Martyrs Square in Algiers
Nothing quite reflects the history and spirit of Algeria in as concentrated a form as its most prominent city square. For one writer, it is where he came of age and learned to read the grammar of nationhood, from culture and commerce to protest and disillusionment.
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I do not recall exactly when or what day of which year it was, but I do remember it was the first time I ventured into Martyrs Square with my father. He was busy with something in the Directorate of Religious Affairs, where he worked. I do not know either why he took me along with him, of all my brothers and sisters. It could have been because I was his youngest and the trip would delight someone my age. It meant taking the Urban Transportation Department of Algiers bus service, from Hay Al Saadah, high above the city, down to Audin Square, whose most famous landmark is the national university. We would pass by the central post office building, known for its Islamic architecture, which contrasted with the surrounding structures, built in colonial style like most of the rest of Algiers. It was a journey replete with sights and images – and remains so today.

Past the central post office – which Algerians prefer to call by its French name, La Grande Poste, as that foreign language still somehow remains stuck to their tongues – we go through the long street of Rue Larbi Ben M’hidi, which also kept its French name, Rue d’Isly. Reaching Jardin El Djenina, known as Le Square, across from the Grand National Theatre, you find yourself under the arches of Bab Azoun Street. At the end of those arches, you reach the plaza that used to be called Place du Gouvernement by the French, with a large statue of the Duc d’Orleans in the middle. But contrary to Rue Larbi Ben M’hidi or Djenina gardens, the French name and influence did not remain here. The large statue of the Duc was excised immediately following independence in 1962. The place, henceforth named Martyrs Square, became open in all directions except to the south. There lies the Casbah, with its alleyways, popular souks, and older traditional buildings.

I entered the square, filled with amazement and joy. My father began naming all the neighborhoods and streets we passed. It felt like an exhilarating privilege for me to be in a place so full of pictures and fantasies. All of a sudden, I found myself in a bigger and wider space, extending over the horizon, and packed with people walking in all directions. It was a sprawling area. From the south, one could watch the entire upper section. It is the location of the Casbah, where Algerians lived under colonialism. There is also the old mosque of Ketchaoua, which was turned into a church in 1830 when Algiers fell into French hands. In 1831, the inhabitants began fighting to halt the transformation of the mosque into a church, but without success. Many died – some say four thousand – at the hands of the French General Duc de Rovigo. But revenge would come following independence, more than a hundred years later. In the peculiar manner of Algerians, they began converting most of Algeria’s churches into mosques, replacing crosses with crescents in what they considered a reclamation of a symbolic identity that was missing during a century and a half of French occupation of their coutry.

My father went to Ketchaoua Mosque to pray as I sat waiting on the broad steps nearby, watching the beggars lying on the ground as they asked for money from passers-by. I noticed a man in his sixties, dressed in strange clothes and calling himself a Dervish. I thought of asking him what it meant, but I did not dare. Soon I came to understand the meaning of “Dervishism,” after watching a woman garbed in the billowing white hayek speak to him. He started giving her advice about several things she had to do to expel the evil eye that had befallen her.

Father did not remain in the mosque for long. I was still sitting in my place when I saw him approaching with a smile. Taking me by the hand, he led me in a direction of his choosing until we reached Café Malakoff. My father gave it a glance before we walked in and chose a place to sit. He ordered a soda for me and coffee for himself and then began chatting with a friend he met there by accident, about issues that did not interest me. My eyes wandered around the place, and I watched people outside walking back and forth. The alley separating Ketchaoua Mosque from the Casbah was always busy with people. It was full of popular markets selling all sorts of fabrics, clothes, vegetables, household utensils, perfumes, and sweets. There, you could find anything you might be looking for. People visited the place from all corners, even from outside Algiers. Their favorite destination was usually the vicinity of the Jews’ Mosque, the popular name of an old Jewish synagogue. Following independence, the street was renamed after the resistance fighter Ali Ammar, better known as Ali La Pointe, whom the Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo immortalized in his 1966 film, The Battle of Algiers. But people kept using the old name, Jews’ Mosque, for no apparent reason.

