It seemed like the start of what became a routine day during my month-long stay in the North African country of Algeria in August of 2017. We got a late start and weren’t out of the house in Algiers until afternoon. I had problems sleeping and had stayed up until 8:30 A.M., waking up to my alarm soon after at 10:30 A.M. We had a plan to go to the neighborhood of Casbah – which seemed to look nice on Google Images.
It was going to be a hot day with temperatures in the capital city reaching over 100 degrees. Unbearable heat mixed with the thought of getting out of the house later than I wanted with two hours of sleep seemed unmotivating. Regardless, my best friend – an Algerian whom I was visiting – and I were in the car and on our way to the Old Town of Casbah in downtown Algiers.
More about Casbah
Casbah, which translates in English to “tree branch”, is a neighborhood in the thick of downtown Algiers placed upon a hill with no roads open to vehicles. It’s a pedestrian neighborhood with narrow alleys and steep, rugged steps.
Many North African cities and towns have a traditional quarter named Casbah. More generally, the term is used to refer to a walled citadel. The traditional neighborhood in Algiers is old; it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site dating back to the 17th Century.
It would be the height of tourism in most countries, but Algeria didn’t receive tourists. Matter of fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if not a single tourist map has ever been printed in the country.
The neighborhood is divided into two; the High city and the Low city. As I mentioned earlier, it’s a pedestrian neighborhood. Even trash is collected by mules each day because cars are not allowed. Historically, the Casbah in Algiers has played an important role in Algerian history. Specifically, in the era of the Algerian struggle for independence from France. Being up on the hill, it gave the Algerian army a safe haven to plan attacks and required France’s focus for several years.
Today, there is no longer war in Algeria, but Casbah can still be a dangerous area at night. I was warned several times to come back in the morning when I attempted to stroll through the neighborhood at dusk on the night prior. I listened to the warnings because I would stick out like a sore thumb at night with an expensive camera around my neck. Muggings and robbery are apparently common at night in this area.
When I first arrived at the area, I had to walk through a long outdoor alley market. Vendors were selling toys, fresh produce, socks and underwear, and anything in-between. Though nothing seemed of interest and my friend and I pushed our way through the crowded street. As we got closer to Casbah, it started to smell of garbage. It was almost hard to breathe sometimes because every breath just felt unhealthy and gross.
In the streets of Casbah, there was extreme poverty like I had never seen. Another small flea market we passed through featured items that looked like they had been picked from trash cans and I couldn’t believe anyone would buy them. The smell would get worse and nobody seemed to bat an eye at the stench. Most of the locals we passed were sitting on the stairs to their front doors. Some were talking to each other, some were sitting in silence. It was rare to see someone with a phone – much less a smart phone. Most everybody would stare at my friend and I as we walked past with an expensive camera around my neck and iPhone in hand. I was worried I was creating a target out of myself.
My friend, Samy, although Algerian, had only been to Casbah once in his life and it was many years ago. He didn’t really know any history behind the neighborhood or what to look for. We had been walking around the confusing streets, getting ourselves lost for about twenty minutes already when it seemed we had reached the outside edge of the walled citadel. I was sure we would leave once we reached the outside.
Then, we met someone and our whole experience changed.
Mohammad, an older gentleman – probably early in his sixth decade of life – asked me from his doorstep, “Where are you from?”
It caught me off-guard as no one had interacted with us while we were in Casbah besides the normal ‘Salam Alaykoum’ greeting that all Algerians use with each other. It turned me around even quicker because he spoke to me in English. Obviously, he knew I wasn’t from here. Maybe it was the camera hanging from my neck and the fact that we were the only two people in Casbah walking around fascinatingly.
Samy answered for me in Algerian tongue, “America”, he said.
It turns out, Mohammad knew of Kansas City and was a big fan of the United States. This created a talking point, however, it was mostly just Samy and him speaking Algerian to each other. He didn’t really speak to me besides vehemently trying to get me to take pictures of certain things I stared at for more than a second – including the mule trash pick-up service in which I was forced to chase down after it had already passed.
Meeting more in Casbah
Mohammad introduced us to a younger man who was passing by while we were talking. This man’s name was Nacer. He was 37, although he looked no older than 30. A plumber by trade and claimed his family was very well-known within the community. He had a very calm demeanor but didn’t speak a lick of English. All of our interactions were done through Samy. In a way, this made my experience with Nacer more enjoyable.
I have nothing against non-native English speakers trying their hand at the language with small talk. Matter of fact, I envy those people’s courage. However, there are very few people that I ran into Algeria capable of holding a casual conversation in English. After a month of small talk with strangers, it became repetitive and predictable. I started giving the most basic answers. And I’d ask people that I met the same simple questions that I wasn’t even interested in; only for the sake of keeping the conversation simple.
The tour began
Being able to ask Nacer questions with more depth through Samy was a bit of fresh air. And I could tell he was knowledgeable from the answers Samy translated for me.
Nacer introduced us to a man named Zaki. He was carving a piece of wood into pure magic when we met him. He was a carpenter as a profession, but his work was intricate; more detailed work than a traditional carpenter. He was working in his workshop which was more of a shrine of all his life’s creations. His shop was on the bottom floor of his house which we were inside.
Zaki was also very nice but spoke no English. I learned through Samy that his father was a very famous man within Algeria. As an actor, politician, and subject of many books, his father had achieved a lot and brought a lot of important people through the very house that we stood in. He invited us to have a look at his house and Nacer took us on a tour.
