North African diversities: Kabylia inheritances, Algerian wounds

A personal journey into Algeria's modern history, including the Berber heartland that has been its crucible.

Francis Ghilès
27 May 2016
Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.

Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.We drove out of Algiers early on a warm, late October morning. The traces of Al Djazaïr, as it was known for centuries, and of Alger la Blanche, as the enthralled French described its houses and buildings cascading down to the sea, seemed now buried under a vast sea of concrete. Our destination was the Kabylia mountains less than 100 kilometres due east, and in particular Tizi Hibel, a village perched high up in Grande Kabylie which I had last visited 25 years ago. Past the region's capital Tizi Ouzou, an equally ugly concrete jumble, the road began to rise.

Quite by luck, it was the feast of Ashura, the tenth day of the first month of 1437 in the Muslim calendar, marked by Shi’a and Sunni Muslims alike. In Kabylia, where the influence of the (Shi'a) Fatimid dynasty, which ruled north-east Africa from the tenth to the twelfth centuries, is still felt, it is a celebration of particular importance. No male farmer would till the land on that day, no farmer's wife would sow. The mountain roads, with villages every few miles, were filled with joyous family groups out to visit their relatives. The younger women were dressed in brightly striped, yellow-and-orange skirts, blouses and traditional caftans, while young men wore western-style clothes, version algérienne There was not a veiled woman in sight.

Traffic was chaotic but good natured in every village high street, where the usual assortment of half-finished buildings, some rising four or five stories above the street, testified to the disappearance of the low-lying tile-covered houses that were once common. Towards the magnificent Djurdjura range, the hilltops look quite surrealistic, as if chunks of Manhattan had been parachuted onto Kabylia's summits. In Beni Douala, the last small town before Tizi Hibel, the road sign had the Arabic word "Beni"clearly crossed out and replaced by "Aït", the Berber equivalent, meaning “son of.” Walls were inscribed by militant Kabyle slogans. In this part of Algeria, the very word "Arab" is deemed by some to be an insult. People are proud of their Berber ancestors who predated the Arab invaders of the seventh century by two millennia or more.

Yet so peaceful is the overall scene, it is difficult to remember that some of the most bitter fighting of the Algerian war of independence took place here, and that, for example, napalm was dropped on the “rebel” katibas of the Armée de Libération Nationale in Kabylia during Operation Jumelles in 1959. When driving through the Kabyle mountains in 1975, we briefly stopped at a pass near Azazga, and I asked my driver whether the old burned-out trunks of cork oak trees which rose from the snow-covered ground were the result of a recent fire. “No, they were burnt by napalm", came the reply. "I was commanding a katiba here in 1959 when fire rained out of the skies and my men went up in flames. I lost faith in front of God that day”.

These words were spoken in a deadpan voice which made them all the more striking. Around us the winter sun shone brightly, making the trees more resemble strange pieces of modern sculpture than residues of violent conflict. There is no better description of the wanton brutality, indeed savagery of those years than the testimony of the Observer correspondent John Gale in his book Clean Young Englishman. This former officer in the Coldstream Guards witnessed scenes of such horror in Algeria, Egypt and east Asia that his comfortable world, and ultimately his sanity, were shaken to their very foundations. In the end he committed suicide.

Some villages in the region are overpopulated, but in Tizi Hibel the reverse is true: most houses are closed, their doors locked, many in ruins. Most of the inhabitants live in Algiers or overseas in France and beyond, and seldom come back. Yet all around, as in every Kabyle village, gardens and orchards are still carefully tended, clinging to the very steep hills, offering cherries, olives, figs and pomegranates. During those terrible years, French soldiers would blow up centuries-old fig trees to humiliate the population.

A forgotten role

This is a region long scarred by conflict. The poverty and despair which Kabylia had been reduced to was noted by Guy de Maupassant when he travelled here in the 1880s. He was horrified that the inhabitants would set fire to forests in the hope of getting the European settlers to abandon the land they had seized after a massive rebellion in 1871. “La lutte est terrible entre l’européen et l’indigène pour la possession du sol”, he wrote in Ecrits sur le Maghreb.

