The Casbah of Old Algiers
by Salim Mansur
Despite decay wrought by time Algiers, Algeria's capital, carries unmistakably the imprint of the French for whom this city was one of their jewels on the Mediterranean.
It is said the most traumatic aspect for the French losing Algeria after ruling her for 130 years was leaving behind Alger la Blanche -- or Algiers the White so named for the blindingly bright colour of the city rising above the sea on the face of surrounding hills.
Algiers has witnessed much since 1830 in the making of modern North Africa. And while nationalist pride of people here will not readily concede that French rule made a positive difference in their history, the shape of the city -- its buildings and boulevards -- is daily reminder of how embedded in their lives is the presence of France nearly half-century after Algeria won her independence.
In recent years Algiers has been the target of Islamist thugs, the city bombed and its people terrorized in a sort of re-run of her grim struggle for liberation during the years 1954-62.
I have been lured here by the wish to visit the Casbah. It was once old quarters of the native population overlooking the port, a labyrinth of narrow alleys and closely built homes, which became a centre of resistance in the fight for control of the capital.
My first introduction to the Casbah was cinematic. Gillo Pontecorvo's 1966 film classic -- The Battle of Algiers -- captured the nastiness of the Algerian war as experienced by residents of the Casbah and the film's central character, Ali la Pointe, a petty thief turned guerrilla fighter and martyr.
I walk the narrow lanes of the Casbah now mostly empty imagining the sound and fury Pontecorvo recreated for his film. In a cafe on the edge of the Casbah with the Mediterranean shimmering just beyond I join a few people with whom I have struck a friendship.
The discussion around the table is as usual politics. I am repeatedly reminded of how much Algerians suffered from the effects of French colonialism.
I listen with empathy. The complaints against Europe, America and Israel conspiring against the Arab world and Muslims pour forth.
When I leave I walk through one part of the Casbah, the doors of many homes padlocked and an eerie silence in what was once a bustling warren of activities.
It then strikes me, gazing over the sea below that the Casbah, so powerfully portrayed in Pontecorvo's movie, is an apt metaphor for today's Algeria.
The people of the Casbah drove the French out, reclaimed their country, spilled forth jubilantly from their close quarters, and then exhausted by the effort have let things around them drift untended and ill-repaired.
This is also the story of the Third World, of the developing countries that were once ruled by Europeans.
My parting remark politely to my hosts is for them to consider the liberation they reminisce over was not entirely theirs alone. France, too, was liberated from the burdens of colonialism.
This is history's irony, and 50 years after independence the decay all around represents the inability of post-colonial rulers and their people to maintain a functioning modern society left behind by colonial authorities.
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