The Magic Key

Please click on the links to YouTube, if the clips don’t play directly.

“Music acts like a magic key, to which the most tightly closed heart opens.”

― Maria Augusta von Trapp

I stole a glance at T., sitting next to me in the smoke-filled room. The pub was the venue for the Sheffield University Folk Club, of which I had become a member during my first few days there. 1965 was at the height of the Great Folk Revival and I had developed a passion for folk music whilst still at school. The evenings spent singing my heart out with the other folk enthusiasts above the Talbot pub in Blackpool had been the highlight of my week in the sixth form, and a welcome respite from revision for my A-Levels.

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Another passion, however, had supplanted folk music in my heart in the few weeks since my arrival in Sheffield, and it was sitting right next to me in the shape of T. My quick glance had shown me his arms folded across his chest and a bored look on his face.  There was obviously no question of him joining in the rousing chorus of “Wild Mountain Thyme” anytime soon.

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“Well -— what do you think? Did you enjoy it?” I asked anxiously as we pushed our way through the crowd of noisy students leaving the pub a couple of hours later. Trying to be diplomatic so as not to hurt my feelings, he hesitated, choosing his words carefully before replying, “Tu sais, ce n’est pas vraiment mon genre.” (You know, it’s not really my thing.) My shoulders slumped and I heaved an imperceptible sigh. A choice now lay before me — T or folk clubs. There was really no contest.

T’s taste in music ran more to the French pop songs of the day, or even of the previous decade. Studying in his room meant trying to work to the sound of French radio stations France Inter or Europe No. 1 on his transistor radio. I was introduced to Jacques Brel, Charles Aznavour and Georges Brassens. I listened to Gilbert Bécaud, Claude Nougaro and Adamo.  I discovered that love songs sounded so much better in French, even though I understood only about twenty per cent of the lyrics. Miss Walmsley’s French lessons had never prepared me for this.

I don’t know about anything else, but it did wonders for my French pronunciation. I would try to sing along to Et Pourtant (And Yet), twisting my tongue around the impossible French consonant/vowel combinations (cruelle froideur, anyone?), taking great pains to roll my r’s in the prescribed manner and pouting like Brigitte Bardot as I sang the words mon amour.

One of the singers particularly popular amongst the Algerian students was, in fact, not French, but a pied noir called Enrico Macias. His family of Algerian Jews had been wedding singers in Constantine for generations, and his songs, mostly about his regret at leaving Algeria, were in French, although they included a lot of vocal acrobatics more suited to what was thought of as “Arab” music. His nostalgia affected the Algerian students as well —  I can remember a friend of ours, built like a brick outhouse, sobbing on his girlfriend’s shoulder at a party, as Enrico sang tremulously about the sun and the blue skies of the country he had left behind.

It’s rather strange, now I come to think about it, that we never really listened to traditional Algerian music, although one of the Algerian students, less Europeanised than the others, had a collection of records in Arabic that he would slap on the turntable at parties.  I loved it when some of our friends would start dancing, shimmying and shaking their rear ends with abandon. T. never joined in — he would just stand there, laughing and clapping his hands. He is a lot of things, but a dancer was never one of them.

The zenith, or rather the nadir, of my musical experiences at university was when three of us girls were asked to sing two songs in Kabyle at a cultural event to celebrate the 1st of November, the beginning of the Independence War.  We were only singing the refrain, two of the other students singing the verses, but still… We learnt the lyrics parrot-fashion, with no idea of what they actually meant.

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In fact, they were songs about the plight of Kabyle women left behind when their men emigrated to France in search of work: Aya Zerzour (The Exile) or Ma Thevghidh Adh Amengal (Do You Want Me to Tell You The Truth) with the line “ergezim thil Paris illaho turowmi-in” (your husband is in Paris, going out with European women). Ironic, to say the least.

A couple of years later, during the first summer after our wedding, T. bought a record of Algerian revolutionary songs to which I would sometimes listen, sitting alone in the small flat in Oran when he was at work. The song that I found most moving was a very simple solo  —  completely different from the other songs, which usually featured a chorus of masculine voices thundering out all kinds of dire retribution against the enemy, set to a background of tramping boots.

This particular song was in Kabyle and was called A Yemma Azizen (Oh Dearest Mother). What was it doing on a record of revolutionary songs? Simple. It was the plaintive farewell of a young man going off to join the maquis and pleading with his mother not to cry for him. Strangely enough, there were many similarities between this lament — for that is what it was — and Irish folk music, right down to the long introductory flute solo. And like my own traditional music, it spoke directly to my heart.

