Academic journal article Nomadic Peoples

The Role of Architecture in Society: Structuring of the Family Unit among Moorish Pastoral Nomads of Mauritania

Academic journal article Nomadic Peoples

The Role of Architecture in Society: Structuring of the Family Unit among Moorish Pastoral Nomads of Mauritania

Article excerpt


This paper sheds new light on the existence of a multitude of architectural concepts amongst Moorish nomadic herders of Western Sahara. The description and the analysis of its three variations help us to better understand the nuclear family's genesis in this society and the important role of architectures and, more generally, of objects in this process.

In the Mauritanian nomadic society, the type of habitation most used and the best known is the tent, the khayma. (1) Its most likely heritage is from the progressive arrival of Arab Bedouin tribes into the Western Sahara regions starting in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries AD. (Feilberg 1944). It consists of a rectangular cloth about 7 m by 6 m, made up of strips woven from black wool and the hair of camels (often replaced today by strips of imported cotton cloth) and supported at the centre by the crossing of two long slanted wooden poles, giving the whole a pointed and pyramidal form. The khayma is at the base of the strong metonymical relationship with the family living there, (2) benefiting from a privileged status in the Moor's system of representations and in their contemporary identity among the Bedouins and the rest of the population (Boulay 2004).

Nevertheless, on-site investigations have allowed us to discover that the khayma is not the only kind of tent used by pastoral Mauritanians. (3) There is, in effect, another type, or more precisely another architectural concept, less known and named the benye. This feminine noun, based on the Arab root BNY, expresses the idea of 'build', 'erect' or 'construct' (4) and takes the form not of the two long slanted poles of the khayma but rather is based on arcs or stakes placed vertically.

Through a careful examination of the three current uses of the word benye--'secret' shelter of a young couple, double roof 'discreet' of the black tent, light structure for long migrations--we will see how the study of this architectural concept can instruct us regarding the process of forming the marital couple and family in a Muslim society. We will also better understand how, even today, this contributes to the confidentiality and marginality of this important factor and its different known materials in this part of the Western Sahara.

Keywords: Western Sahara, Moors, nomads, pastoralists, architecture, tents

Night-time and Secret Shelter of a Young Couple

In Anticipation of the Wife's First Trip

The word benye means, first of all, in the Mauritanian society, a night-time shelter for a young couple in anticipation of their first tent and first official social existence. It relates to a shelter which is not supposed to be mentioned, except among young people of the same age, since it implies the first sexual relations of the couple)

From the time of the marriage, this piece of white cotton cloth houses the first intimate moments of the couple. The benye is put up the second evening of the marriage ceremonies (which last three days). In the beginning the young couple stays with their respective friends. The bride's parents send the group a generous meal called the walime (at least in south-western Mauritania). During the second part of the night the couple is left alone and may have their first sexual relations, though in certain families and regions (Tauzin 2001: 178) it is not favourably looked upon when this occurs during the first evening of the marriage. The cloth is always furnished by the groom and sewn rapidly by the bride's parents.

After the marriage, in the Bedouin milieu and particularly among families seeking an important social standing, the bride (le-crus) rarely leaves the family camp immediately to go live with her husband. (6) The young woman generally stays in her mother's shelter for a year. If the bride is very young (twelve or thirteen years old), something that happens sometimes in remote regions (such as the eastern Hodh), this period could even last two, three or four years, during which the marriage may not be consummated. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.