Thursday, January 1, 2009

Arabization of the Berber Lands

Posted by Jugurten

A repeated theme among anti-Amazigh propagandists is that the Amazigh identity was created by the French and that the Amazigh militants are traitors, working for the French. A common insult is to call the Amazigh “sons of the White Fathers,” referring to the missionary Roman Catholic priests that worked in the mountains of Kabylia under French colonialism. Certainly, French colonialism changed the dynamics of North Africa, particularly in Algeria, and the issue of identity has its roots in the divide-and-conquer strategy of the former colonialist power. But it was the Arab identity that was created due to this strategy, and the process was institutionalized under the post-independence regimes, which were influenced by the pan-arabist ideology of the former Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Prior to French colonialism, Europeans referred to the area of North Africa as “Berberia”(1), recognizing that this was “Berber” land. Under colonialism, the area was called “L’Afrique Française du Nord” (French North Africa) and “Pays d’Atlas” (Land of the Atlas) by the French and “Africa Minor” by the Germans(2). In more ancient times, various names were used to refer to the area of North Africa or to parts of it, including: Afrikiyya, Libya, Numidia (central to eastern Algeria), Mauritanius (Morocco and western Algeria). At no time in history prior to the 20th century, was this area considered to be part of Arabia or Arab land. Under the French, the term Arab was used for the bedouins and as an insult. A look into a French or even English dictionary, will provide the meanings of “arab,” which includes a vagabond, or street urchin, in other words, someone without a settled residence. It was not always used literally, since the term was used to insult North Africans, sometimes followed by the word “dog.”

Despite the fact that Ottoman rule in Algeria was nominal, the military, government, and even culture of some of the cities had a Turkish character until the take-over of the French. There was even a term for the offspring of Ottoman Turks and Indigenous north Africans: Kouloughlis. The population also recognized Andalusians, descendants of the exiled Moors of Spain. The term “Moor,” itself, refers to the earlier designation of western North Africa by the Romans (Mauritanius). The French, however, created the dichotomy of Arab and Berber, a false dichotomy, which not only ignored the diversity of the land, but imposed a mythical identity.

The French identification of Arabs, at least at first, referred to all nomadic plain-dwellers,(3) and the term “Berber” was used for the settled mountain-dwellers, which is misleading. For example, the Tuareg, a nomadic group, is Berber, not only having preserved its language and culture, but also its ancient writing style (Tifinagh). The French also used the term “Kabyle” in different ways in its early colonial history. At first, it was used for all the mountain dwellers they had not yet conquered, including those in Blida, “the Dahra and Ouarsenis ranges on either side of the Chelif river from Mostaganem in the West to Cherchell in the East, the Trara range near the moroccan border,” and the mountains of what is today known as Kabylia.(4) As the lands were conquered, the term “Kabyle” came to refer to a smaller part of the population, until it included only the people of today’s Greater and Lesser Kabylia. The term Kabyle was often used interchangeably with Berber, and no distinction was made at first between what we know today as Kabyles, Chaouis, etc. Nevertheless, these distinctions were created under the French and caused, or rather has caused, a confusion among readers, including scholars, about who the Berbers are. Much too often, Berber becomes synonymous with Kabyle, according to the latter’s current definition, and statistics undercount the populations because of this error. The 25-30% “berber population,” which is provided as the official Algerian statistic, is a result of the manipulation of this misconception, and thus, the number reflects only the population of Kabylia, ignoring the millions of berbers in Algiers, Blida, Tlemcen, Oran, Constantine, the Aures, and throughout Algeria. A similar problem has occured in Morocco, whose government officially recognizes 40 percent of the population as Berber (linguists recognize about 60 percent).

Together with the identification of people as Arab under the French, was the imposition of the Arabic language. In 1833, the French established the écoles arabes-françaises (French-Arabic school system). Until 1898, graduation tests were required in the Arabic language. While mostly Algerian Jews attended the schools and only an estimated 1,300 Muslims by 1870 (5), this created an elite class of Arabic-speakers. Arabic had heretofore been the religious literary language, and not the language of the streets. While Algerian (and other North African) “darja” (dialect) has a primarily Arabic vocabulary, its grammar and syntax is not Arabic but rather Tamazight. It is interesting to note that neither Ottoman and Persian are defined as Arabic dialects but languages in their own right, despite the use of Arabic characters and their majority Arabic vocabulary.

