The Berbers of Algeria

Summary: Algerian recognition of the Berber New Year as a national holiday the culmination of a difficult history, symbolising the possibility of national reconciliation and unity.

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5 thoughts on “The Berbers of Algeria”

  1. A possible explanation for the muted reaction in Algeria to the government’s decision to make Yennayer, the Berber New Year, a national holiday is that this was not really a watershed event. The watershed event was the official recognition of the Berber or Amazigh (literally ‘free man’; plural: Imazighen) dimension of the Algerian nation enshrined in the revised constitution of November 1996. This broke with what had previously been the orthodoxy of all varieties of Algerian nationalism, that Algeria was ‘Arabo-Muslim’ in culture, a formula that withheld recognition from the Amazigh dimension. The subsequent decision, in 2002, to recognize Thamazighth, the Berber language, as a ‘national language’ presupposed this prior, fundamental, change in the doctrine of the Algerian nation-state, and in its turn paved the way for the according to Thamazighth of the additional status of an ‘official language’, that is, a language of administration and government, announced in 2016. How this will work in practice remains to be seen, since there is no ‘modern standard Thamazighth’ comparable to modern standard Arabic; the Berber language in Algeria exists only in the form of distinct dialects: Thaqbaylith (Kabyle), Thashawith (Shawi), Thamzabith (the dialect of the Mzabis), Tamahaq (the dialect of the Tuareg) and so on and as yet only Thaqbaylith is fully established as a written language.
    This linguistic diversity reflects the social and cultural heterogeneity of the Algerian Berbers. Generalisations about Algeria’s Berbers abstract from major differences between them and are of limited validity. Historically, the Berbers have existed as distinct populations inhabiting separate and ecologically very different regions and having each their own particular relations with the central power, and these regional identities have been as important if not more important than the shared Amazigh identity. This was made very clear in the first pluralist elections in 1990 and 1991. The Kabyles voted for specifically Kabyle parties, the Shawiyya voted in roughly equal numbers for the FLN and the Islamic Salvation Front, the Tuareg voted en bloc for the FLN and the Mzabis avoided controversial choices by voting for their own ‘favourite son’ candidates standing as independents. There was no Berber vote as such and the explicitly Berber parties of Kabylia made little or no headway in the other Berber regions.
    Thus to speak of a general, nation-wide ‘Arab-Berber conflict’ is misleading. Not only is it wrong to generalize about the Berbers’ political leanings, it is also increasingly difficult to distinguish Algerian Berbers from Algerian ‘Arabs’. When, as Sir Alan Munro has reminded us, President Chadli Bendjedid invoked “Our ancestors, the Imazighen” 35 years ago, he was giving semi-official recognition to the fact that the vast majority of Algerians, Arabophones as well as Berberophones, are of at least partly Berber descent. To this should be added the fact that many Berber-speaking Algerians are also of mixed descent. Elements of the Berber-speaking population of Kabylia are of Arab ancestry. Many of the Shawiyya of the Sud-Constantinois are able to claim not only Amazigh but also Hilalian ancestry, that is, descent from the Banu Hilal tribes who originated in the Najd and subsequently migrated from Egypt to the Maghreb in the 11th century. At least two of the tribes of the Aurès massif (generally regarded as the core of the Shawiyya population) have been Arabic-speaking, not Berber-speaking, for several generations while losing nothing of their status as ‘Shawiyya’, and I know Algerian intellectuals who proudly describe themselves as Shawiyya who speak no Berber at all.
    So there are important grey areas and these have been steadily growing as a consequence of the massive rural exodus and urbanization since 1962. Kabyles are an important element of the populations of most Algerian towns and many second and third generation urban Kabyles no longer speak their parents’ or grandparents’ mother tongue, while still regarding themselves as, in some sense, ‘Kabyle’. The same can be said of those Shawiyya who now reside in the cities. In these circumstances, to speak (as the BBC has tended to do) of “ethnic Berbers” as distinct from if not opposed to “ethnic Arabs” is misconceived.
    With the government’s recognition of the Amazigh dimension of the nation and the according of national and now official status to Thamazighth, the Berber question, as a question of the Berber identity and language at the national level, has been substantially resolved and the Berberist movement as a movement demanding this recognition has largely achieved its original objectives and has lost its original coherence and begun to splinter. This development is clearest in Kabylia, which pioneered the Berber identity movement in the 1970s and 1980s. Some activists remain committed to the original language objective and are making it their business to think through how Thamazighth may be enabled to function effectively as an official language and how best it may be taught. But the more radical wing of the former Berberist movement in Kabylia has broken with its original Berberist outlook and the preoccupation with language and identity and has evolved into a specifically Kabyle movement demanding, initially, autonomy and now nothing short of full self-determination for Kabylia. This development originated not in Algeria but in the Kabyle diaspora in France, where its architect, the well-known singer and poet, Ferhat Mehenni, founded the Mouvement pour l’Autonomie de la Kabylie (MAK) in 2001. This has since become the Mouvement pour l’Autodétermination de la Kabylie. When I toured both Great and Lesser Kabylia to promote my book Algerie-Kabylie two years ago, it was clear to me that many younger Kabyles were attracted to the MAK’s radicalism (in part because of widespread disenchantment with the Kabyle parties, which are seen as having achieved little or nothing), but that Kabyle public opinion as a whole was undecided and much of it sceptical if not frankly apprehensive, since the MAK’s project implies a frontal conflict, sooner or later, with the Algerian state and has found no support in Algeria’s other Berber populations.
    In other words, underlying the raising of a Berber question 30-40 years ago was something else, a specifically Kabyle question which was articulated for a while in the broader language-identity agitation but is now being articulated in very different – and both narrower and more controversial – terms. The appeal of the MAK to frustrated Kabyle youth is above all a function of its verbal radicalism and militancy; its strategic weakness is that its project is extremely implausible in both its soft (autonomy) and hard (Independence) versions, since the Algerian government cannot be expected to concede either. Whether the government has an effective answer of its own to the Kabyle question as this is now presenting itself is unclear.

