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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Rue Monseigneur Leynaud

Surely, there couldn’t be so many people living in one house?

It seemed an impossibility. That had been one of the thoughts running through my mind during my very first visit to the family villa on the rue Monseigneur Leynaud in Bellevue, an eastern suburb of Algiers. The occasion had been, of course, the first time I had set foot in Algeria to be formally presented to T’s family,  to see whether we were brave enough to take the plunge – and whether the family would accept me.

The visit was nerve-wracking, to say the least, and I didn’t really take any notice of the house itself, or its fittings and furnishings, surrounded as I was by a sea of smiling faces and curious stares. Various cousins, siblings, aunts and uncles appeared seemingly from nowhere.  I knew that T’s family shared the house with his uncle, but try as I might, I couldn’t work out in my head how approximately fifteen people could live in a two-bedroomed house. Of course – silly me – I was applying European standards, that is, one bed, or even one bedroom per person, to the Algerian reality.

It was not even a complete house, as the bottom storey had been left unfinished by the original owner, the French army captain from whom T. had rented it. There was one large room downstairs, but the rest of the ground floor was used as storage space, with reinforced concrete pillars holding up the concrete slab constituting the floor of the upper storey. The villa looked as though it had been built on stilts.

Upstairs the rooms had been divided between the two families. There were two recognisable bedrooms, one belonging to T’s uncle and aunt (later to be known as the Witch Downstairs), and one where my mother-in-law slept.  There were two other rooms, one belonging to T’s family, and dominated by a large dining-table and chairs. A marble fireplace built diagonally across one corner showed that, at one time, the room must have been cosy and well-appointed.

The other room, a tiny space belonging to the uncle’s family, was filled almost to bursting with a shiny veneered dining table, on which a crocheted mat and a vase filled with artificial flowers had been carefully placed, six plushly-upholstered dining chairs and a glass-doored display cabinet containing gilded tea and coffee services that were never, to my knowledge, used. Nobody outside the uncle’s family could enter this room or even breathe its air.  It was the inner sanctum, the holy of holies.

Even at the time, it seemed strange to me that, in such an overcrowded house,  one whole room was used simply for display.  This was keeping up appearances with a vengeance. In many ways, this room  resembled  the formal parlours of my grandparents’ generation and served, more or less, the same purpose.

This is where honoured guests were served tea and coffee, perched uncomfortably on the overstuffed dining chairs. This is where T. and I were served lunch in the early days of our marriage, when we were still in the good books of The Witch Downstairs, and she still lived in hope that T. would suddenly decide to take his whole family to Arzew and leave the house to her husband – or rather, to her.

The kitchen was a nightmare. Originally a pleasant, sunlit room with a balcony accessed through a glazed door, it had now been divided into two separate cooking areas, with plywood and cardboard sheets blocking the window and the door. My mother-in-law’s domain was the original kitchen, the aunt’s outside on the balcony. Any natural sunlight would struggle to penetrate the ramshackle dividing wall and so the kitchen was always bathed in a dank, murky half-light, lit by one flickering low-wattage bulb dangling from the ceiling.

The sink had one single tap, which would make a clanging noise when turned on and, after a couple of death rattles, cold water would gush out – or not, depending on whether the supply had been cut off. There was no hot water at all, and pans of water had to be heated on the stove for washing the dishes or indeed washing anything.

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T sitting at the desk in his mother’s room

The claustrophobic atmosphere was not helped by the dark, bulky items of furniture looming up from out of the shadows. They crouched like prehistoric monsters against every wall, waiting to pounce and catch your shins a glancing blow, all the while exuding an odour of must and wormy wood.

This furniture had been bought by my father-in-law during the forties and was still in use, even though it was extremely impractical, offering little storage room for the amount of floor space it occupied. My mother-in-law refused to get rid of it, however, as it was a reminder, in a way, of a time when her husband was the driving force behind the whole family – respected and feared in equal measure. The wardrobes, double bed and marble-topped sideboards were a symbol of her status as a married woman and proof that her husband had been a person of consequence.

