Algiers: (Re)navigating the Invisible City

Friday, January 29, 2016 | Algiers, Algeria

The Martyrs' Monument, Algiers' most visible landmark, viewed from the Balcon St. Raphael in El Biar.
A travel magazine that I enjoy held a writing contest just before the holidays. Short on time and inspiration, I refined and combined several of my favorite pieces from this blog about discovering Algiers, based on my experiences exploring the Algerian capital since moving here three years ago. My submission didn't pass muster with the judges, but I find it to be a good overview of the city's unique geography, and so worth sharing here. Enjoy:

Back in my mom's basement in Baltimore, somewhere in a crate full of foreign coins, postcards, and other odd trinkets accumulated from Middle Eastern souqs and African in my travels, sits a magazine article, its left edge ragged where I tore it from an issue of Smithsonian back in 2007. Titled “Save the Casbah”, the article is an ode to the famed Casbah of Algiers, and to the community activists, historians, preservationists, and local residents 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 the Algerian capital. Then, in 2012, I made my first visit on an extended work trip, and quickly fell in love. Within a year, I had successfully pushed for reassignment, leaving behind a comfortable life in the US to come explore Algiers' many twists and turns—both physical and unseen.

* * *

"Wow, it looks so French."

That's the typical reaction from almost any first-time visitor to Algiers, particularly those who have spent enough time in France to know the distinctive Haussmannian style when they see it. It was one of the first things I said too, three years ago, as I made my first forays along the city's downtown streets. Brilliant white corridors of ornately decorated façades and columned arcades glowed in the Mediterranean sun. Balconies trimmed with blue rails and billowing striped curtains immediately brought Marseille to mind, and the whole scene even hinted of Paris. The Casbah I had dreamed of back home in America was nowhere to be seen.

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 modest 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, I have since learned, very much alive.

When the French arrived in 1830, the Casbah was Algiers—a vibrant hillside port that had existed for centuries, absorbing the influences of successive Punic, Phoenician, Carthaginian, Roman, Vandal, Berber, Byzantine, Arab, and Ottoman rulers, and welcoming waves of Jews and Muslims expelled from Arab Andalusia during the Spanish Reconquista. But the French colonizers deemed this city—along with the diverse cultural pastiche that inhabited it—an eyesore, and set about trying to cover it up. Over 132 years, the French built a modern European city around the Casbah, chipping away at the old city's edges and integrating its outer walls into the white colonial buildings all around. From the outside, all one sees of the Casbah today are pedestrians slipping into the gaps between the modern buildings, entering the alleyways that make up the ancient city.

This realization was my first confirmation that, while thirteen decades of French colonial rule and settlement certainly left a strong mark on the architecture of the Algerian capital, it would be a mistake to read too much into that visible resemblance. To do so would be to miss the invisible city all around—a city that is uniquely Algerian.

* * *
The Casbah, the old quarter of Algiers, is the city's neglected heart.
Rising up steep hillsides from the Bay of Algiers below, Algiers today is a visually fascinating, utterly disorienting metropolis of four million residents. With the exception of the Casbah, the city is hardly the warren of tunnels that Fez, Marrakech, or other North African cities are, but it does have its secret passageways.

Above downtown, the capital's narrow roads zigzag circuitously along the 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, it is possible to catch a fleeting glimpse, between the bougainvillea, of the sea stretched out below like a smooth blue carpet.

Traffic in Algiers can be a nightmare. Local drivers view stop signs as merely decorative, and I can count on one hand the number of traffic lights I have encountered in town in three years. Instead, policemen in crisp royal-blue-and-white uniforms stand at the center of every major intersection and roundabout, windmilling their arms and whistling themselves purple in the face. Since the civil war of the 1990s, security checkpoints are ubiquitous, slowing cars to an imperceptible creep on the smallest roads and the largest highways alike. What's more, years of government subsidies on cars and fuel have allowed almost anyone of driving age to own a car. (The image of an unemployed young punk with nothing to do but cruise the streets in his shiny new ride is by now a well-worn local stereotype.) Unfortunately, the government has not invested nearly as much in expanding the 19th century road network, which is clogged at every hour of the day.

How to escape the traffic then? The terrain in Algiers is about as hilly as San Francisco, so bikes are impractical and thus exceptionally rare. Networks of public and private buses plod around town, overcrowded and 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 effectively brought the whole city closer together.

Though today's residents seem to overwhelmingly prefer driving, it is clear that Algiers was designed as a pedestrian space. Knowing the stairs and passages often allows me to navigate the city much quicker on foot than by car, especially in today's traffic. So whenever I can, I spend a Saturday exploring new sectors of the city, inevitably discovering yet more hidden passages that connect seemingly distant points and provide the ambitious pedestrian a multitude of serene, jasmine- and bougainvillea-lined routes through town. Sometimes punishingly long and steep, they offer the added benefit of a free workout.

