A stronghold, a fortress – the Casbah of Algiers lies in ruin. Up on the hill, we gaze down at the sea while standing between buildings on the verge of collapse, all in different states of disrepair and neglect.
We meet up with our guide early on a Friday morning. Below is a sprawling, chaotic mass of rooftops and terraces. It’s a ghost town at this time of the day – as serene as a movie set waiting for its actors to arrive. A few men huddle on a doorstep and a stray cat makes its way along a building ledge. The blue and green street signs, similar to those in Paris, are marked “1ere arrondissement”. Of the 150 public fountains that used to flow in the Casbah, only 6 are still standing. This is the heart of the city, built in the 16th century under Ottoman rule, ravaged by war for a decade, served as a hideout for revolutionaries, and seemingly forgotten afterwards.
We descend the 472 steps that lead from the High Casbah to its lower level. “I can’t wait to go back up,” a slightly heavy-set fellow in our group intones sarcastically, grinning nervously at the steps we’d just tackled. Our guide greets a few people here and there, and ushers us into an atelier that sells lamps and vases. “Come in, come in,” the owner says. Sensing our hesitation, he adds, “You can just look, you don’t have to buy anything” — a stark difference from the pushy storeowners you’d encounter in Morocco.
The streets are difficult to navigate, often leading to house entrances or dead ends. It’s a difficult place to get lost in; the French themselves, when they first arrived in Algiers, traced coloured paint along the walls so as to not lose themselves in the jumble of alleyways.
Beams and structures stick out of building facades, like bones jutting out of broken skin. Most houses lie in ruin, abandoned after earthquakes, neglected in mid-construction. Blankets are flung over windowsills to air out. Family homes still exist in the Casbah, cherished and preserved, with their receiving areas and upper galleries. They are the lucky ones. For most, space is still an issue: several families cram into a house fit for one. “There are a lot of squatters now in the empty ones,” says our guide. “The rent is cheap here. But who would want to live in a house so unsteady on its own feet? Those who have no choice.”
Back at the top of the hill, our guide stops at an empty lot with an uneven cement floor, crumbling walls and garbage dumped in a corner. “This is where I was born; this was my home,” he says. He ends the tour where we stand, on the patch of land where his childhood had been reduced to rubble. No mention of whether it was destroyed in an earthquake, or by war, or simply torn down. We didn’t ask. Like everything else in the Casbah, it will remain a mystery.
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