Amendil

A thaqbaylit, a tigedjgth, a thin i γef yebna wexxam.

Oh, Kabyle woman, oh, beautiful flower, you are the mainstay of your home.

-Kabyle saying


When my mother-in-law passed away in 2011, my husband brought back two of her headscarves from Algeria as keepsakes. One was an ordinary polyester square, the kind that can be bought in any shop, and that she probably wore every day when pottering around the house in Algiers.

The second, however, was different. It was an amendil, a traditional Kabyle headscarf, black, embroidered with multicoloured thread around the edges and embellished with a fringe of tassels and bobbles. Holding it to my face, I could still discern my mother-in-law’s unique scent; a mixture of naphthalene from the moth balls in which she used to store her clothes and perhaps lingering traces of dried perspiration, scented toilet soap and olive oil.

117-151-large.jpgThis was her special headscarf — one that she would wear at weddings or festivities of any kind. How many times had I seen her tie it over her hair, with a final decisive tug of the knot over her left eyebrow? How many times had I seen her sitting on the floor, roaring with laughter, her headscarf slipping backwards over her hair, only to be yanked impatiently back into place? Nothing could have brought her closer.

The traditional Kabyle woman’s dress has undergone many changes over the years. Originally, it consisted of a loose smock, woven from fine white wool and wide enough at the shoulders to cover the arms as far down as the elbows. A belt, consisting of strands of differently-coloured wools plaited together, was wound several times around the waist.

An axellal, a cloak, was thrown over the shoulders and attached at the front with fibulae, or brooches. If this seems familiar to you, the same type of clothing could be found all over the world at any given time, from ancient Rome to Anglo-Saxon England.

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Photo from TrueArt.com

Over the past century, however, the traditional outfit for Kabyle women has evolved, becoming more elaborate and retaining only the belt, which is now shorter and wrapped around the waist just once. Instead of the shapeless smock, the Kabyle dress now has sleeves and a discernable bodice. At the beginning of the century, it was made of flowered cotton, then later, of silk, satin or anything in between.

Although she could no longer fit into them, my mother-in-law had kept a few cotton dresses from her trousseau. Rummaging through her wardrobe, my sisters-in-law and I would often come across these dresses, holding them up against our more generous figures and marvelling at the narrow waistline and short length. What a tiny thing she must have been at sixteen years old.

Although the material and colour of the dresses vary, the one thing they have in common are the rows of multi-coloured rickrack braid sewn around the cuffs, the hem and across the chest. A length of red and black striped cloth, called a thimehramth, is tied around the waist at the front and covers the back of the dress, reaching as far down as the ankles. Berber symbols are embroidered on the dresses and their jewel-like colours are inspired by the beautiful landscapes of Kabylie.

But to return to the amendil. There is a legend attached to it – one that describes an act of bravery and explains why Kabyle women wear it with such pride. It is not meant to hide their faces, but as a tribute to an act of courage and sacrifice.

The Bibans (The Iron Gates) are a chain of slaty, limestone mountains on the southern rim of Lesser Kabylie. They were originally the territory of the Ath Abbès Berber tribe, known for  their prolific literary and artistic output as well as for their resistance to Spanish and Ottoman invaders. Indeed, any Ottoman Turk travelling from the Eastern beylik to Algiers through the two main passes or gorges, was subjected  to a toll levied by the mountain tribes.

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The Iron Gates. Painting by Adrien Dauzats

The Bibans are not blessed with fertile alpine meadows or lush pine forests. They form a forbidding wall, rising up from the surrounding plain like some grim fortress, the grey rock breaking the blue skyline in craggy peaks. There are no gentle slopes, just sheer drops, abrupt cliff edges and strategic lookout points hewn from the living stone.

When the spring thaw comes to these mountains, the meltwater flows down the almost vertical mountainsides and cascades off the carved rocky outcrops like skeins of white lawn.  The mountain streams run full, swollen with pure, clean water, feeding into the Sahel and the Bousselam rivers before these join up with the even mightier Soummam at the Piton d’Akbou.  When this meltwater joins together with the torrents of heavy spring rain, the rivers are transformed into a roaring maelstrom of rapidly-moving currents.

One day, many years ago, it is said that a group of horsemen was caught in the rushing waters of the Asselmam (Bousselam) river, which had been transformed into a raging torrent by its passage through a series of narrow gorges. Struggle as they might, the men were unable to fight their way to the river bank.

Women working in the fields nearby heard their stricken cries and rushed to the riverbank, where they could see the drowning men battling against the vicious undertow. How could they pull them from the water? The only thing they could think of were their long plaits of hair, of which they were inordinately proud.

Without a second thought, they chopped them off  and tied them together to form a rope. Thanks to their quick thinking, the men were hauled to the bank of the river and their lives were saved. It was only then that the women realised what they had done. Although they had managed to save the men from drowning, they had sacrificed their glorious long hair – the very essence of their femininity.

Feeling that their beauty had been diminished, the women began to cover their shorn heads with exquisitely decorated imendaylen,  the silky fringes around the edges falling over their cheeks and shoulders like long, lustrous locks of hair. The men of the village shared their wives’ sadness, although they were, at the same time, proud of their courage and sacrifice.

