Posted by: sean | June 19, 2008

Sea and Desert

So I’m back. I finished grading and braved the torrents of students begging for grades. I also read Kapuscinsky’s Travels with Herodotus. While speaking of the coup against Ben Bella in Algeria, he brings up a schism in Islam that I’d been thinking about even before having him articulate it. He speaks of a

conflict at the very heart of Islam, between its open, dialectical — I would even say “Mediterranean” — current and its other, inward-looking one, born of a sense of uncertainty and confusion vis-à-vis the contemporary world, guided by fundamentalists who take advantage of modern technology and organizational principles yet at the same time deem the defense of faith and custom against modernity as the condition of their own existence, their sole identity.

Algiers, which at its beginnings, in Herodotus’s time, was a fishing village, and later a port for Phoenician and Greek ships, faces the sea. But right behind the city, on its other side, lies a vast desert province that is called “the bled” here, a territory claimed by peoples professing allegiance to the laws of an old, rigidly introverted Islam. In Algiers one speaks simply of the Islam of the desert, and a second, which is defined as the Islam of the river (or of the sea). The first is the religion practiced by warlike nomadic tribes struggling to survive in one of the world’s most hostile environments, the Sahara. The second Islam is the faith of merchants, itinerant peddlers, people of the road and of the bazaar, for whom openness, compromise, and exchange are not only beneficial to trade, but necessary to life itself.

Under colonialism, both these strains of Islam were united by a common enemy; but alter they collided.

I don’t know enough about Algeria to know if Ben Bella is really a good specimen of the sea variety or Boumedienne an example of the Islam of the desert. I do know though, despite its simplicity, this is a distinction that’s been forming in my consciousness for a while now. It’s certainly one way of explaining the differences between Islam in, say, Saudi Arabia and the Islams of Lebanon.



  1. Brilliant quote.

    On a related note, I once read a historical essay about the religious and cultural distinctions between the more conservative Jews inhabiting the hilly Judea and Samaria vs. the Jews living on the Mediterranean coast. The former accused the latter of being too liberal and thus Hellenized. Whereby the latter accused the former of being too insular and void of colour.

    I’m not too sure about the exact era, but we’re talking BC.

    On can also talk about the US, West and East coast vs. “flyover country”.

    Didn’t mean to offend you with that last one.

  2. Habibi,

    Sorry it’s taken me so long to respond. I think you’re right. The phenomenon is definitely not limited to Islam…

    Hope all’s well in the great white north!

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