There are visible reminders of the independence war. At the entrance to Tizi Hibel lies the tomb of the writer Mouloud Feraoun, who was assassinated by the extreme-right Organisation de l’Armée Secrète (OAS) on 15 March 1962, just four days before the armistice which preceded the Treaty of Evian signed between the emissaries of General de Gaulle and the representatives of the FLN, the leading Algerian force.

Feraoun’s closest friend was the writer Emanuel Roblès. With Albert Camus, relations were more difficult: to Camus's famous words, “Entre la France et l’Algérie je choisis ma mère”, Feraoun answered that it was a false choice: “Nous ne voulons pas être entre deux chaises, nous sommes déjà assis sur la nôtre”. Camus exposed the immense poverty of Kabylia in a series of famous articles published in Algiers in the 1930s, but he always denied that Algeria was a nation. When the poet Jean Senac, born and bred like him in Algeria, came out publicly in favour of independence in 1955 (along with other intellectuals and the archbishop of Algiers, Monseigneur Duval), Camus replied that independence is delirium and the idea of an Algerian nation-state illegitimate: “Le concept de l’Etat national algérien est illégitime. Et l’indépendance est une formule purement passionelle, furieuse et délirante.”

In 1957, the working-class communist Fernand Yveton was guillotined for helping the FLN. Camus, who was strongly in favour of abolishing the death penalty, committed to his Chroniques after receipt of the Nobel prize in 1958 these shameful words: ”l’ouvrier communiste guillotiné hier n’a fait que payer les consequences de ses actes.. l’indépendance est dangereuse pour les musulmans et inacceptable pour les Français”.

The head of the OAS, General Raoul Salan, who twice tried to assassinate General de Gaulle, had vowed to reduce Algeria to “the state of a vegetable” by ordering the group to kill as many native teachers, nurses and civil servants as possible. Mouloud Feraoun had believed that the Algerian and European people could live side by side but history decided otherwise. The absolute refusal of the French coloniser to grant any reforms to the three departments français d’Algérie – or at least to their Muslim inhabitants – made inevitable a violent war of liberation whose consequences are palpable, not least in Kabylia.

Tizi Hibel received a surprise visitor in August 1959, none other than De Gaulle himself, by then the French head of state. He had come to Tizi Ouzou to attempt to convince the Algerian rebels, as the French saw it, to accept an armistice and lay down weapons. Tizi Hibel and the surrounding villages were caught in a vice: their men had to help the fighters of the Armée de Libération Nationale (ALN) or risk being murdered. The French officers for their part were keen to show visiting journalists how they had pacified this traditionally turbulent area . At the end of his speech, De Gaulle asked the mayor what he could do for him. “I would like to have a photo of you”, came the answer to the general's amusement. The unfortunate mayor was murdered a few days later on the orders of  the commander of Mohand Oulhadj, the military commander of the ALN wilaya which included Tizi Hibel.

Algeria’s political leaders today have still not come to terms with the memory of some of the key Kabyle Berbers who did so much to shape the war of liberation. Abane Ramdane was the key ideologue and architect of the Soumman congress which in 1956 brought together the main military and civilian leaders who were working clandestinely inside Algeria. He was very close to Frantz Fanon, and totally against the military leaders having precedence over the civilian ones (military leaders who, under the aegis of Abdelhafid Boussouf, controlled the security services of the ALN operated from outside of Algeria, and ran the Armée des Frontières from Morocco and Tunisia).

Ramdane was later lured to Tangiers and judged by three leading members of the ministères des liaisons générales et des communications (MALG), which acted as the political police and arms purchaser of the FLN/ALN. The trio – Abdelhafid Boussouf, Krim Belkacem and Lakhdar Ben Tobbal – condemned him to death. In keeping with the rules of the MALG, which dictated that political asssasinations be carried out by a man of the same region as the victim, Ramdane was killed by a Kabyle Berber.

