Algeria – The Culture


Although exceptions exist, Algerians are a forthright, passionate people who can seem to carry within them all the optimism, vision and conflict that the country itself possesses. Few require much prompting to voice what they see as the ills of their country, whether it be the president and his shortcomings or the Islamists and their fanaticism. Anger is a common emotion as Algerians look around at the country’s abundant natural wealth and compare it with their own poverty – they’re tired of official excuses and politicians of every ilk squabbling over riches that never seem to reach people like them.

Another common response to the perceived ills of the country is a sense of defeat. It is not unusual in Algiers and Oran in particular to find men of any age simply staring out to sea, dreaming of a better life in Europe; the women are most likely too busy to have time. Among these are the hittistes (see the boxed text, below ), the vast numbers of young, sometimes educated men – almost a third of the population is under 30 and the youth literacy rate stands at 90% – who have grown tired of waiting for the promises of a new Algeria to become real and have been left with nothing to do and nowhere to go. As one Algerian told us, Ramadan was quite easy for him because he didn’t get to eat during the day during any other month of the year anyway.

At the same time, the Algerian middle class is as sophisticated as any in the Arab world, their refined sensibilities, creativity and love of intellectual debate as evident as their dream that Algeria will one day be a tolerant, wealthy and peaceful society.

As Algerian passions repeatedly spill over and subside, home-grown music (most likely rai) provides the soundtrack, tracing the frenetic, roller-coaster ride that is the Algerian existence and reminding people just why, in spite of everything, they are so proud to be Algerian.


Life for the ordinary Algerian revolves around the family, a bond that took on added significance during the years of conflict surrounding independence and the 1990s. Such has been the exodus of Algerians to Europe, especially France, that these bonds became infinitely more complicated in the second half of the 20th century. However, the massive strain on social services ensures that family support networks – including remittances from overseas – nonetheless remain as important as ever.

. . WHAT ARE ‘ HITTISTES’? Zahia Hafs

On busy streets, you will see young men standing around, leaning against walls, idling the day away. These are referred to as ‘hittistes’, from ‘hit’, meaning wall. Literally they are said ‘to hold the wall’. They are jobless young men in their 20s, struggling to make a few dinars each day, if they are lucky, by selling small items. About 80% of the unemployed are under 30 and most of them are unqualified, which makes the search for work almost impossible. Most of the time they have nothing to do besides hanging around, talking to friends, watching girls go by and trying to chat them up. They usually stick to the same wall, making it their territory. Maybe it is a way to have their own space when they lack privacy at home. They all dream of greener pastures, somewhere on the other side of the Mediterranean.

When the Berlin wall fell in 1989, the running joke was: ‘Instead of breaking down the wall, the Germans should send it to us…’. No matter how hard a situation is, Algerians always find a way to make light of it with their sense of humour.

Grafted onto the immediate family are multiple layers of identity, among them extended family, tribe and village, with an overarching national component of which every Algerian is proud, albeit with reservations. The nuclear family was traditionally large with numerous children, although some, mainly urban, Algerians now opt for a more manageable Western-style number of offspring.

. . Each adult woman now gives birth to an average of 1.89 children, a far cry from the early 1990s when population growth rates were out of control and the country’s population was doubling every 20 years.

Men generally marry later than women (for men the average age is 33, for women 29, the relative lateness of which is partly attributable to the high cost of staging weddings) and arranged marriages still frequently take place between the children of male cousins. This is, however, becoming increasingly rare in urban areas and in particular among families where members have returned to Algeria after years of living in Europe. This amalgam of Algerian and European values is one of the most fundamental changes determining the Algerian future, although the results are far from clear.

Life expectancy (73.26 years) is one of the highest in Africa and literacy (approaching 70%) is respectable, but these figures conceal overloaded health and education systems that many Algerians see as boding ill for the country’s future. Housing is another major problem, particularly with the movement of people from rural areas into the larger cities in recent decades.


The Good News

Algeria is one of the richest countries in Africa and in 2006 Algeria ranked third (behind neighbours Libya and Tunisia) among mainland African countries on the UN’s Human Development Index, which ranks countries according to a range of economic and quality-of-life indicators. Such apparent wealth reflects the country’s formidable natural resources: Algeria has the seventh-largest natural gas reserves in the world, is the second-largest exporter of natural gas and has the 14th-largest reserves of oil. High oil prices in recent years has meant that Algeria has a significant trade surplus, its external debt has been considerably reduced, inflation is low and GDP per capita sits at a comfortable US$6603.

In pre-oil days and during the French occupation, agriculture was the mainstay of the Algerian economy and it remains an important feature of the domestic market, even as it contributes little to the country’s export earnings.

. . Just 3% of Algeria is suitable for agriculture, but somehow Algeria manages to be 70% self-sufficient in food, up from just 40% 15 years ago. Major crops include wheat, barley, grapes, olives and citrus fruits.

The Bad News

That the Algerian economy is on the upswing only partially hides the fact that it has a long way to climb. The damage done to the economy by the years of civil war is still being felt and although investors are starting to return, unemployment remains high and general living standards are taking a long time to reach the potential that the Algerian economy undoubtedly has. As such, the issue of more equitably distributing Algeria’s considerable wealth to ensure that all Algerians benefit – a quarter of Algerians live below the poverty line – is a matter of daily concern for Algerians.

The other major issue confronting the country’s economic planners is how to diversify an economy that is almost wholly dependent on oil. High oil prices, promising results from recent oil and gas prospecting and high demand among Western countries for Algeria’s low-sulphur oil conceals the fact that oil and natural gas account for 95% of export earnings. That’s fine for the present, but the day that Algeria runs out of oil is one that most Algerians prefer not to think about.


Together, Arabs and Berbers make up 99% of the population. Historically these two groups have intermarried, making demarcation difficult, although most estimates suggest that 75% of the population consider themselves to be Arab, with a further 20% to 25% Berber. Other groups include the Tuareg and a small handful of pieds-noirs (French Algerians).

Algeria’s population density stands at 13.8 people per sq kilometre, although so vast is Algeria’s largely uninhabited desert region that population density in northern regions is much higher than these figures suggest. Around 60% of Algerians live in cities, but this figure is rising.


The question of who the Arabs are exactly is still widely debated. Are they all the people speaking Arabic, or only the residents of the Arabian Peninsula? Fourteen centuries ago, only the nomadic tribes wandering between the Euphrates River and the central Arabian Peninsula were considered Arabs, distinguished by their language. However, with the rapid expansion of Islam, the language of the Quran spread to vast areas.

. . A History of the Arab Peoples, by Albert Hourani, is the definitive text when it comes to Arab history painted in broad brush strokes. Better still, it’s written in a lively style and is easy to dip into or read in full.

The first wave of Arab migration came in the 7th century as the armies of Islam spread rapidly across North Africa and established Arab-Muslim rule as far afield as Andalusia in what is now southern Spain. But it was not until the 11th century that vast numbers of Arab settlers from the Bani Salim and Bani Hilal tribes on the Arabian Peninsula arrived and the cultural Arabisation of the region began. The reason behind the migration was an attempt by the Fatimid dynasty ruling Egypt at the time to increase its hegemony over the outlying reaches of its empire. The Bani Salim largely remained in the eastern Libyan region of Cyrenaica, while it was the Bani Hilal who colonised large parts of northern Algeria.

Although the Arabs were relatively few in number in Algeria, their culture quickly became established through language and intermarriage. The term ‘Arab’ came to apply to two groups: in addition to the original nomadic Arabs, the settled inhabitants of newly conquered provinces such as Algeria also became known as Arabs.


Berbers claim to be the descendants of North Africa’s original inhabitants and most historians believe this to be true, arguing that the Berbers descend from the Neolithic peoples who arrived in the area up to 17,000 years ago. Other historians claim that the Berbers are descended from the remnants of the great Garamantian empire, which flourished in the Fezzan region of southern Libya from around 900 BC to AD 500. Otherwise, little is known about their origins.

. . Amazigh Online ( lists links to a host of interesting websites dedicated to the Berber (Amazigh) people, from scholarly articles to lively social and cultural debates.

