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Sahara

Day 95: Algiers

Algiers, Algeria 
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Writing a postcard home in what looks like the grandest mosque or cathedral, but is in fact the post office in Algiers. Built in 1913 by a French ex-governor of Morocco, who loved the Moorish style.
Michael Palin - Sahara'It's overpopulated. Sometimes you find six families in the same house. It's too much people.'

'How many?'

'Sixty people sometimes.'

The house where Ali La Pointe and three other resistance heroes chose to be blown apart by the paras rather than surrender (a story powerfully told in the film The Battle of Algiers) has been rebuilt. On the wall an Arabic inscription details the circumstances of their deaths on 8 October 1957.

I can understand now what made the casbah such a superb defensive position and why the resistance, the 'freedom fighters' as Said always calls them, were able to hold out for so long against crack French paratroops.

Sophisticated weapons and modern vehicles are useless in streets the width of a loaded donkey, or on roofs which act as another thoroughfare for those who know their way around them.

As we near the main road at the lower end of the casbah there is a milling throng. Eamonn walks beside me, casting wary looks, but everyone seems to be either friendly or preoccupied.

I feel that we have barely touched the real world of the casbah, which, as in all Arab communities, is private and inward-looking, so Said takes me round to the shrine of Sidi Abderrahmane, a holy man of great powers who lived here in the sixteenth century. The sound of female voices rises from inside as we approach the domed building surmounted by a tall balconied minaret.

This is traditionally a place for the women to come and invoke the help of the saint in childbirth or with problems of infertility, but the imam is happy for us to join them. Remove my shoes and enter in reverent silence. I needn't have bothered. The small chamber is less like an English parish church than a kindergarten at collection time. Small children sit and play as their mothers worship in their own way. Nothing is formal. One woman hugs the side of the tomb, singing plaintively, another bows to Mecca, another has brought her new-born baby to touch the wooden casket that contains the saint's remains. It's the first place, she declares proudly, that he's ever been taken to. Brightly coloured texts run round the walls, heavy cut-glass lamps hang, undusted, from the ceiling, and in one corner is a heavy-duty industrial safe, with a slit for offerings. Said tells me that the poorer women sometimes stuff chewing gum in the slit and come back later to collect money that hasn't gone down.

By now I've completely forgotten that I might be a target. The cordon sanitaire has been discreet to the point of invisibility and the people of Algiers as cordial and curious as anywhere in the Sahara.
Algiers, Algeria 
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Father and daughter outside the station.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 95
  • Country/sea: Algeria
  • Place: Algiers
  • Book page no: 246

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