CHRIS KUTSCHERA 40 YEARS of JOURNALISM (Texts and Photos)

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ALGERIA: The changing world of Mzab

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View of Beni Isguen “Here, it is the mosque which runs everything. The only law is the law of the Prophet and of the holy Quran, and not the law of the nation or any other law”, says a shaikh of Beni Isguen.

Of all the Ibadite cities of the Mzab, Beni Isguen has been least touched by assimilation with the wider Algerian society. This small city of 6.800 inhabitants, protected by high walls, still preserves institutions unique in the Islamic world.

The Ibadites were part of the first schismatic sect in Islam, the Kharijites, who rejected the Quranic procedure of takhim (arbitration) after the battle of Siffin (AD658) between the Prophet’s cousin Ali and Muawiya, governor of Syria. Today the Ibadites survive in Oman, where they make up the majority of the population, and in parts of the Maghreb.

Abdullah ibn Rustum, an Ibadite of Iranian origin, set up an “empire” in Kairouan in the 8th century, but its descendants have dwindled to two small communities, on the island of Jerba in Tunisia and in the Mzab, on the edge of the southern Algerian desert.

Institutions unique in the islamic world

Beni Isguen’s “council of religious affairs” (halka azzaba) includes the 12 key men of a community which sought refuge in this wadi almost 1.000 years ago to preserve its faith and its way of life. These men are the imam, the muezzin, the fuqqara -- who teach in the madrassa and in the mahat (lycée) -- the five men who wash the dead and the two treasurers.

Market Square, GhardaiaThe council of social affairs (halka doman) includes a representative of each clan (ashira) and deals with the material affairs of a community which attaches great importance to the knowledge of family trees. In Beni Isguen, the oldest clan, settled at the highest point in the city, near the watchtower, comes from a Berber family from Tafilet. Other clans claim they descend from Persian families.

In Ibadite society, women are completely separated from men, spending most of their lives in their houses, while the men virtually live in their shops. The women have their own council, which includes the “timsiridines” -- the women who wash the dead.

A federal council (Majlis Ami Said) unites the representatives of the eight Ibadite cities of the Mzab: Al-Ateuf, founded in 1.012, Bou Noura (1.046), Ghardaia (1.048), Beni Isguen (1.347), Melika (1350), and two  other cities founded more recently -- Guerara (1631) and Berriane (1.690). The eight town, Ouargla, has only a minority of Ibadite inhabitants.

All details of life are ruled by Islamic law

This federal council represents an “Islamic government” unique today. All the details of the Ibadites’ daily life are ruled by this Islamic government, from the weight of gold given as a dowry to a woman (maximum 60 grams) to the length of wedding celebrations (three days).

Only men stroll in market squareAlcohol is forbidden; so is smoking. A woman who goes out in the street must be totally hidden under her veil (haik) with only her left eye peeping through a small hole.

Infringement of the rules is punished under the tabriya, which ranges from a kind of quarantine to exile. The latter was a deadly sentence in the old days when an Ibadite was expelled from the oasis in which these cities lie into the surrounding desert. But even today the quarantine punishment can blight a person’s life. If he comes to the mosque, people walk away from him; and if he refuses to apologise for his offence, he is expelled from the mosque.

If he goes to a shop, he is not served; if he is a merchant, people don’t buy from him; if he marries, no one will attend his wedding; and when he dies, the council of elders forbids the washing of his body.

But if the power of the tabriya  was absolute when the Ibadites lived in virtual isolation, things have changed dramatically since oil was discovered in Hassi Messaoud in 1958 and gas in Hassi R’mel in 1980.

These small cities of the Mzab have now become commercial centres at the crossroads of southern Algeria. Thousands of Bedouin and Algerians from the north have settled between Beni Isguen, Ghardaia and Melika.

Thus the Ibadites are exposed to many new temptations to break the old rules and, if they do, they can now find a refuge in the “foreign” community which today makes up almost half the population of the Mzab.

When asked about the future of their community, Ibadites offer conflicting opinions. Some are quite optimistic, claiming that “what has been living for 1.000 years, sometimes in the face of dramatic crises, will not be destroyed in 20 years”. “When I was a child”, says a shaikh of Beni Isguen, “there were already people who used to smoke secretly. Today it is the same thing. As long as people hide themselves, there is hope; if there were no more tabriya, it would be the end of the world”.

Others display a pessimism which the facts seem to justify. “We should not speak of an erosion of our traditional values”, says a teacher, “we should be brave enough to look at the situation as it is. We should speak of the destruction of Mzabite society”.

With the discovery of oil and gas came outsiders with new values. “In the old days, trade was the affair of all”, says an Ibadite intellectual. “It was the whole city which would organise a caravan, and the profits were divided between all the citizens. Later on, it still took a lifetime to make a fortune in trade, and with this money one could only live a decent life after retirement. Today, people build huge fortunes in a short time, individually, apart from the community”.

Just as cement and iron are taking the place of the traditional building materials of Mzabite architecture, so, little by little, the moral values of the Ibadites, especially the emphasis on social equality, are being eroded by the conviction that everything which represents progress, power, art and culture can come only from the West.

Leading a small group of tourists to the watchtower of Beni Isguen, Muhammad Kerim, once a student at the Islamic university of Zitouna in Tunis, now an official guide to the Mzab, has an argument with a young boy who rides a motorcycle up the narrow street along the city wall, despite a prohibition against riding cycles inside the city.

Muhammad Kerim mutters against these youths, and against the changes they bring. “I have three television sets at home”, he says. “I never watch TV. My daughters-in-law and my sons bought them”. Showing his white beard (he is a little under 80), he adds: “Despite my old age, I am no longer the boss at home”.

(The Middle East magazine, December 1983)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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