Icosium

Vous croyez sans doute, comme tout le monde, que la Casbah est un quartier? Eh ben non, la Casbah n’est pas un quartier, c’est un état d’esprit. C’est la conscience endormie  de la civilisation.

Like everyone else, you probably think that the Casbah is a neighbourhood? Well, no, the Casbah isn’t a neighbourhood, it’s a state of mind. It is the sleeping conscience of civilisation.

Carnets d’orient : le cimetière des princesses – Jacques Ferrandez


The word casbah conjures up hundreds of exotic images in the mind, doesn’t it?

Old black and white films with a moustache-twirling villain, probably wearing a fez, carrying off a swooning maiden, trailing diaphanous veils and screaming prettily.  She will, of course, be rescued by the dashing young sheikh in the final reel. Or perhaps Humphrey Bogart wearing a fedora and smoking a cigarette, sitting in a shabby bar waiting for the Germans to come?

The French are best at producing atmospheric films set in the Casbah, like the 1937 film Pépé le Moko, starring Jean Gabin as the eponymous anti-hero. It was remade by Hollywood in 1938 as Algiers, starring Charles Boyer, with his famous invitation, “Come wiz me to ze Casbah.” This was to be most people’s introduction to the picturesque alleys and souks of the old city of Algiers.

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Algeria’s capital city is located on a sweeping crescent bay, surrounded by steep hills and facing north over the Mediterranean.  Its beating heart is the Casbah, the old town that spreads, like a scattering of dirty sugar cubes, up the slope of a hill just behind the waterfront to a hill-top citadel, from which it takes its name. It is a warren of narrow winding alleys and densely packed white-washed houses, and, as an English sailor, imprisoned within the walls of the Casbah three hundred years ago, was to recall, “From the sea, it looks just like the topsail of a ship.”

The Casbah was built on the ruins of old Icosium, founded, according to Greek legend, by twenty of Hercules’s companions.  In fact, a Phoenician trading post called Ikosim had occupied this site as early as the sixth century B.C., to be renamed Icosium by the Romans when they arrived six centuries later. The arc of a Roman amphitheatre can still be traced in the walls of the buildings in the lower Casbah.

Berber tribes were soon re-occupying their territory, abandoned by the Romans when the Vandals overran coastal Algeria in the fifth century.  From the tenth to the fourteenth century, Algiers belonged to them. They constructed a wall around the city, cutting it off from the rest of the world, with five heavily-guarded entrance points or gates,  from Bab el Oued in the west to Bab Azzoun in the east. Little of the old Berber city exists now, except for the foundations of the oldest mosques and the remnants of the city wall.

Earthquakes in 1364 and 1716 caused many of the older constructions, built without foundations, to collapse, and most of what is standing today dates from the late Ottoman period. Many of the prominent buildings — the mosques and the grand mansions of the wealthy classes built during the period of allegiance to the Ottoman sultan from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century — have survived, as they had been built on the more level ground between the shoreline and the hill. Poorer people had to walk uphill.

The Casbah’s twisting alleys that wind between the mud-brick and stucco houses still follow, however, the original footpaths. Those of the lower part of the town traced the Roman streets, but, as the town climbed the hill, the Berbers built houses on either side of gullies that formed natural sewers. Clay pipes or stone or brick channels were added  to the gullies, and they were later covered over to form the streets and pathways of the city.

The upper stories of houses extend over the street to within inches of one another, as often seen in medieval European cities.  They sometimes even meet in the middle, having settled with time, or as a result of occasional earthquake tremors, so that many of the streets are actually vaulted by houses, leaving hardly a scrap of blue sky to be seen.

In the tenth century, Bologhine bin Ziri, the first ruler of the Ziride dynasty,  founded a new city on what was left of the old one, after he had vanquished the Zenata confederation of Berber tribes. He called it El Djazaïr, which means “the islands” in Arabic, referring to the string of islets off the coast that form a natural breakwater for the harbour.

After the Barbarossa brothers captured the city in 1516, Algiers became a fabled redoubt of Barbary pirates, who plied the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, even venturing as far as the English coast. For any given year throughout the seventeenth century, there were hundreds of European captives being held in Algiers, many kidnapped directly from their own coastal settlements by the privateers. The city’s wealth came from the proceeds of this piracy and from its position as the terminus for the trans-Saharan caravans.

When the French colonised Algeria in 1830, one of the first things they did was to cut the Casbah in two, demolishing many ancient buildings in order to create a central thoroughfare so as to allow easy access for their troops in the event of insurrection. They surrounded the Casbah with colonial-style buildings, destroyed the walls and tore down much of the lower part of the town to build the colonial neighbourhood of Bab el Oued.

