Broomflower Pass

Uqbel at-tger assurif at-tezzwerm  nnif ma ulac Tamazight ulac ulac ulac ulac.

We cannot build our future without honour and there is no honour without our language. None, none, none, none. (Loose translation)

– Matoub Lounès


From the moment a Kabyle arrives in Tizi-Ouzou, he is already home. This holds true even if he still has many miles to drive along the twisting mountain roads to reach his ancestral village. The air of Tizi-Ouzou smells sweeter to him than that of Algiers, and he fills his lungs with it as he takes a deep breath. His shoulders straighten as though ridding themselves of an unseen burden, and his step becomes lighter.

He only has to look at the roadsigns in tifinagh (Berber script), next to those in French and Arabic, listen to passers-by chatting in his own language and relish the sudden rush of freedom he feels, to know that, somehow, he has crossed an invisible border — one that does not appear in any atlas or on any road map, has no Customs posts or passport control, but exists solely in his mind.

His gaze skims over the many new buildings of modern Tizi-Ouzou to focus on a sight that makes his breath catch in his throat and tears spring to his eyes. It is the eternal backdrop of the Djudjura, part of the Atlas mountain range, standing sentinel around the city, its peaks sometimes covered in snow and sparkling in the sunlight, sometimes  shrouded in mist, but always, always beautiful. Idhurar – the mountains of home.

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Tizi Ouzou By Hedia Aid – Own work

Tizi-Ouzou, in Kabyle Tizi-Wezzu, and in tifinagh, ⵜⵉⵣⵉ ⵡⵣⵣⵓ, is the capital and administrative centre of Greater Kabylie. In English, its name translates as Broomflower Pass, tizi being a mountain pass and wezzu the bright yellow flowers of the broom plant, which grows wild throughout North Africa. Located about ninety kilometres east of Algiers and thirty kilometres from the sea, it nestles in the valley of the Sebaou river, with  Mount Redjaouna, or, as it is know locally, Sidi Belloua, dominating its northern suburbs.

Against the lower slopes of the mountain sprawls the old town, called the Upper Town (la Haute Ville) or simply Taddart, the Kabyle word for village. This is all that is left of the original settlement that existed at the time of the Ottomans, hemmed in, as it was, by Mount Sidi Beloua on one side and on the other by a fort (bordj) containing a janissary garrison.

It was only when the French finally arrived in Tizi-Ouzou in the eighteen-fifties, fully twenty years after they first set foot in Algeria, did the original small hamlet begin to expand. They built a courthouse, churches, schools, a hotel and a post office — all potent symbols of French colonial power. The opening of the first railway line between Algiers and Tizi-Ouzou in 1888 accelerated the town’s development.

The Kabyles, however, only paid lip service to the new colonial laws and regulations, preferring to keep their own brand of democratic justice, with its code of honour, extensive knowledge of local tradition and respect for mutual and communal solidarity. Kabyle villages had been self-contained citadels for centuries, each with its own history, myths and legends. They were not about to give all that up on the orders of a band of European upstarts.

French occupation, however, was also synonymous with armed conflict, the brutal suppression of any uprising and a scorched earth policy.  The villages surrounding Tizi-Ouzou are stunningly beautiful, scattered across the mountain peaks like a broken string of pearls, and described by the famous Kabyle singer-songwriter, Lounès Aït Menguellet, as “idhurar a fi douhrar” (a necklace adorning the mountains). But such beauty was also the backdrop to a great deal of hardship, misery and grinding poverty.

The ever-present threat of starvation generated a rural exodus, with many men being forced to travel to Tizi-Ouzou, and sometimes even further afield, in search of work to fill their families’s empty bellies.

Tizi-Ouzou was also where T. went to boarding school in 1954 after passing, with flying colours, his entrance exam to secondary school. There was no secondary school near his village and, as it was impossible to make the return journey every day, his father enrolled him as a boarder at the Collège Moderne et Classique de Tizi-Ouzou.

From what he has told me, I understand that his overriding emotion was one of loneliness. He had never been away from his family before and he was suddenly on his own, for the first time in his life, in a strange town, worrying constantly about his father’s failing  health and only going home on rare occasions. He suffered from a recurring nightmare in which his cousin, DaH’mimi, drove down from their village in his old car to tell him that his father had died.

He was shown into the boys’ dormitory on the first day and told that he would have to make his own bed every morning. He had never made a bed in his life — in the village there were no such refinements as sheets — and so he lifted up the covers of another boy’s bed and was initiated into the mysteries of top and bottom sheets, blankets and pillow cases.

As boarders were not allowed out at weekends unless they had somewhere to go, T. invented a family friend called Bendahmane, forging a signature on the various authorisations and writing letters to the school principal that were supposedly penned by his fictitious friend. During his few hours of freedom, he would go to the Mondial cinema to watch the Bollywood movies of the time, or sit in the library of the Catholic Cultural Centre, reading books and helping himself to the free cups of tea served there.

