Pegasus

The strength of the donkey mind lies in adopting a course inversely as the arguments urged, which, well considered, requires as great a mental force as the direct sequence.

George Eliot


Drawing together his brows in annoyance at being disturbed over such a trivial matter, T’s father shrugged his shoulders. “Don’t bother me with that,” he told his son brusquely. “Go to Michelet yourself and don’t come back without your exemption.”

T nodded obediently, his gaze fixed on his father who was resting on his bed, shadows like bruises under his eyes and his forehead covered in a sickly sheen of sweat. Since he had been diagnosed with diabetes a few years before, his face had lost its healthy tan, fading to an ashy grey, looking as though dust had begun to gather in the wrinkles of his face — wrinkles that, at the age of thirty-nine, should not have been there.

Earlier that same January day, T’s teacher at his school in Ait Laaziz, a neighbouring village, had told him that he wanted to put T’s name down for the entrance exam which would pave the way to a secondary education. This was life-changing news, indeed. At that time, there were very few Algerians, or indigènes, allowed to continue their schooling after the age of twelve, even if they had been lucky enough to have gone to school at all. The French didn’t want Algerian children to be educated to the same level as their own, so only a select few were allowed through.

When, on rushing home, he had announced the news to his father, he thought he had glimpsed a strange gleam in the paternal eye. Could it have been … pride? But then the heavy eyelids had come down, shuttering all expression, and when they lifted again, his father’s dark eyes were as opaque and unreadable as before.

Extra lessons would mean that T. would not have much time for anything else. There would be no more trips with his father to buy supplies from the market at Souk El Djemaa. Every Friday, they’d ride down the winding, rocky mountain path astride their donkey, his father wrapped in his burnous, the archetypal Kabyle hooded cloak. In summer, both father and son would wear straw hats, lamteleth, to keep off the burning rays of the sun.  These hats, once common throughout Kabylie, have now become popular again with the younger generation, eager to affirm their identity.

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Souk El Djemaa is so small it barely merits the title of hamlet, consisting of a mere handful of houses and shops. Its precise location served two main purposes. Firstly, its name means Friday Market and that is exactly what it is, or used to be in the fifties. Every Friday, hawkers and people from all the surrounding villages would go down to Souk El Djemaa to buy and sell local produce; livestock, fruit and vegetables, clothing and other necessities.

The visiting hawkers would set up their stands in front of the sleepy shopfronts in an order known only to themselves. On the fruit and vegetable stand there would be mounds of blushing peaches alongside plump purple aubergines, lettuces spreading their exuberant frilly skirts over a display of scarlet tomatoes and ridged bulbs of fennel pressing their feathered fronds against the wrinkled brown skin of dates. There was even a butcher’s stand, with bloody lumps of meat on display and plucked chickens hanging forlornly on hooks.

Market day would also provide the opportunity for arranging marriages, paying off, or contracting, debts and lively political debates in the local cafe, where hawkers and customers alike would take a break to sit outside in the warm sunshine, smoking and drinking their small cups of black, syrupy coffee.

Amongst other legitimate merchandise on display, there was a thriving black market in the illegal sale of guns, rifles and munitions. Most Kabyles had a firearm at home and would often take it with them when travelling to defend themselves against the highwaymen roaming around, intent on divesting them of their valuables.

T had his own thriving little business. In preparation for market day, he’d climb down the side of the mountain to pluck prickly pears from the bushes growing there, knocking the fruit from their spiny pads with a long split reed. Once he’d collected the fruit in a cloth, he would roll them against the surface of the road to get rid of the fine hairs covering them. Anybody who has ever eaten a prickly pear will know that these hairs have the unfortunate tendency to work their way into the gums, tongue and fingers, causing exquisite pain.

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Photo: Wikipedia

T would sit by the roadside in Souk El Djemaa, his pail full of water and prickly pears between his knees. When a customer arrived, he’d pick a pear out of the pail, top and tail it with his douk douk, slice it open down the middle, and, peeling back the two flaps of skin, present the jewelled fruit, studded with juicy seeds, to his customer.

His father seemed quite proud of his son’s entrepreneurial spirit and so when the question of the entrance exam came up, he decided to let T deal with it on his own. Besides, he was very busy, using the little energy that he had in repairing the older part of their house, as the roof beams were showing signs of age, and several of the curved red roof tiles had cracked under the weight of the heavy snow of winter.

The first problem was that T was already thirteen and over the age limit to sit the entrance exam. His teacher had told him that he must write a letter to the Administrator of the Commune Mixte of the High Djudjura, asking to be exempted from the age limit, and hand it personally to the official in question at his office in Michelet, about eight kilometres away.

That evening, he set to work writing the letter. His tongue caught between his teeth, his fingers stained with ink from his scratchy Sergent-Major pen, he sat at the table to compose his letter. The flame of the paraffin lamp set next to him was steady and bright, relieving the darkness of the room. He laboured on, writing and rewriting the letter half a dozen times in his very best handwriting, until he was satisfied that there were no blots, smudges or misspellings, by which time the wick on the lamp had started spluttering and the glass chimney had turned black with soot.

The next morning T, well wrapped up against the cold, set off on his donkey to Michelet.  Its Kabyle name is Aṣqif n Ṭmana, but it is often still referred to by locals as Michelet or Michli, instead of Ain el Hammam, its official name. The Romans had called it Trisipa and it had been a civitas and, later, the seat of an ancient Roman Catholic bishopric.

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Michelet. (Photo: Skyrock.com)

Before reaching Michelet, however, T’s donkey had to scramble down the side of the mountain, wade through the shallows of the fast-flowing river below and then climb up the other side to reach Souk El Djemaa. And is it is there that the second function of Souk El Djemaa comes into play. It is a major crossroads, with one road leading to the high villages, thirteen in total, and the other to Michelet and onwards to Tizi-Ouzou.

The Administrator ushered T into his office with a smile, and, seemingly touched by the obvious enthusiasm and sincerity of this young Kabyle boy, looking up at him with earnest dark eyes, that he signed and stamped immediately the waiver needed. Clutching the precious document to him, T leapt on his donkey and started happily for home.

Kabyles don’t usually give their donkeys names, as they are not kept as pets. This particular donkey was as big as a mule, with the mulish temperament to go with it. T’s father sold it a few months later, as he would receive a painful bite from the brute when trying to urge it forward. No name, but the speed at which it trotted home from Michelet that day — no doubt tempted by the thought of its evening mash — made T think, as he bounced along on its back, that it should have been called Pegasus, for it seemed to have sprouted wings.

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