DUBAI 2003
IBN SINA: Aristotle's Muslim Successor

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The year was 1974. It had been a long journey and we were dishevelled, exhausted and hungry. There were three bottles of water left, but I would have cheerfully handed over my life savings for an English cup of tea. We had driven in a tiny Citroen Deux Chevaux from London to deep in the Algerian Sahara traversing France, Spain and Morocco. Now, it seemed we were on a road to nowhere with a vast expanse of desert interspersed with giant rocks as far as the eye could see.

     Darkness would fall shortly and there was no sign of the Mízab towns as our guidebook had indicated. With the reckless over-confidence of youth, it didnít occur to us that we might be lost and all that could mean. Instead, we listened to the strains of Sawah - a recording by the Egyptian singing icon Abdul Halim Hafez - its grand orchestral reverberating off the boulders and adding to the mystique of a never to be forgotten moment.



    Suddenly, without warning, the tarmac road ended and below us like a mirage stretched a lush valley of palm groves and gardens towered over by the minarets of the Mízabís five towns - Ghardaia, Beni Isguene, Bou Nouara, Melika and Al-Ateuf, flanking a winding wadi.

     We headed for the largest town Ghardaia and in retrospect Iím not sure whether we were more surprised to see them or the Mízabites us. Strangers were an uncommon sight in those days, especially the fair-haired variety in Western garb.

     We passed though the gate of the walled town and arrived in its large square at prayer time when the sounds of the muezzin echoed over the city inviting the faithful to pray. In awe at their piety, we watched as hundreds of bearded men dressed in baggy Turkish-type black trousers flooded out of their homes and hole-in-the-wall shops in response to the call. Others turned up on donkeys used to trotting down the stone steps of narrow alleyways. There wasnít a car to be seen.

     Suspicious of foreigners, a French-speaking shopkeeper didnít encourage us to stay in the Mízabite town after dark and so we rented one of his summerhouses, a villa set in an oasis outside the walls.

     The nearby town of Beni Isguene, considered holy, was completely off-limits to non-Mízabites. Few foreigners have been allowed a tour of that town where music, alcohol and smoking are forbidden. Those who have managed to visit describe scrupulously clean streets devoid of litter and stylish homes.

     After a delicious repast of cous-cous, I spent the night on the villaís roof marveling at the myriad stars, which shone brighter than anywhere I had known before and listening to the silence, the kind of silence that only the desert can produce.

    The Mízabites are a secretive people and their origins are difficult to decipher, although it is thought that they descended from Berber followers of Abdullah Ibn Ibad Al-Tamimi of Basra. When their mountain stronghold of Tiaret was destroyed by the Fatimid Empire in AD 909, it is believed the Ibadis fled to the Sahara for safety.

     Despite the inhospitable terrain, the Mízabites became wealthy from the fruits of their date palms, watered from thousands of wells bored deep into the earth and an ingenious irrigation system. Besides the more than 160,000 palm groves, these wells provide water for the 100,000 inhabitants of the Mízab and their herds.

     Believers in the evil eye, Mízabites construct their homes with modest facades.  However, their interiors are elaborately decorated and richly furnished. All have flat roofs where the shy Mízabite women spend their leisure time and they are built so close together that a woman can hop from roof to roof so as to visit family and friends.

     Traditionally their husbands do all the shopping or, else, the family servant, while women are rarely seen on the streets. Young women often never leave their homes except on the day they marry but on the rare occasions older women venture forth, they are heavily veiled, displaying only one eye.

     Mízabite men are famed throughout Algeria as accomplished businessmen and traders and often spend long periods away from their homeland, but always with the thought of making enough money to retire to the peace and tranquillity of their beloved desert valley.


    Earlier in our journey through Algeria - one of the most beautiful and diverse countries in the world - we had passed the large black tents of the Ouled-Nail dotting a mountain range near Djelfa. Now we were headed for Biskra, a desert oasis town forever associated with Ouled-Nail dancers.

     At the other end of the spectrum from the puritanical attitudes of the Mízabites, the daughters of the Ouled-Nail were trained in the art of dance and song from childhood so as to earn a living entertaining the inhabitants of desert towns. The profession is hereditary, and the girls would return from their years away from the tents adorned with necklaces of gold coins without a blemish on their name within their own society. There they would put their dancing days behind them, marry and set their sights on being good tent-wives.

