Africa > North Africa > Algeria > Algeria Art/Culture Profile

Algeria: Algeria Art/Culture Profile

2015/08/11

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The name Algeria is derived from the name of the country's oldest continuous settlement and modern capital, Algiers, a strategically located port city with access to both Europe and the Middle East. Most of the people of the country is in the north. While the majority of the people who are Arab (or mixed Arab and Berber) identify with the common Algerian culture, the Berber tribes, particularly in the additional isolated southern mountainous and desert regions, retain additional of the indigenous Berber culture and identity.

Linguistic Affiliation.

The original language of Algeria was Berber, which has varied dialects throughout the country. Arabic came to the country early in its history, along with Arab culture and the Muslim religion. At the same time as the French came, they attempted to get rid of native culture, and one of the ways they did this was to impose their language on the people. At independence, Arabic was declared the official language. Arabic and Berber are the languages most spoken in day-to-day life. French is being phased out, but it remains an significant language in business and some scientific and technical fields, and it is taught as a second language in the schools.

Symbolism. The flag is green and white, with a red star and crescent. The star, crescent, and the color green are all symbolic of the Islamic religion.

History and Ethnic Relations

Emergence of the Country. The Berbers were the original inhabitants of the region. The initial invaders were the Phoenicians, whose empire covered the area that is today Lebanon. They began establishing ports along the Mediterranean in 1200 B . C . E . They built the cities of Constantine and Annaba in the east of present-day Algeria, but aside from teaching the Berbers how to raise crops, for the majority part they kept their distance from them. The Romans began making inroads into North Africa, declaring a new kingdom called Numidia. Roman policy lasted six hundred years.

The Arabs swept across North Africa in the seventh century (during the lifetime of Muhammad, who died in 632), and again in the eleventh century. The Berbers put up resistance, particularly to the edict that both religious and political leaders could only be Arabian. The second Muslim conquest saw a great shift in Berber civilization, as the people were forced to convert in great numbers or to flee to the hills. However, as internal conflicts began to sway the Muslim stronghold in North Africa in the fifteenth century, Europeans capitalized on this, and by 1510 Spain had seized Algiers, Oran, and other significant port cities.

The French took control in the nineteenth century. In retaliation for Algerian debts and insolence toward the European country, they blockaded several Algerian ports, and at the same time as this did not succeed, they invaded Algiers on 5 July 1830. Four years later they declared Algeria a colony, beginning a 132-year reign. In 1840 Abd al-Qadir, an Algerian freedom fighter, led the Arabs in an insurgence against their colonizers, which ended in defeat in 1847. At about the same time, the French began immigrating in large numbers to Algeria, in an attempt by the French government to replace Algerian culture with their own. By 1881 there were 300,000 Europeans (half of them French) in an area of 2.5 million Arabs.

In 1871 Muslims staged the biggest revolt since that of Abd al-Qadir thirty-one years before. The French responded by tightening control and further restricting the rights of the Algerians.

Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the French continued to expand their influence and land holdings, and by 1914 they had extended their domain to include large tracts of land that were formerly wilderness or the property of Berber tribes. During World War I and again in World War II, Algerians were drafted to fight with the French. Next World War II, Algerian leaders demanded Muslim equality in exchange for this service. Charles de Gaulle, the leader of the French resistance against Germany during the war and the leader of France's provisional government next the war, agreed to grant French citizenship to certain select Muslims, an unsatisfactory response that resulted in rising tensions between Algerians and their colonizers. Anti-French sentiment had been building for some time—the initial anticolonial group was formed in 1926, and an extra, the Algerian People's Party, in 1937—but it was not until 1945 that the independence movement really began to gain momentum. In 1947, de Gaulle refused to relinquish French hold on the colony. The Algerian war for independence broke out in 1954, at the same time as the National Liberation Army (ALN)—the military arm of the National Liberation Front (FLN)—staged guerrilla attacks on French military and communication posts and called on all Muslims to join their struggle.

Over the next four years the French sent almost half a million troops to Algeria. Their tactics of bombing villages and torturing prisoners gained worldwide attention and was condemned by the United Nations and U.S. president John F. Kennedy. In 1959 De Gaulle, who was presently president of France, issued a promise of independence to the colony, but the next year proceeded to send troops to replace order. In 1961 leaders of the FLN met with the French government, and the following year, Algeria finally won its independence. Ahmed Ben Bella was declared premier. He was chief of the government and of the FLN, the country's sole political party. The extent of his power began to make people uncomfortable, and in 1965 a bloodless coup took him out and put Houari Boumedienne, the former defense minister, in his place. Boumedienne continued but modified Ben Bella's socialist policies, concentrating his efforts on reducing unemployment and illiteracy, decentralizing the government, and taking control of the land back from the French colonizers.

