What traditions and customs are there in Algeria?
A review of the customs and traditions of the North African country, Algeria.
Food and economy
Food in daily life
The national dish of Algeria is couscous, steamed wheat semolina served with lamb or chicken, cooked vegetables and sauce. This is so basic to the Algerian diet that its Arabic name, ta’am, translates to “food.” Common flavors include onions, turnips, raisins, chick peas, and red bell peppers, as well as salt, pepper, cumin, and coriander.
Alternatively, couscous can be served sweet, flavored with honey, cinnamon or almonds. Lamb is also popular, and is often prepared outdoors and served with bread. This dish is called mechoui.
Other common foods are chorba, a spicy soup; the dolma, a mixture of tomatoes and peppers; and the bourek, an Algiers specialty consisting of minced meat with onions and fried eggs, rolled and battered. The traditional Berber food among the poorer people is a cake made from mixed grains and a drink mixed with crushed goat cheese, dates and water.
Strong black coffee and sweetened mint tea are popular, as are apricot or other sweetened fruit juices. Laban is also drunk, a mixture of yogurt and water with mint leaves for flavor. Algeria grows grapes and produces its own wine, but alcohol is not widely consumed as it is forbidden by the Islamic religion.
Food customs on ceremonial occasions
Religious holidays are often celebrated with special meals. For Muhammad’s birthday, a festival called Mouloud, dried fruit is a common delicacy.
During the month of Ramadan, Muslims refrain from eating and drinking during daylight hours. Each night the fast is broken with a family meal. Eid al-Fitr, the final breaking of the Ramadan fast, involves the consumption of large amounts of food, sweets and cakes in particular.
Marriages in Algeria are traditionally arranged by the couple’s parents or by a professional matchmaker. Despite its prevalence in Algeria, the influx of Western culture has had little influence in this area, as most marriages remain arranged.
It is considered not only the union of two individuals, but also of two families. The wedding celebrations last for days, including music, special sweets and ritual baths for the bride. The groom covers the expenses of the festivities.
Through a law passed in 1984, women gained the right to custody of their children and their own dowry. However, the law also considers women to be permanent minors, who need the consent of their husbands or fathers for most activities, including work outside the home.
The decision to divorce rests solely with the husband. It is still legally permissible, though rare, for men to have up to four wives, a code that is laid down in the Koran.
Greetings are long and include inquiries about health and family. Social interactions are much more common between members of the same sex than between men and women. Public displays of affection – touching, holding hands – between men and women are rare, but not between members of the same sex.
Algerians are known for their hospitality and generosity. Visits are a mainstay of social life, especially within the extended family circle. The host serves tea or coffee and sweets.
99% of Algeria is Sunni Muslim. There is also a small Jewish community, whose presence dates back centuries. Christianity has existed in Algeria since Roman times, but despite efforts (especially by French colonizers) for conversion, the number of Algerian Christians is very small.
Islam not only forms the basis of religious life in Algeria, it is also a unifying force (both within the country and with other Arab nations), creating for all believers a common ground that is both cultural and spiritual. Algerian Muslims are very respectful; the rural population tends to adhere more strictly to traditional practices.
There are also remnants of the indigenous Berber religion, which has been almost totally subsumed by Islam. Despite the opposition of the French colonizers and the Algerian government (which saw this religion as a threat to the unity of the country), there are still some organizations, called brotherhoods, that cling to their magical practices and ceremonies.
The term Islam means submission to God. It shares certain prophets, traditions, and beliefs with Judaism and Christianity, the main difference being the Muslim belief that Muhammad is the last prophet and the incarnation of God, or Allah.
The foundation of Islamic belief is called the Five Pillars. The first, the Shahada, is the profession of faith. The second is prayer, or Salat. Muslims pray five times a day; it is not necessary to go to the mosque, but the call to prayer resounds over every city or town from the minarets of the holy buildings.
Friday is the Muslim Sabbath, and the most important prayer of the week is the noon prayer on this day. The third pillar, Zakat, is the principle of almsgiving. The fourth is fasting, observed each year during the month of Ramadan, when Muslims refrain from eating and drinking during daylight hours.
The fifth pillar is the Hajj, the pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca in present-day Saudi Arabia, which every Muslim must undertake at some point in their life.
There are no priests or clergy in Islam. However, there are men called mufti, who interpret the Quran (the Muslim holy book) for legal purposes, as well as khatib, who read the Quran in mosques, and the imam, who leads prayers in mosques.
There are also the muezzins, who make the call to prayer. The Quran, more than any other religious leader, is considered the supreme authority, and has the answer to any question or dilemma one may have.
In the indigenous Berber religion, holy men, called marabouts, were believed to be endowed by God with special powers.
Rituals and Holy Places
The most important observance of the Islamic calendar is Ramadan. This month of fasting is followed by the joyous festival of Eid al Fitr, during which families visit and exchange gifts. Eid al-Adha commemorates the end of Muhammad’s Hajj.
The mosque is the Muslim house of worship. Outside the door are sinks, since cleanliness is a necessary prerequisite for prayer, demonstrating humility before God. You also have to take off your shoes before entering the mosque. According to Islamic tradition, women are not allowed to enter.
The interior does not have an altar, it is simply an open and carpeted space. Because Muslims must pray facing Mecca, there is a small niche carved into the wall that indicates which way the city is facing.
Death and afterlife
Death is marked by a visit to the family of the deceased. Family members dress in black. Death is also mourned in a broader and more communal way as part of the Islamic New Year celebration, called Ashura. Muslims mark the passing of the old year by going to cemeteries to commemorate the dead.
New Year 1st of January; Labor Day, May 1; Remembrance Day (anniversary of the overthrow of Ahmed Ben Bella), June 19; Independence Day, July 5; Anniversary of the outbreak of the revolution, November 1.
Arts and Humanities
During the French regime, Algerian culture was largely suppressed in an attempt by the colonizers to substitute their own. However, since independence, the government has made an effort to strengthen Berber, Arab and Islamic culture by giving money to open craft centers and encouraging the traditional arts of carpet, pottery, embroidery and jewelry making.
The National Institute of Music revives the music, dance and folklore of ancient Arab and Moorish traditions. There is also a national film company that produces the majority of Algerian films.
Algeria counts among its literary stars both French writers who lived and wrote in Algeria (for example, Albert Camus and Emmanuel Robles) and native Algerians, some of whom have chosen to write in the colonial language (such as playwright Kateb Yacine)., and others in Arabic or Berber dialects.
One of the advantages of writing in French is that it allows books to be published in France and then distributed both in France and in Algeria. The choice to write in Arabic or Berber, however, is often an act of national pride, and creates a different audience for the work. Many Algerian writers draw on both the influence of European literature and the ancient Arab tradition of storytelling.
Traditional crafts include knotted and woven rugs made from wool or goat hair; basket weaving; ceramics, silver jewelry; intricate embroidery; and brass items.
Algerian films have recently been awarded, both in the country and abroad. Many of them are dramas and documentaries dealing with themes of colonialism, revolution and social issues. Director Mahmed Lakhdar Hamina won the Cannes Film Festival award in 1982 for his film Desert Wind.
Algerian music and dance follow the Arab tradition. These forms of expression were suppressed during the French regime, but today they are experiencing a revival.
Arabic music is tied to the tradition of storytelling and often tells stories of love, honor and family. Technically, it’s repetitive and subtle. He uses quarter notes and makes small jumps in the scale. The traditional instruments are the oud (Arabic lute), a stringed instrument similar to the lute; small drums held in the lap; and the rhita, or reed flute.
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