The Martyr

The fourteenth-century historian Ibn-Khaldoun said that, in the villages of Kabylie “flourish virtues that honour the whole of humanity; nobility of soul, hatred of oppression, bravery, the keeping of promises, kindness shown towards the unfortunate, charity and constancy in adversity.”


Everyone needs a hero. A role model. Someone to admire and emulate. Someone to look up to, especially when they are young and impressionable. For most people, it is their father – perhaps an older brother. I learned very early on who had been my husband’s hero. As he was the oldest sibling in his family and his father was often preoccupied and distant, inspiring fear and respect in equal measure, it was one of his cousins who filled the hero-shaped hole in his life.

When I began to learn a little more about Algeria’s independence war, T. told me that two of his close family members had been killed during the seven long years of bloodshed. Most families in Kabylie had been left to mourn the death of at least one of their own, and T’s family was no exception.

Especially painful had been the death of his maternal grandmother, Zayna, shot in the head by a French sniper firing from a neighbouring village, Ath Saada, as she was filling her water container at the well. Ath Saada is perched on the neighbouring peak, overlooking T’s village, Ath Hamsi. It proved a perfect vantage point for snipers as Ath Hamsi was spread out in full view below. It must have been like shooting fish in a barrel.

This had been in 1957. The other loss sustained by his family around the same time had been a young first cousin, who, barely in his twenties, had gone to join the maquis and had subsequently disappeared. He had been the second son of T’s oldest paternal uncle, Larbi, who had died a particularly painful death from tuberculosis of the bones a few years earlier.

The cousin’s given name had been Ahmed, but, given the Kabyle predilection for nicknames, was known to everyone as H’mimi. T. always referred to him, however, as DaH’mimi, adding the respectful prefix Da-, always used when addressing an older man, even a cousin a mere five or six years his senior.

12745675_959273557441490_3380444942904148352_n.jpg

H’mimi seems to have inherited the family’s entrepreneurial spirit and had opened a tiny shop – a hole in the wall really, measuring roughly two metres square – the only one in the village. There he sold groceries that he had brought over from Michelet, now Ain El Hammam, situated on the other side of the mountain.

Michelet was a bustling village and administrative centre at the time, built by the French at the end of the nineteenth century on the very spot where the villagers belonging to T’s tribe, the Ath Menguellet, had always held their weekly market. It had been called Thalatha Aït Menguellet  (Ath Menguellet Tuesday) after the day of the week when the market had been held, before being renamed Michelet in honour of the French historian,  Jules Michelet.

To add to his growing business “empire,” H’mimi became the proud owner of  a second-hand car, a pale-green Hotchkiss, a make that, like so many others, has since disappeared.  Needing to earn more money as he was newly-married, he provided a taxi service from the outlying villages to Tizi-Ouzou, the capital of Greater Kabylie, and back. Thanks to this and his little shop, he managed to scratch a meagre living.

artois 1.jpg

Around the same time – 1953 – my father-in-law had been made bankrupt by a catastrophic fall in potato prices. He left the farm that he had owned in Fouka to his creditors and retreated to Kabylie, where, mortally sick with diabetes, he spent his time clearing the undergrowth from his land, planting fruit trees and digging for uranium.

On their return to their village, T. had been enrolled in the junior school in Ath Laaziz, another neighbouring village – the only school for miles around. In the evenings or at the weekend, when not assiduously bent over his books, as he was due to sit his examen de rentrée en sixième (the equivalent of the 11-plus exam in Britain) at the end of the school year, T. could be found in his cousin’s shop, curled up unnoticed in a corner and listening to H’mimi and the other young men of the village talk about their plans for the future.

Sometimes, T. would tag along with his cousin when the latter climbed down to the river to go fishing. H’mimi, however, had a rather unorthodox fishing technique. He would light the fuse on a stick of dynamite, throw it in the shallows, and then stand back, his hands on his hips, laughing, as the dynamite blew and the fish killed instantly by the blast floated to the surface, where they could easily be picked up.

