The Women of Algeria’s Folktales

What are the women of Algeria’s myths trying to tell us?

By Nadia Ghanem

folktalesI am sitting on the steps outside my flat with Zoubeida Mameria’s weighty three-volume collection of Algerian myths, Tales from the Land of Algeria (Contes du Terroir Algerien, 2013) on my lap. I am browsing through her collection, looking for a story involving plumbers.

Mameria is from the central Algerian city of Souk Ahras and so, she says, are her stories. She warns in her introduction that she has chosen to recount “in an impressionistic manner” the tales her granddad and great aunts used to tell her. She qualifies her storytelling as impressionistic because she has not recorded the stories she was told. Instead, she is recrafting stories that she considers Algerian but that also “may be known in other versions under different skies.”

I wonder if the plumber will work on my kitchen in an impressionistic manner.

Myths and their skilled-workers

A pipe burst in my upstairs neighbor’s bathroom. If it hadn’t been for the plaster ceiling suddenly falling off, and for water bursting forth out of electricity plug holes, we’d never have known. My landlady had just pocketed my upfront three-months rent. Bad timing for a catastrophe.

Hibba, my landlady, has been suffering from “severe mood swings”; that’s how she calls dodging the expenditure of any money to repair the flat I’m renting from her. Her husband passed away a few months ago. I dial her mobile number, she picks up:

Tifla! How are you? How’s your family? You know if you need anything, you just call me, right!

– Hibba, the ceiling’s falling off…

– I’m practically in the car, I have to leave Algiers. It’s the stress, the four months’ mourning now turned into seven, the traffic jams, the white and blue paint replaced by black and white on Didouche Mourad Street… (She starts sobbing.) I’ll deal with this as soon as I’m back.

The line goes dead. She’s turned off her phone.

Malika, my tiny upstairs neighbour, opens her door wide. She tips her head and looks at me as if I were wearing a pink school blouse.

– You’re the sister of Hibba’s husband, right?

– Nope, but I do live downstairs from you in Hibba’s flat. There’s a flood in my kitchen. It probably comes from a burst pipe in your bathroom?

– That’s impossible. My husband, Allah yerhemu, did the plumbing himself before he died.

– He was a plumber?

– No, but he replaced the main pipe himself at his own cost. (Her eyes start watering.) He died of a heart attack years later.

Malika is also widowed, as is Azziza on the ground floor and Lilia on the third.

Attirhem rebbi, maybe the pipe that burst wasn’t one he worked on?

She reluctantly accompanies me downstairs.

She comes in, looks up, presses her cheeks with her two hands and squeezes her mouth into a Yemma! which translates as Oh.

– Oh! It’s going to fall off! she says, pointing upwards.

– Malika, before it falls off, you should call a plumber…

I never heard her replying no. She’d run off.

I call in on Lilia, my landlady’s sister who lives on the third floor. She lets me in, pours me coffee, and lets me curse her sibling while she chain smokes. Lilia doesn’t want to call the plumber either, but she knows she’s cornered.

-What did Malika tell you?

She said her husband did the plumbing and the dead aren’t guilty… Has anyone done any plumbing in her flat recently?

-Yes, Abdu. He lives in the building next door. He changed Malika’s bath last spring.

Lilia picks up her phone and dials Abdu, the neighbour who’s really just a kind and cheerful guy with a propane torch.

Who will not call the plumber first is a demented race that requires inflexibility and resolve. Its aim is obvious: a form of counter-insurgency against the bill. The one who calls first is the one who will pay for that job, and for every successive one after that, because a plumber’s work is never finished, as we all know.

Good plumbers exist only in myths. And, when you consider Algerian myths, it is no surprise that most of our stories are inhabited by skilled-worker families.

Mythological and folktale characters

As Zoubeida Mameria’s collection illustrates, Algerian myths abound about highly skilled individuals. There are eagle hunters and outstanding horsemen; labourers with carts pulled by lions and snakes; basket-makers spared by errouhbani, the shape-shifter spirits who roam in forests poking fun at humans; barbers who slash throats and gardeners whose bones turn into speaking grapevines; fishermen who feed whole villages with their miraculous catch; midwifes who even help frogs give birth (the midwife paid in coal); coal workers and coals that turn into gold coins; princes who work as carpet weavers (the craft that saves from death); blind ogresses with a fine nose for the best foods who grind wheat; kings who know how to rule.

Mameria’s collection is really the encyclopaedia of her memories in which she mixes French and Algerian Derja.

