Welcome Home

T.’s eyes grew black with anger as he glared balefully at the older man standing in front of him.”You’ll get your money back now that I have the bakery!” he shouted, spitting out every word. It was the day after his father’s death, and the latter’s older cousin — who had been saved from almost certain death by the generosity of T’s father — had sidled up to him and whispered that his father had died owing him seven hundred thousand francs (about £70) and that he wanted his money back.

As the other backed off, surprised by the angry reaction, T swore to himself that he would no longer defer to his elders. He was a man now, capable of making his own decisions. He had been forced to grow up overnight. His fury rose in his throat like bile, but curdled with it was his grief and overwhelming sense of loss, of which he felt the weight like a cold stone in the pit of his stomach.

That same afternoon, a business associate and friend of his father’s also came to pay his respects. T. braced himself for more bad news. The vultures were circling. Instead, the man put his hands on T’s shoulders, kissed him on both cheeks and told him that he was writing off all his father’s debts. He then added, “God keep you,” for good measure.

The senior members of the family had all gathered at the farm that morning. T’s eldest uncle, M., the family black sheep, was there — the unworthy son who had stolen his father’s French pension money from his own mother and was notorious for ambushing and robbing unwary travellers on the mountain roads; his father’s two younger brothers, and the two cousins.  T’s father’s body had been washed and prepared for burial and placed in the garage. One of my brothers-in-law, nine years old at the time, distinctly remembers jumping over the coffin as part of a childish game, not realising that it contained the body of his father.

T. has no memory of the following hours, during which arrangements were made to transport his father’s body back up to their village for burial. However grown-up he felt inside, I don’t think his relatives thought to involve him. Nor was he invited to take part in the hastily-convened meeting of his elders that was to decide his fate and that of his mother and siblings.

Repeatedly banging his fist on the table for emphasis at this meeting, M. had apparently insisted that T and his family be sent immediately back to their village, leaving him, as the eldest, in sole charge of all of T’s father’s assets. There is absolutely no doubt  in my mind that T and his family would not have survived up in Kabylie, either dying from starvation, being massacred in their sleep by marauding French troops or having their village burned to ashes by napalm, like so many others. Knowing T, he would have gone underground and joined the maquis. On reflection, this is probably exactly what his uncles wanted.

M had triumphantly brandished a document, signed by T’s father, selling the bakery to him. This had, however, been a ruse concocted by the latter to prevent the creditors concerned by his bankruptcy a few years before from getting their hands on it. Aware of his eldest brother’s lack of scruples, T’s father had prudently signed another document cancelling the sale and given it into the safekeeping of one of his younger brothers. The latter then produced it, like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat, to the stupefaction of the would-be usurper. Although M had also signed it at the time, he had no idea that the document was still in existence.

T’s other uncle, A., managed to withstand the barrage of furious insults hurled at him by his older brother.  This was astonishing in itself, as A. had a distinct lack of backbone. A few years previously, on receiving his call-up papers and fearing that he would spend most of his national service in internment camps like T’s father, he had gone on the run.  T’s father had finally hidden him in the bakery, passing him off as one of the workers.

Of course, A did not defend T’s interests through altruism, but had an ulterior motive of his own, as T was to discover later. For the moment, however, thanks to him and to my father-in-law’s foresight, the bakery had been kept out of M’s grasping hands. It was to provide the only source of income for T’s family for many years to come. Very late the same evening, T’s uncle called to say that he had managed to obtain all the administrative documents necessary for the transferral of his father’s body. They would be leaving at dawn the very next day.

Next morning, with dawn spreading along the horizon like a bruise, the funeral cortege, consisting of just a van containing the sealed coffin, and a car, set off on its journey to Kabylie. A murky curtain of rain and mist obscured everything, the only sound being the hiss of the tyres on the wet road surface. From time to time, the ghostly shape of a military lorry would materialise in front of them out of the gloom, to disappear just as silently.

