Ixxamen n medden weɛṛen, ma ur nɣin ad sḍeɛfen.
Living in somebody else’s house is hard – if it doesn’t kill you, it will make you lose weight.
— Kabyle proverb
If you go ever go up into Kabylie – either to make your annual pilgrimage to your ancestral village, or simply driven by a tourist’s curiosity – you will find that many of the villages, perched on their peaks or strung along their high ridges, have lost much of their traditional character.
New four or five-storey constructions are springing up everywhere. Kabylie is being swamped by a greyish-white tsunami of breeze blocks and concrete. Boxlike new houses squat uneasily on the slopes. The traditional fig and olive groves have been transformed into forests of ugly concrete pillars, not bearing fruit but twisted bunches of rusty iron rods. Soon Kabylie will resemble the rest of Algeria – an enormous, hideous, construction site.
Some Kabyles have built their own version of the Swiss alpine chalet. To me, that’s rather like wearing borrowed finery. All very pretty – but chalets are not Kabyle and Kabylie is not Switzerland. Every country has its own style of traditional house, built using whatever material is to be found in the immediate vicinity. In Kabylie, the only building material available is not wood, but stone. And to my mind, the house best adapted to Kabylie is the traditional one — axxam.
The walls of a traditional Kabyle house were built out of uncut stone (azru), held together by a clay mortar (tixmirt), reinforced by reeds and insulated with straw; materials very similar to those used in building the wattle-and-daub cottages of medieval England. The roof consisted of rows of curved terracotta tiles, identical to those found in southern Europe. Viewed from afar, the stone walls of the houses blended harmoniously into their surroundings and the red, orange and burnt umber of the tiled roofs, glowing in the sunlight, enhanced, rather than marred, the beauty of the landscape.
In general, houses belonging to members of the same family surrounded a communal central space or afragh. A high wall, pierced by a solid wooden door – tabburt n wefragh – often carved with Berber symbols, separated this family compound from the street. This yard or central space was meticulously organised, like everything in Kabylie. Every square inch was assigned its particular purpose or function, with nothing left to chance.
The sunny side of the courtyard was using for drying laundry, stocking the logs used for heating in winter and drying figs, olives, peppers and medicinal herbs. Shaded by a fig or olive tree, both highly symbolic, the other side provided a shady spot to protect the family’s animals from the blazing sun of high summer.
Inside the house, as in a church or mosque, everything had to be placed in a specific spot and facing a specific direction. Opening the front door, visitors would immediately find themselves in the main communal space. A man who was not a member of the family would give a discreet cough, to warn any women nearby that there was a stranger in the house.
In one corner of the room would be an open fireplace, lkanoun, embedded in the wall and used both for heating and cooking. On my first trip to Kabylie, my mother-in-law heated up some couscous for us over this type of open fire, which gave the food a delicious smoky taste.
On the other side of the main room, there would be a waist-high wall, tadekwant, behind which the animals were kept in winter, providing a source of natural heating during the long winter months. A loft above this makeshift stable would be filled with large clay amphorae or ikoufan — T. calls them ashvayli — containing enough grains, oil, acorns and dried figs to last the winter.
A loft room, taghwerfett, used for sleeping, could sometimes be found next to the storage space. Thanks to the animal warmth rising from below, these loft rooms were the cosiest place to be in winter. It was in such a room that my husband was born. The birth of a male heir in Kabylie – a time of great joy – is often accompanied by an old proverb: M’ad ilal uqcic, dessent tsegwa (Whenever a boy is born, the walls rejoice.)
Nobody knows the exact date of T’s birth — my mother-in-law told us that it was snowing and that she had to wrap a rug around her shoulders to keep both herself and her new-born baby warm. Another aunt said that the cherry-trees were in bloom. It is perfectly possible that a late snowfall had occurred in spring that particular year.
But it was inside the house, that the creative genius, so typical of the Kabyles, would be given free rein. Every spring, the floor and the walls were whitewashed by the women with white kaolin clay, ldjir, to keep the interior of the house looking fresh and clean. After application of the clay, the walls and floor were polished with a smooth pebble, although T. remembers his grandmother using a round door knob instead.
Then the women would decorate the walls and the large amphorae with brightly-coloured painted symbols almost as old as time – some dating back to prehistory. This love of colour is seen in the woven blankets and rugs as well as in the traditional dresses worn by Kabyle women, who, when gathered together in a group, look like a cluster of bright jewels.
Every young man aspired to building his own house, marrying and bringing up a family. Only then could he be considered as a real man. He had first to ask permission to build his house from the amin, or head of the village, who would then put it to the thajmarth, the village assembly. A place in the thajmarth would only be given to a man owning his own house and capable of ensuring its security – one of the principles of the code of honour regulating every aspect of Kabyle life.
He would build the house himself, with the aid of friends and neighbours – a little like barn-raising on the plains of Oklahoma. And like the raising of American barns, this collective effort (twiza) was carried out in a festive atmosphere. If a man did not conform to the specific rules of the code of honour, he could risk criticism, derision and sometimes even expulsion from his village.
Another of the rules was that the interior of the house was the woman’s domain, and outside was the man’s. Although Kabyle women did not veil, they were supposed to know nothing of the outside world. According to another Kabyle saying, Argaz t-taftilt n-berra, tamettutt-taftilt n-daxel (Man is the outdoors lamp, woman the indoors lamp.)
Although it may seem to you that women were considered inferior to men in Kabyle society, they had, in fact, their specific, equally important, role to play. They were portrayed as the foundation of the home, sometimes referred to poetically as the tigejdit, or the central load-bearing pillar of the house. The man was the ajgu alemmas, or the main roof beam, protecting everything and everyone in the house.
Winter is a time for home. When the sky resembled a sheet of weathered tin and the mountains were leached of all colour, axxam was a haven of peace and warmth for the Kabyle. At night, nobody dared venture outside into the biting cold, where the only points of light visible in the dense blackness of the night, apart from the clusters of fiercely blazing stars, were the candlelight and the ruddy glow cast by the flames of the log fires on the mounds of snow blocking every doorway. The frosty air smelt of woodsmoke, of distances and of passing time.
Inside, the family would gather round the fire and while away the evening hours by listening to old folk tales, passed down from generation to generation in time-honoured oral tradition. Stories such as The Magic Seed, Loundja, the Ogress’s Daughter, and The Orphans’ Cow.
The more I think about it, the more I realise that, although T only spent a total of about seven years in his village, he has been strongly imprinted with Kabyle values. The strong protective instinct, the longing for his own house. It seems that however far you roam, your formative years are the most important.