Outsider

I like the idea of being caught between things, always being a bit of an outsider, having an outside eye on things.

-Riz Ahmed


I looked at my husband-to-be as he sat on the chair in his mother’s bedroom, laughing and joking with his siblings. It was December, 1968, and ever since we had arrived in Algiers that afternoon, more and more Kabyle words had been slipping into his French, until now he was talking practically all the time in his mother tongue.

All the members of his family sat in a half-circle around him, perched on the bed, the arm of his chair, the floor — anywhere they could get close to him and hang on his every word. Leaning back in his chair, relaxed, with one foot resting on the other knee, T was the centre of attention — which is where he always liked to be.

But then, his family had ample reason to hero-worship him. At the age of sixteen, following their father’s death, he had saved them from a miserable life eked out in the mountains of a country at war, where death would have stalked them every day; only a rifle-shot or a burst of machine-gun fire away.

He had also lived the impossible dream — in that period of post-independence euphoria, he had left Algeria to go to Europe to study and returned, four years later, his Master’s degree safely in his pocket, to a top-ranking job in Sonatrach, the most prestigious of all Algerian national companies. Not only that, but he was now introducing me, his English girlfriend, to them and announcing his intention of marrying me the following summer.

“He is home,” I thought, looking at his animated face, absorbed again into his family on the soil that had nourished him and made him what he was.  I was on the outside, looking in — a stranger.

Although I could understand most of what was being said in French, the conversation would suddenly veer into Kabyle, leaving me stranded. I would blink and, with a strained smile, pretend I could understand what was being said, following everybody’s lead by nodding and laughing in the right places, exchanging glances of complicity with T’s brothers, and trying to paste an interested look on my face. Sometimes, one of them, taking pity on me, would lean over to translate into French the general gist of the discussion.

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Later, at dinner, I felt slightly reassured when I felt T’s knee pressing against mine underneath the table — a substitute for holding hands, which he said we should not do in public. Especially in front of his family. It all seemed rather strange to me, as his mother had prepared her room for us, spreading crisp new sheets on the bed and plumping up the pillows. Strange because we were not yet married and could not hold hands and yet his mother had seen no impropriety in us sharing a bed.

T. had shaken his head when his mother had taken him aside to inform him, in a whisper, about her preparations. In the same way as he would refuse even to kiss me chastely on the cheek in the presence of my parents, he told her in no uncertain terms that he would not share a room – and a bed – with me under the family roof until we were married. It may seem hypocritical to you, as we had been together for four years, but, looking back, I prefer to think of it as respect for his family.

The language problem became less of one as the years passed. Although I never reached the stage where I could understand every nuance of Kabyle, I soon became able to follow what people were saying, and could join in from time to time, even though my contributions to the discussion usually consisted of verbal prompts with which I could ensure the smooth flow of the conversation, and nudge forward the other person along it, a little like a tug manoeuvring an ocean liner into position.

It worked wonderfully well with my mother-in-law and, in this way, we could enjoy discussions in Kabyle lasting an hour or more on subjects ranging from her father’s fatal heart attack to World War Two. Sometimes she would glance at me to gauge my reaction, her head cocked to one side like a plump little wren, and on receiving my murmured approval, she would give a satisfied nod and sail blithly on.

It wasn’t just the language, though. During that same dinner, my first in T’s family home, I had looked around me at everyone yelling at the top of their voices. “Why are they shouting so?” I whispered to T above the noise.  “They’re not,” he answered, turning to look at me and frowning, his eyebrows drawn together, “They’re just talking.” It was all so different, but the difference was not what I feared the most. It was the opprobrium  that might be heaped on my head for not following the rules of Algerian social conduct. To me, that was worse that not understanding the language.

It seemed to me that his was a world in which either you grew up or where you remained for ever an outsider. And perhaps, if that was what it would have taken to keep me in his life, T might have given up that world for me, although I doubt it. But when the first intensity of passion had passed, he would have regretted it, and blamed me. I was the one who had to enter his life and adapt, not the other way round.

The years passed, and yet I still stuck out like a sore thumb. Physically, although my hair was dark – much darker than T’s — I still had that indefinable something that marked me out as European. I was a couple of inches taller than most Algerian women, but that and my un-waif-like proportions should not have been enough to make me stand out in a crowd. Perhaps it was the look of mild panic in my eyes at the  prospect of shopping in the local market, dancing at a family wedding or catering for a dozen unexpected guests.

It seemed to me that our early years were a series of negotiations, which T usually won. One of these was our differing perceptions of home. To T, it was a social space, and he was never happier than when it was bursting at the seams — to me it was a private retreat, where I could regain my sanity and lick my wounds.

After a while, however, I realised that I was finally at home with the idea of “foreign-ness.” I gave up trying to fit in and adopted T’s philosophy, which was, “Here I am. This is what I am. Take it or leave it.” I was lucky in that my family-in-law opted to take it, not without heaving an exasperated sigh at my lack of social nous.

