While traveling is not feasible during the coronavirus pandemic, a strong imagination can take us anywhere we want. The casbah (citadel) of Algiers offers a meaningful way to reflect on the Ramadan traditions of the pre-colonial Maghrib.
Before the arrival of the French and even under their rule, women scrubbed the walls of their house and tied raffia— fiber from palm tree leaves— to the end of their broom handles to remove dust and cobwebs in preparation for the holy month. Each woman took her dala (turn) to “clean the communal spaces that [had] been assigned to her, such as the roof-terrace, stairs, galleries, lavatory(ies), courtyard and entrance hall.” Men used imported lime to preserve the whiteness of the terrace, and the general exterior was also wiped down with alum powder and pieces of prickly pears for brightening. Families stocked up on non-perishable foods.
Before the invention of gas-lit stovetops, dishes simmered in clay pots over a charcoal fire. A wellspring of sumptuous dishes populates the table, including but certainly not limited to: shorba, a hearty soup prepared with mutton or lamb, bourek, a crispy pastry filled with meat and cheese, and lḥam laḥlou, an unctuous tagine made with raisins, dried prunes, and garnished with seasonal fruit. Fast is broken with dates and this sweet dish, believed to herald a month of health, joy, and peace of mind.
The quarters of the casbah were not only places teeming with the hubbub of piety. The marketplace was the center of urban life. Traders competed, the scent of jasmine filled the air, and fishmongers decorated their stands with aromatic plants and herbs to entice potential customers. For many casbah households the first eight evenings were spent with immediate family and neighbors, but by the second week of Ramadan, outings and invitations began.
The game of būqālah was a traditional pastime of female Algerian city dwellers, and kept the long Ramadan evenings lively. Būqālah—which means both water pitcher and poem—was a linguistic game that required players to either learn or improvise polysemic poems, each of which was four to ten lines or longer. They were transmitted orally by the women of Algiers in vernacular Arabic (Darja), while the būqālah pitcher twirled in their hands. They were “structured, formulaic lines made to be familiar and easy to remember”, and in Ramadan were a form of entertainment as clever riddles. Under the full moon in the casbah after isha prayer, elderly women recited verses of love, death, and desire. They filled their spaces with the pleasant aromas of aloe wood, coriander, and incense.
The pitcher was passed over a fire, and then filled with water and covered with a scarf. The orator invites the participants to put a personal item inside the pitcher, like a brooch, earring, bracelet, or hairpin. As she recites a poem, she tells each woman to tie a knot in their scarves or handkerchiefs as they thought of a person. An assistant reaches into the pot, retrieves an item and asks who it belongs to. The poem was dedicated to whomever the owner was thinking of. One can imagine that some nights were spent making dua for fulfilling marriages. One poem tells the story of a girl, who hopes to get engaged after attending her brother’s nikkah:
يدي في يد خويا
و يد خويا بالحناء
و اليوم سعادو هو
و غدوا أنا نتحنى
My brother’s hand in mine
decorated with henna
Today it is his day of happiness
Tomorrow it will be mine
The month continued to be characterized by family visits and qaadat (“sittings”) around an Andalusian music orchestra while sipping coffee sprinkled with ma zhar (orange blossom water) accompanied by pastries like khobz el bey, zlabiya, honey maqrout, baqlawa, qalb el louz, and other sweets. After taraweeh, men bonded in cafes over mint tea and played dominoes or cards. The streets were lit with oil lamps.
Before modern technology, people stood on their rooftops to see if the imam of the Great Mosque hoisted up two flags at the top of the minaret. A white flag announced that ftour (iftar) was approaching, and a few minutes later, he would lower it to raise a green flag, officially indicating it was time to break fast. From the 1940s onward, a cannon was used in place of the adhan. The inhabitants sang a litany:
ادن ادن يا شيخ باش يضرب المدفع
هو يعمل بم بم
و انا نعمل هم هم
هو ما يضربش و انا ما ناكولش
Call, Call us to prayer oh Shaykh so the cannon can blow
The cannon goes “Boom, boom”
And I go “Yum yum”
It doesn’t fire, I do not eat
In the 1980s, the month preceding Ramadan was dedicated to repainting the casbah, maintaining the city’s allegiance to its nickname, “White Algiers.” Kahina Amal Djiar writes “With the arrival of ‘newcomers’ into the medina, the management of these traditional houses has apparently become increasingly difficult.” Long-time casbah householders have remained faithful to the practice but new inhabitants, it is said, feel less constrained by custom, leading to tensions and quarrels and eventual neglect of tradition.
