Wedding Tradition, Algerian Style

By Wassime Achkar

Wassime Achkar, a native of Algeria, tells about the traditions of marriage which are common to Arabs and Muslims.

Dreams of marriage often begin in childhood. The concept and rituals of marriage are instilled in people at a young age by family as well as society. This is as true in the Middle East as it is all over the world. Little girls and boys dress up and pretend to walk down the aisle, or create their own house out of building blocks. This kind of role-playing is a common thread that binds children from all nations.

In all Arab countries, religion garners great respect. The society is based on religion or customs that have religious acceptance. What is important for Moslems is to be respectable in the eyes of God. Rather than being proof of sexual ability, marriage is considered a sign of maturity because it cannot exist without responsibility and self control.

The Qur’an, the holy book of Islam, clearly indicates that marriage is something to be shared between men and women. It must be based on love and mercy. According to Islam, women cannot be forced to marry anyone without their consent. However, one's parents have as much say in who their children marry as the children. The children may have romantic visions, while their parents take a more practical approach. Certain qualities are expected in a spouse: respectability, honesty, a good family and a good education top the list.

Frequently, a man will go to his mother and tell her that he loves someone. The mother will ask her neighbors about the family. After being satisfied with this choice, the man’s family will visit the woman's family to ask for her hand in marriage. A respectable man will be accepted, but only after the acceptance of the woman. At that time, the parents will fix a date to go to the Mosque to mark the beginning of the engagement. At the mosque, the imam (ee’-mahm: a clergy person) will explain how both are required to follow the Islamic code of morals.

The engagement period is a time of great preparation, but the groundwork started before the young woman was grown when the mother begins discussing marriage with her daughter. During the engagement, parents buy gold, clothes, kitchen and household needs for the woman and wool to make mattresses for the man. These items are called a shoura (shur’-ah).

Marriage is a serious business for Arabs. The rights and responsibilities of both spouses are clearly defined. Husbands and wives have equal claims in marriage. Husbands are required to provide financial support and protection, but not allowed to be a dictator. The wife is required to take care of the children and make sure the house is running smoothly. Islam emphasizes the importance of making mutual decisions. This gives the family stability. Prior to the marriage the couple gets to know each other, exchange ideas and buy things for their house. The man will buy gifts for his bride and her mother as a sign of love and respect for her and her family.

Traditionally, the more money spent on a wedding, the prouder the family will be. Before the wedding there is a party at the bride's house where all the relatives work to meet the guests’ needs. Weeks before, women start to prepare many different kinds of desserts: baklava, makroud (mahk’-rood) and other sweet treats. The dinner will always include couscous with vegetables and meat. Men will sacrifice lambs to eat in celebration, and shourba (shur’-ba: tomato sauce and meat), chicken and salads are also served. The latitude of choice and multitude of food are testimony to the parents’ generosity; otherwise people would consider them stingy, which is shameful.

After the party, the bride leaves her parents’ house in a fancy car followed by other cars, including some which display her shoura. This shows all people how greatly she is loved by her family and husband. At the groom’s home, the bride sits in a specially decorated chair looking like a queen. She wears an elaborate wedding dress, heavy make-up, many jewels, and designs painted on her hands and feet with henna dye. Everyone dances and celebrates while approaching a sad farewell. Then the groom will come to the bride and, as they leave, women will cry tears of happiness and sadness. The couple will walk out together with all the guests cheering and yelling as they leave for their honeymoon.

Parents continue to have love and hope for their children’s lives, though their lives will be separate. These rituals are somewhat different, but the basic concerns are the same for all humans, regardless of religion or nationality.

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Greetings From Algeria

Tim and Charlotte Weiss were “sad to leave Algerian friends” in 1994. While friendships endure, life in Algeria has been an on-going tragedy.

By Tim and Charlotte Weiss

Greetings from Algeria. Our life here can best be described as some good, some bad and some ugly. It is very difficult to write in a casual way about what is happening. We’ve had some good times in Algiers, and almost everything about Algeria is interesting; however, it is also very sad and often frightening.

The political situation has deteriorated significantly. Hundreds of people have been killed in assassinations of one sort or another—pistols, knives, sawed-off shotguns, bombs and recently “foreigners” have become targets. We have been told that a small minority, “the Islamic fundamentalists,” are responsible for the terrorism. After three French were taken hostage in October and then released or liberated depending on the version of the story one reads, the foreign community was given notice by one of the terrorist groups to leave Algeria or else. The “grace period” expired on December 1, 1993. Almost immediately afterward a Spanish businessman, an Italian businessman, and then a Russian were killed.

There is sometimes logic to what is happening here, but often times there isn't. Anyone who enables the system to continue functioning can become a target – politicians, judges, police, professors, journalists, doctors, etc.

