Matrimony and Patrimony in Tlemcen

Friday, October 18, 2019 | Tlemcen, Algeria

The Medersa of Tlemcen, a colonial-era school built in the mauresque style, is getting a new paint job.
"Are you from Tlemcen? No wait, maybe Kabylie? No wait, Khenchela…?"

Ever since I settled in Algeria over six years ago and set about converting my Moroccan Arabic to a purely Algerian one, strangers who meet me invariably ask me if I'm from Tlemcen or one of these other regions. It's a reasonable guess, since these are the parts of Algeria known for having the most blonds—a category into which I fall unambiguously.

But perhaps the stereotype needs review. In 48 hours in Tlemcen late last year, I only saw two natural blonds! (We remain a rare species—though not nearly as rare here as you might guess, if you haven't visited Algeria, a country more diverse than most outsiders realize.)

I was in Tlemcen (تلمسان; pronounced t-lem-SAN) for my colleague Mehdi's wedding, which took place in his home village of Ain Youcef, a short drive north of Tlemcen city itself.

Mehdi arrived at the wedding hall on horseback, surrounded by dancing friends and family.
Algerian weddings tend to follow a standard model that's rather less exciting than the weddings back home. The celebrations are typically a single-sex affair, with the women invited inside to dance and party in the company of close male relatives only. We, the other male invitees, are consequently relegated to the reception hall's parking lot, where we loiter for hours, making small talk while waiting for our female companions to emerge and recount tales from the dancefloor. The monotony of the wait is broken only by a brief invitation to enter a rear annex, often in the basement, to scarf couscous at picnic tables.

True to the traditions of Tlemcen, Mehdi's wedding was a much more animated affair. It began with a gathering of the groom's friends at an apartment near the venue. (By local custom, Mehdi himself had been cloistered there for the previous three days, barred from using his cell phone. Instead, his friends took his calls for him—a measure intended to keep him relaxed.) After we'd spent a few hours chit-chatting, snapping pictures, and urging Mehdi to hurry up and get dressed, a local zorna band rolled up, broke out their drums and horns, and proceeded to whip the men into a frenzy. Out we spilled into the night, processing to a local coffee shop for a ceremonial pre-wedding snack, then onward to the reception hall.

Outside the hall, Mehdi mounted on a ceremonial horse, had a sweeping white burnous robe draped over his suit and tie, and paraded toward the venue dancing on horseback amid a crowd of friends and family, animated by the zorna band's caterwauling rhythms. The women spilled outside the hall to welcome the procession, bedecked in jewels and caftans with gold and silver brocades, their hair done up and their makeup thick. As the crowds met, Mehdi leaned down from the horse to kiss his mother and aunt on the cheeks. His father stood beside him, draped in a heavy cloak against the cold, white beard immaculately trimmed, and head topped with a wool side cap against the cold. His father handed Mehdi a stout rifle, firing it repeatedly with a thunderous thud into the night sky while his many friends and cousins lit fireworks and road flares, casting the whole scene a brilliant red as they whooped and swirled to the pipe and drums.

Men's festivities at the entry to Mehdi's wedding
Then we went inside to an annex and scarfed dinner at picnic tables. (Even in the best Algerian weddings, some things can't be changed.) At least here, in the western heartland near Morocco, we had delicious harira soup and savory-sweet lamb tajine with prunes. Once fed, we headed out, the dancefloor being reserved for intimate guests only.

* * *

I was long overdue for a visit to Tlemcen, the storied cradle of culture in western Algeria, so I reserved the whole weekend to explore the city. But the downside of choosing to finally visit Tlemcen on the occasion of Mehdi's wedding was that, after years of singing its praises, he was too busy to show me around the beloved hometown. So in my spare time before and after the ceremony, I had to make do on my own.

Luckily, I discovered that Mehdi's local pride was very much the norm, and that the Tlemcenis were effusive hosts. Everywhere in Algeria, random strangers go out of their way to make sure foreigners are enjoying themselves and finding their way without incident, but the Tlemcenis bested even this high bar. They proved especially proud of their traditions; Mehdi's friends and perfect strangers alike paused to ask sincerely: Had I visited this or that mausoleum, noticed their particular regional linguistic quirks, tasted the semi-sweet local desert kaak?

