Steam Heat

Who enters the Turkish bath will sweat.

– (Turkish proverb)

The British blame it on the Turks and the French, naturally, on the Arabs. For all I know, other nationalities are having an accusing finger pointed at them as well. I am talking, of course about the origins of the Turkish bath, or, as our Gallic cousins would have it, le bain maure.

In Algeria, it is called either the latter or simply le hammam, the Arabic for “hot water bath.” It is a fusion of the Roman thermes, earlier Greek traditions and Arab and Ottoman influences, and has become an integral part of North African culture. The number of hammams to be found in a neighbourhood was often an indication of its wealth. Every town, every neighbourhood had its hammam at one time, but the habit of going there at least once a week has fallen somewhat out of favour and many public baths have closed their doors.


One of the reasons for this is that people nowadays prefer to bathe behind closed doors. In addition, the reputation of some less salubrious hammams has gone downhill, with rumours of men dressing up as women in order to take photos of the half-naked bathers, or a lack of maintenance and hygiene leading to the spread of infection.

The primary function of the hammam is the same as that of Victorian or Edwardian public baths — to enable those who do not enjoy the luxury of a bathroom or running water at home to keep themselves clean. In Algeria, there are many rural villages that have no water, much less hot water, on tap, so a weekly trip to the nearest hammam becomes a necessity. For some aficionados, nothing beats a weekly steam clean, even though they have bathrooms at home.

A hammam usually has two or three rooms — firstly, a kind of vestibule with daybeds pushed against the walls, in case someone is overcome by the heat, or simply wants a nap; then a warm-ish chamber and finally the hot room, (bit eskhouna),where the temperature varies between 40 and 60 degrees celsius, with one hundred percent humidity. A  low marble or tiled platform runs around the room, in which small washbasins are set at regular intervals, above which are hot and cold taps.

The hammam is usually open to women during the day, but turned over to men in the evening. I know this because our house, the Villa Robineau, was next door to a hammam and the male clients would line up in the evenings, waiting for the doors to open and whiling away the time sitting on the windowsills of the houses opposite, gazing avidly at our windows in the hope of catching a glimpse of us. I don’t know what they expected to see, but I suppose we were rather like exotic animals in a zoo — a Kabyle refinery manager and his European wife.

But the hammam is primarily a female domaine — a place of endless discussion, an intimate space where confidences are exchanged and where the perfumed billows of steam echo with the splashing of water, sudden bursts of laughter and murmured conversations. ” Ici l’oreille s’ouvre pour entendre glisser dans une caresse délicieuse, le chant du cuivre, de l’argent des coupes et des calices ciselés qui servent à puiser l’eau des vasques.  (Here the ear can perceive, sliding in a delicious caress, the ringing sound of the engraved copper or silver cups and chalices, used to scoop the water from the basins.)



There are a certain number of utensils necessary for a good hammam session — a small pail, a bowl, a wash mitt made of coarse flannel and a supply of savon noir (black soap), henna and ghassoul. The pail and bowl can often be objects of beauty; wrought in silver or copper, with delicate engravings on the sides. All of the beauty products are made from natural ingredients; savon noir from olive pits, which give it its dark amber colour; henna from the leaves of the henna plant, and ghassoul, a natural clay used for washing the body and conditioning the hair.


Epilation of excess body hair is achieved using “sugaring” — a little like waxing. All of these traditional beauty treatments are now readily available in expensive beauty salons everywhere in the world — at hugely inflated prices.

Henna application is usually done the night before. The difficulty with this is that henna paste dries rock-hard and I became used to seeing Fatiha sporting what looked like a helmet of reddish-brown clay on hammam days. You could actually knock on it with your knuckles and cracks would appear like those in soil after a long drought.

The best part of going to a hammam, however, is the massage or exfoliation of the skin. Once the steam has gone to work, the pores open and it is now time to start scrubbing. If you are lucky, there is a woman employed to do just that, or a friend can “do” the less accessible parts of the body. Dead skin and dirt just roll off the body, which is then rinsed before applying soap.

