The land of the Berbers begins where men start to wear the burnous and ends where people stop eating couscous.

-Ibn Khaldun

I opened the door of our house in the Clos and peered anxiously down the curve of the road. It was already November, but, as autumn arrives later in Algeria than in Europe, the leaves had not yet started to fall, and the trees lining the road were on fire with red and gold foliage. It was still very early and the morning birds were carving sharp curls of song out of a high and empty sky; a sky as clear as glass and a perfect, untrammelled blue. The sun, burning brightly, seemed to swell as it rose in the sky.

 It was picture book perfect.

But I wasn’t feeling anything like the heroine in a fairy-tale. A griping pain was gnawing at my stomach. It seemed to me that its lining had been worn away with the acid of anxiety over the past six weeks – ever since my husband’s serious car accident twelve days after the birth of our son.

Today, however, the feeling of nausea was being caused by anticipation.  I had not slept a wink the  night before, but soon my long wait would be over. Today was the day T was coming home from the hospital in Algiers.

Looking through the wide, plate-glass window of the living room half an hour later, I saw a white van drawing up in front of the house. No sirens, or flashing lights, just the discreet word “Ambulance” painted on one of the windows. I dashed out of the front door, just in time to see T climb painfully out of the back seat, stand up unsteadily on one leg and shove his crutches under his arms to try to regain his balance. A colleague had also leapt out of the car and was holding my husband’s arm to help him.

I rushed into his arms and felt his hands grip my shoulders to steady me, as my knees had buckled. Pulling back, I could finally take a good look at him. His face was ashen and drawn with pain, his pallor making his dark eyes, eyelashes and eyebrows stand out in stark contrast to the white skin. He seems to have lost weight, too. It was the first time I had seen him since he had been whisked away, semi-conscious, with a broken femur and a suspected blood clot on the brain, in an air ambulance to the main hospital in Algiers.

Only later did I notice the blue cloak slung around his shoulders, but I had felt its smooth softness under my fingers when I had thrown my arms around him. In fact, it turned out to be a beautiful burnous, pale blue with black braiding, made of the highest-quality camel hair, and a gift from the colleague who had helped T from the car.

We kept the burnous for many years, using it as our comfort blanket, wrapping ourselves in it while watching television on cold winter evenings, and, for all I know, it is still in our house in Algeria.

I have never had a full-length burnous myself, but T had once brought a jacket for me back from Algeria when we were still at university. It was hip-length, made of the finest cream wool, decorated with white cord embroidery and with a long tassel dangling from the point of its hood. Silken cords were used to tie it at the neck. It wasn’t strictly a burnous, as it had sleeves and patch pockets, but I adored it and would wear it, instead of a cardigan, in mild weather.

The philosopher, Ibn Khaldun, when describing the Maghreb, had given the nickname of ashâb el barânis, (people of the burnous) to the Berbers, that is, those who habitually wear it. In fact, most Algerian men have worn it at one time or another, even if it was just at their circumcision, or their wedding.


Winter in Kabylie

The burnous, avernous in Kabyle, is a long sleeveless cloak made of coarse woollen fabric. It has a pointed hood, and is, in general, white, beige, or dark brown. In Kabylie, it is made from sheep’s or goat’s wool and woven by the women on their wooden handlooms.

It is long and tiring work, as the wool has to be cleaned, spun and then woven. A daughter would learn at her mother’s knee the age-old techniques of weaving the cloaks, but this knowledge is fast disappearing  — an old Kabyle adage admonishing; “Do not give me a burnous, teach me how to weave one.”

Some linguists say that the word burnous comes from the tamazight root BRNS, meaning to twist or to wrap – in other words, a cloak in which you wrap yourself. Others say that it comes from the Latin burrus, meaning a brown cape. It was worn in Moorish Spain — al-Andalus — where it became the albornoz described by Sebastián de Covarrubias as “a hooded travelling cloak.”

Its primary purpose, of course, is to keep the wearer warm and protect him from the elements, essential during the harsh, snowy winters of Kabylie. A more ceremonial role is given to it when it is worn by the bridegroom at his wedding, especially during the henna ceremony when he traditionally pulls the hood forward over his face.

When the bride leaves her family home for the last time, she often wears a more feminine version of the burnous, and crosses the threshold with the cloak of her father or her oldest brother held over her head as a blessing. T would often say laughingly to me that he had taken me under his burnous when we married.

Years ago, the bride would not even have met her husband before the wedding, and only when he entered the bridal chamber in his burnous and pulled back the hood, would she see his face for the first time.

A shorter version is also part of the uniform of the Spahi, as this elite calvary regiment of the French army was initially made up of Algerian recruits. Nowadays, its soldiers are mostly French, but they still wear the traditional Maghrebi outfit, including the cloak. The soldiers on guard in front of the Presidential Palace in Algiers are in full Spahi regalia, their burnouses swinging as they march up and down.