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At a wedding. I look so calm and collected – on the outside.

Being an outsider, however, gave me a more clear-sighted view of Algeria’s political situation. I had not been through the horror of the independence war and so was not taken in by some of the more questionable decisions taken by its political leaders immediately after independence and in the decades that followed. I wasn’t emotionally involved in the same way as T., and so could be more objective.

I would look at various initiatives with a jaundiced eye, as for example, the constant emphasis on “socialism” being an irreversible choice,  the whipped-up hysteria surrounding the Moroccan annexation of the Western Sahara, or the (obligatory) voluntary tasks carried out at weekends by the Sonatrach workforce. I kept my opinions to myself, however, as I had no wish to burst T’s bubble. Luckily, he was to reach the same conclusions as me, but much later.

To me, those first few months and years were a swirling, chaotic kaleidoscope of sound, noise and colour. All I could do was to cling on to T like a lifeline, close my eyes and ears to the bedlam and focus on his calm presence. Whenever I was faced with a challenge that seemed impossible, I would grit my teeth, thinking,  “I can do this and I will.  This is a test and I will pass it.” There were many such tests to come.

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The Lost Kingdom of Koukou

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings;
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’

-Ozymandias: Percy Bysshe Shelley


Many of the preconceptions that people have about life in Algeria, both past and present, have nothing to do with reality. I have already written at length about the life I led in post-independence Algeria, but the idea of an Algiers complete with its sultan’s harem and seraglio filled with eunuchs and concubines, its slave market – all cherished stereotypes – is not in fact authentically Algerian, but a result of traditions imported from Ottoman Istanbul during its three centuries of overlordship.

These ideas have, of course, since been strengthened and encouraged by the success of the “Orientalist” school of painting in the nineteenth century, with its portraits of scantily-clad concubines lying on their couches, smoking hookahs behind shuttered windows. The lure of the forbidden. Many of the Orientalist painters had never even been to Algeria, their titillating paintings merely a product of their own imagination.

Borrowed traditions, perhaps, but with one notable exception. Piracy had been rife even before the Ottoman period and so the blame for it cannot be laid solely at their door. For centuries, European coastlines, including that  of the south west of England, had been at the mercy of pirates based mainly on the North African Coast, later to be known as the Barbary Coast — “Barbary” being of course derived from “Berber.” Their number included not only North Africans, but also English and Dutch privateers. As Spain was the common enemy, the English had found an alliance with the Algerian corsairs very profitable, particularly when it came to harassing Spanish shipping in the Mediterranean.

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That part of North Africa that was to become the Ottoman province of Algeria had been a collection of small independent states, like most countries in Europe and elsewhere. They had practically invited the Ottoman wolf into their sheepfold in 1512, as Spain had been flexing its economic and military muscle since the fall of Granada to the forces of Isabelle and Ferdinand in 1492. At the same time the conquistadores were setting out to South America, several ports in what is now Algeria, including Ténès, Mostaganem, Oran, Mers-el-Kebir and Cherchell, were being captured by the Spanish and forced to pay tributes to the Spanish throne.

The city of Bejaïa, in what is now Lower Kabylie, had also been taken over by the Spanish and so the Kabyles called upon the Barberousse (Red Beard) brothers, Arudj and Kheireddine, to come and help them retake the city. The brothers landed at Jijel, making the port their headquarters, and gathered enough men and munitions to lay siege to Bejaïa. The siege failed, but, in 1516, following another plea to Arudj and Kheireddine from its inhabitants, Algiers was wrested from the grasp of the Spanish with the aid of the Kabyles, whose courage impressed the Ottomans. Algeria, however, was to prove a very turbulent vassal state.

What had begun as a mutual admiration society between the Ottomans and the Kabyles soon degenerated. Sidi Ahmed ou el Kahdi or Belkadi, one of the scions of a family of marabouts and a judge at the court of the last kings of Bejaia, had fled the city when it had fallen into the hands of the Spanish and found refuge in the mountains of Kabylie, where he organised the Berber tribes into a powerful fighting force, capable of opposing Ottoman janissaries and Spanish soldiers alike. Based in the citadel village of Koukou in High Kabylie, this force was composed of five thousand foot soldiers and fifteen hundred horsemen.

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Algiers was retaken from the Ottomans by them in 1520 and Kheireddine Barberousse fled to Jijel. For seven years, Belkadi was both king of Algiers and king of Koukou. The authority of the Berber kingdom stretched from the Atlas mountains to the southern plains of Algiers and lasted for over a hundred years, switching allegiance between the Ottomans and the Spanish, until well into the seventeenth century.

From 1618 onwards, the Belkadi family split into several factions and its influence declined. Their name was changed and the family was absorbed into the local Berber population. Thanks in part to them, however, the two regions of Kabylie remained independent throughout the whole of the Ottoman period, retaining the use of their language and customs.

