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 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.
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.
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 res- ervations. 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.
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, be- coming 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 fun- damental 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.
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 them-selves 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 popu lation 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.
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 are 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.
The name ‘Berber’ has been attributed to a collection of communities by outsiders, but rarely, until recently, by the Berbers them selves. 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 cen- turies, many Berbers retreated into the mountain and desert redoubts which they continue to occupy. In Algeria, by far the largest concentra- tion 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.
The key touchstones of Berber identity are language and culture, al- though 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 (see the boxed text, p48). True to their reli- gious 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 semino- madic patterns, taking flocks to seasonal pasturelands.
Although Berber agitation for sweeping autonomy in Algeria is un- likely to be granted any time soon, recent years have seen an increase in Berber-language education in Berber areas and Tamazigh is now recog- nised 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
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 Tuareg traditionally followed a rigid status system with nobles, blacksmiths and slaves all occupying strictly delineated hierarchical po- sitions, 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, see the boxed text, p68.
Traditionally, Tuareg women are not veiled, enjoy a considerable degree of independence and play a much more active role in the organisa- tion 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 outsid- ers 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).
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 informa- tion on the changes to Tuareg life.
Although few remain, the pieds-noirs (singular: pied-noir) are crucial toany 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 ofFrench 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. 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 pieds- noirs’ 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.
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.