The Good-Time Girl

It seems that the people of Oran are like that friend of Flaubert who, on the point of death, casting a last glance at the irreplaceable earth, exclaimed: “Close the window, it’s too beautiful.”
Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays

One of Algeria’s paradoxes is that it is both a relatively new nation and an ancient land, with a history stretching back to pre-biblical times. When we were living there, I must confess that we were so caught up in the difficulties of day-to-day living, we were blind to the wealth of history just under our feet and around every corner. We had Roman ruins just down the street – a few hundred yards from our front door. I don’t think we ever visited them during all the time we were there.

T’s eyes were fixed firmly on the future. He is an engineer and wanted, above all, Algeria to be one of the industrial leaders of the third world, for it to be self-sufficient and to ensure, once and all, that, as an emerging country, it would be second to none. I, on the other hand, was overwhelmed with trying to find my bearings in a foreign country. It didn’t help, either, that there was barely any information available about Algeria’s history, apart from endless re-playings of footage of the independence war and television programmes droning on about Islamic dynasties.

Oran, the second largest city in Algeria, is also one of the youngest, being a mere 1,200 years old. It was founded by traders from Moorish Spain or al-Andalus in the ninth century and it is no coincidence that one of the most beautiful beaches in the vicinity is called Les Andalouses, being supposedly the place where the son of the Vizir of Cordoba came ashore after being shipwrecked when fleeing parental disapproval.

Phoenician traders had preferred the Madagh creek, to the west of Oran, to establish their trading post and the Romans had chosen to expand the site of Portus Magnus, dominating the beautiful Bay of Arzew.  Portus Magnus was later to become Bethioua and so, strangely enough, our own small village had a longer past and was more important at one time than the brash newcomer forty kilometres down the coast.


Oran’s name is a contraction of the Berber words meaning River of the Lions — Ouad-aharan, and indeed, the city seems to have an almost mystical connection to lions. One legend recounts that a lion was seen on the tomb of the city’s patron saint, Sidi Houari. Two bronze lions guard the entrance to the magnificent city hall on the Place d’Armes, the main square. Lion-hunting in the vicinity was reported by the Spanish in the sixteenth century as well as by the French up until 1840. The last surviving lions were hunted to extinction around 1939 on the mountain rising from the plain to the east of Oran. This mountain was called la Montagne des Lions (Lion Mountain) by the French and is also known as Djebel Ghar or Rocky Mountain.


Our Lady of Santa Cruz on top of the Aidour Mountain, with Oran at its feet and Lion Mountain in the distance

For centuries, Oran was passed back and forth between Spain, the Ottoman Empire, and Portugal, even after the Arab invasion. The Spanish had built an imposing 16th-century fort, Santa Cruz, to house their governors, on top of the Murdjadjo mountain looming over the western end of the city.

Looming over the inhabitants  in the same way was the aggressive Catholicism of the Spanish, one of whose invading forces was even preceded by a monk mounted on a horse and waving a large cross. Ironically, at least to me, at the end of the eighteenth century,  Charles III of Spain had suggested to Britain that it might be interested in exchanging Gibraltar for Oran.

Just below the fort, there is a beautiful white-washed basilica called Notre Dame de Santa Cruz, raised by the French in the nineteenth century to give thanks for the ending of a cholera outbreak in the city. Oran had the largest pied noir population in Algeria, and there were also large Jewish and Spanish communities, each group contributing to the city’s unique character. Jewish immigration had come in waves from as far back as the first century, even before the Roman occupation. In the sixth and seventh centuries, Jews had fled to North Africa from Visigoth persecution in Spain and then again following a series of massacres during the Spanish reconquista  in 1391.


Santa Cruz fort with the basilica below

Oran is a port city like Algiers, but there the similarities end. Algiers feels very French, with its ornate fin de siècle apartment buildings, its wide boulevards and its arcaded seafront. Wahran el Bahia, (Oran, the Radiant City),  seems more Spanish, with some of its older inhabitants still preferring to speak Spanish rather than French. The local cuisine, typically Mediterranean, also owes more to southern Spain than to France.

The city boasts a main railway station looking like a mosque, a cathedral (now a public library) that resembles a Byzantine church, and a theatre that looks like the backdrop to an Italian operetta. One of the jewels in its crown is the beautiful seafront, the Boulevard Front de Mer, constructed in the forties and fifties under French rule, and inspired by Nice’s Promenade des Anglais.

It consists of an amazing two-tier promenade, its graceful arc echoed in the sinuous curves of the Art Deco and Haussmann-style apartment buildings facing the sea. Lined with palm trees, cafés, restaurants, and ice cream parlours, it offers a splendid view of the sea, the port, Santa Cruz to the left and the cliffs, les Falaises, to the right.  It was given a suitably revolutionary name, the Boulevard de l’ALN, by the government after independence, but its original French name is still used by the locals.


The boulevard Front de Mer is the place where most of the inhabitants of Oran go for a stroll at the weekend, during the long, stifling summer evenings and especially during Ramadan, when the city is open for business all night long. Gazing out over its railings, they can often see a shimmering heat haze on the horizon, and, where, to the west, the rocky outcrops of the Murdjajo and Cap Falcon, battered by the waves, look like the torn, jagged edge of a sheet of paper. Eyes closed, they can feel the cool breeze stealing the heat from the day, bringing them the taste and smell of the sea.