Cigarette smoke swirled around the passengers in the car, each of them silent and withdrawn, lost in his own thoughts. T huddled in a corner, almost forgotten, the silence seeping into his bones. There were no women present, as female relatives do not attend funerals in Algeria -— not even the widow.  It is men’s business.

The journey took twice as long as it should have, with checkpoints every twenty kilometres. Every car was stopped and searched by cold-eyed goumiers (Algerian soldiers recruited by the French military,) machine guns at the ready.  Travellers were forced to get out of their cars each time and produce their documents, taking great care not to look the soldiers in the eye when doing so.

Military lorries, jeeps and half-tracks— armoured vehicles with caterpillar tracks at the rear instead of wheels and rocket launchers mounted behind the driver — rumbled by in a never-ending convoy of death and destruction.

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The commanding officer, usually French, would be called over to peruse the documents again, before giving a curt nod of his head. They would be allowed to continue their journey — at a snail’s pace, of course. Any faster and the vehicles would have been ripped apart by a burst of machine-gun fire from behind.

There were not many French troops around — the manning of checkpoints was entrusted to the goumiers, but from time to time T would catch a glimpse of a legionnaire, strutting around in his flashy uniform and white kepi.  Algeria was the French Foreign Legion’s long-standing home, its headquarters being located at Sidi Bel Abbès, about an hour and a half’s drive south-west of Oran. The Legion would later be found to have been involved in torture and other barbarities in Algeria, severely tarnishing the reputation of the French army for decades.

Under a sky the colour of wet ashes, the two vehicles drove slowly along the route to Tizi Ouzou. From time to time, they would see groups of people surrounded by soldiers on the side of the road and military vehicles parked at vantage points, ready to quell any sign of a disturbance. Everybody’s nerves were strung tight; every soldier’s finger hovered over the trigger of his loaded weapon.  This was the epicentre of the armed rebellion and no quarter was to be given.

As the car left Tizi Ouzou to begin the long climb up to their village, T noticed a plume of black smoke rising up on the outskirts of the city, adding another layer of mourning to the already dark sky. Probably another village put to the torch, he thought to himself morosely.

Finally they started up the steep incline leading to their own village. This road had once been a dirt track, but had been widened by bulldozers requisitioned by the French military. In this way, troops would have easier access to the villages if need be. A group of villagers stood waiting silently for them, shrouded in the grey burnouses protecting them from the chilly damp of that October afternoon. They were there to welcome one of their own — coming home at last.

El lahslama!” “Welcome home!”

To be continued….

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The Dying of the Light

“And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
― Dylan Thomas


“Wake up, my son! Wake up!”

T. sat up groggily and looked around. He realised, with a start, that he was not in his own bedroom in the Ridouci farmhouse in Reghaïa, but appeared to have fallen asleep on his mother’s bed. His mind was a jumble of confused thoughts, like the shards of a broken mirror, reflecting back on each other, yet making no sense.

He rubbed his eyes and focused on his mother’s face reflected in the light from the candle she was holding in one trembling hand. Her eyes glistening, bright with tears, she finally pronounced the words he had been hearing in his nightmares for the previous seven years — “A mmi (my son), your father has gone.”

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T at 16

Suddenly he remembered. Was it only twelve hours ago that he had returned from school to the bakery to find his father slumped on a chair on the pavement outside the shop? T had been surprised to find him there, as he was supposed to be at the farm. Only the week before, he had enrolled his rather reluctant son at the Lycée de Garçons de Maison Carrée, after a year’s strike called by the FLN, in which T had enthusiastically participated. He had spent that whole year working on the farm with his father.

The result was that, although he had just turned sixteen, he was already three years behind in his schooling. His father had then decided that T would sleep during the week with the other bakery hands at the bakery, located on the main square in Maison Carrée.  He would only return home to Reghaïa, about twenty miles away, at weekends.

