Axxam

Ixxamen n medden weɛṛen, ma ur nɣin ad sḍeɛfen.

Living in somebody else’s house is hard – if it doesn’t kill you, it will make you lose weight.

— Kabyle proverb


If  you go ever go up into Kabylie  – either to make your annual pilgrimage to your ancestral village, or simply driven by a tourist’s curiosity – you will find that many of the villages, perched on their peaks or strung along their high ridges, have lost much of their traditional character.

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New four or five-storey constructions are springing up everywhere. Kabylie is being swamped by a greyish-white tsunami of breeze blocks and concrete. Boxlike new houses squat uneasily on the slopes. The traditional fig and olive groves have been transformed into forests of ugly concrete pillars, not bearing fruit but twisted bunches of rusty iron rods.  Soon Kabylie will resemble the rest of Algeria – an enormous, hideous, construction site.

Some Kabyles have built their own version of the Swiss alpine chalet. To me, that’s rather like wearing borrowed finery.  All very pretty – but chalets are not Kabyle and Kabylie is not Switzerland. Every country has its own style of traditional house, built using whatever material is to be found in the immediate vicinity. In Kabylie, the only building material available is not wood, but stone. And to my mind, the house best adapted to Kabylie is the traditional one — axxam.

The walls of a traditional Kabyle house were built out of uncut stone (azru), held together by a clay mortar (tixmirt), reinforced by reeds and insulated with straw; materials very similar to those used in building the wattle-and-daub cottages of medieval England. The roof consisted of rows of curved terracotta tiles, identical to those found in southern Europe. Viewed from afar, the stone walls of the houses blended harmoniously into their surroundings and the red, orange and burnt umber of the tiled roofs, glowing in the sunlight, enhanced, rather than marred, the beauty of the landscape.

In general, houses belonging to members of the same family surrounded a communal central space or afragh. A high wall, pierced by a solid wooden door – tabburt n wefragh –  often carved with Berber symbols, separated this family compound from the street. This yard or central space was meticulously organised, like everything in Kabylie. Every square inch was assigned its particular purpose or function, with nothing left to chance.

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Tabburt n wefragh

The sunny side of the courtyard was using for drying laundry,  stocking the logs used for heating in winter and drying figs, olives, peppers and medicinal herbs. Shaded by a fig or olive tree, both highly symbolic, the other side provided a shady spot to protect the family’s animals from the blazing sun of high summer.

Inside the house, as in a church or mosque, everything had to be placed in a specific spot and facing a specific direction. Opening the front door, visitors would immediately find themselves in the main communal space. A man who was not a member of the family would give a discreet cough, to warn any women nearby that there was a stranger in the house.

In one corner of the room would be an open fireplace, lkanoun, embedded in the wall  and used both for heating and cooking. On my first trip to Kabylie, my mother-in-law  heated up some couscous for us over this type of open fire, which gave the food a delicious smoky taste.

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On the other side of the main room, there would be a waist-high wall, tadekwant, behind which the animals were kept in winter, providing a source of natural heating during the long winter months. A loft above this makeshift stable would be filled with large clay amphorae or ikoufan — T. calls them ashvayli — containing enough grains, oil, acorns and dried figs to last the winter.

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A loft room, taghwerfett, used for sleeping, could sometimes be found next to the storage space. Thanks to the animal warmth rising from below, these loft rooms were the cosiest place to be in winter. It was in such a room that my husband was born. The birth of a male heir in Kabylie – a time of great joy – is often accompanied by an old proverb: M’ad ilal uqcic, dessent tsegwa (Whenever a boy is born, the walls rejoice.)

Nobody knows the exact date of T’s birth — my mother-in-law told us that it was snowing and that she had to wrap a rug around her shoulders to keep both herself and her new-born baby warm. Another aunt said that the cherry-trees were in bloom. It is perfectly possible that a late snowfall had occurred in spring that particular year.

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But it was inside the house, that the creative genius, so typical of the Kabyles, would be given free rein. Every spring, the floor and the walls were whitewashed by the women with white kaolin clay, ldjir, to keep the interior of the house looking fresh and clean.  After application of the clay, the walls and floor were polished with a smooth pebble, although T. remembers his grandmother using a round door knob instead.