The CRASC, Algeria’s National Research Centre in Anthropology, had also compiled and released a collection of myths in 2005, Dictionary of Algerian Myths, which were written up in standard Arabic. That collection was more interested in foundational myths, and began not in childhood but in an ancient Amazigh chronology, with the cornerstone myths of Anzar, the capricious god of rain; Tin Hinan, the mother of all Touareg tribes; Yemma Gouraya, the woman-mountain that protects the city of Bejaia; Loundja the devoted sister to her brother transformed into a gazelle; or the tragic love story of Hiziya and her cousin Said.

None retell the story of the farting old man whose daughter Rova tried to protect them against a man-eating ogre. She was herself captured then saved by her four brothers, the first who has an uncanny sense of hearing, the second who sees through walls, the third who runs as fast as the wind blows, and the fourth who’s given Herculean strength (A Vava Inouva).

I found no stories for plumbers in Mameria’s collection, but I learned that the stone of patience (hadjret sabarni or “Stone, give me patience”), could bring me comfort and justice if someone brought it back to Bab El Oued from the Hijaz.

The striking element in all these tales and myths is the sheer number of women in them. They’re here as main characters — and as storytellers — young and old, rich and poor, beautiful or not. All are highly intelligent and endure and outwit the cruelty of fate, and of men.

El-Djazia cycle

“El-Djazia” is an Algerian myth inherited, it seems, from the Banu Hilal. Both the CRASC and Mameria dedicate a special part to this mythical cycle in their volumes. El-Djazia was the chief of a Banu Hilal tribe in Algeria. That much is recorded by Ibn Khaldoun, we are told. She was a woman of unequalled beauty and intelligence, the best warrior and skilled fighter of the tribe. She attracted many admirers, all of whom tried to win her favor. She eventually chose to marry her cousin Dhieb ben Ghanem. A statue of Dhieb’s horse, El Baidha, is reportedly in Ain Beida’s city centre.

El-Djazia is also a metaphor. She represents the village, and her competing admirers are the social projects that the village will have to choose to survive and to eventually prosper. Tradition, modernity, and the elsewhere, or adventure, all fight to win El-Djazia by force or reason while her task is to maintain social order. Any transgression, or misreading of the group’s best interest, will result in social confusion and eventually utter chaos.

Myth and the contemporary Algerian novel

Several Algerian novels are built on this folk metaphor. Nejma by Kateb Yacine, and both El-Djazia and the Dervishes and The South Wind by Abdelhamid Benhadouga are prominent examples. The South Wind (Rih al Djanoub) was published in 1971.

Benhadouga (1925-1996) was, along with Tahar Wattar and “father of the Algerian novel” Ahmed Reda Houhou, part of the first generation of modern Algerian authors who wrote in Arabic. Although we hear a lot about Kateb Yacine, Benhadouga remains relatively ignored, outside of getting his portrait immortalised on a stamp issued by Algeria’s Post Office services this September.

The South Wind is set very soon after independence, when the Algerian government is about to implement its land-redistribution plan. Nafissa, a young university student, returns home to her village for the summer holidays. As soon as she is back, she misses her student life. Spending every day inside the home now weighs on her, and she starts feeling great resentment towards her parents for the patriarchy she only now begins to perceive. She can no longer stand to be in her mother Kheira’s company, and the bullying ways of father Belkadi enrage this once quiet and obedient girl. Belkadi, a wealthy landowner, is more short-tempered than usual. A new government policy means he’s about to lose his land and privileges.

Disturbed by their daughter’s behaviour, Nafissa’s parents begin to speculate as to the cause of her sulking ways. Kheira thinks Nafissa is possessed by a jinn, while Belkadi sees it is time to marry off Nafissa. Kheira calls a sheikh. Belkadi calls the mayor, Malek, his future son-in-law.

Nafissa agrees to see the sheikh, but she won’t agree to marriage. There’s only so much a girl can be forced into. This constitutes an unacceptable refusal for Belkadi, for whom women just don’t have a say. So Nafissa decides to escape, but her naïvely planned flight will tip over her life and send the entire village to a dark and petrifying end.

What happens to myths when social order has broken down, and the social fabric is tearing? Do monsters pour out onto the streets? When villages metamorphosed into towns, craftsmen and their trades adapted and moved with their stories. Era to decades, villages to cities, we’ve all gone from craft to crafty. That’s when plumber story cycles began probably.

Nafissa, El-Djazia, Loundja, Rova, Tin Hinan, Hiziya, and the many women of Algerian myths and legends have shown us which way not to take. What will Algeria choose? Whatever it maybe, may its story be beautiful; may it extend like a thread of wool; may whoever hears it, remember it always. As the Tamazight formula to open a story goes: Amachaho.

nadiaNadia is a doctoral student at the School of Oriental and African Studies, where she specializes in the ancient languages of Iraq and Syria. Based between Algeria and the UK, she blogs  at about living in Algeria, and Algerian literature.