Homecoming

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

-Anon


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.

For my father-in-law, however, it was a frustrating time. He was back to square one. He  had lost all his money, but now had to find a means of earning a living and providing for his wife and children.  It wasn’t easy.

Most of the population of Kabylie were undernourished. Sometimes whole villages survived on a meagre diet of roots, acorns, grasses and nettles — anything to alleviate the torture of hunger pangs. Anyone passing through the Kabyle villages could feel their blood congeal with sadness at the sight of malnourished children with hardly any flesh on their bones, their anguish transmitted only by their eyes and weary movements. These children would often succumb to diseases like typhoid, typhus and cholera.

In spite of his failing health, T’s father set to work with a will, clearing the undergrowth, cutting down great oak, ash and beech trees to sell for firewood and creating terraces on the mountainside where he could grow his crops. They didn’t bring in enough money, though, even the fruit from the trees he had imported from America, and so he decided to follow a youthful dream – searching for uranium in the mountains.

Every morning, the other villagers would see this strange figure — tall and thin, his eyes sunken and his skin sallow, with grizzled hair around a bald crown and a bushy black beard covering most of his face — set off with his geiger counter on his quest. He would dig everywhere, on his own lands, on those of his neighbours in the village or even in nearby villages.

Sometimes, he would dig a deep hole, let himself down on a rope and not have enough strength to pull himself up again, overcome by a fit of hypoglycaemia, during which he would shiver and shake, a cold sweat glistening on his gaunt features. He never found any uranium. But he did bore holes through to the water table and left many a neighbour with a source of water on their land to sustain their meagre crops.

My mother-in-law, on the other hand, revelled in being back home. Were it not for strict Kabyle social conventions, she would have been spinning around like a little girl again, arms out wide and fingers spread.  Instead she inhaled the air carrying the fragrance of the thyme and wild garlic growing on the mountainside; the essence of her childhood.

She felt free, unrestricted, like paper floating in the sky. No need to cover up with a cumbersome haïk and voilette. Here she could walk around with her head held high, confident in the knowledge that the men of the village would lower their eyes respectfully at her approach.

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She would sit on the steps of their new house and daydream for hours as she gazed out on the mountainous landscape, each craggy peak crowned with a chaplet of red-roofed stone houses. Sometimes she’d climb down the slope to her favorite spot, sit amongst the wild flowers, alive with bright butterflies, and enjoy the view of the whole valley spread out below her. From her vantage point, she could see the streams of ice-cold water falling into the river Assif, clear and sparkling in the sun. The sound of the rushing river formed the background to daily life in the village and lulled its inhabitants to sleep every night.

For T, it was a total immersion into Kabyle life. Although he had been born in the village, his parents had moved to Algiers when he was a baby, and his only visits to Kabylie had been during the school holidays. Now he was enrolled at the junior school in Ath Laaziz, a neighbouring village three kilometres away, where a Breton teacher would soon take him under his wing, confident that the new boy in his class would pass his entrance exam to secondary school with flying colours.

He soon made friends with the village children and would play with them near the ancient olive tree at the entrance to the village, around the gravestones in the cemetery, or on the banks of the river. At the weekend, he would go down with his father, both astride their donkey, to the Saturday market at Souk el Djemaa, to sell their fruit and vegetables there. On their return, he would sit sleepy-eyed besides the fire, or companionably on the roof terrace with his brothers, listening to the cicadas chirping and clicking in the undergrowth.

But the storm clouds were gathering. T’s grandfather died suddenly of a heart attack in his fifties. My mother-in-law, who had always been the apple of her parents’ eye, was devastated. She wanted to turn the pages back and dwell on the finer details: how the crows’ feet around her father’s eyes would deepen when he smiled; how his hands were roughened and scarred by his trade as a gunsmith. But life was pulling her forward into the unknown with one hand and erasing her past with the other.

My father-in-law was becoming so desperate for money he had decided to sell his half-share in the Maison Carrée bakery to his younger brother. His wife was against the idea – for her, it was the only asset they had left. He wouldn’t listen to her as usual, and so set off to Algiers to sign the papers.

Walking through the familiar streets, he suddenly came upon a drunk, or a madman, dressed all in white, ranting and raving in the middle of the pavement. Staggering along, his eyes fixed on nothing, his skin hidden under layers of grime and his hair a tangled mop of black and grey, the man kept shouting out the same phrase over and over again, “Je ne vends pas mon oeuf!” (I’m not selling my egg!) before seeming to vanish into thin air.

T’s father took this as a sign from heaven. Still reflecting on what had just happened, he arrived at the solicitor’s office, where a great pile of cash was waiting for him on the desk. When he told his brother he had changed his mind, the latter burst into tears. It was lucky that he did have a change of heart, because the money coming from his share in the bakery would be the family’s sole source of income for many years to come.

Rumours of a war against the French occupants were spreading like wildfire, especially in Kabylie. Men were slipping away at the dead of night to join the maquis.  The French authorities reacted by using any means they could to stamp out any rebellion; sending military convoys up into the mountains, using napalm to burn down forests -— and any khatiba (unit) hiding there — bulldozing access roads to the villages and filling the sky with the clatter of dual rotor helicopters, nicknamed “Flying Bananas,”  and used intensively, as was napalm, a decade later by the Americans in Vietnam.

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T’s father realised that things were only going to get worse and felt it would be safer in Algiers. T had won a scholarship to the same boarding school in Tizi-Ouzou that his father had attended, but the rest of the family moved to a small, rented bakery in Belcourt in the centre of the capital. In the space of two months, T’s father was already making regular deliveries of fresh bread to local shops.

The bakery was also a pastry shop and ice-cream parlour, selling créponné, the delicious Algerian lemon sorbet. The only problem seemed to be that fresh pastries would disappear at an alarming rate, with gaps regularly appearing in the serried ranks of baked goods ready for delivery. Nobody knew who the culprit was, until T’s father realised that cakes always went missing when two of his younger sons went along for the ride. That, coupled with their guilty expressions and the traces of cream around their mouths, was a dead giveaway.

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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