DaOuali

One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.

-Virginia Woolf


On my return to Algeria, after five lonely months spent in Britain, we celebrated our reunion by dining out that same evening at one of Oran’s many restaurants. I was in a state of euphoric relief, almost dizzy with it. Although only a few hours had passed since I had set foot back in Algeria, I felt as though a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders.

There was no trace of the panic attacks from which I had been suffering during our separation. They had come upon me suddenly, almost as if I had willed them into existence. My breathing would become rapid and shallow, my heart hammering inside my chest, and I would feel as though I were about to black out. But they seemed to have disappeared as suddenly as they had appeared.

It was as if I had just awakened from a long coma. My eyes and ears had finally opened to let in the explosion of colour and noise that was Algeria. Every sense was heightened. I had noticed for the first time that afternoon when I had arrived back in T’s flat on the eighth floor of the Cité Jeanne d’Arc, how the brilliant sunlight, flickering through the slats of the blinds on the curtain-less windows, painted a tiger pattern of alternate dark and light stripes on the tiled floor. I could hear every sound, from the cries of the children playing outside, to the plaintive call to prayer stealing into the room through the open window like a secret lover.

My skin could feel the warm caress of the evening sun as we strolled along the pavement a few hours later, my step light and carefree — I could smell the delicious aroma of grilled seafood as soon as we walked through the swinging door of the small restaurant hidden somewhere down a side street in the city centre.

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The restaurant was full.  Looking around with curiosity at the busy tables, I noticed an old couple bent over their meals, eating side by side without exchanging a single word. A group of young women in their twenties collapsed into helpless giggles as a stern man, dining alone nearby, gave them furtive sideway glances as he noisily slurped down his soupe de poissons. The noise level was high. The smoke level, too. But it didn’t bother me.

T waved to a group sitting around a rough deal table covered with oilcloth and littered with prawn shells, discarded chunks of bread and ashtrays filled to the brim with cigarette butts. It turned out that they were our neighbours, two of his fellow engineers at the ammonia plant, with their wives — one American and the other from Constantine.

The American wife, blond hair cut short and cigarette waving from her fingers as she chattered loudly in American-accented French, stood out in sharp contrast to the other, whose dark hair was pulled back from her jolie-laide face in an elegant chignon and whose quiet demeanour belied a sharp sense of humour.

The waiter, a large white apron tied around his waist, and forehead shining with sweat from the heat of the kitchens, appeared out of nowhere, bearing a large platter of grilled prawns and langoustines, decorated with pale rings of fried calamari, and accompanied by bowls of crispy golden chips and green salad, glistening with olive oil. Licking the garlicky juice from my fingers, I can remember thinking to myself that it couldn’t get any better than this.

In later years, we would drive down to Oran to have dinner at another small restaurant called Chez Mémé (At Grandma’s House). Chez Mémé didn’t go in for such newfangled nonsense as a menu — you had the choice between two main dishes, along with the same number of desserts and entrées. The restaurant – basically just an upstairs room over a shop, was filled with two tables, each one large enough to seat a dozen customers. No such thing as an intimate table for two there, but the food was sublime.

At other times we would have dinner at the Passerelle restaurant in Arzew. La Passerelle, Arzew’s best and most expensive restaurant at the time, was situated in an idyllic spot called la Fontaine des Gazelles on the coast road. It was owned by a Kabyle chef rejoicing in the exotic name of Désiré — not, I hasten to add, his real name. He was actually called Mohand, or something similar.

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The dining room of the Passerelle extended out over the beach, supported by piles driven into the rock. It had wide plate-glass windows on three sides, though which the sunlight poured, reflecting off the snow-white table linen and making the glasses and the silverware sparkle. Whenever we decided to treat ourselves to a meal there, I would look forward to it for days, my mouth watering in anticipation.

I could already taste the hors-d’œuvre variés and the steak au poivre cooked in cream and crushed peppercorns, then ceremoniously flambé-ed with brandy in front of me on a portable copper burner. To round it all off, there would be a meltingly delicious omelette norvégienne. Désiré was a world-class chef.

Other restaurants opened in Arzew – Les Palmiers, located just opposite the seafront, where I would sometimes go with my colleagues from work for a rowdy, wine-soaked lunch, and later on Les Gazelles, a few hundred yards from La Passerelle.

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Lunch with my colleagues at Les Palmiers. I am third from the left.

Sometimes, if we felt in need of a more elaborate dining experience, we would treat ourselves to a meal at Les Ambassadeurs, the restaurant in Oran’s Royal Hotel. Food shortages were already beginning to make themselves felt, but the food in the hotel restaurant was as delicious as ever.

The only downside was one of the waiters. He was Kabyle and when he learnt that T was one of his own, he would greet us with a broad grin, slapping T on the back, or what was worse, embracing him, and calling him “DaOuali”, which is the height of respectful deference in Kabyle society.

The thing was, that, in spite of all his overwhelming goodwill, he was terrible at his job. He would take our order with all the efficiency of a toddler tying its shoelaces while still wearing its mittens. He seemed to forget what we had told him before the words had even left our lips, so that we had to repeat everything so many times it became absurd. He had the air of a person in shock, of someone whose brain was engaged somewhere else, wrestling with some unseen issue.

Whenever we’d ask him to describe a new dish on the menu, he would take on the look of a startled rabbit, and then start gabbling away so fast, one word would run into the next. When he’d finish speaking, we’d be none the wiser, but would nod politely and order something else. Then, looking relieved that the ordeal of taking our order was over, he’d rush back to the safety of the kitchen, almost tripping over another patron’s foot in the process. He was like an Algerian Frank Spencer.

I must admit we began to avoid Les Ambassadeurs so we didn’t have to suffer him constantly hovering around our table. It was not without a pang of guilty conscience, however, as his good nature and eagerness to please were like those of an over-enthusiastic puppy.

