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.

m21w81mmmortar.jpg

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….

21369238_10155813708263489_806904077655674087_n.jpg

Advertisements

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.”

Scan 27.jpeg

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.

Scan 3.jpeg

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…..

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?

21191391_10156591563893625_293329903_o.jpg

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.

Picture 092.jpg

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.

Scan 5.jpeg

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.

 

Icosium

Vous croyez sans doute, comme tout le monde, que la Casbah est un quartier? Eh ben non, la Casbah n’est pas un quartier, c’est un état d’esprit. C’est la conscience endormie  de la civilisation.

Like everyone else, you probably think that the Casbah is a neighbourhood? Well, no, the Casbah isn’t a neighbourhood, it’s a state of mind. It is the sleeping conscience of civilisation.

Carnets d’orient : le cimetière des princesses – Jacques Ferrandez


The word casbah conjures up hundreds of exotic images in the mind, doesn’t it?

Old black and white films with a moustache-twirling villain, probably wearing a fez, carrying off a swooning maiden, trailing diaphanous veils and screaming prettily.  She will, of course, be rescued by the dashing young sheikh in the final reel. Or perhaps Humphrey Bogart wearing a fedora and smoking a cigarette, sitting in a shabby bar waiting for the Germans to come?

The French are best at producing atmospheric films set in the Casbah, like the 1937 film Pépé le Moko, starring Jean Gabin as the eponymous anti-hero. It was remade by Hollywood in 1938 as Algiers, starring Charles Boyer, with his famous invitation, “Come wiz me to ze Casbah.” This was to be most people’s introduction to the picturesque alleys and souks of the old city of Algiers.

220px-Algiers_1938_Poster.jpg220px-Pepelemokoposter.jpg

Algeria’s capital city is located on a sweeping crescent bay, surrounded by steep hills and facing north over the Mediterranean.  Its beating heart is the Casbah, the old town that spreads, like a scattering of dirty sugar cubes, up the slope of a hill just behind the waterfront to a hill-top citadel, from which it takes its name. It is a warren of narrow winding alleys and densely packed white-washed houses, and, as an English sailor, imprisoned within the walls of the Casbah three hundred years ago, was to recall, “From the sea, it looks just like the topsail of a ship.”

The Casbah was built on the ruins of old Icosium, founded, according to Greek legend, by twenty of Hercules’s companions.  In fact, a Phoenician trading post called Ikosim had occupied this site as early as the sixth century B.C., to be renamed Icosium by the Romans when they arrived six centuries later. The arc of a Roman amphitheatre can still be traced in the walls of the buildings in the lower Casbah.

Berber tribes were soon re-occupying their territory, abandoned by the Romans when the Vandals overran coastal Algeria in the fifth century.  From the tenth to the fourteenth century, Algiers belonged to them. They constructed a wall around the city, cutting it off from the rest of the world, with five heavily-guarded entrance points or gates,  from Bab el Oued in the west to Bab Azzoun in the east. Little of the old Berber city exists now, except for the foundations of the oldest mosques and the remnants of the city wall.

Earthquakes in 1364 and 1716 caused many of the older constructions, built without foundations, to collapse, and most of what is standing today dates from the late Ottoman period. Many of the prominent buildings — the mosques and the grand mansions of the wealthy classes built during the period of allegiance to the Ottoman sultan from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century — have survived, as they had been built on the more level ground between the shoreline and the hill. Poorer people had to walk uphill.

The Casbah’s twisting alleys that wind between the mud-brick and stucco houses still follow, however, the original footpaths. Those of the lower part of the town traced the Roman streets, but, as the town climbed the hill, the Berbers built houses on either side of gullies that formed natural sewers. Clay pipes or stone or brick channels were added  to the gullies, and they were later covered over to form the streets and pathways of the city.

The upper stories of houses extend over the street to within inches of one another, as often seen in medieval European cities.  They sometimes even meet in the middle, having settled with time, or as a result of occasional earthquake tremors, so that many of the streets are actually vaulted by houses, leaving hardly a scrap of blue sky to be seen.