If your taste runs to grittier, more realistic movies about Algiers, then watching La Bataille d’Alger is a must. It depicts, in brutal detail, the campaign of urban guerrilla warfare in Algiers during the independence war, and was filmed in the Casbah itself in 1966. It tells the true story of freedom-fighters like Saadi Yacef, leader of the Algiers military wing of the FLN, and Ali la Pointe, Yacef’s chief Casbah operative, as they took refuge in the impenetrable depths of the old city, inaccessible to French troops. In Yacef’s memoirs of the Battle of Algiers, he describes his twelve-year-old nephew—who served as a lookout and who died at Ali’s side— as très jeune, very young.

Some older Casbah residents explain that they escaped French paratroopers by living in the walls –  “In the walls, you understand?” After independence, the streets were renamed in honor of Algerian heroes, many of them dying on those very pavements, with plaques marking the spot.

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Still from the film La Bataille d’Alger

One of the stories about this period that moved me to tears is told by a resident of the Casbah who, as a young boy, lived close by the notorious Barberousse prison. He said that whenever freedom-fighters were to be guillotined at dawn, he would hear the voices of the other prisoners singing one of Algeria’s most famous hymns to freedom, “From our mountains, the voice of liberty is rising…’” (Min Djibelina). His mother would cry, his father’s face would turn pale, and they would tell him to go back to sleep. But he heard that same song ninety times in one year, for the ninety prisoners who were executed.

During the Black Decade of the nineties, when Islamist extremists brought terror once again to the streets of Algiers, the Casbah served as their hiding place. The old city became a no-go area, marked by insecurity, bomb attacks and police raids. Its residents say they lost practically eight years of their lives, many moving out to suburban housing estates.

The Casbah is the soul of Algiers. Amid these whitewashed walls, paved streets polished by time and steps worn smooth by the passage of thousands of feet, the memories persist. It is peopled not only by its current residents, but also by the ghosts of all those who have lived there. At its heart, the patron saint of Algiers, the marabout Sidi Abderrahmane, lies in his Byzantine mausoleum, lit by chandeliers that were a gift from Queen Victoria.

Although declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Casbah is crumbling away, with many building collapsing on to their inhabitants. Property developers are already eyeing up its unique location overlooking the stunning Bay of Algiers, with talk about luxury apartments or even office blocks taking its place. It would be a tragedy for Algeria, indeed for the whole of humanity, if that were allowed to happen.

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Teatime

Nous ne sommes pas paresseux. Nous prenons le temps de vivre, ce qui n’est pas le cas des occidentaux. Pour eux, le temps, c’est de l’argent. Pour nous, le temps n’a pas de prix. Un verre de thé suffit à notre bonheur, alors qu’aucun bonheur ne leur suffit. Toute la différence est là, mon garçon..

We are not lazy.  We take time out to live our lives, unlike Westerners. For them time is money. For us, time is priceless. A glass of tea is enough to make us happy, whilst no amount of happiness is enough for them. That makes all the difference, my boy…

Yasmina Khadra —  Ce que le jour doit à la nuit (What the Day Owes to the Night)


Teatime seems to have become a quaint anachronistic habit in Britain. Foreign visitors are probably the only ones carrying out this time-honoured ritual in the many Olde Tea Shoppes scattered around the country. Those frequenting these establishments seem to think we British spend our time eating crustless cucumber sandwiches and enjoying a nice cup of Earl Grey.

In Algeria, by contrast, it remains an important social ritual. I honestly don’t know what this small mid-afternoon meal is called in Algerian Arabic, but my mother-in-law used to call it la casse-croûte (the snack), one of the few expressions she knew in French, and she would look forward to it with the same anticipation as she looked forward to every meal. For her, a lunch (imekli) had to be a “proper” lunch, incorporating some kind of meat and perhaps a side order of chips. Above all, it had to be hot. Not for her a quick sandwich, or a chunk of bread and cheese. As for dinner (imensi) — well, it would not be a real dinner without a bowl of couscous.

So when I had first visited the family villa in Bellevue, I had been surprised to see the table laid again at four o’clock in the afternoon with small plates, cups, baskets of bread, butter and jam.  The old, dented, pewter coffee-pot, together with a jug of hot milk, took pride of place on the table. It had seemed only a couple of minutes since we had demolished a copious lunch and yet here was what looked like another breakfast.

If we were really lucky — and huge efforts were made in those first days to impress me— there would be plates of cakes or thivouline, Algerian sweet fritters.  Perhaps we could find room for a couple of wedges of themsbousht, a kind of dense, sweet omelette made from semolina and eggs? Or be persuaded to partake in some temthount, bread that could be baked in the oven, but also fried in oil? Of course, almost everything was firstly fried, then drenched either in butter and honey, or a sugar syrup (sherbet). Enough to send anybody into a sugar coma.