The amendil became such a potent symbol of abnegation, that it took only a woman stepping in between two quarrelling men and taking off her headscarf for the men to stop fighting immediately. Men began to see the scarves as a symbol of pride and respect – so much so that when a woman took off her headscarf in front of them, they would lower their eyes, not out of shame or modesty, but out of humility.

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It is only a legend, but, when I went up into Kabylie for the first time, I was struck by the fact that any man who was not a family member would not look me straight in the eye. They would answer my questions by addressing the ground in front of my feet. In the same respectful way, a stranger entering a house would always announce his presence by coughing discreetly.

To me, this is a fair sharing-out of responsibility for the preservation of modesty and respect. The onus is not all on the woman to cover up and hide from the male gaze. The man also has his part to play.  In Kabyle villages, a woman can walk freely. It is the man’s responsibility not to importune her.

The amendil leaves the face, neck and the front of the hair uncovered. This is the opposite of the Islamic veil, which is, in fact, a carry-over from ancient pre-Islamic traditions in Assyria and the Arabian peninsula. In the Hammurabi code of the eighteenth century BC, it was a legal obligation for free woman to wear the veil outside and forbidden for any slave or prostitute to do likewise. In Ancient Greek and Roman society, there were similar restrictions. The practice of veiling is, in fact,  only mentioned once in the Koran.

Today, the amendil is generally worn by Kabyles as a symbol of their Berber identity. Older women wear it more often, but it comes into its own whenever there is a wedding or other celebration. Tied around the hips before dancing, the swaying fringes of the scarf emphasise the movements of the dancer’s body.

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The Magic Grain

Ce qui fait le couscous, c’est la sauce; ce qui fait le mariage c’est l’amour.

What makes a couscous is the sauce; what makes a marriage is love.

-Berber proverb


My mother-in-law started giggling.

One of the most endearing things about her was that once she started, she couldn’t stop. Her face would turn red, her shoulders shake with mirth and she’d fumble down the front of her dress for her handkerchief to wipe the tears streaming from her eyes. As soon as she stopped to gasp for breath, her mouth would twitch, then, with a splutter, she would burst out laughing again. Her laughter wasn’t just a sound; it was her expression, the way her face would crease into laughter lines and her eyes sparkle.

Although she had been only forty-six at the time, she seemed ancient to me, but during these light-hearted moments, I could easily see the carefree young girl she had once been. And her giggling was highly contagious. Soon I was groaning with laughter and holding my aching sides. Language is no barrier to giggling.

What could have been the cause of our merriment on that autumn day in the kitchen of our flat in the Cité Jeanne d’Arc? It was me, of course. Sitting on the tiled floor, one leg stretched out on either side of the tharbourth, the wide, shallow bowl in which couscous is rolled, I was doing my best to imitate the regular hand movements that she had just demonstrated to me.

What was I doing wrong?

Well, for a start, I should have bent my right leg at the knee and tucked it under my left one, behind the dish. My left leg should have been kept straight. My problem was that my leg was too long to fit behind the tharbouth and I wasn’t used to sitting on the floor with my legs wide apart, so as to speak. Although I was wearing trousers, I didn’t quite have the same ease of movement as the voluminous skirts of the traditional Kabyle dress would have given me.

I can only suppose that the sight of her new European daughter-in-law sitting in such an unorthodox position, with her long, black hair falling into her eyes instead of being modestly tied back in a scarf, awkwardly trying to imitate the gestures that were second nature to her, was enough to reduce her to tears of laughter. So much so, she had to lean helplessly against the kitchen table until she had recovered enough to take over.

Whenever couscous is mentioned, the comforting image that springs immediately to the mind of anyone from Algeria, Morocco or Tunisia, is that of a woman, usually their mother or grandmother, sitting on a sheepskin thrown on the floor, her back against a wall. Two or three sieves and jars of water are by her side, and, bending slightly over the tharbouth, or g’saa in Arabic, she is rolling the semolina flour with soothing, repetitive movements of the hands until it forms tiny pellets, pausing only to pass them through the sieves, or pour some water into one hand and sprinkle it over the pale golden grain. It is an image that spells home.

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Couscous, seksu in tamazight, and ta’am, meaning simply food, in Arabic, is traditionally steamed and served with a meat and vegetable stew spooned on top, the name couscous belonging to both the grain and the finished dish. There are many theories as to the origins of its name, some thinking that it is a derivative of seksu, others affirming that it is onomatopoeic, inspired by the sound of the dried semolina rattling into the tharbouth.

Archeological digs in the region have uncovered pots dating from the ninth century AD resembling those used to cook couscous today. Some experts believe that couscous dates back even further – to the first or second century BC. Whatever its age, it is generally agreed that the Imazighen (Berbers) were the first to roll and steam it. The first written mention of it was by eighth-century Muslim scholars, who praised its nutritional and medicinal qualities.

Couscous has been known for centuries as the “signature dish” of the Maghreb. It is a symbol both of Maghrebi identity and its culture. The carbohydrate cornerstone of North African cuisine, just as rice is for the Chinese and the Indians and pasta is for the Italians, it is an integral part of daily life, present at all the most important rites of passage; births, circumcisions, weddings and funerals.