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So it was that, a few months later, we decided to try out a new restaurant that was offering traditional Algerian cooking — something of an innovation. Walking into the restaurant, we gazed around with approval at the round brass tables, the hanging copper lanterns and the colourful woven blankets displayed on the walls.

Suddenly, from the shadows at the back of the restaurant came a familiar cry, “DAOUALI!” At my side, I could feel T stiffen in disbelief, for there, bearing down on us, a beam of pure delight on his face and his arms outstretched in welcome, was our waiter.

There is a famous quote from the fables of Lafontaine: “On rencontre sa destinée souvent par les chemins qu’on prend pour l’éviter.” (One often meets one’s destiny by the roads one takes to avoid it). Lafontaine never said a truer word.

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The Good-Time Girl

It seems that the people of Oran are like that friend of Flaubert who, on the point of death, casting a last glance at the irreplaceable earth, exclaimed: “Close the window, it’s too beautiful.”
Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays


One of Algeria’s paradoxes is that it is both a relatively new nation and an ancient land, with a history stretching back to pre-biblical times. When we were living there, I must confess that we were so caught up in the difficulties of day-to-day living, we were blind to the wealth of history just under our feet and around every corner. We had Roman ruins just down the street – a few hundred yards from our front door. I don’t think we ever visited them during all the time we were there.

T’s eyes were fixed firmly on the future. He is an engineer and wanted, above all, Algeria to be one of the industrial leaders of the third world, for it to be self-sufficient and to ensure, once and all, that, as an emerging country, it would be second to none. I, on the other hand, was overwhelmed with trying to find my bearings in a foreign country. It didn’t help, either, that there was barely any information available about Algeria’s history, apart from endless re-playings of footage of the independence war and television programmes droning on about Islamic dynasties.

Oran, the second largest city in Algeria, is also one of the youngest, being a mere 1,200 years old. It was founded by traders from Moorish Spain or al-Andalus in the ninth century and it is no coincidence that one of the most beautiful beaches in the vicinity is called Les Andalouses, being supposedly the place where the son of the Vizir of Cordoba came ashore after being shipwrecked when fleeing parental disapproval.

Phoenician traders had preferred the Madagh creek, to the west of Oran, to establish their trading post and the Romans had chosen to expand the site of Portus Magnus, dominating the beautiful Bay of Arzew.  Portus Magnus was later to become Bethioua and so, strangely enough, our own small village had a longer past and was more important at one time than the brash newcomer forty kilometres down the coast.

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Oran’s name is a contraction of the Berber words meaning River of the Lions — Ouad-aharan, and indeed, the city seems to have an almost mystical connection to lions. One legend recounts that a lion was seen on the tomb of the city’s patron saint, Sidi Houari. Two bronze lions guard the entrance to the magnificent city hall on the Place d’Armes, the main square. Lion-hunting in the vicinity was reported by the Spanish in the sixteenth century as well as by the French up until 1840. The last surviving lions were hunted to extinction around 1939 on the mountain rising from the plain to the east of Oran. This mountain was called la Montagne des Lions (Lion Mountain) by the French and is also known as Djebel Ghar or Rocky Mountain.

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Our Lady of Santa Cruz on top of the Aidour Mountain, with Oran at its feet and Lion Mountain in the distance

For centuries, Oran was passed back and forth between Spain, the Ottoman Empire, and Portugal, even after the Arab invasion. The Spanish had built an imposing 16th-century fort, Santa Cruz, to house their governors, on top of the Murdjadjo mountain looming over the western end of the city.

Looming over the inhabitants  in the same way was the aggressive Catholicism of the Spanish, one of whose invading forces was even preceded by a monk mounted on a horse and waving a large cross. Ironically, at least to me, at the end of the eighteenth century,  Charles III of Spain had suggested to Britain that it might be interested in exchanging Gibraltar for Oran.

Just below the fort, there is a beautiful white-washed basilica called Notre Dame de Santa Cruz, raised by the French in the nineteenth century to give thanks for the ending of a cholera outbreak in the city. Oran had the largest pied noir population in Algeria, and there were also large Jewish and Spanish communities, each group contributing to the city’s unique character. Jewish immigration had come in waves from as far back as the first century, even before the Roman occupation. In the sixth and seventh centuries, Jews had fled to North Africa from Visigoth persecution in Spain and then again following a series of massacres during the Spanish reconquista  in 1391.

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Santa Cruz fort with the basilica below

Oran is a port city like Algiers, but there the similarities end. Algiers feels very French, with its ornate fin de siècle apartment buildings, its wide boulevards and its arcaded seafront. Wahran el Bahia, (Oran, the Radiant City),  seems more Spanish, with some of its older inhabitants still preferring to speak Spanish rather than French. The local cuisine, typically Mediterranean, also owes more to southern Spain than to France.

The city boasts a main railway station looking like a mosque, a cathedral (now a public library) that resembles a Byzantine church, and a theatre that looks like the backdrop to an Italian operetta. One of the jewels in its crown is the beautiful seafront, the Boulevard Front de Mer, constructed in the forties and fifties under French rule, and inspired by Nice’s Promenade des Anglais.

It consists of an amazing two-tier promenade, its graceful arc echoed in the sinuous curves of the Art Deco and Haussmann-style apartment buildings facing the sea. Lined with palm trees, cafés, restaurants, and ice cream parlours, it offers a splendid view of the sea, the port, Santa Cruz to the left and the cliffs, les Falaises, to the right.  It was given a suitably revolutionary name, the Boulevard de l’ALN, by the government after independence, but its original French name is still used by the locals.

