Blood On The Floor

One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom-fighter.

-Anonymous


One day, when I was about ten years old, some black-and-white photos in the newspaper caught my eye.  They showed a bombed café where tables and chairs lay upside down amidst the rubble, legs in the air like dead animals. I could see the stains of dark blood and the shards of glass still on its floor.

The screaming headlines were about the latest “terrorist” bombings in Algiers. Although Algeria was not directly connected to Britain, being a French colony, I can still recall the mounting horror that gripped me on reading all the grisly details of the attacks, with people left dying and maimed in the aftermath.

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In my safe little British world, where nothing much happened, such events seemed very far away, yet they still had the power to wrap their icy tendrils around my heart and creep into my brain. Little did I know that my future husband, then a teenage boy trying to cope with an ailing father, an illiterate mother and a string of younger siblings, was living right in the middle of that nightmare.

The Algiers I had imagined at the time, a labyrinth of twisting alleyways, crumbling walls and dark doorways, was far from the luminous, sun-drenched reality — a beautiful, somewhat shabby city sloping down to the sea, where the colours seemed brighter than in England, the sky a more vivid blue. But those grainy monochrome newspaper photos remained etched on my mind. It was not only me. To this day, Algiers remains marked by the merciless fighting between the FLN and their urban guerrilla campaign, and the French military who responded with a campaign of bloody repression and torture.

One of the most notorious bombings had been at the Milk Bar café in the rue d’Isly, the busiest shopping street of colonial Algiers. Named after the conqueror of Algeria and its first Governor-General, Thomas Robert Bugeaud, duc d’Isly, it began its journey behind the neo-Mauresque Central Post Office, cutting through the heart of the city and pausing on its way to form the perfect oval of the place d’Isly, with its statue of Bugeaud in the middle.

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Trams trundled along the street, clanging and screeching on their way to Bab el Oued or the rue Michelet, and it was lined with clothes and shoe shops, high-class jewellery shops, cinemas and banks. Large department stores had also made their appearance at the beginning of the twentieth century — Le Bon Marché and, later on, Les Galeries de France with their plate-glass display windows.

The shadows of the plane trees dotted along the wide pavements danced upon the white facades of the Haussmann-style buildings, their leaves flickering like candlelight. As the evenings drew on, the brilliant sunlight would gradually give way to the more subtle glow thrown by street lamps and shop windows. It illuminated the faces of the crowds out for a stroll, enjoying the cool of the evening and the sight of the perfect disc of the setting sun cut in half by the edge of the world.

But underneath this seemingly idyllic picture was a vast, simmering cauldron of hate and resentment. The French settlers had put in place an apartheid system that had stolen land from the Algerians, segregated them and left them with no political rights. Even though France had occupied Algeria for over a hundred and twenty years at that point, Algerians had clung stubbornly to their own culture and history, and were willing to fight to the death to win their independence. And many of them did just that.

In the early summer months of 1956, the FLN leader, Larbi Ben M’Hidi, decided to extend the reach of his organisation to the capital and target the urban population of Algiers. There were two main reasons for this. It was firstly in reprisal for the guillotining of several convicted FLN fighters as common criminals. Secondly, it would bring Algeria’s independence struggle to the attention of metropolitan France and the international community. Thus began the vicious cycle of bloody urban guerrilla warfare known as the Battle of Algiers.

Ben M’hidi ordered the Algiers FLN cell leader, Yacef Saâdi, to start a campaign of retaliatory attacks on the French. Saâdi set up an organisation based within the Casbah, the old Ottoman quarter of the city, which, with its narrow alleys, ancient crumbling houses and impoverished inhabitants, was the Algiers that I had imagined as a child.  He recruited a former petty criminal, nicknamed Ali La Pointe, to organise and carry out these attacks. From the 21st to the 24th of June 1956, forty-nine Frenchmen were killed — all members of the security services.

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Ali La Pointe

On the 10th of August, angry members of the paramilitary Main Rouge, a group of extremist supporters of a French Algeria, planted a bomb in the rue de Thèbes in the  Casbah, killing seventy people, including women and children, and destroying three neighbouring houses in the ensuing explosion.