Cross-country runs were organised by his school through the nearby Yakouren forest, where the leaves were turning gold and rust, scarlet and crimson, crunching under T’s feet as he laboured up the slopes and careered down the other side. Used to racing along the precipitous mountain paths near his village, he was as sure-footed as a mountain goat.

He also suffered the pangs of his first schoolboy crush. The object of his affections was a day pupil — the daughter of a pied noir prison guard. He would sit behind her in English lessons, gazing longingly at her blond plaits and the round plastic spectacles perched on her nose, and surreptitiously slipping notes to her — in English, no less. They didn’t realise that, even though they were only thirteen, any kind of relationship, however innocent, between an “Arab” and a European was unthinkable. It didn’t matter that the “Arab” in question was always top of his class.

T. never plucked up the courage to actually speak to her, and then suddenly, one day, she was no longer there. He only found out many years later that the girl’s mother had found the childishly romantic notes he had written in her daughter’s drawer, carefully hidden under a pile of underwear. The outraged parent had immediately pulled her daughter out of school in Tizi-Ouzou and sent her to Algiers to continue her schooling there.

T. himself stayed on in boarding school until May, 1956, when the FLN decreed that all Algerian students were to go on strike.

Since independence, Tizi-Ouzou has since been the scene of many dramatic and tragic political events, usually linked to Kabyle demands for official recognition of their identity and unique culture. This Berber heartland has always found it extremely difficult, if not well nigh impossible, to accept the arabisation measures forced upon it by the Algerian government.

Amongst recent events have been the Berber Spring (tafsut imazighen) in 1980, the riots following the assassination, in mysterious circumstances, of the Kabyle singer and activist Matoub Lounès in 1998 and the Black Spring (tafsut taberkant) in 2001/2002, where one hundred and twenty-six demonstrators were killed, with thousands of others injured.

NB: In the video clip above showing the villages of both Greater and Lesser Kabylie, T’s home village appears at 1 minute 17 seconds.

The Igawawen

I 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, one of the many groups of ethnic Berbers scattered all over North Africa, are by far the largest of Algeria’s Berber populations. 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 appelation “Kabyle” comes from the Arabic word qabila (pl. qabaïl) for tribe, adopted by the French to describe these highland people. Their region was called la grande Kabylie (Greater Kabylie) by the French, as opposed to la petite Kabylie (Lesser Kabylie), but it is called simply thamurth  by its inhabitants themselves. Thamurth means country or land, similar to the Arabic word bled, from which, funnily enough, the English nickname Blighty for Britain is derived. Like Blightly, the word thamurth contains within it a whole wealth of unspoken longing and homesickness.

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Greater 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 lies the Djudjura mountain 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.

The defeat of the Igawawen, outnumbered and outgunned,  at the battle of Icherriden in 1857, 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 the Kabyle resistance movement against the French and has become known as the Kabyle Joan of Arc.

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Fadma N’Soumeur

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The battle of Icherriden

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 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. The Kabyle system of self-government was therefore 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 – nothing to do with Islamic law or sharia – its code of honour and village councils i.e. the thajmarth, with its two opposing tendencies, the sfuf, presided over by the amin. The thajmarth is almost exactly like a mini House of Commons, presided over by the Speaker.

The 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 were carved out of wood from the forests of the Djudjura.

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Berber marriage chest

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The remains of my father-in-law’s olive press

The Igawawen also excelled in three other specialised branches of the craft industry: jewellery-making, arms manufacturing and the manufacture of counterfeit coins.

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 2,000 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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Zouave infantryman

The 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.

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.

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.

Rue Monseigneur Leynaud

Surely, there couldn’t be so many people living in one house?

It seemed an impossibility. That had been one of the thoughts running through my mind during my very first visit to the family villa on the rue Monseigneur Leynaud in Bellevue, an eastern suburb of Algiers. The occasion had been, of course, the first time I had set foot in Algeria to be formally presented to T’s family,  to see whether we were brave enough to take the plunge – and whether the family would accept me.

The visit was nerve-wracking, to say the least, and I didn’t really take any notice of the house itself, or its fittings and furnishings, surrounded as I was by a sea of smiling faces and curious stares. Various cousins, siblings, aunts and uncles appeared seemingly from nowhere.  I knew that T’s family shared the house with his uncle, but try as I might, I couldn’t work out in my head how approximately fifteen people could live in a two-bedroomed house. Of course – silly me – I was applying European standards, that is, one bed, or even one bedroom per person, to the Algerian reality.

It was not even a complete house, as the bottom storey had been left unfinished by the original owner, the French army captain from whom T. had rented it. There was one large room downstairs, but the rest of the ground floor was used as storage space, with reinforced concrete pillars holding up the concrete slab constituting the floor of the upper storey. The villa looked as though it had been built on stilts.