But now, T’s father seemed not to be aware of his son’s presence. His eyes were unfocused and his waxen face was dripping with sweat. His perspiration-soaked shirt clung to his body, so that his bones seemed to poke right through his skin, like warped coat-hangers. T. looked at his father’s hands with mounting fear. They were bony and dry. He remembered when they had been strong and sinewy, tanned from working outside.

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T’s father towards the end of his life

Going into the bakery, he saw, huddled in a group, two of his father’s cousins, as well as  two of his paternal uncles. They had all had been brought down from their village in the mountains at some point or another by T’s father, to be given jobs and accommodation at the farm and in the bakery. Kabylie was becoming ever more dangerous, with the struggle for independence spreading like wildfire. By contrast, the farm was in a “protected” triangle, lying as it did between two French military bases.

A, the younger of the cousins, turned to T, and explained that the reason for his father’s presence was that he had driven all the way into Maison Carrée that morning to pick some up some syringes to use for his daily injection of insulin, as there had been none left at the farm.

Having grown too weak by this time to inject himself, his brothers had given him two injections, one after another, unintentionally or perhaps intentionally, administering an overdose. Their panic had been growing by the second on seeing his rapidly deteriorating condition.

T’s father had not been in the best of health ever since he had been invalided out of the French army reserve corps after undergoing a complete blood transfusion. We don’t know to this day what grave illness had occasioned such radical treatment, but he was never to be the same afterwards. The onset of severe diabetes seven years earlier had not helped matters. And yet he was still only forty-two.

Looking at the thin, adolescent figure standing in front of him, A. told T. that he was not to sleep at the bakery that night, but must accompany his father back to Reghaïa. Immediately after dropping them off at the farm, A. shot off back to Algiers. He obviously had a bad feeling about what was about to happen and did not want to be there at the time.

T., after staring blankly at the clouds of dust thrown up by the departing car, put his arm around his father’s waist and hauled him bodily up the curving outside staircase of the farmhouse to the front door — to where his mother was waiting. It was to be the first and the last time he would put his arms around his father. Gestures of affection between fathers and sons were not part of the austere Kabyle culture of the time.

With one pale arm slung around each of their necks, head lolling, T’s father managed to stumble into his son’s room — the brightest and airiest in the house.  They laid him carefully on the bed, and pulled up chairs to sit with him, expecting him at any moment to emerge from his coma and open his eyes like he had done many times before. They, like his uncles, had no idea that T’s father was in a hypoglycaemic coma. It is ironic to think that, if they had fully realised what was happening, a sip of sugared water might have changed the whole course of T’s life.

At eleven o’clock that night, seeing her son’s eyelids growing heavier, in spite of his valiant efforts to stay awake, T’s mother told him to go and lie down on her bed and that she would wake him if there were any change in his father’s condition. And she had been true to her word.

As soon as his mother had spoken, T’s stomach turned to ice. He stood up, swayed a little on his feet and then walked reluctantly back into his own room. He looked at his father — or at least what remained of his father. It was as if his essence had drifted away, just leaving this peaceful, sunken face and cold hands, which lay on the blanket like relics of another life. T. bent down and kissed him gently on the forehead. He then went back into his mother’s room and threw himself face-down on the bed. And tried to remember how to breathe.

To be continued…..

Cars

“We really have to think about buying a new car,” T. said thoughtfully, eyeing my burgeoning stomach. It was the spring of 1971, and I was already pregnant with our second child. Two years of marriage, two pregnancies. My bump was still quite neat, but T. was thinking ahead, as always. We were still riding around in the Austin 1100 bought at university and were experiencing all the problems of driving a British car abroad.

The steering wheel in the wrong place, for one thing. The fact that the car seemed too – well, low-slung – for another. It had been designed for smoothly-surfaced British roads and didn’t cope too well with the bumps and potholes of your average Algerian carriageway.  I somehow had the feeling that there was only about about four centimetres’ clearance between my rear end and the road. The car was also fitted with an efficient heater that had served us well in the harsh Sheffield winters, but was too stifling in the relatively balmy Algerian winter temperatures.  There appeared to be no middle ground between “boiling hot” and “off” on the temperature controls.