T. was thrilled to the core. To him, H’mimi was like one of the swashbuckling heroes in the comic books that he read so avidly – a kind of Flash Gordon or Tom Mix. It helped that H’mimi also looked like a comic-book hero – muscular, with broad shoulders, a cloud of crinkly light brown hair and a wide, engaging smile.

Under the seemingly calm surface of life in Kabylie, however, bubbled resentment and a yearning for independence that had never really gone away. Young men like H’mimi have always been idealistic and so when, in the early morning hours of November 1, 1954, FLN maquisards (guerrillas) attacked military and civilian targets throughout Algeria in what became known as the Toussaint rouge, he decided to be one of the first to join them.

He became a moussebil, a name given to those carrying out acts of sabotage, or acting as a go-between for the groups of fighters hiding in the mountains. Moussebiline often remained in their own villages, but, at the same time, working clandestinely for the FLN. The term moussebiline means “those who give themselves to the cause,”  because being found out meant certain death.

They had always existed in Kabylie since the time of the French conquest and were a well-established tradition. Generally single,  they had to obtain their fathers’ consent, or that of the nearest male relative if they were orphans before becoming moussebiline. The decision then had to be approved by the thajmarth, or village council.

Due to French manipulation of the Kabyle population in the years that followed, however, it became harder and harder to carry out clandestine operations.  So H’mimi took the only decision possible – he went underground and joined the active ranks of the FLN. By this time, T. was in boarding school in Tizi-Ouzou and his father had moved the rest of the family back to Algiers and then to a farm in Reghaïa, as life in Kabylie was becoming far too dangerous.

He remembers H’mimi coming to visit them at the farm under cover of darkness, for what was to be the last time. T. had shot up in height and broadened out in the meantime  and was as tall, at the age of fifteen, as his much-admired cousin. T has a clear memory of the family pleading with H’mimi not to go back, as he was sure to be killed. With a nonchalant shrug of the shoulders, T’s cousin said that he had to go back, or he wouldn’t be able to look at himself in the mirror ever again. Flashing one last defiant grin over his shoulder, H’mimi slipped away into the night. He was never seen again.

We never found out what happened to him. Killed by the French military or in one of the internal purges of the FLN, during which hundreds of innocent lives were lost – we have no idea. His young widow, barely out of her teens, never remarried. He carries the proud title of chahid – a martyr for a just cause – and is venerated as such. But it is scant compensation for the loss of so much potential and youthful idealism – and the cause of so much grief for his family, who still mourn the loss of one of their brightest and best hopes.

12183951_911704438865069_1687478121816008176_o.jpg

Group of freedom fighters in Kabylie, with a young admirer (second from the right)

Neat Freak

I do not have a Mediterranean temperament. Not for me the mañana mentality or the happily chaotic lifestyle of those who live on the shores of mare nostrum. No, I am a product of my upbringing and my no-nonsense Northern roots. So when I went out to Algeria, something had to give. It was me.

I have already described my battle with a strange type of agoraphobia during the first few years in Algeria, but a new phenomenon was to later rear its head. This time it was a pressing need to bring about some — any — sense of order to my daily life. It was the only way I could get through the days without wanting to bang my head in frustration against the walls.

images-5.jpeg

 

I am sure that I am not alone in thinking that routine brings reassurance with it. For children, the same nightly ritual — bath, story, bed — has a calming and comforting effect. For adults, sitting on the same seat on the Tube, buying their newspaper from the same newspaper kiosk, eating the same sandwich for lunch — act almost like a tranquilliser in the whirling sound and fury of the modern city.

