Last year, I had a friend of mine from France visiting Algeria for the first time. I picked him up at Houari Boumediene airport with the plan to drive him straight to my home village. He enthusiastically insisted to first visit “Alger la Blanche” with all it offers of tourist attractions: the historical Kasbah, the prominent Grande Poste, the Square of the Martyrs, the Corniche overlooking the seaport, …etc. To tell the truth, I am not from Algiers and I have not visited these areas for a long time now. After the black decade – “la décennie noire”, Algiers is no longer as it used to be. It has been neglected by the government at all levels, and abandoned by its original inhabitants. This great city has been absent from every agenda, and occurs nowhere in the priority list of the authorities. All new developments, urban and commercial, have been established in the heights of the city and in the outskirts. The city center is deserted. The advent of “Algiers the cultural capital of the Arab world” held in 2007 has applied a bit of facelift to the main facades. But all attempts to restore, even superficially, its legendary aura that once used to have, were fruitless. The decrepitude inflicted to the city in the last twenty years just seems to be beyond repair.
I took my friend to the Square of the Martyrs in the hope to show him the vast esplanade with its centennial trees which offer refreshing shades to the place. Usually, one comes across children descending the streets of the Kasbah, running, hustling everyone on their way, and filling the air with their laughter and their funny Algérois accent. I expected to find typical white haired old Algérois sitting on the public benches feeding the pigeons while waiting for the prayer call before heading to Jami3 Jdid (the New Mosque) or the Ketchaoua mosque nearby. But none of that was there. All I could show my friend is construction fences surrounding the whole place with barracks inside, denying access to its usual visitors. I walked with my friend along the famous streets of the city center – Alger centre, in an attempt to rediscover the beautiful European-style buildings, which once made of Algiers the jewel of the Mediterranean coast, only to be upset by the unpleasant reality. The decaying facades of the buildings are marked with deep wrinkles of negligence. Traces of dripping stains of humidity and moisture along the crumbling walls look like tear drops on the face of an aging woman with heavy makeup. Nothing really suggests the whiteness that the city was reputed for. My friend’s initial enthusiasm doesn’t seem to be altered much by this reality, but mine was. After all, I had another image of Alger la blanche. An image from the past. He did not. Well at least this may help preserve the appearances.
My friend and I left Algiers as did the image I had of the capital all these years. Will Algiers ever be white again?