Click on a button to go directly to a specific question. From there, you can scroll down to the next question, or scroll down this page to see each question in successive order from the beginning.
Algerian Culture Questions
Describe the people who live in Algeria
99% of Algeria’s population are Sunni Muslims of Berber heritage. The other 1% is taken up by Christians and Jews, but they are few and scattered throughout the nation. There are no existing tribal ancestries aside from the Berbers, who, although Muslims, do not consider themselves Arabs. The Berber people are the main ethnic group in Algeria today, either by direct lineage or partial heredity. Most people in Algeria are of Berber descent, or at least can trace a small degree of their heritage back to Berber ancestry, whether they know it or not. The Berber people, indigenous to Northern Africa, were quick to convert to Islam. In Algeria, most of the Berber-Muslims are Sunnis. The wide-spread Berber heritage along the Northern Sahara region varies from area to area, because a Berber is a Berber by a linguistic heritage. There are between 14 and 25 million people who speak a Berber language. However, this figure states “Berber language” in a very broad sense. There are dialects and languages exclusive to every community, but the prominent Berber language in Algeria is Tamazight, of which many local dialects exist. The national language of Algeria is Arabic, but the second most spoken language is French, followed by many Berber dialects.
Describe the ethnic relations within Algeria. Have the diverse communities gotten along or has the ethnic differences led to conflict and violence?
The relatively unanimous religious identity is one of the reasons why inter-racial disputes and religious wars between separate sects have never been an issue in Algeria. However, among the Sunni Muslim and Berber populations, there has been much dissention between both the Government and Islamic radicals and the Berber people. The Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), a group dedicated to radical Islam, has caused a lot of political disputes, and sometimes, as in the case of the civil war in the last decade, these disputes have been taken beyond politics and into military action. The Berbers have been slightly less of a burden to the Algerian government, although their demands for autonomy have occasionally known to become violent. Most of the Berber communities that cause these problems are secluded in the mountainous regions of Algeria. The government, unwilling to fully reconcile, has made promises to teach Berber languages in public schools as a way of sedating the Berber protesters.
Select one of the ethnic groups and describe some of their religious beliefs.
The Berbers are one of the principal ethnic groups in Algeria. The Berber, who have lived in Northern Africa for centuries, are almost exclusively Sunni Muslims. Their wide-spread culture and demographic distribution makes them fairly commonplace in their environments, and their religious beliefs are fairly consistent between different communities. In fact, their religious practice rarely differs significantly from other Berbers around north Africa or even other Sunni Muslims. They believe in Allah being the sole deity, and they believe that Muhammad is his prophet. They believe that there should be an umma, or unified Muslim community, that is lead politically by a leader called a caliph. This caliph would only rule on political issues, but not religious ones. Sunni belief differs from the Shi’ite Muslims, who believe that the caliph is a descendent of Muhammad and should be a religious imam, or leader of community prayer, in addition to a political ruler.
Describe several customs of the ethnic group you have selected. The customs can be related to marriage, birth, funeral, or any other aspect of life. Be sure to be as specific as possible.
The Berber people, when not protesting exclusionary government and Algeria’s political dynamic, are very hospitable. One of the major cultural values of the Berbers is to be very welcoming to guests and travelers, even those who don’t speak a word of the local language. Various anthropologists have noted that when going through a Berber village, they are beckoned to come and sit in the homes of all the villagers, even if the people are too poor to offer anything more than stale bread and sour goat’s milk. It is customary for Berbers to kiss one’s hands and fingertips when introduced for the first time, as it is a sign of respect. This greeting custom is testimony to the high cultural emphasis on etiquette and hospitality among the Berber people. Ironically, the word Berber was the title assigned to the people by the Romans over 16 centuries ago, meaning “barbarians”. Despite this misleading nomenclature, the Berbers are customarily very gracious towards guests as it is a cultural value.
Poverty, hunger, and draught are among the characteristics of this sadly humble culture. They are rooted in their land and agricultural practices, working whatever arable plots they can and barely producing more than what is absolutely necessary at the best. The Berbers have an amazing work ethic. Daily life is governed by work, and only on special occasions is it permissible to not be working. In such a society, their lives are so dominated by work that the farming occupation eclipses even recognition of time. People are unaware of how old they are, and keep no record of years, hours, etc. when referring to how old they are. Time is irrelevant. Work is the primary aspect of life for Berbers.