Then the women would decorate the walls and the large amphorae with brightly-coloured painted symbols almost as old as time – some dating back to prehistory. This love of colour is seen in the woven blankets and rugs as well as in the traditional dresses worn by Kabyle women, who, when gathered together in a group, look like a cluster of bright jewels.

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Every young man aspired to building his own house, marrying and bringing up a family.  Only then could he be considered as a real man. He had first to ask permission to build his house from the amin, or head of the village, who would then put it to the thajmarth, the village assemblyA place in the thajmarth would only be given to a man owning his own house and capable of ensuring its security – one of the principles of the code of honour regulating every aspect of Kabyle life.

He would build the house himself, with the aid of friends and neighbours – a little like barn-raising on the plains of Oklahoma. And like the raising of American barns, this collective effort (twiza) was carried out in a festive atmosphere. If a man did not conform to the specific rules of the code of honour, he could risk criticism, derision and sometimes even expulsion from his village.

Another of the rules was that the interior of the house was the woman’s domain, and  outside was the man’s. Although Kabyle women did not veil, they were supposed to know nothing of the outside world. According to another Kabyle saying, Argaz t-taftilt n-berra, tamettutt-taftilt n-daxel (Man is the outdoors lamp, woman the indoors lamp.)

Although it may seem to you that women were considered inferior to men in Kabyle society, they had, in fact, their specific, equally important, role to play. They were portrayed as the foundation of the home, sometimes referred to poetically as the tigejdit, or the central load-bearing pillar of the house. The man was the ajgu alemmas, or the main roof beam, protecting everything and everyone in the house.

Winter is a time for home. When the sky resembled a sheet of weathered tin and the mountains were leached of all colour, axxam was a haven of peace and warmth for the Kabyle. At night, nobody dared venture outside into the biting cold, where the only points of light visible in the dense blackness of the night, apart from the clusters of fiercely blazing stars, were the candlelight and the ruddy glow cast by the flames of the log fires on the mounds of snow blocking every doorway. The frosty air smelt of woodsmoke, of distances and of passing time.

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Inside, the family would gather round the fire and while away the evening hours by listening to old folk tales, passed down from generation to generation in time-honoured oral tradition. Stories such as The Magic Seed, Loundja, the Ogress’s Daughter, and The Orphans’ Cow.

The more I think about it, the more I realise that, although T only spent a total of about seven years in his village, he has been strongly imprinted with Kabyle values. The strong protective instinct, the longing for his own house. It seems that however far you roam, your formative years are the most important.

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Kid Brother

Children of the same family, the same blood, with the same first associations and habits, have some means of enjoyment in their power, which no subsequent connections can supply…
– Jane Austen


“Here! YOU talk to him! Order some more flour!” The speaker was my father-in-law, his pale, emaciated face running with sweat as he thrust the telephone receiver at the nervous eighteen-year-old youth standing in front of him. The young man took the receiver with trembling hands from his brother-in-law and looked at it in bemusement. He didn’t know one end of it from the other. How to dial? How to go through the operator? What should he say when he finally had the flour supplier on the line?

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Telephones had never really been a means of communication in Kabylie.  If villagers needed to make an urgent phone call, they had to walk, drive or take a donkey-ride down the winding mountain roads to Michelet, or the nearest large village, where there would be public telephones available at the post office. B, the young man in question, had never used a telephone in his life.

Not daring to ask T’s father any questions,  he clumsily dialled the number scrawled on the scrap of paper. It didn’t help that his brother-in-law was watching him like a hawk. T’s father had a fine line in withering LOOKS, just like his son many years later. At the time, he was desperately ill with diabetes, but had been called from his sickbed to talk to the irate agent of the flour manufacturer, who was pacing around the ground floor of the bakery, payment book under his arm, pencil behind his ear and puffed up with the importance of bringing a recalcitrant debtor to heel.

T’s father was in arrears with the payment of his flour bills, but such was the force of his personality and his persuasive power, that, in the space of ten minutes, to the open-mouthed amazement of his young relative, he had not only cajoled the agent into deferring the payment of the flour already used, but also to agreeing to the delivery of new supplies.

