The land of the Berbers begins where men start to wear the burnous and ends where people stop eating couscous.
I opened the door of our house in the Clos and peered anxiously down the curve of the road. It was already November, but, as autumn arrives later in Algeria than in Europe, the leaves had not yet started to fall, and the trees lining the road were on fire with red and gold foliage. It was still very early and the morning birds were carving sharp curls of song out of a high and empty sky; a sky as clear as glass and a perfect, untrammelled blue. The sun, burning brightly, seemed to swell as it rose in the sky.
It was picture book perfect.
But I wasn’t feeling anything like the heroine in a fairy-tale. A griping pain was gnawing at my stomach. It seemed to me that its lining had been worn away with the acid of anxiety over the past six weeks – ever since my husband’s serious car accident twelve days after the birth of our son.
Today, however, the feeling of nausea was being caused by anticipation. I had not slept a wink the night before, but soon my long wait would be over. Today was the day T was coming home from the hospital in Algiers.
Looking through the wide, plate-glass window of the living room half an hour later, I saw a white van drawing up in front of the house. No sirens, or flashing lights, just the discreet word “Ambulance” painted on one of the windows. I dashed out of the front door, just in time to see T climb painfully out of the back seat, stand up unsteadily on one leg and shove his crutches under his arms to try to regain his balance. A colleague had also leapt out of the car and was holding my husband’s arm to help him.
I rushed into his arms and felt his hands grip my shoulders to steady me, as my knees had buckled. Pulling back, I could finally take a good look at him. His face was ashen and drawn with pain, his pallor making his dark eyes, eyelashes and eyebrows stand out in stark contrast to the white skin. He seems to have lost weight, too. It was the first time I had seen him since he had been whisked away, semi-conscious, with a broken femur and a suspected blood clot on the brain, in an air ambulance to the main hospital in Algiers.
Only later did I notice the blue cloak slung around his shoulders, but I had felt its smooth softness under my fingers when I had thrown my arms around him. In fact, it turned out to be a beautiful burnous, pale blue with black braiding, made of the highest-quality camel hair, and a gift from the colleague who had helped T from the car.
We kept the burnous for many years, using it as our comfort blanket, wrapping ourselves in it while watching television on cold winter evenings, and, for all I know, it is still in our house in Algeria.
I have never had a full-length burnous myself, but T had once brought a jacket for me back from Algeria when we were still at university. It was hip-length, made of the finest cream wool, decorated with white cord embroidery and with a long tassel dangling from the point of its hood. Silken cords were used to tie it at the neck. It wasn’t strictly a burnous, as it had sleeves and patch pockets, but I adored it and would wear it, instead of a cardigan, in mild weather.
The philosopher, Ibn Khaldun, when describing the Maghreb, had given the nickname of ashâb el barânis, (people of the burnous) to the Berbers, that is, those who habitually wear it. In fact, most Algerian men have worn it at one time or another, even if it was just at their circumcision, or their wedding.
The burnous, avernous in Kabyle, is a long sleeveless cloak made of coarse woollen fabric. It has a pointed hood, and is, in general, white, beige, or dark brown. In Kabylie, it is made from sheep’s or goat’s wool and woven by the women on their wooden handlooms.
It is long and tiring work, as the wool has to be cleaned, spun and then woven. A daughter would learn at her mother’s knee the age-old techniques of weaving the cloaks, but this knowledge is fast disappearing — an old Kabyle adage admonishing; “Do not give me a burnous, teach me how to weave one.”
Some linguists say that the word burnous comes from the tamazight root BRNS, meaning to twist or to wrap – in other words, a cloak in which you wrap yourself. Others say that it comes from the Latin burrus, meaning a brown cape. It was worn in Moorish Spain — al-Andalus — where it became the albornoz described by Sebastián de Covarrubias as “a hooded travelling cloak.”
Its primary purpose, of course, is to keep the wearer warm and protect him from the elements, essential during the harsh, snowy winters of Kabylie. A more ceremonial role is given to it when it is worn by the bridegroom at his wedding, especially during the henna ceremony when he traditionally pulls the hood forward over his face.
When the bride leaves her family home for the last time, she often wears a more feminine version of the burnous, and crosses the threshold with the cloak of her father or her oldest brother held over her head as a blessing. T would often say laughingly to me that he had taken me under his burnous when we married.
Years ago, the bride would not even have met her husband before the wedding, and only when he entered the bridal chamber in his burnous and pulled back the hood, would she see his face for the first time.
A shorter version is also part of the uniform of the Spahi, as this elite calvary regiment of the French army was initially made up of Algerian recruits. Nowadays, its soldiers are mostly French, but they still wear the traditional Maghrebi outfit, including the cloak. The soldiers on guard in front of the Presidential Palace in Algiers are in full Spahi regalia, their burnouses swinging as they march up and down.
But the burnous is so much more than a piece of clothing. It symbolises peace and purity, responsibility, and maturity. Sometimes it is even equated to a man’s honour. It is worn in general by the head of the family and during ceremonies of reconciliation and conflict resolution. It is also worn when sitting in the village council, the thajmarth, and lends dignity to the wearer, as well as enhancing his social standing. The former Algerian president, Boumediene, would wear a black burnous to impress the foreign leaders he met with, and during his “visits” to the rest of Algeria.
In the same way, the black burnous worn by T’s rascally oldest uncle, in his secret life as a brigand, would strike fear into the hearts of his victims. Sitting on his horse, his rifle thrust into his saddle, he would lie in wait in the undergrowth for passing travellers, the hood of his burnous pulled up to hide his identity.
Wearing a burnous is an art in itself. You can tie it back out of your way when you are doing manual work. You can bundle yourself in it and pull the hood down to create your own personal space in a crowd. You can wrap it tightly around yourself, with one edge pulled over a shoulder to keep it in place, and the hood tugged over your face to protect yourself from the wind and rain. You can sling it carelessly around your shoulders when taking a stroll through your village in the cool of the evening. The hood can even be used as an impromptu shopping basket.
A burnous can be passed down through the generations. As the revered Kabyle writer, Mouloud Feraoun, wrote in his autobiographical novel, The Poor Man’s Son: ” My father, before his death, left his burnous to me. It had been left to him by his own father. I hope to leave it to my son, together with all the positive values it symbolises; our own, and those we share with the rest of humanity.”