By guest contributor Rosalie Calvet
A little less than a year ago, a prestigious American university hosted a conference about French-Algerian history, gathering the leading specialists of the topic.
A prominent French scholar closed his presentation by opening the debate to the audience. Immediately, one of his North American fellows asked “Since you do not speak Arabic, do you feel somewhat limited in your work on French Algeria?”
“I see what you mean,” he replied, “but fortunately, we have the archives of the colonial administration, so French is enough.”
Suddenly, a man, sitting on the first row of the audience, stood up, and, speaking in French, replied “I am Algerian. I was born before the Independence. You taught us French and nothing else. We had to learn Arabic after the War of Liberation. Arabic must come back to Algeria.”
And then, another man, sitting next to him, added “Arabic … and Berber. Nobody talks about Berber. Historians have forgotten that North Africa is the land of the Berbers.”
Who are the Berbers?
The indigenous population of North Africa, the Berbers call themselves i-Mazigh-en, “free-men” or “noble” in Tamazight. If over the centuries, the Berbers have split into smaller communities, the Chleus in Morocco, the Touaregs in Libya and the Kabyles in Algeria, they have remained faithful to a clear sense of unity. The history of the Berbers is that of an identity constantly reshaped by internal and external mutations, of cultural blending and ongoing intellectual developments and innovations. Invaded by the Phoenicians around 800 BC, the Berbers were incorporated into the Roman Empire in 200 BC and their land constituted the cradle of European Christianity. The Arab Conquest of the seventh century led to the merging of Berber and Arab culture, the conversion to Islam and the fall of the Christian Church. Between the eighth and ninth centuries, a series of Muslim-Berbers dynasties ruled over the Maghreb (the Arabic name for North Africa) achieving its territorial and political unity. Most of the region, except for Morocco, passed under Ottoman domination in 1553 and remained part of the empire until the nineteenth century. During this period, the three political entities composing modern North Africa emerged. While Tunisia and Morocco were to become protectorates of France, in 1881 and 1912 respectively, Algeria was to be French for over a century.
During the first decades of colonial rule (1830-1871), the French authorities privileged Berbers over their Arab fellows (8). The main goal of the administration was to eradicate Islam from Algerian identity (23). According to French observers, the Berbers seemed keener to renounce their Muslim legacy, as they more closely resembled the French and shared their Christian roots.
To fuel this narrative, the French progressively constructed the “Kabyle Myth.” In 1826, the Abbé Raynal claimed that the Kabyles were of “Nordic descent, directly related to the Vandals, they are handsome with blues eyes and blond hair, their Islam is mild.” Tocqueville wrote in 1837 that the “Kabyle soul” was opened to the French (182). Ten years later, the politician Eugène Daumas claimed that the “Kabyle people, of German descent […] had accepted the Coran but had not embraced it [and that on many aspects] the Kabyles still lived accordingly to Christian principles” (423). This the reason why French colonial officer Henri Aucapitaine concluded that: “in one hundred years, the Kabyles will be French” (142).
The situation shifted in 1871 when two hundred and fifty Kabyle tribes, or a third of the Algerian population, revolted against the colonial authorities. The magnitude of the uprising was such that the French decided to “fight the Berber identity […] which in the [long-run] empowered the Arabs.”
From then on, the differences between the Berbers and the Arabs became irrelevant to France’s main priority: to maintain its control over the local populations by fighting Islam. The idea emerged that to be assimilated to the French Republic, Algerian subjects needed to be “purified” from their religious beliefs.
By the Senatus-Consulte of July 14th, 1865, the French had ruled that “Muslim Algerians were granted the right to apply for French citizenship […] once they had renounced their personal status as Muslims”(444). This law, which had established a direct link between religion on the one hand and political rights on the other, now further reflected the general sense of disregard towards the diversity of cultural groups in Algeria, all falling into the same overarching category of Muslim. After the 1880s, the French gave up on the Kabyle myth, marginalizing the Berbers who had become a source of agitation.
As the independent Republic of Algeria triumphed in the Fall of 1962, the newly funded regime identified the Berbers as posing an “existential threat to the Arabo-Muslim identity of the country” (103).
Repeating the French practice of destroying those regional identities allegedly challenging the legitimacy of an aggressively centralized and centralizing state, the leaders of Algeria denounced the political claims of the Berbers as a “separatist conspiracy,” and after 1965 the Arabization policy became systematic throughout the country.
To assess the respective impact of colonization, nineteenth and twentieth century nationalist pan-Arab ideologies and the role of post-independence Algerian leaders upon the persecution of the Kabyles after 1962 constitutes a somewhat limited debate.
It is, however, critical to acknowledge the responsibility of the French state in the marginalization of the Berbers after the 1871 Kabyle riot. Progressively, the colonial administration changed a model of mixed and complex identities strongly rooted the Maghreb tradition into a binary model (235). Within this two-term model, people could only define themselves on one side or the other of a rigid frontier separating authentic French culture from supposedly authentic colonized culture. As Franco Tunisian Historian Jocelyn Dakhlia argues in Remembering Africa, “the consequence of such a dualistic opposition of colonial identities was [… ] that the anticolonial movement stuck to this idea of an authentic native Muslim Arabic identity, excluding the Berbers” (235).
The very existence of the Berbers thwarts any attempt to analyze Algerian society in a way that resorts to a rigid griddle, whether in racial, cultural or religious terms.
This is probably the reason why the French, and after them the independent Algerian state, have utterly repressed the legacy of Berber culture in the country: for the Berbers could not exist in the dualistic narrative underlying both colonial and anti-colonial. As historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot, would argue, they became unthinkable, and were silenced and excluded from History.
Yet, the most curious factor in this non-history is the paucity of French scholarship on the issue. (50). While some academics do focus on creating conversations and producing literature on the question of Berber identity, the most renowned French scholars systematically fail at doing so. As a direct consequence, most French academic discourses reproduce and maintain the somewhat convenient imperial division opposing the “Arabs” in the North to the “Blacks” in the South of Africa, thereby forgetting that the Sahara is not a rigid racial frontier, and that for centuries the Berbers have been circulated throughout the region.
Ultimately, the Berbers blurry the lines between colonial and post-independent notions of identity in North Africa. To acknowledge the Berbers would require scholars to accept their fluidity – a direct threat to the Western appeal for systemic and pseudo-universalist thinking, still prevalent in French academia despite the emergence post-colonial studies in the 1960s.
Recognizing the Berbers necessitates first, as claimed by Algerian scholar Daho Djerbal, to ask: who is the subject of History? This is the only way in which one can hope to put an end to the overly simplistic politics of identity imposed by the political power—on both sides of the Mediterranean Sea, on both shores of the Atlantic Ocean.
Rosalie Calvet is a paralegal working in New York City, freelance journalist and Columbia class of 2017 graduate. As a history major, Rosalie specialized on the historiography of French imperial history. Her senior thesis, “Thwarting the Other: a Critical approach to the Historiography of French Algeria” was awarded the Charles A. Beard History Prize. In the future, Rosalie wishes to continue reflecting on otherness in the West—both through legal and academic lenses. More about Rosalie and her work is available on her website.