The Kabyle Berbers

The Kabyle Berbers played a key role in Algeria’s modern history, one quite out of proportion with their numbers. Between the two world wars, emigrants from Kabylia formed the vast majority of Muslim Algerian labourers in France, where, in the early 1920s, they founded the first modern Algerian nationalist movement, l’Etoile Nord Africaine.

The Etoile and its post-second-world-war successor, the Parti Populaire Algérien, provided the fount of modern Algerian politics. The idea of independence for what had been for a century three French départements came from their ranks. The Djurdjura mountain range in Kabylia witnessed some of the most violent fighting during the war of independence from 1954 to 1962.

But the new post-independence rulers of Algeria clamped down on the freedom their countrymen had paid between 500,000 and 1.5 million lives to win. Most expressions of Berber culture were forbidden, rapid Arabisation was imposed, a sanitised version of the country’s modern history in which most references to its Berber, let alone Jewish or Phoenician past were airbrushed out of existence. Little mention was made of the Algeria that existed before 1830.

The lines that fracture Algerian society run through Kabylia as they do through every social group. Some Kabyles have backed violent militant Islamic groups; others preach a form of laicité which is very French, yet others play a key role in the state’s security apparatus. The fight to get their culture recognised is part of the broader fight for freedom in Algeria – freedom from an increasingly corrupt state-controlled economy and the right of women to enjoy equal rights with men.

The Berber language (whose alphabet is drawn from Phoenician), the music and poetry of the different Berber-speaking regions are part of the hidden diversity of Algeria and Morocco. This diversity should be a source of pride and wealth, not an excuse for repression.

Francis Ghilès

Published on openDemocracy:

May 23, 2011


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