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The boulevard Front de Mer is the place where most of the inhabitants of Oran go for a stroll at the weekend, during the long, stifling summer evenings and especially during Ramadan, when the city is open for business all night long. Gazing out over its railings, they can often see a shimmering heat haze on the horizon, and, where, to the west, the rocky outcrops of the Murdjajo and Cap Falcon, battered by the waves, look like the torn, jagged edge of a sheet of paper. Eyes closed, they can feel the cool breeze stealing the heat from the day, bringing them the taste and smell of the sea.

Below, they can see the Ravin Blanc coal-fired power plant where T had once worked for two months as part of the conditions for a student loan he had taken out when at Algiers University in 1963. The dark smoke belching out of its chimney had been the scourge of housewives living in the flats along the seafront, their washing hanging out on the balconies always covered in black smuts.

T. had the time of his life during his two months in Oran, as the independence war had barely affected it. Its only claim to revolutionary fame had been that one of its citizens had been the first militant for independence to be guillotined. It was also where pieds noirs and Algerians engaged in a street battle a few hours before independence was declared, leaving many dead and wounded. Most of the other regions of Algeria reproached, and continue to reproach, the citizens of Oran for their lack of participation in the struggle for independence, the newspapers of the time calling the city “an island of peace” and “a little Paris.”

Oran also enjoys a certain reputation, deserved or not, for hedonism.  It is, famously, the birthplace of rai, that raunchy, edgy, culturally and sexually risqué type of music that started off as a protest against working conditions and the colonial yoke in the 1930s and ended up in the 1980s as one against Islamic constrictions and state-approved musical expression. If Algiers is a grand old lady, Constantine a venerable great-aunt, Oran is a good-time girl.

As for me, unaware of Oran’s past, I would look around me at all the trappings of a beautiful, functional city — its clinics, schools, city hall, theatre — and wonder why, in spite of all this, nothing ever WORKED as it should.

Outsider

I like the idea of being caught between things, always being a bit of an outsider, having an outside eye on things.

-Riz Ahmed


I looked at my husband-to-be as he sat on the chair in his mother’s bedroom, laughing and joking with his siblings. It was December, 1968, and ever since we had arrived in Algiers that afternoon, more and more Kabyle words had been slipping into his French, until now he was talking practically all the time in his mother tongue.

All the members of his family sat in a half-circle around him, perched on the bed, the arm of his chair, the floor — anywhere they could get close to him and hang on his every word. Leaning back in his chair, relaxed, with one foot resting on the other knee, T was the centre of attention — which is where he always liked to be.

But then, his family had ample reason to hero-worship him. At the age of sixteen, following their father’s death, he had saved them from a miserable life eked out in the mountains of a country at war, where death would have stalked them every day; only a rifle-shot or a burst of machine-gun fire away.

He had also lived the impossible dream — in that period of post-independence euphoria, he had left Algeria to go to Europe to study and returned, four years later, his Master’s degree safely in his pocket, to a top-ranking job in Sonatrach, the most prestigious of all Algerian national companies. Not only that, but he was now introducing me, his English girlfriend, to them and announcing his intention of marrying me the following summer.

“He is home,” I thought, looking at his animated face, absorbed again into his family on the soil that had nourished him and made him what he was.  I was on the outside, looking in — a stranger.

Although I could understand most of what was being said in French, the conversation would suddenly veer into Kabyle, leaving me stranded. I would blink and, with a strained smile, pretend I could understand what was being said, following everybody’s lead by nodding and laughing in the right places, exchanging glances of complicity with T’s brothers, and trying to paste an interested look on my face. Sometimes, one of them, taking pity on me, would lean over to translate into French the general gist of the discussion.

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Later, at dinner, I felt slightly reassured when I felt T’s knee pressing against mine underneath the table — a substitute for holding hands, which he said we should not do in public. Especially in front of his family. It all seemed rather strange to me, as his mother had prepared her room for us, spreading crisp new sheets on the bed and plumping up the pillows. Strange because we were not yet married and could not hold hands and yet his mother had seen no impropriety in us sharing a bed.

T. had shaken his head when his mother had taken him aside to inform him, in a whisper, about her preparations. In the same way as he would refuse even to kiss me chastely on the cheek in the presence of my parents, he told her in no uncertain terms that he would not share a room – and a bed – with me under the family roof until we were married. It may seem hypocritical to you, as we had been together for four years, but, looking back, I prefer to think of it as respect for his family.

The language problem became less of one as the years passed. Although I never reached the stage where I could understand every nuance of Kabyle, I soon became able to follow what people were saying, and could join in from time to time, even though my contributions to the discussion usually consisted of verbal prompts with which I could ensure the smooth flow of the conversation, and nudge forward the other person along it, a little like a tug manoeuvring an ocean liner into position.

It worked wonderfully well with my mother-in-law and, in this way, we could enjoy discussions in Kabyle lasting an hour or more on subjects ranging from her father’s fatal heart attack to World War Two. Sometimes she would glance at me to gauge my reaction, her head cocked to one side like a plump little wren, and on receiving my murmured approval, she would give a satisfied nod and sail blithly on.

It wasn’t just the language, though. During that same dinner, my first in T’s family home, I had looked around me at everyone yelling at the top of their voices. “Why are they shouting so?” I whispered to T above the noise.  “They’re not,” he answered, turning to look at me and frowning, his eyebrows drawn together, “They’re just talking.” It was all so different, but the difference was not what I feared the most. It was the opprobrium  that might be heaped on my head for not following the rules of Algerian social conduct. To me, that was worse that not understanding the language.

It seemed to me that his was a world in which either you grew up or where you remained for ever an outsider. And perhaps, if that was what it would have taken to keep me in his life, T might have given up that world for me, although I doubt it. But when the first intensity of passion had passed, he would have regretted it, and blamed me. I was the one who had to enter his life and adapt, not the other way round.

