Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Save the Casbah

But the often violent history of the Casbah has obscured an appreciation of the quarter's architectural and cultural riches. Preservationists consider it one of the most beautiful examples of late Ottoman style. Its once-whitewashed structures, facing onto narrow passages and constructed around enclosed courtyards, contain a wealth of hidden treasures—marble floors, fountains, carved lintels, intricate mosaics. For generations, writers and artists have celebrated the mystery, tragedy and rhythms of life in the Casbah in literature and painting. "Oh my Casbah," wrote Himoud Brahimi, the poet laureate of the quarter, in 1966, four years after the Algerian resistance defeated the French occupiers. "Cradle of my birth, where I came to know loyalty and love. How can I forget the battles in your alleys, that still bear the burdens of war?" Djamila Issiakhem, who grew up here in the 1960s as the niece of a famous Algerian artist, remembers the vibrant Casbah of her youth as a place where women and girls, escaping their traditional confinement, congregated in hammams, public baths, to gossip and discuss marital prospects. (The suggestive entreaty, "Come with me to the Casbah," is not from the 1938 movie Algiers, starring Charles Boyer, but from an impersonation of Boyer by the cartoon character Pepé Le Pew, in The Cat's Bah, an animated short.)

"Save the Casbah" by By Joshua Hammer
Photographs by Eric Sander
The Smithsonian magazine, July 2007

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