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A day in the life:
A trip through the Casbah, Algiers, 2015

Algiers, Algeria

A view of the Casbah in Algiers from the highest point. Mamiya 6, 150mm, Delta 400 Film.

Sunday 1st November 2015

I was in Algiers at the behest of the British Council, who often asked me to travel to far-off places in order to promote reading and the English Language. I was there the same week as the Airbus was brought down in the Sinai though terrorist action, so the return flight via Air France was not without trepidation - especially as the Airport security was still utilising the now-discreditted 'explosive dowsing devices' sold by an unscrupulous British businessman some years before. Algiers was and is a fascinating place, full of contrasts, almost zero tourism, strong Russian and French influences (More French than Russian, obviously - Algeria used to be equivalent to Marseilles - with representation in Parliament) The Algerians all very friendly and super curious as the above mentioned almost zero tourism meant that meeting Europeans was not a daily occurrence. I was staying the the Hotel El Djazair, a beautiful Moorish-designed hotel in the Raffles/Dorchester/Adelphi mould, and which was used by Eisenhower in 1943/44 as his HQ - there was a plaque on the door of his office. My host from the British Council was the super-friendly Martin, and on the Sunday, suggested we went for a walk through the Casbah.

".....Martin picked me up at nine and we headed off with the ever-attendant BC driver Sid Ali to the Citadel at the top of the Casbah, close to the last remaining section of the 2 miles of massive stone rampart that was systematically destroyed by the French once they had laid siege to the city and claimed the country as their own in 1830, mostly, it seems, because of an argument over an unpaid wheat bill.

The citadel is currently closed for repairs, so we met up with our guide and then went for an informative walk through the Casbah, the narrow streets and high vertical houses not dissimilar to Moroccan cities, or indeed to Italian hill towns or anywhere which is built on a hill and needs to absorb a lot of people. The Casbah has been greatly reduced by the French as it was a place of lawlessness - the flat roofs allowed an easy escape for those with mischief on their minds. From the 12,000 houses estimated to exist at the introduction of French rule, there are now less than 1200 and have only been a protected historic area since 1990.

Although many of the houses are earmarked for restoration the work is slow, and many of the streets are shored up with wooden scaffolding. In other places collapses have left chasm-like vacant lots, as most of the buildings are three or more floors, and lean on their surrounding buildings for support, the rooms typically not more than 10' wide as a precaution against earthquake and for practical reasons: wood is scarce and the only suitable timber has a maximum of 10' between branches, where it is weaker - and the roof beams usually have to support tiled floors of considerable weight.

The houses cascade up the hill, with each on a storey lower than the one in front to maintain a view of the sea and access to a cooling breeze. We were met on this trip by an American named M-, who was working for the US Embassy in something to do with health. She was good fun and asked a lot of relevant questions, and then took copious notes in a pocket-book. She had reservations about security, so our guide went to the local police station and we had a plain clothes cop tail us for the morning, something that Martin said was entirely unneeded, but it helped to put people's minds at ease. Our guide explained about the history and had a good command of English, answering each question with intelligence and understanding. I also felt he was a man with a responsibility - to explain to us foreigners the ways of Algeria, and the people.

We stopped outside the oldest Mosque in Algiers which dated from the 9th century. It is now a Koranic school and one of the Imams, a young man of perhaps thirty came out to tell us in broken english about how Islam was a religion committed utterly to peace and harmony with everyone else. He reiterated the point several times, wanting, presumably, to dispel any myths we might have had. Since we had started at the top the walk down along the narrow stepped streets was very easy. Kids were playing with spinning tops and bottles of water on the end of a bit of string. At one point we went into what was called 'The Carpenter's House' a triangular house with a central lightwell, also triangular, leading up to a ceiling skylight past balustraded walkways with rooms leading off. There was a baby crying somewhere, and a mobile phone ringing.

We went up to the flat roof and looked down upon the Casbah and the rest of Algiers beyond, the flat roofs very obvious, most covered with fresh washing and satellite dishes. A warship was just docking along with the Marseilles ferry, and a military helicopter buzzed overhead. We could see the old mosque, Jewish synagogue, harbour and the far edge of the bay curling around in front of us all the way to the headland in the distance where there was, apparently, another fortress, also open to the public. Algiers is a big place and quite high-rise, quite dense, traffic heavy, but not polluted. We ate pastries and had a cup of mint tea on the roof while the washing fluttered in the breeze and three girls, resident of the house, played in the corner. The weather was fine, a maritime convergence dividing the sky between blue and grey in a sharp line.

Once sated we walked back down the rickety stairs to visit a carpenter who has a workshop on the ground floor in which there is a combination plane, circular saw and spindle moulder of some considerable vintage. Standing by were examples of his work, mostly fretwork arabesque designs that are made out of interlocked criss-crosses of wood, the working done so that when joined together, geometric designs suddenly appear. Very neat.

Moved on down the hill, past one of the few remaining public fountains, this one housed in a Moorish arch with Arabic tiled splashback. There was a copper merchant close by who had been working out of the same shop for half a century. Beyond this and past more kids playing was a 13th century Mausoleum to an Islamic saint, even though, as our guide told us, Islam does not specifically subscribe any importance to such a shrine. We removed our shoes but retained them in a bag 'in case of mistakes' and went into the domed mausoleum, the walls decorated with Koranic verses, the floors covered with carpets - quite nicely tactile to my socked feet, the tomb itself draped with green sheets, the colour of Islam. I asked what the tomb looked like and our guide told us that he had never seen it - few had - but it would have been plain,as humility is seen as a virtue. Hanging from the domed roof were about a dozen chandeliers, the central one of which it was claimed as a gift from Queen Victoria who visited this site in the 1840s and was discovered to be with child soon after, one of the main reasons for which this saint is revered.