The years passed, and yet I still stuck out like a sore thumb. Physically, although my hair was dark – much darker than T’s — I still had that indefinable something that marked me out as European. I was a couple of inches taller than most Algerian women, but that and my un-waif-like proportions should not have been enough to make me stand out in a crowd. Perhaps it was the look of mild panic in my eyes at the  prospect of shopping in the local market, dancing at a family wedding or catering for a dozen unexpected guests.

It seemed to me that our early years were a series of negotiations, which T usually won. One of these was our differing perceptions of home. To T, it was a social space, and he was never happier than when it was bursting at the seams — to me it was a private retreat, where I could regain my sanity and lick my wounds.

After a while, however, I realised that I was finally at home with the idea of “foreign-ness.” I gave up trying to fit in and adopted T’s philosophy, which was, “Here I am. This is what I am. Take it or leave it.” I was lucky in that my family-in-law opted to take it, not without heaving an exasperated sigh at my lack of social nous.

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At a wedding. I look so calm and collected – on the outside.

Being an outsider, however, gave me a more clear-sighted view of Algeria’s political situation. I had not been through the horror of the independence war and so was not taken in by some of the more questionable decisions taken by its political leaders immediately after independence and in the decades that followed. I wasn’t emotionally involved in the same way as T., and so could be more objective.

I would look at various initiatives with a jaundiced eye, as for example, the constant emphasis on “socialism” being an irreversible choice,  the whipped-up hysteria surrounding the Moroccan annexation of the Western Sahara, or the (obligatory) voluntary tasks carried out at weekends by the Sonatrach workforce. I kept my opinions to myself, however, as I had no wish to burst T’s bubble. Luckily, he was to reach the same conclusions as me, but much later.

To me, those first few months and years were a swirling, chaotic kaleidoscope of sound, noise and colour. All I could do was to cling on to T like a lifeline, close my eyes and ears to the bedlam and focus on his calm presence. Whenever I was faced with a challenge that seemed impossible, I would grit my teeth, thinking,  “I can do this and I will.  This is a test and I will pass it.” There were many such tests to come.

A New Heaven

No pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted land, or opened a new heaven to the human spirit.

-Helen Keller


I leant against the door of our flat on the eighth floor of the Cité Jeanne d’Arc and listened to my husband’s footsteps clattering down the flight of polished granite stairs to the lift on the landing below. The tiny, two-person lift, when it was working, only stopped on floors with odd numbers. It was still dark and the air was still chilly with night, but, on peering earlier through the bedroom window, I had seen a pinkish-yellow glow to the east.

I turned back into the flat with a despondent sigh and looked around. Try as I might, I had not been able to make it homely. It had proved impossible to hammer nails into the earthquake-proof concrete walls, painted a greasy utilitarian cream, reminiscent of Blackpool Corporation bus shelters.  As a result, there were no pictures on the walls, no curtains at the windows, and no rugs on the floor to soften the starkness of my surroundings. Nothing whispered that magic word “home” to me.

The remains of our breakfast lay scattered on the shiny veneered table. Two bowls containing small pools of rapidly-cooling café au lait, a pile of pastry flakes from our croissants and a small chunk of pain blanc smeared with apricot jam. It was seven o’clock on a cold February morning and eleven long empty hours lay in front of me.

Since our wedding in July, I had been battling with mild homesickness, culture shock, surprise family visits and, since September, the unrelenting nausea of early pregnancy. The homesickness had not been too bad and family visits were bearable, at least as far as my brothers-in-law were concerned, as I was able to hold a reasonable conversation with them.

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My mother-in-law was another prospect entirely. Not speaking a word of each other’s languages, we would try to make our intentions clear with smiles, hand gestures and nods. In spite of all this manifest good will, there were still interminable hours during which we would sit staring glumly at each other, waiting for the whine and rattle of the lift and the welcome sound of T’s key turning in the lock. When it came, we would both rush to the door, almost elbowing each other out of the way, relieved that our interpreter had returned home.

The worst battle of all was with my persistent nausea. I felt like strangling the person who had invented the phrase “morning sickness.” Mine lasted all day. How could anything so natural feel so bad? It was worse than a bad bout of food poisoning, as at least with that you knew it would be over in a few days.

I gazed down at my gently swelling stomach. I wanted the baby out of me, into my arms. I hated this state of silent lethargy, this waiting. I felt trapped. I wanted to jump into a time machine and zoom forward to summer and the birth of our child. But before that I would have to go through a world of unimaginable pain. I turned my thoughts hurriedly away from that prospect and decided to take a shower to relax and help pass the time. Perhaps I could even stretch the time spent in the bathroom to a full hour.

Standing in the square bathtub, I felt the water trickling over my shoulders, dripping  from the ends of my long, black hair on to my stomach, which was expanding every day, proof that another being resided within me. Two heartbeats inside one single body. I looked down at my pale skin, glistening with water and marred with the red lines of the stretch marks radiating out around my hips. My back ached and I automatically adopted the classic stance of the pregnant woman – hands pushed into the small of my back and shoulders straightened to counterbalance the extra weight in front.

I climbed out of the shower, towelled myself dry and was just coming out of the steamy bathroom when I thought I heard someone at the door. My heart started thumping so hard I could hear it and the next thing I knew I was lying on the cold floor, opening my eyes to the sight of our cat nosing around my prone body in curiosity. The heat of the bathroom, added to the sudden fright I had experienced, had caused me to drop down in a dead faint.

At that very same moment, T. was happily bowling along the road that led to Arzew and the ammonia plant, as he did every day. The company car he was driving, a Renault 4 with its strange push-and-pull gear lever, its boxy shape and jaunty rear end, had always seemed so quirkily foreign to me. Humming to himself, he was looking forward to the day ahead, brimming with the confidence of youth and sure of the future as only the young can be.