The sheer unpredictability of life in Algeria could fray my nerves at the best of times. By contrast, many Algerians thrived on the lack of routine and almost seemed to seek it out. A joke doing the rounds was that it was lucky that the weather in Algeria depended on climatic conditions and not on its citizens, otherwise we wouldn’t have enjoyed so many sunny days. We would have woken up every morning wondering what meteorological event would occur that day.  An electrical storm? Perhaps hailstones? Why not a hurricane to liven things up?

The postal service, the power and water supplies, telecommunications, flight arrivals and departures, administrative procedures and decisions  — even some people —  were totally unreliable. After a while, I began to realise that this was often deliberate.  Inefficiency, incompetence and sheer laziness — a multitude of sins — could be covered up more easily when there was no clear set of rules for anything. I came to loathe a phrase in darija that was trotted out all the time, whatever the circumstances, accompanied usually by a confident smile; “Makesh meshkeela!” (No problem!) It usually meant there was going to be one.

Sometimes the lack of transparency constituted a means of coercion for some unscrupulous people. A case in point was the the Algerian colleague in charge of obtaining residency and work permits for foreign instructors when I was working for an American university contracted to the IAP (Institut algérien du Pétrole). I was the one responsible for requesting personal details and documents from the instructors as she didn’t speak English — a necessary requirement for someone working for an American company, I would have thought, but then what do I know?

Every week the list of documents required changed and, however closely I followed it, there was always a paper missing. I pleaded with her in vain to give me a complete list, but was always met with a refusal. Every week I would receive an irate phone call: “You’ve forgotten to send me a copy of the birth certificate/marriage lines/photocopy of passport/spouse’s passport!”  It was only later I realised that therein resided her power. Not only did she get to lord it over me and impress our American employers, who knew no better, but she appeared to be the competent one, whilst I was the inefficient idiot always forgetting what was required.

So what could I do to create a haven of peace and stability for my family and myself in the midst of all this chaos? I could ensure that my own little corner of the world was in perfect order. I could ensure that the children’s clothes were always laundered and ready for school,  their rooms clean and tidy, and their bedtime and mealtimes as regular as possible. I could ensure that there was a place for everything and that everything was in its place. In other words, I became a neat freak.

Of course, this might seem slightly controlling to you, and it does to me in hindsight. My insistence on a set bedtime for my children, even when it was still light outside, was incomprehensible to most Algerians, including members of my own family. They would let their own children run around until all hours until they collapsed, exhausted, on the floor or sofa, to be then scooped up by their parents and put to bed in the same clothes they had worn all day.

T was in two minds about this. He had been brought up by a loving, but chronically disorganised mother, in a home with no set routine at all. His laundry was never done; he slept in beds with no sheets; the only thing of which he could be sure, given my mother-in-law’s passion for food, was that he would have three meals a day, plus a snack in the afternoon.  Even though the evening meal was always couscous, it was hot and there was plenty of it.

So a smoothly-run household was a revelation to him, although he himself had always been reasonably well-organised and could be bitingly critical when something was not entirely to his liking. A well-ordered home environment brought reassurance to him as well, in a way, and he could relax in the knowledge that there would be no domestic crisis over the sudden realisation that the coffee had run out.

On the other hand, the whole messy, noisy,  endearing Algerian spontaneity that made life so colourful was sacrificed. I am sure my husband would have preferred it if I had loosened up from time to time and not fretted so much about whether we had enough beds, bed linen and food whenever we had unexpected guests, instead of just enjoying their company. But I felt that if I lost control for one second, everything would fall apart. A little like the air passenger who daren’t fall asleep, convinced that his constant vigilance is the only thing keeping the plane in the air.

Sometimes, I had the impression that I was like King Canute trying to hold back the tide of chaos that would, inevitably, start to lap around my feet. At other times, I felt like T’s mother who once, when overwhelmed by events during a catastrophic family wedding, had started carefully cleaning a corner of the table. The rest of the table was overflowing with leftover food, dirty dishes and watermelon rinds. Stunned, we watched as she wiped the same square foot of table surface over and over again, seemingly oblivious to the chaos around her.

