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.

Socialist Paradise

“Thank God I’m home! It’s like the United States here in comparison!” This was T’s comment when he returned from Cuba with two posters of Che Guevara and a bottle of coffee liqueur. He had also brought with him, as an albeit temporary reminder of the unrelentingly grim Cuban diet of rice, beans and stringy chicken, a bad case of flatulence and acute indigestion.

It was 1972 and, during Fidel Castro’s visit to Algeria a few months earlier — a belated response to Ben Bella’s visit to Cuba in 1962 -— he had invited T and two of his colleagues to visit the ammonia plant in Cienfuegos. T. clearly remembers El Jefe putting his arm around his shoulders and saying, “We need people like you in the fight against imperialism.”

T had duly gone to Cuba and, although initially excited at the prospect, had soon tired of being under the constant surveillance of the Cuban secret services. He and his colleagues had given them the slip one day in order to spend the afternoon at the beach.  They had arrived back at their hotel to find the whole place in an uproar at their disappearance. That feeling of being continually watched, and the lack of fresh local food— most of it being kept back for export — soon put a damper on his enthusiasm.

The reason for Fidel’s interest had been that Algeria itself had recently been placed under embargo by the French. Algeria’s oil fields, until then under joint Algerian/French ownership, had just been nationalised by Boumediène. In retaliation, the prices of spare parts from France for Algeria’s petrochemical plants had been multiplied by ten, and Sonatrach had no choice other than manufacture its own. Given Algeria’s experience, Sonatrach managers like T had sufficient know-how to be able to advise the Cubans.

Spare parts were not the only import to fall foul of the French embargo. French goods disappeared from the shops, to be replaced by those manufactured locally.  Shortages of many items became a way of life. Sometimes the quality of Algerian produce was questionable and there was very little choice. The shelves in private shops and state-owned stores alike were depressingly empty.

To explain all this, I think  these events must be viewed in the context of the time. In the first few years after independence, Algeria enjoyed a matchless reputation as the first “Arab” country to have won its independence through what was perceived as a David and Goliath struggle. Liberal-minded activists, for the most part,  had not been duped by the French spin on the troubles, that is, that what was happening was merely an internal affair, an “uprising,” and that they were “pacifying” what was, to them, part of France.

Every country involved in any kind of war of national liberation had taken heart from the outcome.  A more egalitarian Algerian society, with opportunities for all, was the goal — the shining city on the hill — and socialism seemed to be the only way to achieve it. President Kennedy had been one of those well disposed towards the new country and had actually spoken out in favour of Algeria’s independence whilst still a senator.

He had promised to turn Algeria into “a new California,” and America had been actively considering an initial $60 million aid programme to help reconstruct the war-torn country. Its attitude changed, however, following Ben Bella’s visit to Havana. This came during the period of intense sabre-rattling over the installation of Soviet missiles in Cuba, when the world seemed to be teetering on the edge of Armageddon.

Ben Bella violently denounced America’s “aggression” towards Cuba, its intervention in the Congo, its support of Israel and its “crimes’ against the people of Vietnam. He was, in fact, echoing the sentiments of many Algerians, who tended to equate any conflict opposing the West and an emerging country with their own fight for independence.

It seemed that the only way forward for a country with impeccable revolutionary credentials like Algeria was to follow Castro’s example. Having just thrown off the shackles of occupation, they were not about to commit themselves to a capitalist system, one in which the United States or France would hold the whip hand. They were going it alone.

T says bitterly that when he saw televised footage of Ben Bella returning from Cuba wearing a Mao tunic, he knew that the die had been cast.

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Fidel Castro, Che and Ben Bella

The war of national liberation and its aftermath had severely disrupted Algeria’s society and economy. In addition to the physical destruction, the exodus of the pieds noirs had deprived the country of most of its managers, civil servants, engineers, teachers, doctors and skilled workers — all occupations which colonial policy had prevented or discouraged the Muslim population from pursuing.  In a scorched earth policy, departing pieds noirs destroyed, or took with them public records and utility plans, leaving public services in shambles.

The departure of European owners and managers from factories and agricultural estates gave rise to a spontaneous, grass-roots phenomenon, later termed autogestion, which saw workers take control of the enterprises to keep them operating. Seeking to capitalise on the popularity of the self-management movement, autogestion was formalised by the government. The system proved to be a failure, however.