The name ‘Berber’ has been attributed to a collection of communities by outsiders, but rarely, until recently, by the Berbers themselves. The name is thought to derive from the Latin word ‘barbari’, the word used in Roman times to classify non-Latin-speakers along the North African coast. ‘Berber’ is used as a loose term for native speakers of the various Berber dialects, most of which go by the name of Tamazigh. In fact, many Berbers do not even use a word that unites them as a community, preferring instead to define themselves according to their tribe.

When Arab tribes swept across North Africa in the 7th and 11th centuries, many Berbers retreated into the mountain and desert redoubts which they continue to occupy. In Algeria, by far the largest concentration of ‘Berbers’ are the Kabyles who inhabit the Kabylie Mountains in northeastern Algeria. Most often, groups from this region do not call themselves Berber at all, but, like the Tuareg, prefer to be known as Imazighen (singular: Amazigh), which means ‘the noble and the free’. Other ‘Berber’ groups include the Chaouia in the mountains south of Constantine, as well as communities throughout the Atlas Mountains from Blida to the Moroccan border and beyond, and in the M’Zab region close to Ghardaïa.

. . Historical Dictionary of the Berber (2006) by Hsain Ilahiane is the most comprehensive study of the history and culture of the Berber people of North Africa, with a range of alphabetical entries and maps.

The key touchstones of Berber identity are language and culture, although most Berbers are now bilingual, speaking their native language and Arabic. Within the Berber community, loyalty is primarily to the family or tribe. Households are organised into nuclear family groups, while dwellings within a village or town are usually clustered in groups of related families.

In keeping with their centuries-long resistance to foreign domination and to the imposition of religious orthodoxy, many Berbers belong to the Kharijite or Ibadi sect. True to their religious beliefs, Berber communities have long prided themselves on their egalitarianism. The traditional Berber economy consists of farming and pastoralism, meaning that most people live sedentary lifestyles, tied to their particular patch of land, while a small minority follows seminomadic patterns, taking flocks to seasonal pasturelands.

. . The Tuareg, by Jeremy Keenan, is considered one of the best and most readable anthropological studies of the Algerian


Although Berber agitation for sweeping autonomy in Algeria is unlikely to be granted any time soon, recent years have seen an increase in Berber-language education in Berber areas and Tamazigh is now recognized as a ‘national language’, although not an official one.


The Tuareg are the nomadic, camel-owning bearers of a proud desert culture who traditionally roamed across the Sahara from Mauritania to western Sudan.

The two main Tuareg groups in Algeria, whose members number an estimated 75,000, are the Kel Ahaggar from the Tassili du Hoggar and the Kel Ajjer from the area around Djanet, although within each group there are various subgroups which have slightly different languages and customs.


The origins of the Tuareg are not fully understood, although it is widely agreed that the Tuareg were once Berbers from regions stretching from southeastern Morocco to northeastern Libya. There are indeed marked similarities between many words in the Tuareg language of Tamashek and those in the Berber language of Tamazigh. When the Arab armies of Islam forced many Berbers to retreat into the desert in the 7th century, and when waves of Arab migration swept through the region in the 11th century, those who would become Tuareg fled deep into the desert where they have remained ever since.

Tuareg stories about their origins largely concur with this version of history, although most Algerian Tuareg claim to be descended from a single noblewoman, Tin Hinan, who arrived in the Tassili du Hoggar astride a white camel having journeyed from the Tafilalt region of southeastern Morocco. Finding the land to be largely uninhabited, the Tuareg say, Tin Hinan decided to stay and she became the mother of all Tuareg.

The Tuareg traditionally followed a rigid status system with nobles, blacksmiths and slaves all occupying strictly delineated hierarchical positions, although the importance of caste identity has diminished in recent years. Until the early 20th century, the Tuareg made a fiercely independent living by raiding sedentary settlements, participating in long-distance trade and exacting protection money from traders passing across their lands.

The veils or taguelmoust that are the symbols of a Tuareg’s identity – the use of indigo fabric which stained the skin has led them to be called the ‘Blue People of the Sahara’ – are both a source of protection against desert winds and sand, and a social requirement. For more information on the taguelmoust.

Traditionally, Tuareg women are not veiled, enjoy a considerable degree of independence and play a much more active role in the organization of their society than do their Arab or Berber counterparts. Descent is determined along matrilineal lines.

The name ‘Tuareg’ is a designation given to the community by outsiders and it is only recently that the Tuareg have begun to call themselves by this name. The name is thought to be an adaptation of the Arabic word ‘tawarek’, which means ‘abandoned by God’ – a reference both to the hostility of the land the Tuareg inhabit and to what other Muslims consider their lax application of Islamic laws. The Tuareg themselves have always, until recently, preferred to be known as ‘Kel Tamashek’ (speakers of the Tamashek language), ‘Kel Taguelmoust’ (People of the Veil) or ‘Imashaghen’ (noble and the free).

. . The Pastoral Tuareg, by Johannes and Ida Nicolaesen, is a two-volume, encyclopaedic study of the Tuareg, especially those of southern Algeria. It’s a great addition to your reference library.

Traditional Tuareg society is rapidly breaking down, mainly due to the agrarian reform policies of the government, the influx of large numbers of Arabs from the north and a series of crippling droughts which have forced many people into the towns to search for work. For more information on the changes to Tuareg life.


Although few remain, the pieds-noirs (singular: pied-noir) are crucial to any understanding of Algeria’s population mix. They are the ‘Black Feet’ or predominantly French settlers and their descendants in Algeria; the name is also used to refer to Algerian Jews.

After France occupied Algeria in the first half of the 19th century, settlers from all over southern Europe began arriving en masse. At first called colons, they planted deep roots in Algerian soil and by the 20th century most considered themselves to be more Algerian than French (except, it must be said, for many cases, when dealing with Muslim Algerians). By 1926, over 15% of the population were pieds-noirs. By 1959, there were more than one million pieds-noirs in Algeria – 10% of the population – and they accounted for more than 30% of the population of Algiers and Oran. There was also a large pied-noir population in Annaba.

The name ‘pied-noir’ has been attributed to the fact that people of French origin in Algeria wore black boots, although in the early 20th century the name referred to all indigenous Algerians.

From 1954, as the country descended into a war of independence, the pieds-noirs fiercely supported France and were in turn targeted by Algerian nationalist forces. When President Charles de Gaulle effectively sanctioned Algerian independence in 1962, the pied-noir community levelled accusations of betrayal at the French government, but to no avail: 900,000 pieds-noirs fled Algeria in 1962, thereby gutting government administration in many places such as Oran. Many also laid waste to their properties so that they would be useless to Algerians. The effect on the Algerian economy was catastrophic.


Although not all considered themselves to be pieds-noirs (Black feet; descendants of French settlers), the following are some of the most famous French people to have been born on Algerian soil.

  • Louis Pierre Althusser (1918–90) One of the leading Marxist philosophers of the 20th century.
  • Albert Camus (1913–60) A leading light in the existentialist school of thought (although he rejected the designation), Camus won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957 and some of his novels are set in Algeria.
  • Jacques Derrida (1930–2004) The father of deconstruction theory was another of the most eminent philosophers of the 20th century.
  • Yves Saint-Laurent (1936–) The exclusive French fashion designer was born in Oran and served briefly as a conscript in the French army during the Algerian War of Independence.
  • Edith Piaf (1916–1953) One of the iconic French voices of the 20th century, Mme Piaf’s maternal grandmother came from the Kabylie region of northeastern Algeria.
  • Zinedine Zidane (1972–) Although the three-time World Footballer of the Year was born in Marseille and played for France, his parents were from the Kabylie region and many Algerians still claim him as their own; in 2006 he returned for a visit to the region.

Once they arrived in France – a place many pieds-noirs had never visited – most pieds-noirs were left to fend for themselves. Embittered by what they saw as France’s rejection and angered by criticism of the piedsnoirs’ often brutal tactics during the 1954–62 war, many chose to migrate to the Americas, Spain or New Caledonia. The harkis – Muslim Algerians who had supported French rule – fared even worse, as thousands were refused visas for France and were massacred by the National Liberation Front (FLN) after the French left. Around 100,000 pieds-noirs elected to remain in Algeria, but by the 1980s there were fewer than 3000 left.

. . The Architecture of Memory: A Jewish-Muslim Household in Colonial Algeria 1937-62, by Joelle Bahloul, is an intimate portrait of the last days of the Algerian Jewish community who had lived in Algeria for millennia.


