The purpose of this series of posts, when I started it, was to discuss the francophone/arabophone divide within our élite and how it translated into a belonging ideology. I decided to extend the scope and tackle other aspects.
A few weeks ago, a Tunisian friend of mine told me that politicians in his country were busy discussing whether they were too much or not enough Arab/Berber/Muslim. He said, “we already know who we are so why are they talking of identity, religion and language when the population thinks unemployment, economic crisis and security?” Apparently, Tunisia’s political élite is like ours, but the fact there is an election in one year will perhaps force them (and Ennahdha particularly as they are in charge) to deal with the people’s real concerns and stop with the distractions.
So as useless as this topic may look, I will talk about our origins 🙂
The Egypt/Algeria football crisis made some of these two countries’ citizens question their belonging. Algerians suddenly remembered that they were
partly proud Amazigh, and Egyptians called back their Pharaonic past. Each party tried to show how superior their heritage and civilisation were; a comparison that gives a new perspective to French interior minister’s stupid statement.
Let me first tell you that I consider myself a Kabyle, or and Amazigh if you wish. I could even track my ancestors up to the early 19th century but couldn’t go further. Obviously, and despite my belonging to a specific family from a specific tribe which is part of Sanhadja, I am unable to say I am 100% Kabyle. I believe this is the case for all Algerians and nobody could tell they are “pure” Amazigh or Arabs or whatever. This is why I adopted the rule that you are what you say you are, and nobody has the right to tell you otherwise.
This would close the topic and let us go forward, but unfortunately, there are more and more people in Algeria who think they know better and want to convince the world that we are Arabs or Amazighs. It’s like you would tell me that I am Arab, and I would say no, and we would keep it going for ever. This is the kind of segmentation sources I mentioned here and which is encouraged by Algeria’s political system in a “divide and rule” process. This process has also been used by French colonial rule when
Our political system played another game as it tried to cancel our Amazigh heritage/culture. I talked somewhere about how strange it was for young Kabyles to go to school and hear a new language which, according to their teachers, is theirs! And even worse, my high school history teacher, who used to call me “leqbayli“, told us about the Arab (Yemeni) origins of us Amazigh people. Another said we were Phoenicians.
This cancellation was also done through the names we are or we are not allowed to give to our children. Things have changed now but many “Amazigh” names were not allowed in the past. And besides the “diversity leads to division” argument that is used in many countries which became independent in the past century, a religious argument was displayed in our case. How would one name their son Kusaila, the disbeliever who killed Uqba Ibn Nafi (ra), or Juba or Tacfarinas who worshipped the sun (is that even true?)
Now I hear people who mention DNA tests and profiles which would prove our Arab, Asian and what not origins of the Amazigh people. But the fact is there is no indisputable evidence of any of these theories. Nobody knows where we came from and our origin is still a mystery.
And it is not that important.
But then why does everyone talk about it? Besides distractions that is. An answer is given in this interesting article by Maya Shatzmiller. It is 13 pages long, and as I expect many of you to be tired after reading this long post, I am kindly going to summarise it for you, with some comments of mine.
The author doesn’t talk of the Amazighs origin but the myth of their origin. She says that nobody thought of the Amazigh origins before they started revolting in the ninth century. So some “oriental” Arab historians came up with theories linking the Kutama and Sanhadja tribes to Yemen’s Himyar, Palestine’s Goliath (of Arab Modhar) or Shem son of Noah. She points at the fact this “oriental” theory was only academic and had no political or race supremacy objectives; but this was the first time an Arab origin of Berbers theory was suggested.
In a second phase, the myth was prolonged by Andalusian Arabs and Berbers. A wave of hatred towards Berbers spread over the Arab population of Andalus and this because, among other things, Arab rulers used Berber soldiers to tame their Arab subjects after they were done fighting the Christians. So the Arab historians in Andalus came up with new theories denying any link between Arabs and Berbers, because being an Arab was considered a wonderful thing (negative feelings and hostility towards a race/ethnicity started here). On their side, Berber historians backed the theory of Arabic origin of the Berbers, and this was to help some Berber chiefs legitimize their rule in Andalus. This reminds me of what I said on the Moroccan monarchy and on Mubarak in a previous post.
And it was only in a third phase that North-African Berber historians dealt with the topic.
In a fourth phase, always in North Africa, historians no longer focused on the origins of Amazigh tribes but rather on the origins of some (ruling) families. Not only they did give them Arab origins but connected them with Ali Ibn Abi Talib (ra). This started with the Almohads and continued with later dynasties. A Alid origin provided the rulers with legitimacy and guaranteed them religious scholars’ support who forbid the people from revolting against a “religiously legitimate ruler”. Obviously, this wasn’t 100% efficient.
Later on, in the 15th century, the Sharif origin was “awarded” to the ruling families…
Another aspect that is discussed in Shatzmiller’s article is the way Berbers produced literature to say how great their race is. I remember reading an article with so many fake hadiths about the Berbers and how they liked Islam even before the Arab conquests. There was even one to prove that Berbers were mentioned in Quran. These hadiths were apparently created to counter another set of fake hadiths wave which attempted to prove the Arab race superiority, and also to counter the idea that the fact Berbers fought against Arab conquerors meant they were against Islam.
The article ends with a point which I’ll use to end my post here, and which takes me back to my Tunisian friend’s statement.
The author wrote that all these talks and theories about the myth of an Arabic origin of the Berbers was held only between some Arabs, some Arabised Berbers and the ruling families. A majority of North African inhabitants didn’t care at all and they had better to do. Her actual words were:
“Ce sont les historiens et les autres membres de l’élite intellectuelle de la cour qui sont seuls responsables d’avoir entretenu le mythe d’origine en Afrique du Nord, largement pour en tirer parti auprès de souverains trop souvent méfiants (65). Pour conclure, disons que malgré l’apparence populaire donnée par l’historiographie au mythe d’origine berbère en Afrique du Nord médiévale, ce mythe est resté l’héritage spirituel d’un secteur restreint de la population, qui, dans sa masse, n’eut aucunement l’occasion de le partager.”
PS: The origins of the Berbers was a topic to even earlier historians such as Sallust.
PPS: I wonder what today’s Berberists would say when they will hear that it was the Berbers themselves who defended an Arab origin of the Berbers 🙂