In 1990, El ‘Asima (“the capital”) sung by Abdelmajid Meskoud in the chaabi genre became a popular Ramadan melody. It laments the loss of an idealized, earlier Algiers. Meskoud blames those with no values to have ruined the city of Sidi Abd al-Rahman al-Tha’alibi, the author of over 100 books covering nearly all aspects of the Islamic sciences and founder of the Tha’alibiyya school that attracted students from all over the world to Algiers, and Sidi Muhammad Bu Qobrin, the founder of the Rahmaniyya school and one of the seven patron saints of Algiers. Sidi Abd al-Rahman travelled to many places for the pursuit of knowledge, but upon his return from hajj he settled back in Algeria after 20 years. It is said that while walking in the streets of the casbah, he heard a young man recite verse 34:15 of the Quran,
كُلوا مِن رِزقِ رَبِّكُم وَاشكُروا لَهُ ۚ بَلدَةٌ طَيِّبَةٌ وَرَبٌّ غَفورٌ
Eat from the provisions of your Lord and be grateful to Him. A good land [have you], and a forgiving Lord. [The Qur’an, 34:15]
He was moved and decided to never leave Algiers again. Today, some corners of the casbah struggle to breathe under piles of litter. The Sidi Abd al-Rahman mausoleum was closed during Ramadan in 1995 for renovations, and some organizations have recently tried to clean the historic narrow streets.
But not enough persistent efforts have been made and the casbah continues to crumble. Neither war nor settlers were able to disturb Ramadan traditions, yet many have died out under the bearings of modernity. The merchants who used to offer a thousand and one candies to kids passing by are gone. The descendants of great shoemakers now own impersonal convenience stores. The tacky posters that cover every inch of the storefront walls look like they haven’t been removed for decades. On Eid, boys do not wear a bernous passed down from their forefathers, but instead new counterfeit Lacoste shirts.
However, not all is lost. People still gravitate toward the open esplanades at night to socialize and bask in fresh air, restaurants in historic riads hold onto an authentic Algeroise ambiance, and traditional cuisine is not even close to extinction. Donkeys in their decorated saddles are still used for garbage collection. The view of the sea is the same. Memories of the battle of Algiers are alive through street art and stories. Beautiful doors and ceramics can still be seen. Three or four days, including Eid, are spent visiting family. The emergence of new traditions as time passes is also normal, but in many ways Ramadan as a time of collective festive engagement has lost its charm or enthusiasm, and this isn’t just applicable to Algiers.
Unfortunately, women still deal with catcalling after Maghrib. Families try to keep their children busy by taking them to the port of Sidi Fredj where they buy them cheap toys and let them have their fun in remote-controlled cars. Young people mindlessly walk around Ardis shopping center. Fasting becomes a robotic routine. People lose their patience. Perhaps today’s sun is more oppressive than the one of yesteryear, or at least that’s what city folk use to justify their short fuse. The lack of a spiritual medium of this night-life prevails.
Of course, the past was not always ideal either. The mosque was largely, and to a considerable extent still is, reserved for men. It has not been normalized for young women to congregate for halaqas led by a female leader or pray taraweeh. Women can be limited to watching religious channels on television, as opposed to learning and evolving with their fellow sisters. Perhaps this can be remedied sooner than the demise of the overall Ramadan culture, which has largely been ravaged by consumerism.
Moving forward, it is time to rethink how we celebrate the month. It should not only be a time of pious worship, but also one of enjoyment and aesthetic appreciation. These aspects could even motivate Muslims to carry on with the month in good spirits and taqwa. All environments in our reach are our casbahs. Let us work to protect them and make them beautiful.
- Djiar, Kahina Amal. “Locating architecture, post-colonialism and culture: contextualisation in Algiers.” The Journal of Architecture, vol. 14, no. 2, 2009, 161-183, https://doi.org/10.1080/13602360902867392.
- Slyomovics, Susan. “Algerian Women’s Būqālah Poetry: Oral Literature, Cultural Politics, and Anti-Colonial Resistance.” Journal of Arabic Literature, vol. 45, no. 2-3, 2014, pp. 145–168, www.anthro.ucla.edu/sites/default/files/assets/faculty/slyomovics/slyjal_045_02-03_145-168.pdf.
- Djellouli, Abdenour. “La ville absente.” Esprit, no. 208 (1), 1995, pp. 48-61, https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/24276141.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3Aeb47ff469f386014f89f3b41480ba6bc&seq=1.
Photo Credit: Garitan
About the Author: Sabrina Amrane is a writer for Traversing Tradition. She is a journalism and political science student. Her interests include history, literature, and politics.