Above all, the hammam is a place where women can socialise without any male surveillance or class distinction. The Algerian equivalent of a hen party is usually held there, with the future bride, accompanied by the female members of her family, entering the hammam to the sound of chanting, youyous, and the derbouka drum. Afterwards, cakes and cold drinks will be served to everyone there, family members and strangers alike. Her next trip to the baths will probably be with her new mother-in-law.

The hammam can also act as an impromptu marriage agency, where mothers with sons of marriageable age can thoroughly inspect for physical flaws any prospective candidate for her son’s hand. This prospect actually makes my skin crawl, bringing to mind a nightmare vision of a livestock market, and my outraged Britishness comes to the fore.

I only went to the hammam three times during my years in Algeria and each time I was practically press-ganged into it. The first time was with a neighbour in Oran and we came home, both clad in haïks, because they were easier to slip on — the first and last time I have ever worn one, I might add. The interesting thing was that, wrapped up in my white sheet, I attracted far more glances from men than I did bareheaded and wearing European clothes.

The second time was in Algiers with a group of my sisters-in-law before a wedding. The memories of that outing are rather hazy, but I do remember giggling a lot.  The third time was with Fatiha when we first moved into the Villa Robineau and there was no hot water. Longing for a bath, I finally gave in to Fatiha’s cajoling and went next door with her to our neighbourhood hammam. I remember clinging to the last vestiges of my dignity by refusing to take off my knickers, turning my back on the curious stares of the other women and  crouching, in desperation, over one of the washbasins in order to splash cold water over my burning cheeks, red from a mixture of heat and embarrassment.

Although the hammam is not a Kabyle custom — Kabyle women preferring to meet and gossip around the village well —  T. quite enjoyed his rare visits there. He considered that the “European” habit of a quick shower was the worst of unhygienic practices. “You can’t really be clean unless you rub off the accumulated dirt,” he would say loftily, “Rinsing or soaping it off is not enough.”

I was obviously NOT dirty, as exfoliation didn’t work on me. No amount of vigorous rubbing would dislodge a single flake of dry skin. Quite frankly, I prefer to be “unhygienic” rather than wash myself under the prying eyes of a dozen other women, all wondering if European women were made the same way as them, and not in possession of a third breast, or six fingers on each hand, as rumour would have it. No, don’t worry — I’m joking.


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?


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.


Always Judge A Book By Its Cover

My first experience of an Algerian wedding was, of course, my own. Most of the time, I had had no clear idea of what was going to happen next, and had just followed the increasingly bizarre instructions given me by the women in my family-in-law – “Sit here. No, stand there! Go and change your dress! For heaven’s sake – DON’T smile! STOP SMILING!”

The event and its eventual dramatic conclusion are described at length in my first book,  so there is no need to go over the painful details again.

I did notice, however, even in my befuddled state, that most of the women were wearing colourful traditional clothing with a great deal of jewellery jangling on their arms and around their necks. I didn’t know it at the time, but, as most of the women attending our wedding were family and close friends – all two hundred of them – they were wearing mostly Kabyle dresses and jewellery, famous for the rick-rack braid in many contrasting colours sewn around the hems, the sleeves and the neckline. The only sombre note were the black scarves, but these were embellished by embroidered edges and gold fringes brushing the side of the face.


A traditional Kabyle dress with Kabyle jewellery

Added to that were the brightly-enamelled bangles, anklets, headpieces with dozens of dangly silver droplets and necklaces sporting pendants as big as small dinner plates. The effect was overwhelming. If I hadn’t felt dizzy enough before, the clashing colours were enough to give me a violent migraine. But there was a certain beauty and joyous abandon in such excess.