Although Algerian Jews were often historically called pieds-noirs, they occupied a distinctive place in Algerian society from Roman times until 1994. Following their expulsion from Spain (especially Andalusia) in 1492, many Jews settled in Algeria, with particularly large communities putting down roots in Algiers and Oran. Algerian Jews were granted French citizenship in 1870 and by 1931 Jews made up 2% of Algeria’s population and more than 10% of the populations of Constantine, Ghardaïa, Sétif and Tlemcen.

Algeria’s postindependence government bestowed Algerian independence only upon Muslims and the overwhelming majority of the 150,000 Jewish Algerians fled to France. Following the Armed Islamic Group’s declaration of war on all non-Muslims in Algeria in 1994, all but a handful of the last remaining Jews left the country and the final functioning synagogue in Algiers closed down. Many fled to Israel where they were granted instant citizenship. It is believed that fewer than 100 Jews remain in Algeria, with most of these living in Algiers.


When Lakhdar Belloumi fired home Algeria’s second goal to defeat West Germany in the first game of the 1982 World Cup, hopes were high that Algerian football (soccer) was entering a golden age and that Algeria was on the verge of becoming a major footballing power. Those hopes continued as Algeria again qualified for the World Cup finals in 1986 and went on to win the African Nations’ Cup in 1990. The promise was never realised and Algerian football has been in decline ever since, a state of affairs made all the more sad by the fact that football is wildly popular in Algeria and it is difficult to overestimate the passions which the sport inspires here. In a sign of how far the Algerian national team (known as the Desert Foxes) has fallen, in 10 qualifying matches for the 2006 World Cup, Algeria won just one game and finished behind Angola, Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Gabon. As a result, Algerian football fans are largely restricted to cheering for Algerian footballers plying their trade in Europe – Madjid Bougherra, Ali Benarbia and Brahim Hemdani are among the better-known – or staking a claim for three-time World Footballer of the Year Zinedine Zidane who in return is quite publicly proud of his Kabylie Algerian roots.

. . In 1992 Hassiba Boulmerka won Algeria’s firstever Olympic Gold Medal in the women’s 1500m running. Boulmerka’s feat was emulated four years later by Noureddine Morceli, who won gold in the men’s 1500m.

Another important sport among Algerians is athletics. The Algerian national team came third at the 1999 African Games. Algeria’s plans to host the 2007 African Games were thrown into disarray when Algeria was suspended from international track and field competitions due to government interference in the sport.

Other popular sports include volleyball, handball, boxing and martial arts, including a Maghrebi martial art known as El-Matreg in which two players fight using long sticks. In southern desert regions, horse and camel racing are popular, especially among the Tuareg during local festivals.


Radio and TV stations are government-owned and content is strictly controlled, which is the major reason why most Algerians tune into satellite TV stations from France and across the Arab world. When it comes to newspapers, many are privately owned and do – somewhat bravely, it must be said – criticise the government on a regular basis. That said, it is a criminal offence punishable by prison sentence to ‘insult’ or ‘defame’ the president, members of parliament, judges or the army; Algerian newspapers mark the passage of this law with an annual ‘day without newspapers’. The government has proved itself more than willing to abuse this law and in 2005 alone, 114 journalists were prosecuted under the law, of whom 111 were fined or sent to prison. Newspapers that openly campaigned against the re-election of President Bouteflika are particularly targeted.

Internet censorship is less prevalent, although the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders speculates that this may be more to do with government ignorance than any new spirit of openness.

. . According to Reporters Without Borders (, Algeria ranks 126th out of 167 countries in a ranking of world press freedom.

Algerian journalists not only have to run the gauntlet of government paranoia, but have also been targeted by Algeria’s militant Islamist opposition. Between 1993 and 1997, 57 journalists were killed, with most murders blamed on armed Islamist groups. Although the situation has improved, journalism is still a perilous occupation in Algeria.


Sunni Islam is the official state religion in Algeria, adhered to by an estimated 99% of the population and one of the few things which unites Algeria’s often fractious population. There are also Christian communities that are more historically than numerically significant.



Abdul Qasim Mohammed ibn Abdullah ibn Abd al-Muttalib ibn Hashim (the Prophet Mohammed) was born in AD 570 in Mecca in what is now Saudi Arabia. Mohammed’s family belonged to the Quraysh tribe, a trading family with links to Syria and Yemen. By the age of six, Mohammed’s parents had both died and he came into the care of his grandfather, the custodian of the Kaaba in Mecca. When he was around 25 years old, Mohammed married Khadija, a widow and a merchant and he worked in running her business.

At the age of 40, in 610, Mohammed retreated into the desert and began to receive divine revelations from Allah via the voice of the Archangel Gabriel – the revelations would continue for the rest of Mohammed’s life. Three years later, Mohammed began imparting Allah’s message to the Meccans. Mohammed soon gathered a significant following in his campaign against Meccan idolaters and his movement appealed especially to the poorer, disenfranchised sections of society.

Islam provided a simpler alternative to the established faiths which had become complicated by hierarchical orders, sects and complex rituals, offering instead a direct relationship with God based only on the believer’s submission to God (‘Islam’ means submission).

Among Mecca’s ruling families, however, there was a dawning recognition of the new faith’s potential to sweep aside the old order. By 622, these families had forced Mohammed and his followers to flee north to the oasis town of Medina. There, Mohammed’s supporters rapidly grew in number. In 630, Mohammed returned triumphantly to Mecca at the head of a 10,000-strong army to seize control of the city. Many of the surrounding tribes quickly swore allegiance to him and the new faith.

When Mohammed died in 632, the Arab tribes spread with missionary zeal, quickly conquering all of what is now the Middle East. By 670, the armies of Islam had arrived in Algeria and they had established themselves in Andalusia by 710, an astonishing achievement given the religion’s humble desert roots.

. . Muslims attribute a place of great respect to Christians and Jews as ahl al-kitab, the People of the Book (sura 2: 100–115). However, Muslims believe the Quran is the final expression of Allah’s will and the definitive guide to his intentions for humankind.


For Muslims, the Quran is the word of God, directly communicated to the Prophet Mohammed; unlike the Torah and Bible, which are the interpretative work of many individuals, the Quran is believed by Muslims to be the direct word of Allah. It contains 114 suras (chapters) which govern all aspects of a Muslim’s life, from their relationship with God to minute details about daily living.

In addition to drawing on moral ideas prevalent in 7th century Arabia, some of the Quran’s laws closely resemble those of the other monotheistic faiths, particularly the doctrinal elements of Judaism and the piety of early eastern Christianity. The suras contain many references to the earlier prophets – Adam, Abraham (Ibrahim), Noah, Moses (Moussa) and Jesus (although Muslims strictly deny his divinity) are all recognised as prophets in a line that ends definitively with the greatest of them all, the Prophet Mohammed; 21 of the 28 prophets are mentioned in the Bible.

It is not known whether the revelations were written down during Mohammed’s lifetime. The third caliph, Uthman (644–656), gathered together everything written by the scribes and gave them to a panel of editors under the caliph’s aegis. A Quran printed today is identical to that agreed upon by Uthman’s compilers 14 centuries ago. Another important aspect of the Quran is the language in which it is written. Some Muslims believe that the Quran must be studied in its original classical Arabic form (‘an Arabic Quran, wherein there is no crookedness’, sura 39:25) and that translations dilute the holiness of its sacred texts. For Muslims, the language of the Quran is known as sihr halal (lawful magic). Apart from its religious significance, the Quran, lyrical and poetic, is also considered one of the finest literary masterpieces in history.


To live a devout life and as an expression of submission to Allah, a Muslim is expected to adhere to the Five Pillars of Islam.

Profession of Faith (Shahada)

This is the basic tenet of Islam: ‘There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet’ (La illaha illa Allah Mohammed rasul Allah). It is commonly heard as part of the call to prayer and at other events such as births and deaths.

Prayer (Sala)

Ideally, devout Muslims will pray five times a day when the muezzins call upon the faithful, usually at sunrise, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset and night. Although Muslims can pray anywhere (only the noon prayer on Friday should be conducted in the mosque), a strong sense of community makes joining together in a mosque preferable to praying elsewhere.

