The Wandering Bard

Ah, Si Moh U Mhand                               Ah, Si Moh ou M’Hand,

Wi k id yerran                                           If you could only return,

Att waliḍ zzman                                       You would see our corrupt times

Ma k ɣien widak yettrun?                     Would you pity those who weep?

-Slimane Azem


Every Kabyle, man or woman, young or old, possesses the soul of a poet. Poetry is an intrinsic part of everyday life, and is used to express both great joy and great sorrow.  A simple poem, an assefru, can give hope to the hopeless, find a solution to a problem or give comfort in adversity.

There are poems for every occasion. They accompany the tilling of the rough, stony soil of Kabylie; the weaving of a new burnous or blanket on the wooden loom once found in every Kabyle house;  the picking of olives in the early morning, when lemon-coloured mist hangs like gauze amidst the trees; the drying of freshly-laundered linen on the sun-warmed rocks by the river, and the joyous verbal sparring between women drawing water at the village spring.

On weekly market days, amidst the smells of freshly slaughtered meat, of body odour, of manure and chicken droppings, stall holders compose poems on the spot to attract custom, not hesitating to throw in, with a wink and a shrug of the shoulders, an occasional sly allusion to amorous pursuits.

Huddled around the kanoun on winter evenings, with the logs shifting in the fireplace and sending out sparks, Kabyles could forget about the cold outside and the hunger pangs gnawing at their bellies as they listened to tales and poems about the victory of day over night,  life over death, courage over cowardice, determination over resignation, love over pain and a steadfast heart over bad luck. Words are a way of liberating the soul, and, if the audience found it difficult to express their feelings in their own words,  the storyteller or poet would do it for them.

Each village or tribe had their own particular poet or storyteller, the Imusnawen. The fame of most of these poets was usually limited to two or three tribes, perhaps a group of villages on one side of a mountain, the inhabitants of one single valley or of a particular town, but the poet recognised and appreciated by all was Si Mohand ou M’Hand. His poetry is considered as the intellectual property of the whole of Kabylie – and beyond.

images

Si Mohand ou M’hand n Ath H’madouch, also known as Si M’hand, was born around 1840 in the village of Icharouen, into a wealthy, middle-class Kabyle family of intellectuals, and was destined for a career as a traditional religious teacher, hence the respectful title “Si” prefixing his name.

His village, part of the Ath Iraten confederation, was razed to the ground in 1857 by the troops of the French General Randon in reprisal for the final stand of the Kabyle nation at the Battle of Incheridden, and a garrison town, Fort National, built on its ruins. He and his family fled to the neighbouring village of Agouni Djilbane.

More cruel repression was to follow the failed 1871 Mokrani Revolt (the French War) against French colonial rule. Si Mohand lost everything. His father, who had participated in the uprising, was sentenced to death and beheaded in front of him. His paternal uncle was exiled to the French penal colony of New Caledonia, and all his family’s possessions were forfeited. He was only saved from the guillotine by a French captain taking pity on the fatherless teenager, or, as it is sometimes said, by the captain’s young daughter taking a liking to him and begging her father to spare his life.

One of his most famous poems, born out of the pain he had suffered, has served ever since as a rallying-cry for all Algerians fighting against an unjust rule: “I swear that from Tizi-Ouzou/ To Akfadou/ I will bow my head to no-one./ I prefer to break than to bend/ I would rather be cursed/ Than live in a country/ Where the rulers are pimps./ Exile is my destiny/ By God, I prefer exile/ To submitting to the rule of swine.”

Unlike his mother, who returned to Fort National, and his brother Arezki, who emigrated to Tunis with what remained of the family fortune, he preferred to eke out a precarious living by working as a casual labourer, a farm hand, or in other poorly-paid jobs. He never settled anywhere, but wandered all his life from village to village in Kabylie, sometimes even as far afield as Algiers.

Few details of his life are known for certain.  As Mouloud Feraoun once put it: “He was like a leaf carried away by the wind, one that could settle nowhere but back on the  branch from which it had been torn.”