It was only in the mid-seventies, when Kabyle music was dragged into the twentieth century by singers such as Idir, Djamel Allem and Nourredine, that I began to appreciate it. Their songs often dealt with the same traditional themes as the older songs — the struggle against the French; the forced marriage of a young girl to an old man; the mother waiting for her son to return from the war, still putting two bowls out for breakfast, and the unbreakable link between brothers. In other words, exactly the same themes as in English folk songs.

The new singers, however, added a freshness to the old themes by adding a modern accompaniment and getting rid of all the traditional twiddly bits. Some of these singers, like Idir, have attained international stardom. It didn’t matter that nobody, apart from Kabyles, knew what he was singing about; the lovely tunes and his warm baritone voice were enough to gain him a legion of foreign fans.

But there are other stars — masters of raï from Oran like Khaled, Mami and the regretted Hasni, murdered by extremists. Khaled’s hit, Didi, has been translated into many other languages. His song, Aïcha, sung in French and darija (Algerian Arabic) was number one in France. Mami, described by Sting as one of the best singers in the world, sang a duet with the latter on his track Desert Rose.

Souad Massi sings about love and loss in darija, even though she is of Kabyle origin. She achieved success after fleeing to France following threats to her life. The protest songs of the Kabyle Bob Dylan, Aït Menguellet, give voice to the suppressed anger felt by Kabyles at the attempted eradication of their language and identity.

All in all, the Algerian music scene is incredibly vibrant, with new songs being recorded and new singers emerging every day, eager to break the boundaries that used to be set in stone. It is, in truth, a reflection of the Algerian spirit.

Broomflower Pass

Uqbel at-tger assurif at-tezzwerm  nnif ma ulac Tamazight ulac ulac ulac ulac.

We cannot build our future without honour and there is no honour without our language. None, none, none, none. (Loose translation)

– Matoub Lounès


From the moment a Kabyle arrives in Tizi-Ouzou, he is already home. This holds true even if he still has many miles to drive along the twisting mountain roads to reach his ancestral village. The air of Tizi-Ouzou smells sweeter to him than that of Algiers, and he fills his lungs with it as he takes a deep breath. His shoulders straighten as though ridding themselves of an unseen burden, and his step becomes lighter.

He only has to look at the roadsigns in tifinagh (Berber script), next to those in French and Arabic, listen to passers-by chatting in his own language and relish the sudden rush of freedom he feels, to know that, somehow, he has crossed an invisible border — one that does not appear in any atlas or on any road map, has no Customs posts or passport control, but exists solely in his mind.

His gaze skims over the many new buildings of modern Tizi-Ouzou to focus on a sight that makes his breath catch in his throat and tears spring to his eyes. It is the eternal backdrop of the Djudjura, part of the Atlas mountain range, standing sentinel around the city, its peaks sometimes covered in snow and sparkling in the sunlight, sometimes  shrouded in mist, but always, always beautiful. Idhurar – the mountains of home.

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Tizi Ouzou By Hedia Aid – Own work

Tizi-Ouzou, in Kabyle Tizi-Wezzu, and in tifinagh, ⵜⵉⵣⵉ ⵡⵣⵣⵓ, is the capital and administrative centre of Greater Kabylie. In English, its name translates as Broomflower Pass, tizi being a mountain pass and wezzu the bright yellow flowers of the broom plant, which grows wild throughout North Africa. Located about ninety kilometres east of Algiers and thirty kilometres from the sea, it nestles in the valley of the Sebaou river, with  Mount Redjaouna, or, as it is know locally, Sidi Belloua, dominating its northern suburbs.

Against the lower slopes of the mountain sprawls the old town, called the Upper Town (la Haute Ville) or simply Taddart, the Kabyle word for village. This is all that is left of the original settlement that existed at the time of the Ottomans, hemmed in, as it was, by Mount Sidi Beloua on one side and on the other by a fort (bordj) containing a janissary garrison.

It was only when the French finally arrived in Tizi-Ouzou in the eighteen-fifties, fully twenty years after they first set foot in Algeria, did the original small hamlet begin to expand. They built a courthouse, churches, schools, a hotel and a post office — all potent symbols of French colonial power. The opening of the first railway line between Algiers and Tizi-Ouzou in 1888 accelerated the town’s development.

The Kabyles, however, only paid lip service to the new colonial laws and regulations, preferring to keep their own brand of democratic justice, with its code of honour, extensive knowledge of local tradition and respect for mutual and communal solidarity. Kabyle villages had been self-contained citadels for centuries, each with its own history, myths and legends. They were not about to give all that up on the orders of a band of European upstarts.

French occupation, however, was also synonymous with armed conflict, the brutal suppression of any uprising and a scorched earth policy.  The villages surrounding Tizi-Ouzou are stunningly beautiful, scattered across the mountain peaks like a broken string of pearls, and described by the famous Kabyle singer-songwriter, Lounès Aït Menguellet, as “idhurar a fi douhrar” (a necklace adorning the mountains). But such beauty was also the backdrop to a great deal of hardship, misery and grinding poverty.