In the tenth century, Bologhine bin Ziri, the first ruler of the Ziride dynasty,  founded a new city on what was left of the old one, after he had vanquished the Zenata confederation of Berber tribes. He called it El Djazaïr, which means “the islands” in Arabic, referring to the string of islets off the coast that form a natural breakwater for the harbour.

After the Barbarossa brothers captured the city in 1516, Algiers became a fabled redoubt of Barbary pirates, who plied the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, even venturing as far as the English coast. For any given year throughout the seventeenth century, there were hundreds of European captives being held in Algiers, many kidnapped directly from their own coastal settlements by the privateers. The city’s wealth came from the proceeds of this piracy and from its position as the terminus for the trans-Saharan caravans.

When the French colonised Algeria in 1830, one of the first things they did was to cut the Casbah in two, demolishing many ancient buildings in order to create a central thoroughfare so as to allow easy access for their troops in the event of insurrection. They surrounded the Casbah with colonial-style buildings, destroyed the walls and tore down much of the lower part of the town to build the colonial neighbourhood of Bab el Oued.

If your taste runs to grittier, more realistic movies about Algiers, then watching La Bataille d’Alger is a must. It depicts, in brutal detail, the campaign of urban guerrilla warfare in Algiers during the independence war, and was filmed in the Casbah itself in 1966. It tells the true story of freedom-fighters like Saadi Yacef, leader of the Algiers military wing of the FLN, and Ali la Pointe, Yacef’s chief Casbah operative, as they took refuge in the impenetrable depths of the old city, inaccessible to French troops. In Yacef’s memoirs of the Battle of Algiers, he describes his twelve-year-old nephew—who served as a lookout and who died at Ali’s side— as très jeune, very young.

Some older Casbah residents explain that they escaped French paratroopers by living in the walls –  “In the walls, you understand?” After independence, the streets were renamed in honor of Algerian heroes, many of them dying on those very pavements, with plaques marking the spot.

image001_sm.jpg

Still from the film La Bataille d’Alger

One of the stories about this period that moved me to tears is told by a resident of the Casbah who, as a young boy, lived close by the notorious Barberousse prison. He said that whenever freedom-fighters were to be guillotined at dawn, he would hear the voices of the other prisoners singing one of Algeria’s most famous hymns to freedom, “From our mountains, the voice of liberty is rising…’” (Min Djibelina). His mother would cry, his father’s face would turn pale, and they would tell him to go back to sleep. But he heard that same song ninety times in one year, for the ninety prisoners who were executed.

During the Black Decade of the nineties, when Islamist extremists brought terror once again to the streets of Algiers, the Casbah served as their hiding place. The old city became a no-go area, marked by insecurity, bomb attacks and police raids. Its residents say they lost practically eight years of their lives, many moving out to suburban housing estates.

The Casbah is the soul of Algiers. Amid these whitewashed walls, paved streets polished by time and steps worn smooth by the passage of thousands of feet, the memories persist. It is peopled not only by its current residents, but also by the ghosts of all those who have lived there. At its heart, the patron saint of Algiers, the marabout Sidi Abderrahmane, lies in his Byzantine mausoleum, lit by chandeliers that were a gift from Queen Victoria.

Although declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Casbah is crumbling away, with many building collapsing on to their inhabitants. Property developers are already eyeing up its unique location overlooking the stunning Bay of Algiers, with talk about luxury apartments or even office blocks taking its place. It would be a tragedy for Algeria, indeed for the whole of humanity, if that were allowed to happen.

casb0013.jpg

 

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.

Scan 4.jpeg

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.

sc000c0a66.jpg

“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.

sc0021a373.jpg

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.

Tizi_Ouzou.JPG

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.

12745675_959273557441490_3380444942904148352_n.jpg

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.

artois 1.jpg

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.

12183951_911704438865069_1687478121816008176_o.jpg

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