A Spahi



Photo: Voyage chez les Amazigh

But the burnous is so much more than a piece of clothing. It symbolises peace and purity, responsibility, and maturity. Sometimes it is even equated to a man’s honour. It  is worn in general by the head of the family and during ceremonies of reconciliation and conflict resolution. It is also worn when sitting in the village council, the thajmarth, and lends dignity to the wearer, as well as enhancing his social standing. The former Algerian president, Boumediene, would wear a black burnous to impress the foreign leaders he met with, and during his “visits” to the rest of Algeria.

In the same way, the black burnous worn by T’s rascally oldest uncle, in his secret life as a brigand, would strike fear into the hearts of his victims. Sitting on his horse, his rifle thrust into his saddle, he would lie in wait in the undergrowth for passing travellers, the hood of his burnous pulled up to hide his identity. 

Wearing a burnous is an art in itself. You can tie it back out of your way when you are doing manual work. You can bundle yourself in it and pull the hood down to create your own personal space in a crowd. You can wrap it tightly around yourself, with one edge pulled over a shoulder to keep it in place, and the hood tugged over your face to protect yourself from the wind and rain. You can sling it carelessly around your shoulders when taking a stroll through your village in the cool of the evening. The hood can even be used as an impromptu shopping basket.

A burnous can be passed down through the generations. As the revered Kabyle writer, Mouloud Feraoun, wrote in his autobiographical novel, The Poor Man’s Son: ” My father, before his death, left his burnous to me. It had been left to him by his own father. I hope to leave it to my son, together with all the positive values it symbolises; our own, and those we share with the rest of humanity.”


The Wolf of Akfadou

“Sad times. Sad Kabylie. Sad Kabylie because traitors are uncovered every day. They are executed and those who killed them are then executed in their turn.”

-Diary of Mouloud Mammeri

My mother-in-law loved to sing. She would sit cross-legged on a cushion on the floor, close her eyes and away she would go. During the first months of our marriage, I noticed that some songs made her more emotional than others. She would sit there, swaying from side to side, tears leaking from beneath her tightly-closed eyelids and her voice quavering.

Intrigued, I would ask T what she was singing about. He would listen for a couple of seconds, then shrug and say, “She’s singing about Amirouche.” It was only later I learnt that Colonel Amirouche had, in fact, been a distant cousin of hers.

Amirouche Aït Hamouda was born in 1926 in Tassaft Ouguemoun, a tiny village in Kabylie, a few kilometres from my husband’s village. He was a posthumous child and his widowed mother had taken him, when still a baby, back to her home village, Ighil Bouamas, which was barely a hamlet — just a few houses huddled together on one of the peaks of the Djudjura mountains that rise like mighty jagged teeth from the earth, creviced by the sun, the wind and the snows of winter.


Ighil Bouamas Photo: Wikipedia

Life was hard for widows and orphans in Kabylie. Normally, a room is kept empty in a Kabyle house, in case one of the daughters of the family is widowed or divorced and needs to return home. But once there, they are dependent on the charity of others, as my mother-in-law had found to her cost after the death of T’s father.

In exchange for food and shelter, destitute women and their children are supposed to work for the family members who have taken them in. After their father’s early death, T and his brothers had worked on the family farm in Reghaïa without pay for his father’s younger brother, after all of my father-in-law’s assets had been seized by the  uncle in question.

This custom is called acrik, and amounts to the kind of serfdom found in medieval Europe. Some people are indentured for the rest of their lives – working just for the food they eat and the roof over their heads. From his childhood onwards, Amirouche had worked without pay for his mother’s brother.

The way out of this servitude was usually education. It was so for T and his brothers, and Amirouche was also able to go to school for two or three years. He learned to read and write – enough to marry, move away, and set up a small business selling Kabyle jewellery in Relizane, near Oran.

He became interested in politics, joining Messali Hadj’s pro-independence movement, the MTLD, and later, its clandestine armed wing, the OS. Imprisoned in 1951 and then released, he would become even more passionately engaged in the fight for Algeria’s independence.

Krim Belkacem, one of the historic leaders of the independence struggle, on learning that Amirouche had assumed, without permission, the command of the FLN in the region of Michelet on the death of its former commander, had been in two minds whether to maintain this impertinent upstart in his post or get rid of him.

Krim had been impressed, however, on meeting the tall, spare, coureur des djébels, (hill runner) for the first time. Amirouche had a long, boney face ending in a determined chin, restless eyes as black as currants, and a typical Kabyle aquiline nose above the obligatory dark moustache. 

The FLN leader found the young fighter single-minded and decisive, yet willing to follow orders, and, best of all — extremely well -organised. He decided to spare his life, saying six months later that Amirouche had turned out to be one of his best lieutenants.


Amirouche  Photo: Wikipedia

This organisational ability was soon to be seen in the steady stream of reports flowing from Amirouche’s pen to the FLN High Command, all written in his cramped handwriting, on headed paper, in triplicate, and signed and stamped by him personally. He kept his accounts to the nearest centime.

I find these character traits — single-mindedness, extreme courage, a capacity for hard work, physical endurance and an almost masochistic austerity — to be very common amongst Kabyles. Perhaps all mountain dwellers are the same – their character a product of the harshness of their environment.