The preparation and eating of couscous symbolises conviviality, reunions and family links. At its very heart is the idea of sharing – it is usually eaten from a communal dish, with each participant dipping his spoon, or his fingers, into the grain directly in front of him, never encroaching on his neighbour’s territory. Sharing food in this way embodies the virtues of hospitality and generosity and shows us that, with a little effort, we could all live in harmony.

Even the traditional way of rolling couscous could turn into a social event. Groups of women would gather together to make large batches over several days, which were then dried in the sun and used for several months. It was the same whenever there was a celebration of some kind in the offing. The women would enjoy their time together, laughing and gossiping in the shade of the trees, their brightly-coloured dresses and laughter making them look, and sound, like a twittering flock of birds of paradise.

As Algeria became one of imperial Rome’s “granaries,” the consumption of couscous spread along the latter’s trade routes, from sub-Saharan Africa to Spain. It is eaten in places as far apart as the Middle East and Brazil, where it was introduced by the Portuguese. The French discovered it in the nineteenth century on their conquest of Algeria, and it was subsequently to be found amongst the baggage of North African emigrants to France. A taste of home in a hostile, alien environment.

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Couscous is infinitely adaptable. It doesn’t have to be made from semolina – its basic grain can be barley or even acorn flour, resulting in a couscous called ta’am oubelout, eaten in the Chenoua region. My mother-in-law would eat only barley couscous when she became diabetic towards the end of her life.

The vegetables used are seasonal, so you can have a summer couscous and a winter one. There is a couscous for wealthy people and one for those who are less so. A mountain couscous, and an urban one. A desert couscous and another eaten by migrants far from home. Couscous adapts to every purse and every environment.

The protein accompanying the couscous can be mutton, beef, chicken, even eggs. People living along the coastline near Collo, in eastern Algeria, eat fish couscous. Dark brown couscous called lemziet is favoured by the inhabitants of Constantine. The pieds noirs loved eating couscous with merguez, spicy North African sausages, a tradition borrowed from Maghrebi Jewish cuisine. Couscous can be completely vegetarian, or, at the other extreme, garnished with three or more types of meat, as is couscous royal, with its mutton, chicken and merguez.

Festivities of any kind usually have mesfouf on the menu, couscous sweetened with honey and raisins, or, in western Algeria, seffa, where the light and fluffy steamed grain is mixed with butter, raisins, cinnamon, orange-flower water and grilled almonds. This kind of sweet couscous is often accompanied by a glass of cold elben or buttermilk. 

Couscous is both mythical and familiar. Many legends and beliefs are attached to it. Those practicing witchcraft and wishing to bring misfortune to another would disinter a freshly-buried corpse at night and use its severed hand to roll the couscous, which would then be fed to the victim, resulting in sickness, insanity or even death. On the positive side, it is supposed to bestow a divine blessing on the heads of those eating it. It brings baraka or good luck, just like bread, and, as such, should never be wasted or discarded.

As for me, I never mastered the art of rolling couscous and although my prepared couscous is second to none, the dried rolled grain was always provided for me by my mother-in-law and sisters-in-law throughout my years in Algeria. Luckily for me, I can now find it in any European supermarket. It is good, yes, but does not quite have the savour of home-rolled couscous, prepared with such loving care.

Happy Anniversary

Life is all about balance, and there are certain times of the year – birthdays, anniversaries….. that are meant to be enjoyed without guilt.

-Harley Pasternak


On ne fête pas les anniversaires en Algérie.” (We don’t celebrate birthdays in Algeria.)

T. looked at up from the papers strewn across the table in his room, his nostrils pinched in irritation and his lip curling in a sneer that reminded me of Elvis. His eyebrows drew together in a scowl at my frivolity.  What had I done now? Well, I had merely asked him what he would like for his upcoming twenty-fifth birthday. And had received the above terse answer.

It was perhaps not the best time to ask him a question — in fact, to talk to him at all. During the university exam period, he couldn’t abide anyone around him. He couldn’t abide the sound of me moving around, or even the sound of me breathing. Of me simply existing.

Sitting cross-legged on his bed, I squinted through the half-light of a rainy summer evening at my copy of  Beowulf.  To my tired eyes, the strange Anglo-Saxon characters seemed to dance across the page, but, as I carefully turned the pages of my book,  I was still aware of the black looks being directed at me and felt my ears turn pink under the scrutiny. 

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I could understand why exams were so important to him. Why he was so anxious. For him, this was the last-chance saloon. He could not — would not — go back to Algiers without an engineering degree in his pocket. His nerves were understandably in shreds, as he could not afford the events of the previous year to be repeated.

It had been a painful shock to him when he had been forced to re-sit his end-of-year exams the previous September. Too much time had been devoted in his first year to cutting a swathe through the female student population — at least, according to his tutor. I was just the latest in a series of his romantic conquests, but had lasted longer than most. Six months and counting.

Of course, all of the other Algerian students had also re-sat their exams, but T had never failed a test before in his life. It had seriously shaken his self-confidence, although he had passed with flying colours the second time around.