The countryside lay before him like a divine fingerprint, curving and changing, no two parts the same. The dip and sway of the road – the ever-changing sky and wind. Every day was a new snapshot in time, for even this one road could never be exactly the same two days in a row. It was winter now, and the vines in the vineyards on either side of the road had been pruned back, but the branches of the orange trees were hung with fruit, glowing like lanterns amid the dark green foliage. Come spring the gardens would be overflowing with colour and saturated with fragrance; hibiscus and oleander spilling over high white walls, giant bougainvillea bushes curving against the brilliant blue sky in a riot of foaming pink and purple blossom.

Although it had been nearly eight years since independence, some of the villages through which he drove still retained their French names: Arcole, Sainte-Léonie, Saint-Cloud and Renan, and still looked typically French, with their wine depots at one end of the village and their rusting bandstands on the main square. One of the villages even had a pair of mating storks nesting on top of the steeple of the abandoned church.

With the Montagne des Lions still wreathed in mist to his left, he started on the last downhill stretch towards Arzew. In front of him, the coastline lay softly under the early morning light, with the natural harbour, bounded by the headland of Cap Carbon, looking as if hungry gods from aeons ago had taken a bite from the land. This small fishing port was typically mediterranean, with its fishing boats scattered over the shallow, utterly clear water like autumn leaves on the surface of a pond, bobbing on the waves in the cold inshore breeze, turning a little in their chaotic dance.

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T didn’t drive straight on into the centre of Arzew, however, along the palm tree-lined boulevard, past the war memorial, the French school and the police station, but turned right along the coast road, to where the metallic towers of the ammonia plant, steam escaping from its many vents, gleamed in the first pink rays of the sun. He swung into the car park and leaped out of the car, slamming the car door shut behind him and jogged towards the entrance, ready to take on the problems of the day. Life was good.

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Yes, life was good for us then. As the years passed, however, it was very difficult for us to recapture that initial energy, hope and certainty that things could only get better. We became ever more cynical, blasé and disillusioned. What wouldn’t I give just to live one more day filled with such high hopes of a rosy future in a modern, dynamic country and of true independence finally recovered?

The Lost Kingdom of Koukou

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings;
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’

-Ozymandias: Percy Bysshe Shelley


Many of the preconceptions that people have about life in Algeria, both past and present, have nothing to do with reality. I have already written at length about the life I led in post-independence Algeria, but the idea of an Algiers complete with its sultan’s harem and seraglio filled with eunuchs and concubines, its slave market – all cherished stereotypes – is not in fact authentically Algerian, but a result of traditions imported from Ottoman Istanbul during its three centuries of overlordship.

These ideas have, of course, since been strengthened and encouraged by the success of the “Orientalist” school of painting in the nineteenth century, with its portraits of scantily-clad concubines lying on their couches, smoking hookahs behind shuttered windows. The lure of the forbidden. Many of the Orientalist painters had never even been to Algeria, their titillating paintings merely a product of their own imagination.

Borrowed traditions, perhaps, but with one notable exception. Piracy had been rife even before the Ottoman period and so the blame for it cannot be laid solely at their door. For centuries, European coastlines, including that  of the south west of England, had been at the mercy of pirates based mainly on the North African Coast, later to be known as the Barbary Coast — “Barbary” being of course derived from “Berber.” Their number included not only North Africans, but also English and Dutch privateers. As Spain was the common enemy, the English had found an alliance with the Algerian corsairs very profitable, particularly when it came to harassing Spanish shipping in the Mediterranean.

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That part of North Africa that was to become the Ottoman province of Algeria had been a collection of small independent states, like most countries in Europe and elsewhere. They had practically invited the Ottoman wolf into their sheepfold in 1512, as Spain had been flexing its economic and military muscle since the fall of Granada to the forces of Isabelle and Ferdinand in 1492. At the same time the conquistadores were setting out to South America, several ports in what is now Algeria, including Ténès, Mostaganem, Oran, Mers-el-Kebir and Cherchell, were being captured by the Spanish and forced to pay tributes to the Spanish throne.

The city of Bejaïa, in what is now Lower Kabylie, had also been taken over by the Spanish and so the Kabyles called upon the Barberousse (Red Beard) brothers, Arudj and Kheireddine, to come and help them retake the city. The brothers landed at Jijel, making the port their headquarters, and gathered enough men and munitions to lay siege to Bejaïa. The siege failed, but, in 1516, following another plea to Arudj and Kheireddine from its inhabitants, Algiers was wrested from the grasp of the Spanish with the aid of the Kabyles, whose courage impressed the Ottomans. Algeria, however, was to prove a very turbulent vassal state.

What had begun as a mutual admiration society between the Ottomans and the Kabyles soon degenerated. Sidi Ahmed ou el Kahdi or Belkadi, one of the scions of a family of marabouts and a judge at the court of the last kings of Bejaia, had fled the city when it had fallen into the hands of the Spanish and found refuge in the mountains of Kabylie, where he organised the Berber tribes into a powerful fighting force, capable of opposing Ottoman janissaries and Spanish soldiers alike. Based in the citadel village of Koukou in High Kabylie, this force was composed of five thousand foot soldiers and fifteen hundred horsemen.

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Algiers was retaken from the Ottomans by them in 1520 and Kheireddine Barberousse fled to Jijel. For seven years, Belkadi was both king of Algiers and king of Koukou. The authority of the Berber kingdom stretched from the Atlas mountains to the southern plains of Algiers and lasted for over a hundred years, switching allegiance between the Ottomans and the Spanish, until well into the seventeenth century.

From 1618 onwards, the Belkadi family split into several factions and its influence declined. Their name was changed and the family was absorbed into the local Berber population. Thanks in part to them, however, the two regions of Kabylie remained independent throughout the whole of the Ottoman period, retaining the use of their language and customs.