Ben M’hidi believed that this attack changed the rules of the game, and instructed Saâdi and his FLN fighters to prepare for a no-quarter offensive against the French, targeting both the military and civilian populations.  It should not be forgotten that the escalating revolutionary violence came only after the committing of terrible crimes by the French army and their pied noir allies: mass killings, gang rapes, the lynching of innocent Algerians, torture— sometimes taking place in front of family members in the victims’ own homes.

As details of the use of torture and summary executions filtered out in the years following the end of the Algerian War, France’s reputation and that of many French army commanders were to be irremediably tarnished by the brutal methods used.

Many idealistic young girls from the Algerian bougeoisie were drawn to their country’s struggle for independence. They were, for the most part, educated, fired with youthful fervour and ready to do anything to help the cause. They were given the title of fidayate, (female urban guerrilla fighters) to distinguish them from the moudjahidate fighting in the maquis. Woman were useful during the Battle of Algiers, as they could easily hide letters, firearms and bombs underneath their haïks, or traditional veils.

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Some of them could easily pass for French, however, and so could infiltrate public places and plant bombs there. Many were still teenagers, the youngest being Baya Hocine, only sixteen years old when she set off a bomb in the football stadium. She is described as “wearing a checkered skirt and a beige jacket. Her glasses cannot disguise her extreme youth.”

Yacef chose a trio of female fidayate, Zohra Drif, Djamila Bouhired and Samia Lakhdari, to plant bombs in Algiers at locations frequented by the pieds noirs — the Milk Bar, in particular, being a favourite stamping-ground of the jeunesse dorée. The three bombers headed to their destinations, going through separate military checkpoints, all of them wearing European clothes and even flirting with the French soldiers on duty.

Zohra, a law student from a relatively privileged background, had second thoughts on seeing women and children returning from the beach to the café on the rue Michelet that had been chosen as her target, but then she remembered that women and children had been killed in the Casbah bombing, and so ordered a soft drink and left after paying the cashier. In the Milk Bar, Samia declined an invitation to dance, slipped her bag under a chair and left. The bombs went off, killing three people and wounding fifty. The photos of the aftermath had been the ones I had seen in the newspaper.

The female bombers managed to hide away in the Casbah for nearly a year afterwards, protected by the local population. They took refuge from raids by French paratroopers in hideouts hacked out of walls, often fleeing across rooftops to the next safe house, before many of them were caught, tortured and given lengthy prison sentences. 

One of the most famous, Hassiba Ben Bouali, was killed, along with Ali La Pointe, in the bombing of their FLN hideout in the upper Casbah. Before she died, she had written this poignant message: Si je meurs, vous ne devez pas me pleurer, je serais morte heureuse, je vous le certifie. (If I should die, don’t cry for me. I will have died happy, I can assure you.)

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Ruins of the FLN hideout

 

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The Evil Eye

A deep man believes that the evil eye can wither, the heart’s blessing can heal, and that love can overcome all odds.

-Ralph Waldo Emerson


“Don’t EVER do that again! It’s dangerous! On ne sait jamais! (You never know!)” T snapped, glowering at me from the other side of our baby’s cot. What had I done? Again?

Life had been hard for me in the fourteen months or so since I had returned to Algeria for good. I had followed faithfully all the intricate rituals of a traditional Algerian wedding, despite not knowing what I was supposed to be doing half of the time. My only consolation had been that I was finally marrying the man I had loved for four long years.

I had gone through my first pregnancy practically alone, except for T, only to give birth to a breech baby, a complication that could pose a serious danger to the lives of both mother and child anywhere in the world – never mind Algeria. I had suffered no ill-effects thanks mainly to my youth and strong constitution.

I had also been floundering around trying to find my bearings in a foreign country where every day there seemed to be new rules to follow. And so now, hastily running through the day’s events in my mind, I could find nothing that I had done that seemed to infringe these rules.