The crowds of women in that area always reminded me of a carnival with their clothes. Al hayek was worn by women from the capital, Algiers, while women from Constantine were famous for their black robes and white veil, called larjar in the local dialect of the capital. However, this did not mean the absence of women shunning headdress or hijabs. Many were garbed in popular 1970s fashions, such as the mini jupe skirt and the pattes d’éléphant trousers, and men wore Levi’s jeans and shirts with wide lapels, unbuttoned at the chest. The winds of socialist libertarianism in the 1970s blew away the traditional hayek, to some extent. But it was the bigger storm of the early 1990s that swept it away completely, to be replaced by the religious hijab, which would retain the upper hand for several years. The religious hijab remains strong in popular neighborhoods despite the variety of modern fashion. No longer symbolizing the rise of Islamist movements as it did in the 1990s, it became a veil behind which to conceal the destitute classes.

The whole scene was bustling with life and filled with the magic of colors, sounds, and a neighborly atmosphere, seducing the eyes of a young boy my age, who was suddenly tossed into a forest of the unfamiliar and began to absorb the landscape. Such intense moments were to remain ingrained inside him for a long time.

I did not go back to the square until high school. On Monday nights, I would set out with a group of friends on a tour of the capital, often to be concluded in a cinema or spent hanging out for hours in the cafés overlooking Algiers Port, close to Martyrs Square. There, we invoked all our wishes, gazing at the departing ships. We looked forward to the day when we would travel and emigrate from our suffocating city to the world of the West, which we only knew from clichés in the films and series that were broadcast on Algerian television in French. In our minds, the West was more liberated, life more pretty. And sex was plentiful and free of charge. Over there, a man would not need money or looks to get a woman – unlike here, where our girls and women did not move, except to a certain extent, and who only had little to give. And all the while they expected you to be a husband, not a lover or an adventurer or merely a traveler paying a visit. This situation was best expressed by Algerian director Merzak Allouache in his first film, Omar Gatlato; hence Omar became and remained our beloved hero.

The 1980s were at once a period of prosperity and crisis. Young people like us faced many pressures, including material poverty. Algeria had suddenly bidden farewell to its socialist discourse and opened the way for sharp social and class divisions to emerge. The crisis was most glaring in housing, which could no longer accommodate the rising population density. The streets became our one and only breathing space.

Whenever I had the chance and some money, I would escape my home and join my friends. We would go to downtown Algiers, armed with desires that we were destined not to fulfill, except for a few. Heavy and difficult desires would be expended on cheap local cigarettes or by watching American, Indian, and Egyptian movies in Dounia Zad and Majic cinemas. We would often return from our travels with a sense of disappointment and a feeling of grave loss. As far as I know, these feelings cast their shadow on an entire generation and were some of the factors leading to the eruption of events in Algeria in October 1988.

Young men revolted and filled the squares. They tore down state buildings and set fire to public buses, police stations, and the headquarters of the Ministry of Youth and Sports. At the time, the revolution was believed to be similar to the Prague Spring in former socialist countries. It reflected a deep-rooted sense of uproar and violence that had been simmering inside young people. It was a phenomenon of revolt against the sole political “father” who ruled the country and was legitimized by memories of the liberation revolution. But he had stolen the revolution’s dreams, which were then turned into wealth accumulated by a narrow segment in the circles of the regime.


The square has remained a hub of interaction, an urban breathing space for disparate neighborhoods, and a theatre for the movement of people around the clock. Wherever you choose to go, east, west, or to the upper side, you have to begin from here, at the largest of the bus stations. From the west, it is bordered by the popular Bab El Oued neighborhood, built by the French who also lived there during the colonial era. Following independence, it became inhabited by the poor strata of society. It also witnessed the spark of the October 1988 events, spilling from that side disfigured humans, their pains and dreams.

“The crisis in the 1980s was most glaring in housing, which could no longer accommodate the rising population density. The streets became our one and only breathing space.”

Bab El Oued looks out onto a wide beach and mesmerizing corniche called El Kitani. At night, it was filled with fishermen, drunkards, and hash smokers, while during the day lovers escaped into rocky seclusions on the shore to share many forbidden kisses and repressed wishes. That was the wanton western corner of Martyrs Square.