Situated a few miles from my husband’s village, Koukou is now a small hamlet perched on a high peak, like most Kabyle settlements. Home to around six hundred inhabitants, it overlooks the Messouya valley and the river Sebaou. Its remoteness and difficulty of access afforded a degree of natural protection, and any approaching enemy could be seen from afar, an advantage for any military post.

It seems strange to me that a village that was once the heart of a powerful kingdom, a beacon of its age, has fallen back into the most profound anonymity, with few people even aware of its erstwhile military might. Nothing as dramatic as a war has befallen it, just more years that can be counted.  The few buildings left are not as timeless as the mountains that ring the village, but able to outlast the civilisation that created them by centuries.

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Koukou. Photo by Wikipedia

Other traces of Ottoman occupation remain in Algeria. The descendants of relationships between Turkish janissaries and local women, called kouloughlis (literally, “sons of slaves”) are proud of their Ottoman heritage and often bear Turkish family names. Some of them still belong to the same Hanifi sect of Sunni Islam as the Ottomans, as opposed to the Maliki appartenance of the rest of the Algerian population.

Names of towns and villages where there was a strong Turkish community are still retained, as, for example, Ain el Turk (The Turk’s Fountain) near Oran, Ain Torki and  the town of Bougara. Various suburbs of Algiers carry the names of famous historical figures of the Ottoman occupation, such as Hussein Dey and Bir Mourad Raïs (Birmandreis), Dey Hussein being the last of the Ottoman provincial rulers of the Regency of Algiers and Mourad Raïs a sixteenth-century Barbary pirate of Albanian origin.

Raïs Hamidou, another Algiers suburb, formerly Pointe-Pescade, is named after a legendary early nineteenth-century Kabyle corsair, who captured many ships, ensuring the prosperity of the Ottoman Regency in its dying days. He was killed in 1815 during the Battle of Cape Gata against Decatur’s American fleet, intercepted on its way to remonstrate with Dey Hussein for a perceived insult.

The main railway station in Algiers is called Agha Station, an agha being a civilian or military official in the Ottoman Empire. Many Turkish words have found their way into Algerian Arabic and there are dishes and pastries of Turkish origin on a typical Algerian menu — bourek, baklava, and sweet treats such as halva turc, rahat loukoum and Turkish coffee.

An architectural heritage was left also. The Casbah, originally a Berber city, was built on and extended by the Ottomans. The sixteenth-century Ketchaoua mosque is located there, and one of the other notable reminders of the Ottoman occupation of Algeria, the grandiose Palais des Raïs, with its painted and tiled ceilings, is still to be found on the waterfront, proving that the Casbah had once stretched down its hillside as far as the sea, before the restructuring of the lower Casbah during the period of French colonisation to allow easier ingress in case of an uprising.

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One of the more persistant reminders of the Ottoman occupation was on a sartorial level —the wearing of the chechia turc, or “fez,” as it is known in English. For many years, even after the Turkish occupiers had been replaced by the French, it was part of every Algerian’s Sunday —or Friday-best — outfit. No formal occasion was without it – the taking of a formal studio family portrait, or playing a musical instrument in a chaabi orchestra.

My husband wore a fez as a small boy, although we do not have a photo of him at that age. We do, however, have one of his maternal uncle, pudgily resplendent in his fez and enthroned in his mother’s arms like a miniature Ottoman pasha. We also have one of T’s maternal grandfather in his fez, although one of his grandsons, sitting on his knee, is sporting a French beret.

It is strange to think that, although the Ottomans never penetrated Kabylie, their influence could still be felt there — even if it was only in the choice of headgear.Picture 150.jpg

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The Mucky Duck

A pub can be a magical place.

-Rhys Ifans


If you had strolled into a certain public house in Sheffield one rainy evening in late autumn, 1966, you’d have been confronted with a strange scene — not at all the usual gathering you would have expected to see in The Black Swan, known to all Sheffielders as The Mucky Duck.

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Located on Snig Hill, near the city centre, The Black Swan of the fifties had been a single-storey remnant, all that was left after a Luftwaffe bombing raid. But, by the sixties, the original pub had been demolished and a new one built on the original footprint. It still retained, however, the famous soot-covered Black Swan or “Mucky Duck” pub sign, re-mounted on the modern frontage. Otherwise, everything remained the same. Whenever the double doors opened, a blast of stale beer fumes would still waft over the heads of the people waiting patiently at the bus stop outside.

There had once been a mysterious wooden door located in the corner by the shops below, mentioned in a spoof article in the Twikker student rag magazine. During the one evening we spent there, though, I can assure you that I didn’t see any raincoat-clad men sidling through it. To be perfectly honest, pubs weren’t our usual habitat, as neither T nor I drank alcohol, and we were quite happy drinking our glasses of orange juice or Coke in the Student Union bar, although T would sometimes go to a pub with his judo teammates after a fight. He would still only have a soft drink, though.

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T in the Union bar (with glass of Coke)

Not all the Algerian students were like him. Some of them were quite dedicated drinkers and found the English pub entertaining and instructive. They would sit there quite happily for hours, cigarette dangling from their lips, their pint of bitter in front of them on a beer-stained wooden table. Either that, or they would prop up the bar with their foot posed nonchalantly on the brass foot rail, doing their best to blend in with the locals and soak up the atmosphere.

The atmosphere? Well, in the English pub of the sixties, it was usually made up of one part cigarette smoke, one part beer fumes, and the rest a blend of wet dog, damp wool and mouse droppings. Dusty, smoke-darkened curtains would droop forlornly from their brass rings, and your shoes would stick to the floor as you walked across it. The Mucky Duck, alas, was no exception to the rule.

That night, however, it was different. T’s best friend, Mus, was in Sheffield on a visit from his university in Paris and, whenever he arrived on the scene, everything changed. Mus was already known to some of the other Harrachi students from their high school there. Some of them had even been members of the same group of friends hanging around the beaches of Algiers soon after independence, enjoying their new-found freedom.