The only thing that I could think of was that I had invited in the elderly grandmother of one of our neighbours to coo over our new daughter for a few minutes after she had enquired about our health. I had just informed my husband about our visitor.

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What was he afraid of? That the frail old lady would suddenly pull out a revolver and a balaclava from down the front of her voluminous dress and kidnap the baby? That she was a vampire and would climb in through our eighth-floor bedroom window every night and suck our blood after I had unknowingly invited her over the threshold? That she was, in reality, a wicked fairy who had not been invited to the christening and who would take her revenge by laying a curse on our daughter? For me, anything was possible in Algeria.

I wasn’t wide of the mark. My husband, educated and worldly as he was, with two advanced university diplomas in his pocket, had somehow come to the reluctant conclusion that perhaps there was some truth in a wide-spread traditional belief and was simply warning me to take every possible precaution.

And what was this traditional belief? The evil eye.

Belief in the evil eye dates back to antiquity. It is mentioned in some context or other by over a hundred classical writers, ranging from Plutarch to Plato, and can still be found in some parts of southern Europe, as well as in the Middle East, North Africa and even further afield.

The evil eye is not, as you might think, someone putting a curse on you. It is supposed to be a malevolent or jealous look, usually directed towards a person when they are unaware, with many cultures believing that its victim will subsequently experience bad luck or sustain some harm. It stems from the belief that someone who achieves great success or recognition also attracts the envy of those around them. That envy in turn can destroy their good fortune.

The concept is described by Heliodorus of Emesa in the ancient Greek romance Aethiopica, in which he writes, “When any one looks at what is excellent with an envious eye, he fills the surrounding atmosphere with a pernicious quality, and transmits his own envenomed exhalations into whatever is nearest to him.”

So, the theory goes, you should hide good things away and never speak about them. The worst thing you can do is boast about your good fortune. If you do, nemesis will swiftly follow. This, of course, runs contrary to most Western mindsets, according to which, if something good happens to you, you want to share it with everyone. It was very difficult for me to rein in my natural impulse to show off the miracle that was my first child.

I suppose, in a way, it is easier to attribute your run of bad luck on an external force or power, instead of just shrugging your shoulders and saying, “That’s life.” Some people need an explanation for everything. They need someone or something to blame for their misfortune, and find it difficult to deal with the random nature of our passage on earth. They never, in fact, blame themselves.

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Portrait of a Chaoui woman wearing earrings in the form of the Hand of Tanit

So a roaring trade in charms, amulets and talismans to ward off the evil eye was born. In pre-Islamic North Africa, charms were often in the form of a six-fingered hand, called the Hand of Tanit. Tanit, or Tinnith in tamazight, was a Punic and Phoenician goddess  adopted by the Berbers, who venerated her both as a goddess of war and a virginal mother-goddess and healer. Many inscriptions and vestiges of her cult have been found in the Maghreb.

Other countries have charms in the actual form of an eye, usually painted blue. Eyes were painted on the prows of ships in Ancient Egypt to keep them from harm, possibly a continuation of the protection offered  by the Eye of Horus. Even Islam adopted this ancient belief, and the Hand of Tanit became the five-fingered Hand of Fatima or khamsa, meaning five, Fatima being the Prophet’s daughter.

Other techniques for warding off the evil eye are also used by Muslims.  Rather than directly expressing appreciation of, for example, a child’s beauty, they will invoke God’s blessings upon the infant. New-born babies are particularly vulnerable  to the evil eye and so often have a talisman containing Koranic verses hung around their necks to protect them.

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A Hand of Fatima charm against the evil eye

And so we come back again to a new-born baby. I could not understand why T had reacted so strongly to a visit by a harmless old lady until I learnt about his own traumatic birth and the first few months of his life. His young mother had been so frightened by her ordeal at the hands of her sisters-in-law that she had hidden her son away for five months in the room under the eaves, taghorfets, where he had been born.

She only allowed a few trusted visitors to see him and everything went to plan until her father decided to buy a new layette for his first grandson. Nothing was too good for her first-born son, so telling her father that she found the new woollen garments too scratchy for her baby’s delicate skin, asked him to exchange them for others made of finer material.