Alms-Giving (Zakat)

Alms-giving to the poor was, from the start, an essential part of Islamic social teaching and was later developed in some parts of the Muslim world into various forms of tax to redistribute funds to the needy. The moral obligation towards one’s poorer neighbours continues to be emphasized at a personal level, and it is not unusual to find exhortations to give alms posted up outside some mosques. Traditionally Muslims are expected to give a 40th of their annual income as alms to the poor.

. . Covering Islam (1981), by Edward Said, is a searing study of how stereotypes have shaped our view of Islam, Muslims and the Middle East. Although the examples used are dated, the book remains as relevant today as when it was written.

Fasting (Sawm)

Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim calendar, commemorates the revelation of the Quran to Mohammed. In a demonstration of a renewal of faith, Muslims are asked to abstain from sex and from letting anything pass their lips from sunrise to sunset every day of the month. This includes smoking. For the dates when Ramadan commences over the coming years.

Pilgrimage (Haj)

The pinnacle of a devout Muslim’s life is the pilgrimage to the holy sites in and around Mecca. Every Muslim capable of affording it should perform the Haj to Mecca at least once in their lifetime. The reward is considerable – the forgiving of all past sins. Ideally, the pilgrim should go to Mecca in the last month of the lunar year, and the returned pilgrim can be addressed as Haji, a term of great respect. In villages at least, it is not uncommon to see the word ‘Al-Haj’ and simple scenes painted on the walls of houses, showing that their inhabitants have made the pilgrimage.


Embodying the Islamic faith, and representing its most predominant architectural feature, is the mosque, or masjed or jama’a. The building was developed in the very early days of Islam and takes its form from the simple, private houses where believers would customarily gather for worship.

The house belonging to the Prophet Mohammed is said to have provided the prototype for the plan of the mosque. The original setting was an enclosed, oblong courtyard with huts (housing Mohammed’s wives) along one wall and a rough portico providing shade. This plan developed with the courtyard becoming the sahn, the portico the arcaded riwaqs and the haram the prayer hall. The prayer hall is typically divided into a series of aisles; the centre aisle is wider than the rest and leads to a vaulted niche in the wall called the mihrab – this indicates the direction of Mecca, which Muslims must face when they pray.

Islam does not have priests as such. The closest equivalent is the mosque’s imam, a man schooled in Islam and Islamic law. He often doubles as the muezzin, who calls the faithful to prayer from the tower of the minaret – except these days recorded cassettes and loudspeakers do away with the need for him to climb up there. At the main Friday noon prayers, the imam gives a khutba (sermon) from the minbar, a wooden pulpit that stands beside the mihrab. In older, grander mosques, these minbars are often beautifully decorated.

Before entering the prayer hall and participating in communal worship, a Muslim must perform a ritual washing of the hands, forearms, face and neck. For this purpose, mosques have traditionally had a large ablutions fountain at the centre of the courtyard, often carved from marble and worn by centuries of use. These days, modern mosques have rows of taps.

The mosque also serves as a kind of community centre, and often you’ll find groups of children or adults receiving lessons (usually in the Quran), people in quiet prayer and others simply dozing – mosques provide wonderfully tranquil havens from the chaos of the street.

Most Algerian mosques are officially off limits to non-Muslims, although permission can often be obtained from the imam between morning and noon prayers. You must dress modestly.


Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar

Ashhadu an la Ilah ila Allah

Ashhadu an Mohammed rasul Allah

Haya ala as-sala

Haya ala as-sala

The soundtrack to your visit to Algeria will be this haunting invocation, a ritual whose essential meaning and power remain largely unchanged in 14 centuries.

. . Islam: A Short History (2006), by Karen Armstrong, is an accessible and sympathetic record of the world’s fastestgrowing religion without the sensationalism.

Five times a day, Muslims are called, if not actually to enter a mosque to pray, at least to take the time to do so where they are. The noon prayers on Friday, when the imam of the mosque delivers his weekly khutba, are considered the most important. For Muslims, prayer is less a petition to Allah (in the Christian sense) than a re-affirmation of Allah’s power and a reassertion of the brotherhood and equality of all believers.

The act of praying consists of a series of predefined ablutions and then movements of the body and recitals of prayers and passages of the Quran, all designed to express the believer’s absolute humility and Allah’s sovereignty.


In everyday life, Muslims are prohibited from drinking alcohol (sura 5:90–95) and eating carrion, blood products or pork which are considered unclean (sura 2:165), the meat of animals not killed in the prescribed manner (sura 5:1–5) and food over which has not been said the name of Allah (sura 6:115). Adultery (sura 18:30–35), theft (sura 5:40–45) and gambling (sura 5:90–95) are also prohibited.

Islam is not just about prohibitions but also marks the important events of a Muslim’s life. When a baby is born, the first words uttered to it are the call to prayer. A week later follows a ceremony in which the baby’s head is shaved and an animal is sacrificed in remembrance of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son to Allah. The major event of a boy’s childhood is circumcision, which normally takes place between the ages of seven and 12. When a person dies, a burial service is held at the mosque and the body is buried with the feet facing Mecca.


Although Islam arrived in northern Algeria in AD 670, it was not until 711 that the north of the country yielded to the new faith. The initial conquests, which included the taking of Algeria, were carried out under the caliphs, or Companions of Mohammed, of whom there were four. They in turn were followed by the Umayyad dynasty (AD 661–750) with its capital in Damascus and then the Abbasid line (AD 749–1258) in Baghdad (in modern Iraq). Given that these centres of Islamic power were so geographically removed from Algeria, the religion of Islam may have taken a hold, but the political and administrative control which accompanied Islamic rule elsewhere was much more tenuous in Algeria.


Algeria may be almost universally Sunni in outlook, but the M’Zab, close to Ghardaïa, is famous for being home to a small community of Ibadi Muslims.

The Ibadis are an offshoot of the Kharijite sect, whose name literally means ‘seceders’ or ‘those who emerge from impropriety’. The Kharijites’ origins lie in the bitter struggle for leadership over the Muslim community in the wake of the Prophet Mohammed’s death. Kharijites, who recognize only the first two Muslim caliphs as legitimate and believe in the absolute equality of all Muslims regardless of race, became renowned for their fierce and uncompromising belief in the primacy of the Quran rather than in loyalty to corrupt, supposedly Muslim authorities. As such, Kharijism has always been an ideology of rebellion.

Not surprisingly, the egalitarian Kharijite theology appealed almost instantly to the Berbers of Algeria. In particular, the doctrine that any Muslim could become caliph, which questioned the Arab monopoly over Muslim legitimacy, was of great appeal. Thus it was that the Kharijite missionaries who actively courted the Berbers in Islam’s early days in Algeria enjoyed great success.

One of the leading strands of Kharijite thought was developed by one Abdullah ibn Ibad. This founder of the Ibadis espoused many Kharijite teachings, such as anti-authoritarianism and the strictest adherence to the Quran, but also developed a more tolerant outlook than his somewhat fanatical Kharijite predecessors, especially in his dealings with other Muslims. Ibadism quickly became a major power in Algerian life. From AD 778 until 909, much of Algeria was ruled by the Ibadi imams known as the Rustamids. The Rustamids presided over a period of stability, encouraged scholarship and the arts, and were notable for their piety and lack of corruption.

After the Rustamids were swept away by the Shiite Fatimids, Ibadi refugees retreated to the five oases of the M’Zab in the 11th century, where they have remained until this day. They are now frequently known as the Mozabites; for more information on this community. Many Algerian Ibadis or Mozabites now reject the use of the term Kharijite to describe their community.

Ibadism is now extremely rare in the Middle East. Apart from the M’Zab oases, other small Ibadi communities are found only in Jerba (Tunisia), the Jebel Nafusa (northwestern Libya), Oman and Zanzibar.

Islam took longer to spread to the far south of Algeria, whose history is to a large extent separate: only in the 15th century were the Tuareg finally converted to Islam.

The leading strands of Islamic thought brought transformations to Algerian life, many of which survive to this day. The orthodox Sunnis divided into four schools (madhab) of Islamic law, each lending more or less importance to various aspects of religious doctrine. In Algeria, as elsewhere in the Maghreb, the Maliki rite of Sunni Islam came to predominate and still does. Founded by Malik ibn As, an Islamic judge who lived in Medina from AD 715 to 795, it is based on the practice which prevailed in Medina in the 8th century. The generally tolerant Maliki school of Islamic thought preaches the primacy of the Quran (as opposed to later teachings).