To this very day, some senior Algerian are not only unable to come to terms with the vital role played by Kabyles in the war of liberation, but feel obliged to insult their memory publicly. The former minister of the interior, Dahou Oul Kablia, who hails from the western city of Tlemcen, recently suggested that the leadership of the FLN/ALN had no other alternative to “eliminate” Abane Ramdane, the political thinker of the revolution, because he was too sure of himself and too authoritarian. The victory of the military against the civilian was sealed that day.

In the early 1980s, Chadli Benjedid opened up the officer corps to young Algerians who had a good university degree. Many regions and towns took advantage of this new opening but not the Kabyles who argued that getting Berber recognised as one of the two official languages of Algeria took precedence over acquiring greater influence in the powerful military. That turned out to be a very short-sighted view.

Krim Bekacem was the minister of war of the provisional government of the Algerian republic (GPRA). Like Abane Ramdane, he was an important player at Soumman, where the Front de Liberation National formalised its revolutionary programme, and went on to be principal negotiator of the Evian agreements. But he was opposed to Houari Boumediene’s policy of running Algeria as a tightly centralised state. In October 1970 he was found assassinated in a hotel room in Frankfurt. Later, in 1984, he was rehabilitated by the Algerian state.

A world of family

As I walked through the narrow lanes of Tizi Hibel, history was indeed written on every wall – and it suddenly springs to life too when older people start talking. In front of the house of Mouloud Feraoun, it is possible to conjure up the mild bespectacled intellectual working at his manuscript of Le Fils du Pauvre, arguably his best known novel. The sparkling blue skies on this day of Ashura do not offer any clues to the blood that was the lot of the villagers from 1954 to 1962. That violence was conjured by Carl Jung, who in his autobiography wrote of his visit to Algeria and Tunisia in 1920: “I found myself haunted by an impression which I myself could not understand. I kept thinking that the land smelt queer. It was the smell of blood, as though the soil was soaked with blood.” The famous psychoanalyst did not visit Kabylia but his words ring true here as elsewhere in north Africa. Not for nothing were the Berber uplands of Algeria and Morocco known for more than a thousand years as the Bled el Khouf, the land of fear.

Feraoun, like one of the revolution’s great military leaders, Larbi Ben M’hidi, was convinced that the aftermath of independence would be sanguinary. Ben M’hidi died while imprisoned by the French in 1959. He predicted terrible events amid a struggle for power after freedom was won: “Lorsque nous serons libres, il se passera des choses terribles. On oubliera toutes les souffrances du people pour se disputer les places. Ce sera la lutte pour le pouvoir, Nous sommes en pleine guerre et certains y pensent deja, des clans se forment”. As with so many revolutions before and after, the Algerian revolution devoured its children. Today the country has an unfailing way of “spitting out is most talented children” as one friend, a colonel, told me.

On arrival in Tizi Hibel, we – my two companions are themselves Kabylie, and senior officials – go in search of the village imam. We finally meet two older men, Ahmet Djellout and Makhlouf Chouarbi, the former being the Tizi Hibel's imam. Memory is oral here but a folder is opened and out come genealogical trees, official documents and related papers.

I learn that my grandfather Amar, who left Tizi Hibel in 1891 at the age of 18, hails from the Ath Limam family – in Berber, "he who leads". One of the eight branches of that broad family was called Ghiles, which means "panther" in Berber; so the family name I bear is true to the original. This family of imams, aristocrats who belonged to the wider Ath Mahmoud tribe, was in turn part of the Sanhadja Berber confederation of tribes, one in four in north Africa.

I enquire about different members of the Ath Limam family, while puzzling between a modern western age which so often forgets the past and these hosts whose living memory stretches back a century and more. After a long and fascinating talk, I take my leave and step outside to admire the magnificent view across the mountains towards Larba nat Iraten, the Friday market of the Iraten tribe (Fort National to the French). The sun is high, it is far hotter than usual for this time of the year. As we walk through the back alleys, I am introduced to various passers-by – we are all cousins, naturally.

