A traveler does not have to be very experienced to reach the conclusion that wherever he goes the most striking impressions come from things that are unexpectedly different from or surprisingly like those to which he is accustomed. Recently revisiting western Algeria, where I had spent a year teaching in a secondary school, I was again struck by how different life is in a country where little appears to have changed since the religion of Islam was introduced over ten centuries ago. But I also noticed how similar life there is to mine in a host of daily trivialities.
For the northern European the whole Mediterranean area conjures up an image of olive groves, sunshine, and dust, little changed since biblical times. Even the advent of the motor car has not altered the fact that the donkey or mule is still in many areas the most practical and popular means of local travel. Yet one can buy the same brand of toothpaste or soap powder in a small town in the hills of North Africa as one can in London or Salt Lake City.
Algeria is a large country and a new nation. However, apart from the fertile coastal belt and hinterland in the North, much of the country is either rugged and mountainous or is desert, though the desert, too, has borne fruit in the form of oil and natural gas.
When the French colonial rulers suddenly departed in 1962, they left a land of strange contrasts. Along the northern coast one can find beautiful beaches and villas strangely deserted beside the waters of the Mediterranean. Modern-looking ports, a huge petrochemical plant, and good road and rail communications seem a little incongruous in a country where less than 30 percent of the population is literate and where the larger part of the labor force is still on the land. The ingrained religious tradition that permeates daily life is curiously overlayed with a European veneer. The muezzin, who five times a day calls the faithful to prayer, no longer shouts unaided from the top of the minaret of the mosque but has an amplifier (in some places it is rumored to be a recording); and the calm of the olive grove is not always undisturbed by transistor radios.
For young people in particular, life is a strange contrast of opportunities. Never before has so much been spent on their education, but never before have they been so numerous. Fifty-seven percent of the population of Algeria is under twenty years of age, and since many of the children who go to school are the first in their families to do so, there will be understandable disenchantment if there is unemployment awaiting them at the end of their studies.
It is rather startling to find that until little over ten years ago education was virtually the exclusive work of the Koranic schools and a small number of schools staffed by foreign teachers. However, it is only within the last fifty to a hundred years that education has become really widespread, even in the most developed countries. In Algeria heavy investment in education is now producing quite a rich harvest of new schools, and the more severe shortage is that of good teachers.
It would be a mistake to think that schools and teachers are the complete answer to an emergent country’s problems. Improved communications make inroads on the traditional way of life and create a desire to share in the luxuries and life-styles that are enjoyed elsewhere. Young people have a thirst for life that is not satisfied by hours in the classroom. Scouting, for which the varied country north of the Sahara is well suited, has some support in Algeria, but the need for more activities of the kind provided by MIA is very great.
For the present, tradition still holds sway in many matters. Just as for the Latter-day Saint there is a constant need to make our beliefs dictate our daily activities without their becoming automatic and meaningless, so for the Moslem there is the danger of tradition and habit replacing sincere beliefs. The unfailing regularity of the muezzin’s cry five times each day becomes as commonplace as the striking of a clock; and Arabic contains many words originally of religious significance that have passed into daily use with an altered meaning. For example, the word for “in the name of Allah,” which one hears frequently, has come to mean “let’s get started,” instead of being an invocation as one begins something.
Religious beliefs and tradition provide many of the important events of the calendar. Of these, those most noticed by the foreigner are the month of Ramadan and the feast of Aid el Kebir. During Ramadan all followers of Islam fast from sunrise to sunset. For a teacher, Ramadan is a pleasant month as school hours are shortened to lessen the strain on fasting pupils. Then at the hour of sunset the streets suddenly become utterly deserted as hungry mouths are at last filled.
For the feast of Aid each family obtains a sheep. During the weeks before the feast there can be heard from every courtyard or garage the sound of bleating sheep. Then on the morning of the feast there is sudden silence as all the sheep are sacrificed in preparation for a great meal.
Apart from such feasts and family gatherings, entertainment is fairly simple and limited. Sport, especially football, is one form of mass entertainment, and television is becoming more widespread. However, television, radio, and easier communications bring certain dangers. When the glitter and wealth of the western world are displayed before people who have lived without these luxuries, the desire to share in them tends to replace the desires and aspirations that have been sufficient for many generations.
Sudden acceptance or imposition of foreign ways may result in an upheaval that will throw out what is good in the traditional mode of life. One of the first things to suffer is family life. Where there is insufficient industrialization to induce people to travel to look for work, families live together in the same area for generations. Urbanization and mobility, by contrast, seem to fragment families.
To observe family life in another culture is of great interest, especially as our church stresses the importance of family. Traditionally, in Algeria parents are given great respect and still have a considerable say in the lives of their children, particularly in such matters as who they marry or what work they do. Additionally, where pensions and insurance are less common than in Europe or in the USA, the children bear the sometimes heavy responsibility of looking after their elderly parents and being the breadwinners.
The family in North Africa is made up of more than just parents and children. It often includes more remote relatives who come into the household, and everyone lives in a family, except in the largest and most Europeanized towns where some people live alone. Special obligations of hospitality are owed to members of the family, and I was most impressed by the welcome given on the unexpected arrival of some cousins of a family I stayed with, even though it was 2:30 in the morning. Visitors are also well received, and during my recent visit I stayed in several homes in the town where I had taught, never having to seek refuge in a hotel.
For most of my former pupils the future holds exciting possibilities. Some have already started in colleges and universities and will have no use for the small towns and villages where their families have lived and labored. While the greatest journey that their fathers or earlier forebears may have made would have been a pilgrimage to Mecca, these young people will have the chance to travel much further. Already many have had the advantages of modern schooling, and few will have to work the soil under the merciless sun as have their fathers and grandfathers.