The Democratic and Popular Republic of ALGERIA:

Algeria is the world's tenth largest, and Africa's second largest country, with an area of 919,590 square miles. In US terms, that's roughly three and a half times the size of Texas. It's located on the north edge of Africa, between Morocco and Tunisia and Libya, above Mauritania, Mali, and Niger.

In this behemoth country, 90% of the people live in the green strip of Mediterranean Sea coast called the Tell, where they can enjoy the mild Mediterranean clime: a regular rainfall blesses this land, the rainy season stretching from December to March. The Tell is separated from the rest of Algeria by the Atlas Mountains and the Hauts Plateaux (highlands). The summer, even in the Tell, is hot and dry, and a hot, sandy wind called sirocco is common. The rest of Algeria is part of the vast and verdureless Sahara, where only an occasional oasis can support life.

HISTORY:

Algeria has a rich history, located as it is in the northern part of Africa, where it was influenced greatly by Europe and the Middle East. The earliest inhabitants of Algeria were the many peoples collectively known as 'Berbers' by the Greeks and Romans- a word that comes from the Greek barbaros, for barbarian. The term is still considered correct by most non-Berbers today, although movements among the indigenous Algerians have adopted the term 'Imazighen' (Amazigh, singular), meaning 'free men.'

The Phoenicians conquered the Algerians and their prosperous Carthaginian Empire reined from c. 800 BCE to 146 BCE, when it was conquered by the Romans. The Romans were succeeded in Algeria by the Vandals, who ruled briefly until the seventh century CE, when the Umayyad (Arab) invasion arrived in the Tell. The Umayyads introduced Islam to the Imazighen, and the cities of Algiers, Oran, Constantine, and Annaba took form during this period of Arab rule. In the eighth century, the Imazighen regained control of the region and established their own Islamic empire, which was fallowed by several other indigenous empires, until the 13th century. At that point the immigrating Bedouins arrived, bringing with them the nomadic lifestyle that took off (no pun intended) among the Imazighen.

In the early 1500s, the area became part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. Barbary Coast pirates were the scourge of European ships during this time, disrupting trade in the area and prompting France to invade in 1830. After years of fighting, Algeria became a French Territory. The present-day borders of Algeria were put in place in 1902, by which time Algeria was a department of the French Republic.

In 1954, independence movements in Algeria erupted into warfare which would last for eight years and result in over a million deaths. In 1962, Algeria was granted independence from France. Surging past the struggles of its initial adjustment, Algeria became a socialist republic, with Ahmed Ben Bella its first president. His National Liberation Front (FLN) would remain the only political party in Algeria until 1989, when a new constitution was set forth, calling for a multiparty system.

In 1990, the first local and regional elections were held, and were to be fallowed by full national elections in 1991. The surprise victors of the regional elections were the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), a group which quickly became the favorite for the upcoming national elections. The military, fearing FIS rule, staged a coup, taking control of the country, canceling election results, banning the FIS party, and instituting the High State Council to rule over the country.

Algeria fell into chaos, economically and politically. What had been for years a stable country teetered on the edge of the rebellion and conflict that had engulfed much of modern Africa. The FIS developed a substantial guerilla army and gained control of some territory, while the more radical militants of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) launched a bloody campaign against any and all supporters of the military regime. Government forces, factional fighting, and human rights abuses by all sides did nothing to help the crisis.

Multiparty elections were held in 1995, declaring the popular General Liamine Zeroual president of Algeria. Referendums in 1996 banned political parties based on religion, created an upper house of Parliament, and gave the president more power, angering the GIA and other fundamentalists, who launched a bloody terrorist campaign. As national parliamentary elections approached in 1997, civilian massacres and terrorist bombings shook the nation. Entire villages were killed in night raids, which the government appeared powerless to stop. 100,000 have been killed in the fighting since 1992, and both government and rebel deaths continued well into 2000.

Flawed elections in 1999 brought the unopposed, army-backed Abdelaziz Bouteflika into power. Calling for a referendum to end the fighting, he offered moderate rebels certain amnesties and strengthened ties with Europe. Algeria continues to struggle toward reconciliation, more hopeful but still at odds. While the terrorists who claim to speak for the people demand a strict, Islamic state, the average Algerian wants peace first and foremost, something that remains elusive still in Algeria today.

CULTURE:

83% of Algeria's 31.13 million people are of Arab or Amazigh/Arab descent, while 16% claim pure Amazigh heritage. In general, the two groups are integrated and intermingled, while a few scattered Imazighen groups do not intermarry, namely the Sahara-dwelling Mozabits. Within the Imazighen are many different groups- Kabyle, Shawya, Mozabit, Tuareg, and others; these people live primarily in the less inhabitable regions of Algeria, the deserts and mountains. Traditionally, they hid there to seek refuge from the invading armies that scoured the Tell; over time the seemingly hostile geography became an integral part of their lifestyle and identity.

The official language is Arabic, which refers to both Algerian Arabic, a creole which incorporates many French and Amazigh words and is used in speech, and standard Arabic, used in schools, government, and the media. Algerian Arabic can generally be understood by speakers of other North African dialects, but not by Middle Eastern Arabic speakers. French, once the primary language of business, is rapidly losing ground. Many Imazighen speak their own indigenous languages, which differ from group to group.