To counter his building anxiety around exam time, he would try to construct elaborate rationalisations as to why everything would turn out fine, but the nagging voice in the back of his mind was still issuing dire warnings about history repeating itself. I couldn’t understand why, as he was one of the most brilliant students in his year.

A couple of weeks earlier, he had emerged blinking from his self-imposed isolation to celebrate my birthday. Although he had been grumpier than usual that morning, glaring at me for crunching toast in his presence and barely wishing me a happy birthday before turning back to his books, he had, in fact, organised a surprise party for me after lunch, just as my temper reached boiling point and steam had started coming out of my ears. There were piles of presents, cards and even a birthday cake.  I had deflated like a punctured tyre.

But what to buy him for his birthday? I finally settled on a pair of onyx cufflinks which, when you think about it, is the most useless present ever. Who on earth wears shirts that need cufflinks? But they looked very elegant in their box and were received with due appreciation. As was my card.

I noticed, however, a look of dissatisfaction gradually creep across his face. What could be the matter? Ah, he had only received six birthday cards.  After telling everyone not to bother about his birthday, he was disappointed because they had taken him at his word.

In Britain, T had been obliged to follow, more or less, the niceties of British social traditions. Once in Algeria, however, things changed radically. Life there moved to a whole different rhythm.

I had expected there to be no celebration of Christmas, of course. Instead, we had the two Aïds and a host of other smaller religious festivals and political celebrations — Achoura, Muharrem, Independence Day and The Revolutionary Startled Jump, or whatever it was called.

The last name was seriously weird, but, according to my French/English dictionary, that’s what le Sursaut revolutionnaire means. It was the suitably pompous and meaningless name that had been thought up to make Boumediène’s 1965 coup d’état and subsequent seizure of power more palatable to the masses. Well, you couldn’t very well call it Illegitimate Military Takeover Day, now could you?

None of these holidays held any significance for me. I had found it very difficult to adjust to the sudden non-existence of the festive season, and the ritual slaughtering of a sheep and the making and exchanging of zillions of cakes did not quite make up for its loss.

But it was the absence of more personal celebrations that I missed the most.  Birthdays? Forget them. Wedding anniversaries? Don’t make me laugh. Mother’s Day? What’s that?

As far as T’s birthdays were concerned, things were a little complicated, because we did not know exactly when he had been born. The official date, appearing on his birth certificate, was the fifteenth of June. Unfortunately, his mother remembered that he had been born in the middle of a snowstorm and that she had been forced to wrap herself and her newborn baby up in a rug to keep warm.

An aunt had added the useful detail that the cherry trees had been in bloom at the time of his birth. A romantic image, yes, but it didn’t help us. Flowering cherry trees in June seemed be an impossibility, and although it snowed regularly in Kabylie in spring, it was stretching it a bit to imagine a blizzard in June.

So we came to the more prosaic conclusion that his father had not registered his birth for a few months, perhaps because T’s name was unapologetically nationalistic, and the French authorities would have refused to register it unless my father-in-law had slipped them a substantial bribe.  Or perhaps it was just because his father was busy and had not had the time to go to Michelet.

The result was that T had never really felt any particular attachment to his supposed birthdate. It was a day like any other. Perhaps he didn’t like the idea of marking the passing years  either — his birthdays looming on the horizon like personal tsunamis. Perhaps he felt that one day one of his tsunamis would drag him bodily up the beach and throw him into the raging water, leaving only the body of a decrepit old man behind.

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Most families in Algeria did not acknowledge birthdays, as they were still regarded with suspicion as an “idea imported from the West.” But by the seventies and eighties, birthday celebrations were making their tentative entrance into Algerian social mores, even though they were usually reserved for children.

Wedding anniversaries were, on the other hand, a completely no-go area. Perhaps some Algerian couples thought that their marriage was not something to celebrate. We never celebrated them either, as I think T had subconsciously taken his mother’s dire warnings about the “evil eye” to heart. You don’t flaunt your happiness in case it is taken away from you. Hubris followed by nemesis.

So – no birthday or wedding anniversary celebrations. Later on, we did celebrate the children’s birthdays and would go out for a meal together on ours. Sometimes a cake was even made or bought. But T thought, and continues to think, that actions count more than words, and his way of showing his feelings was to take care of us. With hindsight, I agree with him. It’s very easy to buy a card or cake, less easy to ensure your family’s wellbeing on a daily basis, especially in a country as unpredictable as Algeria.

Since we left Algeria, I have often thought about my mother’s feelings during the twenty-four years we were there. She must have felt as though I had disappeared into a black hole. No birthday, Christmas or Mother’s Day cards dropping through the letter box. We had our reasons, of course. Cards — any kind of cards — were just not available and the Algerian postal service was unreliable at best. Telephone communications were practically impossible. She knew all this, and accepted it, but it must have been no less hurtful. I’m so sorry, Mum.

Avernous

The land of the Berbers begins where men start to wear the burnous and ends where people stop eating couscous.

