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 Igawawen

Among (the Kabyles) the virtues of honesty, hospitality, and good-nature are conspicuous. It is not their misfortune alone that the lowlands know them no more…. it is (that) of the whole civilised world. Descendants of a mighty race whose culture once spread from the Atlantic to the Red Sea and the Hauran, from Crete to Timbuctoo and the Sudan, there are still to be found among them (a love) of the arts and sciences, the spirit of conquest, the capacity for self-government which, if developed, would make them again a great nation.

Melville William Hilton-Simpson (1925)


 have spoken a great deal about the Berbers and their illustrious history, but, apart from describing my visits to Kabylie, I have not talked much about my husband’s people, the Kabyles. The Kabyles are by far the largest of the many groups of ethnic Berbers scattered all over North Africa. They number between five and seven million, split between those still living in Algeria and those living abroad as part of the Algerian diaspora.

The appellation “Kabyle” comes from the Arabic word qabila (pl. qabaïl) for tribe, adopted by the French to describe these highland people. The French divided up the lands inhabited by the Kabyles into two administrative areas; la grande Kabylie, of which the  capital is Tizi-Ouzou,  and la petite Kabylie, with its capital of Bejaïa. However, for its inhabitants, Kabylie is simply thamurthThamurth means country, land, or simply home. It is similar in meaning to the Arabic word bled, from which, funnily enough, the English nickname Blighty for Britain is derived. Like Blighty, the word thamurth contains within it a whole wealth of unspoken longing and homesickness.

Greater Kabylie (la grande Kabylie), is a mountainous region to be found about an hour and a half’s drive east and slightly south of the capital, Algiers. Right at its heart lie the Djudjura mountains, part of the Atlas range, of which the high ridges run northwards to the Mediterranean sea. The inhabitants of these ridges are known as the Igawawen, taking their name from the neighbouring Agawa mountain peaks. They are the core of the Kabyle people.

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The Battle of Icherriden

The defeat of the Igawawen in 1857, outnumbered and outgunned at the battle of Icherriden, a few kilometres from my husband’s village, is generally taken to have brought the French conquest of Greater Kabylie to a successful conclusion.  Traditional sources recount that the legendary Fadhma N’Soumeur herself took part in the battle and ordered that the fighters be tied to each other with ropes, preventing them from fleeing the battlefield. The impact of her involvement was such that she has been seen as the embodiment of Kabyle resistance against the French and has become known as the Kabyle Joan of Arc.

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Fadhma N’Soumeur

At that time, the Igawawen were a powerful confederation made up of two federations – the Ath Betrun and the Ath Menguellet, each federation being composed of four tribes.  Many terms are used to describe Kabyle political and social structures, such as “tribe,” “clan,” kinship” and “lineage” and my husband’s tribe, for want of a better word, is the Ath Wekbil or Akbil, of the Ath Menguellet federation.  They are not tribes as one would usually understand the word, but groups of villages (thudrin), sharing a common language, territory and culture.

Their dialect, a variant of the Berber language, tamazight, is called thakabaylith. Each of the Berber dialects of Algeria retains its distinctive vocabulary and character and they are not mutually comprehensible as in Morocco.  The Chaoui Berbers of the Aurès Mountains and the Kabyles can understand each other with relative ease, although there is a greater proportion of Arabic words in thachawith than in thakabaylith. By contrast, the tamahaq dialect of the Tuareg is all but incomprehensible to a Kabyle.

Greater Kabylie largely escaped the trauma of social disintegration engineered by French colonialism in many other parts of Algeria, as its steep slopes and narrow valleys did not attract European settlement.  The region was more or less left to its own devices, the colonial administration preferring to govern it from a safe distance. It had been the same with previous foreign invaders: there are no Roman ruins in Kabylie like those scattered elsewhere in Algeria and no trace of Ottoman or Vandal occupation.

The Kabyle system of self-government has consequently been left largely intact. This is not the place to describe the inner workings of this complex socio-political system, but suffice it to say that it has been fine-tuned to an incredible degree, with its own body of law that has nothing to do with the Napoleonic Code or Islamic law; its code of honour and its system of village councils. The Kabyle village council is called the thajmarth, and is organised into two opposing sides, the sfuf, presided over by the amin — almost exactly like a mini House of Commons, presided over by the Speaker.

Kabyles earned their living mostly from their land, cultivating olive and fig trees and some fruit and vegetables. My father-in-law even imported fruit trees from America and planted them down by the river. The remains of his olive press are still to be seen in the village. Beautiful objects – chests, bowls, caskets and the wooden pillars, beams and doors of a typical Kabyle house (axxam) were carved out of wood from the forests of the Djudjura. The Igawawen also excelled in three other specialised branches of the craft industry: jewellery making, arms manufacturing and the manufacture of counterfeit coins.