Most of the younger women were carefully made-up, with scarlet nails and earrings dangling from beneath streaked, artfully coiffed hair. To my European mind of the time, it seemed strange that so much effort had been put into their appearance when it was strictly a female gathering. Not a man to be seen. In fact, whenever one made a hasty incursion into the room to carry out some errand, heads were lowered in modesty.

Except for the older women of course. They would stare boldly at any young male trespassing on their territory and send him packing in confusion, his cheeks fiery red, the butt of many a ribald jest thrown at his departing back. I looked at them with new respect. They were not the downtrodden women I had been led to believe existed in Kabyle society.

I also came to realise over the years that the more jewellery a woman wore  (often borrowed from other female relatives), the more sumptuous her dress, the more her status increased. It was very much a case of judging a book by its cover. Women were dressing for other women, not for men. They were out to impress the female members of their extended family, not some potential suitor.

What I also failed to understand at the time was that a wedding like ours served several purposes. It was an opportunity for the women to get together, to dance and sing to their heart’s content, to gossip and joke and finally – to cast their eyes over the young nubile flesh on display to see if there was any young girl suitable enough to be a bride for their son. Alliances were often made on the strength of a young girl catching the eye of any woman with a son old enough to marry. Mothers decided on whom their sons would marry, not the would-be grooms themselves. In effect, it was like having your own personal shopper.

Gradually I became familiar with the different styles of traditional dress, each region claiming that theirs was the best. In Oran, the material was often quite flimsy and see-through. The wearer’s modesty would be protected by an undergarment. The sleeves were usually puffed and the bodice ruffled and decorated with sequins or small pearl beads. The waist would be cinched in with a belt made of gold links – one of the most prized pieces of jewellery.


A traditional Oran-style  dress

We had quite a few of these dresses made for my mother-in-law during the years that followed, but the delicate lacey effect  of the dresses would often be spoilt by the jumpers she would wear underneath, the long, thick woollen sleeves poking out from under the frilly neckline. T’s mother had discovered the art of layering long before it became fashionable. Sometimes, to tease her, I would count the number of layers she was wearing. By layers, I mean dresses – one on top of the other.

The innermost layers  would always be the thermal vests and flannel nightdresses I brought back from Britain for her. She really felt the cold, groaning, “Iqqerḥ-iyi usemmid” (I’m cold, literally, I hurt from the cold), despite insisting at the same time that she was “a hardy woman born and bred in the mountains.” So when she was cold – which was practically all the time – she would just don another layer. To sleep, she would shed a couple of them.

The most spectacular dresses, to my mind, were the dresses from Constantine. Made of expensive velvet, usually in dark jewel colours such as burgundy, forest green, navy-blue or black, they had the most sumptuous raised gold embroidery around the neckline, sleeves and on the skirt. The sleeves were merely a wisp of floaty lace skimming the upper arms.


Traditional dress from Constantine

Traditional dress from Algiers was slightly less showy. A jacket made of velvet and decorated with gold embroidery, similar to the Constantine dress, would top a long skirt called a seroual. I don’t know whether it could  be called a skirt because seroual actually means “trousers” in Arabic, and the French name for them was “un pantalon arabe”  or Arab trousers.

This skirt, or trousers, would be a length of material passed between the legs and sewn together at the sides at knee level. I loved these skirts, finding them extremely elegant, besides allowing a flirty glimpse of the legs on each side. Some friends had them made into beautiful evening gowns, with a conventional bodice, sometimes even a halter neck, swooping down into a seroual.


But, for the ultimate in bling, the traditional outfit from Tlemcen beat the lot. Young girls wearing it looked rather like beautiful Christmas trees. This was not everyday wear, I hasten to add, but worn by Tlemcenian brides. Every small girl from Tlemcen would also have a studio photo taken decked out in all her finery.


I gradually came to appreciate all these lovely traditional outfits, once I had got over the shock of seeing women  wearing what seemed to be evening dresses in the middle of the afternoon, and what is more, sitting cross-legged on the floor in them. They didn’t seem to find it incongruous at all – it was perfectly normal to them.