-Ibn Khaldun


I opened the door of our house in the Clos and peered anxiously down the curve of the road. It was already November, but, as autumn arrives later in Algeria than in Europe, the leaves had not yet started to fall, and the trees lining the road were on fire with red and gold foliage. It was still very early and the morning birds were carving sharp curls of song out of a high and empty sky; a sky as clear as glass and a perfect, untrammelled blue. The sun, burning brightly, seemed to swell as it rose in the sky.

 It was picture book perfect.

But I wasn’t feeling anything like the heroine in a fairy-tale. A griping pain was gnawing at my stomach. It seemed to me that its lining had been worn away with the acid of anxiety over the past six weeks – ever since my husband’s serious car accident twelve days after the birth of our son.

Today, however, the feeling of nausea was being caused by anticipation.  I had not slept a wink the  night before, but soon my long wait would be over. Today was the day T was coming home from the hospital in Algiers.

Looking through the wide, plate-glass window of the living room half an hour later, I saw a white van drawing up in front of the house. No sirens, or flashing lights, just the discreet word “Ambulance” painted on one of the windows. I dashed out of the front door, just in time to see T climb painfully out of the back seat, stand up unsteadily on one leg and shove his crutches under his arms to try to regain his balance. A colleague had also leapt out of the car and was holding my husband’s arm to help him.

I rushed into his arms and felt his hands grip my shoulders to steady me, as my knees had buckled. Pulling back, I could finally take a good look at him. His face was ashen and drawn with pain, his pallor making his dark eyes, eyelashes and eyebrows stand out in stark contrast to the white skin. He seems to have lost weight, too. It was the first time I had seen him since he had been whisked away, semi-conscious, with a broken femur and a suspected blood clot on the brain, in an air ambulance to the main hospital in Algiers.

Only later did I notice the blue cloak slung around his shoulders, but I had felt its smooth softness under my fingers when I had thrown my arms around him. In fact, it turned out to be a beautiful burnous, pale blue with black braiding, made of the highest-quality camel hair, and a gift from the colleague who had helped T from the car.

We kept the burnous for many years, using it as our comfort blanket, wrapping ourselves in it while watching television on cold winter evenings, and, for all I know, it is still in our house in Algeria.

I have never had a full-length burnous myself, but T had once brought a jacket for me back from Algeria when we were still at university. It was hip-length, made of the finest cream wool, decorated with white cord embroidery and with a long tassel dangling from the point of its hood. Silken cords were used to tie it at the neck. It wasn’t strictly a burnous, as it had sleeves and patch pockets, but I adored it and would wear it, instead of a cardigan, in mild weather.

The philosopher, Ibn Khaldun, when describing the Maghreb, had given the nickname of ashâb el barânis, (people of the burnous) to the Berbers, that is, those who habitually wear it. In fact, most Algerian men have worn it at one time or another, even if it was just at their circumcision, or their wedding.

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Winter in Kabylie

The burnous, avernous in Kabyle, is a long sleeveless cloak made of coarse woollen fabric. It has a pointed hood, and is, in general, white, beige, or dark brown. In Kabylie, it is made from sheep’s or goat’s wool and woven by the women on their wooden handlooms.

It is long and tiring work, as the wool has to be cleaned, spun and then woven. A daughter would learn at her mother’s knee the age-old techniques of weaving the cloaks, but this knowledge is fast disappearing  — an old Kabyle adage admonishing; “Do not give me a burnous, teach me how to weave one.”

Some linguists say that the word burnous comes from the tamazight root BRNS, meaning to twist or to wrap – in other words, a cloak in which you wrap yourself. Others say that it comes from the Latin burrus, meaning a brown cape. It was worn in Moorish Spain — al-Andalus — where it became the albornoz described by Sebastián de Covarrubias as “a hooded travelling cloak.”

Its primary purpose, of course, is to keep the wearer warm and protect him from the elements, essential during the harsh, snowy winters of Kabylie. A more ceremonial role is given to it when it is worn by the bridegroom at his wedding, especially during the henna ceremony when he traditionally pulls the hood forward over his face.

When the bride leaves her family home for the last time, she often wears a more feminine version of the burnous, and crosses the threshold with the cloak of her father or her oldest brother held over her head as a blessing. T would often say laughingly to me that he had taken me under his burnous when we married.

Years ago, the bride would not even have met her husband before the wedding, and only when he entered the bridal chamber in his burnous and pulled back the hood, would she see his face for the first time.

A shorter version is also part of the uniform of the Spahi, as this elite calvary regiment of the French army was initially made up of Algerian recruits. Nowadays, its soldiers are mostly French, but they still wear the traditional Maghrebi outfit, including the cloak. The soldiers on guard in front of the Presidential Palace in Algiers are in full Spahi regalia, their burnouses swinging as they march up and down.

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A Spahi

 

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Photo: Voyage chez les Amazigh

But the burnous is so much more than a piece of clothing. It symbolises peace and purity, responsibility, and maturity. Sometimes it is even equated to a man’s honour. It  is worn in general by the head of the family and during ceremonies of reconciliation and conflict resolution. It is also worn when sitting in the village council, the thajmarth, and lends dignity to the wearer, as well as enhancing his social standing. The former Algerian president, Boumediene, would wear a black burnous to impress the foreign leaders he met with, and during his “visits” to the rest of Algeria.

