Around Algiers: Navigating the Invisible City

Tuesday, April 1, 2014 | Algiers, Algeria

Exploring beneath the surface of the Algerian capital is a slow task of relationship building.
Outside of its famed casbah, Algiers is hardly the warren of tunnels that some other North African cities are (I'm thinking of Fes here), but it does have its secret passageways.

The capital's narrow roads zigzag circuitously along steep hillsides, flanked by apartments or walled-off villas that make many streets feel like narrow concrete chutes. Occasionally, as you crest a hill or pass a gap in a wall, you get a fleeting glimpse, between the bougainvilleas, of the sea stretched out below like a smooth blue carpet.

* * *

In the US, we have worked for centuries to flatten social barriers, to allow citizens to navigate their cities without special keys, access controls, or passwords. To move from one geographic location to any other in an American city, usually you can walk or drive unhindered. Maps are truly a representation of the geographic possibilities one can experience.

In Algiers, by contrast, geography is not as it appears on a map. Rather, it is an interlaced reality of physical and social barriers. In this city where interpersonal relationships decide all, what one needs
to pass through a doorway is not a key but a friend. The right name, the right affiliation, can allow you to pass beyond the walls, entering hidden homes and courtyards that you could otherwise never know of, much less access. I've been lucky enough to visit abandoned palaces, penthouse suites, and sumptuous verdant villas simply by being with the right person at the right time.

If getting in the door requires a friend, so too does finding the doorway to begin with; at least early on, finding one's way in Algiers also demands some local assistance. Street signs are not plentiful, and may indicate either the French colonial-era name or, more likely, the newer Arabic name. Neighborhoods, roads, and entire cities were renamed after independence in 1962, but the Algérois, creatures of habit, have been slow to absorb them. Ask for directions on the street and you're likely to get a mix of both sets of names, as well as references to various landmarks of historical or cultural importance, some still current and others long since disappeared.

As much as it may look on the surface like just any faded French port, Algiers is profoundly traditional—a classical Arab city grafted, invisibly, onto the buildings and spaces that the French left behind. Like Fes, old Damascus, or other places known for guarding their traditions, its geography is more human than linear.

* * *

In downtown Algiers, light fills a stairwell in a colonial-era apartment building.
Traffic in Algiers can be a nightmare. Stop signs are for decoration, and I have yet to see a single traffic light in town. Instead, policemen in royal blue and white stand at the center of every major intersection or roundabout, windmilling their arms and whistling themselves red in the face. Security checkpoints are ubiquitous, slowing cars to an imperceptible creep on the smallest roads and the largest highways alike. What's more, heavy government subsidies on car purchases and fuel allow almost anyone with a driver's license to buy a car. (The image of an unemployed young dude with nothing to do but cruise the streets in his shiny new ride is by now a well-worn local stereotype.) Sadly, the city government has not invested nearly as much in expanding the 19th century road network, leading to a clogged mess day and night throughout town.

How to escape the traffic then? The terrain in Algiers is about as hilly as San Francisco, so bikes are impractical and almost never seen. A network of buses plods around town, never in a hurry. A single metro line exists, offering limited possibilities.

But avoiding the traffic is still feasible, because between the hidden villas and other concealed spaces lies a network of staircases—for me, an invaluable discovery that has made the city feel much smaller. Though today's residents seem to overwhelmingly prefer driving, it's clear that Algiers was designed as a pedestrian space.

Although I'm still continuing to explore, I now know how to find my way between many landmarks on foot, sometimes more quickly than I could in a car. To get from my apartment to my office each morning, for example, I descend 195 steps to the main road, then zigzag that far downhill again through the gardens of the Parc de Liberté, grab a coffee at the corner and dash up five flights of stairs to the office. Including a few minutes to chat with the friendly café staff, it's fifteen minutes door to door. These days I can even hustle home in about the same time.

No doubt about it: being well connected and revising your concept of geography are essential to discovering Algiers, but being in shape sure helps too.

The Algerian capital's hills offer plenty of exercise for ambitious walkers.


Anonymous said...

I remember an era in the distant past where there where traffic lights in Algiers (it was actually dangerous because some people didn't respect them). the government needed a fast solution to unemployment, so they replaced the traffic lights with shiny blue policemen and thousands of jobs where created, brilliant, isn’t it?
Just imagine if Obama can use this tactic, he will be reelected for a 3rd term and even a 4th at his death bed…….OH sorry I was mistaken the presidents, Obama could run for another half dozen terms before he get to his death bed, not every country is as lucky!

Andrew G. Farrand said...

I suppose that's one way to solve the problem -- or in fact a few problems at once! Thanks for your comment :)

Anonymous said...

Yeah,'s not an Arab city.

-From an actual Algerian born in Algiers who is Amazigh, not Arab

Andrew G. Farrand said...

Hi "Anonymous".

I believe you're referring to the sentence above where, after describing the French construction of the ville nouvelle, I describe Algiers as "profoundly traditional—a classical Arab city grafted, invisibly, onto the buildings and spaces that the French left behind"?

That certainly doesn't seem to indicate -- nor do I believe -- that everyone in the city today is ethnically Arab. You yourself are one of many residents of Amazigh origin, and neither am I myself of Arab origin. Given all the cultural mixing in Algiers over the centuries, it's hard to imagine that most Algérois do not have some mix of Arab, European, Turkish, Amazigh, and African descent. I think that is one of the factors that makes Algiers so rich. (As I discussed in a recent post on the city's origins: Come With Me To The Casbah".)

But if you have visited other major cities across the Arab world (I'm thinking of Beirut, Damascus, Fes, Marrakech... and probably many others I haven't visited) then you can identify much that is familiar in Algiers on the cultural/sociological/anthropological levels, even if the buildings here look so distinctly European. That is the point I made with that sentence above, and I think it is one for which there is ample evidence.

Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts.

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