Axxam

Ixxamen n medden weɛṛen, ma ur nɣin ad sḍeɛfen.

Living in somebody else’s house is hard – if it doesn’t kill you, it will make you lose weight.

— Kabyle proverb


If  you go ever go up into Kabylie  – either to make your annual pilgrimage to your ancestral village, or simply driven by a tourist’s curiosity – you will find that many of the villages, perched on their peaks or strung along their high ridges, have lost much of their traditional character.

21314507_353994201707915_1815351083156238113_n.jpg

New four or five-storey constructions are springing up everywhere. Kabylie is being swamped by a greyish-white tsunami of breeze blocks and concrete. Boxlike new houses squat uneasily on the slopes. The traditional fig and olive groves have been transformed into forests of ugly concrete pillars, not bearing fruit but twisted bunches of rusty iron rods.  Soon Kabylie will resemble the rest of Algeria – an enormous, hideous, construction site.

Some Kabyles have built their own version of the Swiss alpine chalet. To me, that’s rather like wearing borrowed finery.  All very pretty – but chalets are not Kabyle and Kabylie is not Switzerland. Every country has its own style of traditional house, built using whatever material is to be found in the immediate vicinity. In Kabylie, the only building material available is not wood, but stone. And to my mind, the house best adapted to Kabylie is the traditional one — axxam.

The walls of a traditional Kabyle house were built out of uncut stone (azru), held together by a clay mortar (tixmirt), reinforced by reeds and insulated with straw; materials very similar to those used in building the wattle-and-daub cottages of medieval England. The roof consisted of rows of curved terracotta tiles, identical to those found in southern Europe. Viewed from afar, the stone walls of the houses blended harmoniously into their surroundings and the red, orange and burnt umber of the tiled roofs, glowing in the sunlight, enhanced, rather than marred, the beauty of the landscape.

In general, houses belonging to members of the same family surrounded a communal central space or afragh. A high wall, pierced by a solid wooden door – tabburt n wefragh –  often carved with Berber symbols, separated this family compound from the street. This yard or central space was meticulously organised, like everything in Kabylie. Every square inch was assigned its particular purpose or function, with nothing left to chance.

visite avec assia en mai 2009 074.jpg

Tabburt n wefragh

The sunny side of the courtyard was using for drying laundry,  stocking the logs used for heating in winter and drying figs, olives, peppers and medicinal herbs. Shaded by a fig or olive tree, both highly symbolic, the other side provided a shady spot to protect the family’s animals from the blazing sun of high summer.

Inside the house, as in a church or mosque, everything had to be placed in a specific spot and facing a specific direction. Opening the front door, visitors would immediately find themselves in the main communal space. A man who was not a member of the family would give a discreet cough, to warn any women nearby that there was a stranger in the house.

In one corner of the room would be an open fireplace, lkanoun, embedded in the wall  and used both for heating and cooking. On my first trip to Kabylie, my mother-in-law  heated up some couscous for us over this type of open fire, which gave the food a delicious smoky taste.

doc-500-7e0ea.gif

On the other side of the main room, there would be a waist-high wall, tadekwant, behind which the animals were kept in winter, providing a source of natural heating during the long winter months. A loft above this makeshift stable would be filled with large clay amphorae or ikoufan — T. calls them ashvayli — containing enough grains, oil, acorns and dried figs to last the winter.

Scan 4.jpeg

A loft room, taghwerfett, used for sleeping, could sometimes be found next to the storage space. Thanks to the animal warmth rising from below, these loft rooms were the cosiest place to be in winter. It was in such a room that my husband was born. The birth of a male heir in Kabylie – a time of great joy – is often accompanied by an old proverb: M’ad ilal uqcic, dessent tsegwa (Whenever a boy is born, the walls rejoice.)