Upstairs the rooms had been divided between the two families. There were two recognisable bedrooms, one belonging to T’s uncle and aunt (later to be known as the Witch Downstairs), and one where my mother-in-law slept.  There were two other rooms, one belonging to T’s family, and dominated by a large dining-table and chairs. A marble fireplace built diagonally across one corner showed that, at one time, the room must have been cosy and well-appointed.

The other room, a tiny space belonging to the uncle’s family, was filled almost to bursting with a shiny veneered dining table, on which a crocheted mat and a vase filled with artificial flowers had been carefully placed, six plushly-upholstered dining chairs and a glass-doored display cabinet containing gilded tea and coffee services that were never, to my knowledge, used. Nobody outside the uncle’s family could enter this room or even breathe its air.  It was the inner sanctum, the holy of holies.

Even at the time, it seemed strange to me that, in such an overcrowded house,  one whole room was used simply for display.  This was keeping up appearances with a vengeance. In many ways, this room  resembled  the formal parlours of my grandparents’ generation and served, more or less, the same purpose.

This is where honoured guests were served tea and coffee, perched uncomfortably on the overstuffed dining chairs. This is where T. and I were served lunch in the early days of our marriage, when we were still in the good books of The Witch Downstairs, and she still lived in hope that T. would suddenly decide to take his whole family to Arzew and leave the house to her husband – or rather, to her.

The kitchen was a nightmare. Originally a pleasant, sunlit room with a balcony accessed through a glazed door, it had now been divided into two separate cooking areas, with plywood and cardboard sheets blocking the window and the door. My mother-in-law’s domain was the original kitchen, the aunt’s outside on the balcony. Any natural sunlight would struggle to penetrate the ramshackle dividing wall and so the kitchen was always bathed in a dank, murky half-light, lit by one flickering low-wattage bulb dangling from the ceiling.

The sink had one single tap, which would make a clanging noise when turned on and, after a couple of death rattles, cold water would gush out – or not, depending on whether the supply had been cut off. There was no hot water at all, and pans of water had to be heated on the stove for washing the dishes or indeed washing anything.

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T sitting at the desk in his mother’s room

The claustrophobic atmosphere was not helped by the dark, bulky items of furniture looming up from out of the shadows. They crouched like prehistoric monsters against every wall, waiting to pounce and catch your shins a glancing blow, all the while exuding an odour of must and wormy wood.

This furniture had been bought by my father-in-law during the forties and was still in use, even though it was extremely impractical, offering little storage room for the amount of floor space it occupied. My mother-in-law refused to get rid of it, however, as it was a reminder, in a way, of a time when her husband was the driving force behind the whole family – respected and feared in equal measure. The wardrobes, double bed and marble-topped sideboards were a symbol of her status as a married woman and proof that her husband had been a person of consequence.

The bathroom had all the original fittings – a stately art deco washbasin, taps and bathtub, but it was impossible to take a real bath. The most you could hope for would be to stand up in the bathtub and pour warm water from out of a saucepan over yourself. The toilet had no seat, no flushing mechanism and the lock was infuriatingly contrary –  refusing either to lock properly or to open when required. I soon learned to do whatever was necessary with one foot jammed firmly against the door.

All of the trappings of a once-beautiful house were present, but it was difficult to maintain it as such, with so many people living there. My mother-in-law’s bedroom was used as a living-room, with everyone lounging on the bed, as there was no other seating in the room, unless you counted a desk and straight chair shoved up in one corner. The colour of the walls added to the generally depressing atmosphere as my mother-in-law had chosen a paint of a particularly opaque, muddy blue that T. had spent one whole university vacation slapping everywhere.

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Me, our daughter of five months, T’s brother and mother in her room

The only splashes of colour were in the garden and along the window sills, where all kinds of flowering plants grew in a riotous display. Like their blooms, the dresses worn by T’s female relatives were also a medley of bright mismatching colours, often embellished by a rose or some other flower, even a sprig of mint, tucked under their scarves.

My puzzlement as to where everyone slept was resolved the very first night I spent there. T’s mother had a single bed made up for me with crisp new sheets in the sacrosanct dining-room. At my side, on the floor, the three young girls, T’s younger sister and his two teenage cousins, slept in a row on sheepskins thrown directly on to the tiles. No sheets for them – they covered themselves directly with striped woollen blankets.

All of the young males of the household slept downstairs in the large room – the four brothers still living at home and their three cousins.  The atmosphere was like that found in any teenage son’s bedroom, but multiplied many times. I only ventured down there a few times, to be knocked sideways by the odour, ripe with testosterone, sweaty socks and unwashed male bodies.

All the males – except for T, of course. As head of the family and eldest son, he slept in solitary splendour in his mother’s bed. She, poor thing, slept on a mat on the kitchen floor, the only space left available.