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Themsbousht

Although the café au lait was probably influenced by the French, and indeed the idea of afternoon tea was originally meant for famished schoolchildren returning from their classes at four o’clock —the French goûter — it had been adopted enthusiastically by Algerians to include anyone around at the time.

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Thivouline

One afternoon, during those first few days in Bellevue, T’s mother had led me ceremoniously down into the gloomy garage space under the house. Coming in from the bright sunlight, it was difficult to see at first, but I could gradually make out amidst the shadows and surrounded by ladders, old buckets and rusty utensils, the figure of The Witch Downstairs crouching over -— no, not a bubbling cauldron (that was to come later) — but a huge gas ring on which was placed an enormous frying pan, or tajine. She was ladling what looked like pancake batter into the hissing oil. Her daughters stood, or rather knelt by her, one armed with a bowl of melted butter and and the other with a jar of honey. It was rather like an assembly line of deliciousness.

Once brushed with butter and drizzled with honey, the resulting sizzling concoction was handed to me on a plate. It smelt divine, fragrant with the scent of orange-blossom water, and resembled a giant crumpet. This was the famous crêpe berbère, or Berber pancake, known as thigherifine in Kabyle, baghrir in Arabic and sometimes affectionally nicknamed mille-trous (thousand holes.)

As fate would have it, I was to eat them many years later, gussied up with a few raspberries and a dredging of icing sugar, in one of London’s most expensive “ethnic” restaurants. They were not a patch on the ones eaten with my fingers in that cobwebby garage space under the family villa.

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Thiversisine

Of course, teatime as a guest in anybody else’s home meant that the ceremonial was ratcheted up a notch. A maïda, or small round table, would be dragged out and huge trays would be ceremoniously brought in, on which reposed stainless steel thermos flasks of hot milk and coffee, and — if you were really posh — an orange-blossom water sprinkler.

One of those traditional curly silver-plated teapots, looking like something straight out of The Arabian Nights and surrounded by its phalanx of gold-rimmed tea glasses, would be on another tray. As a final decorative flourish, the teapot would have a sprig of fresh mint stuck in the spout.

Finally, another huge tray with plates of cakes, a pile of m’semen — flaky pancakes folded into squares like handkerchiefs, hence their nickname mouchoirs, or squares of m’besses, a melt-in-the-mouth semolina cake originating in Oran — would be carried in, with the bearer, usually a teenage daughter, literally staggering under the weight.

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A word to the wise: there is a knack to drinking boiling-hot tea from one of those dinky little glasses. Of course it has no handles, so what to do? You hold it around the rim, above the level of the tea. Despite this, there were always a few painful moments and quick blowing on to scalded fingers.

Drinking mint tea without sugar is rare, so lumps of sugar were originally hacked from huge loaves of the stuff before being added to the teapot and the resulting concoction boiled up on the stove. Nowadays a simple handful (or two) of sugar lumps is added. My mother-in-law would even sweeten beforehand the milk boiled for our café au lait, until I explained that I did not take sugar in my coffee. She looked at me as if I had suddenly grown two heads.

Mint tea is also served in the evening, after dinner, as a digestif.  This time, however, besides the omnipresent cakes, there are salty snacks, the favourite being roasted, salted peanuts. With one difference. In Algeria, salted peanuts (kowkow) are served preferably hot and with the skin still on.

T. just loved the ritual of rolling the peanuts between his fingers to remove the brittle skin and then popping them into his glass of tea. He would then fish them out with his teaspoon when they floated to the surface. Oh — and the polite way of drinking tea was to slurp it. Yes, you heard me correctly. Slurping the hot tea as noisily as possible was impeccable Algerian etiquette.

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My main problem was that it is considered extremely impolite in Algeria to serve tea or coffee without the accompanying plate of home-made cakes. Normal biscuits were not readily available, unless you count the sickly-sweet ones meant for children. Bought pastries were frowned on. I did not have a freezer full of beautifully decorated cakes like most Algerian wives, ready to be whipped out at the first sighting of a guest on the horizon.

Once again, I had been found wanting.

New Town

oran s’agite pleure et ruisselle                 oran is restless weeps and flows
d’orangeraies au bleu du ciel                   from the orange groves to the blue of the sky

la lune monte lentement                           the moon slowly rises
les ocres du soir étincellent                      the ochre of the evening sky glows
de feu et de sang                                         with streaks of fire and blood

Anne Chévariat: Le Chemin des Sept Îles 


If there was one place in Oran that I hated visiting, it was M’dina Djida. It was where you could buy anything and everything — well, at least those products that were imported at the time. There was everything ranging from gold bangles to spices, cheap tin kitchenware to huge rolls of flowery dress material. Exactly like the souks in the historic quarters of most large cities in North Africa — Fès and Marrakesh, and the most famous of all — the Casbah in Algiers.

