The Casbah (Arabic: قصبة, qasba, meaning citadel (fortress)) is specifically the citadel of Algiers in Algeria and the traditional quarter clustered around it. More generally, a kasbah is the walled citadel of many North African cities and towns. The name made its way into English from French in the late 19th century (the Oxford English Dictionary states 1895), and continues to be spelled as acquired from that language.
The Casbah of Algiers is founded on the ruins of old Icosium. It is a small city which, built on a hill, goes down towards the sea, divided in two: the High city and the Low city. One finds there masonries and mosques of the 17th century; Ketchaoua mosque (built in 1794 by the Dey Baba Hassan) flanked of two minarets, mosque el Djedid (1660, at the time of Turkish regency) with its large finished ovoid cupola points some and its four coupolettes, mosque El Kébir (oldest of the mosques, it was built by Almoravid ruler Yusuf ibn Tashfin and rebuilt later in 1794), mosque Ali Betchnin (Raïs, 1623), Dar Aziza, palate of Jénina.
The Casbah played a central role during the Algerian struggle for independence (1954–1962). The Casbah was the epicenter of the insurgency planning of the National Liberation Front (FLN) and gave them a safe haven to plan and execute attacks against French citizens and law enforcement agents in Algeria at the time. In order to counter their efforts, the French had to focus specifically on the Casbah. The counter-insurgency efforts of General Jacques Massu and Major Paul Aussaresses included torture and violent martial law. They were especially effective in fighting the FLN during the week-long strike ordered by Mohammed Larbi Ben M'hidi.
As Reuters reported in August 2008, the Casbah is in a state of neglect and certain areas are threatening collapse.
Algerian authorities list age, neglect and overpopulation as the principal contributors to the degeneration of this historic neighborhood. Overpopulation makes the problem especially difficult to solve because of the effort it would take to relocate everyone living there. Estimates range from 40,000-70,000 people, though it is difficult to track because of the number of squatters in vacant buildings. One reason that the government wants to improve the condition of the Casbah is that it is a potential hideout for criminals and terrorists as it once was in the late 1950s and during the Civil insurrection of the 1990s.
Preservationist Belkacem Babaci described the situation as difficult, but not insurmountable, saying: “I still believe it’s possible to save it, but you need to empty it and you need to find qualified people who will respect the style, the materials. It’s a huge challenge.”
In popular culture
The 1938 movie Algiers (a remake of the French film Pépé le Moko of the previous year) was most Americans' introduction to the picturesque alleys and souks of the Casbah. In 1948 a musical remake, Casbah, was released.
The invitation "Come with me to the Casbah," which was heard in trailers for Algiers but not in the film itself, became an exaggerated romantic overture, largely owing to its use by Looney Tunes cartoon character Pepé Le Pew, himself a spoof of Pépé le Moko. The amorous skunk used "Come with me to ze Casbah" as a pickup line. In 1954, the Looney Tunes cartoon The Cats Bah specifically spoofed Algiers, with the skunk enthusiastically declaring, "You do not have to come with me to ze Casbah.... We are already 'ere!"
In the 1966 film The Battle of Algiers, all the main characters (other than Col. Mathieu) live in the Casbah.
In 1982 the English London-based punk rock group The Clash released the single "Rock the Casbah", about Iran's outlawing of music, particularly disco. The song reached #15 in the UK music charts. The following year the single was released in the U.S., reaching #8 in the charts. "Rock the Casbah" was also the first song played on the Armed Forces Radio during Operation Desert Shield. It became the unofficial anthem for the U.S. Armed Forces during the Gulf War operations. Rachid Taha, an Algerian singer based in France closely connected to The Clash, recorded "Rock el Casbah" in Arabic.