Agrarian reforms, similar to those carried out in China and Russia, included the compulsory purchase of large estates, and the creation of state-owned farms and production co-operatives. As a result, the crucial farming sector was to descend into chaos, partly as a result of bureaucratic incompetence, corruption, and theft. This was a country that had once been a major exporter of agricultural products, but which later had to rely on imports.

It was not the only sector to suffer that fate. The government called its policy of widespread state involvement in the economy “Algerian socialism.” The choice of “socialism” was deemed irréversible and every government press organ churned out this tired old catchphrase in every issue of the official El Moudjahid newspaper and on every nightly news bulletin.

It was “socialism” only for the masses, however, the then leaders depriving themselves of nothing. They, and the ANP (the Algerian army) had their own special stores, where the shelves groaned under the weight of imported delicacies. In theory, socialism seems to be the fairest system of all, but, in practice, the sad truth is that people rarely want to share. There will always be those who have more than others.

The increasingly dictatorial tendencies of the regime, reducing the functions of the legislature to rubber-stamping presidential directives, caused many of the original war leaders either to flee the country in protest, or to be assassinated. Several of these were Kabyle, who, amongst other grievances, had condemned the government for its failure to carry out reconstruction projects in war-ravaged Kabylie. They left behind them a ruling clique that had had almost nothing to do with the war effort.

For us, Algerian “socialism” meant being deprived of any kind of personal freedom or choice. Given T’s position, however, we had, from time to time, access to goods and services unavailable to the general public. My husband, perhaps feeling slightly guilty that I had given up my life in Britain to follow him, did his best to ensure that our children and I did not miss out on anything. As a result, we probably enjoyed a better material lifestyle than many in Europe.

All this makes me reflect on the lyrics of one of Charles Aznavour’s songs, Emmenez-moi, which is all about his longing to travel.

Emmenez-moi au bout de la terre; 

Emmenez-moi au pays des merveilles; 

Il me semble que la misère serait moins pénible au soleil.

(Take me to the ends of the earth, take me to Wonderland; it seems to me that misery is easier to bear when the sun is shining.)

He could not have been more wrong. The sun, sea and beautiful landscapes of Algeria did not make up for the harshness of life there. After a while, you didn’t even notice them anymore.

Germaine

Que deviendra l’Algérie, si les gens comme vous partent?” (What will become of Algeria, if people like you leave?)  The person speaking was a small, elderly Frenchwoman, her white apron wrapped around her waist, her hands on her hips and her head thrust forward belligerently, adding the ubiquitous “hein?” (eh?) for emphasis. We could only shrug our shoulders in response.

It was autumn, 1992, just before we left Algeria to work in Qatar, and we were eating a farewell lunch with a friend in one of Arzew’s iconic restaurants, La Germainerie. Its somewhat shabby frontage was painted in white, decorated with blue shutters, awnings and wrought iron security bars on its windows. Inside, red and blue checked tablecloths covered the handful of tables, giving the restaurant a cheerful, homely air.

La Germainerie was to be found on one side of Arzew’s main square. This square had been originally called la Place d’Isly, before becoming la place des Palmiers and then la place du 1er november, 1954 after independence.  To my mind, the second name had been the most appropriate, given that groups of palm trees stood sentinel all around, rustling their fronds and affording shade to those sitting at the tables set out there by the restaurants originally ringing the square.

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Arzew’s main square, with la Germainerie on the right

The change in place names after independence was something about which I was slightly ambivalent. On the one hand, I approved of the fact that some ostentatiously nationalistic French names originally given to streets and towns had been replaced.  On the other, I regretted the disappearance of other, hauntingly evocative names –  l’avenue des Glycines (Wisteria Avenue), la place des Palmiers (Palm Tree Square) and my two favourite place names of all time  –  Retour de la Chasse (Return from the Hunt) and Ravin de la Femme sauvage (Wild Woman Ravine) –  both neighbourhoods in Algiers.  The history or physical description of these seemingly magical places had been effaced for ever when their names had been changed. I still yearn to know the identity of the eponymous Wild Woman.