On reflection, I now realise that, apart from a certain genetic disposition towards tidiness and order, I was suffering from a mild anxiety disorder, and that my obsession with organisation was classic reassurance-seeking behaviour. I was trying to explain this to my adult daughter a few years ago and told her that it had helped me survive. “But, Maman,” she said, “Don’t you realise? It helped us too.”

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.

Ben_Bella_a_la_Havane_-_Cuba.jpg

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.

New Edition

Hello everybody!

I have decided to amalgamate the two books into one because I found people were buying the first book more than the second. I would like to thank everybody who bought EITHER of my books, but one book is only half the story. So here goes. It is slightly more expensive than the others, but the new full-length book cost less than buying the two books separately. For those of you who have already bought the first book, the second one will still be available for a while. Thank you so much for supporting me. By the way, they are available on Amazon worldwide, not just in the UK.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Englishwoman-Algeria-Thoughts-memories-English/dp/1535375310/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1497425504&sr=8-1&keywords=wendy+ouali+an+englishwoman+in+algeria

Baby, You Can Drive My Car

Driving is not easy in Algeria. That must be the understatement of the year.

Although an Algerian Highway Code exists, it has little effect on the way Algerians drive. I have talked before about the need for a new code, based on Algerian reality. One that gives priority to the biggest car, especially if it is black. One that stipulates that you must screech away from traffic lights with a smell of burning rubber as soon as the red traffic light flickers, before it even has a chance to turn green. One that allows you to sail serenely through red lights as soon as night falls.

This new Highway Code should incorporate, above all, a rule whereby women drivers must be shunted out of the way, overtaken on dangerous bends, tailgated and pursued, insulted and harassed by male drivers. So you can understand T’s lack of enthusiasm when I told him that I wanted to learn to drive.

In sixties Britain, very few women drove. In fact, there were not very many drivers at all. Owning a car was beyond the reach of most ordinary people. So when T. bought his first car when we were still at university in 1966, it was a dream come true for both of us. So proud was he of the car that there was never any question of who was driving. Any other possibility was almost an affront to his masculinity.

He had already obtained his Algerian driving licence, although his driving experience until then had been confined to driving his father’s tractor around the fields of the farm back in Reghaïa. He had told me, with a wry smile,  about his one attempt at driving a car in Algiers. The car had belonged to the father of his friend, Mus, and the two friends were enjoying a drive around Algiers, sunglasses perched on their noses, eyeing up all the pretty girls in their summer dresses.

sc00a289c2.jpg

T. on the left, with friends in Algiers just after independence

Mus, however, was a martyr to dental problems and on that particular day, his toothache  had rendered him incapable of driving, as his eyes, half-closed with the pain, could not focus on the road ahead. He handed the steering wheel over to T with great reluctance, giving him strict instructions on how he should just tap the accelerator lightly, not stamp on it, and how he should be careful of the sticky clutch and the elusive third gear.

After five minutes of T crashing the gears and driving in a stop-start fashion around the steep, winding Algiers streets, Mus grabbed the steering wheel back, muttering between gritted teeth, “No, no, no!! Give it here! Your driving is worse than my toothache! ”

Luckily, T’s driving had improved by the time he bought the car in Sheffield.  He passed his British driving test successfully, keeping the date of the test secret from me. I knew he had been having driving lessons, but the first thing I knew about him passing was when I went to a friend’s house to meet him after the lesson and found him there, proudly brandishing the little red booklet. We had only a few unfortunate incidents after that, including scraping the hubcaps on the edge of the pavement and tackling curves in the road with more brio than caution.

In Algeria, the idea of me learning to drive became an ever more distant dream. Quite honestly, I never really gave much thought to it, occupied as I was with two small children and adapting to life there. Our driving excursions made me even more reticent, as other drivers seemed to do what they wanted – overtaking on bends, undertaking, cutting in front, braking without warning, running red lights and so on.