The ever-present threat of starvation generated a rural exodus, with many men being forced to travel to Tizi-Ouzou, and sometimes even further afield, in search of work to fill their families’s empty bellies.

Tizi-Ouzou was also where T. went to boarding school in 1954 after passing, with flying colours, his entrance exam to secondary school. There was no secondary school near his village and, as it was impossible to make the return journey every day, his father enrolled him as a boarder at the Collège Moderne et Classique de Tizi-Ouzou.

From what he has told me, I understand that his overriding emotion was one of loneliness. He had never been away from his family before and he was suddenly on his own, for the first time in his life, in a strange town, worrying constantly about his father’s failing  health and only going home on rare occasions. He suffered from a recurring nightmare in which his cousin, DaH’mimi, drove down from their village in his old car to tell him that his father had died.

He was shown into the boys’ dormitory on the first day and told that he would have to make his own bed every morning. He had never made a bed in his life — in the village there were no such refinements as sheets — and so he lifted up the covers of another boy’s bed and was initiated into the mysteries of top and bottom sheets, blankets and pillow cases.

As boarders were not allowed out at weekends unless they had somewhere to go, T. invented a family friend called Bendahmane, forging a signature on the various authorisations and writing letters to the school principal that were supposedly penned by his fictitious friend. During his few hours of freedom, he would go to the Mondial cinema to watch the Bollywood movies of the time, or sit in the library of the Catholic Cultural Centre, reading books and helping himself to the free cups of tea served there.

Cross-country runs were organised by his school through the nearby Yakouren forest, where the leaves were turning gold and rust, scarlet and crimson, crunching under T’s feet as he laboured up the slopes and careered down the other side. Used to racing along the precipitous mountain paths near his village, he was as sure-footed as a mountain goat.

He also suffered the pangs of his first schoolboy crush. The object of his affections was a day pupil — the daughter of a pied noir prison guard. He would sit behind her in English lessons, gazing longingly at her blond plaits and the round plastic spectacles perched on her nose, and surreptitiously slipping notes to her — in English, no less. They didn’t realise that, even though they were only thirteen, any kind of relationship, however innocent, between an “Arab” and a European was unthinkable. It didn’t matter that the “Arab” in question was always top of his class.

T. never plucked up the courage to actually speak to her, and then suddenly, one day, she was no longer there. He only found out many years later that the girl’s mother had found the childishly romantic notes he had written in her daughter’s drawer, carefully hidden under a pile of underwear. The outraged parent had immediately pulled her daughter out of school in Tizi-Ouzou and sent her to Algiers to continue her schooling there.

T. himself stayed on in boarding school until May, 1956, when the FLN decreed that all Algerian students were to go on strike.

Since independence, Tizi-Ouzou has since been the scene of many dramatic and tragic political events, usually linked to Kabyle demands for official recognition of their identity and unique culture. This Berber heartland has always found it extremely difficult, if not well nigh impossible, to accept the arabisation measures forced upon it by the Algerian government.

Amongst recent events have been the Berber Spring (tafsut imazighen) in 1980, the riots following the assassination, in mysterious circumstances, of the Kabyle singer and activist Matoub Lounès in 1998 and the Black Spring (tafsut taberkant) in 2001/2002, where one hundred and twenty-six demonstrators were killed, with thousands of others injured.

NB: In the video clip above showing the villages of both Greater and Lesser Kabylie, T’s home village appears at 1 minute 17 seconds.

The Martyr

The fourteenth-century historian Ibn-Khaldoun said that, in the villages of Kabylie “flourish virtues that honour the whole of humanity; nobility of soul, hatred of oppression, bravery, the keeping of promises, kindness shown towards the unfortunate, charity and constancy in adversity.”


Everyone needs a hero. A role model. Someone to admire and emulate. Someone to look up to, especially when they are young and impressionable. For most people, it is their father – perhaps an older brother. I learned very early on who had been my husband’s hero. As he was the oldest sibling in his family and his father was often preoccupied and distant, inspiring fear and respect in equal measure, it was one of his cousins who filled the hero-shaped hole in his life.

When I began to learn a little more about Algeria’s independence war, T. told me that two of his close family members had been killed during the seven long years of bloodshed. Most families in Kabylie had been left to mourn the death of at least one of their own, and T’s family was no exception.

Especially painful had been the death of his maternal grandmother, Zayna, shot in the head by a French sniper firing from a neighbouring village, Ath Saada, as she was filling her water container at the well. Ath Saada is perched on the neighbouring peak, overlooking T’s village, Ath Hamsi. It proved a perfect vantage point for snipers as Ath Hamsi was spread out in full view below. It must have been like shooting fish in a barrel.

