The blaring, near-bluesy vocals of Algerian singer Zhaira Dite Zhor last weekend closed a week of performances in France feting the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, and also marked the near culmination of a year of Algerian cultural events in France.

"We want everyone to see our tradition in Algeria," Zhor said of the performance at the Cafe de la Danse. "It brings us great joy to sing in France, to present our country."

As she wailed age-old Algerian melodies in the fkiret tradition of songs by women for women, the Arabic lyrics carried the weight of her country’s troubled past, her religions current challenges and the obstacles facing women in Muslim states.

Djazair 2003

This year, more than 2000 performances, exhibits and special events, some of which will continue till February 2004, were scheduled throughout France as part of Djazair (Arabic for Algeria and Algiers) 2003, the year of Algeria in France," the first event of its kind hosted by the former colonial power.

"For France and Algeria this year will be a renewal after multiple missed encounters and misunderstandings, years of silence, oversight and pain," said Djazair 2003 president, Herve Bourges, at the start of the year’s events.
 
But only this month a lawsuit was filed in the Paris courts alleging that former French president Charles de Gaulle committed crimes against humanity during the last stages of the Algerian war, which ended in 1962, in continued repercussions from France's occupation of the North African country.

Any lingering antagonism appeared temporarily buried last weekend behind the draping tapestries, bazaar-like cafe and dangling Moroccan lanterns vibrating to the rhythmic bendir (a North African hand-held drum) beats of Zhors brother Hadj Nasser.

Complex relationship

The performances at Cafe de la Danse, part of the
warehouse-turned-nightclubs Les Belles Nuits du Ramadan (The Beautiful Nights of Ramadan), highlighted an even more complex relationship than that between France and Algeria: the rapport between the Muslim and non-Muslim world.

Modern ties: Presidents Chirac (L)
and Bouteflika of Algeria

In the wake of a series of deadly attacks in Turkey, a fierce debate in France over the wearing of Muslim headscarves and the ongoing conflict in Iraq, the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which began late October, has been plagued with increased worldwide religious controversy.

But according to Zhor, who says her songs will help the audience "better understand the Arab world," spreading culture rather than separating it is the only path.

Female tradition

Her performance is based on a female tradition in her native eastern Algerian region of Annaba, of women singing for other women to celebrate marriage and other religious ceremonies.
 
Performing abroad is important "to show how things are done among women in Algeria" said Zhor, a well-known fkiret in Algeria, who has already brought her act to France, Germany, Italy and Belgium.
 
But celebrating the role of women in Algeria is laced with contention in a country where men have the right to have up to four wives, and women can only carry out certain day-to-day activities with the approval of a male family member.
 
A recent campaign to give women greater rights was rejected as un-Islamic earlier this month by a moderate Algerian Islamic party.

Closing the curtain

Nevertheless, women controlled the stage when Zhors three back-up singers chimed in with the crowned diva in roaring harmony, closing the curtain on a Ramadan fest that included everything from Lebanese jazz and modern Algerian folk-rock to traditional Moroccan music.

Cafe de la Danse, which makes a concerted effort to include female performers in their lineup, hosted the festival from November 18-22.

Ongoing events of Djazair 2003 include Algeria, Art and History, an exhibit at the Paris Institute of the Arab World till January 25, and numerous film festivals, retrospectives and cultural events throughout France.