. . ‘The holy fasting month of Ramadan is taken extremely seriously in Algeria’

The holy fasting month of Ramadan is taken extremely seriously in Algeria and is universally and very publicly observed. For details on the implications of travelling in Algeria during Ramadan. In addition to mainstream Sunni practice, there are also small communities of Ibadis in the M’Zab region. As with elsewhere in North Africa, there have been significant communities of Sufis in the country for much of Algeria’s history; the many Algerian town names beginning with ‘Sidi’ testify to this fact. Current figures regarding Sufi adherence are not known, although its influence waned in the wake of the Islamic scholar Abdelhamid ben Badis who preached against traditional marabouts, established a network of Sunni schools and demanded a return to orthodoxy in the early 20th century.

Islam also provided a rallying cry for opposition to a succession of governments in the second half of the 20th century. During the Algerian War of Independence, nationalist fighters called themselves mujahedin (warriors of jihad), Algerian dead were routinely referred to as chouhada (martyrs) and a return to Islamic principles was central to the independence movement’s platforms.

Mindful of the mobilising power of Islam in Algeria, successive postindependence governments sought to monopolise public Islam and keep the Islamic establishment firmly within its control by appointing imams and keeping a close eye on all mosques. Such policies proved useless in holding back the march of militant Islam and when the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) won the first round of the 1991 elections, the resulting tension spilled over into outright war.

Although the war has largely ended, Islam remains at the centre of public life and has come to be the fault line at the heart of Algerian society – between adherents of militant Islam and predominantly middle-class, moderate Muslims. In elections in 2002, legal Islamist parties won 20% of the vote.


Although exact figures can be difficult to come by, it is estimated that there are fewer than 5000 Christians in Algeria, most of whom are Europeans or nationals of other Western countries. The Algerian constitution forbids discrimination based on religious belief, although a 2006 law makes proselytising for Christianity a criminal offence punishable by a one- to three-year jail term and prohibits non-Muslim worship outside of state-approved churches.

The fact that Algeria now has a tiny Christian community belies the fact that two towering figures in Christian church history spent much of their lives in what is now Algeria.


One of the most enduring Christian presences in Algeria is the missionary society which is popularly known as the Pères Blancs (White Fathers). Founded by Cardinal Lavigerie, the Bishop of Algiers, as the Missionaries of Our Lady of Africa of Algeria in 1868, the society for teaching Arab orphans quickly evolved into a society with grand plans for the conversion of Africa. In 1876, and again in 1881, two caravans of missionaries set out from southern Algeria but they were massacred en route to Sudan. An 1878 caravan proved more successful and laid the groundwork for missions in 42 African countries.

One year after founding the White Fathers, Cardinal Lavigerie founded a sister group for nuns, known as the Congregation of the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Africa.

The White Fathers, who still have their headquarters in Algeria, are unusual in that the rules of their mission require that members live in community homes of no fewer than three people, speak the language of the local people among whom they live, eat local food and wear local dress. Therein lies the reason behind the group’s unusual name: their dress closely resembles the robes of Algerian Arabs, with a cassock and a burnous.

The first mission by the White Fathers was established among the Berbers of Jurjura, and missions throughout the Sahara later became their trademark. Visitors are welcome to visit the White Fathers hermitage and library in Ghardaïa.

St Augustine served as the Bishop of Hippo Regius (now Annaba) from AD 393 to 430 and it was during this period that he developed the theology that would become so influential in the teachings of the early church. He was also one of the first Christian theologians to espouse the idea of ‘just war’. For more information on the saint’s life.

One of the most singular figures of 20th-century Christianity was Charles de Foucauld, who retreated into the Sahara where he worked among the Tuareg and lived an ascetic life as a Trappist monk. His simple stone hermitage at Assekrem, whose name means ‘the End of the World’, is still home to a small number of monks from his order and can be visited.


Despite having played a leading role in Algeria’s struggle for independence, life since then has been difficult for Algerian women. In official terms, the situation is reasonable by regional standards. The Algerian constitution guarantees gender equality and Algeria ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (Cedaw) in 1996, albeit with reservations. Later legislative provisions, particularly in relation to work, extended the principle of equality into the labour market.

. . Women make up 27% of civil servants and almost 60% of secondary school teachers, and a record number of women candidates contested the 2002 elections.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that violence against women is rife and women have been targeted by Islamist militants since the early 1990s. A strong tradition of female activism meant that the Algiers of a few years ago is recalled as a place where dress codes were relatively relaxed. What to wear has, however, become a much tougher decision since Islamic militants in the early 1990s shot dead a schoolgirl in the street for not wearing a veil – and two veiled students were killed in retaliation as they waited for a school bus. ‘You’ll die if you don’t wear the veil. You’ll die if you do wear the veil, too. So shut up and die’, wrote poet Tahar Djaout before he himself was killed in 1993. The cycle of violence may have abated, but Algeria’s public face is now extremely conservative and the majority of women wear veils, even in once liberal Algiers. These vary from the lacy, white handkerchieftype ones worn in the north, which cover just the lower half of the face, to the robes worn by the women of the M’Zab (the area around Ghardaïa), which are held together in such a way that only one eye is visible.

Apart from violence, it was the 1984 Family Code that set back the cause of women’s rights by decades. Effectively reducing women to the status of minors, the law has not been amended in the decades since. President Bouteflika ordered a review of the law in 2003, but like so many presidential promises of gender equality, the results have been a severe disappointment for Algerian women. Despite assuring Algerian women in 2004 that the government was ready to help them break free from the social constraints of a patriarchal society and enjoy their full constitutional rights, the president has let the review disappear without a trace after conservative critics of the government opposed it.

In January 2007, the UN sent its Human Rights Council’s Special Rapporteur on violence against women on a fact-finding mission to Algeria. The Special Rapporteur’s report is not expected to bring back much positive news.



From the claustrophobic clamour of Algiers’ Unesco World Heritage–listed Casbah to the red and white earth tones of the Saharan oases, Algerian architecture is a highlight of any visit to Algeria. Particularly in the north of the country, much of what you’ll see is a fusion of styles – Roman, Byzantine, Spanish, Ottoman, French and indigenous Islamic to name a few.

Examples of this often incongruous but always eye-catching combination, the Souk el-Ghazal Mosque and Grand Mosque in Constantine date from the 18th and 14th centuries respectively and include Roman-era granite columns and Corinthian capitals as essential elements of their structures.


The rise of Christian Spain in the late 15th century brought to bear two important influences on the Algerian architectural landscape. The first was the arrival of Muslim refugees from Andalusia who brought with them new ideas regarding architecture. The second was less direct: in a bid to counter growing Spanish influence, rulers in the Maghreb turned east towards the Turkish Ottoman Empire, and Algiers in particular benefited from this shift in focus. Ottoman architecture remained the dominant force until the arrival of the French in the 19th century.


  • Roman – Tipaza; Hippo Regius; Timgad; and Djemila
  • Byzantine – Djemaa Ali Bitchine and Notre Dame d’Afrique in Algiers
  • Early Islamic – Mosque and Tomb of Sidi Boumediene and Grand Mosque in Tlemcen
  • Spanish – Bey’s Palace and Fort of Santa Cruz in Oran
  • Ottoman – Dar Khedaoudl el-Amia, Dar Hassan Pacha and the Palais des Raïs Bastion 23 in Algiers; Palace of Ahmed Bey in Constantine
  • French – Place du 1 Novembre in Oran
  • Saharan – Ghardaïa; Beni Abbès; Timimoun; El-Oued; In Salah; Djanet
  • Modern – Sidi M’Cid Bridge in Constantine and Makam Echahid in Algiers

The first building erected by the Ottomans was the Djemaa el-Djedid in 1660. Its Ottoman-style dome is still the most recognisable Ottoman landmark in Algeria, although the Andalusian influence evident in the minaret is typical of the time when a Moorish style still held sway. Much of the Islamic architecture in northern Algeria would later be destroyed or, more often, converted by the French to serve a Christian purpose. Although these buildings were returned to their original functions after independence, many now bear traces of colonial meddling. The Djemaa Ketchoua, also in Algiers, was used as a cathedral by the French, although, thankfully, they made few alterations. The Djemaa Safir was one of the last Ottoman-built mosques in the capital.