This had been in 1957. The other loss sustained by his family around the same time had been a young first cousin, who, barely in his twenties, had gone to join the maquis and had subsequently disappeared. He had been the second son of T’s oldest paternal uncle, Larbi, who had died a particularly painful death from tuberculosis of the bones a few years earlier.

The cousin’s given name had been Ahmed, but, given the Kabyle predilection for nicknames, was known to everyone as H’mimi. T. always referred to him, however, as DaH’mimi, adding the respectful prefix Da-, always used when addressing an older man, even a cousin a mere five or six years his senior.

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H’mimi seems to have inherited the family’s entrepreneurial spirit and had opened a tiny shop – a hole in the wall really, measuring roughly two metres square – the only one in the village. There he sold groceries that he had brought over from Michelet, now Ain El Hammam, situated on the other side of the mountain.

Michelet was a bustling village and administrative centre at the time, built by the French at the end of the nineteenth century on the very spot where the villagers belonging to T’s tribe, the Ath Menguellet, had always held their weekly market. It had been called Thalatha Aït Menguellet  (Ath Menguellet Tuesday) after the day of the week when the market had been held, before being renamed Michelet in honour of the French historian,  Jules Michelet.

To add to his growing business “empire,” H’mimi became the proud owner of  a second-hand car, a pale-green Hotchkiss, a make that, like so many others, has since disappeared.  Needing to earn more money as he was newly-married, he provided a taxi service from the outlying villages to Tizi-Ouzou, the capital of Greater Kabylie, and back. Thanks to this and his little shop, he managed to scratch a meagre living.

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Around the same time – 1953 – my father-in-law had been made bankrupt by a catastrophic fall in potato prices. He left the farm that he had owned in Fouka to his creditors and retreated to Kabylie, where, mortally sick with diabetes, he spent his time clearing the undergrowth from his land, planting fruit trees and digging for uranium.

On their return to their village, T. had been enrolled in the junior school in Ath Laaziz, another neighbouring village – the only school for miles around. In the evenings or at the weekend, when not assiduously bent over his books, as he was due to sit his examen de rentrée en sixième (the equivalent of the 11-plus exam in Britain) at the end of the school year, T. could be found in his cousin’s shop, curled up unnoticed in a corner and listening to H’mimi and the other young men of the village talk about their plans for the future.

Sometimes, T. would tag along with his cousin when the latter climbed down to the river to go fishing. H’mimi, however, had a rather unorthodox fishing technique. He would light the fuse on a stick of dynamite, throw it in the shallows, and then stand back, his hands on his hips, laughing, as the dynamite blew and the fish killed instantly by the blast floated to the surface, where they could easily be picked up.

T. was thrilled to the core. To him, H’mimi was like one of the swashbuckling heroes in the comic books that he read so avidly – a kind of Flash Gordon or Tom Mix. It helped that H’mimi also looked like a comic-book hero – muscular, with broad shoulders, a cloud of crinkly light brown hair and a wide, engaging smile.

Under the seemingly calm surface of life in Kabylie, however, bubbled resentment and a yearning for independence that had never really gone away. Young men like H’mimi have always been idealistic and so when, in the early morning hours of November 1, 1954, FLN maquisards (guerrillas) attacked military and civilian targets throughout Algeria in what became known as the Toussaint rouge, he decided to be one of the first to join them.

He became a moussebil, a name given to those carrying out acts of sabotage, or acting as a go-between for the groups of fighters hiding in the mountains. Moussebiline often remained in their own villages, but, at the same time, working clandestinely for the FLN. The term moussebiline means “those who give themselves to the cause,”  because being found out meant certain death.

They had always existed in Kabylie since the time of the French conquest and were a well-established tradition. Generally single,  they had to obtain their fathers’ consent, or that of the nearest male relative if they were orphans before becoming moussebiline. The decision then had to be approved by the thajmarth, or village council.

Due to French manipulation of the Kabyle population in the years that followed, however, it became harder and harder to carry out clandestine operations.  So H’mimi took the only decision possible – he went underground and joined the active ranks of the FLN. By this time, T. was in boarding school in Tizi-Ouzou and his father had moved the rest of the family back to Algiers and then to a farm in Reghaïa, as life in Kabylie was becoming far too dangerous.

He remembers H’mimi coming to visit them at the farm under cover of darkness, for what was to be the last time. T. had shot up in height and broadened out in the meantime  and was as tall, at the age of fifteen, as his much-admired cousin. T has a clear memory of the family pleading with H’mimi not to go back, as he was sure to be killed. With a nonchalant shrug of the shoulders, T’s cousin said that he had to go back, or he wouldn’t be able to look at himself in the mirror ever again. Flashing one last defiant grin over his shoulder, H’mimi slipped away into the night. He was never seen again.

