The Magic Grain

Ce qui fait le couscous, c’est la sauce; ce qui fait le mariage c’est l’amour.

What makes a couscous is the sauce; what makes a marriage is love.

-Berber proverb

My mother-in-law started giggling.

One of the most endearing things about her was that once she started, she couldn’t stop. Her face would turn red, her shoulders shake with mirth and she’d fumble down the front of her dress for her handkerchief to wipe the tears streaming from her eyes. As soon as she stopped to gasp for breath, her mouth would twitch, then, with a splutter, she would burst out laughing again. Her laughter wasn’t just a sound; it was her expression, the way her face would crease into laughter lines and her eyes sparkle.

Although she had been only forty-six at the time, she seemed ancient to me, but during these light-hearted moments, I could easily see the carefree young girl she had once been. And her giggling was highly contagious. Soon I was groaning with laughter and holding my aching sides. Language is no barrier to giggling.

What could have been the cause of our merriment on that autumn day in the kitchen of our flat in the Cité Jeanne d’Arc? It was me, of course. Sitting on the tiled floor, one leg stretched out on either side of the tharbourth, the wide, shallow bowl in which couscous is rolled, I was doing my best to imitate the regular hand movements that she had just demonstrated to me.

What was I doing wrong?

Well, for a start, I should have bent my right leg at the knee and tucked it under my left one, behind the dish. My left leg should have been kept straight. My problem was that my leg was too long to fit behind the tharbouth and I wasn’t used to sitting on the floor with my legs wide apart, so as to speak. Although I was wearing trousers, I didn’t quite have the same ease of movement as the voluminous skirts of the traditional Kabyle dress would have given me.

I can only suppose that the sight of her new European daughter-in-law sitting in such an unorthodox position, with her long, black hair falling into her eyes instead of being modestly tied back in a scarf, awkwardly trying to imitate the gestures that were second nature to her, was enough to reduce her to tears of laughter. So much so, she had to lean helplessly against the kitchen table until she had recovered enough to take over.

Whenever couscous is mentioned, the comforting image that springs immediately to the mind of anyone from Algeria, Morocco or Tunisia, is that of a woman, usually their mother or grandmother, sitting on a sheepskin thrown on the floor, her back against a wall. Two or three sieves and jars of water are by her side, and, bending slightly over the tharbouth, or g’saa in Arabic, she is rolling the semolina flour with soothing, repetitive movements of the hands until it forms tiny pellets, pausing only to pass them through the sieves, or pour some water into one hand and sprinkle it over the pale golden grain. It is an image that spells home.


Couscous, seksu in tamazight, and ta’am, meaning simply food, in Arabic, is traditionally steamed and served with a meat and vegetable stew spooned on top, the name couscous belonging to both the grain and the finished dish. There are many theories as to the origins of its name, some thinking that it is a derivative of seksu, others affirming that it is onomatopoeic, inspired by the sound of the dried semolina rattling into the tharbouth.

Archeological digs in the region have uncovered pots dating from the ninth century AD resembling those used to cook couscous today. Some experts believe that couscous dates back even further – to the first or second century BC. Whatever its age, it is generally agreed that the Imazighen (Berbers) were the first to roll and steam it. The first written mention of it was by eighth-century Muslim scholars, who praised its nutritional and medicinal qualities.

Couscous has been known for centuries as the “signature dish” of the Maghreb. It is a symbol both of Maghrebi identity and its culture. The carbohydrate cornerstone of North African cuisine, just as rice is for the Chinese and the Indians and pasta is for the Italians, it is an integral part of daily life, present at all the most important rites of passage; births, circumcisions, weddings and funerals.

The preparation and eating of couscous symbolises conviviality, reunions and family links. At its very heart is the idea of sharing – it is usually eaten from a communal dish, with each participant dipping his spoon, or his fingers, into the grain directly in front of him, never encroaching on his neighbour’s territory. Sharing food in this way embodies the virtues of hospitality and generosity and shows us that, with a little effort, we could all live in harmony.

Even the traditional way of rolling couscous could turn into a social event. Groups of women would gather together to make large batches over several days, which were then dried in the sun and used for several months. It was the same whenever there was a celebration of some kind in the offing. The women would enjoy their time together, laughing and gossiping in the shade of the trees, their brightly-coloured dresses and laughter making them look, and sound, like a twittering flock of birds of paradise.

As Algeria became one of imperial Rome’s “granaries,” the consumption of couscous spread along the latter’s trade routes, from sub-Saharan Africa to Spain. It is eaten in places as far apart as the Middle East and Brazil, where it was introduced by the Portuguese. The French discovered it in the nineteenth century on their conquest of Algeria, and it was subsequently to be found amongst the baggage of North African emigrants to France. A taste of home in a hostile, alien environment.


Couscous is infinitely adaptable. It doesn’t have to be made from semolina – its basic grain can be barley or even acorn flour, resulting in a couscous called ta’am oubelout, eaten in the Chenoua region. My mother-in-law would eat only barley couscous when she became diabetic towards the end of her life.

The vegetables used are seasonal, so you can have a summer couscous and a winter one. There is a couscous for wealthy people and one for those who are less so. A mountain couscous, and an urban one. A desert couscous and another eaten by migrants far from home. Couscous adapts to every purse and every environment.

The protein accompanying the couscous can be mutton, beef, chicken, even eggs. People living along the coastline near Collo, in eastern Algeria, eat fish couscous. Dark brown couscous called lemziet is favoured by the inhabitants of Constantine. The pieds noirs loved eating couscous with merguez, spicy North African sausages, a tradition borrowed from Maghrebi Jewish cuisine. Couscous can be completely vegetarian, or, at the other extreme, garnished with three or more types of meat, as is couscous royal, with its mutton, chicken and merguez.

Festivities of any kind usually have mesfouf on the menu, couscous sweetened with honey and raisins, or, in western Algeria, seffa, where the light and fluffy steamed grain is mixed with butter, raisins, cinnamon, orange-flower water and grilled almonds. This kind of sweet couscous is often accompanied by a glass of cold elben or buttermilk. 

Couscous is both mythical and familiar. Many legends and beliefs are attached to it. Those practicing witchcraft and wishing to bring misfortune to another would disinter a freshly-buried corpse at night and use its severed hand to roll the couscous, which would then be fed to the victim, resulting in sickness, insanity or even death. On the positive side, it is supposed to bestow a divine blessing on the heads of those eating it. It brings baraka or good luck, just like bread, and, as such, should never be wasted or discarded.

As for me, I never mastered the art of rolling couscous and although my prepared couscous is second to none, the dried rolled grain was always provided for me by my mother-in-law and sisters-in-law throughout my years in Algeria. Luckily for me, I can now find it in any European supermarket. It is good, yes, but does not quite have the savour of home-rolled couscous, prepared with such loving care.



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

A New Heaven

No pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted land, or opened a new heaven to the human spirit.

-Helen Keller

I leant against the door of our flat on the eighth floor of the Cité Jeanne d’Arc and listened to my husband’s footsteps clattering down the flight of polished granite stairs to the lift on the landing below. The tiny, two-person lift, when it was working, only stopped on floors with odd numbers. It was still dark and the air was still chilly with night, but, on peering earlier through the bedroom window, I had seen a pinkish-yellow glow to the east. Continue reading