A thaqbaylit, a tigedjgth, a thin i γef yebna wexxam.

Oh, Kabyle woman, oh, beautiful flower, you are the mainstay of your home.

-Kabyle saying

When my mother-in-law passed away in 2011, my husband brought back two of her headscarves from Algeria as keepsakes. One was an ordinary polyester square, the kind that can be bought in any shop, and that she probably wore every day when pottering around the house in Algiers.

The second, however, was different. It was an amendil, a traditional Kabyle headscarf, black, embroidered with multicoloured thread around the edges and embellished with a fringe of tassels and bobbles. Holding it to my face, I could still discern my mother-in-law’s unique scent; a mixture of naphthalene from the moth balls in which she used to store her clothes and perhaps lingering traces of dried perspiration, scented toilet soap and olive oil.

117-151-large.jpgThis was her special headscarf — one that she would wear at weddings or festivities of any kind. How many times had I seen her tie it over her hair, with a final decisive tug of the knot over her left eyebrow? How many times had I seen her sitting on the floor, roaring with laughter, her headscarf slipping backwards over her hair, only to be yanked impatiently back into place? Nothing could have brought her closer.

The traditional Kabyle woman’s dress has undergone many changes over the years. Originally, it consisted of a loose smock, woven from fine white wool and wide enough at the shoulders to cover the arms as far down as the elbows. A belt, consisting of strands of differently-coloured wools plaited together, was wound several times around the waist.

An axellal, a cloak, was thrown over the shoulders and attached at the front with fibulae, or brooches. If this seems familiar to you, the same type of clothing could be found all over the world at any given time, from ancient Rome to Anglo-Saxon England.


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Over the past century, however, the traditional outfit for Kabyle women has evolved, becoming more elaborate and retaining only the belt, which is now shorter and wrapped around the waist just once. Instead of the shapeless smock, the Kabyle dress now has sleeves and a discernable bodice. At the beginning of the century, it was made of flowered cotton, then later, of silk, satin or anything in between.

Although she could no longer fit into them, my mother-in-law had kept a few cotton dresses from her trousseau. Rummaging through her wardrobe, my sisters-in-law and I would often come across these dresses, holding them up against our more generous figures and marvelling at the narrow waistline and short length. What a tiny thing she must have been at sixteen years old.

Although the material and colour of the dresses vary, the one thing they have in common are the rows of multi-coloured rickrack braid sewn around the cuffs, the hem and across the chest. A length of red and black striped cloth, called a thimehramth, is tied around the waist at the front and covers the back of the dress, reaching as far down as the ankles. Berber symbols are embroidered on the dresses and their jewel-like colours are inspired by the beautiful landscapes of Kabylie.

But to return to the amendil. There is a legend attached to it – one that describes an act of bravery and explains why Kabyle women wear it with such pride. It is not meant to hide their faces, but as a tribute to an act of courage and sacrifice.

The Bibans (The Iron Gates) are a chain of slaty, limestone mountains on the southern rim of Lesser Kabylie. They were originally the territory of the Ath Abbès Berber tribe, known for  their prolific literary and artistic output as well as for their resistance to Spanish and Ottoman invaders. Indeed, any Ottoman Turk travelling from the Eastern beylik to Algiers through the two main passes or gorges, was subjected  to a toll levied by the mountain tribes.


The Iron Gates. Painting by Adrien Dauzats

The Bibans are not blessed with fertile alpine meadows or lush pine forests. They form a forbidding wall, rising up from the surrounding plain like some grim fortress, the grey rock breaking the blue skyline in craggy peaks. There are no gentle slopes, just sheer drops, abrupt cliff edges and strategic lookout points hewn from the living stone.

When the spring thaw comes to these mountains, the meltwater flows down the almost vertical mountainsides and cascades off the carved rocky outcrops like skeins of white lawn.  The mountain streams run full, swollen with pure, clean water, feeding into the Sahel and the Bousselam rivers before these join up with the even mightier Soummam at the Piton d’Akbou.  When this meltwater joins together with the torrents of heavy spring rain, the rivers are transformed into a roaring maelstrom of rapidly-moving currents.

One day, many years ago, it is said that a group of horsemen was caught in the rushing waters of the Asselmam (Bousselam) river, which had been transformed into a raging torrent by its passage through a series of narrow gorges. Struggle as they might, the men were unable to fight their way to the river bank.

