x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

In the Kasbah of Algiers, the spirit of revolution is not forgotten

In every house in this heart of a calm but troubled country, where an ailing president leads an ageing elite, are pieces of the history of which Algerians are keenly aware. Alice Fordham reports from Algiers

Political graffiti urging people to vote for the FLN - the current governing party - is on a wall in the Kasbah of Algiers. Lindsay Mackenzie for The National
Political graffiti urging people to vote for the FLN - the current governing party - is on a wall in the Kasbah of Algiers. Lindsay Mackenzie for The National

ALGIERS // The road to the Kasbah of Algiers leads from the centre of the capital, away from the white, wedding-cake buildings left behind by more than a century of French colonial rule, and along the seafront to a place where roads narrow and leaning buildings cast long shadows.

Up the hill is the oldest part of the city, where for centuries the mosques and fortresses have clustered, where the war of independence from France had its fierce origins, and a bloody struggle between the government and extremist radicals raged in the 1990s.

In every house in this heart of a calm but troubled country, where an ailing president leads an ageing elite, are pieces of the history of which Algerians are keenly aware. In its graffiti and the spirited words of the long-term residents are the core of an anti-establishment feeling which lingers among these cracked walls.

As leafy boulevards give way to crowded markets, the turquoise balconies and gold mosaics disappear and, on the road to the rough Bab Al Oued area, other vistas open up to the left, between the stalls and cafes full of lounging men.

Winding, concrete staircases disappear up steep hills. There are children playing in alleys, red wooden struts holding up sagging buildings. Long grass grows through a carved window, the wall around it all that is left of a mansion.

Up the stairs, a group of men sit on chipped benches decorated in patterned tiles, smoking, drinking coffee and laughing as a dozen teenage boys play football in the shells of buildings hundreds of years old. The football thwacks against the bricks and the boys' shouts disappear into the wide, blue harbour that stretches beyond the building.

From up here, it is clear that Algiers is a big city these days. The centre is dominated by European-style buildings and huge tower blocks, reminiscent of the Soviet influence which prevailed 40 years ago, stretch up the surrounding green mountains.

But the Kasbah, from the Arabic word for fortress, is where it all began. When the Ottoman overlords began building a citadel here in the 16th century, they were already surrounded by mosques, religious schools and houses hundreds of years old.

"When the French people came in," said Abdelhadi Ben Issa, 43, sipping coffee as the sun began to set, "the first thing they were looking for was the Kasbah, because it was the heart of the country and they wanted to crush it."

He refers to the wresting of Algeria from Ottoman control by an armada of French ships in 1830, which began a 132-year period of colonial rule. It ended 51 years ago after a bloody eight-year war of independence, which ushered in freedom but also decades of uncertainty and, finally, civil war.

Through it all, the Kasbah was at the centre of the struggles. Today, there is history in every house. Mr Ben Issa, who plays football for the national oil company's team, lives in a tiny street close to where the boys are holding their game.

Up steep stone stairs, in a small central living space, is his father's certificate from the veteran's ministry, stating that he was one of those who fought the French – an "old combatant" as they are known here. A black-and-white photograph of his father at 23 is tucked into the frame. His son's green eyes shine with pride.

It was here, in an area where few French people ever ventured, that the rebellion against France was planned, bombs built, guns hidden and a national revolutionary identity was born.

It was also one of the many places, in the 1990s, where a civil war powered by an extreme Islamist insurgency raged and people hid behind the thick walls of their houses, afraid that if they went out after dark they would become the latest body to be found in the street in the morning. "I used to feel a pain in my heart every time I heard of someone being killed," said Mr Ben Issa.

About 50,000 people live here and they are intensely aware of their past, ancient and modern. Farther into the centre, past the dark crumbling dome of the old citadel, along a street where dozens of men sit chatting quietly at a traditional communal funeral, is a tiny baker's shop.

Abdulghani Haj Ali is closing up, clearing away the day's last powdery almond and rich coconut sweets. The elderly man's life story is draped across the ceiling and walls - a banner from one of the local football teams, a bird in cage, a string of tinsel, a creeping plant, and a pinboard with pictures of the heroes of the war against the French.

Hassiba Ben Bouali, a female fighter who died at 19, gazes from a sepia photograph with large dark eyes. The story of her life and death, along with that of the famed fighter Ali La Pointe, formed the centre of the iconic film The Battle of Algiers, filmed here 12 years after the war ended.

"It's something for us," said Mr Haj Ali. He says proudly that he is from the same village as Saadi Yacef, a leader in the war, and that his parents remember the day La Pointe died. "It is impossible to enter a home without finding history," he added.

A little farther down the street is the spot, marked by a plaque, where La Pointe, whose real name was Ali Ammar, was killed. The building that was blown up in his capture is a partial ruin: the twisted columns and pastel paint on the walls are still there, but there is a seagull nesting in the roof and a museum of the war in the intact part of the house.

Mohammed, 37, who would not give his last name, lives next door and said that fighters used to visit his parents and grandparents often. "I'm honoured," he said. "It is something that marked my life."

The fighting spirit lives on. On the walls next to the little museum are scratched rare pieces of anti-government graffiti: The people want the fall of the military dictator. The people want the fall of the terrorist power. "It's true!" said Mohammed. "I feel like I'm living in a country with no justice."

The Kasbah is a Unesco world heritage site and although efforts to maintain the jumbled, historic buildings were stalled during the violent 1990s, the government has worked to reinforce some of the houses and buildings. A wholesale restoration effort, however, would be hampered by the need to relocate thousands of people.

Some residents would welcome this. Nabila Belomi, 47, a housewife, was hanging out washing on the roof of her house. The view spread out before her was breathtaking: below her house was the Safeer mosque, more than 1,000 years old, with a silvery dome and lines of bright washing tied to its angular minaret from the houses which have snuggled up to it over the centuries. Farther away is the port and a huge sweep of sea and sky.

Her home is more than 400 years old and has never been refurbished. The original, hand-painted tiles on the walls are beautiful, but the house is freezing in winter and hard to maintain. This is one of the cheapest places in the city to live. "My dream is to leave. Of course we want something better," she said.

But others swear they will never go, except over the hill one day to the Kettar cemetery where their ancestors are buried.

"We consider ourselves like kings," said Brahim Ben Issa, 35, who was watching the boys play football. "And these buildings, like palaces."

afordham@thenational.ae