We never found out what happened to him. Killed by the French military or in one of the internal purges of the FLN, during which hundreds of innocent lives were lost – we have no idea. His young widow, barely out of her teens, never remarried. He carries the proud title of chahid – a martyr for a just cause – and is venerated as such. But it is scant compensation for the loss of so much potential and youthful idealism – and the cause of so much grief for his family, who still mourn the loss of one of their brightest and best hopes.

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Group of freedom fighters in Kabylie, with a young admirer (second from the right)

Socialist Paradise

“Thank God I’m home! It’s like the United States here in comparison!” This was T’s comment when he returned from Cuba with two posters of Che Guevara and a bottle of coffee liqueur. He had also brought with him, as an albeit temporary reminder of the unrelentingly grim Cuban diet of rice, beans and stringy chicken, a bad case of flatulence and acute indigestion.

It was 1972 and, during Fidel Castro’s visit to Algeria a few months earlier — a belated response to Ben Bella’s visit to Cuba in 1962 -— he had invited T and two of his colleagues to visit the ammonia plant in Cienfuegos. T. clearly remembers El Jefe putting his arm around his shoulders and saying, “We need people like you in the fight against imperialism.”

T had duly gone to Cuba and, although initially excited at the prospect, had soon tired of being under the constant surveillance of the Cuban secret services. He and his colleagues had given them the slip one day in order to spend the afternoon at the beach.  They had arrived back at their hotel to find the whole place in an uproar at their disappearance. That feeling of being continually watched, and the lack of fresh local food— most of it being kept back for export — soon put a damper on his enthusiasm.

The reason for Fidel’s interest had been that Algeria itself had recently been placed under embargo by the French. Algeria’s oil fields, until then under joint Algerian/French ownership, had just been nationalised by Boumediène. In retaliation, the prices of spare parts from France for Algeria’s petrochemical plants had been multiplied by ten, and Sonatrach had no choice other than manufacture its own. Given Algeria’s experience, Sonatrach managers like T had sufficient know-how to be able to advise the Cubans.

Spare parts were not the only import to fall foul of the French embargo. French goods disappeared from the shops, to be replaced by those manufactured locally.  Shortages of many items became a way of life. Sometimes the quality of Algerian produce was questionable and there was very little choice. The shelves in private shops and state-owned stores alike were depressingly empty.

To explain all this, I think  these events must be viewed in the context of the time. In the first few years after independence, Algeria enjoyed a matchless reputation as the first “Arab” country to have won its independence through what was perceived as a David and Goliath struggle. Liberal-minded activists, for the most part,  had not been duped by the French spin on the troubles, that is, that what was happening was merely an internal affair, an “uprising,” and that they were “pacifying” what was, to them, part of France.

Every country involved in any kind of war of national liberation had taken heart from the outcome.  A more egalitarian Algerian society, with opportunities for all, was the goal — the shining city on the hill — and socialism seemed to be the only way to achieve it. President Kennedy had been one of those well disposed towards the new country and had actually spoken out in favour of Algeria’s independence whilst still a senator.

He had promised to turn Algeria into “a new California,” and America had been actively considering an initial $60 million aid programme to help reconstruct the war-torn country. Its attitude changed, however, following Ben Bella’s visit to Havana. This came during the period of intense sabre-rattling over the installation of Soviet missiles in Cuba, when the world seemed to be teetering on the edge of Armageddon.

Ben Bella violently denounced America’s “aggression” towards Cuba, its intervention in the Congo, its support of Israel and its “crimes’ against the people of Vietnam. He was, in fact, echoing the sentiments of many Algerians, who tended to equate any conflict opposing the West and an emerging country with their own fight for independence.

It seemed that the only way forward for a country with impeccable revolutionary credentials like Algeria was to follow Castro’s example. Having just thrown off the shackles of occupation, they were not about to commit themselves to a capitalist system, one in which the United States or France would hold the whip hand. They were going it alone.

T says bitterly that when he saw televised footage of Ben Bella returning from Cuba wearing a Mao tunic, he knew that the die had been cast.

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Fidel Castro, Che and Ben Bella

The war of national liberation and its aftermath had severely disrupted Algeria’s society and economy. In addition to the physical destruction, the exodus of the pieds noirs had deprived the country of most of its managers, civil servants, engineers, teachers, doctors and skilled workers — all occupations which colonial policy had prevented or discouraged the Muslim population from pursuing.  In a scorched earth policy, departing pieds noirs destroyed, or took with them public records and utility plans, leaving public services in shambles.