  2. May I add my penn’orth to the interesting exchanges on the current renaissance of Berber identity in Algeria. One of the first moves by the Algerian military regime to acknowledge growing Berber claims to be treated as a distinct culture was made by President Chadli Ben Jadid in 1984 in a public address in which he hazarded the word Amazigh. Berber protest, notably in Kabylie, subsided during his more liberal term of office, to be replaced by the first signs of a nascent islamist challenge to authority. The Berber community had since independence fallen under a degree of Arab suspicion on the grounds of favoured treatment during the years of French colonisation and service with the French security forces (the harkis).
    I had a personal experience of the sensitive legacy of the French language post-independence when, on presenting my credentials to President Ben Jadid in 1984, I delivered the customary public statement in my somewhat rusty arabic. A government minister told me a couple of days later that the president had subsequently admonished his mainly francophone cabinet with the comment that if the British ambassador could speak arabic, then they could….

  3. With reference to your interesting piece on Algerian Berbers, and Oliver’s comment, when I was in Morocco I speculated on the damage being done to the economy when the business and political elite spoke exclusively in French and everyone else in Moroccan Arabic. There was an amusing incident when the then otherwise highly regarded Wali (Governor) of Casablanca tried to speak Moroccan Arabic on the TV. No one could understand; hence widespread derision. This was many years ago. Perhaps things have now changed as Arabic has become the main medium.

  4. Two old stories illustrate the weakness of Arabic in Algeria, no doubt much changed by the Arabisation policy pursued since independence in 1962 (the second also illustrates the Gulf between la Francophonie and the English language, now a thing of the past).
    Around the time of independence I heard a broadcast speech by the nationalist leader Farhat Abbas delivered to dock workers in Algiers. He started in (a very Algerian form of) Arabic, but soon had to go on in (a very Algerian form of) French.
    In the early 1980s I was involved in the Foreign Office with a visit by the Algerian Minister of planning, who most unusually spoke English well. The Algerian ambassador, somewhat embarrassed, asked me whether I could provide an interpreter for him when the Minister spoke to the Confederation of British Industries since he didn’t speak English. I arranged it. His deputy asked me whether he could have an interpreter too. I said no, he could share with the ambassador. Even more embarrassed he explained that he didn’t speak Arabic either – only French and Berber.

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