Welcome Home

T.’s eyes grew black with anger as he glared balefully at the older man standing in front of him.”You’ll get your money back now that I have the bakery!” he shouted, spitting out every word. It was the day after his father’s death, and the latter’s older cousin — who had been saved from almost certain death by the generosity of T’s father — had sidled up to him and whispered that his father had died owing him seven hundred thousand francs (about £70) and that he wanted his money back.

As the other backed off, surprised by the angry reaction, T swore to himself that he would no longer defer to his elders. He was a man now, capable of making his own decisions. He had been forced to grow up overnight. His fury rose in his throat like bile, but curdled with it was his grief and overwhelming sense of loss, of which he felt the weight like a cold stone in the pit of his stomach.

That same afternoon, a business associate and friend of his father’s also came to pay his respects. T. braced himself for more bad news. The vultures were circling. Instead, the man put his hands on T’s shoulders, kissed him on both cheeks and told him that he was writing off all his father’s debts. He then added, “God keep you,” for good measure.

The senior members of the family had all gathered at the farm that morning. T’s eldest uncle, M., the family black sheep, was there — the unworthy son who had stolen his father’s French pension money from his own mother and was notorious for ambushing and robbing unwary travellers on the mountain roads; his father’s two younger brothers, and the two cousins.  T’s father’s body had been washed and prepared for burial and placed in the garage. One of my brothers-in-law, nine years old at the time, distinctly remembers jumping over the coffin as part of a childish game, not realising that it contained the body of his father.

T. has no memory of the following hours, during which arrangements were made to transport his father’s body back up to their village for burial. However grown-up he felt inside, I don’t think his relatives thought to involve him. Nor was he invited to take part in the hastily-convened meeting of his elders that was to decide his fate and that of his mother and siblings.

Repeatedly banging his fist on the table for emphasis at this meeting, M. had apparently insisted that T and his family be sent immediately back to their village, leaving him, as the eldest, in sole charge of all of T’s father’s assets. There is absolutely no doubt  in my mind that T and his family would not have survived up in Kabylie, either dying from starvation, being massacred in their sleep by marauding French troops or having their village burned to ashes by napalm, like so many others. Knowing T, he would have gone underground and joined the maquis. On reflection, this is probably exactly what his uncles wanted.

M had triumphantly brandished a document, signed by T’s father, selling the bakery to him. This had, however, been a ruse concocted by the latter to prevent the creditors concerned by his bankruptcy a few years before from getting their hands on it. Aware of his eldest brother’s lack of scruples, T’s father had prudently signed another document cancelling the sale and given it into the safekeeping of one of his younger brothers. The latter then produced it, like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat, to the stupefaction of the would-be usurper. Although M had also signed it at the time, he had no idea that the document was still in existence.

T’s other uncle, A., managed to withstand the barrage of furious insults hurled at him by his older brother.  This was astonishing in itself, as A. had a distinct lack of backbone. A few years previously, on receiving his call-up papers and fearing that he would spend most of his national service in internment camps like T’s father, he had gone on the run.  T’s father had finally hidden him in the bakery, passing him off as one of the workers.

Of course, A did not defend T’s interests through altruism, but had an ulterior motive of his own, as T was to discover later. For the moment, however, thanks to him and to my father-in-law’s foresight, the bakery had been kept out of M’s grasping hands. It was to provide the only source of income for T’s family for many years to come. Very late the same evening, T’s uncle called to say that he had managed to obtain all the administrative documents necessary for the transferral of his father’s body. They would be leaving at dawn the very next day.

Next morning, with dawn spreading along the horizon like a bruise, the funeral cortege, consisting of just a van containing the sealed coffin, and a car, set off on its journey to Kabylie. A murky curtain of rain and mist obscured everything, the only sound being the hiss of the tyres on the wet road surface. From time to time, the ghostly shape of a military lorry would materialise in front of them out of the gloom, to disappear just as silently.

Cigarette smoke swirled around the passengers in the car, each of them silent and withdrawn, lost in his own thoughts. T huddled in a corner, almost forgotten, the silence seeping into his bones. There were no women present, as female relatives do not attend funerals in Algeria -— not even the widow.  It is men’s business.