The departure of European owners and managers from factories and agricultural estates gave rise to a spontaneous, grass-roots phenomenon, later termed autogestion, which saw workers take control of the enterprises to keep them operating. Seeking to capitalise on the popularity of the self-management movement, autogestion was formalised by the government. The system proved to be a failure, however.

Agrarian reforms, similar to those carried out in China and Russia, included the compulsory purchase of large estates, and the creation of state-owned farms and production co-operatives. As a result, the crucial farming sector was to descend into chaos, partly as a result of bureaucratic incompetence, corruption, and theft. This was a country that had once been a major exporter of agricultural products, but which later had to rely on imports.

It was not the only sector to suffer that fate. The government called its policy of widespread state involvement in the economy “Algerian socialism.” The choice of “socialism” was deemed irréversible and every government press organ churned out this tired old catchphrase in every issue of the official El Moudjahid newspaper and on every nightly news bulletin.

It was “socialism” only for the masses, however, the then leaders depriving themselves of nothing. They, and the ANP (the Algerian army) had their own special stores, where the shelves groaned under the weight of imported delicacies. In theory, socialism seems to be the fairest system of all, but, in practice, the sad truth is that people rarely want to share. There will always be those who have more than others.

The increasingly dictatorial tendencies of the regime, reducing the functions of the legislature to rubber-stamping presidential directives, caused many of the original war leaders either to flee the country in protest, or to be assassinated. Several of these were Kabyle, who, amongst other grievances, had condemned the government for its failure to carry out reconstruction projects in war-ravaged Kabylie. They left behind them a ruling clique that had had almost nothing to do with the war effort.

For us, Algerian “socialism” meant being deprived of any kind of personal freedom or choice. Given T’s position, however, we had, from time to time, access to goods and services unavailable to the general public. My husband, perhaps feeling slightly guilty that I had given up my life in Britain to follow him, did his best to ensure that our children and I did not miss out on anything. As a result, we probably enjoyed a better material lifestyle than many in Europe.

All this makes me reflect on the lyrics of one of Charles Aznavour’s songs, Emmenez-moi, which is all about his longing to travel.

Emmenez-moi au bout de la terre; 

Emmenez-moi au pays des merveilles; 

Il me semble que la misère serait moins pénible au soleil.

(Take me to the ends of the earth, take me to Wonderland; it seems to me that misery is easier to bear when the sun is shining.)

He could not have been more wrong. The sun, sea and beautiful landscapes of Algeria did not make up for the harshness of life there. After a while, you didn’t even notice them anymore.

The Igawawen

I have spoken a great deal about the Berbers and their illustrious history, but, apart from describing my visits to Kabylie, I have not talked much about my husband’s people, the Kabyles. The Kabyles, one of the many groups of ethnic Berbers scattered all over North Africa, are by far the largest of Algeria’s Berber populations. They number between five and seven million, split between those still living in Algeria and those living abroad as part of the Algerian diaspora.

The appelation “Kabyle” comes from the Arabic word qabila (pl. qabaïl) for tribe, adopted by the French to describe these highland people. Their region was called la grande Kabylie (Greater Kabylie) by the French, as opposed to la petite Kabylie (Lesser Kabylie), but it is called simply thamurth  by its inhabitants themselves. Thamurth means country or land, similar to the Arabic word bled, from which, funnily enough, the English nickname Blighty for Britain is derived. Like Blightly, the word thamurth contains within it a whole wealth of unspoken longing and homesickness.

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Greater Kabylie is a mountainous region to be found about an hour and a half’s drive east and slightly south of the capital, Algiers. Right at its heart lies the Djudjura mountain range, of which the high ridges run northwards to the Mediterranean sea. The inhabitants of these ridges are known as the Igawawen, taking their name from the neighbouring Agawa mountain peaks. They are the core of the Kabyle people.

The defeat of the Igawawen, outnumbered and outgunned,  at the battle of Icherriden in 1857, is generally taken to have brought the French conquest of Greater Kabylie to a successful conclusion. Traditional sources recount that the legendary Fadhma N’Soumeur herself took part in the battle and ordered that the fighters be tied to each other with ropes, preventing them from fleeing the battlefield. The impact of her involvement was such that she has been seen as the embodiment of the Kabyle resistance movement against the French and has become known as the Kabyle Joan of Arc.

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Fadma N’Soumeur

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The battle of Icherriden

At that time, the Igawawen were a powerful confederation made up of two federations –  the Ath Betrun and the Ath Menguellet, each federation being composed of four tribes.  Many terms are used to describe Kabyle political and social structures, such as “tribe,” “clan,” kinship” and “lineage” and my husband’s tribe, for want of a better word, is the Ath Wekbil of the Ath Menguellet federation.  They are not tribes as one would usually understand the word, but groups of villages (thudrin) sharing a common language, territory and culture.