On the other hand, matrimony is one of the few occasions in the community that takes Berbers away from their work. Wedding celebrations are very involved and are generally done on a large scale; mass ceremonies are the general practice. Up to twenty couples are married at one time at a village-wide ceremony that lasts about four days. On the first day, the grooms will ride donkeys to the houses of the bride’s family. With them, the men will carry a bag of clothing for the bride to wear. He will greet the bride’s family and relay the sack of clothes for them to give to the woman; it is customary for the men to not give anything directly to his wife until the marriage is deemed official. On the second day, the men and women prepare to be wed. The women dress themselves in the clothing they were given, which includes elaborate dresses, jewelry, and veils over their faces. They are ridden to the ceremony on the backs of donkeys. Upon arrival, the men greet their wives, and after the third day, which includes the religious proceedings and ceremonial consecration of the union between the men and their wives, the fourth day is spent at a party, where large dances with all the guests take place, lasting for hours at a time. The process is very long and involved, as it is one of the most important customs in local Berber village society.
Another occasion that is highly celebrated through the practice of traditions is the coming of the new year, known as Yennayer. The Berbers, who are plagued with poverty and low living standards, celebrate the new year in hopes of bringing prosperity, good health, and affluence. They are very superstitious when it comes to their customary practices. Green plants, such as olive, palm, and carob tree branches are picked, as well as fennel and rosemary, are picked and hung on the terraces of homes as a way of asking for agricultural success. Women break down their old clay ovens and use stones for structural support for a new one that is fashioned in the old one’s place. With the new stove, the women of the household make a dinner of a wheat based, rice-like food that is similar to couscous, and mix in seven kinds of vegetables as the traditional dinner. A date stone is placed in the serving bowl, and whoever gets the serving with the stone is granted good fortune for the year to come. This is similar to the “king’s cake” tradition in Europe to commemorate the Epiphany, when a statue of Jesus or a saint is baked into a cake, and the lucky person who gets the slice with the statue gets a gold crown to wear. Once the meal is over, the owner of the home goes outside to his flock of sheep, and calls to them. If he can summon them, or get a vocal response, it will be a great year. If not, he calls to his cattle. If the cattle respond, it will just be a good year. If no response is heard, he calls the goats, and if a response is elicited from the goats, then it will just be a mediocre year. If no noise is heard, the year will be filled with misfortune.
Select five examples of national art for description.
Algeria’s history goes back farther than many surviving cultures, no matter how ancient, can still attest to through their values and practices. Algeria’s first inhabitants go back to Neolithic times. About 8000 years ago, these people, who were mostly nomadic hunters and primitive sorts of people, began making rock paintings on the walls of their caves, depicting what their daily lives entailed: hunting game and following herds. Today, these cave paintings are the most famous examples of Algerian paintings, and are the most visited tourist attractions for art in the country, acting as makeshift museums. One such painting is shown below.
Algeria, being a rich mix of Arab and Berber culture, is famous for it’s intricate designs in hand-woven rugs that are emulated all around the world. Soft, hand made fabrics are dyed with natural coloring to make vibrant rugs. Berber and Moorish carpets are a global symbol of artwork originating from Northern Africa, and some of the largest cultural centers for these ethnic groups are located in Algeria.
Moorish women making Arab carpets, Algiers, Algeria
Ornate jewelry from Algeria that is crafted using old-fashioned, primitive techniques is another famous example of Algerian-Berber artisan goods. Enameled necklaces that utilize local corals and Saharan stones are well-known examples of art from Algeria, and specifically the Berber people that inhabit the areas from which these goods are sourced.
Algerian blacksmiths specialize in copper and brassware. Although not generally used for practical purposes, the intricate metallurgy designs made by belas, or Algerian smiths, are fashioned into decorative and religious items. The blacksmiths work generally in silver, copper, glass, agate, brass, and various reclaimed metals, but never use gold, as Algerians superstitiously believe that gold is an unlucky metal with which to work.
Again, famous examples of Algerian art come in the form of Berber and Moorish artisan goods. Pottery and ceramics are handmade in simple kilns, and then painted using natural-made paints and dyes, applied manually by the fingers of the women who make them. This advanced and meticulous way of “finger-painting” pottery is a prized example of Algerian art made by indigenous artisans and fine craftsmen.