Until recently, another side has offset the awfulness of the violence and breakdown of society. The people we have met are welcoming and generous.

We, along with a few other Americans, were invited to a concert given by an orchestra which is preserving the classical music of Algeria. At least 30 orchestra members play traditional instruments based on a very old musical system. It's called “Musique Andalousse,” and many other musical traditions have been based upon it. Charlotte got to dance with an Algerian woman accompanied by the orchestra as Tim and all the other spectators were clapping to the rhythms. It was quite exciting. As usual, we were treated like royalty and were offered sweet tea and pastries during the concert. At the end, the musicians gave us cassettes of their music.

All the time we reveled in the fresh fruits and vegetables and feasted on figs, grapes, dates, tangerines, eggplant, tomatoes, etc. all of which have that “just-picked” taste. There is a beauty and a romance here, in spite of everything else.

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Reflections on My Algeria

By A.H.

More than seven years elapsed since the army shot the civilian demonstrators on a main plaza in Algiers. The shooting took place on the ground of “Shahat Echouhada”, the place with the symbolic name “The yard of the martyrs”.

When I left Algeria, the violent conflict was more than two years old. While the official count of the victims was around 10,000, independent sources estimate the death toll at 40,000 to 50,000. Despite this dark picture, I never lost hope in a future peaceful end. Therefore, I closely followed the news until I could no longer bear it without the risk of harming my mental and emotional sanity.

I left the country with my head full of terrible images we unfortunately became accustomed to in our daily life. Whether it was soldiers hunting a student on campus, the shooting of a woman in the opposite apartment building, the neighbor police officer killed in front of his house, another one assassinated at the bus stop, or the bombing of a campus facility, the list is so long. To this day all these images and many others are haunting my mind. The terrible reality is that these images became so familiar that people don't mention them anymore. They instead talk about the slaughtering of whole families in their homes and other atrocities.

Despite all these experiences, the permanent feeling of insecurity, the arrest and deportation of colleagues, acquaintances and friends, or the assassination of other co-workers, I used to stick to my daily routine, and avoided disturbing my work or my family life. When I look back to those days, I recall the terrible conditions I was living in yet my pain is infinitely greater now than it was when I lived there.

A couple years ago, I simply decided to ease my pain by eliminating the flow of the traumatic information I was accustomed to absorbing. I simply cannot bear it anymore.

At my last count of the people I knew well, either in the work place, in my neighborhood, or as close friends, I counted 24 killed or disappeared. None were police or soldiers, neither were they involved in any violent action. They are simply teachers, professors, medical doctors, or other professionals who were either deported or simply assassinated because of a real or assumed political opinion they possessed. They are teachers who dedicated their lives to their students and their families. They are medical doctors striving to save other lives. They are lawyers and civil servants enforcing a law that is no more respected by those who put it into existence. For my own sanity, I stopped counting at that time. I also discontinued reading about the Algerian conflict for the same reason.

Today the picture seems completely blurred. The depiction of the problem by the mainstream media turned into a simple reproduction of the official explanation. It alleges that the Algerian government is facing a fundamentalist threat, therefore, it deserves to be helped in that respect. Those who are unfortunate enough to bear the fundamentalist label are dehumanized. Whether it is on purpose or because of ignorance of the facts, this claim does not represent the reality of the problem.

Algeria was brought into a deep economic crisis under the effect of international changes, and because the governing class was corrupt and incompetent. The government transformed this economic crisis into a deadly civil war by making inappropriate political choices at crucial moments. The victims then are held responsible for the failure of a system they didn’t choose. The majority of the Algerian people are therefore twice punished. They are enduring the hardship of the economic crisis on one hand and the oppression of their government on the other hand. The Algerian people are subject to systematic killings that have taken away the lives of tens of thousands of people. In addition to this a wide range of persecution includes the deportation of other tens of thousands to the infamous camps of the desert.

I understand the legitimate concern of people who want to know, and especially hold in high esteem the nobility of purpose of those who want to know in order to help. The Habiba Chaouch Foundation belongs to this second category. I read in the Habiba newsletter that the purpose of this independent, non-profit organization is to further international understanding between Americans and Arabs. I fully support that purpose. One way to work toward this goal is simply to educate people regarding our reality. This dissipates, as much as possible, the prejudices that are damaging the image of the Arabs in the United States.

The Algerian people have no illusion about their fate. They certainly do not expect any miraculous solution from outside the country. That is why they have struggled to death for a genuine democracy that would allow all Algerians to participate fully in the political process without any tutelage, or exclusion of any type. The Algerian people have paid an expensive price for that, but they are standing and suffering with dignity.

A.H. remains in contact with family in Algeria.

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