The bathroom had all the original fittings – a stately art deco washbasin, taps and bathtub, but it was impossible to take a real bath. The most you could hope for would be to stand up in the bathtub and pour warm water from out of a saucepan over yourself. The toilet had no seat, no flushing mechanism and the lock was infuriatingly contrary –  refusing either to lock properly or to open when required. I soon learned to do whatever was necessary with one foot jammed firmly against the door.

All of the trappings of a once-beautiful house were present, but it was difficult to maintain it as such, with so many people living there. My mother-in-law’s bedroom was used as a living-room, with everyone lounging on the bed, as there was no other seating in the room, unless you counted a desk and straight chair shoved up in one corner. The colour of the walls added to the generally depressing atmosphere as my mother-in-law had chosen a paint of a particularly opaque, muddy blue that T. had spent one whole university vacation slapping everywhere.

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Me, our daughter of five months, T’s brother and mother in her room

The only splashes of colour were in the garden and along the window sills, where all kinds of flowering plants grew in a riotous display. Like their blooms, the dresses worn by T’s female relatives were also a medley of bright mismatching colours, often embellished by a rose or some other flower, even a sprig of mint, tucked under their scarves.

My puzzlement as to where everyone slept was resolved the very first night I spent there. T’s mother had a single bed made up for me with crisp new sheets in the sacrosanct dining-room. At my side, on the floor, the three young girls, T’s younger sister and his two teenage cousins, slept in a row on sheepskins thrown directly on to the tiles. No sheets for them – they covered themselves directly with striped woollen blankets.

All of the young males of the household slept downstairs in the large room – the four brothers still living at home and their three cousins.  The atmosphere was like that found in any teenage son’s bedroom, but multiplied many times. I only ventured down there a few times, to be knocked sideways by the odour, ripe with testosterone, sweaty socks and unwashed male bodies.

All the males – except for T, of course. As head of the family and eldest son, he slept in solitary splendour in his mother’s bed. She, poor thing, slept on a mat on the kitchen floor, the only space left available.

Past Tense

“What? You’ve forgotten the coffee?” T. exclaimed, astonishment and irritation in his voice. I stole a glance at him. His lips were pressed tightly together and he was looking at me from beneath ominously lowered brows. “Well, yes,” I answered. “I’ll just slip down and get some.” For the life of me, I couldn’t understand his overreaction to what was, to me, a slight oversight on my part.

It was 1968 and he had moved to Liverpool the previous October to do his M.Eng, forcing us apart. Much to our dismay, no suitable project had been found in Sheffield.  It was a difficult time for us as we were both studying hard – I had my Second Part Finals in a few months’ time and he was preparing to submit his Master’s thesis later in the year.  He had asked his company, Sonatrach, whether he could stay on in Britain to do a Ph.D., but no answer had been forthcoming. Anxiety about the future often made us irritable, but this was something else.

He was living at the time in a one-bedroomed flat in a house of which the bottom storey facing Edge Lane was taken up by a parade of shops. The one directly below was a launderette and next to it was a small grocer’s shop. It would only take a few minutes at the most to pick up the forgotten article, especially as the shop stayed open until late at night. Why make such a  fuss about it?

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T. in the flat in Liverpool

These occasional outbursts was just part of living with T. Usually calm and even-tempered, well-known for his sangfroid, he would suddenly become inexplicably annoyed by small, unimportant things. Try as I might, I could not get to the reasons behind his reactions. I thought it was perhaps just the difference in cultures. Perhaps I was doing something wrong without realising it? Gradually, I became used to these mood swings, trying to shrug them off, although sometimes it seemed as though I was always treading on eggshells, never knowing what would set him off.