Nobody knows the exact date of T’s birth — my mother-in-law told us that it was snowing and that she had to wrap a rug around her shoulders to keep both herself and her new-born baby warm. Another aunt said that the cherry-trees were in bloom. It is perfectly possible that a late snowfall had occurred in spring that particular year.

2bb7c0fc07f1685a146e58ace34574c2--north-africa-berber.jpg

But it was inside the house, that the creative genius, so typical of the Kabyles, would be given free rein. Every spring, the floor and the walls were whitewashed by the women with white kaolin clay, ldjir, to keep the interior of the house looking fresh and clean.  After application of the clay, the walls and floor were polished with a smooth pebble, although T. remembers his grandmother using a round door knob instead.

Then the women would decorate the walls and the large amphorae with brightly-coloured painted symbols almost as old as time – some dating back to prehistory. This love of colour is seen in the woven blankets and rugs as well as in the traditional dresses worn by Kabyle women, who, when gathered together in a group, look like a cluster of bright jewels.

Scan 1.jpeg

Every young man aspired to building his own house, marrying and bringing up a family.  Only then could he be considered as a real man. He had first to ask permission to build his house from the amin, or head of the village, who would then put it to the thajmarth, the village assemblyA place in the thajmarth would only be given to a man owning his own house and capable of ensuring its security – one of the principles of the code of honour regulating every aspect of Kabyle life.

He would build the house himself, with the aid of friends and neighbours – a little like barn-raising on the plains of Oklahoma. And like the raising of American barns, this collective effort (twiza) was carried out in a festive atmosphere. If a man did not conform to the specific rules of the code of honour, he could risk criticism, derision and sometimes even expulsion from his village.

Another of the rules was that the interior of the house was the woman’s domain, and  outside was the man’s. Although Kabyle women did not veil, they were supposed to know nothing of the outside world. According to another Kabyle saying, Argaz t-taftilt n-berra, tamettutt-taftilt n-daxel (Man is the outdoors lamp, woman the indoors lamp.)

Although it may seem to you that women were considered inferior to men in Kabyle society, they had, in fact, their specific, equally important, role to play. They were portrayed as the foundation of the home, sometimes referred to poetically as the tigejdit, or the central load-bearing pillar of the house. The man was the ajgu alemmas, or the main roof beam, protecting everything and everyone in the house.

Winter is a time for home. When the sky resembled a sheet of weathered tin and the mountains were leached of all colour, axxam was a haven of peace and warmth for the Kabyle. At night, nobody dared venture outside into the biting cold, where the only points of light visible in the dense blackness of the night, apart from the clusters of fiercely blazing stars, were the candlelight and the ruddy glow cast by the flames of the log fires on the mounds of snow blocking every doorway. The frosty air smelt of woodsmoke, of distances and of passing time.

village_kabyle.jpg

Inside, the family would gather round the fire and while away the evening hours by listening to old folk tales, passed down from generation to generation in time-honoured oral tradition. Stories such as The Magic Seed, Loundja, the Ogress’s Daughter, and The Orphans’ Cow.

The more I think about it, the more I realise that, although T only spent a total of about seven years in his village, he has been strongly imprinted with Kabyle values. The strong protective instinct, the longing for his own house. It seems that however far you roam, your formative years are the most important.

Advertisements

Stalker

Stalking is an extension of harassment elevated to a level where it is causing disruption or physical threats to the person being harassed.

— Mark Childress


The strident sound of the doorbell cut through the messy tangle of my thoughts.  I  was trying to keep myself busy with mundane tasks, but my mind kept returning to the events of the previous few days. It was like worrying a loose tooth with my tongue  —it just made things worse. A glance out of  the front window showed me a blanket of grey rainclouds pressing down on the house, reducing my world to a thin slice between it and the sodden ground. The row of dripping, leafless geranium bushes in front of the house looked as miserable as I felt.