There were other tombs within the mausoleum, and the whole dome was supported upon ornately carved marble columns, most decorated with a crescent. Outside there was also a graveyard, the tombs of Turks, Berbers and Jews easily delineated by the marks on the headstone and if they were covered or not. We walked back up the stairs and visited an interesting building of Moorish design but here built in 1904 by 'M. Petit' when the fashion was less of French design and more of a Moorish bent, with rounded arches and inside, ornate and mostly tiled interiors of intricate Islamic motifs. We weren't allowed to take pictures unfortunately, but it was a wonderful building with a high domed central atrium and then doors leading off to the various offices. Our guide did not know what precisely it had been built or, but knew now it was a distance learning company. Around the corner was a man who had removed the engine from a battered Peugeot 105 and was busily taking off the cylinder head. Although many cars are very new, there are still some wrecks on the road. He was arm deep in oil with cats wandering amongst the many parts of the car, but opposite was a bakery where a brother and sister were busy making Grande Fours in a room certainly no bigger than a single garage and with really only enough room for an industrial food mixer, an oven, four sacks of flour and them. We ate some cakes - very good - and they chattered about how many young men in their teens were giving up school because they are convinced they will become famous and rich purely by virtue of their inherent personal skills, whatever those might be. Trouble is, they don't get the jobs, don't get picked for football teams, and aren't spotted by entrepreneurs - and then become unemployed and a bit useless until finally, in their mid-twenties, they realise they need a trade and works as bakers or shoemakers or something - while the girls, who work hard and end up in college, are increasingly getting the better jobs.


Algiers, Algeria

The carpentry shop I mentioned. The pictures are due to be framed, and some of the simple patterns from which are derived complex artworks are visible. I didn't have a tripod; the camera was rested on the spindle-moulder. I did ask permission. Mamiya 6, 50mm, Delta 400 Film.

We were getting close to the waterfront by now, and stopped off at the Mustapha Pasha Palace, which, like most Casbah palaces are inside out - the finery on the inside and the outside quite plain, and often austere. This is now a calligraphy museum and surprisingly the interior is decorated not with Islamic tiles and motifs, but hundreds and hundreds of Delft tiles, the palace dating from 1798 when Delft was all the rage, and the trading routes around the Med well established. The marble too was imported from Carrera in Italy. The main hall was designed for people to sit and wait to speak to the Pasha who would have sat at the end of the hall and a mildly raised Dias as in Islam, you are not permitted to kneel or bow to anyone except God. Above him was a deep light well which not only brought light into the bowels of the house, always a problem in the tight confines of the Casbah, but also hot air out so that cold air would then be drawn in to cool the interior. The rooms in the building were also small, the 10' wide rules being applicable everywhere.

The Pasha palace was unique in that it had always been in use as either a house, offices or a museum, and unlike other palaces that were either carved up for residential use or squatted - many houses in the Casbah are nominally 'owned' by the people who happened to be resident at the time - the interior is unmolested. Other palaces were stripped of everything. Not just the tiles, but often the marblework pillars, too. The central courtyard was delightful, the centre of the house and used for entertaining, the balconies upstairs usually shielded by net curtains for the womenfolk to look upon the men below. Corridors were narrow, lots of marble, window apertures in the 'basket handle' arch which is flattened at the top but with a notch presumably to add strength. Calligraphy not so interesting to me, but if nothing else demonstrates that illuminating manuscripts with complex decorations is not new, nor the preserve of one religion.

Our guide talked about how certain Imams try to remember the Koran's verses by heart in order to lead prayers, but few if any can do it without an error, so when they are trying it they are often reminded by the congregation when they miss out a word. Our guide said this could be quite amusing, and often Imams would become angry about this, despite the fact that as far as the Prophet is concerned, being human is all about making mistakes, and that is not frowned upon in Islam. You make mistakes, you make your peace, you try to live a better life.

Out of the Pasha Palace and then down into the market area about two streets behind the Waterfront. Very bustling with street traders selling almost everything and residents doing the opposite. A truckload of lemons here, a woman selling machine-made lace there, cigarettes, lighters, man holding a large doll, one of several he had to sell. Places of note here was the palace built for Napoleon III, and which is in perfect condition inside and only needs cleaning prior to being reopened, something they hope will happen soon as it doesn't belong to the Department of Culture but someone else, and bureaucracy can get tangled up very quickly out here. Next door to this was the old Turkish Mosque, looking like something from Istanbul, and actually being restored with cash and expertise from the Turkish nation. Beautiful building and a far cry from the massive modern mosque being built by Chinese money and labour on the road to the conference centre.

After walking though here, past the date-palms and the tea-cafes was the Waterfront itself, a dazzling set of buildings, all designed to bring a taste of Paris to the colonies. We bid farewell to M- here and Martin called Sid Ali to come and pick us up. I was dropped off at the hotel so I started writing all this up in my journal, while having a motorway-services issue Croque Monsieur and a large coffee in the bar downstairs..."

c Jasper Fforde - First published 1st May 2020 and exclusive to 'Adventures in Jasperland'
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