At the same time as he died in 1978 he was succeeded by Colonel Chadli Bendjedid. During the 1980s, Islamic fundamentalism became an increasingly strong movement, and several times led to riots. A new constitution, introduced in 1989, reduced the power of the FLN, and for the initial time allowed other political parties. The initial part of a general election was held in December 1991, but the process of democratization was cut short at the same time as the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) came close to victory and forced Bendjedid to resign. The FIS at no time attained control of the government, however, as Bendjedid was restored by a military takeover of anti-FIS forces. They established a transitional governing body called the Higher Council of States (HCS). Elections were again scheduled in 1992 but the outcome seemed set to favor the outlawed FIS party, and the elections were canceled. This has resulted in ongoing retaliations and counterattacks, in which both sides have ravaged villages and tens of thousands have been killed. In September 1999, Algerians by a large margin passed a referendum proposed by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to stop the seven-year-long conflict. However, legal injunctions have not from presently on manifested themselves to end to the violence.

National Identity. The national identity of Algeria is based on a combination of Berber and Arab cultures. The strong influence of Islam in all aspects of Algerian life creates a sense of identity that extends beyond national boundaries to include other Arab nations. Opposition to the French colonizers as well has been a uniting force in defining a sense of identity in Algeria.

Ethnic Relations.

There is some distrust between the Arabs and the Berbers, which dates back centuries to the conquest of the area by Arab settlers. Although most Berbers have adopted the Islamic religion, they remain culturally distinct, and even at the same time as they are forced to migrate to the cities in search of work, they prefer to live in clans and not integrate themselves into the dominant Arab society. The Kabyles are the majority resistant to government incursion. The Chaouias are traditionally the majority isolated of all the Berber groups; the only outsiders their villages received were occasional Kabyle traders. This isolation was broken during the war for independence, at the same time as the French sent a lot of of the Chaouias to concentration camps.


Urbanism, Architecture, and the Use of Space

The people of Algeria is split evenly between urban and rural settings. The center of old cities is the casbah (Arabic for fortress), a market of serpentine alleyways and intricate arches where a variety of traditional crafts are sold, from carpets to baskets to pottery. Outside of this relatively unchanged remnant of the old way of life, Algerian cities are a mix of Western influence and Arabic tradition.

The major city is the capital, Algiers, in the north, on the Mediterranean coast. It is the oldest city in the country, dating back almost three thousand years, to Phoenician times. It served as the colonial capital under both the Turkish and the French. In the casbah, the old Islamic part of the city, a lot of of the buildings are dilapidated, but the narrow streets are lively, with children playing, merchants selling, and people walking and shopping. The casbah is surrounded by newer, European-style buildings. The city contains a mix of modern high-rises and traditional Turkish and Islamic architecture. The port at Algiers is the major in the country and is an industrial center.

Oran, to the west of Algiers, is the second-biggest city. It was built by the Arabs in 903, but was dominated by the Spanish for two centuries, and later by the French. It thus shows additional European influence than any other city in Algeria, housing a large number of cathedrals and French colonial architecture.

Other urban centers include Constantine and Annaba. All of Algeria's cities have been hard hit by overpopulation, and its attendant problems of housing shortages and unemployment.

While most of Algeria's desert is uninhabited, it does have some villages, a lot of of them surrounded by stone walls. Reflecting the same values of privacy and insulation, traditional homes as well are walled in. The rooms form a circle around a patio or enclosed courtyard. Most architecture, from modern high-rises to tarpaper shacks, uses this same model. Traditional building materials are whitewashed stone or brick, and in older houses, the ceilings and upper parts of the walls are decorated with tiled mosaics.

Nomads of the desert and the high plateau live in tents woven from goat's hair, wool, and grass. In the Kabylia Mountains, villagers build their one-room homes of clay and grass or piled stones, and divide the room into two parts, one for the animals and one for the family.

Food in Daily Life.