I splashed down the steps of the house, with our German Shepherd, Titan, pushing against my legs and nearly tripping me up in the process. I couldn’t see who was at the door, as the front wall was over two metres high, built purposely so to discourage passers-by from looking into our garden. If this seems a bit drastic to you, you must understand that Algerian passers-by are not like British ones. The British will politely avert their eyes, even if the curtains of a house are not drawn and the living-room is lit up like the stage of a theatre. Algerians develop a permanent crick in their necks from craning them to try to see what is going on in everyone else’s houses.

Grabbing hold of Titan’s collar, I cautiously opened the solid-metal gate. He had a tendency to jump out at visitors — more in welcome than anything else — but they weren’t to know that.  One of the side-effects of restraining his enthusiasm in this way was that he would then bare his teeth and snarl at anybody on the doorstep, causing them to take an involuntary step, or two, back.

It was I who took a step back when I saw who was standing outside on the pavement. Titan gave a low rumble in his throat. After staring at the woman for a couple of seconds, and just as she opened her mouth to speak, I slammed the gate shut in her face, whirled and ran up the steps to the front door, closing and locking it behind me. I leaned against it, my heart pounding fit to choke me.

images-8.jpeg

It was November, 1988, and T. had gone to a colleague’s house that afternoon to try to glean some information about what was happening at the refinery. Only a few days before, the entrance to the plant had been barred to him and to some of his heads of department. The security guards at the gate had looked at him sheepishly as they had walked over to his car to explain the situation and mumble an awkward apology. The barrier had been kept firmly down, however, on the orders of the Islamist group that had taken over the refinery.

Since then, we had been in limbo. His CEO had not been very forthcoming, just telling T. to stay at home whilst things settled down. Everything was rumour and counter-rumour. T. was not the only manager to whom access to his workplace had been barred. This had been happening all over Algeria since the October 1988 street riots, in what seemed at the time to be a spontaneous popular uprising against the status quo that had lasted more than twenty-five years.

Like all uprisings, however, it had been taken over by, on the one hand, vandals itching to smash, or burn down, anything which was a symbol of state authority— and on the other, by the Islamist movement. Putting themselves forward  as an alternative to the sclerotic FLN, in power since independence, they had quickly gained in popularity and influence.

One of their tactics had been to set up sleeper cells in various state-owned institutions and when the word was given, have those cells take over the running of the institutions, throwing out the legitimate managers in the process. This is what had happened to my husband.

Usually these cells were made up of ordinary members of the workforce – ordinary, yes, but heavily islamised. This must have seemed like a heaven-sent opportunity for them to take over the reins of power, a distorted version of the famous “autogestion,” i.e. the spontaneous self-management of important institutions by Algerian workers once their European managers had joined the general exodus after independence.

Unfortunately, in this case, power had gone to their heads, as, according to a former colleague, “Sous chaque burnous bat le coeur d’un patron” (Under every burnous,  beats the heart of a boss). Stories filtered through to us of how the “commission,” as they had styled themselves, were interrogating other employees to try and find some proof of misappropriation of company funds, use of state-owned facilities or other evidence of wrong-doing by T.  Unfortunately for them, however  — and fortunately for us — he had always been scrupulous about keeping records of any supplies purchased from the refinery, making  sure that he paid for them by cheque and that a copy was kept on file.

The problem was that they didn’t understand that my husband was a goverment employee just like everyone else. He was not a manager in the traditional sense – that is, a factory owner into whose pockets all the profits were poured. He was subject to the same rules and regulations as everyone else, with a salary not vastly superior to theirs. Every decision he took had to be approved, signed and countersigned by his superiors before being brought into effect.

So when they could find no evidence of wrong-doing, they resorted to other methods. Firstly,  they threatened to march on our house and burn it down to the ground. Then, rumours about a planned attempt on T’s life did the rounds. He was at the receiving end of a stream of anonymous death threats. Luckily for me, I knew nothing about all this, or I would not have been able to sleep at night.

