LOCATION: western north Africa (the Maghrib)
POPULATION: 28 million
LANGUAGE: Arabic; Berber; French
RELIGION: Islam (Sunni Muslim)
Algeria is one of the countries forming the Maghrib (the western part of north Africa). Its known history can be traced as far back as 30,000 BC . The original inhabitants of the area were called Maghrib. They later became known as Berbers.
The invasion of Arab Muslims (people who practice the religion of Islam) between AD 642 and 669 led to conversion of the Berbers to Islam. The Muslim Ottoman Empire, based in present-day Turkey, spread its influence over northern Africa (including what is today Algeria). The Ottomans protected the region from invasion by the major European powers until the nineteenth century.
In 1830, France invaded Algeria. The French annexed Algeria (claimed the country as part of their territory) and turned it into a colony. The people were forced to leave their land, and it was sold at low prices to immigrants from France and other European countries. In spite of uprisings by the Algerian people, France retained control of Algeria through both World War I (1914–18) and World War II (1939–45).
In 1954, the Algerians began a bloody war for independence that lasted almost a decade. Nearly a million people were killed between 1956 and 1962, one-tenth of the Algerian population. Finally, a French withdrawal was negotiated, and Algeria was declared an independent nation on July 5, 1962.
Different factions within Algeria have continued to fight for political and social freedom, even after their country gained independence from France. In 1988, the government allowed new political parties to form, and the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was born. FIS preached a return to traditional Islamic values and quickly grew in popularity. The government was afraid that FIS would win the elections and decided to cancel the elections in 1991 and exiled (sent out of the country) 10,000 FIS members. In response, a civil war erupted. As many as 30,000 Algerians are believed to have died in the war between the country's military rulers and those who opposed them. As of the late 1990s, there continue to be violent conflicts between the government and its opposition.
Algeria is located in north Africa on the Mediterranean Sea. The north is relatively fertile and mountainous. The south includes part of the Sahara desert. In all, more than four-fifths of the country is desert.
Algeria has a population of almost 28 million people. Most people in Algeria live in urban areas. The desert regions are almost completely uninhabited.
Arabic is the national language of Algeria. Because of 130 years of French domination, the French language is also widely understood. Algerians speak their own Arabic dialect (variation on a language) that includes many slang terms from French. The dialect also includes many Berber words, including place names and names of plants.
Many Arabic expressions used in Algeria are religious in nature. When promising to do something, an Algerian Muslim says, Insha Allah (If God wills it). Before any action, a religious Muslim will say Bismillah (In the name of God).
Common Algerian female names are Nafisa, Aysha, and Farida. Common male names are Abd al-Haq, Hamid, and Abd al-Latif.
Most folklore in Muslim countries concerns important figures in religious history, such as Muhammad. One such story describes an event known as al-Isra wa al-Miraj. The Prophet Muhammad is said to have traveled at night from Mecca in Saudi Arabia to Jerusalem in Israel. From there, he rode his wondrous horse, al-Burak, on a nocturnal (nighttime) visit to heaven.
Algeria has many legends based on the exploits of Muslim leaders called marabouts who either resisted the Crusaders (Christian soldiers) or the French colonizers. They are believed to have baraka, a blessing or divine grace, that allowed them to perform miracles. Their burial sites are destinations of pilgrimages (religious journeys). Many regard marabouts as saints.
The overwhelming majority of Algerians are Muslims. Muslims are followers of the religion known as Islam. The practice of Islam, however, varies. Most Algerians belong to the Sunni school of Islam, which was brought to Algeria by the original conquering Arabs.
Islam has five "pillars," or practices, that must be observed by all Muslims: (1) praying five times a day; (2) giving alms, or zakat, to the poor; (3) fasting from dawn to dusk during the month of Ramadan; (4) making the pilgrimage (religious journey), or hajj, to Mecca; and (5) reciting the shahada ("Ashhadu an la illah ila Allah wa ashhadu in Muhammadu rasul Allah" ). This phrase means, "I witness that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is the prophet of Allah."
Algeria celebrates both secular (nonreligious) and Muslim holidays. The two major Muslim holidays are Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha. Eid al-Fitr is a three-day celebration that takes place after the month of fasting called Ramadan. Eid al-Adha commemorates the willingness of Abraham to obey God's command and sacrifice his son, Isaac. People making a pilgrimage (religious journey) are expected to sacrifice a goat or sheep and offer the meat to the poor.
Muslims celebrate their religious holidays by going to the mosque for group prayers. Afterward, they return home to large meals with family and visiting relatives. They also exchange gifts on religious holidays.
Algerian secular holidays include New Year's Day (January 1); Labor Day (May 1), which commemorates worker solidarity around the world; and Independence Day (July 5). Most businesses, banks, and government offices are closed on these holidays.
Algerian families celebrate births, baby-namings, male circumcisions, and weddings. Weddings are joyous affairs paid for by the groom's family. The celebration lasts several days. After days of singing and eating, the bride and groom are united in marriage. Their union is followed by another week of celebrations.
Algerians shake hands during greetings. It is common for good friends of the same sex to kiss each other on the cheek. Religious men and women do not shake hands with persons of the opposite sex.