His poems can be roughly divided into those raging against French occupation and evoking his bitterness at his enforced exile and those, softer and more sensual, hinting at his various fleeting love affairs. In both, he shocked traditional Kabyle society with its formal societal organisation and its reluctance to talk about sexual relations.

In the former, his language is harsh and cutting, often comparing the French invaders to pigs (pigs being considered unclean by Muslims) and other animals. He is revolted by the idea of Kabylie, and by extension, the whole of Algeria, submitting to those beasts, and their “petty rulers,” that is, local collaborators. Using another animal metaphor, he likens Berbers to eagles — strong warriors forced into exile, like his uncle or Cheikh Mokrani’s brother.

“The eagle’s wings have been clipped and he has been condemned to exile. Dear God, such misery!”

In the more lyrical love poetry, he would concentrate on a detail of his lover’s dress or a physical trait; the fouta (apron) wrapped around her hips, her belt made up of various strands of coloured wool, the tattoos on her arms, a circular brooch pinned to her scarf or the sprig of basil tucked under it. More explicitly, he praises her “curved eyebrows,” her “hair flowing down to her hips” and her “spicy breasts.”

In a way, Si Mohand was a typical fin de siècle poet, lost in hashish dreams. He drank absinthe – la fée verte– and his clay pipe was always filled with kif (cannabis). Wine was also consumed in great quantities –  to his mind, a bottle of wine contained a thousand perfect grapes, the gifts of the rich brown earth and a generous sun.

French scholars have often compared him to the dissolute Verlaine, but this is ignoring the cause of his very real pain, the tragic past behind his poetry. It was exclusively oral, as is often the case with Kabyle literature, and he would recite a poem or two in exchange for a hot meal or a bed for the night.

As he grew older, his health deteriorated. Often clad in a filthy, ragged burnous, he was stringy, bony and leather-skinned. He appeared to have been baked for ages in the Algerian sun, until all the juices had been cooked out of his flesh.

66794769_10214473294843146_4861929715243417600_n.jpg

Ingrained dirt lay in every wrinkle of his face. His burnous was long and shabby as it trailed on the floor and he walked, with the aid of a staff, as if his bones were only loosely connected, shoulders moving like stones in a sack with every painful step. A greasy grey mane surrounded his lined face and intertwined with the long grey whiskers protruding from his upper lip and chin.

He finally died of tuberculosis, aged fifty-seven, at the Sainte-Eugénie hospital in Michelet, run by a religious nursing order, and was buried nearby.

His poems, which have been recited in every Kabyle village, marketplace and cottage for over a century, and transmitted orally from generation to generation, have been a source of inspiration to writers, poets and revolutionaries all over Algeria, and especially in Kabylie. They have been collected, translated and published by fellow writers Mouloud Mammeri and Mouloud Feraoun.

Si Mohand, through his works tracing his extraordinary life, his profound knowledge of the workings of Kabyle society and his visceral attachment to his people, had always fought against the destruction of his culture by the occupiers.

All the revolutionary movements and uprisings in Algeria since the nineteenth century have been inspired by his words, from the honourable outlaws of Kabylie, the moudjahidine of the Independence War, when Colonel Amirouche would quote his poems when resisting French attacks in the mountainous maquis of Wilaya III, to the students who rose up against Algeria’s dictatorial military regime during the Berber Spring of 1980.

His poetry – his isefra – will always remain as a symbol of the fight against colonialism and later, more insidious, attempts at encouraging a state of collective amnesia and ignorance of the true history of Algeria.

 

Return to Pepper Tree Close

Sometimes I wish I could go back in time, sit down with myself and explain that things were going to be okay…

-Donald Miller


We’re still in 1973 after our trip to Cap Carbon, and have an hour or two left before we have to climb back into my time machine and return to the twenty-first century. Would you like to go for a stroll around the Clos to while away the time and I’ll introduce you to our neighbours?