On another occasion, a couple of years previously in Sheffield, we had been studying in his room one evening. I was deep in my book and T. was at the table working on a particularly complicated maths problem, covering page after page with mysterious calculations in his spidery writing. The curtains were closed against the cold and rainy night, the electric radiator was on full blast, and the only sound in the cosy room was the ticking of the clock and the soft murmur of the French radio programme.

Suddenly there was a series of loud raps on the window, just next to T’s head. He leapt to his feet, overturning his books. The sheets of paper on which he had been working floated unheeded to the carpet. Turning my head, I saw that his face had drained of all colour. He didn’t say a word, just stood there.  Then came a knock on the bedroom door and a group of our friends burst in, laughing and joking.

I looked curiously at T. and realised that things were still not right.  He remained motionless and silent, not joining in the general merriment. Then he moved. He swung abruptly round to S., one of his closest friends and the ringleader on this particular occasion, and spat out the words, “Ne refais plus jamais ça!” (Don’t ever do that again!) I looked at him, astonished and taken aback. After all, they were just having a bit of fun – weren’t they?

As T. was not one for talking about his feelings, I only found out much later, after we were married,  that his unexpected reactions had their roots in events in his past. I suppose everyone is the same, but T. had gone through far more traumatic experiences in his twenty-odd years on earth than most people would in a lifetime. Although  young and resilient, he still carried invisible emotional scars. The past had a way of impinging on the present and try as he might, he could not escape it.

The rapping on the window had reminded him of the way French paratroopers would announce their arrival during Algeria’s independence war. They would then break down the door if nobody answered and proceed to search the house, toting their machine guns and ready to put a bullet in the head of anyone putting up any kind of opposition.

He had once actually been woken from a deep sleep by the cold kiss of the barrel of a paratrooper’s gun against his forehead. On hearing that noise at the window, it was as if he had suddenly gone back in time. So he had vented his anger on the person who had made that particular memory resurface.

Another of T’s quirks is that he has always refused to wear any kind of jewellery, especially rings.  The particular memory behind it had been the traumatic period just after his father’s death, when he, aged just sixteen, his mother and siblings were living on a farm near Reghaïa, about thirty kilometres east of Algiers.

One evening, a group of gendarmes had banged on the door, demanding to search the farmhouse for any moudjahid (Algerian freedom fighter) or secret arms cache. At the end of the search, one of them had shaken T’s hand and squeezed it so hard, the ring he was wearing had cut into the flesh of his fingers, making the blood pour from his hand. T. had learnt the hard way not to let his feelings show, and so had reacted to the gendarme‘s deliberate provocation with a tight smile and narrowed eyes.

The episode with the forgotten coffee dates from the same period and had less terrifying origins, but obviously still had the power to trigger an angry knee-jerk reaction. The nearest shops to the farm were in the village of Reghaïa, about six kilometres away. There being no means of transport between the farm and the village, any food shopping had to be done by walking six kilometres to the shops, buying what was needed, then walking back the same distance carrying heavy baskets. Either T. or one of his brothers did this on a regular basis. The tractor that his father had owned and used for transport had been sold by T. to pay off any debts remaining after his death.

Unfortunately, as his mother was not the best-organised person in the world, and was often forgetful, she would, more often than not,  find that some essential ingredient was missing once her son had returned home, sweaty and exhausted, after his twelve-kilometre hike under the blazing summer sun. “Oh drat!” she would say (or the equivalent in Kabyle), “I’ve forgotten the sugar… or the flour…. or the coffee. Go back and get it.”

T. would never have dreamed of telling his mother off. He would probably have given her a LOOK, but his mother was impervious to any looks, no matter how angry they were. She was always blind to any subtle social signals, anyway, and besides, her sons were there to do her bidding, weren’t they?

So the realisation that I had forgotten the coffee on our return from a shopping trip had reminded him of this and made him react the same way as he would have done with his mother. The problem was – his mother forgot things all the time. I didn’t. But I was the one paying the price.