Street talk— Algiers


The Algiers casbah has fallen into dilapidation. But now there are plans to restore its warren of streets. Is this government generosity or a bid to discourage discord in this traditionally revolution-minded neighbourhood?

Belkacem Babaci, Casbah Foundation, Dissing+Weitling, El Watan, Mourad Betrouni, The Battle of Algiers

Some neighbourhoods are like barometers for their cities. Tensions surface first in these areas and they can hold pivotal roles in upending governments and instigating unrest. This is especially true in the Middle East. In Tehran, for instance, presidents go out of their way to keep the hardened men of the bazaar on side. In Damascus, merchants in the Old City often have powerful friends in government. While in Benghazi, police knew the trouble spots to head to when rioting started in February.

But Algiers’ casbah – a warren of 16th-century souks…

With a bit more exposure and oiling of infrastructure, several cities around Algeria are prime ground for tourism and investment.

  1. Constantine: The City of Bridges is a picturesque city but off the tourist radar. Its University Mentouri Constantine was designed by Oscar Niemeyer and investment is trickling in with a new bridge under way by Dissing+Weitling.

  2. Annaba: Though in the industrial east, Annaba is a u-bend bay of well-kept beaches and wide, palm tree-strewn boulevards. Lovingly dubbed “Le Coquette” in the colonial era for its nightlife and seafront, Annaba has retained much of this and a fan base of Italian and French tourists could be bolstered with a little more exposure.

  3. Oran: Algeria’s second city still has cultural kudos. The setting for Albert Camus’ 1947 novel The Plague and Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky, Oran’s creative atmosphere also gave birth to rai music, a controversial take on sex, drugs and rock’n’roll typified by singer Cheb Khaled. And now oil is starting to flow. “We are the watchdogs,” Khaled tells Monocle, “but we need to be less bloody minded, less partisan.”

Rock the casbah

Large-scale civil unrest is still fresh in the mind of many Algerians, as the civil war ended less than a decade ago. But weariness didn’t prevent a number of relatively contained uprisings when the Arab Spring reached its zenith.

Democratisation rather than downfall of the government was more on the lips of those who turned out to protest in Algiers, with a repeal of the 19-year state of emergency – that forbade public demonstrations since the war – high on the agenda. This was granted on 24 February, albeit with the ban on protests in the capital intact, while food prices were lowered after a spate of rioting. This seemed to diffuse tensions, though violence broke out again in August, with locals protesting about plans to take away a park to make way for a car park. Events in neighbouring Libya may encourage fresh demonstrations against a leadership which remains unwilling or unable to deal with high unemployment and top-level corruption.


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