In the high plains of Souk Ahras, a province in the North African country of Algeria, the small village of Taoura is remotly situated away from the noise and the hustle and bustle of the big cities. Laying silent, simple and peaceful, Taoura seems to defy time and space as if it were 200 years ago. But Taoura also misses many of the good things that big cities have to offer. Also as in two centuries ago, it has no safe drinking water and no electricity and its topography consists of unpaved roads and disconnected streets making the access to the region’s single hospital and two schools a long way away for the residents.
Despite the peaceful settings, life could really be a struggle for the people of Taoura and poverty is a constant factor. To feed their families and buy simple things, most of the inhabitants rely on basic agriculture and sustenance from livestock. Many of them have been working in the fields of landowning families, while some work as shepherds and hourly-wage laborers. Most also maitain subsitence farming, essentially eating what their they sow. Facing these circumstances the people of the village became a close knit community, helping and solved each others’ problems when they arise.
The men wear simple Djellabas and cover their heads with Amamas. Equally simple, women’s clothing consists of the traditional long Gandoura, their hair being covered with long scarves to shelter themselves from the eyes of stranger men passing by. In these provinces, conservatism runs deep and religious teachings come first.
By the beginning of 1970, Ammi Brahim was 23 and his cousin Aicha was 16 when they got married. Both of them had grown up in that area and most of their relatives lived on the lands not far from them. Like most villagers, they were illiterate. Reading and writing were luxuries they could not efford and marrying young meant settling with childen at a young age. Seven years after they wed they had three lovely children. The two sons were Mehdi and Yousef, aged 4 and 2 respectively. The latest addition was baby girl Cherifa.
In normal days, Ammi Brahim woke up before El Fadjer (sunset) to prepare himself for prayer. Following prayer time to the letter meant that Ammi Brahim’s day was a perfect mirror of a day’s natural cycle. It meant being close to nature. After his Fadjer prayer, Ammi Brahim would take a home-made loaf of bread, a chouiya olives, two tomatoes and one onion, most fetched from the garden. He ate his breakfast before he made it to the land next to their simple home for farming. He worked hard duing long days in the fields under the hot summer sun or in the cold winter snow without questionning the hardship of his labor. In fact, he considered himself lucky, although he did not own the land, it belonged to his father. As the ancestral rules require, Ammi Brahim was to work on the land as if it were his, and in return he had to give his father, the landowner, two thirds of the harvest.
Ammi Brahim’s wife, Khalti Aicha (Aunt Aicha) helped him in his work when she could. That meant more work for her since she also had to take care of the household chores. She always woke up before him to prepare breakfast. The domestic animals she inherited from her father twelve rabbits, six chickens, three goats and 1 cow, had to be looked after, this before caring for the children and the baby. Every day she milked the cow to sell about thirteen liters of milk per day at price of 3 Dinars a liter then. She ensures enough milk was left over for her children and sometimes she made butter out of the cream. Eggs, chickens and rabbits were sold when she needed to pay for basic medical expenses for her children or even her husband. They were very poor and this was the only way to earn money so, they could ease their hardships. Ammi Brahim’s heart was torn between his health and his children future. He thought a lot about what would happen to his small family if he died. Inevitably he was sick and his health was not going to improve, but his dreams remained with his children, that his daughter Cherifa will find a good husband who will take care of her and that his sons Mehdi and Yousef will go to school and manage to find a job in the city so they can build a house with electricity and running water to live a more comfortable life. Brahim thought of the Kottab as a basic moral education to insure that his children will be instructed. Early one Friday morning, he took a break from the field to take care of his elder son’s pre-schooling and after El Dhohr prayers made a visit to the tombs of his ancestors. Mehdi was very happy to join the Kottab and to learn the holly Quran as he liked a lot imitating his parents and grandparents who he saw at prayer. Cheikh Abdurrahmane was the Teacher and Imam of the only mosque in the village, he was respected by all. The young children were calling him Sidi and the elder ones Cheikh.
Mehdi impressed him with the knowledge he had learnt from his parents, by the age of four he was already able to recites three short Quranic Ayats; being Suraht el Fatiha, Suraht el Ikhlass and Ayat el Kursi. The classroom was very modest and small no more than 5m by 5m with four open windows to refresh the air and giving a view over the greenery of the mountains. The young children were sitting together on the ground forming a semi-circle around Cheikh Abdurrahmane, they repeated with him the melodious rhythm of the Sourahts, and some of them managed to follow the words and sentences on their wooden slates. The Cheikh was sitting on the “Mastaba” the long stick “El Assa” in his right hand, he was “keeping an eye” and looking at the children with authority. He (The Cheikh) explained to Ammi Brahim his methods of teaching. “When the child comes to Kottab at the age 4 years, he will start learning the alphabet and the elementary rules of the mathematics and it is only at the age of 5 that they begin to learn the holy Quran”. If a child made a fault of pronunciation he would give him a light blow, no place here for spoilt children and all Parents knew this and encouraged their Sons & Daughters with their recitation of the holy Quran. Ammi Brahim came back home very happy with the knowledge that his son would learn to write, read, calculate and study the holy Quran. These were chances that he never got when he was young.