I had known for some time, however, about a female employee at the refinery who had developed an unhealthy obsession with my husband. T. had told me that he had not felt able to continue eating his lunch in the works canteen, as this woman would sit opposite him and stare…and stare.. and stare. Finally, feeling increasingly uncomfortable, he had opted to eat lunch at his desk.

The “commission” felt that it would be a good idea to give this woman, who obviously had severe mental issues, our home address. She would loiter on the pavement in front of our house, hoping to catch a glimpse of us, or rather, of my husband. Her impromptu visit to our house that rainy afternoon had scared me witless, because I had no idea what was going on in her mind. Her obsession with T could have led her to think of me as a rival for his affections. It would be easy enough to get rid of me by stabbing me on my own doorstep. Who knows? Anything was possible in those chaotic times.

I prefer to think, however, that she was sent to stalk us simply for her nuisance value. Her activities were soon brought to an end, however, when we opened the double gates to drive out one day, and saw her standing on the pavement in front of us, effectively  barring our way. I can remember just sitting there in the passenger seat, stunned, not knowing what to do. T froze as well, his hands on the steering wheel.

Titan, however, had no such hesitation. He bounded out through the opening as usual, and galloped towards the woman. The last time I was to see our stalker, she was running, screeching, down the street, with Titan, tongue lolling out, in hot pursuit. A stressful episode in our lives brought to a somewhat comic conclusion.

 

Steam Heat

Who enters the Turkish bath will sweat.

– (Turkish proverb)


The British blame it on the Turks and the French, naturally, on the Arabs. For all I know, other nationalities are having an accusing finger pointed at them as well. I am talking, of course about the origins of the Turkish bath, or, as our Gallic cousins would have it, le bain maure.

In Algeria, it is called either the latter or simply le hammam, the Arabic for “hot water bath.” It is a fusion of the Roman thermes, earlier Greek traditions and Arab and Ottoman influences, and has become an integral part of North African culture. The number of hammams to be found in a neighbourhood was often an indication of its wealth. Every town, every neighbourhood had its hammam at one time, but the habit of going there at least once a week has fallen somewhat out of favour and many public baths have closed their doors.

P1030442.jpg

One of the reasons for this is that people nowadays prefer to bathe behind closed doors. In addition, the reputation of some less salubrious hammams has gone downhill, with rumours of men dressing up as women in order to take photos of the half-naked bathers, or a lack of maintenance and hygiene leading to the spread of infection.

The primary function of the hammam is the same as that of Victorian or Edwardian public baths — to enable those who do not enjoy the luxury of a bathroom or running water at home to keep themselves clean. In Algeria, there are many rural villages that have no water, much less hot water, on tap, so a weekly trip to the nearest hammam becomes a necessity. For some aficionados, nothing beats a weekly steam clean, even though they have bathrooms at home.

A hammam usually has two or three rooms — firstly, a kind of vestibule with daybeds pushed against the walls, in case someone is overcome by the heat, or simply wants a nap; then a warm-ish chamber and finally the hot room, (bit eskhouna),where the temperature varies between 40 and 60 degrees celsius, with one hundred percent humidity. A  low marble or tiled platform runs around the room, in which small washbasins are set at regular intervals, above which are hot and cold taps.

The hammam is usually open to women during the day, but turned over to men in the evening. I know this because our house, the Villa Robineau, was next door to a hammam and the male clients would line up in the evenings, waiting for the doors to open and whiling away the time sitting on the windowsills of the houses opposite, gazing avidly at our windows in the hope of catching a glimpse of us. I don’t know what they expected to see, but I suppose we were rather like exotic animals in a zoo — a Kabyle refinery manager and his European wife.