Once, coming home late at night from a family wedding, our headlights had lit up a line of prone bodies on the road ahead.  It turned out that local villagers had found it too hot to sleep within the confines of their homes, and so had decided to sleep out in the fresh air under the stars. In the middle of the main road.

Gradually, though, I began to feel like a prisoner in my own home. I started to dread T’s frequent absences even more, as, although drivers were available, I just couldn’t decide to go and visit a friend or family member on a whim. It all needed prior planning – ringing up T’s office, talking to his secretary, pacing up and down waiting for the driver to appear, and the ever-present guilty feeling that this was taking advantage of the system. Before you say anything, there was no functional public transport system, and so this was really the only option.

I had finally had enough and announced to T. my wish to learn to drive. I know that they say that your husband (or wife) should never teach you to drive, but T. became my first driving instructor – with all the pitfalls that entails. Every weekend, we were to be found on the back roads around Arzew, with the two children, too young to be left at home alone, on the back seats, fidgeting and complaining.

T. was the most patient of teachers, only shouting at me once when I got confused in the middle of a roundabout, mistaking the brake for the accelerator, with a lorry bearing down on us all the while. I complained tearfully that it was difficult to distinguish between “all those pedals.” T. threw me an exasperated look, pointing out that there were, in fact, only three.

1200px-Fiat_128_Kent_UK.JPG

I passed my driving test, anyway, after a few official driving lessons, the test consisting of driving round a piece of waste ground in Arzew a couple of times. I was now authorised to be let loose on Algeria’s roads. It must be said that I would offer up a little prayer before setting off anywhere, never sure whether I would arrive home in one piece.

My little mustard-yellow, four-gear Fiat 128 was forever breaking down. Once, I gave a lift to T and he, thinking that I was still in third gear at one hundred kilometres an hour, such was the grinding and straining of the little car, yelled at me, above the roar of the engine, to move up into fourth gear. Frustrated, I screeched back that I WAS in fourth gear.

Some mornings, when the Fiat would refuse to start, I would climb, with great trepidation, into the Honda Accord that we had just acquired. These Hondas, originally destined for Belgium but rejected by the latter as not responding to European norms, had been sold to Algeria in 1981 instead of shipping them back to Japan. Of course, government officials made sure that all their friends and family were supplied with new cars before a few filtered down to top executives in national companies – like T.

Honda-Accord_102.jpg

A typically Algerian piece of doggerel did the rounds. “Les Hondas Accord – pour l’Etat major: Les Hondas Quintet – pour les grosses têtes: Les Hondas Civic – maatchi alik.” In other words: “Honda Accords – for the Chiefs of Staff; Honda Quintets – for the fat cats; Honda Civics – not for you.” The extreme resentment felt by the public at large was summed up in those few terse lines. Our new car had subsequently been keyed and the wing mirrors smashed when we had once parked outside by mistake.

As time went by, I drove the Honda more and more, revelling in the quiet whisper of its engine compared to the deafening roar of the Fiat. One day, coming home from Arzew, I overtook a battered Renault 4, gliding soundlessly by like a stealth bomber. Glancing into my rearview mirror a few seconds later, I saw the R4, belching out black exhaust fumes and straining every rivet, trying to catch up with me.

Looking more closely, I saw it was packed to the roof with men, moustaches bristling, eyes popping out of their heads and lips peeled back from their teeth in a rictus of hatred and injured male pride. Obviously, being overtaken by a mere woman and, what was even worse, a woman in a Honda, was more than they could bear.

This attitude was confirmed a few weeks later, when, stepping out of the car in Arzew, I overheard a muttered conversation between two men standing outside a shop. “Eh ben,” said one, “Même les femmes conduisent les Honda maintenant!” (Well, well, well … even women are driving Hondas now!)