Mus was the original party animal — never happier than when he was boogie-ing along, snapping his fingers to the latest hit playing on a loop inside his head. Impossible to imagine that he would be dead a mere six years later – poisoned by his French girlfriend for the insurance money.

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Mus

Most of the early evening had been spent in the Union bar with the other Algerian students and their girlfriends, but Mus had not found it exciting enough, so, at someone’s suggestion, we all piled into three cars and set off for The Black Swan. Climbing out of the cars, laughing and joking, arms flung around each other’s shoulders, we drew curious glances from the staider members of the Sheffield populace going quietly about their business on the rainy streets.

On the pavement ahead, the uneven slabs had a rainbow sheen – all that had been left of a childish game of hopscotch. The outline was still there, a ghostly shadow of what it had been before the heavy rain had pounded the city. One of our friends, forgetting himself for a moment and lost in childhood memories of games of la marelle played on the streets of Algiers, did a little hop, skip and jump on the numbered squares before stopping in embarrassment.

Above, the sky was dominated by tumbling greys — smoky and silver. Rain poured down from the sky as if it meant to wash us away, or keep soaking us until we smudged like an Impressionist painting. Our shoes sodden with water, our hair stuck to our faces and heads, we splashed through the torrents of rainwater flowing down the steep hill to where the pub lights were shining out on to the wet pavements. We finally tumbled in through the doors of The Mucky Duck, laughing and joking in a mixture of French, English and Arabic — all twelve of us.

Once inside, fifty pairs of eyes swivelled in our direction.

Little groups of two or three of the pub’s usual customers were seated, steaming gently in the warmth, at the little wooden tables scattered around the large room. Most of the men were wearing flat caps, with mufflers looped around their necks. Sometimes their hands would be resting on the handle of a walking stick, sometimes on the head of a hairy mutt of indeterminate parentage sitting patiently under their chair. Their wives were sitting next to them, powdered and rouged,  hair freshly permed and covered with a chiffon scarf, sipping daintily from their glasses of advocaat or sweet sherry.

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Dragging twelve chairs into a large circle, we ordered drinks and sat there, laughing and joking as we did most lunchtimes in the Union Upper Coffee Lounge. The volume of normal Algerian conversation is very loud anyway, but it grows even louder when tongues, and inhibitions, are loosened by a few pints — and good company.

One of our friends then decided he wanted to sing a song. And not just any song. No —  a chanson paillarde, the French equivalent of a bawdy rugby song. It was lucky that my French at that time was not up to understanding some of the more risqué lyrics, or I would not have joined in the chorus so readily. The first song was followed by another, then another — all accompanied by clapping hands, stamping feet and thumping of beer glasses on tables.

When we had finally come to the end of our repertoire, we noticed that a woman dressed in an evening gown was sitting at an upright piano on a small stage at the other end of the room, singing and pounding the piano keys, her dangly earrings swaying in time to the music, desperately trying to make herself heard above the din we were making.

Then Mus had a brilliant idea. “I know,” he said, “I’ll ask her if she can sing Black Is Black!” And so he galloped across the room, climbed up on to the stage and asked the pianist politely (he had beautiful manners) in his broken English, whether she would be so kind as to sing the latest hit by Los Bravos. Her eyes popping in her efforts to continue warbling Moon River more or less in tune, she shook her head vehemently, and Mus returned crestfallen to our table.

When the landlord finally rang the bell for closing time, we spilled out of the doors to stand around on the pavement in the cold night air for a few minutes before returning to our cars. Leaning against T and tucking my hands under his jacket for warmth, I suddenly felt his body tense as someone tapped him on the shoulder from behind. Turning around, he found himself confronted by one of the other customers. “Nah then, young man …..” the man began, his bristly eyebrows drawing together.

My heart sank as I looked at him, sure that we were going to be given a dressing-down for all the noise we had made. But, much to our astonishment, a smile of pure delight spread across the man’s florid face and, shaking T’s hand, he proceeded to thank us all for an unusual and highly entertaining evening. Something out of the ordinary. “Summat a bit different, like,” as he put it so eloquently. Soon we were surrounded by a group of well-wishers, all pumping our hands and slapping us affectionately on the back.

Is it any wonder I loved Sheffield?

The Igawawen

Among (the Kabyles) the virtues of honesty, hospitality, and good-nature are conspicuous. It is not their misfortune alone that the lowlands know them no more…. it is (that) of the whole civilised world. Descendants of a mighty race whose culture once spread from the Atlantic to the Red Sea and the Hauran, from Crete to Timbuctoo and the Sudan, there are still to be found among them (a love) of the arts and sciences, the spirit of conquest, the capacity for self-government which, if developed, would make them again a great nation.

Melville William Hilton-Simpson (1925)


 have spoken a great deal about the Berbers and their illustrious history, but, apart from describing my visits to Kabylie, I have not talked much about my husband’s people, the Kabyles. The Kabyles are by far the largest of the many groups of ethnic Berbers scattered all over North Africa. They number between five and seven million, split between those still living in Algeria and those living abroad as part of the Algerian diaspora.

The appellation “Kabyle” comes from the Arabic word qabila (pl. qabaïl) for tribe, adopted by the French to describe these highland people. The French divided up the lands inhabited by the Kabyles into two administrative areas; la grande Kabylie, of which the  capital is Tizi-Ouzou,  and la petite Kabylie, with its capital of Bejaïa. However, for its inhabitants, Kabylie is simply thamurthThamurth means country, land, or simply home. It is similar in meaning to the Arabic word bled, from which, funnily enough, the English nickname Blighty for Britain is derived. Like Blighty, the word thamurth contains within it a whole wealth of unspoken longing and homesickness.