When I later recounted my visit to Tizi Hibel to my then Financial Times colleague Michael Holman, he penned me this limerick:

"There was a young man called F Ghiles
Who boasted an ancestry most curious:
'I already knew I was part Jew
Now I can add an imam or two –
No wonder I’m so supercilious.'”

A fierce freedom

Tizi Hibel is the birthplace of Fadma Ath Mansour Amrouch, who converted to Catholicism. Her daughter Taos Amrouche would write famous memoirs of her youth, and books on Kabyle poetry. The neighbouring village of Taourirt Moussa was the birthplace of one of Algeria’s most famous singers, Lounes Matoub, a tireless fighter for Berber identity who dared write a parody of the national anthem, Kassamen. Matoub was kidnapped and killed in 1998, in circumstances which have never been properly investigated. He was an eternal rebel for the Berber cause, and no friend of Arab nationalism, of Ba'athism and dictatorship.

The area is unrecognisable from what it was when I first visited in 1976, concrete has blighted these lovely Mediterranean mountains, but the light on this bright autumn morning is unchanged and the sheer spirit and swagger of the place is incomparable.

Indeed, the list of well-known writers, doctors and other intellectuals which spring from this small group of villages is remarkable. Another notable is Issad Rebrab, who was born in the neighbouring village of Tagemout Azouz. An eternal rebel for the Berber cause, he became Algeria's richest private entrepreneur. 

With my two companions, one of whom had lost his father in the early years of the liberation war, we pay our respects to Mouloud Feraoun. I had always wondered what circumstances might have led my grandfather Ammar, his brother Rabah and sister Fatima to be converted – by force I suspect, because of their young age. In 1892, Rabah entered the orders and Fatima became a nun. Being the children of an imam might offer a clue, as the French Catholic church was led at the time by Monseigneur Lavigerie, Bishop of Algiers and Archbishop of Carthage who had a few years before founded the Pères Blancs religious movement. Its aim was to split the Berbers from the Arabs and bring the former back to the faith of their Christian forebears, symbolised by none other than St Augustine, Bishop of Hippo. French senior colonial administrators often referred to the Arabs as “hyenas” who must be eliminated “as the American natives are being wiped out in America.”

The project failed indeed far more converts to Catholicism were recorded in Biskra, El Golea and Miliana but the slur is still used by some Algerian leaders to besmirch the reputation of the Kabyles. The proselytising of the Pères Blancs caused deep anxiety in Kabylia and beyond, as families were given names which had no connection with or relevance to those of their ancestors by the French officiers d’état civil in order to destroy ancestral links and solidarity. Whatever their faults, the Kabyle Berbers are no slouches when it comes to fighting for freedom. You could say that the anarchist streak is strong. Many continue to drink wine to this day, quite openly (as do many Algerians across this vast country). They contest absolute power and though many may serve in senior positions, they are derided as the kabyles de service by their peers. In time-honoured fashion they also fight amongst themselves, but are usually hard workers, value education and remain defiant in their modernity.

It is worth remembering, however, that one of the great princes of the early Christian church, St Augustine, was born a Berber in eastern Algeria – “grant me chastity and continence but not yet”, he famously begged of the Lord before going on to becoming bishop of Hippo (today’s Annaba) and preaching strict moral rules. What is less well known is that one of the earliest popes, Gelasius I, sat on St Peter’s throne from 492 to 498. His ministry was characterised by a call for strict orthodoxy, a more assertive role for papal authority, and increasing tension between the western and eastern churches. Might he have been born in Tizi Hibel, I find myself musing. A few generations later, the Kahina, queen of the Roman-Berber kingdom of the Aurès, was the last north African leader to defend Romanised north-west Africa in the face of the conquering Arab tribes.