Most socialization revolves around the family. Guests are treated with great hospitality and are served pastries and sweets.
Algerian men and women do very little socializing together. The sexes are separated at most gatherings. Dating is not allowed, and marriages are arranged by the families or by matchmakers.
Algerian houses and gardens are surrounded by high walls for privacy. Inside, most homes have a central, open area or patio surrounded by the rooms of the house. Homes have a receiving room, kitchen, bathroom, bedrooms, and, if the family is wealthy, a second patio. The outside of the house is usually whitewashed brick or stone.
Algeria has a severe housing shortage. It is common for more than one family to live together in the same house.
Over a century of French rule and the long Algerian war for independence led to a breakdown of the traditional extended family unit. Before the French began to occupy their country, Algerians lived with their extended families in tightly knit communities. A mother and father would live in one home with their children, including grown sons and their wives. The grandparents would usually live with them. If a daughter became divorced or widowed, she, too, would live with the family. Children were raised by the entire extended family.
Beginning in the mid-1800s, French rule led to changes in the family unit. In cities, the nuclear family became more common as wealthier Algerians began to imitate the lifestyle of the French colonizers.
The war for independence changed the role of women in Algerian society. Women were actively involved in military battles and other political activities. After the war, women held on to much of the freedom they had gained during the war. Algerian women can vote and run for office.
Many Algerians, especially in the cities, dress in modern Western-style clothing. Many others, however, dress in traditional clothes. Village men wear a burnous (a long, hooded robe) and baggy pants. Women wear a haik (a long piece of cloth draped over the entire body and head). The hijab (a long, loose dress and hair covering) is an Islamic garment worn by many women.
Couscous, Algeria's national dish, is made from steamed semolina wheat. The wheat is formed into tiny particles that can be combined with other ingredients to make a main course. Couscous can be served surrounded by meat, such as lamb or chicken, or mixed with vegetables. Algerians enjoy combining three favorites: couscous, meat, and fruit.
Adapted from Walden, Hilaire, North African Cooking. Edison, N.J.: Chartwell Books, 1995.
Spices are used generously in Algerian cooking, especially cumin, coriander, and cinnamon. Dried fruits are also a favorite, both in main courses and desserts.
Pork and alcoholic beverages are forbidden by the laws of Islam. Algeria does, however, produce wine for export to Europe.
Children between the ages of five and fifteen are required by law to attend school. After that, they choose general, technical, or vocational secondary education. Before they graduate from secondary school, teenagers take exams to determine what kind of college or university they may attend.
In 1962, when Algeria won its independence from France, only 10 percent of Algerians were literate (could read and write). Education has since been supported by the Algerian government. As a result, in 1990, nearly 60 percent had achieved literacy.
One of the most famous French-language Algerian writers is Albert Camus (1913–60), an essayist, playwright, and novelist. In 1957, Camus won the Nobel Prize for literature.
About one-third of Algerian workers are employed in industrial jobs. Algerian laborers manufacture electronics, building materials, plastics, fertilizer, paper, clothing, leather goods, and food products. Another 30 percent are farm workers, mostly on small, privately owned farms. Algerians who do not find work at home often find employment in Europe, especially in France. As of the late 1990s, many Algerian workers lived in Europe.
Most women who work outside the home hold jobs such as secretary, teacher, nurse, and technician.
Algeria's national sport is soccer, known as "football." Soccer is popular as both a spectator and a participant sport. In cities, boys play outside housing developments. Algeria has a national soccer team that participates in matches held by the African Football Confederation. Algerians also enjoy horseback riding and swimming. Clubs that specialize in water activities are found along the Algerian coast of the Mediterranean Sea.
Algerians are beach-goers. Swimming, water-skiing, and tennis are offered at Mediterranean resorts that are popular with Algerians of the middle class. The country has movie theaters, but not enough of them to meet the demands of its population. In most cities and villages, there are few swimming pools, and almost no Western-style dance halls and clubs. Television shows are produced in both Arabic and French.
Algerian handicrafts include rugs, pottery, embroidery, jewelry, and brass. Handwoven baskets are sold at suqs (markets) and used by customers to carry the goods they purchase.
The greatest problems facing Algeria today stem from the civil war. Tens of thousands of civilians (people not in the military) have been murdered by both sides in the conflict. A side effect of political violence is that buildings, roads, parks, and other structures are either destroyed. The civil war has also distracted citizens and building owners from taking care of their property, so many parts of the country are becoming run-down from lack of attention.
In the capital, Algiers, certain districts are controlled by the military, and the rest are run by the resistance. Neither side has the time or interest to maintain roads and buildings.
Between 1962 and 1992 there were significant improvements in women's rights, human rights, and education. By the mid-1990s, these causes were forgotten as the political conflict heated up.
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Kagda, Falaq. Algeria. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1997.
Metz, Helen Chapin, ed. Algeria: A Country Study. Washington, D.C.: Federal Research Division, Library of Congress, 1993.
Walden, Hilaire. North African Cooking: Exotic Delights from Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, and Egypt. Edison, N.J.: Chartwell Books, 1995.
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