As we leave our house, a slight breeze is rustling the leaves of the faux poivriers lining the road and releasing the pungent fragrance of the clusters of pink berries hanging from the branches. These trees gave this residential compound its name – Clos des Poivriers or Pepper Tree Close. It was built before independence to house the executives of SOTHRA, a French company responsible for the laying of the first pipeline from the gas wells, deep in the Algerian Sahara, to the coast.

There are no walls between the white-painted villas, just hedges of woody-stemmed rosemary marking the boundaries. The grass is mown in neat stripes between the beds of flowering bushes – rose, geranium and hibiscus. In fact, the whole Clos is maintained by a team of workmen, but we never really notice them.

Peering over the gate to the left of our house, we can often see the black tents of nomad shepherds pitched on the piece of waste ground next to the Clos, looking like something out of Lawrence of Arabia. But not today. In fact, we will see them less and less in the years to come, until they disappear entirely.

The air is warm on our skin as we stroll along, the afternoon sunshine reflecting off the large French windows of the houses, each buried in its own nest of greenery, making the white walls glow a dusky pink. Some of the wooden external blinds are pulled down, shutting out the summer heat and the whirring of the cicadas, only to be raised again in the cool of the evening, when the sun sinks lower in the sky and the light of day drains away.

Long fingers of shadow will then creep over the grass, birds will begin fluttering and twittering in the pepper trees as they settle down for the night, the fading light of day will gradually mute the vivid colours of the flowers, and the whine of the first mosquitoes will soon be heard.

Just opposite our house is the playground. There is a sandpit, a couple of swings, a seesaw and a granite bench which is nearly always occupied by a chattering group of home helps or bonnes, as they are called here, keeping an eye on their small charges playing in the sandpit. In a way, being employed here allows them a certain amount of freedom, as they are able to walk unveiled around the Clos, far from prying eyes.

If you walk across the playground and peer through the hedge and wire netting at the far end, you will glimpse the sea, just a few hundred metres away. It is perfectly calm, like a peaceful lake, and its soft murmur is scarcely audible. The white-tipped waves roll in, spreading themselves like fine lace over the beach.

Scanned Image 150920000 - Version 2

View from the Clos

Look to the left, and if you squint a bit, you will be able to see, a few kilometres further down the coast, the gleaming metal columns of the ammonia plant wreathed in white steam. From time to time, the sky above will be stained an ominous orange by the toxic red fumes creeping out of the nitric acid tower like a venomous serpent. Luckily for those living nearby, and unluckily for Sonatrach, this happens only rarely.

This is where T works. He spends so much time down there, I often think it would be better if he slept on a camp bed next to the reforming unit.

Scanned Image 150920001.jpg

The ammonia plant

Our immediate neighbour on the right is another Kabyle engineer – T’s rival for promotion at the ammonia plant. He was married quite young to a cousin, as is the custom in Algeria, and they have two children slightly older than ours. His wife has very pale skin, strawberry blond hair and red-rimmed blue eyes. Being so milk-bottle-white gives her the ethereal quality that only comes with her kind of translucent skin. She looks almost transparent.

I have a sneaking admiration for her, though, as, although she is illiterate, she has taught herself French and even how to drive, much to the amusement of the bonnes. They think that she puts on too many airs and graces for somebody who can scarcely read or write — somebody who is no better than them. I can sense an undercurrent of barely-suppressed jealousy in their barbed comments.

On the other side of the road there is another kind of married couple — one that you often find in Algeria. The husband had completed his engineering studies at an East German university and brought a German wife back with him when he came home. Just like us, in fact. Three children and ten years later, the wife returned to Germany, taking the two older children with her and leaving the younger daughter behind with her former husband.

The husband has taken a new Algerian wife, and started a second family. The only reminder of his former life is a dusty, beat-up red Volkswagen camper van, still with its German number plates, parked outside his house. Oh — and one bewildered little girl.

Next to our Kabyle neighbours, in the house located just where the road begins to curve, lives the couple with whom I have the most in common. I first met them when we lived in the same block of apartments in the Cité Jeanne d’Arc, as the husband is another of T’s colleagues. Both he and his wife are Algerian, scions of illustrious families from Tlemcen and Constantine, two of the cities in Algeria with the richest and most eventful history. They have a small boy who often plays with our two.

