The Inaccessible ones

Oran, Sidi Bel-Abbes, Mascara, Ghelizane, Ain Temouchent, and Saida are birthplaces, adopted cities, or cultural heritage sites for the sheikhat. A sheikha does not bear her family name; she sheds it upon entering the public domain and crossing the limits of the horma. She is called by a given name, sometimes followed by a nickname and/or the place where she works: Rahma el Abassya (Rahma of Belabas), Hab Lahmeur (the red buttons), Keltoum el Balini, (Keltoum of the Balini [quarter]), Habiba el Kebira (Habiba the elder), Habiba Sghira (Habiba the younger), Rimitti el Ghelizanya (Rimitti of Ghelizane), etc. For the purpose of clarity, 'particles' are added in order not to confuse sheikha Djinya el Kebira el Haqqanya bent Saida (Djinya the elder, the true daughter of Saida) with sheikha Djinya el Mascarya (Djinya of Mascar).

Chikha Djenia arrives to a wedding night vigil with her berrah (left) and flutist (right).
She pretends to take the shotgun, reserved in principle to men (Sfisel, 1987)

With the exception of Rimitti, the most transgressive and the most famous of them, these artists are never pictured on the jackets of their disks and cassettes. They are replaced by an alluring image, always new, of a model from a magazine or a "kitsch" post card: bait for erotic dreams or the last bastion of respectability? When they appear in person they are often veiled in muslin. They arrive out of nowhere and leave again into the night, surrounded by "their men": the "crier" and those who play the gellal and the flute. It is not unusual for a sheikha to be the wife or mistress of one of these artists. Inaccessible.

Thus the myth of their presumably tumultuous lives, their hardships and their incessant flirtations with marginality is created and reproduced by word of mouth and enhanced by rumors and fantasy: divorce, legal difficulties, bloody fights at parties, police raids on the private homes where they perform, accusations of prostitution in the places they frequent, and the imprisonment of certain friends.

All these episodes appear as elusive traces in the songs. Everyone can find in them something that can be related to one's own distress and, under the paroxysm, to tendencies in daily life.

The world of the meddahat [female singers in honor of the Prophet and the Saints] is less turbulent. The fact that they sing in the feminine milieu shields them from certain charges. But this job, occupied only by women most often without husbands or male protectors, does not allow for the cultural recognition that would protect them from obscurity. Their earnings, concentrated around the season of marriages and the evenings of Ramadan, are precarious. Moreover, competition between and inside groups is intense. The financial obligations and psychological pressures on the meallma, the group's leader, are often very strong.

A meddahat orchestra (Oran, 1988)

Meddahat during a wedding performing a 1980s hit celebrating women's liberation:
Meddahat ensemble, Matsalounich (Don't Ask Me To Explain) (wav file: 227 kb)

A duo performing the same song:
Chaba Xahwanya and Cheb Hamid, Matsalounich (Don't Ask Me To Explain) (wav file: 293 kb)

Forward | Main page