Traces of past European occupation could still be found in Algeria when I arrived there in 1969. Besides the ravishing colonial architecture in Algiers and Oran – the equal of anything to be seen in Paris or Nice – there were churches, cathedrals, clinics, hotels, restaurants, farms, elegant apartments and houses. In short, everything needed for a permanent occupation.

During one of my mother’s later visits, we had driven up to the Basilica of Notre Dame de Santa Cruz, built in the nineteenth century by the settlers after a cholera epidemic and perched high on the Murdjadjo or Aïdour mountain dominating Oran. The Algerian caretaker took down an ancient, rusty key from its hook and, through the creaking door, swollen by the heat and the rain, let us into the Basilica itself. It had not been damaged in any way, but the atmosphere was heavy with sadness. In one corner lay the processional cross, pyx, chalices and censers, piled up in a dusty heap.

Arzew itself had had its own tiny church – Sainte Marie or Notre Dame du Réfuge (Our Lady of the Refuge) – a fitting name for a church belonging to a population made up essentially of fishermen. It had been built in the middle of the main square, opposite the nursery school that my children had attended.  It was demolished in 1981 – its stones carted away to build the then sous-préfet’s new house in Oran.

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Anyway, to return to the Germainerie. The restaurant was owned and run by a pied noir called Germaine, and her son. This was the lady who had given us such a fierce dressing-down. She was a fourth-generation settler in Algeria, her family originally from Catalonia. Strangely enough, many pieds noirs were of Spanish or Italian extract, not French.

The origin of the name pied noir has been much debated, with many hypotheses being put forward, some more improbable than others.  One was that it came from the polished boots of the French troops on their original mission of conquest in 1832; another that it described the feet of wine-growing settlers from the Languedoc region,  stained black by the juice when they trod their grapes. Another theory was that the name of an American Indian tribe – the Blackfoot – had been adopted by a group of young Europeans in the fifties, addicted to the Westerns of the time.

Whatever the origin of their nickname, the official name for the European settlers in Algeria was “les Français d’Algérie” (literally, Algeria’s French), while the original inhabitants of Algeria, like my husband, were called “Français musulmans,” (Muslim French). Second-class citizens, with neither the rights nor the privileges of the European settlers. The usual  name for them was “les Arabes,” ignoring their ethnic origins.

This name became increasingly derogatory, lumping them together into one amorphous mass and differentiating them from the Europeans. Even in Camus’s novel, L’Étranger, the man killed by Meursault is never given a name. He is just called “l’Arabe” (the Arab), thereby dehumanising him and depriving him of any identity.

One of the most chilling things I have ever read was a comment made by a pied noir describing his life in Algeria. He said that he never really noticed les Arabes.  They were just part of the scenery – in the same way as the palm trees in the square, and equally unimportant. My blood boils whenever I think about it.

Germaine still kept to the vocabulary of her youth, calling Algerians “les Arabes.” She had refused to leave Algeria in the wake of independence and could not understand why other settlers had left, fully convinced that some sort of arrangement could have been made, whereby a “blended” population would have lived peacefully together. This is why she could not understand our decision to leave in 1992, seeing it as a second betrayal – a second abandonment of Algeria.

She had always lived in a small house near Fontaine des Gazelles on the Arzew coast road, and would swim in the little creek there every morning. Neighbours, the “Arabes,” so despised by her fellow pieds noirs, treated her with great respect, calling her Madame Germaine and describing her as une grande dame (a great lady).

Germaine was one of around 140,000 pieds noirs remaining in Algeria after independence. Many of them had stayed put because they had been loathe to leave their property and assets behind. Their number diminished, inevitably, with the passage of time, but, from time to time, we would catch glimpses of other hunched figures, dressed all in black, leaning on walking-sticks and scurrying into the Marché Michelet – Oran’s covered market.

The official reason given for the hurried exodus of the 800,000 pieds noirs after independence was that they were terrified of reprisals. The campaign of terror waged by the OAS (l’Organisation de l’Armée secrète) to keep Algeria in French hands was also cited as a motive for their departure. In reality, many of them could not tolerate the idea of a country where both the indigenous population and the settlers had equal status. Believing themselves to be superior in every way, the possibility of working under the orders of an Algerian – un Arabe – was anathema to them.