On the road from the airport to downtown Algiers, the taxi driver could not help but point out, on the left-hand side, the towering shape of the Jemma Al Djazair mosque, nicknamed Bouteflika after the current president—the largest mosque in the world after Mecca and Medina, with a minaret that rises 50 meters higher than that of Casablanca, conceived as a winning move in a veritable religious arms race across the Maghreb.
This $3 billion behemoth is being built mainly by contracted Chinese companies, and is scheduled to be finished in 2019. But one won’t run into any of the many Chinese workers that have come to the country except around the airport. The white walls of the Jemma al Djazair are rising up in a natural amphitheater that embraces the harbor. Tourism here is still nigh nonexistent, and brandishing a camera is enough to attract curious looks. The traffic is chaos, managed only by the whistles and arm-waving of the traffic cops wearing badly-fitting blue uniforms, who, in between sending texts on their phones and chatting with passers-by, are performing the role of the missing traffic lights.
How pedestrians do it is a great mystery. The way they manage to reach the other side of the 1er Mai square without being run over demonstrates how they have become a part of the biorhythm of the traffic. Just a few days ago, Internet access was disconnected across the country during the period of the final exams, and last year the Roma Italian School of Algiers had to resort to using the diplomatic line of communications of the Italian embassy in order to download the exam questions.
Algeria remains a country that is difficult to visit, especially for holders of an Italian passport, for whom, because of the principle of equal treatment at the consular level, a visa is only granted after providing all kinds of paperwork. At the same time, Italy is Algeria’s foremost economic partner, with reciprocal trade of around $4.76 billion per year and 180 companies operating on its territory, to the extent that they are planning to open an Italian Chamber of Commerce in the capital, Algiers. The fourth-richest country in Africa, Algeria rose from the ashes of colonialism with a socialist model featuring the nationalization of businesses, begun in the ‘60s by Houari Boumedienne, from whose time some social projects, such as public housing, still exist today.
There are very few homeless, as people here are fond to point out. But don’t go talking to an African Algerian—they add—the Maghreb is something else entirely, but we are cousins of the Italians! Even the lyrics of the anthem of the historic Algerian soccer team, the Mouloudia, say that after the victory they will go celebrate in Italy. In the Casbah (“Citadel,” the tallest neighborhood of the city), one can find a mural with a soccer fan riding a Vespa, next to whom is written, in Italian, “The capital is ours.”
The Casbah is the heart of the city, which consists of two parts, one lower and one higher. The former is the market district, a realm of ordered disorder, with the dirt-filled streets of the bazaar and the great mosque of Ketchaoua. Higher up, one finds intricate narrow alleyways immersed in silence, the white lime of mosques perched on the heights, such as El Kebir, and the discrete shops of artisans who are eager to show you the ceramic vessel they are just now decorating or the sandals they are finishing. Omar, who was born here, is overflowing with words: French ones, Italian, Maltese, Arabic, Spanish and Turkish, which together make up the spoken Algerian of today. He shows me the “Rue du Diable” (“Devil’s Street”).
It is a narrow alley going up, dark from the shadows between the buildings on each side. During the French-Algerian war, they used to lead French troops here so they could pick them off from above. “They never got past this street,” he says proudly. Not far away is the Museum of Ali La Pointe, the national hero immortalized by Gillo Pontecorvo in his film The Battle of Algiers.
The museum is in fact a mausoleum, housed in a wing of the building that was blown up during the war, killing nearly 30 people, as well as La Pointe himself. From the outside, one can still see the frame of the building that was gutted by the explosion. In the early 19th century, Jews, Muslims and Christians lived here peacefully, and Algiers had important colleges and universities. At the time of the expulsion of the French, the country had more than six million illiterates, and there were irreconcilable divisions between the various groups.
The building that used to be the prison for revolutionaries, turned into a museum this year, stands as a quiet warning. The government is talking about redeveloping the Casbah, even though it has been a UNESCO heritage site since 1992. Their (not very well-)hidden agenda is to turn it into a hotel district. Murad, a teacher, tells us bitterly that there are few politicians actually from Algiers, so that they aren’t able to figure out how to add value to the Casbah starting from the families who live there. Leaving the area, one arrives in front of the National Theater, where there is what one might call the city’s “stock exchange”: loud merchants under the arcades exchanging foreign currencies to dinars, all out in the open and at better rates than the banks.
The Che Guevara Boulevard (named in honor of his speech in Algiers in 1964) is very close, and from there one can reach the district of Bab El Oued, one of the most popular areas, with its tall buildings adorned with satellite aerials. As in most of the city, few shops remain open after 9pm, and there are even fewer people on the streets. At most, one sees men sitting at crossroads, playing dominoes and enjoying the sea breeze. No women though.
One finds a marked contrast with Bab El Oued in the Sidi Yahia neighborhood, featuring a large avenue with shop windows and restaurants, where a woman wearing a shorter skirt or smoking a cigarette alone can go unnoticed. In general, women have more rights here than in other countries in North Africa—on paper, they are allowed to do almost anything. However, only those from the upper class are able, for example, to divorce without running the risk of finding themselves without any form of support.
Still, there are the all-male establishments where one can get a beer: the tbarna, rare and discreet, with black doors, without any signs and where one is allowed to enter only after being looked over through the peephole. Inside, at first you feel like you’re under surveillance, and there is an atmosphere of suspicion. Kaddour tells me that this is a legacy from the terrorism period, and that before you could even buy alcohol in front of a mosque: “Everyone drinks, but they hide.” Kaddour, a trader, describes Algiers as a world unto itself, more closed off than, for example, Kabylie, where the inhabitants of Algiers go to have fun.
It is a closed-off country, led by President Bouteflika of the FLN since 1999, but one where there doesn’t seem to be much danger from radicalism: “There is a strong religious feeling, but we had 200,000 dead some years back. No one wants to start counting bodies again.”
The public distrust can also be seen in the turnout for the last elections in May 2017, when just over 30 percent of eligible voters showed up at the polls, electing the men already in power. It is as if a balance is missing in Algiers between the equilibrium of tolerance and the dramatic periods of acceleration in its history—a city with a moral impetus at its core, which is now being spent in social contradictions.
Quick deportations and “racial” arrests
Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch denounced the deportations from Algeria of hundreds of people coming from the sub-Saharan region, including asylum seekers and minors. The International Rescue Committee has estimated that some 3,000 have already been deported in 2018. Algeria, historically a country from which people would emigrate to Europe, is not accustomed to being on the receiving end of migratory waves, and a social milieu tinged with racism only makes it worse.
According to Amnesty International, arrests are being made in Algiers and its suburbs based on racial profiling. Thousands of these refugees are fleeing the war in Mali, in which Burkina Faso and Nigeria are also involved, having decided to brave the Algerian desert instead of venturing into the chaos of Libya. Here, they risk two months in prison for illegal immigration, and there is no possibility to obtain residence permits or legalize their situation. HRW has collected testimony of the violence and inhuman conditions in which migrants are detained at Zeralda (30 km from the capital) and in the detention camp at Tamanrasset (on the border with Nigeria).