But there was one main difference. Its name is a giveaway, because m’dina djida is Arabic for new town. It is not some ancient relic— the remains of the original town before the settlers had built their grand mansions and elegant apartment blocks. No, it was built after the French invasion and designed specifically to house the indigenous population — out of sight and out of mind of the Europeans.

The French conquest of Oran in 1831 had led to a large majority of its inhabitants fleeing the city, except for the Jewish community, the descendants of former African slaves and the Kouloughli. The latter were the result of liaisons between the Turks (usually the janissaries of the Ottoman Empire) and local women. They were to be easily assimilated into the Algerian population after independence, unlike the Jews and the pied noirs. On reflection, it was probably because the two communities were Muslim, even though there had been Jews in Algeria since the first century CE — before even the Romans.

To stop people returning to their homes, the French military pretended that the buildings impeded the defence of the city and, using this as an excuse, razed them to the ground in 1832. The city was therefore practically emptied of its original inhabitants, but, in 1844, when hostilities had finally ceased, they began to filter back. To prevent this new migration, the colonial authorities then ordered the douars, originally to be found inside the city walls, to be rebuilt outside, on the Oran plain.  Historically, a douar is a nomad camp of tents set in a circle, but has now come to mean a small, rural community.

In the words of General Lamoricière, Division Commander for the province of Oran, “this population is to be contained within a space, of which the borders are sharply defined, where it can be administered  more effectively and monitored more easily.” In other words, a refugee camp.  This new settlement was to be called M’dina Djida or, in common parlance, le village indigène (native village). A forerunner of the infamous Soweto.

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The settlement was further divided into tiny enclaves; one for the hadar, or erstwhile notables of the city, sometimes called the Moorish Quarter, and the Medinat El Abid or Black Quarter, where the families of former slaves lived.

The policy of building a new settlement for the the indigenous population was in complete contrast to what was happening in other Algerian cities, where new neighbourhoods were being constructed for the sole use of Europeans. You could, however, find the same arrangement elsewhere in Algeria. In our tiny village of Bethioua, Fatiha lived in what was called le quartier arabe, built by the French, with its breeze-block walls and tiny, mean windows — stifling in summer and freezing in winter.  About as far from our beautiful home, the Villa Robineau, built by a rich settler family, as you could get.

M’dina Djida was firstly a suburb in the true sense of the word, that is “outside the town,” but was soon incorporated inside the new city limits in 1866 as an integral part of Oran, thus enjoying its new status as a “neighbourhood.” It is also different from traditional souks in that it does not have the organic twisting alleyways of the latter, with their haphazard jumble of buildings added on as an afterthought.

It is, instead, shaped like a polygon, with straight streets drawn up by colonial city planners, and encircled by busy main roads. It does, however, incorporate the mausoleums of two local holy men or marabouts; Sidi Bilal and Sidi Kada Ben Mokhtar. Processions to honour these two marabouts are held on a regular basis, accompanied by the clacking of krakeb — a kind of castanets— played by itinerant groups of gnaouas, the descendants of the original black slaves.

The central square, called la Place Tahtaha, with a war memorial at its centre, divides M’dina Djida in half. The south-western part is for women. There you can find dresses, cosmetics, household goods and the Sidi Okba covered food market. In the north-east corner of the market can be found men’s clothing and shoes. Each narrow side street is devoted to the sale of a particular article, with streets devoted entirely to the buying and selling of gold, streets full of spice merchants and others lined with tiny shops selling diaphanous lengths of multicoloured dress material, sewn with sequins and edged with pearl beading.

When we had gone there for the first time, to buy some pots and pans for our first marital home, I had found the experience quite overwhelming.  Rickety tables were set up on each side of the main thoroughfares, laden with plastic sandals, fruit and vegetables and electronic goods that had most certainly fallen off the back of a lorry. The edges of the pavement were lined with large, dirty, plastic bowls filled with different varieties of olives, further impeding our progress. Women wearing the traditional haïk clasped to their faces with one henna’ed hand, were bending from the waist, examining the goods on display on the cracked paving stones and haggling over the price in their shrill voices. The noise was indescribable.

We were jostled from all sides as people pushed their way through the crowd with scant regard for others, and the air was thick with cigarette smoke and the smell of unwashed bodies. Clouds of black flies crawled over the sticky pots of honey and syrupy pastries. The sun beating down on our uncovered heads, we had to pick our way carefully along the uneven pavements, slick with discarded fruit, blood from the sheep carcasses hanging from hooks in the open-fronted butchers’ shops and the soapy water thrown by the stallholders to clean the stretch of street in front of their displays.