The Igawawen

I have spoken a great deal about the Berbers and their illustrious history, but, apart from describing my visits to Kabylie, I have not talked much about my husband’s people, the Kabyles. The Kabyles, one of the many groups of ethnic Berbers scattered all over North Africa, are by far the largest of Algeria’s Berber populations. They number between five and seven million, split between those still living in Algeria and those living abroad as part of the Algerian diaspora.

The appelation “Kabyle” comes from the Arabic word qabila (pl. qabaïl) for tribe, adopted by the French to describe these highland people. Their region was called la grande Kabylie (Greater Kabylie) by the French, as opposed to la petite Kabylie (Lesser Kabylie), but it is called simply thamurth  by its inhabitants themselves. Thamurth means country or land, similar to the Arabic word bled, from which, funnily enough, the English nickname Blighty for Britain is derived. Like Blightly, the word thamurth contains within it a whole wealth of unspoken longing and homesickness.

62603575.jpg

Greater Kabylie is a mountainous region to be found about an hour and a half’s drive east and slightly south of the capital, Algiers. Right at its heart lies the Djudjura mountain range, of which the high ridges run northwards to the Mediterranean sea. The inhabitants of these ridges are known as the Igawawen, taking their name from the neighbouring Agawa mountain peaks. They are the core of the Kabyle people.

The defeat of the Igawawen, outnumbered and outgunned,  at the battle of Icherriden in 1857, is generally taken to have brought the French conquest of Greater Kabylie to a successful conclusion. Traditional sources recount that the legendary Fadhma N’Soumeur herself took part in the battle and ordered that the fighters be tied to each other with ropes, preventing them from fleeing the battlefield. The impact of her involvement was such that she has been seen as the embodiment of the Kabyle resistance movement against the French and has become known as the Kabyle Joan of Arc.

280px-Portrait-Fatma_N'Soumer.jpg

Fadma N’Soumeur

ischeriden--1857.-le-24-juin-.jpg

The battle of Icherriden

At that time, the Igawawen were a powerful confederation made up of two federations –  the Ath Betrun and the Ath Menguellet, each federation being composed of four tribes.  Many terms are used to describe Kabyle political and social structures, such as “tribe,” “clan,” kinship” and “lineage” and my husband’s tribe, for want of a better word, is the Ath Wekbil of the Ath Menguellet federation.  They are not tribes as one would usually understand the word, but groups of villages (thudrin) sharing a common language, territory and culture.

Their dialect, a variant of the Berber language, tamazight,  is called thakabaylith. Each of the Berber dialects of Algeria retains its distinctive vocabulary and character and they are not mutually comprehensible as in Morocco.  The Chaoui Berbers of the Aurès mountains and the Kabyles can understand each other with relative ease, although there is a greater proportion of Arabic words in thachawith than in thakabaylith. By contrast, the tamahaq dialect of the Tuareg is all but incomprehensible to a Kabyle.

Greater Kabylie largely escaped the trauma of social disintegration engineered by French colonialism in many other parts of Algeria, as its steep slopes and narrow valleys did not attract European settlement.  The region was more or less left to its own devices, the colonial administration preferring to govern it from a safe distance. The Kabyle system of self-government was therefore left largely intact. This is not the place to describe the inner workings of this complex socio-political system, but suffice it to say that it has been fine-tuned to an incredible degree, with its own body of law – nothing to do with Islamic law or sharia – its code of honour and village councils i.e. the thajmarth, with its two opposing tendencies, the sfuf, presided over by the amin. The thajmarth is almost exactly like a mini House of Commons, presided over by the Speaker.

The Kabyles earned their living mostly from their land, cultivating olive and fig trees and some fruit and vegetables. My father-in-law even imported fruit trees from America and planted them down by the river. The remains of his olive press are still to be seen in the village. Beautiful objects – chests, bowls, caskets and the wooden pillars, beams and doors of a typical Kabyle house were carved out of wood from the forests of the Djudjura.