. . Islam: Art & Architecture, by Markus Hattstein and Peter Delius, is comprehensive and beautifully illustrated and contains numerous references to the architecture of Algeria and its historical context.

The Ottomans left largely unscathed the overhanging buildings, wooden bay windows and delicate stucco work of the Casbah, primarily because they settled largely in the lower part of the city. Elsewhere most Ottoman palaces and townhouses featured an L-shaped entrance which led into an interior marble-paved courtyard surrounded by porticoes, horse-shoe arches and mosaic tiles on four sides. The Dar Hassan Pacha, also in Algiers, is a particularly fine example.


Although new towns have grown up alongside them, the huddled dwellings of the oasis towns of the Sahara still use ancient building methods – sun-baked mud, straw and palm products, flat roofs – that are well suited to the harsh demands of desert life. In smaller settlements, many traditional flat-roofed Saharan houses have been neglected to the point of dereliction as a result of the relocation of their residents to modern housing elsewhere. Many such houses are vulnerable to rare but devastating downpours.


Algiers long ago expanded seemingly beyond the capacity of its traditional architecture to cope. The Casbah, for example, is believed to have lost more than a thousand homes since independence because its cramped conditions can no longer meet the growing needs of the population. This is a major reason why Unesco inscribed the Casbah on its World Heritage list of endangered sites in 1992.

But there is also something about Algiers that captures the imagination – its clamour, its Mediterranean fusion of French refinement with Arab-Islamic aesthetics – and it has drawn some of France’s most eminent architects. Le Corbusier spent much of the 1930s developing 12 ambitious projects for the rejuvenation of Algiers, only to discover that this is a difficult city to tame – not one of the 12 came to fruition.

More successful was Fernand Pouillon, whose sympathetic incorporation of traditional architectural styles in urban Algiers won him plaudits in France and Algeria alike. His reconstruction of the entire neighbourhood of Diar Essada in the mid-1950s was followed by simliar success in the neighbourhoods of Diar Mahçoul and Climat de France. Pouillon later renovated one of the churches he built in Diar Essada as part of its postindependence conversion back into a mosque. Although commissioned by the French, Diar Essada became a postindependence icon for confidence in doing things the Algerian way to such an extent that it appeared on one of independent Algeria’s first banknotes. Elsewhere, Pouillon was also extremely active in seeking to build tourist resorts along the Algerian coast that were both environmentally sustainable and incorporated into the local landscape. The Hôtel Gourara in Timimoun is another Pouillon creation.


From Chronicle of the Year of Embers (directed by Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina), which won the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1975, to Rachid Bouchareb’s Oscar-nominated Days of Glory in 2007, Algerian film has been charming international critics for decades. That doesn’t necessarily translate into regional audience numbers to match Egypt’s blockbuster industry. Nor does it convert into the government funding the industry deserves – like so many film industries the world over, Algeria’s is facing a shortage of funds that is crippling the creative works of its directors. But if quality is the touchstone, the Algerian film industry is in rude health.

. . La Guerre sans Nom (The War Without a Name), by director Bertrand Tavernier, is a documentary which consists entirely of meaningful interviews with French veterans of Algeria’s War of Independence.

The first sign that Algerian film would become one of the most inventive in the world came in 1965 with The Battle of Algiers . Written and directed by the Italian Gillo Pontecorvo, this relentlessly compelling representation of urban guerrilla warfare on the streets of Algiers nonetheless owed much to Algerian creativity and suggested that Algerians had a natural affinity with the silver screen. The film, which remains a cult hit, was funded by the Algerian government and almost all of the actors were ordinary Algerians.

Algerian directors would quickly show that they, too, were capable of tackling the big themes and doing so with panache. Not surprisingly, given its impact on Algerian society, the 1954–62 Algerian War of Independence would become a recurring muse for Algerian directors. This cluster of war films served as a platform for later directors to tackle the serious issues of Algerian society and exile with an unflinching gaze – one of the defining characteristics of Algerian film. It can make for harrowing viewing but it’s the sort of cinema that has the power to change the way you think about the world.

A case in point was Mohamed Rachid Benhadj’s Desert Rose (1989), which has an almost claustrophobic intensity and which some critics see as a coming-of-age for Algerian cinema. The film recounts the story of a seriously handicapped man in a remote oasis village. Benhadj has described Mousa, the main character, as ‘a symbol of Algeria, of the Third World in general, formed by rigid beliefs and intolerance, but now having to redefine itself as all the alibis on which its place in the world depended begin to fall away.’

. . Arab Film Distribution ( has a good list of Algerian films with plot synopses and details of how to buy them on DVD.

Another fine example is the critically acclaimed Rachida (2002) by Yamina Bachir-Chouikh, in which a young teacher is shot by terrorists after she refuses to plant a bomb in a school. Rachida also represented the directing debut for this highly talented female director, who had written the screenplay for the 1976 classic Omar Gatlato by Merzak Allouache.

Similarly, the French-born Algerian director Bourlem Guerdjou won awards for Living in Paradise (1997) which looks at the dislocated lives of Algerian exiles living in France. His 2005 offering, Zaina: Rider of the Atlas, is also outstanding.

The Palestinian tragedy has also proved to be the perfect subject matter for Algerian directors, most notably in Nakhla (1979) by Farouk Beloufa. Few Algerian movies have been as warmly praised by critics and so fiercely targeted by government censors.

The already mentioned Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina has had one of the most distinguished careers, gaining no fewer than four nominations (one successful) for the Palme d’Or at Cannes. His filmography began with The Winds of the Aures (1966) and drew to an equally impressive close with La Dernière Image (1986).


Amid Algeria’s star-studded film industry, there is one director who stands out above all the rest: Merzak Allouache.

Born in Algiers in 1944, the award-winning Merzak Allouache witnessed first-hand the devastation caused by Algeria’s War of Independence before studying film-making at the renowned Institut des Hautes Études Cinématographiques (Idhec) in Paris. Known for his searing realism and the use of Algerian street dialect, he made the first of 16 feature films, Omar Gatlato, which marked him out as a special talent. That film is widely seen as having definitively proved – both to critics and an Algerian audience – that Algerian cinema could combine both serious issues and popular appeal. Allouache chose to shoot the movie in the Bab el-Oued district of Algiers, a location to which he returned for Bab el-Oued City (1994), which won the International Critics’ Prize at Cannes. The highlights of his glittering career include the following films:

Omar Gatlato (1976) The aimless lives of young Algiers men are the subject of Allouache’s first feature and the empty bravado, dislocation and hollow dreams of North African youth have never been better depicted.

Following October (L’Après-Octobre; 1989) One of his rare forays into the world of documentary film-making to recount the riots in the suburbs of Paris in 1988.

Bab el-Oued City (1994) The creeping violence and fear gripping Algeria in 1993 as Allouache was filming infuse every moment of this landmark film about two conflicted, flawed, utterly human young fundamentalists.

Hey Cousin (Salut Cousin; 1996) The in-between-cultures angst of the children of Algerian immigrants in France is interspersed with rare flashes of humour in one of Allouache’s best films of the 1990s.

The Other World (L’Autre Monde; 2001) Algerians in exile and the worrying but irresistible call of the homeland provide the most enlightening and heart-rending moments of the Algerian civil war yet captured on film.

One of the most impressive recent debuts came with Djamila Sahraoui’s 2006 debut Barakat!. This excellent film follows the travails of an emergency doctor who returns home in 1991 to find that her husband has disappeared and has most likely been kidnapped by Islamist rebels. She is accompanied on her search by an older nurse who is a veteran of the independence struggle and the story becomes an intergenerational exploration of modern Algeria. It is outstanding.

Tony Gatlif, who was born as Michel Dahmani in Algiers in 1948, is one of France’s most respected directors. His La Terre au Ventre (1979) is a story of the Algerian War of Independence, while Exils (2004), about Algerian exiles on their journey home, won a Best Director award at Cannes.

. . ‘Tuareg silver jewellery is highly sought after‘


Although largely functional in purpose, Tuareg silver jewellery has evolved into an art form in its own right which is highly sought after by Western collectors.