Assia and Chabane Clos 1977.jpg

Opposite is the gatehouse, which is situated next to the only entrance in and out of the Clos. One bitter morning, the nightwatchman was found blue-lipped and lifeless inside, his skin as grey as ashes.  He had sealed the window and the door against the freezing draughts and had thought to warm himself with a terracotta charcoal brazier, but had only managed to succumb to carbon monoxide poisoning.

The villas are identical, but each interior shows the occupants’ personality. Our Kabyle neighbour proudly displays her vacuum cleaner on the living-room wall — another source of merriment for the home helps. My friend has white and orange lacquered bespoke furniture, with hanging lights bought from Christophle. I have homemade wall art, paper lampshades and junk shop finds that we have renovated with a lick of white paint and some colourful fabric.

The other families living in the Clos are a mixture of European assistants techniques and young Sonatrach engineers and their families. Some of them are Algerian — one newly-married young couple in particular look like a pair of elegant gazelles, both equally graceful and long-limbed. The husband will die tragically in a car accident in a few years’ time on a business trip abroad.

The French neighbours can be sometimes unthinkingly racist, retaining old prejudices, as when the wife of one of them refers to her home help as herFatma,” a demeaning name often given to all Algerian women by the pied noirs. My friend from Constantine almost expires from apoplexy when she hears this.

Even the term “bonne” is patronising, as it is short for bonne à tout faire (maid of all work.) It is only eleven years since independence and people’s feelings are still raw and hair-trigger sensitive to any perceived slight.

Some of our neighbours are “mixed” couples like us —one wife a gum-snapping American with a nervous tic consisting of sniffing loudly every few seconds, and another a quiet, self-effacing woman from Guatemala. These marriages will only last for an average of ten years. They all seemed doomed.

I don’t know the reasons behind these marriage breakdowns, but, in the years to come, as I see more and more foreign wives return to their home countries with their children, my heart quakes. It happens to some of T’s colleagues. It happens to our university friends. It could so easily happen to us.

But it didn’t. If I could only talk to my twenty-six-year-old self, I would pat her reassuringly on the shoulder and tell her that everything was going to be all right. That, in spite of everything that is yet to come, we will survive.

Haik

“If we want to destroy the structure of Algerian society, its capacity for resistance, we must first of all conquer the women; we must go and find them behind the veil where they hide themselves and in the houses where the men keep them out of sight.”

-French colonial doctrine according to Frantz Fanon


I found myself watching, with bated breath and a kind of open-mouthed fascination, the spectacle of my mother-in-law struggling with her haïk. Muttering to herself, and perspiring profusely, which caused her spectacles to fog up and slide half-way down her nose, she was attempting to bring under control the errant flaps of the garment and tuck them into her belt, whilst trying to keep her headscarf in place and making sure her voilette, or face veil, still concealed the lower part of her face.

It wasn’t easy.

She had never been brought up to wear a haïk. In Kabylie, women didn’t veil as the men there were under strict instructions, seemingly from birth, never to look a woman fully in the face. She had been used to this freedom and could never quite come to grips with covering herself up in this — bedsheet. In fact, whenever we went up to the village, she would throw off her haïk and voilette with an audible sigh of relief as soon as we reached the Algiers city limits.

My first introduction to the haïk had been when I had walked out of the arrivals gate of Oran Es Senia airport in December 1968. I spied T waiting for me, but behind him there was a crowd of white silhouettes converging from all corners of the airport towards the same point. Once there, they stood waiting for incoming passengers in clusters of two or three, looking like a convention of ghosts, or a flock of fluttering pigeons. Their appearance was rendered even stranger, to my unaccustomed eyes, by the fact that the only opening in the white covering was a small slit, through which I could glimpse one dark, kohl-rimmed eye.