Women working in the fields nearby heard their stricken cries and rushed to the riverbank, where they could see the drowning men battling against the vicious undertow. How could they pull them from the water? The only thing they could think of were their long plaits of hair, of which they were inordinately proud.

Without a second thought, they chopped them off  and tied them together to form a rope. Thanks to their quick thinking, the men were hauled to the bank of the river and their lives were saved. It was only then that the women realised what they had done. Although they had managed to save the men from drowning, they had sacrificed their glorious long hair – the very essence of their femininity.

Feeling that their beauty had been diminished, the women began to cover their shorn heads with exquisitely decorated imendaylen,  the silky fringes around the edges falling over their cheeks and shoulders like long, lustrous locks of hair. The men of the village shared their wives’ sadness, although they were, at the same time, proud of their courage and sacrifice.

The amendil became such a potent symbol of abnegation, that it took only a woman stepping in between two quarrelling men and taking off her headscarf for the men to stop fighting immediately. Men began to see the scarves as a symbol of pride and respect – so much so that when a woman took off her headscarf in front of them, they would lower their eyes, not out of shame or modesty, but out of humility.


It is only a legend, but, when I went up into Kabylie for the first time, I was struck by the fact that any man who was not a family member would not look me straight in the eye. They would answer my questions by addressing the ground in front of my feet. In the same respectful way, a stranger entering a house would always announce his presence by coughing discreetly.

To me, this is a fair sharing-out of responsibility for the preservation of modesty and respect. The onus is not all on the woman to cover up and hide from the male gaze. The man also has his part to play.  In Kabyle villages, a woman can walk freely. It is the man’s responsibility not to importune her.

The amendil leaves the face, neck and the front of the hair uncovered. This is the opposite of the Islamic veil, which is, in fact, a carry-over from ancient pre-Islamic traditions in Assyria and the Arabian peninsula. In the Hammurabi code of the eighteenth century BC, it was a legal obligation for free woman to wear the veil outside and forbidden for any slave or prostitute to do likewise. In Ancient Greek and Roman society, there were similar restrictions. The practice of veiling is, in fact,  only mentioned once in the Koran.

Today, the amendil is generally worn by Kabyles as a symbol of their Berber identity. Older women wear it more often, but it comes into its own whenever there is a wedding or other celebration. Tied around the hips before dancing, the swaying fringes of the scarf emphasise the movements of the dancer’s body.



Le henné, c’est la terre du paradis.

Henna is the soil of paradise.

-Mohammed Ben Cheneb – Proverbs from Algeria and the Maghreb

I looked down at the small mound of greenish-brown sludge on the palm of my hand. An elderly man wearing a skullcap and a grey burnous was using his forefinger to spread it carefully into a perfect circle. My uncertain gaze flickered from his bowed head to the man sitting by my side, holding out his own hands, palm upwards, and waiting, with a slight smile, for the paste to be smeared on them as well.


Looking around the room from under my lowered eyelids, I saw two young boys standing to one side, beaming widely and holding tall candles wrapped in ribbon, their foreheads gleaming with perspiration from the combined heat of a sweltering Algerian July evening and the proximity of the candle flames. On the table in front of us were bowls containing eggs, the brown paste, and pastel-coloured sugared almonds.

Taking deep breaths to keep the panic at bay and slow the pounding of my heart, I saw two familiar faces amongst the crowd of women at the door, all straining to catch a glimpse of the proceedings. My mother and my sister — my mother with tears in her eyes at the sight of me in my silver and black wedding kaftan.

My mother-in-law was standing at the front, resplendent in her new multi-coloured dress with bands of bright rickrack braid sewn around the sleeves, the hem and across her chest, which was puffed up with importance at her new status as mother of the bridegroom. Her lips were pursed in a mixture of pride and emotion, and she kept heaving little sighs that made the the fringe of her headscarf  flutter.

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My heart rate slowed as I looked at T again, handsome in his dark suit, white shirt and tie. It was the first time I had seen him in three days. He had always had this calming effect on me and I would be irritable and anxious during his absences, impatient for his return. He had handed me over to the women a few days earlier, without a second thought, and I had felt pushed and pulled in all directions ever since — dressed and undressed like a doll and made to parade in front of all the (female) guests. His calm presence now helped settle my frazzled nerves. 

He was just the opposite to me, taking everything in his stride. Although he might have given in to the women on a few points of traditional protocol, his word was law as far as everything else was concerned. How could someone feel so confident, so sure of themselves? Couldn’t he feel how the house’s pulse rate had gone up since our arrival in Algiers a few days before?

With his mother, his sisters, his cousins and aunts around him, he was like a fine young male animal surrounded by a pride of admiring females. His brothers hovered at a respectful distance. He was the cherished  first-born son, the one on whom all the family’s hopes were pinned. His boundless confidence more than made up for my own sad lack.

El-Hani, or the henna ceremony, should normally have been performed separately — each in our own homes. In a way, it was almost like a hen or stag do  — a last night as a single person spent in the company of friends and family, and a prelude to the next day, when the bride would be taken to her husband’s family home. The ceremony was not supposed to take place in mixed company and with both families present, but as I had no family home in Algeria, we had to improvise. 

So it was the oldest male member of T’s family, his great-uncle, who applied the henna paste to my hands as well as to T’s, and not the oldest female member of my own. From that moment on, we were officially married in the eyes of tradition — and of the family.

Henna has been used to decorate young women’s bodies, as part of the celebration of social events and feast days, since the late Bronze Age.  It is thought that ancient links between young, fertile women and henna are behind this custom, which seems to have originated with the Berbers, later spreading as far as the eastern Mediterranean, Asia and India, and, in Egypt, replacing the red ochre dye that had been used previously. Many statuettes of young women with raised hands stained with what looks like henna, and dating from between 1500 and 500 BC, have been found all along the Mediterranean coast. 

The earliest writings about its particular role in marriage and fertility celebrations were found in the port city of Ugarit in pre-Islamic Syria, and referred to women decorating their bodies with henna in preparation for their wedding night.  It was thought to bring the bride good luck and keep her from harm.


Henna powder is made from the leaves of the henna tree, lawsonia inermis, also called the hina, the mignonette and the Egyptian privet. Traditionally, the dried leaves are ground to a fine powder with a pestle and mortar, before being mixed with rosewater and sometimes lemon juice to make a thick paste. The amount and the quality of the henna used can make the colour obtained vary from bright red to black.

In Algeria at the time of our wedding, henna was not applied to the skin with the aid of a syringe or special applicator in order to make the beautiful, swirling, lace-like patterns seen in India, but was just smeared over the tips of the fingers, the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet. Sometimes the whole foot, or hand, would be plunged into a basin full of henna.

Not being used to henna, and thinking that this method left the hands and feet looking as though they had been daubed in blood, I had asked that only the palms of my hands be decorated with just a small amount of henna. I did not want to be like the seductress described by the French writer and painter, Eugène Fromentin:

“…. elle avait …. les mains enluminées de henné, les pieds aussi; ses talons rougis par la peinture ressemblaient à deux oranges….” (Her hands were  highlighted with henna, her feet also; her heels, reddened by the dye, looked like two oranges…)

If you see a young woman with faded henna tattoos on her hands and feet, it usually means she has recently married, but the application of henna is not reserved just for weddings. It symbolises joy, or thanksgiving, and women and children are often seen with henna-reddened hands at births, circumcision ceremonies and during Aid.

My own henna stains lasted a few weeks, as my hands had been carefully wrapped in bandages immediately afterwards so the paste would not wear off. No such elaborate ritual for T, who washed his hands immediately, leaving  just a faint orange mark on his palms. He was willing to indulge his mother and go along with tradition, but only up to a certain point.

Henna is not just used for body art. It can be used for various types of skin complaints. It acts as a sun block. It is good for dry or flaking skin and helps speed up the healing of skin cuts. Fatiha, my home help, would use it on her dry and cracked heels. It is also supposed to strengthen nails. A true miracle of nature.

And finally, it is used as a natural and organic hair colour. Not only does it colour the hair, but it strengthens the hair from the root to the tip. I used it a little when I discovered my first silver hairs, and it gave a pleasing chestnut sheen to my dark hair. The only downside is that it dries to a stiff and brittle shell, which can be slightly disconcerting.

It is not advisable to use it on hair which has turned completely white or grey, as it can end up an alarming shade of bright orange. Many is the time I have seen elderly Algerian women with a tuft of ginger fluff peeking out from under their headscarves. But they prefer that to silver hair. There is no accounting for tastes.


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. Continue reading

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. 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