To the south, the neighborhood of the Casbah lies on an elevated piece of land. It represents the Arab-Ottoman city with its intertwined homes, large courtyards, and water fountains. It is the part of the city where Algerians lived and hid under colonialism, as long as colonial houses were built for the French alone. To the east, one might get lost in a labyrinth of streets leading to another city center, La Grande Poste, where streets branch off in several directions. One leads up through Rue Mohammed V to the Tilimli Balconi and Beirut Gardens, another to the May 1 Plaza and the Scientific Research Garden in El Hamma, where the French thinker Jacques Derrida and his friend and author Hélène Cixous used to sit. Then, on to Rue Belcourt, where Albert Camus once worked before independence. At the time, those names did not mean much to me or any of my friends. We would amble around those places searching for a new film in the cinemas or looking for spaces where we could find girls to flirt with or exchange glances of impossible desire. Failing that, we would spend our time in a café discussing football and our favorite teams.

By the 1980s, my family had moved from the popular Diar Chems neighborhood, in the upper side of Algiers, to an area at the far eastern corner of the city called Bouzereah. When I was little, Diar Chems led me to learn about central areas like Belcourt, May 1, and Hussein-Dey.

“When the Islamic Salvation Front called for its famous sit-in in June 1991, Martyrs Square was overrun entirely by the partisans of this Islamic party. I went several times to watch them sitting in the square, where they pitched their tents and milled around in groups.”

My life in Bouzereah, though, introduced me to the other side of the city, and I began to visit Bologhine and Bab El Oued, to the east.

Of course, Martyrs Square remained the main passage to all those areas, through its margins, packed with fabric and clothing stores, cafés, and grilled meat restaurants. It was a respite for shoppers passing through the Casbah souk and Rue Soustara, amid the old and historic buildings of Kdawaj El Amia Palace, the Grand Mosque, and Rue Sidi Abderrahmane (El Thaalibi). Not far away lies Fortress 23 and its hundred guns pointing toward the sea.

None of those landmarks – abandoned by visitors and tourists – grabbed our attention. Algeria at the end of the 1980s and in the 1990s had ceased to be a tourist destination. Following the departure of President Houari Boumedienne in 1979, oil remained the only cash cow for the state treasury. Large factories, established during the socialist phase, went into deep crisis and began laying off their workers by the early 1990s.

For my generation, the 1980s was the time of youth and a sense of crisis. We were not the veterans who witnessed the two eras of colonialism and independence. We were the post-independence generation that did not benefit from any of its gains, aside from free education and healthcare. On the other hand, we saw how individual and collective freedoms were taken away in the name of liberation and revolution and how these circumstances led to the rise of religious movements elsewhere in the Muslim world. The events of October 1988, putting an end to single-party rule, permitted political and social pluralism, and gave the Islamists a strong presence that allowed them to win the first legislative elections in 1991.

Islamists became a force to be reckoned with in Algeria’s cities and countryside. Neighborhoods around the capital were packed by those who wore religious clothes and looked different. At the beginning, back then, not everyone had the same political color. The old generation remained in the national party that had ruled the country for three decades. The younger generation was split between those who supported one of several smaller democratic parties, mostly belonging to tribal areas known for their secular and progressive politics, and those who lacked political affiliation altogether. But the majority, it can be said, became embedded in the Islamist movement, while the novel atmosphere of openness gave the illusion that everything would be all right in the future.

The major squares in Algiers became the rallying point for masses on Fridays and a center for Islamic speakers. The latter were devoted to appearing in public and showing off their representative power by positioning themselves in the squares and conducting a performance. They began occupying the squares with their immense numbers and tightly packed gatherings. Calls of “Allahu Akbar” (God is great) were heard through loudspeakers situated all over the place to reach the inhabitants of various neighborhoods. When the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) called for its famous sit-in in June 1991, Martyrs Square was overrun entirely by the partisans of this Islamic party – strange days they were. I went several times to watch them sitting in the square, where they pitched their tents and milled around in groups, speaking, rallying, and praying like at the mass demonstrations and occupations of the 2011 Arab Spring.

People from the surrounding markets would provide them with food and water over the days of the sit-in, before the police arrived. On the fourth day of the sit-in tanks and armored vehicles were brought in and the army and riot control forces were deployed. A vicious attack ensued, and many demonstrators were wounded. I remember the calls of “Allahu Akbar” booming throughout the neighborhood, calling on people to support the protesters. But the army was able to evacuate the square and imposed a temporary siege around it. We immediately felt that things were going to get worse in Algeria. Soon after the raid on the Martyrs Square sit-in, the country plummeted into an extremely dangerous security crisis.