He was even thinking to do the same with Yousef and Cherifa when they were older. Ammi Brahim left his son in Kottab with the Cheikh, from the first day he was a smart and a well liked boy by all. He enjoyed himself , made new friends Saleh, Hamza, Soheib, Kenza, Khadidja, Fatima Zohra and so on. As the youngest he was very shy of talking with the girls! Gradually Hamza, an orphan boy from the village, became his best friend and he thought of him as an elder brother. Hamza took a good care of him, guiding him home after School, teaching him plenty of popular games that all boys of his age love, playing the Flute ”Gasba”, “Hide and Seek” and sometimes Marbles. They shared lots of fun and spent a great deal of time together. A year later, by the beginning of Summer, Hamza had to leave the Kottab and start his professional life, at the age of 7 thinking to join his grandfather on the plains around the village to become a shepherd working with big flocks, to earn extra money to pay for living needs and to build his future . Mehdi felt sad at not seeing his best friend but Hamza promised to keeping in contact and would visit him at home from time to time. He remembered the fun of playing the flute “Gsaba”and offered him a modest one as a gift and reminder of their friendship. In return Mehdi promised him to learn as much of the flute’Gasba’ he could and offered Hamza a small rabbit that his Mother had given him only a few days previously. When Mehdi reached the age of six Cheikh Abdurrahman encouraged him to join the elementary school in the next village and to continue his lessons in the Kottab at weekends. Mehdi really wanted to take the opportunity for more study and hoped his Father would realize that he was a bright and gifted student. It turned out that Mehdi should not have worried as Ammi Brahim felt proud when he received the news, he thought that his wife should sell few of her rabbits, some chickens and a goat of her to enable them to buy a donkey to take Mehdi to school. Khalti Aicha had no objections and went to Souk and sold the majority of her small domestic animals and Mehdi joined the new school with his brother Yousef joining the old Kottab.
Yousef was quite different from his elder brother, an unhappy boy who never stopped crying and weeping, needing at all the time to be guided by his parents. Ammi Brahim and his wife became very tired with his education but did never give up taking care of him. A couple of weeks later El Cheikh noticed the pains of the young boy and guessed that the secret of his bad behaviours was more serious then being a spoiled child, but he was short sighted with the problem becoming progressively worse. Immediately Cheikh called Ammi Brahim, explained him the situation and advised him to take him to the best doctor in the city. Ammi Brahim couldn’t afford an immediate medical check up and delayed until the harvest was in. But things couldn’t wait. An early morning Yousef, whilst chasing after a rabbit to put back in the cage he fell badly and lost consciousness for about 6 hours and from that time his sight suffered more and more. Ammi Brahim and his wife Aicha couldn’t bear seeing him suffering and decided to ask help from his father but his request was rejected by his Fathers second wife. Khalti Aicha managed to borrow a little money from her neighbour Halima who was great help and comfort during this desperate time. The doctors diagnosed that the injury had caused a brain injury. The poor parents then wasted more than one year on different treatments. But to no avail and that by a year later the young poor boy had lost his sight.
The harvest was not good during the year 1980, due to the lack of concentration by Ammi Brahim distracted by the terrible problems he faced with Yousef’s health. Being blind became his destiny and he had to deal with it but the poor young boy suffered a lot in accepting his new life. These events and the poor harvest caused a lot troubles for Ammi Brahim with his father that became so bad that he removed his son from the land. Ammi Brahim could not believe his Fathers reaction that the stress and shame brought on a heart attack. Khalti Aicha was at home and saw a group of men coming her way carrying Ammi Brahim who had a terrible vacant look. Asking what was happening and why were all these people around her husband, her neighbor Halima came to her with the saddest news she had heard in her life, it was so hard to tell Khalti Aicha that her husband Ammi Brahim had passed away. Months after the funeral khalti Aicha was still feeling bad, it was a huge blow. She thought she would never come back from and could not stop crying and mourning her husband who considered him not only a husband but a lover, a brother, a cousin and her best friend.
He was to be her destiny and protector since the day she was born, he was a part of her, how would she live without Brahim she asked with a broken heart to Halima? How hard it was to put words together for her, his passing was sudden and devastating, things could never be the same for khalti Aicha and was painful to watch. Halima was consoling and gave good counseling to her, trying to get past of her grief. She explained : ”God loved him, called him, he is in a better place and remember no one lasts forever. He was a man of extraordinary kindness to others, the only thing you can do is to continue your prayers and devote your life to your beloved children as the fruit of your love”. Aicha cried again when she looked at her food store and found it empty, she needed food to feed her children but nothing remained, she had to be strong to manage this bad situation. Aicha didn’t notice that Mehdi was in the room and yes, he heard all her conversations, without saying anything he left home crying and running straight to the plains to look for his friend Hamza and seek any mean of help for his Mother to make her stop crying. Hamza introduced him to Mr.Merbah a wealthy farmer and the owner of big flocks, he promised him a position of shepherd, but what about School and Kottab asked Mehdi with a sad face? Hamza explained him the option of studying by correspondence added that then he can work as shepherd and still study.
He explained to him his own personal experience, and told him he could also join Kottab from time to time. Mehdi was happy with his friend ideas, he also thought to sell the donkey since he will not need it anymore, and with the money he would buy small domestic animals. Very ambitious to get on with this project he went back home and explained to his Mother; she accepted on condition he promised to continue his studies by correspondence. Early in the morning Mehdi and kalti Aicha went to the Souk in the village to sell the donkey and buy domestic animals, by the end of the day they came back with 6 rabbits, 10 chickens, 10 turkeys and 2 goats for their milk. It was a very hard and stressful day but all ended well “El hamdoulah”. Aicha started teaching her son all she knew about the breeding of the domestic animals and explained that they should be treated like babies with tender loving care. They were mainly fed on scraps from the table which was convenient and cheap for them; she added we should thank God evry day and ask him to keep our animals in good health to grant us good luck with them, this way they bring extra money and better nutrition for our family.