* * *

After years of practice orienting myself in unfamiliar foreign places, I pride myself on a strong sense of direction, but no city I have ever lived in has taken me nearly as long to decipher as Algiers.

That's partly because street signs are rare, 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 residents of Algiers, 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.

Is it Rue Larbi Ben Mhidi, or Rue d'Isly?

Sorry, sir, but no I don't know where the Embassy of Palestine used to be twenty years ago.

What is a "chamonuv"? Oh, I see; wait, but why, in the 21st century, does this city have "Champ de Manoeuvre" (military parade ground)?

After years of bumbling about, today I have mastered my usual stomping grounds well enough to give reliable directions to the Algerian out-of-towners who sometimes beg assistance in finding their way through their confusing capital.

* * *
Lavish villas hide behind high walls and hedge rows, secluded from the city all around.
But if finding the right doorway often requires a helping hand, so too does getting through that doorway.

As I crisscross the city, climbing and descending staircases in a real-life North African version of Chutes and Ladders, my eyes often drift above the plain whitewashed concrete walls. Visible over the barriers are the upper stories of ornate colonial-era villas, orange and lemon trees, and well-manicured palms from their courtyard gardens. To really appreciate the beauty of Algiers has required getting beyond those walls—and that in turn has required adopting a whole new way of orienting.

Back in America, 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. With some exceptions, maps are truly a representation of the geographic possibilities one can experience.

In Algiers, by contrast, I have learned to consider geography as something apart from what appears on a map. Rather, it is an interlaced reality of physical and social barriers.

In this city where interpersonal relationships decide all, what I need to enter through a doorway is not a key but a friend. The right name, the right affiliation, has allowed me to pass beyond the walls, entering hidden homes and courtyards that I had walked by hundreds of times but never knew existed—and certainly could never have accessed on my own, no matter how good a map I held. Time invested in building friendships and making new acquaintances has allowed me to visit abandoned palaces, penthouse suites, and sumptuous verdant villas—all simply by being with the right person at the right time.

* * *

Discovering Algiers requires strong leg muscles, even stronger connections and friendships, and a revised notion of geography. Not to mention lots of time and patience.

By persisting, I have managed to enter the invisible city. I have passed beyond the one that looks like just another faded French port, to discover the classical Arab city underneath—the one grafted, invisibly, onto the buildings and spaces that the French left behind. Just like Fes, Damascus, or the other great Arab cities of old, known for guarding their traditions and secrets close to their chest, Algiers is a place whose geography is more human than linear.

The Casbah I dreamed of visiting one day has not withered and disappeared; on the contrary, it has germinated and flourished, invisibly infusing and overtaking the entire city that surrounds it.


Unknown said...

"a city that is uniquely Algerian." vety much indeed :)

nawelle said...

i loved your way how you describe the city most of people forgot that algiers is full of surprise :)
"chamonuv" was always a mystery word to me ....till i made the link beween chamonuv and Champ de Manoeuvre :)

i really love the feelings you are giving to each word Andrew-

Andrew G. Farrand said...

Thank you so much!

Sarah said...

Really glad to see someone else who likes walking through Algiers and thinks it ideal for that, usually people would say: you can't walk in this city there are too much stairs to climb!!!

Hadjer said...

Wow! Amazing description of Algiers thank you very much. It's impressive that you realized the lack of points of references and the lack of road signs in Algiers more than the locals do! I keep talking about them, but people seem to never take it seriously that Algiers seems like a maze to me. Apart from the metro or tram way I can't move around. You have figured out a way to navigate through the capital know you could be the very first to write a touristic guide about Algiers! I've never read an article that made me love Algiers this much before!

Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

Nice work Andrew. I'm reading The French Intifafa by Andrew Hussey and your city scape is the prefect accompaniment. Hope all is well. PA

Andrew G. Farrand said...

Thank you Sarah, Hadjer, Amel, and PA. Really appreciate the comments! Thank you for reading!

Unknown said...

Great review , Algiers is a very unique city , the connection between the buildings , the topography and the sea is very strong.
and i love how you mentioned the stairs , which are considered like a vertical streets that give you a wonderful views everytime .
Keep on the good work Andrew !

Andrew G. Farrand said...

Thanks Raoufe :)

Anonymous said...

enjoyed while reading it,Thanks Andrew

Anonymous said...

Subtle description of he city and its " cotidien"
Well done Andrew!!

Rayane said...

Thank you Andrew

Anonymous said...

chanmanuv lol ( champs de manœuvre ou place du 1er mai ) ; my birthplace. I really enjoyed -

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