January 21, 2016 / 3:19 PM / 3 years ago

Algiers' tumbledown Casbah stirs loyalty among residents

ALGIERS (Reuters) - With almost each step you take in the narrow, winding alleys of the tumbledown Casbah in Algiers, a resident approaches to remind you of the past glories of this UNESCO World heritage site.

Sidi Ramdane mosque stands in the old city of Algiers Al Casbah, Algeria December 3, 2015. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

Historic monuments include the 1,000-year-old Sidi Ramdane mosque and former fortress, and the Princess Khedaoudj al Amia Palace, now converted into a national museum of art and traditions.

Houses are passed down along generations, but decay and damage from an earthquake in 2003 are causing some to consider a move to modern apartments, with financial backing from the government. Others refuse to leave the tight-knit community and neighborhood they have called home for decades.

“I was born here and will die here too,” said Fatouma, 89, a mother of nine daughters and four sons. “They want to rehouse us, but I am not leaving the place where I grew up.”

Concrete breezeblocks are used to repair Moorish as well as more modern buildings, while functional iron doors have replaced intricate old wooden ones. Many houses have collapsed, the debris cleared by local authorities to make way for playgrounds.

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The Cabah’s fading grandeur can be explained by the high cost of upkeep, which few residents can afford.

In this neighborhood of about 70,000, people earn a living working in office jobs, as health workers, domestic staff, taxi drivers, security guards and street vendors. Artisans still based in the Casbah include those making brassware and jewelry, woodworkers and traditional dressmakers.

In the 1990s, during a civil war in which an estimated 200,000 people died, the Algiers Casbah was a strongold of Islamist militants. Policemen, journalists and citizens were killed inside its maze-like alleys. Doors and windows were shuttered.

The 1966 Gillo Pontecorvo movie “The Battle of Algiers” shows how the neighborhood was also central in Algeria’s struggle for independence from France in the 1950s, serving as a hide-out for separatists.

In the modern-day Casbah, the background sounds are pop music, birdsong or the Islamic call to prayer, rather than gunfire or explosions.

The authorities are trying to deal with the decay of what many see as a jewel in the national crown. Rehousing has been part of this effort so far, but has not been popular with residents.

If the heirs to a Casbah property agree to give it to the state, they can each be rehoused in apartments permanently. If not, families are rehoused temporarily and return once renovation work is complete.

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“I don’t want to leave the Casbah and live in an area that’s different to where I grew up,” says Redouane, 26. “If I am forced to I will move but I am sure will visit the Casbah very often.”

As for Fatouma, she says any government financial help will not sway her from wanting to stay in her house, with its views of shipping in the Mediterranean in the background.

“They can re-house my children and their respective families, but not me,” she says. “I want to die in the Casbah.”

Reporting by Zohra Bensemra, writing by Brian McGee, editing by Raissa Kasolowsky

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