Human Geography

The City and its People

In a standard guidebook, one would expect that descriptions of the cities and important places to visit within would occupy a large amount of text. Surprisingly, however, cities are covered only sparsely relative to the information that details the climate, native people and even geology. Within these short few pages, Lambert Playfair’s writing highlights the important buildings including libraries, museums churches, and mosques while simultaneously intertwining both anecdotes and historical information amongst the architectural details. Unfortunately, his writing also illustrates a hierarchy that celebrates the French aspects of colonial conquest and the cities it created while downplaying the natives including both Moors and Arabs and characterizing both the people and their architectural achievements as mere objects to gaze upon. In addition, the description of cities has less to do with the architecture and buildings and more so is used as an excuse to further the descriptions of the people of Algiers.

In the first portion of the writing on the city of Algiers, Lambert Playfair immediately highlights the populations of various provinces, laying the underpinnings of the hierarchy that will continue in the following sections. Within each province, regardless of the portion of the total population, the French are always placed at the top, followed by the Jews, Foreigners, and finally Mohammedans. The creation of this racial hierarchy justifies France’s colonial conquest by portraying the French as the powerful parental figure, responsible for modernizing and helping to bring Algeria into prosperity (link to Bayliss Quote). Lambert Playfair then divides the rest of the city into two primary areas, the New Town and the Old Town. He again illustrates the troubling hierarchy by describing the New Town, created by the French, first. Lambert Playfair describes the New Town as filled with pleasant gardens, modern hotels, well-lit streets and squares that are also “regular.” Lambert Playfair uses the word “regular” to describe what is both familiar and normal to the reader.

When describing the Old Town, Lambert Playfair does little to hide his dislike for that which is not regular. He is immediately keen to illustrate that the Old Town “is the very opposite of the French Town already described.” Using words that include “tortuous, irregular and narrow” to describe the streets, he also describes them like a labyrinth which is “terribly confusing to the stranger.” Unlike the New Town, Lambert Playfair’s writing suggests a condescending gaze upon the native street architects as he struggles to find beauty in what is not naturally linear and therefore familiar. Yet interestingly, when describing the buildings themselves and especially those of the Moors, he loses the disdain found when articulating anything not European and instead finds some appreciation for their beauty. While the “external decoration is studiously avoided… the interior is picturesque and elegant.” It is both interesting and puzzling that even with Lambert Playfair’s racist narrative, he is unable to separate his opinion from the facts when describing the streets yet becomes wholly objective when analyzing the beauty that is created by those found at the bottom of the hierarchy he himself created.

Lambert Playfair extends the objective gaze that he used on buildings to the people and the Bazaars found in the city. When Lambert Playfair suggests the places to shop in the native quarter, which resemble “recesses or small chambers”, he highlights the idea of the “other”. Rather than suggest individual shops, he merely points out the Bazaar as a whole where one can gaze upon the locals “sitting cross-legged drinking coffee and while away their time smoking”. With these suggestions, Lambert Playfair disassociates the humanity from the individual and instead transforms them into objects that the traveler can view. Furthermore, he highlights that perhaps the most interesting part the traveler will see will be the “variety and picturesqueness” of the costumes of the individuals found in the Bazaars. Again, humanity is gone but what is of concern is the authentic experience that those traveling will find. (HC)

Infrastructure and Geography

In the Handbook for Travelers in Algeria and Tunis, Sir R Lambert Playfair illustrates Algeria as a destination still largely untouched by the modern man. Detailing landscapes that are both intimidating yet paradoxically welcoming, Lambert’s romanticized writing is both suitable for the modern tourist in search of the exotic other, and the imperialist traveler, searching for the sublime. Lambert also highlights the nation’s infrastructure as a conglomerate of the old and the new while demonstrating the important role colonialism has played in its development.

Within the section titled General Description of Algeria and interwoven intermittently into other points in the book, the geography of Algeria is categorized into three distinct political regions, Algiers, Oran, and Constantine. While Algiers’ colonial inhabitants have done much exploring, Lambert also admits that the limits of the country have never been truly defined with any degree of accuracy. Lambert discusses in detail the variety of mountainous areas as well as the forests, lakes, and deserts. As Zeulow illustrated in A History of Modern Tourism, Lambert Playfair’s writing tends to illustrate the sublime, romanticizing the beauty and the emotions it inspires but also highlighting the unpredictability and chaos. Lambert describes Kabile, Algeria, as “bristling with savage and rugged mountains… whose inhabitants “saw every attempt at invasion arrested at their feet” (15). Furthermore, he describes the water routes as not subject to the ordinary laws of nature but instead “the waters either return to the clouds without passing through the sea or circulate in vast subterranean lakes” (15). Lambert Playfair romanticizes danger and even the laws of science. He clearly illustrates that Algeria is the exotic other and models Britain as the norm. Thus, any deviations from what is considered normal in Britain must not only be exotic but also unnatural.

Lambert Playfair also continues to demonstrate his romantic style of writing while portraying the infrastructure of Algeria. In his 100-page account of the cities of Algeria and Tunis, Lambert Playfair touches on every aspect of infrastructure, from the streets, squares, public buildings, and hotels as well as the churches, mosques, shops, clubs, and hospitals. He also briefly touches on fortifications and modern defensive works while touting the recent progress of the railway line. Blended in with the overload of factual details, Lambert describes the true beauty of the city when approaching from the sea when he states, “It appears from a distance like a succession of dazzling white steps or terraces rising from the water, which, contrasting with the bright green background of the Sahel, explains the origin of the Arab comparison of Algiers to a diamond set in an emerald frame” (93). Lambert’s romanticism is clearly evident, but so too is a fondness of the city he is describing. Rather than illustrate rather dryly the style of architecture, he is able to evoke images of paradise. But, also entrenched in this romantic writing, Lambert is careful to tout the benefits of colonialism when contrasting the Old and Modern Town. While highlighting the fine buildings and the gaslit streets of the Modern Town, he criticizes the narrow, tortuous streets and the inconveniences they create. These comparisons of the Old and New are similar to the way in which he describes differences between Algeria and Britain which implicitly suggests the need for colonial power in order to bring Algeria into the modern world. (HC)

Human Geography