Structure of Society

Structure of Society

As is true of other peoples of the Maghrib, Algerian society has considerable historical depth and has been subjected to a number of external influences and migrations. Fundamentally Berber in cultural and racial terms, the society was organized around extended family, clan, and tribe and was adapted to a rural rather than an urban setting before the arrival of the Arabs and, later, the French. An identifiable modern class structure began to materialize during the colonial period. This structure has undergone further differentiation in the period since independence, despite the country's commitment to egalitarian ideals.

Preindependence Society

During the Ottoman period, before the coming of the French in 1830, the people were divided among a few ancient cities and a sparsely settled countryside where subsistence farmers and nomadic herdsmen lived in small, ethnically homogeneous groups. Rural patterns of social organization had many common features, although some differences existed between Arabs and Berbers and between nomads and settled cultivators. The groups did not form a cohesive social class because individual behavior and action were circumscribed by the framework of tribe or clan.

In this period, 5 to 6 percent of the population lived in cities. The cities were the location of the principal mosques and the major sharia (Islamic law) courts and institutions of higher Islamic learning. Various Islamic legal schools, such as the Hanafi and Maliki as well as the Ibadi schools, also had their mosques in the cities. In addition, cities had public baths and markets, where goods coming from various parts of the world were traded. Local military forces were housed in citadels that towered over urban centers, and the houses and administrative offices of the Ottoman ruling elite were also located in some of the principal cities, such as Algiers.

The cities were divided into quarters that were self- contained and self-sufficient. For security they could be closed off at night and during times of crises, and their own leading citizens managed the internal affairs of the quarters.

The heterogeneous population of the cities included men of mixed Turkish and Algerian descent called Kouloughli Moors, a term coined by the French to refer to descendants of Andalusian refugees; Christian slaves from around the Mediterranean captured by Barbary Coast pirates; and African slaves who worked as laborers and domestics. The cities also had small Jewish communities that would become more important under the French colonial system. Many cities had small groups of Mzab who owned grocery and butcher shops and operated the public baths, and Kabyles who came briefly to the cities before returning to their areas of origin.

In the rural areas, social organization depended primarily on kinship ties. The basic kinship unit was the ayla, a small lineage whose members claimed descent through males from a common grandfather or great-grandfather. The male members of such a group maintained mutual economic obligations and recognized a form of collective ownership of pastoral or agricultural lands. Several ayla formed the larger lineage, whose members traced their origin to a more remote male ancestor. Beyond these lineages were the patrilineal clans called adhrum by the Kabyles and firq by the Arabs, in which kinship was assumed and the links between individuals and families were close. The largest units consisted of tribes that were aggregations of clans claiming common or related ancestors or of clans brought together by the force of circumstance. Sharing a common territory, name, and way of life, member units of a tribe, particularly among the Berbers, had little political cohesion and tended to accept the authority of a chief only when faced with the danger of alien conquest or subjugation. Tribal confederations were rare in the modern era but were more common before the nineteenth century.

Among settled and nomadic Arab groups, tribes and their components were arranged along a gradient of social prestige. The standing of an individual depended on membership in a ranked group; tribal rank depended on the standing of the highest ranking lineage of each tribe. The shurfa (nobles allegedly descended from the Prophet Muhammad) and marabouts, venerated for their spiritual power, held the highest ranks. Affairs of mutual interest to all clans were administered by the clan heads under the leadership of a qaid (tribal chief), who exercised nearly absolute authority.

Settled Berber groups were democratic and egalitarian. The community, an aggregation of localized clans consisting of a cluster of hamlets or a village inhabited by a single clan, was governed by a jamaa composed of all adult males. Social stratification of the kind found in Arab groups did not exist in Berber villages.

The typical Kabyle villages in the Aurès Mountains and the Atlas around Blida were always built above cultivated lands, on or close to mountain tops. They were enclosed by walls with doors that opened inward. The slopes were often terraced to allow the Kabyles to cultivate olive and fruit orchards and to grow wheat and barley. The animals kept by the Kabyles grazed on the vegetation that grew on rocky slopes unsuitable for agriculture. French rule and European settlement brought far-reaching social changes. Europeans took over the economic and political life of the country, monopolizing professional, large-scale commercial, and administrative activities, exploiting agricultural and other resources of the land, and remaining socially aloof. The small Algerian middle stratum of urban merchants and city artisans was squeezed out, and landowners of the countryside were dispossessed.

The European population increased rapidly in the nineteenth century, more than quadrupling from 26,987 in the early 1840s to 125,963 a decade later, and reaching almost 2 million by the turn of the century. This population growth, coupled with the appropriation of cultivated and pastoral lands by colonials, which increased sharply in the early twentieth century, created tremendous pressures on the cultivable land. Displaced villagers and tribesmen flocked to towns and cities, where they formed an unskilled labor mass, ill-adapted to industrial work, scorned by Europeans, and isolated from the kinship units that had formerly given them security and a sense of solidarity. This urban movement increased after World War I and after World War II. At the same time, large numbers of Algerians migrated to France in search of work. The Kabyles were the principal migrants; during the 1950s, as many as 10 percent of the people of Kabylie were working in France at any one time; even larger numbers were working in cities of the Tell.

Europeans constituted a separate sector of society, and the European-Algerian dichotomy was the country's basic social division. The settlers who came to Algeria in the nineteenth century included not only French but also large numbers of Italians and Spaniards who could not find work in their home countries and came in search of new opportunities. The expression pieds noirs (black feet), used to refer to settlers, was allegedly based on the barefoot condition of many of the impoverished European settlers.

The top echelon of the country included a few Algerians who had amassed land and wealth, as well as some respected Arabic scholars and a few successful professionals. An indigenous landowning aristocracy of any importance had never existed, however, and French colonials did not want an Algerian middle class competing with them for jobs and status. Moreover, the Algerians lived in quarters of the cities separate from the Europeans and seldom intermarried with them.

In the early twentieth century, a new Algerian merchant group began to intermarry with the old upper-stratum families. Their children were educated in French schools, at home or in France, to become a new Western-oriented elite composed of lawyers, physicians, pharmacists, teachers, administrators, and a small scattering of political leaders. The opportunity for social mobility for these Westernized Algerians, or évolués, however, remained extremely limited; on the eve of the revolution, only a scattering of jobs requiring professional or technical skills were held by Algerians.

The peasant migrants to the cities tended to gather in separate quarters according to their ethnic origin, and certain peoples became associated with specific occupations. But overcrowding and housing shortages often forced persons of a given tribe or village to scatter throughout a city, and the solidarity of migrant groups decreased. Nevertheless, many migrants retained contact with family members.

Nomadic clans no longer holding sufficient flocks or territory were obliged to accept the humiliation of sedentary existence. The process of sedentarization usually started with the settling of a few nomadic families on the outskirts of a town with which they had maintained trading relations. Accepted eventually as part of the community by the original clan inhabitants, the former nomads often assumed as their own one of the traditional ancestors or marabouts of the community. Residential propinquity usually did not, however, overcome the social distance between traditional cultivators and former herders because each looked down on the way of life of the other.


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