Their dialect, a variant of the Berber language, tamazight,  is called thakabaylith. Each of the Berber dialects of Algeria retains its distinctive vocabulary and character and they are not mutually comprehensible as in Morocco.  The Chaoui Berbers of the Aurès mountains and the Kabyles can understand each other with relative ease, although there is a greater proportion of Arabic words in thachawith than in thakabaylith. By contrast, the tamahaq dialect of the Tuareg is all but incomprehensible to a Kabyle.

Greater Kabylie largely escaped the trauma of social disintegration engineered by French colonialism in many other parts of Algeria, as its steep slopes and narrow valleys did not attract European settlement.  The region was more or less left to its own devices, the colonial administration preferring to govern it from a safe distance. The Kabyle system of self-government was therefore left largely intact. This is not the place to describe the inner workings of this complex socio-political system, but suffice it to say that it has been fine-tuned to an incredible degree, with its own body of law – nothing to do with Islamic law or sharia – its code of honour and village councils i.e. the thajmarth, with its two opposing tendencies, the sfuf, presided over by the amin. The thajmarth is almost exactly like a mini House of Commons, presided over by the Speaker.

The Kabyles earned their living mostly from their land, cultivating olive and fig trees and some fruit and vegetables. My father-in-law even imported fruit trees from America and planted them down by the river. The remains of his olive press are still to be seen in the village. Beautiful objects – chests, bowls, caskets and the wooden pillars, beams and doors of a typical Kabyle house were carved out of wood from the forests of the Djudjura.

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Berber marriage chest

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The remains of my father-in-law’s olive press

The Igawawen also excelled in three other specialised branches of the craft industry: jewellery-making, arms manufacturing and the manufacture of counterfeit coins.

Finally, the men of Greater Kabylie also found employment and notoriety as mercenaries. The French word zouave, meaning originally a “native” light infantryman is a corruption of zwawi or igawawen, but the tradition had already been established before the French. The Ottoman Dey of Algiers had an honour guard of over 2,000 Kabyles. The tradition of Kabyle men seeking their fortune elsewhere, often leaving their wives and families behind, has been maintained. Many of the most haunting Kabyle songs are about the longing for thamurth or home, or are the lament of the women left behind.

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Zouave infantryman

The Kabyles, although settled in their villages like the Mzabis, did not possess the latter’s religious fervour and eagerly accepted the implication of upward mobility offered by a French education. T’s grandfather and father were both highly educated for the time – his grandfather being one of the Algerians of Kabyle origin studying at the École Normale (teacher training college) at Bouzaréah near Algiers at the end of the nineteenth century.

Thus developed a substantial Kabyle intelligentsia – French-speaking and modernist. Kabylie has become remarkable for the number of accountants, businessmen, civil servants, doctors, lawyers, teachers and engineers (of whom T is one, of course) it has produced in recent generations. Not only that, but Kabyle writers, poets and singer-songwriters are amongst the most prolific in Algeria, some of their work reaching an appreciative international audience.

The political salience of the Igawawen was evident even at the time of the French conquest and it was they who provided the majority of the Kabyle element in the leadership of the nationalist movement from 1926 onwards. The full story of their vital role in the Algerian independence struggle cannot be told here, but the fact that they subsequently lost their positions in the national leadership of the FLN has been a cause for resentment ever since. Their enormous contribution to the war effort has been airbrushed from history. The concerted attempts to erase their identity have led to many uprisings, the most recent being the Berber Spring (tafsut imazighen) in 1980 and the Black Spring (tafsut taberkant) in 2001.

The scale and character of the igawawen contribution to modern Algerian politics cannot be dismissed as being simply a trait borrowed from the French cultural influence on their region, as a capacity for politics is not something that can be imported. It is bred in the bone.

Past Tense

“What? You’ve forgotten the coffee?” T. exclaimed, astonishment and irritation in his voice. I stole a glance at him. His lips were pressed tightly together and he was looking at me from beneath ominously lowered brows. “Well, yes,” I answered. “I’ll just slip down and get some.” For the life of me, I couldn’t understand his overreaction to what was, to me, a slight oversight on my part.

It was 1968 and he had moved to Liverpool the previous October to do his M.Eng, forcing us apart. Much to our dismay, no suitable project had been found in Sheffield.  It was a difficult time for us as we were both studying hard – I had my Second Part Finals in a few months’ time and he was preparing to submit his Master’s thesis later in the year.  He had asked his company, Sonatrach, whether he could stay on in Britain to do a Ph.D., but no answer had been forthcoming. Anxiety about the future often made us irritable, but this was something else.