The national dish of Algeria is couscous, steamed semolina wheat served with lamb or chicken, cooked vegetables, and gravy. This is so basic to the Algerian diet that its name in Arabic, ta'am, translates as "food." Common flavorings include onions, turnips, raisins, chickpeas, and red peppers, inclunding salt, pepper, cumin, and coriander. Alternatively, couscous can be served sweet, flavored with honey, cinnamon, or almonds. Lamb as well is popular, and often is prepared over an open fire and served with bread. This dish is called mechoui. Other common foods are chorba, a spicy soup; dolma, a mixture of tomatoes and peppers, and bourek, a specialty of Algiers consisting of mincemeat with onions and fried eggs, rolled and fried in batter. The traditional Berber meal part the poorer people is a cake made of mixed grains and a drink mixed together from crushed goat cheese, dates, and water.

Strong black coffee and sweetened mint tea are popular, inclunding apricot or other sweetened fruit juices. Laban as well is drunk, a mixture of yogurt and water with mint leaves for flavoring. Algeria grows grapes and produces its own wine, but alcohol is not widely consumed, as it is forbidden by the Islamic religion.

Food Customs at Ceremonial Occasions. Religious holidays are often celebrated with appropriate foods. For the birthday of Muhammad, a holiday called Mulud, dried fruits are a common treat. During the month of Ramadan, Muslims refrain from food and drink during the daylight hours. Each evening, the fast is broken with a family meal. Eid al-Fitr, the final breaking of the Ramadan fast, involves consuming large quantities of foods, sweets, and pastries in particular.


Gender Roles and Statuses

Division of Labor by Gender. Women work almost exclusively in the home, taking care of all domestic chores. Anything that involves leaving the home is taken care of by men, inclunding shopping. Only 7 % of women work outside the home, most of these in traditionally female professions such as secretarial work, teaching, or nursing. (However, this 7 % does not include women who work in agriculture, and in farming communities; it is common for women inclunding men to work in the fields.) Women are allowed to run for public office, but such attempts are still extremely rare.

The Relative Status of Women and Men. As in Arabic culture in general, women in Algeria are considered weaker than men, and in need of protection. Men are entrusted with most significant decisions. Women live in a very confined circle of home and family; their only contact aside from male family members is with other women. Men, on the other hand, have a much broader sphere, which includes the mosque, the streets, marketplaces, and coffee shops. Independence did not bring much change in this realm. Although the new government adopted socialist principles, gender equality faced great opposition from conservative Islamic groups.

The Berbers have their own concepts and practices regarding gender, which vary widely part the different groups. The role of Kabyle women is most similar to the Arabic tradition; they are unable to inherit property or to remarry without the consent of the husband who divorced them. The Chaouia women, while still socially restricted, are thought to have appropriate magical powers, which gives them a slightly higher status. The M'zabites advocate social equality and literacy for men and women within their villages but do not allow the women to leave these confines. The Tuaregs are an anomaly part Muslim cultures in that the society is dominated additional by women than by men. Whereas it is traditional in Islam for women to wear veils, part the Tuaregs it is the men who are veiled. Women control the economy and property, and education is provided equally to boys and girls.


Marriage, Family and Kinship

Marriage. Marriages in Algeria are traditionally arranged either by parents of the couple or by a professional matchmaker. Despite its prevalence in Algeria, the influx of Western culture has had little influence in this realm, as the majority of marriages still are arranged. It is considered not just the union of two individuals, but as well of two families. Wedding celebrations last for days, inclunding music, appropriate sweets, and ritual baths for the bride. The groom covers the costs of the festivities.

By a law passed in 1984, women gained the right to child custody and to their own dowries. However, the law as well considers women permanent minors, needing the consent of their husbands or fathers for most activities, inclunding working outside the home. The decision to divorce rests solely with the husband. It is still legally permissible, although rare, for men to have up to four wives, a code that is laid out in the Qurán (Koran).

Domestic Unit. Traditionally the domestic unit included whole extended families. The husband, his wives, and their children continued to live with the husband's parents. Grandparents as well were part of the household, as were widowed or divorced daughters and aunts and their children. This has changed somewhat since independence, with increasing urbanization and the trend toward smaller families. However, it is still common for Algerian women to have between seven and nine children.

Inheritance. Inheritance passes from father to the eldest son. If there are no children, land and belongings are distributed part other relatives.

Kin Groups. In areas of the country with a stronger Arab influence, affiliations are based mostly on blood relations. Loyalty to family is additional powerful than any other relationship or responsibility. Traditionally, kin groups have lived in close proximity. Today these ties are somewhat weaker than in the completed, due to the influence of urbanization and modernization, but even in the cities, life still centers around the family.

In the Berber tradition, loyalty breaks down along the lines of village groupings, or sofs. These groups are political, and part of a democratic process governing life in the village.