Although Amirouche was a ruthless disciplinarian, his soldiers were loyal to him, as they had found that, although he was hard on them, he was even harder on himself. He would lend a hand whenever there was hard work to be done, and sleep, rolled in his burnous, on the rocky soil, not on a camp bed like the other commanders.

Always restless, never wanting to sleep in the same place two nights running for security reasons, he would travel from village to village on foot, sometimes covering seventy kilometres a day, all the while quoting, from memory, lines of poetry by the Kabyle wandering bard, Si Muhand ou-Muhand, who had railed against French rule over eighty years before.


Si Muhand

Called “The Berber Verlaine” by scholars, Si Muhand’s life had been blighted by the repression following the Mokrani uprising of 1871, his father being executed, his uncle exiled and all his family’s possessions forfeited. “I have sworn that, from Tizi-Ouzou to Akfadou, I will never submit to their domination…”

Amirouche rapidly climbed the echelons of the FLN, before being promoted to the rank of colonel in 1957 and put in charge of Wilaya III, or Greater Kabylie. The French began to call him The Wolf of Akfadou, Amirouche the Terrible, or again, The Lion of Kabylie.

Two incidents were to mark the last two years of Amirouche’s life — one that was to tarnish his reputation irremediably and the other leading to his own death.

In 1958, the French secret services were looking desperately for the chink in Amirouche’s armour. They found that his Achilles heel wasn’t money, women, or alcohol. It was his own obsessive nature, of a kind which, if unchecked, can lead to paranoia. Using a form of psychological warfare, they made him believe that any young man going underground to join him was a traitor, a mole sent by the French to infiltrate the soldiers under his command.  

This led to him instigating a series of bloody purges, called la bleuïte, of young idealists, des bleus, (rookies), fleeing from the Battle of Algiers to join him up in the mountains. Often the “capital” crimes of which they were accused amounted to little more than asking questions, or showing “an incorrect revolutionary attitude.” A massacre of the innocents. 

Most of the victims were educated – intellectuals, students, doctors and teachers. Algeria’s hopes for the future, cut down before their time. I am sure that my own husband could easily have been amongst the victims, if he had not had to take care of his mother and siblings. His uncles had tried to persuade him to join Amirouche to get rid of him once and for all.

As it was, those executed were buried where they fell, in shallow graves on cold hillsides, the moan of the bitter wind sweeping through the mountain gorges the only prayer for the dead they would hear.  A friend told T that he had actually seen their pathetic belongings piled up in a storeroom, their battered suitcases tied with string, their torn rucksacks spilling out their pitiful contents – an old pair of shoes; a crumpled dirty shirt…

Even Amirouche himself admitted that at least twenty per cent of the victims were innocent. He is quoted as saying, “…. to get rid of gangrene, you have to cut until you find healthy flesh. It doesn’t matter if two-thirds of Algerians are killed, as long as the remaining one-third is free….”

By the end of 1958, Amirouche had his region in the grip of terror, the contagion spreading to neighbouring military zones. In March 1959, he decided to go to Tunis to call the GPRA (the FLN’s political wing) to account for their lack of participation in the war. He declared that it was time to demand of  “these palace revolutionaries, these gentrified leaders in Tunis and Cairo” that those fighting on the ground inside Algeria be given a greater say in the direction the revolution was taking.

His plans had, however, been revealed to the French military by traitors.  By the time his men got wind of the betrayal and sent a messenger scurrying after him, he was already dead. He had been ambushed in the barren wastes of the Hodna, with the French pitting two thousand, five hundred soldiers, helicopters, bazookas, fighter planes and armoured trucks against him and his forty followers, armed only with their guns.

When the smoke cleared, Amirouche’s body was found, embalmed and put on show, like the body of Che Guevara, with French officers and soldiers posing with his corpse for photographers. As if that weren’t the ultimate indignity, Boumediène, always jealous, had his remains exhumed, reburying them in the cellar of an army barracks, where they remained for seventeen years, until Amirouche’s son was finally able to lay him to rest, with full honours, in El-Alia cemetery in Algiers.

Hero or villain? The jury is still out. For my mother-in-law, there was no doubt. He was her hero.

The Berber Spring

Vous ne pouvez pas nous tuer. Nous sommes déjà morts.

(You can’t kill us. We’re already dead.)

 – One of the slogans used during the Berber Spring demonstrations.

 In 1978, President Boumediène died in somewhat mysterious circumstances. As was usual in Algeria, nothing was known about the personal lives of those in power, with Mrs. Boumediène only surfacing after her husband’s demise. So when Boumediène’s death, officially from a rare blood disease, was announced, it came as a great shock to everyone.

He had been in a coma for months, although nobody knew it at the time. Even now, rumours still persist that he died from lithium poisoning, the lithium having been administered supposedly during an official visit to Baghdad. Make of that what you will. Continue reading

The Berbers

“We are not Westerners, following a Western lifestyle. But neither are we from the East. We are a unique race, and we will remain so.”

-Abane Ramdane

Let’s get one thing straight. Algerians are not Arabs. Their own indigenous values and languages may have given way to the onslaught of the invaders from the Arabian peninsula, who spread their values, traditions, language, as well as their religion, Islam, in the seventh century, but they are not ethnic Arabs.


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