Then the engine began to overheat on a regular basis. One nightmare journey to Algiers in the first months of our marriage took place in summer and with the needle on the engine temperature gauge hovering around the “Ready to Explode” mark, T. thought the only way to counter this, and to arrive in Algiers in one piece, was to put the heating on full blast and roll the windows down.  When we finally staggered from the car in Algiers, our faces were scarlet from the heat and our hair, full of dust, looked as though we had spent the day in a wind tunnel.

Another time, I had baked a lemon sponge cake, slathered in lemon butter cream, for my mother-in-law, having already discovered that she had a sweet tooth. For once, my attempt at baking something had succeeded beyond my wildest dreams. It rose perfectly, its fluffy deliciousness just begging to be bitten into. We put it carefully in a box and then in a corner of the boot of the car, so that it would not be crushed on its journey to Algiers.

On arriving at the family villa, we carried it in triumph into the kitchen under my mother-in-law’s greedy gaze. Her mouth was already beginning to water. Not waiting a moment, she plunged a knife into the thick butter cream and carved off a large slice of cake for herself. Her expression of bliss turned first into surprise, then disgust as she spat out her mouthful. We weren’t to know that the car had sprung a petrol leak and the fumes had permeated the boot, impregnating the beautiful cake with the smell (and taste) of fuel. I will never forget the look of regret on T’s mother’s face as she binned the rest.

After T. had lent the car to his brother and the latter had enjoyed it so much he returned it to us with one of the doors bashed in, all the inside ashtrays broken off, and the oil gauge flickering on red, we regretfully sold it to a British coopérant going back to Britain for practically the same price T. had bought it four years before.

We sold it because T. had his eye on a new R16 TS, still rolling off the assembly line at the Renault plant near Oran. I remember us becoming increasingly impatient because it took a whole MONTH to be delivered, and we could have any colour we wanted as long as it was mustard – and a particularly bilious mustard at that. T’s lip curled in distaste at the thought of driving a car of that colour. He was obviously still in British mode, and couldn’t understand why he didn’t have a choice in the matter. He was flatly told that it was that colour – or no car at all.

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Apart from the paint job, though, the Renault 16TS was perfect for Algerian roads. Compared to the Austin, its rear end was raised so high that it had a marked slope from boot to bonnet. The suspension was markedly better, though, than that of the Austin, and I sailed happily through my second pregnancy, carefully cushioned from the uneven Algerian road surfaces.

Unfortunately, this was the car in which T. had his almost fatal road accident just after our son’s birth, and, although its sturdy frame had probably saved his life, I couldn’t look at it without thinking how close my husband had come to death whilst driving it. It was time to find a new car, because, although the TS had been repaired after the accident, I didn’t trust it anymore.

By then, however, the Renault assembly plant had closed down – one of the many unfortunate consequences of the quarrel between Algeria and France over the nationalisation of the Algerian oil industry, and so anyone wanting to buy a car had to look to the secondhand market. No new cars were imported  — except of course, by a chosen few.

So, every Friday, every male between the ages of ten and seventy would go down to the secondhand vehicle market in Oran, on a piece of waste ground near the football stadium — serious buyers hauling a sack full of dinars and window shoppers alike. Every car would have a group of “specialists” clustered around it, nodding their heads sagely and scratching their chins as they debated the pros and cons of that particular model.

T. was lucky in that, as one of Sonatrach’s top managers, he was allowed to buy a used company car. We were soon the proud owners of a white Peugeot 504, sold off by Sonatrach when they imported a new fleet of vehicles. Peugeot had a reputation of being more reliable than Renault — the Volvo of the French car industry — but I am afraid that our vehicle had been mistreated badly by careless Sonatrach drivers and mechanics. I am practically sure that it had also been involved at some time in an accident. A bit of welding, slap on some paint to cover the joins — et voilà!

