Art, Literature, and Tourism at the Casbah
“The vast apartments of this palace deserve to be visited, as much for their curious construction as for the historical memories attached to the palace. But look for nothing reminiscent of the luxury and elegance of the palaces of the East, all has disappeared; even this architecture, so gentle formerly, had to give way to massive changes... The beautiful mosque of the palace, with its elegant columns, mosaics and dome, is now used by artillerymen as dormitories. The harem, this sensuous home of women, is now used by tailors and shoemakers as workshops.” [trans. from French]
In the Guide du Voyageur en Algerie, author Quetin describes the Casbah of Algiers as he sees it in 1847, 17 years after the French officially began its occupation of Algeria. This Casbah is bustling with the business of colonization, as army men occupy the space and artisans in cramped workshops.
Edward Said asserts that literature and art played a large role in perpetuating an Orientalist view of North African colonies. Confirming this assertion, Quetin writes that one should visit the Casbah for its “historical memories,” then goes on to compare the contemporary Casbah to a Casbah that is not historical but instead mythical. The harem and the odalisques that resided there may have been real, but they became an overly emphasized part of this cultural imagination of the French thanks to painters like Eugéne Delacroix, who was active at the time at which the guidebook was written in 1847 and who died in 1863 . It is the Romantic, Orientalist conception of the luxurious harem that Quétin references and mourns.
In addition, we can see that this Orientalist imaginary created and encouraged tourism to these sites. The history and legend of the Casbah are what make it worth seeing, Quetin tells his readers. He describes many other Algerian sites in a similarly ‘literary’ way as he does in the above passage, using humor, postulation and exaggeration to go beyond the ‘seen’ when directing readers who wish to sightsee. For examples of this language, see this web page, which analyzes the guide’s description of multiple ethnic groups. These descriptions, laced with racial stereotypes, serve to strengthen the French call to support their occupation through tourism.
Note that the painting attached, by Delacroix, does not depict the Casbah in Algiers, but shares of the Orientalist subject matter I described.