2efaa97811d2c9ee23644d5306d59e76.jpg

Berber marriage chest

kabylie 2006 292.jpg

The remains of my father-in-law’s olive press

The Igawawen also excelled in three other specialised branches of the craft industry: jewellery-making, arms manufacturing and the manufacture of counterfeit coins.

Finally, the men of Greater Kabylie also found employment and notoriety as mercenaries. The French word zouave, meaning originally a “native” light infantryman is a corruption of zwawi or igawawen, but the tradition had already been established before the French. The Ottoman Dey of Algiers had an honour guard of over 2,000 Kabyles. The tradition of Kabyle men seeking their fortune elsewhere, often leaving their wives and families behind, has been maintained. Many of the most haunting Kabyle songs are about the longing for thamurth or home, or are the lament of the women left behind.

1916ZouaveE.jpg

Zouave infantryman

The Kabyles, although settled in their villages like the Mzabis, did not possess the latter’s religious fervour and eagerly accepted the implication of upward mobility offered by a French education. T’s grandfather and father were both highly educated for the time – his grandfather being one of the Algerians of Kabyle origin studying at the École Normale (teacher training college) at Bouzaréah near Algiers at the end of the nineteenth century.

Thus developed a substantial Kabyle intelligentsia – French-speaking and modernist. Kabylie has become remarkable for the number of accountants, businessmen, civil servants, doctors, lawyers, teachers and engineers (of whom T is one, of course) it has produced in recent generations. Not only that, but Kabyle writers, poets and singer-songwriters are amongst the most prolific in Algeria, some of their work reaching an appreciative international audience.

The political salience of the Igawawen was evident even at the time of the French conquest and it was they who provided the majority of the Kabyle element in the leadership of the nationalist movement from 1926 onwards. The full story of their vital role in the Algerian independence struggle cannot be told here, but the fact that they subsequently lost their positions in the national leadership of the FLN has been a cause for resentment ever since. Their enormous contribution to the war effort has been airbrushed from history. The concerted attempts to erase their identity have led to many uprisings, the most recent being the Berber Spring (tafsut imazighen) in 1980 and the Black Spring (tafsut taberkant) in 2001.

The scale and character of the igawawen contribution to modern Algerian politics cannot be dismissed as being simply a trait borrowed from the French cultural influence on their region, as a capacity for politics is not something that can be imported. It is bred in the bone.

Dracula

Réveille-toi! Réveille-toi!” (Wake up! Wake up!) I shook my husband’s shoulder until he snorted a couple of times and then looked at me through sleepy, half-closed eyes.  “Skiya?” he mumbled – in other words, “Qu’est-ce qu’il y a?” (What’s the matter?)

When he could finally focus, he saw,  to his surprise, that I was sitting bolt upright in bed, massaging my right hand. I had woken up, realising that my hand was completely numb. I wasn’t worried at all at first, merely thinking that I had been sleeping on it and so, still half-asleep, had rubbed it desultorily a couple of times. It was only when the hand remained stubbornly numb and no amount of rubbing brought the feeling back, did I panic and wake T.

Still flat on his back, eyes closed, he obediently started rubbing my hand as well. All to no avail. Finally, in desperation, I lay flat on my stomach, my hand, rubbed red and raw, dangling over the edge of the bed. Gradually and excruciatingly, the feeling returned. It was like a bad case of pins and needles, only ten times worse.

The next day, I thought no more about it. We were still living in the Clos des Poivriers at the time with our daughter, aged two, and our son, who was about five months old. As baby clothes in Algeria were not really to my taste, I had spent a lot of time over the past few months knitting little jumpers, cardigans and trouser suits for my son. There he was, kitted out in knitted flares and trendy waistcoats, like a miniature Sonny Bono.