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After a few years of breakdowns and astronomical repair bills, T. gave in to his longing for a really super-duper car and we bought a second-hand white Citroën DS 21. This was the car used by most French and Algerian ministers and was the quintessence of  French automotive luxury — supercilious sneer, complete with flaring nostrils, (the headlights) on its front grill and all.

Unfortunately, its spare parts were at luxury prices too, as we were to find when an English coopérant, with the same kind of car, borrowed our carjack and forgot to re-fasten the bonnet when returning it. It flew back and smashed the windscreen when T. was driving along at over 100 km an hour. With no spare parts being imported at the time, a new bonnet cost us 5,000 dinars – the equivalent of £500 at the time.

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Then there was the saga of the windscreen. Even more difficult to obtain than the bonnet, we finally had to send a driver to Constantine to get a new one. The journey was a mere five hundred miles (nearly eight hundred kilometres) each way. On returning, he had left it on our front veranda, and Titan, our German Shepherd, discovered, to his delight, that it made a very comfortable bed.

Shooing Titan off the plastic-wrapt windscreen, I raised one corner and it gave an ominous tinkle.The windscreen had been smashed beyond repair under his considerable weight. So distraught was I that I fled into our garden and hid amongst the rosebushes. This may seem to have been an overreaction to you, and it does to me now, but it was such a struggle to find anything in Algeria, that material things took on much more importance than they should have done. Once something was broken or stolen, there was no hope of replacing it.

Once the DS sold, we then bought a brand new Honda Accord, about which I have already spoken, and then finally, when Algerians were allowed to import cars, a Peugeot 505. The latter had a peanut for an engine, forcing us to turn off the air-conditioning every time we wanted to overtake. We sold the Peugeot and imported a Nissan Sunny that we left behind when we went to Qatar. T. tells me it is still trundling around the roads near Arzew – a bit battered but still going strong.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

Kid Brother

Children of the same family, the same blood, with the same first associations and habits, have some means of enjoyment in their power, which no subsequent connections can supply…
– Jane Austen


“Here! YOU talk to him! Order some more flour!” The speaker was my father-in-law, his pale, emaciated face running with sweat as he thrust the telephone receiver at the nervous eighteen-year-old youth standing in front of him. The young man took the receiver with trembling hands from his brother-in-law and looked at it in bemusement. He didn’t know one end of it from the other. How to dial? How to go through the operator? What should he say when he finally had the flour supplier on the line?

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Telephones had never really been a means of communication in Kabylie.  If villagers needed to make an urgent phone call, they had to walk, drive or take a donkey-ride down the winding mountain roads to Michelet, or the nearest large village, where there would be public telephones available at the post office. B, the young man in question, had never used a telephone in his life.

Not daring to ask T’s father any questions,  he clumsily dialled the number scrawled on the scrap of paper. It didn’t help that his brother-in-law was watching him like a hawk. T’s father had a fine line in withering LOOKS, just like his son many years later. At the time, he was desperately ill with diabetes, but had been called from his sickbed to talk to the irate agent of the flour manufacturer, who was pacing around the ground floor of the bakery, payment book under his arm, pencil behind his ear and puffed up with the importance of bringing a recalcitrant debtor to heel.

T’s father was in arrears with the payment of his flour bills, but such was the force of his personality and his persuasive power, that, in the space of ten minutes, to the open-mouthed amazement of his young relative, he had not only cajoled the agent into deferring the payment of the flour already used, but also to agreeing to the delivery of new supplies.

It was 1955 and B. had just arrived in Algiers from their village at the behest of his sister, T’s mother. Her relationship with him was in many ways maternal, as she was fully sixteen years older than him, easily old enough to be his mother. She had begged her husband to find some kind of employment for her younger brother, as his father, the amin, or head of the village, had just died of a heart attack, and B. was in sore need of a job to help his widowed mother. There was another, more pressing, reason to bring him down to Algiers, as the outbreak of the independence struggle the previous November had made Kabylie a dangerous place to be.