In the same way, the black burnous worn by T’s rascally oldest uncle, in his secret life as a brigand, would strike fear into the hearts of his victims. Sitting on his horse, his rifle thrust into his saddle, he would lie in wait in the undergrowth for passing travellers, the hood of his burnous pulled up to hide his identity. 

Wearing a burnous is an art in itself. You can tie it back out of your way when you are doing manual work. You can bundle yourself in it and pull the hood down to create your own personal space in a crowd. You can wrap it tightly around yourself, with one edge pulled over a shoulder to keep it in place, and the hood tugged over your face to protect yourself from the wind and rain. You can sling it carelessly around your shoulders when taking a stroll through your village in the cool of the evening. The hood can even be used as an impromptu shopping basket.

A burnous can be passed down through the generations. As the revered Kabyle writer, Mouloud Feraoun, wrote in his autobiographical novel, The Poor Man’s Son: ” My father, before his death, left his burnous to me. It had been left to him by his own father. I hope to leave it to my son, together with all the positive values it symbolises; our own, and those we share with the rest of humanity.”

The Wolf of Akfadou

“Sad times. Sad Kabylie. Sad Kabylie because traitors are uncovered every day. They are executed and those who killed them are then executed in their turn.”

-Diary of Mouloud Mammeri


My mother-in-law loved to sing. She would sit cross-legged on a cushion on the floor, close her eyes and away she would go. During the first months of our marriage, I noticed that some songs made her more emotional than others. She would sit there, swaying from side to side, tears leaking from beneath her tightly-closed eyelids and her voice quavering.

Intrigued, I would ask T what she was singing about. He would listen for a couple of seconds, then shrug and say, “She’s singing about Amirouche.” It was only later I learnt that Colonel Amirouche had, in fact, been a distant cousin of hers.

Amirouche Aït Hamouda was born in 1926 in Tassaft Ouguemoun, a tiny village in Kabylie, a few kilometres from my husband’s village. He was a posthumous child and his widowed mother had taken him, when still a baby, back to her home village, Ighil Bouamas, which was barely a hamlet — just a few houses huddled together on one of the peaks of the Djudjura mountains that rise like mighty jagged teeth from the earth, creviced by the sun, the wind and the snows of winter.

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Ighil Bouamas Photo: Wikipedia

Life was hard for widows and orphans in Kabylie. Normally, a room is kept empty in a Kabyle house, in case one of the daughters of the family is widowed or divorced and needs to return home. But once there, they are dependent on the charity of others, as my mother-in-law had found to her cost after the death of T’s father.

In exchange for food and shelter, destitute women and their children are supposed to work for the family members who have taken them in. After their father’s early death, T and his brothers had worked on the family farm in Reghaïa without pay for his father’s younger brother, after all of my father-in-law’s assets had been seized by the  uncle in question.

This custom is called acrik, and amounts to the kind of serfdom found in medieval Europe. Some people are indentured for the rest of their lives – working just for the food they eat and the roof over their heads. From his childhood onwards, Amirouche had worked without pay for his mother’s brother.

The way out of this servitude was usually education. It was so for T and his brothers, and Amirouche was also able to go to school for two or three years. He learned to read and write – enough to marry, move away, and set up a small business selling Kabyle jewellery in Relizane, near Oran.

He became interested in politics, joining Messali Hadj’s pro-independence movement, the MTLD, and later, its clandestine armed wing, the OS. Imprisoned in 1951 and then released, he would become even more passionately engaged in the fight for Algeria’s independence.

Krim Belkacem, one of the historic leaders of the independence struggle, on learning that Amirouche had assumed, without permission, the command of the FLN in the region of Michelet on the death of its former commander, had been in two minds whether to maintain this impertinent upstart in his post or get rid of him.

Krim had been impressed, however, on meeting the tall, spare, coureur des djébels, (hill runner) for the first time. Amirouche had a long, boney face ending in a determined chin, restless eyes as black as currants, and a typical Kabyle aquiline nose above the obligatory dark moustache. 

The FLN leader found the young fighter single-minded and decisive, yet willing to follow orders, and, best of all — extremely well -organised. He decided to spare his life, saying six months later that Amirouche had turned out to be one of his best lieutenants.

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Amirouche  Photo: Wikipedia

This organisational ability was soon to be seen in the steady stream of reports flowing from Amirouche’s pen to the FLN High Command, all written in his cramped handwriting, on headed paper, in triplicate, and signed and stamped by him personally. He kept his accounts to the nearest centime.

I find these character traits — single-mindedness, extreme courage, a capacity for hard work, physical endurance and an almost masochistic austerity — to be very common amongst Kabyles. Perhaps all mountain dwellers are the same – their character a product of the harshness of their environment.

Although Amirouche was a ruthless disciplinarian, his soldiers were loyal to him, as they had found that, although he was hard on them, he was even harder on himself. He would lend a hand whenever there was hard work to be done, and sleep, rolled in his burnous, on the rocky soil, not on a camp bed like the other commanders.

Always restless, never wanting to sleep in the same place two nights running for security reasons, he would travel from village to village on foot, sometimes covering seventy kilometres a day, all the while quoting, from memory, lines of poetry by the Kabyle wandering bard, Si Muhand ou-Muhand, who had railed against French rule over eighty years before.