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My agoraphobia, always crouching at the back of my head like a beast, waiting to attack at the slightest provocation, gave a silent snarl and unsheathed its claws. I felt as though I couldn’t breathe, but was afraid to tell T., as I wanted, above all else, to prove to him that I could survive in Algeria. He was disgruntled anyway, because as soon as the shopkeepers saw me by his side — so obviously European in spite of my dark hair — they would double, or sometimes triple the price.

So we came to an arrangement. He would leave me in the car, with the window rolled down to let in a cool breeze and the never-boring spectacle of the citizens of Oran to watch, while he would venture into the seething heart of M’dina Djida, sometimes accompanied by his brother, and haggle to his heart’s content, without the encumbrance of a European wife. That way both of us were happy.

 

Poker Face

“See not the face..
but only the eyes,
of the poker face.”
― Toba Beta, Master of Stupidity 

I suppose everyone has their idea of the Byronic hero. Mad, bad and dangerous to know. He’s usually an older man — dark, mysterious, arrogant, with a murky past and a mad wife hidden away in the attic. On second thoughts, the last part is not absolutely essential.

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Mr. Rochester (Jane Eyre)

When I first met T, he ticked many of the boxes marked “Byronic hero.” He was six years older than me. He was dark, enigmatic, with a past about which he was reluctant to talk. Added to that was his exciting “otherness” — his accent, his rapid and incomprehensible French — incomprehensible to me, that is, although I understood French, or at least I thought I did.

And of course, me being me, I didn’t fall for your common-or-garden foreigner — a Greek, German, or even a Frenchman, of which there were many fine specimens hanging around the Students’ Union. Oh no —  the object of MY desire was a really “foreign” foreigner, from a country that was known only in Britain through lurid newspaper articles about torture, random bombings and a campaign of urban guerilla warfare.

T’s default setting seemed to be one of introspection, looking out on the world through eyes that were, at times, opaque and unreadable.  He would often close himself off, locked behind something I could not penetrate. Of course, all this was very attractive to an impressionable eighteen-year-old girl brought up on a diet of the Brontë sisters and Jane Austen.

I, of course, was exactly the opposite. My eyes were as transparent as glass, through which my very self was laid bare. I was incapable of hiding my emotions, which would flicker across my face like reflections on water. I would pretend to be distant and indifferent from time to time — to pay him back in his own coin, as it were — but could not maintain the illusion for very long.

T was known for keeping his cool in all circumstances. If there was an unexpectedly loud noise somewhere in our vicinity — a firework going off, or a clap of thunder, everybody else would jump out of their skin. Not T.  He wouldn’t even flinch, nor would his expression change in the slightest. I, on the contrary, would skitter like a scalded cat if a car so much as backfired in the next street, starting violently, and clutching my chest in the region of my heart with a trembling hand.

I would come down to earth again in time to catch T’s look of mild irritation, one  eyebrow quirked in polite disbelief at my histrionics and his lips curled in a wry smile. It would make me feel very silly — and even sillier one day, when he remarked offhandedly, “I could understand you reacting like that if there were REAL gunshots in the next street.”

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Introspective he most certainly was, except when he was amongst his friends.  I would watch him horsing around, flinging his arm around the neck of his closest friend, laughing and joking with him and feel strangely envious that he could feel so relaxed with others and not with me.

With hindsight, I think the problem with me was that he had no intention at all of becoming seriously involved with an English girl. Too complicated; too…..messy. Perhaps his sometimes distant attitude was his way of warning me not to dream about a future with him. Or as a warning to himself. But, as is the way of such things, it made him even more irresistible in my eyes and, as for him, well — he seems to have been overtaken by events.

I had come into his life and he had no idea what to do with me. I was obviously not just a one-night-stand — he wanted us to stay together, but a relationship leading to marriage was the furthest thing from his mind. His feelings for me were to creep up on him, catching him unawares. Before he knew it, a life without me was unthinkable. It had always been that way for me.

Luckily for me, he was neither mad, bad, nor dangerous to know. His poker face was simply a way of protecting himself. He had learnt not to show his feelings, living, as he had done, in a country at war.  If he had manifested overt fear, hostility or anger, he could easily have ended up being dragged off to an internment camp to be questioned — or worse.

So when did he change? From the cosseted smiley little boy that he seemed to have been, to this wary young man with guarded eyes? I think the metamorphosis began with his father’s death, or perhaps at some stage during the latter’s illness. When the unthinkable happened, he had to reassure his mother and siblings that everything would be all right and that he would take care of them. Even in the middle of a vicious colonial war. If he had shown them that he was as scared and rudderless as they were, the whole house of cards would have collapsed, with his uncles moving in to scavenge the ruins, like so many vultures.

