My first experience of an Algerian wedding was, of course, my own. Most of the time, I had had no clear idea of what was going to happen next, and had just followed the increasingly bizarre instructions given me by the women in my family-in-law – “Sit here. No, stand there! Go and change your dress! For heaven’s sake – DON’T smile! STOP SMILING!”
The event and its eventual dramatic conclusion are described at length in my first book, so there is no need to go over the painful details again.
I did notice, however, even in my befuddled state, that most of the women were wearing colourful traditional clothing with a great deal of jewellery jangling on their arms and around their necks. I didn’t know it at the time, but, as most of the women attending our wedding were family and close friends – all two hundred of them – they were wearing mostly Kabyle dresses and jewellery, famous for the rick-rack braid in many contrasting colours sewn around the hems, the sleeves and the neckline. The only sombre note were the black scarves, but these were embellished by embroidered edges and gold fringes brushing the side of the face.
A traditional Kabyle dress with Kabyle jewellery
Added to that were the brightly-enamelled bangles, anklets, headpieces with dozens of dangly silver droplets and necklaces sporting pendants as big as small dinner plates. The effect was overwhelming. If I hadn’t felt dizzy enough before, the clashing colours were enough to give me a violent migraine. But there was a certain beauty and joyous abandon in such excess.
Most of the younger women were carefully made-up, with scarlet nails and earrings dangling from beneath streaked, artfully coiffed hair. To my European mind of the time, it seemed strange that so much effort had been put into their appearance when it was strictly a female gathering. Not a man to be seen. In fact, whenever one made a hasty incursion into the room to carry out some errand, heads were lowered in modesty.
Except for the older women of course. They would stare boldly at any young male trespassing on their territory and send him packing in confusion, his cheeks fiery red, the butt of many a ribald jest thrown at his departing back. I looked at them with new respect. They were not the downtrodden women I had been led to believe existed in Kabyle society.
I also came to realise over the years that the more jewellery a woman wore (often borrowed from other female relatives), the more sumptuous her dress, the more her status increased. It was very much a case of judging a book by its cover. Women were dressing for other women, not for men. They were out to impress the female members of their extended family, not some potential suitor.
What I also failed to understand at the time was that a wedding like ours served several purposes. It was an opportunity for the women to get together, to dance and sing to their heart’s content, to gossip and joke and finally – to cast their eyes over the young nubile flesh on display to see if there was any young girl suitable enough to be a bride for their son. Alliances were often made on the strength of a young girl catching the eye of any woman with a son old enough to marry. Mothers decided on whom their sons would marry, not the would-be grooms themselves. In effect, it was like having your own personal shopper.
Gradually I became familiar with the different styles of traditional dress, each region claiming that theirs was the best. In Oran, the material was often quite flimsy and see-through. The wearer’s modesty would be protected by an undergarment. The sleeves were usually puffed and the bodice ruffled and decorated with sequins or small pearl beads. The waist would be cinched in with a belt made of gold links – one of the most prized pieces of jewellery.
A traditional Oran-style dress
We had quite a few of these dresses made for my mother-in-law during the years that followed, but the delicate lacey effect of the dresses would often be spoilt by the jumpers she would wear underneath, the long, thick woollen sleeves poking out from under the frilly neckline. T’s mother had discovered the art of layering long before it became fashionable. Sometimes, to tease her, I would count the number of layers she was wearing. By layers, I mean dresses – one on top of the other.
The innermost layers would always be the thermal vests and flannel nightdresses I brought back from Britain for her. She really felt the cold, groaning, “Iqqerḥ-iyi usemmid” (I’m cold, literally, I hurt from the cold), despite insisting at the same time that she was “a hardy woman born and bred in the mountains.” So when she was cold – which was practically all the time – she would just don another layer. To sleep, she would shed a couple of them.
The most spectacular dresses, to my mind, were the dresses from Constantine. Made of expensive velvet, usually in dark jewel colours such as burgundy, forest green, navy-blue or black, they had the most sumptuous raised gold embroidery around the neckline, sleeves and on the skirt. The sleeves were merely a wisp of floaty lace skimming the upper arms.
Traditional dress from Constantine
Traditional dress from Algiers was slightly less showy. A jacket made of velvet and decorated with gold embroidery, similar to the Constantine dress, would top a long skirt called a seroual. I don’t know whether it could be called a skirt because seroual actually means “trousers” in Arabic, and the French name for them was “un pantalon arabe” or Arab trousers.
This skirt, or trousers, would be a length of material passed between the legs and sewn together at the sides at knee level. I loved these skirts, finding them extremely elegant, besides allowing a flirty glimpse of the legs on each side. Some friends had them made into beautiful evening gowns, with a conventional bodice, sometimes even a halter neck, swooping down into a seroual.
But, for the ultimate in bling, the traditional outfit from Tlemcen beat the lot. Young girls wearing it looked rather like beautiful Christmas trees. This was not everyday wear, I hasten to add, but worn by Tlemcenian brides. Every small girl from Tlemcen would also have a studio photo taken decked out in all her finery.
I gradually came to appreciate all these lovely traditional outfits, once I had got over the shock of seeing women wearing what seemed to be evening dresses in the middle of the afternoon, and what is more, sitting cross-legged on the floor in them. They didn’t seem to find it incongruous at all – it was perfectly normal to them.