- Walls of Algiers: Narratives of the City through Text and Image
Walls of Algiers is the result of a workshop held at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles in 2004 and was published to coincide with a 2009 exhibition at the Getty Center focusing on nineteenth- and twentieth-century visual representations of Algiers.1 As one might expect given this background, the book is generously and beautifully illustrated with images drawn from the Getty’s special collections department. These images are more than ancillary to the text; they are, as the introduction states, “used as primary sources and are given equal value as textual sources, representing a new approach to urban history” (3). While this new approach is not laid out in a programmatic manner, it is meant to be interdisciplinary—the collection includes essays by social, cultural, film, art, and urban historians—and nonlinear. In other words, rather than chart one single narrative about the city of Algiers in the period from 1830 to decolonization, the essays examine Algiers from a variety of visual and social perspectives, resulting in a “web” (4) of interpretations of the relationship between the process of colonization and the use and transformation of urban spaces and structures.
One of the themes that link these chapters is the effort to complicate a colonizer-colonized binary when thinking about the experience and representation of urban life in Algiers. Julia Clancy-Smith thus discusses nineteenth-century Algiers and its influx of Mediterranean migrants who, paradoxically, were seldom depicted in visual representations of the city’s populations. Following the French conquest of Algiers, Spaniards, Italians, Sicilians, and Maltese migrants came to the city searching for work; by 1847 less than half the city’s nearly seventy thousand European inhabitants were French. Despite the heterogeneity of Algiers’ population, visual representations of the city tended to overrepresent the city’s Algerian and sub-Saharan African population while underrepresenting the various non-French Mediterranean peoples so central to the city’s economic growth. Clancy-Smith contrasts this “striking visual absence” (32) with the increasing tendency, by the late nineteenth century, to depict Algerian Muslim women, while also noting the reduction of ethnic categories into “European” and “indigène” by the early twentieth century. This process, Clancy-Smith argues, was driven by the dual imperatives of tourism and colonization, which worked together to both simplify and emphasize the “exotic” while shying away from depictions of immigrant populations considered to be undesirable.
While Clancy-Smith shows how the attempt to encompass Algiers’ population with a simplified European-indigène distinction masked a much more complex situation, Omar Carlier demonstrates the richness of social life in Algiers between the two world wars. Carlier focuses on the emergence in the old city of nonpolitical associations devoted to sports, the arts, lecture series, and eventually religious education. Many of these associations had mixed Jewish and Muslim participation, and they served as a framework for an “indigenous civil society” (79) that would eventually give rise to nationalist movements. Isabelle Grangaud’s study of the concept of the neighborhood, or hawma, offers us a glimpse of how residential patterns shaped the identities of residents of the old city. Traditionally, and in current everyday life, the hawma is less a physically bounded space than a territory defined by social relationships. Its meaning is based on “very personal experiences of city life” (181); its contours are defined by relationships built with neighbors with whom one played as a child and who continue to be a part of one’s everyday life. This understanding of the hawma has been overlooked, Grangaud argues, by scholars who have assumed that early French colonial reworkings of Ottoman archives, reworkings that privileged territoriality and in particular property ownership, reflected Ottoman reality. The French systematization of the term hawma obscured the term’s social dimension while attaching to it a new administrative dimension. This discursive colonization of urban space was mirrored by an effort...