Below, they can see the Ravin Blanc coal-fired power plant where T had once worked for two months as part of the conditions for a student loan he had taken out when at Algiers University in 1963. The dark smoke belching out of its chimney had been the scourge of housewives living in the flats along the seafront, their washing hanging out on the balconies always covered in black smuts.

T. had the time of his life during his two months in Oran, as the independence war had barely affected it. Its only claim to revolutionary fame had been that one of its citizens had been the first militant for independence to be guillotined. It was also where pieds noirs and Algerians engaged in a street battle a few hours before independence was declared, leaving many dead and wounded. Most of the other regions of Algeria reproached, and continue to reproach, the citizens of Oran for their lack of participation in the struggle for independence, the newspapers of the time calling the city “an island of peace” and “a little Paris.”

Oran also enjoys a certain reputation, deserved or not, for hedonism.  It is, famously, the birthplace of rai, that raunchy, edgy, culturally and sexually risqué type of music that started off as a protest against working conditions and the colonial yoke in the 1930s and ended up in the 1980s as one against Islamic constrictions and state-approved musical expression. If Algiers is a grand old lady, Constantine a venerable great-aunt, Oran is a good-time girl.

As for me, unaware of Oran’s past, I would look around me at all the trappings of a beautiful, functional city — its clinics, schools, city hall, theatre — and wonder why, in spite of all this, nothing ever WORKED as it should.


The Igawawen

Among (the Kabyles) the virtues of honesty, hospitality, and good-nature are conspicuous. It is not their misfortune alone that the lowlands know them no more…. it is (that) of the whole civilised world. Descendants of a mighty race whose culture once spread from the Atlantic to the Red Sea and the Hauran, from Crete to Timbuctoo and the Sudan, there are still to be found among them (a love) of the arts and sciences, the spirit of conquest, the capacity for self-government which, if developed, would make them again a great nation.

Melville William Hilton-Simpson (1925)

 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 are by far the largest of the many groups of ethnic Berbers scattered all over North Africa. 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 appellation “Kabyle” comes from the Arabic word qabila (pl. qabaïl) for tribe, adopted by the French to describe these highland people. The French divided up the lands inhabited by the Kabyles into two administrative areas; la grande Kabylie, of which the  capital is Tizi-Ouzou,  and la petite Kabylie, with its capital of Bejaïa. However, for its inhabitants, Kabylie is simply thamurthThamurth means country, land, or simply home. It is similar in meaning to the Arabic word bled, from which, funnily enough, the English nickname Blighty for Britain is derived. Like Blighty, the word thamurth contains within it a whole wealth of unspoken longing and homesickness.

Greater Kabylie (la grande 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 lie the Djudjura mountains, part of the Atlas 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 Battle of Icherriden

The defeat of the Igawawen in 1857, outnumbered and outgunned at the battle of Icherriden, a few kilometres from my husband’s village, 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 Kabyle resistance against the French and has become known as the Kabyle Joan of Arc.


Fadhma N’Soumeur

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.  These are not tribes as one would usually understand the word, but groups of villages (thudrin), sharing a common language, territory and culture. Many other terms can be used to describe Kabyle political and social structures, amongst which are”clan,” kinship” and “lineage.” My husband’s tribe, for want of a better word, is the Ath Wekbil or Akbil, of the Ath Menguellet federation.

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. It had been the same with previous foreign invaders: there are no Roman ruins in Kabylie like those scattered elsewhere in Algeria and no trace of Ottoman or Vandal occupation.

The Kabyle system of self-government has consequently been 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 that has nothing to do with the Napoleonic Code or Islamic law; its code of honour and its system of village councils. The Kabyle village council is called the thajmarth, and is organised into two opposing sides, the sfuf, presided over by the amin — almost exactly like a mini House of Commons, presided over by the Speaker.

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 (axxam) were carved out of wood from the forests of the Djudjura. The Igawawen also excelled in three other specialised branches of the craft industry: jewellery making, arms manufacturing and the manufacture of counterfeit coins.

kabylie 2006 290.jpg

My father-in-law’s olive press

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 two thousand 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.


A Zouave

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. His father had been in his last year of secondary school in Tizi Ouzou, before his schooling was brought to an abrupt end by his eldest brother following their father’s death.

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. Writers such as Mouloud Mammeri, Mouloud Feraoun, Tahar Djaout and Kateb Yacine; singer-songwriters such as Lounis Ait Menguellet, Idir and Matoub Lounès. There are even iconic French actors and singers with a Kabyle heritage: Daniel Prévost, Isabelle Adjani, Edith Piaf and Marianne Cotillard.

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.


Monument to the Battle of Incherriden


Home is where you can always return, no matter how long you’ve been gone.


Returning to their village after their bankruptcy in Fouka, T’s parents felt as though they were retreating into their shells. For them, the house that they’d built during the years of plenty was a sanctuary, a cocoon, a place where they could rest —where they could heal. This was their ancestral land. Nobody could tell them to leave. Continue reading

The Broken Pitcher

The death of a mother is the first sorrow wept without her.

– Anon

Acu? Amek ? Acu? Tamɣart-iw?” (What? How? What? My mother-in-law?)

My father-in-law was shouting down the telephone, holding the receiver in one trembling hand, and repeating every word the caller was saying as if he couldn’t quite believe what he was hearing. “Shot in the head, you say? Dead? Allah yarhamha.” (God have mercy on her soul.) Continue reading