He was living at the time in a one-bedroomed flat in a house of which the bottom storey facing Edge Lane was taken up by a parade of shops. The one directly below was a launderette and next to it was a small grocer’s shop. It would only take a few minutes at the most to pick up the forgotten article, especially as the shop stayed open until late at night. Why make such a  fuss about it?

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T. in the flat in Liverpool

These occasional outbursts was just part of living with T. Usually calm and even-tempered, well-known for his sangfroid, he would suddenly become inexplicably annoyed by small, unimportant things. Try as I might, I could not get to the reasons behind his reactions. I thought it was perhaps just the difference in cultures. Perhaps I was doing something wrong without realising it? Gradually, I became used to these mood swings, trying to shrug them off, although sometimes it seemed as though I was always treading on eggshells, never knowing what would set him off.

On another occasion, a couple of years previously in Sheffield, we had been studying in his room one evening. I was deep in my book and T. was at the table working on a particularly complicated maths problem, covering page after page with mysterious calculations in his spidery writing. The curtains were closed against the cold and rainy night, the electric radiator was on full blast, and the only sound in the cosy room was the ticking of the clock and the soft murmur of the French radio programme.

Suddenly there was a series of loud raps on the window, just next to T’s head. He leapt to his feet, overturning his books. The sheets of paper on which he had been working floated unheeded to the carpet. Turning my head, I saw that his face had drained of all colour. He didn’t say a word, just stood there.  Then came a knock on the bedroom door and a group of our friends burst in, laughing and joking.

I looked curiously at T. and realised that things were still not right.  He remained motionless and silent, not joining in the general merriment. Then he moved. He swung abruptly round to S., one of his closest friends and the ringleader on this particular occasion, and spat out the words, “Ne refais plus jamais ça!” (Don’t ever do that again!) I looked at him, astonished and taken aback. After all, they were just having a bit of fun – weren’t they?

As T. was not one for talking about his feelings, I only found out much later, after we were married,  that his unexpected reactions had their roots in events in his past. I suppose everyone is the same, but T. had gone through far more traumatic experiences in his twenty-odd years on earth than most people would in a lifetime. Although  young and resilient, he still carried invisible emotional scars. The past had a way of impinging on the present and try as he might, he could not escape it.

The rapping on the window had reminded him of the way French paratroopers would announce their arrival during Algeria’s independence war. They would then break down the door if nobody answered and proceed to search the house, toting their machine guns and ready to put a bullet in the head of anyone putting up any kind of opposition.

He had once actually been woken from a deep sleep by the cold kiss of the barrel of a paratrooper’s gun against his forehead. On hearing that noise at the window, it was as if he had suddenly gone back in time. So he had vented his anger on the person who had made that particular memory resurface.

Another of T’s quirks is that he has always refused to wear any kind of jewellery, especially rings.  The particular memory behind it had been the traumatic period just after his father’s death, when he, aged just sixteen, his mother and siblings were living on a farm near Reghaïa, about thirty kilometres east of Algiers.

One evening, a group of gendarmes had banged on the door, demanding to search the farmhouse for any moudjahid (Algerian freedom fighter) or secret arms cache. At the end of the search, one of them had shaken T’s hand and squeezed it so hard, the ring he was wearing had cut into the flesh of his fingers, making the blood pour from his hand. T. had learnt the hard way not to let his feelings show, and so had reacted to the gendarme‘s deliberate provocation with a tight smile and narrowed eyes.

The episode with the forgotten coffee dates from the same period and had less terrifying origins, but obviously still had the power to trigger an angry knee-jerk reaction. The nearest shops to the farm were in the village of Reghaïa, about six kilometres away. There being no means of transport between the farm and the village, any food shopping had to be done by walking six kilometres to the shops, buying what was needed, then walking back the same distance carrying heavy baskets. Either T. or one of his brothers did this on a regular basis. The tractor that his father had owned and used for transport had been sold by T. to pay off any debts remaining after his death.

Unfortunately, as his mother was not the best-organised person in the world, and was often forgetful, she would, more often than not,  find that some essential ingredient was missing once her son had returned home, sweaty and exhausted, after his twelve-kilometre hike under the blazing summer sun. “Oh drat!” she would say (or the equivalent in Kabyle), “I’ve forgotten the sugar… or the flour…. or the coffee. Go back and get it.”

T. would never have dreamed of telling his mother off. He would probably have given her a LOOK, but his mother was impervious to any looks, no matter how angry they were. She was always blind to any subtle social signals, anyway, and besides, her sons were there to do her bidding, weren’t they?

So the realisation that I had forgotten the coffee on our return from a shopping trip had reminded him of this and made him react the same way as he would have done with his mother. The problem was – his mother forgot things all the time. I didn’t. But I was the one paying the price.