Former seat of the Ziyanid caliphate, the Mechouar Palace is located inside a large citadel in central Tlemcen. Built in the 12th century, it has recently been restored to its original splendor.
Yes, yes, and yes. I made the most of my weekend in Tlemcen, walking between the many palaces, museums, medersas, public squares, mausoleums, and other touristic sites scattered through the city center. Strangely enough, there were lots of sites—in sharp contrast to most Algerian cities, where a visitor can quickly exhaust the tourist circuit and be left wishing for more. Tlemcen lived up to its reputation—as one Algerian friend put it somewhat harshly before I visited—as "one of the few cities in Algeria where there's actually something to see and do."

* * *

Physically, Tlemcen is visibly Algerian, but with striking similarities to nearby Morocco that one tends not to see elsewhere here.

Tlemcen has served as a pillar of the Maghreb region for nearly two millennia. As the story goes, it was founded in the 2nd century C.E. as Pomaria, a military outpost in Rome's conquest of the region's indigenous Berber tribes. After the Arabo-Islamic invasion several centuries later, Tlemcen rose to prominence under the Almohads, then became the capital of the Ziyanid dynasty.

The traces of every age remain visible today. Back behind the city's petite train station, I walked through the Agadir, the tumbled remains of the city's first Islamic-era settlement. There, the Muslim army had built a city from the remnants of the earlier Roman town; I could still make out Latin inscriptions on random blocks within the Agadir's remaining structures.

Inside Tlemcen's Grand Mosque, built by the Almoravid dynasty in the 12th century
Almoravid, Merenid, Almohad, and Ziyanid architectural styles are everywhere, reminding me strongly of my time in Morocco (and of just how tedious and overwhelming those styles can be once the initial feeling of wonder fades). The Mechouar Palace, however, was decidedly not monotonous; after a recent renovation, the palace is in spectacular form. So too was the city's main medersa, which an animated local crew was repainting when I visited. As I walked up to chat with them, one of the painters perched atop precarious ladder hollered down to his friend below, brandishing brushes with white and brown paint: "This one is mayonnaise, and this one is chocolate!"

At Tlemcen's Grande Mosque, central square, Museum of Art and History, and the half-ruined (yet nonetheless imposing) Mansourah tower, I found plenty of fascinating details to explore. The city's museums were better curated than what one usually finds in Algeria—perhaps thanks to the fact that Tlemcen served, in 2011, as Capital of Islamic Culture, attracting visitors from across the world and much-deserved investment from the Algerian state. The sites downtown were so numerous that I never even found time to visit the Sidi Boumediene mausoleum or natural sites (a waterfall and underground cave system) just outside town. I did manage to ride the cable car up to the Lalla Setti plateau, which overlooks the town and miles and miles of verdant fields and olive trees surrounding it.

Ornate colonial-era building, Tlemcen
If Tlemcen's celebrated historical sites merit a visit, the in-between parts of the city itself were no less interesting. All throughout downtown, buildings revealed subtle Art Deco flourishes, as if every home were a mini Empire State or Chrysler Building. The city was full of exquisite colonial-era apartments and storefronts, some of them still inhabited, others crumbling into ruin and slowly yielding to fig creepers.

* * *

Residents of Tlemcen proper have a reputation as being the only Algerians who pronounce the Arabic letter ق (whose closest English equivalent is "q") as an "a" just like Egyptians or Lebanese do, several thousand miles to the east. (Elsewhere in Algeria, it's pronounced either as a classic ق or a hard "g" sound.) Credible explanations for this phenomenon are hard to find, but some link it to variations in accents of the waves of early Arab Muslim conquerors who swept across the Maghreb.

In recent years, one local researcher has documented and sought to understand the accent's decline. Today, some people told me that it had completely disappeared, though rumors of its demise proved greatly exaggerated; I heard multiple uses during my brief visit.

For lovers of language, gastronomy, and architecture alike, Tlemcen's rich and textured heritage offers much to discover.

My Rolleiflex photos from Tlemcen are available here: 2018 Rollei - Tlemcen.

Street scene in downtown Tlemcen

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