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Si Muhand

Called “The Berber Verlaine” by scholars, Si Muhand’s life had been blighted by the repression following the Mokrani uprising of 1871, his father being executed, his uncle exiled and all his family’s possessions forfeited. “I have sworn that, from Tizi-Ouzou to Akfadou, I will never submit to their domination…”

Amirouche rapidly climbed the echelons of the FLN, before being promoted to the rank of colonel in 1957 and put in charge of Wilaya III, or Greater Kabylie. The French began to call him The Wolf of Akfadou, Amirouche the Terrible, or again, The Lion of Kabylie.

Two incidents were to mark the last two years of Amirouche’s life — one that was to tarnish his reputation irremediably and the other leading to his own death.

In 1958, the French secret services were looking desperately for the chink in Amirouche’s armour. They found that his Achilles heel wasn’t money, women, or alcohol. It was his own obsessive nature, of a kind which, if unchecked, can lead to paranoia. Using a form of psychological warfare, they made him believe that any young man going underground to join him was a traitor, a mole sent by the French to infiltrate the soldiers under his command.  

This led to him instigating a series of bloody purges, called la bleuïte, of young idealists, des bleus, (rookies), fleeing from the Battle of Algiers to join him up in the mountains. Often the “capital” crimes of which they were accused amounted to little more than asking questions, or showing “an incorrect revolutionary attitude.” A massacre of the innocents. 

Most of the victims were educated – intellectuals, students, doctors and teachers. Algeria’s hopes for the future, cut down before their time. I am sure that my own husband could easily have been amongst the victims, if he had not had to take care of his mother and siblings. His uncles had tried to persuade him to join Amirouche to get rid of him once and for all.

As it was, those executed were buried where they fell, in shallow graves on cold hillsides, the moan of the bitter wind sweeping through the mountain gorges the only prayer for the dead they would hear.  A friend told T that he had actually seen their pathetic belongings piled up in a storeroom, their battered suitcases tied with string, their torn rucksacks spilling out their pitiful contents – an old pair of shoes; a crumpled dirty shirt…

Even Amirouche himself admitted that at least twenty per cent of the victims were innocent. He is quoted as saying, “…. to get rid of gangrene, you have to cut until you find healthy flesh. It doesn’t matter if two-thirds of Algerians are killed, as long as the remaining one-third is free….”

By the end of 1958, Amirouche had his region in the grip of terror, the contagion spreading to neighbouring military zones. In March 1959, he decided to go to Tunis to call the GPRA (the FLN’s political wing) to account for their lack of participation in the war. He declared that it was time to demand of  “these palace revolutionaries, these gentrified leaders in Tunis and Cairo” that those fighting on the ground inside Algeria be given a greater say in the direction the revolution was taking.

His plans had, however, been revealed to the French military by traitors.  By the time his men got wind of the betrayal and sent a messenger scurrying after him, he was already dead. He had been ambushed in the barren wastes of the Hodna, with the French pitting two thousand, five hundred soldiers, helicopters, bazookas, fighter planes and armoured trucks against him and his forty followers, armed only with their guns.

When the smoke cleared, Amirouche’s body was found, embalmed and put on show, like the body of Che Guevara, with French officers and soldiers posing with his corpse for photographers. As if that weren’t the ultimate indignity, Boumediène, always jealous, had his remains exhumed, reburying them in the cellar of an army barracks, where they remained for seventeen years, until Amirouche’s son was finally able to lay him to rest, with full honours, in El-Alia cemetery in Algiers.

Hero or villain? The jury is still out. For my mother-in-law, there was no doubt. He was her hero.

Henna

Le henné, c’est la terre du paradis.

Henna is the soil of paradise.

-Mohammed Ben Cheneb – Proverbs from Algeria and the Maghreb


I looked down at the small mound of greenish-brown sludge on the palm of my hand. An elderly man wearing a skullcap and a grey burnous was using his forefinger to spread it carefully into a perfect circle. My uncertain gaze flickered from his bowed head to the man sitting by my side, holding out his own hands, palm upwards, and waiting, with a slight smile, for the paste to be smeared on them as well.

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Looking around the room from under my lowered eyelids, I saw two young boys standing to one side, beaming widely and holding tall candles wrapped in ribbon, their foreheads gleaming with perspiration from the combined heat of a sweltering Algerian July evening and the proximity of the candle flames. On the table in front of us were bowls containing eggs, the brown paste, and pastel-coloured sugared almonds.

Taking deep breaths to keep the panic at bay and slow the pounding of my heart, I saw two familiar faces amongst the crowd of women at the door, all straining to catch a glimpse of the proceedings. My mother and my sister — my mother with tears in her eyes at the sight of me in my silver and black wedding kaftan.

My mother-in-law was standing at the front, resplendent in her new multi-coloured dress with bands of bright rickrack braid sewn around the sleeves, the hem and across her chest, which was puffed up with importance at her new status as mother of the bridegroom. Her lips were pursed in a mixture of pride and emotion, and she kept heaving little sighs that made the the fringe of her headscarf  flutter.