I have mentioned B., or Khali B. (Uncle B.) before.  He was T’s younger maternal uncle and I loved him dearly, because, besides his warm and kindly nature, he had always been on T’s side and, consequently, on mine too. He was a wonderful support to us throughout our years in Algeria, and, in fact, had always acted as T’s big brother, as there were barely two years between them.

T’s grandmother, Zayna, had lost seven babies between my mother-in-law’s birth and that of her youngest and last child, B. I knew about this, but one day, my mother-in-law had told me the poignant story of one of her lost sisters, Tourkia. She hadn’t died at birth, like so many of my mother-in-law’s siblings, or fallen prey to some infection in her first months of life. She had reached the age of two, with the most dangerous phase of a baby’s life seemingly behind her, and had just begun walking and talking when she was taken ill and died.

I have no idea what took her life, but there were many diseases still endemic in Kabylie at the time— tuberculosis, cholera, typhoid and typhus, besides the normal childhood illnesses. She might just as easily have died from a septic throat as from one of the deadlier epidemics. T. has told me that his mother often trotted out an old saying, “When a woman gives birth to six children, three belong to her and three to the graveyard.”

So when B was born, he was doubly precious: he was a healthy, robust baby and, what was even better, a boy. He was figuratively wrapped in cotton wool as a small child; the apple of his father’s eye and loved and cosseted by his mother and older siblings. When T. was born two years later, followed closely by his brother K., they formed a band of three — doing everything together, even being circumcised at the same time.

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Zayna and her younger son

They were separated, though, when my father-in-law took his young family down to Algiers and then, as he grew more successful, to Fouka, where he had built up a smallholding business. B., then aged twelve, soon followed his sister and brother-in-law  to help around the farm. He and his nephews were to frequent the same junior school in Fouka, where T had been badly bullied by older boys — that is, until the arrival of his uncle.

That is the way things were in Kabylie in those days of hardship. As soon as one member of the family became successful, he would share out that largesse and give his relatives a helping hand. T’s father had employed, at one time or another, practically all of his brothers and his two brothers-in-law as well.

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B’s call-up to the French army at eighteen and his wedding followed in quick succession in 1956. For the former, he had no choice in the matter. It was either that, or go underground to join the freedom-fighters.  He was posted to Rivesaltes in the French Pyrenees, the first and last time he ever went abroad.

As for the latter, his mother’s choice had fallen on a young, fourteen-year-old girl from the same village. T. has a clear memory of seeing B’s future bride as a very young girl, one year younger than him, standing barefoot on the steps of his father’s house in Kabylie. He remembers her prettiness; her long, black hair and wide, dimpled smile revealing small white teeth.

It may seem shocking to you to think about marrying off a fourteen-year-old girl, but there was no age of consent in Kabylie at that time. Marriages were alliances between families, not matters of sentiment. Girls were seen as pawns in the marriage game and as useful bargaining tools, and each marriage was seen as a means of strengthening the family’s support network.

B., although pursuing a career at the national savings bank, CNEP, and flourishing in his adopted city of Mostaganem, talked very little about the one defining tragedy in his life. From time to time, however, he would let us glimpse the feeling of total devastation he had felt when his mother had been shot in the head in 1957 by a sniper, as she was drawing water at the village well.

Nobody had dared venture up into Kabylie for the funeral during those dangerous times, and so the young man, not even out of his teens,  found himself having to bury his mother with hardly any family support – his father, of course, having died three years before. He would often tell us that he had never felt more alone in his life.

There is a Kabyle word, tigejdit, meaning literally the main load-bearing support of a house — in Kabylie, often a strong tree-trunk — that is sometimes used metaphorically to describe a wife and mother. There was nobody more deserving of that name than T’s grandmother. Without her, the house crumbled and collapsed. Her loss tore a gaping hole in everybody’s life — not least in that of her son.