Algiers' Scenic Casbah Almost Untouched by Political Strife

ALGERIA may be living its most difficult and uncertain hours since independence, but for most people here the train of daily life remains undisturbed.

The roads snaking over the mountains into the city carry the same overload of cars and buses in the morning; cafes serve the same sweet-mint tea in the afternoon.

In the Casbah, the legendary home of Sinbad the sea-going rogue, the sinuous streets and steep-staired alleys offer the same variety of shoebox-size shops selling everything from spices and low-tech gadgets to date-filled cookies and bolts of cloth. The only hint of Algeria's political upheaval are the graffiti - "Respect for Our Mothers and Sisters,Allah is our Democracy,Long Live the FIS, indicating the city's oldest neighborhood is a bastion of the fundamentalist Islamic Salvation Front (FIS).

The Casbah - the name originally given to a hilltop fortress overlooking the Mediterranean Sea - was classified in December as part of the world's cultural heritage by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization.

An exposition has been set up at various sites in the neighborhood to help develop an understanding of the Casbah's role in Algeria's history. A political crisis and fears of violent unrest notwithstanding, the exposition was inaugurated this week at a seaside complex of centuries-old palaces and fishermen's quarters undergoing restoration.

Algerian Culture Minister Larbi Demagh El-Atrous at first seemed surprised by the presence of journalists from four continents - explained by a lull in any other action - but he quickly warmed to his task. As Italian project director Massimo Aurili led him through the palaces' tiled atriums and small-windowed rooms, Mr. El-Atrous pointed out the wonders of Arabic architecture.

"You must realize that you in the Christian world took much more from the Muslim world, in the sciences, mathematics, and letters, than you gave," he told his guide with a twinkling eye.

"Certainly you've noted that these buildings are void of all embellishment on the outside but beautiful on the inside," he added. "It's a reflection of Islam's command for man's personal development."

With laborers and artisans busy finishing the decorative tile work and window-framing in the largest palace - the residence of the first United States consul here shortly after American independence - the renovation seemed far from the surrounding turmoil.

But high up the main courtyard wall on a dark stucco window frame, a worker had used white tile grout to write "FIS."

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