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A land, a story, a people

Aurès, vivre la terre chaouie is the latest book from publishing house Chihab: authentic, generous and dynamic, with human stories that are key to understanding life in the Aurès mountains in north-east Algeria. This is the reason why Azeddine Guerfi, founder of Chihab, decided to publish the stories. 

It is quite rare in Algeria for a publisher to address the question of cultural heritage through its human dimension.

True, and this was exactly the idea behind our approach. We wanted to give a voice to the people who narrate the history of their land, carry its memory, sing about it, paint it and contribute to its development. But we also wanted to make a living, relevant book about the Aurès of today.

You didn’t choose the Aurès by chance. You were born there and know this region very well.

It all started with the work of Philippe Thiriez, who we credit in the present book as an authors. He is a priest from the White Father missionary order who taught French literature in a high school in Batna from 1976 to 1985, and had compiled a booklet of information and notes during his travels to various places in the Aurès region. The result of this work, a self-published book titled, En flânant dans les Aurès (Strolling through the Aurès), came out at the beginning of the ’80s. Five years ago, he came back to us in order to republish the book. The information contained in it was starting to become outdated, but there were a lot of notes about the places. As I was born in the region myself, I suggested we go through these routes once more, but with a different approach. A new team was set up and ready to go soon afterwards.

How did it go on site?

Together with Kays Djilali, we drove 4,500 km! After having identified a few people, we shared the work, portraits and routes with journalist Nadia Bouseloua and writer Rachid Mokhtari. It took us two and a half years. Sometimes we would come back two or three times to the same place in order to get the best possible light, at the right season and so on. We would immerse ourselves for days in the subject we were working on. Once we got up at 5am and went outside in the cold to hunt duck! There was also this ancient Roman oil press still in working condition that we found after walking for kilometres.

What is the most striking anecdote from your experiences?

That would definitely be our encounter with Hacène Kadri, a Citröen car collector. We arrived at this isolated farm. There was a car cemetery there, full of Traction Avants. Hacène told us about his passion for these cars, about how he sold one of his cows in order to buy a wrecked one, fell in love with a Citroën he’d finally bought 10 years later, and how he finally married the daughter of the car’s owner. A real character!

Do you have any other projects or media planned to showcase all this work?

Yes, we do. The photographic archive of this work contains more than 8,000 items, only 20% of which is used in the book. We are thinking about organising an exhibition, possibly a travelling one going all the way to Europe. Starting from next year, we are planning to replicate this concept in other regions in Algeria.

Below, a number of vignettes from life in the land of the Chaoui, TacfarinasKahina or Larbi Ben M’Hidi, and pictures by Kays Djilali.

Mohammed Boukerche: Racing in the blood

First a stable boy, then a groom, a trainer and finally a jockey. Mohammed − noticed for his small size − was first approached by Aïda, a breeder, at the age of 16. This was in Djelfa, where he worked in a café to help support his father, a professional soldier, and six siblings. Following a successful career, Mohammed still works with looking after horses at the Barika Racetracks. “Here, each family has their own horse,” said Mohammed. “People acknowledge and appreciate my professional skills and treat me like their son.”

After snowfall

The view of the snow-covered Aurès mountains, from the Iddert pass (1857m), close to Medina.

Zoubida Assoul: A Kahina warrior queen of the bar

For Zoubida, being a judge was not enough. At some point in the 80s, she started to thoroughly review legal texts and make her voice heard in a political arena that had all the markings of an old boys’ club. She was elected general secretary of the Algerian Lawyers Union, where she battled against the country’s infamous family code. Then, in 2006, when she was director of the Department for the Protection of Minors, deputy director of the Civil Justice Directorate and inspector at the Ministry of Justice, she was elected chairwoman of the Arab Woman’s Legal Network, a Jordan-based NGO. “Women account for 36 percents of the bench. We have to help them break out of seclusion,” says Zoubida.

Spring in El Kantara, on the way to Biskra.

The Aurès mountains are all about contrasts. The northern slopes harbour green oak forests and, higher up, beautiful cedar groves. The southern slopes only host dry forests of Aleppo pines and Phoenician junipers. Even further south, they give way to the steppe and, deep down in the valleys, palm groves.

Ahmed Gada: Self-exiled outlaw at thirteen.

Ahmed went underground in 1947, at the age of thirteen. A former comrade-in-arms of Ben Boulaïd (who sent him on a mission in Wilayah III to neutralise supporters of Messali Hadj), Ahmed still remembers what happened during the independence war. “In 1956, we contacted Krim Belkacem, who refused to meet with us. Our answer to him was to refuse in turn to participate in the Soummam Congress.”

Zerfa and Hedda Brahmia: Harbingers of celebration.

In the ancient village of Ichmoul, a fiefdom of the Touabas tribe, Zerfa and her sister Hedda belong to the last true generation of dancers and singers of the Chaoui tradition. An expert in a famous Rahabas band, Hedda is now the only one going on stage to continue the tradition, after her elder sister stopped. This, she said, out of respect for her son, who is now a man. In accordance with an ancient local custom, Zerfa’s status as a divorced woman allows her to commit completely to this ritual of vocal and choreographic art.

After the rain.

Scenery between the villages of Taffasourt and Khanguet Sidi Nadji.

Mohamed Sisbane: The gunsmith of Oued Taga A man in his 70s, wrapped in the traditional cheche, a gaunt face adorned with a fine moustache, Mohamed has the noble bearing of the Fantasia horse riders. He is one of the last masters of gunsmith, a dying art in a region where the rifle is still considered a member of the family. Mohamed recalls: “In 1956, I was contacted by a group of Fedayeen who asked me to help them by repairing 1,800 rimfire rifles as fast as I could!”

In Djebel Kasrou. 

A shepherd and her herd next to the El Gassaa springs in Djebel Kasrou, north of Batna.

Translated by Gregory Dziedzic.

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