Algeria, while technically not an Islamic republic, is highly influenced by Sunni Islam, the state religion and the faith to which 99% of its people belong. Like in many Islam dominated countries, Algerian politics often appear a battle between a secular society and a fundamentalist religion. It can't be denied, however, that religion plays a dynamic role in modern Algeria. As gaps between rich and poor widen and crime, corruption, and materialism become more widespread, many appeal to the structure, safety, and equality of Islam, and the religion here has become a symbol for the disenfranchised.

Traditional Algerian society values family solidarity, intelligence, honesty, loyalty, courage, social status, and simplicity. In Algeria, like in much of the modern world, the average person mainly wants to buy a home, own a car, be healthy, and provide their children with a good education. Despite the language barrier and cultural differences, the average Westerner would feel pretty much at home in urban Algeria- as at home as they would feel in any other urban area in a foreign part of the world.

In rural, traditional Algeria, however, the age-old customs still dominate over Western influence, and life is often very different:

The family is an important, private, and male-dominated institution, often including three or more generations in a single home, ruled over by a patriarch. On average, married couples have four or five children, who are cared for almost completely by the mother. Women are relegated to traditional domestic duties, while men are responsible for discipline and income. An employed man provides not only for his own family, but for the families of any unemployed brothers.

Algerians do not date in the Western sense; rather, since the marriage of individuals represents a profound linking of two families, match-making is a family affair. Love is considered something that grows with time, that time being primarily after marriage.

Marriage can be a complicated ritual lasting three days or longer. Dowries are agreed upon by both families beforehand. Men and women will have separate parties before the wedding: at the women's party, henna is applied to the bride's hands and feet, while at the men's, it is applied to the groom's hands. The designs signify the approaching changes in these people's lives, and each betrothed person saves a portion of their henna, and sends it to the other. This henna exchange is symbolic and caries a great weight, analogous to the exchange of rings in Western culture.

Men and women will eat separately, men always first. Food is often served from a common bowl. Meats and desserts are often eaten with the right hands, while the rest of the food is eaten either with utensils or bread scoops. Staples of the Algerian diet include wheat, rice, maize, and barley, supplemented with local produce, often oranges, grapes, watermelon, tomatoes, potatoes, onions, green beans, and cauliflower. The cuisine of Algeria is influenced by the French, and often features rich sauces, but seldom any pork, due to the heavily Muslim population. Popular dishes include couscous, a tiny pasta usually cooked with lamb or chicken and vegetables, tajine, a meat-and-vegetable stew named for the type of pot it is cooked in, and chorba, a soup made with small pieces of meat and vermicelli. Dessert is nearly always fruit.

Dress varies from place to place, dominated by traditional North African attire but becoming increasingly western. Most urban men and about half of the urban women wear Western clothing, while most rural people stick to custom. In the city, women will often be seen in modern clothes and modern haircuts, but seldom without a scarf covering their hair. While some Arab women wear veils, the Imazighen seldom do. Traditionally, women will wear a blouse and skirt with a long, full dress draped overtop in public. This dress comes in a variety of colors, often red, green, or brown, and varies from region to region- in the eastern parts of Algeria it is often dark, while in the western and central regions white is favored. Most Algerian women seldom cut their hair, and wear it in a long braid swinging down their back. Traditionally, men wear long, flowing robes, often cover their head, and almost always have a moustache. The moustache in Algeria is a traditional symbol of manhood, and to curse someone's moustache is one of the worst possible insults.

When Algerians greet one another, they are generally very open and affectionate. Anything less than a handshake or hug is considered impolite, and some fallow the French custom of kissing both cheeks when embracing, while others hold and kiss a person's right hand. Different situations, of course, call for different greetings, but the Arabic "Ahlan wa sahlan" ('May your way be easy') is almost always appropriate. Elders are always greeted first, and are often called 'uncle' or 'aunt.' The Imazighen show respect to their elders, including older siblings, by addressing them as 'dada' or 'nana.'

Soccer is the most popular sport in the country, but generally only men are allowed to attend matches. Basketball, volleyball, and handball are also played often. Women have been known to play sports in Algeria but they do so far less than men.

Many Algerians play the guitar, flute, or gaspa, a unique, long bamboo flute. The Arab-African Rai music, which is similar in some ways to rap, is popular in Algeria, particularly among its younger inhabitants.

ECONOMY, COMMUNICATION, HEALTH:

22% of Algerians work in agriculture, and the Imazighen of the Sahara are almost all nomadic herders, but the desert nation is not self-sufficient in food production. Although the GDP of Algeria is high due to crude oil and natural gas exports, this money seldom reaches the average Algerian. Most people have low income, and struggle to meet their needs in a land of high inflation, high unemployment, political strife, and withdrawing foreign companies.

While health care is free or low-cost in many hospitals, clinics, and mobile health facilities, lines are so long that often the proper help is inaccessible. Disease and malnutrition are common. The average health of Algerians is, nonetheless, better than it was a decade ago, largely due to improved prenatal education and a massive immunization campaign.

Most highways in Algeria are paved, but desert roads are unreliable. Most people do not have cars, and rely on buses in the cities and on horses, camels, and mules in the desert.

Telephone access is concentrated in the urban north. The state controls local radio and television, but urban Algerians can access international television through satellites. Internet access is extremely limited, and newspapers print only authorized material at the risk of being suspended.

The numbers, while better than in much of Africa, are still stark: 25% of Algerians live in poverty, without access to the health care, education, and economic opportunities that would allow them to improve their life.

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