When the new clothes arrived, she tentatively crept out of the front door of their house, wrapping her baby in a blanket against the piercing cold, and stole down the outside staircase to her mother-in-law’s room on the ground floor, where there was a log fire crackling in the grate. My father-in-law’s house was part of a family compound, like many in Kabylie, with all his brothers’ houses ranged around a central courtyard.

Suddenly T’s mother felt the back of her neck prickle. Raising her eyes, she met the insistent stare of her sisters-in-law, standing ranged along the opposite balcony, their elbows resting on the iron railings. Their eyes, black as dark caves, fixed the baby with such an intense and hostile glare that my mother-in-law’s chest tightened in fear. She hastily flipped the corner of the blanket over her son’s face and rushed, panic-stricken, into her mother-in-law’s room. As she was to tell us many years later, “They were lying in wait for me – and I fell into their trap.”

No particular harm came to T that day, but my mother-in-law’s reaction was just another manifestation of one of humanity’s most enduring and profound beliefs,  a remnant from the very dawn of civilisation.

The Red Queen

Taziri n’your, lahwa nwedhrar, iness Lalla Fadhma, negda nirer.
Soft moonlight, mountain breeze, tell Lady Fadhma to come out and light up the silence of the night.
-Chaoui poem


In  the early summer of 1966, some friends and I were trying to learn the words to two Kabyle songs we were supposed to be singing at the Algerian Evening, held every year in the Students’ Union. One of the Algerian students coaching us in the pronunciation of the lyrics told us that he did not come from Kabylie, but from the Aurès. Berber, but not Kabyle. T shrugged his shoulders when I asked him. “He’s a Chaoui,” he said, by way of explanation. I was none the wiser.

The Aurès are the eastern prolongation of the Atlas, that immense chain of mountains stretching for nearly three thousand kilometres across the whole of North Africa and separating the Mediterranean coastline from the Sahara desert. In Greek mythology, Atlas was the Titan condemned to hold up the heavens for all eternity, and, when you look at the high peaks of the Djudjura, the Bibans or the Aurès, you can understand why the ancients thought they were sleeping stone giants, bearing the weight of the sky on their shoulders.

Historically, like the Djudjura, the Aurès had always served as a refuge and bulwark for Berber tribes throughout the centuries. providing a base for resistance against Roman, Vandal, Byzantine, Arab and French invaders. It was in this region that the first shots of the Algerian War of Independence were fired by freedom fighters.

Many of the most famous Algerian revolutionary heroes came from there, including Mostefa Ben Boulaid, Larbi Ben M’hidi and Si Haouès, who was assassinated alongside Colonel Amirouche.  After independence, the Berber tribes of the region, called Chaouis, tended to remain in their mountains, unlike Kabyles, who emigrated in huge numbers, both before and after the war. Chaouis are the second largest Berber-speaking group in Algeria in terms of the number of speakers, Kabyles being the largest.

The whole of the Atlas mountain range is dotted with Berber villages and crevassed by ravines and gorges, and the Aurès has the wildest and most inhospitable terrain of all, its ruggedness making it still one of the least developed areas in the Maghreb. Lying further inland than Kabylie, to the south of Constantine, the Aurès is mostly covered in scrubland, and, in many places, any kind of plant life has been entirely stripped by the wind.

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Gorges, like a series of miniature Grand Canyons, are strung out like a rope of jewels — the sharp-edged black shadows of noon lengthening and turning purplish-blue, indigo and dusky pink as nightfall approaches. Ribbon-like fissures split the walls at irregular intervals, through which gush waterfalls, white in the blinding sunlight.

Far below, streams, sometimes reduced to a trickle in the heat of summer, wash over the smooth pebbles of the river bed. Trees and saplings grow out of the unforgivingly sheer rock walls, studded with overhangs and ledges, but which still possess a raw and barren beauty, even with the howling of the dust-laden wind as background music.

The Chaouis built small villages along the windswept mountain ridges, and planted orchards and palm groves around them as windbreaks. Their crops were cultivated on terraces dug into the steep hillsides. Some of them even carved cave dwellings out of the bare rock faces to hide from invaders.