The most unusual item is the croix d’Agadez (a stylised Tuareg cross of silver with intricate filigree designs) named after Agadez in Niger. Every town and region with a significant Tuareg population has its own unique version of the cross and by some estimates there are 36 different versions. Although European explorers saw the design as evidence of prior Christianity, traditional Tuareg see them as powerful talismans designed to protect against ill fortune and the evil eye. Some also serve as fertility symbols. The crosses are still used by Tuareg men as currency (eg for buying camels), although these days this is rare in Algeria. At other times, the crosses are worn by their wives as a sign of wealth.

Other silver items include: a wide range of silver necklaces (those containing amber are generally from across the border in Niger); striking, square, silver amulets that are worn around the neck by elders as a symbol of status (some are also used in weddings by women); and ornamental silver daggers with leather hilts.

Almost as interesting as the silverwork are the ‘artists’ who create it. Tuareg blacksmiths (Inaden) have always occupied a special place within Tuareg society, perhaps because of their dark communion with fire, iron and precious metals. At one level, the Inaden were traditionally looked down upon by noble Tuareg because the blacksmiths are darker-skinned than other Tuareg and they lived on the margins of Tuareg villages and encampments. At the same time, the Inaden were purveyors of traditional medicines, custodians of oral traditions and go-betweens in marriage negotiations. As such, they are essential figures in most Tuareg ceremonies. Shunning a blacksmith is considered taboo in Tuareg society.

. . Art of Being Tuareg – Sahara Nomads in a Modern World (2006) is a stunning pictorial study of Tuareg life with informative essays on Tuareg culture, including poetry, music and the role of women.


Algerian writers first made a name for themselves during the French colonial period when many found a market in France for their novels. Foremost among them was Tlemcen-born Mohammed Dib (1920–2003), who wrote more than 30 novels, plus works of poetry, short stories and children’s books. Although writing in the language of the occupiers, Dib and his contemporaries reclaimed the language as their own. Awarded the Grand Prix de la Francophonie de l’Academie Francaise in 1994, Dib is seen by many as the father of modern Algerian literature. Sadly, few of his works have been translated into English, but The Savage Night, a 13-storey compendium, is an excellent window on Dib’s world.

Kateb Yacine (1929–89) was a contemporary of Dib and was also considered one of North Africa’s finest writers of the 20th century. His landmark novel Nedjma interweaves family history with the Algerian War of Independence and is considered one of the most important Frenchlanguage novels ever written in the Maghreb. Jean Amrouche (1907–62) was another important pioneer of Algerian writing in French.

It is also impossible to talk of Algerian literature of the period without paying homage to Albert Camus (1913–60), a pied-noir  who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957 and is considered one of the towering figures of French literature and existentialist thought.

Frantz Fanon (1925–61) was born in Martinique but will be forever associated with Algeria for his work The Wretched of the Earth, which was based on his experiences during the Algerian War of Independence and is considered an important revolutionary book.

After independence, Algerian writers found themselves confronted with the highly political question of which language to write in. French ensured a wider audience but was tarnished with a colonial brush. Arabic was politically correct, but limited the author to a small, local bookbuying market. Tamazigh was itself a fraught choice for both political and economic reasons.

The highly regarded Rachid Boudjedra (b 1941) chooses to write in Arabic and produce his own translations into French. Mohamed Khaireddine chooses to write in French as an act of cultural resistance because Tamazigh is forbidden. Other writers from the Kabylie region and for whom Berber identity plays a critical role include Marguerite Taos Amrouche (1913–76) and Mouloud Mammeri (1917–89). Across the cultural divide, Tahir Wattar chooses to write in Arabic, although his work The Earthquake is widely available in English.

The perils faced by Algerian writers are by no means restricted to language. In 1993, Tahar Djaout (The Watchers and The Last Summer of Reason), a proudly secular novelist from the Kabylie region, was assassinated. One of the assassins later told police that Djaout was targeted because ‘he wrote too well, he had an intelligent pen, and he was able to touch people; because of this he was a danger to the fundamentalist ideology’.


  • So Vast the Prison by Assia Djebar
  • The Star of Algiers by Aziz Chouaki
  • The Lovers of Algeria by Anouar Benmalek
  • Sherazade by Leila Sebbar
  • The Last Summer of Reason by Tahar Djaout

Women are among the leading crop of current Algerian writers whose works have been translated and are widely available in English. Assia Djebar is the most widely known and her novels (Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade and So Vast the Prison) and nonfiction (Algerian White and Women of Algiers in their Apartment) explore the role of women in Algerian society through beautifully told stories. Another leading light is Leila Sebbar who moved to France aged 17 and whose novels (Sherazade and Silence on the Shores) centre around the lives of Algerian women living in France.

Other important contemporary Algerian novelists include Anouar Benmalek (The Lovers of Algeria), Aziz Chouaki (The Star of Algiers) and the prolific Yasmina Khadra (the pen name of Mohammed Moulessehoul) who made his name with The Swallows of Kabul but whose Autumn of the Phantoms deals with more Algerian themes.


For a full run -down on the enduring Algerian music sensation that is rai, see the boxed text, opposite.


Although not as well known beyond Algeria’s shores, the music of the Berber (Amazigh) people of the Kabylie region of northeastern Algeria is a mainstay of the local music scene. With its roots in the music and poetry of the Kabylie villages and in the exile and disaffection felt by many Amazigh in post-independence Algeria, Kabylie music has always provided something of a barometer for the health of Algerian society.

. . ( is an extremely comprehensive website dedicated to showcasing the talents of Kabylie musicians.

Kabylie singers from the colonial era such as Slimane Azem (1918–83) were, like many Kabylie, strong supporters of the push for Algerian independence. Azem’s song ‘Locusts, Leave My Country’ became a de facto anthem for a generation of Algerians, both at home and in France. Western icons of the 1960s such as Bob Dylan later influenced liberal-minded Kabylie musicians who longed for their own counterculture revolution in Algeria. The Kabylie uprising of the early 1980s heard voices such as Djamel Allam’s (b 1947) and Matoub Lounès’ (1956–98) emerge as the soundtrack for a new generation of rebels; Lounès was to pay for his passionate advocacy for secularism and Amazigh rights in Algeria when he was assassinated soon after he returned home from France in 1998.

Female singers with Kabylie roots have also taken the world by storm, most notably Paris-based Souad Massi (b 1972) whose debut Raoui (Storyteller) was an instant hit in 2001. Her follow-up Deb – Heart Broken (2003) was, if anything, even better. Iness Mêzel is another important female Kabylie singer, while male Kabylie singers to watch out for are Akli D, Cheikh Sidi Bemol (, Aït Menguellet and Takfarinas.

. . RAI MUSIC Jane Cornwell

Want to know what Algerians on the street are thinking? Check out the country’s most popular music genre: rai. Meaning ‘state an opinion’, rai – rhymes with eye – is ubiquitous in Algeria. Danceable, infectious and buoyed by synthesisers and drum machines, it pulses through windows, from car stereos, around markets and beyond. Lyrics in Arabic and French tell of the pain and joy of daily life, of betrayal and exile, lust and love. It’s hardly surprising, then, that rai turns conservative Islamic groups apoplectic. Cassettes have been confiscated at road blocks, performers threatened and worse. But for Algeria’s MTV-watching youth – the genre’s largest consumers – modern rai is as rebellious and compelling as American rap.

Rai originated in the 1930s in Oran, a metropolis then divided into Jewish, French, Spanish and Arab quarters. French colonisation saw these cultural influences mix with traditional Bedouin music and its flowery poetic singing, malhun. Many early rai singers were cheikhas – women who’d bucked Oran’s strict code of conduct and become entertainers and outcasts. The most infamous of these was Cheikha Rimitti. An illiterate, feisty orphan who sang of sex and poverty and recorded her first album in 1936, Rimitti (who drew a bird as an autograph) paved the way for singers such as the reggae-and-funk-loving Khaled. She died in Paris in 2006, aged 83, having performed just two days beforehand.

Mass migration into the cities of western Algeria plus the attendant world depression cemented rai as a genre – a blend of traditional Arabic elements, Western production and whatever else took its fancy. Back then rai appealed to an underclass eager to be heard, its chebs and chabas (young men and women) articulating their mehna (hardship and suffering).

