Ghardaïa remains unchanged as major centre of Mozabite life
By Nazim Fethi for Magharebia in Algiers –29/09/06
In Ghardaïa, no beggars or thieves exist. Mozabite society is very tightly knit with such activities from business to studies and marriage all done through the community. Mozabites cling to the unique clothing, language, architecture, and lifestyle.
Wherever they are, Mozabites always have one foot in Ghardaïa. Whatever their social situation, they never sever their roots and actively contribute to the life of the community.
Ghardaïa was founded by the Mozabites over 1,000 years ago to provide shelter for their community after the fall of the Rustamid state. The village, 500 kilometres south of Algiers, was founded in the middle of a rocky desert. Other Mozabite towns from the era existing to this day include El Atteuf, Melika, Bounoura, and Beni Izguène.
The Mozabites are an Amazigh group with their own traditions, beliefs, rites and lifestyle. They belong to the Ibadi sect of Islam, which has a different way, praying, worshipping God and designing mosques from the majority of Algerians, who are Malikis. Mozabites are recognised by their traditional costume of saroual loubia (baggy trousers) and chéchia (head gear).
Ghardaïa is built in the same style and architecture as the other four main Mozabite villages in the Mzab valley. The layout is necessitated by the rocky hills of the region. The unique layout has a mosque at the top of the hill, businesses at the foot of the hill, a large market place where auctions are held, and labyrinthine alleyways.
The houses are built in such a way as to allow sunlight into each home without disadvantaging neighbours. For them, "Inhabitants of the house where sun comes in will never see a doctor". Chimneys are arranged so that smoke will never be released towards the neighbours.
Life in Mozabite towns is governed by rules that are strictly observed by all. All inhabitants, including those with business outside of the town, contribute to the maintenance and care of the community.
Conservative Mozabites keep their women jealously hidden away. House terraces openings are designed to allow women to see the outside world without being seen.
The only agricultural land, situated on the Oued, is exploited for the production of staple crops. The palm groves are also used for summer residences, as many families head seek to flee the unbearable summer desert heat.
Mozabite life is governed by the whims of the Oued. The Mzab valley suffers from drought and the scarce rainwater is used with great care. Mozabites invented a unique hydraulic system. A system of underground tunnels is used to capture rainwater and transfer it to the oases. The distribution system allows all gardens to receive the same amount of water. In addition, the system allows the town to escape flooding of the Oued.
The one thousand-year-old system is perpetuated from one generation to the next and fiercely guarded by the ouamanas, trustees appointed by the community to manage the city's affairs.
The Azzabas assembly, the wise decision-makers, looks over the city’s affairs and settles any litigation.
Mozabite life is governed by rules passed down from father to son and scrupulously respected by all. From his birth, a Mozabite is looked after by the community for education, work, marriage, and the building of a home. Touiza (groups of volunteers) are organised for building houses.
Mozabites are not restricted to the five towns and surrounding valley. Most Algerian towns have hardware shops run by Mozabites. They have created an industrial area on the edge of Ghardaïa where the majority of hardware items are produced.
Uncompromising in negotiations, Mozabites are also present in force in the financial sector, particularly banking and wholesaling.
Wherever they are, Mozabites have their own mosque, cemetery, recreation, sporting activities.
Ghardaïa, one of the most popular tourist sites in Algeria, attracts people for its sand dunes, oasis, unique architecture, and especially crafts. Mozabite rugs are well-known, along with other textile products such as burnous, traditional children's clothes, and souvenirs.
Other artisan products such as leather, copper and sand paintings have earned the Mzab valley a reputation as one of the most important craft areas in Algeria. A Ghardaïa market trader told Magharebia, "Our products are copied and sold as local products by our Tunisian neighbours to tourists, who snap them up."
Mozabites are peaceful people who do not like to reveal too much about themselves, especially to the press or tourists. While they are exempt from Algerian military service, they did rise up against the Islamic Salvation Front in 1991 to stop plundering of Mozabite town halls.
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