Neighborhood house tour
Houses in Casbah, at least this one, are surprisingly spacious. It is clear that the neighborhood was built with a focus on living space rather than public area. The house was four stories tall. Each floor had multiple rooms of which we didn’t spend too much time looking at. One of the floors contained old artifacts that told the family’s history. Nacer told the story as well as he could but we would have probably been more informed hearing the story from Zaki himself.
Nacer was eager to get us to the rooftop terrace that sat on one of the tallest hills in Casbah. Though it seemed the house was full of people when we walked through, a few chickens wandering about and we were the only ones on the roof.
Actually, Nacer told me that only one family lives inside the big house. However, from what I’ve learned about Algerian culture – one family can be massive in members.
Nacer shared with us that the very roof we stood on, with wooden pallets for seating and a straw-covered sunshade, was the place for many meetings with European Ambassadors in the mid-to-late 1900’s.
Not only that, but the roof had also appeared in several Arabic movies back in the day. There was an excellent view, but I couldn’t believe the history behind the roof.
A house of history
It wasn’t until we made our way back down to the workshop, when showed us a wall full of newspaper clippings featuring his father with ambassadors and movie stars, that I believed the stories.
I thanked Zaki for letting me into his family’s home and I continued on with Samy and Nacer down the hill of Casbah. I didn’t realize Nacer was going to dedicate his entire afternoon to two strangers he had just met and show them around a place he had walked around every day for the past thirty-seven years. How genuine and generous. Samy and I were in for a treat.
He introduced Samy and me to a local coppersmith. His shop, although no larger than 50 square meters, was a true shrine of his 56-year-long passion. This man, although I never caught his name, was nearing 70-years old and his appearance was aging quicker than he was. He looked rough, but it seemed as if he couldn’t be gentler.
The man invited us to pack into his small shop and started handing me more of his work than I could hold in both hands. He even offered me a souvenir, but I couldn’t possibly take something he’d worked so hard on.
Finally, we made it down to Nacer’s grandfather’s house. Or, I should say, former house. The government possessed it from Nacer’s grandfather after realizing the history behind the building because they wanted to preserve its condition. And although they stole the house away without any trade, at least they kept it in good condition.
Nacer now had lifelong free access as well as the authority to pretty much do as he pleased in the building. He got us in free of charge, as well.
It was a beautiful place and a true goldmine of the neighborhood. Painted tiles covered every wall of the massive palace-styled home. Every banister, every ceiling, every column pillar made with the most detailed hand I’d ever seen.
We were introduced to the director of the preservation of the building. He gave us access to a room that had been closed to the public because it was no longer structurally sound. A couple saw that he let us in and asked if they could also see. He wasn’t sly enough, so he let the couple come in with us.
Come to find out, this was the room in which Napoleon Bonaparte III stayed in while France was at war for Algeria. I couldn’t believe it. However, it should have been easy to believe with the given luxury of the room.
It was easily the most beautiful room in the entire house. All white, with clear French-inspired design on the walls and ceiling. I felt like I was transported back a century in time as soon as I stepped foot in the room. What a privilege to get that experience, and it would never have happened had we not met Nacer.
Almost getting lost in Napolean’s room
I was too busy in awe of Napoleon’s room that I didn’t even see Samy and Nacer sneak out with the director. When I looked down from the ceiling, I saw them quickly walking for a door that the director was holding open.
I stepped out of Napoleon’s room and he motioned his hand for me to come his way in a hurry. When I got to him, he abruptly shoved me through the door and shut it as quickly as he could without making a sound. He didn’t want the couple who followed us into Napoleon’s room to follow us wherever he was taking us now.
We were led up a stairwell and out onto a roof that looked like hadn’t been visited in a while. I asked Nacer how often he came up there and he said quite a bit. It offered another spectacular view and an unbelievable look down on the impressive courtyard that sat in the center of the house.
But the neatest aspect of being there was that it was forbidden to the public. Somehow, some way, I was snuck up onto a rooftop that most people living in Casbah their entire life had not seen – and I never even said one word in order to get there.
On our way out of the house, an orchestra of traditional Algerian music players started tuning their instruments. I so badly wanted to stay for it, but our parking spot had a meter that was ticking and there were other cool places to see in Casbah.
Nacer pointed out several collapsed buildings and showed us other buildings that had not fallen but were no longer livable. It was an authentic look at the true condition of Casbah beyond the postcard views of the neighborhood. He mentioned a building that had recently fallen only two days after a family had moved out of it.
As we walked, I kept noticing the poverty-stricken people. This neighborhood was much different than most of Algiers; it almost seemed like a separate entity from the capital city.
I wanted to clean the streets of its litter. I wanted to help the short old lady struggling to get up Casbah’s steep hills. And I wanted to have a conversation with every kid on every doorstep. However, I couldn’t do these things. It wasn’t the time.
It made me considerate of every fortunate thing that has ever happened to me and my life. For some time in Casbah, I felt emotional.
We stopped for tea and peanuts – an Algerian tradition that Nacer, of course, treated us to free of charge – and soon after it was beyond the time our parking meter allowed.
Unfortunately, we had to rush back, but not before Nacer did one more solid for us. Instead of using a taxi to get back to our car almost two miles away, Nacer had one of his buddies give us a ride straight to our car.
I owe everyone who I met, especially Nacer, a huge thank you. It was a complete honor to get the privileged tour that we received. It was the most authentic way I could have ever experienced one of Algiers most historic parts. What a day.