Although the French-Arabic schools were not popular among the majority of the indigenous population, in the 20th century, the movement begun in 1922 by Abd al-Hamid Ben Badis to “purify” Islam, or more accurately to easternize the religious beliefs and practices of Algeria, resulted in the growth of Qur’anic schools, which also taught Arabic. Although the French are depicted as anti-Islam, they controlled religious affairs under their ministry, and permitted, if not actually encouraged, the islamization and arabization of Algeria. Descriptions of the Berber laws and culture by French and British missionaries and anthropologists raise the question whether these people were, in fact, Muslim, as historians maintain, or if some Muslim terms and practices merely were incorporated into their own beliefs, influenced by the Ottomans, who were Sunni Muslims. The results of the combined islamization and arabization of North Africa is that today, the religion is equated with the language, considered holy and untouchable, despite the fact that the vast majority of Muslims are not Arabs, and Indonesians, Turks, Pakistanis, Iranians, and other non-Arab Muslims do not feel the need to define themselves as Arabs even if they are Muslim. In fact, they emphatically reject such an identification. Only in North Africa are the two equated.

After independence, arabization became more institutionalized. Arabic became the official language of all North African countries. In Algeria, this was an especially difficult transition since very few were actually literate in the language. Teachers had to be imported from Syria, Egypt, and Trans-Jordan. The Constitution defined the people as Arab and Muslim. Yet this was never the intent of the revolutionists who fought within Algeria. They had perceived a heterogenous Algeria, home to all Algerians, whatever their ethnicity or religion. With the murder of leading Amazigh revolutionists and the takeover by those who had studied, worked, or trained in Egypt, arabization became the official enforcement policy. Ben Bella, who made the infamous statement “We are arabs, we are arabs, we are arabs” (ironically in the French language) and Boumedienne, the first two presidents of Algeria, were both Berbers!

Despite the denial of the indigenous character of North Africa, of the root of its culture, its uniqueness, the maternal language of millions of its inhabitants, despite the virtual eradication of this identity in Tunisia and Libya and the ongoing struggle in Algeria and Morocco for full and official recognition of the Amazigh identity and language, human rights activists, academics, and the press refuse to call arabization by what it is: a racist policy of cultural genocide. None condemn the settlements and displacement of peoples to arabize these countries; yet, this is an ongoing process in both Morocco and Algeria. While the governments say they recognize that their countries is Amazigho-Arab and that Tamazight is permitted, the fact is that anything related to the Amazigh, including the language, music, art, etc., is relegated to the folkloric, to the “traditional,” painting anything related to Amazighity as archaic and nostalgic, rather than a living, breathing, developing reality. The limits are placed to bar Amazighity from becoming a practical and modern identity, from the Tamazight language being capable of official use, with the incorporation of modern, scientific terms, needed for any language to be viable. For this reason, all work in standardizing and modernizing Tamazight must be done from abroad by the diaspora. In the artistic field, few recognize that there is Amazigh music that is as modern as any pop, alternative, or metal music we hear today, its tunes being far from those traditionally played at weddings and other celebrations, and its words dealing with topics from the Amazigh struggle to romantic love. And while pictures of traditional wear and Berbers struggling in poverty are commonplace and popular due to its “exotic” flavor, the modern professional or blue-collar Amazigh, a more common and realistic portrayal, is invisible to most of the international community.

It is time—long past overdue—to confront the racist arabization of the Amazigh lands.

by Blanca Madani-
- 1. Humbaraci, Arslan. Algeria: A Revolution that Failed. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1966, p. 10.
- 2. Ibid.
- 3. Lorcin, Patricia M. Imperial Identities: Sterotyping, Prejudice and Race in Colonial Algeria. London: I.B. Tauris Publishers, 1999, p. 2.
- 4. Ibid, p 5.- 5. Ruedy, John. Modern Algeria: The Origins and Development of a Nation. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992, p. 104.

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