He had to avoid the many traps laid for him both by both his uncles and by the colonial authorities. His studied air of nonchalance confused and angered his father’s brothers, who were expecting him to cave in to their authority and hand the reins of everything over to them — his father’s business and the fate of his mother and siblings.

As for the colonial authorities — when they called him up to do his national service at the age of eighteen, he wrote them an articulate and poignant letter, explaining that his father had just died and that he, as the eldest son, was the sole mainstay of his family. They agreed to defer his conscription, only requiring him to do a few weeks’ military training.

Unfortunately, things didn’t change when we returned to Algeria — in fact they grew worse. Now he had not only his mother and siblings to reassure, but me as well. Instead of his uncles, he had to confront the trade unions. Instead of the menacing presence of the colonial authorities, he now had that of their Algerian successors, who had learned their trade well from their erstwhile occupiers, even adding a few sadistic twists of their own.

Every day he had to face representatives from the government, military security, the intelligence services, the gendarmerie, the local authorities, union representatives, his own hierarchy and finally the members of the workforce – maintaining a calm and untroubled exterior all the while, when inside he was as apprehensive as anybody else.

His years in Britain must have seemed like a lost paradise – a time when he could enjoy himself without thinking about his past. He hadn’t suffered from the normal student worries about exams, though. He desperately needed that engineering diploma to guarantee him a future, as he had nobody on whom to fall back. The one and only time I ever saw his mask slip was when he had had a mental block during a thermodynamics final, after revising until the early hours of the morning.

Family worries also intruded. He had left the brother nearest to him in age in charge, but this hadn’t stopped the constant stream of letters from Algiers asking advice about family matters. The buck still stopped with him. All of this — the deliberate suppression of normal panic responses, the burden of responsibility at an early age — has taken an inevitable toll on his health.

Being an enigmatic Byronic hero isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Even Heathcliff and Mr. Rochester probably suffered from high blood pressure and ulcers.

The Lion King

Maman! Maman! It’s Garcia!! Garcia is in the garage!” My son had set off for school a few moments before, but had come rushing back, his face drained of all colour. Garcia? How could that be?

Garcia was one of the abandoned kittens we had taken in the year before. A few months later, we had found him motionless on the front veranda, seemingly close to death. We concluded that he must have been poisoned by a lump of meat covered in rat poison thrown over our wall. The idea had probably been to poison our dog, and thus gain access to the house when we were absent.

So we had given poor Garcia’s limp body to the gardener, with instructions to bury him in a field somewhere. And, yet, almost a year later, here he was — back from the dead. Resurrected. I rushed out to the garage and it was indeed Garcia,  sitting on the roof of the car, seemingly in robust health, miaowing loudly and indignantly as soon as he caught sight of us.

He had become used to life as a free agent, though, and never settled with us again. He would come back to visit us from time to time, deigning to be stroked and spraying the staircase. One day, however, he left and never came back.

We have always had cats in my family. We had been cat owners since the day my mother had gone into our kitchen when I was eighteen months old and found a mouse sitting nonchalantly twitching its whiskers on the draining board. Our first cat, Mickey, had lived until I was fifteen. Going into the kitchen for a drink of water, I found her stretched out dead on the floor. Mickey? Her?  Yes, Mickey was a she-cat. Dad had made a mistake when examining her as a kitten, but later swore she had changed sex just to make him a liar.

We had a couple of cats after that, including one donated by my sixth-form English teacher. He — and it was definitely a tomcat this time — rejoiced in the imposing name of Jonathan. Well, you surely don’t expect an English teacher to call a cat Fluffy or Tiddles, do you?

By this time I had left for university and didn’t give cats a second thought until my third year. T. had to move to Liverpool to study for his Master’s degree and I was left behind in Sheffield, in a small flat, heated only by a two-bar electric heater, to prepare for my Second Part Finals. My heart had quailed at the prospect.

As there were not very many lectures or tutorials during the Third Year, most of my time was spent in revising. So there I was — stuck in the flat — with no television, just a record-player on which I played a pile of mournful French love songs, full of longing and despair. Nothing like a bit of Brel or Aznavour to make you feel worse.

Who, or what, could keep me company during the cold, lonely nights when T wasn’t there? The answer came when we went over to Blackpool to see my parents just before he left. Their cat (I’ve forgotten which one) had produced a litter of adorable kittens. T. looked at me and then back at the kittens as if he’d just discovered the Holy Grail. “Why don’t we take one back to Sheffield to keep you company?” he said.