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My father-in-law’s olive press

Finally, the men of Greater Kabylie also found employment and notoriety as mercenaries. The French word zouave, meaning originally a “native” light infantryman is a corruption of zwawi or igawawen, but the tradition had already been established before the French. The Ottoman Dey of Algiers had an honour guard of over two thousand Kabyles. The tradition of Kabyle men seeking their fortune elsewhere, often leaving their wives and families behind, has been maintained. Many of the most haunting Kabyle songs are about the longing for thamurth or home, or are the lament of the women left behind.

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A Zouave

Kabyles, although settled in their villages like the Mzabis, did not possess the latter’s religious fervour and eagerly accepted the implication of upward mobility offered by a French education. T’s grandfather and father were both highly educated for the time, his grandfather being one of the Algerians of Kabyle origin studying at the École Normale (teacher training college) at Bouzaréah near Algiers at the end of the nineteenth century. His father had been in his last year of secondary school in Tizi Ouzou, before his schooling was brought to an abrupt end by his eldest brother following their father’s death.

Thus developed a substantial Kabyle intelligentsia – French-speaking and modernist. Kabylie has become remarkable for the number of accountants, businessmen, civil servants, doctors, lawyers, teachers and engineers (of whom T is one, of course) it has produced in recent generations. Not only that, but Kabyle writers, poets and singer-songwriters are amongst the most prolific in Algeria, some of their work reaching an appreciative international audience. Writers such as Mouloud Mammeri, Mouloud Feraoun, Tahar Djaout and Kateb Yacine; singer-songwriters such as Lounis Ait Menguellet, Idir and Matoub Lounès. There are even iconic French actors and singers with a Kabyle heritage: Daniel Prévost, Isabelle Adjani, Edith Piaf and Marianne Cotillard.

The political salience of the Igawawen was evident even at the time of the French conquest and it was they who provided the majority of the Kabyle element in the leadership of the nationalist movement from 1926 onwards. The full story of their vital role in the Algerian independence struggle cannot be told here, but the fact that they subsequently lost their positions in the national leadership of the FLN has been a cause for resentment ever since. Their enormous contribution to the war effort has been airbrushed from history. The concerted attempts to erase their identity have led to many uprisings, the most recent being the Berber Spring (tafsut imazighen) in 1980 and the Black Spring (tafsut taberkant) in 2001.

The scale and character of the igawawen contribution to modern Algerian politics cannot be dismissed as being simply a trait borrowed from the French cultural influence on their region, as a capacity for politics is not something that can be imported. It is bred in the bone.

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Monument to the Battle of Incherriden

The Devil Wore Black

I think bullying in general is for cowards.

-Eddie Alvarez


A ya ar dhagui! A ya ar dhagui!”  (Come outside! Come outside!)

That summer morning of 1953 was picture-postcard perfect —the sky an unbroken backdrop of forget-me-not blue, with just a few stray clouds, like wispy curls of hair, floating lazily across it. Promising more heat to come as the day progressed, the sun was already a smouldering ball of yellow in the sky, its rays painting the surrounding mountain peaks and valleys in vivid colours, like a new painting on which the oil paint was still wet. Continue reading

Pegasus

The strength of the donkey mind lies in adopting a course inversely as the arguments urged, which, well considered, requires as great a mental force as the direct sequence.

George Eliot


Drawing together his brows in annoyance at being disturbed over such a trivial matter, T’s father shrugged his shoulders. “Don’t bother me with that,” he told his son brusquely. “Go to Michelet yourself and don’t come back without your exemption.” Continue reading

My Brother’s Keeper

Who needs superheroes when you have a brother?

-Anon


T opened his eyes to a cold blue dawn and leaped out of bed, flinging his window open, before hastily slamming it shut again to stop the freezing air rushing in. In his unheated loft space, he could see his breath hanging in the air and feel the roughly-hewn floorboards cold against the soles of his bare feet. The house seemed no warmer inside than out and, during the night, frost had crept across the glass pane of the window as if spun by wintry spiders. Listening to the wind rattling the tiles on the roof just above his head and the snow beginning to tap against the window, he shivered. Continue reading

Scarface

Scars are not signs of weakness, they are signs of survival and endurance.
― Rodney A. Winters


Andela a mmi?” (Where’s my son?) my father-in-law shouted as he strode through the door of his family home in Kabylie.  Married for just three years, T was his first-born son and, as such, doubly precious. Not only was he the first child, but he was a boy, the heir and, as such, the repository of all the family’s hopes. Continue reading

The Good Life

The poetry of the earth is never dead.
― John Keats


My mother-in-law threw a worried look at her husband and ventured timidly, “Don’t you think it would be better if we stayed here in Maison Carrée, instead of moving house and starting all over again?”

T’s father brushed her arguments aside impatiently, convinced that the country air, away from the unrelenting heat and traffic fumes of Algiers, would do him good. Recently diagnosed with diabetes, his natural energy and drive had been sapped by the illness, the transformation cruel to watch for those who depended on him. Continue reading