It was 1955 and B. had just arrived in Algiers from their village at the behest of his sister, T’s mother. Her relationship with him was in many ways maternal, as she was fully sixteen years older than him, easily old enough to be his mother. She had begged her husband to find some kind of employment for her younger brother, as his father, the amin, or head of the village, had just died of a heart attack, and B. was in sore need of a job to help his widowed mother. There was another, more pressing, reason to bring him down to Algiers, as the outbreak of the independence struggle the previous November had made Kabylie a dangerous place to be.

I have mentioned B., or Khali B. (Uncle B.) before.  He was T’s younger maternal uncle and I loved him dearly, because, besides his warm and kindly nature, he had always been on T’s side and, consequently, on mine too. He was a wonderful support to us throughout our years in Algeria, and, in fact, had always acted as T’s big brother, as there were barely two years between them.

T’s grandmother, Zayna, had lost seven babies between my mother-in-law’s birth and that of her youngest and last child, B. I knew about this, but one day, my mother-in-law had told me the poignant story of one of her lost sisters, Tourkia. She hadn’t died at birth, like so many of my mother-in-law’s siblings, or fallen prey to some infection in her first months of life. She had reached the age of two, with the most dangerous phase of a baby’s life seemingly behind her, and had just begun walking and talking when she was taken ill and died.

I have no idea what took her life, but there were many diseases still endemic in Kabylie at the time— tuberculosis, cholera, typhoid and typhus, besides the normal childhood illnesses. She might just as easily have died from a septic throat as from one of the deadlier epidemics. T. has told me that his mother often trotted out an old saying, “When a woman gives birth to six children, three belong to her and three to the graveyard.”

So when B was born, he was doubly precious: he was a healthy, robust baby and, what was even better, a boy. He was figuratively wrapped in cotton wool as a small child; the apple of his father’s eye and loved and cosseted by his mother and older siblings. When T. was born two years later, followed closely by his brother K., they formed a band of three — doing everything together, even being circumcised at the same time.

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Zayna and her younger son

They were separated, though, when my father-in-law took his young family down to Algiers and then, as he grew more successful, to Fouka, where he had built up a smallholding business. B., then aged twelve, soon followed his sister and brother-in-law  to help around the farm. He and his nephews were to frequent the same junior school in Fouka, where T had been badly bullied by older boys — that is, until the arrival of his uncle.

That is the way things were in Kabylie in those days of hardship. As soon as one member of the family became successful, he would share out that largesse and give his relatives a helping hand. T’s father had employed, at one time or another, practically all of his brothers and his two brothers-in-law as well.

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B’s call-up to the French army at eighteen and his wedding followed in quick succession in 1956. For the former, he had no choice in the matter. It was either that, or go underground to join the freedom-fighters.  He was posted to Rivesaltes in the French Pyrenees, the first and last time he ever went abroad.

As for the latter, his mother’s choice had fallen on a young, fourteen-year-old girl from the same village. T. has a clear memory of seeing B’s future bride as a very young girl, one year younger than him, standing barefoot on the steps of his father’s house in Kabylie. He remembers her prettiness; her long, black hair and wide, dimpled smile revealing small white teeth.

It may seem shocking to you to think about marrying off a fourteen-year-old girl, but there was no age of consent in Kabylie at that time. Marriages were alliances between families, not matters of sentiment. Girls were seen as pawns in the marriage game and as useful bargaining tools, and each marriage was seen as a means of strengthening the family’s support network.

B., although pursuing a career at the national savings bank, CNEP, and flourishing in his adopted city of Mostaganem, talked very little about the one defining tragedy in his life. From time to time, however, he would let us glimpse the feeling of total devastation he had felt when his mother had been shot in the head in 1957 by a sniper, as she was drawing water at the village well.

Nobody had dared venture up into Kabylie for the funeral during those dangerous times, and so the young man, not even out of his teens,  found himself having to bury his mother with hardly any family support – his father, of course, having died three years before. He would often tell us that he had never felt more alone in his life.

There is a Kabyle word, tigejdit, meaning literally the main load-bearing support of a house — in Kabylie, often a strong tree-trunk — that is sometimes used metaphorically to describe a wife and mother. There was nobody more deserving of that name than T’s grandmother. Without her, the house crumbled and collapsed. Her loss tore a gaping hole in everybody’s life — not least in that of her son.

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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