Unknown-1

I clutched T’s hand, overwhelmed by my first impressions of Algeria — the heat, so unexpected in December, the blinding sunlight reflecting off the white buildings in such contrast to the lowering grey skies of Britain, and the unfamiliarity of it all. He dropped a chaste kiss on my cheek and gave my trembling hand a reassuring squeeze, before dropping it quickly. I was soon to learn that public shows of affection were not the done thing in Algeria.

As we fought our way through the crowd, the wraithlike figures around us were suddenly galvanised into action. Bare arms, loaded down with jangling gold bracelets, shot out from the enveloping veil to wave frantically at an emerging passenger, exposing the frilly, lacy bodice of what I was to learn was the typical Oran dress. The white sheet, the haïk, however, was firmly maintained around the face, even to the extent of grasping an edge between the teeth.

I later discovered that this bodice served as a handy receptacle for purses, handkerchiefs and random purchases, necessary when both your hands were occupied in trying to keep the haïk in place and maintain your modesty. Not the most practical of garments.

The haïk is a traditional women’s veil once worn all over the Maghreb. It consists of a length of fabric that is draped around the shoulders of the wearer, brought forward over the head and folded over just above the eyes, creating a wimple effect. The two sides are wrapped over the arms and chest, and the excess material is tucked into a belt at the front, forming a kind of ankle-length skirt.

Its colour ranges from cream, in Tlemcen, to pure white in Oran and Algiers. In the east of Algeria, the traditional haïk was called a m’laya and was black with red trim, as a sign of mourning for Salah Bey, the then Governor of Constantine, assassinated at the end of the eighteenth century.

Women often had their “best” haïk, not unlike a European woman’s “best” coat, with silk versions being worn by the more affluent. The silk would cling lovingly to the wearer’s form, falling around the ankles in elegant folds. The beauty of this kind of haïk inspired the work of many poets and singers. Even today, an Algerian bride often wears a gold-striped cream silk haïk at her wedding.

Strangely enough, a version of the haïk, called the huik, was popular in the Netherlands and Belgium from the fourteenth until the late nineteenth century. It was usually black and, like the North African haïk, made of wool or silk. Women wore it to protect themselves from inclement weather and during periods of mourning.

The haïk evolved from the Greek Doric peplos — a loose, full-length dress worn by Greek women in the Classical period — and was initially brought to North Africa in the late fifteenth century as part of the cultural baggage of refugees fleeing from Spain, following its reconquista by Ferdinand and Isabella. The victors had offered their Jewish and Muslim subjects the stark choice between conversion or exile.

From the Ottoman period onwards, it was usually worn by Algerian women living in an urban environment and lent itself easily to the Muslim idea of safeguarding a woman’s purity by covering her body and face. The seventeenth-century Spanish historian, Diego Haedo, waxed lyrical about the beauty of North African women in their “delicate white coats, made of fine white wool or silk fabric.”

Christian and Jewish women in Algeria also wore the haïk, but without any face covering. The addition of the adjâr, or voilette, the small triangle of lace-edged or embroidered lawn covering the lower part of the face, transformed the haïk from being merely a sartorial choice into an outward sign of religious persuasion.

images

It was described by Haedo as: “A fine white veil, knotted behind the neck, which covers the lower part of their faces, leaving the eyes and the forehead exposed, and enabling them to venture outside without being recognised.” The adjâr was not worn in Oran – the edges of the haïk were simply pulled together over the face, leaving only one eye visible.

To the Orientalist painters and writers of the nineteenth century, the veil had always been an object of intense fascination. The lure of the forbidden. Many pictures were painted of veiled “harem beauties” gazing longingly out of the windows in the hope of being rescued from their confinement. Some of these painters had never even been to Algeria and relied on the powerful erotic charge their paintings generated to sell them and the subsequent popular reproductions.

The truth was that the haïk and adjâr afforded a certain amount of autonomy to Algerian women, so that they could go about their business, visit their family and friends and lead a busy social life, whilst still adhering to the social and religious conventions of the time. This image, reported by travellers to Algeria during this period, is at odds with that of the prisoner of the harem so beloved of popular literature.