A Berber rock

On 1 January 2016, the funeral of one of the nine 'historic' leaders of the fight against France was held in the neighbouring village of Aït Ahmed. Hocine Ait Ahmed had spent much of his 89 years in exile as the dreams of a democratic Algeria where speech was free never materialised. An estimated 300,000 people from all over the country lined the hilltops around the village; delegations came from every town and region of the country. The prime minister, Abdelamalek Sellal and his ministers were forced to leave the funeral as insults, stones and spittle rained over them.

The day before, when the plane carrying Hocine Ait Ahmed’s body landed at Dar el Beida airport in Algiers, his widow refused to salute the government which was waiting to pay homage to a man who embodied throughout his life, everything it seeks to demolish: democratic government, freedom of speech and enterprise, tolerance. She also rejected use of the presidential car sent by an ailing head of state, Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Never did the words of the seventeenth-century French moralist the Duc de la Rochefoucauld ring more true - “l’hypocrisie est l’hommage que le vice rends a la vertu”. 

The president’s decision to order seven days of national mourning only served to underline the immense fracture between those who hold power in Algeria and those they rule. Hocine Ait Ahmed was the best president the Algerians never had. After elections in 1991 were aborted, he refused the military’s offer to become president after Chadli Bendjedid was forced out of office. He would have no truck with a coup d’état, however much he opposed the policies of the Front Islamique du Salut. His funeral reminded many observers that were a true political leader to seize his chance, Algerians could more easily be reconciled than most imagine. All hope is not yet lost.

Many Kabyles agree with their most famous writer Kateb Yassine when he noted how leaders attempt to conceal from the people their true identity: “l’Algérie Française a duré cent trente deux ans. L’arabisme dure depuis treize siècles¡ L’aliénation la plus profonde, ce n’est pas de se croire Français mais de se croire Arabe. Or il n’y a pas de race arabe, ni de nation arabe. Il y a une langue sacralisée, la langue du Coran, dont les dirigeants se servent pour masquer au peuple sa propre identité.”

Not all Kabyle Berbers would agree with this statement but there is little doubt that the fierce Arab nationalism of the two first presidents of Algeria, Ahmed Ben Bella and Houari Boumediene, and the manner in which Algerian education was arabised, has resulted in a generation of children who are what critics claim are "illiterate in two languages". Kateb Yassine’s son Kateb Amazigh who is a famous singer greeted the news of the bombs in London in 2005 by opening a concert at the Festival of Berber music in Agadir, in southern Morocco in front of a crowd of 20,000 strong Berbers with the following statement: “were a Muslim claim to have committed this atrocity, then I am not Muslim. Let us send our love to London”. The crowd roared its approval. Late on a balmy night, for me it was a moment of intense emotion. 

The song which followed suggested that there are plenty of ways in which the two shores of the Mediterranean might be able to communicate over and above the despicable way in which many European politicians put Islam in front of every sentence they use. Kateb Amazigh publishes his songs on Gnawa Diffusion and to this day they mock the Algerian leadership ferociously and  praise freedom. He is a true heir to his father, and unsurprisingly a great favourite among many Algerians, not just Kabyles.

Amazigh is symbolic of younger people who have, like many of their counterparts elsewhere in Europe, put freedom of expression above any belonging to a nation, or race or religion. Many European politicians, not least in France are less inspired.  They would never dare do the same when they speak of Israeli colonies in the occupied West Bank – is that really an expression of the Talmud? Have they forgotten that General Franco’s troops shouted “Viva la muerte” in 1936 and were promptly blessed by the Catholic hierarchy of Spain? That was no more a definition of Catholicism or Christianity than the atrocities committed in the name of Islam today have to do with that religion.

