A thaqbaylit, a tigedjgth, a thin i γef yebna wexxam.
Oh, Kabyle woman, oh, beautiful flower, you are the mainstay of your home.
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.
This 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.
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 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.