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.
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….