In the nineteen-fifties, the haïk played an important role in the Algerian war of independence. Both male and female freedom fighters wore haïks to disguise themselves when smuggling arms through French army security controls. Once this technique had been detected by the French military,  female fighters decided to wear European dress instead, so that they could pass unnoticed through French checkpoints, and plant explosives in and around the centre of Algiers.

After the Battle of Algiers, as this urban bombing campaign and its aftermath came to be known, the pieds noirs embarked on a propaganda campaign of public “spontaneous” unveilings, to try to persuade the French government, at a moment of political turmoil in its history, and when it was struggling politically and financially to maintain its North African colony, that they had brought emancipation to Muslim women, winning them over to European values and away from the independence struggle. It later turned out that the participants in these public spectacles had either never worn the veil, or had been forced into taking part. The French government had not been convinced.

Nowadays, the haïk and adjâr are rarely seen on the streets of Algeria, except those worn by elderly women. There has, however, been a campaign over the past few years to bring back the authentic Algerian veil to replace the hijabniqab and jelbab, all imported by Islamists from the Middle East. Many women wore the haïk proudly during the weekly protests of the Hirak.

As for my mother-in-law, we solved the problem a few years later by buying her a full-length, olive-green kaftan. No more grappling with flaps of fabric that seemed to have a mind of their own. Life became so much simpler.

Flies

The man who makes tattoos will come

To tattoo the back of your hand with flies.

Dot by dot, like the hoof prints of a baby gazelle

Grazing on the banks of the Olive River.

Oh, Hada, my daughter, don’t say you’re scared.

-Aissa Djermouni, Chaoui singer


Many members of T’s extended family had made their way to Algiers for our wedding, not only from every corner of Algeria, but also from T’s village up in the mountains of Kabylie. It was an important moment for them, one not to be missed. They were coming to celebrate the wedding of the eldest son of one of their own, and not only that, he was marrying a European woman — the first in the family. Continue reading

The Adventures Of An Austin 1100

The (Austin 1100’s) remarkable handling qualities really show up on twisty roads, where much faster cars can be left behind.

-Autocar


Towards the end of 1966, T took the momentous decision to buy his first car. Up until then, we had relied on Sheffield buses to get around, or on a lift from one of his flatmates, who owned a skateboard-like, lemon-yellow Mini. Continue reading

The Watering-Hole

Fontaine des Gazelles – Cette appellation dérive des gazelles qui venaient s’abreuver au filet d’eau qui coulait d’une fissure naturelle de la roche, à un mètre au dessus du niveau de la mer.

Gazelle Spring – this name comes from the deer that came to drink at the small spring flowing from a natural split in the rock, one metre above sea level.

Les Lieux Continue reading

Outlaw

Here comes Ahmed Oumeri. He’s coming along the river. Rejoice, my sisters! Men of honour still exist.

Kabyle song in praise of Ahmed Oumeri.


Amongst the swashbuckling Kabyle heroes of my mother-in-law’s songs, the ones she would hum to herself as she folded her clothes, or found innumerable small household tasks to occupy her days, a certain Ahmed Oumeri had pride of place. Not quite on a par with Colonel Amirouche, but almost. Continue reading

Thresholds

Thresholds are more than randomly-chosen divisions… They are places where change – transformation – happens.

-Emily Henry


Every single day, as soon as my mother-in-law woke up, she would stumble out of bed, make her way to the front door of the house, open it wide, take a deep breath of the morning air, and murmur some words in Kabyle that sounded like a prayer, or an incantation. Continue reading

The Tower Of Babel

“To have another language is to possess a second soul.”

– Charlemagne


My sister suddenly turned to me and said, “You have to be schizophrenic to live here! Do you realise how many languages are being spoken in this room?” This remark came during one of my mother’s last visits to Algeria, when she had expressed the wish to return there and my sister had promised to accompany her. We were sitting around in a family group, just chatting normally. I looked at her, astonished, as I had never really thought about it. Continue reading