Greater Kabylie (la grande Kabylie), is a mountainous region to be found about an hour and a half’s drive east and slightly south of the capital, Algiers. Right at its heart lie the Djudjura mountains, part of the Atlas range, of which the high ridges run northwards to the Mediterranean sea. The inhabitants of these ridges are known as the Igawawen, taking their name from the neighbouring Agawa mountain peaks. They are the core of the Kabyle people.

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The Battle of Icherriden

The defeat of the Igawawen in 1857, outnumbered and outgunned at the battle of Icherriden, a few kilometres from my husband’s village, is generally taken to have brought the French conquest of Greater Kabylie to a successful conclusion.  Traditional sources recount that the legendary Fadhma N’Soumeur herself took part in the battle and ordered that the fighters be tied to each other with ropes, preventing them from fleeing the battlefield. The impact of her involvement was such that she has been seen as the embodiment of Kabyle resistance against the French and has become known as the Kabyle Joan of Arc.

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Fadhma N’Soumeur

At that time, the Igawawen were a powerful confederation made up of two federations – the Ath Betrun and the Ath Menguellet, each federation being composed of four tribes.  These are not tribes as one would usually understand the word, but groups of villages (thudrin), sharing a common language, territory and culture. Many other terms can be used to describe Kabyle political and social structures, amongst which are”clan,” kinship” and “lineage.” My husband’s tribe, for want of a better word, is the Ath Wekbil or Akbil, of the Ath Menguellet federation.

Their dialect, a variant of the Berber language, tamazight, is called thakabaylith. Each of the Berber dialects of Algeria retains its distinctive vocabulary and character and they are not mutually comprehensible as in Morocco.  The Chaoui Berbers of the Aurès Mountains and the Kabyles can understand each other with relative ease, although there is a greater proportion of Arabic words in thachawith than in thakabaylith. By contrast, the tamahaq dialect of the Tuareg is all but incomprehensible to a Kabyle.

Greater Kabylie largely escaped the trauma of social disintegration engineered by French colonialism in many other parts of Algeria, as its steep slopes and narrow valleys did not attract European settlement.  The region was more or less left to its own devices, the colonial administration preferring to govern it from a safe distance. It had been the same with previous foreign invaders: there are no Roman ruins in Kabylie like those scattered elsewhere in Algeria and no trace of Ottoman or Vandal occupation.

The Kabyle system of self-government has consequently been left largely intact. This is not the place to describe the inner workings of this complex socio-political system, but suffice it to say that it has been fine-tuned to an incredible degree, with its own body of law that has nothing to do with the Napoleonic Code or Islamic law; its code of honour and its system of village councils. The Kabyle village council is called the thajmarth, and is organised into two opposing sides, the sfuf, presided over by the amin — almost exactly like a mini House of Commons, presided over by the Speaker.

Kabyles earned their living mostly from their land, cultivating olive and fig trees and some fruit and vegetables. My father-in-law even imported fruit trees from America and planted them down by the river. The remains of his olive press are still to be seen in the village. Beautiful objects – chests, bowls, caskets and the wooden pillars, beams and doors of a typical Kabyle house (axxam) were carved out of wood from the forests of the Djudjura. The Igawawen also excelled in three other specialised branches of the craft industry: jewellery making, arms manufacturing and the manufacture of counterfeit coins.

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My father-in-law’s olive press

Finally, the men of Greater Kabylie also found employment and notoriety as mercenaries. The French word zouave, meaning originally a “native” light infantryman is a corruption of zwawi or igawawen, but the tradition had already been established before the French. The Ottoman Dey of Algiers had an honour guard of over two thousand Kabyles. The tradition of Kabyle men seeking their fortune elsewhere, often leaving their wives and families behind, has been maintained. Many of the most haunting Kabyle songs are about the longing for thamurth or home, or are the lament of the women left behind.

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A Zouave

Kabyles, although settled in their villages like the Mzabis, did not possess the latter’s religious fervour and eagerly accepted the implication of upward mobility offered by a French education. T’s grandfather and father were both highly educated for the time, his grandfather being one of the Algerians of Kabyle origin studying at the École Normale (teacher training college) at Bouzaréah near Algiers at the end of the nineteenth century. His father had been in his last year of secondary school in Tizi Ouzou, before his schooling was brought to an abrupt end by his eldest brother following their father’s death.

Thus developed a substantial Kabyle intelligentsia – French-speaking and modernist. Kabylie has become remarkable for the number of accountants, businessmen, civil servants, doctors, lawyers, teachers and engineers (of whom T is one, of course) it has produced in recent generations. Not only that, but Kabyle writers, poets and singer-songwriters are amongst the most prolific in Algeria, some of their work reaching an appreciative international audience. Writers such as Mouloud Mammeri, Mouloud Feraoun, Tahar Djaout and Kateb Yacine; singer-songwriters such as Lounis Ait Menguellet, Idir and Matoub Lounès. There are even iconic French actors and singers with a Kabyle heritage: Daniel Prévost, Isabelle Adjani, Edith Piaf and Marianne Cotillard.

The political salience of the Igawawen was evident even at the time of the French conquest and it was they who provided the majority of the Kabyle element in the leadership of the nationalist movement from 1926 onwards. The full story of their vital role in the Algerian independence struggle cannot be told here, but the fact that they subsequently lost their positions in the national leadership of the FLN has been a cause for resentment ever since. Their enormous contribution to the war effort has been airbrushed from history. The concerted attempts to erase their identity have led to many uprisings, the most recent being the Berber Spring (tafsut imazighen) in 1980 and the Black Spring (tafsut taberkant) in 2001.

The scale and character of the igawawen contribution to modern Algerian politics cannot be dismissed as being simply a trait borrowed from the French cultural influence on their region, as a capacity for politics is not something that can be imported. It is bred in the bone.

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Monument to the Battle of Incherriden