Situated a few miles from my husband’s village, Koukou is now a small hamlet perched on a high peak, like most Kabyle settlements. Home to around six hundred inhabitants, it overlooks the Messouya valley and the river Sebaou. Its remoteness and difficulty of access afforded a degree of natural protection, and any approaching enemy could be seen from afar, an advantage for any military post.

It seems strange to me that a village that was once the heart of a powerful kingdom, a beacon of its age, has fallen back into the most profound anonymity, with few people even aware of its erstwhile military might. Nothing as dramatic as a war has befallen it, just more years that can be counted.  The few buildings left are not as timeless as the mountains that ring the village, but able to outlast the civilisation that created them by centuries.

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Koukou. Photo by Wikipedia

Other traces of Ottoman occupation remain in Algeria. The descendants of relationships between Turkish janissaries and local women, called kouloughlis (literally, “sons of slaves”) are proud of their Ottoman heritage and often bear Turkish family names. Some of them still belong to the same Hanifi sect of Sunni Islam as the Ottomans, as opposed to the Maliki appartenance of the rest of the Algerian population.

Names of towns and villages where there was a strong Turkish community are still retained, as, for example, Ain el Turk (The Turk’s Fountain) near Oran, Ain Torki and  the town of Bougara. Various suburbs of Algiers carry the names of famous historical figures of the Ottoman occupation, such as Hussein Dey and Bir Mourad Raïs (Birmandreis), Dey Hussein being the last of the Ottoman provincial rulers of the Regency of Algiers and Mourad Raïs a sixteenth-century Barbary pirate of Albanian origin.

Raïs Hamidou, another Algiers suburb, formerly Pointe-Pescade, is named after a legendary early nineteenth-century Kabyle corsair, who captured many ships, ensuring the prosperity of the Ottoman Regency in its dying days. He was killed in 1815 during the Battle of Cape Gata against Decatur’s American fleet, intercepted on its way to remonstrate with Dey Hussein for a perceived insult.

The main railway station in Algiers is called Agha Station, an agha being a civilian or military official in the Ottoman Empire. Many Turkish words have found their way into Algerian Arabic and there are dishes and pastries of Turkish origin on a typical Algerian menu — bourek, baklava, and sweet treats such as halva turc, rahat loukoum and Turkish coffee.

An architectural heritage was left also. The Casbah, originally a Berber city, was built on and extended by the Ottomans. The sixteenth-century Ketchaoua mosque is located there, and one of the other notable reminders of the Ottoman occupation of Algeria, the grandiose Palais des Raïs, with its painted and tiled ceilings, is still to be found on the waterfront, proving that the Casbah had once stretched down its hillside as far as the sea, before the restructuring of the lower Casbah during the period of French colonisation to allow easier ingress in case of an uprising.

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One of the more persistant reminders of the Ottoman occupation was on a sartorial level —the wearing of the chechia turc, or “fez,” as it is known in English. For many years, even after the Turkish occupiers had been replaced by the French, it was part of every Algerian’s Sunday —or Friday-best — outfit. No formal occasion was without it – the taking of a formal studio family portrait, or playing a musical instrument in a chaabi orchestra.

My husband wore a fez as a small boy, although we do not have a photo of him at that age. We do, however, have one of his maternal uncle, pudgily resplendent in his fez and enthroned in his mother’s arms like a miniature Ottoman pasha. We also have one of T’s maternal grandfather in his fez, although one of his grandsons, sitting on his knee, is sporting a French beret.

It is strange to think that, although the Ottomans never penetrated Kabylie, their influence could still be felt there — even if it was only in the choice of headgear.Picture 150.jpg

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The White Lady

 “The bay is there, majestic, bathed in a dazzling light. The white City clings to the mountain slope that seems to float on a vast carpet of blue marble….

Akram Belkaid – Return to Algeria


 

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Algiers. Photo by Karen Rose.

Trembling, I stood there at the top of the plane stairs, shading my eyes and squinting in the bright sunshine. When the aircraft door had been opened a few moments before, the warm air had hit me like a blast from a hairdryer, blowing dust into my eyes and whipping my long hair into tangles across my face. My mouth felt dry and my stomach tight with apprehension as I followed the other passengers across the tarmac to the airport building. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Sand Through A Sieve

Men are restless, adventurous. Women are conservative – despite what current ideology says.

-Doris Lessing


“A3yigh thi xedmah agi.” (I’m sick of this work).

Thus spoke my father-in-law, turning to his wife with a shrug, his brows forming one straight line above his piercing dark eyes. His face was stern, even a little melancholy, in repose. It was a long-boned face, tapering to a rounded chin, with a prominent Kabyle nose, under which grew a neat black moustache à la Hitler. Beneath a high forehead, his deep-set eyes were half hidden by drooping eyelids, and his gaze was steady and slightly ironic. Continue reading