News / Africa

Activists Fight to Save Crumbling Algiers Casbah

A recently restored street in Algiers' Casbah.
A recently restored street in Algiers' Casbah.

Multimedia

Audio

Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Algiers' historic Casbah, or old quarter, bears the hallmarks and the scars of the country's turbulent past.  During the bloody "black decade" of Algeria's 1990s civil war, the Casbah was the feared bastion of Islamist terrorists. Now that ordinary residents and a few visitors have returned, and a new battle is underway to save what one historian calls the "heart" of Algeria.

Preservation effort

Sounds of construction fill the air as Abdelkarim Bouchouada, secretary-general of the Casbah Foundation, a local preservation group, takes me on a tour of Algiers' historic Casbah. The oldest quarter of Algeria's capital is a maize of narrow streets lined with whitewashed houses, graceful fountains and the occasional, stunning Ottoman palace.

As one walks past a renovated and magnificent 15th-century palace, Bouchouada tells the story of a princess who once lived there. She was known as "Khedaoudj the blind."

"Because she was so beautiful, the legend says, that she put mirrors everywhere in the house. And everywhere she went, she was fixing her hair and appreciating how beautiful [she was]. And one day... looking at herself in the mirror and she went blind," explains Bouchouada.

Rich history

Archaeologists work at a dig at Martyrs' Square located in the low Casbah in Algiers' historical neighborhood (File Photo)
Archaeologists work at a dig at Martyrs' Square located in the low Casbah in Algiers' historical neighborhood (File Photo)

The Casbah is full of these kinds of stories - true and false.  It once was the stronghold of North African corsairs, better known as Barbary pirates, who roamed the Mediterranean several hundred years ago. It was also home to Algeria's resistance fighters and the epicenter of the decisive battle of Algiers, leading to the country's 1962 independence from France. Now it is the target of a new campaign to restore its crumbling buildings before it is too late.

Historian Belkacem Babaci says more than just architecture is at stake.

Babaci says the Casbah is the heart of Algeria, because it embodies the architectural memory of this North African country. Babaci, 72, is president of the Casbah Foundation.  He was born in the Casbah, and says area is in his blood.

Monumental effort

The task of rescuing the Casbah is immense. Foundations are literally melting away because of water and other erosion. It means moving out chunks of the quarter's more than 30,000 residents, and restoring old buildings street by street.

In 1992, the U.N. cultural organization UNESCO added the Algiers Casbah to its list of World Heritage Sites. But the move came as Algeria plunged into a bloody civil war, pitting the country's military-backed government against Islamist radicals. Local residents fled as the Casbah became a no-man's land, occupied by the Islamists.

Babaci says that in 1999, his preservation group was among the first to enter the Casbah after the fighting died down. They ventured in with police protection to prepare a plan to save the area.

Revitalization

Today, life has returned to the Casbah.  People are on the streets.  Some old residents have returned, although the population is changing. After years of campaigning by the Casbah Foundation, Algeria's Ministry of Culture is now in charge of restoration efforts, which Babaci estimates will take at least a decade.

Babaci says old festivals and old crafts are returning to the Casbah. So are some tourists - although they walk around with escort, since there is still petty crime. Even as his foundation seeks to preserve the Casbah's brighter history, Babaci says, it's time to bury its more recent and grimmer past.

You May Like

US, Brazil's Climate-Change Plan: More Renewables, Less Deforestation

Officials say joint initiative on climate change will allow Brazil, United States to strengthen and accelerate cooperation on issues ranging from land use to clean energy More

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Reporting from Somali capital for past decade, Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal has been working at one of Mogadishu's leading radio stations covering parliament More

After Nearly a Century, Voodoo Opera Rises Again

Opera centers on character named Lolo, a Louisiana plantation worker and Voodoo priestess More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishui
X
Abdulaziz Billow
June 30, 2015 2:16 PM
Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Texas Defies Same-Sex Marriage Ruling

Texas state officials have criticized the US Supreme Court decision giving same-sex couples the right to marry nationwide. The attorney general of Texas says last week's decision did not overrule constitutional "rights of religious liberty," and therefore officials performing wedding services can refuse to perform them for same-sex couples if it is against their religious beliefs. Zlatica Hoke reports on the controversy.
Video

Video US Gay Marriage Ruling Yields Real-life Impact

Friday’s landmark Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage throughout the United States is an outcome few thought possible just years ago, and shows a nation that increasingly tolerates and even celebrates the hopes and aspirations of gay people. VOA’s Michael Bowman spoke to a same-sex couple that will benefit from the high court ruling, and to a Christian scholar who is apprehensive about its potential consequences for America’s faith community.
Video

Video Syrians Flee IS Advance in Hasaka

The Syrian government said Monday it has taken back one of several districts in Hasaka overrun by Islamic State militants. But continued fighting elsewhere in the northern city has forced thousands of civilians from their homes. In this report narrated by Bill Rodgers, VOA Kurdish Service reporter Zana Omer describes the scene in Amouda, where some of the displaced are taking refuge.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.
Video

Video S. Korea Christians Protest Gay Rights Festival

The U.S. Supreme Court decision mandating marriage equality nationwide has energized gay rights supporters around the world. Gay rights remain a highly contentious issue in a key U.S. ally, South Korea, where police did a deft job Sunday of preventing potential clashes between Christian protesters and gay activists. Kurt Achin reports from Seoul.
Video

Video Saudi Leaks Expose ‘Checkbook Diplomacy’ In Battle With Iran

Saudi Arabia’s willingness to wield its oil money on the global diplomatic stage appears to have been laid bare, after the website WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of leaked cables from Riyadh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Nubians in Kenya Face Land Challenges

East Africa's ethnic Nubians have a rich cultural history that dates back thousands of years, but in Kenya they are facing hardships, including the loss of lands they have lived on for generations. They say the government has reneged on its pledge to award them title deeds for the plots. VOA's Lenny Ruvaga reports.
Video

Video Syrian Refugees Return to Tal Abyad

Syrian refugees in Turkey confirm they left their hometown of Tal Abyad because of intense fighting and coalition airstrikes, not because Kurdish fighters were engaged in ethnic cleansing, as some Turkish officials charged. VOA Kurdish Service reporter Zana Omer, in Tal Abyad, finds that civilians coming back to the town agree, as we hear in this report narrated by Roger Wilkison.
Video

Video Military Experts Question New Russian Tank Capabilities

Russia has been showing off its new tank design – the Armata T-14. Designers claim it is 20 years ahead of current Western designs - and driving it feels like playing a computer game. But military analysts question those assertions, and warn the cost could be too heavy a burden for Russia’s struggling economy. Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video In Kenya, Police Said to Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

An organization that documents torture and extrajudicial killings says Kenyan police were responsible for 1,252 shooting deaths in five cities, including Nairobi, between 2009 and 2014, representing 67 percent of all gun deaths in the areas reviewed. Gabe Joselow has more from Nairobi.
Video

Video In Syrian Crisis, Social Media Offer Small Comforts

Za’atari, a makeshift city in Jordan, may be the only Syrian refugee camp to tweet its activities, in an effort to keep donors motivated as the war in Syria intensifies and the humanitarian crisis deepens. Inside the camp, families say mobile phone applications help hold together families that are physically torn apart. VOA’s Heather Murdock reports.

VOA Blogs