[The] Ouled Nail, with her robe of vivid crimson embroidered in gold, her soft silk veil of the palest blue…the wide gold girdle with its innumerable chains and pendants, the necklaces of coins, the bracelets of silver and gold, and the crown-like head-dress, is the personification of the gorgeous East. – Frank Edward Johnson, “Here and There in Northern Africa” (The National Geographic Magazine, January 1914)
The Ouled Nail (pronounced “will-ed nah-eel”) were a Berber tribe who inhabited the Atlas Mountains of Algeria; their origins are lost to history, and though they were converted to Islam in the 7th and 8th centuries CE along with the other Berbers, they retained a number of distinctive characteristics which set them apart until well into the 20th century. Chief among these was the status of their women, or Nailiyat; not only were they free from purdah, in adolescence they actually went down into the cities unescorted by men and worked for a time as dancers and prostitutes in order to amass a personal fortune with which to purchase property at home, and only after they had done this would they seek marriage. The Nailiyat were thus not only remarkably independent by the standards of tribal cultures or Muslims, but even by the traditional standards of European cultures; they enjoyed a freedom unknown by any but the wealthiest, boldest women before the “sexual revolution”, and indeed greater than that of many “liberated” women to this very day.
The Nailiyat were not forced or expected to practice dancing and harlotry, but it was more common than not and the trade ran in families. Daughters learned dancing and the erotic arts from their mothers, and about the age of 12 started travelling down to the cities for part of the year, accompanied by their mothers, grandmothers or aunts (who not only advised and helped them, but also kept house). They typically returned home seasonally, and as they grew older and more experienced they might sometimes make the trips with sisters or cousins of similar age instead, or later graduate to escorting younger relatives. After five to fifteen years of work (depending on the individual’s aspirations and level of success) a Nailiya usually returned home permanently, purchased a house and garden, and began to accept suitors; after marriage she settled down to the normal domestic role and marital fidelity which are traditionally expected of women throughout the world, and when she had daughters of her own she trained them and accompanied them down to the cities in their turn. Women of the Ouled Abdi and Ouled Daoud tribes sometimes worked as dancers and whores as well, but unlike the Ouled Nail they only did so after being orphaned, divorced, widowed or otherwise cut off from financial support.
No one knows when the tradition began, but it probably predates the advent of Islam because the name of the chief city (250 km south of Algiers) to which they come to work, Bou Saâda, means “Place of Happiness” in Arabic, thus testifying to their presence there when the Arabs first arrived in the 7th century. Soon after the French conquered Algeria in 1830 they in turn discovered these emissaries of an alien culture, and like the Arabs before them were amazed and entranced by what they found. The typical Nailiya wore a layered dress, heavy, spiked silver bracelets which could be used as weapons, and copious jewelry made of coins she had earned. She accented her eyes with kohl, decorated her hands and feet with designs in henna, and knew nothing of the kind of sexual shame which oppressed her European sisters. The Nailiyat danced erotically (and in the latter parts of their shows, sometimes without clothes), smoked tobacco and marijuana, openly prostituted themselves with the full knowledge and cooperation of their mothers, and accepted any children born out of wedlock (especially if they were daughters). Many a French tourist was captivated by these strikingly unconventional ladies, and their fame spread through Europe in the latter half of the 19th century and even to North America by the early 20th.
But though the French and other Europeans enjoyed their dancing and other services, they either could not or would not understand their traditions and cultural dynamics. Since the men of the tribe did not leave their homelands, Ouled Nail communities in the towns were entirely composed of women; early ethnographers were at a loss to understand this and so some described the Nailiyat’s dancing and prostitution as a pre-marital “rite of passage” similar to the single act of sacred prostitution Herodotus says all Babylonian women had to perform. Others characterized the accumulation of wealth as “earning a dowry”, claiming that the motive was to make themselves more marriageable and that the dowry would be presented to the groom; they pointed to the display of wealth (the coins mounted on their jewelry) as evidence of this. In truth, the women displayed their wealth thus for practical reasons; it was safer where they could keep an eye on it than left elsewhere to be stolen. And as we have seen, they did not turn the money over to their husbands, but retained control of it even after marriage; indeed, some of the Nailiyat enjoyed city life so much they never returned home, but continued to work as dancers and harlots until they could secure an advantageous marriage with an outsider or else set themselves up in some other business (a café of their own, perhaps) in Bou Saâda or even Algiers.
Because she had independent means, a Nailiya could marry for love, and because she had no romantic illusions about sex (as I have pointed out in reference to modern whores) she had no temptation to cheat after marriage. The men of their tribe understood and appreciated this; in his book Flute of Sand (1956), Lawrence Morgan quotes one of them: “Our wives, knowing what love is, and having wealth of their own, will marry only the man they love. And, unlike the wives of other men, will remain faithful to death, Thanks be to Allah.” But sadly, this important truth is lost on those who suffer from misconceptions about prostitution; the idea that the Nailiyat “danced for their dowries” (ignoring their whoring and downplaying their financial independence) has become a popular legend among American practitioners of belly dancing, and even Dr. Andrea Deagon (to whose work I am indebted for much of the information in this column) opines that the Nailiyat were not “true” prostitutes because most of them were selective about clientele and charged for their company rather than for specific acts (in other words, they were much like modern escorts).
But though their contact with Western culture spread the fame of the Nailiyat, it also doomed them. The dishonorable and rootless French mercenaries who ran wild in Algeria during the first few decades of the French occupation, enabled by their 19th-century European belief that whores are subhuman, sometimes murdered Nailiyat for their coin-laden jewelry. Nor did the French government treat them any more humanely; the moralistic tyranny of the social purity era inspired French officials to classify them as prostitutes and to subject them to arbitrary travel and residence restrictions, heavy taxation and ruinously expensive licenses, fees and fines. By the First World War they were reduced to working in specially-licensed cafes (owned, as usual in such regimes, by the politically-connected) whose management devised ways of extorting even more money from the increasingly-exploited Nailiyat. Thus deprived of their traditional means of livelihood, many of them jumped at the chance to earn good money in the new Bordels Mobiles de Campagne (BMCs), mobile brothels housed in trailer-trucks which were used to bring whores to soldiers at the front lines or in isolated outposts; these brothels were used for the regular French Army until 1954 and in the Foreign Legion until the late ‘90s. Descriptions of the staff of the BMCs invariably describes them as “Algerian”, but they were specifically Nailiyat (though in the post-WWII period joined by many Vietnamese women).
By the end of the Second World War the Ouled Nail way of life had irreversibly changed, and the authoritarian socialist government which took power after Algerian independence in 1962 finished the job by collectivizing agriculture and forcibly assimilating them. In the early 1970s Aisha Ali found a small group of holdouts still living and performing in Bou Saada, and she recorded their music for her album Music of the Ouled Nail; this recording, a number of photographs and paintings, and the imitations of their fashion and dance styles by American belly dancers since the 1960s are all that remain of a once unique and fascinating culture, now ground into the dust of the Sahara by the twisted schemes of tyrants.
One Year Ago Today
“New Book Reviews” was the first of a number of similar columns and presents my reviews of a number of volumes you may find interesting.