I had already done this two years before, when I had knitted my daughter’s entire layette – except for her nappies. The shelves in our wardrobe had been full of little, hand-knitted garments in pastel shades. I had carefully avoided pink or blue wool as we had had no idea if the baby I was expecting was a girl or a boy. No scans in Algeria at that time. It was perhaps lucky, in that some people might have thought twice about bringing a pregnancy to term if they had known it was a girl.

After a few days’ respite, the numbness and tingling in my right hand woke me again. This time I knew what to do, and let my hand dangle over the side of the bed again. The pain was awful –  I bit my lip not to groan at the agonising prickling, both of the numbness and of the sensation seeping back.

I soon found that I could not raise my right hand higher than chest level without it losing all feeling.  One day, sitting cross-legged on the floor,  trying to do up the buttons on the back of my daughter’s dress as she stood patiently in front of me, I burst into tears. My hand felt like a block of wood, and was about as much use. How could I continue to live a normal life as a wife and the mother of two small children, if I couldn’t use my hand properly?

Fatiha rushed into the room on hearing my sobs, and fastened my daughter’s dress for me. Off she skipped, not giving a thought as to why her mother had suddenly been  reduced to a gasping, shuddering wreck.

Soon, just dangling my hand over the edge of the bed didn’t work anymore. I had to get out of bed and stand there for what seemed like an age, letting my hand drop to my side. T. would wake from a deep sleep and peer through the shadows in the bedroom to find me looming over the side of the bed, my arms by my sides and trying not to make any noise. He would blink at me and say tentatively, “Wendy?” A loud sob would be the only response I could make. He later confided in me that if I had not answered, he would have been out of the room like a shot.

00ae7599faaeb195effe8ff819d61fa7.jpg

Put yourselves in his shoes.  You wake up from a deep sleep, feeling a PRESENCE in the room. You prise open your eyes to see a dark figure standing by the bed, its arms straight down by its sides. It isn’t doing anything – just standing there. The only noise you can hear is a kind of strange, snuffling sound. Visions of blood-soaked fangs and bony fingers reaching for your neck race through your mind. Dracula had nothing on me.

I finally went to see our local doctor, Dr. D. His surgery was just around the corner and along Bethioua’s main road. He had always been our friend, being approximately our age and having worked for Sonatrach at the ammonia plant for a while.

I can remember him walking down our front path for  the first time, fashionable flares and kipper tie flapping in the breeze. His sideburns and moustache were a wonder to behold. Not my idea of a family doctor, having been brought up under the care of our dour, grey-haired GP in Blackpool – he of the bristly eyebrows that had always fascinated me as a child.

Dr. D., however, was to be of inestimable help to our family. He had accompanied T. to Algiers after my husband’s car accident and even after that, we could always count on him. When my son caught measles from his sister a few months later, he would come round to the house every single evening without being asked – just to check on our baby.

Dr. D. was no specialist, though. After scratching his head a bit and stroking his moustache, he decided to give me a course of cortisone injections. Even at the time, I knew that cortisone had bad side effects, but would have done anything, bar chopping off my hand, to take the pain away. The injections had limited success, reducing the agonising prickling, but doing nothing for the numbness.

I learned to manage my condition – no name had yet been put to my mysterious ailment. I learnt to sleep in certain positions, so my hand would not fall prey to the creeping numbness. I learnt not to use the hand for certain tasks. Sometimes, I would forget and have an agonising flare-up, as, for example, when T. brought home a load of pine planks for shelving, and I helped sand them down using just a bit of sandpaper.

It was only many years later, after our return to Britain, that I finally knew what was wrong. It is called carpal tunnel syndrome.  After a series of tests, I was operated on to release the nerve from its inflamed, constricting sheath. That night, lying in bed, I realised that, for the first time in forty years, my hand was completely free from pins and needles.

My habit of knitting for hours on end has been the root cause of the problem, strangely enough aided by the fact that I had just recently given birth.  I had to give up what used to be one of my favourite hobbies, and sadly,  have not knitted again from that day to this.