“Grim Symbolism” is one of the essays included in the Fall 2022 issue of ArabLit Quarterly. Read more about the issue from guest editor Nashwa Nasreldin, and find out how to buy or borrow a copy.
By Ouissal Harize
Throughout the centuries, weddings in Algeria have maintained all of their traditional ostentatious opulence. From the lavish outfits inspired by the attire of historic royals, to the performances of knights on horses, Algerian weddings are an occasion to be immersed in a nostalgic revival of history.
A wedding in Algeria is a ceremony that represents not only the union of two individuals, but that also fortifies a family or clan by merging it with another. A multitude of celebratory rituals are carefully orchestrated to symbolize the gravity of this act. Algerian wedding rituals begin well before the day of the ceremony; throughout the engagement period, the groom’s family usually woos the bride-to-be with gifts on special occasions, such as Eid. This custom is called “mhiba” in Algerian Darija, which translates to a “majestic valorization” of the bride. This is meant to foster a bond of love, familiarity, and trust between the bride and her in-laws. In return, the bride customarily showers her in-laws with gifts during the first weeks after the marriage ceremony. On the wedding day, this bond between the two families takes center stage, with the mother of the groom responsible for overseeing the henna ceremony, and for gifting the bride gold jewelry.
Weddings in Algerian folktales, however, have traditionally been far more dangerous. Featuring monsters, talking animals, and mysterious creatures, most Algerian folktales fall within the remit of the aja’ib (wonders) genre. Shared by Arab and Persian literature, the aja’ib includes wondrous phenomena that cannot be fathomed by rational human understanding, as well as a curiosity about what is strange, foreign, and exotic. Many aja’ib narratives feature astonishingly strange creatures.
As each family tells the story, the narrative is edited, adapted, expanded, or shortened so extensively that no one ever hears the same tale twice. When comparing how the same story is told in different regions, there are often noticeable differences in plot, characterization, and endings. Many of the traditional folktales about weddings are tales of cruelty and rebellion that serve as an effective way of inoculating children against the horrors of the world.
Two folktales particularly stand out: “Mlouka” and “Loundja the Sultan’s Daughter.” “Mlouka” is a folktale famous in the west of Algeria, but also known in other regions. The story is about a young peasant girl who was said to have the strongest, longest, and most beautiful hair in the region. It was so long, Mlouka could not wash it by herself; all the women in her family had to walk to the river with her to help. One day, out of spite, a jealous cousin plucks a strand of Mlouka’s hair, which was so long it curled and blocked the water’s flow. Then, on a visit to the river to investigate the cause of the obstruction, one of the honorable men of the village is astonished to find this most powerful strand of hair.
The honorable man, a knight no less, vows to find and marry the woman to whom this beautiful strand of hair belonged. He gallops through the town, telling everyone that he is searching for the woman whose hair is able to block the river’s flow, and how he wishes to marry her.
When the news reaches her, Mlouka understands immediately that her family will not hesitate to arrange the marriage. But Mlouka has no wish to become a bride. She runs away from her family home and embarks on a journey to discover the world—and by extension, herself. After encountering animals such as a talking snake that advises her to find the courage to face her family, a compassionate chicken that suggests she keep on running, and many mysterious creatures that prey on weak and errant souls, Mlouka realizes that only she can change her fate. And so the bride-to-be decides to return to her home to tell her family to go ahead and plan the wedding. Then, on the wedding day, she shaves off her hair, which succeeds in deterring the knight. The marriage is called off.
This version of the story shows how Mlouka rebels against traditions and norms, including those pertaining to beauty and femininity. Mlouka’s act is not purely imaginary; Algerian women were accustomed to dulling their beauty to ward off the male gaze. When Algeria was under French colonial occupation, Algerian women in rural areas used to soil themselves or cover their faces with ashes in order to repel French soldiers. Algerian traditions of resisting the male gaze are echoed in Mlouka’s rebellious demeanour, and they subsequently find a place in the psyche of young girls who heard similar stories, be they fictive or historical.
In “Loundja the Sultan’s Daughter,” a Sultan’s baby daughter, Loundja, is kidnapped from her crib by a female ghoul—a mythical, monstrous North African humanoid—who raises Loundja as her own. When Loundja reaches the age of maturity, she meets a handsome and charismatic young man, but the ghoula intuits that the young man has ill intentions and follows them into the woods. As the young man lures Loundja into the forest to take advantage of her, the ghoula emerges to save her, and entraps the man in an underground labyrinth.
Enraged by the audacity of humans, the mother ghoula invites all of the ghouls and monsters to a feast where the young man will be served as the main course. The kind and warm-hearted Loundja sneaks out of the house to talk to the young man, and he cunningly persuades her that, if they marry immediately, the ghoula will forgive him for his actions. Loundja is persuaded to free him and, as soon as she releases him from his entrapment, he kills her and throws her body into the labyrinth.
This folktale shows how archetypes in Algerian wedding folktales are anything but typical. The ghoula here is a loving mother, and the charming young man is the murderer. In “Mlouka,” the powerful knight is a selfish man, and the damsel in distress saves herself. In a society that was historically matriarchal, these archetypes are not surprising. These stories were not told to little girls to lull them to sleep, but to prepare them for the dangers they might face in the future. It is a quiet but powerful form of rebellion. In Algeria, this is how young girls learned that their bodies could be desired by men, and how to protect themselves from violent desires.
The figure of the groom also effectively became a vessel for the colonizer: treacherous, malignant, conniving, and always trying to take what does not belong to him. Willingly or inadvertently, because of trust or lust, the men in these folktales often let the women down. The characterization of monstrosity was also a way of discussing traits that were too difficult to consider in relation to the wife-husband dynamic: traits such as possessiveness, jealousy, and betrayal.
Young girls who avidly sought tales of marriage found very few happy endings in Algerian orature. With their long history of resistance, Algerian women sought comfort through a tradition of storytelling that permitted them to create characters like them and their female predecessors; they were seeking company through the imagination. These folktales, grim and cruel, are demarcated by a familiarity with being robbed of agency, with loss, and with the bitterness born of constant resistance. By listening to these folktales, children involuntarily, often inadvertently, acquired the wisdom of their ancestors.
It is also possible to find more light-hearted tales about Algerian weddings. There is one story that portrays a wolf as a very worthy bachelor who suffers from serious commitment issues. Despite his best efforts to avoid marriage, the wolf vows to his family that he will marry, but on the condition that it take place on a stormy day, during which the sun emerges in defiance of the rain, forcing the “sky’s bride” (a rainbow) to appear. Finally, there comes a day when these paradoxical weather conditions coincide, and the wolf is forced to honor his promise and finally tie the knot. Algerians still use the phrase “the wolf’s wedding” whenever the sun shines brightly during, or after, a rainstorm. In many Algerian wedding folktales, once we peel away the thick skin of rebellion, we find a whimsical hope of finding companionship through marriage—but not through dire circumstances, or force, but by choice.
Ouissal Harize is an editor at the fact-checking platform Misbar. She is also a journalist and a cultural essayist. As a PhD candidate at Durham University, she has research interests in cultural studies, terrorism studies, North African, and Middle Eastern studies.