Rai came into its own in the ‘70s and ’80s. Fadela’s outspoken 1979 hit ‘Ana ma h’lali ennoum’ gripped the country. Rachid Baba Ahmed threw in modern pop and became rai’s most important producer. The first state-sanctioned Rai Festival in Oran in 1985 marked its emergence as a nationally accepted genre. Then came civil war and encroaching fundamentalism. Cheb Hasni, the great star of rai love, was gunned down in Oran in 1994; Rachid Baba Ahmed was killed a few months later. Khaled, the King of Rai, whose song ‘El-Harba Wayn?’ became an anthem for protestors, left for Paris after death threats. Others followed suit; France (and Egypt) is now home to a wealth of Algerian musicians including rai (ish) rocker Rachid Taha; chaabi-rai innovator Bilal; and rai fusionist Cheb Mami, who recorded a duet, 2000’s ‘Desert Rose’, with Sting.

Second-generation Algerians including Faudel, the self-styled Prince of Rai, continue to make waves in Paris. The historic 1998 1,2,3 Soleil concert at Bercy stadium saw Khaled, Faudel and Rachid Taha (respectively the King, Prince and Rebel of Rai) entertain a 15,000-strong crowd; the excellent live album is released by Barclay. Rai continues apace in Algeria: Houari Dauphin, Hasni’s successor, is huge. Chebs and chabas and their older, more traditional equivalents, cheikhs and cheikhas, sing in clubs and cabarets, and at festivals including Oran each August. Their lyrics may be more benign than those of their exiled, politicised colleagues, but their music still combines the best of all worlds.

Must-have Albums

  • Sahra by Khaled (Polygram 1997)
  • 1,2,3 Soleil (Barclay France 1999)
  • Dellali by Cheb Mami (Ark 21 2001)
  • N’ta Goudami by Cheikha Rimitti (Because 2006)
  • Takitoi by Rachid Taha (Wrasse 2004)
  • Baida by Faudel (Ark 21 1997)
  • Lovers Rai by Cheb Hasni (Rounders Select 1997)


Although Algeria’s Tuareg have made few contributions to the desert blues music that has become a cause célèbre for world music fans in 2005 and beyond, the country does have a claim to fame in this regard. The celebrated Tuareg group Tinariwen hail from the remote Kidal region of northeastern Mali, but they spent much of the 1980s and 1990s in exile as famine and then rebellion raged in their homeland. Part of that exile was spent in Tamanrasset and later in Libya. It was there that the band members learnt to play the guitar and much international success has followed.

. . ‘Tin Hinan… definitely a name to watch out for’

Inspired by the success of groups such as Tinariwen and, more recently, Etran Finatawa from Niger, Tin Hinan is a young Algerian Tuareg group for whom critics are predicting great success and they’re definitely a name to watch out for.


Most discussions of Algerian painting centre around French artists, among them Delacroix, Renoir, Matisse and Fromentin, who visited Algeria in the 19th century or early 20th century and whose work was transformed by a new approach to light and colour as a result.

This Eurocentric view of Algerian art reflects the fact that French colonial rule in Algeria did little to provide education or support for local Muslim Algerian artists. One artist who emerged during the colonial period was Mohammed Racim (1896–1975), who began his career as a craftsman illuminator in the Casbah of Algiers and went on to become a celebrated artist at home and in France. After meeting a French patron of the arts at a workshop, Racim was commissioned to illustrate a lavish edition of Arabian Nights and the project enabled him to move to Paris where he lived for eight years. Developing his skill as a miniaturist, he made stirring if somewhat idealised representations of aristocratic Algiers.

However, it was not until after independence in 1962 that Algerian artists truly began to flourish, most notably those known as the ‘Generation of 1930’ – artists born in and around that year. One of the most celebrated was Baya Mahieddine (1931–98) who was born in Algiers and was adopted by a French couple at age five. Never taught to read or write, Baya, as she is best known as a painter, instead taught herself to paint using gouache on paper and held her first exhibition in France aged just 16. She came to the attention of such luminaries as André Breton and Pablo Picasso and her stellar career never looked back with exhibitions of vivid colours and abstract figures in Paris, Washington and Algiers.

Mohammed Khadda ( was another eminent Algerian abstract painter (1930–91) who emerged in the post-independence period after he, too, emigrated to Paris and worked under Picasso’s careful eye. In the euphoria of independence, he turned his back on the Western figurative tradition of fine arts in favour of representations of Arabic letters in creative calligraphic forms.

Other artists of note from the period include M’Hamed Issiakhem (1928–85) and Choukri Mesli (b 1930) who both learned their trade at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

More recent artists to take up Khadda’s calligraphic mantle include Majhoub ben Bella (b 1946) and Rachid Koraïchi (b 1947). Other painters representative of the post-independence period include Ali Silem (b 1947), Redha Chikh Bled (b 1949), Hamid Tibouchi (b 1951), Samta Benyahia (b 1949) and Akila Mouhoubi (b 1953), while Slimane Ould Mohand (b 1966), Philippe Amrouche (b 1966), Raouf Brahmia (1965–) and Kamel Yahiaoui (b 1966) are the great hopes for the next generation of Algerian art.

For an excellent overview of Algerian art and works by European Orientalist painters who visited Algeria, visit the Musée des Beaux Arts in Algiers.


The food you’re likely to eat as a traveller in Algeria is unlikely to live long in the memory. Couscous with a meat or vegetable sauce, salads, rotisserie chicken, pizza and vegetable or lamb stews will be your staples.

Meal times in Algeria are broadly similar to what you may be used to at home. Breakfast is eaten generally until 9am or 10am, while lunch can be any time from 1pm onwards. Dinner can begin any time between 6pm and 8pm, although it’s more likely to be the former.

In restaurants, etiquette is mostly identical to what you’d find back home. Many restaurants have separate family sections where unaccompanied men are not permitted. You should avoid eating with the your left hand. At home, Algerians usually spread out a plastic tablecloth atop a carpet on the floor and eat with their hands from a communal bowl. Prior to eating, the host will usually bring a jug of water, soap and a small plastic receptacle and will then proceed to pour so that each guest can wash their hands. At home, Algerian families eat together, but when guests arrive, men and women usually eat separately; Western women are generally considered honorary men and in such circumstances the traditional rules of segregation probably don’t apply. As the meal commences, many say ‘bismillah’ (a form of asking Allah to bless the meal). During the meal, the best morsels of meat will be gently pushed in the direction of an honoured guest. When sated, Algerians will say ‘al-hamdu lillah’ (thanks be to God) whereupon other diners will encourage the person to eat more; if the person truly has finished, someone will say ‘Saha, Saha’, meaning ‘good health’.

. . ‘when sated, Algerians say ‘al-hamdu lillah’ (thanks be to God)’

If you’re lucky, you may also come across tagine (a stew cooked in a ceramic dish of the same name), while seafood provides some muchneeded variety in the north. Grilled meats are also something of a recurring theme (in the south, it may be camel meat), while the Spanish rice dish paella makes a surprising (and downright welcome) appearance on a few menus in better restaurants. Eggplant salads are also something of an Algerian speciality, while the spicy harissa (a red-chilli paste) gives considerable zest to many dishes.

Like in most Middle Eastern and North African countries, vegetarianism is something of an alien concept for Algerians. Vegetarians should always specify their requirements as soon as they arrive in the restaurant (ask for bidoon laham, without meat). Although most restaurants are obliging and keen to make sure you don’t leave hungry, many won’t be able to offer more than bread, salad, French fries, plain rice and perhaps an omelette. Many soups are precooked and include meat as a matter of course; often no substitute is available.

Other dishes you won’t come across often, but you’ll be glad when you do, include harira (thick, rich soup with chickpeas, lentils, meat and coriander), merguez (spicy seasoned lamb or goat sausages), brik (a flaky, deep-fried envelope of pastry stuffed with all manner of things), chorba (vegetable soup with noodles and meat) and kefta (meatballs made from seasoned, minced lamb). In Oran, the local speciality of brannieh (stew of lamb or beef with courgettes and chickpeas) is definitely worth seeking out.

French-inspired dishes make an appearance in some top-end restaurants of the north, and a coffee and a croissant have become a typically Algerian way to start the day. Sweet pastries of myriad other descriptions are also popular.