The Mozabites

There are only a few communities ofIbadi Muslims in the world. There are Ibadis in Oman, a few in Libya and Tunisia, and a large community here in the M’zab Valley around the town of Ghardaia where I have been staying for the past few days.

Ibadis are very conservative and do their best to isolate themselves from people with other beliefs. Here in the M’zab that means that the old Ibadi towns are walled and most insist that foreigners come inside only if accompanied by an Ibadi guide. This sounds rather unfriendly and xenophobic, but as long as foreigners do not smoke cigarettes in the presence or take photos of women and children, everything is fine. I wandered through one of the towns that does not require a guide the other day, and was treated with sincere welcome.

The old towns and the Ibadis traditional dress are all designed with the desert climate in mind; temperatures in the valley can reach 48 degrees in the summer. Homes are painted in light pastels to reflect much of the sun, and village streets are kept narrow and shaded. Men wear trousers with fabulous pleated crotches that hang don to their ankles – any waiter who has ever worked a patio shift in the summer can understand the logic here in this. Their white caps also work to reflect back the sunlight.

But, as is so often the case in this part of the world, the women are the most interesting. They wrap themselves in a sort of chador made of thick white cotton. Unmarried women keep their faces uncovered, but once a woman is married she pulls the cloth over her face so there is only a small hole for one eye to look out of. I still haven’t gotten used to seeing these ghostly, peeking, women. I am resisting the temptation to wink at them. I am sure that would be frowned upon.

I will stay for a few more days and attend Easter mass at the church of the White Fathers, an old Christian mission that has been around since the 19th century. They maintain a library of books about the Sahara that I would like to see before I go.

The orange trees are blossoming now, and the streets are thick with the perfume. With this fragrance, and the soft colours of the streets, this is a very beautiful place to be.