The denial of Berber identity by the state has been reversed in recent years, but not without a lot of resistance and bloodshed. Still, the Berber language is recognised by the constitution as a national language of the country and, since the beginning of 2016 as an official one (in Morocco it was established years ago). Hating their own people, their own culture, the very anthropological bedrock of their nation, will never endear Algerian leaders to their countrymen, nor will it enable them to build a vision for their country’s future which a majority of Algerians can identify with. Arabisation has favoured the rise of Islamist parties in the 1980s, here again encouraged by many in the nomenklatura who had no desire to see democracy prosper in Algeria.

Kabyles themselves are divided; many of those who serve the state as senior government officials and ministers are still scorned as kabyles de service. Because the Kabyles learned the language of modern politics in the working-class suburbs of Paris between 1918 and 1939 (and they constituted the bulk of Algerian natives living in France at the time and until the 1960s), because they played such a prominent role during the war of liberation, the ideas they articulate, the fights they indulge in, their mixture of obdurate behaviour and immense generosity inevitably loom large in the modern history of the country. Passion goes hand in hand with brutality here, sensuousness with a strong feeling of upholding morally right positions.

During the printemps Berbère ("Berber spring") in spring 1980, I invited an Algerian friend who was staying with me in London to come to the BBC World Service at Bush House to recite the poems of Si Mohand, a famous literary text written by Mouloud Mammeri – the authorities had banned him from speaking at the university of Tizi Ouzou, thus setting off weeks of rioting and disturbances. The then Algerian ambassador, M Ben Mahmoud, summoned me to his office to complain and ask the name of the Algerian who had read the poems. He also pestered the foreign office, to no avail. Little did he know that the culprit was Nourine Djelouat, the nephew of Algeria’s most famous painter, Mohamed Issiakhem, whose rendering of the pain suffered by ordinary Algerians during the war of liberation is so expressive. I told the ambassador that, hard as he might, he was powerless to recast the anthropological rock on which his country was built – and it was a Berber rock.

A conformist doctrine

The violence of the Kabyles, including among themselves, must be seen in the context of the colonial stereotypes of Algeria as a fleshpot of renegade villains, a nest of pirates whose infamous depredations not only harried legitimate commerce but also enslaved white Christian subjects and citizens of Europe ("one of the earliest and most tenacious modern images of the alterity of violence”, according to that obelisk observer of modern Algerian history, James McDougall). At the same time, the destruction inflicted on Algiers by the fleet commanded by Lord Exmouth, and on the country by the pacifying armies of Generals Bugeaud and Lamoricière, is airbrushed out of the imperial narrative.

James McDougall explains how the caricature of "savagery" with which Algerian history has been burdened has debilitated, rather than enlightened, understanding of this experience. The coloniser has projected this violence onto its victims as inherent to them, in a perverse fashion which was used elsewhere in European colonies. “While modern Europe led the world in the practise of organised violence – economic, symbolic and physical, and on an increasingly apocalyptic scale – from the early sixteenth century onwards its accounts of the world simultaneously became increasingly effective at portraying, not the effects of the vertiginous expansion of its own capacity to produce and direct coercive force, but the mortal danger faced by its legitimate interests and civilising works among anarchic, despotic or barbaric zones of disorder in Africa, Asia and the Americas.”

One of the first theatres of this developing conception of civilised selfhood and barbarian otherness was the western Mediterranean, Algeria in particular. Colonial violence in Algeria was encoded as defensive – even, already, as preventive – a necessary response to the instinctive and unlimited violence that the "native" bore always within his breast, and of which his occasional self-assertion in rebellion was simply proof.

A further, perverse twist was added when the French developed a policy aimed at bringing the Berbers back to the faith of their ancestors (i.e.St Augustine) and rejecting the Arabs who should be exterminated, in the words of one of the first French governor-generals of Algeria, as hyenas. The Kabyles did not buy into the story and, upon the fall of the second empire in 1870, rebelled massively against the French when they realised the civilian settlers were going to take over from the military and rob them of their land. Monseigneur Lavigerie of the Pères Blancs was able to reconcile the young third republic with the Vatican, but he utterly failed to convert the Kabyles to Christianity, despite putting primary schools in places such as Tizi Hibel before they went up in many French villages. My grandfather was baptised as an adolescent, though most probably under duress (we do not know the circumstances). The son of an imam was no doubt a prize catch, but that did not encourage others to follow. 

