The houses in the Casbah in Algiers were mostly built by the Ottomans in the 18th century, although its boundaries were marked out in the 16th century and it was in the 10th that a Berber tribe first built on the ruins of a Roman settlement. Having survived being bombarded and partially razed by the French during the long war for independence, as well as the country’s violent civil war in the 1990s, the Casbah of Algiers remains the largest old walled city or ‘citadel’ in North Africa, and was put on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites in 1992.
Yet, in recent years, the constellation of white square houses on the hill overlooking Algiers port has come to resemble a game of Jenga, and buildings in the old neighbourhood crumble to dust on a regular basis. One house has deliberately been left in ruins by the state as a memento: the hideout near the top of the Casbah where Ali La Pointe, an Algerian resistance leader and bomb-maker, was cornered and blown up by French paratroopers in 1957.
The general dilapidation of the rest of the historic quarter, however, is due rather to inaction. Out of 1816 buildings currently standing, 40 per cent are in a critical state or in ruins, and 10 per cent are boarded up, according to figures from the national conservation agency, the ANSS. Three hundred and seventy-three buildings have collapsed completely.
In December 2019, two traditional houses gave way in the neighbourhood of Souieka in the lower part of the Casbah. In April last year, a four-storey house went down, killing five members of one family. Wooden buttresses zigzag the narrow streets to hold up what remains intact. As Nahla El Fatiha Naili-Bouhired, president of the Association Arts et Patrimoine d’Alger, says, ‘These houses need to be protected to protect citizens; their lives are on the front line.’ There is no coherent strategy, she adds.‘[Plus] everything is on hold right now. Since 22 February, nothing can happen – there are other priorities,’ she says, referring to the mass movement – the Hirak – that began protesting against the government in February 2019.
Overpopulation is one of the main challenges, according to an ANSS archaeologist I speak to, who does not want to be named. There was an exodus at the time of the civil war but, since the late ’90s, conservation work has been obstructed partly by citizens that come and squat in the houses hoping to be rehoused, he explains.
Youssef Moussi, a 35-year-old blacksmith, lost his house following an earthquake. He was rehoused 30km away but often stays overnight in his old neighbourhood on a bed in his storeroom for tools. He set up his workshop – for playground structures – in a clearing where a house used to stand. ‘I know this place, I have my references here and the rent is cheap,’ he says.
One of the Casbah’s few remaining artisanal carpenters, Khaled Mahiout, 69, says that he barely has any Algerian clients. ‘[Residents of] the Casbah don’t have the means and there is no space in the small houses, and if I want to do a state project I need to pay a bribe,’ he explains in his hilltop workshop, surrounded by Moorish-style wood creations and pictures of his family members who fought in the war for independence.
Mahiout was going to provide woodwork for the ‘Grand Mosquée’, a controversial and gigantic structure initiated under the deposed president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, which is set to be the largest mosque in Africa and which has surpassed its €1.2bn budget. Contracts were granted to foreign craftspeople instead, he says.
The anger about corruption that has been fuelling the Hirak protests for more than a year is felt among conservationists, too. In 2016, the minister of culture announced that the Casbah had received 90 billion dinars (€675m) over the years, which sparked outrage given the lack of tangible progress. A project to restore the Ottoman-era Palace of the Dey began in 2006; it is still covered in scaffolding. ‘This is a mafia – we have specialists in restoration but they wanted to bring specialists from abroad so that they could make money with bribes,’ says Hafida Bouhired, a founding member of the Save the Casbah organisation (and Naili-Bouhired’s mother), adding that Abdelkader Zoukh, the former governor of Algiers who was in charge of the most recent budget, is currently being investigated on corruption charges, along with a number of politicians and businessmen who were close to Bouteflika.
Bouhired spent the first six months of her life in Barberousse prison on the Casbah’s edge with her mother, Fatiha, who was part of the resistance against the French. Now the office of the conservation organisation that she set up with her sister and daughter is opposite the old prison. ‘We are natives of the Casbah and we are fighting for it,’ she says.
Layli Foroudi is a freelance journalist based in Tunis.