     Biskra was a modern town compared to those of the Mízab with several relatively good hotels. As luck would have it, we arrived in the midst of a tribal festival and soon discovered there was no room at the inn. Instead, we were pointed in the direction of the townís Tourism Office, which arranged for us a nightís accommodation in the home of a local family.

     We accepted the offer sight unseen and found ourselves sleeping on straw pallets on the floor along with the occasional wandering chicken. It seemed surreal that perched on an oak chest of drawers was a battery-operated record player, which boasted a single record - Alain Barriereís Ma Vie, a particular favourite of mine at that time.

     There was no bathroom in the mud-built house, and so the following morning we strolled to the local hammam or Turkish-style bath before going in search of the Ouled-Nail dancers who proved to be elusive.

     Instead, we reached the town square where burnoose-clad, rifle-touting tribesmen raced on horseback, snake charmers bedazzled the crowd and folkloric troupes put on traditional shows of song and dance. The air was filled with the aroma of merguez, a spicy red sausage, which we bought from a stallholder and devoured with relish for breakfast.

     We spent the next three days lounging by the pool of one of Biskraís best hotels and basked in the luxury of rooms with en suite baths and the ability to order cafi au lait or ice cream from room service. We had planned to continue our journey to Tamanrasset, home of Algeriaís most famous tribe - the Toureg, otherwise known as  Ďthe blue mení but our Citroen refused to go another mile. Once it was repaired, we thought it prudent to return to Algiers, rather than continuing southwards.

Tuareg (Les hommes bleus)

    The Tuareg were once ferocious warriors responsible for the deaths of many an intrepid explorer and feared by everyone who dared to cross their territory. They were lords of the traditional salt, slave and gold caravan routes with a feudalistic culture and their own written language.

    Called the Blue Men due to the indigo dyes used to colour their robes, the Tuareg man are veiled and while not engaged in combat once spent their days performing elaborate tea rituals and gathering their strength for the next inevitable conflict.

    They fought bravely and honourably preferring to use swords, knives and shields rather than more modern weapons and almost always overwhelmed their foes with their superior courage and skills.

 Tuareg guides

Photo courtesy of Peter Klaunzer

    In the late 1800s, the French occupiers of Algeria decided to build a railway through the Sahara and were beaten back by Tuareg warriors. Such was their ferocity that eventually the plan was dropped.

    Archaeologist Count Byron Khun de Prorok talks about the Tuareg in his book Mysterious Sahara. This 1920s work describes the Tuareg as ďthe giant white race of the SaharaĒ. Prorak came face to face with 5,000 Tuareg, wielding swords and was lucky not to suffer the same fate as many of his contemporaries, brutally killed on sight.

    The Tuareg is a matriarchal society where the women go unveiled and do most of the work. Prorok wanted to find the tomb of their queen Tin Hinan in the belief that it would yield up clues to the tribesí origin.

    He finally discovered the remains of the queen herself along with ancient Roman coins and other Mediterranean artifacts, as well as gold necklaces and bracelets, all of which he looted before the Tuareg could discover just whose tomb it was.

    Tragically, the advent of the 20th century proved the undoing of the Tuareg. Their legendary horsemanship has now been relegated to a tourist attraction while their lands are parched from drought and stricken by poverty. Yet they still manage to retain their noble aspect and regal bearing.

 M'zabites performing traditional tribal dance
 Photos courtesy of Taha Baali, www.mzab.free.fr


    On our way back to the capital, we made a detour so as to pass through Tizi Ouzou, the principal Berber town, then peaceful and picturesque. Kabyle women wearing brightly colored dresses smiled and waved at us before we stopped at a roadside cafi for freshly squeezed melon juice. The owner wanted to give us a souvenir of our visit and pulled out a picture of his baby son Laghdar. I was supremely touched and still cherish it.

     The Berbers, thought to be the indigenous people of Algeria fought the Romans, the Arabs, the Turks and the French, who spent almost 30 years trying to take over their mountain strongholds. Today, they are struggling to retain their own identity, culture and language in a country beset by political problems.

    I know that the clock canít be turned back, but from a selfish point of view, I long for the day when itís safe to retrace my steps. Who knows! Perhaps I will track down Laghdar, now a portly pater familias; say hello to the barbery apes of the Chiffa Gorge; walk in the forests of Seraidi, a delightful mountain-top village overlooking Annaba; hunt for rose du sables (quartz rocks) in the Sahara or immerse myself in the hot springs at Guelma.  In the meantime, like the Tuareg, I can but dream of the past and trust in a better future for the long-suffering Algerian people.



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