York PhD candidate receives a British Library grant

Many of the archives on the culture and history of the Ibadi people living in the Mzab oases in Algeria are held in private collections. As such, they are at risk of being destroyed or lost, but York PhD candidate Yacine Daddi Addoun is working to preserve those archives.

Daddi Addoun received a 2007 research grant of £11,570 from the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme for a one-year pilot project that will look at how many private collections there are, how valuable the material is and what condition are they in. Daddi Addoun plans to concentrate on archives in the Mzab city of Beni Isguen in northern Africa. The Mzab became the major area for trade and the centre for scholarship for the Ibadi people after the Rustamid State in North Africa was destroyed in 909 AD.

Right: Beni Isguen. Photo by Daddi Addoun

There are seven Ibadite cities in the Mzab oases of Algeria – Al-Ateuf, Bou Noura, Ghardaia, Beni Isguen, Melika, Guerara and Berriane. The Ibadis, who took refuge in the Mzab oases after much persecution, practise a unique form of Islam. Their way of life and culture, however, is threatened by the slow disintegration of their communities and by integration of the Mzab into the rest of Algeria. Beni Isguen was founded in 1347 AD.

"The importance of this region is threefold" says Daddi Adoun. "One, because the people are a religious minority and they are a branch of Islam; two, because they are settlers in a region dominated for centuries by nomads; and three, because they are Berber-speaking people. The Ibadi are also important as they always maintained links to the outside world and we find traces of the Ibadi people from this region in all of the major cities of Algeria in the north and the south."

The collections are expected to contain information about faith, trade, accounting and private correspondence providing clues to the daily lives of the people of the Mzab during the 18th and 19th centuries. Daddi Addoun says much of the archival material of former Ibadi scholars and traders kept in private libraries and with families, passed down from generation to generation, is at risk.

"Sometimes they are kept by families for generations and then destroyed because the family doesn’t realize the material might be valuable. It is sometimes destroyed without anyone knowing what was there. That’s a huge drawback," says Daddi Addoun.

Daddi Addoun, who is teaching two courses in African history in York’s Department of History, Faculty of Arts, and is a member of the steering committee for the Harriet Tubman Institute for Research on the Global Migrations of African Peoples, was born and raised in Beni Isguen and knows first-hand the importance of preserving the archives.

"It’s an advantage and a disadvantage to be from the region," says Daddi Addoun. "I know the area and the history, but I’m social situated, and thus perceived as not neutral. That’s why I’m starting with the city of Beni Isguen."

He plans to work closely with the Abu Ishaq Tefayech Association for the Service of Heritage in the Mzab Oases, which was formed in the 1990s to help preserve the area’s archives, whether they are accounting documents, letters or books.

"The most important thing is to get an inventory of what is there in Beni Isguen, the state it’s in and examples of what is available," says Daddi Addoun.

Left: A palm grove in Beni Isguen. Photo by Daddi Addoun

In 2001, an acquaintance gave Daddi Addoun a number of books that had belonged to his now deceased grandmother. One of them was a rare lithograph of a book containing letters written by a famous Beni Isguen scholar who died in 1914.

"Sometimes people just don’t know the value of what they have," says Daddi Addoun.

Another time, the Abu Ishaq Tefayech Association for the Service of Heritage showed Daddi Addoun a disorganized mound of material that someone had left for the association.

"It was just a huge pile. That’s how bad it can be sometimes. The association is going through it little by little to see what’s there. It’s a huge task," says Daddi Addoun.

Other times the material may be destroyed through political strife or a change in political ideology – which could see the destruction of archives of a particular minority, war, forces of nature, age, cultural homogenization or neglect.

"Some of the archival materials are jealously held within Ibadi families. They’re not something that’s just given away," says Daddi Addoun.

That will make Daddi Addoun’s job of finding the archival material and having it preserved much more difficult. He says a delegation from Kuwait already tried unsuccessfully to gather the material and take copies away.

Right: Al-Ateuf. Photo by Daddi Addoun

"The ideal scenario is that collection holders will tell us we can digitalize their collections and one set can go to the British Library, one to the Abu Ishaq Tefayech Association for the Service of Heritage, one to the Tubman Institute and one will stay with the collection holder," says Daddi Addoun. "So at least if one of the copies is lost, there will always be another available as a backup."

Daddi Addoun plans to head to Algeria in the spring to begin work on the pilot project.

The British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme is designed to safeguard archival material that pertains to societies prior to modernization or industrialization. It awards grants to individual researchers around the world to locate vulnerable archival collections.

Daddi Addoun received his bachelor’s degree in political science at the University of Algiers and his master’s degree in sociology from the Institute National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales in Paris. He was working on his doctorate in Paris when political strife erupted in Algiers preventing him from returning to the city to conduct field work. It was around that time that Paul Lovejoy, director of the Harriet Tubman Institute for Research, invited Daddi Addoun to continue his studies at York.

For more information about the pilot project, contact Daddi Addoun at yadaddi@yorku.ca.

By Sandra McLean, York communications officer.