The complex ways in which the Kabyle Berbers fit into the history of this multilayered country need to be set into what James McDougall calls "the law of violence" in the unfolding of a collective Algerian destiny, “a homogenising narrative in which total, reciprocal conflict is understood as the determining law of history.” This has obscured the intense intiricacies of both colonial relations of power and the emergence of nationalism and armed struggle. McDougall cites that eminent historian Jacques Berque, who grew up in colonial Algeria, and observed that “the violence of the liberation struggle nourished a bitter, sometimes frenzied, literature denouncing the wounds inflicted by the coloniser. In short, the literature retained from the colonial dialectic only the outer layer, and of that only what was destructive.” Yet the many “deep layers of the long and viciously intimate colonial dialectic are as invisible to the nationalist orthodoxy as was the injustice of its domination to colonial self-justification.”

Mouloud Feraoun is one of those who devoted his life to a long and impassioned search for a workable reform of the colonial system, and for a peaceful solution to the intolerable condition of the subject status within the free, fraternal and egalitarian republic he suffered. Hence his assassination by extreme right-wing French settlers. Today, people like Feraoun are dismissed as misguided francophone intellectuals who sought accommodation and emancipation with la mère patrie, at least until the eve of the second world war.

McDougall notes that such people have long been "dismissed as at best misguided, at worst treacherous, ‘assimilationist’, or grudgingly rehabilitated (and miscast) as precursors of the ultimate revolt in a preparatory phase of ‘political resistance'." He concludes soberly that this very notion is “manifestly tributary to the later, and more worthy, ‘mature’ phase of armed struggle whose centrality determines, in this teleological re-reading, the meaning of all previous history since the conquest. In this interpretative dynamic can be traced the ingrained suspicion of its own intellectuals prevalent in Algerian political culture.”

The official doxa still holds that Algeria must conform, unremittingly, to the law of violence. The revolutionary epic was instituted at the very centre of Algeria’s political imaginary, “the founding aporia of the nation’s forgetful history. This erases from official history the memory of the bitter divisions of the revolution and results in the actual expropriation  of Algeria’s people from the revolution and from the emancipation and self-determination it was due to bring.” This doctrine of historical necessity and inevitability, the uncompromising virtue of armed struggle, as against the necessary compromising practise of politics, explains why democracy is not easy to bring about in Algeria.

A land beyond

Many foreign observers of Algeria fall prey to two temptations: they portray the people of a whole society either as helpless victims, or as the mindless puppets of a handful of intelligence operatives. Their accounts of the events of the 1990s too often reproduce the rhetorical self-fashioning and staking out of positions that affects Algerians themselves. This stance renders the “national tragedy” of the losses both in the liberation war (1.5 million is a figure often quoted, though 300,000 is nearer to the truth) and the civil war of the 1990s both crushing and yet hollow.

Against this heavy inheritance, mordant and self-deprecating humour is a refined form both of art and self-preservation in Algeria. The Algerian theatre designer Abdelkader Farrah, who worked for years with the Royal Shakespeare Company and Peter Brook, noted the popular reaction when a statue of the national hero, Emir Abdelkader, mounted on his horse, was erected in the centre of Algiers in 1968. To le petit peuple d’Alger, the horse's private parts were somewhat too large. That expresses our leaders’ culture, they mused.  An epigram of the writer YB has it that “Being Algerian is a dangerous profession”. Or as the comedian Fellag would say: ”When other people sink and touch bottom, they go up again. We Algerians, when we sink and touch bottom, we start digging.”

Nowhere better than in Tizi Hibel was I able to better grasp the sheer complexity of a country I still do not understand despite crisscrossing its vast steppes, mountains and deserts for more than 40 years.


In memory of Abdelkader Farah

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