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My heart rate slowed as I looked at T again, handsome in his dark suit, white shirt and tie. It was the first time I had seen him in three days. He had always had this calming effect on me and I would be irritable and anxious during his absences, impatient for his return. He had handed me over to the women a few days earlier, without a second thought, and I had felt pushed and pulled in all directions ever since — dressed and undressed like a doll and made to parade in front of all the (female) guests. His calm presence now helped settle my frazzled nerves. 

He was just the opposite to me, taking everything in his stride. Although he might have given in to the women on a few points of traditional protocol, his word was law as far as everything else was concerned. How could someone feel so confident, so sure of themselves? Couldn’t he feel how the house’s pulse rate had gone up since our arrival in Algiers a few days before?

With his mother, his sisters, his cousins and aunts around him, he was like a fine young male animal surrounded by a pride of admiring females. His brothers hovered at a respectful distance. He was the cherished  first-born son, the one on whom all the family’s hopes were pinned. His boundless confidence more than made up for my own sad lack.

El-Hani, or the henna ceremony, should normally have been performed separately — each in our own homes. In a way, it was almost like a hen or stag do  — a last night as a single person spent in the company of friends and family, and a prelude to the next day, when the bride would be taken to her husband’s family home. The ceremony was not supposed to take place in mixed company and with both families present, but as I had no family home in Algeria, we had to improvise. 

So it was the oldest male member of T’s family, his great-uncle, who applied the henna paste to my hands as well as to T’s, and not the oldest female member of my own. From that moment on, we were officially married in the eyes of tradition — and of the family.

Henna has been used to decorate young women’s bodies, as part of the celebration of social events and feast days, since the late Bronze Age.  It is thought that ancient links between young, fertile women and henna are behind this custom, which seems to have originated with the Berbers, later spreading as far as the eastern Mediterranean, Asia and India, and, in Egypt, replacing the red ochre dye that had been used previously. Many statuettes of young women with raised hands stained with what looks like henna, and dating from between 1500 and 500 BC, have been found all along the Mediterranean coast. 

The earliest writings about its particular role in marriage and fertility celebrations were found in the port city of Ugarit in pre-Islamic Syria, and referred to women decorating their bodies with henna in preparation for their wedding night.  It was thought to bring the bride good luck and keep her from harm.

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Henna powder is made from the leaves of the henna tree, lawsonia inermis, also called the hina, the mignonette and the Egyptian privet. Traditionally, the dried leaves are ground to a fine powder with a pestle and mortar, before being mixed with rosewater and sometimes lemon juice to make a thick paste. The amount and the quality of the henna used can make the colour obtained vary from bright red to black.

In Algeria at the time of our wedding, henna was not applied to the skin with the aid of a syringe or special applicator in order to make the beautiful, swirling, lace-like patterns seen in India, but was just smeared over the tips of the fingers, the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet. Sometimes the whole foot, or hand, would be plunged into a basin full of henna.

Not being used to henna, and thinking that this method left the hands and feet looking as though they had been daubed in blood, I had asked that only the palms of my hands be decorated with just a small amount of henna. I did not want to be like the seductress described by the French writer and painter, Eugène Fromentin:

“…. elle avait …. les mains enluminées de henné, les pieds aussi; ses talons rougis par la peinture ressemblaient à deux oranges….” (Her hands were  highlighted with henna, her feet also; her heels, reddened by the dye, looked like two oranges…)

If you see a young woman with faded henna tattoos on her hands and feet, it usually means she has recently married, but the application of henna is not reserved just for weddings. It symbolises joy, or thanksgiving, and women and children are often seen with henna-reddened hands at births, circumcision ceremonies and during Aid.

My own henna stains lasted a few weeks, as my hands had been carefully wrapped in bandages immediately afterwards so the paste would not wear off. No such elaborate ritual for T, who washed his hands immediately, leaving  just a faint orange mark on his palms. He was willing to indulge his mother and go along with tradition, but only up to a certain point.

Henna is not just used for body art. It can be used for various types of skin complaints. It acts as a sun block. It is good for dry or flaking skin and helps speed up the healing of skin cuts. Fatiha, my home help, would use it on her dry and cracked heels. It is also supposed to strengthen nails. A true miracle of nature.

And finally, it is used as a natural and organic hair colour. Not only does it colour the hair, but it strengthens the hair from the root to the tip. I used it a little when I discovered my first silver hairs, and it gave a pleasing chestnut sheen to my dark hair. The only downside is that it dries to a stiff and brittle shell, which can be slightly disconcerting.

It is not advisable to use it on hair which has turned completely white or grey, as it can end up an alarming shade of bright orange. Many is the time I have seen elderly Algerian women with a tuft of ginger fluff peeking out from under their headscarves. But they prefer that to silver hair. There is no accounting for tastes.

The French War

Rebellion cannot exist without the feeling that somewhere, in some way, you are justified.     

Albert Camus


As the inaccessible region of Kabylie had often been left to its own devices by both invader and occupier, the mountain villages developed, out of necessity, their own social and legal organisation. This system is still, by and large, maintained today. Each village is autonomous, a little like a city-state, but bound loosely together into a federation of neighbouring villages. Continue reading