The journey took twice as long as it should have, with checkpoints every twenty kilometres. Every car was stopped and searched by cold-eyed goumiers (Algerian soldiers recruited by the French military,) machine guns at the ready.  Travellers were forced to get out of their cars each time and produce their documents, taking great care not to look the soldiers in the eye when doing so.

Military lorries, jeeps and half-tracks— armoured vehicles with caterpillar tracks at the rear instead of wheels and rocket launchers mounted behind the driver — rumbled by in a never-ending convoy of death and destruction.

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The commanding officer, usually French, would be called over to peruse the documents again, before giving a curt nod of his head. They would be allowed to continue their journey — at a snail’s pace, of course. Any faster and the vehicles would have been ripped apart by a burst of machine-gun fire from behind.

There were not many French troops around — the manning of checkpoints was entrusted to the goumiers, but from time to time T would catch a glimpse of a legionnaire, strutting around in his flashy uniform and white kepi.  Algeria was the French Foreign Legion’s long-standing home, its headquarters being located at Sidi Bel Abbès, about an hour and a half’s drive south-west of Oran. The Legion would later be found to have been involved in torture and other barbarities in Algeria, severely tarnishing the reputation of the French army for decades.

Under a sky the colour of wet ashes, the two vehicles drove slowly along the route to Tizi Ouzou. From time to time, they would see groups of people surrounded by soldiers on the side of the road and military vehicles parked at vantage points, ready to quell any sign of a disturbance. Everybody’s nerves were strung tight; every soldier’s finger hovered over the trigger of his loaded weapon.  This was the epicentre of the armed rebellion and no quarter was to be given.

As the car left Tizi Ouzou to begin the long climb up to their village, T noticed a plume of black smoke rising up on the outskirts of the city, adding another layer of mourning to the already dark sky. Probably another village put to the torch, he thought to himself morosely.

Finally they started up the steep incline leading to their own village. This road had once been a dirt track, but had been widened by bulldozers requisitioned by the French military. In this way, troops would have easier access to the villages if need be. A group of villagers stood waiting silently for them, shrouded in the grey burnouses protecting them from the chilly damp of that October afternoon. They were there to welcome one of their own — coming home at last.

El lahslama!” “Welcome home!”

To be continued….

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Kid Brother

Children of the same family, the same blood, with the same first associations and habits, have some means of enjoyment in their power, which no subsequent connections can supply…
– Jane Austen


“Here! YOU talk to him! Order some more flour!” The speaker was my father-in-law, his pale, emaciated face running with sweat as he thrust the telephone receiver at the nervous eighteen-year-old youth standing in front of him. The young man took the receiver with trembling hands from his brother-in-law and looked at it in bemusement. He didn’t know one end of it from the other. How to dial? How to go through the operator? What should he say when he finally had the flour supplier on the line?

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Telephones had never really been a means of communication in Kabylie.  If villagers needed to make an urgent phone call, they had to walk, drive or take a donkey-ride down the winding mountain roads to Michelet, or the nearest large village, where there would be public telephones available at the post office. B, the young man in question, had never used a telephone in his life.

Not daring to ask T’s father any questions,  he clumsily dialled the number scrawled on the scrap of paper. It didn’t help that his brother-in-law was watching him like a hawk. T’s father had a fine line in withering LOOKS, just like his son many years later. At the time, he was desperately ill with diabetes, but had been called from his sickbed to talk to the irate agent of the flour manufacturer, who was pacing around the ground floor of the bakery, payment book under his arm, pencil behind his ear and puffed up with the importance of bringing a recalcitrant debtor to heel.

T’s father was in arrears with the payment of his flour bills, but such was the force of his personality and his persuasive power, that, in the space of ten minutes, to the open-mouthed amazement of his young relative, he had not only cajoled the agent into deferring the payment of the flour already used, but also to agreeing to the delivery of new supplies.