We had an eventful drive back to Sheffield. The kitten, scared out of its wits, careered around the inside of the car — at one time clinging upside-down, hissing, to the roof upholstery by its claws, its fur standing on end, its tail like a bottle brush  — and crawling all over a friend we had taken along for the ride, even sitting on his head at one point.

During the journey home, I mused aloud about a name for my new pet, trying out a few for size. “Izem,” said T. firmly, trying to concentrate on the road ahead. “Izem?” “It means lion in Kabyle.” “Oh,” I answered feebly, glancing at our friend, also Kabyle, who was nodding vigorously. And so Izem the First was crowned, the first of a dynasty of three.  I only kept him a short while, though, giving him to a neighbour when I moved to Liverpool permanently a few months later.

Just as an aside, I had been taught in my linguistic studies that if a language has a word for an object, animal or utensil, they must have existed in the immediate environment when the language was first evolving. “Izem” is a Kabyle word, not a loan word from Arabic, Spanish or French. So lions must have existed in Kabylie at one time. T. confirmed this later by telling me that his father had once been chased by a lion near their village.

Izem the Second came into our life a few months after our wedding. T. must have realised that I was struggling to adapt to life in Algeria, although we had never discussed it. I think he felt that if he commiserated with me over my difficulties, patting me on the back and murmuring,”There, there,” he would open the floodgates.

So one evening he came home carrying a large cardboard box. On opening the flaps, I found a small kitten curled up inside. Black like his predecessor, Izem the Second soon had the run of the flat, although T balked a little at his litter tray. For him, animals had only one place and that was outside. A bit difficult, though, on the eighth floor of a tower block of flats.

My mother-in-law quite liked cats, but, like her son, thought they should know their place. Outside. Once, looking at me stroking Izem, who was purring on my lap, she said something acerbic to T. in Kabyle. When I gave him an enquiring look, he muttered  sheepishly, “My mother thinks you should be dandling a baby on your knee, not a cat!”

Her wish was granted, and nine months later, Izem the Second went the same way as his predecessor, the day we brought our daughter home from the maternity clinic. I don’t know whether the stories about cats sitting on babies’ faces are just urban legends, but I wasn’t taking any chances.

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Izem the Third was one of the many cats we collected when we moved to the Villa Robineau. The neighbours had found a useful way of getting rid of their unwanted kittens by throwing them over, or shoving them under our double gates. Our German Shepherd dog, Titan, would soon dispatch them the same way as he did rats, that is, throwing them up into the air and breaking their necks. If we managed to get to them first, however, he would then consider them as part of the family, never touching them thereafter, only indulging in a little “play chase” when he got bored.

Izem the Third should really have been named Thasseda or Lioness because, yes, it was another female. We added innumerable other cats to our menagerie, including the three brothers — Grisou, who, suffering from gender identity problems, tried to suckle some other abandoned kittens, Picsou and Garcia, (the Resurrected) named after the sergeant in the Zorro television series because he was vastly greedy, verging on feline obesity.

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The three brothers – Garcia in front

I’m glad that we had a series of pets when the children were small, because their attitude to animals was the complete opposite to that of most Algerians, whose reaction veered from disgust to outright fear, with most Algerian children fleeing in terror or bursting into tears at the mere sight of a dog or cat.

The Magic Key

Please click on the links to YouTube, if the clips don’t play directly.

“Music acts like a magic key, to which the most tightly closed heart opens.”

― Maria Augusta von Trapp

I stole a glance at T., sitting next to me in the smoke-filled room. The pub was the venue for the Sheffield University Folk Club, of which I had become a member during my first few days there. 1965 was at the height of the Great Folk Revival and I had developed a passion for folk music whilst still at school. The evenings spent singing my heart out with the other folk enthusiasts above the Talbot pub in Blackpool had been the highlight of my week in the sixth form, and a welcome respite from revision for my A-Levels.

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Another passion, however, had supplanted folk music in my heart in the few weeks since my arrival in Sheffield, and it was sitting right next to me in the shape of T. My quick glance had shown me his arms folded across his chest and a bored look on his face.  There was obviously no question of him joining in the rousing chorus of “Wild Mountain Thyme” anytime soon.

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“Well -— what do you think? Did you enjoy it?” I asked anxiously as we pushed our way through the crowd of noisy students leaving the pub a couple of hours later. Trying to be diplomatic so as not to hurt my feelings, he hesitated, choosing his words carefully before replying, “Tu sais, ce n’est pas vraiment mon genre.” (You know, it’s not really my thing.) My shoulders slumped and I heaved an imperceptible sigh. A choice now lay before me — T or folk clubs. There was really no contest.