Over the decade from 1991 to 2001, which became known as “The Dark Ten,” Algerian events pushed the country out of the spaciousness of the city squares and into the rugged mountainside. The crackdown on the Martyrs Square sit-in raised the political tension to levels of horrific violence and took it to the peripheries and remote areas, led by the momentum of Islamists with their anxieties and repressed desires. Those who remained in the city became afflicted with doubt and caution and suspicion. People began to fear any crowd, no matter what size it was and what slogans were chanted. Martyrs Square, and similarly May 1 Square, the biggest in Algiers, went into decline as the two main public arenas for expressing demands or popular gatherings.

For me, as a student at the National University on Audin Street, my relationship with Martyrs Square was broken. The security situation continued to deteriorate and forced a rationing of movement from place to place. But in the midst of this period of doubt and fear, I began working in the press. Being a journalist was enough for one to be accused of collaboration with the regime, even if one was its fiercest opponent, so I promptly moved to a friend’s place in El Biar Heights.

The violence stopped in 2001. Islamist forces and armed groups accepted the reconciliation discourse adopted by the regime. The old enemies made up and many who had been hiding in the mountains, fighting and killing for years, went down to the city. Yet, the residual fear of terrorism and the “The Dark Ten” remained deeply ingrained in the souls of Algerians. Trepidation did not subside quickly, and life did not return in full to the public squares.

But slowly, the margins of Martyrs Square revived to life from time to time, despite the siege imposed by the police and the ban on protests. As the drumbeat of the memorable events of the past two years in the Arab world reached Algeria, some groups demanding human rights and social reforms began to see the square as the required breathing space, feeling that inaction and lack of mobilization could no longer be justified.

This is probably what prompted the authorities to come up with an exceptional means to extend its siege on Martyrs Square. It is the project to build a metro deep under the capital, whose details and itinerary have not yet been announced. In the shadow of this blackout, I watch the fence around the site. The barbed wire is the clearest aspect of the project, performing its task perfectly by blocking the view toward Martyrs Square, hiding its features like a curtain closing on a stage.

Translated by Ghassan Makarem

Bereft of the large statue of Duc d’Orlean, as well as its former name Place du Gouvernement, Martyrs Square or Sahat ech-Chouhada commemorates the brave dead of the 1954 to 1962 civil war. Yet it remains one of the liveliest places in Algiers. Photograph by Hocine Zaourar
Reflecting all the faded glory of 1840s French colonial architecture, Boulevard Ernesto Che Guevara – formerly Boulevard République or Grand Boulevard – is reminiscent of the many layers of Algiers’s history. Photograph by Hocine Zaourar
Islamic and Moorish architectural motifs typify the Grand Post Office of Algiers, in contrast with the French styles of the surrounding seafront area. Numerous large and fashionable streets branch off from the building. Built in 1910 and still known affectionately by its French name “La Grande Poste,” it is located east of the Casbah and downhill from Audin Square, the site of the university. Photograph by Hocine Zaourar
Near to the cinemas Bachir Mefti used to frequent as a youth, a view of Algiers’s ferry terminus, the city’s primary link to the outside world. Photograph by Hocine Zaourar
Close to the harbor and a former fish market, the Mosque of the Fishermen in Martyrs Square is dated to 1660 by an inscription that appears over its main entrance. A mixture of styles and forms, the dome and building reveal its Ottoman origins, while the minaret is considered North African. Inside, there is a marble minbar decorated with Italianate carvings and a mihrab with a horseshoe arch typical of Andalusia. Photograph by Hocine Zaourar
The political pulse of Algeria can be taken in Martyrs Square or Sahet ech-Chouhada. In 1988, people rioted during what was considered the country’s Prague Spring. Three years later, it was taken over by the Islamic Salvation Front for a mass sit-in. More recently, groups demanding human rights have gathered in the square during the Arab Spring. Photograph by Hocine Zaourar
All roads lead to Martyrs Square. The dazzling white Mosque of the Fishermen stands on the eastern corner of the square, abutting an elegant French colonial building, with the Mediterranean Sea on the right. Photograph by Hocine Zaourar
Today designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Casbah in Algiers has been inhabited since the sixth century and is presently home to 50,000 residents. Beneath the rooftops run the warren of streets immortalized in Gillo Pontecorvo’s film, The Battle of Algiers, about Algeria’s independence struggle. Photograph by Hocine Zaourar
Schoolgirls in Zoudj-Aioun, located at the heart of the old Algiers Casbah – a district famed for both its ancient fountain and local cuisine. Photograph by Hocine Zaourar
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