The Casbah of Algiers heaves a cry of despair
By Achira Mammeri for Magharebia in Algiers – 3/10/2008
The Casbah of Algiers: a place where women used to gather on terraces in the evenings to recite bouqala (popular poetry) and men stayed up all night playing dominoes, where battles have been fought and won and ancient mosques and palaces recall an historical grandeur.
The Casbah is a repository of the nation's history. Residents describe it as the most beautiful place on the planet and visitors agree. Indeed, the United Nations listed it as a world heritage site in 1992.
But today, Algiers' heart and soul is battered and bruised. Human folly has transformed the old city into a huge ghetto, her streets and her people foundering in silence. These days, due to security concerns and a dearth of social fabric, the men are home by 7pm and the terraces are empty.
[Achira Mammeri] Decades of neglect have left the Casbah of Algiers in a state of decay. Government efforts have failed on several occasions, but a new plan may hold some promise.
[Achira Mammeri] Residents say the Casbah's state of ruin is due to government neglect.
[Achira Mammeri] The Casbah's Kechaoua mosque is already being urgently repaired, as its minaret is on the verge of partial collapse.
The Casbah "is no longer what it was," says 60-year old Aicha, draped in her traditional hayek.
Decay can be seen not only in the streets filled with crumbling facades: the citadel's physical and social infrastructure is falling apart.
"I no longer recognise the Casbah," says 70 year old Mr. Lakhdar, a child of the Casbah who has lived here for nearly fifty years. "I’m outraged at the state this place is in. How sad we couldn’t preserve this jewel."
Over the past several decades, it has been local owners--not government officials--who have determined the future of the Casbah, with little regard for historical preservation or long-term sustainability.
Given the poor state of many of the old city's buildings, the Casbah has become a favoured destination for new couples looking for a home. Owners are often unaware of the historic and cultural value of their buildings, and prices are accordingly low: 300,000 DA is enough to buy a small out-dated flat.
"I didn’t have the money to restore my little flat, so I just wanted to sell it before the building fell down around us," says Mohamed, a sexagenarian living in the upper Casbah's Bab El Djedid.
New owners often carry out renovation work based on their personal taste, without any formal study of the local building style. The result has been catastrophic. Left to its own devices, the ancient citadel has played host to terrorist attacks and tasteless new construction.
Over the past decade, among the ancient terraces and within the maze of the Casbah's steeply-sloping streets, indifferent owners have torn down old buildings and thrown up shanty towns and gaudy villas. Of the 2000 buildings standing in 1962, officials say, barely 800 remain today.
As this ancient piece of Algeria's heritage falls further into ruin, residents say it is a testimony to the authorities' saddening casualness.
The state has never set aside "a budget large enough to save this national and world monument," says Badia Sator, cultural director for Algiers wilaya, adding that "restoring the Casbah will be expensive".
One initiative after another has risen and fallen, none producing tangible results or saving the historic centre from further decay. The first restoration effort dates back to 1981 when the government called for studies to be carried out to generate a rescue plan.
No plan came to pass.
Eighteen years later, the task was assigned to the Centre National d'Etudes et de Recherches Appliquees en Urbanisme (CNERU). Once again, no concrete plan saw the light of day.
All of that could be behind us, however.
On September 10th this year, with great ceremony, representatives of Algiers wilaya announced that the government has agreed to release 300 million dinars to preserve the cultural heritage of the Casbah in Algiers.
Abdelhamid Boudaoud, president of Algeria’s national college of architects says that budget is insufficient.
"Restoring the Casbah is no small task," he tells Magharebia. "This isn’t just a standard restoration of old buildings. The Casbah is a source of history. It bears witness to our past, a civilisation in its own right."
Restoring this open-air museum, he adds, "is a huge undertaking and demands knowledge and skills which are not always available to us in Algeria".
Nonetheless, some effort is certainly better than none.
According to the plan announced in September, the Casbah's restoration will take place in three stages over the next three years.
The first stage, dubbed "emergency work", aims to renovate 350 houses in four months.
"The state might have to buy them," the Algiers wilaya department of culture says, "given that the owners have not taken care of them, and some have even rented them to third parties."
"Work sessions will be organised with the owners of the houses, and the aim is that they will put forward their own ideas," the culture department says.
The second stage, which is currently in the study phase, will focus on restoration in more general terms, including the renovation of several mosques in old Algiers and the conversion of a number of houses into libraries. This stage has already started, as the UNESCO-listed Ketchaoua mosque, whose minaret is on the verge of partial collapse, is already the site of urgent repairs.
Under the third stage of the plan, the priority will be on preserving the Casbah’s image as an historic and archaeological monument, and re-launching tourism in the ancient heart of the capital city.
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