T’s taste in music ran more to the French pop songs of the day, or even of the previous decade. Studying in his room meant trying to work to the sound of French radio stations France Inter or Europe No. 1 on his transistor radio. I was introduced to Jacques Brel, Charles Aznavour and Georges Brassens. I listened to Gilbert Bécaud, Claude Nougaro and Adamo.  I discovered that love songs sounded so much better in French, even though I understood only about twenty per cent of the lyrics. Miss Walmsley’s French lessons had never prepared me for this.

I don’t know about anything else, but it did wonders for my French pronunciation. I would try to sing along to Et Pourtant (And Yet), twisting my tongue around the impossible French consonant/vowel combinations (cruelle froideur, anyone?), taking great pains to roll my r’s in the prescribed manner and pouting like Brigitte Bardot as I sang the words mon amour.

One of the singers particularly popular amongst the Algerian students was, in fact, not French, but a pied noir called Enrico Macias. His family of Algerian Jews had been wedding singers in Constantine for generations, and his songs, mostly about his regret at leaving Algeria, were in French, although they included a lot of vocal acrobatics more suited to what was thought of as “Arab” music. His nostalgia affected the Algerian students as well —  I can remember a friend of ours, built like a brick outhouse, sobbing on his girlfriend’s shoulder at a party, as Enrico sang tremulously about the sun and the blue skies of the country he had left behind.

It’s rather strange, now I come to think about it, that we never really listened to traditional Algerian music, although one of the Algerian students, less Europeanised than the others, had a collection of records in Arabic that he would slap on the turntable at parties.  I loved it when some of our friends would start dancing, shimmying and shaking their rear ends with abandon. T. never joined in — he would just stand there, laughing and clapping his hands. He is a lot of things, but a dancer was never one of them.

The zenith, or rather the nadir, of my musical experiences at university was when three of us girls were asked to sing two songs in Kabyle at a cultural event to celebrate the 1st of November, the beginning of the Independence War.  We were only singing the refrain, two of the other students singing the verses, but still… We learnt the lyrics parrot-fashion, with no idea of what they actually meant.

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In fact, they were songs about the plight of Kabyle women left behind when their men emigrated to France in search of work: Aya Zerzour (The Exile) or Ma Thevghidh Adh Amengal (Do You Want Me to Tell You The Truth) with the line “ergezim thil Paris illaho turowmi-in” (your husband is in Paris, going out with European women). Ironic, to say the least.

A couple of years later, during the first summer after our wedding, T. bought a record of Algerian revolutionary songs to which I would sometimes listen, sitting alone in the small flat in Oran when he was at work. The song that I found most moving was a very simple solo  —  completely different from the other songs, which usually featured a chorus of masculine voices thundering out all kinds of dire retribution against the enemy, set to a background of tramping boots.

This particular song was in Kabyle and was called A Yemma Azizen (Oh Dearest Mother). What was it doing on a record of revolutionary songs? Simple. It was the plaintive farewell of a young man going off to join the maquis and pleading with his mother not to cry for him. Strangely enough, there were many similarities between this lament — for that is what it was — and Irish folk music, right down to the long introductory flute solo. And like my own traditional music, it spoke directly to my heart.

It was only in the mid-seventies, when Kabyle music was dragged into the twentieth century by singers such as Idir, Djamel Allem and Nourredine, that I began to appreciate it. Their songs often dealt with the same traditional themes as the older songs — the struggle against the French; the forced marriage of a young girl to an old man; the mother waiting for her son to return from the war, still putting two bowls out for breakfast, and the unbreakable link between brothers. In other words, exactly the same themes as in English folk songs.

The new singers, however, added a freshness to the old themes by adding a modern accompaniment and getting rid of all the traditional twiddly bits. Some of these singers, like Idir, have attained international stardom. It didn’t matter that nobody, apart from Kabyles, knew what he was singing about; the lovely tunes and his warm baritone voice were enough to gain him a legion of foreign fans.

But there are other stars — masters of raï from Oran like Khaled, Mami and the regretted Hasni, murdered by extremists. Khaled’s hit, Didi, has been translated into many other languages. His song, Aïcha, sung in French and darija (Algerian Arabic) was number one in France. Mami, described by Sting as one of the best singers in the world, sang a duet with the latter on his track Desert Rose.

Souad Massi sings about love and loss in darija, even though she is of Kabyle origin. She achieved success after fleeing to France following threats to her life. The protest songs of the Kabyle Bob Dylan, Aït Menguellet, give voice to the suppressed anger felt by Kabyles at the attempted eradication of their language and identity.

All in all, the Algerian music scene is incredibly vibrant, with new songs being recorded and new singers emerging every day, eager to break the boundaries that used to be set in stone. It is, in truth, a reflection of the Algerian spirit.

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.