It was 1955 and B. had just arrived in Algiers from their village at the behest of his sister, T’s mother. Her relationship with him was in many ways maternal, as she was fully sixteen years older than him, easily old enough to be his mother. She had begged her husband to find some kind of employment for her younger brother, as his father, the amin, or head of the village, had just died of a heart attack, and B. was in sore need of a job to help his widowed mother. There was another, more pressing, reason to bring him down to Algiers, as the outbreak of the independence struggle the previous November had made Kabylie a dangerous place to be.

I have mentioned B., or Khali B. (Uncle B.) before.  He was T’s younger maternal uncle and I loved him dearly, because, besides his warm and kindly nature, he had always been on T’s side and, consequently, on mine too. He was a wonderful support to us throughout our years in Algeria, and, in fact, had always acted as T’s big brother, as there were barely two years between them.

T’s grandmother, Zayna, had lost seven babies between my mother-in-law’s birth and that of her youngest and last child, B. I knew about this, but one day, my mother-in-law had told me the poignant story of one of her lost sisters, Tourkia. She hadn’t died at birth, like so many of my mother-in-law’s siblings, or fallen prey to some infection in her first months of life. She had reached the age of two, with the most dangerous phase of a baby’s life seemingly behind her, and had just begun walking and talking when she was taken ill and died.

I have no idea what took her life, but there were many diseases still endemic in Kabylie at the time— tuberculosis, cholera, typhoid and typhus, besides the normal childhood illnesses. She might just as easily have died from a septic throat as from one of the deadlier epidemics. T. has told me that his mother often trotted out an old saying, “When a woman gives birth to six children, three belong to her and three to the graveyard.”

So when B was born, he was doubly precious: he was a healthy, robust baby and, what was even better, a boy. He was figuratively wrapped in cotton wool as a small child; the apple of his father’s eye and loved and cosseted by his mother and older siblings. When T. was born two years later, followed closely by his brother K., they formed a band of three — doing everything together, even being circumcised at the same time.

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Zayna and her younger son

They were separated, though, when my father-in-law took his young family down to Algiers and then, as he grew more successful, to Fouka, where he had built up a smallholding business. B., then aged twelve, soon followed his sister and brother-in-law  to help around the farm. He and his nephews were to frequent the same junior school in Fouka, where T had been badly bullied by older boys — that is, until the arrival of his uncle.

That is the way things were in Kabylie in those days of hardship. As soon as one member of the family became successful, he would share out that largesse and give his relatives a helping hand. T’s father had employed, at one time or another, practically all of his brothers and his two brothers-in-law as well.

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B’s call-up to the French army at eighteen and his wedding followed in quick succession in 1956. For the former, he had no choice in the matter. It was either that, or go underground to join the freedom-fighters.  He was posted to Rivesaltes in the French Pyrenees, the first and last time he ever went abroad.

As for the latter, his mother’s choice had fallen on a young, fourteen-year-old girl from the same village. T. has a clear memory of seeing B’s future bride as a very young girl, one year younger than him, standing barefoot on the steps of his father’s house in Kabylie. He remembers her prettiness; her long, black hair and wide, dimpled smile revealing small white teeth.

It may seem shocking to you to think about marrying off a fourteen-year-old girl, but there was no age of consent in Kabylie at that time. Marriages were alliances between families, not matters of sentiment. Girls were seen as pawns in the marriage game and as useful bargaining tools, and each marriage was seen as a means of strengthening the family’s support network.

B., although pursuing a career at the national savings bank, CNEP, and flourishing in his adopted city of Mostaganem, talked very little about the one defining tragedy in his life. From time to time, however, he would let us glimpse the feeling of total devastation he had felt when his mother had been shot in the head in 1957 by a sniper, as she was drawing water at the village well.

Nobody had dared venture up into Kabylie for the funeral during those dangerous times, and so the young man, not even out of his teens,  found himself having to bury his mother with hardly any family support – his father, of course, having died three years before. He would often tell us that he had never felt more alone in his life.

There is a Kabyle word, tigejdit, meaning literally the main load-bearing support of a house — in Kabylie, often a strong tree-trunk — that is sometimes used metaphorically to describe a wife and mother. There was nobody more deserving of that name than T’s grandmother. Without her, the house crumbled and collapsed. Her loss tore a gaping hole in everybody’s life — not least in that of her son.

 

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.