But the hammam is primarily a female domaine — a place of endless discussion, an intimate space where confidences are exchanged and where the perfumed billows of steam echo with the splashing of water, sudden bursts of laughter and murmured conversations. ” Ici l’oreille s’ouvre pour entendre glisser dans une caresse délicieuse, le chant du cuivre, de l’argent des coupes et des calices ciselés qui servent à puiser l’eau des vasques.  (Here the ear can perceive, sliding in a delicious caress, the ringing sound of the engraved copper or silver cups and chalices, used to scoop the water from the basins.)

images-1.jpeg

images.jpeg

There are a certain number of utensils necessary for a good hammam session — a small pail, a bowl, a wash mitt made of coarse flannel and a supply of savon noir (black soap), henna and ghassoul. The pail and bowl can often be objects of beauty; wrought in silver or copper, with delicate engravings on the sides. All of the beauty products are made from natural ingredients; savon noir from olive pits, which give it its dark amber colour; henna from the leaves of the henna plant, and ghassoul, a natural clay used for washing the body and conditioning the hair.

Unknown-1.jpegGhassoul-rhassoul-clay-hard-300x189.jpg

Epilation of excess body hair is achieved using “sugaring” — a little like waxing. All of these traditional beauty treatments are now readily available in expensive beauty salons everywhere in the world — at hugely inflated prices.

Henna application is usually done the night before. The difficulty with this is that henna paste dries rock-hard and I became used to seeing Fatiha sporting what looked like a helmet of reddish-brown clay on hammam days. You could actually knock on it with your knuckles and cracks would appear like those in soil after a long drought.

The best part of going to a hammam, however, is the massage or exfoliation of the skin. Once the steam has gone to work, the pores open and it is now time to start scrubbing. If you are lucky, there is a woman employed to do just that, or a friend can “do” the less accessible parts of the body. Dead skin and dirt just roll off the body, which is then rinsed before applying soap.

Above all, the hammam is a place where women can socialise without any male surveillance or class distinction. The Algerian equivalent of a hen party is usually held there, with the future bride, accompanied by the female members of her family, entering the hammam to the sound of chanting, youyous, and the derbouka drum. Afterwards, cakes and cold drinks will be served to everyone there, family members and strangers alike. Her next trip to the baths will probably be with her new mother-in-law.

The hammam can also act as an impromptu marriage agency, where mothers with sons of marriageable age can thoroughly inspect for physical flaws any prospective candidate for her son’s hand. This prospect actually makes my skin crawl, bringing to mind a nightmare vision of a livestock market, and my outraged Britishness comes to the fore.

I only went to the hammam three times during my years in Algeria and each time I was practically press-ganged into it. The first time was with a neighbour in Oran and we came home, both clad in haïks, because they were easier to slip on — the first and last time I have ever worn one, I might add. The interesting thing was that, wrapped up in my white sheet, I attracted far more glances from men than I did bareheaded and wearing European clothes.

The second time was in Algiers with a group of my sisters-in-law before a wedding. The memories of that outing are rather hazy, but I do remember giggling a lot.  The third time was with Fatiha when we first moved into the Villa Robineau and there was no hot water. Longing for a bath, I finally gave in to Fatiha’s cajoling and went next door with her to our neighbourhood hammam. I remember clinging to the last vestiges of my dignity by refusing to take off my knickers, turning my back on the curious stares of the other women and  crouching, in desperation, over one of the washbasins in order to splash cold water over my burning cheeks, red from a mixture of heat and embarrassment.

Although the hammam is not a Kabyle custom — Kabyle women preferring to meet and gossip around the village well —  T. quite enjoyed his rare visits there. He considered that the “European” habit of a quick shower was the worst of unhygienic practices. “You can’t really be clean unless you rub off the accumulated dirt,” he would say loftily, “Rinsing or soaping it off is not enough.”

I was obviously NOT dirty, as exfoliation didn’t work on me. No amount of vigorous rubbing would dislodge a single flake of dry skin. Quite frankly, I prefer to be “unhygienic” rather than wash myself under the prying eyes of a dozen other women, all wondering if European women were made the same way as them, and not in possession of a third breast, or six fingers on each hand, as rumour would have it. No, don’t worry — I’m joking.