made the Casbah an epicenter of Algerian culture. It is the source of many iconic national dishes, of Algeria's beloved popular chaâbi music, and of many of the peculiar phrases that pepper the Algerian dialect of Arabic (many of them drawn from Turkish, Berber, Spanish, French, or simply from the collective imagination of the Casbah).

Since my first visit to Algeria almost three years ago, I couldn't wait to discover the Casbah for myself.

Public fountains dot the Casbah's many narrow alleys and cascading staircases.
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But first I had to find it. Strangely, today the Casbah of Algiers is almost invisible.

It took me weeks of shuttling between meetings around town before I realized, by process of elimination, that we seemed to be constantly skirting a small, egg-shaped section of the city's western hillside. This was the Casbah, today an invisible negative space in the modern city, largely inaccessible to cars but, as I soon confirmed, very much alive.

In building their modern city around it, the French colonizers seem to have aimed to hide the Casbah. Its external defensive walls have now been integrated into the white colonial buildings all around; from outside, all one sees of the Casbah is pedestrians slipping into the gaps between the buildings, entering the alleyways that make up the ancient city.

During Algiers' time as a distant outpost of the Ottoman empire, the Turks expanded and reinforced the Casbah.
* * *

I finally had the chance to enter those alleyways for myself back in 2012, during one of my early trips to Algiers. On a hot September day, a colleague and I toured the Casbah with an unofficial local guide. Of my many Casbah visits since then, it is the only time I have started the visit from the bottom, working our way up the Casbah's many steep steps past one crumbling building after another.

Like Fes or other traditional North African medinas, the Casbah does not follow a central plan, but rather extends, organically, each house a cell. Stairways wind between them, connecting the Casbah's many homes, businesses, and small public squares and fountains.

As we picked our way upwards, we stopped to visit palaces and several houses that have been converted into stuffy, unlit museums. The calligraphy museum—located in the Dar Mustapha Bacha, a beautifully restored former Ottoman palace in the lower Casbah—was a highlight.

So was a visit next door to the Dar Hassan Pacha, which is currently closed to visitors, with no indications of opening soon. Luckily our guide managed to track down a caretaker and, for a few bucks, negotiate our way into the decadent interior, which was still resplendent, even if cobwebbed and dusty. The Ottoman dey, or governor, of Algiers had built the palace as his home, and it later housed French colonial administrators. In one musty corner, a "République Française" plaque still leaned against a wall.

Although he was otherwise fairly unhelpful, our guide earned his fee that day by negotiating our way into the palace. In subsequent visits to the Casbah with different guides, I've come to appreciate that every guide knows different people and places within the Casbah. Each visit is thus unique, and a chance to discover other unknown corners.

Taking this lesson to heart, I try to visit the Casbah every chance I get. I have done individual tours and group tours, day tours and night tours, a dinner on a family's rooftop and a trash cleanup day. It has proven a great place to practice my photography, and never disappoints.

The hillside on which the Casbah is built overlooks the Bay of Algiers, as well as the new city all around.
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I'm hardly the only visitor to fall for the Casbah; it has long been a source of fascination and mystique for outsiders. Besides The Battle of Algiers, plenty of other internationally popular films and books have centered around the Casbah, whose labyrinthine tunnels have always held an element of what the French would call louche, and the Algerians wa'ir—in a word, shady.

The Casbah's darker side served as a perfect backdrop for Pépé Le Moko, a great French film noir from the 1930s (released in English as simply Algiers, and available in full on YouTube). Looney Tunes even used the main character's seedy charm as inspiration for the womanizing skunk Pépé Le Pew—and his famous pick-up line "Come wiz me to ze Caz-bahhhh".

But the quarter's reputated rough edges seem exaggerated to me. If, as is seemingly the case, everyone in the Casbah spends all their time telling you to watch your back as well as your wallet against thieves, who's left to do the thieving?!

My own experiences in the Casbah have been nothing but positive, so I see clearly why it retains its ability to charm foreign visitors and Algerians alike, and remains such a landmark on the country's cultural map. In my next entry, I will discuss the one real downside of the Casbah—its ever-increasing state of disrepair. To be continued...

The crumbling exteriors of the Casbah's homes and palaces hide marvellous details inside.
For anyone who is interested in learning more, I recommend the following:
  • The article I referenced above is "Save the Casbah" (Smithsonian, 2007).
  • In 2012, a fantastic movie on the traditional music of the Casbah came out worldwide—everyone should see El Gusto.
  • For French speakers, France 24's "Dans les Murs de la Casbah" is a great video series.

1 comment:

Maggie Farrand said...

Beautiful photos -- it's on my list for the next time I visit :)

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