Language, ideology and belonging, the Algerian paradigm IV

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 🙂


7 thoughts on “Language, ideology and belonging, the Algerian paradigm IV

  1. Tout d’abord, l’être humain, un primate tribal, a besoin d’une identité commune définissant la tribu aussi grande soit-elle. A mon avis considérer la question de la quête d’identité de la tribu (au sens large) comme une diversion politique est un tort. Pourquoi ne pas considérer par la même occasion la quête de subsistance comme une question secondaire? L’échec de cette dernière porte atteinte à l’intégrité physique de l’individu, l’échec de la première, est plus insidieux porte atteinte à l’intégrité du groupe ce qui à terme, la tribu le sait d’instinct, porte atteinte à l’intégrité de chaque individu.

    Maintenant, chez nous, qui peut dire de quelle origine il est? Personne. En revanche, l’histoire des grands mouvements de populations est tout à fait en mesure de donner les grand évenements qui modifient en profondeur la composante ethnique d’une population et ce ne sont pas les mouvements individuels qui apportent ces bouleversements mais bien des mouvements visibles à l’échelle de l’histoire. Les arabes en Afrique du nord? Un seul mouvement massif d’arabes s’étant établis en Afrique du nord a été enregistré par l’histoire, celui des Banou Hilal. On estime leur nombre à un dixième de la population locale. Qui est d’origine purement Banou Hilal, d’origine bérbére ou un mélange des deux… personne ne sait. Ce qu’on peut logiquement dire, c’est que parmi ceux qu’on appelle les arabes et qui sont la majorité dans notre pays, une très grande partie sont des berbères arabisés ou alors, il y a un miracle démographique ou un génocide qui a inversé les proportions des uns et des autres… wallahou A3lam

    Quand à toi, moi ou l’autre… Je suis né d’une famille dite arabe de père et de mère depuis des générations mais dans notre village d’origine dans les maquis de l’est algérien, les noms de mechtas sont berbéres et la face des individus, le goût de l’huile d’olive et des figues sèches est exactement le même que dans la petite kabylie voisine.

    Quand à se valoriser par son origine, ça c’est le sport national et apparremment, d’après ce qu’on lit, il n’est pas récent.

    • QatKhal,

      Quand je parlais de distractions, je pensais evidemment aux politiciens et nullement aux individus ou autres academiciens. Je concois tout a fait que certaines personnes puissent avoir le besoin de creuser pour connaitre leur origine/identite. En fait, je pourrais meme accepter que les politiciens utilisent l’aspect identitaire a des fins “louables”. Le probleme c’est qu’en general, quand un politicien parle d’identite, c’est soit pour distraire ou, pire, pour diviser voire faire une guerre.
      Et en ce qui concerne les Amazighs, tant que rien de serieux et sur n’existe sur leur(s) origine(s), et ce malgre notre connaissance des grands mouvements humains, il me parrait un peu ridicule de vouloir insister sur une possible ou probable origine alors que l’adjectif qui lui correspondrait le mieux est mythique.

      Pour le nombres d’arabophones aujourd’hui en Algerie, et a ma connaissance, aucune recherche serieuse ne parle de super-fertilite ni de genocide. Ce sont tout simplement les Berberes qui se seraient arabises. Pourquoi? Les theories ne manquent pas…

  2. Thanks for this series MnarviDZ. I have always found the ‘kabyles’ interesting because to my Algerian mind, they are different from the other Berbers (Chaouis, Mozabite, Tuareg for example). I have always wondered why Kabyles take this issue to extremes when the other major tribes in Algeria seem blasé about the whole identity thing. Even when the Southerners sometimes complain about being abandonned by the government, they never bring in identity questions (to the best of my knowledge anyway). So going back to your post, my question is why is it only Kabyles who bring up this issue? Is it the government who makes it seem so? Or is there something really particular to the Kabyles which resulted in this phenomenon? Also, do you think this myth is important enough not to be demystified? I get the sense from your post that it doesn’t bother you if it’s a myth, you would continue to believe that you are Kabyle and the others are ‘Arabs’. If you no longer believed that, would it bother you immensely even knowing it was a myth?

    When I was at school, I identified myself as Algerian, if asked whether am Arab or Amazigh, I would have chosen Arab because I do not speak any of the other dialects (languages) that are spoken in Algeria. Now, Algerian seems to be enough, because with this information age, I have discovered that I don’t have much in common with ‘Arabs’ (people who inhabit the Arabian peninsula) apart from language and religion and other cultural things which stem from these important things. When presented with tangible information that I haven’t much in common with ‘Arabs’, it didn’t bother me to let go of this and I decided that Algerian is quite enough. Somehow, this doesn’t seem to apply to Kabyles.

    Incidentally, Ibn Badis was spot on when he said: sha3b el djazayir mouslimoun wa ila el 3ouroubati yantassib. I think that the concept of 3orouba is often confused with being Arab. They are not the same thing.