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Cave dwellings in the Aures

In spite of the harshness of the landscape, the Romans built two magnificent towns on the plateaux— Timgad, its original Roman name being Colonia Marciana Ulpia Traiana Thamugadi, and Djamila, (Cuicul) further north — as garrison towns and retirement communities for their veterans. The ruins of these two towns are amongst the best-preserved vestiges of the Roman Empire in the world.

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Chaoui Village – Painting by Olivier Roland

Following in the footsteps of the long, illustrious line of Berber queens and female sages, on to the sixteenth-century North African stage strode Fadhma Tazoughert, or Fadhma the Red-Haired. Supposedly born in 1544 in Hitaouine, a small town in the lower Aurès, near the modern city of Batna, she was almost the exact contemporary of another authoritarian red-haired queen, sitting on the English throne many thousands of kilometres away.

Fadhma Tazoughert was also a descendant of Imouren, the right-hand man of Tarik Ibn Ziad, the Berber general who conquered the Iberian peninsula and founded El-Andalus or Moorish Spain.  A powerful war leader according to legend, in 1566 she seized the towns of Fès, Marrakesh and Meknès, in present-day Morocco. I can imagine the battles being fought to the accompaniment of strident you-yous, the ululations first mentioned by Herodotus. The Berber war-cry, or song of death, as it was sometimes called — now paradoxically only heard at times of great joy and celebration.

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Picture Babzman

Known and admired for her organisational abilities, Fadhma succeeded in uniting Berber-speaking and arabised tribes under her command and had soon brought the whole of the Aurès region, from M’Sila in the south-west to Tebessa in the north-west, under her iron rule. Autocratic, she would brook no opposition. She rid herself of her two brothers – executing her elder brother, Zoltan, and exiling her younger brother, Sellam, for having dared to object to some of her decisions. She is described as being generous to those who followed her orders and showing no mercy to those who disobeyed her.

Her strong character made of her, according to the writer Nadhir Sbaâ, a woman who was “feared, yet venerated in her role of seer, enjoying great prestige thanks to her ancestral culture.” For Fadhma was indeed a seer, one of those Berber wise women like Yemma Gouraya, Lalla Khadidja and Dihya. She had learnt from her mother, Adhfella, the medicinal properties of various plants and acted as a healer for the sick and injured people of her tribe. She was also her mother’s heir and had inherited a considerable fortune.

She is known only through oral legend preserved by her descendants, the Ouled Fadhma tribe (the sons of Fadhma), there being no physical or written trace of her existence, but she seems to have combined all the virtues of a war chief and female marabout, her reputation burnished by time and distance.

She could apparently recite the Koran by heart, weave a carpet or a burnous with equal skill and ride a horse as well as any man. She established trading links with both Christians and Jews and appointed only female members to her advisory council, following the matriarchal tradition instigated many centuries before by another strong female figure from the Aurès — Dihya, the Kahina.

Dying in 1641 amongst the Atlas cedar forests of the Belezma mountains, she left behind her seventeen children and a wealth of songs and poems composed in her honour, sung by Chaoui women in the centuries-old Berber oral tradition. In this way, her story was transmitted from generation to generation and her memory preserved.

One of her descendants, the renowned Chaoui poetess, Lalla Khoukha Boudjenit (1904-1963), born also in Hitaouine, wrote in her honour; “Dans nos coeurs, nous avons gravé votre nom magique pour l’éternité.” (In our hearts, we have inscribed your magical name for all eternity.)

Other poems, in tachawit, the Chaoui dialect of tamazight, the Berber tongue, are positively lyrical in their language:

Soussem idhbirène, atmila, limam n’wedhar; Fadhma Tazoughert tessaradh gouamane techtahen dhassequit eness.

A very rough translation would be: Be silent, doves, oaks, olive trees, cedar and pine trees; flame-haired Fadhma, Queen of the Aurès, is bathing in the river – the waterfalls cease flowing in wonder at her presence.

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading