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 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.  These are not tribes as one would usually understand the word, but groups of villages (thudrin), sharing a common language, territory and culture. Many other terms can be used to describe Kabyle political and social structures, amongst which are”clan,” kinship” and “lineage.” My husband’s tribe, for want of a better word, is the Ath Wekbil or Akbil, of the Ath Menguellet federation.

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 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

The Broken Pitcher

The death of a mother is the first sorrow wept without her.

– Anon


Acu? Amek ? Acu? Tamɣart-iw?” (What? How? What? My mother-in-law?)

My father-in-law was shouting down the telephone, holding the receiver in one trembling hand, and repeating every word the caller was saying as if he couldn’t quite believe what he was hearing. “Shot in the head, you say? Dead? Allah yarhamha.” (God have mercy on her soul.) 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