    • I think it’s a fact that the Kabyles (and Chnaoua) are those to whom this identity/language thing matters most. I believe the Touaregs have their own issues and live in a different environment/context. The Mozabites not only have a different language (even though it has a lot of Arabic in it, relatively) but also a different way of practising religion. Also they are not too many compared to Kabyles and are less spread geographically.
      What I don’t get is the Chaouia’s stance. I remember that before the late 1980s, only a few Chaouias in remote villages did talk in Chaouia, the rest spoke in Arabic. And it was only after October 1988 that the Chaouia dialect (I say dialect because I think all are dialects of Tamazight) became livelier.
      Some argue that it’s because they had many of their members in the army and pouvoir (BTS clan) but Kabyles are also present in state institutions. Others say it’s because Kabyles are always ready to revolt and contest, but I believe this is a consequence and not the cause. So I don’t know to be honest, but politics probably has a big share in it…

      Also, do you think this myth is important enough not to be demystified? I get the sense from your post that it doesn’t bother you if it’s a myth, you would continue to believe that you are Kabyle and the others are ‘Arabs’. If you no longer believed that, would it bother you immensely even knowing it was a myth?

      Do you mean the myth of Berbers having Arab origins? I think there are two aspects:
      1/ Algerians being Arabs or Berbers. If Arabs here means descendants of the Arab Muslims who stayed in North Africa after the conquests, or descendants of Bani Hilal. In this case they’re definitely not Arabs in their majority given the very small numbers of the above two groups; they are just arabised Berbers. If Arabs means they speak Arabic then yeah most Algerians are Arabs…
      2/ The origins of the Berbers themselves being “ancient” Arabs from Yemen or Palestine. This is a myth, and whether it is confirmed one day or not, I must say I do not care much. Unless they find out we come from the Americas then I might apply for an an American citizenship 😉

      I never thought or said I was Arab, but I feel my fellow Algerians are closer to me than non-Algerian Berbers (the Shleuh of Morocco, the Canarians or those Egyptians in Siwa). Needless to say that I find little common points with Gulf countries, but I guess my political stance towards them introduces some bias here 🙂

      I almost forgot an important point. I think that you should keep in mind that Kabyles are a minority in Algeria, they feel their culture and language are threatened by various factors, and they act as such. It’s therefore normal that an Algerian Arab doesn’t react to some things the way an Algerian Kabyle does.

      MnarviDZ As-Sanhadji, as my new signature!

  3. Moi en tout cas, je peux remonter très très loin dans mes origines et avec certitude, ne t’en déplaise Mnarvi : je suis fille d’Adam, c’est sur 🙂
    Il est vrai que cette quête des origines est “naturelle” chez tous les êtres humains, mais en faire un débat (je parle des politiques bien sur) à chaque fois… la question est intéressante du point de vue historique, sociologique, culturel… mais politique, elle cause toujours des dégâts.
    Moi je suis une arabophone (et je ne dis pas non berbère) mariée à un berbérophone (et je ne dis pas non arabe) des hautes montagnes du Djurdjura, et nous n’avons jamais eu de problèmes d’identité entre nous. J’ai même habité en Kabylie à moment donné et je n’ai eu aucun problème à m’adapter.

    • Oumelkheir,

      Nous sommes d’accord sur ton premier point.
      Pour le second, peut-etre as-tu raison de parler d’arabophones et de berberophones, c’est peut-etre plus juste mais je n’ai pas de probleme particulier avec l’appellation arabe et berbere meme si c’est peut-etre un abus.
      Par contre, il est interessant que tu aies parle de probleme d’adaptation. Je note qu’en Algerie, des qu’on parle d’identites differentes, les mots problemes et adaptations apparaissent tres vite. Les mots affrontement et divisions ne sont generalement pas loin. Un ami arabe m’a rendu visite il y a une dizaine d’annee et a son arrivee chez moi il me disait qu’il etait surpris que les gens (kabyles) lui aient indique le chemin et que personne ne l’ait insulte. Peut-etre pensait-il que nous n’etions meme pas humains. Ca m’avait surpris… C’etait fou les fausses idees qu’il avait sur les kabyles alors qu’il habitait une wilaya limitrophe…

      PS: Le plus interessant n’est pas toujours de trouver la source ou l’origine mais plustot le cheminement entre soi et cette origine. Je pense rani hareb pour le moment avec un cheminement retrace sur pres de 2 siecles 😉

      • Pour l’adaptation, ce n’est pas de ça que je parlais. Awalan, toute “3roussa” ( peut rencontrer des problèmes d’adaptation au milieu de sa belle-famille, mais je pensais plutôt à thaniyan et qui est le “problème” de la langue. C’est à ça que je pensais précisément et à rien d’autre… peut-être que grâce à mes études d’archéologie, je suis plus “apte” à saisir les tenants et les aboutissants de notre histoire, et à avoir moins de préjugés? Peut-être…

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